Monday, October 14, 2019

The Iceberg And The Pressure Cooker-On 3Q

By Michael Liss

The Iceberg has broken off from the ice sheet, and it’s a whopper. It groaned and teetered and shook, hanging on maybe longer than science said it should have, and, then, with a mighty roar, it slid into the ocean. It’s been floating about ever since, banging into things.

Last week, I attended the 17th annual conference of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society: “Progressivism, Socialism, and Nationalism.” Everyone talked about the Iceberg—where it came from, what it might hit next, what could stop it.

It was a full day, with over two dozen speakers from a variety of backgrounds and outlooks. Two Nobel Prize winners, Joseph Stiglitz and Edmund Phelps, were joined by panelists from across the political spectrum, from the (real) Socialist Bhaskar Sunkara, Founding Editor and Publisher of Jacobin magazine, to Douglas Holtz-Eakin, President of the American Action Forum, and Ryan Streeter of the American Enterprise Institute. Add a variety of luminaries, including Richard Sennett of the London School of Economics and the ubiquitous (and engagingly scary) Jonathan Haidt, and there were a lot of perspectives.

I don’t have the space to cover everything (I will post links to the sessions when available from the Center), but the issues raised were important and worth examining.

Refreshingly, the day was mostly issue-oriented and apolitical. The panelists clearly didn’t want to get into the weeds; to the extent President Trump and Senators Sanders and Warren’s names came up at all, it was very briefly and in the context of some of the specifics of their economic policies: In Sanders and Warren’s case, mostly about the cost of their programs like Medicare for All, and, in Trump’s, his desire to remake international trade arrangements and rework the post-World War II order.

Those are pretty big things, and it was clear that these folks had some strong opinions—Stiglitz, for example, cheerfully and forcefully called for rearranging much of the economic landscape—but they kept the rhetoric to a minimum. Rather, there seemed to be a consensus that they wanted the discussion to be about policy and not personalities. I am going to try to keep to that as well.

More as a way of arranging my own thoughts than anything else, I am going to put things into three buckets—the factors that helped fracture the ice-sheet of long-held expectations and are still driving us apart, the consequences of the separation, and a recognition of new priorities that could help bring us back together.

Just because I don’t want to discuss Trump or any of the Democrats doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be examining the electoral process. So, let’s talk about how we got here, or, more accurately, how we got the government we may have deserved.

How do we choose? Usually, through some form of self-interest, as we should, but in voting, self-interest means different things to different people. I’m always amused by politicians who proudly announce they got a perfect score from one special interest group or another. It could sway a few voters, but few of us go into the voting booth with a 20-question checklist in our hands. We weigh our issues based on their impact on us personally, then to principles we hold dear. If there’s any room at all after those two big ticket items, we might look closer at other things, but in truth, almost all of us know we apply what I am going to call a priority rubric.

In this process we often show very little self-awareness. As to people who vote differently, we are often shocked: “I don’t understand how X (insert voting bloc) could possibly vote for Y.” In fact, all they have done is exactly what we have—apply a priority rubric.

This is simple for single-issue voters. If you are a truly committed pro-life activist, you aren’t going to trade it away because you don’t agree with a like-minded candidate on other, less important (to you) things. If that candidate is elected, you expect him to share your passion for your issue and work for the pro-life cause. The same might apply if you were the CEO of a Fortune 500 company—you have a responsibility to your shareholders to maximize returns on investment, and likely would support the more pro-business candidate unless that candidate was so radioactive to your customers that prudence advised silence.

Those are the easy ones, where self-interest is clear and within a rational framework. But the priority rubric gets far murkier when it becomes less issue specific and more about a general feel about your personal circumstances. The system should be delivering for you, or, at the very least, not hurting you. It should certainly be delivering for you if the people you voted for were in a position to help you—and not only didn’t, but might have added to your pain.

This has been the Achilles Heel of the post-World War Era and neoliberalism. For the last generation at least, too many voters’ perfectly logical choices were not being rewarded with results. People were being left behind by a system that wasn’t really sensitive to their needs. Stiglitz and others refer to a rent-seeking governing class that really only worked for the elites. That’s true as far as it went—the rich and powerful purchased access with campaign contributions and other types of support, and elected officials paid them back with favorable legislative treatment, often at the expense of the public.

Working folks were realists. They were aware that politicians had to cater to the elites. But with FDR, with Truman, with JFK and LBJ, they also knew they always had a powerful friend, a champion, and were loyal in return. Exactly when the iceberg began to break off is hard to pinpoint, but, as Leif Pagrotsky, the former Swedish Minister of Commerce, points out, it took at least a generation to get to where we are right now (and, correspondingly, there will be no quick fixes).

What is clear is that, at some point in the last roughly 25 years, the Democrats stopped paying so much attention to bread-and-butter issues and began to refocus on what I’m going to call “boutique” ones. They still, reflexively, threw out a bunch of social welfare programs, but they missed the bigger picture: The working class perceived an existential risk, and it seemed that no one was paying attention. If anything, we educated elites were abandoning them through what was effectively noblesse oblige. With our good schools, our manicured lawns, our book-filled homes, we could be Globalists, taking in The Prado, sipping an espresso at a Parisian café, and living the good life. Of course, this was a caricature. But, like any caricature, there was an uncomfortable kernel of truth. The reality was we could be Democrats on social issues and open-minded citizens of the world, welcoming to those from other cultures, in large part because we could choose the interactions we wished to have.

The key phrase is “we could choose.” But the people making up the Iceberg can’t. And because they can’t, they pay for our virtue. They don’t really want the low-wage jobs at the new poultry-processing plant that immigrants fill, but they don’t want their lives made more difficult as a result of the presence of them. The way they see it, every dollar devoted to newcomers is one that is drained away from them. Whether this is truly a factual linkage is debatable, but to hold to it is not unreasonable.
So, the Iceberg is out there. It may seem odd that, right now, it makes common cause with the wealthiest who, when they are not investing in rent-seekers for a return, they are devising new ways to hold down wages and cut benefits. But, until someone else offers them something better, they might as well hunker down and try to save what they have.

The implications of this are immense. From a purely political perspective, both here and in Europe, it destabilizes the old order. Haidt is unsparing on this point—there is tremendous appeal to autocracy; those are the guys who are the egg-breakers. They kick over the traces of multinational cooperation to return to an aggressively nationalist approach, pull up the gates, and make the trains run on time. In Haidt’s framework, this movement is essentially unstoppable. (He also predicts the functional end of American democracy within 30 years.)

Why shouldn’t we put America first, always, as we prioritize our needs? Because there are problems that require multi-lateral or even global solutions, and they create mutual dependency. And because, as rich and as powerful as we are, we too can’t always go it alone. Sennett talks about climate change in that fashion, as requiring worldwide cooperation and sacrifice, but that could just as easily apply to combating global terrorism, or the threat of nuclear war, or the mass migration of displaced people. Sennett notes that rising temperatures are impacting arability of land, and even habitability, and quoted an estimate of 83 million Africans who will have to move in the next two decades. Let’s call the data underlying that estimate unduly alarmist, and off by a factor of 10. That leaves 8.3 million Africans who are going to need a place to live. Where, exactly, are they going to go? A few years back, 1.5 million refugees caused huge spasms of protest and overturned several governments in Europe. What does anyone think 8.3 million will do?

A call to kumbaya and cooperation? Not without reforming the underlying issues and not without a better understanding of the necessity of it. That’s far easier said than done, because, as Binyamin Appelbaum of The New York Times points out, a rejection of the status quo is coming from both right and left. Outside of a few out-of power neoliberals in the United States and under-siege technocrats in Europe, there is no critical mass for mutual, coordinated, cooperation. In a world where too many people feel left behind, one can understand the lack of hunger for more of the same.

Where do we go from here? Or, more accurately, where do we need to go from here? On this, there was a surprising amount of consensus, as participants from across the spectrum found points of intersection. If there is a way to deal with the Iceberg, it’s going to involve more innovative thinking to heal what Phelps refers to as “[a] deep malady developing in American society, a problem out of reach of the reforms we have been hearing about from the politicians,” specifically, “the decline in the experience of work.” Margaret Levi of Stanford notes that healing requires an acknowledgment that neoliberalism has failed, and a rebuilding of labor unions for their sense of solidarity and community. Streeter of AEI also emphasizes the benefits of civic participation: “Residents in well-balanced communities have been shown to be happier, more trusting of neighbors, and more confident in their governments.”

Agency, community, participation, work with meaning might lessen the pressure and allow us to find a new equilibrium. But that is going to take a great deal of time, with an uncertain prospect of success. For now, we also need to hold on really tightly, as that Iceberg makes its way, looking for new things to collide with.

The Iceberg And The Pressure Cooker was first published on on October 14, 2019

And please join Syncopated Politics on Twitter at

Monday, September 16, 2019

A Sentimental Bond With The Product: Joe Biden, The Past And The Future. On 3Q

By Michael Liss

I’ve been thinking a lot about Joe Biden recently. Joe Biden and nostalgia, Joe Biden and memory. Joe Biden and Mad Men.

There is a wonderful scene to close the first season as Don Draper pitches an ad campaign to two exceptionally nerdy guys from Kodak. The boys from the lab want to talk technology, but a plastic and metal “wheel” is decidedly unsexy. Stumped at first, Don puts in a few of his own 35mm slides and an idea emerges. The lights dim, and images of happy moments with wife and kids, some posed, more not, each appear on the screen, with Don providing narration:

"Well, technology is a glittering lure. But, there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old-pro copywriter, a Greek named Teddy. Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is new. Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. … Teddy told me that in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved."

I’ve never had an itch to see Joe Biden as President. I do like him. A lot of Americans of a certain age like him, friendly and familiar and a bit worn, like a favorite old jacket you take out every fall when it gets a little chilly. The country could do a lot worse than elect Joe Biden. He has the temperament and the policy chops: former Chairman of both the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees, former Vice-President, former glad-hander, back-slapper, and deal maker. Republicans who mocked him during the Obama Administration were often secretly relieved when the occasionally aloof President would send Joe to work the back-rooms and rope-lines. Joe got it done.

Of course, that’s all in the past, and on the campaign trail and in debates, Good Old Joe looks more and more like Really Old Joe.  He’s always been a bit of a malaprop, a story-teller, but there’s a legitimate concern that the 2020 model Biden might very well be past its sell-by date. How big a problem is this? It’s a math question: Trump’s base is his for life, and he has an astonishingly high approval rating among Republicans.

Is Joe agile enough to satisfy those needs, and, if he can, is he up to the job itself? The second question is actually more easily answered than the first. Being President might be more doable for him than gaining the Presidency, because you can staff the Cabinet and the White House with top-tier talent and rely on them and muscle memory. Biden only needs to set the tone and direction, and can husband his resources for the big things. 

Of course, before we can consider whether Biden offers enough to be President, we have to ask if he’s even going to continue his campaign. It’s a long way to the Convention, and only he, his family, and his closest advisors really know if he’s up to the rigors of a full primary campaign, much less the brawl that the general election will be.

Rigors they are. While I doubt anyone in his camp thought it was going to be easy, they may not have anticipated how ferociously the spotlight has been turned on him, and how unkind it can be. Axios reported last week that, of the 22 most viewed articles about Biden, 21 were negative.
Hasn’t Joe has always been a gifted gaffer? Yes, but not when everything is judged through the lens of either age-related weakness, or old sins (real and imagined) not fully atoned for. Our culture, from both Right and Left, has fully embraced the public grievance model, and anyone who has spent any time in office has done any number of things that can be turned into an “I have never forgiven him for…” opinion column or interview. 

Offsetting this are two significant Biden strengths. First, he’s still Joe Biden, the guy with the sentimental bond, and that fosters a different set of expectations for both him and his primary opponents. It’s not a prerequisite for him to articulate and defend every iota of his platform, or out-plan Warren, out-shout Bernie, out-prosecute Harris, or out-fresh-face Pete, etc.  Unlike other candidates who, to break out, may have to calibrate new positions or a new tone, Joe can stick to being who he is. And regardless of whether he ultimately gains the nomination, voters don’t want to see him embarrassed. As Julián Castro learned painfully last Thursday, his primary opponents (and their campaigns and surrogates) are going to need to be very careful in how they take him down. If his support drops organically as a function of younger and fresher alternatives, that’s fine, but taking pot-shots at him will come at a price. Mean is not going to play well.   

The second Biden asset is that Joe owns one of the two working Kodak Carousels in existence (Trump, with his own set of slides, has the other). There is a particularized past that clings to him, a better time, warmer, far less confrontational. To borrow David Brooks’ description of Abraham Lincoln, Biden is a “very poor hater,” and the essence of his message is that he wants to take you to that place, a place where you know you are loved.

A Trump-Biden election is not merely a battle of policies, but also a battle of memories. Biden people think more like Greatest Generation folks—we do best when we work together on big things, honoring everyone’s efforts. Trump’s place? A different narrative about the past: Trump supporters recall a more orderly, more homogeneous, more muscular time—figuratively, as in the vigorous expression of power, both here and abroad, and literally, in the sense of swashbuckling capitalists and brawny men carving lives out of the wilderness (and steel mills, and coal mines, and virgin stands of trees, etc.).

If you’ve gone this far, you’ve noticed something is missing: It is all about the past, all about the old pictures in the Carousel that we’ve seen dozens of times before. Yes, that is a funny hat Grampa Steve was wearing, and we did know that Aunt Kate loved books, horses, and volleyball, but what relevance does Joe Biden’s Time Machine have for anyone under 50? 

Orwell said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  Right now, it’s Trump who controls the present, from tweeting to using all the powers of the Presidency (including several that don’t actually exist) to make sure it stays that way. Trump is always seizing the initiative, always defining the present the way he wants it seen.

Trump people explain Trumpism as a necessary reaction to Clintonian soulless triangulation and Obama’s “weakness.” Hence, the strong hand, with friend and foe, even when Trump seems to stretch his authority beyond the breaking point. The one startling thing about Trump’s first term has been the utter lack of pushback from Republicans in Congress, even when their own authority has been threatened. They have abandoned checks and balances, and, in effect, affirmed both Trump’s tone and his choice to satisfy only his base. Reelecting Trump will simply institutionalize this divisiveness, and the present will become the future.

The Biden alternative implicitly rebukes this: Biden people see Joe as the “repairer of the breach” between a gauzy, more collaborative past and Trump’s outlaw-biker vandalism. We will heal ourselves first—perhaps even at Joe’s Inaugural. Then we will go from Grand Bargain to Grand Bargain, everyone respecting boundaries and norms, with the maximum number of people benefitting, and everything will get better.

What’s “better”? That depends on whom you ask. It’s worth remembering that a lot of older voters just want a little peace and quiet—don’t touch their benefits, lower the volume, and keep things the way they used to be. In recent years, Republicans have been successful with this group because of demographic and cultural changes that threaten Seniors’ sense of security. But Trump is so disruptive that “better” for them might be Biden’s more soothing vibe, and that could swing them back in just enough numbers to regain the White House.

Maybe, but it’s also possible that the whole Biden pitch, given where we’ve come as a country, is basically a lot of well-meaning malarkey. And, maybe “just enough” is really not enough, not when you have folks like Mitch McConnell out there. Even to start to recover from Trump and Trumpism, Democrats need the White House and Congress. They need to win at the state level, since the 2020 Census is going to bring about redistricting. The real problem with Joe Biden’s past isn’t that it couldn’t win, it’s that it may not create enough energy among those who helped the Party make gains in 2018, specifically, forward-looking suburban women and Millennials. What moves them are opportunity and quality-of-life issues: jobs, education, student loans, climate change, guns. 

Now is the time to bring them (the issues and the people) front and center. A collaborative tone, the “Joe” way, is terrific, but failing to show urgency and spine is political malpractice of the highest order. If the Democrats lose this election it’s going to be because they reacted to every Trumpian “squirrel,” while being passive about things that people really care about. The fierce urgency of now must motivate them. That means fresh ideas and fresh faces with seats at the table who are also out there making the case as surrogates—or running mates.

Joe Biden is a fine man who has served his country honorably and well, and I don’t believe that his core values would (or should) ever go out of style. He has the right to decide for himself how best to see his legacy carried out, either through continuing his own candidacy, or by stepping aside and letting others step forward.

Nostalgia. It’s the ache from an old wound, delicate, but potent. But is it potent enough?

"A Sentimental Bond..." was first published on on September 16, 2019.

And please follow us on Twitter at