Monday, September 26, 2011

Among the Nobel Laureates

Among the Nobel Laureates.

This last weekend, Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society held its 9th Annual Conference “Philosophical Foundations of Economics and the Good Economy:  Individual Values, Human Pursuits, Self Realization and Becoming”.   

The participants in the conference included three Nobel Prize winners: Edmund Phelps (Economics, 2006), Joseph Stiglitz (Economics 2001) and Amartya Sen (Economics, 1998).  I was only able to attend the first day, which included speakers in multiple disciplines: Professor of Law and Philosophy Thomas Nagel of NYU, Esa Saarinen (Applied Philosophy) of Helsinki, Martin Seligman (Psychology) of the University of Pennsylvania, Richard Robb (Professional Practice in International Finance) of Columbia, Mark Taylor (Religion) of Columbia, Robert Shiller (Economics, Yale), Amar Bhide (Law and Diplomacy) of Tufts, and Ian Goldin, who is the Director of the James Martin 21st Century School, University of Oxford.

Let me start out by saying that I am grateful that no one called on me.  The incredible depth and breath of knowledge that was in the room was not just exhilarating, but intimidating, and there is absolutely no way I can do justice to any of it.  My omissions and inaccuracies reflect my own limitations, not theirs.  Taking a great liberty (it’s my blog posting), I’m going to focus on four very small slices and spread them out over several blog posts.  

The first was a superb discussion by Martin Seligman about improving the emotional life  and performance of individuals and organizations and the value of cooperation and inclusion in happiness.  The second, by Ned Phelps, made the point that a government policy that favored the wealthy was not in and of itself bad: if part of the object of government was to help foster an atmosphere where the individual may achieve self-realization and growth,  the rich were citizens too. The third was a fascinating, almost offhand comment by Mark Taylor, who noted that the Calvinists and Adam Smith were Scottish and from the same intellectual and religious tradition.  I found an amplification in his written remarks prepared for the conference.  “More important in this context, the notions of self and god first defined in the Protestant Reformation form the foundation of the classical theory of markets that emerged in 18th century Scotland….. For many true believers, the market has effectively become God in more than a trivial sense – it is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent.” And, finally Ian Goldin, who noted that contemporary (conservative) orthodoxy in the field of economics had a chilling effect upon the development and expression of alternate, more progressive ideas. 

I want to start with Professor Goldin’s remarks (which, unfortunately, didn’t get a lot of traction) and their intersection with Professor Taylor’s.  What he said, in effect, was that the dominant strain of thought in Economics departments today was traditionally conservative and free market based, and that alternate thinkers had little opportunity to either get published in the two most prestigious journals or attain tenured Professorships.  Goldin wanted the contributions of women, and other cultures recognized.  If those voices are denied access to the highest temples, then the constituencies they represent are also unrecognized.  That makes economics as a science, and economic policy, as incomplete. 

Goldin didn’t expressly draw the link to Mark Taylor’s work, but I think it’s there.  If academics are steeped in the traditional views of Smith and Hayek, do they also draw upon the Scottish aestheticism and certainty-the sense that the free market is like God, “omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent”.  Is the "invisible hand of the marketplace" not a theory so much as an act of divinity? And, by extension, is any deviancy (taxation, regulation, etc.) heretical?

What’s wrong with strongly held views? Nothing at all, so long as the marketplace of ideas is free and competitive.  But what Goldin is essentially saying that traditional and conservative economics-a pro free market, male-dominated, anti regulation, low taxation orthodoxy, controls the means of production of economic thought, and, by extension government policy. And so long as that hegemony stays in place, the underrepresented will remain underserved. 

Goldin, although speaking of the academic world, also brings us to a central conundrum when it comes to governing.  If one lives in a hermetically sealed world, secure in your orthodoxy, with no dissenting voices, does that give you any opportunity at all to be adaptive to new circumstances?

This isn't an idle question.  The views the medical profession had on anatomy were dominated for nearly 1500 years by the observations of Galen, a Roman physician, surgeon, and philosopher.  His work became dogma in the strictest sense of the world-to oppose them was to risk religious punishment, even though his ideas were based on his dissections of monkeys and pigs. In 1543, after sneaking into graveyards to do illegal dissections, Vesalius published a definitive work based on actual observation of human anatomy.  Galen's views on circulation and humors endured until 1628, when William Harvey described the workings of the heart as a circulating pump.  Galen was brilliant; his work was still taught into the 19th century, but he was also often wrong, and his "dead hand" lay over medicine.  When evidence to the contrary was discovered-or even apparent on a gross examination-it was dismissed as evidence of an abnormality. 

Economics isn't anatomy.  We have theory and practical experience.  One thing we can say with certainty is that even capitalism is not without its flaws, and certainly is uneven in delivering its benefits. Look around you and you see great disparities in wealth, some of which is organic, and some the direct result of governmental policies that purport to apply economic theory.   Adam Smith was brilliant, but it's remarkably optimistic to assume that he foresaw everything.  The same would apply to John Maynard Keynes.  Perhaps they were both correct, within a given set of circumstances.  Like the physicians of the Dark Ages who blindly followed Galen, the politicians of today often willingly become reflexive acolytes in order to avoid having to observe present reality and act independently.  They fear punishment-of expulsion from the religion that offers financial and political support.  Orthodoxy is safety.  But if Goldin is even partially correct, critical components of economic policy are being ignored. With the challenges ahead, I would prefer all hands on deck.

If you would like to read some of the supporting written work of the conference, you can follow the link

The articles are well worth your time.  I’ll be back in a few days with more.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Language, Ron Paul, and a Baltimore Bookstore

Language, Ron Paul, and a Baltimore Bookstore

My daughter, a high school sophomore, gave me the transcript of a portion of a lecture by Professor Mark Pagel.  In it, he talks about the development of language as the key component in the advancement of human civilization.  It is language that separates us from Neanderthal, language that separates us from Homo Erectus, and, ultimately, language that separates us from the chimp.  And, paradoxically, it can be language that separates us from each other.  Language, he says, is subversive.

Language augments social learning.  Language creates a commerce of ideas.  It allows us to trade things in the most basic way: to exchange information broadly and, in doing so to build on collective knowledge to advance the species.  Professor Pagel uses as an example the stone hand axes of Homo Erectus.  For a million years, they made superb axes, each essentially the same, unimproved from the original.  Homo Erectus was then succeeded by Neanderthal, and they, too, made tools for another 300,000 years.  Their tools were more complex than those made by Homo Erectus, but again, they were essentially unchanged over time.

Language was the missing component.  Joe Neanderthal made the bow and arrow and the spearhead. But he was incapable of making an exchange.  Joe N couldn’t look at Sam N’s arrow and say “hey, that’s a pretty good edge you put on there, but I like my shaft better-why don’t we swap my extra shafts for your extra arrowheads”.  Without language, and without a broader social commerce, Joe N could only learn from his immediate tribe through "social learning", that is to say, through imitation,  or what Pagel calls “visual theft”.

About 200,000 years ago we began to break out of this, and it'ss a good thing we did.  If we had simply stuck to small bands, with limited language, and limited innovation, it’s likely the species would not have advanced, just as Neanderthal and Homo Erectus did not.  More intellectual horsepower from bigger brains would have increased sophistication, but only to a point.  We needed a way to communicate ideas, even rudimentary ones, such as “nice arrowhead, want to trade for my shafts?” and language is both the medium and end product of that process.  Language makes for the commerce of ideas.

We tend to think of the Discoverers as great individualists; each with their own eureka moment.  The imagery of contemporary genius is Einstein puffing on his pipe contemplating the cosmos, or Steven Hawking, trapped in isolation in his chair, brain freed only for thoughts.  In fact, the reality of creativity and discovery is often far different, it is a synthesis.  A few years ago I went to a ceremony for a friend of mine, a geneticist who being given an important award for creating mechanisms that helped other geneticists test theories.  In other words,  she was making tools for others to make discoveries.  At first glance, that might seem odd, except when you think that Guttenberg made his printing press by assembling existing parts and forming new ones.  So too, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak sat in a garage with extant components, added their own creativity, and made a personal computer.  Ideas, large and small, create a mass of knowledge, what anthropologists, and Nagel, call cumulative cultural adaptation.  IPads and those annoying mounted singing trout are all a product of that.

Why is this relevant to Syncopated Politics?  Well, Professor Pagel notes that there are more than 7000 languages spoken.  On Papua New Guinea, 800 to 1000 discrete languages are spoken.  It's barely a matter of a mile or two to find another village where a different language is spoken.  And the inhabitants of these villages can often converse only with the people of their tribes.  Their language, and their cumulative cultural adaptation, is circumscribed by that small world.  Perhaps not so co-incidentally, some of these tribes can still be called “stone aged”.

We have to go to a far-away island to experience this.  Just as language can be used to illuminate and communicate with others, it can also be used to foster complex coded private clubs, even sophisticated ones.  You don’t need to wear a loin-cloth to belong to a tribe. And when tribes lapse into only speaking their own languages, with limited communication with the outside world, they recreate the insularity that retards social progress.

And that is what we are doing right now.  Even though the internet has fostered great democratizing movements abroad, here, the gigantic mass of social media, 24 hour news networks, talk radio, etc. are the mechanisms of this tribalism.  Several years ago I was in Baltimore, and we all wandered into a bookstore in the Inner Harbor.  There was a barrel-chested man with a droopy mustache who was carrying around several books, all of the same right wing genre.  Laura Ingram, O’Reilly, Michelle Malkin. He seemed to be moving from table to table, displaying his books, and looking a little like John Travolta clearing the floor before he dances in Saturday Night Fever.  He wore a t-shirt that said “It’s not Herstory, it’s History”.  And he was pretty darn proud of it.  If one wants to, you can live in a wall-to-wall partisan world.  Talk radio in the car to work.  Rush in the afternoon, Sean and Bill and Fox at night.  The same tale told over and over again.  The Left has it’s own echo chamber, albeit without quite the same infrastructure.  Truth becomes a malleable thing, twisted to fit the narrative.  Pick a topic these days, and it’s all political, all Left and Right. There is apparently no empiric truth.  And where there is no empiric truth, there cannot be any cooperation.  How do you compromise when you see a totally different reality?

The Republican/Tea Party debate provided another moment.  Wolf Blitzer asked what should happen to a young man who refuses to spend the money for health insurance, and then falls into a coma.  Should he be treated at a hospital? Several people in the audience shouted to let him die.  The candidates, perhaps to their credit as human beings, seemed to freeze. Ron Paul got off the only semi-coherent answer about how churches and charities provided medical care for the needy.  The rest seemed too stunned, or too concerned about appearing too weak for the Tea Party crowd.  I may be out of line for trying to think like a conservative, but the correct answer is something along the lines of “no, we treat him, we value life.  We treat and we send him the bill, even garnishing his salary if we have to, because in our society we expect adults to take personal responsibility. But we treat him, because the alternative is something we should never consider”.     

That answer wasn’t there, and that silence was telling an unspoken truth-that we have people in this country angry enough to let someone else die to make an ideological point.  And we have politicians who enable them by either active encouragement or silent acquiescence.

In “1984” Orwell creates “Newspeak”, a new language, stripped of nuance, stripped of ideas other than those approved by the state.  A population that uses only Newspeak to converse eventually loses the ability to think heretical thoughts.   But Newspeak is really only for the Proles.  The elites, the scientists, will still use English, because they need to think.

Fox or MSNBC do not use Newspeak.  But they do have their own language.  When reality is always filtered through an ideological lens, then we lose the ability to cooperate.  And as this becomes a seemingly permanent state of affairs,  as we become divided up into separate tribes speaking separate languages, we impair our ability to advance as a civilization, politically, scientifically and perhaps even morally.  We begin to live the consequences of what Mark Pagel saw in our prehistoric ancestors.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rick, Charles, and Sam

Rick, Charles, and Sam

Let’s start with a dream.  You are a young married couple, both of you recent college graduates, both just starting your first jobs.  The world is one of limitless possibilities, and the two of you stay up at night talking about your hopes and plans. You have goals.  They are attainable with hard work and prudence, but by no means assured.  But you are willing to work at them and sacrifice to get there.  The two of you dream of two kids, a modest house, and, in retirement, a little cottage by the lake where you first fell in love.  He is going to write, and you are going to paint.

So, prudent people that you are, you plan.  You look at your combined incomes and decide, right now, you can take six percent of your pay and invest it for retirement.  You research carefully, and decide on an annuity that will pay out for your lifetimes, beginning at 65.  After more research, you go with the Equitable Providential Insurance Company of Elkhart, Indiana, a solid, conservative institution in business over 150 years, well managed, and Triple A rated.  The two of you agree that if you are fortunate to be able to save more, it will go towards other investments, but the 6% is going in, come hell or high water.

That’s what you do.  Sometimes it’s hard, when the house needs to be painted, or the dentist says “mmmm” when he checks your teeth.  Sometimes you have to disappoint the kids on vacations or sports.  There’s a really expensive pair of running shoes for you and a new set of golf clubs for him that you pass up.  Every month, like clockwork, you write the check to EPI, and every year they give you a statement of your expected benefit.

Forty years pass, and EPI is taken over by a private equity firm.  It loads the company up with debt, pays itself a big consulting fee for arranging the deal, then a large special dividend.  It installs a new board of directors and quadruples salaries and bonuses for top management.
A year later, both of you turn 65, you fill out the forms and turn them in, and wait for your first checks. 

It doesn’t arrive.  You call the company and are told that there is new management.  They have been reviewing all the annuity contracts, and feel it is not prudent to pay on them in light of the fact that they want to raise dividends for stockholders.  They have recruited a new CEO, and there are relocation expenses, a big exit package for the outgoing one, and retention bonuses for existing management.  They have better uses for the money that paying annuity-holders.

Of course, you wouldn’t stand for that.  No one would.  You would hire lawyers and sue them on the contracts-because they are contracts.  And, if justice prevailed (it often doesn’t, but we are living a dream), the judge would order the private equity firm to return the fees and the special dividends, and the bloated management to return its fat pay packages.  And maybe you could have your retirement and your cottage by the lake, which for 40 years you saved and did without for.

Just for a moment, close your eyes, and pretend that EPI is the United States Government, and that annuity contract you purchased was instead Social Security, and the premiums weren’t optional, but dedicated taxes that came out of paychecks in good times and bad.  The government took the money.

Now, we elect a new management, and our new CEO, supported by his newly elected Board of Directors, pronounces the entire program a “Ponzi Scheme” and “A Monstrous Lie”.  He doesn’t like the contract-he’d prefer to redirect the money to his favorite causes (which do not include paying out promised benefits).  He recognizes neither a moral or contractual obligation.  The program was bad to start with (75 years ago), he’s philosophically opposed to it, and so, poof, it’s history. 

Why should any of us, whether we are on Social Security right now, or have paid into it, accept “we won’t pay” from our elected officials-just because they don't like the program, or say they want to reduce other taxes?  This isn't just reducing or eliminating a government program-it's walking away from a contract where one side had already been paid.  If you believe in the sanctity of contracts (and there are few business, if any, who would not litigate to enforce one), you must acknowledge the legal obligation to pay the promised benefit.

Surely, any insurance company can decide not to sell a particular product any more.  And, by extension, our government may need to look hard at the program (as well as Medicare) that it has been collecting taxes on for many decades.   We, as a people, may feel it’s prudent to make more modest promises to future generations.  And surely, we can discuss how best to manage the promises we made with existing resources.  But this isn’t just a private equity firm milking an old, well-capitalized insurance company and leaving it a shell.  Our government represents every single one of us, and it must deal with each one of us with honor and integrity.  To just abrogate the obligations that our citizens have paid for is more than unconscionable, it is pure and simple theft, and state sanctioned theft at that.  Charles Ponzi might have approved.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Farmer and the Congressman

The Farmer and the Congressman

There’s a Greengrocer on Saturdays a few blocks from my apartment.  Schoolyard, flea market, pickles, bread, Italian specialties, and three farm stands.  One is new: a ruddy-faced man from New Jersey who specializes in roots and peaches.  One is clearly the big dog-it used to be run by a lantern-jawed Amish, who apparently sold it to an enterprising gentleman named Omar.  Omar dominates-he takes up half the yard.  Omar sells everything, and while some of it surely originates in Pennsylvania, a fair amount might just have been picked up at the Hunts Point Terminal.  The third is run by a husband and wife team from the Catskills.  Everything they sell looks like theirs; interesting varieties of apples, peppers, strawberries, eggplant, misshaped heirloom tomatoes, most in very small quantities.

I don’t know much about the farmer and his wife-not even their names.  They aren’t old, but they have the earth in their faces.  He’s tall and skinny, long hair parted down the middle.  She’s smaller, with an open expression, hair pulled back, no make up.  They know their produce intimately, texture, flavor, what to cook or eat immediately, what to wait a couple of days for. Omar undersells them, a miniature version of Wal-Mart against the local mom and pop, and I hear from friends who know them better that life can be hard for them.

This last weekend was the first since Hurricane Irene came howling through.  It largely spared us in Manhattan, but those it hit, it hit hard.  Billions in damages, millions of people without power.  More than thirty deaths.  Lives turned upside down and towns wiped off the map. The farmer and his wife were right in the middle of it.   There’s not a lot of wealth in that area of the Catskills; in per capita income, the counties of Delaware, Otsego and Chenango are 42, 49 and 54, respectively out of 62 in the state, and less than half of Manhattan and its suburbs. 

Approximately three hundred miles south lies Washington, and the offices of Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader.  The Congressman represents Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which is a tad more affluent than the Catskills.

Mr. Cantor is a Tea Party stalwart and an exemplar of fiscal probity.  He’s not eager to see even Irene take us from the path of fiscal responsibility.  “Just like a family” he says-we are going to have to cut spending elsewhere.   Let’s examine that for a moment, and for argument’s sake, agree with Cantor.  The states that get Federal disaster aid should have to pay for it.  They should even the tax dollars out so as not take more from the rest of the “family” than they put in.  It’s unfair for the taxpayers of some states to subsidize the taxpayers of others.  That’s a pretty easy thing to grasp.  Let’s not be re-distributionist.  Loss of life and home is unfortunate, but so passé when we put it up against fiscal rectitude.  Pay as you go is an honorable principle. It’s the application that gets a little difficult.  Starting with Mr. Cantor’s home state of Virginia.  As it turns out, Virginia already gets $1.51 in Federal dollars for every dollar it pays.  North Carolina?  No, they get $1.08.  South Carolina-not so good either, because they get $1.35.  Maryland is a $1.30 net winner.  Cantor’s formula would have all of them returning Federal money instead of getting it. Well, it must be those big spending Northern states who are really on the take.  New Jersey?  Unfortunately, that really doesn’t work out either, because New Jersey residents get only 61 cents for every dollar they pay in.  New York-can’t get much Bluer than those leeches.  No, they get only 79 cents for every dollar they pay.  Connecticut?  No, 69 cents, for every dollar paid.  Massachusetts?  John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, Ted Kennedy?  The very center of Socialism? Just 82 cents.  So, is Mr. Cantor actually advocating taking money from his own constituents to send up North?  Of course he isn’t.  He just can’t stand the idea of spending money on people, no matter what the circumstances.  

As the special committee of 12 wrestles with the aftermath of the budget deal, we are going to talk about Social Security, Medicare and taxes. This is an intellectual debate we should be having;  the burdens and benefits of Social Contract; what are the obligations the society has to the individual, what obligations does the individual have to society?  These are big, multigenerational issues that have to be resolved, and we shouldn’t distill them to soundbites.

But, the tragedy of Mr. Cantor’s special math is that we even need to discuss it. Is there anything more self-evident that a government that fulfills its most basic function, to protect its citizens, is a government that should help pull a car out a ravine after a mudslide?

I asked the Farmer how he made out in the hurricane.  He was fortunate, he explained, his house was up on a hill.  But, as the creeks and rivers rose, his neighbors got forced out, and many made their way to his house.  They were tired, soaking wet, and disoriented.  He and his wife stuck their clothes in the dryer, gave them something to eat and drink and a place to rest.  He was surprised at how shell-shocked many were-they didn’t even realize they were cold until after they were inside. He told me that he and his wife would pick up food on their way home that night. All the stores within fifty miles of his home were barren except for “beer and chips”.

Of course, the Farmer did the right thing.   Humanity is the core value that binds civilization. Without it, there’s chaos. When people lose faith in their neighbors, in the very system itself, they see no reason to hold up their end of the bargain.  But a government that won’t keep a promise-what does that say about the integrity of its people?  And a government that sends a bean counter instead of a helping hand to a disaster-what does that say about its soul?

To quote Franklin at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”


Monday, September 5, 2011

Sorry, I got the day wrong for 9/11. I meant to say next week. The 10-year retrospectives have already started on the airwaves, and they take one back immediately to that sickening feeling on that horrible morning. Not sure we learned very much, as the sense of community and kinship which arose after the incidents dissipated fairly quickly. Would like to get that back somehow.

Worth Reading

There are some wonderful sources out there for reporting and opinion, and I hope to cite them with regularity.  I’ll start with the three major national dailies: The Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.  The Times and the Post have some excellent political reporting and a number of op-ed columnists worth reading.  The WSJ has first rate political reporting as well, but has fallen out of the top tier in analysis on the editorial side.  Some of the other big newspapers such as the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune do a very good job on local matters, but budget cuts at Tribune Company have cut to the bone on their coverage of national political events.  Still, there’s real value in looking at local newspapers for specific candidates and issues.  The Milwaukee Journal had solid coverage of the Scott Walker against the unions face-off, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune covered the Al Franken recount very well (as well as the past government shut-down), and the Miami Herald has solid coverage of Governor Scott.  Those of us living in the Northeast Corridor tend to think you need a skyscraper to write well, but if we follow that lead, we will miss about 80 percent of what’s going on. 

On the reporting side, from the Times, Peter Baker and Matt Bai are quite good. John Harwood is excellent.  For opinion, David Brooks (when he’s not too preachy) and Ross Douthat are often very solid from the right.

Thomas Friedman deservedly gets a lot of the limelight (although he’s far better internationally than domestically), but Roger Cohen is very insightful on European matters is specific and foreign policy in general, and well worth the read. 

The Washington Post, unsurprisingly, has some great nitty gritty political reporting.  Read Chris Cilzza-better yet, sign up for an afternoon update-he’s very sharp and very wired in.  Dan Balz is terrific.  David Broder, sadly, is irreplaceable.  On the opinion side, some of the Post’s right wing columnists, George Will, Mark Theissen, Michael Gerson, and Charles Krauthammer are worth reading, although Krauthammer has such a personal animus regarding Obama that he can blunt a good argument with his anger   Paul Krugman, of The Times can sometimes fall into the same trap in the opposite direction.  The Post’s E.J. Dionne is superb; one of the best out there, Dana Milbank is terrific, Ezra Klein writes well, and Richard Cohen is worth reading.

The Wall Street Journal has the excellent Gerald Seib, and “Washington Wire”.  Unfortunately, since Rupert Murdoch has added the Journal to his Fox News Empire, the editorial and opinion coverage has deteriorated.  Rarely do we see a well argued piece anymore-it’s simply a closed loop of Obama-hating.  This is a tragedy.  The Journal was always very conservative on its editorials, but had room for Al Hunt from the left and other more moderate voices, including Alan Murray, who is still at the Journal, but in a different role.  Now, it’s just an extension of the GOP and Karl Rove gets a regular column.  Even Peggy Noonan has become reflexive. 

Newscorp, however, also owns Barron’s, which has the very sophisticated Gene Epstein, and the superb Tom Donlan, with who I often disagree but am almost always educated by.  Donlan is one of the few who truly write straight up-he writes clearly and with great consistency in support of free markets.  He's the first thing I read on Saturday mornings.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

The "Moderator's" comments are very well taken. We are a people, if we choose to acknowledge it, and we generally treat each other well. However, there are those who do not, and we are reminded of this every time we watch the news. So, the good will that we experience by interacting with our fellow man is, unfortunately, tempered by the fact that many of our species choose to prey upon their neighbors, local businesses, and even family members. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the NY World Trade Center, Pentagon and PA hijack attacks. We should never forget that there are forces out there who are trying to destroy us... and they do not always appear in planes crashing into buildings. There is a happy medium between being complacent and being vigilant. I think this blog will be important because it will bring together divergent views which are NOT based upon an attempt to discredit the "other side." As a contributor, I intend to respect the other person's opinion , while pointing out the fallacy in his or her point of view. Similar to the Moderator indicating he was not a "red state" guy, I am not a "blue state"guy, and I intend to hold these liberals' feet to the fire. Reality is a difficult thing and I do not think the liberal side has any understanding thereof.

What's in a Name?

Why the name?

Why, “Syncopated Politics”.  Well, it was actually my second choice.   I wanted  Politics on Steroids, but that apparently was taken.  And steroids seemed to be the right analogy.  In our political discourse today we have juiced-up politicians engaging in nihilistic demagoguery, egged on by radio and television-shock jocks screaming for blood, and reported on by an all consuming 24 hour a day media that needs product-and when they can’t report it, they have to stir it up or make it up.  Everything is oversized and bloated-starting with the hat sizes of the players.  We have Supreme Court sanctioned-unlimited campaign funds from undisclosed donors, hyperbole and purging when it comes to the smallest deviation from the party line, and a permanent state of “roid rage” where you can say anything, factual or not.  When it comes to personal foibles (corruption, cheating on one’s spouse,) we forgive all the users on our “team”, and condemn the same behavior on the other guy’s team. 

I don’t mean to idealize the past as a place of blissful bipartisanship-it wasn’t.  Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton.  In that august debating society we know as the Senate, Georgian Preston Brooks, was so enraged by Massachusetts Charles Sumner’s criticism of slavery that he confronted Sumner in his office and nearly beat him to death with his cane-to almost unanimous approval from his Southern brethren.

So, verbal and even physical violence isn’t new.  Men and women have always been passionate in their beliefs.  They have marched, rioted, wrote scathing articles, ginned up false allegations against the opposition, bribed, and stole elections.  What does seem to be new is that, having done all that in the past, once they won, at least most of the time, they seemed ready to talk to the other side and try to work things out legislatively.  The notable difference in the past was over the Brooks and Sumner’s issue of slavery.  And, if you want to see just how much history can repeat itself, read Bruce Catton’s Civil War masterpiece, “The Coming Fury,” published in 1961.  If you changed the names and made it contemporary, the first chapter would be as resonant as if it had just been written.

But, what Catton went on to talk about was the missed opportunities, and misunderstandings which led to disunion, and, that’s why a “Politics on Steroids” shouldn’t be what we aspire to.  Because we know it fails. Instead, with an acknowledgement to my musical children, “Syncopated Politics.”  Syncopated is a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm; a placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur.  That’s what I want this blog to represent-an interruption in the echo chamber.  I’m obviously not a Red State Republican, but I’m fortunate to know a number of people who disagree with me, and will articulately make a contrary case. There are also dozens of great writers, reporters and commentators, and you will see their work cited for an opposing perspective.

Finally, please comment.  We prefer that they be substantive and not of the “Obama is a Terrorist and/or Bachmann is a right wing lunatic” variety.  Tell us something we haven’t thought of, bring a differing viewpoint. Just don’t make it personal; we want people to speak their minds here, but we reserve the right to take down verbal caning.


Opening Day

The Miler and the Mechanic

Syncopated Politics grows out of a long running debate with some of the best, most thoughtful and insightful people I’ve ever met in my life, and to the extent that any reader finds something of value here, the credit largely belongs to them.  I hope they share the liveliness of their intellect and their passion for excellence.

My first inclination was just to talk politics with a historical perspective. I looked at the present (and recent past) and found, between Clinton, Bush and Obama, so much to be disillusioned with, that I wanted to retreat into a better history.  Two decades of acrimony seemed more than enough.

My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe.   They escaped Hitler and the Czar.  But these were hardheaded realists who didn’t look back, instead they went towards the light.  In America anything was possible. They could speak freely, open shops and buy houses, move about, worship where they wanted to, and as they wanted to, and have a real expectation that their efforts would inevitably lead to a better life for themselves and particularly for their children.  They had nothing in common with John Adams, or Washington or Jefferson, except they were glad to be Americans and be part of its potential.  They went to night school, learned (accented) English, became citizens, served in WWI, and voted religiously. They hunkered down and made it through the Depression, and sent their children off to serve in WWII and Korea.  In Europe, no one had ever asked them about their opinions, certainly no one cared what they thought or allowed them to play a role in picking their destiny.  Here, they lived prosaic but productive lives that were infinitely better than the ones they left behind.   They were not famous,  they aren’t in the history books, and yet, like the millions who came before and after, they joined a community that was willing to have them, a community that let them participate in a common destiny. The fact that this is so much an oft-told tale is not just re-recitation of a cliché.  It can be told over and over again because it is true.  And because of its truth, it creates a powerful emotional and intellectual bond. 

But my sense of where we are as a people has also been impacted by two conversations I had recently with friends.  Both have the blues, at the very time when they have accomplished things and have lives that many would envy; they are happily married, have great children, they are educated, healthy, stable economically. And they are both profoundly uncertain as to the future-their future, and what the future holds for their children.  The limitless potential that lay before my grandparents seems now somehow crabbed, and grudging.

In my friend’s eyes, it is slipping away.  The world has changed. In 1960, computers were massive structures tended to by white-coated acolytes.  The primary role of women in the workplace was as teachers, librarians, and administrative staff.  We had a giant industrial base, and millions of blue-collar Americans were able to earn good livings, buy houses, educate their kids, go on vacation, and retire decently.  There were still deep pockets of poverty, and pervasive racism, we were locked into a stare-down with the Communists, but we were a growing, flexing, economic powerhouse, easily most richest and powerful nation on Earth, with a society that both encouraged and rewarded effort and acknowledged a social contract.

That era has seemingly come to an end. In 1960, America was at the tail end of the baby boom, and life expectancy was about 70.  Now it is 79.  That single demographic fact has undercut the core assumptions of key programs such as Social Security and Medicare, just as that massive baby boom begins to lean heavily on them.  Private pensions (and public sector pensions) are on their way out, with business shutting them down and hostile state legislatures looking for ways to walk away from them.  Massive competition from emerging nations have made cheap-labor outsourcing into the tool that creates millions of blue-collar dinosaurs.  And technology has helped to finish off white-collar workers as well. I read a letter in the New York Times by a (presumably) former secretary bemoaning the destruction in value of her particular skills, and all that is lost by that.  She was eloquent, but I say that as I write this on a notebook computer sold by a stupendously successful company (Apple) that didn’t exist when I was in high school, using software written by another new company (Microsoft) that duplicates many of her functions.  When I return to the office next week, I put that notebook in my briefcase, and will use it to run my practice, much of it through emails and attachments. 

A close friend once wrote me that skill and craftsmanship were no longer valued.  He’s largely correct.  Price drives everything now and the time needed for excellence costs money.  I don’t have a secretary because I have a less than two-pound box that (partially) replaces her, but I also don’t have one because I can’t economically justify it.  I need to focus on content, not presentation.

Where does that leave us?  Do we have that crabbed future of decline, with our politicians, and our generations, fighting over scarce resources instead of creating new ones?  Or are we capable of more Apples, more Microsofts? That’s the true challenge facing our society.

Right now, our leaders seem not up to the task.  Newly elected Governors and State Legislatures are strong-arming half their populations.  Having led the nation through an absurdist stare-down on the debt ceiling, the President and the GOP-led Congressional delegation will now fight over how much to take and from who, how many promises to walk-away from.  They mouth words like growth and jobs, but it’s hard to see it as anything more than just fighting over the pie.  I keep hoping they are better than this, I’m hoping because I still believe that the shouters and the absolutists will somehow be talked off the ledge, and reason and compromise will prevail.  Because, if it doesn’t, then the winners of this round will be the losers the next time.  The pendulum will lurch back and forth, each movement causing more damage.  And without a broad national consensus on how to fix our problems, a consensus that we must share, even though it might not be everything we want, we are doomed to repeat this cycle, to the detriment of everyone except the very well connected.   We cannot accept this.

And yet, I still have optimism.  In part,  because of the Miler and the Auto Shop.  Last year a friend and I took our daughters to a track meet.  Jim Ryan, the legendary miler from the 1960s, was there, and we took the girls over to his tent.  I have absolutely nothing in common with Jim Ryan.  He was a ten term Republican Congressman from Kansas, and he probably earned a perfect score from the American Conservative Union.  He’s a committed evangelical who runs a running program that combines fitness and faith.  He signed both girl’s posters with a biblical reference.  And yet, as I watched him spend a couple of minutes with them, easily and openly expressing his own pride in his family, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a man I could have asked to speak at the girl’s school, and if he could have come, he would have  This was someone who would disagree with every single political position I might have, but still make sandwiches for the homeless, or stand next to a complete stranger (and a Democrat) filing sandbags or handing out water.  Maybe he and I would disagree on every thing-except a few of the really important things.  And, where we disagreed, we would do so civilly.

Then, this past weekend, when Hurricane Irene was smacking around the East Coast, I traveled up to the Catskill Mountains to bring home my daughter from summer camp.  Got a flat tie.  Saturday morning, with Irene bearing down, and a car to be loaded with some of the dirtiest laundry ever, I found myself in Don Oralls Garage in Hancock, New York.  It’s a kid’s delight-big yard, junked cars, trucks, huge tires, wreckers, all kinds of great equipment, and a charcoal grey cat who was clearly in charge.  Family business started about 60 years ago.  The office had old pine paneling, a faded poster, and toy trucks up on the shelves.  One of the mechanics, who was wearing work clothes that looked as if they had been literally soaked in oil and then dried out,  examined the tire, found the (rather large) split, found another, mounted it on the rim, replaced it, checked the other three, and got us on our way.  My late father would have said “the man knows his business”.  If I had nothing in common with Jim Ryan, I surely had absolutely nothing in common with the mechanic.  But as I sit here in my office in my suit and tie, typing this on a sunny day, having left behind an area which is now a mess of flooded streams, washed out roadways and bridges, and ruined homes, I’m grateful for the man’s swift competence.

Maybe my Jim Ryan fantasy was pure fantasy-just wishful thinking for a time when elected officials didn’t always have to pick up every dollar on the table, and then rub their opponent’s faces in the mud for good measure. And maybe the mechanic went home and laughed about the hapless city couple-at least I hope he did-we were pretty darn hapless.  It’s irrelevant.  But, when I look back at the history of this country, I see a powerful strain of community that is built on small moments of kindness and competence.  We share a common destiny, we search for a common purpose, and we are heirs to a great treasure.  And when I look forward, I know that our times demand politicians who can fight like cats and dogs, but ultimately put it aside for the common good.  And our times demand that mechanic, a man who knows his business.  We need statesmen and builders, not nihilists.

So, as long as I keep Syncopated Politics going,  I’m certainly going to look for and write about every over-reach, every hypocrisy, every bit of corruption.  But I’m going to hope for opportunities to talk about the small grace notes, the Miler and Auto shop.  We are, at bottom, a creative, adaptive, and generous people.