Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Modern-Aged Politico (2016 Vintage)

I am the very model of a modern-aged politico,
I speak a bit of James Monroe, and even Edgar Allan Poe;
The capitals of fifty states, I say with braggadocio
There’s Austin, Juneau, Baton Rouge and even Sacramentio.
I'm very well acquainted, too, with euros and the yen,
I understand how tax cuts will lead to greater Zen.
On Legislative omnibus, I have a lot of news,
And how to get through filibuster with just a little snooze.

I'm happy to say fibs for cash, it’s simple two plus two;
You do for me, you write a check, be sure I’ll do for you.
In short, in matters incognito, pianissimo, and Pinocchio,
I am the very model of a modern-aged politico.

I praise our mythic history, King Ronnie and Sir Ted,
I fear them both too liberal, but also very dead.
No Maynard Keynes or Galbraith, it’s Smith and Hayek pure.
Incentivize the job creators, of that I’m very sure.
I know Beretta from a Browning, a Ruger from a Glock,
My screen most fixed on Rush or Sean, I’m sure that’s not a shock.
When chance I turn to Maddow, yes, I shudder and I shake,
But secretly like Bernie—maybe he’s the vampire stake?

My heart is pure, I’m clear of sight, I find the open mike;
On social things I have no peer, no sin I don’t dislike.
In short, in matters embryo, peccadillo and falsetto,
I am the very model of a modern-aged politico.

In fact, I know that Zanzibar is very close to Minsk
And Putin tall and handsome, just like a Disney prince.
In healthcare yes I kept my Doc, I didn't have to pay,
But I’m a famous Senator, watch what I do, not what I say.
On borders, true, I like them firm, barbed wire on the top,
No amnesty for you, my friend, except to pick the crop.
Climate change I chance erupt, stick finger in the air,
Declaring I’ve got frostbite, you must be mad to care.

As all can see, I’m just like you, no distance on my flank.
My principles are yours, I pledge, you take that to the bank.
In short, in matters of the gut, it’s all simpatico,
I am the very model of a modern-aged politico.

In Iowa I love the corn, agricultural and rhetorical
In ‘Hampshire independence reigns, and I get all historical.
Should Charleston show the Stars and Bars, I won’t be very critical
Nevada’s got sand, and craps, and a lot of Sheldon Adelson.
On Super Tuesday I’ll take to wing, Virginia, Minnesota, N. Dakota and Vermont,
South to Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, of that you have no doubt.
Then there’s Colorado, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wyoming, oh my head will spin.
Maybe I’ll skip Alaska and Boston, where I have no chance to win.

By now, I think I’ve shown you why I should be your President
I’ll even promise not to like a single DC resident.
I say without bravado that you’ll find no finer virtuoso
I am the very model of a modern-aged politico.

I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Can't Anyone Play?

The great Casey Stengel, manager of the epically awful 1962 Mets, once asked “can’t anyone here play this game?” The same has to apply to this stupendously bizarre political season.   

It is hard to believe how far we have come in just this year. In December 2014, everyone was swooning over the size and caliber of the GOP bench—so many accomplished individuals, such a diversity of experience and viewpoints.   Professor Larry Sabato, the highly respected analyst who leads the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, thought the field so deep and “chaotic” that, he didn’t want to pick a Top Tier.  He literally started with Second “the Big Boys”—Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie.  Sabato had Ted Cruz and Ben Carson alone in the “Outsider’ tier below them—and, in the tier below, “Establishment Alternatives” Mitt, Rubio, Kasich, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. 

What Sabato wrote made sense at the time, particularly in historical context.  The days of a Republican “Rockefeller Wing” are in the dustbin of history, gone not just to changing times but the increasing regionalization of the two parties.  The dividing line now is between types of conservatism; mainstream Establishment Republicans, who are practical and look to win elections and pass (not just propose, but pass) favorable legislation, and those of the harder right (Tea Party and Freedom Caucus types, who prize purity and hold mainstream conservatives almost in as much contempt as they do Democrats. 

The Presidential nominating landscape Sabato and other analysis were evaluating in late 2014 reflected that binary choice, either collaborative, or take-no-prisoners conservatives. The GOP party professionals shared this view, and drew lessons from 2012 regarding tone and demographics.  They tightened up institutionally to avoid a repeat of what they saw was the basic flaw of Romney’s 2012 campaign—too contentious and harsh-toned a debate/primary season created an overarching, alienating Republican message going into the general election.  Obama 2012 had been eminently beatable, and they had fallen short. Hillary was even more vulnerable, and the election even more winnable, provided the message and the messenger projected confidence instead of confrontation.  

The Establishment types knew they weren’t going to be able to completely neutralize the hard right.  But, they thought that the breadth of the GOP bench would attract new voters—Jeb had a swing-state base and appealed to Latinos, Walker and Christie had won in Blue states, and Paul, in his own esoteric way, appealed to younger voters.  Just as importantly, they felt they had constructed what amounted to a double-hulled tanker.  If the frontrunners fizzled, Rubio was Floridian, young and appealing, Kasich a solid, swing-state alternative to Jeb and Christie, and Mitt was more popular than Obama.  The Establishment also counted on something else—of the more “conservative” candidates, Santorum and Huckabee were loser-retreads, Carson a novelty who would excite the base without being a legitimate threat, and everybody hated Ted Cruz. 

Obviously, things have gone a bit awry since then, starting of course, with the arrival, and the staying power, of the USS Battleship Trump.  But I have become more and more convinced that Trump is more like an opportunistic infection—he’s possible because of the one thing no one anticipated—the manifest weakness of the GOP bench.  Instead of a group of All Stars, they have turned into a noodle-armed, iron-gloved bunch of singles hitters better suited to Casey’s Mets.

Walker is already gone—the appeal of his polarizing approach to the harder right evaporated when he demonstrated a complete lack of readiness for the top spot (don’t cry for Scott-he has gone back to Wisconsin and reapplied himself to extreme partisanship.)

The early promise of Paul is, for all intents and purposes, over.  He barely escaped the kiddie table before the last debate, and his movement towards orthodoxy (except on national security/foreign policy issues) has won him no new friends, while costing him freshness and appeal.  He has had a little bad luck—being a skeptic of the national security state at a time of renewed terrorist activity isn’t exactly timely—but the more people watch him, the more unmoved they seem to be.  It’s just a question of when he drops out—there were reports as far back as October that he was being pressed by McConnell to focus on retaining his Senate seat, which is seen at some risk.

Christie has just never caught on.  His poor early poll numbers forced him into the second tier debate, where he shone and escaped.  He does have real strengths—a true talent for retail politics—great at town halls, meet and greets, small settings, but it hasn’t moved the needle much.  What Christie needs—desperately—is for other like-kind “establishment” candidates to drop out.  Since Rubio isn’t going anywhere, that leaves Bush and Kasich.  Ideally, one or both would leave before New Hampshire on February 9th, where Christie’s got an important endorsement by the influential, and persistent, Manchester Union Leader.  Otherwise, unless his numbers improve, Christie may feel the hand on his back.

Much attention has been focused on the collapse of Jeb—for all his preexisting assets, he seems to register at absolute zero on the passion front.  The Hillary-Jeb heir-apparent dichotomy is really fascinating.  Hillary is getting better as she knocks off the rust.  Like her or not, she’s coming across as authoritative and in command of her facts.  Jeb seems just puzzled—the carefully plotted route to the Oath of Office, with huge fundraising, mass endorsements, admiring opinion pieces by sympathetic media-types, to be followed by carpet-bombing his opponents, leading to determined but ultimately token resistance, then the balloon drop seems to have had a central GPS programming issue. Bush, a man with feet of clay, seems completely ungrounded.  He could still come back—anything is possible in this outré year, but he’s going to need a lot of luck, and a lot more talent for political warfare than he’s shown to date. 

As for Marco, many people, Sabato included, thought he would not run if Jeb did.  Jeb was a friend and mentor, there was substantial overlap between Jeb and Marco’s supporters, and the expectation was that Marco would wait his turn.  This turned out to be wrong for a number of reasons, not the least of which are Marco’s ego, his impatience, and his apparent unwillingness to be satisfied with a mere US Senate seat.  Rubio has substantial skills—he’s attractive and a very good speaker and debater, but you wonder whether he has the staying power. Look under the charismatic surface and you see a hint of Sarah Palin.  He is openly uninterested in his day job.  His supporters fret he hasn’t spent much time building infrastructure in key primary states, and they worry he’s going to be outworked by Cruz, should the race devolve to a one on one.  I can’t help shaking the feeling that Rubio simply assumes he will step into the mantle of Establishment support when and if Bush drops out.  He is assuming their fear of Cruz (which is fundamentally different than the reaction to Trump) will induce them to pick a side (his), pressure some of the laggards to bow out, and provide him with cash and operatives at the national and state level.  He might be right—but my gut also tells me he’s going to have to work harder to show he earned it, and I don't know if Marco has it in him. 

Which, leaves the Establishment, and the electorate, where?  The Donald?  Teddy the Grinch?

I have absolutely no idea, because they seem to be the only people who know how to really play this game. 

And, to paraphrase another baseball icon, Yogi Berra, if the Establishment candidates can't find their fastball, and soon, it will be getting late early out there.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Digging the Long Ball

In baseball, there’s nothing more dramatic than a confrontation between a hard throwing pitcher and a massive slugger, standing there like a Paul Bunyan, giant arms coiled and ready.  The ball is either ending up in the catcher’s mitt, or 500 feet away.

Nike did a very funny commercial in the 1980s featuring Mark McGwire and the future Hall of Fame (but decidedly lean) pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.  Big Mac is launching them in batting practice, and, to the boys’ disgust, pretty women are swooning.  They try (haplessly) to work out, but despite their manly efforts, the biceps remain less than imposing, and the women still ask for Mark. “Chicks dig the long ball,” mutters Glavine.

Chicks (and roosters) dig the long ball in politics as well.  There is a real attractiveness to the candidate who unbuttons a bit, swings from the heels and hits them a mile.  Maybe not to actually marry, but Kate Mackinnon’s dead on impersonation of Angela Merkel nails it. Obama may be the polite guy who brings a corsage when he comes to pick you up, but Putin is the bad boy in a leather jacket who takes you to Makeout Point.   

Enter, the ultimate bad boy, Donald Trump.  There is apparently no end to his huge (“HUGE”) verbal swings, and once in a while, he hits one nine miles. Trump has twice the support of any other Republican candidate right now, and Ted Cruz (who is more the sharpened stiletto than the baseball bat) may now be second.  That is just not a coincidence—there is a HUGE audience for this type of batting practice.

Of course, Trump’s comments are making many Establishment types in the GOP cringe. First of all, with the probable exception of Cruz, they want one of their own—and part of Trump’s appeal is that he is decidedly his own man. But the second part is obvious—Trump swings from the heels, and his habit of saying incendiary things, while wildly popular in some quarters, is damaging their long-term strategy to rebrand themselves as a little more inclusive.  They worry about the impact, down ballot, that all that verbal angst will stir up. Trump, to their way of thinking, is hitting a lot of solo homeruns.

People sometimes fail to recognize the difference between civility and true acceptance. You can do without the latter if you can at least manage the former, and the Republican establishment was hoping for that.  Not every Republican is some sort of knuckle-dragging, bandolier-wearing, Rush-spouting, nativist yahoo.  Some are, just as there are stereotypical flaky/fuzzy/wimpy/PC Democrats.  But the majority of them are ordinary people who are attracted to a conservative message—social, economic, or both—and who’s children play with yours. They want a Republican, not necessarily an avenger.

To get there, to make all American Red, you have to win elections, and the party had done brilliantly in the last two midterms. President Obama has been the gift that has kept on giving at the state and local level.  Motivated Republicans have marched to the polls, and the vaguely disappointed and uninspired Democrats have stayed home.  If 2016 is about Obama, there is an excellent chance for a historic sweep, if the GOP can stay on message and be disciplined.

Not gratuitously offending people is an important step.  Targeting Democrats is fine, and slamming Obama and Hillary is always in season, but going after entire ethnic groups might be unwise. That Republican couple down the block doesn’t have to invite you over for dinner, but you aren’t going to be at all happy if your daughter comes home in tears when she finds out she’s been ruled out of a birthday party because of what color her skin was, where her grandparents came from, or where you worship.  You are going to remember that when you walk into the voting booth.

This was never going to be easy—the immigration debate is the gateway drug to a lot of personal ugliness, and the GOP primary voter is especially incensed on the issue.  But, if you take this back to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when Jeb was guaranteed the nomination, it was thought by that 2016 was a unique opportunity to reset relationships.  Jeb was the perfect messenger—married to Columbia, compassionate on immigration reform, moderate-appearing in temperament, and literally speaks the language.  Unfortunately, Jeb’s! campaign is about to become an *, so those days are about over.

To say party elders misjudged Jeb’s electability and personal appeal is an understatement.  But the GOP did have a deep bench—they offered several credible alternatives, all of who could have toned things down just a bit.  And, they had an ace in the hole—they knew that the Democrats were relying too much on a perceived Electoral College advantage when none really existed.   GOP could win in 2016 without Latinos and other ethnic groups, especially with the restrictive voting rules, gerrymandering, and other institutional barriers they put in place.  Nominate someone conservative but reasonable, don't motivate your opponents, and the door is wide open.

What they could not have expected was not only Trump, and his deliberately divisive language on immigration, but also a world on fire.  The Syrian refugee situation was, initially, a gift.  First, the GOP could criticize Obama’s handling of the Assad government and call for boots on the ground.  Then, when refugees were the issue, they could tie anti-immigrant sensibilities into a national security trope, making it less about people—and throw the evangelicals a bone by perhaps making space for Christian refugees.  Polling indicated that not just Republicans, but the American public as a whole, were resistant to Mr. Obama’s call for humanitarian resettlement.  You could call it three birds with one stone, and the party was happy.  But Paris and San Bernardino roiled the waters in unexpected ways--they made the theoretical existential risk feel real, and brought back the personal.

Once again, Trump strode to the plate, swung hard, and raised the stakes, by demanding no Muslims, period, be allowed into the country until “we figure things out.”  This has created a fascinating scrum.  The Republicans who, just a couple of weeks ago, supported the idea of keeping out all Syrian refugees (several Red States mobilized legislatively) and who were quietly fine with the slow burn of resentment towards Muslims (and the secret-Muslim-in Chief in the White House) are left with an awful dilemma.  There are 1.6 Billion Muslims in the world, they sit on a lot of oil, and Trump’s call has been met with opposition from foreign leaders (including, of all people, Bibi Netanyahu) and we just look silly—at least diplomatically silly. 

Except, here at home, where many people, and not only Trump voters, might agree, even just a little, with what Trump said. They don’t care what the Europeans think.  They wonder if most of the other Republican candidates, who quickly moved to distance themselves from Trump, were just being opportunistic because he’s leading and they need to tear him down. 

All the other Republican candidates save one—Ted Cruz, who is playing the smartest long game of any Republican.  Cruz is waiting for Trump to falter, but doing nothing to upset his supporters.  Cruz is all smooth words—Iago to Trump’s Othello.  He understands Trump’s primal force, and is running slipstream behind it.  He’s the guy who will take the walk from an upset pitcher after Trump launches one.

Cruz gets it—better than most.  No matter how repulsive some of Trumps statements may seem to you, you cannot deny facts.

It’s just the third inning, and chicks still dig the long ball.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

In Search of Outrage

There is a National Debt Clock in New York City’s Times Square area.  It is supposed to be a visual manifestation of how quickly we borrow and spend—a constant call to arms for those who see it to demand accountability of feckless electeds.  It was originally erected in 1989, was covered, briefly, when we actually stopped running deficits, at the end of the Clinton Administration, and then started anew when we returned to regular habits--with an even greater appetite. It's purpose was to elicit  outrage, yet tens of thousands of people look right past it every day.  We just don't care enough to do anything about this.

So it is, apparently, with overwhelming majority of mass shootings.  According to an article in the Washington Post this past Monday, there have been 351 mass shootings in the United States since the start of 2015.   A “mass shooting” is defined as one having at least four or more victims (three, apparently being too common to take notice of).   If you do the quick math, it means a bare minimum of 1,400 casualties from spraying bullets in a shopping center, or a movie house, or a school, or a place of worship, or any location where people gather.

Do we care?  Not all that much for the victims, it seems.  The casualty numbers keep growing, and the larger they get, the more inured we are to them.  In one respect, this may be a good thing—at least, in most, the families of the victims have the dignity of private loss.  But other incidents take on a symbolic value that seems to be just too tempting for us to ignore.  So we wade in, using the genuine grief of the families to advance whatever our personal agendas are—in effect, we hijack other people’s tragedy to serve our needs.  That a friend, a child, a spouse or a parent loses their life becomes almost irrelevant when the discussion turns to guns, or race, or the political ideology of the shooter, or the location of the shooting, or the targets themselves.

So it was in the Planned Parenthood shootings in Colorado Springs.  Twitter and the comment boards on major news sites lit up with all types of nasty anonymous postings, the ugliness pouring out like sludge from a ruptured sewer pipe.  In Colorado Springs, we hit the Daily Double—guns and abortion. 

It is precisely at this point where leadership was so important—when the tone of the discussion teetered on a razor’s edge between civility and coarseness.  To their credit, both National Right to Life and the conservative group Concerned Women of America expressed their concern.

But, for the politicians, particularly those running for the Republican nomination for President, the brutal acts in Colorado posed an acutely difficult conundrum—Iowa is two months away, social conservatives dominate it, and evangelicals in general have a disproportionate impact in certain Republican primaries.  Whatever their private feelings, they had to tiptoe up to the water’s edge of compassion while not offending hard-liners. Some did better than others—Kasich and Bush were careful (neither mentioned Planned Parenthood) but consoling, while Rubio and Christie, apparently watching their poll numbers intently, avoided any immediate comments. Carly Fiorina, declining rapidly and under fire for fibbing about an abortion video, launched a full frontal attack—against “the Left”.   Ted Cruz initially tweeted something along Kasich-Bush lines, but then, seeing an opportunity, and ostensibly prompted by a report in a hard right news aggregator, blamed a “transgendered Leftist Activist” for the shootings (the alleged murderer, Robert Dear, is none of the above.) 

If you sense a lack of empathy from me for their inner conflict, it is because it is not there. 
I understand how controversial the issue of abortion is, how deeply passionate people can be about it, but, for now, at least, it is entitled to Constitutional protection. That’s what the Supreme Court says and that is what is has been saying for more than 40 years, since Roe v. Wade. The right to an abortion is not unlimited,  a State or the Federal government can regulate after presumed fetal viability, but it cannot prohibit or unduly restrict it before then. 

I don’t want to re-litigate whether Roe was decided correctly, and I am fairly sure that four Justices would repeal it this minute if they had the chance, but that is standing precedent.  It has the same value as law as the Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which recognized a more expansive view of Second Amendment rights.  And the same as Citizens United, or the Voting Rights Act cases like Shelby, or Kelo v. The City of New London—the widely reviled Eminent Domain ruling. 

You don’t need to agree with the Court on any or all or those decisions, and you don’t even need to agree with every part of the Constitution and subsequent Amendments, to understand that we are a nation of laws and liberties.  Among those is the right to protest, vigorously, but non-violently, and the right to have the protection of the law to freely exercise all of your liberties, whether popular, or not.  The government cannot act to favor some over the other, or punish some for engaging in legal behavior.  Our universal ownership of an equal stake is the very essence of being an American.

This is the acid test of leadership in a democracy.  It isn’t coming up with the most brilliant policy prescriptions, or most wonderful programs, or making the most dazzling speeches. It is, rather, the steadfast willingness of elected officials to govern for the benefit of all the people, not just the ones who elected them.  It is their pledge to subordinate their personal philosophy and even their sense of outrage, and respect the law, and uphold it, whether they agree with it or not.  In the end, and above all, the victims of Colorado Springs were citizens and human beings—if your politics, or your political ambitions preclude you from caring about them, then you are unfit to hold any office, much less President of the United States.
The Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once described a scene in which a distraught woman, unhinged by the suicide of her son, comes to Singer’s father to seek solace.  In her agony, she loses control, curses, even denies the existence of God.

“No man is judged in his hour of grief,” murmurs the old man. 

Singer’s father was right.  No one should be judged in the throes of great loss.  But a corollary is true as well.  We are judged, all of us, in how we react to the pain and grief of others.  Monetizing it for partisan gain is the one unforgivable outrage.

December 2, 2015

editor's note.  This article was originally posted shortly after midnight, December 2, 2015.   A few hours later, the brutality at San Bernadino began.  The name calling moved seamlessly to a new tragedy, and we are not in the least bit closer to having any answers.   It has also been edited to correct an error in describing the location of the National Debt Clock.  

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Paris and Realism, Order and Disorder

The conservative columnist Michael Gerson concluded a piece in today’s Washington Post with “Is it possible, and morally permissible, for economic and foreign policy conservatives, and for Republicans motivated by their faith, to share a coalition with the advocates of an increasingly raw and repugnant nativism?”

It is a very good question, particularly as Gerson is applying it to the confounding rise of Donald Trump among Republican primary voters, but it might be better applied to the general electorate.  How does anyone, conservative, moderate, or liberal, make common cause with the advocates of an increasingly raw and repugnant nativism in the Age of Terror?

Before we talk about internals, we have to talk about externals, and the obvious.  Terrorism isn’t going to go away—better stated, murderous extremism that places little value on human life isn’t going away.  It might be interdicted at times, or to use President Obama’s remarkably ill-timed pronouncement, it might be “contained” but it is not going to be eradicated. We in America may have an easier time of it than our European friends, primarily because of geography, but it will happen here, and it will happen more than once. 

That is a horrible fact to contemplate—but it is reality.  It will be true, regardless of whoever occupies the White House and who runs Congress.  No ideology, no political party, and no person, is capable of affording us complete security.  Pure nativism—keep everyone out—is a false promise of that.  We could turn ourselves into the near-police state that Trump and a number of other Republicans desperately competing for attention seem to be advocating for—no emigrants, watch lists, surveillance of mosques, even internment, and we still will not be completely safe.  Even eliminating every Constitutional safeguard would be no guarantee.

To an extent we are the victims of our own poor judgments on policy—bipartisan mistakes.  Some of the Mujahedeen we armed in Afghanistan to fight the Russians are now Taliban.  Our intervention in the Balkans and Somalia, even as we thought of it as largely humanitarian, placed us in the middle of sectarian wars that had been going on for generations.  Putting the best face on our invasion of Iraq and our involvement in Syria, Algeria, and even Egypt still leaves us with destabilized nations in chaos—chaos in part caused by the elimination of detestable strongmen who did a fairly good job controlling their own countries through violence.  The abscess of hatred has ruptured.  

How do we deal with it?  More years ago than I care to admit, a very smart man who wanted to encourage me to go into academia gave me a copy of Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 (1957).  He told me if I wanted to really understand contemporary history, I had to begin by understanding how great nations interacted with each other, how they created problems and how they then resolved them through the application of power and negotiation at the highest level.  I could start by learning about the Congress of Vienna, and watching how plenipotentiaries reassembled then world that Napoleon had so skillfully blown apart. The result of these negotiations might not necessarily be particularly fair, to the parties or even the citizens (in the ultimate settlement, roughly two dozen cities and regions were swapped among the great powers) but it would be seen as legitimate.  A place, and a peace, restored.

That world of balance of power negotiations, with actors who can bind countries to a course of action, who can choose confrontation or compromise, is still here, and still needed.  But it is no longer the one tool that can resolve most disputes. The terrorist who walks into a concert and sprays gunfire, or the group who takes over a hotel, isn’t sending a delegation in frock coats to a 17th Century salon. Combating terrorism, combating those who Kissinger would identify as revolutionary chieftains, is going to require a skillful combination of convincing the major world powers to apply whatever leverage they can to cut off sanctuaries and funding for terrorists, and the application of serious amounts of force, both covertly and overtly.

Those discussions between nations have to take place, and strategies must be carefully mapped out and implemented, because no one can go it alone. But they are long-term approaches in a short attention-span era--they don't give the sugar high of immediate results. And, in the United States, they have to take place against a backdrop not only of a Presidential election, but a period of intense partisanship.  One of the enormous risks we have right now is that our elected leaders will make the wrong choice because of a fear of accountability.  Metternich could do what he wanted—in a largely feudal society, if he satisfied the people of influence—that would be sufficient.  But here and now, in the cycle of the continuous election campaign, the smallest failures grow hyperbolic.   You could break up 50 terrorist plots—if the 51st succeeded, within minutes there would be a cacophony from the ambitious and irresponsible.  The same applies to any policy that lets in refugees—it only takes one bad actor to set off 24/7 outrage. 

If we had leaders of courage and vision, they would acknowledge the risks of imperfect policies and best choices, up front, and explain the reasons they were taking that road.  To take Gerson’s arguments head on, they would ratchet down the rhetoric, regardless of whether it gave them a bump in the polls, and explain that demonizing everyone who doesn’t look and think exactly the same way is a terrible strategy for longer-term security.  Just as importantly, they would openly draw back from the temptation to emulate the Eurpoeans—lockdowns, emergency powers, near martial-law. Americans should never seek a police state.

What should we be looking for? We live in a diverse and disorderly society.  It is messy and imperfect, but fosters creativity and growth.  I don’t mind a little disorder, and I am certainly not demanding perfection.  What I want is almost a Burkean conservative—someone smart, dispassionate, adaptable, reluctant to engage in systemic changes unless circumstances demand—but willing to do so, in moderate doses, when existing rubrics seem inadequate.  Above all, someone who is not reactive, and particularly, someone who is not so politically opportunistic that he ends up causing more harm than good. We need those willing to take responsibility. 

Do we have these people?  Gerson is not alone in his doubts.  Fellow Bush alumni Steve Schmidt, who was also a top adviser to John McCain, was recently quoted in the Washington Post “There’s not one person — no one, not in the administration, not on the debate stage — that shows coherence as to what we should do. That person doesn’t exist…. (T)he Republicans who criticize the administration — appropriately — for not having a strategy also don’t have a strategy.”

And yet, I think Schmidt might be a little too pessimistic.  There are smart people with good ideas and enough knowledge to put forward the outlines of a viable strategy.  It just takes a willingness to take some risks and show a thick skin.  If they emerge, then we don’t have to answer Gerson’s question.  People of good faith will have the opportunity to put aside the purely ideological and pick a path of “messy order” that protects our persons, and our liberties, without turning to darkness. 

November 24th, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Death of the Blue-Collar Aristocrat

What is wrong with blue-collar America?

We have known for some time that working-class Americans have been economically suffering, as good-paying jobs that don’t require a college education evaporate in the face of globalization.  But, now, for the first time, we see a physical manifestation of that.  People in that demographic are dying faster. 

A recent study authored by Professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton (he’s a winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize, for different work) shows that the cohort of 45-54 year-old white Americans who do not have a college degree have a higher death rate than they did in 1999.  It was a completely unexpected finding.  It diverges from decades-long trend of a 2% decline in mortality rates per year, and it’s something that has not appeared in “sister countries” like Canada, Western Europe, New Zealand and Australia. For now, at least, it seems to be a purely American phenomenon.  Even stranger, it’s impacting whites while not equally manifesting itself in African-Americans or Latinos in the same age and educational cohort.   

While more work is needed to sort through all the causalities, one thing sticks out—a major spike in deaths resulting from suicide and substance abuse.  Which should lead one to at least ask the question—why are more of these people engaging in sometimes-fatally self-destructive behavior?

The study’s authors don’t draw conclusions.  But I wonder if there isn’t a very good chance that this is the group that is the canary in the coalmine for overall societal reaction to the changes that have occurred to the economy since the 1970s.  Globalization and lower tariffs have brought many benefits—lower prices for a broad spectrum of goods, but its burdens have fallen most sharply on that segment of society that went directly into the trades after high school.

That is a group you see described in E.E. LeMasters’s 1976 book Blue Collar Aristocrat: Life-Styles at a Working Class Tavern (Professor LeMasters pickled his liver a bit in the pursuit of information).  The men here are all blue-collar, construction workers, plumbers, carpenters, and electricians.  They make good livings—good for what they value—a decent house, maybe a hunting cabin, a solid car or truck, time for vacations, work that means something to them. Most have what Harry Frankfurt called a “sufficiency.”

What’s interesting about LeMasters’ book isn’t just the sociology—the way the men feel about white collar workers, about what we would call social issues, sex, marriage, the role of women, guns, race and religion—but also the glimpse into the future that some were beginning to see.  A carpenter complains about pre-fab construction and a certain loss of the satisfaction and pride he used to feel when he built something from the ground up.  And the pathologies were there—these men often drank heavily, but they tended to do it socially, in a safe environment (the tavern) in the company of others who shared their views and behavior patterns.  What was too much drinking?  Very simple—as much drinking as to keep you from either showing up for work the following day, or would impair your ability to do your job safely if you could.

The men, and their outlook, have not changed much over the last 40 years, but the opportunities have, and from that loss of opportunity, a loss in a crucial check on self-abuse.  If you want to put your finger on a single group that both our economy and our political system have let down, it’s these people. We pay lip service to them, we talk about creating good jobs, but we don’t really have an answer to the fundamental restructuring that has left them with skills that are both less in demand and less highly compensated. 

Don’t people have the obligation to make good choices—and aren’t their circumstances often the sum of those choices?  One of the organizing principles of American thought is a combination of  the frontier and the Protestant work ethic:  with enough effort, enough talent, enough pluck, anyone can make it here because merit and risk-taking holds much greater importance than inherited advantages.  From that Horatio Alger thesis, we have an entire generation of politicians who have defined socio-economic status purely in terms of virtue—those that have, earned it, and those that don’t, were lazy takers.

Except, you can’t really apply that to this group, who were willing to work hard at dirty jobs. Could they reasonably have foreseen in, say, 1985, when this 45-54 year-old group were making their career choices, that they were picking a path that might lead them to under-employment or no employment 30 years later?  

I suspect that many have hit a peculiar form of midlife crisis.  It’s not big dreams that are unattainable—because we can all rationalize that maybe we weren’t meant to strike out the last batter in the World Series, or win the Nobel Prize, or make our first billion by 35.  It's the smaller, day-to-day expectations of living a good life that seems beyond reach. A proud, self-sufficient group now struggles to make ends meet—and that is profoundly depressing.  As Harry Frankfurt pointed out in On Inequality “It is essential to understand that having enough money is far from being equivalent to having just enough to get by, or to having enough to make life marginally tolerable.  People are not generally content with living on the brink.” 

Can we fix this?  Not using conventional tools, I think.  The same competitive pressures that bring down the price of manufactured goods, and make them attainable to those of moderate means, also permanently eliminate the domestic jobs that made those goods.  People will have to do different things. 

But what is clear is that neither party quite seems to grasp this.  Let’s start with the Democrats—they have managed to completely lose touch with reality.  Economically, the focus on inequality instead of lack of opportunity means all we think about is redistribution rather than growth.  I understand the emphasis, and the appeal of Bernie Sanders, because the Republicans are seen as the party of business and Wall Street, and the Democrats the party of labor and labor unions.  Except, Democratic party elders missed something essential.  Being the party of labor is not exactly the same as being the party of the workingman if the workingman can’t work.  Labor unions do not create jobs, they merely negotiate better terms.  The working person understands that—the Democrats do not.

And where the Democrats failed, the Republicans were brilliant.  They realized that the crumbling manufacturing base was a great political opportunity for them.  If Democrats couldn’t offer good paying jobs, then all a Democratic candidate represents to a blue-collar worker is someone who wants to take his guns and send gays and immigrants to invade his community.  It’s a strategy that has paid off enormously—and I cannot understand why Democrats have not figured this out.  My hunch is that it’s intellectual laziness—they think this is all about reactions to Barack Obama (see, last week’s Kentucky electoral results)  and it will all go away when he does.  It won’t. 

And yet, the Republicans, in their own way, are just as lazy.  They are so caught up in the idea that entitlement reform and tax cuts for the wealthy are the universal antidote for every economic disease, that have yet to show the least bit of creativity in offering people a real path to opportunity. 

What happens next?  Unfortunately, I think the next set of decisions will be more tactical than substantive.  Democrats have to choose whether they want to abandon trying to appeal to working class whites, and just be a party of immigrants, minorities, and the coastal elites.  That is an approach that is almost certainly a short-term recipe for electoral disaster.  Republicans have a different problem.  If they can just get their house in order, they are set up for an electoral sweep in 2016.  But, once attained, there is every indication they may not be able to curb their worst excesses, and will impose a top-down conservative agenda—including Paul Ryan’s idée fixe, major cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare.  That will set up a fascinating conundrum for the aging white working class cohort—do you vote Republican and keep your guns, or Democratic to try to save your butter?

Of course, that’s precisely the wrong question, since not one whit of it relates to "opportunity."  And that is why “blue collar” will continue to be  “blue.”

Which ought to depress us all.  

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Debating the Debate Debacle

Once upon a time, when I was a skinny, bewildered college student, I met a professor who was so impossibly brilliant that he spawned an entire series of semi-mythical tales about his grasp of the most arcane details in the most obscure disciplines.  This man had met everyone, read everything, married a stunningly beautiful (and accomplished) woman, and lived in a great big house surrounded by books and objects he collected from his travels and his interests.  40 years later, my friends and I still laugh by recalling the classic (probably apocryphal, but you never know)  “I happen to have Cervantes in my closet, and every once in a while I take him out and we talk….”

I am a Lincoln man myself, so I think I would prefer to spend a few minutes reaching for windmills instead of tilting at them, but there is something to going back to the classics to ground you in observing the present.  Besides, Abe had a sense of humor.  Which, he would need, if he were to observe the latest Republican primary debate. 

Last week, the Republican aspirants for President, having been groomed, and sprayed, and polished, and buffed, trundled on to a stage in Colorado, and engaged in one of silliest and most insipid arguments (I would not elevate it to an actual debate) in recent memory.  If you can recall a single answer of any substance whatsoever, you are much better than I am. Here is the sum of the entire exercise:  Topics covered in detail—none. Marco and Ted up, Jeb down.  Donald calmer, Ben Zen, Chris a bit better, Carly a bit worse.  Kasich over-caffeinated. Moderators and format—a disaster. 

What were we expecting?  Primary debates might be seen as the gladiatorial undercard before they bring out the Christians and lions part, but they still serve a purpose—we do learn things. Sometimes, we find someone new to appreciate, or find ourselves disillusioned with an old favorite. Occasionally, there’s a monumental gaffe--Rick Perry destroyed himself, apparently permanently, with one brain-freeze in 2012. 

Logistics often make it hard, because of the large number of unknown variables and the expected size of the field.  The candidate’s chances to shine are then further limited simply by the amount of time they are allotted.  They may have prepared all these killer lines, but have no opportunity to insert them.  Often they will fling themselves into something, grabbing the mike, looking awkward and even a little desperate.  The bigger the field, the louder the personalities, the more critical the atmosphere in the room is—and the more critical the moderators are.  Someone has to take charge, politely, but firmly, and manage all those egos. 

Last week was a primer in moderator-failure.  Let’s make it a given that politicians don’t like being embarrassed, and certainly don’t like being pressed for answers they don’t want to give.  Layer on to that a specific Republican trope that the mainstream media is always out to get them, and you raise the bar substantially.  John Harwood, who is an excellent journalist, lost control, and his supporting cast was worse.  Candidates outdid themselves in complaining about the questions, and slamming the questioners.  None of them were actually interested in discussing issues—and none of them had to, because the crowd was behind every denunciation. 

CNBC’s failure opened the barn door wide, and the herd stampeded through.  The carefully scripted approach that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus designed after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012—fewer debates, friendly venues, fewer opportunities to go off script and offend, had already been tested by the bizarre rise of outsiders like Trump and Ben Carson.  What was more concerning was the deep chord of anti-establishment anger that was reflected in the polling numbers.  The sheer weight of Trump and Carson’s combined numbers were burying candidates the establishment favored—and many of those were convinced they would have a real chance, if only the gadflies would leave the field. The debates were supposed to show Trump and Carson to be more like the fringe or niche candidates of 2012—Bachmann, Cain, Santorum,  Gingrich—flashes in the pan, but without sustainable appeal beyond true believers.   That just hasn’t happened, in part because of the pervasive stream of nihilism, but also because the debates have not yet reached the level of granularity on the issues that would expose Trump and Carson’s lack of substance.

The candidates, collectively, realized that on Tuesday.  Having a free-for-all made personalities the only thing that mattered.  They needed to wrest control of their images back from both the RNC, and from the moderators.  Debates should be what Priebus wanted—extended advertisements for the Republican brand.  But that wasn’t going to be accomplished by accepting the ground-rules that others set—particularly with the wild card of questioners who weren’t fully supportive of Republican goals.

The campaigns made their discontent known, and Priebus acted.  He “fired” NBC from their next debate—which had the added benefit of also omitting Telemundo, the Spanish-speaking network that few (Jeb being the notable exception) wanted to include in the first place.  Still, that wasn’t enough, so the campaigns called a meeting to discuss the issue—and Reince was not invited.

“Facilitating” was Republican lawyer and fixer Ben Ginsberg (he was critical in the Florida recount crisis in the 2000 Bush-Gore race).  Ginsberg drew up a list of demands, meant both for the RNC and for any network that wished to televise a future debate.  They are astonishing in their scope—from what amounts to prior question review and approval, to explicit threats to exclude a network if they are unsatisfied with responses before a debate, or performance at a debate, to even questions of camera angles, room temperature, and how bathroom breaks are covered.  Expressly forbidden are lightening rounds, reaction shots, asking candidates to raise their hands, and anything that looks, smells, or tastes like a “gotcha” question.

Will it work?  That is an awfully good question.  Some of the campaigns have pointed out that the networks make very good money on what amounts to an odd takeoff on a reality show.  They see themselves like the creators of content—not unlike the NFL—who should hold great sway over how the product is presented.  The networks  may have opinions as to what journalism is and what it is not, but they are businesses first and last, and the prospect of all those dollars re-directed to Murdoch-land may not be all that appealing.  

The jury is out—this may all be a lot of sound and fury with no substantive changes—but I think there is real muscle here. Trump is making noises about not appearing in any debate with Telemundo, and Ted Cruz has suggested that only people who have voted in a Republican primary be permitted to act as a moderator during a Republican debate.

Maybe Cruz is right.  Time to see if we can dial up Abraham Lincoln?  Not exactly an expert on TV, but a crackerjack debater, and a Republican.  I wonder how he’d feel about moderating. 

As to Cervantes, perhaps not.  But, perhaps I’m judging too quickly. His fiction-writing ability might come in handy.  And, he was imprisoned by pirates for five years. It’s a start.   

Editor's Note:  As of 10PM on Tuesday, November 3, six campaigns, Bush, Christie, Cruz, Kasich, Trump, and Fiorina have said they won't sign the Ginsberg Letter

November 3, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Florida Boys Flounder

In the grey morning hours before tonight’s Republican debate, it is becoming more and more apparent that it is an awful time to be an establishment Republican.  The brass ring is right there, complete dominance of Washington just 15 months away, so close it’s like a perfect full moon rising over the Rockies on a crystal clear night—reach out your hand, and you can touch it. 

Back in April, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, one of most respected non-partisan analysts, had, in his First Tier, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio.  Those three stayed there through the summer, even when Trump entered the race (he was the “un-nominateable frontrunner”) until September, when Walker’s candidacy collapsed in a matter of a few weeks. 

And, now, where are we?  Trump, despite every prediction to the contrary, is still there, although he now trails Ben Carson in the most recent national polls. The two are still sucking up half the support.  Both seem to have remarkable Teflon attached to them—they can say nearly anything, and their supporters seem to love them even more passionately.  Walker’s early exit might have been predicted—despite his early wowing conservatives in Iowa, the national stage exposed him as an unprepared, unpleasant empty suit cravenly beholden to his campaign contributors. 

But Jeb and Marco—what is going on there is something very hard to get a grip on.   Jeb might be a few weeks away from dropping out entirely. People have compared him to Mitt Romney, but the similarities are deceiving.  Romney was also rich and connected (and a little disconnected from the issues ordinary people face) but Romney was a high-energy hard worker.  Mitt knew his stuff—he had the same Governor’s experience as Jeb, but was far more of a policy wonk, far more sophisticated in his thinking.  Trump has been particularly harsh in his criticism of Jeb—verging on bullying, but, that, too, seems to hurt Jeb more than it does Trump.  Jeb looks passive, weak, unmotivated, and rusty.  When he’s tried to push back, he seems to be flailing more than landing anything with impact.  His polling numbers have dropped accordingly—he was in the low twenties in the spring, now he’s closer to 7-8%.

Last week, Jeb returned to the greater Bush clan for a group hug with family and long-time associates.  He also announced a major shakeup in his campaign organization, staff cuts, salary reductions, and structural changes.   But the problem isn’t with the deepness of the pockets of his contributors, or the depth of family connections, or even just a bloated campaign.  It is with Jeb himself. He really does seem to be out of his element here. 

Why that is must be a little confounding to his family and supporters. Of the seven present or former Governors who launched—Bush, Walker, Jindal, Christie, Huck, Kasich, and Perry (common decency keeps me from putting Pataki and Gilmore in the “launch” category) Jeb seemed to offer what he claimed to offer—a solid conservative (unlike Christie) popular in his home state (unlike Jindal), not alienating (unlike Walker) with gravitas (unlike Huck and Perry) and not an outsider (unlike Kasich).  And, Bush had something else that was especially appealing to a party desperate to reclaim the White House—he was willing to lose a primary in order to win the general election.   The one thing Reince Priebus, the rational media types like Rupert Murdoch (that’s Murdoch, not necessarily Fox) and the GOP donor base did not want is a lot of angry, divisive, obnoxious, and personally insulting rhetoric.  Jeb was calm, he was solid, he was reliable—he was the physical embodiment of the bank president in a small town.  What a Jeb Administration promised was a return to the Eisenhower Era. 

If we were looking for the head of the local Rotary Club, maybe the GOP race would have winnowed down to what many people thought it would—there would be a process similar to Romney’s in 2012, where, one by one, the early promise of the fringier or single-issue candidates would fade, and the rest would be auditioning for Vice-President and a media gig.  Alas, for Jeb, that was very 2012.  If Obama’s first term made conservatives blood boil, his second one helped create an entirely new and paradoxical reality: Washington was completely dysfunctional, nothing could get done, Congress was worthless, power should be devolved to the states where conservative Governors and State Legislatures could do things the conservative way.  There were two ways to fix this.  Either hire an outsider egg-breaker like Trump, or, more to the Cruz/Freedom Caucus preference, a hard-right President who would simply impose, like Sam Brownback did in Kansas, a top-down, all encompassing conservative agenda.

Jeb is neither.  He is certainly conservative, but he lacks the punch that underlies both preferences, and he can’t credibly run as anti-establishment.  There are plenty of dissections of what Jeb has done wrong so far, and what he must do to redeem himself tonight.  I think they are all accurate, but I just don’t see how Jeb breaks through the noise in Colorado.  He is what he is.  If I were Bush’s handlers, I think I would tell him to go back to first principles, stay within himself, and maintain his position.  There are no knockout punches to be thrown in this field—especially from someone who is basically unsuited to slug it out.  Clinch, live to fight another day and don't do anything stupid. 

Which brings me to Marco Rubio, who may have done one of the most ill advised things since Rick Perry went “oops”.  Marco hasn’t been showing up much for his day job—the “Senate” part of “Senator.”  There is always a fundraiser, a speech, or a corn-dog festival that needs his attention.  His attendance record is abysmal—even on substantive votes, and particularly in committee (he’s missed key briefings on the Foreign Affairs and Select Intelligence Committees).  OK, everyone knows that’s what politicians do when they are running for higher office (many do it even when they aren’t running) so what’s the beef?   We can’t expect a modern politician to be like Bob Dole, who resigned so he could focus on running for President. 

The problem is two-fold.  First, Rubio seems to be setting records for truancy.  Second, Marco’s camp has made it clear he “hates” the Senate—he is unhappy with the process there—all those silly rules, all that delay, all that need for cloture (when legislation he supports is being blocked) and the requirement of 51 votes (and a Presidential signature) when it does get voted on.  Marco is a man of action, and if his record of legislative accomplishments is particularly thin, it’s not his fault.  In short, Marco really gets the unhappiness that people like Trump (and the Freedom Gang) are tapping into, and his response is….to boldly walk away.  

Rubio is an attractive, smart, personable guy with a real gift for speaking.  He’s shown himself as good debater, he has ticked up a bit in the polls recently, and a lot of handicappers think he has a decent chance at taking the nomination.  But tonight, if he doesn’t get asked a question that starts with “in a recent editorial, the Orlando Sun Sentinel called for you to resign if you don’t do your job” I would be absolutely shocked.  Rubio is too intelligent a man not to be prepared for it.  But, if he answers “liberal media trying to take me down, Barack Obama missed votes and plays golf, blah blah” I think he is doomed.  The conservative base may cheer, but the broader electorate won’t.  The rest of us have to work for a living.  

So, what will the Florida Boys do tonight?  I don’t know—but they both know there will always be a home, back home.  I hear the place is filled with retirees. 
October 28th, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Harry Frankfurt's Hand Grenade

Harry Frankfurt’s Hand Grenade

I failed my test in Macroeconomics yesterday.  I blame the instructors.

I was sitting with an economist discussing, among other things, Harry Frankfurt’s new monograph, “On Inequality”.  While veering among the hieroglyphics he wrote on a white board, diminishing marginal utility, dollar stores in poor neighborhoods, regulation of banks, values-based investing, and tax simplification while maintaining progressivity, I asked what I thought was a reasonable question “If you were King, what would you do?”  He didn’t like it, and he effectively turned it around on me.  What would I do, if I were in charge?  The answer I gave was logical, in light of my rather sparse understanding of how the economy actually works, but it was dead wrong.  I said I would hire smart people. 

Suffice to say, I will not be called to Stockholm next year.  The reason why that answer is so poor is because it turns its back on something I do know a fair amount about—politics.  In a democracy, voters make the threshold decision—they choose the direction of economic policy by electing the people to enact it.  The “smart people” merely refine and implement it.  By metaphorically throwing my hands up in the air, and essentially telling my friend “you know better than I do, I trust you” I was not just admitting my lack of knowledge, I was abrogating my basic responsibility to gain that knowledge.  That was my failure. 

Like any good student, I feel blame properly rests on the shoulders of those who taught me—in this case, the politicians.  And, if you will excuse the bad analogy, politicians are clearly not economists. 

What ambitious office-seekers (and office-holders) tend to be is tacticians and not theoreticians. Nuance doesn’t sell, nor does a carefully crafted, specific set of policy suggestions.  So they grasp a handful of certitudes, push them out there, mix in some hormones, and the battle is half won.

On the angry social issues—things like immigration, guns, privacy, gays, reproductive rights, race and religion—this works brilliantly.  It is altogether possible to get a voter who has an emotional attachment to a particular topic to completely ignore his own self-interest on other things.  When the gut kicks in, the brain detaches itself. 

You cannot apply that approach to the economic challenges we face.  Right now, we have multi-decade arc of a stalled middle and working class, just at the very time the full weight of the Baby Boomer Generation lands on our two most important entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare.   And we have two political parties who are still locked into mid-20th Century binary thinking.

Look at the debates.  Watching Bernie Sanders gave me flashbacks to my childhood.  He was like a favorite family member who was a “hi-fi” enthusiast.  He’d wave his arms around, say, “listen to this Grundig—from my bedroom I can hear the entire world—clear as a bell—who needs those tinny transistors?”

But, what’s the difference between Sanders and, say Jeb Bush or any of the other Republican candidates?  Different pitch, of course, but substantively, Jeb is selling the same Grundig—just with different music coming out. Dress them in period clothes (I don't think Bernie would need a new wardrobe) and film in black and white and, without a scorecard, you would think you were back in the Eisenhower Era.  Both sides take the same basic approach--stale ideas without innovation, wrapped in a proto-morality to give it heft.  It’s either greedy plutocrats getting ever wealthier through favoritism, exploitation, and extraction, or “takers” who are wooed with “free stuff.”  That is the limit of their vocabularies.

That is why Frankfurt’s little book, and his work, is so important.  He is not an economist, and his grasp of economic concepts can be tenuous. He doesn’t offer specific solutions, which can be maddening. What he does is some ways far more useful.  By blasting away (that’s the correct phrase) at some comfortable, reflexive frameworks, he provides us with a workable vocabulary for discussion.  

Frankfurt does not believe in equality for equality’s sake.  He rejects, rather ruthlessly, any claim to moral superiority that a comfortable liberal might have in talking about universal brotherhood, egalitarianism, etc.  Economic equality is not, in its own right, a morally compelling social value—in fact, to the extent that the focus is on righting the perceived wrong of inequity it may draw away attention from more fundamentally important questions.  Even other types of “equalities” such as opportunity, respect, rights, consideration, concern, are dismissed by him, “My view is that none of these modes of equality is intrinsically valuable…none has any underived moral wealth.”  

It’s a scalding evaluation, so harsh that George Will happily quotes him.  But, you have to be careful here not to overreact to what, at first blush, seems to be an apologia for not merely the pursuit of unbridled wealth, but unbridled wealth that buys unequal treatment.  Because the other side of the equation is equally unsparing.  Frankfurt, while rejecting egalitarianism, also says, “To focus on inequality, which is not in itself morally objectionable, is to misconstrue the challenge we actually face.  Our basic focus should be on reducing both poverty and excessive affluence.”  What Frankfurt wants is what he calls the “doctrine of sufficiency”—that is, that everyone should have enough. As long as that is true, it is irrelevant that others have more.

And with those few words, Frankfurt demolishes the thinking of every conventional politician out there.  Massive income redistribution as a way of promoting economic equality has no moral basis. Economic equality, on its own, is not virtuous unless it arises through an impossible combination of equal talent, effort, and opportunity.  But “insufficiency” when we have the means to do better, is a moral problem.  Solving that problem is the task.  Not to make every person rich, but that as many as possible can have enough as “needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself”.

Which brings back to point I started at—how I failed my economics exam.  I failed it because I was unwilling to choose either the Democratic or Republican approach.  Both seem to me demonstrably wrong.  80 years of social programs and 50 years of the Great Society have helped ameliorate the hardest edge of poverty, but they have not produced a sufficiently vibrant economy so that we could do without them. And 35 years of trickle-down, coupled with globalization, have wildly enriched a comparative few, while leaving the rest to muddle along as best they can.

In short, neither approach has fostered what the Nobelist Edmund Phelps called the “Good Economy”—one that has dynamism, a free flow of capital for those willing to take productive risk, rewards for innovation, ease of entry to participate at a level befitting your energy and talents, and as its bedrock, the opportunity for meaningful, satisfying work. 

Isn’t that what we all want?  A society that is more just because it strives not to make us equal, but rather to provide  the opportunity for sufficiency for as many as possible, and a fair chance to choose our own path, and make our own priorities?

We don't need our politicians picking winners and losers.  What we need are policy choices that make the goal of sufficiency more attainable.  

In the meantime, I have to call my economist friend and see if he gives make-up exams.  Next time I will bring Harry Frankfurt's Hand Grenade.

October 20th, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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