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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