Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The long road to President Pence, and the long road after



MSNBC has been agog over the steady flood of revelations, day by day, about Donald Trump, about his behavior, his possible obstruction of justice, the possibility that he is enriching himself by his policies in office, the possibility that he or his staff colluded or conferred with Russia in the subversion of an American election, and all the rest.  Lawrence O’Donnell told those currently employed by the White House that it was time for them to “lawyer up”, in the (probably justified) belief that many of them will be caught in the legal shredder as the Trump presidency disintegrates.

 Yes.  Maybe.  Probably, in fact, at this point.  But I want to caution against excessive giddiness among progressives about ending the Trump presidency, either by impeachment, which seems more than warranted, or by simply declaring him mentally incapable of doing the job, which seems to be clearly true: neither path is easy, and the result wouldn’t be the great relief it sounds like it should be. 

Yes, we are now in the grips of a child president, utterly selfish, arrogant, dumb, bullying, blind to ethics, numbly ignorant of history, and of civics, and of the details of any issue whatever.  He is both a delusional fanatic and completely out of his depth.  But removal by impeachment requires a majority of the House to impeach, and two thirds of the Senate to convict.  Removal by declaration of unfitness to serve is easier in the very short run: the Vice President and a majority of the “principal officers of the executive departments” can write to the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate declaring the President to be “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”, and it’s (very temporarily) done.  But what are the odds that we can get 8 Cabinet Secretaries to sign such a document?  And that’s not the hardest part: once it’s signed and delivered, the President can simply write to these same two people, the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate, and declare that he is able to discharge his duties, and he is back in power as President again.   After that Congress is required to determine the issue.  Finding the President to be unable to discharge his duties after all of that   requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, and both houses are still in the grip of Trump’s party.  So: removal by impeachment requires two-thirds of the Senate, and removal by declaration of unfitness requires, if the President contests it, two thirds of both the Senate and the House.

What this means is that the outcome of any effort to remove him is uncertain, and will in any case take time, possibly a lot of time.  If he doesn’t resign, if he’s determined to stay as President, then we’re stuck with Trump for the near future.  I wish that were not true, but it is.

But even if Trump is eventually removed---what is the result?  Mike Pence as President?  At least Pence is sane, I guess, but it’s not exactly every liberal’s dream situation, is it?  Ah, but what if the “Russia thing with Trump” (Trump’s phrase) snags Pence as well, so both are gone at once?  To which I have to ask, as a first reply, how far into fantasyland are we willing to go?  How likely is it that both the President and the Vice President will be impeached?  And then, as a second reply, I have to say that even if such a miraculous thing did happen, we’re not much better off. 

Here’s the line of succession after the President:

Vice President:  Mike Pence.
Speaker of the House: Paul Ryan.
President Pro Tempore of the Senate: Orrin Hatch.
Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson.
Secretary of the Treasury: Steve Mnuchin.
Secretary of Defense: James “Mad Dog” Mattis.
Attorney General: Jeff Sessions.

We can keep going, but it doesn’t get any better lower on the list.  Ben Carson is on the list (13th in line); Betsy DeVos is on the list (15th).   The Republicans control all of the government at the federal level, and at the state level too in most states.

So we get back to the issue I’ve been raising, clumsily, with friends for a very long time:  the Democratic party needs to look for the radical solution, in the actual meaning of that word.  It needs to return to its roots.  It used to be the party of working people---all working people.  In Minnesota the official name of the party is the Democratic Farmer Labor party, and that used to be an apt description of the party nationally as well.  Farmers no longer believe that to be true---and labor has been increasingly skeptical as time passed, and, in my opinion, for good reasons.  A large fraction of the Democratic party, for a time at least, succumbed to neoliberal third-way politics that accepted the rational-expectations, free-market economics of free-trade, small government, tax cuts and deregulation.  The economy grew, slowly, but wages didn’t; businesses grew,  sometimes quickly, but middle class jobs vanished.  And much of the country has just given up on Democrats caring about their neighborhoods, their towns, their industries, or about them.  And the result is the county-level election maps that look almost uniformly red across most of the country.  Democrats will respond that Hillary got more votes than Trump did, and Democrats get more votes much of the time for Congressional seats as well (when the whole of the country’s votes are added together).  But the problem can be seen in this 3D map of election results.  The Democratic votes are very localized, mostly to big cities.

The Democrats, IMHO, forgot, for a time, the base that brought them to the dance.  All of those people who don't fall into the special categories the modern Democrats care about have to look somewhere else for a champion.  They look to Republicans because they're the only other game in town.  It's a mirage: the Republicans won't be their champions either.  Can't be, if they want to stay free-market Republicans.  And if the Democrats won't, and the Republicans can't, those people are just out of luck.

Trump’s presidency, I think, presents all of America with a hair-on-fire emergency that will be difficult to fix.  Fixing it, removing him from office, may take years.  It might take until the 2020 election.  But even after it’s fixed, progressives might still have lost, and might still be lost, if we don’t fix ourselves as well, if we don’t reconnect with a significant number of the people who no longer believe we even want to represent them.  We have a lot of fence mending to do.  We’d better get to it.

Or, alternatively, we can just get used to the idea of President Pence and a permanently Republican House.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump has lost.


I'm not sure anyone at the White House recognizes that at this point, after firing three separate prosecutors or investigators, after all the smokescreens and diversions, after the bouts of loony tweets, it's no longer possible for this to have a good outcome for Donald Trump.

He should have the right to the presumption of innocence---sorry, fellow progressives, but he should, as an American and even just as a human being---but he has shredded that presumption by his rage and panic toward anyone who gets close to the investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election. And now, no matter how an investigation comes out, he will lose.  Because if there is no investigation, if he manages to suppress it, then half the country or more will believe that he is hiding something terrible.  And if an investigation is pursued and finds his campaign innocent of all wrong, many people, maybe even a majority, will be cynical about that, and will presume that he simply managed to manipulate the outcome. Even if some associates in his campaign are found guilty of being complicit with Russia in this, many people, maybe even a majority, will believe that Trump knew about it at the time, and that he sacrificed his campaign staff to hide his own guilt.

The last possibility, of course, is that a strong independent investigation finds "problematic" (Sally Yate's word) behavior from Mr. Trump himself. What the response to that might be would be interesting, but it certainly could (hypothetically) include impeachment, or even some pretty nasty prosecutions---colluding with a hostile foreign power to subvert an American election is treason.

Which of those outcomes is good for Trump?  If he has a long term goal here, a plan that turns all of this to his advantage, I have to admit I can’t see it.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

One more comment on Fearless Girl and Charging Bull


My brother-in-law Craig posted a link on Facebook to this piece about the Fearless Girl.  Since I haven’t posted here for very long time I thought I’d post my response to it.  I’ve been following the “Fearless Girl” discussion in WaPo and elsewhere, thinking it’s all a bit off topic…I like both statues, and I think their current positions make a clear statement that’s relevant right now, but it’s not any of the statements that other people seem to see.

The Charging Bull artist does have a point that the Fearless Girl changes the meaning of his sculpture---but he misses the point too, possibly because he's so captured by the meaning he originally intended.

The Bull had already changed its meaning, though, long ago.  When he sculpted the bull I think Mr. Di Modica saw Wall Street as a meaningful symbol of the economy in general: a prosperous Wall Street was an indication of a healthy economy. That was not true even then for much of the country, but I think it was what he meant, and the bull was intended to restore all of our spirits after the financial catastrophe in 1987. But since then we’ve had decades in which Wall Street prospered and much of the rest of the country stagnated. The financial sector simply sucked up all economic growth. In 1950 the financial sector was 2.8% of GDP; by 2006 it was 8.3%. In 1980 the average employee in the financial sector earned about the same as employees in any other industry; by 2006 they earned about 70% more than average. (from “The Growth of Finance”, Robin Greenwood and David Scharfstein, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring 2013). And the industry, with its high salaries, took the best minds from the best universities and sat them down to pore over spreadsheets. All of this might have been worth the cost if the industry had become more efficient: instead, productivity in the financial sector was at best stagnant.

And then in 2007-2008 the banks and investment houses collapsed, and Wall Street collapsed with them, and the lot of them dragged the world down in the undertow. Wall Street began to be seen as providing the country with little value and enormous risk---not for them, but for us. When the economy was good we got nothing and they got everything. But when the economy failed they still got everything: they got bailed out, and we had to bail them, and the managers who were the builders of the great collapse got single year bonuses the size of our lifetime incomes. The banks played us for suckers in many ways: as Bernie Sanders once said, Wall Street is a place where fraud is their business model.

As labor productivity rose inexorably from year to year and wages stalled, or even went backward, as hedge fund managers and bankers and the financial industry in general sucked in all the growth in the economy and left crumbs in their wake for the rest of the country, we who live in the economy began to see the Bull as representing that culture of fraud and greed. That tarnished the Charging Bull and changed its meaning long before the Fearless Girl came along.

So the Fearless Girl was a response, not to Mr. Di Modica’s original image of hope for recovery, but to the message of blind greed that Wall Street has projected for a very long time. In this case, art is not the unchanging statement intended at its first creation: the older art’s meaning evolves and new art replies. It is a conversation, and one that I think we desperately need to have.

But the Fearless Girl also has a very different meaning than its sponsors intended. Women everywhere have been uplifted by her, to them she is a statement about the need for women to be admitted to the highest levels of management in the financial world. I’m glad for the uplift, and agree with the egalitarian principle, but I’m not sure I see the value for the rest of us out here in the non-finance world if the men at the hedge fund conference tables whose hearts have been grievously damaged by greed are supplemented with a group of women whose hearts have also been damaged by greed (or why would they even want to be part of the industry as it stands?) It’s not really uplifting for women to reach the heights of an industry whose business model is fraud, and whose driving motivation is a covetous lust for personal wealth.

State Street, who commissioned the Fearless Girl, says her importance is not just her gender but also her age: she is a young girl, they say, and so she represents hope again for a better future. I see their point. But to me the most important thing about her is not that she is a girl, or that she is a young girl: the important thing is that she is an ordinary young girl. Look at her: nothing about her says “rich” or “hedge fund” or “executive”. She is a girl we’ve all seen, in city and country, all over the world. Is she stubborn and defiant? Lord, yes, but as a parent who raised a daughter I can tell you that is not an attitude unique to the Fearless Girl sculpture. Girls everywhere are capable of stubborn defiance, even in places where defiance is dangerous, and particularly dangerous for girls.

So I see her---because I like to see her---as representing not only the defiant demand of women for equality of opportunity, or the defiant demand of the young for a future they can look to with hope, but also of representing all of us who are ordinary, who want, defiantly, to say, not to the Wall Street that Mr. Di Modica saw in 1987 but to the Wall Street we see now, to stop all the blind charging, and to come down and live with the rest of us. It will be hard, I know. You’re addicted to your greed, and addiction is hard to kick. But the human world is out here. We work all our lives to create value, and the statistics on productivity say that we create more and more value every year. It’s time for all of us, women certainly but men as well, to share some of the rewards.

I understand Mr. Di Modica's resentment, and I do think he has a point.  But I think Fearless Girl needs to be where she is for the moment.

Eventually, if we can re-attach wages and productivity in the economy, I'd like to see her standing next to the bull, both facing the same direction, and both moving defiantly into a common future.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

SpaceX, government and creative destruction


Charles Krauthammer was excited, in his op-ed a few days ago, by Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which managed to return its booster rocket to land intact.  He wrote a column in praise of it, and in praise of the new role of private enterprise in extending and expanding the technology of space travel, particularly the pursuit of space travel at lower cost. 

So let me take this rare opportunity to say that I agree with Charles Krauthammer.  I agree that this transfer of spaceflight from government to private enterprise is spectacularly good; I agree with all the benefits he sees in it.  This technology is, hopefully (and finally!!!) mature enough to allow private visionaries to take it and run with it: many of us have been waiting for this and hoping for it for a very long time.  If in fact this technology has reached escape velocity, then I expect the private visionary entrepreneurs to do great things with it, and speed its development along, just as has happened before with many, many other technologies.  I expect them to drive the capabilities up and costs down much faster and much more efficiently than government alone ever would---not (or not only) because small-government fanatics have shrunk federal R&D budgets, but because I believe that competition and quixotic personal vision really are strong forces for putting new technologies to work.

I have still, of course, some discomforts with Dr. Krauthammer’s vision.  Compared with our overall agreement on the goodness the new private industry of space flight, of SpaceX and Blue Origin and all of their present and future competitors, these are minor things; but as a good hypersensitive liberal they irritate me like a pea under the mattress. 

In his column he said this:

“Musk predicts that the reusable rocket will reduce the cost of accessing space a hundredfold…assuming Musk is even 10 percent right, reusability revolutionizes the economics of spaceflight.”

Yes, total agreement.  But then:

“Which both democratizes and commercializes it.  Which means space travel has now slipped the surly bonds of government…”

The surly bonds of government, the cold government chains that held the whole of spaceflight back…right?  Full disclosure: I had a summer job running projectors at meetings at NASA in the late 1960s.  I don’t remember anyone there thinking they were imposing “surly bonds” on anyone.  On the contrary: they were enabling a new human epoch.   Private enterprise, at that time, was not doing space flight, and was not about to do space flight.  And: democratizes it???  Ummm….no.  This transfer from government to private entrepreneurs emphatically does just the opposite.  This un-democratizes it.  Democracy is a form of government.  It is government that is generally controlled by democratic vote; private enterprise rarely is.  From now on, maybe, space flight can be pursued in idiosyncratic and highly undemocratic ways by private investors.  Some of their idiosyncrasies will fail, but with luck some will succeed, for a time at least, before being razed to the ground and replaced by new idiosyncrasies, and old failing entrepreneurs replaced by new entrepreneurs with newer visions, in what Schumpeter famously called the “gale of creative destruction” that produces progress in the private economy. 

But none of them will have to achieve a democratic national consensus to proceed.  That’s kind of the point.

Let’s not forget, though, that getting to lift-off for this industry did require a national consensus, and long, serious government action.  We should praise Musk, and praise the virtues of private enterprise, but that does not require us to despise government’s role in this.  Government’s involvement in spaceflight was not initially a binding restraint: government, instead, was the founding source of the technology that Musk and others have received.  For good reasons and bad---to put a man on the moon in the sixties, or to launch rocket-bombs at London in the forties---governments gave birth this cluster of technologies, and nurtured it through all the hard, expensive years when it could not stand on its own.  Now, finally, it has reached maturity, and we hope it can move out.  It may still need some help, some initial sustaining government support as the largest early customer, but finally, perhaps, it is robust enough for private enterprise to take it on.  But as a rough comparison of public to private contributions to this, Elon Musk invested approximately $100 million, other investors about the same amount, and NASA has invested something like $500 million in SpaceX (see Wikipedia on SpaceX funding here).  But NASA has spent something like $790 Billion (current dollars) in the last 50 years to get here (Wikipedia on NASA funding here). 

We can’t know whether that long government-led incubation was a root requirement, without which space flight would never have happened.  Perhaps it would have---after another millennium or two.  But this is one of government’s best roles: incubating research and development that is so long term or so large scale that private enterprise either can’t or won’t pursue it on its own.  The end result of this activity by government is not just the fulfillment of some motivating national goal.   It’s not even the laudable goal of advancing science.   The real, long-term result of the moon landings and the mars missions and all the rest was SpaceX.  Not SpaceX specifically, but the possibility of SpaceX and of all of the others that will swarm after it, the possibility of one or many industries that will employ many millions of people.   

And as someone who worked at NASA in the 1960s, very briefly and at an invisibly low level, I can tell you that we knew that.  Did you think we were just trying to give Alan Shepard the opportunity to hit a golf ball on the moon??  We were creating the human future.  We were establishing the foundations on which vast future industries would flourish long after the moon landings were over.  We knew that from the start.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

On Archangels, eye makeup, cultural narcissism, and, y’know, stuff like that.


I’m sitting in my back yard, without a coat, without a sweater, listening to the rumble of lawnmowers on the morning of December 5th, 2015.  I should write a post about global warming, I guess, and this post may come to that in the end.

But something else has been on my mind overnight. 

No, not shooters in San Bernardino, or refugees from Syria, or walls along the border with Mexico either, although it may come to those too, in the end.  The list of things it may come to in the end is long. 

I’ve been thinking about the sublime voices of Goths.  Well, of a particular, modern Goth.

Ok, that’s obscure.  I’ll explain.  I’m sure this is some kind of deeply embarrassing sin.  But as long as you promise not to tell anyone, I guess I can confess.

Sometimes, following the crazy tangle of links down the right side of the YouTube screen, something about the picture that YouTube displays for one of the “got talent” performances catches my attention.  So I glance furtively around to be sure no one is looking, and then click on it.  I did that a day or two ago, and I found….

Andrew De Leon.  Yes, from 2012.  Since I only see these things on YouTube, and only when I chance on them, I’m always late to find them, and others are way ahead of me.  But if you’re not, if you haven’t heard this young man, take a few minutes and just listen.

Start at his first audition here.   Really:  you have to look at that first audition first, or the rest of the post will be confusing.  So go watch, I’ll wait.  Don’t be afraid.  His eyes may look like they have x-ray powers, but there is no great harm in them.  (At least I hope not.  Andrew, take note: if you actually do have x-ray powers, please use them only for good.)

Are you back?  Amazing, wasn’t it?  All of that from solitary practice in his room.  It is one more bit of evidence that there are exceptional things happening in well hidden places everywhere, things we can’t know about because the people doing them, for whatever reason, are keeping them close, keeping them from our sight.

Now watch Andrew in his semifinals.  I want to say up front that this is what can happen to a nice, cloistered young Goth when he’s exposed to the defiling influence of the outside world.  I want to say that, but I suspect this was in him from the start.  But you decide.  Go ahead, please: Here’s the link.  (Crank up the volume for this one…and full screen, too; much of what I reacted to was visual.)

Did you notice that last note, the last “Amen”, and his eyes as he finished and looked down at the judges?  At 1:38 in the video. 

I do understand that the quiet smile on his face is just a sense of blessed relief that he nailed the high notes, combined with a quick check to see what the judges thought.  But that look!   At that point, after that elegant, sweet, mesmerizing performance of a religious work, on that stage lit like a gothic cathedral, with spots like rays of holy sun transformed to gold or blue through a stained glass window, he looked like a portrait of a saint, or an angel (or maybe an archangel since parts of the lyrics of his song were originally provided by Gabriel).  At that instant those astonishing eyes looked as though they were seeing through the judge’s bodies and seeing their hearts and souls, and forgiving them in spite of that.  I am not religious; the opposite, if anything.  But at that instant, just for that instant, I felt a disturbing tremble in my disbelief; a kind of minor crisis in my lack-of-faith.  Andrew at that instant seemed to release his inner archangel.  How many of us ever have the courage, or the ability, to do that?  I was transported out of the drab world by his performance.

Simply awesome. 

It was a comment by one of the judges afterward that brought me back to ground again.  Sharon Osbourne---yes, Ozzy Osbourne’s wife---recommended that Mr. De Leon dispense with his Goth look so that he could be taken more seriously.  His look was too exotic for Ozzy Osbourne’s wife??  Really??  That’s a little weird.  But of course she didn’t say that, exactly: she took him seriously and she loved him from the start and said so.  And the audiences clearly loved him.  She meant that for the sake of his career he might need to be taken seriously by the rest of society, all of it, even by the more rigid subcultures in this land of the free that might dismiss him because of his appearance.   And I know why she had that fear for him.  We all know.  There is across the world, in every different place and time, a cultural arrogance, even in the smaller cultures, in regions or religions or classes or races, a subcultural arrogance, a sad, vulgar, coarsening subcultural narcissism, that wants to see in others exactly what we think we see in ourselves.  Sameness is comforting and undemanding.  Difference, on the other hand, is threatening, and there is an instinct to spurn and repel it. 

And that made me think of our national response to the Syrian refugees, and to all the refugees across the world that are desperate for help.  And it made me think that if we allow global warming to continue there may be many more refugees in future decades, refugees from hunger, disease, and yes, war, a wild assortment of them in all kinds of colors and religions.  We may even be among them, or some of us may.  There is precedent in this country for mass displacement by environmental disaster.  When was the last time you read The Grapes of Wrath?  (Hey, I did warn you up front that it might come to this in the end.)

But enough, for now, of that.   This day in the sunshine, in my back yard on the warming earth, is too nice to start down that road.  I’ll have to do it, but tomorrow, or the next day, or some day after that.  I’ll have to write a quick post explaining to all the Governors who are refusing the Syrian refugees, including my own state’s Governor Hogan, that it’s possible to see difference not as threatening, but as energizing. 

But for now, to Governor Hogan I will just say:

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”---Hebrews 13:1

And to Mr. De Leon I will say:  thanks for that radiant Ave Maria.  Stay Goth as long as you like; it looks good on you.  You labored on your voice alone in your cloistered room, and labored also on your look, and created your own excellent art in both efforts.  You created yourself.  From all appearances available to me in these two videos you did a damned fine job of it.  I think we can trust you to continue to create yourself in the future.

And to you readers, who now know my secret weakness, my embarrassing habit of YouTubing talent-shows, I’ll just quote the famous prayer of that other sinful hedonist Saint Augustine of Hippo: “Lord, grant me chastity and continence---but not yet”.