Politics this morning

“How long ,  O Lord…How long? Where will it end? The only possible good that can come of this wretched campaign is the ever-increasing likelihood that it will cause the Democratic Party to self-destruct.” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, pg. 125

Reading this actually reminded me of that line from Camus where he says that absurdity can walk up to you on any street corner and just smack you in the face. Whack! Of course, I was snuggled up in my bed when I read those lines from Fear and Loathing last night. That book is really a mind blowing read in the context of the present election. I can’t wait to see what happens next. But before I move on, I would also like to observe: did you know that the 1972 Democratic Party primary included both George Wallace and Shirley Chisholm? The icon of Southern racism and a black woman – who, by the way, was in Congress, and ran a serious campaign, even if she was a moon-shot in 1972.

As I fell asleep last night, it occurred to me that there was more to say about both Facebook and Politics than what I managed to crank out last night. And as long as I’m going to give this whole blogging thing an earnest go, I might as well just try to give it what I’ve got. Let’s start with politics.

I don’t know quite how the primary schedule got made, but somehow last night there was a Democratic caucus in Nevada, and a Republican primary in South Carolina. Hillary won in Nevada, although Sanders won among latinos, independents and young people. It was a closer victory than originally projected- and I think that’s indicative of the trend. Clinton will have to fight like hell for the nomination, and when its all finished the Democratic coalition will be in rough shape. The primary has recently taken on heavy racial undertones, which complicates the discussion greatly. I was appalled to hear Sanders say that Clinton was embracing Obama as a strategy to win the black vote (as opposed to allying herself with Obama, as she did as Secretary of State, and as a fellow Democrat, because her positions are largely analogous to his own) but it sparked some interesting discussion on ye old Facebook wall. Thinking about it right now, though, I am reminded of the last Mayoral election in Chicago, where Jesus “Chuy” Garcia was the anti-establishment challenger to Rahm Emmanuel. Latinos in Chicago, fully a quarter of the population of the city, and of course, young anti-establishment voters, all came out in force for Garcia, and were, as expected, crushed by Emmanuel, with notable assistance from black voters. A lot of black voters now are ready to kick Rahm to the curb over the Laquan MacDonald case, but that didn’t happen until after the election. The point is that, at least in Chicago, minority voters are not natural allies. Indeed, they seem to view each other as competitors, or even rivals. They don’t really trust each other. I don’t know if that extends to national politics, but it is certainly true in Chicago. Anyways, getting back to Nevada – Hillary squeaked out a win, and the battle moves forward. That’s how I think the next couple months will be. Wherever Sanders wins, it will be a magnificent triumph in the face of adversity, and wherever Clinton prevails, people will just shrug and move on.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, we had a bunch of super interesting stuff go down. First of all: Trump won, and he won by a good margin. And then Bush dropped out. Ladies and Gentlemen, the GOP establishment is throwing in the towel on Presidential politics, and that should give us all pause for concern. The inmates are now running the asylum. Rubio came in second, followed closely by Cruz – but I’m starting to feel like neither of those clowns matter any more. Republican voters want Trump. They want the Angry White Man. And South Carolina is the first state of the South. It was where the Civil War began. Near the close of that war, the Union army made a point of destroying everything in it, too. The rest of the Confederacy was defeated, but South Carolina got punished. If there is a representative Southern State, surely it is South Carolina. And they just voted Trump. As bad as things are in the Democratic Party right now, the situation for the Republicans is worse, at least in terms of Presidential politics. Trump is a great showman, but I don’t think he’s any kind of leader. Salesmen don’t make good leaders, because they only know how to say what their mark wants to hear. Leaders have to make decisions. As I’ve said before, I think this is where Paul Ryan will be able to step in once the dust is settled. Regardless of problems at the top, and they are problems, and they will have long term consequences for the party, conservative GOP pols still rule most the Statehouses in the US, as well as Congress.

In terms of long term trends, I think this election is demonstrating some of the longer term consequences of the lowering of taxes under Reagan and GW Bush, and the widening gap between the middle class and the wealthy. For folks who still have to earn an income, and that includes people who make hefty six-figure salaries as well as that vast panoply of middle-income earners who have been struggling through the stagnation of the last 20 years, the world of the wealthy is getting more distant all the time. People who rely on income generating assets for wealth (in the old days, they were called “capitalists” but now they’re more usually referred to as “investors,” or “job-creators”) have become insanely wealthy since the 1980s. They didn’t used to be this rich, but changes in the tax code transformed the situation. Americans have a vague sense of this, and a lot of folks are angry because it doesn’t seem fair – but how to alter the path we’re on is not at all clear to most people. I still think Larry Summers makes a good argument for shared prosperity, but that doesn’t seem to resonate across the electorate. And in any event, no coalition explicitly supporting such a platform seems to exist. Hillary is close in some ways, but she has to content with a great many folks who don’t care about the rest of the world, and just want to get back to ignoring it.

I wanted to spend some time reflecting on the political conversation on Facebook this morning, but I need to get to Church, and there’s a busy day after that, so it will have to wait. But just briefly, I want to say that I have been encouraged by many of my friends there, even though I often find the general discussion demoralizing. Bernie is definitely beating Hillary in the Facebook primary – according to FiveThirtyEight, by three to one – although Ben Carson is ahead of both of them, if that tells you anything. For what it’s worth though, I have been really impressed by the political engagement of the folk I know, and it makes me glad. There is so much going on, so much to write about and argue about, and its a challenge just to keep myself going, to keep believing that its worth it.



On Facebook and Politics

One of the reasons I started blogging here was in an effort to stop posting on Facebook about politics. A great many of my friends, as well as my partner, do not necessarily care for my political views, or at least my particularly combative style of arguing about politics. And I am intentionally a political pugilist. I don’t particularly care for civility, because I learned a long time ago that a great many people don’t either. Appeals to civility in politics, at least from my perspective, does not acknowledge political realities. Granted, political reality is subjective, and varies from person to person.

The other day, a guy who is a close friend and colleague of a friend who is a social and political activist, and whom I respect very much and think of very highly – sorry about that sentence, I need an editor, crap…okay, look, this guy, a friend of a friend, told me that appeals to “political reality” never mean what they’re supposed to mean. And on the one hand, he is correct. On the other hand, his point was that anyone who thinks Sanders is unrealistic is just cynical, which is why Sanders is the only legitimate candidate for the the Democratic nomination, a position which I find repugnant. The contest between Clinton and Sanders has really gotten under my skin – and I have discovered I have a reflexive wrath with respect to criticism of Hillary Clinton.

I really want Hillary Clinton to win the Presidency. And it makes me really angry that so many on the left have been so eager to throw her under the bus. You win political campaigns with solidarity, and the left should be united behind Clinton, not because she’s a perfect candidate – she’s not even close to a perfect candidate, but I’m pretty sure she’d be the first person to admit that – but because the reactionary right is presently at a high water mark in the twilight of the Obama administration. American conservatism has been taken into overdrive these last eight years. And it was already pretty far to the right of where it was when George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. When Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1995, it was a sea change in the Republican Party. It wasn’t just the politicians that changed – the 1990s saw the rise of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and other right wing blowhards. They’ve had a long term effect on conservative voters – an effect which is basically lost on everyone to the left of them, which includes most the Republican establishment.

And all of that has deep historical roots in the think tanks that emerged in the 1970s – The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and so on – which has provided much of the intellectual framework that dominates the political right today. But most of the folks on the left don’t know and don’t really care. They think that today’s conservatives are just “right wing nuts” undeserving of serious consideration. Which is a huge mistake.

Paul Ryan is proof of that. Any serious policy wonk (who is not working for a conservative think tank – there are lots of serious right wing policy wonks who adore Paul Ryan) knows full well that Ryan’s policy proposals would send the United States, and potentially the rest of the world, into an economic tailspin. And most of those policy wonks are pro-Hillary, so all the progressives are bent out of shape about it.

David Ruccio, Robert Reich, the good folks at UMass Amherst,  and many more economists who fall into the socialist, communist, and/or heterodox categories, all seem excited about Sanders, and about his rejection of “establishment economics.” Not surprising, but personally I have the feeling that it’s a case of wanting “your guy” in the White House, because you think then your people will start getting all the good grant money and the high profile jobs and influence and so on. Which is to say, it’s more tribal than it is reasonable. On the other hand, I suppose my support of Hillary is also, in some way, basically tribal, too. She’s the true blue Yankee in this race, and I’m a damn Yankee. My parents aren’t – my mother grew up in Berkeley, and is a dyed in the wool Left Coaster, and my dad is a classic Midlander, tolerant to a fault, but distrustful of institutions – but I grew up in the aggressively conformist, ultra-egalitarian Shaker Heights. I tried hard to escape the influences of my hometown through my early adulthood, but in more recent years (in part, I think, through my experiences living in Chicago, which, despite everything, seems to retain the character imparted to it by the Connecticut immigrants who drained the swamp on the shores of Lake Michigan to build what is perhaps Yankeedom’s greatest metropolis) I have come to embrace the views imparted upon me by my Yankee education.

Also, it would seem Colin Woodard’s book, “American Nations,” has had a lasting effect on how I think about politics and culture in the United States. It clarified a great deal for me, and I use the ideas in it all the time.

At any rate, another big influence on my political development came in a series of embarrassing Facebook arguments with my friend’s mother, step-father, and occasionally my friend and a few other folks. My friend’s mother and step-father are fairly serious libertarians, a position I mistook as purely cynical, a calculated way of minimizing tax liability in order to maximize personal consumption. Over time I became convinced that their positions were entirely genuine. And let me be very clear: when my friends on the left talk about crazy people on the right, these are the people they are talking about. There are millions of people like them, too, and they vote. They vote for people like Paul Ryan, because they like the policies he proposes. They want to defund public welfare programs, because they think that is in the best interest of society. And they take those positions really seriously. They aren’t crazy, either. They have a different perspective, and from their perspective, they’re totally right.

It was through arguing with them, and arguing hard, that I came to understand the radical subjectivity of truth, which amounts to what I like to call my “Second Rule: Believe Everything.” Trumps supporters aren’t crazy. We should take their support seriously. We should believe them. Sanders supporters aren’t crazy either. And while I don’t agree with many of the things they say, it’s not because I don’t take them seriously. I do. I take them very seriously, which is why I get so upset about their support. Because the harder they fight Hillary, the more unlikely it becomes that they will support her in November, and that could really sink the party. At that point, the Republicans would have Congress and the White House. Even if Trump was President, that wouldn’t matter, because Paul Ryan would be running the show. He would set the agenda through spending priorities that he would set. Trump would angrily denounce his defunding of Social Security and Medicare, but he wouldn’t stop him. And people would be furious. But it would still happen. Stop and think about that (you non-existent people who are reading this). If you want to be angry, Trump is your President. If you want to insist the system is broken, Trump represents you. If you want to insist the system is corrupt, that democracy is broken, and that we are ruled by oligarchs, Trump is your belief personified. Sure, you can tweet #feelthebern all day every day for the next nine month, but when Trump is inaugurated next year, it will be your fault. You could have stopped and thought about strategy, and been pragmatic and gotten behind the Democrat with the best chance of resisting Paul Ryan’s plans for the country, but noooooo……

I don’t believe that writing all this will help anything. I don’t believe my thinking will help anything. I’m a voice crying in the wilderness, as far as I can tell. I write this because I’m trying not to make my partner crazy with my constant political obsessions. And who knows? Maybe I’m wrong about everything.

But you know what? I started following Paul Krugman back during George W Bush’s first term, because he was the only guy who seemed to understand clearly what was going on. And he’s been pretty lucid on everything since. And who is he supporting? Hillary Clinton. Why? Because she’s the one with the arguments he finds most persuasive. He cares about evidence based analysis, and careful argumentation. I mean, I put my lot in with the center-left wonks a long time ago, and I’m sticking with them. I can recognize the importance of civility in political discourse, but on the other hand, conservatives will show no mercy when they win the White House. There will be no civility towards the left from the folks who have spent the last 7 and 1/2 years feeling positively oppressed by the mere fact that a black man from Chicago won the Presidential election (twice!) and managed to get a few things done while he was at it. As far as I can tell, the broad majority of the left doesn’t see that. Yet.

The Meaning of “We”

A friend of mine and I were engaged in a discussion on the wall of my Facebook, a link I had posted to Thomas Piketty’s piece about the rise of Sanders in the Guardian – and he asserted that the economic message Sanders is promoting is really in the interest of everyone. I left the conversation there, in part because I saw a cliff on the other side of that comment. But its on my mind right now, so lets take a peak over the drop for a minute.

The idea of “we” or “everybody” in American politics is one of the most poorly understood concepts in the history of ideas, as I see it. Americans have not ever thought of themselves in such a monolithic way – sure, they talk about themselves as “Americans” frequently enough, but in my experience they mean something way, way more narrow than all of the people who are citizens, let alone residents, of the United States. In the Midwest, when folks say “Americans,” they mean “white people who live in the Midwest” as a general rule. Back along the Northeast coast, I think Americans means something closer to “citizens with jobs, and their dependents.” In the South, Americans are still white Anglo-Saxon protestants. In the pacific northwest, I get the sense that “Americans” means something closer to “unreconstructed rednecks, and occasionally pencil necked ivy leaguers.” While all of this is hyperbolic and imprecise, my point is that what people mean by “Americans” or, to use the words of the Constitution, “We The People” is subject to enormous variation across the United States. It’s almost impossible to make categorical statements about any sort of “we” because it really depends on who is speaking and who is being spoken to.

What this all means is that appeals to policy goals as being in the interest of “everybody” or “almost everybody” are prone to missing the important fact that not everyone agrees who is included in the category “everybody.” Thomas Frank wrote What’s the Matter With Kansas? well over a decade ago, and yet that state has since gone deeper into austerity politics than any other state. Is it because the Koch brothers bought the state’s politics? Or is it because people in Kansas are convinced that austerity is the way towards the light?

Living in a small Midwestern town, I sometimes see pickup trucks with Confederate flags driving around town (they’re always pickup trucks, not SUVs, not regular cars – and I think the identification of pickup trucks with masculinity in this country is just ridiculous) and I just want to walk up to the driver and bop him (or her) in the nose! Because the Confederate flag symbolizes bigotry, and I am intolerant of bigots. But I don’t go around punching people in the nose (or even calling out their bigotry) because 1) I know where I am – that is, in a place where lots of people are racists, even if they don’t go around advertising it, and I can’t really afford to make myself a social pariah, and 2) as someone who at least is trying to follow Christ, my instinct towards offense regarding bigots is followed by recalling the command “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Yes we should resist bigotry and racism, no we should not tolerate it, ever. But anger and violence, no matter how righteous, will not help anything or anyone. Racists will not be persuaded of their wrongheadedness by attempts to suppress their racism. Love is the answer. Not hatred. If they respect you, and then see that you are not racist, they might take pause and consider their own prejudices.

The word “we” should always include our neighbors, especially the ones we don’t trust. When we talk about what’s best for everybody we should always include the people we do not like. As a Democrat, I think the question of “what will the republicans think?” ought to be in the forefront of policy discussions. As a liberal, I the question “how will conservatives respond?” is always relevant to ideological concerns. Because what’s best for “everybody” depends on who gets included in that category.

Reply to comment

[This was originally a response to a comment on a Facebook status. I thought it was pretty good, so I wanted to post it up here]

My position is, for lack of a better term, complicated. I am a moderate in the sense that I want very much to see my parents’ generation retire with a modicum of dignity and security. Towards that end I think it’s important to recognize the role of banking and finance in the pension system, which is a big part of why Hillary Clinton taking campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs, etc doesn’t bother me. They’re part of the establishment, and as such, they can’t be expected to give up their position without serious resistance. It’s not to say that I don’t recognize the enormous injustices that have occurred on account of financial speculation and the corruption of banking regulations and so on. But I think we have far more to lose from treating bankers as villains than we have to gain from working with them.

The intractability of globalized capitalism is a result of the fact that many of us (most of us?) have no faith in anything besides money. If you want someone to do something, you pay them. People don’t trust the government, they don’t trust their neighbors, they don’t even trust banks or businessmen, but they trust cash in their hand. Practically everyone trusts money. And I don’t see that changing any time soon, so I think it best to work within that framework.

When I hear Bernie talk about New Deal style programs – many of which I would be absolutely in favor of – I think about FDR, and how his entire political career stands in vivid contrast to Sanders. FDR was the definition of an establishment politician. He passed all those social programs with the help of Southerners (which is why the National Labor Relations Act did not apply to farm workers or domestic servants). He came from immense wealth and privilege, and could never have accomplished all that he did without that background. And besides that, he led us into the biggest war the country ever fought. The whole appeal of Sanders is based on his humility and commitments to peace and democratic socialism, and while I certainly respect those qualities very much, I cannot see how he will lead us successfully through the sort of political agenda brought to bear by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s and 40s. To me, the appeals to the New Deal are appeals to the past. And I want to look towards the future.

It’s true that in some ways I am a moderate, because what I care about is moving forward through the existing political framework. It is also true that I am in some sense a radical, because the future I see for this country, and for the world, is very different from the past 50 years. I think that the United States should focus on a program of Shared Prosperity with the rest of the world – meaning that we need to not only accept still more immigrants, and to help them to become Americans, but also we need to invest, as a country (meaning, the Federal government should spend money and resources), building up other countries, to help them better develop modern infrastructure and institutions. Those sorts of challenges would transform both the US and rest of the world. But I do not see the courage for those sorts of commitments forthcoming from the present American electorate. Rather, I see a great deal of fear as well as exhaustion. People are always saying they’re “sick and tired.” We do not want to struggle; we do not wish to fight. We just want to go back to bed – and that’s what keeps me up at night.

Global Capital

Remember the 1980s? Ronald Reagan was President, there were only three channels on TV, the Soviet Union was the “Evil Empire” and banking was heavily regulated. Back in those days, there were three “worlds” – the first was capitalist, the second was communist, and the third was just poor. Then the Cold War ended, and the three worlds got consolidated into one world with two sections: developed and developing. The difference is capitalism – developing countries are not fully industrialized commercial societies, but the assumption is that they will be eventually, because commercial society is the best. The United States and Western Europe are good examples of capitalist societies, which (in theory) use their scarce resources efficiently through the market mechanism, aided by government enforcement of private property laws.

It is not well understood in this country that capitalism is global. People think of the US economy as separate from other economies, and imagine that it merely interacts with other countries through trade arrangements. A good example of this is the perception that manufacturing jobs have disappeared in this country because of bad trade deals with countries like Mexico and China. Lower paid jobs have indeed left the US, but that has everything to do with American workers demanding higher wages than their foreign counterparts. Firms have an incentive to keep the costs of production as low as possible – I mean, the US could get rid of the minimum wage, and companies might hire more US workers, but those workers would have to work very hard for wages that would almost certainly be very low. It’s much easier, from a public relations standpoint, to give those jobs to people in foreign countries, because Americans have an easier time thinking that poverty in those countries is due to the lower level of value provided by foreign workers.

The idea of justice in political economy is central. We are always thinking about what is fair, always arguing over it. For conservative white Southerners in the US, the idea that black workers deserve wage equality is repugnant because it directly contradicts their sense of self. For many liberals in the US, the idea that wages are not equalized across racial, ethnic, sexual and gender categories is just as repugnant. Political debates are frequently centered on these sources of cognitive dissonance.

The standard of living in the US – the material conditions of our existence – is almost absurdly high compared to the rest of the world. We should not be shocked that people in other countries are desperate to come here and willing to put up with all manner of abuse from Americans just for the chance to raise their children here. There is a trend these days, however, is to think of the US as a business and not a territory or a population. Personally I find this idea deeply disturbing, but it has a certain appeal for many people.

If we were really interested in deincentiveizing immigration to the US, we would write trade agreements mandating a rise in wages in other countries. This, however, would defeat the purpose of much of trade for us. Walmart has low prices because Chinese labor is cheap. Mexican workers want come here because labor in Mexico pays roughly a quarter of what it does in the US (as calculated from OECD stats on average annual wages in the US and Mexico, 2000-2014). What Americans want is higher relative wages, not just higher wages, so that they can maintain their relatively high standard of living.

Think of it this way: those popular inexpensive all inclusive vacation packages in central America would cease to exist without the existing structure of labor-wage rates. And that would make a lot of Americans really unhappy. We like it that goods and services are so cheap in other countries, because it means average Americans can live high on the hog outside of the US. And we like the idea that we’re so much more productive than other people.



On being a failure

I don’t quite know why, but I want to spend a little time today writing about my past. There won’t really be any politics, and not much economics either, in this story. I’m not sure that will make it any more readable than the last few posts, but here it goes.

From the end of high school till the time I turned 30, my life was basically a rolling disaster. My parents, I think, have not all that much to do with this. Obviously they must have something to do with it, but I believe they always did their best, and I was just a particularly tough kid to turn into an adult. I grew up comfortably in an affluent suburb, and had all sorts of advantages. I was a pretty bright kid, although there were plenty of other kids who were smarter and better students besides. I was a lousy competitor, a sore loser, jealous, angry and sometimes vengeful. Somehow I still had some really great friends who loved me all the same.

I was one of the few kids at my high school who managed to fail their senior project. All the other kids went off and did neat projects, but I mostly just hung around, drank coffee and smoked cigarettes instead of writing music, which was what I said I wanted to do. I was (and in many ways still am) impossibly lazy. My negligence nearly caused me not to graduate, but I managed to make arrangements, and spent the first couple months after high school doing community service in order to complete my educational requirements. By then I had basically lost all interest in school. I just wanted to hang out in coffee shops and talk to punk rock girls. And I wanted money – I didn’t really care about working much. But I definitely wanted to not be broke all the time. Which was too bad, because I would spend most of the following dozen years essentially broke.

One of my good friends decided to go to Akron University that fall, and since it was easy to get in, I figured I would go too. So I went, and lost all interest about half way through. I’m not sure I even went to my finals. It was really pathetic. I wanted to go off on wild adventures,  but I was basically just a shy kid with no clue. So I moved back home and started working at a movie theater. I was pretty lousy at that too. Then I got a second job at an iconic hippie restaurant in Coventry, where all the cool kids hung out. I started to spend a lot of my time there, and met a whole heap of characters, many of whom I still think about. That summer I moved into my first apartment with some other miscreants. Stupidity ensued.

My parents had been good enough to provide me with music lessons from the age of 7, so I’ve always had some facility picking up instruments. I played bass guitar in a blues band for awhile when I was 19, and started going to this really wild open mic on Mondays. Thinking back on that scene, it’s astonishing the stuff that would go on. I’m not going to go into any kind of details here – you’ll have to use your imagination – but it was nuts.

Anyways, while everyone else was going to college and figuring out how to be an adult, I was pretty much just frittering away the days. I didn’t take care of myself at all. I slept too much, didn’t eat enough. I felt desperate most of the time. I dated a girl who was still in high school and took it way, way too seriously. At one point I went back to college, and managed to keep it together enough to play viola in the orchestra, and pass my classes one semester, but then my relationship with said girl ended and I just lost it. Dropped out of school, drank heavily, and generally wallowed in my own despair.

My mother suggested that I move out to Berkeley to live with my grandmother, and I eagerly embraced the solution to my misery. The move changed my life, but again, I was still basically just lonely and desperate and sad, and still not all that interested in being productive. I took classes at San Francisco City College, which I failed due to not paying attention and not doing my homework. I still feel pangs of regret over this – the school was actually quite good, and had I applied myself….but better not to dwell too much on that.

I really discovered punk rock out in Berkeley, and even sang in a band (with three local high school kids, despite being 21 at the time). I hung out at 924 Gilman, and found a job with Americorps as a literacy tutor in an Oakland grade school, which was actually quite a lot of fun. I wanted to be all cool and philosophical and well read, but mostly I just screwed around looking at the internet and listening to pop punk albums. A girl I knew invited me one night to see the Queers at a club in the City, and she had a friend with her that night who asked if I liked open mics, as there was an excellent one at the Brainwash Cafe on Wednesdays.

The first night I was there I didn’t play, I just went to hang out. I remember Robin Williams was there to see his teenage son perform, which was pretty nuts. The following week I returned, and played a song that I had written with the punk band. The host came running up to me afterwards to invite me to play at a party at his apartment a couple of nights later. It was through this encounter that I found my way into the scene that would define the next three or four years of my life.

I had a terrible time with drinking in those days. I would just get wrecked, and into all sorts of trouble. I was desperately lonely, and always obsessing over the need for a girlfriend, but in retrospect it doesn’t seem like I wanted a relationship. I didn’t know what I wanted. Money, sex, a neverending buzz? It was a confusing time. I made friends here and there, and once in awhile had some real fun. But I had no direction, and very little sense of purpose. I couldn’t commit to anything. Around this time I did my first stint in AA, where I met the comedian Will Franken (he was my sponsor! honestly, as crazy as that guy is, he’s absolutely one of the kindest, sweetest, most genuine people I’ve ever met).

At any rate, I began going to the Brainwash every week, and it became the center of my life. I tried (but not very hard) to write songs, and some of them weren’t awful. I wrote one called “Cheap Red Wine” that became quite popular with the regulars. By the summer of 2003, the scene had begun to coalesce, and some of us started to put together a show. This was the beginning of the Collaborative Arts Insurgency, or CAI for short. The group would eventually become a weekly open mic at the 16th and Mission BART station in San Francisco, which continues to this day. At some point I want to devote a proper blog post (or maybe series) about that experience, so I won’t go into what all that was about here. The important thing was that, despite talking about it all the time, I didn’t really do much with it. Mostly I was still focused on getting laid, getting wasted, and trying to make enough money to make the first two possible on a regular basis.

I moved into an apartment in the city, which was pretty great, and managed to get a job in a coffee shop, and then spent most of my time fighting with my girlfriend and getting hammered. I think there was some music and poetry in there somewhere. But mostly I was just screwing around. Some of my friends did some great work around the CAI, and I was jealous and bitter that I couldn’t get it together to do great work. Meanwhile I started working as a cook, which was both a blessing and a curse.

My experience working in kitchens was…well, that’s another blog post series I suppose. The long and the short of it is this: despite the constant self-destructive behavior on my part, cooking gave me just enough structure to survive for awhile. I got a job in a pretty nice restaurant where the chef was serious business – and for the first time in my life I got a sense of real discipline. That place got sold to some other folks, and pretty much everyone left – I ended up finding work in another restaurant in the Ferry Building, which was a really great experience too. But again, I was drinking a lot. I was depressed a lot. I was capricious with women, and complained of loneliness while spurning the affections of a series of girlfriends. This is a very shameful period of my life in some ways.

For a little while I was in a band with a woman who wanted to play jazz, and I learned some basic jazz guitar. I have never been a dedicated guitarist, and I can’t play lead or solo or anything like that. I wasn’t in the band for all that long before I decided that I ought to move to Brooklyn, since that seemed to be the hip place to move. My mother found me a summer job as a nanny for a friend of hers from work who had three kids. So I left the Bay Area, and headed for Cleveland.

At this point I was 26 years old. I hadn’t really even started college. My relationships had failed. I had a burgeoning alcoholism that periodically threatened to destroy me. I thought that I wanted to move to New York, but at some point decided that I didn’t have the wherewithal to make it there, and that Chicago was a sensible alternative. I didn’t really know anyone there, except for one friend, who was at the time busy developing her career as a writer (she is, after years of hard work, quite successful today). But I thought, what the heck, I’ve got some money saved, I’ll go, I’ll find a job, I’ll figure it out.

So I moved to Chicago, into an apartment with a really nice lady who I met from Craigslist, in a building close to the lake, and almost at the far northern edge of the city. I started a band, and had the unbelievably good fortune of meeting a fabulous, ridiculously talented French violinist who agreed to join my gypsy jazz group. I worked earnestly at writing songs for awhile. I found a job at a restaurant, where I met the future singer of the band, and she arranged for us to play the bar above the restaurant. Life seemed to move forward for awhile. But I was drinking steadily, and depression loomed.

The summer of 2007 I moved into a ninth floor studio apartment in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. I would stay there for a year and half, during which time my life turned into a black hole of drinking and depression. I managed to keep it together enough to attend classes at the local community college, actually doing homework and getting (mostly) passing grades this time. But the depression was intense. Sometimes on my days off I would just get a fifth of vodka and spend 36 hours in a drunken haze. My friends dwindled. The band stagnated. I felt lost.

When the lease was finally up, I moved into a place a couple of blocks away with some folks I knew through a friend at work. I was a mess, and they told me I had to move out a couple of months later. Meanwhile, I had taken a job at another restaurant, where I proceeded to act the fool at virtually every opportunity. In an incredible stroke of luck, I found a better place to live with some really nice people in Wicker Park (which turned into something of fiasco when we all had to move out a month later as the landlord had decided to upgrade the building, and in yet another stroke of amazing luck, we all moved together into a small coach house where I would live for the next three years). But meanwhile, I was beginning to fall apart at the seams. I was an emotional wreck, and I had become a full time alcoholic. I drank to go to sleep. Sometimes also when I woke up. I would arrive for work not entirely sober. It was all I could do just to get to work – social life was basically impossible by then. I was terribly unhappy with my life. In the end I got fired from my job, at which point I finally sobered up. I went through an outpatient program at the YMCA, and slowly got myself together.

I am always blown away by the generosity of my friends. I do not deserve all the kindness I have received from others. On my 30th birthday, a group of friends sang to me over a cake, with candles, in San Francisco, while I was out visiting my Grandmother for her 90th. I managed to get myself together afterwards, went back to school, and met the woman who I would eventually marry. I was really, really, really lucky though. Most folks in that situation would have been swallowed up by the world.

The dozen years between high school and turning 30 were in many ways wasted. It wasn’t all bad, of course. But when many of my peers were developing themselves, I was just screwing around. All the work my parents had put into raising me, and I was just blowing it. Endlessly. And it’s hard to let go of all the shame I have from that period. Which is why I’m writing all of this down. I want to let all of it go, and just try to be a good person from here on out.

A couple of years ago I went back to church. I was brought up Catholic, so I figured I would just go back to that. I have lots of disagreements with mainstream Catholicism, but its familiar anyways. And the thing is that all those years of being an unfeeling jerk, drinking and screwing and so on, now they just make me think that I really do need Christ’s mercy. Not that I’ve gone out and helped anyone, which is the basic message of Christianity I think. So again, I’m a failure. A narcissist. I mean, I keep hoping that at some point I’ll redeem myself somehow. Although its hard to see how from the vantage point of my laptop.

I used to have big dreams about being a famous musician or a writer or a philosopher or something. I’m an economist, but I don’t have a PhD, and I don’t really think I am going to get one. For one thing, my partner is a farmer, and there isn’t any big university in Ottawa, Illinois where I can study. I don’t really want to live somewhere else. So I’m qualified to teach community college, and maybe work in a bank or something, although I have not a clue how to get from where I am right now to actually having a full time job. I’ve thought about applying to the University of Chicago, but I don’t have any hope of getting in there. It’s alright though. I am happy where I am. I don’t need to be rich or famous.

When I look around at the folks I grew up with though, it’s hard not to think of myself as a failure. Most of them aren’t rich or famous (although a woman I went to high school with is now a best selling author, and another was a big deal football player). But they are largely accomplished folks with vibrant, interesting lives. They travel broadly, they have fulfilling, engaging careers.

There isn’t any big conclusion here, I think. I squandered my youth. I failed at being a musician, at being a writer, at being a cook. Heck, I failed even at being a drunk. I did succeed in the marriage department somehow, and also with having friends I think. I was very lucky that way. And I did manage to earn an MA, so that was pretty cool. But mostly I’ve been a failure. My sense of self is built on that now, it’s inescapable. I wouldn’t recognize myself as anything else. I’ve been a failure most of my life. I don’t think anybody has been made better off by knowing me really. I haven’t been inspiring, or even interesting. I’ve been a pretty convincing fraud from time to time. But mostly I’ve been a failure. Christ have mercy.


Political Catnip

Presidential politics is always the most fun, the most interesting, the most engaging. Americans get the most excited about presidential campaigns, and it makes me want to write about the one going on right now, despite the fact that there’s all sorts of other stuff I’d also like to write about. But when I was heading home earlier from work, I got on this whole line of thought about where we are in this years elections…

So, although I still have hope for Hillary Clinton (and I intend to hang onto that until either she wins or gives up) – I think Trump’s hand is getting stronger. Maybe its because the media and the conservative establishment have both been in a state of denial over Trump’s ascension, and I like the idea of them being confounded by the blindingly obvious appeal of an angry populist. Or maybe its because I had this moment where I found myself admiring Trump when he waited with Ben Carson in the wings while the other candidates hurried out onstage at the New Hampshire GOP debate.

But I think probably the big reason why I think Trump has a genuinely good shot at winning the election is that I’m starting to suspect that the political party system – and perhaps democracy itself – has gone into terminal decline in the US over the past 25 years. And not because of money in politics, either. There has always been money in politics – indeed, politics in the modern world is about little else.

But that isn’t what Americans want to talk about when they talk about politics. These days what they mostly seem to want to talk about is resentment. Conservatives resent liberals, and vice versa, and what everybody wants is to put the kibosh on their opponents. NPR has a story today about how Trump and Sanders are quite similar in the sense that they’re New York natives with funny accents and famous hair – and they’re angry. They appeal to people with a story about the system is rigged. And they can both plausibly claim to be independent of corporate money.

But if the election comes down between Sanders and Trump, it’s Trump. Americans are capitalists, not socialists (or democratic socialists, as Sanders’ supporters have recently emphasized). It’s Trump all day long over Sanders. However, that wouldn’t be the real tragedy of the election – what would really be tragic is that the Democratic Party would come apart at the seams under a Sanders campaign, not unlike the Republicans have already.

At that point, what I think we would get is something much, much different from what we are accustomed to in this country. If party politics become purely reactionary, then elites will stop bothering with them altogether. And elections will cease to matter. Democracy will cease to matter. We’ll have a system that, ironically, will look like the vision that Sanders has promoted: a system that is corrupt, rigged in favor of capital.

What I find especially upsetting in this scenario is that what is being resisted by the American electorate is precisely what is most needed: thinking. Hillary Clinton, unappealing as she may be to progressives, is nevertheless a wonk. She favors careful, sophisticated policy analysis over populism. And I am deeply irritated that she seems to be slowly giving in to the urge to panic. The New York Times reported today that Bill Clinton attacked Sanders maybe a little too fiercely in New Hampshire. As it is Sanders will win that state – if the Clinton campaign loses its composure over the loss, they’ll go down in flames. And if that happens, the Democratic party will be in serious trouble. Sanders, even if he won, doesn’t have a prayer of delivering on his message, and he says as much when he insists that we need a “political revolution” – Americans are extremely fond of the idea of a revolution (remember those pickup truck ads that sold the manufacturer as an “American revolution”?) but in practice are about as conservative as you can get. Most liberals are basically conservative. They want single payer health care, sure, but they don’t to pay higher taxes, and they definitely don’t want a higher government debt. If anything, they’re balanced budget fetishists, the same as John Kasich or Paul Ryan. They don’t have a clue how economics or money work. They just want to get back to the American Dream – that is, living unconsciously in America.

This time next year we could be looking at a completely different situation. I feel like the UK right now is a kind of preview to that future. Slowly but surely they’re closing out the conversation. And that will be a kind of revolution in the US, if it happens. Just not the revolution that people expect.

Why I’m Supporting Hillary Clinton

  1. She has been under attack from conservatives and Republicans for over 25 years and survived. There is an entire cottage industry built up around slandering her, just her, in books, magazines, websites, newsletters, and on and on and on. And she has gone on holding her head high. One of the things I want most in a President is courage—and Hillary Clinton is courageous. She has to be, because people say awful things about her all the time, and threaten her with terrible violence. And she does not have to do this. She could just retire, and live out her years in quiet luxury. I chose to take her at her word that she is running for President because she believes that she is the right person for the supreme responsibility of the office of Chief Executive.
  2. The world is a complicated and terrifying place today, and therefore domestic stability is crucial. I don’t want or need a revolution. I want good sensible legislation, supervised by sound judgement, and carried out by competent administrators. Hillary Clinton is not perfect, but she understands the importance of organization. And government is all about organization. The President is not a dictator. We are not ruled by oligarchs. Democracy is real. Elections matter.
  3. Because Hillary Clinton would be the first woman President and I think that would be great. I think she ought to be President anyways, but also, we should have a woman President. It would be a great victory for gender equality.
  4. Because Barack Obama has been a hugely consequential President, and I have an abiding interest in the preservation of his legacy. The Republicans in Congress are going to continue to try and destroy every single accomplishment of the Obama administration for years to come. And, as I mentioned in point one, Hillary Clinton has an established reputation for resilience. She will defend the Obama administrations accomplishments and build upon them. And she will do it the old fashioned way: gradually, carefully, patiently. She knows how to make a proposal, and she also knows how to negotiate.
  5. Because she supports Planned Parenthood. Because she supports women’s rights, and reproductive rights, and children’s rights. These are all very difficult issues to speak on, and they are often divisive, and for this reason it even more crucial that they are spoken of, and discussed publicly, and I believe that Hillary Clinton will see to it that they are in the public consciousness.
  6. Because Congress in 2017 will very likely be controlled by the Republican Party. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has made it clear that he would like to see radical reform of the Federal budget. Huge tax cuts, and huge cuts in government services. Hillary Clinton will fight this – and she will have a fighting chance.
  7. Because Hillary is realistic. She has an established reputation. She won’t lead us into some ill-advised war. She won’t try to deport millions of people. She won’t encourage people’s worst instincts, or play to the crowds. She won’t be the speaker Obama is, either. But what we need is not soaring rhetoric, what we need is well considered strategy. The ability to make mistakes without losing hope. We need someone who will ask us to believe in the good of people.

I know a lot of people think Hillary is a fraud. But I got out of the habit of thinking people are lying to me a while ago, and I think it’s a better way to live.

I know a lot of people like Bernie, and that’s fine. I’ve been reading all about how excited people are about Bernie, and I have some opinions about that, too.

I’m supporting Hillary Clinton, because I think she should be President.


Today is the Iowa caucuses. The beginning of the Presidential election in earnest. I’ve been wanting to get something written for days now, but for whatever reason haven’t had the wherewithal till just now.

The Krugman bashing over the last week has generally irritated me. Krugman is supporting Clinton, and so there are a lot of progressives writing about why Krugman is wrong, a maybe also stupid, or just callous, and so on. At this point I’m just trying to sit tight. If Clinton wins in Iowa today, then the splitting of the Democratic party with the Progressive movement will begin. If she loses and Sanders wins, it is likely that she will lose the nomination, and the Progressives will attempt to take over the Democratic Party, at which point it will probably fall apart.

I am not the only person who supports Hillary Clinton, nor am I the only person who thinks Sanders is a dangerous candidate for the Democratic Party. But I am relatively isolated – virtually everyone I know wants to see Sanders win. And this has become nearly unbearable for me, because it goes very hard against everything I’ve learned about politics – well, everything except for the lesson that you can never ask people to think about politics in the middle of a discussion. You can’t ever say “Well, if you would just read [insert name of long, obscure text here]” and expect that to work. You have to appeal to what people know already.

And mostly people seem to think that 1) elections are about issues, and the point is to figure out which candidate most nearly represents your own position on the issues of the day, and to vote accordingly; and 2) the point of government is to ensure the welfare of society. These are both basically wrong. Elections are about political power, and who has it. The point of the government is to do what the people in power tell it to do.

Let me give you an example: education. The point of schools is to educate students so they can be productive members of society, and engaged citizens participating responsibly in democratic institutions, right? Wrong. The point of schools is to determine the distribution of income in the workforce. A school is only successful in the sense that it produces income-earning workers, and those workers can only exist within existing employment opportunities. As there are, today, a decreasing number of good jobs (i.e. jobs that offer a stable income and benefits package), which means that the return on investment in education is basically negative. And municipalities are in serious trouble over this, because education is mandated by law, but funded at the local level. And as incomes stagnate, people are unable to pay the necessary taxes to pay for the necessary education to get the dwindling middle and high income jobs available.

And people will say that 1) education is about learning, not about money, so cutting funding is wrong BUT 2) they can’t afford their taxes and their bills as it is, so they can’t possibly afford the schools they already have and also 3) all people must learn to live within their means and balance their budgets, so whatever money schools do have should come out of taxpayer revenues.

Do you see the conundrum I see? There is not enough money, we need more, but it can only come from available income, which is insufficient. This is called austerity politics. The point is not to do what’s best for society. The point is to do what the market wants, whether that is the right thing or not.

And what’s so appealing about austerity politics? You would think that capitalist economies would just hate austerity. And yet this is not the case.

The beauty of the market mechanism is that it is not personal. If you are a landlord, you rent to people who pay their rent. If a tenant runs out of money, you can and should remove them from the land. If that means they die of exposure, that is not your concern. As a landlord, you are simply being prudent. Austerity lets us make decisions that way to achieve goals that we want but are ashamed to admit in public. Governor Rauner doesn’t want to defund Chicago Public Schools because he’s a racist, or because he doesn’t believe that education is important. He wants to defund them because they’re expensive, and he wants to balance the budget. And voters like the idea of balancing the budget. And they like the idea of lower taxes.

I do not believe Bernie Sanders will not take on austerity politics in any meaningful way. I believe this because his campaign is basically a populist campaign. He depends on an emotional appeal, not a logical one. People feel like the economy is unfair, but that doesn’t mean they feel like paying higher taxes or investing in the uncertain futures of people they will never know. And if what they want is an emotional appeal, chances are they won’t respond later to a logical one. If Sanders get the Democratic nomination, all Trump will have to do is say “He will raise your taxes.” The election will be over, just like that.

The thing I have always liked about Krugman is that he’s always making an appeals to reason and evidence. He’s sympathetic to emotional and ethical appeals too, but his normal mode of operation is logical. Now, you can show me Robert Reich’s video where he explains how Bernie has all the facts in lockdown, but I am left unpersuaded. You can’t gloss over massive institutional reform like it will be a seemless transfer of resources, nor can you ignore the difficulties of legislative reform that would be required. And yet that’s exactly what the Sanders campaign has done. They ignore reason and evidence in favor of their feelings – and at their peril.

No matter what happens today in Iowa, I think that the Democratic Party is in serious danger of falling apart, and I think the Sanders campaign has made the situation substantially worse by alienating it’s supporters from the Democratic leadership (who are portrayed as feckless and corrupt). The failure to confront austerity politics will doom politicians to being held hostage by the market.

Back to the Future

“There’s one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool.” – Neil Young, “Keep on Rocking in the Free World”

They say that economics is the study of the distribution of scarce resources for the benefit of society, and this morning I am thinking about a resource I think in short supply today which you might call “the future.” It is an odd thing to think about. Time, we all know, will keep moving in the same forward direction, at the same rate. A few years ago I became fascinated with the Augustinian conception of time, (and forgive me, dear reader, if I muck this up) which is subjective, i.e. dependent on the person perceiving it. At the end of his Confessions, Saint Augustine asks the question, Where is God? And his answer is that God is in the future. Perceiving God is perceiving the desire to go on, to hope for something, to believe, to love. When we come into the world, we have no conception of self, and time is an everlasting now. Then, at some point, we come to understand that we are not our mother, that our mother is a separate person. This generates a cycle of terror and comfort out of which the conception of the self arises.

Bear with me, people, I’m going somewhere with this.

There’s a sort of random scene in the old animated film The Sword and the Stone, one of the classic Disney fairy tales, where the wizard Merlin turns himself and his young pupil Arthur into squirrels, and they have an adventure in the trees. Arthur, as a squirrel, meets a young lady squirrel, and soon they are flirting, playfully chasing each other and exchanging looks. At the end of the scene, Arthur is forced to leave her to turn back into a human being, and the lady squirrel is sad and dejected. Merlin’s comment on the scene is that love is perhaps the most powerful force in the universe.

At the risk of sounding like a long dead South American communist revolutionary, love is an essential driving force for the human condition. An infant cries, and is comforted by it’s mother’s love. Why do we go on? Love. If we have not love, we have not a reason to go on. That is, without love, there is no future. God is love. Augustine’s observation, I think, is basically true for all of us. Being human, being alive is caught up in believing in a future, and that is caught up in the memory of love.

You know that line from Jesus about how man cannot live on bread alone? This is basically what he’s on about. He isn’t talking about proper nutrition, he’s talking about love, and how we all need to love and feel beloved. And if that seems too obvious, perhaps you are blind to the poverty all around you.

But let’s talk about the bread part of that statement. Pretty much anyone will tell you, everybody has to eat. You need food and water everyday. All the love in the world won’t help you without the material necessities of life.

So, there’s this thing called secular stagnation that Larry Summers has been talking about for awhile. He and other people like Paul Krugman, Brad Delong, and Olivier Blanchard have all been making similar noises about the general lack of economic growth in the past few years. One of the key parts of the arguments they’ve been making is the general lack of stable employment in the world today. The thing about living under capitalism is that you need a job, and more importantly, you need an income, because consumption is based on income. The problem we are facing is not the scarcity of resources, but the scarcity of incomes.

That is to say: if there aren’t enough jobs, then not everyone can sustain themselves. If you cannot sustain yourself, the future begins to disappear. And as that happens, you lose your ability to love, and therefore your ability to perceive the future, or to perceive yourself in the future. There are not enough jobs. Do you hear me? Not enough jobs. A shortage of jobs means a shortage of income, a shortage of income means social instability, and instability degrades the perception of the future. The future is the scarce resource. Time itself is constrained by a collective failure of imagination.