October Surprise

So, it’s a month before the election, and I’m transfixed by baseball playoffs.

This comes as a big surprise to me.

I was not a sports fan growing up. I didn’t really play sports – and when I did I was terrible. I had no talent for them whatsoever, and besides which, I hated losing, and I invariably lost every game I took part in. My father was a semi-professional bicyclist in his youth, and spent several months in France in the 1970s as part of racing team, so the Tour de France, when it was on, got play in my household. But that was about it. All the regular American team sports were of no interest to my family – both my parents and my extended family. And that was basically fine. Most of my friends didn’t especially care for sports, either. I never had much cause to think about sports or pay attention to them, with the exception of when the Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004 – I was working in a kitchen where the chef was from Boston, so we had all the games on, and he was really excited about it. It didn’t hurt that a good friend of mine was also from Boston – I recall meeting his Mom around this time, and she told me that unless you were from New York, you basically had to cheer for the Red Sox. Good enough for me! (I was living in San Francisco at the time).

But besides having no great affinity for professional competitive sports growing up, I also lived in a suburb of Cleveland, a city renowned for having losing teams. In particular I recall the Browns getting beat in the playoffs by the Denver Broncos three years in a row. Every year the newspaper would have a big spread about how the Browns were going to clobber the Broncos – send them to the glue factory! they’d tell us – and every year the Browns would lose. By the end of the 1980s I was aware that Cleveland teams had great fans and terrible players. Cheering for the home team, I concluded, was an exercise in futility, whatever the sport. And then, in the late ’90s, the Indians made it to the World Series, and it was exciting! And we watched them lose to the Braves! Hey, okay, they were a good team, and it was fun anyways. And then a couple years later they went back to the series! And lost to the Marlins, then a team in their second year of existance. Fuck this, I thought. In the meantime, the owner of the Browns had packed up the team and moved them to Baltimore, and renamed them the Ravens. I will never forget the front page of the Plain Dealer – there was a huge spread about how the greater Cleveland area was losing its collective shit over the controversial deal…and at the bottom of the page, a brief notice that the Cleveland school levy had failed for something like the 23rd year in a row. Well, I thought, at least the city has it’s priorities straight.

Fast forwarding to my late 20s, I had moved to Chicago, which is a serious sports town, and has championship teams on a fairly regular basis. Moreover, sports is the default topic of conversation in Chicago, especially if you’re a guy. After a few years, I had worked out the rules of football enough to figure out what was going on most of the time. Which is important, because football is a fucking religion – more so than other pro sports, I think. And in Chicago, where talking about sports is an important part of being a guy, knowing what’s going on in the game, and also the various rivalries, is important for establishing yourself as one of “the guys.” Or at least that was my experience. Anyways, I moved to Chicago, and after a few years of misadventures, I met a girl, and we dated for a few years, and eventually got married. And this girl, who is now my life partner, is from a family of baseball fanatics.

Around the time we got married I watched the Ken Burns documentary about baseball in it’s entirety, and learned a lot about baseball. Enough that I began theorizing that you could understand American culture through it. In particular I found it interesting that people care very much about the team and the players, but not the owners. It bothers people that players make so much money, because baseball is an everyman sport, and we want to imagine that those players could be one of us. In contrast, the public attitude towards the owners is almost non-existant. They are mysterious entities who do not belong in the workingman’s world. And so what if they’re bazillionaires? As a general rule, baseball fans don’t care if the owners are exploitative, since most business owners are, and players should have to deal with it like the rest of us. This is my impression – I suppose anyone might dispute it. The famous Black Sox scandal of 1919, where a group of embittered, underpaid players threw the World Series in an agreement with gamblers, would ruin the lives of those players – but not the owners, nor the gamblers for that matter. People didn’t care about them – because they were simply other. What people did care about was that players had taken a bribe, thus making the game unfair. This is maybe the single most important part of baseball: fairness. If the game is unfair, it simply isn’t worth watching. The well-worn metaphor of the level playing field is popular for a reason. I think fairness is the principle fantasy of professional sports – in a world where we know very well the odds are likely stacked against us, where we expect to take advantage and to be taken advantage of, we can take an afternoon and imagine ourselves on a field with our fellow competitors, abiding by the rules and playing fair.

Now then, this is where the story gets complicated. You see, in Chicago there are two baseball teams: the Cubs and the White Sox. The Cubs were formed, as the Chicago White Stockings, in 1871, and are one of the oldest professional sports clubs in existence. They’re a National League team, and they play on the North Side of the city, at Wrigley Field. The White Sox were formed some decades later, as part of the American League, and play on the South Side. There are various minor differences between the leagues (mainly that pitchers are also batters in the NL, while the AL they aren’t) but for many fans these differences are a serious matter. National League fans seem to look down their nose somewhat on their cousins in the American League (maybe it’s because their League is older?) but in general you don’t notice unless you’re a really serious fan. A big difference between the Chicago teams is that WGN (a radio and television broadcaster in Chicago) has been showing Cubs games on TV since the 1980s and as a consequence Cubs fanbase extends throughout Northern Illinois (Southern Illinois hass mostly fans of the Cubs’ archrival St. Louis Cardinals) – the White Sox fanbase is essentially the South side of the cities and the adjacent suburbs (which are largely populated by (white) people from the South side of the city  – Irish and Italians in particular). White Sox fans come from a working class background, and are incredibly loyal to their team. They don’t feel any particular animosity towards the Cubs – they just don’t give a fuck about them (sort of like they don’t really give a fuck about the North side, or the west side, or Hyde Park for that matter). The Cubs fans, on the other hand, are basically insane. They love the Cubs, no matter how bad they are. They love going to Wrigley and they love getting fucked up. The South side, from the vantage point of the North side, might as well be another country. They’re aware of a baseball team somewhere else in town, but between Da Bears, Da Bulls, and Da Blackhawks, (and da blackouts…) who can keep track?

Right, so, I married into this family of baseball fanatics. Now here’s the crazy bit. My father-in-law’s father was a Southside Irisher who married a nice German girl from the Northside in the early 1940s, and promptly set off to fight the war in Europe. So when my father-in-law was born, he was born on the Northside, and therefore became a Cubs fan. However, once his father came back from the war, he saw to it that his three subsequent children were all brought up loyal White Sox fans (despite all of them growing up in a northside suburb). Hence, at family get togethers the subject of baseball is always a contentious one. Compounding the complications is the fact that my mother-in-law, also a Cubs fan, has an older brother who lives in town (and who we therefore see with some frequency) who is (for reasons not entirely clear) a White Sox fan. Some families argue about religion and politics. My partner’s family argues about baseball.

When I lived in Chicago, it was mostly on the North, near West and Northwest sides – for those who know the neighborhoods, I lived in East Rogers Park, Edgewater, West Town, and Logan Square (in that order – West Town for the longest stretch). So I feel more or less okay about calling myself a Cubs fan. And, besides, I’m married to a Cubs fan, so its much easier to take her side when watching baseball. But there’s also a slightly more complicated reason for my taking the Cubs side as well.

I grew up in what was once the “Western Reserve” – that is, part of Connecticut. Cleveland, as well as the Northside of Chicago, were originally settled by Connecticut Yankees, with all the attendant conformist puritanical culture and so on. Shaker Heights was cast utterly in the mold of the New England town. And despite having been made miserable by that culture throughout my youth, I have come to begrudgingly accept it as my own. And the Cubs fans are totally those people. And they drive me crazy. It’s okay going to Wrigley to see a game, but Wrigleyville is unbearable. It’s a very strange thing, and I’m not always comfortable with it. But there it is.

So, here I am, it’s a month to the 2016 election, maybe the most consequential election of my lifetime, and I’m hung up on baseball. I’m pretty sure Hillary will win, that the Republicans will keep Congress, and that political deadlock will go on for another couple of years at least. Here in Illinois the budget crisis will drag on to at least 2018 (when there’s a gubernatorial election) although I suppose Rahm might get the boot in Chicago, and they could finally get somebody who really doesn’t know what they’re doing to drag the city into the abyss of conflict and resentment it seems to long for – well, it seems that the status quo will hang on a little longer. I mean, a few people more get pushed over the edge every day, and sooner or later some horrible crisis will force itself upon us and on that day we can all cry and gnash our teeth, but until then…Go Cubs!

The Perils of Salesmanship

It’s a little nuts how the Presidential debate has dominated the news media the last couple of days. And super unfortunate how people are attentive to the Presidential race, to the exclusion of all the other political races going on in the country. Considered in terms of conversation, it makes sense. We can talk about two people, we can compare the stories they tell. We can do that without things getting too confusing. But the result is that, while the Presidency matters, all the other races turn on reactionary politics. More than half the states in the union are now represented by committed anti-federalists. What turns out to be problematic, in my view, is that those committed anti-federal forces get co-opted by corporate intersts.

All that said, I was thinking about Trump-as-salesman this morning, and how Clinton engaged in rhetorical jujitsu in the debate. The one thing you can count on with Trump – and with lots of people like him – is that he can’t be wrong. He cannot be seen as a loser. I’ve debated with people like that, and the biggest mistake you can make in those sorts of debates is to assume good faith. A salesman wants to make a sale, above all else. In a debate, they will never back down, not in the face of evidence or reason. They will pick out some point and repeat it louder and more insistantly and never yield. I’ve seen people argue this way, and you can’t argue back. You just have to walk away. There is no negotiation – things will go their way, or you will walk away. Period.

The Necessity of Cool

I love how angry the left is over Hillary Clinton. In particular middle-aged anti-authoritarian leftist guys. Glenn Greenwald is a classic example, but there are tons of them, and they fall throughout the political spectrum. They’re usually very angry, and focused on how the system is corrupt and bad and evil and needs to be overthrown right away. And last night made them apoplectic.

Anti-authoritarians are often know-it-alls, until you ask them the question “What should we do?” Then they’ll just give a deer-in-headlights stare, shrug, and say “I don’t know.” At which point it’s tempting to ask “Did your mother not love you enough?” But you don’t because that would only set them off.

The other day I heard an interview with journalist Jessica Yellin on David Axelrod’s (amazing!) podcast and she said a very wise thing about being a journalist – something like “Ask for what you want, and then do what you’re told.” She wanted to be a White House correspondant for a long time, and she told the folks she worked for that over and over while they assigned her to all manner of other topics. And then she got the White House assignment. An anti-authoritarian would have never made it. They might have started their own news organization, but the chances are the White House wouldn’t talk to them, because major politicians like to talk to the major news networks.

If you want to reform the system, you have to work within the system. If you want to destroy the system, you shouldn’t be surprised (or offended) if it tries to destroy you.

What’s really weird about the US is that people here often confuse the idea of America with the US Federal government as exists in practice. The insurrection in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge should have been ended shortly after it began, and the participants either killed or locked up in maximum security prisons – but of course, they had a great deal of sympathy throughout the country, and doing justice to them would have surely caused more trouble than it was worth. Conversely, peaceful protests that ask for government action on some particular issue – and I’m think of Black Lives Matter or the Occupy Wall Street protests, among others –  are all too often condemned as illegitimate.

If you want to get anything done, you have to be cool. You can protest, and you can be as fiery as you like, but you have to stay cool no matter what happens. The folks who this morning were all full of piss and vinegar over Lester Holt not spending 90 minutes grilling Hillary Clinton over how she’s corrupt and greedy, how she took money from bankers and corporations and is mean and nasty, and just a big old liar – those folks aren’t cool. And that’s why they won’t get anywhere. They won’t achieve anything. They’ll complain their way through this election, and then complain about the outcome.

Hillary won the debate last night, in part because she was able to keep her cool, and also because she was able to goad Donald in to losing his. I learned the necessity of cool working in kitchens – if you lose your cool during the rush, it’s fucking over, pack your shit and go home – but I’ve found it applies to a lot of life, political debates in particular.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

This guy knocked on my door this morning, campaigning for Jerry Long, who’s the Republican running for the Illinois State House in this district. He asked me what issue was most important to me – my son was hanging out in the living room, and I didn’t want to leave him there for longer than a couple of minutes, so I kind of shrugged and told him I’d have to think about it, but that I was voting for the Democrat in the race anyways. He handed me a flyer and was on his way.

The thing about the race between Skoog, the Democrat, who was appointed to the seat a year ago when Frank Mautino stepped down to take over as Illinois Auditor General, and Long is that they’re running almost the same campaign. It’s the “my opponent was sent by those no-goodnik Chicagoans” campaign, which I’m beginning to see as the only kind of campaign in downstate Illinois. Nobody out here really cares who’s in charge, because Chicago is a cesspool of violence and corruption, and they just want that shit kept at arms length.

So when the campaign guy was standing there asking me what my issue was, what I wanted to say was “Chicago.” As in, I think taxes ought to be higher out here, because Chicago needs the money, and the investment would benefit all of us. That’s not something that could ever happen downstate. And, truth be told, Chicago would probably have no problem whatsoever screwing downstate in perpetuity. People are terrible, its all just really depressing.

But it brings me back to Trump. All the wonks out there don’t seem to understand a very basic truth about Trump’s success – he is the voice of revenge. He often talks about the importance of getting even. This is something I know about from working in kitchens. You have a bunch of aggressive, macho guys in a room, and equality gets to be super important. Because if someone is shown to be weak, that person will become a focal point for abuse. Trump’s voters are not interested in policy at all. They just want to feel in charge. They want to get even. They want to show the liberals who’s boss. And there are no policies for this. What it would look like in practice is the total abandonment of federal administration of the government. It’s not about what Trump would do – it’s about what he would not do. And in short – he would not govern. He’d call into the morning talk shows three or four times a week, talk about what was going on. Assure us that everything was fine, under control. Meanwhile, Paul Ryan would defund vast swaths of the government. And the libertarians will all cheer and predict economic growth.

On the other hand, I’m the one spilling out feelings all over this web page. So, whatever. I get really depressed over my lack of ability to write and think like a proper economist. I always feel like I’m missing something, or that I just can’t read enough, or quite grasp things. Oh well.

Where are the racists?

I was born in 1980 and in my lifetime the conversation on race in America has always been difficult. I grew up in an affluent suburb of Cleveland where the school population was a nearly even split between white and black (there were other races, too, but almost everyone would have decribed themselves as either “white” or “black”). The conversation on race was really important, and it was present throughout my education. From my earliest memories I can recall knowing that black kids were different because when I was at home I would sometimes speak in the manner of my black friends, and my mother would correct my grammar. A little later, when I was 8 or 9, I met my Aunt who had been raised in Louisiana, and realized that her accent was remarkably similar to the that of black people I knew. Although I knew early on about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement – I can remember singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in grade school every February – I didn’t yet know about the Great Migration. There was a lot I didn’t understand, and I struggled with it.

When I was a junior in high school, the school newspaper did a front page article called “Black and White or Shades of Grey?” It featured statistics, laid out in four charts, from a study done by the PTO, comparing academic achievement of whites and black in our school. The results were really dramatic. White students were more likely to take AP and Honors classes, had higher GPAs, scored higher on SATs and ACTs. The controversy was explosive. The newspaper editor apologized to the entire school over the intercom that day, and after school, an impromptu gathering to discuss the article was called in the assembly room. I didn’t go to the discussion that day, but I remember my class valedictorian (a white guy) talking about it in his speech at graduation the following year. The school brought in a respected black academic to speak to the school about the importance of black achievement. And they hired John Ogbu, a black sociologist from Nigeria working in the US, to do a study on black achievement. Ogbu would go on to write a book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Story of Academic Engagement, based in part on his research in Shaker. But the conclusions he reached were ultimately rejected by the Shaker school district, largely because nobody really wanted to be held accountable. Yes, the achievement gap was unacceptable. But who was going to take the blame? Parents? Students? Teachers? Administrators?

The experience of seeing that debate close up helped me understand just how complex and difficult the issue of race is in America. In an integrated school system there was rampant segregation – in the lunchroom, in the classroom, after school, and so on. Interracial couples were rare. There were obvious cultural differences. Preganancy among black girls in their late teens was not uncommon, but among white girls it was almost unthinkable, although it certainly did happen. There was separation and inequality, but it wasn’t clear to anyone how that might be changed. It has been crucial to my understanding of race that just talking about it in a consistant way is really hard.

Growing up I learned that one of the worst things you can call someone is a racist. A racist is a bad person. A racist is someone who is full of hatred and ignorance, someone who is stupid, someone who is cruel, someone who is to be feared and loathed. A friend of mine once said on Facebook that I had argued against white privilege and I took that as saying that I am a racist. And I’ve heard people sometimes say that we are all racists, but I got really emotional over that comment. For me, the conversation on white privilege is about being able to tell racists that they are racists. It is Bill O’Reilly saying that he’s not a racist and Jon Stewart saying “Yes you are, man.”

If you ask Trump if he’s a racist, he would say no. If you asked Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or Matt Drudge or Michael Savage or Glenn Beck or Alex Jones if they’re racist, they’d all say – vehemently – NO! If you ask white people living in affluent suburbs where everyone else is white, they aren’t racists. If you ask poor white people living in trailer parks, they aren’t racists. If you ask the Ku Klux Klan, the motherfucking Klanif they’re racists, they’d probably still try to equivocate – yeah, they’re racists, but…

And I hear liberals talk about racists all the time. They’re taken for granted. Why are conservatives conservative? Because racism. Because homophobia. Because sexism. Because capitalist patriarchy. Show me the racist sexist capitalist patriarch who calls himself that. Show me, because I don’t see him. You can’t have an honest conversation about race and racism if racists won’t stand up for what they believe in. And if you can’t have an honest conversation about it, then you can’t do anything about it either.

I saw a chart this morning in the Facebook feed from a person who is white and conservative and not racist:

fbiblm

And the basic point this person was making was that Black Lives Matter was protesting blacks killed by whites. A cursory examination of the Black Lives Matter website will tell you that isn’t the case –

Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks,Black-undocumented folks, folks withrecords, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.

The whole idea conveyed by the chart above – that BLM is about protesting white people killing black people – is not the case, as is made clear in the first sentence of BLM’s summary statement. Do I think that the person who posted that chart would go to BLM’s website and reconsider their position? No. The courage of Black Lives Matters activists is not in the face of hatred, bigotry, and racism, or even ignorance and institutionalized oppression – it’s in the face of apathy. Most white, middle class Americans just don’t give a fuck. As long as they’ve got a big screen television, a pickup truck (for him) and an SUV or luxury sedan (for her), easy access to health care, and affordable vacations to exotic locales, the rest of the world can go hang. And if you disturb their apathy, it’s not about you – it’s about them. Which is why they’ll look at those FBI stats and say “Hey, if black lives matter, why don’t you all stop killing each other?” Because they have nothing against black people, they wish them well, but, as white people, what does this have to do with them?

But they’re not racist. Don’t you dare call them racist.

And you could point out the correlation between poverty and violence, as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2014. The report found:

  • Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) (39.8 per 1,000) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households (16.9 per 1,000).
  • Persons in poor households had a higher rate of violence involving a firearm (3.5 per 1,000) compared to persons above the FPL (0.8–2.5 per 1,000).
  • The overall pattern of poor persons having the highest rates of violent victimization was consistent for both whites and blacks. However, the rate of violent victimization for Hispanics did not vary across poverty levels.
  • Poor Hispanics (25.3 per 1,000) had lower rates of violence compared to poor whites (46.4 per 1,000) and poor blacks (43.4 per 1,000).
  • Poor persons living in urban areas (43.9 per 1,000) had violent victimization rates similar to poor persons living in rural areas (38.8 per 1,000).
  • Poor urban blacks (51.3 per 1,000) had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites (56.4 per 1,000).

And you might say “Alright, there’s a correlation between poverty and violence. But it affects whites and blacks pretty equally.” Ah, but then there’s an income gap between blacks and whites as well, and a pretty serious one, as shown by the chart from this 2014 Census report:

realmedhouseincrace

Not to mention the disparity between black and white unemployment rates:

fredgraph

On average, according to the data from 1973 to 2016, unemployment among black Americans is 5.8% higher than the overall unemployment rate. That’s a big difference! Not to mention higher rates of incarceration, lowew rates of educational achievement and so on. But its only too easy for middle class white people to simply say “Look, I’m not a racist, alright? I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t want black people to be unemployed or in prison or make less money. It’s not my fault!”

I do think it’s one of the most important things for folks on the left to realize that saying their opponants are racists and bigots is a non-starter. Maybe they are, but saying so will only alienate them. If anything, I think it’s important to have compassion for white suburban middle class people. Their world is collapsing. People who grew up listening to Pat Boone have kids and grandkids going to the Gathering of the Juggalos. The stable world they grew up in has vanished into thin air.

At the end of the day, I have to stand with Black Lives Matter. I may not always agree with them, but I am listening. And I think they’re on the right track, but the way forward is fraught with difficulty. It frightens me to think of the years ahead. I have no great desire to call my neighbors, friends, and relatives racists. But if I’m being honest, I know lots of racists. Sometimes I think maybe I’m a racist. And when I say racist, I mean an unequivocally bad person.

We all need mercy. Mercy and forgiveness and compassion. For others, for ourselves.

A bit more on the Trump phenomenon

Yesterday I came across an article from Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo saying Trump’s takeover of the GOP is complete – that the Republican party had become an arm of conservative media, and Trump’s emergence signified that transformation. And I think that’s basically right. It seems to me that, for most conservatives, the problem with the government isn’t what it does, but that it does anything at all. And I found that story in an episode of Radiolab that I heard while I was making dinner last night.

The story was about a young  woman in Texas who didn’t exist on paper. She grew up in a super conservative family, on a little farm in the countryside of Texas, had no birth certificate, was home schooled, and lived with her family until she was 18. Seeing her parents refuse to relinquish control of her older siblings, she asked her grandparents to take her away, and after a bit of struggle, they did. When she arrived in outside world, she discovered that she had no formal paperwork that would prove that she was who she said she was. So she made a YouTube video about that, and millions of people saw it, including the swell folks over at Radiolab. And she eventually got it worked out, and now she has green hair and a nose ring and is living happily.

It’s an extreme case of a pervasive sentiment in the US: that society is bad, and that formal ties to society are effectively enslavement to it. Paradoxical that Americans would swoon over the Amish stedfastly refusing to participate in the modern world, and then cry over the plight of Cubans, unable to name their own prices. But there it is: a lot of folks in the US don’t trust the government, and base their lives upon that. They have an idea of how the world ought to function, and the government is always and everywhere a betrayal of that idea.

And Trump is the personification of that fear and anger. I saw a political cartoon the other day, picturing a field of sheep with a billboard showing a fox (in a suit), who is quoted as saying he will eat them – and one sheep says to the other “At least I know he’s being honest.” This is, again, not just how Trump’s supporters think, but how the broader conservative media has operated for twenty years already. What is important is not what is to be done, or how society might deal with its challenges or whatever, what is important is that nothing be done. Advocates of the so called free market ideology are calling for the same thing – let decisions be made privately, so that those who make them may hide their shameful machinations, and so that we all might cry “corruption!” before slinking off into poverty.

Trump and the Banality of Evil

I’ve been seeing pieces around the internet in which people try to understand what Donald Trump, and his popularity, are all about. People come to his rallies and hoot and holler, cheer on his wild-eyed pronouncements, thrill to his irrationalities. Hillary Clinton made a speech the other day connecting Trump to the so called “alt-right” – in part to try and make Trump appear to be a racist, and in part to signal to the establishment wing of the GOP that she’ll forgive them for Trump when she gets into the Oval Office. In general, the mainstream wants desperately to disassociate itself with Trump, despite his being the Presidential candidate of one of two major political parties. But I don’t think Trump’s supporters are necessarily crazy, nor especially racist, for that matter. I think the key to understanding Trump and his supporters is Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil.

Trump is basically a salesman. There are lots of fun particulars about him, but I want to start with that generality. He sells stuff. He said in his 1987 autobiography that his strategy is always to tell people what they want to hear – a standard way of going about selling stuff. The catch phrase from his television show, The Apprentice, is “You’re Fired!” – why? Because that’s how you tell people that you’re in an authority. You have the power over other people through the ability to grant or deny work. The fantasy promoted by The Apprentice is that of being the boss. And when you’re the boss, you get to fire people. Now, actually being a boss, and really firing people, isn’t all that pleasant. The middle management guys and gals who I would geuss do most of the hiring and firing in this country could probably tell you all about being overworked, stressed out, and frequently expasperated by their charges. But the fantasy of being in charge, of being the big boss of a big company, appeals to the frustrations of rank and file working folks. Practically nobody imagines that they really deserve to get fired – especially, it would seem, the folks who really do. The guys who talk a mile a minute, who are all enthusiasm and big ideas – a lot of them are the same who take a dozen smoke breaks before noon, show up late, go home early, and neglect half their duties. And often enough those are the guys who think they’re on the fast track to management. Who tell you all about how they’re all set to open their own business, and will explain at length how they’re going to make a fortune just as soon as they get going. You might ask yourself “What are they thinking?” But the key here is to realize they aren’t thinking.

The way I understand the concept of the banality of evil is that it’s all about not thinking. How did Adolph Eichmann hang with his despicable deeds? Simple: he didn’t. He didn’t think about them. He told himself “I’m just doing my job.” If he had stopped to consider the thousands of people he was sending into death camps, I don’t think he could have done it. A middle manager, when they’re firing someone, can’t stop to think about how doing so may mean the loss of stability for a child, or the loss of care for a dependent – because if they did, they wouldn’t be able to go through with it. Even if the person being fired can recognize intellectually the necessity of their being fired, it will still feel crappy, and very likely unfair. The person doing the firing, therefore, is invested with a kind of perverse power – and in a capitalist society, where survival depends upon income, and income is derived, for the vast majority of people, from one’s job, the person who gets to decide who does and doesn’t have a job, who’s responsible for what, and how much they get paid (i.e. the person who tells you who you are with respect to society) – that person is the authority. Not the President or the Governor or the Mayor or even the police officer – although all of those people may, at some point, have an impact on one’s individual role in society, the real authority is “the boss.” And Trump is very good at performing in the role of “the boss” – of selling himself as the authority. And how do we know he’s the authority? “You’re fired!”

Part of the problem with all of what I’m saying here is that it flies in the face of what lots of people tell themselves – and I’m talking about what you’ll see and hear in a million Lifetime movies and daytime talk shows. “It’s not about what’s in your wallet, it’s about what’s in your heart,” and so on. As a general rule, at least in my experience, people know very well that it is their job, their work, their income and their decisions as consumers that determine virtually every material aspect of their existance – and in most cases, it is imperative they make the case to themselves that none of that really matters, because if it did, it would make them crazy. Nevertheless, when it is time to work, they set all that aside, and do their job, whatever it happens to be.

Getting back to Trump, his appeal is that he is purely reactionary. He is able to simultaneously denounce and uphold the liberal welfare state created by the FDR administration and established by the Second World War. He stands for the status quo, not as it is, but as people imagine it. The racist element demonstrates this very well: I would say that most Trump supporters would say that they are not racist, and what they mean is that they don’t have anything against people of color, as long as they don’t disturb the established order of things. And what that ultimately means isn’t a strict segregation – what it means is that people must be able to go about their lives without thinking too much about them. If a black family moves to a white suburb, the problem isn’t so much their being out of place, the problem is that their presence provokes the few actually racist members of the community. What disturbs the community is the thought that one of them is a genuine racist. Rather than confront that, it’s much easier to exclude people of color. In this way, the peace of community is preserved. The reality is that the community itself is racist – but what’s important is the fantasy that they aren’t.

The concept of white privilege, so popular among progressives these days, addresses the fantasy of the liberal, politically correct suburban community. “If you can’t see it, you’ve got it,” as they say. Begin with the idea of the American dream – if one works hard and plays by the rules, one will succeed. What this essentially means is that home ownership, a good line of credit, and a pension are available to anybody, regardless of their race, gender, or personal background. And of course, women and people of color know very well that this is not the case. But straight white men are usually able to functionally operate within the parameters of the American dream, as the system is bent towards seeing to it that they do.

The point I’m trying to make here is that there isn’t a rational or logical basis to Trump’s supporters – what they want can’t be described in terms of policy or whatever. What they want is to not think about politics. They don’t want anyone to call them out on casual racism. They don’t want to be confused by the habits of outsiders who may speak or dress differently – and that applies as much to Norteños in Cleveland as it does to Connecticut Yankees in San Antonio. The fact that what they want is every day more and more difficult is what makes them so crazy. It makes them angry that they can’t just go about their lives in the way they expect – and the fact that they can’t feels like a betrayal.

 

Piketty, Chapter 5

This blog is moving forward at a distressingly slow pace. I often marvel at serious bloggers frenetic production. I am just not that smart. Not that fast.

Anyways, Chapter Five of Capital in the 21st Century, “The Capital/Income Ratio Over the Long Run,” features the appearance of Piketty’s “Second Fundamental Law of Capitalism,” β = s/g. The first law, α = * β (describing the share of capital in national income, equal to r, the rate of return on capital, times the capital/income ratio) is related through the term β, which represents the capital/income ratio. The first law is an accounting identity, an instantaneous definition, and the second law describes a long-run relationship. The long run capital/income ratio, Piketty tells us, is equal to the savings rate over the growth rate. He spends the rest of the chapter filling out what this means, and just what counts as capital.

What really strikes me about his observations is that, by focusing on the capital/income ratio, and how it is determined by the activities of the market economy, he brings out the capitalist character of what he calls “rich countries” like the US, France, Germany, the UK, and Japan. The world of the modern, capitalist countries is the modern world itself, I think – and one of it’s essential characteristics is that it keeps these records such that one can observe the long term processes of growth and development. That he proposes “fundamental laws” seems like useful hyperbole: despite the fact that existence within the parameters of modern capitalism can feel unfree in the way a cork floating in an ocean is subject to the forces around it, the market economy really is under our control. And the fact that I can take a hermanuetical position demonstrates how economics is different from physics.

Marx famously wrote that, up until his own time, philosophy merely described the world, but that the point was to change it. In some sense, I feel like Piketty is focused on mere description – in its way a powerful move to make. One of the things I really came to understand when I got into Andy Warhol is the power of focusing on how repetition changes appearance. An image seen for the millionth time will look different than it did at first sight. Within the past 400 years, there are lots of moments in history where you could say that “everything” changed – but what Piketty is doing is making all those years continuous and comparable. And so far I feel like he’s been pretty non-judgemental about it, too. Its a part of his tone I appreciate greatly.

Getting to what Piketty actually writes about in the chapter, it’s mostly about how the capital stock is calculated, and other nitty-gritty details concerning long-term evaluations. One interesting detail was that, in rich countries, between 30 and 50% of national income is held in durable goods. Durable goods are things like refrigerators and sofas and what not – one of the way economists categorize consumption is in terms of “durables” and “non-durables,” which is stuff like pizza and concert tickets. Durable goods are not counted as wealth (as Samantha finds out in the episode of Sex and the City when she realizes that she cannot sell her closet full of shoes when she needs money to buy her formerly rent-controlled apartment). “Valuables,” however, such as paintings and jewelry, are counted, as “nonfinancial assets,” among wealth. However, they account for wealth valued around just 10% of national income, and are therefore not really that big a deal.

More interesting is the extended discussion of how businesses are valued – there are two different ways of looking at the value of a corporation. There is the “market” valuation, which reflects the value of stocks, in the case of a public corporation, or the estimated selling price of a private firm. Then there is also the “book” value reflected by a firm’s own internal accounting. As mentioned before, in some cases there can be a considerable discrepency between the “market” value and the “book” value of a firm. Piketty brings in the idea of Tobin’s Q, which is the ratio between the two values. James Tobin was an economist at Yale for many years – his star pupil was Janet Yellen, now Chairman of the Federal Reserve. He used her notes from his classes as the basis of a study guide handed out to later students. Although the value of Tobin’s Q can vary greatly in short periods, if one observes long-run trends of the ratio, it can be seen that some countries have a Q above 1, while others have a Q below 1. An example of an above 1 ratio (it occurred to me) would be Apple, which is valued highly for its brand, an intangible asset. As discussed earlier, Germany has a Q persistantly below 1, due to the characteristics of “Rhenish capitalism.”

The other really interesting observation I found in this chapter was a kind of off-the-cuff theory of organizations, categorized by form of income. Government organizations are financed by public subsidy; corporations are financed by sales; and non-profits are financed by charitable contributions. This comes up because one of the rising categories of wealth is the private foundation, a consequence of the fall of publicly held wealth. Again, the use of the concept of income is just a super-useful way to thing about how the economy all first together.

The transfer of wealth out of the public sector and into the private is definitely a major theme of the chapter. It tempting to say that such an outlook is bleak, but Piketty is perfectly non-chalant about it. The main idea is that the capital/income ratio is determined in the long run by the ratio between saving and growth, and I think that’s a fairly open ended way of looking at the economy. Capitalism is dynamic – you can change it over time, and those changes can be directed by changes made in present time. Which is to say, if we wanted to a lower capital/income ratio, we could make that happen. I think that, often enough, people want to say that capitalism is just unalloyed badness, and Piketty’s view seems to refute this in favor of a more plastic view of capitalism

At the end of the chapter, there is a short section on the mystery of land values that I think is delightful. Land has a storied existance in American capitalism – from the agrarian idealism of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson to the bitter legacy of former slaves denied their forty acres and a mule to the rise of the 30-year mortgage as an essential element of middle class existance. It’s an important component of what we deam “wealth” but its value is not nearly so stable as we might like.

Looking ahead a bit, the next chapter is going to look at how capitalism is shaping up in the 21st century, and then we get to Part Three, which is the core of the book. So that’s pretty exciting, I think. Even though there’s been a great deal of refining and shaping to the argument so far – Piketty is careful to tell us what the book is about and what it isn’t about – in some ways it feels like more has been left open than closed. There’s a really big discussion here, that goes way past the customary discussion of national political economy.

 

 

Brexit

…a Brexit vote could be the catalyst for another global crisis. This time, however, the workers who lose their jobs, the pensioners who lose their savings, and the homeowners who are trapped in negative equity will not be able to blame “the bankers.” Those who vote for populist upheavals will have no one but themselves to blame when their revolutions go wrong.

Anatole Kaletsky, “Brexit’s Impact on the World Economy” 17 June 2016

The people I read are pretty much all saying something along the same lines as what Kaletsky is saying this weekend. And by all accounts, the referendum campaign has reached a fever pitch – a pro-Remain Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, was mudered on Thursday by a partisan of the Leave camp,  in this case a British nationalist with ties to the Neo-Nazi movement. Vox draws comparisons of the rheotoric of the Leave campaign to that of Donald Trump – both are driven by a populist fear of immigrants.

I don’t want to speculate on the outcome of next Thursday’s vote too much, but I think they will vote remain. But they might not. If they do, will it embolden the advocates of austerity? Will David Cameron take victory as a mandate for the tightening of the neo-liberal screws? If they don’t, will the British economy tank? Will Britain settle into a long, terrible recession.

I do think there are people who genuinely don’t care if they or their neighbors suffer hardship from economic reforms. If what you really wanted to do was to cut off immigration in your country, then going into a recession is a good strategy. What drives people to immigrate in the first place is the opportunity to work – a sure way to slow the rate of immigration is to reduce wages and the number of available jobs. It is easy to say that people who do not survive in the capitalist system simply do not work “hard enough” – the brutal logic of capitalism can be comforting when we do not want to face our role in the oppression of others – as long as the capitalist system sustains your particular fantasy. As long as you and your friends all have jobs, who cares, right? So long as your pension gets paid on time, what does it matter?

The main reason I think Britain will vote to Remain is because that’s the path of no change. Democracy, in my view, has a conservative bias. The question for England is the more conservative path: not leaving the international organisation that they have been part of for some half a century, or not allowing the population to change due to immigration. At the end of the day, a vote to Leave the EU doesn’t guarantee the desired outcome and it does mean deprivation.

But I don’t know.

Some thoughts on gun control

The tragedy in Orlando this past weekend, in which 50 people died and another 53 were injured by a man with an assault rifle and a handgun (both purchased legally), has a lot of folks (like me) hoping to see Federal legislation limiting gun ownership and so on. The conversation around this has a tone of deep frustration, as everyone knows that it is virtually impossible to limit gun ownership in the US, on account of the Second Amendment, and the political power of the National Rifle Association. Personally, I think that assault weapons ought to be banned outright, and that firearms should be strictly and severely limited bythe law in general, but I also think that doing so would require an unthinkable quantity of violence on the part of the government. I want to go over some of the reasons why I think enacting gun regulations is so incredibly difficult.

First of all, gun manufacturing is big business – legal small arms sales are worth $4.1 billion annually, and growing. It’s really, really difficult to tell businesses to stop producing stuff that consumers want to buy, because the whole point of capitalism is to produce the stuff consumers want. And consumers want guns.

Secondly, there’s a subculture of gun owners for whom this issue is not at all reasonable, but rather emotional. I had an uncle who died a few years ago who was something of a gun nut (and my suspicion is that he was quite typical), and in the process of cleaning out his house, my father told me that numerous guns were found, along with thousands of rounds of ammunition. Thinking about all that firepower, I could imagine my uncle getting drunk in front of the television (he was also an alcoholic), feeling alienated and fearful, and buying guns and ammo as a response to those feelings. And let me just say here, I write this because I think of much of consumer behavior as driven by feelings and not by rational decision making. I remember once having an advertising expert tell me about how Revlon basically sells hope, not makeup. A great deal of consumption, in my view, is symbolic rather than practical. Buying guns is about fear – I am afraid, for whatever reason, so I buy a gun, for protection. Will the gun protect me? Probably not. Will there be an opportunity to defend myself using the gone? Almost certainly not. But it will make me feel safer? If I am a typical consumer of firearms, yes.

Guns make people feel powerful. I remember seeing a scene from a South Park episode wherein a character, while pointing a loaded gun at others, remarks how wonderful it feels to have someone really listen, and how firearms affect this par excellance. Essentially, a gun makes the possessor an authority, automatically. In a world where we are so often marginalized and alienated, the fantasy of guns – of being taken seriously – is powerful.

I remember a guy I worked with in Americorps in Oakland (back in 2003) told me that he had empathized with the Columbine killers. This particular guy had Moebius syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterized by facial paralysis, and had a really hard time socializing. He could relate to feelings of anger and frustration that come with being a social outsider within the context of high school. Feeling alienated by society is not all that unusual today – lots of people are angry, lonely, and afraid. Fantasies in which one is powerful, in which one is able to wield power over others, are appealing to a person who feels powerless and alone.

There is also another role that guns play (very well) within the symbolic order: the functional part in the citizen militia fantasy. Americans, especially white people with patriarchal proclivities, get really into the idea that the nation has to be defended from something or someone. It’s easy to think of folks like this as ridiculous, but I think it rather a plain fact of modern existance that we all believe ourselves to be part of some larger social structure, and as such, part of an “us” with a corresponding “them.” In that context, it is simply part of everyday life to desire to uphold what is right and to scorn what is wrong, and to defend the right and the good as ably as possible.

If we wanted to stop selling guns, or restrict gun sales, it would be really difficult, because people like buying guns, they like the fantasies engendered by the purchase of guns, and the people selling the guns are making a good (and honest) living doing it. This is a capitalist country. If willing sellers cannot sell to willing buyers, then what are we doing, anyways? If we restricted gun sales, they would go underground, and become more profitable than ever. If we regulated gun ownership, it would simply make the fearful gun owners more paranoid. If we tried to take guns away from people, it would like a low level civil war.

A great many Americans do not trust the government – for them, America is an idea, not a nation or a state or a country, not a place or a group of people with diverse views. Guns often represent a method of defense of that idea. The government is not trusted to carry out that defense. What would have to happen for serious, effective gun regulation to be set in place? We would have to consciously choose to have the government take guns away from people, which would mean a) the government would have to enact violence great enough to overcome resistance to said regulation, and b) enough people would have to trust the government enough to allow them to carry out such violence.

Let me put it this way: there are hundreds of thousands of paranoid, angry Americans with guns. If you want to take those guns away from them, you’d have to kill a bunch of them, and put a bunch more of them in prison, and then you’d have to deal with the underground firearms market that would inevitably spring up to meet demand for guns. And we’d have to choose that violence. Put money towards it. Reward people for carrying it out, and honor their memory when they died doing it. What happened in Orlando was tragic and fucked up, but at least its not really anybody’s fault.