Monthly Archives: January 2014

One Term More!

I found a copy of the video “One Term More” on my hard drive. It was produced by some Broadway supporters of Barack Obama for the 2012 race. Before erasing it I thought I would remind others of what I consider an outstanding piece of campaign media. It’s still on Youtube.

Nixon and Christie?

In 1972 Dick Nixon won a landslide re-election and he seemed to be riding high. But there were news reports coming out about the Watergate scandal and some of the other more unseemly events under his administration. At that time, very early in 1973, I had a funny feeling. Without any real reason to feel that I was right, I concluded that Nixon would not complete his term in office. To my surprise this prediction turned out to be right.

Now Chris Christie has also won a landslide re-election and seemed possibly on the way to the presidency. But again there is too much coming out, on too many fronts, and I’m getting that old feeling again. My  intuition is probably wrong, and if it is this blog will not be remembered, fortunately. But just in case, I’m documenting my prediction here.

Wishful thinking, I suppose, but maybe lightning will strike twice.

 

Yet more on Brooks

David Brooks, in his recent op-ed, started to talk about inequality but then changed the subject, to poverty. Even then he adopted the usual conservative argument that social problems among the lesser classes lead to poverty, so the solution to poverty is to address the social problems first.

However, a scholarly op-ed in the NY Times Opinionater today makes the opposite argument, namely that poverty leads to social problems, and so the alleviation of poverty among children can reduce social problems both while they are children and  throughout their lives. I won’t try to summarize this here as it’s a complex issue but I recommend it to your attention. Brooks is right on one thing. If you’re going to solve a problem it helps to know what causes it.

David Brooks on Inequality

A friend of conservative bent called my attention to the op-ed by David Brooks in the NY  Times yesterday about the inequality issue. He liked it. I found it confused and curiously off the mark. Here’s why.

It’s clear that Brooks doesn’t understand (or doesn’t want to understand) what the the economic problem called the inequality problem is. The tip-off is that he defines it as the “growing wealth of the top five percent of workers.” That’s not the problem. Between the 1960s and 2012  the share of national  income going to the people in the 95th to 99th percentile increased from about  12.5% to 16.5%, but for the top one percent the share rose from 8% to 19.5%. The figures for the top 0.1% are 2% and 9%!

What has been happening is a sea change in the US economy with almost all the benefits of economic growth going to a tiny group of the super-rich. THAT’s the problem of inequality. The four percent of households between the the 95th and 99th percentile get about four times as much income as they would if perfect equality were to rule. That doesn’t seem unreasonable. But the top one percent get almost 20 times as much and the top one tenth percent get 900 times as much.

Brooks then says that people (he means liberals) have compounded the problem with that of poverty. He claims that the problem of poverty is a sociological one and that we should be treating those causes instead of dealing with income inequality. Moreover that MUST be the solution because conservatives are willing to do that and will NOT deal with income inequality itself. He’s right about that, but I simply point out that it’s Brooks who has changed the subject from inequality to poverty, not the liberals. The fact remains that the economy is not working well for the vast majority of Americans, not just the poor.

Brooks also attacks the proposal to increase the minimum wage on the grounds that it will not effectively effect poverty. The argument is based on a Heritage Foundation study that concluded  that most people earning the minimum wage now are young people who are part of larger family units. The more interesting question, given that the minimum wage has lagged behind inflation over the years is: Who are  those getting wages now that are less than the proposed, updated minimum wage?

Brooks also brings up the old argument that inequality is increased by the tendency of well-off people to marry each other. This is clearly not the cause of the real inequality problem. A more interesting point is that  the inequality figures are for family units, so that the increasing proportion number of married women working over the last 50 years depresses the true inequality. Even with two workers the middle class can’t keep up.

Paul Krugman, in his blog the last couple of days, has also weighed in on the Brooks op-ed. As usual, right on the mark.

Bargemusic

We’re going to a chamber music concert in Brooklyn on Sunday. One of the lesser known delights of New York City is Bargemusic, a year-round place for chamber music, played in an old coffee barge moored permanently under the Brooklyn Bridge at the Fulton Ferry dock. Four concerts a week are given year round and although the current director has a little too much interest in modern music for my taste there are always a number of programs aimed more directly at old fogies like me.

BargeMusic  Click on picture to enlarge.

The site is part of the attraction. Large windows behind the stage offer a magnificent view of lower Manhattan and of the passing river traffic, with the Brooklyn Bridge almost overhead.  For those with an adequate supply of cash, a nice combination is Sunday brunch at the famous River Cafe next door followed by a four o’clock concert. The cost of concert tickets is quite reasonable, however, at $35. (The River Cafe has been closed since Sandy but reopens in February.)

One of  the items on the program Sunday is the Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 8.

George Packer on Chris Christie

For all the talk about Chris Christie lately, I think George Packer summed it up best in the New Yorker.

The Trouble with Christie

I was there in Tampa in August, 2012, for Governor Chris Christie’s keynote address at the Republican National Convention, and from the first line I knew this guy was trouble: “Well! This stage and this moment are very improbable for me.” For twenty-four overwrought minutes, Christie spoke, proudly, glowingly, about the subject that really gets him fired up, which is himself—how he always faces the hard truths; how he wants to be respected more than loved; how, of his two parents, he’s much more like his tough, brutally honest Sicilian mother (“I am her son!”) than like his good-hearted, lovable Irish father. It was later observed that the Governor almost forgot to mention the Party’s Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, whose nomination Christie was in Tampa to kick off; less widely remarked was that he also practically disowned his sole surviving parent, who was in the audience listening, and presumably didn’t mind.

The trouble with Christie has to do with more than ordinary narcissism, which, after all, is practically an entry requirement for a political career. When Barack Obama used to tell crowds during the 2008 campaign, “This is not about me. It’s about you,” I always interpreted the words to mean that it actually was about him. But Obama, whose ego is so securely under control that his self-sufficiency has become a point of criticism among Washington pundits, would never devote more than a paragraph to his own personality (as opposed to his biography)—which was the subject not just of Christie’s convention keynote speech but of his entire political career. What struck me in Tampa even more than his self-infatuated lyrics was the score they were set to—the particular combination of bluster, self-pity, sentimentality, and inextinguishable hostility wrapped in appeals to higher things. (After declaring that Democrats “believe the American people are content to live the lie with them,” Christie waved the flag of bipartisanship, saying, “We lose when we play along with their game of scaring and dividing.”) Those are dangerously combustible elements in a political personality. Americans older than fifty are all too familiar with them.

The engineered traffic nightmare in Fort Lee, New Jersey, is, of course, being called Bridgegate. The suffix has been used, overused, and misused for almost every political scandal since a “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters on the night of June 16, 1972. In the case of Bridgegate, there are several key limiting factors. It’s a state scandal, not a national one. A potential Presidency might be at stake, but not an actual one. No evidence ties the Governor directly to the havoc visited on one of New Jersey’s five hundred and sixty-six municipalities—not yet, anyway. On the scale of Teapot Dome and Iran-Contra and even Monica, the four-day closing of two approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge is very minor league.

So why do I keep having flashbacks to 1972? Some of the parallels are weirdly exact. Whether or not he ordered the Watergate bugging, Richard Nixon ran a campaign of dirty tricks for two reasons: he wanted to run up the score going into his second term, and he was a supremely mean-spirited man. Nixon’s reëlection campaign reached out to as many Democrats as possible (not just elected officials but rank-and-file blue-collar workers and Catholics). Nixon ran not as the Republican Party’s leader but, in the words of his bumper sticker, as just “President Nixon.” His landslide win over George McGovern translated into no Republican advantage in congressional races—the Democrats more than held their own. The Washington Posts David Broder later called it “an extraordinarily selfish victory.”

Christie’s 2013 reëlection tracks closely with this story: an all-out effort to court Democrats in order to maximize his personal power, and a landslide victory in November, with all the benefit going to the Governor, not to his fellow-Republicans in the state legislature. On Christmas, the Times published a piece about Christie’s long record of bullying and retribution. In it, the Fort Lee traffic jam was mentioned as just one of many cases (and, I have to admit, not the one that stayed with me) of vengefulness so petty that it inescapably called to mind the American President who incarnated that quality, and was brought down by it.

In the e-mails that went public last week when the scandal broke, the tone of Christie’s aides and appointees displays the thuggery and overweening arrogance that were characteristic of Nixon’s men when the President was at the height of his popularity—utter contempt for opponents, not the slightest anxiety about getting caught. In both cases, whether or not the boss sanctioned these actions, the tone came from the top. It’s the way officials talk when they feel they have nothing to fear, when there’s a kind of competition to sound toughest, because that’s what the boss wants and rewards. Once all hell broke loose, Christie insisted, in a compelling and self-indulgent press conference that, like his keynote speech, was all about himself, that he was the scandal’s biggest victim. “I am not a bully,” he said, in an echo of one of Nixon’s most famous remarks.

Character is destiny, and politicians usually get the scandals they deserve, with a sense of inevitability about them. Warren G. Harding surrounded himself with corrupt pols and businessmen, then checked out, leading to the most sensational case of bribery in American history. Ronald Reagan combined zealotry and fantasy, and Oliver North acted them out. Bill Clinton was libidinous and truth-parsing but also cautious, while George W. Bush was an incurious crusader who believed himself chosen by God and drove almost the entire national-security establishment into lawlessness without thinking twice. Christie, more than any of these, is reminiscent of the President whose petty hatefulness destroyed him—which is why, as NBC’s newscaster said when signing off on an early report on that long-ago burglary, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.

Is There a Politics of Inequality?

I’m still catching up on old New Yorker articles and have found an interesting one by Nicholas Lemann (almost two years old) entitled “Evening the Odds: Is There a Politics of Inequality?” 

He contrasts the fading of the Occupy Wall Street movement with the success of the Tea Party and asks why the inequality issue seems to lack political appeal. No real answers given but a good discussion. My own feeling is that what is needed is a long term effort to re-educate the American public, similar to the effort made by big money for the last 40 years to instill the conservative nonsense into the public’s unconscious. Easy to say, of course, but how to organize and fund such an effort is unclear.

I think we have all been so barraged by conservative propaganda over the years that we scarcely notice anymore. It’s like the air we breath as we grow accustomed to its pollution. Examples are the verbal and legal war on unions, the legend that the moneyed Masters of the Universe are responsible for all economic progress, and the infamous trickle down theory.