Friday, November 15, 2019
Home Authors Posts by Andy Schmookler

Andy Schmookler


Private Opulence, Public Poverty

A little item in THE WEEK magazine (11/15/13):

Public investment is at its lowest level since World War II, dropping to just 3.6 percent of U.S. output, compared to the postwar average of 5 percent. The decrease is largely thanks to 'Republican success in stymieing President Barack Obama's push for more spending on infrastructure, science, and education.'
What a shame. And what a shame the Obamacare launch has gone so badly, as it provides ammunition for those who work to sell the public the idea that the government is never the solution but always the problem.

Not only is there a problem with the "keep your government hands off my Medicare kinds of ignorance," but most Americans don't know how important a role has been played, in the development of American affluence, by "public investment"-- including the canals and bridges that the Federalists and Whigs sought in the early 19th century, and the railroads in which government played an important role, as well as things like the interstate highway system and the Internet (in which actually Al Gore did play a constructive role).

The whole challenge is to find the right mix between the public and the private in our economy, not to idolize the one and demonize the other.

Obamacare’s Difficulties Are Disheartening, But Consider This

Our nation's greatest achievements did not come without failures along the way. When I think of such achievements, winning World War II and landing a man on the moon come quickly to mind.

What the United States accomplished between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and V-J Day is astonishing. But the early months of that war were a string of defeats and set-backs. The Japanese rolled across the Philippines, taking numerous American soldiers prisoner. In North Africa, the inexperienced American troops were no match for Rommel's forces. Those days were dark indeed.

By the end of the 1960s, the United States had landed men on the moon --"one small step for a man, one giant step for mankind"-- and won the admiration of the world. However, a decade before that, I recall, the pictures from Cape Canaveral were anything but inspiring. Missiles would go through a countdown only to topple and explode when ignition time came, or lift off but fail to go into orbit.

America worked its way through those failures, however, and went on to do great things.

Of course, in those times, we did not have a major political party that was not just hoping for failure, but actively working for failure.

Against that, too, we must persevere.

Is There a Single Republican Today Who Might Have Been Played by John Wayne...

I don't think so. Not straight-shooting enough for a John Wayne character. Not decent enough for Jimmy Stewart. Not enough integrity for either of the kinds of characters they played.

It is the pervasive dishonesty of the whole thrust of today's Republican Party that precludes any of them from being cast as a hero.

These are the guys who embezzle the money from their bank, or who are hired to beat up the farmers who get in the way of the cattle baron.

Hearing Clinton Speak Is, by Itself, Worth Going Out of One’s Way For

There are good political reasons to attend the Clinton-McAuliffe campaign events. But even if there weren't....

Toward the close of last year's campaign, at a rally in Roanoke, I heard Bill Clinton speak. I was extremely impressed. Really impressed. Even more than I'd been by his speech to the Democratic convention-- a speech that (with the possible exception of Michele Obama's) was the high-point of the convention.

Bill Clinton is not only likely the most gifted politician of our times, but he is also a great teacher. He spoke for about an hour on that occasion in Roanoke, and he was engaging and clear and persuasive, and he laid out with unusual clarity a whole host of issues-- all done in a way that strengthened the candidate in whose support he had come, Barack Obama.

In the coming days, Clinton will be speaking around Virginia in support of his friend, Terry McAuliffe. Since the candidate himself will be there, unlike in Roanoke, and Clinton will be the endorser and not the surrogate, there will be doubtless less of Clinton than at the event last year. But Bill Clinton will not be short-changed, and I think Terry McAuliffe is too smart to worry about being upstaged when he's got someone like Clinton to rally the troops for him. So those who attend these rallies will almost certainly get to witness a worthwhile and memorable Clinton performance.

Besides which, as I learned at the Virginia Democratic state convention in June, 2012, Terry McAuliffe is himself capable of giving a very powerful, very effective political speech. Indeed, in terms of the stem-winder variety of political oratory, McAuliffe may be the stronger of the two. His speech at the state convention last year was one of the most rousing political speeches I've ever heard, in person or otherwise.

So I encourage y'awl to consider attendance at the following events as worth your while. It's worth doing for the usual political reasons-- to support the Democratic ticket in this campaign home-stretch. But even if there were no election, just hearing Bill Clinton speak, in person, in the context of the political battles of our times, would be reason enough.

Here's what an email I got says is the schedule (I think this list is incomplete, and I hope that those with additional information will provide it, below, in the comments):

Thrilled by the Transformation I Perceived in President Obama this Morning

I was a huge fan of Obama's for the year before his inauguration. Much of the time since the first few months of his presidency, I've been intensely frustrated and disappointed by what I see as his weakness in dealing with an opposition determined to make him fail, regardless of the damage to the nation. Today, I believe I saw something that says he's undergone a real and basic transformation, a movement into a place of deep strength.

The way he stood his ground during the recent standoff with the Republicans in Congress showed he'd learned a lesson. That's important, but it doesn't necessarily show a transformation: the idea that "this time we don't pay ransom to hostage-takers" can represent a decision, undertaken at a level of conscious strategy, and does not necessarily show a deeper movement of heart and soul away from weakness and into a place of strength.

But here the President was, talking about his signature accomplishment precisely because of the problems that have beset its launch, and the President seemed to be strong in a way that comes from the core, strong in a way that I've not seen much in the past.

In the past, I've often thought that he was good at ACTING as if he was strong, but that he didn't really own that strength. Today I felt that here was a man who had settled into the fact that he is President of the United States, that he can prevail over his enemies, that he can make good things happen, that he is comfortable in the possession of not only the power of his office but also his inner power.

The Dog that Refuses to Bark: A Stunning Clue about the Problem with American...

You probably have heard about the book from a little while back, It's Even Worse Than It Looks. It was written by two very centrist, perhaps even conservative, interpreters of the Washington scene: Norm Ornstein (of the American Enterprise Institute) and Thomas Mann (of the Brookings Institution).

One of the main quotations from that book describes the Republican Party as "an insurgent outlier...ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

When I heard first heard that passage, back in 2012, my thought was: it's about time you noticed that. To me, that's been blatantly, disturbingly obvious for years.

But here's the kicker. When Ornstein and Mann came out with their book --belatedly in my view, as I said-- they were subject to a kind of ostracism, a loss of their high media status. Here's how Raw Story put it:  

Ted Cruz as Mad Hatter (But Cruz Isn’t Mad, He’s a Sociopath)

Sociopaths make the Kool-Aid. The Crazies are the ones who drink it.

Sociopathy and craziness have this in common: they are both forms of human "brokenness."

Sociopaths are broken in their not being connected with the rest of humanity by bonds of empathy. They serve only themselves, using and exploiting others, caring nothing about the consequences for others or the greater good. This captures well what Ted Cruz has been doing, and before him, on the right, the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and Karl Rove.

The Crazies, such as we see on the right, are broken in the fundamental disconnect between what they believe about the world they're living in and the realities of that world. Sociopaths can manipulate them into obsessing about non-existent threats, and into ignoring the genuine threats to their well-being, their liberties, and the prospects for their children.

Both sociopathy and craziness create channels for the advancement in the world of a force that could appropriately be called "Evil." Evil can be understood as a pattern of brokenness that works to spread itself, and that imparts its brokenness --does damage-- to everything that it touches.

This "Evil" not only creates brokenness, but it also exploits brokenness as it works to increase its power in the human world.

There are always some sociopaths in a population, but Evil succeeds by enabling sociopaths to rise to positions of power in a socio-cultural system. That a voice like Limbaugh's wields such power in America, that a politician like Ted Cruz can be mentioned as a presidential contender, is a sign of how far the force of brokenness has advanced in our times.

Strike While the Iron Is Hot

How We Can Hear Opportunity Knocking in These GOP Poll Numbers

Everybody knows: the polls show a huge drop in the poll numbers for Republicans.  What that means is that millions of people are in the process of changing their image of the Republican Party. For the worse. Maybe much worse.

But people have short memories. The image of the Republicans recklessly taking hostages over the shutdown and the threat of default will soon begin to recede.  When the ugliness that this episode has revealed recedes from view, these millions of people whose views of the GOP are in flux will likely shift back in the direction of their old views, as when the GOP polled better.

Unless the Democrats strike while the iron is hot. That means taking every opportunity to highlight what will doubtless be other Republican conduct in the future that confirms what these millions are now coming to see.

Almost two-thirds of Americans now see the Republicans as promoting their own agenda at the expense of the public good.  They've been doing this for years, and they're not about to stop.

The job for the Democrats now is to call them out on their power-hungry disregard of the nation's welfare every time it's on display.  That will reinforce what so many Americans are now more receptive to seeing.

People have seen that the Republicans do not speak the truth. Democrats should call them on their lies, every time.  They see that the Republicans run roughshod over the norms of our democracy.  Call them out.  They see that the Republicans are unhinged from reality (default would be no big deal). Keep the focus on how dangerous it would be to let such unhinged people steer our nation.

The Power of Standing Up to Bullies

As I write this, there is a shred of uncertainty about whether President Obama will continue until the end standing firm on his position that there will be no concessions made to hostage-takers. I hope he gives not an inch on that.

Regardless, the unfolding of this crisis proves quite clearly that the best way to disempower the dark spirit that drives these right-wing bullies is to take the right stand and then stand one's ground.

Here once again we see a recapitulation of the drama leading up to the Civil War.

It would be very easy to document, extensively, the proposition that the South of the 1850s, in its conduct toward the North, and the Republican Party of the past fifteen years, in its conduct toward the Democrats, have been bullies.

Arguably, the Northerners of the years before the Civil War were less cowed by the Southern bullies than the Democrats of our times have been by the Republicans. But the Southerners believed that, though the North might complain about the South's breaking up of the Union, when push came to shove they would back down. The Yankee might get upset and sue you, one Southerner said, but he won't fight.

What they hadn't counted on was the extraordinary quality of character of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was an unusually humane and conciliatory person. That came through in all his communications to the South prior to the outbreak of the war. But he was also resolute.

Cutting One’s Losses Comes Hard

There is apparently a human aversion to accepting the certainty of a loss, and that aversion helps illuminate the behavior of the Republicans in their present quandary.

That's one of the things I've learned from a quite brilliant book I'm reading. Titled Thinking, Fast and Slow, it is written by Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics for work he's done on the non-rational aspects of human decision-making.

One piece of this book deals with how, contrary to much previous thinking of economists, humans do not make their decisions in a straight-forward rational fashion based on calculations of probabilities times magnitudes of possible gains and losses. People place an inordinately high weight on small possibilities, and they place a great value on the move from highly probable to certain. Add to that the fact that people feel more painful impact from losses than they feel pleasure from gains of the same magnitude, and one ends up with a two-by-two matrix that is relevant to the explanation of the Republicans' recklessness in the current crisis. (The Republicans also have some other craziness problems, but I'm setting that aside for now.)

In this two-by-two matrix, there is either a high or a low probability of a gain or a loss of either a large or a small magnitude. In each of the four cases, people are given the option of taking a deal that gives certainty of a smaller gain/loss, or taking their chances of getting the whole thing.

What studies find is that people will take their chances on getting a big gain with a small probability (like buying a lottery ticket), and they'll also gamble when it comes to the possibility a large loss for which there is a large probability. When there's a large probability for a large gain, they'll take a smaller gain to make it a sure thing. (People will take $900,000 for certain, for example, in preference to a 95% chance of winning a million.)

The quadrant the Republicans are in is the one where there's a very high probability of a very large loss. When people are in that situation, will they accept a somewhat smaller loss for sure, or will they take their chances that somehow they can come out of the situation unscathed?

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