Category Archives: politics

Conspirators into stumblebums

On the twentieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in, reporter Daniel Schorr gave the following account on NPR. I find it more than a little relevant today and have added some emphasis below.

One consequence [of Watergate] was to tear down the majesty of the presidency. No nation could see a president who lied, spied, wire-tapped, spoke obscenities and plotted to thwart the justice he was sworn to uphold and retain its faith in the institution. Ensuing “Gates” – White House scandals – came as shocks, but no longer as surprises. If America today has turned against its government, equating incumbency with guilt and inexperience with innocence, you can trace that back to Watergate.

A pity, because one lesson of Watergate is that the lumbering machinery of government worked. More than the press, it was the much-maligned bureaucracy and Congress and the courts that broke the cover-up: the FBI that refused to lie down and play dead; the assistant attorney general, who refused to be the president’s patsy; the Senate committee that laid the groundwork for impeachment; the federal judge who pursued the higher-ups of convicted Watergate burglars.

Since then, government and judiciary have been increasingly politicized. One wonders if today it could prevent a coup from the top. For that, it is not generally realized, was what was in the making. More sinister than what President Nixon did was what he planned to do after winning landslide re-election despite Watergate. The files and tapes disclosed his plans to centralize power in a “super Cabinet” with White House agents like political commissars riding herd on the departments.

The White House would have its own intelligence and surveillance operation. The full power of government would be turned on Nixon’s enemies. “They are asking for it, and they’re going to get it,” Nixon told John Dean. “We have not used the power in the first four years, but things are going to change now.” The nation was saved from that by the government it disdained, and the press it despises, and by whatever providence it is that makes conspirators into stumblebums.

Nixon was smarter than Trump, and had long experience in national politics, and still was thwarted in his ambition. By that measure we need only a little of that providence Daniel Schorr mentioned to work on our behalf. Let us pray that it’s still in operation.

(Daniel Schorr’s report © National Public Radio. I am grateful to NPR’s Audience and Community Relations department for unearthing this transcript for me.)

Engage

You wouldn’t know it from the level of our public discourse, but there is more that unites Americans than divides us – much more.

As Ralph Nader writes in Unstoppable, his book about forging left-right alliances on topics of common interest,

[M]ost people want safe food and drugs. They want to breathe clean air and drink clean water. They want their work to be rewarded with adequate returns for the necessities of life […] They want clean elections and competitive candidates, who provide perceived differences and choices in their platforms. They want their taxes to be reasonable and used well for the common good in an efficient manner. They want some voice in decisions that affect them. They want peace, justice, and public safety.

But Democrats don’t win office by telling you their Republican opponent is a lot like them, and Republicans don’t win office by telling you how much in common they have with Democrats. They need to find the fissures of disagreement, drive a wedge there, and hammer, hammer, hammer. Those Bible-thumping hicks in the flyover states will catch up to modern society sooner or later. The elite libtards on the coasts hate God, guns, and America. That sort of thing.

We used to know how to get along together, but it’s been trained out of us. Any political statement by one side is treated as an outrage by the other, producing ridicule, aggression, dismissiveness, and further entrenchment on both sides. We all need some deprogramming.

During yesterday’s inauguration of Donald Trump, a conservative friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

Still ecstatic it’s not Hillary.

I wrote,

Sincerely curious to know what your reasons are, as long as they’re more substantive than just “her e-mails” and “Benghazi” and “Vince Foster.”

During the campaign someone wrote that, whatever you think of Hillary, no one can plausibly believe she’d pose a threat to the Constitution; and no one can plausibly doubt that Trump does. To the extent that’s true (and it sure feels true to me), and since preserving the Constitution takes precedence over all, shouldn’t simple patriotism have demanded a Hillary vote?

My friend has not yet responded. But someone else, who I’ll call M, posted in that thread,

Liberals are the most intolerant bunch of people I have ever seen. A woman who accepts millions of dollars from foreign countries for her personal gain (foundation), while she is Secretary of State, doesn’t seem to bother you much. But if Trump says something you do not like, it’s the end of the world and the country is never going to be the same. If we survived 8 yrs of Obama, we can get through anything. He loathes America. The most divisive President ever. A vote for Hillary would have been a vote for Obama.

Now, there is plenty that’s wrong with that statement, and plenty of ways to challenge it. But that’s my programming talking: challenge the opposition, don’t let them get away with it, call them out on every little thing. What does that accomplish? Will I win a convert that way? Not a chance. I have learned from experience that a righteous takedown of this person’s misguided beliefs will make me feel puffed-up and smart and superior and maybe earn me some attaboy points among my peers… but do nothing whatever to meaningfully reach this person, to spread the idea of tolerance and respect, to heal the country. I would only have been helping the hammerers to drive their wedge deeper.

So I quashed my initial impulse to cite anecdotes and statistics and experts to prove my points and disprove theirs. Instead I responded,

Here’s the thing: no one’s ever as bad as their opponents make them out to be. Most of the things people disliked about Hillary were drip, drip, dripped into our heads for a quarter century by her opponents – and it worked! It even worked on me, a Democrat. I didn’t like her much for all those vague reasons – her shadowy connections, something something private e-mail server, etc. – until I started digging into all those criticisms for myself and found there was very little there.

On the other hand, most of what Trump opponents dislike comes from his own mouth – unconcealed hatred and disrespect for very many of our fellow citizens, proud ignorance of the Constitution, contradictory statements on almost every topic, unwillingness to engage with critics other than by suppression, and, worst of all, not one scrap of humility or kindness to be found anywhere in his persona.

I’m not disagreeing with anything in M’s post. Yes, there was a certain stink about Hillary; I smelled it too. Maybe it was just propaganda. As for Trump, I called him out on all those things that Americans want in their leaders – forthrightness, courtesy, maturity, humanity – and that all but his blindest supporters must admit he lacks.

This morning I was enormously gratified to find that M had given my comment a Facebook “like.”

This tiny interaction is my template for how we’ll win back the decent, diverse America we once had and have forgotten we want. We only need to approach conversations like this with no thought of putting the other person in their place, but in the sincere belief that we have more to learn than to teach.

We’ve been trained to treat half of the country as our ideological enemy. It’s time we learned the true enemies are the ones who’ve been turning us against each other.


Bonus: Storm, of the musical comedy duo Paul and Storm, had a similar story yesterday about engaging respectfully with a political opponent and achieving civility: Fist-bump with Uncle Sam.

The Sigma Tax

Pronounced income disparity is the root of many of our country’s problems. Economists have been talking about it for years, and last week President Obama made an attempt to bring the issue front-and-center in a speech at Knox College.

Another thing that economists have long said is, “When you tax something, you get less of it.” So here’s an idea: let’s tax income disparity!

How would this work? Easy. For companies of a given size, we decide what the ideal distribution is of wages and other compensation. We might decide, for instance, that the 90th percentile should be earning no more than 50x what the 10th percentile earns. Whatever numbers we choose, the result is a curve; presumably a less-pronounced one than this:

Once we decide on the shape of our curve, companies are free to obey it or not, distributing their compensation however they see fit. But if their curves deviate too far from the ideal, they pay a proportional income-disparity tax. Maybe they can even be eligible for an income-disparity credit if the curves deviate in the other direction.

Properly tuned, and phased in slowly, this “Sigma Tax” (for the Greek letter that designates standard deviation in statistics) should result in gentle but inexorable pressure that reduces the wage gap, improving things for the bottom 99% without breaking the 1%, while paring some of their shameful excess.

PayPal arbitration opt-out

Bob Glickstein
[address]
[phone number]
[e-mail address]
13 Oct 2012

PayPal, Inc.
Attn: Litigation Department
2211 North First Street
San Jose, CA 95131

To whom it may concern,

I am a PayPal user at the e-mail address above. I do not agree to the Agreement to Arbitrate as delineated in your Amendment to the PayPal User Agreement and Privacy Policy dated Nov 1st, 2012. By this letter I hereby reject it per the opt-out procedure described in section 14.3 (e). Kindly exclude me from the Agreement to Arbitrate.

I further request that you consider dropping the arbitration clause altogether, for all your customers, as a matter of principle. Hand-wringing about frivolous lawsuits notwithstanding, citizen access to the public court system is one of the things that makes America great. I invite you to read my fuller thoughts on the matter at www.geebobg.com/2008/09/20/the-sue-s-of-a/

Timely written acknowledgment of this request sent to the above address would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

[signature]

Bob Glickstein

Who are the real monsters?

A British film about Americans in Mexico. That seemed odd. But it didn’t stop me from watching 2010’s Monsters on Netflix recently, and enjoying it.

It’s six years after a NASA probe to Jupiter’s moons crash lands on its return to Earth, “infecting” an area of Northern Mexico near the U.S. border with samples of alien life, which thrive there and multiply, growing huge and destructive. The U.S. has erected an enormous wall along its Mexican border and its military makes regular incursions across it to suppress the creatures and limit their spread. Our two main characters have to make it back to the U.S. while traveling dangerously near, and eventually through, the infected zone. Their journey has a vérité feel and is full of suspense, with a few moments of terror and some interesting character development. By the end I found it compelling enough to go online and see what opinions others had written about it.

I was disappointed by what I found. Without exception the reviews and opinions that I read evaluated Monsters as a conventional monster movie — that is, as a mere shocker — and by that metric many critics found it lacking in terms of horror and body count and creature biology and so on, though everyone commended the guerrilla filmmaking techniques and how far the tiny budget was stretched for the sake of producing credible special effects. The principal filmmaker, Gareth Edwards, is now being talked about as a hot new talent for directing sci-fi epics.

All of which was missing the point. Not one writer commented on the glaringly obvious subtext, the very reason the film was made and the answer to why a British filmmaker chose Mexico as his setting and Americans as his characters: it’s a story about the failure of America to adapt to a changing world.

[Spoilers follow.]

Continue reading

Make money the old-fashioned way

Dear film industry, music industry, and all other trade associations that lobby Congress for laws to protect their revenue streams:

You are not entitled to your profits. You are required to earn them anew, every single day.

If new competitive pressures come along and you’re unable to adapt, we the people are under no obligation to help you keep earning profits by tilting the playing field. In fact, quite the opposite.

Homeopathic democracy

Before George Washington became the first chief executive under the U.S. Constitution, he presided over the Philadelphia Convention at which the Constitution was drafted. Throughout the entire proceedings — which had its fair share of passionate disputes — Washington spoke up exactly once on an issue under debate. The proposed size of the U.S. House of Representatives was too small, he said. It would have meant one congressman for every 40,000 citizens. He insisted that one per 30,000 would produce a better, more responsive democracy, and so the change was made.

Within thirty years, as new states were admitted and the population grew, the ratio had grown to the level against which Washington had argued: 40,000 citizens per congressman. Four decades later and it more than tripled: 127,000 to 1. By this time the population of the country had grown from under two million to over 31 million, and the House of Representatives had gone from a cozy 65 members to a rowdy 241.

In 1912 the House of Representatives swelled to 435 members — roughly one for every 212,000 citizens — and there it was capped by legislation in 1929, by which time the ratio was more than 280,000 to 1.

If we had maintained that ratio, today the House would have 1,093 members. If we had maintained Washington’s ratio, today it would have 10,291 members. As it is we’re stuck with 435 — fewer than one congressperson for every 700,000 people. Some U.S. citizens have proportionally more Senate representation than House representation.

What was the cry of the Boston rioters in 1773?1 “No taxation without representation.” What would they have said about taxation with just a teensy amount of representation? No wonder our democracy is presently working about as well as a course of Oscillococcinum (the flu remedy so dilute that one dose contains none of its so-called active ingredients).

A ten thousand member Congress would probably be unmanageable. But a nation of three hundred million is (I think we can conclude from current events) ungovernable by a legislature so relatively small. Perhaps it’s time to reconstitute our national government. Here’s one idea off the top of my head for bringing representation closer to the people: add a level of hierarchy between the state and federal levels, according to the ten regions of American politics.

  1. No evocation of the modern day Tea Party is intended. []

O say can God bless America the beautiful

It was Little League day at AT&T Park yesterday, and when we got to the Giants game against the A’s it was already the fourth inning. (We’d spent the morning at Maker Faire.) So we missed the ritual singing of the national anthem at the beginning of the game.

I was therefore surprised when, at the beginning of the seventh inning stretch, fans were asked to stand and remove their hats for “God Bless America.” (My infrequent visits to the ballpark led me to expect only “Take Me Out To the Ballgame.”) The whole stadium dutifully complied as Kate Smith’s recorded voice echoed from the loudspeakers.

The whole stadium except for me, that is. I was disturbed that citizens would treat that song, patriotic though it is, with the same respect that is due the national anthem — which, for the record, is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not “God Bless America.” For one thing, it diminishes the importance of the national anthem. But more importantly, it trains people to regard anything concerning national identity with unthinking veneration. A little patriotic pride is a fine thing, but the clearest lesson of history is that an excess of nationalism is poison.

Besides, neither of these is the best choice for a song that obliges its listeners to stand at respectful attention. “God Bless America” is merely a plea to God, with nothing in it about America per se other than that the singer lives there, gladly. “The Star-Spangled Banner” commemorates a battle and a flag, not a nation or its people or its ideals, and it’s notoriously difficult to sing to boot. But “America the Beautiful” is full of praise for our wonderful country, and it’s so easy to sing even a Muppet can do it.