Lesson From the Woke Dentist–and Questions From Other Stories We Need to Keep Reconsidering…

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Image courtesy of freesvg.org

A friend (white) who likes and respects his dentist (also white) questioned the dentist about his reactions to our nation’s turmoil in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the police.

The dentist responded:

“I finally get it. My son’s been working on me for a while, but now it’s really clear.”

But, my friend persisted, since the media coverage has largely lost its intensity, is he still as focused on the issue?

“Yes,” said the dentist.

And he provided what my friend and I agreed was an apt description of racist thinking, even in well-meaning white folks like us.

“It’s like grinding your teeth. I’ll ask a patient if he grinds his teeth, and he’ll say ‘no.’ He’s sure he doesn’t grind his teeth. But I look at his molars, and it’s obvious he’s been grinding them.”

The impact of that perpetual grinding—arising from insults/actions large and small, many possibly unintended—erodes self-respect and dampens the life experiences of even the strongest individuals.

And it’s clear that it’s deeply embedded not just in us as individuals, but in all our nation’s institutions.

As my friend reminded me, enough grinding can actually kill the tooth. That’s why tens of thousands of diverse Americans have finally taken to the streets.

I’m aware of the growing body of what I believe are also well-meaning white people who think “woke” or identity politics are destroying this country.

They long for the Kumbaya of us all embracing in color-blind fashion, and/or they think that we should be talking about class and not about race.

But like my friend’s dentist, many Americans have finally awakened, and are saying that—among other things—we need to define the meaning of police work and the role of police officers in a democracy.

I, too, long for a nation/world in which Martin Luther King’s words are the reality: we’re all judged “not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.” And I wish we could resolve our problems by economic means alone.

Economics is, of course, a vital part of the equation, but it doesn’t per se erase the inequities that have arisen from our brutal history toward people of color—from before the first Thanksgiving to the current day.

It doesn’t touch the sense of vulnerability and fear of life-threatening acts arising from adversarial encounters with many white people, particularly those with authority.

So I think it’s naive and destructive to pretend that we can approach the ideal without making a deliberate attempt to root out every single vestige of race-based inequities in our institutions—and that we white people must keep educating ourselves so that we become aware of when we’re grinding—and that we cut it out.

As the brilliant author Ta-Nehisi Coates has said: “racism is the father of race.”

We may never reach the point where we don’t “see” color, but we have to keep striving to remove all the negative baggage that we attach to it.

At this time, people of color, especially black people, know they can’t escape it—no matter how accomplished they are and how exemplary their lives.

Consider Christian Cooper, bird-watching in Central Park, who had the temerity to ask a white woman to obey park rules and leash her dog, only to have her say, “I’m calling the police to tell them an African American man is threatening me.”

We know the consequences could have been more dire than they were, but what impact did the confrontation have on a quiet man simply bird-watching?

And what about James Juanillo, chalking “Black Lives Matter” on his own property in San Francisco, who was approached by a white couple insisting he didn’t belong there, who told him he had to stop and filed a police report against him for vandalism?

Then there’s Steve Locke, whose story I recently learned, though the episode took place in 2015. I think it is most instructive to anyone who’s not black and can’t possibly understand the ramifications of a black man’s being subject to police scrutiny.

Locke is an artist and art professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design who posted his soul-sapping encounter on his blog.

He titled it “I fit the description.”

On his way to buy a burrito before teaching his 1:30 class one day, he found himself surrounded by police cars. “We had someone matching your description just try to break into a woman’s home,” he was told. The description: “Black male, knit cap, puffy coat.”

“You fit the description.”

Locke describes how carefully he reached for his ID as instructed, first requesting permission to put his hand into his pocket.

Imagine feeling you have to ask permission to reach into your pocket! This humiliation is such a well-established survival mechanism that it’s become a part of black comedians’ repertoires.

In 1974, according to The New York Times, the late great Richard Pryor (whom I’ve quoted before in this blog) enunciated it as follows:

“I. Am Reaching. Into. My Pocket. For. My License.”

And just recently, Michael Che adapted it for his routine:

“My brother is a cop. I only see him on Thanksgiving, and even then, I’m like: I’m. Reaching. For. The. Potatoes.”

Obviously, this was no laughing matter for Locke. His hands were shaking. He told the police he was a college professor, pointing to his faculty photo ID that hung around his neck in full sight.

His knitted cap, he wrote later, multi-colored and handmade for him, was unlike any other. It couldn’t have fit the description, but that fact didn’t matter.

The police said they would take him to be identified by the woman who’d reported the crime.

And here’s where I found the account of this art professor on his way to buy a burrito so revelatory.

“It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die. I am not being dramatic when I say this. I was not going to get into a police car…

“I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially. I knew this in my heart.

“I was not going anywhere with these cops and I was not going to let some white woman decide whether or not I was a criminal, especially after I told them that I was not a criminal. This meant that I was going to resist arrest. This meant that I was not going to let the police put their hands on me.

If you are wondering why people don’t go with the police, I hope this explains it for you.”

Eventually, they let him go. He described the impact of this episode as he left to teach his class.

“I forgot the lesson I had planned. I forgot the schedule. I couldn’t think about how to do my job. I thought about the fact my word counted for nothing, they didn’t believe that I wasn’t a criminal. They had to find out.

“My word was not enough for them. My ID was not enough for them. My handmade one-of-a-kind knit hat was an object of suspicion. My Ralph Lauren quilted blazer was only a ‘puffy coat.’ 

“… The cops were probably deeply satisfied with how they handled the interaction, how they didn’t escalate the situation, how they were respectful and polite.

I imagined sitting in the back of a police car while a white woman decides if I am a criminal or not. If I looked guilty being detained by the cops, imagine how vile I become sitting in a cruiser? I knew I could not let that happen to me. I knew if that were to happen, I would be dead.

“Nothing I am, nothing I do, nothing I have means anything because I fit the description.”

I am thinking of Rayshard Brooks, the black man in Atlanta who fell asleep in a Wendy’s drive-thru and was subsequently shot in the back running away from the police.

In the lengthy first part of the video, he is shown politely conversing and cooperating with one of the police officers who was ultimately arrested for his murder.

It appears from the video that it was not until the second police officer handcuffed him that he tried to get away. Why the dramatic change in his behavior?

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Image courtesy of peakpx.com

We’ll never know.

We do know about the fight-or-flight-or-freeze instinct—our brain’s primitive survival mechanism that makes us react when we feel endangered. It’s so strong when we’re anxious that it affords little opportunity for rational thinking.

Among all the talk about better police training, I hope there’s emphasis on ensuring that the police understand this very basic reaction—and how it operates in both themselves and the people they encounter. We know from the experiences of so many black people that being approached by the police makes them feel they’re in danger.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but with all the talk about the need for better police training, in part because police believe themselves to be warriors who are always endangered, is there some emphasis on basic neuroscience? If not, maybe adding it could lead to life-saving insights.

Running away from the police should not be automatically viewed as evidence of guilt. It shouldn’t take much metaphorical teeth grinding to make us realize that—and to demand policies aligned accordingly.

Let’s consider a scenario in which it’s clear the police must detain a suspect. Let’s assume the police officers are well-meaning.

Is there any way these police can assure the potential detainee at the outset that he won’t be harmed or misjudged? Might community policing, in which the officers are required to live where they work, be a good possibility here?

If the suspect knows the police officers and has seen them in everyday circumstances—even being helpful to members of the community—perhaps he would be less likely to assume they are out to get him. And as importantly, they may know him.

Or have we passed the point where any black man can have confidence that the police will treat him fairly?

May this be the hopeful time in which greater clarity becomes possible, leading to meaningful reforms.

What do you think? Do you have ideas to suggest?

Annie

Note: Steve Locke does very compelling work on racial themes. You can view them at http://www.stevelocke.com.

Continue reading “Lesson From the Woke Dentist–and Questions From Other Stories We Need to Keep Reconsidering…”

CORONAVIRUS STIMULUS RELIEF PACKAGE(S): A Questioning Acrostic

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Image courtesy of health.mil.

Catastrophic delays
Of equipment for patients and carers
Reveal huge flaws in America’s design.
One thing I do
Not hear discussed
Applies to the “have nots’”
Vying for their tiny share of
Income from the supposed stimulus:
Registering their presence without
Use of computers and Internet?
Shadowy reminders of those we forget.

Small businesses
Tethered lightly to viability
In line for loans
Must wait months to see $$
Urgently needed, as
Life savings go out padlocked doors
Unless some Cuomo-esque souls
Snip through the bureaucracy…

Relying on small amounts,
Each home health aide, waiter,
Likely most in gig economy, live
In fear of dislocation,
Eviction, illness, as the
Fat big business cats purr in delight.

Phase 4 bill? The Dems want more $$ to
Aid states/locals still fighting virus,
Care via family/medical leave,
Keep first responders safe,
Add to Fed food aid,
Gird pensions for stability,
Extend more checks to meet great need.
(See below…)

_________________

The three bills were bipartisan, a remarkable accomplishment at this time that meant both sides compromised. To date, the Republicans say no more stimulus is needed–except Lisa Murkowski, who wisely notes that serious mental health needs arising from the pandemic will have to be addressed.

The Democrats improved the Republicans’ bill, but said they’d be back for more. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the first two bills were for emergency relief; the third for mitigation. The fourth will be for recovery.

In this fourth bill, the Democrats will plead for all in Phase 4 above, plus virus-revealed issues: money for Internet services, now a necessity; money for states and the Post Office for vote-by-mail to ensure our democratic processes can continue despite the pandemic.

(Will the President sign this bill? Speaking of the previous bill’s funding request for vote-by-mail, which is expected to enable more Americans to vote, he stated:
“The things they had in there were crazy…that if you ever agreed to, you would never have a Republican elected in this country again.”)

Two parties; two different wish lists.

For Phase 4 to pass, We, the People, must loudly say we agree. Do you? Will you?

Annie

Continue reading “CORONAVIRUS STIMULUS RELIEF PACKAGE(S): A Questioning Acrostic”

We Need to Prevent the Democratic Party–and the U.S.–From Being “Berned…”

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Image courtesy of needpix.com

I just can’t seem to help myself. Pretty soon I’ll get back to happiness and haiku. I’m much more comfortable seeking common ground and expressing optimism—and not preaching against a particular Democrat (or Independent running as a Democrat). After this post, I hope to leave this topic.

But for now, with the President’s awfulness mounting, and the chances of his removal from office practically nil, I feel I must use my little platform to try to help prevent a giant case of Buyer’s Remorse.

I think the evidence is strong that if the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, we will see him lose—big time. And with the very nature of our democracy hanging in the balance, that’s a scenario I feel compelled to address.

My overarching goal, like most Democrats and a goodly number of Independents and former or current-but-disgruntled Republicans, is to defeat Donald Trump. But I will vote for whoever wins the Democratic nomination for President—unlike some of the above. And there’s the problem.

In my previous warning about Bernie Sanders, I concluded by saying I hoped the press would do their job. Well, some of them are. You may not be seeing these stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or on CNN, but there are writers out there warning us quite clearly.

Here are links to a sampling of the articles, which I encourage you to read in their entirety:

—“Bernie Is the Opponent Trump Wants,” by William Saletan, Slate, January 28, 2020.

“Bernie Can’t Win,” by David Frum, The Atlantic, January 27, 2020. (Frum is a very thoughtful guy, a former conservative Republican, now a “Never Trumper.”)

—“Running Bernie Sanders Against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity,” by Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine, January 28, 2020.

These articles stress that Sanders’ past has never received the scrutiny it will get from Trump, that his present includes some questionable decisions, that most voters aren’t zeroing in on the implications of his socialist plans (as distorted by the Republicans, who call every Democrat a socialist, and now would have a real one to attack), and that the victorious 2018 women elected to Congress show where this election can be won.

In The Atlantic, Frum elaborates on a point that was the focus of the 2016 Newsweek article I cited previously.

“Bernie Sanders is a fragile candidate. He has never fought a race in which he had to face serious personal scrutiny. None of his Democratic rivals is subjecting him to such scrutiny in 2020. Hillary Clinton refrained from scrutinizing Sanders in 2016. It did not happen, either, in his many races in Vermont.”

Frum refers to a 2015 Politico profile by Michael Kruse, asserting that Sanders had

“benefited from ‘an unwritten compact between Sanders, his supporters, and local reporters who have steered clear’ of writing about Sanders’s personal history ‘rather than risk lectures about the twisted priorities of the press.’

(That sounds a bit Trumpian, doesn’t it?)

But there will be no such niceties from Trump and his campaign, Frum writes.

“It will hit him with everything it’s got. It will depict him as a Communist in the grip of twisted sexual fantasies, a useless career politician who oversaw a culture of sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign.

“Through 2019, Donald Trump and his proxies hailed Sanders as a true voice of the people, thwarted by the evil machinations of the Hillary Clinton machine.

“They will not pause for a minute before pivoting in 2020 to attack him as a seething stew of toxic masculinity whose vicious online followers martyred the Democratic Party’s first female presidential nominee.”

And if you think Trump won’t get away with such charges because of his own horrendous behavior, you are applying rationality and a sense of justice to a man who has successfully defied both.

That toxic masculinity charge lurks not far beneath the surface: Sanders appears at best to be indifferent to misogyny (a trait that’s fairly apparent in some of the devoted Bernie Bros).

Frum cites the Sanders’ campaign’s video celebrating the endorsement of “the mega-podcaster Joe Rogan,” apparently an icon among white men who are pretty sensitive about their status these days.

The Sanders’ embrace came despite Rogan’s mocking of many of the causes dear to the left, as well as “dancing around conspiratorial thinking of the left and right fringes: 9/11 denialism, Obama birtherism, and speculation about dark deeds concerning Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation.” (emphases mine throughout)

Is this Sanders’ idea of how to reach the Trump voters? If any of his fellow candidates had embraced such an endorsement, would he have simply shrugged and said, “OK, ya gotta do what ya gotta do”? I think not.

And how will that play with the angry white suburban and African-American women who were such an important part of the 2018 Democratic House victory? They won’t vote for Trump, but will they stay home in disgust?

Jonathan Chait notes in New York Magazine,

“the totality of the evidence suggests Sanders is an extremely, perhaps uniquely, risky nominee. His vulnerabilities are enormous and untested. No party nomination, with the possible exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964, has put forth a presidential nominee with the level of downside risk exposure as a Sanders-led ticket would bring.

“To nominate Sanders would be insane.”

He notes that because the socialist label isn’t as unpopular as it had been [especially among young people], “many people have gotten the impression ‘socialism’ is actually popular, which is absolutely not the case.”

Saletan, writing in Slate, makes the same observation, noting that Trump uses the word socialism at every rally to make the Democrats look “radical and scary.” As an avowed Socialist, Sanders is the opponent of Trump’s dreams.

Saletan cites poll after poll in which voters as a whole state their opposition to socialism. In a HarrisX survey asking “Would you ever vote for a Socialist for elected office?,” liberals said they would, but 72 percent of registered voters, including 64 percent of Democrats, said they would not.

The term “Democratic Socialism,” which Bernie espouses, draws fewer negatives (52 percent) but they include 25 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of voters who “lean liberal.”

[I stress here that I personally see the urgent need for greater government intervention to redress our current shameful economic disparities, which are the worst they’ve been since the 1930s.

There were compelling reasons for the New Deal, and too many Americans are hurting today. I do not regard socialism as the incarnation of evil. But I’m looking at the larger picture here, and I strongly believe Trump will persuade enough Americans of that supposed evil to defeat Bernie.]

Chait discusses Sanders’ “web of creepy associations” that will make it easy to depict him as a dangerous radical, reinforcing “attack narratives” that will stick in portraying his world view just as surely as pictures of Dukakis in a tank or Romney’s dismissal of the 47% did for theirs.

He adds:

“Sanders has never faced an electorate where these vulnerabilities could be used against him. Nor, for that matter, has he had to defend some of his bizarre youthful musings (such as his theory that sexual repression causes breast cancer) or the suspicious finances surrounding his wife’s college.

“Democrats are rightfully concerned about attacks on Hunter Biden’s nepotistic role at Burisma, but Sanders is going to have to defend equally questionable deals, like the $500,000 his wife’s university paid for a woodworking program run by his stepdaughter.”

Interestingly, after my previous Bernie post, a Vermont friend (a progressive who said no one she knows supports Bernie), wondered why there hadn’t been discussion by the media of Jane Sanders’ financial fiasco, which some in Vermont regard as mere stupidity, but others view as fraud.

Most important to me is Chait’s exploration of the 2018 winning of the House. Citing various progressive voices claiming how wrong the Dems were to run the kinds of candidates they did, he notes the following:

“As we now know, it was a good strategy to win the House. Democrats flipped 40 seats. Tellingly, while progressives managed to nominate several candidates in red districts…any one of whose victory they would have cited as proof that left-wing candidates can win Trump districts, not a single one of them prevailed in November.

“Our Revolution went 0–22, Justice Democrats went 0–16, and Brand New Congress went 0–6.* The failed technocratic 26-year-old bourgeoise shills who were doing it wrong somehow accounted for 100 percent of the party’s House gains.”

And here I think Chait makes an interesting observation. If the Democrats hadn’t won the House, their critics on the left would have said they’d been vindicated.

But instead of considering their broad losses in various geographical areas, they focused on the left-wing candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “who defeated center-left Democrats in deep-blue districts.”

In this effort, they were helped by the conservative media, seeking to make AOC and her small band the face of the Democratic party.

“The fact that the party had just run a field experiment between two factions, and the moderate faction prevailed conclusively, was forgotten.”

Chait emphasizes that:

“Trump has serious weaknesses on issues like health care, corruption, taxes, and the environment, and a majority of the public disapproves of Trump’s performance, but he does enjoy broad approval of his economic management.

“Therefore, his reelection strategy revolves around painting his opponents as radical and dangerous. You may not like me, he will argue, but my opponents are going to turn over the apple cart. A Sanders campaign seems almost designed to play directly into Trump’s message.”

How do we address the electorate, then? Are there lessons we can learn from Bernie that will help elect a more broadly acceptable nominee?

Frum has some important points for the Democrats to consider. The issues that matter most to “highly online and very well-informed anti-Trump voters”—such as preserving our democracy, cleaning out corruption, applying the law to those in power—are easier to focus on when you have good health insurance, a solid middle class job, and the potential that your kids will get a college education.

But millions of Americans lack those things, and they may well decide the election. That’s something that Sanders has recognized and to which he’s given voice. Thus, says Frum:

“If the Oval Office is to be cleansed of Donald Trump, it will not suffice to defeat Sanders’s candidacy.

“The ultimate winner will have to plagiarize from his campaign, copying not Sanders’s literal ideas, but his themes: the practical over the theoretical, the universal over the particular.”

In a nutshell, I think that means stop fighting over whether the key health care issue is improving Obamacare or Medicare for All. Focus instead on how many people who had health insurance have lost it under Trump, and that he wants to take away your protection for pre-existing conditions.

Emphasize that his promises not to cut Medicare and Social Security are now being revealed as questionable. Stress that he never built those roads and improved those bridges. The needs are great; the list is long.

So maybe this time around the operative slogan is not “It’s the economy, stupid.” Rather, it’s “How well are YOU doing, you who are not among the 1 Percent?”

Annie

Continue reading “We Need to Prevent the Democratic Party–and the U.S.–From Being “Berned…””

23&WE: The Democrats Debate (With apologies to Chaucer for imperfectly borrowing his rhyme scheme)

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From The New York Times:

“Two nights, four hours, so, so many candidates: the first Democratic presidential debates will be like nothing we’ve ever seen. A former vice president on stage with a self-help author. Three female candidates on one night, three female candidates the next — more than have ever been on the debate stage at once. A 37-year-old squaring off against two septuagenarians.”

******

Now listen, friends, as I unveil the chorus
Of those I’m calling 23&WE.
We’re not discussing folks who came before us;
It’s those who say what this country should be
And how they’ll make enough of us agree.
They’re poised to set out from the starting gate,
And one of them may well decide our fate.

How do they call attention to their vision
And talents that will make them best to lead?
So many voters now voice skepticism
Re: turning those fine words to solid deeds
To build a worthwhile new American creed
That knits together vastly different types
Of folks who harbor vastly different gripes.

The polls agree the leader’s now Joe Biden,
A man well known who was a fine VP.
Experienced in world affairs, he’s ridin’
On hopes he’ll bring us back to normalcy
And thus is safe to take down Covfeve.
But some say Uncle Joe is just too dated,
And can’t forget Anita Hill deflated.

There’s Bernie S., who never seems to waver;
In 40 years he hasn’t turned the page.
He’s moved the Dems on issues gaining favor:
Medicare for all; a $15 wage.
But others now are acting on that stage.
A Democratic Socialist with pride,
If he falters, would he just step aside?

Someone to watch, the pundits say, is Warren,
On each issue she has a plan, for sure.
An ultra-millionaire’s tax could be transformin’
With free child care for all and so much more.
For inequality she has a cure.
But will pro-banker, moneyed folks resist,
Despite her self-description: “capitalist”?

One candidate whose fame has come quite quickly
Is South Bend, Indiana’s Mayor Pete
(Trying to rhyme his last name is quite tricky)
His scholar/military resume is neat,
But politically he fits into a tweet.
Still, he has generational appeal
And messaging that sounds both wise and real.

Kamala Harris, tough in prosecuting
Won plaudits for her querying Bill Barr.
She says in office she’d be executing
Punishments for employers who’re sub-par
In the male/female equity pay bar.
A woman of color, bona fides deep,
She’s on a lot of short lists for the Veep.

Amid the current tones of acrimony,
Cory Booker’s words sound so very nice.
He talks of love, civic grace, and harmony
And exhorts men to protect women’s rights.
And cares a lot to end our urban blights.
This Rhodes Scholar who’s certainly no fool
Has Wall Street ties and supports charter schools.

Amy Klobuchar is praised quite highly
Across the aisles in a once true blue state
She’s also known to view events quite wryly,
And humor’s in too short supply of late.
Some feel her plans don’t carry enough weight.
But one’s important, not just symbolically:
Her push for statehood for Washington, DC.

Beto leapt to fame by losing narrowly;
In Texas that was seen as quite a feat.
His campaign started off quite powerfully
And then began to lose a bit of heat,
Though he engages each voter he’ll meet.
His message is important as can be:
Immigration: with “respect and dignity.”

I’ve long thought that the job of governor
Makes President a ready move to make.
There’s Hickenlooper, Inslee, and another:
Steve Bullock, who will miss next week’s debate.
Each has records touted as first-rate.
And each has worked to combat climate change
With Inslee’s speech most often in this range.

It’s time, say many Dems, to crack that ceiling
Re: healthcare, equity, diversity,
To all these goals the party is appealing
And I believe that voters sensibly
Will weigh their thoughts while seeking to agree
And try to find which candidate’s around
Who’s most likely to find that common ground.

I see I’m in trouble here numerically,
And fear my rhyme is starting to grow weak.
I’ve gone through less than half the twenty-three.
There’s still a dozen more of whom to speak,
And showtime’s coming middle of next week.
But since to verses’ end you’ve still held tight,
You’ll find all contenders’ pitches through this site.

******

I clearly gave only the briefest attention to the candidates I covered, and none at all to the rest. Here is how they present themselves to voters:

  1. Joe Biden: JoeBiden.com
  2. Bernie Sanders: BernieSanders.com
  3. Elizabeth Warren: ElizabethWarren.com
  4. Kamala Harris: KamalaHarris.org
  5. Pete Buttigieg: PeteForAmerica.com
  6. Cory Booker: CoryBooker.com
  7. Beto O’Rourke: BetoOrourke.com
  8. Amy Klobuchar: Amy-Klobuchar.com
  9. Andrew Yang: yang2020.com
  10. Jay Inslee: JayInslee.com
  11. Julian Castro: JulianForTheFuture.com
  12. Tulsi Gabbard: tulsi2020.com
  13. Kirsten Gillibrand: 2020.KirstenGillibrand.com
  14. Marianne Williamson: marianne2020.com
  15. John Delaney: JohnKDelaney.com
  16. Tim Ryan: TimRyanForAmerica.com
  17. John Hickenlooper: hickenlooper.com
  18. Bill de Blasio: BilldeBlasio.com
  19. Steve Bullock: SteveBullock.com
  20. Michael Bennet: MichaelBennet.com
  21. Eric Smalwell: EricSwalwell.com
  22. Seth Moulton: SethMoulton.com
  23. Wayne Messan: WayneForAmerica.com

I know it’s early, but if you’re committed to the idea that we need new leadership in 2020, these debates are important in winnowing the field, and you may find yourself wanting to support someone who hasn’t yet gained much public attention.

So I hope you’ll watch the debates, review the candidates’ positions as they state them on their web sites, and support the candidate(s) of your choice. Small donations will be vital for qualifying for subsequent debates, so please consider even minimal financial support of candidates as well.

FIRST DEBATES: JUNE 26, JUNE 27 ON NBC, MSNBC, AND TELEMUNDO

Annie

How Do We Avoid the Pitchforks and Achieve Greater Economic Equality?

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I am extremely fond of someone whose politics and world view differ significantly from mine. One text exchange with him really brought me up short. I had written what I consider a self-evident truth: unless we do something about the growing economic inequality in this country, it won’t be only the poor and struggling middle class who will suffer. Eventually, our fraying social fabric will tear completely, and the .01% will find society inhospitable to them as well.

My correspondent’s response stunned me. He said that what I’m suggesting will mean the end of a nation based on merit, and my grandchild will face a dismal future. I responded that I do worry about my grandchild’s dismal future, but it’s because of the ravages of climate change—not efforts to reduce inequality. And so our discussion ended.

I didn’t launch into all the evidence demonstrating that our society has never been based solely on merit—from the Original Sin of Slavery to the very 21st Century scandal of famous people bribing coaches to get their kids into the best colleges.

But the idea that any mention of redressing inequality could evoke such a reaction made me think that it’s time to talk about why the wealthiest among us should welcome steps to close the ever-widening economic gap, why some of them are advocating for just that, and what approaches might be feasible for us as a nation.

I realize once again I’m taking on a “you can’t cover such a mammoth, complex topic in a blog” subject. That’s why I won’t mention world economic inequality right now. I have some awareness of my limits, for goodness’ sake (!?). I must add a disclaimer, however: my formal education in economics is practically zero, so you should be skeptical of anything I write that I don’t attribute to others.

What I do have is a heart that hurts when I see so much suffering and anger in this land of plenty, a conviction that this growing economic inequity is unsustainable, and—I’ve been told—an analytical mind in addressing problems. And my blessed blog gives me a bit of a forum to try to evoke discussion of these views.

So here we go.

We’ll start with Nick Hanauer. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with him and his work, but I’ve attached a link to his 2014 TED Talk: “Beware, Fellow Plutocrats: The Pitchforks Are Coming.” It’s worth “eavesdropping” on Hanauer’s speech, which lays some of the groundwork for the reasons and ways to bring about positive economic change. (I’m not endorsing everything he’s ever said or written—simply focusing here on ideas that make great sense to me.)

I think this is especially important as the Democratic Party internally debates how moderate, progressive, or even (gasp!) socialistic its policies should be. Polls show that most voters—not just Democrats—want policies that are moderately progressive—though the word “progressive” may worry them (worries bolstered by the Trump-Republican push to make even the desire for healthcare sound like we’re racing toward the “evils of socialism.”)

Hanauer describes himself as a “plutocrat” and “proud and unapologetic capitalist” who has made a fortune. (He was the first non-family investor in Amazon, co-founded a company that Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion, etc.) But he says he’s neither the smartest nor hardest working person and was a mediocre student.

“Truly, my success is the consequence of spectacular luck, of birth, of circumstance and of timing. But I am actually pretty good at a couple of things. One, I have an unusually high tolerance for risk, and the other is I have a good sense, a good intuition about what will happen in the future, and I think that that intuition about the future is the essence of good entrepreneurship.”

“So what do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind.”

To me, that evaluation resonates strongly, and I hope his message is reaching at least some of his fellow plutocrats.

Hanauer stresses that although he believes some inequality is essential for what he calls a “high-functioning capitalist democracy,” inequality today is historically high and worsening daily. If this trend continues, he says, our society will become more like what 18th-century France had “before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”

“So I have a message for my fellow plutocrats and zillionaires and for anyone who lives in a gated bubble world: Wake up. Wake up. It cannot last. Because if we do not do something to fix the glaring economic inequities in our society, the pitchforks will come for us, for no free and open society can long sustain this kind of rising economic inequality. It has never happened.
There are no examples. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state or an uprising.” [All the passages bolded for emphasis are mine.]

What’s more, he says, this inequality is bad for business. Throw out a belief in “trickle-down economics,” which never worked, Hanauer says, because economies aren’t efficient and don’t tend toward fairness. He advocates what he calls “middle-out economics,” which views economies as complex systems that can be effective only if they’re well-managed.

He gives a cogent illustration of why trickle-down economics can’t work.

“I earn 1,000 times the median wage, but I do not buy 1,000 times as much stuff, do I? I actually bought two pairs of these pants…I could have bought 2,000 pairs, but what would I do with them? How many haircuts can I get?…a few plutocrats…can never drive a great national economy. Only a thriving middle class can do that.”

How do we achieve that thriving middle class? One way, which Hanauer sparked, is to raise the minimum wage. Less than one year after his article “The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage” was published—and Forbes called it “Nick Hanauer’s near-insane proposal”—Seattle did just that: raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than twice the existing federal rate.

“It happened because a group of us reminded the middle class that they are the source of growth and prosperity in capitalist economies…that when workers have more money, businesses have more customers, and need more employees…that when businesses pay workers a living wage, taxpayers are relieved of the burden of funding the poverty programs like food stamps and medical assistance and rent assistance that those workers need. We reminded them that low-wage workers make terrible taxpayers, and that when you raise the minimum wage…all businesses benefit yet all can compete.”

To those who insist this approach is economically disastrous, he points out that Seattle is doing very well, thank you, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, with a booming restaurant business, where the restaurant workers can afford to eat where they work (despite restaurateurs who had said they’d have to close their doors).

Hanauer acknowledges these issues are more complex than he can depict in one speech but says there’s simply no evidence that increasing wages will harm both workers and the economy.

“The most insidious thing about trickle-down economics is not the claim that if the rich get richer, everyone is better off. It is the claim made by those who oppose any increase in the minimum wage that if the poor get richer, that will be bad for the economy. This is nonsense.”

When President Bill Clinton said “the era of big government is over,” we had already been on a trajectory that sees government as a necessary evil at best, or pure evil at worst. (Notably, Clinton had added: “but we cannot go back to a time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”) Without mentioning those sentiments, Hanauer calls for “a new politics, a new capitalism”:

“Let’s by all means shrink the size of government, but not by slashing the poverty programs, but by ensuring that workers are paid enough so that they actually don’t need those programs…Government does create prosperity and growth, by creating the conditions that allow both entrepreneurs and their customers to thrive.”

“Balancing the power of capitalists like me and workers isn’t bad for capitalism. It’s essential to it. Programs like a reasonable minimum wage, affordable healthcare, paid sick leave, and the progressive taxation necessary to pay for the important infrastructure necessary for the middle class like education, R and D, these are indispensable tools shrewd capitalists should embrace to drive growth, because no one benefits from it like us.”

He concludes with a message to his fellow plutocrats that it’s time to “recommit to our country”—and to a more inclusive and efficient capitalism…

“…a capitalism that will ensure that America’s economy remains the most dynamic and prosperous in the world. Let’s secure the future for ourselves, our children and their children. Or alternatively, we could do nothing, hide in our gated communities and private schools, enjoy our planes and yachts — they’re fun — and wait for the pitchforks.”

Since this speech, Hanauer has continued to push for change. His podcast, Pitchfork Economics, is widely available. I listened to a segment in which US Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Cory Booker discussed his proposed bill concerning stock buybacks, explained here. May sound dull, but I found it fascinating.

Before 1982, I learned, stock buybacks were illegal: using corporate profits to buy back stocks, thereby raising the price of those stocks, was viewed as market manipulation. Doesn’t that make sense? But now it’s standard practice, contributing nothing to economic growth except what goes into the stockholders’ pockets. The workers whose increased productivity made those profits possible receive zilch; their wages remain stagnant, as wages have since the late 1970s.

Even worse, there are disincentives to corporations trying to be fair.

Booker cites American Airlines. After having a great quarter last year, he says, “they announced long overdue pay raises to the pilots and flight attendants.” But analysts looked askance at this move, and Morgan Stanley downgraded American’s shares, complaining its action established a worrying precedent for American Airlines and the industry.

So they were essentially punished for trying to be fair to their workers. Is that not an example of an economy gone seriously awry?

Booker’s bill, the “Workers Dividend Act,” says that if corporations plan to engage in stock buybacks, they must give a commensurate share to their employees. He stresses that this bill is not intended to “vilify” wealth, but simply to ensure that everyone has more.

Importantly, he points out why it’s needed:

“We make moral and value decisions with how we structure our tax codes, shortchanging workers, adding to wealth disparity, and weakening our democracy as a whole.”

To me, the big question is: How do we get the plutocrats to change direction before our democracy is further weakened—and/or the pitchforks are activated?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Tomasky’s Op-Ed, published today in The New York Times: “Is America Becoming an Oligarchy?,” which echoes the concerns expressed here. Tomasky writes:

“Democracy can’t flourish in a context of grotesque concentration of wealth. This idea is neither new nor radical nor alien. It is old, mainstream and as American as Thomas Jefferson.”

Many writers have examined this topic lately, and I think it’s one that we must face as a nation. I plan to explore some of the ideas in subsequent posts.

Are you with me in having this discussion—whether you agree or disagree?

Annie