Sunday, January 05, 2020

Jew Versus Jew: How Incomplete Visions of the Faith are Dividing the People

Recently I wrote an essay for two groups:  Jews and Allies (i.e., anti-Semites or people who don’t care about Jews per se shouldn’t bother to read it).  The essay addresses the hatred/disrespect related to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict that threatens to undermine Jewish solidarity at a time when that solidarity is especially important.  I will analyze why a schism exists among Jews concerning the Conflict and why both sides have a legitimate point to make based on authentic Jewish values.  So I’m not trying to persuade anyone to “change teams,” so much as to foster mutual respect.  You could say that this is an invitation to intrafaith dialogue, which sometimes is every bit as vital as interfaith dialogue.  I hope you find the essay to be thought-provoking. Here it is.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Cable Schmooze

I have a brief request to make.  Would everyone please stop referring to the programming on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC as "Cable News"?  From now on, these programs should be referred to as "Cable Schmooze" and the guests on these shows should be thought of as Paid Schmoozers.

Think about it.  Where do you get your breaking news?  Newspapers?  Websites?  Friends who inspire you to check websites or newspapers?  How often do you get it from Cable News?  Almost never, I suspect.  Indeed, for every minute of truly breaking news on those shows, my guess is that there would be 100 or more minutes of schmooze.

Whenever I turn the channel away from a drama or a ballgame to watch the above-referenced channels, I'm invariably treated to schmoozing on the part of Washington insiders and the hosts (aka "journalists") who talk to them.   Sometimes they're all sitting around a table.  Other times the people-in-the-know will be waxing eloquent from their book-laden study, the street in front of the White House, or in front of a bust inside the U.S. Capitol Building.  Truth be told, if you and your friends read the newspapers or even news-oriented websites, you can have just as informative and insightful a discussion with your friends than what you'd hear on Cable TV.  In that sense, it's very different from, say, watching a ball game.  You can do that with your friends as well, but only at a MUCH lower level.  On Cable Schmooze, by contrast, we are frequently treated to talking heads who make far less sense than the typical informed person on the street.  Apparently, the powers-that-be decide that it drives ratings to hear provocative/absurd drivel.  Maybe it makes us in the audience feel smart.  Or maybe such drivel is crucial to building admiration for those few talking heads who consistently speak logically and at least try to be objective.

Mind you, I'm not requesting that you stop watching these programs. My request is only that you stop thinking of them as Cable News and call them what they are.  As for the hosts, you can think of them as journalists if you wish, but please don't confuse their programs with journalism.  Those shows are pure entertainment, and their hosts have far more in common with the more successful members of the Screen Actors Guild than they have with Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.   Who knew that Schmooze would ever be so lucrative?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

How Many Democrats Were on the Stage Tuesday Night?

I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the only child of two relatively old parents.  My dad was born in 1912 and my mom in 1921. I’m not even 60 yet.  You do the math.  The thing is, though, even though they were older than my friends’ parents, my folks were always further to the left politically.  Constantly, I would hear them complain about economic inequality.  And when they weren’t complaining, they were schlepping me to marches -- like the May 12, 1968 “Resurrection City” rally in which tents were placed on the National Mall to fight poverty.  I had yet to have my religious awakening then.  In fact, inspired in part by my parents’ railing against religious hypocrisy, I didn’t trust what came out of the mouths of most clerics.  But this much I did recognize: if the Abrahamic faiths stood for anything valid, it was to fight poverty in particular and injustice generally.  All this “love” crap meant nothing if it wasn’t associated with working hard for the poor.  I also realized for myself back in elementary school that those who think that the private sector alone will take care of the poor were no better than Mary Antoinette, whose “let ‘em eat cake” line has always, for me, defined the spirit of unbridled capitalism.

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, my country had two political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.  They still exist today, albeit with different spirits.  My parents always voted Democrat because the Dems were the party of progressive taxation and using governmental programs when needed to help the poor and the working class.  From 1965 – 1980, the top marginal tax rate varied from 70-77%, yet even those figures weren’t high enough for the loudest voices of the Democratic Party.  They didn’t see why the richest of the rich needed all the money they had when so many people were poor.  In my house, all I heard was that for the most affluent country in world history to have a high level of poverty and economic equality is a “shanda.”  Whether or not you know Yiddish, you get what that means.

Fast forward now to 2019.  The top marginal tax rate is no longer in the 70s.  Today, depending on how you calculate it, it’s roughly 40 percent.  Not coincidentally, economic equality has only gotten worse. Far worse.  This was chronicled most exquisitely in a book by Thomas Piketty called “Capital,” which was published in 2014.  Since then, the problem has only become more extreme, thanks to tepid leaders on the “left” and bold leaders on the right.  But what do you say we look at some of Piketty’s comparisons between the situation in 1980 and the situation 30 years hence.  From 1980 and 2010, the share of the top decile in national income rose from 33 to 48%, the share of the top 1% in total income rose from 10% to 20%, and the share of the top 0.1% in total income rose from 1% to nearly 8%.  As for wealth inequality, the differences aren’t so dramatic.  But the trend is the same – the top 1% and 10% had a significantly greater share of the nation’s wealth in 2010 than in 1980.  Moreover, whereas our wealth equality in the USA was less than that of Europe from 1810 to 1960, it has well exceeded that of Europe ever since.   

By today’s standards, the America of my youth thus had far more economic equality than it has today, yet it still had a far more progressive tax system.  To repeat, Democrats back then didn’t think that tax system was progressive enough.  But Republicans represented quite a range.  There were the folks my parents referred to as “conservatives,” who liked things pretty much as they were, though they would allow for a little tinkering here and there.  And then there were the folks my parents called “reactionaries,” who wanted to return things to a by-gone era – like perhaps the 1920s, when the top decile earned roughly 45 percent of national income, less than they make today, but far more than they made throughout my childhood.   When I was growing up, we had Republican Senators like New York’s Jacob Javits or Maryland’s Mac Mathias.  My parents thought of them as conservatives, others would have called them centrists or even liberals, but they demonstrated that the Republican Party created a home for folks who loved the status quo and wanted only to tinker around the edges.  And remember – the status quo back then was FAR more economically equal, and may I say “progressive,” than today.

So let’s return to 2019 and, specifically, last Tuesday night. We had 12 “Democratic” candidates – so many that a comic on the Daily Show requested that in the future, the Party leaders should ensure that their candidates are spayed and neutered.  The 12 candidates were all attempting to unseat Donald Trump, the Republican President who enjoys a 94% approval rating within his party.  Two candidates on Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, were passionately arguing for the position that our tax system isn’t nearly progressive enough.  They both want to dramatically increase the taxes on the top 0.1% -- and perhaps even the top 1% or 10% -- in order to raise funds that are needed for the poor, the working class and even middle-class Americans.  

My father, as you imagine, has long since passed from this Earth, so I can’t ask him what he thinks of Warren or Sanders. My mom, while still alive at 98, isn’t in good enough shape cognitively to worry about the nuances of American politics.  But I suspect that if I took the time to explain what happened on Tuesday, she would have been proud of Warren and Sanders for their willingness to fight for those who our capitalist system is leaving behind.  In short, I saw two Democrats on that stage who would have been recognized as Democrats by any political observer of the ‘60s and ‘70s, let alone the Depression Era period that shaped my parents’ thinking.

But what about the other ten Democrats?  How were they responding to the phenomenon that Piketty chronicled so extensively in his book?  I was struck by the unwillingness of the other men and women on that debate stage to sound like Democrats even during a primary contest.  Sanders, who had a heart attack a couple of weeks earlier, was kindly left alone by the other candidates.  But Warren, who has risen to the lead in the betting markets, if not the polls, was relentlessly piled on by one Democratic candidate after another.  The first wave was Biden, and Buttigieg, and Klobuchar.  They were critical of the idea that Warren supported a single payor health care system and was afraid to admit that taxes might have to go up if we wanted to ensure that the poor get the same health care as the rich.  Well, OK.  I get why they would have wanted to press her to be more candid.  But later, when Warren started talking about adding a tax on wealth in excess of $50 million and Beto O’Rourke criticized her for being “punitive,” where was Biden?  Or Buttigieg?  Or Klobuchar?  Were they coming to Warren’s defense?  Were they saying that “We’re Democrats. We believed back in the ‘60s and ‘70s that the uber-rich weren’t paying enough taxes when they were taxed a hell of lot more than they are today. We’re not going to sit back and let you bash a candidate as ‘punitive’ simply because she wants the uber-rich to shoulder a lot more of the tax burden.”  They said nothing of the sort.  In fact, when called upon to show their passion for economic equity, they responded with radio silence.

The loudest of Warren’s interlocutors would like us to see them, first and foremost, as “pragmatists.”  This philosophy can best be summarized by a line from Amy Klobuchar, in direct response to Warren’s progressive plans: “The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.”

And there you have it.  From the time Bill Clinton took back the White House for the Dems after 12 years of GOP Rule in 1992, the idea that we would make America’s economic profile resemble that of my youth has been viewed by the Democratic establishment as a “pipe dream.”  Clinton sought a “third way” – one that isn’t nearly as progressive as the approach of old Democrats, but is more compassionate than the Let ’Em Eat Cakers who served as the vanguard of the “Reagan Revolution.”  In 2016, when his wife ran for President against Bernie Sanders, only a single Democratic Senator supported Sanders.  Even Warren refused to commit; that was the extent of the stranglehold that the “Third Way” has had on Democratic politics.  

So now that Warren has regained her progressive voice, and Bernie has gotten out of his hospital bed to resume his jeremiads, I keep asking the same question: what would my parents think of Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and the rest of them?  Are they more like the Democrats of my youth?  Or are they merely the second coming of Jacob Javits and Mac Mathias – centrist 60s-70s style Republicans?  

My parents, being professional economists, would probably point out that Biden, Buttigieg and company may even be further to the RIGHT than Javits and Mathias, for at least the latter are not on record as essentially tolerating our pitifully non-progressive tax system.  Truly, if things have moved so much further to the Republican side of the spectrum in the last 30-40 years, why do Warren and Sanders seem so damned alone on that stage?  Or was that evening just another reminder that Ronald Reagan has won the soul of America, and that the two-party system is really about nothing more than nibbling around the edges of the cake that he (and Marie Antoinette) have given us?

There were times during Tuesday’s debate when both Warren and Sanders frustrated me.  Most notably, neither explained very well why they supported Medicare for All.  My parents would have been disgusted with how little they tried to demonstrate the downside of the so-called “public option” approach to health care or why a focus on taxes instead of COSTS as the primary metric on which to evaluate a health care system is simply a Republican talking point.  Bernie and Elizabeth had a chance to speak out articulately for all progressive economists that night and their performance left something to be desired.

But at least they were recognizable as Democrats.  At least I felt they represented my party.  At least I felt they have absorbed the teachings of Thomas Piketty, Julius and Evelyn Spiro, and all other economists who clearly have given a damn about the poor and the working class.

You see, Senator Klobuchar, it’s not enough to join the Democratic Party, insert yourself across the aisle from Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, and vote in favor of top marginal taxes that are 40% plus rather than 40% minus.  I’m not young anymore.  In fact, I’m only two months and two days younger than you are.  I remember when Democrats were Democrats.  And if you want to act like one, you’ve got to show me that you couldn’t even abide being satisfied with the America of our youth because of its economic inequalities, let alone that you can’t satisfy yourself with mere tinkering when America has become far LESS economically equal now than it was before.

I heard you say, Senator Klobuchar, that neither you, nor Mayor Pete, nor even the billionaire on that stage Tuesday night is “standing up for billionaires.”  But that’s not enough, is it?  I need to see that you are standing up for the guy I saw lying on the ground late Friday night two blocks from my daughter’s row house in a part of Washington DC that most of the barons of today’s Democratic Party wouldn’t set foot in.  I can see that Bernie and Elizabeth, for all their slip-ups, are standing up for that guy.  One of them will get my vote in the primary. 

Saturday, May 04, 2019


With some regret, I am announcing today that the Empathic Rationalist will be taking a sabbatical.  I've been keeping this blog going for 13 years without one, and that's frankly too long.

I will miss taking the opportunity to communicate with my loyal readers on a weekly basis.  Thank you so much for letting me know over the years that you enjoy reading this blog; that means more to me than you know.  However, due to certain events in my life, I feel the need to cut down on my so-called "extra-curricular activities," and at the moment, blogging didn't make the cut.  I fully expect that this self-imposed sabbatical will be merely temporary but what I can't say is how long it will last.

All the best to each of you.  Enjoy the upcoming political campaign season.  And may you and your family experience the very best of health.


Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Request to My Fellow Democrats: Time for Spring Fever

We’re nearly two months away from the first Presidential Primary debate and yet already, liberal pundits are savaging those Democrats who’ve had the courage to enter the race.  I see the criticism frequently in such on-line forums as the Huffington Post.  And just yesterday, I heard an MSNBC talking head criticize Biden for daring to criticize President Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remarks.  According to this pundit, Biden would be well advised not to talk about such issues given his own track record when it comes to the topic of race.

Really?   From what I can tell, Vice President Biden has been a devoted public servant for more decades than that progressive pundit has been alive, and yet the latter doesn’t think he has standing to highlight the single worst moment in the Presidency of the man Democrats are trying to defeat.  Folks, can we stop eating our own?  Please?

My hope is for all Democrats to spend the remainder of what I call the “pre-season” keeping our hearts and minds open about all these candidates.  Let them make mistakes.  Let them speak vapidly or duck difficult questions.  Let them take back an ill-advised comment or policy position.  And to the extent they feel compelled to speak sharply about a fellow Presidential candidate, encourage them to take on the candidate running as a Republican, not each other.

Why do I say that?  Because at the end of the June, and for the next 8-12 months thereafter, some amount of intra-party conflict is inevitable and even healthy.  Presumably, our candidates won’t be offering us childlike monikers such as “Lyin' Ted,” “Little Marco,” or “Low Energy Jeb,” but the ones who are hurting in the polls will owe it to their supporters to throw at least some barbs in the direction of the favorites. But for the good of the Party, can we at least enjoy an extended honeymoon period?  Can we spend the next two full months building up as much affection as possible for all these candidates?  Or do we have to wallow in the kind of mockery-narratives that are increasingly popping up with respect to each of Trump’s would-be challengers?

If you’re not immediately familiar with these narratives, just ask yourself which of the 20 Democratic candidates are best positioned to defeat Trump and lead the Democratic party.    

The elderly, grumpy, unelectable white male socialist who scares the crap out of moderate Democrats, let alone Republicans, Bernie Sanders?

The out-of-touch, kind-of-creepy, gaffe-prone politician whose record is the antithesis of progressive, Joe Biden?

The charisma-challenged, condescending professor who reminds everyone of Hillary except that she’s even less electable, Elizabeth Warren?

The “Senator Pothole” tinkerer who claims to be Minnesota-nice but has proven to her Congressional staffers to be anything but nice, Amy Klobuchar?

The frivolous dilettante, whose Presidential campaign is fueled primarily by narcissism and a desire to have a really cool personal adventure, Beto O’Rourke?

The finger-in-the-wind pol who refuses to answer substantive questions and yet has much to answer for herself in the way she has dealt with the criminal justice system, Kamala Harris?

The inexperienced millennial who also doesn’t think voters deserve to know what he stands for but thinks he can get elected by spewing pseudo-intellectual gibberish, Pete Buttigieg?

The guy from Jersey who is pretending to run on a Kumbaya platform at a time when nobody wants to hear anyone sing Kumbaya, especially if he’s from Jersey, Corey Booker?

Or one of those other pathetic, nameless candidates whose standing in the polls is so damned low that nobody is even bothering to insult them?

Folks, mocking a politician is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.  These people self-promote at the same time that they self-reveal.  You show me a politician, any politician, and I’ll show you a hypocrite.  It comes with the territory.  But unless you want to see President Trump re-elected, I suggest you look at the above list and recognize that (a) you’ll be voting for one of those folks in the fall of ‘20, and (b) the person you’ll vote for in the general election probably won’t be the one you’d like to vote for today.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that because elections among twenty contenders is kind of a crap shoot, you’re most likely going to have to go crazy in support of a general election candidate who you voted AGAINST in your state’s primary.   If that’s going to happen, you’d better figure out a way to stay as positive as possible about as many of these people as possible for as long as possible. 

So what do you say we allow all these candidates the next two months to impress us with their positive characteristics – their visions, their policy proposals, and their formulas for taking on President Trump.  What do you say we embrace what it means as voters to be able to wholeheartedly support ANY of the above?  Maybe if that happens, the intra-party criticism that will inevitably begin to flow in July and thereafter would be a bit more measured.  Then, when it does come time to nominate someone in the summer of 2020, we will have identified a person who’ll be beloved by the entire Democratic party and many of the Independents.  And that candidate will not only beat Donald Trump in the next election but also grab a mandate to change the direction of government in January of 2021.   

Let’s face it – the Russians weren’t the primary reason why we lost the election of 2016.  Mostly, we caused ourselves to lose – by taking for granted states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and by teaching a veritable master class in how NOT to run a primary campaign.   Now, we have a chance for a do-over.  We have a chance to replace a crooked coronation (where a single, favored candidate was given debate questions in advance) with an honest, give-everyone-a-fair-chance celebration of democracy.   We have two months to set the table for that celebration.  I say, let’s call this the “Spring Fever” period.  Let’s fall in love with our candidates.  Let’s build them all up, so that ultimately, for the good of the country and the world, at least one of them will not fall down.