Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Real Voting Scandal

Last week, I offered a tribute to American democracy, which, for good reason, has long been the envy of the world.  While other nations were subjugated by emperors, kings, czars, and fuhrers, we were electing Presidents.  Peacefully, we’ve transitioned from one political party to the next for well over 200 years.  You don’t have to be a historian to be proud of that record.

But there is another side of the ledger.  When it comes to our record of democracy, our current situation isn’t nearly as impressive as our past.  Team America is a lot like a football franchise that loves to talk about the glory days of yesteryear rather than all the losing seasons they’ve more recently experienced.  But fans don’t want to hear about the past; they want to know when and how their team is going to succeed in the future.  When it comes to something as precious as our commitment to democracy, we Americans should be equally demanding.  

Democrats and Republicans these days are debating who really won the Presidential election – the Republicans, who can boast a 74-vote victory in the Electoral College, or the Democrats, who can tout a popular vote margin of 2.9 million.   In fact, however, the actual winner was “Why bother to vote?  I didn’t.”   That attitude won in a landslide.

Hillary didn’t even capture 30 percent of eligible voters.  Neither did Trump.   By contrast, “Screw this” garnered 45 percent.  In 2012, it captured 46 percent.  According to a Pew study, the corresponding numbers in Australia, Belgium, Turkey and Sweden were 9%, 13%, 14%, and 17%.  For some reason, eligible voters in those countries show up at the ballot box.  

A recent Pew study surveyed voting patterns in 35 developed nations.  When it came to voter participation, the United States finished in the bottom ten.  Notably, of the seven countries that scored worse, four of them had been part of the Eastern Block – so they haven’t exactly developed a culture based on free elections.   We scored well below both of our North American neighbors, not to mention nearly every country in Western Europe.  To be sure, we scored better than Switzerland, but maybe that country is so awash in the fruits of international money laundering that its citizens feel too guilty to vote.  What’s our excuse?  

Poor voter participation, my friends, is the most profound scandal surrounding any recent American election.  Not whether illegal aliens or space aliens voted in large numbers, but why nearly half of eligible American voters consistently don’t care enough to vote.   To their credit, our leaders have made it easier over time for people to cast a ballot.  You can do it on Election Day, vote absentee, or head to a polling place that provides for early voting.  Yet still the plurality stays away altogether.  Why?  

The answer surely reflects widespread alienation among our population.  That’s not too surprising given the articles that have come out this week saying that the Dow Jones has finally reached 20,000, and yet half of the country won’t benefit one whit from this development.   Economists might say that there are two groups of Americans – those who have at least a modicum of net worth and those who don’t, and the second group is essentially as large as the first.  But sociologists might ask whether it’s a coincidence that nearly half of Americans don’t vote.   As Dean Wormer might say, “poor, alienated, and apathetic is no way to go through life, son.”  But when half of your population falls into that category, how can a nation boast about having a vibrant democracy?

There are plenty of ways to incentivize more people to vote.   We could make Election Day a national holiday.  We could create tax consequences for not voting.  We could make voting a condition of retaining a driver’s license.    People wouldn’t have to actually vote to get credit for showing up.  They could simply cast a blank ballot if that’s what they preferred.   So there’s no issue of coercion here.

Believe me, if we wanted our poor people to vote, we’d make it happen.  The problem, I suspect, is that many Americans have no interest in increasing the national percentage of voting participation.   Perhaps an argument could be made that voting is a privilege, one that you deserve only if you demonstrate your appreciation of it.  In my view, however, a stronger argument could be made that a vibrant democracy requires a government that is responsive to all its citizens, not merely the most affluent or energized.  Besides, if we give the non-voters some motivation to cast a ballot, there’s a good chance it will stimulate their interest in voting going forward.   

Already, American democracy is stained by the fact that the residents of its capital city, many of whom move to DC out of patriotism and a commitment to social service, aren’t fully represented in the legislative branch of our government.  Clearly, the reason for that failure is that DC residents would surely elect Democratic Party representatives, and Republicans don’t want to see more Democrats in Congress.  I assume that the same factor is at work in terms of why the powers-that-be don’t want to strongly incentivize more people to vote in national elections.   One party has decided that this would hurt its chances of winning elections, and that consideration has trumped all others.    

We hear a lot these days about the need for a progressive movement that will shake things up throughout the country.  May I suggest that the leaders of this movement, first and foremost, should insist on a commitment to American democracy.   It’s time to talk about the scandal of rampant non-participation among eligible voters, how easy it would be to address this problem, and whether we as a nation would like to see this problem confronted.   I’d much rather hear that debate on TV  than discussions about crowd sizes or “alternative facts.”

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Time for Patriotism

The peaceful transition of power is a great American institution.   It was 220 years ago when John Adams became President of the United States, succeeding the legendary George Washington.   Periodically ever since, we have watched as one man after another put his hands on a Bible – sadly, it has always been a man and it has always been a Christian Bible – and agreed to assume the massive responsibilities of the American Presidency.   Every time that’s happened, the public and the military have supported the new President as the legitimate leader of our government.  Such legitimacy has been established by winning a majority of the electoral votes cast pursuant to an arrangement set forth in our Constitution. 
Lately, there has been talk about the 45th President to be, Donald J. Trump, being “illegitimate” because the Russian Government, in an effort to help Trump defeat his opposition, tampered with our electoral process.   Nobody has produced evidence that Trump himself was involved in the Russian misconduct, but that hasn’t stopped renowned statesmen and prominent op-ed columnists from questioning his legitimacy.  Their arguments have purportedly been buttressed by the fact that Trump received nearly 3 million total votes fewer than his opponent.  

Let me be clear on this point.    I think it is B.S. to question the legitimacy of Donald Trump to become the President of the United States.   Not only does it sound like sour grapes, but it reflects poorly on our appreciation of what has made this country great.  No, we don’t have a perfect track record in the way we have handled minority groups or women.   As a Jew, I am acutely aware of why the United States is never to be trusted always to treat an ethnic minority with equal justice, for the history books are replete with the primitive ways in which we have treated blacks, women, Japanese, Native Americans ....    But the fact is that long before the rest of the “developed” world awoke to the benefits of liberal democracy, the United States was  a voice in the wilderness in favor of republican government and against monarchy.  At the heart of our Republic is a Constitution, which proclaims a process for selecting leaders based on a vote of the citizenry.  We held that vote, applied that process, found no evidence that the votes were not accurately counted, identified no wrongdoing that can be attributed to the winner, and now have the privilege of installing him as the 45th President of the United States.   Whether you voted for him, or – as I did –against him, you should honor the process and accept its results.  

For me, this day and even this weekend belong to Donald J. Trump and to the nearly 63 million Americans who voted for him. Many of those voters were crying out for change.  Who am I to denigrate their desperation to steer a new course, even though the course they selected is different than what I would have chosen.

Here in Washington D.C., more of the locals are likely to turn out for tomorrow’s protest than for today’s inauguration.  But I will not be among the protesters.  Believe me, I am reassured that progressives intend to fight President-Elect Trump if he insists on pushing through many of the proposals on which he campaigned.  And I will feel privileged to take to the streets myself and demonstrate against any course of conduct that would appear to me to be deleterious to the public interest, whether it involves depriving poor women of necessary health services, further degrading our environment, exacerbating an already inequitable distribution of income and wealth, or depriving certain ethnic or religious groups of equal treatment.  But I will not take to the streets this weekend.  Instead, I will show respect to those who voted to take this country in a different direction and I will pray that the incoming Administration will succeed in finding as many areas as possible in which all Americans can rejoice at the prospects of reform.  

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Contact Concussions and the NFL

Stoners talk about the concept of a “contact buzz,” where people who aren’t smoking dope encounter those who are and start to feel and act like they themselves are stoned.  Well, if that concept is real, maybe the NFL has its own equivalent – the “contact concussion.”

For decades, the league ignored the effects of its violent nature on our fragile little brains.   Instead, it invoked euphemisms like “Oh, he just got his bell rung,” whenever players sustained possibly permanent damage to their minds.   NFL enthusiasts knew that when their faves took a shot near the ankle or the knee, that could mean weeks or months out of the lineup; by contrast, if they took a shot in the head, they’d likely be back on the field of play within minutes.   Much like the cigarette smokers of the 40s and 50s, the football fans of the 60s and 70s were all in denial.   We figured that the players assumed the risks of tackling a violent game.   And besides, it wasn’t like many of them had much a brain to lose anyway, right?   

Actually, that’s wrong.  Football players don’t tend to be nuclear physicists or philosophers.  But they enter the sport with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  As we are now learning, unfortunately, the concussions they sustain in this sport are depriving many of these gladiators of any semblance of joy – as you lose your memory, become chronically depressed, and start to develop suicidal or even homicidal thoughts, happiness becomes as real as a squared circle.  And yet, this is precisely the life trajectory of so many NFL players.  It truly is sad.   And those of us who are addicted to the game, myself included, must realize that when we watch, we are enjoying a vice at another’s expense.

I type those words this morning because among the most critical principles of Empathic Rationalism is “Thou Shalt Not Lie to Yourself.”  And I won’t lie: football can be disgusting.  And yet, this weekend is arguably the best weekend of the year in professional football, and I intend to watch every bit of it.  From 4:30 ET to the end of the evening both today and tomorrow, we will watch the eight best teams on the planet go after each other with finesse, violence, and passion.   And this year, in addition to watching the warriors excel on the gridiron, fans will be able to chuckle at one heck of a joke that was told by the league officials.  This joke was so funny that it can only be attributed to truly twisted minds.  It had to be inspired by contact concussions.  There’s just no other way to explain the stupidity involved.

Let me set up this joke as follows.   Los Angeles is the nation’s second largest metropolitan area.  It is a city that worships flash.  It has Hollywood, which is known for awards ceremonies and red carpets.  It has South Central, which is known for hip hop music and the styles that go with it.  And at least at one point, it had the Fabulous Forum, where beautiful people went to see and be seen – and what they watched was known, simply, as “Showtime” – the flashiest, most celebrity-packed sports package on earth.  In the late 80s, the Lakers owned LA.  Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Coop, Scott, Rambis, Thompson – they were glitzy and they were good.  And LA went bonkers.   The boys in Purple and Gold were the perfect team for their city.  

But LA is big enough for multiple teams.  And it is certainly big enough for a professional football team, which is something that the city didn’t have for two full decades.  Then, a couple of years ago, three suitors came knocking.  There was the Raiders – the Black and Silver, the one team who won a World Championship while playing in Los Angeles, the original Bad Boys, the Mavericks, the Autumn Wind, the Men with the Eye Patches.   And then there were the Rams and the Chargers – two of the most boring and nondescript franchises in sports.  The Rams’ nickname is the Lambs.  And the Chargers often play with power blue outfits; ‘nuff said.

How stylish are the Raiders?  Consider the immortal words of George Carlin.   "In football, I root for the Oakland Raiders, because they hire castoffs, outlaws, malcontents and f-ckups. They have lots of penalties, fights and paybacks, and because Al Davis told the rest of the Pig NFL owners to go get f-cked!  Someday, the Raiders will be strong again and they will dip the ball in sh-t and shove it down the throats of the wholesome, sh-tty, heartland teams that pray together and don't deliver late hits."

If you watched Straight Outta Compton, you’d see tons of Raiders gear.  Indeed, decades after they left LA, the Raiders have remained the most popular team in the city.  And when the league was considering which team(s) to bring back to LA, the Raiders were clearly on the verge of being “strong again” to use Carlin’s words.  This year, in fact, they were 12-4 – meaning that they won three more games than the Lambs and Chargers combined.   In one of those victories, the Raiders went to SoCal and beat the Chargers in front of a crowd that was almost entirely wearing Silver and Black.   LA would have loved to have had the Raiders back; it would have been Showtime all over again.   The Lakers may be have been really good, but the Raiders can be really baaaaad.  LA can embrace either.  What it can't embrace is boring.

But what did the NFL do?  It decided to bring the Rams to LA in 2016 and the Chargers to LA in 2017.   

Maybe I’m missing something.  Maybe I just don’t understand what makes the Rams so stylish.  Growing up, all I remember the Los Angeles Rams doing was going up to places like Minnesota in the winter and getting beat by the weather, let alone by the Vikings.  As for the Chargers, I don’t even remember them playing in the winter – their season is pretty much over by the end of the fall.  
Honestly, when I reflect on the league’s decision to leave the Raiders in Oakland and bring those two punch-line franchises to LA, I envision what the stadiums are going to look like during game day.  I don’t see fans with paper bags over their heads.  I just see rows and rows of emptiness – no screaming, no booing, no glitz ... just bupkis.   The good people of Los Angeles have better things to do with their Sunday afternoons than watch bad, boring teams get beat up.    

So, how do you explain the league’s decision to steal defeat out of the jaws of victory?  How do you explain the reasoning behind bringing non-lovable losers into a town that only roots for the coolest of winners?   How you explain why one of the NFL’s signature franchises must toil in Oakland despite the fact that it is far and away the most popular team in Southern California?

Contact concussions, my friends.  Those hits on the field are so hard that the owners feel them in the stands.  And believe me, they’re still in denial.  They think it’s only their players who’ve become stupid.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Redistribution and Its Discontents

I thank God for the opportunity to listen to conservative talk radio, read the Drudge Report, and even, occasionally, watch Fox News.  I need to know what “the other” is thinking.  More importantly, I need to remind myself that when it comes to any argument worth thinking about I may be wrong and my opponent may be right.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has that perspective.   This past fall at my college reunion, I was approached by a dear friend with whom I rarely if ever agree unless we’re talking about football.  Not only was he fervently supporting Trump in the general election, but he had been all-in on the Donald in the Republican Primary.  He is fed up with “Redistributionists” who think they know better than the free market how to allocate resources and think nothing of soaking our job-creators and over-regulating their businesses.  He himself owns a small business and spends his days primarily with blue collar workers, many of whom surely love Trump as much as he does.  

And yet, my friend isn’t afraid to open his eyes and ears to progressive teachings.  In fact, he showed up at our reunion with a present for me – a 577-page, hard-bound book by a progressive French economist named Thomas Piketty.  You may have heard of this tome: Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  It’s a wonderful, data-packed treatise on the topic of economic inequality and why it’s likely to get worse, not better, in the upcoming decades.  Somehow, my old friend can read this book and retain his political views.   Personally, though, I found that Piketty’s data provides a compelling case in support of the “Redistributionism” that my friend so despises. 

I would be hard pressed to convey in a blog post the full thrust of Piketty’s argument, so I won’t try.  May it suffice, then, to present just a few of his salient points:   

Whereas early in the last century, America was more economically egalitarian than Western Europe, we’re now less so – far less so.  

America is indeed comparable to a third world nation when it comes to the share of total income enjoyed by the top percentile of the economy.  As far as the top decile in national income, their share bottomed out during the period from the end of World War Two until the late 1970s, and it has gone crazy high ever since – so high, in fact, that it is competitive with the state of the economy during the latter part of the Gilded Age.  

Regarding wealth (as opposed to income), America is less equal today than it was in the early 1800s, at least when you consider the share owned by the top decile.  In 2010, that group owned more than 70 percent of wealth in the United States (the highest figure since the early 1930s).  

The bottom five deciles – in other words, half of the American population – comprises the group that Piketty simply refers to as “the poor” because they own little, if any, wealth.  Many of them might choose to call themselves “middle class” for psychological reasons, but Piketty begs to differ, and his data is difficult to argue with on that point.

My friend and I were both products of the Stanford Economics Department, which is hardly a bastion of socialist thinking.  As an undergraduate in that department, I came to appreciate the value of free markets in deciding what goods are produced and what services are valued – including the value of the labor power that goes into producing both.  I similarly learned to appreciate that while a nation’s output is primarily a product of hard-working people toiling together, it is also a function of insightful individuals thinking alone.  Accordingly, we need to reward individual initiative and inspiration just as we need to reward hard work.  Stated simply, some of us need to be paid a whole lot more than others if we want to incentivize high-quality work and grow the size of the overall pie.  

But by the same token, the invisible hand touted by laissez-faire economists can be capable of choking the national neck.  Ever since the 1980s, our economy has been fueled by a Congress that had tired of progressive taxation.  In more recent decades, corporate boards have decided, often for highly arbitrary reasons, to remunerate the top of the wage scale to the point where the sky is the limit.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars a year?  Millions?  Tens of millions?  Why not quadrillions?   I’ll tell you why not – because it is creating a broken nation. While the Dow Jones breaks records, Main Street stagnates.   Home ownership becomes unaffordable.   Once-proud family matriarchs and patriarchs die as penniless, Medicaid recipients.  And yet, however “the poor” is defined, the members of that group seem to be able to afford a television, through which they can watch “beautiful” people frolic in mansions, board private jets, and vacation overseas.  

As I write these sobering words, we are about to enter the next phase of the American experiment, one that is likely to be known as “Trumpism.”  Neither my conservative friend nor I can know for sure what principles Trumpism will trumpet, but we can make a pretty good guess that “Redistributionism” won’t be among them.   Trump’s party wouldn’t let that happen even if he personally bought into Piketty’s analysis.  

So be it.  The real tragedy of contemporary America is not that Republicans govern as conservative Republicans.  It’s that Democrats govern as moderate Republicans.  More specifically, they tinker a bit around the edges to make the tax system a micron more progressive until they are replaced by those “across the aisle” who take aim at progressive taxation as if it’s a big fat piƱata.  You don’t have to be Thomas Piketty to do the math – the top marginal tax rates take one step forward and then five steps back.  Honestly, can they go any lower?  I guess time will tell.  My guess is, though, that yes they can.   

As Piketty explains, the roots of our inequality problems aren’t simply a function of tax policy.  Even more fundamental factors are in play, including such measures as the overall rates of productivity growth, capital/income ratios, and returns on capital.  If you want to understand how these factors affect economic equality and why Piketty thinks inequality is poised to get worse, read the book and decide for yourself.  It’s not a particularly uplifting book, nor is it a page turner (too much data will slow you down).  But it’s lucidly written and ultimately compelling.  To pick up this tome without finishing it would feel like you’re turning your back on the poor.  And to fail to pick up this tome despite knowing about it should make you feel like you didn’t have time for the poor in the first place.

The poor will always be with us.  But do they really have to represent half of our population?