Posts Tagged ‘ politics ’

Aleppo

Did you see the news?
Yeah, read the headlines.
(Who has time for the whole article?)

We’ve got
zero fucks to give
here in memeland
got our own problems
what can we do
about the blood in your streets
(and yeah, what can we do)

we live in the epilogue
history’s done
finito
this is all just
a bad sequel
retreading the same
tired plotline

the world’s nothing
but
wrath and semtex
and the Guf
is empty

Robin Hood

The legend of Robin Hood has been part of English-speaking culture for five centuries.  For the last two, he has been celebrated as a hero for “robbing from the rich to give to the poor.”

Why celebrate such flagrant thievery?  What kind of example is this for a nice, thoroughly-capitalistic society to hold up for its youngins to enjoy?  We all know the answer.  We know it’s okay for Robin Hood to steal because the aristocrats in the story were abusing their stations–milking the system, if you will–in order to hoard wealth even as the commoners who worked their lands and fueled their economy were starving.

These days, there’s a lot of talk about raising taxes on the rich.  Actually, it’s not even so much “raising” taxes as that the recently reelected President Obama wants to let some tax cuts expire for the wealthiest segment of the U.S. population.  And in response to these suggestions there has been a chorus of complaints from certain sectors of our society.

The president is suggesting we should, according to these voices, punish success. It’s nothing short of socialism!  Theft!  The wealthy have worked hard for their money, and they deserve to keep it!

Let’s get it straight, though.  It’s not “hard” work we’re talking about here.  Hard work is not what makes you rich in America.

Case in point, let us say there is a woman, perhaps a single mother, working two or three minimum wage jobs to support her family.  She is undoubtedly working hard.

But her hard work will not get her rich.  It won’t even earn her a coveted spot in the middle class.

Now, for contrast, let’s say that another hard-working individual dedicates his or her efforts not to minimum-wage labor, but to an entrepreneurial endeavor.  She opens a restaurant or invents something.  She has a smart idea for the marketplace and runs with it.

She might get rich.

So America doesn’t reward hard work.  It rewards smart work.

As it happens, economic analysis shows that that entrepreneur and her start-up is, if successful, likely to create a very healthy kind of economic activity for society as a whole.  Start-ups, in fact, contribute disproportionately to job creation.  Yes, small businesses are the true “job creators.”

So, as a society, we can recognize that this kind of smart work should be given special status in our tax code–encouraged and incentivized–because it strengthens the economy as a whole.  She hires people.  They spend the money they earn from her out in the market, driving further economic activity through something economists call “the multiplier effect.”  It’s a win-win.

Thus the great parable of the American Dream is explained and clarified for a new age.  Come to America, work hard smart, and you will prosper.

Well, not so fast.

Let’s go through an alternate scenario.  Let’s say our smart person is already gainfully employed by some big corporation.  Now her smart idea is going to make the company a whole bunch of money.  True, she might rise up the ranks.  She will probably do well for herself inside the juggernaut of whatever corporation employs her, but the wealth created by her idea does something very different than it did in the entrepreneur example.

For one, the jobs created–if there are any–might pop up on an assembly line in China or be outsourced somewhere else in the developing world.  The pittance paid out in labor costs there will not have a multiplier effect here in the U.S.

What’s more, the profits themselves will not go to her.  They will benefit the stockholders.  Especially the big stockholders.  Yeah, those guys are probably already rich.   So this wealth that resulted from somebody’s smart work will flow into the vaults of capital instead of back into the economy.  You see, dollars earned by lower and middle class families tend to get spent, driving demand in the market and keeping the economy healthy.  But dollars earned by the wealthy have much smaller multiplier effects because they often just get invested back into the stratospheric realm of high capital–the shell game that almost destroyed our economy in 2008.

This all drives wealth inequality and undermines the middle class.  And here’s the funny part:  that’s bad for the rich, too.  When the bottom dropped out in 2008, it was a crisis of demand.  The more the wealth of the nation becomes concentrated in the hands of a few, the more the foundation of demand that keeps the economy chugging along is undermined.

Therein lies the logic of taxing the highest earners.  The system needs us to.  They even need us to.  In the long run, this flow of wealth upward will bite them in the backsides, too.

So Obama’s suggestion is not to rob from the rich.  Their wealth does not arise in a vacuum.  They’re benefiting from a system–everything from the rule of law to infrastructure to political influence from lobbyists they hire–that has set the stage for their imbalanced accumulation of wealth.  Adjusting the tax rate is just a systemic correction of that imbalance.  Not punishment.  Not socialism.  Not theft.

Just good sense.

The Souls of Presidents

Jim Young

On November 4th, 2008, John McCain took the stage in Phoenix to mark the end of his bid to be president.  It would, presumably, be his last such campaign.  As he graciously conceded to then Senator Barrack Obama, the assembled crowd booed at the mention of his adversary’s name.  Twice.  McCain, showing what may have been restrained disgust, offered his palms to the audience and asked for them to stop.

No one else can know what moved through John McCain’s mind that night, but I like to believe that that instant was one of anagnorisis.

In Aristotle’s analysis of the theater of Ancient Greece, anagnorisis was the moment of realization that must come to the tragic hero before he can accept his downfall.  To be sure, McCain did not suffer a horrendous reversal like Oedipus or Agamemnon, but it is equally certain that the candidate who had secured the Republican nomination for the 2008 presidential race was not the John McCain who had sought the Republican party’s nomination in 2000.

McCain, long heralded as the “Maverick of the Senate,” was vehemently opposed by powerful voices in the Republican party during the 2000 primaries.  He was too moderate, too liberal, some said, to be the Republican nominee.  After a vicious campaign which included racist attempts to malign the parentage of McCain’s daughter, George W. Bush secured the Republican nomination.  Eight years later, an aging McCain had one last opportunity to fight for the presidency.  He charged into it with aplomb.

What exactly happened is open for interpretation.  Had his views changed with age or with the shifts in American politics in the post-9/11 world?  Or did he cynically shift his positions to the right in order to quell the concerns of those within his party that he simply wasn’t Republican enough?  Who can say?  The facts, though, demand some sort of explanation.

McCain, who once argued that banning abortion would lead to unsafe, illegal procedures that would threaten women’s lives, suddenly called for the overturn of Roe v. Wade.  During the campaign, he spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, despite having called its founder an “[agent] of intolerance” during his 2000 run.  He even turned against legislation he himself sponsored, saying that he would vote against his own 2006 proposal for immigration reform because in 2008 “the people” wanted the border secured.

Wanton hypocrisy?  I’m not sure.  Perhaps I am just eager to defend the man I wanted so badly to vote for in 2000 (though I would’ve cut off my hand before voting for him in 2008).  He didn’t, after all, reverse course on every issue.  He remained committed to addressing climate change, a priority shared by few Republicans.  He refused to employ the dirty, underhanded race baiting that had been used against him in South Carolina in 2000.

In Ancient Greek tragedy, the hero’s fault or error–called hamartia–lies unknown to himself until the moment of anagnorisis.  Is it possible that McCain unknowingly allowed himself to be swayed by advisors and others?  Could his single-minded pursuit of the office have slowly eroded his famous integrity?

Maybe he really didn’t see it until that November night, until he had to look out at the booing crowd and realize those were the people he had forsaken his honor to please–the reactionary right wingers that Heilemann and Halperin called “furies” in their 2010 post-mortem on the election, Game Change.  McCain had sold his soul to get that nomination and kept on selling it to try to win, but I don’t think he’d really realized it until that night in Phoenix.

One might argue that it’s a fool’s errand to probe the soul of any man through newspaper clippings and cable news sound bites, but sometimes it’s actually quite an easy task.

It’s hard to imagine that President Clinton had any illusions about whether or not he was doing wrong during his tawdry dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  Though his actions have inspired novels, plays, and films, Aristotle would have seen nothing cathartic in this uncomplicated drama of an empowered, entitled man gratifying himself and lying to an entire nation.

No hamartia.  Bill Clinton undoubtedly knew himself to be a horndog, as we all know him to be.  No anagnorisis.  His scripted apology to the nation offered words only, no public penance, no gouging of his own eyes as with Oedipus when he discovered his sin.  Nothing but more slick Willy.

But again, perhaps I am too harsh, too quick to cast judgment because of a sense of personal betrayal.  He was the first president I’d voted for and he looked out from the TV and pointed right out at America (right at me, I tell you!), assuring us that he, “did not have sex with that woman.”

Then came Bush.  If Clinton had been morally wrong, Bush was wrong in almost every other way.  Wrong about weapons of mass destruction.  Wrong about the dangers of climate change.  Wrong about torture.  Wrong, I still believe, about waging a “War on Terror” that would claim as its first casualty our own sacred civil liberties.

But was he, like Clinton, knowingly wrong?  Did Bush ever recline in that chair in the Oval Office with the smug satisfaction of a shoplifter with a fresh take–as Clinton must have done, post-fellatio?

Bush’s tragedy may still be unfolding, his hamartia waiting for the man to look back and see, in a blinding epiphany, that nation building for profit is morally wrong or that economic policies that favor only the flow of capital weaken the bedrock of the middle class.  Who knows, but for all the ways that George Bush weakened this country, I cannot level at him the kind of contempt I feel for his predecessor.

For all his faults–and even his supporters must at least admit that he failed to achieve his policies in Afghanistan and that his economic policies contributed to the 2008 financial collapse–it seems, from this distance, that George W. Bush did what he believed was right.  Galling as it is to liberals and moderates, I think he did believe that what was good for business must be good for the country as a whole and that violating people’s rights–here or abroad–to keep them safe really was the right thing to do in the face of the evil of terrorism.

What, then, of his successor?

There are no small number of disaffected liberals who simmer with rage for Barrack Obama.  Despite the fact that the Republican party and its radical Tea Party fringe have decried the Affordable Health Care Bill as socialism, it is actually so business-friendly and so conservative a reform package that almost every single component of the law was at one time or another proposed by a Republican (most hilariously of all, the individual mandate that is such anathema to today’s right wing was passed in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney).  Obama’s most liberal supporters were irritated that he surrendered the fight for a public option, which would have moved the United States much closer to the kind of universal healthcare provided by nearly every other industrialized democracy.

That, though, is only one example of the disappointments liberals feel when reviewing Obama’s four years as president.  Though President Obama has halted the use of “enhanced interrogation” made famous by leaked photos from Abu Ghraib, he has reneged his promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay.  What’s more, he has continued fighting Bush’s “War on Terror” with a vengeance.  A robotic death-from-above vengeance.  Eric Holder’s legal gymnastics to justify the drone-strike assassination of an American citizen now rival the logical loop-de-loops of Alberto Gonzales.

Progressives have been further infuriated by Obama policies that validate the Republican’s supply-side economics, all while the President has failed, until recently, to move on important liberal cause célèbre like gay rights and immigration.  Policy reform on other crucial issues–education reform and action on climate change–remains largely on the shelf.

The question is: Has Obama sold his soul?

And does he know it?

Now, as the election cycle for 2012 goes into full swing, President Obama urges us “forward.”  Indeed, anyone with even a basic understanding of the history of recessions in the country must favor him over the bizarre logic of Mitt Romney who argues that because what we need is jobs, then we should cut federal spending (When, Governor Romney, has cutting government spending EVER resulted in more jobs?).  But while liberals and progressives know they want Obama to defeat his vulture capitalist opponent, it is another question as to whether he can actually persuade them to vote for him again.

As November approaches, I think back to the moment when Barrack Obama really appeared on my own radar.  It wasn’t long after his Senate win and his coming out party at the Democratic National Convention.  I read about and from him in Time, and I was impressed.  His views and words were nuanced, careful, and reasonable.  In Time’s excerpt from The Audacity of Hope, he related his struggles to find middle ground between progressivism and faith, including with anti-abortion protestors who occasionally visited his campaign stops.  What I took away from that first impression was that Obama was a man deeply committed to compromise, to meeting halfway.  I had no idea that two short years later he would be America’s first African-American president.

As it turns out, compromise has been the name of the game throughout the Obama presidency.  To slip past filibusters, Obama has had to offer concessions to the Republicans at every turn.  The public option, an early plank of the health care bill, was abandoned to appease them and get the bill passed.  He bought an extension of unemployment benefits with an extension of the sacred-cow Bush tax cuts.

Responding to criticism of Obama’s many compromises, Fareed Zakaria said in 2011, that the president was “a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good” and that his failure to live up to expectations was really an acknowledgment of the complexities of the current political reality.  To be sure, that will be the view taken by many an Obama apologist in the weeks to come.

This might be a more favorable picture of the president than that of the weak-kneed reed that bends to every right-wing breeze, but it is none-too-inspiring when placed up against the “Yes, We Can” and “Change” enthusiasm of 2008.

If we want to probe Obama’s integrity, though, we might look to his recent gesture of support for gay marriage.  Obama began his political life as an opponent of gay marriage, but added, “when you start playing around with constitutions, just to prohibit somebody who cares about another person, it just seems to me that’s not what America’s about.”  In keeping with that position, he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act.  In fact, he admitted in his book that, “It is my obligation…to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided…and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history.”  Now, he has declared that, in fact, he believes he was wrong.

It would be easy enough to read all of this arc as a series of calculated moves.  Obama in 2004 read the handwriting on the wall and decided to keep evangelical voters satisfied by opposing gay marriage.  Now, in 2012, he has reversed positions in an effort to shore up his liberal supporters.

This narrative, though, neglects the simple fact that this reversal is unlikely to win him any significant number of votes, just as his previous soft stance was unlikely to really lose him much support from the left.  The gay and lesbian community is, ultimately, a small proportion of the population, and not many of them were ever likely to vote Romney.  At best, this move gets a few people off the sidelines, but demographically they probably live in urban centers in already blue states.

It could be that Obama really did make the move for the reason he claimed, because it was “the right thing to do.”

In that case, Obama may be skirting the boundaries of a different kind of drama, one in which he has compromised politically without compromising his integrity.  Or it could be that his willingness to be pragmatic is his hamartia, laying in wait for the final episode in his tragedy.