President Romney

Mitt Romney announced yesterday that he has decided not to run for President again. The news was unsurprising, given his age and his wife’s health problems, but also a little sad. I have been consistent in my view that Governor Romney is a decent and competent man, who may well, in a different time, have turned out to be a rather good President. I didn’t vote for him, and don’t regret it, but I respect and admire him personally; just disagreed on matters of policy.

But of course, inevitably, his announcement led to exactly that sort of speculation; what if he’d won, how would he have governed, how would history (hypothetically) have assessed his hypothetical presidency? I think, in fact, that his election in either 2008 or 2012 would have proved disastrous to our nation. But in a different time, he could have turned out quite well. Let me explain.

Mitt Romney’s appeal to voters was resumé-based. He was a successful business manager, who knew how to turn failing companies (and by implication, a failing national economy) around. The problem is that in 2009, on the heels of the world wide financial crisis, we didn’t need a businessman in the White House. We needed a macro-economist. President Obama isn’t one, and he wasn’t terribly well advised by his economic staff, in part because he leaned too much on Wall Street types like Timothy Geitner. But he was also advised by first-rate academic economists, like Christine Romer. And although he took advice from too many sources, and his economic plan seemed like one produced by a committee, such that the stimulus he got through Congress was too small by half, there was a stimulus and it did work. The data couldn’t be clearer.

But don’t businessmen, by the nature of what they do, understand economics? Sure, up to a point. Micro-economics, they understand very well indeed. But most of the successful businessmen I know took macro-economics in b-school, and hated it. It was, almost uniformly, their least favorite class. And there’s a reason for that. Classical Keynesian macro really is pretty counter-intuitive.

How does a businessman turn around a failing company? Well, you cut costs. You tighten belts. You refine the business model. You streamline. You rightsize. You impose what might be called an austerity regime.  Candidate Romney was frustratingly vague about his economic plans, but the specifics he did offer were all along those lines. Cut spending. Balance budgets. Get the US fiscal house in order.  All that austerity and sacrifice and cost-reduction and efficiency seem responsible, moral even. He would have acted, we think, like a grown-up.

But none of that is what classical macro calls for. Quite the opposite, in fact. Macro-economic theory calls for more spending, not less. It declares that deficits don’t matter in the short term. The government should borrow massive amounts of money, go much much deeper into debt, and get more money circulating in the system. Look at the US economy back in 2012, when Romney was running. Companies were sitting on quite immense amounts of cash. But they weren’t using it to hire people, or to invest, or to bring out new products, or to innovate. Their research was telling them that there was insufficient demand to warrant any kind of business expansion. And they were right. Unemployment kills demand. What was needed was to get people back to work, get them paychecks, get them spending.

The reason conservatives loathe Keynes is because all of that seems ridiculous, desperately irresponsible, immoral even. With the economy in recession, tax receipts go down. Government has even a more difficult time paying its bills. And you want to borrow more? Spend more? That’s just insanity.

And so, in the European Union, where economic decisions are largely driven by banks and bankers, they tried austerity. The emphasis has been on debt reduction, cutting spending. And it hasn’t worked. The big news in Europe right now is Greece, who, in a recent election, voted in Keynesians. With forty percent unemployment, they have to try something. Greece may leave the EU entirely, may drop the euro as currency. Because the Greek people are fed up with austerity. So are the Spanish people, and Spain is looking at Greece with great interest. And they’re right to be skeptical of austerity. There’s a reason Paul Krugman’s book is a best-seller in Europe. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, macro-economics is what works.

Governments can do things that families can’t do, and that businesses can’t do. One is to borrow very large amounts of money. And print money. And spend money. And those happen to be the things that can pull a country out of recession.

In the US, states generally can’t deficit-spend (most states have constitutional amendments requiring balanced budgets). And so the biggest driver of unemployment in the US were state governments. We actually saw pretty decent private sector job growth in 2009-10, but those growth numbers were overcome by states laying off public employees–teachers, cops, firemen. That was the step Obama missed. He should have doubled the stimulus money, and just passed it the surplus on to the states. So the US economy has recovered piecemeal, in fits and starts. We never did quite commit to Keynes and to macro. But our economy has recovered, not completely of course, but certainly better than the economies of our European allies have done, faced with identical circumstances and problems.

I think that Romney, if he had won in 2012, would have immediately cut spending, and made budget-balancing his highest priority. And the recovery was still pretty fragile two years ago. I think that Romney, if elected, would have presided over another recession, as devastating as the one in 2008 proved to be. I think he would have been another Hoover. Another good, decent, hard-working man, but a really really really bad President.

But let’s suppose, instead, that Romney had been President in a different time. Let’s suppose that he were President in 2001; that he had won the Presidency instead of George W. Bush. I think Romney could well have been the right man for the job, then.

What were the biggest mistakes of the Bush Presidency. Well, first and foremost, the Iraq war. In the wake of 9/11, would Romney have attacked Iraq? The wrong country, a country that had nothing to do with the attacks on us?  We don’t actually know why Bush pushed for the Iraq invasion, but one reason, one we heard repeatedly, was that he was still angry that Saddam Hussein had tried to murder his father. Not a factor for Romney. And surely Romney would have been better advised than Bush was.  (For one thing, Romney is unlikely to have chosen Dick Cheney as his running mate). And I believe that Romney did not have the sort of personality to think that, since we’d been attacked, we needed to attack someone else.

And I think it’s very likely that Romney wouldn’t have pursued the Bush tax cuts. Those tax cuts were really quite sensationally ill-conceived. They accomplished nothing, except let rich people get richer and to shatter the idea of fiscal responsibility. With a Republican congress, the early Bush years were an orgy of pork barrel spending, combined with utterly, completely unnecessary cuts to the taxes of the one percent. With an economy humming neatly along, we didn’t need stimulus spending. What was needed then was deficit and debt reduction. Remember, Keynes generally liked balanced budgets. He generally liked spending cuts. Stimulus efforts were only needed during demand-side recessions.

I think Romney would have brought a CEO’s mentality to the Presidency, and that would have meant sound management, and a sensible approach to budgeting. No ‘heckuva job, Brownie’ moments for Romney. He would have expected FEMA to do its job, and he would have fired people for proven incompetence.

Of course, the signal moment of the Bush Presidency was 9/11. And while Bush was praised for his handling of that national trauma, there’s no reason to suppose that Romney wouldn’t have done every bit as well.He would have handled the symbolism, given the speeches, thrown out the first ball at Yankee Stadium. Any President would have.

Of course, this is all conjecture. In fact, the President from 2001-2009 was George W. Bush, not Mitt Romney. And the economy did implode, and poor President Obama ended up having to deal with it. Which he did quite well, all things considered. Romney’s moment in the sun came at a time when his specific skill set was, actually, precisely what wasn’t needed. He didn’t win, and I’m grateful for it. But he had skills, and in other circumstances, I think he would have done very well indeed.

The Church, LGBT discrimination, and religious freedom

Yesterday, the Church held a press conference, in which three apostles (Elders Oaks, Holland and Christofferson) talked about LGBT discrimination, and the Church’s support for laws outlawing it, and about religious freedom issues. Here’s the link to the Church’s website and the article about it.

The national response to this press conference tended to stress the support for laws outlawing discrimination against LGBT people. In many cases (the Huffington PostNew York Times) the national media questioned the sincerity of the Church’s position. ‘Religious freedom’ is, of course a polarizing issue, part of the liberal/conservative cultural wars.

The press conference and press release were a call for balance. The lds.org article stressed ‘fairness for all,’ balancing the need to protect LGBT individuals from being fired or evicted because of their sexual orientation, while also allowing for the free exercise of religion. Here are the four main principles outlined on the Church’s website:

  • We claim for everyone the God-given and Constitutional right to live their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience, without harming the health or safety of others.
  • We acknowledge that the same freedom of conscience must apply to men and women everywhere to follow the religious faith of their choice, or none at all if they so choose.
  • We believe laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance in protecting the freedoms of all people while respecting those with differing values.
  • We reject persecution and retaliation of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief, economic circumstances or differences in gender or sexual orientation.”

In addition, in the press conference, Elder Christofferson, when asked about members of the Church who disagreed with the Church’s stance on gay marriage, said that disagreement was allowed, as long as people didn’t publicly advocate for their views.

It seems to me that there are several possible responses to this event and statement. Here are a few that I’ve read on Facebook:

Political/Pragmatic: This was a press conference essentially aimed at one person, Greg Hughes, the new Speaker of the Utah House. There is an anti-discrimination bill before the Utah House. It’s co-sponsored by Jim Dubakis, a Democrat, and Steve Urquhart, a Republican. It’s stalled in committee. It’s possible that this otherwise unnecessary press conference was aimed at Greg Hughes, in an attempt to dislodge that bill, which Hughes has made clear that he does not regard as a legislative priority.

The ‘religious liberty’ is not, perhaps, quite so serious or important. Elder Oaks (a fine legal scholar, to be sure) is worried about attacks on First Amendment religious freedoms, but most of the examples of religious liberty infringements cited in the press conference involved acts by private individuals, not particularly susceptible to legislative redress. Hughes himself is quoted as saying that he personally opposes discriminating against gays, and supports, in broad principle, a bill outlawing it. I don’t have the quote in front of me, but he said something like, ‘if you want to rent apartments to people, but don’t want to rent to gay couples, then maybe you ought to find a different line of work.’

Yay for Civility: There have been public statements issued by Ordain Women and by Mormons Building Bridges, applauding the Church’s desire for civil dialogue about these issues, and also applauding the Church’s support for legislation outlawing discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. I have heard from many people informally who have described this press conference and statement as ‘baby steps forward.’ Again, the assumption is that supporting anti-discrimination legislation here is what really matters; the religious liberty argument matters less, because discrimination against religious people is already covered by the First Amendment.

Cynical/Snarky: At the same time, there is a sense in which the Church’s stance, as outlined above, could be described as follows. 1) we oppose discrimination against LGBT people. 2) but people have to be allowed to follow their religious beliefs, even if 3) their beliefs require them to discriminate. 4) as, for example, us. 5) so there. It’s the ‘we oppose burning witches, unless your religion requires that you burn witches, which ours does, so we’re burning some witches tomorrow’ argument. Personally, I deplore the tone of some of these sorts of responses, while finding others of them pretty darned funny.  I think, for example, that it’s helpful to call for civil dialogue on these issues (or on any issues, frankly: civility should always be a core value), and helpful to hear an apostle say that it’s okay for church members to personally support gay marriage. But to excommunicate members (or fire or harass BYU faculty members) over this issue might strike some people as, well, uncivil.

Where’s the apology?: Certainly, it’s not difficult to find instances where General Authorities in the past have used, let’s say, unfortunately strong language to describe LGBT people. The word Elder Oaks used was ‘unhelpful.’ So should the Church apologize for that? And Elder Oaks said no. The Church doesn’t issue apologies for past ‘unhelpful’ comments by its leaders.

Here’s one way to understand this. Let us suppose that, at some point, the Church decided that previous statements by Church leaders suggesting that the priesthood exclusion policy was the just consequence for pre-mortal disobedience (the fence-sitters folk doctrine) were wrong, were mistaken. Let’s further suppose that the Church issued a strong statement condemning that particular folk doctrine, and declared it incompatible with Church teachings. A central doctrine of the restoration is continuing revelation. We believe that our leaders are ordained of God to receive revelation, and that when they speak from the pulpit in General Conference, we should regard those communications as particularly inspired. Well, wouldn’t a repudiation and apology seem to contradict the doctrine of continuing revelation? Couldn’t that shake the faith of a whole lot of people? Isn’t this a case where the cure may be worse than the disease?

Those aren’t considerations that the Brethren can take lightly. And that’s why the word choice by Elder Oaks–‘unhelpful’–may be the closest we’ll get to a repudiation/apology for past homophobia. (And it doesn’t quite seem fair to blame leaders of the Church in the deep past for holding to the views of their time and place and culture).

What do I think? I think there’s some truth to all these responses. But I tend to be an incrementalist. I think that passing a good anti-discrimination bill would be great. One divide tends to be over the issue of religious liberty. Is there genuinely a pattern of courts and lawmakers discriminating against people trying to practice their religion? I don’t think a half dozen isolated anecdotes make for strong or compelling evidence. But then, I’m also not a conservative, and understand that my friends on the right may well understand this issue differently than I do.

The State of the Union

Before last night’s State of the Union address, Vox.com’s Ezra Klein published this piece: “What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest.” If you don’t want to bother with the link above, let me summarize: our politics is sufficiently broken that nothing of consequence can be accomplished, even by intelligent, patriotic men and women of good will. Politics is not like a family and it’s not like a business, both of which have built-in incentives for people to get along and institutions in place for important decisions to get made. Politics is like football. For one side to win, the other must lose. If a pass is thrown, the receiver and the defensive back can’t agree to compromise regarding it; either the ball will be caught (good for the receiver) or it won’t be caught (good for the defender). If John Boehner–who I genuinely do believe to be an intelligent, patriotic and capable man–were to endorse and try to pass every piece of legislation President Obama proposes, the only thing he would accomplish would be to lose his job.

So the State of the Union becomes an exercise in futility, something to which the only really sensible response is that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 81 year-old Supreme Court Justice, who seems to have used it as an excuse for a nap.  Pretty much every time President Obama said anything even remotely consequential, the Democrats in the chamber gave him a standing ovation. And Republicans looked dour. The two guys I feel sorriest for are Boehner and Joe Biden, both of whom have massive acting challenges. I mean, they’re right there, right behind the President, on camera the whole speech. Biden has to look, alternately, seriously contemplative and utterly delighted. And Boehner has to look pensive and a bit incredulous. (Mostly he just looked dyspeptic.)

Of course, for the most part, the President gets to talk about how well the country is doing right now (quite well, actually, for a change), and propose lots of first-rate policies that could make things even better, none of which will ever get enacted. And of course, all the language has been carefully tested: the new phrase du jour seems to be ‘middle-class economics.’ But then the President shifted into a different gear for the last quarter of his speech:

You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America, but a United States of America. . .  Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.

I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.

I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best. I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates from New York to California; and our newest officers at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and New London. I’ve mourned with grieving families in Tucson and Newtown; in Boston, West, Texas, and West Virginia. I’ve watched Americans beat back adversity from the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains; from Midwest assembly lines to the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.

So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.

Understand — a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.

A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.

That’s a longish chunk, and I’m sorry about that, but I think it deserves to be quoted at length. Because I go back to that Ezra Klein article on Vox, and I think he’s right in his cynicism, but I also think President Obama is right in his optimism. Because Klein is describing our nation right now. And the President is describing our nation as it can become.

One thing that I like about this President (and you all know that I have been very critical of him too), is that he has often taken a longer view than current political arguments would allow. Take, for example, Obamacare. The ACA is a flawed piece of legislation. It’s not as bad as some Republicans make it out to be, and it’s not as great as some Democrats seem to think it is in defending it. It’s flawed. But is that really important? Isn’t it more important to establish, as a principle, the idea that everyone in America, rich or poor, should have access to competent, affordable health care? I also watched Joni Ernst’s Republican response to Obama’s SOTU, and I noticed that when she talked about Obamacare, she talked about ‘repeal and replace.’ Now, in fact, I don’t think Republicans will be able to repeal it, and I don’t think they have a sensible program they could replace it with, but that doesn’t matter. ‘Repeal and replace’ is the language they’ve adopted. They have come to accept that expanding health care access is here to stay, that the American people won’t go along with efforts to take it away. Eventually, the ACA will be improved and expanded. It may take twenty years, but it’s inevitable. Long-term, Obama’s vision will prevail.

Right now, yes, our politics is hopelessly partisan and ineffective and inefficient and broken. But it’s not going to stay that way. President Obama talked about expanding access to higher education, proposing that the federal government pay community college tuition for Americans who meet certain criteria. That won’t happen in this term of Congress. But the idea is inevitable; eventually, we’ll figure out that asking young people to bankrupt themselves to attend college is bad public policy. The President talked about raising the minimum wage. Well, that’s happening state by state, and sooner or later, people are going to notice that states with higher minimum wages also have faster growing economies and hiring rates. The minimum wage is going up. The President talked about immigration reform. And right now, that’s a tremendously contentious issue, and it’s unlikely much will come of it legislatively. But long-term, a solution is inevitable. American nativism is a constant in our history, but history also tells us that it never wins.

When the President first talked about the ACA, the metaphor used by Republicans was that of a camel sticking his nose in the tent in a sandstorm. Obamacare was that camel’s nose, and if we’re not careful, that camel’s taking over the tent. (Conservatives love slippery slope (or camel-tent-takeover) imagery). And so I’m saying, well, yeah, that camel’s nose is in the tent, and also his mouth and ears. With, I suspect, more to come. But you can’t cross a desert without a camel.

Poor Joni Ernst’s response talk was Primary President sincere. She was battling bad optics, (what was behind her–flags, a shuttered window, bathroom tiles?) and she didn’t know what to do with her hands, but she did fine. But her talk seemed so . . . mundane. Puny. She talked about the Keystone XL pipeline, and the ‘thousands of new jobs’ it will create. Well, that’s a contentious partisan issue right now, so she weighed in, but it doesn’t matter; there are lots of pipelines between the US and Canada; it’s just that this one became politicized. The real issue is alternative fuel, the real fight is against greenhouse gasses, the real battle is over climate change. Accepting that is inevitable.

Liberals are right to want change; conservatives are right to resist it happening too rapidly. Liberals say ‘let’s try this!’ and conservatives respond, quite properly, ‘are we sure we know what we’re doing?’  Our ship of state needs both port and starboard crews, all hands on deck. Right now, America has a functioning economy that doesn’t serve all its citizens, and a completely non-functioning politics that doesn’t serve anyone at all.  President Obama, optimistic as always, thinks we can do better. I think so too.

 

Some thoughts about Charlie Hebdo

On January 7th, two heavily armed and masked gunmen broke into the Paris office of the weekly satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and murdered twelve people, including the paper’s editor, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, and four cartoonists. If you’ve been following the news, you know all that already. I just have a few random thoughts to add to the already excellent coverage. In no particular order:

1) Most folks had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before these attacks. I certainly hadn’t. And so a lot of people in the US have checked out their cartoons and humor, and have been appalled by what they’ve found. A lot of the commentary has been of the ‘I defend their right to speak out and to publish, but why do they publish such scurrilous and offensive stuff?’ school.

I was about to go on a long description of the multi-layered nature of French satire, the way it resists easy readings, but all the reasons why the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are nonetheless deeply troubling, and not maybe all that funny. But Vox.com beat me to it, and in a much clearer and sensible way. So check this out.

I also can’t really think of an American equivalent. South Park, maybe, with Parkman? Beavis and Butthead? Then I thought of Donald E. Westlake’s final, posthumous novel, The Comedy is Over. Set in the 1970s, it’s about a comedian named Koo Davis, who has built his popularity on making fun of the anti-war movement. As such, he’s become the favored comic of the rich and powerful. And so a ragtag group of anti-war activists (loosely based on the Weather Underground), kidnaps him, demanding, not money, but the release of other extremists. It clicked a little bit for me; Charlie Hebdo is a bit like Koo Davis, a little.

Anyway, I certainly do believe that there’s a place for this kind of satire, and denounce the thugs who attacked the newspaper. But I do also sort of regret posting Je Suis Charlie on my Facebook page. Charlie‘s voice needs to be heard–all voices need to be heard, including, I believe, actively offensive ones–but I also reserve the right to disagree. And I don’t find their brand of humor particularly funny.

2) Also on January 7th, members of the Islamic terror group Boko Haram continued a massacre in Baga, a Nigerian town on the border of Chad, killing at least two thousand people, most of them women and children. A horrible massacre, and one undertaken for no rational reason. I would merely point out that the disproportion in coverage of the two attacks, in Paris and Nigeria, speaks for itself.

3) On January 11th, a ‘unity rally’ in Paris honored the seventeen victims (including those subsequently killed in the manhunt for the initial killers). Forty world leaders attended. President Obama did not, citing security concerns. He ought to have gone, or at least asked Vice-President Biden to go. It’s not that big a deal, but yeah, the US should have sent someone.

4) It hardly seems necessary to reiterate the obvious point that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that the few extremists who commit these sorts of atrocities do not enjoy wide-spread support among Muslims. A favorite conservative line recently has been to ask why moderate Muslims haven’t spoken up against terrorist atrocities, whether practiced by Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, or Isis. Two responses: first, many many mainstream Muslims have denounced these attacks in the strongest possible terms. But, second, why should they? I am a Christian, but I don’t feel myself particularly called upon to denounce the Ku Klux Klan. A Klan affiliate just burned down a black church, and yes, I do denounce that, because that’s a despicable act. But I don’t consider the Klan part of my faith community, not in any sense whatsoever. The Klan may consider itself a Christian organization, but that identification means nothing. They don’t, in any meaningful way, reflect the values or attitudes or doctrines or example of the Savior, values and doctrines to which I have chosen to give my life. We have absolutely nothing in common, except sentience and opposable thumbs. And I have my doubts about their sentience.

On global warming

I just read a very good book, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. It’s exceptionally well researched, compelling in its argument and in the evidence it musters to support that argument. It’s passionately and persuasively written.  It’s also completely bonkers. Which is why I’m a really bad liberal.

Whenever my Dad comes to visit, he and my daughter engage in a debate over climate change. She is convinced, as am I, that climate change is a real phenomenon, caused by the behavior of human beings in an industrialized world, that the release of carbon gases into the atmosphere could have serious consequences for people and cultures all over the planet. My father does not trust those scientists who have reached those conclusions, nor is he troubled by the consensus most such scientists have reached, nor by the peer reviewed literature summarizing their research. He thinks they’re alarmists. I think he’s wrong. I would rather that he were right. Here’s why:

Okay, that clip is from The Newsroom, and its an odd segment in an excessively weird episode. It’s also pretty funny, especially all the reaction shots in the control room. I love the moment when Will (the anchor) lists various steps that might reduce the likelihood of continued climate devastation, and the scientist’s response is ‘that would have been great!’ Twenty years ago. It’s quite possible that Aaron Sorkin (the writer of this show) might be right. I would rather that he weren’t.

So, Naomi Klein. And her book argues that the science of climate change should be greeted as terrific news. It gives us the opportunity, she argues, to completely re-order our society. More mass transit; fewer (or no) automobiles. More apartments, fewer (or no) suburban homes. Greatly restricted air travel. We can develop a greater sense of community and interdependence, she argues. We can walk more, or bicycle. Stop burning coal (and destroying mountains looking for it). Stop fracking (and pumping dangerous chemicals into groundwater). Stop, above all, corporatization and neo-liberal economics. If you want a good summation of her arguments, read this excellent review.

Here’s why I call the book ‘bonkers,’ and also why I’m a terrible liberal: it’s never going to happen. Human beings are not capable of remaking society in the ways she describes. Human beings have created political institutions that will block any effort to institute these sorts of changes. We like our cars, we like air travel, we like crappy food and we like doing our Christmas shopping on-line, requiring UPS trucks to drive all day playing Santa.

I tend to think that future generations will come to regard Naomi Klein as prophetic, and that episode of Newsroom as prescient. I think it’s very likely that I, an old white guy, am leaving my children and grandchildren a much diminished planet. I think the early bits of Interstellar may well be regarded as hopelessly naive and optimistic, assuming there’s anyone around to watch movies in the future.

Or maybe climate scientists really are all wrong about this stuff and maybe the situation isn’t actually dire. I hope so. Gosh, that would be great.

“I can’t breathe”

Jon Stewart wasn’t funny last night. He apparently got the news just before air-time that the grand jury on Staten Island had not indicted anyone for the death of Eric Garner.

Eventually, Jon gave the only response really possible. He stared upward, and shouted at the top of his lungs the F-word.

This wasn’t a Michael Brown/Ferguson type situation. As Jon pointed out, this wasn’t a case where the forensic evidence was ambiguous and the eyewitnesses contradicted each other and who knows exactly what happened. If Darren Wilson had been indicted for the death of Michael Brown–which is absolutely what should have happened–it’s entirely possible that enough ambiguity existed for reasonable doubt; he could well have been acquitted.

The deadly assault on Eric Garner is here, on camera. It’s horrific stuff.

Watch it. You’ll hear him say, over and over, over and over and over, “I can’t breathe.” But the video doesn’t tell the whole story. He was apparently sick of being harassed. The police thought he’d been selling ‘loosies,’ individual cigarettes, a misdemeanor offense. Apparently, they’d cited him for that before. No cigarettes were found on him after the incident, though.

Here are a few links, if you’re interested. Here’s a link to Fox News, to an interview Greta van Susteren had with a medical examiner. Here’s the Washington Post, a story about the protests taking place nationally.

There’s one thing that strikes me about this video, though, especially the earliest bits of it, before the police start choking him. It’s the physical stance of the two officers, the one with his back to the camera, and the one partly obscured by the first guy. Back to the camera guy is motionless, standing his ground. But then he looks down and we can see just a hint of uncertainty.  The other cop is more agitated, keeps looking over his shoulder for backup.

Here’s what I think: there was no reason for those two officers to be there confronting this guy. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. He was agitated, and upset with them for hassling him, but engaged in no other criminal enterprise. The situation escalates, but almost entirely because of the presence of the police. If they had simply said, ‘hey, sorry, we don’t mean to bother you, be on your way,’ there’s no reason to think that public safety would have been compromised.

But that would never happen, I think.

I would love for people who know more about it to correct me on this, but what I think is that police are trained never to back down from a confrontation. Never allow a civilian to disobey police instructions. Never, ever, let yourself be disrespected. Always maintain control of the situation, period.

We see maybe thirty seconds of their confrontation, and then there’s an edit to when they try to cuff him. And the police officers are talking too quietly to hear what they’re saying, but they sound calm and reasonable, and although Garner is respectful, he’s also clearly sick of it, sick of being hassled. But I wonder if there’s a kind of internal tension inside those cops. I think I can see it in their body language. A tension between doing the right thing–walking away–and following their training–maintaining ‘control’ of the situation.

The death of this man is a tragedy. The failure of a grand jury to indict is a travesty. An incomprehensible miscarriage of justice. And yet, from a police perspective, I do get it. To put this one officer on trial would be to indict the entire way in which police officers are trained in this country. It would be to indict the idea that police must always be obeyed. And given the very real dangers of their jobs, I can see police resisting that kind of scrutiny.

But that scrutiny has to happen. Watch the video again. I do not see these two officers as operating under a mandate ‘to serve and protect.’ No one was being served in this confrontation, and no one was being protected. A man objects to being interrogated on the street by two police officers. He was not engaged in any criminal activity. He could have, and should have, been left alone. And police training can and should emphasize discretion over confrontation, dialogue over control. But right now, I can see the relationship between police officers and the public (and especially the African-American public) spiraling further downwards, a cycle of mistrust, leading to confrontation, leading to tragedy, breeding greater hostility and mistrust.  We’re there already, are we not?

We know that change in emphasis and tactics is possible, because that’s the way police are trained in Europe, and in Europe, police essentially never kill civilians. It can happen here too. And it would be better for everyone, the police included. But it’s going to take a national effort, and a national consensus. I don’t think there’s any reason for Eric Garner to have died. But maybe it will be worth something if it leads to genuine, actual change. At least that’s something to work for, and to hope for.

Some thoughts on Ferguson

I haven’t wanted to comment on the recent events in Ferguson Missouri, where rioting followed the refusal of a grand jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson after he shot and illed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. I’m not African-American, not a police officer nor an expert on police procedure, not an attorney, nor any kind of expert on race relations. I’m just a middle-aged white playwright. Still, the commentators who have resonated with me were those who have called for a renewed ‘national conversation on race.’ So I thought I would offer a few thoughts, in no particular order.

1) I watched the press conference in which Ferguson DA Robert McCulloch presented the decision by the grand jury not to indict Officer Wilson. He stressed the even-handed way in which the evidence was presented, the careful cross-examination of contradictory witnesses, and he released all the relevant documentation (a decision for which he should be applauded). I thought it was a very strange press conference. I would love to be corrected if I’m wrong on this, but my understanding is that prosecutors aren’t supposed to be even-handed and objective. They’re supposed to aggressively push for an indictment. Even stranger, Officer Wilson’s testimony was not subjected to cross-examination, apparently. It’s as though the grand jury was being led to regard his account as the one definitive narrative about the event. Prosecutors are not supposed to represent the police; they’re supposed to represent the larger community.  Justice required an indictment; all testimony needed to be subjected to careful, thorough cross-examination, in the adversarial setting of a court of law.

2) As this article in Vox.com described, Officer Wilson’s testimony was literally unbelievable. That doesn’t mean that he lied, or that the events didn’t happen pretty much as he described them. Reality is often unbelievable, inconsistent with our usual standards for a plausible narrative. But that testimony cries out for rigorous cross-examination.

3) There are two specifics of his testimony that strike me as particularly strange. I don’t doubt that Officer Wilson was scared by the situation, and that his training then too over. But if he felt threatened, he doesn’t seem to me to have been actually threatened. Brown’s body lay 150 feet from Wilson’s car, and the shell casings that show where he was standing when he fired. Brown and Wilson are about the same size, and Wilson had a nightstick and a taser. Brown was unarmed. Even if Brown was charging him (something virtually none of the eyewitnesses saw), he couldn’t pull out the taser? Also, apparently Officer Wilson was allowed to retain his weapon for over an hour after the shooting, and was the officer that placed it in an evidence bag. This is significant, because Wilson claimed that Brown had hold of the gun in their initial skirmish in the car. No DNA or fingerprints were found on the gun, but its evidentiary value was essentially eliminated by this police mishandling of it.

4) Several news stories have detailed McCulloch’s close ties to the police department; he served on the board of a police charity, his father was an officer, ect. This is hardly surprising. Prosecutors work closely with the police; that’s their job. That’s why it was essential that McCulloch recuse himself from this case. In many communities, this is automatic; special prosecutors are routinely assigned to cases involving police shootings. Justice was ill-served by not having such a policy in St. Louis County.

5) The role of Dorian Johnson, the friend Brown was with, has not received as much attention as it deserves. By all accounts, Brown was a good kid, a bit of a goofball, but excited to start college in the fall. Johnson is a few years older than Brown, has a checkered past, but was getting his life together. He saw himself, apparently, as a kind of mentor to Brown. Brown’s initial robbery of the convenience store, though irrelevant to the question of his subsequent shooting, is a puzzling episode, inconsistent with his record or reputation. But Michael Brown was 18 years old. Was he trying to impress an older guy with a criminal past? Isn’t that exactly the kind of stupid thing a teenager might decide to do? (I know that there are certain inconsistencies in Johnson’s story, but the basic narrative seems pretty clear–he was hanging out with a younger kid because he wanted to encourage him to make something of his life).

6) Without question, the coverage of this event on Fox News has been, for the most part, disgraceful. Jon Stewart basically eviscerated it here:

7) There’s something sadly comical about older white guys lecturing the black community on the subject of race. As an older white guy myself, I will desist. I will simply say that something quite obvious: the everyday experience of life as an American is different for me than it is for people of color. When we say that racism is an omnipresent reality of the world today, we’re not saying that all white people wear Klan robes. Racism today is more liely to manifest itself as cluelessness than violence. I would simply point out this reality: minorities riot when their basic rights are routinely and systematically violated. White people riot when their favorite sports teams win a championship.

Charlie’s marriage

I wouldn’t say that the news ‘broke’ the internet, but it certainly put a nasty dent in it: Charles Manson has applied for a marriage license. Charlie Manson, age 80. Announcing his ‘engagement’ to one Afton Elaine Burton, age 26, who now goes by the name ‘Star,’ considers herself already married to him, and maintains a website insisting on his innocence. (Which I will NOT link to–I’m not driving traffic to Charlie freaking Manson’s site). Burton’s Mom, by the way, is fine with it. Says the couple shares a commitment to environmentalism. Grantland’s Molly Lambert’s story about it can’t really be improved on; see the link for details.

What’s interesting to me about this is the way in which Charlie Manson still does have the capacity to capture our attention. This was big news. And, as always with Manson, we read it with a little frisson of oh-so-delicious fear. Charles Manson, the most mesmeric, the most charismatic, the most Satanic human being on earth, was up to his old tricks once again. Fascinating young people (mostly young women); bending them to his will.

Remember the watch thing? Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put Manson away, wrote a best-selling book about it, Helter Skelter. In the book, he describes a time when Manson stopped his watch by just staring at it. In the first Helter Skelter made-for-TV-movie, the 1976 one with Steve Railsback as Manson, George DiCenzo (as Bugliosi) notices his watch has stopped, looks over at Manson, and we see Railsback give him a creepy grin. So that’s part of the lore; Charlie Manson can make a watch stop.

Of course, he couldn’t. Bugliosi’s book is very compelling, but its hero is Bugliosi; the courageous prosecutor who put Charlie Manson away, and the more evil and Satanic Manson was, the greater Bugliosi’s triumph over him. I don’t much trust it. I rather suspect that if Charlie Manson had the ability to stop watches, he would also have had the ability to open prison doors. But what he did have was a kind of crazed charisma. He persuaded a group of lost runaway hippie kids (most of them girls) to form a ‘Family’ and commit horrible atrocities, and he persuaded Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys to fund ‘Family’ activities for months. He’s regarded as one of the worst mass murderers in history, and he never actually personally killed anyone. Not for lack of trying; the Family’s first victim, Bernard Crowe, was shot by Manson in Crowe’s apartment in June of ’69, two months before the Sharon Tate killings. But Crowe survived.

And then, on August 9th, 1969, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel murdered Sharon Tate and four other guests in her home, and also a delivery guy, on Manson’s orders. The next night, joined by Manson himself, and with two other Family members, Leslie Van Houten and Clem Grogan, the same four murdered Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their home. Manson directed the killings, but did not kill himself. Several subsequent killings have been linked to Manson’s Family members. And in 1975, Manson Family member Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to murder Gerald Ford, the President of the United States.

Fromme’s attempt took place in Sacramento. She and Sandra Good had moved there to be closer to Manson while he served out his sentence at Folsom Prison. In 1987, Fromme escaped from prison in West Virginia. She was apprehended within a few days, as she headed west, towards California. She wanted to be close to Charlie, who she heard was suffering from cancer. This is also typical of Manson Family members; even while incarcerated, they seem to crave physical closeness to their prophet/guru. Afton “Star” Burton has also moved, to Corcoran California, out in the desert, so she can be ‘closer to Charlie.’  Sandra Good maintains a pro-Charlie website, which competes with Burton’s.

And we’ve never lost our fascination with this guy, this career criminal, failed musician, this man who seems to have had one great gift in life, the ability to attract young women to believe in him, and at times, to kill for him. Two made-for-TV movies. Several documentaries. Several major TV interviews, with Diane Sawyer, Tom Snyder, Charlie Rose, Geraldo Rivera, Ron Reagan Jr.

The myth of the sixties’ counter-culture was a myth of innocence, a myth of invincible virtue, opposing Establishment Evil. Hippies were peaceful idealists, devoted to non-violent protest and positive world-change. Hippies stopped the war in Vietnam, ended racism, fought the good fight against ‘the man.’ It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. “Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,” Coven sang, describing, see, the Establishment’s hypocrisy, embellishing the irony with achingly pure intentions and ferocious self-righteousness–“one tin soldier rides away”; the song punctuated the message of peace-lovin’ martial artist Billy Jack.  Nick Lowe asked, with aching sincerity, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding. Punk answered back, always more honest; Lowe’s song was bitterly deconstructed by Elvis Costello.  (Elvis: the King of Rock and Roll. Costello: half of the comedy duo who asked Who’s On First. Even his name functioned as satire).

Charlie Manson did us this one great favor: he showed us the lie at the heart of hippie idealism and blissed out mellow. Teenage runaways, escaping the dreariness of square middle-class hypocrisy, crowding the streets of Haight-Ashbury, could easily fall for predators. Hippies could, turns out, kill. So could drugs. So could casual sex. And so could rock and roll, as Dennis Wilson bankrolled The Family, and Charlie grotesquely misread the Beatles.

So we didn’t. Do any of that; we didn’t. We weren’t significant; we weren’t important. I mean, we really didn’t: in the national election of 1972, 18-21 year olds could vote for the first time. George McGovern, whose entire campaign was built on ending the war in Vietnam, was on the ballot. He got crunched, and the Youth Vote went heavily to Richard Nixon. Nixon was right about that silent majority thing. Sixties and Seventies, we youthful idealists, we didn’t end Vietnam or racism or sexism. I wasn’t a hippie–too young for the movement–but I loved the music and was attracted to the ideals, and I wish earnestness and sincerity really could change the world. It can’t. What does change the world is hard work, compromise, working daily at the endlessly boring and crucially important details of legislation.Line upon line, idea upon idea. A hard grind.

Good music is good music, and then the song is over. And that sort-of-interestingly-dangerous, compelling hippie man is saying lovely attractive things about revolutions and race riots and the White Album, and he wrote this nice song about me, and I even got to meet one of the Beach Boys! And then he’s handing me a knife and telling me to kill total strangers. And hey, why not, they’re just establishment pigs, right? Viva la whatever.

That’s who Manson was, the worm in the apple, the snake in the garden, the ugly violence at the heart of ideology. The sad game, played by naive fools. Now he’s got another one, another follower, another ‘wife’ for his ‘Family.’ So happy for them both.

 

My political manifesto

Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors opined in class one day that actors were the most moral people in the world. His argument: the basis for morality is compassion, and compassion comes from empathy. And because they are in the business of creating characters, becoming other people, actors were pretty much always, you know, walking in the moccasins, so to speak, of other people. Hence greater empathy, hence greater compassion, hence morality. When he said this, I was in a show, acting across from a brilliantly talented actor who was also pretty much the most awful person I had ever met. Empathy was one of many human emotions he was wonderfully able to fake. Total narcissist, a womanizer and a creepy creepy person. We were doing a murder mystery; he was the killer, and I was the detective tasked with catching him. Watching him hit on every woman on the production staff gave my characterization added oomph, and I must say I found it supremely satisfying to hear the click of my handcuffs on his wrists, night after night.

Having said that, I would add that I acted for years, though not anymore, and that I generally love actors and consider many actors to be among my closest and dearest friends.

I thought about the misguided naivete of that professor yesterday, when I engaged in an entirely futile on-line debate about politics. A conservative friend found amusing a YouTube video caricaturing liberals; it was funny, he insisted, because it was true. I angrily asserted that it wasn’t either true, and that I could as easily stereotype conservatives. I argued poorly in that forum; let me redeem myself here by stating, firmly and unequivocally, what I believe to be true, absolutely true, in my heart of hearts true.

Principle One: American Liberals and American Conservatives are, for the most part, patriotic and decent human beings who differ somewhat in regards to matters of policy.

Principle Two: The Democratic and Republican parties are both comprised of people who love the United States, and want nothing more than for the nation to prosper and bless its citizens. Both parties are equal parts corrupt and idealistic. Most Democrats are decent, good citizens; some have the morals of pit vipers. Most Republicans are decent, good citizens; some have the morals of cockroaches. And both parties have individuals in their ranks who are narcissistic attention seekers, that being the besetting sin of politicians.

I am a liberal Democrat, deeply committed and passionate in my beliefs. I am a liberal  as a matter of principle and conscience. That does not mean that conservative Republicans are without principle or conscience-less. I study policy issues very carefully, and believe that my positions on matters of policy are factually based, supported by research and reason. That does not mean that conservative policy proposals are unsupported by evidence. Confirmation bias afflicts both sides; both sides tend to favor evidence supporting our previous prejudices and opinions.

As a liberal Democrat, I consider myself pro-choice. That means that it’s easy for conservatives to label me a baby-killer. I’m not a baby-killer. That’s preposterous. It’s a complicated issue, and in general, I come down on the side of a woman’s right to choose. My conservative Republican friends tend to disparage programs intended to alleviate poverty. That does not allow me to label them uncharitable or call them vicious meanies. It just means that they don’t believe federal anti-poverty programs are effective.

My father is much more conservative than I am, and there are a number of political questions on which we disagree. But he was and is a wonderful father, and I love and respect him immensely. My brother–one of the finest men I have ever known–is a Republican, but he called the other day, and we talked politics for an hour, and found very few questions on which we disagreed. Not all policy questions are partisan. Roads need to be repaired, schools need to be built, power grids need to be maintained.  Those may be ‘political’ questions, but surely they are questions about which reasonable people can find common ground.

None of this means that we can’t passionately advocate for our positions. Of course we can, and we must. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t genuine differences between parties and ideologies and platforms. Of course, those exist. It does mean that we can’t demonize the opposition. I do forget that sometimes, and apologize for it.

Let’s all commit ourselves to civil dialogue, and civil disagreement, when disagree we must. But what unifies us is much more important than what divides us. We’re American citizens. Let’s always continue to respect what that means.

The Sixth Circuit decision

After an unbroken series of victories in federal courts, those advocating for marriage equality had a bit of a setback last week. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to uphold same sex marriage bans in four states, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Lower court rulings in all four states had gone for the plaintiffs, overthrowing such bans. The decision was written by Judge Jeffrey Sutton, with Judge Deborah Cook concurring. Senior Judge Martha Daughtrey dissented.

The Supreme Court recently decided not to grant cert in a number of cases involving same sex marriages, allowing lower court rulings to stand. No one knows why cert wasn’t granted–SCOTUS doesn’t have to explain itself to anyone. But it’s reasonable to assume that they decided not to review the cases because there was no dispute between them. Typically, SCOTUS reserves judicial review for instances where, on a single issue, lower courts disagree.

So plaintiffs in these four cases now have two options. One is, they could request that the case be reviewed by the entire Sixth Circuit en banc.  That is to say, they could request that the entire panel of Sixth Circuit judges look at the thing, rather than just three judges chosen randomly. Or, of course, they could ask the Supreme Court to review it. If they do, it’s probable that SCOTUS will take it.

Judge Sutton’s decision is, um, kinda unusual. It reads more like a civics lesson than a court decision. It suggests that the decision to expand the definition of marriage is not one properly decided by courts. It’s a federalism decision; a states’ rights decision. The definition of marriage is not something courts should decide. Then, when the decision does get into questions of case law and precedent, it does so idiosyncratically. For example, it uses a 1972 decision, Baker v. Nelson, in which a state court invalidated a gay marriage performed by a minister (subsequently denied cert by SCOTUS) as a valid precedent. But Baker was decided a long time ago, and is generally regarded as having been overturned by Lawrence v. Texas and United States v. Windsor, which are far more recent. And given an opportunity to weigh in on gay marriage, SCOTUS punted. But these developments might never have happened, as far as Judge Sutton is concerned.

Check out, for example, this passage:

Over time, marriage has come to serve another value–to solemnize relationships characterized by love, affection, and commitment. Gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of sharing such relationships. And gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of raising children and providing stable families for them. The quality of such relationships, and the capacity to raise children within them, turns not on sexual orientation, but on individual choices and individual commitment. All this supports the policy argument made by many that marriage laws should be extended to gay couples, just as nineteen states have done through their own sovereign powers. Yet it does not show that the States, ca. 2014, suddenly must look at this policy in just one way on pain of violating the Constitution.

Really? I don’t get this at all. I suppose what he’s saying is that state legislatures are capable of arriving at different conclusions than the conclusions reached by pro-gay-marriage activists. But that’s not the point. There are plaintiffs in this case who claim to have been discriminated against. That’s what you’re deciding. That’s the case before you. A decision that says ‘they might have been discriminated against. That’s possible. But it’s not really our place to say’ is preposterous. It is, in fact, your place to say. That’s your obligation, to decide that.

And for you to say (paraphrasing the rest of the decision) ‘the love and commitment of gay couples is equal to the love and commitment of straight couples, and the ability to raise children is, in both cases, identical, but that doesn’t mean we have to rule for plaintiffs. They should go out and become activists in their states, and get their local legislators to change the law’ is just preposterous. Judge Sutton, if you’re not going to rule in cases like these, why are you an appellate court judge?

Judge Daughtrey responded with a blistering, angry, and more than a little snarky dissent.

The author of the majority opinion has drafted what would make an engrossing TED talk, or, possibly, an introductory lecture in Political Philosophy. But as an appellate court decision, it wholly fails to grapple with the relevant constitutional question in this appeal: whether a state’s constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, the majority sets up a false premise–that the question before us is ‘who shall decide’–and leads us through a largely irrelevant discourse on democracy and federalism.

Wham. She then goes on to make what seems to me an obvious point:

In point of fact, the real issue before us concerns what is at stake in these six cases for the individual plaintiffs and their children, and what should be done about it. . . In the main, the majority treats both the issues and the litigants here as mere abstractions. Instead of treating the plaintiffs as persons, suffering actual harm as a result of being denied the right to marry . . . my colleagues view the plaintiffs as social activists who have somehow stumbled into federal court, inadvisably, when they should be out campaigning to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee voters to their cause. But these plaintiffs are not political zealots . . . they are committed same-sex couples, many of them heading up de facto families, who want to achieve equal status. . . .They seek to do this by exercising a civil right that most of us take for granted, the right to marry.

She then eviscerates the main argument made by the defendants in this, and other similar cases nationally, that redefining marriage might provide a disincentive for irresponsible heterosexual couples to marry, devaluing it somehow.  “How ironic,” she says, “that unmarried, irresponsible, heterosexual couples who produce unwanted offspring must be ‘channeled’ into marriage, and thus rewarded with its many psychological and material benefits, while same-sex couples who become model parents are punished for their responsible behavior by being denied the right to marry.” Ironic indeed.

Being remarkably eloquent in defeat still means you lost. The Sixth Circuit opinion will certainly be reviewed, either by the rest of that court, or by the Supremes. My guess is that this decision will probably go to SCOTUS, and that this time the justices will grant cert.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that the Supreme Court wants to risk the kind of controversy a sweeping reversal of all those cases, in all those other Circuit Courts, would cause. And it’s impossible to imagine Justice Kennedy, who authored the Lawrence decision, would decide to uphold decisions as silly as this one from the Sixth. I predict it will go to SCOTUS, who will vote to overturn 6-3, with Kennedy, Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsberg, Breyer and Roberts in the majority, and Scalia, Thomas and Alito in the minority. And Utah will provide the defining case of the controversy. Utah. Wow.