Category Archives: Random Blogging

The Death of Satire?

A regular reader of this blog made an astute observation a few months ago; in response to a discussion of seemingly ridiculous behavior by some political figure or other, he noted that “Their reality has lapped our satire.”

No kidding.

I was scrolling through my Facebook page, and came across a quote attributed to Congressman Trent Franks, questioning the Pope’s grasp of the bible, and insisting that a proper reading of that text did not require helping the poor. In a sane age, I would have immediately concluded that the quote was fake, but then I remembered an incident I personally witnessed a few years ago, at a debate about same-sex marriage sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Two of us on the panel spoke in opposition to the (then pending) constitutional ban. Curt Smith from the Indiana Family Institute and someone whose name I don’t recall spoke in support. During the question and answer period, Rabbi Dennis Sasso quoted a passage from the bible as a reason to oppose the ban; Smith responded by telling the Rabbi that he’d misinterpreted the bible, and offering to send him some materials that “explain that passage properly.”

In my ethnic group, that’s called “chutzpah.” I’ve never forgotten it. So I suspended disbelief and googled the Trent Franks quote, which did turn out to be inaccurate. (Franks had suggested that the Pope should stay out of “politics.”)

The moral of this story is that it is getting increasingly difficult to tell whether a story is satirical or true. When state legislatures pass laws “protecting” pastors from performing same-sex marriages, or laws forbidding food stamp recipients from buying seafood; when Sarah Palin says things like “Paul Revere warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our guns,” when pretty much everything that comes out of the mouths of people like Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Louis Gohmert, Ben Carson and so many others sounds like a headline from the Onion, is it any wonder that we approach reports about even the most outrageous statements with a suspension of disbelief?

Actually, disbelief over accurate quotations threatens to become my permanent attitude….

 

 

 

Armed and Very Dangerous

The recent shoot-out in Waco, Texas, prompts me to share some observations about the ubiquity of guns in America, and the near-religious fervor with which an unrestricted right to bear arms is defended. (I’m well aware that I may regret writing this; my only previous foray into the issue, on this blog, prompted responses that were by far the most uncivil and threatening I have ever received. And I used to run Indiana’s ACLU.)

A couple of caveats: Perfectly reasonable people may have different opinions about the purpose and reach of the Second Amendment, and what restrictions on gun ownership are both socially prudent and constitutional. Many responsible people own firearms, for a variety of eminently defensible reasons.

This blog isn’t about those people.

In fact, even though this post was triggered by the motorcycle gang violence in Waco, it isn’t intended to be directly responsive to that event, either; rather, you might think of it as a meditation on America’s inability to approach even the most reasonable discussions of gun rights and public safety with anything other than hysteria and hyperbole.

This hasn’t always been the case. In 1968, for example, President Johnson signed a sweeping national gun control law; in 1993, Congress passed the Brady Act. There have been others.

But during the past few decades, these federal laws have been substantially weakened and the gun lobby has advanced multiple state-level initiatives expanding gun “rights” well beyond what my generation considered reasonable– measures to permit concealed weapons, to allow people to take weapons into businesses (including bars and despite the objections of the property owners), and to invalidate campus rules against weapons. Iowa even passed a measure allowing people who are blind to obtain gun permits.

Perhaps the most troubling element of this landscape has been the growth of so-called “open carry” laws. Want to sling your AK47 over your shoulder when you go to the grocery? Sure thing!  In the wake of passage of these laws, groups of heavily armed men have “exercised their constitutional rights” by showing up in the aisles of establishments like Target and Walmart.

These displays of machismo are not unconnected to the (increasingly bizarre) conspiracy theories that have mushroomed in the wake of President Obama’s election. “Obama is going to confiscate our guns!”  “Jade Helm is a plot—Obama is planning to bring in the U.N. and take over Texas!”

Racism is clearly a factor in these and similar conspiracies being promoted in the more fetid precincts of the Internet, but racism doesn’t explain all of the paranoia.

Fear does.

We live in a time of dramatic and unprecedented social change, with a corresponding loss of what scholars call agency. Agency is personal efficacy, confidence that we are in charge of our own lives, the masters of our own fates, in possession of a measure of control over what happens to us.

Americans wake up every morning to a world that is less familiar and more disorienting; a world resistant to attempts at control. Meanwhile, the Internet inundates us with evidence that our social institutions—especially but not exclusively government—cannot be trusted. People who’ve been told their whole lives that they’ll do well if they work hard and play by the rules—most of  whom have dutifully proceeded to work hard and play by the rules—have seen their wages stagnate and their life prospects dim.

Some Americans respond to this social landscape by “opting out,” by retreating from civic life. Others– frightened people trying to make sense of an unfamiliar world– take refuge in “explanations” for their distress: a War on Christians, welfare mothers, Sharia law…  At the extreme, folks with paranoid tendencies believe their lives depend upon their ability to arm themselves against the “enemy,” the United Nations, immigrants, terrorists, the federal government….and especially, the terrifying unknown.

So they swagger down the aisles of the local Target with guns over their shoulders and strapped to their hips, and tee-shirts that say “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Sad. And very dangerous.

 

 

No Wonder Nobody Votes

As if we didn’t know.

The Washington Post recently ran an article documenting what virtually every sentient American knows: thanks to gerrymandering and residential “sorting,” elections at every level are increasingly uncompetitive–when they are contested at all.

Here’s the lede

Fewer state legislative elections were hotly contested between Democrats and Republicans in 2014 than at any time in the last 40 years, according to a new study that offered more evidence of a historically polarized electorate.

The analysis of election results from last year found less than 5 percent of the U.S. population lives in a state House or state Senate district where the two leading candidates finished within 5 percentage points of each other.

At the same time, the number of races that don’t even draw competition is on the rise. Nearly a third of voters lived in state Senate districts in which only one candidate ran, while more than 40 percent lived in state House districts with only one option. Those numbers are far higher than four decades ago, when less than a quarter of residents lived in one-candidate districts.

The question, of course, is: what do we do about it?

There are no “good guys” here–both parties aggressively seek advantage, and when in a position to call the shots, both can be counted on to draw a map as favorable as computing power can devise.

It’s common–even fashionable–to berate citizens who don’t vote. But let’s be fair: why take time out of your day to visit a polling place if there are no contests?

It won’t solve the whole problem, but the first step to re-engaging voters must be to remove redistricting from the partisan political process. Here in Indiana, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are devoting themselves to getting that done. (They are holding a forum at the Indiana Historical Society on June 6th, devoted to the issue.)

It’s an uphill battle, but it’s one we all need to join.

Spending? Or Investing?

What happens when we fail to recognize the difference between spending and investing?

That question was triggered by a recent column by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. Nocera was writing about corporate activists and a pending proxy battle between one such group and the DuPont Company, and most of his column dealt with the specifics of that situation. What struck me, however, was the following paragraph, in which he quotes an observation by a corporate lawyer named Martin Lipton. Lipton’s observations have implications that go well beyond a single corporate proxy dispute.

“Activism has caused companies to cut R & D, capital investment, and most significantly, employment,” he said. “It forces companies to lay off employees to meet quarterly earnings.”

“It is,” he concluded, “a disaster for the country.”

Lipton’s focus on employment is important, and has obvious implications for the health of the economy. But even more important, in my view, is the equally undeniable fact that the current fixation on generating an immediate shareholder return has resulted in corporate management diverting monies from investments that will pay dividends in the future in order to satisfy shareholder demands in the present.

Nor is it only corporate America that has become so shortsighted. The U.S. Congress is dominated by slash-and-burn “conservatives” who refuse to invest in critical infrastructure, preferring instead to indulge ideology and/or reward donors by reducing taxes on the wealthy (already at historic lows) still further. The recent slashing of Amtrak’s budget–even in the wake of a horrific derailment–is but one recent example.

I put quotation marks around conservative in the preceding paragraph, because I am old enough to remember when “fiscally conservative” described policymakers who believed in paying for programs—and wars—when they were authorized, rather than financing them “off budget” or putting them on the national credit card. ( We may criticize “tax and spend,” but it’s surely preferable to “borrow and spend.”)

Genuine fiscal conservatives also understood the difference between capital and operating expenditures and the importance of investing in the nation’s future.

Drawing parallels between individual households and the federal budget can be misleading, because there are significant differences between behaviors that are personally prudent and those appropriate to government. Nevertheless, to use a household example, your home mortgage is an investment; your new suit isn’t. Most of us would have very different opinions of two families carrying the same level of debt—in one case a mortgage and in the other a credit card balance from a shopping spree. And most of us would be very critical of a homeowner who chose not to repair the leaky roof so that he could use the money for a vacation instead.

Allowing assets to deteriorate while we indulge more immediate political appetites is hardly “fiscally conservative.”

When businesses fail to invest in necessary equipment, when they cut back on research and development, they risk obsolescence and loss of market share. They lose their competitive edge. That’s bad news for them.

When government fails to invest in infrastructure—bridges, roads, railroads, the electrical grid, new energy technologies, basic medical and scientific research—that’s bad news for us. We all suffer the consequences, because the whole nation’s economic performance is dependent upon the adequacy and accessibility of that infrastructure.

I believe it was Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman-philosopher, who said a nation should ultimately be judged not by what it builds, but by its ability to maintain what it has built.

The Age of the Bankster

Remember Mr. Potter, the banker in “It’s a Wonderful Life”? He wasn’t exactly a paragon. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that his character reflected how people of that era viewed their local banks and bankers.

Potter-like or not, however, bankers used to live in their communities and tended to have a pretty accurate picture of their needs, not to mention the credit-worthiness of the merchants and working folks who made up those communities.  (I grew up in a small Indiana town, and remember our local bank president with some affection; if I was overdrawn, he’d just call my father, who would transfer some money into my account. No embarrassing surprises, no fees. Just a parental lecture.)

So this report is troubling.

Here’s a statistic that ought to alarm anyone interested in rebuilding local economies and redirecting the flow of capital away from Wall Street and toward more productive ends: Over the last seven years, one of every four community banks has disappeared. We have 1,971 fewer of these small, local financial institutions today than at the beginning of 2008. Some 500 failed outright, with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) stepping in to pay their depositors. Most of the rest were acquired and absorbed into bigger banks….

In 1995, megabanks—giant banks with more than $100 billion in assets (in 2010 dollars)—controlled 17 percent of all banking assets.

By 2005, their share had reached 41 percent. Today, it is a staggering 59 percent. Meanwhile, the share of the market held by community banks and credit unions—local institutions with less than $1 billion in assets—plummeted from 27 percent to 11 percent. You can watch this transformation unfold in our 90-second video, which shows how four massive banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo—have come to dominate the sector, each growing larger than all of the nation’s community banks put together.

Whatever one’s opinion of the bank shenanigans that precipitated the Great Recession, of “too big to fail,” or Dodd-Frank–whether or not you agree with Elizabeth Warren about the need for additional financial regulation–concentrations of power of this magnitude are cause for concern.

When that power is concentrated in large national banks removed from community relationships and concerns, the result is more foreclosures and fewer small business loans.

But perhaps the most important reason to treat the decline of community banks as a national crisis is that, while megabanks devote much of their capacity to activities that enrich their own bottom line, very often at the expense of the broader economy, local banks are doing the real work of financing businesses and other productive investments that create jobs and improve our well-being….

 While credit unions and small and mid-sized banks account for only 24 percent of all banking assets, they supply 60 percent of lending for small businesses.

The inverse is true of megabanks: they control 59 percent of the industry’s asset, but provide only 23 percent of small business loans. Given how much ground these giant banks have gained over local banks in the last seven years, it’s not hard to understand why small business lending has continued to shrink even as the economy has recovered.

Sometimes, bigger is better. Sometimes, it most definitely is not.