Category Archives: Random Blogging

A Broken Record: Socialism and Capitalism

As I often tell my students, we Americans tend to be bipolar in our approach to the world. Events, policies and people are either all good or all bad, other nations are either “evil-doers” (in George W. Bush’s awkward formulation) or “good guys,” regulation is either killing jobs or protecting children.

Everything is either/or.

Unfortunately for our ability to communicate with each other,  life and reality aren’t so neatly divided.

The recurrent hysteria (on the Right) over “socialism” and the ferocious attacks (from the Left) on capitalism are part and parcel of that unrealistic (albeit comfortingly simple) dichotomy. In the messy real world, the pertinent questions are very different–even when the people making the arguments actually are able to define their terms, which they so often can’t.

Much of the current hostility to capitalism, for example, mistakes America’s current economic reality for capitalism. In some localities, it still may be, but nationally– thanks to money in politics, lobbying by powerful interests, outright corruption and a number of other unfortunate systemic fails– what we have is mostly corporatismor crony capitalism, not the idealized market system to which conservatives and ad agencies genuflect.

Genuine market competition has considerable merits: it encourages innovation and tends to keep consumer prices affordable. If I make a better mousetrap for a better price, my business grows, I hire more workers, and consumers catch more mice for the same money.

Similarly, “socialism” isn’t a dirty word, nor does it imply totalitarian communism. It is simply the communal delivery of services. We socialize police and fire protection, public schools, parks and highways and garbage collection, among other things, because it makes practical and economic sense to provide those things communally.

The question isn’t “should we have socialism or capitalism?” The question is: what sorts of things should a society provide communally–i.e., what services should be socialized–and what goods and services should be provided by the private market?

The question also isn’t: regulation versus no regulation. The question is: what regulations?

We want rules that ensure a level playing field–that prevent a manufacturer from dumping his waste in our rivers in order to keep his costs below those of his competitors, or that prevent a group of businesses from colluding to keep prices artificially high. We don’t want rules that are poorly conceived or unnecessarily onerous–but determining which rules are appropriate and which ones aren’t requires knowing something about the activities being regulated, and making informed judgments.

It requires the sort of expertise that Trump types sneer at as “elitist.”

Too many Americans want bumper-sticker solutions to complicated problems that don’t lend themselves to simplistic approaches. They want black-and-white answers to issues that require recognizing and working within several shades of gray. Too many of America’s loudest voices use terms they can’t define (or often, spell) and fling them as epithets rather than employing them to communicate.

We may disagree about the proper way to deliver certain services–whether we should “socialize” this or that economic or social activity or leave a particular service or function to a properly and deliberately regulated market. Those debates can be productive.

Labelling everything that offends us as “socialism” or “capitalism”–depending upon which intemperate and uninformed end of the political fringe you inhabit– gets us exactly nowhere. It may make the labeler feel superior and self-satisfied, but it doesn’t help solve our complicated problems, and it pisses off the folks at the other end of the ideological spectrum.

A Point Of Light

There are two possible endings to the saga we are currently experiencing. (Well, there are obviously a lot more than two, but most fall within one of two general directions.) Inhabitants of the globe can continue to revert into contending “tribes” screaming at each other from the false security of their particular “bubbles” while the earth warms, species disappear and we eventually all die off; or we could emerge from this difficult era recognizing that the current upheaval has been an unpleasant and perhaps unavoidable side effect of our transition to a more inclusive, more mature, social order.

Most of us have imagined what that “more mature” society might look like–a society in which humans care for each other and protect their environment, where our various differences are cause for celebration rather than suspicion. Those fantasies usually include fairly significant changes to our intellectual and economic life–less consumerism, more respect for science and expertise, a more robust social safety net, and so on. (I’ve actually put my own fantasies into a book– Welcome to the Club: Mending a Fractured America, which is currently being peer-reviewed. When and if it actually hits print, I’ll let you all know.)

Depending upon where you look, you can find lots of evidence for either scenario.

In this blog, I tend to obsess about problems that, left unresolved, might bring on planetary doom. But as several people have pointed out, there is a lot of positive evidence “out there”–mostly bottom-up, grass-roots efforts by mostly younger people–that we might call (per George H.W. Bush) “points of light.”

One of those recently struck me. A Detroit resident named Halima Cassells has started something I think is significant.

Cassells is co-founder of Free Market of Detroit—a place where you can probably find the things you need, and then some.

It started in 2012 like this: Cassells had a year-old baby, and since her other daughters were so much older, she no longer had the baby supplies she needed. So, she decided to host a backyard BBQ, invite all her family and friends, and ask them all to bring baby items they no longer needed. People could take what they needed, as much as they needed. The result was all the moms in need left with more baby gear than they could have imagined. Their needs were met. And they didn’t spend a dime.

 Fast-forward to 2019. The Free Market has grown into a regular event, with one or two held a month, dozens of people attending each one, serving a thousand or more annually. There is a DJ, there is a dance space, and everyone brings as much to give away, or as little, as they are comfortable doing. Some people who might not have an item to give will offer to teach people something, like knitting, crocheting, or yoga. They can also pledge to host a Free Market in their own communities.

 In this way, the Free Market of Detroit is a multi-genre interactive installation, while at its heart it is an old-fashioned swap meet—although nothing is technically traded. It’s all given, freely, says Cassells.

Too often these days, the term “sharing economy” means the exploitation of some people by others for profit–Uber is good example. Cassells’ effort, however, is not only genuine “sharing”–it  has multiple spin-off benefits as well.

When Cassells realized how abundant her community was, she asked herself, “How can we put this [idea] to good use? It amazed me how much stuff people were really happy to get rid of, and happy it would be used. That was the beginning, and a lot of those questions continue [to] inspire more questions like, ‘What is value? How do we place value? Is it time specific? Beauty specific? Status specific?’ …How do we place value on objects and people and usefulness of time and information?”

Not only does the Free Market allow people to acquire needed items without monetary outlay, it facilitates the recycling of consumer goods that would otherwise wind up in a landfill. It undermines mindless consumerism, and it helps to build community.

It’s one of a multitude of grass-roots efforts that can and will usher us into a better future–if we don’t kill each other and destroy the planet first.

 

Funerals

Like many readers of this blog, I’m at “that” age–the age at which you experience what seem like weekly losses of long-time friends, acquaintances and family members.

Last Friday, I went to yet another funeral.

My deceased friend left an accomplished and loving family. He died after a lifetime of service–to his profession, which was (ironically) that of funeral director–and to his various communities: the Indianapolis Jewish community, of which he was a part, the political community (he was a longtime, passionate liberal Democrat), and especially and always the larger human community, for which he demonstrated infinite love and compassion.

It is a tired phrase, but so true of this particular individual: he never met a stranger.

What struck me during the service were the characteristics the clergy focused on (a number of them participated). One after the other, they remarked upon his integrity, praised his compassion, and admired his willingness to stand up for what he believed. They repeatedly noted that he was a man of his word–that no matter how difficult, if he made a commitment, he kept it.

If he gave you his word, you could “take it to the bank.”

To use an old-fashioned but entirely appropriate word, he was righteous. Yes, his smile could light up a room, his personality was warm and his laugh infectious–but he was also righteous. He was incredibly kind. He was unfailingly moral, but never judgmental.

He was righteous.

As I listened to the (entirely accurate) glowing eulogies, all I could think of was that as those in the (jam-packed) room mourned the loss of a good man, we continue to live in a country with a chief executive whose word is worthless, whose commitments are laughable, and who has displayed absolutely no connection to–or comprehension of– integrity or righteousness. At Trump’s funeral, no one will be able to say with a straight face that he was a good or loving– or even nice– person, let alone honorable or righteous.

There is a growing abyss in our country between truly admirable people (of whom there are more than we sometimes realize) and the empty and pitiable “captains of industry,” political posturers, and pious hypocrites who currently occupy positions of authority and power in this country.

My friend saw that abyss, and it troubled him greatly.

There were hundreds of people at my friend’s funeral. They had to put up a tent outside the capacious funeral home to accommodate the large and diverse crowd who were there to pay their respects to a man who exemplified the attributes of human kind we most admire–a man whose smiles and hugs reached into multiple neighborhoods and constituencies.

At the end of the day–and we are all closing in on the end of our days–the genuine affection of our fellow humans, the earned respect of our peers, and the honesty of a celebratory eulogy is all the success that any of us can really hope for. To repeat another hackneyed truth: we can’t take anything else with us.

It’s the memory of a life lived with integrity, love and compassion, not the trappings of power or wealth or celebrity, that ultimately matters. The hundreds of people who came to my friend’s funeral were there to comfort his family and mourn the passing of someone they genuinely cared about. I’ve been to a number of funerals where that wasn’t the case.

In the Jewish tradition, there’s a saying: may his memory be for a blessing.

Leaving a memory that is a blessing is beyond the ability of today’s self-engrossed wanna-be autocrats to achieve.

 

 

 

Edging Toward Civil War?

A few days ago, I shared one of the essay questions from my Law and Policy final exam. The question required students to consider the very different–actually opposed–beliefs about what constitutes American “greatness.”

A number of students chose to respond to that question, and although virtually all of their essays were thoughtful, several of them were depressing. As I noted yesterday, at least a couple suggested that we might be heading toward civil war–that Americans’ approaches to the legitimacy and purpose of government are so incommensurate that common ground is simply unattainable.

Nearly all of them blamed social media for many of our inconsistent realities.

As I said yesterday, I would love to dismiss their observations and concerns as overblown, but stories like the one yesterday and this one–which I referenced a few days ago– are becoming more common and more worrisome.

A small group of white nationalists stormed a bookstore in Washington, D.C., to protest an event for a book on racial politics and how it’s impacting lower- and middle-class white Americans.

The group stormed the Politics and Prose bookstore on Saturday afternoon, interrupting a scheduled talk by Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University who released his book “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland” this spring.

Videos filmed by those in attendance showed the group standing in a line before the audience chanting, “This land is our land.” At least one man was yelling white nationalist propaganda into a megaphone while people in the bookstore booed him.

The man identified the group as “identitarians,” a far-right white nationalist group which is linked to Identity Evropa, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an extremist group.

This exhibition of racial and religious animus took place on the very same day that a 19-year-old white supremacist fired on worshippers in a synagogue in Poway, California.
Before he mounted the attack, the shooter had  gone online and posted an eight-page manifesto, in which he boasted about his “European ancestry” and expressed hatred of Jewish people.

Metzl told NBC Washington that before the protest broke out he was speaking to a man who had helped Metzl’s father and grandfather flee Nazi Austria.

“Not five minutes before, I had acknowledged him and said this is how great America can be when it is bold and generous,” Metzl recalled to NBC.

He told the Post that the incident was “very symbolic for me.”

Actually, the incident should be symbolic for all of us.

The man who had helped Metzl’s father and grandfather escape the Nazis represents what many of us–certainly, the people who occupy my own “bubble”–think of as American greatness: generosity of spirit, a willingness to use our own good fortune to assist others, an instinctive impulse to protect people who are weaker or who are being marginalized.

We see America as an idea and citizenship as a diverse polity’s common devotion to that idea.

The “very fine” people who rioted in Charlottesville, who shot up the synagogue in California, who demonstrated in that bookstore and who cheer anti-immigrant slogans at Trump rallies cluster around a very different version of American greatness.

In their morally impoverished reality, only white Christians can be Americans, and only when straight white Christian males are dominant can America be great.

My students are right about one thing: those worldviews are impossible to bridge. They do not lend themselves to compromise. And thanks to Donald Trump and his constant appeals to the basest among us, we are confronted daily with evidence that many more Americans than I ever would have guessed share a significant amounts of  “identitarian” beliefs.

And a hell of a lot of them are armed.

 

That Dangerous Alternate Reality

A week or so ago, I noted that, in their final essays, several students had suggested America might be heading for another civil war.

Despite our polarization, despite our increasingly toxic politics, that seemed farfetched. I still find it overblown–after all, this country has gotten through plenty of rough patches since our one (and so far, only) civil war without repeating that horrific experience. Granted, some episodes of civil unrest have been bloody, but they haven’t constituted civil war.

We’ve grown up, right?

Maybe not. This recent story from the Guardian made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Washington state Republican representative Matt Shea and several associates regaled an audience with conspiracy theories, separatist visions and exhortations for listeners to arm themselves ahead of a looming civil war, at a gathering at a remote religious compound in the north-east of the state last year.

In recordings obtained by the Guardian, Shea and Jack Robertson, also known as radio personality John Jacob Schmidt, invoked their visions and fears of a violent leftist revolt in speeches at the 2018 God and Country event in Marble.

The Guardian last week published leaked chat records in which Shea and Robertson were revealed to have discussed the use of surveillance, “psyops” and violence against liberal and leftist activists.

Robertson – who aired fantasies of extreme violence against liberal activists in the leaked chats – told the audience at the 2018 event that they should be prepared for civil war.

In his speech at God and Country last June, which immediately followed Shea’s speech, Robertson said: “Of course, you all know that you should have an AR-15 and a thousand rounds of ammo, right? Because Antifa is kicking up and getting ready to defend, right?”

Barely a week after the Guardian reporter contacted Shea and asked for comment, Shea linked to an Australian white nationalist website post which had criticized the reporter making the call.

Robertson and Shea are evidently regular guests on each other’s broadcasts, which air  on a local “Christian” network. According to the Guardian article, the two of them often share a stage at “patriot movement” events. They’ve been associated with the Christian Identity movement, which interprets the Bible as establishing a racial hierarchy in which Jews and blacks are enemies of the white race, who are the true Israelites.

According to Christian Identity doctrine, the United States should be a theocracy governed by Christians in accordance with divine law (as they interpret divine law).

Years ago, a friend of mine told me, in all seriousness, that 20% of the people we pass on the streets–20% of our countrymen– are mentally ill, and that some number of them are delusional and dangerous. At the time, I thought his estimate was high; I no longer think so.

What neither of us foresaw was the election of someone who is seriously disordered (and none too bright), and the encouragement his Presidency would offer to others who live in a  dystopian alternate reality.

We’re in uncharted territory.