Tidbits I learned from reading Patricia O’Toole’s new biography of Woodrow Wilson

1. First impression was that he reminded me of Barack Obama. Wilson thought oratory was a leader’s greatest gift. He thought he could talk others into following him. O’Toole describes his first inaugural speech as “half civics lesson, half sermon.” The title of this biography, by the way, is “The Moralist.”
2. Wilson, facing off against the industrialists, wanted to serve the “public good.”
3. Just before WWI, the U.S. army comprised 108,000 men. More than that were eventually killed. My father’s mother’s brother was one of them. My mother’s father, an Italian immigrant, also served—and survived. U.S. forces grew to nearly 5 million. Quite a mobilization. Unlike W, Wilson proposed to pay for the war with new taxes.
4. Wilson demonized German-Americans, which included my ancestors. He passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which basically curtailed free speech in the U.S. Oppose the war, and civil servants could be fired and imprisoned. Some Democrat, that Wilson. Eugene Debs, the socialist, got 10 years for criticizing the Act. Still, while imprisoned he got nearly a million votes for president in 1920.
5. Some of the stiffest opposition to the war came from Southerners. They weren’t pacifists, but they didn’t like the idea of maybe having to fight alongside blacks. More important, according to the army’s chief of staff, “they do not like the idea of looking forward five or six years by which time their entire male Negro population will have been trained to arms.” Oh yeah, and Wilson re-instituted segregation in the civil service and refused to back Afro-Americans’ fight for civil rights. Some Democrat, for sure.
6. Finally, H.L. Mencken, writing about the 1920 election, lamented the quality of candidates, in this case Warren G. Harding, whose inspired vision was “normalcy,” and James Cox, founder of today’s Cox Enterprises, who H.L. saw as willing to please any audience with anything they wanted at that particular time. Mencken was so pessimistic of the future leadership of this country that “[o]n some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” H.L. is snickering somewhere.

The false dichotomy between progressive & moderate Democrats

Much of the argument following Jon Ossoff’s loss in the Georgia 6th district Congressional race suggests that Democrats need to be more progressive to win. Being a Bernie wannabe seems to be the prescription for firing up the bases to win such elections in an era when the GOP’s leader is an orange-hair baboon.

Others think it’s enough to be simply anti-baboon but that we need to ramp up get out the vote efforts, especially in off year elections when Dems don’t show up.

Others think we need to remove Nancy Pelosi who regularly appears in GOP ads against whatever Democrat is running.

Certainly, we need candidates with passion, but not the foaming at the mouth type we got from Bernie. We need to get progressives and the disenfranchised out to vote, but that’s not a matter of more phone calls. And getting rid of Pelosi, alas, is an idea whose time has come. She simply is too great a symbol for Democrats to overcome. But more important, her strategies are not working. She’s a lightning rod, but also an ineffective strategist.

But missing most is a reason to vote for Democrats.

Here’s where I think we are as a country, politically:

  • Everyone hates the others side, i.e., hyper-partisanship
  • The GOP holds one clear advantage: They appeal to people’s greed. “Cut taxes” has been a winning argument for 35 years.
  • Yet, progressive ideas are actually shared by a majority of Americans. People want government to spend more money on a host of broad budget areas.
  • The GOP holds significant structure advantages in gerrymandering districts to ensure that though they get fewer votes than Democrats for Congress, they elect more members.
  • Everyone seems to agree that government doesn’t work anymore. That meme seems to be a given, and there is no solution. Government is riddled with waste, fraud and abuse and nothing can change it.

Matthew Yglesias comes closest to a sound prescription for Democrats: Stand for something. This makes sense for one compelling reason: Americans want vision. They want to know you stand for something, even if it is anti-immigrants, poor-people bashing racism. Tell us what you think. Be bold. This is where the GOP has always held an advantage. You know what guides their thinking. They’re not afraid of their beliefs. They make no excuses for them.

Who knows what Democrats envision for Americans, other than whatever you’re identity, we’re with you? Bernie tried to lay down some markers with free college, healthcare for all and bashing “millionaires and billionaires.” But it wasn’t grounded in any philosophy, no foundation of what he wanted for America, other than free stuff. People think Democrats want to please everyone and thus have no core principles other than to spend more money.

So what to do? Not that anyone has asked me or that I have a pedigree in political campaigns. I’ve been in a few, though, and spent a career trying to impact narratives. So why not take a crack at it.

Leading Democrats in the House and Senate need to sit down and hammer out a vision of only a page or two and then figure how to reduce it to a 30-second elevator speech. I’d suggest they bring in not only politicians and political activists but also experts in communications and cognitive behavior—people who understand how people think. If I were among them, here’s what I’d suggest.

First, adhere to the Constitution’s mandate to “promote the General Welfare.” Talk about how we see Americans as “being in this together.” Americans love our Founding Fathers. Ground our principles in theirs—why they got us rolling as a nation.

Second, admit that government isn’t perfect, but talk about making government more efficient to better “protect” (not regulate) Americans. (Already we’re seeing that framing among progressives.) Be an agent of change. Part of the problem is that law making is now done hand in hand with lobbyists with so much detail in our laws that the bureaucrats tasked with implementing them have so many rules they must adhere to the process becomes tedious and inefficient.

Cite how politicians have made government less effective in order to prove their view that it doesn’t work. For example, if you cut the IRS staff to the bare bones, you can’t then complain that it doesn’t do its job of catching tax scofflaws.

Talk about making the economy work for people without a college education and making a college education affordable for more people. Talk about vocational education, teaching the trades where there are a lack of skilled workers. Embrace “free enterprise,” but point out that we don’t have free enterprise anymore. We have corporations that have successfully written the laws that give them all the advantages that protect their profits and hurt consumers and workers. It’s no longer a level playing field. Today, corporations cop out by saying they must provide “shareholder value.” That’s not the only goal they should have, just as a father’s role is not simply to bring home the bacon. They have a responsibility to their workers, the communities they operate in, and the taxpayers who provide the infrastructure they use to move their goods and services. As a simple example, if a businessman takes a prospect to lunch, he gets to claim part of the expense as a tax deduction. Why should taxpayers subsidize his marketing efforts? If it’s a good idea to have lunch, let the shareholders pay for it.

Fourth, be honest in saying that many jobs are not coming back unless Americans are willing to pay far higher prices for popular necessary goods such as clothing, autos, technology. We need to work together on making the future better for everyone. There will be upheavals as there were during industrialization at the end of the 19th century. People moved from the farm to the cities. They learned new skills. It was hard. It was a change of life style, but in the end it brought financial rewards. People who’ve lost their jobs to globalization need to make a sacrifice to adapt.

And yes, talk about taxes. Say exactly who will pay more in taxes, about how much and what benefits they will get for their higher taxes. As an example, if I said you could reduce your health care costs by $2000 if we raised your taxes by $1,000 is that a deal you’d consider? The conversation doesn’t start with taxes; it’s starts with envisioning what we want as a society and then figuring out a way to pay for it. That’s the way families work. Parents want a better future for their children and try to figure out how to get it by not only watching their spending but  looking for ways to increase their incomes and invest smartly in their children’s future.

When we talk about taxes we need to put it in terms of what will people pay, not the aggregate costs. Years ago, I tried to convince Virginia Democrats who wanted to raise the gas tax that instead of talking about the dollars they needed to raise, talk about how much the tax would increase the average car owner. It was about $126 a year. That’s a number people can understand. $1.5 billion is not.

George Lakoff has long had the right approach. Progressives spend too much time appealing to people’s reason. People don’t vote for reasoned arguments. They vote their values, which is why, for example, a Congressional district in Kentucky where a majority of the people receive food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits of the social safety net continually vote for a Congressman who wants to cut those programs.

Lakoff believes the fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the latter are paternalistic and the former maternalistic. Republicans believe in a strong father who lays down the law, expects obedience and believes in pulling yourself up the bootstraps. Democrats are more nurturing, want to see all boats lifted and empathize with those struggling.

The message of inclusion, both socially and economically, needs to reach not only rural whites, but the top 20 percent of income earners (those making more than $120,000 annually), according to the author of “Dream Hoarders.” The 20 percenters think they’ve got where they are solely through hard work without a bit of privilege, mostly the white kind. Moreover, they don’t think of themselves as rich because they compare themselves to others living in their sequestered neighborhoods. Many really have no idea how the other 80 percent live, where something as simple as a set of new tires can mean they can’t pay their rent.

What are Democratic values? Can we articulate them without worrying about offending someone? Can we say that, yes, many people have succeeded due to hard work (but with good luck, too), but not everyone can find that good luck that allows them to work hard to succeed? Can we return to those days when we saw all ourselves as being Americans who were “in this together?”

“The Big Short”

If you thought reading about derivatives trading would be boring, think again. Michael Lewis, who wrote "Liar’s Poker" and "The Blind Side" tells the story of the 2008 financial meltdown through the eyes of a half dozen men, none of who are likely be recognizable names to you, but who made big bets against the subprime mortgage market and were rewarded.

These men, mostly from small boutique—and sometimes barely solvent—investment firms are an idiosyncratic bunch. One is a certified sufferer of Asperger’s disorder. They are thought out of their minds because they had what was lacking on Wall St.: commonsense. They were sometimes ostracized because of their beliefs.

Much of the story is about how these half dozen or so men first did what every investor should do: examine what they are buying. When they did, they found mortgages bonds rated aaa but which contained mostly mortgages to people who could not afford the homes.  Many of the subprime mortgage bonds were full of mortgages that could not possible be repaid. Some mortgages were structured so that the borrower was likely to default when the first payment came due.

If only a small portion of the mortgages failed, the bond itself would implode. Their stories are sometimes hilarious and their methods often unorthodox as they tried to find out what the market saw in these bonds that they didn’t.  Many were filled with self-doubt, unable to believe that they could see disaster coming whereas the titans of Wall St. saw nothing but blue skies ahead. They spent a lot of their time trying to prove themselves wrong.  Fortunately, they made the investment in CDOs against the bonds, despite their self-doubt.

Their story, told with Lewis’s sense of humor, is delightful. They reveal a Wall St. that is insular, aloof and not nearly as smart as it think it is.

What is most frightening about this account is that the 2008 crisis was totally avoidable, if only Wall Street wasn’t so oblivious to the obvious. Anyone who looked behind the mortgage bonds being traded during the early 2000’s would see that they were doomed to fail. The market was simply unsustainable.

But the almighty traders and leading Wall St. firms never looked closely at what they were trading. Those putting the mortgage bonds together—as well as those in the rating agencies who dared not look into them—did so without scrutiny, not just from the SEC or the CFTC, but from the executives of Wall St. firms.

It’s clear that when it comes to evaluating investments in the traditional sense, that is without complex derivatives, most on Wall St. are no more sophisticated than the common investor.

But we, of course, get to pay the price of their incompetence.

“Just Kids”

They say if you remember the 60s, you weren’t there. Just Kids will jog your memory.

This is touching memoir by the “godmother of punk rock,” Patti Smith, and her relationship with the then equally unknown Robert Mapplethorpe who was to become the iconic photographer.

Smith met Mapplethorpe in New York City, after she had left her loving but insular home in South Jersey, abandoned college, and gave up for adoption the child had by a boy she described as even more callow than herself. Arriving in the city with literally a couple of dollars in her pocket, she embarked on a journey that many of us who in fact remember those times will appreciate: the desire to be an artist, to make a mark on the world under terms our parents could not appreciate.

But this memoir tells of her journey and the loving friendship the two of them enjoyed without self righteousness or sense of entitlement. Mapplethorpe would soon come to grips with his homosexuality but that did not alter the main trajectory of their relationship, which began sexually but evolved into one of where each was the other’s greatest champion.

From the telling of the small vignettes that remind us of how little material possessions meant to many people of this age in the 60s to the larger narrative how each eventually found their way to fame, this book, which won this year’s National Book Award for non-fiction, is a delightful read. Her seminal album “Horses,” which has been recognized as one of the top 100 albums of all time, included a memorable cover photograph by Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989. While this album launched her career, which has been as much about her poetry and visual art as music, preceded his fame. He eventually became known as the photographer of images that were as disturbing as they were groundbreaking. Yet in this book, which is obviously sympathetic to him, reveals a sensitive and thoughtful—and yes, somewhat self-absorbed—young man.

They both had a strong religious upbringing, and we see in Just Kids how it shaped their art. We also see how others in New York at that time, Andy Warhol, Sam Shepard, Bob Dylan among them, impacted their art. It is a book about a time that some of us remember, however we try to deny it. Or perhaps of a time as we would like to remember it.

“The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”

“We program our computers and thereafter they program us.”

Nicolas Carr’s “2001” conclusions can seem over the top, especially in the final chapters of his study of “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” the subtitle to his book The Shallows. But if you’re skeptical of hyperbole, there’s much to recommend this book.

First, his research is impressive, though reading about some of the psychological studies can be tedious. But in the early portions of the book, his documentation of the history of reading and the impact the printed word has had on society is a fascinating read.

His main thesis is that reading on the Internet, with numerous hyperlinks and other links on the page “change the way we use, experience and understand the content.” And it’s not for the better. He believes that reading this way makes it hard to concentrate and ultimately, hard to reason and think creatively.

He also believes social networking sites create self-consciousness, particularly younger folks. My own experience tends to confirm that idea: One person I know, who shall remain nameless, sends and receives more than 3,000 texts a month. That’s 100 per day. Personally, I have a Facebook account but find most of the posts by my friends to be drivel. About the only posts I make are links to my blogs.

But many of Carr’s conclusions seem to mirror my own experience as a slave to the Internet.

What makes this book interesting is that Carr’s conclusions are supported by dozens of experiments and studies that he cites in the book. One for example, which he believes supports the theory that using the ‘Net makes us dumber, is one where two groups similar in cognitive function were asked to solve a simple problem on a computer. The first group used software that provided clues and helpful hints. The second group used a very basic software that simply allowed them to complete the tasks (it required moving blocks into a defined order) with no hints or clues. Although the first group started out better, they quickly fell behind and the second group solved the puzzle more quickly because, Carr argues, they had to think more creatively than the first group, which became lazy and dependent on the hints. Dependent, and Carr argues, constrained by the software. Repeating the study yielded the same results.

The Googling of America is not only making us all less creative but is leading to an homogenization of thought. By looking at citations in scholarly papers from 1945 to 2008, he finds today, with online access to sources, such papers cite fewer sources than older papers—before the Internet. This is caused in part by Google’s algorithms that produce results based on the popularity of the click throughs on those results, thereby making it more difficult to find the less often cited papers that may change our conclusions. Googling also tend to emphasize the most recent papers so that we overvalue what’s happening now.

Finally, Carr contends that all the time we spend absorbing myriad facts and information bits reduces the time we should spend contemplating, i.e., thinking.

After he finished the book, he heard of a new development that he added as an epilogue. A large educational testing firm developed new software that would review students’ essays and grade them. The result is that the student can only achieve high marks if he conforms to the parameters established by the software. Where is the evaluation of creativity and writing that is unusual yet compelling?

Indeed, how compelling and creative can we be if our information is filtered and presented in a way that precludes contemplation?

The Hated Government

Why do people hate government?  Intrusive?  Proliferous?  Bureaucratic?  Costly?  I vote for “None of the above.”  Rather I think attorney Philip Howard finds the culprit:  laws.  They’re designed not to work.  That’s not the intentional, of course, but it’s the outcome of laws written in such detail and so process-laden that those charged with implementing them, the much maligned bureaucrats, can’t do anything more than mind the process to see that it’s followed, consequence and commonsense be damned.

Which is why he titles his book “The Death of Common Sense:  How Law is Suffocating America.”   I learned of this book after reading a David Brooks column.  I thought it was a recent book, but it was written in 1995.  Yet it captures, I think, why government is so mistrusted (even though most folks can name a few big programs they love: think Medicare and Social Security).  Laws today are nothing more than byzantine processes that bureaucrats are bound to follow.  If a situation arises that defies commonsense, procedure prevails. 

Howard believes this all started with the Civil Rights Act.  While he agrees with the need for the law, it spurred a raft of legislation that was more concerned that no one was denied something they had a right to than in solving problems.  “Rules replaced thinking.  Process replaced responsibility.”

The book is filled with anecdotes, maybe too many, but they drive home the point.  For example, he cites the case in New York City where officials were offered a chance to try out portable public restrooms.  They would be placed curbside, similar to what you find in Europe.  But once the project was announced, the disabled community threatened a law suit unless every one of the units were wheelchair accessible.  The experiment died before it was started.  The rights of the disabled community trumped the benefit the rest of us would have enjoyed.

Howard points out that laws used to be relatively brief documents.  The one that authorized the Interstate Highway system ran 28 pages.  By now we all know that the Obama health care law consumed about 2,000 pages.  Today laws are laden with detailed process that commands more detailed regulations so as to ensure that no one is treated unfairly.  What’s missing today is personal responsibility, Howard argues.  Rather, he would prefer that laws set out priorities and intentions, and we let the bureaucrats implement them and be responsible for the outcomes.

Therein, lies the rub, of course.  Would those same  (hated) bureaucrats pervert the laws intention to match their own prejudices.  Or would laws change dramatically depending on who were in the appointed positions in the bureaucracy? 

It would be easy to dismiss the book as a thinly veiled attempt by a conservative to do just that.  I’m not sure of Howard’s political persuasion, but the legal reform coalition he chairs has a mix of both left and right on the advisory board.  Whatever his political views may be, progressives, especially, might listen closely to his argument and find that things like tort reform and personal responsibility have their merits.  That is, if you want government to accomplish anything.