The Most American People in the World!

Donald Trump PiñataIt would be great to be born rich. Obviously, the money would be great. But let’s forget about that. You’d still be rich — or at least well off. That’s because of all of the investment and employment opportunities you would have. You would be connected — networked! That’s what it is all about. There is a wonderful quote in (for the third time today) Nicole Aschoff’s excellent, The New Prophets of Capital, “Going to State University and stalking potential employers on LinkedIn is not equivalent to going to Harvard and having a CEO for an uncle.” Right!

But let’s not limit this. If you were born here in the United States — the child of a couple of people who represent generations here, you have some advantages too. At least you have advantages over people who swim the Rio Grande and somehow survive their way through the desert. You would generally have an uncle who can at least put in a good word for you even at a crummy company. So it is better to be an American than an immigrant. Or it would be if all else were equal.

Of course, all else is not equal. Let’s face it: if you risked death swimming the Rio Grande and hiking through the desert, you are probably made of better stuff than the natural born American. And this is why immigrants are often hugely successful in this country. One of the great myths of America is that we are a nation of immigrants! And we are — in a technical sense. Even the slaves who were brought here against their will represent the ones who survived. Their descendants come from people who lived through lifetimes of torture. If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is that.

But most Americans hate immigrants. I even have a friend who seems to think that he — knowing only English — is at a disadvantage for jobs compared to people who speak pretty much exclusively Spanish. It’s all kind of a whine, anyway, as he’s naturally good at languages and could pick up Spanish if he really wanted. But the main thing is that while knowing Spanish in California is certainly helpful, if you could only pick a single language to know, English is by far the best choice.

My point in bringing all this up is that I’m mostly for an open boarder. And I certainly think that the people who have risked death to get here just so they could work in the grey economy should be given green cards immediately. These are the most American people in the world! They are more American than anyone I know who was born here. They are certainly more American than Donald Trump.

Here’s a fun fact. I just wrote an article, Donald Trump Is Rich Because He Was Born Rich. That puts the best gloss of Trump that you can. There are a number of people who think that Trump’s actual wealth is only about a quarter of a billion dollars. That’s a lot, of course. But he inherited $50 million in 1974. Adjusting just for the rate of inflation, this represents — Wait for it! — a quarter billion dollars!

Trump is certainly very American — in the worst sense of the term: privileged, arrogant, and creepy. But when I say the people who risk death to get here are the ultimate Americans, I’m talking about in the good way — the way that does make America better.

Yes, the Donald Trump Piñata is a real thing. Get ’em while they last!

Now There Are Two Israel Lobbies — One Is Good!

Jonathan ChaitThe pro-Israel lobby was never the shadowy, government-controlling entity portrayed by its most paranoid critics. It was, however, an important influence on American politics. Zionism is to Jews what the civil-rights movement is to African-Americans, a political program organized to protect basic survivalist concerns. Jews participate disproportionately in political life in every way: voting, intellectual debate, donating, and organizing. The pro-Israel lobby organized an important constituency in American politics that shared a relatively unified understanding of its collective self-interest.

A month ago, that lobby was gearing up for a massive national campaign to block the Iran nuclear deal, using every medium at its disposal: television ads, face-to-face lobbying, impassioned pleas from the bimah and in the Jewish press. The campaign has not only failed, it has appeared almost completely ineffectual, and its failure has left its members stupefied. The deal’s anticlimactic success shows that the world has moved beyond them, and they fail to understand how or why this happened…

The deal’s opponents not only misjudged public opinion as a whole, but more astonishingly, they misjudged the state of American Jewish opinion in particular. Congress might have been moved to oppose the Iran deal if the American Jewish community had viewed it as an existential threat to Israel. But Jews did not, on the whole, take that view. A detailed survey of American Jewish opinion by The Jewish Journal found, on the whole, that American Jews support the deal, 53 percent to 35 percent…

Liberals like the deal, and conservatives don’t, by roughly equal margins. But most Jews are liberals. Rising polarization of American life has cleaved in two everything in its path. There is no more “Israel lobby”; there is a red Israel lobby and a blue one.

—Jonathan Chait
The Iran Deal and the End of the Israel Lobby

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Amendment: We Need Voters to Demand Equality

Robert ReichI’ve long been a fan of Robert Reich. But I thought he went a little off the playing field yesterday, What Happened to the Moral Center of American Capitalism? The article is in two parts. I’ll discuss them both, but note that I don’t actually disagree with the second half.

Like a lot of liberals, Reich pines for the days after World War II when CEO salaries were reasonable and social norms dictated that workers took part in increased productivity. But part of this is what I just wrote about this morning regarding Nicole Aschoff’s The New Prophets of Capital. As long as everything was fine and the US companies totally dominated the world, then sure: the capitalists were willing to spread a few crumbs around.

But even at that time, they weren’t happy about it. Remember: the Taft–Hartley Act was passed in 1947. That is probably the single most devastating law constraining union power. The reason that the business community hates unions is not about money. They can manage the money side of things. It is all about power. When they are feeling beneficent, they don’t mind giving out some raises or (Even better!) bonuses. What they don’t want is for workers to have any power — any say in the company. They don’t want them to be stakeholders.

So yes, the 1970s and 1980s, things got much worse. First with Carter and deregulation and then with Reagan and his tax cuts and declaring open season on unions. But that didn’t just happen. There was part of a long continuum. And it didn’t start in 1947 either. Throughout the Great Depression, the capitalist class did little but bitch and complain. You know how today conservatives are always on about how people don’t have jobs because they are lazy — that if they were just more “go-getters” then jobs would suddenly appear? Well, the same thing was going on during the depths of the Great Depression, even though today everyone thinks people were more understanding. Well the rich weren’t, because they never are.

So Reich is wrong to romanticize the post-war period. But he is right in the second part of his article where he talks about solutions. Because unlike Whole Foods’ John Mackey, Reich doesn’t think that companies are going to spontaneously become good guys through “conscious capitalism.” The truth is that our economy is a totally made up concept. It exists because the government exists. And if we want to do something about the extreme levels of income inequality in this country, it is going to be done through laws.

Here he lays out some concrete ideas that while unimaginable now, are great and necessary:

We’ve got to put limits on executive pay and have a much more progressive income tax so that people who are earning tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars a year are paying at a rate that they paid before 1981, which is at least 70% at the highest marginal level.

Then he goes on to talk about campaign finance reform. I’m all for that, but I think there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem here. The truth is that we wouldn’t need campaign finance law if we had relative economic equality. If the richest person in the world had a total net worth of $10 million, then she simply couldn’t distort the political system that much. (There are rumors that Donald Trump may only be worth about a quarter billion dollars, which means he is in no position to finance his own campaign.) So ultimately, we don’t need a constitutional amendment. We need people to show up to vote for candidates that are going do tangible good regarding inequality. And those policies are listed above in the bit of Reich’s article that I quoted.

The Useless Messiahs of Reform Capitalism

The New Prophets of CapitalI’m only about halfway through Nicole Aschoff’s excellent The New Prophets of Capital, but her argument is so clear that I want to talk about it briefly. She deals with four case studies in the book: Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates. The fundamental idea with all of them is that the problems that capitalism creates can be fixed by capitalism itself. It is not at all surprising that they are all Americans because this is very typical of our “can do” attitude. We always think that we can tinker with a system. We are, after all, the only country on the planet that had a revolution that didn’t revolutionize anything.

Sandberg is the Facebook COO and the author of Lean In, where she argues that women will gain more equality by having more of them on corporate boards and in corner offices. And how will they do that? Well, Sandberg has an example of when she was really pregnant, walking a long way from her car to her office at Google (where she worked at the time). She had an epiphany, “There should be close parking for pregnant women!” So she marched into the CEO’s office and demanded it and ever since, Google has had special parking for pregnant women. Hooray!

It’s funny and sad that Sandberg thinks that really pregnant women need shorter walks to their offices and not, maybe, time off. But that is exactly the point from my perspective. It’s like the television anchor who says, “I’ve never been told what stories to do!” Of course not! The network would never allow someone who didn’t self-censor to be the television anchor. And Google would never allow a normal woman to be a high ranking executive. Of course, Aschoff destroys this notion in a different way by noting that Yahoo!’s female CEO, Marissa Mayer, cut thousands of jobs and eliminated flex time, which is especially helpful to women. Allowing woman who are just like the very worst men to rise to the top will not change a damned thing.

Similarly, John Mackey is the co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods. And he thinks that we can just fix capitalism by corporations being more responsible and less greedy. That’s so obviously a fairy tale that it should come as no shock to you that Mackey is a libertarian. But the truth is that Whole Foods is, on the whole, a lot better a company than I had been led to believe. That’s one of the great things about Aschoff’s work: she goes out of her way to show that these people aren’t frauds. But here’s the critical matter: Whole Foods is not the first company to treat its workers and customers well. IBM, for example, did the same thing in the 1950s and 1960s. But IBM is not such a great company to work for now. What happened? Competition.

As long as a company is riding high, it can afford to pay its workers well and invest in do-gooder projects. But the moment that profits start to slide, all of that will be pushed aside. And that’s for one reason: profit is what these companies are about. It trumps all. But when a company is at the top of the market, it isn’t so clear. Everyone focuses on the good things they do and not all the money they are making. It is like John Mackey highly publicized salary of $1 per year. All that means is that Whole Foods is his baby and he loves running it. Oh, and he has $100 million net worth, so he doesn’t need a salary.

None of these are bad people. But I very much see myself as a young man in them. There is something incredibly self-serving about it all. What each and every one of them is saying (I already know a great deal about Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates) is that if only everyone were more like them, then all the world’s problems would be fixed. It’s not enough that they are ridiculously wealthy having never worked that hard. It isn’t enough that people bow down to them as great oracles of business wisdom. They must be seen as messiahs! They have brought the Word to the masses and the Word is themselves.

Morning Music: Stevie Wonder

You Are the Sunshine of My LifeI’ll admit it: mom’s favorite songs was a bit of a bust. But I can’t be smart all the time. What’s more, tomorrow we are going to start a week of really great music by a guy you probably have never heard of. What’s more, he has a (distant) connection to this week’s selections. So stay tuned!

But we finish out this week strongly, I think. We are going to listen to Stevie Wonder perform “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” It was my parent’s “song.” That’s interesting because my first wife and my “song” was “Holiday in Cambodia.” And my second wife and my “song” was “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

Anniversary Post: Great Fire of London

Great Fire of LondonOn this day in 1666, the Great Fire of London finally ended. It had started early in the morning of 2 September, so it went on for four days. It made 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 people homeless. There is some question as to how many people died as a direct result of the fire, but it appears to have been fairly low. But no one really knows, because no one creating official records really cared when poor people died.

The fire started in a bakery. But at the time, the people of London decided that it had been started by Mexicans immigrants. In that case, it was French and Dutch because England happened to be at war with them. So many people were beaten and lynched. It’s an interesting kind of mentality of us humans, “There’s a terrible fire going on! Let’s do something! Let’s kill innocent people based on rumor!” Clearly, even if the immigrants had been responsible, that was not the time to seek justice.

This is yet another reason why demagoguery is such a bad thing. It’s all fine for Donald Trump to go around saying that Mexican immigrants are rapists. But the moment there’s a crisis of some kind, who gets blamed? Who do the rest of society start attacking? This is the very worst of what we humans are — and it is in us all. This is why we need to create institutions and ways of thought to counteract this in us. And let’s be honest: we are better than we have been in the past. But we have a long way to go. And there are a lot of people who continue to push us in the other direction.