Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Battle for “The Soul of America”

I just got around to reading Jon Meacham’s best-selling book ‘The Soul of America.’  Like most non-fiction books, the title is intended to get your attention and the subtitle tells you what it’s about: ‘The Battle for Our Better Angels.’

Meacham is a left-leaning editor and presidential historian.  So, I expected to get some moralizing about the current resident of the White House.  But I didn’t get it.  There were a few swipes at him in the introduction and the first chapter.  That was just to set the tone for what followed.

Meacham lays out a history of the United States as we have made progress on racial justice by consistently overcoming a tribal fear of “the other.”  The story he tells - mostly through presidential history - reveals the complexity of presidents who had the political courage and the moral leadership to enact laws, enforce court orders and espouse a moral philosophy consistent with that of our founders.  

He does so while pointing out the moral failures of those same presidents.  Harry Truman used racial slurs in private but wrote to Congress in 1948 about our belief that “all men are created equal and that they have the right to equal just under the law.”  He faced down the inevitable backlash from Southern Democrats saying, “I’m everybody’s president.”

Teddy Roosevelt (TR) was the first president to invite a person of color – Booker T. Washington – to dinner at the White House. He later recalled, “the very fact that I felt a moment’s qualm on inviting him because of his color made me ashamed of myself…”  And, yet, he worried that low birth rates among the “best people” (the English-speaking, white population) might lead to “race suicide.” 

The two-steps-forward-one-step-back struggle for racial equality and acceptance of immigrants has always been a study in contrasts.  Initial reforms under TR and Woodrow Wilson were “plagued by theories of racial superiority and fears of the ‘other.’”  FDR rescued capitalism and “redefined the role of the state to lift up the weakest among us” but interned “innocent Americans of Japanese descent.” 

Meacham spends more time discussing the courage and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson than other chapter of our history.  Paying scant attention to the failure of the Vietnam War and the five decade long failure of his Great Society, he paints LBJ as a hero of the same stature as Lincoln. And, indeed he was.  Despite my distaste for LBJ who lied us into a war we should never have fought, I gained a new appreciation for his moral and political courage.  Like Truman, LBJ was a Southern Democrat whose moral sense overcame his background.  He relentlessly advocated that we as a nation rise above racism, saying, “whatever your views are, we have a Constitution and we have a Bill of Rights, and we have the law of the land, and two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate voted for [The Civil Rights Bill of 1964] and three-fourths of the Republicans… I signed it, and I am going to enforce it…”

Meacham closes his book thusly:

“For all of our darker impulses, for all of our shortcomings, and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the [American] experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight. There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle.”


Friday, August 9, 2019

I’m Just An Old White Guy

I decided to become a writer sometime around my sixtieth birthday.  My successes in this endeavor have been minor and infrequent.  My first book was published by Motivational Press and the editors of the Democrat & Chronicle (D&C) have graciously published my guest columns from time to time.  At least one of those – expressing the frustration of a political moderate in a Deep Blue state – was picked up through the Gannett network and published in the Des Moines Register. None of these successes have enabled me to make a living as a writer.  But I have learned a lot during my journey.

A love of language is essential to becoming a writer and there is no place language is more important than in our news media.  During my brief stint on the D&C’s editorial board, I observed true professionals as they worked to capture ideas without creating false equivalence whether writing about a sexual harassment scandal at the University of Rochester or deciding how to endorse or not endorse a candidate for mayor.  

Sometime in my journey, I created a  hashtag for myself #justanoldwhiteguy.  I fantasized that it would be followed by many on Twitter and it was NOT.  Maybe it doesn’t resonate with others as it does me or maybe other old white guys don’t know what a hashtag is for.  Whatever the reason, no one seems to care.  I am compelled to consider it in a new light this week as the media refers to white nationalism and angry white males in the wake of two mass killings within 24 hours.

The phrase ‘angry, white males’ can create a false equivalence.  It may accurately be said that the Dayton and El Paso shooters (both extremists one a conservative, the other a liberal) are both angry, white males. But that doesn’t mean all white males who are angry are likely to became mass murderers.  The broader context in which white males may become angry relates to the word ‘just’ in my hashtag.  Indeed, it’s the word ‘just’ that makes my hashtag work.  It’s obviously not meant as an adjective in the sense of being righteous.  Certainly, there are old, white guys who consider themselves righteous, render judgment and, in some cases, mete out punishment.  But, in my case, it is rather an adverb meaning ‘merely,’ as in “I’m just a temp,” the Cri de Coeur of those whose employment is not long term. 

My Cri de Coeur is that of a demographic being increasingly blamed for all the ills of society, both real and imagined.  Being a white male is now treated as an original sin as though the constitutional form of Republic asserting the equality of all and rule of law were not also created by white males.  

The word ‘old’ is also a significant factor in my feelings about such shifting social attitudes.  I am of a generation that protested the war in Vietnam but not Jimi Hendrix’ playing of the national anthem at Woodstock.  Students for a Democratic Society called for revolution, a call that was quelled as the war wound down and boomers started getting married and having babies (much as Millennials are today).  Just as the WWII generation saw us Boomers as an ungrateful lot, we have raised the generation of ungrateful rabble-rousers who now complain about our governance.  

And so, I am not justan old white guy.  I am also an angry white male.  I am angry that the Republican Party has provided us with a President who consistently fails to provide the moral leadership we need.  I am angry that the best alternative the Democrat Party can offer is a slate of candidates hellbent on destroying our prosperity through government control of the economy.  Most of all, I am angry that we are saddled with an electoral process that offers no relief.  

I’m not a gun owner or a member of a nationalist group.  I won’t find an outlet for my anger by committing mass murder.  My anger can only be resolved by political leaders who share my belief in a free American society.  Reproductive freedom means women should make their own moral choices. Social freedom means that all citizens should be entitled to equal opportunity but not equal outcomes.  Economic freedom means that capitalist transactions between a willing buyer and a willing seller should not be subject to government interference.  

Find me a candidate who embraces those ideas and I will no longer be an angry white male.  But I’ll still be #justanoldwhiteguy


Sunday, July 28, 2019

Why the US should be competing to attract immigrants

We just returned from a mixed business and pleasure trip to Canada.  If you have a chance to hop across the border from Buffalo to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, I recommend it highly.  Located in wine country, there are lots of great restaurants and plenty of activities in which to indulge one’s appetite for the arts or the outdoors.  Plus, it’s a hop and a skip from Niagara Falls.    

Like the US, Canada is a full employment economy enjoying an economic mini-boom.  Unlike the US, Canada understands the importance of immigration to sustain its growth. Its immigration policies target an increase of annual immigration by 30% to 340,000 by 2021.  In fact, the government website offers a step-by-step guide to help employers and would-be immigrants apply for entry into the country.

In the US, a key component of the legal immigration system is the issuance of Green Cards, a legal permission slip for foreign nationals to live, study and work in this country. Historically, the government has issued approximately one million Green Cards per year.  Meanwhile, about four million stand in line metaphorically speaking to receive one.  A Trump policy announced in May, if approved by Congress, would press the reset button, changing the criteria for receiving a Green Card and requiring those currently waiting to reapply.  The new criteria would emphasize educational background and skills at the expense of family considerations.

There’s virtually no chance that Congress will approve these proposed changes. But it will no doubt come up often during the Presidential campaign that starts… when? …  has it started?  Oh, right… It never ended.  So, the issue will periodically take all the oxygen out of the room whenever Trump decides to grandstand on the topic.  

So, what should serious-minded voters like you and I think about when considering our options?

Let’s start with some basics.  The size of the economy, commonly measured by GDP, is largely a function of the number of people working.  And, by extension, economic growth is largely a function of the growth in the number of people working.  And, immigrants come here to work!  A study by the Brookings Institution put some numbers to it.  Foreign born men are 3.4% more likely to work than native born men. Foreign born women are less likely but that’s because they’re home having babies.  In fact, the Brookings study asserts that ALL net population growth comes from the immigrant population.

Got it?  The economy grows when the population grows, and the population grows because of immigration.  

Another significant factor in driving growth of the working population is entrepreneurial activity. In other words, new business starts. After all, small businesses create more jobs collectively than big businesses.  A recent study by the Harvard Business Review delineates the factors that make immigrants more likely to start them and reports that 27.5% of entrepreneurial businesses are immigrant owned despite only 13% of the population being foreign born.  

I’ve seen what legal immigration looks like in S. Florida.  Despite initial animosity between newcomers with different customs and behaviors and legacy residents, everything has turned out okay.  First and second-generation Americans of Cuban descent have become the economic engine of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metroplex.  It’s an economically thriving, culturally vibrant, exciting region that succeeds on its merits.  

The net of all this is that, like abortion, immigration ought to be available, safe and legal. Do you think any Republicans — reputedly the party of business — will catch on?


Monday, July 15, 2019

How Sweden got its groove back

The soul of political punditry is to cherry-pick facts and weave them together to support a pre-conceived notion of what’s right or wrong about this or that.  Thusly, we have been lied into two wars by presidents of different political parties; religious conservatives have created a mythology called “creationism;” and, social democrats have become convinced that the Scandinavian socialist economy is an example of a superior system.

As it turns out, the fall of Saigon didn’t have a material effect on the global balance of power; Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction; and, of course, we really did evolve from apes.  As for socialism… well, it hasn’t worked anywhere ever.  And, Scandinavian countries are not running on a socialist system.  Indeed, if you’re looking for evidence that the policies of social democrats don’t work, you need look no further than Sweden. 

Kudos to those who governed the country in the 1990’s for having the courage not only to understand that they screwed up by turning to socialism in the 1970’s but also for dramatically restructuring policy to ensure a turnaround in their fortunes. In a 1998 report of the Institute for Economic Studies at Stockholm University, Assar Lindbeck outlines the events leading to the near collapse of the Swedish economy and identifies the policies that led the country out of the darkness.  

“In the early 1970s, Sweden became dominated by large and centralized institutions and highly interventionist policies,” he tells us. “Important manifestations are (i) a drastic rise in government spending (to the interval 60-70 percent of GDP); (ii) a huge increase in marginal tax wedges (to 65-75 percent for most full-time income earners); (iii) an increasingly interventionist macroeconomic policy, in particular, in the labor market…” 

The results? “Policies… seem to have contributed substantially to reducing poverty, as well as to making the overall distribution of disposable income relatively compressed. In this sense, welfare-state policies basically attained established targets.” 

Sounds good, right? Just one little problem though.  Economic growth was much slower than the rest of Europe. Comparing Sweden’s growth to the industrialized countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Lindbeck goes on to say:

“While per capita GDP increased by altogether 52 percent in the OECD area as a whole during the period 1970-1990 (weighted average), it increased by only 40 percent in Sweden. During the period 1970-1997, the difference is even greater: 62 percent for the OECD and 42 percent for Sweden.” 

By the late 90’s – while the rest of the industrialized world was booming -- Sweden’s government spending was over 70% of GDP.  A tax on capital enacted in 1983 had reduced the amount tax revenue from that source. And, high marginal tax rates had reduced household income.  The results were devastating.  Total GDP declined 5% and unemployment increased to 13%.  

Today, tax reductions along with market-based reforms have placed Sweden among the elite in the global economy.  The government’s website points to its ranking in the Top 10 most competitive economies in the world according the World Economic Forum and the World Bank’s ranking designating Sweden as one of the easiest countries to do business with. 

By enacting a debt limit and reducing both government spending and government intrusion in the economy in the 1990’s, Sweden avoided the calamity of the global economic crisis in 2008.  With the lack of humility common to all governments, they point out:

“While governments with large budget deficits carry out austerity measures by increasing taxes and cutting public spending, Sweden has broadly avoided these difficulties. While Sweden remains a relatively highly taxed economy, the centre–right coalition government of 2006–2014 scrapped inheritance tax in 2005 and a wealth tax in 2007.”

Sweden remains a highly taxed nation and its redistributionist policies have reduced income inequality and created a social safety net that many admire.  Personally, I believe it’s easier to implement such programs in countries whose populations are not diverse.  Sweden has a population smaller than New York and it’s nearly homogeneous.  People whose reciprocal expectations are met are unlikely to resent those who rely on that safety net.  

But that may be changing. Noting Sweden’s historical openness to refugees, CBS News recently reported on the rise of populist political parties espousing anti-immigrant policies.  Using the slogan “Keep Sweden Swedish” the far-right Sweden Democrats increased their share of the vote from 5.7% in 2010 to 17.5% in 2018, according to CBS.  And, the New York Times reported last week that four years after the influx of refugees “growing numbers of native-born Swedes have come to see the refugees as a drain on public finances.”  The Times quotes a local council member from a rural Swedish town as saying, “people don’t want to pay taxes to support people who don’t work.  Ninety percent of the refugees don’t contribute to society.  These people are going to have a lifelong dependence on social welfare.  This is a huge problem.”

Five years ago, I wrote about my father’s journey from welfare to successful entrepreneurship (On social mobility:  confessions of a former yuppie).  It seems that Swedes’ view of the purpose of the social welfare system is much like ours.  Those who pay into a system meant to help people in times of need expect those who benefit to use it as a platform to become contributing citizens – not to rely upon it for life. 


Friday, June 28, 2019

Good Reason to Celebrate

The lawn sign said, “We believe… Black lives matter… No human is illegal… Women’s rights are human rights…” and so on.  It ended, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  It’s hard to disagree with any single statement on this sign.  Yet, when I read it, I immediately thought, ‘another New York liberal.’  I imagine the residents of this household might have a similar reaction if I hung an American flag in front of my house.  

So, how will we celebrate our nation’s founding in this time of political dysfunction?  Well, it will be loud and colorful.  We’ll shoot off rockets, grill some burgers and drink too much beer.  As mundane as this might seem, it celebrates our sense of shared identity.  The Fourth of July reinforces values such as freedom, a strong work ethic and being selfless.  

The humanist philosophy of our founders has formed the basis for global democracy.  Their wisdom in establishing the rule of law and liberal institutions of government are what separate sustainable democracies from those that slip back into dictatorship.  

“All men are created equal,” a tagline that has endured, is not literally true.  Some are wiser, stronger or smarter than others.  But it has been interpreted to mean all people have equal rights.  “All men” doesn’t mean only white men nor does it even mean ‘men.’  Despite the many failings of our system, its framework permits – no, encourages – challenges to the aggregation of power.  

History teaches us that we have violated our own beliefs from time to time – from the internment of Japanese Americans during WW II to the denial of voting rights and equal opportunity to African Americans.  But a society whose values are defined by human rights seeks justice in all matters.  In the end, justice prevails. 

The founders didn’t presume to have all the answers.  For example, the right to privacy is generally regarded as Constitutionally granted.  However, the word ‘privacy’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the document.  The Supreme Court has consistently interpreted the Ninth Amendment to protect privacy as it specifically states that the “enumeration of certain rights…  shall not be construed to deny or disparage other rights retained by the people”.   

Much of our economic success has been the result of our rights to private property, again not specifically laid out in the Constitution. Chief Justice John Jay, the first to hold that title, interpreted the Fifth Amendment to afford those protections. 

These are the values we must strive to reinforce as leaders, role models and parents.  Taking them for granted will result in our beliefs becoming so diluted that our way of life will become foreign to us. It’s like good health. You may take it for granted until you lose it. 

The waves of immigrants who have come here over the last two Centuries to make a better life for their children – from the Irish who settled in New England in the 1840’s and 50’ to the Cubans who settled in Miami in the 1960’s and 70’s – have demonstrated the validity of a model of governance that has been emulated around the world. 

We are right to disparage a federal government that seems to thrive on dysfunction.  However, America thrives on a core belief that we have the freedom to be who we want, say what we want and go where we want to go. 

And that, my friends, deserves a great celebration.  Happy 4th!


Sunday, May 19, 2019

The GOP’s lost credibility

 The Republican Party – The Grand Old Party – The GOP – used to adhere to principles of limited government and did so for nearly 150 years.  Yet, somehow, in the last 20 years, those principles have gone by the wayside.  Once, the GOP counseled restraint in foreign affairs.  Their leaders warned against “nation building.”  Yet, we now live with two unwon wars compliments of a Republican president who, in his spare time, created a new entitlement program and a national program to exercise control over public schools, once the province of local communities.  That doesn’t sound like limited government to me.

Perhaps no violation of principle is more egregious than abandonment of the idea that the federal government should run a balanced budget.  More than government programs and regulation, the intrusion of government spending into the economy misdirects the free flow of capital.  More than any other national political figure, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan should be held accountable for this violation of the principles of sound governance. 

Ryan was an obscure congressman when he was appointed to President Obama’s National Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, more commonly known as the Bowles-Simpson Committee. He was also considered to be a foremost expert on the federal budget.  And, he advocated for a balanced budget right up until he didn’t.  He left town (D.C. that is) with his tail between his legs after passing a hodgepodge tax reform bill that left us with trillion-dollar annual deficits.  No responsible economist expects the resulting economic growth to offset the effect of those deficits over the long term.  

It may be that the average voter doesn’t think in terms of principled governance.  Most people vote from an emotional response to candidates and the aphorisms they use to frame their ideas.  But the simple principle of keeping government out of my life and my wallet provided a resonant idea I and many others could embrace.  When Republicans broke loose of their moorings – their moral underpinnings, if you will -- they opened the door for Trump who has never had any. 

Trump’s appeal to the ‘little guy’ results from a broken deal.  Within our social contract, it’s always been true that the rich get richer. And, the middle class has found that acceptable, so long as stable family life was part of the deal.  But, even those with good jobs and stable careers, are getting squeezed by rising healthcare and tuition costs (both the beneficiaries of government largesse).  Couple that with a rhetorical bent that favors business interests over citizens and the breakdown is reinforced.  

Poor stewardship of our economy, domestic policy and foreign affairs during this century has left the door open to radical ideas from the left.  If nothing is working, try something new!  Anything new!  Modern Monetary Theory (which economist John Mauldin calls Modern Monetary Madness) is Exhibit A. Radical ideas take shape when they find a way around traditional objections.  MMT answers “how you gonna pay for that?” by answering “we’ll just create new money.”  Not so long ago, these such an idea would be dismissed out of hand.  Now, it is treated as worthy of consideration.  

We celebrate our children’s successes but graduate them into a world that increasingly denigrates their success as adults.  To make more money than your fellow citizens is cast as immoral and unfair by the extreme left and each of the 20+ Democrats running for president must buy-in to such nonsense to be considered a viable candidate.

When the left professes that the money to fund their outrageous ideas will come from taxing the rich, they demonstrate the failure of the public-school system to teach them simple arithmetic. AOC’s 70% tax on the rich would raise tax revenue within a range of $.5B to $29B/year according to the Tax Foundation.

But the GOP can’t credibly call them on it because they have lost the moral authority to do so.  


What I’m reading

The Harvard Business Review analyzes the job market in What the Job Market Looks Like for Today’s College Graduates…   Blogger Lin Grensing-Pophal outlines Seven Steps for Conducting a Visioning Exercise for those who are considering their future… Writing in Vox, NY Times technology columnist Kara Swisher asks, Can Anyone Tame the Next Internet?

Monday, May 6, 2019

Stranger in a ‘Blue’ Land: the plight of a political moderate

Remember hanging chads? You know, those pesky little half-punched-out cardboard holes in presidential ballots during the 2000 recount… Well, I remember them well because I lived in the Florida swing district at ground zero of the controversy. Florida was then and still is a swing state, voting with the winning presidential candidate in the last five quadrennial contests.  I felt more comfortable voting there because candidates in swing states have to appease moderate voters to get elected.  In fact, I recall voting in the 2010 off-year elections for the Democratic candidate for governor, an independent for U.S. Senate and a Republican for the House of Representatives.  In fact, I have always lived in swing states.  Before Florida, there was Pennsylvania, Colorado and New Jersey – yes, New Jersey was once a swing state as was New York when I grew up here. (Remember Nelson Rockefeller?) 

All of this came back to me recently as I pondered why I am so unhappy with New York State politics. Embedded deeply in ‘Blue’ ideology, the Democrats who now control state government endeavor to run the table with the headline ideas of their national party while complaining that a governor of their own party holds fast to a 2% cap on annual tax increases.  The debate boggles my mind.  New York consistently rates at or near the bottom in the Tax Foundation’s Business Tax Climate Index.  Why aren’t we reducing taxes? 

Seeking validation that I am not off my rocker, I recently took the political typology quiz on the non-partisan Pew Research website.  (Seventeen ‘either/or’ questions, 3 minutes – try it!) I landed smack dab in the middle of the nine categories from left to right -- ‘New Era Enterpriser.’  No wonder I’m a swing voter.  

Then, of course, there are the presidential elections.  I am not a Trump voter, but neither will I vote for any Democrat who promotes radical ideas like free tuition, Medicare for All or the Green New Deal.  Of course, if you live in a Deep Blue (or Deep Red) state, it really doesn’t matter for whom you cast your presidential vote.  All the electoral votes go the candidate who wins the most individual votes – in New York, that will be the Democrat. 

So, what’s a swing voter to do?

While I was pondering our choices in 2016, Bill Clinton convinced me to vote third partyBill Clinton?you say.  Yes, Bill Clinton.  In a podcast promoting the candidacy of his wife –With Her – he pointed out that voting third party or even not voting sends a message to the major parties.  They feel compelled to figure out how to win you over, he asserts. If only…


What I’m Reading

Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter for the British newspaper ‘The Guardian,’ writes about delivering a TED talk about the transgressions of Big Tech while Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley big shots were in the room…  NY Times columnist David Brooks writes about experiencing one’s ‘annunciation moment,’ the time when “a new passion is silently conceived…”  Joseph Antos and James Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute discuss how to achieve universal healthcare coverage without Medicare For All. 

Is it just me or is having a bunch of bureaucrats decide who won the Kentucky Derby a sign of the times?