Bern the Witch?

It’s convenient for Hillary haters that she’s a woman, because in this society a woman has a much higher bar to acceptance as a political leader than any given man, and especially an old white man.

You can’t score political points against Bernie or even Trump by insulting his clothes, his wrinkles, his thighs, his ass or even his crazy hair (ahem, Trump?), or really any personal attribute. No, the political effectiveness of these “attractiveness” insults is reserved for the female candidates alone. Or, as we’ve seen lately, it may also be deployed against the wives of male candidates, for whom ugliness or (God forbid) overt sensuality is the ultimate political crime.

In fact, a study I was just reviewing showed that many Americans tend to start with “distrust” of any woman who seeks political power or even asks for their vote. Sound familiar? If you think you’re a progressive, think for a minute more why you “hate” Hillary so much more than Bill (still one of the top-rated politicians in the country), or why you’d rather have a disastrous Trump presidency.

Bill I find it telling that so many “progressives” (that word is now dead by the way) who said little against Bill Clinton when he was in office (maybe because they had good jobs?) now reflexively blame his wife for everything bad that happened during his administration. Yet at the time, she was excoriated (and kicked out of the process) for being a “buttinsky” First Lady – you know, trying to help reform Health Care, which apparently is a man’s job.

Also interesting that the word “liar” is being tossed at the candidate with such cavalier abandon. I would read your propaganda links, bro, but it’s easier to check Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact, which confirms that Hillary Clinton has the best honesty rating of any of the candidates, including Bernie Sanders. Oh, yeah, that’s “mainstream” info – “establishment” data. Probably rigged, like every single Democratic primary, all the vote counts, all the delegate counts. All rigged. Have you bros thought of forming a Progressive Tea Party? As conspiracy theorists, you will have more to commisserate about with them than with Democrats.

Hillary Bernie

Sorry none of this fits into the political purity/socialist paradise narrative. Life is funny that way, and there’s no such thing as political purity. Go ahead, back your candidate. Please – concentrate on that. Personally, I think Bernie would be an OK president, but it’s hard to say since all I hear from his supporters is how criminal everybody else is. I have no interest in trashing him, since he’s a legit candidate. His backers deserve their voice and their shot. But if anyone can whine, the Democrats would seem to have more of a right to complain about election hi-jinks, since Sanders is not even a member of the party he’s attempting to take control of. But notice – they don’t. They are not screaming epithets at Sanders as if he’s some kind of evil monster. They are grown ups trying to let the process work.

In any event, I’d think twice before making a sexist fool of myself in pursuit of the nonexistent ideal and highly unlikely “revolutionary” change being promised. (Remember “Hope and Change?” There’s this thing called Congress…they don’t play nice.)

The only reason to fear women in authority is a kind of insecurity you guys probably don’t want to be known for.

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You Down with TPP? Why not, G?

I’d be interested in hearing concrete arguments against free trade agreements in general. I am not sold either way, but it’s not material for someone to say the TPP (for example) is a “job killer” or “wage killer” or whatever, unless it is explained exactly how that will occur under the agreement in question. I get the concept – that free trade agreements mean transnationals can move production/labor to the “lowest bidder” on wages and conditions. The notion is, this drives down wages and working conditions to the “very worst” acceptable conditions that the international labor market will bear.

Definitely not desirable! But it’s not helpful to condemn free trade for these theoretical “bad” outcomes without also examining the alternative, and how “good” those outcomes will be. The alternative to free trade is protectionism. Possibly Trump’s biggest appeal, and a major appeal for Bernie, is in promising new protections for American workers in the form of tariffs on foreign goods. What do tariffs do? Well, they are the opposite of “free” trade, so what they do is restrict trade. For example, the U.S. places a “burdensome” tariff on cheap Chinese auto parts – these auto parts become too expensive to buy in America, so the idea is that Americans will now buy the American-made auto parts and support American workers rather than Chinese workers.

Well, heck, why not?

Under pressure from the flagging domestic steel industry in the 1980s, you may recall, the U.S. slapped tariffs on Japanese steel imports. The American industry had been in a steady decline, largely due to inefficiencies in process and wasteful management practices that drove up the wholesale cost of U.S. steel compared to competitors. The U.S. steel people painted it as Japan “flooding” the market with “cheap” steel. But the Japanese had innovated new, more efficient manufacturing processes, and could produce steel faster and cheaper than U.S. mills stuck in a “monopoly” frame of mind. Japanese steel was “cheap” but not in the way the industry implied. It was better, and it cost less.

We all know what happened to the U.S. steel industry. Far from being “protected”, only its outmoded production and management models were protected – for a time – until the world market dried up for (lower quality) U.S. steel. Japan could produce a better product for less money, so everyone bought Japanese steel and nobody (except Americans) bought U.S. steel. The industry collapsed in spectacular fashion.

But that’s far from the whole story. The modern world economy is not about widgets – it’s about innovation and adaptability, about supply chains and logistics, communication and coordination across continents. That’s just. The way. It is. No matter what American policy is or is not implemented, this truth will not change for the rest of the world. Bernie (and Trump if he had the wits) likes to talk about “thousands” of U.S. plants “shuttered” because of NAFTA, and “millions” of jobs lost. OK. But let’s examine that connection. Both happened – but is NAFTA the cause, or the symptom, of a worldwide global recession? When plants close, is it always the fault of some trade agreement that was struck somewhere? Of course not. Just look at the steel industry – it failed for the opposite reason, because the U.S. rejected fair trade and reaped the whirlwind.

And what about all those job losses? One would assume that if NAFTA and other trade agreements are the cause, then countries not engaged in free trade should be doing better. Except they’re not. A fact we should all memorize during this fact-free 2016 presidential campaign: the U.S. economy today is in far better shape than literally every other industrialized economy in the world.

Once again: the U.S. economy today is in far better shape than literally every other industrialized economy in the world.

So let’s look at Pittsburgh. Two decades after the final tolling of the bell for steel, Pittsburgh is resurgant, with a vibrant new economy centered on education and the service industry.

The point is there was no future for steel – but there’s a future for what Pittsburgh actually CAN do better than foreign competitors. And now they are doing it.

What’s more, all of the statistics I am seeing point to a resurgance of manufacturing in the U.S., not the decline we are used to assuming (which was due to the GLOBAL Great Recession, not particular American trade policies). Companies with offshore operations are coming back, for a variety of reasons, and one of them is the leveling effect of free trade. Because other nations’ wages and quality of living tend to rise with increased trade leverage, their attractiveness to transnationals is diminished. American companies operating abroad have to weigh not just labor costs, but labor costs coupled with logistics (for raw materials and delivery back to the U.S.) and local laws they must obey, as well as supporting multiple infrastructures and a foreign work force. If wages get too close to parity, the offshore option starts to look like a burden rather than an advantage.

And let’s not forget that foreign industries have gone “offshore” by building plants right here in America. Mercedes, Fiat, Toyota, Honda, etc. Why? Good workers at competitive wages. Had we instituted “protections” for the domestic auto industry, those factories would probaby be somehwhere else. So when tariffs are not at issue, the U.S. can also be on the receiving end of transnational offshoring.

I believe free trade is quite a separate argument from the real reason American blue-collar and service workers are feeling betrayed. They are feeling betrayed by their own corporate leaders, who for the past 15 years or more have opted to turn massive productivity and automation gains into corporate cash rather than funnel it back to the rank-and-file workers who earned it. Basically, productivy and profit curve goes up, and the wage curve stays flat or goes down – workers know this. And they don’t like it. They know they are being shafted by corporations who no longer feel a need to compensate them fairly. Part of this is a hangover effect from the Great Recession – high unemployment is a corporate warm fuzzy. They get to dictate pay, benefits and working conditions to desparate job seekers. They call the shots. But the recession is over, and wages are slowly – very slowly but steadily – on the rise.

An interesting thing can happen when labor markets get tight – here or in any country. Employers must then compete for workers and offer them a fair wage and benefits – or risk losing valuable workers to competitors. Increased, tariff-free international trade can in fact have the effect of “lifting all boats”. High employment from robust trade among international partners creates the kind of wage-competitive atmosphere that drives wages up, not down. True, American wages are the highest of all, but in some industries (such as the auto industry), highly inflated wages due to union-led wage protectionism are a kind of illusion. They can’t last, because high labor costs drive up production costs, which drive up sticker price, which gives competitors selling the same product the advantage. I believe in unions 100%, but if they “price themselves out of the market” by paying a guy $75,000 a year to drive new cars thirty feet from the end of the assembly line to the parking lot – a verified salary for a job requiring zero skills – they have only their greed to blame when their influence wanes and non-union shops thrive in their place.

Free trade must be fair trade, but negotiating “fairness” among multiple societies is no easy trick. We must do the best we can, but to opt out of the international nature of today’s markets is to opt out of viability in a global economy that gets more global – and less dependent on the success of the American economy – every day.

You Say You Want a Revolution? Well…You know…

The fact-challenged narratives that are informing this election cycle, not to mention the caricature candidates, make it more clear than ever that the oligarchy has nearly completed its work. The Parties, in other words, are weakened almost unto death. If you think about it, the outcome that is most desired among the “400” (forget percentages – about 400 people run everything you care to name, the .000001% if you like) is a dysfunctional, factional, barely legitimate government that is constantly at odds with itself, distracting the voters from the actual daily business of government (which is protecting the interests of the 400) through personality cults, amusing theatrics, and of course the constant threat posed by “them” (terrorists, Mexicans, liberals, CEOs, the Clintons, whatever). The 2016 hate-filled presidential bread and circus express, complete with soulless money-grubbing media supplying big microphones to the loudest, most obnoxious voices steeped in ignorant fear and lies —  this serves as our new crass substitute for what once resembled a self-confident political process, at least most of the time.

So if you have the unsettling feeling that everything is about to fall apart,  remember it is by design, and this chaos is being purchased into existence by people who want it this way. The oligarchs will win a rare prize if the voters elect a president who is himself a card-carrying hater of all things federal, a head cheerleader for the destruction of the awful, corrupt “establishment” (i.e. the government as we know it, your friends and neighbors, AFSCME union members, civil servants, cops, teachers, librarians, toll booth workers, park rangers, the DMV, my dad the soldier). The picture is one of a deluded Nero fiddling away at airy ideological ditties in the White House while the massive bureaucratic engine of Washington goes quietly about its never-changing long-term tasks, such as preserving the unbalanced power structure via the tax code and other arcane regulatory regimes, thereby supplying oligarchs with the only self-enrichment and dynastic development tool they need in steady supply: your tax dollars in the form of supply-side tax giveaways and guaranteed interest payments on government “debt” (bonds). The oligarchs are happy to underwrite public debt when the government refuses to collect enough  taxes to pay for itself. Keeping tax rates low on the wealthy means they have plenty of money to lend Uncle Sam instead of just giving it to him, thus making still more profits off of profits that were barely taxed in the first place (i.e. capital gains). But hey, you don’t get rich writing checks to the government! What’s more, the condition serves to symbolically undermine a chronically “indebted” government as a poorly run, ineffectual, wasteful enterprise.

But don’t oligarchs also want safe streets, safe schools, good health care, etc? Sorry, the American oligarchy has already constructed its “parallel” elite society within the nation’s borders on your dime (private learning/health care/financial/social/leisure institutions, private security, gated communities). And of course if things get depressing at home they have the money to globe-trot to all the Earth’s ritzy destinations. Meanwhile their minions in Congress are actively neglecting public infrastructure and public institutions (the dilapidation of which emphasizes the “uselessness” of “excessive” government taxation). Of course, some  notable  exceptions to the “let it rot” philosophy of so-called “limited government” include law enforcement, prisons, the military and its many weapons, which will always be fully funded for obvious reasons. No, the ‘waste’ to be cut from government, the waste that is “ballooning” our national debt, is of course the social safety net – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The longer this trend continues, the more we will hear bought-and-paid-for politicians muse about how we “can’t afford” to care for our most vulnerable citizens.

This is the plan: eventual de-legitimization of representative democracy through cultural/perceptual manipulations that undermine the federal government’s efficacy in the minds of voters  – some of whom may then predictably demand a “political revolution” but won’t know what that means, nor how they are going to make it happen within a political system – and under the watch of a massive law enforcement apparatus – that is now fully controlled by their economic adversaries. This oligarchic control over a thug-like political class will, if they succeed, become the norm, will be the new face of our “democracy” as more and more disaffected voters walk away from what has become, frankly, a vulgar process that is beneath a sovereign individual’s dignity.

Most Americans, of course, aren’t even paying attention.

Life After “Us”

Crazy people have been predicting the “End of the World” ever since they invented crazy people. This puts modern doom-and-gloomers at a disadvantage, because we’ve all “been there/done that” with apocalyptic predictions and because our culture is replete with notions of a kind of divine continuity. Our best measure of what the future will bring is the past, right? Past is prologue. What has come before presages what is to come. The sun rose yesterday, it will rise tomorrow. All’s right with the world.

And the most salient argument of all: The world never ended before, when all those crazy folks throughout history predicted it would. So what makes you think it will end now?

Add to that the natural human tendency to ridicule radical notions. They made crazy fun of the Wright brothers and their wacky “aeroplane” – until it flew. Galileo went to jail for discovering that the earth revolves around the sun. And gleaned from a conversation in 1995: “The Internet will change the world? Ptah! It’s just like TV only less interesting.”

So something as biblical and monumental as the “End of the World”, frankly, just seems impossible. It’s just too much. It’s overkill. It’s cliched.

And it is impossible, at least in the near term.

But cataclysmic change – hoo boy, THAT’s not impossible. We have had ice ages, and continental drift, huge asteroid impacts, and massive worldwide extinctions, all throughout history.

But our entire civilization – from Assyria 4000 B.C. to U.S.A Today – has existed, in geological terms, within the wink of an eye. A mere tick of the clock. None of that super-cataclysmic stuff has happened in the last 6,000 years. Why? Chance. Odds. Luck. (However, we can be fairly certain there’s a big old asteroid out there with our name on it – just a matter of time.)

No world cataclysm has ever happened to us, the collective “us” of the modern era, the “us” that believes we embody the whole of man’s existence and represent the apex of evolution. So we think it never will.

We are wrong.

And the irony of our wrongness is rich, because this time we are creating the cataclysm and setting it off in slow motion. This allows many to deny it is even happening, like that famous frog in the stew pot. But the facts are undeniable – we are bringing about a new age of mass extinction, all on our own, through habitat destruction, over-fishing, monocultures (i.e. lots of corn/beans/rice/wheat and cows/pigs/chickens growing, not much else), genetic manipulation, basic air and water pollution, and now climate change brought about – this is a fact now, not a theory – by human industrial activity over the last century. And it’s all either steadily ongoing or, in the case of climate change, rapidly intensifying.

I remember reading several articles on climate change in the late 1990s. These were not in obscure science journals but in magazines like the Atlantic Monthly. Already, climate scientists had working models of the kinds of changes that were coming about – general warming of air temperatures; shifted seasons (early Spring, late Winter); melting glaciers, ice caps and permafrost; more frequent and more intense weather activity; increased droughts and flooding events.

I also remember talking to my college-educated colleagues about it, as I was quite alarmed at the prospect. But by way of reply I got mostly confused looks, like I was one of those guys with the two-foot beards holding the sign saying “The End is Near”.

After a few more attempts to talk with “business” people on the subject, I finally realized “Global Warming” (now termed Global Climate Change since warming is not the only feature) had gone instantly into the “taboo” category of topics to discuss in the workplace. It was not long before the battle lines were drawn and concern for the climate was relegated to the “environmental” crowd. (You know, the extremist hippies.) Pundits like George Will fought fiercely against the notion, repeatedly subjecting it to ridicule by comparing it to the media’s “Global Cooling” story of the 1970s (FYI – Global Cooling was never a scientifically accepted theory, it was a media event only, set in motion by a single crackpot who had no institutional backing or peer-reviewed evidence to support his unscientific theory).

Conservatives lined up on the “skeptics” side of the argument, but they were the only ones on that side. The entire scientific community had meanwhile reached consensus – climate change is real, it’s happening now, and it’s being caused by human activity.

But that revelation changed nothing, except to act as an accelerator for the right wing’s hostility toward science. As you now know, in the intervening years conservatives have developed a full-blown “conspiracy theory” that posits the scientific community is “in the pocket” of “liberal activists” who want to “destroy the economy”. So they are “making up” their thousands of scientific measurements, experiments, data, and peer-reviewed studies – they are “undermining their very profession” by “cynically promoting a leftist agenda by skewing the research”. I know, that’s a lot of scare quotes, but they have to be there since these notions are so incredible, implausible, etc. – and yet these are in essence the beliefs of Ted Cruz, currently within striking distance of the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

So no, the world won’t end. But given our Congress and its head-in-the-sand attitude, not to mention all the growing economies who will want their own slice of the “technology/productivity pie” the West has enjoyed for 100 years, our civilization might very well end.

Civilizations come and go. Rome’s global empire lasted 1,500 years (counting Western and Eastern empires). Western Civilization, as we call it, has dominated the globe for only about 500 years, fueled by European colonialism and empire-building in the Renaissance and later eras. Rome was eventually brought down by its own internal chaos: in-fighting among its leaders and a pampered, clueless populace eventually led to a weakening of the borders of empire. Barbarians at the gate found a way in. Eventually the gates themselves were torn down.

But climate change is not at all political, except in that the fact of its existence is currently influenced – in America at least – by one’s political party affiliation (a condition that will change soon, but not soon enough). It’s also not part of some human narrative – climate change is not a “story” someone is telling about humanity, not one of many possible futures described by our competing religions or nativistic cosmogonies. No, it’s just science. It’s just happening because that’s what chemical reactions do – they just happen. The world will not end. The apocalypse will not happen. But the world’s habitable surface will change dramatically, affecting every living creature on it, in ways we can’t predict, ways we don’t yet understand.

The world will continue, but civilization will likely be rocked, and again the irony is thick. Because whoever is left will miss our fossil-fueled civilization once the flood waters pour into the coastal cities (where 90% of the people live today). But the world, whose progress is measured in epochs – not election cycles – will live on, and will not care that our new reality is harsh. Because nature favors no particular species. Just ask the dinosaurs.

Life will continue, probably it will flourish as human activity – which tends to crowd out nature – recedes. Humanity will continue also, in some fashion, just as it must have struggled and endured during the last major ice age some 10,000 years ago. Long before that last big freeze, humans had migrated across the land bridge that is now the Bering Strait and settled in northern North America. During the ice age, humans would have migrated south from northern locations (Mexico, say, on this side) and north from southern locations to escape the encroaching glaciers. This time, at some point in the next century, I suppose our descendants will migrate away from the coasts, toward more stable and temperate climates in the continental interiors of northern and southern latitudes. But of course it’s impossible to know if things will be any better there.

Our near future won’t be as simple – or as impossible – as the end of all things. Life will continue, and certainly the world will continue. But we – actually our grandchildren – will have to kiss the Escalade, DirectTV and those Friday afternoon McDoubles goodbye. It will indeed be a brave new world, and the people in it – those struggling to eke out an existence in a harsh and unpredictable climate marked by droughts, floods, and cataclysmic storms – I wonder what they’ll think of us. Will they marvel at the former “greatness” that humans were capable of? Will they strike out in their boats and visit the flooded coastal cities, telling their children that the skyscrapers poking through the waves once held thousands of busy people, that the submerged streets once hummed with thousands of automobiles? Will they share memories of polar bears and penguins, of snowball fights and sleigh rides and the beauty of a white Christmas?

Or will they have nothing but contempt for their greedy, short-sighted ancestors? If they instead curse our names for watching the world slowly transform into a wild new place when we knew we could stop it – can we blame them?