David Warsh: Oligopolies, 'Transaction Man' and 'Mayday'

The_Organization_Man_(Hardcover).jpg

SOMERVILLE, Mass.

Reading Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream, by Nicholas Lemann (Farrar, Straus), I experienced a mounting sense that something in the argument was hidden from me, and perhaps from the author himself.

I understood well enough that Lemann chose his title in contradistinction to The Organization Man, William H. Whyte Jr.’s best-selling 1956 book that inveighed against the hierarchic ethos that seemed to dominate America in the 1950s: well-roundedness, belongingness, togetherness and specialization. Whyte was against gray flannel suits, ticky-tacky houses, business schools and giant corporations; against conformity in general. He was in favor of genius and innovation, entrepreneurs and philanthropic foundations “immune to the pressures of immediacy or the importunings of the balance sheet.”

Lemann is enthusiastic about organizations of all sorts, or institutions, as he prefers to call them, and against the forces that have eroded them. Transaction Man (who just as easily could be a woman) is to be found, he says, engaged in private equity, venture capital, hedge funds, strategic consulting, global philanthropy, education reform, “breaking corporations apart and rearranging them in ways that have made it just about impossible for anybody these days to be an Organization Man.”

That much, too, I understood.  Bloomberg Businessweek’s cover story last week proclaimed, “You Live in Private Equity’s World.” But what are these practitioners of “the deal” about? The PE industry didn’t exist 30 years ago; today it has trillions of dollars under management, Bloomberg explained its seemingly irresistible rise this way: “In a world where bonds are paying next to nothing – and some have negative yields – many big investors are desperate for the higher returns PE managers seem to be able to squeeze from the markets.”  I was almost finished with Transaction Man before I came across a passage that clicked, as Lemann explained one last time:

When a challenge presents itself – how to educate our children, how to fight poverty, how to change politics, how to improve the tone of polarized society – any proposed solution that can be characterized as relying on bureaucracies, organizations, government agencies, or established interest groups, is doomed to lose the argument. Only innovation, disruption, destruction and individualizing can possibly work.  In the manner of someone who thinks the cure for a hangover is another drink, the country keeps reacting to troubles produced by the deterioration of its institutional life by embracing further deterioration. In polls, faith in the core institutions of American life, government, business, religions, public schools, news organizations, the legal system – has been falling for decades. In response, we persist in thinking about solutions that would continue to weaken these institutions, to the point that it would become nearly impossible for them to regain our trust.

But what is the nature of these “solutions”? Nobody goes around promising to deliver “innovation, disruption, destruction and individualizing.” Those often are the effect, but they are not the pitch. What Transaction Men promise are market solutions. Underneath the idiosyncratic use of the words “transactions” and “deals,” what Lemann is really writing about are markets.   The word scarcely occurs in the book.  When I turned to the index, what I found was this: “markets, see free-market purism; investment banking; specific financial instruments.”

Lemann, a distinguished journalist, has written eloquently about race relations and social mobility, among other things over a career spanning 40 years. But he is a newcomer to business history. I’m willing to bet he never took an economics course in college.  That means that he is a stranger to the most fundamental characteristic of markets, captured by the metaphor of an Invisible Hand: the tendency toward equalization of rates of return, enforced by the disposition of investors to shift from low to higher returns. Markets are what the transactions industry – or, better, the restructuring industry – has been all about.

Specifically, Lemann  doesn’t understand oligopolies, heavily concentrated industries with little competition that are able to set prices and pay, at least for a time, generous wages and benefits to their employees. They differ from monopolies in that a handful of companies dominate the relevant market, rather than a single provider. Oligopolies created the world of the Fifties, especially in America, whose industrial base was energized, not damaged, by the devastation of World War II.

Oligopolies prevail in many Silicon Valley industries today.  But their high rates of return inspire competition.  Other companies enter the business, often with the advantage of new and better techniques.  More workers acquire necessary skills, and wages fall. Corporations relocate to cut their costs. What once seemed insuperable advantages get competed away.  Consumers grow richer, but institutions and practices that once governed production erode and change.  The best recent account of this I know – An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy, by Marc Levinson (Basic, 2016), received relatively little attention when it appeared.

For someone without an economics background, Lemann does an awfully good job of assembling a scorecard of those whose work played major roles in elucidating and often justifying what has been happening these last half century. He does so in those 20 pages on “free market fundamentals” at the University of Chicago in the years after 1960. His discussion of the work of Harry Markowitz, Franco Modigliani, Milton Friedman, Eugene Fama, Merton Miller, Myron Scholes, Robert Merton, Ronald Coase – all of them recognized by an economics Nobel Prize – occurs in a savvy chapter about Michael C. Jensen, one Chicago economist who has not acquired that extra measure of fame.  Yet Jensen’s work , beginning with “The Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs and Ownership Structure,” with William Meckling, which appeared in 1976, did more than any other finding to underpin with economic logic the revolution in corporate governance that has  transformed the global business landscape.

But Lemann stops one layer short of uncovering the most fundamental development of all in his story of institutional change.  That occurred on May 1, 1975, when Congress outlawed the cartel that permitted the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to fix commissions on its trades. “Mayday” was, as journalist Chris Welles described it not long afterwards, in The Last Days of the Club: (Dutton, 1975), “quite a spectacle,” at least to the little coteries of newsmen who followed Wall Street in those days.

For nearly 200 years, Welles wrote, Wall Street firms had insulated themselves from competition.  They had operated as a club, apart from all other industries, free to cooperate and monopolize, and therefore able to allocate capital pretty much throughout the American economy.  But, for one reason or another, the Nixon administration had turned against them; the Justice Department of John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst had led the fight in federal courts.

In the wake of Watergate, the NYSE found itself powerless to deflect the onrushing legislation. “Once the privileged, protected elite of the nation’s financial system, members of the Club had been reduced –or elevated, depending on one’s point of view – to [the role of] typical businessmen, feverishly scrambling to boost revenues, cut costs, squeeze out earnings, beat competitors, and increase market share.” It was, for instance, the prospect of Mayday that induced the investment banking firm Morgan Stanley to move its headquarters from Wall Street to midtown Manhattan, the better to compete with the nation’s biggest banks – a tremor which would end, a quarter century later, with the demise of the Glass-Steagall Act.

The Treasury Department report that made the case for ending fixed commission was written by James Lorie, a professor of economics and business administration at the Graduate School of Business of the University of Chicago. He had been appointed to the task by William Simon, a former senior partner of Salomon Brothers who became secretary of the Treasury under President Ford. Simon went on to help found the private equity industry with a series of leveraged buyouts in the Eighties, along with Michael Milken, Carl Icahn, T. Boone Pickens, Irwin Jacobs, and others.

Lorie remained at the University of Chicago, presiding over its Center for Research in Securities Prices, and died in 2005, at 83. He was never, as far as I know, mentioned in connection with a Nobel Prize, because the grounds for abolishing fix commissions had been obvious to market participants. What he did was provide the formal logic, upending a report a year earlier by former Federal Reserve Chairman William McChesney Martin, who had recommended maintaining the old system. But no single action did more than Mayday to promote the restructuring movement – the market turn – to which Lemann complains. None better illustrates the intimate dialogue between practice, theory, and more practice.

As I finished Transaction Man, my eye fell on a review of a new commemorative edition of Abbey Road, the Beatles’ final recording together, which appeared in late 1969. The original title was to have been Everest.  The four had agreed to fly to Nepal to photograph an album cover.   But when the mixing sessions ran long, Paul McCartney proposed photographing the cover in Abbey Road, outside the studio, and so they did. The group met to discuss another album, but a few days later John Lennon returned from playing a solo concert in Toronto with his Plastic Ono Band, and announced that he “wanted a divorce.” And so the most successful band in history, an oligopoly among oligopolies, broke itself up on its own. The book about the wellsprings of the market turn – the fall of the Iron Curtain, Willian Whyte, Milton Friedman, John Lennon, and all the others, has yet to be written.

.                                             xxx

The Nobel Prize in Economics was announced on Monday.  See “The Nobel Prize in Economics Turns 50,’’ by Allen Sanderson and John Siegfried, in  The American Economist, for interesting lists of Big Ideas, Pedigrees and Might-Have-Beens.  Elsewhere, Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England, assesses the significance of the award.

.                                         xxx

New on my bookshelf:

Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work, by Robert H. Frank (Princeton, January 2020)

How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information, by Alberto Cairo (Norton)

David Warsh, an economic historian and veteran columnist, is proprietor of Somerville-based economicprincipals.com, where this piece first ran.

 

Colorful group in gray autumn Provincetown

Untitled watercolor on paper, by Hans Hoffman (1880-1966), in the group show “Color Beyond Description, at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum through Nov. 3. This painting courtesy of The Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust, © Artist Right Society (ARS), New York.      The curator explains: “This exhibition features the work of Charles Hawthorne, Hans    Hofmann    and Paul Resika   ,    artists who each used color to striking effect. Hawthrone is renowned as the great teacher of the early Provincetown Art Colony. He painted with both oil and watercolors, with his watercolors in particular demonstrating the movement of color and form. Hofmann is also known for his use of color in his crayon drawings and watercolor paintings. It's in those mediums where his use of color in space is at its most fluid. Resika, a student of Hofmann's, is a colorist painter who combines the techniques of both Hofmann and Hawthorne with his own eye for vibrant color and use of gouache alongside watercolor.’’

Untitled watercolor on paper, by Hans Hoffman (1880-1966), in the group show “Color Beyond Description, at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum through Nov. 3. This painting courtesy of The Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust, © Artist Right Society (ARS), New York.

The curator explains: “This exhibition features the work of Charles Hawthorne, Hans Hofmann and Paul Resika, artists who each used color to striking effect. Hawthrone is renowned as the great teacher of the early Provincetown Art Colony. He painted with both oil and watercolors, with his watercolors in particular demonstrating the movement of color and form. Hofmann is also known for his use of color in his crayon drawings and watercolor paintings. It's in those mediums where his use of color in space is at its most fluid. Resika, a student of Hofmann's, is a colorist painter who combines the techniques of both Hofmann and Hawthorne with his own eye for vibrant color and use of gouache alongside watercolor.’’


Tim Faulkner: The role of small New England farms in combatting global warming

— Photo Frank Carini, ecoRI News

— Photo Frank Carini, ecoRI News

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Farming and the climate crisis are no doubt interconnected even in relatively farm-scarce southern New England. But local farming operations, including fishing and aquaculture, are increasingly considered part of the climate-adaptation solution and may even help to mitigate global warming.

“How are we going to be more sustainable in our region and continue to feed ourselves?” asked Sue AnderBois, moderator of a panel on climate and food at the Oct. 4 Rhode Island Energy, Environment & Oceans Leaders Day hosted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

As director for food strategy with the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, AnderBois looks for business opportunities that advance food and farming policies in the state. There is definitely room to grow.

Rhode Island produces less than 5 percent of the food it consumes. This means that the Ocean State, and much of New England in fact, rely on food from places suffering from severe climate impacts such as drought-stricken California and the Amazon rainforest, a tropical region being destroyed to raise meat for fast-food restaurants.

Some of our local food sources are also moving away. Lobsters and other popular seafood staples are leaving Rhode Island waters because they are too warm. To counteract this change, the state is supporting businesses that market and process underutilized fish and plants and seafood moving into Rhode Island waters such as Jonah crab and black sea bass.

One of the panelists, Bonnie Hardy, canceled her appearance at the event to tend to work at her planned crab-processing facility in East Providence. A business processing local kelp is opening soon at the food incubator Hope & Main in Warren.

Consumers can contribute to the climate solution by buying local seafood, especially bivalves. A 2018 study found that eating local clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops is akin to a vegan diet when considering the carbon footprint.

On land, insects will be a growing climate problem for farming. Rising temperatures, a changing climate, and more frequent and intense rains will bring more pests. The state’s Division of Agriculture was overwhelmed this summer by efforts to address the spike in eastern equine encephalitis (EEE). The outbreak is a possible omen of future demands on state agencies, according to AnderBois.

Thanks to public pressure, food-service companies such as Sodexo and Aramak are offering more local food at schools and hospitals. Locally caught and processed dogfish is being used to make fish nuggets for public schools. Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Johnson & Wales University are all ramping up local food procurement for their kitchens and cafeterias, AnderBois said.

Nationally, however, such practices aren’t trending.

Government support for big agricultural operations at the expense of small farms hurts both local economies and the environment.

Jesse Rye, co-executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, was appalled by the Trump administration’s recent decision to relocate federal research agencies such as the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington, D.C., to the heart of “Big Ag” territory in Kansas City, Mo.

He said the actions by Trump favor large “commodity” farmers at the expense of small farms. The loss of research on nutrition and food insecurity is undermining the support structures for local food systems in southern New England, according to Rye.

”This way of disconnecting urban and rural communities is really going to erode the trust that we have in institutions, and I feel plays into the narrative that currently our government or this administration really only cares about the people that own food companies or own large-scale farms,” Rye said.

Any plan to address the climate crisis should take into account the most vulnerable, he said. It will require a “gigantic lift” to change consumer behavior and restructure the food system. He noted that a greater appreciation for scientific research and the true price of food is also necessary.

“We need to have a frank conversation as Americans about what cheap food is and how it’s possible and what are the costs that aren’t actually rolled into the costs we see at the supermarket.” Rye said, adding that society needs to recognize the environmental damage caused by continuing to do business as usual.

Rye urged the public to demand action from local, state, and national officials.

“If you have more time and energy for advocacy and outreach around issues for small farms now is the time to let your representatives hear that,” he said. “We need to let people know on a regional and national level that this is totally not acceptable.”

Brown University Prof. Dawn King, an expert on local food policy, agriculture, and the climate crisis, suggested that farms adhere to regulations for greenhouse-gas emissions as other businesses do. Farming, she noted, accounts for 10 percent of greenhouse gases in the United States and up to 25 percent of global emissions if deforestation is included.

Fertilizers, livestock, manure management, and tillage are the primary emission sources. King has researched manure as a source for compost and energy production. And farms, she said, if managed properly, can be one of the most effective carbon sinks.

“There is a lot we can do with carbon storage,” King said. “And even in Rhode Island that can be part of preserving the farmland that we desperately need to preserve here. Specifically, because we are not a farm state.”

Local farms can store carbon by growing grasses for small-scale beef production. Growing perennials and practicing forestry also capture and store carbon dioxide.

“Unfortunately, we are doing the exact opposite worldwide,” King said.

To get there, King called for a transformative initiative such as the Green New Deal combined with paying farmers to conserve land and practice sustainable soil management. Renewable-energy incentives should also be offered to help farmers earn additional revenue.

“We need to be sure we are protecting small farms,” she said.

Tim Faulkner is a journalist with ecoRI News (ecori.org).


Chris Powell: A sanctuary state for bears

Your suburban neighbor

Your suburban neighbor

Nature is and long will remain a great advantage of life in Connecticut. Suburban and rural towns are set in the middle of nature, and the state's small cities are never far away from it. Because of agriculture's decline, the state is more forested than it was a couple of centuries ago, and because state government has amassed so many unfunded liabilities, there won't be much if any economic growth here for decades more. Nature is secure in the state.

But nature is not always benign in Connecticut any more than it is always benign anywhere else. Alligators, deadly snakes and spiders, cougars, and great white sharks are part of nature too and dangerous to civilization. Fortunately Connecticut has few of those but increasingly it has black bears instead.

In the last year in Connecticut bears haven't just knocked down bird feeders. They have broken into houses and injured or killed pets as well as farm animals in their pens. A week ago a bear even attacked a hiker in Southbury.

Bears have been spreading throughout the state from the northwest and have caused consternation even in inner suburbs and cities, prompting environmental police to tranquilize them, tag them, and relocate them to the deep woods.

But soon they come back with their friends and cubs.

So last week the controversy about bear hunting was renewed. Two Republican state senators from the western part of the state, Craig Miner, of Litchfield and Eric Berthel, of Waterbury, called for bear-hunting legislation, perhaps applying only to Litchfield County, where bears seem most numerous, their main point of entry to the state. Animal lovers in the General Assembly and elsewhere promptly renewed their opposition, asserting that bears can be deterred by peaceful methods.

The peaceful deterrence argument is not persuasive, for it concedes a perpetual increase in the bear population and their becoming common everywhere, with Connecticut becoming essentially a "sanctuary state" not just for illegal immigrants but bears as well. Under current policy the state is probably only a few years away from that. Bears are cuter than alligators and Burmese pythons, the bane of South Florida, but there is no good in having such creatures nearby.

A bear-hunting season in Connecticut won't endanger the species but may push bears back toward the north woods, where they belong. It's worth a try.


xxx

Last week Gov. Ned Lamont joined other advocates of the nanny state in celebrating implementation of the new law raising to 21 the age of eligibility for purchasing tobacco products. The rest of Connecticut is supposed to believe that young people don't have older friends to buy them age-restricted contraband.

While the governor and the nanny-staters were celebrating the new tobacco law, Manchester celebrated the inauguration of a 19-year-old member of its Board of Education. The irony of public policy here passed unnoticed -- that the 19-year-old is deemed mature enough to decide how to operate the public schools but not to decide whether to use tobacco or, for that matter, drink alcoholic beverages.

The age of majority will always be arbitrary, a matter of judgment, but to make any sense it has to be consistent. To serve in the military, to vote, and to hold public office at 19 but to be forbidden to purchase tobacco or alcohol is nonsense, but, like so much else in Connecticut, it's the law because it's politically correct nonsense. Mainly it just lets the nanny-staters feel good about themselves.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.


-END-

'Bostonistis'

Seal of the Boston Athenaeum, one of the centers of the city’s high culture, and, some might say, its intellectual snobbery

Seal of the Boston Athenaeum, one of the centers of the city’s high culture, and, some might say, its intellectual snobbery

"No doubt the Bostonian has always been noted for a certain chronic irritability _ a sort of Bostonistis — which, in its primitive puritan form, seemed due to knowing too much of his neighbors, and thinking too much of himself.''

— Henry Adams (1838-1918), writer, historian and member of the storied Massachusetts dynasty that started with American Founding Father John Adams

Entering the 'posthuman era'?

“Untitled #1 ‘ (mixed media collage), by Margaret Hart, in her show “Situated Becomings,’’ at Kingston Gallery, Boston, through October.    She explains: “Imagine a cyborg collage: a becoming of gender possibilities, an image depicting fragments of technology, organic parts and hints of human gender forms through the spaces imaged or the objects included. What is collage and what could it be, beyond a simple form of cut-and-paste image making, when focused on the issue of gender in this posthuman era?’’    “These works began from asking myself a question: How can collage, intersecting with fiction and feminism, contribute to a posthuman understanding of gender?’’

“Untitled #1 ‘ (mixed media collage), by Margaret Hart, in her show “Situated Becomings,’’ at Kingston Gallery, Boston, through October.

She explains: “Imagine a cyborg collage: a becoming of gender possibilities, an image depicting fragments of technology, organic parts and hints of human gender forms through the spaces imaged or the objects included. What is collage and what could it be, beyond a simple form of cut-and-paste image making, when focused on the issue of gender in this posthuman era?’’

“These works began from asking myself a question: How can collage, intersecting with fiction and feminism, contribute to a posthuman understanding of gender?’’

'Death seems a comely thing'

— Photo by    Valerii Tkachenko

— Photo by Valerii Tkachenko

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf

How the heart feels a languid grief

Laid on it for a covering,

And how sleep seems a goodly thing

In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?


And how the swift beat of the brain

Falters because it is in vain,

In Autumn at the fall of the leaf

Knowest thou not? and how the chief

Of joys seems—not to suffer pain?


Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf

How the soul feels like a dried sheaf

Bound up at length for harvesting,

And how death seems a comely thing

In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

— “Autumn Song,’’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)







  • Related



Why Harvard's weird take on Asian-American applicants?

300px-Ivy_League_logo.svg.png
300px-Ivy_League_logo.svg.png

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs has ruled that Harvard’s admissions process doesn’t discriminate against Asian-American applicants, though, she wrote, the university could improve the process with more training and oversight.

But a mystery: Judge Burroughs noted that Asian-American applicants generally got lower ratings on such qualities as integrity, fortitude and empathy. How would Harvard admissions officers come up with such measurements? Makes no sense to me.

Anyway, Harvard and other very selective schools take into account ethnicity among many other factors in putting together a first-year class. The admissions process at elite institutions has to be complicated as the schools strive for diversity so that their schools are at least marginally representative of America. For the courts and other parts of government to try to micromanage the process, especially at private institutions, is inappropriate.

This issue is particularly resonant in New England, with so many highly selective schools, most famously four (Harvard, Yale, Brown and Dartmouth) of the eight Ivy League schools and MIT. Ed Blum, the lawsuit’s originator, was previously involved in challenging the University of Texas’s affirmative-action program. Blum is a right-wing zealot whose efforts would restore what has in effect been white privilege to the admissions process.

Cozy or ominous?

“Lantern and Fireplace’’ (wood engraving), by Wanda Gag (1893-1946), at the Art Complex Museum, Duxbury, Mass. The museum says::    “Gág became a highly praised printmaker in New York in the 1920s and 1930s, and was recognized for her skill in depicting scenes of everyday life. She was born in New Ulm, Minn.,, and grew up with the customs and fairy tales of her parents' native Bohemia. She was widely known for her children's books, including  Millions of Cats,  and her illustrated translations of  Grimm's Fairy Tales  and  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

“Lantern and Fireplace’’ (wood engraving), by Wanda Gag (1893-1946), at the Art Complex Museum, Duxbury, Mass. The museum says::

“Gág became a highly praised printmaker in New York in the 1920s and 1930s, and was recognized for her skill in depicting scenes of everyday life. She was born in New Ulm, Minn.,, and grew up with the customs and fairy tales of her parents' native Bohemia. She was widely known for her children's books, including Millions of Cats, and her illustrated translations of Grimm's Fairy Tales and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Revolutionary roads

1782 engraving showing the British burning of Falmouth, Maine, in October 1775.

1782 engraving showing the British burning of Falmouth, Maine, in October 1775.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com

There’s lots of stuff that even many American history buffs didn’t know in Rick Atkinson’s superbly researched The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777.

I particularly admired the detail on the battles of Lexington and Concord and Charlestown (aka “The Battle of Bunker Hill’’) and the British destruction of Falmouth, Maine, marred only by the sometimes tortured use of florid and obscure language, and too many technical military terms.

The Revolutionary War started in Massachusetts in 1775, or some might argue, several years before, and quickly drew in fighters from neighboring states, and so this book will presumably be of particular interest to New Englanders.

High and low

“Worm Contemplates Mountain” (oil on canvas), by Rina Goldfield, in her show “Mythologies,’’ at Hampden Gallery, Amherst, Mass., through Nov. 6    Her show has paintings of “totems and monuments: huge mountains, blocky buildings, ancient columns with small onlookers and co-habitors offering a sweep of hugeness, but also of wonkiness and humor.’’

“Worm Contemplates Mountain” (oil on canvas), by Rina Goldfield, in her show “Mythologies,’’ at Hampden Gallery, Amherst, Mass., through Nov. 6

Her show has paintings of “totems and monuments: huge mountains, blocky buildings, ancient columns with small onlookers and co-habitors offering a sweep of hugeness, but also of wonkiness and humor.’’

Don Pesci: Of understanding and forgiveness

“Christ before Pilate ,’ ’ by    Mihály Munkácsy   , 1881

“Christ before Pilate,’’ by Mihály Munkácsy, 1881

VERNON, Conn.

Longtime Hartford Courant columnist Frank Harris III is not happy with President Trump. In his latest production, “Impeach the Vampire,” Harris plumbs the depth of his dissatisfaction:

“America has never been less great than it is today. Like a vampire, the president has plunged his fangs deep into the Constitution. His fangs are sharp, and he won’t let go as he sucks the blood out of the very meaning of America. He has sunk them into the flag, sucking away the red stripes, turning them against the stars of blue. He has sunk them into the Justice Department, making it his own right arm to administer his justice rather than the justice of the land. He has sunk them into the Republican Party, turning them into wind-up vampires, hissing the Trumpian line.”

Trump supporters are not spared Harris’ op-ed lash: “For Trump supporters who voted for this man who has brought a cloud upon the land, you are forgiven. But you know now what you have done. The light of dawn has exposed this president. You see now who he is. There are no mitigating factors. No rationales. No excuses. Continued support makes you complicit in the continuing criminal acts of this crooked, conniving president.”

Was forgiveness ever so quickly withdrawn?

Forgiveness figures prominently in Douglas Murray's latest book, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, an exploration of the breakdown of Western culture. Decades earlier Julian Benda identified one cause of the breakdown in La trahison des clercs, the treason of the intellectuals. Pointing to the wreckage he saw all about him in 1920, Benda asked “Was it for this Christ and Socrates died?

There are two problems with the postmodern world, Murray argues. Leftists in our time have turned a failed Marxism, the perpetual war against the proles and the bourgeois, into a multifaceted war of all against all. They’ve done this by dividing mankind into oppressors and oppressed: men oppress women, whites oppress blacks, teachers – said Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first released in English in 1970 – oppress students. Freire’s book was used as a textbook in teacher education classes during the silly seventies. The oppressed in our time -- they are legion -- are viewed as having the only correct appreciation of racism, feminism, identity politics, gender, transsexualism, ad infinitum. With the nod of treasonous intellectuals, students are now taught by their teacher-oppressors to defer to oppressed classes, always and everywhere.

The second problem concerns what scientist and philosophers used to call objective truth, the truth that lies outside one’s own subjective experiences; the truth that remains true apart from our apprehensions of it. Some postmodern philosophers -- Murray mentions Foucault as a noxious example – have quite done with truth. There is no such thing. The world and everything in it may be explained in terms of post-Marxian power struggles. Just as pseudo-science in the post- Nietzsche period had murdered the Christian God, so objective truth in the postmodern age has been murdered by its false philosophers. And what we have now are various power struggles of a world at war with itself. Since everything is a power struggle, including such fanciful pre-postmodern notions as love and marriage, it is passion, loud voices, rather than reason, rational argument, that decide important issues of the day.

There is only one way out of this maze of irrational passion, violence and hatred Murray says – the way of forgiveness. That was the way paved by Martin Luther King Jr. in matters of race when he insisted that blacks should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. “The only means that we’ve ever come up with as a species for the undoability of our actions is forgiveness,” Murray says in a recent interview. “And our culture is obsessed with punishing any and all erroneous action in the world -- often an erroneous action that was only made erroneous 24 hours ago -- but spends no time thinking about forgiveness.”

Forgiveness is incommensurate with ignorance: To forgive is not to unknow or to forget; it is to forego infinite repetition. Forgiveness may never be an affirmation of evil. The evil is not to be ignored or soft peddled or defined away. It is to be wrestled to the ground and defeated through forgiveness and rational thought.

The postmodern mind insists everything is a power struggle rather a search for enduring truths. Pilate speaks to Christ in the language of the postmoderns. Pilate asks Christ, “Are you a king?” And Christ answers, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” at which Pilate, dressed in robes of power, scoffs, “What is truth?”

No, no, the postmodern power-worshiper replies, Pilate is right. Power is all.

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based essayist.


at October 05, 2019

Llewellyn King: Perhaps better to censure rather than impeach corrupt would-be dictator Trump

Warren Hastings (1732 –1818), impeached and acquitted

Warren Hastings (1732 –1818), impeached and acquitted

WEST WARWICK, R.I.

Impeachment is a procedure of last resort. It is for when those governed are unable to abide the excesses of one or more persons doing the governing. It owes its genesis to England and was a remedy for the Parliament to remove, or have removed, agents of the Crown (the King) whose conduct was egregious and contrary to the public good.

It goes back to the 14th Century. The language is the language of the day, peculiarly vague in today’s proceedings. “High crimes and misdemeanors” was one of those phrases which everyone in the context of the day knew what it meant. “Conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman” is another such phrase loaded with meaning but deliberate in its obscurity.

It was not until 1788 that Edmund Burke, the great Anglo-Irish orator, moralist and member of Parliament, really put flesh on the skeleton of impeachment. During the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of Bengal and employee of the marauding British East India Company -- which had been acting as a government in India before it was annexed by Britain. He was the agent of what was little more than a criminal enterprise.

Hastings claimed that he was given arbitrary power by the East India Company to act in any way he chose. It was this arbitrary power, this concept that he was above the law and above all norms of decency, that inflamed Burke. “We have no arbitrary power to give, because arbitrary power is a thing which neither any man can hold, nor any man can give. No man can lawfully govern himself according to his own will – much less can one person be governed by the will of another,” he said.

Burke stated that there was no entitlement to arbitrary power in any human institution, and it could not be conferred on a governor by anyone because there was no entitlement under heaven for arbitrary power.

It can be argued in today’s crisis it is the exercise of arbitrary power by President Trump that lies behind the U.S. House’s move to impeach. Arbitrary power in diverting funds not approved for that purpose to building a wall on the southern border. Arbitrary power in restricting Congress’s entitlement to investigate the executive branch. On and on the use of what many would call arbitrary power, from abrogating treaties, abandoning allies, trashing traditions, and reversing previous settled issues, like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

All this, Trump asserts, is constitutional under Article 11. In essence, he has said, “Arbitrary power is mine.”

That is what lies behind the urge to impeach Trump. He is claiming to be, in conduct and statement, above the Constitution and the law. Ergo, he should be impeached.

But no. Impeachment, as Burke and his allies found, is a trap unless followed by conviction. In Hastings’ case, impeachment was up to the House of Lords and, despite the pleading of Burke and others, it declined to impeach after the procedure had dragged on for seven years.

Given the pusillanimous nature of the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, its seeming preparedness to overlook damage to the constitutional order of governance and all the cascading damage to come down through the years, Trump’s acquittal is to be feared.

Trump in a second term, with the sense that he had been vindicated, would have no regard for law. He would feel emboldened to exercise arbitrary power in the most egregious way, rewarding his business interests and punishing his enemies, real and imagined.

As others have suggested, a better path for Democrats to pursue in the present constitutional crisis might have been to censure Trump, while looking to the courts to restrict him where possible. A less dramatic indictment, but also less of a future danger.

Republicans have developed an interesting defense of their own. Call it “the eye-rolling, tut-tutting.” They do this whenever Trump is raised in conversation, but they will not curb him in the Senate or speak out in public. Political cowardice.

These lily-livered legislators might find courage if they read on in Burke’s pleading in the matter of Hastings: “Those who give and those who receive arbitrary power are alike criminal; and there is no man but is bound to resist it in the best of his power, wherever it shall show its face to the world.”

There is much more from Burke. It is meaty, relevant stuff.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. His email is llewellynking1@gmail.com. He’s based in Rhode Island and Washington.



Sam Pizzigati: Inequality of life expectancy exploding in the U.S.


660px-Income_inequality_panel_-_v1.png

Via OtherWords.org

BOSTON

What do the folks at the U.S. Census Bureau do between the census they run every 10 years? All sorts of annual surveys, on everything from housing costs to retail sales.

The most depressing of these — at least this century — may be the sampling that looks at the incomes average Americans are earning.

The latest Census Bureau income stats, released in mid-September, show that most Americans are running on a treadmill, getting nowhere fast. The nation’s median households pocketed 2.3 percent fewer real dollars in 2018 than they earned in 2000.

America’s most affluent households have no such problem. Real incomes for the nation’s top 5 percent of earners have increased 13 percent since 2000, to an average $416,520.

The new Census numbers don’t tell us how much our top 1 percent is pulling down. But IRS tax return data shows that top 1 percenters are now pulling down over 20 percent of all household income — essentially triple their share from a half-century ago.

Should we care about any of this? Is increasing income at the top having an impact on ordinary Americans? You could say so, suggests a just-released Government Accountability Office study.

Rising inequality, this federal study makes clear, is killing us. Literally.

The disturbing new GAO research tracks how life has played out for Americans who happened to be between the ages of 51 and 61 in 1992. That cohort’s wealthiest 20 percent turned out to do fairly well. Over three-quarters of them — 75.5 percent — went on to find themselves still alive and kicking in 2014, the most recent year with full stats available.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, it’s a different story.

Among Americans in the poorest 20 percent of this age group, under half — 47.6 percent — were still waking up every morning in 2014. In other words, the poorest of the Americans the GAO studied had just a 50-50 chance of living into 2014. The most affluent had a three-in-four chance.

“The inequality of life expectancy,” as economist Gabriel Zucman puts it, “is exploding in the U.S.”

The new GAO numbers ought to surprise no one. Over recent decades, a steady stream of studies have shown consistent links between rising inequality and shorter lifespans

The trends we see in the United States reflect similar dynamics worldwide, wherever income and wealth are concentrating. The more unequal a society becomes, the less healthy the society.

On the other hand, the nations with the narrowest gaps between rich and poor turn out to have the longest lifespans.

And the people living shorter lives don’t just include poorer people. Middle-income people in deeply unequal societies live shorter lives than middle-income people in more equal societies.

What can explain how inequality makes this deadly impact? We don’t know for sure. But many epidemiologists — scientists who study the health of populations — point to the greater levels of stress in deeply unequal societies. That stress wears down our immune systems and leaves us more vulnerable to a wide variety of medical maladies.

We have, of course, no pill we can take to eliminate inequality. But we can fight for public policies that more equally distribute America’s income and wealth. Other nations have figured out how to better share the wealth. Why can’t we?

Sam Pizzigati, based in Boston, co-edits Inequality.org for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is The Case for a Maximum Wage.

Country running

300px-MNSTATE.jpg

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com

Wiry and a glutton for punishment, I was a pretty good cross-country runner in a Connecticut boarding school. (This was before the unfortunate term “preppy’’ became so popular.)

Cross country is, of course, mostly an autumn sport. When we started the season,  in the middle of September, it was often hot and humid, few of the leaves had turned and we sweated gallons. Then, first slowly, then faster, it got cooler and cooler, the leaves of the maples in the Litchfield Hills turned to flame, and  then wind and cold rain would take them down – in some years it seemed all at once -- after the first hard freeze. By November snowflakes would mix with the rain.  Then, we’d almost look forward to starting the race just to get warm, although it was always by its nature a test of pain tolerance. There was the taste of what seemed to be blood in your mouth when you were running the hardest, coming up from your throat.

We ran at schools all over the southern half of New England, up and down muddy or rocky trails through woods, along streams, across golf courses,  around ponds and beside country roads,  sometimes dodging dogs and slipping on wet leaves. Almost all of the courses were hilly, and often steep.

Most of the schools were in the country or exurbia. So being on the team impressed on me again just how beautiful much of New England is, even when you’re seeing it while  gasping for breath on a November Saturday when it’s blowing  a gale and pouring, and the landscape is mostly brown.

Our coach was a short, solid,  bald man with piercing blue eyes who didn't look like a runner himself (more like Mr. Clean) called John Small, who also taught Latin and German. An Army veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, he  was the perfect coach – (outwardly) calm and persistent,  innovative in training methods and usually perceptive about the psyches of adolescent males. 

As I came to know him a bit I learned that the most traumatic events of his life were, not unexpectedly, during the Battle of the Bulge, in which Mr. Small, barely out of boyhood,  was ordered  to do some lethal and desperate things in violation of the Geneva Conventions. A  bachelor, he lived alone in a small apartment at the school and often seemed reclusive. You could often hear through his door Bach being played on his hi-fi. But most Sundays he could be seen in his Porsche with an attractive lady of about his age – 38-40 or so.

Maybe he had dealt with his trauma by taking cover in the soothing routine of a boarding school. But all in all, he was a very complicated man of mystery.