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Give Reagan to the Right

11 Feb

Ring-wing conservatives in America have a major problem. They stand with hands on hearts, tears in eyes, and proudly proclaim their patriotism. Yet, there is no great president in U.S. history that they can call their own.

Look at the major presidents, the significant ones who remain in the public mind as substantial characters of the past: even if the details are a bit murky in most people’s minds, not one of the top five U.S. presidents can be considered a conservative in the mold of today’s Republican party. If anything, the Big Five great presidents were all on the progressive edge of their era and, arguably, ours; something even most Democrats these days can’t claim.


George Washington led an army in revolution against his king. He then took the helm of a new republic and willingly stepped down from power. He warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements in his Farewell Address. And while he supported the institution throughout his life, he did the right thing by freeing his slaves upon his wife’s death. This was not a man who wasted his time dreaming about an idyl of some false bygone years. He  was a true believer in the primacy of progress.

The next great president by consensus would be Thomas Jefferson. The author of the Declaration of Independence. A voice for the yeoman farmer. An intellectual. A Deist. Not a conservative idol, by any means.

Following Jefferson in the public mind would be Abraham Lincoln. Freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. Defeated the South, something the racist wing of the Republican party denies to this day. While perhaps the greatest Republican ever, he’s not one that its contemporary membership will embrace in a big way because it would kill its aggrieved white male, Southern appeal.

Oddly, the next first-rate White House denizen, Theodore Roosevelt, is another Republican who also fails the contemporary GOP sniff test. The rabidly libertarian wing of the Republican party hates TR for his famous trust-busting and the establishment of the National Parks. Transgressions all. Regulating business is an affront to their Ayn Rand sensibilities; while Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the rest of the magnificent jewels among our National Parks are not worth the price of another government agency in their simple minds. Nope. He won’t do at all. Too progressive.

Like it or not, and conservatives don’t, the next great president on anyone’s list would be TR’s distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Can you imagine America without Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Security and Exchange Commission, and so much more? Fringe Republicans would like to, of course, but no one else would. And can you imagine how World War II would have gone if either Wendell Wilkie or Thomas Dewey, who ran against FDR in 1940 and 1944, respectively, had been commander in chief? You’d probably be speaking either German or Japanese, depending on which coast you lived on.

After FDR, I’d argue no one matches up to the Big Five. Some might vote for Truman or Kennedy, and an argument can be made for both, but I don’t think they fully rise to the Big Five level. Yet, it’s interesting to note that even these two men would be labeled as progressives in their day and ours.

Think about it: not a single conservative president ranks among the great ones. Americans revere presidents who have led the nation forward, not backward. That must really rankle conservative Republicans, who want to drag the nation back to some phantasmagoric past that somehow has escaped the history books. Even should a GOP conservative of today ascend to the Oval office, his very principles are likely to condemn him to the middling and tainted ranks of Hayes, Harrison, Harding, Nixon, and (pick your) Bush.

So the right wing is desperate for Reagan to be seen as one of the greats. They have no one else who comes close. And, to be honest, Reagan barely achieves the stature or competence of Truman or Kennedy. During the centennial of his birth his obvious weaknesses have been jumped on by mean-spirited progressives who see Reagan as a failure or as someone they mock as anathema to the current GOP Weltanshauung.

Progressives should let go of their antipathy to Reagan. Although a telegenic, while mediocre president, he was, after all, a pragmatic one, which is a lesson in itself. His massive tax increase deal with Congress saved Social Security in its day, something liberals need to give him credit for accomplishing. Yes, he was wrong in many ways, most strikingly in his support of apartheid. Yet, so was Jefferson, the great liberal icon, who wrote stirringly about freedom while keeping and selling slaves to support his opulent lifestyle.

Every great president has feet of clay. So, why not let the right wing have their flawed man? Is there room for a sixth chair around the table of the nation’s truly great presidents? I think so. The Big Five, like true progressives, were gracious people who would enjoy the company.


Egypt’s Aftermath: Four Things That Will Happen Here

3 Feb

If the democratic impulses of the people in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East prevail, instability will rock the region as their success inspires more revolts against Western-backed dictators. Even if Mubarak’s corrupt regime manages to hold on, it will fuel even more radical responses than we’ve ever seen before throughout the Middle East.

So, what, if anything, will happen in the United States as a result of the turmoil? 

First, everything will cost more. Rightly or wrongly, Western financial and commodity markets perceive stability to be the best of all possible worlds, even if that stability is carried on the backs of poverty-stricken, oppressed people elsewhere. Oil, which underpins our modern economy, will skyrocket in price, driving up the cost of everything else.

When the Shah of Iran lost power, the uncertainty of oil prices helped usher in years of economic stagnation. And while Mubarak does not control oil production, Egypt does manage the Suez canal where a lot of it passes through in tankers. Only the potential of that waterway closing has pushed up crude oil prices to their highest level since the speculator-driven oil crisis of 2008. Imagine the impact if the flame of self-determination begins to burn elsewhere in the region?

Second, the Republicans will gain control of the Senate and extend its hold in the House in 2012. It will also win the White House. (Unless the GOP is stupid enough to put Sarah Palin on the ticket. She’s toxic to a majority of voters who see her as a selfish quitter and an ignorant shrew.) That’s because voters in this country always punish those in power when something bad happens. And because the hard right controls the GOP, it will accelerate the increasing inequality in this country as tax policies will favor the rich even more and, to pay for it, the Republicans will raid the budgets of social services.

Third, the wars in the Middle East will widen beginning in 2013. America depends too much on oil to let it slip from its grasp without a fight. And no political party better represents oil companies than do Republicans. Just as the Iraq war was all about oil from Day One, though gussied up to be about WMDs or spreading democracy, the next Middle East conflagration will be explicitly about keeping petroleum flowing to prime the pump of our economy.

Fourth, incompetent GOP economic policies and those new Middle East wars will hasten the end of the American Empire. The dollar will be the first victim. The British pound sterling dominated the planet for centuries. World War I changed the situation. It only took from 1914 to 1925 for the pound to give way to the Almighty Buck, which replaced it to become the reserve currency of choice among nations. Whether the euro or China’s yuan rides triumphant over the dollar is too early to tell.

Naturally, this is all speculation by your average joe. Nothing qualifies me to see into the future. Admittedly, I’m a glass-is-half-emty kind of guy, but it seems obvious to me that the consequences of what is happening in Egypt will reverberate beyond the the Nile to the broader Middle East and, thus, to the world as a whole. And because the United States has let its dependence on foreign oil become inextricably linked to the health of its economy and polity, risking its loss will become unacceptable to the powers that be, but attempting to sustain it will become how the American Empire passes into history.

Dumping Netflix After 10 Years?

27 Jan

We’ve been with Netflix since 2000, so long, in fact, that we get four DVDs for the basic monthly subscription fee instead of the three that most subscribers receive. Still, Cathie and I are considering dropping the DVDs and moving to the eight dollar a month streaming-only service. Or quitting Netflix completely.

It’s clear that Netflix wants its customers to shift to streaming and stop using DVDs. Despite the lower monthly fees, the costs of streaming for the company are 5% of what it costs them to handle DVDs. Labor is involved in processing DVDs; only machines are needed for streaming. Like any capitalist operation, Netflix hates its workers. No, not in a personal sense, but as line items that require salaries and benefits as well as people to manage them.

The problem for me in making the switch to just the streaming service is that the company offers so few choices. And what it does offer is, for the most part, frankly, crap.

Go to the Watch Instantly tab and click on New Arrivals and then, say, Drama. I got 11 pages of choices recently with 30 movies on a page. Sounds promising. And the first page looks fair: Precious, Brooklyn’s Finest, Casino, Apocalypse Now, and The Client stand out. After that things start getting iffy. Old made-for-TV Perry Mason flicks show up a lot. As you get deeper into the list the movies get more obscure and silly: The Boy With Green Hair, Those Secrets, The Rocking Horse Winner, Sand, as well as 50-plus-year-old losers like So Evil, So Young and So Young, So Bad.

Yes, so very bad.

Unless you’re studying film, there’s no earthly reason to see the vast majority of movies available to stream on Netflix.

But there’s always TV shows to stream, right? I admit to having watched 30 Rock not on television but via Netflix. But that show is only available through the 2009 season. According to one study, Netflix has a pathetic list of TV show options compared with Hulu, Amazon, and Apple services. If you missed the latest House you’ll need to visit Hulu. Or if you think The Good Wife is hot, you need to be a member of Apple’s iTunes service. Netflix doesn’t have them. If you want to watch the complete series of a TV show, Netflix has a mere two: Lost and something called Mercy. Hulu has 12, Amazon 28, and iTunes offers 39.

Company CEO Reed Hastings has argued that investors who bet against Netflix might lose their shirt. He may be right. I’m not saying Netflix isn’t a good investment. I’m just saying it doesn’t offer enough compelling choices to long-time subscribers. We’ve seen most everything and the New Arrivals they throw up on their site are time wasters. And we don’t want to waste that time or our money on mediocrity.

My Pinko Past

25 Jan

This past weekend I finished reading Joseph Kanon’s brilliant 2009 thriller Stardust, which is set in Hollywood in the summer of 1945 immediately after the end of World War II. Partially a whodunit. Partially a look at how the leftist ideology voiced in the movies that helped sustain morale on the home front during the war became anathema soon thereafter.

Without giving away anything about the plot, Kanon reveals the tensions that reigned among the throng of German emigrants fleeing Hitler who had made their way to Southern California. Tensions exacerbated because their loyalties were always suspect, rightly or wrongly, as Ben, the protagonist, learns. That’s because the emigrants in the story had pasts that made them need to flee the Nazis, meaning they were intellectuals, socialists, or communists.

Of course, their pasts are not always indicative of who these men and women are in the novel’s present. At one point, one of the German characters, Ostermann, a distinguished writer who left the dark times in his native land for the sunny Southland, reflects on the ideological indiscretion of his youth. All youth, in fact.

“What did you think when you were eighteen?” Ostermann said gently, putting a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Do you remember? I was for the Kaiser. A young man’s ideas. Things change….A flirtation and then you want to put it behind you.”

When I was eighteen I was not for the Kaiser (I’m not that old.) or for anyone representing authority. It was 1969, Nixon was in the White House, and the Vietnam War was raging. That October millions of protestors in the United States marched, sung, and meditated for peace to come to Southeast Asia. Across the nation there were teach-ins, one of which I led at my high school in California. (You’ll note in the accompanying school yearbook photo, Peace Day fell in the same week as a varsity football game.)

Although young, naive, and mostly clueless politically, during the organization of my school’s Peace Day I found myself suddenly in common cause with people whose ideologies were far more developed and sophisticated than mine. I read what they recommended and began to fancy myself a radical. A mustache soon appeared below my nose and my hair fell over my collar.

Once I was in college I was ready to commit to a deeper radicalism. The war had gotten worse with the illegal (and immoral) bombing of Cambodia and the massacre at My Lai. I helped organize more protests and became friends with committed leftists.

Communism, of course, had been completely discredited by the perversion of Stalinism, the tanks in Prague, and the brutality of life inside the Soviet Union. So I hung out with Leon Trotsky’s followers, in this case those engaged with the now defunct Young Socialists Alliance. I subscribed to The Militant, which apparently still exists, the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party.

Keep in mind that in the early 1970s when I was dreaming of a socialist paradise in the USA, the economy was on the rocks from underwriting the war for so long as well as suffering the effects of the first Arab oil embargo. And Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, was claiming “executive privilege” that would have put the executive branch above the law. It was easy to be radical in that milieu.

Then something happened that opened my eyes. The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon was not a monarch beholden to no one else. The president, every president, had to submit to the due process of law like anyone else.

Suddenly I felt good about being an American. A nation built on law actually meant it.

Unlike many who shape-shifted from being radicals on the left to be radicals on the right, I took baby steps away from militancy. Despite persistent pleas from my YSA buddies, I never formally joined. I stopped going to meetings because hardcore members would not admit that the Supreme Court’s decision was meaningful since it did not fit their blinkered ideological narrative of American politics. I let my subscription to The Militant lapse. For a few years I even became a Democrat, though as now, I mostly eschewed party affiliations because my progressive notions are still a little too pink for the Democratic Party, especially today.

Also, getting older made me less radical. What inspired me at eighteen no longer raised my spirits in my twenties let alone in my sixtieth year. As Ostermann said, Things change. And so do people.

Citizens United v. You & Me

24 Jan

One year ago this month the Supreme Court of the United States in a 5-4 decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission concluded that corporations and unions were the same as you and me and could donate money freely to politicians. The court ruled that these entities were people with rights like us.

The decision must also mean that we have equal rights as corporations and unions. But it will take some effort on the part of individuals to attain that equality.

So, the next time a company decides to strong arm your local or state government to get tax breaks, you should sue to get the same tax breaks. After Citizens United a business has no more right than you and me to tax benefits. The next time a corporation tries to get an exemption from environmental or even traffic laws, you should have your lawyer call city hall or the state capitol and demand the same waiver as they get. If a company wants to pollute drinking water, you ought to be able to burn trash in your backyard (or frontyard, for that matter) instead of paying to go to the dump.

Also, following the Supreme Court’s logic, if a corporation or union is a person, then when it is convicted of a crime, as they so often are, every person working there will need to do jail time, not just those who may have concocted the illegal scheme. After all, it’s the company that is guilty and the only way one can impart justice to a person is to put the entire person in jail not just parts of him or her. And just like people, the business, whether union or corporate, will need to come to a halt until the person(s) gets out of jail. Also, if the crime was a felony, every individual in the company must lose the right to vote because they are part of the convicted person.

I’m not sure that this is the hornets’ nest the court had in mind to kick with its decision, but it’s a logical outcome. We only need come citizen lawyers to establish their equal rights with corporations and unions.

Climate Change: I Am the Problem

10 Jan

Catherine manages our household thermostat carefully. Usually, my wife keeps it set at 65 degrees (fahrenheit) or below during the day. When guests come over, she’ll nudge it up to 68. At night she turns it off completely, so it’s always a bit nippy come morning, since our days in winter generally start well below freezing (outside). Ask her why she’s so parsimonious with BTUs, and she’ll point to the meagre family budget, but also she wants us to do our part for the planet to conserve energy.

While checking my breath for vapor in the morning at the kitchen table, I have been known to whine about how chilly it is. I might also observe that we pay Portland General Electric a premium each month to get all of our electricity from wind farms and that our heat comes from natural gas, which is plentiful. She’ll just shake her head at my wimpy nature and tell me to put on (another) sweater.

If everyone was more like Catherine and less like me, there’d be no ongoing energy crisis on the planet. Climate change would be more theoretical and less real. And we’d all have a little extra money in our pockets instead of constantly handing it over to the energy monopolies. Alas, I’m the norm and she’s the outlier.

Admittedly, I am not an optimist by nature. I believe climate change will accelerate, disrupting societies in all hemispheres. And while I appreciate why my wife is doing what she’s doing and even accept it as the right thing to do, I don’t believe in the long or even short run that it will matter much. That’s because while there may be millions of other people like Catherine willing to do what’s best for all of us, there are billions of people like me who only want to enjoy whatever comfort is available.

People like me, whether pessimists or optimists, are the problem. If we can be made comfortable by flicking a switch, even if by doing so we know that, say, ten years from now the switch won’t work, we will flick it without a second thought. Optimists will argue that scientists and engineers will figure out a way to save the future. Pessimists like me shrug and say, “What future?” Either way, the switch gets flicked.

Lucky for you, I live with someone who thinks her actions today can have a positive influence on the future. The energy she’s saving now might come in handy in the year 2020. I doubt it. But it’s possible. In the meantime, I’m going to don a heavier sweater and maybe a second pair of socks. Brrrr.


7 Jan

I recently visited a friend at his office and we discussed a project where I might be of help to him. I brought along my MacBook Air in case I needed to take notes.

“You’ve got the 11-inch model,” he said after greeting me. “The thirteen is probably too big for you.”

“Way too big,” I said.

We laughed.

In fact, as I noted here earlier, the 11-inch MacBook Air is a nearly perfect machine, especially for me. I’m small.

I’ve always been small. On my little league and pony league baseball teams I was inevitably #1 because the uniforms were made in size order. And I’ve always used my height (or lack thereof) to my advantage. I was quick to note that umpires called fewer strikes on me, awarding me base-on-balls more often than other batters. In fact, I led the league in runs scored because I was on base so often. Being small made me a more successful player.

I also think it made me more successful in my career. I’ve had the opportunity to manage large and small teams inside Silicon Valley companies as well be editor in chief and/or publisher at a handful of successful tech publications. My theory is that I rose to the top of these organizations, in no (ahem) small measure, because I was short.

The average American male is nearly five foot ten inches tall. I stand a good half foot below them. As such, when I’m in a group of men standing around yakking, inevitably everyone will look down at me, resulting in a lot of conversations focusing in my direction and making me the center of attention.

Once in the early 1990s Lewis Lapham, the six-foot two-inch editor of Harper’s magazine, invited me to join him and the six-foot-four George Plimpton to a book party in New York, celebrating the latest novel of T. Coraghessan Boyle, who stands at least six-six. While milling around together a photographer drifted by and tried to capture the four of us all in a single frame. We all got a great laugh as he struggled to capture the scene, eventually getting to his knees to shoot up.

I stand out, as it were, among my peers. And, as with anyone who gets more attention than others, I was given more opportunities. Naturally, I failed at my chances from time to time, but I got enough of them that I was able to prove my mettle so I got even more chances. I believe my distinct stature gave me many of the extra shots at success.

In addition to being noticed more often than others, small people are less threatening. An average size guy or gal is not going to feel intimidated by someone shorter. They are more comfortable chatting with a small person and are more inclined to accept them as a peer or even as a boss.

Yes, I know that Americans have a fetish for tall leaders. But small people have significant advantages. Research shows we may live longer. We’re also less likely to break bones or suffer from herniated discs. And, according to some, we’re greener, literally consuming less and requiring less energy to exist than bigger folk. In a Darwinian sense, we are the superior members of our species. Small is not just beautiful, it’s smart, too.