Writes & Wrongs

I wrote a few days ago that I’ve had an unusually fecund several weeks, churning out nine articles for four publications (plus the comments Tom Edsall quoted extensively in the New York Times), expanding my writing “footprint” to additional platforms to address increasing concerns about the direction we’re headed.  I’d like to share with you what I’ve been writing lately – starting with my return this week to The Atlantic.

It’s the Grandparents Stealing From the Grandchildren” – a title drawn from a conversation I actually once had with Kurt Vonnegut – addresses an issue I’ve been writing about since my “master’s thesis” at the Kennedy School: entitlements spending.  The piece has harsh things to say about both parties’ approach – although it finds the Republicans most disingenuous (the piece reached #1 on The Atlantic within a few hours of its posting):

Speaker Paul Ryan announced that “we’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” even as he began negotiations with his Senate counterparts over exactly how much they’re gleefully going to increase the very same debt and deficit….

Which begs the question, why would we “reform” entitlements in a way that delays the changes until the problem they are supposedly intended to address will be largely history, imposing draconian cuts on the future? This amounts, purely and simply, to forcing our grandchildren both to pay for our profligacy today and our parsimoniousness tomorrow — or, if you prefer, our liberality toward ourselves and conservatism toward everyone else.

The other pieces published so far also have provoked strong disagreement across the political spectrum – which I hope means they’re making more of a contribution than usual.

For starters, in Why Donald Trump is the most successful president in nearly a century, I argued that, while “Trump is widely viewed as dangerously inept, disengaged, uninformed, uninterested in governing, devoid of meaningful policy objectives, and possibly unstable,” nonetheless “in a short period of time he has implemented more of his agenda, and more thoroughly remade American government and the country as a whole, than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.”  To see my whole catalogue of reasons for this assertion, please read the article; yet, as I conclude, “None of this may be good. But it’s time to stop denying his success.”

Almost as if on cue, Trump and the Republicans achieved their greatest “success” to date in all-but-final enactment of their dream “tax cut” legislation. Test the Trickle Down Theory ridicules the economics behind the bill by asking whether any of its intended beneficiaries would be willing to take their cuts in IOU form: “If the GOP ‘supply-side’ theory is correct, those bonds ought to pay off bigly. If not, then they’ll be about as valuable as, say, a diploma from Trump University – but they also won’t then blow an additional $1.5 trillion hole in the national debt.”

A Hard Exit for the Rich puts aversion to taxes into the larger context of a radically changing world:  “In coming years, technologies built on the internet, like the platform model and block chain (the technology underlying Bitcoin), will make it easier and easier for everyone – even the little people – to ‘secede and form a globally mobile republic, able to choose which jurisdiction they wish to operate under.’”  And War on the Blue States is about more than what’s wrong with the tax bill.  It’s about the widening gulf in America and, in particular, what I don’t think liberals heeded in 2016 and still aren’t heeding today:

Both sides of this increasingly-polarized divide see the other as trying to extirpate their way of life – and not inaccurately. Blue America spent the last eight years dictating both economic and cultural changes invalidating virtually every aspect of Red America. Liberals see all that as both righteous and benevolent – we’re both promoting better values and willing to help train them to be more like us. Yes, and that’s what the imperialists always say. Hence the Trump voters’ uprising. And now they’re getting back by imposing their values and destroying the arrogant elite’s culture and economy.

What that means for our politics – how liberalism needs to be modernized for a new era – is the theme of the first piece I wrote in November, The Constituencies of the 21st Century. It concludes, “New technologies are turning the global economy upside down, creating a stark worldwide division between winners and losers, and undermining the ability of the traditional nation-state to do anything about it….  These don’t demand that we move left or right. They demand that we move forward.”

As always, I welcome your comments.

Quick Links:

Are Your Fingers in Your Ears?
It’s the Grandparents Stealing From the Grandchildren
– Why Donald Trump is the most successful president in nearly a century
– War on the Blue States
– Test the Trickle Down Theory
– A Hard Exit for the Rich
– The Constituencies of the 21st Century


Are Your Fingers in Your Ears?


It’s been an unusually busy several weeks, so it’s been unusually long since I provided an update.  October was consumed, of course, with the Greater Good conference I organized – I’ll have more on that in a future update, but if you just can’t wait you can watch a video of my speech summarizing the conference here.  And I spent half of November traveling in Arizona, where we’re working on strengthening the Hopi school system, and in Kentucky, working on rural economic development (and meeting several Derby-winning horses).  In between, I managed to crank out four articles for US News & World Report, two for Aspenia (one of which is forthcoming this month), and three more for The Atlantic now in the queue for publication.

So, there’s a lot for future updates!

But I’m writing today to share with you a column by the great Thomas Edsall in this morning’s New York Times, “Liberals Need to Take Their Fingers Out of Their Ears,” in which he refers to a piece I wrote last week in US News and then quotes extensively from an exchange he and I had over the weekend.  I’ll just let Edsall do the talking – and the quoting – from here on:

I am quoting [Karen] Stenner [author of “The Authoritarian Dynamic”] — and later in this column, the public policy analyst Eric Schnurer — at length because they both make arguments about complex ideas with precision and care….

Eric Schnurer, a writer and public sector management consultant who has worked for many Democratic politicians and presidential candidates, addresses what he sees as the lack of recognition on the part of liberals of what motivates conservative voters.

“Both sides of this increasingly polarized divide see the other as trying to extirpate their way of life — and not inaccurately,” Schnurer wrote in “War on the Blue States” in U.S. News and World Report earlier this month:

Blue America spent the last eight years dictating both economic and cultural changes invalidating virtually every aspect of Red America. Liberals see all that as both righteous and benevolent — we’re both promoting better values and willing to help train them to be more like us.

Schnurer elaborated on this line of thought in an email:

The prototypical Trump voter sees a changing America leaving him behind; part of this is economic, part of it demographic, part cultural. I think liberals tend to see this as a thin cover for racism, a reflection of troglodyte viewpoints, and in any event unwarranted as the world these folks are resisting would be better even for them if only they’d let it, by giving up their benighted religious views, accepting job training in the new technologies, and preferably moving to one or the other coasts or at least the closest major city.

Red and blue America often draw diametrically opposed conclusions from the same experiences and developments, Schnurer contends:

I don’t think there’s much argument that the modern economy is killing off small towns, US-based manufacturing, the interior of the US generally, etc. There is, or could be, an argument as to whether that’s just the necessary functioning of larger economic forces, or whether there are political choices that have produced, or at least aided and abetted, those outcomes. In any event, while most of us in Blue World see these changes as beneficent, they have had devastating effects on the economies of “red” communities.

Schnurer observes that

This is a classic political problem of general benefit at the cost of specific individual harm. At a minimum, “we” — as a country but also as a self-styled progressive subset of that country — have given inadequate thought to those harms and how to ameliorate them; but I think you can also make the argument that we have exacerbated them.

Long-term trends may be working in favor of the left, as the recent governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey suggest, but liberals, Schnurer argues, are using policy to accelerate the process without determining the costs:

For example, we could adopt protectionist policies, which of course we haven’t because both mainstream Democrats and Republicans see them as counterproductive in the long term; but we have also attempted more actively to steer the economy more quickly to the likely, proper, outcome by shifting national tax and spending priorities toward new energy technologies, and away from fossil fuels.

Schnurer notes that

You don’t have to buy the right’s “war on coal” rhetoric to accept that, even if that’s the direction the world is headed, anyway, hastening coal’s demise and shifting federal subsidy policy away from it and into alternative energy sources will have a negative economic effect on certain communities.

In addition to the economic setbacks experienced in heavily Republican regions of the country, Schnurer, himself a liberal, argues that blue America has over the last decade declared war on the “red way of life.”

He makes a case very similar to Stenner’s:

The political, economic, and cultural triumph nationwide of a set of principles and realities essentially alien to large numbers of Americans is viewed as (a) being imposed upon them, and (b) overturning much of what they take for granted in their lives — and I don’t think they’re wrong about that. I think they’ve risen in angry revolt, and now intend to give back to the “elite” in the same terms that they’ve been given to. I don’t think this is good — in fact, I think it’s a very dangerous situation — but I think we need to understand it in order to responsibly address it.

Do liberals in fact need to understand — or empathize with — their many antagonists, the men and women who are sharply critical of the liberal project?

Please read Edsall’s full piece in today’s Times.  And I’ll have more soon on what I wanted to share with you from my other writing.  Until then – as always – I welcome your comments.

Quick Links:

– Tom Edsall’s colum: Liberals Need to Take Their Fingers Out of Their Ears

– My US News piece: War on the Blue States

– Greater Good Gathering website

– My “Greater Good” speech