Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

April 29, 2016

What the People Do Not Want to Hear

By David K. Shipler

            I am old enough to remember when there were no credit cards. Yes, children, there was such a time, in the Olden Days. Personal accounts could be arranged at some local stores, which would note your purchases in a ledger, to be paid off eventually. Then some department stores—Macy’s, Sears, and the like—issued their own cards, valid for use in their stores only. Esso (now ExxonMobil) had its card for charging gas at Esso stations.
            But the only real private borrowing people did was to buy a house or a car. Even student debt was minuscule. The use-everywhere piece of plastic came along later, and with it, the ease of overspending and the boom in personal debt. Under the law, national banks’ interest rates were exempt from state restrictions on usury, and their terms weren’t exactly transparent. Add the second mortgage and the home equity loan, which allowed people to treat their houses like ATM machines, and you have a nation of folks craving what they see advertised, buying insatiably, and living beyond their means.
            Now, put that phenomenon onto the tectonic shifts in the American economy as it moves from an industrial age to a digital robotic age, and you have an upheaval as uncontrollable as global warming—only marginally manageable by the will of humans to make sacrifices and alter behavior. As manufacturing declined, union membership plummeted, eroding workers’ clout in the marketplace of labor. Wages did not keep pace with consumers’ appetites. As high-tech jobs mushroomed, the skills gap grew, with more and more Americans unable to compete effectively in a global economy.
            That’s where the current politics of rage enters the picture. Donald Trump tells people what they want to hear, but what they want to hear is a lie. It has two parts: First, everybody is at fault except yourself. Blame Mexicans. Blame Muslims. Blame “losers.” Blame liberal Democrats. Blame corporations that move jobs abroad.
            Second, solve the problems with a sweep of the hand: Ban Mexicans. Ban Muslims. Discard “losers.” Make deals. Run Democrats out of office. Isolate the U.S. from world trade. Bar corporations from closing factories here and opening them there.
Putting aside the fact that even a President Trump would not have the dictatorial power to do any of this, the lie ignores two factors: one, financial illiteracy, which has led individuals innocently into trouble, and, two, the restructuring that is driving the economy inexorably, as from one geological era to another.
            If presidential candidates were truly candid, they would tell the truth to voters who are justifiably scared, angry, and disaffected, and who no longer trust government to help erase the deepening doubts that life in the United States will be economically secure for their children. These are folks who suffer what Neil Gabler, in a searing piece in The Atlantic, calls “financial impotence,” the powerlessness of 47 percent of Americans to raise $400 to cover an emergency, the stress that 72 percent feel over finances at times, the inability of 54 percent to do more than barely keep up with ongoing expenses while saving nothing.
            These are familiar syndromes of poverty, and they have now been extended upward into the middle class. You’d think that middle class whites who fell into hardship in the Great Recession that began in 2007-8 would identify sufficiently with the poor to champion government programs aimed at relieving poverty, including food stamps, housing subsidies, the Earned Income Tax Credit, expanded Medicaid, job training, and the like.
            Some do, but millions go for Republicans who try to slash these programs and strive mightily to remove government from lending the helping hand that can cushion the fall. Trump is the beneficiary of this peculiar impulse of so many to vote against their own interests just to throw the bums out.
            President Obama, interviewed by Andrew Ross Sorkin for The New York Times Magazine, laments the public’s failure to recognize what he’s done for the economy, noting that most Americans think that budget deficits have risen during his administration when they’ve actually plummeted by three-quarters. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” Obama said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”
            Perhaps. He’s never connected well with the whites under stress who are now going for Trump. He initially had a Democratic Congress that should have expanded stimulus spending far beyond what was done to restore the nation’s infrastructure; what better time to borrow for that good cause than when interest rates were low?
But the real “truth of the matter” is what people don’t want to hear. It goes like this:
            Many citizens did not sit down and do the straightforward math to reckon what debt they could afford to carry. The experience of financial trainers shows that some do not even understand what an interest rate is, much less what havoc a variable rate can impose. Reckless spending, made easy by banks’ loose lending practices, dug holes so deep that millions who lost their homes will never find their way out. Schools don’t teach basic principles of personal finance, and they should. Candidates in both parties won’t accuse their own voters of personal irresponsibility, and they should.
            That said, individuals cannot be faulted for being caught in the maelstrom of economic change. But that change cannot be reversed or even alleviated significantly. The country has to ride with it, steer through it, and maneuver to make it advantageous. Building protectionist walls against trade will be met with retaliatory tariffs by other countries, a prescription for a deep economic downturn. This is what people need to hear, not fairy tales about reversing the rotation of the earth.
The automation of manufacturing, the shift to service industries, the rise of high-tech entrepreneurship all require a broad national commitment to mid-career vocational retraining and to rethinking how young people are prepared for job markets that are constantly in motion. College for all is a sweet idea, but not all go to college, not all who go finish, and not all who finish are ready for the workplace. European-style apprenticeship programs, like those being proposed by the economist Robert Lerman, are expanding slowly and deserve wide acceptance.

People need to hear that they won’t be able to do the same kind of work for all of their 40 or 50 years in the job market, that they’ll have a tough time switching careers after middle age, that ruthless global competition can’t be walled out, and that the president has limited power to alter the unhappy trends—probably more limited than ever, “as the economy continues to disperse,” Sorkin observes. Unfortunately, no candidate is willing to deliver this bad news, and so the electorate is left with fantasies.

April 19, 2016

My Composite Candidate

By David K. Shipler

            If only we could Photoshop politicians, taking a keen and honest eye from one, a civil and courteous tongue from another, a brain from one who happened to have one, and a heart from another to place into the one whose vacant soul echoes with unfeeling arrogance. If we could just move parts around with a cursor to combine into the ideal presidential candidate, we could relax instead of grinding our teeth until November. Imagine what a relief it would be if we didn’t have to wish that Bernie were more sensible and Hillary more credible, that Ted had learned something beneficial at Princeton, and that The Donald’s mouth didn’t have to be washed out with soap.
            So just for fun, permit me to irritate almost everybody who reads this by finding in each candidate some quality that would be suitable in a president, then assembling the array of characteristics into a composite.
            First, let’s combine the populist appeals of Trump and Sanders, but without their simplistic rhetoric. We leave behind Sanders’s one-note scapegoating of “Wall Street” so our perfect candidate has room for nuance and sophistication, which will come later in the construction process. Of course we lose Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, bullying, incitement to violence, and ignorance about the American system’s inconvenient obstacles to ruling by fiat.
            Absent those undesirable qualities, you might ask, what’s left? Good question. What’s left is both men’s instinctive talent for touching the legitimate frustrations and disaffections of large numbers of citizens who have suffered a raw deal or have seen others getting kicked. What’s left is both men’s knack for voicing the resentments about a government and an economy that have failed to protect those who have lost their homes, their reliable employment, and their sense of security and well-being.

March 24, 2016

The Problems of Boycotting Israel

By David K. Shipler

            A couple of years ago, a retired Israeli journalist, Yehuda Litani, walked into his favorite local grocery store in Jerusalem and noticed cartons of eggs from a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. He had words with the storekeeper. “I asked the grocer to bring eggs from other sources,” Yehuda told me. “He refused, and I stopped buying there since that day.”
            Such settlements are widely considered by the Israeli left—and officially by the U.S. government—as obstacles to the eventual creation of a Palestinian state on West Bank territory, which was captured by Israel from Jordan during the 1967 war. The settlements have spread and grown into commercial enterprises, and leading settlers have risen into the ranks of the parliament and government. For this and other reasons, the door appears to be closing on a two-state solution.
So Yehuda, who speaks Arabic as well as Hebrew, and who covered the West Bank as a reporter, has mounted his tiny, principled boycott. He has no illusions. “Some of my friends in Jerusalem are behaving the same way,” Yehuda emailed, “but I must say that we are but a small minority—most people do not care about the exact source of the agricultural products they are buying.”
            The question of how and whether to use purchasing and investing power to influence Israeli policy has inflamed some campuses in the U.S. and Europe, mobilized several Protestant church assemblies in the U.S., and alarmed the Israeli government and its American supporters. Boycott proponents comprise all sorts of folks: the idealistic, the malicious, the honorable, the anti-Semitic, those who think they are trying to save Israel from an immoral quagmire, and those who care nothing for Israel’s continued existence.

March 15, 2016

"Have You No Sense of Decency?"

By David K. Shipler

            On June 9, 1954, in a highly charged Washington hearing room, the elderly attorney Joseph Welch, a man partial to homespun clarity, put to Senator Joseph McCarthy the stiletto question that has entered American lore. Responding to the Wisconsin Republican’s smear of a young colleague of Welch’s, the lawyer demanded McCarthy’s full attention and began with this:
            “Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy tried to persist, Welch cut him down: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
            In the old black-and-white film, McCarthy has a mean squint, a twisted look something like Donald Trump’s when attacked. Trump’s method is different, but he plays on the same ground of fear and demonization. So Welch’s question is relevant today, and it ought to be directed not only to Trump but also to the American people: Have you no sense of decency?
Or, to make a gesture toward hope: After many months of waiting, when will America’s slumbering decency awake?
            For that is what eventually happened to end McCarthy’s slimy innuendos that ruined so many lives with false implications of communist affiliations, based on scanty rumors, guilt by association, and fabricated evidence. Preceded by Edward R. Murrow’s devastating televised assault on McCarthy three months earlier, Welch’s rhetorical question hit home. Huge numbers of Americans, watching live on national television, knew the answer. Decency stirred.
            This episode remains as my first political memory. I was 11 years old. Coming home from school day after day, I saw my grandmother, a Southern-born, Eisenhower Republican who detested communists, sitting bolt upright in a straight-back chair in front of the TV, appalled by McCarthy’s vile slanders. She loved Joseph Welch. His gentle decency struck a chord with the decency she carried inside herself.
            So it was during the Civil Rights movement as well, as Americans saw in their living rooms the contorted, hateful faces of Southern white girls screaming racist epithets outside integrating schools, the burly white cops swinging truncheons at non-resisting black protesters, the dogs and fire hoses unleashed against peaceful citizens demonstrating for their basic rights. Segregationists played their role in a pageant of brutal injustice vividly enough to stir the decency that resides in most Americans.
            Where is decency now? Is it gone or just marginalized, merely dormant? For a long time, McCarthy got away with his witch-hunt as a sly weasel in an era of exaggerated fears about communist designs on America. Trump gets away with his bullying as a vicious Rottweiler in a time of real and fake fears about insecurity in all its forms. Many of his supporters are legitimately scared of their economic peril, unduly afraid of terrorism, and eager to accept the scapegoats he offers, which include the varieties of people who represent a diversifying America.
Even if Trump does not win the Republican nomination, or even if he wins that but not the White House, his supporters will remain a restive, fulminating force of anger. So he has offered the country a lesson in its failure to remember that tolerance, logic, and the acceptance of difference is not genetic but must be learned anew by each generation.
The society has failed those who accept him as he vilifies and ridicules vast groups of people, a whole religion, all who try to govern, all who disagree. It has failed those who give a Nazi salute outside his rally and shout, “Go to Auschwitz,” as one man did. It has failed those who shout, “Nigger,” and “Go back to Africa.” It has failed those who cheer his invitation to beat up protesters, the empty promises he cannot possibly fulfill, the coarse insults he levels at fellow candidates. It has failed those whose schools have not taught them to check facts, research reality, know history, follow public issues, and make decisions that are carefully informed.
            On his 1954 program, “See It Now,” Ed Murrow read from the script that he and Fred Friendly had written about McCarthy. It is worth listening to today:
“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine—and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. … We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.
“We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.’”
Murrow concluded with his traditional sign-off: “Good night and good luck.”

Good luck, indeed.

March 8, 2016

The Great Manipulator and the Velcro Candidate

By David K. Shipler

            If Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, as his admirers enjoyed saying, then Donald Trump is the Great Manipulator, with an uncanny eye for the voters’ nerves of fear and yearning. If criticisms slid off Reagan as if he were coated with Teflon, every one sticks to Hillary Clinton as if she were covered in Velcro. If Trump gets better at what he does, and if Clinton doesn’t unglue the labels of dishonesty and opportunism, the election could be close.
            Trump is dangerously clever at reading the electorate, at least the part of it whose anti-government anger and economic despair have been energized by Republican radicals who now wail as Trump rides the wave that they produced. Talk-show personality Glenn Beck, who incites furious extremism, compared Trump to Hitler in 1929 and warned Americans against voting in anger. “When you’re really angry, you don’t make good decisions,” Beck told a rally for Ted Cruz. “Don’t drive drunk, don’t vote angry.” That’s sage advice from a model of calm reason.
            But if Trump grabs the nomination, it would not be amazing to see him temper his insults, smooth his sharp edges somewhat, and stress the virtue of “flexibility,” a word he used a few times in the last debate. His bare-knuckled bullying appeals to some but repels others, even those who want a tough-guy act in the White House. If he managed to time his evolution deftly, he might just appeal to the wishful thinking of Republicans who want to beat Clinton at all costs. And costs there would be.

March 4, 2016

The Privacy Problem: Security vs. Security

By David K. Shipler

            We might be approaching a tipping point about privacy, as dramatized by the Apple-FBI dispute over decrypting a terrorist’s iPhone. After years of seeing privacy and safety as opposites in the war on terrorism, important segments of American society seem to be recognizing personal security and national security as parts of the same whole, not as a dichotomy in a zero-sum game. If this evolution continues, it could eventually produce a significant correction to the surveillance state that developed after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the meantime, however, the two versions of security are colliding: the government’s rising concern about security from crime and terrorism in an age of digital encryption on the one hand, and, on the other, the public’s heightened interest in security from hackers, identity thieves, cyber-ransom demands, and—yes—government surveillance. Both sets of anxiety are justified. How to resolve the clash intelligently is far from clear.
The FBI’s effort to force Apple to create new software to disable an iPhone’s security features is propelling the courts forward in time at a faster speed than they typically travel. They usually lag well behind technology. But now they and Congress need to catch up quickly. That phone and hundreds of others sit in evidence lockers waiting to be cracked by law enforcement, requiring a creative effort by judges, legislators, prosecutors, and high-tech companies to make it possible—legally and technically—to execute a legitimate search warrant on a particular device without the risk of compromising security on all such devices.

February 25, 2016

The Temporary Death of Political Cynicism

By David K. Shipler

            Cynicism about politics appears not to be genetic. It has to be relearned generation after generation, election after election. So it is that voters who are fed up with ineffective or unjust government, and by politicians who promise what they don’t deliver, are flocking to two candidates who cannot possibly deliver what they are promising: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
            The attraction, at each end of the spectrum, seems to run beyond protest or anger. Not only do Trump and Sanders supporters know what they dislike, they also know what they want to believe is doable: “Make America great again,” says Trump. “Make this political revolution a reality,” says Sanders.
            Polling shows that only six percent of voters “would consider voting for both men,” Thomas Edsall reports in The New York Times, based on recent NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys. But a few of their policy proposals actually overlap: hitting corporations for taxes on overseas profits; eliminating tax loopholes for the very rich, opposing trade agreements that have facilitated the American job drain; raising the wages required for foreigners who get H-1B work visas; and increasing spending on mental health treatment for veterans, for example.
Trump also favors letting vets use their Veterans Administration cards for private physicians, outside the system, who accept Medicare. Sanders takes credit for a law that “makes it easier for some veterans to see private doctors or go to community health centers,” his website declares.
If you take time to drill down into the positions detailed by both candidates, you’ll find that while both offer some concrete specifics about how they would accomplish their goals, Sanders’s are more solidly documented. Some liberal economists have questioned his math, but there is no doubt that his proposed tax increases would generate hundreds of billions in additional revenue. All he’d need is a Congress that looks nothing like the one we’re fated to have.

February 14, 2016

The Nihilist Republicans and Political Bigotry

By David K. Shipler

            Senate Republicans’ pledge to reject President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee who hasn’t been named contains as much intellectual integrity as trying to ban a book you haven’t read. It further politicizes an institution that works properly only above politics, when justices examine the law and the Constitution without regard to their personal preferences. And it could paralyze the Court on key cases, producing 4-4 ties that would let stand lower appeals court rulings but would set no nationwide precedents on matters that cry out for clear resolution.
The ironic fact that this would promote government’s dysfunction and further reduce its stature does not help so-called “establishment” Republicans who are worried about the protest vote being mobilized by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Those voters have been energized by the disdain for government, encouraged by the Tea Party movement and other radicals who could be called the Nihilist Republicans, as distinguished from the Responsible Republicans who used to try to govern when they won elections.
Justice Antonin Scalia’s body wasn’t even cold before Nihilist Republicans voiced their political prejudice by stereotyping as leftwing any conceivable candidate who could be proposed by Obama. This is the classic dynamic of bigotry: reject an individual—even an unidentified individual—because of his or her membership in a group. Reject because of the origin. Reject because of who supports the person. It is the same deviant logic that Trump uses to oppose letting Muslims into the country.
In a society that supposedly values individualism over collectivism, judging people by their collective associations rather than by their individual traits violates a basic American ethic—at least one we wish to see practiced.

February 5, 2016

Foreign Policy: Jazz or Football?

By David K. Shipler

            American football is a convenient metaphor, and it’s sure to be overused on this Super Bowl weekend. But what if we turn it around and recognize that our foreign policy is actually the metaphor—a metaphor for football, and that our trick tactics and testosterone-driven plays internationally are often modeled on what works in the National Football League?
             The decision this week to ramp up US military deployment in Europe, like putting more muscle on the line, is designed to cow Vladimir Putin’s “aggression,” to use the word that is kicked around casually by the Pentagon. It seems logical if you think you’re in a game to win by defeating the opponent rather than finding victory on common ground. The real world of foreign affairs is rarely a zero-sum game, however, and there’s never a final whistle.
 The American-Russian face-off is full of football-style moves that look tough but have had the perverse effect of strengthening the hand of the other side. Expanding NATO, which commits the United States to go to war to defend any of its members, has alarmed Moscow as the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have joined the alliance, along with Eastern European countries once in the Soviet sphere of influence. Russia’s reaction has been the opposite of what’s good for the West.

February 2, 2016

The American Myth of "Who We Are"

By David K. Shipler

            All countries need myths, especially if they’re at least a little bit true. They inspire imagination, set high standards, and foster hope. The American Dream is such a myth, for it challenges the society to make real the principle that anyone who works hard can prosper. American democracy is partly mythological in an age of voter suppression and billionaire campaign funding.
President Obama has summoned up another myth—one about American character—by often declaring that this or that bigoted, inhumane, self-destructive policy is “not who we are.” That’s partly correct, but only partly. The notion of a people inherently devoted to inclusive, rational decency is a beautiful myth being sullied daily by the leading Republican presidential candidates and now, as seen in the Iowa results, by their supporters. If they are “who we are,” then we have some work to do on truth-telling, cooperative problem-solving, and respect for the country’s religious and ethnic diversity.