America Needs to Rethink Its Views about Government and Corporations

Yesterday I read in the newspaper about a former executive of Volkswagen who had been sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in his company’s notorious scheme to defraud the U.S. by rigging the emissions tests of VW autos. I also read about the CEO of a company who resigned in the face of allegations of serious misrepresentations of financial information (another Enron although of much smaller scale).

Once again I am left to wonder, How did we get it into our heads in this country that government is inherently bad and corporations are inherently good? My reaction is always the same: people who think that way have never worked for a corporation (or at least never held an executive position in one).

That’s not to say corporations are evil and that everyone who works for one is bad. Hardly. And it’s not to say that everyone who works for government is good or conscientious, either. Hardly.

It is to say, however, that government has a proper role to play. Government is not inherently bad. It’s necessary. And, through government, a lot of good has been accomplished in the world. We should stop trying to tear it down and put a little more effort into making it as good as it can be. But that doesn’t seem to be our goal these days. Instead, we seem to be ceding control to our corporations, because, as we’re led to believe: government is bad, business is good. You’d think the flaw in this position would be obvious, but you’d be wrong. Many smart people now believe it to be true.

Most of us who’ve spent a career in business — and particularly those of us in the legal field — know that claim is a bunch of bull. Indeed, there is a helluva lot of criminal, fraudulent and unethical activity going on within our corporations. We should stop pretending there isn’t. Just read the frinkin’ papers. We also should stop pretending that corporations are so incredibly efficient. Most aren’t.

Some of the most conscientious, ethical people whom I’ve had the privilege of dealing with work for government. And for business. And some of the slimiest people whom I’ve observed in action have worked for corporations. And for the government. You even elected some of them.

It’s indisputable that there are good and bad actors in both government and industry. That’s the point. Both ethical and unethical behaviors can be found in both. And both corporations and government can be inefficient and wasteful.

I don’t understand what’s behind this extreme deference we’re showing to business these days, other than to conclude it’s just one more example of the power of propaganda. Republicans have been trying to tear down government for the past 40 years or more, and they’ve largely succeeded, principally through the tool of relentless propaganda. As a result, the corporations’ lobbyists are now writing our tax code, corporations (e.g., Facebook) are allowing themselves to be used by foreign agents to influence our elections, corporations are polluting our environment in violation of laws, corporations are shipping jobs overseas and still other corporations are acquiring monopoly power, unchecked by our neutered government antitrust enforcers. Indeed, we seem to be on the verge of handing corporate America the keys to the car.

We’re paying a steep price. And we’ll pay an even higher price in the future if we take these misguided ideas to their illogical extremes. But at least the corporations will be happy. And why shouldn’t they be?

Our Concern for the Rich Is Heartwarming

Our president came out today for even larger tax cuts for the wealthy (himself included, of course). He’s urging Congress to cut healthcare spending to fund part of these cuts. And, of course, we’ll borrow the rest. Why not give more money to rich people today that our kids and grandchildren can pay back later, with interest of course? That’s so generous and selfless of us.

None of this comes as a surprise. Plain folk seem to have a deep and abiding concern for rich folk in our country. Even many of our evangelists promote such policies. Apparently, it’s what Jesus would do.

I assume there’s a sense in the countryside that our wealthy citizens have been treated unfairly. So all the country needs to make it great again are millionaires and billionaires who can hoard even more money for their children and grandchildren. And buy more houses. And bigger planes.

Just think how great we’ll become.

P.S. 11/14/17: It was announced today that the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s population now owns more than half of the world’s wealth. But I suppose they can always use more.

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Real median earnings for men have gone nowhere now for over 40 years. Over the same span of time real corporate earnings have risen roughly five-fold. – Jesse Felder in “Is This How The Winner-Take-All Era Comes To An End?”

Since the early 1960s, the share of our GDP going to labor (not unions, but labor, which means anyone who works for a living and earns a wage or salary) has been declining. Indeed, it’s plummeted since the turn of the century. Labor has been the loser; corporations and their owners (i.e., capital) have been the winners. If you doubt that, consider the fact the stock market is at an all-time high and is trading at multiples not seen since the days leading up to the Crash of 1929. And consider how little of GDP growth is going to labor versus capital. (The data are easy to find if you’re interested.)

As a result of these dynamics and public policies skewed in favor of the rich and capital, economic inequality in our country has reached levels not seen since the depth of the Great Depression. The top 20 percent is leaving the bottom 80 percent in their dust. And the top 1 percent, and even more so the top 0.1 percent — well, they’ve been reaping nearly all the economic rewards our economy has been generating in recent years.

Not long ago, corporate CEOs earned about 40 times what their workers earned. Today, they earn 350 times what the workers earn. According to noted money manager Jeremy Grantham:

The system has gone to hell. Keynes, Schumpeter–and Marx, not to mention–thought, by their nature, corporations and capitalism would overreach simply because they could. Corporations would use their advantages to get more power and more money. Their share of the pie would increase, and cause society to push back. Sooner or later there will be pushback.

Yet the president and Republican-controlled Congress are now proposing a massive tax cut for corporations and, by extension, their owners (which includes, of course, many foreigners, such as the Swiss National Bank, the owner of $88 billion of U.S. stocks and, therefore, one of the prime beneficiaries of the new tax bill). Indeed, many foreigners stand to benefit greatly from this tax bill.

Congress and the president intend to pay for this tax cut in several ways:

  • by eliminating or curtailing many deductions and credits (for instance, by eliminating or drastically reducing deductions for medical expenses, home mortgage interest, state and local taxes, student-loan interest, employer-paid tuition assistance, child adoption credit, and a myriad of other deductions and credits), which will have the effect of increasing taxes on certain individuals and institutions (~ 12 percent of taxpayers) and making education, health care, child care and home ownership more expensive for some;
  • by imposing new taxes (for instance, a new tax on certain private nonprofit colleges);
  • by cutting back on health care expenditures (e.g., not appropriating funds for children who need health care but whose parents cannot afford it); and
  • by running an even larger deficit (“deficit spending”), which will be funded by more borrowing on the part of the federal government (in other words, by making our children, grandchildren and their children pay for the tax cut for corporations and the wealthy). The nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio already sits at a post-WW II high. This bill will take it higher (est. $1.75 trillion more over 10 years).

Oh, by the way, the tax bill preserves the outrageous hedge-fund tax loophole candidate Trump vowed to kill. I’m shocked. Another win for the wealthy; another successful head-fake on the part of the president.

On its face, the bill is ridiculous. Yet it’s being treated as a serious proposal. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it (or something very close to it) becomes law. And I also wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the electorate support it. Of course, I also wouldn’t be surprised if it dies in the Senate (as it should).

A democratic society that tolerates a handful of very big winners while the vast majority of everyone else is denied their share of the wealth the economy generates is not sustainable. It will end badly. Civil strife. Social tensions unlike anything we’ve seen in at least 50 years. Violence. War. Radical populism (not the fake billionaire-led variety we’re presently experiencing). Or the whole kit and caboodle simply may unravel.

Mr. Trump and his lackeys on the Hill, as well as their corporate benefactors, may be feeling their oats these days. But they might be whistling past the graveyard. And by the time many of their supporters realize what’s happening, it may be too late.

P.S. Although the overall thrust of the tax bill is highly objectionable to me, there are some changes that I like. Such as limiting the home mortgage deduction. Stopping the practice of using tax-free municipal bonds (private purpose bonds) to build sports stadiums for billionaires. There are others. What I dislike the most is the unconscionable increase in our national debt that will result from these cuts, the huge benefits being conferred on foreign investors, the likely negative impact on individuals (higher interest rates, including mortgage rates) and the continuation of public policy favoring capital over labor (one of the sources of the gross economic inequity that grips the nation today). In short, it’s likely to make economic inequality worse, not better. Instead of addressing the deepening problem of the working class falling further and further behind, Congress and the president want to confer huge benefits on the wealthy. The wealthy are doing just fine. We need elected representatives who care about the working class. Despite their rhetoric, these jokers do not. 

Another Slaughter

We had another mass murder event in America today. Twenty-six people or so in a church in Texas. It’s disconcerting how these events no longer shock us. They’re expected. Indeed, we know there will be another. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps next week. We don’t know when. But we do know it won’t be long.

I have no interest in debating gun control or chastising those who don’t believe we should have any restrictions on gun ownership. It wouldn’t do any good.

History tells us that the U.S. is a violent nation. Always has been. I don’t expect that to change.

We’re also told we’re a Christian nation. What a joke.

When these slaughters happen, I do wonder whether anything could change the political equation — whether we’d ever get to the point of saying enough is enough. Perhaps we will, but I’m not so sure. America is comfortable with violence. With killing.

We’re the only nation in the world with violence like this. That makes us exceptional I suppose. But is American exceptionalism always a good thing? Perhaps not.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m going to mention it again because it revealed to me just how messed up our cultural values are. A couple of years ago I went into a Starbucks in Cheyenne, Wyoming for a cup of coffee. Standing by the door was a big guy with an assault weapon slung over his shoulder. I couldn’t help think, what is wrong with us? How can any culture think this is O.K.?

Yet we do. Not all of us. But enough of us to allow nut jobs like this to do as they please.

Some call it freedom. To me, it’s just plain lunacy. Who in their right mind would think it’s necessary to carry an assault weapon into a Starbucks in Cheyenne? No one.

I’ll never understand why so many of the rest of us are content to live in such a society.

How many innocent people need to die before we come to our senses?

Apparently, a lot.

What I Love About Donald Trump

Donald Trump is despicable on so many levels. Most (perhaps all) of his values are abhorrent. His language is coarse and offensive. His behavior is disgusting and crude. He’s a race-baiter and hate-monger. His temperament is ill-suited for the presidency (or, for that matter, any role requiring a modicum of civility). He’s a pathological liar. Simply put, Vera, if you came home with a boyfriend like Mr. Trump, I’d wonder where we (your parents and everyone else who played a role in your life) went wrong.

But there is one thing I like about him. He’s a doer. He tries to get something done.

The reason that’s important is, we desperately need to get something done in this country. Opportunity for most Americans has been shriveling on the vine for decades now. Only the very top of the socioeconomic pyramid has been doing well.

Communities have hollowed out. Men past the prime of their careers have been kicked to the street. Students have gone deeply into debt ($1.4 trillion and growing). Debilitating drug use is no longer a street corner thing, or something that plagues only “the other side of the tracks.” For heaven’s sake, even the death rate has been rising for certain demographics!

Meanwhile, our fiscal condition, both at the federal and state levels, continues to erode. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our investment in basic research is declining. Most people can’t afford to educate their kids or to pay the dentist or doctor. And God forbid they ever require a hospital. Social Security and Medicare are barreling to a fiscal cliff.

And the fact of the matter is, the establishment political parties and candidates are basically useless when it comes to solving any of this. I can’t think of a president in the past quarter century or more, or a traditional candidate of a major political party during that time, who seemed to fully understand the problem and be committed to changing anything except the window dressing.

They were too busy raising money and then placating all the donors who put them into office and whose continuing support they thought they needed to stay there. The workers of America no longer had anyone looking out for them.

And, to be fair, we were too busy treating politics like a blood sport or a reality TV show and did our fair part in the dumbing down of America. In other words, we got fat and lazy.

And then came Mr. Trump. He may be fat, but he ain’t lazy.

I could never bring myself to vote for such a person. But I do like a few of the things he’s done or has tried to do (or at least highlighted as being problems). And, most of all, I like the fact he’s trying to get something done.

The problem, of course, is that he often doesn’t know what to do, so he flails. And in his flailing, he only makes things worse. And undermines his support and any chance he has to build his base and garner support for any of his initiatives that require legislation.

So, will he make any real progress with jobs and in reforming a trade policy that destroyed Johnstown but enriched Wall Street? I doubt it. But at least he’s not status quo. At least someone is finally challenging conventional wisdom and policies designed to enrich capital at the expense of labor.

Will he reform the tax code in a transformative way that dismantles disincentives, encourages the efficient deployment of capital, gives equal weight to labor and removes many of the hidden subsidies that enrich the elite? The early returns aren’t encouraging, but at least the president isn’t wedded to the same old system.

Will he rid the system of growth and entrepreneur-suffocating regulations that were well intended but installed and maintained by people who don’t understand incentive systems and the law of unintended consequences? Probably, but it looks like he may end up throwing the baby out with the bath water, too.

Will he reverse the neocon-driven foreign policy of his predecessors and stop interjecting America into everyone’s business around the world? Apparently not, despite his campaign promises to the contrary. The embedded power of the neocons is proving to be too powerful even for Mr. Trump. One of his mistakes was surrounding himself with so many generals.

Will he reform the deeply flawed ObamaCare and help make quality health care affordable for the average American? Apparently not. He simply is devoid of ideas and, moreover, doesn’t even seem to grasp the issues deeply enough to help devise a solution.

So, even though I like the fact Mr. Trump is anti-status quo and at least tries to deal with some long standing problems that, if left unaddressed, will become only weightier anchors around America’s ankles, I do think he’ll fail. The despicable part is part of the problem. The power of inertia is another. His cognitive limitations are another. His over confidence in his own power and abilities is yet another.

What’s going for him is his remarkable powers of persuasion and sales abilities. He did, after all, manage to get himself elected. Yet, not surprisingly, governing is proving to be something all together different.

Of course, the forces that got him elected will not simply evaporate, even if Mr. Trump himself does. Consequently, my fear — indeed, the nightmare scenario that I think is quite possible — is that the future will bring something far worse than Donald J. Trump.

I remind your grandmother from time to time, Vera, that if she thinks Mr. Trump is so bad (and she does, as do I), just wait because what’s coming down the line could be even worse.

And, based on where we’re headed, I think the odds are pretty high that worse is coming. You simply can’t hold a democracy together in the 21st century with the gross disparity and injustice we’ve allowed to develop.

America was sold on the American dream. But it’s dawning on America that the dream has turned into a nightmare. But they want it back.

As Ray Dalio recently pointed out in an essay well worth reading, “the wealth of the top one-tenth of 1% of the population is about equal to that of the bottom 90% of the population, which is the same sort of wealth gap that existed during the 1935-40 period.”

Yet everyone gets a vote.

We know what happened in the 30s. And the early 40s. What we don’t know yet is how this unsustainable situation will play itself out over the next 10 to 20 years.

It started with Donald J. Trump. How will it end?

There are a lot of angry people out there. And for good reason. My fear is that Mr. Trump the president will be unable to assuage them. And his failure may even result in an exponential increase in anger. Or, in an effort to save his presidency, that Mr. Trump will lead us into another major war. Everyone — even Mr. Trump — knows that there is nothing like a war to make people forget their problems and support their leaders.

I hope it doesn’t come to that. And it doesn’t have to. But even if it doesn’t, the pressures will build and find some other way to be released.

Tighten your seatbelt, America. The ride is only going to get rougher.

What I’ve Learned Over the Years About Flags and Anthems

Here is a recent inquiry to a law firm about an incident in Indiana:

I work for a prominent company in a small city here in the Hoosier State, and we are very involved in our local community. We sponsor a corporate softball team, and last night one of our team members “took a knee” during the national anthem before a game. His supervisor asked if the player can be disciplined for this conduct or at least transferred out of the supervisor’s department.

This comes on the heels of President Trump making political hay over the demonstrations by some NFL players (taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice and police brutality).

The current stink over athletes’ nonviolence demonstrations caused me to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned over the years about flags and anthems.

Flags

They’re an object. A piece of cloth or other material. They have no inherent value or meaning. Yet people love to rally around them. I’ve done it myself.

Sometimes, the rally is for good (maybe). Sometimes, it’s innocuous (neutral). Often, it’s for bad purposes.

The mighty Roman Empire employed flags in its pageantry and celebrations of war victories. And to lead their troops into battle. Flags are useful in getting young men to charge into situations from which they might not exit whole or alive. The elite (rich, powerful people who pull the strings of war and government) are very good at using flags to manipulate the emotions of others. Consequently, many flags are stained with blood.

The Romans weren’t lone, of course. Examples are replete throughout history, including the Pope as he extended the military reach of the “Holy” Roman Catholic Church beyond Rome, the king of England as he marched troops to the “Holy Land” to kill heretics, Hitler as he mustered support among the youth and other impressionable people to establish and expand his Third Reich, modern-day neo-Nazis who march in Charlottesville, and now Donald Trump, with his red MAGA cap as he uses bigotry, fear and hate to solidify and expand his political base even at the expense of driving a stake through the heart of America.

The president rails against those who supposedly disrespect the flag, while intentionally distorting and misrepresenting the motives and actions of the demonstrators and while assaulting the very Constitution he professes to respect (e.g., his blatant attacks on the First Amendment). Obviously, he’s doing this for purely selfish political purposes. Yet his tactics are effective.

If some people think anyone is disrespecting the Stars and Stripes, they get angry. And angry people are highly manipulatable. They become unthinking and unreflective people, the kind of people whom demagogues want and need to claim and retain power.

So here’s my take on flags — impressions more than 60 years in the making:

  • Flags are things. That’s all. One cannot respect or disrespect a piece of cloth or plastic. It’s what flags represent that matter. They can represent good things. And really bad things, too. Some flags represent both. But, in the end, it’s just a thing.
  • I don’t pledge allegiance to any flag. Allegiance means you’ll do whatever you’re told to do by your country — i.e., by its political leaders (who typically do the bidding of the wealthy powerful class). I won’t. I’ve seen too much. I know that some of those leaders have led us into immoral wars. Have engaged in torture. Have overthrown democratically elected governments. Have slaughtered — or, more often, have directed others to slaughter — defenseless native Americans and even entire cities of women and children, and, today, by its drones and other instruments of death, to kill countless innocent people, including children and babies. Some have run medical experiments on Americans without their consent. Imprisoned people without due process. I’m not about to blindly promise my allegiance to such people. (As an aside, I never understood how a Christian could pledge allegiance to a flag or nation. It’s so obviously antithetical to the life of discipleship.)
  • Despite what I just wrote, the American flag does represent something I value. Specifically, it represents the ideals and principles on which the country was founded and under which it has grown and thrived. It’s true we have not fully realized those ideals, and we never will. That’s what makes them ideals. We’re a work in progress. Yet I thoroughly embrace and adore the principles of freedom and individual liberty, and the right to choose for oneself and not be bound by the mandates of a king or president. The freedom of press, of expression, of religion, of dissent — these are ideals that the flag represents to me and which would cause me never to deface the flag. Yet I’m not so blind as not to see what the same flag may represent to others — to those who have been oppressed by people who pledged allegiance to the flag and claim to respect it so much.

Anthems

Much of what I wrote about flags apply equally to our national anthem. I have and will sing it. To me, the words “Land of the free” are the most important words in the Star Spangled Banner.

I don’t much care for the genesis of the lyrics or its glorification of war. There are better songs. But it’s what we got. To be honest, I don’t spend anytime thinking about it.

Freedom: The Thread That Supposedly Hold the Stars and Stripes Together

Observing the anthem/flag controversy in the NFL today reminds me of the dangers of being sucked into the hysteria of nationalists — the very kind of people who are prone to wrap themselves in flags. We ignore such people at our peril. Scared, angry people with power — especially those with strong nationalistic and militaristic tendencies — are capable of doing really bad things. We’ve seen it too often throughout history to take it lightly.

What all of this does, for me, is to highlight a truth that has been present for most or all of our country’s existence: many Americans don’t actually like freedom and some of the principles embedded in our constitution. Actually, they feel threatened by it.

Again, this isn’t new. The majority didn’t much care for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his nonviolent resistance to institutionalized racism, and they don’t much care for resistance today, especially when it’s delivered by people with dark skin.

Moreover, those in society’s dominant position (principally, white men) try to impose discipline — that is, penalties — to ensure dissent doesn’t spread or become accepted. Fire the employee! Transfer him (see opening request of the Indiana supervisor)! Kill the troublemaker’s prospects for promotion. Refuse to sign the athlete. Boycott them and hit them where it hurts: in the pocketbook. Erect statutes of white supremacists (known affectionately as Southern heroes) and fly the Confederate flag to remind them who’s really in charge! Scare them by shooting some defiant college students (Kent State). Try to intimidate them by carrying guns in the public square.

The underlying tactic is always the same: impose discipline through fear and preserve the existing power structure at any cost.

That’s what the NFL controversy is really about. It has nothing to do with a piece of cloth or song. It has everything to do with quelling dissent and keeping black folk in their rightful place — with reclaiming the white European culture and power structure that predated Brown vs. Education, the integration of our Armed Forces by President Truman and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. It has everything to do with reclaiming the world that President Trump has promised will return. It has everything to do with fear. And insecurity.

Does that mean I think everyone who objects to the football players’ demonstration is a racist? Of course not. And it doesn’t mean I think the players’ tactics are effective or the best means of advancing the cause of justice and equality.

Personally, I have no opinion on the matter. I’m not black. I haven’t been the subject of racial discrimination and police brutality. I haven’t lived in a society that thinks I’m inferior because of the color of my skin.

It would be presumptuous of me to question the methods discriminated people choose to improve their lot, especially when their methods are nonviolent.

It’s their call, not mine. But I will respect them and support all people who strive for freedom, justice and equality. I will support anyone who yearns for the best of what the flag represents to me. And I will not defer to hatred and bigotry and the forces that seek to divide us even if such forces are wrapped in the flag. I can see through their disguise.

History shows in stark terms that such hatred and bigotry often hides behind flags and anthems. And it’s hiding behind our flag and anthem today. And under a red cap as well.

Well, perhaps it’s not hiding so much. Perhaps it’s come out and revealed itself in all its despicable forms.

The people who are taking a knee are merely trying to promote awareness and foster justice and equality. They’re not rejecting America or its flags and anthems. They are simply calling on America to live up to its ideals. They are pleading with the country to become more American.

On the other hand, those who are distorting the demonstrators’ motives and choosing to ignore the injustice that is rooted in our society are using the flag and anthem as a club. And as an instrument to reclaim and perpetuate a cruel and unjust social structure.

I do not and will not pledge allegiance to a flag if it stands for oppression. I will stand for a flag that represents the ideals of a just, fair and compassionate people.

But even then, one must ask why? Why the need for flags? Why not instead focus on the people — our actions, our values, our choices, our humanity?

In the final analysis, flags and anthems don’t matter much. But values and principles matter a lot.

I pledge allegiance to compassion, justice, equality and the inalienable rights of people for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And I oppose any person or method that seeks to deny those rights to others.

And I couldn’t care less whether anyone attends or watches an NFL game this weekend.

At the Mercy of Other People’s Judgment

Sunday, Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, claimed President Trump (a member of his own political party) was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”

The Senator said he was alarmed about a president who acts “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something.” “He concerns me,” the senator added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

None of this is surprising. I knew it was a risk, which is why I thought the election of Donald Trump to the presidency was the most reckless act undertaken by the U.S. electorate in our history — by far.

That doesn’t mean the worst case scenario will unfold. Rather, it means the risks are higher than they need be and we’ve put other people’s lives and welfare at risk unnecessarily (as well as our own).

That’s on a grand scale (casualties could exceed those of WW II). Everyday, of course, others make decisions that harm or threaten others (physically or financially) without most of us giving much thought about the matter.

Policy makers make decisions about trade, spending and other matters that could (and often do) have a material effect on our futures.

CEOs and boards make decisions about investments that could affect our livelihood.

Plant managers and railroad personnel make decisions that could make the difference between life and death for many people within range of their plants or tracks.

Drivers make decisions (or fail to make decisions) that can forever alter the lives of fellow drivers and their families.

I could go on. The list is endless. The point is simple: we are at the mercy of other people’s judgment in countless ways. And some of them may be at the mercy of ours.

So what is one to do about it?

I don’t claim to know what anyone else should do about it — that’s their decision. But here are some guiding principles I have acquired for myself over the years.

First, I try no to fret about it; rather, I try to focus on that over which I have some control.

So if my fellow citizens decide electing someone like Mr. Trump is in our best interest, so be it. My lot is part of theirs. I shall benefit or be hurt with the broader community we call country. Some call it fate. Call it what you want. I simply say, “It is what it is.” I’m not going to allow it to destroy my happiness.

Part of this is trying to avoid any sense of entitlement. And nurturing a sense of gratitude. I may not have complete control over such feelings and emotions. But I can influence them for the better. It’s most certainly preferable to fretting and worrying about things over which I have no control.

Second, I try to limit my reliance and dependence upon other people’s judgment as best I can. Stated differently, I try to avoid servitude.

One way of doing this is to acquire financial independence as soon as possible. If I got to live life over, this would be a major early goal of mine. The sooner, the better. Retirement age is much too late.

Third, I endeavor to associate with people of sound judgment and good character. This isn’t always easy because often there is misalignment between economic opportunity and virtue. Again, if I got to live life over, I’d try to spend more time and deal more with virtuous people and try harder to keep distance between myself and the other kind of people.

Last but not least, I endeavor to improve my own decision-making processes and, by extension, the quality of my own decisions.

I’ve made some really poor decisions in my life. I wish I’d spent more time reflecting on my mistakes and endeavoring to instill the rigorous discipline to reduce the number of mistakes going forward. And I really wish I had involved more people in the process and been less dependent upon my own perspectives and biases. 

I also wish I’d been more rational and less emotional. More practical and less idealistic.

I’ve made some good decisions of course. But decision making is a lot like investing: the key is to eliminate or reduce the size of your losses. Avoiding big mistakes is a key to a good life.

Charlie Munger is right: he and Warren Buffett got tremendous advantage from simply trying not to be consistently stupid instead of trying to be very intelligent.

I used to tell students that my primary objective in teaching was to help them become better decision makers, that is, to hone their judgment. Schools don’t talk about judgment. They should. It’s far more important than most of the other stuff that commands their attention.

I don’t know if the country will escape the Trump years without a major disaster. I do know we’re playing with fire and, when that happens, someone often gets burned.

In any case, don’t ever allow yourself to be overwhelmed by that which you can’t control, Vera. There is much you can control, including, to an extent, your thoughts and outlook.

Choose wisely. Become the very best decision-maker you can possibly become. Nothing will serve you as well as sound judgment.

Liberalism At Its Worst

Some time ago I wrote about Conservatism At Its Worst. It’s now time for me to share my brief critique of liberalism. To be more precise, I’m talking about liberalism in the present era, in America.

My mind immediately returns to 2009-10 when I was serving as Pennsylvania’s Secretary for Community and Economic Development. The worst of the financial crash and what is commonly referred to as the Great Recession was upon us. Unemployment was high, asset values had plunged and economic activity was anemic at best.

To my mind, the first priority for government was obvious: jobs. People need work, for both financial and psychological reasons. Yet it didn’t seem to me like the Obama Administration and Democratic-controlled Congress shared this view.

Rather, they pushed their policy agenda as though unemployment wasn’t sky high. Their stimulus bill was woefully inadequate and misdirected. They used the opportunity to advance the causes of special interests that had co-opted the party, and seemed oblivious to fostering conditions for job-creating economic activity. They pushed through a deeply flawed health care bill designed more to placate drug companies, insurance companies and shareholders than to address the basic problem. And the Administration did nothing to hold accountable the white-collar elites (criminals who long ago learned the benefits of campaign contributions) who had brought the financial system to its knees through their fraudulent and deceitful practices. In short, the party that is supposed to be the party of the working class proved it had become captive to Wall Street and progressive special interest groups — i.e., to money.

The Republicans were even worse, favoring, as they always seem to, fat cats and the top 1 percent. But I don’t expect party leaders on the Right to care about the working class. I do expect progressives or liberals to care. Suffice it to say they came up short.

I wasn’t totally surprised by any of this. For quite some time, I realized national politics had become a money game, and that those without the money to play didn’t have much of a say in the matter. And that Congress was filled with many very small people — people devoid of vision and ideas but skilled at getting elected and reelected by artful manipulation of the electorate and rampant gerrymandering.

My other grips about liberalism concern its simplistic solutions. Too often, they think the solution to every problem is to increase taxes and redistribute money (not that there isn’t a role for redistribution mechanisms). Too often liberals seem blind to the insidious effects of handouts and oblivious to the role of incentives. And seem delusional about the basic character of humans. In that vein, they seem to think (or pretend, I’m not sure) that people are better than we are. Liberals’ solutions often seem premised on the integrity and good character of all (sans fat-cats, of course). It’s fantasy. At its worst, it’s simply vote buying. And paternalistic and condescending.

The Left also went all in with coastal urbanites and largely abandoned rural, Southern and Rust Belt voters, as well as those who didn’t embrace the party’s social agenda. Again, liberalism lost sight of the centrality of meaningful work and respect for all people, even the ones who might hold views the elite (rich, highly educated people) or social liberals deem deplorable.

Finally, liberalism embraced globalism and militarism as if it were puppets of multinational corporations and the defense establishment. Again, no one seemed to care about the workers. Or the growing inequities of proportions unseen for 100 years.

None of this is to suggest a progressive’s task is an easy one. The world is a harsh and unjust place. Unfairness and injustice permeate our systems, structures, institutions and laws. Protectionism and redistribution mechanism reward the privileged.

I share the progressive’s desire to foster a more just world and not to allow people’s lust for more wealth and power to dominate the public square unopposed. And I share liberals’ realization that unconstrained capitalism yields much injustice and sows the seeds for civil strife. But I don’t share the view that the solution is simplistic redistribution, or solved by identity politics.

Justice work is a complicated task, one fraught with unintended consequences for well-intended solutions. Which is fine, for the degree of difficulty is but a challenge not an impenetrable barrier. Yet too often the progressive’s solution is geared not to the best outcome; rather, too often it is geared to the “solution” that will ensure the uninterrupted flow of financial support to the party or reelection of the incumbent, or to solutions that merely supplant one problem for another. In short, today progressives suffer from that which also afflicts the Right: lack of character, vision and compassion.

At its core, the election of the mean-spirited megalomaniac who presently occupies the White House was, in part, the consequence of liberalism’s abandonment of the working class and their inability to advance solutions that appealed to the working class as opposed to only the special interest groups that lined the party’s coffers. People could sense the political leaders cared more about raising money to ensure their own reelection than the people. Reacting by electing a charlatan was foolish, yet it was predictable.

In the world of capitalism, there is capital (ownership) and labor. The Right, despite its artful and successful strategy to convince workers that its policies are pro-labor, are all about capital. If liberalism is to reclaim the mantel of labor, it must stop demonizing capital and recognize the crucial and important role it plays in advancing the general welfare. And it must advance solutions that don’t do more harm than good and that aren’t designed simply to move money from one hand to another.

In short, liberalism must represent a path forward grounded in a bold, practical vision grounded in respect and dignity for all, including those born without privilege and who simply want to be treated fairly and not be forgotten or constantly beaten down by the hammer of wealth and privilege.

I’m not holding my breath.

The Confederacy Is Dying

Lately, we’ve been hearing and reading a lot about the Confederacy, white supremacists and Civil War heroes. Growing up, the Civil War didn’t have a prominent place in our lives. Sure, we visited the Gettysburg Battlefield and learned about the war in school. But it was an historical artifact of sorts — something that occurred but had long past.

And then I moved to Virginia. It was there I experienced first hand that the war wasn’t over — at least not in certain people’s minds. It also was there I frequently heard it referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression.” And saw the flag of the Confederacy fly from porches and pickup trucks. It was there that some people called me a Yankee, with the disdain the term implies in the Deep South.

More recently, just over the mountain from where we lived in Virginia, white supremacists marched and engaged in violence to promote their cause. Some people interpret this as a sign the principles underlying the Confederacy are alive and well.

I disagree. I think it’s a sign of the Confederacy’s dying gasp.

Racism will live on, of course. But the Confederacy was about so much more. It was about preserving an economic and social system rooted in slavery. That clock isn’t about to be turned back.

That’s not to say there isn’t involuntary servitude today. There is. And even among the free, true freedom isn’t as pervasive as commonly thought.

It also isn’t to say there is equal opportunity for all. There isn’t. But it’s getting better.

It is to say that what we’re witnessing now — with the white marches and election of Donald Trump — is the last gasp of a dying power structure. The days of racists, white men are coming to an end.

The country is changing. It’s getting less white. And it’s getting less male — not in general; rather, in the halls of power.

Moreover, the distance between the War (whatever name you want to ascribe to it) and the present is increasing with each and every passing day. There is no one alive who lived then, and no one alive whose parent fought in the War. Our national memory is fading.

Economic mobility has hastened the fade. Yankees now live throughout the South, and Rebs are dispersed throughout the North. The terms themselves now seem absurd to the vast majority of Americans (I always thought they were).

Some people hate to see our country change. They fight to keep women at home and out of our board rooms, legislatures and executive officers. They go out of their way to avoid people of color. They bestow privilege on the old white families that shower their institutions with money (i.e., their character is for sale).

But most people don’t. Most people have come to believe it’s wrong to judge and treat people based on their sex or the color of their skin.

We don’t always live up to our beliefs, but with time our beliefs strengthen and help narrow the gap between rhetoric and action. With time, we’re learning how to be better people.

The War has been over for more than a century and a half. Now, we’re witnessing the end of the Confederacy and the blossoming of the principle of freedom and justice for all.

The War is over indeed. But the fight continues.

The Truth About Monuments

I’m not a fan of monuments, of any kind. And I think much of the debate about monuments today threatens to distract people from the larger, more important issues, and play into the hands of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, racists and the president.

But I am a fan of knowledge. And I loath propaganda, especially the kind that is designed to spread division and hatred. Hence, I’m sharing this much needed brief history lesson from a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, which he shared on his Facebook page late last night:

I wish more folks understood how many of the monuments now being debated are not really from the post-Civil War period as a way to remember war dead. Rather, contrary to popular understanding, many of these statues were explicitly erected as Segregation Monuments in the twentieth century, during Jim Crow, as a way of shouting – against the American Idea – that public spaces were to be whites-only spaces. Tragically, many of these monuments were erected exactly when lynchings of black Americans were being celebrated in those communities – and the timing overlap here was not accidental. (It’s also worth noting that Gen. Robert E. Lee had opposed erecting Confederate Memorials because he worried, wisely, that they would become scabs of bitterness to be endlessly picked at.)

People are entitled to their own opinions and beliefs. But no one is entitled to their own facts.