Rethinking Hypocrisy

My earliest recollection of hypocrisy was in church. It was there I sat and listened to the pious prayers of my father. The distinction between the man who spoke those words and the man I knew as my father was striking in the mind of his son. The son never felt loved by this man. The son experienced the coldness, the harshness, the anger. It was not all bad, of course; there were good times. But it was nothing like the love and compassion preached in the church; spoken of in the prayers. I learned what hypocrisy felt like. And I didn’t like it, not one bit.

As I matured, I realized that hypocrisy had found a home among most if not all churchgoers. They claimed to believe one thing and then lived their lives as if they believed something else. There was so much pretending.

Along the way, I realized I, too, was a hypocrite. I always fell short of the values and principles I espoused. Walking the talk was so damn hard.

And so I was hard on myself. And on others. And found I longed for authenticity, both in myself and others. I think I even desired it more than goodness.

At the same time, I recognized that authenticity could be costly. I came to realize the strong incentives for hypocrisy in the world. And came to understand just how much incentives matter. It made me less judgmental, but I still loathed hypocrisy. I saw no redeeming virtue in it. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe how naive I was.

In time, I came to accept that hypocrisy was part of our nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.” Every man. Perhaps it’s no one’s fault.

Something I read recently, authored by Paul Craig Roberts, caused me to question further whether I had been too hard on hypocrisy — on myself and others. Mr. Roberts wrote:

There is a vast difference between proclaiming moral principles that one might fail to live up to and proclaiming immoral principles that are all too easy to keep.

We live in an era in which the proclamation of immoral principles is commonplace. Indeed, we even elected an immoral man to be our president. I’ve tried to find some redeeming virtue in the man. But I can’t.

But it’s not only him. It’s everywhere around us. In the corporate world, immorality thrives under cover of the principle of shareholder value, which supposedly cleanses all unclean deeds. But you find it in the nonprofit world, too. And among nations. And among religious folk. Especially religious folk.

President Trump makes my dad look really good. Yes, my father was a hypocrite. Probably no worse than me or most others, but a hypocrite nonetheless.

However, he was a man who proclaimed moral principles. And who lived up to most of them, most of the time. He didn’t love me well, but he taught me well. And probably did the best he could do.

I could have done worse. Much worse. I could have been reared by people who proclaimed immoral principles. By people whose sins dwarfed the sin of hypocrisy.

I was fortunate.

I used to think there weren’t many things worse than hypocrisy. I suppose it’s just one of many things I thought I knew that proved to be untrue.

Just the Facts

When I was a kid, I used to watch a show called Dragnet. It was a police show starring Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday, who coined the phrase “just the facts ma’am” when interrogating female informants. I think Sergeant Friday’s admonition could benefit us today.

We live in an era of spin and propaganda. I think there is so much of it because it works so well. I like to believe, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary, that humans are rational beings. Yet despite what I like to believe, I know we’re highly susceptible to manipulation. I know that propaganda can be highly effective. I know we believe certain things not because the facts (the evidence) suggest them to be true, but merely because we want them to be true.

I’m constantly reminded of this reality by our president. I doubt a week goes by — indeed, possibly not even a day — in which he doesn’t say something that isn’t true. Some people and organizations chronicle all his lies. I have no interest in doing so. My concern is broader because it’s clear that the president isn’t the only purveyor of propaganda out there in the world today.

All I’m suggesting is we would be better served by heeding Joe Friday’s admonition and focus ourselves on the facts, if for no other reason than we’d learn more, become better informed and be able to make smarter decisions. And, in the process, avoid a lot of mistakes and bad consequences, not only for ourselves but also for our nation.

Here is just one example of what we’d learn. The president gloats from time to time about the performance of the stock market during his tenure as president. The message is clear: the performance of the stock market has been extraordinary and it’s all because of him. I suspect some people believe it. Not because it’s true, but because they want to believe it.

When one looks at the actual facts versus the propaganda, one learns a couple of things. First, one learns the increase last year wasn’t remarkable. In fact, it was average for a bull market (and, of course, as even the president knows, the bull market began long before he was elected).

Second, we’d learn that the performance of the U.S. stock market last year was pretty mediocre (at best) on relative terms. In fact, the S&P 500 (the standard measure of U.S. stock market performance) came in 33rd. In other words, an American would have made more money by investing in any one of 32 other stock markets last year than if they’d left their money in the U.S. stock market.

You would have made more money by investing in Poland. Argentina. Hong Kong. China. India. Emerging markets generally. (Interestingly, one of the few markets that did worse (Russia and Saudi Arabia) are led by autocrats who apparently have a special place in our president’s heart.)

This is but one example of the false messages that are being peddled day in and day out. And most of them are coming from places other than the White House.

It would be nice to be able to rely on what people in positions of power or authority tell us. But to do so, at least in these times, would be foolish.

Just the facts.

I’ll reach my own conclusions, if you don’t mind. And form my own beliefs. Based on the evidence (facts), not on someone else’s self-serving claims.

You Get To Keep Your Stupid Red Hat Though

Josh Brown recently tweeted:

If they get this through, in its current form, will mark the complete and final takeover of America by corporations. You get to keep your stupid red hat though.

They’re getting it through. Not in its original form, but pretty close. Close enough to represent “the complete and final takeover by America by corporations.” But at least everyone gets to keep their stupid red hats.

The new tax law will result in a massive transfer of wealth to corporations and their shareholders from ordinary citizens and their progeny. If you’re fortunate enough to own financial assets, you may be one of the winners (provided you don’t live in a Blue State and you’re wealthy enough not to have earned income). If you don’t own a substantial amount of financial assets, then you and your kids are screwed. Especially your kids. And their kids. Any temporary benefits working and middle class people will realize from these cuts are likely to be offset by higher interest rates, a weaker dollar, future cuts to the Social Security and Medicare programs, and escalating health care and education expenses.

The national deficit will balloon as the result of this new law, which means your descendants will be inheriting an even larger debt burden, further eroding their standard of living. I guess people think we can simply add this to our tab and never have to pay it off. Or perhaps they’re just not thinking.

America’s tab of public and consumer debt already tops $40 trillion, including:

  • $20.5 trillion of federal government debt;
  • $14.6 trillion of residential mortgage debt;
  • $1.5 trillion of student debt;
  • $1.2 trillion of state government debt;
  • $1.1 trillion of auto loan debt;
  • $1.0 trillion of credit card debt; and
  • a staggering amount of unquantified debt represented by unfunded public pensions and entitlement programs (the present value of unfunded entitlements has been estimated to be $49 trillion).

The outgoing Fed chair, Janet Yellen recently said, “I would simply say that I am very worried about the sustainability of the U.S. debt trajectory. It’s the type of thing that should keep people awake at night.”

Up at night?! No one in this White House and none of the Republicans in Congress seems to be losing any sleep. To the contrary, they’re not troubled in the least; in fact, they’re content to make the situation worse, just so they can give more money to their wealthy donors (and themselves and their own families).

This decision to give huge tax cuts to corporations that are already highly profitable, awash in cash and valued at high multiples by the market, and to massively cut wealthy people’s taxes, convinces me more than ever that few people care about the future. Apparently, today is all that matters. Our children and grandchildren are the forgotten ones in all of this. Such parental narcissism is, quite frankly, disgusting. So much for being concerned about the seventh generation.

Former Reagan budget director David Stockman hit the nail on the head:

At the end of the day, the GOP tax bill boils down to borrowing more than $1 trillion from the American public in order to pay higher dividends to wealthy private stockholders.

Another stalwart Republican, Steve Schmidt, who managed the 2008 presidential campaign for his party, wrote:

This tax bill demonstrates, once again, the total collapse of all and any rigor around the policy making process in the GOP congress. It is built on a foundation of lies. It adds more than a trillion to the debt. No real conservative should vote for this.

A foundation of lies indeed. Pennsylvania Avenue and the streets around the Republican controlled Congress are rivers of lies these days. So much for draining the swamp. It’s worse than ever. The only thing that still surprises me is the number of people who are willing to believe the lies, including those who will be most hurt by the lies. Gullibility seem to know no bounds.

Back to Josh Brown, a Wall Street type (financial adviser and CNBC regular) whom I quoted at the outset. Brown wrote the following the morning after the Senate passed the tax cut bill. As usual, Josh gets it right.

There’s a possibility that last night’s preliminary step toward final legislation will take the number one issue facing America and balloon it into Rubenesque proportions. Economic inequality, which largely drove voters to lose their minds and cotton to candidates like Bernie Sanders and Trump, could explode over the next few years as a result of fiscal stimulus targeted almost precisely at the part of the economy that doesn’t need it. The fact that the people who do need the most help could end up paying for that is perhaps the sickest, most cruelly ironic joke that’s ever been told.

Unless you believe in magic, which I don’t. And remember, I’m speaking here against my own immediate self-interest. I’m not stupid and this isn’t virtue signaling – I genuinely believe the economy is better when participation is broader and not as concentrated as it’s been. Obama attempted to solve this but he failed. Trump is not even trying. He’d sign anything brought to his desk at this point, just to say he did it.

Indeed, this bill will exacerbate wealth inequity, further hurting the very people who have placed their hopes in Mr. Trump. It is, as Josh writes, “perhaps the sickest, most cruelly ironic joke that’s ever been told.”

And now watch: I guarantee you the Republicans will be coming for your Social Security and Medicare.

The events surrounding this new bill further convince me of the power of propaganda (as if I didn’t know). And of the dangers of slick charlatans and demagogues and people’s willingness to embrace them if conditions are right. And of the dangers of willful ignorance.

But it is what it is. At least I get to keep my Pittsburgh Pirates cap. And I don’t have to wear one of those stupid red hats.

What Are You O.K. With?

One thing I appreciated about the candidacy of Roy Moore, who ran for one of Alabama’s U.S. Senate seats and narrowly lost yesterday, is that it brought bigotry into the open. Mr. Moore thinks we’d be better off if we did away with all the amendments to the U.S. Constitution after the 10th amendment (i.e., do away with all except the Bill of Rights). Those amendments that Mr. Moore would ditch include ones that abolished slavery and gave women the right to vote. These comments weren’t merely a slip of the tongue on the part of Mr. Moore; they were entirely consistent with other comments he’s made over the years and during the campaign. Clearly, Mr. Moore would feel more comfortable living in pre-Civil War Alabama. Regardless of what I think about his views, I’m glad Mr. Moore shared so openly.

Of course, they’re not only his views. Of the 1,334,397 people who voted in Alabama yesterday, 650,436 (48.4 percent) voted for Mr. Moore. They thought he was O.K.; they wanted him to represent them in Congress. They not only thought his views were O.K., but also thought his character was acceptable. Mind you, in this 30s, Mr. Moore preyed on teenage girls. Yet he was only 0.75 percentage points away from winning a seat in Congress.

I’m glad for this particular election because it helps us recognize that such views are out there. Often, they’re kept undercover for fear of social ostracism. But they’ve been coming out in the open more lately, in part due to people like Mr. Moore and President Trump. But these men didn’t create the ideas; they’re merely legitimizing them and emboldening those who hold them.

It’s easy for those of us who have a comfortable middle-class life to dismiss or ignore the threats to equality and justice. It’s tempting to think those ideas have been discredited and the battle for justice and equality is over. But it isn’t. In fact, it will never be over.

Some people find support for such views in holy books, principally, the Christian Bible and the Koran. Others find it in tradition. Others find it in a longing for a highly structured society that would yield its principal economic benefits to them and “their kind of people.”

Regardless of motivation, these ideas are a force to be reckoned with. If left unchallenged, they will ascend in power once again. And whether they ascend or not, they are stronger today than most of us privileged white, urban people recognize or care to admit. Much work remains, that is, if equality and justice are guiding principles in your life.

The questions each of us answers, either overtly or passively through inaction, are:

  • Should a person’s future be defined, in whole or in part, by their sex, skin color or ancestry?
  • What are we O.K. with?

You may think the answer to the first question is obvious. You just have to remember that there are others who think the answer is obvious, too, but their answer is different from yours.

History tells us that humanity wasn’t given a playbook to follow. We create the rules for the society we envision and think is best for our particular situation and the values we embrace. It always comes down to, Who is writing the rules?

Quite a few Americans wanted to bestow Mr. Moore with the power to write rules. The question is, Are the rest of us O.K. with that? And, if not, what are we going to do about it?

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. 

Avoiding Terror

I’ve never been the subject of a criminal investigation. But I know people who have been — who lived in fear of being prosecuted and imprisoned. In a few cases, their worst nightmares came to fruition: they had to serve time.

One thing I’ve observed: when you’re the target of a criminal investigation and live with the fear of going to prison and having your life turned completely upside down, it instills pure terror. Even men who normally walk with a swagger and play the role of the strongest chimpanzee in the jungle melt into a puddle of fear. Terror works that way.

You might think this is an odd point to make to one’s granddaughter. But I learned something else along the way: the terror that I reference has visited sons and daughters from good families. One never knows who might cross the line.

There’s a lot of pressure to cross the lines these days. I know people in the business world who have crossed more than one line. Some were discovered by law enforcement. Most weren’t.

The pressure to “succeed” in America is intense. And the fear of losing one’s job can be pretty intense, too. It causes people to do stupid stuff — stuff that could land them in jail.

So I no longer think the terror of criminal prosecution is restricted to those who live on “the other side of the track.” I’ve learned that the odds of the getting caught and prosecuted are greater over there, but I’ve also discovered there is more criminality on the “good side” of the tracks than most people imagine.

Personally, I think it’s foolish to cross the line, to subject oneself to possible prosecution. But many people don’t share my concern. Many people are willing to take a lot of risk. I’ve kept some of these people from being prosecuted and from going to jail. But I’ve also visited some of them in prison.

Recently, we learned that our president is under criminal investigation (or at least that’s what he says). Based on what I know about his actions, he has reason to be concerned. Whether his concern has blossomed into terror yet, I don’t know.

It’s obvious, though, that his life and well-being are being affected. Unfortunately, when our president is under the spotlight like this, all of our lives will be affected.

I have no idea how any of this will turn out. I’ve gotten people out of worse predicaments than the president seems to be in, but, of course, I don’t have all the facts. Some of those facts may be helpful. Some may be damning. In any case, the spotlight that’s shining on this matter is unlike any normal case. Bright lights have a way of exposing dark corners.

If I could advise Mr. Trump, I’d tell him several things. First, stop tweeting. Second, stop digging. Third, stop acting so damn guilty.

People who make stupid decisions often make the situation worse by digging the hole even deeper. The president has been digging a lot lately. He needs to stop.

One way people often dig their holes deeper is by lying. It’s rarely a successful strategy. Indeed, it’s often the very thing that ensures things will turn out poorly. The president needs to stop lying. Unfortunately, it may not be possible for this man to do that. Lying has become who he is. This, combined with a deep-rooted insecurity, is usually a recipe for disaster.

As I’m sitting here this morning, Vera, I can’t imagine you would ever do anything that could put you into legal jeopardy. That said, I’m sure many, many parents and grandparents of future felons thought the same thing.

It’s quite possible you may feel the pressure to do the wrong thing at some point in your life. You may feel your job is at stake. Or your financial survival. Whatever fear or pressure may be present, my hope is that you will be strong and courageous and take the high road. Never approach, let alone cross, the line. Do nothing that unfairly injures another person or institution. Never put yourself into a position similar to the one our president has created for himself.

Terror is real. Keep it at bay.

Francis or Donald?

The meeting in the Vatican today brought opposites together: Pope Francis and President Trump. They’re not opposite in all respects of course. They’re both men. They’re both elected leaders. They’re both over 70, much closer to death than birth. They both oversee large organizations with massive resources. They both are adored by many. They both consider women inferior to men. They both claim to believe in God and the divinity of Christ. Actually, when you think about it, they have a lot in common. Yet they are very different.

One sees the world as full of children of God. The other sees everyone as either a winner or loser.

One lifts up the path of community and service. The other embodies the values of individualism and greed.

One stops his car to kiss the head of a disabled young person. The other mocks a disabled person to garner votes and amuse his disciples.

One builds walls. The other builds bridges.

One washes the feet of others. The other grabs people by their privates.

This is the choice we face, Vera: which path to follow.

The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of us choose a path in the middle. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the path chooses us.

We seek security in things and strive to have more than others, yet we cannot turn our back on the others.

We sense what is right and good, yet long for the comforts and security of riches.

We find appeal in the concept of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, but are appalled by the banality of some of our fellow humans and would like nothing more than to distance ourselves from them.

We simply cannot commit ourselves to go all in on either path. Perhaps it’s out of fear we’re wrong. Or perhaps our heart or brain simply won’t allow it. Or, maybe, it’s just that we weren’t lucky enough to have born into the right family.

Some of us have tried to walk the path of life straddling the two paths, one foot in each. We can’t commit. We find fault with both. Risks in both.

We want and think we can have both. But we find we can’t. At least not fully. Something has to give.

A troubled discontent sometimes settles in. Often, self-delusion takes root. We find theological and philosophical justifications for our compromises. We become blind to the hypocrisy that envelops us.

Meetings such as the one that occurred at the Vatican today are helpful. They force us to confront important questions of life.

It’s tempting to trivialize them. Or to turn our attention to other matters. But I submit we should not avert our eyes and attention too quickly. We should linger in the moment for a while.

It’s Hard To Stop Laughing On Days Like This

There will be bad days. But this is one of the good ones.

When President Obama was in office, the Congressional Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) so may times I lost track. Of course, it was all for show. They knew the president would never sign their act into law. It was a political gimmick. That’s all.

And then came along the big wind bag. He promised a simple, affordable replacement to the ACA. I knew it was a lot of hot air. I also believed he really didn’t care about the ACA or any replacement for the act. In fact, the evidence is pretty compelling that the only thing he cares about is himself. And perhaps his family.

In any case, all that hot air ran smack into arctic air today. The blowhard failed. Miserably. As did the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. They were unable to agree on a replacement to the ACA. They were unable to pass any bill. And they most certainly failed to fulfill their campaign promise — to repeal the ACA.

That could change in time of course. But for now, we (well, some of us) get to laugh at the circus, headed by the chief clown himself.

So, Vera, here is the larger point: it’s much easier to criticize than it is to actually accomplish anything.

In fact, it’s really easy to snipe. And poke holes. And ridicule. And demonize. And take hollow actions that entail no actual consequences. Or risks. And to huff and puff. And to make empty promises. But to actually do something productive, that’s a much harder lift.

What we’ve witnessed isn’t restricted to the world of politics. You’ll encounter it in the nonpolitical world too. People with loud voices but no skin in the game. And no ability to solve problems and make the world — or their company, other organization, or town — a better place.

Republicans are the teachers today. But it could just as easily have been Democrats. Or anyone else for that matter. No matter who the teacher, there is a lesson to be learned in all of this.

Try to be someone who gets things done and contributes, not merely someone who spouts off. If you do, you may not be able to get elected to the presidency or Congress, but I think you’ll be happier with yourself.