Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Government Isn’t A Business

Here we go again, reinventing government.

Trump plans to unveil a new White House office on Monday with sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises — such as reforming care for veterans and fighting opioid addiction — by harvesting ideas from the business world and, potentially, privatizing some government functions.

The White House Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump. Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington, float above the daily political grind and create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements.

“All Americans, regardless of their political views, can recognize that government stagnation has hindered our ability to properly function, often creating widespread congestion and leading to cost overruns and delays,” Trump said in a statement to The Washington Post. “I promised the American people I would produce results, and apply my ‘ahead of schedule, under budget’ mentality to the government.”

[…]

Kushner proudly notes that most of the members of his team have little-to-no political experience, hailing instead from the world of business. They include Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council; Chris Liddell, assistant to the president for strategic initiatives; Reed Cordish, assistant to the president for intergovernmental and technology initiatives; Dina Powell, senior counselor to the president for economic initiatives and deputy national security adviser; and Andrew Bremberg, director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Ivanka Trump, the president’s elder daughter and Kushner’s wife, who now does her advocacy work from a West Wing office, will collaborate with the innovation office on issues such as workforce development but will not have an official role, aides said.

We’ve seen this before.  Someone running for office promises to run government like a business and get rid of all the red tape and bureaucracy.  It makes a great sound bite, but there are problems with the comparison.

For one thing, government and business may have similarities in terms of structure: they both work out of offices, they have a corporate structure in terms of chain of command, they have departments that handle various duties such as finance, legal, and public outreach, but there the similarities end.  Businesses exist to provide a product or service to a segment of the public and in doing so make a profit, thereby staying in business.  They don’t necessarily exist to serve all of the people all of the time and their most important product is a profit and a happy board of directors.  Governments, on the other hand and in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and the goal of that government is, as the Preamble to the United States Constitution succinctly puts it, “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”.  With all due respect to capitalism, that is not the mission statement of a business, and if it tried to do that, it would go out of business in a hurry.  That’s why we have government; to do the things no business should attempt or be expected to do.

The chief complaint of those in favor of running the government like a business is that government is slow, bureaucratic, and at times wasteful.  They have a point, but then this is a large and very complex country with a multiplicity of challenges and situations that face our most basic needs; getting essential services to the all the people both fairly and without endangering life and property isn’t like running a lemonade stand or even a Starbucks.  In my world, the task of providing elementary and secondary education to all the children of my county and meeting their needs is incredibly complex; it’s not a one-room school anymore.

And if there is anyone who is going to attempt to make government perform like a business, the last person who should be doing it is Trump.  His record of bankruptcies, shoddy and questionable dealings, and hyperbole in trying to pass off cheap crap as the crown jewels is well-documented and the stuff of civil suits.  If anything, he should be the first-year MBA seminar in how not to run a company if morality and honest practice are to be considered.

The best historical model of how Trump operates and probably how Jared Kushner would SWAT government is enshrined in business lore to the point that the very name has become a term for disaster.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Edsel.

Developed at the height of the fabulous ’50’s, it was to be the car of the future with styling and features to stagger the imagination and set the tone for cars to come.  Ford Motor Company invested millions of dollars in the concept, created a whole separate division, and built up the hype to the point that when it was unveiled in September 1957, the automotive world couldn’t wait to see it.

It turned out to be all of the above on a grotesque scale.  The styling was too radical — or laughable — even for the finned and chromed cars of the era, and underneath, it was just another Ford with a lot of features that either didn’t work or were just too much for the public who were still getting used to the idea of automatic transmissions.  Not only that, they weren’t very well built.  Ford, in an effort to keep costs low, built the cars on the same assembly lines as Fords and Mercurys so the people putting the car together might in their haste put the wrong parts on the vehicle coming down the line.

The car quickly became a laughing stock and furious efforts by Ford to save it by toning down the styling, cutting back on models, and merging the new division with Lincoln-Mercury failed.  A little more than two years after the Grand Opening the plug was pulled and the name Edsel entered the lexicon of America as a synonym for ignominious failure and a cautionary tale in business schools everywhere.

Given the record so far, I fully expect the name Trump to become the Edsel of government and a model for how not to run a country.

Stinking Up The Joint

Via the Washington Post:

President Trump will take the most significant step yet in obliterating his predecessor’s environmental record Tuesday, instructing federal regulators to rewrite key rules curbing U.S. carbon emissions.

The sweeping executive order also seeks to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing and remove the requirement that federal officials consider the impact of climate change when making decisions.

The order sends an unmistakable signal that just as President Barack Obama sought to weave climate considerations into every aspect of the federal government, Trump is hoping to rip that approach out by its roots.

“This policy is in keeping with President Trump’s desire to make the United States energy independent,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the directive Monday evening and asked for anonymity to speak in advance of the announcement. “When it comes to climate change, we want to take our course and do it in our own form and fashion.”

For someone who ran slamming China for all of their trade practices and currency manipulation, he might want to take a lesson from them.

The only jobs that are created by reducing environmental regulations are, ironically, in the field of healthcare, namely pulmonary and respiratory care.

The saving grace is that reversing President Obama’s orders can’t happen overnight.

Some of the measures could take years to implement and are unlikely to alter broader economic trends that are shifting the nation’s electricity mix from coal-fired generation to natural gas and renewables. The order is silent on whether the United States should withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, under which it has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, because the administration remains divided on that question.

Hopefully by the time they get around to doing any damage, we’ll have someone in office who can reverse the reversal.

Nowhere To Go But Up?

Gallup is out with a poll that puts Trump’s approval rating at 36%.

Trump’s three-day reading prior to Friday’s events was 41%. His previous low point was 37%, recorded March 16-18. His highest reading was 46% in the week following his Jan. 20 inauguration, and he has averaged 42% for his term to date.

Trump’s current 36% is two percentage points below Barack Obama’s low point of 38%, recorded in 2011 and 2014. Trump has also edged below Bill Clinton’s all-time low of 37%, recorded in the summer of 1993, his first year in office, as well as Gerald Ford’s 37% low point in January and March 1975. John F. Kennedy’s lowest approval rating was 56%; Dwight Eisenhower’s was 48%.

Gallup tries to put a shine on the news by saying that most presidents get better.

An encouraging sign for Trump, perhaps, is that all presidents whose ratings fell below 36% — with the exception of Nixon — saw their ratings improve thereafter. Clinton provides a particularly relevant example. His approval rating dropped to 37% in June 1993 but recovered to 56% by September of that year.

I think the difference between Trump and the other presidents — even Nixon — is that they were not perceived by the public, regardless of party, as being as openly and flagrantly loose with the truth and their perception of it than Trump.  Even at his worst, Richard Nixon didn’t pull off the whoppers that Trump comes up with every day.

It’s not just the lying and disengagement from reality that sets him apart.  It’s the perception that his policy goals are not the same as the country’s.  The majority of Americans want good health insurance that covers more people, not fewer.  The majority of Americans are in favor of an immigration policy that does not deport 11 million people and separate families.  The majority of Americans want to know if the last election was manipulated by a foreign power whose very name used to send people into fallout shelters.  And the majority of Americans voted for someone else.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Pulled Out By The Grassroots

Over the past few weeks I’ve been inundated on social media and e-mail by lots of groups asking me to call my local representative in Congress to vote against the Trump attempt to repeal Obamacare.  I did my bit; I had a very nice albeit brief chat with whom I assume was an intern who recorded my concerns (and noted my ZIP code).  I also responded to various requests for letters and e-mails with my usual pithiness, and of course there was this effort in the blogosphere.  Throughout it all I was pretty sure that while we’d make a strong effort, it would be for naught.  I was, like everyone, stunned when the bill failed to even get a vote in the GOP-controlled House.

So how did we do it?  Dave Weigel at the Washington Post looks at what killed it.

On Friday afternoon, as congressional Democrats learned that the GOP had essentially given up on repealing the Affordable Care Act, none of them took the credit. They had never really cohered around an anti-AHCA message. (As recently as Wednesday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was still using the phrase “make America sick again,” which most Democrats had abandoned.) They’d been sidelined legislatively, as Republicans tried to pass a bill on party lines. They’d never called supporters to the Capitol for a show of force, as Republicans had done, several times, during the 2009-2010 fight to pass the Affordable Care Act.

Instead, Democrats watched as a roiling, well-organized “resistance” bombarded Republicans with calls and filled their town hall meetings with skeptics. The Indivisible coalition, founded after the 2016 election by former congressional aides who knew how to lobby their old bosses, was the newest and flashiest. But it was joined by MoveOn, which reported 40,000 calls to congressional offices from its members; by Planned Parenthood, directly under the AHCA’s gun; by the Democratic National Committee, fresh off a divisive leadership race; and by the AARP, which branded the bill as an “age tax” before Democrats had come up with a counterattack.

Congressional Democrats did prime the pump. After their surprise 2016 defeat, they made Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) the outreach director of the Senate caucus. Sanders’s first project was “Our First Stand,” a series of rallies around the country, organized by local Democrats and following a simple format. Elected officials would speak; they would then pass the microphone to constituents who had positive stories to tell about the ACA.

[…]

The turnout for the rallies exceeded expectations, though their aggregate total, over 70-odd cities, would be dwarfed by the Women’s March one week later. More importantly, they proved that there was a previously untapped well of goodwill for the ACA — which had polled negatively for seven years — and it smoothed over divisions inside the party. Days after Barack Obama had blamed “Bernie Sanders supporters” for undermining support for the ACA, Sanders was using his campaign mailing list to save the law.

“It was the town halls, and the stories, that convinced me that people might actually stop this bill,” said Tom Perriello, a former Democratic congressman now running an insurgent campaign for governor of Virginia, with his career-ending vote for the ACA front and center.

My surprise comes not from the fact that it worked — we saw what that misshapen band of misspellers that made up the Tea Party could do — but that the Democrats actually pulled it off in a way that prior to this has not been all that effective.  Yes, of course we’ve seen Facebook and Twitter and e-mail blasts urging support for this or that cause, but they have always come up short on substance because, frankly, a lot of people pay lip service to the effort but when it comes to getting out the vote or the voice, it was always more Astroturf than the real thing.  But this time the real stuff showed up.

Beltway groups were helping organize the opposition, and did not pretend otherwise. But they were effective because they had actual grass-roots buy-in. Elizabeth Juviler co-founded an Indivisible group in the district of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.). “He’d never taken a position against the party,” Juviler said in an interview. “By all accounts, he’s an affable person, but he wasn’t accessible.”

The group, NJ11th for Change, birddogged the Republican congressman with two tactics. First, it held mock town hall events in all four of the counties he represented. “Thousands” of people showed, according to Juviler; all were informed of how to call his office. When the health-care bill was dropped, Frelinghuysen was besieged with calls. And on Friday, he announced that he would oppose AHCA. According to Joe Dinkin, a spokesman for the Working Families Party, there were dozens of stories like that.

“For the first time in a long time, a pretty sizable number of Republicans were more scared of grass-roots energy of the left than of primaries on the right,” said Dinkin.

It also didn’t hurt that a number of Republicans were against the bill not because they loved Obamacare but because they didn’t think the Trump/Ryan bill went far enough; there wasn’t a provision in it for pushing Granny off the end of the dock to reduce the cost of healthcare.  Be that as it may; the bill died and now Trump has moved on to some other squirrel to chase.

The only downside is that we’re all going to be getting tons of e-mails from the DCCC and the state parties to send in money before midnight tonight to keep on fighting.  It’s a small annoyance to pay for a very big win.

Who Tweets For Trump?

Steve M digs into the weeds to see who’s really writing those early-morning 140-character blasts.

It’s long been known that Trump doesn’t write (or dictate) all of his own tweets. It’s possible to determine whether a Trump tweet came from an iPhone or an Android phone by looking at it in Tweetdeck, and it’s widely believed that Trump’s more inflammatory tweets have been posted on an Android device, while staffers have written the more staid tweets on an iPhone.

But The Guardian noted earlier this month that very Trumpy tweets are now being posted from an iPhone — at the time of the Guardian story, Trump hadn’t used an Android in eleven days, for any kind of tweet. (There’d been pressure on Trump to give up his Android phone, a very insecure Samsung Galaxy S3.)

[…]

So maybe some of the tweets Trump doesn’t write are now being sent via Android. Trump aides know that we know the old pattern. Maybe they’re trying to mix it up.

This reminds me of the days of the Soviet Union when you could tell who was in power in the Kremlin and who had the ear of the leadership by where they stood on the observation platform of Lenin’s tomb at the May Day parade.

Pretty soon every media outlet is going to have to hire a Tweet Analyst.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sunday Reading

For The Foreseeable Future — Charles P. Pierce on how Obamacare became a preexisting condition.

You knew things had gone sideways when they locked up the House. The corridors that lead through the heart of the Capitol, from Senate chamber to House chamber, were still an unnavigable mass of tourists and staffers and journalists, all clustered by the walls and in unruly knots below the various graven images in Statuary Hall. The echoes were an impossible gabble of crying children, overmatched tour guides, angry parents, and television stand-ups from many lands. At about 3:30, when the voting was supposed to start, a small, tough-looking woman from the Capitol Police turned out the lights in one of the small foyers leading to the chamber. She swung the big doors shut and slammed the locks down into the floor. And that was pretty much it. Until, of course, Speaker Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin, took to a podium in the bowels of the Capitol and said the following.

“Obamacare is the law of the land for the foreseeable future.”

That statement should have come with a sword for Ryan to hand over to Nancy Pelosi who, let it be said, is one legislative badass. She somehow kept her caucus united. There wasn’t even a hint of blue-doggery from her caucus as it sat back and let the Republicans rip each other to shreds, let the president* get exposed as a rookie who should be sent back to A-ball, and let the conservative movement expose itself as graphically as it ever has as the soulless creature of the money power that it’s been for 40 years. Usually, there are some Democrats who either want to make a deal so that Fred Hiatt will send them a Christmas card, or simply because Democrats occasionally can’t help themselves from trying to make the government, you know, actually work. (That nervous tic already is at work concerning the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.)

There was none of that over the past month, while Ryan was trying to formulate what he gamely referred to as a “member-driven” process. That’s precisely what it was. The Freedom Caucus cultist had Ryan by the member and they drove the process over a cliff. Watching in that great Caucus Room In The Sky, Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson, and Tip O’Neill poured out another round and hoisted their glasses at what Pelosi and her team accomplished.

“Today is a great day for our country,” Pelosi said during a news conference. “It’s a victory. What happened on the floor is a victory for the American people—for our seniors, for people with disabilities, for our children, for our veterans.”

A strange week came to a bizarre conclusion. The way word first got around that the healthcare bill was dead was that the president* called Robert Costa of The Washington Post, told him “We pulled the bill,” and Costa then tweeted it out into the great maw of the universe, most notably, those precincts of it that had gathered in the halls of the Capitol. It is a remarkable political defeat suffered by a Republican president at the hands of a Congress controlled by his own party. George W. Bush got bipartisan support for his massive tax cut, Ronald Reagan for his radical 1981 budget. For a historical precedent for what happened Friday, you have to go back to the rocky relationship between Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Democratic Speaker O’Neill in the mid-1970s. Carter walked into the White House with a 149-seat majority in the House and an equally massive advantage in the Senate. Then, as essayist Walter Karp pointed out:

The Speaker’s knife has been busy since the Inaugural. Hamilton Jordan sent him, he claims, some inferior back-row seats for an Inaugural celebration, which may or may not be so; Jordan himself adamantly denies it. “I said to Jordan,” the Speaker tells reporters, “‘when a guy is Speaker of the House and gets tickets like this, he figures there’s a reason behind it.’ ” According to the Speaker, the President’s chief political adviser then replied: “‘If you don’t like it I’ll send back the dollars.’ ” To which incredible insult to the most powerful man on Capitol Hill the Speaker tells the press he replied: ” ‘I’ll ream you out, you son-of-a-bitch.'” Such is bonhomous Tip’s story, word for word, as it appears in the New York Times Magazine on July 24, 1977, by which time it is a twice-told tale destined for a not-insignificant place in the history books.

That was a simple institutional, insider-outsider brawl. What happened to the Republicans this week was different by an order of magnitude. They cored themselves out as a party. They allowed the most extreme element in their caucus to set rules that became untenable and would have been even if Paul Ryan was as good a Speaker as Nancy Pelosi once was. By the middle of the week, the bill was caught in an impossible whipsaw of political imperatives. To get the Freedom Caucus cultists on board, the president* and Speaker Ryan had to make the bill even more cruel and punitive—Work requirements for Medicaid? Men asking why they had to pay for some woman’s maternity care?—and, having done so, it scared the daylights over what passes for a moderate faction in the House Republican caucus. The negotiations bounced impotently back and forth for three days, going absolutely nowhere. On Friday, the White House took its ball and went home.

On Friday, the White House took its ball and went home.

“We were a 10-year opposition party where being against things was easy to do,” Ryan said. “And now, in three months’ time, we’ve tried to go to a governing party, where we have to actually get … people to agree with each other in how we do things.” Of course, since 2010, the House has had a Republican majority and a Republican speaker. There have been two of them—John Boehner and Ryan. The crazy caucus ran Boehner out of office and now, they’ve handed Ryan his head. Pro Tip: it’s not you, boys. It’s your party.

“I always thought the House was going to be the easier part,” said Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania. “I thought they’d run into tremendous difficulties in the Senate but I always assumed, given their pretty big majority in the House, that they’d be able to get this through. I also think all the people who showed up at the town halls, and flooded our congressional offices with phone calls, or in person, made a big difference. These were people who wanted to save their healthcare.”

So, it turns out that Butcher’s Bill Kristol was right, all those years ago, when he wrote his famous strategy memo advising the Republicans in Congress to do everything they could to derail President Bill Clinton’s try at reforming healthcare. Kristol warned that, if Clinton succeeded, then people would find they enjoyed having good health insurance and it would be impossible to dislodge them from it, and the Democrats would have a generational advantage the way they built one with Social Security and Medicare. At least Kristol made more sense than Ryan, who went on the radio and bragged that getting rid of a federal entitlement was a epochal political triumph of the same order as, say, the Louisiana Purchase.

There are still several ways for the Republicans to sabotage further the ACA. They’re still talking like automatons about buying insurance across state lines and about tort reform, as if either of those will expand coverage or bring down costs in such a way as to maintain a decent quality of care. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price is as extreme as anyone in the Freedom Caucus, and he’s in charge of the second and third prongs of the Republican healthcare strategy. Of course, it’s possible that the president* simply will blame Ryan or the Democrats and then move on to something else. The man has the attention span of a flea.

To be fair, the president* took the defeat rather better than I thought he would, which is to say he blamed the Democrats, repeated claim that the Affordable Care Act is gasping its last breath, and was so fulsome in his sympathy for Paul Ryan that, were I Ryan, I’d hire a food taster. Somebody’s going to pay for this. You can be sure of that. Meanwhile, as Paul Ryan said, Obamacare remains the law of the land. The Rotunda was still packed with tourists when the news came down and you wondered how many people there had somehow been helped by the Affordable Care Act. Maybe it’s that elderly gent looking up at the statue of Huey Long, or that kid in the wheelchair paused beneath Norman Borlaug. Obamacare is now a pre-existing condition, and a damned stubborn one at that.

Blameless — David A. Graham in The Atlantic on how it’s never Trump’s fault.

Speaking in the Oval Office Friday afternoon, President Trump surveyed the wreckage of the Obamacare repeal effort and issued a crisp, definitive verdict: I didn’t do it.The president said he didn’t blame Speaker Paul Ryan, though he had plenty of implied criticism for the speaker. “I like Speaker Ryan. He worked very hard,” Trump said, but he added: “I’m not going to speak badly about anybody within the Republican Party. Certainly there’s a big history. I really think Paul worked hard.” He added ruefully that the GOP could have taken up tax-reform first, instead of Obamacare—the reverse of Ryan’s desired sequence. “Now we’re going to go for tax reform, which I’ve always liked,” he said.As for the House Freedom Caucus, the bloc of conservatives from which many of the apparent “no” votes on the Republican plan were to come, Trump said, “I’m not betrayed. They’re friends of mine. I’m disappointed because we could’ve had it. So I’m disappointed. I’m a little surprised, I could tell you.”The greatest blame for the bill’s failure fell on Democrats, Trump said.

“This really would’ve worked out better if we could’ve had Democrat support. Remember we had no Democrat support,” Trump said. Later, he added, “But when you get no votes from the other side, meaning the Democrats, it’s really a difficult situation.”He said Democrats should come up with their own bill. “I think the losers are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, because they own Obamacare,” he said, referring to the House and Senate Democratic leaders. “They 100 percent own it.”Trump was very clear about who was not to blame: himself. “I worked as a team player,” the president of the United States said, demoting himself to bit-player status. He wanted to do tax reform first, after all, and it was still early. “I’ve been in office, what, 64 days? I’ve never said repeal and replace Obamacare within 64 days. I have a long time. I want to have a great health-care bill and plan and we will.”Strictly speaking, it is true that Trump didn’t promise to repeal Obamacare on day 64 of his administration. What he told voters, over and over during the campaign, was that he’d do it immediately. On some occasions he or top allies even promised to do it on day 1. Now he and his allies are planning to drop the bill for the foreseeable future.

It is surely not wrong that there is lots of blame to go around. Congressional Republicans had years to devise a plan, and couldn’t come up with one that would win a majority in the House, despite a 44-seat advantage. The House bill was an unpopular one, disliked by conservatives and moderates in that chamber; almost certainly dead on arrival in the Senate; and deeply unpopular with voters. Even before the vote was canceled, unnamed White House officials were telling reporters that the plan was to pin the blame on Ryan.

But aside from their role in passing the Affordable Care Act seven years ago, Democrats are perhaps the one faction with the least blame for Friday’s fiasco. As much as they might have wished to claim credit, the opposition party was nearly a non-factor in the wrangling. There was never any intention to design a replacement plan that would attract Democratic votes, in part because of the huge Republican margin in the chamber. The Democrats surely owned Obamacare before, but given GOP control of the House, Senate, and White House, Friday seems to mark the day that Republicans came into ownership.Trump’s quick disavowal of any role in the collapse fits with an emerging pattern: The president never takes the blame for anything that goes wrong. What about his claim that President Obama “wiretapped” him?  “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it,” Trump said during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week. “That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox. And so you shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.”How about his claim, during the presidential campaign, that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination?

“Well, that was in a newspaper,” he told Time’s Michael Scherer this week. (The National Enquirer, to be specific.) “No, no, I like Ted Cruz, he’s a friend of mine. But that was in the newspaper. I wasn’t, I didn’t say that. I was referring to a newspaper.”

The ruling by a federal court in Washington state against Trump’s Muslim travel ban? The work of a “so-called judge,” Trump tweeted, and even he preemptively dumped the blame for any future terror attack on the courts for a decision that “essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country.”

Trump’s approach to the presidency thus far has rejected the mantra of his predecessor Harry S Truman, who famously placed a sign on his desk indicating that he was the final decisionmaker: “The buck stops here.” Trump, by contrast, is quick to pass the buck.

Assuming the public accepts it, this choice has both upsides and downsides. On the one hand, it means that Trump is never to blame for anything. On the other, if he’s so irrelevant, why should anyone pay attention to him or take his proposals and ideas seriously?

The True Meaning of Nostalgia — Michael Chabon in The New Yorker.

I recently had a brief chat with a hundred-year-old Jew. His name is Manuel Bromberg, and he’s a resident of Woodstock, New York. Mr. Bromberg had written me a letter, to tell me that he had read and liked my latest book, and in the letter he mentioned that in a few days he would be hitting the century mark, so I thought I’d call him up and wish him a happy hundredth.

An accomplished artist and professor for most of his very long life, Mr. Bromberg painted murals for the W.P.A. and served as an official war artist for the U.S. Army during the Second World War, accompanying the Allied invasion of Europe with paints, pencils, and sketch pad, his path smoothed and ways opened to him by the presence in his pocket of a pass signed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, just like the Eisenhower pass carried by “my grandfather,” the nameless protagonist of my novel. After the war, this working-class boy from Cleveland rode the G.I. Bill to a distinguished career as a serious painter, sculptor, and university professor.

Mr. Bromberg sounded strong and thoughtful and sharp as a tack on the other end of the line, his voice in my ear a vibrant connection not just to the man himself but to the times he had lived through, to the world he was born into, a world in which the greater part of Jewry lived under the Czar, the Kaiser, and the Hapsburg Emperor, in whose army Adolf Hitler was a corporal. As we chatted, I realized that I was talking to a man almost exactly the same age as my grandfather, were he still alive—I mean my real grandfather, Ernest Cohen, some of whose traits, behaviors, and experiences, along with those of his brothers, brothers-in-law, and other men of their generation in my family, of Mr. Bromberg’s generation, helped me to shape the life and adventures of the hero of that book, as my memories of my grandmothers and their sisters and sisters-in-law helped shape my understanding of that book’s “my grandmother.”

Then Mr. Bromberg mentioned that he had now moved on to another novel of mine, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” and he wanted to tell me about another connection between his life and the world of my books: when he was in junior high, in Cleveland, Ohio, his chief rival for the title of School’s Most Talented Artist was a four-eyed, acne-faced wunderkind named Joe Shuster. One day in the mid-nineteen-thirties, in the school locker room, Mr. Bromberg told me, Joe Shuster came to him looking for his opinion on some new drawings: pencil sketches of a stylized cartoon strongman cavorting in a pair of circus tights, with a big letter-S insignia on his chest. To the young Mr. Bromberg, they seemed to be nothing more than competent figure drawings, but Shuster seemed to be very excited about this “Superman” character that he and a friend had come up with. “I have to be honest with you, Michael,” Mr. Bromberg told me, in a confidential tone. “I was not impressed.”

After we talked, I found myself reflecting on the way that, with his Eisenhower pass and his connection to the golden age of comic books, with his creative aspirations rooted equally in hard work and the highbrow, in blue collar and the avant-garde, Mr. Bromberg had been able to find so much of himself in my writing, as so many Mr. Brombergs, in various guises, can be found in the pages of my books. I think there are a few reasons that the lives of that generation of American Jews have formed my fiction. The first is that I have always been—to a fault, it has at times seemed—a good boy. At family gatherings, at weddings and bar mitzvahs, from the time I was small, among all my siblings and cousins, I always felt a sense of dutifulness about hanging out with the old people, enduring their interrogations, remedying their ignorance of baffling modern phenomena, such as Wacky Packages or David Bowie, and, above all, listening to their reminiscences. As the extent of my sense of obligation about serving this function became apparent, I was routinely left behind with the Aunt Ruths and the Uncle Jacks and the Cousin Tobys, not just by my peers and coevals but by our parents, too. Even to this day, at the weddings and bar mitzvahs of other families, you will often find me sitting alone at a table with an Uncle Jack completely unrelated to me, patiently listening to the story of the plastic-folding-rain-bonnet business he started in Rochester in 1948 with a three-hundred-dollar loan from somebody else’s Aunt Ruth, a story that all of his own relatives tired of hearing years ago, if they ever paid attention at all.

The dutifulness of a good boy is not, of course, the whole explanation. I’m not that good. The thing is, I have always wanted to hear the stories, the memories, the remembrances of vanished Brooklyn, or vanished South Philly, or even, dim and sepia-toned and far away, vanished Elizavetgrad, vanished Vilna. I have always wanted to hear the stories of lost wonders, of how noon was turned dark as night by vast flocks of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, of Ebbets Field and five-cent all-day Saturday matinées and Horn & Hardart automats, and I have always been drawn to those rare surviving things—a gaudy Garcia y Vega cigar box, a lady swimming in a rubber bathing cap covered in big rubber flowers, Mr. Bromberg—that speak, mutely or eloquently, of a time and a place and a generation that will soon be gone from the face of the earth.

My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.

More than ten years ago now, my cousin Susan, a daughter of my mother’s Uncle Stanley, forwarded me some reminiscences of Stanley’s childhood that he had set down just as his health was failing. Besides my grandfather, Uncle Stan was always my favorite among the male relatives of that generation: witty, charming, and refined, with a deceptively sweet and gentle way of being sardonic and even, on occasion, sharp-tongued. He was a professor, a scholar of medieval German who for many years was also the dean of humanities at the University of Texas. A Guggenheim fellow and Fulbright scholar, Stan was fluent in a number of languages, not least among them Yiddish; during his tenure as dean he created a Yiddish-studies program at U.T. He had been an intelligence officer in Italy during the Second World War, and was decorated for his service during the fierce battle of Monte Cassino.

His reminiscences—or fragmentary memoir, as I came to think of it—ignored all that. It was a delightful document, all too brief, a shaggy and rambling but vivid account of his early life as the son of typical Jewish-immigrant parents, in Philadelphia and Richmond. It featured memories of the godlike lifeguards and the Million-Dollar Pier, at Atlantic City; of stealing turnips and playing Civil War, in Richmond, with boys who were the grandsons of Confederate soldiers; of neighbors who brewed their own beer during Prohibition; of his father’s numerous unlucky business ventures; of his mother hauling wet laundry up from the basement to hang it out on the line, where, in the wintertime, it froze solid.

But what stood out for me most vividly in Uncle Stanley’s memories was the omnipresence and the warmth of his memories of his many aunts, uncles, and cousins, who seemed to take up as much room in his little memoir as his siblings and parents. In the geographically and emotionally close world they lived in, Stan’s extended family of parents’ siblings, their spouses and their siblings and their spouses, and, apparently, huge numbers of first, second, third, and more distant cousins, was just that—an all but seamless extension of the family he lived in. That’s how it was in those days. Somebody came to Philadelphia from Russia, and then his brother came, and then another brother, and pretty soon there were fifty people living in the same couple of neighborhoods in Philly, a kind of community within the community, connected not merely by blood or ties of affection but also by the everyday commitments, debts, responsibilities, disputes, tensions, and small pleasures that make up the daily life of a family.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t like that anymore. My parents moved seven times before I was seven years old, back and forth across the country. I had a lot of second cousins and great-aunts and great-uncles, and I used to see them—and be abandoned to their company—at weddings, bar mitzvahs, et cetera. Listening to those stories, I always felt a kind of a lack, a wistfulness, a sense of having missed something. Reading Stan’s memoir, looping and wandering as his thoughts were as he lay contending with his illness, seemed to connect me, briefly but powerfully, to all that vanished web of connections.

Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.

“Thank you, Mr. Bromberg,” I said, just before I hung up, not sure what I was thanking him for, exactly, but overcome with gratitude all the same, both of us aware, I suppose, as we made tentative plans to meet sometime soon, or at least to talk again, that the next time I called there might be no one on the other end of the line.

 Doonesbury — Black privilege.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Party Of No

And about time, too.

Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch ended Thursday on a confrontational note, with the body’s top Democrat vowing a filibuster that could complicate Gorsuch’s expected confirmation and ultimately upend the traditional approach to approving justices.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he will vote no on President Trump’s nominee and asked other Democrats to join him in blocking an up-or-down vote on Gorsuch.

[…]

In a speech on the Senate floor, Schumer said: “If this nominee cannot earn 60 votes — a bar met by each of President Obama’s nominees and George Bush’s last two nominees — the answer isn’t to change the rules. It’s to change the nominee.”

I think Merrick Garland is available.

Rest assured that the Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, will storm around and run to the microphones to call Mr. Schumer an “obstructionist” and we’ll hear the minions on Fox News carry on about how it’s the Democrats who want to keep anything from getting done in Washington which is why Trump won the election by an overwhelming majority.  And then they’ll smile and burst into flames from the irony overload accelerated by the gallons of rank hypocrisy doused on them by Karma.

It is way past the time for the Democrats to utilize the tactics that are available to every minority party on Capitol Hill that are either written or unwritten in order to put a check on the roughshod running by the majority.  When the Republicans were in the minority they did it very well, most recently when they declared even before the litter had been picked up from the first inauguration of Barack Obama that nothing he did would get past them without a fight because he was… well, there had to be something that was coloring their judgment.  Even if they agreed with the principle of the policy, they were not going to allow it to become law.

For the Democrats, the difference is that not only is it sauce for the gander time, they actually will look at what is being proposed by Trump and consider it on its merits, not just because he sent it up.  They will stop it because it is bad policy, harmful to a lot of people, benefits just a few, or poses a threat to what we commonly call “democracy.”

So go on, Democrats, and become the party of No, the obstructionists, and the naysayers.  And if the Republicans complain, tell them you had a good teacher.

The Art Of The Dud

Heh.

They blinked.

In a major setback for the Republicans’ years-long effort to repeal Obamacare, GOP leaders were forced to delay a House vote planned for Thursday as negotiations continued around the legislation. The delay comes after the conservative hardliners who have been resisting the legislation emerged from a meeting with President Donald Trump with no clear deal to win over their votes.

According to various reports, the floor vote on the American Health Care Act will be pushed until at least Friday, with a meeting with the full House GOP conference slated for Thursday evening, followed by a procedural vote to make way for the final bill.

As the White House negotiated Thursday with members of the conservative hardline House Freedom Caucus, more and more members of Republicans’ moderate flank came out of the woodwork to say they oppose the repeal bill due to the rightward direction in which it was heading.

The Republicans have the House, they have the Senate, they have the White House, and according to Himself, he’s the greatest deal-maker in history.  They have been talking about repealing Obamacare for exactly seven years since the day it was signed into law and they can’t even get their own right-wing to fall in line.

And when they do, the Senate will take one look at it, hear the hoofbeats of ten thousand Democrats ready to run against each and every one of them who voted to take back everything that everyone — even Trump voters — like about Obamacare and say Are You Fucking Kidding Me and run away from it like it was a toddler with a paint gun.

Oh, and when this miserable excuse for legislation finally screws itself into the ground, guess who they’re going to blame: Yep, you got it.  Obama.

Go on, have an extra helping of schadenfreude.  They’ll make more.

Thursday, March 23, 2017