Two Simple Fixes

October 12, 2017

Two issues contribute to the decline of democracy in the U.S. Fortunately there are simple, common sense solutions for both. That’s unusual in this complicated world, and I hope you’ll share them:

The first concerns the outdated and increasingly unfair Electoral College. Instituted initially as a compromise to get the less populated slave-holding states onboard with a federal government, it was never a good bargain, and is now one that has significantly outlived its usefulness. Twice in the last 16 years, we have elected a president who lost the popular vote. That must never happen again.

A Constitutional amendment as a remedy is a tortuous and slow process that has a very slim chance of success. A simpler solution is the initiative to get states to adopt a law that forces its electors to match the will of the people by casting their votes for the winner of the popular vote in that state. Of course, the less populated states will not go along, but we really only need the swing states, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, and Virginia, for instance, to bow to popular will and enforce a real democratic election process.

The second issue is gerrymandering. The redrawing of State and U.S. Congressional districts has historically been “winner-take-all,” and it has never been pretty. Both sides have used the power of redistricting to feather their own nests, but sophisticated, big-data-crunching software changed everything beginning with the 2000 census. (One of the purposes of the census taken at the beginning of each decade is supposed to be the recalculation of populations to ensure that districts are balanced at about 700,000 voters each.)

Before conservative leaders squawk that this is a subversive Democratic plot, please note that in California, where independent redistricting is now a fact of life, it was Nancy Pelosi, the right’s favorite Blue Meanie, who led the opposition, since it was the Dems who had the most to lose. Politicians cannot be trusted to do the right thing. They have vested interests in the outcome.

The nonpartisan government watchdog, Common Cause (full disclosure, I am Chair of Common Cause Georgia) led that effort, as well as the efforts in the other eleven states that have taken the power of redistricting out of the states’ legislatures’ hands. Simply put, we are trying to restore to the people that which is rightfully theirs. Currently, representatives pick their voters. It is time to return to a democratic process where voters pick their reps. Visit CommonCause.org to see more detail and learn where your state falls in this important battle.

We are living through a moment in history that should make it plain to all that freedom isn’t free and democracy isn’t impervious to the devious plans of those who seek political advantage. Granted, staring at our smartphones, watching Netflix, and playing video games is more fun, but if we’ll invest a tiny portion of our time in educating ourselves about these troubling issues and their simple fixes,  we’ll all rest easier.

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The Russians Are Coming? No, They’re Already Here.

October 3, 2017
Yesterday in the midst of so much tragedy, I ran across a really disturbing Facebook post that was clearly intended to divide us. I won’t bother with the specifics, for that will distract from my purpose here, and will only serve that poster’s interests, which are diametrically opposed to our interests as Americans. It was in that moment of realization that the poster’s intent and origin became clear to me. It was a Russian troll, and he/she/it (who knows if it was even a human being?) was intent on stirring the shit.
I then realized that I (and you) have likely been arguing with these trolls for months if not years. Reflecting back on my social media life, I can recall specific arguments–ones I generally know better than to engage in–that, predictably, moved no one, and succeeded only in sharpening our edges and raising our temperatures.
That is precisely what they are geared to do. Theirs is a long game. A game of stealth. A hall of mirrors. They select politically hot and controversial topics and take a contrarian position. Mostly, they don’t care which side they argue. Their goal is to divide, it is not to win an argument, only to promote one. They have discovered our Achille’s Heel and are exploiting it in ways both obvious and subtle.
If on this tragic day you want to talk about gun control, they extoll the Second Amendment and question your fealty to the Constitution. If you want to talk about extending and protecting Second Amendment rights, they accuse you of being insensitive. They are not arguments you are going to win, and it is in the engagement that they win.
As my expatriated Russian friends who came West to make a good living and live a decent life know, their home country is a kleptocracy in the hands of a few ruthless billionaires and ideologues. The establishment there is not innovative in a commercial sense. Their only desire is to interfere in our representative government and free speech. But even in the Age of Trump, the USA will not succumb to their anti-democratic ideas.
But while they’ll never succeed in the open market of goods, services or ideas, they have been extremely successful in sewing the seeds of doubts about ourselves and our institutions. It is a kind of cynical Jiu-Jitsu. They use our own weight and our own freedoms against us. Our tradition–and passion–is in the arguing. In the pre-internet days, we relished a good argument with our fellow citizens. It’s an old and worthy American tradition. It is exactly how the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Bill of Rights were hammered out. It was a closed domestic loop, and interlopers were quickly identified and cast out.
While they may not build great cars or smartphones, one thing they have mastered is the social media hit-and-run. They didn’t invent the internet, but they know how to manipulate it. They show up in robotic droves, say things calculated to divide us, and disappear into the ether.
What you decide to do is up to you.
I, for one, am going to stop playing their game. I don’t wish to become paranoid or overly suspicious, but neither do I wish to be slammed to the mat by lending my own weight to their assault. Putin’s stated goal is to upset the balance of power. To destabilize elections (and whole societies if he can) here and in Western Europe by initially giving voice to our worst instincts, then giving voice to the retort. Anything to keep us at each others’ throats while they plant, spread, and promote fake news stories, knowing all the while that our legally sacrosanct–if completely nutty–websites that thrive on clickbait will pick them up and turn them viral. A sexual assault in Idaho that never happened; a child porn ring in DC that doesn’t exist. Child’s play when you know the Daily Stormers, InfoWars, and Breitbarts will play right into your hands.
So, I’m done. I’m no longer in the business–unwittingly or not– of providing aid and comfort to the enemy.
Author’s note: This was written October 2, 2017, in the aftermath of the Las Vegas Massacre.

Tell The Truth

June 27, 2017

A simple question for Republican senators and congressmen: why are you hiding behind empty promises—lies—when you tell the American people they’ll be better off with a plan that throws scores of millions under the healthcare bus? Why say your plan is better for the people it is intended to hurt? Premiums may or may not shrink, but if they do, it will be because they are buying less coverage. Why say that pre-existing conditions will still be covered? All we really know is that pre-existing condition coverage will be left to the states, and that, depending on your state of residence, you may or may not be covered. The only thing that is certain is that it will be expensive.

Look, if you’re dedicated to your ideology, don’t lie to cover it up. Wear it proudly. Put it out there as it is, and let the American people rally behind you if they will.

I know that shooting the messenger never loses its charm, but citing the Congressional Budget Office when they deliver estimates you like and then impugning them when their analyses hurt your cause is more transparent than you think. No one is fooled for long.

Tell the truth: you hate entitlements. You don’t care that the working poor, children, the elderly and the infirm will suffer for your ideological purity. Just say that you don’t believe in an America where the rich take care of the poor. Where Medicaid is an unjust burden on the wealthy and is delivered on a silver platter to the undeserving. Just say it and stop pretending that you’ve created a bill that won’t hurt anyone. Stop saying that your bill is better than Obamacare in coverage and pricing. Just say that ending Medicaid as we know it is a feature, not a bug. Pretending that your “fix” has anything to do with Obamacare (which could and should be fixed) is a blatant falsehood that dishonors you and your offices.

In addition to the CBO, doctors, hospitals, healthcare systems, insurers, and even the famously politically cautious, nonpartisan National Governors Association have all scored your bill. They find it, in the words of Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, “unacceptable.”

Try intellectual honesty for a change. You love to claim that the American people are on your side. Show your cards and let the chips fall where they may.

©Jon Sinton 2017

 

Sleight of Hand?

February 5, 2017

Is the Trump Administration, and Steve Bannon in particular, playing chess while we are all assuming they’re playing checkers? Or put another way, is Bannon a master magician, and are we the victims of sleight-of-hand? The recent immigration ban was so amateurishly conceived and executed that it has left some of us thinking it must be misdirection—a ruse to cover something they don’t want us to notice. Isn’t it possible that by creating such a storm of controversy they led us away from the real story: installing Bannon on the National Security Council’s Principals’ Committee—an unprecedented move elevating a non-military/non-elected official to the most critical foreign policy committee in government, while simultaneously downgrading the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the highest ranking military officer in the country), and the Director of National Intelligence, to occasional participants?

We all need to stay well informed since the administration seems to be smarter than they want us to think they are.

And You See, Here We are

November 13, 2016

Okay, I’m a little depressed. Have been for months—at least since Cleveland, when I talked to his supporters and realized logic and common sense had been supplanted by anger and fear, and that he was probably going to win. It became even clearer to me than when he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still win.

Of course, his simplistic solutions to our long-term intractable economic problems will not work. These are not “cyclical” changes brought about by Obama’s policies. They are, economically speaking, a “secular,” or fundamental change. The twin forces of globalization and automation have devastated the manufacturing economy. I feel bad for my fellow Buckeyes, and all of the middle-class workers in the Upper Midwest whose prospects, whose very lives, have been decimated by outsourcing and factory closures. But, as the writer Tom Friedman recently pointed out, more jobs will be lost to the micro-chip than to China. Solar is now less expensive on a per-kilowatt-hour basis than coal. The mining industry in Appalachia was devastated long ago, and not by policy, but by innovation. The great Pennsylvania and Ohio steel mills will not reopen unless he really does start a trade war, and that would be a pyrrhic victory.

Technological progress is tricky and irreversible. Its promise is always coated in poison for some group. Still, our march is forward, not backward, even if to our own oblivion. Somehow, we adapt. The Catholic church thought it would be finished if enough people believed Galileo, but somehow it survived not being the center of the universe.

Our President-elect remains manifestly unqualified. He’s the dog that catches the car, then has no idea what to do with it. Nonetheless, even though he will lose the popular vote by 1.5-2 million votes (a bigger loss than Romney’s or McCain’s) he won the Electoral College challenge, and now his success or failure is ours. I hope he is able to recognize the dangerous divisiveness of some of his followers and advisors. Jews, Hispanics, Muslims, women—all have been given good reason to fear. His apologists are blaming the media, but the truth is he said intemperate and divisive things. He embarrassed us in the world, and my worst fear is that he may not know that.

He is no Republican, so it is impossible to know what he’ll actually do, but to the extent that he is their stooge, they may well finish the wrecking job they began long ago with gerrymandering, racially inspired voter suppression, and court packing.
I’m tired of the fight, but I think they’re counting on that, so I’ll go chair the Common Cause Georgia meeting Thursday night, and we’ll keep the Progressive Voices App going.
They say it’s a great victory for the working class, but all I see is the next “What’s the Matter with Kansas” moment. Our brethren in the Midwest have been sold another bill of goods, this time economic instead of social. The working class has in fact been left behind, and they deserve better, and more than a Trump presidency is likely to bring them or the country.
As the sign above my dad’s desk said, “iiligitmi non carborundum.” We must not let the bastards grind us down.

Right Time; Wrong Guy

July 24, 2016

We have come a long way, to be sure, but after two terms of a black man in the White House, a time we naively believed meant that we were suddenly “post-racial,” a time that has been punctuated by the ugliest racism we’ve seen since the Sixties, it is obvious that for as far as we have come, we have a really long way to go.

I produce and syndicate talk radio shows and podcasts, so I spent the week at the RNC in Cleveland. I’ve never seen a more hateful group of people or a major political party so loosely tethered to reality. Early Tuesday morning I was with a right leaning radio host (whom I actually like as a person). The GOP/Trump reality distortion field was so effective, that he railed about the media and Hillary making much ado about nothing concerning Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech. I told him that the only fact in evidence was that she had, wittingly or not, spoken Michelle Obama’s words as if they were hers, and had done so without attribution—the very definition of plagiarism. He protested that what really mattered was that the evil media and Crooked Hillary were to blame. Obviously spouting the campaign line, he, and all the others who attempted to do so, were humiliated later in the week when the Trump associate who had cribbed the lines came forward and apologized.
Every speech was fraught with the darkness Trump hopes to convince us has engulfed our world. Hillary Clinton was vilified by nearly everyone who took the podium, and The Q rocked with chants of “Lock her up.” The head of the New Hampshire Republican party suggested that she should be “Lined up and shot” for treason (which caused the Secret Service to pay him a visit). So much hate. So much fear.
My worst fear is that while we have all known the game is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful, Donald Trump is the first office seeker to express the new found right wing populism effectively enough to win his party’s nomination. I suspect that Trump is exactly the wrong person at exactly the right time. We are kidding ourselves if we think he is unelectable.
As Tony Schwartz, the (real) author of the bestselling Trump book, “The Art of the Deal”, states in the New Yorker, Donald Trump is a narcissist and a sociopath whose gnat-like attention span is only elongated when the topic is him. That so many Americans find him appealing is the fodder for an onslaught of academic papers and books that are forthcoming. Let us hope they will be forensic in nature, and not commentary on a sitting U.S. president. Our country has been waiting for a populist strong enough to break the system. It is most unfortunate—potentially tragic—that Trump is the breakout candidate fulfilling this middle class wish. While it would be enough to say the system is rotting from the inside, and that we need new rules to restrict the power of the incumbent class, we have instead gotten a demagogue willing to use the divisive tools of hate and prejudice.
Right time; wrong guy.

Investigation or Fundraiser?

February 16, 2016

As this election season heats up, we should all seek a better understanding of Congressional inquiries. Let’s turn the prism, and see these hearings in a new light.

The history of the Congressional hearing is mixed. Sometimes, as in the case of Watergate, it was a high quality, public method of exposing truth. It’s wake was long and significant. A president was impeached and resigned before he was tried. Campaign finance rules and oversight ensued.

Sometimes, the Congressional hearing is just political theatre. Inquiries on Capitol Hill got at the facts of the Iran Contra scandal, but precipitated very little actionable reform. Sure, Oliver North went to jail briefly for lying to Congress, but the Reagan Administration was largely untouched and unrepentant (oh, and Ollie North became a hero to the fetishists of the Hard Right, and was enriched by publishers and Fox News, but I digress.)

Sometimes the political theatre has real and damaging results. Take for instance, the McCarthy Era, when one despicable Senator from Wisconsin was able to parlay the “Red Scare” during the Cold War into the wholesale ruination of many lives.

It was only when the Chief Counsel for the United States Army, in defense of a helpless young witness, famously confronted McCarthy with the immortal words, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no decency?” It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy, because the mantle was picked up by Edward R. Murrow of CBS news—this was back when TV news was a trusted institution—and Americans turned on Joe McCarthy, who was thusly forced to slink ignominiously into history.

Today, you can add a new wrinkle to the Congressional hearing. The Republican majority—the one that chairs these committees and has the power to issue subpoenas demanding witnesses appear before them—has a new strategy.

The hearings are raw footage for campaign television commercials. They are the body copy for mailers to the faithful, and fuel for internet-driven conspiracy theories for consumption by the indoctrinated.

At their base, they are show trials intended to keep controversy alive without substantive fact, all in the service of raising the life blood of reelection campaigns—money.

That’s right: they exist not to find truth, but to create compelling commercials, to ruin the reputations of political opponents, to keep the herd’s anger fresh. And, above all else, to fundraise.

Of course Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican, didn’t give Planned Parenthood’s president a chance to actually answer his questions. She was a just prop in his fiction about the selling of baby parts. And of course multiple Benghazi hearings haven’t yielded any new information. As the former Republican counsel to the committee investigating Benghazi admitted publicly last year, they were staged merely to hurt Hillary Clinton’s chance of becoming president.

I’m curious to see how the water crisis in Flint plays out in Congress. The fact that Michigan governor, Rick Snyder, whose appointee ordered the switch that has created an unprecedented public health crisis in a major American city has not been called to testify, is very telling.

Our job as citizens gets harder and harder. Now that we can no longer take Congressional hearings at face value, we have to learn to weigh the organizers’ motives, and decide for ourselves whether the outcome has value.

A War of Words (and Images)

November 19, 2015

The fact that ISIS out-messages us by reaching alienated young people online, and motivates them to acts of unthinkable inhumanity, is unacceptable.

They seem to own social media, and are lauded at every turn for their expertise in recruiting vulnerable young people who have lived a life of deprivation under the thumb of one dictator or another. Easy pickings, I guess. When you have no job and no prospects, most anything that gives you some power in a powerless world looks better than what you have.

I know it’s more fashionable to roll out the drums of war and talk about bombs and boots on the ground, but if our formidable advertising industry turned its sites on young impressionable potential jihadists, they just might be able to inspire a new generation of nation-builders instead of destroyers.

If you think it can’t be done, consider that our marketers repeatedly do the improbable. After all, they taught the world to sing in perfect harmony, got women to smoke a “feminist” cigarette and remade the VW Bug from Hitler’s proletarian-affordable vehicle into an American middle-class icon.

We can certainly turn our messaging–okay, propaganda–skills to the very social media where disenfranchised young Arabs and Muslims live, and fight the slick ISIS presentations with even slicker propaganda. As it is, we’re leaving some of our most potent weapons holstered.

C’mon. We invented the modern advertising game. It’s time we play to win.

Imagine the power of thousands of new teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, technologists and people of all kinds working toward building something they own and can grow, instead of strapping on suicide vests.

Are you telling me that we can’t be more persuasive on social media than the people who are motivating them now?

I don’t believe it.

Utopia Delayed

September 16, 2015

Man, there’s a lot of hate out there.

I’ve been thinking about the things that unite us and divide us. For reasons obvious and not, our differences are important, positive, even. Sometimes they challenge us to think differently and pave the way for innovation: my steam engine is faster than your horse; you may have launched the first satellite into orbit, but we will land on the moon before you.

Our differences also inspire our worst instincts: need I enumerate the ever more efficient ways in which we denigrate, impugn, accost, jail, maim and kill our fellow men? I think not, but if you need examples turn on the news. Anytime.

The Conventional Hate the Unconventional

Our disdain for our fellows knows no bounds. Monday, the Wall Street Journal had an article about the collaboration between Rolling Stone Keith Richards and drummer Steve Jordan for the new Richards album, “Cross-eyed Heart.” A reader commented that “somehow, successful degenerates” don’t make him feel “warm and runny inside.” 

In response, I wrote the following:

Good. 

You probably would not have liked Christ, Galileo, da Vinci, van Gogh or Einstein either. They were all successful degenerates according to the cultural norms of their times. 

Seers, visionaries and creatives march to a different drummer, create new standards for spirituality, art and science, suffer the remonstrations of their cultures, and not incidentally, remake their societies along the way. If they sought approval from conventional “leaders,” or sublimated their authentic selves to the whims of current society, we would all be poorer for it. 

Or, as Salmon Rushdie said, “The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas—uncertainty, progress, change—into crimes.”

That’s an example of the least destructive form of disagreement: an argument over art and artists. And it is proof that we will fight about anything.

My Ethnic Group Hates Your Ethnic Group

Blood is rarely spilled when debating the relative merits of painters or guitar players, but you don’t have to wait very long for carnage to ensue when the topic is class, religion, nationalism, or ethnicity. Sure, we could write a multi-volume book (we’d call it A Bloody History of the World) about the purges, putsches, assassinations, deportations, mass-migrations, burnings, bombings, and all out wars caused by religion and culture clashes, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just lump all those things together here, and say that where you live and how you were raised powerfully influence your time on earth.

In listening to the NPR talk show, “On Point” this morning, I was struck by the large conversation that is preceding the release of the buzz worthy movie, “Meet the Patels,” a docu-styled film about Indian culture generally, and arranged marriage specifically. It’s an internal culture clash that has some traditionalists saying they will not walk away from their cultural institutions like arranged marriages, and some younger, more Westernized Indians saying they can’t get away from arranged marriages fast enough. The discussion was primarily between Anglicized Indians and their parents in the old country, and it got fairly pitched.

Loud, and at times uncomfortable, at least it wasn’t violent, which is more than we can say for so much of our collective past. Whether Hitler trying to exterminate the Jews, or the sectarianism of ISIS Sunnis trying to exterminate their rival sect, the Shia, history is rife with examples of cultural cleansing of the “other.” Through ritual, suspicion, fear, ignorance, superstition, tribalism and religion, our species does not play well with “others.”

A friend loves to tell the story of her racist father’s reaction to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He cried to his daughter that he just couldn’t believe we had elected a black man President, to which she replied, “No, Daddy, he’s only half-black. You know, like your grandchildren are going to be.” Of course her sarcastic remark was made out of petulance and frustration, but a la Shakespeare, many a truth is said in jest.

Inter-Marriage as Salvation?

I have no empirical data to support this idea, but maybe, to cure most forms of bloody disagreements, we just need to marry one another. Common sense points us toward this goal, and at the same time predicts that we cannot overcome our innate suspicions and culturally derived prejudices, making the effort to save ourselves futile. If nothing else, imagine the beautiful babies! So pick a side: we save ourselves vs. we are doomed to destroy ourselves.

Maybe in our race with extinction, our only way out is to erase the biggest perceived differences. It would take many generations of marriages across cultural, socio-economic, racial, ethnic and geographic lines for us to become one color, one sect, one religion and one culture. And time is not even the entirety of the trick. The really hard part is to integrate the species without obliterating the useful and meaningful contributions that the disparate parts have brought to the whole. A cautionary tale might be the histories of two great nations: The melting pot that is America, a place of new beginnings and second chances where anything is possible, has spawned some spectacular innovation. Compare that to the cultural homogeneity of China that has bred out innovation in favor of conformity. I’m not willing to give up innovation for conformity.

I’m sorry to do this to you, but I have to leave this on a question, for I do not know the answer: Is it possible to live in peace and find motivation to innovate in art, technology, science and medicine, or do we have to be driven by our darkest selves? And are we likely to kill our species before we find a way to live together?

Modern Day Slave-Drivers: Amazon and the Culture of Individualism

August 24, 2015

Regarding the NY Times story on employment practices at Amazon, it is critical to note that Amazon is a public entity, and if its shareholders so choose, they can change the way things are done there and make it a more employee-friendly company. I suspect they like the ROI—not to mention competitive prices and fast, free delivery—and will do nothing, as is their prerogative.

But the societal change which underlies the Amazon employment environment is classic Art of War: as Sun Tzu proposed many centuries ago, to unite your people, create an enemy. It works every time you want to distract people from the truth. And the truth is, we have become obsessed with money over community. We might ask ourselves how and why this sea-change has occurred in our society. Why the individual ethic has trumped the all-for-one-and-one-for-all ethic of the Post War Era. Why it is that instead of hating poverty, we now hate the poor, labeling minimum wage workers who can’t support a family of four on two paychecks, “lazy.” And why, instead of hating hunger, we hate the hungry, and call them “takers” so the self-proclaimed “makers” can feel better about themselves.

And now, the Super PAC-class wants to donate without attribution—they want to control our politics, but leave no fingerprints. We’ve always valued disclosure as a field-leveler in politics, but now the structure of the 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations and their relationships with the opaque Super PAC’s has been engineered intentionally to hide their billionaire-donors’ identities. One answer, offered by Thomas Frank in his seminal book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, shines a light on the immensely cynical strategy the society-controlling one-percent (really, one-tenth of one-percent) foists on socially conservative Middle American voters, the good old bait-and-switch: promise them you’ll repeal Obamacare, abortion rights, gay marriage and loose immigration laws, then, when they elect you, focus solely on tax cuts for the rich and other breaks for the monied special interests.

In contemporary Europe, and, for what it’s worth, in Mid-Twentieth Century America, Amazon’s nasty employment habits, like shooing cancer victims out the door as uncommitted drags on the company’s productivity, would be shamed by the public, and contained by labor laws. Unless and until we regain some focus on society as a whole versus aggrandizing the super-wealthy we perceive as magically rugged individualists, we will see this kind push and pull.