All posts by Joseph Grosso

The Futility of Populism

On May 13 the Oval Office in DC was graced by the presence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban is known for his defense of ‘Christian Europe’ against invading migrants along with the accompanying ‘virus of terrorism’ and for what he calls ‘illiberal democracy’, which includes such initiatives as restricting press freedom, undermining judicial independence, and shutting down Central Europe University, while circulating some obvious anti-Semitic propaganda around its founder George Soros. Donald Trump, as could be expected, gave Orban a grander than most European capitals,

rambling ‘Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many way. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe, probably like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s ok. That’s ok. You’ve done a good job, you’ve kept your country safe.’ Then adding ‘I know he’s a tough man, but he’s respected and he’s done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration. And you look at some of the problems that they have in Europe that are tremendous because they’re done it a different way than the Prime Minister.’

Of course Orban is far from the first strongman to receive a red carpet in Washington. The list of such specimen who have gotten a warm reception at the White House is too numerous to count. The House of Saud has been an honored guest for decades. What brought the spotlight on this encounter is that Orban is mentioned as being part of a vast resurgent right-wing populism with which Trump himself is often grouped. Meanwhile days after Orban’s visit, the Brexit crisis finally brought down Theresa May with her Tory government in Britain still trying to square the circle on Brexit having already received two extensions in the process. Shortly after May’s announcement right-wing parties, including in Britain with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, made significant gains in the EU parliamentary elections.

Since the Brexit vote in June 2016 innumerable gallons of ink have been spilled on expanding right-wing populism, governments that bill themselves as everything from ‘nationalist’, along with its corollary ‘anti-globalist’, to ‘illiberal.’ Trump was elected in November 2016. Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency of the Philippines in that May. In Italy an alliance of the Five Star Movement and The League (formerly the Northern League) assumed power in May 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was convincingly elected in Brazil five months later. In Poland the Law and Justice Party won a parliamentary majority in 2015 (it previously was the largest party in parliament 2005-2007). Orban has been in power since 2010.

Like all narratives this one is prone to overstatement. On May 20, 2019 the New York Times had this on its front cover:

And in India, where the world’s biggest parliamentary election… the electorate seems poised to bring back Mr. Modi (Narendra Modi), extending the wave of victories by right-wing populists around the world… Around the world, it has become the age of the political big man, and no one disputes that Mr. Modi is the biggest force India has produced in decades.

Modi did indeed go on to win a landslide reelection on the back of Hindi nationalism and in the aftermath of a military confrontation with Pakistan. Yet Hindi nationalism has been building in India for decades and tension with Pakistan has been endemic since the partition back in 1947. Can a strong comparison truly be found with Trumpism in the U.S.? Such differences stand out between all these figures. Duterte and Bolsonaro were elected in the midst of very bad crime waves on ‘law and order’ platforms that emphasize ‘zero tolerance’ for alleged criminals and drug users. Both rail against ‘feminism’, ‘social justice’, and ‘socialism’ when convenient, which is often, especially in targeting the opposition to their bloody crime fighting policies (Duterte recently proclaimed he ‘cured himself’ of being gay, Bolsonaro publically proclaimed the importance of Brazil not being a ‘gay tourism paradise’). Immigration plays no part in their message. Bolsonaro pleaded ignorance on the economy, claiming only ‘superficial understanding’ and handing it off to University of Chicago trained economist Paulo Guedes as ‘Super Minister.’

Opposing Muslim immigration is the largest pillar of Orban’s and Polish President Andrezej Duda’s platform, their anti-EU rhetoric centering on negotiations during the migrant crisis of 2014-2015 and its aftermath. Their emphasis on sovereignty is in opposition to EU attempts to quota migrants. Orban’s government was successful in building a border fence along hundreds of miles of Hungary’s southern border. Orban also instituted a jobs program for his rural base, along with free school books, paid for partially by a tax increase. The Five Star/League coalition in Italy’s messaging also largely centers on anti-immigration, as does the appeal of the far-right Alternative for Germany which has made impressive gains since the migrant crisis. Trump too was elected on border security, with the same reactionary rhetoric about migrants, and he also brought a strong anti-free trade position to go along imagery about ‘American carnage’, occasional rants against political correctness, and appeals to ‘those were the days’ patriotism- infamously during the protests of NFL players during the national anthem.

Besides the noxious loudness of their collective personalities, along with perhaps the admiration of Steve Bannon, the one thread that runs through all of it is ‘anti-elitism.’ On the surface this translates to an obvious resentment of the influence that wealth has over governance. Trump ranted against the influence of Goldman Sachs, given the lucrative speaking fees it gave Hillary Clinton, before he appointed several Goldman figures to his cabinet. Yet the idea is vague and fluid enough to be extended in any direction.  Given this easy fluidity elites are those who favor everything from immigration to secularism to environmentalism to socialism. Hence the pejorative ‘liberal’ is often attached to ‘elites’ both for clarity and scorn’s sake. In fact ‘elite’ has more or less become a replacement for ‘liberal’, the elite aspect a sort of red meat to working class cultural conservatism- ‘not only do they think you’re stupid they have more money than you do.’

Predictively when it comes to practical results populism thus far has come up short. Bolsanaro’s poll numbers are in freefall and the Brazilian economy has flatlined. Duterte’s slaughter may be producing an impressive body count but history clearly shows that ‘wars on drugs’ no matter how brutal hardly put a dent in drug trafficking. Trump constantly railed against the U.S. trade deficit during his campaign. In 2018 the deficit reached an all-time high. While the number of migrants crossing the border has declined greatly since the early 2000s, the numbers during the Trump presidency have surged to the highest they’ve been in over a decade. In December 2018 the Italian government backed off its debt exploding budget proposals in the face of EU sanction threats. Currently it is toying with a pathetic ‘mini-bot’ (mini Bills of Treasury, essentially IOUs) program to reduce its debt. None of the ‘Euro-skeptic’ parties are campaigning to leave the EU and the recent EU parliamentary election, by no means the most significant of elections, more often a forum for simple protest votes, saw about an equal increase for left wing parties, such as the Greens, as populist parties. In fact the Euro-skeptics, such as Italy’s hard-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, often cloaked themselves under the banner of saving Europe rather than leaving. Hungary  and Poland have long been among the largest recipients of EU funding. Plus the European populist parties have their own divisions, primarily about the ‘Russian question’ with those parties in Western Europe, such as Marie Le Pen’s National Rally favoring warm relations with Vladimir Putin’s government and those in East cool to the idea.

The antagonists to the elites in populist imagery naturally would be the working and middle classes, any distinction between them simply blurring under the banner of ‘those who work.’ It is important to note that lack of distinction is due to the fact that this kind of producerism, defined as a conviction that the wealth produced in a society should belong to its producers, targets the allegedly parasitic poor masses just as much as it targets the rent seeking elites. The highpoint of the original Populist movement is often said to be the Omaha Platform which launched the Populist Party back in 1892. While the Omaha Platform properly railed against war and trusts there was the resolution that read:

That we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.

Much was made of Trump’s support from the white working class and though this proved to be overstated he did win his election through the Rust Belt. Much of the support from Brexit came from Britain’s deindustrialized heartland. In the context of working class displacement, low wages, capital flight, the endless quest for cheaper labor around the world for greater profits and shareholder value, the ‘globalism’ being railed against by the populists is simply another name for capitalism, hence the reason why these economic ‘nationalists’, who loudly wave the capitalist banner against the specter of creeping socialism, never quite get around to saying what it is they actually intend to implement. After all capitalists are perfectly free to argue that the elite doing what is in its interest is the key that unlocks prosperity for everyone but not to argue that capitalism is anything but elites ultimately doing what’s in their interest.

For instance, the economic power of China has become a pivotal issue in American politics. Indeed, if there is an actual proclaimed area of bipartisanship it is that China is an economic opponent whose progress has come at least partially, if not more so, at the expense of the United States.  A study by the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the explosive growth in the trade deficit since China’s entry into the WTO in December 2001 has cost the U.S. 3.4 million jobs, 74 percent of them in manufacturing.  Populists have seized on such numbers. An example comes from a piece in the New English Review titled ‘More Than a Trade War with China.’ There Brandon J. Weichert writes, under a subheading of ‘Death to American Manufacturing! All Hail China’s State Capitalism!:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the first round of free trade deals was signed between American companies and China that would eviscerate the American manufacturing sector and help build China’s massive middle class. It was during this period that China also became the workshop of the world…There is a direct connection between the collapse of the American blue-collar community due to deindustrialization and the propulsive rise of the Chinese middle-class. Meanwhile, the coastal enclaves in the United States, where manufacturing was not as important… benefited most. It was in these bastions of prosperity where the policies to push those industrial jobs out of the American Midwest and into China were made—and these coastal metropolises rarely saw the negative downsides of these decisions. As American policy was increasingly determined by a conglomeration of corporatists, globalists, foreign-funded lobbyists, and airy academicians…

Obviously the author has never been to coastal enclaves such as New York, where deindustrialization caused the poverty rate to spiral in the last 40 years, or Baltimore where the effects of deindustrialization continue to devastate the city. The author’s use of ‘State Capitalism’ is instructive, clearly meant to distinguish it from ‘real’ capitalism thus save capitalism from itself from the criticism. If meant as a pejorative about state subsidies it obviously overlooks the fact that the U.S., much of Europe, and Japan heavily subsidize their agricultural sectors. Much is also made of technology transfers that China has required in joint ventures with multinational corporations. This again is largely theater: Last year when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked countries on how well they protected intellectual property China scored above Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines. According to the Heritage Foundation annual index of ‘economic freedom’ the Chinese government intervenes less than American allies in India, Vietnam, and Brazil.

No threat of violence or death, nor certainly any concern for human rights, caused the global economy to make China the world’s factory, only the promise of cheap labor and great profit. Technology deals with Chinese partners were considered well worth it. As if global capitalism would bypass the country with the largest amount of surplus labor and the largest consumer market. In the end the Trump administration’s tariff war vs China won’t accomplish much in terms of bucking these trends, nor will the other populists succeed in stemming the underlying causes of the discontent they are exploiting such as uneven development, capital flight, and migration. However deep the populist moment goes it will pass. The contradictions of global capitalism will remain.

Urban Madness: Inequality and the Right to the City

The weekend edition of the Financial Times dated April 7/8 featured a story in the House and Home section under the title ‘Barcelona hits the Brakes.’ The story describes the negative effect of last October’s Catalan independence referendum on Barcelona’s real estate market. The Times cites data from the Spanish property website Idealista. During the summer of 2017 (Q3 2017) properties in the city gained an impressive 018 percent compared to the previous year. In Q4 2017, in the midst of uncertainty stemming from the referendum, the prices fell 1.2 percent, with the sharpest drop taking place in the priciest neighborhoods.

The most interesting nugget of the story reads like this:

Foreign buyers’ sensitivity to Catalonia’s uncertainty political situation bode ill for the city’s property market in the mid-term since they form an increasing share of the market. Years of steady appreciation has meant that much of the city’s stock has become too expensive for locals. Salaries have been stagnant says Encinar (founder of Idealista). ‘Today, when you ask local agents about business, they talk to you about ‘investors’ rather than ‘clients.’

Meanwhile in February the British Columbia Finance Minister Carole James announced measures targeting foreign buyers and speculators. Foreigners now have to pay a 20 percent tax on top of the listing value (up from 15 percent), and a levy on property speculators will be introduced later this year. Starting this fall foreign and domestic investors who don’t pay income tax in the province where the property is will pay a speculator tax of 0.5 percent of the property’s assessed value in 2018 and 2 percent thereafter. The government also vowed to crack down on the condo pre-sale market and beneficial ownership to ensure that property flippers, offshore trusts and hidden investors are paying taxes on gains.

The flashpoint for the legislation is Vancouver where foreign, particularly wealthy Chinese capital, has been driving double digit gains in property value. Media accounts report that Vancouver casinos and real estate have in recent years become vehicles for laundering proceeds for Asian high rollers and drug dealers with ties to the fentanyl trade. There were also two seasons of the very corny reality TV show Ultra Rich Asian Girls which followed the exploits of daughters of wealthy Chinese families as they shopped and partied around the city. With Chinese capital flowing housing prices in Vancouver have skyrocketed-in 2016 CBC reported that price of a single family home shot up 30 percent in one year to an average of $1.4 million even as the city claims that over the past decade the housing stock has grown by 12 percent and the population by only 9 percent. Toronto and Montreal appear to be on the cusp of similar transformations.

This kind of thing is happening in cities all over the world. In Lisbon a flood of foreign investment and financial deregulation has in the city center up 30 percent over the past two years. Yet the average monthly wage in Lisbon is about €850. Over in London research conducted for mayor Sadiq Khan revealed foreign investors are buying up thousands of homes suitable for first-time buyers. Of the 28,000 new homes built between 2014 and 2016 3600 were scooped up by foreign buyers with the majority from Singapore and Hong Kong followed by Malaysia and China. Last year it was revealed that an entire new 81 unit complex in Southwark (on the site of the former Heygate council estate) was bought by foreign investors while the same was true for 87 percent of Baltimore Wharf, a development on the Isle of Dogs where apartments started at £400,000. Accounts of Russian oligarchs living the high life have filled the press, at one point in 2016 campaigners connected to Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny organized London’s first ever ‘kleptocracy’ tour. Charles Moore, a former editor of the Telegraph, said a few years ago that London’s property market has become ‘a form of legalized international money laundering.’

In New York, early numbers from the latest Census Bureau’s Housing and Vacancy survey show unoccupied apartments ballooned by 35 percent in the three years since the last survey. Over 100,000 units are occupied temporarily or seasonally (74,945), basically meaning investments and vacation pads for the wealthy, or for unexplained reasons (27,000), no doubt a good number of the latter fit the former description.

According to data compiled by the firm PropertyShark, cited in the June 2014 New York magazine article titled ‘Stash Pad’, since 2008 about 30 percent of condo sales in large-scale Manhattan developments have been to purchasers who either listed an overseas address or bought through limited-liability corporations (a method favored by wealthy international buyers). The marketing firm Corcoran Sunshine, which specializes in luxury buildings, estimates that 35 percent of its sales since 2013 have been to international buyers, half from Asia, with the remainder about evenly split among the rest of the world. Data from the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey revealed 57 percent of apartments in the three block stretch from East 56th Street to East 59th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, are vacant at least ten months a year. From East 59th Street to East 63rd Street the vacancy rate is almost 50 percent.  Stretching it out further the Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the entire quadrant from East 49th to East 70th Streets are vacant at least ten months a year. This coincides with New York’s homeless population reaching an all-time high.

It is difficult to conceive a more absurd reflection of global inequality than the building of cities specifically for elite investors at a time when urban homelessness is spiraling. Indeed global inequality has reached absurd levels. According to Oxfam’s report An Economy for the 99%, since 2015 the world’s 1 percent has owned more wealth than the rest of the planet. The richest eight men own the same amount as the poorest half and over the next 20 years 500 people will hand to their heirs over $2.1 trillion- a sum larger than the GDP of India. While global development is slowly narrowing inequality between countries, inequality is rising within countries everywhere. The World Inequality Report 2018 reports the share of income going to the top 10 percent has increased somewhat in Europe, remained high in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East and has exploded in the United States, Russia, and Asia.

The city-as-investment dynamic is also a logical consequence of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, defined as an economic system of liberated markets, free trade, deregulation, privatization, and the withdrawal of the state, emerged from the economic stagnation of the early 1970s. Neoliberalism hasn’t been good at producing productive profits as the rate of profit has remained low. U.S. productivity growth is at its lowest level since the 1800s.However, if production is producing profits at a reduced rate where are capitalists to go to increase wealth? Get the state to cut your taxes. Break unions and freeze wages. Invent and expand creative financial assets. Buy back your company’s stocks. Build and invest in urban properties.

Since the mid-1980s corporations have become by far the most important buyers of their own stock. The dirty fact is that money cannot be made as fast by actually investing in production, meaning new plants, equipment, workers, etc., as it can by pumping up stock prices. The price-earnings (P/E ratio) measures a company’s current share (i.e. stock) price relative to its per share earnings. Since the mid-1930s the median P/E ratio for the Standard & Poor 500 stock index is 17. It currently stands at about 25. Another metric is the CAPE index, ‘cyclically adjusted price-earnings’. It measures real earnings per share over a 10 year period and corrects for inflation. The historic median is 16. Currently it is at just almost 33.

For the U.S. this has caused inequality to explode. The World Inequality Report 2018 breaks down American income growth by selected percentile from 1980-2014. Income for the bottom 20 percent of the population grew by a mere 4 percent over that period. The bottom 50 percent grew at only 21 percent, less than 1 percent a year. The top 10 percent grew 113 percent, the top 1 percent grew 194 percent, the top .001 by 423 percent, the top .0001 by 616 percent.

As the planet grows more unequal it grows more urban. For the first time in history the world’s urban population outnumbers the rural population. Cities have absorbed about two-thirds of global population growth since 1950. In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with more than one million inhabitants. As of 2016 there were 512 such cities, by 2030 there will be an estimated 662. Urbanization spans a vast gulf from the very wealthy neighborhoods of ‘International’ cities such as Shanghai, London, and New York to teeming slums all over the global South. Around one billion people, or roughly 1 in 8 people worldwide, live in slums. In this period cities have emerged as a key part of capital accumulation, absorbing surplus capital and labor. Gentrification has transformed from a local process, even an exception to urban disinvestment, to the pillar of global urban planning.

This inevitably makes the Right to the City movement of paramount importance to the International Left. The struggle against gentrification in London and San Francisco is easily linked to the struggle against displacement, and for basic human needs, in the pueblo jovens of Lima and favelas of Rio de Janairo. At bottom is the right for people to exist in space and time. This goes far beyond just an individual right to the resources a city contains. Since the process of urban change is a collective one, thus is the right to the city. Geographer David Harvey was surely correct when he wrote that ‘the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold.’

This never will be easy.  As inequality deepens and urbanization expands, state militarization grows with it. Stephen Graham, in his important book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Humanism, shows boomerang effect of the War on Terror on policing in Western cities. Drones are now involved in crime patrol. Security Zones, based on efforts to build Green Zones in Baghdad, are prominent in big cities. Temporary Security Zones are set up around sports events and political conventions. Since the 1990s over $5 billion worth of surplus military equipment has been transferred to police departments across the country.  During the Obama years, before limits were put in place which have since been rescinded by the Trump administration, police departments received tens of thousands of machine guns, thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment, along with hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft. The number of SWAT teams has skyrocketed since the 1980s. Originally established to deal with hostage situations and heavily armed criminals, SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times a year, mainly for drug searches (well glamorized by the CBS show S.W.A.T.). There was a glimpse of these possible confrontations with social movements during the protests against police brutality in Ferguson in 2014. There is no reason to expect these trends will cease and every reason to think they will expand.

Such is the specter that justice movements may have to confront in the future. Still, future social revolutions will be in cities or nowhere.

The King and the Court Jester: Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump

It is interesting to ponder how historians a century from now will analyze the day-to-day reality of the Trump years. From the tedious everyday hissy fits on Twitter, the endless, boisterous self-glorification, the moment-by-moment interpretation and arguing about a president’s very words and motives by cable news talking heads, even the future Gore Vidals or Mary Renaults may have a hard time encapsulating it all. Of course there is already shelves worth of books about just how an obvious, oft-sued charlatan rose to the presidency in the first place. These themes have been repeated ad nauseam from immigration, to deindustrialization, Clinton fatigue, gay marriage, postmodernism, the cult of celebrity, etc.

Then there is the lurking idea of bruised masculinity. For all his diatribes about his many accomplishments and ranting about the injustice of fake news, if there’s one thing Trump wears on his sleeve above all else it’s the insecurity that he isn’t all that he’s cracked up to be. It’s quite pathetic to listen to Trump witlessly call every critic a ‘loser’, refer almost daily to ‘falling ratings’, ‘failing’ newspapers, while all along desperately pleading for affection a scrap of affection from the establishment he claims to be overturning.

Now take an anecdote from Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. Green briefly describes Bannon’s failed effort to build a business around selling virtual goods inside video games. While that failed Bannon, himself a thrice divorced misfit, stumbled upon an epiphany:

An underworld he hadn’t known existed that was populated by millions of intense young men (most gamers were men) who disappeared for days or even weeks at a time in alternate realities. While perhaps not social adepts, they were smart, focused, relatively wealthy, and highly motivated about issues that mattered to them…

If you trace backward from Trump’s election, it doesn’t take long before you encounter online networks of motivated gamers and message-boards denizens such as those who populate Trump-crazed boards like 4chan, 8chan, and reddit.

David Frum, George W. Bush’s former speechwriter now one of the few remaining Never-Trump conservatives, goes on to expand about the implications of this in Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. Noting that non-college young men out of work have reported playing 8.6 hours of video games a week, more than double from before the recession, Frum writes:

The observation about sexual frustration was astute. Millennials were having less sex than their elders. The percentage of people in their twenties neither married nor cohabiting rose from 52 percent in 2004 to 64 percent in 2014…

Despite the agitations and anxieties of their disapproving elders, millennials are not doing much “hooking up”: in the 2015 and 2016 General Social Surveys sponsored by the federal government, the percentage of people under age twenty-five with zero sexual contacts since turning eighteen had spiked to levels not seen since before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

If disaffected, sexually repressed white men found their political champion in Trump, perhaps it was inevitable that their philosopher would emerge at the same time: so here is Jordan Peterson. Peterson’s, a professor at the University of Toronto, claim to fame is vocally resisting Canada’s Bill C-16, passed by the Canadian Parliament in June 2017, that added gender identity or expression to Canada’s discrimination laws. Peterson particularly objected to the idea of gender neutral pronouns. His resistance made him a Youtube sensation where his lectures have drawn around 40 million views. Some of these are drawn out talks about Classical texts, others portend to give stern life advice, however the most popular videos by far feature the very eccentric Paterson railing about Islam, identity politics, and most of all what he terms ‘neo-Marxist postmodernists’, a completely meaningless term outside of Peterson’s brain. For Peterson the narrative is ‘identity politics’ emerged in universities in the late 1960s as a convenient absorbent for when he claims the idea of Communism was finally discredited. Therefore communism then, identity politics now, Marxists to Neo-Marxist postmodernists and the unceasing war for civilization rages on- as if actual Marxists paid no attention to the plight of women or minorities at any prior point. While Peterson lacks Trump’s bombastic gift of babbling showmanship, in intense moments Peterson can dial up outraged corniness to a level that is at times humorous.

Like Trump, Peterson will also be famous for releasing a bestselling self-help book. Trump’s, of course, was The Art of the Deal, a silly work whose real author has spent his recent days shouting about just how much Trump is a sinister creep. Peterson’s new book has a somewhat more typical self-help title of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Released on the heels of an interview, where Peterson appeared to get the better of TV newswoman Cathy Newman, going viral, Peterson has gotten recent plugs from David Brooks in the New York Times and Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. Brooks acknowledges the general banality of Peterson’s advice but also claims ‘At some level Peterson is offering assertiveness training to men whom society is trying to turn into emasculated snowflakes…and for millions of young men, it turns out to be the perfect antidote to the cocktail of coddling and accusation in which they are raised.’ All this babying, of course, taking place in a country with the highest rates of incarceration, capital punishment, police killings, and poverty in the Western world. For her part Noonan was only slightly more cliché: ‘We live in a time when so many young (and not so young) people feel lost, unsure of how they should approach their lives, or life in general, Mr. Peterson talks about the attitudes that will help find the path.’

In truth Peterson’s writing isn’t terrible. The opening chapter has an interesting take on lobster behavior, how serotonin levels rise and fall depending on the result of lobster confrontations. That 350 million years of evolution separate lobsters and Homo sapiens is no reason to dismiss Peterson’s Rule #1 and ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back.’ Rule #5 seems to offer useful advice to parents in ‘Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.’ Far from loving unconditionally, parents’ instinct is for tyranny and being much stronger than their children there’s risk of parental revenge. Provide enough discipline in advance to avoid the temptation. The relief of children echoes.

The thing with self-help boilerplate, oddly missed by its many readers, is that when one has read a single self-help manual one has read them all. After all, how helpful could a self-help book be if one feels compelled to read another so soon after as is the case for most self-help readers (speaking as a public librarian it can be said without hesitation the self-help books get much more action than the poetry section).

Whether it is the outright kooky, such as much sold, Oprah endorsed The Secret or A New Earth, or the phony rebellious in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, or the infinite list of titles with whatever number of rules or steps to attain personal nirvana, the thread that ties them all is the same. Besides being generally full of shit, the whole self-help industry deliberately wears the banner of political neutrality, which for all its mantra of change this invariably makes it a status quo force, meaning a conservative one. It reinforces the myth of rugged individuality essential for social Darwinism.

Is workforce participation low? Think happy thoughts for positive attraction or follow Peterson’s Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone is today. Are opioids wrecking your neighborhood? Rule 6: Set your own house in order before you criticize the world. Is all the wealth flowing to the elite? No need to complain for those are the winners in the Hobbesian battle Peterson puts forward as basic reality and anyway life is suffering so learn to suffer like a man.

For the wretched in the Age of Trump, it’s probably the right tonic.

Rage Against the Machine: A War vs. Consensus

The wittiest line in the latest installment of an increasingly banal Star Wars franchise comes from codebreaker DJ, who Finn, reformed storm-trooper turned rebel, and his companion Rosie encounter in a prison in a wealthy Las Vegas type resort town whose inhabitants we are told got wealthy exploiting workers of mining colonies then using the mined materials to sell weapons to the dreaded First Order. Observing the despair emerging in Finn upon finding evidence that some of the town’s largess also comes from selling space-fighters to the rebels with whom Finn has cast his lot, DJ advises Finn ‘It’s all a machine partner. Live free, don’t join.’

It can be comical to observe the lengths that much of the American public, particularly its Liberal end, go to avoid facing this observation. On December 26th the Washington Post featured a story titled ‘Democrats build a case against tax bill but don’t call for repeal.’  The article featured Bernie Sanders’ answer to CNN ‘s Jake Tapper’s question regarding the Tax Policy Center estimate that next year 91 percent of middle-income Americans will receive some tax break. Sanders response: ‘Yes it is a very good thing. That’s why we should have made the tax breaks for the middle class permanent.’ Senator Joe Manchim (D-WV) explained his opposition to the saying ‘I was for lowering the corporate taxes from 35 to 25.’ The rates referenced to there apparently are meant distinguish from the 21 percent rate that ended up in the bill, and the 28 percent that Obama called for as president (Obama wanted 25 percent for manufacturers); Defensible perhaps but a far cry from the Armageddon rhetoric of Nancy Pelosi and others in the preceding weeks. Left out of any current Democratic dissent is the question of whether tax cuts were needed at all, nor any reference to the fact that most large corporations were paying nowhere near the prior 35 percent and most likely won’t be paying even the new 21 percent.

This is hardly limited to taxes. Step back from the incessant tweeting about the NFL and other harebrained shenanigans and policy-wise the Trump administration has been standard Republican-fare. Foreign policy-wise it could be simply called American. For generations American policy in the Middle East has centered on three pillars: The Israeli government, the House of Saud, and the Egyptian military. Recall the idiotic notion embraced by neocons and ‘liberal interventionists’ that the invasion of Iraq would establish another, friendlier source of oil and diplomacy in the region thereby liberating the U.S. from its relationship with the House of Saud. George W. Bush certainly didn’t move a millimeter in such a direction. Much as made of the slight halt in arms transfers to Saudi Arabia by the Obama administration in December 2016 in response to civilian casualties. However Obama was already long supporting the Saudis in Yemen, including intelligence and refueling of bombers, and was still sending the majority of scheduled arms shipments while vetoing legislation that allowed 9/11 victim’s families to sue the Saudi government (Congress overrode the veto). Back in 2002 Obama referred to the House of Saud as a ‘so-called ally’. As president his administration sold the Saudi government $112 billion worth of weapons over its eight years. Trump blabbered similar tidings in his campaign. Apparently all it took was a bit of pomp and circumstance on a visit to the kingdom for him to flip and approve a $110 billion arms sale, many of the details of which were established under Obama.

Trump may have taken a plunge of sorts by declaring the American embassy will be moving to Jerusalem. However this has long been obvious American intent.  For the first speech of his 2008 campaign Obama went before AIPAC and declared ‘Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.’ During Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign way back in 1992 he attacked Bush senior for having ‘repeatedly challenged Israel’s sovereignty over a united Jerusalem.’ In 1995 the Jerusalem Embassy Act passed both houses of Congress by wide margins. Years later George W. Bush would attack Clinton for failing to announce the move.

The high point of Obama’s foreign policy was his removal of support for Hosni Mubarak as the Arab Spring of 2010-2011 was unfolding. Egypt’s military government has long been the second largest recipient of American aid. Yet within a few years hope for democracy was crushed and aid was restored to a military government after a brief pause. The Trump administration announced over the summer it was withholding a small amount of aid over human rights concerns but the majority of the aid is still flowing while Trump has spoken glowingly about the current military man Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Looking beyond the Middle East there’s the always curious case of Russia. Mitt Romney’s 2012 declaration of Russia as America’s greatest geopolitical adversary drew mockery from Obama and liberals about reliving the Cold War. The present day has seen liberal hysteria about $100,000 worth of Russian Facebook ads that allegedly had a hand in swinging the last election to Trump. Much more attention has been paid to that $100,000 than the hundreds of millions dished out overall as if it could possibly have been decisive. Liberals are searching every nook for treason. Meanwhile many a hawkish conservative has softened their approach to Russia (Victor Davis Hanson); others have always had a soft-spot for Putin (Rudy Giuliani, Pat Buchanan).

In 2009 the Obama administration worked to legitimize the coup government in Honduras after the overthrow of a democratically elected president. Today in Honduras the Trump administration recognizes the results of an obviously rigged election in favor of a reactionary incumbent who only stood for reelection due to a corrupt Supreme Court changing the Constitution to allow it- exactly the official and false justification for 2009 coup.

It was Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress that deregulated the finance industry. Clinton signed NAFTA. George W. Bush signed CAFTA-DR. A Republican controlled Senate voted to give Obama fast-track trade authority in 2015 to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Bipartisanship was all over the bank bailouts extending from the end of the Bush years to the beginning of Obama’s term.

It is the system that counts, the system and its power brokers, insiders, corporate and military interests, and intellectual underpinnings, much more than whatever politicians are its public face at a given moment. During Obama’s first term the one percent captured over 90 percent of economic growth. Certainly Obama was never hesitant to take Wall Street money, an attitude he has carried to his post-presidential life. However there is no real reason to think he carries any special affinity for the masters of the universe. He simply inherited and presided over an economy based on financialization, rent-seeking, and low wages, the roots of which long preceded his presidency.

Look at it from the other direction: Richard Nixon was as slimy a reptilian as ever to grace the Oval Office. Yet in between bombing Cambodia, orchestrating Allende’s assassination, and spewing foul mouthed anti-Semitism for posterity, Nixon signed an amendment to the Fair Labor Standard Act that raised wages, created the EPA, indexed Social Security for inflation, and imposed price controls. No less a figure than Noam Chomsky calls Nixon the last liberal president.  Should all this chocked up to virtue? By no means, the country was simply more liberal in many ways during the Nixon years. What it proves is that supportable policy can spring from the foulest waters if the right environment exists.

Imagine if all the energy spent on outrage at Trump’s latest buffoonery was put into taking on Big Pharma or establishing public banks to weaken the power of the financial industry. Or pushing the government to Fair trade policies or real full employment. While this latest tax bill is largely another giveaway to the elite it does provide an interesting seed worth exploring. In order to limit the deficit increase resulting from the tax cut Republicans attacked real estate in Blue States, limiting the mortgage deduction for new mortgages to $750,000, down from $1 million. The Left could argue it should be lowered much further, cut in half at least, perhaps even outright eliminated. The real estate industry has long been the largest recipient of government subsidy and probably the most powerful lobby. The mortgage deduction itself has cost about $100 billion a year, much of which has subsidized McMansions and second homes. It’s a pillar of the ‘homeowners’ society’ and suburban sprawl that by design has been a bedrock of conservativism.  Reforming housing policy and a hard push for public transportation infrastructure could accelerate the long process of making the suburbs greener and more urban, i.e. more progressive. With capital these days flowing to gentrified cities many suburbs have become poorer making the fight even nobler.

As it stands now, even if the unlikely liberal wet dream of a Trump impeachment actually comes to pass, the theocratic Mike Pence will simply assume office. No doubt cities like New York and Boston will initially erupt in celebration. But should it really be that long before the realization dawns that the real work remained ongoing?

 

 

Guns, Drugs, and Suicide: Death in America

The routine has become as surreal as it is banal: a pharmaceutical laced white male opens fire with a high capacity gun in a crowded space for the express purpose of slaughtering his fellow homo sapiens. Liberals strike up the chorus for futile ‘gun control’ measures. Conservatives chastise Liberals for ‘politicizing’ tragedy and rush under the banner of lamentations and prayers. For all the hand wrangling, it could be said the nonpolitical sack cloth and ashes bit is an improvement over the politics that would have emerged had the Vegas shooter been a Muslim, a black man, or a migrant from Central America.

Liberals, while acknowledging that none of their proposals would have prevented the Las Vegas massacre, insist on the need to do something about guns. Certainly there are facts on their side. The October issue of Scientific American refers to dozens of careful studies have revealed that more available guns are linked to more violent crime. What liberals generally miss is the overall context. Two thirds of American gun deaths are suicides. According to a 2016 study by a National Center for Health Statistics the overall suicide rate for Americans rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014 with the most dramatic rise starting in 2006. Much of the increase is due to middle-aged white Americans- suicides by middle aged white women increased by 80 percent.  These are just part of the despair wave of opiates, alcohol poisoning, and obesity described by Princeton University’s Anne Case and Agnus Deaton that has raised the mortality rate for white working class.

By no means does the white working class have a monopoly on despair. The same study that found the increase in white working class suicide found that the largest increase in suicides belongs to American Indians where the numbers were an almost 90 percent increase for women and nearly 40 percent for men. The black working class has long been long been brutalized by a combination of segregation, deindustrialization, and draconian ‘broken windows’ policing.  The stagnant ghettos created by all that were perfect cauldrons for violence. The underlying problem of all forms of gun violence is economic, guns are the cultural manifestation.

Suicide being a largely impulsive act gun control measures like mandatory waiting periods, trigger locks in homes, and permit requirements can go some ways towards stemming the tide but certainly wouldn’t alleviate the motivation. Holding one’s breathe for even these measures isn’t advisable. If federal gun control is dead, it’s on the state level where its corpse has truly rotted. 41 of 50 states are currently ‘shall issue’ states, meaning those legally able to buy a gun cannot be denied a concealed-carry permit. About a dozen of these states do not even require a permit. If concealed carry makes the stomach queasy don’t overlook the 44 states that allow open carry, that is not concealed, in full public view- 30 states allow that without a permit.  Scores of states have passed laws that explicitly allow loaded guns to be brought into bars or restaurants that serve alcohol. None of this figures to be undone any time soon.

Acknowledging that one still doesn’t need to have patience with gun fanatics who claim that gun control is impossible in a nation awash with 300 million guns when the very policies they advocate are directly responsible for that very reality. Nor with the inherent corollary: if Trump can be said to represent anything it is the cynical hegemony of American late-capitalism whose proponents on one side of their mouths glorify a social Darwinism where everything is a zero sum game of all against all in which the smartest and most ‘productive’ rule while on the other side of their mouths rave that everything is fixed, corrupt, and stacked against the common man. Thus capitalism always pukes up its contradictions.

It is instructive to point out that much of the permissive gun legislation came along at a time when violent crime was declining nationally. A national survey conducted by Harvard and Northeastern Universities last year found the national gun stock grew by more than 70 million between 1994 and 2015. Half of that stock is owned by only 3 percent of the population. Handguns made up the majority of that increase and now make up over 40 percent of the overall stock, up from one-third two decades ago.

Crime was in decline but so were wages and union jobs. Healthcare costs spiraled as did the ranks of the uninsured. Oxycontin spread like wildfire. Mark Ames, in his book Going Postal, explained the rise of workplace shootings as a consequence of the squeeze on workers that accelerated during the Reagan years.  The post office itself, semi-privatized by Reagan, was an early victim of this kind of thing, hence the origin of the phrase ‘going postal’.

Today the jobs picture is worse. In 1967 95 percent of ‘prime age’ men (ages 25-54) worked. Today more than 15 percent aren’t working with some localities having fewer than 70 percent of men without a college education unemployed or out of the workforce entirely. The percentage of underemployed Americans appears to be near the double digits. Paradoxically over 7 million people currently work more than one job, the highest in two decades. A study by economists Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger showed that nearly 95 percent of jobs created during the Obama Era were temporary, part-time, or contractual (i.e. of the mythical ‘gig’ variety).

The beauty of ‘cultural’ issues for those who wield power is that when issues become cultural they become unsolvable. The ballyhooed urban-rural divide, where it all comes down to God, guns, symbols, and wars over craft beers, is the perfect instrument to keep the airwaves white hot while the one percent continues to soak up the lion’s share of economic growth. Meanwhile in recent days the New York Times and Financial Times have circulated stories that the Chamber of Commerce isn’t pleased with the Trump Administration’s renegotiating of NAFTA, a campaign promise that was broken by many a Democratic candidate. Obama didn’t even get through his campaign in 2008 before he assured Fortune magazine that his anti-NAFTA talk was a matter of campaign talk. Let health care fail long enough, let whole sections of the country decline and drown in opiates, and the demagogue appears. From there the body count rises everywhere.

Atlas Dropped: The Working Class and Its Critics

The New York Times Business Page recently featured a front page article about the annual conference In Jackson Hole, Wyoming hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. It contained this interesting opening:

In the decade since the financial crisis economic policymakers, professors and protestors have gathered here every August to argue about the best ways to return to faster economic growth. This year, they gave up…instead focused mostly on making sure things don’t get any worse.

Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen spoke about the risk of further deregulation while Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, spoke against protectionism. The tepid tone of the conference, of course, was the opposite of President Trump’s boisterousness tweets about the current economic reality, most prominently on July 2nd when Trump tweeted ‘Stock Market at all-time high, unemployment at lowest level in years (wages will start going up) and our base has never been stronger!’ Not to be undone, July 31st saw Trump tweet ‘Highest Stock Market EVER, best economic numbers in years, unemployment lowest in 17 years, wages rising, border secure, S.C.: No WH chaos’.

For certain Trump isn’t the first president to hang his hat on the Dow Jones. Barack Obama for one certainly wasn’t above it. However, as Michelle Styczynski recently explained in Jacobin, a rising stock market has little to no effect on the wages of the hourly workers who make up almost 60 percent of the workforce. Before 1980, real wages grew at an average of two and a half cents ($0.0025) per month while the S&P grew on average 0.53 points per month. After 1980 wages grow by an average rate of 0.7 cents ($0.007) per month – a 71 percent drop. Meanwhile the S&P has risen to an average growth rate of 4 points per month for an increase of 660 percent. In other words it’s been a long time since stock market growth correlated to higher wages for the working class.

As for the rest of the ‘base’ as Trump refers to it is plagued by the same longstanding trends Trump incoherently campaigned on. The top 1 percent continues to swallow up the lion’s share of growth. From 2009-2012 the one percent captured over 90 percent of economic gains. That number has declined since but from 2013-2015 the one percent still grabbed about half of growth. Productivity has stalled. The economy has yet to even recover the output it was on pace to produce prior to the Great Recession.

In 1967 95 percent of ‘prime age’ men (ages 25-54) worked. Today more than 15 percent aren’t working with some localities having fewer than 70 percent of men without a college education unemployed or out of the workforce entirely. The percentage of underemployed Americans is now at 8.6 percent. Paradoxically 7.6 million people currently work more than one job, the highest in two decades. A study by economists Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger showed that nearly 95 percent of jobs created during the Obama Era were temporary, part-time, or contractual (i.e. of the mythical ‘gig’ variety).

As has been the case since the mid-1970s Americans continue to make up for stagnant wages by using credit to finance the middle-class life. Just prior to the last recession household debt in the U.S. hit $12.68 trillion. It now stands at $12.7. Given the economy is larger now than it was a decade ago today’s total household debt is equivalent to 67 percent of the economy as opposed to the 85 percent back at the 2008 peak. The nature of the debt has shifted. Americans owe less on their homes and credit cards and more on student and car loans, the latter being a bare necessity in most places in the country, while the former is the declared ticket to prosperity. While this debt may be more sustainable in the short-term it probably has led to a drag on demand. Personal-spending growth has averaged only 2.4 percent since the recession ended, less than previous expansions.

Much ink has been spilled in recent times lamenting Americans’ new lack of mobility. According to the Census Bureau about 10 percent of Americans moved in the past year, down from the 1950s through the early 1980s when more than 20 percent of the population moved.  Tyler Cowen laments in his book The Complacent Class: The Self Defeating Quest for the American Dream that the interstate migration rate has fallen 51 percent below the average rate from 1948-1971. Kevin Williamson of National Review surely took the prize for this last year, writing about the plight of the white working class:

There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down. The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible…The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

Trump himself got into the act recently telling the Wall Street Journal “people are going to have to start moving.” Leaving aside questions about family and community, not to mention issues of vastly uneven development, this despair about mobility and labor flexibility seems to run into another longstanding issue. For well over half a century it’s been government policy to favor homeownership over renters, suburban sprawl over cities. Since the 1940s 90 percent of new housing has been in low density areas. If the impetus for this was the severe housing shortage in the aftermath of World War II, the adjoining motivation was the incubating and reinforcement of a conservative status quo.

A 1946 Fortune survey, citied by Rosalyn Baxandell and Elizabeth Ewan in In Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened, revealed:

The U.S. people are strikingly in favor of positive government action to end the severe housing shortage. A majority of those with opinions want the government to embark on a large scale building program, and that more people, particularly the young, veterans, the poor, and those living in large cities, and especially North Atlantic States; i.e. most people preferred renting an apartment to owning a house.

Unfortunately such a solution wouldn’t have made big money for the master builders and the bank and loan associations. The automobile industry and highway lobby had same understanding. While the suburbanization of the country largely solved the housing shortage and fulfilled the mythology of ‘homeownership’ (actually mortgage holding) and picket fences, in the long run it has contributed to a less fluid workforce as many are now tied to their mortgages or property. It’s also a fact that the cities where the movers are supposed to head have astronomical housing costs and growing homeless populations.

Along with the new lack of mobility, the other despair of working class critics is the state of the family. Obviously the decline of the nuclear family has been red meat for conservatives for decades. However, now the consensus is broader. Political rhetoric may require musings about “the family”, but the true subject of derision is the working class family, most especially the great increase in out of wedlock births. For those with college degrees the years since 1980 haven’t seen such an increase (the divorce rate overall has declined from its 1980 peak with a steeper decline for the college educated. Currently it’s at its lowest level in 40 years). For the other two-thirds of the population the increase has been substantial. According to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015 was the eighth straight year 40 percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers, the great majority of these births to working class children. While acknowledging the causes of this are complex, critics put much of their emphasis on culture. Amy Wax, professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, recently found herself at the center of a storm for an op-ed she coauthored for Philly.com titled “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture”. Thirty three of her colleagues at the University signed a letter condemning Wax’s claims.

Wax writes of a late 1960s cultural flip that “encouraged an antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish-fulfillment ideal- sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll- that was unworthy of, and unworkable for, a mature, prosperous adult society”. The op-ed goes on to say:

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all…But restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture- the academics, media, and Hollywood- to relinquish multicultural grievance polemics and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden. Instead of bashing the bourgeois culture, they should return to the 1950s posture of celebrating it.

Absent that sentiment is any economic analysis of the beloved 1950s, which for all the racism and McCarthyism, was a time of economic growth, rising wages, and strong unions- perhaps what many of those working class voters who fell for the charms of ‘Make America Great Again’ had in mind since these things have been gone for decades.

Writing in the New York Times back in 2014, Isabel Sawhill, of the Brookings Institute and author of Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage, acknowledged the need for educational and job opportunities, and correctly pointed to the need for greater access to quality birth control, but says:

But government alone can’t solve this problem. Younger people must begin to take greater responsibility for their choices…Well-functioning democracies are built on the premise that government has an obligation to promote the general welfare. But so do citizens. More support for those drifting is in order, but less drifting is also essential.

The emphasis on culture leaves one with an obvious question:  if destructive cultural influences, such as Hollywood and academics, are persuasive then why is much of their seductive power only taking hold over certain segments of the population whom it just so happens have been the same segments that have dealt with deindustrialization, stagnant wages, drug abuse epidemics and, in the case of the black working class, taking the brunt of draconian anti-drug laws and crime bills? More than half of all black children born to less educated parents in 1990 experienced parental imprisonment. It calls to mind what Oscar Wilde placed into the mouth of Algeron in The Importance of Being Earnest: “Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them.”

One of the sharper points Andrew Cherlin makes in his Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class Family in America is that the much romanticized period from the late 1940s through the 1960s, the period where still much of our cultural and economic expectations derive from, is a historical anomaly. And as Cherlin points out, the fall in marriages has been seen before:

The marriage gap we see in the New Gilded Age today is similar to the gap during the Old Gilded Age of the late 1800s.  Sharp inequalities in income and in marriage characterize both eras. …In both eras, men in professional, managerial, or  technical positions were most likely to marry, and the probability of marriage dropped substantially toward the bottom of the occupational hierarchy.

The Great Depression saw the same trends. Birth rates fell sharply in the 1930s. According to a 1940 survey (cited Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis), 1.5 million married women were deserted by their husbands and as result more than 200,000 vagrant children were said to be wandering the country. Cultural mores were certainly different 125 years ago but as both the original Gilded Age and the present day show, the saviors of the traditional family, as well as single parents, aren’t pious harangues about moral decline or odes to personal determination but good paying jobs. Good paying jobs are what American capitalism has been unable to provide since the 1970s. For all Trump’s bluster, it’s always been obvious that a working-class populism wasn’t in the works. The Democrats are too weak and in the thrall of big money ‘centrism’ that emphasizes cultural issues above all else, as if things like gun violence and immigration are independent of economics. The beauty of culture for those who wield power is that when an issue becomes ‘cultural’ it also becomes unsolvable The endlessly analyzed “rural-urban” divide becomes a matter of who goes to church, owns guns, or drinks craft beers and not on the overall economic stagnation that affects so many rural and urban areas alike. Without a serious movement against unchained capital one can expect that divide to grow even larger and the underlying economic trends to continue to stir bitterness and conflict.

On the Corner of Bitter and Broke: the American Working Class

If the odious campaign and presidency of Donald Trump can be credited with anything it is the spotlight it has hovered over the working class. Perhaps ‘credited’ could be fairly termed as too strong a word, Trump’s blabber is nothing for not incoherent, however it is true that previous presidential campaigns never quite brought to the foreground issues like deindustrialization, ‘free’ trade, and outsourcing. Of course this attention has brought with it any number of contradictions and shortcomings. Working class has meant ‘white working class’ as if non Caucasians make up no part of it- the unspoken premise being that darker skinned people don’t work hard enough to wear the working class mantle. Yet to stroll any ‘black’ cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore with their abandoned row houses and stagnant economies is to witness the same economic forces that have decimated the Mahoning Valley and Luzerne County.

Then there is the fact that most of Trump’s voters were not working class. The American National Election Study reveals that only 35 percent of Trump voters came from households with incomes under $50,000 (the median household income for the country). While Trump did perform well among whites without a college degree, often and wrongly considered the main characteristic of being working class (two-thirds of Americans don’t have degrees), the same can be said of every GOP candidate for decades (70 percent of GOP primary voters didn’t have college degrees). And for all the rhetoric and alleged cultural identification, thus far the Trump administration hasn’t advanced the cause of the working class a millimeter and has no plans to do so.

Still it would be foolish to dismiss the 200 plus counties that pivoted to Trump after voting for Obama twice, including 31 in Iowa, 22 in Wisconsin, and 19 in Minnesota. Also foolish to overlook is that the Trump phenomenon has enabled a cottage industry of working class focus. J.D. Vance appears poised to make a career out of his book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, which for all the hype boils down to a conservative diatribe about personal responsibility. There is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land (the best of the lot), Joan C. Williams’ White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America. Every major newspaper has produced a slew of front line reporting from so-called Trump country.

What is remarkable about all of it is that there’s hardly a word about solutions to what is assumed to be the biggest problem: the lack of good paying working class jobs. But this is hardly surprising. Cut through all the political grandstanding and there is one thing that Liberals and Conservatives agree on, namely that the working class has no economic value. Conservatives talk of U-Hauls and putting dying towns out of their misery. Kevin Williamson of National Review surely set the bar last year, writing regarding angry Trump voters:

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America… There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down. The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible…The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political.

They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

Liberals shout about education as if the answer for the working class is to simply not be working class. That comes along with the requisite empathy. Last weekend’s edition of The Financial Times featured Simon Kuper’s advice to the mainstream in an op-ed titled ‘How to Take on the Populists’.  Among other such wisdom Kuper advises mainstream politicians at war with the Trumps and Le Pens for working class voters to ‘Sound as Patriotic as they do’, ‘Show that you are listening, ‘Use images not words’, and ‘Show respect’. Meanwhile the real life working class stews in a world of low wages and opiates.

Much was made about the unexpected decline of American life expectancy shown last December by data from the National Center for Health Statistics. That came in the midst of several studies that showed the decline is due to the declining lives of the white, middle-aged working class into a world of depression, stress, and obesity. As for the opioid epidemic there is still no coherent national policy. On the local level policy mainly consists of stocking up on Naloxone and finding space to stack the bodies. Big Pharma, which made billions by greasing the skids of the crisis, now rakes it in selling yet more drugs to alleviate the symptoms. Time magazine reports the market for drugs used to treat opioid-induced constipation (OIC) was worth $1.9 billion in 2014. By 2022 it’s expected to be $2.8 billion. Prices for so-called ‘medication-assisted treatment’ drugs such as Vivitrol and Suboxone have skyrocketed.

It is telling that one policy that does seem to increasingly gain steam is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Support for UBI ranges from the positive, a possible way to supplant the welfare state, to the reactionary, completely replacing what’s left of it. Whatever its merits a UBI misses the mark, at least as the main policy. One of the sharper points Williams in White Working Class goes like this: ‘Is the only alternative a universal basic income? This proposal, currently chic among the tech set, will only further fuel the anger of working-class whites. What they want is not a social safety net but a job.’

Contrary to ever wider perception the working class is not lazy, entitled, or complacent (labels, of course, always stuck on the Black working class). What is needed is a thorough industrial policy, one that includes long term planning, a reemphasis on vocational training, along with an enhanced welfare state including, but not limited to, universal healthcare.  Obviously even this is well beyond the Democrats. That being the case it is worth thinking bigger and positing that any real solution to radical inequality and economic stagnation would include the democratization of production through such things as worker cooperatives, public banks, and participatory budgets. If all that is far-fetched consider the alternatives of greater inequality, greater automation and job loss, and greater racial resentment. That path may well lead to a future where a fourth rate clown like Trump is a pleasant memory.

Presidential Branding: Trump and the Cult of Celebrity

Attempting to come up with the most dreadful aspect of the Trump campaign and presidency can put quite a strain on the mind. Is it the foul mouth racist rhetoric, the unabashed narcissism, the endless blatant lying that perhaps has forever decimated truth as an objective concept? After Trump could a politician ever be seriously accused of lying again? And just what is worse: the permanent destruction of factual discourse or the possibility that facts were only suspended as a gift to this cretin?

Any of that certainly passes muster in terms of dreadfulness. On its boisterous merits the Trump campaign message boiled down to the outsider businessman and shrewd dealmaker taking over a stale, corrupt status quo- a businessman wealthy enough to be above the influence of lobbyists or campaign funds. One wonders where the surreal idea that those with wealth are beyond corruption and greed. History’s litter seems to prove the contrary. Yet most grating of all probably is that it is on the alleged merits that the Trump campaign should have cratered.  It is obvious it all could and should have been avoided.

It was actually the fanatically pro-Trump New York Post that last November provided a summa to Trump’s business career. In a brutal irony the main characters in the Post’s story are Trump’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Carl Ichan who Trump named as an advisor on financial regulation (Ichan is said to be an inspiration for Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street). The opening line of the story reads: ‘Wilbur Ross and Carl Ichan could have sunk Donald Trump’.

Long before Trump could bring Ichan or Ross to his administration it was 1990 and they were bondholders in Trump’s failing Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City when the casino had just missed a payment. Trump himself was leveraged to the hilt having bitten off way more Atlantic City than he could chew. According to Ross, then chief restructuring advisor for Rothschild & Co which was representing bondholders, ‘We could have foreclosed and he would have been gone.’ It was Ross’ initial recommendation; however negotiations were able to hold him off the first few days, over the objections of some bondholders. Then Ross was in a limo on his way to restructuring talks when the Post says ‘As it approached the casino, people pressed to get close to the car, thinking it was Trump inside’. Ross: ‘When we saw Trump people swarming all over him’ we realized his star power. Ichan, the Taj’s largest bondholder, told the Post ‘Even then they were cheering him. They loved him. I was impressed’.  In the end there wasn’t exactly the deal making that Trump’s mythology would imply- bondholders got 50 percent of the Taj. The main thing is there was a deal. Trump grasped to 25 percent but as the Post succinctly put it ‘To outsiders it seemed Trump was still running the casino.’ He emerged with his brand intact.

A strict definition of the word brand, in a business context, simply reads ‘a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name.’ It may sound obvious but the key word here is ‘manufactured’ one definition of which reads ‘to invent or fabricate.’ In other words a personal brand often could recall the words of Mark Twain: Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he could sleep ‘til noon.

It would be difficult to find a greater example of this than Trump. How else to account for the fact that in the spring of 1990 the self-proclaimed billionaire could not pay his bills? Contractors for the Trump Taj Mahal were not being paid for months after their work was completed. A $73 million mortgage on another casino, Trump’s Castle Resort Casino Resort, went unpaid. A report issued by the accounting firm Kenneth Leventhal & Company at the time was able to draw a worst case scenario whereby a forced liquidation of Trump’s assets in April 1990 would bring in $295 million less than Trump owed.  Another report from the same period, this one by the New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Entertainment, found that Trump owed $3.2 billion of which he personally guaranteed $833.5 million (described by journalist David Cay Johnson in his book The Making of Donald Trump).

Absent a deal with his creditors Trump faced spiraling bankruptcies. Here’s how the New York Times, referring to the Leventhal report, put it on August 16, 1990:

Those figures shed light on why the banks agreed to reschedule Mr. Trump’s debts in marathon negotiations’ this summer. Had they refused, a forced liquidation might have left them with hundreds of millions in losses, based on estimates, which were made available to the banks during the negotiations’.

The deal advanced Trump $60 million, allowed him to pay less than he owed, and put him on an absurd $450,000 a month allowance. It was approved by the Casino Control Commission that has power over issuing gaming licenses (the New Jersey Casino Control Act requires casino owners to pay their bills to keep the license) and whose members are political appointees who wanted no part of bankruptcy. Trump was bailed out by a state government and creditors who saw him as too big to fail. And by no means was it the end of Trump’s bankruptcies in Atlantic City.

This was around the same Trump bungled his biggest New York deal. Contrary to Trump’s outright lies about being the biggest developer in New York, there was never a time he would have cracked the Top 10 developer’s list. However in 1985 he purchased the West Side Yards, at the time the 77 acre tract along the Hudson River was the largest privately owned undeveloped land in New York (Trump previously had an option for the site that he let lapse in 1979 unable to reach a deal with the city). Trump had grand plans which he dubbed Television City. It was a $4.5 billion project including a new headquarters for NBC and the world’s tallest building in the form of a rocket-ship-shaped skyscraper. Getting it built would have boosted Trump’s profile in a huge way. The only thing was Trump sought a $700 million property tax abatement from the city as an incentive to build it.

Given the labyrinth that is New York real estate, what Trump’s vision needed was delicate balance of interest, and given the city’s mayor at the time, Ed Koch, was a man who shared a Trumpian ego, a deliberate approach- essentially it needed a dealmaker. Koch, probably still seething after Trump’s loud boasting about having saved the city on the Wollman Rink, rejected the abatement and Trump went to war, writing to Koch accusing him of ‘playing ‘Russian Roulette with perhaps the most important corporation in New York over the relatively small amounts of money involved because you and your staff are afraid that Donald Trump may actually make more than a dollar of profit’. Shortly after that Trump said Koch had ‘no talent and only moderate intelligence’, Koch accused Trump of ‘squealing like a stuffed pig’. The tabloid fireworks overlooked the fact that the city was desperate to keep NBC, which was threatening a move to New Jersey; desperate enough to eventually give a very generous package of tax cuts to keep NBC in Rockefeller Center.  A softer approach by Trump might have gotten it done.

Instead he doubled down, so much that Trump turned down a $550 million offer for the property from developer William Zeckendorf Jr. in 1989. By 1994 the still empty Yards were bleeding $23.5 million a year. The banks forced Trump to give up the property in 1994. It went to a group of Hong Kong investors for $82 million and the assumption of around $250 million in debt Trump amassed. When the Hong Kong group sold the property in 2005, by then filled with luxury condos known as Riverside South, it went for $1.8 billion, at that point the largest real estate sale in New York’s history.  Yet even though, like his Atlantic City bankruptcies, Trump blew the deal he was able to avoid the full knockout- he kept a small stake in two valuable office buildings and three of the buildings in Riverside bore his name (the Trump Organization received fees for maintenance). His name was taken down by the current owners, Equity Residential, after a petition to that effect was signed by hundreds of tenants after the election.

In truth it has been decades since Trump has seen any legitimate success as a developer and builder. Trump Tower was completed in 1983, and, while fairly called a success, wasn’t without its share of shadiness. There were the hundreds of Polish workers who worked on the demolition of the Bonwit Teller building that preceded Trump Tower who were stonewalled when pay day came, not to mention the destruction of the Art Deco friezes that lined the Bonwit Teller that were desired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The apparent two week delay in destruction was deemed too much to make the preservation worthwhile. The reopening of the Wollman Rink in Central Park, a long botched project Trump took over for the city and delivered on time and under budget, took place in November 1986. As always there was some embellishment. The city hired consultant recommended most the changes the Trump team adopted. Trump’s two actual building projects this century, Trump International Hotels & Towers in Chicago and Las Vegas ran smack into the 2008 recession. The venture that first brought Trump to the public eye, his ownership of the New Jersey Giants of the United States Football League (USFL), ended poorly with Trump’s push to compete directly with the NFL season, including the requisite lawsuit, being instrumental to the USFL folding.

So how did a businessman with such a shabby record, countless lawsuits, hundreds of millions in losses, and a scandal like Trump U (or even for there to be such a thing as Trump U) prosper to become president?  It boils down to a single word: celebrity. The arrival in 2004 of the ultra-corny ‘reality’ show The Apprentice gave Trump a weekly platform to play businessman for an audience of millions. Does it say anything about our society that such an asinine platform may well have been the main springboard to the presidency? Still in a way it is fitting since in actual reality Trump’s main equity for decades has been his persona.  The vast majority of hotels that hoist the Trump name were not built by the Trump Organization. Developers simply paid for use of the Trump name and whatever imagery the name is supposed conjure up (some pay the Trump Organization ‘management’ fees as well). This easy business ‘strategy’ can and has been applied to anything. Even that hasn’t stopped the duds: Trump Magazine, Trump vodka, and Trump steaks are hard to find today.

For all the marketing of Trump as a modern day Andrew Jackson, perhaps the better comparison is a contemporary from the present day: Kim Kardashian. After all Kardashian become world famous through the right connections and a starring role in a leaked sex tape; it was only a short step to fame in reality TV, what are divorces for anyway (Trump himself was always one who saw his philandering in the ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ light), and soon after the chance to get her name on cheesy products the same way Trump does. Kardashian now plays the part of role model for the kids showing they too could be rich and famous with minimal accomplishment just by selling ‘themselves’.

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law to who Trump has seemingly handed every major initiative of his administration, was recently put in charge of what is being dubbed ‘The White House Office of American Innovation’, the main purpose of which is supposedly to streamline the federal bureaucracy.  The sinister idea of running the government like it is a corporation certainly didn’t originate with the Trump administration but it seems the Trump family doesn’t even have it in them to see the irony. On April 12th the Washington Post reported the Trump children, and Trump Organization overseers, haven’t been pleased with the White House senior staff’s service to their father at a time when the organization wants to expand its hotel portfolio. According to one Republican operative:

“The fundamental assessment is that if they want to win the White House  in 2020, they’re not going to do it the way they did in 2016, because the family brand would not sustain the collateral damage,” said one well-connected Republican operative… “It would be so protectionist, nationalist and backward-looking that they’d only be able to build in Oklahoma City or the Ozarks.”

As membership dues doubling at Mar-a-logo, Trump’s sons traveling the world at taxpayer expense flogging the family name, Ivanka’s surging clothing sales, indeed their father’s entire puffed up career demonstrate, there’s no urgent need for a special office to bring the corporate approach to government. In the ways that count it’s long been there. The brand marches on.