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Friday, October 31, 2014

How the Democrats are losing in Massachusetts

There's an interesting gubernatorial election going on in my home state of Massachusetts this fall.  The excellent, responsible Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, is stepping down, and the Democratic candidate to replace him is Martha Coakley, the state attorney general.  Coakley's candidacy is a good example of what is wrong with Democratic party politics nowadays: they are not focused enough on the key objective, which is to win.  Coakley already lost one of the more important Senatorial elections in American history, when she was beaten by Scott Brown in 2010, taking away the Democratic supermajority of 60-votes.   She lost, to put it bluntly, because she ran a dreadful campaign.  Yet she is still the leading Democrat in the state other than Patrick, and she had essentiall no opposition for the nomination.  

Many of you around the country and around the world probably do not realize that the northeastern states, in state elections, are the most evenly divided in the country between Democrats and Republicans. Massachusetts has had three Republican governors in recent years, William Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Mitt Romney.  Rhode Island and New York have had Republican governors as well.  New Hampshire has both Democratic and Republican Senators, and so, in effect, does Maine.  This year's Republican candidate is Charlie Baker, a WASP with a highly political background who has served in various appointed positions under Republican governors and lost to Deval Patrick four years ago.  He is handsome, relatively articulate, and both pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.  And he is leading Coakley by an increasingly comfortable margin in the polls.

The other night, a most revealing incident occurred.  Coakley and Baker had their last televised debate of the campaign, and one reporter asked them both to describe the last time that they cried.  Baker responded as follows.

"So, I got asked the other day, and I may not make it through this story. I got asked the other day if, to tell somebody some interesting stories of people I've met over the course of the campaign. And I told a story about a fisherman that I met in New Bedford down on the docks who was coming off the boatings was a big huge man, completely soaked in sweat and salt water, and I said I wanted to talk to him about the business in the industry, and he kind of looked at me and he started to cry, so I gave him a hug, he was a big huge guy, I was like hugging him out, and he shook for a while and then we started talking about the business and the industry and the federal government, and then he said see those two kids up there, and he pointed to the two boys on the boat and he said those are my sons, and he said they were both spectacular football players in New Bedford high school who were given college scholarships to go play football. And I told him no, I said, you're going to be a fisherman. I was a fisherman, my brothers were fishermen, my father was a fisherman. You're going to be a fisherman. And those kinds of stories, you hear those kinds stories every day. And it's a big part of why people like you and me, I believe, get into public service, because we want to help people like that."

Baker repeatedly choked up while telling the story, as you can see here.

This answer, naturally, given the wretched state of American political life today, led all the news reports of the debate, and triggered several stories about weeping candidates, from Ed Muskie through Hillary Clinton.  Baker was too busy emoting to spell out the political point of it very clearly, but he was trying to say that the poor big man had not really "ruined" his sons' lives at all, but that federal over-regulation of the fishing industry had--a typical argument by Republicans at least since Ronald Reagan. (If you think I'm jumping to conclusions there, just stay tuned.) From Reagan's own favorite welfare queen, to his young man who bought orange juice with food stamps and used his change to buy vodka, to Willie Horton and his victim, and Joe the Plumber, to a Wisconsin woman who falsely claimed that Obamacare had cost her her insurance, Republicans have been running on stories like these for a long time.  

Reporters got to work on the story, pressing Baker's campaign for details and hoping, of course, to be the first to find the fisherman.   The Baker campaign almost immediately backed away from it, explaining that the incident hadn't taken place during this campaign at all, but rather in December 2009, five years ago.  But the man who led Baker's tour through New Bedford on that occasion doesn't remember the incident, and no one on the New Bedford docks has any idea who the man in question might be either.  .Today's Boston Globe has more interesting details.“Charlie had a conversation with a family fisherman in New Bedford,” Baker's campaign manager, Jim Conroy, now says. “It is certainly possible that this person did not live in New Bedford, and Charlie was mistaken about that five years ago.” Conroy added that the sons in the story may not have had athletic scholarship odders at all.  The Globe has found a very large middle-aged fisherman from South Boston who had two sons who were wrestlers at Stoughton High School, one of whom did attend college on wrestling scholarships and is now a professional ultimate fighter--but he says he is not the man in question.  Neither South Boston nor Stoughton, by the way, is at all close to New Bedford.

But what is equally interesting, although it has gotten very little attention, is Coakley's response. When Baker paused, she jumped in--but not to question the story.

"And I agree with Charlie, this is one of the saddest and most unfortunate things I've ever seen, with federal regulations that were unfair, overenforced in families like that one and in Gloucester. Mortgage to get a boat and then the rules change, their kids couldn't go to college, and similar stories like that. They're not unique, and they are in Gloucester, they under New Bedford, all up and down the coast and they are very touching. We have as a Commonwealth we have done a terrible job of standing up for those people. We have some of the most talented people in the world who could do analytics around what's really happening out there in the water. At M.I.T. and at U. Mass Dartmouth, and we should be all over this. And I feel we have let the federal government drive the data process associated with this, which has driven the rule making process and has left these people with no one fighting -- you fought the legal fight which I admire." 

In other words, Coakley decided to finish Baker's thought for him, and criticize the federal government for wreaking economic havoc on the poor families like Baker's (non-existent) one.  Now I regret that I don't have time to research the issue of fishing regulations in detail, but my impression is that they have been imposed not to destroy the fishing industry, but to save it, by preventing local waters from being fished out entirely and killing the industry for a long time, if not forever.  But Coakley's response shows how effective thirty years of Republican propaganda has been.  She reacted by trying to be more anti-Washington than he was--and that is one reason, in my opinion, why she is going to lose the election.

Similar things are happening all over the country, Obamacare has brought health insurance to hundreds of thousands of people who didn't have it, but I'm not aware of one Democratic Senatorial candidate in a close election who is trying to use it as a campaign issue.  Alison  Grimes, the Democrat running against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, refused in a televised debate to say if she had ever voted for Barack Obama.  Coakley,. Grimes, and other Democrats are about to learn the lesson that Harry Truman famously tried to teach, and cost the Democrats the Senate in the process. If the people have to choose between a Republican and a Republican, they'll take the Republican every time.

Friday, October 24, 2014

This week's post

 Dear readers,

           This week's post, my first on the Time site, can be   Comments welcome here, or there!

David K

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Ebola problem

Could Ebola be the kind of event Strauss and Howe had in mind when they predicted a great crisis 20 years ago--a threat that forces our society to mobilize and literally adopt new values to cope with it?  I believe that it could, although my worthless, amateur opinion is that the chances of avoiding a self-sustaining outbreak in the United States such as has occurred in West Africa are still quite good.  The example of Senegal, where several cases crossed the border but no new ones have now occurred for 40 days, is encouraging.  But it occurred to me, oddly enough, that the crisis has something in common with the crisis that Franklin Roosevelt faced 74 years ago in the fall of 1940, as I detailed in No End Save Victory.

The threat then was a political virus--Nazi and Japanese totalitarianism--transmissible by military force. Today it is a virus, transmittable by close contact.  But what is rather interesting is that the problem Roosevelt and the country faced in 1940 and well into 1941 was the same as the one we face today: keeping the threat away from the western hemisphere.  Roosevelt at that point thought it quite possible or even probable that the Nazi virus would spread into the British isles, and that was why he bargained with Churchill to secure an arc of bases in the western Atlantic from Newfoundland to Trinidad, and why he decided to occupy Iceland in the middle of 1941.  In the same way, our priority is to keep the self-sustaining outbreak of Ebola where it is now, in West Africa.

To do this, it seems to me, some very serious thinking may be called for.  I am in no way speaking authoritatively here; I am no epidemiologist, although I have always had some feel for numbers and statistics.  It seems to me the outbreak could grow sufficiently in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to make banning travel out of those countries a real option.  The CDC currently argues that this would force people to travel outside their borders in uncontrolled ways, but they could be kept out of the United States, which they need a visa to enter, and out of other advanced countries via air travel, which obviously is the easiest way for an infected person to cross the ocean undetected, as one already has.  Another alternative deserving consideration, it seems to me, would be to set up secure holding areas in those nations for people wishing to travel, where they would have to spend the weeks necessary to ensure that they are free from infection.  It is equally possible, however, that we have to do the critical work right here at home.

So far, it seems that Thomas Duncan infected only two people--both of whom are nurses in the hospital where he was treated.  This becomes, in one sense, more reassuring every day.  The nurses are already sick, but no one whom Duncan was in contact with before the hospital admitted him has gotten sick.  Hospitals are already notoriously easy places to get dangerous infections--probably one of the easiest places to do so in our society.  One reason, I am reliably informed, is that some hospitals at least have cut back on their cleaning staffs when budget crunches hit.  It seems to me that particular hospitals in any metropolitan area have to be designated to treat possible Ebola cases, that they set up special areas in which to do so, and that the number of people allowed into those areas be kept to an absolute minimum.  Obviously they have to wear protective gear at all times.  Medical personnel who come into contact with Ebola patients may have to accept limitations on their movement, as the second infected nurse obviously should have, and they should probably be monitored for infection continuously.

These are defensive measures, designed to contain Ebola where it is.  But it behooves us as well, for a great many reasons, to do what Roosevelt did beginning in the second half of 1941, and organize a coalition to wipe the epidemic out at its source.  The world needs a volunteer corps of public health workers who will organize quarantines and medical care in the three most affected countries to try to keep the spread of the disease to a minimum.  The situation right now seems to be as discouraging as the parallel spread of Nazism was in the spring of 1940: in at least one affected country, hospitals have stopped accepting patients.  There are a number of armies in the world, including our own, that can set up temporary field hospitals.  We need new, creative thinking to handle something that the world has never successfully dealt with.  Ebola spreads much less easily than the influenza epidemic that killed tens of millions in 1918, but it also has a mortality rate of 50%, much higher, I believe, than that killer flu.

The real goal, however, should be the one that Roosevelt adopted in the second half of 1941: to eliminate the disease.  That means treatment, a vaccine, or both.  And these are needs, like the threat of German air power in 1940, that we are disgracefully poorly equipped to meet.  Big pharma is notoriously uninterested in either new treatments for infections or vaccines.  Already people are dying from antibiotic-resistant bacteria of various kinds, because no new antibiotics have been developed for so long.  Vaccines are used only a few times per person at most, and they also create legal liability issues.  I don't know whether a better defense against HIV could have been developed by now, but it's fair to say that the drug cocktail which infected people now take for the rest of their lives is exactly the kind of treatment big Pharma loves, since it provides a steady stream of income.  This is an opportunity for the drug  companies to redirect their efforts, and if they take it it will have a big long-term benefit, perhaps, for us all. Alternatively, either the US or a coalition of governments could set up a public laboratory to work on these treatments, funded by taxpayer dollars.

Last spring I wrote a series of commentaries on Thomas Piketty's book, Capitalism in the 21st Century.  I noted his finding that inequality in advanced nations had been substantially reduced in the middle third of the twentieth century, largely because those nations had to mobilize so much of their resources for common efforts.  War was the biggest of those efforts, but not the only one.  The Ebola epidemic is a tragedy, but it is also a chance to do something similar on a smaller scale.  We are not used to discipline for the common good.  We need to learn once again that it can be necessary for our survival.

Friday, October 17, 2014

An announcement


      Last week I was contacted by an editor at Time's website about contributing there.  She had become of fan of this site.  After a week's negotiations, we are apparently set to go. Indeed, I have submitted my first piece today.

      Have no fear: access to my posts on will be free. I don't expect to be posting weekly there, so when I do, I shall simply post a link here.  I had hoped to be able to do that today or tomorrow morning but things seem to be moving a little more slowly than I had thought.  If nothing develops shortly I shall try to write something else over the weekend.

       It is your loyal support over the last ten years (really!) that has made this possible. Thanks.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Coming to pass?

     In 1996, William Strauss and Neil Howe published The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. Drawing on their earlier work in Generations: The History of America's Future, they predicted that a great crisis would strike American life sometime around the year 2005.  On pp. 272-3, they tentatively predicted five ways in which this might come about.

      1.  A state, nearing bankruptcy, lays claim to its federal tax payments, setting off a constitutional crisis.

      2.  A global terrorist group "blows up an airplane," leading to American retaliatory strikes, and terrorist threats to blow up an American city with nuclear weaspons.

       3.  The President claims emergency powers after Congress refuses to pass a budget, forcing a government shutdown.

        4.  After an epidemic of a new communicable disease hits American cities, the President mobilizes the National Guard to impose quarantines, and large-scale violence breaks out.

        5.  Anarchy breaks out in the former Soviet Union, threatening local war and the lives of American citizens. (They specifically postulated a civil war in Lithuania.)

While none of these events, obviously, has occurred in exactly the way they speculated they might, I think it is fair to say that all but the first either happened in some form, or are well on their way to happening as I speak.  To this list I would add the possibility of a large-scale cyber-attack in response to sanctions imposed upon Russia or, perhaps at some later date, China.   More importantly, however, the mood of crisis within the United States is not passing away.  It is getting worse.

Thus, despite thirteen years of trying fruitlessly to roll back Islamic militance in the Middle East with American military power, the Obama Administration has reacted to the beheading of two Americans in exactly the way ISIS hoped it would: by launching another war.  Having reached the United States and killed one American resident, Ebola is now causing panic and some are calling for closing our borders to travelers from affected West African states.  Today's New York Times reports that the Republicans, in a last blitz of campaign ads, are claiming that the Obama Administration cannot handle the problems of our out-of-control world.  They are calling for stronger action, both to close borders and to destroy ISIS in the Middle East.  This might mark the beginning of a critical new trend.

A great deal, it seems to me, is going to depend on next months' elections.  Republican control of the Senate is now the more likely outcome, but far from a certain one.  Should it occur, I suspect the last two years of Obama's presidency will rival the last two years of Andrew Johnson's as one of the most turbulent in American history.  Mitch McConnell recently told a Koch brothers-sponsored conference that in that event, the Republicans will use the power of the purse to defund every part of the federal government that they do not like.   Yet the Republican call for stronger government is a countervailing trend--all the more so since the world is out of control and nowhere near stability.

I feel sure there will be more individual Ebola cases in the United States, and it is possible that new cases are already incubating in Dallas it, like HIV, gets into the right (or wrong) population at the right or wrong time.  The war with ISIS, meanwhile, is not likely to go well.  I personally don't think ISIS is likely to mount a major terrorist attack in the US, but if they could, there would undoubtedly be a strong push for some devastating action in return.  And Putin could try to pull off a quick occupation of one of the Baltic states at almost any moment, calling our bluff (which is all it is so far) and leaving NATO in disarray.  If one or more of these events takes place,  it seems possible that in the 2016 election each of the two candidates might be trying to persuade the nation that he or she has what it takes to take drastic action abroad and at home to deal with a new set of problems.   Hillary Clinton might have the chance to be not only the first female president, but also one of the most powerful and impactful presidents in our history.  This would be an enormous departure from either her husband's or Barack Obama's administration, but times are changing fast.  Republican candidates are also beginning to talk tough, and it will be interesting to see exactly what they propose.

I am not proposing these scenarios optimistically.  It has been a very long time since our political class was as unimpressive as it is now.  Increasingly it is the product of an educational system that tells its graduates very little about what the world is really like, and how people have managed to improve it in past eras.  Private wealth as been getting stronger and public authority weaker for a very long time.  We also have a very substantial body of opinion that will shrink from any kind of drastic measure to solve any problem, out of hostility to the very idea of coercive government.  Things have gone far enough, however, to say bluntly the Strauss and Howe's works have been born out as prophecy, as well as history.  The outcome, which they were much too wise to predict, remains undetermined.

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