March 31, 2009


Sam Smith

The problems we face and the problems we face getting out of the problems we face have more than a little to do with the culture of narcissism that has enveloped our politics, corporate life and entertainment over the past three decades.

We have been taught to regard personal success as more significant than cooperation, community, joint achievement, common advancement, or shared values and systems (such as democracy and fairly regulated commercialism). Better, in short, than qualities that benefit large numbers of citizens rather than just a few. Having accepted the very values that helped push us over the edge, we are now in a poor position to recover from the mess they have created. Add to that all the isolating factors in our society from television to population growth to Ipods, and it makes finding a common way back to social, political and economic sanity extraordinarily difficult.

A good place to start would be to jettison our heavy adulation of leaders in the arts, business, sports and politics for their appearance and attitude rather than for actual achievement. We need to free ourselves of hyper-manipulated dependence on hyper-exalted individuals.

For example, in politics we find ourselves increasingly huddled in the glow of favored individuals rather than united in a cause or joined by values. It doesn't really matter if it is Sarah Palin or Barack Obama. It's the same phenomenon: politicians about whom we know far too little upon whom we are taught to project far too many hopes and dreams.

Most Obama supporters, for example, had extraordinarily little idea where he stood on a large variety of subjects and now will only learn randomly and by chance over time. Neither was there much evidence of experience, but in today's culture, a sufficiently attractive if unfamiliar man can apparently leap from being an unknown state senator to the White House in four short years. What this says is less about Obama and more about how we deal with issues like war, the environment or the economy. We just put the right personal brand on them and hope for the best.

We only ask that the politician in question acts enough like a leader. We are thus behaving not as citizens but as directors of a reality show version of West Wing.

For this to occur, you basically need two things: an easily obsessed audience and a character actor willing to exploit that obsession. It is small wonder that the ambitious notice this and play to it.

Obama, mind you, is only the most prominent example of this phenomenon. The reason he was able to win was because we had long come to accept a similar principle in film, business and the news media. Ideas, issues, principles, record and known skill have faded in importance. Whom we trust with these things has become what matters.

This is an open invitation for control of our lives by narcissists.

As a culture it is not something we talk about. We have drifted into this approach with help from TV fantasies, bad books claiming to explain good management, parents who teach their children that they are the world's best, and an approach to leadership modeled on car dealers from back in the day when they were still able to sell cars. Thus it is not surprising that Bill Clinton's stepfather was a gun-brandishing alcoholic who lost his Buick franchise through mismanagement and his own pilfering. He physically abused his family, including the young Bill. According to FBI and local police officials, his Uncle Raymond -- to whom young Bill turned for wisdom and support -- was a colorful car dealer, slot machine owner and gambling operator, who thrived on the fault line of criminality.

An abused kid raised by hustlers. Not a bad formula for narcissism. But it can also come from being constantly told how wonderful you are, say like a black Harvard law school student or handsome black state senator when there aren't that many. Or it can be taught in business school as good management or exceptional leadership. Or you can learn it from the movies. Or watching who makes the most money in baseball or on Wall Street.

We are, in short, a culture that cultivates, teaches, celebrates narcissism and its results. And this may prove to be one of the hardest obstacles in our recovery from our recent past.

March 23, 2009


Sam Smith

Has Washington gone mad? Certainly there are other factors affecting political matters, but if you are feeling that those in charge - regardless of party - are strangely disconnected from reality, you may be on to something.

When Washington is engaged in something absurd - like starting or escalating a bad war - its establishment coalesces around a set of presumptions of questionable logic and then approves - with the media's strong support - huge sums to test them.

One cause of this dysfunctional behavior is the great power vested in the capital. Among the advantages of such power is that you can blow a large number of bucks and bodies on a problem before you finally have to face the fact that what you're doing isn't working.

For example, soon after September 11, our leaders and much of our media drew the conclusion that our salvation lay in world dominance - in empire.

Within just days we moved from tragic reality to delusional myth. Empires don't have their major military and economic icons damaged or destroyed by a handful of young men with box cutters. Empires don't turn suddenly phobic at everything foreign, everything sharp, every place crowded. Empires don't jettison their Constitution and turn on their own people out of blind fear. Empires don't get hopelessly bogged down invading two small countries - one which had a military budget less than two percent of ours, the other with a gross domestic product smaller than the cost of the bombs we were dropping on it.

Something similar happened in Vietnam. The journalist Bernard Fall early in the conflict noted that the French, after their failed battle at Dien Bien Phu, had no choice but to leave Southeast Asia. America, with its vast military, financial, and technological resources, was able to stay because it had the capacity to keep making the same mistakes over and over.

The same was true of the hugely expensive war on drugs, which has been going on for over three decades and only now is it becoming somewhat acceptable to say so.

Now we are launched on a bailout of our financial system that no one can explain, no one knows where the money is going, and no one knows who is really going to benefit. An inordinate amount seems to be going to the wealthiest corners of the country while Congress and the White House remain stunningly indifferent to the more modest yet more critical needs of ordinary Americans. It all doesn't make sense but few seem interested in having it do so.

If you start to apply logic, it just doesn't work. It's not unlike those struggles one occasionally has trying to introduce the real into a fitful dream. The fantasy grabs back control all too easily.

Driving the fantasy are comforting words like stimulus and a trillion here, a trillion there. After all, how can you spend a trillion and not have it work? Unless it doesn't.

The irony is that Washington loves to define others as mad - the Palestinian insurgent, the skeptic concerning some badly resolved mystery such as the JFK death, an Illinois governor engaged in what seems now to be a somewhat modest scam, or - most recently - those fearful and crazy "populists" who have the nerve to be furious over what's going on.

By Washington's standards, insanity is the disease of the weak. Just look at the difference in the way the Governor Blago and the Bernie Madoff scandals have been handled: Blago is crazy but Madoff is just an evil genius.

The key issue is power. By the capital's rules, the powerful may be wrong, they may be corrupt, they may even be naive, but they may not be insane, because that would cut too close to the bone, threatening the widely accepted Washington thesis that power proves wisdom.

One way to help figure out what's going on is to count the bodies. Healthy people don't leave a trail of victims as they go through life. On the other hand, the disordered, no matter how convincing their claim to normalcy or how noble their purported purpose, produce a wake that tells a different story. The body count of the fiscal crisis is not comforting.

At the moment, much of Washington seems to be run by two groups: the crazy and those afraid to challenge the crazy. The latter group sadly includes our president, who owes his election in part to those who created the fiscal mess and relies on advisors who contributed to it. Saner economic voices are found on the Internet but not at the White House.

For those outside the capital and not responsible for the current crisis, knowing that a significant portion of what's happening isn't going to help or will help the wrong people, isn't based on logic and isn't being pursued in a rational fashion, may not be of much comfort. But it may save some time and angst searching for logical solutions in barren fields and guide our efforts elsewhere. Such as to an approach more like those of those fearful and crazy populists - the ones who started the fight for the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions and the eight hour workday. Now there's insanity we can believe in.

March 20, 2009


Sam Smith

Reading all the articles these days about the fate of capitalism and socialism brings to mind that Virginia good old boy, Jimmy Jenkins. Jimmy went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran's hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. Now he's retired and on social security and Medicare. The other day he got into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, took Amtrak to Washington and visited Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.

The typical columnist isn't much more consistent. I imagine that even George Will rides the Metro subway from time to time, but I've never heard him complain about it.

Artificial dichotomies are the curse of American culture. And having more education doesn't seem to help. In fact, that's where many of our leaders learned to slice life in two, thanks to the curious notion in our universities that theory is more important than reality.

In fact, we have all lived in mixed economies our whole lives. And that's a good thing, Find me one Marxist who really wants the government running his favorite bar. Or a free market advocate who has never voluntarily driven on a freeway.

Our difficulty in facing this simple fact, and the lack of assistance from professors and the media, is one of the reasons we have such a hard time at moments like this. The times are screaming for practical solutions but we can't cast aside our ideological assumptions long enough to let them occur. It's like going to an evangelist to cure one's cancer.

One of the best descriptions of a complex economy can be found in anthropologist James Acheson's book, The Lobster Gangs of Maine:

"The relevant social unit for most fisherman is not the fishing industry as a whole; it is the men fishing for the same species with the same gear in the same area. They share skills and a common knowledge of the means to exploit and market a certain product . . . Although they are direct competitors, lobstermen are the most useful people in one another's lives . . The men in each gang are involved in an elaborate dance-like interaction in which cooperation must be balanced with competition, secrecy with openness, and sharing with self-interest."

Step this relationship up a few notches and you have the guiding principle of a town that works. . . or a state. . . or a nation. The secret of any well functioning community is a similarly elaborate dance-like interaction.

Or consider a band that functioned in the tradition of free market principles that have so badly damaged our country. One musician decides to take more than his share of the glory, won't end his solo and won't back up others when they finally get their turn. How popular would such a group be? One musician's free market principles has destroyed everyone's economy.

Similarly, the personal selfishness and greed that have characterized America's cultural values over the past three decades have not only brought down some of the practitioners - from Bernie Madoff to AIG, they have ruined the show for everyone.

It is hard to overstate the damage not just in dollars but in the cost to our collective soul.

The way out of this disaster will not be found in justice for those criminally involved, necessary as that is. Retribution can compensate but it can't create.

What we need to do is to rediscover the decent, practice it and honor it. We need to teach the mass media to respect integrity as much as it does power, cooperation as much as it does competition, and community as much as it does profit.

Fortunately, we need go no further than our own national past to uncover things like how immigrants advanced personally while not forgetting those around them. Or no further than down the street to the business that wins the community's praise yet still does well. Or no further than the alternative economies in our already midst such as cooperatives and condos.

At its best, America was built on a complex blend of ambition with cooperation, respect, integrity and community. It wasn't built on a free market indifferent to such values or on state control indifferent to human aspirations. We need to rediscover the role of the decency in everything we do, including business, for only then will we really start to recover.

March 17, 2009


Sam Smith

Egregious as the bonuses being given the AIG crowd are, they are a miniscule part of the bailout and while they need to be dealt with, we shouldn't obsess over them.

Politicians and the media love to get us in a furor over minor segments of a much larger problem, in part because they can understand bits and pieces while the real crisis leaves them and others befuddled.

Far more serious problems with the bailout include the inordinate amount dedicated to ineffective tax cuts, questions concerning the larger bank bailout, the elitist bias of some of the measures (epitomized by four times as much for high speed business class rail riders than for ordinary coach riders and little at all for bus riders), the low level of aid to high job producing small business, and - perhaps worst of all - the small number of new jobs anticipated - even by the Obama administration.

In fact, Obama's job projections are about the same as has occurred under the average Democratic administration since the 1940s. While this is approximately twice as many as Republican presidents have been able to produce, it falls far short of what is needed during the worst economic disaster since the great depression.

Why so few jobs?

It doesn't seem so much a political matter as a cultural one, a massive shift in our ability to solve problems as American life has become more institutionalized, technocratic and layered with bureaucracy.

Franklin Roosevelt managed to fight the depression with a White House staff smaller than that Mrs. Clinton's when she was First Lady. He fought World War II with less staff than Al Gore when he was vice president.

During the Clinton years, on the other hand, Lars-Erick Nelson wrote in the New York Daily News, "On Friday, I telephoned the Pentagon press office and told the colonel who answered the phone that I needed information on duplication in the armed forces. He replied: "You want the other press office."

A decade and a half later, it's just gotten worse. A National Park Service official explained to me how his agency was reacting to the stimulus. One problem: if you start a new project you have to go through a lengthy environment review, so you put many of these aside for the time being and concentrate on things like repairing park watch towers - things that are already there that no one has to approve.

In late summer of 1933, when it appeared that the National Recovery Administration would not be able to provide adequate employment, FDR aide Harry Hopkins began laying the groundwork for a jobs program. Hopkins -- who had pledged to himself to put four million people to work within four weeks -- fell somewhat short. In the first four weeks only 2.8 million workers were put on the government payroll. Hopkins didn't reach the four million goal until January.

In other words, Harry Hopkins got the same number of people employed in four weeks as Obama has promised within two years.

It was a different time in other ways. For example, Democrats didn't apologize for the federal government as June Hopkins explained in Presidential Studies Quarterly:

"One hot summer day in 1935, federal relief administrator Harry Hopkins presented his plan for alleviating the effects of the Great Depression to a group of shirt-sleeved Iowa farmers, not noted for their liberal ideals. As Hopkins began to describe how government-sponsored jobs on public projects would provide both wages for the unemployed and a stimulus for foundering businesses, a voice shouted out the question that was on everyone's mind: 'Who's going to pay for all that?' . . .

"'You are,' Hopkins shouted, 'and who better? Who can better afford to pay for it. Look at this great university. Look at these fields, these forests and rivers. This is America, the richest country in the world. We can afford to pay for anything we want. And we want a decent life for all the people in this country. And we are going to pay for it."

With the capitulation to the vocabulary and values of the right under Clinton, the Democrats have lost their capacity for progressive policy and action. Today, Obama is far more interested in what the GOP thinks than in what imaginative progressives in Congress and elsewhere might be advocating. A post-partisan depression has settled in. Worse, the solutions that come out of this approach tend to ones that no one really wants.

To use the archaic language of the party's earlier days, we need jobs and business - not stunningly non-specific stimuli and fiscal packages, but things people can see and feel, leading them to invest in America again as well.

Because the New Deal understood this, not only did it create employment it built or repaired 200 swimming pools and 103 golf courses, 3,700 playgrounds, 40,000 schools, 12 million feet of sewer pipe, 1,000 airports, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,900 schools, 8,192 parks, 15,000 playgrounds, 124,031 bridges and 125,110 public buildings, and thousands of miles of highways and roads. Add to that the programs for youth and for artists and writers and the result was something it is hard for us to even imagine today.

And it wasn't just the New Deal. Among its opponents was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana who thought Roosevelt too conservative. Long, in one four year term, reports Wikipedia, increased the mileage of paved highways in Louisiana: "By 1936, Long had [doubled] the state's road system. He built 111 bridges, and started construction on the first bridge over the lower Mississippi. He built the new Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building in the South. All of these construction projects provided thousands of much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. . .

"Long's free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved and expanded the public education system, and his night schools taught 100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered tuition, established scholarships for poor students, and founded the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state's mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas to New Orleans and other cities and built the seven-mile Lake Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in 1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year."

FDR got his pressure from the left; Obama gets his from the right thanks to the unwillingness of progressives to push him. FDR could take action without a gang of media manipulators telling him to be careful. There wasn't an inordinate pyramid of bureaucracy chipping away at every decision before it went into action. Liberals had more passion than status and really cared about those at the bottom of the American heap.

Are we trapped forever in this contemporary paradigm? Or can we face what has happened to us and start to change it? Can liberals once again represent the ordinary American or can such Americans only expect a few nods in their direction? Can we condemn a whole class of citizens because of what we fear some rightwing Republicans will say if we do something real to help them?

This is a time when status, style and semantics won't save us. Reality has entered the house of America without knocking. It can't be spun away. And time is running out.

March 13, 2009


March 04, 2009


Sam Smith, Shadows of Hope, 1994 - Encomiums to the wonders of market forces fill speeches and media reports. One National Public Radio reporter even went so far as to describe a form of government called market democracy, apparently a blend of the Bill of Rights and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

In fact, most free workers in this country were self- employed well into the 19th century. They were thus economic as well as political citizens.

Further, until the last decades of the 19th century, Americans believed in a degree of fair distribution of wealth that would shock many today. James L. Huston writes in the American Historical Review:

"Americans believed that if property were concentrated in the hands of a few in a republic, those few would use their wealth to control other citizens, seize political power, and warp the republic into an oligarchy. Thus to avoid descent into despotism or oligarchy, republics had to possess an equitable distribution of wealth."

Such a distribution, in theory at least, came from enjoying the "fruits of one's labor" but no more. Businesses that sprung up didn't flourish on competition because there generally wasn't any and, besides, cooperation worked better. You didn't need two banks or two drug stores in the average town. Prices and business ethics were not regulated by the marketplace but by a complicated cultural code and the fact that the banker went to church with his depositors.

Although the practice was centuries old, the term capitalism -- and thus the religion -- didn't even exist until the middle of the 19th century.

Americans were intensely commercial, but this spirit was propelled not by Reaganesque fantasies about competition but by the freedom that engaging in business provided from the hierarchical social and economic system of the monarchy. Business, including the exchange as well as the making of goods, was seen as a natural state allowing a community and individuals to get ahead and to prosper without the blessing of nobility.

In the beginning, if you wanted to form a corporation you needed a state charter and had to prove it was in the public interest, convenience and necessity. During the entire colonial period only about a half-dozen business corporations were chartered; between the end of the Revolution and 1795 this rose to about a 150. Jefferson to the end opposed liberal grants of corporate charters and argued that states should be allowed to intervene in corporate matters or take back a charter if necessary.10 With the pressure for more commerce and indications that corporate grants were becoming a form of patronage, states began passing free incorporation laws and before long Massachusetts had thirty times as many corporations as there were in all of Europe.

Still it wasn't until after the Civil War that economic conditions turned sharply in favor of the large corporation.

These corporations, says Huston:

"killed the republican theory of the distribution of wealth and probably ended whatever was left of the political theory of republicanism as well. . . .[The] corporation brought about a new form of dependency. Instead of industry, frugality, and initiatives producing fruits, underlings in the corporate hierarchy had to be aware of style, manners, office politics, and choice of patrons -- very reminiscent of the Old Whig corruption in England at the time of the revolution -- what is today called 'corporate culture.'"

Concludes Huston:

"The rise of Big Business generated the most important transformation of American life that North America has ever experienced."

By the end of the last century the Supreme Court had declared corporations to be persons under the 14th Amendment, entitled to the same protections as human beings. As Morton Mintz pointed out in the National Law Journal, this 1888 case ignored the fact that "the only 'person' Congress had in mind when it adopted the 14th Amendment in 1866 was the newly freed slave." Justice Black observed in the 1930s that in the first fifty years following the adoption of the 14th Amendment, "less than one-half of 1 percent [of Supreme Court cases] invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than 50 percent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations." During this period the courts moved to limit democratic power in other ways as well. For example, the Supreme Court restricted the common law right of juries to nullify a wrongful law; other courts erected barriers against third parties such as banning fusion slates.

It was during this same time that the myth of competitive virtue sprouted, helping to justify one of the great rapacious periods of American business. It was a time when J.P. Morgan would come to own half the railroad mileage in the country -- the same J. P. Morgan who got his start during the Civil War by buying defective rifles for $3.50 each from an army arsenal and then selling them to a general in the field for $22 apiece. The founding principles of what we now proudly call the "American free market system" flowered in an era of enormous bribes, massive legislative corruption, and the creation of great anti- competitive cartels. It was a time when the government, in a precursor to industrial policy, gave two railroad companies 21 million acres of free land.

And it was also the time that American workers, who had once used commerce to free themselves from the economic and social straitjacket of the monarchy, found themselves servants of a new rigid hierarchy, that of the modern corporation.

The political movement of populism, which Jonathan Rowe calls the "last spasm of economic freedom in an American context," did battle with the new corporations but lost, as did the eurocentric socialists who followed. Save during the depression, generations of Americans would come to accept the myth of the free markets and free enterprise.