Sunday, July 29, 2018

Leaders and Followers

The day before yesterday I posted a blog entry with a lot of political jargon which could be reduced, in the end, to a pitch for voting socialist. I had been trying to make sense of Yale Law professor Samuel Moyn’s distinction between good leftists and not-so-good leftists. Good leftists are the guys who have held out historically in favor of running society for the benefit of the greatest number – ideally, of every man, woman and child – as opposed to the folks who think we should be making lots and lots of money, and defining rich men as smart men. Give the first group a name like liberal, or progressive, or leftie, or democrat. Give the second group the name conservative, or Republican. What Moyn is all fired up about is the group in the middle, the “not-so-good leftists” as it were – the lefties who are trying to be “smart” by joining forces with the right in order to get things done, all under the wonderful rubric of “compromise.”

It’s an age-old political argument – its proponents call it realism, common sense, logic. To do anything else, anything other than to embrace the center, is to be on the extremes. And “extremist,” like “socialist” is a bad word in America. The reasoning is self-explanatory: compromise is how you get things done.

True. And the rich continue to get richer and the poor poorer. And the country continues to go to war. And the environment continues to degrade.

Because the right is currently in power, leftists are fighting back, and the extreme left is getting a better hearing than it has in a long time. The Moyn argument that the left has betrayed progressive goals by casting their lot with the conservatives is only one example. Michelle Goldberg published an article recently, Democrats Are Moving Left. Don’t Panic.  And this morning’s New York Times is flooded with centrists panicking and calling her ideas dangerous. Remember Ralph Nader? Go ahead!  Shoot yourself in the foot, you damn fools. Keep the Republicans in the White House.

The reasoning behind the pro-centrist position is that you have to follow the crowd. You have to go to the place where American sentiment is located. If people are not with you, it does you no good to be right, or fair, or good. Politics is the art of the possible. How often have we heard, “the country is not ready for (the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, laws against smoking, abortion on demand, same-sex marriage)? Each of these issues was pushed by progressives in their day and opposed by conservatives. And conservatives were given a boost throughout most of the struggle by centrist enablers who argued, “The country simply isn’t ready.”

So there’s nothing new here. Universal health care? The country’s not ready. Gun control? The country’s not ready. Free education through college? The country’s not ready. Don’t push it. Don’t push people too far or you’ll lose them. Yes, abortion should be a civil right and religionists should be told not to impose their religious values on the nation as a whole. Yes, global warming is causing killer heat waves all over the planet, never-ending forest fires in California, but the country’s not ready to do anything about it. If Americans really cared, they would not have put Republicans in charge of government. We need more time.

An estimated 10,000 Americans are studying at German universities.  Not because American universities are not good ones – America has always led the world in secondary education (it’s primary education where we fall down). But to get a college degree in America you have to go into debt to the tune of as much as a hundred thousand dollars in some cases. In Germany, university education is in most cases free – even for foreigners.

Health care is universal in most modern countries.  In Canada, it is state of the art. And not just universal, but half the cost of health care in the United States.

These are the kind of issues I understand when I say we are wrong to care about the generation of wealth to the detriment of what virtually all other modern democracies aim for – creating a society in which the wealth of the nation is shared by the largest population possible.

When I started school, just after the end of the Second World War, Americans were head and shoulders above the rest of the world in standard of living. In 1960, my working class family was able to afford to send me to Germany to study for a year. My roommate in Munich would pull out a loaf of rye bread, which had to last a week, smear it with lard, and boil an egg for lunch. My dollar was the equivalent of four marks and for fear that my roommate would see me as the ugly rich American, I would sneak out for my favorite Wienerschnitzel virtually anytime I wanted. Today, America is down there with Mexico and Turkey as a country with astonishing income inequality. It has a ratio of 18.8 to 1 when comparing the income of the richest 10% to the poorest 10%. In Germany, by contrast, it’s 6.6%. Practically nobody is reduced to a single slice of bread with lard for lunch anymore. And there are eight other countries with an even fairer distribution of wealth in the world than Germany. 

Stephen Colbert has a satire on Betsy DeVos this week and the fact that somebody untied her yacht from its moorings. Not to worry, says Colbert, she has nine other yachts. 

view from the right
Why are we making jokes about the filthy rich members of the Trump cabinet? In a country where elementary school teachers earn the smallest fraction of an executive’s salary – and end up spending an average of $500 of their own money  for school supplies because we don’t tax ourselves enough to cover those costs. Taxes being sacrosanct, and democrats being described by the bastards on the right as “people who just want more stuff.”

When I came to San Francisco to live in 1965 I thought I had died and gone to heaven. These days, with my 78-year-old bladder, I’m careful to make sure I visit the rest room before taking BART into the city, since all the public rest rooms are closed and one of the main complaints is that tourism is declining because the streets stink of piss and shit. Why? Because we have so many homeless and because drugs are such a problem we close the rest rooms so they don’t become shooting galleries – and because we live in fear of bombs. I’d still rather be in San Francisco than most places in America, but there’s no way I’m going to confuse it with paradise.

That’s what the left is – or should be – all about – making sure old folks (and everybody else) can pee when they need to. Nobody should have to choose between buying essential medicine and paying the rent. Nobody should need to take their car into the city because the public transportation is slow, expensive, or otherwise inadequate. Women should not miss a job interview because they can’t find somebody to watch their kids for the duration. Why are those “socialist” notions? Sneared at as “entitlements”? Seen as demands made by “extremists”?

And why must I be afraid to vote for a social democrat for fear of keeping the Paul Ryans and the Mitch McConnells and the Donald Trumps in power?

The argument for voting for the middle does make sense, I have to admit, alas. I don’t want to be responsible for missing an opportunity to take back the House. But I’m really uncomfortable with the argument that one votes for “where the country is at the moment” instead of for someone who would lead it into a better place. Why must I vote for a follower and not a leader?

I don’t have an answer to that question. It’s a real question.

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