President Platitude

Again, read your Egan.

The empty chair that a befuddled Clint Eastwood spoke to had to compete with the famous empty suit of Mitt Romney. In the speech that was supposed to seal the deal with a divided public, the man who sheltered his money in foreign lands went on about his “belief in America”; it sounded like the chords of a flat song. The substance of his speech was the rhetorical equivalent of the elevator music the nominee loves. This was President Platitude, the aspirant.

Debtor nation

While reading Matt Taibbi’s piece on Mitt Romney’s outrageous Bain Capital career I was reminded of a different period, one in which citizens took matters into their own hands to punch capitalism in its big, fat mouth. Our radical history never appears in students’ textbooks, although Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States includes many references to the violent acts of the oppressed against their oppressors.

This Monday, we should remember, is Labor Day. But few of us take the time to recall struggles of another era, one marked by bombings, shootings, strikes, riots, and Pinkerton guards. I’ll mention one incident.

The year before the birth of my grandfather— who would become active in labor’s causes for most of his adult life—a peaceful rally took place in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Workers and their families were demonstrating for an eight-hour day. Imagine that. Someone threw a bomb. Gunshots were fired. Police and civilians died. (You can read about it here.)

Perhaps we can call upon Zinn to give us a brief background. He’s writing about Albert Parsons and August Spies, described by Zinn as anarchist leaders of the International Workers of the World, to which my grandfather briefly belonged (from pp. 264-265 of the paperback People’s).

On May 3 [1886], a series of events took place which were to put Parsons and Spies in exactly the position that the Chicago Mail had suggested (“Make an example of them if trouble occurs”). That day, in front of the McCormick Harvester Works, where strikers and sympathizers fought scabs, the police fired into a crowd of strikers running from the scene, wounding many of them, and killed four. Spies, enraged, went to the printing shop of the Arbeiter-Zeitung [Workers’ Newspaper] and printed a circular in both English and German:

Revenge!

Workingmen, to Arms!!!

…You have for years endured the most abject humiliations…you have worked yourself to death…your Children you have sacrificed to the factory lord—in short: you have been miserable and obedient slaves all these years. Why? To satisfy the insatiable greed, to fill the coffers of your lazy thieving master? When you ask them now to lessen your burdens, he sends his bloodhounds out to shoot you, kill you!

…To arms we call you, to arms!

Well, one thing led to another, including the aforementioned bomb. But as Wikipedia suggests, “The Haymarket affair is generally considered significant as the origin of international May Day observances for workers.” We could add Labor Day to this. Could, but we won’t.

Now, we would judge Spies’s circular inflammatory and hyperbolic. Not only have we rid our vocabularies of such rhetoric, we generally regard ourselves as more civil these days. We also put up with a lot more pervasive, yet sophisticated shit, dispensed by “the great malefactors of wealth,” as Teddy Roosevelt called his oligarchs. Perhaps we’ve become inured to the abuse. Or, certainly, the stakes are different. We don’t, as a rule, sacrifice our children to “factory lords,” though migrant children toil hours in white farmers’ fields. Nor do Wall Street barons sic their “bloodhounds” on us. There’s no need, since we’re probably sitting in front of the television watching American Idol.

I should offer a little of Taibbi so that you can gain some flavor for what prompted this post. Let’s start at the beginning:

The great criticism of Mitt Romney, from both sides of the aisle, has always been that he doesn’t stand for anything. He’s a flip-flopper, they say, a lightweight, a cardboard opportunist who’ll say anything to get elected.

The critics couldn’t be more wrong. Mitt Romney is no tissue-paper man. He’s closer to being a revolutionary, a backward-world version of Che or Trotsky, with tweezed nostrils instead of a beard, a half-Windsor instead of a leather jerkin. His legendary flip-flops aren’t the lies of a bumbling opportunist – they’re the confident prevarications of a man untroubled by misleading the nonbeliever in pursuit of a single, all-consuming goal. Romney has a vision, and he’s trying for something big: We’ve just been too slow to sort out what it is, just as we’ve been slow to grasp the roots of the radical economic changes that have swept the country in the last generation.

And what is Romney’s grand vision?

Mitt Romney – a man whose own father built cars and nurtured communities, and was one of the old-school industrial anachronisms pushed aside by the new generation’s wealth grab – has emerged now to sell this make-nothing, take-everything, screw-everyone ethos to the world. He’s Gordon Gekko, but a new and improved version, with better PR – and a bigger goal. A takeover artist all his life, Romney is now trying to take over America itself. And if his own history is any guide, we’ll all end up paying for the acquisition.

Taibbi goes on to chronicle how Romney made his fortune, not by weeding out weak businesses or turning them around, all the while putting people to work. Rather, Romney and Bain Capital parlayed a little of their own money along with massive debt to simply extract millions of dollars from companies before they almost inevitable ran aground. He and his minions got out before the axe fell on thousands of workers. Taibbi:

Here’s how Romney would go about “liberating” a company: A private equity firm like Bain typically seeks out floundering businesses with good cash flows. It then puts down a relatively small amount of its own money and runs to a big bank like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup for the rest of the financing. (Most leveraged buyouts are financed with 60 to 90 percent borrowed cash.) The takeover firm then uses that borrowed money to buy a controlling stake in the target company, either with or without its consent…

Romney and Bain avoided the hostile approach, preferring to secure the cooperation of their takeover targets by buying off a company’s management with lucrative bonuses. Once management is on board, the rest is just math. So if the target company is worth $500 million, Bain might put down $20 million of its own cash, then borrow $350 million from an investment bank to take over a controlling stake.

But here’s the catch. When Bain borrows all of that money from the bank, it’s the target company that ends up on the hook for all of the debt.

Taibbi captures the disturbing irony of the man named ‘Mitt.’ Despite the candidate’s rebuke of Obama for creating a “prairie fire of debt,” debt was what made Romney rich. Not his debt, of course. He made it his business to saddle others with so much that they could not possibly get out from under it. Taibbi offers an example of Bain’s modus operandi:

Take a typical Bain transaction involving an Indiana-based company called American Pad and Paper. Bain bought Ampad in 1992 for just $5 million, financing the rest of the deal with borrowed cash. Within three years, Ampad was paying $60 million in annual debt payments, plus an additional $7 million in management fees. A year later, Bain led Ampad to go public, cashed out about $50 million in stock for itself and its investors, charged the firm $2 million for arranging the IPO and pocketed another $5 million in “management” fees. Ampad wound up going bankrupt, and hundreds of workers lost their jobs, but Bain and Romney weren’t crying: They’d made more than $100 million on a $5 million investment.

Taibbi believes that Romney’s end game looks something like this:

Romney is the frontman and apostle of an economic revolution, in which transactions are manufactured instead of products, wealth is generated without accompanying prosperity, and Cayman Islands partnerships are lovingly erected and nurtured while American communities fall apart. The entire purpose of the business model that Romney helped pioneer is to move money into the archipelago from the places outside it, using massive amounts of taxpayer-subsidized debt to enrich a handful of billionaires. It’s a vision of society that’s crazy, vicious and almost unbelievably selfish, yet it’s running for president, and it has a chance of winning.

I think that Taibbi may be on to something in his discussion of debt. It may be no coincidence that the Great Divergence, in addition to increasing the gulf between the Have’s and Have-nots, saddled us with rising debt.

 

I’ve included the following graph in prior posts. It shows income gains by “fractile.”

Since the late 70s the U.S. economy has shifted away from manufacturing toward financialization. We used to build things.

Now we finance—whatever. Financing is all about debt. I want to buy a house, so I borrow money. I’m Mitt Romney and I want to buy a company. I borrow money.

The first chart above shows government debt. What about private, or consumer, debt?

Fifty thousand billion equals $50 trillion. Now that’s a lot of money. Keep in mind that our GDP is about $13.6 trillion. Let’s look at GDP and consumer debt.

Wow! We can then compare the ratio of debt to GDP.

Before 1983, the ratio of consumer debt to GDP was less than one. Today, for every dollar of GDP our economy incurs four dollars of debt.

The financial sector is populated by people like Mitt Romney and, of course, Wall Street barons. The piles of debt, to my simple mind, represent giant Ponzi schemes, with the need for increasing inputs (debt) for any given output (unit of GDP).

Our whole economy, now, is about leveraging, borrowing money to do what? It’s not to put people to work. It’s not to build better roads and schools. It’s not about improving the living standards of the Rest of Us. No, it’s all about making rich people richer.

Do you get this? Well, let’s start printing some circulars.

Turning it around

The Tampa speeches proclaim new leadership, a  promise not to let people down, and a commitment to turn the country around. The cluster of words were perched atop the Republican’s strategic tree, which took root soon after Obama’s election in 2008. The strategy looks something like this, with considerable help from the president.

During his transition from election to office, Obama spectacularly fumbled his appointments, choosing economic advisors who were largely responsible for enabling Wall Street shenanigan, then claimed that his woefully inadequate stimulus package would dramatically reduce unemployment and right the economy. The Republicans aided and abetted Obama’s blunders with Machiavellian glee.

First, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell vowed to hold the president to a single term. Then both the House and Senate Republicans stubbornly and steadfastly denied Obama any opportunity, even if he wanted one, to further stimulate the economy. Meanwhile, they widely judged the original stimulus (ARRA) a failure; indeed, they said, Keynesian economics simply doesn’t work.

Having boxed in Obama and presented him as the target for people’s scorn, the Republicans need only suggest to voters that they are different from the president. At a minimum, try a refreshing alternative.

But the alternative is neither refreshing nor workable. The policy prescriptions have already been tried and found wanting, miserably so.

Romney et al. are banking on American stupidity and amnesia. It was not that long ago that the Republicans had their way with running the country—into the ground.

Lowering taxes, conservatives’ favorite solution to everything, did not create jobs or raise wages. That action succeeded two-fold: further lining the pockets of the already wealthy; and creating mountains of federal debt.

Boosting defense spending, another favorite, only invites more expensive wars, and we’ve had two blockbusters. Revealing their hypocritical slips, Republicans warn against squeezing the Pentagon because doing so will cost jobs. Huh?

Should the Republicans take complete control of Washington in January, we can expect the following:

  • sharp reductions in Medicaid;
  • a phased-in voucher system to replace Medicare as we know it;
  • much lower taxes on the wealthy, including the strong possibility of eliminating both capital gains and corporate income taxes;
  • a very strict ban on abortion, which would be upheld by the Supremes;
  • fewer federal regulations of the environment and the workplace; and
  • wholesale denial of global warming and, therefore, suspension of any research dollars into the science.

This is only a partial list, but all of these policies will further screw the Rest of Us. Paul Krugman says as much, here.

Boycott NFL

Reading Dave Zirin’s column about the NFL’s lockout of its referees makes me want to do something on their behalf. The easy part is not buying a ticket, since I haven’t attended a football game since the 1970s, when I saw the Oakland Raiders, although my wife may remind me that we saw a forgettable Seahawks game in the Kingdome. Still, a long time ago.

Could I bring myself to keep the television off? Noam Chomsky does it all the time. But he doesn’t like sports. I do. Gosh, the Seahawks have a new exciting quarterback who promises to score lots of points and win games.

If I boycott by refusing to watch have I in effect supported the incompetent scabs and, worse, the ownership oligarchy? My lone absence from the screen would have no effect. If 10 million turned off their TVs, someone would surely notice. If reporters decided to cover the feeding of ducks instead of the professional franchise, someone would surely notice. If fans took their children to the playground rather than dress up funny and sit in cold, wet bleachers in pro football stadiums across the country, someone would surely notice.

Now, if the players refused to play, everyone would surely notice. After all, the owners stiffed them after a months-long lockout.

Don’t count on it.

Venn diagrams

The Republicans are gathered in Tampa for their quadrennial convention. Mitt Romney, albeit reluctantly, is their man. Not by choice, but by default, he surviving the canceling-out process of the primaries, which pitted ultra-conservatives against each other. So the bland man from Bain will go on to face the president in a race many still say is too-close-to-call.

While I have a deep contempt for the modern-day Republican, I have to admit that few of them are really One-percenters. They are an ad hoc mix of social and economic conservatives who nevertheless do the bidding of the oligarchs; and that’s okay by them. We might view this assortment in terms of Venn diagrams with considerable overlap, once beyond wealth identification. For every Koch brother there must be millions who would otherwise belong with the Rest of Us, though they would abhor such a label. Let me take a stab at the circles.

I suspect that a strong majority of the modern-day conservative party condemn abortion, though they might quickly add that they have nothing against women. After all, Republican men marry them, and they go ga-ga over Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter. The party leaders do all they can to trumpet their right-to-life ideology, because they know that in doing so they can hook Catholic and fundamentalist Christian voters.

If Republicans stand for anything today it’s their loathing of government, even though all of them benefit from government programs and spending, from defense and roads to Medicare and Social Security. But the antipathy creeps further. Take global warming, for example, whose solution would necessarily require government action. Since they detest the latter, they deny the former.

Republicans, more white than their Democratic counterparts, would prefer that people of color stay in their places. They certainly don’t want them to vote, since they would more likely cast ballots for liberals than conservatives. Changing U.S. demographics must give them pause, which may drive them to seek de jure apartheid.

Republicans will deny that they are racist. They just have high requirements for “their” colored folk. This is terribly ironic, of course, because the most politically successful person of color in our nation’s history happens to sit in the White House. He is their stated enemy. Wrong kind of black person: too smart and uppity.

Republicans loathe taxes as much as they loathe government, and the two go hand in hand. Reduce taxes, they believe, and you reduce government. Never mind that whenever they succeed in lowering taxes federal spending continues upward. Thus, the only two things lower taxes accomplish is more money for rich people and a burgeoning federal debt. No matter how much they hate debt, they love lower taxes even more.

Conservatives are fixed on the notion that poor people are lazy moochers. Helping them only increases their number while sapping whatever resolve they may have to improve their circumstances. Why does the world’s greatest country have so many poor? Government.

Republicans love guns, and there can never be too many of them. They also worship the death penalty. If they could, they’d use their own guns to mete out justice and skip government altogether.

The resultant Venn diagram of the Republican Party portrays a population of loons.*

Not that the Democrats are much better.

_____________

* Saw this bumper sticker today: “Republicans for Voldemort.” Fits.

WHIP

If you like statistics, you’ll love baseball. Just about any metric you can imagine is available at your fingertips. One of my favorites is WHIP, which stands for walks + hits per inning pitched. We’re talking pitchers, of course.

Pitchers control the game. The fewer runners reach base the fewer score. So keeping walks and hits at a minimum should be foremost on a pitcher’s mind.

On average, major league baseball pitchers allow roughly 1.4 walks and hits per inning. The best pitchers record numbers significantly below that.

I’ve selected five pitchers for comparison, because of their success. They are:

  • Sandy Koufax
  • Tim Lincecum
  • Greg Maddux
  • Felix Hernandez
  • Randy Johnson

Using stats from baseball-reference.com I’ve charted their career WHIPs. Here goes:

Note that both Maddux and Koufax began their careers with high WHIPs. Then after a few seasons under their belts, the metric improved, with Maddux reaching the lowest, 0.81, in his 10th year. In his last four seasons, Koufax’s WHIP was under 1.0. We see that Felix Hernandez has always been below the major league average in his career; he started at age 19. Both Johnson and Koufax were wild in their first few years, walking over a 100 batters a season.

All of the pitchers above lowered their WHIP after rough starts, though Hernandez is an exception. But there’s another: Tim Lincecum.

The red line (Lincecum’s) was below the league average in his first five seasons, achieving a low mark in 2009, his third year with the Giants. This year, however, is quite different and reflects his current struggles. Batters are reaching base an average of 1.5 times an inning. In his last outing against the Atlanta Braves, Lincecum lasted but five rounds, yielding five hits and two walks. His WHIP for the game was 1.4, about the league average. Three Braves scored, and he got the loss, a typical result in 2012.

In watching the game I heard Orel Hersheiser comment repeatedly on Lincecum’s “moving parts,” of which his delivery has many. At one point Hersheiser said that he’d like to see a scatter-plot of Lincecum’s pitches, comparing the locations to their intended targets (the catcher’s glove). Very few of his pitches succeeded. In simple terms, he was all over the place.

His mound opponent that day was Tim Hudson, the antithesis to Lincecum. He not only knew what pitch to throw and where, he reached his intended destination far more often than not. The contest wasn’t close, with the Braves easily defeating the Giants.

I’ve written about Lincecum’s travails several times, for several reasons. One, he’s a product of Puget Sound, having grown up in Renton and attended the U. Two, he pitches for my beloved Giants. Three, he won the Cy Young two consecutive years. And four, of course, he sucks right now, and no one admits to knowing why.

Yes, it’s about mechanics, and that’s very problematic for a pitcher or any athlete, for that matter. Once you’ve become obsessed with your delivery or your golf swing or your jump shot, you’ll fail. Persistent success requires athletes to be “in a groove,” to be literally unconscious about mechanics.

Thus, the ultimate problem lies between the ears. It’s all in Timmy’s head. He knows it. Pitching coach Dave Righetti knows it. Manager Bruce Bochy knows it.

Professional sports is littered with players who somehow lost their groove. Often their focus departed after being hit or sustaining an injury. I suspect that on more occasions the athlete opened the door to self-doubt. Unable to address the problem quickly, the uncertainty mushroomed.

I’m sure that each time Lincecum takes the mound he’s wondering to himself if he can hit his target. During those brief, split-second moments of his delivery, he’s thinking about his rotation, his arm position, his grip, his stride, his torque—and so on. There is nothing automatic; it’s all conscious in the extreme.

He’s in big trouble. His head tells him so. His fans can only watch in desperation, hoping that he’s just one delivery away from unconsciousness.

A bit more on Dewey

In my reading of Finnish Lessons I admit to being taken aback by the reference to John Dewey. To wit, the wholesale reforms of Finland’s education system were based on the philosophy of Mr. Dewey, who died from pneumonia on June 1, 1952, at the age of 92. That was 60 years ago, and yet his teachings evidently ignited or at least informed the so-called ‘Finnish Way.’

My shelves used to contain a lot more books, which became a burden over years’ worth of moving place to place. I’m guessing that my several books by Dewey wound up on local library shelves. But I retained a biography: John Dewey and American Democracy, by Robert B. Westbrook.

That title is important in understanding Dewey’s philosophy, in general, and his views on education, in particular. For Dewey, democracy and education went hand in hand. In his early years he had hoped with many progressives that education could serve as a catalyst for a new and improved democracy, one that valued each individual and allowed for the full development of all. Later, he became increasingly frustrated with political culture and the failure to realize his ideals. Democracy in America, he concluded, had become co-opted by a privileged few at the expense of the many.

My posts on Finland have emphasized the importance of situating educational reform within a larger societal context. The Finns began their reform effort with attitudes and aspirations antithetical to the typical American’s. First and foremost, Finns are dedicated to a strong welfare state, believing that, while success is partly determined by individual initiative and effort, where one lands on the socioeconomic ladder has much to do with fortuity.

That starting point, I suspect, helps explain why and how Finland succeeded in revamping its educational system while we Americans behave cluelessly. Our predispositions, our prejudices, and our biases combine to thwart genuine reform, at least in the Finnish manner.

We can also appreciate why Dewey grew pessimistic over time about education’s principal role in transforming society and government. He realized that the education system, along with nearly everything else, had come under the control of elites who would stop at nothing to prevent a genuine democracy. Here’s a excerpt from Westbrook’s biography:

Students spent much of their time and energy accumulating, memorizing, and largely forgetting a mass of disconnected information and acquiring mechanical skills. Little attempt had been made to change this situation, and as a result “too large a part of our citizens has left our schools without power of critical discrimination, at the mercy of special propaganda, and drifting from one plan and scheme to another according to the loudest clamor of the moment.”

Schools, he believed, were being enlisted to promote special interests, those defined by oligarchs (my term). Westbrook:

Dewey agreed that much of the education in American schools was little more than indoctrination, “especially with reference to narrow nationalism under the name of patriotism, and with reference to the dominant economic regime.”

Finland, as we’ve learned, places the highest priority on selecting and developing the best and the brightest teachers. That was certainly Dewey’s view, and he often railed against the plight of America’s teachers. Westbrook:

School boards as the representatives of those dominant interests “regard themselves after the analogy of private employers of labor and the teaching staff as their hired men and women.”  Teachers had very little control over their work. Administrators made out the course of study, prepared syllabuses for instruction, and established methods of teaching. The teacher simply took orders…Teachers, Dewey argued…, should recognize that they were as much “workers” as farmers and factory laborers, and as such were subject to the control of “the small and powerful class that is economically privileged.”

In the end for Dewey, when it came to democratic reform, it was all hands on deck, including public education. However, America is a very large, perhaps unmanageable country. That its federal government works at all may be judged a miracle. That it works less and less for the Rest of Us and more so for the One-percenters is as predictable as it may be inevitable. Perhaps meaningful reform of any aspect of society, including education, can be accomplished only by carving out the whole into parts. Begin where you’re planted, I guess.