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Why Do We Disagree?

And How Can we Reglue Society? (Part Two)

By Shlomo Maital

   It is all too easy to attribute the “visceral divisiveness” that now afflicts American society – whites against blacks, Republicans against Dems, blue collar vs. white collar, educated vs. uneducated, immigrants vs. locals — to a nasty tweeting President. But that is too facile.   Trump has used an underlying trend to get elected, but he didn’t create it.

   The trend? David Brooks (NYT, International edition, Nov. 1, op-ed) puts his finger on it, as he often does.

     He quotes a political scientist, Alex Theodoridis: “Partisanship for many Americans today takes the form of a visceral, even subconscious attachment to a party group. Our party becomes a part of our self-concept in deep and meaningful ways.”

     When politics is used as a cure for spiritual and social loneliness, it’s harder to win people over with policy or philosophical arguments. I.e., dialogue becomes impossible. We become deaf.

       Long ago, Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, described America’s social and spiritual loneliness, through the metaphor of bowling – Americans used to bowl together, now, they no longer do. (See the diagram above). Nor do they do many other social activities. And the ‘social media’ of the smartphone are really not social at all, because there is no real human contact involved.

       The fix?   Deeper communal bonds have to be repaired.  If we have strong social bonds, our political bonds need not be visceral, but even peripheral, as they used to be.

     But how?   I have absolutely no idea. I do know that personally, my wife and I have moved to a new city, and joined a new synagogue community, and take enormous pleasure and comfort in it. I truly wish this could be a result for everyone. The community we joined has a wide spectrum of political beliefs. What joins us are many other things,   prayer, study, social events, etc.  This does not cure the political divisiveness, which in Israel is if anything more fierce and visceral than in the US.  

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The Analytical Geometry of a Trump Administration

By Shlomo Maital

trump-x-y

   After the pundits and experts totally missed the Trump electoral wave, they now weigh in with predictions about what Trump and his administration will do. I’ve read these carefully, and they are largely frivolous, as frivolous as the punditry that assumed a Clinton victory.

     However, NYT columnist Ross Douhat weighs in today (Dec. 29), at the year end, with some wisdom, based strangely enough on analytical geometry.   Consider, Douhat says, an X Y diagram.

       On the X axis, place Trump’s policies. They can run from populism all the way to conservatism. Populism would involve spend-spend. Conservatism would involve cut-cut, put government at all levels on a starvation diet. Where will the Trump administration be?

         On the Y axis, place Trump’s approach to governance, ranging from ruthless authoritarianism (Putin-style dictatorship) to utter chaos (an inexperienced administration rife with scandals, incompetent and unable to organize a paper bag). Except for the scandals, remind you at all of the Obama 8-year term?   Where will Trump be?

         Here are four possibilities, according to Douhat: 1. Authoritarian-populist: Trump panders to the masses, ignores the Congress, uses executive mandates…sort of how he ran his businesses (into the ground). 2. Chaos-populist: Trump flies around the country and the world, gets nothing done, and ultimately, lets Paul Ryan (House Speaker) become the de facto President, because, well, being President is both boring and hard work, and you need to read a lot, and Trump only reads tweets. 3. Chaotic, conservative. Congress cancels Obamacare, with no replacement and millions have no health insurance. America’s role in the world shrinks, as the U.S. deals with its own internal mess. 4. Authoritarian-conservative. Trump is ‘managed’ by his conservative appointees and the Congress.     There is a fifth possibility: a Sweet Spot: X = 3, Y = 3, competence without dictatorship, moderate conservatism without cruelty.

     Douhat says “this is Donald Trump we’re talking about, so a happy medium seems unlikely”.

     What do YOU think? Where is America’s X and Y going to be?

    

Lady Gaga – Revisited

By Shlomo Maital

Gaga

In 2011 and 2012 I blogged about pop singer Lady Gaga twice.   Once about her passion and connection with her fans (she records songs after long exhausting performances, capturing the intimate link with her audiences) and once about her foundation.   Apparently even serious NYT columnists like Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks share my interest.   Today’s International New York Times has a wonderful David Brooks column about Lady Gaga, who was given an award together with Sophia Loren, Herbie Hancock and other main-line celebs.

   Lady Gaga’s speech was tearful.   She recalled her childhood.   “I suppose I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wantedto be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe what passions liks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like.”

   Brooks expands on what it means to be passionate. “[People with passion] somehow get to the other side of fear. They get beyond that fog that is scary to approach. Once through it they have the freedom to navigate. They opt out of things that are repetitive and deadening. There’s even sometimes a constant recklessness there, a willingness to throw their imperfect selves out into public view while not really thinking beforehand how people might react.”

   “Gaga is nothing if not permanently out there; the rare celebrity who is willing to portray herself as a monster, a witch or disturbing cyborg — someone prone to inflicting pain. Gaga is her own unique creature, whom no one could copy.”

     I think we can all learn from this flamboyant pop singer known as Lady Gaga (whose real name is Germanotta).   Be yourself. Be fearless. Try things. Get through the fog of fear and uncertainty to the otherwise, to the shores of Creativity Land. Be like Gaga. It’s worth a try.

 

 Whatever Happened to the U.S. Middle Class?

By Shlomo  Maital

   middle class

   The middle class is the bulwark, the core, of every nations’ democracy and economy.  It provides the labor, the capital and the stability that nations need.  This is why we should worry, when the middle class is disappearing, as it is in the U.S.  (Middle class is defined as a household with income from $35,000 to $100,000.)      

    A report in today’s Global New York Times by Dionne Searcey and Robert Gebeloff, based on their study,  reveals these facts:   

  1. 53 million middle class households, nearly half of all households, are aging; many are headed by those over 65. Why? Older Americans have the safety net of social security, which is politically safe and linked to the cost of living.   While middle class income has declined (median household income fell 9 per cent since the year 2000),  income of  households headed by elderly adults has risen by 14 per cent.  Problem is, that elderly safety net is going bankrupt.  
  2. In the late 1960s, 60 per cent of middle class households were comprised of two married adults with children.  Today?  It is just 25 per cent. 
  3. In the Great Recession, 2008 – ??,  “we lost a lot of middle-income jobs and we gained a lot of low-paying jobs”, says an expert from the American Enterprise Institute.  That is why the strong job figures lately are misleading.  They are Wal-Mart and McDonalds jobs.
  4. The middle class deludes itself. A NYT survey shows 60 per cent of people who call themselves middle class think that if they work hard they will become rich. But this is an illusion.  Social mobility in the U.S. has greatly declined.  To get rich and richer, you need to be rich already.

   I think the article fails to make a key and obvious point.  America’s political leaders were accomplices in shifting America’s manufacturing to Asia.  This destroyed millions of high-paying jobs (as in auto production).   It was done both by Democratic and Republican Presidents.  Nor is Congress even trying to get those jobs back.   Apparently, you cannot have a strong stable middle class unless your country makes things other than hamburgers.  Is that obvious?  America is now paying the price for its leaders’ blindness. 

     Meanwhile, the U.S. middle class has not disappeared, it has simply migrated; middle class families in China and India are booming, thanks in part to well-paying jobs.  

    In his State of the Union address, President Obama called the middle class the “foundation of the American economy”.  Really?    Then, why have you, Obama, and other leaders allowed the middle class to decline so drastically?  And what are you doing to reverse the trend?    

 Story-Driven Policy: Worth a Try!

By Shlomo  Maital

Kevin and Nicholas

Nicholas Kristof and friend Kevin Green, Yamhill

  The latest buzzword in professional and academic circles is “evidence-based”.  As an adjective, it modifies ‘psychology’,  ‘medical care’,  ‘policy’… everything.  Everything has to be evidence based. That usually implies a large data base mined for correlations.   Problem with that is,  G-d is in the details.  Truth is in the details.  By using data, especially Big Data, we miss the stories about the “little” people… forgotten people who struggle daily with illness, poverty, crime, drugs and other afflictions.  The Talmud says, If you save a single soul, it is as if you saved the whole world.  The point, of course, is to treat every single person with huge respect and massive importance.

    Today’s New York Times has two seemingly-unrelated stories that make this point perfectly.

    In his Op-Ed piece,  Nicholas Kristof mourns  the death of his school chum Kevin Green. They grew up together in Yamhill, Oregon, and ran cross-country together.  Kevin lost a good job, went on welfare, got divorced, became obese, lived on food stamps, got diabetes, and died at age 54.  Tea Party Republicans say he “had it easy because he got government benefits without doing anything”.  Kristof notes that Kevin collected cans and bottles by the roadside, to make $20 a day for subsistence.  Easy?  Want to trade places?  Did Republican wealth “trickle down” to Kevin and help him get a good job?  Not a chance.

    In Binyamin Applebaum’s piece on Washington, “Three stories illustrate Fed’s power and its limits”,  he covers Janet Yellen (Fed Chair) and her first speech.  Instead of an academic bore, quoting data, citing equations and analysis,   Yellen, who is brilliant, told the stories of three Chicago residents struggling to recover from the recession. She used their stories to explain why she will be very very slow and cautious in ending the Fed’s low-interest policy, despite Republican pressure to do so.   I wonder if she chose Chicago, because that is where President Obama lived and worked.

     All three ‘heroes’ in Yellen’s speech are struggling, but gaining ground.  Jermain Brownlee, 40, got a job building bus seats, though he makes less than he once did in construction.  Dorine Poole lost her job, then got a new one as a full-time office manager.  She makes $20,000 a year,  far less than the $32,000 she once made before the recession, as a claims processor.  Vicki Lara, 62,  lost her job in the recession and a year later, is serving food samples in a supermarket two days a week, six hours a day.  She wishes she could work more hours.  She owed $1,200 when she lost her job, and that debt has now ballooned to $3,700, with interest.  If she worked more, the companies to whom she owes money would simply garnish her wages.  So she had to decline a full-time job.   She told the NYT,  “When I walk home to catch the bus, I see five homeless people freezing in this weather…I wish I made enough money to help them.”

     Lots of people do make enough money to help them. But if you believe it’s their own fault, why bother?  Surely, they LOVE being homeless, outside, in the freezing cold.  Who wouldn’t? 

     I would like to see story-based policy.  If you want to cut welfare as a policy,  tell me a story about a real person and real events, to back up what you claim.    When I was a professor, I wrote papers based on data.  I always felt that the REAL story was in the story itself. But when I told stories, my papers were rejected, often with biting comments – because in Academe, “story” is a swear word.  Single cases, it is claimed, prove nothing.

    Wrong.  They prove everything.  They help us understand real people, real events, real problems.  When the U.S. Congress is populated by elected representatives, half of whom are millionaires, how in the world can they understand people like kevin, Vicki, Jerome or Dorine?    They can’t.      

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019
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