Democrats Are…Old

At age 33, Jon Ossoff is the first Millennial ever to be elected to the Senate, and is the youngest person to be elected to the Senate since President Joe Biden when he joined in 1973. Democrats and the media should take a cue from his victory and rethink their approach to age and candidate viability. Hard.

The politicians in Congress are increasingly old. In 1981, the average age of a representative was 49 and the average age of a senator was 53. But these averages have steadily increased with almost each new Congress. Today, the average age of a representative is 57 and the average age of a senator is 63. 48 senators are over the age of 65; 147 representatives are over 65. Baby Boomers make up nearly 70% of the most recent Congress in spite of comprising only 21% of Americans. The trend exists much more for Democrats than it does for Republicans: the average age of Democratic House leadership is 72 years old, whereas the average age of Republican House leadership is 48 years old.

The problem extends to the media. According to Nielsen data from 2017, the median age of a CNN viewer is 60 and the median age of a Fox or MSNBC viewer is 65. Cable news producers are highly attuned to this type of thing. One can surmise that if you’re a cable news producer, you are going to want your cable stars to say things that appeal to 60-somethings and refrain from saying things that offend the sensibilities of 60-somethings. While I don’t exactly know what this amounts to besides Prevagen commercials, this might mean that even the left-leaning outlets are less liberal than America actually is. 27% of millennials identify as very liberal, whereas only 17% of Boomers identify as very liberal. 31% of Boomers identify as very conservative while that percentage is 17 for Millennials.

Cable news not only reflects the world but directs it. Many politicians watch cable news coverage to gauge their own political steps. Moderates, especially, try to put themselves in stride with the sensibilities of the mainstream media. That in effect means putting themselves in stride with the sensibilities of the elderly. All of a sudden, we have a political economy that’s being directed by senior citizens. Stuck in an endless loop.

They say that age is just a number. But in politics, might it mean more? When it comes to how we choose our politicians and how we choose the news we consume, should age matter?

The way the young are held back in the Democratic Party is abundantly clear. There’s no shortage of politically engaged, educated, qualified Millennials who want to run for Congress as Democrats. But few seats are opening up, and the Democrats don’t appear to be doing anything about it. If you want a barometer that the Party is operating primarily from a place of nostalgia and is evading its commitment to the next generation of leaders, just look at the Democratic National Convention last year. During the first two nights of the convention, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, Colin Powell, Cindy McCain, John Kasich, and Caroline Kennedy were prominently featured: people from the party’s past, not its future (and in the case of Cindy McCain, John Kasich, and Colin Powell, not even people from the party’s past). The average speaker age was 62. The showrunners only later tweaked the schedule so the second night opened with a montage of 17 “rising star” Democrats. Before that, they were only planning to feature two Democrats under the age of 40 during the whole convention—Pete Buttigieg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the latter of whom appeared for a sinfully short amount of time. She had a 60-second speaking slot—less than Kasich, a George W. Bush cabinet official, and the party’s unsuccessful 2004 nominee John Kerry.

Putting aside the Democrats’ choice to feature so many politicians from antiquity during the convention and muzzle its upstarts, it could be argued that any current politician’s age is a superficial thing to focus on and that they should be judged by their policies alone. Elderly status, no matter—it’s all about what you do. I want to agree with this, but when big decisions are made by one segment of the population, any one segment, problems tend to occur. We saw this with seniors when Mark Zuckerberg had a Senate hearing about data mining in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and many of the senators questioning him didn’t understand how Facebook worked. They squandered hours asking questions that were obvious to Facebook users, and failed to get answers to deeper questions about how Facebook collects data and how something like Cambridge Analytica was able to happen.

We can agree that it’s important that Congress reflects the racial, religious, and gender makeup of America. Isn’t it important too that it better reflect America’s age distribution?

In the event of a showdown between older and younger candidates, the mainstream media has historically sided with older candidates in the name of them having experience. “If this were an open seat in a different political environment with a different president, de León would be a strong contender,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote about 87-year-old Dianne Feinstein’s more progressive and young challenger, Kevin de León. “But Feinstein’s experience and influence are too important to pass up,” they said. There go two things that old fogies have over young people: experience. Influence. But what if newspapers like the Los Angeles Times overvalue these things and undervalue fresh perspectives, in no small part due to the fact that the audience they’re speaking to is, again, older?

The Editorial Board also said de León would be a stronger contender “if this were an open seat”: are Democrats not allowed to challenge incumbents at all? What happens when incumbents become over time out of step with the party, as many complain Feinstein has become, and fail to step down, as most of them are failing to do? The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board effectively says that newcomers aren’t welcome so long as the seat is taken by an incumbent Democrat.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are proof that older politicians can conjure an impassioned base of devoted young people. But as their leadership status exemplifies, even the progressive wing of the party isn’t exempt from this troubling trend of old people running the show.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a counter-example of that, but she didn’t get any help from the Democratic Party at all in her campaign because she was running against the extremely powerful and well-connected incumbent Democrat Joe Crawley. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is astounding. But she might be something of a unicorn. Without support from the Democratic Party, it’s unclear how many more of her there can be. Fewer than if they had the support of the Democrats, that’s for sure. Since very few incumbents are stepping down, many of these seats like hers will be hard-fought and we can expect the mainstream media and the Democratic establishment to continue to resist change.

There could be an end in sight though. People, especially young people, are getting their news from more diverse sources on the internet, and some of these sources are less biased towards the status quo. Twitter exists, giving anyone a voice who has good ideas and a solid command of the platform. Upset campaigns happen—and the internet makes them easier to happen. And who we consider the young now only comprise a bigger part of the electorate as time goes on. But we shouldn’t wait for the results to come naturally: we need representation now. The mainstream media is failing the young, and the Democratic Party is failing to make way. Democrats should take a cue from the victory of Jon Ossoff and invest more in its young potential leaders. Otherwise, we will fall short of having a truly representative democracy.

In the Wake of Cuomo’s Scandals, Maybe It’s Time to Reexamine Our Love Affair with Tough-Guy Politicians

We loved New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s toughness when it came to his coronavirus briefings. Not only New Yorkers but large swaths of the country took great comfort in these briefings during a time when the presidential response was wildly disorganized. They drew 59 million online views and bred the term “Cuomosexuals”. He won an Emmy for the things. In them, Cuomo told us hard truths. He seemed strong and in control, even as he bemoaned his lack of it. “What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000?” he asked of the federal government. “You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.” Even the jokes he made established his control of the situation. “Well I’m authorized, you know, by St. Patrick, that’s who,” he said about his decision to cancel St. Patrick’s Day celebrations last year. “Oh yes, I have the highest authorization, sure.” In the beginning of a dislocating crisis, this felt like exactly what we needed. Someone who could be funny and poignant, but hardline and in command. Someone to stick up for us.

Since his twin sexual harassment and nursing home scandals broke, many have lamented that the man that so deftly guided us through the early days of a global pandemic was the same man who harassed women on and off his staff and ordered nursing homes to readmit elderly hospital patients with COVID-19 who were still recovering and then covered their deaths up. Others have noted that Cuomo’s long history as a political bully has left him with few friends in Albany now that he is vulnerable. But all of this might be more than a coincidence. The same tough guy act that made Cuomo shine in a crisis likely led him to think he could get away with preying on women and manipulating nursing home data. And we, the public, are partially to blame for endorsing it.

Cuomo’s transformation into something of a star in the early days of coronavirus is part of a larger trend. In a New York Times op-ed, Naomi Klein points out that in times of emergency, we often defer to strong and decisive leaders. Rudy Giuliani was a great example of this as mayor of New York City in the wake of 9/11. Giuliani was steady, passionate, dogged, and reassuring in his response to the attacks, and for it got dubbed “America’s Mayor.” The New York Times recounts that “what was most difficult to bear about Mr. Giuliani’s mayorality—his operatic personality, his head-throbbing certainty—became points of strengths in the disorienting weeks after Sept. 11.” Giuliani later went on to be a shill for Donald Trump. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was known for his combative political style and garnered wide popularity for leading his state through Hurricane Sandy. His top aides later closed two lanes of the George Washington Bridge and created massive gridlock that blocked emergency vehicles in the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey as an act of retaliation towards its mayor for not endorsing Christie’s reelection. When we feel under attack, we want strongmen. But why, in all of these cases, did these strongmen end up so epically disappointing us?

When someone commits sexual assault or harassment, the motivation stems from the perpetrator’s desire for power and control. Throughout his political career, Cuomo has aggressively vied for power and control and was repeatedly a bully as he pursued it. In the wake of his nursing home scandal, Cuomo called a Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim, yelled at and berated him, and said he’d destroy him if he didn’t put out a statement supporting him. Before that, Cuomo publicly undermined New York City Transit President Andy Byford, who oversaw a dramatic increase in subway on-time performance, until he quit. Cuomo’s actions reveal, if not abject jealousy, a strong thirst for control. Cuomo had spent years trying to fix the M.T.A. and encountered seemingly endless problems as he did so. Byford was getting great press.  Byford said that people who worked for him, and even people who worked for people who worked for him, were being summoned and given directions around him by the governor’s office about how the subway or bus system should be run. Here was a man who was fixing one of New York City’s most pervasive and persistent problems. And Cuomo bullied him out of the job.

Before that, Cuomo did everything in his power to kill the Working Families Party, which supported his 2018 primary opponent Cynthia Nixon and made a mission out of pulling candidates further to the left than Cuomo. He pressured local unions to leave the party, telling them to “lose my phone number” if they didn’t, which drained the party of clout and financing. Seven people in state politics told POLITICO that the governor or his top staff had told them or their close associates that he wanted to destroy the party. He then told Letitia James, who was attempting to become the nation’s first ever black Attorney General, that he would not endorse her unless she publicly refused the party’s support. This put her in a highly compromised position, as she needed funds but the party had been her longtime ally and was the reason her political career took off. Until his victims came forward, we didn’t view Cuomo’s use of his political power to bend people into submission as anything more than what it was. But perhaps we should have seen it as predictive of sexual harassment. Furthermore, our endorsement of that political persona could have been a catalyst. Most of us brushed off Cuomo’s abject bullying as the harsh yet necessary rough-and-tumble behavior of a seasoned bureaucrat. Why wouldn’t he interpret that as permission to extend that persona to other areas of life?

The same personality traits that comfort us in times of crisis are causing us serious problems in everyday governance. We love strongmen when we feel lost, but they use the same qualities to betray us later. I’m not here to knock anyone who likes their whiskey straight and speeches booming. I’m not saying that being forceful at times makes you a sexual predator or an accomplice to Donald Trump. I am saying that being a bully in one area in your life might lead you to become a bully in another. Being a strongman during an epically popular time in your career might draw you to a politician who espouses strongman tactics. It might lead you to overlook their other failings. This is especially true if the individual in question receives our celebration for being such a way. Our national love affair with tough guy politicians has created more problems than it has solved. It is time we start seeing these traits as predictors of serious problems.

Previous Posts

What’s Behind the Winter Storm Catastrophe in Texas? Big Money

What Should We Do About White Collar Crime?

The COVID Stimulus Bill and the Idea of Unity

What’s Behind the Winter Storm Catastrophe in Texas? Big Money

If you read or watch the mainstream media, you’ll see a lot of talk about the winter storm catastrophe in Texas and about how the deregulation of the energy industry down there caused it.

If you need to be debriefed, here it is: about 20 years ago, Texas handed over control of the state’s entire electricity delivery system from federal authorities to a handful of private generators, transmission companies, and energy companies. This privatization was thought to benefit consumers by offering lower prices and giving them more choices about the energy they use. But the system also came with few safeguards or rules. Companies faced no penalty for failing to provide power during an emergency. There was little financial incentive, and no legal requirement, for these companies to invest in winterizing their infrastructure. Without incentives to protect people, companies chose short-term profit over putting in the investment for a winter storm. This left things vulnerable when this storm hit, causing sprawling outages with dozens dead and millions lacking drinkable water or heat.

What you won’t hear much about in the mainstream media are the political contributions that were behind that deregulation. The Texas politicians most responsible for not preparing the state for the winter storm have a thorny history of taking money from oil and gas companies, and then advocating for their deregulation.

There are examples of single industry executives forking over enormous sums of money to politicians. As TYT Investigates uncovered, Texas energy company Midland Energy’s founder Syed Javaid Anwar donated more than 1.7 million dollars to Texas Republicans as of 2018. Texas Governor Greg Abbott got over 1 million of that, in cash and in airplane rides. With that, Anwar was the single largest donor to Governor Abbott, and he was the single largest donor to former Governor Rick Perry too.

Then there’s the bigger picture. Overall, more than $26 million of Abbott’s political contributions are from fossil fuel companies: more than any other sector according the National Institute on Money in Politics and confirmed by Abbott appoints all three members of the Texas Public Utility Commission, which made key policy decisions that shaped the crisis.

Abbott had the nerve to blame solar and wind producers for the outages when he appeared on Fox News, when natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy systems caused nearly twice as many outages. Although he later walked his comments back, that tells you a lot about his frame of mind and where his loyalties lie. And with the sheer volume of donations he gets from oil and gas, it’s no wonder.

Significantly, Midland Energy founder Anwar has also given more than $400,000 in campaign contributions to Texas Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick. The Texas Railroad Commission regulates the state’s oil and gas industry. He wasn’t the only energy exec that donated to them. Between 2010 and 2016, the Texas Railroad Commissioners received 6.6 million dollars, 60 percent of their campaign donations, from fossil fuel companies. The very companies they’re supposed to be regulating.

These politicians then went and advocated for a deregulated energy system in Texas. A bill passed in Texas state legislature in 2011 called SB 1133 did not require winterization, it only recommended it, leaving it up to companies to decide. The Texas Railroad Commission didn’t require proper winterizing. And bill HB 1986, which was up for debate at the same time as SB 1133 and would have required regulation of energy generating companies, was killed in committee. That bill would have prevented the winter storm from causing the damage that it has caused.

Now, Abbott is blaming the grid managers at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). But ERCOT is overseen by the Texas Public Utility Commission, whose members are, again, appointed by Abbott. “It’s almost like a murder suspect blaming their right hand for committing the crime,” Democratic state Rep. James Talarico told ABC News.

Because these are Republicans we’re talking about who tend to favor deregulating private industry, it’s hard to suss out where the ideology starts and the political contributions end. But we know that people like Anwar weren’t giving these politicians millions of dollars out of the goodness of his heart. He wanted to buy them, and he did. Moreover, we can expect that the amount Anwar spent on political bribes pales in comparison to what he would have had to spend to winterize his system in case of a winter storm. He was making an investment, really.

Christi Craddick, the chair of the Texas Railroad Commission that received $400,000 in campaign contributions from Anwar, has said before that “energy is non-partisan.”

I want to argue against that.

We’ll soon see the federal government come to the assistance of Texans in the form of FEMA relief aid and FEMA relief loans for small businesses. We’ll see some corporations attempt to get tax write-offs in the name of the winter storm’s destruction. So Texas Republicans want a deregulated energy system on the one hand, and then for the federal government has to swoop in and make up for it on the other. It’s not unlike how companies like Wal-Mart and McDonalds pay their workers poverty wages and then taxpayers make up the difference through Medicaid and food stamps. It’s political, and it’s partisan. Small government and corporate deregulation are simply failing us here.

In a way, though, Craddick is right about one aspect of this. Although it’s not at all what she intended when she said it, the issuing of political contributions from oil and gas companies to key decisionmakers is trans-partisan. Democrats get them and Republicans get them. These in turn alter what these representatives do and don’t do. In fact, just as I said it’s hard to know where these Republicans’ ideology starts and the contributions end, I would argue that it’s impossible for us as a country to understand how left or right we really are, or how we really feel about something like a Green New Deal, when our politicians are being given these very large payments that shape their decision-making.

My question is, why on God’s green earth doesn’t the mainstream media report on these contributions more, from oil and gas as well as elsewhere? They’re as clear as daylight. If you want to understand why a politician makes the decisions that they make, aka if you want to provide insight and analysis, which is your job, then maybe you should look at who’s paying these politicians and ask yourself why they would be paying them. The things they do and don’t do will become a lot clearer.

Republican Ryan Sitton, the former commissioner of the Texas Railroad Commission whose own political campaigns have been generously funded by the oil and gas industry, says that the industry doesn’t strong-arm politicians like people might think it would.

“They make donations, sure. But unless the entire energy industry is speaking with a unified voice, which almost never happens, there’s not that much influence,” Sitton said.

The influence can be soft, though. Industry executives need not be in constant communication with the politicians they fund. If you’re a politician and you get oil and gas money, you know what you’re supposed to do. If it didn’t work, the industry wouldn’t continue to do it.

In many ways, oil and gas companies and the politicians who receive their campaign contributions choose each other. Chevron isn’t going to solicit Bernie Sanders. But in many ways, they make each other. The contributions impact or intensify the politician’s worldview. The politician creates a universe for the companies to operate in. It’s a symbiotic thing. Whether it’s due to internal reevaluation or a much more subtle process, our politicians emerge from these relationships changed. All because of one little thing: money.

People are freezing and dying. We may want to reconsider how we do things.

Success! You're on the list.

Previous Posts

What Should We Do About White Collar Crime?

Unity and the Covid Stimulus Bill

Hooked on Trump?

What Should We Do About White Collar Crime?

I was talking with someone about Aunt Becky from Full House going to jail for the college scandal, and this person told me that she doesn’t believe people should go to jail for white collar crime. People who commit fraud, embezzlement, forgery, or bribery should just be issued fines that are large enough to deter their behavior. She said that sending them to jail was a waste of space and resources.

This person is hardly alone in her beliefs. On not prosecuting the individuals who caused the financial crisis, Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner said, “We don’t want to do Old Testament justice.”

Geithner, like this person I was speaking to, clearly didn’t think of white-collar crime as equivalent with crime like robbery. But these are not victimless crimes. They can wipe out a family’s life savings. They can obliterate the national economy. They can cost investors millions of dollars.

What I have to keep reminding myself is that people who do these things know that what they’re doing is wrong. It’s not one big misunderstanding. People who racketeer know they’re extorting people. People who commit fraud know they’re deceiving people.

Still, I can understand the temptation to categorize it differently. It’s easy to look at someone who went to the same schools as you and your peers who speaks nice and has a high post at a big company and think, what they did couldn’t have been that bad. They seem reasonable. In the first millisecond that I think of them sitting in jail with rapists and robbers, I accidentally feel sympathy. But that’s when my judgment steps in. I understand that my background coming from a white-collar family is likely where my sympathy comes from. Within the crooks, I see people who I know. People who have been good to me.

Senior judge on the bench of the Southern District of New York Jed S. Rakoff put it this way: “I found that a person feared prison, and they feared it mightily. They would have paid any amount of money, done anything to avoid going to prison. So prison does have a major deterrent effect.”

But the college scandal was actually pretty unique. Separate from it, we already do not prosecute or imprison wealthy corporate executives anymore when they commit crimes. In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, we prosecuted no top bankers from any institution. (We prosecuted one mid-level banker from Credit Suisse). Nobody from Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Countrywide, Citigroup—no one. For the financial crisis. Not a soul.

There was a time when we would have prosecuted them.

The 1929 market crash exposed a bunch of activities that were not technically criminal, and we had to invent a category of criminality for them. So we established the Securities and Exchange Commission and passed acts in 1933, 1934, and 1940 designed to codify what white collar crime was. Then, in the savings and loan crisis in the late 1980s, we prosecuted over 1,000 individual executives and got over 800 convictions. At the same time, we had the junk bond boom and bust, and we prosecuted who might have been the most powerful person on Wall Street at the time, Michael Milken. The DOJ also arrested a Wall Street trader around the same time. Then, in the wake of the accounting fraud pandemic of the late 1990s early 2000s, the government prosecuted almost all of the top executives involved: at Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Delphia, and Tyco, not to mention at the accounting firm that cooked the books, Arthur Anderson.

But then we entered a dark age from which we have yet to emerge.

There’s a reason for that. What replaced prosecuting executives for corporate crimes in the 2000s? Settlements. They’re most commonly called Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs). In DPAs, corporations who commit wrongdoing essentially get to investigate themselves. They go like this: instead of prosecution, the corporate law firms that represent the companies that committed crimes compile a series of facts and hand it over to the DOJ. The DOJ gets this series of facts, but very little access to the raw materials. The DOJ associate then goes to the client and says, ‘We’d like to interview the following people. If you say no, and the prosecutors ask us if we were impeded in any request that we made, we’ll have to say yes.’ But all they do is interview them. Then these DOJ associates produce a report for prosecutors.

Some prosecutors claim that the DPAs are merely starting points—but if you look at the DPAs, you find that they almost always say that the companies pledged full cooperation and they don’t lead to any follow-up prosecutions of individuals.

In the first decade of their existence, in the 1990s, the DOJ did 18 DPAs. In the next decade, from 2001 to 2010, they did over 420. What’s with the shift? Well, in the wake of the successful early 2000s prosecutions of firms like Enron and Arthur Anderson and WorldCom, there was a politically charged backlash by big corporations and the defense attorneys, who argued that the prosecutors had been aggressive cowboys. That they had gone too far. They launched a PR campaign where they shifted the focus from the people who had committed the crimes to the innocent people who were losing their jobs. That worked. They changed the conversation. The DOJ effectively took prosecuting a large corporation off the table after this. There were a few other things at play: after 9/11, the FBI shifted a lot of resources around and moved away from investigating white collar crimes. There were some losses at the DOJ: the Brooklyn US Attorney’s Office tried to prosecute some Bear Sterns executives and lost, which had a negative effect on things. But the PR campaign was key.

“When we’re talking about inequality in American society, we often talk about wealth or income inequality. But I think the greatest perquisite of being wealthy in America today is impunity to commit crimes.”

That quote comes from ProPublica journalist Jesse Eisinger, who wrote The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives. The title of the book is based on something James Comey said to federal prosecutors while he was head of the FBI. He rounded up prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, which is the place responsible for prosecuting crimes on Wall Street. It’s a place where only the cream of the crop works. The men and women who work for the Southern District in lower Manhattan have attended the best schools, have outperformed their peers, and have basically taken all the right steps for all of their lives. Comey asked, “How many of you have never lost a trial?” A gaggle of prosecutors raised their hands with pride. “Me and my friends have a name for you,” he said. “You’re the Chickenshit Club.” The hands slumped down.

Comey’s point was that prosecutors are supposed to take risks. They’re supposed to go after the bad guys even when the cards are stacked against them. But because of their backgrounds, many of the prosecutors at the Southern District are pleasers. And pleasers make lousy prosecutors.

Another reason DPAs are flawed is that the Southern District prosecutors are climbing the career ladder—and the turnover rate from the DOJ to corporate defense firms is huge. They see the corporate defense lawyers sitting across the table from them during DPA proceedings as future bosses or partners. They want to be seen as brilliant, fair, deft negotiators who are ultimately reasonable. Not as cowboys. Eisinger describes the prosecutors in DPA proceedings as “studiously incurious about culpability at the top.” They’re interviewing for a job.

We know about excessive punishment and mass incarceration, which happens especially to the poor and people of color. This is the other side of that coin. Wealthy, well-represented individuals who commit crimes and get protected by the DOJ.

In this era of fining companies rather than prosecuting executives, what we’re finding is that the companies often end up being recidivists—despite the fact that the size of corporate penalties that companies pay has grown almost every year since 2001. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that more than half of the people who committed serious fraud offenses in the last few years were recidivists. The fines simply aren’t working.

Where do we go from here? For starts, we could push Congress to fund a serious corporate crimes unit. We could advocate for resources spent on low-level drug and immigration cases to be diverted to prosecuting white collar crime. And we could insist that more of these cases be brought as real criminal cases.

If you’re like me and you come from a background where you have known a number of high-ranking white-collar professionals, the change might start by intentionally reminding yourself and those around you that white collar crime is crime. And when you commit a crime, you’re supposed to go to jail.

Success! You're on the list.

Previous Posts

Unity and the COVID Stimulus Bill

Hooked on Trump?

Income Inequality’s Next Frontier: The Economy Class on Airplanes

The Covid Stimulus Bill and the Idea of Unity

Joe Biden and the Democrats are passing Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus bill instead of negotiating with Republicans and their much smaller $618 billion counter-offer that would disqualify millions of Americans from being able to receive its benefits. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with 10 senate Republicans about their proposal for two hours on Monday, which raised the question of whether Biden was going to compromise with Republicans versus go at the COVID stimulus bill alone. The day before yesterday it was announced that Democrats are going to go with Biden’s plan, and use the budget reconciliation process on this, which will allow them to pass the plan with a mere 51 votes rather than the 60-vote supermajority usually required for bills. So go at it alone Democrats will.
Senator Todd Young of Indiana, one of the Republicans who met with Biden, had something to say about that:
“It’s not a good signal that he’s adopting a take-it-or-leave-it approach right after his president delivers an inaugural address based on unity,” he said of Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to reporters on Capitol Hill.
For me, the move and the quote raise the question of what, exactly, unity is or should be at a time when Democrats control the House, Senate, and White House. What do you expect, for Democrats to not forge ahead with their goals when they have the numbers to do so? Republicans used budget reconciliation twice shortly after Trump was inaugurated and they had the majority, to pass tax cuts for the wealthy and to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And $1.9 trillion was almost the exact amount that they cost the national budget with their tax cuts for the wealthy. They weren’t worried about the deficit then. But they are with the COVID stimulus bill.
This might surprise you, but I feel guilty about fighting Republicans as a knee-jerk reaction. When I heard that Joe Biden was meeting with conservatives like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins to hash this out, a big part of me wanted them to strike a deal. Not because I believe the Republicans are part-right, but simply because I want us to get along with them. I think this comes from a learned deference I have to conservatives for some strange reason, as if they’re wise in a way that Democrats are not. I like the idea of conservatives getting on board behind me, of reading this blog. And I don’t think I’m the only Democrat that feels this way. You see Democratic representatives like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema bragging about the common ground they have with Republicans. But when you look at the GOP and what they do, simply none of them share any desire to look like almost-Democrats. Mitch McConnell doesn’t try and prove that he can get down with us. He just doesn’t. Wanting to appeal to the other party seems like a strictly Democratic affliction. Is that our ticket towards unity though? And does it matter that if the Republicans were in charge, as they were a short time ago, there would be no talk of unity with the Democrats?
“I wonder if somebody needs to be the bigger man,” someone said to me, adding that not negotiating with Republicans could come back to haunt Democrats with future legislation they want to pass. These are solid points. But a robust COVID stimulus package is so needed right now, it’s wildly popular (78% of Americans support it), and the Republicans wanted to make it so that nobody earning between $50,000 and $75,000 would get a penny from the government. They call it “more targeted aid” on cable news shows. They talk about government money going to multimillionaires. But really what they were trying to do is prohibit people who are solidly in the middle class from getting any relief. Again, they didn’t have a problem giving the biggest corporations and multimillionaires relief in the form of tax cuts when they were in charge.
Here’s the snag: if you go down the list of the Democrats’ priorities and how Biden has already started to address them, they’re staunchly Democratic objectives and Democratic solutions. He’s promised to halt most deportations of undocumented immigrants during his first 100 days in office—that’s a Democrat thing. He revoked the permit for the Keystone XL—that’s a Democrat thing. And he’s trying to raise the wage to $15 an hour—another Democrat thing. What conservatives are going to get on board with any of these? Should we care?
Maybe unity and bipartisanship are two separate things. We can convene with each other and debate our differences in a civilized way, like Biden did in the Oval Office with the 10 conservative senators. Then we can each go to the House and the Senate and fight like hell to get our version of justice pushed through. A more realistic version of unity, a unity 1.0, might mean that we respect each other enough to try and hear each other. Chips fall where they may.

Success! You're on the list.

Previous Posts

Hooked on Trump?

Income Inequality’s Next Frontier: The Economy Class on Airplanes

Chick-fil-A While Gay?

Am I Hooked on Trump?

The inauguration was a new dawn. But I caught myself clutching the covers. Watching it, the unseemly thought entered my mind: am I going to miss having Donald Trump in office? Now let me explain that I am vehemently against Trump. I think he’s a horrible individual who led our country to a God-awful place. But that’s just the thing: the drama was addicting. I think I’m addicted to watching pundits decry him on Morning Joe every morning, addicted to always having something new to be aghast about. Trump turned the presidency into a spectator event. There was no bottom to his behavior, and that made him utterly captivating to watch. What are Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes going to talk about now? And will I be as interested as I used to be? We now face a vacuum. To move on, we need to put the forty-fifth president behind us. But I wonder if we’re too hooked on his drama to do this.
Meanwhile, Joseph Biden prescribes a period of healing. People might wonder if that’s possible after all we’ve been through, but my question is, what happens if it is? If the President ushers in an era of peace and togetherness, do we lose our voices? Opposing Trump gave us moxie. It gave us things to speak out about. How do we transfer our fighting spirit to the age of Biden? God knows we have work to do. But we now have a president who…wants to do it. Where crisis-level exclamations of anger and anguish once flourished, subdued appeals will now do. It’s a new posture. Since nobody is contemptible anymore, we have to learn how to fight for things rather than against them. With Biden, we may sleep better at night, but can we be as fierce or as engaged? There may be many things I want to lose from the Trump era, but these are a few of the things I hope to keep.
I wonder if we could ever file into the streets by the hundreds of thousands to protest income inequality the same way we did President Trump the day after his inauguration. I wonder if fighting climate change can still rev us up when the president and his EPA appointee indeed believe in it and want to stop it too. The ferocious resistance that emerged to oppose an overtly despicable leader needs to be applied to some of our society’s most critical issues. There are places for our outrage to go. But in the absence of such an observable threat to the republic, will it go there?
As we celebrate the end of the Trump era, we should think about what American projects we place our energy in next. Maybe we’ll surprise ourselves. Maybe we’ll find that we can be fighters in times of harmony just as much as we are in times of turmoil, albeit in a new way.

Success! You're on the list.

Previous Posts

Income Inequality’s Next Frontier: The Economy Class on Airplanes

Chick-fil-A While Gay?

“The Reasonables”

Income Inequality’s Next Frontier: The Economy Class On Airplanes

Booking an Economy ticket for a recent flight, I had a choice between paying $25 extra for a window seat and a bunch of middle seats at the back of the plane.

Weeks later, in line at security check, the ticket screener told the woman in front of me that she couldn’t have a carry-on and would have to go back to the desk to check her bag. She had chosen a “Basic Economy” ticket, which didn’t permit carry-ons. “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” she said, flustered. But it was, as the screener indicated, right there in bold letters on her ticket.

In that moment both she and I were ruminating on the personal flaws our booking decisions had laid bare. I was self-indulgent to pay $25 to sit next to a fucking window, and she was careless to not have noticed the restrictions on the ticket she bought. But together we were more than that. We occupied two poles of a decision that travelers on large airlines are increasingly being forced to make: pay less and get less, or pay more for things that used to be included.

To compete with the no-frill budget airlines like Spirit, Frontier, and WOW that started to eat into their market share, United, Delta, and American Airlines have all unrolled a ‘Basic Economy’ option in the past year that costs about $30 less than flying Economy. Similar to the budget airline model, passengers flying Basic Economy trade a lower price for boarding last, the inability to choose their own seats, and on United, not being allowed a carry-on.

If this were the end of the story it would read as an adept response to the marketplace by the biggest three airlines in America. It would be a win for the many U.S. fliers who have proven to care about cost over all other variables. And it would be a win—or at least a save—for the companies that were starting to lose their business.

But it’s not the end of the story.

In exchange for the cheaper option, all three airlines raised the price of flying Economy.

“Airline executives will be very honest. They aren’t offering Basic Economy because they want people to buy Basic Economy. They are offering it because they want you to pay up the higher fare. That’s the whole purpose of the construct,” Samuel Engel told CBS News, who serves as a leading airline consultant for the management consulting firm ICF.

Fare isn’t the only thing you now have to pay extra for as an Economy flier. Airline executives at Delta, United, and American have also repackaged a significant number of window and aisle seats, as well as seats towards the front of the section, as “Preferred Seats” that cost even more money to book. The exact number and location of ‘Preferred Seats’ varies by flight and by airline: a Delta flight from New York City to Detroit shows sixteen Preferred Seats within a much larger Economy section—window and aisle seats that cost anywhere from $36 to $60 more. Meanwhile, a United flight from Newark to Los Angeles has 58 Preferred Seats—every window, aisle, and middle seat in the entire front half of the Economy section. The seats, which used to be free with your ticket, now range from $18-29 extra.

Seating map for an upcoming United flight from Newark to Los Angeles.

Other than in name, Preferred Seats haven’t been upgraded in any way. They don’t have more cushioning or more legroom than before. They simply aren’t the worst seats on the plane. They’re ‘Preferred’ because they’re better than sitting near the bathroom. Because you get off the plane a few minutes sooner than the last people to get off the plane. That’s what makes them cost money now.

The whiff of injustice might be about more than consumer value. What was likely a level-headed business decision by these companies almost feels like a retaliatory smack for having been forced to adjust to the market at all. Maybe that’s because of the history: large airlines have spent the past decade consolidating from nine to four, raising their prices as consumers’ alternatives shrunk. Recognizing this, WOW and Spirit came on the scene—and started to succeed at the large airlines’ expense. If you were the type of person who believes in the invisible hand, this would be your proof that it—not some trust-busting government—can solve consumer problems naturally. But, again, it wasn’t enough for the big airlines to merely win some of their customers back by better serving their needs with a cheaper option. They didn’t interpret the loss as a sign of where their natural limits lied. They instead used the bleak experience that most budget airline customers will confess to as leverage to force everyone who doesn’t want it, to pay more simply because they don’t want it. And, as an ancillary benefit, any customer who feels it’s unfair how much the airline is now charging them to sit in a not-bad seat in Economy is compelled to internalize the complaint as their own failing. Because, after all, there is a cheaper option.

Against a backdrop of growing income inequality, the flight parallel is poetic: like the Economy Class, the middle class is shriveling. A widening gulf of affordability is reflected in an airplane seating map. A few large companies continue to track profits as what used to be a baseline is harder for people to attain.

Yet it makes the intersection all too real: one more basic, decent thing is a little more out of reach than it used to be—a thing that’s being paid for, in the majority of cases, with money from a salary that’s increasingly struggling to afford other basic decent things.

Chick-fil-A While Gay?

I was on my way to a gay club with a few friends when we passed a Midtown Chick-fil-A. “Chick-fil-A!”, one of them, who is gay, exclaimed. “I know they hate gay people, but their chicken sandwiches are so good. It should be illegal how good they are.” This is where most queer people I know, including me, tend to come down on Chick-fil-A. Yes, their contributions, but –it’s so good. The rule is, you have to bring the contributions up. “I’m not a sloth living under a rock,” it communicates. “I know exactly where these people stand on me.” Once you get that part out of the way, you get to project ease and confidence, rather than self-doubt, as you admit that you like the chain. You get to be woke…and then you get to be the person that doesn’t take themselves too seriously.

I was seventeen the first time I ate Chick-fil-A, on my way home after visiting friends and family in Dallas for spring break. My friend Annie, who was always cool and always southern, had spoken nostalgically about her 6-piece chicken minis order with a side of honey butter. When my aunt asked if I wanted food on the way to the airport and I requested a place I imagined to be “Chick Filet,” the surprise in her voice told me that my Texas insider credit had just soared. This meant something to me, a California girl adorning cowboy boots who wished she was from the south.

I didn’t know about their millions in contributions to antigay groups at the time, but I doubt I would have brought it back to me if I had. I was still holding out hope that being bisexual—or worse, gay—was something that would fade away with my first step onto a college campus the following year, where I would finally have the opportunity to know boys after six years in an all-girls’ school. My fear, the way I saw it, would disappear when my situational chastity did.

It didn’t. Neither did my sexual orientation. And neither, it turns out, did my strong and enduring desire to eat Chick-fil-A.

The weird part of the craving is that I’ve maybe eaten Chick-fil-A five times in my life. I don’t particularly like fast food. Waffle House is just as notoriously southern but I never want to eat there. I might contemplate getting something from Popeye’s three times a year, which still serves chicken but manages not to bring up the notion of gayness. I debate if I should get something from Chick-fil-A every time I pass one.

“Maybe they’re donating to Focus on the Family for other reasons,” I’ll tell myself, “and they see their anti-gay stuff as a way way side thing of an otherwise lovely organization.” When that gets inevitably ruled out, it’s on to, “well I’m the one that’s affected here. If anyone gets to say it’s okay, it’s me.” A couple laps around the Concourse B food court at the Philadelphia Airport later, I’m wondering if they’re not really saying that marriage is just some obscure covenant that Paul liked to talk about and that’s the only reason they’re so finnicky about the thing. They just want to preserve their dear traditions from diffusion, like an overbearing Jewish mother who only wants her son to marry another Jew. Nothing personal.

I wonder why I so desperately need Chick-fil-A and me to fit together. I don’t find myself lamenting that the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Wildlife would find me unsuitable for employment. When my thoughts wander to Mike Pence, though, I suddenly live out our hypothetical interaction in vivid detail. The thing is—here’s the thing about me and Mike Pence—I bet he would really like me if he met me, even once he knew I wasn’t straight. Mike Pence would enjoy me. Right? Yeah. No, for sure. I can just tell. I would find a hidden something that we had in common and he would love it and we would develop this chummy inside joke and—imagine that for long enough, and you’re no longer someone who needs to be corrected in another person’s eyes. You’re the person who’s valuable enough to have changed their mind.

The same mental negotiation is even more tempting with Chick-fil-A, because no matter how outwardly gay you are, the only side of the company that you interact with as a customer is bound to give you a positive experience. It’s a core value at Chick-fil-A to be nice to everybody—something they like to repeat when they’re hit with criticism for their contributions. They’re nice to everybody, and whether or not you arrive draped in the rainbow flag, they’ll be nice to you, too. You’ll interact with someone friendly in a polo shirt who has guaranteed zero authority over where the company’s money is spent. You’ll open your box with the cute cursive handwriting. You’ll eat your chicken minis. And that’s about it. You could do this same pleasing routine every day for the rest of your content and probably overweight gay life, and never encounter a single person who ever treats you as less-than in your long stretch of roadside dining at the Ceder Parkway Plaza. And somehow, all that time, the same place that made your mornings happy ones will have been funneling millions towards shocking younger you into a different person.

How could that be? They liked you.

I just want to be a cute southern girl who eats chicken minis with a side of honey mustard and wears oversized sorority t-shirts. Or even better, a cute conscientious southern girl who refuses to eat chicken minis or even set eyes on those free honey mustard packets because of what that evil chain is doing to her beloved uncles and singular friend from high school who are just as worthy as she is, damnit!

Having to refrain from eating at a chain because of what it believes about you is like wanting to play Cher from Clueless but instead casting yourself as her earthy Aunt Susan, the one who always brings her “friend” to Thanksgiving. Aunt Susan isn’t really a character, she’s a punchline, but she’s the only option if we accept Chick-fil-A for what it really is rather than what we want it to be. You’re either breezy, cute, fun, lighthearted—not the type to think about things like corporate financial disclosures, and straight—not the type to have to, or you’re the flattened victim of an identity, the downer who has to bring it up when all the other characters are just trying to have a fun day.

“The Reasonables”

I was speaking to an investment banker who said he believes taxes on the one percent are way too high. We got to talking about how partisan gridlock defined much of Obama’s presidency.

“If it were me,” he told me, “I would say, ‘Hey, we’re all reasonable people. We’re going to sit down in this room and we’re not going to come out until we come up with something we can all agree to.’”

Forget the fact that Obama probably thought of that. Forget the fact that Mitch McConnell vowed that the GOP’s number-one priority was to make Obama a one-term president. “We’re all reasonable people” is the part of that exchange that still fascinates me. Nobody’s going to expect an investment banker to want to pay more in taxes. But what, in his resistance to doing so, made him so certain he was one of the reasonables?

In 1965, the average CEO’s pay was 20 times greater than what the average employee at their company took home. In 2016, it was 271 times greater.

Before 1980, the top one percent controlled 22% of America’s wealth. Today, they control almost 40%.

Since 1980, the average pretax income of the top tenth of Americans has doubled, that of the top one percent has more than tripled, and that of the top 0.001 percent has septupled—while the average pretax income of the bottom fifty percent has hardly budged.

In spite of all this, many members of the top one percent like the person I was speaking to are still insisting that their taxes are too high. Meanwhile, they’re funding candidates more—not less—than they used to, in part so they can tell them the same thing. In 1980, the top 0.01 percent of earners accounted for 15% of all campaign contributions. In 2012, that number was 41%.

With each passing year that one percenters do this, they grow, by definition, decreasingly reasonable. A top one percenter who insists their taxes are too high is—if you wanted to put it into numbers—three times crazier today than they would have been in 1980. In their defense, we as humans don’t walk through the world with the hypothetical decades-ago version of us as a yardstick for how well we’re doing. It’s the job of a politician to legislate with those facts and figures in mind.

Most elected Democrats don’t, though. You could chock it up to corruption from campaign contributions, and that’s obviously a big part. But I think there’s something else going on: something much more innocuous and possibly more powerful, too. Most politicians see themselves as reasonable. Reasonable politicians don’t antagonize any one group. They know enough corporate CEOs and investment bankers to understand that they aren’t Gordon Gekko caricatures, and don’t believe in villainizing them as if they were. They bring everyone to the table. They seek compromise.

Which brings us to the old school political reverence for compromise in the first place, to the shoe-leather belief in getting all stakeholders to the table and pounding something out that won’t be perfect, that won’t satisfy any single interest all the way, but it will exist. This is how we move forward, according to most presidential biographies and Parks and Rec episodes.

The problem with income inequality is, the large corporations and top 1% aren’t, as we covered, lightening their demands even as they a) control an increasing share of the wealth, and b) comprise a growing number of those stakeholders invited to the table. Meaning that while the compromise skillfully brokered by the savvy and studious politician who believes in that sort of thing will come out somewhere in the middle, with each passing year that the rich get richer and the middle class deteriorates, ‘the middle’ is less and less reasonable place for a solution to land.

So I think we see a riff : it’s only Democrats who stridently oppose big-money influence—like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who take a stand for income inequality, and then the hundreds of others who without a doubt care, but don’t really make a splash on the issue. Who can blame them? Reasonable people round up other reasonable people and they sit down in a room to resolve the big problems of the day. Let’s say a decent number of those folks in the room—high earners, yes, but thoughtful ones, experienced ones, reasonable ones—take issue with a policy. A policy that strikes them as radical. Reasonable people take that into account. Of course they do.

But—and they’d never know this—to the vast majority of the population, to the ones that have been flailing under the status quo, what’s radical is this group of well-heeled problem-solvers refusing to address their problems properly, paired with their blind confidence that they already are. People are different, but who knows. Some might skip over the policies themselves and direct their anger towards this comically confident group. They might line up behind the first charismatic rich person who technically should belong to the group, but has been kicked out and scorned because has the guts, in their view, to tap into their escalating intuition that these people don’t care about them. Maybe they’ll discredit the news they report and spread their own version just to spite them. Doing unreasonable things—because if there’s a group of people running things that thinks they’re so reasonable and exclusively surrounds themselves with other people who also think they’re so reasonable, you gotta tell them that they aren’t, right? You should probably find a way to tell them that they aren’t. Something really big. Something that catches their attention.

The democratic party’s soul search

JFK didn’t randomly decide to land the first man on the moon. His announcement that we’d be the ones to do it by the end of the decade came on the heels of fifteen years of escalating competition with the Soviets. They were grilling us in the space race and this was how we were going to best them. Two years earlier, as a way of competing with the communistic vision of the future, Nixon co-hosted highly televised exhibitions with Khrushchev where they each showed off the latest and greatest home appliances their countries had invented. It was 1961 now and winds of rock and roll, sexual liberation, and civil rights were catapulting us out of the domestic centrifuge of growth and progress that had powered the previous decade, which was quickly starting to seem quaint. It was audacious, but only natural, that the moon would be our next frontier.

Ever since the day after the 2016 election, media commentators have been talking about how the Democratic Party needs to “do some soul searching”.  About how we need a bold new vision that inspires people to be a part of the party beyond just being anti-Trump. Like JFK’s call to land man on the moon, we need something big, something new, that galvanizes us and brings us together.

The conversation always manages to trail off before they reach the specifics, though. Two years in and it still lives in this esoteric, hypothetical lull. Concrete policies aren’t listed—not definitively, at least. It just needs to be something, the commentators conclude before moving on to the latest breaking Trump news.

The weird part of this conversation’s seemingly permanent hypothetical state is that you don’t have to look around very hard to see a bunch of distinct movements on the ground, or national conversations on the verge of movements. All of the following has started or grown significantly since Trump got elected: People are talking about single-payer healthcare a lot. A report just came out that climate change is escalating way faster than we thought it was—and conversations about a “Green New Deal” are the most excited people have been about solving climate change since An Inconvenient Truth came out. Tens of thousands of low-income workers have been marching about the fact that they live in poverty while working forty hours or more per week—they’re calling for a $15 minimum wage, and cities are starting to agree. We’re losing a record number of teachers because they’re paid so abysmally—posts about teachers having to cover their classroom supplies routinely go viral, and the nation watched as public school teachers protested about their wages and pensions in the conservative states of Kentucky and Oklahoma. Millennial college graduates are talking about how they’re straddled in student loan debt and can’t afford the basics of life; economists are talking about how this is going to drag our economy.

The only way to explain the fact that this conversation about the Democrats’ plan still goes nowhere, which is a conversation between professional politicians and media commentators who are trained to observe America, is that they don’t want the solutions these people are calling for to be the party’s platform. It’s not that they can’t think of any possibilities, it’s that they can’t think of any within the confines that bind them. Sure, they want a bold plan that invigorates and inspires voters—you’d better believe they’re coming up with one for 2020—just not this one. Of course they’re going to propose solutions that alleviate Americans’ suffering—just not the ones that are already drawing thousands of them out of their houses and into the streets.

What they have yet to realize is that movements have to be a natural outgrowth of the places that the times are driving people towards. You can’t observe where the masses are headed and be like, “nah—but how about some other thing instead?”

You can choose to lead a movement, or you can choose to resist it. What you can’t do is capture all of the energy of a group of people fighting for something without delivering on anything that gave them the energy in the first place.*

We’re barreling towards 2020 without a platform—not on purpose, but by accident, because we have a fallback. Forward movement isn’t the only human driver: fear of moving backwards can be, too. And it’s a lot easier to respond to the latest astonishing Trump thing than to come to terms with the fact that you’re holding your own people back.

*An example of the Democrats trying to capture the energy of a movement sans movement: when scores of media commentators and centrist Democrats said to Bernie, when he lost the primary, “you’re going to deliver your base to Hillary, right?!?!?!” They were of course saying this out of strategic necessity, but I want to point out the glaring error in their assumption that the leader of a movement can corral their followers like that: the reason Bernie had such an enthusiastic base in the first place was because of what he was offering that others weren’t. And the thought that he could inject that somewhere else that didn’t offer those things and conjure the same enthusiasm reveals how shallow the Democrats’ thinking on voters and platforms is.