Don’t Rock the Boat, Baby

A couple of years ago, a big publishing company called Hachette had a problem with a contract that Amazon wanted them to sign. Hachette publishes top-shelf writers like David Sedaris, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, and Malcolm Gladwell. Hachette’s contract with Amazon had expired and the new contract’s main proposed condition was that Hachette set all of their e-books at the much-lower price of $9.99. Hachette and most of its authors felt that this was way too low. They weren’t yet willing to sign.

It’s a negotiation, right? These things happen in business. The two companies hash it out and eventually reach some sort of agreement.

Nope. Amazon apparently wasn’t interested in a convo. They immediately retaliated with a full-blown delivery throttle, imposing a 2-to-5 week delivery date on each and every book written by a Hachette-represented author. They removed pre-order buttons from all upcoming Hachette books, including J.K. Rowling’s highly anticipated follow-up to Harry Potter. Many of their books weren’t coming up in search results at all. All because Hachette had the audacity to try and counter-negotiate with their business partners.

During what ended up being Amazon’s six-month storm of wrath against the publisher, the many journalists covering the story were overwhelmingly—and rightfully—critical of Amazon’s behavior. But perhaps they shouldn’t have been. This is exactly how we should expect companies to act when they merge and grow and merge and grow until they have nobody left to compete with.

Many people who consider themselves free market capitalists will argue that the way big corporations operate is basically none of the government’s business. They don’t say this because they’re heartless monsters, but because they truly have faith that the free market will tell a company like Amazon where their limit is based on what a company like Hachette will and won’t accept. And in a truly free market, they would be correct. In a truly free market, your company would outsource its costs as long as it was profitable. But there comes a point—there used to—where the people you do business with aren’t willing to accept your cost-cutting measures. They’ll switch to your competition if you go through with it, and not working with them would be bad for your bottom line, so you don’t do that thing you wanted to do. The market takes care of limits by itself—no regulation necessary. If you like free markets, and in an ideal world, I would too—this is what you believe.

But what happens when the companies within a single market take over such a large portion of the market share that you, the consumer, or you, the producer, have no choice but to accept whatever the company demands? Is it capitalism anymore when with every passing year, if you want to fly on a plane, use Internet in your house, or sell a book, you have fewer and fewer options but to accept the terms of an 800-pound gorilla? Is it capitalism anymore when one of the two parties stops having options?

This is what’s happening to chicken farmers. Tyson and 3 other companies have come to control an alarmingly high portion of the consumer chicken market. Meaning that if you’re a chicken farmer and it’s 2017, you have fewer and fewer outlets to sell your product to except Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, or Sanderson Farms. So when Tyson, and soon after, the other big three realized that it sure did cost a lot to own all that land to store and raise their product—chickens—they came up with a genius idea that would have never worked two decades earlier when they had more competitors: they approached the many independent farmers who were increasingly struggling to make a living in a Tyson-saturated market, and recruited them to work for them under a flock-to-flock contract. The farmers would raise chickens on their own land (thus enabling these companies to not have to pay for any of the land needed to raise their product). And hey, since it was the farmers’ land, the farmers would pay the roughly $900,000 it costs to erect the industrial chicken houses and other equipment consistent with company standards. “You get to be an independent contractor!” Tyson said, and still says. Except even better, because you don’t have to worry about the changing cost of feed like you would if you worked for yourself. Tyson sets them up with the baby chicks, the feed, and the precise instructions on how to grow the chicks effectively. Plus, they hook the farmers up with a bank that will issue them the massive loans they need to pay for their chicken houses out of pocket—loans that a bank would never give to someone of their means if they weren’t with Tyson.

The farmers are willing to take on such massive debt because they see what they’ll be making once the equipment is paid off in 8 years or so—assuming all goes well and Tyson keeps contracting with them flock after flock. It’s good money—better than they’d ever make alone in this climate. ‘I’m hardworking. I’m enterprising,’ they think to themselves. ‘I can follow their instructions. There’s no reason I won’t get out of the red.’

Except there’s one part of the story they forgot to account for, which is when Tyson approaches the farmer two years in, while he’s still very much in debt for the original chicken houses he bought to enter the relationship. “Hey Paul,” they say, “you’re doing great. So great, in fact, that we want you to upgrade to this new, more efficient ventilation technology we’ve developed. It’ll cost you $250,000. We’ve spoken to Brenda at the credit union and she’s willing to issue you the loan.”

“No thanks,” Paul says, “I don’t want to take on any more debt right now.”

“No really,” Tyson says. “Do it.”

“No,” Paul says, “I can’t right now.”

So Tyson starts giving Paul shittier, sicker chicks to raise. Since the farmers are paid on a per-pound basis, this directly impacts how much money Paul earns. He starts to not be able to make his monthly bank payments to pay off the original chicken houses. All because he didn’t want to buy upgraded equipment out-of-pocket at the precise time that Tyson demanded he did.

So much for being an ‘independent contractor’.

You may be thinking—well, there are three other big options you named that the farmers can work for instead: Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms. That’s a borderline-acceptable amount of competition. But here’s the kicker, which chicken farmers have known for years and Christopher Leonard details in his extremely entertaining book on this topic: these top four companies have what is effectively an unspoken “gentleman’s agreement” with each other: they won’t recruit farmers on each other’s turf. So there are ‘Tyson communities’ and there are ‘Pilgrim’s Pride communities’, but never both. If Tyson terminates your contract, good luck getting a job with anyone else. And you’re still wildly in debt from those industrial chicken houses, which you owe bank payments on regardless of what happens with your employer.

“Over the past 15 years, I have sold millions of dollars’ worth of books on Amazon, which means I have made millions of dollars for Amazon. I would have thought I was one of their best assets. I thought we were partners in a business that has done well. This seems an odd way to treat someone who has made you millions of dollars.”

That’s what many-time bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, who was represented by Hachette, had to say to the New York Times when Amazon was retaliating against them for not agreeing to sell their e-books at $9.99. The journalist he spoke to rightly noted that he sounded more like someone who was hurt by a friend than angry at a billion-dollar business.Why would that be? Why would the world’s most famous social scientist be so…emotional over something that was so strictly business? Well he, and I would argue, most of us, are still assuming that the basic laws of business from the days of our parents and grandparents apply to us: that if we create something that makes boatloads of money for the company that sells it, that makes us an asset that the company doesn’t want to lose. In other words, the bigger you get, the more respect you get; the more your business partners will stretch—within reason—to keep you happy and keep you working with them. But in the age of monopoly, we’re late to the party in realizing that the old rules of business do not apply. As fewer and fewer corporations control more and more of the market share across almost every industry, no person, no supplier matters enough to listen to or accommodate—not even the superstar moneymakers.

Enter Malcolm Gladwell’s sense of dismay, dismay over the respect—seemingly more than the price—he felt he was owed. Gladwell is one of the most in-demand writers in the world, and thereby, on Amazon; we get the weird benefit of witnessing the moment he realized that his demand was unhinged not only from his supply and from his prices, but from the basic dignity that producing something popular used to get you. Corporate consolidation not only warps the logistical rules of capitalism but the emotional matrix of anyone who participates.

Speaking of which, up until the day that Tyson would come to town, farmers in any given community would share advice, tricks, and tips with each other. You could do well and your neighbor could do well at the same time. No longer. The farmers in each community are put in a “tournament” system with each other to determine their salaries per flock… the same concept as being graded on a curve. So the size of their checks every six weeks aren’t determined by how big they grow their chickens but how big they grow their chickens in comparison to their neighbors. Your success depends on your neighbor’s relative failure. And your neighbor’s success is, by design, bad news for you. And since you’re all deeply in debt for the chicken houses Tyson had you buy, the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s actually in the farmers’ contracts that they’re not allowed to communicate with each other about their methods. They’re only allowed to communicate with their assigned technician representative. The design literally rips communities apart socially as much as it does economically, transforming amicable neighbors into nervous competitors, isolated not only from their craft but from each other. Without antitrust, we literally create an anti-trust. And, much like the real game of monopoly, if your competitors can’t pay back the bank for the property they bought and have to declare bankruptcy, you’re not supposed to care. Because it means you win.

While the tournament system sounds shocking and cruel when you get what’s really happening, think about how a high-up at Tyson would describe it: “It promotes competition! It encourages farmers to do their best work! It rewards the hardest working chicken farmers with bonuses! That bonus is available to any of the farmers who are willing to work hard enough.”

I have to admit: if I heard a corporate representative saying something like this about another industry I didn’t know as much about, I doubt I would think it sounded that bad. I might even nod my head along a little. Yeah, that sounds innovative! That sounds like how capitalism probably ought to work. I think I’m down.

We end up with something that sounds like a free market and looks like a free market to anyone on the outside. But most of those on the inside are—once they get in deep enough—ensnared. And, to win, which in industries like these is coming to mean ‘to not get dropped or go bankrupt’, it ends up costing them next to all of their autonomy and dignity. Wasn’t a sense of autonomy the whole reason we were more or less down with this capitalism thing? The feeling that our fate was ultimately in our own hands? That if we could create a killer product or service…we could win?

In 2012, Obama and his Secretary of Agriculture held hearings across the heartland for contract poultry farmers intending to develop new antitrust regulations aimed at their giant employers like Tyson. In spite of receiving tens of thousands of anonymous online comments prior to the hearings, almost no chicken farmers showed. Why? They said they were scared that their employers would retaliate against them. They had seen what had happened to their various ‘Paul’s’, let alone to the few brave souls who publicly spoke out against Tyson while they were working for them. Their stories often ended in bankruptcy and foreclosure… due simply to “poor performance”, according to their employers, based on low-weight chickens, which awkwardly coincided with the time they started to cause a ruckus.

Corporate consolidation isn’t just maintained by the technical reality that producers have fewer and fewer options; it’s maintained by the cold-sweat fear this dynamic instills in anyone who has a problem with it. With each merger and acquisition, the risk of speaking up increases. It becomes a risk to whisper. Even when the President himself is inviting you to.

Hachette and Amazon ended up reaching an agreement that the Hachette CEO said was “great news for writers.” But in the process, they learned an intractable lesson about their business partners: any time they wished to push back against Amazon, it was going to be high key. It was going to keep their writers from writing and cost them millions’ of dollars in sales, however noble the cause, however reasonable the request, and however overwhelmingly supported they were by the press and public opinion—as they were from the start. As far as their bottom line was concerned, Amazon appeared to be insulated from six months of sharp public criticism as well as not-shipping a number of the world’s most popular writers —people just bought one of the other two million titles they had on tap. Amazon could evidently withstand the hit. Could Hachette? If this happened even one more time, it’s easy to imagine how talented publishers might migrate to a firm that was in better graces with those that controlled almost 70% of their market. It’s easy to imagine how hot new writers might avoid working with Hachette out of fear that another dispute would arise. After all, they all got into this business to put great ideas out into the world, not to be activists. Under a virtual monopoly, any wrong movement threatens to bar you from the passions and skills you spent a lifetime investing in. Why rock the boat when the stakes couldn’t be higher?

This is where politicians come in handy, like when conservative president Teddy Roosevelt passed the Sherman Act when Standard Oil started to behave like today’s chicken companies. Unfortunately for the 21st century, The National Chicken Council lobbied the shit out of Obama’s poultry industry reforms, shelling out every last fiber of their anti-monopoly provisions and nearly everything else that would have made a difference. And weirdly, around the time that everything was going down with Hachette and politicians were starting to take notice of Amazon’s bullying tactics and asking questions like, ‘Hey, do you think Amazon’s a little too big?’, weirdly, and incidentally, Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post for $250 million.

So just imagine, as Zephyr Teachout said in her TED talk, any senator wanting to pass antitrust legislation and seeking re-election with The Washington Post hanging over their heads. No, billionaire business tycoon Jeff Bezos isn’t hunched over his editors’ shoulders demanding they write articles defending Amazon and slashing any senators who stand against them. That would be too transparent and too blatantly anti-free speech. Much more likely that he achieves the same effect through a concoction of op-eds, unspoken fear amongst mainstream sitting senators, and the access to powerful people one gets when one owns a newspaper. Looks like democracy. Sounds like democracy. But the key players are utterly ensnared.

Not only are all of these corporations’ actions perfectly legal—most people claiming to be free market capitalists will tell you that it’s perfectly natural, too. As markets mature, it’s only natural that the most successful corporations will get larger as they buy out their competitors. This is not something to be punished but celebrated, they’ll say—it’s a sign of success. But that’s not what their homeboy Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations. His real argument for free markets was this: Markets, when under conditions of perfect liberty, will lead to perfect equality. In other words, free markets are good because they’ll lead to perfect equality. Free markets are the answer, he concludes, precisely because the people working under them won’t be forced to agree to outside orders that they don’t want to agree to—they’ll just switch over to another competitor.

When we encounter industries where this option is disappearing or already has, we ought to consider forcing corporations to stay small enough to have competitors. Especially those of us who are true free market capitalists—and hey, in a perfect world, conservative.

“Pick Yourselves Up By Your Backpacks”

Republicans have long spoken of “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” to justify why millionaire CEOs deserve their help lowering their taxes while low-wage workers deserve to live in poverty with no one to turn to but themselves.

We the Democrats have come to adopt our own strain of this ideology: higher education. I pulled these quotes straight from a page in Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal!Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? :

“If there is an income divide in America it is over education, and this makes sense: People who are better educated should make more money.”

-Democratic media strategist Bill Knapp in the Washington Post in 2012

“What I fundamentally believe—and what the president believes, is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”

-Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, to a reporter in 2012

“The biggest issue in the world today is growth, and, in this information age, improving educational outcomes for more young people is now the most important lever for increasing economic growth and narrowing income inequality. In other words, education is now the key to sustainable power.”

-Thomas Friedman, Obama’s favorite newspaper columnist

The income inequality ravaging America today, according to Democrats, is nothing more than an education problem with an education solution. To be clear, I’m not taking issue with the idea that—of course—if you put yourself through Yale Law School, you ought to be making more than someone with a high school degree. But the idea that more access to education is the only idea Democrats have to keep workers who didn’t go to college from sliding into poverty? Poverty? That’s all you can come up with? Not only is that solution reductive and, well, lame—it’s a vast departure from the original blue-collar mission of the Democratic Party.

This type of guiding party philosophy—to get out of poverty, rise to the top of your class and become part of the managerial elite like we did—would be unrecognizable to FDR or any of the New Deal Democrats from the 1930s through the 1970s. There are plenty of examples of the Democrats being the working class party from before then, too, but we’ll stick to this century. Up until the 70s, organized labor was our primary party base. Organized labor, and civil rights groups—and although it wasn’t ever close to a perfect marriage, the two often stood in solidarity with one another: like when MLK talked about how weakening unions was akin to economic tyranny and thousands of white teamsters marched hand in hand with civil rights activists across the country. From FDR creating the Works Progress Administration which provided jobs building infrastructure to millions of unemployed Americans, to the National Labor Relations Act which prevented corporations from treating their workers unfairly, to his speech for re-election in which he said to a packed Madison Square Garden, “The forces of organized money are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred”, FDR and the Democrats who succeeded him for the next four decades spent vast swaths of their energy coming up with new ways to help blue-collar America that didn’t revolve around telling them to go back to school. And they relished doing so.

So why are most Democrats today so much more comfortable talking about gay marriage than about income inequality? Why does this ever-important social task elude them, the task of figuring out how we will live and how we will live together, when we’ve reached a level of wealth disparity that we haven’t seen since the age of robber barons, and when the Democrats just a generation ago would have dove in headfirst with creativity and zeal?

If you’re looking for a turning point, it was in 1971.

In response to the social movement tides of the ‘60s—which blessed scores of young, college-educated, upper-middle class once-complacent white people with a budding interest in politics—the top democratic strategist of the time wrote a widely circulated manifesto that was no-joke called Changing Sources of Power. 

He glowingly referred to these young people as “aristocrats—en masse” who would “rescue,” “recover,” and “refurbish us”. Sure, he said, the many ‘city dwellers’, farmers, and blue-collar workers that have comprised our base thus thus far are still, like, a thing, but they shouldn’t be for much longer. It’s time to harness the power of the yuppies.

It’s not uncommon for parties change direction, and every time they do, it’s because of a demographic shift. The difference this time was that our party chose it. We chose to create a demographic shift that wasn’t naturally happening. We wanted a more sophisticated base, the Archie Bunker stereotype was embarrassing, and we were pretty blatant about saying so. And while it’s easy to blame them looking back, the period of economic prosperity from the New Deal had been going on for so long that you can see why we’d come to take it for granted. The unions were so powerful by then that you can see why we didn’t consider the gravity of throwing them under the bus when these exciting new kids came along in whom the leaders saw so much of themselves. The man who wrote that manifesto Changing Sources of Power became the director of George McGovern’s campaign, which made him not just another strategist or commentator, but the driver of the party’s direction for a full year. And even though McGovern lost, Democrats only seemed to see this as a reason to double down. A tide of ‘New Democrats’ entered congress in 1974, who “came out of the anti-war protests and the McGovern campaign, the Peace Corps and the women’s movement, the professions and the suburbs,” according to historian Jefferson Cowie, “but not the union halls and the wards.”

We weren’t yet at the point where all the Democrats were saying things like, “obviously income inequality is just a matter of education,” and actually believing it was true. But we’ll get there.

What immediately followed this period was a decades-long series of policies that were repeatedly good for well-educated, white-collar professionals and repeatedly lousy for the working class. Take Jimmy Carter’s entire presidency: he cancelled numerous public works projects, ushered in the era’s first big period of deregulation and tax cuts for the rich (in collaboration with an approving Democratic congress), and appointed a Fed chairman with whom he implemented budget reform after budget reform that directly punished the working class in the name of helping businesses run by white-collar America. Or take Bill Clinton’s NAFTA: Awesome for those who employ. Terrible for those who work.

Each and every cycle of these ‘reforms’, of course, concentrated us more and more into a party for and by the white-collar professional-managerial class. And as it was happening, it didn’t seem like such a terrible thing for anyone who might remotely qualify. We became the assumed home of the ‘best and brightest’—the go-to for Ivy Leaguers and well-respected professionals who had risen to the top of their fields. Notice that I say, “risen to the top”: and therein lies the moral justification for this new type of meritocracy. While presidents like Reagan and Bush were implementing policies that worked for the top one percent, which didn’t discriminate between uneducated CEOs, educated CEOs, and mere heirs who had never worked for their fortunes, the Democrats came to work for the top ten-to-fifteen percent, almost all of whom had achieved great things to get to where they were and almost none of whom would have been able to do so if it weren’t for doing great in school. They rose to the top of their classes, got admitted to the best universities, and worked themselves up the ranks of their respective fields. We came to demand the same from our presidents, and it’s no coincidence that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each came from humble backgrounds and worked their way up to being top-of-their-class in the best Ivy League colleges and graduate schools in the country, and then repeated this trajectory in their careers, rising from relative obscurity to the helm of party politics. This new plutocracy, it appeared, was okay, because it was also a meritocracy. A “valedictocracy,” the term New York Times columnist David Brooks used to describe 2008 Obama’s incoming administration as he salivated at the mouth. What could be wrong with that?

Well, like drinking your own pee for survival, nothing, at first. But it makes you thirstier, and, having nothing but your own pee to turn to, because you’re isolated, you again drink it. And the concentration of the very things you filtered out end up killing you. What the Democrats ended up creating was a feedback loop of high-achiever ‘of course this is great’ groupthink that eventually reached torrential proportions. By the time Obama was trying to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would clamp down on the job loss that the working class went through with Bill Clinton’s NAFTA, our party was so concentrated with ‘people who employ’ that we didn’t even try and persuade the rest of America of its benefits because it seemed so obviously great to most of us, let alone everyone who had Obama’s ear. We didn’t even think it was necessary to talk about it until the working class and their few progressive advocates started making a fuss.

Donald Trump’s administration is a testament to what happens when people with almost zero expertise enter the highest-ranking seats of government power. Obama’s, and the working class disasters that occurred under him, was the tipping point of another sort: a testament to what happens when the only people around are the highest-credentialed Americans of a very narrow category.

Over time, blinded by our regard for each others’ excellence and with less and less accountability to anyone who wasn’t us, we honestly started advocating ‘become us’ as the chief economic strategy to fight income inequality—the very income inequality that our policies in large part co-created with the robots. We return again to the quote from the beginning of this note, by Democratic strategist Bill Knapp in 2012: “If there is an income divide in America,” (lol) “it is over education, and this makes sense: People who are better educated should make more money.” The least appalling and most accurate part of his statement is the end of it: “people who are better educated should make more money.” Sure. But look at what he’s implying in terms of income inequality and the Democrats’ role in fixing it. And the point I want to make is that this isn’t a case of platform corruption, of special interest donors telling him what not to say. This is a case of someone who appears to never have believed that it’s the Democrats’ job to keep blue-collar jobs in America, that we ever could or should do more than turn some of those blue-collar workers into white-collar workers. It’s the case of someone who must have spent his entire career so surrounded by others who feel the same that he doesn’t even think he’s making a controversial statement.


PS: SO much of what I learned for today’s post came from Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, which was published at the end of last year. I could not recommend it highly enough if you’re interested in this stuff.

My “Morning Joe” Addiction

There’s a morning show on MSNBC called Morning Joe that epitomizes everything that’s wrong with political journalism today. The founding fathers intended for journalists to be the dissenters. The misfits and miscreants who establishment politicians dreaded bumping into. The ones who pestered the politicians for interviews in the hallways of things they weren’t invited to, the ones who asked questions that endangered the powerful people and dominant corporations whenever fit, the ones who told us what we didn’t want to hear about our government—and the government certainly didn’t want us to hear about them—with zero regard for how angry it would make the reigning powers. There’s a reason journalism is the only professional industry that’s explicitly protected in the constitution, and it’s because the founding fathers planned for journalists to piss powerful people off. A lot. They wanted them to. Doing so—and bringing that info back to us so we could demand change from anyone who we decided wasn’t representing our interests—was the mechanism that would allow democracy to sustain itself.

Flash forward to Morning Joe where the cohosts vacation with the Koch Brothers, for instance; profess their close friendships and extracurricular social experiences with an absurd number powerful politicians they report on, for instance; praise every general that they invite on the show for their discipline and bravery without ever once asking them a tough question about the shady things the US does abroad under their watch, for instance. This holds true for both their Democratic and Republican guests. What they all have in common is that they’re powerful people from the status quo.  And never once do Joe or Mika put any of them on the spot in a way that would actually make them upset for more than five minutes. How could they? They’re going to see them at a cocktail party this weekend. How could any of us do that to our friends?

They were recently impersonated on Saturday Night Live and when they got engaged, Vanity Fair did a cover spread on them.

The last thing I have to add about Morning Joe is that I am very addicted to it.

I watch it all the time. Like, multiple times per week. I love it. It’s a sensory type of love. When I watch Joe and Mika sipping venti Starbucks drinks against a blue-sky dawn Rockefeller Plaza, my morning feels official. It feels good. It feels like I’m waking up to America. Their close relationships with the majority of the powerful political guests they’re supposed to be holding accountable? All the more satisfying vibe-wise: it makes me feel warm and cozy that they have this clubby rapport with so many of these people who intimidate me. The powerful people seem to enjoy Joe and Mika as much as Joe and Mika enjoy them, and in a fucked up way, I don’t want them to break that by asking them a confrontational question because that would be tense and icky. Compare that to Amy Goodman, who runs the brilliant and necessary anti-establishment show Democracy Now! that literally does the opposite of everything I just described. She was the only broadcast television journalist who covered Standing Rock from Standing Rock, and a warrant was put out for her arrest for doing so. She’s the solution to everything I’m talking about, she has zero corporate owners, she is what the founding fathers intended when they described the relationship between journalism and democracy, and I only watch her for five minutes at a time max. Her show—in spite of reaching millions of viewers every week—has the production value of a bored 13-year-old boy whose mom forced him to make it after school because she’s friends with the host. Amy keeps her hair grey instead of dying it, the intro credits give off a distinct 1997 vibe, and the theme song reminds me of being forced to read Time Magazine for Kids as a fifth grader in morning advisory. Again, she is the solution to every problem I just described. She is the alternative we need. And I’ve been so trained by The Today Show and Morning Joe to see her brand of news as “unofficial” that I do: I see it as unofficial. It’s cellular-level subconscious. It’s worlds apart from my rational beliefs about what our democracy needs in order to continue and that’s what’s so scary.

What’s the cost of being trained this way? What are we unknowingly drowning out because it doesn’t feel official enough? Why am I more turned off by Amy Goodman’s theme song than I am by Morning Joe bowing at the heels of the Koch Brothers, the billionaire brothers who flush money into media conglomerates to keep them from reporting on climate change and singlehandedly fund radical senate candidates from states they have never been to who promise to give bigger tax breaks to the top one percent, support corporations that outsource jobs abroad, and pretend like they doubt global warming is a thing that humans are creating? (By the way…now seems like a good time to add that Morning Joe is not a Republican show. It’s on MSNBC. One of the cohosts is a “moderate Democrat” and one is a “moderate Republican” and they spend a ton of time each morning bashing Donald Trump. What they share in common, with each other and with most of the political news programs on either side of the aisle, is corporatism.) And I sure do love watching them. “Morning Joe” is a super cozy name and I may or may not have a weird thing for Joe Scarborough.

Ever since we were four, the happiest, brightest representations of American news and entertainment have been brought to us by AT&T, McDonalds, and General Electric. And the sets look freaking dope because of it. So now, as my subconscious revolts when confronted with their poorly-lit alternatives, it’s kind of like…no duh.

But that’s what Time Warner Cable (the owner of CNN) and Comcast (the owner of MSNBC and NBC) want us to do. If we intuitively equate ‘credible news’ with bright and shiny cable shows featuring star anchors, then Amy Goodman and The Young Turks could be screaming at the top of their lungs about the information the mainstream media isn’t telling us and we won’t let it sink in. We enable them to have de facto message control and they don’t even have to tamper with the first amendment. “Information is the currency of our democracy,” Thomas Jefferson is rumored to have said. We’re now living in an age where we have access to more information than ever before. Some of it’s fake, and we’re rightfully rejecting it. But along with those calls to be a ‘responsible consumer of news’, no one’s mentioning the travesty of all the real news that’s available but assumed to not be worthy of circulation. How much longer can we continue to be a democracy if we only know what the nation’s most powerful leaders and corporations are okay with us knowing?

I don’t know how to train my brain to stop equating Rockefeller Plaza with trustworthiness, but I do have a YouTube account and the ability to make a podcast or a WordPress blog for free. And so do you. We can request an interview with anyone we’re bold enough to ask. Dick Clark is dead. Ryan Seacrest is boring as shit. The Today Show viewers are getting older every year, but the internet exists and all of us have access to a pool of limitless information and seven billion people if we choose to redirect a fraction of our time consuming media into making something instead. By all means, reject fake news. But maybe we each ought to use one of the platforms available to us to spread the unspoken truth around us. Isn’t it funny how at the exact time when our civic democracy is hanging by a thread, the playing field has never been more level for spreading any message we want regardless of what the gatekeepers think?

Trust and the DNC

I was in a cab headed to my friend’s birthday dinner this past spring. “I do think Bernie should have gotten out of the race sooner than he did,” one of the girls said as we were stepping out onto the street.

I do think Bernie should have gotten out of the race sooner than he did. 

She said it as if she was just being this humble, manners-abiding citizen. Like, “I do think he should have rsvp’d if he knew he was going to come to the party,” or, “I do think they should teach their kids to say ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ you when they talk to grown-ups.” And what’s so funny is what she was really requesting was that a wildly popular candidate with an agenda that was wildly different than his opponent’s drop out of an election—the thing we like to do from time to time to prove that we’re not a monarchy—because it’s the polite thing to do for his opponent and everyone who wanted her to win.

That wasn’t the excuse, of course—for her or for the chorus of mainstream Democratic officials, commentators, and New York Times columnists echoing behind her. Their excuse was, ‘Donald Trump is such an insane threat to our country and the future of our party that if Bernie Sanders cares about America at all, he’ll ‘stop dividing us’ and let the all-but-official candidate do her thing’.

What’s interesting is that we lost. Not only did the DNC lose the election to the most reviled and unpopular candidate in American history (his unpopularity rating was 60% on the day of the election!), not only did they lose the house and the senate, but they lost 69 out of the 99 state legislatures in spite of having a demographic advantage and a candidate whose campaign spent 1 billion dollars on consultants.

Now, as we retool for 2020, the operatives who were in charge of the 2016 campaign are miraculously warning us that we’d better abandon progressive populism and get behind a moderate, corporatist candidate in order to ensure we can defeat…you guessed it…Donald Trump.

Wait…didn’t we just try that plan? Didn’t it just fail miserably?

Once again, they’re holding the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency over our heads to fearmonger us into supporting corporatist Democrats who are going to keep them in power. The difference this time around is that their own massive failure is what brought Donald Trump into power. It’s the reason we have to worry about him seeking a second term. Now, they’re saying, ‘that Donald Trump guy’s pretty awful, huh? If you really don’t like him, you’d better do what we tell you to do in 2020.’  They’re selling us a solution to a problem they created. In business, that’s called ‘racketeering’, and you kind of go to jail for it.

Here’s how it all makes perfect sense to them: in their mind, Bernie Sanders was a big reason Hillary lost the election. So if they can eliminate (sorry—I mean “bring together”) the Bernie faction of the Party and everything will be dandy again.

Real talk: I get that not everyone on here is a Berniecrat, and there are some people reading this who basically agree that Bernie is in part to blame for Hillary’s loss. Maybe you’d genuinely rather we had a pragmatic leader over an idealistic one. So, yeah, you do resent Bernie for presenting these sweeping demands that made Hillary sound “less exciting” even though her ideas were likely to work and his weren’t.

I think that’s probably a fair criticism. Seriously. I don’t necessarily agree with it, and—again—in no way was it Bernie’s responsibility to duck out of the race just because he was making Hillary Clinton look bad, but I think it’s a fair criticism for anyone who would genuinely prefer a pragmatist over an idealist as President of the United States.

So let’s say that’s you: a pragmatic Democrat who genuinely thought that Hillary was the better choice. Well would it astonish you if I told you that Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker—among others—all expressedexplicit interest to the DNC in running for president, and the DNC told them that they wouldn’t support them under any circumstances? “It’s Hillary’s time,” they reportedly said to every other well-liked candidate before the primary: the thing where the voters presumably decide whose time it is. Hence, the only contenders who did run in the primary were some goofy guys named Webb and O’Malley, and a third candidate from Vermont who was so unknown, so out of the loop of the Party, and so…what some circles consider ‘impractical’…that he didn’t set off DNC alarm bells. The DNC deliberately went to the popular insiders that you actually stood the chance of liking and told them they’d better not run if they ever wanted to be the candidate in the future. And because they were pragmatic insiders…they listened. If you honestly believe that Bernie is to blame for the position we find ourselves in now, don’t get mad at him or his supporters—get mad at your own party for clearing out all of the highly popular candidates before we even got a chance to see them.

This argument is about so much more than getting mainstream Dems off Bernie’s back (though, yeah, that would be awesome, and it might be strategically wise of you to get behind the most popular candidate in America). But the bigger point is that the DNC has failed us no matter who we supported in the primary, no matter how ideologically aligned with them we happen to be. Our own party has pacified us. They’re in the front seat, but they’ve attached a toy steering wheel to our booster seat so we feel like we’re driving the car. They’ve decided that we can’t be trusted to—you know—do the one major thing that makes us not North Korea, it backfired in their face, and now they have the nerve to demand that we line up behind them so they can do the same thing again with a new person. It doesn’t take a team of elite political consultants to point out that clearly, crossing your fingers and praying we end up liking who you already chose is a dangerous strategy…which is exactly what we’ll be saying to the folks at ABC when viewership for the next season of The Bachelorplummets to record lows (we said we wanted Peter….maybe Dean…we’re not saying we don’t want a prematurely graying racecar driver who retired in 2010, we’re just saying, it seems like you could have shown us who else was available).

If our own party doesn’t trust us, we shouldn’t trust them, and to me it’s as simple as that.

Time to go to the basement

Here are some words and phrases from the progressive lexicon we’re hearing a lot these days:

Black folks
Brown folks
Working class and poor

Here are some related concepts that I almost never hear:


-Selectively enforcing the law (and acting like they’re merely responding to what’s coming up)
-Manufacturing public opinion (and presenting it as their base’s organic opinion)
-Guilty of negligence through omission (because there’s no way you could ‘happen’ to not protect under your laws the precise people you have a problem with)
-Rigging the deck (and telling anyone who loses that they’re lazy)

We are so good at pinpointing who we’re defending, and so bad at describing the layout of the activities and systems that make them in need of defense in the first place.

When I fail to do this or don’t feel like doing this, there are a couple of reasons why:

  1. When I catch a really hot potato, my first instinct is to fling it. If I’m riled up about something and need the world to know, the call to step back, hone in on exactly what it is about the issue that ticks me off, figure out why, and find a way to describe that phenomenon with laser precision to everyone else sounds too slow and too hard. Much easier to simply post an article and say “this is so screwed up, and if you don’t understand why, then you’re part of the problem.”
  2. No joke: it makes my brain hurt. It’s hard to describe things I haven’t described before.
  3. Because of reasons 1 and 2, I tell myself that everyone already gets why this is a problem and let myself off the hook.

Here’s the deal, team: since we’ve managed to do a very effective job at saturating the world with all of our buzzwords, we’re going to need to dig a little deeper if we want new people to care as much as we care. We’re going to need to go down into the broken system on our lunch break, learn how the piping works, and figure out how to describe it in layman’s terms to the people waiting in the lobby. We won’t feel like doing it, but we can make it fun. You bring the flashlights. I’ll bring the beer.

No one’s going to insist we do this extra work. But every time we pull it off, we get to make our audience righteously mad—in real time. Which is ten times more effective than paying lip service to the disenfranchised by naming their groups, saying we stand with them, and assuming our people already feel what we want them to feel.

The thing about empathy

All radical Islamic extremists (as opposed to every other member of the faith) share a worldview that is threatened by the progressive culture and lifestyle of the West. They pretty solidly hate us. But only some become terrorists.

The ones who do are the ones who have the enabling means to carry out an attack (of course). But almost always, they share something else in common:

They’re living in a culture of despair. They’re living in places where unemployment is high, morale is low, nothing’s getting better, and the officials in power don’t give a shit. So when they’re weighing the pros and cons of whether or not they want to attack us (and kill themselves in the process), the ones who decide to go for it are frequently the ones who also brim with angst about the sense of decline that surrounds them, feel like they have nothing to lose, and long for a sense of purpose to fill the vacuum.

When we as progressives bring up the ‘culture of despair’ part, are we exonerating terrorists? Are we saying that makes it okay? Sweeping their hatred under the rug? No way. What we’re saying is, eliminate the poverty, expand the local opportunity, and you eliminate the breeding ground for a whole lot of terrorists.

So why is it that when we’re talking about Trump’s election, 90 percent of the progressives I know refuse to even engage with the suggestion that the unraveling of white working class America had anything to do with the position we find ourselves in now? Why is it that almost every Democrat around me proudly refuses to develop any sort of deeper understanding of Trump voters beyond the idea that they’re a bunch of sexist, racist assholes? That’s it. That’s the only reason anyone voted for him. And to make any additional suggestion is to make excuses for them.

I was speaking with a woman over 40 who “just couldn’t understand” how Trump voters could be so full of hate for Hillary. This was a few months ago. And I sensed she was the category of liberal I just described.

So I—heavy-handedly—mentioned how we also had a political status quo that hadn’t served or paid attention to the decades-long decline of the working class, and a candidate who seemed to epitomize that.

“I think it has more to do with their refusal to vote for a woman. I think it has a lot more to do with that.”

When a conversation with a friend was going in a similar direction, I suggested she read a book about the rapid deterioration of the white middle class. “I’m so sick of people telling me to have empathy for the white male middle class American,” she said. “What about a book about what it’s like to be trans in America? Or a person of color?”

The question isn’t whether or not Trump voters need to develop empathy for minorities (they obviously do) or whether bigotry and xenophobia led many of them to the ballot box (it obviously did). The question is why we use these facts as a shield to protect ourselves from any additional information that poses the threat of making us care for them.

I think we’re scared that empathy is a risky gateway drug. As if by allowing ourselves to feel and care about any legitimate aspect of their pain, we run the risk of becoming more racist and intolerant, too.

Luckily for us, that’s not how empathy works. I promise. All we’re doing is neutralizing the breeding ground. Not only is it the strategically responsible thing to do—it’s our spiritual responsibility, as well. “Have empathy, but only for these people” isn’t really how God wanted the whole empathy thing to work.

Means-to-an-end activism

Friday, Sept. 29, 2017

If you’re canvassing door-to-door trying to get people to vote for your candidate or sign your petition, it’s probably because you believe in what you’re fighting for enough to do that type of thing. But it doesn’t matter. 9 times out of 10, you’re regurgitating lines off a script fed to you by your campaign headquarters.

Countless variations of this script have been tested by paid-by-the-hour cold callers and there, in the calling center, they have found that these precise words in this precise arrangement have produced the highest volume of signatures, donations, or whatever it is you need.

If you were to really press the decision-makers on why it’s done this way—why reduce the people who care the most into automated eco-drones?—they would tell you that sure, while the script may make you sound dry,  it’s been proven time and time again to produce the best results. So if you care enough about increasing funds for clean energy, you’ll find a way to bear coming off as a bit of a robot to all these strangers in exchange for the warm glow of knowing you’re maximizing the physical results that drive change.

Is it any wonder that people—at best—politely wait for the canvasser to stop talking so they can sign the form and shut the door? And those are the ones who do agree, who do sign their names. What a missed connection. What a fantastic waste of an opportunity to make someone new care.

And what a fantastic waste of an opportunity, sanitizing the intrinsic passion of a person who already cares enough to sacrifice their time and dignity in order to spread the word to a bunch of strangers. Is it any wonder that the majority of environmentally minded college graduates (especially the interesting ones) go to work for a start-up instead of Environment America? The start-up is the place that trusts them enough to let them be themselves.

We may have found the most efficient way to get 50,000 signatures to stop the power plant, but the casualty is a public culture of disengagement, a cloud of mild irritation… around the causes that matter the most.

Maybe the key lies in creating the conditions where breadth matters less and depth matters more.