The Crisis of Capitalism

I must be getting older. My tendency to reminisce about my younger days, including those when I was a student at Georgetown are peppered throughout this blog.

I think of some of my favorite professors back then. Dorothy Hill. Donn B Murphy. Marcia Morris. Richard Stites.

In the second semester of my sophomore year, I took 20th Century Russian History as taught by Dr. Stites. My sophomore year, if you know my age, could not have been a better time to take a class on 20th century Russian history, given the extremely significant event that literally took place between the fall and spring semesters of that year.

And Dr. Stites was a particularly good person to help guide us through history as it happened. I remember one of his lectures as we discussed the failure of the communist experiment that was the Soviet Union. Communism is messy. Capitalism is messy. But capitalism works, at least a little bit better.

If you google the phrase “capitalism in crisis“, you can see multiple essays — from both left-leaning and right-leaning sources — from the past ten years or so, making arguments that capitalism is (or may have been) in crisis.

Eighty five years ago, Soviet philosopher Nikilai Bukharin wrote an essay that makes a compelling, if facile, argument that when capitalism is in crisis, that inevitably leads to fascism.

I call it “facile” because it’s convenient to say it, given the era in history when it was written. The crisis that we now know as The Great Depression coupled with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles definitely allowed for the rise of Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler. But the reality is this was the era when the phrase itself was coined.

The Panic of 1893, for example, didn’t really give us any fascist dictatorships that weren’t already authoritarian rule somewhere in the world.

The beauty of Marxist theory, as I’ve pointed out before, is that he took the Hegelian dialectic (e.g. you start out with a thesis. An antithesis arises and eventually the two points clash. The result of the clash is the synthesis of ideas, which, over time, becomes a new thesis, and the process repeats) and applied it to economic history. And he was absolutely right.

From feudal lords and the peasants, through the French Revolution that gave us the Bourgeoisie, which was countered by the proletariat, you can see it repeating over and over throughout history. And even though my example is very Eurocentric, we saw it around the world.

And then we have to ask ourselves, exactly how modern crises of capitalism actually manifest themselves. Ten years ago, we had the bursting of the housing bubble and the resulting recession. Now, the bigger crisis is income inequality, but that’s been slowly building for nearly forty years now.

Furthermore, the governing body that appears most consistent with a fascist worldview — the Taliban in Afghanistan — can be thought of as a lot of things, but their ascendancy certainly did not stem from any crisis in capitalism.

I think Barack Obama nailed it with a comment that won him a fair degree of criticism at the time:

And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

If there is one thing you need to enable the rise of fascism, it’s angry people goaded on by their religion. Indeed, if there’s something we can rely on to allow authoritarian (if not fascist) rule to rise, it’s when conservatives fear losing power and they combine forces with religious leaders. (Although it sometimes happens within the religion itself, as happened with the Baptists forty years ago.)

The question is what makes them angry. It could be economics (or capitalism in crisis), that much is true. But it doesn’t have to be.

I think of the old entry on this blog back in May of 2016, about the way Breitbart mischaracterized a Harvard Law professor’s essay about the so-called culture wars. The Breitbart article was designed to generate outrage, not enable honest discussion.

Professor Jack Balkin (the subject of that Breitbart article) wrote that the culture wars were over. Sadly, they most certainly are not. Professor Richard Stites (my old college professor) may have been too generous to the efficacy of capitalism.

But they’d both agree that their visions of the future are far preferable to the fascist / authoritarian streaks we see in modern conservatism as bolstered by religion.

Bernie Sanders vs. His Supporters

Civil discussions can be frustrating. A couple of months ago, I got into a discussion with an “intactivist” after she had made some anti-vaccination comments in conjunction with her anti-circumcision perspective. No matter how many times I said I didn’t want to engage the anti-circumcision argument and only wanted to engage the misinformation about vaccinations, she kept trying to drive me back to circumcision and I just gave up.

I see something similar with Bernie Sanders supporters. When I ranked Bernie number eight out of ten in terms of my preferences for next year’s primaries in a blog entry a couple of months ago, I explicitly said that I don’t want “to re-litigate the 2016 campaign”. It seems that too many of his supporters want to do just that.

So let me make exactly one thing clear. In the 2016 primaries, I found that on most of the issues I care about, Hillary and Bernie had very similar positions so I felt that either would have been acceptable. I chose Hillary over Bernie for two very specific reasons, neither of which has anything to do with perceptions about delegate count or anything else.

1. First, there was only one issue about which they materially disagreed that matters to me, and I side with Hillary: she took the scientific view that GMOs are safe, while Bernie took the scaremongering technique about them despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
2. Second, by his refusal to actually be a part of the political party he sought to lead, that meant that downstream candidates (whom he would need if he wanted to enact any of his plans) wouldn’t derive any benefit from his fundraising apparatus.

In other words, Bernie didn’t earn my primary vote and he has done nothing this time around to earn it either. By the time the general election came around, I knew that I’d have no problem with either Hillary or Bernie.

And Bernie does talk a good talk, that much is true. But arguably the most off-putting aspect of his campaign, both four years ago and again this year, is his supporters.

A couple of months ago, a fascinating review of the 2016 Primaries was published by Anthony Gaughan of Drake University. It is as detailed and specific as anything I’ve read on the topic, but it still agrees with conventional wisdom about the question of whether things were “rigged” against Bernie.

News flash: they weren’t. Indeed, this review notes ways in which both Democratic Party rules and state election laws actually benefited Bernie Sanders to Clinton’s detriment. If the Democratic Party did anything wrong in 2016, it was allowing the superdelegates to declare their allegiances before all of the primaries were complete.

But no matter how you look at the way the votes ultimately played out, Clinton was bound to become the nominee and she didn’t even need the superdelegates’ help.

So what’s left, really, is an eroding confidence in the integrity of our elections themselves. And that’s a bipartisan malaise. Indeed, bring up this review in an nuanced discussion about the election, and someone is bound to point out some article that points to irregularities somewhere. This is getting into conspiracy theory territory.

Conspiracy theories thrive on finding some missing detail, some open question, some unexplained outlying phenomenon to try and refute the greater narrative. We don’t know, for example, what caused the collapse of World Trade Center 7 on September 11, 2001. There are lots of possible explanations for what brought that building down, of varying degrees of plausibility. The bottom of that list, is that it was a planned demolition or an inside job. And yet, that has led some people to the notion that somehow, the twin towers weren’t actually hit by airplanes on that fateful day, despite the documentary evidence to the contrary.

So it’s weird. Bernie Sanders says a lot of good things and (except for GMO’s) has a lot of good ideas about the way this country should be and how best it can live up to the ideals upon which it was founded. But his supporters all too often remind me of Trump supporters. I guess that’s not a surprise, considering that a huge number of Sanders supporters in the primaries voted for Trump in the general election.

Maybe this is a picture of people projecting themselves onto their preferred candidates without regard to the issue. Maybe it’s something else. But either way, this is not a good image for Bernie Sanders, who has worked his whole life being, for all intents and purposes, the polar opposite of Donald Trump.

For about the past week, there has been an ad on Facebook, sponsored by the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg. It basically said that if you donate to his campaign, you will be entered into a drawing to see the hit show Hamilton with Mayor Pete’s husband, Chasten.

I was surprised to see a Sanders supporter arguing against this as a fundraising tactic on the grounds that it perpetuates a perceived elitism on the side of the left. Feel free to agree or disagree with Buttigieg on any specific issues, but offering some benefit as an enticement for potential donors, is common and an established part of politicking. Those benefits often include things like dinner or a show with the candidate or his or her spouse.

And besides, the very nature of the show itself contradicts the “elitist” argument unless you’re trying to make an argument about Broadway ticket prices in general.

Bernie Sanders likes to talk a lot about unity. That message often seems to be lost on his supporters. If he can’t get through to his most ardent supporters, then maybe the best thing for him would be to drop out of the campaign and lend his support to someone else.

Let’s shut this down…

Last Friday, I had an ablation that, my cardiologist hopes, will cure me of my atrial fibrillation. In order to get a good picture of my heart, my doctor needed to start by performing a transesophageal echocardiogram, or TEE for short.

A TEE gives a much more accurate picture of your heart than a standard echocardiogram, because it comes from a closer place to it (right next to it, as opposed to through your rib cage. Your esophagus runs right by your heart, so putting a probe down your throat is a good idea for a procedure like an ablation.

I was completely sedated for the procedure, under general anesthesia. I’m told the TEE took all of ten minutes of the approximately three hour event. I woke up after the procedure with a very sore throat and very hoarse. Three days removed from the procedure, I’m still a little bit sore, my mouth is still dry, and I’m still occasionally coughing up blood.

I fully recognize the medical necessity of the TEE but I have to admit that if they ever want to do one on me again, I’ll be reluctant to agree.

But it got me to thinking. Any trans-any-body-part medical procedure should be an absolute last resort. That’s not to say they should never be done, but the invasiveness alone should be cause not to do it if it can be avoided. And that’s not even getting into the cost of the procedure.

It hasn’t been in the news much recently, but it got me to thinking about the abortion bills that would require a woman seeking an abortion, to get a transvaginal ultrasound first. I admit up front that I don’t have a vagina so my comparison between my TEE and TVUs is, at best, superficial. But they’re still invasive. And almost definitely more uncomfortable than their surface-based counterparts.

But with an elective abortion, I already thought that TVUs are unnecessary, both procedurally and from a cost perspective. Mandating them in an effort to reduce the incidence of abortion is just plain cruel.

I’ve said before that the incidence of dishonesty amongst those who call themselves “pro life” in the abortion debate is appalling. This is just one more bit of evidence towards that position.

Apple Arcade

So last month, Apple launched its Apple Arcade service, which offers new games for playing on all of its devices, ad free, and, once you start your subscription, no additional cost. There’s a fair number of games on the platform and I admit that I haven’t played every game, but I thought I’d provide some thoughts on at least some of the games I’ve tried.

The Pinball Wizard

I love this game. On one hand, it’s a mythical quest where you’re a wizard trying to get to the top of a tower, killing monsters and collecting treasure in the process. On the other hand, the controls are that of a pinball game. So you use your flippers to move him and pick stuff up. My only complaint is the unpredictability of things that can knock you over the edge. Five stars.

What the Golf

I’m enjoying this game. It’s goofy and unexpected. Okay, the object is basically that of golf, but you can never predict what it is you’re trying to get to the green and into the cup. Is it the ball? Your club? The golfer himself? The arrow that shows you the direction and power of your swing? At times this game gets tedious but overall, a fun ride.

Frogger In Toy Town

I loved Frogger as a kid and this game follows on its lead quite nicely. The controls are sometimes less than stellar but overall, I like this game. I’m trying to figure out why sometimes knocking blocks or balls into traffic upsets the traffic and other times it doesn’t.

Sayonara Wild Hearts

Beautiful graphics, a great soundtrack, and intuitive controls make this game a nice diversion. My only real complaint about this game is that it, like all “endless runner” games, can easily reach a point where I get bored and have no interest in playing any more. Best when taken in small doses.

The Enchanted World

I hate this game. I’ll grant you that it’s got decent ambience with the sounds and moderately well drawn graphics, but any benefits those qualities might provide are lost against (1) there is no guidance on how to play, (2) the camera angle can’t be adjusted so that you can’t always see where you need to go, (3) the graphics are dark and at times you can’t always see what needs to be moved, and (4) it’s just not an interesting game. The best thing I can say about this game is, amazingly, I’ve played worse games on Apple Arcade.

EarthNight

Wow! Impressive graphics and game play, exciting action, and straightforward controls. I like this game. A lot. Before the AppleTV version of Apple Arcade was released, I streamed this game from my phone to my TV and my kids enjoyed watching it. It does get a little bit repetitive, but that’s a relatively minor complaint.

Dear Reader

When I said above that I’d played worse games than The Enchanted World, this is one of the games that I had in mind. I’d like to meet whoever it was that thought removing random words (like “to” or “and”) from abridged texts of classic literature would make for an enjoyable puzzling experience to restore them to the text. That way I can beat them up.

Bleak Sword

I’m of several minds on this one. I need to make something clear before I talk about this game overall. The highly pixelated graphics of “retro” games in general can have its limits. Back when video games by necessity looked like that (because of some combination of processing power, bandwidth, storage, and bitrate, I tolerated the graphics but even back then I always preferred the games that just looked better. So knowing that this game looks like early Atari 2600 style is a strike against it before I even tried it. But it is a generally fun game. The controls could be more intuitive but I do actually like it when I can look beyond the retro graphics.

Cricket through the Ages

I admit that I didn’t time myself for the amount of time I spent playing this game before I deleted it but it wasn’t long. Since I haven’t played every game on Apple Arcade, I can’t be sure this is the worst game on Apple Arcade, but I can’t really imagine how any otherwise professionally produced game could be worse. And I played the Atari E.T. video game as a kid, so I do know bad video games. Unnecessarily difficult gameplay (it makes Flappy Bird seem easy), generally unwinnable fights (against the computer anyway), at times you can’t tell which side your character is on (not that it matters), and downright offensive themes (who thought trying to launch the space shuttle without it blowing up was a good idea?) make this game a complete waste of data, memory, and storage.

There are other games I’ve downloaded (Pilgrims, Oceanhorn 2) and I can say I’m enjoying them but I haven’t played them enough to give real reviews.

I may review other games in the future.

It’s kind of ironic

There have been forty four unique presidents. (Grover Cleveland was both our 22nd and 24th president). When you figure on the way he’s made the United States into a joke, the scandals, the bad policy moves, the revolving door that is his administration, and just the plain incompetence, Donald Trump will almost definitely rank as one of our worst (if not our worst) presidents.

This is where I will jokingly point out that I figured out a way of ranking the presidents in such a way that (1) he makes it as high as number 40 on the list, and (2) he’s ahead of George Washington: alphabetically. (He’d also be above John Tyler, Martin Van Buren, and Woodrow Wilson, but just behind Harry Truman.)

But there’s an irony to all of Trump’s issues in the lens of history: it didn’t have to be this way. All of the problems, issues, and scandals of the Trump administration are completely self-inflicted, and Trump has not been tested as a leader the way his predecessors were.

You can never really predict what the first real test of a new administration will be. It might be something domestic; it might be something foreign. It might even be something that was going on the day they took office. Let’s look back over our recent presidents, and note what their first real tests were.

It’s important to underscore that everything I list here, happened within the first year of them taking office. You are free to approve or disapprove of the way they handled these things, but you can’t deny that each of these items tested the respective presidents in ways no other job could have trained them for:

Barack Obama came into office at a time when the nation was reeling from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He basically had to hit the ground running to handle that.

Less than eight months after George W Bush came into office, we suffered the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

A little bit over a month after Bill Clinton assumed the presidency, the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas started; it would last for almost two months.

A little bit over four months after George H W Bush took office, the Soviet bloc started to collapse; these events would dominate Bush’s first year in office. And that actually overlapped a little bit with the protests in Tiananmen Square.

Ronald Reagan was in office for a little bit more than two months when John Hinkley tried to assassinate him.

Six months into Jimmy Carter’s term, he had to deal with the New York City blackout and the Johnstown Flood.

The specter that was the circumstances of Gerald Ford’s ascendancy to the presidency was a topic of importance literally from day 1 for him.

Richard Nixon knew before he was elected, that he needed to act quickly to do something about Vietnam; the youth movement demonstrated that they weren’t going away.

LBJ’s presidency started off with a nation in mourning but still wanting answers.

Three months after JFK took office, a raid whose planning had begun under Eisenhower, failed miserably.

I will grant you that the severity of some of these items can and will vary from one to the next. Carter’s tests, for example, don’t really hold a candle to 9/11. But for nascent administrations, all of these had the potential to make or break their legacies.

If you factor out the bad decisions that Trump and Trump alone was responsible for, the bad policies, the bad optics, and just the general incompetence, what has happened during the Trump administration that would have been a serious test for other presidents? Hurricanes Harvey and Maria? Neither of them had to be handled that incompetently. North Korean missile testing? There’s nothing new about the missile testing itself, as this link demonstrates, but I’d say Kim Jong-Un has been emboldened by Trump…

I don’t think it’s possible to have a good understanding of history and believe Trump to be a good or even mediocre leader. We should be very wary of anyone who claims to know history but believes otherwise.

Now that we know…

After the first two debates for the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for President had very liberal rules for qualifying, the third debate had stricter rules. And now we know that exactly ten candidates have qualified.

With the possible exception of Tom Steyer, I don’t expect any of the candidates who didn’t make the third debate to make the fourth, and, whether they want to admit it or not, their campaigns are effectively over.

So I suppose it’s only fair to rank the ten remaining candidates based upon my preferences. For the most part, my preferences that I spelled out earlier this year still hold true, although I would be quick to point out that none of the three highest polling candidates meets my admittedly arbitrary age rule. I still feel as though our next president ought to be someone with no active memory of events that took place during the Eisenhower administration.

I should also note that this is not a rehash of my post from a couple of months ago where I spelled out what’s wrong with every candidate (and, in the process, linked to all of their campaign websites, which I’m not doing this time). While none of the candidates is perfect, this is my subjective ranking of all ten of them, from best too worst. So without further ado, here is how I feel about them all.

1. Kamala Harris. Harris is a passionate, powerful speaker, with bold ideas and a style that’s simultaneously sincere and aggressive. She’s basically been at the top of my list since the first debate.

2. Amy Klobuchar. Her track record and willingness to tell uncomfortable truths has impressed me since before she declared her candidacy. While I’m a little bit disappointed that she hasn’t gained more traction, she is a more than worthy candidate. And I admit it: it was on the basis of her birthday that I knew where to set my arbitrary age limit.

3. Pete Buttigieg. Way back in 2013, I pointed out that the Democrats have a better track record in winning the White House when their nominee was a relative unknown. I think that only the people who either went to school with Mayor Pete, or the people who served alongside him in Afghanistan could have foreseen his ascendance. Where he lacks in experience he more than makes up for in gravitas.

4. Elizabeth Warren. She has some of the best ideas of all of the nominees, and her opponents would do well to emulate her in many places. If the campaign were solely about the issues, she’d win hands down. But campaigns are also about control of the tone and message of the campaign (as I observed nine years ago), and Trump’s years of calling her “Pocahontas” could mean that she’s ceding some degree of control of the tone.

5. Cory Booker. Booker has been running a steady campaign. Knowing his history as mayor of Newark, NJ and then as Senator, this is, generally speaking, a good thing. But running steadily isn’t going to generate a lot of major news. I’m thus of two minds: in taking down Trump, do you go with his antithesis, or do you fight fire with fire? Putting Booker at the center of the pack here is my way of saying, “I’m not sure.”

6. Julián Castro. By all outward appearances, Donald Trump is going to try to make immigration his key campaign issue in 2020. And of all of the candidates, none can challenge him on that issue better than Castro. But would naming Castro essentially be conceding that this ought to be the key issue, especially given the other places where he has done such an extreme overreach, even conservative publications are sounding the alarm?

7. Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke is a fascinating study, no matter what else he is or is not: horrible at debates but engaging and passionate as a campaigner. After the El Paso Shooting, he suspended his campaign (rightly) and generated a lot of positive buzz upon his return. I still think he’d do a better job trying to run for Senate than the President.

8. Bernie Sanders. I’m not here to re-litigate the 2016 campaign, but every single one of my reservations about him from four years ago, still holds true today. From the cult of personality that surrounds him, to his willingness to overlook uncomfortable truths in favor of “feel good” vibes, I can’t get excited about him, even if he has a lot of good ideas.

9. Joe Biden. Biden hasn’t really done much during this campaign to justify his poll numbers, which have consistently ranked at the top of the Democratic field. Given his gaffes and how out of step he appears to be with the electorate, it seems to me that this is little more than a reflection of name recognition, and little else. He’s the only one who has made headlines with his Vice President choice. I will laughingly say that if he gets the nomination and actually does pick her for his VP, it’s the best reason to vote for him.

10. Andrew Yang. With increasing automation in more industries, there is definitely going to be a problem in the mid-range to long-term future with making sure everyone can have a job. He is the only person talking about this point, so I have to give him credit. That said, this is not the most important issue facing the country and his solution for it is, if I’m being my most generous, unworkable.

One thing I have to observe with these ten that should make the entire Democratic electorate proud and without regard to anyone’s personal preferred candidate, is that the diversity of this pack is completely unprecedented: less than half of this group is white men (and one of them is gay). Three separate generations are represented. Three women. And firsts for people of Hispanic and Asian heritage.

We should be proud of whomever gets the nod.

Can you make them understand?

About four or five years ago, my employer asked us all to complete a short survey that asked whether or not we have a disability.

Now I know that this survey was intended to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and (probably) to serve as a marketing item to show how diverse we are as a company.

When you look over the criteria that defines what it means to have a disability, there’s no question that I do. I’m legally blind in my right eye (and it’s possible that I was born that way). I have arthritis in my right knee. And, as I’ve written before, I was born with a harelip. Any of those three qualifies as a disability. So together, this should a no-brainer.

But the truth is, except for about three months about fifteen years ago (when the arthritis in my knee was particularly bad), I have not asked for any special accommodations at work for any of my disabilities. (And even then, all I asked for was a parking space close to the office.)

So legalities notwithstanding, I don’t feel like I deserve any special accommodations for my disabilities, and I’m certainly not using them to try and improve my position within the company or in life.

So I wrestled with whether or not I should complete this survey when it came out. After talking with HR, my manager, and friends and family, I finally gave in and decided to say that, yes, I’m disabled.

I think about this every time someone uses or otherwise makes reference to Donald Trump’s “Pocahontas” jab at Elizabeth Warren. She said that the stories she heard growing up made her a little bit Native American. And the DNA test she had done last year confirms those stories. It’s clear to me that any times she has spoken of her Native American heritage, it was in the same vein as when I said that, yes, I am disabled.

A couple of days ago, she posted a tweet about an interview she had that day. Here it is, along with a typical trolling response:

IMG 0653

I wish I could say that the response from @sl662 — assuming it’s a real person and not a bot — was unusual or atypical, but it’s not. Her Native American heritage is pretty much consistent with what she’d heard in the stories growing up. So unless you’re going to question the science behind the DNA tests (which admittedly, isn’t as solid as the folks at 23 and me or ancestry.com would have you believe), she is a Native American.

And, without parsing too much of the various definitions of the terms racist, white supremacist, white nationalist, or whatever other “politically correct” terms they want to use these days to shroud their bigotry, yes, Donald Trump is a white supremacist. And if he’s their poster boy, he’s a walking argument against the intellectual, ethical, or moral supremacy of people with white skin.

I don’t talk about my disabilities much, because I’m so much more than those disabilities. I’d rather talk about the things I’ve accomplished and things I’m working on (at least to the extent that they’re not confidential.)

Just like Liz Warren is so much more than her heritage and ancestry. Although I haven’t yet decided which candidate I want to support in the primaries, she is pretty high up there. This is despite the fact that she exceeds the arbitrary age cap that I placed on my ideal candidate earlier this year.