Category: Politics & Public Policy
Everything I Know About Capitalism, I Learned In the 6th Grade
This headline is not true, and yet, it was in this pre-Middle School era of my life when I first began to fully “understand the value of a dollar.”
I find that’s a popular phrase passed down through generations, an invaluable life lesson or a rite of passage. For two sixth-grade classes in the 1970s, their introduction to commerce and capitalism began that week.
That was the year that the number of students had outgrown the school, and some lucky contractor got the local school system bid for providing pop-up classrooms made out of stitched-together double-wide trailers. Two sixth-grade classes shared the one we’d been sentenced to, with a sliding partition between the two groups, each with its own teacher.
The partition was an insufficient barrier that mostly rendered us distracted by what was happening with the kids on the other side. When they laughed, our heads swiveled. When we acted up, they’d go silent and giggle as they listened to our punishment being levied. One teacher would have to raise her voice to keep the attention of her class whenever the sounds of the other teacher seemed more interesting.
And vice versa, and so it went.
Imagine the delight in our little hearts when one day the partition was folded in on itself, the two classrooms of kids facing off at last. The once competitive teachers joined forces and announced that we were going to learn about “the value of money.” They went on to explain that for a period of one week, there would be no traditional classroom lessons and that our trailer would be transformed into a microcosmic town.
Each of us had a role to play in the town. They asked for a show of hands when assigning roles like bankers, retailers, landlords, food purveyors, even insurance carriers.
I was the only one who wanted to run the town’s newspaper.
The town also needed governance and law, and so a show of hands indicated which of my classmates aspired to political life – managing their day-to-day duties while also running for a handful of offices, including mayor and sheriff.
We spent a day or two planning and building the town. Creative cardboard cutouts became our storefronts. Logos were designed, and signs went up over our storefronts. My classmates got right to work. The banker “handprinted” money and distributed a precisely equal amount of cash to each of the town’s residents, so everyone had a level playing field – a comparatively endearing socialist start to what would end in survival-of-the-fittest capitalistic carnage.
The most popular business, by far, was the town baker, who sold decadent treats to a classroom of kids given the freedom to make their own nutritional and expenditure decisions.
We didn’t speak of food allergies back then.
I got right to work wearing all the hats at the newspaper – a lot like things are today.
I reported and designed the layout. I “printed” the paper on the front office’s mimeograph. Printing is a big cost for actual newspapers, but I’d managed to get the paper and “press” for free. This would be seen as an ethical breach for actual newspapers.
I had to hock the paper, selling single copies to passersby. I sold advertising and wrote ad copy. I had to distribute the paper when it was hot off the press.
And though everyone wanted to read the paper – mostly to see if they were in it – few wanted to buy the paper. It was hard to compete with Mom-baked brownies.
I spent the week walking around the perimeter of the trailer, interviewing my classmates about the health of their businesses or who they liked in the pending election. I wrote trends pieces about how the town’s residents thought the rent was too damned high and how they wanted to be able to spend more of their money on luxury items, like those chocolately brownies. I vaguely remember writing an expose on the insurance carrier in town, who I saw as a huckster selling vapor.
“People give you money, but what do they really get in return,” I grilled him like I was Woodward or Bernstein.
One by one, the small businesses fell, exiling their owners from town, to a corner of the trailer-classroom to watch an episode of “Free to be You and Me” or to throw a sixth-grade temper tantrum, perhaps.
Naturally, the bank endured; it thrived off of the interest. The insurance carrier – who had minimal overhead costs and a contained, safe environment that put odds in his favor – stayed afloat. The baker had fistfuls of colorful cash by week’s end. And the newspaper endured, though I, too, was pretty busted. By the time I’d covered my own costs – rent, insurance, crayons – I didn’t have enough currency for much else.
I’d spent days coveting my classmates’ disposable income and how they frivolously, happily spent it on baked goods and insurance policies.
Somehow, I’d managed to get the news out, but it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t lucrative.
The AXIOS Interview: Observations on the President and the Press
This AXIOS on HBO interview with the President is generating a lot of social media buzz this week. If you’re like me and out of the HBO loop, AXIOS kindly published it online, free of charge. Here’s the link:
I watched it pre-dawn, with my first three cups of coffee and a notepad for visceral scribbling. I was most interested to see how Jonathan Swan formulated his questions and delivered them, and how he “managed” the President – prone to ramblings and deflections – in order to keep the interview productive and moving forward.
At least twice, the President broke the cadence of the interview to comment on Swan’s facial expressions, accusing him of smiling or smirking. This, too, is a rhetorical trick of the President’s – to redirect attention to the questioner, often disparaging the reporter in some way. Here, he seems to imply that Swan is unserious or being cheeky. What he did not do is call Swan “nasty,” or dumb or any of his other favorite insults he seems to reserve for women journalists who ask tough questions.
Swan didn’t hesitate to wade into some turbulent waters: the Federal response to COVID-19; Ghislaine Maxwell; the President’s plans to leverage the Courts to contest the election; Federal forces descending on an American city and usurping due process by essentially kidnapping protesters and holding them without charges; Black Lives Matter and civil unrest; and about his lack of regard for the late John Lewis.
Swan even asked about the intelligence reports that suggest Russia has taken out bounties on Allied troops’ heads. The President demonstrated his incuriosity about the intel. “If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it,” he proclaimed.
“This one didn’t reach my desk,” he insisted. And yet it’s on his desk; it’s in his briefing, and the President didn’t even bother to bring it up for discussion during his call with Putin last week (per the White House).
Swan then probed the President about widely circulated and publicized intelligence that ties Russia to supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a shocking “whataboutism” response, the President replied, “We supplied weapons to the Taliban when they were fighting Russia. … We did that, too.”
It is stunning to see a President of the United States equivocating American troops – presumably sent to the Afghanistan mountains to combat terrorism and nation build – with Russia’s aggressive, invading forces the Taliban caused to retreat long ago.
Pressed on troop levels in Afghanistan, the President acknowledged that the numbers have gone up and gone down during his Presidency, but he insists that his mission is to nearly halve the level with which the Administration began. Swan, wanting a number and a timetable on the promise, gets the President to say the U.S. will have between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in Afghanistan on election day 2020.
Swan is particularly effective at getting the President to eventually answer a question. Someone on Twitter suggested that it’s because of the Aussie accent, but it’s really because he fires follow-up questions and real-time fact checks at the President. The White House Press Corps, often kept to one or two questions, don’t have that luxury. It’s too easy for the President or McEnany to just point to someone else and move on.
Throughout the interview, the President makes relentless attempts to stonewall Swan. He interrupts. He talks in circles. He deflects and heads off in tangents – often leading to topics within his comfort zone: Crowd sizes. TV ratings. And why he doesn’t get enough “credit” – from whom, he doesn’t say.
In a line of questioning may be more uncomfortable for the audience than it is for the President, Swan asked the question about his “I wish her well” remarks about Ghislaine Maxwell, the accused pimp and pedo-buddy of the late Jeffrey Epstein – both, long-time friends of the President. In response, the President suggested that Epstein may have been murdered in prison, citing no evidence to support his assertion.
What the President doesn’t want to talk about is the pandemic and the more than 159,000 dead Americans. When Swan does manage to steer the President to the topic, the President flippantly dismisses statistics, including the measurably important death-per-capita data from the United States and other developed nations. The President suggests that data is flawed.
The duo’s conversation about testing is revealing, in an emperor-lacks-clothes kind of way. The President’s obstinance about testing continues. Swan points out that test results take too long – that a test result, sometimes 10 days after the swabbing, doesn’t help the patient and it doesn’t help quell the transmission of the virus.
Weeks before the Swan interview, the Trump Administration “defunded” federal testing sites they’d set up around the country. They folded the tents, pulled the personnel, and said to those communities, “You’re on your own now.”
One of so many unforced errors made by the President during the interview, he asserted, “You can test too much,” citing unnamed sources, “the manuals” and “the books.” To his credit, Swan followed up with a question about which manuals and books he was citing – knowing, of course, that the President cannot answer the question.
The part of the interview about COVID-19 and testing will now be added to the library of videos of the President’s half-year campaign to diminish the virus, to give Americans some false sense of security, to fuel conspiracy theories about it, to play wannabe doctor and pharmacist, to endanger lives.
The national lack of ambition on testing – despite the volume of tests already performed the President prefers to cite – may be our undoing. It should go without saying that the more rapid-result testing we do, the easier it becomes to isolate the virus, identify risks, to help on-the-front lines healthcare workers and facilities be proactive rather than reactive. The path to any sort of normalcy – schools reopening, businesses bouncing back, seeing each other, touching each other, encouraging the kids to play together again, going to a restaurant, going on a date, seeing live music, attending a funeral – is paved in testing.
And we’ve blown it.
About those nearly 160,000 American deaths? The President tells Swan, “It is what it is.”
Mary L. Trump’s Book: A Review
I bought Mary L. Trump, PhD’s book, “Too Much and Never Enough” not so much because I was interested in the family dynamics of the Trump clan, but because I have an (confessed) staunch disdain for men who try to silence women, and for Presidents who make people around them sign NDAs and file frivolous lawsuits to delay and degrade every publication or opinion about him. So, when I heard that the Trump family had tied the book up in court, I pre-ordered it.
It’s a thin hardback and an easy read.
In the early chapters, she struggles with voice.
At times, Trump reminds the reader that she is a clinician, highly educated in and informed about mental health and mental disease. Occasionally, she breaks from that serious tone, injecting editorial that is biting or snarky. I’m not sure those work in her favor.
A few chapters in, she hits her stride, and the book transitions into what it wanted to be from the beginning: A highly personal memoir, with decades worth of cringe-inducing memories of sadism and cruelty that runs like sap in the Trump family tree. Knowing that, you might tend to believe that this is purely “a hit piece,” written for retribution or revenge. She is wounded – and who wouldn’t be – but it becomes evident that malice isn’t her motivation. Rather, the narrative seems to indicate a patently private person’s strange sense of duty to the public, to correct the record on her family’s biography and image, including the curated and fabricated story of her Uncle’s business acumen.
The stories of family “black sheeps,” of dramatic dis-ownings, or siblings who turn against one another for their parents’ affection or post-mortem spoils, are nothing new. But the story of the Trump family is particularly tragic, because the repercussions of their greed, cruelty, and tumult have trickled down to all of us now. They’re global.
The saddest part of this story, it seems to me, is the acknowledgement that family can be so easily fractured, and that sometimes a person can spend a lifetime thinking they play a certain role in the family – thinking they are (if not well liked, then) well-loved by other members of the family. They can carry on blindly under those assumptions for years, decades even, until one day they come to realize that they didn’t have that firm standing at all, that the affection they felt for others was not reciprocated – the unsteadying realization that “I am on my own.”
I think that must’ve been how it felt in the moment Mary Trump recounts near the end of the book – a fateful phone conversation with her grandmother, the President’s mother. It’s a gut punch.
By the end, I was surprised at how viciously the President’s immediate family and inner circle denounced his niece’s recounting of her life to date. Donald, his siblings, their children? They were raised in a culture of abuse. You’ll close this book and think, “That explains so much.” It almost makes a person feel pity for the President, for the man he came to be. Almost.
“Cancel culture” isn’t a new fad
I read and hear a lot about “cancel culture,” Most recently, it came up in tweet conversations about the proposed boycott of GOYA foods after the company’s CEO said something nice about the President.
As far as I can tell, the term is a colloquialism turned political bone over which to fight. I see how politicians toss it into the ring and stand back, interjecting screams from time to time about its evils and why you should fear it, condemn it. I see how they compare people — citizens, constituents — to a “mob.”
I see how the ploy works, pitting fellow Americans further against one another — viciously so — not for those Americans’ own benefit, but for the politicians’ sake.
Unless I’m wrong — and please tell me if I am — the de facto definition for “cancel culture” is the idea of withdrawling support for, undermining, or even “defunding” a company, an organization, a person, an idea, a practice, a phrase, even a sculptural rendering of a person.
The goal is, in effect, to diminish that entity’s popularity, privilege, and financial stability.
Do I have that right?
If so, I wonder how this is any different than the strangely apolitical idea of the “power of the purse strings?” In other words, the act of putting your money — the greatest, most inherently capitalistic tool that any American has in their quivers — toward quashing something they find distasteful, disappointing, or unconscionable.
There’s an entire “street” in Washington DC — that begins and ends with the letter K — established so all its tenants can spend their days and nights asking our Representatives to fund this, or withhold funds from that.
Doesn’t it seem like, when they do it, it’s called governance, but when you do it, it’s labeled something less … palatable?
It seems to me that this is not a novel idea at all — giving your hard-fought earnings to things you’d like to affirm, and withholding them from entities you do not wish to support.
Everyone has a right to do that, and we already do, on all sides of the political landscape. Our purses — or wallets, or checkbooks, or ApplePay apps — are how we lobby our way through American life.
Naturally, “the power of the purse strings” isn’t nearly as sexy a rhetorical trick for politicians. The sounds-more-scary “cancel culture” rhetoric is far more effective and manipulative.
Digital News Publishers Weather the Storm After COVID-19
I spoke with digital news organizations — and some major metro newspapers, including those that have been so-called “hot zones” for COVID-19 — about how the pandemic has influenced, impeded, affirmed, or transformed content, operations, staffing, revenue, and philosophies.
From the July/August issue of Editor & Publisher magazine:
Liberty and Life
I’m not a fan of memes. Too often the social-media populace relies on memes as a substitute for journalistically sound news.
But I recently saw a meme that so beautifully represented the absurdity of politicizing virus mitigation. It contrasted the enormity of the sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation during WWII — the pitch-in, can-do spirit of the war-time era — with the politically obstinate Americans who refuse to wear a mask today. After all, a mask is a small, finite sacrifice proven to reduce the spread of the virus, and as a byproduct will get us all back to work, to recreation, to communing, to fully living again.
A true patriot doesn’t champion personal liberty at the very expense of the nation.
The Problem with Monuments to Mere Mortals
“Because I’m so big, you have to look at me. I think of myself as a monument. But sometimes I like to feel small.” — Shaq
The problem with monuments to men is that men (humans) are inherently fallible and flawed.
It’s even a Biblical tenet — that no man is without sin.
One person’s hero is often someone else’s oppressor.
To remove one statue and replace it with another seems problematic.
Create art that champions and celebrates ideas and ideals, instead. Or plant trees and create gardens in the public square; they’re naturally life affirming.
Photo: G.A. Peck, 2014
Pandemic and Protest for the Impoverished
I’ve spent the past week working on an article (cover story, July 2020 Editor & Publisher magazine), for which I’ve spoken to news editors around the country, to better understand how they’ve managed through months of pandemic – and now, during protests and civil unrest. It feels like crisis on top of crisis on top of crisis for news organizations already fiscally challenged, with newsrooms gutted.
It got me thinking about life here in northern Vermont, and how communities have managed through the protests and pandemic.
Last week, a group of students from an international boarding school in St. Johnsbury staged a protest, and maybe a hundred local residents came out to demonstrate their frustration with the disproportionate number of police shootings and killings at the expense of black families. The incident was not without its own strife. There were a few arrests of protesters who blocked the entrance to the local police station. One overzealous officer manhandled a tiny sprite of a woman, tossing her like a doll down the concrete stairs leading to the entrance.
By the next day, the small town had returned to its sleepy status. The protesters had been replaced by a small group of maybe a dozen “Blue Lives Matter” counter protesters, who planted themselves on the sidewalk in front of the station, hoping for honks from passing cars, in support of cops. It didn’t surprise me, this kind of support for the men and women in blue. Here, as in most small towns across the country, cops aren’t wooed from other towns; here, the officers live in the community. They know everyone, and everyone knows them. This kind of co-dependent relationship makes it untenable for the police to overreach their authority, and it makes citizens more respectful of the force made of their neighbors and family members.
Crime is, of course, a little different here. The local paper’s crime blotter this week reported a local man over in Burke who was arrested for pelting a woman with eggs after a night of, admittedly, excessive drinking.
Only about half of the residents you see milling about in towns, or driving to and from them, sport “PPE.” You won’t see many N95 masks. More often than not, they have the cloth kind that someone stitched by hand, or bandanas wrapped snug. I saw a man yesterday who was heading into a local pharmacy with a grimy, old white t-shirt haphazardly wrapped around his face and tied in the back. At least he was trying to be accountable to his community.
It’s not that the others are unaware of COVID-19. It’s not like they don’t take it seriously. The local health clinic always has a full parking lot, and the low-tech “website” for our town – a metal billboard at the end of our dirt road – reminds people of the risks and to socially distance themselves, as if that were even a choice.
It’s more likely that people here are simply nonplussed by it. There is a sense that, no matter what happens here, that life will go on, that poverty will endure.
I’ve been introduced to a number of residents who came here from Connecticut, where I still live full time. Each has a similar story – that they came north for a more idyllic perspective, an active lifestyle – snowmobiling, hunting, fishing – and to escape oppressive taxes. But what they found in northern Vermont is that life’s challenges simply take on a new form.
From the previous owner of my little cabin, I inherited some relationships with a couple of locals who help me maintain the land. The local town selectman is my plow guy. He maintains the town roads for a living, and plows out the driveways of his neighbors for $30 a visit. He automatically shows up anytime we get more than six inches.
I have a young man who comes to shovel paths around the house and to pull the snow off the metal roof when it piles up. His mother is the town clerk a few hollows away. We got to talking during his first visit, and he explained to me how much he loves it here, especially being able to navigate the region by snowmobile during the winter. It’s a practical, affordable and thrilling alternative to automobile transportation.
But he said that he may have to go back down south to Connecticut, after all, because there’s just no opportunity here, no work for him.
He spends his summers doing landscaping and mostly fighting off the dreaded black flies. We called upon him to mow a meadow, because it had gotten high from the spring rains and because we knew he could use the buck.
Back home, I’m used to landscapers showing up with a veritable fleet of vehicles, equipment and personnel. He showed up with a riding mower on in the back of his pickup, its blade and cover dangling precariously off the side of it. Rusted through, he had to hold onto it, guiding it across the grasses and adjusting the height by hand, courtesy of a string he’d tied to it.
It’s hard to invest in your business when jobs are scarce.
For so many Vermonters here, pandemic or not, the barn still needs a new roof they can’t afford; the tractor still needs repairs. The fields around the house need to be groomed, and the ruts in the road – caused by the freeze-and-thaw cycle of mud season – need to be smoothed out. Farm animals and pets still need feed, and rotted wood on the cabins needs to be replaced with whatever scraps of lumber can be found in the shed.
But there are also little pleasures. With spring comes picnics with the family. The woodstoves go cold, while charcoal grills fill the air with the seasonal scent of smoke. Kids run free and play outside, and when night comes – as was the custom in our home growing up – the parents bathe them of the grime and check their heads for ticks.
Joy feels smaller here. Expectations are managed. Passersby aren’t always inclined to smile, but they do wave and nod. Conversations are truncated and efficient. People don’t feel the need to be constantly entertained.
There are no fine dining experiences or nights at the theater to miss – let alone to protest until they “open up.” A date night might take of the form of a retired couple sitting on a front porch and sharing a bottle of wine, watching the occasional truck rumble by. No one is in a rush, after all.
Life is simple by design, by necessity, and by geography. They know the virus will come, and that there’s nothing to do but wait for it and to carry on.
Photo: G.A. Peck, 2020
The Roof, the Roof, the Roof Is On Fire
Unlike George Floyd, who literally choked out his last words …
“Don’t kill me.”
“I can’t breathe.”
… I only figuratively choke on words to chronicle this moment in our nation’s history. I feel inadequate and inarticulate. Nothing I can put to paper is profound enough. What can I write that I haven’t said before, after each injustice I’ve paid witness to in my lifetime — this life of mine that tonight feels privileged and impossibly long?
What have I not already said about the racial disparities that plague our culture? How can I, an inept bystander really, somehow define and encapsulate the festering wounds of racism and our pathetic inability to destroy it, once and for all?
I think I choke on these words because it’s not my story to tell. I think on these matters, as a white person who knows that I can go about my days — somedays even myself breaking laws — without that omnipresent fear that others will inherently aim to target me, harass me, disparage me, or even kill me, I might be best to shut the fuck up and listen, or better yet, to act as a conduit, a megaphone for others who know these atrocities firsthand.
I need to do a better job at making sure those stories are told. That is my mission and vow.
I may be better equipped to speak about protests. A child of the 60s and 70s, I have been witness to Vietnam-era rebellions, Los Angeles, Ferguson, and all the modern-era injustices that have led people to the streets to speak to their rage, to show the world their anguish.
I have myself marched, when there seemed like no other way to break through. This is all too familiar to me.
Tragically, rather than acknowledging their numbers and hearing their cries – rather than listening to their plight and empathizing with their anger – too many in this country will look at anecdotal property destruction and discount these protesters’ voices, wholesale. They will criticize them, or worse, tsk-tsk them and just move on about their days.
I sat up all night again, watching live feeds of fires burning in businesses, a news network under siege, tear gas canisters flying, and I think back to a demonstration I took part in years ago. I found myself side-by-side with a perfectly mild-mannered and otherwise peaceful, law-abiding person, who was so caught up in the moment, so unable to tamp down his rage, that he screamed out, “Burn it all down!”
That’s what rage does to human beings. That’s what being unheard, for years, decades, centuries, does to us.
As the day breaks, American cities will awaken to carnage today. They will find their neighbors and friends nursing wounds, glass on the streets, fires still smoldering. Talking heads on TV and social-media commenters will ponder, “Why have they done this? What purpose does it serve?”
They don’t understand it, because they haven’t tried to understand it.
I think about erupting rage and wonder how this anger is any less valid than the grievances that inspired this nation to elect Donald J. Trump as our 45th President? So often I’ve heard from Trump voters who say they voted for him to “drain the swamp,” to “shake things up.”
What they really meant was, “Burn it all down.”
The thing is, when you have that level of power – as a member of Congress or as President – burning it down proves rather easy and clean. No muss, no fuss. You don’t need to take the streets. K Street comes to you. You meet in chambers at the Capitol and with pen strokes, you dismantle it. You exploit that rage that sent you there to undermine law enforcement, intelligence agencies, the very system of justice that governs our land. You quietly leverage the courts to take mere access to healthcare away from millions who desperately need it. You slickly undermine public education. You put a price tag on the environment and sell it to the highest bidder. You champion war criminals and demote military heroes. You strike down laws intended to protect workers and people from businesses that will harm them and make them sick. You enrich your friends and starve the rest.
You challenge long-established Constitutional laws, because you can, and because you feel it’s what you were elected and emboldened to do.
You see a plague coming and you shrug it off, knowing that it might kill millions, especially in the cities for which you have disdain, cities that didn’t vote for you.
You burn it all down while surrounding yourself with blue-suited middle-aged white men cheering you on, never getting any grime on your hands at all. It’s all disgustingly dignified.
But the People don’t have that power. They’ve got to get their hands dirty.
The People don’t have those commemorative Executive Order-signing pens. They only have the streets. They only have their rage. They have only year after year of screaming into a void. And, so, they want to burn it all down the only way they know how, until the powerful listen, until they command their attention, until the change they demand comes.