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Clinton has a God-given right to refer to others’ God-given potential. And I have a right, God-given or otherwise, to find her decision to do that really annoying.

This post of mine yesterday deals mostly with Clinton’s annoying “When women are [fill in the blank], families are [same word; slightly different meaning] slogans.  But toward the end, it also discusses Clinton’s annoying references to people’s “God-given potential.”  References to people’s potential, without injecting religion (at least without some elaboration on the religion injection), would be much better, I said.

In the Comments thread to that post, reader Mike B. exchanged these comments:

Mike B.

May 21, 2015 10:49 am

I’m not religious, but I think that, publicly at least, Hillary is. So I don’t mind her putting “God-given” in there (or “blessed”). The GOP likes to pretend they are the religious party, which isn’t true – they’re the party of the religious right. There are a lot of liberal Christians out there, and I don’t think it’s bad for people to be reminded of that. It’s true that Hillary didn’t have to put those words in there, but I doubt if it’ll put off many people.

Beverly Mann

May 21, 2015 1:17 pm

Mike, you’re absolutely right that Clinton has been a practicing Methodist all her life. I don’t begrudge her her right to make that point and mention Methodist teachings as Methodist teachings. And it did occur to me that by inserting “God-given” there, she thinks it could help persuade religious Christians who don’t think of trying to make sure that everybody has the same chances to live up to his or her own potential as something that government should do.

But I actually listened to the video she put out on Mother’s Day, in which she used the line about “God-given potential.” Most of the video was about her own mother’s life, and was really poignant. Her mother was truly a pretty awesome person who had had a really sad childhood. Clinton didn’t detail it in the video, but the tone of her voice in referencing it was touching enough that I checked out her mother’s biography on Wikipedia.

But near the end of that otherwise un-phony, touching video, when Clinton used the line about “God-given potential,” the word “God-given” was emphasized in a way that sounded like she had recut the video to insert that word, at the suggestion of some political adviser. She didn’t say “God-given”; she said “GOD-GIVEN.”

I myself would love to hear her talk about Christian teachings about caring about others—but as Christian teachings that nonetheless aren’t the exclusive property of Christians, or of religious people.

My problem with Clinton is that she’s incessantly invoking her gender, her Christianity, her … hit-the-political-buttons, early and often.  I keep automatically comparing her in my mind to Warren, who never, ever highlights her gender and doesn’t incessantly (or ever) appear to base her support for, say, meaningfully increasing the minimum wage on the fact that about two-thirds of minimum-wage earners are women. And, yes, universal access to quality child-care, and reliable work schedules, and other tremendously important work issues that Clinton and Warren both discuss, would make a difference to far more women than men, but Warren recognizes that it is utterly unnecessary to point that out.

No one thinks of Warren as a woman politician; they think of her as a tremendously articulate politician who has deep policy knowledge about certain economic and financial issues, and who is leading a progressive political movement. So she’s the ultimate feminist politician. But neither does anyone think of Warren as a Christian, or non-Christian, or religious, or non-religious politician. Her statements are purely policy-related, and the fact that her policy positions fit nicely with certain Christian teachings is irrelevant. She doesn’t mention it, and she knows she doesn’t have to.

Last week, in a post of mine that I’d hoped would get some attention (it didn’t, best as I can tell), I discussed Martin O’Malley’s flag-pin-wearing.  And not in a favorable way.  I’m very, very, very tired of Democratic politicians’ craven playing on the Republican Party’s playing field by subtly acceding to their Democrats-aren’t-patriotic and Democrats aren’t-religious-enough characterizations.

Which is what they do when they adopt the Republican Party’s chosen symbols on such things. Wearing flag-lapel pins and inserting God-given here and there as obligatory are classic examples of it. This should stop.  It’s not, by any stretch, politically necessary.

It just should stop.

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Clinton really, really needs to kill her incoherent “When women are [fill in the blank], families are [same word; slightly different meaning] slogan. Really.

When women are strong, families are strong.

Hillary Clinton, repeatedly

When women are healthy, families are healthy.

Hillary Clinton, a few days ago

Good news.  According to National Journal journalist Molly Mirhashem and h/t’d by Anna North of the New York Times, the Clinton campaign is no longer taking women’s support as a given.  So Clinton’s been demonstrating her commitment to racial and economic equality.  By mentioning that the gender wage gap is wider is wider for women of color (presumably meaning black and Hispanic women, not Asian or Middle Eastern women) than it is for white women.

In other words, the news is not all that good, after all.  It’s just okay.  Progress, but not much.

Mirhashem’s article is titled “What young feminists think of Hillary Clinton” and subtitled “It’s not quite what you’d expect.”  That, though, depends on who the “you” is, since it’s exactly what I expected.

The above-quoted sing-song slogans marry two of Clinton’s hallmarks: First, her belief that simply using the word “women” constantly is her ticket to victory—after all, isn’t that what matters to baby boomer feminists?  Well, that, and the fact of her gender itself?  Second, her preference for incoherent slogans intended just to indicate generic policy positions.  Shorthand.  Because, well, this is after all, the age of Twitter.  And all that matters is that Clinton lets us know, generically, which side of a policy issue she’s on.  The ones she wants us to know, anyway.

My reaction to her slogan, “When women are strong, families are strong,” each time I’ve heard or read it, is to think of the millions of women who hold down two low-paying jobs, some of them traveling to and from the jobs using uncomfortable and sporadic public transportation.  By definition, at least by the usual definition, of the word, these women are strong.  But some of them have families that are not strong.

And women who are seriously ill, say with cancer, may have strong families.

Taken at face value, the two slogans are incoherent.  They’re non sequiturs.  You get the general idea of what she means, but why doesn’t she just say what she means?  Sound-bite slogans are useful when they’re coherent and state something specific.  Clinton has borrowed Elizabeth Warren’s very effective slogan that the game is rigged, changing it to “The deck is stacked,” which means the same thing of course.  Both phrasings are effective because they say something clear and pointed; they don’t need to be translated into a coherent statement.  They’re not sing-song-y, they don’t use a play on a word, and they don’t mention gender or any such trigger. They tie together two things into cause-and-effect: The tiny handful of people who pay for political campaigns are the ones who write public policy; their politician benefactors are just their proxies, their puppets.

I’m no longer as hostile as I was to Clinton and her commandeering of the nomination process; the Democratic Party and the potentially strong but demurring progressive candidates such as Sherrod Brown have acceded to it.  And she’s clearly decided to become the non-Hillary-Clinton candidate that we progressives have wanted to see enter the race.

But she and her political and policy advisers and spokespeople need to stop condescending to progressives and to the public in general.  I don’t understand how a candidate who has so very many highly paid message strategists believes that nonsensical and pandering slogans and statements is the way to victory in the general election.  She really, really doesn’t have to preface the word “potential”—as in, having the chance to live up to his or her potential—with the word “God-given.”  She can just say that she and her husband are “going to fight to make sure that everybody has the same chances to live up to his or her own potential.”  She may think it’s politically necessary for her to insert “God-given” before “potential”.  But it just sounds like what it is: gratuitous and patronizing.*

Someone who isn’t paid vast sums to advise her should tell her that.  Because none of the folks who are paid vast sums to advise her will tell her that.  But she, of all candidates, should studiously avoid pandering. At least that sort of pandering.

In truth, the way to victory for her in the general election is to run against a Republican.  And since that’s what she will be doing, she should start, now, being a candidate who appears to have the moral strength to walk away from the 1980s and ‘90s political obsessions.  We Democrats are entitled to a standard bearer who has that.  We are.  Really.


*The full quote is:

Bill and I have been blessed, and we’re very grateful for the opportunities we had.  But we’ve never forgotten where we came from, and we’ve never forgotten the kind of country we want to see for our granddaughter, and that means that we’re going to fight to make sure that everybody has the same chances to live up to his or her own God-given potential.

Added 5/20 at 10:41 p.m.

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The Missing Follow Up Question: Why Iraq is Still a Landmine for Jeb and Marco

Over the last week the various talking heads have come to a consensus on two points about Iraq. One, given what we know now OF COURSE it was a mistake to go to war on Iraq. And two, why on Earth weren’t Jeb and Marco prepared to answer this obvious question in that obvious way? Well I think there are any numbers of reasons why they fell into this trap, but perhaps the simplest is this:

“Governor Bush/Senator Rubio, having conceded that with the 20/20 advantage of hindsight that YOU wouldn’t have made the decision to go to war, and moreover insist that President G.W. Bush wouldn’t have either, why have you each hired as top foreign policy advisers people who were not only centrally involved in making that decision, but deny to this date that it even WAS a mistake?”

Jeb, who was a PNAC Vulcan, and Marco, who is positioning himself as the heir to Neo-Con-ism, are STILL relying on PNAC Signatories of either the 1997 Statement of Principles or the 1998 Letter to President Clinton on Iraq. It is one thing to agree “Mistakes were made” and another to say “Hey what the hell, why not give the mistake makers another bite at the apple?” Maybe because they don’t even AGREE that they made any mistakes to start with?

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Why does Clinton’s senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan think liberals support bottlenecks for small business loans? And does Clinton REALLY think that if Corrections Corporation of America and its chief competitor (Marco Rubio’s tacit business partner, GEO) reduce their prices, mass incarceration should continue?

“People often talk about the electorate moving left,” said Clinton senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan. “I think it’s more that the electorate is just getting more practical. For Hillary Clinton, that matches her evidence-based approach. The arguments that persuade her are evidence-based and progressive.”

He cited the growing consensus that mass incarceration is expensive and unworkable, and that the country is never going to deport all of the more than 11 million people who are here illegally.…

Sullivan also noted that some of Clinton’s early proposals “cut against the grain” of political liberalism, such as her emphasis on improving the playing field for American small businesses.

Clinton will debut policy proposals to ease lending bottlenecks for small businesses on campaign trips to Iowa and New Hampshire this week. The impetus came largely from conversations Clinton had in the run-up to the campaign and a six-month policy review led by Sullivan that looked at how Clinton might address a variety of national concerns.

“The thing she is most interested in is not what position is most popular, it’s what do people worry about,” Sullivan said.

— Clinton is banking on the Obama coalition to win, Anne Gearan, The Washington Post, today

Hmmm.  Okay, Dems.  We need to realize that we’re in trouble.  No, we’re not gonna lose the general elgection.  But our likely standard bearer thinks she’s boldly challenging her party’s base, Sister-Soulja-style, by emphasizing improving the playing field for American small businesses.  As against, say, Walmart. And JPMorgan Chase’s investment banking clients.

I mean … like … Wow.

So Clinton, or at least her senior policy adviser, has never heard of the Durbin Amendment.  Or else thinks that Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin is a Republican.  Or maybe a centrist Democrat rather than a very liberal one.  And that Clinton, who her campaign chairman, John Podesta, elsewhere in the article assures that “[s]he’s a proud wonk, and she looks at policy from that perspective,” thinks liberals were up in arms back in early 2010 at the idea that the federal government would interject itself into the by-then-long-running controversy between the credit card/ATM card companies and small retailers (including franchisees such as gas station owners) about the usurious charges that Visa and Mastercard were charging businesses for processing even very small purchases by their customers.

Apparently neither one of them had causal conversations with the three or four small business owners in the Ann Arbor, Mich. area that I happened to chat about it with back in, oh, 2009, 2009, 2010.  Including one I remember, the owner of an independent dollar store, who said that while Walmart could afford the charge for processing small credit/ATM card purchases, those charges cut significant into his profit.  And I guess neither one of them—Clinton nor her senior policy adviser—ever drove, back then, say, north on Pontiac Rd. from Ann Arbor and noticed the family-owned gas stations with signs highlighting the $.10-per-gallon, and then occasionally the $.20-per-gallon, discount for paying in cash.  That’s too bad.  But then, although it’s now lost in memory, Michigan had no Democratic primary in 2008 that year, because of a controversy concerning the state Dem Party’s decision to try to move its primary ahead of New Hampshire’s.  (Something like that; I can’t remember the details.)  So Clinton didn’t campaign in the state, and her current senior policy adviser, who had a high position in her 2008 campaign, would not have visited the state either.

Nor, obviously, are Clinton and her senior policy adviser aware of Paul Krugman’s columns and blog posts explaining the tremendous edge that the mega-banks, which no longer deign to actually make business loans to small businesses because, well, they’re doing just fine with their hedge fund and investment banking operations (I mean, well, usually they are), have over regional or local banks that do so deign.  And since they’re getting their take on liberals from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, they also apparently don’t know that Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Jeff Merkley have used their positions on the Senate Banking Committee to try to enact legislation to break up the mega-banks by prohibiting banks that have standard so-called retail banking operations from engaging also in hedge fund and investment banking functions.  Which Clinton, wonk that she is, would understand would itself make it easier for the banks that would be operating as, y’know, banks to make loans, on decent terms, to small businesses.

Maybe Clinton and her senior policy adviser think Krugman and those three senators and, say, Durbin and Bernie Sanders, are Tea Party members.  Or centrists.  Or maybe they know of other liberals who are demanding justice for JPMorgan Chase and Citibank.

Or maybe they should get out more among, say, real live liberals.

For that matter, they also should get out more among moderates.  Most of whom, probably, think this country’s three-decades-long mass-incarceration policies raise profound concerns beyond the exorbitant direct expenditures, many of whom, probably, would question Clinton’s basic judgment if they knew that she thinks state governments should just drive a harder bargain with Marco Rubio’s tacit business partner, GEO, and its main competitor, Corrections Corporation of America—both of which, it turns out, have contracts with state and county governments in which the governments promise to keep the prisons or jails at or near capacity, or pay the corporations for the empty beds.  I mean, cots.

Both Clinton and her senior policy adviser hold law degrees from Yale.  So, who knows? It might even occur to one or the other to suggest that such contracts constitute wholesale violations of Fourteenth Amendment due process guarantees. And state constitutions’ separation-of-powers structure.  Perhaps Samuel Alito, who is deeply concerned about the constitutionality of public-employee unions’ very existence because of unions’ power to determine such things as the size of state government, can assist with legal theory.  Maybe they could ask him for suggestions.

I mean, they’re wonks, right?  How else would they know that mass incarceration is expensive?

And if Clinton doesn’t inform the public of that fact, they won’t know that fact.  luckily, she plans to tell the public, and support this assertion with detailed information about the math formula she used to discern that fact. And really, it is a fact.  Mass incarceration is very expensive. And that money could be used for … other things.  Good thing she’s a practical wonk.

But back to the nitty-gritty of using us liberals as foils to assure moderates that she’s not really so liberal even now, what with her cutting against the liberal grain of proposing to end bottlenecks to small-business loans, and all.  I will oblige her, and have my brick ready to throw through the window of a neighborhood Thai restaurant nearby that plans to expand after it gets a new loan.

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“We broke it, but you’ve got to fix it.”

Worthy of a read of (or if you want a listen to) a recent Commencement speech given by Ken Burns at Washington University calling on recent graduates to help fix what previous generations have left broken and incomplete. I have posted both the verbal and the written version for you to select.

A comment extracted from the speech:

“a tall, thin lawyer, prone to bouts of debilitating depression, addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum. The topic that day was national security.

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” he asked his audience . . . . Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Earth and crush us at a blow?” Then he answered his own question: “Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio [River] or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years . . . If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

It is a stunning, remarkable statement.”

Ken Burns answers what is wrong with America and why we have not been able to get it right after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. “You’re joining a movement that must be dedicated above all else — career and personal advancement — to the preservation of this country’s most enduring ideals. You have to learn, and then re-teach the rest of us that equality — real equality — is the hallmark and birthright of ALL Americans. Thankfully, you will become a vanguard against a new separatism that seems to have infected our ranks, a vanguard against those forces that, in the name of our great democracy, have managed to diminish it.”


The Text: Chancellor Wrighton, members of the Board of Trustees and the Administration, distinguished faculty, Class of 1965, hard-working staff, my fellow honorees, proud and relieved parents, calm and serene grandparents, distracted but secretly pleased siblings, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, graduating students, good morning. I am deeply honored that you have asked me here to say a few words at this momentous occasion, that you might find what I have to say worthy of your attention on so important a day at this remarkable institution.

It had been my intention this morning to parcel out some good advice at the end of these remarks — the “goodness” of that being of course subjective in the extreme — but then I realized that this is the land of Mark Twain, and I came to the conclusion that any commentary today ought to be framed in the sublime shadow of this quote of his: “It’s not that the world is full of fools, it’s just that lightening isn’t distributed right.” More on Mr. Twain later.

I am in the business of history. It is my job to try to discern some patterns and themes from the past to help us interpret our dizzyingly confusing and sometimes dismaying present. Without a knowledge of that past, how can we possibly know where we are and, most important, where we are going? Over the years I’ve come to understand an important fact, I think: that we are not condemned to repeat, as the cliché goes and we are fond of quoting, what we don’t remember. That’s a clever, even poetic phrase, but not even close to the truth. Nor are there cycles of history, as the academic community periodically promotes. The Bible, Ecclesiastes to be specific, got it right, I think: “What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.”

What that means is that human nature never changes. Or almost never changes. We have continually superimposed our complex and contradictory nature over the random course of human events. All of our inherent strengths and weaknesses, our greed and generosity, our puritanism and our prurience parade before our eyes, generation after generation after generation. This often gives us the impression that history repeats itself. It doesn’t. It just rhymes, Mark Twain is supposed to have said…but he didn’t (more on Mr. Twain later.)

Over the many years of practicing, I have come to the realization that history is not a fixed thing, a collection of precise dates, facts and events (even cogent commencement quotes) that add up to a quantifiable, certain, confidently known, truth. It is a mysterious and malleable thing. And each generation rediscovers and re-examines that part of its past that gives its present, and most important, its future new meaning, new possibilities and new power.

Listen. For most of the forty years I’ve been making historical documentaries, I have been haunted and inspired by a handful of sentences from an extraordinary speech I came across early in my professional life by a neighbor of yours just up the road in Springfield, Illinois. In January of 1838, shortly before his 29th birthday, a tall, thin lawyer, prone to bouts of debilitating depression, addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum. The topic that day was national security. “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” he asked his audience . . . . Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Earth and crush us at a blow?” Then he answered his own question: “Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio [River] or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years . . . If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” It is a stunning, remarkable statement.

That young man was, of course, Abraham Lincoln, and he would go on to preside over the closest this country has ever come to near national suicide, our Civil War — fought over the meaning of freedom in America. And yet embedded in his extraordinary, disturbing and prescient words is a fundamental optimism that implicitly acknowledges the geographical force-field two mighty oceans and two relatively benign neighbors north and south have provided for us since the British burned the White House in the War of 1812.

We have counted on Abraham Lincoln for more than a century and a half to get it right when the undertow in the tide of those human events has threatened to overwhelm and capsize us. We always come back to him for the kind of sustaining vision of why we Americans still agree to cohere, why unlike any other country on earth, we are still stitched together by words and, most important, their dangerous progeny, ideas. We return to him for a sense of unity, conscience and national purpose. To escape what the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., said is our problem today: “too much pluribus, not enough unum.”

It seems to me that he gave our fragile experiment a conscious shock that enabled it to outgrow the monumental hypocrisy of slavery inherited at our founding and permitted us all, slave owner as well as slave, to have literally, as he put it at Gettysburg, “a new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln’s Springfield speech also suggests what is so great and so good about the people who inhabit this lucky and exquisite country of ours (that’s the world you now inherit): our work ethic, our restlessness, our innovation and our improvisation, our communities and our institutions of higher learning, our suspicion of power; the fact that we seem resolutely dedicated to parsing the meaning between individual and collective freedom; that we are dedicated to understanding what Thomas Jefferson really meant when he wrote that inscrutable phrase “the pursuit of Happiness.”

But the isolation of those two mighty oceans has also helped to incubate habits and patterns less beneficial to us: our devotion to money and guns; our certainty — about everything; our stubborn insistence on our own exceptionalism, blinding us to that which needs repair, our preoccupation with always making the other wrong, at an individual as well as global level.

And then there is the issue of race, which was foremost on the mind of Lincoln back in 1838. It is still here with us today. The jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis told me that healing this question of race was what “the kingdom needed in order to be well.” Before the enormous strides in equality achieved in statutes and laws in the 150 years since the Civil War that Lincoln correctly predicted would come are in danger of being undone by our still imperfect human nature and by politicians who now insist on a hypocritical color-blindness — after four centuries of discrimination. That discrimination now takes on new, sometimes subtler, less obvious but still malevolent forms today. The chains of slavery have been broken, thank God, and so too has the feudal dependence of sharecroppers as the vengeful Jim Crow era recedes (sort of) into the distant past. But now in places like — but not limited to — your other neighbors a few miles as the crow flies from here in Ferguson, we see the ghastly remnants of our great shame emerging still, the shame Lincoln thought would lead to national suicide, our inability to see beyond the color of someone’s skin. It has been with us since our founding.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that immortal second sentence of the Declaration that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…,” he owned more than a hundred human beings. He never saw the contradiction, never saw the hypocrisy, and more important never saw fit in his lifetime to free any one of those human beings, ensuring as we went forward that the young United States — born with such glorious promise — would be bedeviled by race, that it would take a bloody, bloody Civil War to even begin to redress the imbalance.

But the shame continues: prison populations exploding with young black men, young black men killed almost weekly by policemen, whole communities of color burdened by corrupt municipalities that resemble more the predatory company store of a supposedly bygone era than a responsible local government. Our cities and towns and suburbs cannot become modern plantations.

It is unconscionable, as you emerge from this privileged sanctuary, that a few miles from here — and nearly everywhere else in America: Baltimore, New York City, North Charleston, Cleveland, Oklahoma, Sanford, Florida, nearly everywhere else — we are still playing out, sadly, an utterly American story, that the same stultifying conditions and sentiments that brought on our Civil War are still on such vivid and unpleasant display. Today, today. There’s nothing new under the sun.

Many years after our Civil War, in 1883, Mark Twain took up writing in earnest a novel he had started and abandoned several times over the last half-dozen years. It would be a very different kind of story from his celebrated Tom Sawyer book, told this time in the plain language of his Missouri boyhood — and it would be his masterpiece.

Set near here, before the Civil War and emancipation, ‘the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ is the story of two runaways — a white boy, Tom Sawyer’s old friend Huck, fleeing civilization, and a black man, Jim, who is running away from slavery. They escape together on a raft going down the Mississippi River.

The novel reaches its moral climax when Huck is faced with a terrible choice. He believes he has committed a grievous sin in helping Jim escape, and he finally writes out a letter, telling Jim’s owner where her runaway property can be found. Huck feels good about doing this at first, he says, and marvels at “how close I came to being lost and going to hell.”

But then he hesitates, thinking about how kind Jim has been to him during their adventure. “…Somehow,” Huck says, “I couldn’t seem to strike no place to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see how glad he was when I come back out of the fog;…and such like times; and would always call me honey…and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was…”

Then, Huck remembers the letter he has written. “I took it up, and held it in my hand,” he says. “I was a-trembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right then, I’ll go to hell’ — and tore it up.”

That may be the finest moment in all of American literature. Ernest Hemingway thought all of American literature began at that moment.

Twain, himself, writing after the Civil War and after the collapse of Reconstruction, a misunderstood period devoted to trying to enforce civil rights, was actually expressing his profound disappointment that racial differences still persisted in America, that racism still festered in this favored land, founded as it was on the most noble principle yet advanced by humankind — that all men are created equal. That civil war had not cleansed our original sin, a sin we continue to confront today, daily, in this supposedly enlightened “post-racial” time.

It is into this disorienting and sometimes disappointing world that you now plummet, I’m afraid, unprotected from the shelter of family and school. You have fresh prospects and real dreams and I wish each and every one of you the very best. But I am drafting you now into a new Union Army that must be committed to preserving the values, the sense of humor, the sense of cohesion that have long been a part of our American nature, too. You have no choice, you’ve been called up, and it is your difficult, but great and challenging responsibility to help change things and set us right again.

Let me apologize in advance to you. We broke it, but you’ve got to fix it. You’re joining a movement that must be dedicated above all else — career and personal advancement — to the preservation of this country’s most enduring ideals. You have to learn, and then re-teach the rest of us that equality — real equality — is the hallmark and birthright of ALL Americans. Thankfully, you will become a vanguard against a new separatism that seems to have infected our ranks, a vanguard against those forces that, in the name of our great democracy, have managed to diminish it. Then, you can change human nature just a bit, to appeal, as Lincoln also implored us, to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” That’s the objective. I know you can do it.

Ok. I’m rounding third.

Let me speak directly to the graduating class. (Watch out. Here comes the advice.)

Remember: Black lives matter. All lives matter.

Reject fundamentalism wherever it raises its ugly head. It’s not civilized. Choose to live in the Bedford Falls of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” not its oppressive opposite, Pottersville.

Do not descend too deeply into specialism. Educate all your parts. You will be healthier.

Replace cynicism with its old-fashioned antidote, skepticism.

Don’t confuse monetary success with excellence. The poet Robert Penn Warren once warned me that “careerism is death.”

Try not to make the other wrong.

Be curious, not cool.

Remember, insecurity makes liars of us all.

Listen to jazz. A lot. It is our music.

Read. The book is still the greatest man-made machine of all — not the car, not the TV, not the computer or the smartphone.

Do not allow our social media to segregate us into ever smaller tribes and clans, fiercely and sometimes appropriately loyal to our group, but also capable of metastasizing into profound distrust of the other.

Serve your country. By all means serve your country. But insist that we fight the right wars. Governments always forget that.

Convince your government that the real threat, as Lincoln knew, comes from within. Governments always forget that, too. Do not let your government outsource honesty, transparency or candor. Do not let your government outsource democracy.

Vote. Elect good leaders. When he was nominated in 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” We all deserve the former. Insist on it.

Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of the country — they just make the country worth defending.

Be about the “unum,” not the “pluribus.”

Do not lose your enthusiasm. In its Greek etymology, the word enthusiasm means simply, “God in us.”

And even though lightning still isn’t distributed right, try not to be a fool. It just gets Mark Twain riled up.

And if you ever find yourself in Huck’s spot, if you’ve “got to decide betwixt two things,” do the right thing. Don’t forget to tear up the letter. He didn’t go to hell — and you won’t either.

So we come to an end of something today—and for you also a very special beginning. God speed to you all.

Ken Burns
Walpole, New Hampshire
Burns delivers call to action to Class of 2015: “Set things right again,” Washington University, May 15, 2015

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What Martin O’Malley’s Flag Lapel Pin Says About Him. (And, no, it’s not that he’s really, really patriotic.)

Little John

April 28, 2015 4:53 pm

Yeah Bruce. Hillary is probably jumping out of her skin in joyous celebration.

Beverly Mann

April 28, 2015 11:33 pm

She should be, Little John. I’ve soured on O’Malley after reading a long article in the Washington Post a couple of days ago about his policing innovations–such as arresting teenagers for loitering and for trivial littering. What a great idea! I’m, suffice it to say, no Hillary Clinton fan, so me ditching my support for the only viable alternative to her is a good indicator, probably.

Exchange between reader Little John and me in the Comments thread to Bruce Webb’s April 27 post titled “Martin O’Malley was Mayor of Baltimore 1999-2007

Last month, in a post in which I called Hillary Clinton’s campaign-announcement video banal and incoherent, I mentioned a longstanding joke that my father and I had about a completely content-free television ad that Michael Dukakis ran late in the 1988 general election campaign.  Specifically, I wrote:

My late father (no less a politics junkie and frustrated liberal than is his daughter) and I had a longstanding joke dating back to the 1988 Michael Dukakis campaign.  The ad, a short one, 30 seconds, probably, shown late in the general-election campaign, began with the camera showing … something; I no longer recall what the video showed, but I think maybe it was just Dukakis speaking into the camera, and with Dukakis saying … something.  I don’t recall the specifics of what his first sentences were, other than that they were unspecific.  But the last three sentences were, if I remember right, “That’s not a Democratic concern.  That’s not a Republican concern.  That’s a father’s concern.”

Actually, I do remember, precisely, that final sentence, since it served as the punchline of our standing joke.  Which had to do with the fact that the ad gave no clue to what the “that” was.  The first time or two that you saw the ad, you thought you simply had missed what the “that” was.  But you had not missed what the “that” was.  Dukakis had missed including it.

I began to think about that ad again around the time last fall when most of the political reports about Clinton said she planned to run as a grandmother.  (“That’s a grandmother’s concern.”)

That campaign is infamous both for Dukakis’s campaign’s stunning ineptitude and George H.W. Bush’s hallmark soft-on-crime race-baiting and Democrats-are-unpatriotic themes.  The latter which reminds me, again, of my father, a good-humored, soft-spoken man who also was an Army combat veteran. And who watched in dismay as Bush methodically appropriated as Republican Party symbols the American flag and other superficial symbols of patriotism.  Watching the TV news with him one evening as Bush was shown once again standing on a stage next to his wife and the huge flag-scarf she wore as they both, right hands on their hearts, recited the Pledge of Allegiance*, my father said through gritted teeth that he hoped that the next time this country was at war the military assign only Republicans to combat zones, and that if the country ever reinstituted a draft, it exempt Democrats.

The male-politicians-must-wear flag-lapel-pins thing was born during that campaign, a brainchild of Lee Atwater, its purpose to demean Democratic politicians, and liberal Democrats, as un-American.  And its success is reflected on the suit jacket lapel of every Democratic politician who wears one. Including Martin O’Malley’s.

There is exactly one Democratic politician who wears one whom I exempt from my distain for the cravenness that wearing one of those things indicates, and it’s not Martin O’Malley.  It’s instead Barack Obama, because I happen to remember why and roughly when he began wearing one.  During his political career, up until either late in the 2008 campaign or shortly after the election (I can’t remember which), he made a point of rejecting the political fad, for the reasons that my father had expressed back in 1988.  But sometime late in the 2008 campaign, or shortly after the election, he was approached by an active Marine or a Marine veteran of the Iraq war (again, I can’t remember which), who handed him a flag lapel pin and asked that he wear it until all the troops were home from combat zones (in other words, until these wars, or America’s part in them, were over).  The Marine said he hoped the lapel pin would remind Obama every day of the Armed Forces members who are in combat zones.  Obama agreed to do that.

The problem, though, not with Obama’s acquiescence to that request but with the flag lapel pins themselves, is that as symbols they actually have no tie-in whatsoever with military service or any other actual act of patriotism. Anyone can wear a silly, cheap piece of jewelry.  Dick Cheney, who declined the invitation to serve in the military during the Vietnam War because, he said, there were other things he wanted to do, and who has worn a flag lapel pin for decades now, is no more a patriot than was my father, who wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing one.  And no more a patriot than was O’Malley’s father, a combat pilot during WWII and probably a lifelong Democrat, who also likely never wore a flag lapel pin.  Someone should ask O’Malley why the hell he began wearing one of those things—and why on earth he thinks that as he runs for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 he should wear one.

Those are two separate questions. The answer to the first is obvious: He thought it was obligatory in the ‘90s and G.W. Bush era for male politicians to wear one, even though—well, actually, precisely because—it’s subtly insulting to Democrats.  Presumably the answer to the second question is that he thinks it’s still obligatory for male politicians to wear one.

Which gets to what his decision to wear one while campaigning for the 2016 Democratic nomination for president says about him.  Which is that he thinks that, with a few exceptions here and there, it’s still, and forever will be, 1988.  It suggests in turn that he may well lack the mental agility to run successfully as a genuine progressive.  Maybe because he really is not one.  Or maybe because cravenness is intrinsic to his personality.  I don’t know enough about him to know which shoe fits, or whether either does.

My comment to Little John in that comments exchange I quoted at the opening of this post notwithstanding, I haven’t actually decided which of the two to support.  I actually care even more about issues concerning and related to the judicial system, criminal and civil, state and federal—police conduct; prosecutor conduct; criminal laws (including sentencing); outrageous traffic fines and court fees; the near-total nullification of the Constitution’s habeas corpus protection in state-court prosecutions; myriad other aspects of criminal and civil court proceedings; institutionalized brutality in American prisons; access to civil court; court-fabricated jurisdictional, quasi-jurisdictional, and other procedural and legal-immunity doctrines; the effective abolishment of the American Rule regarding payment of opposing counsel’s fees in civil lawsuits; and such—than I do about the more direct economic-policy issues.

Which is saying a lot, considering my strong feelings about direct economic-policy issues.

What will determine my candidate preference—and I’m sure, that of many, many other progressives—is the extent to which the respective candidate understands, I mean really understands, that this is a new political era.  And the degree to which the candidate is capable of using, and willing to use, specifics to refute Republican clichés. O’Malley seems more adept at the latter, at least partly because he is so much more spontaneous—far less packaged and scripted.  But he wears a flag lapel pin and he continues to sing the praises of his mayoral arrest-teens-for-littering-or-loitering policies.

So, yes, right now I’m leaning toward Clinton.  She may be craven, but at least she doesn’t wrap herself in a tin flag.

*Mitt Romney, who like Cheney found exemptions from the draft during the Vietnam War, liked to stand, hand on heart, and recite the Pledge during his 2012 general-election campaign appearances. Maybe O’Malley’s trying for all those votes the tactic got for Romney. 


Post edited slightly and typo-corrected. 5/15 at 9:31 p.m.

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JEB the Vulcan; the 90’s Roots of the Iraq War

Was the invasion of Iraq in 2003 a mistake based on false intelligence gathered post 9/11? Well for some that might be a reasonable excuse, say for the Senators who voted for the 2002 AUMF – the Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq. Even they would have some things to explain and ask forgiveness for, because after all a lot of that supposed intelligence was known to be bunk at that time, and probably some of them knew that and all of them SHOULD have known that. Still there were reasonable (if cowardly) political calculations that suggested that standing in the way of those who were bound and determined to go to war come what may was a bad idea for politicians with future ambitions. Say certain Senators whose names were Kerry and Clinton, but of course not only them.

So we should not give the Signatories of the AUMF a pass. On the other hand there is a clear difference in culpability between being an accomplice after the fact and a conspirator before the fact. And the ‘fact’ in question is when the decision to go to war on Iraq was decided and by whom. And on examination that decision had little to do with intelligence gathered between 2001 and 2003, it had little to nothing to do with aluminum tubes or yellowcake or Curveball, those were instead convenient trigger points for a decision made years before. By a group that came known as the Vulcans, which overlapped almost entirely with those who signed on to the Project for a New American Century – PNAC.

Who were the Vulcans? Well the easiest test is those who either signed the Statement of Principles of the Project for a New American Century in June 1997 or those who signed the follow-up Jan 1998 Letter to President Clinton on Iraq or as in many cases both. These names and explanations for who they are can be seen at this openly anti-PNAC site, so feel free to fact check: Sourcewatch: Project for a New American Century. An examination of those names and the express goals of the PNAC and how the inclusion of Jeb Bush among the former implicates him in the latter below the fold.

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Fall in Capacity Utilization reflects the Effective Demand Limit

The Effective Demand limit upon the economy is not a very visible concept in the econo-blogosphere. Yet, it represents a limit upon the utilization of labor and capital toward the end of a business cycle. When real GDP reaches its effective demand limit, normally we would see capacity utilization peak and start to fall.

Capacity utilization has now fallen for 5 months straight with the new data released today.

update capacity util

So does this continued fall in capacity utilization reflect the effective demand limit? From my own measure using profit-maximization estimations… yes.

Here is a graph which plots employment (1 – unemployment rate) with capacity utilization.

update 3d monthly

The graph shows the path to increasing profits in the economy. Profits increase as the data approach the effective demand limit and the profit max lines. Employing more capital and labor increases profits. When the limit lines are reached, then profits increase by rising up and to the left on the profit max line where capacity utilization falls while employment rises.

Profit potential is measured by this equation…

Profit potential = (U + C) – a*(U2 * C2)

U = (1 – unemployment rate)
C = Capacity utilization
a = effective demand limit – 2.473 * effective demand limit + 2……. (I have been estimating the current effective demand limit around 75%.)

Back in December 2014 I wrote  (link) that the data in the plot above had reached the effective demand limit and that I would be watching to see if capacity utilization started to fall. Well, capacity utilization has fallen every month since. I explain the fall by the graph above.

The graph implies that the economy has reached my estimated effective demand limit and is now reducing capacity utilization to push profits higher. However, pushing profits up by reducing capacity utilization, as looks to be happening, is a delicate situation. The economy develops some instability and creative measures have to be taken to keep the economy out of a recession. It is also a time that bubbles can more easily form.

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Light Reading

McDonalds turns 75 today, an empire of 36,000 restaurants in 199 countries. McDonalds is the largest buyer of beef, pork, potatoes, lettuce, and tomatoes globally and the second largest buyer of chicken after KFC. While faced with greater competition, McDonalds has started to revamp its offerings to recapture what it has lost and meet need market demands.

– Blue singer who needs no introduction, B.B King died while in hospice last night. He was 89 years old.

– Preliminary information from the International Energy Agency shows CO2 emissions did not increase in 2014. The significance? First time in 40 years there was a halt or reduction in emissions. Much of this can be attributed to changes in energy generation in China and OECD countries from ” greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal.”

Interesting post by Sandwichman at Econospeak on this topic. “Fast forward to today. We want more jobs — that is to say more hours of work –but we want less greenhouse gas emissions. We face not only a paradox; but, a dilemma. The horns of this dilemma are yoked together, not just ‘in principle’ but in the physical, mechanical agent of both the economy of fuel and the economy of labor: the machine.” Can not get one without the other?

– Roads surfaces harnessing solar power? So far the effort to use the ~37 million miles of road globally has not been successful or cheap. Netherlands based Sola Roads has installed solar panels protected by glass and bedded on rubber and concrete in cycling roads and is achieving positive results. Next step is to install the panels on roads and see if the panels and installations will hold-up under automobile and truck traffic in the same manner and results.

“No Good Reason To Work 5 Days a Week.” A 1965 Senate subcommittee predicted Americans would work 14-hour weeks by the year 2000, and before that, back in 1928, John Maynard Keynes wrote “technological advancement would bring the workweek down to 15 hours within 100 years.” To date we have not made much progress in this direction and even though the ratio of direct labor content has decreased, many still contend Labor is the largest cost factor.

Are workers more efficient working 4 days per week as opposed to 5? “the clever system devised at a company he used to work for. The company was divided into two teams. One would work from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. from Monday to Thursday, and the other would work those hours from Tuesday to Friday. The teams would switch schedules every week, so every two-day weekend would be followed by a four-day weekend. The results, Stephens reports, were positive. The company was open five days a week, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. He claims that morale skyrocketed. Employees took fewer sick days, visiting the doctor in off hours rather than during the workday.” It appears workers were more efficient in this example.

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