Tuesday, January 8, 2019

2018: The Year in Review


New Year’s Day brings inevitable reflections about past and future, about 2018 and 2019. Pundits’ predictions about 2019 abound, few of which are worth repeating. I’m an historian anyway, less interested in guessing about what might happen than trying to understand what already happened.

I won’t say anything about popular culture, because I don’t know enough about its current version to distinguish Britney Spears from Miley Cyrus or to care about either. The last time I was familiar with pop culture, doo-wop was playing on my transistor radio. As you already know, political economy is what I care about.

2018 was a bad year for investors. The Dow Jones index bounced around during the year, peaking over 26,000 in January, reaching an even higher record 26,800 in October, then plummeting to 23,000 now. No other kinds of investments made money in 2018, either, including the faddish Bitcoin, which lost 80% of its value. But 2018 was merely a minor dip after years of incredible steady growth: the Dow had more than tripled since 2009, the longest uninterrupted bull market in history.

The stock market only gives a partial reflection of the economy. Only about half of Americans have any stake in the good or bad news about stocks. Nearly all rich Americans are invested in stocks, but few poor Americans. That inequality extends throughout the economy. The profits from stocks and from the wider economic growth since 2009, and in fact over the past 50 years, have overwhelmingly gone to the wealthiest Americans. Since 1970, the share of the nation’s income earned by the poorer half of the American population has fallen by nearly half, while the share for the top 1% has nearly doubled. The “middle class”, rhetorically beloved by politicians of both parties, has also lost ground. The long economic growth in the last half century and the recent boom since 2009 have fattened the wallets of the top 10%. The very, very rich may have suffered slightly in 2018, but no crocodile tears for them: their after-tax income has multiplied by 6 times in 50 years. That was before the massive Republican tax cut enacted this year, which further benefitted mainly the wealthy and big corporations.

But 2018 was a pretty good year for normal working Americans, because the economic number that matters most, the minimum wage, is heading upwards. Legislatures in 6 states raised the minimum wage and voters approved wage hikes in 6 other states. Millions of workers will get pay raises in 2019.

2018 was a bad year for Donald Trump. His personal lawyer, his first National Security advisor and his campaign manager, along with many other figures near to him, were convicted of crimes, Cabinet secretaries had to resign for unethical behavior, his Defense Secretary and several other close advisors resigned because they could not accept Trump’s erratic behavior. His legislative accomplishments with a Republican Congress were nil, until the bipartisan criminal justice reform just enacted, which was mainly a Democratic initiative. His public approval rating remained underwater, since nearly as many people strongly disapprove of his presidential performance as approve. His family foundation was revealed as merely a family bank account. In November, voters decisively rejected him, when Democrats won 7 million more votes than Republicans and decisively took over the House. At least a dozen scandals surround Trump, and 17 separate investigations, including those by Mueller, menace his future. And the prospect of Democratic House investigations of everything Trump loom ahead.

We might believe that a bad year for Trump is a good year for America, but that’s too simple. Our beautiful land will be poisoned, our air dirtier, and our water less drinkable due to the dismantling of the environmental regulations by those Cabinet secretaries who turned out to be too corrupt even for Trump. 2018 was a bad year for the Earth.

2018 was a bad year for men who abuse women in corporate offices, on movie sets, and in doctors’ examining rooms. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times wrote about the “torrent of truth-telling” by brave women who have had enough. On that issue, it wasn’t yet a good year for women, which will happen when there is less need for truth-telling because there is less abuse. But it was a good year for women in politics, and for other minorities, who made terrific gains with voters in November.

2018 was a good year for me. Two grandchildren turned one year old and are surely the cutest babies ever. My pensions, both public and private, support our freedom in retirement to do what we want. We don’t want the expensive, thoughtless, wasteful and exhibitionist lifestyle that characterizes most of those people whose faces appear in our media. We can afford what we do want: a comfortable home, good health care, two 13-year old vehicles, the ability to visit our children and vacation with them, good meals out and good meals at home. And the belief that we can keep on going this way as long as our health holds out. We’ll have good years ahead.

2018 was not so good for some those I am close with. We all know people who are happy just to stay alive or to recover from some difficult health problem. Nobody I am close to got arrested or physically attacked, a result of good luck and of my social class and the relative safety of our small-town life.

But 2018 was tough for half of Americans. Departing leader of the House Paul Ryan said a year ago that half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Then he shepherded through Congress the tax cut he’s been pushing for years, which benefits the other half. Any bad luck could have made 2018 a bad year for someone in the paycheck half.

Making political decisions based only on what benefits me is why Trump is such a dangerous political leader. It’s not enough to just think about what was good for one’s small social and familial circle. We have to consider our whole diverse population.

Individually we can’t make good things happen for large numbers of people, but we can be part of collective movements that are outward-looking, compassionate, generous and humane. We can focus part of our energies and good fortune on doing for others what we do for our families: use our best selves to create bright futures.

So here we are, looking forward to 2019 with the tendency toward optimism that might be one of humanity’s most endearing traits. We can hope for an American politics that addresses our worst social problems rather than our exacerbating our greatest cultural divides. We can hope that the environmental leadership of European nations can show the way toward healing our damaged planet. We can hope that #MeToo and justice reform and more renewable energy and voter registration drives and broader health insurance will make our country a better home for all of us.

2019 won’t transform the world or our lives. But it can be a good year, if we make it so.

Happy New Year!

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
January 1, 2019

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas

This year I’m thinking about what makes the Christmas season such a special time. The seemingly obvious phrase, “Christmas comes but once a year”, does capture the uniqueness of this holiday.

I believe that more family members reliably come together at Christmas than at any other time, except at weddings and funerals. Schools of all kinds make this possible by closing for uniquely long vacations. Organizations and institutions shut down or offer more holiday time for staff. Both my children and their families, including my two one-year old grandchildren, are here together with us for the only time this year. That alone makes Christmas a uniquely joyous time.

Of course, there are many elements of Christmas that are deliberately unique. I’m looking at our spruce tree, covered with colored lights and ornaments collected over decades, even generations. This year a family friend with a chain saw and tree-felling experience and I cut our own tree in a county tree farm, for which I paid a $2 fee. The tree is not symmetrical like the trees that can be bought outside grocery or home improvement stores, but it is the best tree we have ever put up. The many small lights in our living room provide a unique atmosphere, something like the flickering candles of Hanukkah, but more playful.

Under the tree are presents, more presents for more people than at any other time of the year. We have struggled against the commercialization of this celebration, which is certainly encouraged by commercial interests, but is enacted by us in our desire to be generous and appear generous. But there is no doubt that giving and getting presents is immense fun. Among family who know each other well, gifts can be meaningful, useful, desired and perfectly appropriate.

Our family has Christmas traditions, as I assume each family does, some common, some unique. We watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street”. Reading “The Night Before Christmas” and “The Polar Express” began when our children were little, but continued when they were past 30, and now will gradually again take on new meaning with the youngest generation.

Certain foods appear only at Christmas time, although this changed over the years. Liz’s family had long served creamed chipped beef on white toast on Christmas morning, which always reminded me of my father’s reminiscences about S.O.S., an abbreviation that Army veterans will recognize. Never a fan of white bread, one year I was sent out to buy a couple of loaves on Christmas Eve. I bought an extra one, so that I could demonstrate that a whole loaf could be crushed into a ball small enough to fit into my pocket. That was the last year we did that. This year we are planning bagels for Christmas brunch, which might demonstrate the religious syncretism that often occurs in mixed marriages.

The way Christmas is celebrated can depend on the venue. When our children were small, Christmas took place at my in-laws’ two-story home with the families of Liz’s two sisters. On Christmas morning, six kids gathered behind a gate at the top of the stairs until my father-in-law was ready. Their collective anticipation of being released to dash downstairs is a fond memory. After that house was sold, we celebrated at my in-laws’ apartment on a beach in Venice, Florida. This year we are in a cabin in northern Wisconsin, where wood fires provide heat and a focal point.

The idea that this season should encourage generosity, charity, joyfulness and kindness adds a public moral element to private celebrations that goes beyond Christian traditions. This idea has long animated cultural creations, from the negative apparitions that frightened Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge to the more modern kindness of Kris Kringle, which convinced Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel to recommend each other’s wares in “Miracle on 34th Street”.

The stress of shopping for gifts, preparing for relatives, and traveling can interfere with getting into the spirit of the season. A focus on presents within the family can obscure the plight of families, so many families, who cannot afford the extra spending that Christmas seems to demand.

We cannot solve our society’s social problems in one holiday season, nor should we try. If the Christmas spirit is an admirable motivation, if Kris Kringle is a character to emulate, if life is to be wonderful for everyone, we have to learn from the holiday experience about how to behave throughout the year.

Whether one says “Merry Christmas” or “Season’s Greetings” matters less than the exchange of positive emotion that should accompany our encounters with family, friends and strangers, this season and all seasons. We could solve many seemingly intractable problems with simple good cheer.

Merry Christmas!

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
December 25, 2018

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Persistence of Bad History


The thousands of monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders scattered across the South have become a national political controversy that shows no signs of abating. The decision of the City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia, to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, mounted on his horse on a 20-foot high pedestal in the center of town, prompted three public rallies of white supremacists in 2017. At the Unite the Right rally in August last year, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring dozens of people. He has just been convicted of first-degree murder. The statue still stands.

Of the approximately 1700 public memorials to the Confederacy, less than 100 have been removed in the past few years. These visible symbols represent the persistence of a cherished historical myth of American conservatives, the honor of the “Lost Cause” of the Civil War. Developed immediately after the defeat of the South in 1865, the Lost Cause relies on two claims: the War was caused by a conflict over states’ rights, not slavery, and slavery itself was an honorable institution, in which whites and blacks formed contented “families”. Thus the political and military leaders of the Confederacy were engaged in a righteous struggle and deserve to be honored as American heroes.

This interpretation of the Civil War was a political tool used by Southern whites to fight against Reconstruction and to disenfranchise and discriminate against African Americans. Northern whites generally accepted this mythology as a means to reunite the nation, since that was more comfortable for them than confronting their own racial codes.

During most of the 160 years since the end of the Civil War, the Lost Cause reigned as the official American understanding of our history. The glorification of the Ku Klux Klan in the film “Birth of a Nation” (originally titled “the Clansman”) in 1915 was a landmark in the nationalization of this ideology. The newly formed NAACP protested that the film should be banned, but President Woodrow Wilson brought it into the White House, and the KKK sprang to life again that year in both North and South.

Not as overtly supportive of white supremacy as “Birth of a Nation”, “Gone With The Wind” in 1939 reinforced the Lost Cause stereotypes of honorable plantation owners, contented slaves unable to fend for themselves, and devious Northerners. It broke attendance records everywhere, set a record by winning 8 Academy Awards, and is still considered “one of the most beloved movies of all time”.

Generations of professional historians, overwhelmingly white, transformed the Lost Cause into official historical truth, especially in the South. Textbooks, like the 1908 History of Virginia by Mary Tucker Magill, white-washed slavery: “Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition.” This idea prevailed half a century later in the textbook Virginia: History, Government, Geography, used in seventh-grade classrooms into the 1970s: “Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked.” A high school text went into more fanciful detail about the slave: “He enjoyed long holidays, especially at Christmas. He did not work as hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job. In fact, the slave enjoyed what we might call collective security. Generally speaking, his food was plentiful, his clothing adequate, his cabin warm, his health protected, his leisure carefree. He did not have to worry about hard times, unemployment, or old age.” The texts were produced in cooperation with the Virginia state government.

The Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s not only overturned legal segregation, but they also prompted revision of this discriminatory history. Historians have since thoroughly rejected the tenets of the Lost Cause. All the leaders in the South openly proclaimed that they were fighting to preserve slavery, based on their belief in the inherent inferiority of the black race. Both official and eyewitness sources clearly describe the physical, psychological and social horrors of slavery.

But the defenders of the Lost Cause have fought back against good history with tenacious persistence. In the international context of the Cold War, the local journalists and academic historians and forthright eyewitnesses, who investigated and reported on the real race relations in American society, became potential traitors. These “terrorists” of the 1950s cast doubt on the fiction of a morally superior America, as it battled immoral Communism. The dominance of white Americans in every possible field of American life was also threatened by a factual accounting of slavery before, during, and after the Civil War.

Bad history persists because those in power can enforce it by harassing its critics. It was easy for the FBI and conservative organizations to pinpoint those academics, journalists, and film directors who dissented from the Lost Cause ideology. They could then be attacked for their associations with organizations that could be linked to other organizations that could be linked to Communists. These crimes of identification were made easier to concoct because of the leading role played by American leftists in the fight against racism during the long 20th century of Jim Crow.

Thus did Norman Cazden, an assistant professor of music at the University of Illinois, lose his job in 1953. The FBI had typed an anonymous letter containing what Cazden called “unverified allegations as to my past associations,” and sent it to the University President. Cazden was among 400 high school and university teachers anonymously accused by the FBI between 1951 and 1953.

The defenders of the Lost Cause switched parties in my lifetime. Shocked by the white supremacist violence of the Civil Rights years, popular movements and popular sentiment forced both parties to end Jim Crow, using historical and political facts to attack all facets of white supremacist ideology, including the Lost Cause.

The shift of Dixiecrat Democrats to loyal Republicans is personified in the party shift of Strom Thurmond, Senator from South Carolina and most prominent voice in favor of segregation, from Democrat to Republican in 1964.

It still seemed appropriate in 2002 for the Senate’s Republican leader, Trent Lott, to toast Thurmond on his 100th birthday by saying he was proud to have voted for Thurmond for President in 1948, and “if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.” None of the major news outlets, the “liberal media” reported the remark, dwelling instead on the pathos of the old famous rich racist. Only a groundswell of criticism forced the mainstream media to recognize Lott’s words as a hymn to white supremacy.

By then, generations of Americans, both in the South and in the North, had absorbed the bad historical lessons that remain the basis for racist beliefs today.

The Lost Cause lives on in the South, supported by federal and state tax dollars. An investigative report published in Smithsonian magazine revealed that the official sites and memorials of the history of the Confederacy still “pay homage to a slave-owning society and serve as blunt assertions of dominance over African Americans.” During the past decade, over $40 million in government funds have been spent to preserve these sites, originally created by Jim Crow governments to justify segregation. Schoolchildren continue to be taught Lost Cause legends.

Politics keeps bad history alive, because of the political expediency of the false narratives it tells. American white supremacists have been created and encouraged by this version of American history.

So the struggle over history goes on. Most recently, several dozen graduate teaching assistants at the University of North Carolina announced a “grade strike” to protest the University’s plan to spend $5 million constructing a new building to house a Confederate monument that protesters had pulled down in August. They are refusing to turn in students’ grades.

The Lost Cause story itself deserves an “F”, but it will persist as long as political leaders find its fictions convenient.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
December 11, 2018

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Keeping Promises to Veterans


Since the beginnings of our continuing wars in the Middle East, 2400 US soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan and 4550 in Iraq, and nearly 54,000 officially listed as wounded in action. Those numbers do not include the more than 300,000 who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. As of 4 years ago, 970,000 disability claims have been filed by veterans of these two wars. Many other physical and psychological injuries have not been reported by the 2.7 million US service members who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Caring for those wounded veterans, and the many millions of older vets who need medical attention, is a major American political problem.

Politicians routinely gush over veterans and promise to do everything they can to reward their service. Veterans are honored by parades and special supplements to newspapers. Then how is it that the primary vehicle for delivering help to wounded veterans, the Veterans Administration, is such a mess?

Behind the pious words that come so easily to politicians’ lips has been a nasty fight over how much money to spend on veterans. Just last week, a new controversy broke into the open about how the VA reimburses veterans who are using housing benefits as students. The Forever GI Bill went into effect in August, with specific instructions on how to calculate housing benefits for student veterans. Because of outdated computer systems, the VA said it could not use the new guidelines until December 2019, and some veterans have been complaining that they have not gotten any payments at all. An undetermined number of veterans have maxed out credit cards, fallen behind on mortgage payments, or borrowed from their families.

This is merely the latest in a long series of VA failures, most notably the delay in getting to see doctors in VA facilities. In 2012, a VA emergency room physician, Dr. Katherine Mitchell, sent a message to her superiors that the wait times at the Phoenix hospital were dangerous. She was soon transferred out of the ER. But her courageous warning took two years to mushroom into a national scandal, when it was revealed that the VA had falsified records of average wait times, which could stretch to months.

In 2014, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act was passed, allowing veterans who would have to wait for a VA appointment to seek out private health care that the VA would pay for. But in 2016, the average wait time for veterans seeking health care was still 51 days.

A program put in place by President Obama in 2010 attacked the persistent problem of homeless veterans, whose number fell from 74,000 to about 40,000 by 2016. That number is still far too high: the proportion of veterans who are homeless is nearly 3 times that of the rest of the population. The reduction in homelessness seems to have stopped, since the 2017 estimate is slightly higher than 2016.

It took decades after the end of the Vietnam War for the government to acknowledge that Agent Orange had caused health problems for thousands of soldiers, meaning that their injuries should be covered by the VA. The controversy continues: Navy veterans who served on ships in Vietnamese waters are not yet covered, and the VA opposes extending coverage to them. A so-called “blue water bill” passed the House unanimously in June, but now enough Republican Senators oppose it that it seems unlikely to pass in this session. But even the House bill is hardly generous: it would fund increased expenditures on Navy vets by increasing fees to disabled vets trying to buy homes with VA loans.

The VA is an organization with enormous responsibilities. It is the largest integrated health-care system in the US, responsible for 9 million veterans. It has 350,000 employees, a budget of $177 billion, and runs 1250 health care facilities.

Familiar ideological struggles over government spending are at the heart of the problems of the VA. Republicans target all social programs for cuts, claiming too much government spending will cause the deficit to balloon. During the administration of George Bush, Republicans and Democrats fought continuously over appropriations for the VA. The Washington Post reported in 2005, “Leaders of the American Legion, the Paralyzed Veterans and the Disabled American Veterans all noted a striking partisan division in Congress on veterans issues, with Democrats giving them much more support than Republicans.” Proposals like that of Bernie Sanders in 2014 to allocate more money to veterans’ health care have died in the Republican Congress. Then Republicans passed the giant tax cut, which will push annual deficits over $1 trillion.

Under Trump, the VA has been an administrative nightmare. The Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, David Shulkin, had to resign, because he used government funds to pay for a lavish European tour for himself and his wife, one of several Trump Cabinet members who have used taxpayers’ money like their own bank accounts. Top VA officials engaged in a civil war of attempts to privatize some VA functions, a priority for the Koch brothers, major donors to the Republican Party. Trump tried to appoint the White House doctor, Ronny Jackson, as the new Secretary, but a slew of allegations of misconduct and his lack of experience in leading a giant organization derailed that effort.

Trump promised “to take care of our vets like you’ve never been taken care of before.” But Trump’s first budget proposal in 2017 cut all funding for the Limb Loss Resource Center and the Paralysis Resource Center, major sources of help for injured vets. Other cuts he proposed in many social programs, like food stamps, student loans, and Medicaid, would directly impact veterans.

While the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans have supported increases in VA funding to improve the delivery of care to veterans, the source of funds has led to the usual political struggle. Republicans insist that new funds for the VA be taken out of existing programs elsewhere.

I am not a veteran. I think there are as many heroes among teachers and journalists as among former soldiers. But our society has the responsibility to care for all those who served in uniform, especially when their health problems were directly caused by their military service. The way to reduce expenditures on veterans’ health care is to stop fighting useless and unwinnable wars.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
December 4, 2018