Relative Relativity
by Michael Brenner on 26 Jul 2020 1 Comment

Everything in life is relative. A truism that actually is true. Make 50% of your field goals in the NBA and you’re on your way to stardom. Complete 50% of your passes in the NFL and a quarterback would be lucky to make the Jets’ taxi squad. Sport a career batting average in the .260 range, be a butcher in the field, yet if you manage 400 home runs and 1,000 RBIs you’re a Hall of Fame candidate. A slick fielding shortstop with 3 Golden Gloves, and a lifetime average of .281 is an also-ran.


Get right half of your stock picks and you’re in the 7-figure bracket at some big-time brokerage. Do the same from your basement office and your spouse reminds you that a clean-up of the garage is long overdue. Fail at interventions in five Middle East countries and you will still be acclaimed as the greatest military innovator since Napoleon or the greatest statesman since Bismarck. Denounce those mock heroics and you will be defamed for insulting the uniform. So on and so forth.


There is one domain where everyone is pronounced a success. It’s political consulting. No one is ever declared a ‘loser.’ This despite that the profession as a whole has a winning record well below 50%. This year, the success rate of Democratic consultants stands at less than 4% - if we focus on Presidential aspirants. Yet, these guys never lack for employment – lucrative employment. At the moment, scores are gainfully employed advising Joe Biden, a half dozen putative Vice-Presidential candidates and Senatorial hopefuls in 16 states. No recession for them – COVID-19 or not. Yet all this high-powered talent is producing little of evident value – much less creative brilliance.


Take Six-pack Joe. His campaign strategy features doing as little as possible – appearing infrequently, speaking only occasionally, and sticking to platitudes. Admittedly, this approach does make sense since 2020 is less a contest between two contenders than a referendum on the incumbent. And Trump is doing an efficient job of digging his own grave. Biden’s team of advisers, led by seasoned veterans of the Gore, Kerry and Hillary campaigns, need only wrestle with the question of whether he should be master of silence from his basement, his study, the front porch or the rear porch. A series of debates could jeopardize Biden’s advantage. The two of them would go lectern-to-lectern with the whole country anticipating with bated breath which one will go incoherent before the 90 minutes are up. That’s a 50-50 proposition. Biden has better odds than that from the sound-of-silence status quo.


The trouble is that things might get so somnambulant that many low-motivated potential Democratic voters will decide that the risk of contracting the Corona-virus might not be worth going to the polls. Then there is the issue of substance. If Biden wins, it is by no means clear that he would have either the inclination or the mandate (or Congress) to pursue successfully a meaningful progressive agenda. The recently published joint Biden-Sanders agenda is not promising; 110 pages of generalities and generous promises. Light on specifics – and quite a few glaring holes. Whether the enunciation of enlightened principles translates into a vigorous reform program is an open question. Skepticism, though, is in order. A close look at what’s left unstated feeds that guarded pessimism.[1]


Sanders’ (and Warren’s) clarion calls for a restructuring of the American economy are barely audible. Understandably. For that’s where “the rubber meets the road” as some ancient said. There is no logical way that the worthy ends identified in the report can come close to being reached without three conditions being met. One is a redistribution of wealth from the upper 1–10% to the bulk of the population. Concrete steps must be taken to do so. A wealth tax (accompanied by a restoration of the tax schedule circa 1956), a comprehensive closing of loopholes that favor the rich - e.g. the capital gains scam, insistence that the giant corporations pay their fair share of taxes and the closing of tax haven bolt holes, a stop to the privatization of public assets, and aggressive use of judicial remedies to punish violators.


Second is tight reregulation of the financial sector. Authentic regulation – not the Obama-style just looks real like a Vermeer by van Meegeren. Without a reversal of the financialization of the economy, there is no way to restore equity and stability to the national economy. Otherwise, an outsized fraction of national resources will continue to flow into the hands of those who hold a tight grip on capital at the expense of labor. (Trillions of that capital given interest free by the Federal Reserve to the biggest financial players).


Living standards are kept at tolerable levels by the accumulation of personal debt and cheap imports paid for with dollars other countries don’t convert. In short, debt servitude as a way of life. Gig jobs devoid of health insurance and retirement benefits deepen the insecurities that are eating away at the working man’s self-respect and sense of citizenship. Modest measures such as pledging a reduction in students’ debt by $10,000 per person is just a small crumb little different than J.P. Morgan’s flipping dimes to barefooted urchins on the sidewalks of New York.


Third, the vitality, capacity and competence of the public sector has to be restored. Decades of degradation, starving of resources, and ideological denunciation have been capped by Trump’s evisceration of entire agencies of the United States government. A comprehensive program should be launched to reendow the country with government institutions whose performance is vital to the well-being of a modern society.[2]


A similar effort should be made at the state level. It is unconscionable that the Democratic leadership in Congress abandoned local authorities to their penurious fate in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The dire effects registered by similar negligence under Obama in 2009 should have been kept foremost in mind, and assiduous efforts made to avoid repeating the same disastrous error. Rhetoric and policy should go hand-in-hand – mutually reinforcing.


Democrats have refused to take up the sword to counter the Republican challenge represented by a dogma that not only prioritizes the private sector over the public, but stigmatizes the latter. As a result, the two stimulus bills offered next to nothing to states, while inviting to the trough every business interest including hedge funds and Trump family enterprises. The choice was not between workers/small business and public employees; rather it was the real economy, salaried workers and the vulnerable against the big boys and free riders. If not now – in the Coronavirus era, when? The Democrats failure even to recognize that glaring fact of economic life bodes ill for what we may reasonably expect from a Biden presidency.


Washington has failed to provide any substantial financial assistance to state and municipal governments in the two stimulus packages intended to alleviate the economic stresses of the COVID-19 crisis. Proposals to include it in a prospective third package already are a dead letter. This is a repeat of 2008-2009 when similar neglect led states to gut all manner of social programs. An outstanding example of the consequence: budgets of health departments across the country were cut by 30% as of 2020. 56,000 jobs were shredded - 23% of the total public health workforce. So, when the next health crisis arrives, we will be even worse off than we have been this time around. And the President in 2008-09 was the man who pledged “change you can believe in” - Barack Obama.




1] An essential complementary element in a strategy to restore the health of American democracy is the reigning in of the social media giants: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon et al. Concentrating vast financial power, power over communications, and now censorship, in the hands of private individuals cannot be reconciled with democracy. It is not beyond the ken of responsible leaders to imagine ways to move these institutions in the direction of public utilities – which in fact is what functionally they are. That entails eliminating their authority as censors, dismantling them up as historically the country has done with other dangerous monopolies, and putting in place serious regulation. At the moment, penetrating their labyrinthian electronic worlds is like trying to open a can of sardines when the metal tab is broken. To get at the contents, it needs to be broken open.


2] The debile state of public agencies is evinced by the Trump administration’s decision last week [July 15] to pay McKinsey $100 million to design an organizational plan for dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. An historical counterpart would be the Confederacy in 1863 - after Gettysburg - contracting with Pinkertons to organize the South’s new Civil War strategy. In Washington, we already have witnessed the Treasury and the Fed handing to Blackrock the management of the trillions to be distributed to corporate finance as the centerpiece of Stimulus I. This latter dim-witted absurdity calls up images of destitute kingships resorting to private banks like the Medicis or Rothschilds to underwrite their wars. No serious government can operate like this. Yet, in today’s degraded America this disgraceful abdication of public powers is accepted with hardly the batting of an eye. 

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top