I am turning 60 this year. In looking back I realize that is long enough to actually see some patterns in history. The old adage on repeating history comes to mind all too frequently.  I find myself frequently shaking my head in disbelief and muttering “I thought we’d done this already.”

I also have come to see firsthand the truth in MLK’s statement “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

I have lived on this arc long enough to see a tremendous amount of positive change in my life. In the 10th grade the authorities desegregating the school I was in in Charleston had police with dogs in our school hallways for class changes to suppress the fighting. When I graduated from high school interracial marriage was still illegal in 16 states – this year we saw the Supreme Court protect gay marriage. Prior to the Vietnam protests our governments went almost unchallenged on many issues. Public participation in government decision processes was almost unheard of. Decisions were largely made over a handshake in smoke filled rooms. Today we are inundated with notices for public hearings from school boards, to city councils, county, legislative, agency rulemakings, and more.  And we have had decades of using the Freedom of Information act to get inside the decision making processes. Environmental pollution in our country looked like that in China today. Scores of people died in air pollution events and rivers were catching fire from pollution. I have lived to see many of these things fall away and change for the better.

From this vantage point I look back and see clear evidence of Rev. King’s arc and it gives me some joy. I look out though and also see the rollbacks and the work left undone.

So it is I watch today as a passionate new generation of change agents is emerging.  It pleases me so to listen to these young people who will not tolerate injustice and feel compelled to action. I find myself reminiscing of 1968 and the many movements of the ensuing 70s, not just at home, but around the world – turning out for racial equality, sexual equality, against the war, against colonialism, against poverty, for open government, environmentalism, and more. I look at this new generation and see another tsunami of change is swelling in the ocean and preparing to wash ashore.

They are our hope for a better world, a fairer world, a just world. I am filled with admiration, joy, and hope, as I listen to my sons, the children of my friends and others I meet and I hear them speak with passion on the need for change and see them launch into action. I want them to succeed. We need them to succeed.

And then as I watch them launch forward my stomach falls. All this energy, all this passion, all this work – I want it to be effective. I want it to accomplish things.  And I see too much of it repeat the mistakes of my generation.

 The 60s and 70s saw a lot of wasted energy. They saw a lot of protests that served only to fuel and grow the opposition.  But the movements and the protests persisted over enough time to refine their methods and tactics, to learn from their mistakes and become more and more effective. Movements learned their targets and methods had to be calculated to generate change and support.


There was lots of anger. Anger unleashed is rage. And rage is blind. It lashes out. It destroys. It injures. And, at least initially, it satisfies. But rage accomplishes nothing. Well, not quite nothing. It affirms and reaffirms our opponents in their view. It discredits us. Rage accomplishes nothing positive.

Rage saw the burning of many of our cities in the race riots, destroying those communities. Today most of those cities are still impoverished, disempowered and underserved. Rage saw the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention protests that served only to help elect Nixon and defeat anti-war candidate Hubert Humphrey extending the war another 7 years.

Rage causes fear in our opponents. This fear solidifies them in their opposition and makes our work that much harder.

Anger is a different story. There is nothing wrong with anger. Anger is simply a message to us that something is wrong, something needs to change. It is a motivator. Dr. King was angry with injustice. Gandhi was angry. They channeled their anger (and that of those around them) into strategic and tactical avenues that accomplished incredible things.

Today as I watch this new “1968” swell into action I see too much rage and not enough channeled anger. I expect the movements, like ours of the past, will mature and learn – and the actions of rage will slowly be displaced with those of real power. I fear though that until then, they will not get traction and they will actually increase and stiffen the forces opposing change.  We risk losing years, decades, even losing all together.

We live in a democracy – granted a democracy that is distorted by oligarchy and money – but it is still a democracy. In the long run our goal has to be getting a majority of the American public to support our goals.

I  view movements and politics as a matter of talking people off the fence and then shoving the fence forward. And then talking the next group of fence sitters down to our side and shoving again.  When we act out of rage and create fear and rage in our fence sitters and opponents, the fence comes shoving back and crowding us. We lose ground we need to recapture before we can make real progress.

Let your mistakes be fresh mistakes, new mistakes; mistakes that come from exploring new ground. Please do not repeat our mistakes and waste time on well-trodden ground. (More to come.)


Mitch McConnell is not a dumb man. His slow southern drawl is seen as slow by the northern elite. That is a mistake. McConnell has spent over 30 years in the Senate, more if you count his time as a staffer and intern. Mitch McConnell is smart, but as his glasses suggest, short sighted. His announcement that there would be no Senate action on an Obama replacement for Justice Scalia is just the latest chapter in his power politics. That’s not power politics as in playing hardball. It is power politics as everything being about staying in power and not losing the grip on the reigns. To be fair this is not totally McConnell’s doing, but as the Senate Majority Leader he is the main tool and voice for its implementation.

McConnell and the GOP know all too well is that the last time a democratic president rescued the economy and rebuilt the work force after a republican induced economic meltdown on this scale, the GOP lost the Senate for 44 of the next 48 years and the House for 58 of the next 62 years. Think about that – the GOP essentially went into exile as the congressional minority party for generations. The prospect of repeating this experience led to some harsh decisions.

McConnell and his crew saw the scope of the Great Recession and decided if the GOP was not to be pushed into irrelevance for another few generations, they had to prevent a quick economic recovery that Obama would get credit for. This expanded to keep Obama from accomplishing anything of substance that would make him look good. As McConnell succinctly put it, “Our top political priority should be to deny President Obama a second term.” Their priority was not creating jobs for America, not stimulating the economy, not governing the country, but getting and retaining power. The priority was keeping the economy stumbling through four years so the GOP could prevent them being driven into the wilderness again. It was a cool calculated strategy to keep the GOP from becoming irrelevant again in the Congress, even if it meant misery and suffering for the U.S. populace, slowing the recovery, increasing poverty, weakening the U.S. economy. As former Ohio Senator George Voinovich acknowledged after retiring, “If he was for it, we had to be against it.”

And so they blocked jobs bills, refused to participate in the stimulus bill, and routinely and continually announced the Presidential budgets dead on arrival. Even the most simple bipartisan issues, such as a veterans job bill, were killed rather than let the administration get a moment in the spotlight. It explains also their irrational opposition to Obama Care. If this opposition was based on conten,t the GOP would have proposed an alternative or improvements in the eight years after instead of the 60 times they have sought to repeal it. However alternatives are no longer allowed. Alternatives allow progress, and President’s get credit for progress, not Congress.

Obama care is a fair example. Obamacare is essentially the Heritage Foundation’s response to Hillary’s proposed health care reform. That was why GOP Governor Mitt Romney could adopt it in Massachusetts. But the GOP plan to deny Obama any progress, even bipartisan progress during his term meant it had to be vilified, not fixed, not amended, not improved. State GOP governors’ actually went so far as to prevent the Medicaid expansion, turning down free money, resulting in 17,000 preventable deaths. http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2014/01/30/opting-out-of-medicaid-expansion-the-health-and-financial-impacts. Let that soak in, 17,000 people died so the GOP could prevent Obama from having credit for political accomplishments, so the GOP could hang on to power.

This has become the “do-nothing” Congress because alternatives are not allowed. Alternatives are not allowed, because if Obama accepts an alternative that leaves an Obama accomplishment on the table. Obama had also early on proved adept at countering objections from the GOP by accepting their alternatives and moving to the center. As Obama repeatedly took GOP positions and went forward with them, the GOP realized they had to have no real counter positions. – The number of times they backed away from their own proposals is shocking. For every step Obama took to the center, the GOP had to take two steps back. Yet the FOX news machine and the GOP echo chamber have managed to portray this as Obama failing to negotiate. Not enough people pay attention to put this lie to rest.

So McConnell and company had an iron clad plan, backed with rigid discipline and harsh punishment for those who strayed. When the plan failed to limit Obama to one term they doubled down, filibustering and blocking nearly all Senate action. In 2014 the frustration this grid lock caused helped them get Congressional control.

So fearful of being driven into the wilderness for decades, McConnell led his party to stymie and vote against healing the economy, against jobs, against the people and against the country. He thought it would be for four years. Perhaps then they could even ride in and do the obvious things that they had been stymieing and rejecting and get credit for resuscitating the economy. Perhaps they would be driving the democrats into the wilderness. What a temptation. But with Obama’s reelection in 2012 they now had to carry this forward for 8 years. And the price for prolonging this strategy is becoming clear.

The Check Comes Due

So what was supposed to be four years of intentional non-governance expanded into eight. The economic recovery was hobbled and slowed down. People’s suffering was prolonged. All in hopes the public would blame Obama and the democrats for their suffering and see the GOP as a solution. But as the strategy has dragged out over 8 years the “do nothing” nature of the GOP strategy created a large surge of anti-government sentiment – all government. When it was coupled with GOP anti-government messaging it began to backfire.  The problem  for the GOP was that Congressional disapproval ratings have bounced from 75 to 85% over 2015 and 2016. And GOP Congressional disapproval ratings have gone from 30% in 2002 to as high as 83%. And now with the election pending Obama’s favorability ratings are as high as 58%. http://pollingreport.com/

So eight years of intentionally dysfunctional government has now led millions of voters to reach the conclusion that the system is broken; both parties are inept and corrupt. There is a large population of people who have come of voting age knowing nothing but this dysfunctional result. Even those old enough to have lived through a better time are jaded and fed up and despair of the possibility of real governance. With this “a pox on both your houses” attitude so abundant, is it any surprise that two candidates from outside the parties drew tens of millions of votes? Bernie and Trump are both a product of McConnell’s intentionally dysfunctional government. The fact that Obama was in office and managing to lead the country to a strong, if slow, economic recovery helped Hillary edge out Bernie. There was some administration record of accomplishment, however meager, and a strong record of attempted solutions blocked by GOP intransigence.

But the GOP has no such record of accomplishment in the last eight years. They have 8 years of anti-Obama rhetoric and dog whistle propaganda. And now they have a presidential candidate who chides the party he seeks to lead as in the pocket of moneyed interests, as corrupt, inept and responsible for job losses, globalization, etc., who at the same time rides their messages of birtherism, dog whistle racism, anti-immigrant bluster, and anti-government messaging into representing the party.

McConnell’s intentionally dysfunctional governance strategy has created the GOP Frankenstein monster, Trump. And Trump now threatens the very existence of the GOP. Trump is garnering about 40% in the polls. These people are imbued with his anti-GOP rhetoric, as much as the anti-government rhetoric. As we watched, Trump’s scorched earth primary techniques destroyed the political futures of Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Fiorini, Rubio, – seemingly a whole next generation of potential leaders. The masses behind Trump loath the GOP leadership and the party almost as much as they loathe Hillary. The future existence of the GOP is being talked about as very much in doubt


So to seek preventing a generation or two of irrelevance in Congress, McConnell and the GOP engaged a strategy that may very well destroy their party. It looks to very well have cost them the Senate this election and a significant number of House seats. And with a Democratic Senate will come several Supreme Court appointments (perhaps even a Justice Obama), and a shot at progressive agency heads (Elizabeth Warren anyone?). Will the House continue or adopt the McConnell strategy and seek to push intentional dysfunctionalism another four or eight years?

It is all rather reminiscent on how short sighted U.S. anti-Soviet foreign policy led to inflaming and arming the Mujahedin in Afghanistan only to create Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. Now we have Trump, the tea party, and the none but Trump folks. We will have to wait a while for history to tell us whether the GOP survives the Trump candidacy and aftermath. If they recover, perhaps it will be sooner than the generation or two they would have lost by actually governing for the benefit of the American people and the economy. If so, McConnell was right. If not . . .

Recently I had a thought bubble up: What would you find if you looked at how much of each Presidency was the U.S. economy in recession?  So starting from the National Bureau of Economic Research (the official arbiters of recession beginnings and endings) table of US Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions and run these dates up against those of Presidential terms. What emerged was surprising – and shocking.

When I took each presidential term and calculated the percentage of the term spent in recession I ended up with this:


So a picture really is worth a 1000 words! While its been cold hard fact for a long time that Democratic Presidents are better for the economy than Republican Presidents, this provides another very clear picture that Democratic Presidents clearly deliver more stable economic times. (It also shows that the changes that FDR ushered in concerning the Fed and economic management, the Gold Standard, etc. have delivered shorter and less deep recessions).

But back to that picture! Since Harding GOP Presidencies spend around 25% of their time in recession, while Democratic Presidencies average below 10%.

What’s not being talked about-

The Snowden revelations and U.S. Surveillance


This is the inaugural post for this portion of the blog – “What’s not being talked about”. Part of my “grouchiness” stems from reading and listening to the media on important issues and seeing major considerations and elements left completely unsaid and unaddressed. Very often these are the most important considerations and elements. The media and talking heads hold forth at length and fill reams of hard copy and millions of digital bits on distraction and irrelevancies, while the most fundamental questions slip silently by. It makes much of the public debate artificial and contrived.


And so it is I turn to the Snowden revelations on U.S. surveillance capabilities and practices. We have been witness to a continual Chinese water torture of revelations on the NSA and federal government’s abilities to read our email, scan our web habits, and compile personal data, and in real time watch our computer use. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2013/1016/NSA-revelations-A-timeline-of-what-s-come-out-since-Snowden-leaks-began/June-5-8-2013 There is no doubt this drip, drip of revelations will continue.


And the response of the government and the pundits has fallen along several lines: First we have the John Kerry sorts of accusations that Snowden is a traitor and a coward; Then we have the whistleblower/patriot camp heavy on libertarian/civil rights themes; and against this debate we have the National Security arguments that these capabilities are exercised for our own safety and good – that it is all to prevent major terrorist attacks, etc. The next step down the ladder on this thread is that if you are doing no wrong, you have nothing to be concerned about; and it seems many take some sort of solace here, and pull their heads into their shells. At the other end of this are the civil rights arguments that our personal privacy protections under the fourth amendment are being seriously violated and that this is more important than the comparable handful of deaths and attacks we may or may not be preventing with these measures. (We’ll leave aside the country’s apparent willingness to except 10,000s of gun deaths as the price for the second amendment – but readiness to abandon all previous concepts of a right to privacy under the fourth amendment to prevent any one hypothetical death.)


We are all well familiar with the MSN/CNN/FOX talking head landscape of this “debate”. What is not being said?


Let’s step back to 7th grade civics class, shall we? (Perhaps I am dating myself by noting I come from an era where civics[1] was taught.) Fundamental to 7th grade civics was the notion of checks and balances – our three branches of government in competition for power, each with the some ability to check and frustrate the other. Later in life one of my favorite law professors would describe this as a dynamic tension between the branches, dynamic in that one might gain sway on an issue for a time, but with an election or a change in events or popular opinion the balance would shift. (We see this tension clearly now with a GOP House, and a filibustering minority in the Senate pitted against a democratic president, which both in turn look to the appointed and ratified judiciary to referee some of their conflicts.) So we have this system of checks and balances where competing powers are pitted against each other for the protection of our rights and the preservation of our form of government.

 [[1] Civics: the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works – clearly there are several dated concepts in that: the mention of the duty of citizens! And the concept that government works – No longer taught in school and attacked regularly by one wing of our partisan infrastructure.]

Now let’s digress to an old sophism/truism: knowledge is power. Simple enough. And what is intelligence and surveillance, but the pursuit of knowledge and with it power?

 And here is where the problem begins to emerge. Intelligence is power and the pursuit of power. But it is something more – it is the pursuit of SECRET knowledge, secret power – much, if not most, of its value in fact comes from its secrecy; the fact that others do not have this information or are unaware that one has this information. Thus, having the enemy’s codes or battle plans are valuable as long as the other does not know we have it. And then there is the other sort of power that comes from secret knowledge – the fact that someone one has another’s secrets and lets them know it to use it to advantage. In short this is the power of extortion and blackmail; you will do, or not do, X or we will reveal your secret.

Now let’s venture back to that triangle of checks and balances between the Legislative, Judicial and Executive branches. Only the executive has direct and ready access to the secret power of intelligence/surveillance data. It is a secret power, one that it does not readily or willingly share with the other branches. Yes, Congress has its oversight committees coming from the reforms of the 70s after the Pike and Church committees, but this depends on a willingness of the executive to share and brief the few select privileged members of the Congressional committees. And our history is replete with many examples of Congress complaining it was kept in the dark or actively misled via these channels. And imagine what the worth of this oversight is when the executive can have near complete knowledge of the oversight committee members’ lives and dealings.

 The point here is that this dynamic tension of checks and balances relies on competing powers of the branches. But when one branch has a vast reservoir of secret power to draw on, the checks and balances can be neutered and made ineffective. When we read that all of our phone conversations are tracked, recorded and available to the executive we think first of our personal calls. And for most of us, we think this is of no interest to the executive and this does not affect us, end of story. But when one realizes this power extends to the ability to track all of the phone and cell phone contacts as well as the computer usage of the legislative and judicial members as well, this begins to look quite different. This secret power now leads almost inescapably to a totalitarian (or at least one party system – whether that is a nominal two party but de facto one party matters little).

 It leads one to wonder if the revelations that knocked major contenders out of presidential consideration were assisted through this secret power. I speak of the elimination from contention of John Edwards and Elliot Spitzer before the 2008 presidential campaign. Let’s be clear I am not saying these candidates were necessarily targeted and removed from contention from executive surveillance, but they do serve as examples of what is possible with the sort of information that is collected today.

 This sort of power – the revealing of secret information can greatly impact events, public opinion, and governmental outcomes. But there are other exercises of secret power that could be even more insidious – the use of secret power to extort or blackmail behavior and outcomes. When the executive knows the darkest secrets of justices, judges or Congress members it can gain the ability through blackmail and extortion to direct their behavior and make them implements of executive choice rather than part of the constitutional checks and balances. More subtle variations between these two extremes of course exist, where with secret knowledge parties can be managed subtly without their knowledge with stage craft and subtle manipulations.


These concerns and practicalities apply as well to that other constitutional protection, the fourth estate.


And so it is that these surveillance mechanisms and practices pose a direct and serious threat to our very viability as an elected constitutional democracy. With this immense secret power concentrated in the executive we can expect that eventually some political threat to the executive will result in the improper use of this power and once that Chinese wall is breached it will be repeatedly abused till it becomes a normal exercise of power.


These checks and balances exist because of the founders’ clear recognition of power to corrupt. As John Adams noted in Federlist #51:


But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. [1788]


With these new immense surveillance powers how to we “oblige it to control itself “? This I would pose is by far the greatest question posed by the new surveillance state and its capabilities. I am not sure what the solutions to address these problems should be. Clearly part of it is limiting severely what can be collected. But that of course offers no guarantees that such restrictions will be honored. Some have argued putting the data into private hands offers some form of protection. Speaking for myself, I feel no safer having say AT&T and Verizon in control of such information or that it is any less a threat to our democracy. They have as much incentive to use it, sell it and exercise this power as any governmental character.


It would seem a necessary part is putting what data is collected outside of the control of the executive, perhaps with the courts. And then the executive would have to apply for a warrant for access. Of course this has its own limitations and problems.


In any case this article is about what is not being talked about. Perhaps if the more fundamental issues in this debate are allowed to float to the top, the resultant discussions can find solutions. How do we oblige government to control itself in an age of near total digital surveillance?




Charles Bukowski

Image  —  Posted: November 23, 2013 in What's not being said . . .