Friday, April 1, 2016

“Apple’s poisonous business practices,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, March 18-24, 2016, p. 27.



Beware of the Apple, It’s Poisonous

As the latest debate over Apple’s stance on privacy and its refusal to help federal investigators access the iPhone of the San Bernardino attackers, we should recall an earlier stance that seemed principled at the time, but was not.

For those who may have forgotten, Apple appealed a 2014 settlement that found it guilty of antitrust violation in relation to e-books. The settlement amount was $450 million. Its appeal to the Supreme Court was just denied, so the original settlement is binding.

In that case, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, made a passionate argument on behalf of “free enterprise” and the right of Apple to conspire with publishers to artificially inflate the price of e-books. At the time, Amazon.com, which had its own disputes with publishers, was setting the benchmark price for e-books.

Apple may argue about its monopoly-like right to set prices in the marketplace as much as it wants; it even can try to present itself as a martyr for free enterprise; but the truth is that it was hurting consumers to enrich itself, called profiteering.

One wonders if today’s debate about privacy isn’t a similar case where the veneer of an ideal ends up being just that, a veneer. The real point is a marketing ploy to convince present and future customers of its protective corporate culture. Fighting “the government,” as many presidential candidates are finding out, is quite popular!

Apple’s hypocrisy need not be measured exclusively by the yardstick of its entanglements with the government, as these two cases illustrate. Instead, it seems that Apple is unabashedly pursuing maximal profits, pure and simple.

To begin with, let’s examine what has set Apple on its path to American iconography. It is outrageously successful, valued at more than $750 billion (biggest in the world), profits of over $53 billion (October 2015), and over $180 billion in cash. Its legendary leader, Steve Jobs, has been lionized as a design guru and creative genius (despite some less than flattering books and documentaries).

Apple came out of IBM’s and Microsoft’s shadows to capture our imagination and pocketbooks; we are so enamored by its products that we stand in line for hours to pay premium prices for the latest revision of its latest gadgets. But there is something dark about Apple, so dark that good publicity, as the one now enjoyed by Apple, is needed to distract our attention from its fundamentals.

First, Apple produces its gadgets overseas, primarily by Foxconn in China. This outsourcing has become ubiquitous, but it sheds light on the awful working conditions of Apple’s sub-contractors’ employees (nets have been set in workers’ dorms so they won’t jump to their death). As president Obama beseeched Steve Jobs to bring jobs back to America during the Great Recession, Jobs scoffed at him and said it’ll never happen.

Second, as Mariana Mazzucato argues in her The Entrepreneurial State (2011), Apple has licensed most if not all of its patents and intellectual property from government sources. Apple doesn’t “invent” as many new technologies or processes as one might believe, but uses others’ inventions for its own designs. It’s R&D budget in 2015 came close to $8 billion, pittance as percentage of its sales of $234 billion (just over 3%). By comparison, Microsoft spent over $12 billion on R&D out of $93 billion in sales (close to 13%).

Third, there are some who are wondering about Apple’s legal behavior both domestically and globally, as it continues to be embroiled in patent disputes with its rivals (Samsung), overseas antitrust allegations, and class-action suits at home. Some have speculated that Apple spends more money on legal fees and fines annually than on R&D. If true, how “entrepreneurial” is it?

Fourth, if you have missed it, Apple has been under scrutiny for its tax-evasion tactics, most of which are perfectly legal, yet fly in the face of it being a good corporate citizen. It’s not that Apple doesn’t pay taxes at all, as it does ($8 billion as Cook told Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes”). Yet, between channeling some sales through offshore distribution networks and keeping over $180 billion in offshore accounts it avoids paying much more. Shouldn’t it contribute to the infrastructure that guarantees its sales?

As we piece the narrative about Apple’s corporate behavior, what may seem a principled stand against government intrusion into citizens’ privacy turns out to be a smokescreen. Is there really no technological way to accommodate federal investigators? We see instead a legal machine with exuberant profits enjoying the American framework of markets without contributing its fare share to ensure its operation. Just like those who came for dinner and never quite contributed their fair share. Perhaps legal, but is it right?

Raphael Sassower is professor and chair of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

Sunday, March 13, 2016

“The Lost Opportunity of the Sanders Candidacy to Teach America about Social Democracy,” LeadStories.com, March 13, 2016.


The Lost Opportunity of the Sanders Candidacy

It was our 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, who recognized his position and the White House as a “bully pulpit,” defined as “a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.” Perhaps it’s unfair, but it seems that Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate for 2016 is missing a golden opportunity to follow the spirit, if not the letter of Teddy’s insight.



The media is apt to remind us that Bernie Sanders is “unelectable” because he is a “socialist” even as he corrects everyone that he is a “social democrat.” He is saddled with the old Cold War mentality that understood “socialism” as the marker of the Soviet Union, a militaristic dictatorship with central planning and lack of freedom for its citizens. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union (and its form of State Socialism) collapsed, and social democracy is the rage in most Eurozone countries.



Bernie Sanders has the golden opportunity not only to make sure Americans are aware of these simple facts—and thereby change the tenor of the discourse over his policies—but also to offer a brief explanation of what social democracy is about, and how it has been practiced not only in Europe but also in the USA. In short, Bernie’s candidacy is missing an opportunity that any leftist academic would “kill” for: teaching the American public what is actually going on in our midst.



Social democracy is primarily understood as a political system that is democratic with market economy that favors public ownership of the means of production and has a great concern for public goods and services—from roads and bridges to the Internet—with a modicum of humanity in the form of safety nets for the poor, needy, and underprivileged. This means, in short, less concern with who “owns” a factory or a business, but more with how private ownership enhances public welfare rather than exploits it.
This kind of 21st socialism is not our grandparents’ one; it cares more about using market efficiencies and less about central planning by some faraway bureaucrats; and it demands that when private ownership controls this or that industry, it should be proven that it’s superior to the state owning natural resources, for example, or that “economies of scale” are in fact operating in a way to cheapen resources and products for all of us. In short, it’s a sophisticated system that appreciates the ultimate goal of ensuring the best, most productive use of natural and human resources.

So, to begin with, Bernie can explain what was just said. He can distinguish the crude and abusive state-planning system from the more nuanced and efficient system so many modern European and Asian economies use today. But, secondly, Bernie can also point out that in fact we are already living in a quasi-socialist system that has been endorsed by the entire political spectrum.

How are we already social-democrats? We have numerous safety nets that have become part of American culture and that will not be scrapped anytime soon. For example, there is no presidential candidate that wants to abolish Social Security, probably the most “socialist” of our practices. Nor is any candidate proposing to do away with Medicare; likewise, no one has suggested doing away with Medicaid which is an even more committed socialist ideal of providing health care to indigent people who cannot afford even base health insurance. Despite the rhetoric about the Affordable Care Act, all candidates know not to threaten some of the “sacred cows” the elderly have come to depend on so deeply—and they vote!

But then, again, there are numerous other forms of so-called socialism we readily practice, even find attractive to fight for. Among them we must mention the military-industrial-academic complex that captures some $600 billion annually, and that among other things, offers opportunities to the least advantaged in ways the rest of the economy does not. Yes, the military, too, is part of the enormous welfare system we have in place, even though we prefer to speak of it in terms of “national security.”

When all the candidates talk enthusiastically about their commitments to education, they forget to admit that these programs, from Pell Grants to Student Aid and Loans are government-sponsored programs that are funded (or guaranteed) by taxing the public (progressively, mind you, which means that the richer pay (theoretically) a higher percentage of their income than poorer citizens).

And lest we forget the most socialist activity since the New Deal (1933-1938), the banking bailout in 2008 was endorsed and implemented (legally and practically) by both the Bush and the Obama administrations. Good capitalists would have let weak banks collapse if they overreached or managed their finances poorly. No? Who’d think that conservative administrators would recommend government intervention?

Bernie Sanders, as he excites the young and less privileged, should keep reminding the public how socialist we already are, how fortunate we are that we are socialist to some extent, and that the debate is about keeping an intelligent and sensitive balance between being too socialist and not socialist enough. Would you want to live in a country where the poor die in the streets because of no access to health, shelter, and jobs? Are you willing to pay the price unfettered capitalism would exact on those not at the very 1% top? Of course not.

Having the voice of Biblical prophets who spoke truth to power and who reminded the political establishment of their day of moral justice and their responsibilities as kings, Bernie should go even further in tutoring his audiences. Since we are already quasi-socialist, he can ask now how far—morally, socially, and economically—we should go to ensure the prosperity of all. We should be grateful to Bernie’s voice, loud and angry as it is, and the fact that he still rails against the big banks and the “billionaire class.”
Yet, we can also entreat him to give a lesson, the kind of lesson given by those ancient prophets, and remind the American public that to be a socialist in the 21st century is to be both sensible and humane, or what we’re to believe makes us so great.

Friday, February 12, 2016

“Could our city become the next Flint?”, The Colorado Springs Business Journal, February 12-18, 2016, p. 19.


Are we the next Flint?

What happened in Flint, Michigan was bound to happen somewhere, sometime. The origins of this disaster can be traced to the Reagan revolution that brought about the mantra that the government isn’t the solution, but the problem. This mantra embodies three important principles.

The first is that there is a direct correlation between how much services we receive and how much taxes we pay. The less taxes, the less services (small government).

The second is that government bureaucracies are less efficient than private ones, and therefore we should outsource to the private sector whatever we can.

The third is that all public goods—from roads to natural resources and defense—should be privatized in one way or another: either sold off or users should pay fees (Milton Friedman and the Chicago School).

The first principle is indisputable: CS comes in seventh among the 15 lowest-taxed cities in the US (Nick Wallace, SmartAsset). You might have noticed the unplowed streets with any snowfall, and the need for a tax increase to fix potholes.

The second principle is more problematic since it’s unclear if the issue is the inefficiency of bureaucracies, private of public, or that public are worse than private ones. But we should notice that at times inefficiencies relate to redundancies that save lives than to simple laziness.

The third one is the most interesting, as we have seen it play out in Flint. Should all decisions about and public goods themselves be privatized? We agreed during the Iraq War to hire Blackwater “mercenaries” to help fight the war; we also procured the private services of Cheney’s Halliburton (that eventually moved its headquarters to Dubai).

Were these moves the most “efficient” or merely the most expedient?

The lead-poisoning in Flint reminds us that the only way privatization works is if it’s accompanied by strict regulation—to ensure the health and safety of those affected.

But the age of deregulation that began with the Clinton Administration and has continued into the Bush and Obama Administrations has brought about not only the banking bubble and the Great Recession, but now the cruel effects of water poisoning in Flint.

What the headlines make clear is that perhaps the water problems in Flint were ignored because its population is poor and made up of minorities. Here is an example of how the outrage over income and wealth inequalities isn’t simply a philosophical query but instead relates to conditions that lead to health hazards.

As the facts are still being uncovered, it becomes clear that first, we cannot trust outsourced government performance—when cutting costs is achieved at the cost of people’s health—and second, that we shouldn’t wait till it’s a catastrophe to pay attention. Regulators and journalists, politicians and activists should heed complaints and investigate before it’s too late.

What about the health hazards perpetrated by our own Utilities? We finally got City Council (its board) to agree to close the Martin Drake power plant within 20 years. In the meantime, is our health at risk? Are we listening to Leslie Weise, an attorney with special expertise in environmental issues? Will she become a sainted crusader when the health issues associated with Drake become national news?

The community within a mile or two of Drake is more than 30% minority, more than 29% below the poverty level, and of such overall low income that one wonders if their health means less to CSU and its Board than the health of those living in more affluent sections of the city. Air quality around Drake doesn’t meet EPA standards; but CSU is reluctant to act.

Colorado Open Records Act has been used on numerous occasions by attorney Weise and others, but CSU’s attorneys redact most documents and refuse to share their findings about the level of toxins that plague the Drake area. Isn’t it their civil duty to be as transparent as possible? As we saw in Flint, time is not a luxury sick kids and their parents can afford.

Likewise, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment seems to be uninterested in shutting down the plant or holding CSU to the standards enjoyed by the rest of the state, granting extensions and more studies. The EPA is also slow to respond to mandates than one would expect of a regulatory body.

Is this similar to what happened at Flint? What will it take for more vigorous and timely regulation of our city-owned CSU? Councilman Leigh, if you recall, was politically blackballed and threatened with lawsuits.

Would CSU behave this way if Drake were in close proximity to the Broadmoor? We can avoid following in the footsteps of Flint.

  

Raphael Sassower is professor and chair of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com



 
outsourcing, health hazards

Friday, January 22, 2016

“Capitalism revisited: Do special interests rule?”, The Colorado Springs Business Journal, January 22-28, 2016, p. 20.


Capitalism Revisited

It’s that time again for new year’s resolutions, presidential “state of the union” speeches, or simply taking stock of capitalism as we know it.

When we hear that the price of a barrel of oil is declining to below $30, should we panic, rejoice, or ignore this data point? Do you recall when it was over $100 and we didn’t know if to panic, rejoice, or ignore it? Is this simply the result of, as economic textbooks have taught us, supply and demand? Or, is something else going on here?

What are the political ramifications of the decline in oil prices? Adversaries, from Russia and Venezuela to Iran and Libya are bound to feel the pain because their domestic budgets depend on high oil prices; even so-called friendly nations, like Saudi-Arabia and Brazil feel the squeeze. Are they all our competitors now?  

At home, mixed-messages abound: the stock market tumbles because oil giants are suffering and their losses are reflected in their stock prices which make up the index. Job losses are mentioned everywhere, as if the nation’s latest December upsurge in employment wasn’t real or lasting.

But wouldn’t lower oil prices, as translated into lower gas prices at the pump, not translate into greater discretionary spending elsewhere? And wouldn’t this create a domestic economic boom?

If you have a nagging suspicion that the argument about the natural wisdom of supply and demand and prices isn’t consistently applied to the market, you are not alone.

Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, attempts to help us understand what’s wrong with American capitalism in his latest Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015).

If anyone suspects Reich to be on the left of the political spectrum, he begins his analysis with the assurance that unlike Karl Marx’s prediction, capitalism isn’t inherently a bad system that will bring its own collapse.

Reich’s focus is on the rules that set up the marketplace, the political system that establishes the laws that support capitalism as an economic system. For him, it’s not the “free market” vs. “the “government,” but rather how the free market is supported by government regulations that are supposed to ensure its fairness and trustworthiness.  

Democratic governments set the rules by which market mechanisms work efficiently and for all, or inefficiently and just for the few. In recalling the warnings of politicians and justices from the past century, it becomes clear that the issue for them wasn’t how to protect the free market, but how to protect democracy from the wealthy elite.

Among the ones he quotes, the most blatant was supreme court justice, Louis Brandeis, who said in 1941 that “We can have democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

Was his warning prescient?

As far as Reich is concerned, when about half of all the senators and representatives who leave office (regardless of party affiliation) join lobbying firms and then pressure their previous colleagues to pass legislation that protects or promotes the interests of few corporate giants, then, yes, we have a political and economic collusion. to fruition!

Likewise, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, as Reich reports, is quite extreme: “the six Walmart heirs together had more wealth (in 2014) than the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined (up from 30.5 percent in 2007).”

Reich calls this a “redistribution upward” or a “pre-distribution” because it’s about the rules of the game of capitalism and how “invisible” they remain from public scrutiny. These rules, from intellectual property rights and monopoly power to contractual relations between corporations and their workers to the laws of bankruptcy and the lack of regulatory enforcement, ensure that the game is rigged in favor of large corporations, Wall Street, and wealthy individuals.

The days of “stakeholder capitalism”—where what was good for General Motors was good for America—have become after the 1980s the days of “shareholder capitalism”—where CEOs make decisions that favor themselves and a few large shareholders.

Reich reminds us of “interest-group populism” that prevailed after WWII when people joined local groups and professional associations to represent their interests, and what resulted was “neither rule by majority nor by minority but by a ‘majority of minorities’.” This way of thinking was inspired by John Kenneth Galbraith who argued for a “countervailing power” to limit the power of the wealthy.

So, instead of listening to pundits that lament the loss of jobs in the oil and gas industry, let’s remember that we can become the largest oil exporting power in the world, and that we can create millions of jobs in alternative energy industries!

Raphael Sassower is professor and chair of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Parallel Universe: How Wall Street & Republicans Thrive On False Negative Hype," LeadStories.com, January 17, 2016


Parallel Universe

If you listened to the last GOP presidential debate in South Carolina or have watched with anxiety the tumbling of the stock market, with a downward spiral that comes close to the 10% official “correction” designation, you’d think that the US is on the verge of collapse. If you were young and ambitious or retired with a sufficient nest-egg, you’d be checking the Internet on where to immigrate. Who would want to live in a country that is unsafe, led by a president who “doesn’t care about America,” and an economy that is so bad that more illegal immigrants are leaving than entering our southern border (by as much as 140,000 from 2009-2014, according to Pew Research Center). The political climate in Washington, DC is so contaminated and corrupt that some leading members of congress (Steve Israel of the 3rd district of New York is the latest casualty) are simply not seeking re-election (which is a guarantee to incumbents at the rate of over 96%, according to Louis Jacobson in Politifact).

But this isn’t the America I live in. I recall the announcement by the Bureau for Labor Statistics that some 292,000 nonfarm jobs were added in December 2015, that the economy was growing fast enough for the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates by .25%, that lower oil and gas prices and the discontinuance of the prohibition of oil exports will make the US not only energy independent and a net exporter of oil and gas but one of the leading producers of oil and gas in the world, and that overall we still enjoy civil rights that are denied by many of our allies, like Saudi-Arabia (whose legal system is based on a very strict orthodox interpretation of Sharia law). Paying less than $2/gallon of gas will allow all of us to spend more of our money on other goods and services which in turn will boost the economy, since about 70% of our Gross Domestic Product comes from consumer spending. Lower oil prices will lead to greater spending, and greater spending to economic growth; this, at least, is what neoclassical economic theory teaches us. But maybe this theoretical rosy picture is too na├»ve, maybe in the real world things work differently, even without a conspiracy theory at work.

In the real world of brokerage houses on Wall Street a stable economy that is slowly but steadily growing is not volatile enough for daily trading spreads. A bit of bad news followed by good news and vice versa ensures enough volatility to guarantee great profits. You can check the financial reports of any of the major investment banks in the US and see right away that the largest contribution to their bottom line comes from trading, what some call arbitrage (which is simply buying low and selling high). The margins are miniscule, but the volume is so large—billions of dollars daily—that by the end of the year there are substantial amount of money being made from little movements in stock or commodity prices. And when a bunch of hedge funds collaborate to bring prices down or up, as they have been fined after legal discovery, then the trust we have in the fairness of markets and the supposed reflection of prices of efficient information about supply and demand (EMH) falls apart. And if these margins aren’t sufficient, inside-trading is always available, as hedge funds, such as SAC Capital and its CEO Steven A. Cohen, have admitted as much when paying $1.8 billion(!) in fines.

Add to this the technically-enhanced “high-frequency trading” which finds the buying and selling prices of stocks nano-seconds before these prices appear on the market itself, and therefore are able to “game” the buy and sell orders before anyone else has a chance to fill them, and you have, once again, inside-trading plain and simple: information gained before anyone else has a chance to compete with you is still unfair, no matter what technical trick or loophole you were able to find. So, is volatility the dream of any trader? Yes, it is. Is knowing a bit before anyone else what someone is willing to pay for a stock inside-trading? Yes, it is. Grand conspiracy? Maybe not; but definitely an advantage to elite hedge-funds and investment banks that can game the system in the name of “free markets”; the term “collusion with impunity” seems apt. And when caught, years later, as Goldman Sachs was in its involvement with mortgages and the collapse of the economy, then a fine of $5.1 billion(!) makes it all okay—it’s the price of doing business. And the six million Americans who lost their homes can be forgotten. For those who are interested in a simple, straight-forward explanation of the mortgage bubble and its ensuing Great Recession, go watch the recently released movie The Big Short.

It’s plain why Republican presidential contenders claim that the country, led by a Democrat, is doing poorly—they want to build an argument for changing the guard: Democrats are bad, we are good, ergo: your next president must not be a Democrat but a Republican. It’s also plain why they would portray such a negative picture of America’s national security and its economy, not giving any credit to the president for any policy decision that helped us get out of the (Republican-induced) Great Recession of 2008-2012 or spending more on the Department of Defense than the entire world put together (ABC News 2/24/14), a budget which, incidentally, is voted on by Congress which, incidentally, is controlled by the Republicans. So what about the media?

You’d think the media would be smarter than all of that, telling us if the king has no clothes or telling us the truth about our own country. But you’d be sorely disappointed. What happened to independent reporting, cool-headed analysis, and a long-range perspective on what’s going on in the economy? What about calming the population rather than scaring it half to death, especially when there is no reason for alarm? Last I checked, there is something called self-fulfilling prophecies, the kind of alarmist pronouncements that make people withdraw their money from their local banks, only to perpetrate a run on the bank that in fact leads to its collapse… Have we learned nothing from our own economic history? Don’t journalists and pundits realize that the more positive their pronouncements are—given positive economic data—the better the economy (of consumers) will function? It’s plain that the latest negative hype is just a hype, nothing more nothing less. And the quicker we get over it, the better, because the American economy is still very strong!

Raphael SassowerWall


Monday, January 11, 2016

"The Trump Phenomenon: Something Quite Familiar," LeadStories.com, December 7, 2015.



 
The Trump Phenomenon
Raphael Sassower
No matter how bizarre Trump’s latest diatribes sound, there is something quite familiar in both their manner and content. This mixture of populism and xenophobia is American through and through with echoes found around the world. The sound is ideologically and historically-grounded. Though shocking to some sensitive ears, Trump speaks in a familiar voice.
The appeal of political leaders depends, most often, on a combination of several factors: charisma, zeal, racism, xenophobia, hopefulness, and fear-mongering. Different leaders have displayed a combination of some if not all of these factors, from our founding fathers to President Wilson, all the way to Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler; Chairman Mao and General Peron come to mind as well. Though each offers his own variant with a combination of talents and personal characteristics, what is common is a sense of manifest destiny, delusional or real.
As a Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump remains insanely entertaining. One wonders if he means what he says or is simply playing to the crowd, relishing a continuous string of cheers. But even this distinction—between the billionaire speaking his mind and the actor pleasing an audience—has become secondary. Like all theater, the blurring of the real and unreal, the suspense of disbelief, allows us as consumers of mass-culture to enjoy the ride and remain engaged.
And what a ride it is! Out of nowhere comes a privileged scion to a successful real-estate family to claim yet another piece of the American pie (or dream). What private jets and yachts symbolized a few decades ago, political power represents today. This, too, has a checkered American history, from the Rockefellers and Kennedys of yesteryear to more recent Silicon Valley trailblazers (eBay’s Meg Whitman and HP’s Carly Fiorina come to mind), it’s the latest coveted prize only money can buy. In this sense, there is nothing new here: a deep-seated conviction that financial prowess can be easily translated into political brinksmanship (even leadership).
But ordering people around as their boss doesn’t necessarily endear you to them. They may follow your orders but not respect you or your orders. And when the opportunity arises, they’ll jump ship as quickly as possible. Political wisdom comes with years of cultivating relationships, building trust, and ensuring that whatever compromise is reached, all parties can return to their constituencies with a genuine sense of accomplishment. Stirring the emotions is one thing, ensuring that these emotions are appropriately directed towards a common goal is quite another.
The latest claim by Trump to stop all Muslims from reaching our shores is also not as outrageous as it’s been portrayed. America has a history of singling ethnic and religious minorities for unfair, discriminatory, and cruel treatment: slaughtering and confining native Americans, importing and trading African slaves, interning Japanese-American citizens, and refusing entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. From this perspective as well, Trump simply continues an ugly, shameful, and despicable tradition we thought we have left behind.
So what is novel about Trump’s utterances? Is it his poor grammar? No, W was just as inarticulate. Is it his flamboyant style? Not really, as there are numerous celebrities who can outdo him any day. Is it that he readily violates all standards of political correctness? This won’t do either, since the n-word rolls off all too many tongues and outright sexism is still blatant in all walks of life. What is novel is not that he says what’s on his or on his followers’ mind, but that he parodies the role and posture of a politician.
Trump’s parody is powerful insofar as it defies the standards of judgment (not to mention the standards of good taste). Politicians are supposed to be polished, Trump is not (except for his suits). They are supposed to be vague in their pronouncements, and he is not. They are supposed to be subservient to those who bankroll them, and he reminds everyone that he’s paying his own way. They are supposed to have a vision, and he does not. They are supposed to lead with a mandate from the majority while placating the minority, and he couldn’t care less about either group. But he still puts on a show, pretending to be a politician while all along enhancing his own brand.
Trump’s political success so far is the success of public venting, self-glorification, and branding. He excels in saying outrageous things—about Syrian refugees or Muslims—just to get attention, like the kid at a family gathering that screams or breaks dishes. We have many Trumps in our Age of Distraction, we call them celebrities. Popular culture pays attention to them in order not to have to think about or cover serious political and economic issues facing us. It’s easier and definitely more entertaining than having to compare alternative energy sources or the regulation of the banking industry, not to mention our infatuation with militarism and gun ownership. These topics we leave to academics, knowing full well that there is no danger that any reality show will ever follow them.
The Trump phenomenon is really not about Trump or his views; it’s about what American culture can tolerate in an Age of Tolerance. While the Supreme Court stretched the notion of free speech in 2010 to include corporation, it’s not that outlandish to find someone like Trump being publicly racist and religiously insulting. Where are the boundaries? Who sets them? And on whose behalf? Just raising these questions should alert us to what is unacceptable, and Trump is surely in that class of hate-speakers, the ones whose words are not only hurtful but can cause real and immediate damage. In short, Trump is a dangerous phenomenon America must stop.
    


"Tear Down Invisible Walls!," LeadStories.com, August 20, 2015


Tear Down Invisible Walls!

Raphael Sassower

The condensation from the Republican establishment and media dismissal of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate front-runner, reminds me of the initial reception of the candidacy of George W. Bush whose pedigree and wealth overshadowed his inability to formulate grammatically-correct sentences. Without the benefit of an elderly cadre of advisors (Papa Bush’s buddies for W), Trump has come out with an immigration policy all other GOP candidates seem to endorse even if they aren’t thrilled with his rhetoric. It’s anchored by a commitment to completing the 2,000-mile long border fence (or wall) between Mexico and the US.

To be clear, it was President George W. Bush who signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 with wide popular support from Congress and the voting public of border-states. When “57% Think US Should Continue Building a Fence along Mexican Border” (Pulse Opinion Research, LLC 4/9/13), Trump’s own bravado simply expressed popular sentiments. It’s a mixture of “strong on crime” mind-set associated with the Republican Party and a recognition that a law-abiding nation must disallow illegal immigration. A “great big wall” with a “big door” seems to fit this bill. Yet, this seemingly consistent argument for continuing the fence/wall construction is also met with the following public sentiment: 47% agree that “Immigration Helps more than Hurts” while 43% say the opposite (NBC/WSJ Poll, 7/26-30/15). Is there an internal inconsistency here? Or is it partially a veiled racist sentiment against a growing Hispanic population (with political implications if it votes for Democrats)?

Looking historically at walls around the world, the Great Wall of China is the first that comes to mind. Built between 700-206 BCE it spanned some 5,500 miles. Regardless of its partial success in defending and isolating China in the past, it’s now a tourist attraction. By contrast, the Korean Demilitarized Zone that has been in use since 1953 to separate North from South Korea, spanning some 160 miles across the peninsula, is still a functioning barrier. Miniscule by comparison to its Chinese counterpart, this barrier is a symbol of extreme xenophobia that causes hardships for an entire population. The Berlin Wall that was operational between 1961 and 1989 was a symbol of the Cold War with some 70 miles within the city and its environs. Given the famous challenge of President Ronald Reagan to the Soviet President Gorbachev, “Tear Down This Wall!” (6/12/87), why are presidential candidates still obsessed with wall building?

Perhaps one answer is the so-called success of the “separation barrier” on the 1949 “Green Line” border between Israel and its occupied territories of Palestine. Construction of this cement wall began under PM Barak in 2000, and its planned length is about 440 miles. Commonly cited is the fact that between 2000 and 2003 there were 76 suicide bombings in Israel’s pre-1967 borders; between 2003 and 2006 there were “only” 12 such suicide bombings. Hence, this wall has helped limit the danger from Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. A neoconservative narrative then extrapolates from the Israeli success-story to the ongoing illegal immigration through the Mexican border.

Facts about illegal immigration, deportation, and “dreamers” do not undermine the Republican narrative. The fact that there are less illegal immigrants coming over to the US today as compared to a decade ago is ignored (NYT 4/23/12). The fact that under President Obama (six years in office) more illegal immigrants were deported (over 2 million) than under President Bush (full two-terms in office) is also underreported (New Republic 4/17/14). And the fact that it’s Congress, now under Republican control of the two chambers, who ought to initiate immigration reform is also lost in the debate. Wasn’t it the Great Recession (2007-2012) that was a greater deterrent to immigration than any wall or fence?

Unlike the (visible) walls of separation, there are numerous invisible barriers of discrimination. It is those we should point out to the Trumps of this election cycle and ask them to tear them down. Among them is the glass ceiling that seems to be made of concrete, where upward mobility is limited if not impossible. Likewise, women’s pay inequality (77% as compared to men, Forbes 4/7/14) remains an embarrassing reality. Educational barriers (44% differential between rich and poor schools, The Hechinger Report 4/6/15) have become worse despite the rhetorical pronouncements of all presidential candidates. And most disturbing is the increasing gap in the opportunities for upward mobility of the poor (Nicholas Lemann, “Unhappy Days for America,” NYRB 5/21/15). As we saw in the latest housing bubble, the American Dream turns into an American nightmare with three missed mortgage payments.

Outside of the alleged socialist candidate for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, politicians are loath to bring up class warfare. But as the latest incidents of police brutality and murder of black youth from Ferguson, MO to Staten Island, NY and Cleveland, Ohio (to mention just a few such cases) show, racial tension is best understood in socio-economic terms, in terms of poverty and abject neglect of poor neighborhoods where blacks and Hispanics reside. Underemployed and falling outside the welfare net, these are also citizens (yes, they are legal residents whose voting rights are challenged (MSNBC 8/14/15), not illegal immigrants), who are part of the 12.9% medically uninsured (Gallup, January 2015); when there are still around 40 million Americans without health insurance, not to mention the fact that more than 45 million below the poverty line of $23,550 (Huffington Post 9/16/14), building a fence on the Mexican border looks absurd.

Instead of building walls of separation, we should tear down the invisible discriminatory barriers that still plague our country. Let’s turn our attention to the success of the Silicon Valley, where waves of immigrants—some with proper special visas, some without—have brought about creativity and ingenuity, hard-work and enormous prosperity. If Republican (and Democratic) candidates look for solutions to economic problems of growth, Silicon Valley is a model of tolerance, open-mindedness, and acceptance of all languages, countries-of-origin, racial, gender, and religious differences. Among the geeks of startup companies, only performance counts; all other characteristics are irrelevant. Is immigration a question of needed skills or race? Aren’t the special provisions for migrant agricultural workers in California not skill based? Or is it simply a profit motive that overlooks the immigration factor of the fantastically successful high-tech industry compared to menial work? This reminds us that we are a country of immigrants, after all, where one must climb the ladder of success and where the only indigenous people have been slaughtered or confined to reservations.