Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Common Sense Manifesto (With a Nod to Thomas Paine, Not Karl Marx): A Review of the Book by Max J. Skidmore

                        Max J. Skidmore was a professor of political science at UMKC for many years. He retired last year and came back as an adjunct professor. He had planned to continue teaching, but with the university going completely online for the summer and increasingly changing classes to online for the fall, he decided at age 86 to hang it up for good. It is very difficult to teach political science, a topic that relies on discussion and the exchange of ideas, online.
            He is probably busier than he was when teaching. He’s writing yet another book, and his 2016 Presidents, Pandemics, and Politics has made him the go-to guy for global media seeking context for our current pandemic.
            I first heard him speak at a venue for the over-50 crowd just before the 2016 election. At the time I was planning to vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, because I was not impressed with the Democratic candidate and I was appalled at the orange buffoon on offer from Republicans. During his talk, Skidmore pointed out that only two candidates had a chance of winning, and our job was to decide which of those two would be better. He also said that James Comey was a Republican and that we should not be surprised if he takes some action to help his party. Just a day or so later, and just a few days before the election, Comey announced a new inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails. I decided Skidmore knew what he was talking about and switched my vote to Clinton.

            I began taking history classes at UMKC a couple of years ago. Last summer the history offerings were few and far between, so I checked the political science offerings and saw Skidmore had a class. I signed up for it and enjoyed it so much I took two more of his classes, which were so popular I had to finesse my way into the spring class. It was full, but he said if there was a chair available, I was welcome to attend. There was, and during the first session a student got offended, walked out, and dropped the class. I was in.
            Skidmore is liberal and doesn’t mince words, which is probably why the student walked out that first day. But his liberal views are relevant to political science and he is extremely tolerant of opposing views. One student asked him for clarification on the subject of fundamentalism. Skidmore took twenty minutes to respond to the question. When I was in school at a conservative state college, we had liberal professors who had to keep their heads down. Back then, it was conservative professors who would go off topic with impunity. One I remember none too fondly was a geography professor who was in the John Birch Society. I was pretty much putting myself through school—it was easier then—tuition was $12 an hour-- so I was taking twenty hours a semester in order to finish early and get a job. I finished in just over three years. Once, when my geography professor began one of his rants, I decided his rant would not be on the test, so I tuned him out and worked on something for another class. As I was deep in my work, I kept hearing him get louder and louder, and I looked up. He was right over me and saying something like, “People who do that should have their heads bashed in.” I don’t know what he had been talking about, but I didn’t want my head bashed in, so I put the other class work away. My point here is teachers’ expressing political opinions is nothing new, and it shouldn’t be a big deal if those opinions are relevant to the class. The teachings of the John Birch Society had little if anything to do with geography (and I sure as hell can’t imagine my geography professor tolerating any disagreement). Skidmore’s lectures are relevant, and he’s good with disagreement. In fact, I think he welcomes it.     

            Over his 55-plus years of teaching, Skidmore has written more than two dozen books, at least one of which was written with George McGovern. His latest, which came out this year, is The Common Sense Manifesto (With a Nod to Thomas Paine, Not Karl Marx). I read the book earlier this year, but I decided not to review it while I was still a student of Skidmore’s because, even though I’m not taking classes for credit, I didn’t want there to be any accusations that I was trolling for grades. I recently reread the book for this review, and I’d forgotten how good it is.
            This review is going to be a bit of an opinion piece as well as a look at Skidmore’s book because his experiences and observations so closely mirror my own. He begins the book by saying he was once a Republican. So was I, and I want to take this opportunity to address a talking point that seems to have been issued by Fox News or some propaganda tool very much like it. Once upon a time in the way back days, thanks to a historical school at Columbia University called the Dunning School and the book its leader, William A. Dunning, wrote in 1907, Reconstruction: Political and Economic, 1865-1877, several generations of Americans were taught Reconstruction was an unmitigated evil and when white supremacy was restored in the South, things were as nature intended. Dunning’s teachings came into question in the 1960s and were pretty much demolished in 1988 when Eric Foner wrote Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Generally, history classes now teach that Reconstruction was a positive move and “Redemption,” or the return to white supremacy, which included (but was certainly not limited to) voter suppression, lynchings, racially motivated killings, segregation, “separate but equal,” which was often separate but usually unequal, and the like negated the gains blacks made after emancipation.
            Nowadays, if you bring up all the evils “Redemption” brought with it, the trained seals of the right will respond, “Yes. And the people responsible were DEMOCRATS!” And they certainly were. When Skidmore and I were younger, Republicans were the party of Lincoln, and Southern Democrats opposed anti-lynching laws. But, as Skidmore points out in his introduction, as a result of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, “Almost immediately, bigoted southern Democrats morphed into bigoted southern Republicans.” In 1968 Richard Nixon used his “Southern Strategy” to take the rest of the party with him.
            In short, to use the slogan of Virginia Slims, a cigarette marketed to women in the 1970s, since Lincoln, the Republican Party has “come a long way, baby.” Lincoln would be so proud!

            The first chapter is “Travesty and Tragedy,” a history of the Republican party that demonstrates Trump is not an aberration but rather the logical progression of a party that has relied on lies and subterfuge to obtain and retain power beginning at least with Richard Nixon who, in 1968, through a fundraiser with connections in Asia promised the South Vietnamese a better deal if he were elected president. As a result, they refused to join negotiations, Nixon won, and the war went on. Nixon’s perfidy was rumored for years and was confirmed in 2007. Reagan is presumed to have used the same tactics in 1980 to convince Iranians to continue to hold the American hostages until after the election, but that smoking gun has yet to be found. Reagan, who had spoiled Gerald Ford’s chances for election in 1976, defeated Jimmy Carter, and the Republican party moved to the right, dragging Democrats with them.
            Taking a detour here, the reason the Iranian students were enraged and kidnapped the American Embassy staff was the United States had allowed the terminally ill Shah of Iran to seek treatment here. Carter had not wanted to grant the Shah’s request but was pressured into it by David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger—yet another example of a Democratic president being led astray by Republicans. He paid for it by being portrayed as weak and ineffectual. Memo to future Democratic presidents: Grow ummm… a backbone!
            Reagan enhanced Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” speaking early in his campaign at a county fair near the site of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi and dispensing with dog whistles for the event, proclaiming, “[W]hen it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.” Recently phone recordings of conversations between Nixon and Reagan in 1971 reveal both were quite the racists.
            The Reagan administration established a precedent for the Trump administration by appointing people who opposed the mission of agencies to head those agencies. One such example was James Watt, who was appointed to lead the Department of the Interior, even though he saw no need for conservation because, as an evangelical Christian, he did “not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” I was working for the Office of Surface Mining, an Interior agency Carter, who was an environmentalist, had established to repair the damage of centuries of coal mining. (This is how I came to live in Kansas City the first time.) OSM was funded by a tax on coal. Watt, as an attorney for the Mountain States Legal Fund, had fought OSM in court because his clients objected to the coal tax. Once he was Secretary of the Interior, OSM was gutted. After all, why clean up a mess when end times were imminent? Despite the rose colored glasses the right likes to portray the Reagan administration through, unemployment soared to 10.4% during his first two years in office. I was among the unemployed, and having been unemployed, I sympathize with anyone who finds themselves in that situation.  
            George H. W. Bush followed Reagan, who, had he not been a popular president and was by the end of his term obviously in at least the early stages of Alzheimer’s, would have been impeached for the Iran-Contra affair. There’s reason to believe Bush, as the former head of the CIA, was at least aware of Iran-Contra, but he pardoned enough people to escape the taint.
            I once saw Gore Vidal describe the Bush family as a bunch of thieves. He said, “They’ll take whatever isn’t nailed down.” Vidal is not exactly a reliable source (and I’ve read a lot of his books), but the family does have a history of being involved in a lot of messy business and emerging looking squeaky clean. In his 2003 The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich, Max Wallace discusses Prescott Bush’s involvement with the Union Banking Corporation, which was a cloak operation laundering money for Germany’s Thuyssen family, which was instrumental in financing Hitler’s rise to power and supplied much of the steel used to prosecute the war. There were ties to other German companies as well, and the laundering went on well after Germany declared war on the U.S. In order to “save the family’s honor,” George H. W. Bush abandoned plans to attend Yale and joined the Navy, and Prescott agreed to spy for the OSS. Voila! War hero and squeaky clean. John Loftus, a former Justice Department Nazi war crimes investigator is familiar with the Bush family’s wartime activities and concludes, “The Bush family fortune that helped put two members of the family in the White House can be traced directly to the Third Reich.”
            In 1992 Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush, and the Republican party reacted as if the natural order of the universe had been overturned. Rush Limbaugh, who had taken advantage of the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine to build a small conservative cult, went into overdrive with his coarse criticisms of Clinton and his family, including their then teenage daughter. In 1996 Fox News began broadcasting. In spite of Clinton’s bending over backwards (and sometimes just bending over) to accommodate Republicans, they refused to accept his administration as legitimate. Serial philanderers Bob Livingston and Newt Gingrich publicized every sexual misstep Clinton ever made in his life. Finally, they glommed onto Monica Lewinsky. As Skidmore says, Republicans finally found something Americans would pay attention to: Sex.
            In 2000 Americans were treated to what at the time I thought was the death knell for the Electoral College. Skidmore covers the shenanigans that went on in Florida, where George W. Bush’s brother was governor and Katherine Harris, the co-chair of W.’s Florida campaign, was also the secretary of state. Ballots were ambiguous. Even Patrick Buchanan said he’d received votes meant for Al Gore. In spite of what Florida voters wanted and the national popular vote, W. became president. And he may have made an adequate placeholder president, as had John Taylor and Millard Fillmore, but then came 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, which (a) had nothing to do with 9/11, (b) had no weapons of mass destruction, and (c) was not importing uranium from Africa or anywhere else. 9/11 was a handy excuse for such intrusions into Americans personal lives as the PATRIOT Act, and of course, no one wanted to seem unpatriotic and question such hallowed institutions as the Electoral College. I’ll skip the “Swift Boating” of John Kerry, a real hero of Vietnam and proceed to Barak Obama, America’s first black president.

            When Obama was elected, I, and I think the majority of the country were hopeful that America had taken a giant step toward racial healing. Man, were we ever naïve! In William Tuttle’s 1970 Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919, he attributes what he calls “status deprivation,” or the resentment of poorer whites toward blacks who have done well, as a major factor in the riot, which was instigated by whites who were upset that some blacks had “risen above their station.”
            Ninety years later a black man was president. How dare he?
            Republicans tapped into this resentment. Trump began his political career by questioning Obama’s citizenship. Add to this the Obama administration’s bailing out Wall Street and leaving Main Street subject to what Aaron Glantz calls in the title of his new book Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Managers, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream. I’ve only read the New York Review of Books writeup, but Glantz covers how the Obama administration subsidized the foreclosure of millions of homes, which were then sold at extremely discounted prices to vulture capitalists who now rent them, sometimes to former owners. These homes are given the same treatment vulture capitalists give companies they take over. No maintenance, rent until they fall apart, and then abandon them. In other words, the banks and Wall Street got socialism. Everyone else was left to deal with cutthroat capitalism. No wonder there was resentment. And so we come to the orange buffoon, another gift of the Electoral College.

            Before I get into Skidmore’s common sense suggestions, I want to discuss the protests now going on as a result of George Floyd’s being killed by police force in Minneapolis. In my opinion these protests are about more than the killing of yet another black person by police. People are pissed. Forty percent of people making $40,000 or less are out of jobs. They see the 1% riding out the coronavirus crisis in their gated communities, on their yachts, in their country homes, abandoning cities, etc. They see Ellen DeGeneres moaning about being confined to her palatial house as a gardener (who can’t do his job from home) works in the background. (Let me emphasize THEY see Ellen—I have a strict rule against television during the daytime, and I limit it at night to no more than a couple of hours, most of which is streamed.) They see people who can work from home who are actually in better shape financially because of the shutdown (and admittedly I’m one of them) while they must endanger their lives to feed their families. They see voting being made hazardous. (Missouri’s governor recently told people if they felt uncomfortable voting, don’t vote.) They see and probably experience difficulties getting unemployment benefits that were promised them as their bills and rent pile up. They see senators such as Lindsay Graham, who, without putting too fine a point on it, grew up white trash and resents when anyone who can’t help his career gets any benefits, bemoaning the $600 additional benefits the unemployed are promised because the poor might actually come out ahead. All the while, as Nicholas Kristoff wrote in the appropriately titled editorial “Crumbs for the Hungry, Windfalls for the Rich” in the May 24, 2020 New York Times, Congress, sneaked in a $135 billion provision to enable wealthy real estate developers to take tax breaks retroactive to 2017. Speculation is this benefits Trump and the Kushners. People, including those protesting George Floyd’s death, are suddenly being confronted with the fact that the democracy they thought they were living in is a kleptocracy.
            A popular meme these days is a flat pack guillotine from IKEA. It’s a joke. So far.
            To reiterate. The protests are about much more than the death of yet another black man at the hands of the police.

            Returning to Skidmore’s book, which was written before the pandemic, he has a chapter, “Why Does Poverty Still Exist in the World’s Richest Country?” In it he discusses how poverty is hidden from view, which it was until now. In the 2007-8 crisis, unemployment was handled over the internet, funds were credited to government-issued debit cards. It was all so discreet! This time it’s different. Harvesters handed out 8,000 meal boxes in one day recently at Kauffman Stadium. And that was one day. Hunger in America? Whodathunkit?
            He discusses the role of conservative Republicans and Christian evangelicals in keeping the poor poor. Let’s face it. When many of the upper crust think of the poor, they see cheap labor. I mentioned above Lindsay Graham’s objection to the $600 supplemental unemployment insurance, which will be expiring in about a month. The Wall Street Journal, that forum for the rich and mistreated, recently printed an article from Portland, Oregon restaurateur Kurt Huffman bemoaning the fact that his slaves, er, I mean employees weren’t champing at the bit to return to work for $15 an hour and tips totaling as much as an additional $1 an hour (his words, not mine). How dare his employees inconvenience him? I couldn’t help myself. I sent the following to the Journal:

  
Mr. Huffman claims he can’t reopen his restaurants until August 1 because he’d have to pay workers $25.40 to match what they are now getting on unemployment. A quick Google search reveals Mr. Huffman is Portland’s “leading restaurateur” and lists his favorite restaurant as St. John’s in London. But Mr. Huffman seemingly expects his employees, who are no doubt dealing with children at home and all the other issues everyone else is dealing with during this lockdown, to drop everything and return to work for him for $15 an hour plus maybe an extra buck for tips. 

The fact is Mr. Huffman can reopen his restaurants. All he has to do is pay his employees enough to make it worth working for him. If he paid, say, $30 an hour, he’d have no problem reopening. That’s roughly $60,000 per year, which is probably not a fantastic salary in a high cost area like Portland. Maybe he’d have to skip a trip or two to his favorite restaurant, but he’d have his restaurants open. 

Mr. Huffman is choosing to keep his restaurants closed. I’m reserving my sympathies for his employees.

            The letter, not surprisingly, did not get printed, but evidently I was not the only person who responded negatively to Mr. Huffman’s opinion piece. The Journal printed an editorial essentially saying they understood employees’ not wanting to take a loss to come back to work, but it was unfortunate that they had the option of doing so.
            Mr. Huffman and many like him don’t consider that the poor are people. If they think of them at all, they think of them as a labor pool, and the bigger that pool, the more competition for low wage jobs. It’s people like Mr. Huffman who make me think a Universal Basic Income is essential.
            And that brings me to Skidmore’s proposal that programs, to the greatest extent possible, be universal—not just directed to the poor. He gives Social Security and Medicare as examples. (By the way, he’s written several books on Social Security.) He says that when everyone benefits, few complain. The recent stimulus checks, for example, were not universal. Mine was not enough to buy a whole bag of dog food. I’m not complaining—I’d rather have that problem than really need the check, but you can see there is an opportunity for resentment among those who might like an extra $1200 for green fees.
            Skidmore concludes, “Whatever excuses may be offered, it is shameful for poverty to exist in a society as affluent as that of the United States.

            His chapter, “Modern Political Economy and Public Policy” is intriguing. He begins by pointing out conventional wisdom is often wrong. Take for example, “When times are tough, families have to tighten their belts. Government has to tighten its belt too.” This seems intuitive, and most people don’t give it much thought. But it’s demonstrably wrong. When the Great Depression hit, Herbert Hoover followed that mantra and the country turned its back on him. FDR followed and blew that mantra out of the water with deficit spending like the country had never seen before, followed by even more deficit spending during World War II, paving the way for an economic boom that was unprecedented. When the financial crisis hit in 2007-8, deficit spending once more paved the way for the longest bull market in history. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, that deficit spending helped Wall Street but not Main Street. Critics of that era bemoan too little deficit spending, not too much. In the current crisis once again, the country is resorting to deficit spending, and as happened with the financial crisis, deficit hawks are warning of runaway inflation. It didn’t happen then, and it’s not happening now. As I write this, 30-year U. S. Treasury bonds yield 1.47%, meaning actual investors don’t see inflation in our future. So while families may have to tighten their belts in hard times, government needs to do the reverse. In order to believe conventional wisdom, we’d have to ignore nearly a hundred years of economic history.
            Even more counterintuitive, Skidmore advocates planning programs that will do the job and ignoring the cost. He says this is the approach LBJ took with Medicare. And more than fifty years later, it’s still working. And then he gets into Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

            Stephanie Kelton is probably the most well-known of the MMTers. She taught at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and at one time MMT was referred to as the “Kansas City School” of economics. Alas, she got an offer she couldn’t refuse and UMKC wouldn’t match, and she’s now at Stony Brook University. Her book on MMT is due out this month. I’m looking forward to reading it, and I hope to be able to understand MMT.
            Essentially, as I understand it, as long as the U.S. has its own currency it controls the issuance of that currency, which is mostly digital these days. There’s no need to find money. It’s created as it was during the last financial crisis and for that matter during the New Deal.
            Now that the country is in yet another crisis, it’s time to use MMT to help those in need both for altruistic reasons and for selfish ones. Think about it. Conservatives are complaining that young people today are not settling down, buying homes, having children, etc. In fact, demographers have noted the U.S. birth rate of 1.7 is well below the replacement rate. Almost always, the reason is economic, and quite frequently student loans are the main reason. Who wants to buy a house (presuming they can qualify for a loan) and have children when they’re already drowning in debt? If student debt were to go away and future education were free, conservatives’ goal of encouraging family formation would be more realistic. Employers are not letting the current crisis go to waste—they’re getting rid of high paid older workers and leaving these people without health insurance. It’s time for universal health care, which would benefit employers. And so on. It amazes me that conservatives are so opposed to making life better for the masses that they lose sight of the fact that these programs would make life better for them as well.

            Skidmore begins his chapter “Crafting Public Policy in a Modern Political Economy” with FDR’s 1944 State of the Union speech in which he noted, “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” I’m writing this a few days after what passes for a president today announced he’d be calling on the military to quell unrest and followed his announcement with a clearing the streets of peaceful protesters in front of the White House by using tear gas (although the administration denies tear gas was used, Resaon.com, hardly a bastion of liberalism, noted, “it was a gaseous substance that caused tears”) so he could walk across the street and pose in front of an Episcopal church holding a Bible. He looked like an orange Mussolini to me. Add to that the fact that white supremacists have been documented to have posted incitements to riot on antifa websites, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a Reichstag burning somewhere.
            In his 1944 State of the Union Speech, FDR introduced and economic Bill of Rights, among which are:

            The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.
            The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
            The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.
            The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.
            The right of every family to a decent home.
            The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
            The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
            The right to a good education.

            More than seventy-five years later, we’ve not made much progress toward these goals.
            When FDR proposed this economic Bill of Rights we were still at war. He died the next year. Although Truman worked to enact the program, he was stymied when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in 1946 and gave us the likes of Richard Nixon and Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy. Skidmore discusses how we can finally get these rights—and more.
            He quotes Stephanie Kelton: Anything that is technically feasible is financially affordable. As a side note here I’m reminded of the Manhattan Project, which went from technically feasible to Hiroshima in about three years. He insists the government should do its job without “privatizing” it, including prisons, Medicare (referring to Medicare Advantage—I was tempted to sign up for it, but my advisor told me, “The reason they call it “Advantage” is insurers have the advantage,” and sure enough I’ve been reading some disturbing things about it), and other services. His proposals include Medicare for All, a Universal Basic Income (which was in another form once considered by Richard Nixon, by the way), free colleges, infrastructure repair (have you ever noticed “infrastructure” is, as Will Rogers said about the weather, something “everyone talks about but no one ever does anything about?” With the pandemic shutdown, this would be an opportune time for infrastructure repair, but… .), family leave and child care, an expanded Postal Service, and a Green New Deal.

            Skidmore opposes, as I believe any rational person would, the Electoral College. Now before anyone goes ballistic and tells me that if the Electoral College were abolished, California would determine every president, as Skidmore points out, Texas and Florida combined have more voters than California. Who’s to say the states of the Old Confederacy, not California, would determine the outcome? Regardless, if we’re to claim we are a democracy, we really need to let voters, not the Electoral College decide who wins the presidency. He has many examples of how Republicans, whom demographics do not favor, intend to retain power without a majority of voters supporting them. Those examples alone are worth reading the book. The book has several appendices, my favorite being “Appendix on Common Sense Self-Protection: Fighting is Wrong; Learn to Fight.” Before going further, I should tell you Skidmore has black belts in Tai Chi, Karate, and Jiu Jitsu, and he’s taught self-defense courses. The chapter starts as a conventional treatise on self-defense and concludes on voting as self-protection.
            And think about it. If there’s one lesson we should learn from the past four years is we need to vote cognizantly. It’s not enough to pout our way to the polls and elect someone without qualifications who is ignorant and a failure in his own life simply because he or she plays to our inner kindergartner.
            The book is a quick 266 pages, and it’s well worth reading--preferably before you go to the polls in November.                      

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