Saturday, December 17, 2016

What Happened: The Election of 2016

                First, full disclosure. I was not thrilled with any of the candidates this year. I planned to vote for Gary Johnson, but I switched my vote to Clinton when James Comey announced, eleven days before the election, that Clinton’s emails were being reinvestigated. That very morning I had been to a talk on the election. The speaker said Comey had said the Clinton email question had been resolved, and, the speaker said, “Comey is a Republican; you know if there were any possible way the emails would hurt Clinton, he would have announced it.” And that afternoon he did.
                I live in a part of Missouri that is heavily Democratic. If you look at an electoral map of Missouri, you’ll see three blue spots in a sea of red. One is Kansas City; the other two are Columbia, where the University of Missouri is, and St. Louis. Add to that my circle of friends, none of whom supported Trump (at least openly), and you can see Trump supporters were simply outside my universe. I knew none, so none were available to tell me why they were voting the way they did. The evening of the election I expected it to be an early night. Confirm a Clinton victory, see how many electoral votes she got, and go to bed. What a surprise.
                What happened?
                I’ve been asked this a lot since the election, and the honest answer (from me as well as from just about anyone else who claims to have the answers, I suspect) is: I don’t know.
                But I’ll throw out a few possibilities.
                First, I think people are still really angry about the Great Recession. The recession supposedly ended in June 2009, but for many people the recession has not ended. Even for those doing better, I’d say most will never recover the earnings lost during the recession.
                New York Times business writer Gretchen Morgenson wrote shortly after the election that Main Street did not forget that everyone who precipitated the recession—from those who made “liar loans” to those who sliced and diced the loan packages for sale as mortgage securities to those who rated those toxic securities triple-A to those who engaged in “robo-signing” when it came time to foreclose—everyone—got away with it. With the exception of Bernie Madoff (who was truly exceptional), not one person went to jail. Not one person had to pay penalties out of their own pocket. Everyone got away with it. Even Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo. Ms. Morgenson points out more than 800 people served time after the Savings and Loan disaster in the 1980s. 
                Add to the lack of accountability the government’s quick action to bail out the banks that made the mess. Taxpayers were on the hook for $700 billion. Taxpayers bailed out the banks, but what did taxpayers get in return? Seven million homes were foreclosed during the recession; 8.7 million jobs were lost. High rollers gambled and lost. Taxpayers came to their rescue. But who came to the rescue of the people really hurt by the recession?
                No one.
                Oh, the Obama administration came up with the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which provided financial incentives to modify loans, but it was completely voluntary. Not only did 90% of people whose homes were in danger of being foreclosed not get any help, banks seemed to consider it their job to make sure as few people got help as was possible. It seems they considered helping those in need a moral hazard that might set some sort of precedent. Never mind that the banks themselves had been rescued by taxpayers.
                I have a real estate license. In order to keep it active, I must take twelve hours of continuing education every two years. During the depths of the recession I heard tales of how difficult lenders were making closing short sales. Before the Recession I had New Century stock. New Century was a subprime lender that cratered. I had to recognize my losses and get on with my life. But most mortgage holders didn’t take that approach. They refused to recognize homes had fallen in value—often below the amount of the mortgage—and they refused to take their losses. As a result, people who might have been able to save their homes lost them, and those who might have been able to sell their homes for less than they owed on them were not able to, and many of them simply walked away from their homes and mailed the keys to their lenders, who were then stuck with maintenance costs, property taxes, and all the other expenses involved in owning a home. Some lenders, in Kansas City most notably Deutsche Bank, simply let properties deteriorate and did not pay property taxes, which resulted in local governments’ ultimately foreclosing for nonpayment of taxes and frequently tearing the houses down. Banks’ refusals to write down bad assets, in other words, wound up being expensive for taxpayers. And still no one’s been held accountable.    
                As the election was going on the tales of Wells Fargo’s opening fake accounts was ongoing. It turned out that 5,300 employees (including whistleblowers) had been fired. Many of those wound up with negative information on their employment records that prevented them from getting another job in the banking industry. Wells Fargo’s chief executive and its head of retail banking had to relinquish $60 million in stock but managed to walk away with more than $350 million between them. Wells Fargo has paid $185 million to settle claims—so far.
                Volkswagen was caught gaming emissions tests. 30,000 people worldwide will lose their jobs as a result of VW’s needing to cut costs. No one has gone to jail.
                In order to stimulate the economy interest rates have been near zero for eight years. Those of us who are savers and who rely on interest for a good portion of our income have had to sacrifice because of the recession as we see bonds we bought for the long term called, leaving us to reinvest at the Federal Reserve’s “accommodative” rates.
                These low interest rates have affected pensions—probably more than we know. Last year, for example, the Central States Pension Fund told its 270,000 retirees their pensions would have to be cut—some up to 50%. These are people who are retired and who can’t just go out and get a job to make up the difference. Watch for more shoes to drop.
                Social Security cost-of-living raises have been between zero and next to nothing since the recession began—supposedly because inflation has been low. And yet my water bill has quadrupled and my property taxes and health insurance go up every year.
                You can see why some people might have been moved by Trump’s assertion that the system is rigged. The rich get bailed out by the government, and the poor lose their homes and their jobs. Others have to swallow cuts in their income. Is there any real doubt the system IS rigged?
                And would Hillary Clinton’s cozy relationship with Goldman Sachs, for whom she made three speeches and was paid $675,000, possibly have made some who are still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession a little uneasy? Maybe her on-again, off-again position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership made people wonder if she had a consistent position on anything.
                Perhaps Bernie Sander’s primary campaign, which highlighted how primary voters’ wishes were easily outweighed by “super delegates,” convinced Bernie’s supporters the nominating system is rigged.
                And, Geez! Mrs. Clinton’s calling half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables?” Now, that ranks right up there with Mitt Romney’s calling 47% of Americans “takers.” Except Romney didn’t know he was being taped.   
                Next, some people have become offended by the actions of those of us who are LGBT. We are rapidly moving into the mainstream. Remember in 2004 when all eleven bans on gay marriage passed by wide margins? (Ours in Missouri—a constitutional amendment, no less, passed 71%-29%.) Last year, when the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal, a Gallup poll showed 60% support for that decision. We made a lot of progress in just eleven years. But we pushed our luck.
                In Political Frugality, I told about Jeannie, the former friend who could never be satisfied or happy. She’d want me to do something. Just when I thought I’d met her need and could get on with my life, there was always something else. I eventually had to recognize the friendship was toxic and end it. Well, I think the same is true with LGBT issues. We got gay marriage. That’s a biggie. It gives us access to the financial and legal benefits of marriage. Assuming, though, that we have 60% support for gay marriage, that means 40% still oppose it. In my opinion, in another generation, they’ll change their minds or be dying off. Eventually gay marriage will be the nonissue interracial marriage is today. We need to give people a breather and choose our battles wisely.
                If you’re discriminated against for employment or housing, feel free to cry bloody murder. But a wedding cake? Caterers? Florists? Photographers? C’mon. Grow up already.
                The wedding-industrial complex is large, highly profitable, and highly competitive. Good grief. If someone doesn’t want to bake you a cake, find someone who does. Would you want someone who opposes your lifestyle anywhere near your food? And do you really want your gay money supporting those who don’t like you for who you are?
                We need to recognize many people belong to churches that have taught them homosexuality is wrong and those who practice it are doomed to hell. We don’t share those beliefs, of course, but they’re as real to those folks as our beliefs are to us. Let them get to know us. Let them get to see we’re not the monsters they’ve been led to believe we are. And let them see our money going to their competitors. Money, after all, is this country’s true religion.
                Forcing our beliefs on trivial issues such as cakes, florists, caterers, photographers, etc. probably angered social conservatives enough that they overlooked Trump’s rather tenuous relationship with religion. (Three wives?) The courts that took these issues seriously (including awarding $135,000 to a couple denied a cake in Oregon) may well have made some Catholic and fundamentalist Christians believe the system is rigged against them, too.
                And then there’s the bathroom issue. I sympathize with transgendered people, and I believe the best solution would be a separate bathroom for them; however, that costs money, and sometimes the money is just not there. So, is it better for one person to be uncomfortable when using the bathroom or is it better for one person to make many people uncomfortable? As long as there is a door on the stall, is it really a big deal to go into a bathroom, close the door, and do your thing? By the way, if you’re uncomfortable sharing a bathroom with people of the opposite sex, don’t go to France, where, if the line for the women’s bathroom is long, they simply use the men’s facilities. You get used to it.
                Anyway, perhaps people have had a difficult time hearing so much about bathrooms lately.
                And then we have the issue of political correctness, especially on college campuses. I entered college in 1966. At freshman orientation we were told our beliefs would be challenged, and we may well graduate not only with different political views, but we may question our religions as well.
                Fast forward to the present day. No one wants to hear views they don’t already agree with. College is designated as a “safe space,” where no one is ever confronted with challenging views. Last year a couple of professors at Yale questioned whether the university should police Halloween costumes and advised, “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” This started a series of protests that included students’ shouting obscenities at the professors (so much for sensitivity) who stepped down from some of their duties at Yale. Too many speakers at colleges have been “disinvited,” or worse, shouted down for having views that challenge students’ preconceptions, which in some cases is called “invading their safe space.”
                To add to the coddling some colleges provide “trigger warnings” regarding literature assignments. For example, a student reading Huckleberry Finn, written in 1884, would be warned about the use of the n-word. Someone reading Peyton Place or even Gone with the Wind would be warned the books involve sexual assaults. It’s as if college students believe the world always adhered to twenty-first century ideals of morality and sensitivity. (Trigger warning: It didn’t.)
                This belief is leading to the defacing and removal of historical monuments—most notably those pertaining to the Civil War. (Trigger warning: The Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865; it happened, and many southerners, some of whom who owned slaves, fought in the war, were considered heroes, and monuments were built to them.) The Harvard Law School shield was changed to omit any reference to the Royall family, who owned slaves in the Eighteenth Century. (Trigger warning: Slavery was legal in the Eighteenth Century, not only in the colonies but in the mother country, which outlawed it in 1833.) Princeton students want the name of Woodrow Wilson removed from a building named after him because the former president of the college was a racist. (Trigger warning: Wilson was indeed a racist and generally a nasty piece of work, but he did become President of the United States; I’d say keep the name and put up a plaque detailing how he suspended civil liberties during World War I and hope our President-elect doesn’t do the same.) A similar controversy at Yale involved the John C. Calhoun building. (Trigger warning: Google him yourself.)
                My point in bringing up all these instances of overreach and campus trivia is to focus on what some of us have been considering Important Issues. But take another look at them—wedding cakes for gays, which bathrooms transgendered people should be able to use, campus speakers, Halloween costumes, historic monuments, building names, etc. If you consider what these issues mean to most of America, you’ll find, frankly, my dear, most people just don’t give a damn. Most people are concerned with living day to day, making enough in a difficult economy to feed their families, nursing their old car along because they can’t afford a new one, dealing with aging parents and possibly boomerang kids. When they hear those privileged enough to attend college raging about these issues, they no doubt think, “WTF?”
                Shortly after the election a letter from Edward Warren of Cambridge, Massachusetts to the New York Times summed up what he thought happened succinctly. He’s building a cabin in northern New Hampshire. He’s gotten to know his neighbors in New Hampshire, and he writes, “While my Harvard Kennedy School classmates tend to talk about microaggressions and systemic bias, my rural neighbors deal with opioid addiction, unfulfilling jobs and PTSD from a war they fought for a country that seems to be moving on without them.” 
                In another era, these people would be coming after authority figures with pitchforks. We can thank cable TV and Netflix for keeping them home and occupied watching The Walking Dead. But we can’t really blame them for voting for change.
I am hoping for the best, but it’s difficult to be hopeful with nominees like Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, an organization he’s sued early and often (possibly on behalf of Devon Industry, whose 50-story building dominates the downtown Oklahoma City skyline), former Texas Governor Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy, an agency he campaigned to eliminate (Pruitt’s  and Perry’s nominations remind me of Ronald Reagan’s nominating James Watt for Secretary of Interior), and Exxon president Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State (who brings to mind Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles E. Wilson, former president of General Motors, who when asked about potential conflicts of interest, simply said what’s good for General Motors is good for America—prompting “L’il Abner” cartoonist Al Capp to invent General Bullmoose who believed “What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA”).  Betsy Prince DeVos, who is married to the Amway cult—er, MLM heir and whose brother, Eric, founded the military contractor Blackwater, will be Secretary of Education.
                It’s going to be an interesting four years.

                One last thing. This was the fifth election in which the winner of the popular vote did not win the electoral vote. With the exception of the election of 1824 (before there was a Republican party), every one of these elections has gone to Republicans. It’s high time something was done about the Electoral College. (I’m amazed it survived the election of 2000.)
                We may not be able to get the Electoral College eliminated, but we can change the system state-by-state. Nebraska and Maine split their electoral votes. Let’s start lobbying our state representatives to do the same in the other forty-eight states.

                Up next: The Universal Basic Income.

© 2016 Larry Roth

1 comment:

  1. I had to think on your suggestion for the Electoral College and after heading back to read Hamilton's contributions to "The Federalist Papers" I have to admit I will never be at ease giving California and New York the power to decide all national elections. I can get on board with each state moving from "winner take all" to apportioning the available electoral votes by each candidates vote total in that state. Unfortunately because of population variances, I can still foresee the possibility of an EC winner not winning the popular vote. But since the Presidential election is only national because 50 separate state elections take place on the same day, I do not lose sleep over that discrepancy, or feel strongly enough to march over it either. Hail Federalism - and let the states sort out their own affairs.