Service Records

January 30, 2017

How presidents served the U.S. before taking office (prior to 2016):

 

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt was secretary of war, governor of New York, and a loyal Democrat in New York City
  • Harry S. Truman was an officer in charge of an elite artillery unit during World War I, served as a U.S. Senator, and audited military spending as chair of a congressional committee, weeding out corruption and waste
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower attended West Point, became a career Army officer, and eventually presided over D-Day as commander of Allied forces in World War II
  • John F. Kennedy served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, commanding PT-109 in the Pacific Theater, and served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts
  • Lyndon B. Johnson served as a congressman, senator, and majority leader from his home state of Texas, and later vice president of the United States
  • Richard M. Nixon served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, later as both congressman and senator from California, before becoming vice president under Eisenhower
  • Jimmy Carter was a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine commander before and during the Vietnam war, and later became governor of Georgia
  • Gerald R. Ford served in the Pacific as an officer on the carrier USS Monterey, earning numerous medals for valor, before becoming a long term Michigan congressman and house majority leader, and finally, vice president under Nixon
  • George H.W. Bush was a Navy pilot during World War II, once ditching his plane during a crash landing on a carrier, was head of the CIA, and served as vice president under Ronald Reagan
  • Ronald Reagan served in the U.S. Army Reserve during World War II, was governor of California, and president of the Screen Actor’s Guild
  • Bill Clinton objected to the Vietnam war and the draft, but entered the draft after two deferments during his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford; he served as governor of Arkansas for more than ten years
  • George W. Bush served briefly in the Texas Army Reserve, then as governor of Texas
  • Barack Obama served in the Illinois legislature as a three-term senator before being elected U.S. Senator from that state in 2004

 

Donald Trump is the first president of the United States never to have served his country in either government or military positions prior to his election. He has filed for bankruptcy six times, been sued for discrimination against minorities in his real estate business, bragged about not paying U.S. income taxes for more than a decade, and settled a class action suit for business fraud in connection with Trump University.

Let’s look at what our current president thinks he is presiding over, because it doesn’t resemble what most of us would recognize as the country we reside in.

  1. It has the demographics of United States in the 1950s, when our president was growing up: majority white, middle class, and prosperous in contrast to much of the world, which is recovering from a terrible war.
  2. Canada, Mexico, Central and South America are insignificant, off the radar screen. They aren’t part of America.
  3. There are heroes and villains, and things are black and white.
  4. And speaking of black and white: blacks are all but invisible: segregation is the rule that people of color live by, and suffer under. Racism is tolerated in both the north and the south, though in different forms.
  5. America is an equal opportunity society, where hard work matters and many in the majority are able to afford college, a house, and a nice vacation.
  6. The working class is a viable force in labor and politics. Politicians respect labor leaders and must negotiate serious contracts for workers in most industrial markets.
  7. Congress works according to political machines that distribute power among elite groups like banks, businesses, industry, and real estate, as long as alliances are maintained, often with money under the table.
  8. The media is a quiet, silent partner in maintaining this fictional order, reporting on what elite leaders do and keeping silent about their moral shortcomings.
  9. American industry stands atop the pyramid of world production and quality; it has no serious competition. The same is true with the military, agriculture, banking, education, and culture.
  10. America is an imperialist superpower, with no threats to its hegemony. Even the USSR is puny by comparison (though many U.S. politician fear its leaders).

Our president believes in this fictional version of the country we live in. No wonder he can’t govern or recognize the challenges we face. His press conferences are part of this fake universe, as are his fiats and executive orders. He deals with a fake Congress and a fake judiciary. The media are presenting an alternate truth, and one that he can’t tolerate. Even the earth isn’t cooperating: fake temperatures are a lot cooler than those we feel every day. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could live in fake America? It would be fabulous, great, awesome, huge.

I know that neuroscientists scoff at the idea that our visual cortex receives all the information that would allow us to draw a picture of the scene in front of us–our visual field does not represent reality. I also know that physicists are positing alternate universes that exist inside black holes, and that space-time is relative to our location in our universe. I like to read fantasy stories because they take me away from the harsh “reality” that I feel around me. These things are part of being alive in the twenty-first century.

There is something malevolent about the shifting ground of “truth” in our troubled political and media spaces. After the president-elect’s surreal news conference, many commentators were talking about an alternate reality that is being manipulated through the media, forcing even honest journalists to come to terms with lies so transparent as to beggar belief. During the horrible campaign many simply felt that whoever shouted loudest, no matter his/her veracity, would be “believed” by the dumbfounded “public.” Of course, Russian hackers were fully aware of this new media arena and deftly used it to tilt the election toward their candidate.

The “Alt-Right” has indeed created its own “Alt-World.” Yet even that world seems outside the consciousness of the one human being who, as the most powerful leader on earth, needs to be grounded in a “reality” that acknowledges the dangers and opportunities we face as a nation. It is truly terrifying to realize that he is in a world of his own, and doesn’t want to leave.

Giga-mansions & Tera-condos

January 4, 2016

The super-rich continue to grab headlines with monotonous regularity in papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Their Sunday magazine and real estate sections feature full page ads for condominiums in the new “needle towers” that years ago would have provoked astonishment: penthouses for $85, $90, $110 million. Today we are hardly impressed with such gluttonous excess. The public understands that the sprawling world Monopoly board includes New York’s luxury condos, Beverly Hills’ mansions, and Paris’s historic hotels particuliers.  Why shouldn’t Arab oil princes and Chinese internet moguls have their fun with real estate speculation in the world’s hot cities?

Last month I noted with disgust the blood feuds developing in Southern California over the size of houses in one of the region’s star communities: Bel Air. Apparently this exclusive group of mansions, once owned by the likes of Cary Grant and Za Za Gabor, has now become a hunting ground for developers such as Mohamed Hadid. He considers lots there to be “the cheapest in the world.” He lives in a 48,000 square foot home called “La Belevedere.” And he is being sued by neighbors for putting up what can only be called a “giga-mansion” nearby.

Apparently even the super-rich can be shocked by tasteless, garish domestic excess. Hadid has a shell company that has constructed what many in Bel Air call “the Starship Enterprise,” a 70-foot tall house on a steep hill that stands, half-built, in the center of town. His company has been cited for building code and zoning violations. He seems unconcerned.

A shell company shields developers and their clients from prying eyes and legal challenges by not only neighbors but also government entities. The Times found hundreds of such companies operating in Manhattan, and has now discovered a similar pattern of secrecy in California real estate sales to foreign buyers with shady backgrounds.

Americans expect to see headlines about African warlords holing up in Paris or London to escape prosecution in their native countries. Foreign (and domestic) criminals with large Swiss bank accounts are now decamping on our soil, and for them size clearly matters. Forget large and extra large. The giga-mansion is the new standard.

 

Money Makes Money

January 28, 2015

“It takes money to make money”–the old adage continues to resonate in the 21st century as new capitalists use their funds to make mountains of mammon, climbing over the poor and the middle class as they do so. The New York Times has been running articles about a new form of loan “securitization” that bundles bad car loans made to the most desperate of the working poor. The technique was perfected by hedge funds during the financial crisis before 2008 with, you guessed it, mortgages to low income folks.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone; certainly not the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, who watch Wall Street with awe and don’t usually probe too deeply into fraudulent practices or outright thievery. The Koch brothers are proving that with enough capital they can buy the entire US political system–they’re spending $800 million in an off election year to make sure things like the Keystone Pipeline (of which they are majority owners) will pass Congress without a veto.

I have been reading, slowly, the extraordinary book by Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century. Though I am no math whiz, it is clear from the simplest of his formulas that nothing we’ve seen since the 1980s will slow the inexorable march of crony capitalism, political corruption, and gaping inequality. This is because the rate of return on capital is higher than the national incomes and outputs of developed countries. When this happens, Picketty points out, capitalists with inherited or existing wealth will shake their moneymakers to the tune of billions, producing more billions. Only those with money will make money. The vast majority of us will starve.

The temptation, even necessity, of getting high returns from all sorts of portfolios–think securitized mortgage obligations–will drive the richest countries’ economies until we recognize that taxing these returns must happen in order to achieve a balance of income between the richest and the poorest in our world. Inequality is the result of our intransigence in the face of capitalist excess. If we govern by the people and for the people, we need to curtail this rampage by our “privileged few.”

Inequality Is Obscene

March 15, 2014

Today’s New York Times put America’s biggest problem in the starkest of terms: naked truth; moral turpitude; the kind of language used by the far right to describe just about anything it deems distasteful.

According to Charles M. Blow, the income chasm is “an obscenity” that is pulling the United States downward and threatening the quality of life of nearly every American. All, that is, except the .01 percent who control over 10% of the country’s income, and the 10% who can claim a 48% share.  Meanwhile, over 17% of Americans had trouble putting food on their tables last year. Millions struggled to maintain a “middle class” standard of living.

The U.S. now ranks number one in income inequality worldwide. I remember when our nation stood for fairness, opportunity, and self-sufficiency for all. I grew up during the 1960s, when most Americans believed in the common good, and aspired to the Americana Dream. Nearly everything in popular culture then was positive, future oriented, and confident.

Today popular culture is rife with the metaphors of greed, self-aggrandizement, and violent competition. When the American Dream is invoked, only the rich qualify for inclusion. Television is awash in reality contests that glorify money, fame, and screwing the little people in a race to the top.

The cultural landscape is changing dramatically and many Americans seem content to stand by while their core values erode. In so doing they open the doors to further exploitation by an oligarchy that hides behind prurient, conservative institutions such as the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Remember that though Spanish Inquisition was an organ of the Roman Catholic Church, its obscenities were patent.

We can stop this downward slide toward poverty and cultural bankruptcy. But first we need to change our complacency toward ethical standards, truth telling, and the Golden Rule. These things make equality possible.