Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Frank Rich has written a singularly depressing piece in New York Magazine, TheTea Party Will Win in the End.  Most disturbing is that it rings so true, that it tells a story many of us don’t want to believe.  We liberals like to think that history is on our side, and while Rich didn’t quite put it that way, it’s perhaps that we aren’t reading history carefully enough.  Or, and that is true for most people these days on all sides, we read selectively and subjectively.  We hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see.  I plead as guilty to that as anyone else. 

I have long been troubled by how easily liberals are disheartened.  We seem incapable of taking the slightest setback, the mildest punch and, much worse, we seem to tire of the game almost before it starts.  In that, we sadly act more like juveniles than grownups, pouting that one or more of our heroes is not living up to our expectations or thinking that the occasional rant against politicians, big business and the Koch brothers is all that’s required.  We are especially reliant on the hero of the moment, our surrogate.  It’s all up to her or him.  We expect the hero to carry the full burden, 100%.  Once in place, our work is done.  Except of course, we feel fully empowered to chide that hero for letting us down.  Sound familiar? 

We abdicate our own responsibility because in the end we have little or no substantive skin in the game.  Four years ago, Democrats “were fired up and ready to go”.  This year, not so much.  Pardon me; are the stakes any lower in 2012 than they were in ’08?  I’d argue they might well be much higher.  Were we on the case last time around because it was the fashion or flavor of the moment, that must-read best seller, hot Broadway ticket or latest fad diet?  Were we really “fired up” or was that an act, something we could boast about at social gatherings?  Was this some kind of teenage flirt, with no staying power?  Forget that this is all about him, all about them.  It’s all about us and, accept or not, it is we who should be our own greatest disappointment.

Frank Rich thinks the right is winning.  My takeaway of his analysis is that, unlike us, they are determined long distance runners.  They don’t perceive setbacks as defeat but as momentary bumps on the road.  Their attention isn’t taken up with the 3 or 5K race, but with the Marathon.  A big part of their game plan, your might remember, is to take hold of local and statewide offices.  That takes patience, an incremental effort with below-the-radar victories to be won.  It is a strategy that has had devastating results in the places like North Carolina where a newly turned legislature pushed through a horrendous marriage amendment that Spring primary voters recently added to the state constitution.

Even so, my own view is that what liberals and Democrats in general suffer is not so much tactical deficit — we aren’t talking those small races seriously — but a serious passion-gap.  I think that President Obama’s disastrous first debate performance was a metaphor for our own problem more than his.  Say what you might about the Tea Party phenomenon of 2010 and what really drove them, these people had great passion.  Many believe the Teas represented a backlash against Obama’s first two years, tokened especially by the Affordable Car Act.  I don’t buy it for one minute.  What raised so much passion in Republican rightist ranks was not what the new president accomplished, but rather that he was elected in the first place.

And, while it’s impossible to discount a modicum of underlying racism, the problem with the 2008 election was that it represented such a slap in the face.  Remember Obama didn’t only prevail.  He brought with him both the Senate and a significant House majority.  Pundits on the mornings after couldn’t stop talking and prognosticating about the “death” of the Republican Party.  Destined to be a fringe minority for years to come, they had finally been done in by superior Democratic ground forces and, yes, money.

So it’s hardly surprising that it was the “fringe” that rose up in places as unlikely as Massachusetts turning the sacrosanct Kennedy seat over to their darling Scott Brown.  While Democrats couldn’t get enough of the wonderful news that they would hold power for a generation to come, Tea Party members and their acolyte influentials drove forward with passion.  They used whatever tools they could find, said whatever worked for their case and most of all spoke to a growing and very palpable frustration in the land.  That “hope” hadn’t translated into instant recovery may have been their best ally, but it was the passion that ultimately won the day.

If Obama’s debate performance is a metaphor for our lack of passion, the Occupy “movement” — the word is hardly justified — stands as proof of what’s missing.  Some will reject that view, but only if they fail to soberly look at the facts.  For one thing, Occupy was extremely short lived, and short-handed.  It couldn’t even muster itself into any kind of regularized activity in this crucial election year.  And don’t call its few little of-the-moment gasps activity.  Yes, Occupy raised awareness of the 99%, but it failed to rally that huge constancy, much less any meaningful small one.  That is particularly notable because the questions it raised are real and the frustration among working and middleclass Americans is so immediate.

Truth is, we seem to have no real passion, certainly none comparable to those on the right.  Even George Soros of the left, apparently out of some pique, is mostly sitting on the sidelines this year just at the moment when his fellow billionaires on right are pouring unprecedented financial support into Republican races, including again many at the local level.

I am a great believer in passion.  Passion is what separates the dilettante from the serious.  The former flits in an out, is a fair weather friend.  The latter gets the job done, whatever the cost.  It’s the difference between having a fleeting interest and laser like focus.  Passion marks the successful, regardless of what the endeavor or discipline may be.  That’s what makes passion so very hard, if not impossible, to conquer.  And here is a problem.  There are no classes for passion, no on-line site with how to instructions.  Passion can’t be taught and can’t really be learned.  It is always self-generated.  Passion is something we have to take hold of by ourselves and those who have it tend to live richer and more fulfilled lives.  We need passion in ourselves and in our corner.  Liberals suffer a passion-gap relative to conservatives.  Wish I knew how to turn that around.

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For more read my book.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Mitt Romney claims he’ll deliver 12 million jobs.  Leaving aside that presidents actually have little ability to deliver anything but government jobs, one wonders exactly how he will fulfill that promise.  But hey, specifics and math seem irrelevant in his campaign.  What we do know is that, above all else, the former governor believes strongly in two things: low taxes and free enterprise.  So deep are these beliefs that they have taken on almost mythic proportions. 

Long and deeply interested in myth, I have one question about taxes for the candidate and one small observation about free enterprise relative to being the engine of job growth.  First the question, and it’s kind of personal.  It’s one I would pose at this week’s debate. 

So Mr. Romney, we see from the limited information you’ve provided that you are currently paying a relatively low tax rate, about 14%.  You say that’s been about your average over the last decade.  We’ll take your word on that, this despite the absence of that pesky math and specifics.  Now we also know that one of the reasons for your modest tax bill is that a good chunk of your assets and their earnings are sheltered offshore.  So tell me, governor, considering this low tax rate and the money you’ve shipped abroad on a fairly sustaining level, what new American jobs have come out it?  How exactly are you creating jobs by paying so little in taxes?

I’m imagining the “answer” will come in the form of changing the subject, talking about the myth of low taxes not the reality of specifics.  Why?  Because Mitt Romney, even when he was in business, has never focused on, or had much experience with, job creation.  Private equity’s principal concern is generating the largest possible return–on-investment.  That often comes from reducing expenses — jobs always being a big part of those expenses.  Romney has shown his willingness to fire people, most recently some hypothetical private insurance company that wasn't performing for him.

Now to the observation and that is more general.  As noted in a previous post, Governor Romney used his platform at the Clinton Initiative in September to laud free enterprise.  It’s a theme that has run through his campaign, one consistent with a long term Republican message.  Of course Romney portrays himself as its embodiment.  Being a businessman is his primary qualification for being a good president.  Get the government out of our way — keep taxes low and send regulation out to pasture.  The economy will thrive.  Let’s stipulate that the free market economy has been central to the American success story.  Private sector jobs are and have always been an engine of our growth growth.  But here is the myth-breaking rub.

The story Republicans like to tell is that it’s the government, specifically the federal government, that is responsible for the loss of American manufacturing.  Without question, the reasons for the decline of manufacturing are complicated and government policy from taxes to regulation and tariffs do come into play.  But to my knowledge the government has not sent a single job overseas or shuttered one American plant.  When the now discredited John Edwards talked tear-eyed about the job his father lost in a South Carolina mill, it was the owners of that enterprise that both farmed out the work overseas and then shuttered the facility.   

That happened across so many industries, from textiles and furniture in the South to steel and appliances up North.  Let’s even accept the contention that big bad unions played a role by demanding wages that were no longer competitive.  But it was free enterprise’s — company management's decision to maximize profits by exploiting cheap foreign labor that killed all those plants.  It wasn’t the government that made cars many of us didn’t want, ones that couldn’t compete on fuel millage or quality.  And speaking of consumers, the other side of free enterprise, these are the people who freely traded in their Chevy for a Toyota and their Lincoln for a Mercedes. They weren't fulfilling some government request or mandate.   So the myth that all will be well if we simply turn everything over to unrestricted free enterprise is, well exactly that, a myth.

Taxes are lower today then they were under Bill Clinton — they have been for twelve years, thanks mostly to George Bush and the Republican.  Romney pays a low 14%. The economy is still struggling and the deficit is staggering.  Much of what we use is made in China, Korea or other parts of the world.  Those jobs were shipped abroad by American companies like Apple and of course by the demands of Walmart whose role in systematically killing our manufacturing and jobs has been widely reported.  Again, the government didn’t employ those now fired domestic workers or own those factories private enterprise did.  Somehow this particular arithmetic and set of facts just doesn’t get any airtime from Romney or, for that matter, from the press.  But hey, it’s just not as interesting a story as who is up and who is down.

It’s a truism to say we’re facing an important election and that who we are and will be as a nation is on the table.  Well, that one surely isn't a myth.

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For more read my book.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Take note!

Nearly one in three (32%) American Millennials (18-29) are living without religion in their lives.  That’s a major finding of a just released study from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  Stunning is that just four years ago that number stood at one in four (25%).  Indeed, those classified by Pew as “Nones” (I call them “Transcenders”) across all age groups have risen from 16% to nearly 20% of the population in the same four year period.  Aside from other (non-Christian) religions (6%), only Transcenders have grown in the entire religious landscape (and they have grown much more).  Religion’s decline is most noteworthy among the Protestants who, at 48%, no longer have majority for the first time since the founding of the Republic. 

Pew Center proprietary research
In reporting its Landmark Study four years ago, Pew researchers pointed out that being unchurched did not necessarily mean that the “nones had permanently given up on religion.  Even today only about 6% consider themselves atheists or agnostics.  Two-thirds have some god belief, though less than half of them a belief of absolute certainty.  I have always been skeptical about poll responses to the “God question”.  How can one really get a totally candidate or uncolored answer in an environment where God is so entrenched in the language (God bless you, God bless the United States of America)?  Invoking God has become pro-forma, almost a marker, a passport, of good citizenship.  How much substance that has is questionable.  So more significant to me is that in the 2012 study, 88% of respondents say they are not looking for any religious affiliation.  In short they are satisfied to be declared Transcenders and are  not turning back.

Alienation from religion seems to be accelerating.  It took ten years (1998-2008) to move eight percentage points from 8-16%, but only four to move up from there to 20%.  Neither the absolute numbers nor the trend surprises me at all.  Both are consistent with my own study of the subject over the last decade and with my own experiences.  They are exactly what prompted me to write my book on the Transcenders. 

The Pew researchers list a number of reasons for the increasing abandonment of religion — political, social and ideological — all of them confirmed in part by aspects of their own study.  I have suggested that those who have moved beyond religion are responding to a series of “alienators”.  For sure, some people have left religion behind because they no longer believe in its teachings or never did.  The predatory priest scandal and cover-up in the Catholic Church, the draconian behavior of Taliban-like Muslims and the land grab by Orthodox Jews on the West Bank have turned people off inside and outside of those religions.  Attitudes of sexism (tokened first by a he-god), homophobia and the denial of science may also play a role.  That religion separates us at a time when the world is opening up and becoming more inclusive can't be discounted.  But no single alienator or group of alienators fits all.  These are very personal decisions.

The point is that Pew’s research quantifies the large number of us that now live without religion and affirms that this number is growing.  Regardless of the specifics that any one of us could site, this is not some overnight wonder, but long in the making.  Alienation or at least distancing has been going on below the radar for as long as I can remember.  When I served as a rabbi in the 1960s, it was clear that a good percentage of our congregational members had what was in all honesty a most tangential relationship to religion.  They may have sincerely and proudly identified — most especially for Jews in the immediate post Hitler era — but they attended worship infrequently, often but once a year.  They may have paid lip service to their faith, but functionally it was remote from their daily lives. 

To say they lived a lie would be unjust, but inescapably their interaction with religion can only be described as inconsistent.   This reality was there for anyone to see and both they themselves and more importantly their children and grandchildren were first hand observers throughout.  Now in a time less hospitable to charade, the proverbial chickens have come to roost.  I see it as only a delayed but inevitable reaction.  Just consider how this Pew study fits into its logical place for you, globally and perhaps personally.

There is also a political side to all of this, a story that remains pretty well in the background.  Over the past decade, religion and specifically the religious right has received an inordinate amount of attention and airtime.  God and religion have been treated as the unquestioned default.  Just think back a few weeks to the big deal made of the Democratic platform not including God in its language.  A rapid-fire insertion aborted a potential cause célèbre.  To some considerable degree this is all based on an American religiosity myth sustained by the self-interested religious or those intimidated by threats of retribution.  It may surprise you in that regard that Pew’s numbers show as many Transcenders as White Evangelicals, the first on the numerical rise and the second in some decline.

Aside from covering stories on this and other Pew studies, or similar ones by other organizations, there is little public discourse about Transcenders.  The Presidential and other campaigns pay huge deference to religion and religious groups but give at best (and infrequently) a nod to “nonbelievers”.  Transcenders, Pew suggests, skew more Democratic than Republican, but there are certainly people in both parties who have openly or functionally walked away from religion.  What is clear is that no one seems to be taking account of this important group of voters.  These are people who are beginning to say, “what about me and my beliefs?”  The present neglect may have consequences in the future.

Much has been made since the election of Barack Obama about “change”.  The word means different things to different people; for some it is merely a catchy slogan.  Others, myself included, take change very seriously.   All these millions of Transcenders represent a substantive change in the American landscape.  As Mrs. Willy Loman might put it, “attention must be paid.”

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For more read my book.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Scalia's law.

In the chapter on truth in my recently published e-book, Transcenders, I wrote,
In February of 2005 Justice Antonin Scalia admonished a lawyer from the bench for saying the Ten Commandments (whose placement on public ground was in question) “were a foundation of American Law”, by stating rather that “[our] Law…comes from God.”  He was imposing a pretty substantial claim for the Constitution.
This was of course said in the context of the 50 Million plus of us who have left religion behind.  But I was reminded of it when reading about Scalia’s new book, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, and in watching several of his related TV appearances.

In one such interview, the Justice told Margaret Warner of The News Hour, “I have been very much devoted to textualism and to that branch of textualism that's called originalism. That is, you not only use the text, but you give the text the meaning it had when it was adopted by the Congress, or by the people, if it's a constitutional provision.” 

Antonin Scalia, in large measure because of his outsized personality on and off the bench, has become the emblematic judicial conservative, perhaps more so than any other in modern times.  Nonetheless, the fact that he is such a hero to political right — he would not deny being one of them — may be only secondary to what makes him tick philosophically, a bi-product not the root cause.  I’d suggest that his 2005 pronouncement about the foundation of American law is especially revealing.  In fact, it opens an essential window into the underlying foundation of textualism — more a religious than political orientation.

Scalia, like five other members of the Court is a Roman Catholic.  Lest I be misunderstood, his or any other member’s faith (three current justices are Jewish) has absolutely to bearing on his qualifications to serve and to do so honorably.  How we perceive Scalia or any other justice for that matter may be colored by our own political or philosophical point of view, but that judgment (certainly in my case) has nothing to do with questioning his integrity.

Even so, we are all influenced by our roots and more importantly by our core beliefs.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we will decide everything in the same way, but our worldview can’t help but impact on our actions.  The degree of that influence and orientation may differ from one person to another.  Some in public life consciously seek to set aside their personal belief system in matters of general concern, actions that will affect those of different beliefs.  Loyal Roman Catholics like Joe Biden and Andrew Cuomo are pro-choice even though their church opposes contraception and abortion.  In contrast, Scalia, who once portrayed himself to 60 Minutes “an old-fashioned Catholic”, is vehemently opposed Roe and continues to say that he hopes it will be overturned, obviously with some assist from him.

Scalia is largely a product of Jesuit education and the father of nine including a priest.  The Justice, as reported in a Huffington Post article by Joan Biskubic (who has written a book on him) is “passionate about his religion”.   She notes, “Scalia has spoken publicly about the importance of fidelity to the Church's traditional values, such as saying the Rosary and observance of all holy days”.  At the same time, and despite readily admitting how personally important his faith is, Scalia asserts, "I have religious views on the subject.  But they have nothing whatsoever to do with my job."  That may be hard to substantiate especially with regard to abortion, but let’s for the moment take his statement at face value.  My purpose here is not challenge Scalia’s integrity but to understand where he’s coming from.

Looking at our contemporary politics there seems an unmistakable correlation between religious fundamentalism — Christian, Jewish or Muslim — and political, often extreme, conservatism.  In the last years, it has been those on the far religious right who have taken the lead in parallel political views, especially those with “social” implications but not exclusively so.  Scalia is said to attend worship in a highly traditional (fundamentalist) Opus Dei church in Virginia.  To my knowledge he has never declared himself an Opus Dei member, but this choice of worship venue says something.  Again, this is not to suggest an inherent conflict, but only that it provides what I think is a valuable insight.

Religious fundamentalists generally believe in divine revelation.  The Bible isn’t a work inspired by the divine but is literally the word of God.  That view impacts significantly on how the text is taken, always with the intent of adhering to its original meaning, which brings me back to the 10 Commandments case and Scalia’s contention that, “[our] Law…comes from God”: revelation.  In contrast, he explicitly rejects the notion of (in this case) the Commandments being, “a foundation of American Law”: inspiration.   It may well be the Scalia honestly believes that his religious views don’t impact on his decision making, but both textualism and originalism have a distinctly theological ring to them.  How he sees things, and the judicial philosophy that he espouses, seem to come naturally out of that particular religious core.

Scalia hotly claims that his reading of the law, his reliance on text and its “original” meaning is the right, and assumably only valid approach.  He dismisses others including colleagues who don’t share it.  Nevertheless, he is an outlier in taking that view, which he as much as admits in telling Margret Warner that, “it (textualism) has not been taught in law schools”.   Whether Scalia is ahead of his time or behind it is something I leave to you, but it would seem that some law school should be teaching textualism and originalism if either were considered a norm, or perhaps even a compelling alternative.  I’m not a lawyer, but it appears that the Scalia take on law is unique to him and, as is being suggested here, is built on a religiously oriented rather than purely legal foundation.

Revelation and inspiration are critical markers in religious thinking.  They are no less so when applied (of course in a relative sense) to the Constitution.  Scalia believes that it is not only the literal text that counts, but also what its authors meant when they wrote it.  My problem with originalism is that old texts like the Bible or even the Constitution not only come out of different times but when people had some very different ideas, some of them factually discredited.  The authors of the Bible saw the earth and humankind at the center of things.  They had no notion of a big bang; of galaxies or that our planet was anything but at that center. 

To be sure the Framers were visionaries, but they lived before Einstein, not to mention our age of technology none of which we have any indication they remotely anticipated.  Few of us would deny that what Jefferson, Madison and others set forth in the Declaration and then in the Constitution doesn’t constitute ground breaking thinking, intrinsic values that have a timeless quality.  In that sense, their generalized intent should be taken very seriously. I don’t question that some of those involved at the start had deep ties to religion, ones that might mirror the views and orientation of Justice Scalia.  Let’s remember that New England especially was a bastion of fundamentalism countered only by people like Roger Williams.  And Williams is critical because both the Framers opting for the Establishment Clause and then a separation of church and state would suggest that his earlier views ultimately won the day.

Why is all of this important and why am I writing about Scalia and the Court four weeks before the election?  The answer can be found in my July 8th post, Two Words.  In that writing it was suggested that nothing is more important in the coming vote than the Supreme Court.  The president elected in November is likely to have one or more appointments and any retirements may come from its liberal ranks, most notably Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The modern right leaning Court is largely the product of Republican appointments and ideology.  Republicans have been responsible for every Chief since Eisenhower named Warren.  The conservative balance is of their making and a single additional appointment could profoundly tip it further, casting in stone the future of our nation for many years to come.

Antonin Scalia is no doubt a decent man with profound and heartfelt religious beliefs.  He says those beliefs don’t influence his judgments and perhaps that’s so.  Whatever the motivation, his view of textualism, of originalism and what I see as a kind of synthetic adherence to the Founders’ intent, is troubling.  The Constitution is both meaningful and inspiring, but talking every word literally in the twenty-first century doesn’t compute.  Moreover, I am always leery of attributions of intent that we claim for the dead.  How do we know what they really had in mind?  It’s no accident that my reference to Scalia was in a chapter exploring truth.  Those on the religious right generally claim to be in possession of “the truth”.  I reject the notion that there is such a thing or that we have any way of proving that “my truth is more true than your truth”.  Scalia is sure of his truth.  I just don’t buy it.

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For more read my book.

Friday, October 5, 2012


Mitt Romney tried hard and shamelessly to (excuse the expression) resurrect the “death panel” straw man of the healthcare debate.  During Wednesday’s debate he listed things he objects to in the Affordable Care Act.  Third among them, he said, “it puts in place an unelected board that's going to tell people ultimately what kind of treatments they can have. I don't like that idea”.  “Unelected” board, as if that is anything unusual in governance, public or private.  Leaders are elected by the people or, for corporations, by shareholders and boards.  There are very few elected officials in this or any other country and they personally manage — almost nothing.  It is the unelected, those appointed by a leader or her/his appointees who have the run of things and, by necessity, hold sway over our lives.

Policeman can make life or death decisions.  They do so as unelected officials as do our fighting forces and the myriad of public servants who work for government.  Can any one say with a straight face that key insurance coverage decisions (public and private) aren’t made every day by unelected officials?  Who do you think turns down that elective (and sometimes not so elective) surgery or procedure?  Who determines pre-existing conditions?  Unelected officials of course.

So any illusion to death panels — and we all can read Romney’s "unelected" euphemism — is noting more than misinformation.  Any invoking of unelected officials, as if that were anything new or not totally necessary, is disingenuous to say the least.  To some degree, this playing with words, this misleading sloganeering has become endemic in our political campaigns, and to some degree always has been.  It reflects our worse side not merely because it is wrong but because it is so inaccurate, superficial, and simplistic.  We complain, and rightly so, that the American electorate is generally uninformed.  Some people characterize it as ignorant, but I think that’s hyperbolic.  Uninformed is quite bad enough.  Sadly, it is our elected officials or those seeking election who are prime culprits in assigning blame for this state of things.  Yes Mr. Romney, largely elected officials are ultimately at fault.

Part of leading a large enterprise responsibly is to inform, and yes to educate, those who follow whether citizens or co-workers.  We like to call that transparency and it is exactly the opposite of what we hear on the campaign trail.  There opaqueness and spin carry the day and do so to all of our detriment.  Talking about the unelected, those who in fact do the heavy lifting in our society, as if they are somehow engaged in an abuse of power is, beyond all else, demeaning if not insulting.  In fact, if you want to know who the 99% are, look no further.  They and we are just doing our jobs and trying to do them well.  The gold spoon guys may have a hard time understanding that, but we shouldn’t — and we shouldn't let ourselves be so misled.

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For more read my book.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


 I'm not a potted plant.”  Those were the famous words uttered by defense attorney Brendon Sullivan in representing Oliver North during the Iran Contra hearings.  Jim Lehrer could not have made the same statement about his performance in moderating the first debate between the President and Mitt Romney.  Before appearing, the longstanding PBS anchor was reported as seething about people questioning his having yet another shot — his twelfth — center change.  He protested too much.  In the end of course it’s not the potted plant moderator who has to perform but the candidates.  The consensus is that Mitt Romney carried the day and that Obama did not, losing numerous opportunities to best the contender.  I agree.

Barack Obama has never been a great debater.  Let’s remember his initial performances during the 2008 Primary were miserable.  At this point, he should be better at it.  Nevertheless, however well Romney did, he failed to delver any way near a knockout punch, much less a truly memorable line.  Neither did that.  What Romney displayed last night was exhaustive preparation.  It has often been said that he is weakest when forced to be spontaneous, when he’s out of control.  He clearly was intent on that not happening, and successfully so.  Listening carefully, he had a series of, if not memorized, then carefully practiced statements in what at times came off as a word dump, a tactical filibuster aimed at usurping as much time as possible.  Of small note in the slogan department, he seemed to be testing a new term “trickle-down government” in an attempt to counter the long used trickle-down economics.  Expect to hear that again.  Another clue to Romney’s determination to get certain lines across was his out of context non sequitur, “What's happening in the Middle East, there are developments around the world that are of real concern.”  That came out of the blue in a discussion of the economy.

Aside from being disappointed in Obama’s performance, what I missed most last night was any real connection with us, the audience.  There were lots of numbers and program details — or rather and avalanche of words pretending to be details — but no attempt to bring any of them home.  In part that can be attributed to the protected bubble in which Romney lives, one disconnected from almost all of us.  But it also reflects long running critiques of the President who may understand it well and with immediacy but has a hard time conveying, in Clinton's words, “feeling our pain”.  It would not be inaccurate to suggest that being super smart is a deficit for Obama, one the equally brainy former president is able to overcome. 

Will Romney get a bump out of this debate?  Probably so, but it’s not the last word.  The difference in these to candidates approach to government is stark and, while the substance of the discussion last night will be overshadowed by the “horse race”, it ran throughout.  Obama may have missed some opportunities, but he clearly stated the difference between the two contrasting philosophies and the results of one over the other.  In countering Romney’s economic approach he said,
…common sense, and our history shows us that's not a recipe for job growth. Look, we've tried this. We've tried both approaches. The approach that Governor Romney's talking about is the same sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003, and we ended up with the slowest job growth in 50 years, we ended up moving from surplus to deficits, and it all culminated in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  Bill Clinton tried the approach that I'm talking about. We created 23 million new jobs. We went from deficit to surplus. And businesses did very well indeed.   
Unfortunately that statement has been lost in the “who won” headlines, but I’d guess it will be reprised the next time around.  Biden and Ryan debate next week, but the main show resumes with a Town Hall on the 16th.  Voters will be involved in that one.

We heard nothing of the 47%, the 99% or the 1% last night.  Those numbers to which people can relate were sorely missed.  Shipping foreign jobs overseas came into play, a little, but what about the fact that Romney would be the first president in history to keep a large portion of his wealth in tax-sheltered off-shore bank accounts and investments.  Doing so is absolutely legal under our lopsided tax code.  The question is whether it’s a strategy worthy of or appropriate for our chief of state?  I think not. 

Lose statements were made about parents moving their children out of underperforming schools and about preferences for private insurance coverage.   As, Romney put it,
…my own view is I'd rather have a private plan.  I'd just assume not have the government telling me what kind of health care I get. I'd rather be able to have an insurance company. If I don't like them, I can get rid of them and find a different insurance company.” 
How many Americans are in a position to changing their children’s schools or getting rid of their insurance company, much less affording the premiums?  It reminds of the former governor’s suggestion that kids look to their parents for college tuition.  Ah to have a dad like George or Mitt, which of course most of us don’t.

The stakes in this campaign remain high.  The burden of carrying the message is ultimately on the candidates.  Let’s hope Obama does a better job of it in the remaining encounters.  Surely he now knows what he’s up against and before we all dispair let’s remember he’s a pretty good student.

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For more read my book.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Don’t expect to hear much about this.

We Americans have a short attention span, focusing on today while avoiding any consideration of the long term.  So our presidential elections, the few timely issues raised notwithstanding, are more about the horse race than anything else.  Yes jobs, taxes, the deficit and our place in the world are important.  Certain religious groups still lobby against abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage but probably with less electoral traction than four years ago.  To be sure you have your own view of what will move you to the polls in November, but I would guess none of us will be thinking very much about the larger picture and the long term.  That’s a mistake.

As the Supreme Court began its new session earlier this week, NY Times reporters Adam Liptak and Allison Kopicki noted that its approval rating had fallen to 44%.  It had been as high as 66% in the 1980s.  However low the current number may seem, this past June The Gallup Organization, which regularly tracks our confidence in institutions, reported an even lower one: 37%.  Confidence may be more telling than approval.

The Court’s particular fall from approval grace may be attributed to a number of factors.  Most immediate, suggest the Times writers is their 5-4 Affordable Healthcare Act decision taken in the midst of an election season where the legislation is at some issue.  More generally, especially since its 2000 Gore v. Bush ruling, the Justices seem to have lost some of their non-partisan sheen, if they ever had it in the first place.  Consequently, despite our dedication to the rule of law as something bordering on the sacred, our view of the Court and its decisions depends greatly on our own political views.  That purely partisan take may have reached a higher level than in the past, but it’s not necessarily new.  Over the years polled by Gallup (1973-2012) the Justices only topped 50% confidence a few times, the high mark of 56% having been reached in 1988.

Gallup Organization proprietary research.
How we view the High Court is important, but I’d suggest more so is seeing its confidence deficit in a larger and far more disturbing context.  The Gallup study measures the public’s confidence — Great deal/Quite a lot — in sixteen institutions.  On those measures only three had greater than a 50% combined vote of confidence topped by the military at 75%.  Even organized religion, to which we pay such lip service, mustered only 44%.  As has been widely and repeatedly reported elsewhere, Congress stood dead last at only 13%.  Nine of the sixteen institutions score less than a combined 30% and the presidency being contested by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, like the Court, garners only 37%. 

The high regard we have for the military may in some measure reflect their continued engagement in active combat and an appropriate show of support for those who stand in harm’s way on our behalf.  Viet Nam resentments projected on our service personnel are a thing of the past.  We also give a majority nod to small business (66%) and to the police (56%).  The first may reflect its rhetorical portrayal as the good guys of business and the second because we still admire the cop “on the corner” protecting us from the bad guys.  We have less faith in our criminal justice system (29%), in those charged with keeping us healthy (41%) or educating our children (29%).  Banks and organized labor do equally badly ( also 29%).  And Congress’s appalling basement rating clearly reflects the alarmingly and highly publicized dysfunctional gridlock of the recent years.

Why does all of this matter?  America has long prided itself on rugged individualism, the spirit that helped us conquer inhospitable territory and turn it into productive farmland; that unleashed invention and entrepreneurs.  It is an idea that has lent some (I think misguided) romantic fervor to libertarians past and present and that can-do spirit that makes us potent competitors.  But individualism can go only so far.  A society requires strong and effective institutions, the “us” not just the “me”.  Ultimately those institutions can only work if we have confidence in them, something that has been lost.  The numbers that Gallup and others report point to a society that seems to be breaking down or at the least faces great risk.  It bespeaks a loss of community — implying everyone for her/himself in the singular rather than for each other in the plural.

It’s fascinating to me that Americans seem to have higher regard for ex-presidents than presidents — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.  Once these figures are separated from their institution they seem to gain in stature, respect and support.  For a somewhat different reason, incumbent Senators and Congress people continue to do relatively better in elections than challengers.  We don’t admire Congress but do like our own representative.  We separate the individual from the institution and seemingly all is forgiven.  Of course, much of that is in our mind.  Being one of 100 or worse 432 means that individuals can do almost nothing of substance on their own.  They need the institution to address large issues and to accomplish anything of import.

The often-repeated statement that we are a country evenly divided — split in half — is often accompanied by the modifier polarized.  I don’t know that divided quite describes our situation as reflected in these no-confidence numbers.  Torn asunder, fragmented, might be more accurate.  With no majority consensus regarding most of our institutions, one might rightly assume that we lack confidence for a wide variety of reasons — we’re not necessarily together in this.  Equally so, with results like these, it’s clear that dissatisfaction crosses party lines or individual ideologies.

There are two ways of looking at the confidence numbers and neither is good.  The first is most obvious.  Institutions across the board have underperformed and disappointed.  For example, in the wake of the financial crisis we’ve lost trust in the banks seeing them more as our adversaries, and selfish ones at that, rather than as our allies.  We idealize the middle class but no longer look up to two of its most iconic representative institutions: unions (21%) and public schools (29%).  That explains, in part, the backlash against public employees, which in many cases evidences a resentment of their perceived protected status.  But of course, whether it’s fair to blame them or not, unions have not been able to insure either basic benefits or job security.  Our schools have fallen far short in educating our young to meet the challenges of the times and not only in math and science. Institutions, regardless of who they are, hold out a promise of performance.  Few seem to deliver on it.

The other side, and in the end perhaps more critical, is that we have withdrawn our support from institutions and thus weakened them.  Something essential has been lost in citizenship.  After all, while we may deride the recently articulated notion that businesses are people, the truth is that institutions are a reflection of us.   When we withhold our trust and our support we undermine them and the resultant lack of confidence bespeaks what amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We despair about the state of our institutions, but don’t seem willing to do anything about righting them.  In fact, we have detached and deactivated ourselves.  In doing so, we are contributing to exactly the weakness that we so deplore.

They say this election is about our fundamental values, how we see the role of government in our society and lives.  Maybe so, but I don’t think its all about government, the scope and extent of our safety net or the balance of our budget.  What really is in front of us is setting a course in rebuilding the basic institutional fabric that holds us together, or should.  That issue won’t get much airtime as we move toward November 6th.  For sure, it won’t be a topic of debate and that’s’ the problem.  Tin cans can be kicked down the road for only so long and this  — the state of our institutions — is one of them.  A two-ton can that may well out-weigh the deficit that gets so much attention.

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For more read my book.