Populism and the Slow Rate of Political Change

Beginning in the 1870’s there was general discontent among farmers that the economic policies of the United States government was stacked against them. They protested and lobbied for years, and even had an influential champion in William Jennings Bryan. Reforms were passed slowly in state legislatures and in the federal government but many of their problems were ignored, swept aside by the corrupted politicians of the Gilded Age who were enthralled by wealthy industrialists. For 60 years the populist and socialist movements were stymied though they were brought to public consciousness by the progressives and muckrakers. The dam didn’t burst until the upheaval of the Great Depression. Under dire circumstances that directly threatened the stability and long term viability of the United States government. Even with the massive reforms and regulations put in place by the federal government under Roosevelt when he took office with a liberal majority in Congress, there began to be aggressive pushback by conservatives. It is notable that Roosevelt did not pass any significant domestic legislation after 1937. Change in favor of people as opposed to entrenched businesses comes slowly in the United States.

The current populist cord struck by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is profoundly ironic. Bernie Sanders proposes socialist positions which are well established in Europe, but they have not broken the power of enormous conglomerates there. If anything, the governments of Europe are more closely aligned to large corporations than in the United States. The true irony of his positions really have to do with how little he could actually accomplish as president of the United States to realize his policy positions. A Sanders presidency would be a prescription for certain gridlock, maybe worse than some of the other candidates would see. The irony for Sanders is the same irony that has pervaded the Obama presidency. His two major pieces of domestic legislation, somewhat like Roosevelt’s, were passed early in his first term and he has been blocked at every turn since then. While promising the prospect of change and unity, Obama’s presidency has brought gridlock and division (much of it not directly his fault). Sanders supporters desperately want significant social and economic change, but electing him President would guarantee that there would be none.

Donald Trump proposes wildly unrealistic policy positions and changes them frequently. His firmest base of supporters are those who believe that they have been ignored and lied to by the Republican Party. That they should believe a candidate who promises things that are even more improbable than Conservative republicans have promised is indeed a terrible irony. The supporters of the two populists should know that by supporting those two candidates they are deluding themselves into thinking that they will bring the changes they wish to see.

The Battle of the Atlantic and Cyber-espionage

In Churchill’s “The Second World War” the reader has the interesting experience of knowing that Churchill could not reveal the code-breaking operation known as “Ultra.” In discussing the “Battle of the Atlantic” attributes allied success to the technological advances, superior organization, and fighting prowess of the Royal Navy. While this is undoubtedly true it is not the entire truth. We now know that at critical junctures, when the codebreakers were able to rapidly decrypt the German messages, success in sinking U-boats and getting convoys to Britain unharmed increased dramatically.

Cyber-war and espionage takes place largely in the dark. Absent theatrical indictments and the spotty information provided from the Snowden NSA leaks, the success of attacks and counterattacks is obscured. What is undeniable is that an enormous transfer of intellectual property has taken place from the United States to China. Other issues may grab headlines but this is a truly dangerous threat, one that has the power to undermine the United States’ economic and military dominance. There seems to be a response from the United States government to this cyber-theft but it certainly has not deterred, or even slowed, the foreign assault on intellectual property in this country. The lack of visible response undermines faith in the will and strength of the United States government. Now, this is not in the same style of direct, total, existential struggle that Britain was engaged in during the Second World War but it is certainly a conflict which involves the modern lifeblood of 21st Century nations: information. I hope that there are coordinated responses, both diplomatically and in aggressive cyber counterattacks, so that today’s record of events is omitting a battle-changing secret that will be revealed long after the world is aware of the winners and losers.

Common Core and Inequality

Incentives matter. And so do disincentives. Modern economics has displayed this again and again as people debate everything from social issues to race relations. Unintended consequences have ruined many a brilliant plan to benefit individuals and society as a whole. In the United States, the Obama administration has now implemented legislation that has had negative unintended consequences twice. The first is the well-intentioned Affordable Care Act, designed to ameliorate the shameful absence of health coverage for millions of Americans. While this is a sprawling, confusing law the provision I want to focus on is the one setting a full-time work week at 30 hours. The drafters of this legislation outsmarted themselves on this one. I’m sure that they figured, “We will make it so that companies can’t deny people coverage by giving them 39 hours a week and saying that they are part-time workers.” Unfortunately what occurred was that thousands of businesses merely reduced the number of hours people were working to 29 hours. This certainly created additional hardship in many low-income workers lives by forcing them to get another job and then juggling their schedules and lives, or, live with a reduced paycheck.

One of the pillars of Common Core, which has the noble purpose of combatting job loss due to globalization, is tying teacher evaluations to assessments. One immediate effect this will have is to disincentivize teachers from teaching in poor-performing and poorer districts. Teachers have little control of the conditions of the community which make schools into “dropout factories.” No matter how effective Common Core is at reforming education in schools, at least initially, there will not be immediate improvements. So, why would a teacher go through the effort of working at a school where they will be punished by the conditions prevailing in their districts. It will push more teachers to apply in better districts, depriving already poor-performing districts of the best teachers. The overall effect of this will be to exacerbate inequality as poor and minority-filled districts, which already struggle in assessment and graduation rates, will fall farther behind wealthy districts. The students will, presumably, get a worse education and will be less-prepared for gaining high-quality employment. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Fear and Terror

How many Americans have been killed in the last 5 years by Islamic Extremist terrorism? Our government’s approximately $20 billion anti-terror budget would leave you thinking that we are under siege from radical Muslim terrorists. But the truth is that 4 times the number of people were killed by being struck by lightning. Now, some of the discrepancy is almost certainly due to vigilance by our intelligence and counterterrorism apparatuses, but what it truly highlights is how successful a terrorist attack September 11th was. If the goal of the attacks were truly to inspire fear in the American people than they succeeded tremendously. The attacks were horrific and devastating, and are permanently seared into the memories of our generation. And the attacks forced change, much of it effective and necessary. But with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that the United States overreacted to the threat of Islamic terrorism. A permanent war on all terrorists all over the world is impossible to sustain effectively and indefinitely. It erodes the moral position of the United States and undermines our democracy as all war, no matter how necessary, eventually does. Terrorism is not am existential threat to the United States, and we have been deceived and mislead by our unreasoning fear.

I Think Shakespeare Would be Upset

I was struck, while watching the new version of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender, by the blend of realism, authenticity, and modernity. All of these concerns were completely unimportant to Shakespeare, who was a writer firmly rooted in his time and concerned with pure entertainment.

The film has an anachronistic concern with trauma. In many ways it explains Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions as a kind of result of post-traumatic stress disorder. They are haunted by the death of their daughter (long a favorite speculation on the Macbeths’ backgrounds before the start of the play) and perhaps Macbeth is haunted by the violence of battle (which seems to have taken from him another son). This new version, rather than focusing on will or fate, or the supernatural, or even moral decisions, is centered around the experience of loss and grief. The realism we are so much in love with in recent cinematic history diminishes the humor and rhetorical flourishes which (to me) add great depth and complexity to the play.

I have always been an advocate of reading Shakespeare, which allows for close analysis of motifs, themes, and wordplay. Creating a “realistic” Macbeth confines the interpretation of the play and pushes it toward one articulation of the story where much nuance is discarded. In any case, the film is spare and atmospheric in its cinematography and is excellently acted. Perhaps the next interpretation (which I’m sure audiences are just clamoring for…) will leave in some of the fantastic, which both enriches the play and will marry it to its original intent.