Sunday, November 06, 2016

E Pluribus Unum Is Working

Despite this shitshow of an election cycle, I still love being American and I still love our country.

I love being American because the United States of America is, and always will be, a noble enterprise. A bunch of guys got together in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 seeking to improve on the Roman model of city-states overseen by a central government. They made the unforgivable mistake of allowing some people to be considered property; but they also introduced lofty concepts – we the people, a more perfect union, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare – previously unheard of in statecraft. The document they drafted calls on each of us to sacrifice our own self-interest for the collective good; and in exchange, we can count on our fellow Americans to rally in support whenever our communities are in danger. Through their brilliance, the men who wrote the United States Constitution created a country based on an idea, and not an identity. That idea is the American citizen.

In a little over two hundred years, we have evolved from an experimental concept into the world’s indispensable nation. We have the largest economy, our money is the world’s reserve currency, and our sovereign debt is the standard by which global financial risk is measured. There have been three dozen consecutive bloodless transitions of power since the Civil War, and there is no reason to believe the American ship of state won’t continue to sail on smoothly for the foreseeable future. Thanks to the almost incomprehensible size, sophistication, and reach of the U.S. Armed Forces, no country on earth could ever exert its will over us or stop us from exerting our will over them. The government of the United States, four-and-a-half million professionals who get up every day and go to work providing some kind of service for the rest of us, is the largest and most complicated organization in the history of human endeavor. It is our social and political contracts made manifest; and it is how the United States of America has become first among equals in the global community.

No one is looking for the Queen of England when a crisis happens. The world asks, “Where are the Americans?” I’m proud of that.

As much as I love being American, I love being part of Generation X even more. We were too young to have become jaded by America’s misguided attempts at imperialism, and just old enough to have seen the Chernobyl disaster explode the myth of an all-powerful Soviet Union that could kill us all in our sleep. Unlike previous generations, we lived most of our lives without an enemy abroad, and under the protection of laws ensuring equal rights all people here at home. Our generation pioneered the concept – and the incredibly profitable business model – of institutional improvement through complete disruption. We created, invented, or developed so many of the things that make modern life worth living that I don’t even want to think of what it might have been like without us. We’ve been re-making the world in our image since we were old enough to challenge authority, and now the time has come for our generation to move into positions of leadership throughout the public and private sectors. But before we take over (and no matter what happens on Election Day) we have to have a conversation about what to do with the Baby Boomers, and what to do about the Republican Party.

The Baby Boom Generation
The problem with the Baby Boom generation is they won’t go away. Unlike those of us who grew up in the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s, the Boomers were born into a hopeful, optimistic, “Mad Men” kind of country. They have the good fortune of being the last generation of Americans to be able to graduate high school or college, get a good job, spend a career at one company, and retire at 65 with a nice pension.  They received all the benefits of the American century; but in an unprecedented betrayal of intergenerational trust, the Baby Boomers never saw fit to upgrade, improve, or even maintain the country’s critical public health, education, housing, or transportation infrastructure. 

It should be noted that all Baby Boomers are not created equal. Conservative Boomers are much more responsible for their generation’s failings than the liberals. I say that because a clear dividing line arose between the two groups just as the Boomers were entering their twenties. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson completed the work begun by President Kennedy and passed the Civil Rights Act, making it against the law to discriminate against someone based on their race, religion, gender, or ethnicity. In the years that followed, Congress and the President passed a group of bills known as the “Great Society” laws to enable the most vulnerable Americans access competitive markets for things like food, housing, education, job training, and health care. And since this is a country where ideas become institutions, it wasn’t long before Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Job Corps, the Higher Education Act, the Child Nutrition Act, and the Housing & Urban Development Act were helping poor and working class Americans live with the dignity that is every person’s birthright. And so progressive Boomers deserve credit for making sure – despite constant accusations of paying off their core constituencies in exchange for votes – that subsidies for food, clothing, rent, and health care were woven into our social safety net.

This is a real accomplishment given the fact that a small but influential minority of the Baby Boom generation is ideologically incapable of sacrificing self-interest for the good of everyone. Enabled by a large, complacent majority of the rest of us, they have chosen to hoard their staggering collective wealth rather than be the kind of citizens the framers of the Constitution envisioned. These are people who have gotten so rich, fat, and happy that they have no problem abandoning their friends, classmates, and fellow Americans to misery and poverty in a way never seen before in American life. The lessons they learned from the 1960’s were very different. They didn’t agree with President Eisenhower about guarding against the influence of the military-industrial complex, and they didn’t much like President Johnson’s definition of a great society. They believe in projecting military power to protect America’s interests overseas; and they tend to believe in law-and-order, state’s rights, and no restrictions on gun ownership here at home. They also really like open markets, deregulation, lower taxes, and smaller government. To Republican Boomers and their devotees, the programs-turned-institutions of the Great Society represent the creation of an uncontrollable welfare state designed to transfer wealth from the makers to the takers (creating more takers in the process), so they want nothing to do with it. And they have no interest in fighting a war on poverty.

To this day, we see McCain-Romney-Trump Baby Boom-era Republicans holding on to their power and positions, dismissing their refusal to exit the stage with lines like, “To retire is to expire.” Of course, hanging on forever with no plan for succession wasn’t the deal that they – or anyone who came before them – made with society; but as a generation, the Baby Boomers are simply too rich to care.  They have accumulated so much purchasing power over the course of their working lives that if they were their own country, the Boomer economy – in which they consume $5 trillion worth of goods and services every year – would be the third-largest in the world behind the U.S. and China.

But the Baby Boomers have not lived up to the ideals and the standards set by generations of Americans before them who, in spite of conflicts and crises at home and abroad, still worked and fought and died for a “more perfect union.” They are leaving behind a country and a world in which the Clintonian “It’s just politics,” and the Trumpian “It’s just business,” have been used to rationalize otherwise unjustifiable behavior by American government agencies and companies all over the globe. 

And while some of them have achieved remarkable financial success, the rest of us are facing a global economy in which a larger and larger gap is growing between fewer and fewer very rich people and an increasing number of unbelievably desperately poor people.  A society that is less just and less secure, with a climate that is more volatile and much less predictable. As thirty years of Republican tax policies have enabled a smaller and smaller percentage of people and companies to concentrate mind-boggling amounts of wealth and income among themselves, public infrastructure is crumbling, public housing is disappearing, public education is struggling, public health is declining, poverty is rising, and budgets to deal with these problems have been shrinking. As stewards of the American ship of state, the Baby Boom generation is failing.

The New Grand Old Party
Philosophically, Republican Party doesn't want government to work well. From their coordinated opposition to President Obama beginning on Inauguration Day in 2009, to “this (Supreme Court) vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President” in 2016, the Republicans have demonstrated that they do not care about what’s good for our government as much as they care about what’s good for their candidates. They have spent fifty years building educational, legal, political, and legislative institutions that have allowed them to gerrymander, filibuster, and “Citizens United” their way to having the power to shut down the Congress as well as the Supreme Court. Unfortunately for them, their ideological opposition hasn't prevented the rest of us from requiring federal agencies and employees to be in position to respond to issues like war, immigration, natural disasters, economic crises, and terrorism anywhere in the world. That takes planning as well as lots and lots of money; and levying tax is basically the only tool the government has to pay for the things we have collectively decided it should do. The GOP does not understand the fiscal math involved in that proposition, and the rest of us don't have time to pretend they ever will.

They still see the government as a ravenous beast with an appetite so insatiable that it has to be starved into submission. Since the "Reagan Revolution," Republican orthodoxy has been that the federal budget can never grow under any circumstances and must be reduced at all costs. They believe Americans are over-taxed, and that the federal government should be able to do more with less money. The party is so unified behind this principle that for thirty years, Republicans in Congress were forced to sign a pledge indicating they would never vote to increase taxes in any way before they could even think about running for office. For most of us, budget cuts make it more difficult to receive the kinds of services we expect from our local, state, and federal government. But for a small group of Republican ideologues, cutting the budget leads to a perversely virtuous cycle: A lack of funding leaves government agencies under-staffed, which leaves people being under-served and complaining about government ineffectiveness, which justifies reduced funding.

The debate became a schism between the two political parties over the role and size of the federal government, transforming the activist government of the Kennedy-Johnson Great Society into a government that tried to stay out of the way of the Reagan-Bush Opportunity Society. From “government is the problem” in the 80's, to the government shutdown that forced the end welfare as we knew it in the 90’s, to the last hurrah of the neoconservatives in the “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” 2000’s, to the current Boehner-McConnell-Ryan triumvirate of obstruction, the modern Republican Party has repeatedly proven that power concedes nothing when it comes to the United States Treasury.

But if the tax code (or the way Congress determines where our government's money comes from) is an expression of what we value as a nation, then taxing income earned by inheriting or investing at a lower rate than income earned via salary or wages says we value ancestry or wealth more than we value work. And if we're supposed to have a progressive tax code with lower tax rates for low income earners and higher tax rates for high income earners, then an income of five hundred thousand dollars should not be taxed at the same rate as an income of five million dollars; which should not be taxed at the same rate as in income of fifty million dollars; which should not be taxed at the same rate as five hundred million dollars. In an economy where as much as 70% of the income earned by taxpayers making $10m or more per year comes from capital gains, we are allowing America's investor class to get away with not paying their fair share of the national tax bill - and in an economy which produces more than 3.5 million households with earnings at or above $1 million each year, we are leaving money on the table by setting the top nominal income tax bracket (as it is currently) at $450,000.

The most sensible solution would be to throw out the old brackets and create new, increasingly higher rates of capital gains, inheritance, and income taxes for taxpayers and households earning $1m, $2m, $5m, $10m, $20m, $50m, and up. Since it would affect less than one-half of one percent of all Americans, the proposal should be uncontroversial.  After all, annual income is a measurement of the benefit derived from society in a given year; and a tax bill is simply the debt owed for the privilege.  The more benefit derived, the higher the debt owed – that's basic progressive taxation in a modern nutshell. The time has come to require the .1% of us who are lucky enough to earn more than one million dollars per year to pony up.

As a society, we have evolved from a belief that any person’s misfortunes were of his or her own making, to a consensus that macroeconomic crises require policy solutions. Whether it’s mother’s pensions in the 1910’s; or the New Deal in the 1930’s; or the War on Poverty in the 1960’s; or the Savings & Loan crisis in the 1980’s; or the Long Term Capital Management bailout in the 1990’s; or the 2008 rescue of the auto, banking, and housing sectors that saved the global economy, the U.S. government has consistently stepped up as the provider of last resort for all kinds of Americans in financial crisis. For our government to continue to be the world's first responder, while also providing ladders of opportunity our fellow Americans can climb and an economic floor through which they cannot fall, it will need more money. Republicans may not like it or want to accept it, but the fact is each month, the United States Treasury cuts more checks for more money to more people in more places than any organization ever. And the next month, they do it again. The GOP's working theory of government (that it should be able to do more with less) is simply incompatible with America's role in the world.

It's Up To Us
I'm glad this election has been a shitshow because it allowed us all to see just how ridiculous Baby Boomer partisanship has become, as well as how much work Generations X and Millennial have to do. The framers of the Constitution expected us to be informed, engaged, and prepared to challenge our elected representatives on their rhetoric and their record. But the Baby Boomers running our country are still trying to have an argument about the role of government when we the people have already agreed that in times of need, Americans should be able to rely on a government which preserves and protects our basic standard of living. We have also agreed that the government does have a role to play in ensuring public health, preventing discrimination, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, mandating workplace safety, and setting standards for product safety, but does not have a role to play in a woman’s decision to choose motherhood. And if conservative Baby Boomers can't or won't put partisanship aside and accept these basic facts of American life, the rest of us have to be ready to move ahead without them.

The late, great Dr. Maya Angelou once said, "When a person shows you who they are, believe them." For thirty years, Republicans have shown us who they are, what they will do with power, and where they stand on the fundamental issues of our time. Rather than deal with the environmental damage from fossil fuel extraction, they will deny. Instead of changing the tax code so it doesn't incentivize investing over working, they will distract. Rather than protect the Constitutional right to privacy that generations of women have grown up with, they will dilute. And when it comes to passing reasonable restrictions on gun use and ownership, they will debate, and debate, and debate. That's who they are...but is it who we are? Do the rest of us deny climate science? Do we want a tax code which is less favorable to workers than investors? Do we believe women who become pregnant must also become mothers? And do we think one person's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever makes them happy is less important than another person's right to bear arms? I believe the answer to all of these questions is "No." We know climate events are becoming more frequent and more destructive. We know the economic gains of the last thirty years have gone to a tiny percentage of Americans. We know not all pregnancies are viable. And we know that sensible restrictions on gun ownership and use save lives.

So this is what thirty years of identity politics has given us: A Republican Party that's a throwback to the 1850's "Know-Nothings", and the Democratic Party of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz & Donna Brazile. Clearly, Debbie's and Donna's Dems leave a lot to be desired; but at least they're not ideologically opposed to acknowledging reality. The last two cycles have shown the Republicans are happy to ignore polls, population data, and even basic math – all in pursuit of their goal of the “smaller government” that most Americans don't even want (people don't think in terms of more government or less government; they just want a government that works for them). And whether it’s reproductive freedom, civil rights, or the environmental, occupational, and consumer protections that Americans take for granted, the Grand Old Party has consistently been on the wrong side of history. Even in this election cycle, their disgrace of a candidate is running a joke of a campaign embracing the last deplorable holdouts of the party's dark past; promising to “make America great again” at a time when we’ve never been better, and never had a country of which we could be more proud.

Our government is the noblest enterprise ever undertaken by the human race – a legacy our ancestors left to us, and that we will leave to future generations. We expect it to be there whenever events beyond anyone’s control threaten our way of life, just as the framers of the Constitution intended. As the basis of our social and political contract since 1787, this expectation transcends ideology or partisanship. When you compare our first couple of centuries to the crusty aristocracies and failed colonial exploits of the ruling royals of Europe, you’d have to say it has worked out pretty well. And when you consider the size of the American economy, you’d have to say the idea that we, as a nation, can’t afford any kind of government we want is basically absurd.

Ours is the most educated, organized, and interconnected generation in American history; and we're the first generation of Americans not even promised a job, never mind a career at one company and a comfortable retirement. We are the least attached to the current system, and best qualified to engage in clear-eyed analysis of what the Boomers got right, what they got wrong, and what we should do differently. There are no historical precedents for this kind of work, but there has never been an American generation like ours. We were the first to have our childhood monetized and sold to corporations. We were the first to ride in cars with anti-lock brakes and airbags. We were the first to watch a television network other than ABC, NBC, or CBS. We were the first to watch a music video. We were the first to play a computer game. We created punk, hip-hop, the world wide web, the smartphone, and the self-driving car. Unlike previous generations who were forced to rely on the conventional wisdom of the day, we have Big Data to help guide us through this process. So it makes sense that we be the ones to review America's post-Baby Boomer social and political contracts.

And that's why I love being us right now. In American life, we typically have one generation retiring, one in middle age, one in early adulthood, and then the children. That would be the Baby Boomers, Generation X, The Millennials, and the young people I call "Generation Woke." If the Boomers were going to fix the problems we face, we would see more signs of progress. We don't, so now they and their irrelevant ideological arguments and clichéd culture wars of the past can fade from the scene. As society's middle-aged group, we in Gen X are now poised to provide vision and direction for the organizations we lead, and act as role models for the generations following behind us – all while instilling a work ethic and a system of values in our own kids. Not the city fleeing, private schooling, tax avoiding, I-got-mine values left over from the Reagan-Bush era we grew up in; more like the summer of 1787, my neighbor's keeper, e pluribus unum, pay-it-forward kind of values the framers of the Constitution assumed we would stand for. We are first generation to hit our cultural zenith in an America that is the world's undisputed superpower. No matter who wins on Tuesday, we are great, this is our time, and everything is possible.


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