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April 11, 2011

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I met an economics teacher from Gilbert High School the other day. I asked him if his course work was guided by Milton Friedman's "Free to Choose" series from PBS. Sure enough, that was the case. He then proceeded to zealously describe the details of the course, which sounded to my ears like a religion. This is a required course now for Arizona high school students.

It's true most of us are ignorant and shallow. The complexities of modern life can be partially solved by simply believing things. Say, tax cuts always pay for themselves, evolution is just a theory, global warming is a hoax, and the Founding Fathers were Christians. And what better way to dumb down Americans than mandate beliefs be taught at the same level as courses based on empiricism.

The conservative counter-revolution creeped up on us one seemingly minor decision at a time. It could have been a textbook written to please an obscure Texas school board, or a Pennsylvania decision to allow the teaching of Creationism, or Arizona's mandated requirement that a course in voodoo economics be passed. But it was the gradual mainstreaming of right-wing extremism that did the most damage. Instead of expressing shock at the crude bullying of a Rush Limbaugh, centrist pundits called him an "entertainer". By this standard, Ann Coulter is Lady Gaga.

The rough balance of political interests that defined the American "vital center" has collapsed. There are few unions left, few independent newspapers, few communities socially and economically integrated, and little real knowledge on the part of the average person just how dangerous all this is.

That the Republican Party is now a religion espousing silly beliefs and crazy policy prescriptions is in itself a national security threat. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're still one of only two major political parties defining our future. Its candidates range from ditzy (Sarah Palin) to ditzier (Rick Santorum). Donald Trump is now regarded by some as a serious presidential contender by virtue of uttering dumb conspiracy theories (even Glenn Beck thought them nutty). And a madcap confabulator like Michele Bachmann shows how far the GOP's intellectual decline has advanced. She is now favored in Iowa.

We've talked about this subject and cities endlessly but only seldom in tandem. It's not easy to limn the boundaries but we can play our hunches. Growing up in Phoenix, I was aware of ethnic ghettos and poor-only neighborhoods. But the dominant reality here was much more fluid. Sunnyslope, for example, covered a wide socio-economic range, with rich and poor sometimes living only a block or two apart. What has changed in Phoenix and across the nation is the increasing segregation of the poor from the middle and upper-middle classes. This physical reality carries political weight. When the poor are invisible to us, their lives are - at best - abstract. It's much easier to push them outside our field of concern.

What we see happening in America is the fundamental rupture of the social compact that was enabled by suburbanization. I used to wonder how places like Minnesota and Wisconsin could have rich liberal traditions and then elect hard right-wingers. Look no further than the outer-ring suburbs of the Twin Cities and Milwaukee.

This rupture is the primary fault line in America. It's been ruthlessly exploited by Republicans and even abetted by particular policies, like those involving mass transit, rail, and land use. I have no idea how we get our nation back or if it's even possible. If it's not, we still need to bear witness if only to remind one another that this country's political traditions were once noble and sane.

I want to throw out something here. I am a former IBM employee, and I am due a pension from IBM. IBM is litigating to renege on the pension for me and thousands of other ex-IBM employees. IBM won the first round. Now I am in the plaintiff group of a class action lawsuit against IBM.

IBM has the money to pay the pensions. IBM just doesn't want to pay. I am still fairly young and I would not receive payments for another decade.

This is an outrage! Our federal judges are allowing IBM to cheat former employees out of their pensions. Why aren't people yelling about that? This is corporate greed at its worst.

The accursed Republicans have convinced Americans that pensions are somehow evil. There is too much sentiment to just allow corporations to cheat their employees and retirees.

This would not have happened in the 1960's, 70's, or 80's.

I am angry as Hell. I want my pension back.

Soleri, Did you escape from Gilbert? If not I'll get a hold of Carolyn Jessop and we will come rescue you from the FLDS. Sounds like Mick may want to get some warrior training from Hanna.

Well said, Jon.

I agree with what you write, but still don't understand it. The concept that people are so eager to facilitate in their own exploitation is simply beyond my comprehension. I understand the power of repetitive mass media and entertainment fronting as "news," but I still can't understand the fervor for a set of beliefs so at odds with the ones cherished by our forebears at the apex of our civilization. What's it gonna take? Where will the population hit bottom? What's the inflection point where a critical mass of citizens collectively say "Enough," and junk the voodoo economics theory of the last 30 years. Maybe it will be when our nation of so-called rugged individuals demands a gas subsidy from the government (after praying on the steps of the Capitol fails to lower prices), and the Feds are powerless (or uninterested) in acting? I have no idea anymore, but I fear we're going to have to endure a terrible amount of suffering before we as a society reach that point.

I think I need another glass of wine.

"I am a former IBM employee, and I am due a pension from IBM." - Mick

Corporate tool.

Speaking of economics and the masses, I guess you all know that John Galt is actually coming to town, April 15th.
I wonder how many John Birchers will actually show up at the Valley Art theater to see it? I am going and taking my crayon to write Ryan loves Galt on the bathroom wall. The first Ayn Rand movie was pretty bad it will be interesting to see this one.

Jon,

I agree with 98 percent of what you say. Let me make that clear. As a resident of Seattle who grew up in Phoenix, you are a north star and a compass for me among financial journalists and metro daily columnists. The quality, scope and laser-focused nature of your work are all beacons amidst an increasingly impoverished media landscape.

I do need to address the 2 percent on which I disagree with you, and even then, it's only a disagreement with something of a caveat.

Perhaps, yes, the right is worse than the left, but in the attempt to create change, there is a unique and profound shame that can, should, and - yes - MUST be attached to the Democrats, who are not really "left of center" as presently constructed or motivated.

It is one thing for "the other side" to run roughshod over common sense and sound policy, but when the party that's purportedly/ostensibly supposed to be "on my side" engages in much of the same activity as the Republicans and the right - not on the same scale, but with enough bankruptness of morality and ethics for people to notice - that is, in its own way, an extraordinary betrayal of the public trust and of the adults (FDR and Truman) who provided strong domestic policy even though they continued the unending embrace of the military-industrial complex.

The left and right are far apart, but the Democratic Party is not and has not been a true representative of what one would call "left-wing politics" since the late 1960s. Ever since the Tip O'Neill Congress feuded with Jimmy Carter and then made sweet love to Ronald Reagan from 1977-1985, we have not had robust champions of liberal political principles in Washington, D.C. Clinton - while being somewhat fiscally responsible (his best success as a president) - brought Larry Summers and Bob Rubin into government and did more harm than good. Not since The Great Society has liberalism enjoyed a robust flourishing on the domestic-policy front, and of course, it was the LBJ years when our economy - as documented richly by Kevin Phillips in his great book WEALTH AND DEMOCRACY - reached its postwar peak, with broad-based manufacturing jobs creating products of value and a deep, thriving middle class. The Democratic Party does not look out for the working man today; it's not much of a debate. The Democrats - mostly in their lack of antiwar pushback against Obama's drones & Libyan misadventures but also in domestic realms - have exposed themselves as inconsistent. Perhaps this is not as bad as the Republicans, sure, but enough for the populace to notice.

False equivalence or not, the issue we should be focusing on is that the Democrats do more to make it APPEAR that they're like the Republicans. Look at the NAFTA and CAFTA-style free-trade deals Nancy Pelosi has pushed through (and which Bill Moyers roundly panned before he went off the air).

There is too much of a culture of fear and polarization in our politics. Both sides view each other as evil and as the antichrist, basically. Both parties are easily able to say, "Vote for us not because we're good, but because the other party is much worse!" This is what perpetuates the two-party system and leads to a situation in which Obama is not primaried despite falling well short of true progressive positions with 59 Senate votes and control of the House.

Until or unless this sickening combination of extreme polarization combined with corporate Beltway centrism is expunged, we won't be able to foster either essential ingredient in a return to sensible debate and accordingly sensible policy:

Ingredient number one: The absence of paralyzing fear about the opposition in which no trust can be cultivated.

Ingredient number two: Flowing from number one, the emergence of legitimate middle-ground debate on a full range of issues, so that (for example) Republicans can seriously embrace defense cuts as a step toward budgetary responsibility while Democrats can acknowledge government inefficiency.

Excellent points, Matt.

Zemek, maybe you can explain to me how we get the religious right and company to gain an understanding of "The absence of paralyzing fear about the opposition in which no trust can be cultivated." Or do we not try and hope those outside that segment of the population can overwhelm them and the growing number of Tea Party ignoramuses. I read Phillips “Wealth and Democracy” and I enjoyed the book. As a hard working young man making as many $$ as I could I liked Ike and William Buckley. Currently I am a 70 year old semi retired PI and first and foremost a conservationist and then a fiscal conservative registered republican. I see no reason to change parties after all these years. The problems I have with Obama are, he listens too much to the old guard. He acts too much like the old guard. NAFTA and CAFTA are bad deals and should be eliminated. I was opposed to both stimulus plans. I believed we should have not gone to Iraq in the first place and should get out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Germany and Korea. I also believe the US should have a mandatory 3 year conscription program. As a retired NARC and a capitalist I believe in legalizing all current illegal substances, doing away with the DEA but transferring some of the duties to the FDA. And Ken Salazar has been an enemy when it comes to the environment. Wouldn’t bother me if Obama made Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona a federal wilderness. And the banking and financial institutions need stronger oversight. I believe Obama should have resisted the desire to be a two termer and done as much scorched earth as possible. Didn’t happen and now he is a straw man swinging in the wind waiting for the grim reaper. And don’t you know the Glenn Beck’s and Rush Limbaughs of the world are sharpening their scythes in hoping they get hired to bring death and destruction to the evil opposition.

To expand a bit on what Cal wrote, I doubt there's going to be Grand Compromise between parties or factions. Given Obama's passivity principle, there might well be another Grand Capitulation. But this will serve to underscore the real problem with our political discourse where the worst and the loudest are accorded undue respect. This didn't start with Obama. It started around 20 years ago with the rise of the Right-Wing Scream Machine - talk radio, Fox News, and the legitimization of "alternative reality", such as creationism and Christianism.

The civil war we're enduring will not simply be overcome with civility and moderation. Those are fine impulses but they predispose a system grounded in consensus. Our system of government cannot function when the underlying premise is our lack of faith in government itself. Believing in wealth, individualism, and the "free market" will ultimately destabilize society since it capsizes the one force - government - capable of buffering individuals from a rapacious marketplace. Liberalism undermines its best arguments when it compulsively splits differences with nihilists. That's Obama's strategy and it has been unnerving, to say the least.

Democrats have been contemptible, to be sure. But we shouldn't miss the real drama in American political life: the cultural panic among older whites as they see their dominance slip away. Stoking this fear and manipulating the fearful has been a master political stroke of Republicans. They may well fragment this nation beyond repair. If so, let's remember that Democrats deserve more scorn for cowardice than blind partisanship.

Of course you all know I am a militant agnostic but AMEN brother Soleri

It occurs to me that the state of Arizona's current political climate could be a direct result of the fact that the past 40 years the state's primary industry has been selling retirement living. So now you've got a population skewed towards old to elderly white folks, many of whom live in communities that legally exclude residents below a certain age.

Seems like a ironclad formula for conservative extremism

"Seems like a ironclad formula for conservative extremism [...]"

INFECTION points.

Except Wasatchecon, the young population outnumbers the elderly two-fold and the Hispanic population outnumbers any exclusive community that is over 55. The problem is voter participation among the young, minority, and moderate electorate (especially in Arizona but true for the nation, 2008 being the exception). Of interest however, the recall effort against Pearce will have enough signatures to force an election...same for Peggy Neely; Sal DiCiccio next???

"Of interest however, the recall effort against Pearce will have enough signatures to force an election...same for Peggy Neely; Sal DiCiccio next??? "
As Ed Abbey said that's "Good News."

Brewer on Monday vetoed a bill that would have prohibited state or local governments from taking action against a person's employment or professional license on the basis of the person's exercise of religion.
The Pearce led legislature SB1288 was another attempt by religion to keep law enforcement out of their business particularly when it comes to crimes against children. Organized religion reminds me of "sport hunting" only in this game, kids are for the taking.
If you are in New York this week, for laughs you can take in the "God Squad" at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

Cal, SB 1288 was sponsored by Steve Yarbrough (R-Chandler), correct? There was a definite hidden reasoning behind the authoring of that bill. Now Brewer will need to veto the "guns on campus' public right of way bill."

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