Picking up the candy hearts

By Rich Tucker

Adulting remains difficult. But it’s more important than ever right now.

First published at TheHill.com

By Memorial Day it was, finally, time to pick up the candy hearts.

During my son’s freshman year at Vanderbilt University, I sent him a letter or a package every few weeks. Not so much to cheer him up; he loved the university and enjoyed being there. More to cheer myself up, and remind myself that I still mattered to his life.

Around the first of March I spotted two-week old Valentine candy hearts on super-duper sale at a CVS. No doubt they were 95 percent off by that point. Who wants hearts that say “I Love You” when it’s already March, the Roman month of war? I dashed off a letter to my son, packed it in with the candy, and sent it off to Nashville.

Then they closed his school.

On March 9 Vanderbilt had a report of exposure to coronavirus. The administration planned to shut down for a week or so, but my wife correctly predicted there would be no further classes on campus this Spring. She booked my son on a flight out the next day. He hadn’t gone back to Nashville since.

Zoom replaced office hours, online learning replaced lecture halls. The candy hearts sat, unopened, on his desk.

In late May, the school announced its next step. Students should return at prearranged times to clear out of their dorm rooms. That’s how we ended up driving to Nashville on Memorial Day weekend.

It was eerily quiet when we arrived at his dorm. When we’d moved him in back in August, campus had been a madhouse. Teams of students unpacking cars and helping freshmen move in. Thousands of sad parents milling around. Now, we were about the only people on campus. We parked, illegally, in the roundabout by his dorm and headed in.

A gallon of milk from the fridge quickly went down the drain. A bag of apples ended up in the front seat for the drive home.

I unzipped the suitcase we’d brought, and realized there was a smaller suitcase inside. When I unzipped that one, I found a third. Because I didn’t want to get stuck in an Abbot and Costello routine, I didn’t open that third suitcase to find more and more and more suitcases. I just set it aside.

My son didn’t have much stuff. His clothing fit in the large suitcase, his schoolwork and books into the second one. His bedding went into the dirty clothes hamper. Some posters, a small keyboard, toiletries. Boom. Within an hour we’d packed everything from the room neatly into our car.

“Ready to roll?” I asked.

“Sure, but it’s warmer than I thought. I shouldn’t have worn a long sleeve shirt,” he answered. We were both sweating from the trips up and down from the fifth floor.

“Well, you have about 100 short sleeve shirts in the trunk,” I noted. It took just minutes to pull one out of the suitcase and we headed toward home.

The drive back is a metaphor. 

For hours and hours, we rolled through the country with no problems. The sun was shining. I listened to podcasts, he tapped into music on his phone. It could have been 2019, except that we also spent some time plotting our family’s future in this changing world.

Suddenly, after seven hours on the road, as I was preparing to have him drive again, came a challenge. A downpour of biblical proportions. I slowed but didn’t stop.

Gripping the wheel and concentrating on the stripes in the middle of the road, I steered carefully for more than hour, able to see just well enough to keep us, like our nation, moving forward. While I kept a white-knuckle grip on the wheel, I noted that my son was playing on his DS, apparently oblivious to the storm.

And I realized: this is the difficulty of being an adult.

“Adulting” means, simply, that there are people depending on you. You cannot afford to let them down even when it’s all too easy to do so. I suddenly had a memory. I was a child, riding home through a snowstorm on New York Route 17, an interstate-like highway. That trip meant hours of high-stress driving for my father. As a child, though, I had no idea the pressure he was under. Now I understand.

Also on my mind is the fact that, just a week before this trip, I’d lost my job. I’m laid off from a trade association because of Covid-19. It was nothing I’d done, they told me. They just needed to make some cuts in this new economic environment. I have no idea when or whether I’ll land another gig. That makes for some white knuckles as well as gnawed fingernails.

What will the world look like after Covid-19? The thought is as scary to me as a downpour on I-81. However, we cannot avoid the coming crisis. We can only steer through it as best we can, keeping our eyes on the road and hoping for the best.

My family is depending on me, just as your family is depending on you. As Americans, we’ll all get through this together.

As for us, well, we ate my son’s candy hearts on the drive back. When I dropped them in the mail, I’d never expected to see them again. Today, the world of Valentine’s Day 2020 no longer exists.

Our family is luckier than most. My son had a normal high school graduation, and more than half of a normal freshman year. He can expect to see the Vandy campus again in good times.

As for the rest of us: yes, there’s a downpour. But we need to keep our eyes on the road and keep moving forward. Adulting remains difficult. But it’s more important than ever right now.

Blueprint

By Rich Tucker

“Blueprint” is about how we’ve adapted through social evolution. Traits that make for a successful society tend to be passed along. Traits that do not tend to die out.

The first two months of the Covid-19 crisis may have increased your faith in human nature. Or they may have convinced you that humans have no future. But if you found yourself wondering what make us human in the first place, know that there is a “Blueprint.”

Nicholas Christakis is a Professor at Yale and the co-author of a 2009 book about how our social networks shape our lives. By that he didn’t mean simply Facebook and Instagram (which hadn’t even been invented when the book was published). He meant the way humans interact with each other in groups. We’re “stronger together” (as all the hashtags on Facebook insist), and Prof. Christakis is here to prove that.

Fair enough. And in a wide-ranging recent book, Christakis makes a number of excellent points.

“Animal species may face a wide variety of threats, but the biggest threat to humans, more than predators or any environmental exigencies, is other humans,” he writes, and that is worth remembering even as a virus stalks humanity. “If the most important feature of the human environment is other humans, then that feature is a constant across all physical and biological environments, from the poles to the equator. And our species has adapted to that.

His book “Blueprint” is about how we’ve adapted: through social evolution. Traits that make for a successful society tend to be passed along. Traits that do not tend to die out.

As an aside, the Christakis book shouldn’t be confused with Robert Plomin’s book “Blueprint,” because that is about how DNA makes us who we are. Think of it as nature over nurture for Plomin, nurture alongside nature for Christakis.

What makes for a successful society? Well, monogamy, for one thing. “Political entities, nations, and religions that adopted monogamy had a reduced rate of this sort of violence and could deploy their resources more productively, internally and externally,” he writes. “From this perspective, modern norms and institutions regarding monogamous marriage have been shaped by a kind of evolutionary process in response to the forces of intergroup competition and intragroup benefits.”

That is counterintuitive, since on a strictly genetic level, it would make sense for a many to have sex with as many women as possible. If he could convince another man to pay to raise his children, so much the better. Society flips that script, convincing (most) men to focus their attention on one woman, and invest in offspring with only her. That leads to two-parent households, which are the most effective places to raise children.

A common culture also means we don’t need to begin each generation anew. We can “stand on the shoulders of giants,” and not just Newton, but everyone who has ever lived. “No human has to learn everything on his or her own; we can all rely on others to teach us, a hugely efficient practice present in all cultures,” he writes.

Also, there are no “universal people.” But if there were, they would share certain traits, Christakis writes, quoting another scientist, Prof. Donald Brown. We all seem to “have gossip, music, taboos, belief in magic, rites of passage, attention to male aggressive impulses, fancy speeches for special occasions, as well as other features.”

So.

“If there is a blueprint for a basic, functional society that has been shaped by evolution and that is part of our genetic heritage, why do societies ever fail?” Christakis wonders. Specifically, he blames human violence (we tend to kill each other, although levels of violence are dropping in recent decades) and the threat from difficult physical environments (it’s tough to survive in the Sahara, or at the South Pole).

That’s a good start, but while Christakis goes into exhaustive detail about various societies, if you want to understand how people can cooperate to survive in difficult climes, a much better book is “The Secret of Our Success,” by Joseph Henrich. It’s a much easier and entertaining read.

Meanwhile, a good takeaway from either book is, as Christakis writes, that “when it comes to society, the whole comes to be greater than the sum of its parts, with distinctive features not present in the components.”

Reason enough to be confident about the future of society – and humanity – after Covid-19.

Younger Generations Will Build A Better Future

By Rich Tucker

When this virus passes, the United States will quickly look very different. The very pace of change will be an opportunity. It’s time to embrace that change.

(First published at TheHill.com)

It’s impossible to say what the United States will look like when the Covid-19 quarantine is lifted, although there is no doubt some businesses and even entire industries will be swept away. Certainly the social distancing habit is likely to stick around for some time, if not forever.

However, there are many ways that the U.S. can bounce back in the months and years ahead. To do so we must unlock the potential of rising generations and make an opportunity out of this crisis.

The first thing to do is reduce overly burdensome regulation.

As the country geared up to fight the virus, governments tried to speed the response by waiving many regulations. But these changes came too late. For example, Andy Kessler in The Wall Street Journal reports that a doctor from Johns Hopkins tried to get a Covid-19 test approved in January. “And we lost precious time when one of the original scientists submitted an application and was told that he had to submit it also by paper mail with a CD-ROM with the files burned on it,” Dr. Marty Makary explained.

The federal government isn’t ready for the digital age, but rising generations of Americans can change that. At Facebook, “new hires and even summer interns could, within a week of starting, see their features distributed to a billion users. That’s the speed of software in 2020,” Kessler writes. As another author puts it, “the faster things change, the younger and younger the best and most competent models get.” That’s Joseph Henrich in his book “The Secret of Our Success.” We need new generations to deliver that speed throughout the economy.

It’s important to note the main way that the current recession is different from the recession caused by the mortgage meltdown in 2008. In that crisis, Wall Street was the cause of the disruption. When the market started to drop, millions of Baby Boomers lost millions in their 401(k) accounts. Some, no doubt, shelved plans to retire.

This time, the banks are part of the solution, not part of the problem. The market has rebounded. It is down from February’s records, but (as of mid-April) the S&P 500 is still about 25% higher than it was at the end of 2016. So Boomers may still feel flush. Meanwhile, the older generation has been working from home for weeks now.

A good number of workers in their late 60s and 70s are going to decide they don’t want to go back into an office every day when this is all over. They will retire, switch to part time or work from home. This could present leadership opportunities for younger workers.

These generations are ready for more, and ready to work. “My whole generation learned relentless work was the way to cope with the rolling crisis, with the mood of imminent collapse and economic insecurity that was the elevator music of our entire youth,” writes Laurie Penny in Wired. But that effort hasn’t paid off yet.

“Millennials and Gen Z are disillusioned,” Deloitte Global’s 2019 Global Millennial Survey found. “Many are not particularly satisfied with their lives, financial situations, jobs, government and business leaders, social media, or the way their data is used.” The aftermath of Covid-19 could give these generations openings to show real leadership and finally be rewarded for their hard work.

They’ve earned it. A crisis can define a generation, and even elevate it. “The experience of World War II in their development window may have forged America’s Greatest Generation, permanently elevating their national commitment and public spirit,” Henrich writes in his evolution book. And yet today’s generations may be even more self-sacrificing than that one was.

“As loudly as their contributions resound in history, two-thirds of them were drafted,” Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.) notes in his book “Knife Fights.” He adds, “This new greatest generation has fought longer if not harder than its grandparents did, and all have been volunteers.”

Nagl was writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can add the battle against Covid-19 in there as well. Younger people were at little risk from the virus, yet volunteered to stay home to bend the curve and help their elders.

When this virus passes, the United States will quickly look very different. The very pace of change will be an opportunity. It’s time to embrace that change. As those younger generations rise, we can be assured the United States is in great hands.

A Paucity of Scarcity

By Rich Tucker

Policymakers are always ready to pass out “emergency” money, making Washington, D.C. the lender of last resort. What if it runs out of money?

(First published at TheHill.com)

Economics is the study of scarcity. Resources are limited. Human desires are unlimited.

But while the laws of economics haven’t been repealed, it is clear that Americans don’t think much of the idea of scarcity. We prefer to focus on prosperity. Start with spending, which is abundant, both by consumers and governments.

Until recently, lawmakers in both parties preached the need for the government to show financial restraint. To be fair, for decades they never followed through on that rhetoric. But they liked to talk about reducing spending and trimming deficits. During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, Barack Obama declared himself in favor of a “net spending cut.”

In 2010, he appointed a bipartisan commission led by former Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles. “This can’t be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem,” the president announced in his State of the Union address. “The commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline.”

But when the commission did make recommendations, everyone in power in Washington simply ignored it.

They’re still ignoring the deficit. Consider the big “compromise” lawmakers agreed to last year. Republicans kept the tax cuts they’d enacted in 2017, and Congress agreed to spend $320 billion more over the next two years. Lawmakers also lifted budget caps during that time. The annual deficit neared $1 trillion in 2019, and will soar higher in this fiscal year. The only thing scarce in D.C. is fiscal discipline.

This matters, because everyone looks to the federal government to step in during emergencies.

When banks seemed on the verge of collapse in 2008, it was Uncle Sam that ponied up, whether banks wanted the money or not. A decade later, the “too big to fail” banks are even bigger: S&P Global found Wells Fargo is 300 percent larger, J.P. Morgan has doubled and Bank of America is 50 percent larger.

Meanwhile, for weather disasters, farm subsidies, or an upcoming census, policymakers are always ready to pass out “emergency” money, making Washington, D.C. the lender of last resort.

But failures are looming: Social Security, for example, is set to run out of money in 15 years, even as American life expectancy approaches 80 years, up by a decade since 1960. Yet there’s no political urgency to address this; Americans just seem to assume scarcity won’t be a problem for Social Security and other entitlement programs.

Another way scarcity could come back to bite is if it causes a drop in consumer spending, which goes up month after month and year after year. Consumer spending is two-thirds of the American economy. Just as with the government, a share of that spending is borrowed money. As of 2018, the average American had about $38,000 in personal debt, excluding home mortgage debt. That is $13.21 trillion that year, accounting for about two-thirds of the entire economy ($20.55 trillion).

Only about a quarter of us claimed to carry “no debt” in 2018. Most Americans admit they couldn’t raise $400 in case of an emergency. And while the government may be too big to fail, individual households can, and do, fail all the time.  

As usual, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was ahead of his time on this. “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity,” King wrote in 1967.

That quote encapsulates the hubris of the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson promised Americans that we had such abundance, we could have both guns and butter. Instead, we ended up with “stagflation.”  King is correct that the upper classes are doing well. Today we have more millionaires and billionaires than ever before.

Still, scarcity hadn’t vanished in the 1960s, and it hasn’t vanished today. We ignore that at our peril.

Start With the Positives to Rebuild America

by Rich Tucker

It’s important to figure out where American jobs went, but even more important to figure out how to get them back. Or at least how to help the people who’ve lost them.

(FIRST PUBLISHED AT THEHILL.COM)

In my home town, there are many carousels.

Six, to be exact. They exist because a man named George F. Johnson ran a shoe company. Maybe you’ve worn E-J (Endicott-Johnson) footwear. The company employed hundreds of thousands of people in the Binghamton, New York region. The Johnson family also believed in “welfare capitalism.” In addition to free merry-go-rounds, E-J profits funded schools, parks and a hospital.

The factories are empty now, undone by competition from overseas. E-J was replaced as a major employer by IBM. Then, by the late 1980s, that came to stand for “I’ve Been Moved” as that company shipped jobs out of the area. Now IBM is gone as well, leaving empty facilities and a “plume” of groundwater pollution it will cost millions to clean up.

It’s important to figure out where American jobs went, but even more important to figure out how to get them back. Or at least how to help the people who’ve lost them. After all, we can’t all move to Brooklyn; some of us have to be able to shelter in place. Perhaps residents in troubled regions could even deliver positive changes on their own.

Where to begin? Start small.

In their book “Switch,” authors Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of Miner County, South Dakota. By 1995, the region was shrinking as “farm and industrial jobs had slowly dried up.” When young people “got old enough, they left and didn’t return.” But it didn’t need to be that way.

Students at a local high school launched a campaign aimed at reversing the decline. They called it “Let’s keep Miner dollars in Miner County.” The students calculated that if residents “spent just 10 percent more of their disposable income at home, they would boost the local economy by $7 million.”

They ended up doing much better than that. A year after the campaign started, the state calculated that the amount spent in the county had jumped by $15.6 million. That helped local businesses, of course. But it also increased tax revenues, making more money available for other projects. Instead of a death spiral, Miner County started spinning up.

In local communities today, people could start by shopping at a local grocery instead of a dollar store. Then eating at a local restaurant instead of a chain. That would begin to keep more local money circulating locally. Then, they must find ways to keep more people around.

In their book “Our Towns,” Jim and Deborah Fallows write that successful areas usually have a major research university nearby. Well, Binghamton University is one of the top New York State schools. But students usually get their degrees and leave the area.

Give more of those grads a reason to stay (the way technology grads often remain near Boston and Palo Alto after graduation) and the area might find itself playing host to the next big thing. It’s worth noting that, in their book “Jump-Starting America,” economists Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson list the Binghamton-Ithaca region in the top-10 for potential development.

Of course, you can also try to compete on beer. Brewpubs won’t change everything, but having some helps; the Fallows book notes that the presence of a craft brewery is a sign of a healthy community. So it’s good news that small breweries are popping up in communities nationwide. Let’s all drink to that.

Finally, think really big. Warehouse big.

The Binghamton area, like many places throughout the U.S., is blessed with superhighways, railroads, and affordable land. There are plenty of places for more inland ports. As long as a region is within a three-hour drive of a major city, where shoppers are hungering for same-day delivery, it could be home to massive fulfillment centers. Failing malls, once the center of suburban life and now eyesores, could be converted to data centers. Or they could become places to store and ship goods for e-commerce.

Weather forecasters have all the available information, and yet they still sometimes end up caught in downpours. Americans can’t know what the future will hold, but we can still try to shape it with development that would generate jobs and drive innovation. There’s no reason the future can’t be bright, all across the fruited plain.

Stop the Attacks

By Rich Tucker

Because they’re misusing the word “attack” when they really mean “insult,” politicians and journalists are making it more difficult to communicate.

(FIRST PUBLISHED AT THEHILL.COM)

American civil discourse is under attack. Frighteningly, the enemy is already within the gates.

But don’t panic. It should be easy enough to defeat this offensive, if only we have the will to update our spellcheck software. Our nemesis can’t harm us unless we ourselves deploy it improperly. It’s the common word “attack.”

Readers can hardly wade on to the internet in 2019 without witnessing an attack. In September Newsy headlined: “Hurricane Dorian Finishes Attack On Bahamas Before Heading North.” The Washington Post explains how online “attacks” against Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) are escalating. Meanwhile, the L.A. Times wonders: “Can Joe Biden withstand Trump’s attacks and his own stumbles?”

If these “attacks” keep up, somebody may get hurt.

The problem isn’t the news coverage these stories are getting. The problem is the choice of words the journalists are using to cover the stories. None of these stories represented an “attack” as the word should be used. For example, hurricane Dorian can’t “attack” anything, because it’s a storm, not a living being. In this context, the writer is making it seem as if Dorian consciously took action; it didn’t. It simply went where the weather pushed it.

Note also that Dorian is an “it,” not a “he.” Hurricanes, even those from the pre-1978 era when they were given exclusively female names, have no gender. There may be man-caused global warming (or there may not) but there are no male storms.

Meanwhile, the president and his political opponents may (and do!) repeatedly “insult” each other. They may “blast” each other. They may “scorn” or “disrespect” or even “dis” each other. But there’s absolutely no violence involved. It’s just words, and as the cliché teaches, “Words can never hurt you.”

“Attack” isn’t the only word that’s being misused. You’ve probably heard about “treason” as well. No less an authority than the U.S. Constitution defines it this way: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” But many are throwing the word around for things that aren’t even crimes, let alone treasonous.

Economist Paul Krugman accuses “Big Finance,” whoever that may be, of treason (apparently because it opposes Elizabeth Warren). “It’s treason!” Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.) said of President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president. Trump reflects the word right back at congressional Democrats, repeatedly accusing Schiff of “treason.” Trump also thinks former FBI officials James Comey and Andrew McCabe are guilty of treason.

There are actual problems in the world

In a time when one country is using high tech weapons to destroy the oil facilities in another country, it cheapens the word to use “attack” to mean “insult.” There’s certainly enough actual violence in our world today to keep the word “attack” fully employed. Likewise, it cheapens the accusation of “treason” if the user defines the word as meaning “somebody saying something I dislike.” Treason charges should only be raised when one takes up arms against the United States. 

There are better verbs for our restive times, and we need to work together to find them. That might require us to do a better job of taking our political opponents seriously and paying attention to them. Maybe Democrats could all agree to watch Fox News and Republicans could tune in to MSNBC for a few hours a week. Call it opposition research, if you like, but we might find that the “other side” is using the same words our side uses, and is using them just as incorrectly. Perhaps we’d even discover ways to disarm and disagree without being disagreeable.

In any event, Americans (especially journalists) should retire the casual use of the word “attack,” and push back when a political figure claims “treason.”

QUITTING TIME

By Rich Tucker

Even the richest, most successful sports franchises give up on seasons, and that’s not fair to their fans.

(Originally published at Bellyupsports.com)

Everyone loves quitting time. Except Red Sox fans.

Baseball is stunned this week after one of its wealthiest teams gave away its best player. Who do they think they are, the Twins?

Quitting While they’re Behind

As an aside, The Sports Critic remembers when the Twins traded Frank Viola to the Mets in 1989. The deal happened seconds before the July 31st trade deadline. But somebody at The Critic’s hometown paper, the Binghamton Press, must have decided to quit early that night. The actual sports page headline on August 1st was, “Mets Fail to Acquire Twins Viola.” Missed the point by just two words: “Fail to.” The Critic still regrets not having that one framed for posterity.

Anyway, are the Red Sox quitting on 2020? Does Jarron Cumberland have tattoos?

A Varmint Will Never Quit

What’s stunning is that these Sox are one of baseball’s richest teams. They can afford to compete every year. If the Southside White Sox were quitting on a season, who could blame them? They’ve quit on almost every season (including and especially 1919) and play in a detested stadium in front of hundreds (sometimes) of fans. Meanwhile the BoSox have a famed bandbox of a stadium, are beloved throughout New England and have an entire nation named after them. It doesn’t bode well for the year 2020 that they are already giving up.

As another aside, The Sports Critic was working at CNN when one of the technical people became upset at the spelling of Sox and changed it, on screen, to “Socks.” As they say in Spanish, “It is what it is.”

Boston’s decision to say no mas goes back to the Astros cheating scandal. Alex Cora, who was fired just one season after winning the 2018 World Series for the Sox, was fingered in the 2017 Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal (he was a coach on that Houston squad). Rumor has it he may have brought his cheating heart with him to Boston for that championship season. In any event, the Red Sox dumped him, then dumped Betts in quick succession.

I Wish I Could be Quitting You

As with so many things, The Sports Critic blames Philadelphia. The 76ers started the current quitting craze in 2013. The team literally (and I am literally using that word correctly) told fans that it was giving up on the season. “Trust the process,” the 76ers insisted and went to work trading effective NBA players for CBA failures. Sports Illustrated explained that the goal was, “To increase the team’s chances at a top draft pick by losing.” In other words, quitting. (As Dilbert’s boss knows, everything sounds worse, “in other words.”

Quit Your Whining

There is a simple solution to quitting. Send losing teams down to the minors. In English soccer, they call it “relegation.” Instead of giving the worst teams top draft choices, the league gives them one-way tickets to the minor leagues, and it rewards top minor league teams with a chance to move up to the top level.

Instead of the biblical, “The last shall be first,” English soccer fans get, “The last shall be banished.” Nothing focuses the mind like a few years in the wilderness.

Some of us have been looking forward to 2020 since Hugh Downs retired. For Red Socks fans, a promising vision has turned blurry. They’d better get bifocals to watch this season.

Winners take all

By Rich Tucker

In his book, “Winners Take All,” Anand Giridharadas tries — but fails — to explain what’s going wrong in the United States.

A Book Review

Welfare capitalism built towns across America. Including my home town, which grew up in large part around Endicott-Johnson shoe factories.

Could it work again? Perhaps. Perhaps not. However, if companies cared a bit more about their workers, perhaps the government wouldn’t need to. That’s a worthy goal, but unfortunately a goal that isn’t really explored in “Winners Take All,” by Anand Giridharadas.

If you’re like me, you probably saw this book as you walked through an airport. Then again, that assumes you’re among the minority of Americans who find themselves strolling through airports. The people Giridharadas needs to help don’t get off the ground, much. And that’s a problem for the author.

Giridharadas tries to explain what’s going on. He points the finger at the financialization of America. As anthropologist David Graeber defines that concept: “Increasingly, corporate profits are not derived from commerce or industry at all, but from finance—which means, ultimately, from other people’s debts.”

Giridharadas adds that, “The financial sector has extracted more and more value from the American economy, at the expense not only of consumers and workers but also of industry itself.” There are no E-Js today, because, “more and more of the nation’s financial resources were swilled around Wall Street without taking the form of new investment by companies or higher wages for workers.”

Blame globalization. As companies lost a sense of place, they lost connection to their (often former) workers in that place. But the solution Giridharadas offers is less than satisfying. He seems to think that if the wealthy just paid more in taxes, the government-run welfare state could take care of people.

But the federal government doesn’t have the answer to unemployment, either. It tends to push for retraining programs that don’t work. As Amy Goldstein wrote in her book “Janesville,” after the 2008 GM plant shutdown in Wisconsin, “Job retraining, it turned out, was not a path to more work or better pay in and around Janesville, at least not during this time when jobs were so scarce.” Instead, former GMers did better by simply striking off on their own.

But Giridharadas seems to trust the government.

In one completely unfair parenthetical, he asserts: “It goes without saying, for example, that if hedge funders hadn’t been enormously creative in dodging taxes, the income available for foreign aid would have been much greater.” Well, sure. But the U.S. spends about 0.7 percent of its budget on foreign aid. If there was more money available, that’s not where Congress would spend it.

Such big spending is a non-starter, anyway. “A key principle of rainbow liberalism is that the solution to working-class woes is hiking taxes on the rich to finance a generous suite of wage subsidies, social services, and, for the truly ambitious, basic-income grants,” Reihan Salam writes in The Atlantic. “But will white liberals be as enthusiastic about sharp increases in their taxes if those increases become something other than theoretical?” To ask the question is to answer it.

Giridharadas also floats, approvingly, the idea that Hillary Clinton’s proposals would have been better for the middle class than Donald Trump’s. But he then spends most of a chapter (rightly) blasting the Clinton Global Initiative, which embodied globalization. CGI also greatly enriched the Clinton family, to the point that Chelsea Clinton was free to say: “I was curious if I could care about [money] on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t.” Well, of course not; because she has it. As for those middle class Americans, it’s fair to say CGI was less profitable.

A key problem for Giridharadas is that he spent too much time marinating in the very system he now seems to hate. “He is an Aspen Institute fellow, an on-air political analyst for MSNBC and a former McKinsey analyst,” the book’s jacket proclaims. Those Americans grounded by job losses might say he’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Yet he spends most of the book blasting big globalist organizations such as the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic magazine, also an airport staple and a place where Giridharadas has been published.

Amid the self-loathing, he really offers only one potential solution: Make being good easy by creating B Corps, companies that do good while doing well (financially).

That would replace Milton Friedman’s idea that companies should only exist to serve their shareholders. To be fair, Friedman’s concept made sense in 1970, but it has, perhaps, been taken too far (a point to explore when we review “The Economists’ Hour,” by New York Times correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum.

B Corps may be part of the solution. However, commentators such as Giridharadas will need to come down out of the clouds if they want to offer effective solutions to today’s economic problems.

Lies that bind

By Rich Tucker

In “The Lies that Bind,” Kwame Anthony Appiah encourages us to “rethink identity.” The current American approach seems sensible.

A Book Review

American politics are again splintering over race. Donald Trump uses racist code. Lawmakers snipe at each other over identity groupings. Democratic presidential candidates support discredited 1970s-era busing policies.

Things seem to be flying apart.

But perhaps it’s the opposite. Maybe this is a final gasp of identity politics. Instead of being pushed to the poles, perhaps we’re moving to the center, where our differences can become less important.

In “The Lies that Bind,” Kwame Anthony Appiah encourages us to “rethink identity.” For example, he says it’s impossible for an individual to speak for an entire group. “Our identities are multiple and can interact in complicated ways,” he notes.

Modern genetics backs that up. Go back just a few thousand years, and we’re all related to each other. We share more than we’re divided by.

Of course, it’s human nature to want to belong to larger groups. An experiment showed boys at camp dividing themselves into competing groups. “The boys didn’t develop opposing identities because they had different norms; they developed different norms because they had opposing identities,” Appiah writes.

So the current American approach seems sensible: We accept the unchangeable and allow people to group themselves (First Amendment), yet we legally ban discrimination. This seems to be working.

Appiah concludes that identity can be defined as an activity (verb), not as a thing (noun). And activities can change. Not quickly enough for some. But things are moving in a positive direction.

Let’s meet in the middle.

Janesville

By Rich Tucker

This should be one of the first books anyone who wants to understand the 2008 financial meltdown reads. It’s not about finance, it’s about people. And people are what’s really important.

A Book Review

People in the nation’s capital don’t read books the way they claim to. Many political tomes are simply statements (long statements) penned to give ghostwriters something to do.

Decades ago, Washington journalist Michael Kinsley noted that many of these sort of “books don’t exist to be read,” Instead, Kinsley wrote, “They exist to be gazed at, browsed through, talked about.”

Such works also exist to allow publishers to hand a bunch of money to politicians who might matter again someday. For example, former and future candidates named Obama and Clinton (Bill and Hillary, in their turn) massively benefitted from putting their names on books few, if any, actually read.

However, if we’re going to draw political conclusions from a book, it’s probably best to begin by reading it. And so, a year after it became the book that everyone in Washington had supposedly read, I finally picked up a copy of Amy Goldstein’s book “Janesville.”

It wasn’t clear to me exactly why the author, a reporter for the Washington Post, happened to be in Janesville, Wisconsin in 2008 when General Motors announced it would close its plant there. But she was.

In fact, on the day GM made its announcement, Goldstein spoke with Rep. Paul Ryan. Before he ran for vice president or became speaker of the House of Representatives, Ryan (always, annoyingly, called “Paul” throghout Goldstein’s book) was a congressman from Janesville and a rising star in the Republican party.

Goldstein does great reporting. She follows several people from the time of the announcement through the fruitless attempts to keep the plant open, and even for years after the plant shut down. But in some ways, she seems to miss the main message of her work, which can be summed up in one sentence: “Job retraining, it turned out, was not a path to more work or better pay in and around Janesville, at least not during this time when jobs were so scarce.”

Yet “job retraining” is what the federal government pushed for. Federal policies encouraged laid off workers to go to Blackhawk Community College, even though many of the plant’s workers hadn’t taken any classes since finishing high school years (or decades) earlier.

Many were not ready for the classroom. Further, the profession many trained for, stringing electric wire, never panned out. The federal government was inept at predicting the sort of jobs workers should move into. Too many of these students washed out with no degree and more debt.

In fact, the workers who did best are those who simply struck out on their own or followed their passions. They tended to find work more quickly and make more in hourly wages.

One thing that jumps out from the book is that there are things the federal government could do to give more help to blue collar workers in places like Janesville. Instead of schooling, the government could offer to guarantee people can keep their healthcare benefits for a period of time, maybe two years. Benefits were a big part of GM’s compensation package. If people could have kept those benefits, they might have been able to take another job right away, even if it didn’t offer benefits immediately.

Likewise, the government could guarantee that that laid-off workers could keep their homes for a similar two-year time period, no questions asked. This would, of course, be difficult to work out in practice. But remember that during this time, the federal government poured billions into bailing out big banks, and all we got were bigger banks. That money could, in theory at least, have gone to actual people and allowed them to keep their homes.

“Janesville” is a good read, well-researched and informative. It should be one of the first books anyone who wants to understand the 2008 financial meltdown reads. It’s not about finance, it’s about people. And people are what’s really important.