Friday, February 24, 2017

A Brief History of the World (That I Lived Through) Part One

There's no doubt that our country is deeply divided. It's hard to put a finger on when it started to happen or how, but there are some pretty clear indicators that the cracks started to form in the 1980s. I remember in the late '80s listening to a liberal pundit talking on the news about the legacy of the Ronald Reagan presidency. He said that Reagan had made us comfortable with our prejudices. At the time, I thought it was a pretty mean thing to say, but in hindsight, I think the guy was spot on.

In the 70s. I grew up in a blue-collar town filled with Southern transplants who had moved north to work in the factories that filled our community. I can't deny that there was quite a bit of racism in my community, but it was kept largely out of sight. I'd hear the "n word" dropped fairly casually and the occasional grumbling about people on welfare driving Cadillacs, but there was a general mood in the country, following the events of the '60s, that it just wasn't proper to be openly racist. We even had some African-Americans and other minorities living in the neighborhood, and no one was threatening them or treating them with any hostility.

Most everyone was a registered Democrat because most of the fathers were union men and the Democrats looked out for workers' rights. It was the party of Social Security and Medicare and of generally helping out the little guy. Nevertheless, as the Carter administration chugged along, there was a growing sense that the working class were taking a back seat to minorities, immigrants, and gays. The party was becoming too intellectual, too elitist. All the while, the Industrial Age was sputtering to a halt as automation and competition from other countries was undercutting the strength of the mighty steel and auto industries.

My father was not a blue collar guy. He worked as a cryptanalyst for National Security Agency (NSA). I felt like a bit of an odd ball in school because, while other kids could say that their dads were pipe fitters or they made suspensions for Chevrolets, I never really could explain what my dad did (he couldn't tell me either). I also couldn't understand why other families had boats and motorcycles and took fancy vacations while we struggled just to get by. Only later did I realize that, while my dad was quite smart and had an extremely important job, he was paid far less than my neighbor's dad who spent his whole day bolting bumpers onto station wagons. That was the world we lived in then. Someone from the back woods of West Virginia with barely a high school education could come to Maryland, get a union job, and make more money than a college-educated man who was decoding messages intercepted from the Viet Cong and the Soviets.

But it all started to unravel around 1979. Younger workers were getting laid off. Older workers were being asked to do more for less. Even older workers were given buyouts to retire with a fraction of the benefits that were once promised. The American Dream was disintegrating and Jimmy Carter was droning on about a "malaise," as if all this was somehow our fault.

Then came Ronald Reagan. He was cheerful and confident and telling us that the only thing we needed to do to "make America great again" was to unleash the shackles government had put on corporate America and prosperity would rain down on us once again. That sounded really good to the people in my community. These life-long Democrats voted for the Republican with the big ideas about trickle-down economics. It sounded good at the time. It was simple and straightforward. No fussy intellectual mumbo-jumbo like the Democrats were babbling about.

In 1982, I was turning 18 like most of my senior high school class. We were trotted down to the cafeteria to register for the upcoming election. Many of my classmates registered as Republicans. They were probably the first Republicans in their families, and it was all because of Reagan. Never mind that the unemployment rate had jumped to over 10%, up from the 7.5% it was when Reagan first became president. Never mind that the huge tax break he gave the wealthy never turned into actual jobs. They were not paying attention to the man behind the curtain, but rather were mesmerized by the gleaming face on the TV screen.

During my college years, there was a heating up of the economy, but it was largely based on wild speculation. Businesses were expanding for no other reason than because tax breaks and deregulation had made it possible to do so. I was working as a clerk in a Sherwin-Williams store at the time, and I saw how they were opening new stores all over Maryland at a feverish pace. I talked to one of our sales reps about that, wondering why on Earth they were doing it when we already faced steep competition from Duron, Martin's, and the newfangled warehouse hardware stores popping up everywhere. He talked about how they were being "aggressive" and other business babble, but there was nothing in what he said that indicated a sound business plan for growth. It was simply a case of exuberant optimism.

During my senior year of college, Timbuk 3 had a big hit with the song "The Future's so Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)." I loved the irony of it, but at the same time, I was hoping that all this enthusiasm for a booming economy might actually make it come true. I was about to get my first "real job," and I needed a strong economy to grease my career skids. I graduated in 1987. It was the year that brought the junk bond scandal, the Savings & Loan debacle, and "Black Monday" when the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost almost 23 % of its value in one day. Instead of wearing shades, I was breaking out a flashlight to see where my future had gone.

To be continued...

Friday, February 17, 2017

How Did We Get Here?

I started this blog nearly a decade ago because I needed a place to vent. We were in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, bogged down in two wars, deficit spending was out of control, and an overheated economy was about to crash and burn. In spite of all this, Democrats were relatively silent on these matters. Yes, the Democrats had taken over Congress in 2006 and we were about to elect our first African-American president, but there wasn't all that much outrage being voiced over the failed policies of Republicans. I felt like I needed a place to unleash my frustrations even if only a handful of people would read it.

Then Barack Obama became president during one of the dreariest periods in our country and, slowly but surely, he started turning things around. An infrastructure bill created much needed jobs, a loan to GM and Chrysler saved the American auto industry, and work began on the Affordable Care Act. Democrats felt like they had found a savior, and my frustration and outrage started to ebb. My posts shifted from a political nature to grousing about football and baseball. I, like a lot of other Democrats, decided that we were now safe and could go back to living regular lives.

Sure, I didn't like the racist tone that seeped into the right-wing rhetoric, particularly from the Tea Party Movement as it was usurped in its mission by white supremacists and Christian extremists. I was concerned when the Democrats didn't turn out for the mid-term election, causing us to lose the House. I was even more concerned about the continued loss of Democratic seats in Congress during the 2012 election, but hey, Obama got a second term! That had to count for something, right?

By 2016, the field of presidential candidates was not looking good. The Democrats had the inspirational but clearly too-liberal-for-middle-America Bernie Sanders and the extremely qualified but extremely reviled Hillary Clinton. I kept wondering, where's the young blood? Where are the Gen X-ers and Millenials who have been trampled by this rigged economy? Are we still letting the Baby Boomers call the political shots after half-a-century of "Look at me! We're the most important people on Earth!"?

Despite all this, I took solace in the fact that the Republicans were rolling out the same clown car of idiots, racists, and con men, including the biggest con man of them all, Donald J. Trump. I'd always been physically repulsed by the man since he made himself a household name in the 1980s. In the era of runaway avarice and classless conspicuous consumption, Trump was the personification of everything I hated about the Reagan era. But things were different now, right? Nobody was taking this blowhard game show host seriously, right?

As the results rolled in on election night, I had that same sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I do when the weathermen suddenly realize that that 1-inch snowstorm they'd been forecasting all week has turned into a whopping blizzard. I mean, I knew with Hillary there was always a chance of failure, but surely people could not want Trump as our president? I got a hard lesson in just how little the American people understood about the complexity of the office and the fragile state of Trump's mind. This was not another case of, "Oh well, our person lost, Maybe next time." This was, "Oh my God, the American people just put a mentally unstable person in charge of the launch codes."

So here I am again, frustrated, angry, and venting. The only difference is, there is an awful lot of people out there venting with me. The Americans who see this man (and the Republican Party) for the true threat that it is are voicing their concerns, backing liberal causes like never before, and in general fighting to retain our principle values and thwart what could become our descent into fascism. I think Democrats stayed silent for so long because I believe, by nature, progressive thinkers are reasonable, rational human beings not easily swayed by hyperbole or given to impassioned demonstrations. We couldn't bring ourselves to believe that things could ever slip to this level. That was our Achilles' heel, and the Republicans had the perfect knife to slice it.

Once again, I'm writing to get my thoughts out there for what they're worth. I turning off the comments on this blog because I'm not about to fall into the rabbit hole of right-wing trolls baiting me with straw-man arguments or talking points from their favorite alt-right sites, Besides, I'm not here to pick fights. I just want to sort through where I see our country and some possible ways out of the mess we're in. I truly have sympathy for many Trump voters who were looking for someone to create new job opportunities and an economic system that helps bring the poor and middle class out of this downward spiral we've been in for the last 36 years. I would say that is a goal most Americans want.

The real villain here is a political system that favors the wealthy and lines the pockets of the politicians. In upcoming posts, I hope to offer my two cents on how we got here and how we might get out. Lord knows I've been wrong quite a bit, and I don't profess to be any more learned about these subjects than others, but I need to get these ideas out there and I hope you will find them interesting.