I Came to San Francisco to Change My Life: I Found a Tribe of Depressed Workaholics Living on Top of One Another

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Hacker House Blues: my life with 12 programmers, 2 rooms and one 21st-century dream.
By David Garczynski / Salon September 18, 2016

I might have been trespassing up there, but I would often go to the 19th-floor business lounge to work and study. Located on the top floor of the a luxury high-rise in the SOMA district of San Francisco, the lounge was only accessible to residents of the building. Yet for a while I found myself there almost every day.

Seventeen floors below, I lived in an illegal Airbnb with 12 roommates split between two rooms. There were six people packed into my bedroom alone — seven, if you included the guy who lived in the closet. Three bunk beds adorned the walls, and I was fortunate enough to score a bottom bunk. Unfortunately, though, it was not the one by the window, which, with the exception of one dim lamp, was the only source of light in the room. Even at midday, the room never lit up much more than a shadowed cave. At most hours of the day, you could find someone sleeping in there. Getting in and out of bed was a precarious dance in the darkness to avoid stepping into the suitcases on the floor, out of which most of us lived.

In the shared kitchen, the sink more often than not held a giant pile of dishes, and the fridge, packed with everyone’s groceries and leftovers, emanated a slightly moldy aroma. Mixed in there were the half-eaten meals and unfinished condiment jars of tenants who had long since moved out — all left to rot, but often too far buried in the mass of food to be located.

Let’s just say the room was not as advertised.

The Airbnb posting did boast of access to a 24-hour gym, roof deck and bocce courts. The building has an indoor basketball court, an outdoor hot tub and even a rock climbing wall. The 19th-floor business lounge alone comes with a pool table, a porch, several flat-screen TVs and an enviable view of much of San Francisco. For $1,200 a month, it all seemed worth it. The post did say it was a four-person apartment, not 13, and included a picture of a sunny room with a pair of bunk beds, but I figured for a short sub-lease while I attended coding school, it wouldn’t be so bad. The reviews, after all, were pretty positive, too: mostly 5-stars. However, none of them mentioned the fact that I wouldn’t even be given a front door key.

I’d have to sneak into the building every night. The only way I entered the building was by waiting until someone exited or entered, and then I’d slip through the door before it closed. From there I’d walk straight past the front desk guard and head to the bank of elevators. Despite my nerves, that part was surprisingly easy. The building caters to the young tech elite, so a backwards hat and a collegiate T-shirt practically made me invisible. When I got to my floor, I’d make sure none of the neighbors were watching, and if no one was around, I’d stand on my tiptoes and grab the communal key hidden atop the exit sign. Once the door was unlocked, I’d return the key to its perch for the next tenant to use.

I had moved to San Francisco to break into the tech world after being accepted into one of those ubiquitous 12-week coding boot camps. I had dreams of becoming a programmer, hoping one day I could land a remote contracting gig — a job where I could work from wherever and make a good living. My life would be part ski bum and part professional.

In my mid-20s uncertainty, the coding route seemed to have the most promise — high paychecks in companies that prized work-life balance, or so it seemed from afar. I knew the road wouldn’t be easy, but any time I’d mention my ambitions to family and friends, they responded with resounding positivity, affirming my belief that it was a well-worn path to an obtainable goal.

All of the people in that Airbnb were programmers. Some were trying to break into the industry through boot camps, but most were already full-time professional coders. They headed out early in the morning to their jobs at start-ups in the neighborhood. A lot of them hailed from some of the top schools in the country: Stanford, MIT, Dartmouth. If I was going to get through my program, I needed to rely on them, academically and emotionally. Once the program started up, I would find myself coding 15 hours a day during the week, with that number mercifully dropping to 10-12 hours on the weekends. Late at night, when my stressed-out thoughts would form an ever-intensifying feedback loop of questioning despair — What am I doing? Is this really worth it? — I would need to be able to look to the people around me as living reminders of the possibility of my goals.

Every night, the people whose jobs I coveted would come home from 10- to 12-hour shifts in front of a computer and proceed to the couch, where they’d open up their laptops and spend the remaining hours of the night in silence, sifting through more and more lines of code. Beyond preternatural math abilities and a penchant for problem solving, it seemed most didn’t have much in the way of life skills. They weren’t who I thought they would be — a community of intelligent and inspiring men and women bouncing ideas back and forth. Rather they were boys and girls, coddled by day in the security of companies that fed them, entertained them and nursed them. At home, they could barely take care of themselves.

Take for example the programmer who lived in my closet: Every night he’d come home around 9 p.m. He’d sit on the couch, pour himself a bowl of cereal and eat in silence. Then he would grab his laptop and head directly into the closet — a so-called “private room” listed on Airbnb for $1,400 a month. It was the only time I’d ever see him. The only way I could tell he was home was by the glow of his laptop seeping out from under the closet door. Hours later, deep into the night, the light would go out, and I would know he had to gone to sleep. By the time I arrived, he had been living there for 16 months, in a windowless closet with a thin mattress placed right on the floor. During the day he codes for Pinterest. Yeah . . . that Pinterest.

Maybe there were people working in this city who were living out the tech dreams of everyone else, but I’ve realized the number of people who dream about it far outnumber of people who obtain it. Everyone I spoke to in this town seemed doe-eyed about the future, even while they were living in illegal Airbnbs and working at failing startups across the city.

The odds weren’t in my favor. Most likely I’d find myself in the 92 percent of start-ups that go under in three years, trapped like some of my friends — much smarter and better programmers than I’ll ever be — bouncing from failing company to failing company.
Or maybe not. Maybe I would make it, only to become like my friends who earn six-figure paychecks and still lament that they’ll never be able to buy a home here. What illusions could I continue to maintain then?

There was a good chance I’d find myself in a situation like another roommate’s. During salary negotiations for a job at a start-up, he was encouraged to accept the pay tier with a lower salary but higher equity stake. Now he works 12-hour days just to try to keep the company (and his potential payout) afloat on a paycheck not much higher than some entry-level, non-programming jobs.

The most likely scenario, however, was that I’d become like the mid-30s man who slept in the bunk above me. The reality of his situation slowly slipped him into a depressive state, until he was sleeping most hours of the day. The rest of his waking hours were spent walking around slumped and gloomy.

Programming for me was never supposed to be more than a means to an end, but that end started to feel farther and farther away. The longer I lived in that Airbnb, the longer I realized my dreams would never be met. In all likelihood I would be swept up in an economy here that traded on hopes and dreams of the people clamoring to break in. The illegal Airbnbs that dot the city can afford to charge their amounts because there is no shortage of people wanting to break in. There is another smart kid around the corner who believes that despite the working and living conditions this is just the first step to striking it big. Never tell them the odds.

I had hinged my happiness on an illusion and naively fought to get into a community that wouldn’t help me advance in the direction of my dreams. Maybe in the end I would get everything I needed or at least a nice paycheck, but I’d lose all of myself in the process. I’d be churned and beaten by the underbelly of the tech world here long before I could ever make it out.

If you are interested, it’s not that hard to sneak up to the 19th-floor lounge. I still do sometimes, despite having long since moved out and given up programming. From up there the view of San Francisco takes on the artificial quality of a miniature model. To the north, you’ll see a sea of tech start-ups, their signs and symbols a wild mash of colors. From this distance, it can all look so peaceful. Just know that somewhere in that view is another “hacker house” with bright kids living in almost migrant-worker conditions. Somewhere out there is a coding boot camp with slightly inflated numbers, selling a dream. Their fluorescent halls and cramped bedrooms are filled with the perennially hopeful looking to take the place of those who have already realized this dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It is a beautiful view, though. Just one I no longer want for myself.

David Garczynski has lived in the Bay Area for one year now. In that time, he’s lived in an illegal Airbnb, on his cousin’s couch, in two short-term subleases, and has been evicted once. He just signed an official (and legal) lease last week.

http://www.alternet.org/labor/hacker-house-blues-my-life-12-programmers-2-rooms-and-one-21st-century-dream?akid=14654.265072.JhW8o4&rd=1&src=newsletter1063941&t=12

Hunger and the social catastrophe facing America’s youth

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13 September 2016

Two reports released this week cast a sharp light on the social catastrophe in the United States and its impact on America’s youth.

“Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America” (Urban Institute) and “Bringing Teens to the Table: A Focus on Food Insecurity in America” (Feeding America), both based on joint research conducted by the two organizations, detail the widespread hunger and the catastrophic choices young people are making in an effort to feed themselves, their families and their friends.

In 2015, 12.7 percent of US households were food insecure, meaning they had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources. Among these 40 million people struggling to have enough to eat in America are an estimated 6.8 million young people ages 10 to 17, including 2.9 million who have very low food security, according to one food insecurity expert.

The new reports show that in addition to “traditional” coping strategies of skipping meals and eating cheap food, these teens and pre-teens are increasingly forced into shoplifting, stealing, selling drugs, joining a gang, or selling their bodies for money in a struggle to eat properly.

Researchers conducting the study spoke to teenagers in 10 focus groups in low-income communities throughout the country over the course of three years. The young people researchers spoke to—of varying races and backgrounds—live in communities where jobs are scarce, and those jobs available pay low wages, offer inadequate hours, or require skills that the teens’ parents do not have.

Due to decades of cuts in social programs and the lingering impact of the Great Recession, many parents struggling to feed their families begin running out of food by the middle of the month. Under these circumstances, teenagers, especially those with younger siblings, feel a responsibility to help out. “I will go without a meal if that’s the case,” a teenager interviewed in Chicago said. “As long as my two [younger] siblings [are] good, that’s all that really matters.”

Many of these families face a perfect storm of food insecurity. Grocery stores selling affordable, nutritious food are scarce, and the cost and time of traveling to better stores is prohibitive. Teens must often settle for food at local fast-food restaurants, drug stores, gas stations and convenience stores. “When you’re broke, you get the dollar menu,” said a boy from San Diego.

Some food insecure teenagers look for work in order to contribute to the family food budget, but find they must compete with adults for a limited number of low-skill, low-paying jobs at fast-food restaurants or in retail. It is when these possibilities do not pan out that some teenagers turn in desperation to make money “outside of the legal economy,” according to the researchers.

Food-insecure teenage boys interviewed reported stealing and selling drugs as one strategy for earning money to pay for food and other necessities, subjecting them and others to personal and legal risks. “Drugs, alcohol, everything,” said a teenage girl in rural Oregon. “Bad things people used to just do in high school has spread to the junior high and down to the elementary school.”

Food insecure teens, and girls in particular, are vulnerable to another type of insidious risk: sexual exploitation. Teens in all of the study’s locations spoke of girls having sex for money to pay for food and other needs.

This often takes the form of “transactional dating,” in which the teen regularly sees and has sex with someone, usually an older man, in exchange for food, meals, cash or other material goods. “It’s really like selling yourself,” said a teenage girl in Portland, Oregon. “You’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”

A smaller number of teens resort to the strategy of purposefully getting arrested to ensure continued access to food—in prison.

Drug dealing, stealing, voluntary incarceration, sexual exploitation—these are the “choices” significant numbers of teenagers in America are undertaking out of the material need to put food on the table for themselves and their families. This tragic reality for the generation born in the new century speaks volumes about the violent and socially unequal state of class relations in America in 2016.

In a rational world one would expect banner headlines and a national debate on strategies to combat hunger among young people. But in the current political climate, dominated by the election contest of the two big business parties, it has received scant attention. There is no mention of this crisis by the Clinton and Trump camps, where the social catastrophe confronting the working class in 21st century America is routinely ignored. Nor is there particular concern for horrific circumstances poor girls are forced into from the upper middle class practitioners of identity politics around the Democratic Party.

Indeed, the catastrophic state of social life in the United States—of which the two reports published this week are only a partial snapshot—is the outcome of decades of social counter-revolution carried out by both big business parties. The Clintons bear particular responsibility, as it was the administration of Bill Clinton that gutted the welfare system in the US and ensured a vast increase in poverty and hunger as a consequence.

As for Obama—who has repeatedly proclaimed that life is “pretty darn great” in America—his administration has overseen $8.6 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the food stamp program. A report earlier this year predicted that 1 million people across the US could lose their benefits in 2016 due to the work requirements for SNAP included as part of the Clinton administration’s welfare “reform.”

Working families are told that there is “no money” to extend food assistance. Rather these and other social programs must be slashed to fund the Pentagon’s war budget, as the US government-military apparatus prepares new wars. Whatever individual occupies the White House following next January, he or she will be dedicated to imposing even deeper social cuts and austerity.

A society should be measured by the health and welfare of its most vulnerable citizens, particularly the young. Children and teenagers in a just society should be nurtured by having nutritious food in adequate supply, a decent roof over their heads, quality education, and the opportunities to explore the arts, sports and other interests as they prepare for their place in the workforce. These are inalienable social rights that should be guaranteed.

While the media and the political establishment choose to ignore this latest study on food insecurity and the suffering and perils it poses to American teenagers, workers and young people need to recognize it as a particularly noxious sign of the outmoded and barbaric capitalist profit system.

Kate Randall

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/09/13/pers-s13.html

Potentially Earth-like planet found in habitable zone of nearest star

By Don Barrett
27 August 2016

A team of 31 astronomers from 13 institutions around the globe have announced the discovery of a planet slightly more massive than Earth orbiting in the habitable zone of the nearest star to our Solar System. The results were published in Nature on 25 August.

The planet, Proxima b, was discovered by ground-based observations using what is known as the radial velocity method. This method takes advantage of the fact that starlight is a composite of a whole spectrum of colors and that the gravitational tug of a planet on a parent star produces distinct fingerprints in the emitted light that can be observed from Earth. Essentially, one can watch how the motion of a star is influenced by an orbiting planet. (See: Earth-sized planet in a star’s habitable zone confirmed)

Proxima Centauri in the sky of the Southern hemisphere. Credit: European Southern Observatory

This method is different from how the Kepler spacecraft discovers exoplanets, which instead looks at periodic drops in the intensity of light coming from a star to infer the existence of a planet, which passes between the star and the observer in its orbit, blocking some of the light. However, the two techniques are complementary. While Kepler indicates roughly an exoplanet’s size, a study of the changing spectrum of a star tells us the lower limit of an exoplanet’s mass.

As a result of this, the astronomers calculated that Proxima b is at least 1.3 times the Earth’s mass, though we have no knowledge yet of its size, its composition or the nature of its atmosphere (if any). Our limited knowledge of solar systems suggests that such a planet would be of rocky composition and retain some sort of atmosphere.

What makes this system most unlike the Earth and Sun is the parent star. Proxima Centauri is a star only 12 percent the mass of the Sun, a “red dwarf”, and this low mass is reflected in vastly different physical characteristics. The star is about 12 percent the Sun’s size, half its temperature and a fraction of its brightness. Despite the fact that it is the nearest star to our Solar System, Proxima Centauri is 100 times too faint to see with the naked eye.

Since Proxima Centauri is so dim, its habitable zone, the orbit where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface, is much closer to the star than the Sun’s. Proxima b, which orbits its star at 5 percent the distance between the Earth and Sun, about 4.6 million miles, falls within that zone. It receives about 60 percent of the radiation that Earth does.

Such a close world would find its rotation locked to its orbit over a timescale short compared to the life of the system—just as Mercury is locked to our Sun and the Moon to the Earth. Depending on the nature of the lock, it could be that only one hemisphere is illuminated, the other remaining in perpetual darkness, just as the Moon shows only one face to the Earth.

A comparison of the Proxima Centauri system to our own Solar System. Credit: European Southern Observatory

Another possibility is that the orbit and rotation are intertwined such that the same face of the planet is aligned to the star during the planet’s closest approach. This would mean that if liquid water exists, it may occur only near the Equator or towards the center of a perpetually sunlit hemisphere.

The close orbit produces another challenge to potential habitability: while the star, even so near, provides less heat than the Sun, it can irradiate the planet’s surface irregularly with ultraviolet and x-ray bursts 400 times that delivered by the Sun to Earth. The impact on the planet’s atmosphere over the long term is unknown.

If human beings set foot on Proxima b, they will find the view of the sky considerably different from that on Earth. Proxima would appear three times the Sun’s size in the sky. The nearby binary components of Alpha Centauri A and B would outshine our own Venus by a factor of 10, and appear to the eye as a barely resolvable star-like pair. Other stars would be invisible from the star-lit side of the planet.

The discovery of Proxima b comes 21 years after the first detection of a planet around another ordinary star. In that time, over 3,500 such planets have been found. Nearly 1 billion stars have now been cataloged, but detection of the smaller, lighter and immensely fainter planets around them represents a considerable technical challenge. This is true for all methods of finding exoplanets.

The nearness of Proxima b means it stands as a sterling target for further inquiry toward an understanding of Earth-like worlds. It has also ignited the imagination of millions of people around the world as they wonder at a planet potentially like Earth that is, with some esoteric but feasible ideas for space travel, not so far away.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/08/27/prox-a27.html

For real progressives, Jill Stein is now the only choice

In a CNN town hall, Green party candidate Jill Stein showed that Clinton’s brand of liberalism does not represent the tone or spirit of the Sanders campaign.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein speaks during a rally of Bernie Sanders supporters outside the Wells Fargo Center on the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter
‘Stein and Baraka did not merely tell voters what to vote against, they also gave them something to vote for.’ Photograph: Dominick Reuter/Reuters

This was perhaps the only opportunity the presidential candidate I have endorsed – Jill Stein – and her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, to have the ear of a large portion of the mainstream American electorate. There was little room for error.

They spent little time directly criticizing Donald Trump. This was a wise move, since virtually no one among Stein’s potential base of support is considering Trump as a viable option. Instead, she focused on Hillary Clinton.

At a moment where the Clinton campaign is still attempting to secure the support of frustrated Bernie Sanders primary voters, Stein demonstrated that Clinton’s brand of liberalism does not represent the tone or spirit of the Sanders campaign. By highlighting Clinton’s pro-corporate politics and active role in hawkish foreign policy, Stein raised considerable doubt about Clinton’s leftist bona fides.

“I will have trouble sleeping at night if Donald Trump is elected,” Stein said. “I will also have trouble sleeping at night if Hillary Clinton is elected.”

Throughout the event, both Stein and Baraka rightly refuted the idea that superficial identity politics are enough to constitute a progressive movement. Stein destroyed the notion that a vote for Clinton is a feminist move, as Clinton’s pro-war stances and neoliberal economic policies have compromised the lives and prosperity of women and families around the globe. Baraka drew from Barack Obama’s presidential record to show that electing a black president has not signaled a turn away from anti-black racism at the systemic or interpersonal levels.

Stein also raised doubts about Clinton’s trustworthiness. While these arguments are not new, they carried a different level of veracity when separated from the hypocritical and sexist “crooked Hillary” rhetoric of the Trump campaign. Drawing from Clinton’s own anti-Trump playbook, Stein used Clinton’s email scandal and missteps abroad as a springboard to question Clinton’s judgment.

Of course, such critiques would have been more effective if the possibility of a nuclear armed Trump weren’t lingering in the back of voter’s minds, but they nonetheless focused appropriate scrutiny to the secretary’s actions.

But Stein and Baraka did not merely tell voters what to vote against, they also gave them something to vote for.

Throughout the night, the candidates used their time to articulate the Green party’s vision for the future. Specifically, Stein talked about workable plans to create peace in the Middle East, a plan that includes nuclear disarmament, a call to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine and a loosening of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization’s economic strangleholds on the globe’s most vulnerable nations.

Baraka offered a workable vision of a nation without state violence, inner cities without police as occupying forces and vulnerable citizens not viewed as enemy combatants. For the first time since Bernie Sanders stepped out of the Democratic race, the American public was given an opportunity to dream out loud for a few hours about freedom, justice and true democracy.

Despite the town hall’s success, the Green party has a long way to go to snag a significant slice of undecided, Independent and Clinton-leaning voters. The challenge of the Stein-Baraka campaign will be to convince voters of a long-term political vision, one that isn’t prisoner to our collective obsession with individual elections or hyperbolic fear of particular candidates.

They will have to persuade voters to believe that the two-party system, when underwritten by endless corporate money, does not offer the “lesser of two evils” but a fundamental threat to democracy itself. Surely, they have a long way to go to achieve these goals. But they’ve made an incredible start.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/18/progressive-voters-jill-stein-green-party-candidate?CMP=fb_us#link_time=1471546668

The Birthday by FIDEL CASTRO

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Tomorrow I will turn 90 years old. I was born in a territory called Birán, in the eastern region of Cuba. It’s known by that name, although it has never appeared on a map. Given its good conduct it was known for close friends and, of course, a stronghold of political representatives and inspectors who involved in any commercial or productive activity typical of the neocolonized countries of the world.

On one occasion I accompanied my father to Pinares de Mayarí. I was eight or nine years old. How he enjoyed talking when he left the house in Birán! There he was the proprietor of the land where sugar cane, pasture and other agricultural crops were planted. But in Pinares de Mayarí he was not a proprietor, but a leaseholder, like many Spaniards, who were the owners of a continent under the rights granted by a papal bull, of whose existence none of the peoples and human beings of this continent were aware. The transmitted knowledge was already largely treasures of humanity.

The altitude rises to approximately 500 meters, with inclined, rocky slopes, where the vegetation is scarce and at times hostile. Trees and rocks obstruct transit; suddenly, at a certain height, a vast plateau begins which I estimate extends over approximately 200 square kilometers, with rich deposits of nickel, chromium, manganese and other minerals of great economic value. From that plateau dozens of trucks of pines of great size and quality were extracted daily.

Note that I have not mentioned the gold, platinum, palladium, diamonds, copper, tin, and others that at the same time have become symbols of the economic values that human society, in its present stage of development, requires.

A few years before the triumph of the Revolution my father died. Beforehand, he suffered a lot.

Of his three sons, the second and third were absent and distant. In revolutionary activities both fulfilled their duty. I had said that I knew who could replace me if the adversary was successful in its elimination plans. I almost laughed about the Machiavellian plans of the presidents of the United States.

On January 27, 1953, after the treacherous coup by Batista in 1952, a page of the history of our Revolution was written: university students and youth organizations, alongside the people, carried out the first March of the Torches to commemorate the centenary of the birth of José Martí.

I had already reached the conviction that no organization was prepared for the fight we were organizing. There was complete disorientation from the political parties that mobilized the masses of citizens, from the left to the right and the center, sickened by the politicking that reigned in the country.

At the age of 6 a teacher full of ambitions, who taught in the small public school of Birán, convinced my family that I should travel to Santiago de Cuba to accompany my older sister who would enter a highly prestigious convent school. Including me was a skill of that very teacher from the little school in Birán. She, splendidly treated in the house in Birán, where she ate at the same table with the family, was convinced of the necessity of my presence. Certainly, I was in better health than my brother Ramón – who passed away in recent months – and for a long time was a classmate. I do not want to be extensive, only that the years of that period of hunger were very tough for the majority of the population.

I was sent, after three years, to the Colegio La Salle in Santiago de Cuba, where I was enrolled in the first grade. Almost three years past without them ever taking me to the cinema.

Thus began my life. Maybe I will write, if I have time, about this. Excuse me for not having done so before now, it’s just I have ideas of what a child can and should be taught. I believe that a lack of education is the greatest harm that can be done.

Humankind today faces the greatest risk of its history. Specialists in these areas can do the most for the inhabitants of this planet, whose number rose, from one billion at the end of 1800, to seven billion at the beginning of 2016. How many will our planet have within a few years?

The brightest scientists, who now number several thousand, are those who can answer this question and many others of great consequence.

I wish to express my most profound gratitude for the shows of respect, the greetings and the gifts that I have received in recent days, which give me the strength to reciprocate through ideas that I will transmit to the militants of our Party and relevant organizations.

Modern technical means have allowed for scrutiny of the universe. Great powers such as China and Russia can not be subject to threats to impose the use of nuclear weapons. They are peoples of great courage and intelligence. I believe that the speech by the President of the United States when he visited Japan lacked stature, and it lacked an apology for the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima, in spite of the fact that they knew the effects of the bomb. The attack on Nagasaki was equally criminal, a city that the masters of life and death chose at random. It is for that reason that we must hammer on about the necessity of preserving peace, and that no power has the right to kill millions of human beings.

Fidel Castro’s column appears in Granma.

COUNTERPUNCH

Listen, your party is the “neo” kind of liberal

Why do the Democrats always disappoint their most loyal supporters? Thomas Frank’s excellent book helps explains the party’s betraying ways, says Lance Selfa.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

THE NEW York Times headline on July 28 said it all: “After Lying Low, Deep-Pocketed Clinton Donors Return to the Fore.”

Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick’s article proceeded to document the myriad ways in which corporations, from the Wall Street firm Blackstone Group to for-profit college giant Apollo Education Group, peddled influence at fancy parties around Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.

Yes, that Democratic convention. The same one that featured dozens of speakers denouncing Wall Street and crushing student debt? Whose presidential nominee pledged to get big money out of elections?

Turns out that “it’s business as usual,” as Libby Watson of the Sunlight Foundation told the Times writers.

Author Thomas Frank wouldn’t be surprised by this latest glimpse of how the Democratic Party does business. His Listen, Liberal is an engaging and witty demolition of the party, especially its modern post-New Deal incarnation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE DEMOCRATS don’t see it as a contradiction to issue election-year platitudes about supporting “working families” while courting millions from the “rocket scientist” financial engineers behind the Wall Street hedge funds or the self-styled “disrupters” who run for-profit educational corporations.

REVIEW: BOOKS

Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Henry Holt and Co., 2016. 320 pages, $12.99. Find out more at ListenLiberal.com.

As the GEICO TV ad might say, “It’s what they do.”

To Frank, this provides much of the explanation for why the Obama presidency has been such a disappointment for those who believed in candidate Obama’s message of “hope and change” in 2008.

In 2008, the economy was melting down, taking free-market orthodoxy with it. The Democrats swept to power in Congress and the White House. If there was ever a time that the conditions were ripe for a bold reformist program–which would have been massively popular–this was it.

Yet it didn’t happen. Two years later, the Tea Party Republicans took back the House in the midterm elections, and the administration deepened its commitment to austerity and the search for a “grand bargain” for bipartisan support to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Frank rehearses the standard liberal excuses for Obama’s failures, quoting the president himself about how hard it is to get things done (“It’s hard to turn an ocean liner”). Frank then proceeds to knock these down, one by one.

He shows convincingly how, using only executive action, Obama could have unwound the Bush administration bailouts for the Wall Street bankers and pressed bankruptcy judges to reduce or wipe out the mortgage holders’ debt. At the very least, he could have refused to allow executives from the insurance giant AIG to collect their multimillion-dollar bonuses from the taxpayers’ dime.

Instead, Obama and his Treasury team of Ivy Leaguers on leave from Wall Street reassured the banksters that he was on their side. Frank reprises the critical scene from Ron Suskind’s 2010 book Confidence Men: A description of a high-level meeting that began with Obama warning Wall Street that “my administration is the only thing between you and pitchforks”–and ended with a relieved CEO telling Suskind that Obama “could have ordered us to do just about anything, and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t–he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

As Frank concludes:

Having put so much faith in his transformative potential, his followers need to come to terms with how non-transformative he has been. It wasn’t because the ocean liner would have been too hard to turn, or because those silly idealists were unrealistic; it was because [the administration] didn’t want to do those things.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

HOW DID the Democrats come to power amid the worst crisis since the Great Depression and basically operate according to the same-old-same-old model? In trying to explain this, Frank lands on an explanation that is inadequate–more on that below–despite the insights it offers.

To him, the Obama team, like Bill Clinton before him–and probably Hillary Clinton after–couldn’t conceive of a different course because they approached problems from their vantage point as wealthy, highly educated professionals.

Like the whiz kids on Wall Street or health care industry policy wonks, they appreciated complex solutions that balanced multiple interests while generally preserving the status quo. Think of Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, whose enforcement regulations are still being written six years after its passage.

The roots of this worship of professional expertise and support for market-based policies, according to Frank, can be found in party operatives’ desire to build a new Democratic coalition to replace the New Deal coalition of the 1930s through the 1960s. From George McGovern’s early 1970s “new politics” to the Democratic Leadership Council’s “new Democrats” of the 1980s and 1990s, these figures sought to distance the party from organized labor in favor of the “new middle class” of credentialed professionals.

Voting statistics show that college graduates still tend to be Republican territory more than Democratic. But there’s little doubt that a middle-class ideology of “social liberalism and fiscal conservatism” reigns supreme in the Democratic Party today.

To show this in full bloom, Frank considers the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston as exemplars. Both depend heavily on the “knowledge industries” of higher education, finance and health care. And both have been Democratic bastions for generations.

If the Democratic mayors of Boston and a Democratic-dominated statehouse hand out tax breaks to corporations, enact anti-labor pension “reforms,” and promote charter schools or amenities catering to middle-class professionals, it isn’t because Republicans forced them to. It’s because the Democrats actually believe this stuff, and profit from it.

In this “blue state model,” Frank writes:

Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and yet which increase at a pace far more rapid than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, thirty grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.

Left behind are places like Lynn, Massachusetts, a once thriving industrial town, now depopulated and deindustrialized–“engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats,” Frank writes. Or Decatur, Illinois, which Frank revisits 20 years after he had reported on the “War Zone” labor battles that dramatized the death of the American dream for thousands of blue-collar unionized workers

In the mid-1990s, Frank writes:

Decatur was far away from Washington, and its problems made no impression that I could detect on Bill Clinton’s wise brain trust. The New Economy was dawning, creativity was triumphing, old industry was evaporating, and those fortunate enough to be among the ascendant were absolutely certain about the direction history was taking.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AS WITH so much about the Democratic Party today, all this somehow works its way back to the Clintons.

Frank’s assessment of Bill Clinton’s two terms in office in the 1990s is a crucial antidote to the free-flowing Clinton nostalgia of 2016. Frank says that while he was writing the book:

I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for–you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president. Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him– apart from his obvious personal affability, I mean? It proved difficult for my libs…

No one mentioned any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation. His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery– he rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office, he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

Frank concedes a few small positive efforts by Clinton: a small increase in taxes on the rich, a failed attempt at health care reform. But the biggest initiatives Clinton won were things that would have been considered Republican policies of an earlier era: the 1994 crime bill that put the “New Jim Crow” described by Michelle Alexander into overdrive; the destruction of the federal welfare system; free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and various forms of financial deregulation.

Frank notes that Clinton was conducting backdoor negotiations with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a scheme to privatize Social Security. That attempt collapsed during the impeachment battle connected to Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Frank’s crucial point is this. It took a Democrat–one skilled in the double-talk of “feeling the pain” of ordinary people and bolstering those “who work hard and play by the rules”–to push through a wish list of conservative policies that not even Ronald Reagan could win. As Frank writes:

What distinguishes the political order we live under now is a consensus, at least in the political mainstream, on certain economic questions–and what made that consensus happen was the capitulation of the Democrats. Republicans could denounce big government all they wanted, but it took a Democrat to declare that “the era of big government is over” and to make it stick. This was Bill Clinton’s historic achievement. Under his direction, as I wrote back then, the opposition “ceased to oppose.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

MUCH OF what Frank writes will sound very familiar to regular readers of Socialist Worker. But for liberals who might know Frank from his What’s the Matter with Kansas? or The Wrecking Crew, Listen, Liberal might feel like a bucket of cold water. Especially for those who might be “ready for Hillary” in 2016.

For my money, the entire book is worth the price of the chapter “Liberal Gilt,” where Frank skewers the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and, by extension, what he calls the “liberal class’s virtue quest.”

At the center of this chapter is, of course, Hillary Clinton, whose public persona of “doing good” for “women and children” dissolves against a backdrop of her support for ending welfare in the 1990s and pushing poor women in developing countries into debt through “microcredit.”

As Secretary of State, Clinton marketed global entrepreneurship and the endless “war on terror” as crusades on behalf of women. Through “partnering” on these initiatives with the Clinton Foundation or the State Department, the likes of Walmart and Goldman Sachs can win praise for their social consciousness–or what Frank brilliantly describes as their “purchasing liberalism offsets”:

This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue-exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-graduated American professionals, their reassuring expertise propped up by bogus social science, while the unfortunate objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.

Frank weaves this analysis around an unforgettable eyewitness account of a Clinton Foundation celebration–held on the socialist holiday of International Women’s Day, no less! The event, at midtown Manhattan’s Best Buy (now Playstation) Theater, touted entrepreneurship for women in the global South. The Clintons, Melinda Gates, Hollywood stars, fashion magazine editors and Fortune 500 leaders came together for an afternoon of self-congratulation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

YET FOR all that is spot-on in Frank’s critique of the Democrats, the book’s analysis is flawed on two interrelated points.

First, its theory of the Democrats as a party of educated professionals suffers from what might be called a crude class analysis.

When Marxists argue that the Democrats and Republicans are “capitalist” parties, we don’t mean that a cabal of capitalists acts as their puppet masters from behind the scenes. We mean that through various means–from political contributions to expert advice to control of the media–various capitalist interests assure that the mainstream political parties implement policies that allow the capitalist system to thrive and reproduce itself.

Scholars such as Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers have documented why we should understand shifts in the mainstream capitalist parties as shifts in blocs of capital rather than shifts in voting bases. Ferguson has even demonstrated how Obama’s support from Silicon Valley is linked to the administration’s care and nurturance of the surveillance state.

Frank doesn’t cite any of this analysis. Thus, in arguing that the Democrats’ current embrace of Silicon Valley neoliberalism is somehow a product of “well-graduated” Democrats’ fascination with “complexity,” “innovation” and “disruptive” app-driven services like Uber and AirBnB, Frank misses the close integration of the Democratic Party with the capitalist class.

The Democrats may have been capitalism’s B-Team over the last generation, but they’re not the Washington Generals, forever bested by the Harlem Globetrotters.

Second, understanding the Democrats as a party of Ivy League professionals–and not as one of the two big business parties in the U.S.–implies that it can be reclaimed as the “party of the people” or the party of the “working class,” as Frank believes it was in its New Deal heyday.

This characterization forgets that, in many ways, the Democrats were capitalism’s A-Team during that period. And if the Trumpization of the Republicans continues, the Democrats may end up as the first-stringers again. The 2016 Clinton campaign certainly hopes so.

Listen, Liberal is a great read for this election season. While Frank concludes that the state of affairs that brought us to Clinton against Trump “cannot go on,” he’s not sure where to go. Charting that course is a challenge the left faces today.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/04/your-party-is-the-neo-kind-of-liberal

Leading US historians issue warning on the rise of Trump

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By Gabriel Black
20 July 2016

Nearly 800 historians, academics and professionals across the United States have signed an “Open Letter to the American People” warning of the danger, seen from a historical perspective, of Trump and “Trumpism.”

The recently formed group, Historians Against Trump, explains in its letter that “The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.” The letter lists as members of the Historians Against Trump Organizing Committee Brian Dolber, Amy Harth, Caroline Luce and David Schlitt.

The letter, posted on the Internet on July 11, states, in part:

“Historians of different specialties, eras and regions understand the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating. Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism.”

Alluding to the fascistic and right-wing populist movements that sprang up during the first half of the 20th Century, the letter includes a photograph of Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First rally in October of 1941. Lindbergh, the famous aviator, was a fascist sympathizer and anti-Semite whose demagogic America First speeches downplayed the crimes of the Nazis and promoted neutrality in World War II.

The letter’s authors claim not to support any particular party or politician, but to be united by the belief that Trump “poses a threat to American democracy.” They denounce Trump’s attacks on the press and highlight the Republican presidential candidate’s misogyny, racism and bigoted attacks on immigrants. They describe Trump’s spoken and written words as an “archive of know-nothingism and blinding self-regard.” They characterize Trump’s campaign as one of violence “against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact.”

The most significant aspect of the letter is the writers’ insistence that history has something to say about the present, and that Trump, far from an accident or aberration—as he is often characterized by Democrats and Republicans alike—is the outcome of a historical process of political degeneration of American society.

The authors write:

“Donald Trump’s candidacy is the latest chapter in a troubled narrative many decades in the making. In another era, civil society institutions such as the academy, the free press and the judiciary were counted on to safeguard constitutional democracy. That this is no longer the case cannot be blamed solely on Trump. Donald Trump’s candidacy has profited from the fears of people living precariously and a political culture of spectacle and cynicism, both of which long predate his emergence as a candidate. The impulses and ideologies that animate the Trump campaign will not disappear once he is defeated in November.”

This statement is correct, as far as it goes. But it avoids an examination of the relation of the process it describes to the class and economic interests that largely determine the course of American politics. Nevertheless, the recognition that the Trump phenomenon reflects a broader social crisis represents a certain advance beyond the platitudes offered up by the Democratic Party and its apologists.

In a pointed criticism of the complacency that prevails among American academics, the letter encourages historians to undertake the task of “equipping the public with historical skills and narratives that are ‘factual, accurate, comprehensive, meaningful, useful, and resistant to cynical manipulators who sell snake oil as historical truth.’”

Not surprisingly, this statement has come under sharp attack by a leading postmodern academic.

In a column published in the New York Times on July 15, Stanley Fish, a literary theorist and legal scholar, denounced the Historians Against Trump letter for its “hubris” in claiming that “historians, because of their training, are uniquely objective observers.”

Fish headed Duke University’s English Department from 1986 to 1992 and now has a visiting professorship at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. He is a frequent contributor to both the Wall Street Journal and theNew York Times .

In this op-ed response to the professors’ letter, he writes:

“By dressing up their obviously partisan views as ‘the lessons of history,’ the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.”

Fish continues:

“While this disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.”

Fish, in short, asks the professors to stick to their “discipline,” telling them that their place is in the classroom where they teach students to ask the right questions and discern good evidence from bad.

It must be asked, if historical knowledge is a purely academic affair—which Fish makes it out to be—what is the use of studying history? If history has nobearing on politics, then what is the point of it?

As a literary scholar, Fish is known for his 1982 book Is There a Text in This Class? published by Harvard University Press. Harvard’s blurb for the book explains that “in arguing for the right of the reader to interpret and in effect create the literary work, he [Fish] skillfully avoids the trap of subjectivity.”

It is entirely unsurprising that Fish would be repulsed by a section of historians who feel compelled by the “lessons of history” to counter Trump’s “violence” against “historical analysis and fact.” The truth is that Fish and his postmodern cohorts are, in their own way, an expression of the same “culture of spectacle and cynicism” that produced Trump.

The Historians Against Trump document has been signed by at least 786 people. Leading historians such as Ellen Carol DuBois (University of California, Los Angeles), Geoff Eley (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Glenda Gilmore (Yale University), Mary Hancock (University of California, Santa Barbara), Mary Nolan (New York University), Thomas McAfee (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), Deborah Dash Moore (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Claire Potter (The New School), Vicki Ruiz (University of California, Irvine), Maurice Isserman (Hamilton), Valerie Johnson (Bennett College) and Kevin Mattson (Ohio University) have added their names.

The letter can be accessed here.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/07/20/hist-j20.html