G. Pascal Zachary

It Is Time to Consider Progressive Secession: A Vision of Principled Nation States Where Humanistic Values Predominate

The stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton this month provides a painful reminder of the size and scale, diversity and divisions, of the United States. Democratic candidate Clinton won the popular vote by close to 2 million votes, but she lost the Electoral College by a significant margin because of losing three, large, typically blue states by razor-thin margins. The entire West Coast of the U.S.—Washington, Oregon and California—voted for Clinton by a margin of more than 60 percent, but because regional blocs are meaningless by themselves in the American political system, the Left Coast gains no direct path toward influencing the new administration.

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My Daughter Wants to Move From America: What Do We Do Now?

My own daughter wants to leave the country. “I’m already planning my trip to Ireland, to live there indefinitely,” she told me minutes after Hillary Clinton conceded. My wife—who like my daughter, also holds two passports and is a naturalized American from Nigeria—asked me, a few minutes later, “Should I kill myself?”

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Tom Hayden's Legend Started With the Prescient and Still Relevant Port Huron Statement

Tom Hayden was a political prodigy: a visionary in his youth, he foresaw the political contours of the emerging counterculture in the 1960s as if he had a crystal ball. In many ways, Hayden’s greatest achievement was one his earliest: by largely authoring the founding statement of a radically new student organization, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Hayden gave political shape to a restless generation of young Americans eager to break with American practices of militarism and domination abroad and racism and repression at home.

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The Will to Secede: Why It's Not Just a Right-Wing Fantasy

From time to time, the breakup of the United States becomes appealing to many citizens—patriots of various stripes who “in the Course of human events” have come to believe that it is “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them.”

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Michael Lewis Takes Us Face to Face with the Investors Who Cashed in on the Financial Collapse

In The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis adds to his impressive collection of beautifully written books with a fascinating tale about professional investors who foresaw the financial debacle - and profited from it. In presenting a quirky array of smart, self-serving characters, Lewis intends to help fans of his storytelling understand what went wrong with American capitalism in the early 21st century.

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Get Out of Afghanistan Now

For all the talk of polarization and partisanship in U.S. politics, what's remarkable is the extent to which President Obama has continued policies and practices of his predecessor, George Bush, in domestic economics and military affairs.

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Young Borrowers Face A Life of Debt

Financial insecurity is one of the staples of American life, and fuel for our nation's politics as well as cable TV shows. Once the elderly worried endlessly about money matters, athough now people over 65 count as the wealthiest group of Americans. Rather, today the biggest worriers about what's euphemistically called our "financial future" are the young, and especially people under 25 years old.

For new college graduates and people out of school for only a few years, financial worries are enormous. Home prices, even if they are starting to fall, remain very high relative to ordinary incomes, and higher mortgage rates are no balm to money worries either. All Americans carry more debt on average than in the past but the increase for young people is most striking since young workers generally earn the least. Between college loans and car loans, people in their 20s are amazingly burdened financially compared to earlier generations, especially compared to my own generation of late-stage baby-boomer.

If in the 1960s and early 70s, my college friends and new graduates shouted, "Burn baby burn," to signify their desire to tearing down the status quo, youth today embrace the credo, "Borrow, baby, borrow" because of their dependency on cheap credit without which their chances of building a decent middle-class life seem poor to none.

If you wonder why borrowed money fuels the lifestyles of all ages, turn on a new documentary, "In Debt We Trust," by the veteran dissenting TV journalist and media critic, Danny Schechter. "In Debt We Trust" vividly shows how Americans get ensnared in a web of debt spun by a "credit industrial complex" that almost seems to function like a conspiracy to drive people into financial servitude. Schechter's central insight is bold, provocative and timely. As he quotes a Brooklyn consumer activist, "Debt is profitable."

Out of this kernel of truth comes Schechter's fascinating tour of the various ways that lenders earn money, chiefly through short-term loans through credit cards. While the abuses of card companies are well known, Schechter sheds light on some emerging credit practices that will inspire outrage in his viewers. One of the most insidious is a service by H. & R. Block to loan money against future tax returns at very high rates.

In narrating the 90-minute documentary, Schechter generally maintains an even tone, cogently making the case for how credit-card companies promote "excessive debt" and the costs of becoming addicted to revolving-credit, whereby a customer pays off only the interest on a loan each month. He also smartly finds common ground between progressives and conservatives who both preach against the perils of dependency on borrowed money. There really is bi-partisan support for clamping down on companies that suck the financial blood of debt-ridden consumers. And more broadly, the perils of too much debt are real, both for individuals and the national government, whose borrowings have reached record levels and continue to mount because of supersized-budget deficits greatly worsened by unwise tax cuts.

A day of reckoning is not out of the question; the debt bomb may yet explode, taking American prosperity with it. Housing values are falling, most everywhere now, and that's perilous for American consumers who, as "In Debt We Trust" shows, have used home-equity borrowing as a piggybank for years. On a national level, the bubble can burst too. The size of the federal debt, and the growing dependence on China to cover this debt through purchases of Treasury Bills, could lead to a collapse in the value of the dollar and a sharp, steep rise in interest rates, choking off the very lending that fuels economic activity and bringing about severe economic contraction, along with job losses and wage declines.

When Schechter preaches about "American before the big bursts," he means a calamity along these lines. Predicting financial plunges is tricky business, and Schechter fails to make a compelling case for an approaching apocalypse. However, even if the debt bubble doesn't burst, "In Debt We Trust" delivers a powerful wake-up call to consumers, especially young ones. Most important is the film's insistence that debt isn't purely personal but wholly political too. The excesses of the industry built on personal debt deserve a political response and "In Debt We Trust" gives an introduction to how the political backlash against personal debt may unfold.

Unfortunately, Schechter says too little about the contours of the coming backlash, though he wisely examines the recent revisions to the law on personal bankruptcy. He quotes Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee calling the law an "atrocity." Lee's hyperbolic language (and there is much more of it in the film) is justified. The new bankruptcy law greatly assists credit-card companies by making it far more difficult for ordinary people to escape debts that they have no chance of paying off. The new Congress should roll back this new bankruptcy law, restoring a fair playing field for borrowers who aren't solely responsible for their debts (lenders are too; they took the risk of lending in the first place, remember).

Federal regulations over credit companies, too loose for many years, should be tightened too. Card companies need to lower interest-rates, cut late-payment fees and make their messages to consumers clearer and simpler. A single strong piece of progressive legislation can remedy many of the misdeeds by card companies depicted in "In Debt We Trust."

There is an irony here of course. In most parts of the world, credit is scarce, especially for ordinary people. Homes are paid for in cash, and small businesses can't expand unless a relative of the owner lends money on a personal basis. Bias in banking systems is rife. I often travel abroad and I am constantly remind of how open and liberal credit is in the U.S. and how many people benefit from such openness. On my last visit, to the southern Africa country of Malawi, one of my hosts proudly invited me to his new home near the center of the capital and nervously told me that the rate on his mortgage tops 30 percent!

In the style of a crusading journalist, Schechter never points out the benefits of America's love affair with cheap credit. Americans get to their live their dreams in way few can in some other countries. But "In Debt We Trust" stands with the people for whom cheap credit has turned into an American nightmare.

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Is Marriage Rational?

Back in 1983, I sold my own wedding. My mother, a lifelong New Yorker, refused to make a trip to California, so in exchange for moving the location of my wedding to Long Island, I received from her a tidy cash payment.

At the time, I found nothing strange about selling my wedding because I was deeply cynical about marriage as an institution. As a child of the '60s counter-culture, I equated marriage with the Vietnam War -- some sham ceremonial act, like saving the world from communist hordes, that actually had nothing to do with mental health, romance or commitment, but was rather one more way that mass society sought to colonize our minds.

I am not kidding, and, believe me, I wasn't alone. Back in the day, most of my friends saw marriage as a strange ritual, honeycombed with contradictions. Marriages were stultifying, burdened by adultery and inequality. They were invitations to divorce. Of course, as the idealistic 1970s gave way to the pragmatic Reagan years, some of my best friends also got married, though like me with the stipulation, "I don't need the government to sanctify my relationship."

In the context of my own cynicism about marriage, the current fervent pursuit of the right to marriage by gays and lesbians is perplexing. But equally perplexing is the defense of heterosexual-only marriage by judges and religious conservatives. In the debate over who can marry, both sides imbue the institution of marriage with sanctity and an importance that it neither deserves nor possesses.

I don't say this simply because I had the most painful divorce in human history. (Well, maybe not as painful as the fellow in Manhattan who recently blew up his home -- with himself in it -- to stop his wife from getting the place in the final dissolution.) Certainly, failed marriages are no justification for the end of marriage itself. Even I remarried, three years ago, though once again cynically, in order to help my new life partner gain permanent residency in the United States. There are unquestionably practical benefits to marrying. That's why I'm in favor of gay marriage as a legal matter. But in favoring a more liberal criteria for marriage, I worry that we lose sight of the wider and weirder problem of permitting government to validate our most personal social partnerships.

During my lifetime, many good people expended much effort trying to stop the government from lording over the private lives of romantic partners. When I was 12 years old, for instance, a court struck down the ban on blacks and whites marrying. In my 20s, laws against homosexual sex began to collapse. The whole trend seemed downright sane: Get the government out of the bedroom.

By my later 30s, in the 1990s, the privileged status of marriage as an institution had nearly vanished. Children of unmarried parents, once stigmatized as bastards, were now born "out of wedlock," which sounded much nicer and reflected an end to the stigma of unmarried women bearing children. Employers and government, meanwhile, began to recognize "domestic partnerships," handing out equivalent benefits to couples who claimed to have the same sort of binding commitment and mutual regard as husbands and wives. Later, these same benefits were extended to same-sex partners, and for good reason. Gay couples deserve the same effective legal protections and benefits as straight ones, married or not.

All these changes highlighted the essential arbitrariness of marriage, undermining fatally the claims that romantic partnerships must be endorsed by God in order to qualify as moral or legal. The government accepted that marriage was purely civil and subject to the same rules of procedure as any other. Of course, the implications of this principle have delivered us to our present conundrum. If we do not exclude gays from adoption, or employment in a police force or attendance at Giants games, then we cannot exclude them from marriage either.

I accept the implications of the principle. At the same time, I pine away from the good old days when it seemed marriage was doomed as a legal institution and a social ideal. Obviously, the challenge to marriage has receded, if not vanished altogether. As a ceremony and a social reality, marriage reigns supreme. But, rather than celebrate the hegemony of marriage, I submit that we are rather stuck with this peculiar institution in much the same way as we are afflicted by death, disease and taxes. In the battle over who gets to marry and who doesn't, we would be wise to remember that, wide or narrow, the circle of marriage brings pain as well as joy and sometimes more of the former than the later.

Your Economy or Your Life

Jared Bernstein is the conscience of the American economy. In his new book, "All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy," he advocates an increase of government involvement in American life: primarily our economic lives. Given the public's current low expectations for government effectiveness, it sounds like a leap of faith. Bernstein says it's a leap well worth taking. Government, he says, is the only institution that can enable us to meet the challenges of health care, globalization and rampant economic inequality.

A strong country puts people's needs before corporate profits, he says. In order to make that happen we have to ditch what he calls the Bush administration's YOYO philosophy ("you're on your own") and replace it with a kinder, gentler alternative: WITT ("we're in this together").

G. Pascal Zachary: You're all about bringing fairness to ordinary workers and having an economy that serves people over profits. In your book, you say that unions do a good job of achieving many of the goals you favor. If the benefits of unions are so clear -- higher wages, stronger benefits -- why don't we have more?

Jared Bernstein: A majority of work force say they'd like to be part of a collective bargaining unit. The desire is pervasive. The problem is in the difficulties in forming such units. The playing field is very steeply tilted against those who wish to form a union. The power to tamp down a union organizing drive is very large. Employers have lots of tools to tamp down a drive to form a union. It's a steep uphill climb.

Zachary: How can the playing field be leveled? How can more workers get unions?

Bernstein: We can start by making them jump through fewer hoops. Card check, where a majority of employees sign a card saying they want a union and the union comes, is important. Then there would be fewer chances for employers to oppose a union drive and retaliate against pro-union workers.

There should be much tougher penalties on employers who fire workers who are trying to form unions. Employers who do this should be quickly punished. Right now all they get is a slap on the wrist. To get more unions, you need to increase the cost of illegal behavior by employers.

Zachary: In the absence of stronger unions, what can working people push for?

Bernstein: One of the most important sources of bargaining power these days is a full job market. When the job market is tight, the job market itself serves a similar role as unions. Workers have more clout over matters of pay, benefits and working conditions. They can switch jobs more easily. The clout workers have is severely diminished in a weak job market. So what workers can do is to advocate for better macroeconomics. This gets to the heart of my book. Workers should sign onto an agenda that elevates full employment to a critically important national goal.

Zachary: How can they do that?

Bernstein: For example, they can press the Federal Reserve to show concern for higher employment. The Fed really doesn't do that, though they are supposed to. No one calls them on this failure. The pressure on the Fed tends to be to keep inflation low and much less to keep employment full. The question gets back to whose economy is it? If a lousy job report helps to boost the stock market [because high unemployment undercuts demands by workers for raises and thus promotes corporate profits], ask yourself which market has the most constituents, the stock market or the job market?

Zachary: In your book you pit individualistic approaches against communal, cooperative approaches to government. But aren't you really talking about Republicans versus Democrats? Aren't you really against everything the Republicans stand for economically and fiscally?

Bernstein: There are ways that Democrats also are failing to pursue the agenda I outline. But it is definitely true that the Republicans are failing more often. They have no clue when it comes to eco-management, actually. The Republicans are promoting a kind of Robin Hood in reverse. They are trying to enrich their friends and donors. Along the way they're shifting risk from government's shoulders onto individuals. The Republicans are pretty much dividing the spoils among themselves and their donors and leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves.

Zachary: What about the Democrats? Aren't they in favor of your approach, and haven't the voters rejected it?

Bernstein: I don't think either Kerry or Gore [the last two Democratic nominees] sold a program of economic fairness in a way that reached people. A presidential candidate needs to communicate to the electorate that he or she understands the economic insecurities they face and has a plan to reconnect their living standards to the growing economy. Bill Clinton did that. [John Edwards, Kerry's 2004 running mate,] can do that. Barack Obama does that. Hillary Clinton comes to mind. She can connect with people on these issues, but for some reason it doesn't come across in the media. She convincingly expresses the kinds of thoughts I'm talking about.

Zachary: With the economy booming, with housing prices still healthy, why should voters embrace economic alternatives? Or is our perceived economic health a fraud? Is the economy simply held together by foreign investment, high deficits and low-interest rates? Do we have a Ponzi scheme economy, as the economist and columnist Paul Krugman repeatedly suggests in the New York Times?

Bernstein: Fundamentally I don't think we have a Ponzi-scheme economy. One of most important variables is productivity growth [whereby the economic value of a worker's time is growing at a much faster rate than in the past]. But even though I believe we have a new productivity growth curve, there are absolutely some shaky fundamentals. You hit on them. The extent of exposure to foreign debt in particular. That's one of our major exposures. We're depending on outsiders to finance 7 percent of our spending because we as a country are consuming more than we are producing. That's unsustainable. So the question is how does this unwind … with a bang or a whimper?

Zachary: What do you think?

Bernstein: I see a middle ground, somewhere in between a bang and whimper. That still isn't pretty. We'll be looking at slower growth.

Zachary: This new Bush tax cut, moving through Congress this week, seems like madness. Can the government simply keep piling up more debts and nothing happens? When is the day of reckoning coming, and how bad will it be?

Bernstein: The day of reckoning is far enough away that these guys feel they can cut taxes with impunity. No one has proved to them that they can't. Maybe this November the electorate will send them a message that this profligacy won't stand. You can't justify this latest tax cut on any rational economic grounds. Yet it is hard to see what stops them. Where are the political forces that are pushing against this craziness?

Zachary: You say in your book that you want our very divided country to come together and embrace an economic platform that puts people's needs before corporate profits and gives more help to the poor and disadvantaged. Yet the country seems headed in the opposite direction. Are you sensing some kind of "darkness before the dawn" scenario that other people are missing?

Bernstein: I think I am. What motivates this book is the vision that we're going down the wrong path, and that it is within our power to change. So yes, I think we are at a "darkness before the dawn" moment.

The polls support this idea. There is a growing sense by a majority of Americans that something is fundamentally wrong in how we are running our affairs.

The war is out of hand. There's a large and growing disconnect between the economy and the people in the economy. Add to that a pervasive sense that the Bush administration is incompetent. Even if you like Republican ideas and values, you can't support the administration's actions. Even when government intervention is undeniable, like in the Katrina situation, the Bush administration can't handle the job, and of course that makes people more insecure and unsettled, and they start looking for another path.

Zachary: So there's an opportunity here for progressives?

Bernstein: There are clear openings for progressives. The failure of social security privatization and health savings accounts -- that suggests there are openings. When those initiatives by Bush fell flat, it led me to think that people are rejecting the values embedded in those initiatives and have a desire for alternatives.

Zachary: Why does the majority of the electorate vote against its own class interests? Or even if we grant that a majority of people doesn't vote against class interests, a significant minority certainly does. What's wrong here? Are Americans just dumb?

Bernstein: Not at all. It's not even clear to me that people even do vote against their class interests. I won't believe that until I see a candidate express class interests in a way that hasn't been done yet. When that person loses, then I'll question my belief. For a long time, the economic debate has been so foggy that you can't tell who votes against what. Take the last election. I don't think Kerry was a bad candidate, but he didn't convincingly present economic alternatives. Any candidate who does represent the class interests of the majority will be a winner, I believe.

Zachary: When will the failure to come up with alternative sources of energy hurt the economy and crack the consciousness of ordinary Americans?

Bernstein: I am a complete disbeliever in almost every conspiracy theory, but the energy industrial complex does seem extremely entrenched. It's clear to everyone who looks at the problem that we have to end our addiction to oil. Even Bush has said so. But the question is what are we doing about it. The problem is we can't do anything about reducing our dependence on oil if all the paths forward are blocked by moneyed interests.

Clearly, conservation steps ought to be taken right away. Like better gas mileage in cars. But oil interests keep that from happening. And why not make a big public-private partnership to push for energy independence? Like the Apollo Alliance? Like when we said in the 1960s we'll land on the moon in 10 years? Well, we can't have such a crash program when your political funders are blocking that path. We have pure shortsighted politics in the energy area.

Pricing is another problem. Gas at $3 a gallon apparently isn't the tipping point to change people's behavior. Maybe gas at $5 to $6 a gallon does it. The price right now doesn't cause enough pain to enough people. Unless that changes -- maybe through a higher tax on gasoline -- we'll probably still stay on the path were on.

Zachary: Are Bush and Cheney bent on wrecking the federal balance sheet as part of a nefarious, diabolical plan to permanently cripple the capacity of the U.S. government to get anything done, and thus force the U.S. down a path of smaller government, or are Bush and Cheney incredibly stupid? Or are both true?

Bernstein: I don't think it's diabolical or stupid. It is pure politics. Bush and Cheney have made a political calculation that deficits don't matter and that spending helps them. They are very much driven by politics, not economics. Besides, spending helps them. So does cutting taxes for your rich supporters.

Zachary: But isn't the legacy of this to permanently constrain the federal government, to limit what government can do?

Bernstein: If you have to shrink government politically to live within your means, that's fine with Bush and Cheney, too. But they are leaving that possibility to other generations. That's not their problem.

Zachary: But it is ours as a nation.

Bernstein: There's nothing new in government spending like a drunken sailor. What I've outlined is a different set of purposes. The economic policies we need should not simply be concerned with efficiency or getting out of the way so the individuals can fend for themselves. We need to be concerned with equity and opportunity too.


Happy Holidays!