How Do We Remediate Toxic Waste?

By Mike Koetting        October 11, 2018

Like the vast majority of Americans who have been paying attention, the events of the last week have been profoundly discouraging. For me, the ascension of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is awful. But it isn’t just that.

It is also that the process was so ugly. It certainly tarnished both the Senate and the Supreme Court, two institutions that are key to democracy. It even managed to get the #Me Too movement entangled in a very partisan way, something that may not be helpful to the movement in the long run. As a consequence of the hearings, the two sides hate each other more and the vast majority of the population leaves the hearings even more pessimistic, and more cynical, about the future of American political society.

David Brooks refers to this as unvarnished tribalization. In some sense, this is fair enough. But I think the term “tribalization” misses an important nuance. One is born into a tribe. Political parties are a choice, a choice dictated by one’s particular value constellation rather than the accident of birth. The Civil War was a tribal war, but it was also a fundamentally moral question as to whether slavery was going to persist as an American institution. The splits in American society today feel so lethal precisely because they are clashes over fundamental value propositions.

To be sure, the dividing lines today are not as neat. There are multiple, often competing values in play and each political party is a coalition of groups that don’t necessarily share all values, but are united primarily for strategic purposes. This is starker in the Republican Party. The moneyed elites share relatively few values with a large part of the Trump base. But without those votes, Republicans wouldn’t have any electoral chance at the national level. The Democratic Party is harder to parse, in part because it is a mosaic of more interest groups. Blacks, Latinos, trade unions, LBGQTs, college-educated whites and the women’s movement have plenty of differences in what they value most. But they need each other. Politics continues to make strange bedfellows

Given that both parties are to some degree cobbled together of less than monolithic interest groups, it seems it should be possible to create more opportunities for people in both camps to search for areas of common interest so that we can back away from the political cliff on whose edge we seem to be teetering.

But apparently not so. Both sides have lost the sense there is any point in compromise.

You start it

Impasses of this sort are very hard to resolve. On the one hand, simply arguing the other guy’s extreme positions are the cause of the stalemate doesn’t do much to resolve the impasse–since they think the same about you. On the other hand, no side is going to abrogate core principles.

That said, I can’t think much about the current mess—and it is a society-threatening mess—without concluding that this is more on the Republicans. I have read carefully the arguments of David Frum, Jonah Goldberg, and a few other conservative columnists on “Democratic overreach” and I come away convinced that while there is some shared blame, there is no parity. Mostly their ”overreach” arguments come down to some version of “it started when they hit us back”.

In the last dozen years or so, there have been critical societal issues where Democrats were obviously willing to make major concessions, but where Republicans have walked away. A few examples suffice:

  • From 2005 to 2007, Republicans killed a series of immigration bills that had been carefully pieced together by a bi-partisan group in the Senate. The provisions of those bills outlined a sensible immigration policy that a large majority of the country supported. No one has come up with anything like a better plan since.
  • Environmental protection had a long history of bipartisan support. But over time, Republicans abandoned it in favor of a position largely denying environmental dangers in the face of virtually all scientific evidence, which increasingly suggests that the environmental future of the entire planet is at stake. The poster child for this retreat was in 2010 when Republicans defeated a Cap and Trade policy that was a Republican idea as far back as Ronald Reagan. When it was actually advanced as bipartisan legislation. Republican support vanished, replaced by unfounded climate skepticism.
  • Lack of health insurance coverage was accepted by all parties as a major problem, with the uninsured rate approaching 20%. Democrats proposed the same plan that Republicans had touted as the solution since Bill Clinton was president. It had been implemented by Mitt Romney, later a Republican presidential candidate. But not a single Republican voted for the ACA—even though they had no alternative proposal.
  • In 2015, President Obama was prepared to do a “Grand Bargain” on the budget that would have given Republicans concessions that went far beyond what the Democrat base wanted. But Republicans walked away.
  • In 2016, President Obama nominated a Supreme Court justice who was much, much more middle of the road than Brett Kavanaugh. Republicans refused to even give him a hearing.

In other words, the current situation is above and beyond that Kavanaugh was a jerk in the hearings—and even that he may have been something worse in his youth. This goes to the heart of Republican willingness to choose burnt earth over the compromises that are a necessary part of the democratic enterprise.

In the same column that David Brooks condemns the tribal behavior on display during the Kavanaugh hearings, he says our civic environment “isn’t polluted by a vague condition called ‘polarization.’ It is polluted by the specific toxic emissions we all produce in our low moments.” He’s wrong. It is produced precisely by polarization, which has become the political strategy of either choice or necessity, depending on your political party. The toxic emissions are a symptom, not a cause. If we want a better civic environment we need to show that it is possible to reach compromises on the substantive issues facing America. That is, govern, not divide and conquer.

In light of the recent history of Republican refusals to make even minimal efforts to compromise on the major issues in American domestic policy, no matter how concerned I am about the divide in American society, it is very hard for me to see how Democrats can be responsibly expected to take the next step. Particularly given that the Republican party is increasingly hitching its wagon to the bellicose style of Donald Trump—including fluorescent displays of toxic emissions that appeal to the worst instincts in human nature.

I am not optimistic about where this leaves us. I don’t think the country can successfully manage the innumerable challenges of an increasingly complicated world without a functioning government. (If you doubt this, see Michael Lewis’s terrifying book, The Fifth Risk.) We will not have a functioning government until our political parties eschew “no compromise” strategies. That will require leaders who are conspicuously willing to put a common future over party advantage. But where are they? Imagine how different the recent history of America would have been if Republicans celebrated the indisputable fact that the ACA incorporated long-standing Republican principles, then worked to improve its flaws, and rallied the country to the idea that society is better off with a series of measures that deliver affordable healthcare to all citizens.

While the existence of compromise is a general condition, it is clear that at this point the Republican Party has to travel much further. And until they start, I’m holding firm. I’m willing to talk with anyone until we are both purple in the face. But unless that gets translated into real, legislative moves that unite rather than divide the country, it’s nothing but talk. Right now it seems the only way back to a functioning government is for the Democrats to win big in elections, behave responsibility, but keeping winning.

If David Brooks wants to call that “tribalization,” fine. He’s not incorrect. But these are also reasoned, principled choices about values.


What Could We Get From Trade Policy

By Mike Koetting        September 25, 2018

I am still no expert on trade policy, but I have found the spinning out of the recent NAFTA discussions fascinating. You may have already forgotten about them because issues with China have taken center-stage in anything about trade that could be heard over the Kavanaugh furor. But, as will be discussed below, expect NAFTA to return.

First, repeating a mantra from earlier posts on the topic, there is simply no such thing as completely free trade. All trade happens under some rules. So simply incanting “free trade” doesn’t really shed much light on the full range of discussion. This is important because the stickiest points in the current NAFTA discussion are not around tariffs per se, but around the rules under which tariffs stay low—not that you could tell that from most of the media coverage, which continues to portray this as a cartoon contest between free trade and protectionism, with little coverage of the actual issues at stake.

To review the bidding on NAFTA: As it now stands, the United States and Mexico have reached a tentative bi-lateral trade agreement. Canada has participated in talks about some of the provisions, but is not part of the Mexico-America agreement. There is a wide range of opinion as to what happens with NAFTA if Canada does not come to an agreement with the other two parties. But the procedural rules governing Fast-Track approval require the publication of actual text by October 1 if an agreement is to be signed with Mexico before its new president comes to office. So the next week will be telling.

It is worth setting aside speculation on Canada and focusing on the Mexico-America proposed agreement because it provides an illuminating case study. As it now stands there are five major elements of the deal. The agreement would:

  • Raise the percent of parts in imported cars that must be made in North America from 62.5% to 75%. While this sounds good, in fact, due to the arcane way in which these calculations are performed, experts are divided as to whether this will make much difference. But no one suggests it is a step in the wrong direction.
  • Requires that a portion of any automobile or automotive parts must be made by workers who make at least $16/hour for the car to qualify for NAFTA’s duty free status. This, or a similar provision, would decrease the incentive to move jobs to Mexico and force manufacturers to pay better wages if they do. This is should help US workers but also help Mexican workers. Wages in Mexico have not risen at all proportional to the amount of work that has been moved there as a result of NAFTA.
  • Remove from NAFTA the Investor-State Dispute Settlement panels (ISDS). ISDS are extra-governmental panels created by the treaty and staffed by corporate lawyers who decide, in relative secrecy, on complaints brought by corporations that governments under the agreement have “infringed” their rights by enacting unfavorable legislation or enforcing unfavorable regulations. If the panel finds against the government, it can levy fines. (The US government has transferred almost $400M to corporations for various “infringements”.) It is widely argued these tribunals limit nations’ ability to make laws for the conduct of business in their own nations.
  • Guarantee union members secret votes on unionization and contracts, something woefully lacking in Mexico.
  • Create a 16 year sunset provision, with a review at 6 years.

While I am sure I don’t understand all the fine print in this agreement, what is striking to me is that none of these provisions seem to fit into the narrative structure, advanced by the business community, that dismisses any attempt to modify trade rules as anti ”free-trade.” The Business Roundtable complained “that today’s announcement might signal not an improvement, but rather a step backward by requiring a sunset provision, weakening investment protections and constraining access to dispute settlement procedures.”

Rather, it seems to me, these provisions could best be characterized as an attempt to better balance the benefits from trade between the people of the two countries and the corporation owners, whom the previous provisions favored.

Fair Trade

Not surprisingly, unions tend to support the new provisions. Unions do, however, caution that the agreement continues to lack sufficient teeth around enforcement, and, in general, there are plenty of things progressives would want from a trade deal that are not contained here. But there is general sentiment this a step in the right direction.

In any event, the opposition of the business community and the absence of Canada in the agreement make it unlikely that Congress will move quickly on this issue, which would probably push any ratification past the midterm and past the installation of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as the new president of Mexico. Thus, adoption of these provisions, indeed the entire future of NAFTA, remains uncertain.

Still, this proposed agreement is interesting because support does not fall along party lines. While Trump’s base, like Trump, is instinctively protectionist, this is totally divergent from the Republican party’s established position, which has been strongly “free trade” for the last 30 years. (Historically, Republicans were the party of trade protection. But starting in the 80’s they realized the world had changed such that it was more beneficial for the elite to have “free trade” than “protectionism”.)

Democrats are also split. The big-money portion of the party supports existing and proposed deals (like the Trans Pacific Partnership). But the base is sufficiently hostile to all trade deals that no Democratic candidate with an expansive notion of trade deals will be viable in the near future. In the moment, the Democrats are attacking the threat of a Trump tariff war. But this is more schadenfreude at Trump’s problems with his own constituencies than any coherent policy position. In fact, as one hopes party leadership realizes, thoughtful trade pacts are an important way to prevent trade wars—so they will need to have a more proactive position when they regain a majority.

Sensible policy should start with the position recognized by virtually all experts on the topic that, on balance, increasing the amount of trade leaves America better off than restricting trade. Some of the benefits are reflected in the increased production of exports and some are reflected in lower consumer prices for some products. But it is also demonstrably the case that some people get banged up pretty badly when “free trade” proceeds willy-nilly and that a very disproportionate amount of the returns go to the investor class. Addressing these issues will difficult. For instance, if one wants to oppose tariffs because they may raise consumer prices, one also needs to keep in mind not only the costs to other Americans of keeping those prices low, but also the warping effect the mechanisms used to keep those prices low has on the distribution of American wealth. And that is before considering the impact on other countries, which sooner or later will return to haunt us. Conversely, a more protectionist policy also creates winners and losers, as well as the threat of tariff wars, which would probably have a worse impact on general welfare than the current policies.

It seems the best approach would be policy that embraces trade, but uses trade agreements in ways that achieve a better balance of the benefits. Perversely, it seems the Trump administration has somehow stumbled into an agreement that could actually have some modest benefit for both American and Mexican workers without obviously undoing whatever positives there are to a trade agreement with Mexico. However, since Trump doesn’t seem to operate from any fixed principles, it’s not clear whether he has any capability to steer this agreement through a Republican Congress—let alone whether he could ever repeat it.

But this seems exactly like the direction Democrats should be exploring—not getting rid of trade agreements, but using them to balance the benefits. In addition to real benefits, this approach touches on an area of common interest with the Trump base at a time when those are very hard to find.


Who Owns the Future of Work?

By Mike Koetting    September 12, 2018

One of the articles I read when I was preparing for my Labor Day post was “It’s Not ‘The Future of Work’, It’s the Future of Workers That’s in Doubt.” by Sarita Gupta, Stephen Lerner, & Joseph A. McCartin, all three labor advocates. Given that I have had several posts devoted to “The Future of Work,” it’s not surprising that this article got my attention.

They argue we should be less focused on the abstract “Future of Work” and more focused on making the world safe for workers. Without this, they suggest, inequality grows and that inevitably threatens democracy. They do not gainsay the looming issues of technology change but they say:

It is the concentration of wealth and power in this new economy, not computerization or artificial intelligence, that represents the gravest threat to our future. It is that concentration that will determine how innovative technologies are deployed and in whose interests they operate. The future of work will be determined by who wields power and for what purposes.

About the same time, I ran across the article “The Doomsday Investor” in The New Yorker. It is a profile of Paul Singer, whom Bloomberg has called “The World’s Most Feared Investor”. Singer is a high-stakes pirate. He finds companies that he perceives have some weakness and buys up a chunk. He then proceeds to do whatever it takes–and I mean, whatever it takes—to drive up stock prices, then pockets the proceeds. His record reflects nary a consideration of workers, communities, or overall value to the economy. He is phenomenally wealthy. (And, not surprisingly, is a massive contributor to the Republican Party; in the 2016 election-cycle he contributed $24 million.)

The New Yorker article makes the same point as I cited Senator Warren making in my last post: in the years since Ronald Reagan, business philosophy has come to accept the idea that companies exist solely to serve the interests of shareholders. Once this happens, companies take positions that can drive up stock prices in the short term, but are long run detrimental to the larger society. Reflecting on Singer, The New Yorker says:

Over time, this lack of long-term vision alters the economy—with profound political implications. Businesses are the engine of a country’s employment and wealth creation; when they cater only to stockholders, expenditures on employees’ behalf, whether for raises, job training, or new facilities, come to be seen as a poor use of funds. Eventually, this can result in fewer secure jobs, widening inequality, and political polarization.

In short, the situation that now marks American society.

Too Much Future

The connection between these two articles seems obvious. We have a relatively small group of investors making stunning amounts. Some off nothing more than the manipulation of stocks and prices, providing no value and probably weakening the long-run potential of the economy. Others, who, while actually providing goods or services of communal value, have become so rich and powerful that they have an outsized impact on the future of society—not only because they have so much money, but also because the nature of their enterprises directly shape the future. (Think how Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, the Waltons and other less well-known capitalists influence every aspect of our lives through what and how they sell us.)

The question, then, is who is going to control the future of work? Do we really want those choices to be shaped by business elites who accept the notion that businesses exist primarily to make money for their owners?

Unfortunately, it is not obvious what other formulation actually works in our society. If Amazon changed the nature of its business, wouldn’t Walmart try to undercut them? And, in fact, the world doesn’t stop at international borders. If Walmart couldn’t take over from Amazon, Jack Ma and Alibaba (the Chinese equivalent of Amazon) is there to take over. Alibaba is already a player in American markets and they will play tough. Ma said in a letter to employees when they entered American markets:

Lying behind the massive allure of the capital market, there is unparalleled ruthlessness and pressure. In this market, only a small number of outstanding enterprises can maintain a gallop.

It is important to remember that, while we may disagree with the way the elites structure the choices, it is still the case that market choices make a difference. Walmart continues to thrive because so many people choose to shop there. Conversely, it’s safe to assume that if they unliterally decided to raise employee wages significantly and stop hammering their suppliers so mercilessly, some people would stop going there.

If they had an alternative.

Which is why it is so important that as a society we stop pussyfooting around the idea that markets will not self-regulate and create appropriate checks and balances.

Democrats currently have a hard time bringing themselves to be clear about this. Understandably, they suspect that if they are too open in their willingness to interfere in markets, it will hurt them at the polls because large parts of the population don’t want to admit that, however obvious it has become. Not to mention what it might do to their fundraising.  (Bernie Sanders showed that it may be possible to fund a campaign on small dollar donations; but it sure is harder and less certain.)

Which brings me back to the role of unions. Unions served as “balancers”. When union membership was over 30% of the workforce–and union families voted together—it was more than half of the voters. It made owners listen to unions. And was certainly more than enough to keep the Democratic Party sharply focused on economic issues. Democrats may have had to avoid being “communists” but they still had an unambiguous mandate to make sure that capitalism didn’t run wild.

Moreover, union membership—at least in many unions—gave people a sense they were involved in controlling their own lives and that carried over to other aspects of democracy. Union membership also created, albeit varying from time to time and place to place, a sense of solidarity that made them more disposed to communal sacrifice if the benefits for their brothers and sisters were clear enough. The current degree of inequality dampens both impulses and replaces them with rage and resentment.

If our society is going to be guided into a future that nourishes workers and thinks carefully about the distributive impacts of policy, it is going to be because some group forces that. The rich guys aren’t going to give us an alternative version of the future, even if some of them have generous foundations and vote with us from time to time.

For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine a re-emergence of unions as the organizing force that gets to a future not controlled by the Paul Singers and Jeff Bezos. If we want a different future, we need constructs that replicate the roles of unions—creating a coherent Democratic party committed to addressing economic inequality supported by an engaged electorate that understands that the work at hand will require sacrifices.

Can this be Indivisible-style, disaggregated, internet-based organizing? Might unions figure out different ways of organizing service workers and forge functioning coalitions with their historic membership? Will the various minority organizing groups invent ways of turning out the vote in their communities? Will the disparate element of the Democratic Party settle on a common vision of how to achieve economic justice? I haven’t a clue. I can think of reasons why one or all of these work and reasons why they won’t happen.

We’ll have to see. But it does seem to me that the current overall strategy of the Democratic Party—college educated and minorities—is not exciting the kind of solidarity that unions did in the 50’s. There are lots of reasons to not want to go back to the 50’s, but unless we recreate the physics of that period, we will be at the mercy of the investor class, who have all momentum on their side.

Voters vs Non Voters

Voter Attributes

Source: Pew Research, via Washington Post

Unions in America

By Mike Koetting     September 3, 2018 

What with today being Labor Day, it seemed an appropriate time to reflect on unions in America.

It is difficult to over-estimate the positive impact that unions have had on American life. Unions are in some way responsible for humane wages, 40 hour working week, vacations, pensions, and safer working conditions. For all workers, not just union members. It is also the case that when unions were strongest, immediately after WWII, inequality was lowest. Certainly many factors contributed to the rise of a more egalitarian society.  But, as shown in recent research on unions, summarized by Mike Konzcal in The Nation, the rise of unions explains the increase in overall societal equality “every bit as much as theories about education or any other single factor.”

Despite this, unions have lost favor in America.

What happened?

Business, and by extension, the Republican Party, had vociferously opposed unions since their inception. But in the years immediately after WWII, America was hit with a large wave of strikes. Many people saw these as labor overplaying its hand—at a time when the population was anxious to get back to “normalcy”. As described by Rich Yeselson, this led to solidification of the forces against unions—the business community, the Republican Party and the South, which feared unions would ally with a nascent civil rights movement. These forces culminated in the passage, over President Truman’s veto, of the Taft-Hartley Act.

Taft-Harley was, in its direct consequences, not particularly draconian. But it unleased a wave of indirect consequences, including freeing states to pass “Right to Work” laws and, in general, making unions much more defensive and cautious about their role. It was supplemented by a massive corporate PR attack linking unions with corruption, labor racketeering, and communism. While unions continued to exert significant influence for years, this was the beginning of the long decline in union membership, pushed along by an aggressive regulatory, judicial and legislative campaign from Republicans and corporations.  From a high of over 30% of the workforce in the early Fifties, union membership is now about 10.7%, with a bare 6.7% of the private sector unionized.

Opposition by Republicans and corporations was not the only reason for the declining importance of unions. The nature of business in America changed. Largely due to automation, manufacturing is a smaller portion of the workforce and what remains is geographically more distributed, making it increasingly difficult to organize.

Beyond that, unions have lost the public relations battle. Unions are widely perceived as being more concerned with protecting their members than is consistent with needs for larger social changes. Some of this is simple jealousy. Many people, whose main complaint with unions is that union workers have been able to hold onto benefits that other workers have lost, seem to think that is a compelling reason why unions should give up those benefits. Obviously balderdash. All workers should have these benefits, including higher wages. The reason unions reduced inequality is because they made these benefits widespread. When unions were diminished, corporations felt more confident in taking them away. But this hardly makes it right.

There are other issues. Americans have always had a strong streak of individualism, often misguided, and corporate PR has played up the idea that unions were “anti-individualist” Unions also lost traction within the Democratic Party. Even with progressive union leadership, rank-and-file in some unions have been anti-progressive. Defection of union votes in the late-Sixties and into the Seventies helped nudge the Democratic party away from a focus on union issues. Perceived lack of support for minority and women’s issues exacerbated the drift. (Interestingly, as Konzcal points out, the empirical evidence is compelling that on balance unions were a powerful force for racial economic justice. Individual unions, and individual union members, however have been egregiously unhelpful in this regard.)

I would also summon my own experiences. For most of my career I’ve been a management guy in largely unionized organizations. I never begrudged the fact that unions won higher wages than would have been the case were the workers not unionized. But working with the unions was endlessly frustrating:

  • The need to battle over the smallest changes in work procedures
  • The insistence on seniority to determine job eligibility
  • Bumping rights
  • The protections afforded for employees, no matter how awful they were

While I do appreciate that these evolved as defenses against very real abuses by management, they are nevertheless often at odds with the demands of today’s rapidly changing business environments and technologies.

The Consequences

Whatever unions’ problems, their weakening has affected the entire society. While there is no single cause for the rising inequality in America , the loss of union power is certainly an important one. Numerous economists have presented strong evidence that the weakening of unions has contributed significantly to rising inequality of the past forty years. Nathan Pippenger summarizes:

Economists have estimated that declining union membership over the last four plus decades could account for as much as 15-20 percent, or perhaps even a third, of the growth in inequality among male workers. And it might have caused as much as 20 percent of the growth in inequality for all workers.

Unions vs Top 10%

Source: Economic Policy Institute

What Next?

On the one hand, it is hard to see how there would be a return to the traditional unionism. Too much has changed. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that the pressure for some change is building. Union advocates Bruce Raynor and Andy Stern contend:

Young people are experiencing the worst career prospects since the Depression. This is now true among both the educated and poorly educated. It is causing many members of this generation to question America’s political and economic systems and established institutions.

The overwhelming defeat of a proposed “Right to Work” initiative in Missouri—a state that Trump won 57% to 38%–suggests they may be right.

But as Raynor and Stern also acknowledge, today’s unions will need twenty-first century answers.  There are several directions that must be pursued, which I will summarize in three major groups.

First, make institutional changes in the way America thinks about corporations.  Senator Warren has introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act that would mandate changes in corporate organization designed to make them more oriented to longer term commitment to workers, the community and the economy.  She has noted, for instance, that in 1981 the Business Roundtable, a major business lobbying group, suggested a corporation’s goals should be to “enhance the enterprise, provide jobs, and build the economy.” But by 1997, they saw the “principal objective of a business enterprise is to generate economic returns to its owners.” Among the provisions in this act is the potential for requiring worker participation on the corporate board.  Senator Tammy Baldwin has also introduced legislation requiring worker representation on boards.

Second, unions must be more flexible in their approach to organizing. Given the changing nature of work, they need approaches. A recent article in The American Prospect offers several examples of possibilities for sector organizing rather than working on individual firms. For instance, the New York City establishment of a Wage Board for food service workers, allowed organizing across the sector rather than store by store. The core of these tactics is to align the union goals with goals of the broader community, which they call “Bargaining for the Common Good”.

Finally, actually win legislative battles to reverse the long-term erosion of workers’ rights. The Economic Policy Institute has recently put together a 15-point agenda that would restore a better balance between workers and corporations. Many of these points are familiar suggestions to rejuvenate workers collective bargaining rights that have been undermined by years of adverse regulatory and judicial decisions. Democrats have historically given lip service to these goals, but even when they have had majorities, have been unable or unwilling to actually pass relevant laws.

We all need to root for unions.  For whatever problems they pose, a revitalized union movement is as much for the benefit of the broader society as for the benefits accrued to any specific workers.

Looking Back to the 1968 Chicago Convention

By Mike Koetting     August 24, 2018

Fifty years ago I was with my friend Charlene in front of a hotel on Michigan Avenue, clean-cut with a coat and tie. We were arguing with an alternative delegate to the Democratic Convention from New Jersey. The street in front of us was filled with protesters.

We had been among the crowd that tried earlier to conduct a peaceful, well-organized march starting in Grant Park. But the police had refused and tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas. The crowd did not disperse and eventually flowed onto Michigan avenue, where it remained. Chanting and yelling and closing the street, but otherwise not bothering anything.

Then the police decided they were going to clear the street through whatever means and started to club and mace protesters and, indeed, anyone in sight. The alternative delegate scurried into the hotel, but the hotel’s security would not let us in because we weren’t registered. Charlene and I headed down a side-street to get away from the police—who were now clubbing people wildly and indiscriminately. Suddenly police came at us from all sides. I was clubbed in the head and ducked away from two other swings at me. Charlene wasn’t hit—just pushed around. The Mobilization Committee carted me off to Billings Hospital (as the University of Chicago Medical Center was then known) to get stitched up.

Chicago Police


I was shocked, but not surprised. If I had been overly worried, I wouldn’t have been there. I knew that the organizers of various protests anticipated, perhaps hoped for, police over-reaction to whatever happened. In this case, the over-reaction was over the top and it was available for the whole world to watch.

When I returned home to St. Louis, I wrote up the events of that week and sent a ditto (people my age will remember the purple print and funky smell) to many friends. It was like a Facebook for the rotary phone era. I wrote this note because I sensed then that this was a serious breaking of the threads holding the country. The riots, protests and descension of the previous years had all been building to this point.

I wanted to create a record of how events unfolded at my street level. I figured this would become another particular in the bill of goods against all the protesters, particularly my generation, for destroying the country.

My premonition was correct. As it turned out. the Chicago convention was the crossing of the “law and order” Rubicon. “Law and order” would become the watchword for large parts of the country who wanted to stuff everything about the Sixties back into the box from which it sprang. As if that could be accomplished with tear gas and truncheons.

In retrospect, I wonder how much of that was a real belief that the clock could be turned back and how much was simply a desire to exact revenge. The more I learn about the astonishing cruelty that whites could inflict on black people because “they didn’t know their place”, the more I wonder how many of the “law and order” urges were simply a desire to spank unruly children by whatever means necessary.

This “law and order” mantra contributed significantly to the election that year of Richard Nixon. Nixon’s election was part reflection of the growing cultural divide in the country—but also a significant cause. Instead of trying to bring the nation together, his opportunistic politics realigned the political structure and exploited these cultural gaps. Subsequent events hardened these divides as certain politicians built on the gaps and nurtured them to the point where today this divide creates a distinct anxiety about the future of American democracy.

One should be careful about over-ascribing the importance of specific events. History isn’t neat. Different trend lines get broken all the time. There were all kinds of things changing in the Sixties that weren’t going to get unchanged. And there were trends that started much earlier and would continue longer. Still, if one is looking for a single point at which all the disparate impacts of the Sixties came together with one mighty rent in the society, it would be that night in Chicago.


Welcome to Chicago

Reflecting back on all this, people might wonder whether all those protesters in Chicago—and elsewhere in those years—did the right thing.

Speaking for myself, and a relatively large group of friends, the answer is unequivocally “Yes”. Not that any of us anticipated, let alone hoped for, a cultural rift that won’t resolve. In fact, we resolutely believed this was a step toward reconciling the divides. Perhaps uncomfortable in the short run, but something that would be well received in the longer arc of history.

How it would ultimately turn out was something we couldn’t know then. In the clear and present of that moment, however, the choice was to acquiesce or to protest. There were all kinds of protests, and some were less offensive to the general population than others. But make no mistake. They all stemmed from the same basic question—to accept the existing circumstances or to oppose? From our point of view to accept the old order of blacks in their place, napalm in Vietnam and women in the kitchen was simply wrong. What we did was what we could—because it was a moral imperative to do something.

After the events of the Sixties, there was no going back for America. Although back to what isn’t clear. It’s not as if there were some halcyon days when everything in America was great and the protests ruined it. Many things were good, but many things were not. Ignoring the problems would have been squandering the amazing advantages America had given us, selling out progress to preserve our own place.

The choice to protest was the right choice. The problems that have followed have been much less the fault of the protesters, and much more the fault of the reactions to those protests.

Just as, lost in the collective memory of the Chicago convention, is the irony that it was the police who had rioted, not the protesters.


As you might guess, this post is based on material in my book, You Must Choose Now: A Journey Through the Sixties. The book contains a longer description of what happened in Chicago on August 28, 1968, including an abbreviated version of what I wrote then and distributed by dittograph. The book is available in both e-format and paperback from pretty much wherever you usually get books, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. (For those of you who already reading the book, many thanks. I hope you are finding it interesting, but please let me know what you think. I must, however, note that I have discovered another downside of self-publishing: even the purchased proof-reading was not as good as I had anticipated. Changes are in progress, so be forgiving.)

My Book About the Sixties

By Mike Koetting      August 12, 2018

This a special edition of my blog, featuring my book You Must Choose Now.  You Must Choose Now is the story of my adventures in the Sixties—which I define as the period from the Gulf of Tokin Resolution to Nixon’s resignation. Much of those adventures were of course unique to me. But many of them were part of a broader cultural shift and the easiest way for me to write about that was through the lens of my own experience.

Submission_Cover (2)

It’s fair to say I thoroughly participated in the events of the Sixties—I was an activist, got my head busted in Chicago, lived in a commune, fell in love a couple times, had my heart broken, and smoked a little dope. But by the same token, I was a serious student, never declared war on America and generally was much less “far out” than the collective memory of the times would suggest—a collective memory that was too much shaped by the outliers.

To me, this is the most important part of the story:  not everyone who made the Sixties what they were got on the cover of Life. Many of us just went about our lives making choices—some easy, some difficult—and when the smoke cleared, America was very different. Another important part of the story is linked to the reasons we made those choices. The Sixties were not just a collection of activities—it was a set of choices linked to deliberate decisions about what values to pursue. I believe those values continue to motivate the Sixties alumni—although the country has gotten less friendly to those values, in part a reaction to the Sixties themselves. This irony is part of the story explored in the book.

In any event, if you are interested in the Sixties, I think this book is worth a look—whether it is because you enjoy reliving those days in your mind or because you’re curious about why that one decade had such an out-sized impact on the country.

I would love for all of you to buy this book. I think it tells an important story about that time and how it feels when we look back across 50 years. But I offer a significant caveat.  I haven’t a clue if the book is any good.

You see, this is a self-published book. There are many advantages to self-publishing, but one of the biggest disadvantages is that no one has given it a dispassionate reading and said:  “Yeah, this is good enough that we’ll put some money into it.” Indeed, all the incentives are geared toward convincing you that you should publish it, meritorious or otherwise.

So in asking you to buy it, I’m really flying kind of blind. I am confident it’s not illiterate or anything like that. And I am sure at least some of the stories are mildly interesting. But I have nothing to say about whether it’s worth your money, let alone spending your time on it. It could be completely boring to anyone who isn’t me. Maybe after a couple of you read it and report back, I’ll have a better sense if it’s something that really is of broader interest, or it’s just a vanity project of modest interest to a small circle of friends. If the latter, that’s okay. In fact, that’s the big advantage of self-publishing. I can put it in print and see what people say. And if the verdict is less than enthusiastic, no one loses a bunch of money and I still have a book my grandson can read to understand a little about Grandpa. (Although, for sure, not till he’s older!)

If you’re willing to take a plunge, it’s as easy as getting any other book. It’s available in both e-format and paperback on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you are searching there, you may have to provide a little more information than usual (e.g. title and author) and maybe remind them it’s a book. I suspect your local bookstore could also track down a copy for you without much trouble…but I can’t guarantee that. If you have trouble or questions, drop me a note. I want to know how this works and my publisher, Gatekeeper Press, promises to help troubleshoot.

If you do like it, tell some friends, get your book club to read it, etc.  There’s no chance I’ll make any money on this, but like anyone who thinks he has a story to tell, I want people to hear it.

A final thought. Recently I got together with several of the people who are significant figures in this book. We met up in Denver, where we all had lived in the Josephine Street Commune. While waiting for folks to converge, I ducked into the Colorado History Museum. I was struck by this paragraph, which concluded their introduction to one of the exhibits:

Preserving our history is an act of shaping our future. History’s stories reflect the ideas, achievements, and challenges that have defined us today. If we listen, they can help us decide who we want to become tomorrow.

I don’t know how well my book does the above, but that’s what I was trying to do.

David Brooks’ Brain Fart on Decentralization

          By Mike Koetting                 August 5, 2018

I have, generally speaking, become a David Brooks fan. But his July 30 column in the New York Times was so outstandingly wrong-headed that I am devoting today’s post to rebutting it.

The gist of this column is that politics in America have become too “Washington-centric” and, since national governance is grid-locked by partisan politics, we should embark on a “radical decentralization of power” to other units of government.

Brooks is wrong in his diagnosis of the problem and even further off in his proposed solution.

His Diagnosis

He seems to rest his argument on the fact that while Americans have very low and declining levels of trust of national government and large institutions, the country seems to retain a relatively high level of confidence that local areas are moving in the right direction.  To me this is like arguing that the Chicago Cubs should play the schedule of the Chicago Bears since the Cubs lead their division while the Bears haven’t contended for years.

Brooks offers a superficial historic argument that circumstances have changed since the emergence of the Washington-centric power structure during the New Deal:

In those days and for decades after, the country was pretty homogeneous, trust in big institutions was high and the federal government worked more effectively than state and local governments to build a safety net and break up local economic oligarchies.

I am not sure the degree to which either of the first two assertions is true. Regarding homogeneity the percent of the population that were immigrants during the New Del was only slightly lower than it is now—although it was declining due to serious restrictions on immigrations enacted in the 1920’s. African-Americans were 10% of the population, slightly below their current share, but they were heavily concentrated in the South. Regarding trust in big institutions, there certainly wasn’t any trust in banks or the railroads. Virtually every major industry was in the throes of a fierce struggle over whether workers could unionize. It is true that, as far as we can measure these things, there was dramatically less political polarization than now. Still, it seems like this description might be more a Garrison Keillor nostalgia—fond remembrances of a place that, in fact, you have never been.

In any event, the drift toward centralization of power at the national level didn’t happen because of homogeneity or trust in government. It happened—per his acknowledgement– because the nature of the economy and the resulting society had changed and a national government was more effective at building a safety net and breaking up economic oligarchies. (Actually, his use of “local economic oligarchies” is disingenuous. The larger-than -local economic oligarchies were just as much a problem and those could be addressed only at the national level.)

The problem for Brooks’ argument is that this reality hasn’t changed. The federal government could more effectively build safety nets and break up economic oligarchies if it chose to do so. That it has chosen to retreat from those chores is a function of the partisanship created by those who want to roll back the safety nets and demolish any limits on their ability to make and retain staggering wealth. The federal government hasn’t stopped working because people have lost faith in it; people have lost faith because it has it has stopped working. And it has failed to work because an important, monied portion of the population doesn’t want it to.

Government Closed

His Proposal

His proposal for “radical decentralization” is a bad idea stemming from faulty diagnosis.

I will readily concede there are a huge number of problems in our society that can be much more effectively addressed at the local level. Indeed, there are certain things will simply never get fully resolved until they reach the local level. For instance, I don’t believe gay marriage became legal simply because the Supreme Court said so. I believe gay marriage became legal because the underlying social attitudes changed enough that the Supreme Court was willing to ratify. But, importantly, it is still clear that it is not sufficient to rely on local governments to protect the rights of gay people without continued intervention from a centralized government. The same is true of other civil rights issues—except magnified.

Brooks’ tries to avoid that chink in his argument by imagining “constitutional localism” where the federal government would protect civil rights, but decentralize other things.

Unfortunately, without a robust federal effort, many local entities will try no end of disenfranchising maneuvers. In fact, things such as voter suppression and gerrymandering are both important tools in fanning the flames of partisanship and a recognition of how central the opposition to racial equality is for a significant slice of the electorate.

But even if one were to grant Brooks this idea that a federal government would protect civil rights while engaging in “radical decentralization”, his idea would still be off base. The most crucial issues facing America are simply too national—too global—to be decentralized. Let me review just a few.

Economic Policy. Yes, of course, there are many crucial steps localities can and should take to make their local economy conform to their desires. And those might not be the same in every community. But the major outlines of economy policy must take place at the national level. (In fact, much of economy policy carried on at the local level is counterproductive—for instance, contests involving the largest governmental give-aways to attract corporations.) Local government cannot regulate communication, or transportation. One of the nation’s greatest needs is to upgrade its electricity grid, something that, while it has local components, is such a mess now because there is no national plan. On a greater scale, national tax policy is far more important in determining the outlines of the economy than local tax policy—and accordingly has a much greater impact on the degree of inequality in the nation. Trade policy, as I have noted in previous posts, inevitably creates winners and losers in different parts of the country. Until Ohio can demand payments from Texas for jobs that went there, only the federal government can address.

Environmental Policy. Some of the most significant environmental activities are being undertaken by state and local governments. They are crucial in spurring innovation and attracting attention. But they cannot replace national efforts. Do we really want 50 states making their own pollution standards for cars? And what exactly happens to emissions from Gary, Indiana when the wind is blowing from the East? Do we really want to create situations where various localities find they can best achieve short term objectives by offering a haven for polluters? And, who should negotiate the global aspects of climate change? While, frankly, I would rather have California do it than the federal government, I can’t see that as a sustainable solution.

Education. This is the most historically local function. Again, inevitably, much of this does spin out at the local level. But to pretend that is it is not a national issue if some large states decide to forego meaningful science education is foolish. What do we think happens if Oklahoma continues in its headlong urge to destroy meaningful public education? First, what happens to the kids who are the real victims? But then what happens when those kids grow up and immigrate to some other state? Are those states going to undertake remedial education? Or does the national economy take a hit? There is no other country in the developed world that lets its educational system—the lifeblood of a society—get run so much by the happenstances of the local elections.

I could go on, but you get the point. David Brooks is frustrated with the national situation and sees rays of hope in local government. The latter should be nourished. But not at the cost of fixing the former. We will, bit by bit, turn into a backwater country unless we figure out how to make our national government work. We live in the 21st Century; Brooks needs to take off his 18th Century Jeffersonian rose-colored glasses.