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.

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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.

What Should We Want from Trade Policy?

By Mike Koetting          July 25, 2018

My last post suggested that, while very few of us will be experts on trade policy, as long as this is a major issue, citizens probably have some obligation to have ideas beyond vague catch-words. This post makes some suggestions, borrowing heavily from people who really do know a lot about this issue–specifically Robert Kuttner in various articles and, particularly, a Foreign Affairs article by Timothy Meyer and Ganesh Sitharaman. Continue reading “What Should We Want from Trade Policy?”

A Non-Expert Considers Trade Policy

By Mike Koetting          July 16, 2018

Needless to say, I’m not expert on trade policy. But with the issue at the front of every media report, it is hard to avoid. And equally hard to determine what one’s own position should be. Both political parties find adherents of every view within their party. So even with a souvenir program, it’s pretty hard to guess where someone is going to come down on these issues—let alone whether that position makes sense.

Not knowing much, it seems to me that the logical place to start thinking about trade policy is to ask what a country wants from its trade policy. But even with a simple answer to that question, to help the country obtain maximum benefit from its trade, it doesn’t take long to throw to up one’s hands at the complexity of the thing. It’s more than the obvious fact that in a $20 trillion economy there are millions of moving parts. The whole conceptual base is swampy. Continue reading “A Non-Expert Considers Trade Policy”

My Identity and America

                                           By Mike Koetting          July 3, 2018

In preparation for the Fourth of July, the Washington Post recently asked its readers to describe how they identified themselves and what did that mean about being an American. Those seemed like good questions for a Fourth of July post.

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I believe the most fundamental thing about how I identify myself is an idea: All men are created equal. (And, just so there isn’t any question, that means all humans, not just males.) Continue reading “My Identity and America”

Science and Defining Life

By Mike Koetting      June 12, 2018

The February 5th issue of this year’s New Yorker included a long article by Rachel Aviv on the question of what constitutes death. The article was organized around the saga of a 13-year old California girl, the victim of a profoundly tragic surgical mishap. She was subsequently declared “brain dead” but her parents refused to accept that verdict and moved her to New Jersey, one of the two states that have laws allowing families to reject the concept of brain death. She remains there, her breathing supported by a ventilator. Continue reading “Science and Defining Life”