Blog: Simply Nonsense

Trumped both ways: ‘Snake Oil’ or ‘Business as Usual’

14 September 2016

This week’s TWOG is co-authored with John Breitner, after we realized that our discussions about the U.S. election led us from different political perspectives to the same conclusion.

One of us is American and the other Canadian, one conservative, the other liberal.  We live in Canada, a good vantage whence to watch the U.S. election.  Where, we wish to ask, are the good folks of America, in politics and in the population? In the population they appear to be marginalized by a choice between one politician who is selling snake oil, 21st century style, and another who epitomizes the establishment that many of them abhor—business as usual.

This week’s TWOG is co-authored with John Breitner, after we realized that our discussions about the U.S. election led us from different political perspectives to the same conclusion.

One of us is American and the other Canadian, one conservative, the other liberal.  We live in Canada, a good vantage whence to watch the U.S. election.  Where, we wish to ask, are the good folks of America, in politics and in the population? In the population they appear to be marginalized by a choice between one politician who is selling snake oil, 21st century style, and another who epitomizes the establishment that many of them abhor—business as usual.

Donald Trump gives voice to many Americans who know that they are getting bamboozled. Yet here is the ultimate hustler, the very type who does so much of the bamboozling. Trust me, he says. Hillary Clinton gives voice to many who appreciate how dangerous her opponent could be. Trust me, she too says, while offering a steady stream of reasons why people cannot.  Sure we all have our flaws, but among 320 million Americans, could two not be found with flaws that reveal an underlying integrity? 

How is anyone to believe that either candidate will deal with the deeply-rooted problems of America today: income disparities, the legal corruption of political donations, a warming globe that needs to be cooled, crony capitalism that has harmed so much of the American middle class? Add to this the ultimate problem: an uncanny tendency to deal with all these fires by repeatedly pouring oil on them.

How, exactly, will the hotshot with the checkered background, who promises to “make America great again”, do that?  How will the archetype of the American establishment challenge that establishment?  And how will either of these two, who used to socialize together as members of the 1%, improve the lot of the 99%?

Americans have been hearing the “trust me” line for centuries. Lincoln famously claimed that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  Maybe so, but it appears that you can fool many of the people much of the time because, to quote P.T. Barnum, a sucker is born every minute.  So, evidently, is a shark.  Ask the contractors and workers of Atlantic City who sued the Donald for reneging on his contracts.

Trump, of course, also offers business as usual—in his case, quite literally.  I’m a businessman, he says. I can do it.  We’ve heard that before too.  Even if we leave aside that government is not business, even if we ignore the record of so much of today’s business as usual—all the lobbying, pay-to-play donations, corporate social irresponsibility, and the obscenity of executive compensation—we still have to ask what kind of a businessman is Donald Trump anyway?  Was he serious when he offered to renegotiate the U.S. federal debt to solve the deficit problem?  Or when he asked that an American-born judge of Mexican descent be recused from hearing complaints about his infamous “Trump University”?

What, then, are the good folks of America to do? When two people engage in a battle, both can look bad, even though one may have been worse. They drag each other down. No-one should be fooled by this. We believe that the calculus of the U.S. election is quite simple. The flaws of these two candidates hardly deserve the equal attention they are getting in some of the correct media. One is flawed, but the other could be fatally flawed. Business as usual may be intolerable, but snake oil for the ills of this world is downright hazardous. What Donald Trump would do as president is anyone’s guess; what Hillary Clinton would do is not.

So the American among us will hold his nose and vote Democratic. Then both of us will take a deep breath and contemplate the bigger issue: how can good folks save democracy from itself?  We urge you to do likewise.

© Henry Mintzberg and John Breitner 2016.  John is Director of the Center for Studies on Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease at the Douglas Hospital Research Center in Montreal, and a Professor of Psychiatry in the McGill University Faculty of Medicine. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.

The lies lobbyists tell us

5 November 2015

1. That lobbying is about free speech. Then why does it take place behind closed doors?

2. That corporations as persons in the law have the right to this free speech. Someone in the United States has brought a suit to have chimpanzees recognized as persons in the law (in order to protect them). Surely chimpanzees, with a genetic difference from humans of only 1.2%, have a more legitimate claim to personhood than do corporations (with 100%).[1]

3. That lobbying is legal. In a manner of speaking, lobbying may be legal. So is bribing, under the label of political donations, which open those back room doors to lobbying. Corruption, you see, can be legal too.

1. That lobbying is about free speech. Then why does it take place behind closed doors?

2. That corporations as persons in the law have the right to this free speech. Someone in the United States has brought a suit to have chimpanzees recognized as persons in the law (in order to protect them). Surely chimpanzees, with a genetic difference from humans of only 1.2%, have a more legitimate claim to personhood than do corporations (with 100%).[1]

3. That lobbying is legal. In a manner of speaking, lobbying may be legal. So is bribing, under the label of political donations, which open those back room doors to lobbying. Corruption, you see, can be legal too.

4. That everyone has access to lobbying. In all manners of speaking, this is not true at all. Lobbying is lop-sided: the formula is one $, one vote. For example, while the vast majority of Americans supported recent legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers, the gun lobby stopped it in the Senate.[2]

5. That lobbying is fundamental to democracy. In fact, lobbying destroys democracy. The self-evident truth today is that only those people who don’t lobby are created equal. The rest are more than equal. Democracy is about more than voting. It is about how fair that voting is in the first place, and how open, accessible, and balanced the expression of interests are after that.


[1] In a column in The New York Times, Anand Giridharadas referred to “three interesting points” made by Sarah Palin in a speech:

First, that the United States is now governed by a “permanent political class” drawn from both parties, that is increasingly cut off from the concerns of regular people. Second that these Republicans and Democrats have allied with big business to mutual advantage to create what she called “corporate crony capitalism.” Third, that the real political divide in the United States may no longer be between friends and foes of Big Government, but between friends and foes of vast, remote, unaccountable institutions (both public and private). Palin went on to condemn corporate lobbyists, special interests, and “the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest”, and to distinguish good from bad capitalists, meaning small ones that take risks from big ones that live off bailouts and dodge taxes, while not creating jobs.

[2] David Brooks commented in his New York Times column that “President Obama has certainly not shut corporate-types out of the regulatory process. According to data collected by the Center for Progressive Reforms, 62 percent of the people who met with the White House office in charge of reviewing regulations were representatives of industry, while only 16 percent represented activist groups. At these meetings, business representatives outnumbered activists by more than 4 to 1.” Brooks, a normally sensible columnist, looked favorably upon such business as usual.

 

Do the people of America have the right to bear nuclear arms?

29 October 2015

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives the people of America  “the right to keep and bear arms.” This has helped those people who make and sell arms to make lots of money, the consequences be damned. So here is a conversation I fantasize having with the people at the National Rifle Association.

“Do the people of America have the right to bear nuclear arms, for example in their shopping bags?”

And they reply: “Are you some sort of nut?”

To which I retort: “Not at all. This is the answer I expected. We have now established the basic point: that the line has to be drawn somewhere. Where do you draw it: between nuclear bombs and cluster bombs? cluster bombs and automatic weapons? automatic weapons and handguns?” (A friend who hunts tells me that a one shot rifle is all he needs—although he does hunt deer, not tigers.)

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives the people of America  “the right to keep and bear arms.” This has helped those people who make and sell arms to make lots of money, the consequences be damned. So here is a conversation I fantasize having with the people at the National Rifle Association.

“Do the people of America have the right to bear nuclear arms, for example in their shopping bags?”

And they reply: “Are you some sort of nut?”

To which I retort: “Not at all. This is the answer I expected. We have now established the basic point: that the line has to be drawn somewhere. Where do you draw it: between nuclear bombs and cluster bombs? cluster bombs and automatic weapons? automatic weapons and handguns?” (A friend who hunts tells me that a one shot rifle is all he needs—although he does hunt deer, not tigers.)

I draw the line between guns and knives, since, with knives in every kitchen, it’s tough to restrict them. You should know that handguns account for at least half of all the murders in the United States, far more than do knives.

Do you get the gist of my argument? The right to bear arms can no longer be absolute. This amendment might have made sense when muskets were the only arms available, and took time to reload. Besides, on the frontier there was no 911 to call. But the technology has moved on: now we have arms designed for mass killing, as fast as anyone can dial 9-1-1.

Here’s another mantra of the gun lobby: “Guns don’t kill; people kill.” Actually, people with guns kill, in great numbers, whether a toddler who mistakenly shoots a sibling or a lunatic who is determined to murder aimlessly.

Finally there is the mantra that “We need more guns, not less.” Presumably this is so that some innocent bystander can be ready to kill some killer. But allowing more guns mostly makes it easier for the killers themselves. When was the last time an innocent bystander killed a killer? In contrast, when was the last time an innocent bystander was killed by a killer? If you answered “yesterday”, you may well be right.

A young women traumatized by a recent mass killing nearby mouthed this mantra to a TV reporter. So why didn’t she have a gun in her pocket, finger on the trigger all ready to shoot him? After all, she could have bought one just as easily as he did. OK, so she didn’t expect a mass killing in her neighborhood. But fear not (really fear yes): With the prevalence of this kind of attitude, it’s just a matter of time.

So what’s going on? Can there be something in the water? If not the water, then what? People can’t just be that dumb. (Included in the “Non-negotiable Core Beliefs” on the Tea Party website are the following, in sequence: “Special interests must be eliminated” and “Gun ownership is sacred.” The gun lobby is apparently not a special interest.)

Maybe the world is so out of whack that self-serving interests can get away with manipulating the minds of millions. In that case, the problem goes far deeper than the right to bear arms—to a right of “free speech” that allows corporate “persons” to lobby and lie for the public bad. Here too a line has to be drawn, between real and fake persons as well as between truth and lies.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015. To go deeper into this world out of whack, see Rebalancing Society and related TWOGS

Next week’s TWOG will be about “The lies lobbyists tell us.”