The Way We Were

I have spent the last two weeks in a Vietnam of the mind, watching the latest Ken Burns documentary. I’d like to say it brought the era back to life or that I learned a lot, but the indelible mark of that period has never left me. How could it be otherwise?

I was twelve when the first American “advisers” were killed and twenty-eight when Saigon fell and the last fleeing Americans had to be airlifted off the embassy roof. That war, the mindset that made it possible, and the bitter divisions it spawned left permanent scars on my generation’s consciousness.

I did not serve in Vietnam, being too young at the beginning, deferred in the middle, and the possessor of a safe number when Nixon’s lottery made the war into a form of Russian Roulette. Nor did I march and protest the war, though that didn’t make me a part of the silent majority that supposedly supported the folly. I simply didn’t believe that “singing songs and carrying signs” was any match for the wrongheaded power of the state. And Kent State, about an hour away from my hometown, suggested I was right. How many more? A lot.

From the beginning, our involvement in Indochina seemed insane to me, but not unfamiliar. My entire life had been spent immersed in the Cold War mentality that enabled the descent into the inferno of Vietnam. The bomb, the Berlin airlift, the hydrogen bomb, nuclear spies, Stalinism, McCarthyism, who lost China, Korea, mutual assured destruction, toppling socialist foreign leaders, installing tyrannical American puppets, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The fear of appearing soft on communism produced a political environment where it was dangerous not to go to extremes. Thus, Kennedy denounced Ike, the victor of the war in Europe, for permitting a non-existent missile gap, and made an extravagant promise to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” to fight the international communist conspiracy. Really? Be careful what you promise.

As a result of this macho overreach, in Vietnam advisers led to troops led to 600,000 troops, bombing campaigns, agent orange, the wounding of 153,300 Americans and 58,318 killed, not to mention the annihilation of over two million Vietnamese combatants and civilians.

The war also destroyed two presidents who spent their tenures systematically lying to the American people about the progress of the adventure and the odds of “winning,” whatever that might mean. Since it was also the first TV war, there was no place to hide from the daily spectacle of immense suffering and incalculable waste.

The names of two of my high school classmates have a place on The Wall – one what was then called a Greaser, the other a closeted gay man who was a Marine. I found both of them when I visited that greatest of all 20th century examples of funerary art.

Others classmates came home without their limbs. A good friend dropped out of college and became draft bait. He served in relative safety in the armed forces radio network depicted in “Good Morning, Vietnam.” But he returned a permanently suspicious, pessimistic person.

Another, who made welded-metal art objects in college used the skill to mend tanks in Vietnam and learned several languages in the region. He later had a job with the government that he would not discuss. State? CIA? Another friend seemed bound for a career in science or engineering, but became a conscientious objector whose alternative service took him to a bleak Dakotas Indian reservation. The misery he encountered altered his trajectory to the ministry.

All told, about half of the male members of my class served in that war. Most survived physically intact, but no one in that small town was untouched by collateral damage — the drug habits, suicides, PTSD, and the biter schisms between our World War II parents and their long-haired, anti-American, hippie children.

Which brings us to the way we still are. Perhaps it would all have been worthwhile if the country had learned a lesson. We were certainly taught not to trust government or our fellow Americans with heterodox views, but not to distrust easy answers, big promises, greed in the guise of patriotism, phony populism or the arrogance of power.

So, despite the immense object lesson of Vietnam, we have wasted trillions more on pipedreams like SDI and misbegotten foreign adventures. We have continued to align ourselves with evil autocrats and to earn the enmity of their people, have alienated the Muslim world, launched new ideological and sectarian wars based on faulty intelligence and hubris, but once again without an exit strategy.

We have put our country into the hands of demagogic leaders, including the present version, who promise cities on the hill and deliver profligate waste of other people’s blood and treasure, who set rich against poor, black against white, region against region, who allow the exploitation of our economy by crony capitalists and the corruption of our democracy by any means necessary to assure their continuance in power.

And in a crowning irony, Mao’s China and Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam now play host to cruise ships and booming capitalist factories. Meanwhile, the sons of the hardhat-wearing Nixon Democrats, who once beat up antiwar protesters, are now unemployed and disillusioned. Welcome to the club. In the words of the Vietnam era anthem, “When will we ever learn?”

Business Class Ruling Class

Critics of the Trump regime have been amused to liken them to the Romanovs or, even more unkindly, his sons to Uday and Qusay Hussein. This is a bit over the top, but is in keeping with the complaint that Trump and his clan seem uninterested in, and even unfamiliar with, Democratic norms that we are taught to take for granted.

But Trump is only the latest manifestation of a perpetual backsliding from the idea of an all-men-are-created-equal, town hall meeting republic. Like the election of Andrew Jackson before him, Trump’s election was a kind of backwoods backlash against uppity Eastern (in our day, bi-coastal) elites. But Old Hickory, like the Virginia patricians that preceded him and the English gentry they imitated, was a member of a country squirocracy whose wealth came from the labor of serfs.

In the Gilded Age, America was largely ruled by elected courtiers who answered to the Robber Barons who put them in office and who maintained their power through a spoils system. The presidency has only gotten more imperial over time. Even up-from-nothing strivers like Nixon, Clinton and Reagan are soon hobnobbing with oligarchs and beholden to them.

In a country that fought a revolution against monarchy and aristocracy on behalf of the common man, the present deformity of our political culture seems grotesque. But the celebration of the self-made man soon leads to the creation of a system designed to permit getting ahead. This in turn breeds a ruling class dedicated to perpetuating its place at the trough from one generation to the next. So, we have long had corporate and political dynasties—Addams’s, Roosevelts, Kennedys and Bushes.

The Trumps aren’t new. Their predecessors were just more circumspect about flaunting their wealth and punctilious about exercising their power, sometimes going so far as to regard public service as a sort of noblesse oblige that shouldn’t serve their class alone, so long as the leveling didn’t get out of hand.

It should come as no surprise, in our times of what Paul Fussell called ‘prole drift,’ that a Trump should come along. Today, aristocrats get drunk in public and make sex tapes, while nice upper middle class scions sport body art and piercings. You once could at least tell a Skull and Bones man from a proletarian pirate by his tailor. No longer.

Now the flamboyant Trump’s populist pose is transparently a fiction, an act to please the rubes. His populism, like much of the charitable giving of the very wealthy, is both good for business and a way to deflect attention from the self-aggrandizing reality behind the curtain.

Much of this can be traced back to the hated monopolist John D. Rockefeller after his storm troopers killed three striking miners and set fire to their tent city which killed another 55 women and children. His pioneering P.R. man Ivy Lee had Rockefeller rehabilitate his reputation by carrying a pocketful of dimes and handing them out to street urchins in a grandfatherly way.

Trump promises to protect the social safety net for the working class and bring back good jobs while his policies do the opposite. Few are fooled. Perhaps because, these days, the attitude seems to be why bother with the façade. The suckers regard their president as an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” or the “Spoiled Housewives of Washington.”

Hillary Clinton was loathed as a hypocrite by some for pretending to sympathize with the poor while cashing in on public service, raking in millions in speaking fees to the likes of Goldman Sachs. But others seem to feel that’s just how the game is played. They’d cash in too, if they had the chance. Hillary certainly doesn’t seem to have learned the lesson. In her new book, she tells how she decided to run in 2016 — while lolling around the Mediterranean mansion of the Oscar de la Renta fashion clan. Doesn’t everyone?

Billionaire Trump sees no reason not to behave like royalty. He’s never been anything but a spoiled princeling, and has been outspoken about the inferiority of government-issued amenities, calling Air Force One a comedown after his own jet and the White House a dump. He has also seen no reason to appoint commoners to his cabinet which is chockablock with the monied elite who behave in accordance with their aristocratic lifestyle. Why should a brief government gig subject them to the inconveniences the hoi polloi suffer?

So, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin traveled to Kentucky to watch the solar eclipse, from New York to Washington on $25,000 an hour government planes, and even tried to use the same service for his honeymoon to Europe with his trophy wife, Marie Antoinette.

HHS Secretary Tom Price has cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands for two dozen chartered jet flights, including one costing $25,000 for the 139-mile trip from Washington to Philadelphia. It was urgent that he arrive since health industry oligarchs were anxious to give him their orders for reduced regulation of their industry.

And EPA chief Scott Pruitt has repurposed eighteen government pollution investigators as his own around-the-clock team of bodyguards. Doesn’t everyone behave like this? The only thing missing is snappy uniforms, like the Vatican’s Swiss Guards.

Trump himself has put unprecedented strains on Secret Service manpower and budgets by requiring protection not just for himself and his current wife and young son, but for fifteen other Trumps including three adult children, their spouses and children and a couple siblings. It’s a wonder he isn’t seeking government protection for his previous wives and harassment victims as well.

We are a long way from Abe Lincoln’s log cabin, but not far from the days of the ancien regime or the 19th century when the façade of democracy barely disguised the reign of landed aristocrats and industrial titans who sent their lesser heirs to government to protect their interests or simply bought and paid for legislative lackeys.

Is it really a shock that Trump treats Senators and Congressmen like members of the servant class and is outraged when they don’t get his order right? Don’t they know their place? Nor is it a surprise that the Trump family behaves less like the usual First Family and more like what it is – a business dynasty, like the Kochs or the Mercers (who funded Trump’s run) or the earlier Rockefellers or Morgans.

To them, the presidency, like everything else, is something to monetize, as well as golden opportunity to enact policies, regulations and tax laws that benefit them and their class. Welcome to Trump USA, Inc. Great Again. And if you have any complaints or questions, simply leave a message at the help desk. Or if you’re a donor, call the contributor hotline.

Let the Business Beware

So far, the major success of the Trump administration has been its quiet, systematic, dogged elimination of regulations, largely while no one has been looking. And why not? Trump ran as a populist friend of the common man, but he is governing as a Republican. According to that faith-based Party’s orthodoxy, all restraints on free enterprise are the work of the devil; they gum up the works of a capitalist economy that, if left alone, will regulate itself.

If all regulations were to vanish overnight, everyone would be employed, goods and services would be cheaper, and it would be the best of all possible worlds. Unless, of course, we were all robbed blind by predatory businesses while our air, water, food and drugs were tainted.

Daily we are treated to case studies of oligarchic businesses behaving as if the only rule that counts in a capitalist economy is: “There’s one born every minute.” In the 2008 crash, storied Wall Street names destroyed themselves by overreaching. Wells Fargo has recently besmirched it’s century-old, pristine reputation. Houston now finds itself awash in the poisons the fossil fuel industry has been carelessly disposing of for decades. The roll call is long and familiar — Enron, Love Canal, Bear Stearns, Bhopal, BP, the Exxon Valdez, Epipen, Martin Skreli, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Volkswagen, Chipotle, and on and on.

If the evildoers got their comeuppance and made way for fitter firms, that would be lovely. But in this wicked old world it doesn’t work that way. Lax regulation allows them to get away wth murder. The capitalists are all O.J. They hire the craftiest lobbyists to get them the regulations they want passed by a bribed or supine Congress. And on the rare occasion an attempt is made to bring them to account, they can afford the cleverest lawyers and drag the process out for years while they continue to transgress. And the members of the public are left to pick up the bill for their pollution or poisoned products.

The latest case study is Equifax, which just keeps getting sleazier. Not only did the company’s incompetence, greed or laxity cause it to be vulnerable to hacking, but when hack occurred the Equifax executives took weeks to warn the victims whose personal data was put at risk. Meanwhile they sold stock to lock in profits before the announcement that sent the price down 30 percent.

There are 125 million household in the United States and 250 million adults over the age of 18. Equifax allowed criminals to gain access to the data of 143 million people. It is likely every household in the country with enough money to have a credit rating has been compromised. While the capitalists profit, the rest of us are collateral damage.

And now the Washington Post reports a new, even more disgraceful wrinkle. Over the last 20 months, did Equifax ($3.1 billion in annual revenue) spend an additional $1.6 million on cybersecurity to keep its customers safe or to comply wth regulations? No, it spent $1.6 million lobbying Congress to regulate it less.

Equifax is headquartered in Atlanta and got its local Congressman Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), to introduce legislation that would “strike a fair balance” by placing limits on 1) what Equifax could be forced to do to keep customer data safe, 2) what it would be required to do to notify customers of lost data in the event of a breach, and 3) how much it could be forced to pay in customers were damaged.

Alas, for Equifax, the regulatory rollback did not come to a vote before the hack occurred. but the very fact of their seeking such legislation suggests they knew they were vulnerable and were too cheap or stupid to do anything to protect 143 million people. Now, malefactors have got control of all of our Social Security numbers, birthdates, driver’s license information, credit history, bank account information, and so on.

Now, instead of having oversight rolled back, Equifax is being investigated by the FBI, FTC, CFPB, state attorneys general, and will likely face the mother of all class action lawsuits. The cost of their folly could be the bankruptcy of the business, but the villains will almost surely escape jail or penury while their customers suffer the consequences. Apparently in this capitalist world, the customers are unfit to live while the weaselly executives are allowed to float below a golden parachute to a well-earned rest.

If this were an aberration, it would be of little more interest than the two-headed dog at the carnival sideshow. But it is an everyday affair, business as usual. Is it any wonder that 51% of millennials in recent Pew polling, don’t support capitalism? This is the generation that came of age with the the dot-com bubble, the crash of 2008, and the agonizingly slow recovery.

But they are not alone. The only cohort in which over 50 percent of people had a positive view of capitalism were the generations over 50 years of age. Everyone under 50 had a negative view of capitalism. This does not bode well for the future of business. No wonder the oligarchs are so anxious to buy congressmen who will protect them from the wrath of people who are harmed by their goods and services.

Interestingly, Gallup polling from a few years ago earlier showed that only 60 percent of people had a positive view of capitalism and only 53 percent of big business. But 96 percent had a positive view of small businesses. Perhaps this is because it is harder to lie, cheat, steal, and short change when you have to look the customer in the eye and he lives just down the block.