Chastising Amy

#20: So you want to address the 'challenges of our time'?

In her triumphant speech after a strong third place finish in New Hampshire, new MSM darling Amy Klobuchar said this:

America deserves a president who's gonna take on the challenges of our time: Climate change and affordable education and college, immigration reform, justice and democracy and, yes, bringing down the cost of health care

Hmm. The rap on Klobuchar is she's smart and capable but "small bore," gubernatorial, focused on meaningful but wildly incremental victories like getting an extra day in the hospital for women after they’ve given birth (something she boasts about in her stump speech).

Here she's hanging a lantern on her problem, and she's right to do so — presidents are supposed to take on “the challenges of our time."

But look at her list:. Those are the big challenges?

I'm one of the people who thinks (as does Pete Buttigieg) that Trump was elected because of deep, often unstated misgivings about where the country and its culture were going under its mainstream, state-of-the-art bipartisan political leadership. These issues go way beyond the simple whites-becoming-a-minority worries emphasized by the press. The status quo, even a status quo that was successful by its own terms (e.g. a bigger economy), wasn't working for many Americans.

Are Klobuchar's issues the ones that might have been giving voters that sense of anxiety in 2016 -- or now, in 2020 even when jobs and GDP numbers are good? Or are they a bunch of topics you might staple together if you were running a standard, maybe-good-enough-to-win-the-nomination moderate campaign? Let’s see.

"Climate change": OK, can't say that's not a big-gauged cause. Unfortunately it’s not a widely shared cause--11th out of 18 in voter priority.

The others? Well, take "affordable education and college." Education for what? Are voters worried they won't be able to afford to go to college or that their college degrees won't be worth the expense and effort -- and that, at best, they'll be prepared to be replaceble parts of an economic machine they find increasingly dysfunctional? "Cost of health care"? I suppose that is a vital issue of our time and will be a vital issue of our time tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that. But the health care debate is about way more than controlling cost of health care. It's also about fear of controlling the cost of health care -- through rationing -- and fear of bureaucrats making those decisions (based on age? social credit?), and fear of vicious inequalites, with an aristocracy of the rich and well-connected not only avoiding rationing, but rewarding themselves with new, expensive VIP-only life enhancements. On immigration, Klobuchar supports standard Gang-of-8 “comprehensive immigration reform,” which offers an amnesty to illegal immigrants already here but cleverly avoids the actual challenge of our time — what about the next wave of unauthorized migrants, and the next?

OK, Mr. Snipe-Artist -- what are the large “challenges” a President should address? Here's my list -- things I'm anxious about and that I (solipsistically) assume the voters may be anxious about too. You may add or subtract as you wish. Listed in order of increasing quirkiness:

1. China: Imagine how much lower the planet's anxiety level would be if China were a giant, ambitious, soon-to-be-dominant economic power, but with a government like, say, India? Instead we have a Party dictatorship seemingly bent on creating a high-tech police state that combines all the dystopias of the 20th century into one imperialist borg.

2. Robots: This is not just ex-candidate Yang's issue (‘Thanks for raising this fascinating topic. Run along now’). Yes, technology has never before caused mass long-term unemployment. But technology has never before been able to substitute for virtually all unskilled human physical labor before. If we don't want to do the Yang thing and give everybody a guaranteed income whether they work or not, what are we going to do to avoid a Player Piano situation? (Best I can think of so far: Regulate the deployment of human-displacing tech. But then we might make less progress and lose a war to ... well, see Anxiety 1, above. Noah Smith comes impressively close to making a sector-by-sector approach plausible — with automated goods-producing tycoons taxed to subsidize services like education and health care that need humans’ touch — before giving up too soon.)

3. Meritocratic Inequality: The problem is not just inequality of money (which has been growing since the mid-70s, seemingly inevitably — regardless of who is in office) but the "meritocratic" bite of the resulting hierarchy: "skilled” smart people doing well, unskilled, maybe not so smart people settling on the bottom, only in part because of ... see Anxiety 2, above.** The resulting social inequality is poisonous to the American ideal that we are "equal in the eyes of each other." And yes, of course we worry that the smarts it takes to get ahead are genetically transmitted, even if we don’t say that out loud.

4. Mass migration: You knew I'd get to this -- but really, can we afford to let in everyone who might make a better life for themselves in the US or Europe, or even everyone who’s faced with imminent deprivation in their home? There soon may be many hundreds of millions of worthy human beings who might legitimately pass both tests in Africa alone. So we do ... what? Fighting climate change -- even if it could be effective--seems like only a small part of the required response. It’s not just climate producing refugees (see, e.g., Syria, civil war; and Libya, aftermath of U.S. intervention).

5. Alienation: When the U.S. was recovering from the China shock and a Great Recession, the old anxieties of poverty, downward mobility, unemployment and anomie ('What am I supposed to be doing in this society?') came to the fore. Now that we’re more prosperous, the anxieties of prosperity seem to be staging a comeback. The problem of dependence, not just need. Entitlement reform, not just entitlement preservation. And alienation ("I have a job but it's soul-killing"), not unemployment and anomie. 

Time to take another look at the famous/infamous Port Huron Statement, the left SDS manifesto written in 1963 at a time of unprecedented prosperity (before the Vietnam War galvanized the student left). The first sentence was: “We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort ... " Americans, it complained, still “tolerate meaningless work.” "Contentment amidst prosperty" was but "a glaze upon deeply felt anxieties about their role in the new world."

Personal links between man and man are needed, especially to go beyond the partial and fragmentary bonds of function that bind men only as worker to worker, employer to employee, teacher to student. …. Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, …."

Subsitute “new apps” for “personnel management,” and “improved gadgets” for “improved gadgets,” and you could put that in your stump speech. You might add: “We're searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” Wait, sorry, that was Hillary Clinton's 1969 commencement speech.

Those who were part of the late 20th century tech boom (here I'm borrowing from Julius Krein) -- including the frenzied venture capitalists and hedge funders, and the less remunerated work of coders — once could feel they’d joined a large, almost romantic effort to create a fabulous tech-driven future. Who wouldn’t be eager to go to school and acquire the skills that we were told would help us find a place in that world? But now it looks like even if we all "learn to code" we'll be laboring to build a digital economy we hate — one that enriches mainly a few zillionaires, in which life is nasty (“loneliness, estrangement, isolation”) and culture seems at war with contentment.  The Port Huron kids didn't know how good they had it.***

It’s almost obvious that the Democrat who can respond to anxieties like these (add your own) -- showing the path to a future we'll actually be happy to live in -- would generate the primary race’s missing excitement and win. Klobuchar, in particular, desperately needs something on this scale lest she turn into Dukakis II. Biden would dramatically improve his image as a man of the past simply by uttering the word "robots."

It's not like Trump owns these issues -- he largely avoids them. His success has consisted mainly in holding them off by martialing the ameliorative effects of a historically tight labor market. But that success — i.e. continued American prosperity — is what will eventually bring these anxieties to the fore. Dialectics, the SDS would call it.

Buttigieg? Bernie? Bloomberg? Bueller? Anyone?


**—This is actually the point Bloomberg was trying to make in his impolitic comments on farming.

*** — The Krein perspective — that the best-paid 20% are increasingly alienated — may contradict the standard, “skilled workers are on top” model underlying Anxiety #3. If even skilled Americans are pissed off, in what sense (aside from dollars) are they “on top.”