Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Amending the Electoral College

The electoral college as a means of selecting the president was established for a number of reasons, none of which are particularly good. In essence, the Founders were afraid the general voting public wouldn't select men like themselves, (under the Articles of Confederation, farmers had a nasty habit of selecting other farmers to represent them) plus an electoral college style selection rather than a popular vote increased the power of southern slave holding states that had a much smaller voting population and really, really, really liked slavery and political power.

In just about every way, even after the amendment to allow direct election of the electors by the people, the electoral college is an elitist, out-of-date institution that has, now that we live in a heavily urbanized county, directly disenfranchised voters who live in cities.

For the most part, fixing the electoral college fell into the “not worth the trouble” category of problems, but, with two of the last three presidents winning their first terms while losing the popular vote, it is clear now it must be changed.

Here is a proposed amendment to the Constitution. (In your head, feel free to give the prose that Constitutional flare.)

The winner of the total national popular vote shall be considered to have received the 270 electoral college votes unless: The popular vote is essentially a tie and no candidate has a 50% plus 1 majority, at which point, the distribution of the electoral votes shall revert to existing state by state distribution procedures and/or the influence of a foreign power in the election is suspected, the winning candidate is suspected of potentially impeachable offenses, and/or the winning candidate does not take appropriate steps to eliminate conflicts of interest that would allow the winning candidate to use the office of the President for personal gain. Congress, state legislatures, and the people, will all be empowered to petition for a review in the third case, at which point, electors selected according to state rules will be empowered to secure briefings from the relevant law enforcement agencies and/or Congressional committees before meeting in their state capitals on [date]. They will also be empowered to discuss and coordinate with each other in the time preceding the meeting. At the review meeting they will be empowered to either ratify the existing results, select the candidate who was previously defeated in the general election, or call for a new Presidential election in a timely fashion that allows for the party of the removed candidate to select a new nominee with all other parties being allowed to re-run their original candidates and/or select new ones at their discretion. The current administration will continue until the results of the new election are certified reflecting the above process plus two months to allow the new incoming President to establish their transition.

Here's what I'm thinking with the above amendment. First, and most importantly, it recenters political power to one person=one vote. It doesn't matter where you live, you have the same voice in choosing your President as everyone else. If you're going to object by saying the smaller states and rural areas deserve a voice, I'll say three things: First, I believe the assumption that urban and rural, high-population and low-population, and coastal and central states having diametrically opposed interests is an assumption we need to reexamine. (And, is likely, another one of the ways Republicans kept getting the people they hurt to vote for them, but that's for a different post.) Second, small states already have the Senate (and in many ways the House). Third, MORE PEOPLE MEANS MORE PEOPLE.

Second, it's always handy to have a system that sorts out ties and, in a virtual tie and in the absence of a majority, the geographic distribution of support makes sense. It's the political equivalent of an away goal.

Third, if it looks like I'm proposing this amendment specifically to prevent another Trump from happening, you're goddamn right I am. The world has changed since the framers wrote the Constitution and the ways in which a foreign power can influence our election and how an elected president could exploit the position for personal gain have changed. Trump, conveniently, has pretty much exposed all of those changes. Honestly, “preventing another Trump” is probably the best reason I can think of for doing just about anything. And, as we have seen with the extent and intent of Russian meddling only becoming clear after the election, it would make sense to have some procedure to prevent a criminal from taking power even when they are able to dupe the people for a day. Furthermore, it is now clear that norm and convention is not enough to prevent a kleptocrat from exploiting the presidency. The removal of conflicts of interest must be enshrined in the Constitution.

One of the major problems we have faced in our both the election of Trump and the election of George W. Bush is the totally unnecessary compulsion to declare a winner on election day. Nearly all of our misconceptions about Trump's election came from declaring him the winner before all the votes were counted; before we learned how narrow his victories in the rust belt were and how dramatic Hilary Clinton's popular vote lead became. But once a narrative is set it is difficult to change and so Trump is acting like he has a mandate, 52% of Republicans believe he won the popular vote, and the pressure to ensure an orderly transition of power hamstrung any efforts the Obama administration might have made to reassess the election. When we look back to Bush's first election, there really wasn't any good reason to stop counting in Florida. If we establish a simple procedure in the case of a delay of the results, then there isn't a problem if it takes longer than usual to determine the winner.

Obviously, given that I'm not a statistician or a constitutional scholar, there are some gaps in my proposal. What would be a statistical tie? Less than 1% difference seems too high, given the numbers we're talking, so less than .5% perhaps. I don't know. Second, in terms of petitioning for review, it can't be so easy that the losing party always request it, but it also can't require a majority or super-majority as then as long as the president-elect is a member of the majority party, odds are said party will never allow a petition of review no matter how criminal the president-elect may be. The same balance must be struck with the ability for states and the people to request a review. The bar must be set high enough so the review doesn't become a way for the losing group to gum up the transition, nor must it be so high that the party in power is able to always prevent it.

There are two ways to amend the Constitution and we can call for both of them. The first an amendment can be passed by a super-majority of both chambers of Congress so, you can call your Congressional representatives and the second is through a Constitutional convention as called by the states. Historically, Congress has acted before such a convention could be called to pass the requested amendment because once that convention is called anything can happen.

It's hard to imagine contemporary Republicans supporting this at either the national or the state level because the odds that they can win a national popular vote as they are composed now is just about zero, but you can do something or you can do nothing. Calling for this amendment will, if it gains any traction, at the very least, force Republicans to spout their bullshit about small states. And now, while the wound is still raw, is the time to start pushing. Maybe the above suggestion isn't the right way to fix the problem, but I hope, it get the conversation started.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Reading to Cope and Reading to Resist

Reading to Cope
I barely slept the night of November 8th into the morning of November 9th. When I eventually got out of bed, I was exhausted, my eyes and throat hurt, and an orb of ill-feeling settled into a my stomach. I, as so many of you, spent the next few days in a stress induced haze. I put my old friend Ulysses in my satchel to carry around with me even though I only nibbled at it here and there.

Some of the great books I was reading at the time, The Lesser Bohemians and Float for example, fell by the wayside, not because something about them drove me away, but because I found myself spending more time on social media on my breaks at work and my leisure time in general; fighting on Facebook, tweeting, retweeting, reading the latest horror stories in the Post, Globe, and Times, calling congressional representatives, and signing petitions. Even though those books were there for my brain, at the time, my brain wasn't there for them.

I retreated to lighter stuff, the easier stuff, books written primarily to entertain and enchant, books that didn't want to be examined, critiqued, analyzed, just enjoyed for what they are, but I didn't want to retreat completely. Self-care is important, recharging your batteries is important, getting your brain back together is important so you can use it to the best of your abilities, but there are ways to cope and resist at the same time. So I bought books by Saladin Ahmed and Chuck Wendig because I appreciate their voices on social media, how they both take stands for what the believe in, have unique voices, and remind us, in their own ways, of important things we sometimes forget. And they had books that fit what I felt I needed.

Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon is an entertaining sword and sorcery story that seems to be setting the table for a very interesting exploration of political power in a fascinating world of ghuls and spells. It's hard to predict where The Crescent Moon Kingdoms series goes from here, but Ahmed has set the table to engage with everything from the tension between order and oppression, the conflict between cosmopolitan and rural societies, and the way power changes our ideals, or to just keep throwing plucky heroes and scary monsters at us. Or both.

In middle school I read a bunch of books from the Star Wars universe (as I'm writing this I vividly remember a scene where Luke Skywalker uses The Force to cloud the minds of a fleet of Tie Fighter pilots and can actually feel the presence of the Dark Side within him), so of course I had to get Wendig's Aftermath. Set soon after the destruction of the second Death Star, the bulk of the book thus far (haven't finished it yet) seems to be organizing the world, introducing us to new characters and reintroducing us to old, and, in general, setting things up for the stories that get us to The Force Awakens.

For better or worse, humans are adaptable and my brain began to adapt to the persistent current of stress and disbelief that is and will be Trump's America. That orb of ill-feeling remained, but I was able to put food in my stomach around it. Though I was finally building back up to the reading pile I normally maintain (here's an example of what that looks like), I still wanted something familiar to tag along for a little while, like planting a friend at the bar while you're on a blind date.

So I picked up The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. It as hard to describe how much I fucking love this book as it is to figure why I love this book so fucking much. I recommend it all the time and pretty much everyone I recommend it to eventually tells me how fucking awesome it is. I once lent my copy to my Dad, because I knew he'd love it. A few months later I asked him if I could have it back. He looked me square in the eye and said “No.” So, I just bought another copy.

Along with a couple of those comforting reads, I'm now back up to the reading pile I usually maintain. And, along with everything else, I've been thinking about what my life is going to look like for the next few years and how I'm going to meet my artistic, political, social, emotional responsibilities. What will the resistance look like in Trump's America? There are smarter people who have spent more time studying the nature of resistance who will have more concrete, more useful, more direct actions, techniques, and strategies, but, in terms of how we read, this is what I've come up with so far.

Reading to Resist
I think it's telling that, in the early aftermath of the election, the first thing so many of us on the losing side did was seek out books to help us understand the people who we had apparently ignored, misunderstood, or even insulted. We rushed to books, Hillbilly Elegy, Strangers in Their Own Land, and the Great Unraveling for example. Smart people put together reading lists to guide us. And there will be more, as publishers (like our good friend Melville House) crash books about the coming resistance into publication. Over the course of a night, it suddenly looked like we didn't understand our own country and many of us immediately sought out books to help us understand.

Books, in general, offer a particular perspective on the human experience; a long view of history, sense of interconnectedness, empathy, nuance, comfort with a level of ambiguity. They draw lines from past actions to contemporary consequences. They add depth and knowledge. There is the belief, maybe even faith, that if we just read enough about something, we'll be able to get handle on it and solve its problems or improve its conditions. On November 9th, we saw a problem and we immediately sought to educate ourselves so we could understand and solve it. But as the vote totals have been finalized, as we learn more about why people voted for Trump, and as the effect of fake news and Russian hacking begins to reveal itself, the more irrelevant the type of thinking reading engenders and supports seems to be.

Despite strong third party showings, voter suppression in Republican states, and all of the other assaults on her policy and character, Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. By any rational way of understanding the results, Clinton won the argument. And it's not hard to see why she won the argument. Along with Trump's many disqualifying flaws, Clinton presented a cogent, coherent, and comprehensive set of policies that would have used the base established under the Obama administration to greatly improve the lives of the vast majority of Americans while grappling with climate change (you know, civilization's most urgent threat). As we have floundered around to explain what happened, especially in the early days after the election, the Clinton campaign was accused of a lot of things, most specifically neglecting the white working class (whoever they are), but if you look back, she did nearly everything pundits accused her of not doing; talking about jobs, offering solutions to the lack of American manufacturing, having a plan to transition coal mining communities to a new economy, closing the education gap, reducing the cost burden of childcare, etc. In short, the lives of the white working class (whoever they are) would have greatly improved (perhaps as much as any time since the post war boom) if Clinton's policies were enacted. The only thing she didn't give them was the opportunity to whine about people of color. The only reason she's not President is a few narrow defeats in key states.

The value of bookish thinking continues to diminish the more we learn about Trump voters. Not only are we talking about overt white supremacists, but we now know, thanks to a whole range of forces, that many of his voters live in an entirely different world of accepted fact than I do. Furthermore, we now know that there was a percentage of Trump voters who simply refused to believe that he would do the things he promised to do that would HURT THEM. This isn't the usual cognitive dissidence, this is a powerful selective reasoning, a kind of racist optimism that lets people assume Trump would do all those horrible things to people of color but none of the things he promised to white people. They reasoned that, even as he promised to repeal Obamacare and even though House Republicans have voted about 50 times to repeal Obamacare, it helps too many of them to be dismantled. To me, that is a decision making system that has already rejected the system that reading supports. To put this another way; Clinton's failure to convince some voters had nothing to do with argument.

The root of the rejection is deep and complicated, going back thousands of years of religious dogma and tribalism right up through McCarthyism, the Southern Strategy, and the myth of liberal bias in media. In other post or essay or ramble, I might spend a few thousand works exploring the differences between “dogmatic” and “ideological” thinking and how those differences play out in contemporary politics, but I'm thinking about the books we can read right now.

Maybe after a little more time to think and read I'll come up with a better answer, but, right now, it seems the best way to read to resist is to support writers who resist. If you support the stance Celeste Ng takes on social media, her opinions, her #smallacts, you should buy and read her book. If you've already got a copy, you should buy another one and give it to a friend or donate it to a little free library. If you can't afford to buy a copy, you can make sure it's in circulation at your local library. Then, whenever you favorite or retweet a tweet of hers (whether something political or a story about her charming and curious kid) just remember at some point that day, to share a link to her book on your social media (here's a good one to share) and urge your friends and followers to buy it. Part of the challenge of resistance is securing the resources to resist, finding ways to risk losing your job, risk being arrested, risk having your stuff vandalized, risk being physically hurt, and, in our capitalist economy, money is a resource that mitigates all risks.

I have no idea what the resistance is going to look like. I'm not sure even those who understand resistance much more than I do know what it's going to look like. But right now, we can support the fighters and we should. This is how you feed the resistance. And it's really a win-win, because you also end up with another book.

(PS. It occurs to me this post could be read as very self-serving in that I've written a book, I think it's swell when people buy it, and I consider myself resisting. Though I suppose you don't have a compelling reason to believe me, I will tell you that is not what intended for this post and I only realized that interpretation was possible after I'd edited it a few times. But, reading is powerful because of the freedom of interpretation, so I can't stop you from reading this as a writer surreptitiously begging people to buy his book. I can only ask that you don't punish the other authors who I've mentioned in this post. If you were thinking of supporting them before it occurred to you that I might be being selfish with this post, please continue to support them.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

About 70,000 White Supremacists

With the difference between Trump and Clinton in the three key states in this election down to around 70,000 votes (and still shrinking, though this could change again with recounts), I think we need to grapple with the fact that our initial knee-jerk explanations for Clinton's electoral loss were all wrong. As that number shrinks, and as Clinton's popular vote lead continues to grow (at 2.7 million as of this writing), it becomes clear that so much of the hand-wringing over identity politics and Democrat outreach to the white working class (whoever that is), might be dangerously misguided. There might be a simpler, but, in some ways, more distressing reason for Clinton's electoral college loss.

I'm drawing my conclusion from two primary facts: Trump outperformed Mitt Romney with white voters and all the polling indicated the Clinton would win. Combined with the enthusiasm of the KKK for the Trump campaign, the role of Steve Bannon in his campaign, and the spike in hate crimes after election, these facts points to one potential conclusion: About 70,000 white supremacists in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania who had not voted in recent elections and/or came from demographics that do not regularly vote (and thus were unlikely to be polled) turned out for Trump.

That's it. In our electoral college system, 70,000 votes (or even less) in the right states will overpower millions of votes elsewhere. It had nothing to do with Clinton's messaging on economic issues, and probably nothing to do with how much time she spent in various states, and probably nothing to do with the Democrats focus on voter registration rather than turning out registered Democrats. It was simply that a population that had previously dropped out of the political process and who happened to live in the right places turned out to vote. A population that is, in many ways, beyond influence.

This is not to say that Clinton ran a perfect campaign or that Comey had no influence on the election, or that the media's creation of a false equivalency didn't have an impact, but, that the population all of those things had the greatest impact on was not the white working class (whoever they are) or third party voters, or Democrats who might not have been energized by Clinton who didn't vote, but on a population that I haven't seen much discussion of yet: moderate Republicans.

Trump did win the Republican primary, but along the way, more Republicans voted against him than for him. (He has yet to win the majority of votes in any of the contests he's run in.) In a crowded and weak field, Trump was able to win because he had a simple message that spoke to the base, he was already famous, he got tons of free publicity from the media, and, he energized a population that probably wasn't doing a lot of primary voting before. In short, in the relatively low turnout primaries, against the likes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and, likely with the help of an awakening white supremacist movement, Trump still was not able to convince the majority of Republicans to vote for him.

And yet, when November came around, despite many prominent Republican leaders opposing him throughout the entire primary process, despite most Republicans voting against him in the primaries, and despite a series of actions and scandals that would have ended the campaigns of any other candidate at any other time, moderate Republicans decided the little R next to his name was more important than anything else. I suspect that the thirty-year smear campaign against Hilary Clinton and the false equivalency perpetuated by the media, and the balance of coverage about Clinton focusing on her email non-issues rather than on her policy ideas and qualifications, had their biggest effect not on third party voters, not on Democrats who stayed home from the polls, and not on voters who switched from Obama to Trump, though they were all impacted as well, but on moderate Republicans who did not switch their votes enough to counteract the surge in new white supremacist voters. Perhaps I've missed it in my media stream, but it seems like all of the Republican hold-your-nose Trump voters have gotten a pass. There are Republicans who should have known better and who bear as much responsibility for Trump's election as those who didn't vote at all.

For Democrats, this interpretation poses a huge problem. You can change a message, you can change outreach focus, you can change voter turnout goals, you can change which voters you are most trying to turn out, but you can't and shouldn't really try to court the votes of white supremacists. At best, you should simply have a political system in which white supremacist beliefs are unacceptable and they drop out of the process as had likely been the case, and at worst you always have enough non-white supremacists voting in all parties and in all elections to overcome any white supremacist voting block. But with the electoral college system, 70,000 unexpected votes or less, in the right places, can overcome millions of votes everywhere else.

The real goal then, for Democrats, or really, for everyone who doesn't want a system that can be swayed by well-placed fringe populations is election reform and despite that being the obvious solution to a Trump election (at least as the data stands now) it's not very politically attractive. And it calls for either a constitutional amendment or for a significant number of states to change how they allocate their electoral college votes (though, that's not actually binding.) and, given that Republicans can only win the Presidency for the foreseeable future if millions of voters in California can be nullified by thousands of voters in the Midwest, it is highly unlikely this will happen. Or, to put this another way, Republicans only stay in power because our electoral systems (sometimes in good ways but mostly in bad ways) dis-empower voters in urban centers.

The problem, of course, came because, in our rush to declare a winner, to have a headline, to fill in the map, we drew conclusions before all of the information was in. If the results were kept secret until all the votes were counted, the narrative of this election would have been a lot different. Instead of Clinton abandoning the white working class (whoever they are) or the “economic anxiety” of the rust belt (despite most people in exit polls believing Clinton superior on the economy), or the failure of “identity politics,” we would have always been talking about what this election actually is: a fluke of our outdated system. One that could be easily corrected—given Trump's obviously lack of qualifications for the job—with another feature of our outdated system. The real danger here, is that, too often, the first narrative sticks whether it is true or not (especially when it is advantageous for someone) and Democrats seem willing to act and react as though they were soundly defeated in this election.

In the near future, this tells me one thing about how Democrats should interact with the Trump administration. Given that Clinton won the popular vote, given that the electoral college results hinged on such a slim plurality, and given how Trump has conducted himself, before and after the election, Democrats should give him, his administration, and his policies as much respect as Republicans gave to President Obama. None. Fight every single one of his appointees from the cabinet on down. Use every procedural trick to delay, block, degrade, and prevent every policy the Republicans offer, even the ones that seem reasonable. Filibuster everything. Abuse it the way Republicans abused it. I mean, they hobbled the Supreme Court on purpose. There may not be a good lesson on how to win future elections to come out of this, but it is clear the Democrats need to fight as if they are saving America from a kleptocrat who sneaked into power on an obsolete technicality, because that is what happened.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Why the Electors Should Elect Hillary Clinton

The electoral college is a strange institution. It is a nod to populism and democracy restrained by a heavy dose of elitism. It was created, in part, because the Founders were not sure the people were capable of electing a President, and, also, because this is America, another way for slave-holding states to protect their institution. It should be abolished. However, for most of its history, the electoral college vote and the popular vote lined up anyway and so it fell to the “if it ain't broke,” priority level. But now, two of the last three Presidents have been elected to their first term after losing the electoral vote. And given how the demographics in this country are changing, I suspect the odds of the popular President losing will continue to increase. The best solution is, of course, a Constitutional amendment abolishing the electoral college and instituting a simple popular vote (or perhaps even a hybrid system where the College is used to break a statistical tie), but the second best solution is for electors to informally commit to cast their votes for whichever candidate won the popular vote. And there is no pair of candidates more deserving of informal solution than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Here's why. (And the way things are going, this list will be incomplete the day or so after I publish it.)

Clinton Won the Popular Vote By a Substantial Margin
As of this writing, experts are estimating that Clinton is likely to have received 2 million more votes than Donald Trump. There is a chance that margin of victory could be much higher. This is not within a margin of error. That is not a small enough number to claim they are essentially tied and use the geographic distribution of electoral college votes as the tie breaker. That is a clear win.

Honestly, even with everything else I am going to argue specifically about Trump, if this were not the case, if he had won the popular vote or if that difference had been less than or around the difference between Bush and Gore in 2000, none of that would matter. Living in a representative democracy means accepting the representatives that are elected. If a majority of Americans voted for him, there would be no justifiable reason for electors to even consider breaking with precedent. But most Americans voted for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is an unprecedented candidate.

Trump's Ties to Russia
It is somewhat ironic, that buried within all the terrible justifications for the electoral college is a decent one that is suddenly relevant. The primary reason for the “natural-born citizen” clause in the Constitution is to protect the United States from a President who is under the influence of a foreign power. In short, the electors are bound by the Constitution to protect the country from a President with compromising foreign ties. Suspicion of compromising ties to Russia and the Putin regime have plagued the Trump campaign, along with evidence of Russian meddling in our election in his favor. A Russian diplomat claimed that Russia had long been in contact with the Trump campaign. Trump also, HAS ALREADY TALKED TO VLADIMIR PUTIN. BEFORE HE TALKED TO THE PENTAGON. We still only have strong suspicions, but we have at least as much of it for Trump's alleged ties to Russia as we did for Clinton's alleged misconduct as Secretary of State.

That there is a reasonable suspicion and that he TALKED TO PUTIN BEFORE THE PENTAGON and we have an alternative that won the popular vote makes this decision much less fraught.

Unprecedented Conflicts of Interest
Rather than putting his business affairs in a true blind trust, he has simply turned over their management to three of his children, which does not constitute the blind trust that would undo the risk of conflicts of interest. To make matters worse, those same three children will be on his transition team. This is a clear conflict of interest and one that cannot be tolerated. He has now also asked that his son-in-law be given security clearance, a person with no apparent role in the administration who also happens to own media. And already Ivanka has come under fire for potentially using the platform of the presidency to hawk her jewelry line. Perhaps what is most alarming about the overtness of these violations of protocol is that it is clear either no one in the Trump family or transition team actually understands what the concept of conflict of interest is or doesn't care. This, at the very least, suggests that Trump is, at the very least, comfortable with, at the very least, appearing like he is using the Presidency for personal enrichment. Or, to put this another, Republicans would lose their goddamn minds if Hillary Clinton included Chelsea in her transition team.

Furthermore, because he did not release his full tax returns, we do not know what other potential conflicts of interest he might have. Does he have relationships with foreign banks? Does he have investments in industries that stand to gain from certain policies? Does he hold compromising debts? Has he evaded taxes in potentially actionable ways? In short, we already see one very direct, very avoidable, disqualifying conflict of interest and have reason to suspect there may be many more.

Steve Bannon
According to Steve Bannon's own words and other white supremacists, Steve Bannon is a white supremacist. The fact that Trump has named him chief strategist and given him such a level of power in shaping the executive branch of the United States of America, tells me that Donald Trump is unfit to be the President of the United States, if for no other reason that it is an extremely stupid, stupid thing to do. If Trump wanted a smooth transition, even for nefarious purposes, if Trump wanted to quiet some of the protest surrounding his election, even for nefarious purposes, if Trump wanted to make it difficult for Democrats to oppose the Republican agenda, even for nefarious purposes, giving Bannon a high profile position is a terrible tactic as it validates all of the accusations leveled against him. Along with all the reasons why such a terrible person should not have that much power in our society, it displays a shocking lack of judgment by Donald Trump. (Sidenote: Bannon is only third because in terms of the roll of the electoral college, the first two points, I think, are directly relevant to their Constitutional responsibilities.)

He Has Empowered White Supremacy
Emboldened by Trump's election, there has been a spike in hate crimes around the country. As of this writing, no one has died. There are moments when I am grateful and there are moments when I am terrified that I am grateful that no one has died. Significant aspects of his platform are overtly unconstitutional and, along with damaging the lives of American citizens and other human beings, will clog our court systems with constant legal battles. And he was endorsed by the KKK and is bringing known racists (see above) into the White House. We don't want a President endorsed by the KKK and we don't need to have one.

Ongoing Legal Issues
Trump also faces an ongoing lawsuit against Trump University, one that could potentially result in criminal charges. He has also been accused by multiple women of sexual assault. He and his businesses have also had a long history of refusing to pay contractors and others who have performed services for them and daring them to take him to court. Perhaps his election will discourage those who might have brought suit against him. Perhaps that is an even better reason not to make him president.

His Transition Has Been a Disaster
His transition team has had one major shake-up, he is not prepared to higher the requisite staff, he needs extra coaching from Obama to be prepared, his proposed cabinet (all the versions of his proposed cabinet) are just the people who were nicest to him over the course of his campaign, in absence of other preparation he's hired the same lobbyists, cronies, and corporate stooges he promised to “drain” from Washington, and his communication with the various parts of the executive branch have been spotty at best.

He has had months to prepare. He has had since July, to do the work of creating an administration. Given that he does not have any previous government experience, I think we can forgive something of a learning curve. That said, he is now going to be the most powerful person on the planet. If he does a poor job of preparing to govern, when he has only one (albeit complicated) issue to prepare for, how good of a job actually governing can we expect him to do?

He Doesn't Want to Be President
As has been abundantly clear by his desire to only spend part of his time at the White House and the look on his face during his meetings with President Obama, Trump had no idea the scale of the responsibility of the presidency and has no particular desire to rise to the scale. He wants to give speeches. He wants to have the triumph of winning the election. He wants his ego validated. He does not want to govern. He can have everything that he wants and Clinton can still be President.

Arguments Against
There are, of course, reasons one might decide honoring one particular aspect of the electoral college is more important than preventing the certain damage a Trump presidency will do to the world. As with all arguments, some are more valid than others. Here are a few that I anticipate along with my counter arguments.

Small States
Just look at all that red on the map. The electoral college ensures that smaller, less populated states don't have their views trammeled by the urban majority. We should respect that right.

Small states already have the Senate. They essentially have the House too. In fact, in every governing body where representation is distributed geographically, smaller communities have more power than larger communities. There should be safe guards that ensure the interests of those who don't live in major metropolitan areas are respected, but those safe guards already exist. (I mean, one of the major reasons Massachusetts doesn't fund the MBTA at the level it needs is the geographic distribution of legislative power enhances the influence of Western Massachusetts who somehow doesn't get that I don't really drive on their roads that my taxes pay for in the same way they don't really ride the T.)

And about that red map. It certainly looks impressive, but, there are fewer people in the red than there are in the blue. I've had discussions around this issue before, and there really isn't a way to get around the fact that arguing for the electoral college argues that people in cities deserve less representation than people in towns. Even if you don't intend for that to be the case, when representation is allocated geographically, that is the case. There are a lot of different ways to handle this (parliamentary-style proportional representation rather than winner-take-all elections has some appeal) but in the short term, respecting the interests of the greater number of voting American citizens requires electors voting for Clinton.

Won't There Be Unrest
Before they won the electoral college, Trump and his surrogates were crowing about how the election would be “rigged” and how they would not respect the results if Clinton won. Some, including people who have held office, advocated for protest and (I'm being very generous here) hinted at armed resurrection. If they were posturing that way before the election, even though if you accept the electoral college as valid you have to accept elector freedom as valid, imagine the kind of violence they would be capable of if pledged electors flipped their votes.

First, there already is unrest. Unless, of course, you don't consider a wave of hate crimes unrest.

Second, I thought we weren't supposed to negotiate with terrorists. If Trump and his supporters are willing to resort to violence to install him in the Presidency that is all the more reason he shouldn't have it.

What if a Republican Wins the Popular Vote But Not the Electoral College
Then that candidate should be President. As I said earlier, this movement to influence electors doesn't really happen if Trump won the popular vote.

We Should Respect the State by State Results
Whether or not this is a legitimate way of electing the President (see above about the representation of small states in government), Republican governments in numerous states, including important swing states like Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, and Wisconsin actively suppressed the vote in specific populations in order to increase their chances of winning. Voter fraud is, essentially, non-existent, and yet, waving this boogey-man around after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, Republican state governments imposed onerous registration requirements and reduced access to the ballot in ways that specifically targeted African-American and other likely Democratic voters. Therefore, there is good reason to question the validity of the results in all states that imposed voting restrictions after the Voting Rights Act was voided.

It Wasn't a Popular Vote Election/Any Other Technical Reason to Question the Popular Vote
I have seen some fairly logical, fairly reasonable arguments why the fact of the popular vote win in this case does not really mean that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. I'm as big a fan of logical and reasonableness as the next guy and logic and reason tell me that we need to do everything we can to prevent a Trump Presidency. I think the numbers also would have been different if say, it mattered at all that he lied more than the told the truth, or if a false equivalency hadn't been created between the two of the major candidates, or if he hadn't been giving millions or even billions of dollars in free publicity by CNN et al., or if Republicans hadn't been smearing Clinton for thirty years for having the audacity to try to be a woman in power, or if moderate Republican voters actually voted the moderate choice, or any of the other myriad of woulda, coulda, shouldas between us and the Trump presidency.

Go ahead, call me a sore loser. But I would have some serious questions about someone who could lose graciously to the KKK.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

An Open Letter to Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey

Now the work begins. I am still figuring out what I am going to do, where I am going to send my money how I am going to help. I think it's clear the primary policy goal is to flip the House (and maybe the Senate, though that might be even more of a long shot) in 2018, the way Republicans flipped it in 2010. I think between then and now, we need to find ways to prevent and ameliorate the damage a Republican administration (let alone a Trump administration) will do to this country, especially this country's most powerless and vulnerable citizens. I'm a writer so my first impulse is to write stuff. Below is a letter I sent to both of my Senators. I should note that, though I don't remember where I saw this first, I definitely saw this idea expressed by other people. If you like what I have to say and/or the way I say it, you are free to use this words in part or in total. Boats against the current, y'all and don't let the bastards grind you down.

Dear Senator Elizabeth Warren & Senator Ed Markey,

In 2008, Barack Obama won the popular vote and the electoral college. The Democrats won the House and won a super-majority in the Senate. I don't know if popular mandates really exist, but 2008 was awfully close to one. And how did congressional Republicans respond to the direct endorsement of the 2008 Democratic platform: by vowing to make President Obama a one-term president.

To do so they abused every procedural loophole, broke decades old agreements, and ignored long-standing decorum. They obstructed bipartisan legislation with anonymous holds. They refused to confirm Federal appointments. They filibustered virtually every single piece of legislation that was put forth.

Furthermore, there is ample evidence that they never once negotiated in good faith. They never intended to support anything President Obama proposed even when it was essentially a Republican policy. Even when their ideas were incorporated into legislation through compromise and consensus, as the federally administered public option was removed from the Affordable Care Act, they still refused to support the legislation. They asked for everything and even when they got it, they still said “no.” Their only goal was to deny the first African-American President anything resembling a policy victory and if that meant hobbling the efforts to recover after the worst recession since The Great Depression and stoking the fires of racist resentment, so be it.

I am not asking you to shout at President Trump during his State of the Union address. Even though more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton I am not asking you to question the legal validity of his presidency. I am not asking you to question his citizenship, to spread rumors about his faith, to accuse him of crimes he did not and could not have committed, or to attribute problems to him he could in no way have prevented. I'm not asking you to stoop to their level of insulting the American people by refusing to outwardly respect their President.

But I am asking you to block everything. Filibuster everything. Put an anonymous hold on everything. You were rewarded for your decency and your commitment to longstanding procedures with the Tea Party, a vacant Supreme Court seat, government shutdowns, a game of chicken with the debt ceiling, and Donald Trump, a man who began his political career by questioning Barak Obama's citizenship. Given how the districts were gerrymandered in 2010, given how they treated you when you were in power, given that more Americans voted for Democrats in the House in 2014, and given that Hillary Clinton received more votes for President than Donald Trump, they have not earned your consent or cooperation. They have not earned the right to discriminate. They have not earned the right to discard science. They have not earned the right to threaten a woman's right to choose. They have not earned the right to risk the health and well-being of our people. They have not earned the right to govern as if they speak for all Americans. They have not earned the respect they refused to show to you.

If the Trump administration magically starts proposing productive thoughtful policies with meaningful common ground, then negotiate for the best version of those policies possible, but make no compromises for the sake of compromise. Do not reach across the aisle to create the optics of bipartisanship. You've tried that already and they spit in your hand.

To be the adult in this room, you need to fight like hell.

We know exactly what they plan to do and we know the terrible consequences if their platform is adopted. I know you will not be able to stop everything, but you are our dam against the flood of dangerous policies and we need you to hold strong for at least two years.

I promise, that if you do, the voters of America will do better in 2018.

Thank you for your time.


Josh Cook

Monday, October 24, 2016

Piggy Banks at Parnassus, Largehearted Boy, Apt and What Social Security for Everyone Would Mean for Books

A bookseller at Parnassus Books, Ann Patchett's bookstore in Nashville, was faced with medical bills she was unable to pay on her own. In response, the store organized a fundraiser to help her and other booksellers around the country facing financial crises. They got a number of authors, including some very famous authors, to decorate piggy banks and then auctioned them off. It was a testament to the generosity and creativity of people in the book world. Soon after that, David Gutowski of largehearted boy  was faced with a sudden medical emergency and had to set up a gofundme  campaign in order to cover the costs. The goal for the campaign was $20,000 and when I last checked, more than double that had been raised. Once again, a community without a lot of spare capital came together to support one of their own. Even more recently, apt literary magazine and Aforementioned productions, a small nonprofit press and event organization, found itself in tenuous financial circumstances after the founders, who had been sustaining the venture from their own pockets, got into a car accident. They publish a great literary magazine and great books and they put on fantastic events. I have no doubt that, once again, the literary community will come together to make sure the important work of culture continues.

The usual framing of stories like these focuses on the generosity, the community, the happy ending. And that's great and all. We should celebrate generosity. We should celebrate community. We should celebrate the happy ending. But we should also ask why these people needed community generosity in the first place.

Largehearted boy isn't just some blog on the internet, it is one of the longest running, most influential, and most important lit and music blogs out there. And yet for all the readers, for all the influence, all the followers, all the interviews, all the partnerships and playlists, David did not have the financial security to weather a medical emergency. We have to wonder whether there would be a largehearted boy at all if something like this befell David five or ten years ago. And then we have to wonder how many largehearted boys, Aforementioned productions, and Parnassus bookstores we don't have because of a cancer diagnosis, a broken down car, or a lost day job.

To me, this is all part of the same problem, the same flaw in our economic system that creates poorly paid nurses, writers who can't make a living on their writing, teachers' aids who need second jobs, adjunct professors living on welfare, parents working a third job to cover the cost of childcare that allows them to go to their first two, and nearly all of the other material precariousness in our society. There are lots of different ways to solve this precariousness, but, I believe, the simplest, most efficient, and most effective way is a federally administrated guaranteed minimum income or Social Security for everybody. Sure, there would still be problems, still be poverty, still be material insecurity, but there would be far less of all three and all three would be more easier to deal with. In the book world alone, the impact would be tremendous.

Wonky Warning: This piece is going to go on for a bit, so if you don't want to sit through all of it here's an executive summary. Our system only rewards industries that focus on profits and so the vast majority of capital has been sucked to those industries. Direct redistribution is the easiest way to correct that imbalance. A guaranteed income of $30K or more a year would give a financial flexibility to the book industry that would allow people to make a decent living while keeping the final price point for books relatively low. Ultimately, the only real argument against Social Security for Everybody is the idea that some people deserve to be poor. I guess you can believe that, but you sure as fuck better not call yourself Christian while you do.

If you think about it, the fundamental idea of capitalism is kind of...odd. Basically, the free flow of capital in service to the drive for increased profits through unfettered markets will result, through competition and consumer choice, in high quality goods at fair prices and a more prosperous society. The odd thing is that what should be the goal, a more prosperous society, is actually the byproduct. Essentially, people striving for profit will inherently make a prosperous society. Seems like a pretty tenuous assumption is you ask me. And it creates a pretty significant inherent flaw: there is no way to stop destructive, dangerous, and destabilizing actions if they produce short term profits.

Of course, there has been some prosperity, some ingenuity, some advancement from previous societies, (I mean, even Marx believed capitalism was necessary) but that flaw compromises everything. It has lots of different consequences from oil companies not using their vast wealth and research infrastructures to pioneer renewable resources, to the fact that currency speculation is a thing, to companies driving around aluminum to inflate its price, to lack of paid parental leave, etc, but the one I'm focusing on now, is that those who make the most money in our system are those who either; position themselves close to money, spread the cost of their profit around so that people don't feel like they are paying them, shift some significant portion of their overhead onto some other entity, and/or have or control a resource that people need to pay for. As you'll notice, there aren't many of any of those in the book world.

So, some quick examples to explain all four. First, someone working in finance is already working with money, so it is easy to find ways (legally and ethically, legally and unethically, and illegally but uncaught) to generate profit. That's why there are plenty of mediocre or even bad investment bankers, financial planners, hedge fund managers, etc who make a shit ton more money than, say, the world's greatest nurse or the teacher's aid who lays the groundwork for people with autism to lead fulfilling adult lives. Second, Oprah is very profitable, primarily because you give her money. Of course, it doesn't feel like you do, because you give your money first to a company that advertises on her show, network, in her magazine or whatever. You could say the same for those people and organizations that find ways to diminish your awareness of payment through convenience (automatic payments a la Netflix,) or bait-and-switch style fees added on to sticker price. Third, by paying its workers so poorly, Walmart has essentially shifted a major portion of its overhead (the part that keeps its employees, you know, alive) onto federal and state relief programs. Amazon does something similar by using their size in the market to force margin cuts onto vendors and squeeze tax breaks out of cities. Of course, there are people and businesses that engage quite ethically in all three of these methods of profit maximization, but, the important fact is there is no mechanism inherent within capitalism to prevent someone like Martin Skirelli from being a total fucking asshole. If it's profitable, it's unstoppable. I don't think the fourth strategy really needs an example, but I'll just say that it can be really easy to make money if you own buildings or the patents to lifesaving drugs.

There are lots of ways to fix, or at least mitigate the consequences of, this inherent flaw and we've actually tried a lot of them with a fair amount of success; collective bargaining through trade unions, regulations on the financial market, overtime pay, meaningful minimum wage, (you know, all the stuff that Republicans claim destroys the economy but, you know, keeps the rat poison out of your sausages) but over the years (and especially after Reagan) all of those fixes have slowly eroded, leading to the situation we're in now.

So how does this all relate to books? First, books are extremely expensive to make and it is very difficult to shift any of those costs around. At the absolute theoretical minimum, a traditionally published book takes a writer, an editor, and everyone involved in the logistics of distribution from the printer to the bookseller, but more likely there will be at least two editors involved and a proofreader and a book designer and a cover designer and then all of the infrastructure that allows those editors and designers to work and all that distribution I mentioned earlier. And that's if you don't put any time/money/effort towards trying to sell the book, which will involve a whole host of other people, publicists, marketers, sales reps, etc. Which is all a long way of saying that, given the cost of production, books are actually extremely cheap. To think that you can get something that lasts roughly forever, that is the result of thousands upon thousands of hours of human effort, for $15-35 is downright miraculous.

But they don't feel cheap. With the stagnation of wages and the continued growth in the cost of necessities, Americans have far less disposable income than they once did. So a $35 hardcover or even a $17 paperback, both feel more expensive in the moment than say, a $5 cup of coffee or your monthly Netflix fee. And since you can eat books or live in them, they have to come from the luxury side of the budget. To put this another way, very few people in 2016 could afford to buy books if their cover prices reflected true cost of production. The result; writers can't make a living off their writing, the industry is buoyed by unpaid internships, and many talented, passionate people have to leave for higher paying jobs and those that stay often have to rely on partners or families to make up the gaps in their financial lives. The overhead is often dropped as low as it will go, and many people in the industry, including those who sell a lot of books, live with financial precariousness.

But what if everyone in America got $32,000 a year guaranteed from the federal government?

First, that $30 hardcover, $18 paperback doesn't look so expensive. Perhaps my least favorite part of the job is watching an excited child rush up to their parent with a book they desperately want to own and then seeing said parent's face fall when confronted with the price. Or really anybody hold a book for a moment, just fucking know they want to read it, but also just fucking know they can't justify $35 this month. That extra income would remove books from the “luxuries” or “indulgences” portion of many Americans' budgets and sales would go up.

Second, the financial lives of everyone in the industry, from the writer to the bookseller and everyone in between, is improved without having to raise the cover price of books. (I can't even begin to say how much my life would improve.) Some professionals in the industry would see their yearly incomes double (DOUBLE!) without having to pass on a cost increase to the consumer. Of course, this wouldn't solve all of publishing's problems (or all of society's problems) but it would go a long way in mitigating the impact of those problems and providing a different fundamental footing from which to address them. Passionate, talented people without rich partners or parents could stay in the industry. (And afford to buy houses and have children while they do so.) Writers could spend more time writing and less time on whatever their real source of income would be. Readers who want to buy more, could. (And, let's be honest, a lot of those new sales would come from people already in the industry who also, now have more discretionary income.) And, of course, booksellers, bloggers, and small presses, like aforementioned, largehearted boy, and the folks from Parnassus wouldn't need the generosity of their community to keep making books, writing about books, and selling books.

Capitalism concentrates wealth in certain people and certain industries. In many ways, we only have books and art and little league and Girl Scouts, because most people actually aren't capitalists and are more than happy to do the work that is important to them regardless of its relationship to profit and financial security. There are many ways to compensate for this, some complex and some simple. Some involve big administrative structures that need to be periodically updated and adapted to changing circumstances. Some are difficult. One is simple. Social Security for everybody isn't a magic bullet for all of our problems, but, it's pretty close. With one policy change and one administrative structure, the financial precariousness that afflicts so many people in the book world and American society in general would be solved.

P.S. Obviously, there are a lot of arguments against Social Security for everyone, but this post is already very long and very wonky. And I suspect most of you who read this are already relatively sympathetic to the idea. However, if you would like a more general, more in depth defense of the idea of the guaranteed income leave a comment here or somewhere in social media and if I get a few requests, I'll do a follow up post.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

My Tattoo: The Annotated Edition

At some point in my life, I said that I would get a tattoo when I published my first book. At the time, I didn't have anything particular in mind, it was just something that seemed like a good way to commemorate, you know, a dream come true. And then, well, I published a book and the whole tattoo thing kinda slipped my mind. In my defense, there was a lot of shit going on around the publication of my book; copy edits, publicity essays, final proofs, setting up the tour, preparing for the tour, bookseller letters, and then the book came out and there was the actual tour, some interviews and other pieces, and you know, still working full time at the bookstore. (There was a fair amount in Ye Olde Personal Life as well.) The whole tattoo thing just kind of slipped my mind.

And then a couple of months ago, a few things came together. In no particular order. I am now totally in the world of what I hope will be my next novel, and the publication of An Exaggerated Murder has become more of event in my life. One of my best friends reminded me that I said I would get a tattoo when I published my first book. One of my other best friends, who happens to be a kickass tattoo artist, opened up her own shop. I read this absolutely beautiful picture book at the store, Tell Me a Tattoo Story. And, probably most importantly, I figured out how to visually cram a ton of what is most important in my prose writing life into a single image. The result, as will come as no surprise to readers of this blog or people who know me in general, is literary as fuck.

So, here is my tattoo story, or as I like to think of it (see above about the whole literary as fuck thing) the annotated edition of my tattoo.

In chronological order of their appearance in culture:

1. Illumination of the Oxford Scholar or Clerk from The Canterbury Tales

Here is how Chaucer introduces this fine fellow.

A CLERK from Oxford was there also,
Who'd studied philosophy, long ago
As lean was his horse as is a rake,
And he too was not fat, that I take,
But he looked emaciated, moreover, abstemiously.
Very worn off was his overcoat; for he
Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
Nor he was worldly to accept secular office.
For he would rather have at his bed's head
Some twenty books, all bound in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher in base,
He had but little gold within his suitcase;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,

Seems pretty spot on to me. Furthermore, my partner focused on medieval studies in college so not only is this an image of my love for books and one of the roots of English language literature, it also honors my first reader. The character of the Clerk or the Scholar also has a little bit of ambiguity which I like as well. You see, to actually be an “Oxford Clerk” or “Oxford Cleric” you have to graduate from Oxford. Until then, you are an Oxford Scholar. You could argue then, that given his love of literature and studying, that this particular Oxfordian had no interest in graduating and hoped to remain a scholar forever. Furthermore, there is some possibility that this is a reference to John Scogin (there's a reason why the name Scogin might look familiar to you) who was very learned and scholarly and also a legendary iconoclast.

2. The Narrative Arcs in Tristram Shandy

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne somehow packed about four hundred years of literary development into this 1759-1767 novel. The prosaic, narrative, visual, and stylistic experimentation in the novel are still, in many ways, ahead of its time, and that it was able to do nearly everything the great postmodern novels do, while also being kindhearted and generous is even more staggering. If you ever wondered what postmodernism would look like if irony had not become a central technique, read this book. One could argue that no other work of English-language literature came close to the challenges posed and ground broken by Tristram Shandy until Joyce and Ulysses.

One of the defining characteristics of Tristram Shandy is its use of visuals. Punctuation dances amongst the prose. When the narrator tries to describe a beautiful woman he presents the reader with a blank page on which she can illustrate her own personal version of perfection. When a beloved character dies the narrator includes a black page of mourning. When one character, Uncle Toby, makes a gesture with his cane, the narrator is so smitten with it that, rather than leaving it to the imagination or relying on the inherent ambiguity of language he includes a line tracing the gesture. These squiggles come from a passage in which the narrator is considering the narrative arc of his story. He understands that the usual narrative arc is, well, an arc, but, in the interest of accuracy, presents these various squiggly lines as the various narrative arcs of the sections of the book thus far. The scene ends up somehow being playfully pedantic (which is no small feat), while exploring the boundaries of storytelling and critique. I mean, how the fuck are we supposed to confirm whether or not these lines are accurate representations of the story? It might be Platonic meta-fiction. (Of course, that scene when Don Quixote meets a fraudulent version of himself is pretty close, too.)

The question marks do three things; first, I believe all great works of literature are more question than answer, something posed that the reader must complete; second, a culture's literature is one long dialog, and third, they turn this collection of references into a cohesive (at least in my mind) image.

3. The Last Line of Ulysses
I believe there is no more beautiful arrangement of words in the English language than, “yes I will Yes.” Joyce has stretched the novel as far as it could go at the time, taking us on a journey through just about every aspect of human life, played with language, played with style, showed the hero taking a shit, constructed new words from the roots of old ideas, and, in general, did more than anyone (except for maybe our old friend Sterne) to expand the possibility of the English-language novel and the last word is “Yes.” Not a passive “yes” not a begrudging “yes,” not a thoughtless “yes,” not even a well-I'm-stuck-with-this-shlub-so-I-might-as-well-say-yes “yes,” (though Molly does touch on that angle) not some socially enforced optimism, not some legally recommended affirmative, nor any of the other ways we use the word; but a thoughtful, intentional, even passionate “Yes.” A why-we-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning “yes.” A making-the-best-of-it-can-still-be-pretty-fucking-good “yes.” A perfection-is-boring “yes.”

As stylistically ambitious and complicated as Ulysses is, it's theme is actually very simple: Literature is one way to say “yes” to life.

So, to commemorate my first novel, on my right arm now is a story about the books and one of the people who have been vital to my life as a person and a writer. Now I just have to get that poetry manuscript accepted so I can get some balance with a tattoo on my left arm.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Nader & Sanders Voter for Clinton

I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and (after a funny scream disqualified the progressive Democrat running in the primary) 2004. I also voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary. As a left-wing, independent progressive, I believe Hilary Clinton is the best choice for President.

First, though I am talking primarily to voters who are planning to vote for Jill Stein (and maybe even a few planning to vote for Gary Johnson) or cast some other protest vote, I want to make clear that this isn't going to be one of those condescending “Woe betide those who repeat my mistake,” posts I've seen pop up lately as the potential impact of third-party candidates on the upcoming election is examined. I believe the assertion that Nader made Bush president is, at best, an over-emphasis  one factor out of many that lead to the Bush presidency and at worst, a calculated attempt by Democrat leadership to stifle progressive dissent in American politics and dodge blame for a disastrous campaign. But, that is the past and we are looking towards the future. (If you want me to explain that belief, leave a comment.) 2016 is a very different election from 2000 and so my decision is different. Though I am proud of my votes for Nader, this November, I am voting for Hilary Clinton. Here's why.

Jill Stein is Not Your Savior
In a lot of ways, Ralph Nader was ultimately not a great candidate, but Jill Stein has her problems too. Yes, I agree with her on many issues (more on policy agreements later) and yes I do think the two party-system is inherently destructive, but Stein has pandered to the anti-vaccination movement and is suspicious that WiFi might cause cancer. What seems to be at play here, more than anything, is Stein's attempt to woo voters who have become suspicious of government regulations through protesting corporate influence, but, to me, that is no different than Republicans and conservatives “asking questions” about human-driven climate change. The science is as certain as science can be on these issues and it is dangerous to suggest otherwise.

Secondly, a few months ago Stein herself tweeted out this graphic from one of those quizzes that shows you how much you agree with the various candidates. Obviously, Sanders was closest, but, according to her own graphic, she agrees with Clinton 91% of the time. If you're thinking of voting for Jill Stein, you really need to ask yourself about the value of that 9%. Maybe some of that 9% (like the anti-vaccination stuff) is stuff you actually agree with Clinton on. Maybe some of that 9% is meaningful difference on issues that aren't particularly important. And maybe, some of that 9% is simply Clinton putting forward what she thinks is a possible policy version of a progressive idea.

Regardless, if you are thinking of voting for Stein in this election, you have to ask yourself whether that 9% really is definitive, because there is a good chance you've fallen into the cult of personality that Republicans and Conservatives have spent the last 25 years constructing around Clinton.

Clinton is Not the Devil
I don't know if there is anyone in the history of American politics who has been subject to more scrutiny than Hilary Clinton. And what has this endless procession of investigations turned up? A person using as much power as is legally allowed to do what she thinks is right and, worse yet, a woman doing the exact same things a man in her position would. That's it. Nothing from the House. Nothing from the FBI. Nothing from the IRS. Nothing going back to Arkansas. Nothing when she was in the Senate. Nothing when she was Secretary of State. The most anyone has ever seems to find is incidents, situations, and set ups that “raise questions.” Those in power will always, always, always have opportunities to abuse it for personal gain and those who, with the best of intentions, seek to create change through that power will always, always, always, approach the line of legality, and those who get caught at that line will always, always, always, try to get prove they didn't do anything wrong. That is what political power is. Ask yourself this, if any of these many, many investigations had ever found any truly meaningful wrongdoing, would Republicans let you forget about it for even a second? Perhaps the loudest proclamation of innocence came when the final House investigation on Benghazi did not release a summary of their findings. Don't you think if they or the FBI or really anybody ever founding anything meaningful, they would be crowing about it 24/7?

The other source of distrust I've heard and held about Clinton is the idea that she will “say whatever it takes to get elected,” and that her positions are constantly changing. In terms of the first objection, trying to get elected is what politicians do. Though one could identify degrees along a spectrum, Nader said what he said to get elected, Dean said what he said to get elected, Obama said what he said to get elected, and Sanders said what he said to get elected. Jill Stein is doing it right now, having the gall to argue that Congressional Republicans would restrain a Trump presidency. You could argue that Clinton is more overtly calculated than the others, that her statements have a precision that feels dishonest, and that she always seems to speak with an eye towards plausible-deniability, and though that all could be true, I don't see how, given that 91% agreement above, that disqualifies her from the presidency. (I mean, Bill Clinton, as sitting president, used a technical definition of “sexual relations” and then deconstructed the word “to be” on national television and yet, he isn't considered fundamentally dishonest. And then there's Trump who has done almost nothing but lie his entire campaign.) Yes, she talks as if every word she says is under a malicious microscope, but that's because every word she says is under a malicious microscope. If you think that makes her corrupt and dishonest, then, as above, you have fallen into a cult of personality constructed by Republicans and conservatives. Do you really want to hang out with that crowd?

Next, though it is true that Clinton's policies and beliefs have “evolved” over the course of her political life it is important to note how they have evolved. For the most part, as the country and the Democratic party have gotten more progressive since Bill Clinton moved it to the right during his “triangulation” phase, Clinton has followed suit. Yes, her policies have changed over the decades, but they have almost always changed to agree more with you. Yes, the policies Clinton espouses now and those on the Democratic platform are more progressive than when they started due, almost entirely, to the pressure created by the Sanders's campaign, but shouldn't we count that a victory? Why, exactly, would Clinton or any Democrat listen to progressives if she gets no support even after incorporating some progressive ideas into her platform?

Ultimately, if a bill to raise the minimum wage landed on Clinton's desk, she would sign it. The same goes for steps towards universal health care, paid parental leave, solutions for climate change, affordable higher education, and regulations for Wall Street. Is the fact that Hilary Clinton once opposed gay marriage really so damning, so unforgivable, so untrustworthy, that you will vote to prevent nearly every policy that you would like to see adopted? Does the fact that she voted for the Iraq War when the Bush administration was lying to us about weapons of mass destruction especially disqualify her from holding office? Does that one vote completely invalidate all of the potential good that could come from her presidency? (And seriously, if hawkishness is an issue for you, why the fuck aren't you talking about the Obama administration's drone war?) If the answer is “yes,” than you are acting exactly like someone who plans to vote for Trump while not actually believing what he says about walls and Muslims.

Finally, it is important to elect a woman to the presidency, just like it was important to elect an African-American man. Waiting for the perfect “first woman president,” will mean never getting a first woman president. Besides, being less than perfect hasn't stopped us from electing white men, so I don't know why it should stop us from electing Hilary Clinton.

Trump, However, is Probably The Devil
For as bad as George W Bush was, at least he did not fundamentally threaten our political process. Trump does. He does not care about the truth or politics or democracy or policy or really anything besides his own ego. He will absolutely abuse his powers as president and I don't think there is any evidence that the Republican party, should they retain control of the House, has a fraction of the basic political courage and moral decency to impeach him when he does. (If they did, they would not be supporting him now.) He will do nothing about climate change, nothing about poverty, nothing about equality, and he will undo what little we've accomplished over the last eight years. He will sow discord in our military leadership, he will demolish decades old alliances, his impulses will threaten the world economy, he will empower tyrants, and he will empower white supremacists. People of color will die from a Trump presidency. They will be killed by police, by the National Guard, and by their neighbors. Even now, while the election is still going on, he is sowing chaos and I am truly afraid that there will be violence if he loses as well. This isn't about lesser-of-two-evilism; this is about survival.

There are serious questions about Jill Stein's ability to be President, Donald Trump is a life-threatening phenomenon, and Hilary Clinton, perhaps history's most scrutinized politician, is probably going to do a bunch of what you want anyway. What else do you need?

But How Do I Work for a More Just Political System?
It is clear that the two-party system isn't good for democracy, but it is also clear that, at least in this election, presidential politics is not the place to fight against it. So, if that is politically important to you, you should vote for Hilary Clinton in this election and run as a third-party candidate for local office at the next opportunity. As Republicans and conservatives have known and exploited for decades, local politics provides opportunities for change not available at the national level. Run for city council. Run for school board. Run for sheriff. Run for district attorney. By changing the political landscape in your city, country, or district, you can be begin changing the political landscape of the country.

Second, support progressive candidates in Democrat primaries, but still vote Democrat in the general. As I mentioned above, the Sanders campaign had a huge impact on the state of Democratic party, but that impact is only meaningful if Clinton wins the presidency. Once again, why should Democrats pay attention to independent progressives if there's nothing to show for it when they do? If we show Democrats they can with with progressive ideas they will support progressive ideas.

Third, work to reform election law. The landscape of American politics looks a lot of different with instant-run-off voting and though this really should be a national issue, most election law is handled at the state level. So work to put a referendum or something on your state's next election ballot.

Concluding on a Tactical Level
Finally, on a tactical level, I don't think we should underestimate the impact of progressives voting straight-ticket Democratic in 2016, 2018, and 2020 in national and state level elections. Meaningful victories in the next three elections for Democrats could turn the Republican party into a minor party, especially if Clinton wins by a landslide. The only reason why they have any power at all today is because Democrats and Progressives went to sleep in 2010, letting Republicans take control of state legislatures in a census year and thus gerrymander a congressional map that lets Republicans maintain a substantial majority of House seats despite the American people voting overwhelmingly for Democrat candidates. What could fill the vacuum of power left behind by the collapse of the Republican Party?

In short, the fall of Republican Party is an opportunity for progressives and independents to remake the American electoral landscape to better reflect the will of the American people and a vote for Jill Stein will do nothing to advance that cause.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Does Publishing Have a 1% Problem?

I read somewhere, in some article, someone complaining about the internet in general and blogs in particular for being a “first draft world.” I could see the point, but, to me, that's one of the things I like about the internet in general and blogs in particular. Though there is value to the perfect essay, story, poem, whatever, there is a different kind of value in that first draft, that first take, those early ideas, and the internet in general, and this blog in particular, give us a chance to have a longer conversation starting from those first ideas. So, with that, here is a first idea, the beginning of a potential conversation, something that has been rattling around in my head that I'd like to get out into the world to see if goes anywhere.

With the release of the new Harry Potter story and the trepidation of so many fans and readers about the play overcome by curiosity, nostalgia, or the enthusiasm of the moment, bookstores around the country saw their sales for the month, the quarter, and, potentially, the year change dramatically. In many ways, this is a bit of a shock; given that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a play and not actually written by J.K. Rowling, many of us believed that, though it would sell better than just about any other title in our stores, it wouldn't be the smash hit it seems like it's going to be. But even though it won't hit the same heights as The Deathly Hollows, it will still likely be the number one bestseller at most bookstores (or pretty close to it) and will still likely have a huge impact on the overall sales and profits of bookstores.

Books that sell like Harry Potter, are unusual, but just because they are unusual doesn't mean they don't have persistent, long-term impacts on the book industry. In fact, I think there is ample evidence to, at the very least, suggest that the book industry (both publishing and retail) is driven by and depends in an alarming degree, on these atypical phenomena, on these 1% books. Because it isn't just Harry Potter.

As has been pointed out,  (here and here for example) the much reported increase in sales and profits at independent bookstores over the last couple of years can be almost entirely attributed to the rise of adult coloring books, a totally new genre with no digital equivalent. Though some who have pointed this out have done so in a way that tries to temper the enthusiasm around the indies resurgence, to me, that speaks to a newly nimble industry far more able to capitalize on new trends (or fads, we'll see) than they were a decade or so ago.

And then there's merchandising; books and other bookish material based on movies, video games, other franchises, and such. Though I don't think this impacts independent bookstores as much as it impacts the wider retail world, sales of merchandised books are (as of BEA last year at least) almost entirely composed of Frozen and Minecraft books. (It is one seriously intense pie chart, I'll tell you.)

And then there's Lincoln Michael's extensive piece on book sales (which you should read anyway). It was framed around finding a definitive answer to what “good sales” might be for a book, but his data say other things as well. Imagine, what the industry would look like if, as is often the case in some statistical calculations, the outliers were removed. How many copies of works of literary fiction were sold in the last few years if we do not include sales of All the Light We Cannot See? (Actually, maybe don't do that.)

What does this amount to? Publishing is a 1% industry. A vast majority of book sales and profits within the book industry, at the publisher and the retail level, come from 1% of titles. (Actually, probably far less than 1%, but I'm not a statistician and 1% is quick to type and easy to get your mind around as a metaphor.) What is interesting about this to me, as a bookseller, is that publishing is a 1% industry in spite of itself. At nearly every level of the industry there are efforts to get people to read more than just the bestsellers. Even with dwindling publicity budgets that force difficult decisions, publishers put promotional and marketing money into more than just 1% of their list and they do or lead the essentially free promotion on social media for even more titles than they spend money on. The authors themselves add to that diversity of effort as well, doing their own paid or essentially free promotion. Even with the dwindling book coverage in media, reviews are still written about more than just the top selling, sure hits, and that diversity of coverage is even greater online. I would argue that the entire point of independent bookstores is to support diverse purchasing, to lead readers to mid-list, back-list, small press, unheralded, and uncovered books, to find a way to get that person carrying Gone Girl around to pick up the new Meaghan Abbott or go back a bit and start reading Patricia Highsmith. Hell, even Amazon is doing it's best to get you to buy something else with your James Patterson.

And yet, the numbers don't lie. For all the effort everyone in books puts in to diversifying the market, it's still the smash-hit and the current trend, plus Frozen and Minecraft merchandising, plus James Patterson and his cohort of sure bestsellers, that account for nearly all the money in publishing.

What does this all mean for books? I don't know if this is true for any other industry, but in books, weirdly, the most powerful customers are actually non-readers, the people who maybe buy ten books for themselves over the course of their adult lives. They are the ones who turn books into smash bestsellers, global phenomena, and cultural touchstones. And, unfortunately for publishers, by definition, they are the potential customers the book industry knows the least about. They don't interact with the bookternet, they don't leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and (again by definition) they don't generate enough data to do any meaningful prediction of their future behavior. Perhaps there is something that unites a professor of religious symbology, a boy wizard, Mormon teenage vampires, and fanfiction erotica based on Mormon teenage vampires, but, with so little hard data on what non-readers read, there isn't a way to spot that pattern.

And it's not like publishers are ignoring these potential customers. Whenever one of those hits happens, it is instantly followed by a raft of trendsurfers all trying as hard as possible to give the people what they want. And publishers are always trying new things to reach non-readers. James Patterson's latest novella serie—excuse me, “BookShots,” are targeted directly at commuters who might otherwise be reading the Metro or on their phones. The Lian Hearn novels were pitched in media coverage as “binge-reading,” to capitalize on the trend of binge-watching. (Which if you ask me, is utterly preposterous, because A. Serial storytelling has been around forever, see, there's Charles Dickens waving at you all like, “Remember me, I took over the fucking world with serial storytelling!” and B. I would argue the success of binge-watchable shows comes from the fact that they borrow the techniques and tropes of serial storytelling. In essence, TV is better today because so many producers, writers, and networks are making their shows more like novels.) It's why they put movie covers on books even though no reader likes movie covers. Publishers novelize movies, they novelize TV shows that were made from comic books, they license their works for websites and video games, they even have fictional characters from somewhat successful TV shows, “write” books. A lot of the criticism aimed at publishing and bookselling tends to focus on the idea that publishers and booksellers are snobs shocked “real people” aren't excited about the intellectual broccoli they're selling, but publishers and booksellers would like nothing more than to figure out what non-readers want and give them as much of that as possible.

But there are some other troubling and challenging implications. The thought (or hope) from Harry Potter's wild success was that it created a generation of readers, that its historic success would translate into those diversified sales as all of its fans grew into adult readers. But if sales of The Cursed Child tell us anything about Harry Potter's wider effect, I think they, at the very least, imply that rather creating a generation of readers, J.K. Rowling created a generation of Harry Potter fans. Of course, many people who later became voracious readers started with Harry Potter and you can see the impact of those readers all over the book industry, but, I think the numbers suggest that they would likely have been voracious readers anyway, it's just that Harry Potter got to them first. I think you can say the same for any of the worldwide bestsellers. I don't think there's any evidence that 50 Shades of Grey readers bought a lot of other books--even other books like 50 Shades of Grey. Some did, of course, but not nearly enough to have any meaningful impact on sales of any other books.

This is not a knock against Rowling or James or any of the other 1% authors, some of whom (Rowling, James Patterson, Stephen King) do a lot of good work to support readers, kids, bookstores, and other authors. In fact, the 1%-ness of books seems like something of a constant, even when those who represent the 1%, who, you would think, wield influence beyond the customer base, try to diversify sales. It says to me that the difference between a reader and a non-reader is more fundamental, most likely established in school or at home and is thus, beyond the reach of the book industry's influence.

To make things perhaps even worse for the book-industry, the next most powerful customers are probably the one-or-two-books-a-year customers. These are the people who maybe read a little on vacation, maybe get stuff out of the library, maybe get books as presents from their reader friends and family, but, in general, only buy one or two books a year. These are the readers that keep All the Light We Cannot See and Gone Girl on the bestseller list for weeks and weeks (Years and years, sometimes). These are the readers who make every James Patterson and Stephen King a bestseller. These are the readers that drive blurbs and comparisons and set publicity strategies.

This is the part of the blog post where I usually try and find some kind of strategy, some kind of something for bookstores and publishers and authors to do besides hope Ingram has enough copies of whatever happens to catch the non-reader's imagination, but, for this challenge, I got nothing. The roots of this problem, I think, reach into literacy and reading education and into wage stagnation for the American middle class. To put this another way; most people get to the end of their formal education without a love of reading and even those who do, in America at least, don't have enough disposable income to buy a lot of books.

But is the 1% nature of publishing really a problem? Does it matter what forms the economic base of publishing? Especially if publishers still try to diversify their lists? Especially if, as it stands now, the only way to pursue 1% books is to release a whole bunch of books you like or think will be popular and hope one of them hits? Especially if the biggest publishers can still afford a handful of six-figure advances every few years? Does it matter that the diversity in literature is sustained by such a narrow field? Given all the other ways publishing can improve and all of the other economic conditions that impact publishing, is this even worth thinking about? Should I just be glad that, every now and then, some book injects a ton of non-reader money into the industry?

And that brings us to the conclusion, the end of my first draft idea, my first attempt as hashing out something I've noticed. But now that this is out there, something might happen with it. The internet in general and blogs in particular might have a lot of first drafts, but those first drafts can start conversations, conversations that help us towards the ideas and insights we write for.