“Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President”

Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President” is a rather entertaining British documentary about the Trump family, narrated by Matt Frei, directed by Paul Berczeller and Mark Radice.

The most interesting part of the film may be the beginning, the narrative of grandfather Friedrich Trump, who came to the US from Bavaria after a crisis as a teen and started building businesses in lower Manhattan in the 1890s. They were generally restaurants, bars, and brothels. He moved out west, to Seattle, and followed the gold rush to the Yukon in Canada.  At one point, he shipped a hotel down the river like a toy and put it back together when it broke apart in the river current in Whitehorse.

After some failures he tried to go back to Bavaria and was refused citizenship because of draft evasion. Sound familiar?  He wound up back in New York.

His son Fred Trump would take after him and build a real estate empire, mostly houses, in Queens. There’s a reference to Coney Island and maybe one of my favorite spots from twenty years ago, the Seaside Courts for paddleball. Donald would be the fourth child and second son, and was always getting in trouble, and would thrive in military school. But the older brother would “fail”, becoming a pilot and then succumbing to the bottle, and Donald would wind up with the real estate empire.

The grandfather showed a real pioneering work ethic (I’m reminded of the entrepreneurialism in Lagos, Nigeria recently depicted on an Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”) but with the father Fred and then Donald it turned more into manipulative and aggressive dealing to see what they could get away with. Is that raw capitalism?

The film races through Donald’s career, briefly covering his bankruptcy in the late 90s.  It covers his marriages, to Ivanka and later to immigrant Melania.

The end of the film talks about Donald’s attitude about “winners” and “losers” and his somewhat disturbing belief in what sounds like eugenics. Trump seems to believe that better genes equates to existential personal moral superiority (which the Nazis also claimed).  He did get in trouble early in his own career for redlining black applicants for apartments, marking their paperwork with “C” for colored.  But in my own experience, one time renting an apartment in Arlington VA in 1971, I encountered the same kind of talk from a rental agent, and again when moving to Dallas at the beginning of 1979.

The Netflix version runs 48 minutes, but imdb lists the length as 65.  Maybe the longer version covers more about the 2016 election.

Wiki picture of Whitehorse in autumn.

Name:  “Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President
Director, writer:  Paul Berczeller and Mark Radice
Released:  2017
Format:  1.78:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length:  65 / 48
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  Guardian, independent  (both reviews here rather concerned about the tone of the film on race and genetics)

(Posted: Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017 at 8:30 PM EDT)

Peter Temin’s “The Vanishing Middle Class”: heavy emphasis on political engineering by race

The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy”, by MIT Economics professor Peter Temin, is another recent controversial tome on inequality. But unlike “Dream Hoarders” (July 7), this book talks about inequality in terms of collective political forces involving class, money, and especially race, with little direct attention to how individuals should be expected to behave, which was the point of my own “DADT III” book in 2014.

The parts of the book (from the TOC) give a sense of its message:  (I) is “An American Dual Economy”; (ii) “Politics in a Dual Economy”; (III) “Government in a Dual Economy”; (IV) “Comparisons and Conclusions”.   The book is relatively brief; the core parts comprise 160 pages, along with 17 pages of roman-number introduction. (By the way, I think that introductions should always be numbered in the main sequence of the book and show in the page count.)

Temin starts out by showing how capitalism alone tends to generate self-reinforcing inequality.  He calls the upper crust of society the “FTE Sector” (finance, technology and electronics).  Low-wage people doing manual labor or service jobs (or selling on commissions, for example) tend to aspire to enter the FTE but face serious self-perpetuating barriers.  Richer people can save money and owe less, can give their own children more advantages, and are more likely to have kids with “better” genes (the inconvenient truth of “A Troublesome Inheritance”, June 24, going back to ideas like those of Charles Murray), as well (particularly) of more access to “social capital” – informal interdependence with extended family and friends (the “Lotsa Helping Hands” idea in churches).  The economic system has burdened low-income people with student debt (especially with the rise of for-profit universities), upsidedown housing (the 2008 subprime crisis) and medical bills (even with Obamacare – and the GOP is partly right about this in my estimation).  You need to be able to save money to get any traction and move up.  I’ve worked as a debt collector before.  I’ve heard plenty of stories of how this works.

Temin then moves into race – and I’ll add here that in his conclusions he calls for a “Second Reconstruction”.  I wondered if he has sat through “Gone with the Wind”.  He connects race and the history of slavery (versus other, white immigration from Europe) and later segregation to the evolution of American democracy, an unprecedented political innovation at the time of the American Revolution. He traces particularly efforts to suppress blacks from voting (as with the 1964 murders in Mississippi) but he might have paid more attention to recent gerrymandering.  He also discusses incarceration and “war on drugs” policies as racially motivated, as well as attempts to privatize schools and lack of sufficient attention to urban infrastructure (he mentions the politics of constructing a third tunnel under the Hudson to New York, as well as Washington DC’s problems with Metro, leading to reduced hours and the Safe Track surges.  He does talk about the inability of school systems to properly pay teachers, But he could talk about the challenge for teachers from more privileged backgrounds to communicate with students in disadvantaged homes – something I encountered big time as a substitute teacher in the mid 2000’s.  On race and police, he mentions Ferguson (Michael Brown – see “Whose Streets”, May 8) and Florida (Trayvon Martin) without objective attention to the deeper facts behind these particular cases.   In the government area, he makes an interesting comparison of democracy, autocracy, and oligarchy (and rails against the Koch empire, which libertarians usually like; he regards Dallas as a cultural sub-capital for US business). He goes links personal debt to national debt and gets into a discussion about Social Security, denying that it is an earned annuity and implying it could be taken way from rich retired people who are otherwise coasting in neutral, like in the next debt ceiling crisis (which will happen Sept. 29, 2017).  He does present social insurance as needing government and federal oversight, and seems to think that sometimes lenders need to be ready for debt forgiveness (after a discussion of bankruptcy).

On race, I think Temin does not pay enough heed to the fact that economic and social problems of Trump’s rural base (white non-college-educated) are really similar to those of inner city blacks;  opioid has a similar dynamic as crack cocaine, and low-wage and resentment of elitism is pretty much the same.  Furthermore there are plenty of blacks in rural Trump country with the same problems as inner-city blacks and rural whites,

Temin refers to philosopher John Rawls and the 1971 opus “A Theory of Justice”, with his theory of distributive justice.  But it seems to me that such a tome would drill down to a discussion of the moral obligations of every person who finds the self in a more privileged system than others.  It goes beyond the idea of “giving back” or “paying it forward” to the idea of accepting personal interdependence with people in other social classes – a kind of resilience necessary to deal with common external threats (like what we have now).  Unearned wealth, if not widely used, can eventually lead to ugly ends, including shame and expropriation.  Coercion and revolutions do happen.  This is even a little more than my old 2004 essay “Pay your bills, pay your dues”.

Author: Peter Temin
Title, Subtitle: The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy” The book cover hides the word “Middle” in black and that fooled me!
publication date 2017
ISBN 9780262036160
Publication: 2017, MIT Press, 234 pages with appendix and index, 4 parts, 14 chapters + Introduction
Link: official

(Posted: Friday, Aug. 11, 2017 at 2:30 PM)

“Dream Hoarders” (Richard Reeves): what about equality of opportunity?

I used to rehearse the phrase “equality of opportunity” in my own mind when I was younger, because I thought providing that would provide a moral basis for looking at people through my own distant guise of meritocracy.

Richard Reeves, senior fellow in Economic Studies and co-director on the Center on Children and Families in the Brookings Institution, and himself a naturalized U.S.  citizen from England, takes on this aspect of inequality in his brief new book “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What We Can Do About It”.  That’s a mouthful of words for a book title.

One of Reeves’s key observations that it’s not just the top 1% who show their privilege, it’s more like the top 20%.  And it is true, kids of affluent parents tend to do better in life than kids of poor people. And it’s true that affluent parents are more often European or Asian and Christian or Jewish.  Poor parents are more often African or Latino or Native descent.

And affluent parents to dote on their kids. David Callahan had covered this problem in his 2004 book “The Cheating Culture”.

But Reeves goes particularly after policy patterns that give affluent parents to “hoard” opportunity fr their kids in what he sees as a zero-sum game of “positional play” (as in chess, you have a finite set of pieces and sometimes you make small sacrifices).

He does support individualism (as supported by meritocracy), for adults.  He thinks that grownups need to accept the idea of downward mobility to balance things out (I remember that period after my forced “retirement” at the end of 2001 and what the pimpy job interviews were like). But for kids, we need to keep them raised up.

He has a number of specific policy proposals.  These include backing down on exclusionary real estate zoning laws so that people of different incomes and their kids mix, and the end to legacy preferences in college admissions and internships.  He does take up the student loan problem to some extent, not going as far as Peter Thiel to call it a scam.  And he waffles on condemning unpaid internships (compare to Ross Perlin’s 2011 book “Intern Nation”). He thinks that Charles Murray (“Coming Apart”) and Robert Putnam (“Our Kids”) are too nice to rich people, for different reasons.  He does take a swipe at the lenient treatment of inherited wealth in our tax code.

Putnam thinks that much more needs to be done to help disadvantaged kids in person, but he seems to want big government behind it.  He wants teachers to pay their dues by working in poor neighborhoods, and he wants to see home visits.  He sees this sort of escalated interpersonal intervention into poor families as a job creator.

Reeves makes the point that legally married parents who wait until marriage to have kids raise better kids.  He takes a libertarian position on adult consensual sex as long as unplanned pregnancies don’t happen. (There’s a whole world of population demographics that he does not touch.) He supports planned parenthood programs and criticizes the GOP for its hypocritical moral squeamishness. He would not be too sympathetic to single moms because they usually result from carelessness.  He also notes that higher income and better educated people are more likely to marry and also more likely to avoid bad health habits (like cigarette smoking) and generally avoid obesity – and indeed higher income teens are much less likely to be obese and generally are better able to balance screen time and Internet use with real world physical activity and opportunity.  He does not consider same-sex marriage but probably the same observations would hold;  same-sex couples seem able to provide the same supervision for kids.   There’s one outlier he does not mention:  single gay men, who don’t fit the marriage profile.  But in upper classes single gay men often compete very well because they have more disposable income and haven’t had kids, ironically part of Milo’s (and my) “dangerous” argument.

Author: Richard V. Reeves
Title, Subtitle: “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What We Can Do About It”
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-0-8157-2912-9
Publication: Brookings, Washington DC; 196 pages, hardcover, endnnotes, indexed
Link: Author

(Posted: Friday, July 7, 2017 at 12 Noon EDT)

Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism”: a warning to individual elitists (like me): you have everything to lose, by force

Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” comes across as a moral lecture about the perils of individual elitism. That’s my gut reaction The book is indeed a warning about how liberal democracy and the world order of the West can die. A lot of the time, the author is talking about whole countries and issues like state formation (the Peace of Westphalia in 1648), which Nicholas Wade also covers (causing some outrage) in “A Troublesome Inheritance” (June 24)– but this time, more from the Left He speculates about the dangerous future Donald Trump can bring, like a war with mainland China in 2018. (We scraped on this with Bill Clinton in 1996 and again with George W. Bush in early 2001.)  I wondered, what about North Korea right now?

But Luce is at his most powerful when he warns that the kind of globalist liberal fundamentalism that has become fashionable since the 90s can produce a dangerous backlash against individual globalists (me), not just countries. The basic problem is clear enough. Destructive technology has hollowed out the middle class. Superbly gifted young adults do spectacularly well (whether Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook or Jack Andraka and his worldwide book tour based on his science fair medical invention, or perhaps Taylor Wilson if he gets his fusion reactor going). But for the rest of “us”, it is harder to keep up. You have the student loans, the uncontrollable health insurance premiums (and the current debate over “replacing” Obamacare). Eventually this leads to a world where too many people have nothing to lose and everything blows up in revolution. We’ve seen it before. I warn about the same things in my “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book (2014), especially in my “non-fiction Epilogue” chapter.

Luce casts his argument in four extended chapters, like movements of a symphony: “Fusion”, “Reaction” (the slow movement), “Fallout” (the Chinese-sounding scherzo), and “Half Life” (a rather inconclusive finale than ends quietly – I’m reminded of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s Symphony #5 in D “L’allegro ed il Pensieroso”). Of course, the title of the finale is rather telling: society will wind down to a whimper.

I have gotten used to thinking of myself as a “global” citizen, and I’ve seen Facebook friends (especially the childless) brag about the same. There is a dangerous insularity, to say the least, about this. It says, “I am better than (you)” because I am “smarter”, more “independent”, more “self-directed”, and I don’t make the bad choices that make “you” dependent on generosity. Oh, think how that plays out in the health care debate. But in recent year, social media has reversed this attitude somewhat, with the “GoFundMe” culture, where people expect personal interventions from strangers in what used to be a “mind your own business” individualist society (say, pre 9/11). And “disruptive technology” (exacerbated by the financial creativity of the Bush era, pre-2008 which he calls an “Atlantic” phenomenon) is leading the job market into the same place:   a higher percentage of jobs today involve tending to (or selling to) individual consumers or customers than in the past. I lived my I.T. career until after 9/11 sheltered in the world of the “individual contributor”, only to find, after age 58, how pimpy (or pimpled) the job market had become.

Be wary, Luce warns the elitists (like me), you have everything to lose (when others have nothing).

Revolution comes from populism, whether the far left or the alt-right. Populism tends not to care about the truth; it wants things to be better for average Joe’s now. You attract the strong man. You wind up with communism from the Left (like Venezuela right now), or extra-judicial vigilantism on the right (like Duterte in the Philippines). Oh, yes, you get Brexit (Oops? England?) and now Donald Trump, who “talks that way” and constantly threatens to bully the elitist, know-it-all media.

Luce makes some interesting meta-arguments over LGBTQ rights. He notes that progressives today assume marriage equality is an unchallengable postulate, but it’s only been a few years that this has been so. Societies often have differing perspectives about the “moral” place of diversities in their culture because of evolving (or devolving) external influences. Then people forget the past very quickly, or don’t want to be reminded of the past because it could fuel ideology for potential enemies. My own perspective, when I wrote my first DADT book in the 1990s, was centered around libertarian ideas of consent and privacy (especially when there is tension with ideas about cohesion, as in the military). I wanted the freedom to live in my own world of fantasy and upward affiliation, if that worked for me. Yet, I can see how this can lead to a dangerous, “elitist” endgame (like in chess); hence today I have to resist social pressures to actually sell the idea that gender fluidity is good.

The book was available only from third-party resellers and on Kindle when I bought it. That is unusual for new books.

Author: Edward Luce
Title, Subtitle: The Retreat of Western Liberalism
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-0802127396
Publication: Atlantic Monthly Press, 226 pages, 4 chapters, indexed, endnotes
Link: Nation review

(Posted: Thursday, June 29, 2017 at 12 Noon EDT)

“My Cousin Rachel”: Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic horror and a warning about inherited wealth

As I recall, my late mother liked to read some of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels back in the 1950s. Despite the French (Norman) name, she fits well into courses in “English literature”, following the Victorian novelists, writing about their time period but with a touch or gothic horror and supernatural as well as class given romance. I remember reading two novels by Thomas Hardy (including “The Return of the Native”) in 12th grade, and some George Eliot aka Mary Anne Evans (“Silas Marner”) in 10th, with the way a little girl named Eppie humbled the Scrooge-like Silas.   The best known film based on Du Maurier that I had seen before was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, with the burning of Cornwall at the end.  The other classic film, based on her story story, was Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in 1963 (I have visited Bodega Bay twice).

My Cousin Rachel”, the new British period gothic romance film by Roger Michell for Fox, based on Du Maurier’s mature 1951 classic gothic novel, is set in the same Cornwall, and opens with a shot of the fragile coastal cliffs that will play a crucial role in the movie plot (the details of which, Rachel’s death, are changed from the book). Here let’s say that the movie and book touch on the whole moral question about the proper way to behave with inherited wealth and estates. Think of the politics: the conservatives (the GOP in the US) wants to eliminate the death tax and grow family generational wealth, Trump-style; the radical Left, like the People’s Party of New Jersey which I spied on in the early 1970s, wants to eliminate privilege and especially inherited wealth. There are questions even in how I manage my own estate (link).  A good friend from California in the Log Cabin Republicans world tells me and an entertainment attorney tells me that George Eliot’s novels dealt with the “dead hand” and the proper use of inherited wealth a few times in her novels, and this seems to be a preoccupation of English novelists. (High school English teachers, take note, even if I’m not subbing for you now; good test question material.)  People could be pursued by relatives or other interests based on the way arcane language in a will is re-interpreted, the source of a lot of handwritten-document intrigue. This whole English class system seems to fear expropriation. As if the inheritances hog wealth that could become a poorer person’s safety net, even in conservative parlance. The really radical Left regards inheritance as stealing. Even Thomas Piketty doesn’t go that far.

The central characters are Philp Ashley (Sam Clafin), the 24-year-old looking forward to taking over his guardian’s estate (cousin Ambrose, who has mysteriously died in Italy), cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), the godfather Nick (Ian Glen), now supervising Philip until he comes of age at 25 and more distant relative Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainer), who has plenty of suspicion of Rachel. Let us say that Philip is assertive and dominating, if a bit of a home-body. One scene shows a real hairy chest, but in those days women didn’t have to shave their legs, either.

The plot is both Hitchockian and a bit of a stretch. Philip first suspects Rachel of poisoning his guardian. A trip to Italy and shown Rachel in cahoots with one Rainaldi. But once back home, as she moves in and as Philips gives her an allowance, he starts to fall in love with her.

Here comes the stuff about inheritance. The guardian Ambrose had left the family estate to Philip, so he doesn’t need another job and keeps the servants. But there had been another will leaving it to Rachel, unsigned because apparently Rachel didn’t have child. Philip feels conscience-bound to turn it over to her, but expects to marry her and live off the wealth anyway.

The late part of the movie turns into the love-hate. Philips has potentially procreative sex with her once (and in older families people do have sex with cousins, and it happens today in some circles, not a good idea). Philip gets sick, and suspects her of poisoning him. Their interactions become surreal (as in a stage play, something Jesse Eisenberg could come up with), as Rachel, after Philip turns over the estate to her, won’t marry him. There are hints that she has a lesbian relationship on the side, and that Rinaldi back in Italy was homosexual and wanted much younger men. Even so, I was left with the impression that at first wanted just to do “the right thing.”

Then Philip finds a clever, undetectable way to get rid of her. It’s different from the book, but pure Hitchcock.

At the end, you feel you have indeed watched a horror film. Other reviewers have criticized the film as too tame, but I found it rather compelling.

The film draws out the period look, showing how people sign legal documents with quill pens to make then so final and official.

The movie reminds me of “Raising Helen” (Disney, Garry Marshall, 2004), where a young woman has to (or gets to ) raise a sister’s child as part of an estate. And I recall the short story by John Knowles, “The Reading of the Will”, in an anthology “Phineas”, which contains the story upon which the coming-of-age prep school tragedy [anticipating the WWII draft] “A Separate Peace” film (1972, Larry Peerce) was based. Yes, he jousted the limb,

Lands End at Cornwall, wiki

Name:  “My Cousin Rachel
Director, writer:  Roger Michell, Daphne Du Maurier
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, 2017/6/9, evening, fair crowd
Length:  106
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Fox Searchlight
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, June 10, 2017 at 12 Noon EDT)