Belmont Club

Changing Times

There is in the every day’s news the fleeting impression of passage; stories of things passing away, reaching fulfillment or coming into being. This is true not only of people, as expressed in notices of birth and in the obituaries, but of paradigms as well. John Adams, in describing the American Revolution noted that its subtle changes crept up upon his generation and passed through them, as it were, without they being consciously aware of it.

As to the history of the revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we mean by the revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.

Adams was describing what management consultants and historians today would call a paradigm shift. Unlike shifts which we can objectively watch from afar, like astronomers watching the collision of distant galaxies, paradigm changes involve the observers themselves. In consequence they cannot watch them well; they cannot readily see the transformation until it is upon them, for the power to observe comes almost simultaneously with the removal of the old blinkers. Roger Simon describes how the realization that what you once thought was “cool” has become “square” can come almost overnight.

I was amused to read Maureen Dowd’s recent column titled “State of Cool” in the New York Times, calling Hillary Clinton “cool,” because I was about to write just the opposite — not just about Hillary, but about her (and my) whole generation of liberal-progressive-whatevers. They are anything but cool. They are the New Squares …

It’s pathetic. How could a generation that has not changed its worldview one jot since 1968 be considered cool? That’s 44 years dancing to the same DJ with no alteration of rhythm or style or even a change of venue. Since the sixties, it’s been one long variation on The Twist — and Chubby Checker did it so much better in the first place …

this need to be thought “cool” by a decades old measure … affects the ability to see clearly and makes advocating significant change practically impossible.

Roger Simon attributes this regressive tendency to a kind of cowardly nostalgia. Hillary Clinton and her generation are reliving their youth as Dohrn and Ayers wannabees who now feel they can safely attempt what they did not have the guts to try in the 1960s.

Niall Ferguson describes another group trapped that is living in the past at the Reith lectures sponsored by the BBC: young voters.  “It is surprisingly easy to win the support of young voters for policies that would ultimately make matters even worse for them, like maintaining defined benefit pensions for public employees … If young Americans knew what was good for them, they would all be in the Tea Party.”

The Young Voters, taught to think that spending Other People’s Money is cool, have not yet realized that those Other People will be them. The precondition for being cool isn’t physical youth as much as mental agility. One person who suddenly realized that the old paradigms were dying was 49 years old. His psychological journey is described by the Washington Post.

Houston — Until three weeks ago, Leo Linbeck III had never voted in a primary election. “I’m the perfect example of a clueless buffoon,” he said.

The 49-year-old construction company magnate winced when he opened his ballot and discovered the one thing that drives him batty: His congressman, four-term Rep. Ted Poe (R), was unopposed and all-but-guaranteed a fifth term in the reliably Republican district that wraps in and around Houston.

“Why should that be? We only have one guy who can represent our district? I have seven choices for U.S. Senate but only one for the House? Really? It brought home just how broken the system is,” Linbeck said.

After barely paying attention to politics most his life, Linbeck is a major force behind this year’s most outside-the-box super PAC, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, and funneled at least $1.3 million of his money into the endeavor. While most PACs aim to boost the chances of a favored candidate or to bring down an ideological opponent, the super PAC has a decidedly different goal: to oust incumbents. Of both parties …

Linbeck’s road-to-Damascus moment came five years ago, when he attended a speech by Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve and a former Clinton administration official. Fisher explained the federal government’s long-term unfunded liabilities for Medicare, putting the figure at $84 trillion. “It was just like getting hit by a ton of bricks, because I wasn’t paying attention,” Linbeck recalled.

Other groups are being rocked by the crisis but unlike Linbeck cannot bring themselves to believe that the arithmetic is determinative They still think it can be “fixed”. Bloomberg reports that “delegates to the biannual convention of the 1.6 million- member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees meeting this week in Los Angeles, said their members should get what has been promised them” — even if it cannot be afforded.

States were $1.38 trillion short of the amount they need to meet their obligations for retiree benefits in their 2010 budget year, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States in Washington released yesterday. That figure, up 9 percent from the year before, includes $757 billion in unfunded pension obligations and $627 billion for retiree health …

To take away what was promised is unfair, said Santos Crespo Jr., the president of Local 372 in New York, which represents board of education employees.

“How is that? Where did the initial money go? Why don’t you have it anymore?” asked Crespo, 62, standing outside the convention hall.

What Linbeck III understands but what Santos Crespo Jr fails to grasp — even now — is that it can’t be fixed.  The stash is gone. Blown. Spent. Finished. Kaput. All there is left is cents on the dollar and Santos Crespo Jr will be lucky to get even that.  And because the stash is gone the paradigm must change.

But the idea that things can always be fixed is so ingrained, so much a part of the Way Things Have Always Been, that it is a difficult one to give up. This belief was dramatized in the movie The Godfather when the mobster Genco, who is dying of cancer, asks Don Vito Corleone to arrange for the disease to go away, to pay someone off; or failing that, to get him into a paradise which he has done nothing to deserve. There, on the verge of ultimate paradigm shift, Genco doggedly clings to the old one.

GENCO: Godfather, Godfather, it’s your daughter’s wedding day, you cannot refuse me. Cure me, you have the power.

DON CORLEONE: I have no such power…but Genco, don’t fear death.

GENCO: (with a sly wink) It’s been arranged, then?

DON CORLEONE: You blaspheme. Resign yourself.

GENCO: You need your old Consigliere. Who will replace me? (suddenly) Stay with me Godfather. Help me meet death. If he sees you, he will be frightened and leave me in peace. You can say a word, pull a few strings, eh? We’ll outwit that bastard as we outwitted all those others. (clutching his hand) Godfather, don’t betray me.

These attitudes are alive and well, even today. Chicago columnist John Kass describes the almost mystical belief in the power of City Hall to rig things. Nothing is beyond the power of the System. And therefore the System can never change.

Who sent me The Rahmfather?

I want to know. Please.

The mysterious portrait was in my office when I showed up for work one recent morning, a large framed movie-style poster of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as some Jewish Al Pacino, and the words, “JOHN FRANCIS KASS’S The Rahmfather.”

And then the phrase “All the power on Earth can’t change Chicago.”

Except maybe by the power of arithmetic. Arithmetic conquers all. Corruption, taken to its limit, enfeebles all, including its own enforcement mechanism. John Kass is smart enough to know that even Chicago’s city hall was never as comparatively powerful as the British Empire when it ruled over North America, and where did that go? Sooner or later anything that stops functioning loses legitimacy. Even public sector unions; even the Rahmfather’s Chicago machine.

It happens ironically, through a Greed Shift. The moment comes when opportunists realize there’s more to be gained from embracing the new paradigm than in sticking with the old one. When this happens a “tipping point” is reached; the numbers shift such that the old “cool” gang is suddenly revealed as “square” and become for the first time in their lives, the prey and not the predator. That moment may now be upon public school bureaucrats. Reuters reports:

Hundreds of mayors from across the United States this weekend called for new laws letting parents seize control of low-performing public schools and fire the teachers, oust the administrators or turn the schools over to private management.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, meeting in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday unanimously endorsed “parent trigger” laws aimed at bypassing elected school boards and giving parents at the worst public schools the opportunity to band together and force immediate change.

Such laws are fiercely opposed by teachers’ unions, which stand to lose members in school takeovers. Union leaders say there is no proof such upheaval will improve learning. And they argue that public investment in struggling communities, rather than private management of struggling schools, is the key to boosting student achievement.

Public school unions have made the case for their irreplaceability before. It has worked so far; but each time fewer and fewer believe them. One day there won’t be enough support and on that day a mini-paradigm shift will occur. In case they think they’re Too Big To Fail, they should take a look at the European Union. The EU was at one point even bigger than Chicago. Look at them now.

“Where’s the stash? I say, I say, where’s the stash?”  Things change when the time is right. Then are the high humbled and the lowly exalted.

“What do we mean by the revolution?” asked John Adams. Maybe Leo Linbeck III and public school parents have a better sense of how to answer than question than Santos Crespo Jr. By the revolution we mean the understanding that change must come. It is the “how long” and the “how hard” that is unresolved. By some estimates the lead up to the American Revolution took almost 70 years.  Even so, the times, they will a-change.

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