Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake – TwoMorePages Book Review

Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake – TwoMorePages Book Review

{Edited Preface: Like The Words of Radiance review, this one has two voices. This time, I read the book along with my good friend Rachel, and she’s shared her thoughts below in blue.

Funnily enough, Jeff Flake had an unexpected announcement while we were coming up with our thoughts. I wrote all of my thoughts *before* his announcement and Rachel wrote all of them *after*, so there will be a slightly interesting dichotomy in timing and verb tenses. Enjoy!}


So I’ve been reading a lot of political books lately given our…unique political climate. Senator Bernie Sanders’s book was cool, if a bit preachy. Senator Al Franken’s book was hilariously entertaining, while also being on point with his messaging.

But in order to prevent myself from living in an echo chamber, I thought it important to read something from a conservative viewpoint. On a recommendation from my buddy, Eric Kuhle, on our Acadia National Park trip, I picked up Jeff Flake’s book, “Conscience of a Conservative.”

It was way better than I thought it would be. And, surprisingly, it read *really* similarly to Al Franken’s “Giant of the Senate book.” The main difference wasn’t one of topics, but of tone. Whereas Franken’s book carried a mostly comedic tone, Flake’s come off in a very serious manner. The only time he really tries to be funny is when he points out the absurdity of some of the situations he has been faced with as a US Senator.

Hi! Rachel here. I picked up this book on a recommendation from Edmund and, I have to admit, I honestly enjoyed it. It was short, witty, to-the-point and a breath of fresh air in an otherwise very smothering political atmosphere. Was it a little preachy? Yeah, of course, it’s a book written by a politician. Was it necessary? Absolutely. 

On Bad Information and the Threat to Democracy

For instance, the third chapter of Flake’s book is titled “On Bad Information and the Threat to Democracy”. Compare that with Franken’s chapter “Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them”. You could have dropped one persons’s chapter into the other verbatim and aside from a slight change in tone, I would never have noticed. For instance, compare the following statements from each of their books:

Whatever the source, a steady diet of bad information, conveyed in bad faith, can over time become a serious threat to democracy. Over time, a determined effort to undermine the very idea of truth softens the ground for anti-democratic impulses.

-Jeff Flake

I know I’m sort of farting into the wind on this. But I hope you’ll fart along with me. I’ve always believed that it’s possible to discern true statements from false statements, and that it’s critically important to do so, and that we put our entire democratic experiment in peril when we don’t.

-Al Franken

or these statements from each of their books:

There was once a time in politics, as well as in journalism, when in order to be serious and credible, you had to observe a baseline fidelity to empirical truth. And if you made mistakes – or worse, if you were a bad actor and got things wrong on purpose – you suffered real consequences. Violate the public trust, and you paid a steep price. The higher up the food chain you went, the more serious and credible you were expected to be.

That order seems to have vanished.

-Jeff Flake

All of this to say that I care a lot about people in politics telling the truth. And even considering all the horrible things Trump got away with during the campaign – mocking a disabled reporter, attacking a Gold Star family, referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers,” calling for Muslims to be banned from our country – I still can’t believe he got away with lying so much.

Frankly, it made me wonder whether, sadly, the war was over and the liars had won.

-Al Franken

I’ll give credit where credit is due. Flake is an eloquent writer. While his prose is more fancy than Franken’s, they basically had the exact same message. And remember that they are on pretty staunchly opposite sides of the political aisle.

THE TRUTH MATTERS. AND AGREEING ON WHAT IS PROVABLY TRUE OR FALSE MATTERS.

Look on my facebook wall and you’ll see that I don’t shy away from political debate. But you’ll notice that until someone tries to use “#FakeNews” to discredit something that they disagree with, I try to be relatively cordial, trying to address the specific points that we are disagreeing on vs assuming that they are dumb.

Just because we disagree doesn’t make either one of us stupid. I fully agree with Day[9] when it comes to internet arguments, and try to approach discussions that way.

But try to discredit anything you disagree with as “fake” not because it’s actually fake, but because it disagrees with you? Now I’ll treat you like an idiot child.

If you treat everything that you disagree with as “fake” and then ignore it, how are we supposed to have a reasonable discussion? Your mind can’t be changed, and you can’t support your argument with provable facts. Why are we even talking?

It was very heartening to see Senator Flake, a staunchly Republican Senator, agree that facts are important.

Perhaps most destructive of all, we haven’t ever had an occupant of the White House who so routinely calls true reports that irk him “fake news” while giving his seal of approval to fake reports that happen to support his position.

It is madness to turn ourselves inside out in an attempt to make reality comport with an alternate reality, just because someone in power would like us to.

It was further heartening to see him call out Trump specifically for what infuriates me about him – calling everything that disagrees with him “fake” while automatically praising anything that agrees with him, regardless of its validity.

I’d go further down this rabbit hole, but I already did in my review for Franken’s book, so no need to rehash that here.

Only in anti-democratic propaganda states do we see “alternate facts” successfully compete with the truth for primacy. Only in such states do we see a sustained program of bad information emanate from the highest levels of the government. This, as I will continue to point out in the course of this book, is not a conservative value. And as conservatives, we simply cannot carry on as if it is not happening.

As someone who grew up staunchly conservative and who has become sickened at what now passes as conservative, it’s nice to know that there’s still someone home who has the ability to think critically. And that if Flake thinks this, surely other Republican Senators and House Representatives do as well.

I wholeheartedly agree with Edmund’s analysis above. While always a liberal, I too grew up in a pretty conservative extended family and I have watched the Republican party and its conservative affiliates leap to the right and leave my family behind, bewildered and all of a sudden pretty liberal. (Shout out to all the Southern Baptist conservative Texan families out there who have rejected this administration as well…oh wait, no one else? Ah well.) Senator Flake analyzed the situation fairly aptly: The Republican Party, “following the lead of a candidate who had a special skill for identifying ‘problems,’ if not for solving them…lurched like a tranquilized elephant…” with no solution or moral code in sight.  That’s a pretty damning indictment of someone who will continue to work on behalf of the Republican Party for another year and a half. 

On Fox News

I fully expected to receive the “Do you believe the President is a citizen?” question, and sure enough, when the question came, I said that if we wanted to be taken seriously, we had to stop indulging in ugly conspiracy theories. Those words were met with a choros of boos.

When a conspiracy theory becomes litmus-test orthodoxy, objective reality is at risk.

The truth is the truth, and anything else is a waste of time. Still, to be booed because I didn’t subscribe to a right-wing conspiracist fantasy about our first African American president is a sobering experience indeed.

The impact of the support of the absurd birther theory regularly received on certain shows on Fox News cannot be overstated. In fact, the impact of the conditioning that the minds of American conservatives receive on some of these Fox shows cannot be overstated.

That last paragraph was something I had not expected to read AT ALL in a book written by a conservative senator. That was an amazingly pleasant surprise.

So kudos to Jeff Flake, calling out bullshit where he sees it.

I know that one of the big hullabaloos about him writing this book at all was that he put himself in danger of losing re-election, not from a democratic challenger, but from a primary challenger. And I think that danger is very real, given that he calls out the idiotic ideas that galvanized the extremes of his party’s own base (who are the ones who usually vote in primaries). So again, major props to Jeff Flake.

Way to stick to your principles, Flake. I really hope you’re not punished for it from within your own party, that smart conservatives actually read your book and show up to the Primary voting booths.

So I’m adding to this review a few days late and it looks like my prediction that Flake would drop out has come true. I haven’t quite come to terms yet with how I feel about that. This is a man with whose policies and voting records I vehemently disagree.  This is a man who voted 91% of the time with the Trump Administration’s policies. But as much as I disagree with this, I can’t really blame him – Flake is a staunch conservative who borders on libertarianism, of course he would vote this way. 

However. This is also a man who wrote in his condemnation of the modern Republican party, “We hold out our hand, expecting our share of nonwhite votes, and yet we give these Americans too few reasons to come our way. Instead, we demonized them, marginalized them, blamed them for our country’s problems…” That statement right there? Incredible. A member of the modern Republican party being able to critically diagnose his party’s failings in this regard is almost unprecedented. 

On Globalism and Free Trade

Seemingly overnight, the word globalist became a grave insult among people in my party who also called themselves “conservative.” I remember a right-wing blog post during my election t the Senate that said I had “been seen in the company of globalists in Paris, France.”

Quel scandale! Globalist as opposed to what, exactly? A provincialist? A parochialist? A localist?

In this country, we are less than 5% of the world’s population. We are 20% of the world’s economic output. And if we don’t trade, we don’t grow. Given the alternatives, I’ll take the globalist moniker, thank you.

One of my favorite snippets of the book came in his chapter about Free Trade. It’s one of the few times that he comes off as comedic and, imo, the perfect amount of snarky.

Yes, Flake! This is something that has been driving me up a wall for years. When on earth did we decide that being a “globalist” or internationalist was such a bad thing? Did we learn nothing from World War 1 or World War 2? Let’s just set this straight. No, the U.N. is not out to take over the world and ruin American lives. No, isolationism is not the best way to solve problems. No, understanding other cultures is not going to undermine your own. No, attempting to make peace through treaties and diplomacy is not a symbol of a country’s weakness. And no, globalization and trade and international relations ARE NOT A ZERO SUM GAME. They’re just not. 

As someone who grew up with the notion that free trade makes everyone richer and better off, the whole “protectionism” vibe that we’ve been seeing with the election of Trump, the potential election of Marie LePen in France, and the whole BrExit fiasco has been super puzzling for me. Who votes to cut off their nose to spite their face? Well, a lot of people apparently.

Free trade is a lift-all-boats phenomenon, and that is precisely what free-market economics is all about. It provides for the most efficient use of capital…It is precisely because we have taken advantage of globalization that we have the standard of living that we have.

In America, it’s even weirder, because, to me, the party that is about hands-off government and laissez-faire economics should be the party that is all about open borders and free trade. IT MAKES EVERYONE RICHER, so why wouldn’t the pro-business party be all for it?

His condescension at the idiot members of the Republican party that seem to be for protectionism, those idiot members who use globalist with a negative connotation perfectly encapsulates how I feel about them. DO YOU NOT LIKE MONEY? WHY WOULD YOU BE FOR TRADE WARS?

On Thinking About What You Say

In politics, it is difficult to win an argument with complexity and facts when the other side offers easy answers and free stuff without worrying about the details. This is largely how Donald Trump vanquished the Republican field in 2016.

Candidate Trump was giving – and we, the Republican electorate, bought – the late-night infomercial: “Health Care for Everybody! Much Better, at a Fraction of the Cost! Free Border Wall! Super-Colossal Trade Deals! But Wait! There’s More!!”

This doesn’t need much commentary by me. It is just straight up funny, while being OH-SO-TRUE.

Trump promised his electorate the world, and those of us who questioned how the fuck he was going to do things that seemed mutually exclusive like make health care better while simultaneously making it cheaper while simultaneously covering more people were brushed off. And then of course, when push came to shove, came “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Yeah, “nobody.” /s

Exactly. As a Political Science major a little piece of me dies inside any time a politician or layman tries to say that a policy is bad because it is too long or complicated. There really isn’t ever such a thing in politics as an easy solution. In fact, there is a whole branch of political science devoted to something called Wicked Problems: problems that have incomplete or contradictory information, a plethora of people and interest groups involved, a large economic burden, and interconnections with other problems and policy areas. So yeah, the legislation that is the most detailed, comprehensive, thought-out, and analyzed is probably going to be the best legislation to pass. And yeah, we all knew health care (and literally any other policy arena) was going to be complicated. 

On Checking the Powers of the Executive Branch

I was puzzled when the new president’s senior adviser Stephen Miller – who was also credited with a principal role in the development of the travel ban – appeared on national television and announced that “our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” Will not by questioned? Really?

Presidential power should be questioned, continually. That’s what our system of government, defined by the separation of powers, is all about. It shouldn’t matter whether the president belongs to my party or to another one.

Besides, I’m from the West. Questioning power is what we do.

Aside from entertaining Jeff Flake’s mic drop there at the end (Woooh! West USA!), I was very happy to see that Senator Flake understands that the legislative branch is there not to serve at the leisure of the President, but to work alongside him/her, and to provide a check on executive power when it is over-reaching.

Contrast that other Republican lawmakers literally saying that our representatives “work for the President” instead of their own constituents.

Once again, a little piece of me dies every time I hear a politician – on either side of the aisle – say they serve the interests of the President. No you don’t. Please, just read the Constitution once. That’s all I ask. And while Flake has voted incredibly frequently for the President’s agenda, and while I disagree with most of it, I believe that *he* believes he is voting in the best interest of those who elected him, not the President. 

The Senate must be the saucer that cools the coffee, as George Washington is said to have told Thomas Jefferson.

A case in point early in the new presidency was President Trump’s increasing pressure on the Senate to dispense with the filibuster for legislation so that he might be able to get his program through the Senate without concern about achieving consensus.  Such a move would turn the Senate into just another majoritarian body just like the House of Representatives, thus forfeiting its reputation as a deliberative body at all, much less the world’s greatest. At that point, it might be fair to ask: Why have a Senate at all?

That is not how constitutional democracy works. And it’s not how the United States Senate works, either.

How willing would the Republicans be to go along with the President? Would we be willing to change the institution for short-term gain? We all consider ourselves institutionalists, but what will we do when the President starts tweeting, scolding us for obstructing his agenda?

What happens if there is a tax bill which isn’t getting any Democratic support? Will we stand up and say no, we’ve got to be bipartisan, we’ve got to work for it and pick up the necessary votes? Or will we scrap the rules?

I will not support any such effort to harm the Senate. It is a line I cannot cross.

 

I was pretty pumped when I read the above section in his book. And then I went to google and found out that he did indeed vote on completely partisan things like removing the filibuster to put Gorsich on the Supreme Court. And he voted for the terrible Republican health care bill. And he voted to put Devos as Secretary of Education.

So…partial credit. Good rhetoric, no matching action. :/

But maybe he’ll be better going forward? I hope so.

Maybe. I’ve probably studied politicians and Congress too much to have much faith in them but maybe now that Flake has completely severed his ties with the President and the scary wing of his party he’ll be more inclined to buck them. 

On Conviction of Conservative Beliefs

Never has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign. And when you suddenly decide that you don’t believe what had recently been your most deeply held beliefs, then you open yourself to believing anything – or maybe nothing at all.

Why did we do that/ And how did it happen? How did conservatives betray conservatism? Or worse: how did we embrace incoherence?

The quick answer: We did it because it was cheap and easy and the real world is hard and defending a principled position to voters is harder still.

His introspection into what has happened to the Republican party over the past decade, but ESPECIALLY in the 2016 election was especially poignant in my opinion.

It is a testament to just how far we fell in 2016 that to resist the fever and stand up for conservatism seemed a radical act.

I often wonder what Barry Goldwater would make of the current state of his party and of American politics more generally. I am confident that he would not be pleased or amused.

The party of Lincoln would now likely be unrecognizable to the Great Emancipator.

I don’t even recognize the current Republican party. It’s not the same party that I grew up with, *that I was a part of* in my younger years. It’s funny now to me that I’m considered “so liberal” when I don’t feel like I’ve really changed that much. didn’t change – the party did, bringing the needle *so far to the right* that apparently now I’m liberal?

When did it become a conservative value to place party over country?

When did it become a conservative value for your elected official to do/say something because he has an R next to his name, but not okay for someone else to do/say a similar thing because he as a D next to his name?

When did it become a conservative value to turn a blind eye towards lies and misinformation?

When did it become a conservative value to be okay with consorting with foreign powers during an election?

So it’s refreshing to see that at least one (and hopefully more) Republican lawmakers feel the same way, that their party has changed, and not for the better. They may not all have the courage of conviction that Jeff Flake has, who may or may not be committing career suicide by breaking ranks and publishing this book; but I want to believe that some at least are smart enough (and sane enough) to realize what is happening to the Republican party.

It’d be nice to be able to “come home again” and be able to agree with a Republican on political topics without having to believe such silly things as “Obama wasn’t a US citizen” or “Climate change isn’t real”.

When your raison d’etre stops being How can we hold to the principles of limited government and economic freedom? and becomes How can we hold on to this majority for one more cycle? then you’ve become the very thing that you’re supposed to be against.

In this era of dysfunction and collapsed principle, our only accomplishment is painstakingly constructing the argument that we’re not to blame and hoping that we’ve gerrymandered ourselves well enough to be safe in the next election.

We decided that it was better to build and maintain a majority by using the levers of power rather than the art of persuasion and the battle of ideas. And we have decided that getting nothing done is okay.

There are many on both sides who like this outcome so much that they think it’s a good model on which to build a whole career. (Edmund insertion: *Cough Ted Cruz*) Far too often, we come to destroy, not to build.

Moreover, I like how he spends entire chapters talking about the foundations of good governing, and how poisonous the current Republican party’s stance on governing is for the country.

TARP was actually a modest price to pay to forestall a global depression. My vote against the bill is a vote that I still regret.

Here’s what mattered: At a moment of national and global crisis, that vote was an abdication of my responsibility as a member of Congress.

For instance, he goes into detail about how stupid it is to “Vote No, but hope yes” (on the TARP bill), and about how he is ashamed to have done so in the past.

He talks at length about how bipartisan legislation used to be passed, and about how wholly partisan victories are shallow, because they’re just as easily overturned in the next election cycle without bipartisan support. He uses specific examples of attempts at good, enduring legislation, successful or otherwise, and it’s not all to make himself look good – some of his examples he isn’t even involved in.

I have to agree with everything above. I think it is remarkable that a sitting politician could come out with such a damning expose of his entire party and I admire him for that. It was interesting that he agreed with Franken when he traced part of the start of the Republican Party’s decline to Newt Gingrich. Both Flake and Franken wholeheartedly condemned Gingrich for bringing to light the vicious underbelly of the Republican Party. Flake’s condemnation of Gingrich echoes my concerns with many of today’s politicians: “Newt, whose talents for politics exceeded his interest in governing…” This is extremely on point. As someone who one day would like to enter the world of politics, it worries me that many politicians seem to prize their ruthlessness and cunning over their concern and care for their constituents. 

Conclusion

I am a proud conservative and a lifelong Republican. That does not make the Democrats my enemies. America has too many real enemies to indulge such nonsense.

It’s good to not demonize the people on the other side of the political aisle, and this book helped me a ton in that respect. The similarities between Jeff Flake’s book and Al Franken’s book were eye opening to me. If two senators that are that different from one another politically can agree on things like that, it gives me hope for the future.

This book helped me greatly in that respect. It’s good to know that not all Republicans are Trump supporters who are ignorant to logic.

It’s great to know that not all Republican lawmakers have abdicated their responsibility in understanding that the legislative branch doesn’t work as an arm of the executive branch.

It’s fantastic to know that some of them like Jeff Flake have such strong conservative convictions that they’re willing to put themselves out there and risk their own re-election to help lead their party’s return to sanity.

I think it’s really interesting that once Republican legislatures are free from the shackles of worrying about re-election, they say and do sane things. Like Bob Corker. or John McCain.

Of course, relying on Senators not worrying about re-election to keep Trump in check is not sustainable. So I do hope that Jeff Flake, like his idol Goldwater (whose book Flake based his own book on), sparks a conservative revolution, one that affects the ranks of normal congressmen and women that *are* seeking re-election.

Now, more than ever, America’s separation of powers is what is keeping her afloat. But that requires legislators like Jeff Flake to have the conviction to stand up for their conservative ideals rather than act as servants for Trump.

And maybe more than that, I hope it helps spark activism amongst more moderate conservatives, ones who look around and see that things ARE INDEED NOT NORMAL AND NOT OKAY. I plan on giving this book to some of my more conservative, older friends. They’d be much more likely to read a book by the Republican Senator from Arizona than the Democratic Senator from Minnesota. I don’t know if it’ll work, but I sure hope it does.

I could not agree more. The only way to escape our political malaise is to educate ourselves. Jeff Flake’s book is a good first step in this direction. I can only hope that his actions support his words. 

 

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Al Franken, Giant of the Senate – TwoMorePages Book Review

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate – TwoMorePages Book Review

Kudos to Rachel, who turned me onto this book. I wouldn’t have read this without her recommendation, and my life would have been much less rich for it.

Al Franken is hilariously insightful. It’s like one of the correspondents from the Daily Show became a Senator. I really enjoyed his insights into the workings of the Senate, complete with plenty of tangible real world examples.

For instance, I always felt like this Congress was more obstructionist, but I was never quantified it. I didn’t realize that 40% of all cloture votes in US Senate History were called by Mitch McConnell alone, just to delay progress so that Obama couldn’t get credit for things. McConnell called for cloture votes on some things that would eventually pass 98-0! He called cloture on bills that he himself ended up voting yes on! HOW STUPID IS THAT?

But more than that, his take on the difference between Congressional behavior just a few decades ago compared to Congressional behavior now was interesting, specifically his take on the specific drivers that caused that change in behavior.

His discussion of various facets of policy was passionate. It was like he took the words and arguments straight from my head, replete with the righteous anger of being lied to over and over again.

One of the tenets of his book is that a strong failing of Democrats is messaging. This book? Definitely the antithesis of that. Strong, direct, entertaining, and to the point.

 

Operation Curdle

“On this day,” Obama declared in his inaugural address, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

To which Mitch McConnell basically responded, “Oh yeah? Well, screw you, buddy!”

The way I see it, Republicans had three options for how to deal with the new political reality they faced in January 2009.

Option 1: Recognize that the new President was hugely popular and had a mandate from the American people to deal with a series of pressing crises, and ask, ‘How can we help?’

Option 2: Recognize that the new President was hugely popular and had a mandate from the American people to deal with a series of pressing crises, and say, ‘Congratulations, but we have some political standing too, and we’re going to make you come to the table and negotiate. So let’s sit down and work out something we can all live with.’

Option 3: Focus on reducing his popularity, refuse to respect his mandate, and as for those pressing crises? Not only are we not going to help him solve them, we’re going to do everything we can to prevent him from solving them, and then we’re going to blame him for failing to solve them. In fact, after a while, we’re going to start blaming him for creating the problems in the first place!

Democrats and Republicans had faced this dilemma many times before, but never before had anyone ever chosen Door Number 3.

And then, having enjoyed making a big show out of refusing to help the President succeed, Republicans then turned to making a big show out of complaining that he had failed.

In reality, he hadn’t. The stimulus kept us from falling into another Great Depression, and created millions of jobs. But it took awhile to kick in, and it wasn’t as strong as President Obama and Democrats wanted (or as economists had called for). It’s hard to get people excited about avoiding a hypothetical depression when you’re slowly muddling through a huge recession.

Let’s just start off with the meat of things, shall we? I really liked Al Franken’s perspective as a Democratic Senator in the midst of Obama’s first term, a term that brought with it the Great Recession.

More than any other subject I ever studied, I loved economics. One of these days, I want to teach economics. It’s fun; it affects people; and it makes sense. One of the basic tenets of basic macroeconomic theory is that that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) = C (consumer spending) + G (government spending) + I (investment spending) + nX (net exports). (I still remember that Mr. Santucci!)

Going into 2009, C in that formula was falling off of a cliff. People were scared. They were losing their jobs, and so were spending less, making industry stall and making more people…lose their jobs. See how that’s a shitty cycle?

In Econ 201, you learn that the total monetary supply = M (Total amount of money in circulation) * V (velocity of money, how often money changes hands). Going into 2009, the value of V was dropping *so much* that the US economy was experiencing deflation *despite* printing trillions of dollars and increasing the value of M. The only realistic way to stop that is with a strong increase in overall spending. Well, as we just learned before, consumer spending wasn’t going to do that (and in fact was falling as a result of the falling total monetary supply), so you have to get *government* spending to pull us out of that hole. You increase G in C + G + I + nX.

I remember being livid at the time at people saying “We should have just let all the banks fail.” No, that’s how you decrease the velocity of money EVEN MORE and make the economy EVEN MORE DEFLATIONARY, putting us into an even DEEPER RECESSION.

And I remember having to politely say “A statement like that shows a profound misunderstanding of basic economic theory” instead of what I wanted to say: “Are you insane?! Have you even seen the rate at which the velocity of money is declining?! Do you even understand the implications a drop in velocity of that magnitude? No, of fucking course not, because you’re too stupid to understand what that even means. All you know is that ‘Government intervention = bad, herp derp.’ ”

I will defend to my last days the necessity of government intervention in 2009. Anyone in their late 20s or early 30s was a direct recipient of that government intervention. Our thriving economy now is a direct result of that aid. So if you’re someone like me, who is doing relatively well now, and you want to complain that “the government should not have intervened in 2009”, know that deep down, I truly want to punch you in the face and make you retake economics, you ungrateful imbecile.

So to read about Al Franken’s experience in the Senate itself trying to get that through was interesting. He could have been the 60th vote to help push through a better, $1 trillion dollar stimulus (instead of a $.7 trillion one that took longer to work), but his election was held up because of a recount. It still boggles my mind that he won by less than 200 votes. That’s insane.

The stimulus had been a successful test run of the Republican strategy: Abdicate their responsibility to govern, obstruct the President’s agenda, complain that things weren’t getting better, and wait for Americans to get fed up so they could profit politically as his expense. Operation Curdle was well under way.

And that brings us to what Al Franken so affectionately refers to as “Operation Curdle”, an unfortunately very successful political maneuver. Fuck things up, blame it on the guy in charge even though you’re the reason it’s fucked up, and then somehow score political points with it.

In a rational world, this would never work. It 100% relies on the stupidity of the governed to be too dumb to see through your charade. The fact that it *does* work, and works *so well* makes me question my faith in the intelligence of people.

On hundreds of occasions, the minority would use a parliamentary procedure called “forcing a cloture vote” simply to waste everyone’s time. They did it more than ever before in history; in fact four out of every ten cloture votes in the history of the United States Senate up to 2014 came in the eight years that Mitch McConnell served as minority leader.

In most of the situations there wasn’t actually anything to debate. McConnell would force cloture votes on ridiculously noncontroversial stuff.

So it was not uncommon for us to file a cloture motion on a Monday for a vote on say, a noncontroversial district court nominee, only to have the nominee confirmed with an overwhelming majority (in one case by a 98-0 vote) late on Thursday evening. That’s right – Republicans would routinely filibuster things that they’d then turn around and vote for.

What made it worse that McConnell had made his intentions clear by actually saying, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Not making sure that kids get a great education, not creating millions of good jobs, not even getting our deficit under control. No, his first priority was about Republicans winning the next presidential election. I wasn’t shocked that he thought that. I was just appalled that he actually said it.

Like how is this okay? Congress had been around for more than 225 years through 2014. And Mitch McConell, by himself has 40% of the cloture votes under him? That is brazen obstruction.

Which brings us to…

 

“But that’s Washington for you” – Politiphobia

And the thing was, ordinary Americans who weren’t themselves rabid partisans saw all this happening and blamed both sides. I was always amazed when I would go around Minnesota and meet people who didn’t follow national politics that closely but who knew that Republicans had been extremely uncooperative during the Obama administration. “I know,” I’d say, “it’s awful.”

“Yeah,” these people would often respond. “But that’s Washington for you.”

These folks didn’t reach that conclusion without some help. Many political reporters can’t seem to write a sentence about a problem without casting at least some blame onto both sides. Congressional Republicans knew that, and made hay with it. McConnell and his friends consistently blamed Obama for the partisanship of the Obama years, managing to suppress their giggles all the while.

After eight years of refusing to help the President govern – in fact either years of actively trying to make the country ungovernable – Republicans hadn’t just created a monster within their own ranks. All that inaction and gridlock helped to create a nation of politiphobes, people who (correctly) felt like they were being left behind in the economy and (correctly) felt that the political system was broken and rigged against people like them and (extremely incorrectly) felt that everyone who had anything to do with politics was more or less equally to blame.

But perhaps the worst side effect of Operation Curdle isn’t from people who refuse to believe that anything is wrong. It’s from people that agree with Franken and me that something is wrong but that blame both sides for it.

Even today, I’ll hear people say “Oh, well they all suck, what are you going to do?” or “I think politics has always been like this. It’s just being reported more now.”

WAIT. FULL STOP. WHAT?! NO.

There is quantifiable evidence of specific and malicious wrongdoing by one party over and over again. Gerrymandering is how Republicans control 2/3’s of seats in state and national legislatures despite consistently only garnering just south of 50% of the popular vote. Mitch McConnell led 40% of all cloture votes IN US SENATE HISTORY.

Trump, our idiot Republican President, consistently lies to our face over and over and over again. In the same amount of time that Trump was under investigation for possible collusion with Russia AND had fired Comey to obstruct said investigation, literally the only thing that Fox News could come up with to discredit Obama was that he liked to eat his burgers with fancy mustard.

But you want to blame *both sides*? How in the wut…? How are these things even remotely equal?

I know Democrats aren’t perfect. No party or person ever was or ever will be. But if you’re going to paint all politicians from both parties with that broad of a brush, you’ve created a perverse incentive for politicians to just go balls to the wall with unethical obstruction.

It’s like if the penalties for murder or speeding in your car were the same. Well, I’m already speeding, so I may as well go murder that guy I really hate? It doesn’t make sense.

Why is this worse? Because the people that are die hard party line people are basically always going to vote Republican no matter what. This last Presidential election proved that the Republican party could basically put up a completely unqualified candidate, one who routinely lies, who had no experience in government, who is openly prejudiced, and those people would still vote for him.

Look no further than the millions of people who didn’t think Trump was a particularly good candidate, but *still* voted Trump because he had an (R) next to his name. Nothing is ever going to change those minds or votes.

But other people, smarter people, people with the ability to think critically and see when they’re being lied to? If they become politiphobes and distance themselves from politics altogether because “both sides are bad”, this only amplifies the voices of the aforementioned.

Republicans tend to do *much* better in low turnout elections. They have a motivated base that consistently votes Republican basically no matter what. Not voting is like a Republican half-vote.

So it’s a Republican victory if they can obstruct everything, and then have people blame BOTH parties for it.

It’s frustrating for me, as someone who pays attention and doesn’t like getting lied to; but it’s got to be *mind-blowingly frustrating* as a sitting Senator like Al Franken, trying to do your best despite the gridlock, and STILL getting the blame for said gridlock.

Several of my good friends seem to have fallen into this politiphobe mindset, and hey – at least it’s better than being a die hard party line person no matter what. But I really do wish they’d look into things some more and see that one party seems to consistently be on the wrong side of things more than the other. Please don’t paint both sides with the same brush.

 

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

The distinctly antigovernment Limbaugh / Gingrich agenda swept in a significant number of radical Republicans and with them a partisan enmity that has just grown even worse over the past two decades. In addition to the nastiness, there seemed to be a new willingness to lie about the basic facts.

Even after the Rush book came out, I kept noticing conservatives in the media saying things that were recklessly, provably false. And every time I noticed it, it would drive me bananas. No matter how many times it would happen, it would engender the same visceral reaction every time. “You can’t just lie!” I would yell, to no one in particular. “You can’t!” But they did.

I’ve struggled sometimes to succinctly define why I’ve turned so anti-Republican as I’ve grown older. It should be the opposite, right? I mean, I grew up Republican in a conservative suburb of Houston; several of my friends and their families are conservative; I honestly don’t feel like I’ve changed *that much* from my childhood. So what happened?

Al Franken helped me put my finger on it. I hate being lied to.

All of this to say that I care a lot about people in politics telling the truth. And even considering all the horrible things Trump got away with during the campaign – mocking a disabled reporter, attacking a Gold Star family, referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers,” calling for Muslims to be banned from our country – I still can’t believe he got away with lying so much.

Frankly, it made me wonder whether, sadly, the war was over and the liars had won.

And one party seems to consistently lie over and over. This is the party that put Trump into office AND CONTINUES TO DEFEND HIM; all he ever seems to do is lie, from stupidly petty ones like “I had the biggest inauguration crowd ever” to more serious ones like “I didn’t have any contact with Russia” when it is so provably true that he had business dealings there.

This is the same party that blamed Obama for the partisan atmosphere in Washington that they themselves created; the same party who said  “There is certainly long historical precedent for a Supreme Court with fewer justices.” when it came to Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, but then turned around and used the nuclear option to push through their own nominee in Gorsuch; the same party that said the Affordable Care Act would have “Death Panels”.

Lies. The Republican party and Trump specifically have normalized them, and that is maddening to me. His election was 100% verifiable proof that you could be caught lying “with your pants on fire”, and somehow it doesn’t matter?

Trump has deployed a variety of methods to debunk debunkings that have proven startlingly effective. The first and most common is to simply ignore the correction even when confronted with it.

This is why he’s continually planting the seed that the media is dishonest. It renders statements of contrary fact highly suspect, because you tend to hear those via the media:

Trump: The US murder rate is at a 45 year high.

You: That’s wrong. The FBI says that it’s at a 50 year low.

Trump Supporter: Uh-huh, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Where’d you hear that?

You: CNN

Trump Supporter (sarcastic): Ah, okay. CNN, right. And they always tell the truth. Come on, man! Wake up!

I have no problem having political discussions with my conservative friends. Discussions are healthy – it’s how viewpoints change and new information is presented. Not living in an echo chamber is important.

I *do* have a problem when the crux of their defense is calling anything they disagree with #FakeNews.

That’s not a freaking discussion. That’s the equivalent of a person plugging their ears and going “LALALA. If I can’t hear you, it’s not true.” How are we supposed to discuss things if literally everything you disagree with is “fake”? if we can’t agree on basic facts like the DoJ saying that the murder rate is at a 50 year low? Or that Comey straight up said he thought he was fired because of the FBIs investigation into possible Russian ties to Trump’s campaign?

If you reply saying something factual is #FakeNews just because you don’t like it or because it disagrees with you, that is infuriating. And I very much think less of you for it.

But I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything.

I know I’m sort of farting into the wind on this. But I hope you’ll fart along with me. I’ve always believed that it’s possible to discern true statements from false statements, and that it’s critically important to do so, and that we put our entire democratic experiment in peril when we don’t.

I firmly believe that you can draw a straight line from Rush Limbaugh through Fox News through present-day websites like Breitbart and the explosion in “fake news” that played such a big role in the 2016 campaign. And that’s how someone like Trump can wind up in the Oval office.

I love that Al Franken went into detail about how frustrating it was that it seemed (seems?) like the truth doesn’t matter anymore.

I love how he explored how Trump isn’t a one off aberration, but a culmination of the result of Republican support tactics over the last two years, specifically the last 8 years under Obama. How lying about things that were 100% false (like Obama not being born here) somehow increased their own support base, and that after being proven wrong, nothing bad happened to them.

I found his insights into how this endangers our entire democracy especially poignant. If we can’t agree on what is provably true or false, how are we ever going to agree on anything? For that matter, how will we ever govern?

 

Pivoting

Probably the most ridiculous political skill I had to learn was how to “pivot,” a term which basically means “not answer questions.”

His chapters describing how he had to change his behaviors as he became a politician were really interesting, both in contrast to how little President Trump has done in that regard, and in just straight up spelling out in what ways he had to act differently.

Honestly, I’m not sure I could ever learn how to “pivot” as he described above, or just straight up not answer questions asked of me. It seems so counter intuitive, and yet his stories of how he got misquoted and burned when he tried directly answering baiting questions showed how necessary it was.

So kudos to him.

 

Ted Cruz

Here’s the thing you have to understand about Ted Cruz. I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.

Rachel mentioned that the chapter devoted to shitting on Ted Cruz was her favorite. And I can easily see why. It’s amazingly funny.

The problem with Ted isn’t that he’s humorless. It isn’t even his truly reprehensible far-right politics. No, the problem with Ted – and the reason so many senators have a problem with Ted – is simply that he is an absolutely toxic coworker. He is the Dwight Schrute of the Senate.

“Clinton’s own Department of Justice did a study of the assault weapons ban and concluded that it doesn’t work.” -Ted Cruz

“No it didn’t. Actually, what the report said was there wasn’t enough data to reach a conclusion, because the study was conducted only two years after the ban was implemented.” – Al Franken

“Just go read the report.” – Ted Cruz

…later, after looking up the report

“Our best estimate is that the ban contributed to a 6.7% decrease in total gun murders between 1994 and 1995, beyond what would have been expected in view of ongoing crime, demographic, and economic trends. However, with only one year of post-ban data, we cannot rule out the possibility that this decrease (in gun murders) reflects chance year-to-year variation rather than a true effect of the ban.” -Justice Department Report

“Well, I guess you owe me an apology.” -Al Franken

“Why?” – Ted Cruz

“Well, the last time we spoke, you said that anybody who is for the assault weapons ban is engaged in sophistry.” -Al Franken

“No I didn’t” -Ted Cruz

And that’s when I realized that Ted Cruz was really something special.

It’s hilarious that Ted Cruz has an entire section devoted to how shitty of a person he is. Not just how shitty of a Senator he is, but specifically how terrible of a person he is.

If nothing else, this book is worth reading specifically for the Ted Cruz chapter.

Ted Cruz isn’t just wrong about almost everything. He’s impossible to work with. And he doesn’t care that he’s impossible to work with. And that’s why, even when the choice was between Ted Cruz (who was a sitting member of the United States Senate) and Donald Trump (who was Donald Trump), establishment Republicans couldn’t bring themselves to rally behind Cruz.

Hahahaha.

 

Conclusion

My story, the one you’ve just finished reading, is a small part of a bigger story – the story of how progressives picked themselves up off the mat and made an epic comeback.

And now we have to do it again. This comeback starts with standing up for our values and making it clear that no president has a mandate to spread bigotry or roll back the clock on progress. It continues through next year, when we have a chance to punish Republicans for enabling this disaster and take back governorships and state legislatures all across the country.

Meanwhile, we can hold President Trump accountable for everything he does – and not just that, we can hold accountable every single Republican who enables him, so that when we kick him out, we can kick them out too.

There’s a part for you to play in the next great progressive comeback story. But only if you can keep from losing your mind or getting so discouraged that you quit before the comeback even begins.

Al Franken’s final chapter is fantastic. It’s uplifting, motivational, and channels all of the anger and frustration that we as readers just experienced in the preceding chapters into something positive.

In the beginning months of Trump’s Presidency, I read about (and experienced) “outrage fatigue.” Every week, Trump would find some new way to make a mockery of the office, the rule of law, or the country. Hosts like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah all made the joke that the first couple of months of Trump’s Presidency felt like years and that we had all aged rapidly for it.

I worried that this fatigue would eventually spread. By the time the 2018 mid terms rolled around, would people be so tired they wouldn’t bother caring anymore? Would this all be a new normal? And that was terrifying…but I was so tired.

Books like this give me hope, inspire me to do more. So Kudos to you, Al Franken. Between you, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris, I have Senators and leaders that I can look up to, especially since my own (Ted Cruz (ugh) and John Cornyn) suck so much.

Thank you Al. And thanks again, Rachel, for being my inspiration to read this book. You rock.

Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring – TwoMorePages Book Review

Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring – TwoMorePages Book Review

If you ask questions you are either a traitor, an infidel, or both. Fact checking authorities is looked upon as a form of mutiny against the country or against God. If you challenge those claims, you don’t like the country or you are misinformed by “mainstream media”, which is not telling you the “truth.”

Quick sanity check – do you think that the quote above references the current Egyptian dictatorship under Sissi or the current US government under Trump’s administration?

The correct answer is actually Egypt, but isn’t it weird that you have to think about it? Bassem Youssef’s book chronicling his adventures and experiences through not one BUT TWO revolutions in Egypt is a fantastic read. His insights into the kind of populism that led to a religious dictatorship, followed by the (totally not a coup?) military dictatorship are extremely intelligent and thought provoking.

He had to literally leave his country because he was going to get arrested and probably jailed forever (maybe executed?) for hosting an Arab version of the Daily Show that didn’t always show the Egyptian government in great light. It was literally the most popular show in Egypt at one point.

You know, after having read Trevor Noah’s book about growing up in Africa and then this book, I’m liking this whole “expand your horizons by reading about people who grew up in elsewhere in the world” thing.

I didn’t know that much about the Arab Spring when it happened, and I got really confused when I tried to learn more about it at the time. This is a fantastic recollection of how it went down in Egypt – first, describing the revolution that overthrew the existing 30 year dictatorship of Mubarak; then, describing how the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, two very different Islamic groups that hated each other, somehow came together to create a religious majority that made a government based on Sharia law under Morsi; then, describing how the military seized power from Morsi and instituted a fascist military dictatorship that entirely censored free speech afterwards.

I remember reading about the conundrum that the US faced at the time: if you don’t call it a coup, then you still have to give Egypt $1.5 billion in aid. If you call it a coup, well…then you have to recognize the not-peaceful seizure of power from what you considered the legitimate Egyptian government. And if that’s the case, how do you want to handle this on an international stage?

For the first time we didn’t make fun of the Islamists. I directed my sarcasm at the ”liberal” media now. I always felt it was my job to keep whoever was in power in check – and even though these people used to root for me and against the Islamists back in the day, they were now the ones fueling hate and racism.

Reading about Youssef’s struggles under both governments was eye opening. People that supported him when he was speaking out against the religious majority of Morsi’s government then turned around and attacked him when he pointed out the same inconsistencies of Sissi’s military government.

The same people who were attacking him under Morsi’s government and accusing him of being a “secret Christian traitor” were singing his praises under Sissi’s government. He was the same person criticizing the same things, but suddenly those people were 100% A-okay with him when the government they supported was gone. How weird is that?

Moreover, reading about how much worse Sissi’s militaristic regime was was crazy. He went into detail about how the government came out and said they had created a machine that could cure Hepatitis C, AIDS, and cancer. The machine would “take the virus away from the patient and return it to him in the form of a kabab sandwich.” Dude’s a heart surgeon; he knows that’s total bullshit, and yet when he says there’s no way that machine works, he’s called out as being a liar and that his information is fake. Sound familiar?

Obviously that machine didn’t work. Here was the climate in Egypt:

A 22 year old college student was arrested and sentenced to 3 years in jail for photoshopping Mickey Mouse ears onto Sissi’s head.

An Egyptian judge sentenced FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE TO DEATH for killing ONE police officer. All of them were convicted of the same crime!

A British couple was captured and delivered to the police by “concerned citizens” in the subway who’d overheard the two talking in their own language, you know, English.

“The country is in a critical condition now and I can’t allow my channel to be part of this. We are thankful for what you have done in teh past; your contribution to enlighten people against Islamic fascism will not be forgotten. But Egypt doesn’t need you now.”

– Station Owner, shutting down Youssef’s show

He only got a few episodes into his show under the new Regime before the government *forced it off the air*, and he had to flee the country soon afterwards to prevent himself from “disappearing.”

In a time when I worry about whether or not free speech will truly remain free here in America, it’s sobering to think that free speech is not a given in lots of places in the world.

This is the road that I fear we’re going down here in the US currently. Hearing Sean Spicer literally say “We have a respect for the press when it comes to the government, that that is something you can’t ban an entity from. I think that is what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship” , and then turn around as White House Press Secretary a few months later and ban CNN from a white house press meeting is insane.

The parallels with what Youssef’s stories in Egypt and what we saw here in the US are frightening. Who supported Morsi and Sissi in Egypt? Older, less educated people, who were easily manipulated and lied to because they are afraid of people different than them. Who supported/supports Trump? Pretty much the same demographic, except white and Christian this time instead of brown and Islamic. Facts need not enter the discussion – it’s all based on *feelings*.

It’s the same side of the same coin.

“Whenever his supporters were faced with facts and reality they would simply tell you that this is the talk of liberal media who hate Trump and who hate America.”

“But as I was inside the Republican convention it was deja vu for me…I would sometimes translate parts of their speeches in my head and they would sound exactly the same as the ones I heard back home. The fear, the xenophobia, the hate, they all came in different shapes and forms; only, they were wearing more expensive suits and had much pastier skin.”

“The (Egyptian) military supporters still lack any thoughts resembling logic. They are part of the same echo chamber you’d find yourself in if you attended a Trump rally: “Everyone is conspiring against us. They are out to get us, they hate us for our freedoms.”

So, reading this book was a little surreal for me. The same sense of awe that Youssef had regarding how he couldn’t believe the way the people around him were acting and voting is pretty much the same sense of awe that I have regarding people continue to support Trump.

The one perhaps positive difference? Trump’s approval ratings are historically low for a sitting US President in his first 100 days, so maybe people are coming around and thinking for themselves. They may be quiet about it (nobody likes admitting they were wrong), but that’s better than nothing. In comparison, all the Egyptian leaders were apparently extremely popular.

This was a really good read, and I’m glad that Youssef didn’t “disappear” back in Egypt, which looks like it could have been a distinct possibility *several* times.  I’ll definitely keep an eye out in the future for books like this that help give me more of a global perspective of the world.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – TwoMorePages Book Review

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – TwoMorePages Book Review

So I put off getting this book for a long time. “I’ll read something else first.” I said to myself. In fact, that’s how I ended up reading that Jon Stewart book about the Daily Show.

I strongly regret that decision now. This book was so entertaining, so fun and easy to read, that I finished it in 4 days while I was out on a ski vacation. I’d go skiing, then come back and read until dinner. IT WAS FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC.

And I learned so much about how different my life could have been. Trevor Noah is 33 years old. I’m 30. While I was playing with legos and watching Power Rangers here in Texas, thinking that racism is kind of dumb and that was totally normal, Trevor Noah was growing up in Apartheid and thinking “yes, of course the cities are segregated. It’s totally normal that my dad and mom have to pretend to *not be my dad and mom* because I’m mixed.”

Sometimes books open your eyes to different perspectives and enlarge the scope of your world view. This one did that, and did it while telling extremely entertaining stories.

 

Wait, what? That’s a thing? That sounds like something from the Hunger Games.

One of the takeaways that I’ll always remember from this book is the description of how Apartheid society worked. For instance, he described how there was one black settlement of about a million people with only one road in or out. That way, in case the people living there started getting a little too uppity and started protesting or something like that, the government could close the roads and bomb the settlement and people would have nowhere to run to. WHAAAT?! O.o

That sounds like something from some fictional dystopian future, not a description of the 1980s which I was alive for.

Another thing that I learned was that there weren’t just two groups, black and white, like I’ve tended to experience here in America. No, there was an entire other one – colored (or mixed). They had their own segregation and their own set of unique ways to be treated. If you were mixed, you belonged to *that* group and not necessarily just white or black, depending on which way the color of your skin skewed. It’s a trippy thing to think about, honestly.

I’ve experienced very little racism in my life, and I am super thankful for that. Seldom have I thought it held me back, except perhaps when it came to dating. I never even experienced the whole anti-asian bias that Universities are sometimes accused of having, since I got into both the University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin when I applied. So reading about the stark contrast between the way I grew up and the way Trevor grew up was jarring enough; reading about how he just kind of accepted it and rolled with it, like it was a 100% normal thing, was much more surreal.

 

How African racism is different from American racism

British racism said, “If the monkey can walk like a man and talk like a man, then perhaps he is a man.” Afrikaner racism said, “Why give a book to a monkey?”

In America you had the forced removal of the natives onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.

It’s weird to think that racism has different forms. That the racism that a person could experience in one country could be different from one country to another. I always thought it was a binary kind of thing – either it existed or it didn’t. I never thought about shades of grey in racism itself.

What Trevor did a great job illustrating through his stories was just how much more severe the racism under apartheid was. Yes, you have discussion and discourse about how there is a cycle of poverty here in America (and about how black people tend to be stuck in it), and about how hard it is to escape it, but at least here I’ve never heard anyone outright say “Yeah, don’t even bother teaching those kids. They’re x race.” or “Yeah, you have to live in this neighborhood that we’ve set aside for you. You’re x race.

Yes, through social policies, black kids might be tracked to poorer public school and so would get less of an education. Yes, because it’s too expensive to live in certain areas, you may end up with de facto segregation like in Austin where everyone of a certain ethnicities tend to live in certain areas, but it’s never specifically defined in the law. There weren’t requirements for separate restrooms for whites, blacks, and colored folks.

Now, I hear the argument that perhaps the end result is the same or at the very least similar, but the fact remains that it was literally spelled out.

Growing up in the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I knew my cousins were getting beaten for things that I’d done, but I wasn’t interested in changing my grandmother’s perspective, because that would mean I’d get beaten too. Why would I do that? So that I’d feel better?

At that point, I didn’t think of the special treatment as having to do with color. It wasn’t, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is white.” It was, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is Trevor.”

-Trevor, on growing up as a mixed kid in a black family

The way he went on to describe the societal differences, even in black society was eye opening as well. The belief that black people were inherently inferior seemed ingrained into South Africa’s society. When he, as a mixed kid, was hanging out with his black family, even *they* treated him differently, but in a better way.

It’s not reverse-racism like you often hear about here in the US, where a white kid in a black community would be ostracized; it’s a literal continuation of “white is better” that the rest of his society was promoting. Weird.

And his commentary on how people who were treated better would react is spot on. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who society has decided to treat preferentially – why would you go out and change it? Indeed, you might not even understand why you were getting preferential treatment – you might think it’s just because *you specifically* are awesome.

I won’t lie. I feel like I’ve been in that spot before growing up. Sometimes it was getting to do something my sister couldn’t because I was a boy. Sometimes it was the luxury of knowing that I as a kid would get in less trouble than other kids because I was a better student. But at least in my mind, it was because I was awesome. Nothing more; nothing less.

 

Commentary on living in “the hood”

The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.

The hood has a gravitational pull. It never leaves you behind, but it also never lets you leaves.

-Trevor, on his experiences in the hood

One of the absolute best things this book did was give me a fresh perspective on things I had never experienced. I grew up in a pretty affluent neighborhood without wanting for anything monetarily, so experiences in Houston’s third ward are completely foreign to me. And here’s Trevor talking about his experience in South Africa’s version of it.

And he describes things so vividly it’s perfect. His thoughts on how the economy of the hood is perfectly evolved for its environment is intriguing – how it doesn’t discriminate; how when traditional employment fails, the hood provides ways for its members to provide for themselves economically, to survive.

But the way in which he described how it’s *extremely* difficult to leave is kind of terrifying. His recollection of one of his friends who got a legit job, but was peer pressured basically to quit it is sad. Crabs in a bucket, right?

 

Poignant Life Observations

They’re free, they’ve been taught how to fish, but no one will give them a fishing rod.

Trevor did a fantastic job of coming up with very eloquent ways to describe some of the life lessons he learned. The sentence above was him talking about how you can educate people, but if you don’t give them any opportunities to use that education, it doesn’t actually help.

He talked specifically about how he had the intelligence to do things, the drive to work hard, and the personality to sell things, but it was really only when his friend Andrew gave him his CD-writer that Trevor was able to utilize his skills to be productive, to do something with his life (even if it was just to create pirated CDs).

The more time I spent in jail, the more I realized that the law isn’t rational at all. It’s a lottery. What color is your skin? How much money do you have? Who’s your lawyer? Who’s the judge?

This is one thing I’ve only heard from other people’s stories, and that I believe is universally true, whether it’s here in America or South Africa. And the way that Trevor describes his time in jail is…a little horrifying.

He describes a huge hulk of a man who was in for stealing, but who couldn’t communicate with his guards or his defense lawyers, and so would probably not get to defend himself in court; one who was apparently not a violent criminal but was being treated as such because of the way he looked combined with the fact that nobody could understand what he was saying because he spoke a different language.

You hear stories from things like the Daily Show where poor people don’t know how to navigate the legal system and so get much harsher sentences; and you also hear through the grapevine of how people with money are able to successfully navigate their way through legal troubles and it’s…disheartening.

So yeah, I agree with you Trevor. The law is a lottery. And you get better tickets if you have money.

We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others because we don’t live with them.

Trevor’s point when saying this was twofold. One, he said this is why ghettos were created, so that rich white people in South Africa would not have to see the poor black people that they were taking advantage of; But ALSO, two, it’s how he said everyone in the hood rationalized stealing. You weren’t stealing from a person, taking something and affecting their lives: you were just taking something that was there. It wasn’t until he got a camera with a family’s photos on it that he finally felt remorse for being complicit in stealing something.

I think this is a poignant life observation as well. It’s so much easier to get mad at someone else or trivialize their problems if you don’t have to see their face, to see them deal with the problems that you may have had a hand in. So if you really want to change a person’s mind on something that you think they’re doing, make them see the firsthand human results of what they’ve done. Don’t argue with them on the internet. It will be much more effective. Hopefully, this is a lesson I can take going forward in my life.

 

Fun, Fun Stories

“Yeah, she was super sad too, because she had such a crush on you. She was always waiting for you to ask her out. Okay, I gotta go to class! Bye!”

Reading back on what I’ve written, I make his book sound super preachy, and that does Trevor a disservice. Perhaps literally the best part about his book is that he wasn’t preachy about his overarching messages. This book was, first and foremost, “a collection of stories from growing up in Apartheid in South Africa.”

And boy were those stories so entertaining. Whether it was in the context of an overarching message he was trying to get across (like the ones I referenced above), or just about him regretting his inability to ask a girl out (quote above), they were genuinely funny and delightful.

I mean, yes, he’s a comedian, and maybe you should expect that, but his writing style was *on point*.

Fufi was my first heartbreak. No one has even betrayed me more than Fufi.

I believed that Fufi was my dog, but of course that wasn’t true. Fufi was a dog. I was  boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what I’ve felt about relationships for the rest of my life: You do knot own the thing that you love.

His story regarding how his dog used to go and hang out with another family during the day was hilarious. And the life lesson that he was trying to convey with it is pretty good in the grand scheme of things.

Life lessons with funny stories? Yes please.

 

Slightly less funny stories

But the closing story of the book was honestly the most riveting. And it sucks that this isn’t some fictional story, because it would be way better if it is. He talked about how his mom’s abusive relationship with his stepdad, and about how said stepdad tried to kill his mom.

This was the story that he told mostly just as a story – no life lesson, no entertaining bit at the end. And it showed. He conveyed his tone so well, you could feel his anxiousness, feel his anger at the situation and how helpless he was about it.

For the life of me I could not understand why she wouldn’t do the same: leave. Just leave. Just fucking leave.

I won’t spoil the story in case you haven’t read it yet, but I know that feeling, where one of your friends/family is in a situation, partly of their own doing, and THEY WON’T STOP. You just want to yell at them to stop, but they won’t.

It’s infuriating, and you won’t understand. And that’s basically where Trevor was. That’s good writing to me.

 

Final Thoughts

I’m so glad I took the time to read this book. It was entertaining, had good life lessons with each story, and gave me insight into how other people grew up. Hell, other people *my age* grew up (Trevor is basically my age).

My only gripe would be that since it’s a collection of stories, Trevor’s age jumps around between the stories. He’ll be a high school graduate in one chapter, then you’ll jump to a new story and he’ll be 11. Sometimes that was jarring. But whatever, I’m sure that he put some thought into the ordering of the stories, and that was a small thing overall.

The little excerpts he put in between his chapters describing something in history I thought were perfect too. They set up the following chapters well, and were little bite size nuggets of wisdom.

This might be my favorite book that I’ve read so far this year. I loved it.

Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders – TwoMorePages Book Review

Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders – TwoMorePages Book Review

In light of our recent election results (*le sigh*), I decided to continue down my foray of non-fiction for a little while longer, this time with a book written by none other than Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

My first concern when reading this book was that it would be ghostwritten, and I’m pretty happy to report that based on my cursory research afterwards, it seems like Bernie Sanders did indeed write this book. I kind of got hints of that while I was reading in the way he said things, but some ghostwriters are really good at matching tone, so I couldn’t be 100% sure.

I didn’t know much going into the book, and mostly expected a recap of his experience running through the democratic primaries. There was definitely some of that, probably about 25% of the book, but most of the book dealt with the issues that were near and dear to his heart. Indeed, now that I’m done, it feels like this was Bernie’s platform in a nutshell. The entire 2nd half of the book goes point my point with what he thinks is wrong and, more importantly, how he would fix it.

It’s sad that in today’s political climate, it seems that complaining is given equal weight to problem solving, so that second part (HOW HE WOULD FIX IT) is especially poignant to me. Do I agree with everything he said? No, but that’s unrealistic to agree with everything. I was impressed with the thought that he had clearly put into his positions and his proposed methods of dealing with them. Honestly, after reading his stances on the current state of the US, and how entrenched those positions are, I don’t know how he gets up every morning. The weight of that would crush me, but it seems to drive him.

 

Takeaways and things I’ve learned

The Citizens United decision hinges on the absurd notion that money is speech, corporations are people, and giving huge piles of undisclosed cash to politicians in exchange for access and influence does not constitute corruption.

(1) I’ll admit I was not politically active enough to *really* know what Citizens United was all about until I read this book. And damn, is it damning. It is basically legalized corruption and bribery, and allows big donors to basically buy elections.

It allows unlimited money in politics so that way one person with deep pockets can in essence get laws made that are favorable to themselves. Whaaaat? It seems so unabashedly dystopian that I can’t wrap my head around how this is a real thing, in real life, and not something concocted in a fiction book I’m reading.

Bernie went into great detail about how had he become President, his biggest priority was in nominating a Supreme Court Justice that would be against Citizens United, and about the mechanics of just how you can use money to corrupt politics and legislation.

Sigh, what could have been…

(2) Republicans tend to win elections with low voter turnout. I’ve never fully understood why those drives to “get out the vote” seemed so important. Seems like you’d end up with a 50/50 split of people voting for one party or another, but end up with the same proportion. Now I know that’s generally not the case, not only because younger voters tend to skew more liberal / progressive, but because conservative voters tend to vote no matter what whereas younger voters only tend to vote when they are excited and involved in the political process.

He cited the 2014 mid term elections as a strong example, where even though the country was better in every way since 2010, very few people came out to vote (lowest voter turnout since WWII!) and Republicans took several seats in both the Senate and House.

The truth is that when people come into a room, or a gymnasium or an arena, and the look around them and see all the other people in that venue sharing those same views, they come away strengthened and energized. They are not alone.

(3) Rallies actually do matter. Sure, they matter more in smaller states, like Vermont, where there are just straight up fewer people, but they do matter. I’ve always internally wondered why candidates bother with in person rallies instead of just making sure they have a clear and concise message and broadcasting that as well as possible. I’ve personally never made a decision based on a rally, but based on Bernie’s anecdotes, they worked, and they worked really well for his campaign.

Moreover, his point was that they worked not only in persuading people that attended the rallies, but in encouraging them to become more politically active, reaching voters like me that have never attended a rally. Interesting.

Throughout the campaign, from late November to the end of my campaign, I defeated Trump in 28 our of 30 national polls, almost always by double digits.

(4) In the aftermath of the election, one thing I kept reading over and over was that Bernie would have done better against Trump than Hillary had. I originally attributed this to spilled milk revisionist history, but when I delved deeper, I was surprised to see that this claim was backed up with factual data. 28/30? Damn.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan were the key democratic states that Clinton lost in her bid for the Presidency, and they were states with an overwhelmingly rural population where I think Sanders message would have come across a lot better, especially in light of the fact that he spent time doing rallies in rural areas, much moreso than either Trump or Clinton did.

 

Reading more about his experience in the democratic primary makes me further upset about how it all went down, about how the press repeatedly counted Superdelegate votes before they even voted when reporting the lead that Clinton had, disincentive people from even going to vote. By the time that the California primary rolled around, most media outlets had already reported the primaries over. I didn’t realize that at the time, and that sucks.

You could feel the frustration in his tone when he recounts his experience there. Ugh, and now I’m frustrated too. Stupid DNC…I now feel like *you’re* partly responsible for this Trump Presidency.

Look at that ABC number again: 261 minutes devoted to campaign coverage this year, and less than one minute of that has specifically been for Sanders.


In fact, I was gently faulted by some for having excessive “message discipline,” for spending too much time discussing real issues. Boring. Not what a successful modern campaign was about.

(5) I never realized just how biased the media had been in covering his campaign until I saw the numbers laid out. And to see how much more airtime the mainstream media gave Trump vs any more rational candidates, ESPECIALLY SANDERS, is infuriating.

Like the whole “Bernie would have done better than Trump” rhetoric I saw post election, I originally attributed any arguments I saw about Bernie not receiving enough press coverage to spilled milk. And just like that example, I’m proven wrong by specific numbers. How…in the what?!

 

His political stances

The rest of the book basically went into his political stances:

  • How our current political climate is basically an oligarchy where the richest people wield a bigger amount of power than I even thought
  • The state of our domestic infrastructure and how he proposed to fix it (and finance said fixes!)
  • Climate change is fucking real, and how he would have encouraged further renewable power generation
  • A single payer health care system is the best and cheapest long term solution for anyone earning under $500k a year
  • The TPP is bad for the middle class, and should be repealed
  • Criminal justice and how the disproportionate treatment of minorities vs Caucasian people is bad for society as a whole
  • 90% of the media is controlled by 6 companies, and they filter what message gets out to most people. This damages the foundation of democracy.

 

It’s too bad this book didn’t come out during the democratic primaries. It would have helped his messaging a lot, though I also understand the argument that most voters would not have taken the time to read 450-ish pages of his stances and experiences, perhaps it would have changed the minds of a few people, or some people like me could have made a tl;dr version that circulated on the web equally as well.

As I write this review, I feel frustration/anger at the DNC and the media for trivializing his campaign and focusing on stupid things like emails instead of issues, which Bernie stubbornly insisted on emphasizing. It makes me genuinely angry to read about just how stacked the deck was against him in the democratic primary.

Since inauguration day, I’ve grown so much more angry and bitter than I thought possible at people who voted for Trump (not at conservative voters, but specifically who voted for Trump). I see him dismantling efforts at combating climate change, at seeing him censor censor any agencies that dare say that climate change is real, at seeing him trot out his press secretary to tell bold faced lies (oh, wait, I’m sorry “alternative facts” is the phrase that KellyAnne Conway would prefer) and expecting us to believe it.

And my heart weeps to see what kind of person we could have had instead. Though they were both considered “anti establishment”, you could not set up a more stark foil than Trump and Sanders.

Sanders’s closing message is supposed to be one of hope, one that’s supposed to inspire me and other readers to go out and change things, to be involved, and to make the world a better place with something similar to his vision.

And maybe one day I’ll be able to at least re-read the closing message and feel that way. Because right now I sure don’t feel hopeful.

 

 

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History – TwoMorePages Book Review

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History – TwoMorePages Book Review

Wow. I’ve never read a book in this format before. Instead of one author telling a story, it’s basically in a documentary format, with different people all talking about the same thing in a conversation.

It took awhile to get used to at first, but…I’m a fan. Especially in the latter half of the book, when I could place faces to names.

I caught on to the Daily Show later than most. Wasn’t around for most of the Bush years, but caught on a little after the writer’s strike while Obama was in office. So the first half of the book was really informative for me, and the later half was close to my heart since I remember watching several of the things they covered.

 

From The Daily Show with Craig Killborn to the Daily Show with Jon Stewart

I didn’t realize just how much the show changed from when Craig Killborn did it, and what Jon Stewart stepped into. They chronicled how they turned over basically *the entire staff*, and how it wasn’t really easy doing it. There was bad blood and power struggles, with people being forced out of the show. Reading about how the original producer was eventually shut out of the show and people throwing various bits of shade at her, and reading about her response to it all was intense.

But it did chronicle just how hard it was, and how the show dramatically changed afterwards, to emphasize Jon Stewart’s vision for the daily show. Results oriented, I know, but I’m glad it happened. I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I wouldn’t passionately hold most of the views I do without it, and without him.

 

Switching the focus of the show

What the book really did well was to show how the focus of the show shifted over time. Jon Stewart’s early years were still mainly focused on comedy, not necessarily political satire. The book talked about how during the Bush years, the Daily Show was one of the first shows to start criticizing what it saw as outright lies and deception by the administration. It talked about how weird it was that the narrative in the country at the time was “If you point out our inconsistencies, you’re unpatriotic and you hate America.”

I specifically remember living that, and looking back now, it feels so weird to pointedly hate the Dixie Chicks for criticizing George Bush while in London, and to see how Toby Keith’s career was basically launched from super patriotic fluff songs.

So reading about the show’s internal struggles about whether or not to showcase the misinformation being given from the Bush and Cheney administration was extremely interesting. Especially the part where Stewart is recounting how he felt when he made the decision – how ANGRY he was that an administration would blatantly make up facts, be proven wrong, and then try to bury it and never address it again. And more than that, how angry he was with a press that he held partly accountable for helping the administration dupe everyone.

I don’t even remember feeling duped during those years. I’m one of those weird people who voted for Bush, liked Bush, then voted for Obama and loved Obama. Reading this book and seeing how the Bush administration did silly things like skirt around the definition of torture, blatantly make up reasons to invade Iraq, and then claim that anyone criticizing them was unpatriotic really sheds a new light on those years for me.

Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh, right, the book does a really good job describing the events that led to a shift in the Daily Show’s repertoire. It talked about how it first got correspondents into major political meetings, about Carrell’s experience on McCain’s bus, about how weird it was for the correspondents, who thought they were doing silly things in a very serious theater. But then to watch them realize that it’s really much less formal and austere than they thought. It talked about how the show started the trend of holding someone’s feet to the fire with clips of what they said in the past, with a poignant example of a fake debate between then President Bush and statements made publicly by Bush when was governor. I hadn’t even heard of that when it came out. It seems so hilariously sharp in retrospect.

 

Writer’s Strike

“I mean, put this in your fucking book. I needed that fucking money and there was no reason for Jon to give it to us then. Jon hadn’t been given his money then, from the publisher, but Jon gave us our advances – out of his pocket, to keep us alive during the strike.”

-Steve Bodow

 

So…fast forward to about the time that I started watching the show, which was around the time of the writer’s strike. I think that I originally started watching because someone had mentioned to me that the Daily Show was a really good example of what happens when you don’t have exceptional writing staff, that while the show was still good, it was noticeably less good with the writer’s strike ongoing.

Reading about how the staff felt, about how the writers went on strike while the producers and the talent stuck around was extremely interesting. Moreover, reading that Jon helped his staff out by paying them from his own pocket, a HUGE FEAT when you really think about it, is amazing.

But more than that, I loved reading about the divide that it created after the show came back on the air, and that still existed after the writer’s strike ended. Two of the main writers, David Javerbaum and Josh Lieb were on opposite sides of that strike since one of them was also a producer. Stewart talked about how awful it felt to be treated as the bad guy by his writers when he had PAID THEM OUT OF HIS OWN POCKET, and was the one that was going to bat for them with Comedy Central to try and get them most of what they wanted. And then how awful it felt after things got healed and how literally none of the writers said thank you at the time.

War with Fox News

Here is what Fox has done through their cyclonic, perpetual emotion machine that is 24 hour a day, 7 day a week – they’ve taken reasonable concerns about this president and this economy and turned it into a full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao. Explain to me why that is the narrative of your network.

-Jon Stewart to Bill O’Reilly

One of the major takeaways I took from *watching* the show was the absurdity of Fox News. To this day, I still don’t understand how anyone can watch it, much less how it’s become the #1 cable news network. With the way it blurs the lines between opinion pieces and news pieces, how is anyone supposed to get news from what Stewart lovingly calls a “panic machine”?

But I digress. That’s not what I’m writing about here.

Much like on the show, in the book, Stewart really rails against how ironic it is that a network that’s slogan is “Fair and Balanced” is basically the most slanted news network there is. The book goes into detail about Jon Stewart’s interactions with the network, from interviews with O’Reilly and Wallace, to its relationship with Glenn Beck.

What I thought was especially cool was that the book got responses from people at Fox News and fit them into the chapters as discussion. They seem much more rational as people when you can see responses like the following. Well, except Glenn Beck. But whatever.

And that was actually one of the things I always liked about Jon’s show, is that yes, he mocked you, but it was mocking in a kind of disappointed way, like we should do better than that.

-Chris Wallace, Fox News

It was simultaneously hilarious and scary reading Stewart recount his meeting with Roger Ailes after a Fox News interview. Ailes started with “How are you doing? How are your kids?” which sounds friendly enough, until you realize that Ailes has never met Stewart’s kids and shouldn’t have known their names. The way Stewart describes it, it could easily be interpreted as a friendly but veiled threat against his family. WHAAAT? That sounds like a scene from a movie with an over the top bad guy.

Apparently that encounter was part of what lead up to the “Go Fuck Yourself” choir that is referenced on the internet as one of the Daily Show’s highlights.

 

The Rally to Restore Sanity (AND/OR Fear)

The book also went into detail about the Rally to Restore Sanity and the March to Keep Fear Alive. Reading about how it was originally supposed to be two events was eye opening for me. I remember seriously contemplating going to it back when it was was originally announced.

I think it would have gone over much better as two separate events, one with Colbert’s March to Keep Fear Alive, and one with the Rally to Restore Sanity. The juxtaposition and mock conflict would have presented a much more cohesive message. But it was better to have it happen than not.

It was intriguing reading about the difficulties with setting up the event, while simultaneously trying to cover the nearby primaries. I hadn’t realized that they never rehearsed it and that the script wasn’t given out until the figurative 11th hour. That’s amazing that they pulled it off.

What was extremely humorous was Jon Stewart recounting how people in Washington had told him his event failed because it hadn’t gotten people to vote more Democratic, since that was never Stewart’s goal.

 

The WTC First Responders Bill

And I was ranting to them (first responders being interviewed) about, ‘These fucking congressmen, they just want to go home, they’re talking about how nostalgic they are for Christmas and they can’t bear another day away from Tennessee or Arizona…” and Kenny Specht said, ‘Oh, you know we always thought it was an honor to work on the holidays, to protect people’s families.’

And I told him, ‘Say that. that’s how we’re ending.’

I remember watching the show and seeing this bill mentioned, but I never realized the scope of what was involved, or how dearly that Jon Stewart held it to his heart. I had thought it was just another piece about the absurdity of a Republican Congress saying that they love the work of people in uniform, but won’t pay to help the ones who need it.

Reading in the book about how much work had to go into getting the bill passed, how it was basically stuck and dead, and about how the Daily Show basically shamed Congress into passing it was eye opening. And to read about how they had to do it again 5 years later taught me two things. (1) Congress can be petty. Why would your bill expire in five years? (2) Shaming people publicly is actually a valid way to get things done in Congress.

 

Wyatt Cenac

One of the things that the book did especially well was shed light on some Daily Show controversies that hadn’t really been talked about, or at least that I didn’t really know about. One of these things was the reported argument between Jon Stewart and Wyatt Cenac, one that purportedly led to Wyatt’s departure from the show later.

It was something that I had kind of read about in passing and though “No way that’s true” when I had read that Jon Stewart had taken offense to getting called a racist after one of his more racial bits, and had kicked Wyatt off the show. The way the book described it, with people that had been there all giving their takes, really paints the picture well to me.

“I believe, to this day, Wyatt thinks he said ‘Fuck you, I’m done with you,’ and that is not what I heard. Jon started to walk down the hallway, towards his office, and Wyatt followed him, and they yelled at each other all the way down the hallway, into Jon’s office.”

-Jen Flanz

It seems like it was a heated misunderstanding that really blew up more than it should have. Granted, the book is pretty high on Jon Stewart in general, but most of the people’s perspectives that I read in the book seem to paint Stewart in a good light.

But it was interesting, albeit in a gossipy kind of way, to read about what went down.

 

How Comedy Central fucked up and could have had The Daily Show and the Colbert Report through the 2016 election but didn’t

I still truly believe that had the Daily Show show with Jon Stewart stayed on the air through the 2016 election, Trump would not be President-Elect now. I have at least a few friends that voted for Trump that I believe would not have if the Daily Show had stayed in its previous iteration. Now, I’m sure some folks would argue that’s not true, that Trump’s absurdities would have reached those people through traditional media. That anyone who would have voted for Trump would never have watched the Daily Show.

But I know some people who voted for Trump that loved the Colbert Report, and felt similarly about the Daily Show. Having a father figure like Jon Stewart telling you that voting for Trump is bad in SO MANY WAYS might have tipped the scales. I love Jon Oliver, but he doesn’t carry the same serious gravitas. He’s more like your silly brother telling you things. Stewart and the Daily Show felt more like your father telling you things.

Trump didn’t win by that much in each of those battleground states. Having the Daily Show might have made the difference. And if both Stewart AND Colbert were on? Crikey.

And so it’s so weird to me to learn that the main reason that we didn’t have either of those shows for the 2016 election is that Comedy Central tried playing hardball a little too much in contract negotiations. Instead of being signed through 2016, Stewart and Colbert, disillusioned with the contract negotiations, only came to an agreement with CC for 2 years, ending before the 2016 Election. This allowed Colbert to take his new gig with CBS, ending the Colbert Report, and allowed Stewart to back out of the limelight by leaving the Daily Show altogether.

I won’t lie. That hurts. A lot. Goddammit Comedy Central.

 

John Oliver

What they (Comedy Central) didn’t do was prepare for succession. Probably over two or three million dollars they let John Oliver slip through their fingers.

And to learn that Jon Stewart had picked John Oliver to be his successor, but Comedy Central was so shortsighted as to not have signed him to some sort of contract to prevent him from going to another show? Sheer lunacy.

The book went into great detail about how Comedy Central really dropped the ball in negotiations with John Oliver to keep him around. Dropped the ball so hard that he was getting offers from other stations, like Showtime and GODDAMN HBO, to host a show with them. It was endearing reading about Jon Stewart’s conversations with John Oliver about how he’d be insane not to take the HBO gig.

Reading about his last day made me look up the last episode that John Oliver was a part of. The book describes it with an extremely emotional tone, and I couldn’t help but feel it while watching the clip again. It was amazing.

 

Final Thoughts

This book was. AMAZING. It started off rough for me since I couldn’t really place faces to the names I was reading, and I wasn’t involved much in the early years of the Daily Show. Plus, the reading format took a little bit to get used to.

But it got SO MUCH BETTER. The book was so good that it got me to look up clips of the show from years past just to see how amazing a clip was. And it really got me more emotionally invested in the show…a dead show doh. I went back to watch the last episode with Jon Stewart again after reading the very emotional remarks by all the correspondents in the book and it…well, I’m not ashamed, it made me cry. haha.

This has really given me reason to watch the Daily Show with Trevor Noah, hoping that it hits a similar stride. I hope it does, because from the way that Stewart described it in the book and in random articles I read on the internet, he won’t be coming back or doing anything like the Daily Show ever again. And now I’m sad.

Dark Pools – TwoMorePages Book Review

Dark Pools – TwoMorePages Book Review

This is hands down the best financial book I have read to date. It was even better than Flash Boys, by my favorite financial author Michael Lewis, the book which prompted me to read further to understand HFT (high frequency trading) better. Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that it is even better than Michael Lewis’s The Big Short , which everyone (including me) loves.

Compared to Flash Boys, It did a much better job of illustrating the problems associated with high frequency trading; why I, as a normal investor should care; and, best of all, helped to illuminate how HFT came about in the first place.

Major takeaways

 

What was extremely surprising was learning about the ironic nature of what happened: practices that were originally put in place to help the average investor by punishing and taking advantage of rent-seeking intermediaries (market makers and specialists on the floors of the NASDAQ and NYSE) eventually morphed to become the the very practices which now prey on average investors, acting as an unsee intermediary that drives costs up. At least before, you knew you were getting fucked because you were crossing large bid/ask spreads from market makers; the fucking was transparent. Now, you’ll put in an order to buy or sell across what looks like a thin spread, but then transact at worse than you expected. EVERY. TIME.

The other surprising, but extremely relevant takeaway from this book was the revelation that it’s not necessarily the speed in which HFT firms trade that is the problem. That’s what most people initially conclude: “Oh, well nobody can think in terms of fractions of seconds. That’s how HFT firms are taking advantage of me.” Rather, it is the special order types that HFT are allowed to use, combined with their speed, that gives them their alpha, their edge over you and me and any other investor. Instead of being limited to normal market orders, or limit orders, like you and me, HFT get to use special orders that most people don’t even know about: ones that allow the to provide liquidity only when they want to (when they’re going to make money risk free), and step out of the way all the other times whenever shit is going down (like during the flash crash).

Less surprising, and covered in Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, was the revelation that HFT firms basically front run all of us any time that we make trades. Because of delays between one exchange and another, they can tell when say, Fidelity is purchasing a lot of shares of a specific company (for their customers presumably), and can then pull their original offer to sell at $X , and then put in a new offer to sell at $X + some amount. So then Fidelity ends up paying more for the stock than they would have otherwise.

So, why do I care?

Now, that all may mean fuck-all to you in isolation. “Who cares if they make money scalping pennies here and there? I just index and buy every once in awhile through my 401(k). I’m too small for HFT to care about, and I trade so infrequently that it shouldn’t matter” is an initial thought that I had when reading this book.

But here’s why you and I should care: We’re the ones getting fucked. Let’s take an example: Your 401(k) buys stocks of Google. Mine does inherently, since I purchase shares of the S&P 500 broad market index, and google is part of that index. Your orders, plus mine, plus those of several thousand others all pool at our custodian, Fidelity. The Fidelity fund manager needs to buy say 10,000 shares of Google and sees on his trading screen that there are currently 50,000 shares of Google offered (available to buy) at $X. So he puts in his order, thinking that he’ll buy 10,000 shares at $X.

Well, because of the tiniest delays in communication between exchanges, HFT firms can detect that there is buying demand in the market once Fidelity (my 401(k) custodian) puts in that buy order. In that fraction of a second between when the buy order first hits an exchange, the original offers to sell at $X disappear, and re-appear at $X + $.01 or $.02 (or some other arbitrary adder). This happens again and again until the orders eventually fill at those higher prices. So even though Fidelity thought it would be able to buy at $X with plenty of liquidity (since, after all, that’s what the exchanges showed), it actually isn’t able to.

Well, our 401(k) purchase order is basically a market order, so we sweep the prices up, paying say $X + $.10 in the process, let’s say. Well, now we just paid $.05 more than fair value, more than we had to. All these little things add up.

In a world where costs very much matter (especially if you are an boglehead / indexer like I am), these costs are HUGE. My expense ratio in my S&P 500 fund at Fidelity says I am only paying .05% . BUT, if you factor in the slippage (how much more we paid for Google in this example over $X), our expense ratio actually ends up being MUCH MORE than we bargained for, which costs us, you and me, a lot in the long run, especially when factoring in compounding gains.

The story

Okay, so we addressed why you should care. Why else would you read this book? Well, for one, it is actually entertaining. Much like Michael Lewis, Scott Patterson does a really good job of illustrating a story when making his points. He does a great job of starting from the beginning, and then building on the reader’s building knowledge base. If you didn’t know anything about HFT when you started, you wouldn’t be at a disadvantage at all. The way he illustrates what is happening, both through his characters and the actions and motivations of said characters, is extremely easy to understand.

And remember, these aren’t fictional characters in a book he’s writing. These are real people. These were real stories. These things really happened.

Josh Levine and Island

The story of how Island got created takes up about ⅓ to ½ of the book, and for good reason. Island is basically the backbone that started HFT. It was the first matching engine that took people completely out of the buy/sell matching equation. Whereas before, you’d have to pass through a human broker or market maker in order to buy/sell anything, and run into human errors (or greed) along the way, Island gave people a way to instantly match buyer and seller with no middleman in the way to skim profits off the top. It was also perfectly scalable so that as more people got into the market of computerized scalping, the matching engine wouldn’t slow down, as the old NYSE or NASDAQ often did.

I do find it very interesting that Josh Levine basically made Island because he saw an extremely inefficient system where middlemen (market makers and specialists on the floor of exchanges) were skimming tons of money from regular people by basically standing in the middle of a buyer and seller and taking a fee. He thought that was inefficient and dumb, and sought to create a way where buyer and seller could find each other without having to cross large bid/ask spreads along the way. He was a strong proponent of decimalization, so that stocks could trade at $X.01, or $X.23 instead of only $X + ⅛ , $X + ¼, etc. I’m only 30, so I can’t remember living in a world where I’d have to buy stocks in increments of ⅛. That seems archaic and bizarre to me, and Josh Levine is a big reason why I don’t live in a world like that. That’s crazy.

But I digress. Basicaly, Levine sought to make a more efficient system, much like I used to try to do and continue to do when I encounter what I think are stupid and inefficient systems at work. And HE DID IT! And along the way, he tried to solve problems, like how to get more liquidity on Island. The result? The maker-taker fee system that the book goes on to describe as a major problem with HFT trades. It seemed to make so much sense at the time; whoops. Unintended consequences.

The story of Island to me is so interesting, both in describing how it came to be, how it unseated the business model of major exchanges like the NASDAQ and the NYSE, the problems it faced as it grew, and ultimately, what happened to its original senior management as it grew up and got bought. Moreover, the description of Josh Levine’s motivations, how he wasn’t motivated by how to make more money, but by how to mold an inefficient market into an efficient one (and bring down entrenched intermediaries in the process), was absolutely fascinating to me. I loved it.

Haim Bodek and special order types

Aside from Josh Levine, the only other person that could be considered a protagonist in this story (if it were fictional, which it’s not) would be Haim Bodek. His story is an interesting one in the book, showing how he ran a very successful HFT firm where he learned how the traditional limit / market orders that basically everyone uses will always lead to getting taken advantage of. His conclusion that you had to know about secret order types that the exchanges don’t publish info about in order to make money (either as a HFT or as a lay trader) is pretty damning.

Because of the special order types that HFT firms use, Haim Bodek concludes that all that visible liquidity is fake. They can step out of the way and cancel their order in the smallest fraction of a second between you submitting your buy/sell order, only to sell to you at a higher price (or buy from you at a lower price) than you had originally shown.

That’s precisely the problem that Michael Lewis describes in his book, Flash Boys. His protagonist trader notices that every time he tries to transact, he transacts at a worse price than he expects.

Bodek’s main conclusion is that it’s not the speed in which HFT firms can trade that is the problem; it is the secret order types that are, that allow HFT to basically make risk free profit at the expense of everyone else.

Many of Haim Bodek’s critics may attack him, saying that he ran his HFT into the ground because he couldn’t keep up with the times, and now his attacks on the industry are just sour grapses. Well, I don’t buy that. Any criticism I see of him tends to concentrate on him as a person and not on his arguments. In fact, the next book I’m reading is by Haim Bodek himself, where he tries to illuminate the problem and explain in further detail what Scott Patterson touched on in this book.

Conclusions

I used to be a proponent of HFT, saying things like “They provide lots of liquidity. See the bid/ask spread on that stock? It’s less than a penny, because of HFT. In the past, that would have been much larger.” Well, turns out I was wrong, and this book is a great tool to illustrate exactly why. More than that, it describes the history behind HFT and the problems inherent with it in an extremely easy to understand and entertaining way. It’s not a textbook that tries to explain things to you in a dry fashion; you learn through the eyes of the players in the story as it develops.

This is 100% the best non-fiction book that I’ve read so far this year. Kudos, Scott Patterson, for shedding light on something that isn’t really that easy to understand. I can’t imagine how hard it was to get the info to write this book.