Dyed in the Wool

Following sports closely throughout my childhood and early adult years prepared me well for the inevitability of my interest in politics. Like a lot of other people my age, somewhere around the end of the 2000’s decade I shifted away from the bundle of traditional statistics everybody knows and loves and gravitated towards analytics. Older generations lament that advanced metrics take the heart out of sports; for me it was the opposite. I fell in love with sports all over again once I discovered what felt like a brand new game within the game.

I said sports prepared me for politics, but that’s just another way of saying “I know bullshit when I hear it.” In sports, you see this mostly when media members (oftentimes former players) praise athletes for their intangibles — things that aren’t reflected in the stat sheet. So they might say that someone “is a great locker room guy,” or that “he’s a leader,” or “he always gives it his all.” Most of the time — not all the time, but most of the time — it just means the player isn’t very good anymore. It means they have no evident skill(s). Media describe players by their intangible value as a band-aid to cover the reality that maybe some guys just get old, or are no longer effective.

In politics the analog for “intangibles” is “platitudes.” Platitudes (like intangibles) don’t really mean anything, but, again, they are a substitute for substance. You witness this whenever politicians offer anecdotes from their lives, or start a story with “I was talking to a farmer last week in Iowa,” all in service of concluding with some bullshit about how “we all agree on the importance of having strong values,” or whatever. When they have to talk constantly about life lessons from back in the day, or by using everyday Americans as props for a cheap and meaningless payoff to a story, all it says is they probably don’t have policies to offer people to help their lives.

With all that said, Bernie Sanders kicked off his campaign in Brooklyn last week, and for the first time (at least that I’ve heard) he talked about his upbringing. I fell in love with Bernie in 2015 because of his policies, it’s never been about his personality, but it struck me when he actually got personal. It’s almost as if his relentless crusade that is entirely based on policy in itself made the personal anecdote tolerable, if not acceptable and wonderful.

“My family and I lived in a 3.5-room rent-controlled apartment. My father was a paint salesman who worked hard his entire life, but never made much money. And my mother raised my brother and me. I learned a great deal about immigration as a child because my father came from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket, without knowing one word of English. He came to the United States to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread anti-Semitism. And it is a good thing that he came to this country, because virtually his entire family was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism. 

I am not going to tell you that I grew up in a home of desperate poverty; that would not be true. But what I will tell you is that coming from a lower-middle class family, I will never forget about how money, or really lack of money, was always a point of stress in our family. 

My mother’s dream was that someday our family would move out of that rent-controlled apartment to a home of our own. That dream was never fulfilled. She died young while we still lived in that rent-controlled apartment. My experience as a child living in a family that struggled economically powerfully influenced my life and my values. I know where I came from, and that is something I will never forget.”

Honest people can criticize Bernie Sanders for being wrong about the policies he supports. Philosophically they can believe that more government — and higher taxes — can have a negative impact on society. I think these people are wrong, but I also acknowledge that most people, even those on the left, aren’t going to agree with me.

Yet even if we don’t agree, it’s difficult for anyone to argue that Bernie is anything other than authentic. I, too, came from a lower-middle class family, and, like Sanders, it couldn’t be called “desperate poverty,” but money was always a point of stress. And that isn’t unique to just him and I. The reason he is so popular is because his policies of helping families like ours — and ones that are much, much worse off — are better for the American people and American economy. (They are also policies supported by a majority of the American people themselves. So, you know, democracy and everything.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve shed any tears, but I won’t deny that sometimes listening to Bernie Sanders does make me kind of emotional. I’m not one of those millennials who spends his days whining and complaining on social media, or infecting those around me with a pessimistic or fatalistic worldview. I’m so aware of the stigma millennials carry, whether fairly or unfairly, that I do everything I can not to come across like some petulant child who doesn’t believe in free speech, or doesn’t want to put in the work. I hate that this is even a thing, that such an insecurity can impact how I operate, but it’s a burden I’m comfortable bearing. Because if nothing else I want to show that if I do happen to be one of the few Millennials an older person is regularly exposed to, they can take some solace that the future is in decent hands.

But that doesn’t mean that millennials — as an entire generation — haven’t inherited a massive challenge, both now and looking ahead. We’ve got too much war, too much income inequality, and a planet that won’t be habitable in the (relatively) near future if 97% of the climate scientists are proven correct.

Millennials know this reality well. This is the legacy that the 1980’s and 1990’s have left us. You wonder what happens when you turn the government over to bankers, and fossil fuel executives, and private insurance executives, and people who take big bucks from the war machine, and what you find is just about everything in our little American bubble is centered around coming up with new ways to further enrich the already rich. It didn’t happen because the hand of god swooped down and intervened. It didn’t happen from factors out of our control. Instead, it came from policies that extracted money from the lower classes, those who have no lobbying power or seats at any tables that matter, and funneled it to the ownership class.

But this is the world I grew up in. It’s what I’ve spent my life preparing for, and preparing (perhaps in futility) to conquer. I never minded that living in a capitalist society forced me to have a dog-eat dog mentality, since after all I was going to eat more dogs than ate me. That’s the idea, anyway.

Bernie Sanders introduced me to a vision of the world that didn’t have to be like that. The dream he whispers actually has some morality, and isn’t so bent on winners and losers. When he talks about Universal Pre-K (free public preschool for small kids age 0-4), it makes me think maybe having children one day isn’t the worst idea ever. When he talks about Medicare For All, or free public college, it makes me think about a society where health and higher education are valued — and not merely the benefits of being born into a family with means.

Growing up in a lower-middle class family shaped my values. Growing up in the economically-challenged San Bernardino, California shaped my values. Going into debt $40,000 for going to Virginia Tech for just two semesters shaped my values. And seeing my dad starve off of Social Security checks that don’t go far enough to pay for his housing and healthcare shaped my values. Millennials just want free stuff, right? That’s what this is all about?

If you are earning $100 million a year, then your sphere of influence is very likely a bunch of other super-wealthy people. If you are making $30,000 a year, then you are probably surrounded by other workers who are struggling. What confounds me is how so many people earning $30,000, or $50,000, or even $100,000 a year, are so aggressively opposed to paying higher taxes. And in almost all cases it’s due to the bogus idea that poor people leaching off the system are the reason we can’t have nice things.

I’m fortunate enough to have a job that can support a family and live a decent life, but no matter how much money I make I am always going to identify more with the worker making $30,000 a year over the mega-millionaires and billionaires. The thousands of dollars I pay in taxes every year aren’t going to move the needle of the American economy even slightly, so why should I give a shit if those fractions of a penny in taxes are helping people who “take advantage of the system”?

On the other hand, some billionaires aren’t paying anything in taxes — and in fact are rewarded with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax rebates — and that is the money leftists like me are really going after. I know I sound really crazy when I mention it, but I’m fairly certain billionaires will still be able to eat and have a place to sleep if they pay a bit more in taxes.

And let’s talk about where that tax money will go, since that is why I’m writing this:

  • Universal Pre-K
  • Medicare For All
  • Free public college
  • The Green New Deal
  • Increasing Social Security benefits
  • Rebuilding infrastructure

Who does it benefit when billionaires aren’t paying taxes? It benefits them, and it benefits their families. And who does it benefit when billionaires are paying their fair share in taxes? It benefits everybody. You, me. Even them.

There is a better world, and it starts right there. And so what if that makes me sound young and naïve. History wasn’t built by people who just sat around and said, “You know what? This is as good as it gets.” It was built on ambition and big ideas, and being bold enough to do what had to be done. I wish I could say these ideas were all my own, just like I wish I worked more conventional hours so I could be more politically active than merely donating money. But I’m one of the true believers, who thinks these ideas will eventually win out. And, at worst, I’ll be able to say I was for something instead of capitulating to the idea it can never be done.

I look forward to the rest of my life. I want to be a dad someday, and I want my kids to have a good life. I want the society they live in to give them every opportunity of accomplishing the American dream. The society I was born into makes that proposition a difficult one for people my age, though it’s never stopped me (or many others) from making the best of it. The change we seek doesn’t come overnight, and in all likelihood won’t happen for quite awhile.

Nonetheless, it is a goal worth working towards, and a world worth fighting for. The challenge of our time isn’t singular, and won’t come from magic. The challenge is many different things, and they all in one way or another relate. First you get money out of politics and go back to public financing of elections. Then you get the people to decide that higher taxes on the rich can enact the social programs that benefit the hundreds of millions rather than the few.

I’m not writing this because I need it. If these ideas fail, and the movement Bernie Sanders led turns into a loser, then I will find a way to pay for preschool and healthcare and college. The reason this is so important is for the people who don’t have the means to make it on their own. The people who were born into a system designed for them to fail. The people who don’t have the option to just quit their job and find something that pays more.

There isn’t a lot I can do other than staying informed, and doing what I can to help be on the right side of history. If contributing some money to the winning campaign is how I accomplish that, then that’s what I can do. My fear is really what happens if we continue on the path we’re on, where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and so on. America is a great country and everything, but how long will ordinary people continue to put up with this bullshit before the masses are in the streets? We are trying this revolution peacefully. We really don’t want to have to take it there.

But JFK is the one who said it: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Too dramatic? Fuck it.

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