Friday, November 21, 2014

Ah Ha! First Things First In The Dumbo Immigration Policy — Elimination Of "Immigration Magnets" — AKA The Social Safety Net, Public Education, Clean Air, & Drinkable Water

Somehow, Andy Borowitz obtained a top-secret version of the forthcoming Dumbo/Moron immigration plan. In it, the geniuses opposing POTUS 44 will pursue a scorched earth policy that will remake the USA into the equivalent of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the poorest of the poor). No self-respecting immigrant seeking a better place will bother with the USA. If this is (fair & balanced) brilliance at the border, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
GOP Unveils Immigration Plan
By Andy Borowitz

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Senate Majority Leader [To-Be] Mitch McConnell unveiled his party’s long-awaited plan on immigration on Wednesday, telling reporters, “We must make America somewhere no one wants to live.”

Appearing with House Speaker John Boehner, McConnell said that, in contrast to President Obama’s “Band-Aid fixes,” the Republican plan would address “the root cause of immigration, which is that the United States is, for the most part, habitable.”

“For years, immigrants have looked to America as a place where their standard of living was bound to improve,” McConnell said. “We’re going to change that.”

Boehner said that the Republicans’ plan would reduce or eliminate “immigration magnets,” such as the social safety net, public education, clean air, and drinkable water.

The Speaker added that the plan would also include the repeal of Obamacare, calling healthcare “catnip for immigrants.”

Attempting, perhaps, to tamp down excitement about the plan, McConnell warned that turning America into a dystopian hellhole that repels immigrants “won’t happen overnight.”

“Our crumbling infrastructure and soaring gun violence are a good start, but much work still needs to be done,” he said. “When Americans start leaving the country, we’ll know that we’re on the right track.”

In closing, the two congressional leaders expressed pride in the immigration plan, noting that Republicans had been working to make it possible for the past thirty years. Ω

[Andy Borowitz is the creator the "Borowitz Report," a Web site that is a lot funnier than the stuff posted by Matt Drudge and his ilk. Borowitz is a comedian and writer whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker. He is the first winner of the National Press Club's humor award and has won seven Dot-Comedy Awards for his web site. His most recent book (and Amazon's Best Kindle Single of the Year) is An Unexpected Twist  (2012). Borowitz is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College.]

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

This Houston Radio Shock Jock Underwent A Vasectomy On Live Radio; It Should've Been A Lobotomy

Earlier today, a young reader from the Valley of the Sun passed along some info that had come to him from the state organization of the Grand Canyon State Asses about the one bright spot from the disaster known as Election Night 2014. That prompted this blogger to think about political reportage for today's blog post. Unfortunately, the best writing that this blogger could uncover revealed the shame of Texas: Lite Guv-Elect Dan Patrick. In the arcane world of Texas governance, the three most powerful Texas politicos are the Govenor (with the veto), the Lite-Guv (presiding over the 31 members of the State Senate), and the Speaker of the House (who presides over 150 House members). Two of the more memorable Lite-Guvs of late have been William P. (Bill) Hobby who served a record eighteen years — 1973-1991 — as the 37th Lieutenant Governor) and Robert D. (Bob) Bullock, Sr. who succeeded Hobby and served from 1991-1999. These two (37 & 38) are considered the two most powerful (and successful) Lite-Guvs in recent Texas history. Now, we await the arrival of the newest Lite-Guv — Dan Goeb Patrick (born Dannie Scott Goeb). Patrick, a Houston radio talk show host, has ties to the Moron (Tea Paty) wing of the Texas Dumbos, but he has been eclipsed by Senator C(rackpot) Cruz as the Lone Star Moron-darling. If this is (fair & balanced) fear & loathing of the coming 4 years, so be it.

[x TM]
Master Of The Senate
By Erica Grieder

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On January 23, 2013, the Texas Senate took up a minor administrative matter that would prove to be surprisingly consequential. The issue at hand had been dangling for several years. The 2010 census had captured a changing Texas: the state was younger, more urban, and less Anglo than it had been in 2000, and it had grown by about four million people. While demographers and economists and sociologists mulled how these trends would shape Texas’s future, politicians prepared for battle. For them, the census had an immediate implication: it was time for another round of redistricting. Or another few rounds, really. The Republican-controlled Legislature had produced a new set of electoral maps during the 2011 session, but Democratic groups challenged them as discriminatory. Not until 2012, after several rounds of legal wrangling, did federal judges approve the new maps.

The result was that the men and women elected to the Lege in 2012 represented new districts. And at the beginning of the next regular session, in January 2013, the Senate had to wrap up one last bit of business related to the redistricting. Senate terms are four years long, but the state constitution requires that elections for Senate seats be staggered. Half of the senators serving in the 2013 session would be assigned a four-year term; the others would get a special two-year term.

The matter was handled with Victorian gravitas and Elizabethan technology. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston who is the longest-serving member in the chamber, laid out a resolution explaining the process. The secretary of the Senate, Patsy Spaw, would produce 31 slips of paper, numbered from 1 to 31. She would place each piece of paper in a capsule and place each capsule in a separate envelope. She would then place the envelopes in a bowl. Five senators, appointed by lieutenant governor David Dewhurst, would supervise these preparations. Then Spaw would summon the senators, in alphabetical order, to pick a number. Those who drew odd numbers would have a four-year term. The others would have to run again in 2014, regardless of whether they had just slogged through an election in 2012.

For the senators with aspirations for higher office, the drawing was nerve-racking. Texas’s leadership had been largely unchanged for more than a decade. Rick Perry became governor in 2000, after George W. Bush was elected president. Dewhurst was elected in 2002, as was Greg Abbott, the attorney general. In January 2013, though, it looked as if Perry was preparing to move on. If so, the domino effect would create opportunities all the way down the ballot in 2014. Glenn Hegar, a Republican from Katy, left the dais with a smile. He was considering a run for comptroller, and his draw of a four-year term meant that he could do so without giving up his Senate seat. Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, folded her slip of paper precisely and walked back to her desk with a coolly blank expression as Spaw announced the verdict: a two-year term. She had just been reelected in November, in the Senate’s closest and most expensive contest of the year, and had been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. She would have to choose a race in 2014, and neither option was a sure thing.

For once, few people were paying attention to Dan Patrick, a Republican from Houston, as he approached the dais. Since his first session in the Senate, in 2007, he had made an outsized impression. A talk-radio host by background, Patrick had brought drama to the normally staid Senate; during that first session, he left the chamber rather than listen to an imam give the day’s opening invocation. He filed a bill proposing to give women $500 to choose adoption rather than abortion. He turned up one morning with a million dollars in bundled bills, which he displayed on a table outside his office to illustrate the point that a million dollars in the state budget is a lot of money.

That first session showed what kind of senator Patrick would be: independent, energetic, outspoken, and full of contradictions. In response to qualms about the abortion-alternative bill making it seem as if women would be paid to have babies, for example, he scoffed, “I seriously doubt any woman would get pregnant, carry the child for nine months, and give birth for the equivalent of one week’s pay at McDonald’s.”

By 2013 Patrick had amassed more experience and power than anyone would have predicted ten years earlier, when he was just a Houston shock jock, perhaps best known for having undergone a vasectomy during a live broadcast. Like Hegar and Davis, he was considered a potential candidate for statewide office in 2014. In particular, he was thought to be interested in his boss’s job—the lieutenant governor’s office is arguably the most powerful in the state. In practice, Perry was a strong governor, but constitutionally the office is a relatively weak one. The governor can veto bills, call the Legislature into special session, and make appointments. The lieutenant governor runs the Senate by controlling which legislation makes it to the floor. Several, like Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock, used the office to essentially run Texas.

For Patrick, there were a number of reasons to view the 2014 cycle as a now-or-never moment. Since his first election, the Republican party of Texas had moved further right—that is, it had moved in his direction. And at 63, Patrick was older than people would guess. If he wanted to be lieutenant governor, he would probably never have a better chance than in 2014. But he would have to gamble his high-profile perch in the Senate to take a swing at it. Winning would make him one of the most influential officials in Texas. Losing would effectively mean an abrupt end to his unlikely political career.

Patrick returned to his desk and leaned back in his chair, stretching out his legs and slowly drumming his fingers on his armrest. The controversial senator from Houston, in this uncharacteristically pensive posture, stared into the empty vertical space between the gallery and his colleagues on the Senate floor. His envelope had contained an unlucky capsule. He had drawn a two-year term.

True to form, Patrick would decide to roll the dice. And on November 4, 2014, he was elected lieutenant governor of Texas.

From a different perspective, Patrick’s victory had been secured months earlier, when he won the Republican nomination. His Democratic opponent, state senator Leticia Van de Putte, was deeply experienced and widely respected and had campaigned with passion. Her party too started the year with high hopes. Texas Democrats had been on the scrap heap, more or less, for twenty years, but highly publicized demographic trends seemed to favor them, and they were fielding a well-known and well-funded gubernatorial candidate in Wendy Davis. None of this mattered in the end. Davis turned out to be well-known but not well-liked. Exit polls found that Abbott had won 44 percent of Hispanic voters. Republicans once again swept the big elections, by startling margins. Patrick, like all the statewide Republican candidates, won by about twenty points.

But in September, when I went to see Patrick in Houston, he told me that he considered Van de Putte a real challenger. The night before, the two had met in Austin for their only televised debate. It had been a surprisingly lively hour. Like most of the Republicans running statewide, Patrick had seemingly adopted a general election strategy that one conservative consultant summarized as acting like a turtle: lie low, avoid public scrutiny, and don’t let the Democrats bait you, because you’ll win by double digits unless you actively screw it up. During the debate, though, Patrick had been feisty and had gone after Van de Putte as if he were the underdog.

“I mean, we’re friends,” Patrick told me. “You spend eight years working with someone, you get to know them. We just totally disagree on the issues, and I wanted to make sure there were no blurred lines.”

He had taken the debate seriously, he continued, and prepared accordingly. “You want to set the right tone. You don’t want to make any glaring mistakes. And you want to convince people to vote for you.” He sighed. “We’ve been running for fifteen months, and I don’t want to say it all came to a crescendo last night, but it was really important that we did well.”

Later, Patrick observed that of all the statewide Republican candidates, he was the only one who had faced three serious contests that year. This was true: in the primary, held in March, he had faced off against Dewhurst and two other well-positioned candidates—land commissioner Jerry Patterson and agriculture commissioner Todd Staples—and placed first, with 41 percent of the vote. He then proceeded to a runoff with Dewhurst, who had placed second, and won.

It was also true, although Patrick didn’t say it, that the lieutenant governor’s race had been unusually acrimonious. The primary had been hard fought, and tensions between the candidates were apparent. In the runoff it became explicitly personal after Patterson, who placed last in the primary, basically went on a rampage. He accused Patrick of dodging the draft. He compared him to the Louisiana demagogue Huey Long. He noted that in the eighties Patrick had hired unauthorized immigrants to work in the sports bars he owned, and that when the sports bars went under, he had filed for bankruptcy and walked away from more than $800,000 of debt. He called Patrick a liar, repeatedly, and added that he, Patterson, would never vote for a liar.

Patterson’s disdain was clearly genuine. Many conservatives quietly agreed with some of his criticisms. And Patrick’s indignation, in response, elided the fact that he has spent some time on the low road himself. The most notorious example of that came in 2012, when he was supporting Dewhurst’s bid for the Republican Senate nomination. Ted Cruz, at that point still largely unknown, had agreed to an interview on Patrick’s radio station, KSEV. The result was a contentious interview that struck many conservatives as a seriously dirty trick. Cruz held his own and went on to win the nomination, but it’s well-known that he was pretty angry about the episode.

This year, though, Patterson’s attacks on Patrick may have backfired, especially once it was reported, in May, that Patrick had been hospitalized for mental health issues in the eighties. The story was never officially attributed to Patrick’s critics, but it surely helped corroborate the impression among certain primary voters that a conservative was being targeted unfairly by the media and by the Republican establishment.

Van de Putte never went after Patrick’s personal life or health history, but during the debate she had been sharply critical of his record and character. She had taken him to task over his refusal to release his tax returns, charged him with having a habit of saying one thing and doing another, and accused him of using “harsh rhetoric and the politics of fear” in discussing illegal immigration. The next day, in Houston, it seemed that the latter argument had scuffed Patrick’s ego. Border security and illegal immigration have been among his major concerns for years, and they had been a focus of his campaign for lieutenant governor; during the primary, for example, his website declared “Stop the illegal invasion.” He gave a more nuanced view, though, when I asked him to elaborate on the nature of the threat posed by a relatively porous border.

“We have a real threat—not a hypothetical situation—a real threat from terrorists potentially crossing the border,” he said, “and for the governor and lieutenant governor not to take that threat seriously would be dereliction of duty.” Beyond the risk of terrorism, he said, there was the danger of crime: between 2008 and 2012, some 140,000 people had been arrested in Texas who were in the state illegally. Altogether their rap sheets listed 447,000 crimes committed in Texas and elsewhere, including more than 5,000 rapes and 2,000 murders.

Still, most of the unauthorized immigrants in Texas are economic migrants. I said I was concerned that discussions about border security sometimes conflate the two groups, which is unhelpful, if only because it could dilute law enforcement efforts to protect Texans from the criminal element that does exist.

“Well, that’s why we need to have a secure border. No one should be coming across, because your point is exactly right. We can get distracted and overwhelmed.” That was one of the reasons that the state had expanded law enforcement operations this summer, he noted, in response to the influx of Central American migrants, many of them unaccompanied children, to the Rio Grande Valley sector. “But the drug cartels and potential terrorists take advantage of blending in with the crowd,” he continued. “I understand and empathize with a person south of the border who feels like they have no future unless they come to America. But you have to come here legally.” The federal government’s approach, he added, was de facto amnesty that put immigrants at risk too—some would die in the desert; some would be extorted or sexually assaulted.

“I feel like your tone here has been a little bit more gentle than it has been at times during this campaign,” I said, turning to my next question, “and I credit my questions for that.”

“Okay,” said Patrick, acknowledging the teasing comment. But then he reconsidered. “Well, let me go back, though. I hear that a lot [about my tone] and I’m going to challenge you on that.” He was affable but firm. “What I just said to you I have said for fifteen months, but the media—and I’m not criticizing you for it, because I haven’t read anything that you’ve written about me—but the media consistently doesn’t report that accurately. I’ve read over and over, ‘Well, Dan has changed his tone.’ I haven’t changed my tone one bit. I’ve had this exact message for fifteen months.”

When Van de Putte had raised the issue the night before, Patrick responded by quoting an editorial that Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democratic senator from McAllen, had written about the unaccompanied children. Hinojosa had summarized the situation as “a humanitarian crisis,” presenting a number of difficulties. “People are expressing concerns about child endangerment, unsanitary conditions, and the lives of immigrant children being at risk,” Hinojosa wrote. But equally important, he continued, were the “public health risks from diseases” and the “local economic impact of quickly depleting resources” in the state.

“I read it and thought, ‘Did I write that?’” Patrick told me. “[Hinojosa] wrote that back in June, and I can tell you, I think he had real concerns. That’s my opinion. But when I read that to her”—meaning Van de Putte—“she came back and said, ‘Well, Dan Patrick has used harsh language like “diseases.” ’ Like she wasn’t even listening.”

Hinojosa had, in fact, gone on to say that although Mexico’s health care infrastructure is relatively strong, the same is not true in Central America and that immigrants from those countries often carry “invisible” diseases. He cited tuberculosis, measles, and hepatitis as particular concerns. But Patrick himself, I noted, had made similar claims. In 2006 he was quoted in the Texas Observer warning that unauthorized immigrants may carry “Third World diseases” such as polio and leprosy. I added that I thought both he and Hinojosa were overstating the risks: a Texan is more likely to get leprosy from an armadillo than an immigrant, and although measles has recently reappeared in the state, it’s the result of people declining to vaccinate their kids.

“Right,” said Patrick. “But, Erica, I didn’t bring this up. In 2006 I was quoting a Centers for Disease Control report. And in this race, I’ve never brought it up—except when I was asked.” He continued, sounding indignant. “And the media would report it as ‘Well, Dan Patrick’s talking about diseases!’ They were really talking about something I said in 2006. And they never said, ‘Well, Dan said that eight years ago, and he was quoting the CDC, which is a nonpartisan group in Atlanta,’ as you know.”

Things had changed, Patrick added, since the Ellis Island days. Back then, any immigrant who was sick on arrival was summarily sent back—and yet now his opponents and the media were giving him a hard time for even suggesting that global immigration might present some public health considerations. “So tell me,” he said. “I think you owe it to me in this interview to tell me—you say I’ve changed my tone. Tell me where I have not been consistent on this issue.”

“You also said that you think ISIS is crossing the border,” I responded.

“I said that they’re threatening to cross the border,” Patrick countered, correctly. During the debate, he had said that “ISIS threatens us today,” and a few days later, his campaign would release an ad saying that ISIS was “threatening” to cross the border. However, there is no evidence that such a threat exists, and the suggestion had struck me as unlikely.

“Why would they do that?” I asked. “That would be so inefficient.”

“I don’t know, Erica,” he said loftily. “Can you guarantee the people of Texas that ISIS is not going to cross the border?” Then he added, less loftily, “What do you mean—inefficient?” I argued back. “Why would you leave a conflict zone in Syria, travel across the world, and try to enter the United States via Mexico? Especially when a lot of ISIS supporters are British nationals and could just fly to JFK?”

“Maybe,” said Patrick. “Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. I’m not going to debate—Erica, you are too smart to take the position of ‘We don’t have to worry about ISIS.’ To say that would be naive.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” I said.

“So what’s your suggestion? Just let people in? The terrorists and the drug cartels aren’t interested in coming across legally,” Patrick said. “And that’s my point. If you secure the border to the best of your ability and create this legal pathway for people to come here to work—exactly what you’re saying—the honest people will do that. But you’re always going to have the drug cartels and potential terrorists wanting to cross the border.”

Patrick continued. “To say, as the president of the United States or the governor or lieutenant governor of Texas, ‘You know, they can come here legally, we don’t have to worry about them crossing the southern border—’ ”

He let the comment hang in the air. I had the sense that he wanted me to reflect on how serious he was, or possibly to reproach myself for being so cavalier. Instead, I reflected on Patrick’s peculiar talent for getting distracted, and the problems that that might cause him. He has the capacity to do good things for Texas. During his years in the Senate he’s proved himself to be hardworking, passionate, and willing to fight for ideas he cares about. For that matter, I could understand why he would be sensitive and defensive. Over the years he has been dismissed and derided to a greater degree than most officeholders and often, in my view, unfairly.

On the other hand, politics is a rough business. Egos get bruised. Patrick himself had thrown plenty of elbows. On that day in September, he had every reason to feel good about his professional trajectory. Within months he would be in a position to do influential work on the many serious issues that he is concerned about. And yet he had just derailed an interview to debate a mildly pointed but reasonable observation.

Since the primary there has been a lot of speculation about how Patrick will shape the Senate—and some concern over whether the Senate will lose its standing as the more tempered chamber. But a review of the record shows that Patrick has been talking about mainstream Republican issues—property taxes, border security, education reform—all along, and despite campaigning as the “true” conservative in the race, he may not be as extreme as he seems. On fiscal issues, for example, Patrick positioned himself to Dewhurst’s right: he voted against the budget bill in 2013 and was summarily endorsed by Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, the right-wing group helmed by Michael Quinn Sullivan. But in fact, at various times Patrick has proposed a number of things that would necessarily expand government spending: paying teachers more, creating incentives for math and science teachers, paying for school employees to receive gun safety training, sponsoring more residency slots for doctors, providing more funding for children’s health care, figuring out a long-term financing stream for the water plan, and supporting a protracted National Guard presence on the border. And although he voted against the final version of the budget bill in 2013, he had voted for earlier iterations—including the Senate version that was larger than the one ultimately sent back by the House.

At the time, his vote had seemed like a political gambit. Patrick could work on the budget for most of the session and then end up voting against it to score points. The budget would easily pass anyway. But when asked, he said that his opposition was his way of protesting specific discrepancies. “There were a lot of different things in the bill that changed at the very last second that, let’s just say, surprised me in conference,” he said, meaning the conference committee process, in which a small group of representatives and senators meet to hash out lingering disagreements. He declined to elaborate on the record, but at no point did he say that he voted against the budget because it was too large.

Meanwhile, Patrick has consistently called for lower taxes, specifically lower property taxes, and he was breezy when I asked him which areas of government spending should be cut to make up for it. “Remember, we don’t have a statewide property tax. We don’t collect that money. So it’s the local governments that would have to adjust.” Taken together, Patrick’s stated goals are mathematically dubious, but they don’t suggest a scorched-earth approach to government. Unlike some conservatives, he comes across as someone who’s actually interested in public service.

If Patrick’s wonkish side has been underreported, it’s partly his own fault. He isn’t the first tea party–type Republican to have won high office in Texas by attacking the party establishment. Cruz beat him to it in 2012—as did Perry, arguably, in his 2010 primary against Kay Bailey Hutchison. But Perry was already the incumbent governor at that point, and Cruz had served as Abbott’s solicitor general. Patrick is the first of the top-tier antiestablishment Republicans who actually is an outsider.

He campaigned as such in 2006 and has maintained that stance as a senator. There was a slight swing in 2012, when he backed Dewhurst, and the next year, when, as chair of public education, he shepherded several major reform bills through the Senate and saw them pass with bipartisan support. But even in 2013 Patrick found time to pick a few fights. He authored and passed a bill that dismantled CSCOPE, a public-school curriculum used primarily in rural districts; Thomas Ratliff, a moderate Republican who serves on the State Board of Education, described Patrick’s actions as “twenty-first-century book burning.” In April he attempted to recall a bill authored by Republican senator Kel Seliger that sought to require greater disclosure of “dark money” campaign contributions; Seliger was annoyed, especially because Patrick had voted for the bill just a few hours before. His last-minute vote against the budget was met with exasperation by Tommy Williams, the chair of the Finance Committee. By the time Patrick announced his campaign for lieutenant governor, he again seemed like an outsider.

But just as Patrick is anti-establishment, the Republican establishment sometimes seems anti-Patrick. He’s not particularly close with any other statewide Republicans. He’s never been popular with moderate, business-focused Republicans. The Texas Association of Business and Texans for Lawsuit Reform, for example, both endorsed Dewhurst in the primary rather than Patrick. TLR did switch its endorsement in the runoff, but that was seen as realpolitik—might as well make friends with the next lieutenant governor—rather than a real change of heart.

Even Patrick’s standing among conservatives is more tenuous than one might think. In 2010 he announced that he would start a tea party caucus in the Legislature, but he is not a product of that movement or of the overlapping “liberty” movement inspired by Ron Paul, and his opposition to Cruz offended many grassroots leaders. Since 2012 Patrick has managed to get a second hearing from some of these conservatives. JoAnn Fleming, the executive director of Grassroots America We the People, told me that she is initially skeptical of all politicians but that Patrick had come across as committed and principled in meetings with her group. They had disagreements, she said, but he was someone she could work with. “I’ve never found him to be disingenuous.” And he won many critical endorsements from conservative groups in this year’s primary. Cruz, however, is still the dominant figure among Texas’s tea party Republicans, and Patrick’s ties to that crowd remain strained.

If Patrick is aligned with any of the Republican coalition’s factions, it’s the religious right. He has described himself numerous times as “Christian first, conservative second, and Republican third,” and he has passed several pieces of legislation that reflect his religious beliefs, most prominently the 2011 bill that requires women seeking an abortion to undergo a sonogram.

In addition, Patrick has extensive ties to Steven Hotze, an evangelical physician from Houston who has poured buckets of money into Republican campaigns over the years. Hotze’s influence on Texas politics has been muted compared with that of other major donors. But as a physician whose business empire includes a compounding pharmacy, he has expressed an interest in the way in which doctors and pharmacies are regulated and overseen. Hotze also cares about issues such as gay rights, and he may expect Patrick, as a fellow Christian conservative, to be sympathetic to those concerns.

In a 2012 interview, I asked Patrick about his priorities for the upcoming session. He cited a couple of his old standbys and seemed most excited to get a crack at education reform and school choice. He didn’t mention any social issues, and when I asked, he said he was done with them. He had accomplished what he wanted on that front, he explained, and he ticked off his three signature social achievements: the sonogram law, a bill that added the words “In God We Trust” above the dais in the Senate, and a measure adding the words “Under God” to the state pledge. Still, while campaigning for lieutenant governor, Patrick had been explicit about his faith and taken hard-line positions on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

So in September, when a source mentioned that several people from Patrick’s circle had congregated at a steakhouse in Austin to talk about a new project called the Contract for Texas, a sort of purity pledge for socially conservative legislators, it didn’t seem out of the blue. But I was surprised a few days later when I asked Patrick about the Contract for Texas.

“I don’t know anything about it,” he said.

I looked at Patrick. He was politely unruffled. Then I looked across the table at his campaign strategist, Allen Blakemore, who is also the strategist for Hotze’s PAC Conservative Republicans of Texas. He had been sitting quietly across the table since the interview began and had just turned red as he gulped half a glass of iced tea.

“You know about it, right?” I asked Blakemore.

“Uh,” Blakemore said. “The best, best thing to do would be to talk to the person who’s working on it—Dr. Hotze.”

I replied that I had reached out to Hotze but had received no response. Blakemore wouldn’t say anything else. “This is Dan’s interview,” he said, pointing at Patrick, who was looking at us curiously.

“You’re not involved in that?” I asked Patrick.

“I don’t even know what it is,” he said.

I took a moment to consider this. Blakemore had just confirmed, to me and to his boss, that Hotze was working on a shadowy new legislative project that neither he nor Blakemore had bothered to discuss with the next lieutenant governor of Texas, despite the fact that Blakemore is Patrick’s strategist, Hotze is a major donor, and the project in question would probably get nowhere in the Legislature without serious support from the leadership.

Patrick broke the silence. “I’m aware that there’s something called a Contract for Texas. I have no idea what it says. I haven’t even had time to read it. No one’s talked to me about it.”

I asked the same question I had asked him in 2012, whether he expected any socially conservative priorities to come up.

“I think we’ll continue to improve women’s health and also save innocent lives. But I think we’ve done a very good job in that over the years,” said Patrick. “There will always be social issues. End-of-life issues are probably one thing that hasn’t been resolved.” And that was that.

“But my priorities are going to be very clear,” he continued, brightening. “Fund law enforcement with sufficient dollars to secure the border to the best of our ability, and that would mean keeping the National Guard there for the long term. Secondly, lower people’s property taxes. Third, find options for parents who have children in failing schools. We have six hundred and fifty-one campuses that the state calls ‘failures.’ It is unconscionable for the state to force parents to send their children to those schools. We can’t expect a student to succeed if we insist he or she go to a failing school.”

Patrick continued to reel off the concerns he would prioritize. The dropout rate. The shortage of math and science teachers. The fact that Texas has more students graduating from medical school than residency spots available to those graduates and therefore loses a significant number of its newly minted doctors. He talked about expanding transportation funding; in addition to ending diversions from the gasoline tax, an idea that has increasing traction among conservative Republicans, he would like to dedicate a portion of the revenue from the motor-vehicle sales tax to the highway fund. He wants to put together a long-term water plan.

“And lastly,” Patrick said, “my style will be totally different than that of my predecessor’s.”

No one would disagree with that statement. But the style that served Patrick so well as a Senator may not translate to his new job.

When the Senate convenes in January, it will be an uncertain animal. Seven of the senators who served in 2013 will be gone, not including Patrick. Tommy Williams stepped down to take a job as a vice chancellor at Texas A&M, and Robert Duncan gave up his seat to become the chancellor of the Texas Tech System. Glenn Hegar won his election for comptroller, and Ken Paxton succeeded Abbott as attorney general. Two additional Republican incumbents, John Carona and Bob Deuell, were booted by primary voters. On the Democratic side, Davis, having chosen to run for governor, gave up her Senate seat; she will be replaced by a Republican, the tea party activist Konni Burton.

The incoming senators will be, for the most part, less experienced, more conservative, or both. Democrats will be the minority, but they may have the upper hand in terms of institutional knowledge and tactical expertise.

Patrick’s predecessors would probably have harnessed the opposition and put it to good use. During Dewhurst’s six sessions as lieutenant governor, for example, Republicans controlled the Senate, but Democrats had some influence. He appointed a number of them as committee chairs and sanctioned the use of the two-thirds rule—the procedural maneuver in which the senators place a “blocker bill” at the beginning of the legislative calendar, meaning that two thirds of the senators have to vote to suspend the usual order of business before bringing any other bills to the floor. Patrick, in campaigning against Dewhurst, had cited these policies as fatal evidence of the incumbent’s moderation and added that he wouldn’t be so accommodating.

When I asked him about this, he said he would at least like to replace the two-thirds rule with a less stringent standard. “The threshold of two thirds for every bill is simply too high,” he said. “It empowers the minority party. When the majority of the people elect a party, they expect that party to govern.”

Bipartisanship would persist, Patrick continued, when Democrats brought forward a bill that Republicans deemed worthy of support. “You want to be fair to the other side, even if there were only three Democrats,” he said. “But you don’t want the party that has lost overwhelmingly to then control the Senate. So I think sixty percent is right. And I would think that today if the situation were reversed.”

But there are also cases where the two-thirds rule is used as a self-binding mechanism, I pointed out. During the previous session, for example, Republicans had proposed drug testing for people seeking welfare benefits. Democrats were fiercely opposed to the idea on the basis that it would be inefficient and punitive, and they used the specter of the two-thirds rule to encourage Republicans to consider some additional testimony. The Republicans, having listened, agreed to tweak the bill to say that in cases where a parent failed the drug test, the portion of the welfare benefits intended for any children involved would be redirected to another legal guardian. Both sides agreed that this was an improvement, and the bill passed unanimously.

“But it’s just a number,” said Patrick. The blocker bills weren’t used, he explained, until the early fifties, when Texas was a one-party Democratic state. Most of the senators were Democrats, but they had plenty of disagreements and began using the two-thirds rule to help decide which bills would make it to the floor.

History points to another reason many Republicans have supported the two-thirds rule, I observed, even though it seemingly works against them. There are a number of issues that don’t divide the Lege along partisan lines; vouchers, for example, tend to pit rural and urban legislators against their colleagues from the suburbs. “Absolutely,” said Patrick, as if I had agreed with him.

As for the committees, most observers agree that Patrick would be hard-pressed to name only Republicans as chairs. By insisting on a more-partisan Senate, however, Patrick is necessarily limiting his pool of allies.

And allies are what Patrick needs. His independent ethos set him apart as a senator and helped him win the Republican nomination this year. But the lieutenant governor is supposed to lead the Senate, not light it on fire. Patrick is no longer an outsider; as of January he’ll be in the center of the room. He may still be an underdog. But he’ll have to learn some new tricks. Ω

[Erica Grieder has been a Senior Editor at Texas Monthly since November 2012; prior to that, she was the Southwest correspondent for The Economist. Grieder received both a BA (philosophy) from Columbia University and a Master of Public Affairs (MPAff) from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas (2013).]

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cluster-Faction Is Not Quite The Best Description For What We Have In The Nation's Capital

The founders were intelligent men, but they never foresaw (Dumb)Asses, Dumbos, and Morons. The present politicos are members of factions, but that is not the F-word that fits any of them. If this is a (fair & balanced) wish for a plague on both their houses, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
Imperfect Union: The Constitution Didn't Foresee Divided Government
By Garrett Epps

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“The president is completely ignoring the will of the American voters, who turned out on Election Day and overwhelmingly elected people who wanted to change the direction of the country,” Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, complained Thursday [11/13/2014] to The New York Times.

Barrasso is right. President Obama is ignoring “the will” of those who turned out to vote this month. In a different system, he would have already moved out of the White House, replaced by a leader chosen by the Republican majorities in Congress. (For that matter, he would have been gone after his party took, in his words, a “shellacking” in 2010.)

Instead, however, he is president for two more years. When the voters were directly asked their “will” on his tenure two years ago, they handed him a title deed to the White House good, under our Constitution, until January 2017. With that in hand, he has made clear that he plans to go forward with executive actions to further his agenda.

Already, since the election, he has signed an agreement with China setting more strenuous goals for reducing carbon emissions. He has promised to issue soon an executive order providing broader protections against deportation for undocumented immigrants—in effect using executive authority to impose a limited form of the comprehensive immigration reform the Senate passed but the House refused to enact. Signals from the White House suggest that other executive initiatives may be in the works.

Is this an outrage, a defiance of democratic legitimacy? Is it a welcome sign of courageous presidential leadership? How does the coming duel between legislative and executive branch fit into the design of our Constitution?

The answer to the last question is easy. What’s coming will be painful, frustrating, and dangerous—and it will illustrate a constitutional malfunction unforeseen in 1787. The country will survive, and it’s possible it can even make progress—but at tremendous cost in polarization and missed opportunity. The country is like a car driving with the handbrake on: Any movement forward will be accompanied by smoke and internal damage.

So we might profitably put a six-month moratorium on paeans to the wisdom of the Framers. The problem of divided government is a bug, not a feature, and the Constitution itself provides no guidance on how to work around it.

Obama’s response may or may not be outrageous, but it is not novel. Remember 2006? If ever a midterm election delivered a verdict about the “will of the voters,” it was that one. A single issue—the disastrous war in Iraq—dominated election rhetoric nationwide, and candidates who opposed the war won almost everywhere.

President George W. Bush’s response? He escalated the war the people had just repudiated, with the “surge” of 20,000 new troops into Iraq and extended tours for those already there. That worked brilliantly, rescuing the Baghdad government from imminent collapse—or, wait, it postponed inevitable failure long enough for it to land in Barack Obama’s lap in 2014.

Judging the answer is, mercifully, not part of my remit. But the example shows how, for better or worse, the Constitution created a government consisting of three high places—president, Congress, and Supreme Court—and the lay of the land looks very different from each.

To Republican members of Congress, a sweeping electoral result like this month’s is the most important thing in the world. They are legislators, and they think in terms of legislative control; in a sane system, they tend to think, they would be quoting the late Lord Shawcross of Friston, who (unwisely, as it turned out) celebrated the British Labour Party’s 1945 victory by telling Parliament, “We are the masters at the moment, and not only at the moment but for a very long time to come."

From the vantage point of a president—particularly a second-term president—the world looks different. He has two years left on an eight-year project. Congressional leaders are outraged that Obama proceeded with the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change during his long-scheduled trip to Beijing, despite the election results. But the idea that a president would scrap months of talks—as part of a multilateral negotiating process designed to last at least until 2015—because of a change in Senate control must seem, from the White House, not just wrong but (to quote the great Vizzini), inconceivable. Similarly, the president has a war to run and a wide variety of policy initiatives to steer through the bureaucracy for the remaining two years of his term; crimes to prosecute, secret counterterrorism operations to supervise, medals to present, etc. Congress, however hostile it may be, must seem largely irrelevant to much of his day-to-day work.

I’m not taking one side against the other; I’m trying to illustrate a dangerous weakness of our system, one that the Framers clearly did not foresee. Many of them believed there would not be political parties in the new system. Others no doubt thought that the government they had designed would consist of a Congress that met for a month or so every December and a president who would supervise a slumbering bureaucracy the rest of the year. Some of them assumed the president would be a passive figure, administering directions from Congress; others imagined a chief executive with some of the majesty of the king of England.

I don’t think any of them anticipated that the two branches would ever clash over which represented “the will of the voters.” The voters weren’t all that important in their design. The House was the only branch directly elected by voters. The Senate was picked by legislatures, the president by electors. Most of them believed the voters should be represented—a different thing entirely than being asked their “will.”

Today, however, the active consent of the people is commonly held to be the only true source of legitimacy; the two parties are hostile and polarized; and the day-to-day operations of government are vitally important in terms both of foreign threats and of an integrated global economy.

Had the Framers foreseen any of that, they might have made different choices. Something closer to a parliamentary system would have been one option; it’s a much more common system than our own. But they might also have given Congress different terms, so that all members and the president would be selected at the same time. Two years is, by world standards, a very short legislative term; politics has become a non-stop exercise. In addition, midterm elections that don’t directly affect executive power create the danger of two antagonistic governments trying to fit into one capital.

But they didn’t foresee how the system might go awry, and so we have to do the best we can with what we have.

The constitutional wisdom is that Congress has the ultimate weapon: the power of the purse. But to use the appropriations power well, Congress has to craft budgets the president will sign—or get two-thirds of the votes in each House to override a veto. Neither is going to happen in the present atmosphere. The new congressional leadership are not the masters; they're just players in a complex and dangerous game. Their only real alternative is genuine negotiation with the White House, but a party that has spent six years pretending Obama did not win two national elections is unlikely to want to negotiate with him now.

So we know what probably happens next: shutdown, perhaps default, and possibly impeachment. These are the weapons of legislators too weak and divided to govern. The nation has been down this road before, and it doesn’t lead anywhere we want to go. Ω

[Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. As a Professor of Law, he teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court. Epps received a BA (English) form Harvard University, an MA (writing) from Hollins College, and a JD (with highest honors) from Duke University.]

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Roll Over, Austin — Make Way For Sunnyvale, Our Newest Weird City

The newest iteration of the mythic elephants' graveyard is Weird Stuff in the Silicon Valley — a warehouse full of discarded stuff from both successful and failed startups: outdated equipment. The equivalent of a mythic computer/office equipment graveyard caused business reporter Adam Davidson to muse about economic success and failure. If this is a (fair & balanced) meditation on innovation, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap 'Zine]
Welcome To The Failure Age
By Adam Davidson

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When you pull off Highway 101 and head into Sunnyvale, CA, the first thing you notice is how boring innovation looks up close. This small Silicon Valley city, which abuts both Cupertino, the home of Apple, and Mountain View, the site of the Googleplex, is where Lockheed built the Poseidon nuclear missile. It’s where the forebear of NASA did some of its most important research and where a prototype for Pong debuted at a neighborhood bar. Countless ambitious start-ups — with names like Qvivr, Schoolfy, and PeerPal — appear in Sunnyvale every year. Aesthetically, though, the city is one enormous glass-and-stucco office park after another. Its dominant architectural feature, the five-story headquarters of Yahoo, a few minutes from Innovation Way, looks about as futuristic as a suburban hospital.

As an industry becomes more dynamic, its architecture, by necessity, often becomes less inspiring. These squat buildings have thick outer walls that allow for a minimal number of internal support beams, creating versatile open-floor plans for any kind of company — one processing silicon into solar-power arrays, say, or a start-up monitoring weed elimination in industrial agriculture. In Sunnyvale, companies generally don’t stay the same size. They expand quickly or go out of business, and then the office has to be ready for the next tenant. These buildings need to be the business equivalent of dorms: spaces designed to house important and tumultuous periods of people’s lives before being cleaned out and prepped for the next occupant.

Perhaps the best place to behold the Valley’s success as a platform for innovation is a 27,000-square-foot facility just down the block from Yahoo. This is the warehouse of Weird Stuff, a 21-person company that buys the office detritus that start-ups no longer want. One section of the space teems with hundreds of laptops and desktops; another is overloaded with C.P.U.s and orphaned cubicle partitions. “If founders are in a building that’s costing $50,000 a month, and they’ve lost their funding and have to be out by next Friday, we respond very quickly,” said Chuck Schuetz, the founder of Weird Stuff.

Weird Stuff also acquires goods from the start-ups that succeed, when they are ready to upgrade offices and need to offload their old equipment. “We get truckloads every day,” Schuetz told me. He said that he receives a lot of calls from government offices and large corporate-network operators who desperately need, for example, a 1981 Seagate ST506 hard drive in order to keep a crucial piece of equipment running. But much of his stuff is bought by new waves of start-ups in search of inexpensive keyboards or cubicle partitions. What doesn’t move is sold to scrap dealers. “This,” he said, gesturing to the giant scrap bin out back, “is where everything ends up.”

For decades, entrepreneurs and digital gurus of various repute have referred to this era, in a breathlessness bordering on proselytizing, as the age of innovation. But Weird Stuff is a reminder of another, unexpected truth about innovation: It is, by necessity, inextricably linked with failure. The path to any success is lined with disasters. Most of the products that do make it out of the lab fail spectacularly once they hit the market. Even successful products will ultimately fail when a better idea comes along. (One of Schuetz’s most remarkable finds is a portable eight-track player.) And those lucky innovations that are truly triumphant, the ones that transform markets and industries, create widespread failure among their competition.

An age of constant invention naturally begets one of constant failure. The life span of an innovation, in fact, has never been shorter. An African hand ax from 285,000 years ago, for instance, was essentially identical to those made some 250,000 years later. The Sumerians believed that the hoe was invented by a godlike figure named Enlil a few thousand years before Jesus, but a similar tool was being used a thousand years after his death. During the Middle Ages, amid major advances in agriculture, warfare and building technology, the failure loop closed to less than a century. During the Enlightenment and early Industrial Revolution, it was reduced to about a lifetime. By the 20th century, it could be measured in decades. Today, it is best measured in years and, for some products, even less. (Schuetz receives tons of smartphones that are only a season or two old.)

The closure of the failure loop has sent uncomfortable ripples through the economy. When a product or company is no longer valued in the marketplace, there are typically thousands of workers whose own market value diminishes, too. Our breakneck pace of innovation can be seen in stock-market volatility and other boardroom metrics, but it can also be measured in unemployment checks, in divorces and involuntary moves and in promising careers turned stagnant. Every derelict product that makes its way into Weird Stuff exists as part of a massive ecosystem of human lives — of engineers and manufacturers; sales people and marketing departments; logistics planners and truck drivers — that has shared in this process of failure.

Innovation is, after all, terrifying. Right now we’re going through changes that rip away the core logic of our economy. Will there be enough jobs to go around? Will they pay a living wage? Terror, however, can also be helpful. The only way to harness this new age of failure is to learn how to bounce back from disaster and create the societal institutions that help us do so. The real question is whether we’re up for the challenge.

After a tour of Weird Stuff, Schuetz mentioned a purple chair that he kept among the office furniture piled haphazardly in the back of his facility. Unbeknown to him, that chair actually provides a great way to understand the acceleration of innovation and failure that began 150 years ago. In ancient times, purple chairs were virtually priceless. Back then, all cloth dyes were made from natural products, like flower petals or crushed rocks; they either bled or faded and needed constant repair. One particular purple dye, which was culled from the glandular mucus of shellfish, was among the rarest and most prized colors. It was generally reserved for royalty. Nobody had surplus purple chairs piled up for $20 a pop.

But that all changed in 1856, with a discovery by an 18-year-old English chemist named William Henry Perkin. Tinkering in his home laboratory, Perkin was trying to synthesize an artificial form of quinine, an antimalarial agent. Although he botched his experiments, he happened to notice that one substance maintained a bright and unexpected purple color that didn’t run or fade. Perkin, it turned out, had discovered a way of making arguably the world’s most coveted color from incredibly cheap coal tar. He patented his invention — the first synthetic dye — created a company and sold shares to raise capital for a factory. Eventually his dye, and generations of dye that followed, so thoroughly democratized the color purple that it became the emblematic color of cheesy English rock bands, Prince albums and office chairs for those willing to dare a hue slightly more bold than black.

Perkin’s fortuitous failure, it’s safe to say, would have never occurred even a hundred years earlier. In pre-modern times, when starvation was common and there was little social insurance outside your clan, every individual bore the risk of any new idea. As a result, risks simply weren’t worth taking. If a clever idea for a crop rotation failed or an enhanced plow was ineffective, a farmer’s family might not get enough to eat. Children might die. Even if the innovation worked, any peasant who found himself with an abundance of crops would most likely soon find a representative of the local lord coming along to claim it. A similar process, one in which success was stolen and failure could be lethal, also ensured that carpenters, cobblers, bakers and the other skilled artisans would only innovate slowly, if at all. So most people adjusted accordingly by living near arable land, having as many children as possible (a good insurance policy) and playing it safe.

Our relationship with innovation finally began to change, however, during the Industrial Revolution. While individual inventors like James Watt and Eli Whitney tend to receive most of the credit, perhaps the most significant changes were not technological but rather legal and financial. The rise of stocks and bonds, patents and agricultural futures allowed a large number of people to broadly share the risks of possible failure and the rewards of potential success. If it weren’t for these tools, a tinkerer like Perkin would never have been messing around with an attempt at artificial quinine in the first place. And he wouldn’t have had any way to capitalize on his idea. Anyway, he probably would have been too consumed by tilling land and raising children.

Perkin’s invention may have brought cheap purple (and, later, green and red) dyes to the masses, but it helped upend whatever was left of the existing global supply chain, with its small cottage-size dye houses and its artisanal crafts people who were working with lichen and bugs. For millenniums, the economy had been built around subsistence farming, small-batch artisanal work and highly localized markets. Inventions like Perkin’s — and the steam engine, the spinning jenny, the telegraph, the Bessemer steel-production process — destroyed the last vestiges of this way of life.

The original age of innovation may have ushered in an era of unforeseen productivity, but it was, for millions of people, absolutely terrifying. Over a generation or two, however, our society responded by developing a new set of institutions to lessen the pain of this new volatility, including unions, Social Security and the single greatest risk-mitigating institution ever: the corporation. During the late 19th century, a series of experiments in organizational structure culminated, in the 1920s, with the birth of General Motors, the first modern corporation. Its basic characteristics soon became ubiquitous. Ownership, which was once a job passed from father to son, was now divided among countless shareholders. Management, too, was divided, among a large group of professionals who directed units, or “subdivisions,” within it. The corporation, in essence, acted as a giant risk-sharing machine, amassing millions of investors’ capital and spreading it among a large number of projects, then sharing the returns broadly too. The corporation managed the risk so well, in fact, that it created an innovation known as the steady job. For the first time in history, the risks of innovation were not borne by the poorest. This resulted in what economists call the Great Compression, when the gap between the income of the rich and poor rapidly fell to its lowest margin.

The secret of the corporation’s success, however, was that it generally did not focus on truly transformative innovations. Most firms found that the surest way to grow was to perfect the manufacturing of the same products, year after year. G.M., U.S. Steel, Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and other iconic companies achieved their breakthrough insights in the pre-corporate era and spent the next several decades refining them, perhaps introducing a new product every decade or so. During the period between 1870 and 1920, cars, planes, electricity, telephones and radios were introduced. But over the next 50 years, as cars and planes got bigger and electricity and phones became more ubiquitous, the core technologies stayed fundamentally the same. (Though some notable exceptions include the television, nuclear power and disposable diapers.)

Celebrated corporate-research departments at Bell Labs, DuPont and Xerox may have employed scores of white-coated scientists, but their impact was blunted by the thick shell of bureaucracy around them. Bell Labs conceived some radical inventions, like the transistor, the laser and many of the programming languages in use today, but its parent company, AT&T, ignored many of them to focus on its basic telephone monopoly. Xerox scientists came up with the mouse, the visual operating system, laser printers and Ethernet, but they couldn’t interest their bosses back East, who were focused on protecting the copier business.

Corporate leaders weren’t stupid. They were simply making so much money that they didn’t see any reason to risk it all on lots of new ideas. This conservatism extended through the ranks. Economic stability allowed millions more people to forgo many of the risk-mitigation strategies that had been in place for millenniums. Family size plummeted. Many people moved away from arable land (Arizona!). Many young people, most notably young women, saw new forms of economic freedom when they were no longer tied to the routine of frequent childbirth. Failure was no longer the expectation; most people could predict, with reasonable assurance, what their lives and careers would look like decades into the future. Our institutions — unions, schools, corporate career tracks, pensions and retirement accounts — were all predicated on a stable and rosy future.

We now know, of course, that this golden moment was really a benevolent blip. In reality, the failure loop was closing far faster than we ever could have realized. The American corporate era quietly began to unravel in the 1960s. David Hounshell, a scholar of the history of American innovation, told me about a key moment in 1968, when DuPont introduced Qiana, a kind of nylon with a silklike feel, whose name was selected through a computer-generated list of meaningless five-letter words. DuPont had helped to create the modern method of product development, in which managers would identify a market need and simply inform the research department that it had to produce a solution by a specific date. Over the course of decades, this process was responsible for successful materials like Freon, Lucite, Orlon, Dacron and Mylar. In Qiana, DuPont hoped that it had the next Lycra.

But not long after the company introduced Qiana to the market, it was met by a flood of cheap Japanese products made from polyester. Qiana, which only came close to breaking even during one year of sales, eventually sustained operating losses of more than $200 million. Similar shudders were felt in corporate suites across America, as new global competitors — first from Europe, then from Asia — shook up the stable order of the automotive and steel industries. Global trade narrowed the failure loop from generations to a decade or less, far shorter than most people’s careers.

For American workers, the greatest challenge would come from computers. By the 1970s, the impact of computers was greatest in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs. Factory workers competed with computer-run machines; secretaries and bookkeepers saw their jobs eliminated by desktop software. Over the last two decades, the destabilizing forces of computers and the Internet has spread to even the highest-paid professions. Corporations “were created to coordinate and organize communication among lots of different people,” says Chris Dixon, a partner at the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. “A lot of those organizations are being replaced by computer networks.” Dixon says that start-ups like Uber and Kickstarter are harbingers of a much larger shift, in which loose groupings of individuals will perform functions that were once the domain of larger corporations. “If you had to know one thing that will explain the next 20 years, that’s the key idea: We are moving toward a period of decentralization,” Dixon says.

Were we simply enduring a one-time shift into an age of computers, the adjustment might just require us to retrain and move onward. Instead, in a time of constant change, it’s hard for us to predict the skills that we will need in the future. Whereas the corporate era created a virtuous cycle of growing companies, better-paid workers and richer consumers, we’re now suffering through a cycle of destabilization, whereby each new technology makes it ever easier and faster to create the next one, which, of course, leads to more and more failure. It’s enough to make us feel like mollusk-gland hunters.

Much as William Henry Perkin’s generation ripped apart an old way of life, the innovation era is sundering the stability of the corporate age. Industries that once seemed resistant to change are only now entering the early stages of major disruption. A large percentage of the health-care industry, for example, includes the rote work of recording, storing and accessing medical records. But many companies are currently devising ways to digitize our medical documents more efficiently. Many economists believe that peer-to-peer lending, Bitcoin and other financial innovations will soon strike at the core of banking by making it easier to receive loans or seed money outside a traditional institution. Education is facing the threat of computer-based learning posed by Khan Academy, Coursera and other upstart companies. Government is changing, too. India recently introduced a site that allows anybody to see which government workers are showing up for their jobs on time (or at all) and which are shirking. Similarly, Houston recently developed a complex database that helps managers put an end to runaway overtime costs. These changes are still new, in part because so many large businesses benefit from the old system and use their capital to impede innovation. But the changes will inevitably become greater, and the results will be drastic. Those four industries — health care, finance, education and government — represent well more than half of the U.S. economy. The lives of tens of millions of people will change.

Some professions, however, are already demonstrating ways to embrace failure. For example, there’s an uncharacteristic explosion of creativity among accountants. Yes, accountants: Groups like the Thriveal C.P.A. Network and the VeraSage Institute are leading that profession from its roots in near-total risk aversion to something approaching the opposite. Computing may have commoditized much of the industry’s everyday work, but some enterprising accountants are learning how to use some of their biggest assets — the trust of their clients and access to financial data — to provide deep insights into a company’s business. They’re identifying which activities are most profitable, which ones are wasteful and when the former become the latter. Accounting once was entirely backward-looking and, because no one would pay for an audit for fun, dependent on government regulation. It was a cost. Now real-time networked software can make it forward-looking and a source of profit. It’s worth remembering, though, that this process never ends: As soon as accountants discover a new sort of service to provide their customers, some software innovator will be seeking ways to automate it, which means those accountants will work to constantly come up with even newer ideas. The failure loop will continue to close.

Lawyers, too, are trying to transform computers from a threat into a value-adding tool. For centuries the legal profession has made a great deal of money from drawing up contracts or patent applications that inevitably sit in drawers, unexamined. Software can insert boilerplate language more cheaply now. But some computer-minded lawyers have found real value in those cabinets filled with old contracts and patent filings. They use data-sniffing programs and their own legal expertise to cull through millions of patent applications or contracts to build never-before-seen complex models of the business landscape and sell it to their clients.

The manufacturing industry is going through the early stages of its own change. Until quite recently, it cost tens of millions of dollars to build a manufacturing plant. Today, 3-D printing and cloud manufacturing, a process in which entrepreneurs pay relatively little to access other companies’ machines during downtime, have drastically lowered the barrier to entry for new companies. Many imagine this will revitalize the business of making things in America. Successful factories, like accounting firms, need to focus on special new products that no one in Asia has yet figured out how to mass produce. Something similar is happening in agriculture, where commodity grains are tended by computer-run tractors as farming entrepreneurs seek more value in heritage, organic, local and other specialty crops. This has been manifested in the stunning proliferation of apple varieties in our stores over the past couple of years.

Every other major shift in economic order has made an enormous impact on the nature of personal and family life, and this one probably will, too. Rather than undertake one career for our entire working lives, with minimal failure allowed, many of us will be forced to experiment with several careers, frequently changing course as the market demands — and not always succeeding in our new efforts. In the corporate era, most people borrowed their reputations from the large institutions they affiliated themselves with: their employers, perhaps, or their universities. Our own personal reputations will now matter more, and they will be far more self-made. As career trajectories and earnings become increasingly volatile, gender roles will fragment further, and many families will spend some time in which the mother is a primary breadwinner and the father is underemployed and at home with the children. It will be harder to explain what you do for a living to acquaintances. The advice of mentors, whose wisdom is ascribed to a passing age, will mean less and less.

To succeed in the innovation era, says Daron Acemoglu, a prominent M.I.T. economist, we will need, above all, to build a new set of institutions, something like the societal equivalent of those office parks in Sunnyvale, that help us stay flexible in the midst of turbulent lives. We’ll need modern insurance and financial products that encourage us to pursue entrepreneurial ideas or the education needed for a career change. And we’ll need incentives that encourage us to take these risks; we won’t take them if we fear paying the full cost of failure. Acemoglu says we will need a far stronger safety net, because a society that encourages risk will intrinsically be wealthier over all.

History is filled with examples of societal innovation, like the United States Constitution and the eight-hour workday, that have made many people better off. These beneficial changes tend to come, Acemoglu told me, when large swaths of the population rally together to demand them. He says it’s too early to fully understand exactly what sorts of governing innovations we need today, because the new economic system is still emerging and questions about it remain: How many people will be displaced by robots and mobile apps? How many new jobs will be created? We can’t build the right social institutions until we know the precise problem we’re solving. “I don’t think we are quite there yet,” he told me.

Generally, those with power and wealth resist any significant shift in the existing institutions. Robber barons fought many of the changes of the Progressive Era, and Wall Street fought the reforms of the 1930s. Today, the political system seems incapable of wholesale reinvention. But Acemoglu said that could change in an instant if enough people demand it. In 1900, after all, it was impossible to predict the rise of the modern corporation, labor unions, Social Security and other transformative institutions that shifted gains from the wealthy to workers.

We are a strange species, at once risk-averse and thrill-seeking, terrified of failure but eager for new adventure. If we discover ways to share those risks and those rewards, then we could conceivably arrive somewhere better. The pre-modern era was all risk and no reward. The corporate era had modest rewards and minimal risks. If we conquer our fear of failure, we can, just maybe, have both. Ω

[Adam Davidson writes the It’s the Economy column for The New York Times Magazine. He co-founded "Planet Money," NPR’s team of economics reporters whose goal is to translate often confusing and sometimes terrifying economic and financial news. Davidson was the Middle East correspondent for the public-radio program “Marketplace” (2003-2004). He has also written articles for the Atlantic, Harper’s, GQ, Rolling Stone and others. Adam Davidson received a BA (religion and the humanities) from the University of Chicago.]

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