This week on Moyers & Company…
Fundamentally Barack Obama's pretty conservative. He really is. He's an Eisenhower conservative. He's not a liberal.
I agree 100 percent. I mean, Obama has been-- I'm always shocked when people call Obama a socialist, because he's-- in fact, I think you might be doing a disservice to Eisenhower.
If I can choose to be grateful for my life, love the life I have in the midst of all this, then I can be grateful for other things.
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Welcome. Lately I’ve had Phaedra on my mind. Not the Greek myth of the tragic daughter of that name, but the retelling of the story in a 1962 movie starring Tony Perkins and Melina Mercouri. Their illicit affair over, Perkins crashes his cherished roadster over a cliff. A big sendoff accompanied by none other than Johann Sebastian Bach.
TONY PERKINS in Phaedra:
Oh John Sebastian! You’re playing your music like crazy and I’m listening to it in Greece! What are you doing here? Oh John! Why aren’t you home minding the children? I at least had some business in Greece! I had a father that killed every Phaedra! Phaedra! Phaedra!
That scene actually keeps coming to mind as I try to follow the melodrama in Washington that has us heading for a cliff. A fiscal cliff. But are we? Or is this, another myth in the making? For some insight, we turn to two seasoned observers both of whose books you’ll want to as Santa to leave in your stocking.
Bruce Bartlett was an economic adviser to the supply-side icon Jack Kemp, and to two presidents-- Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush. He got into hot water with his conservative cohorts when he wrote a widely quoted book critical of the second President Bush. His most recent work is “The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform-Why We Need It and What It Will Take.”
Yves Smith is the founder and editor of the popular blog Naked Capitalism. After 25 years in the financial services industry, she now heads the management consulting firm Aurora Advisors. She’s the author of this book: “ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism.”
Welcome to you both.
Is the fiscal cliff just a metaphor? Or is it for real?
Well, the cliff is an inappropriate metaphor. And it does conjure up images, precisely the one you said, of cars or people or companies falling over and landing in a great mess at the bottom. In fact, it would be much more accurately described as a fiscal slope. There are certain changes that will occur on January 1st if no budget deal is arrived at. But they're very gradual in their impact. And in fact, many of them could be reversed. For example, if, you know, payroll tax increases would take place. But if a deal were arrived at on February 15 or March 3rd, you could even put the rates, the old rates in back retroactively and have everybody get a credit. So the notion that we have to have a deal by December 31 or there'll be a disaster is really overstated.
I would liken the fiscal cliff to the Y2K problem, remember? At the end of 1999, there were many people who were worried that all the computers would cease working and the planes would fall out of the sky. And, of course, none of that happened. But, of course, one of the reasons it didn't happen is because everybody prepared for it ahead of time. And that's essentially what's happening right now.
I think the important thing to remember is that there's no possible way of a deal before the last possible minute. And one reason for this, is that John Boehner is, the speaker of the House, is in a very precarious position regarding his own membership.
And it's article of faith among Republicans that any deal that is arrived at too soon is to their disadvantage, because they could have always gotten a better deal if they'd simply held out and hung tough longer. And so Boehner is in a position where even if he knew exactly what the deal would be today, he cannot deliver on it until, you know, 11:59 on December 31, or else his own members will attack him for having given away the store.
This is the second year in a row we've had this crisis over budget, deficits, taxes, spending cuts. Is this any way to run a democracy? Two years in a row?
Well the worst part of it is that the real fiscal cliff is something called the debt limit which was the key part of the problem in 2011 that actually tanked the markets. And Republicans understand they're going to have to give on taxes and give on the budget. But they still think that the debt limit is something they can use to ransom their true agenda of slashing benefits for the poor and slashing taxes for the rich.
This is one place where I differ with Bruce. I actually don't think the deficit is the problem that it's being portrayed to be. And there are sort of two levels of--
You mean the long-term deficit.
The long-term deficit. I mean, there are two, you know, there's, one is the immediate issue that cutting budget, reducing government spending when the economy is weak actually makes the situation worse. They've been running this experiment in Europe where they've implemented austerity in a number of countries with the idea that we're going to reduce government spending in order to reduce deficits, because we want to get the ratio of debt to G.D.P. to the size of the economy down. But what happens when they've done that is even though they may have shrunken the numerical value of the debt, the economy has contracted so much more that the debt to G.D.P. ratios get worse. It actually makes the problem worse. So, austerity is bad medicine now.
I just read the other day that this campaign “Fix the Debt” raised $60 million and hired and it recruited 80 corporate CEOs to go to Washington and lobby for fixing the debt. What do they want? BRUCE BARTLETT:
I think reason why the corporate executives are so big on fixing the debt is because they know that if they don't-- when they have some control over the political system through their political action committees and Republican control of Congress, they can't cut entitlements now. When they do eventually become a problem that will require some immediate action, they know that it will involve higher revenues. And the higher revenues are going to be on them. If you check any poll, you find overwhelming support for raising taxes on people making more than $250,000 and raising taxes on corporations. And so I think they're trying to fend that off.
Obama campaigned on higher rates. And he won. Why can't Republicans come to terms with that that's how the election came out?
The Republicans have become very dedicated to the idea that taxes in any form are bad. That when, in fact, there are times when taxes can fund productive investments and actually, again, lead to more economic growth. But it's the Republicans and ironically, Wall Street, have basically adopted the same strategy of being non-negotiable. That if they have a blocking position, and they feel that they have a blocking position by virtue of their majority in the House, that they're going to take advantage of it. So regardless of what the election said, if they can stymie a deal to their own advantage, they will.
Given what both of you are saying, why are we talking about reducing the deficit instead of creating jobs? Because when people have jobs, they spend money. When they spend money, businesses have customers. When they have customers, the money keeps circulating. And yet Washington isn't talking about jobs.
And I think one reason for this is the decline of labor unions. It used to be that when the union movement was much bigger and more powerful, and especially when private sector workers dominated the union movement, the AFL-CIO sort of looked out for the working class. They looked out for all workers, not just union workers. They understood that a healthy working class having lots of jobs was ultimately to the benefit of their members. And I think the decline in power of the unions and now and the fact that public sector unions now dominate the AFL-CIO is a key reason for that. The other thing is kind of a dirty secret, which you may not agree with is that fundamentally Barack Obama's pretty conservative.
He really is. He's an Eisenhower conservative. He's not a liberal. I mean, he's-- and I think that's one of the problems with the Democratic Party is they're looking for leadership to a guy on an issue like why aren't we creating jobs? Why isn't there more aggregate demand in the economy? And it's because their guy doesn't really want it.
I agree 100 percent. I mean, Obama has been-- I'm always shocked when people call Obama a socialist, because he's in fact, I think you might be doing a disservice to Eisenhower. And even, you know, Nixon is to the left of Obama on many, on most social issues. I mean, Nixon proposed a negative income tax, which everybody forgets about. And the other point is that this is reflected broadly in the Democratic Party, at least in the sort of elite level of Democratic Party. I mean, you know, I've seen people like, for example, Gene Sperling speak at conferences.
Former Clinton economic advisor.
Right, he's now Obama advisor.
And he for example, he talked about middleclass jobs. And you could tell the way he used the expression middleclass, these are, like, people he didn't know personally. I mean, there's this weird-- you've got this big class stratification, where the people in D.C. don't see this, right?
What's even worse is we now have a close-- in the Democratic Party it's explicit and my understanding is in the Republican Party it's pretty close to explicit, pay to play systems. Where it used to be that the assignments on the prestigious committees were based on seniority. Now in the Democratic Party, they have a price tag that if you want to be on the head of an important committee, you literally have to kick in a certain amount to the D triple C.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
Right. And then the committee controls more goodies that are perceived to be essential to congressmen. For example, they do the studies. They help buy the messaging. They'll do the policy research. And they provide a lot of support to the congressmen beyond what the congressmen get for their staffers.
So you know, it's not just that you need their money at election time. They give you a lot of support on an ongoing basis. And you don't want to alienate them, because you want not just the money, you want all the other support that they provide. So they've created this party, this very tight system where the party exercises more control over the members than they used to.
But there's another important part of this that we saw the other week when Senator Jim DeMint announced that he was becoming head of the Heritage Foundation. And what you're seeing now is the permanent campaign. I mean, it used to be these political action committees would come into existence and essentially go out of business the day after the election. But Karl Rove's operation is still out there running advertising.
CROSSROADS GPS ADVERTISEMENT:
The time for politics has ended. We need bipartisan ideas we can all support. Call President Obama and tell him, “It’s time to show us a balanced plan.” Because every day wasted is another $4 billion we’re deeper in debt. And the Heritage Foundation, which once was a think tank of analysts writing papers has now morphed into another organization called Heritage Action, which raises tens of thousands of, I'm sorry, millions of dollars to run campaign commercials and do that sort of political action, which reinforces the problem of money is so, vast amounts of money are sloshing around in the system. And the members of Congress are almost like, you know, flotsam floating on a sea of money. They're just bouncing around.
So, what do you both think the public needs to know about this economic debate going on right now? Cut through all of that.
That what they're being told is necessary and good for them is, in most cases, 180 degrees opposite of what needs to happen. We need as you suggested, we need more spending to promote jobs. We've got plenty of targets. We've got crumbling infrastructure. It--
This city alone, where we're sitting, New York City, needs $50 billion to repair from the hurricane.
Once you get it rolling, there is plenty of stuff to do. So the notion that we don't have things that need to be done that could employ lots of people from very low-skilled people to more middle and high-skilled people, that's just a myth.
There was a poll just the other day that you probably saw. Something like half of all Republicans believe that the 2012 election was stolen for Obama by a group called ACORN, which was-- which went out of business several years ago. It doesn't even exist. I mean, they just believe these conspiracy theories. And they circulate without barrier, because nobody will say anything to disagree with it. And if you hear the same propaganda over and over and over again, eventually you're going to start to believe it.
There's this tremendous amount of brainwashing that goes on. And I don't understand how it happens. People convince themselves, you can understand it more in the public companies, because these guys have to get up and tell things to shareholders. And if you say the same-- they've done studies of, like, defense lawyers. If you say, even if you know the client is guilty, but you have to defend him, because that's your job. They start believing their client's innocent, if they have to defend it. And similarly CEOs have to, for public reasons, you know, sell a certain story. And they've started to-- and they honestly believe Washington is the problem, as opposed to they're a big part of the problem, if not the problem. Back to our earlier discussion about capitalism.
But they'll never admit what the true Washington problem is. So for example, Republicans and conservative economists are absolutely convinced that the only thing that matters for the economy is tax rates. Customers don't matter, sales don't matter, none of that matters at all.
Just this week a conservative columnist writing in “The Washington Post,” Marc Thiessen, you may know him, said Republicans in this fiscal showdown should stand and fight. He told the story from the Korean War when American marines were encircled by communist forces and the commander of the marines Colonel "Chesty" Puller reportedly declared, "We're surrounded. Good, now we can fire in all directions." And Thiessen says this is where the Republicans are. They can surrender or stand and fight, which means standing their ground on taxes, putting a plan forward to reform the tax code, passing those plans in the house, and putting Obama on the spot.
Well, This is where Obama wants to go. He just needs the Republicans to make noise so he can go where he wants to go.
Which is where?
Obama wants to cut entitlements. He said this in a famous dinner with George Will. I think it was even before he was inaugurated. He went and had dinner with a group--
That's right, a group of conservatives.
He met a group of conservatives. And he made it very clear at this dinner that as soon as the economy was stabilized that he wanted to cut Social Security, well "reform." But that's just code for "cut" Social Security and Medicare. Obama really believes that this will be a signature accomplishment of his. That he will go down in history positively for.
That's right. If you go back to 2011 and look at the deal Obama put on the table, he was willing to make vast, vast cuts in entitlement programs. And the Republicans walked away from it, which only goes to prove that they don't have the courage of their own convictions. But Yves point is exactly correct. Obama really is maybe to the right of Dwight Eisenhower and fiscally. And it's really at the root of so many of our economy's problems, because he didn't ask for a big enough stimulus. Has let the housing sector, basically, fester for four years without doing anything about it. He's really, you know, focused more on cutting the deficit than people imagine.
But you will hear it said by some Democratically-inclined columnists like Jonathan Chait who writes that "Democrats should throw a bone to the right by raising the Medicare age." He actually wrote that this week. "Medicare has symbolic value. And raising the age qualification would send the message that Democrats take this fiscal crisis seriously."
All that results in is more old people getting sick, winding up with more costly care. It's one of these sort of penny wise and pound foolish measures. You know, again, the big problem with Medicare is that we have a health care cost problem in this country. And the health cost problem, whether they're in the Medicare system or whether they're out of the Medicare system. I mean, we have our health care costs are twice per capita-- more than twice what most countries are in the advanced world. And we have generally speaking worse outcomes. So if we would fix health care, we would fix this problem. But there's just no will to fix health care, particularly after Obama did a big health care reform and it didn't fix the problem.
I don't really understand why this raising the Medicare age has become a big issue. It saves very little money in the short run. You have to go out decades and decades before it accumulates to very much money. I think it saves maybe $100 billion over ten years, which is really a drop in the bucket, if you're really trying to reduce deficits. So it's the fact that Obama's willing to talk about this, I think, would give me a lot of concerns if I was someone on the left.
If capitalism is so great, why is it doing so poorly in this country for ordinary people and our public values?
When I was a kid on Wall Street, there was a sense of propriety. There was a sense that there was more of a sense noblesse oblige among the elites. There was a sense even on Wall Street that you didn't take too much. That you, that, you know, the golden philosophy of long-term greedy was actually, I think, broadly shared in the industry. That you only took a little extra when your client was making money, too. And now over time we've had these values set in, where people increasingly see themselves as kind of isolated. They see their success as individual, even though you grew up in a society, you got educated, you know? People didn't, you know, spring like now that, since we're using these mythological metaphors, like Athena from Zeus's head. People didn't sort of pop into the world with no social benefits. But there's this tendency to see that to see success as your own personal success when, yes, you may have worked hard to get there. But there are a lot of people who worked hard who didn't end up with all the cash and prizes.
I think there's two reasons. One is an unjustly obscure economist named Michael Jensen wrote some very important papers in the '80s explaining, basically, that the only responsibility that a corporate executive had was to maximize profits. That anything else, any responsibility to the workers, any responsibility to the communities was nothing. The way he helped the nation, the way he helped everybody in a sort of Adam Smithian view was to just relentlessly raise corporate profits. And then secondly, unfortunately, I think Bill Clinton had something to do with this. Remember, in the 1993 budget deal, he had a provision that capped the deduction for corporate executive pay at a million dollars. So what happened is this created new methods of corporate, of compensation that involved stock options. Because incentive-based pay was not covered by the provision.
So all of a sudden these guys who used to pay themselves a couple million dollars a year, they're paying themselves gazillions of stock options. And all of a sudden, the Jensen theory of maximizing corporate profits meant that it went directly to their bottom line, you see? And then they started, then you have the, Yves probably knows more about this than I do, these compensation committees that the corporate executives hire to design their compensation. And they all tell the boards, "Oh, you have to pay this guy 500 times what the average worker's being paid or he might leave. And that we can't allow that possibility."
Oh, it's marvelous, yes. No company wants to have their CEO be in the top-- in the bottom 50 percent of whatever the consultant defines the relevant universe as. So you create this perpetually ratcheting system, right? Because the consultant will do the study that somehow finds that their CEO's in the bottom half.
So his pay gets moved up, which moves the average up. And bumps somebody else into the bottom half. And then oh my God, his pay has to be moved up. So independent of corporate profits increasing, just the mechanism of the way they do these studies, keeps everybody leapfrogging--
Of course, we've had a problem with the corporate boards that Berle and Means, you know, identified back in the 1930s. The boards don't look out for the shareholders the way they're supposed to. In fact, they're simply in the pocket of senior executives. And they just rubberstamp whatever they want and whatever is in their own personal best interest, everybody else be damned.
So let me close with, where would each of you compromise, if you were called upon to break this deadlock?
I'm not sure that compromise is worthwhile. If we go over the fiscal cliff or into the fiscal slope, we're going to have the tax increases kick in. If Obama were interested in negotiating for a better deal for the ordinary person, he should actually go into January. But the whole fact that he wants a deal now says that, says that he is as conservative as Bruce says he is.
You mean we should go over?
We should go over.
And see what happens?
We should go over just because then we've already had tax increases put in. Republicans don't have the leverage of, you know, "Oh, these--" you know, of doing a deal without the tax increases already having taken place. You're in a very different negotiating position. Going past January 1 would actually be a very good outcome for ordinary Americans.
I'd go even further. I'd say let the fiscal cliff take effect permanently. Now everybody's afraid to do that. They think the economy's too fragile. But if you look at what the Congressional Budget Office has estimated. They say, "Yes, we'd lose some growth for about half a year. But the medium and long term growth would actually be higher, because it would actually do exactly what everybody says they want to do, which is cut a lot out of the long-term deficits. And it would do so fairly by raising revenues a lot and cutting spending." What, how else are we going to cut the defense budget if we don't allow the sequester to take effect? Both parties are pretty much into that. So I say let's just let the whole thing happen. If I was a member of the Senate, I'd filibuster anything to get rid of it.
Bruce Bartlett, Yves Smith, I'll see you on the cliff. Thank you very much.
Listening to Yves Smith and Bruce Bartlett talk about the culture of Washington, with insiders writing the rules to protect the privileged and the powerful, I couldn't help but think of this small item in politico last week: “Elizabeth Fowler is leaving the White House for a senior-level position leading ‘global health policy’ at Johnson & Johnson's government affairs and policy group.”
When I read that item I had an “ah-ha moment.” A flashback to three years ago and our coverage of the early stages of Obama’s healthcare reform. Liz Fowler was at the center of the action. Here’s an excerpt:
BILL MOYERS on Bill Moyers Journal:
Take a close look at that woman sitting behind Montana Senator Max Baucus. He's the Democrat who's the Chairman of the Finance Committee. Liz Fowler is her name. And now get this. She used to work for WellPoint, the largest health insurer in the country. She was Vice President of Public Policy. And now she's working for the very committee with the most power to give her old company and the entire industry exactly what they want.
After ObamaCare passed, Senator Baucus himself, one of the biggest recipients in congress of campaign cash from the industry, boasted that the architect of this legislation was none other than the industry insider, Liz fowler:
SEN. MAX BAUCUS:
And I want to single out one person. And that one person is sitting next to me. Her name is Liz Fowler. Liz Fowler is my chief health counsel. Liz Fowler has put my team together, health care team. […] She put together the White Paper last November, 2008. Eighty-seven page document which became the basis, the foundation, the blueprint from which almost all health care measures in all bills on both sides of the aisle came. She is an amazing person. She is a lawyer; she is a Ph.D. She is just so decent. She is always smiling, she is always working, always available to help any Senator, any staff. And I just thank Liz from the bottom of my heart.
The health care industry was very pleased, too. Early on in the evolution of Obamacare, the Senate and the White House cut deals that protected the interests of the health care industry, especially the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Lobbyists beat back such popular proposals as a public option, an expansion of Medicare, and a requirement that drug companies negotiate the prices they charge.
As the eagle-eyed Glenn Greenwald, wrote in the Guardian last week, “the bill’s mandate that everyone purchase the products of the private health insurance industry … was a huge gift to that industry.”
And Liz Fowler? The White House brought her over from congress to oversee the new law’s implementation; first at the department of health and human services, and then as special assistant to the president for healthcare and economic policy.
And now, it’s through the revolving door once more. Christmas has come a little early for the peripatetic Ms. Fowler, as she leaves the White House for the pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson.
Glenn Greenwald writes, Ms. Fowler “will receive ample rewards from that same industry as she peddles her influence in government and exploits her experience with its inner workings to work on that industry’s behalf, all of which,” Glenn Greenwald says, “has been made perfectly legal by the same insular, Versailles-like Washington culture that so lavishly benefits from all of this.”
Now, friends of Liz Fowler will say this is harsh. That she was the talented, intelligent protégé of two liberal democrats, Representative Pete Stark and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, both of whom believed in public service as a calling. That she was seriously devoted to crafting a health care reform proposal that would pass. I don’t doubt that. But it’s not the point.
She’s emblematic of the revolving door culture that inevitably means, when push comes to shove, that corporate interests will have the upper hand in the close calls that determine public policy. It’s how insiders fix the rules of the market, no matter which party is in power.
The last time we looked, 34 former staff members of Senator Baucus, whose finance committee has life and death power over industry’s wish list, were registered lobbyists; more than a third of them working on health care issues in the private sector.
And the revolving door spins even faster after a big election like the one we had last month, as scores of officials, elected representatives and their staffs vacate their offices after the ballots are counted. Many of them head for K Street and the highest bidder. That, too, brings an “ah-ha moment.” When President Obama early on in his administration swore he would get tough.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
As of today lobbyists will be subject to stricter limits than under any other administration in history. If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on, or in the agencies you lobbied during the previous two years. When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I am president. And there will be a ban on gifts by lobbyists to anyone serving in the administration as well.
The President signed reforms that are supposed to slow down the revolving door, increase transparency and limit the contact ex-officials and officeholders can have with their former colleagues.
But those rules and regulations have loopholes big enough for Santa and his sleigh to drive through, reindeer included. The market keeps growing for insiders poised to make a killing when they leave government to help their new bosses get what they want from government. That’s the great thing about the revolving door: one good turn deserves another.
From politics to poetry. Jim Autry and I go back awhile. Maybe you remember the two of us, long ago, sitting under a tree at a cemetery in the Deep South.
BILL MOYERS on Power of the Word:
Read this for me.
JAMES AUTRY on Power of the Word:
Genealogy. You are in these hills, who you were and who you will become, and not just who you are. She was a McKinstry and his mother was a Smith. And the listeners nod at what the combination will produce. Those generations to come of thievery or honesty…
There we were, awash in memory, in a graveyard crowded with kinfolk from his boyhood in the Mississippi Delta. Jim had written his first collection of poetry. "Night’s Under a Tin Roof" he called it. The book is still a favorite of mine, filled with recollections of a life and people now long gone. Of family reunions, church revivals, and country funerals.
He moved on and up in the world: becoming president of the magazine group of the Meredith Corporation, the Fortune 500 media giant based in Des Moines, Iowa. That’s where he met and married Sally Pederson and where they raised a son, Ronald. Because of him, both Jim and Sally became advocates for children and adults struggling with autism.
In time, Sally would be twice elected Iowa’s Lieutenant Governor. And Jim, after retiring from the publishing trade, became a sought-after adviser to business organizations. He keeps writing books of poems, practical philosophy, and remembrance, including “Love and Profit: The Art of Caring Leadership,” “The Servant Leader” and Looking Around for God.” This is his latest, “Choosing Gratitude: Learning to Love the Life You Have."
Jim, welcome to the show.
Good to be here, Bill.
When you were at Meredith Corporation, Fortune 500 company you were widely admired as a caring executive. We don't read much about that kind of CEO anymore. And I'm wondering if you have stayed enough in touch with the world of business to offer an opinion on what's gone wrong.
You know, there are a lot of sort of clichés and there are a lot of, you know what I call them, ideas du jour that go into business. And certainly a more humanistic way of managing sort of swept through the business world. Until, until the financial people took over as CEOs. You know in the old days, people who made the product became CEOs and became, the people who sell the product became CEO. And now it's the people who keep the numbers who are made the CEOs. And it also is driven very much by this incessant pressure for earnings. So I think that that’s been, that’s had a negative impact on organizations. The one I used to work for is much less people-oriented than it used to be. Good people there, they're just a different culture. I do think that there are still organizations, still companies, I get called to speak to them, who try their best to do what I call servant leadership. That is they are servants to their employees. They realize that giving the employees the tools and support they need to do the job will allow them to do a good job and thus produce for the company. They realize that if you have a company that's trying to serve people somehow, whether you're carrying them on an airline or serving them coffee, that you can't do that unless the people are committed to what they're doing. And they won't be committed to what they're doing unless they're valued for what they're doing. And they can't be valued unless you nurture them and support them and give them the tools and encouragement they need.
I want to make it clear that, servant leadership, nurturing your employees, doesn't mean tolerating incompetence.
Absolutely not. I mean, when I speak I say, "Listen, this is not the soft stuff. If you think this is soft, you should try it a while." This is the hard stuff. You have to extend yourself. You have to be there. You have to get out of your office and get away from your club and your trips and actually be there and focus on the well-being of the employees. That's hard work. It's very hard work to fire someone. Even to discipline someone. But you have to do that with generosity and a spirit of caring and you have to know, "This person I'm about to fire is never going thank me for this." But it's something that all the other people probably will, because that person's work has made a negative impact on everybody else.
It's hard work. And the easy way to do it is to be one of these tough guy, kick them in the rear. You know, it's much easier to slam your fist down and yell than it is to say, "Bill, you know, we really need to talk about your performance."
You've made those decisions. And of course this came from it.
Yes. "On Firing a Salesman."
It is like a little murder,
taking his life,
his reason for getting on the train,
his lunches at fancy restaurants,
and his meetings in warm and sunny places
where they all gather,
these smiling men,
in sherbet slacks and blue blazers,
and talk about business
but never about prices,
never breaking that law
about the prices they charge.
But what about the prices they pay?
What about gray evenings in the bar car
and smoke filled clothes and hair
and children already asleep
and wives who say,
when they come to bed?
What about the promotions they don't get,
the good accounts they lose
to some kid MBA
thinks their energy is gone?
What about those times they see in the mirror
or the corner of their eye
some guy at the club shake his head
when they walk through the locker room
the way they shook their heads years ago
at an old duffer
whose handicap had grown along with his age?
And what about this morning,
the closed door,
somebody shaved and barbered and shined
fifteen years their junior
trying to put on a sad face
and saying he understands?
A murder with no funeral,
nothing but those quick steps outside the door,
those set jaws,
those confident smiles,
that young disregard for even the thought
of a salesman's mortality.
That's the first business poem I ever read in public to a gathering of businesspeople. It was a conference I was going to speak. I thought, "I'll just read that poem." It was the first business poem I wrote. And I looked out there and there were guys, mostly men, grey haired. And their eyes were watering. And I thought, "They've done this. Maybe this is what I'm supposed to do
When did you write your first poem?
When I started writing poetry my mother had just died. And then later my brother was diagnosed with cancer. My father died. My brother died. I'd gone through a divorce, which is its own little death. And it, it was weighing heavily on me. So it found its way into my poetry. And coming to grips with it and dealing with it and being grateful for having been brought through it is also in my poetry.
This one comes to mind as you talk.
Ten years after the death of my brother. This actually happened to me.
How could I have explained
to the woman who answered
that I'd dialed not to reach her
but just to dial
that very number
as I have so many times before
to hear it ring once again
and remember for a moment
a voice I'll never hear again?
Have you have on your telephone any telephone numbers of people who've died? I do. And I just can't erase them. Can't.
Well, my mother's been gone 12 years and rather occasionally I will find myself about to reach for the phone thinking that I would call her. Then suddenly realizing, she's not there to answer. And the intervals have become longer, but I still have that impulse from time-to-time.
Yeah. I know exactly what you mean. The whole idea of a presence with an absence. That we carry those people with us. You know, they live on through us. My brother, for instance, was a great card. And he'd, when we'd start to drive onto a highway where there's a yield sign, he'd just suddenly in an English accent say, "Yield. I shall never yield." So he's with me every time I see a yield sign. So that's the presence within the absence that I try to capture in some of my poetry.
I've long been envious, of your capacity for detail, for example, your poem "Reminisce at…"
Toul. It's a little town in France.
And you were there?
I was there when I was in the Air Force. I was stationed very close to there. Now I was flying jet fighters, we had a nuclear mission. We didn't fly with nukes but we stood alert with them. And so it was a dicey time.
"Reminiscence at Toul."
Thirty years ago
on New Year's Eve
drunk on French champagne
we shot bottle rockets
from the windows
of Hank and Willi’s
rented chateau overlooking Nancy.
It sounds so worldly
which is how we wanted to think of ourselves,
but Lord, we were just children,
sent by the government to fly airplanes
and to save western Europe
from World War III.
We thought we had all the important things
still left to do
and were just playing at importance
for the time being.
It never occurred to us,
living in our community of friends,
having first babies,
seeing husbands die,
helping young widows pack to go home,
that we had already started the important things.
What could we have been thinking,
or perhaps it's how could we have known
that times get no better,
that important things come without background music,
that life is largely a matter of paying attention.
"Life comes without background music."
Which we raised on movies tend to think that when good things happen and things are good, there's great background music.
Choosing Gratitude. Why gratitude and why now?
Well, I guess it started with my increasing frustration about how polarized we are in the country. How much discontent there is. People ask me now, "How are you doing?" and I say, "Considering everything there is to complain about, I have no complaints." So it was partly that and partly my own need to bring some sort of calmness in my life. I think I've told a story in the book of how I would walk in the morning. I'd come back and be all agitated about the war or the politics. And I thought, "You know, this isn't supposed to be healthy I don't think." So it evolved into a gratitude walk and where I try to just make it like a meditation. Every step I try to just think of something I'm grateful for.
But how do you find and choose gratitude when, as you say, you read the news, you watch television, you go online and get the latest from the world.
Well, the world is very much with us. And I'm no Pollyanna but I choose gratitude as an interior journey. An interior practice, sort of a discipline. That if I can choose to be grateful for my life, love the life I have in the midst of all this, then I can be grateful for other things. I think if one practices gratitude as a way of being you become a more generous, supportive, loving person.
You wrote a poem in 1984 called "New Birth for Sally."
Would you read that?
Sure. "New Birth for Sally, Spring 1984."
From her sure knowledge
that everything would come out all right,
things began to come out all right,
out through the present day horrors,
through my fears and loss and grief,
through the demons lurking around everything I do.
As if directly from that optimism,
Ronald came unconcerned into the cold and light,
no longer surrounded by the sounds of Sally's life,
but sliding easily into the doctor's bloody hands
then snuggling back onto his mother's warmth,
none of his father's wailing against the world,
none of that waiting for the next shoe to fall.
And I count toes and fingers
and check his little penis
and touch the soft spot on his head
and watch the doctor probe and squeeze,
not believing that everything came out all right.
Later I wonder how these years have come
from pain to death to pain to life
to what next?
A baby babbling in the backpack,
a mother walking her healthy pace,
a dog trailing behind,
and me holding on,
through the neighborhood, through everything,
with each day
one by one
coming out all right.
Now that was written when?
1984. That's right.
You didn't know about the autism then?
We didn't. He was only about seven months old then.
So you were writing in celebration of this life and all it had to promise?
When did you discover that he?
He, was about two and a half. I mean his developmental milestones weren't met throughout. And then finally when he was about two and a half years old we were told that something was wrong and we began to go through the diagnostic process.
Did you have a hard time with it?
I had a hard time at the beginning and not for the reasons of, you know, being a macho father and my son is… none of that stuff. It's just that I knew he was going to have a tough time in life. And I didn't quite know how to deal with it. Sally, on the other hand, immediately started learning about autism. Getting active and doing all those things. And became an inspiration to me to get involved.
It wasn't ever easy, was it?
Never easy. Parenting is not easy to begin with but parenting a child with a disability, and particularly with an intellectual disability like autism, which the behaviors can just fly off and all of a sudden. It's difficult.
And then there was the day when he was six years old and he came down the stairs?
Yeah. Jumping down the stairs, one at a time, saying, "Happy boy. Happy boy. Happy boy."
And what did you think about that?
I mean every little thing you have to celebrate. The first thing you have to do is you have to stop mourning the child who's never going to be and start celebrating the child who he is. Sally was better at that than I was.
That's my favorite poem in the book. You call it "Patience." Set that one for us.
Well, we take Ronald to a horse ranch in Colorado. We did it for 13 years, because horseback therapy was good for him. He related to horses and it was just great for his development. So this takes place at that dude ranch. It's titled "Patience."
The porch was alive with hummingbirds,
Swarming the theatres,
Hovering with their invisible wings,
Darting away and back,
Delighting all of us dude ranchers
Sitting in the big Adirondack chairs
After a day on the trail.
Ignoring the admonitions,
Ronald could not stay away.
'Don't worry,' the ranch boss says,
'He can't catch them.'
But the boss did not count on a patience
He'd never witnessed before:
A boy, moving as slowly as the wings were fast,
The birds waiting to be cupped in the boy's hands,
Then released back to their busy work,
Each christened with a new name.
That struck me because Ronald actually catches one.
He caught a dozen of them.
How did he do it?
Just reaching slowly up to where they were on the feeders, holding out his hands. And then as they sort of settled in, he'd bring them down. He'd always name them like, "Good-bye Steven," and release them. And he did that with butterflies and well. You and I catch butterflies like this.
One hand. You know?
He just reaches out slowly and it's as if they're waiting for him.
There's a gentleness in how you describe it.
Ronald is a very upbeat, loving person. When he was about seven or eight years old we saw a blind man. And a few minutes later Ronald says, "Dad, could they take one of my eyes and give it to him and then we'd both be able to see?" That's the goodness within Ronald. And it helps me. It helps me try to find more goodness in myself. He's a loving, upbeat, happy young man. And he played in the band. Played cymbals. And in the middle school band and the high school band. He ran track in high school. Now, you know, he wasn't fast. But the people were so abiding and supportive. I mean the coach let him run on a relay, knowing there was no way the relay team was going to win because he couldn't carry his part of it. But whenever he ran and he came around the track, the teammates would run with him the last stretch. And say, "Go Ronald." And the people in the stands would applaud. I mean it was in a way, Ronald gave people the opportunity to sort of find the divine in themselves. To find the best in themselves.
He's how old now?
Twenty, he's going to be 29.
He's lived in his own apartment for six years. He has had a job for three years. Lives alone. He's only 15 minutes from our house. He has a dog. He has a cat. He drives. He has a car. He gets up every morning at 6:00, calls me and gets the weather. Feeds his dog. Takes his dog out, as he says, "To do her stuff." And then he gets dressed and he catches the 7:00 bus to work. And he works half days, five days a week.
What do you take away from those experiences?
I take away a feeling of blessing. Of thankfulness. But it all comes into gratitude to me. It’s just, I'm so grateful for my life as it is and realizing I didn't used to be this way. Listen, this isn't St. James the Perfect.
I've never known that James.
But you know, I was a well-known grouch. And it's been an awakening for me through all these experiences.
There is a poem in particular that seems to me to get at what you are saying it’s, you call it "A Sentimental Poem." Read it for us.
Well, this is for my wife, Sally, on our 20th wedding anniversary. And we've been through quite a lot of things together. So I wrote this to her. And it's called "A Sentimental Poem." I say,
For Sally on our 20th wedding anniversary
I know that contemporary poets,
if they are to escape the wrath of critics,
must avoid the curse of sentimentality,
But here I am, 20 years married today,
with nothing to write about love
that is not sentimental;
a tumor, a surgery, a scribbled prayer
and the one hundred and thirty-ningth psalm;
the diagnosis of something wrong,
something wrong with our child;
hours and days and years
of working to help him find himself
in this world;
deaths of a father, a brother, a beloved sister,
more surgeries and recoveries,
a son in a struggle with addiction.
And I haven't even gotten to the joys,
not talked about the celebrations of life,
the friendships, the gatherings of family,
and the great and enduring spiritual quest.
If I am doomed to write of sentiment,
then let it be said that I also write of blessing,
all of it, the pain, fear, anguish,
laughter, whimsy, joy, blessings all,
because you arrived in my life
with an expectation of blessing,
a sure belief that there is nothing but abundance
and our job is to face it all with gratitude.
"A sure belief that there's nothing but abundance."
Well, you know, Brueggemann writes about the theology of scarcity. The theology of abundance. And we talk about scarcity and abundance. And our society, I think we live with a fear of psychology of scarcity. That we don't have enough. We just don't have enough. And there is another psychology of abundance and it is that everything, even the negative stuff, is, contributes to the abundance of life experience. I mean, those negative things, you know, that child with that disability, all of that was terribly painful. I wouldn't take any of it back. You know? I wouldn't take any of it back.
The book is "Choosing Gratitude: Learning To Love The Life You Have." Jim Autry, thank you for being here.
Thank you, Bill.
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That’s it for this week. Coming up on Moyers & Company, screenwriter Tony Kushner on learning politics from Lincoln.
All of the various fields of human inquiry, theology and philosophy and morality and psychology, meet rather beautifully in politics. And sometimes I wonder if politics isn't exactly that, it's the taking of all the sort of great ineffables and trying to make them have some meaning in the actually historical moment on earth in which we live.
At our website, BillMoyers.com, you’ll find our large video collection of poets, including Jim Autry, who over the years have appeared on our broadcasts, reading from their work.
That’s at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here next time.