The Sum of All Fears

Basic cable is starved for content, but luckily Americans seem to like watching second-rate old movies again and again, and they’re even willing to pay a little extra each month for Encore – and that gets you Encore Action and Encore Classic and Encore Family and Encore Suspense and Encore Westerns and whatnot. More people pay for Encore than for HBO – this is comfort food. Someone’s going to save the world, and if James Bond doesn’t do it for you – from the start those Bond films were spectacularly absurd, on purpose – there’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. He’s the hero that delivered the Red October to us, and in those films the gizmos and perils are real-world gizmos and perils.

The stakes are higher, and the scariest of those Jack Ryan films is The Sum of All Fears – the one where the Israelis lose one of their nukes in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That ends up in the hands of a mysterious far-right cabal seeking to impose white supremacist world order, led by an Austrian neo-Nazi billionaire. He thinks he can transform Europe into a united fascist super-state. All he has to do is start a nuclear war between the United States and Russia that will devastate them both. That sounds absurd, but all the details are likely enough, and the worst happens. The bad guys manage to smuggle that missing nuclear bomb into Baltimore and set if off – wiping out the city.

Baltimore is gone. Ah, it must be the Russians. The governments of the United States and Russia are now about to launch full-scale nuclear attacks on each other – and Jack Ryan saves the day. Don’t ask. But millions die from the nuclear fallout, including a lot of the good guys, like the CIA director, played by the nicest man in the movies, Morgan Freeman. That was scary. What would we do if Baltimore exploded and the fallout was deadly? What would the government do? Would it be something foolish?

Perhaps this isn’t the time to put this particular Jack Ryan movie back in rotation. Baltimore did explode. When the desperate and outraged people of a major American city have finally had enough, and when there’s the right precipitating event – one of their kids dying while in police custody, again, for just running from the police, which any sensible kid would do, given how the local police, given the impossible task of maintaining order in neighborhoods where despair is a way of life, just beat the crap out of anyone at all, and often kill them – riots in the streets will follow. That was the “nuclear explosion” in this case, and now it’s time to manage the fallout, now that the explosion itself is no longer an issue:

In a pair of gestures on Sunday that suggested that this riot-scarred city was staggering toward normalcy, the National Guard began to pull its troops from Baltimore, and the mayor lifted a curfew that, after several days of relative calm, had come under mounting criticism.

“Effective immediately, I have rescinded my order instituting a citywide curfew,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement on Sunday. Baltimore had lived under five consecutive nights of restrictions that were imposed in the wake of violent unrest connected to the death of Freddie Gray, who died of injuries he suffered while in police custody.

“My goal has always been to not have the curfew in place a single day longer than was necessary,” Ms. Rawlings-Blake added. Gov. Larry Hogan later said he supported her decision, and he announced that the Guard had started to reduce its force here.

But there was the radioactive fallout:

At the Empowerment Temple, a large, predominantly African-American church, the Rev. Jamal Bryant broached a number of subjects that underscored the controversy that is likely to shadow the criminal cases against the six police officers who were charged on Friday in connection with Mr. Gray’s death on April 19.

Mr. Bryant reminded his congregants that the charges against the officers, all of whom have been released on bond, did not equate to convictions. He cited the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager in Florida who was shot by a Hispanic man, George Zimmerman. Although Mr. Zimmerman was prosecuted, he was acquitted.

“George Zimmerman went to court, and right now he’s at Disney World,” Mr. Bryant said. “So right now we’ve got to pray.”

Mr. Bryant has been a central figure in the drama that has engulfed the city over the last several weeks. He delivered the eulogy for Mr. Gray and publicly exhorted black residents to work to improve the city in the wake of his death. His church also raised the money to cover Mr. Gray’s funeral costs.

That’s nice, but this man is not happy:

On Sunday, the pastor pointedly criticized the governor, accusing him of helping to smother a number of bills introduced this year that supporters, including Ms. Rawlings-Blake, said would have increased police accountability in Maryland. Mr. Bryant also asked rhetorically whether the governor would have sent troops into Baltimore if the mayor had been white.

“They’re trying to offer a subliminal message that we don’t know how to govern, that we don’t know how to deal policy, that we don’t know how to put stuff into control,” he shouted as the congregants shouted and clapped their assent.

Every nuclear explosion has deadly fallout, and those who note what the new problem is now:

During a panel discussion on NBC’s Meet the Press, an opinion writer for the Wall Street Journal explained that she didn’t believe businesses and jobs would return to strife-torn Baltimore until something was done about public sector and teachers’ unions. …

Chuck Todd asked columnist Kimberley Strassel of the very business-friendly Journal what it would take for businesses to return to the economically depressed areas of Baltimore.

Strassel lamented previous measures taken to alleviate poverty, adding that the business community “really wants to help in this situation” but is hesitant due to “central planning” by the government.

The problem is two-fold, public sector unions that try to get better wages and working conditions for their members, which scares honest businessmen away, even if they want to help, and the government doing things for people, which scares honest businessmen even more:

After dismissing calls for a home-front Marshall Plan, similar to the one that rebuilt Europe after World War II, Strassel said pouring more money into the community wasn’t the answer.

“You still have a failing education system, you’re dominated by public sector unions, teachers’ unions.” she explained, ticking each one off. “You’ve still got high crime and high unemployment. So, you’ve got to start getting some of those things in place. You’ve got to do something about the crime, then the business sector comes in, you have private investment.”

So, teachers’ unions are somehow responsible for the lack of good-paying jobs that lift local economies, or something, and the government helping people hurts people. That’s why businesses won’t come back. Go figure.

This calls for Doctor Doom. That’s what everyone now calls Nouriel Roubini – the economist who correctly predicted the total collapse of the economy in 2008, in detail. He saw what was coming, and why, and wrote about it in detail. He saw what had to happen. Others dismissed him as a grumpy fool, but now they know this guy knows a thing or two about deadly fallout. He sees something else in Baltimore:

The riots in Baltimore this week may have been triggered by the death of Freddie Gray, but their roots are found in the widening gap between America’s rich and poor.

That’s the message from Nouriel Roubini, the economist who in 2005 correctly predicted the housing crisis and ensuing financial crash in 2008.

“We’ve seen race riots in parts of the United States because lots of people are poor and angry and resentful,” Roubini told CNNMoney’s Cristina Alesci at the Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles.

It may be time to deal with the real problem now:

“The solution can’t just be to send more police in the streets or the National Guard. People are desperate. We have to deal with this issue of poverty, of unemployment and economic opportunities,” the New York University economist known as “Dr. Doom” said.

Baltimore’s inequality gap: Driven in part by globalization and technology that have wiped out jobs, income inequality is a mounting problem around the U.S. The issue is particularly acute in Baltimore, the biggest city in the country’s most affluent state. The median household income of African-Americans in Baltimore is just $33,610, compared with $60,550 for white households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Even more dramatic, the unemployment rate for young black men between the ages of 20 and 24 stood at an incredible 37% in 2013, compared with 10% for white men of the same age group. Moreover, nearly 24% of Baltimore’s population lives below the poverty line.

“We have to deal with this gap because if we don’t deal with it, eventually the biggest political problem is not going to be a geopolitical problem from the Middle East or Ukraine, Russia or Asia, but will be domestic,” Roubini said.

This is so obvious that the most unlikely people see it:

Roubini said Republicans are increasingly realizing that income inequality is an issue that if left unaddressed “will have a social and political backlash,” including more calls to tax the richest Americans.

The fallout is already hurting the economy and may eventually eat into corporate profits, Roubini said. He believes it’s one of many reasons why the U.S. economy cooled during the first quarter of 2015.

Main Street versus Wall Street: Of course, there is no easy solution to narrow the income gap. Roubini said the U.S. must invest in education, and training, human capital and other things that will help Americans compete in this increasingly digital and global economy.

What is clear is that what’s been tried recently isn’t working.

“You cannot just send people to prison. That’s not the solution. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years,” Roubini said. “We have to find a better way.”

And we’ve been doing it all wrong:

In the wake of the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve has sought to breathe life back into the economy through extremely low interest rates and stimulus known as quantitative easing. Roubini said that’s been great for the bull markets in stocks and bonds, but the impact has been far more muted in the real economy.

“All of this easy liquidity has not led to a strengthening of job creation, wages and opportunity. The gap between Main Street and Wall Street is widening,” he said.

That’s how Doctor Doom sees it, and he’s not alone:

Newly declared presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders said today he hopes to lead a “political revolution” for working families and against money in politics in his bid for the White House.

“I think I’m the only candidate who’s prepared to take on the billionaire class,” Sanders, I-Vt., told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on This Week. “We need a political revolution in this country involving millions of people who are prepared to stand up and say, enough is enough, and I want to help lead that effort.”

He’s his own Doctor Doom:

Sanders, who will run in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton, told ABC’s Jonathan Karl earlier this week the millions of dollars flowing into the Clinton Foundation poses a “very serious problem.”

“It’s not just Hillary. It’s the Koch Brothers. It is Sheldon Adelson,” he said, referring to billionaire backers of conservative causes and candidates. “Can somebody who is not a billionaire who stands for working families actually win an election?”

What do any of those folks care about Baltimore? They’ll all say the right sorts of things, but that’s not their world. Bernie Sanders has other ideas, as on the same show he said he wants to make America look more like Scandinavia. No, really – he identifies himself as a democratic socialist, and that goes with the territory:

“Well, so long as we know what democratic socialism is,” he said. “And if we know that in countries, in Scandinavia, like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, they are very democratic countries, obviously. The voter turnout is a lot higher than it is in the United States. In those countries, health care is the right of all people. And in those countries, college education, graduate school is free.”

When Stephanopoulos said Republicans were likely to jump all over Sanders for saying the U.S. should be more like Scandinavia, the senator said he has no problem with that.

“That’s right. And what’s wrong with that?” Sanders said. “What’s wrong when you have more income and wealth equality? What’s wrong when they have a stronger middle class in many ways than we do, higher minimum wage than we do, and they are stronger on the environment than we do?”

“The fact of the matter is, we do a lot in our country, which is good,” he added. “But we can learn from other countries.”

Jonathan Cohn says that’s not all that scary:

John Cornyn, the senior Republican senator from Texas, chortled on Twitter. “52 percent of Democrats are ok with that.”

The figure is a reference to a 2014 survey in which about half of the respondents identifying as Democrats said they approved of socialism as an economic system. (Roughly the same proportion of Democrats approved of capitalism.) You can understand why that result would make Republicans like Cornyn feel smug. The label socialist isn’t as toxic as it was a generation ago, but the concept remains decidedly less popular among the population as a whole. Socialism – as commonly understood by Americans – means widespread government ownership of business. A candidate or a party seemingly calling for that would alienate most of the public – even in a lefty, earthy-crunchy state like Vermont.

That, however, is not what Sanders is talking about:

Democratic socialism, as generally conceived in the U.S., is a milder, more aspirational form of the ideology. Democratic socialists might not recoil at the thought of government running large industries, but they don’t actively pursue that goal. Instead, they focus on decidedly less radical objectives – like making the welfare state more generous, giving workers more power, limiting the influence of money on politics and policing the practices of business more closely.

You can see that agenda in the initiatives Sanders has proposed and the causes he has championed. He’s a longtime supporter of universal health care in what some would say is its purest form: A single-payer system, in which the government provides insurance directly rather than subsidizing private insurers. He’s called for making taxpayer-funded child care available to all parents, right up through kindergarten. He supports breaking up the big banks and imposing a carbon tax to slow climate change. He opposes trade deals – including the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership – that lack what he considers adequate protection for labor. And he supports the public financing of campaigns for federal office.

Some of these ideas are more popular than others. How you feel about them will depend, inevitably, on your own ideological predispositions and, to some extent, how you interpret available evidence on their effectiveness. But none of these ideas is loopy. Most Western democracies have some of these policies, while some Western democracies have all of them. A few have produced such strikingly positive results – variations on single-payer work very well in France and Taiwan, for example – that it’s hard to understand why they don’t get more serious hearings in the U.S.

(Actually, the U.S. does have a form of single-payer health insurance. It’s for the elderly, it’s called Medicare, and it’s incredibly popular – which is one more reason many people think it should be available to everybody.)

He’s not that far out:

Clinton is a mainstream liberal, and these days, mainstream liberals tend to want the same things that Sanders does – a stronger welfare state, more regulation of business, higher wages for the lower and middle classes, action on climate change. The question is how aggressively and enthusiastically she promotes these causes, via rhetoric and actual policy proposals. Sanders could push her in ways that are unlikely to hurt and might very well help – by encouraging her to confront Wall Street more forcefully, for example, or getting her to endorse government negotiation of prices with drug companies.

You won’t hear Clinton calling herself a socialist, for sure. But as Sanders’ own career shows, the label doesn’t mean a whole lot anyway.

That may be one bit of fallout from the nuclear explosion in Baltimore – that “socialist” label doesn’t mean a whole lot – and all the black folks could turn Swedish. There are always mutants after a nuclear explosion. Still, there’s the real fallout:

A whopping 96 percent of Americans say that they expect more racially-charged unrest around the country this summer, similar to the past week’s violence in Baltimore. And more than half – 54 percent – believe a similar disturbance is likely in the metropolitan area closest to where they live.

In a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 68 percent of adults said they believe it is “very likely” that there will be more protests and clashes around the country like those after the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody. Another 28 percent said that they believe such unrest is “somewhat likely.”

The expectation of more events nationwide like those in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, was similar among respondents regardless of race.

Similar, however, is not identical:

White respondents were slightly more likely than African-Americans to say that they expect racially-charged disturbances in the metropolitan area closest to them. Fifty-three percent of whites said they think more confrontations in their closest city are likely this summer, while 46 percent of African-Americans said the same.

And questions about the best way to explain the tensions between police and members of the African-American community yielded very different answers from black and white respondents.

Six-in-10 African-Americans said that the discord in Baltimore is attributable to “people with longstanding frustrations about police mistreatment of African Americans that have not been addressed.” Twenty-seven percent said that the riots were “caused by people who used the protests about the death of an African-American man in police custody as an excuse to engage in looting and violence.”

Among whites, those results were almost exactly flipped. Just 32 percent cited longstanding frustration about African-Americans’ treatment at the hands of police, while 58 percent said the Baltimore violence was caused by those using Gray’s death as an excuse for looting.

Either way, that’s the sum of all fears. The nuclear bomb explodes. There’s that big mushroom cloud. Then things get even worse, as everyone gets unhinged. And there’s no Jack Ryan to save the day. That was a movie, not real life.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The Sum of All Fears

  1. Rick says:

    Jonathan Cohn may have this backward:

    Socialism – as commonly understood by Americans – means widespread government ownership of business. … [but] Democratic socialists … focus on decidedly less radical objectives – like making the welfare state more generous, giving workers more power, limiting the influence of money on politics and policing the practices of business more closely.

    But, in fact, when certain Americans call Obama and his fellow liberals “socialists”, they aren’t really accusing us of wanting government to take over ownership of businesses — which, by the way, is closer to the real definition than the second part of that sentence:

    socialism |ˈsō sh əˌlizəm|
    a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

    In fact, the second part of Cohn’s sentence is what I think most Americans mean by socialism, when they paste that label on liberals. Whenever someone calls me a socialist, I deny that I want government to take over corporations, and then they just look confused. Apparently, all they mostly meant to say about me was that I favor having government pay poor people, especially colored ones, to not work.

    In essence, to most on the right, “socialist = liberal”, or even “socialist = not Republican” — or maybe even “socialist = Democrat”. Even as these are totally inaccurate equations, they have become the default American definitions for socialist, which especially contributes to no American wanting to admit to being a liberal Democrat these days.

    And the fact that most Americans don’t know what socialism is — all they know is, they don’t like it! — is also one reason why any candidate for the presidency should know that if he’s going to call himself a “socialist”, he may have to spend too much time and energy educating America on what socialism is, instead of selling his candidacy for office.

    And you can also be sure that if there’s one thing most of us Americans don’t like, it’s being “educated” by somebody or other.


  2. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for including a link to Nouriel Robini’s interview – I think he is spot-on. Beyond specific incidents of police brutality (the “spark” for the latest round of protests in Baltimore), I think the background “kindling” for this unrest has a lot to do with a predatory economic system that targets the urban poor, and especially African-Americans. The Johns Hopkins University professor N.D.B. Connolly had a great piece on that in the New York Times. Shameless plug – I blog about it here ( but you can also go straight to the source here (

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