Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Principles?

A headline in the morning paper caught my attention, largely because it shouldn’t have. The headline? “Border Vote Tough for GOP Senators

And why is this tough for Republicans? Apparently, a great many of them believe that the President’s declaration of a “national emergency” infringes on the rights of Congress under the Constitution. Now, I happen to agree with them. The Constitution is rather specific in declaring that the Congress controls the federal purse strings, but these Republican senators apparently fear that voting their principles isn’t a good idea if it just might “upset” their beloved [or feared] President… and, of course, his far-right supporters.

As I recall, we had eight years of Republicans protesting Presidential “overreach” by the last Democrat President, and he didn’t go nearly so far as to declare a non-existent national emergency to build a wall because Congress hadn’t given him the money he wanted. His action that most upset the far right was to declare he wouldn’t deport teenagers who’d lived the vast majority of their lives as Americans.

Now we have a Republican President who’s gone against the Constitution and against a principle that Republicans claimed for years that they hold dear… and they don’t want to vote for their principles? After years and years of protesting about Executive Branch overreach?

As one fictional movie protagonist said, in protesting McCarthyism, “People are their principles.” But only if they act in accord with those principles. Otherwise, they’re just self-serving hypocrites.

Special?

In 2014, David McCullough, Jr., published a book entitled You Are Not Special, in which he took dead aim at society and the education establishment’s efforts to make students feel “special.” McCullough was dead right then, and very little has changed since then, especially not for the better.

But, unhappily, it’s not just students who are demanding to be treated as special. It’s pretty much everyone in the United States, or so it seems.

Most dictionaries define special as “distinguished by exhibiting unique, superior, or outstanding characteristics” or in similar terms.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the current U.S. population is 327 million people. I’ll grant that everyone is “unique,” in the same meaningless way that every snowflake is said to be unique, but not everyone, not even a majority of people, is outstanding in any way, except, of course to ourselves and the handful of people who truly care about us.

Being, or not being, of a particular race, creed, ethnicity, gender does not make one “special.” Believing in a particular creed or religion does not make one special. Having great innate intelligence or athletic ability does not make one special. What makes anyone outstanding is not that a person exists, but what that person has done with that existence, particularly what they have done that makes the world, or a part of it, a better place in some fashion.

That view is, of course, somewhat Calvinistic, and definitely at odds with the idea that merely believing in a deity is enough to obtain some sort of stature or theological grace. In the end, what gets things done, especially for the better, are focused and consistent actions to that end.

You’re not special…except through your actions.

“Ethics” and Hypocrisy

For those of my readers who don’t know this, I am and always have been a Republican.  I also have rarely voted for a Republican candidate in the last 15-20 years, except in the primary, where I’ve cast my ballot for the least reactionary candidate [there are no moderate Republican candidates in Utah, nor any with any “liberal” traits].

Today, I only see a handful of Republican office-holders who are actually willing to call out both parties on their self-serving propaganda and who are promulgating positive and workable solutions… and they’re getting scarcer with every election. I support them… and keep hoping.

Back before I was involved directly in politics, the Republican Party had elected officials who ranged from the conservative to the moderately liberal, and even “Mr. Conservative” – Barry Goldwater – was Pro-Choice.  Back then, the GOP endorsed fiscal moderation, and was far less in favor of subsidies [except for those to farmers].  The party was for a strong national defense, but had a president who bluntly warned against the “military-industrial” complex. Most Republicans were perfectly happy to welcome the brains and bodies of bright foreign students who came to the U.S. to study and who wanted to stay.  The GOP believed in “God and Country,” but also in separation of church and state, and felt that NATO and other allies were important in opposing communist adventurism.  There were extreme “rightists” back then, such as the John Birch society, but ultra-conservative members of Congress were a definite minority.

That began to change about the time when I became the legislative director for a conservative Republican congressman after the 1972 election and came to Washington, D.C.  That was the time period when the far-right Republican Study Committee and equally conservative Heritage Foundation were created, largely in reaction to a Democrat-dominated House of Representatives and Senate. Over the next two decades, more and more liberal and moderate Republicans were defeated, and the GOP became more and more stridently conservative on social and religious issues, tacitly [and sometimes more than that] opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, and opposing as much as possible environmental and civil rights issues.

At the same time, any pretense of fiscal conservatism vanished with the Reagan administration and the idea that tax cuts for the wealthier Americans would bring prosperity to everyone, but, in the end, all that meant was that the Republicans wanted welfare for businesses and the wealthy and the Democrats wanted welfare for the poor and underprivileged…and both kinds of welfare were funded increasingly through deficit financing.  Both parties cooperated in adding to the Defense budget by keeping unneeded military bases open, by micromanaging defense procurement in order to maximize defense jobs in the districts of influential members of the House and Senate, and by often legislating the procurement of weapons and equipment not requested by military leaders.

In recent years, Republicans have pushed for more “deregulation,” especially financially, tax cuts for the wealthy, effectively cut back on antitrust enforcement and environmental protection, and failed to fund VA hospitals and health care for all the wounded veterans injured in various combat assignments  all over the world.  They’ve also pushed for “religious” provisions of all sorts in health care and education.

In short, they’ve abandoned fiscal prudence, and rewarded the rich, and created all sorts of indirect subsidies for businesses. They have tried to gut the separation of church and state. They’ve pushed for measures to make it harder for minorities and the less affluent to vote and be politically active.  They’ve tried to overturn and roll back air quality standards affecting the poorest Americans, and they’ve turned over public lands to mining companies. Most of all, they claim that they’re for “working Americans,” when almost everything they espouse these days will hurt those working Americans.   

The Democrats want to spend far too much, and they go too far in the area of political correctness, and they don’t understand that “culture” isn’t the same as “race” or ethnicity, but they’re trying, most imperfectly, to make life better for the majority of Americans, and they have plans to pay for what they want, which, imperfect as some of them are, are far better than the proven unworkable trickle-down economics of the Republicans. What the Republicans support, for all their rhetoric to the contrary, are measures designed to make life better for those who already have the good life and vague promises to dissatisfied workers that will do absolutely nothing for those workers, not to mention wasting money on a wall across the southern border that won’t deal with the real immigration problems and will create severe environmental difficulties. 

If I’ve counted correctly, there are something like 37 individuals connected with the Trump campaign that have either been indicted or pled guilty to various charges of corruption, and they’ve been charged by a Republican prosecutor.  I’m fairly sure that’s a record for such charges, but then, the last time we had such a scandal was Watergate… and, funny thing, that was a Republican campaign and administration, too.  And, oh, yes, the last big Presidential corruption problem before that was the Teapot Dome scandal in which Republicans tried to sell-off, at cut-rate prices, U.S. naval oil reserves to oil moguls. 

But I guess that “ethical” for Republicans these days means cutting back on rights, benefits [including breathing clean air], and health care for the disadvantaged while providing subsidies and tax cuts to businesses and the wealthy and claiming that all those “new” jobs, most of which are “service” jobs that pay far less than the old manufacturing jobs, are a great benefit.

Hypocrisy, anyone?

The “Outsider” Danger

What too many people accept without truly understanding is that society – any society – is held together by two sets of rules – those set forth in law and those adopted and accepted through custom and habit.  Some societies rely far more heavily on religious and historical customs than on laws, and other societies, such as the United States, rely more heavily on written laws and written constitutional frameworks.

But even in the United States, there are customs that have the force of law – until they don’t.  For example, George Washington set an example of a President serving only two terms… and that custom had the force of law for some 154 years… until Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to run for a third term.  Ten years after that, the 22nd amendment, limiting Presidential terms to two, became law, because, once the custom was flouted, anyone else might flout it as well.

We’re now seeing another “custom” flouted.  Until Trump decided that immigrants were cause for a national emergency, no U.S. President would have considered unarmed and often starving refugees or illegal immigrants as a national emergency.  In fact, at one point in our history, no immigrant was “illegal.”

What Trump did in proclaiming a national emergency for political purposes was break the custom that a national emergency be a truly national emergency. No matter what rhetoric is employed, those refugees and illegal immigrants do not threaten the nation’s overall economy or safety, which the “customary” and accepted definition of national emergency historically required. The failure to fund a southern border wall is not an “emergency,” and no historical U.S. politician would ever have considered it so.

Trump is not a politician.  He is a self-serving and narcissistic demagogue who has neither the knowledge nor the understanding of American political culture… and he represents the true downside and danger of investing power in an “outsider.”   Outsiders don’t care about customs, or about why certain practices have been followed. Sometimes, for a nation, that is useful, but it is always dangerous.

Unless Congress acts, as it did in the case of the 22nd Amendment, or unless the Supreme Court rules against Trump, any subsequent President will be able to define on his or her own terms what a national emergency is.  Will it be the widespread possession and use of firearms?  Or perhaps strikes by public employees? Or “unfair tariffs” by other nations? Or possibly the “epidemic” of abortion?

Electing “outsiders” is seldom the best way to break “gridlock” because lots of other things can get broken in the process, often disastrously, as we’re seeing not only here in the United States, but elsewhere in the world.

But then, too often when people get angry or frustrated, habits or customs and the reasons for them get discarded without any thought for what will result.

A Little History, Please

And no, I’m not talking about politics this time.  I’m talking about newer F&SF writers who should know better… not about the history, if there even is any, in their books, but about what’s been written before and by whom. 

I’m beginning to get weary of newer writers or F&SF critics or columnists writing articles or giving interviews or blurbing books who talk about the “new” way they or other writers have addressed an issue or a problem or how this or that issue hasn’t really surfaced before…. or how these books open new vistas… or some similar cliché.

Roger Zelazny was writing SF about cloned bodies and mental transplants in Lord of Light fifty years ago, and also about men becoming women and vice versa.  Ursula K. LeGuin explored basic gender issues and preconceptions pretty thoroughly, also fifty years ago, in The Left Hand of Darkness, as well as environmental issues in The Word for World is Forest.  It’s also been overlooked, until recently (although it’s still not that widely known) that her protagonist in the Earthsea books was a person of color.  J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World is an earlier take [1962] on global warming and rising seas.

In 1909, E.M. Forster wrote a novelette entitled “The Machine Stops,” a tale of what happens when the mechanical entity that runs all of earth’s civilization fails.  Fred Saberhagen wrote about malevolent AIs [the berserkers] well before the “Terminator” movies.  Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth wrote about the takeover of the world by advertising executives in The Space Merchants back in 1952.

So… please be careful using phasing like “new” or “fresh” or “unexplored.”  I know no one wants to admit that what they’ve done is a different approach to an old theme or a perspective from a slightly different angle, but, for the most part, that’s exactly what most writers who are cited as “new” or “fresh” actually do… and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

For the writers who truly do something different and unique… well… most of them are ignored because most readers are uncomfortable with something truly unique.  A few manage to do the unique in a way that conceals how unique what they do is… and about one in a million turns out to be J.R.R. Tolkien.

A Different Approach to Balancing the Federal Budget?

Recently, various Democratic politicians have been pushing a range of tax options.  From what I can determine, and from what many experts are saying, most of them would cause more harm than good.  I’m not saying that we don’t need more federal revenue.  I’m saying that everyone is looking in the wrong places.

Let’s go back to basics.  First, you can’t tax people who have no income.  Second, despite the political rhetoric, it’s highly unlikely that a “wealth tax” is constitutional.  Third, a wealth tax would destroy a lot of entrepreneurs while only marginally inconveniencing financial types.  That’s because the wealth of the entrepreneurs is usually tied up in stock and having to sell large blocks of it to pay taxes could destroy the company or at least damage it.  The same thing could happen to family held companies without large cash reserves.  Fourth, extremely high marginal tax rates would cause either creative tax evasion or tax flight, both of which would leave the upper middle class shouldering the burden, not the wealthy.

BUT… there is another source of untapped revenue that has several advantages.  First, it targets the financial community, and that’s where most of the money is.  Second, it’s about time that Wall Street starting paying the bill.  And third, it’s not really that onerous a tax when you think about it.  And fourth, some states already use it.

I’m talking about a transfer tax on every share of stock sold on every stock exchange in the U.S.  The tax would be levied on the seller, since the seller gets the money. With computers, keeping track shouldn’t be that hard.

I did some back of the envelope calculations, which astounded me. The other day, which wasn’t extraordinary, the top 100 stocks on the NASDAQ-100 had a daily volume of over 400 million shares traded.  Only one of those stocks sold for less than $6 a share and the rest looked to average a hundred dollars a share.  The yearly sales value of just those 100 stocks look to exceed $10 trillion annually.  A one percent transfer tax on the sales of the shares of just those one hundred companies would yield about $100 billion annually… and there are over 4000 publicly traded companies on U.S.

Now I know that there are also some public start-up companies whose shares are valued in cents, and some sort of sliding scale would be necessary for them, but given how much Wall Street has benefitted, is a one percent a share, or even half of that, too much to ask of the large established firms… and the algorithm-driven trading computers used by market profiteers?

Corruption, Wealth, and Consequences

Everyone’s heard about the “Golden Rule,” but there’s a variation on it that I often heard from the boss of the consulting firm I worked for years ago in Washington, D.C. – “Those who’ve got the gold make the rules.”

Along those same lines, the sixteen century poet Sir John Harrington wrote, “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”  That quote was co-opted and often cited by the far right in the 1960s as the result of a book with a title of  None Dare Call It Treason, but unfortunately the principle still applies today, except in a far different context, as a result of the “second” golden rule, except it might be entitled Law by and for Affluent White Males.

By that, I mean that whether something is a crime or not, legally speaking, depends on what the law says, and the laws in the United States have been drafted, almost entirely, by affluent white men, except, to some degree as one reader pointed out, recently in California.  Now, it’s definitely a crime if someone takes a gun and steals your wallet.  Likewise, it’s a crime if someone physically assaults you for no reason, or if someone hacks your bank account and drains it.

But what about laws and a legal system that affect poorer people more than richer ones?  Or ones that use laws to transfer money from poorer people to richer ones?

It’s a crime for two parties to collude to force people to pay more for a product, unless one of those parties is a pharmaceutical company and the other is the Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid Administration, because the government, thanks to a special law passed some fifteen years ago, is expressly forbidden from negotiating lower drug prices.  In effect, it’s a form of price-fixing, and it’s taking money from the pockets of every health care consumer and putting it in the bank accounts of all the pharmaceutical companies… and adding to executive and CEO bonuses.  Those higher costs pose a far higher burden on the poor and elderly than on the rich and famous. Right now, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of diabetics are having trouble paying for insulin because the pharmaceutical industry keeps jiggering the formulations so that a basic medication more than fifty years old can cost diabetics almost $6,000 a year, up from $2,800 seven years ago. The cost of one Advair asthma inhaler has gone from $316 in 2013 to $541 this month.

Robbery and embezzlement are both forms of theft.  Most robberies are committed by poorer members of society, and most embezzlement by those better off.  According to Federal sentencing reports in 2016, the average sentence time for embezzlement was eight months, but half of those convicted were sentenced to no time in jail; the average sentence for robbery was six years. By comparison, another study showed that the average sentence for fraud of less than $5,000 was five months, while the average sentence for greater amounts averaged twenty-two months, but burglary/breaking and entering, which also doesn’t involve violence to others, has an average sentence of 4.6 years.

So, the poor and disadvantaged criminals steal less money and spend more time in jail.  Part of that is, of course, that more affluent clients can also afford better attorneys.  Now, if that embezzlement actually hits the rich and famous, as in the case of Bernie Madoff, then the gloves come off.  That’s why Madoff is facing 150 years in prison. 

But my former boss’s “Golden Rule” also affects how new laws are made as well.

For example, recently the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell didn’t break corruption laws when he pulled political favors for a big donor in return for lavish gifts and personal loans. That kind of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” behavior was not barred by current corruption laws, the Court decided, despite the tens of thousands of dollars McDonnell and his wife received in gifts, cash, and loans.  This decision was the result of small changes in the laws over the years that now allow corporations and the rich to literally buy politicians legally, as also reflected in the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

And conservatives wonder why minorities are often skeptical of the laws and the legal system?

States’ Rights?

I’ve often said that I live in the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret, and in the last month or so, the state legislature has decided to prove that.  As background, voters in the state voted two initiatives into law.  One legalized various uses of marijuana for medical purposes; the other expanded Medicaid coverage as allowed under federal law.

The medical marijuana initiative was largely supported because, for the last two sessions of the legislature, the legislature voted against all measures to do so, and many felt that was because of the views of the LDS Church.

Why might people suppose that?  It just might be because the Republicans have a super-majority in both the state house and senate, and, interesting enough, 81 of the 82 Republicans are members of the LDS faith, even though only about 63% of the state population is LDS.  The Democrats, all 22 of them, are, as best I can determine, roughly 60% LDS and 40% other faiths, which is, also interestingly enough, close to the belief structure of the state. 

Once the marijuana initiative passed, immediately after the election, the Republicans called a special session, declaring that, as law, the initiative was unsuitable, and immediately went to work to pass legislation to water it down and eliminate certain provisions.  They were successful in doing so, not surprisingly when you consider their faith and majority status.

The second initiative was to expand Medicaid coverage to the additional level allowed, but not required, by federal law. Now that the legislature has convened, the state Senate has passed and sent to the state House legislation to significantly cut back that coverage on the grounds that, some five years from now, it will cost the state some $10 million dollars a year to maintain that coverage.  But the point of the initiative was to cover all of those eligible but not covered, not part of them, and the cost not already in the state budget to the average taxpayer would have been less than $10 per year.

The House speaker has indicated that the measure will pass, and the governor will sign it, and all the Republicans claim that it’s necessary for budgetary prudence, even though the state is running a budgetary surplus, and the legislature is mulling tax cuts… and, oh, yes, the state spends less per student on public education than any state in the union, by a wide margin.

But then, perhaps all this might, just might, have something to do with the fact that the LDS Church insists on a 10% tithe on gross income, and it doesn’t want its members overtaxed.

But… all this might also provide an example of why I’m just a bit leery when people trumpet “states’ rights.”

The Image/Reality Conflict

In The Outline of History (1920), H.G. Wells stated, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”  True as that may be or may have been, I’m getting the feeling that at present we’re seeing a race between “image” and reality.

Regardless of rhetoric and belief, walls seldom work at keeping people in or out, and when they do work, it takes enormous effort and creates horrible tragedies… and in a short time, any wall fails.  History has shown this time and again.  That’s reality, but for the past month we’ve seen a political battle between the image of the wall as a security blanket and the reality of its impracticality.

Study after study has shown that societies work far better, are more stable, and progress more when economic inequality is lessened in a society, particularly the gap between the poorest and the very richest members of a society.  History has also shown that absolute income leveling does not work, and that functional societies need income gradients based on ability and effort.  Yet we have a world where the 26 richest men in the world [and they’re all men] control as much wealth as the poorest 48% (or 3.7 billion people), and even in the United States, the top one percent controls 40% of all the wealth, and it’s become harder and harder for people to move up from the income level of their parents, or, if they’re born rich, easier to stay rich than at any time in over a century, essentially since the time of the Robber Barons.  Yet all too many Americans hold to the image that government hinders income mobility, when in fact government law and policies over the last thirty years have largely benefited the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.  That’s the sad reality.

Then there’s the image of social media “bringing people together,” but if social media actually does that, then why do people feel more isolated than ever, and why are those individuals most addicted to social media the ones who feel the most isolated.  Once again, the image seems to be triumphing over reality.

Even as Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets are melting faster and faster, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, too many people hold to the image that the world is too vast for “mere” human activity to play any significant part in the ongoing global warming. And deniers cite a mere handful of scientists who deny global warming over the 99% who cite human activities as a significant cause. 

The United States is a far safer place for children than it’s ever been, yet American parents are more fearful for their children’s safety than ever before, largely because the media focuses on every sensational adverse event that happens to a child. In the same vein, millions of parents don’t have their children vaccinated, even when years of statistics show that the side-effects of vaccination are minuscule compared to the side-effects of the illnesses those vaccines prevent.  These parents either don’t know or ignore the fact that measles and whooping cough used to kill thousands of children annually, or that measles largely wiped out several Native American tribes and a huge percentage of Hawaiian islanders.

We have a President who has made thousands of false statements over the past two years, and yet something like 38% of the people still believe him.

So why do images grasp so many of us so firmly that we cannot see reality?

Personal Polarization

These days, there’s a lot of talk about the polarization of political views, which is reflected in the current stand-off between the Republican Senate/President Trump and the House Democratic leadership.  As always, however, what occurs in Washington is a reflection of what’s happening everywhere in the nation.

One of the facets of this polarization is, from what I’ve observed, a much greater tendency for each side to objectify the other side by insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree fully with them on various “hot-button” issues must be a card-carrying extremist on the other side.

So… if I say that the ultra-feminists are carrying political correctness to absurd extremes, which I believe they are (since I believe that they should have concentrated on getting economic and political power and equality first and foremost), I risk being called a toxic male, or at best one who is hopelessly out of touch. If I say that black movements such as Black Lives Matter have not only called attention to young blacks unjustly killed, which has happened far too often, but also gone overboard and exalted black street punks/minor criminals into martyrs, which they have, then I’m told that I have no understanding of minority rights and am a white privileged racist.

If I point out to my rancher/farmer acquaintances that they can’t keep mining the groundwater in the high desert area where we live or that there’s too much overgrazing on federal lands, I’m immediately dismissed as a left-wing environmentalist who doesn’t understand and wants to destroy their family heritage. Likewise, if I point out that the BLM has mismanaged the handling of a host of issues, from wild horses to collecting grazing fees, I’m called part of the right-wing rape-the-land advocates.

If I point out that the majority of “hate” groups in the U.S.  are by far mostly composed of far right extremists, which is documented, and if I don’t publicly condemn the comparatively few extreme leftist outbreaks, which I tend not to do because the far-right is doing that quite extensively, and I really don’t want to associate myself with them on that, then I’m labelled as an extreme leftist.

If I point out that the current administration’s idea of building a wall is insane, impractical, and wasteful, then I’m a far left liberal who wants to turn the country over to greedy criminal immigrants who will destroy “our way” of life, despite all the facts to the contrary, or the fact that I’ve been vocal about the need for immigration law reform.   

As I’ve repeatedly pointed out in my blogs, facts have become irrelevant.  Only image and emotion matter any more.  Each side picks the facts that support its views, and their images, and categorizes and objectifies anyone who doesn’t agree as the enemy. 

And those of us in the middle are becoming fewer and fewer, because we don’t agree fully with either “side,” and that means both sides view us as the enemy.

And then people wonder why there aren’t any compromises.

“Baroque” Writing

The other day I was reading a fantasy novel that had been recommended to me by someone whose judgment I trust.  I had to force myself to finish it.  It wasn’t that the technical aspect of the writing was bad.  The writer has a good command of mechanics and style.  It wasn’t that the plot was trite; it wasn’t.  The concept of the magic was good, and it seamlessly fused magic and post-Renaissance/early industrial-level technology.

So why did I have so much trouble finishing the book?

The plot reminded me of the worst in Baroque music, over-ornamented and excessively twisted and complex.  Now, I know… lots of readers like those kinds of books and their plots.  I’m not one of them, and probably the reason why is because I spent too much time in Washington, D.C., and national politics.

To put it bluntly, involuted and convoluted schemes don’t usually work in real life.  First is the simple problem that not even three people can keep a secret very long, let alone the number required to orchestrate a complex conspiracy.  Second, the more moving parts anything has, especially if those moving parts are people, the greater the chance that something will go wrong, in fact, that many things will go wrong.

Then there’s the problem that when things get really ornately complex, more gimmicks or gadgets are needed, especially if there’s an evil genius or power that wants to make people act against their self-interest (which there is in this book), and that’s also not the way matters work in real life.  People do shady things out of greed, the lust for power or sex, or because it gives them a twisted kick.  It’s dreadfully straight-forward.  The twists in life come from the interaction of comparatively direct motivations that don’t allow everyone to get what they want.

When an author over-complexifies, so to speak, he or she loses me.  Now, that’s just me.  I don’t dislike complexity, but when I write, I want the complexity to come out of the interaction of human motives and drives.

Maybe that’s why I also generally prefer Classical or Romantic period music, but I say generally, because far from all Baroque music is over-ornamented, unlike Baroque-plot books.

The “Wall” Image Problem

If people were logical, there wouldn’t even be an issue over the wall. But people are emotional, and their emotions are tied into images.

For Trump and his supporters, the wall is an image of strength and protection against the hordes of immigrants that threaten their vision of America. It doesn’t even occur to them that for most Americans and much of the free world, walls connote a different kind of power and domination, the kind represented by the Berlin Wall and even the Great Wall of China, where between 400,000 and two million people [depending on the historian] died building various iterations of that wall, and which at one point required a million men to defend and maintain it, vainly as it turned out.

Next, there’s the problem with the image of immigrants.  Despite the fact that every single person in the United States, including Native Americans [they just came first], is either an immigrant or the descendent of immigrants, most of them poor, Trump and his wall supporters possess the image of immigrants as greedy and criminal, while most of those who oppose the wall hold to the positive idea of the United States as a land of opportunity for immigrants.

Then, there’s the larger image problem.  Exactly what would building a massive concrete barrier say about the United States?  Would it say that we’re a free and open land?  What kind of power would that convey?  Based on the history of walls and who built them and for what reasons, I’d say that such a wall conveys the idea of dominating great power that places security above all else, a power that will trample human rights for the sake of security, and certainly that’s what we’re seeing with the way the current administration is dealing with immigrants and their children.

What’s one of the most disturbing aspects of this confrontation is that neither side has directly addressed the simple issue of what such a wall says about us as a people, or to what lengths those who want to build that wall will go to obtain that security.

As for whether such a wall would even provide such security, I’ll defer to General George Patton who said, “Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity.  If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, anything made by man can be overcome.”

Democrats: It’s Your Turn on Immigration

Regardless of how the shut-down turns out, the Democratic Party risks losing its majority status in the next election for one simple reason.

A majority of the country believes that there is an immigration problem.  While I’m obviously no fan of the President, and while the immigration situation was not the national emergency or crisis Trump has turned it into, there is an immigration problem.

As many people have pointed out, we’re making it harder and harder for the kind of skilled and educated immigrants we can use to actually immigrate here.  We’re making it harder and harder for foreign students who get their advanced degrees to stay here and work.

We allow hundreds of thousands of people to come as students or tourists…and stay past their education or visas… and then almost randomly, with no real program, abruptly deport a comparative handful, often breaking up families, and leaving legal children without a parent.

We have a need for low skilled workers to do grubby jobs.  But rather than have a program for them, as we once did, now illegals do some of the work, legal immigrants do some, and some doesn’t get done, and those who do it are often subject to brutal conditions because so much is under the table.

There aren’t enough immigration judges or other personnel… and all that I’ve mentioned doesn’t come close to covering the problems.

Now… unlike the Democrats, Trump has addressed the problem and proposed a solution.  In my opinion, as most who read this blog know, it’s a lousy and wasteful solution that doesn’t really do anything that will get to the roots of the problem, but it’s a solution.

In all the Democratic rhetoric, I haven’t heard one single word about what their solution might be to the problem, only that what Trump has proposed is wrong.  I agree.  What he’s done is wrong and also won’t really solve the problem.

But he’s trying to address it.

The Democrats are pretending it’s not a problem; that it will go away if we continue immigration as we did before.  It won’t.  Given the awful conditions in too many Latin American countries, this problem isn’t going away.

So… Democrats, what’s your plan… besides saying “No” to Trump?

An old political consultant I respected greatly once said, “You can’t beat anything with nothing.”  And right now, the Democrats have exactly nothing.

Triumph of the Evil Genius?

We don’t have a national emergency.  We soon will, because that’s exactly what Trump has planned. It’s all part of a grand scheme that just might work. Consider the developments to date. 

First, Trump has been conducting rallies all over the United States for the past two years, emphasizing the dangers of immigration and the need for the wall, to the point that now 87% of all Republicans believe it’s necessary.  The facts that show it’s unnecessary, wasteful, and counterproductive don’t matter to the success of the Evil Genius’s plan. All that matters is that the overwhelming majority of Republicans believe that immigrants are an immediate threat to the U.S. and that the wall must be built.  That means that very few Republicans in Congress can afford to oppose Trump.

The Democrats have discovered that Trump isn’t interesting in bargaining or compromise.  But their problem is that their base is composed of minorities, educated white women, and some liberal white males, all of whom are vitally interested in civil and gender rights and environmental protection.  The Trump administration has stepped up deportations to an all-time high and has been attempting to cut back the rights of immigrants, legal and illegal, to remove civil rights protections, to make voter registration and voting more difficult for the poor and disadvantaged, and to nullify environmental protections which benefit largely the poorer segments of society.  Given the Trump administration’s record in these issues, they rightly fear that any compromise will just enhance Trump’s power. Also, if they give in on the wall funding, then Trump will spend the next two years tweeting that “even the Democrats knew I was right.  They funded the wall.”  

Second, Trump has no intention of allowing Congress to reach a compromise on the wall issue.  When the Congressional leadership reached an agreement on $1.6 billion on border security, a number Trump said he’d approve, once the bill was passed, Trump rejected it.  Vice President Pence then said Trump would go for $2.5 billion, and the leadership started to put together that bill, when Trump then declared that wasn’t acceptable.  Now, Trump is demanded $5.7 billion for the wall.  But he’s also saying that it’s “up to the parties.”   He’s positioning himself so that neither side can politically afford to compromise, and when everything breaks down, he can claim that the system has failed and he needs emergency powers.

While not all of the federal government is shut down, Homeland Security cannot pay its employees, and they’re a large element of border and transportation security.  The now unpaid TSA agents are already calling in “sick” in high numbers, and since they’re certainly among the 80% of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, this problem will worsen, as will the stress and strain among the other near-million or so federal employees not being paid.

As a result, sooner or later there will be some sort of border of immigration incident.  Trump will use that incident to point out the failure of Congress to address this “vital national security issue,” ignoring the fact that he’s the one who created the issue, and will push for a national state of emergency.  If that doesn’t do it, the next incident will.

Sooner or later, as the Trump administration tightens controls and increases deportations, including the child-age legal citizens of illegal immigrants [which reportedly has already begun to happen], there will be demonstrations against the administration.  The administration will claim that the demonstrations are fomented by foreign agents [as they have already claimed at times] and will restrict civil rights more.  The actual process will take longer and have more steps, but the result will be the same.

In short, if Congress refuses to act with veto-proof legislation, Trump will continue to fan the flames until he gains full emergency powers over government.

Don’t tell me It Can’t Happen Here.  It is happening.  The only question is whether we do something about it and demand our legislators cut Trump out of government funding, which they can do.

Temper Tantrums

When Trump learned that the House of Representatives and the Democratic minority in the Senate were willing to give him more border security funding, but no wall or solid steel fence, he walked out of the meeting, saying “Bye-bye.”

He talks about the need to protect Americans, but every day that the partial government shut-down continues, far more Americans are harmed than any possible protection than could be obtained from a concrete wall or solid steel fence.   The National Parks are taking a beating that will require millions to repair and clean up.  Tax refunds are threatened.  Federal contract workers will never get paid for the last three weeks.

No matter what Trump says, none of that really matters to him. He wants that wall because he campaigned on it, and he wants his way.  He wants to proof he’s boss.  And since he can’t say “You’re fired,” to Congress, this is the next best thing for him.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest to him that there are better and more effective ways to deal with the flow of refugees.  It doesn’t matter how many American citizens suffer.  It doesn’t matter than the wall would be a five billion dollar fiasco that would simply channel would-be illegal immigrants into other ways to get into the U.S.  It doesn’t matter that we’re getting more illegal immigrants by far by other ways than across the Mexican border.

Now…the Democrats could turn up the pressure on this issue by saying that, while a wall won’t work and sends the wrong message, there is a need for more border security and that they’d support more funding – with the proviso that none of it goes to a wall.

Or Trump could easily “win” by saying, “Okay, you’re right.  The wall won’t work the way I thought, but that means we need to spend more on other ways to stop illegal immigration. Give me five billion, with solid language that says it can’t be spent on a wall or a solid steel fence.”

 That way, he’d put the Democrats in the corner.  But he’s too much of a four-year-old in temper tantrum outlook to do that.  And so, Americans and would-be migrants will all continue to suffer, and if Congress does cave and he gets wall funding, they’ll have suffered, and all the money spent on the wall will be essentially wasted.

So much for the great deal-maker and temper tantrums in politics.

Action as Distraction

The other day, I ran across a reader review of one of my books, where the reader downgraded it because it had the “least action” of any book in the series, as if his prime criterion for excellence was violent action.  My first reaction was why he bothered to read my books at all, and my second was that the book in question had more than a little “action,” but no great and endless battle scenes.  And that led to my third thought, which was about the current administration.

With all the emphasis on “the wall” and the totally unfounded idea that illegal immigrants will pose a great and violent threat, and the heralding of the “triumph” over ISIS in Syria, as well as the postured threats and tariff wars, most people aren’t seeing the “real action,” just as that reader didn’t.

As I’ve noted earlier, the Mexican border isn’t the biggest problem with illegal immigrants; and, overall, illegal immigrants are actually paying more in taxes than they’re getting in benefits.  At the same time, green cards are being denied to immigrants with permanent legal status here – yes, you can stay, for now, and until we take away more rights, but you can’t legally work here.  That forces legal immigrants to work illegally if they want to stay alive, and if they’re caught working illegally, then they can be deported…  not only that, but the number of illegal, and some legal immigrants being deported is growing. 

But “the wall” dominates the news. 

In the meantime, across the board, environmental protections are being dialed back administratively, effectively worsening air quality and endangering health. The current administration is continuing to use administrative measures to weaken health care insurance, while administrative decisions are effectively lengthening the protections against competition for brand-name drugs, thus ensuring higher drug prices for longer, and higher health care costs.

Across the entire economy, a few large corporations are gaining market strangleholds, while Congress looks the other way, and the President insists on keeping part of the government shut down until he gets his way.

Our national transportation system continues to erode, and our electric power distribution system is a disaster waiting to happen, but the President claims victory against ISIS in Syria while the DOD secretary resigns, and everyone is up in arms as the President back-pedals on withdrawing troops from Syria.

And Congress, and most Americans, focus on the distractions, while missing all too much of the “real” action, just like that clueless reader.

Professional Politicians, Idealists, Polarization, and Immigration

The problem with true idealists in politics is that few true idealists are able to compromise, and no government, particularly a democratically-based government, works without compromise. 

The problem with most professional politicians is that their ideals are subservient to their desire to retain office, and to remain in office they will vote for popular but unwise policies and legislation. While popular opinion can be fickle, most widely held popular beliefs are simplistic ideals, all too often at variance with reality.

Thus, the combination of idealists and professional politicians mitigates against compromise and practicality, and the less that government accomplishes the stronger people’s beliefs become, in turn reinforcing the problem of polarization, largely because those beliefs are rooted in images only loosely connected to physical reality.

We see that today in the debate over immigration, where one side is convinced that the situation is urgent and the most important problem facing Congress, while the other side minimizes a non-functional bureaucracy that needs overhaul and more funding.  Yet the one side ignores the fact  that the immigration problem is in fact far less severe than it was a decade ago and that, while the immigration system needs funding and fundamental reform, building more walls won’t solve anything and would be a waste of money, while the other side wants what amounts to more open immigration without coming up with a coherent program for dealing with immigration. 

To top it off, neither side in Congress wants to really deal with the problems in Latin American countries that have led to the current flow of immigrants.  And because Congress can’t come up with a unified solution with enough votes to override a Presidential veto, Trump will continue his posturing and fear-mongering  until Congress smartens up… or caves in.

I’m wagering on a cave-in.

Lying and Untrustworthy

As usual, most of the media and most Americans have missed, overlooked, or minimized the most important aspect of the current partial government shutdown, a shutdown ostensibly over the amount of funding for border security, and, in particular because Congress is paralyzed over the amount the Democrats will accept — $1.6 billion—and Trump’s demand for $5 billion, mostly for “his wall.”

Except that’s not the real story, or not the entire story.  The Senate leadership had earlier gone to the President with the $1.6 billion in funding for the remainder of the fiscal year, and according to Congressional parties, the President had agreed to the $1.6 billion number.  When he received the final bill, however, he rejected it and demanded that the Congress send him legislation with $5 billion for border security, despite the fact that the administration hasn’t even spent all the funding it already has for border security.

Now, after having gone back on his word, Trump is demanding a “counter-offer” from Congress for more wall and border security funding.

Needless to say, the Democrats are furious at the President, and the Republicans are blaming the shut-down on the Democrats’ failure to negotiate, willfully ignoring the fact that the Democrats already negotiated in good faith and that the President went back on his word.  And, of course, there’s also the problem that, over time, walls have never worked, and that despite the President’s rhetoric, illegal border crossings from Mexico have dropped 90% since 2000, and that the majority of illegal immigrants today actually arrived legally, as students, tourists, or visitors.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post just published a story noting that the President averaged over 15 verifiable falsehoods a day in 2018, up from 5 per day in 2017 and describing 2018 as a year of “unprecedented deception” by the President.

Exactly why should the Democrats give in to a lying and untrustworthy President?  And why do Republican politicians continue to support him?

The Problem With “No”

The Republicans have had full control of all three branches of the federal government for the past two years and so far as I can determine, they managed only five things: (1) To keep the government staggering along (until the past few days); (2) to pass a massive tax cut largely benefitting the wealthiest Americans; (3) to pass a criminal justice reform bill; (4) to alienate to some degree almost every other nation on earth except Russia; and (5) to attempt to dismantle as much environmental protection as possible. 

Out of that more than mixed bag, only the criminal justice reform could be considered as positive for most Americans. And now, over the issue of building a wall, they’ve shut down a significant fraction of the federal government.

So why didn’t the Republicans accomplish more?  Because their agenda is almost entirely negative.  Democrats largely want to grant women more control over their bodies; Republicans say no to that, and want to take away the existing control that women have over their bodies. Democrats want to use laws and regulations to improve the environment; Republicans not only say no to that, but also want to remove existing environmental protections.  Democrats want to make it easier for all eligible citizens to register and to vote; Republicans want to restrict the right to vote and have taken active steps to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote.  Democrats are for a single-payer national health care program;  Republicans oppose that and have worked to weaken the existing system, while passing legislation that prohibits Medicare or Medicaid from negotiating lower drug prices, a key factor in making U.S. prescription drug prices the highest of all fully developed nations.

And what changes Republicans do push for are not beneficial for the majority of Americans, because they appear to be for, by their actions:  (1) unlimited rights to bear arms, regardless of the dangers to others;  (2) government control of women’s reproductive rights: (3) incorporating their religious beliefs in law; (4) greatly restricting immigration except to Caucasians and wealthy or highly educated minorities; (5) tax benefits for the wealthy and corporations;  and (6)  reduction of federal benefits to the poor and minorities.

Not only do Republicans fail to have a positive agenda for the country, but they can’t even agree on much of anything, except one thing – to oppose whatever the Democrats propose.

Regardless of the rhetoric, the tax cuts didn’t bring back manufacturing jobs, because many of those jobs didn’t migrate overseas;  instead the jobs were automated/computerized, and the others were so labor-intensive that no U.S. company could remain competitive paying U.S. wages. Since most U.S. consumers won’t pay more for U.S.- produced goods, especially if foreign goods are considerably cheaper, increasing tariffs to stop such imports would choke the U.S. economy as well as increasing the prices Americans would have to pay.

Regardless of Trump’s rhetoric, a wall won’t stop immigration.  The U.S. Gulf Coast alone stretches almost 1,700 miles, and for technical, economic, and practical reasons, that can’t be walled off.

So the Republicans have become the party of “no,” except when they most should say no, and that’s to their own President.

Hippocrates Had It Right

According to various accounts, one of the basic principles of the legendary Greek physician Hippocrates was, first, to do no harm.  From what I’ve seen in my life, that prescription is valid as a first precept in just about everything.

That said, I suspect we all know people who feel that you’ve harmed them if you don’t do what they want.  If you fail to cook a favorite food for a partner or guests, but you’re still feeding them, that’s not harm. If you refuse to go to bed with someone, it’s not harm.  Both may occasion disappointment, but they’re not harm. Now… some people are so violent that your failure to meet their expectations can result in harm to you, and that’s another aspect of the “harm” issue, and one with which society has great difficulty handling.

And sometimes, failing to do something is harm.  If you don’t throw a rope to someone drowning, that’s harm. If you fail to feed a starving child, that’s harm.  And, equally, there are times when we don’t know honestly know whether not doing what someone wants will cause harm.

But, for all those possible exceptions and ambiguities, I suspect that most of us have a clear idea of what acts, or failures to act, will cause harm.  So why do we often act in ways that harm others?

One big reason is that, in today’s complex world, we don’t recognize [or sometimes just refuse to acknowledge] acts, or failures to act, as harmful.  As just one example, allowing coal-burning power plants and other fossil fuel burning industrial enterprises to emit high levels of pollutants does in fact harm millions of people.  And yes, requiring present emissions controls will cause certain facilities to be less profitable or others to close.  But the lost profits and jobs, especially in the United States, are small compared to the health impacts.  Yet something like 30% of Americans are in favor of relaxing such controls.  Why?  Because a lost job is seen as far more important than a vague concern about health.  Except, especially in areas like Salt Lake or the Denver Front Range corridor, those health concerns aren’t vague, not if you’re young or old or asthmatic, struggling to breathe.  Although U.S. deaths from air pollution have decreased, something like 71,000 Americans died last year from the effects of air pollution.  By comparison, there are only some 55,000 coal industry workers.  Unhappily, a great number of them will likely also die young because of black lung disease.  So, why, exactly, are so many people backing Trump’s harmful proposals to weaken air pollution standards in order to save the coal industry?  At present, the employed U.S. workforce is around 130 million people.  55,000 coal workers are slightly more than four one-hundredths of one percent [.0004] of the workforce. Not only that, but in many areas, burning natural gas, while not ideal, emits far fewer pollutants and is less expensive.

Another reason for allowing harmful practices to continue us because those practices don’t harm us personally (or we don’t seem to think they do) and we believe they result in more material gain for us, and at least some of us assume that others also benefit, and, all too often, those who are harmed have neither the voice nor the power to stop the harm.

But all the rationalization and justification doesn’t mean that such harms don’t exist, only that we as a society have chosen to do nothing about them.