Hello world!

I see the funny — and not so funny — side of current events and politics. This blog records my observations and opinions. I welcome comments if they are well-reasoned and informative. And of course, by all means point out an error if you see one.

Nothing is out of bounds. I don’t subscribe to any political party, finding all to be consistently amusing when they aren’t doing actual damage. My motto in this endeavor comes from my favorite author, Douglas Adams. “Don’t Panic.”

And so we begin …


The Robotics Revolution Continues

Some time ago I predicted that robotics and AI will soon supplant humans in up to 50% of current U.S. jobs. By soon, I meant within the next few decades. You can read this ominous prediction here. There have been numerous instances recently that support that bold assertion, and here is another one that popped up in the news today.

London’s Gatwick Airport is planning to deploy robot valets to park cars in their long-term lots. This saves cost in several ways: no need for valets or lot attendants, no lighting in the lots at all, reduced insurance expense, and – most importantly – far narrower parking slots. They expect to accommodate 8,500 cars in the space now allocated to 6,000 self-park slots. The reason for this should be obvious. They don’t need to allow space to open car doors and those clever robots can park very efficiently.

This is but one of numerous examples of the fourth industrial revolution. If you are curious about this, a good place to begin looking is here. And for those of you in professional or managerial roles, you should not suppose that your occupation is immune. It will impact accountants, doctors, pharmacists, teachers, engineers of all kinds, and many first-level managers. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any occupation that couldn’t be more efficiently and effectively performed by robots. But the creative arts will most likely survive intact, even though robots have already demonstrated that they can write, paint and sculpt as well as most humans.

While this coming epic change will also open up new kinds of work for humans, most will require specialized skills that are not easily acquired. It will not simply be a matter of suitable retraining. I do believe that eventually our society will adapt, but meanwhile the disruption will be massive, and never again will we need so many people to be employed in keeping our country running.

So, what do you think life without work for so many will be like? My optimistic side sees marvelous opportunities for a better existence, with less tedium and more free time. However that can only occur if we prepare intelligently and if we don’t surrender to Luddite tendencies. What odds would you place on that?

Constructive Immorality

A major issue for those opposing Trump’s southern border wall is that it is immoral. I will give the benefit of the doubt to those saying this by assuming they really mean that the principle of a border barrier is intrinsically immoral — surely not the concrete or steel itself. Nevertheless this charge mystifies me. I can think of several genuine and persuasive reasons for opposing such a wall. It will have at best minimal impact and it wastes precious resources that could be more fruitfully invested in our national welfare. But what is intrinsically immoral about wanting a physical barrier on our border?

Start with the dictionary definition. Would building a border barrier be wicked, dishonest or dishonorable? Not by any calm and impartial judgment. My best attempt at decoding this peculiar framework for opposition is that opponents see a wall as a symbol of exclusion and perhaps even bias or racism. It wouldn’t surprise me if many supporters of Trump’s wall harbor such disreputable beliefs, but certainly not everyone. In any case symbolism is a frail basis for litigating this issue.

Try placing this in a local and personal context. Does your own home have any walls or barriers surrounding the property? Many estates have quite substantial walls surrounding them, yet I have never heard anyone refer to them as immoral. Yet all such barriers serve essentially the same purpose as a national wall. While they don’t obstruct a sufficiently motivated intruder, they do mark property boundaries and indicate that entrance requires permission.

I suspect that the charge of immorality is really just guilt by association. Opponents of the wall are overwhelmingly opponents of Trump himself, and they almost certainly view him and his actions as immoral. Hence the wall must seem immoral in their minds.

Perhaps there are more sensible reasons for this charge of ‘constructive immorality‘. I certainly hope so. The remaining objections — cost and utility — seem inadequate to justify closing down the government. If that became a common standard, very little that the government actually does would survive.

The Deep ‘America First’ Vein

Many speak of Trump’s racist America First movement as if it were a new phenomenon in the United States. It isn’t. In fact it is no more intense, bigoted and widespread than the last outbreak. Take this photo for example. Do you think it was taken in Charlottesville this year? No, it wasn’t. This was from the 1930s in Anytown, U.S.A.

There is a book coming out soon that provides a scholarly look at this disease on the body politic from three-quarters of a century ago. It is called Hitler’s American Friends. Here is a blurb from Amazon.

Anyone who believes that the movement to prevent America joining World War II against Hitler can be confined to Charles Lindbergh and his sinister “America First” movement will be astounded by Bradley W. Hart’s well-researched, well-written and fascinating book. The truth is that isolationism was not a Mid-Western, know-nothing fad; in fact it fed off a deep vein of anti-Semitic, anti-British and often even pro-Nazi sentiment right across America. For every one of the 800,000 members of America First, there were 23 other Americans who were tuning into isolationist broadcasts just before World War Two broke out in Europe. This superb book lifts the lid on America’s dark prewar secret.” – Andrew Roberts, author of Napoleon: A Life and Churchill: Walking with Destiny

The U.S. population in 1938 was about 130 million, many of whom were children. It is thus likely that at least 20% of the adult population were sympathetic to Hitler’s cause in the period leading up to WWII. Many others didn’t much like either side but were vehemently against entering the war, scarcely two decades after WWI, and thus they aligned themselves with the isolationist clique.

The pro-Nazi German American Bund held great rallies in places like New York City, St. Louis, and Chicago. Today they would dominate the news the way Trump’s incessant rallies do.

Keep in mind that the 40% or so still supporting Trump are not all American Firsters. Many are Republicans who simply oppose Democratic candidates and policies. And in any case, that number applies only to voters, who are no more than about 60% of the adult population anyway.

Who are “We The People”?

The preamble to our Constitution identifies those to whom it applies with the opening phrase “We the People of the United States”. But who exactly are these people? Recent disputes related to immigration, and in particular to illegal immigrants, make this a crucial legal issue. Focusing more closely, I want to address this question. “What exactly makes someone who is not a US citizen or a qualified alien eligible for constitutional protections?” Two Supreme Court decisions are most often quoted in reply to this question.

In Kwong Hai Chew v. Colding (1953), the Court found in an 8-1 decision that a permanent resident of the United States could not be deported without a hearing under the constitutional right to due process.

In Plyler v. Doe (1982), the Court held that a Texas statute which withholds from local school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States, and which authorizes local school districts to deny enrollment to such children, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The issue of jurisdiction was found to be irrelevant.

But note that both of these cases were understood to apply to persons who are residents of the US. So the issue devolves into what constitutes residency.

Consider the following hypotheticals and see if you can discern a bright line that clearly indicates residency in the US. Have any of the following individuals established residency that is sufficient to qualify for constitution protection?

Someone who approaches the US border and plants his left foot firmly on US soil?

Someone who is standing in Mexico, while waving one foot in the air over US soil?

Someone who visits the US Embassy in Germany? (Our embassies are sovereign territory.)

Someone flying over the Aleutian Islands on a trip from Canada to the Far East?

Someone who trips on a tree stump in Canada and lands on US soil?

Someone who falls overboard into US territorial waters while exercising free rights of passage?

Can you answer these questions confidently, using a clear and unambiguous rule? I believe that I can. The writers of our Constitution never intended that incidental or even deliberate touching of US territory in and of itself confers any kind of claim for Constitutional protection whatsoever. They intended this to apply only to those who purposefully enter our territory, with our explicit or implicit permission, and with the clear intention to remain more than momentarily. There is no other possible reading of either the Constitution or our founding documents like the Federalist Papers. Thus, my answer to all of these questions is “None have established residency.” Do you disagree?

Now consider how the preceding might apply to those sneaking over our southern border. At which point will they have established residency? We have both laws and customs that grant a hearing for claims of refugee status from prospective immigrants. But as far as I know, we have no laws that grant status to those who can’t find sustenance where they now live, or who are at risk from endemic criminality in their homeland, or who simply want a better life for themselves and their families. For those with valid refugee claims, we have policies and procedures in place to process them. But none involve sneaking over our borders.

It is fair to respond that our policies are sometimes overly restrictive and are almost always ponderously slow. But if we can truly claim to be a nation of laws, then these criticisms cannot override legal considerations.

The bottom line seems to be that people trying to avoid our ports of entrance don’t achieve resident status thereby, and hence they are not yet one of “We the People of the United States”. We can grant them due process at our discretion, but I see no constitutional requirement to do so. However, it remains an open question for those clever or lucky enough to escape detection and actual take up residency within our borders.

In his usual bombastic manner, President Trump has called for prompt expulsion of those caught while violating our borders, without due process of law. This has been widely condemned, but I am not so sure that he is entirely off-base with this idea. An old Southern expression comes to mind, “Even a blind hog can find an acorn once in a while.

The Wrong Lessons Learned

Republicans apparently have learned all the wrong lessons from 2016. Hillary Clinton spent most of her time and money demonizing Donald Trump and moaning about possible conservative Supreme Court appointments instead of convincing voters that she would make their lives better. It didn’t work. Of course, part of the problem was the messenger, but I believe a major factor was a seriously off-target message.

So, what are Republicans planning for the 2018 midterm elections? In fact, what have they actually been doing in a string of disastrous special elections across the country? I can easily visualize one of their strategy sessions. One leader exclaims, “Look at those attack ads by our opposition last time. They are really well done, aren’t they?” Another vehemently agrees, “Yeah, we need to get some of that!

So here’s the plan, as far as I can see. They are trying to demonize Nancy Pelosi while moaning about the potential for impeachment proceedings in a Democratic-controlled House. See the parallel? Let’s lay aside the obvious fact that this strategy failed for Hillary. It won’t work for Republicans either, for two simple reasons. First, no one really cares that much about old Nancy anymore. Her position as House Minority Leader is relatively low-profile and she hasn’t done much of note for a long time. And second, quite a few real Republicans despise Trump and would happily exchange him for Vice President Pence. They would get the same policies but more effectively managed and without that disgraceful lump in charge.

This is especially true for evangelicals who have been twisting themselves into knots trying to justify their strong support for Trump. They like his policies – a lot – but they are fully aware that Trump is an abhorrent person and virtually the antithesis of an evangelical. As I heard one prominent evangelical leader explain recently, “Life is full of compromises. He is certainly no role model but he is doing many good things.

The lessons of history seem equally obscure to Democrats. I am beginning to suspect that Trump is smarter than he seems. All those crazy tweets provoke his opposition into paroxysms of fear and hatred so that they focus all of their attention on denouncing him personally in apocalyptic terms. What little energy remains is used to attack the perceived consequences of his policies. The problem is that most of his policies actually achieve very little. So really, why should we fear them?

Trump attacks immigrants, both legal and otherwise, and he killed the DACA program. This did have some effect and frightened the targets, but the impact so far is nowhere near what was feared. The federal courts have blocked the worst from happening. He blustered about a Great Wall on our southern border. So, where is it? His Republican-controlled Congress wants none of it. He thundered about disastrous international trade policies. Other than leaving the Trans-Pacific trade pact – probably temporarily, at that – what has he actually done? Not much that I can see. Even his vaunted tariffs are unraveling before they even take effect. He denounced our meddling in the Middle East as fruitless and wasteful, but really, what has substantially changed under his direction? Have we left Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq to their own evil devices? Not yet and probably not ever.

But wait one minute! What about the myriad of executive orders and changes to administrative regulations by the Trump administration? Surely they have had a great impact, haven’t they? Well yes, they have, but even a biased observer must admit that some corrected excesses of an overly-enthusiastic Obama administration. And in any case, these are temporary changes. The next Democratic President can, and probably will, reverse all of these once again. So our economy will gyrate from one extreme to another until it falls exhausted and dizzy to the floor. And while Trump boasts about his Supreme  Court appointment of the far right conservative, Neil Gorsuch, this doesn’t represent a change at all. After all, he is replacing Antonin Scalia, who was the most reliable conservative vote on the Court.

Everyone has seen enough after more than a year to know that Trump hasn’t caused the end of the world as we know it. His tax plan is actually quite popular. Democratic attempts to vilify it as a massive giveaway to the rich have had little impact, regardless of the fact that they are perfectly correct. As I have often noted in my blog, envy is a much overrated target for political persuasion among Americans in general. They admire the rich and successful and mostly would just like to emulate them. Moreover, concern about looming deficits sits awkwardly on Democratic shoulders. Who believes that they really worry about them? They just think we are spending ourselves into bankruptcy for the wrong reasons. They have far better ones in mind if they get the chance next November.

The bottom line is that both political parties misread the lessons of the past, squander the opportunities of the present, and plan ineffectively for the challenges of the future. Yet somehow, against all the odds, we survive and even prosper.

What’s wrong with the news?

No one would dispute that news media are currently in bad repute. This was not always so, and in fact not that long ago some newspapers and newscasters ranked very high in public esteem. Some of this drop in the opinion polls is a result of extreme politicizing but there is plenty to criticize on a substantive level.

Here, I want to focus on one important failing that is rarely mentioned. Every story, whether on TV, in a newspaper article or an online report, starts in the middle. The beginning of the story is somehow lost or forgotten, and as a result the story is almost certainly misinterpreted by its recipients.

A new kind of ballistic missile is launched by North Korea. A speaker at a city council meeting is drowned out by angry demonstrators. A massive mudslide destroys homes. There is a confrontation between factions concerned with removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans. U.S. warplanes strike new targets in eastern Syria. There are severe outbreaks of measles in several Midwestern cities. Invasive Burmese pythons are changing the ecology of the Florida Everglades. The Cleveland Indians baseball franchise decides to remove its cartoonish mascot but retain its team nickname. Both Russian Premier Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping force legislative changes allowing them to retain power indefinitely. Average rates on individual health insurance policies increased by 12% last year. An unarmed black man is shot by police in a violent confrontation. The Supreme Court hears a Republican challenge to Maryland’s electoral map.

These are the headlines you read and hear. The latest facts of these stories are presented and discussed – sometimes endlessly and repetitively. Interested parties and stakeholders are interviewed. But all of these stories are half-told. What came before that leads up to this? That is absolutely vital to understanding what has happened, why it has happened, and what if anything is a sensible response.

It is fair to answer that it is impossible to flesh out the full history behind each headline. There isn’t enough time or space, and in any case the audience has too short an attention span to tolerate it. But still, much more effort is needed to fill this news deficit. And clever news organizations could do a far better job of establishing context if they wanted to and if that became the new norm.