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 …

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News vs. Commentary on TV

There are several TV channels mostly devoted to news, but I can find no national outlets that clearly distinguish news reporting from news commentary. There are local news broadcasts that deliver straight news in the traditional sense, but they tend to focus on local issues.

As an experiment I spent some time watching CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. Even when nominally reporting events, reporters often interview relevant people in the following fashion …

Reporter: “Senator, what is your position on President Trump’s announcement concerning the Iranian nuclear deal?

Senator: “… summarizes his opinion …

Reporter: “I agree with your first point, but don’t you think that your second position is …?

Since when does any reporter worth his salt ever say the words, “I agree with your first point”? Who cares what the reporter thinks? It is perfectly proper to ask follow-up questions that probe the consequences of the interviewee’s responses, but not in terms of the reporter’s opinion one way or the other. Argumentative questions are frequently heard, for example …

Reporter: “Don’t you think our European allies will reject Trump’s policy on this deal?

The proper way to probe this perfectly valid issue is …

Reporter: “What do you think our European allies will do now that Trump has decertified the deal?

If you don’t see the difference here, then this creeping unprofessionalism has caught you up too.

I sometimes find commentators who give very astute, fact-based discussions and interviews, like Fareed Zakaria on his GPS program. But that isn’t reporting in the sense, for example, of Walter Cronkite or Robert MacNeil. Is there simply no market for straight news anymore? And, most worrisome, can viewers even detect when what they are hearing is simply opinions? I am not condemning editorializing in general, but it should be clearly labeled as such.

Our Constitution: A Historic Perspective

Most historians view our Constitution as one of the greatest developments in human society. Clearly it was far from perfect in its origins, though it is continually changed – mostly for the better – through amendments and evolving interpretations. But one important aspect is rarely mentioned.

Two acknowledged stains on the original concept were its accommodations to slavery and the lack of a Bill of Rights. Both have been remedied, though the first of these is frequently viewed by black commentators as imperfectly redeemed. Yet there actually was a far worse defect that was so deeply embedded in our psyche that it was never even discussed by the founders. Not once during the Constitutional Conventions or in such basis documents as the Federalist Papers was the idea of equal rights for women even mentioned.

Do you recognize this quote? “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …” To be more accurate, it should have begun, “We the White Men of the United States …” And so we have this painting of our founders.

Historians agree that there are two aspects of our current political situation that would totally amaze the founders. One of these is the participation of women in having the vote and in holding office. Even the thought of a female President would have had them rolling in the aisles of Independence Hall in 1776. And one can’t help noting that black men achieved the vote, at least nominally, long before we grudgingly granted women’s suffrage. During America’s early history as a nation, women were denied many of the key rights enjoyed by male citizens. For example, married women couldn’t own property and had no legal claim to any money they might earn, and no female had the right to vote in national elections. Women were expected to focus on housework and motherhood, not politics. Don’t you see at least a faint echo of slavery in these views, quite unremarkable at the time?

The second aspect of our political life that would amaze our founders is the power of the Presidency. Nowadays, when we speak of the U.S. government what we usually mean is the executive branch. So, when we are represented to foreign powers, they look to the President as our leader and spokesman. That would astonish and horrify the founders. While we have a balance of powers between the branches of government, it is absolutely clear that the founders gave preeminence to Congress as the true representative of our nation. The President was viewed as a tightly circumscribed manager. And in fact, there was strong consideration given to having him selected by the legislature rather than chosen by popular election. The bastard offspring of this debate is our Electoral College. All things considered, I am not entirely sure that a popularly chosen President has turned out to be the best compromise, given the regal powers now bestowed on this office.

A Presidential Death Spiral

Republicans began this term with a two-seat majority in the Senate. That means that they can’t pass anything at all controversial unless they can hold on to at least 50 members of the Senate. I think that may no longer be possible. By his own antics, Trump has broken the party.

Two of their caucus, John McCain and Bob Corker, are basically now permanently opposed to almost anything that Trump wants. Neither has to worry about being re-elected and their open disdain of Trump is evident. Both are traditional conservatives who have little in common with this President, who basically hijacked their Party. In addition, Rand Paul may agree with some of Trump’s agenda but certainly not with his incoherent methods, and he probably thinks that Secretary Tillerson was right when he called Trump a moron. The female Republican senators don’t approve of some of Trump’s agenda, and they have every reason to despise him personally. Other senators have good cause to bear a grudge against Trump because his juvenile antics and insults annoyed the hell out of them during the campaign and afterward. They may be currently reluctant to take him on because of his cadre of stubborn supporters, but that will wane as the administration fails again and again to produce anything worthwhile.

The bottom line of all of this is that the only way Trump will achieve important legislative goals is by toadying up to the Democrats. He could do that, and in fact has already done so once, but as a general legislative plan this would probably be the final straw for Congressional Republicans.

I don’t think we need to wait for the fat lady to sing anymore. The Trump Presidency is toast.

Are Democrats Washed Up?

Check this map. Do you see what Democrats should fear? Yes, it is global warming! If ocean levels rise as much as some fear in the coming decades, the most highly populated blue regions will be inundated or washed away. And there are scant few blue districts as it is.

As this graphic illustrates, the losses will be from the most progressive areas. I am not implying that this in itself means fewer progressive voters, but we have seen from the last election how much household adversity impacts voting trends. Heretofore reliable Democratic voters abandon their allegiances when vital interests are at stake. Talking about free college and receptive borders won’t hack it with those pushed away from their homes and jobs.

Of course there is the possibility that dispersion of progressives into the red interior might change the region’s political character, so take heart those of you on the left! Hippies in Kansas?

Ok, I assume you realize that the preceding is satire. However the basis is real and I can’t resist taking this opportunity to comment seriously on this looming threat.

I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that I believe Democrats are expressing alarm about global warming because of simple self-interest. All thinking citizens worldwide are justifiably concerned. This threat is real and the scientific consensus is incontrovertible. As a scientist who has actually worked professionally in the fields of meteorology and geophysics, I feel safe in making this assertion.

Many conservative doubters, however, have suspicious motives and a weak grasp of and little respect for science. They simply don’t like the consequences of having to face this threat head on. Oh sure, they can no doubt find a few reputable scientists who quibble about the role human activity is playing in global warming. I’ll bet I could find credentialed scientists who think the world began about 6000 years ago and that the Moon landing by Armstrong and Aldrin was a gigantic hoax. Scientists can be as ditzy as anyone else, but consensus rules the day, thank God.

Regardless, it really doesn’t matter what is causing this calamity or whether human activity is crucial, unless of course you believe that we can significantly prevent the worst from happening. Personally I doubt that our feeble efforts to mitigate human impacts will make much difference and are likely a waste of time and resources. Rather, we must strive urgently to live with the inevitable impacts and to protect ourselves where possible. It is simply a matter of where we get the best bang for the buck.

A good test case is in progress as we attempt to recover from the recent weather disasters in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. If we simply rebuild and re-establish communities as they were before, we will have failed the test.

ObamaCare: a Republican Shibboleth

Say the word ObamaCare to most Republicans and all they really hear is the initial five letters, i.e. our ex-President’s name.

In the minds of these Republicans – such as they are – ObamaCare is a stand-in for President Obama himself. Their visceral, and sometimes racial, animus to Obama was entirely transferred to this legislation. It was his signature achievement and came to represent everything about him. You can’t separate the two. Repealing ObamaCare came to be thought of as handing an ultimate defeat to their despised foe. This is true even with the fig leaf of replacing it with “something better”, but with scant thought about what that might be, as events have amply demonstrated.

But with Obama comfortably retired to a life of leisure, and facing the realities of a health care system incessantly described as “one-sixth of our entire economy”, the Republicans flinched. The uncomfortable fact, still not yet acknowledged by Republicans, is that ObamaCare resembles democracy in being “the worst institution, but better than any other that we can devise and enact.” Oh yes, the socialist nirvana of a wholly government program like Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All is alluring to progressives, but don’t hold your breath. We are not yet Sweden and in my opinion never will be, thank God.

Too many people now depend upon some of ObamaCare’s popular provisions to even contemplate risking their loss. It was the genius of the Obama administration to ensure that enough people were hooked on their nostrum to make it effectively comparable to Social Security as a third rail of politics. To this end they tied what was promoted as a public/private health insurance system for those not covered at work to a massive expansion of Medicaid. The original purpose of Medicaid was as a social health care program for some but not all individuals with limited resources. Just as FDR never intended Social Security to be a full backstop against income insecurity among the elderly, Medicaid had a targeted focus on those most in need. Now this was transmuted into a general welfare program extending well above the poverty level and with few meaningful restrictions. Once states accepted this lure, and most did, even many under Republican control, how could they possibly explain relinquishing this largess for an uncertain alternative?

Of course, it isn’t over yet. I expect that attention will now go toward the compromise being worked out by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R, TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (D, WA). If it emerges as a real piece of legislation, it won’t be able to carry the label “repeal of ObamaCare”, so will the Republican majorities in either House of Congress pass it? Frankly, I am skeptical. You might ask whether the President would then sign it, but I can make a confident prediction here. He will. And it really doesn’t matter much what its provisions entail. Trump is hardly an ideologue – that requires actually having some ideas – and he sorely needs a legislative victory. These have been few and far between so far and the future of the rest of his agenda seems bleak without this win under his belt.

The Border Wall Mystery

With respect to the proposed wall on our southern border, I think I have it right that Democrats oppose it — vehemently — and Republicans, by and large, favor it. I understand the Republican position. They seem convinced that it will help solve our illegal immigration problem. But barring building a Berlin-type barrier with electrified fences, mines and machine guns, I frankly doubt this. A complete wall built according to current proposals will likely have some effect, but people will find a way across our border if the economic incentive is sufficient.

However I am a bit puzzled by the Democratic opposition. I searched the internet and none of their spokesmen make a clear and unambiguous statement about this. I would have thought that wasting all that money that could be put to better use would be an obvious reason, but they never seem willing to put it quite that baldly. Still, I assume that this is basically their position — and mine, too.

But here’s the problem. Both of the top Democratic leaders, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi, have stated in clear terms that, if funding the wall is included in a bill to raise the debt ceiling, Democrats will vote to block it. This situation will likely arise in December. They are fully aware that Democratic votes plus those of the extreme right in the Republican caucus will prevail. In other words, they are willing to sabotage the nation’s credit, drop a bomb on our economy, and risk significantly increased interest rates rather than wasting some money on the wall. On its face that doesn’t make economic sense. In fact, it defies logic unless there is something more at stake than wasting a few billions. So, what exactly is the real issue? And is it really worth that much?

Knowing Democrats, my theory is that this isn’t a money issue at all, or at least not in its essence. There is something about building a barrier on our border that strikes at the very core of progressive ideology. To many Democrats, it’s a bit like tearing down the Statue of Liberty, perhaps combined with making English our national language. The wall has become a symbol of exclusionary philosophy that is anathema to old-style Democrats. So perhaps they would indeed risk an economic catastrophe rather than conceding this point.

Of course, this is just a theory. But if it is true, then Democrats are about as nutty as Republicans, which is a standard that is rather hard to meet.

An Insightful Analogy

On Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN last Sunday, a guest introduced a clever analogy to describe what is going on in Washington since Trump took over. He likened the situation to a group of pirates who have captured a massive treasure ship operated by one of the great maritime powers. There are far too few of them to operative such a large vessel, and they are somewhat unfamiliar with its sails and rigging. As a result they dragoon the ship’s crew to assist. Not unexpectedly, these captives are not exactly enthusiastic, and as a result the ship stays close to its original course and speed even though the pirate captain wants to divert to his home base. So he rages at his cohort in a vain attempt to achieve better control. His crew is understandably upset as they expected easy going and great rewards from this marvelous prize. So they squabble among themselves about the best way to “right the ship”. Being pirates, used to enforcing their will by force of arms, the internecine strife quickly turns bloody.

The consequences of such a situation are very unpredictable. The original crew might take advantage of the internal disagreements of their captors and seize control again. Or perhaps the ship, under uncertain and disputed management, might run aground and result in disaster for all concerned. It’s even possible that the pirates might get their act together, perhaps by making a deal with the original crew, and finally achieve their objectives. And lurking in the background is the possibility that privateers commissioned by enemies of the flag under which the treasure ship sailed might meddle with the outcome.

You probably can see the parallels with the political situation facing the fledgling Trump administration. At this point I wouldn’t choose any of the listed outcomes as most probable, though my hope is that the first prevails.