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 …

A Radical Obamacare Solution

Regardless of how the faltering Republican effort fares, no one is going to be satisfied with what is done with Obamacare. The current law has obvious flaws. It may not collapse as Republicans predict and probably hope, but it is far from the solution originally planned by its supporters. Moreover it is in a financially precarious situation. So, what to do?

The two sides in this debate are irreconcilable. One reason is pure politics. Each side has deeply held and fundamentally different ideas of the proper relationship between government and the governed. Another reason arises from differing projections for how each of their prescriptions will work in practice. Yet neither side is being given a fair opportunity to test its ideas in the real world. We just get half measures and flawed compromises.

The first reason can’t be addressed via any specific issue, and most definitely not by the emotionally charged case of health care. But the second one could be evaluated by a scientific experiment!

How about this idea? We let Congressional Democrats design their “optimum Obamacare”, i.e. with any changes they believe would make it work better, including just making it a true single-payer, uniform system like they have in the U.K. Congress then passes this bill intact, with Republicans holding their noses as they vote. However – and this is the key provision – this plan would be completely optional on a state-by-state basis. States could accept Improved Obamacare or they could reject it entirely. They couldn’t equivocate; it would be all or nothing. I think the default should be rejection, to account for miscreants who simply can’t make up their own minds, but that is open for debate. I am also assuming that Trump doesn’t interfere with this experiment.

No doubt many red states would reject this plan, probably including a majority of the states. Meanwhile big states like California, New York and Massachusetts, plus several others, would gladly accept it, and they may actually comprise a majority of the population.

That would set up the experiment. This shouldn’t be too difficult for insurance companies to handle from an actuarial perspective. There would be very large population groups under each of the two circumstances, and there would be only the two to consider.

After a few years the results should be clear. Democrats believe that those states accepting Improved Obamacare would flourish, with abundant, affordable and high-quality health care. Health care providers would accept their new reality and easily adjust to it. Meanwhile, Republican states would rejoice that the federal meddlers were finally leaving health care decisions to the people, with a free-market proliferation of products that meet individual needs and pocketbooks. I suppose it is conceivable that both circumstances would be successful, since people truly do have different perceptions of what is good, but I strongly doubt it.

One side is going to look longingly over the fence at a neighboring state. Voters will importune or force their legislators to reverse their initial choice. Meanwhile, people will vote with their feet and move to where the grass is greener. The same is true for individual providers. Doctors and insurance companies will gravitate to the environment that suits them best. Over time, one side or the other will give up and the country will finally have what it actually wants from border to border, and not just something which some Congressional ideologues think they want. There might be some irreconcilable holdouts. For example, I could conceive of the entire country rejecting Improved Obamacare while California stubbornly goes its own way. But what is wrong with that?

Of course such an experiment would be a bit cruel. That is the nature of scientific experiments on human subjects. Those in the political minority in a state would suffer the choice of the majority. But isn’t that how our system mostly works anyway? In any case, if I am right, the experiment will naturally terminate in at most a few years as one approach proves its case in practice and the other fails. And if unexpectedly both are actually successful in their own ways, meeting the differing desires of their states, that would be a success too.

Do we have a disaster recovery plan?

Last week, a deranged gunman opened fire on Republican congressmen practicing for a friendly baseball competition with Democratic colleagues. Casualties were light, given the circumstances, but now some congressmen are pushing for open-carry permits so that they can defend themselves. The only reason that there weren’t many more victims in this shooting is that one of the players, Rep. Steve Scalise, has a full-time security detail as Majority Whip. And these brave officers successfully intervened, at great cost to themselves. But sad as this all was, it reminds us that far worse threats are lurking.

On 9/11, United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked but crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. Its intended target, believed to be the US Capitol, was saved by the intervention of passengers who took matters into their own hands. There are many lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, not the least of which is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things given the means and the opportunity. It makes me think that arming at least some qualified, sensible people might not be as bad an idea as it is generally portrayed.

A second lesson is that we came very close to mass casualties on Capitol Hill. So, what if we lost many members of Congress, killed or injured, in a terrorist attack? You might think, given the situation and past experience, that we would have a plan for continuity of government, but you would be mistaken! There are certainly plans for the Executive Branch, with a clear line of succession, a protected safe facility, and rules for assuring there is at least one eligible survivor. The Senate is assured of rapid recovery because Senators who cannot perform their duties can be replaced with interim successors by the Governors of their states. At most a few days would be required to restaff a diminished Senate. But the House of Representatives is another matter entirely.

Our founders believed strongly that our two Houses of Congress should be vastly different in their members and how they conduct business. The Senate was designed as a wise, senior check on the winds of public sentiment. In fact, originally, Senators were not even chosen by popular vote at all. Rather they were selected by state legislatures, presumably from senior political figures, not unlike the framers themselves. There remains a faint memory of this approach in how replacements are still chosen when needed.

The House, however, has no such mechanism. It doesn’t permit unelected members. Indeed, House members pride themselves on the fact that no person has ever voted in their chamber who wasn’t first elected by the residents of their congressional district. States have fairly restrictive rules about conducting elections, so many months might pass before a decimated House could be reconstituted.

What if Flight 93 had caused mass casualties on the House side? Take a worst case, where perhaps only a dozen members were among the uninjured. What if they happened to be all members of one political party? Isn’t it possible that some fairly extreme bills might be passed? Of course the Senate and President could take their normal role as balancing forces. But that assumes they are also able to function. And there’s the rub.

If many House members survived but were incapacitated, they would all still be counted for the purpose of a quorum. So it is possible that the House would be virtually unable to function. If this isn’t enough to raise your hackles, the condition of the Capitol Building after an attack could also be crucial. If it is so badly damaged that it couldn’t be used, and if the House were crippled through lack of a quorum, then even the Senate would be out of business too. That is because meeting at an alternative site requires formal concurrence of both Houses.

I suppose there are some today who might rejoice if we had no federal legislative branch at all, at least for a while. Remember Mark Twain’s cynical quote, “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” But be careful what you wish for. The wheels of our economy would grind to a halt quickly without prompt and effective reaction to a shock of this type.

So why does the House let this threat go unanswered? It isn’t for want of attention. Efforts to develop contingency plans have foundered because they all abridge fundamental principles of the House that distinguish it from the Senate. Thus we remain a hostage to providence. We can hope, as Bismarck is said to have remarked, that “God protects fools, children, and United States of America.” Apocryphal or not, this seems to me to be a slender reed.

Our Colonial Empire

It may seem anachronistic, and it should be a source of some embarrassment, but the United States is one of the few remaining colonial powers. We have colonies, which we euphemise as territories, in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Actually there are sixteen territories in total but these five are the only ones permanently inhabited. Those born in these territories, with the exception of American Samoa, are automatically American citizens, though they have very limited voting rights. For reasons I haven’t bothered to research, American Samoans are citizens of the U.S. only if one of their parents is a citizen, and even then they are accorded similarly restricted voting rights.

By and large these colonies are treated kindly, have substantial local rule and have warm relationships with us. Nevertheless, from time to time, there are efforts to alter their status, one way or another. Today marks one such effort.

For the fifth time our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico are voting on a status change. The options as usual are no change, independence or statehood. Any change requires Congressional approval. The odds this time, and for the first time ever, are that statehood will prevail because the opposition is mostly boycotting the plebiscite.

I don’t think its current status makes sense, is fair or is sustainable in the long-term. It was imposed by force. The residents are pseudo-citizens, i.e. they don’t participate in the election of our President and they pay no federal income taxes. The island’s economy is moribund. And from our viewpoint, we don’t get much out of this arrangement.

I would argue for independence, with a significant transition period to work out the details. Everyone benefits, but only after a fairly tricky adjustment period. Puerto Ricans now living in the U.S. have all the privileges and responsibilities of any citizen. Thus any change in status shouldn’t affect them, though I suppose they might be accorded the option of which country to join.

The problem is that there is no way Congress would approve either change of status for Puerto Rico. It isn’t clear why independence seems to be off the table, but statehood would be anathema for Republicans. That is because the residents are deemed “people of color”, which most Republicans view as synonymous with Democrat. Two new Democratic Senators? Not a chance! Polls have shown that mainland citizens favor statehood for Puerto Rico over statehood for the District of Columbia, which tells you a lot about both of their prospects.

When this issue does get serious consideration, and I believe that is inevitable, the status of the other territories should also be regularized. There is a precedent for independence. The Philippines were acquired as a territory in the same way that Puerto Rico was, as the spoils of the Spanish-American War, and they now flourish as an independent country. If statehood becomes feasible, one option that has been suggested is for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to combine as a Caribbean state. And it has already been proposed that the Pacific territories become a part of Hawaii. Larger states are more economically viable although geographical separation presents unique problems.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” said Alice

During the widely viewed Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on Thursday, James Comey made what appeared at the time to be an off-hand remark. Amid the various blockbusters, it received little attention at first. But now, some commentators are beginning to rethink their evaluation.

Before discussing this remark, a little background is needed. It is now fairly well established that Russian hackers attempted to interfere with the 2016 election, mostly in a fairly effective effort to derail Hillary Clinton’s campaign. There remains dispute about whether Putin’s fingerprints are on these intrusions, although glimmers of fire among all the smoke are evident. He certainly has the motivation, given his known fury at Hillary for what he saw as interference in his last election. Moreover there is a well-documented history of similar activities by the Russian intelligence services groups known as APT 28 and APT 29. Hopefully the investigations by newly appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller will uncover the truth one way or the other.

Putin has been characteristically enigmatic when questioned about this matter. He has alternatively denied it outright, suggested that patriotic private Russian citizens might be involved, and most recently alluded to possible involvement of U.S. hackers. His implication was that poor old innocent Vladimir is being framed! All of this smacks of typical Russian disinformation, though it shouldn’t be construed as a confession.

And now to Comey’s remark. He said that it was vital for Robert Mueller to look into possible U.S. involvement in the Russian interference, but he added that he couldn’t say more in an unclassified setting. Most listeners took that to be a reference to members of the Trump campaign team, but perhaps it also included possible collusion by U.S. hackers too. What motivation they might have to assist Putin is unclear, other than just generally spreading havoc.

When Lewis Carroll’s Alice exclaimed “Curiouser and Curiouser!”, she was remarking upon her strange changes in height. I think the slowly unfolding circumstances around the last election has some similar aspects. Now if we can only find the cookies and, more importantly, who brought them to the party.

Limitations of Presidential Power

Yesterday, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz appeared in a panel on CNN arguing a point that caused other participants to turn red with anger. I think I saw smoke coming out of their ears. His argument was that no President can be legally accused of obstructing justice as long as he is exercising his constitutional authority. And remember, the breadth of that authority is immense. But pay attention to the modifier “legally”. There is a big difference between what is legal and defensible in a court of law and what is morally right and defensible in the court of public opinion.

 

According to Prof. Dershowitz, Trump can summarily fire anyone in the executive branch, except the Vice President and employees protected by civil service regulations. He can do this for any reason or indeed for no particular reason. He can order the Justice Department or the FBI to terminate any investigation, criminal or not, regardless of who is the subject. The so-called independence of the Justice Department is custom, not law. He can pardon anyone, before or after their conviction. He can even pardon himself, though not where an impeachment is involved. No one can gainsay any of these decisions. They are not reviewable by any court or by Congress. Moreover, the President is totally immune from civil liability for any of his official acts, though impeachment can remove this protection.

This pokes a gaping hole in most of the overheated rhetoric by his Democratic opponents. There is nothing currently in the public domain that would indicate legal jeopardy for President Trump. But these are early days and the establishment of a special counsel is ominous. And of course there are limits to Presidential immunity. The President cannot commit criminal acts, destroy evidence in a case under investigation, lie under oath or suborn perjury. He must submit materials demanded under subpoena by a legal authority. But he can quite legally halt any federal case in its tracks and raise his middle finger to his opponents.

This may appear to transform the President into a virtual dictator, but there are two resources available to restrain him. Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution provides for involuntary removal by impeachment. The legal basis for impeachment is whatever Congress says it is. So it can consist of ordinary criminal activity or such indefinable offenses as “failure to execute authority” or “unbecoming conduct.” Essentially Congress can simply use this authority to say, “Begone, scoundrel! We have no further use for you.” This isn’t easy, requiring a two-thirds super-majority of the Senate. There have been four serious attempts to remove a President in this manner and all failed, though Nixon did leave voluntarily when the outcome was inevitable.

The second resource arises from the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The President can exercise rights under this amendment to relinquish his office voluntarily whenever he feels unable to fulfill his responsibilities. This is a temporary measure until such time as he issues a revocation. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush employed this mechanism when they required temporary hospitalization. No President under assault by political opponents would be likely to use it. But there is another part of this amendment that permits either a majority of his cabinet or even some ad hoc group established by Congress to force a President to give up his powers, presumably though not necessarily due to disability. This might be called the Fruitcake Provision, and it seems germane to at least some of Trump’s more imaginative opponents. It has never been tried and it is unclear whether any such attempt would survive judicial review.

This is our system, as explained by one of the country’s foremost constitutional scholars. So, TV commentators, self-appointed legal experts and the like can fuss and fume but that changes reality not one whit. I don’t much like this aspect myself but I can’t conceive an alternative that wouldn’t be subject to its own serious drawbacks.

An Economic Mystery

Something has been going on for years in the economic realm that is unexpected and unexplained. It is really important and no one – and I mean absolutely no one – has a clue why it is happening. This mystery is a surprisingly subdued consumer price inflation. It is a world-wide phenomenon, except of course in countries like Venezuela that have sadly mismanaged their economies. One sometimes reads purported explanations by economists but they always fail one crucial test. What they predict will happen next never does, and indeed often the exact opposite occurs.

Even now, when producer prices are generally rising and developing economies are prospering, this condition remains essentially unchanged. It is always about to change “tomorrow”, but tomorrow comes and either nothing changes or the gap becomes even more pronounced. Take the euro zone for example. In May, the year-over-year producer prices rose 4.3%. But simultaneously in May the year-over-year consumer prices actually dropped from the April level of 1.9% to 1.4%.

The Fed is perplexed. The financial community is unable to predict future conditions so it is constantly having to defer long-term commitments. The bond market is becoming schizophrenic.

No one like inflation. It can ravage assets. But when inflation appears to have miraculously disconnected from the supply/demand cycle, all the classic economic rules of thumb go overboard. This leads to the worst possible condition: uncertainty.

Personally, I think that some as-yet undiscovered factor or confluence of factors is acting like a dam, holding back the normal flow of economic consequences. This will eventually burst and we will get a sudden spike in inflation just as we did in the 70s. Whatever is the case, this situation is clearly unstable.

The Democrats in 2020

I make no secret of the fact that I am no fan of either major political party. But every now and again I like to put on one of their hats and offer my perspective about what they should do to achieve success. This time the Democratic Party is the honoree.

There is much discussion about who will assume leadership of the party, which – let’s be honest – is in shambles across the country. People keep mentioning the old standards, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Jerry Brown. There are even whispers of a Hillary Clinton reemergence. “Old” is the operative term.

Meanwhile there are occasional boomlets for young leaders who have yet to make a national impact, like Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Eric Garcetti, and Kirsten Gillibrand. The common belief that the party has a weak bench is wrong. There is no dearth of young talent, but no one has exhibited that special essence that makes a viable national candidate.

However, one aspect of this search seems to have been mostly ignored. By far the largest identifiable segment of the Democratic base is black women. This group is large, influential and reliable. It seems to me that it makes sense either to choose someone from that group or, if no qualified candidates stand out, then at least someone who particularly appeals to it on a gut level. That should be the first criterion.

So, here’s my suggestion: Sen. Kamala Harris. Yes, I know, she is just a first-term senator but I have a one-word response to that criticism: Obama. She is smart, accomplished, and a great public speaker. In California she has demonstrated that she can draw votes from a broad spectrum of voters. I say go for the touchdown, don’t just try to squeak out small gains.

Trying to bridge the broadest range of voter support with a candidate beloved by no one has been tried and it failed. Trump showed the path. Find your core and stick to it with vim and vigor. Don’t worry about fringe supporters. They have nowhere else to go and just the horror of the Republican opponent will drive them to the polls. Going for a geriatric standby is comfortable but that road has a dead end [pun intended]. Moreover, forget about that unicorn, the uncommitted centrist. Most people who claim to be in that group are either self-deluded or outright liars.

One counter argument, largely presented by the Biden wing, is that Democrats must return to their roots and appeal to disgruntled white working-class voters who deserted them in droves in 2016. But think about it. If an elite NY billionaire with funny hair can achieve this rapport, why can’t an attractive young California legislator, even if she is a black woman? In this case, the key is the message, not the messenger.