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.

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.

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.

Is competence really optional?

Suppose you need some small home repairs or to have your nice new home entertainment system installed. You could try to do it yourself, but often it is best to find an expert. He or she would have relevant experience and would know how to best do the job. This is almost always faster and it often avoids expensive mistakes. Doesn’t that make sense? The same principle applies if you have a medical problem, some important financial transaction, or a legal issue. It is true that consulting an expert costs money but generally it is well spent, assuming you do your homework in choosing the right person. And when picking someone to treat your kid’s broken leg, I hope and assume that you restrict your search to credentialed medical professionals and don’t consider having your gardener take his best shot.

This may seem obvious, but evidently it isn’t for Donald Trump. Although I can’t believe that he hires auto mechanics to design his golf courses or shoe salesmen to run his hotels, when it comes to the business of government the only relevant criterion seems to be personal loyalty.

He just selected a hedge fund manager to be the White House Communications Director. His choice to head the HUD office for the region that covers New York and New Jersey is a party planner. The best person he could find to be the Chief Scientist of the Agriculture Department has degrees in political science and public administration. While obviously not exactly a dummy, he is a decidedly square peg in a round hole. And then there are all those close Trump relatives managing White House affairs. They seem to be talented and successful individuals, and they are probably kind to children and small animals. But running our government isn’t an amateur exercise, or it wasn’t until last January 20th. I am fairly confident that we will outlast this experiment in incompetence, but it is likely to be rocky ride.

A 21st Century Modest Proposal

One of the most consequential activities we pursue from the standpoint of health and safety is automobile driving. As a result, the government has passed numerous regulations that require safety features, from seat belts to intricate electronic control systems. These are not optional. The auto manufacturers must implement them, and they must do so in a manner that meets rigorous test standards. In many cases, drivers must use them. Disabling airbags, except under special conditions, is illegal. And in many jurisdictions, driving without attaching your seat belt can result in a stiff fine. You can’t choose a cheaper car that isn’t as safe because Big Brother says so. And if you are a highly skilled, youthful driver you can’t substitute your skill set for the mandated technology because … well, just because. There can be little doubt that all of this improves driving safety and has contributed to saving many lives, although it obviously adds a substantial amount to the cost of ownership.

Obamacare applies this logic to health insurance. It requires a full spectrum of care provisions that are very comprehensive and very protective. These are not optional, whether you want them or not and even when they don’t apply to your personal circumstances. So, men must pay for maternity benefits and everyone must pay for drug abuse counseling. The logic behind this is that bundling full services in this manner makes them affordable for those in real need. If you can’t afford such comprehensive protection, the government chips in with subsidies.

Don’t you think that it would be consistent, returning to the automobile case, for the government to use safety testing data to qualify car models for sale in the U.S.? Perhaps the top five models on the test scores each year would qualify. Actual qualifiers might change from year to year, but historically it is obvious that some brands would dominate the list. I suspect that over time all of us would be driving a Volvo sedan or something like that.

Consider this. We are spending enormous amounts to make automobile driving safer but nevertheless as many as 40,000 people died on our roads in 2016 and an estimated 4.6 million more were seriously injured, according to the National Safety Council. If you include all costs from this carnage, the NSC estimates that $432B was lost as a result. So, wouldn’t yet more federal regulation be warranted? Isn’t this almost comparable to the need that spawned Obamacare? So why shouldn’t its model be employed once again?

Where would this take us? Convertibles, for example, are so unlikely to qualify that no sensible manufacturer would try to make them for the U.S. market. If you don’t like or need a four-door sedan, well that’s just too bad. Many more currently optional safety features would become mandatory: lane assist, braking assist, 360 degree proximity detection, sonar-assisted separation control, drunk driver interlock, and so on. These would make cars much more expensive of course, but who can place a value on the lives saved? If you can’t afford this, then probably government subsidies will be needed, paid for by taxes on the usual suspects. I have little doubt that this would save many lives. So, not doing it, as they now say about repealing Obamacare, is tantamount to condoning mass murder.

I think you get the idea. Why stop at health insurance with this concept. And for that matter, why stop at automobiles? How about food too? Obesity is a terrible health scourge and it is getting worse in the U.S. every year. Shouldn’t we get those unhealthy foods off the market and apply stringent standards for what can be sold? It is true, I think, that this might be a bridge too far and might fall prey to the flaw that eventually killed the noble Volstead Amendment. It is very hard to prevent people from finding fatty, salt-ridden foods, and many avaricious criminals would be happy to serve this taste for the forbidden. Still, we could probably make it fairly difficult and expensive to achieve morbid obesity. Surely that would discourage some, and every life is valuable.

We could make life so much safer if we only follow this concept to its logical conclusion. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

When are funding cuts real?

An old dispute in the political world keeps returning, and it is now back in spades in the Obamacare fight. When are funding cuts real?

Let’s take an analogy that might strike a bell personally. Suppose you are a highly valued employee and are accustomed to receiving a generous 10% salary increase year after year. Then suddenly your employer tells you that business conditions have worsened so that all you can expect for the foreseeable future is a cost of living increase. This year that will be about 2%. Did you just get a salary cut?

Can a loss of anticipated salary accompanied by an actual increase be seen as a real loss? Many people would think so. They might argue that without the change they would be richer, so obviously the change hurt them financially. Impartial observers might respond, “Wait a minute. Won’t you actually earn more even after the change? How can that be a cut?” In other words, is it reasonable to “bank an expectation”? Which viewpoint seems more valid to you? I am honestly torn on this question. I see some validity in both views.

Politicians argue this point vociferously whenever changes are proposed that reduce future spending on a government program. A concrete example from the Obamacare issue is what Republicans are proposing to do to the Medicaid program. Are they cutting it or not? Here is the actual projection by the Congressional Budget Office.

On this question, the award-winning Politifact site says that the Trump administration claim that Medicaid isn’t being cut is “mostly false”. However they are really addressing an important but peripheral issue rather than the funding itself. Their conclusion is based on eligibility changes. Their argument is that regardless of how much you spend, if you eliminate some prospective recipients, then it must be viewed as a cut. That is a reasonable position, but I am not so sure it is germane. How funds are distributed is quite distinct from how much is allocated. Each aspect can and should be assessed separately.