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?

The New Guns of August

The renowned historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a masterful history that described the events of August 1914 that led inexorably to World War I. This contains many parallels with today’s growing confrontation with North Korea. In her telling, what stood out was how inadvertently it played out over a century ago. Each party had goals and imperatives but none of the adversaries seemed to understand or account for those of their opponents. Moreover, the key figures making decisions were none too bright. Does this strike any bells?

It is often said that we have no good options. Indeed, many argue that the safest alternative is simply to accept a de facto nuclear power in North Korea, even one with a proven ICBM capability. We have done so with other countries. But there is a distinguishing characteristic of the North Korean regime that represents an unprecedented threat. Our best analysts believe that Kim Jong-un has concluded that his most effective nuclear strategy is to strike first with all available weapons in the event that his regime is at existential risk. When combined with his proven paranoid impulses, this establishes a ticking time bomb for major conflict in the region.

Those recommending a diplomatic resolution permit their hopes to blind them to the lessons of history. Diplomacy has a key role in this but only after our adversary has truly accepted it as the best course, not as a convenient diversion as in the past. This does not mean that there is nothing left but military confrontation. That is a false dichotomy, although a kind of warfare that falls short of direct conflict by major military forces may be required.

I can conceive of a promising though dangerous alternative, but one that involves activities for which we have shown little aptitude to date. It is based upon the hypothesis that Kim Jong-un is not a lunatic as some portray and that his sole and overriding imperative is to maintain his position of power. In this view, his unrelenting march toward nuclear power status derives from the belief that failure to follow through on comparable intentions was what led to the end of Saddam’s regime in Iraq and Gaddafi’s in Libya.

First and foremost, we must establish explicit, non-negotiable demands and make them abundantly clear. There must be no tweets and no mixed messages from disparate administration factions. Forcing Kim Jong-un to completely relinquish his most treasured protection is a bridge too far. We should only seek precisely two results. All nuclear testing and all long-range missile testing must end. This can be easily monitored. It will freeze his program in place, since live testing is the only method of establishing an operational and reliable weapon. He could retain his conventional power as an adequate defense.

We must have something worthwhile to offer in return for this concession. This could be the acceptance of a compliant North Korea into the global community of nations. This means the removal of sanctions, normalized trade, membership in community organizations, and so on. But this should be done slowly and in stages so that there remain benefits to be attained for a long period of time. And a violation on their part should instantly remove and reverse all benefits. Since the United States will have by itself achieved this resolution, we would retain sole authority to identify such a violation.

This kind of clearly defined carrot and stick approach was not employed with either Saddam or Gaddafi and it isn’t being used with Assad in Syria. I think this is mainly due to our blind sense of self-righteousness, combined with a crippling lack of realpolitik.

To achieve compliance, I propose that we initiate a major covert effort that incrementally applies painful pressure while never threatening to bring down Kim Jong-un’s regime. The word covert is key. We mustn’t announce this policy nor boast of its successes, political ramifications notwithstanding. Instead we should constantly employ world forums to reiterate our goals for the region. Primarily economic in nature, this effort can and should involve the kind of forceful acts that ISIS successfully employs. The key is always having plausible deniability while leaving the North Koreans no doubt whatsoever that we are directing these efforts. When accused by the North Koreans or their supporters, Russia and China, we should blandly deny all and refuse to discuss the matter. Great care is essential so that no single act would be enough to goad them into violent reaction, but the pressure should be painful, unrelenting and constantly increasing.

This can include all of the methods of non-conventional warfare. There would be no limiting rules of engagement whatsoever except one. There can be no use of weapons of mass destruction. Whatever else would work and cause pain should be on the table. It must be carefully targeted at the regime itself, not the North Korean people at large, though we should not be squeamish about inevitable collateral damage. No warfare spares the innocent, though we certainly shouldn’t use them as pawns in our struggle. And make no mistake, this is a kind of war.

Economic measures will require cooperation by the international banking system. From past experience we cannot expect voluntary help. It must be coerced and we have the tools to do this if we are willing to risk offending some trading partners and enduring some costs ourselves. This effort must also be covert. If we meet resistance it should be made clear that there can be no economic neutrals in this conflict.

Any open counter-response must be immediately and overtly countered with something comparable and proportionate. This should appear to be automatic and preplanned so that our adversary would have no expectation that their acts would serve to reduce the pressure. For example, if they sink a South Korean vessel, as they have done before, we should promptly sink a comparable one of theirs. There would be no talk, no bluster, no warning, and also no escalation, just essentially a robotic counteraction.

A necessary correlative is that we should tone down our current provocative military posture in the region. There should be no more joint military exercises with the South Koreans, no further expansion of our THAAD systems, and definitely no deployment of naval forces to the region. There must never appear to be a connection between actions on the ground and our covert campaign of pressure.

We should expect a counter campaign of some sort from the North Koreans. They have a proven capability for non-conventional warfare, especially in the cyber realm. We won’t go undamaged. But our capability is far greater and more lethal, assuming we have the steel in our backbone to use it. Any counterattack should provoke an escalation of our campaign. Fortunately, in a sense, we can freely publicize their attacks so that public support for a strong response should be high. As a result, we may consider pulling back the curtain just a bit on our ongoing efforts.

We must never unilaterally offer to negotiate or even to talk with the North Koreans, but we should be willing to respond quickly and positively to any such offer on their part that involves no preconditions. However, offers like this from their interlocutors in China should be ignored. China is not our friend in this conflict and we shouldn’t vainly hope otherwise. Meanwhile, such talks that do arise should have absolutely no effect on our covert campaign until they bear concrete results that meet our goals. The rule is no concessions to achieve compliance.

So, that summarizes my idea. It involves significant risk, but I believe that so do all currently discussed alternatives. And, in my opinion, permitting the nuclear program in North Korea to fully ripen is virtually certain to lead to nuclear war. It would be simpler to kick the can down the road, hoping that events will overtake the need for action. If we do this, history won’t treat us well.

But let me expand upon what I said at the beginning. Doing this successfully requires calm precision, careful planning, ruthlessness and, above all, discipline. Not a single one of these requirements can be met under the erratic and incompetent Trump administration. Thus, this must wait for a more competent replacement. Whether we can afford this delay is an open question.

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.

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.