Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day







Saturday, May 18, 2019


May 17, 2019   
     The Mueller report confirmed the obvious; Donald Trump should not be President.  Several hundred former federal prosecutors have declared that, if Trump did not hold that office, which supposedly renders him immune from indictment and prosecution, he would have been indicted for obstruction of justice. That immunity was assumed by the Mueller team, based in part on a Department of Justice opinion which found that “The  indictment  or  criminal  prosecution  of  a  sitting  President  would  unconstitutionally undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions.”[37] 
     Even if the President should be protected from a criminal trial during his term because it would be too disruptive and time consuming, an argument can be made for permitting indictment, which would be less so.  However, the Special Counsel decided otherwise, so the question probably is moot.     The Mueller Report did not make a criminal referral and ended the obstruction section with this weak conclusion: “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”  Even that suggests evidence of misconduct, but it allowed Trump to claim vindication and Mitch McConnell to declare “case closed.”
     The Mueller report, in addition to accepting and deferring to the DOJ opinion, added this statement of limitations: “we recognized that a federal criminal accusation against a sitting President would place burdens on the President’s capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct.”  The first part of that sentence essentially restates the DOJ opinion in non-constitutional terms, but the reference to preempting constitutional processes is a not-very-subtle hint that impeachment is the way to deal with Presidential crimes.
     The prosecutors’ letter is as direct as the report is elliptical:
The Mueller report describes several acts that satisfy all of the elements for an obstruction charge: conduct that obstructed or attempted to obstruct the truth-finding process, as to which the evidence of corrupt intent and connection to pending proceedings is overwhelming. These include:

· The President’s efforts to fire Mueller and to falsify evidence about that effort;
· The President’s efforts to limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation to exclude his conduct; and
· The President’s efforts to prevent witnesses from cooperating with investigators probing him and his campaign.[38]
The last was later more forcefully expressed as witness tampering and intimidation.
     Should President Trump be impeached?  Certainly he deserves it, and impeachment would be a formal declaration of his crimes.  He would not be convicted by the spineless Senate, so impeachment would have to be justified by its declaration alone.  Persuasive arguments have been made for and against.  My initial reaction was that it would be a bad idea.  It would allow Trump to complain again about how Democrats, jealous of his election, are conspiring to bring him down, to stage a coup. The legal pointlessness of impeachment would feed that narrative.  It would take some time to vote impeachment, especially given the lack of consensus among Democrats.  The election season already is under way, and impeachment might seem a late, desperate, attempt to tip the scale.
     Also, the House does not need an impeachment resolution to investigate Trump’s actions.  Pursuing new avenues and adding evidence to known scandals might doom his chance of reelection, so removal, though delayed, would be by conventional means.  Democrats also need to address, and need to be seen addressing, issues other than Trump’s character.
     However, the point remains: he is unfit for office.  Do we accept that as just one of the facts of contemporary politics?  Do we in effect declare that obstruction, along with Trump’s other disqualifying traits and actions, is acceptable because declaring  otherwise might be politically risky?  Should the House duck its constitutional responsibility and hope that voters do its job?   Caution in the face of menace often doesn’t produce good results.   In addition, Trump and his supporters will accuse the Democrats of all sorts of jealous, divisive misconduct even if they make no move toward impeachment, so the risk may not be as great as it seems.  
     If impeachment were to proceed, what should the articles allege? Obstruction, as detailed in the Mueller report, is obvious, and Republicans would be hard pressed to claim that such a charge is warranted, given the obstruction article in the Clinton impeachment, based on trivial underlying issues.  Trump has entered phase two of obstruction, refusing document requests by Congress, interfering with testimony, and suing third parties to prevent cooperation with Congress.  This form of obstruction undermines Congress’ oversight role and threatens the equality of the branches of government.  Trump justifies this interference by arguing that requests for information must be limited to supporting proposed legislation, in effect that Congress has no oversight authority.  The implication is that, in order to investigate, the House must be pursuing impeachment.  It may as well take that hint too.
     Mueller found no conspiracy with Russia, but Trump and his campaign staff clearly welcomed its interference.  There couldn’t be a clearer demonstration of that than Trump’s public appeal to Russia on July 27, 2016 to publish Hillary Clinton’s emails.  That alone may have been a crime and, as election hacking by foreigners clearly is a crime, it certainly violated Trump’s constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.
     A citizen is said to have asked this of Benjamin Franklin about the work of the Constitutional Convention: “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” His reply: “A republic, if you can keep it.”  That warning, apocryphal or not, deserves attention.  Trump’s authoritarian aspirations are revealed by his respect for foreign strong men, most recently demonstrated by his hosting Viktor Orb├ín, who knows how to deal with pesky news media.  Trump, due to ego-driven instinct and as a reaction to threats, is giving the imperial presidency a new meaning, emulating a monarch, attempting to rule independent of the first branch.  Congress needs to take action to preserve the Republic.
     Trump is unique among Presidents in the degree to which he puts the country in peril.  That should tip the balance: we can’t afford another term or another Trump.

__________________

37.
https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/olc/opinions/2000/10/31/op-olc-v024- p0222_0.pdf


38.
https://medium.com/@dojalumni/statement-by-former-federal-prosecutors-8ab7691c2aa1



Tuesday, April 23, 2019


April 22, 2019   
The awful Notre Dame fire struck me as the loss of a friend, a haven, a symbol of permanency in a time of flux, a symbol of values in a time of self-absorption.  (A tourist taking a selfie in front of the cathedral is the perfect, mocking, image of the new age).  Damage to an architectural wonder of the past is sadly appropriate to a world which knows nothing of beauty and parades nonsense as art and violence as entertainment.
____________________
I dislike hanging crepe with every post, but it’s difficult not to see disaster on the horizon.  Consider the inevitability of increasing climate-related damage and the physical and social turmoil it will bring.  Add the hostile, separatist, violent attitude of many on the right, and the ready availability of weapons, and it becomes easy to imagine civil war or armed chaos.  We are politically blocked from preventing the ecological disaster, and predisposed to a primitive response to it.
Look at the state of government.  Andrew Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist, recently was confirmed by a docile, irresponsible Senate as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, having been Deputy, then Acting, Administrator  since April 2018.  That would have been time enough to learn about the climate crisis, if he had any intention of doing so.  One lesson might have been the most recent National Climate Assessment, which found that “The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country.”  Wheeler will have none of that: “Most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out.”  There have been no fires and no flooding; the seas haven’t risen or become more acidic; all is well.  Wheeler is, of course, in step with his leader. 
David Bernhardt was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior this month, having been acting Secretary since January. Already he is the subject of an investigation by the department’s inspector general, following various allegations of ethical violations.  His former role as a lobbyist for industries regulated by Interior lies behind the charges.
Trump nominated hacks to positions on the Federal Reserve Board, in an attempt to end its independence. Another appointee recently confirmed, William Barr, has demonstrated that his first duty is to protect the boss.  Trump first hailed the Mueller report as exoneration, but later decided it was an “Illegally Started Hoax.”  He has one of the great memories of all time, but repeatedly responded to Mueller’s written questions by pleading lack of recall.  He vents continually on Twitter, reportedly 50 times in 24 hours Monday and Tuesday.     
Ukraine just elected a comedian as president.  We have a bad joke.



Sunday, April 14, 2019

April 13, 2019 
The death penalty, apart from its questionable morality, bias in its application and the possibility of wrongful conviction, is an historical relic. This was made clear by the Supreme Court in Bucklew v. Precythe, decided April 1. The appeal involved a claim by a prisoner that the form of execution in his state violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. His principal argument was that, because of his unusual medical condition, the lethal injection would cause great suffering before taking effect. The majority opinion, written by Justice Gorsuch, rejected the claim, along the way not only validating the death penalty but deciding that the infliction of pain in the process raised no Constitutional issue. 
The Bucklew decision did not appear from nowhere. Justice Gorsuch relied on two prior decisions, Baze v. Rees, 553 US 35 (2008) and Glossip v. Gross, 576 U.S. ___ (2015). The lead opinion in Baze was signed by only three Justices. However, Glossip treated the plurality opinion as if it were precedent, referring to it as the “controlling opinion.” Baze relied in turn on Gregg v. Georgia, the lead opinion of which was, again, that of only three member of the Court. It’s difficult to discern a well-considered theory of capital punishment in all of this. Bucklew follows their lead, but the defects in Gorsuch’s opinion go beyond following flawed predecessors. 
Much of the Bucklew opinion is devoted to the question of whether an alternative, less painful method, of execution is available. Baze and Glossip establshed rules which placed the burden of identifying an alternative method on the prisoner and made it difficult to carry that burden. 
The death penalty itself poses no problem for Gorsuch because the “Constitution allows capital punishment. . . . In fact, death was ‘the standard penalty for all serious crimes’ at the time of the founding.” The internal quote is from a book on the history of the death penalty published in 2002.[32] It appears to have been a primary source for Gorsuch, cited seven times in his opinion. However, the Constitution does not “allow” capital punishment; it simply recognizes its existence. True, the Baze plurality opinion cited “the principle, settled by Gregg, that capital punishment is constitutional.” However, the Gregg lead opinion stated only “that the punishment of death does not invariably violate the Constitution,” which is not quite the same concept. 
There would seem to be no impediment to the Court’s declaring capital punishment a violation of the Eighth Amendment, but Justice Gorsuch thinks otherwise. The Court, in his view, would lack the power or authority to declare it unconstitutional: “the judiciary bears no license to end a debate reserved for the people and their representatives.” It will be interesting to see whether he is so reticent when an issue he feels strongly about arises. 
As to the merits, Gorsuch would not find that the death penalty is barred as cruel punishment. For authority, he cited a case from 1890 which declared that “the punishment of death is not cruel, within the meaning of that word as used in the Constitution. [Cruelty] implies . . . something inhuman and barbarous, something more than the mere extinguishment of life.” [33] It’s stunning that a Supreme Court opinion in 2019 could refer, even by way of citation, to the “mere” extinguishment of life. 
An enlightened approach would be to interpret the Constitution against the background of present conditions, including less brutal attitudes, rather than treating it as holy writ, ending progress in 1791. That the latter is Justice Gorsuch’s theory is made clear. The opinion’s argument relies on such phrases as “at the time of the framing,” “consistent with the Constitution’s original understanding,” “at the time of the Amendment’s adoption,” “the original and historical understanding of the Eighth Amendment.” 
The Court has not always felt bound by the view of life at a time long past. In 1958, Chief Justice Earl Warren expressed an interpretation which has been generally accepted: "The [Eighth] Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."[34] That was reaffirmed in 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, an Eighth Amendment death penalty case: “A claim that punishment is excessive is judged not by the standards that prevailed in 1685 when Lord Jeffreys presided over the ‘Bloody Assizes’ or when the Bill of Rights was adopted, but rather by those that currently prevail." [35] No longer, apparently. Presumably the present Court would find the fact that twenty states and the District of Columbia now do not impose the death penalty,[36] an indication of evolving standards, to be irrelevant. Perhaps if a few more states evolve, capital punishment will become “unusual.” No, that wouldn’t conform to the understanding at the time of the Amendment’s adoption, which underlies Gorsuch’s interpretation. 
“[W]hat unites the punishments the Eighth Amendment was understood to forbid, and distinguishes them from those it was understood to allow, is that the former were long disused (unusual) forms of punishment . . .” Apparently a new form of barbarity would not be banned as unusual. As to the other element, the Amendment barred anything that “intensified the sentence of death with a (cruel) superadd[ition] of terror, pain, or disgrace.”[37] Therefore, the added, possibly avoidable, pain in the execution of Mr. Bucklew isn’t prohibited on the ground of cruelty either, as it isn’t intentional torture, just part of the process. 
As to the prisoner’s argument about the pain he would, uniquely, endure, Gorsuch advised us that, in the bad old days, prisoners were subjected to barbaric practices such as drawing and quartering, and those were the cruel punishments contemplated at the end of the Eighteenth Century and therefore barred by the Eighth Amendment. Pain imposed by execution couldn’t be an issue because the preferred method of execution at the time of its adoption was hanging and, although hanging often resulted in significant pain, its use “was virtually never questioned,” quoting his favorite source. 
What does his history lesson disclose as to the proper interpretation of the Eighth Amendment? “For one thing, it tells us that the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death—something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes.” In that remarkable statement, he excused the infliction of pain on historical grounds, then leaped to an-eye-for-an-eye excuse. 
If defense of the death penalty, and the suffering it inflicts, requires as convoluted an argument as this opinion, there must be something fundamentally suspect about it. 
Postscript: 
As I was about to post this note, I came across an article reporting a decision in a similar case from a different state, but again involving a death-row prisoner’s request for an alternative to lethal injection. The Supreme Court decided 5-4 that the execution could proceed as planned. The article stated that the “high court’s order and dissenting opinion underscored the divide between the court’s conservative and liberal justices over 11th-hour execution challenges,” noting also the dispute in the Bucklew case. 
However, it isn’t sufficient description, or enough justification, to label the Gorsuch opinion, or its predecessors, or any defense of the death penalty simply as conservative views. Conservatism, insofar as it is the tendency to honor tradition and resist hasty or ill-considered change, not only is respectable, but is necessary to preserve continuity and to prevent mistakes and disruption of social fabric. However, when it it becomes unthinking opposition to change or defense of the indefensible, it prevents progress, and when it is, as here, an unwarranted worship of the past, it binds civilization with rusty chains.
___________________
32. S. Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History
33. In re Kemmler, 136 U. S. 436, 447 (1890)
34. , 356 U.S. 86 (1958)
35. 536 U. S. 304, 311 (2002)
36. Moratoria are in effect in another three states. https://deathpenalty.procon.org/view.resource. php?resourceID=001172
37. Quoting the concurring opinion of Justice Thomas in Baze, [internal quotes omitted].

Sunday, March 17, 2019


March 15, 2019
 In January, I commented on the failure of leadership in contemporary American politics, and skipped over the contribution by the people to that sad state.  Before addressing the latter issue, let’s try an intermediate analysis: does the problem lie with our political or social structures?
Historian Page Smith, in his book Redeeming the Time, said this: “I believe that the tendency of history, of all human institutions is downward, toward complacency, decadence, obtuseness, and coldness of heart, and that we are saved only by the often obscure but heroic efforts of men and women whose passion it has been to redeem the world.”[29]  The statement that we are saved by individual effort might suggest that the lack of individual leadership was the original problem.  However, it could be that institutions, as structures, have an inherent tendency toward obsolescence and failure.
The Roman Empire, The Holy Roman Empire and the various European colonial systems provide examples, as does the medieval Catholic Church, of institutional senility and collapse.   The United States began with a built-in trigger for dissolution; the conflict between free and slave states. The Constitution, brilliant achievement that it was, fudged on the issue of slavery.  The two regions competed for control of new territories and states, and eventually went to war.  The South, in seceding, chose one institution over another, adhering to slavery and declaring the Union to be obsolete.  
In the aftermath of the war, the Constitution was repaired and improved, and later additions, including votes for women, came peacefully.  However, it is showing its age again in the distortions of the electoral college. 
Capitalism is an institution which works well for society, but  only under the right conditions.  The rise of organized labor and establishment of its rights, and the imposition of reasonable regulations created a better system, but both of those controls have weakened and capitalism is another institution in an unhealthy condition.  
Now return to the role of the people.  The increased tribalism of American society turns differences of view into conflicts.  There are troublesome attitudes on the left, but the more disruptive ones come from the other side.  The attitude of the right toward government, ranging from Ronald Reagan’s disdain (“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help”) to  Grover Norquist’s fantasy (“reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”) makes a search for consensus solutions next to impossible.   The outer fringe, such as militias and “patriot” groups threaten violence.  Even those with some sheen of respectability join in.  Here’s  Joseph diGenova, former U.S. Attorney: “We are in a civil war. The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future is over.  . . . It’s going to be total war.”  His advice: “I vote, and I buy guns. And that’s what you should do.”[30] 
One survey after another reveals that Americans know little about the world, current affairs or science. There is an indifference or hostility on the part of many  to such “elitist” pursuits as reading newspapers or heeding experts.  Part of the blame again is institutional, as schools and even colleges seem not to teach such basics as U.S. history and civics, and mainstream media sometimes fail to educate, for example as to the extent and effects of climate change.  Any natural tendency toward misinformation is greatly exacerbated by the internet.  In effect, we have created an entity which, while it could have developed better citizens through greater dissemination of facts, threatens to destroy other institutions through rumor, propaganda, fantasy and falsehood.  The Russians used the web to influence the election, but we’re doing rather well at self-destruction without help.  Fear and resentment of others is built into most of us but, again, those tendencies can be minimized or exacerbated by leaders and institutions.
Allowing for all of that, the people are part of the problem.  Trump’s 90% approval rating among Republicans is proof enough.  Even one who receives political information from Fox or the dregs of the internet would have to close his eyes and cover his ears in order not to be aware that we are led by a buffoon and a liar.  Ignorance may be excusable; wilful ignorance is not.
All of this anti-government sentiment implicates another systemic weakness: “Our political institutions were not built to handle a highly polarized situation in which one side is hostile to the system itself.”[31]
So: Are the American people at fault for the present situation, or are we confronted by institutional failure?  Yes to both, but the real question is where do we go from here, which returns us to the need for, and present lack of, constructive leadership.  Perhaps 2020 will bring some improvement.  We’d better hope so.    

_______________________

29.
A People's History of the United States, vol. 8 (1987), p. 1140

30.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/in-america-talk-turns-to-something-unspoken-for-150-years -civil-war/2019/02/28/b3733af8-3ae4-11e9-a2cd-307b06d0257b_ story.html?utm_term=.c87d3f657d86

31.
Hacker and Pierson, American Amnesia, p. 320
 

Monday, March 4, 2019


March 3, 2019
I offered descriptions of Donald Trump a few days ago.  Here are some others, along with some comments on the state of his Party:
Michael Cohen, in his testimony to the House Oversight Committee, offered this observation about his former boss: “He is a racist.  He is a con man.  He is a cheat.”  The term “boss” is mine, but it’s apt, given its organized-crime connotation, for Cohen told the committee “Mr. Trump called me a ‘rat’ for choosing to tell the truth – much like a mobster would do when one of his men decides to cooperate with the government.”  In a more measured comment, he said, “Mr. Trump is an enigma. . . . He has both good and bad, as do we all. But the bad far outweighs the good, and since taking office, he has become the worst version of himself.”[26]
The last phrase applies as well to the Republican Party.  Once it was a respectable political party with a proud history.  Now it is indeed the worst version of itself, ignoring the welfare of ordinary people, serving the wealthy and powerful, immune to new ideas, opposed to government regulation of business, and now reduced to toadying to one who should be shunned for driving the Party, already in decline, still further down.  Cohen made that clear: “I did the same thing that you're doing now for 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years."[27]
An example of Republican decline and servitude to Trump is the Senate’s confirmation of a former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, to replace Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.  “Republicans said they have been delighted to discover Mr. Wheeler is as enthusiastic about repealing environmental regulations and promoting coal as Mr. Pruitt was, and are looking to him to cement Mr. Trump’s legacy as a warrior against what they see as regulatory overreach.”  In the face of increasing evidence of the effects of climate change, “Mr. Wheeler has moved to dramatically weaken two of former President Obama’s signature climate change initiatives, cutting emissions from power plants and from automobiles, while also proposing to make new coal-fired power plants easier to approve.”[28]  Senator Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to show the courage and good sense to vote against confirmation. 
The reaction to Trump’s emergency powers is showing  a slightly different pattern.  The House, with the support of 13 of the 195 Republicans, voted  to overturn Trump’s declaration, and speculation is that 4 of the 53 Republican Senators will join Democrats, with the same result.  That is encouraging and important, but hardly a repudiation of his administration. 
As long as we’re collecting  descriptions of Trump and his abettors, here’s one by way of metaphor:  The January 17, 2019 issue of the New York Review of Books includes a review of Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch.  The reviewer, Keith Thomas, sums up a description of service under Henry VIII as follows: “Henry’s court was a fearfully dangerous place where courtiers jostled for the favor of a capricious monarch. . . . MacCulloch portrays the king as ‘terrifyingly unpredictable,’ given to ‘destructive whims’ and ‘habitually erratic’ decision-making, ‘a thorough coward when it came to personal confrontations,’ and ‘almost impossible to serve successfully.’ ”  Does that remind us of any other famous leader?  Thomas adds that “MacCulloch tactfully declines to draw an analogy with any modern head of state, though some of his American readers may be tempted to do so.”
Indeed.

______________________

26.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/27/us/politics/cohen-documents-testimony.html

27.
https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/431843-cohen-warns-gop- lawmakers-protecting- trump- i-did-the-same-thing

28. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/28/climate/andrew-wheeler-epa-confirmation.html



Monday, February 25, 2019


February 24, 2019
 There are two ways to evaluate Donald Trump as President.  We can tote up his lies, boasts, evasions,  fabrications and delusions, note his impulsiveness and dangerously bad ideas, then add the evidence of foreign influence and possible collusion leading to his semi-election, and reach the unavoidable conclusion that he should be removed from office.  Alternatively, we can shorten the list, simplify the task and reach the same result by recognizing that Trump is intellectually and emotionally a child, attempting to get his way through tantrums.  (The Nation ran a column entitled “Trump at Two,” referring to the midpoint of his term, but it could as well describe his level of maturity).
Making all reasonable allowance for party loyalty, political ambition and fear of reprisal, how can Congressional Republicans not conclude that, under either analysis, leaving Trump in charge is an unacceptable risk?
His current tantrum is the declaration of a national emergency to allow him to take funds from other programs, which he has discovered have money to spare, to build a wall.  He is so incompetent that he has declared that the wall isn’t urgently needed: “Well, I got $1.4 billion. . . .  I was successful, in that sense, but I want to do it faster.  I could do the wall over a longer period of time.  I didn’t need to do this.  But I’d rather do it much faster.”[20] He’d rather do something wasteful and unnecessary, requiring condemnation of private land and prompting multiple law suits, faster; that’s the basis for his seizure of more power.
The current plan is to spend the $1.375 billion authorized by Congress, plus these transfers from other funds: $600 million from the Treasury Department’s drug forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from drug interdiction activities of the Department of Defense and $3.6 billion from the military construction budget.[21]  All this  to build a wall we don’t need. 
The national-emergency ploy was bad enough when Trump pretended that there was an urgent need for the wall.  Now that it’s just his whim, Congress should be in revolt.  Some Republicans indeed may rebel, but not all the movement relative to Trump has been away.  In 2015, Senator Lindsey Graham called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” and said that the way to make America Great again was to “tell  Donald Trump to go to hell.”[22]  In February 2016, Graham said of Trump “I think he's a kook. I think he's crazy. . . . He's not a conservative Republican, he's an opportunist. He's not fit to be president of the United States." [23]  In March 2016, Graham offered this prediction: “We're going to lose. You'll never convince me that Donald Trump is the answer to the problem we have with Hispanics. . . . Here's what I want to tell people when we lose to Hillary: I told you that the immigration issue is killing us. We're doubling down on the problem we have with Hispanics. We went from self-deportation to forced deportation. . . . So here's what I'm going to say in November when we lose: I told you so."[24]
The new Graham has seen the light: recently he tweeted, “If White House and Congress fail to reach a deal then President @realDonaldTrump must act through emergency powers to build wall/barrier.”  One segment of funds to be lifted from the military construction fund was to have built a new Fort Campbell Mahaffey Middle School in Kentucky.  Graham’s response: “I would say it’s better for the middle school kids in Kentucky to have a secure border. We’ll get them the school they need, but right now we’ve got a national emergency on our hands.”[25] 
Apparently the fact that Trump — unexpectedly — won transformed him from a race-baiting, xenophobic bigot into a statesman who recognizes that “the problem we have with Hispanics” is that there are too many of them, that any more would bring the country to its knees, that hordes are poised to pour across the border  and that only a wall will save us.  Graham is an extreme example of the attitude that has kept Congressional Republicans in line.

________________________

20. From his rambling, incoherent Rose Garden press conference February 15.

21.https://abc3340.com/news/connect-to-congress/white-house-says-emergency-declaration- gives-trump-8-billion-for-border-wall

22. https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2015/12/08/lindsey-graham-donald-trump- xenophobic-bigot-interview-newday.cnn/video/playlists/lindsey-graham-2016/

23.https://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/269675-graham-republicans-will-get-slaughtered-if-trump-nominee

24.https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lindsey-graham-were-gonna-lose-to-hillary-clinton-with- donald-trump/

25. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-sen-lindsey-graham-on-face-the-nation-February-17- 2019/ 


Sunday, February 17, 2019


February 17, 2019
    There are two strong, dangerous trends today, climate change and the concentration of wealth.   Let’s look at the latter issue.
    The usual way to limit the accumulation of large fortunes is through taxation.  An automatic reaction from the right is to claim that high taxes will stunt growth.  That complaint is based on the notion that those receiving high income will invest and drive the economy, to everyone’s benefit.  If that trickle-down theory needed further debunking, the recent tax cuts provided it: much of the additional net income went to dividends and stock repurchases, further enriching the wealthy.
    The other standard response on the right is that redistribution is ethically wrong, but redistribution upward somehow isn’t included in the ban.  That attitude is, unfortunately, an American tradition.  Cordell Hull, who advocated income and estate taxes in the early twentieth century, put it this way: "An irrepressible conflict has been waged for thousands of years between the strong and the weak, the former always striving to heap the chief tax burdens upon the latter."
    There is no plausible reason that the wealthy should not pay more: more than they have recently and more proportionately than those less well off.  That is not punitive.  As Hull put it, “I have no disposition to tax wealth unnecessarily or unjustly, but I do believe that the wealth of the country should bear its just share of the burden of taxation and that it should not be permitted to shirk that duty. . . .[T]he chief burdens of government have long been borne by those least able to bear them, while accumulated wealth has enjoyed the protection and other blessings of the Government and thus far escaped most of its accompanying burdens.''[19]  That lesson, from a century ago, has been forgotten.
    Economic inequality is not simply an offense against fairness, it is a negative force.  Democracy is in peril because, among other reasons, wide economic divisions destroy any sense of our being in it together; wildly uneven distribution of wealth creates separate societies and separate political priorities.  Instead of the divisive “nationalism” of MAGA, we need a true national bond. 
    Can anything be done?   Elizabeth Warren has proposed a wealth tax.  In her formulation, it would be a yearly tax of 2% on household net worth above $50 million,  3% on net worth above $1 billion. My first reaction was negative; we should tax income, not property. 
    There are legitimate arguments in favor of a wealth tax.  One is that it would discourage the growth of family dynasties, but that can be addressed by restoring the estate tax to reasonable levels.  A better argument is that inequality in wealth has grown, in part because income and estate taxes have been slashed, and only a wealth tax will address that problem.  That there is huge and growing inequality is undeniable, as is its negative effect.
     However, I think that a wealth tax would be unmanageable.  It would require valuing a myriad of assets — annually — many of which have no realistic market value, such as art works, and it would be easy to avoid by, for example, splitting family assets into units falling below the tax threshold, assigning those units to various family members or other nominees.  There also is some concern that a wealth tax would be unconstitutional.
    A better plan is to overhaul the income and estate tax codes, raising rates and eliminating the lower income tax rate for capital gains, which are a vehicle for the rich to get richer.

_________________

19. Hull quotes are at http://www.taxhistory.org/thp/readings.nsf/ArtWeb/F6769F770B0FC 289852 5803700432EE1?Open Document   (53 Cong. Rec. 10652)  

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


b>February 12, 2019
            Apparently I had been bad, for my resident conscience insisted that we watch the State of the Union address.  Which of my sins could have been so serious as to deserve such punishment?  I must reflect.
            A columnist had suggested recently that the S of the U was obsolete and should be scrapped.  I thought that to be extreme, but after watching about forty minutes of this one, I am tempted to agree.  True, not every President will be as pathetic as Trump, but the standing ovations, not merely ritualistic but signifying support for or at least tolerance of his delusions, indicated that the Congress is a group not to be subjected to stress.  Clearly it is not strong enough to resist assaults on its intelligence, and needs to be protected.
            Thinking about the fallen state of the nation, the metaphor, barbarians at the gates, came to mind, but Trump has seized and misused that image, so let’s just refer to our decline and fall; the former is well under way and, far from making us great again, Caesar Donald is pushing us toward the latter.

Monday, February 4, 2019


February 3, 2019
     Rachel Maddow has pointed out that several of Trump’s allegations about the border — “trafficked women in cars at the southern border, their mouths taped shut . .  Muslim prayer rugs in the southern desert  . . smugglers’ amazing cars” — are scenes from a movie. 
     She’s done a service by pointing out that Our Leader’s build-the-wall obsession is based on fiction, but she was slightly off in this comment: “Now  in any normal  administration it would be insane to suggest . . . even joke about the president of the United States seeing stuff in a movie . . . and maybe thinking it was real — or at least real enough to justify an actual military deployment of thousands of active duty U.S. troops to the border.”  Leaving aside the reference to deployment, that’s not quite so;  This is not the first time that a President has been accused of confusing movies and reality.
     There were two credible reports that President Reagan stated, in discussing the Holocaust and describing concentration camps, that “he had served as a photographer in a U.S. Army unit assigned to film Nazi death camps” or, in the second exchange, that he was "a member of the Signal Corps taking pictures of the camps."  Reagan wasn’t there; his wartime service was in Hollywood making training films. Apparently he confused seeing films to with taking them.[17]
     (Trump isn’t even original in using Make America Great Again as a slogan.  Bill Clinton used the phrase in speeches in 1992 and, in a 2008 ad, said  Hillary “Will Make America Great Again.”  Campaign posters and buttons for Reagan in 1980 read “Let’s Make America Great Again.”) [18]    
     Former Presidents have had  flaws, some serious, but the incumbent stands alone in his combination of insecurity, lack of political experience and low intellect, and in his compensating boasting, bluster, and disdain of expert advice. Does the country have a problem? “I alone can fix it.”  Has someone pointed out his lack of smarts?  “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don't feel so stupid or insecure, it's not your fault."  Do intelligence professionals see the world differently than he does?  They “should go back to school.”
     Speaking of presidential delusions — in this case those of a presidential hopeful — Howard Schultz, unpopular in his home town for selling the Seattle SuperSonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder ), has achieved that status on a national scale by declaring his interest in running for President as an independent.  Assuming that he drew enough votes in a critical state or two, and assuming that he, a nominal Democrat, drew more from the Democratic candidate, he would cause Trump to win again, presumably not his aim.  His delusions are twofold; that he could win, not merely be a spoiler, and that there is a large constituency for his platform of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism.  Maybe he got his ideas from a movie.

_________________________

17. Article by Lou Cannon, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1984/03/05/ reagan-38/26b480c6-3d54-46d0-b0fe-1c426c139847/?utm_term=.a1dcbcce7b64. 
See also Cannon’s book President Reagan: the Role of a Lifetime, pp. 486-89.

18.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Make_America_Great_Again#cite_note-8 

Thursday, January 24, 2019


January 23, 2019 
                     “[I]ntelligence is quickness in seeing things as they are.” 
            Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets

     That attribute is notably lacking in contemporary politicians, especially among Republicans.  Seeing things as they are, for example the threat of climate change, the inequity and fiscal foolishness of tax cuts, or the danger that a sea of firearms poses, seems not to occur.  Is it simply lack of gray matter?  “The comprehension of truth calls for higher powers than the defense of error,”[9] so perhaps It is beyond them.  Or, truth may seem too unfamiliar to accept: “Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction. For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.”[10]  
     “Practical politics consists in ignoring facts,”[11] so maybe it’s inherent in the game.  On the other hand, it may be a sort of political relativism, one set of facts for our side, another for those people.  If so, the mind closes: “I'll not listen to reason. . . . Reason always means what someone else has got to say.”[12] 
     Republican views are not so much the result of thinking as of the absorption of the party line, which acts as the enemy of reasoning: “Dogma does not mean the absence of thought, but the end of thought.”[13]
     Another possibility is that conservative politicians are influenced by right wing agitators, who preach bias dressed up as nationalism.  Such preachers and their flock are beyond teaching: “[T]he mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract.”[14] 
     There is, of course, the possibility that our supposed public servants are not really interested in serving the public interest.  An old and cynical definition of politics certainly could be applied to the machinations of Our Glorious Leader: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”[15]
     It could be, and no doubt is in part, that political decisions simply are the echo of political contributions: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember the second."[15]  Reversal of Citizens United would help to combat that disease.  Otherwise, it’s down to a matter of voting the rascals out.

__________________________

9. Goethe

10. G. K. Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades

11. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

12. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford

13. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature

14. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

15. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

16. Mark Hanna  

Thursday, January 17, 2019


January 17, 2019
    A few days ago, I came across an interesting article from a British newspaper.  The headline, referring to a report by the Pentagon is, in part,  “climate change will destroy us.”  The subhead reads: “The US President has denied the existence of global warming. But a secret report predicts a looming catastrophe . . . .”  The President in question was George W. Bush, the article from February, 2004.[6]  A representative of Greenpeace noted: “You’ve got a President who says global warming is a hoax .”
    Nearly fifteen years have passed and the news is no different.  Here’s a report from November 27, 2018: “President Donald Trump on Monday dismissed a study produced by his own administration, involving 13 federal agencies and more than 300 leading climate scientists, warning of the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change. Why, you ask? ‘I don't believe it,’ Trump told reporters.”[7]
    The Donald has a long history of dismissing evidence of dangerous climate change; here he is in 2014, tweeting as usual: “"The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."  Given his intellectual limitations and biases, he isn’t likely to change his views, which is frightening.  The report he doesn’t believe includes this:
Climate-related risks will continue to grow without additional action . . . . [Current efforts do not] approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.
That isn’t just an unproven theory, or a natural cycle.
Observations collected around the world provide significant, clear, and compelling evidence that global average temperature is much higher, and is rising more rapidly, than anything modern civilization has experienced, with widespread and growing impacts. The warming trend observed over the past century can only be explained by the effects that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, have had on the climate.”
Here are some results:
High temperature extremes and heavy precipitation events are increasing. Glaciers and snow cover are shrinking, and sea ice is retreating. Seas are warming, rising, and becoming more acidic, and marine species are moving to new locations toward cooler waters. Flooding is becoming more frequent along the U.S. coastline. Growing seasons are lengthening, and wildfires are increasing. These and many other changes are clear signs of a warming world.[8]
    The report was released on the day after Thanksgiving, probably to minimize its impact. Compare the 2004 report: a former whistleblower at the EPA charged that “suppression of the report for four months was a further attempt of the White House trying to bury the threat of climate change.”  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Again: the 2004 article noted the “administration’s close links to high-powered energy and oil companies. . . .”  Trump has nominated a former lobbyist for coal companies to head the EPA.
    All we need to ensure climate disaster is to have another term or two of Republican rule.

_____________________________

6. The Observer, 2/22/04

7. https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/26/politics/donald-trump-climate-change/index.html

8. Quotes from Fourth National Climate Assessment, “Introduction,”



Monday, January 14, 2019


January 14, 2019
     Some time back, I mused about the decline of our country.  Though a dismal thought, it isn’t mine alone.  I have referred to our ugly culture.  Another term would be decadent, borrowing from Jacques Barzun’s book,  From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.  Barzun began with a definition of decadence which was intended to be descriptive rather than pejorative: "All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It . . . is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance.  The loss it faces is that of Possibility.”[1]   He offered illustrations of “the difference between the 16C and the 20th, between the dawn of a new culture and its close in disenchantment.”[2]  His five hundred year span was from A.D. 1500 to 2000, when his book was published.  The beginning date may seem arbitrary, serving his five-hundred year theme.  He notes that it is the commonly accepted date for the beginning of the modern era, but specifically points to 1517, when Luther posted his 95 theses, commencing the Reformation, as a turning point.  Barzun points out that the spread of Luther’s message was made possible by the printing press, developed around 1450 and in common use by 1500.  Another critical date is 1492, when Columbus sailed, changing the world forever.
     A.D. 1500 is as good a date as any to signify the transition from the medieval to the modern age, for the most part a step forward, certainly a step toward a more vigorous, open, free society.  Will and Ariel Durant, in introducing their volume The Age of Reason Begins, and referring to it and two volumes to follow, state that the “unifying theme of all three volumes will be the growth of reason.”[3]  That hardly describes the present time.  The era which began at the opening of the sixteenth century did not end in 2000; we are not in a new and vigorous time, but still are declining. 
     In the latter part of From Dawn to Decadence, in his analysis of modernism, Barzun’s use of "decadence" began to take on the more usual negative connotation, but even the original definition describes a dark scene: "The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully."[4]  He quotes Andy Warhol: "Art is what you can get away with." (A glance at the arts section of The New York Times would demonstrate that an “artist” can get away with anything).  We could add, quoting Richard Rorty, “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying,” which could serve as a motto for Mr. Trump. 
     Everything today seems to be Post-something else; no future is in sight.  The greatest risk, climate change, is met not with reasoned response but with denial, in effect ensuring that there will be no future.
     As to the painful functioning of institutions, consider the current shutdown or virtually any aspect of government in recent years.  As to the culture more generally, consider the state of political discourse, of language generally, of ideas, manners, morals and music; consider films and video games which provide vicarious violence, or the threats of violence by “patriot” groups, or actual violence abetted by the flood of unregulated guns. 
     Consider the support by avowed Christians for an immoral egotist.  Medieval Catholicism was challenged as corrupt by Luther; Protestant “Evangelical” Christianity, as practiced in this country, may be approaching a similar precipice due to its own corruption. 
      Is the problem, at least as to government, a failure of democracy?   Merriam-Webster defines democracy as follows: “government by the people especially, rule of the majority . . . .”  President Abraham Lincoln referred to “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  The irony of democracy is that government of the people works only if they are properly led.  That may take some of the bloom from government “by the people,” but it is inescapable.  The right sort of leaders — honest, informed, committed to the national welfare, not beholden to interests — are critical.  The wrong sort bring disaster; if that were not clear before, the advent of Donald Trump makes it so. “In a modern democracy it is possible to fool most of the people most of the time: but at a price.” [5]  Whether the people of the United States have declined in virtue and political judgment is a fair subject for debate; the decline of their leaders is clear. 
     Whatever the exact mix may be between bad citizens and bad leaders, the country is in a dire condition.  The present combination of an ignorant, foolish, resentful authoritarian as President, a docile Senate and a bigoted base is extremely, uniquely dangerous, but it did not arise from nothing. Some components of the present situation are structural, such as the undemocratic electoral college and the equally undemocratic Senate.  Some are the result of political manipulation, such as the gerrymandering of House districts.  Economic inequality exists in part because of the failure or indifference of government, and is made worse by tax cuts and attacks on social programs.  Much of government has been captured by moneyed interests, abetted by the absurd notion, imposed on us by the Supreme Court, that money is speech.
     There are danger signs in basic measures of national health.  Life expectancy has fallen; infant mortality, women’s death in childbirth and death rates among children all show either increases or poor results compared to other advanced countries, or both.  Homelessness persists in prosperous cities.
     Perhaps the recent election provides some slight hope of change, in the form of a check on the administration’s worst impulses and investigation into its misconduct.  Trump acts like a man who sees the walls closing in.  For once, let us hope that he is right.  Being rid of Trump wouldn’t usher in a new age, but it would remove one impediment to positive change.

___________________________

1.
From Dawn to Decadence, p. xvi

2.
Id. at p. 132

3. The Age of Reason Begins, p. vii, Volume VII in The Story of Civilization

4. From Dawn to Decadence, p. xvi

5. Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, p. 173