Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Calculus of China and North Korea

With North Korea’s increasing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities and its historically over-the-top rhetoric (from a Western perspective), what are we faced with?  Especially, when the president escalates his rhetoric to match North Korea’s.  How much of all this talk is real and how much is bravado or B.S.?  The world cannot afford two chest-thumping, egocentric leaders creating an unnecessary war.  Unfortunately, we are at the point of losing the generational memory of what a major war produces and we have never truly witnessed a nuclear war with weapons of today’s magnitude.  It is too easy to make threats when their consequences  are not truly understood.  "Those who do not understand the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them."

The picture is cloudy and what I offer here is conjecture. 

There are three major powers in the world: the United States, Russia, and China.  The United States is somewhat of the “odd man out” in this trio, but we won’t assume that Russia and China are the best of friends either.  Each country stands to gain at the others’ expense in terms of world influence, trade, and economic prosperity all of which translate into political popularity at home.  Each government has a populace to placate.  All three have incentive to hamstring the others.  This is the backdrop for any crisis.

Let’s focus on the U.S. and China for the moment.  Why are the Chinese dragging their feet on stopping nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula?  There are stated reasons like having a buffer with prosperous South Korea and avoiding a refugee crisis if the Korean dictatorship collapses.  Still, these seem like minor points compared to nuclear weapons in the hands of Kim Jong-un.  When the obvious isn’t the explanation, then there is usually something less obvious behind it. 

China can tolerate Kim so long as his aggressive focus is on America and not China.  It’s a safe bet that Kim is smart enough not to antagonize his powerful neighbor.  Better to pick on someone a safe distance away who is opposing him anyway.  Kim needs a demon to distract his people from their hardships and who better than the warlike U.S.A.  With wars in Viet Nam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria on our slate, the U.S. counts as recent history’s most war-involved nation. 

With 60 years of government propaganda and no connection to the outside world, the North Korean people are the most brainwashed population possible.  This makes it easy to demonize the U.S.A.  Generations of people in North Korea have no way of distinguishing fact from fiction (although one suspects human nature makes them believe in something better than what they have).  The net effect is a nation that could blindly get involved in a nuclear holocaust not knowing the truth of what they were facing.  That includes Kim himself.  They’ve had 60 years of North Korean Kool-Aid.

All this makes North Korea a convenient proxy for both China and Russia to use to antagonize and distract the U.S.  Proxy wars are great for the ones using the proxy because the cost is asymmetric.  The proxy and its opponent take the beating while the proxy’s supporting player remains safe.   China and Russia used North Vietnam as a proxy against the U.S. in the 60's.  The U.S. used Afghan rebels as proxies against Russia in the 80's.  Iran is using a variety of Middle East terrorist groups as proxies against the U.S.  today.  China can use North Korea as its proxy against the U.S. as well.  In chess, this amounts to using a pawn against the queen - easy to sacrifice.  Young Kim Jong-un may be too naive or egotistical to notice his pawn status.

How far do you advance the proxy pawn before you hold it back or do you sacrifice it?  For China, the answer may lie in its economy.  China has long been dependent on exports for its economic growth and stability.  That is changing.  Now that China has built an industrial base and gotten technology from the West (legally and illegally), it is on the brink of economic self-sustainability.  In order words, domestic Chinese consumption and trade with other nations can maintain prosperity without the need for the U.S. market as it has existed in the past.  The point at which the scales tip far enough in that direction, is the point at which China can prod North Korea into a nuclear war with the U.S.  If that happens, the damage in Asia is confined to Korea with China only marginally affected. 

Losing North Korea would have virtually no economic effect on the world because of its historic isolation (that’s not to minimize the loss of human lives).  However, just a handful of nuclear weapons detonated on three or four key U.S. cities would have asymmetric and disastrous consequences for the U.S.  Such an event could then propel China upward in the world economy at almost no cost to itself.  One reason the U.S. rose as an economic power after WWII is because Europe was in ruins.

That’s a worst case scenario, or is it?  How likely is it that North Korea has made such seemingly rapid gains in its nuclear and ballistic missile technology?  Did they do it all themselves?  That seems unlikely.  Who would have helped them?  The answer isn’t hard to discern.  Any country with a grudge against the U.S. and some nuclear and missile expertise could have helped them.  And, if that country needed money, it makes them even more suspect.  High on that list are Iran and Pakistan.  It could also include rogue elements inside Russia whose nuclear management capabilities are less than stellar.  Less likely, but still possible culprits, are the Chinese and Russia governments.

What happens when North Korea joins this club of sketchy international nuclear powers?  (The U.S., Britain, France, Israel, and India aren’t sketchy.)  North Korea as an impoverished nation with nuclear weapons has a huge incentive to sell them on the black market to terrorist organizations.  If it is bad to have an unhinged nation-state holding nukes, having even more unhinged terror groups in possession of them is worse.  Once the bomb is out of the box of government control and in the hands of independent actors, deterrence goes out the window.  There is no place to retaliate; no one to suffer the consequences.  The threat of terrorism escalates to an unimaginable level.  In response, democratic countries will be forced into ever tighter security measures and freedom will further erode.  The inconvenience of the TSA will look like nothing compared to protecting against a rogue nuclear weapon - a fact Hollywood has consistently illustrated.  The greatest threat is not North Korea using nukes against the U.S.A., it is North Korea as the nuclear shopping mall for terrorists who then act as their proxies.

Leaving that train of thought for the moment, let’s look at what can be done from the U.S.A.’s side.  There are five major options. 

1.  Economic sanctions.  These have worked like a bad sieve.  Smuggling has provided North Korea what it needs.  Complete sanctions like a blockade are required.  However, those would probably push it over the edge into some form of war rather than merely collapse the regime.

2.  Limited conventional military action.  This would entail surgical strikes at key facilities and key leadership.  While this might blunt some progress temporarily, it would more likely add proof of U.S. aggression and incentive for later retaliation against the U.S.  It would be hard to cut out all the cancer in Korea; what was left would grow back more aggressively.

3.  Large scale military action.  With a large North Korean army and the distance of the Korean peninsula from the U.S., a conventional war is unwinnable.  With the U.S. at war in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan, another war front is militarily untenable.  Hitler was taught that lesson on the Russian front.  Bush had to relearn it when he added Iraq to Afghanistan.

4. Nuclear war.  While devastating, this is the only practical way to wage war at this distance.  With its overwhelming nuclear superiority, the U.S. could bomb North Korea into submission.  The price would be our world reputation and our ownership of global nuclear contamination.  It would drive non western countries into the influence spheres of China and Russia.  We would win one way and lose another.  And, if we wait too long, maybe we get hit with a few nukes from North Korea that devastate us as well.

5.  Negotiations.  There have been no direct negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea on nukes at this point.  The U.S. has relied on China as an intermediary to influence North Korea and we can see now why they have little incentive to do so.  By remaining aloof and ratcheting up our rhetoric, we play into the hands of North Korean propagandists and we increase the likelihood of misjudging each other.  Unfortunately, North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated the uselessness of negotiations by using them to get what they want and then reneging on the terms. 

All of this points out the difficulty in achieving any solution.  No avenue is without its pitfalls.  The difference is the degree of disruption each is likely to create both short and long-term.  It is a time for the coolest heads to prevail.  So what could be the best course of action?

It probably begins with unconditional direct negotiations.  The best way to misunderstand your adversary is not to talk to him.  The more dialogue that happens, the better the chance of finding a solution.  But, negotiations have to be fast and eventually conditional.  North Korea cannot use them as a delaying tactic again to advance its nuclear program.  Any agreement has to have stringent verification.

If negotiations fail to work, then a full scale blockade would logically follow - nothing in or out of the country.  That requires China’s complete commitment, which is not likely.   Whether a blockade would force North Korea to negotiate or flip it into war is the  unknown risk. 

What follows next presumes China’s neutrality in an escalating conflict and that is a risky assumption.

Assuming a blockade cannot be effectively established, the next action is limited military strikes on key targets, especially the leadership.  This must be quick, intensive, and unrelenting until there is a signal that regime change can happen.  The North can be expected to respond by attacking civilian centers in the South immediately, so minimizing its ability and willingness to do so is essential.

Assuming that limited military action leads to full-scale conventional war, the final move is either a protracted conventional struggle with the army of South Korea carrying the battle, or the use of nuclear weapons against a greater North Korean army.  At that point, there is little use of trying to predict additional events.  

The object of all these actions has to be stopping and undoing North Korea’s nuclear program.  If North Korea was a stable democracy with a reasonable government, allowing it to gain nuclear weapons would carry less risk.  Unfortunately, it falls into the category more akin to Nazi Germany.  Therefore, denying it nuclear weapons is necessary.  Not just because North Korea might use them against the U.S., but even more because of the danger of North Korea passing nuclear weapons into terrorist hands.  There is no way to trust a morally bankrupt dictatorship to keep any agreement to control a nuclear arsenal.  This is especially true given North Korea’s track record on agreements.  Therefore, not having any weapons is essential and strict verification is needed. 

The best hope is the opening of North Korea to commerce and the gradual de-indoctrination of its people by exposure to the West.  It would be a slow process to erode the communist propaganda of the last 60 years, but the least destructive solution.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Observations on Our President and His Administration - May 2017

Can 62 Million People Be Wrong?

How did Donald J. Trump get 62 million voters on his side?  Why were they drawn to him?  To say they are uneducated, gullible, misguided deplorables is foolish.  Some may be, but so are some of the people who voted for Hillary Clinton.  There are plenty of intelligent, educated people who like Trump.  Why?

My guess is that many people of modest incomes are drawn to his promises and to some extent to his dominant  personality with simple assurances of making life better - sometimes you just want to believe.  Others with high incomes see someone who can cut taxes aimed solely at them: the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), the estate/inheritance tax, and the Obamacare tax surcharge. They all look past his dysfunctional behaviors to what they think he will do for them.  The biggest attraction - jobs.  The slow growth of income inequality that has pushed the nation apart economically has contributed to its political separation as well.  For those left behind over the last 30 years, the president’s offer to “Make America Great Again” is an offer to boost their paychecks.  That’s hard to turn down.  If only it were true. 

Some people will keep their jobs or get their old jobs back - for a while.  But jobs are driven by economic forces that are only somewhat shaped by political actions.  The hard truth is that all of it is interconnected in a global system that is not simply manipulated.  Removing regulations for oil, gas, and coal companies may add a few jobs.  The cost will be clean air and water for everyone else.  Is that fair?  Tax cuts will add to corporate profits, but where will those profits go?  If they go into capital investments will those investments add jobs, or replace them with better automation?  Or will the profits go out as dividends to shareholders?  Or will they boost wages or corporate bonuses?  Will changing trade agreements save some jobs at the expense of others?  Trade is a coin with two sides and only one is being presented.  People are being sold simplicity at the expense of accuracy.

What Do 65 Million Other People See in Donald Trump?

President Trump is a fellow a lot of people find easy to dislike.  Why?

I have a personal inclination to put Mr. Trump into the context of the kid at school you stayed away from because he was a braggart and a bully.  That kind of kid often had a few henchmen that formed his clique, but they were an inherently unpleasant bunch.  I have no proof Mr. Trump was that kind of kid, but his present behavior reminds me of that. 

When someone regularly attacks other people, belittles them, insults them, lies about them, manufactures and distorts “facts” to fit his own narrative, lies about himself, and boasts about accomplishments that are not his, he runs counter to the behavior of most people.  When someone is antagonistic toward others, it invites other people to respond in the same fashion toward that person.  Mr. Trump reaps what he sows.  There are people we instinctively like and people we don’t.  Mr. Trump falls into that later category for a lot of us.  It may be “gut feel,” but it derives from little bits of behavior that add up to put the other person on a scale somewhere between attractive and repulsive, or safe and dangerous.  While “likeability” is not a requirement for office, unpopularity is definitely a detriment to getting support for an agenda.

President Trump, as I observe him, speaks without conviction except when it comes to his own personal aggrandizement or any proposal that he thinks will contribute to that.  He is animated at self-serving rallies, but deadpan when delivering most prepared addresses.  His oratory belies any sense of conviction in his message when it is professionally scripted.  His body language is often stiff with a stern countenance.  This is a man who, in public situations, does not exude personal warmth or even a true sense of concern for others, no matter what he mouths.  His sentences are disjointed and at times make no sense.  Experts analyzed the change in his speech pattern from his earlier years compared to today and there is a clear muddling of his train of expression.  At age 70, our president may be showing the signs of age or worse.  We now know about his  notoriously short attention span and we have evidence of his disdain for facts and accuracy.  We know his staff shapes information to appeal to his ego needs by inserting his name in documents.  We can see his distrust for information from sources other than his family or what he personally gathers himself.  We can infer his buy-in to the Steve Bannon world view from his rhetoric and actions.  All this adds up to the risk there will be bad presidential decision making.  Throw in nuclear weapons and the prospects are beyond scary.

House of Cards and Filling an Inside Straight

Filling the White House with relatives is a symptom of Mr. Trump’s lack of trust in outsiders.  When you run a business, you can assume that others will try take advantage of you.  It’s an unfortunate fact of life.  When you run your business in a way that takes advantage of them, you double down on your distrust.  Mr. Trump trusts family and a few close associates, hence the presence of what amounts to a royal court in the White House.  The many meetings Trump has held with leaders of various groups are good in one sense, but sadly revealing in another.  Trump trusts what he hears first hand - his own personal knowledge.  That’s why people are invited to the White House.  It’s great to consult with people as he has done (Obama was too reclusive).  However, when it betrays a distrust of information not gathered personally, it shows a severe limitation on the information available for good decision making.  At some point running the nation, you must trust people you do not know and have never met.

Who are the people being chosen to run the government as department secretaries?  Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross, Rick Perry, Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions.  Why have they been chosen?   This just does not seem to be a selection of the best and brightest to run the government.    Skeptically speaking, they seem to be persons who are either easily directed to do a higher bidding, or are henchmen who can be entrusted with a wrecking ball for their departments.  If the White House is the brain for government and its thinking is weak, and the departments are the spine of government with bad vertebrae and slipped discs, then our national body is in bad shape.  In short, the entire executive branch is enfeebled and over time the body of the nation will feel the effects of it.

The Captain and the Crew of the S.S. USA.

It is however, a mistake to demonize all aspects of President Trump and his actions.  Even people we don’t like occasionally do the right thing, or something we do like.  Among these are protecting jobs, enforcing laws, fighting crime, and saving taxpayer dollars.  Some of Mr. Trump’s action do have positive intents and potentially positive outcomes.  Regrettably, others do not. 

The changes that Trump is putting forth are essentially the far right side’s view of running government.  Even if Trump were out of office, that philosophy could be represented by someone else with whom we might be more comfortable as a normal person (Rand Paul, Newt Gingrich, Mike Pence). 

An analogy may help clarify our situation.  We are all on the same boat, the S.S. USA.  We may not all agree on its course, but if we feel the captain and the crew are  competent, we know we will get to the destination in one piece.  We may be uncomfortable with the destination, but semi-comfortable with the journey itself.  In the case of the Trump administration, half the nation is not comfortable with either the course being set or the captain and the crew running the ship.  Hence, the personal vitriol and attacks against the administration itself.  People not only feel their ship has been hijacked, but that the hijackers don’t know how to run it.  Instead of steering it gently to the new course, they have turned the wheel hard over and tossed people about the ship.  The nation is seasick from it.  The novice mistakes, unforced errors, poor tactics, and self-serving behaviors of the administration so far only reinforce the perception of incompetence.  When the National Review prints an article denouncing the president’s claim to conservative credentials, it is clear he has problems on both sides of the aisle.  Mutiny on the S.S. USA is a real prospect.  Whether it will be peaceful or violent remains to be seen.

What are some of the signs the captain and his crew aren’t capable?  Careless tweets top the list.  Erroneous assertions of being wire tapped by President Obama.  Unfounded insistence there were three million fraudulent voters and appointing a commission to investigate this phantom fraud.  Firing James Comey because it would take the heat off the Russian investigation.  Asking heads of two intelligence agencies to put out word that he isn’t guilty of any collusion with the Russians.  Violating normal protocol to share classified information with the Russians.  Attacking the legitimate press as “fake news” when a free press is essential to democracy.  Issuing poorly prepared executive orders that don’t hold up in court.  Denouncing the judiciary when they ruled against him.  Having spokespersons who must backpedal daily to explain constantly changing positions and statements.  Alienating allies with public criticisms.  Congratulating foreign autocrats because they “won” when they are doing things that are against our democratic values.  Feuding with the government ethics office over disclosures and rules.  Trying to camouflage a ban on Muslims as guarding against terrorists.  Touting “extreme vetting” when existing vetting has worked for years.  Denying climate change.  Taking credit for results when the cause of those results comes from the work of the prior administration.  Taking frequent weekend trips at major expense to taxpayers.  Failing to fill many top and mid level positions.  Supporting a rushed and flawed health care bill that wasn’t even understood.  Pushing for a wall on the border because it is popular, not because it will be effective.  Generally wasting taxpayer money on personal whims and beliefs.  There are just so many blunders and missteps and ham-fisted attempts at improper influence that putting trust in Trump is like sending money to the Nigerian banker who emailed you.  The administration’s “oughta know better” meter is off the scale.

Some media pundits postulate that maybe Trump’s actions are a clever negotiating strategy to keep the opposition off balance.  That just isn’t the case.  This is not some clever fox walking and talking like a duck to fool people.  It’s a duck that tweets.

Are we looking at a president who may be psychologically unfit for office and how will we know?  The press and staff hid FDR’s polio crippled legs for most of his administration.  Kennedy’s affairs were kept quiet.  Republicans tried to keep Nixon from being impeached until it was overwhelmingly obvious he broke the law.  Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease was swept under the rug.  Trump’s staff seems to be doing everything it can to whitewash his errant behaviors.  As a result, the media has to double down in its scrutiny of his actions.

Setting a Course

The administration is taking shape along two lines. 

The first is the philosophy and strategy that originates with Steve Bannon.  Trump, himself, would appear to have only three guiding principles:  1) Win, or claim to win; 2) Look good and get praised; 3) Make a good deal for himself.  None of these has much to do with the agenda of any political party or the welfare of the American people.  The ideology for the administration is provided by Steve Bannon to the figurehead of Donald Trump.  Mr. Trump delivers it to the populace in a style enough people find appealing that it gets bought by them without being understood.  He is the unwitting P. T. Barnum for the alt-right vision of America.

The second is Trump’s determination to deliver on his campaign promises.  Normally keeping promises is a worthwhile thing, but only if the promises are rational and realistic.  George Bush had the courage of his convictions.  Admirable in itself, but his convictions were wrong and we are still living with that problem.  The same holds true for some of Trump’s promises.

By now it is becoming clear what the thrust of the Trump (Bannon) administration looks like, especially with the publishing of the proposed budget.  Given the premise that the government has become its own “deep state” with an overreaching bureaucracy (a view with some merit), the administration seeks to strip away its influence.  Removing over-regulation is not a bad thing in itself.  However, looking at what is being stripped and what is being supported reveals some misshapen priorities.  Defense, which already gets $600 billion a year (half the discretionary budget), gets more.  Education, environment, research, diplomacy, etc. get less.  The sciences and medicine, areas where progress could benefit everyone, are being more than decimated by cuts.  Add to that the appointment of department secretaries whose belief in facts and science is marginal at best, and who bring old allegiances to the industries they now regulate, and the picture is bleak.

Looking beyond just the cuts to who benefits, it is clear that the losers are the general population and the winners are corporations and the already wealthy.  The claim that this is a new style of  budget that focuses on helping tax payers instead of benefit recipients fails to explain that most personal income taxes are paid by a small percentage of top earners.   Three percent of filers pay 52% of all personal income taxes.  Sixteen percent pay almost 80% of all personal income taxes. The tax cut claim sounds like it benefits all, but clearly not as equally as the omission suggests.  It does however, bring to the surface what is going to become a critical decision point for the nation within the next decade.  That is the questions of: 1) What we can really afford to pay for?  2) Who pays for it?  3) Who benefits or is hurt in the process?

The Numbers Crunch

On the other side of the cuts in the budget are projections of economic growth.  Economists estimate 1.9% yearly.  The Trump budget estimates 3%.  That might not seem like a huge difference, but over ten years it is very significant.  It is enough to hide the fact that the budget does not balance.  As the old saying goes, “It the numbers don’t work, work the numbers.”  The Trump administration is only one in a long list of administrations that played fast and loose with the numbers.  George Bush (43) hid the cost of the Iraq war outside the budget.  Obama fudged the real cost of the Affordable Care Act betting on the idea that once it was installed it would be hard to dislodge even when the math went bad - exactly what has happened so far.

One of the central problems plaguing government is the growth of its role in all aspects of society, it’s expansion into benefit plans for the population making them increasingly dependent, and the ever growing federal debt.  As a nation, we will reach a crunch point over all of this.  The longer this is postponed, the more difficult and disruptive the solution will be.

The short story is that we are spending more than we are taking in and it’s been that way for a long time.  Congress is addicted to spending and presidents are addicted to popular programs.  The known elephants in the room are: Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Defense, and the Federal Debt/Deficit.  As the baby boom generation sweeps in to get their benefits, a crisis will develop.  Those benefits are funded by current contributions of existing wage earners, not from a huge pool of boomer savings - that was spent on their parents SS and Medicare.  With many current earners facing stagnant real wages, benefits will require even more taxes or deficit spending.  A national debate will develop over the obligation to take care of aging Americans, versus the necessity of keeping the working population healthy, economically sound, and happy.  To preserve the nation, the young must prevail.

There is no magic math to fix this problem, but a prosperous economy would certainly be a big help.  More debt to fund benefits adds a hidden burden to the young and middle aged.  Eventually the interest payments on the national credit card will overtake the budget.  Even nations can’t make minimum payments forever.  More taxes adds an obvious burden to existing workers.  And, to compound the issue, taking money from their paychecks reduces their ability to fund their own retirements which creates a cascade of fiscal dependency on the government for each subsequent generation.  The economically viable alternatives are to tax the rich considerably more, eliminate benefits for the wealthy elderly (“wealthy” being a very relative term), and cutting benefits for current and future retirees.  None of these is politically possible until the system actually begins to break, at which point the fix will be devastating.  The parents who had their kids living with them for years after school will find themselves living with those same kids again in their old age.  Benefits will be rationed to preserve the health of productive workers over the health of aging retirees.  The “overtaxed” 3 - 16% of high income taxpayers will move or hide assets.  Money protects money.

Future Prospects

As a nation we have been on a teeter totter going up and down as liberals and conservatives alternate control the government.  Sometimes we have been stuck with both feet off the ground as each side held just enough weight to offset the other through the executive and legislative branches of government.  This constant up and down and deadlock has produced little net progress as each side tries to undo the other and reconstruct a different society.  Moderates, moderation, and collaboration have been shoved aside to the detriment of all.  The nation is in an unsustainable situation.  Either moderation will reassert itself, or some event will drastically tip the teeter totter to one side for an extended period.  If we cannot find compromise, we will default to either a society of self-reliance and small government or one of socialism and large government.  The danger is that when one side wins and the other loses, there is a long lingering desire to even the score.

There is a lot to be worried about in this administration.  Some people who like President Trump have labeled this concern as “liberal sour grapes” over a lost election and the failure to keep the nanny state alive.  Some of it is.  However, missing from that perspective are the concerns of independents, moderates, and conservatives who see the man and his agenda as not just a shift in policy, but as a genuine threat to rational governance based on facts, coherent foreign policy, and the operation of democracy itself.  Enough people voted for Donald Trump that now we all have him.  That doesn’t mean accepting what he does is the right thing to do. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Will the Real Donald Trump Please Stand Up?

In the Beginning...  I wish to make clear that I favored neither candidate in the 2016 presidential race.  Had Mrs. Clinton won, this piece would be an analysis of her just as this is of Mr. Trump.  The essential points for this blog have been hanging out in my computer since shortly after the election and are largely unaltered by more recent events.

The election is over.  Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million individual votes.  Donald Trump won the presidency by collecting 308 electoral votes.  Whatever you think about the candidates and the Electoral College, it’s all over but the swearing in.  The sure winners here are the Russians, who probably never dreamed they could get so much credit and free press for hacking emails.  But what about Americans?  What have we got?

Donald J. Trump, soon to be POTUS.

Trump Supporters.  It is impossible to categorize the people who voted for Mr. Trump as one homogeneous group.  They are not a basket of deplorables.  They are not all rednecks.  They are not mostly from the alt-right (whoever they are).  More than 40% of them are college graduates.  So why did a diverse cross section of America pick Mr. Trump?  (Maybe not as diverse as Mrs. Clinton’s base, but certainly not monolithic.)  They bought the message and gave the messenger a free pass because they badly wanted the message Mr. Trump was sending to be heard.  His words were their thoughts and feelings.  When you want something badly enough, you will engage in magical thinking in the hopes of getting it.  Reality takes a back seat to desire.  The allure of the shiny pickup at the dealership overcomes the knowledge that the limited paycheck can’t handle the payments.  In the case of the election, Trump voters wanted at least the prospect of something very different from politics and government as usual, even if it seemed to others to be improper or irrational.  Magic may be possible.  Gullibility has no party affiliation.

The Message and the Messenger.  Mr. Trump found the message his supporters wanted to hear and he gave it to them.  The voters became like the students at Trump University -- recipients of a great sales pitch from the man who literally wrote the book.  The message recognized that they had been overlooked.  As the middle class, they have suffered in the great recession.  They have not shared in the prosperity of the recovery like the top percentage of citizens.  These laborers have been left behind while the owners of capital (investors) have forged forward economically.  As whites, they have been overlooked by the media who has focused on minority and gay rights.  “White” didn’t count for anything anymore.  It was the background for everyone else’s issues.  As rural Americans, they found someone who paid attention to them.  Some heard an intolerance toward immigrants they found comforting.  Playing to this baser nature of the populace is the definition of a demagogue.  The founding fathers were greatly concerned about a demagogue seizing the popular sentiment to the detriment of good government.  Not since George Wallace’s overt racism have we seen a message that appealed so much to intolerance by innuendo if not outright pronouncement.  Even women voted for Mr. Trump despite his crass sexual statements.  Did they do this because for some of them, that’s the way life is?  Did he only put words to a reality they live in?  Where’s the harm in that?  Women who voted against him obviously felt differently.  Throughout the campaign, the piper played a tune enticing to enough forgotten followers to place him in office.

Unfortunately, by buying the message and not being more selective about the messenger, these voters have bought a package that may not contain what they expect once it is opened in the oval office.  Mr. Trump’s personal characteristics that made him an effective campaigner, and those that did not, will carry over to the presidency.  They may not play well on that stage.  For that reason, we need to look more closely at the messenger himself.  For the voters who bought into “Hope and Change” eight years ago and were disappointed, there may be an equal number of people who bought into “Make America Great” who will feel the same disappointment in the next four years.  What we get when a president takes office is partly the message, but it is totally the messenger. 

Disclaimer.  At this point I insert the disclaimer that this is a personal blog and I am not a professional psychologist or psychiatrist.  What I have to offer are my observations based on years of working with managers in corporations. 

Smart Cookie.  To his credit, Mr. Trump is smart.  You don’t get to be a multimillionaire without having brains.  Those brains are also very calculating.  Mr. Trump’s calculus appears to center on enriching and aggrandizing himself.  Hence the “Trump” brand.  He doesn’t own the buildings, he just puts his name on them and that is worth money.  Amazing and lucrative.  So long as Mr. Trump believes that doing good for the country will benefit him, things will go well.  However, when the two interests diverge, we can expect Mr. Trump to do what is best for him and to paint whatever picture he feels necessary to convince the nation it is good for them, or at least does not matter.  The current issue of including his family members in government meetings and his unwillingness to fully separate himself from his business interests is only the beginning of this behavior.  Andrew Jackson brought the political “spoils system” to American government.  What Mr. Trump will bring is yet to be seen.

Fact vs. Fiction.  By now it is more than evident that Mr. Trump has a tenuous relationship with facts and the truth.  He seems to follow Hamlet’s logic “...for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  Regardless of objective reality, if Mr. Trump deems it good, or huge, or wonderful, it is.  If he thinks it bad, or ugly, or sad, it is.  And, one day it may be bad, but the next it may be good.  Mitt Romney was heavily criticized in his campaign for “flip flopping,” but compared to Mr. Trump, he was a rock of consistency.  What are we to expect from a president that is constantly changing his stance?  To answer that question, we need to move past the positions and look at the psyche of Mr. Trump.  What is he really like?  How will that play out in his presidency?

The Man and the Mask.  Mr. Trump has multiple personas.  He crafts an image to suit his audience or his objective.  That’s the reason this blog is titled “Will the Real Donald Trump Please Stand Up?”  We all adjust our behavior a bit depending upon the role we find ourselves in.  Being a parent is different from being an employee at work.  Being a nurse at work is different from being a volunteer firefighter in our off hours.  That’s normal.  Being president of the United States brings with it a huge host of expectations from a multitude of different constituencies.  Who are you to the Russians, the Chinese, the French, the Mexicans, the Australians, the veterans, the farmers, the business owners, the military, the governors, the teachers, the Congress?  The list is endless.  Our problem is that we don’t know what persona Mr. Trump will craft to meet all these conflicting expectations.  Every president is shaped by the office.  Mr. Trump will be no exception.  The problem is, the way he shifts positions, we have no clear picture of what president Trump will really be.  The problem for Mr. Trump may be that since he cannot craft a persona to appeal to each group, and he cannot find one persona they all like, he will fail to receive the adulation he so greatly craves.  Without that, he may find the office of president distinctly distasteful to the point of departure.  On the other hand, he has the ability to craft personas.

All Things Great and Small.  Mr. Trump has a very large ego.  You need one to run for president because campaigns are brutal.  Unfortunately, Mr. Trump also has a weak ego.  A large weak ego is a liability because it makes the person easy to manipulate.  If you are going to have a large ego, it needs to be strong (as in calmly self-assured, not arrogant).  We know Mr. Trump has a large ego from his own references to how great he is and the publicity he seeks (advocating the “birther” movement is one easy example of attention seeking).  We know he has a weak ego because of his reactions during the debates and from his  Twitter responses whenever someone criticizes him.  As Harry Truman remarked, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”  Mr. Trump is now chef-in-chief and the kitchen of the presidency is unlike anything he has ever encountered.  When you are the chief executive of your own business, people do things your way.  When you hold political office, everyone wants to do things their own ways.  Unless you can line up enough ducks by the careful use of power and persuasion, you do not get what you want.  President Obama’s last six years are testimony to that.  Being the bully on the block will barely budge a bureaucracy.  Ironically, that bureaucratic anchor may be what keeps the Trump ship of state from straying too far off its historic course.

HUGE!  Mr. Trump likes big projects.  He takes on debt.  He is a risk taker - especially with other people’s money.  Put these together and you will see him propose massive programs that require increased government spending.  It never got much play in the press during the campaign, but if you listened closely at times, you heard that both Hillary and Donald had agendas that significantly increased spending and the national debt -- his even more than hers.  Since Mr. Trump will be spending our money and not his, we can expect him to promise us “HUGE” things.  If he can reform the tax code to increase government revenue and not decrease it, he may be able to pay for his programs; otherwise our debt problem will get worse.  He’ll take the credit for a major boost in infrastructure and we will be paying for it forever.  We do need the infrastructure improvements, but we also need a responsible way to fund them.  Let's see what happens.

Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Stick.
  Mr. Trump’s style is over-the-top oratory.  If he does it, it is GREAT.  If someone else does the same thing it may be merely OK.  If you are Mr. Trump’s pick for a cabinet post, you are WONDERFUL.  If you are an existing administration office holder, you are stupid.  This reshaping of the world is not a sign of balanced thinking.  His willingness to make bold statements and then double down on them when they are proven wrong did not hurt him during the campaign.  It will be devastating if it comes from a president.  Every little action is analyzed by other persons or countries looking for any subtle message.  Diplomacy requires both boldness and subtlety.  Mr. Trump may provide us with the first extreme example in modern history where the president had only one of those characteristics.  The result of missing subtlety is hurt feelings, misunderstanding, and conflict.  The phone call Mr Trump accepted from the president of Taiwan (and the response from China) is just the first of what promises to be a string of diplomatic missteps from Mr. Trump.  A bad Tweet may set off an international incident - a historical first we can do without.  (Since I first wrote this, Mr. Trump tweeted about expanding our nuclear arsenal -- a reversal of decades of arms reductions.)

Ethics or Legalities.  Mr. Trump is ethically challenged.  His treatment of contractors on his projects, his misleading pitch for Trump University, his bankruptcies that left other investors holding the bag all point to a man who is more than willing to put his interests ahead of everyone else.  This is becoming all too apparent as he inserts his family into the affairs of the presidency.  While Mr. Trump will not do anything illegal, that is not the standard for a president’s behavior.  We expect more than legal compliance, we expect a moral and ethical examplar for our country.  (Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton being the poster children for the opposite of what we want.)  The president is a role model.  Mr. Trump appears to either not appreciate or not care about that aspect of the office.  Yet.

The Smartest Guys in the Room.  Mr. Trump is apparently not prone to listen to others.  He may be better at that in private than it appears in public, but he seems to be an autocratic leader.  If you consider yourself the smartest guy in the room (“I know more than the generals”), why listen to anyone else?  Autocrats, when they have a firm grasp on reality and a good moral compass, can be visionary leaders.  They can push and prod an organization to a greatness its members cannot envision for themselves.  Think Steve Jobs and Apple.  But autocrats can also be despots.  They suck up all the power and make all the decisions.  Everyone else becomes a pawn in an autocrat’s game.  That usually ends badly as the pawns often collectively know more than the king.  Think Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Picking Up the Reality Check.  Mr. Trump seems capable of dismissing proven reality.  Global climate change is an easy  example.  There is irrefutable evidence of melting arctic ice and glaciers around the globe.  That water raises the ocean level.  A high ocean means more coastal flooding.  It is so obvious that our own Navy is concerned about its bases being compromised by climate change.  What causes the ice to melt?  Warmer temperatures.  What causes that?  Greenhouse gases - mainly carbon dioxide and methane.  Blame power plants, industry, and cars for the carbon dioxide.  Blame cows for the methane.  Yes, those billions of burgers served came after the cows belched out tons of methane on their way to the bun.  The physics of man-made climate change and its effects are as basic and undeniable as the inside of a car heating up in the sun.  What about all those jobs that went to China and Mexico?  Did they really?  Some certainly did, but many more disappeared as a result of automation right here in America.  We have fewer manufacturing jobs, but produce more goods than before.  We substituted equipment for labor and cost ourselves employment in the process.  Blaming a foreign country makes for good speeches, but not recognizing the reality makes for poor policy.  A president who can ignore or twist reality will not make correct decisions.  Not everything is a matter of opinion.  Many issues rest on a factual reality.  It remains to be seen how much Mr. Trump lives in world of his own make-believe versus a real one.

Frustration.  Mr. Trump will find himself restrained and frustrated by factors beyond his control.  Autocrats crave control and Mr. Trump will be vexed enormously when he cannot get his way.  The government bureaucracy with its slow and creaky movement will stymie his attempts at rapid change.  Career civil servants have little to fear in opposing political office holders.  Executive power peters out the further down the chain of command it goes.  Mr. Trump will be frustrated by foreign powers, both friendly and unfriendly.  Nations have their own agendas.  Unless Mr. Trump can manifest unseen behaviors for diplomacy and collaboration, he will find he cannot force his agenda on our allies and certainly not on our opponents.  Lashing out at the opposition, as he has done, will only intensify his problems and ours.

Push My Button, Please.  Lastly, Mr. Trump may end up being one of the most manipulated presidents of our time while thinking he is in charge.  A large, but weak, ego needs constant feeding.  It will not take long for leaders of all stripes to figure this out.  Foreign countries will stroke that ego to gain his favorable opinion and favorable treatment.  Businesses may do likewise.  Wall Street will certainly sweeten the pot for the president.  Because he enjoys personal gain so much, even the specter of unethical dealing will not hamper his actions so long as they are not overtly illegal.  Mr. Trump’s play book does not come from a hymnal.  It comes from the volumes of legal codes lining the walls of attorneys.  The fair-dealing folks of the heartland will eventually find this behavior repugnant.

Available Options.  What will Donald Trump be as president?  Will he be the opportunistic, egotistical, risk taking, ethically challenged, abrasive, autocratic loose cannon with his finger on the nuclear trigger?   Will he be the champion of the working class, the fixer of the economy, the protector of the nation, the savior of the inner cities, the reformer of the tax code, the builder of the great wall?

In the end, Donald J. Trump may not be the president anyone expected.

He will not deliver on many of the promises he made to those who elected him.  Much of what he promised is simply not possible, let alone advisable.  Hillary will not go to jail.  Mexico will not build a wall.  Illegal immigrants will not be deported in large numbers.  ISIS will not be swiftly ground into the desert dust.  Jobs will not stop going overseas.  By the same token, he will not be the scourge his opposition fears.  Bureaucracy and the balance of powers inherent in our government will hobble his attempts to eliminate Obamacare.  It may change (as it needs to), but its elements will not all disappear.  The environment will not get raped.  Coal will not suddenly be burned in power plants because many coal plants have been decommissioned or irreversibly changed to natural gas.  He will make change, but more slowly and less drastically than he advertises.  The one place Mr. Trump may actually tip the scales is in his appointments to the Supreme Court.  That remains to be seen. 

The greatest danger of all will be if Mr. Trump subverts the operation of legitimate government agencies to harass or exact revenge on his opposition or perceived enemies or to advance his personal interests.  A personality that cannot distinguish the appropriate limits to executive power will pose the most dangerous challenge our republic has seen in a very long time.

The End and the Beginning.  The election is over and the unknown is upon us.  Will the real Donald Trump please stand up?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Election Reflections & Some History

Election Reflections

The vote is in. Hillary won. Oops, no she didn’t. Donald did. Electorally that is. Such is our system. This post is a reflection on how that system is working.

The Politics of Personality

The election was a battle of personas, not policies, and on that score Trump had more appeal across a wider geographic area giving him the electoral victory. Forget how the system works for a moment, and you can predict that a presidential election will be won by the person with the stronger popular appeal as a person (e.g., Bush vs. Gore, Obama vs. Romney). It’s captured in the question of "Who would you rather have a beer with?" Clinton was rational and restrained. Trump was erratic and bombastic. Trump got more than twice as much free press coverage as Clinton by being Trump. His energy captured the feelings of his followers. Despite being a billionaire, people felt he understood them better than Clinton.

Feelings - Winners and Losers

There is a mix of satisfaction and angst in the country. 

Satisfaction is from the Trump supporters who think they got what they voted for. They seem happy to have sent the message that politics as usual is no longer popular. They also sent the message that white, lower and middle class urban and rural America still exists. Its power has not been replaced yet by a multi-cultural, bi coastal, and urban power base. Tired of a media that has overlooked them in favor of minority groups from blacks, to Hispanics, to the LGBTQ community, they appeared from behind the corn rows, coal mines, and car assembly lines and went to the polls.

Angst comes from everyone else who is afraid of what they think they got. Hillary Clinton wasn’t Bill Clinton. She lacked the charisma and the political savvy to ingratiate herself to enough of the voters outside of the urban and coastal Democratic strongholds. She could not pull the same level of support from the nonwhite community as a woman that Barack Obama did as a black man. Even the gender card did not seem to play in her favor as strongly as the black card did for Obama. Getting people to vote for her because she wasn’t Donald Trump was not enough either, although many people undoubtedly voted for her because of whom she was and what she stood for. And finally, her tendency toward secrecy and skirting the rules that gave rise to her email server problems confirmed that she was at least suspect, if not downright untrustworthy. The tiger just couldn’t change the stripes on her pant’s suit.

This was an election that a majority of people were unhappy with from the start. They did not like either candidate. Now that one has won, he can’t expect to be welcomed to the office with open arms, particularly after the nasty, character attacking campaign that was waged by both sides. When you sling mud in the campaign, you end up with some of it sticking around afterward. The fact the electoral and popular vote did not align only makes matters worse. This was going to be a bitter win/lose election where the losers on either side would not shrug it off easily. If Clinton had won, the streets would probably have Trump supporters marching down them.

Never mind the temporary "make nice" rhetoric from the Democrats and fellow Republicans, there is enough animosity around Donald Trump for partisan politics to obstruct his agenda in the same fashion Obama suffered. Remember that Obama had a Democratic Congress for his first two years and then was stonewalled for the next six by a Republican one. The same thing is likely to happen with Trump if the Democrats prevail in the midterm elections. Bill and Hillary Clinton aren’t going to fade into the political woodwork and that spells trouble for Trump.

The Electoral College

So long as the national popular vote tally and the Electoral College results produce the same winner, few people care about this aspect of our system of government. When they don’t line up, it gives fuel to an argument about its contemporary relevance. That’s what we have now.

To appreciate the Electoral College requires a journey back in time to the drafting of the Constitution. It was drafted in the summer of 1787 at the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia and was ratified in May of 1790. Included in it was the provision for the Electoral College (later amended with the 12th Amendment in 1800). Why not just make the election a popular vote and leave it at that? Obviously the framers had something on their minds.

As we consider that, keep in mind there were differing opinions about the power of the states vs. the federal government, about slavery, about taxation, and about a standing army vs. state militias. There were no political parties yet, but the different philosophies of government from which they would arise were firmly in place. The views of Jefferson and Hamilton would come to be the positions around which the two-party system would emerge.

The writing of the Constitution was an experiment in creating a new form of government. It entailed a huge risk, a leap of faith that people could wisely govern themselves. People deserved freedom, but could they handle the responsibility? In addition, the states were jockeying for influence in a federal government. Prior to this time, they were independent colonies or separate states bound by the looser Articles of Confederation. The Constitution was a replacement for the Articles which had proved inadequate for sustaining a unified government.

A big problem was how much representation each state would have in the federal government. The northern states were more trade and commerce focused, the southern ones were agricultural. Slavery was legal in seven states from New York southward (excluding Pennsylvania). The South had the greater number of actual slaves. But, slaves weren’t citizens so the South was at a disadvantage when counting population for representation. Getting all the states into a union required compromises based on political necessity at the expense of moral rectitude. The greater good was the union, the evil it took to achieve it was leaving slavery in place and counting slaves as 3/5 of a person for representation in Congress.

It is essential to note that the issue of slavery and representation was not focused on the creation of the Electoral College. It was focused on the creation of the Senate and the House of Representatives. To assert that slavery was the reason for the Electoral College is to overlook the fact that the College is based on the Congress, not the other way around. Once the basis for allocating seats in Congress was settled, it provided a starting point for how to configure the Electoral College. Balancing the states’ power in picking a president was more easily dealt with by using a previously agreed upon balance of representation.

Why do that? The small states were afraid of being overpowered by the large states. Who were those small states? The ones in the South? No. In the fourth U.S. Congress, the five smallest states based on the number of representatives in the House were: Delaware (1), Vermont (2), Rhode Island (2), New Hampshire (4) and New Jersey (5). By these states having the same number of senators as the larger states, their relative power was protected. The process was a way to balance power based on population (the House) with power based on statehood (the Senate). While counting slaves was a way to increase the relative power of the Southern states in the House which made them ‘less small’ population-wise, there were five Northern states that needed the same protection.

We see a similar dynamic today when the Democrats typically win seats on the heavily populated coasts and urban centers, while the Republicans win the wide geographic area of the nation’s center. How do you balance geography and population? How do you balance the equality of states with each other as independent states, yet take into account the inequality of populations? The answer is the Senate and the House of Representatives - the U.S. Congress. It is from that structure the Electoral College derives. If the Congress is a fair and workable arrangement, then so is the College. If the College is not, then neither is the Congress.

But there’s more to the story. Here we return to the question of whether the new leaders could trust the judgment of the people. Not all of them were convinced. Some feared that the people could be led astray by a demagogue or even by a foreign power such as England or France. By inserting the Electoral College between the popular vote and the final appointing of a president, the system gained a check and balance against a democracy run amok. The framers went so far as to spell out that government officials could not become electors as a way to prevent tainting the College. Over the years, their intent for an independent but faithful elector has slowly been morphed into one where electors are political party functionaries. That fact virtually guarantees that an elector will not change his/her vote from the results in his/her state.

In all the elections that have been held, there are only 157 "faithless electors" who did not follow their state votes. Seventy-one of them changed votes when a candidate died between the election and the voting of the electors - they wouldn’t vote for a dead man! Since 1900, only ten electors have not adhered to the state results and in no case did it alter the electoral college outcome. There was a big dust-up for the election of Rutherford B. Hayes vs. Tilden in 1876 when both parties in four states claimed victory. That left 20 electoral votes in limbo - just enough to tip the balance from Tilden to Hayes. The parties brokered a deal that put Hayes in office. The problem was not with the Electoral College, it was with the election results themselves in four states.

Today, in a presidential election in Tennessee, you do not actually vote for the candidate even though his/her name is on the ballot. You actually vote for the electors the candidate has picked to represent him/her in the Electoral College. Those electors are hand-picked party members whose loyalty to the candidate should be unquestionable. They are not a group of independent-minded citizens as was probably the intent of the framers of the Constitution. As a result, it is highly unlikely the Electoral College vote would ever deviate from the state results (national results are different).

 Furthermore, the system has become a "winner-take-all" electoral vote in all states but two. This has the effect of exaggerating the electoral vote margin of victory compared to the popular vote in each state and the nation. It also created this year’s conundrum of the electoral winner and the popular winner being different. Once a candidate wins a state, even by the thinnest of margins, running up a large popular vote in the state is meaningless as far an electoral victory is concerned. A candidate’s strategy must be to capture states, not just votes. If each state allocated its electoral votes based on its popular vote (as do Maine and Nebraska), the electoral and popular votes would align more closely.

So is the Electoral College outdated and should it be dropped in favor of a national popular vote winner? That is the same argument the framers of the Constitution faced more than 200 years ago. The reasons for and against remain pretty much the same and the right answer just as elusive. Each choice has its own inherent problems. It is wise to keep in mind that changing a system to solve one apparent problem can give rise to new problems that could not appear in the old system. This is especially true when removing a check in a check-and-balance system.

Hillary Clinton has won the popular vote with a margin of about 670,000 votes out of 121,410,000 as of mid November - that’s a margin of one half of one percent (0.55%). If the will of the people (as evidenced by the popular vote) determined the outcome, we would have Hillary Clinton as president-elect (ditto for Al Gore in 2000). Democrats seem to be on the losing side of the Electoral College system. There is no arguing that. But, an election is like a battle. One side can field more troops, but if they are deployed in the wrong locations, a smaller force can overcome them. What Clinton achieved in numbers, she lost to strategy.

For those people lamenting the unfairness of the Electoral College, it might be well to ask these questions.

1. If the outcome of this election were reversed, and Trump had the popular vote and Clinton the Electoral win, what would their respective supporters be saying? Would Democrats still want the popular vote to prevail? Would Trump supporters be shouting "Rigged?"

2. Should Congress be reconfigured because it uses the same structure?

3. Should the Democratic party eliminate "super delegates?" These delegates (15% of the total at the DNC) skewed the nomination in favor of Clinton at the expense of Bernie Sanders.

It is difficult to imagine denouncing the Electoral College as a misrepresentation without doing the same thing for the Democratic party’s nominating process. The super delegates gave the Democrats a safety valve to pick an establishment candidate. The Republicans lacked such a feature - and look what happened. It’s not enough to look at just the election, we must also look at the process that produces the candidates that run in the election. That process seems sadly flawed in both parties judging by the rampant distaste for both candidates.

To wrap up the Electoral College debate, let’s note that the election process is clearly spelled out. Everyone knows the rules whether they like them or not. So to win, you play by the rules. Changing the rules is another story, and to do that requires one of three things:

A. Amend the Constitution.

B. Have each state allocate its electoral votes on the basis of that the state’s popular vote.

C. Have all states sign a compact that requires their electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote. Some states have already done this with the provision it only goes into effect when all states sign it.

Would changing the Electoral College really matter? When the margin of popular vote victory is very small, it means that both candidates have nearly equal claim to govern. What mathematically may look like a clear cut win, is realistically not much of a win at all. This is one reason the nation remains so politically divided and resentful. When you lose by a large margin, you know you are licked. When you lose by a small one, you feel like you are ticked. Sports victories by one point and political victories by one point are not the same at all.

If you want to change the Electoral College, write to your representative in your state legislature.

The Candidate Conundrum

As a last observation on the election, we should look at how we got the two candidates we did, why we did not have better ones to choose from, and how one so unpopular got elected. (That’s not just a personal view, polling indicated widespread unfavorability ratings for both Trump and Clinton.) 

The blame rests in several places. The primary one is "we, the people." The second one is "the media." The third one is the two major parties.

It takes someone with an exceptionally large and durable ego to withstand running for president. Why is that? It is caused by the opposition digging up as much dirt as possible to discourage voters from choosing the other candidate; by the people being willing to listen to and react to that dirt; by the media being accomplices in dishing the dirt out to the public and even digging some of it up themselves. That is not to say that we should not know about the relevant negatives of candidates. However, that seems to be all we know anymore.

Discussions of policy and philosophy of governing were largely absent from this election. Most of what occurred was a discussion of how unfit the other candidate was. While that’s not new to presidential politics, it reached a contemporary low in this election. "I Like Ike" and "Jail the Bitch" are poles apart. Wedged in between the negative narrative were unrealistic promises for programs that would inflate the national debt way beyond its current level - true for both candidates. As the voting public, we were short changed.

The press has an obligation to inform the electorate, not merely pass on the propaganda of each campaign. Sadly, the press has fallen prey to something called "false equivalency" where any point of view is treated with nearly equal credibility, no matter how irrational it may be. While the press may feel it is up to the opposition to provide the counter point, the press itself must play the role of a "prudent man" in its reporting. Instead, it panders to a population whose taste for the hype of reality TV is spoiling its appetite for real information.

How did we get to this place? We can blame the dumbing down of America on an antiquated and overburdened educational system that graduates ignorant voters. The greatest protection for a democracy is a well educated and well informed electorate. We are failing on both counts. When ignorant, ill-informed people vote, the results reflect it. Neither party has a monopoly on this. There are red-neck Republicans and dumb Democrats. The answer is not to restrict who votes, but to create voters who can better assess the candidates, their platforms, and their promises. It is a press that fact checks and sorts what it prints, not based on partisan views, but on what is factually and logically correct. A strong editorial page and op ed columns go hand-in-hand with good journalism in the news section. BS needs called out, not shoveled out. If we are to make America great again, this is the place to start. The responsibility to make a judicious choice is connected to the right to make that choice - to vote.

Demise of the Two-Party System

Finally, we are coming to the point in American politics where the two-party system is beginning to fall apart. Europe is already there. Our country is splitting along numerous lines whether they are based on class, race, generation, income, education, or geography. The tents of the parties can no longer cover them all. The right is too far right, the left too far left and the middle left uncovered as the right and left pull the fabric of their parties’ tents away from the center. There is ample room for a more central-thinking, compromise-governing party to arise. Instead of other parties like the Libertarian and Green parties appearing farther on the fringe of right and left, the time is ripe for a party in the middle that is fiscally responsible and socially tolerant. All it lacks is a charismatic leader to emerge. Until that happens, and even afterward, the two main parties will continue to splinter internally and fail to govern effectively even when they hold a majority of Congress. This is because the "majority" itself is no longer homogenous. Just ask John Boehner. 

With the parties falling apart, negative campaigning the force-de-jour, a hesitant press, and an educationally eroded electorate, we can only expect government to get worse with each future election. Potentially good candidates will not apply because of the personal cost to themselves and their families of being scrutinized and criticized for every character flaw, mistake, or rethought position during their lifetimes. All of this is now magnified through the unprecedented help of unrestrained, fact-free, social media. The parties will present us with poor alternatives, the press will feed us titillating but irrelevant information, and everyone will reinforce his/her preconceptions by listening to the media outlet that offers reassurance they are right.

If this sounds pessimistic, it is.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Presidential Election - 2016 - First Debate Prologue

Tonight there will be promises by each candidate on what he or she will single-handedly do to make our country great again together (that’s a bipartisan combination). The way government works is a bit more complicated. While we all know this, I wanted to add some personal perspective to the mix.

Bills that will become laws originate in the House of Representatives. If passed, they move to the Senate for additional approval. If passed by the Senate, they go to the President for signature or veto. If signed into law, they are subject to challenge by affected parties who can pursue the case all the way to the Supreme court where the law can be upheld or struck down. If vetoed, the veto can be overridden by the Congress if two-thirds of both houses support the legislation. Nowhere in this process does the President have single-handed control.

Presidents, however, do exert a powerful influence. FDR did it in the depression through legislation and his "fireside chats." Reagan reinvigorated America’s sense of pride after Nixon and Carter. Bush gave us the Iraq war. Obama championed the Affordable Care Act. In the cases of FDR and Obama, Congress cooperated with the necessary legislation. This often requires that the same party control both the Office of the President and both houses of Congress (which Obama had for his first two years). Lacking control of both branches, it requires a sensible President and enough sensible members of Congress to collaborate and negotiate effective legislation - something that has been in seemingly short supply of late.

What’s this mean for the current election? Several things. If the new President and the Congress are the same party, odds of the President doing what he or she wants are higher - some of what we hear tonight may come true. Without that, gridlock may limit the President to "executive orders" (Obama’s predicament for the last six years). The new president will have the power, with the consent of Congress, to appoint new Supreme Court justices whose personal leanings will affect the interpretation and enforcement of laws for many future years. However, here again, there is a check and balance between the executive and legislative branches. The framers of the Constitution gave us a robust system for governance. All it requires are the right players. That’s why our votes matter so much, because we pick the team, not just the quarterback.

While the candidates will be looking for our votes, we must remember that much of the control of our government rests with both houses of Congress. It behoves us to scrutinize whom we will elect to Congress this year and in future years. Each individual choice for a representative or senator may not look significant, but collectively it is. Real change in government may come at least as much from changing Congress as electing a President. This is a good year for everyone to look very closely at all our choices (and that includes state and local government as well).

Not paid for by anyone, so no one approved this message.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What Matters Most for America - Part 1 of 5: What’s Good and What’s Not.

I am deeply dismayed by the lack of attention to the long-range items that will determine the future of our nation.  In the last several decades, we have become a more polarized nation focused on divisive social issues.  We have taken identities as Republicans, Democrats, or Tea Partiers and lost sight of being Americans.  Because of this myopia, issues clearly on the horizon that have huge significance are getting minimal attention.  The cost of this oversight may be our global preeminence.

Let’s start with the fiction that “America is the greatest country on earth.”  It was, and in some areas it still is.  But, this is no longer an across-the-board truth.  We can no longer pat ourselves on our collective backs for our past achievements.  Where are we great today and where are we losing our claim to greatness?

Our freedoms, rights as citizens, and personal protections enforced through our government are as good as or better than any nation’s.  In that we can take pride.  In large measure, our sense of doing right for other peoples in other nations has little parallel.  When there is a global disaster, the world looks to America to lead the way.  Our military strength is still far above that of any nation.  We have been blessed by abundant natural resources, water, arable land, and a temperate climate (all of which we have taken for granted).  Despite the great recession, we have one of the world's strongest economies.  I’ve traveled the world and I am always happy to come home to the USA.  It has its flaws, but on balance it is still a great place to live.

Unfortunately, that great place is eroding.   Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, France, Spain, England, China, the Incas and the Aztecs, all peaked and declined.  We could follow them into history unless we end the magical thinking that our looming problems will get solved by ignoring them.  Here are some nation-sized issues that must be addressed if we are not going to slide into history as a once-great nation. 

    National fatness.
    Mediocre educational performance.
    Sustainable future energy sources.
    Water resources and utilization.
    Climate change and sea level rise.
    Deteriorating infrastructure.
    Governmental fiscal discipline.
    Needs of an aging population.

What Matters Most for America - Part 2 of 5: Fatness and Education

Let’s begin with the old expression “fat, dumb, and happy.”

As a nation, we are fat.  We lead the world in obesity - 30% of us are obese and 40% of us are overweight.  Obese people get sick more often driving up the need for health care services.  What’s worse, obesity is plaguing our young people.  How will these people take care of the rising number of old people?  Clearly, a large segment of the population follows a lifestyle that is unhealthy.  We have overindustrialized our food processing.  We have put too much “fast food” on every corner.  We have “upsized” our serving sizes and our waistlines.  We are telling ourselves that being overweight is normal.  Are we nuts? 

We have created a culture of “death by convenience.”  How ironic is it that everyday life has become less physically demanding to the point that we must drive to a gym to burn calories by walking on a treadmill?  Physical activity inherent in daily living has gone down while emotional stress has gone up.  The 30% of us who have a normal weight are able to live a more “fat free” lifestyle so it can be done.  While fatness is a national problem, it can only be solved by individual resolve and action.  The war on fat must be fought on the home front:  in the grocery store, in the kitchen, on the playground, and by exercising in the neighborhood or gym.

The dumbing down of America has been going on for some time.  Part of this is illustrated in how we have managed to simplify tasks to make it easier for less-educated people to do jobs (e.g., cash registers now calculate change).  The test scores of our students compared to other countries have been sliding downward.  We fall in the mid range for industrialized nations.  An educated populace is a cornerstone of both democracy and global competitiveness.  A nation with creeping ignorance falls prey to demagogues and its internal politics veer off track.  A nation with creeping ignorance is unable to do the high-tech, high-skilled jobs that provide high wages.  The result is an impoverished underclass who live in an affluent society while they compete against workers earning third-world wages.  Education is an enabler of success and upward economic mobility and we are struggling to make it work for us in the modern age.

Education in America has long been a local matter.  Local school boards make decisions about school financing and administration.  Judging school performance was often a matter of making comparisons within the county, or maybe the state.  Now there are national standards.  Why?  Because educational performance is a key to national strength.  It’s no longer good enough to be better than the state next door.  We must be better than every country on earth. 

Every child is unique and we need a system that identifies that uniqueness and is tailored to it.  We need the fortitude and the mechanisms that advance a child when he or she has mastered material, not when he is another year older.  We need two parent homes where the parents read to their kids instead of single parents working second jobs to make ends meet.  We need every household to instill the educational work ethic that produces scholarship, not mere attendance.  Schools cannot do what parents will not do.  Education begins at home.  We need a national effort to drive that point home and facilitate its happening.

We need to afford education the priority and funding that we do our defense budget, because in the 21st century, a skilled and intelligent population will be our ultimate defense.  If that sounds far fetched, it’s not.  The military has already had to compromise its physical and educational  selection standards because of the decline in both among young people.  Without skilled labor to support skilled jobs and higher pay, our economy will falter.  A failing economy means weaker tax revenues which means pressure on all forms of government spending, including the military.  A country whose citizenry is physically and educationally weak is militarily weak as well.

Are we happy about this?  I hope not, but we seem to be almost stupified into accepting it as the status quo.  At some point, the healthy and educated people are going to get tired of paying for the social benefits of the uneducated, underemployed, overweight, sickly people.  We may ultimately see a societal split between the responsible have’s and the irresponsible have not’s.  The have’s will want the have not’s to shape up and act responsibly.  The have not’s will want the nicer homes and better incomes of the have’s and will seek to redistribute that wealth to themselves through government social programs.  A nation does not lift itself up by pulling down those at the top.