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).

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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.

What Matters Most for America - Part 3 of 5: Energy, Water, and Climate Change

We are complacent about our energy supplies.  We rely on fossil fuels for much of our energy.  Every time there is a shortage of supply, we worry about energy.  As soon as that particular situation resolves, we become complacent again.  The advent of fracking to release natural gas, and the discovery of more oil beneath North Dakota, make it easy to feel comfortable today.  The inescapable truth is that hydrocarbons are ultimately finite.  Eventually they will be used up.   It may take 100 years, but the day will come when the last oil well runs dry and the last gas well sputters out.  The nation that prepares for that day will be the one that survives into the post hydrocarbon future.  Long-term energy sufficiency is a strategic national issue.  Only nuclear and renewable sources of energy will be available in the long run.  We must increase these sources of energy and develop more efficient ways of using energy to match both supply and demand.   It takes a national research and development effort to do so.

Just as energy is finite, so is water.  We get that water from three sources: rainfall, groundwater, desalinization.  Rainfall is irregular from year-to-year.  Droughts can appear and last a decade or longer.  The entire climate can swing through long cycles.  While we have studied nature to see how the climate has changed over thousands of years, we only have records for a few hundred years.  Climate and weather are complex systems that we are just beginning to understand.  We tend to think that climate is a fixed feature of life, like the shoreline of an ocean.  It is not.  In a country that has been “settled” for less than 200 years, we have only a limited exposure to the climate swings possible in North America.  How climate change will affect our rainfall and water supply is very much up in the air.  We need to prepare for adversity, not prosperity.  How climate is affecting Australia is worth noting because their present may be our future.

Lurking below the surface is a major water problem.  We have been pumping groundwater out of our Midwestern aquifers faster than it is being replenished.  We have been drawing down mother nature’s water savings account faster than she can make deposits.  One of these days, those water wells will run dry.  When that happens, a large section of America’s breadbasket will no longer be able to produce food as it does today.  Less food and a larger population are not a good combination.  A similar situation is occurring in California where winter snow accumulations are insufficient to supply water demands for agriculture and a growing population.  How much of this problem is random or cyclical versus permanent is hard to know, but that is no reason to delay action.  We need a long-term plan and investment in our infrastructure to ensure our water supplies and control their usage.

Climate change is an issue where opinions are divided, but not rationally so.  To borrow from a famous historical document, “We hold these truths to be self-evident...”  Hundreds of millions of years ago, nature sequestered carbon from the atmosphere into the bodies of plants and animals that were covered by sediments and compressed into coal or converted to oil and natural gas.  This process took tens of millions of years.  In a matter of a few hundred years, we will have released back into the atmosphere a significant portion of this stored carbon through the burning of fossil fuels.  We are messing with mother nature.  We have raised the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere to what is considered to be a tipping point.  That tipping point is where the earth enters a global warming cycle that will melt glaciers and the polar ice cap releasing more water into the oceans and exposing more ocean to the sun’s heat creating a self-sustaining rise in temperature.  Once the snowball starts melting, we can’t stop it. 

There is no debate that the greenhouse effect of CO2 gas is real.  While the earth has gone through numerous cycles of warming and cooling (e.g., the ice age about 15,000 years ago) without man being the cause, it is foolish to ignore the impact of man’s activity on the planet.  Regardless of what a person believes is the cause, the effect is the same - rising temperatures, rising ocean levels, agricultural disruption, and population migration.  We face a crisis in coastal communities where millions of people may be forced to relocate as water levels rise.  It will change housing, transportation, insurance costs, and personal fortunes as real estate literally goes underwater.  The time to plan and prepare is now.

What Matters Most for America - Part 4 of 5: Infrastructure, Fiscal Discipline, and the Aging Population

The infrastructure of the country is deteriorating.  We have enjoyed the benefits of an interstate highway and air transportation system that are barely more than 50 years old.  Our sewer and water systems are older.  These things are the underpinnings of modern commerce and living.  They are decaying.  Just as we can enjoy a new house without making repairs for years, we have enjoyed the benefits of these new modes of transportation.  Unless we reinvest in updating and upgrading them, we will be living with a century-old infrastructure that will break down leaving us gridlocked and uncompetitive.  Maintenance isn’t glamorous, just necessary.  We need to reinvest in the shared assets that make America run.   Most of these are managed by government.

The imbalance of spending versus tax revenue and the resulting growth in deficits and total debt for the United States is a festering long-term problem.  Fiscal collapse is an intangible issue.  Unlike easily seen potholes in a deteriorating highway, fiscal rot only is visible on an accounting ledger.  Governments can get away with spending beyond their means longer than individuals, but not forever.  As spending for social programs (Social Security, Medicare, Affordable Care Act) increases with an increasing older population and the additional of new beneficiaries, the pressure to continue deficit spending will continue. 

We are funding the present by borrowing from the future.  The big problem with that future is the number of people available to pay the bill relative to those getting benefits is going in the wrong direction.  It is a very tough decision to make, but to provide at least a minimal safety net for the most vulnerable, government spending must be curtailed.  There are hard fiscal priorities that we must determine and live by.  Financial responsibility has to become our government’s top priority, otherwise all its other programs cannot be sustained.  The government may not go out of business, but it may inflate its way out of trouble by paying old debts with cheaper, inflated dollars.  It saves itself at the expense of its citizens by using inflation as a hidden form of taxation.   It’s time to “Just Say No” to about 30% of today’s spending and to say “Yes” to about a 10% increase in taxation in order to balance our budget and reduce our debt.  We have been fiscally lazy and paying the price only gets more costly with each passing day.

The aging population is a problem that we have seen coming for a long time.  It was once a long-range problem that is now becoming a current problem.  As the baby boomers enter their golden years, the costs for Social Security and Medicare will rise.  Demands on the health care system will increase when the number of medical professionals may actually shrink.  Alzheimer’s patients requiring constant care will increase.  And, because many seniors have not managed their finances sufficiently to prepare for retirement, demands for increases to Social Security are likely to arise.  There may come a time when America wishes its old people would just die because they cost too much to keep alive. 

We need to develop today more economical ways for seniors to live and to get inexpensive health care.  We need to prepare for a society where, instead of the kids moving back in with the parents, the parents are moving back in with the kids.  We need to determine how health care dollars will be allocated so that we spend less on end-of-life treatments in order to fund care for active lives.  A healthy workforce is more essential to the nation than healthy retirees.  In the future, we will come face-to-face with an inter generational conflict for health care services and benefits.  It will force us to look at euthanasia as an option for those beyond medical help.  Such a debate will rival that of abortion and take many years to resolve.  The time to begin that discussion is now.