Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 February 2018

The Dysfunctional States of America

[For an update with comment on how gun massacres reflect our national dysfunction, click here. For a note on how to do good by doing well and taking profits, click here. For seven reasons for us to deploy small nukes, click here. For comment on our desperate need to save the Dreamers, click here. For my prediction of a coming stock-market crash, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Rarely does a single day produce three compelling proofs of national dysfunction. But it happened to us yesterday. If this keeps up, and if we can’t stem the tide, we will no longer be the United States of America. Instead, we will become the Dysfunctional States of America.

Our Founders had no idea how our pols would twist the great compromise that is our Constitution into the most dysfunctional form of “democracy” imaginable. In Article 1, Section 5, they let “[e]ach House . . . determine the Rules of its Proceedings . . . .” Little did they suspect that, two and a quarter centuries later, each House would adopt rules abolishing majority rule and conducing to anarchy.

But that’s exactly what happened. In a divided House of Representatives like today’s, the so-called “Hastert Rule” allows a small minority of around 25% of the whole House to block any bill from debate, let alone adoption. The Senate allows any single member to delay to death any bill or appointment (except of judges of lower courts) with a so-called “hold.”

And the Senate’s filibuster rule, originally intended just to provide delay for debate and deliberation, has morphed into a veto by senatorial minority. In this new century we have used it at 142 times the rate prevailing in the period 1917 to 1972—a period of intense national stress that included parts or all of both world wars, the civil rights and sexual revolutions, the Cold War that nearly extinguished our species, and our wars in Korea and Vietnam.

So what happened yesterday is disappointing, but no surprise. Resolving an issue like immigration, with several aspects and strong views on all sides, is harder than just agreeing to give away money for different purposes, not all of which all members of Congress support equally.

The Senate failed to pass any compromise bill by a filibuster-proof majority, thereby showing dysfunction in two ways. First, no group of sixty senators could agree to give up enough of members’ ideal wish lists to create common ground. No such group could even agree to focus on the two most important issues—keeping the Dreamers from being deported and strengthening border security—and let the other two (family and diversity-lottery immigration) wait for another day.

During the seventies, a caricature of hedonistic and self-centered Baby Boomers had them proclaiming “I want it all now!” Little did anyone suspect that that cartoonish worldview would become the guiding philosophy of our Senate when Baby Boomers took over. We might have predicted it from the fact that Baby Boomers are the most heedlessly selfish and pampered generation ever. But no one did.

Another depressing facet of the Senate’s failure to compromise is an appalling failure of logic and common sense. Any executive, manager or competent ordinary person (in his or her own life) handles the most urgent and important matters first. The most urgent and important aspect of the current immigration debate is the Dreamers’ uncertain status and imminent risk of deportation.

No other aspect even comes close. Deportation of Dreamers will disrupt their lives, their families’ lives, and our economy. It will do so from the moment deportation begins.

Some deported Dreamers will suffer violence and even murder by criminals and gangs, especially in Central America. Many will lose the benefits and opportunity of their education in English. Some will become disoriented and despairing and turn to drink, drugs or crime. For many, these falls from grace will be permanent and irreversible.

Depending on whose count you take, there are about 700,000 of them, whom Obama protected by executive order, or 1.8 million, whom Trump publicly claimed to want to protect. Either way, it would take several years of illegal immigration to match that level of human carnage. Surely that’s enough time for Congress to address the rest of the whole problem, let alone Trump’s “four pillars.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s constant anti-immigrant tirades and restrictive executive orders have reduced the flow of illegal immigration to its lowest levels in decades. There is no risk of an immediate explosion if debate delays enhancing border security.

As for legal immigration, it’s only an expectation, not a reality, until it actually happens. So a delay in addressing the subject, whether to increase or reduce the flow, will hardly be catastrophic or irreversible.

It takes years to acquire citizenship. In the meantime, those who want to stop the flow of legal immigrants can revoke or deny green cards and visas. Those who want to expand it will merely have to require those foreigners who’ve waited years to wait a little longer. None of this comes close to the disruption of lives, fortunes and economic progress that will attend the massive deportation of Dreamers, which could begin as early as next month.

The second astonishing proof of our dysfunction came in the long and detailed indictment of Russian individuals and ventures for their “active measures” to influence our elections and destabilize our democracy. The indictment itself was no evidence of dysfunction. On the contrary, it showed the ability of our system to fight back, despite continual assaults on our organs of justice and our press from the very top of our government.

The problem is that any informed American has known of or suspected these assaults on our system for about a year. Our president has known longer, being formally informed of these attempts at least as early as his transition to the White House, and informally probably a lot earlier.

But what was our president’s response to the most thorough and detailed allegations of Russian wrongdoing? It was, in effect, to shout “it wasn’t me!”

Here, in its entirety, is Trump’s Tweety response to the indictment, which alleges the most serious attack on our way of life since Pearl Harbor and 9/11:
“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!”
We leave aside the claim of no effect on the election, which no one can verify, the indictment didn’t address, and every intelligence service of ours has explicitly refused to discuss. The whole thrust of the Tweet—“no collusion!”—is a claim that Trump himself wasn’t and isn’t guilty.

Our Constitution empowers and requires our chief executive to protect us, our way of life, our Constitution and our democracy. So what does ours do? Like a child in a roomfull of adults trying to find a lost credit card, he wails “I didn’t take it!” There is no thought—not even a feint—toward developing a response to the Russian assault on our system.

Either our president is now colluding by ignoring the assault for his own political or commercial benefit. Or he is one of Lenin’s “useful idiots,” helping the scoundrel without any idea what is going on. Either way, can you imagine anything more dysfunctional than a chief executive who refuses to recognize the existence or seriousness of an attack against us?

The third and last revelation of dysfunction yesterday was of collusion between wrongdoers in high places and our press. Reports on PBS suggest that powerful newspaper interests, include ones that control The National Enquirer, were parts of a conspiracy to keep the president’s early extramarital affair secret. When you add the president’s later reported dalliance with a porn star, you begin to see a whole system of secrecy involving lawyers, contracts, hush money, and newspapers, which are supposed to publicize bad acts by powerful people, not bury them.

The National Enquirer is hardly the heart of our Fourth Estate. It’s a British-style tabloid. Yet if the “custom” of suppressing reports of moral and legal wrongs by the rich and powerful ever infects the so-called “mainstream media,” our democracy is done.

Sunlight may indeed be the best disinfectant. But if the bosses and our news media keep the rest of us in the shade, there is no way, even in theory, that democracy can work.

So in a single day our American democracy took three big hits. Not only did our legislators fail to resolve the most burning disputed issue of the last two generations: immigration. They also failed even to analyze it as any competent business executive or head-of-household would. Our president, who thinks that everything is all about him, tossed off the most detailed public report of Russian assaults on our way of life, implicitly refusing to acknowledge it or do anything about it. And news reports showed that that selfsame president is both willing and able to use the media and all possible means to preserve his own reputation and political viability.

Trump may be right about one thing. Russian “active measures” began long ago, under the “Soviet” label and during the Cold War. They never stopped.

For many other reasons, it’s also true that our national dysfunction began long before Trump. It began at least as early as Bill Clinton smiling while signing the massive 1999 financial deregulatory bill that led directly to the Crash of 2008. It certainly began when the rate of filibustering rose to 142 times the rate during our golden age.

So Trump may be just a symbol and result of our national dysfunction, rather than a cause. If so, the propaganda war that Putin is waging against us may not be the lethal attack, only the coup de grace for a spent society.

Coda: Prayers and Condolences

Although it didn’t happen just yesterday, a fourth earmark of national dysfunction recurred earlier this week. On Wednesday a deranged kid with an AR-15 killed seventeen people and wounded at least fourteen at a school in Broward County, Florida.

That was one of more than 40 “active shooter” incidents recorded in U.S. schools since 2000—well over two per year involving kids. For victims of all ages, it was one of 1,624 mass shootings—four or more people other than the shooter shot in one incident—in 1,870 days. On average that’s one every nine or ten days.

So what did we do after a military-style assault weapon killed seventeen, mostly kids, in the latest incident? President Trump offered prayers and condolences to the victims’ families and friends, and we buried the dead.

That’s what we’ve done, as a nation, for every one of the 1,624 mass shootings that occurred in the last 5.1 years. That’s what we did for all the 307 mass shootings just last year, only to November 6.

What kind of a society is so dysfunctional that it can’t protect its own children—let alone ordinary adults—from deliberate but random murder by firearms? What kind of society allows its kids to be massacred in schools, where they go to get educated and learn to contribute to society?

Before we try to answer these questions, a few more statistics are useful. The United States, which has 4.4% of the world’s population, has 42% of the world’s guns in civilian hands [statistic 7]. As of 2016, there were 265 million such guns in America, more than one for every adult.

Only 3% of us owned nearly half those guns, with an average of 17 per person. We allow private citizens to own military-style semi-automatic assault weapons like the AR-15, which has been used in many of the most gruesome mass killings. And despite idle talk of banning them after the Las Vegas massacre, we have yet to ban “bump stocks” that can make such weapons nearly fully automatic.

Stymied by the NRA and those 3% with nearly half the guns, we have no effective laws to stop the growing scourge of mass shootings. And we recently made it easier for mentally ill people to acquire weapons.

What kind of dysfunctional society allows this to happen? Do people with only two hands need seventeen guns? Does anyone need an AR-15 to kill a deer, or to stop a burglar? And isn’t it hard to carry an AR-15 on your person, let alone concealed?

Imagine that we had a functional society not in thrall to the NRA and the gun lobby. Imagine that we didn’t have to genuflect to an “industry” that, in our gigantic economy, barely moves the needle of our GDP. What would we do if we were as serious about stopping random, senseless domestic terrorism as we are about foreign-inspired terrorism by Islamic extremists?

We might do four simple things. First, we would keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. We would do so by requiring universal background checks and making selling any gun to a blacklisted individual both a criminal and civil offense. People knowingly making such sales could go to prison, and survivors of victims of the guns they sell illegally could sue them and their businesses for wrongful death.

Second, we could ban the sale of military-style semi-automatic assault weapons to any civilian, under similar penalties. On conviction, we could fine businesses millions, send knowing controlling persons to prison, and shut repeat offenders down. We could allow victims’ families to recover damages for wrongful death or negligence, just as we do for other kinds of unreasonably dangerous products.

Third, we could ban the sale of high-capacity magazines and explosive and “cop-killing” ammo, under similar rules. You don’t need these things to hunt or to protect your family from burglary, robbery or assault by armed individuals. You do need them to commit mayhem.

Finally, in order to get existing banned weapons and ammo out of circulation, we could hold a nationwide amnesty to recover and destroy them, as Australia recently did successfully. We could even provide powerful monetary incentives to get them off our streets.

Suppose, for example, that there are a million AR-15s in circulation in the US today. We might buy up and destroy most of them by offering $10,000 in exchange for each one, no questions asked. That’s a total of $10 billion to save our kids and the rest of us from becoming victims.

We recently spent $1.5 trillion on tax breaks that go mostly to corporations and the rich. Think we might spend 1/150th that much to save our kids and stop this scourge?

But we can’t even begin to discuss these practical, sensible measures because the NRA and its lobbyists hold our pols in thrall. They do so by inciting the 3% who hold half the guns with paranoid fantasies and delusions of personal omnipotence. They make gun owners think that the government (or Obama, in his day) is coming to get their guns. They make them believe that practicing for an hour a month at a shooting range will turn them into skilled and practiced killers, the equivalent of our Navy Seals.

By deluding these voters, they make otherwise good Republicans and Democrats in purple districts fear even to whisper the words “gun control.” How better to demonstrate what a dysfunctional a society we have become, than to allow a relatively unimportant industry to sell, unimpeded, dangerous products with which deranged people routinely kill us at random?

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