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

07 July 2018

A Post-Fourth Reprise

[For reasons why Trump’s trade war is headed toward a disastrous defeat, click here. For a brief note on how corporate rule is encroaching on American cities, click here. For our desperate need for voters to focus on good character, click here. For an analysis of facts and Kim’s myth about North Korea, click here. For a second post on training new voters, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Although the Fourth of July is a secular holiday, it’s not my favorite. There’s too much chauvinism, too much jingoism, too much self-congratulation and reclining on past laurels. There’s little serious reflection about our future as a people, let alone our big mistakes. That’s not what we need when our democracy, our national integrity, our global economic and political power, our science and technology, and our great experiment in human equality all seem to be slipping away.

Thanksgiving is more to my taste because it involves gratitude and humility. As noted in my many Thanksgiving messages (see, for example, this, this or this essay), gratitude is appropriate for a people whose noble cause has always been improbable, given the inbred flaws of our species. Humility is also appropriate for a people whose cause has often escaped extinction by the skin of its teeth, even at the outset of our enterprise.

We Americans need that kind of humility today. Measured against those who came before—and who once made this nation truly great—our current leaders are, at best, pitiful mediocrities. At worst, they are rotting dead fish polluting the beaches of history.

It’s not just the sycophant and would-be satrap Scott Pruitt, who, despite the many false pieties in his resignation letter, is suffering the well-deserved end of being flushed down the toilet bowl of history. It’s not just our president, whose galaxy of personal inadequacies now threatens the most consequential defeat in our national history, in his “easy to win” trade war. It’s also all the GOP regulars and business people, big and small, who—as Paul Krugman recently recounted—have deliberately sacrificed our national values on the altar of petty, transient personal or partisan advantage. It’s all of us who never think beyond the next quarterly report.

To see how far we’ve fallen from grace as a people, just compare the quality of our leaders today to those from turning points in our national history. Can President Trump, Majority Leader McConnell, Speaker Ryan, or Commerce Secretary Ross compare with Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, or Washington? Merely to ask the question is to evoke howls of derision.

We’ll skip Lincoln and the über-competent “Team of Rivals” in his cabinet. The very notion of great men fighting—not small ones coddling—the bastard philosophy of white supremacy should make us blush in shame.

But let’s look briefly at perhaps our greatest trial as a nation—our part in the global contest with the two worst military tyrannies in human history: Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We didn’t bear the greatest brunt of that war: Russia did. But we allied with nations as different as Russia and England, and we used our productive power to help them win. Then we used our newfound wealth and our intact infrastructure to help rebuild our two terrible foes into peaceful democracies. That effort was a resounding success: they now have the world’s third and fourth largest economies (after ours and China’s).

The men who led us in this trial were giants: FDR, his close adviser Harry Hopkins, and the rest of FDR’s “brain trust.” And let’s not forget our great (and great-hearted!) generals: Marshall, Eisenhower, and MacArthur. Marshall in particular developed the postwar Plan that bears his name, which helped raise Germany and Japan from the rubble of defeat to their admirable and enviable status today.

Can Trump or anyone on his team compare with these giants? Before D-Day, General Eisenhower and his colleagues had prepared an elaborate and eventually successful plan to deceive the Nazis into fearing that our make-or-break attack on Nazi-occupied Mainland Europe would come at Calais, not Normandy. The plan included vast arrays of fake ships, tanks and planes lined up in and around England. Today, we have a bunch of self-regarding Keystone Kops declaring a “trade war” on the entire world with no plan of action whatsoever, just wishful thinking of our “foes’” (including our allies’) surrender.

Finally, consider the terrible sixties. In a mere five-year span, we shot down three magnificent leaders, JFK, MLK, and RFK. Not only were all these men brilliant thinkers and orators. JFK helped saved the world from nuclear destruction. MLK saved us from mass disturbances and pogroms and set us on the long road toward real equality.

RFK helped quell the mass disturbances after MLK’s assassination, not with force but with empathy. He stood on the back of a truck in burning Chicago and told his mostly black audience, “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.” He also began to knit together a coalition of black and white workers that might have transformed this nation for the better. Maybe that’s why he was killed.

No matter how soon its end, the Trump Administration will go down in history as our very worst. It will also have been the most corrupt by far. The stain of scandals and acts of corruption too numerous to count will make Warren G. Harding’s Teapot Dome scandal, in comparison, look like a Salvation Army garden party. And historians—whether American (if any remain) or outsiders—will ask their students to write essays about how the nation that produced Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, the Kennedys, and MLK could have fallen so far.

Today, our venal would-be emperor openly exploits and inflames racism and bigotry. He also acts like an ancient Roman emperor striking his predecessors’ names from their stone statues in the Forum and chiseling in his own.

So it’s important to remember the recent past. Just a few years ago, we had a president who was a worthy successor to the great men mentioned above. We can again, if we come to our collective senses.

The men (and women: you, too, Betsy DeVos) who would rob us of our economic and moral substance for personal gain have colluded with Fox’ moron-pundits to give us historical amnesia. They would have us forget where we have been and what great souls have led us, in order that the today’s comparison not make us retch. We must not let them deceive us.

In that spirit, I reprint below, verbatim, an essay on the accomplishments and stature of Barack Obama as president, written over eighteen months before the end of his second term. We must never forget what he did, or how he did it on a race-neutral and cooperative basis, with consistent caution, thoughtfulness, honor, grace and politesse. We can reach that moral high ground again, but only if we first recognize just how far we have fallen in a mere two years.

[The following essay is copied from the post on this blog from May 15, 2015]

Thank You, Mr. President!

1. Foreign and military affairs
2. The economy
3. Energy and the environment
4. Our armed forces and strategy
5. Justice
6. Health and education
7. Race and racism
8. Immigration
9. In general

Dear Mr. President,

You are now in what some describe as the “lame duck” phase of your presidency. I’m publishing this open letter to you now to let you know how deeply and enduringly grateful I and tens of millions of other Americans are for what you’ve done so far.

So President Obama, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, for all of this:

1. Foreign and military affairs.

Thank you for winding down the two gratuitous wars that your predecessor started in a spastic reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Thank you for turning those impulsive and catastrophically mismanaged invasions and occupations into something resembling friendly and wise international assistance.

Thank you for not starting a third unnecessary war with Iran.

Thank you for building coalitions and using diplomacy and economic power to bring Iran to the bargaining table, and for pursuing a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Thank you for using similar means, and not open war, to arrest Russia’s aggression and annexation of territory in Ukraine.

Thank you for using air power, intelligence, drones and ninjas—and not the massive overkill of ground invasions—to fight Al Qaeda and the so-called “Islamic State” and to resist Assad’s medieval cruelty and stupidity.

Thank you for cajoling an international coalition to rid Syria of chemical weapons, whose work should reach fruition next month.

Thank you for cooperating with China, which created the monster and has to live near it, in containing North Korea’s insane tyranny.

Thank you for ending torture, illegal imprisonment and “black ops” worthy of a medieval tyranny but perpetrated in our collective name.

Thank you for trying to close the “Consitution-free zone” in Guantánamo and for making substantial progress toward that end.

Thank you for restoring our nation’s international reputation for respecting others, devising intelligent solutions, and knowing at least how to think.

Thank you—in Afghanistan, the Korean Peninsula, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the South China Sea—for seeking ever to build coalitions and consensus and rejecting the impulsive unilateralism of a Texas cowboy.

2. The economy.

Thank you for knowing that our national economy is now part of a global economy, and that economic leaders must lead.

Thank you for spending your political capital, over treacherous opposition, to pass a stimulus and the Sequester, which together barely avoided economic collapse.

Thank you for your wise and steady hand in reducing the federal deficit by 66%, and unemployment to 5.4%, which our expert Fed considers nearly “full employment.”

Thank you for saving our Yankee car companies, their reputations, and their employees, including their many talented engineers.

Thank you for your “cash from clunkers” program, which got obsolete and polluting machines off our streets and gave our car manufacturing a boost.

Thank you for promoting and signing the Dodd-Frank legislation, which seeks to prevent an early recurrence of bankers’ massive gambling and swindling that caused the Crash of 2008.

Thank you for recognizing that our nation must not follow the Soviet Union, or today’s Russia or Venezuela, in seeking to cure its economic ills by isolating itself.

Thank you for understanding that economic isolation is a penalty, not a strategy, and useful only as a deterrent, for example, in pressuring Iran and Russia.

Thank you for appointing Janet Yellen as Fed Chief, who will preserve the Fed as an expert regulator and guardian of honest labor—the last line of defense against yet another gratuitous financial panic.

Thank you for refusing to lower taxes on the rich yet again, in the face of already historic economic inequality.

Thank you for recognizing that the only way to real prosperity, let alone social peace, is sharing wealth.

Thank you for your effort to share prosperity by increasing minimum wages and continuing the social safety-net programs that barely got many of us through the Great Recession.

Thank you for doing your utmost to preserve the “American Dream,” which once led Japanese-Americans whose families were Interned and African-Americans under the thumb of Jim Crow to risk their lives to defend the very nation that oppressed them and their families.

3. Energy and the environment.

Thank you for understanding how grave a threat global warming is to our nation and our species, and how rapidly it is accelerating.

Thank you for knowing that no effort to decelerate it can succeed unless the world’s largest economy leads.

Thank you for making an informal deal with China, the world’s biggest polluter, to address this threat to our species.

Thank you for phasing out coal—the world’s most climate changing, polluting and (if properly costed) expensive fuel.

Thank you, as a one-time representative of a coal state (Illinois), for changing your mind and putting our species’ and our nation’s welfare above that of the state that gave you your start in politics.

Thank you for continuing subsidies for wind and solar energy, and for federal support for research on carbon-neutral fuels and other forms of renewable energy.

Thank you for doubling the future average fuel efficiency of American cars and light trucks, and for doing so by voluntary agreement with auto makers, rather than decades of litigation.

Thank you for continuing loan guarantees and federal backup insurance (aka “federal limitations of liability”) for new nuclear power plants, so that states and localities that wish to do so can take the risk of this workable, carbon-neutral energy source.

Thank you for allowing fracking for oil and gas to continue, with stronger environmental protection, so as to increase our energy independence, lower the prices of energy by half, and deprive petrostates of their power to blackmail us.

Thank you for opening up the Atlantic Seaboard for drilling, so that our nation’s rich elite, and not just relatively poor Gulf residents, can experience first-hand the “collateral damage” that often arises from extracting fossil fuels.

Thank you for allowing the north Alaskan drilling to proceed, as a final test whether the fossil-fuel industries can preserve an absolutely pristine environment, and whether the benefits of extracting a wasting resource justify the costs.

Thank you, most of all, for basing your energy policies and initiatives on facts, science and both short- and long-term consequences, instead of ideology, wishful thinking and interested parties’ propaganda.

4. Our armed forces and strategy.

Thank you for keeping the extreme sacrifice of our isolated, all-voluntary military forces ever present in your mind.

Thank you for thinking hard about how to deploy our troops, and for using air power, drones and ninjas wherever possible to reduce their casualties and harm to innocent civilians, aka “collateral damage.”

Thank you for working hard to give our homecoming troops the health care and benefits they deserve.

Thank you for having the courage and respect, unlike your predecessor, to observe and salute the coffins of those who gave their all for us as they come home to Dover Air Force Base for the last time.

Thank you for dispatching bin Laden, and for retrieving a massive trove of intelligence, in what may have been one of the most strategic ninja strikes in human history.

Thank you for recently dispatching the financial guru of the so-called “Islamic State” with another bold ninja strike, which captured his complicit wife alive and brought home another treasure trove of intelligence.

Thank you, in general, for making all our war efforts smarter, more focused, more accurate, and more cost-effective, especially as compared to invading and occupying two entire sovereign nations.

Thank you for never confusing the sacrifice of those who do their duty with the mistakes and blunders of those who directed them, especially before your term of office began.

Thank you for protecting gays from discrimination as they risk their lives and health to protect us.

Thank you for quietly killing the absurd “missile defense shield” in Poland and the Czech Republic, which would have protected virtually no one against missiles from Iran but might have destroyed our 70-year-old Pax Atomica by making the Russians nervous.

Thank you for trying hard to redirect our bloated military-industrial complex toward threats we are actually likely to face in the twenty-first century, including terrorism, asymmetrical warfare and cyberwarfare.

Thank you for seeking a proper balance of privacy and security, and for understanding that, if we ever suffer another 9/11-scale terrorist attack, let alone a nuclear one, we will have neither.

5. Justice.

Thank you for appointing Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to our Supreme Court.

Thank you, thank you, for appointing as superb a professional as Eric Holder as your first Attorney General.

Thank you for letting him, and perhaps directing him, to fight racism and injustice in places like Ferguson with incontrovertible evidence.

Thank you for changing your mind and doing your best to allow gays to marry.

Thank you, more broadly, for understanding that a country that intrudes into consenting adults’ bedrooms can never be free, no matter how often it claims to love “liberty.”

Thank you for speaking out against entrenched poverty and gross inequality, which will cause and reflect injustice as long as they exist.

Thank you for showing us, in your own comportment and the kind of people you appoint to high office, that justice is a matter of fact, wisdom, and hard work, not ideology.

6. Health and education.

Thank you, thank you, for getting health insurance for 12.5 million people (and counting) who didn’t have it before.

Thank you, thank you, for eliminating pre-existing-condition exclusions, thereby making health insurance real insurance, instead of a game of lawyers re-interpreting medical records after the fact.

Thank you for eliminating several numerical caps on insurance that cut off people’s benefits just when they most needed them.

Thank you for arranging rudimentary national and state-by-state online insurance markets, which are beginning to subject fat and lazy health-insurance monopolies to something resembling the rigors of competition.

Thank you for beginning to question our “fee-for-service” health-care delivery system, one of the most economically inefficient pricing systems known to capitalism, which kills both empathy and personal responsibility.

Thank you for beginning to clean up the mess in our veterans’ health care and to give our wounded warriors the care and respect they deserve, not just patriotic lip service.

Thank you for supporting national standards for education, so that we truly leave no child behind and no longer suffer a few of our states to remain backwaters of human civilization.

Thank you for trying to impose national standards and educational improvements, insofar as possible, through voluntary and localized efforts, which promise to be quicker and more effective than coercion.

7. Race and racism.

Thank you for remaining, at all times, the adult in a roomful of jeering children.

Thank you for retaining the support of tens of millions of silent but sympathetic bystanders by acting always with dignity and restraint, despite the catcalls of racists and the legitimate cries of the aggrieved.

Thank you for patiently putting up with so much, in order that a generation (or two or three) down the road, no one will ever have to again.

Thank you for giving new hope and new confidence to a 12% minority of our people who have seen precious little of them in four centuries.

Thank you for showing tens of millions of whites like me how even an African-American whom we have come to know, respect and love—namely, you—takes daily hits from racism, and why we must all fight racism harder.

Thank you, in so doing, for reminding us of Another who once took big hits for our sins.

Thank you, in short, for keeping your eyes on the prize as only a grandmaster strategist blessed with empathy can.

8. Immigration.

Thank you for knowing that deporting honest kids (or their parents) who were raised here, and who speak American English like every Yank, gravely wounds innocent families and tarnishes our nation.

Thank you for doing something about it.

Thank you for forcing Republicans to choose between ethnic tolerance and exploiting cheap labor, on the one hand, and maintaing ethnic and cultural “purity” and excluding immigrants on the other.

Thank you for reminding us, gently but firmly and repeatedly, that those two approaches are fundamentally incompatible.

Thank you for pitting the Tea Party monster that the GOP spawned against its own business wing responsible for creating it.

Thank you for reminding us that we are a nation of immigrants, which has drawn strength from every once-despised group with gumption enough to run a gauntlet of suffering and danger to reach our shores.

Thank you for refusing to dishonor the French Lady with the Torch in our New York Harbor, who still welcomes ships from everywhere.

9. In general.

Thank you for your exemplary conduct and character, every day of your political career.

Thank you for having an exemplary family, for giving us the benefit of your wife’s many talents, and for showing us all what it means to protect innocent children no matter what.

Thank you for sparing us the kind of gratuitous scandal that turned Bill Clinton’s second term to dust.

Thank you for gathering facts and expert advice and thinking hard, as is your wont, before doing anything with serious consequences, despite others screaming for instant action and accusing you of “dithering.”

Thank you for having the wisdom, confidence and courage to change your mind when facts and circumstances change, or when new data emerge.

Thank you, in other words, for not “doubling down” on your own or others’ blunders, as so many pols have done from Iraq, to Syria to Ukraine and Vietnam.

Thank you for your consistently superb political chess playing, of which your clear popular majority in two presidential elections was just the beginning.

* * *

The Iranians and Russians, and even our allies, have no idea with whom they’re dealing. But those of us who’ve seen you in action, in this still consummately racist nation, know well. As we mull the threats we face as a nation and a species, we take comfort from that knowledge, as we will for nearly two more years.

No doubt I’ve neglected some of your achievements or underestimated their significance. If so, I’m sorry. There have been so many.

I had hoped to wait to thank you until you left office, when there would be other cataloguers of your achievements and successes on whose work I could draw. But that would be too late.

If only more of us could reflect on all you have done for our nation already, against what opposition and at what cost, your administration might enjoy a small portion of the empathy it has so graciously bestowed on others. Then you might yet get the “honeymoon” you never got and deserve now more than ever.

You might, for the first time in your tenure as president, actually see the deference, respect and cooperation due any president—let alone one as wise, careful and good as you. It is in that perhaps Quixotic hope that I publish this insufficient catalogue of your many achievements so far.

With the deepest respect and gratitude for what you have been and what you have done, and for the enormous potential for good that you still command,


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