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

21 October 2017

Some Questions for Trump Voters

For links to popular recent posts, click here.

Update on Cyber Propaganda Warfare (11/2/17)
Last night PBS’ hard-hitting investigative news program Frontline aired the second and last of its two-part series on the Russian hacking-and-propaganda war that probably put Donald Trump in the White House. The title of the series is “Putin’s Revenge.”

The series shows in great detail: (1) why Putin wanted to elect Trump and relegate Hillary to the dustbin of history; (2) how Putin set out to influence our 2016 presidential election by (a) hacking secret e-mails among Democratic operatives, (b) releasing them publicly at precisely targeted times (including one hour after the first release of Trump’s damaging “Access Hollywood” tape, better known as the “grab their pussy” tape), and (c) fomenting discord among Democrats in particular and Americans generally by having trolls create and disseminate fake but plausible news using bots and numerous public channels, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The series also shows why President Obama, for morally and politically sound but strategically unwise reasons, failed to approve warning the American public until it was far too late.

For anyone who cares about democracy and preserving it in America, “Putin’s Revenge” should be deeply disturbing. But what it shows is just a shadow of the darkness that will descend on us in the next decade or so. What we have seen in cyberwar so far is like the propeller fighters and dirigibles of World War I. The massive fleets of bombers, V-2 rockets, and nuclear weapons of World War II are yet to come.

Neither “Putin’s Revenge” nor (to my knowledge) the popular press has yet hinted at the extent to which, or the speed with which, future cyber propaganda warfare will outstrip what we have seen so far. In three ways, the cyber-propaganda war of 2016 could morph into total propaganda warfare even before our 2018 midterm elections.

First, nothing prevents our own contending political parties from using, for their own partisan purposes, the same techniques that Putin used last year. The GOP’s desire to acquire such techniques may have been one reason for its rapid acceptance of a man with zero political experience as its candidate, along with certain of his advisers and operatives, including Steve Bannon. (Bannon can continue to play the same role effectively outside the White House.) Second, our pols are as ignorant of the technology and techniques, and as oblivious to the threats they pose, as were our leaders just before Pearl Harbor in 1941.

But the third way in which cyber propaganda warfare may soon surprise us is the most chilling. Up to now, it has used the Internet much like traditional broadcast media, in a one-to-many mode. What is about to rain down like nuclear fallout upon our clueless pols and mostly clueless defense establishment is propaganda spread by the Internet's greatest advances over broadcasting technology: many-to-one and many-to-many communication. A warning post I wrote about this threat seven months ago outlines the dangers and our political system’s utter unpreparedness to meet them.

1. The tax scam
2. The health-insurance scam
3. Undocumented immigrants
4. Abusing minorities
5. The big promise unkept
6. The really big question

Some Trump voters read this blog. I don’t know whether they’re a select few or a multitude. But I do know that some of my friends voted for Trump and have commented on my posts. Some also threw away their votes on Gary Johnson rather than vote for Hillary.

If you are among either part of that “some,” this post is for you. I don’t blame you for voting as you did. Trump promised a lot, and I had to hold my nose hard to vote for Hillary. We all had tough choices last November.

But nine months into Trump’s presidency, it’s time to start asking some tough questions. Here are some key ones, in six categories:

1. The tax scam. What do you think when rich guys, who make more money in a week (or in a day!) than you make in a year, say “We’re going to cut our taxes a lot, and maybe you’ll get some relief. We’re doing it for you.”? Do you believe them?

Do you really think you’ll benefit from cutting the tax rates the super-rich pay? If so, how?

And do you know that they’re talking about cutting the “individual” rates that the rich pay personally, as well as the “corporate” rates that their businesses pay? Exactly how would putting more money in their individual pockets help you? Are they going to let you ride on their personal jets? (For an expert assessment of the claim that decreases in corporate tax rates help ordinary workers, click here.)

Important Update (10/27/17)
Here’s what the economically trained New York Times’ opinion-page editor, David Leonhardt, had to say today about the GOP’s proposed tax scam:
“House Republicans approved a budget plan yesterday that’s the first step toward passing a big tax cut. More than half of the tax cut’s benefits would flow to the top 1 percent of earners — those earning at least $733,000 a year. On average, each of those households would receive an infusion of $130,000 each year.”
What’s in this for you?

2. The health-insurance scam. Like many voters for Trump, you may have cheered when he, as candidate, promised to get rid of “Obamacare.” But how exactly is that going to help you? Doesn’t it matter how we get rid of Obamacare and what, if anything, we replace it with?

Some thirteen to fifteen million people now have health insurance who didn’t have it before Obamacare. If you’re one of them, would going back to your previous uninsured state help you?

Some people are paying higher premiums under “Obamacare” than they paid before. If you’re one of them, shouldn’t you look at your policy before you complain?

One new thing Obamacare did was to outlaw policy exclusions for pre-existing conditions. Would you be better off if they were permitted again, so lawyers could go through your entire medical history looking for any evidence of a pre-existing condition in order to to deny your current claims?

What if you had/have a chronic condition like high blood pressure or diabetes or an hereditary condition? What if you’d been treated for a serious condition like heart disease or a “slow-growing” cancer and it got worse? Wouldn’t allowing insurers to exclude or charge more for pre-existing conditions leave you out in the cold or paying more? And aren’t recurrences or worsening of pre-existing conditions the nasty things most likely to happen to your health?

Obamacare put a lot of government money into so-called “subsidies” to help people (like you) who aren’t rich afford decent health insurance that actually pays when you need it. The rich guys who back the tax cuts and Obamacare repeal want all those subsidies to go away so they can take the money in tax cuts. Exactly how would doing that help you? Do you really believe that taking all that government money away from health insurance and giving it to the rich will make your premiums go down?

Recently Trump disapproved (after initially approving!) a bipartisan compromise made by Senators Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D. Wash.) to restore some of those subsidies. Trump said the subsidies are give-aways to insurance companies. But in a system that depends entirely on private insurers (except for the poor and those over 65, who can get Medicare), won’t any successful attempt to increase coverage also increase insurers’ profits, if only by giving them more customers? Is Trump confused about how our health-insurance system now works?

3. Undocumented immigrants. There are an estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants in our country, many of them from Mexico. They are here illegally. These are facts.

But exactly how would deporting them or building a wall to keep more from entering help you? If you lost your good job to automation, downsizing, or globalization, would deporting them bring it back? would keeping more undocumented immigrants out?

Do or did you work in construction, a slaughterhouse, a restaurant, or a hotel, or maybe as a gardener or nanny, as many of the undocumented do? If not, how would deporting them or keeping more from entering improve your employment prospects?

If we deport all the folks doing that work and build a wall to keep more out, won’t their employers have to pay more to get native-born Americans to do it? And won’t that just make all those things more expensive, for you and everybody else? How would that help you?

4. Abusing minorities. What do you think of the black NFL players who “take a knee” during the national anthem? Do you know what they are protesting?

Are you aware that an unarmed, middle-aged black guy named Eric Garner ended up choked to death while being arrested on suspicion of selling cigarettes without a license? Have you heard about Sandra Bland, an unarmed black woman stopped for failing to signal a lane change, who somehow died in jail? Have you seen the video of Walter Scott, unarmed, being shot several times in the back while running away, and the shooting officer “planting” a taser on him?

What do you think about these events? Are they all “fake news,” or are they real? And if you think they’re real, isn’t “taking a knee,” quietly and respectfully, a pretty mild form of protest? Is it as scary as what the Black Panthers did in the 1960s? What would you think if you were black and any of these things happened to someone you love?

5. The big promise unkept. If you’re honest with yourself, it’s pretty hard to see how your own life would get better if the rich got lower taxes, if government stopped subsidies to help middle-class people like you buy health insurance, if we deported all the Mexicans here illegally and built a wall to keep more out, or if we stopped the NFL protests and continued allowing police to kill unarmed black people for little or no reason. These things might please you abstractly, but do they have any practical or logical relationship to your family’s welfare?

When you support these things by cheering at Trump’s rallies, aren’t you playing the part of the angry guy who’s had a bad day at work, comes home, shouts at his wife and kicks the dog? Cheering may make you feel better, but will it make your life get better?

It’s understandable to be angry when you’ve lost you’re job, you’re unemployed or chronically underemployed, your home was foreclosed on after the Crash of 2008, you’ve lost or “downsized” your retirement, or your factory and town have blown away with the globalist winds. But when you’re supporting things that won’t change any of that, are you acting in your own interest?

There is one thing that Trump has promised that might give you, and millions of workers like you, a real, personal benefit. It’s a big program to repair, rebuild and improve our national infrastructure. The benefit to you would be a good, self-respecting, well-paying, non-outsourceable job. You wouldn’t even have to move, like the oil-rig roustabouts now working in North Dakota, because infrastructure that needs attention is everywhere.

If you’re a skilled worker, you think you might help repair and rebuild roads, highways, bridges, sewers, water lines, electric generators or the electric grid? You think you might help install, maintain or improve air traffic control, solar arrays, windmills, Internet access lines, border surveillance, or anti-terrorism monitoring, or install and maintain the equipment they need?

These jobs can’t go to China, Mexico or Bangladesh because they all have to be done here. So isn’t Trump’s promise to rebuild our infrastructure the most important pledge he’s yet made to improve your life personally?

If so, what’s he done about it? Is giving the rich tax cuts, repealing Obamacare, deporting undocumented immigrants, building a wall on the Mexican border, or continuing to let police kill unarmed black people without accountability more important to your personal welfare and success than infrastructure?

Did you know that our nonpartisan, nonprofit American Society of Civil Engineers, in its current infrastructure report card, has given our nation’s infrastructure a grade of D+ and has said that, if we don’t fix it, we’ll take a $3.9 trillion hit to our GDP? Do you think an investment of about that size might create good jobs for you and many like you?

Did you know there are two ways to get that money: (1) having the government borrow it, or (2) asking private investors to invest it? If we use method (2), the private investors—the same guys seeking big tax cuts today—will end up owning the improved infrastructure, and you and your kids will be paying tolls to use it for the foreseeable future. Which method do you think Trump and his Republicans are for? Which method would be best for you and your kids?

6. The really big question. In the end, it all comes down to allies. In politics, as in war, no one wins without allies.

As you try to make your life good again, or even tolerable, who are your allies?

Are they the rich guys who want to lower their own taxes and cut government subsidies for health insurance (including Medicare) to do so? Are they the employers who hire undocumented immigrants and exploit them by giving them menial jobs at low wages and keeping them in fear of being deported? Are they the police who beat up and kill unarmed members of minorities who can’t defend themselves because they’re too low in our social hierarchy? Are they the pols who want to lower taxes on the rich and don’t mind skimping on infrastructure or making your health-insurance premiums higher to do so?

What do you think might happen if you accepted the people whom Trump wants you to hate as your allies? What would happen if you joined all the other working people in the country in a grand political alliance, regardless of race, religion or documented status?

Who do you think would win then? Aren’t there far more working people than bosses in this country, let alone than the 1% or the 0.1% who control our politics and dictate your misery? Does dividing workers into clans and believing in white supremacy make you stronger or weaker?

How about a government-funded program for our national infrastructure about the same size as the $3.9 trillion hit our economy will take if we don’t fix it? You think that program might get you a good, well-paying job? How does a health insurance pool of 310 million sound to you, with no penalty for pre-existing conditions, no expense for private profit and no expense for accounting for it? How about a nation in which no unarmed suspect gets killed in police custody (or running away), no matter who he or she is?

Wouldn’t that kind of America make us great again and give you a good job? If so, is that where Trump is headed?

If you answer these questions with the independence and practical common sense that made American workers famous, you’ll get them right. Then you’ll know who your real friends and allies are and what you have to do.

And if you care about loyalty, has Trump been loyal to you? If he had been, wouldn’t a big infrastructure program have been the first thing he worked on, as soon as he set foot in the White House? That’s pretty far from what he’s been actually doing up to now, isn’t it?

If you think about what he’s done these past nine months, and whether any of it has helped improve your own life, you’ll come to sensible conclusions about who he is and who his allies are. Godspeed.

Links to Popular Recent Posts


13 October 2017

Emperor Trump, or Why Tillerson and the Generals Must Stay

For links to popular recent posts, click here. For an important update, click here.
    “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” — Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel, “The Boxer”

    “Let them eat cake!” Marie Antionette, on being told French subjects were starving for lack of bread.
The remains of the ancient Forum in Rome hold many statues on stone pedestals. They depict great emperors, generals and orators. But not all are what they first appear to be.

A good guide can tell you. Once alerted, you can see for yourself: chisel marks still visible in the stone after two millennia. Long ago, the names below some of the stone figures were scratched out and written over with the name of a later leader. Some stonecutters even changed the facial features or the clothing.

Sometimes you can tell without a guide just because things don’t look right. The basic idea was simple and direct: the later leader wanted to erase the earlier from history and immortalize his own name on the cheap.

So far, that seems to have been President Trump’s primary aim. His first and most pressing legislative priority was to “repeal and replace” his predecessor’s signal legislative achievement: expanded, affordable health insurance. The tipoff was that all the supposed “replacements” were absent, slipshod and/or downright harmful.

That seems to have been Trump’s party’s aim, too. Together, he, McConnell and Ryan tried three times to deprive millions of decent health insurance, just so they could erase our first black president’s big achievement. Small men, big chisels.

Now, under the pretext of delay, they are halfway to erasing DACA and depriving hundreds of thousands of innocent undocumented immigrants of life in the only country they have known well. Their efforts continue with a long regulatory push to bring back coal—a nineteenth-century fuel and the dirtiest known to science—just as global warming reaches its inflection point and goes exponential.

What’s the difference between empire and democracy? Does the answer differ for great powers like the United States and minor powers like England and France? When a great nation’s leaders seem to serve a single man’s boundless ego, and not the people’s welfare, how do you tell the difference? These are questions that every American citizen and pol ought to be asking.

We Americans always thought we were immune from the torments of empire. Our institutions and the “brilliance” of our Founders would protect us. Our Constitution would be our shield. After all, we are “exceptional.” Or so we thought.

Yet look again. Once we thought that our marvelous system would shield us from bad rulers like France’s Louis XIV, whom monarchy and the vagaries of heredity foisted upon the French people. Then we elected a man who could easily fit the mold of a bad monarch. Most of his acts and nearly all his public statements have had a single primary goal: feeding his planet-sized ego. As we pass the three-quarter mark of his first of four years, he has had few “achievements.” Virtually all he has done is try to erase his predecessor’s legacy. Doesn’t that sound a lot like empire?

At the same time, we have minority rule. Our current president won his office with a minority of the popular vote. To undermine public appreciation of that fact, he told the big lie that “millions” voted fraudulently. A majority of Republicans and over a third of Democrats believe his lie, despite all assertions of academics, investigators and news media to the contrary.

We also have minority rule in the Senate, with filibusters and Senate “holds,” and minority rule in the House under the so-called “Hastert rule.”

This is democracy? A recent, careful academic study of 1779 public issues showed that, insofar as concerns matters as important to ordinary people as single-payer health insurance and renewable energy, our government does what the elite and businesses want, not the people. Democracy in the sense of popular rule is down for the count in America.

As we contemplate our increasingly dismal future, we must look at two historical analogies for guidance. The first is the runup to the French Revolution. A society based on landed aristocracy preserved itself, in the face of increasing popular misery and unrest, by increasing its wealth and economic inequality and strengthening its boundless privilege. Marie Antionette’s famous quip, quoted above, reflects the attitude among the then-ruling class—an attitude for which she eventually lost her head.

Today, we Americans have our 1%. Our 0.1% are rich enough to control our pols, or at least their dominant party, with “contributions” for electoral “campaigns” of lies and massive propaganda. Those of us, including me, who would like to preserve our democracy receive dozens of daily requests for money to counter what the rich can put up.

Their power and privilege increase daily, but to what end? Do they work to increase the “general welfare,” suppress instability, and promote world peace? No, they work tirelessly to entrench their already boundless power and influence. And where insouciant foreigners impede them, they work to assert America’s unmatched military power to crush them.

And what about their “trickle-down” myth—the lie that increasing their own wealth and power will give the people good jobs? They use it to justify everything from taking away people’s health insurance to giving themselves massive tax breaks.

In the end, is “trickle-down” far from “let them eat cake”? The only real differences lie in the level of dismissiveness and today’s relentless effort to tell this lie with a straight face and support it with shill “research” by so-called “think tanks.”

The second and most important analogy is old Adolf. People often forget that Germany freely elected him chancellor the first time. How did he morph from a legitimately elected leader to Die Führer, absolute emperor of Nazi Germany? Could something similar happen here?

A moment’s thought reveals four key facilitators of that terrible transformation. First, bad leadership drives out good. Good, competent people find it hard to work with willful and capricious miscreants like Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. So they leave or are fired. In later stages, the empire imprisons or executes them. Second, as the good depart government, the bad move in to fill the vacuum they leave. If clever, a would-be miscreant emperor doesn’t have to make a deliberate purge. He just has to be himself and wait.

The last two means of facilitating the slide to empire play out in the larger society, outside of government. Together the bad man at the top and the bad men who fill the vacuum whip up a bad, well-armed militia among the populace, prepared to subdue all opposition by threats and violence. In Nazi Germany, the Brown Shirts performed this function. Today in America, every well-armed right-wing militia or band of white supremacists is just waiting for a clear signal.

The final step involves the bankers and industrialists. They turn a blind eye to the terrible transformation as they try to preserve their wealth, power and privilege by cooperating with the tyrant. In so doing, they compromise with evil, as long as it doesn’t directly affect their interests. Often they bury their heads in the sand, pretending not to notice the stench of burning human flesh from the death camps.

How far down this road has Trump gone, and how far have we Americans gone with him?

Fortunately, not yet very far. A lot of bad people have left the Trump Administration at the top. They include Steve Bannon, Tom Price, Kellyanne Conway and Shaun Spicer (an innocent, not-too-bright dupe). But so far the only high-level good person to have been fired is James Comey, the former FBI director. This looks more like Keystone Kops than a Soviet-style purge.

Unfortunately, this unthreatening picture changes dramatically as you look further down the organization chart. There has been a massive exodus of good people from our government, in part voluntary and part involuntary. The exodus has been especially depressing at the career level, among civil-service bureaucrats and scientists, for example, in the State Department, EPA, FDA, NASA and Interior.

As is well known, even the second-level political positions are only about one-third filled. Is this a mere result of the general inexperience and incompetence of Trump and his crew? Is it a sign of dogmatic Republican downsizing of government? Or is it just a delay in filling government with right-wing ideologues once the initial purge is well under way?

The second step of filling the vacuum with sycophants or lackeys may just be getting started. Much remains to be seen.

Who will replace Tom Price at HHS, for example? Will anyone replace Steve Bannon as master strategist? If and when Trump fills the second- and third-level positions in each department or agency, what will the candidates be like? Will they be people of experience and independence? Or will they be sycophants and lackeys who, like Jeff Sessions, owe their national power and prominence to a “bolt of lightning” appointment by Trump?

The third step in slip-sliding toward empire is not yet very far along. We have a whole phalanx of armed groups waiting, watching and hoping for a chance to go active. But they have only small arms. They have some automatic weapons, machine guns and outdated howitzers, but they have no tanks, artillery or military aircraft or helicopters. In all our nation’s craziness about guns, our demagogic leaders have not seen fit to give them that.

In any real conflict, our armed forces—even our national guard—could make short work of the extremists. But there is one caveat. To do so, our legitimate forces would have to remain loyal and not defect.

Our right-wing militias derive much of their training and some of their weaponry from experience in our armed forces, where they have many ongoing contacts and friends. So our generals must keep eternally vigilant to instill loyalty and discipline among our warriors, not to mention fidelity to our nation’s values. Here the recent speech of Lt. Gen. Silveria to his flock at USAFA sets a good example.

Thus in our country, at this time, the final step for slip-sliding into empire is probably the most important. What will our elite and our great businesses do? Will they cooperate, compromise and be co-opted? Or will they use their massive and growing economic and political power to preserve what remains of democracy and popular rule in America?

To answer this question, we divide our businesses into three groups. The private ones (and some public ones) are run like personal or family fiefdoms; they might support the nascent empire for their own misperceived advantage. Among them are the Koch Brothers’ industries, the Mercer family’s, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire (including Fox), and Sheldon Adelson’s mostly-foreign gambling interests. These business leaders have “invested” their great wealth, and much time and energy, in turning our nation ever rightward. Whether through design, inattention, or ignorance, they may mistake Trump and his retinue for friends and give them a forward push in their slide toward empire.

The second group of businesses could be characterized, if they were individuals, as “nouveau riche.” They include the Five Giants of Silicon Valley (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft) and their fellow travelers (Twitter, Uber, etc.), large parts of the entertainment and media industries, and rising entrants in the fields of new energy and transportation, such as Tesla.

These firms have inestimable power by virtue of their market value, their cash hoards, their cultural impact, and their direct or indirect influence on communication and/or product distribution. But they have not yet found their “voice” in politics. So far, they have fallen in, somewhat desultorily, with the right-wing crowd, in search of what every business thinks it wants: less regulation, lower taxes, and a smaller bureaucracy to interfere less with business.

But slowly leaders of these businesses appear to be awakening. They sense the danger in large-scale domestic interracial and inter-religious conflict, in immigration rules that threaten to stop and even reverse the “brain drain” in their favor, and in Bannonist chaos that threatens economic stability and the steady march toward the future, based on real facts. Our political future—and not just the health of our economy—will depend on whether these businesses and their leaders also sense the danger in authoritarian government, suppressing science, and disseminating “fake news” and other propaganda, often using their own products and services. Facebook and Twitter, are you listening?

The third category of businesses comprises the “old-line” giants, such as Boeing, Caterpillar, Exxon, Ford, and GM. With them, the salient question is how quickly and well they adapt to changing circumstances, including global warming. Will they try to revive and enrich themselves by looking to the past, as Exxon so famously did during its long period of global-warming denial? Or will they accept the challenges of the future and seek to bring back the glories of their pasts by reviving a working democracy and a healthy economy in America? In short, will they look to the long term or, like Krupp and Thyssen, seek only short term advantage as their nation slides into empire and perhaps yet more needless wars?

Maybe worrying about the slide is premature today. We have several advantages over Germany in the 1930s. Inflation is under complete control, and deflation now may be structural. Our economy is recovering, albeit slowly, from the second-greatest financier-induced economic collapse in less than a century. Despite its many structural deficiencies, our democracy is stronger and better established than was Germany’s Weimar Republic before the Nazi onslaught. Our businesses have vastly more political and social power—for good or for ill—than Germany’s big industrial combines a century ago.

Nevertheless, much will depend on whether the leaders of our “corporate governance” have the foresight and the will to steer us away from empire. The entire Republican Party appears oblivious to the risk.

Much will also depend on the first step in the slide: the departure of good people from government. No doubt people like Rex Tillerson and Generals Kelly and Mattis think often about leaving. Every day on the job must be an exercise in self-restraint, patience, and anger management.

But make no mistake about it. Every day they stay, they are doing their country and our entire species a great service. However partially, tentatively and incompletely, they are bringing our nation’s basic values—not to mention competence, experience, real facts, and common sense—to bear on the day-to-day operation of our government. There is little fun in what they are doing, but they are doing all of us a great service.

The words of our Constitution are lifeless things. They can’t defend themselves or us without human intervention. Today, under the extreme rule of an utterly inexperienced, clueless and narcissistic “supreme leader,” the good folk who stay aboard are the sole sinews of democracy, tradition and common sense.

But lest we wax too sanguine, consider how quickly it all happened. Exactly one year ago, Trump seemed a caricature of a presidential candidate, destined for a big loss and historical oblivion. Now he is president. Although stymied by a deadlocked Congress and a badly divided nation, he has gone a long way to strike the name of his predecessor from the pedestal and chisel in his own. That act of an emperor could presage many more.

When revolutions come, they happen fast, and not always for the better. Just ask the French or the Russians. All of us must keep that in mind. We can take temporary comfort in the perseverance of men like Tillerson, Kelly and Mattis, who fight the daily battle for rational government. When they start to leave, or to be fired, we must all take notice and act.

If a critical mass of good people leaves without good replacements, the first step in the slide toward empire will be on hand. Under the perculiar circumstances in which we find ourselves, it will then be mostly up to our multinationals to save whatever might be left of American democracy.

Brief Update

Senator Susan Collins (R., Maine) just announced her intention to remain in the Senate, rather than to run for Governor of Maine, as many had expected. Her decision is welcome and in the spirit of the foregoing post. Although in the Senate, not in the Cabinet, Collins’ wisdom and vote have been the people’s shield. Without them, some 23 million fewer people would have health insurance today.

Like Tillerson and the Generals in the Cabinet, Senator Collins is in for a rough ride. She has to oppose the vast majority of her party, which has no idea what it wants to do but, like Steve Bannon, wants somehow to destroy the system in order to improve it.

For the good of the country, Collins will have to work with people she disagrees with and even despises. I hope that Bob Corker (R. Tenn.) makes a similar decision and reconsiders his retirement. In these dark days our nation needs every sane head it can muster, most especially those with experience and savvy. And the Republican Party needs members who understand the aims of our Constitution—forming a more perfect Union and promoting the general welfare—if only to manage the party’s orderly dissolution.

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07 October 2017

America the Afraid

    “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time.” — Albert Einstein
The America of my youth is gone. Half a century ago, I lived in an upper-middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. It had wide, open lawns on which neighborhood kids played impromptu games of football. You could look through the kitchen or dining-room window of any home, across the wide lawns and street, and see the windows of the houses opposite.

That openness marked a proud, free and fearless society. The only things my parents had to fear for me were natural diseases and injuries. Vaccines had not yet completely conquered polio. And my parents—smart people who could see cause and effect—were ahead of the curve on CTE. They let me play football with other kids on our front lawn, but only on condition I wear a helmet.

Today, my old neighborhood has become a fortress. The open lawns are utterly gone. The entire street on which I lived, a mile or two in length, is an endless canyon of high walls, fences and impenetrable hedges.

Even the elegant circular driveways are hidden behind high walls. Almost every house sports the sign of a security firm, saying “Armed Response” or something similar. The fear of crime is self-evident in the very look of people’s homes.

Now we have a new fear. Whenever you go to a joyous pubic celebration, you must be afraid. You must consider. Will I, my spouse or my child be murdered, for absolutely no reason, by a person who has deadly military-style weapons but lacks reason or humanity?

As of October 5, there were 275 incidents of mass shooting in the United States in 2017 alone. (To qualify, an “event” has to involve four or more independent victims killed or injured by gunshots.)

So let’s do the math. Multiply 275 by four, to get 1,100. Then extrapolate linearly to the end of the year, from October 5. That’s at least 1,100 x (1 + 87/365) = 1,362 shooting victims.

If this rate of carnage continues, we Americans will have more than the equivalent of a 9/11 every three years. And the vast majority of the carnage will have come from us ourselves, not from foreigners or the much-feared and maligned “Islamic terrorists.”

Drip, drip, drip. The blood of our people is draining away not in arterial torrents, but in single droplets, through punctures made by other Americans. The number 275 of mass shootings so far this year, is, on the average, very close to one a day. (The year 2016 had 463 mass shootings, or at least 1,852 victims.)

What effect will this constant carnage have? Do you have to ask? Over time, the fear of being shot down at random on our city streets, or in a “joyous” concert of something as innocent as country music, will suffuse our collective psyche.

We will become a fearful people, reluctant to leave the relative safety of our homes, and cautious in doing so.

Our cities will close up within themselves like my old neighborhood. Our people will cower behind behind walls and hedges of security.

Our legendary openness and self-confidence as Americans will dry up and blow away like the cast-away bandages from our people’s wounds. “Helicopter” parents will become “Humvee” parents, refusing to let their children walk or bicycle their streets, or take public transportation, until they are old enough to drive. Meanwhile, the Japanese have hiragana and katakana signs in their subways, so that kids not old enough to read kanji can roam the subways of Tokyo—one of the world’s biggest cities—in complete freedom and confidence.

This is our inexorable future as Americans, unless we change. Why is this so? The primary culprit is a simple failure to recognize cause and effect.

We humans are fragile creatures. Our bodies are fragile, as the Las Vegas shooter so dramatically demonstrated. But so are our minds. Our ability to design and make small, portable deadly weapons—and to make them cheap and available—has far outstripped our ability to keep them out of demented, criminal and dangerous hands.

But the cause is much deeper than that. Our small-arms industry, which now controls the NRA, has fostered in our people a dangerous fantasy. It has inculcated the notion that “weekend warriors,” who go to closed shooting ranges once or twice a week, and who shoot at mostly stationary targets, can be as skilled as career police or soldiers in defeating the bad guys and keeping everyone safe. Every man or woman, they have taught us, can become his own hero, his own John Wayne or Wyatt Earp.

The saddest thing about the Las Vegas massacre was not the number of people shot, or the irony of their listening to country music while being shot down. It was Steve Scalise, the GOP Congressman who had been maimed by gunshot while playing a bipartisan baseball game, saying, in effect, that his own maiming only made him more determined to put more guns onto our streets.

What a perfect illustration of Einstein’s definition of insanity!

Meanwhile, the small nation of Australia has taken common-sense measures to get firearms out of ordinary people’s hands and off its streets. It just completed a successful “amnesty” program, allowing gun owners to turn their guns in without penalties before strict new laws go into effect.

In our own country, makers of guns for civilians are a small industry. Relative to banks, cars, airlines, or our “Internet Big Five” (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft), they are minuscule. You could erase them completely from our national economy, and no one but their own industry analysts would notice. But through their powerful and constant propaganda, which inspire mostly male fantasies of omnipotence, they have turned our once safe and carefree society into a nightmare of carnage and well-justified fear.

Male fantasies of omnipotence are not their only pressure point. They have caused us to forget common sense and balance in politics. “Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins,” the old saw goes. Doesn’t your right to bear military-style arms end where dozens of people are shot down, for no reason whatsoever, while attending a music concert? where six-year-olds are murdered in their classrooms, as in Newtown?

You can argue all day about cause and effect. “Guns don’t kill people,” the NRA says, “people do.” But the psychologists tell us that it’s devilishly hard to tell, in advance, which people are murderous and which are not. Even the vast majority of the mentally ill is nonviolent.

Yet take away the guns—or at least the ones designed to kill many quickly—and the level of carnage will subside. You simple can’t kill as many people as quickly with a knife or a single-shot firearm as you can with weapons that can discharge up to 1,200 rounds a minute, or as fast as you can pull the trigger. That’s just common-sense cause and effect.

So we have lost the sense of safety, security and invulnerability that used to be every American’s birthright. After a few more decades of this carnage, our lives and our mentality will close up like the fenced and hedged houses of my old neighborhood. The rich will cower in fortresses and armored cars while the homeless, who have nothing to lose, will prowl the streets.

Fear will pervade us. It will be fear of ourselves. And all because we allowed freedom to become license and forgot the balance between “freedom” and security that inheres in our very human condition. We forgot how to see cause and effect because we allowed a tiny, economically unimportant industry to delude us with fantasies of personal omnipotence.

If this trend continues, our society will become increasingly sick. With good justification, we will be afraid in our own homes, on our streets, and in our places of entertainment, assembly and even worship. The insecurity will penetrate our very souls. We will become a fearful and cautious society, and we ourselves—not some imagined pan-Muslim conspiracy—will have made ourselves so.

Somewhere, Einstein’s soul is watching, to see what we do next. Will it be the same thing, over and over again, that has brought us to this point? Or will we do something new and daring?

The signs are not auspicious, as the NRA prepares to make a small concession on bump stocks, which are a tiny cottage industry unsupported by its rich backers, and nothing more. For the profit of a few, the many tremble. What could be sicker and less American than that?


03 October 2017

The Missing Element in a Progressive Revival: White Outrage

My hero for fall 2017 is a military man. What made me admire him was not his warrior prowess or his exploits on the battlefield: he’s an educator. But what an educator! And what an American!

His name is Lieutenant General Jay B. Silveria. He’s the commanding officer of the United States Air Force Academy, USAFA, in Colorado Springs. A few days ago he gave vent, brilliantly and succinctly, to what had been missing in our agonizing national debate over race: white outrage at the racism and bigotry that are metastasizing throughout our nation.

Up to now, the outrage has been mostly on the side of bigots and racists. They rant and rave—and parade with weapons—to demonstrate their outrage at the brutally slow dissolution of white privilege. They protest our nation’s sporadic and inconsistent approach to actually realizing the values enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights, and our Civil War Amendments (Thirteenth through Fifteenth).

Up to now, the white voices on the other side have all been calm, reasoned and a bit feckless. But not Lt. Gen. Silveria’s. With his tone and manner, as well as his words, he gave voice to outrage at the growing assualt on our most sacred and fundamental values, coming from places as high as the White House.

I won’t presume to summarize Silveria’s short speech. Few things made of words are such gems that they must be perceived directly, in whole, like a rare diamond. That speech is one of them. Every American should take the five-minutes-plus needed to watch it and internalize what Silveria said and the way he said it.

What sparked the speech was the appearance of racial slurs against African-Americans’ on bulletins outside black students’ quarters at USAFA’s preparatory school. In response, Silveria brought together everyone at USAFA who wasn’t out of town, from the top-ranked like himself to the lowest staff member—over five thousand people. Then he gave them his speech, short, direct, plain and simple. At the end, he asked listeners to take out their cell phones and record his outraged and indignant peroration. Cicero or Caesar could not have done more.

Many whites have noted abstractly the chief evil of racism and bigotry, besides their lack of humanity and decency: they divide us and makes us weaker. Even Hillary did, with her campaign slogan “Stronger Together.” More recently, Gary Cohn and Rex Tillerson did when they impliedly criticized the President for his coddling of racism, bigotry and white supremacy in Charlottesville.

But to my knowledge, no Caucasian high figure in politics has come close to expressing the outrage and indignation that the recent explosion of racism and bigotry in our nation deserves. Not Hillary. Not Bernie. Not Elizabeth Warren, who is now my preferred candidate for president in 2020.

What have they got to lose? Racists and bigots are clannish. They are only going to vote and march for their own, or for those, like the president, who blow their dog whistles. White pols who express outrage at what is putrefying out nation aren’t going to lose many bigots’ votes. And whites like me will stand up and cheer.

The victims of racism and bigotry are often too cautious to show their outrage. The higher they rise in the hierarchy of public visibility and power, the more cautious and measured they must be, in order not the offend the many whites who might be sympathetic to their cause but might be frightened or put off by outrage among oppressed minorities. And so we had our first black president—an admirable man in all respects—ever cautious and measured in his condemnation of pure evil.

The outrage that racism and bigotry demand must come from us whites. And it must come from those at our highest levels, those who work at or aspire to the very top. There must be powerful white voices sounding the tocsin against our nation, the world’s jewel of liberty and equality, slip-sliding into something like Turkey, Russia, or China.

Maybe if all of our Democratic leaders were as forthright and open in their outrage as Silveria, they could make better traction in their quest to restore our country’s basic values. Maybe more people from oppressed minorities would register to vote. Maybe their most powerful motivator—hope—which rocketed Barack Obama into the White House in 2009—would rise up again and pull us from the depths into which our nation has sunk.