Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Thinker

Time zone madness and sanity

The Washington Post recently published an article on a proposal by an economist and professor of physics and astronomy to create a single time zone for the entire planet. Those of us who travel regularly know that time zones are a hassle because adjusting sleep cycles is rarely easy. Their plan is to use UTC (basically, Greenwich Mean Time) as the planet’s time zone.

Putting the planet on a single time zone wouldn’t solve this particular problem unless we decided to ignore our circadian rhythm, i.e. rising around sunrise and going to sleep in the dark. I would imagine the Japanese and Chinese would be pissed as they would arise around sunset and go to sleep around sunrise. However, China already sees an advantage in having a single time zone. The whole country is on one time zone, basically +12 UTC. Perhaps this helps bind them together as a nation but for those in the far eastern or western parts of the country it must seem weird. It’s particularly weird when you move from eastern China into far eastern Russia. You jump two time zones to the east! China is about the size of the United States, so it would be like everyone in the United States being on Central Time.

I don’t think a law can easily break our circadian rhythms, which is why so many of us groan when entering daylight savings time. It feels unnatural because it is unnatural, at least in early March. But it’s less unnatural if you are lower in latitude and you happen to live close to a longitudinal meridian evenly divisible by 15. For those of us on the edge of a time zone, life seems to either start too early or end too late.

I certainly noticed it last year when we moved to Massachusetts, so much so that I blogged about it. Spain is considering changing its time zone to something more natural; it has been on central European time since World War Two. Spaniards get nearly an hour less sleep because of their unnatural time zone and unsurprisingly tend to be late to bed, at least by their clocks. Siestas are a way of compensating for their unnatural time zone.

Airlines already use UTC for flight schedules. This makes a lot of sense since pilots are frequently changing time zones. Of course they do take into account the sleeping habits of the people they are moving, which is why more flights happen during the daytime than at night. Laws vary so widely across the world (North Korea recently decided to change their time zone by half an hour) that some sort of time uniformity sounds desirable. As a practical matter geography often gets in the way, with Indiana being a case in point, as it is split between eastern and central time. No system is perfect.

Living in Massachusetts the time really feels “off”. I’m not alone, which is why there is a proposal to put New England on Atlantic Time, or -4 UTC instead of Eastern Time (-5 UTC). States can set their own time zones. However, here in New England it doesn’t make much sense for each state to go it alone, as our states tend to be small. It only makes sense if everyone adopts it. Rhode Island state Rep. Blake Filippi has proposed a bill to do just this, but only if Massachusetts also adopts it. He’s hoping it would coax the other New England states to go along.

My suspicion is that if Massachusetts embraced it, the other states here in New England would too. The possible exception would be Connecticut and that’s because it has so many commuters going into New York City everyday. As “off” as the time feels here in Massachusetts where the sun rises as early as 5:12 AM where I live and sets as early as 4:17 PM, it’s even worse the further east and north you go. To take an extreme example, the sunrise in Lubec, Maine starts as early as 4:41 AM and sets as early as 3:47 PM.

This is not a big deal in more extreme northern latitudes, but New England is simply not as far north as most of Europe. We are roughly at the latitude of Northern Spain. Being on Eastern Time is purely a political decision. Going to Atlantic Time for us pushed way north and east on the U.S. eastern seaboard would make a lot of sense and would feel more natural. We’d get later sunsets in the summer and more daylight in the winter when it is greatly needed.

So here’s hoping. Maybe I’ll write my state legislators. Winter is dark and dreary enough around here. There’s no point in making it more so. So I say let’s skip the idea of a worldwide time zone and make tweaks to the time zone maps we already use to make them fairer to actual human beings. As for us in New England, we have already suffered enough. Put us on Atlantic Time!

 
The Thinker

State of the presidential race: April 2016 edition

So it’s looking like Hillary vs. The Donald in November. Hillary is not too much of a surprise. The only real surprise was how close Vermont senator Bernie Sanders came to unseating her for the Democratic Party nomination. It is still technically possible for Sanders to pull an upset, but not realistic. He seems to be getting the drift by laying off staffers and concentrating resources on delegate rich California, the last major primary. Given that Sanders appeal is mostly with whites, it’s unlikely he’ll pull an upset in a state heavy with Latinos and Asians.

Just a week ago, it was even money that Republicans would have a brokered convention. It’s still possible but the odds are now probably only twenty percent, if that. Trump swept all five states in this week’s primaries, and in most states by convincing margins. Clinton lost only Rhode Island but squeaked by in Connecticut. Clinton trounced Sanders badly in Maryland and Delaware by 2:1 margins. Sanders will probably win Oregon, Montana and the Dakotas, but Oregon is the only state with significant number of delegates and California simply trounces it. Sadly, it’s over for Bernie. Rest assured he knows it too.

There is no viable path for Ted Cruz either in these remaining states and his “agreement” with John Kasich is mostly vapor, and proactively picking Carly Fiorina as his running mate will only make things worse. Indiana may be a pickup but none of the remaining states that are delegate rich are likely to break his way. Barring some unforeseen dynamic it’s over for the Republicans too. This brings some clarity for the general election. Both Clinton and Trump are underwater (are more disliked than liked), but Trump is much more so. Barring some bad foreign policy or economic news (the economy grew just .5% in the last quarter), Clinton looks like our likely next (and first female) president. Except for Clinton supporters though few will be enthusiastic about her as our next commander in chief.

This primary season has certainly been unusual, showing in general that the electorate (or those at least passionate enough to vote in primaries and caucuses) really would prefer someone completely different. Trump fills that bill, but scarily so. Clinton is true and tried but hardly exciting. The 73-year-old Sanders strangely fit the bill, but not enough to overwhelm the current Democratic establishment, which has a better lock on its base than the Republicans do. Oddly enough both Clinton and Trump are considerably older than presidential nominees tend to be. Clinton is 68 and Trump is 69. Trump is the same age as Ronald Reagan when he ran for president. Reagan was our oldest president but if elected Trump will be older.

One lesson that should be obvious is that our parties increasingly don’t represent the people very well, particularly those who claim allegiance to their party. Trump’s ascent proves that the issues that animate the party’s rank and file don’t animate Republican voters. As I noted, what Republicans really care about is maintaining white privilege and anything else is negotiable. Democrats too are undergoing a change in state. Establishment Democrats may titter at the idea of “democratic socialism”, but Sanders proves it’s the party’s future. The days of Democrats gaining power through triangulation and close ties to Wall Street (Bill Clinton’s strategy) are over. Hillary would be wise to acknowledge this reality.

The Republican Party is in much worse shape, but Trump may do the party a favor by reconnecting it with its base. What it will stand for in the future may be loathsome to the majority of Americans, but it seems to be what the modern Republican base wants. It’s not a way to grow an expanding party unless the party can shed its xenophobia, which is the catalyst for Trump’s unexpected rise. However, it could keep the party around and relevant for at least a while longer.

Despite the bluster, the odds certainly don’t favor The Donald. With two thirds of Americans basically saying they won’t vote for him, it’s hard to imagine how Trump can convince them otherwise. This is particularly true when he makes things worse by opening his mouth and saying stupid stuff, such as his latest comments on women and voting. Trump knows how to deliver sizzle, but there’s simply no steak there, much like his branded Trump Steaks. So the odds definitely favor Democrats, both in the presidential contest but also in recapturing the Senate. Even Republicans are concerned this may be a wave election that could remove their hold on power not just in the Senate but also in the House. It appears that lots of Republicans will sit this one out as they have no motive to vote for Trump, and thus no motive to vote at all.

Clinton’s instinct will be to tack toward the center but I think that would be a mistake. There is little point in holding power if you can’t wield it. Obama at least had two years of it, thanks to the Great Recession and Democrats holding both houses of Congress. It allowed the Affordable Care Act to get passed. Clinton may be setting her expectations too low. By tacking left instead of right, she can fire up the Democratic base. When they show up in force, as they did in 2008, they demonstrate who is really in charge. Gerrymandering and vote suppression are facts of life but since they affect principally red states, they won’t buy Republicans much in a general election year.

So for those of us reading the tealeaves, the voters sort of have spoken now. Much of what will follow is pretty well scripted. Trump has to hope for a Hail Mary pass to change the dynamics. Our economy is not great but unemployment is below five percent and our economy is still the envy of the rest of the world. Obama is unlikely to let a foreign policy problem fester to the point of explosion, but there are always wildcards. The dice are pretty much cast. Let’s see how they tumble.

 
The Thinker

The LBGT recoil

It looks like North Carolina is the latest state to discover the pitfalls of trying to govern from the extreme. HB2, passed in a special one-day session, specifically overwrote a Charlotte, North Carolina ordinance that allowed people to use the restroom that aligned with their gender identity. The hastily signed law by now-chagrinned Governor Pat McCrory requires North Carolina citizens to use the restroom aligned with the sex assigned to them by birth on their birth certificate or face the penalty of law.

The ink was hardly dry before the ACLU was filing a suit. And then the real recoil began. PayPal canceled plans to build offices in the state, at a cost of some four hundred jobs. The Boss (Bruce Springsteen) canceled plans for a concert in the state. North Carolinians can perhaps take some comfort in knowing that they are not the only state dumb enough to pass laws like these. Georgia’s governor vetoed a bill with similar intentions. Mississippi looks primed to follow North Carolina’s example with a “religious liberty” bill that gives permission to businesses to discriminate against people they don’t like because of God or something. It’s not even law and it’s promoting a backlash, causing Sharon Stone to move the location of her new film out of the state and the governor of Oregon to move the christening of the USS Oregon’s sister ship to his state. Of course Indiana got bitch slapped on similar issues last year, and even Arizona saw that light when convention bookings slowed down.

Why do these states do this? It’s like they have a death wish. In most cases there is no groundswell of constituents demanding these laws, but there are often fundamentalist groups who have the ears of legislators instead. The answer in part is because legislators in these states have their ears keenly tuned to hear messages from these groups who sustain their hold on power. But the only reason they have so much power is because states like North Carolina are gerrymandered to provide extremely disproportionate representation for conservatives. The nature of gerrymandering is that it is an artificial construct that cannot survive for long because it is unfair. A backlash was inevitable. Worse, these laws were entirely preventable and there were plenty examples of states who had already suffered the consequences. That would have at least suggested some caution, perhaps the governor shelving the bill for a few weeks to let tempers cool.

So much stupidity but perhaps the stupidest thing is that these laws try to solve problems that don’t even exist. Let me ask you what would be more disruptive: a trans man using a ladies restroom because his birth certificate says he is a woman, or a trans woman using a men’s restroom for a similar reason. The latter sounds the more dangerous to me; if I were a trans woman I’d literally prefer to pee in my pants before going into a men’s room. Of course that’s part of the problem. It’s hugely challenging when your gender misaligns with your sex and particularly during and after the transition process. It’s only now after a couple of decades that the trans community is starting to get some sympathy from the general public, mainly because most of us haven’t tuned into it. It’s a complex issue as I discovered some years back.

But the religious freedom arguments really sound shallow. Religious freedom in this case is basically government-approved bigotry. Doubtless there are passages in the Bible that suggest black people are evil (curious as most Jews are Semites and if not quite black have dark-hued skins.) Under the guise of religious freedom then anyone can assert they have a right to run a business that caters only to non-blacks. If it’s not in the Bible, it’s still no big deal. Create your own religion where only white people are holy and there you go. You can assert it’s your sincere religious belief and who can doubt you? These laws protect not the richest 1% but allow the most bigoted 1% to selectively shame people they don’t like with impunity.

The good news for bigots is that they have every right to be a bigot in their private lives. However, a business cannot be called public if it does not accept all comers. If I own a bakery and don’t want to bake wedding cakes for gay couples, I can get out of the bakery business. Or I can decide that I understand that being public means everyone can ask for my services and baking one doesn’t mean I support gay marriage but it does mean I have sanction to profit from anyone who walks in my shop door.

There is some concern that these laws will require ministers to marry gay couples or face the penalty of law. I’m not sure where this comes from but it’s a specious concern. You might as well worry that a Catholic priest will be required to perform a Jewish wedding. Religious marriage ceremonies require parties to agree to the marriage rules of the religion. I suppose it is possible that a state law might require any legal “celebrant” to perform a civil marriage, and that celebrant could also be a minister. In this case though the ceremony would be purely civil, does not have to be performed in their church and would have no religious connotation.

One thing that is clear is that these laws are toxic. Generations X and Y have made it clear that everyone must be treated equally under the laws, so at best these laws will prove to be short-lived. Perhaps it’s possible these legislators don’t understand how hurtful and shaming these laws are, but more likely they do understand and that’s part of their animus in voting them in. They will get their comeuppance in time. In North Carolina, a recent poll puts Governor McCrory four points behind his LGBT-friendlier challenger.

When you make it your business to shame others, you will inevitably find that it will shame you instead. Give it a few months as more businesses leave the state and I think North Carolina legislators will find a reason to quietly repeal HB 2. Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and other states in this boat will too in time but sadly are likely to look for less overt ways to discriminate instead. There are always those Voter ID laws.

 
The Thinker

Guns at the Republican National Convention? Of course!

So naturally when I learned of this petition to allow the open carry of guns at the upcoming Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I hurried over to change.org to sign it. Over 48,000 of us God-fearing, law-abiding, Second Amendment enthusiasts have signed the petition so far.

And there are good reasons to sign the petition. Without open carry, the delegates and conventioneers in the hall will have no way to defend themselves from burglars, pickpockets and lobbyists, unless you count fisticuffs and kickboxing which I think would be pretty hard to take away. The Supreme Court has already decided that owning guns is a right. No preexisting militia is required. Moreover, lots of states have laws allowing open carry and many allow even concealed carry. I checked Wikipedia and open carry is definitely legal in Ohio, probably thanks to Governor John Kasich.

Moreover, you needn’t worry about these convention goers. Guns don’t kill people; only people kill people. But since you never know when someone is going to attack you with a banana, and there are probably no sixteen ton weights at the convention center, a loaded semiautomatic weapon may be your only defense when a brigade of banana-toting liberals in Birkenstocks come charging at your delegation. You have to be prepared, you know.

I mean, what could possibly go wrong? It’s not like Cruz and Trump supporters would not limit themselves to shoving, fistfights and general screaming at each other as they lobby to get their candidate the nomination during a brokered convention. They are all family men and women, civilized I am sure and will be full of the milk of human kindness (and Jesus) during the convention. They are so civilized they won’t even shoot a celebratory round into the convention roof when their candidate clinches the nomination.

No, this is a matter of principle, and principle is vitally important to Republicans. They like their world completely black and white. The Supreme Court says that we can own guns; Ohio says you can openly carry them, so there is no way that anyone should be able to restrict that right. You don’t mess with Texas so you don’t mess with Republicans and their guns either. Putting all those armaments into such a confined space should cause no issues at all. After all the Quicken Loans Arena is not a troubled inner city neighborhood like Glenville in Cleveland. They are proud Americans, every one of them, but just in case residents of Glenville decide to storm the Quicken Loans Arena en masse, well, you got to be prepared. A handgun isn’t going to cut it. You will want plenty of rounds, something semiautomatic, and probably something with a scope on it.

So I’m shocked to learn today that the Secret Service nixed the petition. Imagine the nerve of these feds to tell us law-abiding Americans we can’t bring our guns with us into the convention! The Secret Service says it’s something about a federal law that overrides the Supreme Court’s decision. Clearly there is nothing to fear, and surely Trump, Cruz, Kasich and the senior leaders of the Republican Party will be completely at ease in a convention hall full of faithful lock-and-load brethren. After all according to the NRA the way to stop a bad man with a gun (not that it would ever happen at this convention) is a good man with a gun, and there would be thousands of them. He’d never have a chance!

I can’t believe that the candidates will roll with the Secret Service on this one. Trump says he wants to study the petition. As of this writing, neither Cruz nor Kasich has expressed an opinion on the Secret Service’s decision. How odd!

So I guess we will have to turn to prayer: pray to change the minds at the Secret Service and failing that pray that hoodlums outside the hall won’t storm the convention hall, or pick off conventioneers on their way to and from their hotel rooms and local brothels. Perhaps an emergency petition to the U.S. Supreme Court is now in order. We can only pray they see the light.

 
The Thinker

The Trump trap

Donald Trump has been punking a lot of people lately. The other week he punked his newest endorser New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who attended his rally in Ohio. Christie was there to encourage people to vote for Trump. While Christie was on stage with Trump, Trump said that Christie was flawed because he was an absentee governor, which is not hard to be when you are a governor running for president. A few days later his former rival and newest supporter Ben Carson crazily punked himself, saying Trump wasn’t so bad because there were “two Donald Trumps” and one was a nice guy you don’t see. That’s like an abused spouse publicly saying she wasn’t that upset when her husband beat her black and blue because he’s actually a sweetheart. That Trump can do stuff like this and get away with it suggests he is a master bully indeed, so good he can put other bullies in their place and fool partisans like Carson that he’s not as bad a candidate as he has proven to be. I mean: just wow!

Trump hasn’t won the Republican nomination yet and there is some chance he won’t get a majority of delegates, leading to a brokered convention. Trump has already predicted that if Republicans try to deny him the nomination because he has only a plurality of votes that “there will be riots” from his frustrated supporters. If there is a brokered convention I don’t expect it to succeed in blocking Trump, in part because as a master bully Trump should have the Republican establishment pinned to the floor mat and screaming uncle long before the convention. Trump’s not so much a dealmaker as he is a master intimidator. Intimidation of course is a skill that bullies master. It comes from practiced insensitivity toward the feelings others. The empathy gene is missing from bullies except of course for themselves. Since they only look out for Number One, they are naturally nasty and tone deaf, in his case so much so that he will punk his former rivals offering them his support.

Trump can’t bully the whole country, so he is busy trying to make a deal with the American public instead. Like Bill Clinton, he plans to triangulate his way into the presidency. He will read the tealeaves and attempt to do or say anything to seal the deal with the electorate. Most likely he won’t succeed, given his high negatives particularly among women and minorities. He can hope for a crisis. A huge economic or national security crisis drives our primal fears and can change a lot of minds. However, with a decently growing economy, low unemployment and with Obama’s approval ratings now at or over fifty percent the odds will be against him. It’s unclear whether he will drive more Republicans to the poll than Democrats, but it is likely that voters on both sides will be highly motivated to turn out. This is because no one is neutral on Donald Trump. You either love him or loathe him.

My suspicion is that Donald Trump will eventually prove to be like the Hindenburg, that famous hydrogen-filled dirigible that exploded in flames in the early 20th century. He’s going to inflict a lot of damage whether he gets elected or not. Assuming that he doesn’t win, who loses?

Curiously some of the biggest losers will be his supporters. Whites — principally working class whites and white men in particular — are going to realize they were sold snake oil. First, their candidate will prove unelectable, so huuuge but unable to seal this deal, making him the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. Second, they are going to realize they really aren’t all that special anymore. For if Trump can’t make the working class white special again, then who possibly can? They are investing all their hope in Trump. If he loses, then where do they go? What do they do?

Does this class finally shout “Enough!” and start an insurrection? This may not be too hard given all the guns they are stockpiling. Do they retreat into utter despair and hopelessness? Do they finally decide to put their racism behind them and make common cause with others struggling in the working class? Do they kill the Republican Party by abandoning it because they have proven incapable of making it do its will? Regardless of whether Trump wins or loses, it’s not hard to see huge danger signs.

If a Democratic ticket wins, they have to continue to wrestle with their feelings of disempowerment. If Trump wins we have a high likelihood of a President Trump that will be at best a quasi-constitutionalist and at worst our first fascist president. Or perhaps the real deal is that Trump is anticipating his defeat and will use it as a cry to foment real revolution.

Some of these scenarios are pretty far fetched. It’s not too hard to see that there will be one loser even if Republicans win: the Republican Party. For If Trump fails to win the nomination he may run as an independent. If he does win the nomination then he effectively controls the Republican Party, which will probably mean that its leaders will be sent packing. The stuff Republicans supposedly care about (religion, fiscal conservatism, smaller government) will morph into what they really care about: a classist state where they are in charge. And to do that you have to jettison the notion that we are a democratic state. We won’t be.

When I first wrote about Trump I wondered if Trump could be a Democratic mole. After all he supported progressive policies and candidates in the past. Maybe he is fooling everyone, but most likely he is simply tone deaf to the fact that while he is a very successful loudmouth, he’s really only just a blathering blowhard that leaves destruction from trying to gratify his own enormous ego.

Trump will cause major casualties. Whether overtly or covertly, the most likely casualties will be the very people he is trying to empower. And they are going to be really pissed.

 
The Thinker

Unwinding the crazy (or why Obama and Mitt Romney need to talk)

So my daughter has been chatting with me on Skype. She wants to know: “Dad, have politics ever this crazy?” She would actually take some comfort in knowing that demagogues like Donald Trump have actually arisen before and have had a stake put through their hearts.

I had to tell her no, not in my lifetime anyhow and not within the United States. There are plenty of demagogues out there all the time, but few come around as Donald Trump has to create cyclones of ill will all for the purpose of acquiring something close to the pinnacle of political power in the world: being president of the United States. I see him getting the Republican nomination; hopes of a brokered convention are just fantasies. There have been deeply evil politicians and presidents. Richard Nixon comes to mind but at least he was trapped by a political system of checks and balances. It’s not clear if Trump becomes president whether the system still has the backbone to deal with someone like him. I’d like to think so, but I am skeptical.

Over the years this blog has been around, I’ve made something of a second career cataloguing these demagogues. Democrats are not entirely clean, with John Edwards leaping to mind. Both sides of the party can be pandered to and inflamed. Mostly though these demagogues have limited appeal. Some of the many I have blogged about include Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. I have read enough history though to know that Donald Trump is not quite unprecedented. Early in our history we had a president arguably as bad as Trump: Andrew Jackson whose portrait mysteriously adorns our ten-dollar bill.

We’ve also had our share of bad presidents but who were not demagogues. Woodrow Wilson was a racist who purged blacks from the government. President Harding dropped his pants for more than one woman not his wife and got embroiled in the Teapot Dome oil scandal. Herbert Hoover and a top-heavy Republican congress ushered in the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson made the Vietnam debacle much worse. And I’ve shown 12 years ago that Ronald Reagan was pretty much a disaster of a president. Then of course there is George W. Bush. Still with the possible exception of Jackson none of these presidents rise to Trump’s level. None had the mentality that the ends justified the means. Trump’s success makes him a singular danger to our democracy.

So sorry daughter, we are living the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. Polls suggest a Trump election win will be quite a stretch, but if anyone could pull it off Trump is demonstrating he has the skills and oratory to do it. Trump though is not unique, but simply the most articulate spokesman for the Republican brand. It’s a brand full of chest thumping, racism, classism and staking out unequivocal positions that have devolved into concerns about the size of Trump’s hands and penis. They are all doing it without qualification, except possibly John Kasich. These candidates will denounce Trump on the one hand but won’t take the next obvious step: saying they will not support him if he wins his party’s nomination.

This is because for all their claims of principle they really don’t have any. It’s not principle that drives them; it’s the lust for power. This puts them ever further on the extreme right as well as makes them back down from taking principled stands like saying they won’t support Trump if he wins their party’s nomination. They are all jockeying for power as best they can by keeping their options open. I was puzzling through Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump shortly after dropping out. Why was he doing this? The easy rationalization is that both are bullies and he identifies with a fellow bully. But the same can be said for most of the Republican candidates. I think Christie is hoping to be nominated as his running mate. I think he is further expecting that if Trump wins office he will eventually be impeached and removed, leaving him as president. It’s a tactic worthy of Frank Underwood; he was just the first to go there. While Christie may admire Trump for being a master bully, I think his real motivation is simply a lust for power.

The larger question is how do you undo something like this? It’s not like we are at the precipice. Lots of people are already jumping off the cliff into the political unknown. It’s time for the grownups not just to speak up but also to take real action. Mitt Romney says he won’t vote for Trump but did not suggest an alternative, which is hardly helpful. Establishment Republicans are trying to persuade voters in keystone states like Florida and Ohio to vote for someone else, but they appear too late to the game to change the dynamics. President Obama recently spoke out, but it was at a fundraiser. Changing the dynamics here though is pretty much impossible when the other party will refuse to even listen to you. Just for starters Republicans in Congress won’t even allow Obama’s budget director to present his budget, the first time this has ever been done. A Republican Senate also refuses to entertain a nominee for the Supreme Court.

We need an elder statesman with mojo and credibility to bring the parties together to tone down the rhetoric and is some marginal way change the conversation and up the civility factor. There is no one such person, unfortunately. Jimmy Carter comes to mind but Republicans would dismiss him.

We urgently need a national timeout. All these key muckrakers need to have a private conclave and hash this out. If I were President Obama I’d be on the phone with Mitt Romney. I’d be penciling in a date in a couple weeks at a private retreat like Camp David and use the power of shame (if it works) to bring all these blowhards together in one place to hash this out. This would include Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress and all the presidential candidates on both sides. It would also include chairs of the Democratic and Republican national committees. I’d include trained facilitators and psychologists to help ensure the meeting moves forward productively The topics would include: setting baselines for acceptable political behavior and setting up a process involving some compromise so that Congress and the President can work together in some minimal fashion through the election.

Would it work? The odds are against my proposal but someone needs to step forward and we need two brave people on both sides of the aisle. I don’t see any others who can play this role.

Sadly, nothing like this is likely to happen, but it needs to happen. Is there a grownup in the room?

 
The Thinker

Ending the privileged caste

Perhaps you’ve seen the “This is water” video. If you haven’t, spend nine minutes or so watching it:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and if you keep up on contemporary American politics it’s not hard to understand why. We tend to take for granted what is given to us. For example, I appreciated my father who passed away last month but at the same time I took him for granted. I assumed most sons had fathers of his caliber. It wasn’t until many decades later – and particularly after having gone through the fatherhood process myself – that I realized how exceptional he was. I was barely able to emulate him for one child. He did it for eight of us.

Most of us go through life vaguely aware at best of the enormous resources expended on our behalf. Like a fish in a fishbowl, we take them for granted. The easiest ones to appreciate are our parents, who also become the easiest to despise if they don’t live up to our expectations. It takes a village to raise a child, Hillary Clinton opined in her book, but it takes much more than a village. It takes resources from the family level to the international level. These include clean water (something the residents of Flint, Michigan no longer take for granted), committed teachers, police, our military, ministers, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, doctors, orthodontists and even diplomats. The list is endless. In general, the more you can avail yourself of these resources, the higher the standard of living and your opportunities are likely to be.

Some of us are more favored than others. As we grow to understand this, our privilege becomes painful to acknowledge and sets up cognitive dissonance. At some level we of some privilege realize that our privilege was purchased at the expense of someone else’s. The dissonance generally results in denial. I am seeing it played out on the national stage, particularly in the candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump is riding collective white cognitive dissonance to a likely Republican Party nomination. Why? It’s because it is easier for many of us whites to support someone like this than to acknowledge, or worse address the bald fact that we are greatly disproportionately privileged. It’s not that we are better than other people, it’s that we got special treatment because we live inside a privileged caste generations in the making. Just as the fish is not aware of the water most of us choose to be deliberately ignorant of our privileged status.

In fact many whites in the United States are not privileged at all. Visit Appalachia and you will see plenty of them. Their lives are just as unprivileged and harsh as is a black child’s living in public housing in Southeast Washington D.C. and may be worse. Nonetheless, many of these whites won’t acknowledge this. They sincerely believe that because they are white they are better than the non-whites. In fact, Trump and other Republican candidates are exploiting them by pretending to throw the shield of white privilege over them, privileges that largely do not exist.

The Republican message is in two parts. First, it’s that because you are white you are better and deserve privilege and if you vote for the others you will lose that privilege. Second, is that you are “temporarily impoverished millionaires”. You just need to do a few things by yourself (never with the help of others) to become successful.

Both these messages are lies but are lies that most of us cannot acknowledge even to ourselves. On the first point, we all know innately that skin color has no more bearing on your capacity than does eye color. We even say these words while doing largely the opposite, and most of us aren’t aware of our inconsistency. On the second point we also know this is a myth with only a tiny kernel of truth. This perhaps had some truth in the past, when there were fewer hurdles to success. It’s painfully obvious that today to really succeed you need lifelong coaching and resources, plus a certain amount of tenacity and luck. You cannot rise from humble shoeshine boy to Elon Musk through tenacity alone. In Musk’s case you have to inhabit a rich technological world and have both the talent and resources to ride these changes to your own success and profit. This won’t happen to poor working class Appalachians or black children in Southeast Washington D.C. It’s not completely impossible, but your odds of winning the lottery are much better. Perhaps that explains why so many middle and lower income people play the lottery in the first place.

For someone like me who is white, privileged and can see that his success is largely a result of the rich nutrient “water” in which I was raised, the question then becomes what should I do about it. Should I emulate Jesus and give all my riches to the poor? Should I help out in soup kitchens? Just how much of my treasure and time should I give back? Of course, I give back already. I do give money to charity; in fact it’s an item in the family budget, currently $250 a month. Much of it goes to Planned Parenthood, environmental causes, a local food bank and a local abused women’s shelter. On the latter, I recently had coffee with an outreach director of the local women’s shelter and offered my time as a volunteer, coach and mentor; however I could be of use. Since I am otherwise retired, I don’t have lack of time as an excuse.

Perhaps my efforts deserve a pat on the back, but considering how privileged I have been in this life it deserves not even that. Of course I am quite interested in changing the dynamics, which is why I am a Bernie Sanders supporter. It’s quite clear to me that this institutional racism and classism is baked into our laws. To truly address these problems, laborers first have to be paid a living wage. Needless to say Donald Trump and all the other Republican candidates are running away from this idea, which has the effect of keeping the same failed policies in place. This in turn ensures more decades of inequality and will effective keep the others in poverty and in their place for future generations. Increasingly, we are the others and we are voting against our own best interests. Most of the lemmings following Donald Trump are being used to their own disadvantage.

I do know at some point I will inherit some money. My father left everything to my stepmother, but their wills are similar. When she dies all of us children (including our stepmother’s) will get 5% of their estate. I have no idea how much their estate is worth, but I’m guessing it’s about a million dollars. So perhaps I will inherit $50,000 or so.

I have been talking about this future windfall with my wife. We should not need the money to improve our standard of living and in our case $50,000 really doesn’t buy a change in our standard of living anyhow. Our daughter will get a hefty share of our estate when we are gone. $50,000 though can do a whole lot for someone further down the food chain.

When the windfall finally arrives, I plan to find one underprivileged but promising person and use it to move them a rung up the ladder. Aside from greatly reducing my own standard of living (which is actually reasonably modest but better than most), giving away my inheritance is the only significantly meaningful thing I can do, but only if done right. If it moves one poor but talented person from a life behind a fast food counter to doing something that gives them both meaning and income, it may set about a cycle of virtuous changes that may take many generations to flower. I am unlikely to witness these, as I will be planted six feet underground. It seems that the best I can do to make amends is to plant a seed, water it while I can and hope.

 
The Thinker

State of the presidential race

And we’re off with another of my analyses of the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve now had a few primaries and caucuses. Super Tuesday is a week away. Its results will clarify a lot of things and may very well show that my analysis today was quite off the mark. So it goes sometimes for us pundits. But these analyses are what people seem to want. I do notice that to the extent that posts get liked or shared, it’s from these posts.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush has finally dropped out. Perhaps he felt he needed to make one last attempt in South Carolina to minimize family shame. Also gone are Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie. It appears that only three are really in the running now: Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Kasich is hanging in there along with Ben Carson but at this point those two are outliers. My betting is that Trump will be the nominee. I’m actually rooting for Cruz, not because I like him but because he’d be the easiest for a Democratic candidate to beat. He is so nasty. Rubio is the Democrats’ biggest threat. I expect that the Republican establishment will rally around Rubio but like with Jeb it’s probably a lost cause. Simply speaking, the Republican establishment simply doesn’t represent the Republican voters anymore. Republican voters don’t care about conservatism as they do about personalities. (Witness Trump’s recent takedown of George W. Bush on the Iraq War. It hasn’t affected his poll numbers.) They want someone who best channels their fears. Trump seems to do this best and is adroit and fending off competition. There is a slim chance of a brokered convention but such a convention would likely be the death of the Republican Party. Trump will bring the “establishment” in his coattails, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth from them.

On the Democratic side, Martin O’Malley is gone. Clinton showed a little moxie by winning the caucuses in Nevada on Saturday, but only by five points after Sanders predictably shellacked her in the New Hampshire primary. In actual pledged delegates she and Sanders are tied at 55 each, but Clinton claims a huge superdelegate lead. Superdelegates however tend to move toward the people’s choice. Clinton should know this best as she was boasting about this eight years ago. By the time the convention rolled around the superdelegates dutifully got behind Barack Obama, their party’s choice. So don’t pay much attention to the superdelegate buzz. However, Super Tuesday does favor Clinton. Eleven states are in play plus American Samoa and Democrats abroad. My predictions:

  • Clinton wins Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas
  • Sanders wins Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont and Virginia

Of course the system is not winner take all, but the big prize is Texas (222 delegates). My guess is overall it will break 60% for Clinton and 40% for Sanders. Clinton should have some momentum coming out of Super Tuesday, but wins will be primarily a factor of the values in the states and especially the number of African Americans voting in these states. The national and state polls are mixed, but overall Sanders is catching up with Clinton. He must catch up quickly otherwise the delegate math will work against him.

Democrats need Sanders to win the nomination. This is because (like Obama in 2008) Sanders gives Democrats a reason to show up at the polls. Clinton (like Trump) is judged more unfavorably than favorably by voters and it’s unlikely that will change. However, Republicans are highly motivated in this election and they will be most motivated if Trump wins the nomination. So Democrats will need to at least match Republican motivation to win and Clinton is hardly a reason to get enthused. Polls consistently show that Sanders will win against any of the Republican candidates.

Understandably some Democrats are unenthusiastic about a Sanders nomination. Some don’t see him as a true Democrat because he only joined the party recently, having caucused with Democrats in the House and Senate. There are concerns that his socialist platform won’t sell or that he is too idealistic to be a good president, and would be a poor commander in chief. Clinton arguably addresses these concerns, but it comes at the expense of a higher probability of losing the general election. Sanders however is also likelier to have longer coattails and should bring in a new wave of younger and enthusiastic Democrats. You can’t really govern well without Congress behind you. Sanders is betting the farm on Democrats retaking the Senate and with a massive turnout in his favor Democrats could even retake the House.

One wild card is whether former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg runs for president as an independent. Should Clinton win the nomination (and particularly if Trump wins the Republican nomination) then a Bloomberg run is good for Democrats. The worst case is that Americans choose Bloomberg, which negates the worry that Trump would win. The likelier case is a repeat of the 1992 election when Ross Perot’s independent run effectively kept George H.W. Bush from being reelected, and put Bill Clinton in the White House. No independent has ever won the presidency so Bloomberg’s odds are slim at best, even with all his money, something he should know. He would also be effective in taking down Trump. It may take another billionaire to bring down Trump.

Anyhow, that’s how I read the tealeaves at the moment.

 
The Thinker

Justice Scalia’s untimely departure

One week later and I’m finally back blogging. Mostly I was out of town attending my father’s memorial service and all the family events that go along with it. It was all quite a blur. While my family grieved, reconnected and moved forward, the world kept moving forward too, I just wasn’t paying much attention. In politics this included a Republican and Democratic debate (which events forced me to miss) and the sudden death of Justice Scalia on Saturday, which I did not miss.

We were winding down from family events at a friends’ house when the news of Scalia’s death was announced. Almost in the same breath everyone had moved past the death of a man and onto the many political implications of who would replace the conservative jurist. It was embarrassing on both sides. Within an hour Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) announced the Senate would not take up the confirmation of an Obama nominee. A couple of hours later President Obama was saying nice things about Scalia while letting everyone know he was going to nominate a new justice anyhow. Scalia’s body had not even cooled!

And then the real craziness began. Candidates for president started chiming in not on Scalia’s career but on what they thought should be done about his replacement. CNN and all the news channels went into overdrive with mostly poorly informed opinions about what this transition means. Liberals cheered while conservatives started filling the moat with crocodiles and raising the drawbridge. In some ways this was everyone’s worst nightmare. The timing of Scalia’s death was disastrous. Even Democrats would have preferred that he finish the current year before expiring. As if we needed one more reason to heighten the importance of the coming election!

I’ve been sorting out all the opinions and analysis out there about what it all means. As a public service, I thought I’d distill it all down for you.

First, this is going to upset the Supreme Court applecart for the first time since Richard Nixon was president. For four decades the court has been balanced between liberals and conservatives, with decisions generally leaning toward the conservatives thanks to mostly Republican presidents. Scalia of course is perhaps the most prominent conservative on the court and certainly was its loudest one. Brass and opinionated with little interest in judicial decorum, he mouthed off all the time about stuff he should have saved for a memoir. Virtually anyone who replaces Scalia will by definition be less conservative than he is. The only chance Republicans have is if (a) a Republican president is elected in November, (b) he turns out to be very conservative and (c) the Senate does not switch to a Democratic majority again, which is at least a 50:50 probability. So it’s virtually certain that the balance is going to be tipped, at least in the more moderate direction, whether it happens soon or with a new president.

Second, not confirming a new justice will in many ways make things worse for Republicans. Scalia was a reliably conservative vote on the court, so with just eight members during this term decisions will break toward the liberal side. Tied decisions will either revert to the decision made by the appellate court or justices could decide to rehear the case at a later time. Since judges appointed by Democratic presidents control roughly two thirds of the appellate courts, most decisions will bend left minus Scalia’s vote. If the Senate approved another justice it would allow the possibility that at least some of these cases could bend toward the right. Another possible ripple: it may give Democrats extra incentive to turn out to vote, perhaps in larger numbers than Republicans, in which case it may enlarge expected electoral losses by Republicans. In short, by being unnecessarily obstructionist and dogmatic, Senate Republicans are effectively stomping on their own feet.

Third, there is nothing in the constitution that says the president may defer action simply because he is in his final year of office. President Obama is required to make a nomination. Not making a nomination would actually be grounds for his impeachment. The Constitution is quite clear in the Appointments Clause by using the word shall (which is legally binding); it’s a solemn duty he must perform. The Senate must approve or reject the nomination. Excessive delays by the Senate are potentially unconstitutional too. We could see a court case to determine if the Senate must vote on appointments within a reasonable period of time. So suggestions that Obama simply defer nominating anyone would be perilous politically and constitutionally.

Fourth, there is legal precedent for Obama to make a recess appointment for a temporary justice to see out his term. The Senate is currently out of session and a previous Supreme Court ruling stated that such appointments could be made if the Senate is out of session for three days or more. Justice William Brennan got a recess appointment this way from President Eisenhower; Brennan was subsequently confirmed. I don’t expect Obama to go this route but if Republicans are adamant that they won’t hold a vote until after he leaves office, this is one method that appears to be legal that he could use.

Fifth, Scalia’s death and the extreme reactions by Republicans to filling his seat point to the tenuous hold that Republicans have on Congress. It doesn’t seem that way, particularly with their commanding majority in the House. Their House majority is largely a result of gerrymandering following the 2010 census. However, America’s demographics are quickly changing in a more liberal direction. Not only have Republicans done little to address these facts, they’ve made their problem worse by doubling down on policies that inflame voters that might otherwise vote for them. My suspicion is that ten years from now we’ll look at Scalia’s death as the beginning of the end of Republican control of government.

 
The Thinker

Republicans are simply racists and classists

Did you watch the last night’s Republican debate; you know the one where Donald Trump snippily decided he would not attend because he doesn’t like questions that Megyn Kelly might ask? You did? Good for you and apparently you are more into politics than I am. I was certain I’d learn nothing new and from the reviews I was right. So now voters wait warily for the results of the Iowa caucuses next Monday night. Let’s hope the Republicans get it right this time.

Some pundits are predicting the demise of the Republican Party after the next election. I’ll be lifting a glass of champagne if that happens to be the case. Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t recognize his own party anyhow. Republicans after all freed the slaves and today’s Republicans want to make them slaves again. I won’t be lifting my glass too high though because as bad as the Republican Party is, I do think whatever phoenix emerges from its ashes could actually be worse.

What got me thinking this way was reading the latest Washington Post OpEd by conservative Charles Krauthammer. After the obligatory sentences saying how Bernie Sanders couldn’t get elected because America doesn’t elect socialists (conveniently ignoring the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt won four terms on an effectively socialist platform, and by overwhelming majorities), Krauthammer looks at the factions within the G.O.P. In particular he notes that Donald Trump is not really conservative, certainly not in the sense that he wants to rollback social programs. In the same paper, Fareed Zakaria notes that Republicans have given lip service to getting rid of social programs and in many cases expanded them. In fact, he notes polls that economically conservative Republicans are going for Cruz over Trump by 15 percent, while Trump wins by 30 percent over Cruz from Republicans holding “progressive positions”, such as on health care, taxes, the minimum wage and the benefits of unions.

Well, this is a head scratcher, until you think about it a little while. One possibility is that Trump is expanding the Republican base, pulling in (principally white) people that don’t tend to vote Republican, or vote at all, because no one in the party represents them. However, there is no evidence that Republican Party registration is increasing significantly nationwide, as this recent Gallup poll attests. Zakaria does quote Michael Tessler of the Rand Corporation, who provided his statistics. Tessler says: “Trump performs best among Americans who express more resentment toward African Americans and immigrants and who tend to evaluate whites more favorably than minority groups.” This is a polite way of saying Trump does much better with the party’s racists. This is not surprising until you think about what this actually means.

What principally unites the Republican Party (to the extent it is united) is not fiscal conservatism. It’s not the importance of federalism (state control). It’s not God, an aggressive foreign policy and it’s certainly not Jesus. It’s not even guns. Their principle shared-value is that they think they are special and deserve a singular status over the rest of society, who they mostly look down on. In short, most of them are racists, even if they can’t even admit it to themselves. It’s more acceptable to be a classist, instead of a racist, which many will openly acknowledge. This basically means they don’t believe in egalitarianism and that some for whatever reasons (status, wealth, race, education, values) deserve to be privileged. Moreover because they are privileged, they should not feel (and apparently don’t feel) ashamed of this. It’s this energy that Trump is harnessing. When push comes to shove, this is what Republicans care about.

I believe it is part of Carl Rove’s master plan. He fed these primal fears to give the Republican Party oversize stature. They feel it slipping away, which is why Republican-led states enacted onerous voting restrictions. Their loss of their status, real or in many cases imaginary is their greatest motivation. Trump was savvy enough to cut through the bullshit and go for the jugular. This is why he is leading in the polls. (It does help to have so many competing candidates that the opposition is scattered.)

After all, if you want power it’s not about making a logical case; it’s about making a resonating emotional case. Fear is a great motivator and Republicans excel at looking behind their backs. Trump succeeds by saying that those others not like us are the cause of our fear of loss of status and privilege. Throw out the “illegals” and things may not be well, but they sure will be better. He has ruled out major changes to Medicare and Social Security because he’s read the polls and knows his fans support programs like these. Tax cuts go disproportionately to the wealthy but welfare goes disproportionately not to the poor, but to the middle class.

Medicare and Social Security are just two ways to keep the middle pacified, but it’s only the beginning. There is the employer health insurance tax credit, which annually costs three times as much as food stamps. There is the home mortgage interest deduction, tuition tax credits and even energy efficiency credits that go only to those who can afford to take advantage of them. Power is secured through keeping the rabble happy. Trump knows there are plenty in the middle who understand their standard of living is wobbly. The last thing most of these people want is more uncertainty to their standard of living, but they are perfectly happy to add uncertainty to those who don’t think and act like them: the others. Me first!

The Romans quickly realized that the rabble wasn’t happy unless the lions ate a gladiator or two now and then. They made it convenient for citizens to enjoy this entertainment by allowing everyone in for free. Trump is metaphorically doing the same thing: he is harnessing the power that is already there. He plays the crowd the same way Itzhak Perlman plays the violin. He plays up the juicy expectation of red meat to come: walls along the border with Mexico and less of the other among us. He says: less of them means more for us and will make us (the privileged) great again. And so they dance and he knows that the rest of the party will come along in time. The Republican Party leadership seems to understand which way the wind is blowing. Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus recently said as much, and even elder statesmen like Bob Dole seem to be acknowledging they will fall in line too. Power is what counts; whatever message gives them that power is okay.

It’s just that because of Donald Trump it’s now out in the open. Even Republicans can’t deny it anymore because their leading candidate simply won’t. They are the party of people like them: white racists and classists. They just can’t hide from it anymore.

 

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