Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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.

 
The Thinker

Recipe for dysfunction: the Flint water crisis

My wife and I have been watching the Flint Water crisis for the last year or so. It has been in the news for a long time, just on back pages of papers or in obscure news articles when it was mentioned at all. Now, of course, it is suddenly a national story.

We were following it in part because my wife was born in Flint, Michigan so stories from Flint will naturally flag her interest. When she first heard that the state of Michigan (acting as its manager) had changed Flint’s water source from Lake Huron (via Detroit’s system) to the local Flint River, she said, “This isn’t going to work”. Although considerably cleaned up from its polluted days, she knew the Flint River was still an unsafe water source, much like the Hudson River near Albany is after decades of General Electric dumping PCBs into the river. The river is not the sewer it once was but lots of crap still ends up in it.

In the auto industry’s heyday, Flint was Detroit’s younger brother, living off the auto business. While cars were certainly built in Flint, equally important was its role in supplying auto parts. ACDelco, for example, still has a plant in Flint although it is certainly smaller than it was. Over the years we have made a few trips to Flint. Like many cities in Michigan, it’s a pretty sad place. If you’ve been paying attention to Flint stories, you’ll learn there is much that is dysfunctional in Flint. For example, it has a police force that works 8 to 6, Monday through Friday. If you need help at other times call the county police and hope that they will respond. This was due to the city’s declining tax base. It could no longer afford a full-time police department. Long ago Flint was pimped for its cheap blue-collar labor, found even cheaper elsewhere, so the city underwent hard times from which it never recovered. It became another sad tale of urban blight, if you can call of city of 100,000 with lots of boarded up houses and a declining tax base “urban”.

A perfect storm came together to cause the Flint water crisis. It would be easy to blame this entirely on Michigan State government, and it certainly does earn the majority of the blame. But it’s clear that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had a hand in the problem, basically by not providing the oversight that was needed. When it detected a problem, it didn’t take effective action to hold Michigan accountable.

The impact of the problem is easy enough to see now: thousands children and adults with elevated lead levels, which are not easily corrected and will likely lead to lifelong cognitive problems. The problem is more than the lead, which is mostly a factor of the differently treated water going through old pipes rather than of contaminants in the Flint River. It’s mostly a story about an absence of government, but it’s also a story of ideology overriding common sense. It’s also a story about the drawbacks of federalism. I’ll tackle each of these.

For several decades now Republicans have been pushing the rube that government is the problem instead of the solution. The government than governs least governs best they opined, channeling Thoreau. Michigan voters bought into this and turned the state bright red when it elected Rick Synder in 2010 as its governor. That was also the year its legislature went red, when Republicans won the State House (they had previously controlled the State Senate). It was quite a change, with the house going from 67 Democrats to 47 Democrats. Republicans got carte blanc, controlling all the levers of state government. The usual stuff that happens when Republicans claim a state government started. This included legislation allowing the state to take over local governments that could not stay fiscally solvent. Flint was one major city (the other being Detroit) to be taken over by the state.

From Governor Snyder’s perspective, Flint residents proved they couldn’t govern themselves. This was their fault: they were incompetent. In fact the city was a victim of economic forces largely beyond their control. The city needed “adults” (i.e. mostly white men from nowhere near Flint) to take charge, adults appointed by Snyder with the consent of the state government. And thus half-baked solutions like changing Flint’s water supply became a way to make the city more lean and efficient. (In fact, the City of Detroit offered Flint a 50% discount to keep it as a customer but the offer was spurned.)

Unsurprisingly the new city managers were tone deaf to complaints from citizens about their discolored water or from a local pediatrician who kept trying to get their attention with actual test results. They were not accountable to any voters and being challenged on their actions simply set up a wall of cognitive dissonance: if you are so smart why did you let things get so bad? Those cute, misinformed and principally black Flint residents simply didn’t know what they were talking about. It’s clear though that had Flint not been taken over, it would not have done something so radical as to quickly change its water source, at least not without considerable deliberation and testing. The mayor and city council would have probably raised concerns like whether it would have affected the aging lead pipes in the city. Not doing so might jeopardize their reelection. But when you are an out of town manager not running for reelection, you do what you think is right and aren’t concerned much about local input.

Federalism empowers regional control by allowing states to make regional decisions. There are obviously virtues to federalism, but occasionally there are drawbacks as well. This was pretty obvious by the way the EPA mishandled this crisis. The regional EPA senior executive was mindful of the political consequences of getting too involved in the issue. Michigan was now bright red, and he could expect interference and hostility if he went out on a limb for Flint. He chose not to, which was obviously a mistake, but an understandable one given that the job requires making political choices. In politics sometimes you overlook individual deficiencies to address a larger goal. That’s probably what happened here, but the judgment was obviously a flawed one and led to his resignation. Michigan deserved to have its hand slapped, but more importantly it’s the EPA’s job to raise these issues to prevent exactly these sorts of situations.

And so a perfect storm happened. A tone-deaf and ideologically driven state government tried to do things its way with entirely predictable results. Thousands were sickened and will endure lifelong disabilities. Government served no one here, certainly not the residents of Flint, and became an obstruction to common sense governance.

It’s unclear to me if we will learn any lessons from this. Here are mine:

  • Government should not be run by ideologues but by people who want society to run like a well-oiled engine.
  • We need local input and local control if possible but sometimes local government can’t do it all and are victims of macro forces beyond their control, like Flint’s shrinking tax base and it’s not necessarily their fault.
  • State and federal resources should be used to empower and supplement local control, not to countermand it.
  • Government exists to serve the people, not just the people that fund politicians’ campaigns.
  • Most importantly, anyone who serves in government has the role of a fiduciary. They should be there not to destroy government but to make it run better. Gumming up its machinery won’t make it better, and that’s what happened here to tragic effects.
 
The Thinker

Reading the election tealeaves

I skipped the last Republican debate (for the reason see my last post) but I did catch Sunday’s Democratic debate and even live tweeted it. The dynamics of the coming election are starting to clear up in my mind. The 2016 election, like the 2008 election is a change election. By this I mean a major change election, not just an “oh, I’m sick of the last guy, so let’s try someone that looks good.” It is an election where voters will express their frustration that change is not happening fast enough. The big mystery is whose change version will sell.

Curiously both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are echoing similar themes: do something already! Trump’s approach is radical authoritarianism. He channels the frustration of those who simply put getting things done ahead of the messy business of constitutional government. He will make sure things get done and it’s pretty obvious that he will do it by fiat if Congress and the courts won’t back him. This is crazily dangerous to our constitutional government, but there are a lot of authoritarian-based Americans out there, and they simply don’t care anymore because they can’t remember the last time government worked. Authoritarians are comfortable with the ends justifying the means, providing of course that the ends are ends that they agree with.

Sanders has a similar message. He has specifically ruled out being an authoritarian president but does say that he is a democratic socialist. He appeals to many Democrats and independents because his motivation for being president is clearly not ego-based, but part of a larger agenda. Ironically, by never being a formal Democrat he carries gravitas. He has been an independent representative and senator from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats. This gave him the freedom to vote his convictions rather than to feel he had to tow the party line to gain power. It was a politically smart thing for him to do. For example, it allowed him to vote against the 2002 resolution for the use of force against Iraq whereas others like Senator Hillary Clinton felt arm-twisted to do so to ensure their future political career. Moreover, Sanders is credible. He has been on the right side of history time and again. Even Trump can’t say that, although he has never run as a politician before. Trump’s politics though have been all over the place during his career. In some ways Sanders is conservative, as he votes his conscience and principle, whereas Trump rides the waves of perceived voter concerns.

Hillary Clinton and to some extent “moderate” Republican candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich represent institutionalism, i.e. the traditional party structure which is top-down and consensus-based. The others sense a grassroots uprising fed by the inability of government to act in the people’s interests. Of course each candidate has his or her own idea of what the people’s interests actually are, and they are often so bizarre as to be comical because they bear no resemblance to modern America or even to the values that pollsters report that register the most. Their values are whatever they see in the mirror and they move in circles that amplify that view. In general, Americans are impatient with political parties as they have evolved simply because they don’t represent their interests. Instead they feel pimped by them. They voted for people who say the words but don’t follow up with deeds.

What makes Sanders interesting to me is not just his politics, which I largely agree with. It’s that he is not so much interested in being president as fomenting what he calls a “political revolution”. Even his supporters don’t really understand where he is planning to go. Yes, he wants the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, but what he really wants is Congress of and by the people again. If he wins the nomination you will see this in earnest, as he will move from venue to venue, including southern states, to build this grassroots political revolution: a “throw the bums out who haven’t acted in your interests” campaign. The odds are against him, particularly in the House, but politicians underestimate his power. Oddly, both he and Trump hold sway over some of the same voters. I expect that Sanders will be working to convince Trump’s voters that a political revolution is a better approach than Trump’s scary authoritarianism.

To some extent both Trump and Sanders supporters are masquerading their own motivations and anxieties, which they can’t seem to acknowledge. I don’t believe the authoritarians really want to recreate a fake 1950s “Leave it to Beaver” America. What they really want is a social contract again, i.e. a sense of normalcy. They are painfully aware that their carpet has been pulled up from under them. Their dads retired on pensions. They remember good public schools. They remember being proud of being American. But their cheese has been moved. Sanders response is to say, “Hey, your cheese has been moved and it’s not minorities and Mexicans. It’s big business and the very well off have bought an oligarchy”. Sanders has to convince these authoritarians that power comes from uniting on their common interests. This is why when he campaigns in the South he gets big crowds, often bigger than Trump’s. He is tapping into the same anxiety.

I have no idea how this will all fall out. No candidate is perfect and there are plenty of candidates who are reprehensible human beings and make you feel ashamed for your country. Just make no mistake: the real animus in this election is an often-inchoate feeling by many in the middle and on the sides that no one is truly on their side. Unlike Trump, Sanders has a consistent career of more than thirty years in politics that demonstrates he is on their side of these issues. You hear it in his voice and I certainly heard it during Sunday’s debate. Sanders was nearly hoarse from shouting at one point. There is conviction in is voice, in his mannerisms, in his eyes and in his demeanor that is stunningly authentic and sincere. This is certainly not true of Donald Trump, who has never held a consistent position about anything other than perhaps putting his personal profit over people’s needs. It’s not true of Hillary Clinton and it’s definitely not true with Republican weasels like Ted Cruz.

If people truly want an authentic candidate then I expect Sanders will increasingly resonate as they start to tune in, as they are doing during these debates. The question is: can it become a crescendo in time? There are many political and institutional forces that will put up obstacles to such a plain man from the heart, including Democratic Party chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. During the next couple of months, this will all become much clearer.

 
The Thinker

How to take down Trump

One of my nightmares is waking up the first Wednesday of November and finding out that Donald Trump is our president elect. There are lots of sane reasons to think that this simply can’t happen. The Donald’s negatives are through the roof. Last July a Washington Post/ABC News poll reported 61 percent of voters would never vote for Trump, but that was before he started running in earnest. In December, according to a Quinnipiac survey, fifty percent of registered voters last month said they would be embarrassed if he were our president. One thing that makes me leery is that people were saying the same things about Ronald Reagan but mainly by force of his personality plus that certain intangible something that people saw in his eyes he became president anyhow. We are still stuck in the Reagan wreckage, and arguably Donald Trump is the latest creature to crawl out of it.

There is no question that Trump has charisma, although lots of people see past it. So many factors affect who will be our next president. Much could hinge on the economy, but a lot of it will simply have to do with who gets nominated and how enthusiastic each party is about their candidate. Republicans probably won’t be enthusiastic if Trump is nominated, at least not establishment Republicans. But Trump though is going for a bigger audience and he is attracting principally disaffected whites, many of which haven’t voted in recent elections. They like his brash style and take charge attitude and see it as authentic, but mostly he plays on their fears, an unstated fear of losing white privilege. While Trump has high negatives, so does Hillary Clinton. Trump is a master persuader, Clinton not so much considering how President Obama managed to win the 2008 Democratic nomination. So yes, it’s possible, although I would like to take comfort in polls that suggest it just won’t happen.

Back in 2012 as that process went forward I offered my thoughts on how to deal with political bullies. Four years later the post still gets regular hits. The Republican presidential field has many bullies. Trump certainly is one but (among those still in the running) others include Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina. All are used to getting their way and will use tactics fair or foul to achieve it.

Trump though combines bullying with other non-bullying tactics including humor, demagoguery, flippant remarks and a well-practiced technique of staying in the news. Pretty much every day he will say or do something controversial specifically so he will stay at the top of the news. Most recently was a deprecating remark about Ted Cruz being born in Canada and how that could be a problem. While a lot of what he spews is crazy, it’s actually quite well thought out. Rest assured that Trump has lots of lines and tactics in reserve that he will use to cut down the competition. He has a keen sense of when to release a quip or barb so that it will be most wounding.

Trump is a different kind of bully, most of who have only a couple of tactics they repeat ad nauseam. With Trump, you never know what will come out of his mouth next, but you do know it will be something and it will be controversial and entertaining. Surprise is one of his unique weapons. Hillary Clinton, if she wins the Democratic Party nomination, is likely to be too civilized to go for the jugular like Donald. Trump excels at getting people off their gait and you know he has some waiting for her when their time is optimal. Ideally Clinton needs to get Trump off his gait, which no one seems to be able to do. She (or Bernie Sanders should he win the nomination) needs to channel their inner Molly Ivins. Also, she to plant a meme in the voters mine now that will grow and win. Identifying that meme and planting it early may be crucial to winning in November.

In 2012 the winning meme was that Mitt Romney didn’t understand ordinary working people. The surreptitious recordings that he thought 47% of us were moochers made it stick like superglue. Due to Trump’s wealth and disdain for all sorts of groups, this can potentially work again. However, it will be harder because Trump is drawing many of these people. Trump is running a Fox News election by creating a theme and hammering it in relentlessly. You must have been asleep for the last six months not to know it: Make America Great Again.

What could be Clinton’s meme? Perhaps she could borrow portions of Trump’s theme. Here is my suggestion for an election meme for the Democratic candidate: Make America Whole Again. She could appeal to the disaffected by promising to be the president not to push a liberal agenda but to bring America together again. She could say that if elected she will champion the cause of moderates. She could promise to end gerrymandering, which simply removes moderates from the political process. For example, she could promise to pass a law that requires states to draw districts that are politically neutral and are overseen by impartial federal judges. She could run a campaign for the people, not just those with wealth.

She could say that our current poisonous partisanship is a cancer on our society and our government, and that Trump is exploiting it. (In fairness, Bernie Sanders has been saying this throughout his campaign.) In fact, she could say that Trump embodies this cancer and is making it metastasize. Fortunately Trump has quite a record that would be easy to exploit, for example his statement earlier in the campaign that Americans were being paid too much and aren’t working hard enough. This is laughable to anyone actually in the workforce today.

“Make America Whole Again” is the perfect rejoinder to Trump’s slogan. It plays on his slogan but makes it positive and sounds like something your mother would say. It acknowledges that things have gotten seriously off track but that she is the right one to fix it. She could even say that as a woman and mother, she knows it is true. She can play on the lessons that she learned, from her failure by being too insular in her health care legislation that she championed as First Lady, to her work as Secretary of State to help bind the wounds of a complex world. She can recall the real America she grew up with, that was hopeful and where America’s leadership was earned and based on respect and our beneficence. Trump’s entire demeanor is disrespectful. It could be a campaign about restoring our respect by making our government representative of everyone.

A campaign message of wholeness and integrity I think would have real legs, because it is authentic, not weaselly. One thing that is totally clear about Donald Trump is he lacks integrity. If the 2016 campaign becomes an integrity meme, then I think Trump can be neutered.

 
The Thinker

The southern strategy bites back

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recently wrote that Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party permanently. In the past the establishment elite controlled the party. Unfortunately well-moneyed Republicans were relatively few in number. They had to find votes somewhere so they adopted a “southern strategy” that pandered to the fears and prejudices of those principally in the south. This included crass appeals to classists, racists, fundamentalist Christians and to those who wished for things to be the way they were in the 1950s, you know, when non-whites knew their place.

It worked quite well. Essentially the Republicans picked up formerly white southern Democrats when Democrats (some say unwisely) moved toward being more inclusive instead of the party of the white working class. Starting with Richard Nixon, Republicans realized that catering to people’s prejudices was a reliable vote getter. Republicans stoked then exploited these class divisions and anxieties so well that today the south and much of the non-coastal west is now a deep shade of red. Robinson said that Trump’s genius was to call to task Republicans because they didn’t follow through on their promises to this new base, actions like sending undocumented immigrants home. He said that Trump has fundamentally changed the party, wresting control from its establishment and making it explicitly a party centered on addressing these fears rather than merely pandering to them.

It used to be that in the Republican Party the tiger controlled its tail. The tail (the Tea Party, racists and Christian fundamentalists) now appears to control the party. We’ll find out for sure if Trump wins his party’s nomination. Even if Trump somehow slips, anyone who takes his place will have to sound a lot like him, which is why Ted Cruz won’t say anything bad about Trump while echoing most of his talking points. Counterproductively, the remaining Republican candidates are busy criticizing each other instead of focusing on Trump, at best a pennywise but pound-foolish strategy.

The Republican Party is thus on the cusp of becoming an officially anti-democratic party. It’s clear this is where they’ve been heading for a long time given their hostility toward the poor made manifest in egregious gerrymandering and increasingly odious voting restrictions. It’s like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Republicans have decided they are the pigs. What Republicans don’t want to admit is that any control they get must be tenuous at best, as the nation’s changing demographics will eventually overwhelm them. They already recognize their reality by creating egregious voter restriction laws. These stack the deck in their favor but they cannot last forever.

Trump’s policies are popular with his supporters because he is proposing actions that explicitly redress these problems. He wants to deport the undocumented and cut off a path to citizenship for those here legally. Do this and you can at least push off the date of white disempowerment. When Trump proposes a wall along our border with Mexico, what his supporters hear is not that it will deter the undocumented from coming into the United States, but that it is a concrete step toward moving us back to the 1950s when they were in charge and minorities knew their place.

An explicitly anti-democratic party should be very scary to the rest of us. It suggests that Republicans want a radical change to our constitutional government. Trump’s words at least suggest he plans to govern by fiat if he cannot get his way.

It’s understandable that many voters are frustrated with the gridlock in Washington. I am one of them. They want to elect someone that can end it. By supporting someone who will use non-constitutional means though, they tacitly are saying that this is the only way things can change. If elected, Trump’s methods appear to be to take action unlawfully and unilaterally if necessary. He can say that he ran on this promise, voters voted him in anyhow and thus he has their sanction. However, the problem of Washington gridlock has everything to do with excessive gerrymandering that Republicans spent decades working on to garner disproportionate political power. Gerrymandering gives power to the extremes and disempowers the middle.

Curiously many of Trump’s political supporters are not new Republicans but frustrated disempowered people in the middle who see him as their savior. You can see this because some of Trump’s policies are not traditionally conservative at all. His supporters are less concerned with whether the policies are conservative but whether he can make government function for the people again. They see Trump as a man of practical action who by using the force of personality and the presidency will untangle this Gordian knot. For decades the disenfranchised white working class has propped up the Republican Party’s power, with little to show for the support they were given. This gave an opening for the daring (Trump) to exploit.

I contend that what really irks Trump supporters are not the loss of white political power, but their ability to influence politicians to work for the middle class, as evidenced by their declining wages and more problematic standard of living. As Jimmy Carter has pointed out, we effectively live in an oligarchy now. The Republican Party is the champion of the oligarchy. And the oligarchy wants a sense of stability that leaves them in charge. Then they can exploit government and the country for their benefit, which in recent decades has meant a decline in the standard of living for most of us be redistributing income to the rich.

Trump supporters are realizing that they have been had and their votes for Republicans have been counterproductive, but for many they still can’t vote for a Democrat because most Democrats don’t believe in the specialness of whites that Republicans have skillfully exploited. However, it’s why Bernie Sanders can appeal to many Trump supporters, and visa versa, by channeling their economic frustrations. Both are speaking to them in a language they understand. Trump though has chosen to pander to the white working class.

Both parties have exploited working whites for many decades. Whites perceive that Democrats favor minorities at their expense resulting, which they attribute to erosion in their standard of living. They also perceive that Republicans pander to them for votes but give power to the oligarchy instead. They don’t realize that by uniting with many of those they instinctively revile that government could work for them, and in the process work for everyone else too.

To make that leap they must see behind the façade, which is that white Christians are somehow more special than everyone else. I expect the smarter Trump supporters will leach off toward supporting Bernie Sanders instead.

Trump is a showman and a fraud. Those who want the real deal though need to support someone whose entire career has been toward making the government represent the people. By raising the boats of the middle and lower classes, the anxiety about these others should ease.

 
The Thinker

The libertarianism in the Internet

It can be dangerous when politicians open their mouths. In the case of Donald Trump, it’s because he spews hatred and racism and has gathered support from a lot of dittoheads for doing so. But in one way both he and Hillary Clinton have something in common: they don’t really understand the Internet. It would have been wise to defer saying anything at all when you really don’t know what you are talking about.

Trump’s mistake was saying that he was open to closing parts of the Internet as part of the war on the Islamic State, a war that has never been officially declared. I can give Trump only half a demerit because he was prompted by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s question, which asked if he would do this, and it’s really a trick question. If Trump knew what he was talking about he’d have said, “Well, of course that’s not possible.” Hillary Clinton opened her mouth a bit too wide in last Saturday’s debate she said that some sort of Manhattan-like project could allow the government to decrypt messages while ensuring everyone’s privacy. But at least she said, “I don’t know enough about the technology”. So a point to her for honesty.

If you want to kill the Internet, kill all the people. Even that won’t work immediately. All those routers would still be moving data around, but no one would be around to read any of it so it would effectively be dead. Why is this? It’s because the Internet was designed to be resilient and effectively unstoppable. What secret communist organization was responsible for such a nefarious deed? Why, that would be the United States Department of Defense. More specifically, it was DARPA: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known back in the 1960s when it was creating the Internet as ARPA.

And it made sense. At that time, the Internet was not envisioned to be a global network for just anyone, but it was designed to make sure that defense establishments and universities doing defense work could chat with each other electronically and move files around this way. The architecture that was designed ensured that if one path between sender and receiver was down or slow, some other path would be chosen instead. The message had to get through. On the plus side, at least in its initial phases, the Internet was all plain text. Encryption was not a worry because it was not a classified network, but where it was a worry secure lines were leased from the telephone company.

Today’s Internet is basically the old ARPANet’s infrastructure from the 1970s open to everyone. Everyone used it because it was the only model out there but also because it was noncommercial and standards-based. Some private networks from the distant past you may remember tried to do something similar: Compuserve and AOL were two that discovered it could not compete with the awesomeness of the real Internet, once people could access it.

We can’t shut down the Internet on the Islamic State. We can certainly make it more difficult but alas, as the Internet has evolved, so too have the ways to transmit and receive signals. In the old ARPA days I’m pretty sure the only way was to lease lines from AT&T. Today the Internet goes across virtually all data networks. Shut down the Islamic State’s landlines and they will use cell towers. Take down cell towers and maybe they will use microwave relays or satellite dishes. Take down the dishes and they can use portable satellite phones. In any event there are plenty of IS-related terrorists not actually in the Islamic state and they can chat between themselves, it’s just that they will have an easier time of it than those in the Islamic State.

Those of you out there wondering what a libertarian world might look like can see it in the Internet. The Internet excels at fast and disparate information sharing. It also excels in being able to get its messages through come hell, high water or terrorists. No one back in the 1960s could project what the Internet would morph into, but it was all based on protocols that from day one were open and designed to move data quickly. These protocols can be changed, but only in an evolutionary manner if they become a consensus adaptation. Even so, the old protocols will continue to traverse the Internet and all that is needed is the software to send or receive Internet Protocol (for packets) and Transmission Control Protocol (for a message made up of packets). And TCP/IP protocol is built into virtually every computer that communicates with another computer, not to mention all the switches and routers between sender and receiver.

Obviously this architecture has some problems, which are not problems if you are a libertarian. You want the free flow of information and you don’t want government controlling or monitoring it. The good part is the enormous amount of information sharing that occurs that makes our lives such much more interesting and rewarding. The bad side is it empowers terrorists, child pornographers and general criminals to do the same thing.

As for encryption, this is not something where you can have your cake and eat it too. The NSA cleverly put in encryption backdoors into products sold by most of these encryption devices. The encryption industry is now onto this. Tech savvy criminals have already found solutions like OpenPGP, which can likely keep the NSA from eavesdropping, at least in real-time. The government is getting better and faster at decrypting messages by throwing massive parallel computers to decrypt them. Moore’s Law is making it possible to decrypt almost any message without waiting for days, months or years for an answer. Obviously the NSA needs to be pretty selective when they throw these sorts of resources onto decrypting a message.

There is no “let’s have our cake and eat it too” solution to decrypting intercepted messages in real-time. The NSA with its private-key backdoors already tried it, but that’s not an issue if you use devices that don’t have these backdoors. Like it or not, the Internet is must-have technology and it will be used for purposes both good and bad. There is no tech fix to these problems.

However, a social strategy will help somewhat. Encouraging good citizens to rat on their fellow citizens they suspect of illegal use of the Internet is probably the only pragmatic way to address this issue. In that sense, the libertarians, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense, have already won.

 
The Thinker

Give us a real retirement (or the 401K/IRA trap)

There are some proposals afloat (from progressives naturally) to increase social security payments. Social security used to be enough to marginally live on with Medicare helping by reducing health care cost spikes. Social security is supposedly indexed for inflation but it’s clear that the index doesn’t measure the true cost of living. If you depend almost entirely on social security, you are either slipping into poverty or are already there. So conceptually Senator Elizabeth Warren’s idea looks like a good one. The money will get quickly spent anyhow, which will boost the economy. Of course either deficits will increase or taxes will need to be raised to pay for it. There’s no consensus to do either, so seniors (those that can) do their best to get by. In many cases they remain partially or fully employed while being “retired”. I see them all the time at the registers of my local Costco.

Social security was never designed to keep you fat and rich in retirement, just set a basic floor above the poverty line. The assumption was that the house and cars were paid off so it would allow you to live modestly where you were at. If you desired a richer standard of living, you drew off any pensions or retirement savings that you might have. Pensions are much better than retirement savings but turned out to be too expensive for many companies to continue to voluntarily fund. The alternative, when they were offered at all, was a 401K or similar retirement savings plan. Better employers match your contribution up to a certain amount. If you didn’t have a 401K plan at work, you still had the option of an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

IRA’s sound good in principle too, but they require you to be proactive, i.e. regularly put a portion of your income aside. Worse, you shouldn’t touch the money. If you do touch it you must refund your account with interest and pay a penalty. The problem with an IRA was that even if you were methodical about putting money aside you couldn’t put a whole lot of it aside. This year you can put up to $5500 a year into a traditional or Roth IRA.

Assuming a middle class income of $50,000 a year or so, putting $5500 into an IRA amounts to ten percent of your salary, a high hurdle that most cannot make. But let’s say you manage to sock $5000 a year aside and do so for 40 years, something that would be excruciatingly hard for most of us with expenses like rent, car payments and childcare. Let’s say you somehow managed to earn six percent on the investment after fees. This means after forty years you would have $772,000 to help you live a nicer retirement. Is this enough?

You would think that the answer would be yes. Let’s say you expect to have thirty years in retirement, which means you could withdraw $25,700 a year over thirty years before running out of money. The amount you would get from social security would depend on how many years and how much you contributed to it. In 2011, the average social security check was $1180 a month. Without a pension or matching contributions from your employers to your 401K, this means an income of $3321 a month, or $40,000 a year.

Remember this is the best realistic case for a person that self funds their retirement because their employer won’t. It assumes a middle class wage earner, say a skilled mechanic, who is methodical about investing for retirement and can do so consistently. If your house is paid off do you think you can live comfortably on $40,000 a year in retirement? Most likely you are shaking your head. Since this is the best realistic case, your actual yearly retirement income is probably more like $20,000 to $30,000 with social security, absent other sources of income. No wonder I see so many grandmas and grandpas working at Costco. What they needed was a pension, but since their employer didn’t provide one they are making up the difference with a (probably part time) job at Costco. Costco at least provides a living wage, so perhaps they are supplementing their retirement income by $20,000. Maybe with working they have $50,000 in income per year. Is that enough to live on? Maybe, but you are working and not really retired.

My point is that 401Ks and IRAs are not viable retirement solutions for almost all of us, even with social security, although they were sold as real solutions. Moreover, social security income is not keeping up with the true cost of living. Sometimes even with a pension you don’t earn enough. This is the case with my brother in law. He retired some two decades ago on a community college pension where he worked programming the college’s mainframe computers. My sister (his wife) is in her sixties. He’s probably at or around seventy. She’s earning some money as an in-home health care aid, likely at less than $15 an hour. Last I heard he was helping manage a Disney store at Orlando International Airport. They get by, but at best they are partly retired.

We either have to give up the idea of ever really retiring or we need to find a way to fund retirement so that your retirement income is somewhere in the range of 70% to 80% of your pre-retirement income, which financial planners say you need to have something close to the same standard of living you had before retirement. To consider what a high hurdle that is, most financial planners (like ours) say not to withdraw more than 3% from your portfolio a year, at least if you want to maintain its value and have something to pass on or some extra savings to fall back on if you live to 100. This means if you want $60,000 in income per year from your retirement savings, you need to retire with a nest egg of $2,000,000. Yowza!

What we really needs are real pensions again. I know what you are thinking, “Isn’t social security a pension?” Well, yes, sort of, just a subsistence pension and it is funded jointly between the employer and the employee. It’s not a living pension, i.e. the sort of pension your parents or grandparents routinely got. Employers don’t have to provide pensions and most won’t. Moreover, many that did have pensions have reduced benefits or have turned the problem over to the government when the fund became insolvent. The real issue was that the private pension system became unworkable, mostly because Congress let it get that way. This doesn’t mean that a real public pension system couldn’t work instead.

Think of such a system as social security on steroids, or perhaps social security evolved. The problem is how to make such a system solvent. Asking employees to contribute too much more probably does not make much sense although many employees would be happy to contribute their 401K contributions toward a public pension system for a higher pension on retirement. Such a system could be funded through taxing employers more. Corporate taxes after all are a smaller and diminishing portion of total federal income, as corporations get increasingly clever at dodging these taxes. This means companies like General Electric pay virtually no federal income taxes. It shouldn’t be hard to have laws that would require GE to pay enough in taxes to fund a public pension for its employees. It would probably be pocket change to their overall profits.

Just as we have a graduated income tax where higher income taxpayers pay proportionally more of their income than lower income taxpayers, the same thing could work in the corporate (and non-profit) world to fund a public pension for all workers. It’s understood that Dollar General’s profits per employee would be lower than GE’s, so their taxes for funding a public pension system would be lower. The government actuaries would have responsibility for making sure it is doable. If some of GE’s contributions effectively go to prop up the pension of Dollar General employees, that’s perfectly fine as the costs are being socialized across the public at large. This is the way insurance works, after all. Companies will come and go but the government does not. If Dollar General goes belly up, whatever replaces it will pick up its slack.

So this is my solution. If this required funds to be invested in well-managed stocks or bonds, using a life cycle fund approach, I am fine with that, as long as those investing these funds are held to a fiduciary standard. Expecting that people can self-fund their own retirement anymore is unrealistic. I hope my analysis show why this is so. Someone has to pick up that slack.

Taxing the profits of corporations (similar payments would be needed from non-profits) for the purpose of public pensions could allow people to have actual retirements again, like your parents or grandparents had. We just have to choose to act.

 
The Thinker

Following the leader

Oh good, I’m not the only one horribly alarmed by Donald Trump. Actually there are plenty of us, including the editorial staffs of The New York Times and The Washington Post. It shouldn’t take much to feel very alarmed if you actually listen to what Trump has to say. He asserts wild claims as facts that are wholly untrue; such as thousands of Muslims in America were cheering when the Twin Towers went down on 9/11. If that weren’t enough, he is now openly racist. This should not surprise anyone who has been paying attention to him. Trump is one of the earliest to claim that Obama was not born in the United States. Now when members of his overwhelmingly white audiences beat up Black Lives Matters protestors at his rallies, he encourages their lawlessness by saying that maybe protestors had it coming. He wants more waterboarding of terrorist suspects, and wants to surveil American Muslims and mosques.

Normally competing candidates would distance themselves from such wild remarks. With one exception though the remaining Republican candidates seem to be busy following the leader, moving sharply to the right on most of these issues and at best offering nuanced differences between themselves and Trump. I had thought for a long time that the Republican Party was a racist party. Research now proves me right. Some will doubtless point out the success of some black candidates like Ben Carson as proof that the party is not racist. However, when a Carson or Herman Cain comes along they only “succeed” when they parrot principles that keep members of their own race from succeeding. In short, if a black candidate in the Republican Party is stupid enough to say stuff that amounts to “let the beatings on us continue” then the party is happy to let them in.

Still, it’s very discouraging to realize that the Republican Party is basically about maintaining white privilege at all costs. This is after all the party that succeeded in freeing the slaves. Republicans talk all about their party being for an opportunity society while giving those without opportunity fewer means to climb the ladder. In fact, they work actively to remove rungs from that ladder. They actively disenfranchise voters likely to vote for candidates they don’t like. Most red states won’t extend the Medicaid franchise to the working poor (which includes lots of whites). With Medicaid there is some semblance of a floor under their feet that might allow them to get to the next rung. They actively whip up the poorer white folk to work against their own interests. Kentucky governor-elect Matt Bevin won office principally from votes from poor white Kentuckians who are likely to have their new Medicaid benefits (under a KyNect program umbrella) removed. It’s so sad to see these racial levers pushed because it depends on selling poor white people on the notion that they may be poor but are “better” than their darker poor neighbors because they don’t get help from the government, help they desperately need simply to survive.

In any event Trump has moved from carnival barker to pied piper. If the Republican Party were a church, a great revival would be underway, the parishioners would be dancing in the pews and more than a few would be talking in tongues. Trump has effectively hypnotized his own party and has whipped them into a frenzy. He is counting on this of course, because enthusiastic voters vote disproportionately and he will need an overwhelming white vote and a lackluster Democratic vote to win the presidency. The nightmare for most of us is imagining how a President Trump would actually govern. One would hope he would quickly sober up, but there is little likelihood of that. This is because he shows no signs that he actually believes and respects the constitution and laws of the United States.

Trump is an egomaniac. He believes himself not only gifted but also faultless. Of course he is the only person savvy enough to navigate us through these turbulent times, in spite of his many failed marriages and four bankruptcies. He has many of us hypnotized. Since civics is rarely taught anymore he has many of us believing that he could actually do things like building a wall along the Mexican border and making Mexico pay for it. The real danger is that he will do by fiat the stuff he says he will do, which will be against the law. However, he will be counting on the American people to stand by his lawlessness. In short he is showing every sign of being a fascist: an American Mussolini. His tendency to double down suggests that he believes the end justifies the means.

Is there a sane Republican on the debate stage? The lone sane one remaining is Ohio Governor John Kasich, who recently released a damning video on Trump. Due to his poor fundraising it will largely be ignored. What should a sane Republican do? Since Republicans supposedly stand on principle, those who have any left should bail. Perhaps John Kasich and Jim Webb could form a party for sane moderates. There are Republican candidates who if they showed spine could also set an example by leaving. You know most of the candidates on stage don’t believe half the crap they are spouting, including Trump who is more about the end than the means. It’s largely Trump’s presence that has them saying such weird anti-immigrant stuff.

I study American history and frankly I can’t think of a time in our history quite as dangerous today. Our constitutional government is seriously threatened by a Trump presidency. Trump is showing that he has neither morals nor scruples and will do or say anything that will get him nominated. Polls seem to be bearing this out. Democrats will nominate someone sane, but they will need someone sane but passionate to close the enthusiasm gap. Hillary Clinton is not that candidate. However, Bernie Sanders is.

The 2016 election will be an enthusiasm election. Whichever side has more of it will win. Traditionally you could count on the American people to act rationally, but not this time. Which leaves me (an agnostic) considering prayer. Pray for our country.

 
The Thinker

Open season on a fixed income

It’s open season time and you know what that means. For most of us it means not bothering to take the time to see if there is a better medical, dental or vision plan out there. And by “us” I definitely mean “me”, at least until this year. Although I retired in 2014, I was working for most of it so it was easy to go on autopilot in 2015.

This year though I am fully retired and living on perhaps seventy percent of my previous income. This year although our expenses have gone up, for some reason my fully indexed cost of living pension won’t be, a factor somehow of falling gas prices. I’m not alone. Lots of pensioners and social security recipients feel like they have been cheated. The problem is that the official cost of living index is bogus. While I might spend a couple of hundred dollars less in gasoline this year than I did last year, food prices have gone up and eating is not optional. If prices are holding steady, the word hasn’t gone out to my city. The real estate assessment was $15.80 per thousand dollars of assessed value this year. In 2016 it jumps to $16.16. Moreover I just bought a new house for about $486,000 but it’s been assessed at $500,000. This means we need to pay $401 more just in property taxes yet with no increase in income.

So value is becoming more important. We’ve been on Blue Cross for more than a decade, but Blue Cross too is tightening the screws. With no changes we would pay over $650 a year more in premiums. Copays have been increased as well, up $5 each for primary care and specialists. We (my wife in particular) see lots of doctors. It’s not hard to rack up a hundred visits between the two of us per year. We could easily spend another $1000 a year on health costs next year for no increase in services. We would have to do this with no cost of living raise.

Thus I felt I no longer had the luxury of inertia. As I started to examine my options, I quickly realized why I had punted all these years. It’s because while choice is good in theory when it comes to health insurance it is mind-numbingly exasperating and time consuming. It’s something of a crap shoot as to which plan offers you the best value, since you have no way of knowing how much care you will actually need. About all you can do is use past years as a benchmark, and that means analyzing all your health expenditures. (Note: if you are a federal employee, federal annuitant or survivor of either, Checkbook has a useful guide that costs less than $10 that can help a lot.)

Since I spent a day just analyzing health insurance options, it’s a good thing I am retired. I doubt I would have this sort of leisure if I were still working. I had to sift through the details of all the various plans and see if I could find some magic combination that is not overly expensive, rated reasonably well and with most of our doctors “in network”. I had to analyze premiums, deductibles, copays, limitations on types of services, and which of our doctors were on each plan. I’m still not entirely clear which plan offers the best value, but it’s pretty clear it’s no longer Blue Cross.

I can also change my dental insurance and add vision insurance during open season. I already have a long term care policy, but no insurer would insure my wife so when that time comes we’ll have to depend on savings. Which opens up another can of worms that retirees have to grapple with. If you have some major and unplanned costs, where do you get the money?

Since we recently settled on a house a lot of our reserves have gone to pay lawyers and other busybodies. We’re hardly without savings but if I had to put my hands on $75,000 or so in cash it would be a challenge. A 401-K or IRA is not like a faucet that you turn on and off at whim. You generally get just a one chance a year change to adjust the spigot – during open season.

We supplement my pension with a modest monthly withdrawal from my 401K. On the advice of my financial adviser, I’m limiting withdrawals to 3% of the portfolio. This will in theory keep our nest egg secure, not growing in value (over inflation) but not losing value either. I can up the withdrawals to say 4% and slowly build up cash reserves at the expense of paying more income taxes and a smaller portfolio. I can hope no major expenses like this happen. I can get another home equity loan and use that when needed, but that money certainly won’t be free. The other alternative is to get another job, something I’d prefer to avoid since leisure is the whole point of retirement.

Since when you are retired you can’t easily change your income and expenses are hard to control sober retirees have to look forward a lot. Our new house is nice but like every other house it will move toward decay. We’ll eventually need money to replace the air conditioner, roof and buy cars when the old ones expire. This didn’t used to be a problem. I had enough income where I could pay for most of these expenses out of pocket or from our savings account. Now I have to anticipate them.

Unable to think of a better strategy, I looked at what these expenses cost us before. I made some realistic estimate of when these expenses would hit and what they might cost then with inflation. So I’m setting aside some of our income to draw from for these expenses in the future. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a start. It’s also sobering. I’ve created a car replacement fund assuming we’ll buy two cars for $25,000 each in today’s dollars, one in 2019 and one in 2023. To reach the goal I must place $481 of our income monthly into an escrow account. Similarly for all these future house expenses, I’ve created a capital fund. If my numbers are accurate, $343 a month set aside for these expenses should cover them.

All this is well and good but it leaves less money to actually enjoy your retirement particularly when your expenses go up when the government says they haven’t. Which is why I’m reluctantly becoming value-driven in retirement. Every expense needs a second look, including our health care costs. So I need to shop around.

As for health insurance, since I am an ex-federal employee I’ll probably bid adieu to trusty but expensive Blue Cross and say hello to the National Association of Letter Carrier’s plan instead. Lower premiums, lower deductibles, similar services and a reasonably good choice of doctors will probably go a long way to keeping these expenses unchanged in 2016. We’ll see. If not I’ll be crunching the numbers again in a year at the next open season.

Health insurance in the United States is needlessly complex. If there must be competition then the government should require that all plans offer the same services so we could shop around more easily. Or perhaps we could do what every other first world country does: create a national health care system. Then instead of figuring out how much health you can afford you could simply get the care you need instead. Sign me up for that!

 
The Thinker

The roots of terrorism

Ever get this strange feeling of déjà vu? Last Friday’s horrific terrorist events in Paris are being called France’s 9/11. Last I checked there were 129 mostly French citizens murdered in six separate but obviously well coordinated terrorist incidents in Paris, and more than three hundred wounded. I don’t think it’s coincidental that these incidents occurred on a Friday the Thirteenth. The date may not have the same unlucky connotation in France that it has here in the United States, but ISIS (which admitted to sponsoring the acts) and al Qaeda know the power of marketing and symbolism. Anything that they can do to make such events more memorable will be done, and tying events like this to memorable dates is one.

Shortly after 9/11 here in the United States, our military did the expected things. We sent our air force into Afghanistan. In our case it worked reasonably well, at least at first, because we destroyed the Taliban government there that hosted al Qaeda. We installed our own more secular and western government in its place; a form of government that was not natural to the region and which unsurprisingly caused a strong insurgency.

Fourteen years later al Qaeda is a diminished presence in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is hardly stable, secular or particularly democratic. The Taliban are resurgent and it looks like more civil war is ahead there; in fact it has already begun. Our leadership took being caught with its pants down as a sign that America had to be proactive to address these threats, so we unwisely toppled Saddam Hussein. The state of ISIS, such as it is, is a direct result of that unwise action. Indirectly, the U.S. has contributed to last Friday’s events.

The French government of course quickly decided that their own 9/11 could not go unanswered, so it sent its considerable air force to bomb targets in Syria controlled by ISIS in coordination with our own. This was done to presumably degrade and destroy ISIS that just last week President Obama unwisely asserted was contained. ISIS proudly admitted that it had planned and coordinated these attacks. It was done for the same reason that Osama bin Laden planned and coordinated 9/11. His goal was not so much to destroy the United States, as it was to use the U.S. as a proxy to further his cause. And it worked amazingly well for him, actually better than he imagined as our invasion of Iraq introduced anarchy that eventually allowed ISIS to rise.

Presumably France won’t go the extra mile the way the United States did in Iraq, but it does not have our vast military resources anyhow. Presumably its leadership is a bit clearer-headed than ours was after 9/11 and realizes these military strikes are more to satisfy their citizens’ cry for a counterpunch rather than to meaningful affect a particular outcome.

Fires remain fires only as long as they have a combination of fuel and oxygen. Understood in this context, ISIS’s actions were predictable. The neophyte state is rather amorphous but it certainly needs energy to continue. The oxygen comes from more people committed to their ideology, and the fuel comes from its funders. ISIS exists in a resource poor part of the Middle East, so most of its money actually comes from outside the state, i.e. those with money that support its radical version of Sunni Islam. To get the money it needs to continue to demonstrate it has power and can draw recruits. So going for soft targets like innocent civilians in Paris is logical. It’s relatively easy to demonstrate that it can execute power over a free society like France. Such acts will inspire many and it will impress its creditors. It allows the state to continue because its military has been significantly degraded by allied airstrikes and by the many forces engaged on the ground in the region.

Fourteen years after 9/11 it’s obvious from these incidents that if there were easy ways to contain terrorism they would have worked by now. In fact, if there were hard ways of containing terrorism, they would have shown affect by now as well. Invading Iraq and trying to stand up a secular government there is a hard thing to do. Actually there has been a lot of progress, but it’s mostly unseen. While intelligence within ISIS is poor, our intelligence capability has improved remarkably during this time. It’s just not enough in a free society to stop periodic incidents like these, although many do get deterred and prevented. A state cannot know everything and call itself free.

It’s possible that with time ISIS will be degraded and destroyed as President Obama hopes. However, even if this victory happens, it doesn’t solve the problem. Ideology in general is the real problem. If ISIS goes and the dynamics of radical Islam are not addressed as well, it will simply spring up elsewhere in other forms in the Middle East. Wiping out ISIS in other words is merely winning a battle. The real war is to change hearts and minds.

In 1995 the United States endured the Oklahoma City Bombing, an act of domestic terrorism. This act was similar in size and scale to last Friday’s incidents in Paris. Its perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was not particularly religious, but he was dogmatic. He was deeply conservative in the sense that he was upset about changes happening in America. He believed that changes disenfranchised white people, and that these changes were being achieved through the federal government through what he perceived as its pro-liberal policies. At its root, McVeigh’s complaint was that he was against democracy when it did not favor his interests. He believed enlightened ones like him had the duty to change things through acts like terrorism when this happened.

Basically McVeigh was an authoritarian, something that resonates strongly with many Americans, most of who align with the Republican Party. Stripped of its religious façade, that’s what the War on Terrorism is really about: it’s a struggle between those powerfully pulled to an authoritarian framework versus those who believe government should be run democratically come what may. The roots of this conflict might very well be genetic, as there is convincing research that shows that liberals and conservatives are wired differently right down to their DNA. Conservatives believe in authoritarianism and feel in their bones that they must follow the leader like a sheep providing they can trust their leader and conversely to wholly distrust the leader when they don’t (hence their utter contempt for President Obama.) You can see this in Donald Trump’s appeal. Conversely, liberals are comfortable with ambiguity and want to empower all the people.

This conflict is probably not going to go away with ISIS or even al Qaeda. However, it’s clear that within the last hundred years or so liberals have been winning promoting a more secular, humane and tolerant world. Regardless of the rationalization that impels terrorists (God, Islam, racism, communism) the common threat is liberalism (i.e. progressive social change), which is manifested through secularism, representative democracy, freedom and tolerance for those unlike us. If more intolerance in France can be created then France begins to model ISIS in spirit. Islam is more likely to take hold in a country where the culture favors authoritarianism.

ISIS isn’t explicitly aware of this, but in this mindset requires intolerant and authoritarian governments. It fights for a world where government enforces its own radical brand of Islam worldwide, but this is a fight that can never be won. However, it can inadvertently be a proxy in a larger and more nebulous cause to put in power those whose DNA makes them comfortable with the leader-and-follower model, and that reviles tolerance and ambiguity.

France must do what is pragmatic to lessen the likelihood of future incidents. However if in response it discards its values of freedom, secularism and tolerance then whether ISIS thrives or dies does not really matter: the uber-cause of authoritarianism wins, and France loses.

 

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