Waiting for a positive mass Significant Emotional Event

The Thinker by Rodin

I think of myself as a clear-eyed realist. While I have hopeful aspirations, the reality is that we live in a dark age that is getting rapidly darker. Looking upon our present difficulties with clear eyes, a brighter future looks increasingly hopeless.

America is now almost entirely polarized, making finding common ground almost impossible. People I know who have always been the epitome of goodness and kindness have surrendered, and hate certain people (principally Donald Trump) with the same fury Trump apparently feels for the “illegals” crossing our southern border.

Meanwhile, rather than taking even tiny steps to lessen our impact on the environment, we are doubling down on the stupid. The latest is that the Trump “administration” is going to allow more mercury into our waters and atmosphere, a known toxin to humans. That along with more pollutants in general speeds up climate change. For a “party of life”, Republicans, who hope to soon overturn Roe v. Wade will be killing and needlessly hurting millions of Americans as our world grows more increasingly toxic, hot, and prone to preventable natural disasters.

If it were just recklessness maybe it wouldn’t feel so hurtful. Instead, it’s eyes-wide-open, most-deliberate malevolence. It’s like Republicans ask themselves: “What’s the most stupid and counterproductive stuff we can do?” To a clear-eyed realist like me, these actions are just horrifying. It’s hard to imagine how anyone with two brain cells could see it as something good. Moreover, they are unleashing forces way beyond their control, causing some of the exact problems they are theoretically trying to solve. Climate change is already causing mass migration, but it’s only 1% as bad as it’s going to get if sane people don’t get in charge again. You can’t control millions of people on the move at the same time and trying to do so will simply unleash the worst inside of us instead.

Being agnostic, I can’t claim to be a praying person. I can certainly hope that November 6th brings a clear challenge to the awfulness of the last two years. While it may do that, most likely it will simply generate more of the same: endless cycles of fury and hate and finger pointing and little in the way of moving the needle in a positive direction. Even if these stupid policies can be changed, it will simply inflame Republicans to try harder.

What can work is a mass Significant Emotional Event (SEE). Huge and traumatic shared emotions can move people to make profound changes. You would think that one effect of climate change — to cause hundreds of millions of people to migrate en masse, to make the lives of those we supposedly care the most about, our children and grandchildren hellish — would be enough. But Republicans either don’t see it or presumably the smarter ones don’t care. All they care about is making their pile of chips bigger and staying in charge. Their greed is so toxic they can’t see past it.

The concept of SEEs was developed the sociologist Morris Massey. We’ve had plenty of national SEEs in our past. The most recent one was probably 9/11. The problem with SEEs though is that they can often make things worse rather than better. The SEE of 9/11 led to the second Iraq War, because when attacked the tendency is to act emotionally rather than with reason. We now have a president that goes on the attack about everything. It’s basically all he knows how to do, and Republicans feel the exact same way. While the thought of finding common ground sounds intellectually appealing, it’s a game they simply won’t play.

Within about a month we’ve had two major hurricanes. The latest, Michael, was the most violent hurricane to hit the mainland in most people’s living memory. The Carolinas, where waters from Florence were still receding weeks after it hit, got another super drenching from Michael. These back-to-back disasters should be sufficient to change the hearts of even these deeply red states voters, at least on the problem of climate change. Perhaps the midterms will bring some clarity on whether they have gotten the message. I’m not betting on it. These were SEEs for people in their paths perhaps, but whether they will make the connection that climate change is causing it is dubious at best.

While climate change is probably our biggest national crisis, there are so many others that must be tackled. There is ugly misogyny and racism fed by Donald Trump. He recently claimed that American men are under attack by women who feel emboldened to make fraudulent claims of sexual assault against them. It’s okay for Kavanaugh to raise his voice in his defense, but if Christine Blasey Ford had done so, she would have been seen as just another crazy woman.

And then there’s the racism. You have to wonder if these people live in whites-only enclaves. Probably a lot of them do. Having spent a career working in the Washington area where every color of human is encountered daily, it soon became obvious to me that we are all pretty much the same. Racists are profoundly ignorant people. I can’t help but feel appalled and hopeless that so many Americans continually refuse to get it. It’s nay impossible to find common ground with people so unenlightened. I might as well talk to a wall. Where do I find common ground? Do I meet them by being half racist: blacks are okay but not Jews, Asians and Hispanics?

This leaves me hoping for another national SEE, one that is productive this time. I wish I could see one coming. But I don’t.

Righting our Upside Down government

The Thinker by Rodin

 

Down is the new up. This was honed in last Saturday when the U.S. Senate voted in Brett Kavanaugh as our newest justice, despite multiple credible allegations of sexual assault against him.

The vote was perhaps not surprising as Republicans always put party before country. Had Kavanaugh been defeated or withdrawn, someone of similar far right inclinations would have been voted in instead. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has now realized his dream of a reliably conservative court, which would have happened anyhow.

We are living in the Upside Down. If you are not familiar with the term, you haven’t seen the Netflix series Stranger Things (terrific series you really should watch anyhow). We have probably been in the Upside Down for a while, but Saturday’s vote literally confirmed it. Republicans have seized the Supreme Court. It is now an officially political wing of the Republican Party.

If there was any doubt, now-Justice Kavanaugh’s most recent testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee proves it. In short, our democracy has been formally hijacked. Our government is no longer credibly run for the benefit of the people. It is now run for the sponsors of the Republican Party, principally corporatists, which amounts to groups of well-moneyed white men, but also a lot of white people feeding on their anxiety about losing privilege. You can see it in the tax cuts they passed which directly passes wealth to their class. The Republican Party is rife with racism and misogyny; indeed these things control it.

Which raises the question: how to we right our Upside Down government? Is it even possible? We’ll have an inkling a month from now after the midterms because right now Republicans control all three branches of government. They have as close to a vice grip on all of them as possible. It will take a mighty wave of Democratic votes to begin to make our government representative of the people again. It’s unclear given the many obstacles put in the way (gerrymandering, voter purges, voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression and special interest money) whether it is possible.

Even if Democrats regain Congress, it’s but the first of many very hard steps that must occur to return to something like normal. It’s increasingly clear to me that for it to happen at all, Democrats must fight dirty like Republicans. And by fighting dirty it’s unclear if they won’t become as corrupt as Republicans in the process.

Unfortunately, there are no fast solutions to this problem. It took nearly forty years of persistence plus huge amounts of money for Republicans to wholly own government. Some biases are inherently baked into our system and are virtually impossible to change. The biggest problem is the U.S. Senate, which is not weighted according to population. Rural states have a disproportionate advantage in the Senate. As long as these states promote conservative values, at best the Senate will always swing between Republican and Democratic control.

So a combination of long-term and short-term strategies is needed. The bottom line is that we must fight like hell for democracy. It is not something we can fix in one, five or even ten years. It’s likely a generational problem. Much of the problem can go away with time as conservative voters literally die out. This is premised though on having a voting system that is fair, and Republicans have done everything possible to tilt it to their advantage.

If you read this blog regularly, some of these suggestions will seem familiar. But it’s quite clear that what we’ve done before simply doesn’t work. We need new tactics:

  • Pack the court. When Democrats control Congress and the presidency again, pack the Supreme Court. There is no constitutional requirement to have only nine justices. It just takes a law. It’s been done before. Given that Republicans would not even consider Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland, at a minimum if Democrats control the Senate they should not allow any subsequent Supreme Court vacancy to be filled until Merrick Garland’s nomination is first considered. I’d add two more justices to the court, conveniently to be nominated by a Democratic president.
  • Call a constitutional convention to reverse Citizens United v. Republicans probably won the trifecta because of this 2010 landmark Supreme Court ruling. It allowed corporations and rich people to make unlimited contributions to political campaigns, and to hide their advocacy under shadowy political action committees. We can count on Congress not to pass such an amendment, since it would not get past a Senate filibuster. A state-driven constitutional convention is scary to many Democrats. It should not be. In this case, 80% of Americans favor overturning this ruling, and that includes a majority of Republicans. A constitutional convention by the states does not enact such an amendment. Rather, if passed at a convention it requires state legislatures to consider it, same as an amendment passed by Congress. It would pass the ¾ threshold easily. This would effectively take corporate money out of the election system (at least at the federal level), promoting a government by the people, instead of corporations. Don’t expect a 5-4 conservative majority Supreme Court to overturn their previous decision. We need a permanent fix and a constitutional amendment is the only remedy.
  • Candidates should run on not accepting corporate and PAC money. Candidates that have done this have enjoyed great success. You would think it would put them at a financial disadvantage, but for most candidates it spurs small dollar donations instead. I live in Massachusetts. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) has never accepted these donations. Neither has Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Both vote in the people’s interest because they cannot be bribed. If you want to support this cause, an easy way to do it is to join Wolf-PAC, ironically a PAC that exists specifically to help elect candidates who don’t accept corporate and special interest money.
  • Build from the bottom up, as Republican did. Democrats seem to be getting this message. Gerrymandering is done at the state level. So the more Democrats that control state houses and governorships, the more Democrats can either end gerrymandering in their state, or if they must gerrymander, do it for Democratic advantage. Redistricting will occur after the 2020 census. Assuming that census is not biased (which of course Republicans are trying to bias), if Democratic governors and legislators are in place by 2020, those states can affect composition of the U.S. house in the 2020s and beyond.
  • Rebuild the Democratic Party. This is probably the hardest thing to do, as special interests and their money still largely control the party. A party that authentically represents the will of the people should be successful. Progressives must take over the party, hopefully as benignly as possible. Doing so though may be so divisive that it fractures the party, which Republicans would obviously favor. For example, the Democratic Party could have a position that its candidates and the party should not accept PAC and corporate money. Do this and voters will have a clear understanding that the Democratic Party works for them, not the elite.

Amazon raises wages to $15/hour

The Thinker by Rodin

The news has been pretty miserable recently. But yesterday brought an event that truly made me cheer out loud and actually made me teary. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, whose wealth grows by $250 million every day, decided to pay his workers at least $15/hour. Starting November 1, all Amazon employees, including the part time and temporary ones, will be paid a minimum of $15/hour. This resulted in something you would not expect: Amazon employees cheering their employer (see video).

This should make everyone cheer, except perhaps Amazon stockholders. This wage increase may reduce Amazon’s profits, and thus its stock value. More than likely though Amazon stockholders will grow to understand that this move makes business sense and will help ensure Amazon’s long-term profitability.

Early in the auto industry’s years, Henry Ford realized that if he paid his autoworkers generously they would buy his cars. If like many Amazon employees you now make ends meet (if you can) with second and third jobs, plus food stamps and Medicaid (in states where Medicaid is an option), receiving $15/hour means a whole lot more money in your pocket. Given that you can buy almost anything on amazon.com, a lot of that extra pocket money should go back into Amazon’s coffers.

If you are a taxpayer, you should be thrilled that Amazon workers shouldn’t need government assistance to survive anymore. The U.S. government doles out huge amounts of money in the form of corporate welfare, which in 2012 cost taxpayers about $100B a year. The primary beneficiaries of corporate welfare (unsurprisingly) are large corporations, which can afford to lobby for theses benefits. Because the government subsidizes their costs, this puts small businesses at a disadvantage. So when companies like Amazon wean themselves off of indirect corporate welfare (in the form of food stamps and Medicaid costs borne by taxpayers for their low wages), this competitive advantage largely disappears while also reducing federal and state spending.

Small businesses presumably won’t be happy if they have to increase their wages to compete with higher wages at places like Amazon. They are under no obligation to do so. But workers who can opt for higher wage employers like Amazon will try to get jobs there instead. Higher wages allow Amazon to pick from a better talent pool and retain workers. Ultimately small businesses have to either become more efficient (like Amazon) or pay their employees a living wage too. This may result in higher costs, but higher costs are easier to handle if there are consumers with more money to spend. And that’s another benefit of these actions: putting more money into circulation, so the economy does better overall.

Other large employers are raising wages too. Target is on track to raise its minimum wage to $15/hour by 2020. Given that Amazon will offer more sooner, they might want to match Amazon’s wage rate sooner too. Early this year Walmart raised its minimum wage to $11/hour. They may now face similar pressure. More progressive companies were there way before Amazon. Costco pays its employees a starting salary of $20/hour.

In the case of Amazon, it looks like shame was an effective strategy. Just last month, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the Stop BEZOS Act, which would have levied a tax against large employers equal to the public benefits their employees receive. In a Republican congress, the act had no chance of passage. But just by introducing it and making noise about it, it convinced Jeff Bezos to raise wages. In fact, Bezos thanked Bernie Sanders. Bezos is now on record as a supporter of a living wage and hopes Amazon’s actions spur other employers to do the same.

The great thing is that it probably will. Amazon’s action feels like the straw that broke the camel’s back. The $15/hour minimum wage proposal is very popular with the public. Back in 2016, 53% of Americans supported raising the minimum wage, and 48% of Americans supported a $15/hour minimum wage. Those numbers are likely higher now. By setting a new floor of $15/hour, it also encourages employers to raise wages generally. These are important steps to address the widening income inequality between rich and poor, but also between the rich and the middle class.

$15/hour is still probably not really a living wage in most of the country, but it’s closer to getting there. Its main benefit is simply to make work pay again. One reason for the generally low labor participation rate in the United States is because work does not pay for most jobs that require few skills.

These actions are not happening due to an employer’s beneficence. They are the result of a lot of sustained actions by Democrats and progressive groups. It’s quite clear which party is really on the side of the working class, and which is not.

Like many Americans, I spent time eking out a living (if you can call it that) at or just above the minimum wage. It is nearly forty years in my past, but I never forgot just how hard it was, and it is much harder today than it was then. That is why I have supported actions like Fight for $15 to set $15/hour as a new minimum wage and to better allow these workers to unionize. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone who had to survive on these miserly wages could not. Basic decency requires that all Americans be paid a living wage. $15/hour is a start.

We need truly impartial justices

The Thinker by Rodin

 

Ugh! This is an appropriate word to describe yesterday’s dueling testimonies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, first by Christine Blasey Ford then by Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Yesterday will seem painfully familiar to those of us who remember Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. Hill claimed that he sexually harassed her when he was in charge of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Yesterday’s dueling testimonies though were a lot worse. While Anita Hill gave convincing testimony, Blasey Ford gave more convincing and far more damaging testimony. Later, Kavanaugh embarrassed himself by blaming Democrats and various other shadowy boogeymen, or maybe that was boogey-women, for what he said were wholly incorrect allegations. He even cried. He egregiously displayed the exact lack of judicial temperament, sobriety and impartiality that we should expect from a justice.

Of course that probably won’t derail his confirmation, just as Anita Hill’s merely postponed Clarence Thomas’s. Trump sees Kavanaugh’s fighting as a good thing. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee simply want to move his nomination forward, which they did today, when the obvious thing to do was to dig further. Later today, perhaps due to a heated encounter with two women, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake convinced the Senate to wait a week before voting on his final confirmation so the FBI can conduct a quick investigation on these many allegations. That’s a small sign of progress, but one that probably won’t keep him off the Supreme Court.

In Clarence Thomas’s case, there was just one witness’s testimony. While lurid, it was not exactly part of a pattern. That’s not the case with Kavanaugh. Others have come forward and want to testify against him. One even signed a sworn affidavit that Kavanaugh was one of many men waiting outside a room where an inebriated and incapacitated woman was ravaged by many men when he was in college. Kavanaugh’s high school friend Mark Judge apparently liked those boozy times with Brett so much he wrote a book about it. For Kavanaugh to claim as he did yesterday that his drinking was never to excess is just laughable and arguably perjury, given so many people who were there who watched his behavior first hand and will testify otherwise.

You would think that no one would be nominated if they could not demonstrate not just sobriety, but a commitment to impartially interpreting the law. Impartiality would include finding for the defendant or plaintiff even if it contradicted your political leanings. There’s little of this in Kavanaugh’s record. He was picked because he demonstrated a sustained lack of impartiality, coming down repeatedly in a predictably conservative direction. Kavanaugh would not be the first; this tendency applies to nominees from both sides of the aisles. Arguably, Kavanaugh’s nomination is the most egregious case we’ve seen in living memory, sans Robert Bork’s nomination that was wisely rejected in 1987.

The Senate is more inclined to vote for impartial justices when the court’s liberal or conservative balance is not an issue. Curiously, Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland was precisely this sort of nominee, and he won bipartisan praise. Senate Republicans though simply refused to hold hearings. Given Justice Kennedy’s tendency to straddle both sides of the court, more justices like him on the court are desperately needed. Ideally the entire court would be truly nonpartisan. No president should dare nominate someone who didn’t have a history of balanced rulings.

Those days are thirty or more years in our past. It doesn’t look like they will be coming back, which is tragic. Yet this is exactly what we need from a functional Supreme Court. Justices that fairly uphold the law, even if these laws are perceived as unfair, encourages Congress to update these laws. It’s not the fault of those nominated to or serving on the bench, though. It’s the fault of presidents who nominate people without these sorts of sterling qualifications.

President Obama did a fair job of providing nominees like this, and Garland was probably his best pick in this vein. Kavanaugh’s nomination proves that Trump doesn’t care about the Supreme Court’s vital role to impartially render justice.

All we can do is hope that our next president will put the nation’s need for fair and honest jurisprudence first. For a change, maybe we should vote for a candidate that pledges to do this, so we can have a meaningful and useful justice system again. It’s quite clear that without it our nation is deeply disordered. Voters must do their part to restore a truly impartial judiciary.

A change of theme

The Thinker by Rodin

I am loathe to give up my blog’s styling. But arguably my blog’s old WordPress theme, while dark grey with white letters was “cool” (IMHO) and has suited me well for more than fifteen years, wasn’t very attractive to Google. Google reports:

Top new issues found, ordered by number of affected pages:

  • Clickable elements too close together
  • Text too small to read
  • Content wider than screen
  • Viewport not set

Shame on me I guess, as I teach CSS and HTML and most things web and should have fixed this stuff years ago. I’m just strangely apathetic about fixing these things as I like things to look just the way they (mostly) always have been.

So I have reluctantly updated my blog’s style to something more traditional and pretty simple, cutting down a lot on the clutter in the sidebars. In fact, I’ve moved from two wordy sidebars to just one. So hopefully it is more usable and Google will start ranking my site a little better. My stats have been miserable for quite a while, and this may be the result. I should care more but I just don’t.

None of this makes any difference to you, I suspect, unless you visit so often that it also seems jarring. Perhaps I will get used to this one on this blog. I already use it on another site I manage.

I couldn’t give up on the Rodin’s “The Thinker” image though, something of a signature for my site. So a little hacking of the WordPress template and a couple of CSS style changes and it at least is back and consistent.

It will take me a while to get used to it, however. And I’ll miss the old style. I just couldn’t find something dark that was both acceptable and not a huge hassle to retrofit.

Republicans are being politically stupid on the Kavanaugh nomination

The Thinker by Rodin

It used to be that Republicans had something of a reputation for being politically astute. For example, they spent more than thirty years building their brand and mucking up the machinery of government to disproportionately favor them. They perfected gerrymandering, gerrymandered a Supreme Court to allow unlimited campaign contributions through mysterious PACs and overturn key parts of the Voting Rights Act, which quickly resulted in major voter disenfranchisement.

Their “take no prisoners” strategy lately though has looked increasingly desperate. After Justice Anton Scalia’s death, they refused to even given President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland a hearing, because a presidential election was only 200 plus days away. Of course once Trump was president, they had no issues expediting the hearings for our new Justice Neil Gorsuch. More recently it was the swing justice, Justice Kennedy that retired. Trump took only a couple of weeks to nominate Brett Kavanaugh. His hearings were slowed down only a little because senators wanted to take summer vacation. Of course shortly after Labor Day his hearing started in earnest, feeling very much like a kangaroo court, the “court” in this case being the U.S. Senate. There was no time to do things like review his voluminous records working for Ken Starr or George W. Bush. Mitch McConnell wants that conservative court ASAP so screw that.

Now we have accusations from a California professor, Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh participated in a sexual assault against her when Kavanaugh was 17 and she was 15. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that makes this accusation credible, including a wishy-washy response from Kavanaugh’s alleged accomplice (“no memory”), 2012 notes from Blasey Ford’s therapist, remembrances of fellow students at the time on incidents like this, yearbook entries of Kavanaugh that suggested he drank a lot of beer and occasional speeches by Kavanaugh (some recent) where he was quoted as saying what happened at his exclusive prep school stayed there. It doesn’t help Kavanaugh that he lied repeatedly at his confirmation hearing, as well as previous confirmation hearings. These lies don’t seem to bother Republicans though. Apparently anything is excusable to get that last conservative justice on the Court.

Republicans are becoming Icarus flying too close to the sun. Supposedly their rationalization for not throwing in the towel on his nomination is that it will disappoint their base and maybe depress their voting in the upcoming midterms. They realize their clock is ticking at that come November 7 they may lose control of Congress.

Later if more credible accusations come forward, I guess they figure they won’t have to pay a political price. They also apparently think they won’t pay a political price by giving Blasey Ford a perfunctory hearing and then voting Kavanaugh in, as if their blithe dismissal of these allegations won’t cause uproar against them from the many women out there who have endured similar incidents.

In truth there is plenty of time to give Kavanaugh a quick heave ho and put someone of a similar ilk on the court. The only thing that distinguishes Kavanaugh from the list of conservative jurists provided by the Federalist Society is that he most likely to give Trump a pass if cases of Trump’s malfeasance come before the court. It’s pretty unlikely though that any other pick will have potential sexual assault as baggage. It’s unlikely that a new nominee could be confirmed before the midterms, but new senators won’t take office until January. You would think that given their concern over Obama’s nominee that they would defer a vote until the new Senate is seated and can weigh in. Ha! Of course not! They would push this through during a lame duck session and they would not work up any sweat garnering the votes either.

Instead, they are doing the stupid thing. They are inflaming millions of female voters, as well as many of us male voters further appalled by their disinterest in doing any meaningful due diligence before putting someone on the court for a lifetime appointment. They are setting themselves up not just for a huge blowback in November, but further blowback down the line if further allegations come up.

The price for dumping Kavanaugh is a short-term blowback that will soon be forgotten when a new nominee is chosen. Knowing that this nominee will have a cleaner record than Kavanaugh’s, it’s likelier that Republican voters will feel a mixture of relief and greater enthusiasm. Moreover, they will make some amends for their 1991 confirmation of Clarence Thomas, tarred by sexual harassment allegations from Anita Hill. These allegations against Kavanaugh though are much more serious than a case of sexual harassment.

I’m not sure where the sane Republican senators went, but hopefully there are enough of them out there to reject this nominee just because it is the saner thing for them to do. Right now though there is plenty of evidence that their political calculus is way off, and they are undercutting their own professed goals.

A short visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul

The Thinker by Rodin

Life can be busy when you are retired. For me it’s been busy in a good way, meaning I took a mini vacation last week. This had the effect of keeping me from blogging. It meant a 4-day trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul to attend a reunion related to my last job.

Our hotel turned out to be a mile away from the Mall of America (MoA), so when we weren’t doing tours or attending a banquet we were often at the mall for dinner and to gawk at its immensity, its indoor amusement park and its four levels of shopping. It’s so big that there are two or three stores for some retail brands in the Mall. I guess they want to make sure they have you coming or going.

The MoA is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not into malls or shopping in particular. If it’s available for retail, it’s probably somewhere in the MoA, if you can find it. Thinking of our tiny Hampshire Mall, I’m guessing you could fit a hundred of those in the MoA and still have a floor or two to spare.

The trip was a good change of pace. Minneapolis-St. Paul is a beautify area, at least near the end of summer: prosperous and clean where the run down houses are few and the streets look regularly swept. If life were longer I might want to move there. It has it all: two major cities close to each other, light rail connecting cities with the burbs, three major rivers including the mighty Mississippi, bluffs along the rivers, major arts, sports and events venues and 10,000 glacial lakes to choose from within the state.

It’s also got history of sorts. St. Paul was a big gangster haven during and after Prohibition. We took a Gangsta Tour that included a tour guide who was also an actress. She stayed in character the whole time as we looked at a speakeasy built into some sandstone cliffs and saw houses where various mobsters and gangsters hung out. She played the sister of a woman married to the mob and provided colorful insights into the mobsters of the time. St. Paul was known back then as a safe city, not meaning it was a particularly safe community but that gangsters could hang out there with impunity as long as the police got their payola and you refrained from open violence.

Today the biggest scandal is probably Garrison Keillor’s (“A Prairie Home Companion”) alleged sexual harassment. He did well enough though to buy a fine home in St. Paul’s most exclusive neighborhood: Summit Street, which we drove down. He shares this street with previous luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.

With Hurricane Florence wreaking havoc on the Mid-Atlantic States, I was a bit anxious about flight delays. Thankfully we had direct flights between here that were on time, making our air travel relatively painless for a change. Florence did eventually catch up with us here in Florence, Massachusetts. It resulted in three inches of rain yesterday and the report of one missing woman who was stupidly swimming in the local Mill River. They are looking for her body on the river.

Back to more germane topics in the days ahead.

Preventing future presidents Nixon and Trump

The Thinker by Rodin

In my sixty-one years I have watched two disastrous presidencies implode. Nixon’s ended in an abrupt resignation following the Watergate scandal. Trump’s implosion is currently underway. It’s unclear how it’s going to end, but I’m reasonably confident he won’t survive a first term. It’s also unclear if our nation will too, at least in its form where branches of government keep a check on each other, which is already not happening.

Both Nixon’s and Trump’s presidencies qualify as national crises. Over the decades too much power has shifted toward the Executive and Congress has largely failed in its role to check the Executive’s power. Moreover, because the presidency has become so powerful, it attracts people drawn to power including people who should really not be president. Trump is the obvious poster child.

Given that about forty years spanned Nixon and Trump, it’s not too hard to predict that if nothing changes we’ll endure another disastrous presidency within a few decades.

One way of checking executive power has already been enacted: we passed the 22nd Amendment limiting a president to no more than two terms. Unfortunately, eight years gives presidents plenty of time to muck of the mechanics of government.

Time is revealing some flaws in our constitutional system. How do we fix things? These suggestions range from the idealistic and unlikely to the practical. They don’t necessarily guarantee another Nixon or Trump but make them less likely. Of course I am hardly the first one to suggest some of these solutions.

Elect a national attorney general. Many states do this already. It allows the people to decide who should impartially administer our laws. Being a constitutional office, this person could not be fired by the president but would take an oath to impartially administer the laws of the United States and would be in charge of managing the Justice Department. Because presidential election years are too consequential, I propose we elect an attorney general during midterm election years. The term would be for four years. Nixon and Trump demonstrate that you can’t count on a president to ensure that justice is fairly administered, particularly when the Justice Department has to look into the executive branch. The executive needs its hands constitutionally tied from managing the impartial administration of justice.

Get rid of the Electoral College. Presidents should be elected based on the popular vote. Of course, twice recently it didn’t happen. Had Al Gore and Hillary Clinton (who won the popular votes) become president, it’s unlikely that we would have invaded Iraq or had to worry about a lawless chief executive. Obviously a constitutional amendment is a steep climb given that it’s not in red states’ interests. Still, initiatives like the National Popular Vote would guarantee electoral votes to the popular vote winner nationwide by committing a state to assign all its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. These state laws are written to take effect only when enough states that comprise a majority of the electoral votes pass state laws. 12 states are currently onboard representing 172 electoral votes. We need states comprising 98 more electoral votes to make this a reality. No, it’s not unconstitutional because the constitution empowers states on how they wish to apportion their Electoral College votes. Most states have a winner take all system.

Require presidential candidates release their tax returns to get on the ballot. The constitutionality of some proposed state efforts has been questioned, which is probably while this has been introduced in a few state legislatures it hasn’t passed in any. However, Congress could pass such a law with no issues. Obviously, this has been a problem with Trump, who still claims the IRS is auditing his returns, which is false. Even if it were true, there is no law prohibiting a candidate from releasing his tax returns while being under audit.

Split the presidency into two positions: head of state and chief executive. Arguably the U.S. president has too much power, as he/she is both the head of state and the chief executive. As a practical matter, doing both competently is virtually impossible. Most other democracies split these duties. For example, Israel elects a president that represents the nation but has few powers, but can speak for the nation. Its prime minister is the chief executive. Great Britain has the Queen as its head of state. Presidents tend to be politicians, not statesmen. We need both, not one or the other. The head of state should be the moral voice of the country. They too could be elected in “off” years.

Decentralize first-use of nuclear weapons. It’s quite frightening that Donald Trump has the power to launch nuclear weapons against any country he wants at any time, given his impulsive nature documented in Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear. In general, this is a dangerous power with massive implications for the nation. Congress should pass a law that prohibits the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States without the consent of Congress. Since such a decision might clue in potential adversaries, such a decision should require agreement by the president, Speaker of the House and both the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate.

Reinstate the full Voting Rights Act. We need a law that explicitly overturns Shelby County v. Holder (2013). The case removed constrains on certain mostly southern states with a history of suppressing minority votes from enacting voter laws without a preclearance from the Justice Department. If we want to be non-discriminatory, make all states get preclearances. When a day after this decision, Alabama passed a Voter ID law you know this will be a problem for the foreseeable future.

Obviously I am against political or racial gerrymandering. I would like to see federal voting districts drawn impartially by federal judges, as is true in most republican forms of government. This effects the composition of the House of Representatives and state legislatures, so it’s off topic here. It has no effect on the national popular vote for president.

The 25th Amendment remedy to remove Trump is looking more probable

The Thinker by Rodin

In case it’s not obvious, we are amidst a current constitutional crisis. It’s only not a constitutional crisis if you are perfectly okay with authoritarianism over the rule of law or are fine with one branch of government refusing to hold the other accountable. If that’s you, then you don’t believe in our constitutional government.

The New York Times published an anonymous OpEd the other day. In it, a “senior administration official” admitted they were managing Donald Trump the man-child, by keeping many of his impetuous decisions from actually being carried out. This OpEd is perfectly consistent with Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear in which many other senior administration officials anonymously say similar things.

However, these self-styled patriots apparently couldn’t keep the man-child from a disastrous policy of separating foreign children from their parents at the Mexican border, probably because they liked the policy. But at least they were awake enough to distract Trump with something shiny and new until he forgot about a boneheaded impetuous decision to assassinate Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. This anonymous insider says staff are whispering a 25th amendment while none of them are bold enough to actually resign and call for it to be invoked.

As for Trump, of course he is bursting blood vessels over this. He calls it fake news while demanding that the Justice Department find the official who wrote it and charge him/her with “treason”. This is his tacit admission that he believes it was written by someone on his inner staff. Our man-child president of course has no idea what actual treason is. It’s quite possible that Trump is guilty of treason by collaborating with Russia to rig our election. Given that no state secrets were released in this OpEd and freedom of speech and the press are privileges of our democracy, this argument makes no sense … unless it’s the open secret that our president is a narcissistic moron. Even Trump’s supporters must now agree he is one; they just see it as a feature, not a bug.

Apparently it takes a moron to bring down a constitutional democracy, which is what Trump means by Making America Great Again. I got to admit; I did not see this coming. I thought you had to be more devious to bring down our great democracy. But perhaps Trump is just a fool; unaware that overlord Vladimir Putin had surreptitiously pressed his buttons.

I have little doubt that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has already had discussions with the president’s military attachés who carry around the black box with the nation’s nuclear launch codes: if Trump wants to launch nuclear weapons, he has to clear it with Mattis first. So maybe that is something of a safety valve for our country, at least until Trump decides to replace him with a toady.

I personally am betting that Trump’s all-consuming malignant narcissism keeps him distracted from executing some of these impulses. Since his ego is at stake, Job #1 is to obsessively watch the media to see how he is being portrayed and to counter the relentless narrative that he’s an impetuous and dangerous moron. Curiously, his every tweet reinforces the narrative that he is one. I’m actually hoping this state of affairs will prevail until November 6, when voters are likely to deliver Trump a clear message.

The midterm’s results may finally give Republicans a clear message too: Trump is toxic to their party. With an election behind them it might stiffen some spines to get rid of him altogether. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. If it happens though it will because Trump further careens off the rails. They will have to hope they can toss him overboard to calm the seas before 2020 elections.

Much depends on Republican voters, who support Trump with a 90% approval rating. Lost in his high approval numbers among Republicans is the shrinking size of the Republican Party as lukewarm Trump supporters move into the independents column. This explains why Trump’s overall approval rating now averages in the high thirties.

Trump will probably get impeached next year when Democrats retake the House. But even if Democrats retake the Senate too, actually removing him will require fifteen or so Republicans to develop spines. So in practical terms, Trump can probably only be removed by the 25th Amendment. A disastrous midterm might be enough of a catalyst for some cabinet members to call for it, members that Trump can conveniently fire.

Vice President Mike Pence though really would have to initiate this process. Some speculate that he is the anonymous author of this OpEd. He is also the one person in the Executive that Trump cannot fire, as he has a constitutional office. Pence, of course, has been working hard to excel in the role of Chief Toady. But doubtless he has presidential aspirations. He might make the leap to “Betrayer in Chief” if he thought he could get away with it. If not, then resigning and offering himself as a Republican alternative in 2020 is not a bad strategy. He’s just as evil as Trump but can at least run the machinery of government. That may appeal to Congressional Republicans who would have to give Trump the heave ho.

It all depends on Trump’s behavior, of course. He is showing all the predictable strains of someone with extreme narcissism in its final stages of unraveling under threat. The best case for the country would be his sudden resignation in a fit of pique, which I still think is the most likely, perhaps after Mueller issues his report (“rigged witch hunt”). If he survives impeachment and removal and if no 25th Amendment remedy succeeds, this crazy constitutional crisis is likely to drag on through 2020, assuming we survive as a nation until then.

Stay tuned. It’s not like we have any choice.

Coming up: a blog post on how we can prevent these crises in future presidencies.

Whites are being horribly exploited … by other whites

The Thinker by Rodin

Fox News host Laura Ingraham drew some attention in August when she said this on her Fox News TV show:

“In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love don’t exist anymore,” she said, with videos of agricultural work playing over her shoulder. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”

Donald Trump’s election proved there are plenty of white people worried that America isn’t quite white enough for their tastes anymore. It’s making them nervous and scared and not coincidentally is causing many of them to stock up on guns.

The browning of America is hardly new but for decades Republicans have been riding this anxiety to political power. Richard Nixon’s 1968 Southern Strategy (as well as his Silent Majority strategy in his 1972 reelection) harnessed this fear. Ronald Reagan stoked it too, with images of imaginary welfare queens buying steaks and driving Cadillacs. Donald Trump of course made this anxiety the center of his campaign and his presidency. Fear, particularly fear of “the other” is a powerful motivator.

Reagan’s imaginary welfare queen was probably not a white person. This is strange because whites receive the majority of food stamps. In 2015, 40% of SNAP recipients were white. That’s more than blacks (26%) and Hispanics (10%) combined. If you are one of those whites on food stamps though, it may be scary though because it suggests that you can’t do any better economically than those other “lesser” races in our country. That can be unsettling. But whites traditionally have always been the biggest recipients of food stamps because they are a majority of the country.

Still, Laura Ingraham’s remarks are awfully odd considering that she has an adopted Guatemalan daughter. With images of brown agricultural workers in the background during her tirade, you have to wonder how long it’s been since most of our agricultural workers were white. Whites don’t want to work agricultural jobs, even for increased wages. I live in Western Massachusetts where local farmers advertise heavily for agricultural workers but get few takers. That’s because these jobs are brutal, far away and don’t pay well. Just 23% of agricultural workers in the United States were born here. I was born in 1957 and I’d be very surprised if in my 61 years the majority of agricultural workers were ever white.

As for Ingraham’s assertion that none of us ever voted on these changes, what a load of malarkey! Congress makes immigration law so we have only ourselves to blame. Agricultural interests though doubtless pushed these laws. They succeeded with guest worker programs and policies that gave short shrift to immigration enforcement on our Mexican border. This was not bad. It allowed our agricultural section to flourish and keep their prices low. With native born Americans unwilling for the most part to take these jobs, that we still have an agricultural sector is due principally to these workers we’re told to despise. To this day, it’s largely unheard of for an employer to be held liable for undocumented workers they employ.

Yes, America certainly did look a lot whiter in 1957 than it does today. The places I lived in when I was young were so far in upstate New York that I don’t recall even seeing a black person until I was in high school. Lots of these places still exist, but in cities like Hazelton, Pennsylvania they are finally coloring up. And it’s making lots of whites in Hazelton anxious. In 2013, a Hazelton-area chief of police channeled his frustrations with a crazy YouTube video.

There are plenty of reasons for whites to be anxious, but it’s not because the nation is coloring up. It’s because pathways for whites to enter the middle and upper classes are narrowing. Things are particularly bleak for blue-collar whites, the base of Trump’s support who he’s largely left out to dry. A good paying blue-collar job is hard to find and harder to retain. When lost these workers usually quickly fall into jobs that don’t pay a living wage, even if they work two or three of them. People like Amazon warehouse workers, many of whom are on food stamps. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is worth $164B but can’t pay his warehouse workers a living wage. He’d rather let the U.S. government try to fill in the difference with food stamps instead. Amazon is hardly alone, which is why a $15/hour living wage proposal polls so well.

It’s the rise of wealth inequality that is driving most of this white anxiety. While courting whites though Republicans (and sometimes Democrats) have worked instead for their real masters: corporations and rich people. They’ve enacted tax cuts that disproportionately allow the rich to keep more money. They cut services and when possible entitlements that principally benefit the rest of us, like affordable public college tuitions, that used to be free in many states. Corporations use their tax cuts to buy back their own stocks rather than raise wages for their employees or invest in the future. Minimum wage laws rarely move upward, making it impossible for people falling through the cracks to reach for the next rung. So-called Right to Work laws make it hard for workers to organize for higher wages. Moreover, Republicans shamelessly feed the myth that if you work harder and try hard enough you can scale the economic ladder. In most cases though they took the rungs out of the ladder decades ago. Middle and lower classes have been disenfranchised not by accident, but by design. Bernie Sanders long ago recognized the real issue: the system is rigged against working people.

The game is rigged but there are some signs that whites may be waking up at last. Midterms in two months should be revealing. In deeply red states like Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona teacher strikes have drawn the sympathy of the public, including working and middle class whites. They are even electing politicians who commit to raising their taxes in exchange for more services. They can certainly understand how teachers are struggling economically on substandard wages. It may be that Republicans have played the race card about as far as it can be played.

In any event, it’s absolutely clear that the rich and the powerful, who are principally white men, have been systematically and cynically abusing middle income and working class whites, feeding their anxieties and promoting false rationalizations for their anxieties. Curiously the best way to make this anxiety ebb is for whites to rise up against their economic masters and elect people who will put rungs back in the economic ladder again, many of whom will be brown, black or female. White politicians are horribly misleading and abusing them.