Presidential nomination theatrics don’t mean much. Here’s what really matters.

The Thinker by Rodin

Are you a Bernie bro? Or just a Bernie supporter? Do you go gaga when Liz Warren comes up with new policy solutions? Does Kirsten Gillibrand’s blonde hair make you swoon? Can you identify with Kamala Harris’ multihued skin and mixture of black and Hispanic heritage? Do you feel a magnetically drawn to Beto O’Rourke but don’t really understand why? Does Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy flag your interest despite your inability to pronounce his last name properly?

There is no lack of Democratic presidential candidates out there, even though the first votes for the nomination are more than ten months away. It’s natural for us Democrats to project our hopes onto a candidate. I just want to posit that exactly who Democrats nominate won’t matter too much. Any of them will be more than acceptable, so let’s stop obsessing over their personalities and positions. Instead, if you care, place your energy behind movements, and not a particular candidate.

In electing Trump, Americans bought into the fallacious idea that one person can fix what’s wrong in America. Trump was going to be our strongman. Using bullying he perfected over seventy years; he was going to set America back on the right course. Of course, just the opposite happened. But even if you bought into his nihilistic vision of Make America White Again, he’s failing miserably at it even using his own benchmarks. Trump can’t save America. None of the Democratic presidential contenders can either. No one person can. We save American by caring enough about it to give it the time, attention and resources it requires.

We save America by taking back our government. So let’s talk about how to do that, noting that in 2018 we made great progress by gaining control of the House in a huge wave election. It’s not like we don’t have a whole lot of things that need immediate fixes. Otherwise, come January 20, 2021, most likely there will be only another long, dispiriting slog ahead of us trying to make change. No bully president or bully pulpit can make change. Only we can.

Nationally though there is plenty of work ahead of us. Here are some things we can do:

  • The Electoral College has got to go. The only official way to get rid of it is through constitutional amendment. The unofficial way is for enough states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. We need states representing 270 electoral votes to join in. States that join it will pledge their electoral votes to the candidate that wins the national popular vote. We have 181 electoral votes representing 11 states plus D.C. right now. This legislation is pending in fifteen states, consisting of 158 electoral votes. Considering the Electoral College brought us George W. Bush and the Iraq War, not to mention Donald Trump, it’s an effort worth your time and support. We need 89 more electoral votes. Check the map and see if your state is considering it and if so get involved. Just take a few minutes to write your state senators and legislators and urge them to vote for the bill. And if you can, join with neighbors to do it as a focused group.
  • Similarly, we need districts that aren’t gerrymandered to give disproportionate power to incumbents. I give money to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. In theory even a Republican who believes in this should support this effort. The committee is not trying to stack the odds to favor Democrats. They want districts that are drawn in a nonpartisan manner. Given them some money and time.
  • Elect Democrats to the Senate. Democrats need just 4 net seats to turn the Senate blue in 2020. It is doable since Republicans have to defend twice as many seats as Democrats in 2020. The Arizona seat is open and Arizona is trending blue. Easiest seats to flip are Maine (Collins), North Carolina (Tillis) and Iowa (Ernst). Holding onto Alabama (Jones) will be tough. It can be done, particularly in a wave election, but it requires good candidates, support from people like you and high voter turnout.
  • End the filibuster. The filibuster rules in the Senate are largely dead anyhow, but what remains keep most legislation from even being considered if it doesn’t get a sixty vote threshold. The exception is narrow legislation that meet budget reconciliation rules and many court vacancies. To wield a majority to affect real change, what’s left of it has to go. Vote for senators who pledge to end it. Otherwise initiatives like addressing climate change and voting rights are likely to die there regardless of who is president and how big our majorities are in the House.
  • Vote for change. Unless incumbents have a strong record for voting for the change you want to see, vote them out and vote for someone who will. This is true for state and city offices as well as for national offices. The one exception: do not vote for a third-party candidate for president. All you do is shoot yourself in the foot, as these voters proved again in 2016.

Test-driving the Bolt, the Prius Prime and the Camry Hybrid

The Thinker by Rodin

Introduction

It’s rare for me to buy a car. The last time I bought one was in 2004. My 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid is still moving me around, just not as nicely as it used to. Moving to Massachusetts has challenged it. Here the roads are bumpy and this time of year the potholes are plentiful and dangerous. I recently took it in to replace its rear struts, but driving around is still a bumpy and noisy experience. While I could probably drive it another ten years, it’s past its prime. It’s time for new car.

Back in 2004, hybrids were a new technology. Today they are old news. As I noted, electric cars are where it’s at these days, or at least where the hype is. Not all of us though can afford a Tesla Model S.

Our friend Mary came to visit us in her Tesla Model S recently, a car so large that it barely fit into our garage and only because its mirrors could retract fully inside the car. The Model S is currently something of a gold standard for electric cars. But even with the many Tesla superchargers between you and your destination, it’s hardly convenient. At best, a pit stop takes 45 minutes or so for an 80% charge. This time of the year when temperatures are cold, all electric cars lose range. Her trip that might have taken 8-9 hours in a car with a gasoline engine extended to 11-12 hours in her Tesla, which included two recharging stops.

While I like the idea of an electric car, it remains an iffy proposition as a touring car. Still, I wanted to get an idea if I even wanted one, which is why I ended up at our local Chevy dealership to test drive the Chevrolet Bolt Premium.

Chevy Bolt test drive

Back in 2004, I noted that driving the Prius seemed so futuristic. The technology certainly has changed since then, since the Prius’s dashboard now seems sort of sedate. The Chevy Bolt has an electronic dashboard behind the wheel and a separate monitor between seats for most of the other stuff. Screens change dynamically with the press of a button. These days even ordinary cars have this stuff, but to me it’s all new. I like simple displays for minimal distractions.

With the Bolt’s theoretical range of about 240 miles fully charged, during our cold weather test drive the predicted range was about a third less than that. This makes the Bolt impractical as a touring car. It can’t use Tesla’s superchargers. In the best situation you will have to wait about an hour for an 80% charge. This assumes there is no line at the charging station and a warm battery. But if you are looking for a commuting car, it’s a good choice, since most of the time you will charge it at home. But so are arguably electric cars with less range like the now-discontinued Volt.

Driving the Bolt otherwise surprised me. You expect it to be quiet and it was. Electric motors make little noise compared to pistons pounding inside an engine. It can achieve 60mph in less than seven seconds, so it’s Bolt name is particularly apt. Its high stance made it easy for me to get in and out. It feels more like a mini-SUV than a hatchback. The seats go way back and the steering wheel telescopes. It feels narrow but it’s no narrower than my Honda Civic. It doesn’t absorb bumps particularly well and perhaps due to its high stance it feels a bit hard to control at times. And the seats are not very ergonomic.

But at about a third of the price of a Model S, the Bolt feels something close to a bargain. Of course, it doesn’t pollute, unless you charge it from non-green sources. We have solar panels and get our remainder from wind power, so that’s not an issue. It would go a huge way toward making us carbon neutral. And arguably because it is all-electric, it is less complex. I could expect to save 50% or more on maintenance costs, and the cost per mile to drive an electric car will almost certainly save us 50% or more off the cost of gasoline. While there are other electric cars out there, at the moment it’s really the only practical electric car out there for the masses.

Toyota Prius Prime test drive

We also test-drove the Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid that can drive about fifty miles on electricity, but only if you don’t go too fast. It averages 50mpg in hybrid mode. It was reasonably easy to get in and out of but it helped to elevate the seat, which can only be done manually. The Prius Prime felt extremely solid with great steering control, and reasonably quiet too. Like the Bolt, it doubles as a hatchback. However its rear window with the line in the middle takes some getting used to and is arguably annoying.

Toyota Camry Hybrid test drive

We used to own a Toyota Camry. Today’s hybrid version averages 47mpg and packs a lot more technology into a fairly compact space. Driving it was quiet and comfortable. It too can drive some miles at lower speeds in pure electric mode, but its battery uses electricity that comes from the engine or regenerative braking. It’s not a hatchback, which is something of a drawback but does have a huge trunk and second row seats that fold back that allow you to transport some larger objects. The Camry remains an affordable car with a premium feel to it. You feel comfortable and kind of pampered, which contrasts with the practical Prius Prime. Its displays though feel a bit too packed with information and there are many little switches that can be hard to finger. Its monitor in the center is a bit small but functional. It’s got all the lumbar support you could want with motors to easily elevate or change the position of the seats. It is quite quiet and handles bumpy roads quite nicely.

Decisions, decisions…

There are other factors nudging us. There are sizable federal and some state tax credits available. The full $7500 federal tax credit for the Bolt expires at the end of the month. With that and a $1500 Massachusetts rebate, we can effectively get a Chevy Bolt Premium with all the convenience packages and the fast charging option for $26,565. It does mean that for long distance driving beyond 200 miles or so we’ll be driving my wife’s Subaru with its annoying manual stick. If we were to buy it, we’d also want to invest in a 240-volt car charger, probably with dual outlets on the assumption my wife would eventually have an electric car too.

All this amounts to a good dilemma, but still a dilemma. Dilemmas indicate who you really are. Am I the eco-green person I think I am? I that case I should buy the Bolt. Am I the practical guy that wants great efficiency in a car but still want to tour in it? Then I should get the Prius Prime. Do I want pretty good mileage car but a bit of pampering? Then I should get the Toyota Camry Hybrid, or some others in this market like the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, a large car which a remarkable 42mpg and one of the highest scores I’ve seen in Consumer Reports magazine: 98 out of 100 points.

I do need to either decide soon or risk some federal tax credits expiring.

Why is the right wing so threatened by AOC?

The Thinker by Rodin

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Mahatma Gandhi

 

Newly minted congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has been making quite a name for herself. This is amazing considering she’s been in Congress less than three months. It could be that she is only 29 (also my daughter’s age), making her the youngest person in a congress full of old folk. Nah, it’s not that. Maybe it’s because she’s of Puerto Rican ancestry, but it’s not that either and besides, Puerto Rico is part of the United States. It could be that she is a woman, and you are getting a bit warm there, but with roughly a quarter of Congress now comprised of women, she’s hardly a groundbreaker there. So what is it about her that has the press and the right wing so agog?

I’ve been analyzing AOC (she’s so well known that she is more often known by her initials) trying to figure it out. For whatever reason, she got the attention of the right wing when she handily unseated incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for her district that covers the west Bronx and northern Queens burroughs. At this point, even Donald Trump must be getting jealous because it seems Fox News can’t stop talking about her, in a disparaging way of course, which means less attention on him. Based on their attention on her, the right wing judges her as a spectacular threat. She quickly went from being ignored before her primary, to laughed at shortly thereafter, to the “fight you” stage. The right wing sees in AOC something unique and chilling that they don’t fear from the many other liberal women who joined Congress in January.

My take is that she is breaking gender stereotypes right and left. Women are socialized to be nice, so some part of them must always project that stereotype. You can see it in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with her perpetual fake smile. It’s like she’s had surgery to permanent keep a smile on her face. That smile was key to how she managed to gain and retain power in Congress over many decades. She wielded her femininity quite adroitly by exploiting a number of female stereotypes (like always smiling) through her mostly male colleagues.

It’s not that AOC doesn’t smile, but she quite clearly rejects gender stereotypes. With AOC you see a person first, instead of a women first. More importantly, the right wing sees her as a person first, and that’s totally scary to them. Right-wingers by definition don’t like change, and while they don’t like liberal women, they tolerate them more when they act like they act like think women are supposed to act.

AOC though acts as herself. She really doesn’t give a crap what other people think about her, which is in contrast to other women like, say, Nancy Pelosi who carefully stage manages herself. AOC is so much her own person that I don’t doubt that even Nancy Pelosi is a bit irritated and jealous. AOC is changing the rules for how women “should” behave, and criticism just can’t seem to stick. It’s like water off a duck’s back.

Of course, if she looked butch or mannish, then perhaps their attacks would sting. But she also happens to be a beautiful woman. They can’t hate her for being a lesbian, as she is happily heterosexual with a boyfriend while using the newer term “cisgender woman” with unnatural ease. Frankly, they don’t understand a lot of what she’s saying, because she has mastered the code words of her generation. Right-wingers hate terms like cisgender. That’s in part because they don’t believe in gender; they believe that the sex you are born with is your gender, despite the vast mountains of evidence around them that say just the opposite.

So basically she makes them squirm, and this makes their level of vitriol grow. The real threat is hard for them to articulate, but I can. They can’t acknowledge that she is the generation that’s coming at them, and this generation is far more tolerant and far less likely to engage in stereotypes than their generation. She represents not just potential change, but actual change. This is why they are pulling out all guns (hopefully just metaphorically) to stop her, or at least undercut her. It’s just that nothing seems to work. And when she does deign to respond to criticism, she cuts to the chase with a tweet or a statement that underlies the real problem that they cannot even acknowledge to themselves.

The threat they perceive but can’t acknowledge is that AOC is a model. Lots of others in her generation, and even aging geezers like me, can see how she works and realize, Hey, I don’t have to play that game either. I can just be me, and it’s okay! With AOC you don’t see a man or a woman, you see a person: a person very much in touch with who she is who is not afraid to be herself and tell you what she thinks. She oozes self-confidence.

It’s possible she will screw this up somehow. She hopefully has a long career ahead of her and she is bound to make mistakes. When she does, her critics will be merciless. But as long as she projects confidence in herself, none of it should stick. Needless to say her critics will be doing everything possible to trip her up. Let’s hope AOC always stays one step ahead of them because she is truly inspiring in a way that few people ever actually attain.

Ilhan Omar is uncomfortably right

The Thinker by Rodin

New U.S. house representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — our only female Muslim representative in Congress — got into a bit of hot water recently. At a town hall, she said “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” She was speaking, of course, of the many people, particularly inside Congress, that seem to have at least as much allegiance to the State of Israel as they do to the United States.

Her remarks quickly went viral and drew a lot of condemnation because her remarks were “anti-Semitic”. Omar quickly apologized for her remarks without wholly apologizing for them. Omar’s remarks though did resonate with some of the new forty House Democrats, which the press noticed. Stories declared Democrats are now deeply divided about U.S. support for Israel. The House later voted to condemn bigotry as a response. The 407-23 vote was curious mainly for the 23 Republicans who voted against it. Presumably they are okay with bigotry. Well, their president sure is.

Before getting into Congress, Omar uttered other remarks that were interpreted similarly. These remarks though pale in comparison to Donald Trump’s many bigoted remarks against Muslims, Mexicans, Central Americans and basically any people of a non-white color. Uttering these remarks at his rallies always drives enthusiastic responses from the crowds. Thus, in context, Omar’s remarks seem pretty small potatoes. But to the giant Zionist lobby, of course they had to be highlighted and deplored. Otherwise, gosh, we might start thinking about whether Omar is right.

Is it bigotry to note that many Americans support Israel, particularly those in Congress with blind support that looks not like patriotism but nationalism? Basically these people are saying Americans should be pro-Israel. If you are not, you must be anti-Semitic. Really! I’m an American, and I’m not a Zionist. This makes me a Jew hater?

At best, the creation of the state of Israel has been a mixed blessing. It did give Jews a nation, but it did so by removing and killing many of the Palestinians living there. And it made the non-Jews in Israel effectively second-class citizens. I am supposed to be in favor of that? Why would any fair-minded American be in favor of that?

Well, I’m not. If you are a Zionist though, then by definition you believe that Jews must have a Jewish state. Maybe you think that’s okay because Jews have been historically oppressed and at times subjected to genocide. I’m obviously not in favor of genocide for any group. The effect of this policy though is quite obvious, and occasionally some prominent statesman like Jimmy Carter will state the truth: Israel is an apartheid state.

I wasn’t in favor of apartheid in South Africa either. That though was easier to see. If your skin was black, you were oppressed. It’s less obvious in Israel because if you didn’t know where someone went to pray you probably wouldn’t know if they were Jewish or Palestinian. The primary definition of a Semitic is:

of, relating to, or constituting a subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic language family that includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Amharic

Jewish is the third most frequent definition for the term.

So to be anti-Semitic you really have to be against anyone of Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Amharic ancestry, which by definition includes Palestinians. Today though being pro-“Semitic” means you are pro-Jewish. If you say you are a Zionist, it’s not unlike Donald Trump and many Republicans wishing wanly for a United States populated entirely by white people, who presumably are also not Jewish. Imagine what Israelis would think of other Israelis that were for that.

Unquestionably the creation of Israel stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Middle East. I will grant you that even without Israel, there would be plenty of ethnic hatred to go around there. I will also grant you that as governments in the region go, Israel’s parliamentary form of government beats all the rest. Most of the neighboring Arab states are busy oppressing their minorities much worse than Israel is oppressing Palestinians among them and in some cases even the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

I will also grant you that our government, particularly under Donald Trump, can’t seem to get the “equal justice under law” thing quite right. If you are white and rich you seem to get much better “justice”, as Paul Manafort’s recent sentence suggests. There is plenty of hypocrisy like this and downright apartheid acts inside many of the nations of this world. Most recently we are seeing it practiced by the Chinese against the Uyghurs in western China, more than a million of who are in concentration camps.

Regardless, apartheid in any form is evil. Apartheid generally amounts to overt racism, so it should be condemned, and (here’s the important part) should not be supported. Rep. Omar at least has the courage to state this. In retrospect, she should have also called out the vast majority of Islamic nations in the Middle East guilty of the similar policies. Israel though has a special relationship with the United States; in that it sure looks like that they can keep being an apartheid state only with our money.

If it were up to me, we would not give Israel a dime in foreign aid because apartheid in any form is wrong, and Israel practices apartheid.

 

Michael Cohen’s testimony heralds the beginning of the end of the Trump era

The Thinker by Rodin

Michael Cohen’s testimony this week sure was riveting. Cohen, Donald Trump’s “fixer” lawyer, allowed Trump to live the life of Riley. Whatever Trump was paying Cohen, it certainly was cheaper than the real estate taxes he would have paid had not Cohen helped him artificially discount the value of his property, or the damage to his image that would have come out had some of his many affairs prematurely seen the light of day.

Cohen’s testimony though simply confirmed what even Republicans accept about him: Trump is a bamboozler, cheat, liar and conman, but he’s their bamboozler, cheat, liar, and conman. So unsurprisingly, Republicans on the House Government Oversight Committee went to bat for Trump by trying to paint Cohen’s testimony as untrustworthy because he is a convicted felon.

Of course, none of them bothered to mention that the main reason he’s going to prison is because of crimes he committed on behalf of Donald Trump. Not one of these Republicans bothered to refute the evidence that he provided. They tacitly accept that Trump (like Cohen) is a bamboozler, cheat, liar, and conman. Unlike in 1974 though Republicans don’t plan to hold the president accountable.

It’s good to be retired though and to have the time to watch it live on TV. Curiously in 1974 when Nixon’s counsel John Dean provided testimony to Congress I was watching it live too (I was only 17 at the time). I was more than a bit crushed. I’m not sure if I was a Republican back then, but I did believe what Nixon said and thought he should be given the benefit of the doubt. And there was John Dean on TV proving that I had been a sap for trusting in Nixon.

Today’s Republicans though don’t feel crestfallen at all. They knew all along whom Trump was; they just didn’t care. He’s a means to their ends. Their ends are simply power: holding onto it and milking it for all its worth. They feel it slipping away, which is why they have no choice but to double down.

In reality, Trump is causing the end of the Republican Party. A party that wants to survive would heave him overboard, but they can’t because he genuinely does represent who they are. There are no more principled Republicans left, not that there were ever many of them. Republicans have demonstrated repeatedly that they don’t care about their professed goals like reducing budget deficits. They care about making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and stacking courts with conservatives who will force people they don’t like to do things their way. Most importantly of all, they care about retaining their white privilege. Sometimes they give away the store. As former Maine governor Paul LePage put it recently:

LePage told WVOM radio that allowing the popular vote to choose the president would give minorities more power and that “white people will not have anything to say.”

Thanks for clarifying that, Paul. But it’s not like these goals are mysteries; Trump has been the living embodiment of them. In the past though they were hidden behind code terms, like “states’ rights”. Now they are out in the open for all to see. Their racism is now explicit, not implicit while the nation keeps coloring up.

And yet, Cohen’s testimony feels like the beginning of the end. Cohen provided a tableau of people for Congress to call on to testify. With the House in Democratic hands, these people no longer have a choice on whether they want to testify. Deutsche Bank is now cooperating with Congress in its attempt to figure out how Trump was getting his financing, a supposed red line for Trump. Trump’s tax returns will soon be demanded and must be provided under law to the House upon request. Now the whole Trump Empire is subject to congressional subpoena and much of it can be examined in public testimony. “Rat” (a term Trump used that is only used by mobsters) Michael Cohen has provided many names, places to look and questions for Congress to ask. He should know, since he spent more than ten years at its center. We can also expect more indictments from Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York too, not to mention at some point a report from Mueller on his findings.

While it’s unclear if the Justice Department would charge Trump while in office, he can no longer realistically expect to escape justice. While Trump waits though, justice can still reach his underlings. It’s likely to reach Trump’s entire inner core including Roger Stone, Don Jr., Ivanka and son-in-law Kushner. And since justice takes time, it’s unlikely that Trump will be president when their cases could potentially become pardonable. And when Trump is out of office, he’s only pardonable by a successor, who is unlikely to be sympathetic to what looks like many crimes.

It took about eighteen months of testimony and work before the Watergate committees grew into the resignation of President Nixon. With his testimony, Michael Cohen has set in motion a snowball on a hill destined to crush many people beneath it as it cascades down the hill. Cohen demonstrated this week he knows just where to let his snowball drop. Now we just need time and patience.

Our national emergency non-emergency

The Thinker by Rodin

It turns out we’re having an emergency. It’s a strange one though, because it’s due to the misuse of The National Emergencies Act. We never imaged that a president would invoke the law for something other than an actual emergency. Obviously, Donald Trump has ignored that part and in typical Trump fashion, he went big: really big. That’s the emergency.

Trump’s true “emergency” is that he has a huge ego and it’s under threat. He wants to win reelection and senses he needs to start now. Given that he ran on building a wall on our southern border, he figures if he can’t show progress on this with his base along, he won’t win reelection. Congress keeps rejecting his requests to build more walls. So now he’ll bypass the Congress by declaring that wall is now an emergency. And he’ll take the money from other pots of money that were appropriated by Congress to do it.

You would think this would be malfeasance: an impeachable offense by itself, and Congress might move forward on removing this lawless president. But thanks to the crazy way this law was last amended in the 1970s and 1980s, it now means an evil president may be able to unilaterally reappropriate certain funds unless both houses of Congress can override him with a two-thirds vote. This is the exact inverse of the way the U.S. Constitution was written: money is ultimately appropriated only if both houses of Congress can override a president’s veto.

On Tuesday, the House will take the first step in declaring his emergency not to be one. The chances are iffy in the Senate, but it is probably likely to happen there too. Trump promises to veto the bill, which will mean that Congress will have to come up with a two-thirds majority in both chambers to undo this non-emergency. That’s not likely to happen, thus our emergency non-emergency.

It won’t happen because our Congress is now so partisan that Republicans in it can’t summon the nerve to override Trump’s veto, fearful of primary challenges in 2020 from MAGA heads. They will do this even when they know there is no emergency. It’s sad proof that for most of the Republicans, partisanship now takes precedence over their obligations to country. Like the president, they swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution when they assume office. The benefits of being in Congress must be great, and those pensions must be super-fat to put self-interest in front of the country’s interest. It’s also quite sad. Those of us who remember the Watergate days recall a less partisan time when the interests of the country and maintaining our democracy demanded it, Republicans could rise to the occasion.

This was my assumption too after Trump was inaugurated. I assumed if there was firm evidence for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, or to remove him via the 25th amendment, Republicans would rise to the occasion. It seemed logical at the time given the Watergate days experience. Forty-five years later though, it’s clear times have changed for the worse. It is now indelibly Party over country, at least for Republicans, unless they calculate that there is no political price they will have to pay.

Granted that many presidents used the National Emergencies Act for things that even at the time didn’t seem like emergencies. And granted also that Congress has mostly looked the other way when these emergencies were declared. It’s still an emergency to block the property of certain U.S. citizens supporting the government of Zimbabwe or Belarus, for example. But these “emergencies” were mostly minor matters and hardly worth Congress’s time to declare them non-emergencies. Nor were these “emergencies” of such broad scope or so egregiously designed to circumvent the will of Congress.

So the act needs to be amended to make some common sense reforms, like Congress has sixty days to vote that it’s an emergency and if it doesn’t then the emergency is not authorized. For me the real troubling part now is that this law has been thoroughly misused. It clearly violates Article I of the U.S. Constitution. The article unambiguously states that only Congress has the power to determine how appropriated funds will be used and their amounts.

Now apparently any “emergencies” that fall under the scope of the act mean the president can redirect funds and use them contrary to Congress’s intent unless two-thirds of Congress says otherwise. Given that the Supreme Court said the Line Item Veto legislation Congress passed during the Clinton years was an unconstitutional usurpation of congressional authority, the precedent to declare the National Emergencies Act unconstitutional too is clearly there.

As I noted in an earlier post, this will ultimately be decided in the courts. If this were an actual emergency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be busy constructing walls on the border right now and no one would be upset. Curiously, all previous presidents didn’t see it as an emergency. We simply have to hope that the U.S. Supreme Court sees this law as unconstitutional and strikes it down, or at least Trump’s interpretation of it. Yet the court has upheld it in various ways in the past, so this is not a given. However, it is very likely that the issue will linger until past the 2020 election, in which case if Trump loses it will hopefully become moot.

This should be a no-brainer for the courts. For the many so-called strict constructionist jurists on our Supreme Court, it should be obvious this use is unconstitutional, as it is being applied against the express wishes of Congress. Article I is crystal clear. But as I noted, we no longer have a government that puts the Constitution above party loyalty, so it’s no longer a given.

Should Democrats regain Congress and the White House, this should be one in a very high stack of legislative fixes to ensure “emergencies” like this never happen again.

The odd advantages of having a stupid president

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed, Donald Trump is pretty damned stupid. Obviously he is not retarded. His vocabulary, while often elementary school level, is enough to be understood. He still knows how to apply the spray tan, dye his hair, then lacquer it with industrial strength hair spray. Anyhow, if you have any doubt, watch Trump’s news conference yesterday.

In any normal times, this would have leaders of both parties rushing to invoke the 25th Amendment. And they should have, but of course Republicans in Congress are too cowardly to admit the obvious. He is so stupid. Any half self-aware president would not announce that their national emergency for a border wall with Mexico wasn’t really a national emergency, undercutting the many cases that will come before various courts. But more than a few of them were probably thinking: He’s so stupid he probably doesn’t have the wherewithal to follow through anyhow, so what does it matter? Donald Trump goes for nice shiny objects that are dangled in front of him, hopefully with mirrors that reflect his glorious visage. He has proven staggeringly inept at actually getting anything done.

Think about it: he had control of all branches of government for two years and his signature accomplishment was piling on more tax cuts for the wealthy, something the Republican Party can always agree on. I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing that my federal taxes are actually going up, but I live in a relatively high tax state now (Massachusetts) and I can’t claim to be in the top ten percent of income earners. To the extent he has been successful, it’s been in putting minions in charge of various departments with unusual wile and animus, but who are usually deeply corrupt such as Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt. They have no problem throwing people under the bus if it makes millionaires and corporations richer. It’s obvious though that while Trump wants to appear as an effective president, he simply can’t bother to spend the time to actually be one.

So this in a way is an advantage. Yes, he can foul up the machinery of government, but he’s not smart enough to do it adroitly. This means if you are going to elect a fascist as president, he’s the best possible fascist if you want to keep your constitutional democracy. This is because he is so stupid and clueless. He can’t be bothered to actually spend the time necessary to be a mendacious fascist, as his official schedule shows because it is loaded with “executive time” (read: watching Fox News).

It must bother the heck out of Vladimir Putin, but doubtless he was smart enough to realize Trump’s limitations. You get the sycophant you have, not the one you actually need. He was better than nothing but he will hardly bring about the rapid collapse of the United States.

Under the circumstances, our democratic government is handling his presidency pretty well. Many of his cabinet secretaries work against Trump’s aims, and do so overtly. The civil service seems to be morphing as best it can to provide passive resistance. During the latest shutdown, air traffic controllers showed Trump who was really in charge. This is amazing if you recall that Reagan fired all air traffic controllers for going on strike. The courts seem largely untouched, but stacking them with more Republican jurists will prove problematic over time. And now that Democrats control the House, it’s pretty clear that Trump’s agenda is blocked. No wonder then that he is left to declare fake “national emergencies” to stop the flow of migrants into our country, which is just 25% of the peak of the problem during the Clinton presidency.

Although the precedence for this emergency is very bad, don’t lose too much sleep over any more wall actually getting built. While it’s unlikely that Congress will overturn it, it is very likely that it will be ricocheting through the courts at least until the 2020 election, by which time it is likely to be moot. Trump has to hope he can win reelection and convince the Supreme Court to uphold his bogus emergency. That is, if he can be bothered to focus on it for the remainder of his term. Most likely he will be off playing with other new and shiny toys instead.

Should this happen again though it’s unlikely that our next fascist president will be as stupid as Trump. Hopefully Congress will turn blue and rewrite the national emergency law to prohibit exactly what Trump is trying to do. Let’s just be glad that if a Republican had to be elected president in 2016, it was Donald Trump and not Dick Cheney.

The nature of reality isn’t what you think it is, continued

The Thinker by Rodin

Last November I wrote this post, which suggested (to me anyhow) that what we perceive as reality was anything but this. Since that post, I have been delving more into the subject, which is getting clearer and weirder every day. What’s weirdest about all this learning and research is that the exact sorts of people you would think would be most skeptical about this stuff, like prominent physicists like Brian Greene, are promoting stuff that really sounds outlandish.

Greene is one of a number of physicists who are coming to believe that our reality is basically a hologram. If true, then in some sense we do live in a virtual reality, because a hologram is merely the projected illusion of something that is real and three dimensional, but isn’t.

More specifically, what these physicists are suggesting is that there are many more than the four dimensions (time being a dimension too) that we perceive. This has been accepted wisdom among physicists for decades: that there are 10 or 11 dimensions with the ones we can’t experience being “curled up”. If you think about it though, three of our four dimensions describe space, because space has height, width and depth. Einstein discovered about a hundred years ago that time is relative. The closer you travel to the speed of light, the more time elapses on places not trying to move toward the speed of light. So in some sense, Einstein is suggesting that time is virtual. In fact, Einstein called time an illusion.

The latest thinking among these physicists seems to be that not only is time an illusion, but that space is an illusion too. It turns out this is the simplest explanation for the Schrödinger’s cat paradox, that if a cat could be shrunk to quantum size, then it’s possible for the same cat to be both alive and dead at the same instant. This is because of the non-deterministic nature of the quantum world, where photons can be both particle and wave, depending on whether they are observed or not. If I understand what they are saying correctly, then this only makes sense if space is virtual too.

How to think about this? I imagine a transparent cube through which sunlight streams. It projects a three-dimensional real thing on a surface, but it is a two dimensional entity that we are looking at. If time and space are illusions, as a growing number of physicists are suggesting, then our lives are virtual and space is as virtual as time.

There also seems to be consensus that consciousness is external to all of this. So essentially we are all manipulating a model using consciousness that we call our lives. I imagine me (my consciousness) spending all its time looking at the projection of a cube on a two-dimensional surface. That is my reality, what I call my life, mainly because it’s something I can make some sense of life through interacting with it. I’m so focused on it that I cannot step outside of it. None of us living can, except perhaps some mediums among us. For those of us trapped inside this hologram, it’s as real as it can possibly be. But increasingly we understand that our reality is actually virtual. Perhaps it is better expressed that reality is much more than we can sense.

Many mystics believe in the notion of astral planes, i.e. other realities that the soul (consciousness?) can ascend or descend into outside of the one plane we call life. Many believe that we go into another astral plane after death. Most people believe they only have one life. Those who believe in God generally believe there is only one unique kind of afterlife, in which one size fits all. So most of us can conceive of only two astral planes: this life and the heaven or hell that awaits us in an afterlife. Conceptually there could be many more. Since there are 10 or 11 dimensions and we can only experience four (all of which may be virtual) there could be six or more other planes of existence that our souls/consciousness could inhabit or perhaps already inhabit.

It sounds so bizarre and unreal, particularly given that our reality seems to completely real to us. But this is basically what our best scientists now seem to be telling us. This is not to say they mean that a grand afterlife awaits us in some sort of heavenly cosmos. This is not to say that our traditional notion of God is real either. It does suggest though that real reality, whatever that is, is much grander, interesting and puzzling than we can perceive. If consciousness is apart from what we call reality and it persists after death (we can call it a soul), it does suggest our greater universe is some sort of collective consciousness slowly moving into increasing understanding and complexity as we discover and probe our universe through virtual realities, one of which we call our lives. We may be creating this reality simply by probing and testing its many layers and permutations.

I am reminded of the late author/philosopher Ayn Rand, whose theory of Objectivism I poo-pooed a few times over the years. I still think her theory is bullshit, since it was all about the individual and cared nothing for relationships. But one aspect of her theory was something to the effect that our lives are virtual; so we should feel free to manipulate it to get what we want out of it and don’t worry about the consequences. When we do this, we get the effects we are experiencing today, including the crisis of global climate change. It’s real enough in what we call reality and must be stopped.

Yet on some sort of grander, more cosmic level, she may be right. If these inferences are right, then we are all manipulating models of some sort of virtual world we cannot fully understand or escape, much like a baby puzzles through stacking blocks. Increasingly though, as real as it seems to us stuck in it, our reality is actually virtual. At the very least, it is an imperfect projection of a much grander and more complex reality whose true nature we are slowly uncovering.

The best in life is yet to be: an essay on healthy mortality

The Thinker by Rodin

Another birthday has come and gone. Since this one did not end in a zero, it did not deserve particular attention. But since I am in my sixties now, most of my life is firmly in the past. I’ll be fortunate if only two-thirds of it is in my past. Aside from a nice dinner of meatloaf and seeing If Beale Street could talk at a local arts cinema, it was like any other day.

Something I find curious about aging is that the one thing that bothered me about it growing up – death – doesn’t particularly bother me anymore. Death should be less of an abstraction at my age. We had our next-door neighbor die about a year ago. Both my parents are dead; my father curiously died three years ago on my birthday. My daughter slips into her thirties this year. We are on on our fourth set of cats. Living in a 55+ community, with most of my fellow residents older than me, it appears that advancing age doesn’t seem to bother them either. The oldest is 93 and he still gets around and enjoys life.

I’m trying to figure out why this is. It could be because I am in reasonably good health and have an excellent chance of enjoying another twenty years or more in good health. Part of it could be because we are both retired and don’t have the hassle of working or worrying about money anymore. But I’m also coming to think that a lot of it is due to not being religious. In my early twenties it’s fair to say I wasn’t religious, but I was still under a religious hangover. In my case, it was a Roman Catholic hangover. It clouded my thinking about death.

With a few exceptions, religion does much more to make us anxious about death than provide a balm to address it. It does seem ironic because if you check off the right checkboxes and have true faith, then eternal life is something of a given, albeit in a different state. And we are promised that in this case our next eternal and spiritual life will be a lot happier than this one.

For many of us, life is more chore than blessing. I don’t have to step far from my home to see it. During the recent arctic blast, two homeless people died of hypothermia in a tent behind a McDonalds restaurant in Greenfield, a town twenty-five miles north of us. The local homeless shelters could not accommodate the overflow crowds. I can see the homeless wandering downtown or holding cardboard signs at some prominent intersections. As miserable as life appears to be for them though, they still cling to it. For retired people like me without much in the way of worries about descending into poverty, life at this stage is exactly what I wanted out of life and finally received. It feels like a blessing. And it is, at least partly. I was able to hang onto a good paying job with benefits long enough to reach a good retirement, and there were no intervening medical complications to strip it all away.

No wonder so many retired people are happy with their lives. Death is unavoidable but so is life. And life is often very complex to navigate, and gets more complex everyday. In my early twenties, my real angst was likely not about some inevitable future death, but whether I could pay the rent next month. It was likely that the latter fed the former.

It used to be that life was a much more miserable experience. Retirement was virtually unheard of. Many of us lived with massive pain and discomfort we could do little to remedy. Most of us died long before we were at a retirement age, often painfully and violently. If we reached old age, we depended on our offspring to tend to us when our bodies grew frail. Medicine though only became useful in the last hundred years. Social safety nets did not exist then; living in general was precarious and scary. Retirement was a luxury for the truly rich, if they survived long enough to enjoy it. Now most of us will reach retirement age and increasingly most of us can enjoy it.

In those darker and scarier times, religion promised not only salvation but also something more important: eternal comfort in some future afterlife, which was naturally appealing because for most of us life was trial and tribulation. These days though many of us can have that comfort right now, or at least when we reach retirement age. Is it any surprise then that in countries with high standards of living that religion seems to be fading away? It’s not just Western Europe; it’s happening here in the United States too, albeit more slowly. It’s fading faster in places that are more prosperous. Hence you find more atheists in New Jersey, and fewer in Deep South Alabama. Prosperity may be what kills off religion.

My devout Catholic mother went to her grave scared out of her mind. Part of it was because her condition was quite debilitating: her case of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy is similar to Parkinson’s disease. In general, it’s a bad way to go. Michael J. Fox isn’t happy about his diagnosis. Robin Williams made what seemed to him the logical choice and hung himself rather than go through a miserable decline. But my mother was also uncertain about whether she would make it into heaven. She alluded to many mistakes she had made in her life, as if any of us get through life without making mistakes. I think what really terrified her was not finding going to hell, but the idea of utter nothingness, which you have to assume happens to you after death if there is no afterlife. It terrified her probably because her Catholic faith had kept her thinking about it, at least until she couldn’t not think about it anymore.

And yet as I noted before, no one worries about their state of nothingness before they were conceived. So logically it’s kind of silly to worry about what you are after death, if anything. I do suspect though that with the right education a lot of us can learn to deal with death in a much more … what’s the word … healthier way. We can choose to be terrified of it, or not. But death cannot be escaped.

I think that’s where my head is right now. Whether my soul survives after death or not doesn’t particularly bother me. For me, what works is to be present in my own life every day, and to do things that I find interesting and meaningful every day. With death the lights may go out or not, but I do take some comfort that I am immortal in a way. Because of Albert Einstein, we know that space-time is real, and that time is an illusion. My mom is still alive somewhere in the space-time matrix. I just lack the ability to slide through space-time like a tape recorder to see her again. Some mediums though claim they can do this.

Given that space-time is a fact and that religion requires faith, knowing that space-time exists tells me that I am immortal in a way, as I am part of space-time which is effectively immortal. It is a sort of faith for the faithless. And I didn’t need Jesus Christ to find it. I needed to understand the implications of what Albert Einstein was telling us.

DuckDuckGo is a better search engine

The Thinker by Rodin

Google pretty much owns the search engine market, but why? Perhaps it was because they were the first to do it well. In the old days of search engines when we were forced to use sites like Lycos and AltaVista, finding useful stuff on the web was excruciating, requiring you to go through many pages of results (and usually wait … these were back in the connect-by-modem days). Google figured out how to turn relevance into an algorithm. Basically, the more sites that link to a page, the more relevant it is.

There’s more to a search engine than that, of course, but that was the big innovation. And not surprisingly, once that was figured out other search engines figured out how to do this too. For most search engine queries, you will get a set of similar results.

But with Google search, you get more, but in this case more maybe less. Specifically, what you get is what Facebook figured out, probably after seeing what Google was doing. Google will watch your behavior closely and give you more of what it thinks you like. To do that of course, it had to learn a whole lot more about you. And most of us are happy to comply, since most of us are logged into Google accounts. Even if we are not, given that we leave cookies in our browsers, not to mention IP addresses, so Google can usually figure out it’s you. With every search engine query and use of its services it learns more about you. Google probably knows you better than your spouse does.

The downside is that, like Facebook, you end up in a filter bubble. Google knows if you swing left and so your queries are unlikely to show links that swing right, at least not on the first page. In short, Google and other search engines undercut its own quest to provide relevant search results by providing you links to stuff you are more likely to click on. They are relevant as long as you want results that reflect your biases.

It’s a profitable strategy for Google. It just watches you behind the scenes. Its powerful algorithms give you more and more reasons to invest time with Google and its many services. I plead guilty because like almost everyone I have a Google account. I use GMail extensively. I long ago stopped using an email client. I do all my email using GMail’s web interface. I do turn off the marketing (thanks, Google!) and, gosh, with all that space and it’s amazing search interface I can find pretty much anything in my email in a few seconds spanning more than a decade of use. Since I have lots of clients, it’s quite a value to do things like easily figure out what their issue was six month ago. I’m willing to pay to use GMail, if I have to.

But I don’t have to use Google search. Since discovering DuckDuckGo, I rarely use it for search anymore. That’s because DuckDuckGo is kind of retro in a way: it provides more relevant results by getting you out of search personalization. I’m getting more relevant results with it. Moreover, DuckDuckGo doesn’t track your usage. It doesn’t know who you are. It doesn’t follow you around with ads. It just gives you highly relevant search results with incredible speed. I can hardly press the enter key before I get a page of results.

My result is now a lot of highly relevant content I wasn’t seeing before, mainly because it wasn’t on the first page of results. Google was figuring I didn’t want to see this other stuff, but I do. Actually, it was feeding me links that matched my biases, hoping I would stick around. With DuckDuckGo though, searching is becoming more useful again. Moreover, I am learning stuff by reading sites I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m becoming more informed, getting actual news and perspective. Real news after all tells you objective truth, not selective truth. I’m moving out of my own filter bubble and into a wider world. I am gleaning actual insight. It’s neat and kind of humbling. But it shouldn’t be. Rather, the question should be why did Google and other search engines put us in this bubble in the first place? Of course: they were chasing mammon, putting their best interests ahead of yours

To use DuckDuckGo regularly, you have to change your default search engine. It’s not hard to do; it’s just something we don’t think about because for most of us we can’t imagine there is something out there better than Google. You’ve been sold a bill of goods that isn’t quite true.

Try it for a week and tell me I’m wrong. I’ve been using it for a few months now. I can’t see ever going back.

For more reasons of the virtues of this search engines and some of Google’s slightly evil side, watch this video: