We are living in Future Shock

The Thinker by Rodin

Americans lived through a frightening week last week. Bombs were sent to prominent Democratic politicians and supporters. Thankfully, none of these exploded. The FBI apprehended a suspect, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc. Yesterday something far worse happened: eleven people were killed and six injured in an obvious hate crime at a synagogue near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robert Bowers was quickly arrested for these crimes.

Both Sayoc and Bowers fit the usual pattern for these criminals today: right wing domestic terrorists and big Trump supporters, although Bowers had some criticisms of Trump. Sayoc’s van was famously festooned with right wing invectives and pictures on almost every window (which restricted visibility so much it was probably illegal). Both Sayoc and Bowers used social media, in Bowers case to basically announce his attack on Jews was imminent. Bowers’ crime might have been prevented if someone had bothered to notice it or if we did not allow people like him to have guns in the first place.

It’s not surprising that most of these incidents are by right-wing domestic terrorists. Statistically these people cause 71% of these domestic terrorism incidents, with just 25% domestically by actual Muslim terrorists. This Anti-Defamation League (ADL) heat map makes abundantly clear who’s most likely to trigger these incidents and they tend to be male, white, Republican, conservative and loners. With yesterday’s latest incident in Pittsburgh, the right wing can now claim 74% of the victims of these incidents. From their social media postings, it’s clear that Trump inspired both Sayoc and Bowers. Trump of course with his advanced case of malignant narcissism disclaims any association with these perpetrators. With a case as bad as his, of course you are going to praise a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who body slammed a reporter as “my kind of guy” and feel no remorse. His narcissism would not be malignant if he felt remorse.

What’s harder for most people to see is that horrendous incidents like these are entirely predictable. What’s new is that we have Donald Trump as a prominent catalyst; no president has ever incited people to violence before. This gives these incidents explicit sanction. To an extent we are all players of this game because we are awash in a world undergoing great change. Certain personality types though are more likely to “go postal” than others: those groups who feel the most threatened. Conservatives at least in theory like things the way they were (and in most cases they weren’t actually the way they were) so are more likely to engage in these crimes, as borne out by the ADL’s heat map.

Trump of course is a master bully. My own personal theory is that he is empowering other former bullies to be bullies again. Curiously, many of these actions actually amount to cowardice of some form. Sayoc’s alleged actions mailing pipe bombs allow him to hurt other people without necessarily being discovered. (He was a particularly inept criminal, leaving fingerprints on his explosives. His crazy van was certainly a red flag and doubtless helped authorities track him down.) Bowers showed up in person with a number of armaments including an assault rifle. When Trump tells people at his rallies that it’s okay to beat up reporters at the rally and he’ll pay their legal expenses, he’s obviously giving explicit sanction to others to act as his proxies. A legal case could be made that Trump is guilty of inciting terrorism.

Change is an inevitable consequence of living. We’ve been plunging headlong into the future at rates that obviously make a lot of people uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with it too. Ironically, conservatives are causing much of the change they are fighting against. For example, if you say that businesses should be able to create any product they want because they are innovators and capitalism is great but not consider the consequences, you end up with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that show us only content that meets our own biases. To deal with their cognitive dissonance, Trump has labeled anything he doesn’t agree with as “fake news” and it’s clear that the supporters at his rallies largely agree.

They are obviously wrong. My mother-in-law, a lifelong smoker, never agreed that smoking causes lung cancer, even though the research was overwhelming and she died a painful and somewhat premature death from lung cancer. Climate deniers, principally right-wingers, are doing the same thing. It’s like the lobster getting out of the pot and turning up the heat then jumping back into the pot. It’s counterproductive and makes no sense. And we know it’s only a matter of time, should we live so long, when they will be proven wrong. Our species might die off as a result, but to them this is just more fake news.

Liberals are not entirely blame free either. How much freedom can we promote when many of the consequences of freedom also contribute to these problems? For example, if we want a higher standard of living for everyone without figuring out a way to do it in a sustainable way, we contribute to the destruction of our planet. We can’t always be sure our proposals will actually solve the problem, or fit the circumstances.

I believe that there are larger forces at work. Most of us will carry the values we learn from our parents and pass them on to our children, so it takes generations to change most of these values if they change at all. We also unconsciously carry many of our parents’ issues and anxieties. Unfortunately, we don’t have generations to get it right. Anxiety is actually a rational reaction to a rapidly changing world, but paralysis is not. Unfortunately for conservatives, we can’t go back to the way things were. And unfortunately for liberals, we don’t have the luxury of trying many approaches until we find the right combination. We have only the fierce urgency of now that none of us can escape, with many of us lacking the wisdom for making an informed choice. I hope November 6 proves me wrong.

(For those of you wondering, this blog is not completely dead. I’m feeling the need to continue at least through post 2000, as it seems a good closure point. Ideally I’ll get there on our before December 12, 2018, the end of sixteen years of blogging.)

The end of Occam’s Razor?

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m approaching post 2000. As I move close to this auspicious number, it has occurred to me that this may be a good time to stop blogging. My traffic is way down and has been way down for years now, and keeps declining. But even if it were not, it’s pretty clear to me that blogging is not much of a thing anymore, at least not blogging as I have practiced it.

Successful blogs these days are not collections of essays like this one, but for the most part contain short and punchy posts. That’s not my style. I use a popular WordPress plugin called Yoast, which helps boost your traffic by basically making your post more attractive to Google. I’m sure that if I took Yoast’s advice I probably would see more traffic, but it would also violate the spirit of my blog. This is a blog of essays and it aspires to be of interest to highly literate people capable of deep thought. Yoast though wants my posts shorter. It wants me to add more headings, pictures and links. It wants me to give short excerpts of the post for search engines. It wants me to use even simpler sentences to make it optimal for people with no more than an eighth grade education.

Ironically, the same technology that elevated my blog years ago now seems intent on killing it. Search engines like Google (the only one that really counts) continually refine their algorithms, which they don’t share. What Google is looking for is relevance, an ephemeral quality. It all amounts to: is this site worthy of promoting in its search engine to advance the company’s profits? A blog of essays does nothing to help Alpha (Google’s parent company) increase it’s shareholders’ fortunes.

Basically Google wants you to spend your life in search engine optimization (SEO) hell. You are expected to work ruthlessly to promote it at your own time and expense for the tiny chance that you will have enough “relevant” content for Google to send people your way. You are expected to master the complexity of SEO, which is basically impossible without paying a lot of money to consultants, which is increasingly making blogging a privilege of the rich. The result of this “relevance” strategy is to deprecate the very things about my blog that I want to retain. So by retaining this approach, I attract fewer readers.

The really successful blogs these days are attached to successful sites, with Huffington Post coming to mind. The author is already someone of some prominence. They are broadcasting their stuff not just in a blog, but are constantly tweeting and posting to Instagram and pore through their site’s analytics to look for ways to make their site more attractive. Yoast tells me such with every post.

Frankly, this is a game I don’t like playing, so I haven’t. So sixteen years of blogging may be enough. The Internet has moved on. Blogging is still a thing, but if Google has their way relevance means it must be of topical interest and take you into an area of specialization. With essays that mostly discuss current events, I am part of a huge pool of similar bloggers. An occasional post will get a fair number of shares or likes (it’s rare to get more than ten likes for a post) but comments are virtually nil.

My first post was on December 13, 2002. My friend Lisa who beat me to it inspired me. Her blog is still around. But she is naturally more connected and sociable than I am, in spite of us both being introverted. Also, she posts a lot less frequently. Maybe I need to do something like that.

So 2000 posts may be it, or maybe even this one (post 1987). Or maybe I should close it down on December 13, 2018, which would make it exactly sixteen years. We’ll see. If it shuts down, it will probably eventually migrate to wordpress.com where at least it will persist indefinitely, but at someone else’s expense.

It’s unlikely though that I would stop putting my stuff out there in some form. I might try podcasting or nibble at vlogging (video blogging), but both take more work than I am likely to want to engage in. If so, I will assume a new persona. Perhaps by looking fresher I will attract more readers.

Sixteen years is a good long time to ride a trend, but it’s abundantly clear to me that blogging is a trend that has been petering out for a while now, being killed slowly by our search engines. And I won’t pay the price in time and treasure to be relevant the way that Google wants me to be.

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.