Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

The Thinker

Much worse than Watergate

Our Chinese curse of living in interesting times continues. These days are truly extraordinary, although it may be hard for many Americans to see it. Our republic hangs in the balance on what happens over the next days, weeks and months.

It’s easy even for me to get caught up in the political drama of the moment, most recently the #ReleasetheMemo controversy. What’s harder to see is the big picture and how our republic is becoming increasingly tenuous. We are moving quickly toward an authoritarian state.

The #ReleasetheMemo controversy, with the said memo now officially released, allowed Republicans and Trump to release highly classified information to make the most tenuous possible case that the FBI and Justice Department is out to get Donald Trump. (A curious case to make since it is a department full of Republicans and has always had Republican FBI directors.) Releasing this memo also exposes sensitive intelligence sources and methods, which the Justice Department has said may result in people getting killed. You would think that this would give those approving this memo some pause, but not at all. Trump broadcast his approval of the memo even before even reading it. It’s not clear he actually has read it, as he has zero attention span.

How crazy is this conspiracy theory? Let Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press explain it:

Why Trump would do this is obvious: he’s trying to escape justice. It is now abundantly clear that minimally he and many on his team have obstructed justice. It’s also abundantly clear that Russia has the goods on him. Trump admitted as much after he fired former FBI director James Comey: he said it took the Russian heat off him. He wants to make this whole “Russian thing” go away.

The memo gives him the pretext to remove Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein oversees the Mueller investigation. Mueller’s report will never see the light of day if Rosenstein is gone and Trump’s own lackey is in charge. So I expect Rosenstein will soon be fired. Mueller doesn’t have to be fired, but Trump will probably require his replacement to fire him anyhow. Trump will not allow himself to be held accountable for his actions. He never has and never will. Escaping justice is all he cares about.

A side effect though would be to make the Justice Department partisan and for it to lose its independence. Think about what this means. The Justice Department and the FBI in particular are our primary means of enforcing the law of the land. If they didn’t do this, you don’t have justice. At best you get very selective justice.

And Congress, at least almost all Republicans in Congress, are all for this. That was the whole point of #ReleasetheMemo. Congress is supposed to execute oversight of the Executive Branch. What we got now is just the opposite: Congress is aiding and abetting the White House and abdicating its role in oversight, in particular its oversight in making sure the Justice Department operates impartially.

So for the first time ever both Congress and the Administration don’t want the Justice Department to actually impartially administer justice. I was about fifteen when Watergate broke, and this didn’t happen during Watergate. It’s true that Democrats controlled Congress, but once Republicans realized the scope of Watergate they worked with Democrats to hold Nixon accountable. Now it is just the opposite.

This should not be surprising. Republicans are just following through on a long-executed playbook. Their goal is to end democracy and our republican government. In 2016 we not only elected Trump, but we also disenfranchised millions of voters. If these voters could have voted most likely would have kept Trump out of office. Republicans worked overtime to reduce the share of minorities and poor people who were allowed to vote. They aggressively purged voter roles.

Of course it’s not just limiting voting that Republicans worked at, but also at populating the judiciary with conservative judges, “strict constructionists”. So we pretty much have one party control now: Republicans control Congress, the White House and effectively the Judiciary, at least the Supreme Court. In Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down much of the Voting Rights Act, we watched conservative justices aid and abet the process of disenfranchising voters. One of Trump and Congress’s major tasks has been to put more conservatives in the judiciary by filling openings denied to Barack Obama during his presidency.

When you have a Justice Department that won’t administer justice; when you have a White House actively trying to keep the Justice Department from administering justice and setting it up so that it can’t do so in the future; when you have a Congress aiding and abetting by blocking the administration of justice; and when you have a court system that increasingly won’t uphold justice uniformly, you have a complete perversion of our form of government.

You have in effect removed the checks and balances from our system of government. We end up with a republican form of government in name only. Moreover, we set the conditions for authoritarian government instead.

That’s what we are up against at the moment. In the past I had faith in the American people to rectify the problem, which hopefully they will do in this year’s midterms. But our voting system is badly frayed due to gerrymandering and voter suppression. Depending how the Supreme Court rules in two gerrymandering cases it is considering this year, it could make our voting system even more disenfranchising. And we are also deeply polarized voting for our tribe rather than in the best interest of the country.

It’s abundantly clear that Republicans only want the “right” person to vote, which largely means only “white” people. We have a president who is openly racist. We have a Republican Congress that is pretty much the same way. The #ReleasetheMemo controversy shows just how far extreme Republicans will go on this issue. They will put party before country, not just a little bit but by taking a mile instead of an inch. There is no bridge too far for them as long as they can hold on to power. Democracy and republican government don’t mean anything to them. They are not patriots.

All this is going on right under our noses but it is hard for many of us to see the full scale of the wreckage they are unleashing. True patriots will of course protest and work hard to change this. Republicans though have gotten so skilled at manipulating the system to favor only them that it’s unclear if anything short of a new revolution can actually restore democracy. Arguably, we don’t have it anymore.

 
The Thinker

Lots of Americans prefer totalitarianism

It’s been noted that democracy is on the decline around the world. Venezuela is the most recent example. Unhappy about 2015 election results that gave socialist president Nicolás Maduro an opposition legislature, Maduro refused to let the national assembly meet. Most recently he is pushing for a rewriting the constitution by a new Constituent Assembly, elected by socialists in a widely boycotted election. The so-called assembly is busy rewriting the constitution to ensure no further democracy is possible. Meanwhile, Venezuela continues a long downward slide with the possibility of civil war looming.

Here in the United States there are plenty of people that don’t like democracy. Many would like ours gone altogether. This seems to include our president, who is deeply annoyed that he cannot run the government by fiat. He is trying to keep undesirable voters from voting by empowering a commission to look into the nonexistent issue of voter fraud. Deeply red states are way ahead of Trump, having essentially thrown the 2016 elections with voter suppression. Yet they still continue to look for ways to ensure only those they deem worthy of voting have that privilege. They are hardly covert. The powerful American Legislative Council (ALEC), essentially a wealthy group funded by large corporations and multimillionaires to advance conservative causes, wants to repeal the 17th amendment, which allowed for the direct election of senators by voters of states. States are already highly gerrymandered, much more so in deeply red states.

Feeding the frustration is the feeling that nothing is getting done in Washington. Trump’s election was a statement that a strongman was needed. Fortunately for those interested in democracy, Trump has proven staggeringly inept in following through, but he certainly has put antidemocratic sycophants into key positions of power. As a result we get weird policies like a State Department that wants to stop promoting democracy. Sure, why not? The Trump Administration sure doesn’t believe in it.

In truth, Americans have always been uncomfortable with democracy even though it’s why we are still here 250 years later. Originally in most states only white male landowners could vote. Votes for non-whites, non-property owners and women were given grudgingly, and to black men only as a result of civil war. We might not be a country at all if the founding fathers hadn’t agreed to give southern states disproportionate voting power by allowing a slave to be counted as three fifths of a person for voting purposes. This plus the Electoral College which gives more votes to rural states are still at work subverting democracy. It elected Trump and along with tested voter suppression strategies flipped key states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2016.

But why would so many Americans be against democracy in the first place? This was on my brain last night and extended into a weird dream, perhaps inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale recently broadcast on Hulu. (It so depressed me that I only made it through the first episode.) In the dream, I was a new entrant into a country that looked a lot like America, but had been taken over by something like the American Taliban. Everyone (not just women) lived in a police state. Not only that but we all dressed in something resembling burkas, covered head to toe not in a white sheet, but in formless white latex, under which we lived our lives, such as they were. Overhead was the constant presence of police drones. Everyone made surreal happy talk. To survive in this country, you had to blend in and our latex coverings pretty much ensured that. The true elite though didn’t have to cover themselves in white latex, but the rest of us hid all individuality behind two small eye holes. The elite ran things and the rest of us were supposed to not be seen or acknowledged: depersonalized and barely human.

Waking up I realized it was not as surreal as I thought, and potentially a plausible outcome in a decade or two if we don’t reclaim our democracy. Jimmy Carter has already stated that we are living in an oligarchy. Look around at your gerrymandered government. Your politicians overwhelmingly vote in the interests of the rich that funded their campaigns. The only question is whether we can wrest our democracy back or whether we fall further toward totalitarianism.

Plenty of American support totalitarianism provided “their” people are in charge. This is exactly what gerrymandering and voter suppression is all about. They want to make America in their image and squeeze out all dissenting voices. Democracy is supposed to be a messy process that forces imperfect compromises but which in general act in the interest of the majority of the population.

But why are so many, perhaps a majority of us, so uncomfortable with true democracy that we prefer totalitarianism instead? Puzzling this out occupied the majority of my brain between 3 AM and 6 AM this morning. I think it all comes down to fear of change, which is weird. Democracy is supposed to be a way to civilly handle change that is inevitable with time. For many of us though the potentially unknown consequences of change are scarier than an open and democratic process that forces competing ideas to be vetted, argued and reconciled openly. I believe that fear of change is the ultimate motivator for the many totalitarian wannabees among us.

We fear not just the unknown but we fear even more confronting and reconciling our prejudices. To avoid this process we “other” those we perceive not to be enough like us. I grew up in a community easily 98% white. Eventually I moved to the Washington D.C. area where everything was multicultural. I don’t think I was ever overtly racist, but I know I was initially uncomfortable being in a multicultural community because it was new and constantly in my face.

With time I discovered that my fears were silly and misplaced. These weren’t “others”, they were “us”. Over time it became my new normal. Confronting my fears put these fears to rest and made me ashamed I ever felt differently. Over a few decades it became inate: we really are all the same. For the most part our differences are walls we put up between us to keep us from acknowledging this plain truth. Whatever inchoate fears I had of minorities, the poor, the rich, the Muslim, the Sikh, the Arab, the Hindi, the gay, the transgender, even the Republican voter are gone. We magnify our differences and miss that we mostly we are the same.

This happens naturally as communities become more multicultural. There is nothing to fear from integration and much to gain, as I discovered returning to Washington D.C. last month where I ate Cuban food for the first time. (Yum! Fried plantains!) Fear of democracy is such a nothingburger, to use a term that Trump likes to use about the Russian investigation underway. True democracy promotes cohesion and lowers barriers between us. It makes fears ebb and helps us look forward to a promising tomorrow, because we know we are all in it together and we are more alike than dissimilar.

When our founding fathers declared independence, Ben Franklin was famously asked what form of government had been decided upon. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he said. Nearly 250 years later, we have never been so close to losing it. We must fight now for the right to peacefully solve our differences through a democratic process. Otherwise the civil unrest you see now in Venezuela and many other places may take root here, and those latex burkas in my dream may be in our futures.

 
The Thinker

No simple solutions to our complex and messy world

Kentucky senator Rand Paul has been busy pushing the Libertarian gospel lately. Today’s New York Times (which is one of the few sites we can read for free on our cruise ship) talks about his recent appearance at a libertarian meeting in Virginia where he was busy preaching to the faithful. If only government were minimal and capitalism were unrestrained, he preached, freedom would blossom and life would be beautiful.

Doubtless he got many rounds of applause for expressing these sentiments. The meeting contained the usual interest groups drawn to libertarianism: the John Birchers, the obsessively anti-war, the isolationists, ideological capitalists, extreme civil libertarians and not a few overt racists. Racism is a view that Senator Paul rejects, although his father, crank and former representative Ron Paul did raise money for the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The money was used to start the institute, and which is overtly racist.

It’s not hard to find groups with simple solutions to our world’s complex problems. They tend to go by one word banners: socialists, libertarians, communists, fascists, free-marketers, environmentalists, unionists and many more that I am sure you can readily bring to mind. What’s true of all of these one size fits all solutions is that when they have been tried they haven’t worked. Libertarianism hasn’t been properly tried, and there is a good reason for that: it simply won’t work. Occasionally you see efforts that meet the spirit of a philosophy and you can observe the wreckage. The state of Florida that we return to on our cruise ship tomorrow has libertarian Rick Scott as its governor. He’s running for reelection but is certain to lose, after four year of libertarian-lite government and overwhelmingly conservative Republican control. During his governorship, Florida suffered disproportionately as businesses fled the state. With the thinnest of safety nets, the poor descended further into poverty and crime increased. Housing prices plummeted and unemployment soared.

Communism was given a good long run and failed miserably. It sounded good in theory, but quickly morphed into a dictatorship of the proletariat that looked a lot more like fascism which, in fact, it was. Those communist governments that remain are largely so in name only. China is still officially run by the Communist Party but Chairman Mao would simply not recognize it. If he were alive, he’d be fighting to overthrow it. Cuba remains the only truly sizable communist state in the world and is mired in poverty. Venezuela looked a lot like a communist state, but is really a socialist state. By the time of its next election, if not sooner, it will cast off socialism. The cost of socialism has been borne out in hyper inflation and high unemployment rates.

Successful states, such as they are, tend to be those that are politically hued. They are invariably democracies. Establishing democracies tend to be straightforward. Keeping a democracy, which is currently not happening in Egypt, tends to be much harder. Running a democracy takes a lot of work. It expects those in charge to be civilized and to follow an agreed on constitution. It expects its citizens to put a democracy above their own political persuasions. Democracies generally require a reasonably educated and informed populace and need neighboring states with hands off attitudes toward it. In a democracy, political consensus rarely lasts for long. When consensus is absent it becomes paralyzed. We have seen this played out in the United States the last few years. Democracies also need independents, who tend to be its most valuable asset. It is independents that break political logjams by voting for their interests rather than a partisan agenda.

Rand Paul is probably hoping to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2016. He is busy trying to increase his political capital and to sell himself as viable to the party’s establishment. In doing so he must subtly show himself as not as hardcore libertarian as his hardcore activists would like him to be. He must come across as likable, not extreme, which is why he is distancing himself from the racist wing of the Libertarian Party. Even if he were fortunate enough to be elected President, he would certainly not be working with a Libertarian controlled House and Senate. Political compromise would still be required. He could make some changes via executive order to make the executive behave more libertarian, but he cannot overturn a law or abolish an agency or department. Even with political gerrymandering, it is very difficult to achieve one party rule. When it happens, it tends to fracture. There are many wings of the Libertarian Party, and they would fracture along predictable political fault lines. But even if consensus could be achieved, there is still a Supreme Court that as an institution resists change.

Our society is a tangle of laws, free market capitalism, entrepreneurship and various political and social forces, all interacting in a generally messy manner. It is human nature to look at such a messy system and to want to straighten it out in a way that matches your political inclinations. But it will remain a mess regardless of who is in charge and what philosophy of the day is dominant. Technology will continue to make advances. Humans will probably continue to populate the planet beyond our ability to sustain the population.

The only constant in life is that it changes, otherwise it would not be life. People through their governments must try to manage this chaos as best they can. Whatever system is tried is going to have its disadvantages. In the case of libertarianism, it is simply unworkable, as is true of any “-ism” philosophy. No system will perfectly fit all the myriad cases it is expected to address. Any system will favor some at the expense of others. The best political system will be one that understands these dynamics and will tend to intelligently accommodate the current changes that are underway.

This is a much harder road to follow. It requires debate, discussion, compromise, science, respect for science, respect for people of all beliefs, lots of education and open debate. It requires an understanding that compromise is imperfect but necessary. It requires respect, if not admiration, for those willing to compromise and a realization that perfection is rarely achievable and when achieved rarely lasts. It requires an acknowledgement that no system will be perfect, that external forces will affect whatever system is in place, and that adjustments will be required. Most importantly, successful governorship is simply being pragmatic and flexible. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s as perfect as we are likely to get at governing.

 
The Thinker

Republicans keep proving they are shameless

It’s clear that Republicans have learned a few things from the 2012 election after all. First, they cannot win at the ballot box, at least not unless they change their policies a whole lot so they can attract moderates, which they seem unable to do for ideological reasons. Second, they have finally looked at demographic trends and have realized that their party is likely in permanent decline. Having pondered these problems the Republican Party has decided to do more of what they excel at: stacking the cards so even if they lose the popular vote, they still win. It’s the Animal Farm strategy: that votes are equal, but some are more equal than others. Only this time, it will be the law.

Republicans want their votes to count more than Democratic votes.  In the 2012 election, their attempt to move the odds in their favor consisted mostly of intimidating voter ID laws. There were also the usual illegal robocalls designed to confuse minorities about voting and insufficient voting machines at minority precincts, leading to long lines. Those efforts proved largely counterproductive. Perhaps out of spite, minorities waited in lines to vote, sometimes for hours to cast their votes.

The latest effort is to create laws in swing states controlled by Republicans to apportion their electoral votes based on who wins the majority of votes in a congressional district. With the exception of two states (Nebraska and Maine), electoral votes are awarded on a winner take all system. However, if Republicans control a state legislature, they already have congressional districts that are gerrymandered so that Republicans are likely to win most of the House seats. It’s logical to assume that if a Republican represents a congressional district, a majority of its voters will also vote for a Republican for president.

President Obama won 51% of the votes in the swing state of Virginia (where I live) and received all of the state’s 13 electoral votes, 11 for its congressional districts and two for its senators. However based on this analysis, if the candidate who won the majority of the electoral votes for the congressional district got one electoral vote, 7 out of the 11 electoral votes in Virginia would have gone to Mitt Romney. It’s unclear how the two votes for its senators would go under this proposal endorsed by the Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus, but with the Virginia legislature firmly in Republican control, it’s likely they would have gone for Romney, meaning that 9 out of 13 electoral votes (69%) would have gone for Romney even though he received just 47% of the vote statewide.

As you can guess, various groups have crunched the numbers. Had swing states had their electoral votes proportioned this way, Mitt Romney would now be president, even though he received just 47% of the popular vote, 4% less than Barack Obama. In short, some votes (Republican votes) would be “more equal” than Democratic votes.

Currently, each state decides how they will award electoral votes. Almost all states use the “winner take all” system. The advantage of this system is that it makes the Electoral College results decisive. With a few exceptions in very tight elections (such as the 2000 election) the winner of the popular vote wins the electoral vote. Of course, the electoral vote is the one that matters. In those exceptions the popular vote mismatch has been very close. In 2000, for example, Gore won the popular vote by .5% but lost the Electoral College vote by just five electoral votes. As we know, the Supreme Court decided this election in Bush v. Gore. The court chose to honor the state of Florida’s dubious certification of its election results.

Most normal people would look at this as a blatant attempt to stack the presidential race in favor of the Republican candidate. Doubtless this is also the intent of the Republican Party, since the proposal is to do this only in swing states where Republicans control the state legislature. The obvious conclusion is that the Republican Party is antidemocratic. In the past, their actions (insufficient voting machines in minority precincts and onerous voter ID laws) were masqueraded. This proposal simply cannot be mistaken for anything other than a blatant attempt when choosing the President of the United States to have Republican votes count more than Democratic votes.

It is a shameless new low for the Republican Party, which cannot win elections using a set of fair rules. It is a tacit admission that they know their party is in permanent decline and that they see the only way to prevent it is to give them disproportionate political power.

One would hope that a case before the Supreme Court would result in a decision to order a level national playing field for allocating electoral votes based on one man, one vote. But most likely the Supreme Court would defer to law and the constitution, which gives states discretion in rules for awarding electoral votes and drawing congressional districts.

Since there are no swing states controlled by Democratic legislatures, Democrats cannot try the same approach, as it will diminish the electoral votes for Democratic candidates. (I seriously doubt it would occur to Democrats, as the principle of one man, one vote is part of our DNA.) So unless the Republican Party can be shamed into abandoning this approach, it is in their short-term interest. If a president actually won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote by four percent my guess is the political cost would be very high indeed. Democracy works on the consent of the governed, and it’s hard to imagine that a majority would agree that the will of the majority should be permanently disenfranchised.

The solution to this mess is simply to elect a president based on the national popular vote. This would require a constitutional amendment that even if it got through Congress would be unlikely to be passed by the states.

This whole proposal is so unbelievably antidemocratic, fractious and audacious that you would think no party in their right mind would propose it. But then, I am not a Republican. I still feel shame.

 
The Thinker

Anti-government morons

It’s come to this: the anti-government morons are decrying “big government” using the Internet, which would not exist without big government.

Granted, not everyone knows or cares about the history of the Internet. Rest assured it was not spawned as an invention of private industry, or manufactured in someone’s basement. That was sort of tried in the 1980s and failed. Yes, the indispensable Internet that if you are like me you are virtually addicted to (and which also keeps me employed) is a product of the systematic application of your tax dollars chasing what any sound financial analyst back in the 1960s would have called a wild goose chase. As an investment of tax dollars its return is incalculable, but it has connected us as never before, made getting information incredibly simple, and has even help foment revolution in countries like Egypt. It will probably be seen in retrospect as the most brilliant use of government tax money ever and a key enabler of democracy across the globe.

Anyone remember Compuserve? Or AOL? They were private Internet-like networks for subscribers only back in the 1980s and 1990s. Compuserve was bought out by AOL in 2003 and added to their list of “hot” acquisitions like Netscape (cough cough). AOL is no longer in the business of dishing out content only to paid subscribers and sees itself as a “digital media company”. Content equals money so they are eager to get anyone on the Internet to look at their sites, not just subscribers. In part they do that by not associating their sites with aol.com, which is unsexy, and build sites like this one. AOL still frequently loses money and every six months or so it seems to undergo reorganization.

The Internet you enjoy today is a basically a product of the Department of Defense. Back in the 1960s, the Defense Department needed a digital way to connect the department with research arms at educational institutions. It threw research money at the problem through its Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which takes on great, hard to fulfill quests. Working with a company called BBN under a government contract, the first router was manufactured. It provided a common means to move data electronically over a network through this weird idea of packets. Being able to send packets of data reliably between places on the network in turn spawned the first email systems that also went over its network. In the early 1990s, Tim Berners Lee at a multi-national research institution in Switzerland (which most recently found the God Particle) thought email was too cumbersome for his tastes, and created Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which became the web. It was government that created the Internet and arguably it could only have happened because of government. Private industry was not interested in some decades-long research project to build an open network that they might not control. Where was the profit in that?

Arguably the Internet could not have happened without the space program. Huge amounts of government research money were thrown at developing electronic computers, needing to be ever smaller and faster, to facilitate the needs of the space program. The space program also developed a whole host of other valuable products we use today and don’t think about, like Teflon, byproducts of government funded research that were turned over to the commercial sector.

Public investments created our interstate commerce system, a system we now take for granted but which made it so much easier to move both goods and people across the country. This investment stimulated commerce, built suburbs, and made it easier and faster to see our great country. Public investments created and sustained public schools and universities, which allowed minds with lots of potential to reach actualization and be put to work for the enrichment and betterment of all.

For a couple of dollars per person per year, the National Weather Service provides non-biased, accurate and timely weather forecasts available to anyone. One of our most valuable federal agencies is also one of our least known or appreciated: the National Institute of Standards and Technology, formerly the National Bureau of Standards. Not only does it say how to define an inch or a pound, it also defines standards for more complex things, like data security. Defining it once by engaging the best minds on these subjects keeps everyone from reinventing the wheel. Standards save huge amounts of money and promote competition, but we take them for granted. By promoting open standards and interoperability, NIST and other standards organizations allow the private sector to thrive and we consumers pay lower prices and get more broadly useful products.

Does the government waste money? Most certainly. We waste billions in Medicare fraud every year, and arguably wasted hundreds of billions in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can understand why some would infer from these examples that that the government simply cannot manage any large problems. However, the government is tasked to manage large problems all the time because lawmakers think those tasks are important. Many times, the tasks are unique and have never been done before, and are inherently risky. For any risky endeavor, there is a likelihood of failure, thus it’s not surprising that government’s record is so spotty. However, by approving these programs, lawmakers are essentially saying they should move forward in spite of the risks.

Oversight is supposed to be the solution, but it works haphazardly. Congress has the responsibility but it seems poor at it. There are other mechanisms in place to audit federal agencies: the Government Accountability Office, inspector generals at every agency, reporting to the Office of Management and Budget and much more. What does not happen often is that a program is held accountable for achieving results, with the penalty that the program goes away if results are not achieved. Some programs have sunset provisions, but these are the exception. (You might want to review my thoughts on how to make a truly accountable government.)

Yes, I can understand that people don’t like to pay taxes. Yes, I can understand that they don’t think the government should be doing lots of things that it does, and want to eliminate huge chunks of the government and pocket the money instead. Doing so may eliminate a lot of waste and fraud by ending a bad program, but it doesn’t eliminate the underlying problems. Eliminate the EPA and pollution is not going to go away. It will get worse. Eliminate the FDA and you run the risk of having unsafe drugs. Eliminate Medicaid, food stamps and welfare and you run the risk of revolution. Eliminate transportation funding and expect more people to die from bridge collapses or find their cars falling into sinkholes.

The real question is whether the costs to society are greater or less because of government, because the costs will get paid either way. They will happen either through taxes or through costs like lowered life expectancies, greater crime, poorly educated children, fouled water and air, unsafe food and a crappy transportation structure. The private sector cannot rush into save us from these problems. They might, if they see some profit in it, but any solution won’t be in your best interest, but in theirs.

The really successful governments these days are those that meld the best of the private and public sectors. Look at Germany, with a progressive government and a huge welfare state that still lives within its means, is thrifty and is innovative in producing products the world needs. Thanks to its government, it is leading the way in getting energy from renewable resources. It did not happen in the absence of government, but because of government. It also happened because Germans believe in their government and support it, unlike large portions of Americans, who are trained to be suspicious of government.

Our imperfect government is a result of an imperfect democracy driven largely by unelected special interests. When it does not truly serve the public good, it becomes ineffective and corrupt. When it works with the public good in mind, as it did for the Internet, it can drive the future and make us world leaders, rather than laggards.

Whether you agree with me or not, that you are reading this at all is due to the fact that you, the taxpayer, invested in a risky venture that networked us together. Without this investment, the United States would now almost certainly be a second world country, because what would we produce otherwise that the world would want? It values our ability to innovate, and our innovation is predicated in part on massive research, far beyond the ability of the private sector alone to attempt. This kind of research can only be done by the public sector and our educational institutions. If we don’t make these investments, other countries will before we will, and we will be a far poorer nation because of it.

 
The Thinker

The non-government of the United States

Govern: to exercise continuous sovereign authority over; especially: to control and direct the making and administration of policy in

Egypt is now a democracy, sort of, if democracy means letting the military govern a country for six months or so until elections can be held and if the military then actually cedes power to a real republic. Hoping for a democracy in Bahrain, oppressed Shi’ites attempted to create their Tahrir Square by occupying a traffic circle. The government there decided it had learned a lesson from Egypt’s protests: crack down fast and rule by violence, resulting in numerous deaths. Meanwhile, in Iran rabid Islamists want to try and execute protestors who recently demonstrated for more freedom there. The trend is the same: whether it is Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan or even the West Bank, the Muslim world wants freedom, democracy and government that executes the will of its people.

Freedom is good, but about that democracy thing: it is at best a mixed blessing. Just because you have a democracy doesn’t mean that those running it will choose to actually govern. So be careful what you wish for. Egyptians, you may find yourselves longing for a little honest oppression after you try governing yourselves as a republic, because it is often a very messy process. As we here in the United States can attest, republics sure aren’t all they are cracked up to be. In fact, they tend toward dysfunction, with parties jockeying endlessly for power using all means, fair, unfair and often illegal.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got— a republic or a monarchy?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Two hundred and twenty four years later, you have to look at the mess we call our republic and wonder if maybe a monarchy would have been an improvement. If we had a king, perhaps he could at least shame our Congress into doing its job. For if a government is to work, it has to actually govern.

Here in the United States, governing is so 20th century. Today, there is no guarantee that an agency will have an appropriated spending bill, even by the end of their fiscal year. Instead, you will get one continuing resolution after another, usually based on last year’s funding. CRs are Congress’ way of telling the nation it cannot do its job. This happens because we have elected a Congress of polarized people who put ideology ahead of governing. Congress is currently debating another continuing resolution to fund the government. If they cannot agree on one by March 4th, federal employees like me will be indefinitely furloughed. I had best stock up on paint, because apparently I will have plenty of time to paint in March. For if you can count on anything in Congress, it’s on Congress skirting its job.

In case you have forgotten, here is how it is supposed to work: all appropriation laws would be signed into law before October 1 so agencies can work from an approved spending plan. The plan is supposed to execute the desires of the American people, as expressed through compromise involving two houses of government. What often happens these days is the actual bill to fund the agency gets signed into law late in the year, then a twelve month plan hobbled by continuing resolutions all has to get executed in a couple of months. It’s crazy, but that’s American democracy at work for you.

So let’s do a status check for Fiscal Year 2011 to see how well gears of our old republic are turning. Today is February 18, 2011, nearly five months into the fiscal year that started October 1, 2010. How many FY 2011 appropriation bills have actually been signed into law? Zero. Okay, well, how many have passed the House? Two (military construction/veterans affairs and transportation, both in the last Congress.) How many have passed the Senate? Zero. I don’t know what they are doing in Congress, but governing is obviously not very high on their agenda. It’s like they forgot how to mark up bills in committee, vote for or against them on the floor and send them to a conference committee. Ironically, the new House started off the year with a reading of the constitution.

The only spending “bills” that have passed are four “continuing resolutions” funding the government at Fiscal Year 2010 levels until Congress decides to get around to this messy thing called legislating. Here’s the thing about continuing resolutions. They really aren’t authority to spend any money at all. Congress and the president just pretend they are. They are a resolution, which amounts to a wish or a promise. If they were an appropriation, they would have arrived as bills, and when enacted would become a public law. A CR is not a public law. A CR is basically Congress saying “We need some more time to work on the bills, so is it okay if agencies meanwhile spend money at this rate until it runs out on this date with no guidance from Congress?” By signing it, the president is saying, “Okay by me.” What is missing is any intent from Congress on how the money should be used. That’s the part that Congress is supposed to do but is not. It’s called legislating, also known as representatives and senators doing this thing called “work”.

It is looking increasingly probable that Fiscal Year 2011 will end with no appropriations bills signed into law at all because the House and Senate are controlled by different parties and neither are principled enough to meet in the middle. Instead, eighty-seven new Republicans in the House want to cut $60 billion from non-defense agencies, which somehow must be done by September 30. The Senate does not want to do it. CRs have become the fictional instrument to keep a dysfunctional government running. The House and Senate seem likely to continue at loggerheads indefinitely, potentially until the 2012 election. Maybe in 2013 Congress will get around to actually directing agencies on how to spend their money.

To all appearances, Congress seems suspended in gridlock with not even a hint that either house will move toward political compromise. If you ask me, we now have a republic in name only.

 
The Thinker

Transfer of Power

I could not help but marvel today watching Barack Obama’s historic inauguration on television. It is true I marveled at seeing a black man take the presidential oath of office. If you had asked me in 2004, I would have guessed we would have to wait another two decades before we were collectively mature enough to elect a black man as president. It is also true that I marveled at the million plus Americans standing shoulder to shoulder on the Mall in freezing weather. They stretched from the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, with most cheering and waiving American flags. What I found the most marvelous of all was the peaceful transition of power itself. In many, if not most places in the world, a transfer of power of this magnitude is a cause for civil war or rioting. In the United States, it is a time for celebration and partying. Every four or eight years the world has a chance to witness and marvel at America’s peaceful transfer of power.

I felt the spirit of George Washington alive today in the city named to honor him. In his life, George Washington was so popular that could have been president for life. Instead, Washington performed perhaps his most patriotic act by declining a third term in office. In doing so, he showed us fledgling democrats that regular changes in leadership were healthy for a democracy and that our constitution transcended the personalities in power at any given moment.

Thanks in part to George Washington’s precedent another peaceful transfer of power went off today like clockwork and with great celebration. At precisely noon, President Obama became our 44th president, even though he had not yet taken the oath of office. At that exact time, the President’s military aide carrying our nuclear launch codes moved from President Bush’s side to President Obama’s side. Following protocol the new president saw the retiring president out of the Capitol and waved goodbye to him as a helicopter carried him out of Washington. Doubtless inside the president’s desk in the Oval Office was a letter from Former President George W. Bush to President Barack H. Obama with a customarily letter of congratulations and some personal thoughts on the transition of power.

As a civil servant myself, I watched this transfer of power at a somewhat lower level. Last Thursday, I was invited to a high level meeting. I sat across the conference table from our Associate Director. Also in the room were representatives from another department that we meet with quarterly. With one working day left on the George W. Bush Administration, the transition of power was on everyone’s mind and was freely discussed. Everyone was completely matter of fact about it and deeply respectful of the process which by then was well underway. Our Director was a political appointee and wanted to hang on in his job. Hearing nothing from the incoming administration though he knew what was expected and tendered his resignation. He did so not because he wanted to but because that is the way our system of government works. By losing his job, he demonstrated his respect our constitutional process and for the judgment of the American people.

Arguably, the outgoing administration was one of the most egregious in ignoring the law and the constitution. Yet, even this administration could not ignore our democratic electoral process. Had the outgoing administration, like so many banana republics, tried a coup d’état, I have no doubt where the loyalty of our armed forces, our secret service and our civil servants would have lied. Any such attempt is doomed to fail in America. Americans would not allow it. If push came to shove, the military, as is true of civil servants like me, are required to put the constitution above the orders of the president.

It says so much about the character of our country that these values are hardwired into us, in both good times and bad. Back in 2003, I penned a post where I lamented that America had lost its soul. Perhaps it was lost for a while. Perhaps our constitution was a more than a bit tattered by the latest Bush Administration. Yet, we survived and we did so in part because of George Washington’s example and the orders given by the people who once every four years weigh in on who their leader shall be.

Each inauguration is like a heartbeat in the life of our country. The mere fact that it happens like clockwork, in good years and bad, is proof that our country shall endure. Through regular repetition, these events ensure, however imperfectly, that our democracy will continue and we will keep moving forward toward a more perfect union.

 
The Thinker

Caucuses are still undemocratic

It has been four years since the last Iowa caucuses. I am hoping that like four years ago C-SPAN will show the caucus process live on national TV. It was quite an eye opener for me in 2004. It did not leave me with a nice, comfortable feeling that our democracy was in good hands.

In summary, here is what will happen tonight. A likely tiny share of Iowa’s voters, probably less than ten percent and likely about five percent (those who do not mind skipping the Orange Bowl or traveling in subfreezing weather) will show up at their neighborhood caucus. They had better show up promptly at 7 PM because that is when the caucuses start. There is no mailing in of absentee ballots. Moreover, if you are handicapped or are required to work that evening that is just too bad. In addition, if your favorite candidate does not garner at least 15% of the vote in your Democratic caucus, they will receive zero delegates. So among those who attend, a fair number will actually vote for their second choice.

The Democratic Party caucus system in Iowa does not allow for a secret vote. You declare your support openly and in front of your neighbors. If you are an easily intimidated type, you may end up supporting a candidate you do not prefer. Since many of those in the room are likely your neighbors, you have to weigh your vote against your need to get along with them after the caucus. In short, peer pressure may have an effect on your vote. Moreover, if you need to leave early because Jimmy is suddenly running a fever, well, your vote will not count. If you are susceptible to changing your mind, expect to be lobbied in ways that may make you feel like a Congressman. Your neighbor may agree to buy you lunch every day for the next week for your vote. These tactics are legal.

While the Democratic Party caucus system in Iowa disenfranchises lesser-known candidates, if you attend a Republican Party caucus then whoever gets the most votes at your caucus gets all of its allocated delegates. In other words, it is a “winner takes all” system, reminiscent of our Electoral College. On the positive side Republicans at least get to have a secret vote. They scrawl their favorite on a piece of paper. The caucus chair sorts through them and determines the winner. If you cannot spell Mitt Romney’s last name correctly, just write “Mitt” and hope the caucus chair will decide you meant Mitt Romney.

Moreover, as this article points out, the caucus system in Iowa is biased in favor of urban voters. Twenty seven percent of voters select 50 percent of the delegates, and those 27 percent live in the more densely populated areas. It can also be helpful to your candidate to make sure the “temporary chair” of your caucus supports your candidate. As “temporary chair”, he will have a disproportionate ability to influence undecided or wavering voters.

In short, it is a bad system. Yet, the Iowa caucuses do matter. Recent history (since 1972 or so) suggests that if you win the Iowa caucuses, you have a 2/3 chance of winning the party’s nomination. If you are a Democratic candidate, you have a 2/9 chance of winning the general election and a 1/3 chance if you are a Republican. With a better than 50% odds that you will win the party’s nomination by winning in Iowa, it is no wonder that more than a year ago potential candidates were trolling for votes there. Winning in Iowa is not a sure thing to winning either the nomination or the presidency, but it provides real momentum.

Do Iowans represent America? I guess it depends on the demographics you are looking at but clearly, America is no longer primarily an agrarian economy. Iowa comes close to Utah in being the nation’s premier Wonder Bread state. Iowa’s primary role in the presidential race is to clear the field, so it may give Caucasians disproportionate early influence. If you do not come in at least third, you are likely out of the game. Expect tomorrow to see a number of candidates drop out. I bet Dodd and Biden will drop out tomorrow. Richardson and Kucinich will likely say adios also. They will have spent their wad and will have little in the way of resources to compete in the remaining states. Richardson might well command ten percent of the vote in Iowa, but he will likely not pick up a single delegate there. Of course, it is the number of delegates pledging a candidate that ultimately choose the party’s nominee.

The nomination process also favors the party establishment. A few weeks ago out of curiosity, I decided to learn how I could become a delegate to the Democratic Party National Convention in my state of Virginia. Our February 12th primary is used to select delegates to a Virginia Democratic Party convention held in June. Fortunately, delegates at that convention are proportioned by candidate based on their primary results. 85 delegates go to the Democratic National Convention but only 54 of those delegates are chosen based on the February 12th primary. The remaining 31 delegates are chosen at the state convention. There is no assurance that those chosen at a state party convention will proportioned based on the state’s primary vote. However, Virginia Democratic Party rules allow 18 others to become “automatic” delegates, meaning Virginia will actually have 103 voting delegates. These include top party leaders, including our governor Tim Kaine. So in the best case 82% of my state’s delegates will be chosen based on primary results. In the worst case, only 53% of my state’s delegates will be chosen this way. Consequently, in the event of a brokered convention, you can expect that the current political establishment, rather than the voters will wield the real power.

I hope voters in Iowa and elsewhere are smart enough to realize that the caucus system works against them and demand a primary-based system. In addition, I hope both parties will eventually reform the delegate selection process so that delegates are truly proportioned based on primary results.

 
The Thinker

The measure of a democracy

Here in America we are trained to look down on our lawyers. We assume that lawyers are just petty ambulance chasers. We think they are eager to bend justice for their clients but only if it also obscenely increases their fortunes. We do not understand how anyone can justify billing rates of $200 or $300 an hour by doing something as dry as reading dusty old law books. Sometimes we grudgingly express appreciation for those lawyers who attempt to provide equal justice to the poor. We do so while sometimes also expressing unhappiness if their justice was purchased with our tax dollars.

On Capitol Hill, the Republican Party seems to have an animosity toward trial lawyers. This is curious since the ranks of Congress are rife with lawyers. Nonetheless, when trial lawyers are successful suing corporations for what are perceived to be excessive punitive damages, Republicans tend to get their dander up. Tort reform is usually near the top of their agenda, right after tax cuts. Greed may be good on Wall Street, but not when their actions affect stock values.

We want to believe that lawyers are simply unnecessary. We want to think that we should be able to reach agreements without having to legalize it with these complex paper instruments we call contracts. The reality is that we need lawyers. Laws and contracts may be time consuming and expensive but they also remove legal ambiguity. Imagine the potential mess of a business merger without an enforceable contact hammered out by lawyers. Imagine if you willed your estate to your family but they ended up inheriting nothing because a judge decided arbitrarily to ignore your will. It is not obvious but, yes, we really do need lawyers. They are part of the epoxy that allows society to function in a predictable way.

In William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Dick suggests to the rebel Jack Cade that an excellent way to start an insurrection is to kill all the lawyers first. Dick may have been on to something. Lawyers are the gears that make the law work. Without lawyers, anarchy or dictatorships become possible. Most of us do not choose careers that we hate. The same is true with lawyers. It is likely that most lawyers are drawn to the law because they respect it. That so many lawyers populate Congress is likely due to their fascination with the law. (It also does not hurt that lawyers frequently have enough disposable income and the connections to be able to run for Congress in the first place.)

Perhaps like me you were stirred by the recent events in Pakistan. I was not surprised that with his grip on power loosening, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf would find it convenient to suspend the constitution and lock up most of his political opponents. Like most of us democrats, I was upset. Yet I was also very moved to see opposition arise almost immediately. Who led the opposition? They were the Pakistan’s lawyers, who marched in the streets by the thousands. By standing up for their democracy, they literally put their lives on the line. In fact, it is likely that at least hundreds of them are now in prison for doing so. So far, it appears that most of Pakistan’s masses have yet to become engaged in the struggle for democracy. The lawyers are proving to be the phalanx for the restoration of the rule of law in Pakistan. It is also clear from footage of their marches that they are passionate believers in the law and in democracy. As they proved some months ago when they stood up to Musharraf in support of their chief justice, they have the courage of their convictions.

I wish our many lawyers in our Congress had similar courage. In their case, much less courage is required. Yet most of them appear spineless. Today, for example, with the shameful support of a handful of Democratic senators, the Senate approved the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey as our new Attorney General. Senators approved the nomination even though Mukasey could not assure them that waterboarding was a form of torture. As egregious as this was, Mukasey also stated his belief that the President might have inherent powers that puts him beyond the reach of the law. Somewhere up there, Richard Nixon has an evil smile on his face.

Fifty-six men were signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Twenty-four of them were either lawyers or jurists. In the declaration, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish a new democracy called the United States of America. These were not just idle words. The British Army hunted down these signatories as treasonous rebels. If captured they would have paid with their lives. Some of them paid that price. Others spent the Revolutionary War constantly on the run leaving behind ruined families and businesses. Only one of those patriots, Thomas Jefferson, would survive and rise to become President of the United States.

I wish we had patriots in our Congress like this. We have many patriots in uniform overseas and I certainly do not mean to discount their patriotism. Thousands have died for their country, tens of thousands have been wounded, most on a mission in Iraq that will probably prove in vain. Their patriotism is beyond dispute. The least we could do to honor their sacrifices is to demonstrate patriotism by respecting the rule of the law in this country.

Congress can start by not allowing the telephone companies who broke wiretapping laws at the behest of the Bush Administration to get retroactive immunity for their illegal actions. It can do much better than this. Rather than just refer Representative Dennis Kucinich’s bill to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney to committee, where it will linger until this administration leaves office, it can press forward with real impeachment hearings. It can send a signal both to this administration and to future administrations that the egregious and unlawful unilateral expansion of executive powers by the Bush Administration will never be tolerated again.

Those courageous lawyers in Pakistan know that respect and adherence to the rule the law is the difference between civilization and anarchy. This is a lesson we should relearn now more than two hundred years into our own democratic experiment. If freedom is not free, neither is the equal application of the law. Our pragmatic founding fathers at least gave the branches of government power to check excessive power grabs by the other branches. It is long past time for the Congress, on behalf of the people who it serves, to restore the rule of law in clear and unambiguous terms.

 
The Thinker

How the Midwest was won

Bay City, Michigan is known today primarily as the birthplace of the singer and artist Madonna. For me this fading industrial city between Michigan’s thumb and forefinger has a more important meaning. In 1920, it was the city where my mother was born.

For my mother, Bay City was not just a place; it was her home. While she lived most of her life far away from Bay City, she was a Bay City girl through and through. Being away from it for so long was doubtless one of the reasons she and my father retired nearby. Alas, my mother died two years ago. However, five years ago when she was still in reasonably good health I visited her and my father in nearby Midland, Michigan. We spent one day in Bay City and an hour or so at the Bay County Historical Society on Washington Avenue. There for about $15 or so I purchased a new but nearly fifty-year-old copy of the obscure book Bay County Past and Present, Centennial Edition. It had not been updated since the year I was born (1957) but there were still plenty of copies for sale.

The book is slow reading, which explains why I spent five years making my way through the 242-page book. It frequently lost the competition to more interesting books, in particular the many Aubrey – Maturin sea novels by the late writer Patrick O’Brian. I did finally finish the book this week. I am glad I made the effort. Its pages may make for occasionally dry reading but it provides the kind of history that you cannot get in standard history books. Lavishly illustrated with many historical photographs it gives a real sense of time and place to a small area of the country that I know only from occasional visits.

We know about the expansion of our country. However, unless you are a history professor you are unlikely to understand the mechanics of transforming a frontier into a modern city. Books like this one that are meticulously assembled by local historians nicely fill in the gaps we glossed over in our American history lessons. It provides a comprehensive study of Bay County, Michigan, from many perspectives. It includes a geographical understanding of that rather flat part of Michigan. Of course, it also provides a comprehensive history of its settlement, from its earliest years when Europeans showed up (the land swapped between the French, the English and the Americans) through the development of its business and industry.

For example, I learned that before civilization arrived, Michigan was a miserable place to live. There were Native American tribes of course, but life was not wonderful for them. It was difficult to sustain any human life due to the lack of one simple substance: salt. As Lewis and Clark found out, it is hard to survive without salt. Moreover, the fat that fills our modern foods was very hard to come by in primordial Michigan. Unless you were fortunate to kill and consume a bear, you would probably not get any fat in your diet. Today we think of fat as bad, but when you have no source of fat in your diet at all, you can become quite sick. It was the lack of fat and salt, not to mention the omnipresent mosquitoes, which deterred all but the heartiest Europeans from settling in this area. Bay County itself was largely landlocked from the rest of Michigan. Massive swamps covered the middle of the state. Goods had to be ferried by boat from places like Detroit, which, early in the 19th century was more of an outpost on the edge of Lake Erie than a city.

The fur traders that visited the region reported one huge natural asset: wood. Moreover, the wood was reasonably accessible for transport, because the Saginaw River flowed north into Saginaw Bay. Our growing nation had an almost insatiable desire for the high quality wood that Bay County provided. Treaties of a dubious nature were made with the local natives that pushed them further into the woods. They allowed this part of Michigan, which was then just a territory of the United States, to attract a few farmers and, increasingly, lumbermen. The wood literally floated through Bay City, then was carried by ship or barge out into Lake Huron and down the St. Lawrence Seaway. Bay City served as a convenient place to load and unload goods and for lumberman to have holidays. Mostly though they worked long days in lumber camps deep inside Bay County.

Its seemingly boundless lumber attracted sawmills and shipbuilders. In time, Bay City became one of the premier ship manufacturing centers in the country. It specialized in production of large wooden ships, many of which were supplied to our navy during the first two world wars. In time, of course its seemingly inexhaustible supply of lumber gave out. However, its growing wealth made other things possible. Swamps were drained. Once enough swamps were drained, the railroad was able to connect Bay County with the rest of Michigan. Michigan became a state and for a time Bay City was Michigan’s second largest city.

Where does government come from? We tend to take government for granted, and give little thought to how it is organized and institutionalized. This book provides plenty of insight into how a wild territory run by a federal administrator turned into a state. It shows how connections formed between state and local governments. It provides insight into the personalities that governed these communities. There was a time when cities like Bay City truly were communities. The people who lived in Bay City felt more loyalty to their city than to their state or even their country. I found their commitment to democracy truly inspiring. While they had their quarrels, there was no quarrel about using the democratic process. Governments on all levels, from major cities like Bay City to local townships, flourished. Each brought a unique sense of place and character. Moreover, even though they lived very busy lives, citizens stepped forward and grappled effectively with the mundane but vital business of governing.

The impact of inventions like electricity and the telephone are discussed for their local impact. Before electricity, house fires were very common. Fireplaces, wood stoves and kerosene lamps (a later invention) made it very easy to lose a house to fire. There was likely a firehouse within a couple blocks of your house. In the late 19th century, ending up homeless due to a house fire was a common experience.

Things we take for granted like sidewalks, cement and paved roads did not just happen. Instead, they evolved over many decades. With its abundance of wood, Bay City thought it was being very progressing putting in wooden sidewalks over the mud. Many of its streets were covered with wooden planks. It took time to discover that wooden planks required a lot of maintenance. All sorts of variants to make roads impermeable to the filth and mud were tried. Mud was ubiquitous with commerce in the 19th century. Paved roads were the eventual result of many experiments and provided the best tradeoff between durability and cost.

This book, like I imagine many books found at local historical societies, are full of little insights like this. Life was certainly harsher one hundred years ago, yet it was no less full of the things that made life meaningful. What emerges is a portrait of a growing city, filled with people living lives both complex and simple, often near the edge of poverty. They lived very engaged lives. In some ways, I envy them for their lives seem so much fuller than mine is likely to be. While I am fortunate to live well and have many opportunities for travel, I have never really experienced a sense of community that my mother found in Bay City. I wonder how much of this remains in our country, now that we are plugged into our virtual communities.

Of course, we all rest on the laurels of those who came before us. They were not always heroes. There were rapscallions among them just as they are among us today. Yet they did the best they could with their talents. Reading a book like this one though gives you perspective to understand just how Herculean a task it is to build a civilized community, and how valuable a true community is in our lives.

Today Bay City seems tired. Its industry is largely gone. It still has lovely neighborhoods, but many neighborhoods look tired, neglected and used up. You can go down streets and find every fourth or fifth house vacant or boarded up. I do hope this is a temporary phenomenon. Midwestern cities like Bay City deserve a rebirth.

 

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