Vehicle versus destination

In January 2017 the Trump White House bizarrely declared the largest inauguration crowd in history. Americans got accustomed to the new president’s lies, occasionally finding them amusing—rather like a misbehaving child of an appallingly indulgent parent getting near your crystal. It is frightening to consider a hollow man like him near your secrets, your Constitution, or your wealth. Trump had even claimed he could shoot someone on New York’s 5th Avenue and suffer no loss of supporters. We still don’t know how that would come out in real life. But after 16 months of Trump’s presidency, it’s reasonably certain that he could get away with just about any crime on the floor of the United States Senate.

The Senate majority and its chosen Leader McConnell respect their oaths of office, to be sure, though those oaths have become “to protect and defend Donald Trump,” not the Constitution. Of course, it’s customary for senators and representatives of each party to support most wishes of a same-party president. Given a Constitution constructed in a time of virtually no political parties, elected officials over two millennia have developed procedures and traditions to function in what is largely a four-way division, namely House/Democrat, House/Republican, Senate/Democrat, and Senate/Republican, for the Constitution had countenanced only a two-way legislative division: House and Senate.

It is hard for any group to be as diligent and precise as an individual. (Your city council, school board, or association board frequently exemplify how competent individuals can be incompetent as a group.) Our federal executive branch—headed by an individual—can quickly decide and mobilize while the legislative branch is still arguing over rules of debate. Thus, the Senate and House are composed of more authoritative “moving parts,” requiring them to maintain a strong allegiance to a centralizing authority while simultaneously promoting rich, wide-ranging debate. That “centralizing authority”—the point from which all functions must be derived and to which all parts must owe allegiance—is the Constitution . . . . largely Article 1 and relevant amendments.

Senators and House Members each individually owe that same allegiance. Fidelity to their political parties, their specific religions, their personal aggrandizements, or other interests—if in any way weakening or interfering with that loyalty—is a failure of duty, an unlawful violation of their oaths. So it is that neither partisanship nor individual dissent is not bad. But fulfillment of the body’s Constitutional role must be sufficiently paramount to outweigh both party concerns and individuals’ idiosyncrasies. Failure of the House or Senate to understand, plan for, and perform successfully on its Constitutional role is to imbalance the checks-and-balance architecture and to invite intrusion of the executive branch into the legislative, whether due to intent or simply filling gaps thereby left unaddressed.

If at that time the president is inclined to expand his or her influence or ignore Congressional decisions, the stage is set for severe damage to the Constitutional arrangement, a grievous harm for which both Legislative and Executive Branches are morally and legalistically culpable.

These factors are the case at this time: A president who wants prerogatives not given him Constitutionally or in law, thereby failing to take care that the law be faithfully executed. A Senate that willingly bends to the president’s every whim, thereby failing to protect the role charged to it by the Constitution. An electorate that, in substantial part, naïvely believes it has no role to play in this charade of civic responsibility, for example, to understand our Constitution and to vote thoughtfully. Elected officials and voters who fail to distinguish between (a) normal, ongoing political issues and (b) protections or threats to the rule of law and other components of American Constitutional government.

This last item will be addressed in my next post—for misidentifying the critical difference is, to a great extent, what turns healthy political struggles (about matters like budget, health care, and immigration) into dysfunctional arguments that threaten to weaken or even dismantle the healthy system within which these more conventional political arguments can safely exist, no matter how vehemently they are pursued.

 

[My schedule led unexpectedly to fewer posts in recent months. Due to impending foreign travel in June, that schedule interference will likely continue through the next few months.]

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Republicans light just one little candle

Appearing this week on FoxNews is a 54 second video clip by Republicans for the Rule of Law (https://www.ruleoflawrepublicans.com/). It offers a long overdue sign that maybe, just maybe organized Republican voices will finally argue against valuing party over country with regard to the Trump Administration. In a message signed by 191 House (and former House) Republicans for full release of the Mueller Report, ostensibly without the curious interpretive work of Bill Barr, who as it turned out, met no high bar.

There have been a few lights of truth lately showing through the heavily biased FoxNews, but in general those who get their “news” totally from FoxNews are not accustomed to meaningful, strong Republican truth-telling. Using the Trumpian tactic of blaming others for one’s own shortcomings, FoxNews championed fake news before it helped popularize the term as applied to anything that didn’t agree with or support Trump. That is understandable, of course, for FoxNews has been a faithful arm of the White House.

For a blogger who has decried the shame of Republicans for acting like Trump’s lap dogs, I find the video ad to be an encouraging development. There have been previous Republicans with enough integrity to stand against The Donald, for example, Max Boot, George Will, and Bret Stephens. But this is a group effort, and that’s important. It’s as if a substantial number of Republicans finally decided decency is not determined by party, though party might be determined by decency. To their credit, they’ve argued that “President Trump lied to the American people, including his supporters, and encouraged others to cover for him. It was wrong when the Clintons lied and it’s wrong when Trump lies.“

Granted, it is shameful that this statement is remarkable at all. And admittedly, the choice of words to feign equivalence between the volume, frequency, and gravity of Trump’s lies compared to those that can be “the Clintons’” even at a stretch is disingenuous. However, I am so impressed by the elevating message as a whole that I’m happy to overlook that. Maybe I’ll just focus on another phrase of theirs, one for which I’ve no reservation:

“Republicans stood up for the Rule of Law then.

We should stand up for the Rule of Law now.”

 

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The shaming of America

“People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” said President Nixon when a rot less than today’s was upon the presidency. Then, unlike now, the president’s own party was not complacent in his crimes, but (eventually) chose to protect the republic rather than the rot. Nixon was a crook, though he was not judged guilty by a court. Donald J. Trump, too, is an unindicted crook.

It takes a stupefying degree of willful ignorance for one out of three Americans to tolerate, even praise Donald Trump’s sociopathic presidency and his weak, corruptible Senate. Politicians of the late 1700s wisely vested important roles in the House and Senate, in part to save the country from an authoritarian executive. Since a majority of the senate now—beyond being just policy allies of the president—have become his slavish devotees, that protection has all but disappeared. Only the Democratic wins in the 2018 mid-term election saved the country from having an entirely sycophantic, weak Congress.

I have made the case that it is never smart to believe anything Trump says; he lies even to his allies. He is as uninformed and unethical as any president ever to demean the White House. His choice of personnel has been abysmal (remember when he was going to have the best people?), often incompetent or criminal. (Just a week ago, he proudly announced, “I even thought of Ivanka for the World Bank. She would’ve been great at that because she’s very good with numbers.”)

Turnover among Secretaries of federal Departments has been enough by itself to brand Trump an unqualified manager, as does his focusing on bits and pieces rather than the big view and long term. He evaluates persons based on whether they admire him sufficiently, then “manages” them on the same basis, seemingly at no time like a competent manager. And, with only a few exceptions, he then blames them for his mistakes. The bully pulpit since his election has lost any pretense of “pulpit,” yet has clearly become more “bully.”

This post is not meant to be a list of major, damaging characteristics of Trump and his appointees. Observers who’ve not been blind to his reprehensible behavior already know. Those who remain blind to the effects of his psychotic narcissism are determined not to see, whether due to partisanship, obliviousness, or personal gain. In a future post, I wish to take up subjects demonstrating his appalling amateurism about critical principles of management, his “day trader” decision-making unhinged from strategic thought, his focus on himself and inability to render non-personal judgements, his opposition to the rule of law, his near total inattention to the significant Russian attack on the 2016 election, his inhumane treatment of immigrants seeking asylum, his disgraceful treatment of global warming, and so on—all caused, then further complicated by his reckless personality….all demonstrating that our president is a fool.

Now comes the Mueller Report or, perhaps more accurately, the William Barr Report on the Mueller Report. Bill Barr had become Attorney General (AG) because the Trump White House was attracted to his legal position. He argued that the president cannot be guilty of obstruction of justice because, as head magistrate of the land, he is technically in charge of what at any time is the definition of obstruction. It may be that we, not even Congress, will never see the Mueller Report because it would be too embarrassing to Trump. So far, Trump is determined never to let Americans see that report, though true to his character (or lack of it) he continues to say he wants them to see it.

Barr has testified to Congress and is today scheduled to release his own redacted report of what the Mueller report reveals. Days ago, as if an afterthought, he said to a Congressional committee that he believes the Obama Administration was “spying” on the Trump campaign in 2016, admitting though that he has no evidence. Note that the Department of Justice (DoJ) has a rule against revealing the names of persons who might have been guilty of a crime, but with insufficient evidence to obtain a conviction. A prosecutorial decision not to indict therefore protects potentially innocent persons (since no court will have found them guilty).

I find that rationale convincing; it is only fair. It is ironic, however, that it was FBI violation of that rule that gave Trump the presidency to begin with. Hillary Clinton was not indicted for the email debacle, but FBI Director James Comey chastised her openly for, in his word, “carelessness.” Clinton deserved the protection of that rule as much as Trump apparently does, but she didn’t get it. Similarly, the AG’s stated opinion that the Obama Administration “spied” amounts to a charge against Obama or the FBI during his presidency without evidence and certainly with no indictment.

Americans have long been very supportive of the FBI and DoJ, but these institutions along with a number of others might be on their way toward increasing loss of respect along with other functions of government in what would be just one more instance of Rick Wilson’s recent book, Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever.

I cannot think of a better ending for this post.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

 

The post (essay) above is the 198th I’ve written in this blog since I began it in April 2013. The various topics have covered atheism, secular humanism, religious liberty, science, ethics, morality, gun control, and sex. Of those, the 25 listed below are concerned with Donald Trump:

 “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016.

“October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016.

“Please, Mr. President Elect,” Nov. 15, 2016.

“What does a proto despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016.

“Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017.

“Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017.

“Congratulations, Trump voters,” Mar. 6, 2017.

“You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017.

“Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017.

“Our republic…if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017.

“Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017.

“Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017.

“Aiding and abetting injury to America,” Jan. 6, 2018.

“A disgraceful leader implicates all,” June 19, 2018.

“Trusting our leaker-in-chief in Russia,” June 22, 2018.

“Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve,” July 18, 2018.

“Trump is NOT America’s problem,” Sep 10, 2018.

“Enemies of the people,” Nov. 1, 2018.

“Risking America,” Jan. 3, 2019.

“The great wall of Cyrus,” Jan. 10, 2019.

A plea to my United States Senator,” Jan 26, 2019.

That wall between us,” Feb. 7, 2019.

Political philosophy, political behavior,” Mar. 18, 2019.

Mueller and beyond,” Mar. 25th, 2019.

“The shaming of America, Apr. 18, 2019.

 

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This non-scientist and global warming

I’m a non-scientist. My Ph.D. (1968) was earned in factors of human personality, illness, evaluation, treatment, learning, intelligence, emotion, and psychotherapy. As a research degree, learning the research findings of others was augmented with training in conducting scientific studies myself. The science part of the training dealt with experimental design, statistical analysis, and the scientific method in general. I’ve been away from that life, however, for several decades, so I cannot now honestly claim expertise in either psychotherapy or research. That is why, for purposes of this post, I am a non-scientist. The most I can claim is an aptitude for the scientific method and an inclination to apply it when stymied by an epistemological quandary.

Even as a fresh Ph.D., however, I was not expert in meteorology or global climate, just as climate scientists know no more than the average person about measurement and treatment of hostility. Each would call for a great deal of background knowledge of the field. A few hundred years ago a single polymath might be acquainted with most of the world’s knowledge. Not only does one person now know more and more about less and less, polymath is a word virtually never used. So while the human race has become massively informed, a single human can be expert in only a tiny portion of that knowledge. That is why I cannot rely on my science background to understand and interpret studies and theories of global climate change.

So what do I have to suggest to others about their approach to the sensitive and critical matter of global climate change? I assume any intelligent person knows the simple parts. For example, climate and weather are not synonymous, and climate in world history has gone through massive changes, and is affected by a many influences. As the population of humans has increased enough to affect it, even human action exert an impact. (A world population of one million would likely have had no discernable effect.) We also know that human beings tend to react to large events in less than intelligent ways, like running from a bear. Life has evolved a long way from cyanobacteria about four billion years ago, and it has—that is, we have—achieved spectacular feats like space probes beyond our star system, radiometric dating, and organ replacement. But when confronted with alarming changes in the chemistry of our home planet, we retreat largely into denial.

Worse, the specter of global climate change sets us against each other, for political strife is a more familiar phenomenon than loss of polar ice, sea level rise, agricultural shifts, and a cascade of other unfamiliar effects. We become baffled whether to deny the changes, to blame them on our nemeses, or to retreat into our various religious comforts . . . reactions as predictable as they are futile, so inevitable that we attribute them all to “human nature” as, of course, they are.

When America sought an extreme weapon, we learned from Meitner and others of massive energy retrievable from subatomic forces too small to imagine, much less be seen. When humans sought alleviation from disease, we turned to biochemistry and germ theory. When we sought long distance transportation, we considered Bernoulli and fluid dynamics. When we sought far-flung communication, asked Maxwell and Marconi. In other words, though scientific pursuits and revelations have had a few hiccups along the way, the scientific method has proved the most powerful investigative tool we have to understand ourselves as well as our universe. But there are still human failings that complicate the process.

When the challenge is overwhelmingly deadly, when it requires us to dispense with our political small mindedness, when it calls for putting aside international hegemonic jockeying, when it entails understanding or at least trusting the most powerful tools we have, we foolishly make both the methods and the possible solutions of science into a political issue. Whether there is anthropogenic global warming and, if so, what drives it, and what might impede it are neither political nor religious questions. They are questions of facts—not alternative facts, not wishes, not hoaxes, but scientifically verifiable truth.

With the possible exception of nuclear winter, the matter of global warming is more perilous for human existence than previous dangers we have faced. Clearly, the need to appreciate the matter and to mobilize whatever genius we can bring to bear confronts us as a species. But the simple division of labor in doing that seems so far to have escaped vast portions of our bodies politic, from citizens with only rudimentary grasp of world climate to political leaders blind to the existential gravity of planetary warming.

  • Human effects on global climate are phenomena to which we must bring our most powerful tool, science . . . . not feelings, not politics, not uninformed opinions. In this endeavor, I am (and almost certainly you are as well) unqualified to help.
  • Humanity’s development of actions to forestall catastrophe is a challenge to both science and technology . . . . not feelings, not politics, not uninformed opinions. In this endeavor, I am (and likely you are as well) unqualified to help.
  • Whether counteractions are worth their cost is a political question; science and technology are not helpful in this endeavor. How much of what sort of sacrifice is acceptable to alleviate how much of what sort of solution? I am, you are, and the rest of humanity are the only sources of legitimate consideration and input.

In other words, the values, feelings, and opinions of our human population are relevant to the third point, but seeking them regarding the first two is sheer foolishness, if not deadly stupidity.

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Mueller and beyond

Like millions of others, I am curious to see what we ordinary Americans will be allowed to read in the final report Mr. Mueller sent to the Attorney General last week. The AG has sent to House and Senate leadership the “primary conclusions” of that document, not the Mueller report itself. By intent or leakage, the rest of us might later get to see the document(s) (as redacted for reasons of national security and protection of unindicted persons). Department of Justice rules protect a sitting president from indictment, so we may learn little about President Trump’s behavior regardless of what he has done.

Fewer millions expect to be disappointed—in my case from three sources. (1) The report that emerges into the light of day will not produce a fly-on-the wall account of everything Trump or anyone in his campaign has done that is unlawful, unethical, untruthful, unpatriotic, injudicious, or reckless. (2) The report will not reach conclusions that Trump and persons in or linked to his campaign have acted lawfully, ethically, patriotically, judiciously, and thoughtfully.

After all, the charge to Mueller from Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was not to investigate Trump’s morality or amiability, but “Any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel’s investigation, including lying to authorities in the course of that investigation.”

However, I anticipate my most distressing disappointment will be (3) Trump’s deluge of lies about the report, claiming it as vindication from all charges, despite the report’s disclaimer that it is not to be taken as exoneration. His devotees seem to fall for whatever fabrication he comes up with, though others have learned to recognize and expect Trump’s clever misuse of language to deceive. (No, Mr. Trump, “border wall” and “border security” are not synonymous.) We can expect to hear him say the Special Counsel has proven he and the campaign are innocent of charges. But unless there is a radically different outcome of Mueller’s investigation than anything mentioned thus far, that is an outright lie, one already begun.

Further, the president is either too dim-witted or too conniving to communicate the difference between, among other examples, “failure to prove obstruction of justice” and “proof there was no obstruction of justice.” Maybe he believes they mean the same and, if so, the fear plaguing his presidency may have been prematurely reduced. Having in his own mind “won,” Trump—thus relieved of his fear—can get back to his crusade to weaken judicial independence, engage the Attorney General as his personal lawyer, undermine freedom of the press, and demand homage from Republicans in the Senate and House. Slackening any remaining self-restraints on his autocratic path promises more danger for the republic than he has already wrought, rather along the lines of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

Remember, too, that whatever emboldens Trump’s authoritarian streak further bonds his sycophants to him, for he’s not only their ticket to re-election, but their escape from blistering tweets. If the Senate, already a subsidiary of the White House, can find a way to suppress its role even further, expect Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham and others to find it. They seem little impressed with the role the Constitution laid out.

My case here is not for impeachment, certainly not under the current conditions of an obsequious Senate and overwhelmed House. Despite its Democratic majority, the House is struggling with a desire to impeach, but is faced with a surfeit of overdue investigations and the pressure of a looming presidential campaign. Even if there were not a lot on its plate, the House would face certain defeat in the Senate trial due to its Republican majority. Some observers have warned that impeaching, then losing the trial phase (as occurred with Bill Clinton) can easily make the president stronger, not weaker.

In other words, I want to see the House do the effective portion of its job, but forget impeachment, for the Senate’s adulation of Trump will not only doom the trial to defeat but subject the House to crippling distraction. As to the upcoming presidential primaries, Democratic candidates would do well to minimize ad hominem arguments among themselves, debating with knowledgeable rigor, moral strength, and common decency. If those things don’t yield a replacement of Trump, then perhaps we deserve him.

 

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Political philosophy, political behavior

After returning to civilian life from my time in the U. S. Air Force, I was closely linked to the Republican Party. My major professor for the degree in economics and business administration was Republican. The lobbying I did in later life involved close work with Senator Howard Baker and Congressman Bill Brock, both Tennessee Republicans, with fewer dealings with the Democrat Senator Al Gore the elder . In the 1980s I was invited by Indiana Republican Governor Robert Orr to be available for a cabinet position, which I turned down. In total, my personal acquaintance with the Republican Party consisted of office-holders I admired greatly. I voted for not-so-admired Nixon once and became a Life Member of the Libertarian Party a couple of decades later.

President Reagan, former Democrat, said he didn’t leave the Dems, they left him. I have much the same feeling about my earlier Republican involvement. Whatever doctrines a voter believes is best with regard to economics, government involvement, defense, taxation, and immigration, all sides are obligated to be truthful and factual. We are also duty-bound to respect whatever system has been created for dealing with our differences unless we choose democratically to change that system. In other words, honor demands common decency and playing by the rules, which means we can fight each other all we wish on choices within the rules as long as we remain loyal to the rules themselves.

It is unlikely that the political integrity a modern democracy requires is possible without these characteristics in the voters as well as in elected officials. Voters say what they want in demeanor as well as in policy objectives. Unfortunately, voters are not the most stable groups, being given as they are to creating factions, showing little discipline, and having little investment in system integrity compared to transactional and self-serving decisions. That, however, calls for elected officials in their several carefully designed roles to be the adults in the room. Anyone familiar with the Senate or House—federal and state, and also city councils—would know, though, that expecting rational, reasoned behavior in those settings may be several bridges too far.

But let me get back to the party that claims to be owner and protector of conservatism. It is usual to speak of Republican and conservative as if they’re synonymous. A model of conservatism would weave together a consistent mix of positions on governmental philosophy, that is, fulfill the requirement to be a theory of government. That differs greatly from a political party invested in partisan hegemony and slick parliamentary moves and tactics of near warfare. It is possible for philosophical integrity to co-exist with a party that lacks tangible integrity, but a claim by the latter to be standard bearer for the former must be seen as invalid.

My inclination toward the Republican Party in my early years was due less, I think, to its applied behavior than to the appeal of conservative thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and National Review magazine editor William F. Buckley. I can remember being glued to my radio (as a fawning free marketeer) as Buckley argued against liberal Kenneth Galbraith’s motion, “The Market Is a Snare and a Delusion.” At that time, and to a great extent now, I was as entranced by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as I was with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Alfred Wegener’s plate tectonics, and other trailblazing insights (OK, so I was a bit nerdish).

My excuse for the foregoing diversion is to point out that it is not conservatism’s reputation that is damaged by our current national psychosis, but the party that pretends to be the champion of authentic conservative philosophy. Although I do, in fact, lean generally toward liberal philosophy, it is not so much because of a waning conceptual argument against conservatism as it is an outright disgust with the Republican Party and with individual Republican senators and congresspersons unwilling or unable to be true to the obligations of one-third of the American government.

Here is an excerpt from my post, “Batshit crazy, the stupid party,” March 15, 2016, written during pre-Trump days that now seem naïve in the extreme:

[“Batshit crazy” and “the stupid party”] were uttered not by Democrats, but by prominent Republicans (Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Bobby Jindal). Conservative author Matt K. Lewis said that although conservatism used to have “big, thoughtful ideas,” it has “lost its intellectual bearings.” The decay has been developing for years, so is by no means just in current debate behavior. As to that behavior, conservative historian Max Boot concluded the Trump surge “proves every bad thing Democrats have ever said about the GOP is basically true.”

Well, a proviso. I don’t think deterioration is unique to the Republican party, nor even the combination of the party and its tethered television outlet, Fox News. . . I don’t revere everything Pres. Obama has done, nor do I criticize everything Pres. Bush did. Somewhat allied with Lewis, however, I do consider that the Republican party has been in decline since possibly the 1960s and surely since the 1980s, with a further marked descent since 2000. It is not the first political party to get lots of mileage out of untruths. Democrat JFK won the presidency due in part to his damning, though inaccurate charge that that his predecessor, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, had allowed a terrifying missile disadvantage vis-a-vis the USSR.

But I have additional motivation with respect to the Republican party: I fear that the US without a competent opposition to Democrats is a less robust, less philosophically muscular country. However, to my great regret, the current Republican party has forfeited that role by increasingly allying itself with the influences of xenophobia, bigotry, paranoia, and anti-science. (On a given issue, I might agree or disagree with the Republican position.) I find small mindedness, short-term focus, careerism, fudging, and spinning, along with problems of agency in politicians of both parties. Each party condemns the other about actions for which it itself is guilty. For example, in recent years we’ve seen the reversal of which party is on which side of the Senate’s cloture rule.

Both parties stoop to intentionally misquoting opponents’ positions in their arguments. For years Republicans have kept up an incessant drum beat of lies about Obama’s Democratic administration despite their being simply untrue, such as Obama’s “apology tour” or Obamacare’s inclusion of death panels. Neither was true, but the drum beat was too energizing to sacrifice to mere truth. In my opinion, however, while I’d not proclaim the Democratic party blameless, for the past fifteen years Republican conduct has been the most shameful.

The events of 2019 present so many instances of shameful Republican behavior that many have left the party rather than be associated with its lack of integrity. Consider that in the last weeks, a dozen Republican Senators took the Senate’s role seriously in defying their autocratic president and—lo and behold—it’s news! OK, I suppose shedding their role as Trump’s lapdogs even a little bit deserves kudos, for it is more than we’ve seen for two years. Senator McConnell, as Leader, has been foremost in escalating partisanship into frank irresponsibility, but despite presidential threats, that doesn’t let other senators off the hook. The novel idea of senators actually following their individual best judgment about Yemen and Trump’s magic wall is marvelous, but far too little—rather like Paul Manafort’s whining for judicial sympathy after a lifetime of crime. Political courage among most of these defiant Republicans seems to be related to whether they face retirement in the 2020 election, though bringing that up spoils my begrudging compliment.

But wait. Is it that a handful of GOP senators unexpectedly read the Constitution and found that the Senate has a real role? Is it unfair that we expect senators to buck an unusually punitive president? Do we think they won’t consider that he’ll penalize unruly senators by shutting down military construction in their states? After all, he is known to be looking around for funding already made by Congress that can be raided to find funds for his wall. Most Republicans in the Senate (and House, for that matter) are more committed to avoiding Trump’s wrath than fulfilling their oaths of office. They may have gotten religion, but I suspect they just remembered their constituents’ desire for the jobs Trump controls but may deny to them as punishment for their senators’ use of their own minds.

Let’s see. I think here is where I remind us all that the United States Senate has been proudly called “the greatest deliberative body in the world.”

 

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That wall between us

President Trump, the story goes, happened upon a politically powerful, though not thought-through idea during his campaign. The key to unlawful immigration would be a wall from sea to sea on our southern border, its cost borne by Mexico. Once pronounced to diehard, screaming fans, the fact that a wall was a questionable solution, based on no analysis, and relying on the decision of a separate country were of no concern to him. He has since altered some of that wall’s characteristics, but “The Wall” came to be the term used by both Trump’s admiring supporters and his adversaries. As a non-expert, I’d like to add a few comments about The Wall.

1

Mexican citizens’ incursion into the United States has been an issue for decades. Illegal immigration was primarily for finding work, often on a temporary basis. Of course, finding work was paired with finding workers. In other words, American employers offered jobs to persons for whom the low pay was enough to attract them to take the chances inherent in crossing a national border numerous times. Prohibiting such employment was an obvious solution, but was opposed by employers who wanted to keep their source of cheap labor. Republican and Democratic Administrations failed not so much because of porous borders the political cost of opposing employers. Meanwhile, American rhetoric was mounted against temporary migrants half-heartedly, so that we could threaten workers and employers without having to confront employers by prohibiting their lucrative practice.

Poor parenting often reveals itself in threats never fulfilled. “If you don’t stop [hitting your brother] [running through the house] [hogging the toy], I’m going to [turn off the TV] [give you no dessert] [return your new $200 running shoes]. As a psychologist, I learned that threats made but not fulfilled convey to the child that the parent really doesn’t mean those threats, no matter how much he or she argues they’re truly meant. That is what we’ve done to Mexicans at our southern border. We’ve said for decades border crossing is against the law . . . with a wink and a nod. At some point we might start meaning what we said and come down hard on the offenders; after all they knew the rules. But they didn’t. The verbalized rule had been there, while all along our behavior—that wink and nod—said we didn’t mean it after all.

2

Some Mexican men brought their families, then more did, slowly increasing the size of the undocumented population in the U.S. From time to time Americans got upset over this uncontrolled immigration. Our consternation was intermittent though, due to occasional distraction over other issues or the fact that Mexican workers became increasingly useful in the American employment market. We needed them even more than in the earlier, limited employment. Then and now individual American citizens used Mexican labor for their lawn care, carpentry, horse farms, and in other facets of their growing integration into American society. Minimal action to deport significant numbers of undocumented Mexicans continued, but we were caught in an embarrassment of our own making more comfortable to disregard than to confront.

3

At various times, public sentiment in its intermittent way, grew then subsided. Trump in running for the presidency capitalized on the recent realization that about 13,000,000 persons live in the U. S. without benefit of legal legitimacy, most of them thought to be of Mexican descent. These undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than legal immigrants and American citizens by birth. Also, they do not contribute to an increase in drug overdoses, DUI deaths, murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. In other words, with the exception of having entered the country illegally, undocumented immigrants are more peaceful and law-abiding than “real” Americans.

Still, with his pathological disregard for the niceties of facts and truth, Trump continually proclaimed there to be grave danger from these illegal immigrants, particularly from Mexicans crossing America’s southern border. He publicized their law-breaking, especially in acts of physical damage to legal residents and citizens. When he became president he set up a committee to gather all cases of reprehensible crime by undocumented persons. These actions convinced Trump and his supporters, most of whose understanding of statistical inquiry is at best minimal, that the country was being overrun by alien criminals. For example, hearing of this or that actual instance of crime is taken as a useful indication of the criminality of the group. It is not. Whether the president is simply ignorant of that or just embellishes lies by collecting a string of individual instances is not my concern here, but untruths they definitely are.)

4

What they decidedly are not, however, is a national emergency. Federal employees, their families, the persons they purchase from, and the small contractors who depend on their government contract are greatly damaged by a shut-down. (The same people are now vulnerable to Trump’s choice to do it again.) I don’t know how many persons were cruelly damaged by this president who thinks that failing to get his way by argument and persuasion justifies his harsh treatment of millions who played no role in issues pertaining to the decision.

A legally defined National Emergency is available to Trump if he declares it. Most of both political parties hope that does not occur, even those Republicans who will not stand up to the president’s unscrupulous hostage-taking. The president’s once and (possibly) future government shut-down is accompanied by his bullying lie that the Congress was and will be responsible for his dishonorable behavior—though he normally blames Democrats alone. As to a National Emergency about a nonexistent emergency, massive new authority would be thereby transferred to the Executive Branch. Trump has shown himself to be untrustworthy without that infusion of extra power, so to contemplate what he would be like if supercharged is terrifying. Stoking fears in the populace which only the president can resolve is alarmingly like the beginnings of history’s previous despots. That we would take even a slim chance of that is reckless in the extreme.

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A feature of communication among individuals is language. The importance of accuracy in language is even more critical when large numbers of persons are involved. Perhaps you have noticed that we speak of The Wall and also of border security as if they are interchangeable. They are not. The Wall is one possible component of border security; border security would have numerous components, one part of which—possibly a critical part of which—might well be a physical barrier of some sort. Trump demanded The Wall with no more than an excited amateur’s amount of study. Democrats have resisted this rush to a single component without first studying the entire border security situation. Trump, somehow missing that point, then accused Democrats of not being for border security, therefore they are guilty of loosing horrid criminals upon Americans. Later, Trump adds some components to his demand, but at best he’d arrived at the whole by beginning at a single part. Trump and Democrats themselves then started using border security and The Wall as interchangeable terms, wondering why they are not connecting!

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Non-citizens in the United States who hold no documentation permitting their presence here is almost universally denounced by citizens. Virtually all Americans support lawful control over who enters the country. One of Trump’s lies to excite his base is that Democrats want open borders and would permit criminal entry. (While there may be some Americans who disdain any borders anywhere, the number is vanishingly small.) Thus, no matter how otherwise law-abiding, peacefully behaving, or needy, non-citizens are, they must still respect the border. Almost without exception, Americans of all political views want it that way. By international agreement, there’s a right to enter a country in order to apply for refugee status. However, as the Democratic spokesperson, Stacey Abrams, put it this week after Trump’s State of the Union address, strict border control does not excuse inhumane border control.

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So where does that leave The Wall? Trump has now told us he no longer means a concrete wall, an iron wall, or necessarily any man-made barrier at all in certain places. In fact, a number of physical barrier compositions, lengths, and heights stated since The Wall has been in our national conversation. I possess no special information, competence, or sources with which to comment on the probable effectiveness of any given barrier. But neither does anyone else, including border control officials, the U.S. Congress, or Trump and his administration. I can say that with confidence because wall characteristics are not the only issue in deciding—if there is to be a wall at all—its characteristics, placement, and size.

Problem solving should begin at the broadest level of the matter or issue being examined. It is folly to begin at a miniscule level when the largest level is undecided. For example, no subsidiary issues should be solved when America’s philosophical position on immigration is unclear. Do we want immigration? Certain kinds of immigration? Certain immigrant skills? In what amounts? There are many more matters of public policy, “neighborhood“ effects, technology issues and dozens of further decisions of what immigration should produce over coming decades.

Where do current immigrants come from? By what routes and through what portals? Are there points that produce particularly dangerous entries? Are there different types of immigration sources (e.g., walkers across the desert, boats from Cuba? overstayed visas? snow skiing Canadians?) that call for varieties of control devices? Does any one source yield a substantially larger number of persons desiring to enter? Are third-level entries (such as from Central America but through Mexico) involved? None of these issues make sense if we have left unclarified what level and type of new residents or citizens are desired or what will be the extent and type of our humanitarian intent.

At some point going step by step down a sequence of describing what we really want, we may get to specifics of physical barriers along the border of northern Mexico. Easy? No, but neither were sending astronauts to the moon, space probes completely out of the solar system, and the first nuclear submarine, along with an unending list of scientific discoveries and conquests of human achievement. But it makes sense . . . far more sense than being incidentally enthralled with a shiny decoration pretending to be the, the, solution to questions for which we, like children, have not done the work of unambiguous conceptualization at the broadest level.

 

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