Party Labels…Part 2

A couple of things before I dive into this.  (With apologies to Dr. Seuss) Thing 1: I regret that I was not able to continue in the vein of the last post, and that a week or more has gone by.  For the first time in my life, I went through a hurricane evacuation, the return to home turf, and a cleanup, an effort that may last for another week or two, so between time lost to outside labor and the fatigue caused by it, I just haven’t devoted any time to other pursuits.  And Thing 2: Having read my last post again, I realized there were things I should have said in that post and didn’t.  So here’s some more to consider as an addendum to it.  Sorry about that.

So, having described the process by which dog-whistle, “not quite” racism, or its close cousin, covert, “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” almost racism came to be a component of Republican core values (Hey, it wins a lot of votes, so…) it was an oversight on my part to fail to enlarge on a “single-issue voter” comment I made.

Single-issue voters are the most faithful straight party voters in existence.  Regardless of how a party or its candidate feels about or promises to enact other policies, the single-issue voter wants to hear that this candidate is a true believer in whatever this voter’s obsessive cause is.  There are several of these issues, but the most lasting, most effective of these for the Republicans in the modern era has been abortion.  Before the late 1950’s abortion in the United States had not been a subject of controversy.  Accurate figures on the numbers of abortions performed in the country were not available; so-called “back alley” procedures were rumored.   The procedure was, for the most part, simply banned. There was some debate about a woman’s being forced to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term, but no large-scale movement to legalize it in any form.

In 1962, the local host of the children’s TV show Romper Room in Phoenix, Sherri Finkbine (already a mother of four), learned that she had taken medication containing thalidomide, a drug produced originally in (then West) Germany and marketed as a cure for nausea.  Ms. Finkbine had ingested over 30 of these pills in the early stages of her pregnancy.  (Her husband had picked up the pills on a European trip.)  After taking the pills, she learned that the medication was suspected to cause birth abnormalities if taken by the mother in early stages of pregnancy.  Her personal physician recommended that she seek a therapeutic abortion, legal under Arizona law at the time.  At the same time, Ms. Finkbine went public with her personal situation, to warn others who had taken any thalidomide-based drug of the dangers it posed.  She began to receive death threats and promises of legal action against her as well as the hospital where the procedure was to be performed; abortion had abruptly moved to the front page and to the six o’clock news.

Ms. Finkbine eventually obtained the abortion by going to Sweden; her obstetrician there eventually confirmed that the fetus was grossly deformed and stood little chance of survival.  Following her story, Gallup polls showed about half the general public thought she had done the right thing; as time went on, public opinion shifted further in favor of liberalization of abortion restrictions.   Foes of liberalization mobilized, and positions hardened as some states moved to lift absolutist laws on the subject. Lawsuits and countersuits were filed in many jurisdictions.  Eventually, all this culminated in a case before the US Supreme Court, the famous Roe v. Wade, in 1973.  That decision, which seemed to settle the issue in favor of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, has never been accepted by a large minority of the US public, and that portion has remained active in trying to return to a more restrictive regimen of law on the matter.

Republican party politicians have gradually assumed a rather unanimous position in opposition to the current state of affairs and have promised to pass ever more restrictive laws in many states.  It is difficult to say how many of them sincerely support a more restrictive view.  It is not in question that those voters who vote with single-issue fervor against the right to abortion, even with restrictions as to late term procedures, support the Republican Party.  The national Democratic Party generally adheres to a position laid out by former President Bill Clinton, who said that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

A relatively recent addition to the single-issue voter list is known as “marriage equality.”  In another case decided by the Supreme Court, state laws against gay marriage were wiped out.  So-called “social conservatives” have sought to circumvent this change in legal climate; it is too early to know whether marriage equality has the staying power to become a long-lasting single-issue at election time, but this is another rock solid Republican issue at present.

Perhaps the most rock solid single issue, though, is guns.  Why? Well, according to the National Rifle Association (NRA), the national Democratic Party is coming after your guns.  Never mind that the Democrats have floated only  mild tweaks to gun laws in recent years–things like registration of legally-obtained guns or limiting magazine size.  ANY control of gun ownership or any restriction on the potential carnage that can be caused by guns is anathema to the NRA.  Recently, they attracted attention with a series of ads that said, in part, to those who find them too strident, “We’re coming after you.”  To perhaps millions of voters, the Democrats’ advocacy of some limits to firearms is unforgiveable, and candidates of both parties are filmed ritually at campaign time shooting at target ranges or going on bird hunts.

National health care is the final issue I’ll mention here.  You’d have to have spent the last several years on Jupiter or somewhere not to be familiar with this one.  It has engendered some of the most manifestly stupid campaign talk ever.  The ever ready to speak new levels of stupidity 2008 candidate for Vice-president, Sarah Palin, claimed that the Affordable Care Act would have “death panels” to decide when Grandma would become too expensive to keep alive, and thus, would be allowed to die.  Many Republican voters are fanatically insistent that the ACA amounted to a “government takeover of health care.”  Health care is still in the hands of professionals.  The ACA ensures payment for services through a web of insurance availability and increased Medicaid.

Enough.  My head hurts.  Next time, I promise, I’ll spank the Democrats.

Party Labels and What They Mean Today

In my last post, I wrote about Confederate statues and flags and suggested that ceasing to glorify symbols and partisans of an unconstitutional, illegal rebellion in the United States was simply a matter of decency.  I promised in that post not to talk politics.  This post will talk politics, and will lay out the condensed version of where we (that is, US voters) find themselves today, and how we came to our current situation.

Having touched last time on the emergence of the Republican party and the election of the first US president under its banner, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it seems easier to stick with them this time and talk more in depth about the Democrats in a future post.

First of all, talking of the American political landscape as a “two-party system” is an enormous oversimplification.  Both parties are in fact comprised of people with a range of opinions and positions, some of which they express openly and honestly; others they express more covertly, or at times, in less strident terms  for wider appeal to a general audience.  As a result, political commentators and even journalists (who should and probably often do know better) tend to describe today’s Republicans as “the right” or “conservative” and the Democrats as “the left” or “liberal.”  That terminology is useful only to describe each party in reference to the other party; in general, most or all Democrats hold views that fall slightly or greatly to the left of the views of most or all Republicans.  On a world scale, our Republicans would be seen by most as a coalition of center-right to hard right types, and Democrats as a coalition of centrists to moderate left-of-center believers.  But both include large numbers of simplistic single-issue voters and office holders, too.

To circle back to Lincoln’s time, then: political parties tended to come and go, based on singe issues or a narrow range of issues.  Lincoln himself served one term in Congress, and that as a Whig, not a Republican.  His election was in 1846, and he served from 1847 to 1849.  The Whigs were the more urban, educated party, as opposed to Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, who traced their origins to Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic Republican” coalition,  By the late 1840’s, Whig policy was for increased industrialization and encouragement of banks so as to finance public works such as roads, railroads, and canals, which would lead almost inevitably to increased urbanization; the Democrats wanted an agrarian republic, together with liberal immigration.

The Democratic thinking of the time meant expansion of the land mass of the United States and the conversion of that land mass to agriculture.  Whigs, with some justification, pointed at the interests of Democrats were leading, and would continue to lead, to expansion of slavery ever westward and into the territories won from Mexico in the Mexican War.  (Texas proved an example of this scenario.)  Lincoln, having pledged at one point to serve only one term in Congress, hoped to be appointed to a well-paid federal job when Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, won the presidential election of 1848.  Failing to secure the job he wanted, Lincoln left political life altogether rather than accept an office in the Oregon territory, and returned to Illinois.

By a long series of events, Lincoln gained a reputation among Illinois political figures as a strong orator and a formidable intellect over the next decade.  It all came together in his being nominated as the Republican candidate for the US Senate seat then held by Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. The Whigs, having fractured in the mid-1850’s, principally over the expansion of slavery–with their northern faction actively in opposition to the expansion while its southern branch was not inclined to “rock the boat”–simply ceased to function as a national party, and Lincoln, as did most Northern Whigs, went to the new Republican party.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are famous for having given Lincoln a national stage.  During seven face-to-face encounters, Douglas talked at length about “popular sovereignty,” the “state’s rights” argument before the latter was well-formulated.  In essence, Douglas was stating that if the people of a state wanted things one way, their will should be sovereign, rather than a statement of national principle or law.  Lincoln argued that the Founders were more anti-slavery than pro, and that the national consensus was shifting toward a prohibition on expansion.  In those days of state legislatures’ electing US senators, the Illinois legislature was composed of a majority of Democrats and Douglas won the Senate seat, but Lincoln had won a large following all over the northern states, and became the Republican nominee for President in 1860.

To recap Lincoln’s presidency relative to the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, please see the immediately preceding post on this blog.  For the purposes of this post, suffice to say that the tone was set for the next several decades, with Republican candidates and administrations standing for reconciliation with the ex-Confederate states, and standing for the rule of law.  From Lincoln’s assassination until 1913, the only Democrat to be elected President was Grover Cleveland, in two separate terms.  Memories of the Civil War and Lincoln’s leadership lasted and are influential even today.  The next Democratic president was Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921, who won with the aid of a split electorate when ex-President Teddy Roosevelt bolted the Republican party to run a third-party campaign.  Wilson was followed by three more Republicans, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, and Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 only after an inept and seemingly cavalier response to the stock market crash 0f 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.

During all these years, though, of Republican administrations in Washington, southern states elected a long series of Democratic governors and state legislatures.  In the early 1900’s, with Southern sensibilities looking for relief from the humiliation of  defeat in the Civil War, and seeking, without admitting it, to maintain a strict white supremacist social order, these state legislatures enacted and enforced ruthlessly the infamous Jim Crow laws over most of the southern states.  Marriage between the races was illegal.  Voter laws were written, and enforced, to ensure minority input into state government was minimal.   Maintenance of separation of the races, with African-Americans firmly established as inferior, was maintained by a legal façade of state laws.  And lest it be thought that this system was restricted to the South, some northern cities were just as guilty of oppression as their southern counterparts.

Change began in earnest only with World War II.  African-American workers stuck in menial occupations or sharecropping in the South migrated to industrial jobs in northern cities.  They also were called upon to serve in the military during the war, and sentiment grew for a more equitable treatment for all; in 1948, President Harry Truman, a Democrat from Missouri, signed a decree desegregating the US military, an order which was not fully carried out until 1954.

It was during that same year of 1948 that Strom Thurmond, a Democratic senator from South Carolina, broke from the national Democratic Party to run for President under the “States’ Rights Democrat” party ticket, in protest of Truman’s action for desegregation of the military.  In a campaign speech, he told an enthusiastic crowd of supporters,

I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

During the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1954,came the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, a 9-0 decision that held that separate schools for African-American students and white ones were inherently unequal, and thus violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.  No more could states legally enforce segregation, even under “separate but equal” justification.  State governors Orval Faubus (Arkansas) in 1957, Ross Barnett,( Mississippi) 1962, and George C. Wallace (Alabama) in 1963, made showy objections to federal enforcement of desegregation orders, but the train of societal change had left the station.  A way of life was going to change, even if grudgingly and slowly.

The seismic shift in American politics came in 1964.  The Republicans nominated Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a self-described conservative, to run for President against Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who, on July 2, 1964, had signed the Civil Rights Act into law.  Johnson, himself a Southerner from Texas, took up the battle as a memorial act for President John F. Kennedy after the latter was assassinated.  Goldwater opposed the Act on the grounds of federal overreach and Senator Thurmond heartily approved of that opposition.  Thurmond soon changed parties, and other southern Democrats followed; the “solid south” became solidly Republican, largely over the Civil Rights issue.

A mere four years later, in 1968, the defeated Republican nominee for President of 1960, Richard M. Nixon, embraced, little by little, a “southern strategy,” holding that he would speak for the “silent majority, ” and that the majority of the electorate was “unyoung, unpoor, and unblack.”  I believe, although it can never be proven, that Nixon was probably not a racist or absolutely callous to the plight of those less fortunate among us.  He just subsumed the importance of absolutely everything else to that of winning elections.  I have treated him harshly here before, but it bears repeating.  He was, in my estimation, the most corrosive figure in modern American public political life.  His insistence on winning at any cost caused him to lose any scruples he had in favor of a “take no prisoners” campaign philosophy.

Subsequent Republican actions reinforce the Nixonian view that it doesn’t matter as long as you win.  Ronald Reagan, a Republican candidate for president launched his campaign from  Philadelphia, Mississippi, the same place where three civil rights workers had been kidnapped and murdered a few years before.  Part of his opening statement was “…I believe in states’ rights.”  Both of these things are so-called “dog whistle” statements–something that makes a statement to those attuned to know what the words mean.  In this case, the most likely meaning is “I’m with those of you who advocate ‘popular sovereignty.’ ”  I don’t think Abe Lincoln would have missed the context.

Thirty years after Reagan’s heyday, we got Donald Trump, he of “I’m the law and order candidate” fame even as his campaign has come under scrutiny for conspiring with a hostile foreign country, even as his finances continue to draw draw the attention of federal and state authorities.   Even after he began his ascent into politics by slandering the last president.   I know…nothing has been proven. I know, he’s the president.  He won’t be forever.  Politics like his, beginning with advocating and currying hate by some Americans against some others are nothing to be proud of.   And I know, the Democrats are not as pure as the driven snow.  (Their turn is next.)  I just can’t pretend I see anything to admire on the “right” side of the aisle.

 

 

No Time for Celebrations

If you read the last post on this blog, you know that I was glum at the prospect of Mitch McConnell’s preparations to announce that he had finally succeeded in repealing (most of) the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  Secret drafting of a “replacement” bill that was actually a huge tax cut for the truly wealthy, and equally secret rehearsals by Republican Senators for their bravura performance–great drama over their sensitivity toward the elderly and the sick, or the opioid-addicted, etc., followed by McConnell’s moves to direct funds to the states where those Senators come from–would end with relatively fast passage of his bill.  Obamacare would be (mostly) dead and the USA would once again be safe for huge profits by pharmaceutical companies and health insurance company executives!  USA!  USA!

An odd thing has taken place in Washington, though.  In a Senate where two Republicans could have voted against McConnell’s bill in order to save face with enraged constituents, then tut-tutted when it passed, for some reason, more than two of them said they would not support the bill.  And they did not follow the script I spoke of, at least not right away.  All this week I have waited for all but two Republican dissenters to return to the fold and announce their support.  But it has not happened.  At least not yet.

There are rumblings behind the scenes and even some out front that the legislation was no good.  Notably, Ohio’s Governor John Kasich forthrightly condemned it as nothing more than a tax cut for the rich while the less fortunate would lose.  The Republican tandem in Nevada of Republican Governor Sandoval and Senator Dean Heller have not wavered publicly in expressing doubt at the intent and effect of the bill.  You will not be surprised to learn that Heller is up for re-election next year, and that this office has been besieged by calls urging him not to support it.

Have some high-ranking Republicans acquired a conscience?  Or perhaps they have considered what civic duty entails?  More likely there are some few of them who worry that casting a vote in favor of this legislation might do grievous harm to their re-election chances, and, further, that it is fruitless to think that President Trump will somehow “have their back” down the line.  In fact, none other than Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has been quoted as saying (out loud!) quite the opposite.  Trump, in other words, has shown himself to be concerned mostly with Trump.  Further, many party elders may be more concerned that the Donald may not last even one term as president, and thus will not be able to stand behind anyone among Republicans in any meaningful way.  (How many Republicans were elected to the Senate, House, or State House in 1976 with the support of Richard Nixon?)

So, is the McConnell bill dead?  I doubt it.  Donors to his many campaigns, on one hand, and Political Action Committees funded by the Koch Brothers and others are not happy at this turn of events, and they are not going to give up. I still think we will see passage, but perhaps with some more rounding off of the roughest edges than we might have otherwise seen.

One interesting sidelight, though, to this whole piece of performance art is that other voices are being raised, not least of which is that of Bernie Sanders, the Independent Senator from Vermont, whom I heard voice some thoughts just yesterday on the current impasse.  Sanders, though known to favor a single payer “Medicare for all” solution to health insurance, said that perhaps a gradualist approach would be timely, specifically, lowering the Medicare eligibility age from the current 65 to 55.  This would have the effect of creating a larger, comparatively healthier pool of  those insured by Medicare.  Looking, as always, at whose ox would be gored, you will see health insurance companies at the front of the line, as many not-quite-golden-agers would opt for Medicare at reduced rates (even with perhaps higher deductibles) than they pay now.  The CEO’s of Blue Cross/ Blue Shield and their colleagues with other insurers will howl against the idea for years to come, and, of course, their donations flow not only to Republicans.  Don’t look for this to happen any time soon.  But hearing it injected into the discussion is a beginning.

Further, if the idea of health care/insurance reform is for real at all, costs must be reduced.  How? Start with the cost of prescription drugs.  Sanders (again) points out that Americans pay the highest prescription drug costs in the world.  Canadian drugs, virtually identical to the versions sold on this side of the border, are often one-half to one-third the cost of their American counterparts.  Why is that?  And Medicare itself, the largest buyer of prescription drugs in the country, is currently prohibited from negotiating drug discounts with any suppliers.  Or importing many drugs from Canada or anywhere else.

Politicians who talk long and loudly about the virtues of cost reduction in government, where are you?  Many have acted hypocritically, refusing to change current regulations on procuring medicine, citing risks to American consumers from medicines manufactured by other than American companies.  (Cory Booker, I’m looking at you…)  OK, but–Canada?  We can’t trust Canada’s controls?  Give me a break.

There will be a lot of strutting, preening, and citing danger to Americans if any changes are made to monopolistic practices in procurement and delivery of health care.  It still will probably not end well.  Don’t count McConnell’s vision out yet.  And don’t give up, on the other hand, on improving a system that is failing many while making a few rich.  Er, richer.

 

USA! We’re the Best! Even When We’re Not.

First, if you haven’t already done so, you will need to follow this link to a Slate magazine article:

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/06/trumpcare_is_right_where_republicans_want_it.html.

Now, if you’ve read the article, what I’m going to talk about will make more sense, but, if you haven’t, in capsule form, what it says is that the coming “debate” over Trumpcare in the Senate will have all the suspense of a pro wrestling event, and perhaps all the drama as well.  Jim Newell, a staff writer for Slate, has done the analysis to show that the current hand-wringing by a few Republican Senators over “Trumpcare,”  designed to overturn (for the most part) the Affordable Care Act, is all scripted, and that Mitch McConnell has reserved a few bones to throw to selected Senate colleagues (after an appropriate interlude, of course) so as to guarantee at least 50 Republican votes for the measure, and thus, its passage as soon as next week.  One or two Republicans can opt out, for the sake of optics, but the outcome is foreordained.

Is Newell right?  We’ll all know in a short time, but as I read his scenario, I could not help but hear the depressing ring of truth.  The Congressional Budget Office markup of the House-passed version of this has forecast that 24,000,000 Americans will lose healthcare insurance and that Medicaid funding will drop over the next decade by billions; those of us who have insurance now and will continue to carry it even after all this will probably see our rates rise because, well, that’s what they do.  We’re used to it, aren’t we?

I have Medicare, since I am over 65 years of age.  Contrary to a common belief, it is not free.  It costs me somewhere over $200 per month, as a deduction from my Social Security annuity.  Also, contrary to a common belief, Social Security is not “welfare for seniors,” and should not be derided as an “entitlement.”  I and millions of others who receive Social Security do so because we paid into the program for many years.  And, primarily because I continue to pay for the group private health insurance that I had for upwards of 40 years during my careers, I keep that, too, both to maintain a secondary insurer, since Medicare only pays part of my own medical expenses, and because there are family members who can be covered under my membership.  In all, I pay several thousand dollars per year for the privilege of handing a doctor or hospital a card to show that they will be paid if I need their help.

So, some ask, why would I care about the fate of the Affordable Care Act?  It won’t affect me personally.  And that attitude always causes me to shake my head, even if only mentally.  You see, the whole idea of “civics,” which Wikipedia defines as ” …the study of the theoretical and practical aspects of citizenship, its rights and duties; the duties of citizens to each other as members of a political body and to the government,” is the give and take of those rights and duties among the citizens of an organized nation, whether it is a republic, a monarchy, a dictatorship, or any other type of governance you can think of.  Suppose, in December of 1941, President Roosevelt had responded to the Pearl Harbor attack by noting that Hawaii was, at the time, only a territory of the United States, not a state, and that the 48 states (at the time) of the United States were not affected?

Get away from the keyboard–I know that hypothetical is ludicrous; I’m not stupid.  Usually not, anyway.  And anyway, citizens of the US and property were lost at Pearl Harbor.  All citizens were called on to defend the wrong done to the civic body.

But I find it equally ludicrous that in the 21st century, the United States as a nation is choosing repeatedly to protect the privileged and the wealthy to the detriment of the weak and the poor.  It’s nothing new; it’s been going on for nearly four decades now.  One of our two principal political parties stands openly and proudly for that position, and the other lacks the unity and the moral standing to make a strong moral case against it.

It has been often said that where one stands on any issue can be told by determining whose ox is being gored.  This particular issue–the American health care system, its ability to heal the sick, and maintain the public health, is being steered by interests rather than by principles.  Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other figures on the Republican side of it endlessly spout their credo that this country has the best health care in the world, but when pressed for why, in every important measure of how healthy Americans are, it is demonstrably not true that we have the best, they can not rebut the facts.  We do not rank among those countries whose health is being well-maintained by that health care system.  In one metric after another, be it infant mortality, average lifespan, maternal mortality, etc., we are outranked by other nations.  The apologists have resorted to assertions that, well, those statistics fail to take into account that the average American has access to this or that medical specialty or facility.

Having access to something is not the same as having it.  If your house is struck by a hurricane, and you must rebuild, and if your homeowner’s insurance retreats behind claims of “acts of God,” the facts are that the labor and the materials to rebuild your house probably exist in your community, but your access to that labor and those materials then are absolutely defined by the money that is available to you.  If you are someone who has put aside enough to make a new construction fall within your means, then you will be able to rebuild.  If not, you are reliant on the indemnification your insurance provides.  No money, no insurance=homelessness.

Equally, the citizen who is struck by catastrophic disease will survive and prosper only if he has resources or if he is protected by insurance.  But the consequences are not homelessness: they are death or perhaps disability.

Thus, my somewhat extreme analogy.  The exercise of civic duty in every other developed nation in the world has led to the establishment of a base of public health freely (and truly) available to every citizen.  The quality of that care may vary, but it is accepted by the populace that all should find the access to needed health care available as a common right of all citizens.

Getting back to the ox’s being gored, look at who stands to benefit by a return to an every man for himself, “survival of the fittest” system.  Money flows from consumers of health care to its providers and its facilities, but also to another class: the insurers, and the purveyors of patented drugs.  Corporations and executives of those corporations give no shots, bathe no infants, and dispense no medications, but they do donate to politicians.  Into the millions of dollars.

And so, the senior Senator from Kentucky, who has been the beneficiary of a goodly share of those insurance millions (as well as pharmaceutical companies’ millions) should be able to look at his handiwork some day soon and tell his real masters that he has made the world safe again for enormous profits in insurance and pharmaceuticals.

And, just think, that same Senator, who proclaimed in 2008 that his priority would be to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one-term president, will also get his revenge by working so hard to undo Obama’s most famous legislative achievement.  Mitch McConnell, you are a hateful old man who has used your office to glorify the pursuit of profit over the health of children and over the sincere efforts of a political opponent to protect the well-being of those children.  Sleep well.  You, too, are mortal.

If I Were King

Now this is just a harmless exercise.  I am a thoroughgoing believer in democracy.  As has been said (endlessly), it’s the worst form of government, except for all the others, but…admit it.  I bet you have thought at times how much better the country would be if you were, even for a short time, the omnipotent monarch.  Not some so-called king or queen like the ones in Britain or Spain. The real thing, attempting to show wisdom while ruling over a country.  What would I do?  Glad you asked. Here are a few things I would enact and change.

In government, I would maintain most of the current structures.  Congress would continue as a deliberative body.  Voting law would be uniform in all 50 states, though.  Registration would be in person with some proof of age and residence, and there would be a national registry of voters–any move by a voter to a different place (locality or state) would be a mere change of address.   Uniform regulations in all jurisdictions would be brought into being.  Why should voting in Vermont carry different qualifications than voting in Mississippi?  A national registry would also eliminate concerns of registry in multiple states and most any other fraud concerns.

There would be term limits.  Why should some 80-year old dementia sufferer just keep holding a seat in Congress?  And please don’t tell me that because Congressman X “helped my uncle get his social security,” Congressman X is deserving of 20 terms.  All those problems are farmed out to some staffer, anyway.  So, my thought would be that no person could be elected to more than 10 terms, or 20 years.  And each of them would be entitled to an “ombudsman” who would deal with constituent complaints.  And maybe one other staffer for legislative affairs.  Other employees?  OK, as long as you pay them.

Similarly, Senators would get a maximum of three terms: 18 years.  Just because.  And under the same staffing limits as Congressmen.  And donations to a political candidate would be severely restricted, replaced by air time on local TV and radio, which would be a condition of stations’ licensure.

I would have line-item veto authority over all budget matters.  No more would one state, by virtue of a long-term representative in Congress, get preferential treatment in matters of large federal expenditures, such as military bases or call centers.  Government expenditures are all “pork” according to some, except when that “pork” goes to their own districts, when it becomes “long overdue economic stimuli.”  I can’t give you a set formula that would govern my actions here.  You’ll just have to trust me.

Health care: big problem, but not insoluble.  I would set a timetable for long-term overhaul–say, 10 years.  And I would listen to the concerns of all who are involved.  Congress, of course, must represent the will of the people.  Pharmaceutical companies, the American Medical Association, and the insurance industry, too.  I would start with the premise that we all need to recognize that there is truly no such thing as a free lunch–someone, in the end, pays the freight for everything.  And most people just nod at that notion and accept that the costs are out of line, and that it is all too big for us to solve.

Here’s the thing: it’s not really that way.  I’d start with some assumptions that are not widely considered.  “The cost of medical care” includes much that is not salaries or bandages or saline solution, etc.  A primary care physician may pay thousands of dollars in malpractice insurance, for example.  Why? Just think about that robocall you got today advising you that if you or a loved one has suffered from side effects from XYZ drug, you may be entitled (emphasis mine) to compensation, etc., etc.  Drug companies spend millions to develop chemicals that will have this or that effect on humans.  Then, once the drugs are approved for human use, the companies spend millions more to advertise them!  The costs of all this development and branding, of course, are paid by the consumer…well…in reality, by his insurance, assuming he has insurance.

The insurance industry is, like all industries, out to make a buck.  There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but, unlike some guy who works in a hardware store or a woman who runs a beauty salon, an insurance company, if it has to pay out a multi-million dollar claim, can pass on the cost of that payment to its consumers in the form of higher rates.  And they all get hit with this sort of catastrophic cost at times, and all pass on the costs.  Who pays the increased costs?  Doctors, nurses, and other people involved in the delivery of health care.  How do they pay?  Through cost of services that builds in money for that insurance.  And who pays that?  You and I do, in premiums.

Who benefits from this spiral of costs and benefits?  Lawyers (Why do you think they make those robocalls?) and some winners of lawsuits.  If our hypothetical hardware store employee dies from some negligence or malpractice, his wife and his kids should be entitled to have his insurance make up for the loss of his earning power.  But why, if he makes $25,000 a year, should that compensation soar into the tens of millions?  Two words: “pain” and “suffering.” Remember, I said ten years to settle health care?  Huge rewards are at the root of high insurance rates, both for participants in health care delivery and for those who are its consumers.  There has to be reform of that system, and that means that ambulance-chasing lawyers will have to settle for less, and so will survivors. There should be a common-sense solution, but the current system has huge rewards, and the lawyers will howl.  We’ll get it worked out–within a few years.  The long-term final result is single-payer health care, just as it is in every other first-world country in the world.  It’s inevitable.

Church and state are separate in US law and practice, right?  Then why does the state permit any organization that meets certain minimum standards (really minimum) to evade many of the taxes that a flower shop or bakery would pay? This has had the effect of permitting some organizations to operate tax-free or at least at a reduced tax rate.  I would abolish this early on.  To the idea that some would no longer be able to operate, I can only shrug.  The state has no interest in fostering religion, or it must impartially foster all religions.  I opt for none.  Franklin Graham, Joel Osteen,  Jerry Falwell, Jr., will not starve. They are in reality TV personalities or corporate pitchmen anyway.

Infrastructure?  We really need it.  Trillions of dollars’ worth.  Decaying roads, bridges, water lines, and more must be rebuilt, and this is not open to debate.  Financing it all is a major problem, but not one that can’t be solved.  Institute, if need be, a 50-state lottery.  Or some combination of that and a spree of closing tax loopholes.  Or a temporary raise in gas taxes–a 25-cent levy on each gallon of gas sold in the US would raise billions, and it could be sunsetted, made to expire after 5 or 10 years.  Remember, in the runup to the election of 2008, we were paying nearly $4.00 a gallon, nationwide.  Now with gasoline at about $2.50, we’re driving more but enjoying it less.  Fix those roads!  And every road that gets repaved, every bridge that gets rebuilt, all create jobs that can’t be outsourced to China or Bangladesh.

There is a lot more that could be done, even without a king.  Will it?  I don’t know.  Will we sink into the crowd of second-tier nations?  We could; some would say we already have.  Let’s dream bigger.

Commercialism: You Don’t Need to Actually PRODUCE Anything…

Warning: you are about to encounter a near-rant, and it may get uncomfortable…

Philosophy,  political science, psychology, and religion are full of –isms.  In this particular usage, and for the duration of this (near) rant, I will use –ism, and commercialism in particular, in the general sense of “a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory,” as taken from Merriam Webster, as opposed to a particular belief or prejudicial manner of thinking.  So, to be clear, commercialism, as I will use it here, refers to the distinctive cause of packaging absolutely anything, any occasion, or any idea as a possible commodity: something that can be sold to other human beings at a profit to the packager.

I am not some doctrinaire socialist or moralizer fastened on the idea that the word profit is an obscenity or that all corporations are evil in all they do and all they propose to do.  Working for a living and profiting from one’s labor are cornerstones of our (American) system of free enterprise, after all, and many other countries operate similar economies, at least in those aspects.  What I like less and less as time goes by is the largely unspoken, though increasingly powerful and omnipresent idea that, if a buck can be made from something, it must be exploited, and those bucks must be extracted from other members of society.  A corollary effect is that once such exploitation has started, those who are unwilling or unable to pay for the thing someone has successfully made into a commodity are frozen out, prevented from enjoying something they might previously have had at lesser expense.

Even more egregious is the idea of making oneself into a distributor or controller of the product of another’s labor, knowledge, or goodwill; the more this sort of thing gets added into the ultimate cost to the ultimate consumer, the more expensive it becomes.

One of the worst examples of this magnification of costs is our American nonsystem of health care delivery.  Health certainly is a basic human need–if you get appendicitis, and it is not taken care of, a ruptured appendix is the likely result, followed by peritonitis and death.  The good news is that a relatively simple surgical procedure and postoperative medication will likely avoid all that.  Are there costs?  Of course.  The surgeon is entitled to be compensated for his skills, any assistants likewise, and the antibiotics the patient consumes after the surgery are not free of cost.  And the hospital that houses all this has an attendant cost, too.

Sound complicated? Of course.  But let’s examine what has evolved in this country in response to such a need.  Some people will never need such medical care and will go to their graves with their appendices intact.  Others will be less fortunate and will need numerous medical interventions during their lives.  As a society, we like to see ourselves as compassionate.  We don’t want to see an inflammation of the appendix become a death sentence.  Barring some system of charity health care or government administration (shudder!) that is exactly what would happen, though.  So the solution here has been the industry of health insurance–more accurately called hospitalization insurance, but I digress.  Each surgical invention results in a bill which is submitted to the patient’s insurance company, which may employ claim adjustors and adjudicators, all to ensure that “the company’s” money is not paid out in spurious or inflated claims, administrative personnel, etc., etc., and a highly-compensated CEO, all of whom are entitled to be compensated for their work, as well.  Costs are spread over a spectrum of users.

Are these intermediaries immoral, thieving wretches?  Of course not.  They are all striving to excel inside the system they were born into.  But consider Canada, our neighbor to the north.  Canadians enjoy a standard of living similar to ours, and their health care is good.  Their life expectancy is better than ours–a recent study (2015) by the World Health Organization puts their life expectancy, on average at 82.2 years, while we Americans are at 79.9.  They have a health care system that covers them all through a government program that pays all medical costs.  Of course, ultimately they all pay for their own health care through taxation or other government funding methods, but still…it works.  Just as an aside, I read an article recently about the auto industry.  It contained an interesting little tidbit: with the US dollar and its Canadian counterpart at par, Ford or GM or Chrysler produce the average car meant for the US market at a cost of $1500 less in Ontario than in Michigan.  Why? Well, you must have guessed.  The US autoworker working under his negotiated contract bargained for (largely) company-paid health insurance, while his counterpart to the north is covered by his national health care plan.

Need another example?  Look at the music industry.  Take a new, young artist who has come up with a style that someone in the established industry finds exciting enough to offer the artist a contract, typically involving the artist’s producing x amount of music in y length of time.  The recording label pays the artist a fixed sum, with (maybe) a fixed commission determined by the sales of the artist’s music.  There is a story about the band Van Halen (which, unfortunately, I can’t confirm, but still…) wherein Eddie Van Halen, the lead guitarist, claimed they recorded one album that sold 2,000,000 copies, and after they had toured in support of that album, were informed by the record label that the band still owed several million dollars to the label.  Incredulous, Eddie said he hoped the album would not sell 2,000,000 more copies or the band would owe twice as much money.  Was the label entitled to recoup its costs for promotion and distribution?  Of course.  How were those costs figured?  Hmmm…

More recently, Taylor Swift had a dispute with Spotify, the popular file-sharing service that lets consumers download and listen to music.  Swift, one of the most popular contemporary artists in the world, was getting less than one cent per play from Spotify, which led her to pull much of her music from the service altogether.  Most of such a service is, of course, automated, with selections made through the consumer’s computer, so there would appear to be little justification for charges by the company of much over one cent!

And finally…this is going to irritate some people, but it is what got me thinking along these lines in the first place.  Today is the eve of Easter, the Christian feast which observes the Resurrection of Christ.  I will not preach to anyone what he or she should believe or practice.  I will admit to being troubled at the number of people who huckster in the name of religion, and I am not, in this instance, talking about those who solicit in the name of a legitimate charity.  Jesus, in His time on Earth, after all, did advise that, to follow him, one should feed the hungry, house the homeless, etc.  He did not advise that one should subsidize TV preachers or the proprietors of distant megachurches.  If you want to do that, I have no business telling you not to.  I will say that these people seem like little more than self-appointed intermediaries–commercial enterprises of something that had no commercial aspect in the beginning.  And it’s available at some location near you at little cost–even if you are a shut-in.

Whatever your beliefs, I wish you Happy Easter, Passover Blessings, or, Eid Mubarak.

A Glossary of Terms and Phrases: 2017

Just in case anyone missed me, I’m sorry–even a retired guy has certain things he (A) needs to do, and others that he (B) wants to do.  So, for the last month, I’ve been busier than usual with things like (from category A) painting the house and repairing various and sundry things around the homestead, and (from Category B) visiting with family and taking a trip or two.  But I’m back.  And I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at some of the language that gets thrown at John Q. Public (you and me) by politicians, the media, and commercial spokespeople in the United States.  The term or phrase will be followed in each case by its real meaning, in some cases the one accepted by the rest of the world.

“Pro-life.”  This term came into common usage, according to the online Merriam Webster Dictionary, only in 1971.  Its definition, according to the same source: “Opposed to abortion.”  That seems so simple I am tempted to leave it there, but as I have mentioned in other places, people who proudly call themselves “pro-life” are often opposed to any public expenditure on health or welfare, enthusiastically support the death penalty, and only too happy to send thousands of young people off to war.  They may not even see the irony.  Recently I saw another writer refer to pro-lifers as “pro-birth.”   However you look at it, this illustrates something politicians have known for a long time: if you are first to use a term and then use it over and over, you’ve won a large battle in the public sphere.  Words or phrases will come to mean (to the public) exactly what you want them to mean–no more and no less.

“Political parties”: This term commonly refers to Democrats and Republicans, and rather expansively, to several other, smaller groupings.  In general, Democrats adhere to some basic tenets, or at least pay lip service to them; these usually include basic human rights, the universal right to vote, the freedom from governmental interference in one’s belief system and/or one’s bedroom, and some form of progressive system of taxation to support infrastructure, education, and other basic universal needs, including aiding the poor to get health care and aiding those same poor to at least a poverty-level wage.  The party also includes numbers of hypocrites, thieves, and self-interested scoundrels, but many Democrats frown on the latter categories.

Again, in general, Republicans adhere, as well,  to a small group of basic tenets.  Among these are that absolutely everything is a commodity to be bought and sold (for example, health, education, water, public safety).  There are still a few who believe that these are basic rights that should not be available only to those who can pay, but these Republicans are now a shrinking minority and will likely soon be extinct.  Another basic belief of the 2017 Republican is that we as a nation should be armed to the teeth, both individually and as a nation, just in case…well, just in case something.  Also, anyone who is not a Republican is probably a secret subversive.  Foreigners are bad, and must be watched at all times.  A dollar spent on the military is by definition. never wasted.

There are other “political parties,” but of little consequence, and whatever they profess to believe, what they really believe is that the two major parties are REALLY BAD and if “we” ever get the power, things are gonna change!

“The Left”: A mostly meaningless term in today’s US usage.  Most US political thought branded as from “the left” is pretty bland stuff on a world scale.  For example, the US lurched to a small FIRST STEP toward expanding availability of health care seven years ago, and this is still being condemned by Republicans and others as “a government takeover of health care.”  Senator Bernie Sanders won a couple of Democratic primaries last year, and Donald Trump rushed to say that he never thought he would see a “Communist” in such position.  Sanders describes himself as a “European-style socialist” and wants to see state-financed higher education, universal health care, and restrictions on certain banking practices.  Oh, the horror…  There is simply no genuine, viable “leftist” movement in the United States.

“The right” or, sometimes “right-wing”: The way-out, neo-fascist, often racialist, often religious supremacist groupings that have come to the fore in the 1990’s and since.  They are enjoying unprecedented prominence since one of their own, Steve Bannon, sits at the right hand of the current president.  They often work to abolish certain rights for whole classes of people–non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and the underprivileged.  This work may be overt or covert, as when they try to orchestrate some rightward drift in legal terms; such proposals are clothed in high-sounding legal concepts.  Thus, keeping minorities from voting is presented as the prevention of “voter fraud,” a problem which has been shown to be almost non-existent.  (You see, minorities and such are much too likely to vote the wrong way, and this had to be handled delicately, as it was in several southern states, which closed many offices which issued government ID cards of various types, IF those offices were located in jurisdictions with high concentrations of minorities.  Problem solved!)

The right is also philosophically opposed to government-imposed minimum wages,  marriage between homosexuals, and almost any form of taxation, except of course, the wages of those in the bottom 90% of the economic spectrum.  In another example of winning the semantic war, they began to use the term “death tax” in reference to a federal estate tax.  Most people are not aware that the estate tax applies only to those who leave behind estates worth a rather high figure; in a recent year, that figure was over $5,000,000.  Thus, the fight is over making the world safe for Paris Hilton and her peers.

The media: this is the PLURAL form of “medium.” Some method of conveying news or opinion to others is a medium.  More than one medium, then, become media–e.g., newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and yes, the internet.  “Media,” then, in political talk, is a group of lying, scheming evildoers–if they report something bad (even if it’s 100% true) about you or your side in a political discussion.  There is no common term for media who report such news favorably.  Those media are never mentioned, except to praise them for “doing their job.”  “The right” (see above)  is especially fond of condemning the media, with the notable exception of Fox News (“We report, you decide…”) which is praised by “the right” for being apologists for figures on the right, recently and notably trying to defend, for example, the thoroughly-debunked Trump claim that President Obama wire-tapped Trump during the 2016 election campaign.

“Freedom of religion”  This is one of “the right’s” favorite phrases to justify otherwise unlawful discrimination.  Numerous examples exist currently, but the one that drew the most national and international attention was the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to non-heterosexuals recently.  She was defended by many on the right, and vociferously by both Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz (then both Republican Presidential candidates) as they tried to gain followers among like-minded voters. They held her up as  a courageous defender of freedom of religion for refusing to do her job if she found the people who wanted her services to be less “Christian” than she.  I wonder, did it ever occur to anyone to say that if the law required her to do something that was odious to her, she should just have resigned?

“Liberal”: In 2017 parlance,  a person of dubious patriotism and morals.  It once meant broadly a person who believed that government power could be used for the common good.

“Conservative”: In 2017-speak, the opposite of a liberal.  Usually, a pro-life, hawkish, hater of taxation and lover of religious freedom, as those terms are defined above.

What am I?  Liberal?  Conservative?  I really don’t know.  I pick my positions as items come up for discussion.  Good night!

 

What Is Truth and How Do We Know?

Did that get your attention?  Better yet, did it make you ponder either part of the two-part question?

If you are like me, and have been on Earth several decades, you have seen the world change in ways that would have been unthinkable in the mid-to-late 20th century.  Withdraw money from your bank account in another city with just a plastic card?  Get an accredited college degree without setting foot in a classroom?  Book a flight, pay for the ticket and check in for the flight without ever leaving your desk or talking with another human being?  Well, things change.  And not always for the best.

Of course, the age of the computer ushered in the changes that touch all of us, as in the three examples in the last paragraph.  The computer age means that information is available at the touch of a keyboard–available to anyone with access to a computer which in turn has access to the internet.  We all became very accustomed to that years, even decades ago.  But some things do not change.  It was once said that a lie could run around the world before the truth could lace up its shoes.  That old saying has never been more relevant, because of the same internet.  I have said many times in the last 20 years that with the internet, millions with nothing of value to say now have a platform to say it all, and to a worldwide audience.  We are all left to hope that internet consumers are a discerning group, able to tell fact from fiction.  Alas, we are all to be disappointed.  Many readers are the willing consumers of the most vile falsehoods, and they take in these falsehoods uncritically and repeat them, thus spreading them, and becoming part of the problem. often while congratulating themselves on being “in the know,” and not being “taken in by the mainstream media,” they do the work of propagandists.

Now it is true that misinformation has always spread not only by means of people with an interest in spreading it, for whatever reason, but also by means of people who spread it without knowingly meaning to spread falsehood; they may, as they always have, ask someone, “Did you hear that…” or “Did you know that…”  These people are not part of some grand conspiracy, but they are useful to that conspiracy when they propagate something untrue, even if they do not know it.

Today, such misinformation is so rife, so widespread, that much is “common knowledge” without being true.  And I do not mean shading of facts.  I am talking of outright falsehood, placed in the internet stream initially by someone with an interest in shaping public opinion toward some end.  When this method of spreading false information is successful, it can become almost impossible to eradicate it from the public mind.  I have heard or read several such items in recent months, such as…

Kids are not allowed to pray in school.”  This is similar to the truth–just similar enough to cause even some well-meaning people to be taken in by it.  There was a lot of commotion over lawsuits brought by atheists over compulsory prayers in public schools when I was in public school.  The rub was the “establishment of religion” clause of the Constitution.  Some did not want their children to be required to utter prayers chosen for them by school boards.  A 1962 Supreme Court decision held that such a requirement violated the establishment clause.  However, other decisions have permitted prayer groups, etc., on school grounds, provided there is no coercion of students to participate.  (These decisions are available through Google, quoted verbatim.  And yes, I accept Google information as to historical fact.)

I taught in a public secondary school from the mid-70’s to the late 80’s.  During some discussion of the history of the English language, I often passed out a version of the Lord’s Prayer in Modern English alongside an Old English version, to illustrate the changes in diction and word order over 1200 years of history, without incident.  I did so because most kids would have been familiar with the words in Modern English.  I could not, did not, and did not want to, command them that they had to pray it.  And finally, on test days, I witnessed many instances of students praying silently, crossing themselves, or showing in other ways that they were praying.  But no one did it out loud and no one compelled anyone else to take part.  And anyway, if there were to be prayer involving every student, whose prayer would it be?  Non-denominational?  Please.  There is something in every prayer that would not accord with someone’s belief system.

“Right now, in  (city), (state), Sharia law has been established!”  This one made the rounds a few years ago, and has started to gain strength once again recently.  The cited city is usually Dearborn, Michigan, probably because of the size of the Arab immigrant population.  This has been debunked before, and surprisingly easily, because the hysterics have one source: an online satire/humor site called the National Report, which includes the following disclaimer:

National Report is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within National Report are fiction, and presumably fake news. Any resemblance to the truth is purely coincidental.

The above paragraph is available through Google at Snopes’ webpage.

In late 2013, the National Report ran a fake news story to the effect that Dearborn City Council had established Sharia Law by a 4-3 vote.  Predictably, a lot of gullible people and those who prey on them (for votes, fund-raising, etc.) latched onto it as an alarming sign of the approaching apocalypse or something, and it acquired a life of its own.  And yes, I have been in Dearborn, and it looks a lot like the rest of semi-urban Michigan except with better Arab restaurants.  Shawarma, anyone?

Students no longer recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, because SOME PEOPLE would be offended by it.”

Again, this claim somewhat alludes to something like the truth, and thus encourages those inclined to hyperventilate to start on cue.  It may come as a surprise to learn that a Federal Court decision in 1943, yes, 1943, held that no school could force a student to recite the pledge or even to stand for it.  (A Jehovah’s Witness had sued: in that sect, no one is supposed to pledge allegiance to anyone or anything but God.)  There have been suits in many Courts of Appeal since then, most centered on the phrase “under God,” which was not part of the original pledge; it was added in 1954.  Nonetheless, the pledge continues to be recited in classrooms at the beginning of the school day just about from coast to coast.  Students may be informed of a right to abstain from pledging or even standing either verbally, or in a student handbook, or in any other suitable method.  It is a quirk of this whole ordeal that the exemption itself allows an individual student with religious objections to opt out and thus preserves the possibility of participation by the others.

“Schools prohibit students from saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other.  They are required to say “Happy Holidays’ or some other secular greeting.”

I will include a quote from Valerie Straus in the Washington Post of December 24, 2016:

As for celebrating Christmas, students are free to say “Merry Christmas,” give Christmas messages to others, and organize Christmas devotionals in student Christian clubs.

It’s true that some public school officials still misunderstand (or ignore) the First Amendment by censoring student religious expression that is protected under current law. But when challenged in court, they invariably lose.”

The claim is undoubtedly part of a “War on Christmas” narrative often used (you guessed it) for fundraising or for political rallying purposes.

There are dozens more provably false claims made every day to whip up one constituency or another.  The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, is particularly fond of using claims like these.  One reason for his proclivity in these affairs may be that they are commonly used in “alt-right” “news” sources, of which he would seem to be an admirer.  The claim that the murder rate in the US is its highest in 45 years may be such an example, or it may be just a symptom of someone with a notoriously short attention span.  Again, from Snopes:

 According to the most recent FBI data available, an estimated 15,696 murders occurred in the United States in 2015, or 4.9 murders per 100,000 people. And while this was the highest murder rate in six years (compared to a range of 4.4 to 4.8 murders per 100,000 each year since 2009, when the figure was 5 per 100,000), it’s less than half the historical high of 10.2 in 1980.

Sigh. Yes, I know he has the most responsible job in the world.  But voters have a pretty responsible job, too, that is, to be on the alert for people who preach fear when asking for their votes–or their money.  This administration has been shown to operate in a realm of their own facts, and to double down on them when confronted.  If anything is ever retracted, it’s by a lower-level official, rather than by the President or by such notorious alt-fact purveyors as Kellyanne Conway, whose word I would not take if she said, “It’s a nice day out.”

The internet has a lot of good information.  It just takes a little searching and a bit of confirmation.  We used to say, in my youth, in the New Stone Age, that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t.  The reverse also holds–if it seems too bad or evil to be true, do some verification–it may not be true, either.

The 40-Year-Old Issue That Won’t Go Away

I have thought for many years about trying to set forth a logical, dispassionate analysis about the one issue in U. S. public debate that has refused to yield to any such discussion in any forum.  I don’t think I can do it. I am not sure anyone can do it.  Any mention of the topic brings forth the crowds of marchers, both those passionately committed to unyielding opposition and those equally committed to stopping those opposed from toppling the uneasy, fragile status quo.  No end is in sight to the squabbling; nor is there evident a long-term peaceful co-existence between the two factions.  The issue?  Legal therapeutic abortion.

After hours of thinking, writing, amending, and restarting, I will tell you at the start that if you’re expecting a smashing conclusion, don’t, because there really isn’t one.  I also admit in the very beginning that I feel somewhat like a trespasser even discussing this issue, since, as a man, I will never face the decision whether to undergo such a procedure.  Nonetheless. state or federal legislators who regularly propose laws regulating or attempting to outlaw abortion, as well as judges who must weigh the legalities of such regulation are, in the majority, men, and they exhibit little or no hesitancy to advocate one position or another.  What results is the incongruity of one half of Americans deciding what, if any, limits must be placed on the other half as to the immorality, criminality, or lack of either inherent in the act of abortion.  Also, an ugly, unspoken truth is that men sometimes force such a decision on women by backing out of promised emotional and financial support.

Former President Bill Clinton, as you may remember, offered his opinion that  population will assert that the very act is so abhorrent that it should be absolutely and always illegal.  For this group no consideration of patient safety is necessary, with a zero occurrence rate the ultimate goal.  I don’t think, however, that most Americans are quite so dogmatic.  A more common current of thought seems to be that Clinton’s formula should add “with some restrictions.”  More on that a bit below.

The opponents of abortion in any and all instances and situations, it seems, fall into two broad categories (and a number of small ones).  The first of these categories are those who object on moral grounds: a prohibition on the taking of (human) life, to these people, is or should be absolute, extending even into the womb to cover embryos and fetuses with the protection from harm by the state that the state offers to all of its citizens from birth.  This is a rather appealing stance for anyone who likes his/her positions to reflect certainty, with an internal logical consistency–there is no gray, only black or white, and all questioning is eliminated.

Another segment of the “total prohibition” part of the population arises from religious belief and practice.  The Roman Catholic Church, through its supreme spokesman, the Pope, has been consistent in its condemnation of willful abortion at any stage of embryonic or fetal development (the dictionary distinction between “fetus” and “embryo,” has the latter meaning very early stages of development, and the former referring to later stages, where a form resembling   human has begun to be apparent), without exception that I can recall.  Other Christian confessions, as well as Jews, Muslims, and other groups,  range in their official positions from a near-total condemnation (with most carving out an exception for cases where continuing a pregnancy would endanger the life of the pregnant woman) to general disapproval, but including the proviso that a decision in any case of a potential abortion should be made primarily by the woman usually after prayers and examination of one’s motives.  Some Christian and other sects differentiate between cases of earlier or later development of the fetus.

In truth, keeping in mind that I lack standing (in legal terms) to weigh in on any individual decision, I think that the moral absolutists need to take a step back and allow all, including themselves, to weigh more than just an abstract position in the debate.  The old hypothetical question of what a husband would do if advised that his helpless, voiceless wife or an equally helpless and voiceless unborn child could survive some calamity, but not both, is illustrative.  To say that he would have to let his wife die in favor of the unborn is not realistic.  (Of course, neither is such a scenario, but still…)

The religious guidance can be binding only on the adherents of that particular religion, unless the law of the land is in harmony with whatever it states. This is part of the American DNA.  No believer of any stripe can force anyone else to observe what his own religion dictates–and no religion can force a legislative branch to adopt its own teachings as law simply based on its belief.  The law may be similar or even identical to a sectarian belief, but that is basically coincidence.

I mentioned a third tendency toward prohibition above when I said “…a number of small ones…” and this is where reasoning becomes a minefield.  There is, among Americans, a substantial group which appears to believe that babies are the logical consequence of engaging in a proscribed act–that is, premarital or extramarital sex or even rape.  Those who take this point of view will almost always divert all discussions of the availability of therapeutic abortion into some blind alley by saying some variation on the theme that “…well, they should have thought of that before they decided to lie around and …”  You finish the sentence; the gist of it is that (1) any type of sex may result in pregnancy;  (2) that such pregnancies are the penalty that is brought on by the act; and (3) crudely stated, those who engage in the act are revealed to society be the resultant pregnancy, either as a warning to others or as an example to all.  Some or all of the foregoing is probably implied rather than fully stated, but that is the thrust of it.

Reasoning with a person who embraces this “just desserts” theory is likely futile.  Like the parishioners in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, they seek reminders each day that some others are less morally evolved than they are.  Why employ such pejorative terms as “bastard” or “baby daddy” except to debase those to whom such language is applied?

With all this as background, we see constant efforts by absolutists to reinstate the total ban many think existed in the US before 1973 and Roe v. Wade.  In reality, states had different regulations before then and after; some prohibited the procedure altogether, and some restricted it according to one standard or another.  What Roe did was to attempt to standardize this patchwork to some extent, essentially by laying out a right to privacy that supposedly let a woman make the decision to terminate a pregnancy or continue it to term in consultation with her doctor.  Religious considerations were left to her; nonbelievers and believers alike set the standards in their own cases.

The law of unintended consequences set in.  At some point, those who were strictly anti- on the issue began to refer to themselves as “pro-life.”  Those who thought the issue settled gradually became known as “pro-choice.” Neither title tells us much about the group it is applied to.  Today, some 44 years after Roe, the pro-life faction is often aligned as well with those in favor of such government actions as elimination of welfare benefits and broad application of the death penalty in criminal cases, leading wags to call them “pro-birth.”  The “pro-choice” title seems to imply that choice is all its adherents favor, even though many who would be labeled as such favor restrictions such as a time/developmental limitation during which a pregnant woman could seek an abortion.  Similarly, most who speak publicly do not advocate this as a form of birth control.

In recent years, the issue has been further exploited for political gain.  The “pro-life” faction is one of the largest groups of so-called “single-issue” voters, i. e.. people who will reliably vote in favor of a candidate who takes the same stand as they do on this single issue, regardless of where he/she stands on any other issue.  Some states have imposed new requirements meant to restrict the availability of abortion, and many private, loosely organized groups have resorted to violence up to and including killing doctors who perform abortions.  There is considerable overlap of the “pro-lifers” with groups who advocate omission of contraceptives from health insurance plans–which would lead to more unplanned pregnancies, which probably would lead to more women seeking abortions…

The issue gives no indication of yielding to civility or logic.  The state impositions I mention above have included, among others, a requirement that those women who seek abortion be advised that there exists a link between abortion and breast cancer, even though medical experts have debunked this and other bits of magical thinking.

One positive fact is that statistics on abortion in the US appear to indicate that, after a peak in the early 1980’s, their numbers have declined (with a slight hiccup or two) almost yearly.  I believe this is due to the gradual spread of contraceptive information and means rather than to sanctions revived in some localities.

Will this be less of an issue with time?  Maybe.  I would like to think so. But it may require a cooling off on all sides, and there is very little “cool” in US politics today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Seems to Me…

OK, here I am, returning to the blogscape after the severe shock of Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election.  I was genuinely flattened (in an emotional sense) in the immediate aftermath, and I did not feel like writing any more because I had been so wrong (like so many others) in my writing leading up to the event.

With a little “reflection” time, though, I can feel a little better about my own prognostication.  The postmortems keep coming in, and they generally take the form of “Hillary lost because…” and then the writer goes off on his/her take on what went wrong, why everyone was wrong in pre-election predictions, and some, though not all, then attempt to find a scapegoat or scapegoats.  I read them all.  I think some are insightful, and a few are clueless.  Let’s look at a few interesting  tidbits that bear some further reflection.

The popular vote total was not so different from what I had expected.  My last post before the election hinted at a Clinton popular vote victory in the range of three percent.  I am not an expert in polling: three percent just seemed like a reasonable guess at the total after digesting all the so-called “expert polls.”  Current totals show about a 1.5 % Clinton advantage (more than 2,000,000 votes), which is likely to inch toward the 2% mark.  So what’s a lousy 1% difference?  As it turns out this time, it’s everything.  In a twist that political science professors will chew over with eager undergraduates for decades, the Clinton advantage was too concentrated in a few big states to translate to an Electoral College victory, the only one that matters in reality.  Trump won three states, in particular, that were complete surprises to everyone, including the Trump camp, if they are honest, in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  The total advantage to Trump in those three states came in at about 80,000 votes, a paper thin margin of about 1% in all of them together.  Clinton won New York and California by an aggregate total of over 4,000,000.  Of course, bragging rights mean nothing, but I had mentioned that Republicans would call Clinton a “minority President” if her vote total came to under 50%.  She will finish with around 47%, and he will finish with about 45.  She will be called a loser while he will be called “Mr. President.”  Weird.

The Trump camp’s claims of victory are becoming more disconnected from reality every day.  This President-elect’s relation with the truth has been tenuous, at best, for the duration of his campaign, with outrageous claims (40% unemployment, millions of illegal votes,  President Obama as a secret foreigner, etc.), and now he and his surrogates have begun to claim that his loss in the popular vote was really a massive victory because (voter fraud, illegals voting, etc.) and that his Electoral College margin is a “landslide.”  The situation calls for maybe…say, an ounce of humility and calls for unity and cooperation, not boastful, playground-style taunts toward the other party.  But that presupposes a sincere desire to govern and succeed on the part of Trump.  Needless to say, I don’t see that.

What is clearly visible is a campaign to delegitimize any sort of alternative opinion.  While many see an inclination toward authoritarianism, it is just as likely to show a drift toward to a sort of dissociation from reality in general.  Has anyone else been struck by the sheer silliness of a President-elect tweeting that Saturday Night Live is “biased?”  Does he not get that SNL is not a news program and pokes fun at virtually everything and everybody?  He shows a tendency to believe that now that he has won his “landslide” victory, no one should be critical of him, even hinting at lawsuits against various media outlets.  I await the first insult from some foreign leader with some trepidation…

I called for a somewhat “bluer” Texas.  That did happen, but not at the rate I had thought it would.  Comparing vote totals in 2016 with those of 2012, you can see that Mitt Romney took Texas by a 16% margin over President Obama; 2016 was a Trump win in Texas by roughly 10%.  Is 10% a close margin?  No, not by any account.  10% is still a wide margin, but much less comfortable than 16%, and keep in mind how weak a candidate Hilary Clinton would be in Texas.  “Blue” momentum there still does not threaten Republican governance and domination, but the day is approaching still.  Within a generation, I would still expect Texas to be a “purple” state, in play each presidential cycle.

The Comey factor: we could chew this over until 2020, and the result would be the same.  Nobody really knows.  There has been a lot of speculation as to how much effect the FBI’s director’s decision to announce a new investigation into HRC’s e-mails based on…well, somehow something or other that was found on a computer belonging to the pathetic Anthony Weiner.  Joyous Trump partisans pounced on this one to insist that here finally was the smoking gun that would prove that…um…something something Huma Abedin something Muslim Brotherhood could be maybe…Yes!

Adding more confusion to the whole sordid mess was the subsequent second announcement that most of the messages on that computer were copies of messages that the FBI had already seen, so, well, never mind.  Effect on the electorate?  I don’t know, but I have no trouble believing that it could have been a final tilt in the minds of a few voters in such states as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  And remember, these on-the-fence voters would not have been required to vote for Trump to tilt the margin; if they were Democrat-inclined voters who simply became too disillusioned in the end to get out and vote for Hillary (or against Trump) that would do for the Trump camp.

Voter suppression.  Did that get your attention?  I will not attempt to “prove” that obvious Republican attempts to suppress turnout of normally Democratic constituencies (minorities, targets of “gender minority politics,” and others) were probably successful, at least to some degree.  Someone more willing to invest enormous amounts of time and analysis than I am will no doubt attempt to quantify this in the coming months or years, but I will merely say this:  suppressing opposition in an election does not have to take the form of convoluted sabotage of people’s ability to vote.  Merely discouraging them can do the trick, and the uniquely negative Trump campaign did much of this, from constantly asserting that his opponent was, in fact, a criminal, and actually ineligible even to run for President to inciting his partisans to chant “Lock her up!” at rallies.  Pure demagoguery.  I was not happy to see this taking place in a campaign for such a serious office as the Presidency, and I  was a lukewarm supporter, at best, of HRC.

The “suppression” angle will, I think, turn out to be a continuing story in efforts to analyze the results of the 2016 election on the Presidential level, and it will be studied by some future candidates as they seek any advantage to elevate themselves to higher office.  A thread of analysis has emerged that shows overall turnout in 2016 was slightly lower than the 2012 figures. Clinton suffered from the failure to turn out her natural base in numbers similar to those of Barack Obama in the two previous elections.

The idea that this was a victory for “flyover America” or rural America is, I think, just silly.  Both phrases have been conflated lately to subsume a group of disaffected Caucasian, less-than-fully employed voters who long for simpler times when a guy could graduate from high school and go down to the local plant (or whatever was the local equivalent of the local plant–it could be the local feed mill or meat packer, or whatever), put in his name, and be called for an interview, followed by placement in a job with some security, allowing him to become the breadwinner of his family, own a house, and some day, retire with a pension.  I lament the passing from the national scene of this scenario as much as anyone.

Low-skill, non-technical jobs are not coming back to the US.  They have even begun to move on from China to lower-paying countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam.  The response on the part of the American worker has been predictable.  Some move to where what small number of such jobs remain in play.  Some resolve to retrain and be able to be competitive in other areas.  Some remain where they are in hopes the situation will return to status quo ante.  Trump’s bellows that he could stop the cycle and return to something that began to slide away about 1970 excited many of these.  I am not optimistic he can do much, notwithstanding his recent touting of “victory” in getting Carrier to stay in Indianapolis.  The fine print in that “victory” shows $7,000,000 in tax reduction to Carrier and several hundred other jobs leaving for Mexico, anyway.  As the reality sinks in that Trump is no more a savior in this battle than anyone else (and that he, in fact, is an outsourcer himself), it remains to be seen what will be the effect among his blue collar supporters.  And the $7,000,000 in lost taxes, of course, will be made up by shifting the burden to some other source of revenue.  Whether a policy is good or not still depends for many people on whether or not their own ox is being gored.

I look for much scapegoating in the near term: the “war on Christmas (or Christians)”, drug testing for welfare recipients, Planned   Parenthood, etc.  All of these things can be expected to play prominent parts in the national discourse, along with GUNS.  Hidden (imaginary) conspiracies by Democrats will be found and exposed whereby “they want to come for your guns!”  The NRA and its one-trick pony leader, Wayne LaPierrre, will continue to thunder that your Second Amendment rights are under assault, even though there has been no attempt to restrict gun ownership other than an attempt to close a couple of loopholes in namechecking, hopefully to keep people who can’t board a commercial airplane from buying a (legal) gun (which polls show a majority of Americans support).  And LaPierre will slip in a request for your cash, too.  Gotta keep those lobbyists’ palms greased, folks!

So, in the end, what long-term lessons will be learned from this fever swamp of an election campaign?  Sadly, it appears that one lesson is being reinforced.  Everybody claims to hate “lying politicians,” but one of the greatest unrepentant  liars on the political scene has just been elected President.  Another longstanding feature of politics is that everybody likes government services but no one likes to pay taxes.  This is understandable, of course, but not realistic.  That same disaffected group of voters the 2016 economy has left behind (as mentioned above) is absolutely convinced that the country has been reshaped for the benefit of an army of people who don’t want to work and “our tax dollars” go to support these freeloaders.  There are, no doubt, some who “play the system.”  But most welfare recipients are children.  Yes, children.  It seems the electorate is coming around to wanting the same thing from its candidates that it gradually selected in its choice of news.  Tell me what I want to hear.  Confirm my opinions.

Buckle up, folks.  It may be an odd four years.