Who’s up for some “Reform?”

What does the word reform mean?  As with many other words, it tends to mean different things to different people.  And when it comes into the political arena, it means not only different things to different people, but in the mouth of a politician, its meaning may shift with the wind, so that what you hear may not be what was meant.  Or what was meant was not supposed to come through clearly, or maybe it was just the thing to say at the time at some rally, and meant just about nothing.

Since we are in the first year of a new presidential administration in Washington, the air is thick with talk of reform.  What can we take from this talk?  Well…the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online lists as its first definition “to put or change into an improved form or condition.”  Good!  I think of reform pretty much like that.  If I speak of reforming bad habits, and if I am sincere about the whole thing, I should be a better man thereafter.  If a company spokesman talks about reforming its customer service procedures, that should result in service that is better, and which more people will find pleasing.  So the idea of change for the sake of improvement is pretty well baked into the shared public perception of “reform.”

What the western world knows as the Reformation caused such a rift between Martin Luther on one side and Pope Leo X, and their respective followers, that Luther’s attempt to reform the church from within, followed by Leo’s negative reaction and attempts to get Luther to back down, resulted in a rift that is now nearly 500 years old.  Such is the way of reform; while everyone seems to think it’s a good thing, any two advocates will have a hard time defining what is true reform.

And, with all that as prologue, I will settle on two themes that advocates frequently cite as being in need of reform: the US tax code and the US system of legal immigration.  Both have been used as debate points by many politicians over numerous campaigns, with little change resultant.  If everyone would like to see these areas reformed, why is there never a real and lasting effort to push forward consensus legislation and then implement such legislation?

I have written about immigration once before, and I really don’t want to belabor this one issue, but it bears repeating that this becomes a “front and center” issue only in federal election years.  Of course, it is an item of federal jurisdiction and federal jurisdiction alone, so there is some logic to the cyclical importance.  On the other hand, if it is as important as it is made to seem during each presidential cycle, shouldn’t work continue in the off years to solve this issue?  In reality, immigration is used by opposing sides only as a club to beat other political candidates as being either “soft on immigration” or as “heartless” toward the huddled masses.  Old familiar slogans get repeated (“We are all immigrants” on one side, and “let’s take care of our own first,” for example).

The Trump campaign made all sorts of hay out of a gross distortion of the truth in the 2016 campaign, namely that huge numbers of illegal immigrants were “pouring across our southern border.”  Of course, Trump himself profited by citing a few cases of crimes committed by these illegals to whip up fear that some dark-complexioned foreigner was waiting behind each tree to either steal your job, your spouse, or maybe murder you.  In truth, our southern border, in recent years, has been more of an exit for illegals (or undocumented immigrants, if that falls more easily on your ears) than an entry point.  11,000,000 is the widely accepted estimate of people present in the US (and not all from south of the Rio Grande, either) now present in some violation of visa law, and it is gradually declining as people from points south return home at a greater rate then they enter.  And those who do enter illegally or stay beyond their legal visa status do not commit serious crime more frequently than the native-born American population.

What is meant by Trumpists, then, when they speak of immigration reform?  Beefed-up enforcement and throw the bums out, of course.  This is consistent with their “America first” rhetoric.

On the other side are many of Trump’s own business colleagues, who benefit from any depressing effect on wages that results from a shadowy, fearful labor force.  They are joined by people whose humanitarian instincts cause them to sympathize with those who seek to answer the call of the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor…”  At some point in any discussion of the issue, someone is bound to assert that “We are all immigrants!”

If Trumpists get their way, legal immigration will decrease in absolute terms, but you can bet the supply of cheap immigrant labor in New York, California, Florida, Texas, and a handful of other locations will continue.  I will add one pure opinion of mine on the issue of legalization of the many who live and work here without the inherent legal right to do so (the so-called “undocumented immigrants”): Here’s as offer.  Come out of the shadows. Present yourself along with proof of your stay and your employment (or some other reason why the American public should want you to remain).  I would reward such people with documentation that would let them remain as long as they are not convicted of any crime (I mean crime, not infractions like speeding or bouncing a check), in a provisional status for a long period of time–say, 10 years.  No mass legalization into full status as happened under Ronald Reagan’s “legalization.”  Large numbers of Americans are sympathetic enough–many because they know someone in questionable status–to agree to some remedy.  What they do not want is for “scofflaws” to be rewarded by becoming eligible for the same benefits as people who enter legally, and at the same rate.  Compromise?  Sure, that’s what you call anything that leaves both sides equally unhappy.

Tax reform?  No reform in the sense of improving the current state of things is going to happen.  Period.  Full stop.  Republicans may have enough strength in the current House of Representatives to  force through one or more of their fantasy measures (and I’ve talked about this before, as well) such as an outright repeal of the estate tax, which would stop any tax on estates of over about 5 million dollars.  Stop the excruciating levy on the Paris Hiltons (oh, and the Ivanka Trumps, coincidentally) of the world.

Democrats do not capitalize on arithmetic.  Stuck as their rhetoric is on talk of “a gift for the one per cent,” this fails to convert to anything that will  make anyone think in concrete terms.  One per cent is one person per hundred, ten people in a thousand, 100 people in ten thousand, 1,000 people in 100,000, and 10,000 people in a million.  I will never sniff being one of the top one per cent in income, and chances are, you never will either.  Your taxes and mine are not likely to be reduced by any “reform” that comes to pass in the Trump years.   The idea will be to try to buy us off with five dollars here and there so we will not notice Wall Street celebrities socking away more millions that they might heretofore have paid taxes on.  And the talk of eliminating the deduction of state and real estate taxes might even lose us that five dollars.

WAKE UP, America!  Do you really think Donald Trump is a “little guy’s advocate”?  If so, just wait.  Bernie Madoff will be out of prison some day.

Why Do Only 2% of Trump Voters Have Remorse?

It has now been more than five months since the voters of the United States of America took a leap of something–faith (?) and sort of, voted Donald Trump into the seat once occupied by men like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt (either one).  Actually, no: on November 8, 2016, the US electorate voted for Trump’s opponent by a margin of nearly 3,000,000.  Those voters, though, whether they realized it or not, just were clumped together in states with large populations, which meant that Trump, by carrying numbers of small states plus two or three populous ones, was able to put together enough votes from the Electoral College to win the real election with 306 of 538 Electoral College votes.

Now, I am not going to sing a chorus of “Abolish the Electoral College” as many have.  Actually, maybe I will one day, but not for now.  You see, I have never been able to make any sense out of holding onto a system devised to lure states with fewer voters (at the time the Constitution was written) disproportionate representation in election years, to “protect their interests” in the new federal system.  (And for most of these “small states,” the interest they were protecting was the right to keep slavery legal and profitable.)  The Electoral College allows each state a number of electors equal to the number of U.S. Senators plus the number of Congressmen it sends to Washington.  Thus, in 2016, Wyoming, with a population of 568,300, gets three votes (two Senators, one Congressman) in the Electoral College.  California, population 37,342,000, if it were granted representation proportionate to Wyoming’s, would get…wait for it…66 times (since its population is 65.74 times that of Wyoming) as many Electoral College votes, or, 198!  What does it get in actuality?  A very large vote, at 55 electors, but…well, that’s not proportional.  One California Elector represents 678,045 constituents, while one from Wyoming represents only  189,433.  “One man (or woman!), one vote?”  Not so much!  But that’s a digression from my topic just now.

Every election produces a few mind-numbing trends and statistics, and every aftermath, that is, a new presidential term, may equal the election itself in terms of such surprises and riddles.  At the moment, the current administration is off to a lackluster start that features ethical lapses, brazen nepotism (Ivanka and Jared as Federal employees with West Wing offices?!?), no real legislative achievements, hints of campaign collusion with Vladimir Putin’s Russia…shall I go on?  You know the story.  I would have expected that a great many voters, including an appreciable number of Trump voters would by now be scratching their heads and asking themselves how in the world they convinced themselves that a vote for this was the right way, and continues, under current evaluation, to be the right way to have spent their ballots.  But a recent national poll shows that only 2% of Trump supporters are now experiencing “buyer’s remorse.”  One, two.  That’s one out of every fifty.  Let that sink in for a second or two.

Okay.  Now let’s examine the regular list of reasons why maybe, just maybe, people who supported the current occupant of the White House still feel fine with their choice.  The most obvious one, tried and true, is that under our current two-party system, each candidate, whatever his/her warts might be, will get, at the least, 35% of the electorate.  These 35 percenters remain true to their man (or woman) whatever comes to pass during the subsequent administration, so write these folks off.  Period.  If Trump plunges the country into Depression and war, these people will not waver, usually announcing loudly that “He is the President of all Americans, and he deserves the support of all Americans!”  I get that.  I really do.  Of course, at the same time, such voters’ loyalty only extends to Presidents of the party to which these voters are unstintingly loyal.  And just to be clear, I did say each of the two major parties has a core of such loyalists.

So, given that Trump won only 46% of the popular vote, and 35% of the total electorate demonstrates such fervent party loyalty, that leaves only 11% of his total who might be thinking they may have made a mistake, and we only need to look at that 11% to understand why so few are in the “wavering” category.

There must absolutely be some among them who are shaking their heads at the unfairness of judging Trump so soon into his mandate.  These folks may be thinking back and remembering that Bill Clinton came back from a nosedive in popularity in his early days in office–who among us over 40 can not recall Clinton’s being roasted in the cable news shows and editorial columns as his haircut in Air Force One clogged the runway at Los Angeles, the indignant comments about such vanity and the nerve of delaying so many good folks over something like that?  Or the Paula Jones fiasco?  His presidency survived those shocks and more, and he left office only after two full terms.  So let’s arbitrarily assign a figure, say, of 6% as a possible figure to quantify those who think in that way.

Another couple of percentage points can be assigned to people who are thinking (and saying) “Hey, the guy is a successful businessman and that’s what we need right now!  Just wait, he will straighten out the illegal immigration problem and slap down that runt in North Korea!  I don’t care if he doesn’t act like a normal politician. These are not normal times.”  I have heard all of this, and I know you have, too.  It is probably a genuine thought process, even if I don’t think it excuses much of what I have seen in the first 100 days.

But all of that taken together still does not explain away the extraordinarily low figure of repentant Trump voters.  And I puzzled over this, unable to think of a reason why, if I had been a Trump voter, I would not now be face-palming and saying “Never again.”  And then it hit me.

You may be altogether different from me.  You may live in another area than I do.  Unless you are over 65, male, Caucasian, and live in a semi-rural area, you may think much as I do, but, belonging to that demographic, I hear people express certain thoughts that you may not hear.  And I have heard a lot of those thoughts.  In fairness, I have criticized such as George W. Bush, who I thought often spoke and behaved as a rude, less than brilliant man.  And I still think history will judge him as a pawn to the neoconservatives in his party during his first term and half of his second term, especially of their chief practitioner, Dick Cheney. But I never sank to the level of some of the criticism, often baseless except for sheer prejudice, that I have heard thrown at President Obama and then at Hilary Clinton.

I have heard poorly-spoken people refer to Obama as “stupid” (in fact, Trump himself has been guilty of this), a “goddamned foreigner”, “dirty Muslim” and yes, more than once, the dreaded N-word itself.  The 2016 campaign was not kinder to Hilary Clinton; words such as “bitch” as well as the C-word that is not used in polite society.  For those who think in this way, it is all too natural to denigrate anyone who does not fit their picture of an ideal president, that is, Caucasian and male.  For them, Trump represents “getting their country back.”  I associate these people and their way of thinking with such political figures as Mitch McConnell, who famously violated all precedent and then dissembled about it all as he not only stopped Obama from filling a Supreme Court vacancy but bragged that there would not even be any Senate hearings for Obama’s proposed new Associate Justice.  McConnell also, rather than pledging to find any areas of common interest on which to work with Obama, nakedly said he would make a priority of making sure Barack Obama was a one-term president.  Or think Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a cheerfully unrepentant racist who now serves at Trump’s pleasure as the Attorney General of the United States.  Voter rights?  Not while he’s around.  He has pledged to go after “voter fraud,” the same “issue” that troubles reactionaries his age all over the country.

Change their minds?  I doubt it. These people think they’ve “gotten their country back.”   Well, I hope it isn’t too badly broken and warped when someday they have to hand it over.

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!