What does it mean, anyway?

There’s an excellent article over at The Washington Post, that points out — accurately — that we need to stop throwing around the word “treason” in the context of any parts of the political scandal that currently engulfs the White House, or any aspects of what is increasingly looking like many illegal activities that culminated in Donald Trump’s electoral victory last November.  Whatever crimes were committed in the greater process, treason is not one of them.   

The definition of treason is outlined in article 3 of the Constitution. And nothing done by anyone associated with the Donald Trump campaign — even if every allegation against everyone happens to be true — rises to the level of treason by simple virtue of the fact that we are not at war with Russia.   

So yeah, there are lots of crimes worth exploring.   They range from campaign finance violations to conspiracy, to obstruction of justice, to perjury, to countless other crimes I can’t even begin to guess.  But treason is not one of them.   So we really shouldn’t bandy that word around in the context of the election or the Trump White House.   

But at least the word “treason” has a practical working definition.  There’s another word — a phrase actually — that is being used a fair amount that doesn’t even have that.   The phrase is “constitutional crisis.”  I’ve always interpreted the phrase to mean a situation that the constitution doesn’t address in terms of how to govern (and Wikipedia seems to back me up on this) but all too often we see it in the capacity of infighting within the government and when there are scandals that could affect the day-to-day performance of government activities.  When Bill Clinton was impeached a lot of people called it a constitutional crisis and I thought back then that it wasn’t a crisis.  Indeed, it might have been a personal crisis for Clinton himself, but the constitution definitely allows for it.   

That’s not to say there haven’t been constitutional crises in American history:

  • In 1841, William Henry Harrison died a little over a month after taking the oath of office, and the constitution didn’t have any provisions as to what should happen upon the death of the president.  There was no shortage of people who argued that his Vice President, John Tyler, didn’t automatically become president, and the appropriate title would have been interim president or caretaker or, mockingly, “His Accidency”.  From a purely legal perspective, this question wouldn’t actually be resolved until more than 120 years later with the passage of the 25th Amendment (after the death of the most recent president to die in office).
  • In 1861, following the election of Abraham Lincoln, several states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy.   The constitution did not (and still doesn’t) provide for any circumstances under which a state may secede from the union and even before the election there were actually three schools of thought with regard to secession: those who felt that states have the right to secede, those who felt that states don’t have the right to secede but the federal government has no authority to prevent it, and those who felt that states don’t have the right to secede and the federal government is empowered to prevent it.   (If that second school of thought sounds wishy-washy to you, welcome to the presidency of James Buchanan.)
  • In 1876, the actual electoral vote count was in dispute and it was only actually resolved with a compromise tied to the end of the post-Civil War reconstruction.   

There have been others, but they were usually resolved relatively quickly.   Whatever is going on at the White House, at all levels, it’s not a constitutional crisis.  There’s certainly no real leadership going on, and I’m actually quite thankful that Trump isn’t actually getting much of his racist, xenophobic, sexist, myopic agenda to pass, but it’s not a constitutional risks.   

I do wonder, though, if the people who are truly in legal trouble (and I include Trump Jr in that group) realize the trouble they’re in.   There’s a scene in the recent HBO movie The Wizard of Lies, in which Bernie Madoff (played by Robert De Niro) goes off the rails on his eight year old granddaughter because she was asking simple questions about Wall Street.  Madoff was a man who knew for years the damage he was going and the stress finally got to him.   I can picture Don Jr acting the same way right now…


One subset of the greater healthcare debate

Healthcare has been a topic of discussion — and in many cases strong disagreement — in American political debate for more than eighty years now.  FDR, who profoundly altered the direction of the US economy during his tenure as president, was unable to make headway on healthcare.  LBJ got the first meaningful changes in healthcare thirty years later with Medicare and Medicaid.  Then no meaningful changes until the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (also known as Obamacare).  

I want to believe that the best analogy to Obamacare, whatever becomes of it, is that of a stepping stone.  A step forward from what we had but not the end solution.   Not unlike, for example, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy towards gays in the military.   While preferable to completely disallowing gays from military service, it still was too small a gesture and was destined to be discontinued.   

It seems to me that, given the current state of debate on health care, the democrats and republicans are trying to appeal to two very different constituencies.   I haven’t seen statistics that demonstrate which constituency is larger but my gut tells me that the group targeted by the blue team is larger.  And I am actually sympathetic to both groups of people.  

At the heart of this divide is the individual mandate provision in the ACA.  Insurance companies recognize that covering pre-existing conditions would be something that will yield more outlays (pretty much by definition) so their choices would be to deny coverage or find something that will increase the money they’re bringing in.   And there are basically two sure  ways of doing that: increase individual premiums or get people who might not need insurance onto their rolls of the insured.  

So the democrats are, generally speaking, in favor of the individual mandate.  People don’t want to lose their healthcare simply because of a pre-existing condition.  This also has the added benefit of driving down premiums for everyone since the health insurers are bringing in more money from everyone required to have it.  

The republicans are against the individual mandate, seeing it as unnecessary government intrusion into people’s day to day affairs.   Outside of the libertarians who would get rid of every piece of government regulation, this is appealing to the young and healthy individuals who, given the choice, wouldn’t have any health insurance at all because they’d perceive it as a drain on their already limited financial resources.  

There may be some room for criticism of the people who don’t want health insurance because of its cost, in that they’re clearly not thinking of a future when they won’t be so young and healthy, but that criticism can definitely wither against the argument that thinking of the long-term future is meaningless if they can’t afford dinner today.  And I’m not unsympathetic to this problem.  

Neither is the ACA, which has provisions to help those who can’t afford health insurance, to buy it.  But these provisions are also problematic because the bar might be too low for qualifying, or other regulations could limit the amount people might be entitled to, in the form of assistance.  And the current White House has shown little interest in making it easier for those people to have quality health insurance.  

So we have two very clearly delineated sides in this debate and the two parties have chosen their sides.  Whichever side emerges on top in this debate, they will rightly continue to have grievances against the other side.  The solution to this problem is both straightforward but fraught with other problems: take the mechanism for paying for health care out of the hands of the individuals and insurance companies by incorporating it into the tax structure (not unlike the disposal of garbage in many municipalities).   That’s what they do in Canada, France, England, and many other countries…

Before we do that, though, how many jobs would be lost in such a massive disruption of an industry as large as health care?   Most hospitals employ more administrators than nurses, after all, because they’re needed for dealing with the insurance companies.  

Freakonomics is losing its luster 

I remember reading the book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner when I had to fly to Nebraska for work.   I thought it was an interesting, occasionally fascinating read.  The most controversial aspect of the book is that it postulates that perhaps the reason why violent crime plummeted in the early 1990s, was because of legal abortion starting in the 1970s.   

While I can think of easily a hundred reasons why a woman’s right to choose abortion should be kept legal, I like this argument only because it gives conniptions to those who oppose abortion.   But regardless of that point, I thought it was a fascinating study in looking for real connections that might not be immediately obvious.  

Dubner has been the host of a weekly podcast based upon the book (and its less compelling follow-up, Super Freakonomics) for nearly seven years.  I’ve been listening to the podcast almost since its inception.   And it has had some fun moments in these past seven years: the story of a fake restaurant that exposed the fact that wine “experts” probably don’t know what they’re talking about, extreme foodies who make bizarre meals like turning a whole T-bone steak dinner into something the size of a bean, even getting ahead of some trends, like the service oriented economy and streaming music services.   

A couple of weeks ago, I had a blog entry inspired by an episode of the podcast.  But that episode is a part of a disturbing trend right now.   Four of the last five episodes were not really up to the standards I’ve come to expect of the show.  

It started with the kid gloves with which Dubner interviewed former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.   Whatever else Ballmer is or is not, he’s not a great steward of the companies he has run.   The culture he created at the software behemoth almost ruined the company, and it’s still struggling to get out of that.  The interview completely glossed over his tenure at Microsoft other than to needle Ballmer over his prediction that Apple’s iPhone wouldn’t sell.   

Then came the interview with Steve Hilton.  (Maybe Steve Dubner just likes people who shares his first name…)  I don’t need to rehash my comments from my earlier blog entry but the kid gloves were on again, not just for not calling Hilton on his myopia, but also for not criticizing him for leaving his country in the aftermath of the vote he orchestrated to the results he sought.

I’ll give a pass to the next episode, which was dedicated to the CRISPR gene editing tool.  Insightful and neither overly optimistic nor filled with scare tactics.  We need more science communication like this.  

The next two episodes were both released this past week, and by the end of the second part, I was ready to throw something at Dubner, when he interviewed Charles Koch.  While this interview did grant some insight into why I agree with him and his brother on some issues (most notably immigration) and even why he occasionally pursues tax policies that would cost him more money than he pays now, I can’t accept some of the places where Koch should be held more accountable, despite Dubner’s mysterious silence.  

The first and most glaring part of Koch’s position is how often progress is stymied by “special interests”, both from the left and from the right.   Given the lack of detail he provided in terms of what qualifies as a special interest, I have to assume he meant anyone who doesn’t want what he wants.  We all have interests and we all think we’re special.   I’d like to think my interests (fortification of the wall between church and state, being good stewards of the environment, not allowing the free market to run roughshod over those most in need) aren’t really all that special and, to be blunt, in the best interests not only of me and my family, but also in the best interests of the country.   

The second part is his pride in being opposed to legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley.   This law was passed after the accounting scandals in companies like Enron and WorldCom.   Indeed, all financial regulations that are codified in the law — be they the laws passed in the 1930s under the New Deal, or the regulations on Wall Street in the 1980s, or more recent laws like Sarbanes-Oxley — are there because the people we trusted with our money, were doing things that were, at best, untoward with that money.  

You can argue that that’s true of all laws: they’re generally passed because someone did something they shouldn’t have done even though it was technically (up to that point) legal.    In the state of Delaware, it’s illegal to go fishing on horseback.   You can almost see how that law came about: someone (probably a male-type person) did just that, but the horse got spooked when he caught a fish.   He got injured, possibly losing his fishing pole in the process, and sued for damages and/or a new fishing pole.   The law almost writes itself after that.  

Koch also pointed to HillaryCare as a reason why he first became politically active in the 1990s. While I’m not trying to argue that Hillary’s proposals back then were perfect, I don’t quite understand why health care should be treated as a commodity to the extent that it is.  But that’s the stuff of another blog entry, especially given the current debates on capitol hill.  

Next week’s Freakonomics episode will be a repeat of an episode first aired a couple of years ago.  I hope Dubner turns the ship around on this podcast, since the quality of the shows has not been good of late.  I don’t mind listening to people I disagree with.  I do mind when they’re not challenged on such obvious topics as what we’ve seen with Ballmer, Hilton, and Koch in the past month.   

Can we please do away with referenda?

Last week on the Freakonomics podcast, host Stephen Dubner interviewed Steve Hilton, one of the architects of last year’s Brexit vote.  One of the tidbits of that interview was Hilton’s disillusionment not at the result of the vote (which is what he wanted: for Britain to leave the EU) but instead at the reasons why people voted to leave the EU (anti-immigrant sentiment and a misplaced nationalism, which he didn’t want).

I’m willing to look away from his myopia for the purposes of this blog entry.   (If this essay were more focused on the Brexit vote itself, he wouldn’t be so lucky.)

But he made an interesting and important point that I’m not completely unsympathetic to: his quarrel with the EU was a direct result of the fact that the centralized government was appointed and not elected.  He used the analogy of the United States: each individual state is autonomous, but we still vote for the president and the congress.  That doesn’t happen with the EU.  

I suspect that particular bit of resentment isn’t unique to Britain.  But is the solution to that problem a complete withdrawal from the union?  Why couldn’t he lobby to change the way the EU’s leadership is chosen?   If he is being intellectually honest, then, I have to assume he feels the same way about the UN and NATO.   He didn’t say.  

But Brexit is emblematic of a greater problem that democracies have to face: the fact that allowing the voting public to make serious policy decisions via referenda is, more often than not, counterproductive.  (If I’m being my most polite.)

At its surface, it feels like it should be the opposite.   After all, if you put questions of the future of the community directly into the hands of the people, that seems like the ideal future state of a democracy.   (Even the word “democracy” comes from the Greek, meaning leadership or government by the people…)

But that’s the real failing of a referendum: a democracy depends upon an informed electorate and even the most informed of us, we can’t possibly know everything we need to know before we step into the voting booth.  And a referendum has two pain points to it: the wording of the question and the limitations of it being a yes/no question.   

Think of the hypothetical referendum that asks the question “would you support a tax increase in order to turn the community into a Paradise by every sense of the word?”  There are three kinds of people who would vote “no” on this question: the curmudgeons who want everything to get worse, the people who already think it’s perfect, and the people who stopped reading after the word “increase”.

Think of all of the votes around the US prior to the Obergefell v Hodges ruling in 2015 that legalized same sex marriage.   Almost all of the referenda in the various states, went against allowing same sex couples to get married.   Why?  If you aren’t gay, allowing gay couples to marry is something that you should be, at worst, ambivalent to.   I’m sure there are some gay people who don’t want to be allowed to marry, but there’s no way they could be enough to swing the results of the referendum away from that privilege when you look at the size of the greater electorate.  

Now magnify that to something at a much larger scale, like Brexit or a vote to secede from a greater union/nation-state (I’m looking at you, Scotland, Quebec, and even Basque).   With all of the moving pieces that need to go into the implications of such a dramatic change, is it ever truly fair to expect such a dramatic policy initiative to be driven by asking literally everyone a yes/no question?   Especially when there could be other options that haven’t been put to a vote at all.   A hundred people voting “yes” could offer a hundred different reasons for their vote.  

The very fact that so many aspects of the US Constitution are still being litigated and in need of interpretation — nearly 230 years after it was first ratified — is proof that no one can truly know all of the implications of a vote.  (Although the Third Amendment isn’t litigated very much.   I guess we got that one right…)

I have no problem with any time the leaders of a democracy want to know if they are steering the country in the right direction and opening questions up to a general vote.   But the voters are under no duty or obligation to uphold the foundational documents and intents of the community or nation, the way the leaders are.  For that reason alone, referenda should never be binding.  

And if you’re just polling the people to know how they’re feeling, why not use the professional pollsters rather than going through the timing and expense of an election?

A message for future generations 

I’m sorry.  

On behalf of my generation and on behalf of those generations that came before me, I profoundly apologize to you, my children, their children and generations of children yet unborn.  

About two years ago, almost every country on the planet came together and agreed to make the changes necessary to confront what could be the single greatest threat ever faced by mankind: the changes in the global climate that are a direct result of human activity.

Today, Thursday, June 1, 2017, US President Donald Trump abrogated his responsibility as the leader of the country that, in raw numbers, is the second worst polluter in the world.   When those numbers are rejiggered to the per-capita pollution, the USA is the worst.  He announced his intent to withdraw from this agreement.  

I can’t honestly say this is a surprise.   He promised he would do it on the campaign trail.  And that promise alone should have been reason for any sane person not to vote for him.  

Still, this action, which will take four years to complete, makes me ashamed to be an American.   I just want to underscore that Donald Trump does not speak for me on this issue.  

I have been making a concerted effort, at my own level, to combat additional damage to the environment, as both my electric car and the solar panels on my roof will attest.  Not quite as visible are the water-saving measures on every faucet, hose, and spigot in my house.  

I have said it before: even if the climate weren’t changing (which it is) and even if we weren’t responsible (which we are), I don’t see how cleaning up the planet — this beautiful, lush planet — and reducing or eliminating pollution can be perceived as a bad thing.  

If there is criticism of the agreement that we are backing out of, it’s that it’s not aggressive enough in combating harm to the environment.  

I still hope that the US can still take responsibility before the withdrawal is complete.  To abide by the terms of the agreement, if not improve upon them.  To restore sanity to the nation and to the world.  

But today, I can only say I’m sorry.  

Appalling Dishonesty

I hate the term “pro-life” as it is used in the ongoing political debate about abortion.  Even though I don’t share this belief, there may be legitimate reasons to disapprove of abortion as a practice.   That’s fine, just like there are legitimate reasons to think taxes might be too high, or that efforts to curtail gun violence come too close to impeding our right to bear arms.   

But to shroud an opposition to abortion under the moniker “pro-life” or “right to life” is, if I’m being overly generous, an outrageous oversimplification that none should take seriously.  Yes, a clump of cells might technically be alive, but then again, so is your hair before you cut it.   So is your grass before you mow the lawn.  So are the limbs of the trees you prune.   So are the diseases you fight.  

While this is far from universal, a large percentage of people who claim to be pro-life also support the death penalty and are opposed to allowing the elderly and infirm to die with dignity.   They clearly regard death as a punishment and little else.  “Right to life?” They mean their right to decide who gets to live and who gets to die.  (Thank you George Carlin for that line…)

And that’s not even getting into the implication that those on the other side of the debate might somehow be anti-life.   Those who support the legality of abortion call themselves “pro-choice”. Pro-choice does not mean “anti-life”, but pro-life certainly means “anti-choice”.

For the reasons I stated above, I have for years thought that pro-life was the single most intellectually dishonest term in all of politics.   

I think I might need to walk that claim back, though.  There’s a relatively new political issue that, on its surface, has little in common with abortion, although many of the people who proudly bear the label “pro-life” are also adopting this label.  

Before I reveal more details, I should add that the majority of opinion with regard to opposing abortion is not based upon evidence but rather upon adherence to religious scripture, or at least the cherry-picked parts of scripture they use to justify their positions.  The same thing is true for this issue, even if there isn’t much overlap between the passages of the Bible.  

The issue is about the rights of transgender people.   In recent years, there has been a lot of press about the needs of transgender men and women, how being transgender isn’t a mental illness, how difficult it is to be trapped in a body that’s not really you, and about how, despite a binary with regard to the plumbing, there really are more — a LOT more — than just two genders.  (And I’m not even convinced that the plumbing is that binary…). 

The most visible backlash to transgender rights is in the “bathroom bills” that require a person to use the gendered bathroom that corresponds to his or her birth certificate.  (Think about the stupidity of enforcement.   You either carry a birth certificate or allow people to peek into the stall where you’re peeing.)

The Obama administration rightly saw that transgender issues are huge in schools (because adolescence is when people first come to realize if they’re transgender) and so issued guidelines on how to manage it.  And of course there’s been biblically-based opposition to this as well.   

And that’s where the dishonesty in labels comes in.  The people opposed to it — at least some of them — actually have the gall, the nerve, the chutzpah, to call themselves Pro-Privacy.    That link is to just one example of this but it takes either massive guts or massive dissonance to support positions that are an extreme violation of privacy and call it “Pro-Privacy”.  

Sorry, pro-lifers.    You’re no longer the most dishonest.   

American Pride

When I was a junior in high school, I took Advanced Placement US History as my social studies elective.   This is a university-level course, and a passing grade on the end-of-year exam counts as college credit.   

While the exam is a comprehensive overview of the history of the United States, beginning with European exploration to the “new world” up to the present time (which, for me at the time, was the end of the presidency of Ronald Reagan), it focused most heavily on the three decades in American history that were of greatest actual consequence.   I hesitate to say that more “stuff” happened in these three decades but you’d be hard pressed — if given the challenge of distilling American history to three non-consecutive decades — to find any decades more important than these three.  

  • The 1790s.  We had just won our hard-fought independence from the British empire, with the biggest complaint being the tyranny of the British government.   How do we maintain a semblance of order, especially with regard to commerce and defense, without being equally tyrannical?   The constitution, bill of rights, and the actions of the three branches of government were a start.  
  • The 1850s.   Pretty much from the start, the issue of slavery was one of the biggest thorns in the side of the government.  After decades of compromise on the expansion of slavery in new American territories, it was inevitable that civil discourse would break down.  I’ve repeatedly said that we should be ashamed that it took a war to end slavery, but if you look critically at the decade leading up to the war, the question shouldn’t be “is it necessary?” but instead “why did it take so long?”
  • The 1930s.   Black Friday.   October 29, 1929.   Okay.  That’s a little over two months before the 1930s actually began, but looking at the start of the Great Depression, its impact on the country, and FDRs efforts to get us out of it, there’s no question that this decade, for all of its complexity, mixes of successes and failures, and America’s role in the world, needs to be examined closely.   

I’m not trying to argue that other decades in American history aren’t important.   Take the 1890s, as America truly started coming into its own in its global reach (for good and for bad).   Or the 1960s, a decade of real turbulence in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Or even the 2000s, as America came to grips with a terrorist threat that it at least partially fostered.   

One thing that’s noticeably missing from everything I’ve said above, is a jingosim that pervades American politics today.   The notion that the good ol’ US of A somehow stands above the rest of the world.   Indeed, a couple of years ago, the Oklahoma legislature passed a resolution condemning the course for being insufficiently praiseworthy of the country and its history.   

But that’s the thing: if you need to teach children specifically to believe something without letting the facts speak for themselves, there’s something wrong with the belief itself.  Don’t teach children to be proud of their country!  Give them the facts and let them decide if pride is justified.   

In February, 2008, Michelle Obama made an interesting comment that still earns her criticism today from those on the right.   At the time, her husband, then-Senator Barack Obama started to look like he had a legitimate shot at securing his party’s nomination for the presidency.   Couple this with a deeply unpopular sitting president and that gave her hope that, in her husband, maybe the country could start to move away from the more shameful aspects of its history (both distant and recent).  

Yeah, I liked it when she said that.   That was legitimately something to be proud of.   

Donald Trump has just returned from his first trip abroad as president of the US.   Where he was treated like a king — Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Israel — he seemed to be in his glory.   At the Vatican, he was received politely although Pope Francis seemed to struggle with withholding his disdain.   

Now THAT’S saying something.  The leader of the Catholic Church, who has dedicated his life to preaching love and forgiveness, has trouble loving and forgiving Donald Trump.   Just let that sink in for a minute even before you get to the whole Papal Infallibility doctrine.   

But the real problems came when he went to meet with our allies in NATO and the G7 summit.   His ego was not stroked the way it was elsewhere, and he demonstrated how little he really knew about America, its role in the world, and the world as a whole.   This has nothing to do with any specific policy: the man is an embarrassment, exemplified first and foremost by the image of him pushing Dusko Markovic, the prime minister of Montenegro aside.   

Donald Trump really is a walking stereotype: pick any negative image(s) foreigners might have about America and he more or less exemplifies it.   Boorish, arrogant, wanting to be the center of attention, claiming to know it all despite being out of his league, trigger happy…  The list goes on and on…

There are things in American history and in American culture to be proud of.   Donald Trump isn’t one of them.