The United States and Lebanon

A devastating explosion of ammonium-nitrate killed at least 135 people, injured thousands and destroyed a large part of Beirut, Lebanon. The Lebanese are understandably horrified, shocked and angered by the negligence of a government that allowed a lethal condition to exist in their major port city, 100 yards from residential areas for as long as seven years in spite of repeated warnings.

Lebanon has historical problems. It is sandwiched between Israel and Syria and serves both as buffer and punching bag for local powers. The government suffers from corruption (ranked number 137 of 198 in the World Corruption Index for 2019). The Lebanese economy was a shambles before the explosion. They were in a recession and inflation was raging. Now, the county’s main port is unusable. This disaster emphasizes their own failures to control warring militias, reject outside interference in their politics, help the economy and protect residents. Granted that they had a low bar but their government still failed to clear it.

Given the situation, it is horrible but not surprising that 2,750 tons of an explosive sat in a warehouse on the dock in Beirut for seven years, each day increasing the probability of a disaster, with the government blithely ignoring or intentionally overlooking the monster in their midst.

In contrast to Lebanon, the United States had a strong economy. Our immediate neighbors are not a threat. Interference in our politics is probably greater from internal sources than foreign powers although there is most certainly also foreign interference. We have been ranked reasonably well in the corruption index. We are rich as a country. We have the world’s strongest military and are capable of defending ourselves from aggressors.

Yet in the U. S., almost 160,000 people have died from covid-19 in six months. We have about 5 million confirmed cases and many more unconfirmed. We lead the world in deaths and cases of covid. We are 19th highest in per capita deaths.

Worldwide experience in epidemiology has led to a broad understanding of how diseases spread. The details vary from disease to disease. The most significant factors in epidemic spreads are the rate of reproduction and the duration of the infectious period. The diseases then spread as the probability that a random person will come in contact with an infectious person and the likelihood that they will have a sufficient exposure to transmit the disease. The well understood plan then is to begin as early as you know there is a potential epidemic/pandemic, keep people apart from one another and employ methods to reduce the spread of the pathogen such as masks, hand washing. We do contact tracing to isolate exposed individuals and testing to identify them.

We took none of these steps on a national level and established no means of coordination so that necessary resources could be moved to the highest priority places.

Why did we not pursue what most other nations did but also what the experts have known for close to a century is the safest course of action?

The disease, deaths and disruption in the US from the pandemic are the result of complex factors but it is undeniable that government incompetence and neglect of basic facts have endangered our security, educational system, the economy and the ability of the economy to recover. The Associated Press found documents that “ underscore the corruption, negligence and incompetence of Lebanon’s long ruling political oligarchy, and its failure to provide its people with basic needs, including security”.

We are not Lebanon. The critical question is whether it makes any difference when the chips are down?

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Trump’s Cowardly Enablers

I have to write this. It’s a compulsion. I’ve been thinking of drafts and writing snippets since George Floyd’s murder and I can’t avoid it any longer. When the President of the United States of America issued a tweet insinuating that a 75 year old protester in Buffalo, NY was attempting to steal some kind of code so he could jam the police department’s communications system, I laughed. But I knew I had to do something more. So do you.

That tweet was just the most recent example of the President’s mental and moral unfitness for the office. George Floyd died less than two weeks earlier at the hands of the police, cities were in flames, protests were being held in hundreds of cities and he felt compelled to tweet about a 75 year old attacking the police and intentionally cracking his own skull! The worst part is that when he propagated nonsense theories about one protestor, he completely ignored the causes that were being protested – police violence against black and brown people, systemic racism and George Floyd among others. I’m no longer surprised but still shocked by his daily behavior.

What does still surprise me is the Republican enablers pretending they are deaf or blind. Didn’t hear the story, didn’t see the tweet, too busy running away from electronic devices to ensure they won’t see it. They are afraid the president will make fun of them, criticize them, campaign against them. They run away from the racism implicit in Floyd’s death and ignore the vindictive mindlessness implicit in the tweet.

Most of the enablers apparently thought he would change or that they could control him if he was elected although they didn’t think he would be. Many of the same Republicans told reporters two or three years ago they just wanted to hide out until he was gone. “Please don’t make me say anything bad about him. He’ll get mad at me and he’s a bully. I’m afraid.” They have been hiding from him as well as from their constitutional responsibilities and oaths.

The Constitution is our governmental rule book. But it can’t cover all situations. For example, there are few limits described for presidential powers. That’s not because the framers did not want limits. It’s just that they couldn’t anticipate everything and write it down. For many years, the control of presidential power resided in the norms of behavior expected of the president. It was self imposed, Witness Richard Nixon turning over the tapes. Those norms were more or less guaranteed by the method of selecting the candidates. Only in the late 20th century did that process begin to fail as the primary election system took hold and grew. The party bosses lost control and could no longer guarantee a candidate who would behave. You can argue whether that method of democratizing the nominating process is good or bad. It undeniably enabled candidates who have few or none of the character traits that have always been selected for such as willingness to abide by the law and not to push beyond the boundaries on every issue. Witness the current, impeached occupant of the Oval Office.

If the selection of the candidate can no longer guarantee that a nominee will conform to the unwritten rules and expectations, then Congress in its oversight capacity has to insert itself more aggressively and the president must comply. If the president simply refuses to comply, then the presidency is well on its way to an autocracy.

Running the USA is not a win/lose proposition. It is a long term event that we want to continue. It requires tolerance and forbearance for the other team. So when your side loses, it’s best not to sink the ship but try to influence the navigation. When your side, wins, it’s best not to throw the other side overboard. You might need them to help fight pirates. So the president claims to drain the swamp but is in reality just jettisoning the ballast and the spare sails, throws the signaling equipment overboard and sells the lookout station. Congress watches, cowering, from the hold hoping the ship doesn’t flounder before his term expires.

So how does this event – remember I’m writing about the president’s tweet on a Buffalo protester – play into all of this and why did it finally motivate to write again? It isn’t the president. I expect nothing of him. It’s his enablers. Especially the ones who have been in government for ages (i.e., the Senate apologists) and refuse to address even a single episode of destructive behavior because they are more interested in staying in power than they are is doing their jobs. Most of them have not condemned Floyd’s murder, police brutality as a practice, systemic racism nor the insane tweet that set me off. They are the ones who have abandoned the constitution and the people of the United States. Enough.

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The Democrats’ Huge Responsibility

The Democratic Party has a huge responsibility. It is must nominate a person to save the United States from a drift toward autocracy and oligarchy as well as saving the world from disintegration into more aggressive and disputatious tribes. Oh, and by the way, the nominee also has to win, to administer the government of the US and to establish some reasonable policies around oh, so many things.

That the Trump administration thumbs its nose at the rule of law and at congressional oversight is no revelation. Nor is its appointment of incompetent sycophants in key positions (23 year old director of personnel anyone? How about a Director of National Intelligence lacking the intelligence experience mandated by law?) Not even its constant “exaggeration” of the truth and reflexive lying. One area that may not be as obvious is the harm to national security. Many people of both parties have tired of our frequent misguided international adventures. However, the solution is to reduce the need for adventures by helping to manage chaotic and increasingly complex international relationships, not to withdraw and pretend everything is ok as long as we win each individual transaction.

We are almost certainly at higher risk now than three years ago. There is no evidence that North Korea has slowed down its nuclear program. Iran has been given a green light to proceed with theirs, Turkey is becoming a very unreliable member of NATO. NATO has been threatened by Trump if they don’t pay up or pay us for our support. Russia now holds greater power in the middle east. China is not being challenged in the South China Sea. Military experience is ignored in matters of military discipline and law. Military budget is diverted for non-military for pet projects. Ambassadorships are unfilled. The State Department and several others have been trashed. The list goes on and on.

The main concern raised by this list is that collectively it shows a disregard for the value of foreign partnerships and alliances. A bunch of bilateral transactions cannot be as strong as a few multi-lateral, multi-national agreements that serve common interests rather than only our own. The Trump administration cannot see the value in that and assume that if each individual event is in our favor, then the whole game must be a victory. The next president must begin to reestablish the credibility of the US in foreign policy. That, in turn requires rebuilding the State Department and repopulating ambassadorships and many mid- and lower level positions within State.

There is growing division within the country and it is lead by the president. We see the politicization of everything, much of it emanating from the White House. That is not to say that Democrats are above politics, just that they are not as good at it! Which is another reason they have to win! It is essential that we return to fixing problems and establishing policies that work for people rather than policies that just have good, outrage-generating political sound bites.

However, the threat I am most worried about is to American values both in the short and long term. Conservatives complained that Obama’s administration was a threat to American values too. So let me make clear I’m not talking about pro-choice/pro-life, pro or con gun rights, big government vs small government, deficit management – oh, wait, that one is not on anyone’s list any more. The thrust toward autocratic processes, court manipulation and total opaqueness in government dealings sounds and looks remarkably like the move toward a police state. I don’t see this as a short term issue but one that could be firmly entrenched wth another five years of Trumpism.

This is a threat not only to the United States but to the world. And not just the so-called “free world”. The US has had its hands in many sordid international adventures that raise doubt about our values and the president has in fact said we’re no different from anyone else (“We’re no angels”). The saving grace of the Shining City on the Hill or American Exceptionalism has always been the existence and pursuit of values denoted in our “sacred documents” – the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Federalist papers and others over the years that lay out the goals of a government that derives its authority from the people. It allows for mistakes as long as we try to return to the path forward.

This administration is not trying. In fact it seems completely happy to erase the bread crumb trail so we won’t be able to find out way back. This is not only an issue of the Trump administration but seemingly across the globe in countries that once seemed destined for the rule of law by consent of the governed – Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines to name a few. As alliances crumble, there is no longer leadership to help resolve disputes. Trade disagreements and disputes over sovereignty reign. That’s why the UK is leaving the EU.

The next president must take on all of these challenges while working with the Republicans on budgets, health care immigration, housing and more. You – Democratic Party primary voters – must nominate someone who can replace the current president and begin to build new coalitions and ideas that will unite us. Barring that, we may as well begin mandatory Chinese language and culture lessons in Kindergarten because China will soon be in charge of a disintegrated America.

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Supreme Court Decides Justice Not in Their Purview

I wrote down my predictions for some of the court’s upcoming decisions a few days ago. I was, unfortunately, correct on gerrymandering. The issue of whether to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census is not finally resolved – just suspended for the time being.

The Court fooled me just a little on gerrymandering. I thought their reasoning would be that coming up with a test is too complicated. They didn’t. They said, in effect, that a the party in the majority during a census has the right to discriminate against minority parties to any extent they want for the next ten years. While stating that partisan gerrymandering is reprehensible and unjust, they said it is not their job to fix it. It is political, not judicial.  Huh?

How is it not the job of the Supreme Court to ensure that basic constitutional rights such as the right to representation are not in their scope? How is one person – one vote no longer important?

How is the right of an individual state to discriminate against a party so that they are intentionally underrepresented in the House of Representatives of the United States not a Supreme Court interest?  The effects of those gerrymanders go well beyond the borders of the offending state. 

The court is supposed to interpret and enforce the constitution. The framers foresaw a representative democracy established as a republic with many interests competing. The competition of interests is an important feature. It is the means of managing power and preventing overwhelming power from accruing to any one group. SCOTUS just said that cheating in the state vote to achieve more power than proper representation should allow is not something they can deal with.  This blatant distortion of representation is “political” and not “judicial”.  

They also said that racial gerrymandering is not acceptable because the constitution outlaws racial discrimination. Then, in the next breath, they say that political gerrymandering is ok. But political gerrymandering has much the same effect as racial gerrymandering. The case being adjudicated works mostly against Democratic minority voters because they have a higher proportion of black and Latino voters. It still has a racial effect then, doesn’t it?

The impact of course is not limited to the people’s selection of their own representatives.  The major effect is on the House of Representatives.  That’s why so much money from outside the state flows in to contested House races.  The same people draw districting maps for state elections and can therefore control which voters have a say in future elections within the state.  Because they concentrate voters of each party  in specific districts, they also create districts in which partisans have more power and can continue to select less moderate people for their primaries. Now Senators are involved as well as Representatives.  You see how that evolves into our current extreme and partisan Congress. 

I am very disappointed in the court. They were the closest thing to a functioning branch of government we had.

 

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The Free Market in Healthcare – Another Fantasy

This is a departure from my normal political topics. In the past few days I have described why the free market does not work with the healthcare system in the United States at least two times. Because both were sort of ad hoc, I decided to write one that is a little more complete. Neither of my readers will mind a change in subject and I get to review interesting stuff.

This article is based on classical economic theory. The Austrian school of economics will argue that some of the assumptions below, notably perfect knowledge, are not valid. The Heritage Foundation has published a refutation of the original argument at http://www.heritage.org/health-care-reform/report/compelling-evidence-makes-the-case-market-driven-health-care-system. I’ll come back to these later. Note that I am not a practicing economist so there will be valid disagreements with some of the items below. However, taken as a whole and observing the healthcare market, I believe the argument to be valid.  Continue reading

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A Theory of Everything Trump

Pundits often attempt to explain the president’s actions and motivations.  I catalogued many Trump actions, tweets and comments in a framework based on my characterization of him.  Almost everything he does can be explained if viewed through this framework.  Simply, the framework describes the president as a

  • thin-skinned,
  • narcissistic,
  • bully,
  • whose only goal is his personal brand management.

Continue reading

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Real News

Let’s be clear. I still think the Donald is a thin-skinned, narcissistic bully whose only goal is self-promotion.

Nonetheless, CNN and other media outlets must de-escalate the Russia story and find more time for other news. There are two reasons for this. First, there is other important news. Second, roughly one-third of the country doesn’t care. If you want to maintain (or reestablish) a reputation for fair coverage, you can’t spend all your on-air time talking about something a third of your potential viewers think is unimportant and won’t be interested in unless something much more definitive comes to light. It looks more like harassment than news coverage to a lot of people and is divisive. Don’t stop reporting on new facts related to Russian election-meddling, possible collusion and hacking. Just don’t spend all day and all night covering the same issues. Continue reading

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Republicans:  Say What You Mean on Health Care

The Republicans should stop messing around with health care bills, state their goal clearly and get on with it.  They could have a vote and be on to the next subject in a week.

The problem they are having is that they keep trying to create a bill that both takes all the money away, strips the government’s involvement (individual mandates, essential benefits, etc.), gives individuals more control and options and simultaneously continues to provide some acceptable level of care to 20 million people more or less.  This is the eat-nothing-and-lose-five-pounds-of-fat-while-gaining-ten-pounds-of-ripped-muscle-without-excercise-in-one-week diet.

What they need to do is state the obvious:   Continue reading

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No Harm, No Foul

Kelly Anne Conway and Donald Trump Jr have both used the “no harm, no foul” excuse in relation to the recently disclosed meeting between Jr, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort with a Russian attorney.  Because the Russian attorney failed to deliver derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, as Trump apparently had expected, they say “nothing to see here, move along”.  No harm, no foul.

I’m not sure that applies to politics.   Continue reading

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So Happy to Have a Strong, Thoughtful and Effective POTUS – a Fantasy

Looking back to the Obama years, I have to say they were boring.  Yes, Republican obstruction provided some excitement from time to time.  Remember when they were ready to shut down the government?  That was a hoot!  But generally the No-drama-Obama years were more dulls than lulz.

No more!  It began with the president’s promise to unify the nation in his inaugural address.  You remember.   Continue reading

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