America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law! --- Katherine Lee Bates My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right. --- Carl Schurz
The Hamilton Electors idea didn't work. I'm from Silicon Valley, though: failure is a learning experience, not a sin. Next task is to figure out how to keep voters engaged into the 2018 midterm election.
None of that matters if there is a nuclear war. So let's not even pretend that this could be a plausible outcome. It might happen soon enough on its own, thanks to the inexorable march of technology, a great democratizer of opportunity to do good or ill.
On a less pessimistic note, those who are so inclined could start working on a bill of impeachment to introduce on Jan 23, or as soon thereafter as an impeachable act is discerned. But it seems plausible that the Trump party will pardon him in advance for any impeachable offenses; Newt Gingrich has already proposed that Trump pardon all his cabinet officers and executive staff in advance. If impeachment comes to pass anyway, Mike Pence would be able to take over if needed, since it seems that he will do most of the detail work of the presidency anyway - like going to intelligence briefings.
Maybe Trump won't be impeachably bad. But recognizing that Trump will likely prove to be no Lincoln, nor even a Ford, but more likely a gilded Edsel, I've been moved to write down my thoughts on politics mostly for the benefit of my children and for any friends who might have the patience to read them. They might be no more prescient than my writings about the Hamilton Electors since I have no credentials whatever in politics, law, history, economics, or theology. The writing flow is mostly stream-of-consciousness but if any significant audience develops I will try to transform that into a more coherent exposition.
The Democratic program owes a lot to the Republican program of 2008-2016. Think global, act local. That's the Tea Party lesson according to professional Democratic strategists.
But since the next few years are going to be amateur hour in American politics, here's my amateur take on a Democratic program for the next two years:
It's a personality cult rather than an ideology. The consistent ideology and platform of the Trump Organization is one word: Trump. What's good for Trump is good for his supporters and good for the nation and good for the world. The progressive Republican party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt is history. The former Republican leadership is now converted whole-heartedly to supporting the Trump Organization. So reserve the term "Republican" for those who demonstrate significant concrete opposition to at least some significant part of the Trump agenda. The rest could be called RINO's - Republicans in Name Only - where have I heard that before?
In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. --- Oscar Wilde
The Trump Organization wants full credit for breaking everything accomplished by the Obama administration, and so Democrats must insure that the Trump Organization gets full blame for everything they break and can't fix. So no votes for any Trump nominees until Garland is confirmed; let the next President choose!
But it's a mystery to me why anybody would voluntarily subject themselves to the confirmation process.
Regaining control of the Federal House depends a lot on regaining control of the state legislatures that control Federal House redistricting. So those are priorities too.
Urban Californians don't have much to do, except financially support the national Democratic campaigns to regain the House and state legislatures. Donate to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
And now on with the expansive discussion:
Here's the big question that I don't have an answer for (and haven't encountered any credible suggestions for):
Moving on from that question for future generations, let's think about what we can do now:
Let's go back to where I started: ballot measures expressing no confidence. They don't have an immediate concrete effect but serve as a reminder that Trump's triumph was not the greatest electoral landslide in history and may serve as an example to the rest of the country of how to actively contest his reality distortion zone. This was my first foray into writing to the editor:
From reader Tue Nov 22 13:08:45 2016 To: email@example.com Subject: Letter to Editor: How to keep voters engaged until 2018
How can California voters actively respond to a Donald Trump administration featuring Steven Bannon and Jeff Sessions? What might keep voters engaged until the 2018 elections? Encouraging Electors to vote their conscience, and talking up secession, maintain engagement even if they do not have much direct effect.
Why not take the next step with California's initiative process? Circulate measures declaring the lack of confidence of the people of California in the leadership of Donald Trump and in the Federal legislators that support him. Such votes of no confidence will not be futile if they keep California voters engaged. California's example might lead voters in other states to likewise encourage their politicians to do the right thing. Just gathering enough signatures to put such initiatives on the next state ballot will focus everybody's attention.
California enabled Initiative, Referendum, and Recall in 1911, at the height of the Progressive era. The idea was to enable people to act when the legislature would not, or was more beholden to the moneyed interests than the people. Since then there's been a sea change into something rich and strange: the initiative process is more often used now by moneyed interests to thwart the will of the people or at least the will of the legislature. They do that by drafting huge complicated statutes that very few people can describe, much less understand the ramifications of, then hiring armies of paid signature gatherers, then spending vast sums on misleading television, radio, print, and direct mail advertising. The courts have generally held that the individual's rights of free speech imply that large organizations may spend as much money as they want and say whatever they like in these campaigns. I don't know if they get their money's worth; anybody who knew how the system worked must treat political advertising in any medium the same as malware from the internet.
I support the idea that paid signature gatherers should be forced to wear some kind of scarlet letter so that people would understand that they might not personally endorse whatever measure they are hawking. There are counter-arguments but I think that initiatives from the people should be simple enough for the people to understand and compelling enough that volunteers could gather the necessary signatures.
More helpful than term limits or no confidence votes, would be a constitutional amendment to allow voters in each state to recall that state's Federal legislators on the same basis as they can recall state legislators in that state.
Z is for Zero, that's how it all ends - No office, no power, no money, no friends. --- Mad Magazine Politician's Alphabet, circa 1960
Maybe Trump (or at least Sessions) will be a pleasant surprise like Hugo Black of Alabama.
Maybe Trump can learn something from Schwarzenegger's example.
Maybe Trump will be remembered more fondly over time, like LBJ:
LBJ seemed to be the personification of evil to young people in the 1960's, but now one can recognize him as the southerner who finally broke the back of southern segregation by championing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Those led to the Southern Strategy and the death of bipartisanship - but that's another story - see below.)
What I took away from the movie Selma was that the ideology and moral leadership of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the political leadership of LBJ, and the impact of the still new medium of television, were all necessary ingredients.
What I took away from the possibly self-serving Robert McNamara's book In Retrospect was that the war in Vietnam was fought to preserve the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts from the Goldwater Republicans who, LBJ feared, might have come to control the Senate if the US withdrew unconditionally from Vietnam. In that respect he may have been like Lincoln, keeping the military, domestic political, and foreign diplomatic balls in the air all at once, and making no sense to observers who kept their eye on only one ball.
In any event, when I visited the LBJ monuments in Texas, I learned that he was personally proudest of bringing electric power to the Texas hill country in the 1930's as a New Deal congressman. A real man of the people.
But there are other views of the Vietnam war: the war that killed trust.
The Hamilton Electors tried to find one senator to contest the certification of the Electoral College results. It didn't work.
The same party rarely wins the White House for three consecutive terms, even when it retains control of Congress. It's only happened (barely) twice in my lifetime - Bush Sr in 1988 and Harry Truman in 1948 - when I was in utero but unborn. I think that's because casual voters who can't be bothered to deal with midterm elections can still hope that one person can change things somehow. One person can indeed make some difference, but 546 persons can make a much larger difference.
The current economic recovery is about 8 years old and will expire sometime in the next 8 years, no matter who is in the White House. As always, the party in power will be blamed, even though nobody has been able to figure out how to defeat the business cycle. I think that's because it's ultimately a phenomenon of mass psychology rather than economics.
But the next two years will probably coast along fine economically. They will be defined by the struggle within the Republican party to define what they are FOR. They have been defined by and shown remarkable unity for eight years by being AGAINST whatever Obama is for. Replacing ACA is the prototype for many more struggles - they all are against it but they have no agreement even on the principles to consider in devising a replacement.
Perhaps as far as Mr. Trump is concerned, it would be fine to repeal Obamacare, make some minor adjustments that would have been made anyway, and re-enact it as Trumpcare. Preferably gilded.
Perhaps the Republicans will implode like the Whigs in 1856 - the event that paradoxically gave rise to the original radical reform Republican party, which went conservative within twenty years, came briefly back to progressive life under Theodore Roosevelt, and then went reactionary in 1968, appropriating the Dixiecrats via the Southern Strategy.
This existential quandary of the Republicans is going to have to be resolved, no matter who is in the White House. I would welcome a Conservative party that actually stood for conservative principles (preserving what is good) instead of reactionary principles (trying to re-establish what can never be again, or should never have been, or that never was) or expedient political opportunism. Who today is a worthy heir of William F Buckley Jr?
I'd always supposed that Calvin Coolidge was a failure president sandwiched between the failures of Harding and Hoover, but I got a different picture from wikipedia:
There is a standard of righteousness that might does not make right, that the end does not justify the means, and that expediency as a working principle is bound to fail. The only hope of perfecting human relationships is in accordance with the law of service under which men are not so solicitous about what they shall get as they are about what they shall give. Yet people are entitled to the rewards of their industry. What they earn is theirs, no matter how small or how great. But the possession of property carries the obligation to use it in a larger service.
Cool Cal didn't address whether people are entitled to the rewards of the industry of their distant ancestors:
One of the oldest questions of democratic theory is the tension between freedom and equality. People are born with unequal genetic attributes and raised in unequal circumstances. Some people thus start with unequal advantages and disadvantages. Even in the presence of equal opportunity, if they are free to achieve their fullest potential, they will achieve unequal levels of success. Equal opportunity plus unequal capabilities yields unequal success. If they are free to institutionalize their unequal success, soon following generations will no longer have even equal opportunity.Unequal distribution doesn't bother me - Roy Cohn in Angels in America
So one of the ongoing tasks of a government that believes in equality of opportunity is continuous intervention to make it a continuous reality. One form of that intervention is estate taxes to prevent excessive concentration of economic power in individuals and families over generations.
Another form is intervention against excessive concentration of economic power in large corporations. The normal competitive business methods that are legal in a free market with many players, none dominant, have to be curbed when one of the players is so successful that it dominates the market and stifles competition and innovation. Executives are often astounded and resentful that the methods that made them successful are now forbidden.
Ideologues who believe that the free market will magically guarantee equal opportunity without external intervention generally would not accept the same proposition about politics - rather, they understand the need for institutional mechanisms to continually undermine excessive concentrations of power that inhibit new solutions to new problems. But it's the same problem of human organizations, whether economic or political.
Clearly there is no need for human electors if they are not allowed to exercise free will, nor, in the cellphone era, is there any particular point in having them simultaneously congregate in the separate state capitals. And since slavery was abolished, maybe it's no longer necessary to have quite such a large magnification of the influence of small rural states.
So why not just have one electoral vote per House district - Nebraska and Maine already do that. Small states would still get the exaggerated representation guaranteed them in the House.
Fun Fact: Remember your Virginia history? (It was required in grades 4, 7, and 11). What were the three landmark events of 1619?
One of them - the introduction of slavery to replace indentured servants (who lacked "social visibility," in the words of Louis Lomax) - has a direct line to Trump's Electoral College victory, whether he knows it or not. At the second Continental Congress, the southern delegates got Jefferson to remove his words about slavery by insisting that they'd rather remain slaves to King George than give up their own slaves - as dramatized in the musical 1776. (South Bay Musical Theatre's production of 1776 opens January 28). Maintaining the political parity of the rural slave states against the urbanizing free states was the critical issue of American politics until 1865, and maintaining "separate but equal" segregation was the critical issue in Southern politics for the next century... and finally Nixon's Southern strategy gave the Dixiecrats a new home in the Republican Party. Consequently all the former slave states voted for Trump except Maryland, Virginia (where Tim Kaine is popular), and DC. This fault line from 1619 has been hidden in recent years but can't be concealed now that the Republicans are in power.
Speaking of Nebraska, it tends to get short shrift for innovation from Silicon Valley. But it has had more than one good idea - the Unicameral legislature in particular. Ever since the US Supreme Court's one-man-one-vote cases of the 1960's, bicameral state legislatures have been a pointless waste of money - they had been typically adapted from the Federal Congress model with the intent to super-enfranchise rural voters in at least one of the chambers.
If one-representative-one-electoral-vote were adopted, then why not just have the House and Senate elections as they are now, but then skip the Electoral middlemen and have the president and vice president elected by the new House when it convenes?
The presidential candidates would campaign through primaries as now. But primaries would become preference polls for president and vice president. The party conventions might still endorse preferred candidates, but in an age of late breaking news, the individual House and Senate members would ultimately vote their consciences. Would that really be any more corrupt than what we have now?
I share Hamilton's distrust of instant democracy. It's easier than ever in the internet age and for the same reason easier to game than ever. Simple majority is characteristic of mob rule - protection of the rights of unpopular minorities is characteristic of modern democracy. So I don't think direct popular vote of the president is a good idea. I don't mind having some friction to thwart the short-term popular will as long as it doesn't inhibit the long-term popular will.
There are several choices to be made that would make the result more or less like the current system, or like direct election, or like a parliamentary system. Absolute majority or plurality? Voting by districts or by state delegations? If by states, state decision by majority or plurality?
Features of our current system that probably should be preserved include fixed term lengths, a lengthy impeachment process rather than a motion of no confidence, and ineligibility for the executives to hold legislative office - the PM is not allowed or required to be an MP, unlike England. And in our system, for good or ill, there is no head of state distinct from the chief politician. In some parliamentary systems the head of state fires the administration after a parliamentary vote of no confidence, and decides who to ask to form a new administration and be chief politician.
Tampering with the Electoral system will have unintended consequences - big social changes usually do. The key feature promoting stability in the American political process, and inhibiting third parties until the main parties get way off track, is the winner-take-all feature in 48 states, even if the winner get only a plurality. Winner-take-all is not required by the Federal Constitution nor Federal statute and definitely not anticipated by Hamilton, but is a choice made by 48 of the 50 states, Nebraska and Maine being the exceptions.
Winner-take-all means that both major parties strive not to get too far from the 20% of the voters in the middle that might go either way, and so the major parties don't strive for too much ideological clarity and consistency. In other countries that have many ideologically fixed parties, there is much less back-and-forth of voters between parties, and much more between parties trying to form governing coalitions.
Whatever happened to my "A choice not an echo" bumper sticker? I suppose it's in the Bad Ideas folder along with "Get the US out of the UN and the UN out of the US" and "Impeach Earl Warren."
Under the current system, presidential decisions in the House have always been decided by corrupt bargains. When the Electoral College doesn't produce a majority, and the decision goes into the House, it's because there are three or more unreconcilable factions. The decision doesn't get out of the House until two of the factions bend slightly toward each other. Naturally the third faction calls that bending a "corrupt bargain." I thought this was a defect until I realized, in the context of 2016 possibly going to the House, that coming to such a "corrupt bargain" that enables a majority decision was the whole unavoidable point of the process, and thus was a feature, not a bug.
If we're going to have corrupt bargains, let's make them good ones. Newt Gingrich predictably proposes that Trump pardon in advance all his appointees for all their predictable crimes. Can the President pardon himself? He'll definitely have problems with the Emoluments Clause unless Congress pardons him in advance. It seems likely that a Republican Congress would do so. Couldn't the Republican leadership at least ask for some compensating concession, like publishing tax returns? But so far it doesn't look they have the interest or the courage. Let's just give them all Orders of Franz von Papen and help them to an early retirement. Maybe Putin will throw in Orders of Friendship as well.
I remember reading 50 years ago that "almost every American mother wants her son to become President, but almost none of them want their son to become a politician." It was a fundamental misunderstanding back then of one of the President's roles, but aside from that, how many American mothers want their children to become like Trump?
So how should Congressional districts be defined?
There are two interesting questions about the House of Representatives: How should the 435 seats be apportioned among the states (and in my opinion, Federal territories?) How should each state's districts be drawn?
It seems to me that encouraging voter involvement and turnout is an important national goal. Republicans don't agree though they won't say so publicly, because increased turnout generally favors Democrats. Currently House seats are divided among the states (nothing for Federal territories) according to the last census population. For instance, the 2010 census was the basis for the districts used to elect Representatives starting in 2012. The census population counts everybody alive even though most of them can't or won't vote. Political parties are motivated to set up voting regimes that favor one party over the other by encouraging or discouraging turnout. I think states that discourage turnout should have proportionately less influence in Congress. So each Congress should allocate districts for the next election, to states according to the number of votes cast in the last election. All House seats are contested every two years, so seats might be reallocated that often though they would tend to change slowly.
What about districts within states? These have been decided by states, usually but not always by the legislatures. Gerrymandering districts is an old tradition but not an honorable one, beloved by both parties for the purpose of consolidating supporters, isolating opponents, and above all, retaining incumbents. The Supreme Courts one-man-one-vote decisions of the 1960's ended the worst abuses of previous generations, but redistricting is stil a major source of partisan contention.
But it would be possible to perform redistricting objectively. For instance, a state could publish a database of precincts by location and voter turnout in the last election, and invite any interested person or group to submit an algorithm (computer program) to perform redistricting using that database. A simple such algorithm would search for a redistricting that had equal voter turnout in each district, but minimized the maximum geographical diameter of all districts.
The key point is that the algorithm has to be public so anybody so inclined can see what was optimized. The legislature might then choose one of those algorithms and it might be pretty skewed, but there would be no back room mystery about how it was done, and the legislators who voted for the skewed results might in principle be accountable to the voters in a way that they currently avoid.
Better yet, the House of Representatives itself could conduct its own redistricting by the same process, but choosing an algorithm that would be applied to all the states for the next election. (It would still have to pass one-man-one-vote muster with the Supreme Court if challenged.) I don't think the Constitution prevents this; after all the House apportions the districts among states.
Here's a sample algorithmic approach applied to a database of precincts containing their populations (better yet voter turnouts), contiguous precincts, and geographical centers. For a state with N districts and population P, ideally each district should contain A = P/N population. Pick N precincts as a starting point; this could be done by e.g.
- protecting incumbents: pick the N precincts where the current N representatives reside (with special rules for the cases when population changes cause N to be larger or smaller than the previous redistricting), or
- dispersing geographically: pick the 1st precinct to be that with the largest population, the 2nd the precinct most geographically remote from the 1st, the 3rd the precinct the most geographically remote from the 1st and 2nd, etc., or
- dispersing urban populations: pick the N precincts with the largest populations.
Once the starting points have been determined, proceed by the following until all precincts have been allocated to districts:
- Identify the district with the smallest population.
- Choose the contiguous unallocated precinct with the largest population that won't increase the population of the district over A.
- If no such contiguous unallocated precinct is left, choose the contiguous unallocated precinct with the smallest population.
- If there is no contiguous unallocated precinct left, choose the closest noncontiguous unallocated precinct. There needs to be some automatic rule to deal with ties in population and ties in distance.
- Repeat until all precincts are allocated to districts.
If the same objective, observable, repeatable rule is applied in all states, then the exact rule doesn't matter so much because it will favor one party in some states and the other party in other states, with no overwhelming net benefit to either side.
The Supreme Court's one-man-one-vote rulings would still curb any state legislatures that tried to game the system by defining really odd precinct boundaries for Federal elections.
The net effect would be that redistricting would be fair, on the whole, across the nation; local special cases that affect state legislature gerrymandering would not figure in. Although the chosen algorithm could favor incumbents as one criterion, not doing so would eliminate much of the need for Congressional term limits, I think (the Senate is another matter). Although these changes might be possible in principle without a Constitutional Amendment, it would probably be a good idea to accomplish them in that way.
The states would still have responsibility for their own legislative districts.
The problem for any such proposal is that legislators, state or federal, hate to take their hands off the mechanism to get it to veer one way or another, and generally they don't like to move the manipulation from the back room to the public light. They need to earn their re-election campaign contributions from their big supporters - also see the discussion of tax reform below. And they hate to lose their seats to redistricting.
Eric Holder will lead the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
In the broader context of moving past the Electoral College, it would be fair to add a permanent House seat for US citizens in DC and US territories and US Nationals that don't meet the residence requirements to vote in any state - what was that line about taxation without representation? It would be even fairer to collectively grant them the same representation as a state.
But that won't happen. DC and Puerto Rico would predictably vote Democratic. Worse yet, they are mostly not white and anglo. So there is zero chance that Republican Congress and state legislatures would grant them the same representation in the House and Senate that they deserve based on population.
Fun Facts: A US National is not the same as a US Citizen. The 17 residents of Swains Island are US Nationals and not US Citizens, along with American Samoans. By the way, the Guano Islands Act is still in effect. That might complicate the US position with respect to China's newly created Guano Islands in the South China Sea.
Total population of Federal territories is 4.4 million, about the same as Kentucky, which has six House seats. Of the 4.4 million, 3.4 million are in Puerto Rico, about the same as Connecticut, which has five House seats. 672 thousand are in DC, about the same as Vermont, which has one House seat. 372 thousand are in Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Northern Marianas, altogether about 2/3 the population of the smallest state, Wyoming, which has one House seat.
Although the House has gotten beyond apportionment based on counting some persons as 3/5 of others, I think it would be salutary for the nation and voter registration and turnout if House seats were proportioned among states according to total votes cast in the last election rather than according to a total population counting those denied suffrage for various reasons. That would require a constitutional amendment.
Maybe it's like the first 70 years of the republic, where free and slave, I mean blue and red, states had to be admitted in pairs. So no legislative rights for Federal territories unless there's an additional red state created, like West Texas or West Florida.
One wonders how DC ever obtained the right to three predictably Democratic electoral votes. The history of the 23rd Amendment is enlightening because it was proposed and adopted in a era of bipartisanship unimaginable now. The amendment was endorsed by Eisenhower, Nixon, and Kennedy, and ratified in 1961. But the end game is the most revealing part:
Ratification was completed on March 29, 1961, 9 months and 12 days after being proposed by Congress. The amendment was subsequently ratified by the following states: 39. New Hampshire - March 30, 1961 40. Alabama - April 11, 2002 The amendment was rejected by Arkansas on January 24, 1961. Nine states took no action on the amendment: Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia.
This was before Nixon developed his Southern Strategy - the southern states were all solidly Democratic back then, so they weren't objecting to the Democratic politics in DC. Looks like racism, pure and simple. I wonder what Jeff Sessions thought about Alabama's getting on board 40 years late. (More important though is what Sessions thinks about Brown v Board, and about repealing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. His record is mixed but he was an early Trump supporter.)
Most voters say that Congress is doing a lousy job, but then they generally vote to return incumbents. Part of the problem is that vital military and economic national security projects happen in my district, and pork barrel waste and fraud in yours. I take principled stands against unwise decisions, while you impede progress with bare-faced partisanship. Voters seem to buy the argument that the problem is in somebody else's district.
Fewer vote in the midterm elections than in the general election. It seems to me that the composition of the House and Senate is much more important than the White House. But a presidential race captures the simultaneous attention of the whole nation, and seduces it with the notion that voting for one person can change things somehow. Real representative democracy is a lot more work, and starts with the Representatives.
I suspect the ultimate problem with real representative democracy is that normal people are not much interested in politics most of the time. Even the president-elect finds the details boring! People just want somebody to go to Washington/Sacramento/City Hall and "fix the problem." Of course the real problem is that normal people don't want to deal with the messy complicated details, so politicians promise to take care of things, and never do, because they can't. Besides, if they fixed the problem, what would they run on next time? Nothing much has changed since Josiah Gilbert Holland's time.
This is also why continuous revolution models of governance like China in the 1960's and France in the 1790's don't last long.
Until the extent of Putin hacking into the 2016 election was revealed, I would have said the greatest threat to American representative democracy was single-issue voters. They elect single-issue legislators who faithfully deliver on their single issue and then can get into to unsupervised mischief the rest of the time... as dramatized in Charlie Wilson's War.
One of the points that struck me about the movie was that the only characters I could empathize with were the Soviet gunship crews who were so much like their American counterparts in Vietnam.
The book that explained to me why nobody ever wins in Afghanistan is The Places in Between, Rory Stewart's account of surviving what no Afghan could: walking alone and unarmed across the country.
That book also illuminated why the Soviet Union fell: after their Afghan experience fighting the Taliban that Wilson and Reagan armed, observing the relative birth rates in Russia vs the traditionally Muslim Asiatic republic-stans, the Russians realized they would soon be a minority in their own country. A minority under an Asiatic majority on which Communist ideology was a very thin and deteriorating veneer, losing ground to the worldwide rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Subsequent Putin ideology confirms the hypothesis: after all the Soviet sacrifices in the Great Patriotic War against National Socialism in the 1940's, the end game was to abandon International Socialism in favor of Putin's own National Socialism.
Ronald Reagan only gets credit for the fall of the Soviet Union if he also gets credit for arming the Taliban and 9/11. But Hollywood might have played a minor role along the edges of the iron curtain, where people could watch European broadcasts of stupid American sitcoms that displayed as unexceptional a level of material comfort that Communists could only fantasize about. Do not under-estimate the cumulative impact of that implicit vision of material comfort vs explicit political propaganda, which probably had comparatively little effect. It's the economy, stupid!
Single-issue politics depends on ideology:
Marx is famous for "religion is the opiate of the masses". Its fuller context is more positive:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Religion is not the opiate of the ruling classes, however. Aside from a few oblique references to ancient fertility cults, the oldest religion spelled out in the Bible is a simple creed that I call Jobs-Friends-ism (theologians probably have a better label). It's espoused by his friends in the book of Job, which is older than Judaism since it contains no references to Judaism. Old as it is, Jobs-Friends-ism never goes out of style:
It's a very simple creed, and beloved by the rich and powerful in all places and times, even though they might make a show of nominal commitment to some more complicated belief system. This simple creed is contrary to Hebrew scripture, contrary to Christian scripture, and may well be contrary to Islam for all I know. Anyway the adherents to this simple creed are not disturbed by poverty or illness of other people, and espouse policies to "discourage dependency" and let those other people figure out their own solutions.
- God is good and loves good people and rewards them.
- God hates evil and bad people and punishes them.
- THEREFORE if you are poor or sick, it's fine because it's God's will to punish you for your sins. Who dares oppose God's will?
The same kind of people are also attracted to the prosperity gospel which is another way of blaming the poor and sick for being poor, compounded by schemes to take from them even what little they have.
I believe in free will: the history of the world is not fixed in advance but is mutable by human choices and action. Not everybody agrees: if you're rich and powerful, you might prefer to preach that your outcome was predestined before you were born.
And there are always preachers who will preach what you want to hear: as Louis Lomax explained it, Southern preachers soothed white consciences about racial matters with a refrain as old as established religion: "Come to church! Bring money! We'll take care of it!"
And that's why the First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Combined church and state might be the government of heaven, but it's certainly the government of hell. There was plenty of European experience to draw upon to see that when church and state prostitute themselves together, both are diminished. It's a lesson still to be learned in much of the world.
But it's a shame Marx didn't live long enough to see modern communism and fascism; perhaps he would have been led to generalize his pithy quotation like this:
Ideology is the means by which the ruling classes get the masses to act against their own interests.
It's always fascinated me how the rich Southern slave-owners got the poor free whites to fight for them, despite that even an elementary study of economics shows that slave black labor reduces the value of free white labor.
There's a reason elementary study of economics was uncommon. In 1917, Mississippi inductees reporting to Camp Shelby mostly needed remedial literacy, but mostly needed no remedial marksmanship. Twenty years later my father was in the first Mississippi generation to attend a rural consolidated public high school.
While leading the Future Farmers club at that high school, my father would occasionally proselytize modern farming methods to his neighbors, such as contour plowing. One neighbor listened politely and then said that contour plowing wasn't in Scripture so he wasn't going to do it. That straight-plowing farmer's descendants are probably growing pulp and running cattle, which is about all you can do in that part of Mississippi with cotton-worn land.
But my favorite (presumably apocryphal) Southern Baptist story has a city slicker asking a backwoodsman if he believed in infant baptism. The backwoodsman replied "Believe it? Hell, I've seen it DONE!"
The original Confederate conscription law exempted men who owned 20 or more slaves. As one of my ancestors observed, "it's a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." He was unwillingly conscripted anyway, but luckily survived the siege of Vicksburg.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 alarmed the officers of the ruling classes as to the consequences if the common soldiers figured out who their real enemy was, and so was commemorated on subsequent Christmases by continuous artillery barrages in the hope of preventing a recurrence. Opera San Jose's production of the story will be seen in February.
The modern equivalent of a rich man's war and a poor man's fight is Trump's nominating a cabinet of billionaires to implement his populist promises... perhaps. The masses get their circus - admiring Trump from a distance, while the billionaires get more billions. Trump sounded as many single-issue voter themes as possible (abortion, gun control, US embassy to Jerusalem, opposition to Castro, etc.) that he's never shown much interest in, in order to get the masses on board.
I recall a discussion with an auto repair shop owner in the late 1970's when Oregon was debating its version of California's Proposition 13. I pointed out how the proposal was actually inimical to his interests, but he told me the important thing was to "send a message to Salem." I guess he did, but perhaps it was interpreted differently than he supposed.
A couple of signs of budding despotism are starting wars as a distraction, and changing the rules so nobody else can get to power the same way the despot did. Trump has already promised to change the libel laws so rich public figures can sue for libel and thereby suppress criticism whether libelous or not. No idle threat - as the NYT reported, "[Friedman's firm] represented Mr. Trump in his unsuccessful libel lawsuit against a former New York Times reporter, Timothy L. O'Brien, and [Friedman's firm's] founding partner, Marc E. Kasowitz, twice this year threatened to sue The Times in relation to articles it was preparing regarding Mr. Trump's treatment of women and income tax returns."
As for foreign wars, it seems likely that starting January 20, seeing America's former allies reeling in confusion and uncertainty about the administration's intentions, our adversaries in Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Islamic State, Libya - and even friendlier states that we might have restrained in the past like Israel and India - will start seeing what they can get away with. So the odds are that Trump will not need to start a foreign war, he'll get one with no effort.
And then, back to the masses and ideology: some people assert a citizen's duty to fight to defend his country, but does anybody ever assert a duty to fight to defend his country's current administration? Yet many wars are wars of administration survival rather than national survival. The best recent real-life example was the Falkland Islands War. The governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom backed themselves into corners where they would fall to their worst enemies - the domestic opposition - unless they started a foreign war over some very remote real estate involving very few people and nobody's essential national interest. So lots of soldiers, sailors, and civilians were killed or injured until the Argentine government finally fell. Probably more people are familiar with the fictional Wag the Dog.
So what happens when a despot fails to deliver on his promises, as always happens? Then scapegoats have to and will be found! This was best explained to me in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.
Sounds like a good idea at first, but there's a downside. In Jefferson's time, most of the legislators knew enough about most of the topics they argued.
Jefferson benefited from slave labor, and might have had more time to study political topics. Yet he was deep in debt to foreign bankers most of his life, and died bankrupt. That did not keep him from writing about national debt and banking.
So there's distant precedent for Trump's financial woes as reported in the NYT: "Mr. Friedman, has done legal work for Mr. Trump since at least 2001, when he handled negotiations with bondholders on Mr. Trump's struggling casinos in Atlantic City. Mr. Friedman represented Mr. Trump's personal interests in the bankruptcies of the casinos in 2004, 2009 and 2014." Has any other president needed a bankruptcy lawyer in an ongoing basis?
Hardly anybody understood money, now, in Jefferson's day, or in between. How would bimetallism actually work in practice? Nonetheless Bryan's Cross of Gold speech is still as thrilling to read today as it was in 1896. Thrilling but shaky logical ground.
Nowadays, I would be surprised if 1% of Congress members can do their own tax returns, repair their own cars, or reinstall their own operating systems. Yet they feel empowered to vote on extremely complex technical and financial matters. So if they can't figure those matters out, to whom do they turn for advice?
Under the present system, Congress members from reliable districts can return to Congress over and over until they learn something about one small area of Federal policy. Not all bother to take the time away from fundraising, but they could. If they only have a few years, they will have to turn to the experts... the lobbyists. Would that really be any less corrupt than what we have now?
If there were term limits, I'd suggest one eight year term for president and senators, and two four year terms for representatives, who would thus be the only ones worried about raising funds for re-election: But would you want term limits on your dentist or auto mechanic?
I don't think equal protection and free speech are about "one dollar one vote" and, more generally, would prefer an explicit constitutional amendment stating that artificial persons (e.g. corporations and trusts and unions and foreign governments) do not have inalienable rights endowed by the Creator, only privileges granted or withdrawn for the public good. In particular, the rights of free speech and privacy held by natural persons do not accrue to corporations, especially in the form of unlimited anonymous direct or indirect political contributions to Federal, state, or local campaigns, political parties, or initiative/recall/referendum.
What's the Golden Rule of politics? I heard it from the Wizard of Id: "He who has the gold makes the rules", but it dates back at least to Rousseau: "Le riche tient la loi dans sa bourse", and forward at least as far as Jesse Unruh: "Money is the mother's milk of politics".
What about that other Golden Rule that is supposed to govern Christian life? Professional politicians and professional soldiers eventually learn that tides ebb as well as flow, and when the tide turns against you, your opponents might not treat you as well as you treated them, but they certainly won't treat you better. So there's a reason why some German commanders declined to promulgate Hitler's Commando Order.
Amateur politicians and soldiers are more likely to feel their cause not merely just, but in service to God or History, and so opponents are not worthy of any more than subjugation or even extermination. Take no prisoners, make no compromises. This attitude enables their manipulation by more cynical leaders. Even Mitch McConnell has to remind them: "It's always a mistake to misread your mandate. And frequently new majorities think it's going to be forever. Nothing is forever in this country. We have an election every two years right on schedule. We have had since 1788. And so I don't think we should act as if we're going to be in the majority forever."
Richard Arenberg has argued that filibuster should be preserved. I don't buy it.
The original meaning of the word was a private military invasion of a country with which the United States was not at war. Sometimes these were accompanied by proclamations of noble intent but usually the goal was some private advantage. Nowadays we call this "terrorism."
In my formative years, filibuster had come to mean a Dixiecrat Senator standing up willing to talk for the rest of his life to preserve segregation. To keep going, they would read Scripture or the phone book to avoid yielding the floor and allowing a vote. The Senate first adopted a method to limit debate in 1917, but the current rule was adopted in 1975, requiring a 60% vote to limit debate.
I don't see the need to actually have physical strength marathons. The Senate could simply adopt a rule that a 60% majority is required to pass legislation or confirm nominees, but only a 50% majority is required for parliamentary procedure motions. Whatever minority protection is valuable is retained, along with the minority ability to prevent any action and continue to justify the public's cynicism about Congress. The Senate has the power to change its rules; no constitutional amendment is required. But Democratic senators should not approve any filibuster change until Merrick Garland is confirmed.
Another way of preserving some minority rights is to operate with 50% most of the time but allow each senator one chance per year to pick one bill and demand 60% to pass that bill. That would depend on a spirit of collegiality that might or might not survive (otherwise slightly different versions of the annoying bill might be brought forward until all the opposition had used up their quota of 60%'s.)
The previous comments about ideology apply to fundamental political ideology. Any conservative will tell you that the great myth of the left is that government always can do better for individuals than they can do for themselves.
They are not so clear on the great myth of the right: that individuals can do better than the government on most issues of modern life. It's only true that some individuals can do better than the government on some issues. The remarks above about members of Congress that can't do their own taxes, repair their own cars, or reinstall their own operating systems suggests the limitations of individual competence in a complex modern world.
Since a corporation with one million dollars in capitalization can easily do a billion dollars in damage to people who it never paid for the privilege, remedies after the fact avail little. Hundreds of superfund sites prove that. We depend on the government (who else) to apply some prior restraint on behavior.
There are those that think that Federal overreach is crippling the economy, and it certainly cripples some roads to riches. And I agree to the extent that I like "fresh and local" - so if a company has all its owners and all its employees and all its business operations and all its pollution in Kentucky, then the Feds can butt out and let the state of Kentucky try to regulate that company. But to maintain a balance of power, a national company needs a national regulator, and a global company needs a global regulator.
ACA: Jefferson didn't have the opportunity to buy health insurance. Any that is offered to the modern citizen will come from some kind of large organization that will take its cut in overhead. Does anybody think that this large organization will do better if its medical decisions are made by anonymous bureaucrats on Wall St, compared to anonymous bureaucrats in Washington?
To avoid the middleman, you shouldn't buy insurance for risks you can insure yourself. So rich people don't have to buy any insurance from anybody - and they set up corporations with limited liability to take their billion-dollar business risks so their personal fortunes are not endangered. Naturally they see no point in participating in insurance pools that only benefit persons of lesser means. And besides - why try to thwart God's will - see the discussion of Jobs-Friends-ism theology above. There are lots of rich people in the world that don't have a problem with poor people dying in the street.
A lot of government is really insurance of some sort. Everybody pays a little so nobody pays a lot. There is plenty of room for petty mischief in such a system, but we tolerate a certain amount of friction to avoid catastrophic losses. We don't allow people to not pay taxes to support the police, even though most people will never require direct police assistance. (In contrast, there may still be a few rural places left where fire protection is optional. If your unprotected house catches fire, the fire company will arrive to watch your house burn and make sure it doesn't spread to nearby protected houses.)
At one of my employers, one of the recurrent employee questions was "why don't we have a dental plan" and the answer was "most employees don't want it." The response then "why don't we have an optional dental plan" and the answer was "only people with major dental issues would join an optional plan, so it would cost as much as going uninsured, so nobody would join."
It turns out the Trump constituencies weren't quite as impressive as all that - amounting to less than 70,000 votes in the right places, and an electoral college margin in the bottom quartile. But the First Trump Constituency is those who feel left out of the economic recovery - such as the middle-aged high-school diplomates that used to make a good living in manufacturing or mining. They don't see any recovery in their lives.
The economic recovery is going great elsewhere, as anybody who tries to commute to work in Silicon Valley is well aware. There are lots of jobs going begging out here - in two tiers:
As for inventing the future, the significance of a new technology can't be fully judged until we see how criminals, terrorists, spies, and police states exploit it. Cheap plentiful ground, sea, and air drones will certainly level the playing field between terrorists and governments. Islamic State forces are already using commodity air drones in the defense of Mosul.
In my middle school days, the joke was "Jack Kennedy was elected in 1960, and it will be Bobby in 1968, and the Teddy in 1976, and then it will be 1984..." The novel 1984 was based on a structure of two-way television surveillance that wasn't ready in the actual year 1984, but the enabling technology was underway... the internet protocol was defined in 1974 and the web in 1989. Originally conceived as a federation of free independent printing presses for high energy physicists to exchange data, the web is on track to become the social control mechanism that was missing in 1984. That's what the Internet of Things is going to be all about. Devices like Amazon Echo are always listening, always reporting what it hears back to the cloud. But the data won't be used for any unintended use - we have the assurances of numerous Marketing Vice Presidents that the data will only be used for the purposes for which it was gathered. Julian Assange has led the way in showing how data can be used.
And although that government does not conduct referenda, it would not surprise me if a majority of Chinese citizens support the Great Firewall: too much social turmoil and dissension is bad for business and weakens China against foreign powers.
To those ends, one can easily imagine that China, Russia, and India have incentive to develop their own PC and smartphone CPU's and Amazon Echo's, in order to be sure that the only backdoors are the ones they put in themselves.
Trump thinks he's safe from hacking because he doesn't use computers. Evidently "how smart phones work" can be added to the list of things he doesn't know about, along with "how modern cars work" and "how modern aircraft fly."
Not many restaurants can increase wages on their own and survive a brutal competitive environment. But if the minimum wage were increased, the playing field would still be level. That's the positive social upside of minimum wage laws. The downside shows up in the next recession as businesses decide how many employees to cut.
And as the Mercury reported, even the local local Postal Service can't retain employees, and they pay somewhat higher than minimum wage and with some benefits.
But whether they get the minimum wage or not, low-end workers need to be aware that the future that the technologists mentioned above are inventing is a future with much less need for low-end labor. Robots powered by artificial intelligence can do many boring or dangerous low-skill tasks and some surprisingly complex ones; for instance, they're already getting close to being able to drive cars in heavy rush-hour traffic on dilapidated roads. Increasing the minimum wage makes those robots economical sooner. That's the other social downside of minimum wages.
H. G. Wells imagined a dystopian future evolved from a class system in his novel The Time Machine.
What can be done for those left-behind workers who don't want or can't get either of those jobs? They voted for Obama because he promised change. They voted for Trump because he promised change.
But nothing can be done to undo automation. Thus if all environmental restraints on burning coal for electricity were removed - something that even China now realizes is literally suicide - and oil and gas and imported coal were taxed until domestic coal were economically competitive, that would just make it worthwhile for coal companies to invest in automation. If we can take ISIS leaders out of Iraq with drones controlled in the Pentagon, we can take coal out of Kentucky with robots controlled wherever labor is cheapest. And not much labor at that. Automating out of existence dangerous back-breaking work is a good thing. But the coal country culture that its survivors so keenly miss is gone forever - just like the business of RISC/Unix workstations where I spent my career. I have to keep reminding myself: don't be Norma Desmond.
When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers. --- Oscar Wilde
I wonder if Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson could agree on a common set of principles for making the benefits of the economic recovery more widely felt, particularly among those left-behind workers who voted for Obama and then Trump. But I suspect that the workers we are talking about are mostly uninterested in relocating or in higher education for a completely new career in which they would be competing with younger workers, so those unknown principles should probably be broader than that.
According to a recent poll, the ideology of the left-behind worker Trump supporters resembles neither traditional Republican nor Libertarian ideology, but is highly nationalist and socialist: they are against welfare and Obamacare, but they seem to believe that its ideological progenitors, Social Security and Medicare, should be expanded; they're not so much against Federal overreach as in favor of massive Federal infrastructure public works spending. So the philosophical principles to apply are not obvious - but maybe if the ideologues could come to some agreement, perhaps Congress could try to translate those principles into bipartisan legislation. But I'm not holding my breath.
A presidency founded on systematic character faults like lying, spreading unsubstantiated rumors, or exposing private citizens to death threats, and on endorsement by the KGB and the KKK. Is that what Americans really want?
The Americans that do want those comprise the Second Trump Constituency: those who love Trump because he legitimizes conflating feelings with facts, ignoring factual correction, consistency, ignorance, prejudice, manipulation, lying, and bullying. To them, that's a breath of fresh air, rather than the epitome of what's wrong with political discourse today. Does pizzagate have to be the new normal? Trump's example lowers the bar for political discourse - lower than it's been in my lifetime. That's why I am opposed to Trump, but others have different priorities.
Müss'ges Wissen wahren manche: ich weiss mir grade genug; mir genügt mein Witz, ich will nicht mehr.
There are those who love Trump because "he says what he thinks," or at least what he feels, like they'd always wanted to do. Perhaps they felt stifled by "political correctness," by which they seem to encompass truthfulness, consistency, politeness, and empathy as well, and they have been liberated at last by Breitbart, Alex Jones, and Carl Paladino, all of whom Trump counts as friends; and even if he won't always publicly endorse everything they say, he hasn't seen fit to twitter any objections to anything any of them have said.
Perhaps Trump's storm troopers will eventually tire of working for no tangible reward. Perhaps they will enjoy it too much to ever back off, even when he asks: trump-tries-to-calm-his-vicious-violent-screaming-supporters. Maybe Trump figures their work is done so they should settle down: the-cowardly-gop.
Like the first group, these workers are nationalist and socialist, so maybe they would just as soon rename the Republican Party to the National Socialist Workers Party. Since that's a mouthful, perhaps they can think of a catchier shorter name.
In the 1930's, the terrorists of the left claimed that the terrorists of the right were doing a bunch of nasty things that were actually the things that the terrorists of the left were doing - and vice versa. Maybe that's not a rocket science observation since they were both using the same sorts of disinformation and character assassination tactics. As the leader of the right said, "Nobody will care whether the victor told the truth."
Though never exactly, history does repeat itself. Recently the first word from the disinformation industry was that the pizzagate attack was a false flag from the left. If so, the perpetrator didn't seem to be aware of it.
How can one tell responsible journalism from agitprop?
Whatever happened to bipartisanship? Let's blame the loss on Tricky Dick and his tricky Southern Strategy, which was basically to combine the flat-earth Birchers with the racist former Dixiecrats and Wallace supporters, but without being explicit about the racism - in order to retain the liberal Republicans and their money.
What was it like before? Liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats had to reach across the aisle to make any progress, and likewise conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats. 50 years ago I learned that one of the strengths of our two-party system was that ethnic/social/religious groups did not feel obliged to affiliate with one party or the other but might feel comfortable in both.
Not any more. There aren't any liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats left. No bipartisanship either, although elections are still decided by the middle 20% of voters who might vote either way.
At least in California, many voters call themselves "independent" or "unaffiliated." In other places, I suppose most voters never change party affiliations. While I used to try to consider the merits of all candidates, especially third party candidates, after the 2000 election I deemed that a luxury I could no longer afford, and since then I have voted a straight Democratic ticket.
An older example is the bipartisan Base Realignment and Closure Commissions which had some success up until 2005 but not since.
A more recent example is Simpson-Bowles. There is bipartisan agreement that continued deficit spending is an unconscionable tax on future generations to support our over-consumption. A bipartisan commission was formed, studied the matter, and issued a report with recommendations. Everybody who could do anything about it agreed that it was a good start, but nobody started. They are all waiting for the other guys to start and take the heat for the unpopular choices that have to be made, and then the waiters could "reluctantly" go along... or just oppose without proposing any plausible alternative. They all implicitly agreed to kick the can down the road to some future time when the issues could no longer be avoided. Good partisanship, lousy statesmanship. No need for a new edition of Profiles in Courage. At least the can kicking is bipartisan. But as Paul Krugman comments, deficits matter again as the economy approaches full employment.
One of the biggest issues facing state and local government is funding defined-benefit pensions, often enshrined in public employee union contracts. A defined-benefit pension plan promises to pay a certain amount to qualified retirees as long as they live, independent of the actual amount contributed by the retiree and by the employer. No actual funds need to be set aside to pay the promised benefits, and there's the rub. In recent years in California, San Bernardino, Stockton, and Vallejo are among the cities that have gone bankrupt and voided union pension plans that they had no means to fulfill. San Jose and many other cities are struggling to avoid that fate. State and local governments can't print money and can't raise taxes very easily. That's partly because most taxpayers don't have defined-benefit pensions; they disappeared from the private sector along with unionization long ago. The benefit is defined in advance; the means of paying the benefit is left to an unknown future. And typically, for political reasons, overly optimistic assumptions are made about the unknown future that can't possibly come true. The optimistic assumptions could be viewed as defects, but they seem to be baked into the system by the collective bargaining process. Then when the unknown future arrives, its taxpayers must shoulder the tax burden to support the previous generation of public employees, or the government entity has to declare bankruptcy to get out of the pension burden. It's not easy to get the legislature to act.
Instead of defined-benefit plans, most taxpayers have the option of contributing part of their pay to defined-contribution pensions like IRA's, 401k's, 403b's, etc... there are way too many flavors of such plans, similar but slightly different, testimony to lobbyist powers I suppose. Employers can contribute to such plans as well, but it's mostly up to the employees. The contribution is defined now; the benefit is left to an unknown future; most such plans allow the employee some control over how the money is invested (and that allows most employers to avoid liability for bad choices).
Defined-contribution plans have the advantage that they are funded now for future benefits. They don't impose an unknown burden on future generations. Eventually newly-hired public employees probably only have defined-contribution plans. Their union representatives should get out of the business of endorsing unrealistic investment results and into the business of insuring that employees take full advantage of retirement contribution options and that employers pay the employees enough so that they can afford to do so.
Social Security is even more egregious. Besides being a defined-benefit plan, it's also a Ponzi scheme; each working generation pays for the previous generation's benefits. That's fine as long as each generation is larger, but that is not going to be the case after the baby boomers finish retiring and will be worse if immigration is controlled.
Everybody who's studied the matter understands that something will have to be done about Social Security; the present benefit schedule can't be maintained. But nobody who can do anything about it is willing to take the lead.
So was Social Security a giant con game or a brilliant device to save democratic government at a time (1930's - but much like our own) when economic malaise was so widespread that democracies were falling left and right to left-wing and right-wing dictatorships?
What happens if everybody gets serious about funding their own retirement? Historically the best long-term investment has been the stock market; unimaginative individual investors who simply buy (by dollar-cost-averaging) and hold no load target date mutual funds (throwing away the quarterly statements), will outperform most professional money managers.
I always figured the superior long-term return of the stock market - for buy and hold individual investors - was funded by social individual investors who bought high when their friends were buying and sold low when their friend were selling. However the modern stock market is so dominated by institutional and automated trading that individual investors hardly matter any more. So I need a new theory.
What if everybody gets smart about their retirement and invests in appropriate no-load target date mutual funds, which pretty much become index funds? Are there enough common stocks to support all that investment without bidding prices up so high that other investments become better choices? Perhaps time will tell.
The experience of a lifetime is that whenever legislators speak of "tax simplification" they really mean "tax complication." The tax code is always longer after they simplify it.
Sure, they might reduce the number of brackets, but for almost all salaried individual taxpayers, that's not any simpler because their taxes could be computed automatically from their W-2's and 1099's, refunds issued or balance due billed. Why doesn't Congress just authorize the IRS to do that?
The real "simplification" that increases the internal revenue code affects a tiny fraction of rather important taxpayers. There are no loopholes in the Internal Revenue Code, just vital job-creation provisions. If the vital job-creation aspect of some obscure clause isn't immediately apparent, just try to repeal it and then you'll find out who's behind it and who's carrying their water in Congress. Most individual taxpayers don't have any clue about passive loss limitations, at-risk limitations, accelerated vs straight-line depreciation (how can real estate depreciate? I've never seen that over any extended period of time), intangible drilling costs, oil and gas depletion, R&D tax credits, investment tax credits, 1031 exchanges, net operating loss, bargain element of incentive stock options, alternative minimum tax... but this complexity is the bread and butter of tax law hacking. And the best part is, the legislators don't actually have to understand it, because lobbyists write the legislation for them and accountants write their tax returns for them! There oughtta be a law...
In Silicon Valley we are very familiar with the difference between architecture and implementation. But most legislators have never read The Mythical Man-Month and wouldn't grasp its significance if they did. A simpler way of stating its thesis is "too many cooks spoil the broth". Whether architecting a cathedral or a computer operating system or database or complex technical legislation, the overall plan has to be the province of a few or preferably one architect. The implementation - the actual building of the cathedral or software or legislation - necessarily involves many hands, but the implementation deviates from the plan of the architect only at great risk to its overall integrity and ability to meet its design goals.
When it comes to tax law, no politician can restrain himself from implementing whatever his clients consider important, regardless of the overall plan of the architect - if there is any. That's how tax law gets more and more complicated every time it gets "simplified." Each "simplification" is essential career-security for the politician. And your simplification and my simplification interact in ways that we never considered. The end result is micro-optimization and the overall architected goals are never achieved.
It seems to me the ideal tax is a flat tax on disposable income. That concept is at such a high level that it doesn't really qualify as architecture, however. Deciding what constitutes disposable income as a set of principles constitutes architecture; drafting legislation accordingly counts as implementation.
In 1991, during a previous episode of "tax simplification," I wrote up a number of suggestions on tax reform but it was wasted effort. Whether my suggestions were good or bad, nobody cared, perhaps because they already had their marching orders. Remarkably little has changed since then.
Like base closure and deficit reduction, the only way to genuine tax reform seems to be for professional politicians to specify overall goals and then defer to experts who understand the economics to define an architecture, and then return the ball to the politicians to implement the architecture in legislation rather than undermine it. I don't expect that to happen in my lifetime.
Only a very small percentage of taxpayers leave an estate of five million dollars or more - ten million for married couples. They are the only ones who need to be concerned about the Federal unified estate and gift tax. But the Republicans like to talk about repealing the "death tax" as if that would be a great boon to the working man. In fact repeal is just a gift to the wealthy donors to political campaigns. The real point of the estate tax is to continually re-level the playing field for new generations who were not born into wealthy families - it's a move toward equality and away from liberty, part of the eternal tension between these conflicting ideals.
Corporate income tax is a knottier problem. What's the point anyway? To the extent that corporate earnings are distributed to taxable individuals, there's no need to tax them twice. But what about retained earnings and earnings distributed to non-taxable entities and foreigners? Some of the far-reaching complications of any change are laid out by Neil Irwin and Lawrence Summers. Tinkering with complex systems almost never works as intended.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
That's the Second Amendment. There are those that think the wording about militias is just an introduction and the normative part, to be taken literally, is this:
The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
I have bolded certain key words:
I think even most Second Amendment advocates would not go so far as to assert that the Constitution requires that terrorists be admitted to NRA conventions bearing biological weapons, and that no prior restraint on their activity is permissible, only punishment after they break the law - a pointless punishment if they were suicide terrorists. It's another case where modern technology magnifies a small investment into huge damages, with nobody to recover the damages from. In 1787, it was not possible for one terrorist to kill dozens of people in a crowded theatre or legislature or public transportation before being overcome by even unarmed citizens.
So there must be some reasonable prior restraint available - and who decides what's reasonable? It must be the government: executive, legislative, and judicial. Once it's granted that government has to decide what prior restraint applies, then there's no big constitutional question to consider, just the normal give and take of democratic politics. Maybe those first words of the amendment about the militia are important after all, to define the scope of reasonable and unreasonable prior restraint, in the context of judicial review.
What does a well-regulated militia need to secure a free State? The Posse Comitatus Act was designed, as part of the Corrupt Bargain of 1877, to prevent Federal military intervention against Southern segregation. So the Army can't be used to enforce Federal or state law within the United States. That leaves state and local authorities to enforce their laws, through normal police, or in extreme cases, by calling out the militia (National Guard). They don't need national defense weapons, just what they need to enforce the law against their own citizens. That seems to adequately circumscribe the scope of the Second Amendment.
Anybody running for President should first see the musical Assassins and contemplated the total irrelevance of the President's politics or personal characteristics... the assassins are only trying to prove themselves worthy of the love of... Emma Goldman, Jodie Foster, Charles Manson, or ... and everybody has the right to be happy, don't they? Or at least to pursue happiness? Isn't that the point of the Second Amendment?
Everybody made fun of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility but the play Assassins emphasizes, through its stories of pathetic losers who finally make the world pay attention, how much lack of self-esteem has to do with both assassins and suicide bombers. Do pathetic losers have the right to kill as many people as they can in their pursuit of happiness?
And now for something really controversial; you can't have a Beer Hall Putsch without the Beer:
One hundred years ago, all beer was fresh and local: locally owned, locally brewed, locally distributed. Then a great consolidation occurred as refrigeration and fast transportation and mass media created the possibility and then the reality of national brands.
But more recently there's been a renaissance of craft beer. I still define craft beer as fresh and local: locally owned, locally brewed, locally distributed. Though "locally distributed" might mean a larger locale than in times past - encompassing the West Coast, for instance, where craft beers from San Diego to Portland freely cooperate and compete.
Though an ideal craft brewery has an attached brewpub with an interesting menu and a family atmosphere, some craft brewers do manage to escape to the next level without being acquired by Anheuser Busch or Miller-Coors. Thus former California craft brewers Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada have breweries in geographically and politically distant lands, as does New Belgium. Congratulations on making it to the big time, and the brewpubs in Petaluma and Chico and Ft Collins are wonderful, but they are no longer craft brewers. Deschutes is also getting there with breweries in Bend and Portland. Fortunately there are plenty of others to fill their niche: Stone, Indian Springs, Kern River, Mountain Rambler, Mammoth, Firestone-Walker, Faultline, Speakeasy, Bear Republic, Brewery at Lake Tahoe, Auburn Ale House, Ninkasi, are a few that come to my mind. I think they all still meet my definition - but it's a very fluid business. Coming from Silicon Valley, I well recognize the temptation to cash out when an attractive offer comes along.
I don't read blogs and especially their online commentaries. To see why, take a quick look at the last one I tried: washington-post-still-beating-the-the-electoral-college-can-do-something-drum. One guy called Michael Cannon a liberal! Another guy corrected him - Cannon is with the Cato Institute! The first guy ignored the factual correction and stuck to his guns - that guy truly belongs in the "basket of deplorables". Who has time to wade through this sort of thing?
Next thing you know, somebody will be calling George Will a sore loser
liberal Democrat for opposing the Sessions nomination over civil forfeiture:
I have always been pleased by the role that San Jose Mercury News
investigative reporters played in ending the worst abuses of civil forfeiture
in California many years ago. Those articles are not available in the
free online Mercury but one is cited (ref #4) in
a place I might not usually look.
The commentaries above contain
many explicit and implicit references to historical theatre,
usually opera, because I spend more time in opera houses than in history
museums. But art, particularly theatre, is not history.
Historical theatre and historical fiction typically reflect the impact of
great public events on the private lives of individuals.
So when one hears a good story
in a specific historical setting, it can be an inspiration to look up the
real history, which is often much more complicated.
I mention this because many students find history boring and remote from
Anna Bolena - Maria Stuarda - Roberto Devereux,
Ballad of Baby Doe,
Heart of a Soldier,
Musical theatre like Hamilton, 1776, Amadeus...
Novels like Darkness at Noon and Radetzky March...
Then there is other art which is explicitly mythic and
not tied to any particular time or place -
Wagner's Ring and Mozart's Magic Flute being prime operatic examples.
Like all great art, it reflects back what the viewer needs to see in
the viewer's particular time and place.
And speaking of the Magic Flute, if you look at the
currency in your wallet, all the portraits are men very much influenced by
the Enlightenment of the 18th century and in particular by its manifestation
in Freemasonry. Not surprisingly there was an
which was surprisingly influential in establishing partisan American politics
as we know it now.
Conspiracy theories are easy to imagine, but hard to prove and harder
to disprove - so lots of politicians exploit them
to explain why they should be elected and then why they
were then unable to fulfill any of their promises.
The conspiracy-theorist fault line runs from the Anti-Masons to the Whigs
to the Know-Nothings to the Bimetallist Democrats to Joe McCarthy to
Steven Bannon to Donald Trump.
When people researched the Federalist papers to justify the Hamilton
Electors, how did they know that the faded pdf's they found were genuine?
How did they know that they weren't cleverly revised to fit a particular
agenda? Revisionism used to be a major industry in the Soviet Union,
and probably never went completely out of style.
The answer is that in principle you could consult the primary sources -
travel to various libraries where
they have actual historical books and newspapers and check the original
documents... if you could get access to the rare book collections!
You'd probably have to blow the dust off and that would make you sneeze.
But be thankful for the sneeze - that dust is valuable evidence that
the historical record is intact. Even in its heyday the KGB would have
had trouble adulterating all the copies of any particular American historical
But now it's all on the internet. Not necessarily in very many copies,
much more susceptible to remote revision, which the KGB has the means
and now the will to do. So what if somebody wants to
save taxpayer dollars by "driving out costs"
and getting rid of all those dusty stacks
and having all reference materials
only on the internet, where they won't age and get dusty?
If the ultimate truth about everything is somewhere in the cloudy heights,
it will be safe there -
numerous technology marketing executives will swear to that on their
MBA's. And once somebody owns this valuable asset, how shall it be
monetized? Is it really the plan that all information
should be free to everybody forever? How will anybody become a
billionaire that way?
Trump doesn't think much of
"Driving out costs" is one of the mantras of modern technology marketing.
it means "driving out costs from my organization and bottom line into your
organization and bottom line."
Phone trees leading to technical support in distant lands
are examples that everybody can understand. Somebody saved a lot of money
on his bottom line and achieved his quantitative goals. Everybody else
paid the price though. In California, we daily see the example
starting with the Reagan administration of
"mainstreaming" as many patients as possible from the state developmental
centers into the general population so that they become the homeless problem
of local government. The state only seemed to make progress because it
only considered its own costs.
In a similar vein - I don't know if there is any strategic or tactical value
in altering your adversary's topographic maps, for instance. It would
have been impractical to alter thousands of copies of paper maps, but in the
internet era, remote revision of the few remaining primary sources
may be practical.
If there are no immutable primary sources then it's that much harder to
establish absolute truth. This is uncomfortable to a technologist like
me - most kinds of engineers have studied physics and understand that there
is some absolute objective reality operating in the universe,
whether or not there are any pundits around to blog about it.
When dealing with human history, objective reality is a bit more slippery,
but that's no excuse to deliberately avoid seeking it.
In describing present and possible realities,
what's the difference between leadership and lying?
In technology it's normal for leaders to exaggerate opportunities
and benefits and minimize risks and costs. There's perhaps deliberate
confusion between present and future tense, between indicative and
I wondered for years why leaders in trouble in business or politics
always deny, deny, deny, until the truth is obvious to everybody, then
they make a show of finally coming clean. Eventually I concluded is that
it's because every leader, despite whatever "self-made man" mythology they
promulgate, got to leadership because of the investments of others of
time, energy, or money.
(Have you ever heard of a "self-made woman"?
Women seem to have a more realistic understanding that success is
always a group effort.)
These others are the shareholders who have
invested in the leader, and the leader has effectively covenanted
to respect and protect their investment.
In time of trouble, then, why NOT deny, deny, deny? The stock market might
crash, the president might be shot, world war III might start, an asteroid
might destroy the liberal elitist east coast Lugenpresse... and in the
confusion of any such events, the troubled leader might be able to slip
from public consciousness scot-free, protecting his shareholders'
investment. Why surrender while you have the means to resist?
I live and work in Silicon Valley, where at least among leaf-node engineers,
a person is judged by the quality of his ideas. The nation's capital
is located at the absolute opposite pole, where ideas are judged by the
power of the person espousing them. So no surprise if
there is an occasional disconnect
between poles with necessarily different views of reality.
Marshall McLuhan said
the medium is the message.
The pernicious aspect of television was its evolution from an alternative
channel for print-style journalism to a new channel of direct mass
emotional manipulation. I wonder what McLuhan would have said about
Twitter. There aren't any important issues that can be compressed into
140 characters with intellectual honesty, and the president doesn't get to
decide any but the most important issues, so what happens when the president
receives and sends information in tweets?
Will the free press still be a check and balance in the future?
Nicholas Kristof argues that
the media preferred Trump,
especially TV, because reporting Trump's shenanigans gained higher ratings
than reporting substantive issues.
The National Enquirer probably has a higher circulation than the NY Times.
Twitter's fading prospects
suggests a potential bargain,
and perhaps the DNC should buy it before the KGB does.
But Cicero says:
It's easy to bypass the requests for paid subscriptions
requested by the online Washington Post and NY Times. I read all their
articles that I cited for free. Then my conscience was pricked:
so I bought a subscription to the online Washington Post. Then when I
went back to the Post, I couldn't find this conscience-pricking article -
I had forgotten that I read it in the NY Times.
So I subscribed to the online Times as well.
I do subscribe to the paper San Jose Mercury News since I live here.
I only use its online edition for URL's to send to people who are outside
its circulation area.
It's hanging in there as a good local newspaper,
but its national news and opinion is almost all syndicated -
often from those two institutions I just mentioned.
Somebody has to take some action to keep that flow going.
That action has to involve some money. The free press might survive
presidential assault but the outcome of assault by economics is very much
in doubt. America's free press has mostly depended on advertising revenue
for most of its history. That era is almost over, and its accidental
destruction by Craigslist, Ebay, Facebook, Google... seems destined to have
consequences far more profound than any intentional act of censorship.
Some years ago, before the internet, I remember the Mercury ran an article
critical of sales practices at a number of local car dealers. The dealers all
pulled their display ads for a couple of weeks. Now the Mercury prints
only bland syndicated editorial content in the car ad section.
What about Wikipedia? I link to many of their pages too, and they
are asking for money too. They don't sell subscriptions though, they
just ask for donations.
Their fundraising has been
questioned in the Washington Post but I donated anyway.
Likewise the synoptic gospels tell what happened, as remembered by those
who were there, while the gospel of John tells what the events meant to
the next generation, and its truth is spiritual rather than historic.
Interestingly, the versatile Jefferson tried to create a unified gospel
story from the canonical gospels.
went live on December 15.
Before it had 50 individual visitors,
it was visited by a search engine on December 18:
188.8.131.52 = spider-5-255-250-5.yandex.com
for the Russian
Finally on December 28, it was joined by Bing:
184.108.40.206 = msnbot-157-55-39-144.search.msn.com .
No other search engines have noticed it.
The commentaries above contain many explicit and implicit references to historical theatre, usually opera, because I spend more time in opera houses than in history museums. But art, particularly theatre, is not history. Historical theatre and historical fiction typically reflect the impact of great public events on the private lives of individuals. So when one hears a good story in a specific historical setting, it can be an inspiration to look up the real history, which is often much more complicated. I mention this because many students find history boring and remote from everyday experience. Operas like Andrea Chenier, Anna Bolena - Maria Stuarda - Roberto Devereux, Appomattox, Ballad of Baby Doe, Boris Godunov, Harvey Milk, Heart of a Soldier, Prince Igor, Silent Night, Tosca... Musical theatre like Hamilton, 1776, Amadeus... Novels like Darkness at Noon and Radetzky March...
Then there is other art which is explicitly mythic and not tied to any particular time or place - Wagner's Ring and Mozart's Magic Flute being prime operatic examples. Like all great art, it reflects back what the viewer needs to see in the viewer's particular time and place.
And speaking of the Magic Flute, if you look at the currency in your wallet, all the portraits are men very much influenced by the Enlightenment of the 18th century and in particular by its manifestation in Freemasonry. Not surprisingly there was an Anti-Masonic Party which was surprisingly influential in establishing partisan American politics as we know it now. Conspiracy theories are easy to imagine, but hard to prove and harder to disprove - so lots of politicians exploit them to explain why they should be elected and then why they were then unable to fulfill any of their promises. The conspiracy-theorist fault line runs from the Anti-Masons to the Whigs to the Know-Nothings to the Bimetallist Democrats to Joe McCarthy to Steven Bannon to Donald Trump.
When people researched the Federalist papers to justify the Hamilton Electors, how did they know that the faded pdf's they found were genuine? How did they know that they weren't cleverly revised to fit a particular agenda? Revisionism used to be a major industry in the Soviet Union, and probably never went completely out of style.
The answer is that in principle you could consult the primary sources - travel to various libraries where they have actual historical books and newspapers and check the original documents... if you could get access to the rare book collections! You'd probably have to blow the dust off and that would make you sneeze. But be thankful for the sneeze - that dust is valuable evidence that the historical record is intact. Even in its heyday the KGB would have had trouble adulterating all the copies of any particular American historical paper document.
But now it's all on the internet. Not necessarily in very many copies, much more susceptible to remote revision, which the KGB has the means and now the will to do. So what if somebody wants to save taxpayer dollars by "driving out costs" and getting rid of all those dusty stacks and having all reference materials only on the internet, where they won't age and get dusty?
If the ultimate truth about everything is somewhere in the cloudy heights, it will be safe there - numerous technology marketing executives will swear to that on their MBA's. And once somebody owns this valuable asset, how shall it be monetized? Is it really the plan that all information should be free to everybody forever? How will anybody become a billionaire that way? Trump doesn't think much of net neutrality.
"Driving out costs" is one of the mantras of modern technology marketing. But often it means "driving out costs from my organization and bottom line into your organization and bottom line." Phone trees leading to technical support in distant lands are examples that everybody can understand. Somebody saved a lot of money on his bottom line and achieved his quantitative goals. Everybody else paid the price though. In California, we daily see the example starting with the Reagan administration of "mainstreaming" as many patients as possible from the state developmental centers into the general population so that they become the homeless problem of local government. The state only seemed to make progress because it only considered its own costs.
In a similar vein - I don't know if there is any strategic or tactical value in altering your adversary's topographic maps, for instance. It would have been impractical to alter thousands of copies of paper maps, but in the internet era, remote revision of the few remaining primary sources may be practical.
If there are no immutable primary sources then it's that much harder to establish absolute truth. This is uncomfortable to a technologist like me - most kinds of engineers have studied physics and understand that there is some absolute objective reality operating in the universe, whether or not there are any pundits around to blog about it. When dealing with human history, objective reality is a bit more slippery, but that's no excuse to deliberately avoid seeking it.
In describing present and possible realities, what's the difference between leadership and lying? In technology it's normal for leaders to exaggerate opportunities and benefits and minimize risks and costs. There's perhaps deliberate confusion between present and future tense, between indicative and subjunctive mood.
I wondered for years why leaders in trouble in business or politics always deny, deny, deny, until the truth is obvious to everybody, then they make a show of finally coming clean. Eventually I concluded is that it's because every leader, despite whatever "self-made man" mythology they promulgate, got to leadership because of the investments of others of time, energy, or money. (Have you ever heard of a "self-made woman"? Women seem to have a more realistic understanding that success is always a group effort.)
These others are the shareholders who have invested in the leader, and the leader has effectively covenanted to respect and protect their investment. In time of trouble, then, why NOT deny, deny, deny? The stock market might crash, the president might be shot, world war III might start, an asteroid might destroy the liberal elitist east coast Lugenpresse... and in the confusion of any such events, the troubled leader might be able to slip from public consciousness scot-free, protecting his shareholders' investment. Why surrender while you have the means to resist?
I live and work in Silicon Valley, where at least among leaf-node engineers, a person is judged by the quality of his ideas. The nation's capital is located at the absolute opposite pole, where ideas are judged by the power of the person espousing them. So no surprise if there is an occasional disconnect between poles with necessarily different views of reality.
Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. The pernicious aspect of television was its evolution from an alternative channel for print-style journalism to a new channel of direct mass emotional manipulation. I wonder what McLuhan would have said about Twitter. There aren't any important issues that can be compressed into 140 characters with intellectual honesty, and the president doesn't get to decide any but the most important issues, so what happens when the president receives and sends information in tweets? Will the free press still be a check and balance in the future? Nicholas Kristof argues that the media preferred Trump, especially TV, because reporting Trump's shenanigans gained higher ratings than reporting substantive issues. The National Enquirer probably has a higher circulation than the NY Times.
Twitter's fading prospects suggests a potential bargain, and perhaps the DNC should buy it before the KGB does.
But Cicero says: ignore tweets!.
It's easy to bypass the requests for paid subscriptions requested by the online Washington Post and NY Times. I read all their articles that I cited for free. Then my conscience was pricked: by-attacking-the-press-donald-trump-may-be-doing-it-a-favor... so I bought a subscription to the online Washington Post. Then when I went back to the Post, I couldn't find this conscience-pricking article - I had forgotten that I read it in the NY Times. So I subscribed to the online Times as well.
I do subscribe to the paper San Jose Mercury News since I live here. I only use its online edition for URL's to send to people who are outside its circulation area. It's hanging in there as a good local newspaper, but its national news and opinion is almost all syndicated - often from those two institutions I just mentioned. Somebody has to take some action to keep that flow going. That action has to involve some money. The free press might survive presidential assault but the outcome of assault by economics is very much in doubt. America's free press has mostly depended on advertising revenue for most of its history. That era is almost over, and its accidental destruction by Craigslist, Ebay, Facebook, Google... seems destined to have consequences far more profound than any intentional act of censorship. Some years ago, before the internet, I remember the Mercury ran an article critical of sales practices at a number of local car dealers. The dealers all pulled their display ads for a couple of weeks. Now the Mercury prints only bland syndicated editorial content in the car ad section.
What about Wikipedia? I link to many of their pages too, and they are asking for money too. They don't sell subscriptions though, they just ask for donations. Their fundraising has been questioned in the Washington Post but I donated anyway.
Please report dead links to oakapple-web at comcast dot net
stream.html 1.7 21/07/07