January 29, 2017

Random Thoughts on U.S.-Mexican Relations

Thanks to our new President, relations between the United States and the United Mexican States (i.e., Mexico) are exceedingly strained. Donald Trump is solely responsible for this state of affairs. A move toward more friendly relations seems unlikely in the near future.

U.S. and Mexico flags
Mr. Trump has two issues with Mexico. The issues are distinct, but he has, of late, managed to conflate them. First, there is the matter of illegal immigration, the “solution” for which, in the President’s mind, is to build a wall along our southern border. Pledging to build such a wall (and to have the Mexican government pay for it) was Mr. Trump’s signature issue as a presidential candidate. Like all of his proposals, this was simplistic, ill-conceived, and basically stupid. But simple solutions to complicated problems are the stock in trade of political campaigns, and the Republican candidate used them shamelessly and, alas, successfully.

In general, Mr. Trump’s policy proposals derive from his own reality, which is but tenuously related to actual facts. The U.S. is not being overrun by Mexican rapists and drug dealers streaming over the border. Although there have been periods of significant migration from Mexico in times past, the current net migration is or is near zero. Instead, the most significant source of unauthorized migration into the U.S. is the overstaying of visas by persons who have entered the country lawfully. No wall is high enough to deter such activity.

There are several problems with building a Great Wall of America. To begin with, building a wall would be inordinately expensive, and, because it does not address a significant problem, horribly profligate. Serious drug dealers have not been deterred by existing barriers—they have tunneled their way across the border, for example—and, as has been noted, a 50-foot wall will create a run on 51-foot ladders.

President Trump wants to expand greatly the number of officers patrolling the border. This, of course, adds to the cost of the wall itself.

If a wall is to be truly effective, we should take a lesson from the German Democratic Republic (i.e., East Germany). Now that country had a wall! What is needed is a concrete wall, land mines, and machine-gun towers. I doubt Americans will support such a construction—but I thought they wouldn’t vote for Trump, either—and even the Berlin Wall did not last. There is a lesson here.

Candidate Trump received the cheers of his multitudes by declaring that Mexico would pay for a wall—no need to think too deeply whether a wall is necessary if someone else is going to foot the bill. Of course, it was never clear why Mexico, which is hardly a rich country, would be willing to make such a generous gesture. The candidate never explained how Mexico would be enticed to fork over the billions of pesos needed for a wall, particularly in light of its president’s refusal to consider the matter. In fact, though, Trump never explained the mechanisms he planed to employ to achieve any of the exulted goals he so glibly proclaimed. Perhaps he never really expected to win the election and would never be called upon to fulfill his promises. Perhaps he thought—his first week in office suggests this—that everything could be effected with the stroke of a pen. Actual government experience really would have been helpful.

Mr. Trump’s other Mexican problem is the balance of payments. We buy more from Mexico than Mexico buys from us. Trump, in his simplistic, real-estate-mogul mind, sees this as a problem and blames NAFTA for it, If NAFTA were fairer, Mexico wouldn’t be “stealing” American jobs and profiting handsomely from it. The reality is complex, however, and both the U.S. and Mexico have benefited from NAFTA. Jobs have been lost; other jobs have been created; and consumers have enjoyed lower prices. Our two economies are not inextricably intertwined. This not only produces economic efficiencies, but it also discourages conflicts (or at least it does when countries are governed by rational leaders).

The President has floated the idea of financing the wall by slapping a 20% tariff on goods from Mexico. This would kill two birds with one stone—the wall would be paid for, and Mexico would pay the bill, improving the balance-of-trade in the process. Except, of course, that the American consumer would pay the bill, not the Mexican government, and would likely be none too happy about it. One of the dead birds would be the goose that lays the golden egg.

No doubt, NAFTA could be “fairer” or “better” for the U.S. Such agreements are complicated and never perfect. It is unlikely that there is a silver bullet that would satisfy President Trump short of some sort of coercion of our neighbor to the south. A better plan would be to encourage development in Mexico—perhaps a loosing proposition in the short run—so that more Mexicans could buy American goods and services. This would also keep Mexicans in Mexico. Some undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. might even want to return home.

In reality, many of the border-crossers these days come from Central America, where economic conditions are worse than in Mexico and where life is often threatened by violence. Investment in Central America could benefit the U.S. in a multitude of ways. But, in the meantime, we should allow refugees from Central American violence to resettle in the U.S. To Mr. Trump, however, such people are merely potential terrorists.

Unfortunately, President Trump cannot drop the demented idea of building the Great Wall of American without losing face, and nothing is more important to Donald Trump than protecting his adulation-hungry ego. And the thought of spending money in foreign countries for long-term benefit is anathema to an America-first President Trump.

So here we are. God only knows where President Trump will take us.

January 20, 2017

This is no dream; this is really happening!

Rosemary’s Baby poster
Poster for Rosemary’s Baby
Donald Trump’s becoming President of the United States seems, on some level, unreal. It was not supposed to happen. It reminds me of the 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby. As Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse is being raped by Satan, she wakes from her chemically induced stupor and, horrified, declares, “This is no dream; this is really happening!” And thus it is with the inauguration of Mr. Trump, which occurs at noon today.

January 20, 2017, will surely be “a date which will live in infamy.” One can only imagine the horrors that will follow, but we will experience them soon enough.

It has been difficult to decide how to mark this day. In one sense, I would like to be in Washington, D.C., protesting the inauguration, but I am here in Pennsylvania in front of my computer. It will be calmer here.

Robert Reich, who is becoming something of a resistance leader, advises Americans not going to Washington to boycott the event—don’t watch it or listen to it. Trump, after all, hates low ratings. I plan to take Reich’s advice, if only to keep my blood pressure down. Rachel Maddow can tell me tonight what happened.

I haven’t scheduled my entire day, but I plan to go to the Y to get some exercise. I usually listen to NPR while I’m on the treadmill, but today I’ll listen to Pandora instead. I’ll try to catch up on my reading and housecleaning while thinking thoughts unrelated to civic affairs. I hope to finish watching D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance on DVD.

I am not hopeful concerning our nation’s future and have no faith in Mr. Trump’s pledge to bring the country together. The best I can do on Inauguration Day is to offer this prayer from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer:
O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to your merciful care, that, being guided by your Providence, we may dwell secure in your peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this Commonwealth, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
God save the United States of America.

Inverted American flag

January 5, 2017

Hail to the Chief

This morning, NPR broadcast a short segment on “Hail to the Chief,” the familiar Presidential Anthem. The anthem has been associated with the President of the United States for two centuries. What is not well known is that the anthem has lyrics. The current words to “Hail to  the Chief” are the following:
Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.

Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that's our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!
Herald trumpets
What is scary is the eerie appropriateness of these lyrics to the presidency of Donald Trump. In particular, Trump has called for everyone’s coöperation following a divisive election. (He won’t get it, of course.) And there is the line about making our “grand country grander” following “great” in the previous line.

No doubt, Mr. Trump would love these words were he to hear them. Perhaps President Trump will be introduced by four ruffles and flourishes and “Hail to the Chief” sung by a military chorus.

God save the United States of America.

Note. Information for this post was taken from Wikipedia.

January 4, 2017

Why Republicans Want to Kill Obamacare

When acting to “fix” something, it’s always a good idea to ask: What problem are we solving? Doing so forces you to consider ultimate objectives and how the status quo might be manipulated to achieve those objectives more fully.

The Republicans have been hell-bent on repealing the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) for the better part of eight years. This objective has become an article of faith among Republicans that, seemingly, requires no justification. Republicans never explain what is wrong with the ACA or how repeal will make life better for Americans. Candidate Trump repeatedly pledged to dump the ACA but never, as far as I can tell, suggested why that would be a good thing. The 115th Congress is hardly a day old, and Republicans are already introducing legislation aimed at getting rid of the ACA.

Mike Pence
Mike Pence (photo by Gage Skidmore)
In the noon NPR newscast today, an audio clip was broadcast of Mike Pense explaining, if not what is wrong with the ACA, at least what Republican objectives are in their quest to eliminate it:
My message to members of Congress is that we are going to be in the promise-keeping business, and the first order of business is to keep our promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it with the kind of health care reform that will lower the cost of health insurance without growing the cost of government.
What do we see here? First, Republicans are going to deliver on their promise to repeal the ACA. But this begs the question. Why was that promise made in the first place? (I suspect the real answer is to stick it to President Obama, whom the Republicans hate with a passion. This begs the question again, and, for now anyway, I don’t want to touch that issue.)

Pence went on to enumerate Republican objectives for their fix. These suggest, at least implicitly, what is seen to be wrong with the ACA. And what are those objectives? They are (1) to lower the cost of insurance and (2) to prevent the cost of government from growing.

Consider the second objective. To put it generously, the Republican Party is the party of limited government. Any program that expands the scope of government, particularly if it costs money, is considered a bad program. (Spending more money on the military, however, is usually acceptable.) No consideration is given to the urgency of a program or whether government is an appropriate or most efficient actor to carry out its objectives. This is a knee-jerk reaction that exposes yet another article faith among members of the GOP. It is not a valid reason to attack the ACA.

What about the cost of insurance? The ACA was intended to decrease the cost of health insurance to make it more generally available. It has done that, allowing millions of people to afford insurance that had previously been unaffordable. Republicans are fond of pointing out that the cost of insurance under the ACA has been rising, but, even with increasing costs, more people have been able to buy health insurance.

The real objective of the ACA isn’t to make health insurance affordable, though Republican concern for corporate health might make that seem like a high-priority objective. The real objective of the ACA is, or should be, to deliver health care to everyone. The problem to be solved is the inability of so many citizens to access health care, largely due to economic circumstances. Health insurance is a means to an end, not the end itself. Pence seems unconcerned with this and with the fact that repealing the ACA has the potential to deny health care to millions of Americans.

Citizens who are not part of the extreme right wing of the GOP need to tell their legislators that the size of government is not a primary concern for them and that they want high-quality health care to be made available to everyone, regardless of income. It is a scandal that the number one cause of personal bankruptcies in this country is unaffortable medical bills.

January 3, 2017

Letter to My Democratic Senator

(Sent via USPS)

January 3, 2017
Senator Bob Casey
RSOB—Russell Senate Office Building,
2 Constitution Avenue, NE
Room 393
Washington DC 20510­3805
Dear Senator Casey:
I had great hopes for our country’s future until the calamity that was the election of Donald Trump. I now view our future with alarm. I write to urge you and fellow Democrats (and perhaps even some fellow Republicans) to do all that you can to avert the tragedy that would result from an all-out Republican program designed to take our nation backward.
Most especially, I urge you and fellow Democrats to do everything possible to expose the inappropriateness of so many Trump appointees that require Senate approval. The President-elect is planning for a cabinet of multimillionaires, each with an axe to grind—whether that be a plan for self-enrichment or an eagerness to destroy the department or public sector over which he or she is to have oversight. (I need hardly provide enumerate particulars here.) I hope that some of the Trump appointees can actually be rejected.
Perhaps most important to consider is the future of the Supreme Court. Republicans must not be allowed to appoint ultraconservative justices who will turn the court into an instrument of reaction for generations to come.
I pray that Democrats have strategists at least as good as those who have worked for the Republicans. Although we are likely to have Donald Trump with us for four years, Republicans are likely to overplay their hand, leading to significant Democratic gains in 2018. Work toward such an outcome.
Best wishes for your difficult task of protecting the Republic, individual freedoms, and the environment.
etc., etc.

Note: My letter to my Republican senator is here.

Letter to My Republican Senator

(Sent via USPS)

January 3, 2017
Senator Pat Toomey
RSOB—Russell Senate Office Building,
2 Constitution Avenue, NE
Room 248
Washington DC 20510­3806
Dear Senator Toomey:
I am one of your constituents, though probably not one of your more enthusiastic fans. I am writing as a new Congress is being seated, a Congress that, along with a totally unqualified new President, has me terrified for the future of the Republic.
I am writing to urge you to put your country ahead of party, though I would suggest that doing so will, in the long run, benefit the Republican Party.
Keep in mind that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes; he is not the choice of the American people. Do not assume that his agenda (or that of the Republican Party to the degree that that is different) is popular. It is likely that a 2017 no-holds-barred bill-passing frenzy will do nothing so much as guarantee a strong Democratic Party backlash and resurgence in 2018.
In particular, let me list some of my concerns and suggestions:
·        Russia is not our friend. Tread carefully here.
·        Donald Trump’s choice of advisors and cabinet members has confirmed the worst fears of many Americans. Too many of the people he has identified oppose government on principle and have vested interests in policies that are opposed to the interests of the American people. Every vote you cast for one of these self-serving nominees will make you complicit in an administration concerned only with advancing the interests of the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else.
·        Because Republicans refused to coöperate with Democrats, the Affordable Care Act has more faults than necessary. It is better than nothing, however, if not as good as a single-payer approach would have been. It would be wise to fix some of the more obvious faults; it would be foolish to scrap the ACA.
·        We don’t need a trade war. NAFTA benefitted all the parties, as probably would the TPP. No trade agreement is perfect; every trade pact will create winners and losers. Seeking the greatest good for the country as a whole, rather than concentrating on those directly and negatively affected, should always be your approach.
·        Global warming is real. Deal with it.
·        We cannot claim to be a free country if women are not given control over their bodies. Abortion restrictions should be lifted and decisions about women’s health should be left in the hands of doctors and their patients. Planned Parenthood should be supported for its significant contribution to women’s health.
·        Immigrants have never been popular in the U.S., but they have always made significant contributions to American society. Don’t dismiss them or their needs.
·        Tax reform is surely needed, at least in the abstract. Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s interest in tax “reform” is all about benefitting the rich. Don’t be party to that.
Perhaps on a more positive note, I offer this advice:
·        We should spend more money on infrastructure, especially on roads, bridges, passenger rail, and water and sewer systems. Where the money for this comes from is important, however. Interest rates are still historically low. The government can afford to borrow money for infrastructure development now, when doing so is cheap.
·        Let’s be smart about military spending. There is no evidence that more weapons, especially nuclear weapons, are needed. If the F-35 cannot achieve its design goals anytime soon, the program should be scrapped. Use the money for high-speed rail.
·        The VA needs to be improved, but privatization is not the answer. Likewise, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are vital to Americans. Mess with them at your supreme peril.
·        Americans want reasonable restrictions on firearms. Screw the NRA. If Republicans work for the NRA, they are working for the wrong people. The carnage caused by guns in this country must stop.
·        Begin the process of amending the Constitution to allow for direct election of President and Vice President. Doing so will be popular, even if the effort ultimately fails.
·        Work to nullify the effects of the Citizens United decision. An amendment to the Constitution may be necessary. It would be popular.
·        Support banking and consumer protection regulation. We don’t need another financial meltdown, and you don’t want to be responsible for one.
I apologize for such a long letter. It will not be the last you receive from me. Do not bother to reply with a letter telling me why the whole Republican program is beneficial; just keep my advice in mind. I will take any letter that does not respond to what I have actually written to indicate that you have no interest in the views of the people of Pennsylvania.
Very truly yours,
etc., etc.

Note. My letter to my Democratic senator is here.