July 22, 2019

GOP Debates?

Donald Trump is not the only Republican running for his party’s nomination in 2020, although it is almost universally assumed that he will be the GOP standard-bearer. At least one challenger, Bill Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, is vying for the GOP nod. Other Republicans are reputedly considering challenging Trump. I doubt there will be many alternative Republican hopefuls; I hope there will continue to be at least one.

Donald Trump should be forced to debate Bill Weld and any other Republican candidates who come forward. Trump will not want to participate, as his idea of debate involves only name-calling, lies, and misdirection. In a one-on-one dialog, he will be exposed as the ignorant fool that he is.

If the Republican Party is to be something other than the Trump Nationalist Party, it must insist on one or more televised candidate debates. Actually, I suspect that it won’t, and the transformation of the party that is fond, however ironically, of calling itself “the party of Lincoln” will be complete.

Postscript: Take a look at the Bill Weld Web site referenced above. Weld offers a compelling video that could even convince a Democrat that a Weld presidency would not be a national tragedy.

July 19, 2019

CNN Chooses Debate Lineups

The lineups are now set for the two Democratic presidential debates on July 30 and July 31. They were determined on live TV last night. CNN devoted an entire hour to deciding which 10 candidates would appear in which night’s debate. The network’s commitment to transparency is laudable, but that goal could have been achieved in a five-minute program. Instead, CNN tried to milk as much drama out of the event as possible, no doubt responding to the popularity on TV of the NFL draft and of live lottery drawings.

The procedure implemented last night was not, I would argue, ideal, though neither was it irrational. The 20 available candidates were partitioned into three groups we might label—CNN did not quite label them this way—likely candidates, long shots, and certifiable also-rans.

CNN did not provide its own linear ranking of all the debaters, though it did give a partial list in a posting about an hour before the TV drawing. In that story, “24 Democrats are running for president. Voters and donors like only five of them,” Harry Enten wrote that Biden had 25% support in CNN polling, Harris had 16%, both Sanders and Warren had 15%, and Buttigieg had 5%. Everyone else had 2% or less. In the likely candidates category, CNN, as one might expect, placed Biden, Harris, Sanders, and Warren. The long shots comprised Buttigieg, Booker, Yang Castro, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke. In the absence of actual numbers, it seems reasonable that Booker, Yang Castro, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke are running somewhat behind Buttigieg and somewhat ahead of the rest of the field, namely the certifiable also-rans.

Three drawings were held for each of the groups, in which the drawings assigned members of the category to either the Tuesday or Wednesday night debate. For maximum drama, the drawings were ordered from least likely to most likely candidates.

CNN assuredly was trying to avoid the obvious imbalance seen in the two debates run by NBC. (See “How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed” and “The Debate Lineup: An Apology and Further Thoughts.”) Whereas CNN’s procedure may not have been ideal, it did assure that there would not be a varsity and junior varsity debate. Each debate would include its share of likely, unlikely, and long-shot candidates. Combined with the fact that polls are imperfect descriptions of reality—Warren might really have been ahead of Harris, for example—I think CNN deserves credit for learning from experience and attempting to achieve actual fairness.

On the other hand, spending an hour of prime time on determining the debate lineups was surely unnecessary. Too much time was spent having a half dozen commentators remarking on what was going on. Moreover, the actual drawing was unnecessarily complicated.

Each drawing involved two boxes and two sets of tiles. The first set of tiles were labeled with names; the second set was labeled with dates. Each set was selected, shuffled, placed in its respective box, and, in turn, a candidate and a date were drawn. Multiple cameras, we were assured, guaranteed that there was no hanky panky. (I was surprised that the person who filled the boxes was the same person who drew from the boxes, but I really did not fear for any funny business.) My main complaint about this procedure is that the date tiles were completely unnecessary. Why did CNN not simply assign the first name drawn to the Tuesday debate, the second name drawn to the Wednesday debate, etc.? Apparently, the use of the two boxes was seen as more dramatic than the use of one.

A certain amount of explanation was required to make clear to the audience just what was going on. I became impatient after the first two sets of drawings. Rather than simply proceeding to the “third draw,” the commentators speculated about the pros and cons of various distributions of the final four candidates. The time could better have been spent analyzing the actual outcome of the third draw.

As for the outcome of the program, the lineups are decidedly reasonable. I was disappointed in the distribution of the top four candidates. If the procedure I outlined in “How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed” had been used, Biden would have been teamed with Warren or Sanders. Instead, Warren and Sanders, the third- and fourth-ranked candidates and the two top-tier candidates most like one another, are paired.

Well, the die is cast. Here are the assignments for the July 30 and July 21 debates:
FIRST NIGHT DEBATERS       SECOND NIGHT DEBATERS
Joe Biden Steve Bullock
Michael Bennet Pete Buttigieg
Cory Booker John Delaney
Julián Castro John Hickenlooper
Bill de Blasio Amy Klobuchar
Tulsi Gabbard Beto O’Rourke
Kirsten Gillibrand Tim Ryan
Kamala Harris Bernie Sanders
Jay Inslee Elizabeth Warren
Andrew Yang Marianne Williamson

July 17, 2019

The Debate Lineup: An Apology and Further Thoughts

It was clear to all that the first debates of the Democratic presidential candidates were unbalanced. Although random assignment was used to determine which candidates appeared on which night, the second debate was more loaded with frontrunners. I wrote about this before the debate and about how the debate assignments could have been improved. (See “How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed.”) Apparently, an apology is in order. No, my analysis has not changed, but in my earlier essay, I blamed the imbalance of the two debates on the Democratic Party. Whereas the party did determine who would fill the 20 slots in the two debates, the lineup for each debate was apparently determined by NBC in what might be considered a less than straightforward manner. According to David Byler, writing in The Washington Post,
The network divided the field into two groups: a top tier of eight candidates who were polling above two percent nationally and a bottom tier of 12 candidates who weren’t. Then it randomly assigned four candidates from the top tier and six candidates from the bottom tier to each debate night. NBC wanted two well-balanced, interesting nights of debates, and it used a random component to remove any inkling of bias from the final decision.
Byler wisely noted that “Random processes, while fair in the long run, are often capricious and weird in the short term.” I had noted much the same thing.

A Vox article describes where the debates go from here. The twenty debaters will be determined today. Tomorrow, on live television, CNN will, in some as yet undisclosed random fashion, assign 10 candidates to each of the two debates. The debates themselves will be televised on July 30 and 31.

Byler offers his own scheme for a better distribution of candidates to debates. It is almost as good (and almost the same) as what I suggested in “How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed.” My own mathematical analysis, however, offers a slight improvement over Byler’s scheme. Either system destroys the value of the live drawing on television planned by CNN for tomorrow night, however.

Apparently, CNN is taken by the live lottery drawings that have become a television staple. It’s too bad it isn’t equally taken by the concept of fairness.

July 16, 2019

Racist Is as Racist Does

In light of President Donald Trump’s Twitter attacks on minority liberal congresswomen, it is refreshing that many news outlets are referring to Trump’s “racist tweets,” not to something like “tweets some have called racist.” The president’s attack is clearly racist and is consistent with other racist statements he has expressed over time. Only GOP partisans can fail to see (or acknowledge) the nature of what Trump has said.

Some have suggested that we cannot know what is in Trump’s heart and that his tweets cannot be used to brand the president definitively as racist. This is nonsense! To this, I can only say
RACIST IS AS RACIST DOES.

July 8, 2019

Facebook and Hate Speech

I woke up this morning to discover that a comment I made in response to a post in a private Facebook group had been removed by Facebook. Facebook informed me that “This comment goes against our Community Standards on hate speech,” provided a link to the reputedly objectionable comment, and offered to review the removal decision. I immediately requested a review and am presently awaiting the result thereof.

My comment was in response to the posting of a Washington Post story, “Aided by a strong economy, Trump approval rises, but a majority also see him as ‘unpresidential.’” I was appalled that, in view of Trump’s ongoing outrageous behavior, his approval rating would actually go up. A number of group members wrote comments indicating that they shared my consternation. I added my two cents to the conversation with this comment:

Americans are idiots.

It did not occur to me, then or now, that this could be construed as an instance of hate speech. Moreover, I was bewildered that Facebook had taken any notice of the comment. Surely, not every comment on the site is read and evaluated by a live human being. No one in the group admitted to having reported my comment as objectionable, and it seems unlikely that anyone flagged it inadvertently. Almost certainly, Facebook software responded to my use of the word “idiots.”

Facebook’s policy on “Community Standards” includes quite specific guidelines set forth in a section titled “11. Hate Speech,” which I reproduce, in part, below:
We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics—race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability. We also provide some protections for immigration status. We define attack as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation. We separate attacks into three tiers of severity, as described below.
Tier 2 attacks, which target a person or group of people who share any of the above-listed characteristics, where attack is defined as
  • Statements of inferiority or an image implying a person’s or a group’s physical, mental, or moral deficiency
    • Physical (including but not limited to “deformed,” “undeveloped,” “hideous,” “ugly”)
    • Mental (including but not limited to “retarded,” “cretin,” “low IQ,” “stupid,” “idiot”)
    • Moral (including but not limited to “slutty,” “fraud,” “cheap,” “free riders”)
  • Expressions of contempt or their visual equivalent, including (but not limited to)
    • “I hate”
    • “I don't like”
    • “X are the worst”
  • Expressions of disgust or their visual equivalent, including (but not limited to)
    • “Gross”
    • “Vile”
    • “Disgusting”
    • Cursing at a person or group of people who share protected characteristics
Apparently, Facebook thinks I attacked the mental facilities of all Americans. Obviously, however, context matters. To begin with, if my statement is taken literally (which no well-educated native speaker would do), It entails the following syllogism:

[All] Americans are idiots.
This statement was made by an American.
Therefore, the person who made the statement is an idiot.

And, in that case, the Facebook comment is beneath notice.

More to the point, the Facebook policy makes no room for figures of speech. Any gibbon would recognize my comment is deliberate exaggeration written to express my frustration with the imperviousness of Trump supporters to new and damaging information about their putative champion. Does Facebook intend to limit any hint of literary language on its site, demanding that every statement be literally true and inoffensive?

No doubt, Mark Zuckerberg is concerned with public dissatisfaction with Facebook. The site showed indifference to Russia-based posts clearly intended to affect our most recent presidential election. More recently, a Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents was revealed to contain material that many citizens would find objectionable and that, seemingly, should have been the subject of hate speech investigations by Facebook, given its stated policy. Political pressure for the site to “do something” about these apparent problems is mounting, and it is not difficult to have some sympathy for the people trying to define what that “something” should be.

I am a free speech advocate. I recognize that Facebook is not constrained by the First Amendment, but, whether it intended it or not, Facebook has become something of a public square, where Americans have an expectation that they may express their thoughts freely. I worry about Facebook’s becoming our national nanny and censor. The antidote to “bad” speech is more, not less speech. In fact, I think the very idea of hate speech is problematic.

Facebook can hardly facilitate public dialog if it insists on (or is being pressured into) exercising censorship. A fundamental problem with the site, however, is its use of a private, inscrutable algorithm to determine what members see. I have no idea why I never see posts from some Facebook friends, yet seemingly see all the posts from others. The company is not really interested in promoting dialog but in maximizing “engagement” to expose members to as many incoming-producing ads as possible.

I don’t know what Facebook should do about Russian interference in our elections other than to make the sources of questionable posts transparent. As for the obnoxious posts from Border Patrol agents, it is not important to suppress them; it is important to know that they may indicate the existence of a cancer within an important government agency.

It has been more than a full day since I was notified that my comment offended community standards. I am still waiting for adjudication from the Facebook cognoscenti.

Update, 7/11/2019. Today, I received notification of the result of Facebook’s review of my comment. The basic message is that Facebook hasn’t changed its corporate mind and  will countenance no further appeals. In particular, I received this notification:


Note that “Accept Decision” was pre-checked in the message and could not be unchecked. When I investigated the possibilities, the message declared that I had accepted the decision, and the opportunity to provide “Feedback on Our Community Standards” disappeared. I had intended to submit the URL of this blog post as feedback. I will try to communicate that to Facebook some other way, but the kangaroo court has spoken.

This incident makes clear why we don’t want Facebook as our on-line nanny, a view I intend to express to my representatives in Congress. My comment was in no way hate speech, nor did it offend the standards of the private Facebook where I posted it. Clearly, absolute rules of what is and is not acceptable speech on Facebook is subject to absurd conclusions and suppression of rational discussion.

Maybe all Americans are not idiots. Perhaps everyone who works for Facebook is.

June 28, 2019

Thoughts on the Second Democratic Debate

Last night’s debate was, shall we say, more spirited than Wednesday’s affair. In fact, it was something of a donnybrook. Perhaps a formal, dignified discussion is impossible with so many candidates and the fate of the Republic at stake. At times, however, I wanted a moderator to take a ruler to some knuckles to shut someone up.

Happily, NBC avoided serious technical difficulties this time around. The only snafu was some confusion about when questions were to be taken from the audience. Alas, speaker names were still shown only fitfully. I still haven’t learned to recognize all the candidates, which was a problem, as I was taking notes.

The clear winner last night was Kamala Harris. I am beginning to think of her as my candidate. She attacked Joe Biden effectively, and he was able only to mount a weak response. Biden is looking old, and Harris showed up one of his biggest weaknesses—he has a long history, and some of it isn’t pretty. He offers myriad targets for Trump’s barbs. What I have appreciated about Harris from the beginning, on the other hand, is her prosecutorial agility. She is the one candidate I think can clean Trump’s clock.

Harris did seem to make one stumble last night. She raised her hand when the candidates were asked if they would eliminate private health insurance. This morning on “Morning Joe,” she said she misunderstood the question, thinking she was answering for herself, rather than for all Americans. That clarification wasn’t 100% convincing, but the pitfalls of asking the candidates for a show of hands without allowing for follow-on discussion was there for all to see.

I was surprised Wednesday night when Elizabeth Warren said she would eliminate private insurance in favor of Medicare for All. That may well be the direction the country should go, but Americans aren’t ready to go there in 2020. We should offer the public option that got cut from the Affordable Care Act when President Obama was trying—futilely, it turned out— to gain Republican support for the ACA. I think Warren will regret her position.

Trump has been acting as though he thinks Joe Biden is his most formidable opponent. I believe he actually thinks that he can beat Biden, and he may well be right. Trump’s “fear” of Biden may be akin to Br’er Rabbit’s fear of being thrown into the briar patch.

 Although I seldom agree with anything Donald Trump says or does, his tweet this morning was on target when he called Biden “Sleepy Joe” and Bernie Sanders “Crazy Bernie.” “One is exhausted, the other is nuts,” he said. And what can I say about Sanders last night? Bernie is Bernie, the same Bernie we saw in the last presidential election. His ideas haven’t deepened or moderated. With Trump and the GOP having taken to calling Democrats socialists, how could we possible nominate someone who claims to be a real socialist (and an ancient one at that).

Some analysists have argued that Pete Buttigieg did not do as well as expected. He is knowledgable and articulate, but he has problems in South Bend that have put him in an uncomfortable box. He offered some real zingers last night, and he could conceivably make an attractive choice for vice president. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni suggested as much (“And Now, the Dream of a Harris-Buttigieg Ticket”). Unless Buttigieg resolves the situation on his home turf, however, he cannot move forward. He is not now in a position to attract the black vote, which is vital to a Democratic victory.

I wish I could think better of Kirsten Gillibrand. She is the most passionate advocate for the rights of women, but she lacks the fire of a Kamila Harris. And she has gotten a cool reception from Democratic politicians of her home state of New York. On “Morning Joe,” Gillibrand wore a dress and heels. Harris wore slacks, blouse, and jacket. And she wore tennis shoes. Harris is ready for the knock-drag-out fight that will be the 2020 campaign. Gillibrand, I fear, is not.

As for the other candidates—were there other candidates? As was the case the night before, there were some excellent ideas expressed by those other candidates. The ultimate Democratic nominees should draw from that pool of ideas.

One question asked last night was particularly interesting. Should your administration accomplish only one big thing, what should it be? It is hard to know what the right answer is to this question, and several accomplishments were suggested. Addressing climate change is an existential need for the human race, but can we really tackle that problem until we fix our democracy and rein in the influence of corporate greed? Our next president will have to decide what is the most important problem to tackle. I hope that president gets it right.

June 27, 2019

Some Cursory Thoughts on the First Democratic Debate

I leave it largely to others to deliver detailed content analysis of last night’s Democratic debate. I want to make a few general observations.

First, the questioners did as well as could be expected. There was no way to make a 10-person “debate” fair and comprehensive. Complaints that this or that topic wasn’t covered or wasn’t covered sufficiently are disingenuous. The event was a combination meet-the-candidates opportunity and a minor trial-by-ordeal.

No candidate said anything stupid. (Everyone passed the trial-by-ordeal.) This outcome is not a given in such events, and the absence of serious gaffs was gratifying. It did not help narrow the field, however.

That said, I think the overall sense of the answers offered by the candidates showed Democrats to have genuine concerns for the welfare of the vast majority of Americans, as opposed to those of the rich, the powerful, and the corporations. I hope that Republican voters were watching last night with open minds.

Many analysists have remarked on the scarcity of criticism of Donald Trump. This surprised me not at all. It is given that Trump is anathema to all Democrats. Last night’s participants were concerned with introducing themselves to the electorate and differentiating themselves from one another. Debating who hates the president more would not have advanced those objectives.

I was offended when Beto O’Rourke began an answer in Spanish. Because Telemundo was broadcasting the event in Spanish, this struck me as simply showing off. Spanish-speaking viewers, therefore, understood everything that was said; English speakers, not so much. Julián Castro and Cory Booker also throw in some Spanish, although it isn’t clear whether they were just trying to one-up O’Rourke.

Moderators did not always maintain control, through some of the most interesting moments came when candidates spoke out-of-turn. Again, at some level, the format was hopeless for serious dialogue. Among my suggestions in 2015 was that the microphone of anyone who talks too long should be cut off.

Without offering any justification, I will say that I was impressed (and expected to be) by Elizabeth Warren and (contrary to expectations) Bill de Blasio. I was unimpressed by O’Rourke. Candidates sometimes ducked a question, and I wish that moderators would call them on it.

My biggest disappointment of the evening was with NBC technicians. The video went black for several brief instants, and an unscheduled commercial break was needed to allow time to fix an audio problem. The stage was attractive, but I would have liked the name of a candidate always to appear on the screen below his or her image when the candidate was talking. I still don’t think I would recognize all these people were I to encounter them on the street.

I hope that tonight’s debate runs smoothly. It seemingly includes more heavy hitters and might therefore be expected to be more interesting. (See my earlier post on the assignment of candidates to debates.)

June 17, 2019

How the Upcoming Debates Could Have Been Better Designed

We will soon see the first debates among the myriad Democratic candidates vying for their party’s presidential nomination. How to organize the debate (or debates) is an even bigger problem than that faced by the Republicans in 2015. In that year, the Republicans had a gaggle of candidates to accommodate, but, in 2019, there are even more Democrats running. The GOP solution was to hold two debates, one with the top-polling candidates, the other with the potential also-rans. That latter debate quickly accumulated various unflattering names such as the “kids table.” Democrats, able to learn from history and being more committed to the concept of fairness, tried to avoid slighting any candidate with even a modicum of support.

The Democratic Party solution was to plan for two debates in the same format, each accommodating 10 candidates. As more and more candidates entered the race, their total number exceeded 20, so a few candidates with little visible public support were necessarily cut from the debates. All the major candidates and most of the minor candidates would be guaranteed nationwide exposure on television, however. So far, so good. Next, the 20 selected candidates had to be distributed between the two debates. Here is where the Democrats screwed up. The party decided to draw lots to determine which candidates would participate in which debate.

The random drawing was intended to avoid any favoritism, real or imagined, in the debate assignment. Surely, a random assignment would be fair. Well, actually no. The procedure allowed the producers of the debate to avoid charges of favoritism, but it did not assure a “best” outcome. It did not even assure a reasonable outcome. The random drawing could easily have placed all the most popular candidates in one debate and all the least popular candidates in the other. That did not happen, but, arguably, the outcome was still less than ideal.

Here are the lineups for the two debates:
FIRST NIGHT DEBATERS       SECOND NIGHT DEBATERS
Cory Booker Michael Bennet
Julián Castro Joe Biden
Bill de Blasio Pete Buttigieg
John Delaney Kirsten Gillibrand
Tulsi Gabbard Kamala Harris
Jay Inslee John Hickenlooper
Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders
Beto O’Rourke Eric Swalwell
Tim Ryan Marianne Williamson
Elizabeth Warren Andrew Yang
What is odd about these assignments is that the currently most popular candidates largely ended up in the second night debate. Below are the candidates, from most to least popular, ranked by poll results. This ranking is only approximate, but it’s close enough for our purposes.
Joe Biden
Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren
Kamala Harris
Pete Buttigieg
Beto O’Rourke
Cory Booker
Amy Klobuchar
Andrew Yang
Julián Castro
Tim Ryan
Kirsten Gillibrand
Tulsi Gabbard
John Hickenlooper
Jay Inslee
Bill de Blasio
Michael Bennet
John Delaney
Marianne Williamson
Eric Swalwell
Notice that, of the first five candidates, four are scheduled for the second debate. Four of the next five candidates are in the first debate. This assignment is less than ideal. Frontrunners Biden, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg will be fighting it out on the second night, but Warren will seemingly be debating lesser lights.

To be sure, the Democrats did not create a varsity debate and a junior varsity debate as the GOP did, but the Democrats did not completely avoid the GOP error. If we rank the candidates by popularity, as judged by the polls, and number them 1 to 20, we find that the rank of the average participant in the first debate is 10.7, and the average rank of the average participant in the second debate is 10.3. In other words, the second debate has, on average, heavier hitters.

A much more evenhanded distribution would have placed candidates ranked by popularity in alternate debates. Such a procedure would have produced something like the following (first and second night rosters could be reversed):
FIRST NIGHT DEBATERS       SECOND NIGHT DEBATERS
Julián Castro Michael Bennet
Bill de Blasio Joe Biden
John Delaney Cory Booker
Kirsten Gillibrand Pete Buttigieg
Kamala Harris Tulsi Gabbard
John Hickenlooper Jay Inslee
Amy Klobuchar Tim Ryan
Beto O’Rourke Elizabeth Warren
Bernie Sanders Marianne Williamson
Eric Swalwell Andrew Yang
In this assignment, of the top six candidates, three are in each debate. Compared with the assignment actually being used, the above distribution moves five candidates from the first to the second night and five candidates from the second night to the first. This seems like a fairer candidate distribution. On the other hand, one could argue that the second night still is the more popular group, since we began by placing the most popular candidate, Joe Biden, in this group and then alternated selections based on the relative positions of the candidates. Ironically, the average position of the candidates on the first night is 11th, whereas the average position of the candidates on the second night is 10th. The second debate still looks like the more popular group.

This suggests a final “best” sorting of candidates. To compensate for putting the top-ranking candidate on the second night, we then choose the next two candidates for the first night, after which, we alternate debates taking two candidates at a time. This procedure yields the following schedule:
FIRST NIGHT DEBATERS       SECOND NIGHT DEBATERS
Cory Booker Michael Bennet
Julián Castro Joe Biden
John Delaney Pete Buttigieg
John Hickenlooper Bill de Blasio
Jay Inslee Tulsi Gabbard
Beto O’Rourke Kirsten Gillibrand
Tim Ryan Kamala Harris
Bernie Sanders Amy Klobuchar
Elizabeth Warren Eric Swalwell
Marianne Williamson Andrew Yang
In this assignment, three of the top six candidates are in each debate. The average position of a participant in each debate is 10.5. Interestingly, this scheme can be derived from the one being used by exchanging three first-night debaters for three second-night debaters.

One can quibble about whether my final proposal really is the best possible way to divide the candidates into two groups, but I think it’s pretty good and clearly better than what the Democrats came up with by drawing names from a hat (or whatever random procedure they used.)

After the debates, of course, the candidate rankings are certainly going to change. Stay tuned.

June 4, 2019

Can a President Be Indicted?

Despite clear evidence that the wealthy and well-connected receive preferential treatment by our justice system, America nonetheless aspires to a system of legal evenhandedness. We speak of “equal justice under law,” claim to have “a government of law, not of men,” speak of Justice being blind, and assert that “no one is above the law.”

Given this context, it is unsettling that the United States Department of Justice continues to maintain the position that the President of the United States cannot be indicted for actual crimes, whether in office or prior to assuming office. Longstanding Department of Justice policy holds that the president can only be disciplined through impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In this process, the House of Representatives draws up charges and the Senate determines guilt, a procedure seldom begun and never carried to its ultimate conclusion by removing a president from office.

In his recent statement before the press, Robert Mueller explained that Department of Justice policy precluded his indicting President Donald Trump for obstruction of justice despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence of Trump’s guilt. Had he been able to determine that the president had not obstructed justice, Mueller explained, he could have said so. He could not assert that Trump did obstruct justice because, given Department of Justice policy, Trump could not actually be indicted and could not defend himself against a publically announced charge absent an indictment. Mueller asserted that indicting a sitting president is unconstitutional.

Surely, the departmental logic explained by Mueller is a kind of Catch-22. It is also maddening in that nowhere in the Constitution is it stated, or even strongly implied, that a president cannot be indicted. That the Constitution provides for impeachment and conviction for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” does not logically entail a president’s immunity to more pedestrian prosecution mechanisms. A simple thought experiment is helpful here. Suppose that President Donald Trump actually shot and killed a citizen on Fifth Avenue. Is it reasonable that he would have to be impeached, convicted, indicted, tried, and convicted again in order to obtain justice?

 Two arguments are usually advanced for the president’s immunity from indictment. The most commonly advanced rationale is that the job of president is so demanding that we cannot have the occupant of the office distracted by an indictment. But President Bill Clinton faced a civil suit while in office and was forced to testify under oath. He faced impeachment as well and managed to fulfill his duties without bringing the government to a halt. Would having to deal with a criminal indictment be any more distracting?

In the case of Donald Trump, there is reason to believe that dealing with a criminal indictment might be easier than it would have been for most presidents, as our current chief executive spends an inordinate amount of time playing golf and is known to maintain a light schedule. If Trump found that defending himself against criminal charges would have a devastating effect on his golfing or tweeting, the Twenty-fifth Amendment could come to his rescue, relieving him, at least temporarily from ordinary presidential obligations.

The other argument raised against presidential indictments is rooted in the so-called unitary executive theory. This theory relies on an expansive reading of Article Two of the Constitution and claims that the president can assert power over the entire executive branch. He can therefore direct actions of the attorney general and prevent an indictment of the president from issuing. This theory, though attractive to those favoring a strong presidency—a class including the likes of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump—discounts undisputed powers over the executive branch held by the legislative branch, such as the power to approve or reject cabinet appointments. The Constitution does not say that the president cannot influence the Department of Justice—that department didn’t even exist in 1789—but logic and tradition argue against presidential interference. In any case, the unitary executive theory is rejected by a majority of legal scholars.

Actually, the notion that a president cannot be indicted and that this conclusion follows from the Constitution simply makes no sense. Our Founding Fathers had a bad experience with a king; they certainly did not want to create one to rule over their new nation. Only kings and dictators can do whatever they like without fear of consequences.

Some have argued—Mueller himself seems to believe—that the Constitution’s provision of the impeachment mechanism implies that there is no other way to discipline a president. But, the framers had no need to state explicitly that the president is subject to all the normal laws of the country that any citizen is expected to obey.

In fact, indictment/conviction and impeachment/conviction do different things. The former punishes a president but leaves him in office. The latter removes the president from office with no further penalty. It is conceivable that either process could be executed without the other. A president convicted of a crime could remain in office, though matters would get dicey were he incarcerated. If the crime is serious—certainly if the president were sent to jail—the chief executive would most likely be impeached. It is unclear that an impeached president would necessarily be subject to indictment if the impeachment process uncovered a crime. Nixon avoided impeachment only by resigning; Ford promptly pardoned him. (I thought this was wise at the time, but I’ve changed my mind.)

One final argument in favor of the ability to indict a president: delaying indictment for a suspected crime could mean that the statute of limitations might run out before the president is out of office. Mueller, in his recent public statement, asserted that the president could not even be subjected to a sealed indictment that was not revealed until the target left office. Because of the statute of limitations, this might mean that a criminal president could escape justice completely.

I believe the above arguments strongly support the federal government’s ability to indict a president. On the other hand, I see no move by the Justice Department to change its policy despite suggestions that it should do so. It is worth knowing how the department’s policy originated, however, something uncovered and described by Rachel Maddow on her MNBC show. (I will briefly describe what Maddow discovered, but recommend watching this video for complete details.)

In 1973, Attorney General Elliott Richardson had discovered that Vice President Spiro Agnew was engaged in ongoing criminal activity. He was also aware that President Richard Nixon might well be removed from office because of the developing Watergate scandal. Richardson wanted to get Agnew out of office lest he become president upon Nixon’s departure. Richardson asked Robert Dixon, in the Office of Legal Counsel, to determine if Agnew could be indicted. Dixon discovered that this question was not easily answered definitively. Understanding Richardson’s need, however, he wrote that a vice president could be indicted, but he contrasted this with the situation of the president, whose duties were such as to make indictment problematic. In other words, the Department of Justice’s policy on indicting a president was a kind of footnote to a policy involving the question of indicting the vice president. With Dixon’s memo in hand, Richardson was able to negotiate Agnew’s resignation, though at the cost of letting him walk free. Dixon’s memo has been revisited but retains Dixon’s basic logic. (You can read the successor to the Dixon memo here.)

Whereas I do not expect Donald Trump to be indicted on federal crimes anytime soon, it is worth mentioning another possibility. Trump’s financial activities are being investigated by the state of New York. There seems to be no obstacle to his being charged with a New York state crime. That would be very interesting.


Update, 6/7/2019, 8:54 PM. The text above contains minor additions and corrections.

June 1, 2019

Congress Should Rescind the President’s Tariff Authority

There has been much discussion about whether President Trump has the statutory authority to impose tariffs on products from Mexico in order to punish our southern neighbor for not stopping emigration from Central America. The just-announced tariffs are being widely seen as an inappropriate (and perhaps illegal) response to the reputed “crisis” on our southern border, as well as a supremely stupid move by a president trying to get his own recently negotiated North American trade treaty ratified.

Of course, Trump’s Mexico ploy is yet another crude attempt to use presidential tariff-making authority to bully friends and rivals alike to change their behavior to advance Trump’s own ignorant notion of American interest. Using a national-defense justification for imposing tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, for example, was ludicrous. The U.S. has adequate facilities to supply strategic metals, and it is inconceivable that the country is going to face Canada as an enemy.

To be sure, China has not always played fair in the world trade game, but Western greed has been an enabler of Chinese bad behavior. Moreover, our complaints against China are not so much about trade levies as about restrictions on American firms operating in China and theft of intellectual property. The U.S. might have pursued diplomacy as a first move rather than initiating what is rapidly becoming an alarming trade war. Trump, however, prefers bluster and brute force.

The president, who reputedly studied economics, does not understand that tariffs, although they may impose costs on nations against whose products they are levied, are paid directly by importers. Those importers are largely from the importing nation, and they usually pass on tariff costs to consumers of the importing nation.

In other words, Trump tariffs, whether on Canadian, Mexican, Chinese goods, or goods of other nations, are actually taxes on Americans. And taxes are, or should be, levies imposed by the representatives of Americans in Congress. Tariffs imposed by a president are really a form of taxation without representation, despite the fact that, in some sense, the president was elected by the American people. We do not intend to elect kings whose every action is authorized by virtue of his having been elected.

It is not President Trump’s fault that Congress has ceded certain tariff-making powers to the president. As it has in other areas, Congress has shirked its responsibilities in this area, either out of laziness, indifference, or conviction that it cannot reach consensus in a timely fashion (or, perhaps, ever). It is Congress’s fault that the president continues to be authorized to impose tariffs more or less at will.

The need to impose a tariff—a tax on the American people, remember—is almost never urgent. Why, then, should it be the president who has the ability to initiate a tariff with no warning or consultation with representatives of the American people? Whether a tariff is a foreign-policy or an economic tool, let the president make his case to the legislative branch. Trump’s national defense rationale for recent tariffs is hardly credible, and there was surely no need to impose tariffs without warning. If the need for a tariff is thought to be truly urgent, Congress should concur with that determination and act accordingly. If necessary, Congress can be called into an emergency session.

In recent years, the presidency has accumulated increasing power, largely due to Congress’s indifference or spinelessness. It is time that Congress, in rare bipartisan form, take back the power to impose tariffs from the chief executive. Doing so would be a first step toward re-establishing Congress as an effective co-equal branch of the American government instead of an extension of the administration in power. Such a step would help ensure our liberty in the coming years.

May 29, 2019

Congress Still Has Questions for Mueller

Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller went before reporters today and had important words to say about the report of his recently completed investigation into Russian interference in our 2016 election and interference with that investigation by the White House. He had two apparent goals in making his unanticipated public statement. First, he intended to emphasize what the report of his team actually says. This includes asserting that his team did not exonerate Donald Trump of obstruction of justice and was prevented by Department of Justice policy from making such a charge even if it were logically appropriate. Second, Mueller wanted to say that his testifying before Congress would not lead him to disclose anything that was not said in his report or in his statement today.

What Mueller made clear, if not totally explicit, is that Russian interference in our election was a very serious matter that calls for a legislative response from Congress. Likewise, it was clear from his remarks that he believes that Congress needs to perform its constitutional duty and embark on serious consideration of impeaching the president.

Indeed, Mueller answered—virtually, if not actually—many questions he might be expected to be asked were he to testify before Congress. In particular, he skirted the most obvious question while suggesting that the answer is in the affirmative, namely, would you have indicted the president were it not for DoJ policy? Nonetheless, there are questions of interested that Mueller could answer that have not been answered either in his report or in his lone public statement:

  1. Did the Mueller team investigate possible financial crimes by the president or his family members? Was this matter considered beyond his remit?
  2. Why did he not insist on interviewing the president himself and members of his family?
  3. What happened to the counterintelligence investigation begun by the FBI? Has it concluded? Is it ongoing?
  4. Did the investigation end when Mueller felt he had accomplished what was asked of him, or was he pressed to end it by Attorney General Bob Barr?
No doubt, there are other questions that members of Congress would like to ask Robert Mueller. Will they get a chance? Perhaps not, although Congress could compel an appearance by the former special prosecutor. In the meantime, Mueller has given Congress two important tasks to pursue.

Roe vs. the Radical Right

With the assent of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the radical forced-birth, anti-woman right wing of the Republican Party has changed its strategy for re-criminalizing abortion in this country. No longer content to restrict abortion at the margins and with a presumptively misogynous high court in place, those zealots who would control women’s reproductive lives have decided to go for broke. They are seeking a complete reversal of Roe v. Wade.

The strategy will fail. Recently passed laws in Alabama and elsewhere are intended to outlaw abortion, either literally or effectively. In light of Roe and subsequent related decisions, these laws are clearly unconstitutional. They will be summarily struck down when challenged, and trial court decisions will be affirmed on appeal.

Rabid red-state attorneys general will, of course, appeal their cases to the Supreme Court, but the court has no obligation to hear them. I think it likely that the court will reject the appeals and allow decisions of lower courts to stand. The recently passed laws present no new issues to the court for adjudication that are not settled by Roe itself. Unless the court intends to overturn Roe, it would be a waste of time to accept an appeal only to maintain the status quo.

Undoubtedly, the current Supreme Court is a conservative court, but the justices are not above considering public opinion. Overturning Roe, although it would cheer some right-wing radicals, it not desired by most citizens even though there is broad consensus that the right to choose to have an abortion should have some reasonable limits. Moreover, in Roe, the court found a constitutional right to privacy in its decision, and, in the current climate, the court’s asserting that citizens have no such right could unleash a firestorm of protest. It is widely believed that Chief Justice Roberts is an institutionalist and would fear that overturning a longstanding decision like Roe would risk harming the court’s reputation as an impartial adjudicator of the law.

At least one recent decision suggests that the Supreme Court continues to support Roe while allowing states to enact certain abortion-related regulations. In Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, the court allowed Indiana regulations on the disposal of fetal tissue removed in an abortion to stand, but it struck down limitations on why a woman may choose to have an abortion. In general, of course, although the Supreme Court can overturn longstanding decisions, it tends to avoid doing so except for compelling reasons. Recently appointed justices have, however, described Roe as “settled law,” though perhaps with questionable sincerity.

That said, it is hardly clear that Roe is safe long-term. Republican continue to select conservatives for judicial appointments, and those candidates have lately begun refusing to answer the question “was Brown v. Board of Education wrongly decided?” This is a scary situation. (I think the question should be about Plessy v. Ferguson or Dred Scott v. Sandford, to which a failure to answer or a positive answer should clearly be disqualifying.) Is the latest cohort of judges ready to completely overturn our body of law? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, although the high court can change its mind, for now, those who would force women to carry every pregnancy to term are going to be disappointed. Roe is not seriously challenged by the latest batch of radical state laws.

May 26, 2019

Age and the Democratic Candidates

Whatever virtues or flaws one might attribute to particular presidential aspirants, one characteristic that must be considered when selecting a candidate is age. Two of the leading Democratic presidential hopefuls are, to put it delicately, old. Joe Biden was born November 20, 1942; Bernie Sanders was born October 8, 1941. Were one of them to be elected president in 2020, he would be 78 or 79 years old, respectively, when inaugurated and would become the oldest inaugurated president. (Donald Trump currently holds that record, having been 70 on inauguration day.) Were that person to serve two terms—Democrats surely want the next president to be a Democrat and to be re-elected in 2024—he would be 86 or 87 years old, respectively, upon leaving office. At such time, his age would be greater than his actuarial life expectancy.

It need hardly be said that, as one advances in age, one is increasingly likely to suffer medical issues, serious disabilities, or death. Were Democrats to select either Biden or Sanders as their standard bearer in 2020, the selection of a vice-presidential candidate would become more important than usual, as that person would have a significant likelihood of becoming President of the United States.

I believe that, on the basis of age alone, neither Biden nor Sanders is a wise (and perhaps not even a viable) choice as the Democratic nominee.

And as much as I like Elizabeth Warren, she, having been born on June 22, 1949, is only three years younger than Donald Trump. If she assumed office on January 20, 2021, even she would displace the incumbent as the oldest president upon inauguration.

Even were Republicans to ignore the age factor during the 2020 campaign, should Biden, Sanders, or even Warren gets the Democratic nomination, Democrats would still be making a serious error in selecting such an elderly candidate.

Democrats have a gaggle of younger, attractive presidential aspirants. They should select one of them as their standard bearer.


May 21, 2019

Abortion as Murder

Those who assert that abortion is murder are hypocrites if they do not support severe penalties for women who have abortions.

If I pay a contract killer to murder someone, and my role in the killing is discovered, I am almost certainly going to prison. If one believes that abortion is murder, how is this situation different from a woman’s hiring an abortionist? Has the woman no responsibility for initiating what is viewed as a crime?

Those who would only punish the doctor who performs an abortion either do not really believe abortion is murder, or they lack the moral clarity or courage to recognize and act upon the full implications of their belief. In either case, their claim to occupy the high moral ground is spurious.

May 17, 2019

Trump, Iran, and the World

Donald Trump said yesterday that he doesn’t want war with Iran; he is only interested in keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Of course, the agreement with Iran that the president was so eager to get out of was designed to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, the agreement was working well and was accomplishing its key objective.

What Trump didn’t like about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was its multilateral nature. We have a president who hates co-operative agreements involving multiple states, whether they be NAFTA, the TTP, the JCPOA, the Paris Accord, or even the United Nations itself.

A former master of his own business empire, President Trump wants analogous control over U.S. agreements with other nations. He abhors the compromises required to obtain consensus among multiple partners, irrespective of the benefits that might accrue from an agreement. Trump’s need for control is obvious, too, in his domestic role as leader of the United States. Somehow, Donald Trump never learned those lessons in kindergarten about getting along with others.

Multilateral co-operation among nations has made the post-WWII world safe, prosperous, and largely democratic. Although the U.S. has been a key player in its creation, the Pax Americana was not the result of putting the United States first in all things, as Trump would now have it. The world was a better place because we actively sought a better world for everyone, not simply a world dominated by and for the United States of America. Donald Trump is now determined to destroy that world.

It will be up to the next president—one hopes a Democratic president—to rebuild the safe, prosperous, democratic world that Donald Trump is destroying.

March 27, 2019

A Different Redistricting Idea

My Great Decisions discussion group got somewhat off track yesterday and entertained a long discussion on the merits of the Electoral College as a means of electing our president. Although most participants had a negative view of the electoral system going into the discussion, a small minority—really only one person—claimed that the system gives minorities a fighting chance of having influence. She argued that our electoral system discourages insurrection by those who feel disenfranchised.

The counter-argument made was that voters in small states are afforded influence far beyond their numbers, and voters in large states dominated by a single party—New York and California most notably—have virtually no influence.

Someone made a suggestion I never considered and one that seems appropriate at a time when political gerrymandering is before the Supreme Court. Why not, this person suggested, redistrict the entire country into ten or so states with more or less equal populations? Is this not the kind of result progressives are seeking within the existing states? Not exactly, of course, though clever redistricting can concentrate voters of one party in one district and distribute such voters among several districts, in each case intending to reduce the influence of individual voters of one party. Of course, the worst case of voter inequality is enshrined in the U.S. Senate, in which a senator from Montana has many fewer constituents than one from California.

We aren’t going to redefine our 50 states into 10. The difficulties involved are legion. For federal election purposes, could we define, in some reasonably fair way, 10 or so virtual states, each with the same number of inhabitants and electoral votes? Or we could simply amend the Constitution to allow direct election of the president and vice president.

Ordnances

A report on NPR this morning spoke of removing “unexploded ordnances” in Vietnam. This immediately sent me to dictionaries to check my understanding of “ordnance.” The word refers to canons, artillery, or munitions generally, and it may, according to some sources, refer as well to related matériel.

In any case, “ordnance” is a collective noun. We normally don’t speak of one ordnance or many ordnances. An artillery shell is ordnance. A pile of artillery shell is also ordnance.

The NPR reporter Michele Kelemen was clearly wrong in her use of the phrase “unexploded ordnances.” In fact, it is difficult to imagine when “ordnances” might be properly used, though one can imagine comparing the military resources of two countries and remarking on the differences in their “ordnances.” Even that might be a stretch.

As an aside, I should note that “ordnance” should not be confused with “ordinance” (a decree, regulation, etc.), a word that is often used in the plural. It is amusing, however, to think about what “unexploded ordinances” might be.

March 24, 2019

Slogan Compromise

In light of the many unarmed black males killed by police, a popular slogan has become

BLACK LIVES MATTER.

The angry right-wing white reaction to this slogan became

ALL LIVES MATTER.

Of course, both of these slogans are true, though the second is intended to minimize the significance of the first.

We should compromise the black vs. white rhetoric by combining these slogans:

ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER.

March 19, 2019

Three Unneeded Presidential Candidates

The pool of candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination is large and growing. This is a mixed blessing, and some of the contenders are not helpful additions to the race.

It is gratifying, of course, that so many people are qualified (or see themselves as being qualified) to seek the presidency. Before hats began being thrown into the proverbial ring, I had a short, if tentative, list of those I thought reasonable candidates. My list included few of the present hopefuls, and at least one person on my list shows no inclination to run. It is good to have choices, though, and to learn of qualifications of which I had been unaware. But such a large field creates problems by its size alone.

Campaigning is expensive, and, although some candidates have reported striking fund-raising success early on, I worry that there will be insufficient money to create anything like a level playing field for all the players. But the advent of Donald Trump has energized the Democratic faithful, so my concern could be unfounded. I plan to give money to at least one candidate.

The value of presidential debates has been questioned, but debates among candidates for the nomination are undoubtedly useful, since, invariably, not everyone is well-known. With so many candidates, however, it is difficult to design a debate format that allows all candidates to be compared head-to-head. Certainly, the “kids’ table” plan used by the Republicans in 2016 was not satisfactory. I think Democrats are determined to avoid that mistake, but it is difficult to imagine a debate scheme that works equally well for 5 candidates and for twenty candidates. The fairness and usefulness of debates are difficult to assure.

Because there are so many contenders, it may be hard for voters to distinguish candidates from one another generally and from similarly positioned rivals specifically. Some candidates claim to be progressive, and others are pitching themselves as moderates, though they may not use that word. (Certainly, no Democrat is claiming to be conservative.) Devising a linear ordering of candidates from centrist to leftist is difficult enough, and it is complicated by differential financial support and the vagaries of debates and media coverage. Other factors complicate the choice faced by voters—issues of sex, race, age, experience, and aggressiveness.

With so many people running, our usual voting system is not well-suited to selecting the people’s choice. For example, the progressive vote could be split among left-leaning candidates, allowing a more moderate candidate to gain a plurality of votes. Delegate selection is not winner-take-all everywhere, of course, but, in an ideal world, we would be using some form of ranked preference voting in all our elections. (See, for example, “The People’s Choice (Round Two).”) Unfortunately, such an innovation is a hard sell. Don’t discount a crapshoot.

On the positive side, the presidential-primary process is a kind of trial by ordeal. Over a period of months, candidates invariably stumble. The nature of their mistakes and how they recover from them offer insight into their character, their staff choices, and their capabilities. One hopes that such insight helps voters make better choices.

Considering all of the foregoing, there are three candidates I would prefer not to see in the Democratic race: Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden.

It concerns me that Beto O’Rourke is fundamentally a pretty face. He is winsome, articulate, handsome, youthful, and devoid of significant political accomplishment. Admittedly, youthfulness is not to be despised, but I worry that O’Rourke will draw support from older candidates of substance. I fear that Trump would eat him for breakfast.

There are two obvious strikes against Bernie Sanders, in my mind at least. First, he is not a Democrat. Why do we even let him run in Democratic primaries? Admittedly, he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, but one has to ask why he avoids casting his lot with the party whose nomination he seeks. If he does not win the nomination, he will remain only a near-Democrat. More importantly, Sanders is—pardon the ageist rhetoric—old, even older than Donald Trump. If elected president, he would begin his term at age 79. Is it a fair bet that he could remain a capable executive and commander-in-chief through two full terms? Surely, we do not want to elect a one-term Democratic president. Sanders has proposed interesting objectives, but it is less clear that he has practical policies that could reasonably implement them. One can only guess at Sanders’ foreign policy priorities. His candidacy will drain votes from younger left-leaning candidates without Sanders’ name recognition and fund-raising ability.

Finally, we come to Joe Biden. In his way, he is as charming as Beto O’Rourke, though his propensity to hug anything that moves is a little creepy. Unlike some other candidates, no one seriously questions Biden’s qualifications—Trump would, of course—though, admittedly, he has some slipups in his past. Biden is nearly as old as Sanders, however, and I think that should be considered too old. Moreover, in the Democratic field, he is clearly a moderate. His name-recognition advantage may keep the party from selecting what I think is necessary to beat Donald Trump, namely, an aggressive liberal (or aggressive progressive, if you prefer).

The race for the Democratic nomination is just beginning. As of this writing, Joe Biden is still doing his Hamlet impression, but few doubt that he will enter the fray. I hope he does not and does not do well if he does. I hope people will see Bernie Sanders as a grumpy old man unlikely to gain the support of those who do not support him already. And I hope that Democrats will see Beto O’Rourke is a promising candidate in need of additional experience and accomplishment.

However the primary season plays out, it is likely to be a wild ride. Stay tuned.

March 4, 2019

Six Language Quibbles

What is wrong with the sentence below?

Both accused each other.

This is but one of the issues I deal with in a new essay on my Web site titled “Six Language Quibbles.” You can read what drives me crazy here.

March 3, 2019

An MLB Safety Concern

While watching a Spring Training baseball game the other day, I saw a fielder practically trip over a chair used by a ball girl in foul territory. Her chair need not have been a safety hazard. I’ve added an essay about this situation on my Web site. You can read “Another MLB Safety Concern” here.

February 19, 2019

A General Principle Regarding Odd Results

A few days ago, I baked cookies from a recipe published by The New York Times, a kind of salty chocolate chip shortbread. I had originally intended to bake the cookies for a Christmas Eve reception, but I was just getting around to it. Besides being intrigued by the ingredients of the cookies—including flake salt and demerara sugar—I was pleased that the recipe supplied both volume and weight for each of its dry components. Being able to weigh ingredients promised a foolproof baking experience.

Well, maybe not. The dough was very crumbly and difficult to work with. The baked cookies were just OK but were too chocolatey, a fact that reminded me of an oddity I noticed during preparation. The recipe called for six ounces of chocolate chips. I measured out chips from what was supposed to be a 12-ounce bag. Six ounces of chocolate chips seemed to require about three-quarters of the bag. I didn’t think deeply about this at the time, but I wondered if Ghirardelli wasn’t playing fair.

The next morning, I had cereal for breakfast, and, as I usually do, I measured out a 56-gram serving on my kitchen scale. The quantity of cereal seemed to be about what I usually put into my cereal bowl. I recalled, however, that the last time I had cereal, my 56-gram serving seemed substantially larger. I began to see a pattern I should have noticed earlier. Had my scale gone bananas?

After breakfast, I decided to check my scale’s calibration. Although I didn’t have a set of standard weights, I did have a few items of known weight, if only approximately so. I began with a three-pound hand weight. According to my scale, it weighed about 2.5 pounds. My other three-pound weight weighed about the same. I next tried weighing some coins. A nickel, which is supposed to weigh 5 grams, came in at 3 grams. At this point, I concluded that my kitchen scale had lost its mind. Time for another scale.

Eventually, I found a Cook’s Illustrated story rating kitchen scales. This led me to order an outrageously expensive Oxo scale from Williams-Sonoma, mercifully, with a 20% discount for God knows what reason. Alas, the scale is back ordered at the moment. I look forward to receiving it next month.

The next day, I checked the batteries in my scale (two AAA cells). They checked out fine and supplied almost exactly the same voltage. I really do need a new scale.

There is a lesson here, one that has nothing to do with baking. The lesson is this: When a result is out-of-the-ordinary, one should not ignore it or be happy if the unexpected result appears favorable. Instead, one should check out whether something is amiss, as it probably is. This principle applies to the behavior of computers, cellphones, cars (especially) and people. Stay alert!

February 13, 2019

Breakfast Encounter

I had a rough morning, so I decided to have breakfast out. I went to Crouse Café, which serves only breakfast and lunch, and which does a particularly fine job of breakfast. I sat down in a booth, took off my hat, gloves, and jacket, and got comfortable.

I soon became aware of someone sitting at a table facing my booth a few yards away. The person was a 20-ish, bearded male speaking what I guessed was Arabic. He wore earbuds and was carrying on a lively conversation on his cellphone. What was weird was that, although no one was sitting across from him, he spoke and gestured as though someone was. It was as if an invisible companion, with his back to me, was participating in the conversation. Were it not for the earbuds, I might have thought the guy was conversing with Harvey.

When I talk on the telephone, I don’t believer I act in the same way I would were I participating in a face-to-face conversation. Of course, I don’t observe myself in such circumstances, so I may behave stranger than I think.

Have others seen the behavior I did this morning? Do you think it is common?

January 15, 2019

Why Concern About the Trump-Russian Connection Is Not Simply Paranoia

If President Donald Trump did not have a problematic relationship with the Russian government and if he were a mentally healthy person of normal intelligence, he would recognize that appearances raise legitimate concerns about that relationship, and he would offer a satisfactory explanation for those appearances, rather than constantly asserting that “there was no collusion.”

January 14, 2019

Protecting Already-Born Women

Having read the extended report by the editorial board of The New York Times titled “A Woman’s Rights,” I was distressed to read the story in my local paper, The Indiana Gazette, that carried the headline “White Seeking Change to Pennsylvania High Court’s Decision.” “White” is the powerful local state senator Don White, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision referred to ruled that a woman cannot be charged with child abuse for her drug use during pregnancy. A Gazette story a few days earlier explained that
The Supreme Court’s main opinion said the law’s definition of a child does not include fetuses or unborn children, and victims of perpetrators must be children under the Child Protective Services Law.
I immediately recognized the danger in Senator White’s proposal. After a couple of days’ consideration, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Gazette that was published last week. The text of my letter follows:
I oppose state Sen. Don White’s efforts to facilitate prosecution for child abuse of mothers who have taken illegal drugs (“White seeking change to high court’s decision,” Sunday).
Whereas his appears to be a sincere effort to protect the innocent, it is actually a step toward granting personhood to the unborn and abridging the constitutional rights of women. Attributing personhood (and therefore rights) to the unborn is a legal minefield intended by anti-choice activists ultimately to outlaw abortion and perhaps even birth control.
In the near future, it could allow for such absurdities as prosecution for homicide of less-than-perfect mothers experiencing miscarriages. Senator White’s proposal must not become law.
Lionel Deimel
Indiana
Whether my letter will cause people to rethink their initial reaction to Senator White’s proposal, I don’t know. I hope it will.

Can We Find Common Ground on the Wall?

The government shutdown caused by President Trump’s insistence that Congress appropriate nearly six billion dollars for his border wall continues into this week. A wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico is a wasteful and ineffectual project dreamed up by the Trump campaign to rally Trump’s most rabid and ignorant voters. The Democrats, fresh from a major win in the recent midterm elections, see an opportunity not only to derail an ill-conceived project but also to deliver a devasting blow to a dangerous and incompetent president. Trump recognizes the threat and is seeking to avoid defeat at all costs.

I suggested earlier that the current standoff will likely end when constituents pressure the Congress to reactivate those parts of the government that have been closed down. At that point, a funding bill could be passed over a presidential veto. Before that happens, Trump may declare an “emergency,” which could trigger a constitutional crisis those outcome cannot be predicted. Is a compromise available that delivers at least a partial victory to each side? I think there is.

Trump’s wall is clearly a wacky idea that, even if built, would not fulfill his promise of its being paid for by the Mexican government. That said, our southern border already contains lengths of barriers that have been considered necessary and effective by both Republicans and Democrats. Trump’s funding demand clearly will not complete a Great Wall of America. However, what if the president proposed building a specific type of barrier in specified places and articulated credible justification for the project? If he is incapable of doing this, gridlock will continue. If Trump can offer a rational argument for a limited construction project and not just his I-want-it-so-you-have-to-give-it-to-me reasoning, perhaps politicians can find a compromise to fund an enhanced border barrier and reopen the government.

Likely, neither the president nor congressional Democrats will be fond of my suggestion, but, if politics is the art of the possible, there may be a way forward to be had on the table.

January 5, 2019

A Prediction

I am not in the habit of making predictions regarding political events. Prognostication too easily leads to embarrassment. Nevertheless, today I confidently stick my neck out: The partial government shutdown will not last a year (as President Trump suggested it could) or any substantial part of a year. You can take that prediction to the bank.

As we enter the third week of the government shutdown caused by Trump’s insistence of being granted billions of dollars—the latest number is 5.6—for construction of a wasteful and unnecessary wall on our southern border, neither the president himself nor the newly empowered Democrats seem inclined to abandon the presently held position. Trump views wall-building as the fulfillment of a major campaign promise, though he seems to have forgotten the other part of his promise, namely, that Mexico would pay for the wall. Democrats, emboldened by their electoral success in the recent midterms, are presenting a united front against funding Trump’s Folly, though not against money for “border security.” Each side believes it would be suicidal to relent.

Democrats, however, have the stronger position. The government shutdown, contrary to Trump¹s confident, yet uninformed, prattle, is not popular, particularly among those whose livelihood is being threatened by it. Moreover, Trump has gleefully taken credit for the shutdown, though he now is trying to pin the blame on the Democrats. The Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, on the other hand, have presented a picture of reasonableness, being willing to pay for border security and to accept funding priorities previously adopted by a Republican Senate.

Long before the year Trump has suggested a shutdown might last, Americans will revolt. They will insist on having their National Parks, airport security, and income tax refunds. The Trump base may stick with its champion, but Republican members of Congress will see the writing on the wall. If they continue to support the president and his infantile tantrums over wall funding, their own continued employment will be in jeopardy. Republicans will eventually have to respond to the angry cards, letters, and phone calls from Americans demanding an end to governmental insanity and a return to business as usual. Calls for money to build a wall will be few and far between.

In the end, President Trump will lose and lose big. His intransigence may itself be sufficient to make impeachment seem like the only reasonable way forward.

God save the United States of America!

January 4, 2019

Congress, Grow a Backbone

For the past two years, Congress, under Republican control, refused to pass bills—in many cases, even refused to consider bills—that President Trump had declared he would not sign. Undoubtedly, congressional Republicans and the president were often in agreement regarding public policy, though likely not always. Party loyalty was assuredly being put before concerns for the public good.

The Founding Fathers created a form of government consisting of three branches. Those branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—were related to one another, but they were intended to possess a substantial degree of independence. In particular, it was not the intent of the Constitution that the president would be the determiner of what bills Congress would pass.

To a remarkable degree, President Trump has merged the legislative and executive branches into a unified body for the creation of public policy. More worrisome still has been the Republican packing of the judicial branch with judges holding unpopular views, but views consistent with those of our current, unpopular president. It is not hyperbolic to suggest that the checks and balances built into the polity of the United States of America are threatened as never before.

A ray of hope for democracy is represented by the capture of control of the House of Representatives by members of the Democratic (not Democrat!) Party. Democrats are immediately challenging what has become the status quo. The House has passed spending legislation consistent with what the Senate passed in the previous Congress. That legislation lacks funding for Trump’s ill-conceived wall, however. The Senate should concur with what the House has done and challenge the president to veto the legislation. Surely, Trump would be inclined to exercise a veto, but doing so would likely be widely unpopular, particularly among workers being deprived of their livelihood by the current partial government shutdown.

Congress has an opportunity to assert its independence and should do so forthwith. It is unlikely that Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell will allow a vote on legislation the president doesn't want, but allowing the Senate to vote on the legislation passed by the House will give the Senate, Senator McConnell, and the American people more power. Congress’s growth of a backbone just might force the president to do something he doesn’t want to do. At the very least, it would put President Trump between a rock and a hard place.