September 11, 2019

A Different Kind of Presidential Candidate Debate

With yet another debate among Democratic presidential candidates nearly upon us, now is a good time to consider the value of these events and whether the present format is serving us well.

Aside from anything that happens on camera, a candidate benefits from simply being in a debate, particularly in the early stages of the campaign. Whereas a candidate like Joe Biden is well-known, a candidate such as Julián Castro is less familiar to the electorate and benefits substantially from the exposure afforded by a spot on the stage. Candidates, such as Tulsi Gabbard, who were cut from the pack this time, miss an opportunity to re-introduce themselves and put their policies before the public. Of course, participation in a debate is not a guaranteed benefit. Who can forget Rick Perry’s failure to remember the three cabinet departments he wanted to get rid of? (Ironically, of course, he now heads one of those.)

What we have come to call a debate is really not a debate in the formal sense, and the more people there are on the stage the less debate-like it becomes. With ten “debaters,” there is little opportunity for sustained disputation, and, unless moderators aggressively enforce rules of who can speak when, the event can quickly become a verbal free-for-all. Candidates trailing in the polls have every incentive to speak out-of-turn knowing, realistically, that they will be called on by the moderators less frequently than the more popular participants.

Moderators have conflicting objectives. They want to be (or at least seem to be) fair to everyone; they want to explore issues that have been raised in the campaign; and they want to produce engaging television. Should they try to give everyone equal time, knowing full well that some of the hopefuls have no chance of becoming their party’s nominee? And who wants to hear from the least popular candidate as much as from the front-runner anyway? Both to explore issues and to generate lively discussion, moderators have a tendency to play let’s-you-and-him (or her)-fight by asking participants to critique the policies of a particular rival. This can make for exciting television, but it often exaggerates the differences between candidates and leaves some participants out of the discussion.

Particularly at this point in the campaign, the usual debate format encourages fights over minutiae among people who largely agree with one another, and it rewards clever bons mots created in advance specially for the occasion. Debates (and the primary campaign generally) artificially encourage articulation of policies that are markedly different from (and, implicitly, better than) those of other candidates. Politicians generally, not only Donald Trump, are loath to admit to either having made a mistake or to having found another’s idea to be an improvement on the politician’s own.

Debates can be enhanced in small ways. Four years ago, I offered some possible improvements. (See “Suggestions for Presidential Debates.”)  But perhaps what we need is something quite different, at least during the early presidential primary season. I offer a debate-alternative below and suggest why I think it would be a helpful addition to our political toolbox. Others may have even better ideas. I do think we need better ideas!

Let’s face it; debating skills (or whatever skills are needed for what we call debates) are not an important skill required of the chief executive. In fact, skills needed to become president, particularly those observable to voters, are not necessarily the most important skills needed to be president. Candidates can exhibit more important presidential skills and give voters a better sense of just who they are by radically changing the nature of intra-party debates.

Here is my suggested format: Seat (not stand) the candidates in a semi-circle faced by the moderator. There should be no studio audience. Candidates are not allowed to have notes. The moderator will have chosen in advance a set of problems (not solutions) to discuss and an amount of time to be devoted to each problem. Although candidates could be given a problem list ahead of time, this is likely unnecessary, as the important issues facing the nation should be obvious. A surprise topic or two might usefully contribute to the program, however. Candidates are expected to discuss—this could mean arguing about—the nature and causes of the problem, as well as possible approaches to ameliorating it. Other duties of the moderator are the following:

  • Call on participants based on raised hands.
  • Without imposing a fixed time limit on contributions, ensure that no one dominates the discussion.
  • Keep the discussion on topic.
  • Do not allow discussion of measures to deal with the problem until a substantial consensus is reached about the nature and causes of the problem.
  • Insofar as it’s possible, give everyone who wants to speak an equal opportunity to do so.
  • Move on to the next topic when the time for the current one expires, irrespective of the state of the discussion. (The moderator should avoid interrupting a speaker if possible.)
 The event could begin with brief statements by the candidates without limit on what they may say. It should end with statements responding to the experience of what has just occurred.

This format has a number of advantages over the conventional one:

  • It provides a sense of how candidates approach problems and make decisions, important presidential skills.
  • It is likely to provide a better sense of candidates’ temperaments than does the usual high-pressure debate, with its need to upstage particular rivals.
  • It provides a better sense of candidates’ philosophical orientation.
  • It educates the audience about the issues of the day, something that provides insight into proposed policies.
  • To the degree that candidates put forth a plan devised in advance, they are forced to “show their work,” i.e., explain explicitly how their “solution” relates to their understanding of the problem.
  • It provides a sense of where the party itself stands and of the distribution of views within the party. The format encourages consensus, rather than uniqueness of ideas, offering a strong sense of the party. (Commentators have complained that people no longer know what the Democratic Party stands for.)
  • Ultimately, it should help candidates hone their proposals, based on ideas from other candidates.
This format is not perfect. For example, it relies on candidates themselves to criticize ideas that may not be implementable. (In the debates so far, participants have put forward many programs that would require the coöperation of Congress. These are unlikely to come to pass unless the Democratic Party achieves control of the Senate, in 2022, if not 2020.)

Debates later in the campaign season should probably be some variation of the conventional events.

Evidence suggests that, for many people, policy positions are less important than character, the 2016 election notwithstanding. My modified debate scheme may be more helpful to voters for whom that is true.

September 6, 2019

Arguing Against an Anti-abortion Argument

In a story titled “Plan C,” by Nona Liss-Schultz, in the current issue of Mother Jones, Alabama State Senator Clyde Chambliss is quoted as saying, “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.” That being a religious argument, of course, it is hardly a legitimate basis for legislation. There is nothing wrong with legislators taking religious concerns into account, however. But this argument is crazy even as a religious argument.

Chambliss’s reasoning can easily lead to a sense of powerlessness and a willingness to accept whatever fortune or tragedy comes our way. But fatalism is not a particularly useful philosophy, and a Christianity that rejects free will must necessarily reject salvation as well. I don’t think I exaggerate by paraphrasing Chambliss’s statement as don’t fuck with God’s plan.

If we are to accept a pregnancy as a God-given event not properly subject to human intervention, what other “gifts” of God should receive similar consideration? How about breast cancer? Muscular dystrophy? Polio? Swine flu? Are we to eschew medicine entirely? Why stop at medicine. Aren’t floods “acts of God?” Is it moral to try to avoid them, say, by building levies? You get my point.

But, back to the pregnancy thing. You may choose to think of pregnancy as an act of God, but, let’s face it, two people are directly responsible for it. Parents—willing or not—need to take responsibility for a largely avoidable event, not blame it on God. If the pregnancy was a human “mistake,” why should we prohibit a human correction?

On the other hand, contracting breast cancer or muscular dystrophy is, as far as we know,  a circumstance over which we have no control. Surely, such medical tragedies are more easily seen as God’s work than pregnancy. Is it “not our place as human beings” to intervene? Why is the case for non-intervention regarding pregnancy stronger than that for breast cancer?

Let’s face it, Chambliss, like so many “pro-life” partisans, abhor abortions for their own reasons, and they are willing to advance any argument, however illogical or inconsistent, to try to make abortions illegal. Their arguments, however crazy, must always be countered.

September 4, 2019

Happy Summer Day

Happy Summer Day
by Lionel Deimel

An ordinary drive across town
Past the usual scenery with its familiar flagpoles
Fronting fire station, bank, courthouse, high school
Flying red, white, and blue banners
Emblazoned against a cloudless azure sky
Below their bold silver finials
Evincing pride in a great nation
And announcing a happy day across the land:
There were no mass shootings yesterday.


The above poem is a second draft. I’m not sure if I will revise it further.

It seems that flags fly at half-staff frequently these days. As I drive past them, I sometimes have to ask why they are not flying high that particular day. Often, however, I know the flags are at half-staff in acknowledgment of a mass shooting somewhere in the country. These were not always so common.

August 30, 2019

A Long-Awaited Movie Arrives

I am a big fan of the late Shirley Jackson. I discovered her writing on my own in my early college years. After reading her infamous short story The Lottery, I went on to explore her novels and was particularly taken by her last novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Like much of Jackson’s writing, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a bit strange. It involves the surviving members of a wealthy family living in a large estate in a small town. The story is told from the point of view of 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, Merricat, who lives with her older sister Constance and uncle Julian. Other members of the family were killed by ingesting arsenic-laced sugar six years earlier, an incident for which Constance was tried and acquited. As a result, Constance refuses to leave the grounds, and Merricat is responsible for obtaining groceries and library books from the town. (Uncle Julian is confined to a wheelchair.) Townsfolk were apparently hostile to the Blackwood family even before the poisoning, an attitude intensified by the perception that Constance got away with murder. Merricat is also responsible, in her mind, at least, for protecting the family through magic. The girl is odd. In fact, all three inhabitants of the Blackwood “castle” are odd, perhaps downright crazy.

Into this peculiar family, comes, unbidden, Cousin Charles, whose motives Merricat rightly suspects. Lest I fully reveal the plot, suffice it to say that Charles ultimately brings tragedy to the family, which, reduced by the death of Uncle Julian, is determined, at the end of the novel, to carry on.

Ever since I read and reread the Jackson novel, I have wished for it to be turned into a movie. About a decade ago, there was an announcement that this was actually going to happen. Year after year, hints of progress surfaced, but no film appeared. It seemed unlikely that the novel would become a blockbuster movie, but I wanted to see the cinematic product even if it turned out to be a bad film. Finally, nearly ago, We Have Always Lived in the Castle became an actual movie. For months, however, I searched in vain for it. It was unlikely that it would show up in the local theater. It was not on Netflix; it was not on Amazon; it was not on television. I kept looking, and I recently found it in a Red Box kiosk. It was checked out from the kiosk where I first saw it, but I was able to obtain the DVD from another Red Box dispenser a few days later.

The wait was worth it. The movie, though not perfect—it contains a few stupid missteps—is wonderful. It captures and intensifies the weirdness of Jackson’s novel without deviating from its bizarre story. (You can find details about the movie on Wikipedia, but, if you have yet to read the book or see the movie, skip the plot summary.) Ironically, I just learned that We Have Always Lived in the Castle will be available on Netflix on September 14, nearly a year after its premiere at the LA Film Festival. I will watch it again and recommend it to you as well.

August 21, 2019

Please, Not Joe Biden

I am distressed that Joe Biden continues to lead the polls of Democratic presidential candidates. His popularity is the product of widespread name recognition and his association with Barack Obama. But, despite what many maintain, there is no compelling reason to believe that Biden’s present popularity necessarily translates into sure-fire electability.

Any candidate selected by the Democratic Party will achieve strong name recognition soon enough. That person could have attributes Biden does not possess—youthfulness comes immediately to mind—and could lack some of Biden’s liabilities, such as his checkered legislative record.

Biden is certainly not as sharp as he once was—though garbled utterances are something of a Biden tradition—and he may not have sufficient wit to counter Trump’s bizarre, fact-free debating style.

I continue to hope for an exciting Democratic nominee younger than the likes of Biden, Sanders, and Warren. I will work for whoever is the Democratic candidate, of course, but, if the candidate is Biden, it will be difficult for me to conjure up genuine enthusiasm for the party’s standard-bearer other than as a person who is not Trump.

August 5, 2019

Making Credible Campaign Promises

The promises made by Democratic presidential candidates can be exhilarating: free college tuition, affordable health care for all, higher minimum wage, forgiveness of college loans, guaranteed monthly income. Virtually all the proffered policies are programs that cannot be implemented by the president alone, however. They would all require congressional action. That action is unlikely even were the Democrats able to retake the Senate.

This is not to say that Democrats should forego big ideas. Big ideas, even if only aspirational, can inspire voters. What cannot be accomplished today may be possible tomorrow. As Senator Elizabeth Warren asked, why run for president just to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for?

Democrats do run the risk of seeming unrealistic and open to the charge of being socialist if nothing they propose appears practical in the foreseeable future. Candidates can increase their appeal in the minds of voters, however, by also (1) talking about their philosophical approach to governing and to particular problems, (2) emphasizing their qualifications for office, (3) exhibiting attractive personal attributes, and (4) telling people what they most certainly will be able to do once they are in the Oval Office.

This last item is especially important in that it allows the candidates to appear thoughtful and realistic, while at the same time implicitly attacking the incumbent. Possible campaign promises of this sort might include any of the following, in no particular order:

  1. Never use Twitter to announce policy, and use it only occasionally to call attention to conventional policy documents, requests for comment, etc.
  2. Commit to holding regular press conferences at least monthly.
  3. Propose cabinet members with demonstrable and relevant expertise, personal integrity, and no significant real or apparent conflicts of interest.
  4. Begin a process of evaluating regulations eliminated or weakened by the current administration, with the understanding that regulations are needed for the just and effective running of our society.
  5. Nominate judges having a mainstream judicial philosophy.
  6. Visit leaders of allied nations early in the presidency to reassure our allies that the United States is a reliable partner.
  7. Halt arm sales to Saudi Arabia pending improvement in that country’s human rights record.
  8. Halt financial support to Israel if that nation will not suspend the building of new settlements and the destruction of Palestinian dwellings.
  9. Declare that Israel and the Palestinians can either negotiate an acceptable two-state solution or Israel must incorporate Palestinian territories into the nation, make Palestinians citizens with rights equal to those of Jews, and denounce the concept of Israel as a Jewish state.
  10. Commit the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change and become a leader in seeking to avoid a global climate catastrophe.
  11. Remove all tariffs imposed by President Trump and seek legislation to prevent future presidents from enacting tariffs without congressional approval.
  12. Commit to establishing multilateral trade agreements to facilitate free trade in East Asia and elsewhere.
  13. Declare our acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea and our peaceful intentions toward that country, while maintaining economic sanctions as long as the DPRK maintains an abysmal human rights record.
  14. Begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with the understanding that military action will be taken against any attempt to use that country as a base for terrorist training.
  15. Propose a budget that increases money for NASA and regulatory agencies and reduces money for the military.
  16. Restore full diplomatic relations and all financial and travel restrictions on Cuba.
  17. Negotiate disputes with China without the use of tariffs that hurt China but hurt the U.S. more.
  18. Seek an agreement with Iran that will defuse tensions and provide Iran some relief from economic sanctions.
  19. Seek new arms control agreements with an expanded set of nations, including China and Iran.
  20. Offer financial and technical help to Central American countries from which refugees have been streaming.
The above list could easily be made longer, and I have no doubt that items in the list could be attacked by people both on the left and the right. The point is simply that there are things that a president actually has direct control of and can make credible promises about.

Americans would be better served by Democratic candidates arguing about the points listed above and similar matters than the arcane and largely incomprehensible discussions we have been subjected to regarding how the nation might better deliver health care.

Are any of the candidates listening?

July 25, 2019

Don’t Impeach Trump

Robert Muller’s appearance on Capitol Hill yesterday has once more intensified the debate as to whether the House of Representatives—which is to say, the House Democrats—should begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.

Like so many citizens, my thoughts on this topic have run hot and cold. I have no doubt that Trump deserves to be impeached, an opinion I have held almost since his first day in office. Without hesitation, I signed on to Tom Steyer’s petition to initiate impeachment proceedings. On the other hand, Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance to go down that road is informed by unquestionable wisdom, even though I have no doubt that the Speaker of the House shares my view that Trump has earned removal from office. Those who argue that the Constitution demands action by the House, irrespective of whether the president can actually be cashiered, have a point that is difficult to ignore. Given the resistance of Trump supporters to facts concerning the president’s unfitness for office, though, one has to worry that a formal impeachment inquiry would only strengthen Trump’s standing in the polls.

The usual argument for impeachment asserts that, even if the president is not convicted by the Senate, the hearings themselves will have the effect of tilting public opinion against the president, thereby boosting the electoral prospects of the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. This is a questionable concept, as the Mueller Report has not created the outrage it surely should have. It remains to be seen whether Mueller’s testimony yesterday proves more compelling. The House is investigating matters not covered by the Mueller investigation, however, and those efforts may prove more effective in moving public opinion. Were there to be a groundswell of pro-impeachment sentiment in the country, perhaps not even the Mitch McConnell-dominated Senate could resist the public outrage.

One brief answer given by Mueller, however, has convinced me that we should not now nor in the future impeach Donald Trump. Mueller noted that the president could be indicted once he is out of office and the Justice Department’s anti-democratic policy against indicting a sitting president no longer applies. The statute of limitations for obstruction of justice, for example, is five years. I suspect that many more laws, especially financial ones, have been committed by our current president both in and out of office.

But don’t we need to remove Trump as soon as possible, before he can do even more damage to the Republic? Well, yes. But suppose that Trump was both impeached and convicted. Wise Democrats have argued that a Mike Pense presidency, though undesirable, could hardly be worse than a Trump presidency. That’s certainly true, though a President Pense would represent a different sort of calamity.

What would President Pense do on his first day in office? I am convinced that he would pardon Trump for all past and future crimes, citing the pardon of Richard Nixon and the need to “heal” the country. Such a result would be tragic. I want Trump to go to prison, and I eagerly look forward to his perp walk. If that cannot come before 2021, so be it. It will be worth waiting for.

Let House Democrats investigate Donald Trump as much as they want. Let them even begin a formal impeachment process. But for the sake of our Democracy, for our children, and for the sake of world peace, do not pass a bill of impeachment. Let’s really punish the son-of-a-bitch.

July 23, 2019

A Psalm for Our Time (and Our President)

On some Sundays, Bible readings seem more relevant (and even prescient) than others. This past Sunday, we read Psalm 52 from the Book of Common Prayer. Could one find a more fitting indictment of President Donald Trump?

Psalm 52

You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness against the godly all day long?
You plot ruin; your tongue is like a sharpened razor, O worker of deception.
You love evil more than good and lying more than speaking the truth.
You love all words that hurt, O you deceitful tongue.
Oh, that God would demolish you utterly, topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling, and root you out of the land of the living!
The righteous shall see and tremble, and they shall laugh at him, saying,
“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge, but trusted in great wealth and relied upon wickedness.”
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.
I will give you thanks for what you have done and declare the goodness of your Name in the presence of the godly.

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:
WEDNESDAY NGHT DEBATERS       TUESDAY 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


UPDATE, 7/30/2019. In my original post, I interchanged the Tuesday and Wednesday lineups. They have now been corrected.

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!