November 12, 2019

Quick Evaluation of Democratic Presidential Candidates

As of this writing, ten Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination have qualified for the November 20 debate being held in Georgia. Below, I offer quick evaluations of those candidates. Take this for what it’s worth. Keep in mind that I am a liberal Democrat. I list the candidates in alphabetical order.
Biden Too tired
Booker Too conciliatory
Buttigieg Too green
Gabbard Too Republican
Harris Too aggressive
Klobuchar Too nice
Sanders Too socialist
Steyer Too fickle
Warren Too leftist
Yang Too monomaniacal
It was difficult to characterize some of these candidates. This was especially true of Booker, whom I considered labeling too urban, though it’s unclear just what that means. On the other hand, Biden, Sanders, and Warren could each be characterized as too old. Sanders might also be tagged as too grumpy. Buttigieg could also be considered too smart, which might or might not be a problem. We are unlikely to see Williamson on the November debate panel, but it is too tempting not to note that she is too weird, another ambiguous characterization.

Thinking about (and researching) these people has clarified my thinking somewhat. I will, of course, vote for the Democratic candidate, irrespective of who that may be. That said, I hope that person is not Biden, Gabbard, Sanders, Steyer, or Yang. I find myself being more kindly disposed toward Booker, Harris, and Klobuchar. At this juncture, however, I doubt that Booker will win the Democratic nod.

Perhaps the November debate will narrow the field.

November 6, 2019

One Flaw in the Warren Medicare-for-All Plan

At long last, Elizabeth Warren has revealed how she plans to pay for her plan for universal health care. Her plan is expensive and complex, but it is not the usual smoke-and-mirrors proposal we are used to seeing in political campaigns. Her plan might actually work (or not). Of course, even if Warren is elected president, her plan will be passed by Congress only when hell freezes over. One has to wonder why Warren even bothered.

I won’t evaluate the plan here, which has been much criticized in the press. (See, for example, this analysis by The Washington Post, which is more positive than most evaluations.) I only want to comment on one aspect of Warren’s scheme.

The plan finds $8.8 trillion—for effect, we should write that as $8,800,000,000,000.00—by requiring employees currently paying for medical insurance to pay nearly all of that money to the government instead. (It isn’t clear whether employers who do not provide a health insurance benefit are let off the hook.) I object to this on philosophical grounds.

That employer-provided health insurance is widespread, though hardly universal, in this country is something of a historical accident. During World War II, employers found it hard to attract workers. Many men were fighting the war, and wage-and-price controls didn’t allow employers to compete for labor by raising salaries. The federal government, however, ruled that offering health insurance as a fringe benefit did not constitute raising wages. (Wikipedia offers an explanation here.) Thus, a new incentive for potential workers was born.

Those wartime wage-and-price controls are long gone, of course, but the offering of fringe benefits continues to be a mechanism by which employers compete for labor. Although one could make a case for increasing salaries and eliminating fringe benefits completely, I only want to address health insurance here.

In the abstract, it has never made sense to associate health insurance with employment. Yes, workers need health insurance. But the need for insurance does not vanish if a person is not employed.  In recent times, obtaining health insurance as an unemployed individual or as an employee without benefits has been difficult (or impossible) and expensive. This situation has been improved by the Affordable Care Act, but it is hardly ideal. Hence, the allurement of Medicare-for-all or something like it.

The Warren scheme of extracting trillions of dollars from employers may seem attractive, but it maintains a nexus between employment and health coverage that does not and never made sense. The plan raises other questions. What about employees who never paid for health insurance? Have they no obligation under this plan? Employees now can change their health coverage of employees or even eliminate it completely. What happens to this option under the Warren plan?

Of course, these questions are irrelevant, as the Warren plan will never be implemented. As a practical matter and as a campaign promise, only restoring Obamacare to its original form, undamaged by Trump administration depredations and enhanced to include a public option makes sense in the near term. Democratic presidential candidates need to point this out.

November 5, 2019

Let’s Kill Daylight Saving Time

“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” That was the famous line from a series of commercials for Chiffon margarine, a product manufactured from cottonseed oil and first marketed in the early 1950s. (For those too young to have seen one of these commercials, you can view a sample here.) When it comes to local time, however, fooling Mother Nature is almost a necessity. The question is how much fooling is appropriate.

It is relatively easy to determine noon at any point on the earth. It is the time at which the sun is highest in the sky. Of course, this means that noon occurs at different times at different longitudes. Roughly speaking—we needn’t concern ourselves with the “roughly” business here—we can divide the period between two successive noons in the same place into 24 intervals, each of which represents an hour of the day. This is all well and good, but this system of timekeeping has the consequence that even places that are close to one another have clocks that do not agree.

In the nineteenth century, the variability in local time was giving railroads fits. Individual railroads “solved” the problem by using the time in one location as the time for all stations on its line. I need hardly explain how this could be confusing, particularly when a given town was served by two or more railroads.

In 1883, U.S. and Canadian railroads agreed to create standard time zones. The standard time in any zone would be the same throughout the zone, and the time in adjacent zones would be exactly one hour earlier or one hour later. This system was codified in law by Congress in 1918. Only at the (longitudinally approximate) center of a time zone would solar noon and standard noon correspond. We were fooling with Mother Nature a bit, but it was for a good cause. Commerce and life generally were much simplified by the adoption of standard time.

Then there is the matter of daylight saving time. It, too, was enacted by Congress in 1918. It has become nearly universal in the U.S., though there are notable exceptions, such as the state of Hawaii. The times that we “spring forward” and “fall back” have changed from time to time, but now, most of the country is on daylight saving time for longer than it is on standard time.

Various rationales have been advanced in favor of daylight saving time, most of them questionable. The ecological argument that the procedure saves energy seems either wrong or insignificant. I have heard that farmers favor changing our clocks, but this, too, is bogus. (Try explaining daylight saving time to a cow.) The main lobby for continuing to observe daylight saving time is commercial interests, particularly the recreation industry. (A golf club or amusement park gains little from an earlier sunrise but may benefit greatly from an extra hour of daylight in the evening.)

I have always been skeptical as to the benefits of daylight saving time. In my post “More Haiku” I wrote, in 2001,


DST

Clocks are set forward,
But we do not ask where goes
The daylight we save.

The relevant question is really where goes the sleep we lose. It is well-documented that the spring time change results in more accidents and more heart attacks than usual. Invariably, people walk into church late after the spring change, and, no doubt, confusion occurs elsewhere. Most people hate the time transitions daylight saving time requires. This dissatisfaction has lead to a widespread movement to eliminate the biannual time changes, a reform that would have to come from Congress.

Unfortunately, most of the agitation for a change in daylight saving time is for making it apply throughout the entire year!  Doing this would be surrendering to the commercial interests that want us to spend more time and money during summer evenings, even if it means that children will be waiting for school buses or walking to school in the dark.

Well, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, and the benefits of daylight saving time are questionable, at best. We should return to year-round standard time. It isn’t quite what Mother Nature intended, but it’s close enough.

October 24, 2019

A Proposed Constitutional Amendment

President Trump’s attorneys have argued that the president, while in office, is not only immune to indictment, but also is immune even to investigation for crimes, including, incredibly, shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. (His attorneys actually have argued this in court!) Moreover, the Trump legal team has asserted that this immunity extends even to the president’s commercial enterprises.  To any rational and intelligent person, these arguments are, to put it in technical terms, totally bonkers. Apparently, however, we must wait until the courts officially declare these assertions of immunity invalid before, for example, Mr. Trump’s tax returns can be turned over to authorities investigating possible misdeeds by him.

Before now, one would not have assumed that the president is, for all practical purposes, completely above the law. The courts may make this clear, but it is perhaps time for the matter to be resolved once and for all by constitutional amendment.

In order to clarify that the United States of America has a president and not a king, I propose the following as the 28th amendment to the Constitution:
Universal Administration of Justice
Neither the President, nor the Vice President, nor any other person subject to the jurisdiction of the United States is immune to Investigation, Indictment, or Arrest for just cause except as provided in Article I, Section 6.
Article I, Section 6, Clause 1 says, in part:
[Senators and Representatives] shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.
One may quibble about my title, capitalization, and whether the president and vice president deserve any immunity at all. My wording is not cast in stone; I’m sure it can be improved by constitutional scholars.

Passing such an amendment to the Constitution should be straightforward, but, in the present environment, passage may be opposed aggressively by Republicans. Amending the Constitution to assure uniform administration of justice may have to await the reform or destruction of the Republican Party. Let us not forget the matter once that occurs.

October 16, 2019

Let’s Add a Different Presidential Primary Debate to the Schedule

When two additional Democratic presidential candidates who were not invited to the September debate qualified for the October event, I had hoped that the debate would be conducted on two nights, with six candidates participating in each debate. Clearly, having 10 candidates was too many, and the 12 crowded onto the stage last night were many too many. As usual, the top candidates got most of the air time. As is becoming common, no one scored big, and no one committed fatal mistakes.

We know that Biden, Sanders, and Warren are the current leaders of the pack, but it is also true that there is significant talent in the pool consisting of the nine other Democrats who sparred last night. Each of those other candidates, however, had limited time to talk.

The reality is that early Democratic front-runners for their party’s nomination often do not become the party’s standard-bearer. Think Carter, Clinton, or Obama. (Even Trump himself was an early long-shot.) Unless the seeming also-rans have significant opportunities to be seen in action by the public, the choice of candidates in 2020 will be drawn from among contenders who are too old, too depleted, and too radical.

Of course, as long as less popular candidates can accumulate funds from their most ardent fans, they can continue to toil on the campaign trail in hopes of sparking interest among the rest of the electorate. But continuing to sponsor debates that favor the already popular candidates makes it hard for anyone in the rest of the pack to gain traction.

So, here is my idea to level the presidential-primary playing field a bit. Let’s sponsor a debate—it can even use the standard format, even though that could be greatly improved (see “A Different Kind of Presidential Candidate Debate”)—that includes all the major candidates except the top three. In the current instance, that would leave 9 participants, a group that would not include Sanders, Biden, or Warren.

My second-tier debate would allow participants more time to speak and to make their case to the public for their candidacy. Of course, the debaters could simply take the opportunity to trash the front-runners, but I think that either would not happen or would not dominate the conversation. The debate would help Democrats decide which candidates are promising, perhaps surprisingly so, and which should go back to whatever they had been doing. It might even help to winnow the field faster.

What do we have to lose? What about it, DNC?

October 9, 2019

Further Thoughts on Impeachment

I have already written two posts concerning the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump (see “Don’t Impeach Trump” and “Slow Order for the Impeachment Train”). Here, I want to comment on the Trump administration’s reaction to the official beginning of an impeachment inquiry and to add to what I have already said about a possible impeachment.


The Trump Attack on Impeachment


Most readers no doubt recognize that President Trump’s attack on the impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives recently announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi is diversionary and without merit. As a help to anyone who might have to argue the validity of what the House is undertaking with a member of the Trump cult, I will set forth the case for what is taking place.

Mr. Trump has argued that the pursuit of articles of impeachment by House Democrats is merely an attempt to nullify the 2016 election. On the contrary, his disparagement of the House action and his categorical refusal to allow co-operation with the inquiry by the executive branch is an attempt to nullify the Constitution itself.

Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution reads
The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.1
Reasons for impeachment are set forth in Article II, Section 4:
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Not only members of the House but, judging by recent polls, a majority of voters believe that there is a reasonable case to be made that President Trump is guilty of infractions of the sort listed in Article II.

If the president is impeached by the House of Representatives, the Senate is empowered to conduct a trial of the president according to Article I, Section 3, Clause 6:
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds [sic] of the Members present.
Article III, Section 2, Clause 3 further clarifies the special status of an impeachment trial:
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
Mr. Trump has referred to the action of the House as a “coup,” by which, presumably, he means a coup d'état, which dictionary.com defines as
a sudden and decisive action in politics, especially one resulting in a change of government illegally or by force.
What is happening in the House is, of course, not illegal, not being effected by force, and is certainly neither sudden nor decisive. (Only the Senate has the power to make impeachment decisive.)

Counsel for the president has called the House action “unconstitutional,” but, as illustrated above, this is not the case.

Mr. Trump has also asserted that no impeachment investigation can go forward without a vote to do so by the entire House. The Constitution is silent on such a reputed requirement and no House rule demands it.


Impeachment Consequences


Article I, Section 3, Clause 7, enumerates the consequences of impeachment and conviction:
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.
This provision makes clear that, if a president is convicted by the Senate, acting on a bill of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives, he or she is to be removed from office and may be subject to prosecution for any crimes committed in office. Because the Senate trial need not involve actual statutory crimes, a cashiered president may or may not face legal jeopardy for actions taken while in office.

In the current circumstances, it appears that President Trump will, at a minimum, be charged with soliciting something of value for his re-election campaign from a foreign party, which is an actual crime. If convicted by the Senate, Mr. Trump could be therefore be prosecuted after leaving office for it, for misrepresenting payment to Ms. Stormy Daniels, and for other offenses.

The removal of the president from office would, of course, elevate Vice President Mike Pence to the presidency. As noted in my earlier essays, this raises the question of whether President Pence would immediately pardon the ex-president for past and future crimes, as President Gerald Ford did for Mr. Richard Nixon after he resigned from office in the face of certain impeachment and conviction.

As it happens, President Pence would not find himself in quite the same position as Mr. Ford. This is by virtue of Article II, Section 2, Clause 1:
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment [emphasis added]. 
Mr. Ford could pardon Mr. Nixon because his predecessor resigned. Had the Senate convicted President Nixon and removed him from office, he could have been indicted and tried for obstruction of justice, etc. I see two lessons to be learned here.

First, President Trump can maintain his ability to be pardoned by a President Pence by resigning before he can be impeached and convicted. This is the Nixon strategy. As I noted previously, however, he can only be pardoned for offenses against the United States and could still be prosecuted for violating state (e.g., New York) laws. Trump’s self-importance makes resignation unlikely unless the march to conviction in the Senate seems inevitable.

Perhaps more significantly, the nature of the articles of impeachment drawn up by the House and the handling of those articles by the Senate make a difference. If the president is charged and convicted of only one offense, he could be prosecuted for that offense after leaving office, but he could be pardoned for all other crimes he may have committed. Even if the House impeaches the president for many offenses, the Senate could remove him from office by voting to endorse only one. This could allow Mr. Pence to offer his former boss at least a partial get-out-of-jail-free card.

If Trump leaves office before the end of his term, I hope that he can be indicted, convicted, and imprisoned. In reality, he is most likely to serve jail time by being beaten in the November 2020 election and prosecuted under a Democratic president. In normal times, this would seem the actions of a banana republic, but Mr. Trump’s outrageous behavior might convince citizens that he is simply receiving his just rewards.

Can Trump leave office early and not be pardoned by Mr. Pence? Probably not. Although Mr. Pence’s pardon power is somewhat limited, Trump’s pardonable offenses are legion. Congress could pass a bill—one unlikely to become law—to the effect that a president cannot pardon a convicted or resigned president. The Supreme Could would likely find such a law unconstitutional. Alternatively, though equally unlikely, Congress could make it clear that it would consider President Pence’s pardoning Trump an impeachable offense. This would be kosher, but, removing Pence from office would install Pelosi, a Democrat, so that circumstance seems very farfetched indeed.

I continue to think that investigating Trump, even impeaching him without conviction is the best plan. Democrats in the house can build a strong case against the president. Senate Democrats are numerous enough to keep Trump from being convicted and therefore subject to later prosecution.


NOTE: All references to impeachment in the United States Constitution are discussed in the above essay.

_________
1The constitutional quotations are from the National Archives.

September 27, 2019

Slow Order for the Impeachment Train

Now that the House of Representatives is onboard the impeachment train, everyone is asking just where that train is going. Because Nancy Pelosi indicated that six existing committees, rather than a special impeachment committee, would be responsible for dealing with impeachment of the president, I initially assumed that the case to be made against President Donald Trump would be comprehensive. It seemed reasonable that the Ukraine affair (Ukrainegate?) was, to the Speaker of the House, the last straw, rather than the first incontrovertible high crime committed by the incumbent president. It will make a difference, however, whether the impeachment train leaves the station with a full complement of coaches or departs carrying a single railcar.

Democrats believe that Mr. Trump’s attempt to induce Ukraine to assist in his re-election campaign is egregious and unmistakably so. That this is not so clear to Republican politicians, however, suggests that the outrage felt by Democrats might not be universally appreciated by the electorate. If the House votes impeachment on the basis of Ukrainegate only—some have suggested this should be the case, and Ms. Pelosi has not been entirely clear about how the House should proceed—the case for removing the president may be unconvincing to the American people and to the Senate. The effort, in that case, would be a disaster and might well improve the chances of having to endure a second Trump term.

Since Mr. Trump seems to engage in treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors during most of his waking hours, it seems prudent to draw up articles of impeachment that convincingly portray a president out of control and more concerned with his own welfare than that of the nation. Such a comprehensive indictment is more likely to sway public opinion in its favor. Conviction by the Senate needs only a single infraction found to be a constitutional violation, so the House can improve the odds of conviction by giving the Senate more options to choose from. Besides, to limit impeachment to Ukrainegate might suggest that all the other insults to the Constitution committed by the president are unimportant. That would allow Republicans to suggest that Ukrainegate was merely an aberration, inconsistent with the president’s overall performance.

As much as my sense of justice is bouyed by Nancy Pelosi’s decision to set the impeachment train in motion, I find the development worrisome. I expressed my greatest fear in an earlier essay (Don’t Impeach Trump, July 25, 2019). Were Mr. Trump actually removed from office, Mike Pence would become president and, undoubtedly, would pardon Donald Trump for all past and future offenses, thereby depriving the Republic of the opportunity to indict the ex-president, convict him, and send him to prison.

There is another contingency that could prevent Mr. Trump from getting his just rewards, namely, resignation from office. The House of Representatives might build such a strong case for impeachment that Donald Trump, like Richard Nixon before him, might resign rather than face likely conviction by the Senate. (Admittedly, this would take much change-of-heart among GOP Senators.) Again, in this scenario, President Pence could pardon Mr. Trump and preserve his undeserved freedom.

Ukrainegate revelations are coming out uncomfortably fast. Some people believe this will allow a single-issue bill of impeachment to be drawn up rather quickly and approved by the House of Representatives. Either conviction or exoneration on such a bill would have a bad outcome. It will, in fact, take some time to fully investigate Ukrainegate, though it won’t take forever. It would be better for the house patiently to develop articles of impeachment involving all the incumbent's misdeeds without actually completing the process in time to send the impeachment train to the Senate before, one hopes, a new Democratic president is inaugurated. Slowly building the case against Donald Trump may strengthen public opinion against his presidency without either calling upon the Senate to act or alarming the president so much that he takes the Richard Nixon option.

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.