November 24, 2020

Why People Are Traveling for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is in two days. In an ordinary year, millions of Americans would be traveling to attend family gatherings. This year, with coronavirus infections, hospitalizations, and deaths reaching new peaks, health officials have been telling people to stay home. But airline travel has seen surges not seen in months. Airports are filled with holiday travelers, often without masks, and seldom distant from one another.

Why are so many people ignoring what is clearly wise advice? Admittedly, I have not gone to the airport to interview airline partons, but I can offer a theory. (I’m staying home and keeping away from others, of course, so I’m not going to the airport.)

The most obvious explanation is that people are idiots. Either they are fed up with restrictions or they have considered the pandemic overhyped all along. Let me offer a less gloomy explanation.

Most people crowding the airports have likely heard the pleas to stay at home. Their logic for getting on an airplane may have gone something like this: Because medical experts are telling people to stay home, few people will be traveling. That means that airports and airplanes will not be crowded, and travel will be relatively safe. Unfortunately, if lots of people reason this way, their logic becomes self-defeating.

This phenomenon is akin to bank runs. If there is concern that a bank is unsound, an individual, protecting his or her assets, will go to the bank and withdraw whatever funds are on deposit. If one person does this, the action is innocuous. If hundreds or thousands of people do this, the situation becomes a crisis.

Alas, we have become a country in which many people are concerned only with themselves, ignoring the common good and whether their actions may have unintended consequences.

November 12, 2020

The Anti-Democratic Party

I created the graphic below for posting on Facebook. I was disappointed that it didn’t seem to get much attention. Perhaps it isn’t as clever as I thought it was, but I still think it deserves more exposure. Therefore, I am making this post on my blog.

The text in the graphic, of course, has a double meaning. Obviously, the Republican Party is, in general, the party that opposes the Democratic Party (the “Democrat” Party to GOP partisans these days). Being aligned against the Democrats, it is anti-Democratic.

Increasingly, the party that likes to think of itself as the “party of Lincoln,” is a party that seeks power at all costs to benefit the wealthy and well-connected. (Lincoln would not be pleased.) The GOP is the party of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, the party of outrageous claims and frivolous lawsuits. It may be the party of even more outrageous attempts to steal the election from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. In that sense, the Republican Party is deeply anti-democratic. It cares about obtaining and wielding power and cares not a fig about the abstract idea that is democracy.

Feel free to copy this graphic for use elsewhere.
 

Republican Party: The Anti-Democratic Party

November 6, 2020

Is the Use of the Twentieth-Fifth Amendment in our Future?

 My last post expressed concern about how Donald Trump will behave after he has definitively lost his re-election bid and before his term expires on January 20. My concern has increased after seeing Trump’s unhinged briefing last night. The president lied so much and so outrageously that networks that usually broadcast his briefings in full cut away from the president and explained how what he was saying was untrue.

Last night’s briefing may have been a preview of the next few months. What will happen if Trump’s post-election actions appear to be those of a madman whose ego has been fatally threatened by failure? I will suggest a possible scenario.

If Trump’s actions become totally outrageous, a turn to the Twenty-Fifth Amendment becomes a reasonable step to rescue the country from chaos. This would require the co-operation of Republican leaders, of course, but one can hope that even Republican politicians can recognize that their party’s titular leader is ruining their brand. If Trump can be sidelined, allowing Mike Pence to assume presidential duties until January 20, the country will have a chance to achieve a normal and peaceful transfer of power without further damaging the Republic.

Am I putting too much faith in Mike Pence? I think not. Pence has been Trump’s lackey for the sake of his own career, but he is not stupid. If Trump loses, the vice president has little incentive to follow the president’s descent into madness. If Pence is accepting of the will of the people and actively assists in the transition to a Biden administration, he will earn the thanks of the nation and may even have a political future.

October 31, 2020

The Post-election Interregnum

Once all the frivolous Republican litigation challenging Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election is resolved, Donald Trump will no longer have any incentive to please or help anyone but himself. He will use his last opportunity to settle scores, to further enrich himself and his family, and to lash out at God knows who or what out of sheer malevolence. 

Do not expect Trump to help the incoming administration or to retire quietly. He will issue pardons to unworthy supporters, perhaps even to himself. (Pardoning himself for past and future crimes will be a great temptation for the president. Such a move would be challenged, of course, and it has the drawback of suggesting that he might have done something wrong, an admission Trump would be loath to make.) Expect more increasingly outrageous executive orders from the Oval Office. Thanksgiving and Christmas will give the president excuses to take additional vacation days and to use time on the links to temporarily alleviate his frustration and anger. The effect will be fleeting.

Alas, Trump will remain bitter, uncomprehending, and eager to identify people and circumstances to blame for his misfortune. This will be a painful time for the American people and perhaps a dangerous time as well.

But we will somehow muddle through with the hope for better times and a strengthened democracy beginning on January 20. As Biden assembles his cabinet, a return to reasonable governance will seem a genuine possibility. Let us hope that Donald Trump does not find a way to derail that possibility.

October 26, 2020

A Note on Blog Comments

 I need to apologize to a few people who left comments on this blog but who never saw their comments approved. Somewhere along the line, a change that Google made to Blogger meant that I was no longer being informed of comments requiring moderation. I have now fixed that (I think), so that moderation should no longer take forever.

I will not offer an apology to those who left comments that seemed oblivious to the content of the post on which they were leaving a comment and whose content was intended to promote some commercial Web site. My blog is not a billboard for posting ads.

I also deleted comments in several other categories. If the comment was totally incomprehensible, I deleted it. Readers would be no more enlightened than I by reading such a comment. I also deleted anonymous comments, which I have explicitly disallowed. I was sad about doing this in a few cases where the content was genuinely responsive to what I wrote. If you want to leave a comment but do not want to tell me who you are, make up an alias and use it whenever you leave a comment. That way, people will be able to identify comments from the same person, even if they do not know who the writer is.

Expect comment moderation to be timely in the future.

October 23, 2020

Is “Apiece” Really Necessary?

 Sixteen years ago, I wrote a post titled “Is ‘Both’ Really Necessary?” It was written in response to this sentence heard on NPR: “Both of the planes disappeared within a few minutes of each other.” I commonly hear “both” used this way, implying that each of two entities possesses a property that necessarily involves both of them. (If the problem with this location is unclear, read my earlier essay.)

Today, I encountered another use of a redundant word in a similar context. On the 11:00 am EDT NPR newscast, Korva Coleman reported:

Game three of the World Series is tonight. The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays are tied in the World Series. They have each won one game apiece.

One might ask if “in the World Series” is really necessary in the second sentence, but this is only a matter of style. Perhaps it is even helpful to the listener who is not paying close attention.

My concern is actually with the word “apiece.” The word, in the sentence in question, is not only unnecessary but is also nonsensical. The sentence is essentially saying

The Los Angeles Dodgers have won one game apiece.
and
The Tampa Bay Rays have won one game apiece.

Neither of these sentences makes sense. Just as the property “disappeared within a few minutes of each other” is a property necessarily involving more than a single entity, “apiece” necessarily involves more than one entity. Either of the following sentences would have been grammatically and logically acceptable alternatives to the original formulation:

They have each won one game.
or
They have won one game apiece.

The first sentence attributes having won one game to each team. The second sentence attributes having won the same number of games to both teams. Unlike the original, both sentences are grammatical and logical.

October 22, 2020

A Biden Administrative Agenda

Presidential campaigns usually emphasize policy positions intended to appeal to one constituency or another. The 2020 presidential campaign is very different.

Donald Trump hardly talks about policy positions at all. The Republican Party didn’t even bother to produce a 2020 platform. The understanding is that a Trump victory will deliver a continuation of what we have seen for nearly four years. Without concern for re-election, we can reasonably expect that Trump will continue to ignore existing norms.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, has articulated positions on many issues, though he does spend a lot of time decrying the dumpster fire that is the Trump administration. The Biden campaign implies that, whatever its policy positions, a Biden administration will return our national government to “normal.”

I suspect that many voters indeed yearn for “normal,” perhaps even for something a little better than what has passed for normal heretofore. The Biden-Harris campaign should, I think, be forthcoming about what a new Democratic administration would look like. Although a campaign can articulate a long list of policy objectives, achieving those objectives ultimately depends on the coöperation of the Congress. Those policy goals may be met or not or, perhaps achieved imperfectly.

On the other hand, Joe Biden can promise how a Biden White House will operate administratively, and such promises are not dependent on others. I will suggest what such a promise might look like. I think that making it public now would be a positive move by the Democratic campaign. If not used by the campaign, it can be used to guide the new administration as it comes together.

Here, then, are administrative policies I believe the Biden White House should implement. The items on my list are in no special order, and I don’t claim that my list is exhaustive. I invite additional suggestions.

The list:
  1. Twitter will be used neither by the president nor the vice president. The White House will only use Twitter to call attention to material and announcements otherwise released in a conventional manner.
  2. The president will hold monthly news conferences and will encourage government departments to hold regular news conferences as may be appropriate.
  3. Except possibly in extreme circumstances, the president will not lie to the American people. (Exceptions to this policy are most likely in the pursuit of foreign policy objectives. Exceptions should be rare or nonexistent.)
  4. The president and vice president will offer to meet regularly with the congressional leadership. (This should result in regular meetings if the Democrats control both houses of Congress.)
  5. Anti-nepotism rules will be enforced throughout the government and will be applied to the White House as well.
  6. Cabinet secretaries and administrators will be selected for their technical and managerial expertise. They will be expected to resolve any conflicts of interest before assuming their duties.
  7. Judicial candidates will be selected for their legal accomplishments and liberal views. None will have any connection to the Federalist Society. Originalist or literalist views will be disqualifying.
  8. Ambassadors will be selected for their relevant skills. Contributions to the president’s campaign are not relevant.
  9. The president and vice president will each put any assets that could be affected by government actions into a blind trust while in office.
  10. The vice president shall work closely with the president and will be responsible for any special tasks determined by the president.
  11. No lobbyists will be appointed to administrative positions.
  12. Appointees must agree to not lobby the government for a period of two years after they leave government service.
  13. It is the intention of the administration to fully fund and staff all governmental organizations consistent with funding from the Congress. In particular, every attempt will be made to fill diplomatic, scientific, and technical positions left vacant at the end of the Trump administration.
  14. Relevant governmental units will be instructed to restore information related to climate change that was removed from the Web by the Trump administration.
  15. All governmental units will be encouraged to be transparent by publishing as much useful data as possible on their Web sites.
  16. All governmental units will be expected to respond in a timely manner to any reasonable Freedom of Information request.
  17. An absolute separation will be established between the White House and the Department of Justice. The White House will have no influence over the impartial administration of justice.
  18. The administration will obey existing laws limiting the tenure of temporary appointees to positions requiring Senate approval. Temporary appointments should be for as short a period as possible.
  19. The president will consider all cases of the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from international organizations and agreements. Most of these withdrawals should be reversed. Included in the cases to be reconsidered are, among others, the following: the World Health Organization, the Paris climate agreement, the U.N.Human Rights Council, the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, etc,
  20. The president will review all executive orders from President Trump and rescind or modify them as seems appropriate for the good of the country.
Updated: 10/27/2020

October 13, 2020

Originalism

Amy Coney Barrett, in the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, defined originalism, a system of legal interpretation to which she is committed:

I interpret the Constitution as a law, that I interpret its text as text, and I understand it to have the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it. That meaning doesn’t change over time, and it’s not up to me to update it or infuse my own policy views into it.

She also explained textualism, to which she is also committed:

… textualism, which is the way that I approach statutes and their interpretation. And similarly to what I just said about originalism, for textualism, the judge approaches the text as it was written with the meaning it had at the time; it doesn’t infuse your own meaning into it.

It is helpful that Judge Barrett supplied us with these explanations.

Judge Amy Cony Barrett

The only difference between originalism and textualism, as the judge defines them—I suspect her definitions are generally accepted by those who believe in these approaches to legal interpretation—is the law to which they apply. This is, I think, a distinction without a difference. An originalist/textualist views laws as frozen in time, meaning exactly what they meant when enacted, as indicated by the words of which they are composed. In what follows, I will simply use originalism to refer to this form of legal analysis.

I believe that Judge Barrett’s embrace of originalism is, ipso facto, reason enough to reject her nomination to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court. I say this because I think this approach to law is indefensible and persists only because mainstream thinkers have been reluctant to criticize adherents such as the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

One of the fundamental notions of information theory is that words do not, by themselves, encapsulate meaning. Meaning is conveyed through the interaction of syntax—think grammar—semantics—the referents of individual words or other grammatical units—and pragmatics—roughly speaking, context. As I once wrote: “There is no eternal expression of an eternal truth.” The meaning of the words and, more importantly, the context of a text change over time. That context comprises the entire environment of the text: what the world is like and how it is view by its author. Both the world and the worldview of the Founding Fathers differs substantially from that of 2020 Americans. Hence, I offer my own definition of originalism:

Originalism means governing the country by what we imagine the Constitution used to mean.
Only imperfectly can we conjure the world of the Founding Fathers (or of legislators who followed) to capture the total pragmatics of the Constitution or a statute. Moreover, it isn’t even clear why we should want to do so. The Constitution was not written to be relevant only in 1789 or 1790. It was hoped that it would survive for decades, perhaps centuries, and it is surely true that the lawmakers of 1789 believed that the world of 1879 or 1979 or 2079 would be unchanged from the world they knew. Instead, they had a reasonable expectation that contemporary thought and what we usually call common sense would be applied to their words.

The fundamental question regarding constitutional interpretation is whether the Constitution is a living document. Is the meaning of the Constitution forever fixed or should it be interpreted (or re-interpreted) in the contemporary context? I believe that, since our understanding of the world changes over time—and sometimes changes quite rapidly—it is easier and more sensible to consider the meaning of the Constitution in today’s terms, rather than in the time of its enactment. This means that, rather than constantly revising the Constitution—something that was certainly not anticipated, since it is so hard to do—it is sometimes appropriate for the courts to use the text of the Constitution but not its original meaning to change the law of the land.

For example, the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was clearly not intended to protect homosexuals from discriminatory laws. When it was enacted, it was thought to be for the benefit of those formerly held in slavery. Yet the Supreme Court has outlawed statutes against homosexuality and has even sanctioned same-sex marriage. It should not have been necessary to amend the Constitution to make these changes that reflected widespread changes in the American context. A similar argument can be made about invalidating miscegenation laws. None of these decisions could have been made under the jurisprudence of a Justice Any Coney Barrett.

Under a Justice Amy Coney Barrett, our laws will be straight jackets that hinder human progress and—this is my greatest fear—actually undo human progress. The Senate should reject her nomination to the high court.

October 2, 2020

Inadequacy of Available Reactions to Facebook Posts

Facebook LogoResponding to a Facebook post, a person can indicate a “reaction” by clicking on one of a collection of icons tagged LIKE, LOVE, CARE, HAHA, WOW, SAD, and ANGRY. (For clarity, I will refer to these and proposed options in caps.) There are times when selecting one of these options seems both appropriate and adequate. If someone posts a funny joke, for example, I am totally comfortable clicking on HAHA. But I am not always satisfied with having to choose from the available options. Let me explain why.

I should begin by expressing some discomfort with the inhomogeneity of the response list that Facebook offers. I can say that I like a post or love a post, but I cannot say that I angry a post. The lack of parallelism is irritating, but, if one is limited to single words—Facebook could hardly offer essays here—perhaps perfect parallelism has to be sacrificed. Let’s move on to my main concerns.

The proffered options do not capture all possible emotions a post might elicit. Whereas it is too much to ask that every conceivable human emotion be represented by an icon, some obviously useful options are unavailable. For instance, I can dislike a post without its making me angry (or its presence making me angry). Why is there not a DISLIKE option? Why is there not a HATE option, which could be distinguished both from DISLIKE and ANGRY? One could make a case also for INDIFFERENT and UNFUNNY. Possibly even for JOYFUL. There are probably other emotions I haven’t even thought of that might be appropriate in particular circumstances.

At times, no single response, even were the option list expanded, seems adequate. I might want to select both WOW and SAD or LIKE and HAHA. Facebook demands that I only indicate one emotion. Why can’t I select more than one?

There is often ambiguity about what one’s reaction is actually responding to. A person can post a news story, op-ed, or editorial and introduce it with original commentary. I do this all the time and am sometimes perplexed when someone posts a link to external material without comment. Why is this person bringing the material to my attention? Assuming that the poster does offer an introduction, when one selects a response, is it intended as a reaction to the poster’s commentary or to the material being commented upon? This ambiguity can result in people known to share similar views to select LIKE, on one hand, and ANGRY on another. For example, I can post an op-ed with which I strongly disagree and introduce it with an explanation of why I find it so horrible. Does someone in complete agreement with me select LIKE (or even LOVE), or do they select SAD or ANGRY? I suspect that users are inconsistent in what they do. This makes it difficult to discern what others are trying to say.

I suggest that Facebook should allow us to post separate reactions to external material and to the introductory commentary on that material. In the above example, a person should be able to select ANGRY concerning the op-ed and LIKE concerning my own commentary (or some other combination of reactions). This would actually be easier for Facebook to implement than allowing multiple reactions to the same material. In posts involving external material and an introduction to it, Facebook could simply add another thumbs-up icon at the end of the introduction. This would amount to treating the poster’s commentary as a post in its own right, separate from the material that is the subject of that commentary. If a user only selects a response beneath the post, that response can be assumed to be a reaction to the whole package.

I don’t know if Facebook will adopt any of these ideas. The operation of Facebook seems constantly to be changing, often to no particular purpose. Maybe Facebook could give my suggestions a try. I hope, in any case, that, in the future, users will be able to react to posts in more precise and useful ways.

September 21, 2020

Reflection on Roe v. Wade in Response to the Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

 Although I have never been involved in anyone’s decision to have or not have an abortion, legal restrictions on abortion have never made much sense to me. Why should anyone have the right to tell a mentally and physically healthy woman what she must or must not do with her body?

Older Americans remember where they were when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I remember, in cinematic detail, where I was when I heard about the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. Unfortunately, illiberal Christians have been trying to re-criminalize abortions ever since that fateful court judgment.

Roe has been criticized both by opponents of abortion and by legal scholars who argue that the decision, which relied on a right to privacy only implied in the Constitution, rested on shaky legal foundations. Indeed, opinions of the justices cited both the Fourteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment promises due process for all, and the Nineteenth Amendment denies that the failure of the Constitution to enumerate a right does not imply that citizens do not possess that right.

It is ironic, of course, that Republicans, who compose the major bloc of people opposed to abortion rights, are the same people who most vehemently insist on personal freedom. Militant Republicans seem ready to revolt over having to wear masks during a pandemic, yet they are equally aggressive about their intention to deny half the population the right to make the most intimate of decisions concerning their own bodies.

One suspects that much of anti-abortion sentiment is motivated by the belief that women are inferior to men and that their behavior should be controlled by men. Seldom is this outmoded and unpopular notion expressed publicly. Instead, “pro-life” proponents speak of protecting the health of the mother and of preserving the life of the “child.” However, women are not children, and fetuses are only human in the same sense that a piece of my skin shaved off in a spill on the sidewalk is human. Women, like men, deserve agency, especially with respect to their bodies.

The fundamental finding of Roe is surely correct from a human rights perspective, however it was arrived at. Moreover, the concept of a right to privacy is useful in contexts other than abortion.

I’d like to offer a different take on abortion rights. My reasoning is not original, but it is largely unfamiliar.

The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery. Section 1 declares

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

No Slavery

Is not the forcing of a woman to carry a pregnancy to term a form of slavery? The essential character of slavery is, after all, that one party cannot quit performing service for another without compensation. In the case of anti-abortion laws, a woman is, in the sense I have suggested, a slave, forced to maintain a pregnancy, and her “master” is the state. Of course, chattel slavery in the United States was more complicated than this, but its essential character was the same. The Thirteenth Amendment does not suggest that what it outlaws necessarily requires one party to fully “own” another.

The slavery of pregnant women should be completely abolished, and the termination of pregnancy should, at all times, be a matter left to a woman and her physician.

In the distant past, abortions were dangerous, and one could assert conscientiously that their prohibition protected the lives of mothers. Prohibiting abortions did not eliminate abortions, however, but only made them even more dangerous, as they were performed underground and in medically questionable circumstances.

Today, most abortions are much safer than carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth. Although many Americans—not just Democrats—fear that President Trump will appoint a Supreme Court justice who will vote with the court majority to overturn Roe. This is indeed likely. As most abortions occur early in a pregnancy, however, and are easily effected today with medicines. The ultimate effect of overturning Roe will therefore be minimal (though not without significance in certain cases). Women will obtain the necessary pharmaceuticals by one means or another, and women will have abortions. Most Americans will be fine with that.

Of course, another Trump court appointment will endanger other rights, the environment, and the Republic generally.

September 8, 2020

The Trump Economy

 Before the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign was relying on touting the economy as Trump’s greatest accomplishment. With the economy in a tailspin because of the pandemic and Trump’s handling of it, the president continues to rely on the former economy and on the rebound that will supposedly blossom in his second term. In fact, at least for most people, Trump deserves no credit for the economy.

As we enter the final stage of the 2020 presidential campaign, the economy is a mess, largely because Trump failed to take responsibility dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment is above 8%, many of the formerly employed will never be able to return to their old jobs, and we are likely soon to see a rash of evictions. Moreover, the return of students to schools and universities promises to balloon the number of COVID-19 infections, which will further damage the economy.

But the stock market is doing well! This is fine, at least for the moment, for investors, but many people can only wish they had money to invest. In part, the stock market is surging because it is practically impossible to make money in the bond market. And, of course, as Paul Krugman frequently reminds us, the market not the economy. Distressingly, The New York Times reports that the national debt is now larger than the gross domestic product, and it’s certain to become larger still. Now is not the time to attempt to reduce the debt, but it will need to be addressed eventually.

If the president did not handle the economy as well as he claims he did before the coronavirus struck, there is little reason to believe he will handle a recovery well in a second term. Why should anyone believe that the supposedly decent pre-2020 economy resulted from actions of the current administration, anyway?

By most conventional measures, the economy was doing fine when Barack Obama left office. Had Trump done nothing at all, the years-long expansion would have continued. Of course, no administration in recent years has done much for low-wage workers or addressed the rising wealth- and income-inequality. Trump has had no interest in these systemic problems, however, and they have persisted. Unemployment was low and continued to be low under Trump. Growth was positive but anemic. In other words, the economy under Trump largely moved along its pre-Trump trajectory.

Trump did affect the economy to a degree. He caused NAFTA to be re-negotiated, for instance. This was overdue, but the replacement agreement, the USMCA, introduced no dramatic changes. It has, and will have, only modest effects.

Trump began a trade war with China and, to a lesser extent, with Europe. This has hurt everyone concerned and American farmers in particular. Trump threw money at the farmers to keep them quiet. Our relations with China are now a mess, and French wine is more expensive. There have been no obvious winners.

Trump’s withdrawal from the development of the TTP is of more concern. Although this had no immediate effect, in the long term, it will allow China to expand its trade and influence over that of the United States. Trump dislikes multi-party agreements because, he argues, he can get better terms in bilateral negotiations. He has shown no inclination or expertise in that direction, however.

Trump has been systematically eliminating federal regulations. This has lessened protections for our air and water, as well as for wildlife. (Who needs the environment, anyway?) He has reduced the checks on corporate rapacity and encouraged projects potentially damaging to the environment. These changes have the effect of increasing corporate profits and transferring environmental costs to the citizens at large. Most people do not benefit from these changes.

Most importantly, Trump oversaw the passage of a massive tax cut, though not the largest ever, as the president likes to claim. This gave small, temporary reductions to lower- and middle-class people and permanent, large reductions to wealthy individuals and corporations. Republicans made the usual argument that these tax cuts would pay for themselves through increased tax collections. This argument is almost never true, and it has not been true in this case. Little of the corporate largess was shared with workers directly or trickled down to workers. The tax cut did not spur significant corporate spending, but it did result in higher bonuses to executives and stock buybacks. Again, most people do not benefit from these changes.

It is irrational to believe that a second-term Trump economy will be anything but good for the wealthy and bad for everyone else.

What will happen if Joe Biden wins the presidency. If Republicans continue to control the Senate, only modest improvements in the economy will be possible. Even in that case, we will see cabinet members selected for their competence and integrity. Much of Trump’s ill-considered deregulation will be undone. Our diplomacy will be more rational, less confrontational, and more disposed to multilateral agreements. Trade will be considered through the lens of searching for win-win situations rather than seeking for ways the U.S. can screw the rest of the world.

If we elect both a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate in addition to Joe Biden, we can look forward to largely undoing the Trump tax cut. This will not only reduce income inequality but it also will give the government enough money to make other changes to the economy and to civil society generally that are very much overdue.

Alas, a single Democratic term in the White House cannot undo all the damage done by Donald Trump nor correct all the inequities in society that were in existence when Trump took office. It will, however, offer a chance at a good start.

September 1, 2020

Our Lying President

 Apparently, there is a large cohort of people who will believe whatever President Donald Trump says, irrespective of how outrageous it may be. I cannot understand this.

Although it is not literally true that Mr. Trump is incapable of speaking the truth, he is not particularly in the habit of doing so. Based on years of evidence—and not only from the time of his presidency—an objective analysis shows that the president tells untruths most of the time. Sometimes this results from his monumental self-esteem and his equally monumental ignorance. Most often, he lies out of self-interest. Sometimes, he seems to lie for the sheer pleasure of it. 

In any case, unless I have a strong reason to believe otherwise, I assume Donald Trump is lying. This attitude has served me well. Were I to believe nothing he says, I would be correct most of the time.

I fear the voting behavior of those who do not treat the president’s pronouncements as I do.

August 29, 2020

Responsible Voting

Opinion writers for The New York Times have been commenting daily on the just-ended party conventions. Each writer has offered opinions on the best and worst moments of the four-day presentations. Mostly, the commentary was unremarkable; I agreed with much of it and could usually sympathize with the rest. But the evaluation of the final day of the Republican convention upset me. Well, one remark upset me.

Matt Labash, writing in the “What Else Mattered” section of the Times piece, offered the following:

The R.N.C. was as dispiriting as the D.N.C. At a time of multiple crises, when we most need good, honest leadership, we instead get relentless dishonesty. Democrats lie about “peaceful protests,” as cities are torched and ransacked. Republicans lie about Covid-19, a virus we didn’t even know existed 10 months ago, but which is now our third-leading killer, having taken nearly 185,000 American lives. These are the choices, folks: bunco men vs. flim-flammers. Bloods vs. Crips, engaged in gang warfare for its own sake. I, for one, will be voting my conscience, which dictates that I can’t vote. Not this cycle. Why reward the bastards?

Labash’s other remarks were not flattering either. I haven’t bothered to look up what he said about the DNC, but from what he wrote following the last day of the RNC, I assume it wasn’t positive. What upset me, though, was how he ended the above paragraph:

I, for one, will be voting my conscience, which dictates that I can’t vote. Not this cycle. Why reward the bastards?

This brought to mind something Katy Tur once said on MSNBC. Tur had been tasked by her network to cover the Donald Trump candidacy in the 2016 campaign. That hardly seemed a plum assignment at the time, but, as it turned out, she got to follow the man who would become the next President of the United States. Tur was able to observe the Republican standard-bearer, as they say, up close and personal. Additionally, Trump occasionally singled her out by name as a representative of the fake-news press.

What Katy Tur said after the election was that she hadn’t voted. Apparently, this was out of some perverted notion of journalistic objectivity. I thought that she, of all people, was in the perfect position to see Donald Trump as the lying hate-monger he is. As a well-educated professional woman, could she not see that Trump was a danger to the Republic and that it was her civic duty to vote for Hillary Clinton? Well, apparently not. Journalistic objectivity was no excuse for her behavior.

Matt Labash, on the other hand, offers a different, even weaker, excuse for not bothering to vote. He is practicing bothsidesism. Seeing hypocrisy in the presentations of both the Democrats and the Republicans, he concludes, in effect, that the two parties are equally corrupt and not deserving of his vote. He claims a moral superiority in this position. In reality, though, his position is like that of Trump himself when he spoke of good people on both sides of the Charlottesville demonstrations. If Labash cannot see a world of difference between the Republican and Democratic candidates this year, he is too clueless to be writing opinions in the Times. In fact, if he is indeed that oblivious to the obvious, perhaps it is best that he not vote!

I am impressed neither by Tur’s reasoning nor Labash’s. I should also mention a line of reasoning similar to Labash’s that is also dangerous to our democracy. Some voters take the pox-on-both-your-houses position and vote for a third-party candidate or write in the name of some non-candidate. This is yet another way of shirking one’s responsibility as a citizen. When neither of two candidates in an election meets one’s standards, the responsible action is to vote for the better of the candidates. Not voting for the lesser of two evils risks electing the greater of the two evils.

Let me illustrate how my reasoning works in practice. In an election between Donald Trump and Jack-the-Ripper, one has a moral obligation to vote and to vote for Jack.

August 27, 2020

To the Black Lives Matter Folks: Don‘t Screw Things Up

 I am in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement. Blacks have suffered from seemingly racist policing in this country, in addition to suffering from multiple forms of systematic discrimination over nearly a century and a half. Demonstrations demanding change are unquestionably justified.

The best hope for change that makes black lives truly matter is the election of Joe Biden and Kamila Harris, along with Democrats running for the House and Senate. Ironically, recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations have the potential to play into the hands of the Trump/Pence ticket. Trump wants to be the law-and-order candidate, and his insincere promise to quell civil unrest could tip the election in his favor. This would be a disaster for blacks (and most of the rest of us). Four more years of Donald Trump could destroy our democracy.

Whereas it is important to exercise the right of protest, demonstrations must not be allowed to get out of hand and degenerate into rioting and looting. Although demonstrators have not necessarily been responsible for recent civil disturbances, it is critical that they not encourage violence, whether intentionally or not.

Here are some ideas about what Black Lives Matter leaders can do. They can make sure that, to the degree possible, no local laws are violated. Demonstrators should not carry weapons of any kind. As much as possible—this gets harder as the days get shorter—demonstrations should be limited to daylight hours. Signs are hard to read at night, and it is too easy for mischief to begin in darkness. Demonstrations should have a well-understood purpose and should have enforced start and end times. Operations that last into the night court trouble—trouble from demonstrators themselves, trouble from unsympathetic infiltrators, and trouble from the police. Specific members of the team should be tasked with looking for troublemakers, documenting problems on camera, and reporting misbehavior to the authorities.

If these rules make demonstrating less satisfying, so be it. We must show citizens, particularly white citizens, that we are determined to press for change to make our country better and that we are not trying to tear it down.

Please don’t give Donald Trump the one issue most likely to appeal to white voters, even those white voters leaning toward voting for the Biden/Harris ticket. As many have observed from both the Democratic and Republican perspectives, the 2020 election is likely to be the most important election of our lifetimes.

August 21, 2020

Unequal Justice

 As is my habit, I listened to NPR this morning. I was struck by a remark by newscaster Korva Coleman on the 9 A.M. newscast. Introducing a brief story about the imminent sentencing of Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, she informed listeners, “They could spend months behind bars.”

Months! Imagine that! The rich and connected pay a half-million-dollar bribe to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California, and they may spend months in jail. Had they been a couple of black youths who robbed the corner liquor store of $200, they likely would have been sent to prison for years. Those black miscreants would have lacked the legal services Loughlin and Mossimo can afford.

Of course, rich people don’t knock over liquor stores; they commit nicer, “white collar” crimes. They employ expensive lawyers, and, if convicted at all, they receive light sentences in country-club prisons or are confined for a time to their own mansions with their own hired help.

For now, I want to ignore the privilege or the lack of privilege that individual lawbreakers may have experienced in life, as well as the effects—both positive and negative—of incarceration. Instead, I want to consider the crimes themselves.

Robbing a liquor store is decidedly antisocial and deserves punishment. Bribing college officials to advance the prospects of your unqualified children is also damnable. How do these crimes differ?

The robbers appropriated property not their own and directly terrorized an innocent party or two. Assuming the robbery was not part of a widespread crime wave, most people are inclined to pay little attention to it and do not feel personally terrified. People might even have some sympathy for the underprivileged defendants.

The rich who practice bribery to achieve their desires terrify no one. What they do, however, is undermine the mechanisms of civil society. Whereas the robbers disobey society’s rules, those who illicitly use their wealth and position to obtain what they do not deserve both disobey society’s rules and subvert faith in the fairness of society itself. They are, I think, of greater danger to the body politic. And they go to prison (maybe) for just months?

The penalties we impose for various crimes are, to put it nicely, screwed up. People are incensed by some particular crime and call for unreasonably harsh sentences that lawmakers dutifully enact without consideration of the seriousness of the infraction with regard to other infractions. In general, “violent” crimes and crimes likely to be committed by the underclasses are harshly punished, and the crimes of the wealthy and well-connected are subjected to only modest punishment.

It is time to rethink all sentences for crimes, ranking them according to the harm they inflict and specifying punishments commensurate with that harm. This should be carried out at all levels of government.

August 20, 2020

Progressive Should Be Thankful for Joe Biden

 I’m beginning to find progressive voices lamenting the moderation of Joe Biden tiresome. In the abstract, I would like to have a more liberal president than Mr. Biden. But I want a candidate in 2020 who has a fighting chance of actually being elected. Having experienced the political whiplash that resulted from the 2016 election, I find it hard to believe that Americans would relish the prospect of replacing a fascist with a person the president, with at least a modicum of justification, would surely call a socialist. (He will call Joe Biden and Kamala Harris socialists, but he will not be widely believed.)

Let’s be real. Much of what many Democrats would like to accomplish will be, at best, difficult. Success will depend critically on what happens in Senate races in November.

The highest priority of a Democratic president must be to return sanity competence, and integrity to the federal government. That is to say, the president must undo the depredations visited upon the Republic by President Donald Trump. (See “The Biden Agenda before the Biden Agenda.”) This is a project that can largely be accomplished by the chief executive.

If Democrats take both the White House and the two houses of Congress in November, they may indeed be able to check off some of the items on the progressive to-do list. But before the ship of state steams off in the direction of the rising sun, its listing must be corrected before the deck reaches the waterline. This job will largely fall to President Joe Biden.

Progressives should do what they can to elect like-minded senators and representatives, and they should be grateful for having a Joe Biden at the top of the ticket. Moderates and conservatives can vote for the Democratic ticket without serious misgivings.

August 14, 2020

Trump-Pence Slogans

In 2016, the slogan of the Trump-Pence campaign was “Make America Great Again.” The implication was that, in 2016, America had ceased to be great, but that it had been great at some past time. It was never clear when, in the Trump-Pence universe, America was last great, but Democrats concluded that that fabled time was probably the 1950s, when whites were prosperous and blacks knew their place.

This year, somewhat predictably, the GOP slogan is “Keep America Great.” Democrats, of course, believe that the Trump administration has run the nation into the ground, so that “Make America Great Again” could logically be this year’s Democratic slogan. “Keep America Great” is, at best, disingenuous.

I began thinking of possible Trump-Pence slogans that would be scrupulously honest. That’s an unconventional concept for political rhetoric in general and an especially peculiar one for Republicans. But one can have some fun with the concept. I want to offer the GOP some signs that could capture the actual thoughts and intentions of its standard-bearers.

Trump is already trying to label the Democratic ticket as “socialist.” This is absurd. Although the Democratic Party has certainly moved left in recent years, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris hardly represent the far-left wing of the party. We can expect the Republicans to weaponize the “socialist” label. Here’s a possible sign:

FIGHT SOCIALISM

One of Trump’s most conspicuous efforts has been the elimination of federal regulations. His administration has also been lax in enforcing existing laws and regulations. The GOP faithful love this stuff, as they have a basic dislike—hatred even—of government. Trump‘s base sees every law or regulation as a limitation on freedom. This will please them:

LESS GOVERNMENT/MORE FREEDOM

In 2016, Trump made much of his intention to keep foreigners out of the country. He began his campaign with outrageous charges against Mexicans. This year, the campaign could be equally outrageous but might opt instead for subtlety. This seemingly innocuous sentiment suggests, in the Trump universe, keeping foreigners out and deporting the undocumented people already here:

AMERICA FOR AMERICANS

Trump had planned to be able to boast of a prosperous economy in the 2020 campaign. It was always questionable how much Trump was responsible for a strong economy, and fate dealt the president a nasty blow. The economy, as a result of the ongoing pandemic and the administration’s failure to deal with it effectively, has been sent into the toilet with little prospect of improvement in time to be of much help to the GOP ticket. Trump cannot brag about the financial health of the country, but he can assert that the economy is more important than, say, the health of school pupils:

ECONOMY FIRST

Trump not only values the economy over the health of Americans (and especially of children, who don’t vote) but he also values economic health over the environment and the regulations intended to protect it. Many Trump supporters would resonate to this message:

JOBS BEFORE TREES

The Trump administration has been characterized by disdain for competence. Cabinet secretaries have been selected for their political contributions rather than for their subject-area knowledge and experience. Trump’s disdain was even more in evidence as he dealt with (or failed to deal with) the pandemic. The president has refused to pay attention to medical and scientific experts. Instead, he seems to believe that he is the world’s greatest expert on every conceivable subject. Alas, America has always supported an anti-intellectual strain that can make a virtue of Trump’s dislike of experts:

FREEDOM FROM EXPERTISE

Black Lives Matter demonstrations have given Trump an opportunity to bring out the ever-popular law and order Republican theme:

LAW & ORDER

Black Lives Matter also suggests a more obviously racist slogan. Alter all, in Republican voting, black lives really do not matter:

WHITE LIVES MATTER

A surprising initiative from the Trump administration is the campaign against mail-in voting. Given that Trump himself votes by mail, this effort is decidedly insincere. The strangest component of this crusade has been the attack on the United States Postal Service. The Trump-Pence ticket could try to minimize the significance of the anti-USPS effort:

WHO NEEDS THE POST OFFICE?

Trump believes in family, albeit only his own. He could claim otherwise, suggesting a softer side of the president. This suggests:

FAMILY FIRST

Trump came into office arguing that we should have more friendly relations with Russia. Even President Obama attempted to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations, after all. Trump’s studied avoidance of ever saying a negative word about Russia or Vladimir Putin and his willingness to accept Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence services has been incomprehensible. This suggests a slogan that perhaps not even his most ardent supporters will fully appreciate:

MAKE RUSSIA GREAT AGAIN

Trump has eagerly taken credit for positive developments, even if his actions have not been the cause of them. (The rising stock market is one of his favorite “accomplishments.”) On the other hand, he seems incapable of taking responsibility for negative events or for actions that have the potential to turn out poorly. For example, rather than taking charge of the production and distribution of personal protective equipment needed by medical and other workers, he left the matter to governors. Those governors found themselves outbidding one another for PPE. Here is one slogan that certainly captures the Trump philosophy of governance, but it might not be popular, even with the true Trump believers:

AUTHORITY WITHOUT RESPONSIBILITY

We are unlikely to see any of these proposed Trump-Pence slogans, with the possible exception of “Law & Order.” It is worth thinking about what honest slogans of the GOP ticket might be. As Trump literally lies more often than he tells the truth, however, honesty will not be much in evidence in the 2020 presidential campaign.

August 8, 2020

Vote in Pennsylvania

 I believe that the November 2020 election is the most important election in my lifetime. It is probably also the most problematic, given the ongoing pandemic, Republican attempts to restrict voting, and the president’s efforts to discourage mail-in voting.

Vote in Pennsylvania LogoThe upcoming election is of greatest importance for three reasons. First, we need to remove the proto-fascist Donald Trump from the White House. Second, if a President Biden is to be able to change the direction of the country, we need a Democratic Congress. Democrats need to hold the House and flip the Senate. Finally, state elections are crucial because the state legislators we elect will redraw electoral districts, a task that fell primarily to Republicans after the 2010 census and result in gerrymandering that assured that Republicans sent more people to Congress even in states where Democratic voters were in the majority.

The main message I want to send to my fellow Pennsylvanians is this: VOTE. Vote as though your life depends on it, but try to do so without actually putting your life in jeopardy. You can vote in person, of course, though this is potentially risky because of the coronavirus. It is better to vote by mail. It is no longer necessary to provide an excuse for doing so. Any voter can vote using a mail-in ballot.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has conveniently provided a Web site that provides all the information you need to vote. From that site, you can register to vote, check your registration, request a mail-in ballot, and find additional information related to the voting process. That Web site can be found here:

https://www.votespa.com/

Here are some important dates you need to keep in mind:

  • The last day to register to vote if you are not already registered is October 19, 2020. Most people will be able to register on-line (see above link).
  • Applications for mail-in and absentee ballots must be received by your county election office by 5 p.m. on October 27, 2020. You must be registered to submit an application. Most people can apply on-line (see above link).
  • Ballots must be received by your county election office by 8 p.m. on election day, that is, November 3, 2020. Having an earlier postmark doesn’t count if your ballot is not received by that time.
Rules are slightly different for active-duty military personnel (see above link).

There are few compelling reasons to apply for an absentee ballot, which requires that you offer a reason for not voting in person. You can request a mail-in ballot simply because you want one. (This is a recent—and welcome—innovation.)

Finally, I offer some advice:
  • If you are a resident of Pennsylvania and you are not registered, register to vote as soon as possible.
  • If you are unsure about your voter registration, you can check it on-line.
  • If you are registered, even if you think you will want to vote in person, request a mail-in ballot right away. If you choose not to use it, you may still vote in person.
  • If you are going to vote by mail, fill in your ballot as soon as you get it and mail it to your county election office. (It can be hand-delivered if you prefer.) You can hold onto your ballot for a time if you are uncertain how you want to vote, but be keenly aware that your ballot must arrive on time to be counted. Do not rely on the swiftness of the U.S. Postal Service.

Remember: Democracy does not work if people don’t exercise their right to vote.

August 1, 2020

The Biden Agenda before the Biden Agenda

Joe Biden has articulated his plans and objectives for addressing myriad matters—the environment, education, women, gun violence, you name it. Each topic is treated on his Web site in a longish essay, not simply in a list of bullet points.

As of August 1, 2020, Donald Trump’s Web site is quite different. It is compact and concerned primarily with fund-raising. Only two issues are dealt with, and neither page treating one of these issues is linked to from what passes as the home page. The issues carry the titles “Drain The Swamp” and “Stand Against Antifa.” Apparently, these are the two most vital issues facing the nation in the Trump universe. Each page is virtually devoid of seemingly relevant text and, like the home page, concerns itself primarily with fund-raising.

What is the president’s plan for the environment, for civil rights, for prison reform, for the COVID-19 pandemic? Who knows! In fact, when questioned about his goals for a second term, Donald Trump could only speak of his natural talent and the failings of his enemies, most notably John Bolton. Trump never answered the question asked. However, his goals presumably include enriching himself and his friends through government action, continuing the dismantling of democratic institutions, alienating our allies, and enjoying the fellowship of foreign despots. Interestingly, the Republican Party has decided not to devise a new platform for the 2020 campaign but to simply reuse the platform from 2016. The party wasn’t going to get any fresh ideas from their current standard-bearer anyway.

Laudable though his intentions are, Joe Biden’s most important and urgent task is one that, out of political politeness, he is no doubt reluctant to publicize. Like a parent facing widespread devastation caused by a precocious but destructive toddler left alone in the house too long, Joe Biden must concentrate on cleaning up Trump’s messes. He must quickly build an administration comprising men and women of experience, competence, and unswerving loyalty to democracy and the rule of law. He must reassure our allies that a steadfast United States of America is back and that its flirtation with fascism is over. The Biden administration must begin re-implementing regulations annulled by its predecessor and seek to enact the most important ones into law. A Biden Justice Department needs to drop its support of anti-democratic conservative litigation and turn its attention to police department misconduct and the crimes of Donald Trump and his cronies.

Once the ship of state is diverted from its course toward the rocky shoals of autocracy, Joe Biden, his administration, and—it is to be hoped— a Democratic Senate and Democratic House of Representatives—can renew the goal of perfecting our Republic and again becoming a beacon of freedom in an increasingly dark and perilous world.

Enough.

July 30, 2020

The Real Trump Platform

Republicans have decided to forego creating a new party platform for 2020 and to simply reuse their 2016 version. This is administratively simple, of course, but the United States of 2020 is very different from that of 2016, and Donald Trump’s agenda, now that Trump has seen what he can get away with, is rather more expansive. The president will not be too explicit about his real goals for the country, but we can glean some objectives from his actions and his tweets. Others, we can guess. Some of these ideas, he may be willing to talk about; others not so much.

Here is an attempt to discern the planks of Mr. Trump’s real platform for 2020:
  1. Complete and strengthen the wall on our southern border and begin building a wall on our northern border.
  2. Deport all people in the country found to be undocumented.
  3. Eliminate all immigration into the U.S., both permanent and temporary.
  4. Stop admitting asylum seekers.
  5. Withdraw from the United Nations, NATO, and other multilateral compacts.
  6. Add Russia to the G7.
  7. Add a representative of Russia to the National Security Council.
  8. Accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
  9. Remove U.S. troops from Europe, Korea, Syria, and Afghanistan.
  10. Increase spending on defense.
  11. Increase arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
  12. Eliminate the inheritance tax.
  13. Decrease the corporate income tax.
  14. Provide additional tax breaks for real estate developers.
  15. Outlaw all abortions.
  16. Keep niggers out of white suburbs.
  17. Eliminate scientists and science advice from government.
  18. Eliminate spending on science and medicine.
  19. Eliminate public schools and universities in favor of for-profit education.
  20. Protect statues of Confederate generals and other monuments to the Confederacy.
  21. Put the portrait of Robert E. Lee on the $20 bill.
  22. Outlaw books criticizing the president.
  23. Strengthen laws against slander and libel.
  24. Institute new taxes on newspapers and radio and television stations.
  25. Outlaw mail-in voting.
  26. Require a government ID for voting throughout the country.
  27. Privatize postal and weather services, Social Security, and the IRS.
  28. Begin charging admission for D.C. museums and monuments.
  29. Make the Justice Department and Federal Reserve answerable only to the president.
  30. Provide a domestic police force for the sole use of the president.
Perhaps you think the above list an exaggeration. A little, maybe, but it is certainly commensurate with Donald Trump’s inclinations. Only this morning has the president tweeted that we should postpone November’s election because mail-in voting is “INNACURATE & FRADULENT.” (He approves of "Absentee Voting,” which he himself uses, but he condemns “Universal Mail-In Voting.”) The Constitution be damned.

If you want a president with a real platform like the one above, by all means vote for Donald Trump in November, preferably in person and without wearing a mask. If you want to preserve our Republic, vote for Joe Biden by whatever means are at your disposal.

July 22, 2020

Votes for All—Universal Adult Suffrage

Voting access is the key to equality in our democracy. The size of your wallet, the number on your Zip code shouldn’t matter. The action of government effects every American so every citizen should have an equal voice. … We all count! It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American. We are one people. We are one family. We all live in the same house—the American house.

   — John Lewis, 2019

Vote button
I recently watched the four-hour American Experience documentary “The Vote,” which traces the long road to women’s suffrage. “The Vote” is available on the PBS Web site, and I recommend it highly.

The documentary pointed out a characteristic of our laws that I had never thought about. As the franchise was expanded over the years, the Constitution was amended to say not who could vote but who could not be prevented from voting.

Voting by ordinary citizens was not dealt with in the Constitution until the post-Civil War amendments were enacted. In Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, citizenship is defined:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.
This provision was required by the infamous Dred Scott Decision, which denied that Blacks could be U.S. citizens. Section 2 annuls the notorious provision of Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, which treated slaves—referred to as “other Persons”—as three-fifths of a person:
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.
(Notice that “persons,” not “citizens” are to be counted, despite President Trump’s recent instructions that the census should not count undocumented persons.) Section 2 also provides that a state’s representation can be reduced if the right to vote
is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime
This provision has been used to disenfranchise felons in some states. It has never been used to reduce a state’s representation. The provision was largely made moot by the 15th Amendment, Section 1 of which reads
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Taken together, the 14th and 15th Amendments require that, with minor exceptions, all men aged twenty-one or older may not be prevented from voting based on race, color, or having been a slave. (Apparently, some Southern states tried to prohibit people from voting whose parents or grandparents were slaves.) Nothing is said about prohibiting voting because of religion or sex. Arguably, the First Amendment made using religion to disenfranchise citizens questionable. Some women argued that these amendments should have given them the right to vote. They argued for their suffrage to be provided for explicitly. They did not carry the day.

Not until the ratification of the 19th Amendment, did women get the right to vote:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
It is unclear whether “sex” includes sexual minorities such as homosexuals. It is reasonable to conclude that it does, as the Supreme Court has just ruled that “sex” in legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment does indeed cover such people.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to enforce the protections of the 14th and 15th Amendments and explicitly outlawed certain mechanisms for denying the right to vote such as the use of literacy tests. Additional legislation over the years has sought to strengthen voting rights. In 2013, however, a major provision of the 1965 law was struck down by the Supreme Court. That provision required states with a history of discrimination to obtain federal clearance for any changes to their voting laws.  Shelby County v. Holder provided an excuse for Southern states to implement procedures intended to limit voting by racial minorities.

The 24th Amendment outlawed the franchise’s being dependent on paying a poll tax or other tax. The 26th Amendment, the most recent amendment touching upon voting, reduced the voting age to 18:
The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.
The Constitution does not explicitly prohibit using other criteria to prevent people from voting, such as removing them from the voting rolls for not having voted in recent elections. Additionally, many states prevent incarcerated persons from voting, possibly even after they have served their term in prison. In Florida, for instance, felons lost their right to vote and had to go through an elaborate procedure to restore their rights upon release from prison. Floridians voted to eliminate that procedure, but the legislature passed a law that, before voting rights could be restored, all fines and mandated restitution had to be paid. Does that law run afoul of the 24th Amendment? That question awaits an answer.

If the United States is to be a true democracy, should not everyone be allowed to vote? Even criminals sent to prison remain citizens. What harm can come by allowing them to vote? They might even have special insights into our penal system that might profitably be taken into account. Given that this country incarcerates so many people, taking away those people’s franchise significantly reduces the electorate.

I believe, apparently as did the recently departed Congressman John Lewis, that all citizens should be allowed to vote. Period. Therefore, I propose a constitutional amendment that would make that ideal a reality:
Amendment XXVIII
Section 1. All citizens of the United States who are eighteen years old or older shall have an irrevocable right to vote.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
This amendment, rather than describing who cannot be prevented from voting, simply declares that suffrage is universal among citizens. Moreover, events such as incarceration can have no effect on suffrage. One can lose the right to vote only be losing citizenship, by personal renunciation, for example. States could implement this amendment in various ways or Congress could specify a nationwide implementation. Ideally, voter lists can be done away with. When presenting themselves to vote, whether in person or remotely, people can simply self-certify that they are citizens. As now, severe penalties can be assessed on non-citizens caught trying to vote. (Although Republicans falsely claim that many non-citizens have been allowed to vote, there is no evidence for that belief.)

Would not such an amendment be a reform that enhances our democracy?

July 14, 2020

A New Name for the Redskins

So the Washington Redskins are finally to get a new name. Fine. What is it to be? I have been unimpressed by most of the names I have heard suggested. Redtails? That seems like a cynical attempt to embrace one minority after defaming a different minority for decades. Will the new uniform pants have scarlet seats?

An obvious naming strategy would be to take advantage of some aspect of the District of Columbia. After all, there once was a baseball team called the Washington Senators in town. This could be the new name for the NFL team. The team could adopt another name suggesting the governmental nature of Washington. We could cheer the Washington Lobbyists, the Washington Legislators, the Washington Lawmakers, the Washington Politicians (commonly called the Pols), or the Washington Solons. Less favorable references to our nation’s capital suggest names such as the Washington Swamp Rats or other names that, out of delicacy, I will not mention.

Redskins Helmet
Many of those names probably would not work well, particularly those having more than two syllables. Actually, I sort of like Swamp Rats, though I doubt that has much chance of being selected. It does have but two syllables, which is a plus. (Go Rats!)

How about the Washington Leaders? If the team is actually any good, that name would have a double meaning. Again, the name has but two syllables.

My best suggestion is simply to call the football team the Washington Reds. Fans of the old name will see a surreptitious reference to the former name; detractors of the old name will see a name with no negative implications or, perhaps, will imagine a team of revolutionaries (or maybe Bolsheviks). The communist reference is a stretch. The name can just suggest a color. After all, my alma mater, the University of Chicago, fields the Maroons. What, after all, is a Maroon?

Well, I await a final decision about the team name from the Redskins front office. Is anyone ready to wager on what name will be selected?

Community vs. Individual Concerns in the Time of Pandemic

What is needed to control the coronavirus until a vaccine is available, we are told, is extensive testing and effective contact tracing. We should all be wearing masks and be distancing from one another. This will allow us to identify outbreaks and quickly contain them. There is general agreement, except in the White House, that we have not yet achieved effective control of the virus by these means.

Coronavirus
Coronavirus
We must recognize, however, that even if we have readily available testing and contact tracing, and people are wearing masks and avoiding getting close to one another, individuals are not immune to catching the virus. Some people will be infected, and they may get sick and possibly die. The benefit to the community is that fewer people will become sick, and a good deal of economic activity can resume with reduced risk. The heavy burden currently being felt by hospitals, EMS personnel, and funeral homes will be substantially reduced, and the nation will be a happier place.

The one bright note for individuals is that the medical establishment is learning how better to treat COVID-19 patients. There is still no cure, but treatment is improving, and one’s chance of surviving a COVID-19 hospitalization has improved. Because, even with extensive testing and contract tracking, individuals are not immune to getting sick, however, it is wise to do everything you can to stay well—wear a mask, wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and avoid people—especially crowds of people—as much as possible. If you can, stay home and watch Netflix or read War and Peace.

Good luck surviving this pandemic.

July 11, 2020

Masks

Despite the now universal medical advice that, during this time of pandemic, people should wear masks in public to decrease the spread of the coronavirus, many people refuse to do so. Masking has unfortunately become a political issue. People eschew masks as effete or as a concession to a science in which they have no faith or in recognition of Donald Trump’s assertion that the pandemic is some kind of liberal plot. To my knowledge, no one has so far been killed in arguments over mask-wearing, but that may well happen before the pandemic subsides.

The militantly unmasked are doubtless inspired by the actions of the president. Donald Trump has consistently dismissed the viral threat despite the 135,000 deaths in the U.S. that have been caused by it. He has made a point of not wearing a mask, even in situations in which doing so has seemed particularly urgent. Today, for the first time, he unabashedly wore a mask publicly in a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. One suspects that the hospital staff was insistent on mask usage to protect its patients. The president has not suggested that he has changed his mind regarding masks, however, and today’s mask usage is probably a one-off event.

I believe that the zealous opposition to mask-wearing could largely be extinguished if the president would simply proclaim that he will wear a mask whenever he is interacting with others and that he urges everyone to follow his lead in order to decrease the spread of disease.

Why is Mr. Trump so reluctant to take this simple action? Why is he willing to contribute to already appalling death toll by failing to do the obvious?

July 8, 2020

Can Americans Follow Through?

The increasing number of COVID-19 cases, mostly in the South and West, was totally predictable. States went through a period of shutdown without developing testing and tracing capacity and without achieving the decreasing incidence explicitly recommended by White House guidelines (though ignored by the president himself). When states like Florida and Texas began “opening up” their states, people, especially young people, behaved like the contents of a shaken soda bottle that was suddenly uncapped. Masks were left at home; people gathered in large celebratory groups; and infections invariably followed. People were tired of restrictions, and politicians did not have the will (or the good sense) to assure that the re-opening of their states would be at least relatively safe from contagion. As a nation, America has not had the will to see the project of suppressing the coronavirus to a minimally damaging conclusion. Such a seeming failure of will is not unheard of but is not inevitable.

Americans have often seen existential challenges to the end. Despite repeated setbacks, the country pursued its fight for independence to a successful conclusion. The Union finally won the War to Preserve Slavery (i.e., the Civil War). There were protests about the war and about conscription, but the nation even held a presidential election in the middle of the war. World War II, despite its loss of life, its disruptions, and its privations was prosecuted successfully and led to the Pax Americana. Smaller conflicts that were not existential threats were too quickly concluded to inspire heavy opposition or caused too little disruption of everyday life for the citizens to demand their end (think the war in Afghanistan).

Unfortunately, Americans have not always responded courageously to significant moral challenges. The writing of the Declaration of Independence was nearly derailed over slavery, and American’s original sin persisted until the conclusion of the Civil War. Having finally put slavery behind us, the nation failed again, however, truncating Reconstruction and paving the way for the backlash that became Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement of the last half of the twentieth century rolled back many of the indignities long visited on Black people, but the gains were partial and, in many cases—think of the Voting Rights Act— did not last intact.

We now face two moral challenges, and it is unclear whether Americans have the will to overcome them. One is the current Black Lives Matter movement that seeks to reform policing, do away with monuments to the Confederacy, and achieve the promise of equal rights implicit in the Declaration of Independence and in Reconstruction. This revolution is centuries overdue. Will it be successful this time? That success is hardly assured. If Donald Trump is re-elected, the dream of equality will again be suppressed.

The second moral challenge we face simultaneously is overcoming the coronavirus. The opening up of states in the South and West is proving to be disastrous. Americans are impatient to return to their normal lives, and politicians, most notably the president, are exploiting that impatience. Will we be successful in minimizing the effects of the pandemic until a vaccine is available? Or will we sacrifice American lives out of collective impatience and the eagerness of the president to improve the economy to buoy his election chances?

It is unclear that America will meet either of these moral challenges. Eventually, of course, the coronavirus will be reduced to a manageable threat, as have been measles or polio. The cost in lives and treasure may be heavy, however.

It is less clear that justice for the race we once enslaved will, at last, be achieved.

July 6, 2020

Nominations for the National Garden of American Heroes

In a July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore, President Donald Trump announced plans for a “National Garden of American Heroes” to honor great Americans. The garden is to contain statues—they must be straightforward likenesses of those honored—of the likes of Billy Graham, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Dolley Madison, Ronald Reagan, and Antonin Scalia. A Washington Post story on Mr. Trump’s idea suggests that the proposed list is odd and seems designed to please his own supporters. Of course, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are included, but many other names are unlikely to be at the top of lists compiled by legitimate historians.

If this initiative is really intended to ingratiate Mr. Trump with his ardent supporters—and there is no doubt that this is the case—the list really needs to be more focused on that objective. To that end, and as a service to our president, I offer the off-the-top-of-my-head list of potential honorees below. My list is in no particular order. Perhaps readers can offer additional names:
  1. Jefferson Finis Davis
  2. George Armstrong Custer
  3. Fielding Lewis Wright
  4. Charles Augustus Lindberg
  5. Fred Christ Trump
  6. Roger Brooke Taney
  7. George Corley Wallace Jr.
  8. Phyllis Stewart Schlafly
  9. Jason Gould
  10. Robert Edward Lee
  11. Andrew Jackson
  12. Ayn Rand
  13. Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor
  14. Preston Smith Brooks
  15. Andrew Johnson
  16. Orval Eugene Faubus
  17. Ronald Wilson Reagan
  18. Isabella Maria Boyd
  19. William Jennings Bryan
  20. Joseph Raymond McCarthy
  21. Antonin Gregory Scalia
  22. Charles Edward Coughlin
  23. Jesse Alexander Helms Jr.
  24. James Strom Thurmond Sr.
  25. Rose O’Neal Greenhow
  26. John Caldwell Calhoun
  27. Ross Robert Barnett
I have to admit that I needed to look up some of these people to get their full names. I included no living persons, who surely would not grace the memorial garden—at least, not yet.

No person is totally good or totally bad, of course, so even liberals may find laudable qualities in some of the persons listed. (Perhaps not too many, however.)

The president intends for his garden to educate citizens. Who can argue with this objective? If readers do not recognize all the names above, they can research the accomplishments of these American heroes.

July 1, 2020

Thoughts on the Department of Justice

The United States of America is a nation of law. Or so we were taught in school. We have a venerable Constitution that defines the overall structure of the Republic and a Congress and president that are responsible for enacting laws. We have a judicial system, including a Supreme Court, that interprets the law and relies on the body of laws and judicial opinions developed over more than two centuries.

Justitia by  Maarten van Heemskerk, 1556
Justitia by
Maarten van Heemskerk, 1556
These institutions and resources, though vitally important, underspecify how the country actually works. For example, the Constitution is silent about political parties, yet our two-party system of private entities has become a seemingly essential component of our governing system.

Additionally, American government adheres to many unwritten rules. Votes are countered honestly, at least most of the time. Presidential candidates disclose their medical and financial records before standing for election. Presidential nominees requiring Senate confirmation get a hearing and a vote by the Senate. Presidents, who occasionally are known to shade the truth, are not expected to lie more often than not. The Department of Justice administers federal laws fairly and without favoritism.

Donald Trump and his Republican allies have defied conventions that may not be enshrined in law but which are essential to the workings of the Republic. He refuses to disclose his tax returns and offers laughable excuses for medical information. He fires competent office-holders and replaces them with temporary lackeys. He lies to the public, often seemingly for the sheer sport of it.

Most distressingly, the convention of a Department of Justice enforcing the rule of law and representing the interests of the United States before the courts has been conspicuously violated. Under President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr has led a Department of Justice intent on protecting the president, his friends, and his personal interests. Readers can easily enumerate the myriad ways in which Mr. Barr has acted as the president’s fixer, rather than an advocate for the rule of law and for the interests of the United States.

One hopes that, in November, President Trump will fail in his re-election bid, and, in January, President Biden will fire Mr. Barr and nominate a more conventional Attorney General. We should ask what we can do to avoid ever having another Attorney General like William Barr.

Assuring the independence of the Department of Justice is difficult. Although it seems as though William Barr is doing everything the president wants him to do, it is not really clear that he is taking his orders from the chief executive. Mr. Barr seems to hold the view that the president can do just about anything, and his interests override those of everyone else and of the country generally. He never should have been confirmed by the Senate.

The view of the presidency held by William Barr is, happily, a minority one. One hopes that the Senate will, in the future, assure that no one with such an anti-democratic view will be approved as Attorney General. (Actually, senators had every reason to expect Mr. Barr to act as he has, despite his less than candid answers before the Senate.)

What is needed (and the best we can do) is a mechanism to assure that justice is administered fairly and without influence by the president.

Ideally, I think, the Department of Justice should become a fourth branch of government, headed by an Attorney General appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The Attorney General should have a fixed term, perhaps of 10 years, and be removable for cause only through impeachment by the Congress. The advantages of this organization should be immediately apparent. Although this would be a logical arrangement, it is unlikely to be implemented, as doing so would require a constitutional amendment.

Perhaps a not-too-dissimilar organization would work nearly as well based on something like the Federal Reserve model. Presidents invariably try to influence the Federal Reserve, but usually without success. Of course, the Fed is protected from presidential influence in part because the president does not control who all the decision-makers are. Nonetheless, the Department of Justice could be restructured a largely autonomous body with a fixed-term leader insulated against arbitrary dismissal.

I  don’t have a fully worked-out plan for Justice, but I do think the above ideas should be given some consideration. The rule of law in the United States is under threat, and we need to do something about it.


Note: As it happens, today is the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Justice. Most people assume Justice it is much older. Its beginnings and thoughts about its possible future are offered in a Washington Post editorial that can be read here.