September 21, 2021

National Priorities

 I like Joe Biden; I don’t love Joe Biden. His policy record is checkered, and his interpersonal interactions are sometimes creepy. But he is a Democrat, he loves trains, and I believe his heart is in the right place. Most significantly, he is not Donald Trump.

The Democratic platform in 2020 was strongly influenced not only by Joe Biden but by Senator Bernie Sanders. That platform, or parts of it, was attractive to many voters, and President Biden is endeavoring to deliver on his campaign promises.

When we consider the most pressing needs of the nation, campaign promises, and the apparent priorities of the current administration, it is not clear that the country’s most urgent needs have been given the priority they deserve. Most notably, the task of protecting our democracy by assuring voting rights for all is, remarkably, not the number one goal of the president and of Democratic legislators.

What, then, should be the priorities of the federal government in 2021? I will offer my own list, with the understanding that the items on it cannot be addressed in a strictly sequential manner. Moreover, certain matters must be dealt with in parallel to these most urgent priorities. For the immediate future, for example, the administration (and perhaps even the Congress) must deal with the ongoing pandemic.

I am convinced that my first issue should indeed be at the top of my list. I am less sure about the exact ordering of what follows—this is meant to be an ordered list—but I think I am in the right ballpark.

Here is my list of national priorities:

  1. Voting Rights: Federal action is needed to assure that all citizens have the right to vote The exercise of that right must be as easy and as straightforward as possible. Gerrymandering to favor one party, race, or interest should be banned; and the fair administration of elections and tabulations should be assured. Republicans are doing their best to guarantee their ability to rule irrespective of the will of the electorate. If they are successful in thereby destroying our democratic republic, most of what follows will not matter.
  2. Climate Change. Life on this planet will become difficult and will severely strain our democratic republic if we do not do everything possible to halt climate change. We must do what we can domestically and encourage other nations to do their part as well. Not everything we try will be successful, and it is impossible to lay out a complete program in advance. Most especially, we must curb the burning of fossil fuels and fund research to find new solutions to the climate problem. “Adapting” to climate change is a losing proposition.
  3. Wealth Inequality. For decades, we have been reducing the tax burden on wealthy persons and corporations. This has not resulted in wealth “trickling down.” We are building a stratified nation of the wealthy, a thinning, technologically-oriented middle class, and an increasingly impoverished and demoralized underclass. We should be grateful that this has not yet led to revolution. Taxes need to be more progressive and difficult to avoid. Inheritance taxes should be steep, and the preference for capital gains should be eliminated. (All income should be treated the same.) Legislation should encourage unionization; a cap should be placed on executive pay; and existing and improved antitrust law should be vigorously applied. The minimum wage, including for workers working for tips, should be increased and indexed to inflation. (Ideally, the notion of giving tips for anything other than extraordinary services should be discouraged.) The taxing of churches and other nonprofits should be considered.
  4. Campaign Finance. Corporations can neither speak nor hold religious views and should be denied “personhood” except in limited, specified respects. Political contributions by individuals and organizations, including contributions by candidates themselves, should be strictly limited. All contributions to political causes greater than $1,000 and their source must be publicly disclosed within 30 days. There should be severe penalties for failure to do so. A constitutional amendment may be required to effect these changes. Federal financing at least of presidential elections should be considered.
  5. Housing. The nation needs more housing. The federal government has largely been indifferent to this need, and the not-in-my-backyard attitude of too many people has made increasing the stock of affordable housing virtually impossible. The growing homeless population in a country as rich as the United States is a national disgrace. Increasing population density will not only address homelessness but also will save energy and fight climate change. Until our efforts in this area bear fruit, we must house the homeless as best we can.
  6. Reproductive Rights. The fight over abortion is more than just about women’s choices. It is about injecting minority-held religious views into public policy. It is about interfering in the practice of medicine. And it is about controlling women and keeping them second-class citizens. Congress should assure the right of women to be free of restrictions concerning their reproductive lives. Women, with their doctors, should be able to decide what is right for them. This is not a free country as long as women are not free.
  7. Gun Control. There are more guns than people in this country, and many of them are weapons of war that do not belong in the hands of civilians. Assault weapons should be outlawed and surrendered for compensation. All guns should be registered, and the registration should be valid for no more than two years. The penalty for possession of an unregistered gun should be severe. All transfers should be subject to a mandatory background check and safety training.
  8. Immigration. Our immigration system is wildly dysfunctional. The easy reform is giving so-called dreamers a straightforward way to gain citizenship in the only country they have ever known. Allowing or denying entry to foreigners who want to come to the U.S. needs to be, if nothing else, speedy. Asylum seekers should be afforded humane and prompt treatment. We must decide how we are to treat long-term residents who have not come to this country legally. Much of the dysfunction of Central American nations that are sending waves of refugees to the U.S. is of our doing. We must try to help these countries rather than promoting the interests of American corporations intent on pillaging them.
  9. Infrastructure. Yes, the country does need to spend money on its decaying infrastructure. Roads, bridges, tunnels, electrical distribution systems, water systems, and sewer systems need to be put in good repair. In the 21st century, high-speed Internet access needs to be universally available. We should be wary of created new structures that are not absolutely necessary and that will require ongoing maintenance. Expanding the low-speed passenger rail system may not be a good investment.
There are other matters that need attention to strengthen democracy but do not easily fit into a list of legislative priorities. This list includes some long-term issues and issues not resolvable at the federal level. This list is in no particular order, though the first item may indeed need to be addressed first.
  1. Senate Filibuster. This undemocratic rule has racist origins and often racist effects. Eliminating or modifying it will be necessary for the Congress to get much done.
  2. D.C. Statehood. The District of Columbia has a population larger than several states. It is governed in large measure by the whims of Congress. This should be changed. Additionally, two D.C. senators are likely to nudge the Senate in a more progressive direction. I don’t think that Puerto Rico should be made a state. (I would give Puerto Rico a pile of money, give residents two years to decide if they want to come to the United States, and make Puerto Rico an independent nation.)
  3. Police. Police often protect and serve their own interests rather than those of the citizenry. It is unclear just how reform should look. In any case, police should be relieved of some jobs for which they are unqualified and untrained.
  4. Judiciary. The Supreme Court, with its lifetime appointments and capricious replacement procedures, is wildly out-of-touch with the population over which it holds great power. To a degree, lower federal courts share these problems. Ideally, Supreme Court justices should have limited terms, and each president should be guaranteed two appointments. If such a change is politically impossible, additional justices should be added to the court.
  5. Justice System. Cash bail should be eliminated for low-level offenses reputedly committed by people who pose a low flight risk. Private prisons should be phased out. Other prisons should be provided with larger, better-trained staff. Imprisonment should be about isolation from the wider society only, not an introduction into an inmate-run hell.
  6. Education. Making community college may simply have the result of attracting students who ought to be doing something else than going to school. We would do well to develop more opportunities to learn useful trades and participate in apprentice programs. For-profit schools of all kinds should be discouraged, and public funding for all schools, including public colleges should be increased. In pre-college education, greater emphasis should be placed on civics, geography, and history. History should include all of U.S. history: economic history, labor history, women’s history, slave and black history. We should tell truth to our youth. (Hum, maybe there’s a useful slogan there.) We should also teach children about climate change. Non-public elementary and secondary education should receive no public subsidies. In any case, education is traditionally a state concern. The federal government cannot always demand, but it can encourage.
  7. Constitution. Our Constitution, as amended, is a marvelous document, but it is not a perfect one. A number of changes could be helpful. For example, if we elected members to the House of Representatives for four, rather than two, years, members could spend more of their time legislating and less time pursuing re-election. Campaign finance reform may require a constitutional amendment. The Second Amendment could be clarified to be more restrictive than desired by the NRA and the Supreme Court. Although doing so does not require a change to the Constitution, enlarging the membership of the House would reduce the number of constituents of each member, resulting in better representation.
  8. Health Care. Our mostly for-profit health care system works better for providers, pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, for-profit hospitals, and insurance companies than it does for the general population. Congress has focused on health insurance rather than health care. That focus needs to change. We should be working toward a single-payer system and reduced for-profit elements of that system. Increasing Medicare benefits may be a step toward a more comprehensive health care system, though it benefits those most who already are receiving substantial assistance.
  9. Other Matters. There are other areas of concern, of course. We need to be concerned about wildlife and our national parks. Native Americans and blacks have been treated badly by our nation. It is unclear whether compensation for our past depredations is possible, Future actions should be informed by past injuries. It is widely believed that government provides less assistance to parents and children than do other Western nations. We likely should do more, but I’m not sure what that should look like or what we can afford. We should spend more on basic scientific research and, perhaps, on the space program.
This post is one person’s opinion. I invite comments either below or on Facebook.

September 19, 2021

Abortion Access for Episcopalians

Anti-abortion activists are predominately Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. To the degree that their activism is sincere, it is based on the religious notion that the unborn are human, and therefore children of God in need of their protection. In discussions of abortion, however, the religious underpinnings of their passion are seldom made explicit. Most often, we are told that abortion is murder, an idea sometimes soft-pedaled with slogans like “abortion stops a beating heart. Linda Greenhouse recently wrote, however, that, with a now sympathetic Supreme Court in place, “Republican officeholders are no longer coy about their religion-driven mission to stop abortion.”

In modern times, of course, infanticide is nearly universally condemned as murder. It is difficult to make a moral distinction between killing a newborn and aborting a pregnancy close to term. The not-quite-born child is not substantially different from the just-born child. Each one is, at least in a physiological sense, fully human. For this reason, late-term abortions of apparently normal pregnancies are clearly problematic. One might question the interest of the state in their prohibition, however. Nevertheless, most citizens, whatever their views of abortion generally, are very uneasy about such late procedures.

One may quibble (obviously) about earlier abortions. An embryo or fetus is human, in the same sense that a detached fingernail is human, though not a human. It is more correct to say that it is a potential human. The product of a recently established pregnancy has about the same relationship to a human being as an innertube has to an aircraft carrier. Only if one posits that implantation (or even fertilization) somehow causes a soul also to be implanted as well does an embryo take on an essential human property. (It is unclear what is supposed to happen to the soul if the embryo dies. Where does it go, or does it simply evaporate?) Its physical nature of an embryo or fetus, on the other hand, is as far from human as a worm or caterpillar.

In what is supposed to be a secular government, the religious view that an embryo or fetus is an actual human should be of no legal significance, even more so as that view is held by a small minority of religious zealots. Nonetheless, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and recent Supreme Court decisions such as the Hobby Lobby case have privileged reputed “religious freedom” over other freedoms. Turning back this unfortunate tide is a daunting task, but perhaps one can fight back by playing the religious game.

Suppose a female Episcopalian in, say, Texas, wants access to abortion. Can she not claim a “sincerely held” religious exemption from anti-abortion laws akin to the religious exceptions allowed in other circumstances. (We regularly allow such exceptions from obligations such as taking a COVID vaccination.)

The governing body of the Episcopal Church, the General Convention, has expressed its views on abortion. In Resolution A054 of 1994, after suggesting that abortion can have negative aspects, concluded by declaring

[T]his 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church express[es] its unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.

Does this not mean that an Episcopalian woman’s freedom of choice is fully endorsed by her religious authorities. Should not a Supreme Court that is so deferential to religious views allow this woman to have an abortion? I suggest that posing such a question before the court would expose to all the world that abortion restrictions promoted by a zealous religious minority are in fact an imposition of those minority religious views on the population generally. They are therefore improper for the government to enact and enforce.

September 16, 2021

Epiphany Insurrection

 On Saturday, Washington will see another rally of true believers of the Big Lie promoted by Donald Trump. Ostensibly, the event is a protest against the arrest and prosecution of the Trump loyalists who attacked the Capitol on January 6.

In a January 11 post, I discussed the need for an agreed-upon name for the events of January 6. As of now, there isn’t one. Occasionally, “1/6” is used, by analogy to “9/11,” but, as I wrote earlier, this is derivative, indirect, and not especially euphonious. More commonly, writers referring to the event describe it in phrases like “the assault on the Capitol.”

In my January 11 post, I suggested “Epiphany Putsch” as an appropriate name. Perhaps, however, this sounds too German. “Epiphany Insurrection” is perhaps a better choice. There is a consensus, at least among Trump’s detractors, that the event was indeed an insurrection. As for “Epiphany,” I will simply repeat what I wrote earlier:

The ragtag army that marched on the Capitol had no thoughts of the Christian celebration, but the sack of the Capitol was an epiphany of sorts—it manifested, for all to see, the logical consequences of the error of Trumpism. That epiphany has been powerful enough to remove the blinders from the eyes even of some Republicans who have hitherto been unshakable Trump sycophants.

Well, not the eyes of many Republicans. 

September 13, 2021

Thoughts on the 9/11 Twentieth Anniversary

 I watched a lot of television on Saturday as the nation commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. A few thoughts came to mind that I offer below.

When faced with a dire situation, the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 voted on what they should do. How American was that? Do you think that would happen today?

Would the people of United Flight 175, American Flight 11, and American Flight 77 have attacked their hijackers had they known the hijackers’ intentions?

The tragedies of 9/11 brought the country together. Why didn’t a global pandemic have a similar effect? That pandemic, after all, has killed about 200 times as many Americans as were lost on 9/11.

September 11, 2021

Looking Back 20 Years

Like most Americans, I had strong reactions to the events of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath. Unlike most Americans, I wrote a lot about those reactions on my Web site, Lionel Deimel’s Farrago, and, later, on this blog. Ten years ago, I made a series of 11 blog posts calling attention to what I had written in the previous decade. (The first post was published 9/11/2011 and was titled “Looking Back to 9/11. Part 1.” The series continued for the next 10 days.)

For the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I offer a sort of annotated list of my writings related to that dreadful day.

  • Falling from the Sky (9/27/2001): This is my favorite poem about 9/11. It imagines what it must have been like to be in one of the World Trade Center towers on that terrible day. The poem is without rhyme and includes these thought-provoking lines: “Was immolation by jet fuel worse than the fire felt by Joan of Arc?/Those who jumped must certainly have thought so.”
  • 9/11 Memorial (6/30/2003): Although this poem was written long after 9/11. its setting is a church service held on the evening of 9/11. A candle on the altar reminded me of a burning tower. That night, we sang the hymn “All my hope on God id founded,” which contains the words “though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust.” (Episcopalians have a hymnal sufficient for all occasions.)
  • What’s in a Name (9/16/2001): A meditation on the events of five days earlier. We had not yet settled on “9/11” as the name for what happened.
  • 11 September 2001 (9/23/2001): This poem is about how the country needed to react to 9/11. It was inspired by President Bush’s speech of 9/20/2001. It includes these lines: “Our passion aflame to our homeland defend,/We know the beginning, yet fear for the end.” That fear was well-founded.
  • Airplanes II (11/5/2001): This poem expresses relief over the resumption of commercial airline flights.
  • 2001 (begun 12/31/2001): This poem begins with the understated line “Two thousand one was not a good year.” The poem deals with events of 2001, including those of 9/11. My favorite lines are: “The heavenly bliss of American dreams/Was invaded by terrorist hell.”
  • Homeland Security (6/11/2002): The terrorism of 9/11 led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. I wasn’t convinced that this collection of government functions was needed, but I was sure that it had been given the wrong name.
  • Thanks, But No Thanks (3/18/2003): President Bush took his eyes off Afghanistan and focused on Iraq. I was justifiably skeptical.
  • Ground Zero Memorial (12/15/2003): When I wrote this essay, the nature of the memorial at the World Trade Center site had not yet been determined. I suggested what I thought should at least be a part of that memorial.
  • Lower Manhattan (9/15/2004): Simply a recognization that, since 9/11, “Lower Manhattan” has a double meaning.
  • From Yellow to Orange (7/7/2005): Thoughts concerning the Homeland Security Advisory System that was developed in response to 9/11.
  • United States–Iraq War Ends (12/15/2011): A formal end was declared to the Iraq War, which had strangely been linked to 9/11 by President Bush. What was the point?
  • A Memorial Day Prayer (5/29/2017): As the war in Afghanistan dragged on, it occurred to me that not all war dead died for good reason.
  • Who Lost Afghanistan (8/16/2021): As the war inspired by 9/11 is coming to an end, the recriminations can begin.
  • Get Me to the Plane on Time (8/22/2021): I end this series in rhyming satire: alternative words to “Get me to the church on time” as Americans and Afghans struggle to get to the airport to get out of Afghanistan now controlled by the Taliban. Afghanistan has come full circle.

September 8, 2021

Eliminating Rape in Texas

 It is widely recognized that the new Texas anti-abortion law is ludicrous, meanspirited, and unconstitutional. It is especially interesting that the law makes no exceptions for rape or incest. There is actually a kind of backhand good news here. If you are raped, whether by a stranger, acquaintance, or family member, you should have the good sense to realize that you do not want to be pregnant but you might be. Even with the time limit of the Texas law, there is likely time for a pregnancy test and, if necessary, an abortion. If you have sex in other circumstances, however, you may not even consider that you could be pregnant. Not all sex results in pregnancy, but not all birth control is 100% effective 100% of the time. When you realize you are pregnant, Texas law may deem an abortion illegal.

My advice is that, if you are raped, you should get a reliable pregnancy as soon as you can.

GOP Texas governor Greg Abbott has offered a reason why, in his opinion, no rape exception in the law is necessary. “Rape is a crime,” he explained, “and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.”

Bess Levin has pointed out that Abbott’s intention may be hard to realize. As recently as 2019, 14,824 rapes were reported in Texas. (There were surely many, perhaps very many, unreported rapes.) Texas does not have a group of the “precogs” of Minority Report to arrest people who are about to commit rape; it can only arrest people who have already raped. Eliminating rape through law enforcement is a logical impossibility. And, as Levin asked, “[i]f he had that power [to eliminate rape], why didn’t he do it prior to enacting this law?”

The rape that Governor Abbott should eliminate is the rape of the civil rights of Texas residents. Eliminating sexual rape is beyond his power and, likely, beyond his sincere concern.

September 1, 2021

Thoughts on the New Texas Abortion Law

The most disturbing aspect of the new Texas abortion law is not that it bans nearly all abortions, though that is quite bad enough. The law is, after all, clearly unconstitutional. But even more distressing is the fact that the law outsources law enforcement to unscrutinized, unqualified zealots lacking the standing normally required to bring lawsuits and places a bounty on pregnant women and anyone helping them exercise their right to obtain an abortion.

The essence of Roe v. Wade is not simply a prohibition on governments’ restricting abortions. Instead, it is based on the notion that a woman has a right to privacy and to bodily integrity. The attempt of Texas to shirk its role in enforcing its abortion law should not be a valid workaround to avoid the obligations of Roe.

Yes, the new Texas law is an anti-woman law. It is also a pro-chaos law and an anti-rule-of-law law. If we begin outsourcing the enforcement of laws to citizens at large, the only law we will have left is the law of the jungle.

God help us! (So far, the Supreme Court hasn’t.)

August 22, 2021

Get Me to the Plane on Time

The words below are to be sung to the tune of “Get me to the church on time” from “My Fair Lady” by Fredrick Lowe. I wrote this a few days ago as the U.S. was beginning to remove Americans and American allies from Afghanistan. It seemed amusing them. Today, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan seems dire, and my lyrics seem less amusing.

I’m exfiltrating in the morning If I’m not a victim of a crime. Rebels are fright’ning, But I’ll run like lightning To get me to the plane on time. If there are roadblocks, I’ll find a way To rebels outfox And to save the day ’cause I’m exfiltrating in the morning; There may be airport walls to climb. Kabul has fallen; The people are bawlin’, But I’m gonna meet the plane on time. Kabul has fallen; The people are brawlin’, So get me to the plane on time.

August 16, 2021

Thoughts on Mask Mandates

I admit it— I don’t like wearing a mask. I particularly disliked wearing a mask until I found one that didn’t fog my glasses. (Grocery shopping was especially frustrating when everything on the shelf was a blur.) I wore a mask wherever I was told I should, and I stayed home except for needed trips to the supermarket or pharmacy.

America was doing a fair job of social distancing, wearing masks, and self-isolating if necessary. Nonetheless, infections, hospitalizations, and deaths increased steadily during the current pandemic until the development and deployment of effective vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Those vaccines promised to end the pandemic, though the threat of imported viruses could not easily or quickly be diminished. Nevertheless, President Biden’s Independence Day vaccination target seemed within reach. The CDC’s suggestion that the fully vaccinated could go maskless in most situations promised a return to the normality of the status quo ante.

Just when we were approaching definitive freedom from mask-wearing and COVID-19 anxiety, progress toward universal (or at least widespread) vaccination stalled. A significant segment of the population refused, irrationally, to be vaccinated. Moreover, the CDC’s advice about allowing the fully vaccinated to go maskless seemed to give permission for unvaccinated morons to do the same. Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are on the rise again, particularly in areas where large majorities are unvaccinated.

In this surprisingly worsening stage of the pandemic, children are going back to school—not virtual school, but real, in-person school. In many districts, school boards are requiring everyone in school buildings to wear masks and for students to be separated as widely as possible. This seems a prudent response to the current state of the pandemic, particularly in light of the fact that many students are not only unvaccinated but also are not yet candidates for vaccination.

On the other hand, in states like Florida and Texas, we find governors issuing edicts banning mask mandates, whether for schools or other establishments. We also are seeing angry parents claiming their rights as parents to send their children to school without masks. The governors, of course, are pandering to their craziest yet politically important constituents. That group includes the angry mothers fighting for their right to send their children into harm’s way.

I am a staunch supporter of allowing people the freedom to be stupid and to act in personally destructive ways. However, a nation is not simply a collection of individuals having no relationship to one another. There are things we must do for the common good, including paying taxes and obeying laws. As a nation, we also act to protect children from danger, even when that danger is presented by a parent. Parents do not own their children as they might a washing machine, and they are not free to expose their children to unnecessary risks. In demanding the right to send children to school without masks, they are exposing not only their own children to potential harm but other children as well. This is not acceptable.

Citizens accept all sorts of “restrictions” on their freedom for the good of all. We obey traffic laws; we wear seatbelts; we pay our debts. Why has wearing a mask become such an intolerable imposition on our free will? We are generally required to wear clothes in public. Is that such a burdensome imposition? It only protects the sensibilities of others. Having to wear a mask can protect the very lives of others. Doesn’t that make wearing a mask even more important than wearing other clothing?

It is unfortunate that, in some circumstances, mask mandates are necessary. But they are.

August 15, 2021

Who Lost Afghanistan?

Surely the question of who lost Afghanistan is destined to be an oft-asked question. There will be a lot of blame to go around, but the question of what could have been done is at least as interesting. In truth, Afghanistan lacks a compelling national identity and, if history is any guide, is virtually ungovernable. Perhaps the Taliban can return Afghanistan to the seventh century; no one seems capable of taking it to the twenty-first.

Republicans will be quick to blame President Biden for what appears to be the coming total defeat. Democrats will, I hope, point out that it was the Trump administration that negotiated the U.S. withdrawal while getting virtually no concessions from the Taliban in return. In fact, under Mr. Biden, the U.S. is leaving later than when the last administration agreed to do so. But the president was unwilling to try to pull a rabbit out of what was clearly an empty hat.

There is no doubt that most Americans wanted the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan and terminate the war that has seemed interminable. There is no evidence that extending the war another year or another five years or another ten years would have resulted in a stable, modern, democratic Afghanistan. Long before now, the futility of pouring resources into that benighted Asian country became apparent.

A succession of American presidents believed (or pretended to believe) that, at the very least, we could build an Afghan military capable of defending its country. But we have clearly failed at that task. We experienced a similar failure in Vietnam, which should perhaps have tempered our expectations. Frankly, I do not know how to build a modern, competent fighting force in a backward country with a corrupt government. It may be impossible.

Our adventure in Afghanistan began rationally enough but quickly took a wrong turn. The original objective was to eliminate terrorist training camps and to capture Osama Bin Laden. Obliterating training facilities was easy. Capturing the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was more difficult, particularly as President Bush decided to open a totally unjustified second front against Iraq, a move that diverted both resources and attention. Bin Laden slipped away, thereby sending the message that one could attack the United States and get away with it. We then made the fatal mistake of trying to replace the Taliban government with a democratic one. The bootless task of nation-building, a task our presidents were loath to admit, was begun. Clearly, that task has failed.

The adventure begun under President Bush continued under Presidents Obama and Trump. Donald Trump essentially negotiated an American withdrawal absent any concern for its consequences. That decision was inherited by President Biden, who seemed to have a fatalistic (though surely realistic) view of the end of our Afghan involvement.

President Biden could not reasonably have avoided defeat short of committing us to a forever war. He deserves credit for acknowledging the inevitable. He must accept blame, however, for a chaotic departure from Afghanistan that has failed to extract our Afghan allies who may face elimination under a Taliban regime. As of this writing, it is not even clear that we can safely extract our diplomats and American civilians from harm’s way.

The Taliban has pledged to offer a different kind of governance than it practiced when last it was in power. One can hope that it does so, but such an eventuality seems unlikely. All we can do now is pray for Afghanistan and its people.

July 29, 2021


 In addition to my downstairs feeding station for birds, I have both plants and a bird feeder on the deck upstairs. I have resigned myself to squirrels eating some of my birdseed. (At least squirrels are neater eaters than mourning doves.) The squirrels jump from trees to the roof next door onto the deck.

Unfortunately, a resourceful raccoon has occasionally gotten onto the deck. It has both eaten birdseed and damaged one of my planters of Oxalis. My assumption is that the raccoon has been climbing up the post that supports one corner of the deck.

Assuming that my theory of raccoon access is correct, I have attached steel flashing to the post. My hope is that the raccoon cannot reach above the top of the flashing even if it can climb up to the bottom of it.

Time will tell if my raccoon-proofing actually works.

Raccoon-proofing on post

July 26, 2021

Human 1, Animals 0 (maybe)

I have a number of bird feeders and buy birdseed in bulk. It isn't convenient to store the seed inside, so I have stored it outside, where it is conveniently close to my feeders. Storing the seed securely outdoors has been a problem, however. The problem has persisted for a long time, but I think I may have finally won the battle to protect my seed stash from non-avian predictors.

Plan A: I first used a large plastic bin to store birdseed. The bin had a large capacity, closed securely, and was easy to open. The bin did not last. Animal or animals unknown chewed through the plastic and put a large hole in the side of the bin. I don’t know what animal had gotten into the bin, but I suspected a raccoon. I see raccoons frequently under my feeders.

Plan B: Clearly, a metal container was needed. I found a small trash can that was large enough to hold at least 60 pounds of seed. The can had the usual hinged handles on either side and a tight-fitting lid with a handle in the middle.

Plan C: My memory gets a little foggy here. Whether it was part of Plan B or later, I used a bungee cord to fully secure the trash can lid. This was a short-lived experiment. Some animal—the same one that chewed through the plastic bin?—chewed through the bungee cord. This is also about the time I experienced the bear attack. A bear damaged three feeders and knocked over the trash can, whose lid came off.

Plan D: The bear made it clear that the can needed to be prevented from being tipped over, and the lid needed to be better secured. I came home from Tractor Supply Company with two lengths of strong chain and an assortment of maillons (quick links).  I connected a chain from one handle to the other and around a post. The other chain connected the handles on the side of the can and ran through the handle on the lid. That chain was a little tricky, as it was difficult to arrange the chain and tighten the maillon so as to make the lid impossible to lift.

This seemed to work well for a while. Not too long ago, however, I got a bit lazy and replaced one of the maillons with a carabiner, which, of course, didn’t need to be unscrewed to get into the seed can. Opening the carabiner was a little tricky, but the task was less time-consuming than opening the maillon. The carabiner made it a bit harder to lock down the lid tightly.

On various occasions, I noticed that the lid had been tilted so as to offer access to the birdseed. Twice, I caught a perpetrator inside the can in the act of eating seed. That miscreant was neither a racoon nor (thankfully) a bear. It was a groundhog! (Groundhogs also are frequent visitors. A groundhog once chewed through a telephone cable and disrupted telephone service.)

Plan E: I headed back to Tractor Supply. Security was more important than convenience! I returned home with a turnbuckle having a hook on one end and an eye on the other. The eye could be attached to the chain with a maillon and the hook could be clipped to a link of the chain. The turnbuckle could then be tightened to make lifting the lid impossible.

Plan E is newly implemented, so its long-term viability has yet to be established, but I think it is going to work. Getting seed out of the trash can is now harder than ever, but I hope it is a task that only I will be performing. (See photos below. Click on photos for enhanced views.)

Trash Can for Birdseed
Trash can. Note chain around post.

Plan E Locking Mechanism
Turnbuckle in place atop trash can.

July 19, 2021

Presidential Goals

I don’t usually post material on my blog that I didn’t create. I am particularly disinclined to post a meme I found on Facebook. The graphic below, however, makes a very significant point, and I thought I would pass it along. It is not totally clear who is responsible for it, but that person has my thanks.

Condos and Infrastructure

 NPR ran a story this morning about how condo maintenance fees should cover not only ongoing routine maintenance but also build a rainy-day fund for predictable but occasional expenses like replacing a roof. Unfortunately, condo associations like to keep maintenance fees low and seldom set aside the funds necessary for big-ticket repairs needed in the indefinite future. The NPR story, of course, was inspired by the deferred maintenance problems at Florida’s Champlain Towers South that threatened owners with special assessments of a hundred thousand dollars or more.

Unfortunately, it is not only Florida condos that have not prepared for large and inevitable maintenance expenses. President Biden’s infrastructure proposals have drawn most attention to new expenditures that the federal government has not funded before. But much of the standard infrastructure bill—the roads and bridges part—is for deferred maintenance and predictable replacements.

Like condo associations, governments should plan for predictable maintenance. When a bridge is built, for example, there will be an ongoing need for inspection and routine maintenance. Eventually, there will be a need for a major rehab or even a replacement. These expenses are not unexpected, but politicians are willing to pay for the bridge, cut the ribbon when it is completed, and leave maintenance to future politicians. This is why the U.S. is perceived to have a crumbling infrastructure.

As do the most responsible condo associations, when government builds a highway, bridge, tunnel, or dam, it should create a special maintenance fund for the infrastructure and, likely, pay into the fund every year. The fund should be set aside for that piece of the built environment exclusively. Such a plan will increase perceived construction costs, of course, but it will make trillion-dollar infrastructure bills a thing of the past. When maintenance, rehab, or replacement is needed, the money needed will be available.

Is there any chance politicians will begin to take such a forward-looking approach to infrastructure? Probably not. They love to cut those ribbons. Repairs only cause traffic delays.

July 18, 2021

Back to Church

 I attended church today for the first time since early last year. This was only the second Sunday since the pandemic shut down much of the country that Christ Episcopal Church in Indiana, Pennsylvania, offered an in-person Eucharist at 10:30. I was out of town last Sunday, so today offered my first chance to attend an almost normal principal service.

Our 8:00 a.m. service has been conducted in the church with a congregation for a while, but the 10:30 service has mostly been Daily Morning Prayer: Rite Two streamed over Facebook. The early service began with a mask requirement, but both services now allow fully vaccinated worshipers to go maskless. Only alternate pews are used to keep people well separated. For the foreseeable future, the 10:30 service will continue to be streamed.

I used to view myself as a competent Rite Two Eucharist worshiper who seldom opened a prayer book in church. I felt a little less certain of myself this morning, however. I consulted my prayer book and bulletin more often than I have done so in a long time. The Passing of the Peace was largely an exercise in waving, but I did throw caution to the winds and indulged in one fist bump.

Communion elements
Communion was a new experience, one unlikely to change any time soon. We employed no common cup and did not distribute the host directly. Instead, the rector placed small glassine envelopes on a table in the front of the center aisle. Each envelope contained a wafer moistened with a drop of wine. Five people at a time picked up their envelopes and distributed themselves along the communion rail. We then consumed the wafers on cue and saved the envelopes for disposal at the back of the church at the end of the service. This was only slightly weird.

In addition to finally being able to partake of the consecrated bread and wine (sort of), I was especially happy to sing hymns in a group. The Vestry had talked of singing softly, but no one insisted on that, and it felt really good to sing normally.

I look forward to a return to a more thoroughly normal service, but today’s experience did seem like a significant milestone.

Question: How are other churches that have employed the common cup handling communion?

July 14, 2021


 I’ve noticed that British news stories concerning COVID-19 vaccinations generally refer to such shots as “jabs.” Until very recently, I had never encountered this term’s being used by American reporters.

Merriam-Webster offers this definition of the noun “jab”:

chiefly British, informal: an injection of something (such as medicine) into one’s body with a needle

Cambridge Dictionary offers a similar definition:
UK informal: an injection

Because of the pandemic, I have heard “jab” used in this sense frequently. (I often listen to the BBC World Service at night.)

I was startled recently when a reporter at my local NPR station used “jabs” to refer to vaccinations. She now has done so more than once.

The use of “jab” for “vaccination” seems un-American. I hope this is a usage that does not catch on. Being a single-syllable word, “jab” is “efficient”—“vaccination” is four syllables—but it is actually non-specific, its exact meaning only clear from context.

Additionally, “vaccination” seems to imply a benign, medical operation. “Jab,” on the other hand, seems unpleasant and somewhat hostile—and very British.

July 2, 2021

Pittsburgh Episcopalians Elect Black Female Bishop

 It is not breaking news that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh elected the Rev. Dr. Ketlen Solak on June 26 as the ninth Bishop of Pittsburgh. I have not seen details of the election published anywhere, however, and I think that more information should be publicly available. Also, it is interesting to compare the dynamics of the most recent episcopal election with those of the last one.

Somewhat to my surprise, the diocesan Web site has largely been scrubbed of most information concerning the election of six days ago. As a result, this post may be more helpful than I anticipated.

The Nominees

The Nominating Committee announced three episcopal candidates. (We are being discouraged from calling these people candidates rather than nominees, but persons standing for election are, in conventional parlance, candidates.) Somewhat surprisingly, all three were women. Two were black, and one was a white lesbian. I had been hoping that Pittsburgh would select a woman, and the initial slate seemed designed to make that dream come true. However, Pittsburgh allows candidates to be nominated by petition. There is reason to believe that at least some members of the Nominating Committee were hoping that their slate would not be augmented by petition nominations. Perhaps the all-female slate made the nomination of one or more white males inevitable. Not everyone was so excited about a female bishop.

Nominees from the Committee

The Very Rev. Kim Coleman, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, since 2002. Coleman earned B.A.s in both Political Science and Economics from The Pennsylvania State University. Her magna cum laude M.Div. is from Virginia Theological Seminary. She is single.

The Rev. Dr. Ketlen A. Solak, Rector of Brandywine Collaborative Ministries in Wilmington, Delaware, since 2014. Solak came to the United States in her late teens from her home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She is a pianist with bachelor’s and master’s music degrees from the Catholic University of America. She earned both an M.Div. and D.Min. from Virginia Theological Seminary. She is married with no children.

The Rev. Diana L. Wilcox, Rector of Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, since 2014. Wilcox has a Liberal Arts B.A. from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her M.Div. is from Drew University. Wilcox had a substantial career in the financial world and is the author of a children’s book. Her female spouse died. She has no children.

Nominees by Petition

The Rev. Canon Scott A. Gunn, Executive Director of Forward Movement, Cincinnati, Ohio, since 2011. Gunn has a Music/Religion B.A. from Luther College. He holds an M.A. in Religion from Yale Divinity School, from which he also earned his M.Div. He is married to an Episcopal priest and has no children.

The Rev. Jeffrey D. Murph, Rector of St. Thomas Memorial Church in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, since 1994. Murph received a B.A. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His M.Div. is from Virginia Theological Seminary. Murph is the only candidate from the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He is married and has adult children.

Some Random Personal Observations

To the best of my knowledge, only Gunn has been an episcopal candidate in the past. I was surprised that the diocese did not disclose the ages of the candidates. Age is a relevant consideration, of course, since bishops are subject to a mandatory retirement age. (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Solak’s age as 59.) I suspect that Murph was the oldest candidate; he certainly has been a priest the longest and has been in his current position the longest.

Coleman was assuredly the most effusive of the candidates. That her eyes seemed perpetually half-closed, however, was somewhat off-putting. (I hesitate to mention this, but more than one person mentioned the fact in discussions in which I participated.)

People in Pittsburgh had many opportunities to view the candidates in videos and in person. Everyone acquitted him- or herself well in these venues. In my one opportunity to experience the candidates in person, Gunn seemed the most articulate and thoughtful. Murph offered the most concrete plan for the diocese, as might be expected from someone who has been in it for so long and who played a significant role in helping the diocese recover from the schism of 2008.

When I first saw a Solak video, I was perplexed by her accent. Only later did I come to understand that it was the product of having grown up in Haiti. I found her affect very reassuring. I thought she would be good at talking someone off a ledge. As a musician myself, I was pleased to learn of her musical accomplishments. Although she did not do it in the group I was in when I met her, instead of offering an opening prayer in other groups, she led the group in song. People liked that.

I was not quite sure what to make of Wilcox’s experience in the financial and consulting world. She assured people that her experience made her a better communicator. Apparently, the nature of that environment led her to abandon it for a more spiritual life. I have to admit that I was somewhat put off by typos in her résumé. (I cannot be sure that the errors were hers, and the matter did not affect my candidate preferences.)

I don’t know all the details of how the nominations by petition came about. I do know that Gunn was being considered by the Nominating Committee but bowed out of the process due to unexpected duties in his own diocese. His nomination was submitted after the Nominating Committee made its choices public and, presumably, after Gunn felt free to pursue the episcopate.

Apparently, Murph was also considered by the Nominating Committee, but his name was not put forward by that body. He is generally well-liked in the diocese, however, and his nomination seemed not inappropriate. I never thought “he should be a bishop,” but I haven’t thought that about any other priest of the diocese either. As a general rule, I believe that electing someone from within one’s own diocese is not a good idea, as such a person necessarily comes with baggage not brought by other candidates. (I confess that I celebrated the selection of Gene Robinson from his own New Hampshire diocese, however.) In any case, the last priest elected Bishop of Pittsburgh from the Diocese of Pittsburgh was Bob Duncan. That did not work out well.

Convention Mechanics

Due to the pandemic, the electing convention was held virtually over Zoom. The 2020 annual convention had also been a Zoom affair, so most people involved had some experience with such an event. But the fact that clergy and lay deputies had to vote separately made demands on Zoom that it was incapable of satisfying. As a result, voting was done using a Web-based application called VPoll. This meant that deputies had to switch between using Zoom and voting via VPoll.

The diocese did an excellent job of preparing deputies for their participation in the convention. I had only one complaint. Deputies were encouraged to use two devices, one for Zoom and one for VPoll. I was ready to do that when I realized that this was both unnecessary and unnecessarily cumbersome. Zoom runs in its own window, and VPoll operates on a Web page. I experienced no difficulty switching between the Zoom window and VPoll loaded into my Web browser. It appears that few people had difficulty participating in the convention on account of the software being used.

I was surprised to learn that the chat function in Zoom was to be disabled once balloting began. I will have more to say about that below.

Deputies to the convention logged into Zoom and VPoll. Visitors could monitor the proceedings through Facebook.

The Voting

The convention elected a bishop on the third ballot. The schedule called for three ballots before a 1 pm lunch break, so the break became unnecessary and the convention could end early. The results of the three ballots are shown below. Note that, just before 10 am, it was established that there were 86 lay deputies and 55 clergy deputies present. Either intentionally or because of difficulties in casting a vote, not everyone voted on each ballot.

BALLOT 1 Clergy Lay
Coleman  5  9
Gunn 13 24
Murph 14  9
Solak 15 23
Wilcox  7 21
TOTAL 54 86

BALLOT 2ClergyLay
Coleman  1 1
Murph12 7
Wilcox  316

BALLOT 3ClergyLay
Wilcox  3 9

Note that after the second ballot, Coleman and Murph dropped out. Solak was announced as the new bishop before the results of the third ballot were announced, and the tally was given in a somewhat different form from what was used for the first two ballots. I believe the numbers above are correct, however.


My choice for bishop was Ketlen Solak. (I voted for her three times.) In talking to others in the diocese, both lay and clergy, she was frequently named as first or second choice. I expected that Gunn would prove to be a strong candidate, as he has a high profile in the Episcopal Church generally. I couldn’t predict how Coleman would do. Her enthusiasm could be infectious. Wilcox appeared to be the most liberal—I won’t try to define liberal or conservative here—and I assumed that she would be perceived to be too liberal for Pittsburgh, particular by the clergy. Murph was likely the most conservative candidate. I expected that he would do well in the clergy order on the first ballot by drawing votes from long-time colleagues. He is less well-known among the laity, though I can attest to his pastoral skills and assume others can as well. I did not expect him to be elected.

I was concerned that there would be little time between the announcement of the results of one ballot and the casting of votes for the next ballot. This, combined with the disabling of the Zoom chat function, largely precluded consultation among deputies between ballots. In the last episcopal election, there was definitely some electioneering taking place between ballots, and some lay deputies seem to have gone along with perceived clergy preferences as a way of getting the whole thing over with so they could go home. As it happens, I probably should not have worried about this, as the votes converged to a preferred candidate faster than I thought possible.

The first ballot was gratifying and a bit surprising. Solak was the top vote-getter in the clergy and was barely second in the lay order. Murph did well among the clergy but, as expected, was less popular among the laity. Coleman did surprisingly poorly. Wilcox was predictably more popular in the lay order.

In the second ballot, the contest began to converge on a Gunn/Solak contest. Support for Coleman virtually disappeared, and she predictably dropped out. Murph and Wilcox both lost votes. I was surprised that Murph dropped out but Wilcox stayed in despite decreasing clergy support. At this point, Gunn had 29% of the clergy vote and 31% of the lay vote. Solak had 42% of the clergy vote and 40% of the lay vote.

With Coleman and Murph out of the race, Gunn gained a few votes. Wilcox lost lay votes, and Solak picked up votes in both orders. On the third ballot, Solak had 56% of the clergy votes and 53% of the lay votes, enough to become bishop. Gunn, in second place, had 39% and 36%, respectively. Wilcox earned 6% and 10%,

Candidates had suggested that, although Pittsburgh had experienced substantial healing after the 2008 schism, additional reconciliation was needed. There is surely some truth in this; I know people who are still traumatized by the split engineered by Bob Duncan. Nevertheless, the voting on our next bishop was reassuring in that both clergy and lay deputies shared similar preferences. I think the diocese is ready to move forward with Bishop Ketlen A. Solak

After the voting was over, bishop-elect Solak gave a brief address to the convention in which she declared, “I am looking forward to becoming a Pittsburgher for Jesus.” She, too, is ready to move the diocese along.

Thanks be to God.

June 6, 2021


In a recent column, E. J. Dionne Jr., observed that “Republicans have made democracy a partisan issue.” This statement concisely identifies the current state of American politics: Democrats are seeking to reinforce and enhance democracy; Republicans are working to undermine democracy as much as is necessary to obtain power and to retain it indefinitely.

This situation is a difficult one for President Joseph Biden. As a candidate, he spoke often of bringing the country together, and his desire that legislation be bipartisan is well known. So is his reluctance to weaken or abolish the filibuster, the Senate rule that gives enormous power to its minority members. Can the Democrats win any significant legislative victory if they insist that the accomplishment must be “bipartisan? Likely not. Senator Mitch McConnell has made it clear that he has no intention of letting his Republican colleagues help the Democrats govern.

The value to the Republicans of McConnell’s stand is clear. Republicans are no longer a party of policy; they did not even adopt a platform for the 2020 presidential campaign. They are interested only in laissez-faire capitalization and enjoying the perquisites of power. If they can prevent Democrats from implementing the Biden agenda, they can run in future elections on a platform that accuses the Democrats of doing nothing, without having to articulate policy preferences of their own. The GOP is willing to eviscerate the legislative branch of government to gain power for itself.

Ironically, many of Biden’s objectives are widely popular with citizens generally, including Republicans. There is a certain bipartisanism here, if not in Congress. The president should accept support where he can get it.

Republicans benefit not only from the filibuster but also from structural advantages conferred by circumstances and the Constitution. Because Republican strength is greatest in rural states, the party enjoys an undemocratic advantage in the Senate. Although the voting strength of the two parties in that body is nominally equal in 2021, Republican senators represent significantly fewer citizens than do Democratic senators. Little can be done about this undemocratic representation. Adding D.C. and, perhaps, Porto Rico as states could diminish the Republican advantage, but, of course, that would require legislative action Republican senators will oppose.

Republicans do not now control the House of Representatives. They are nevertheless over-represented in the House, largely because of gerrymandering by Republican-controlled state legislatures. Ten years ago, the GOP won control of many state legislatures and was able to redistrict their states to favor their candidates. They are in a strong position to again create undemocratic districts when redistricting is next done. It is widely believed that this will allow Republicans to retake control of the House in 2022. The Biden administration would like to put an end to this unfair advantage and have districts determined by independent commissions. This, of course, would require legislative action Republican senators will oppose.

GOP treachery is on display on two election-related fronts, both of which are being justified by the bogus claim by Donald Trump that the 2020 election was stolen. (I don’t understand why anyone should take the word of someone who lied or shaded the truth more than 30,000 times while in office, but Republicans do or pretend to. “Stop the Steal” should not have been applied to Democrats but to Trump’s own supporters.) On one hand, Republican state legislatures are passing laws ostensively crafted to “protect the integrity” of elections but actually designed to make voting, particularly by minorities thought likely to vote Democratic, more difficult. On a second front, we are seeing a clownish, seemingly interminable “audit” of Arizona votes sponsored by the Republican-controlled Arizona legislature. It is unclear what the outcome of this bizarre political theater is going to be, but Republicans are determined to replicate it in other states. Whether or not this will facilitate election stealing by Republicans, at the very least, it devalues democratic elections in the public mind.

Republicans exhibit no shame whatsoever. Although not a single Republican senator voted for the most recent Covid-19 relief bill. Senators have been singing the praises of its various provisions to their constituents without, of course, pointing out that they opposed the bill and voted against its passage. This is a perverse version of bipartisanism—vote against a popular bill but take credit for its passage.

The Biden administration has an extensive agenda, and it would be unfortunate if much of it remained an unrealized hope. Parts of that agenda, however, are vital—vital to preserving our democracy and vital to preserving life on this planet as we have come to know it. The protection of voting rights and, at the very least, making a down payment on the task of avoiding catastrophic climate change are existential concerns. And they are matters that Republican senators have no interest in addressing. What are Democrats to do?

Lucy with Charlie Brown
Lucy with Charlie Brown
To begin with, President Biden needs to be disabused of the notion that anything of significance will pass in the Senate with genuine bipartisan support. Many of us thought that, as vice president, Biden had learned the lesson of Obamacare: President Obama kept negotiating with Republicans and offering concessions to attract Republican votes only to garner no GOP votes and pass a weakened bill because of his negotiations. This is exactly what is going on now with the infrastructure bill. Republicans are enticing the president repeatedly to lower his objectives. In the end, he will likely attract few if any GOP votes for a bill that is the shadow of its former self. Biden is playing Charlie Brown to Senator McConnell’s Lucy. We all know how that works out.

It is unlikely that Democrats are going to pass any significant legislation in the Senate except possibly using reconciliation, a tool of limited scope, or by eliminating the filibuster. (Despite whatever Pollyannaish view of the filibuster Senator Joe Manchin may hold, it is both undemocratic and does not work the way the senator thinks it does. See “End the Filibuster” and “More Thoughts on the Filibuster.”)

It is time that the Democrats realized that Republicans are playing for keeps, and they have no scruples. Republicans are playing to win, and Democrats must do the same. The filibuster must be ended and legislation passed, at least to protect democratic elections. If recalcitrant Democrats obstruct this legislation, Democrats must remember that classic nugget of political wisdom: when you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. Fellow Democrats must make uncoöperative Democrats an offer they can’t refuse. The survival of our democracy depends on it.

June 1, 2021

Episcopal Elections (Essays on Ranked-Choice Voting: Chapter 2)

 Some time ago, I wrote an essay on ranked-choice voting that was intended to be the first of a series on what I consider a better way of voting when more than two candidates are involved. I had not intended to be writing about episcopal elections and ranked-choice voting, but, as it happens, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will be voting for a new bishop later this month, and I fear that our usual method of voting will not identify the person most desired by the deputies to the electing convention. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will be guiding the deputies, but I suspect that the Holy Spirit needs a little help.

On June 26, 2021, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will select the ninth Bishop of Pittsburgh. A slate of candidates was identified earlier this month by the Nominating Committee. I was pleased that three women were being offered for election: The Very Rev. Kim L. Coleman, The Rev. Ketlen A. Solak, and The Rev. Diana L. Wilcox. I have often said that I hoped the diocese would select a woman as its next bishop.

My enthusiasm about the slate of episcopal candidates was short-lived. Even before I had time to research the offerings of the Nominating Committee, two additional candidates advanced by means of petitions. Diocesan rules provided for additional candidates to be added in this fashion, but many in the diocese—including, I have reason to believe, at least some members of the Nominating Committee—were hoping that no more candidates would be forthcoming.

The added nominees are the well-known executive director of Forward Movement, The Rev. Canon Scott A. Gunn, and The Rev. Jeffrey D. Murph, the long-time rector of St. Thomas Memorial Church, the Episcopal church of the Pittsburgh Diocese in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. Although I am unfamiliar with the women nominated by the committee, I am quite familiar with the men nominated by petition and, at least in the abstract, consider them suitable candidates. On the other hand, I cannot shake the idea that there was uneasiness among some Pittsburgh Episcopalians over the prospect of being under the care and authority of a female bishop.

Episcopal Church elections for bishop divide voters into two categories—clergy and lay. Individual parishes are entitled to two or more lay deputies, depending upon the size of their congregations. Priests and deacons vote in the so-called clergy order, and laypersons vote in the lay order. Elections are by secret vote, and the election of a bishop requires a majority vote in both orders. Voting continues until a bishop is selected, but candidates often remove themselves from consideration if they perceive that their support is weak. Bishops are sometimes chosen in the first round of voting, but this is hardly the norm. Sometimes so many rounds of voting are needed that the election spills over into a second day.

It should not be surprising that clergy and laypersons tend to have different views of the candidates. Both groups are voting for someone who will set the tone for the diocese, but the clergy are, in a sense, voting for their future boss. The different orientations seldom lead to a first-round victory for anyone, and the perceptions of those voting in one order of the vote in the other order tend to have some influence on succeeding votes. Clergy have an intrinsic advantage in voting. They are surely not all of one mind, but each member of the order knows and can easily discuss the candidates with one another. This process tends to build consensus. Laypeople, coming as they are from many churches, lack the ability easily to discuss the relative strengths of the proposed bishops.

Because the election of Pittsburgh’s seventh bishop was such a disaster—the winning candidate, Robert Duncan, eventually left The Episcopal Church and took many whole parishes with him—nominations from the floor were eliminated in favor of nominations by petition far in advance of the election, and a meeting prior to convention day was established to facilitate discussion among all deputies, both clergy and lay. It is not clear that this really led to the election of the most desired candidate. Clergy had ample opportunities to confer; lay deputies did not.  (Read my analysis of that election, Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: How Not to Elect a Bishop, and related posts.)

This brings us to the episcopal election scheduled for June 26. This event promises to have all the defects of the most recent election, as well as some unique new ones. To begin with, the meeting to discuss the candidates has not become a tradition, though the failure to encourage frank discussion limited the utility of the meeting anyway. Of greater significance, the convention to elect the next bishop will be held over Zoom. The most obvious deficiency of such a convention is that it discourages consultation even more than usual. Additionally, voting is to be done electronically, with results announced almost immediately and with one round of voting quickly following the previous one. This discourages not only consultation but also careful, individual discernment. The new rules will, however, get the whole matter over quickly.

Could ranked-choice voting (RCV) improve the diocesan convention voting in some way. I think so. In RCV, voters rank as many candidates as they like in order of preference. The system is sometimes described as instant-runoff voting. Instead of having multiple elections, the same votes are tabulated multiple times. In the first round, every first-place vote is counted. If a candidate earns more than 50% of the first-choice votes, that candidate is elected. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those who voted for that candidate have their second-choice votes tallied instead. This process continues until one candidate has a majority of the votes. (I described this system and offer a concrete example in “The People’s Choice (Round Two).”) A big advantage of RCV is its obviating the need for multiple rounds of voting to achieve a winner with a majority vote. The system is increasing popular in local elections. It is being used in the upcoming election for mayor of New York City, for example.

Of course, an episcopal election is complicated by the need to achieve majorities in both the lay and clergy orders. RCV could be used in a number of ways in this situation. For example, the two orders could vote using RCV.  If the same candidate wins in both orders—this is unlikely—a new bishop has been selected. If not, a conventional episcopal election could be conducted between the winner in each order or perhaps the top two vote-getters in each order. In the Pittsburgh case, this could result in a runoff election having two, three, or four candidates, with a four-candidate runoff being least likely. Alternatively, candidates achieving at least some threshold voting strength could be advanced to the runoff round. (Since the winner in each order must have at least 50% of the votes, a threshold of, say, 30% might be enough to advance to the next round.)

Why would such a system be desirable? First, it speeds up the voting process. This is not an insignificant advantage. Deputies sometimes leave the convention if it goes on too long. A more significant advantage is that everyone votes his or her conscience, at least initially, and is not influenced by other voters. In particular, laypeople cannot be influenced by what the clergy seem to want. (Clergy, on the other hand, seem largely impervious to lay desires.) Assuming the initial vote does not identify a winner, the resulting runoff voting will be among the candidates most desired by the two orders. Another advantage is that weak candidates are eliminated automatically; they can save themselves the embarrassment of having to remove themselves from the process.

In the upcoming Pittsburgh election, I am concerned that deputies who would like to elect a female bishop will split their votes among the three women, thereby giving an election advantage to the two male candidates. (It could also work the other way.) This is not to say that gender is the most important factor in the selection process, but it is surely a significant one.

It is too late to change how the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh votes on June 26. I hope that Episcopalians here and elsewhere will consider whether some form of RCV could help in the process of electing bishops. Here’s a suggestion, however, that informs but does not replace the conventional election process: Begin the convention with RCV votes in each order and announce the results, probably showing the votes at each stage of the tabulation process. Then, with a clearer idea of which voters favor which candidate, proceed as in a conventional election. I suspect that a bishop will be selected more quickly this way. The choice may even better reflect the true desires of the diocese (and the Holy Spirit).

May 29, 2021

Improving Musical Notation

 Invention is a fickle enterprise. The identical thing or idea can be created or discovered independently in different places and at different times. Its first appearance may not be the one that enjoys the most influence. If multiple things are devised for the same purpose, the “best” one may not be the one that is universally adopted. For example, there is general agreement that the Betamax videocassette recorder was, by various measures, better than its VHS rival, yet VHS machines dominated the consumer market.

This is by way of introducing a variation on the conventional way Western music is notated. I don’t expect to change music notation, but I do want to suggest that a slightly different convention might have achieved at least a minor advantage.

Piano and vocal scores are typically represented using two staves, one above the other. Each staff comprises five horizontal, equally spaced lines. The lower (bass) staff serves as an extension of the upper (treble) staff with an imaginary eleventh line between them. Notes lower on the page within this system are lower in pitch.

In this scheme, a note on the bottom line of the treble staff is a fifth above a note on the top line of the bass staff. So-called ledger lines are used to indicate notes on one staff or the other that are above or below that staff. For example, middle C on the upper staff is represented by a note below the staff with a short horizontal line through it (the ledger line). The same C on the lower staff is represented by a note above the staff with a ledger line through it.

Because of the relationship of the staves to one another, notes in identical positions on their respective staves are not only different in pitch but are also different notes. For example, a note on the middle line of the top staff is a B, whereas the same notation on the lower staff is a D in the next lower octave. (The respective pitches are sometimes designated B4 and D3 in the system in which middle C is designated as C4.)

I suspect that beginning piano students learn the notes on the bottom staff as easily as those on the top. As a clarinetist, I learned the notes on the treble staff long ago but had no use for the bass staff. That is, until I began as an adult to sing bass in church choirs. I still have not learned notes on the bass staff cold. I mostly identify them using a cumbersome mental transformation that sees a note and mentally increases its pitch by a third. For example, what looks like an A were it on the treble staff becomes a C on the bass staff. This is slow and error-prone. It is particularly dysfunctional when I’m trying to pick out a part on the piano. (In no way am I a pianist.) Wouldn’t it be easier if a C on one staff were also a C on the other, albeit in a different octave?

Figure 1 shows the location of Cs on the two staves. Figure 2 shows the location of Cs on the two staves were the staves to be separated not be a fifth but by a seventh. Instead of there being one imaginary line between the staves, there would be two. This would make all the notes on the treble staff the same as those on the bass staff, albeit two octaves higher. Seemingly, this would be an easier system to learn and to play from. The only drawback of this hypothetical system is that music would require slightly more vertical space on the page.

Alas, the time for this innovation is past. No one who has learned all the notes already would want to change to the revised scheme, and learning the new system would make use of existing sheet music difficult. I don’t know just how the current notational convention was codified, but I think its designer or designers missed an opportunity.

Figure 1
Figure 1. C notes in conventional notation

Figure 2
Figure 2. C notes in revised notation

May 21, 2021

A Terrible Terrible Book

Being a fan of Stacey Abrams generally and having read an excerpt of her new thriller While Justice Sleeps in Vanity Fair, I will probably buy the book. To help me make a purchase decision, I read the comments offered on the Barnes & Nobel Web site and scanned the comments left by (presumed) readers. The comments left were mostly positive. One writer, however, gave the book a single star (out of five). This reader, self-reported as being from Atlanta, Georgia, left his or her comments anonymously. The review was the following:

One has to doubt that Anonymous actually read While Justice Sleeps. Moreover, Anonymous failed to capitalize “marxist,” lied about spoilers in the review, and offered questionable descriptors.

The review, of course, is not a review at all, but a gratuitous attack by a nasty right-winger eager to display hatred of the author and all she stands for. It is sad that this “review” is a sign of our times. So many people have lost the ability to be objective or even to agree to disagree and only want to demonize and destroy anyone who does not believe as they do.

I had hoped that the end of  Donald Trump’s term in office would decrease the hostility of public discourse that we had recently come to expect (and, reluctantly, endure). How wrong I was!

May 15, 2021

Can’t Eat Just One

Herr Foods Inc. Logo
Herr Foods Inc. Logo

I am excessively fond of potato chips, particularly sour cream and onion potato chips. I try not to buy this snack too often, as I often consume the contents of a 9-ounce bag in a single day, though not necessarily in a single sitting. Sometimes, it takes me a bit more than 24 hours to polish off a bag. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to potato chips, as I can go weeks without eating any. But occasionally, in a moment of weakness, I throw a bag of potato chips into my grocery cart. If a bag of chips is in the house, it is hard for me to resist snacking—a few chips here, a few chips there, and, suddenly, the bag is empty. This is surely not a healthy habit.

Two days ago, I bought a large bag of Herr’s sour cream and onion potato chips. I resolved to summon more than my usual willpower and make this bag last. In magic marker, I wrote the purchase date on the package. I began my snacking eating just two chips at a time. Since then, I have been snacking more expansively, but the bag is still about half-full. (I may be kidding myself, but I think that’s an honest estimate.)

I am determined to make my potato chip stash last for a while, though without becoming monkish about it. There is something comforting simply knowing that a bag of chips remains atop my refrigerator. The text of my willpower continues.