The Good, The Bad, The Hopeful

A few days ago, my dear friend Ellen sent me Maureen Dowd’s column from the New York Times.  She says so much that the topic of the column rather defies description, but her vision of where this nation is today is spot on.  She also gives us hope in a more positive, yet realistic assessment of President Biden’s policies and actions than we’re used to hearing these days.


Drowning Our Future in the Past

By Maureen Dowd

Opinion Columnist

It isn’t a pretty picture.

One coast is burning. The other is under water. In between, anti-abortion vigilantes may soon rampage across gunslinging territory.

What has happened to this country?

America is reeling backward, strangled by the past, nasty and uncaring, with everyone at one another’s throats.

Post-Trump, we let ourselves hope that the new president could heal and soothe, restore a sense of rationality, decency and sanity. But the light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be just a firefly.

We feel the return of dread: We’re rattled by the catastrophic exit from Afghanistan; the coming abortion war sparked by Texas; the Trumpian Supreme Court dragging us into the past; the confounding nature of this plague; the way Mother Nature is throttling us, leaving New Yorkers to drown in their basements. And now comes Donald Trump, tromping toward another presidential run.

It feels as if nothing can be overcome. Everything is being relitigated.

We’re choking on enlightened climate proposals but the disparity between the disasters we see, and what’s being done in Washington, makes it feel as though nothing is happening except climate change. We’re so far from getting a handle on the problem, the discussions around it seem almost theoretical.

Joe Manchin, tied to the energy industry, balks at climate change provisions in the reconciliation bill. He should be looking for ways to get West Virginia in touch with reality rather than living in the past.

“Manchin’s claim that climate pollution would be worsened by the elimination of fossil fuels — or by the resolution’s actual, more incremental climate provisions — is highly dubious, if not outright false,” The Intercept reported, noting that the truth is that Manchin’s personal wealth would “be impacted.” Since he joined the Senate, The Intercept said, he has grossed some $4.5 million from coal companies he founded.

With its new abortion law, sending women back to the back alley and encouraging Stasi-like participation from the citizenry, Texas now becomes the capital of American unreason. The law “essentially delegated enforcement of that prohibition to the populace at large,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.

There were medieval fiefs more enlightened than the Lone Star G.O.P.

Between putting women in danger by pushing that law and putting children in danger by imposing his anti-mask mania on school districts that want to mask up, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has become a scourge of the first rank.

A cynical slice of the Republican Party — and this includes Trump — privately denigrates anti-abortion activists as wackos, but publicly moves in lock-step with them in order to cling to that base and keep power.

But the anti-abortion forces were somehow clever enough to hijack the Supreme Court and Republicans will have to contend with the backlash when the court tosses Roe v. Wade aside.

As botched as the withdrawal from Afghanistan was, at least Joe Biden was trying to move into the future and do triage on one of America’s worst mistakes.

And unlike other presidents — J.F.K. with the Bay of Pigs, L.B.J. with the Vietnam War and Barack Obama with the Afghanistan surge — Biden did not allow himself to be suckered by the generals, the overweening Ivy Leaguers and the Blob, the expense account monsters who keep this town whirring and always have a seat at the table, no matter how wrong they were, and are.

The Afghanistan tragedy, as James Risen wrote in The Intercept, was just two decades of Americans lying to one another, and it “brought out in Americans the same imperial arrogance that doomed the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.”

Unlike his three predecessors, Biden risked Saudi ire by directing the Justice Department and other agencies on Friday to review and declassify documents related to the F.B.I.’s investigation into 9/11. Families of 9/11 victims had been pushing for the release of the secret files to learn more about the role the Saudis played in the attacks.

The enablers of our misbegotten occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have been shrieking like banshees at Biden, trying to manacle him to their own past mistakes as he attempts to lift off.

With peerless chutzpah, Tony Blair called Biden’s decision to depart cynical and driven by an “imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars.’”

But Biden knew enough not to spend more lives and treasure to prop up a kleptocracy. He oversaw some bad weeks in Afghanistan but George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld should be blamed for 20 bad years.

Remarkably, as Jon Allsop pointed out in The Columbia Journalism Review, the word “Bush” was not mentioned once on any of the Sunday news shows the weekend Kabul was falling.

“He looks like the Babe Ruth of presidents when you compare him to Trump,” Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate majority leader, told The Washington Post’s Ben Terris, for a story this past week on Bush nostalgia.

With a memory like a goldfish, America circles its bowl, returning to where we have been, unable to move forward, condemned to repeat a past we should escape.

Tears Of Shame … Yet Again

Over the past few weeks, we have read with horror about the discovery of unmarked graves at Canada’s boarding schools that housed indigenous children a century ago.  But guess what, folks?  We may well find the same here.  The U.S. does NOT have clean hands when it comes to the treatment of the original settlers in this land, the Native Americans.  The New York Times has presented a moving article that frankly brought tears to my eyes when I read it last night, so I have decided to share it with you, my friends.


Lost Lives, Lost Culture: The Forgotten History of Indigenous Boarding Schools

Thousands of Native American children attended U.S. boarding schools designed to “civilize the savage.” Many died. Many who lived are reclaiming their identity.

The last day Dzabahe remembers praying in the way of her ancestors was on the morning in the 1950s when she was taken to the boarding school.

At first light, she grabbed a small pouch and ran out into the desert to a spot facing the rising sun to sprinkle the taa dih’deen — or corn pollen — to the four directions, offering honor for the new day.

Within hours of arriving at the school, she was told not to speak her own Navajo language. The leather skirt her mother had sewn for her and the beaded moccasins were taken away and bundled in plastic, like garbage.

She was given a dress to wear and her long hair was cut — something that is taboo in Navajo culture. Before she was sent to the dormitory, one more thing was taken: her name.

“You have a belief system. You have a way of life you have already embraced,” said Bessie Smith, now 79, who continues to use the name given to her at the former boarding school in Arizona.

“And then it’s so casually taken away,” she said. “It’s like you are violated.”

Bessie Smith, 79, was forbidden from speaking her Navajo language once she began attending a federal boarding school and nearly forgot her native tongue. “It’s so casually taken away,” she said. “It’s like you are violated.”Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

A memorial set up after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former boarding school in British Columbia.Credit…Amber Bracken for The New York Times

The recent discoveries of unmarked graves at government-run schools for Indigenous children in Canada — 215 graves in British Columbia, 750 more in Saskatchewan — surfaced like a long-forgotten nightmare.

But for many Indigenous people in Canada and the United States, the nightmare was never forgotten. Instead the discoveries are a reminder of how many living Native Americans were products of an experiment in forcibly removing children from their families and culture.

Many of them are still struggling to make sense of who they were and who they are.

In the century and a half that the U.S. government ran boarding schools for Native Americans, hundreds of thousands of children were housed and educated in a network of institutions, created to “civilize the savage.” By the 1920s, one group estimates, nearly 83 percent of Native American school-age children were attending such schools.

Tolani Lake School children and staff in an undated photograph.Credit…National Archives

“When people do things to you when you’re growing up, it affects you spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Russell Box Sr., a member of the Southern Ute tribe who was 6 when he was sent to a boarding school in southwestern Colorado.

“We couldn’t speak our language, we couldn’t sing our prayer songs,” he said. “To this day, maybe that’s why I can’t sing.”

The discovery of the bodies in Canada led Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head the department that once ran the boarding schools in the United States — and herself the granddaughter of people forced to attend them — to announce that the government would search the grounds of former facilities to identify the remains of children.

That many children died in the schools on this side of the border is not in question. Just last week, nine Lakota children who perished at the federal boarding school in Carlisle, Pa., were disinterred and buried in buffalo robes in a ceremony on a tribal reservation in South Dakota.

Many of the deaths of former students have been recorded in federal archives and newspaper death notices. Based on what those records indicate, the search for bodies of other students is already underway at two former schools in Colorado: Grand Junction Indian School in central Colorado, which closed in 1911, and the Fort Lewis Indian School, which closed in 1910 and reopened in Durango as Fort Lewis College.

“There were horrific things that happened at boarding schools,” said Tom Stritikus, the president of Fort Lewis College. “It’s important that we daylight that.”

A committee at Fort Lewis College in Colorado has begun investigating the institution’s past and is studying how to search its former campus for the possibility of the remains of children who died there.Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

Fort Lewis Indian School, which closed 111 years ago, was dedicated to eradicating Native American culture. Now, on its former grounds, student are planting Native American crops.Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

The idea of assimilating Native Americans through education dates back to the earliest history of the colonies.

In 1775, the Continental Congress passed a bill appropriating $500 for the education of Native American youth. By the late 1800s, the number of students in boarding schools had risen from a handful to 24,000, and the amount appropriated had soared to $2.6 million.

Throughout the decades that they were in existence, the schools were seen as both a cheaper and a more expedient way of dealing with the “Indian problem.”

Carl Schurz, the secretary of the interior in the late 1800s, argued that it cost close to $1 million to kill a Native American in warfare, versus just $1,200 to give his child eight years of schooling, according to the account of the historian David Wallace Adams in “Education for Extinction.” “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one,” Capt. Richard H. Pratt, the founder of one of the first boarding schools, wrote in 1892. “In a sense I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: That all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”

Students and staff at Fort Lewis Indian School circa 1900.Credit…Courtesy of the Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College

Those who survived the schools described violence as routine. As punishment, Norman Lopez was made to sit in the corner for hours at the Ute Vocational School in southwestern Colorado where he was sent around age 6. When he tried to get up, a teacher picked him up and slammed him against the wall, he said. Then the teacher picked him up a second time and threw him headfirst to the ground, he said.

“I thought that it was part of school,” said Mr. Lopez, now 78. “I didn’t think of it as abusive.”

A less violent incident marked him more, he said.

His grandfather taught him how to carve a flute out of the branch of a cedar. When the boy brought the flute to school, his teacher smashed it and threw it in the trash.

He grasped even then how special the cedar flute and his native music were. “That’s what God is. God speaks through air,” he said, of the music his grandfather taught him.

He said the lesson was clear, both in the need to comply and the need to resist.

“I had to keep quiet. There’s plenty where it came from. Tree’s not going to give up,” he said of the cedar. “I’m not going to give up.”

Decades later, Mr. Lopez has returned to the flute. He carves them and records in a homemade studio, set up in his home on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in Towaoc, Colo.

Norman Lopez, 78, playing a flute outside of his home. He said a boarding school teacher in Colorado smashed his hand-carved flute and threw it in the trash.Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

Russell Box Sr. spends his days at his home in Ignacio, Colo., painting images of Native American symbols and ceremonies he was told to forget at the boarding school he attended as a child.Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

In the same boarding school, Mr. Box was punished so severely for speaking Ute that he refused to teach his children the language, in an effort to shield them the pain he endured, his ex-wife, Pearl E. Casias, said.

Years of alcoholism followed, he said. His marriage fell apart. It was not until middle age that he reached a fork in the road.

“I had been yearning in here,” he said, pointing to his heart. “My spirit had been yearning in here to stand in the lodge,” he said, referring to the medicine lodge that dancers enter during the annual Sundance, one of the most important ceremonies of the Ute people. “Then one day I said to myself, ‘Now I’m going to stand.’ And when I said that inside of me, there was a little flame.”

He went to the Sundance for the first time. He stopped drinking. This year, one of his daughters reached out to her mother, asking if she could teach her how to make beaded moccasins.

But for many, the wounds just do not heal.

Students and staff at Grand Junction Indian School in central Colorado in an undated photograph.Credit…Museums of Western Colorado

Jacqueline Frost, 60, was raised by her Ute aunt, a matron at the boarding school who embraced the system and became its enforcer.

Ms. Frost said she remembered the beatings. “I don’t know if it was a broom or a mop, I just remember the stick part, and my aunt swung it at me,” she said, adding: “There was belts. There was hangers. There was shoes. There was sticks, branches, wire.”

She, too, turned to alcohol. “Even though I’ve gone to so much counseling,” she said, “I still would always say, ‘Why am I like this? Why do I have this ugly feeling inside me?’”

By the turn of the century, a debate had erupted on whether it was better to “carry civilization to the Indian” by building schools on tribal land. In 1902, the government completed the construction of a boarding school on the Southern Ute reservation in Ignacio, Colo. — the school that Mr. Box and Mr. Lopez both attended.

The impact of the school, which was shuttered decades ago, can be summed up in two statistics: In the 1800s, when federal agents were trawling the reservation for children, they complained that there were almost no adults who spoke English. Today, about 30 people out of a tribe of fewer than 1,500 people — only 2 percent — speak the Ute language fluently, said Lindsay J. Box, a tribal spokeswoman. (Mr. Box is her uncle.)

“There were horrific things that happened at boarding schools,” said Tom Stritikus, the president of Fort Lewis College. “It’s important that we daylight that.”Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

Jacqueline Frost, 60, holds a photo showing how she was forced to adopt the look and attire of a white girl. She said she was beaten by a Ute aunt who served as a matron at a federal boarding school designed to assimilate Native children.Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

For decades, Ms. Smith barely spoke Navajo. She thought she had forgotten it, until years later at the hospital in Denver where she worked as director of patient admissions, a Navajo couple came in with their dying baby and the language came tumbling back, she said.

It marked a turn for her. She realized that the vocabulary she thought had been beaten out of her was still there. As she looked back, she recognized the small but meaningful ways in which she had resisted.

From her first day in the dormitory, she never again practiced the morning prayer to the four directions.

Unable to do it in physical form, she learned instead to do it internally: “I did it in my heart,” she said.

In her old age, she now makes jewelry using traditional elements, like “ghost beads” made from the dried berries of the juniper tree. When she started selling online, she chose the domain: www.dzabahe.com.

It is her birth name, the one that was taken from her at the boarding school, the one whose Navajo meaning endured: “woman who fights back.”

Commitment To Ignorance?

More than a few times in the past few months/years, I have thought that the biggest hurdle to sanity in our country was one thing:  ignorance.  I don’t say ‘stupidity’, for that implies an inability to comprehend, but rather ignorance, which is the refusal to comprehend, to consider other options, other ways of doing things.  A few days ago, I came across this OpEd by Paul Krugman writing for the New York Times that I think speaks volumes about our current situation.


What Underlies the G.O.P. Commitment to Ignorance?

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

June 28, 2021

As everyone knows, leftists hate America’s military. Recently, a prominent left-wing media figure attacked Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declaring, “He’s not just a pig, he’s stupid.”

Oh, wait. That was no leftist, that was Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. What set Carlson off was testimony in which Milley told a congressional hearing that he considered it important “for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and widely read.”

The problem is obvious. Closed-mindedness and ignorance have become core conservative values, and those who reject these values are the enemy, no matter what they may have done to serve the country.

The Milley hearing was part of the orchestrated furor over “critical race theory,” which has dominated right-wing media for the past few months, getting close to 2,000 mentions on Fox so far this year. One often sees assertions that those attacking critical race theory have no idea what it’s about, but I disagree; they understand that it has something to do with assertions that America has a history of racism and of policies that explicitly or implicitly widened racial disparities.

And such assertions are unmistakably true. The Tulsa race massacre really happened, and it was only one of many such incidents. The 1938 underwriting manual for the Federal Housing Administration really did declare that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.”

We can argue about the relevance of this history to current policy, but who would argue against acknowledging simple facts?

The modern right, that’s who. The current obsession with critical race theory is a cynical attempt to change the subject away from the Biden administration’s highly popular policy initiatives, while pandering to the white rage that Republicans deny exists. But it’s only one of multiple subjects on which willful ignorance has become a litmus test for anyone hoping to succeed in Republican politics.

Thus, to be a Republican in good standing one must deny the reality of man-made climate change, or at least oppose any meaningful action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. One must reject or at least express skepticism about the theory of evolution. And don’t even get me started on things like the efficacy of tax cuts.

What underlies this cross-disciplinary commitment to ignorance? On each subject, refusing to acknowledge reality serves special interests. Climate denial caters to the fossil fuel industry; evolution denial caters to religious fundamentalists; tax-cut mysticism caters to billionaire donors.

But there’s also, I’d argue, a spillover effect: Accepting evidence and logic is a sort of universal value, and you can’t take it away in one area of inquiry without degrading it across the board. That is, you can’t declare that honesty about America’s racial history is unacceptable and expect to maintain intellectual standards everywhere else. In the modern right-wing universe of ideas, everything is political; there are no safe subjects.

This politicization of everything inevitably creates huge tension between conservatives and institutions that try to respect reality.

There have been many studies documenting the strong Democratic lean of college professors, which is often treated as prima facie evidence of political bias in hiring. A new law in Florida requires that each state university conduct an annual survey “which considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented,” which doesn’t specifically mandate the hiring of more Republicans but clearly gestures in that direction.

An obvious counterargument to claims of biased hiring is self-selection: How many conservatives choose to pursue careers in, say, sociology? Is hiring bias the reason police officers seem to have disproportionately supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, or is this simply a reflection of the kind of people who choose careers in law enforcement?

But beyond that, the modern G.O.P. is no home for people who believe in objectivity. One striking feature of surveys of academic partisanship is the overwhelming Democratic lean in hard sciences like biology and chemistry; but is that really hard to understand when Republicans reject science on so many fronts?

One recent study marvels that even finance departments are mainly Democratic. Indeed, you might expect finance professors, some of whom do lucrative consulting for Wall Street, to be pretty conservative. But even they are repelled by a party committed to zombie economics.

Which brings me back to General Milley. The U.S. military has traditionally leaned Republican, but the modern officer corps is highly educated, open-minded and, dare I say it, even a bit intellectual — because those are attributes that help win wars.

Unfortunately, they are also attributes the modern G.O.P. finds intolerable.

So something like the attack on Milley was inevitable. Right-wingers have gone all in on ignorance, so they were bound to come into conflict with every institution — including the U.S. military — that is trying to cultivate knowledge.

Laughable Lies

Sometimes you just have to laugh at the ignorance perpetuated by the Republicans and their megaphone, Fox News.  The lunacy is incredible and laughable, but what’s not quite as funny is that some 40% of the people in this nation don’t bother to assess what they hear, don’t take a minute to look for some facts to back up the opinions of the Republicans and their minions.  Perhaps the Republican Party would do better, have a bit of legitimacy, if they spent more time on developing a platform and less time on making up lies and conspiracy theories.  Anyway … Paul Krugman, writing for the New York Times, has written a piece mostly about the latest lie/fallacy/made-up story by Republicans attempting to discredit President Biden, and it’s well worth the read.


Beer, Brussels Sprouts, Bernie Madoff and Today’s G.O.P.

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

On Friday Larry Kudlow, who was Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, told Fox News viewers that Joe Biden’s climate plans would force Americans to stop eating meat. On July 4, he declared, you’d have to “throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled brussels sprouts.”

Kudlow’s remarks raise several questions. What, exactly, does he think beer is made from? Also, doesn’t he know that grilled brussels sprouts are, in fact, delicious?

More important, why would anyone believe this assertion about Biden’s plans, or expect anyone else to believe it? Why were Kudlow’s claims echoed by many Republicans, from Donald Trump Jr., to members of Congress, to the governor of Texas?

To answer this question, it helps to think about Bernie Madoff, the infamous fraudster who died April 14. Seriously.

About Biden and burgers: The administration has, in fact, said nothing at all about changing America’s diet. Furthermore, anything along those lines would be very much at odds with Biden’s whole approach to climate change, which is to rely much more on carrots than on sticks, to provide positive incentives to invest in low-emission technologies rather than discouraging emissions with taxes or regulations.

Whether that approach will prove sufficient is debatable, but it is the approach the administration is taking, and telling people to stop eating meat would be completely out of character.

So where is this coming from? Kudlow took his cues from a sleazy article in The Daily Mail, a right-wing British tabloid. The article didn’t actually assert that Biden is proposing to restrict meat consumption; instead, it offered a series of speculations about what might happen. Among other things it took the most extreme scenario from a University of Michigan study of how reduced meat consumption could affect greenhouse gas emissions — a study released in January 2020 that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Biden plans. The Daily Mail also used a deceptive graphic to make it seem as if this was an actual administration proposal.

American right-wing pundits and politicians then ran with it. Did they actually believe the nonsense they were spouting? Well, Kudlow’s apparent belief that beer is made with meat is arguably a point in his favor, an indication that he’s genuinely clueless rather than merely cynical.

What’s clear, however, is that neither Kudlow nor other Republicans touting an imaginary war on meat saw any need to check out their story, felt any concern that their audience — Fox News viewers, Republican voters — would find the claim that Joe Biden is coming for their red meat implausible.

Why not? That’s where Bernie Madoff comes in.

The revelations about Madoff’s immense Ponzi scheme and how he pulled it off introduced many of us to the concept of affinity fraud: scams that prey upon people by exploiting a sense of shared identity. Madoff defrauded wealthy Jews by convincing them that he was just like them.

A similar approach has long been an essential part of the Republican political strategy. As the party’s economic policies have become ever more elitist, ever more tilted toward the interests of the wealthy, it has sought to cover its tracks by running candidates who seem like regular guys you’d like to have a (meat-based?) beer with.

The flip side of this strategy is a continual attempt by the G.O.P. to convince voters that Democrats, who represent a much more diverse set of voters than Republicans, aren’t people like them; call it disaffinity fraud.

The goal is to portray Democrats as woke feminist vegetarians who don’t share the values of Real Americans. Hence the right’s obsessive focus on “cancel culture” and Democratic women of color, and the continual assertions that the white male senior citizen who leads the party is somehow a passive puppet.

Right-wing media are pushing this narrative nonstop. According to a Morning Consult poll last month, more Republicans said they’d heard “a lot” about the move to withdraw some Dr. Seuss books than said the same about Biden’s huge Covid-19 relief bill.

It doesn’t matter that Joe Biden isn’t actually trying to ban hamburgers or — to take another false claim right-wing pundits and politicians keep repeating — that he hasn’t “taken down” the border with Mexico. Republicans have pretty much given up even trying to make a case against Biden’s actual policies, let alone proposing serious policies themselves.

Instead, it’s all smears. Democrats, declared Kudlow, are “ideological zealots who don’t care one whit about America’s well-being.” That’s pretty rich coming from a man famed for his unwavering commitment to the doctrine that cutting taxes on the wealthy solves all problems, no matter how often his predictions fail.

But never mind; the point is that Kudlow and others consider it OK to throw out wild claims about what Democrats are up to, because those are the kinds of things woke liberals would do, aren’t they?

Will the public go along? The Biden administration thinks not, betting it can overcome the power of affinity fraud with policies that offer real benefits to working Americans. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that this strategy will work.

Mitch McConnell Likes Falling Bridges!

Throughout President Obama’s eight year tenure, one man stood out as the biggest hurdle to anything and everything Obama and his team proposed.  That man, of course, is the ignoble Mitch McConnell … the poster boy for why we need term limits.  McConnell’s power is far greater than it should be and when he pledges obstruction, you can count on him destroying everything in his path … even our lives.

Most recently, McConnell has pledged to do everything in his power to keep the infrastructure bill from seeing the light of day in the Senate.  Frank Bruni, writing for the New York Times, addresses the infrastructure bill and McConnell’s self-serving intended obstruction in his latest newsletter …


Mitch McConnell, Fickle Fiscal Prude

By Frank Bruni

Opinion Columnist

The numbers stagger me too.

President Biden is promoting more than $2 trillion for infrastructure (loosely defined). He signed legislation for $1.9 trillion for pandemic relief, economic stimulus and anti-poverty initiatives.

All of this comes after the Trump administration’s mammoth relief-and-stimulus spending in 2020, and all of this precedes what will almost certainly be yet more requests for additional trillions from the Biden administration.

We’re in uncharted waters. Experts offering assurances that all will be well — or even better than well — are giving us their best educated guesses. No one — not the cheerleaders, not the naysayers — truly knows how this will all turn out.

But here’s the thing: At some point you have to pick a path, choose a side, place your bet. In many instances the potential price of a flawed wager is almost certainly less steep than the cost of inaction. This instance, I think, is one of those. Maybe America will go too big in the end. But too small hasn’t worked for us.

Too small led to the economic dispossession and pessimism exploited by a junior-league demagogue and would-be despot who hurt this country gravely. Too small factored into our shameful and unsustainable degree of income inequality.

Too small was a culprit in America’s world-leading number of coronavirus infections and Covid-related deaths last year. By contrast, too big — or rather, big — was a partner in the speedy development and distribution of vaccines.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, has pledged to fight Biden’s infrastructure package “every step of the way,” as a sudden defender of fiscal discipline. I say “sudden” because his attachment to it over the past few years, before Biden took office, was as steady as a Slinky.

He was perfectly happy to run up the federal debt to stay in good with President Donald Trump, who wanted tax cuts and more gleaming military hardware. Now? We mustn’t leave crippling bills to our children and grandchildren! How horridly gluttonous! How downright immoral!

How utterly laughable. The truth about most politicians and spending is that they’re for it if the outlays bolster their electoral fortunes and against it if the other side may have more to gain. They’re not in thrall to some fixed economic ideology. They’re bound to partisan rivalries and enamored of ideological fashions of the moment.

Remember all of those fiscally principled Tea Party candidates who rocked the Republican Party and swarmed to Washington in 2010? That didn’t turn out to be any kind of revolution. Many of those candidates, along with most other Republicans, exiled their thriftiness when President Barack Obama exited the White House, then embraced Trump in all of his profligacy.

But back to infrastructure and Biden’s big-ticket legislation. Over recent decades of congressional sclerosis, America has fallen behind and imperiled its future prosperity. We’ve no choice but to catch up, and catching up, I believe, will cost more than McConnell is willing to agree to. It may cost even more than Biden is pitching.

Or not. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that the choice is between overdoing and underdoing. That it’s that clear, that stark. I’d vote for overdoing. We haven’t tried that in a while.

And my read of the American mood right now is that people are frustrated with the status quo and the timidity of politicians too focused on one another to focus on everyone else. There’s a hankering for movement of some kind — of any kind. There’s an appetite for boldness. Let’s feed it.

We The People Lose Again! Thanks, Senators!

There was, for a time, a brief glimmer of hope that the federal minimum wage rate would be raised to a living wage of $15 per hour.  That hope has now had a stake driven through its heart and is DOA – Dead On Arrival.  Why?  I could offer up a lot of reasons, such as the Senate Parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, has deemed it isn’t appropriate to tie the minimum wage to the coronavirus relief bill, but the bottom line is that it won’t fly because … the Republicans in Congress don’t want it to.

Note that some 75% of the people in this nation do want the minimum wage rate increased, and that includes 62% of Republican voters.  Also note that it has remained stagnant since 2009, twelve long years, while inflation has not.  But, of late, the Republicans in Congress do not choose to represent their constituents, the people of this country, but rather their wealthy donors, most of whom are corporate bigwigs who, quite simply, don’t want to be forced to pay their employees more than the $7.25 some of them now pay.  Here’s another way of looking at it:  If the minimum wage rate had been increased by only 65 cents each year since 2009, it would now be over $15 per hour.  Just 65 cents per year!

Still, with a tied Senate, and the tiebreaker being Vice President Kamala Harris, one might foolishly think that any piece of legislation raising the minimum wage, could be passed.  And it could, but for one little word:  filibuster.

A brief explanation of what the filibuster is:

Senators have two options when they seek to vote on a measure or motion. Most often, the majority leader (or another senator) seeks “unanimous consent,” asking if any of the 100 senators objects to ending debate and moving to a vote. If no objection is heard, the Senate proceeds to a vote. If the majority leader can’t secure the consent of all 100 senators, the leader (or another senator) typically files a cloture motion, which then requires 60 votes to adopt. If fewer than 60 senators—a supermajority of the chamber—support cloture, that’s when we often say that a measure has been filibustered. 

Senators who are against the bill being considered, but know their views are not shared by a simple majority, will refuse to end debate simply to force a filibuster, or a supermajority requirement for passage of the motion.  Rarely will you see a situation in an equally divided Senate where 60 of the 100 will agree on any damn thing!  But there are options, as New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie explains in his recent newsletter …


jamelle-bouie

The Senate has bound itself with fake restraints

By Jamelle Bouie

Opinion Columnist

I know I am more than a little obsessed with the Senate filibuster. But my preoccupation is not without reason. I think the filibuster — or to be precise, the de facto supermajority requirement for legislation in the Senate — is both bad on the merits and a symbol of the sclerotic dysfunction of our Congress.

In the face of multiple, overlapping crises — and at least one long-term existential crisis — our elected officials refuse to act, much less take steps that would give them freedom of movement in the legislature. Instead, they hide behind rules and procedure, as if they are powerless to change both.

All of this is apropos of the news that the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, has ruled a proposed federal minimum wage hike as non-germane to the Covid relief reconciliation bill. Her ruling is not binding, but Vice President Kamala Harris, who also serves as president of the Senate, will abide by it. This means that if the Senate wants to increase the minimum wage, it will have to do so through ordinary legislation, making it subject to the supermajority requirement.

That means it isn’t going to happen, at least not anytime soon, but the point I want to make is that these are fake constraints. The Senate determines whether it will abide by the parliamentarian, and the Senate decides whether it wants to operate by supermajority. The Senate, and its Democratic members in particular, are handcuffing themselves and reneging on their promise to millions of American workers.

That Democrats are doing it to maintain their fragile coalition — to keep Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema from sinking the entire package — is only a testament to how these fake constraints render the entire process of lawmaking a farce. I would rather the Senate take a simple up or down vote, and for individual lawmakers to show where they stand, than listen to some of the most powerful people in the country explain why they are bound by rules they could change at any time, for any reason at all.

Related to this, I want to share this 2010 Connecticut Law Review article titled “The Unconstitutionality of the Filibuster,” by the congressional scholar Josh Chafetz. The key point is this: A Constitution written in the name of “We the people” is necessarily one that cannot abide a supermajority requirement for the ordinary business of lawmaking. Here’s Chafetz:

The mere fact that our Constitution has some anti-majoritarian elements should not serve as a bootstrap by which any anti-majoritarian device is made constitutionally legitimate. … Rather than use some deviations from majoritarianism to justify still others, we should take note of the essential popular sovereignty foundations of our Constitution and insist that, in such a polity, minority veto cannot be piled atop minority veto indefinitely. The Constitution — our higher law — specifies certain deviations from majoritarianism. But the exceptions should not be allowed to swallow the rule, nor should antimajoritarian devices in higher law be used to justify antimajoritarian devices in ordinary law.

We can have a supermajority requirement for legislation or we can have meaningful self-government. We can’t have both.

Speaking Of The Minimum Wage …

I have a laundry list of things I hope to see happen under the Biden administration, and one of those at the top of the list is a significant increase in the federal minimum wage rate.  It has been stagnant for 12 years now, despite the fact that the cost of living has increased consistently, year after year.  The article I’m about to share was written a week ago, two days before President Biden’s inauguration, but the premise still stands, and I completely agree with its author, Paul Krugman writing for the New York Times.


Who’s Radical Now? The Case of Minimum Wages

Evidence has a well-known liberal bias.

paul-krugman-thumbLargeBy Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

  • Jan. 18, 2021

Most Americans, myself included, will be deeply relieved when Joe Biden is finally sworn in as president. But almost everyone has a sense of foreboding, not just because of the specific threat of right-wing terrorism, but also because Biden will take office in a political environment polluted by lies.

Most important, of course, is the Big Lie: the claim, based on nothing whatsoever, that the election was stolen. Has there been anything in U.S. history like the demand from leading Republicans that Biden pursue “unity” when they won’t even say publicly that he won fairly? And polls showing that a large majority of rank-and-file Republicans believe that there was major election fraud are deeply scary.

But not far behind in importance is what I think of as the Slightly Smaller Lie — the almost universal insistence on the right that the mildly center-left leaders of the incoming administration and Congress are, or at least are controlled by, radical socialists. This allegation was almost the entire substance of Republican campaigning during the Georgia Senate runoffs.

One response to this bizarre claim — and it’s not a bad response — would be a Bidenesque “C’mon, man. Get real!” But I’d like to do a somewhat deeper dive by focusing on one particular issue: Biden’s call, as part of his economic recovery plan, for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Republicans raising objections to Biden’s plan have singled out the minimum wage hike as a prime reason for their opposition, although we all know that they would have found some excuse for objecting no matter what he proposed. What’s striking about this fight — let’s not dignify it by calling it a debate, as if both sides were making real arguments — is that it shows us who the real radicals are.

For what counts as a radical economic proposal? One possible answer would be a proposal that flies in the face of public opinion.

By that criterion, however, Republican politicians are definitely the radicals here. Raising the minimum wage is immensely popular; it’s supported by around 70 percent of voters, including a substantial majority of self-identified Republicans. Or if you don’t believe polls, look at what happened in Florida back in November: even as Trump carried the state, a referendum on raising the minimum wage to $15 won in a landslide.

So the G.O.P. is very much out of step with the public on this issue — it’s espousing what is almost a fringe position. Oh, and it’s a position that is completely at odds with the claim by many Republicans that they’re the true party of the working class.

What if we define radicalism not by opposition to public opinion but by a refusal to accept the conclusions of mainstream economics? Here, too, Democrats are the moderates and Republicans the radicals.

It’s true that once upon a time there was a near-consensus among economists that minimum wages substantially reduced employment. But that was long ago. These days only a minority of economists think raising the minimum to $15 would have large employment costs, and a strong plurality believe that a significant rise — although maybe not all the way to $15 — would be a good idea.

Why did economists change their minds? No, the profession wasn’t infiltrated by antifa; it was moved by evidence, specifically the results of “natural experiments” that take place when an individual state raises its minimum wage while neighboring states don’t. The lesson from this evidence is that unless minimum wages are raised to levels higher than anything currently being proposed, hiking the minimum won’t have major negative effects on employment — but it will have significant benefits in terms of higher earnings and a reduction in poverty.

But evidence has a well-known liberal bias. Did I mention that on Friday, just days before their eviction, Trump officials released a report claiming that the 2017 tax cut paid for itself?

Voodoo economics may be the most thoroughly debunked doctrine in the history of economic thought, refuted by decades of experience — and voters consistently say that corporations and the wealthy pay too little, not too much, in taxes. Yet tax cuts for the already privileged are central to the Republican agenda, even under a supposedly populist president.

On economic policy, then, Democrats — even though they have moved somewhat to the left in recent years — are moderates by any standard, while Republicans are wild-eyed radicals. So why does the G.O.P. think that it can get away with claiming the opposite?

Part of the answer is the power of the right-wing disinformation machine, which relentlessly portrays anyone left of center as the second coming of Pol Pot. Another part of the answer is that Republicans clearly hope that voters will judge some Democrats by the color of their skin, not the content of their policy proposals.

In any case, let’s be clear: There is indeed a radical party in America, one that, aside from hating democracy, has crazy ideas about how the world works and is at odds with the views of most voters. And it’s not the Democrats.

min-wage

And In Other News — There’s A Pandemic!

In light of the storming of the Capitol by white supremacist terrorists one week ago today, much of the rest of the news has fallen by the wayside, not even seen by many.  For instance, on Saturday an Indonesian jetliner, a Boeing 737, crashed into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff on Saturday with 62 people aboard, all presumed dead.  Typically, this would have been headline news for several days, but in the U.S., it was barely a blip. 

One of the things that has dominated the news for nearly a year now is the coronavirus pandemic, yet for the past week it has received far less attention than the Capitol attack and Donald Trump’s role in it. Yesterday the U.S. recorded 4,281 deaths for the 24-hour period, yet we barely batted an eye.  This morning’s email contained my usual daily briefing by David Leonhardt of the New York Times with an update on the pandemic that I thought well worth sharing.


‘A game changer’

david-leonhardtLast week’s attack on the Capitol has understandably dominated the news. But I want to take a few minutes this morning to focus on the other vital story right now — the pandemic.

Below is a three-point summary of where we are now, with help from my colleagues covering the story and from a couple of charts. I’ll warn you up front: The situation is not good.

  1. The new variants are scary. Scientists are still learning about new versions of the coronavirus, including variants that emerged in Britain, South Africa and Brazil. The evidence so far indicates that they “are much more infectious than the Italian strain, which has been circulating here since February,” my colleague Donald G. McNeil Jr. told me. “That’s a game changer.”

Behavior that may once have been only moderately risky — say, airplane travel — may now be more so. The variants seem to be one reason cases worldwide are spiking:

pandemic-chart-1

  1. The mass vaccination campaign in the U.S. is off to a terrible start. The Trump administration promised that 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by Jan. 1. Instead, fewer than three million were — and only about nine million have now had their shots.

The Deep South has the country’s lowest vaccination rates. But this isn’t just a Republican failure: California, Virginia and some other Democratic-run states have also been slow. (Here’s data for every state.)

Vaccinations will probably accelerate in coming weeks, especially because President-elect Joe Biden and his team seem much more focused on the problem than President Trump. Goldman Sachs forecasts that about one quarter of Americans will have received their first shot by April 1, half by June 1 and three quarters by mid-autumn. The coming vaccination speedup is the one good piece of good news right now.

  1. Things are likely to get worse before they get better. The virus is spreading so rapidly that hospitals are struggling to keep up. About 130,000 Americans are hospitalized with Covid symptoms, more than double the number two months ago. The strain on hospitals raises the possibility that many patients will not receive the best available treatments.

Los Angeles has recently had to ration oxygen. And Esteban Trejo, an executive at a company in El Paso, Texas, that provides oxygen to temporary hospitals, told Kaiser Health News, “It’s been nuts, absolutely nuts.”

The recent data on cases and deaths is noisy, because diagnoses artificially slowed during the holidays, says Mitch Smith, a Times reporter who follows the numbers. Still, deaths have already hit a record this week — more than 3,000 a day, on average — and the recent explosion of cases suggests they may be heading to above 3,500 and perhaps to 4,000.

pandemic-chart-2

The bottom line: Biden will be taking office next week during the nadir of the coronavirus crisis. His administration will need to both accelerate vaccine distribution and persuade more people to change their behavior — and the second goal is even more urgent than the first.

Unless Americans start wearing masks more often and spending less time together in cramped spaces, many more people are going to die.

Telling It Like It Is — Reality

I remember 2015-2016 when I would ask friends and acquaintances what, exactly, they saw in this clown named Trump who was running for president.  Their answer was often an enigma: “he tells it like it is.”  Now, I was never able to pin them down on just what “it” was, but in their minds, they were convinced that whatever ‘it’ was, Trump told ‘it’ like ‘it’ was.  Well, we now know that he fed these people a bucket of bullshit, that honesty is not in his vocabulary, and that there is no ‘it’ that he understands well enough to talk about, but rather talks at the issues.  However, journalist Charles Blow is one who actually does ‘tell it like it is’, especially in his latest column in the New York Times


America Shocked Itself and the World

Charles BlowCharles M. Blow

29 October 2020

How could we have been so blind? How could we have been so naïve? How did we not believe that the worst was possible until we plummeted into it?

We didn’t believe that a demagogic tyrant-worshiper could rise to the presidency.

The founders of this country worried obsessively about the rise of a demagogue, and the power of foreign influence on our democracy. And yet somehow, over the years, after centuries of American presidents behaving in ways that at least demonstrated a fealty to the country and its institutions and the power of precedent and legacy, those fears waned to a whisper.

Having a demagogue, partially installed by a Russian disinformation campaign no less, who exalted our enemies in the world and hammered our friends, was somewhat unthinkable. This was America. We would only go so far. We might race up to the precipice, but we would never hurl ourselves into the abyss. Wrong.

With the election of Donald Trump, America did the unthinkable, shocking itself and the world: It put the most powerful country in the world under the control of a lying, grifting, shady carnival ­­­­­conductor. He had no experience in governance and no expertise. His entire life was a game of smoke and mirrors, double talk and double-dealing.

Even Trump, not a student of history or much else, didn’t seem to grasp the awesome power he possessed until he systematically started to test all the fences supposedly restraining him, only to realize that the only thing holding many of them up was customs and conventions. Most could be run through or pushed down.

It was like a scene in the film “Jurassic World” where the scientist created a hybrid, Frankenstein dinosaur because people got bored of the conventional ones. Well, the dinosaur was clever enough to break out of its cage and run through the park, killing everything in sight. As one of the scientists said: “You made a genetic hybrid. Raised it in captivity. She is seeing all of this for the first time. She does not even know what she is. She will kill everything that moves.” He continued, “She is learning where she fits on the food chain and I’m not sure you want her to figure that out.”

Trump realized the power of the presidency, that it was uniquely at the top of the food chain, and so began his rampage.

We didn’t believe that in this era we could have a president who could be so regressive on issues of white supremacy, white nationalism and xenophobia.

To be sure, there have been other presidents more racist than their predecessors.

Andrew Johnson assuming the presidency after Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. Although Lincoln had professed his white supremacy during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he led the nation to emancipation and into Civil War in part over the issue of slavery. Johnson’s racist reconstruction plan after the war excluded Black electoral and governing participation, led to the rise of the Black Codes and led to his impeachment.

Lyndon B. Johnson being followed by Richard Nixon comes to mind. As a senator, Johnson had shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and as president he pushed through the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. In addition, he nominated the first Black justice to the Supreme Court: Thurgood Marshall. Nixon on the other hand, was different. As Tim Naftali, an associate professor of history at N.Y.U., wrote last year in The Atlantic: “Nixon believed in a hierarchy of races, with whites and Asians much higher up than people of African descent and Latinos. And he had convinced himself that it wasn’t racist to think Black people, as a group, were inferior to whites, so long as he held them in paternalistic regard.”

But, in some ways, Americans came to see these occasional regressions as more minor — a hiccup, a stutter step in which the country took a small step back among much greater strides forward. We were not prepared for what Trump delivered: a generational retreat into darkness.

We had not seen a modern president so openly and blatantly court and even defend racists and xenophobes. We had not seen one refuse to clearly condemn white supremacist hate groups, instead retreating to a position of false obliviousness when condemnation was demanded. We have not seen a recent president who would stoop so low as to separate immigrant children from their parents, apparently with no plan to reunite them, as a matter of unwavering policy.

These are but two examples. But the list is legion. I could enumerate them until my fingers blistered. But they would all illustrate the same point: We, America, let our guard down for a campaign cycle, believing, surely, that the most qualified woman to ever run would defeat the least qualified man to do so. We didn’t vote with the intensity the emergency required. And in doing so, we allowed the country to be dragged to the brink of ruin.

We are now living the reality that the founders feared and that women, minorities and immigrants hoped was an artifact of former times.

Words Of Wisdom …

This morning, I came across an OpEd by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat that I found to be both extremely sensible and also encouraging.  In essence, he urges us to calm down, stop imagining the worst, that Trump will refuse to play by the rules and attempt to remain in office despite his election defeat, and focus instead on what needs to be done to help the Biden presidency succeed.  Easier said than done, but I think he’s right … see what you think.


There Will Be No Trump Coup

A final pre-election case for understanding the president as a noisy weakling, not a budding autocrat.

ross-douthat-thumbLargeBy Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

Oct. 10, 2020

Three weeks from now, we will reach an end to speculation about what Donald Trump will do if he faces political defeat, whether he will leave power like a normal president or attempt some wild resistance. Reality will intrude, substantially if not definitively, into the argument over whether the president is a corrupt incompetent who postures as a strongman on Twitter or a threat to the Republic to whom words like “authoritarian” and even “autocrat” can be reasonably applied.

I’ve been on the first side of that argument since early in his presidency, and since we’re nearing either an ending or some poll-defying reset, let me make the case just one more time.

Across the last four years, the Trump administration has indeed displayed hallmarks of authoritarianism. It features egregious internal sycophancy and hacks in high positions, abusive presidential rhetoric and mendacity on an unusual scale. The president’s attempts to delegitimize the 2020 vote aren’t novel; they’re an extension of the way he’s talked since his birther days, paranoid and demagogic.

These are all very bad things, and good reasons to favor his defeat. But it’s also important to recognize all the elements of authoritarianism he lacks. He lacks popularity and political skill, unlike most of the global strongmen who are supposed to be his peers. He lacks power over the media: Outside of Fox’s prime time, he faces an unremittingly hostile press whose major outlets have thrived throughout his presidency. He is plainly despised by his own military leadership, and notwithstanding his courtship of Mark Zuckerberg, Silicon Valley is more likely to censor him than to support him in a constitutional crisis.

His own Supreme Court appointees have already ruled against him; his attempts to turn his voter-fraud hype into litigation have been repeatedly defeated in the courts; he has been constantly at war with his own C.I.A. and F.B.I. And there is no mass movement behind him: The threat of far-right violence is certainly real, but America’s streets belong to the anti-Trump left.

So if you judge an authoritarian by institutional influence, Trump falls absurdly short. And the same goes for judging his power grabs. Yes, he has successfully violated post-Watergate norms in the service of self-protection and his pocketbook. But pre-Watergate presidents were not autocrats, and in terms of seizing power over policy he has been less imperial than either George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

There is still no Trumpian equivalent of Bush’s antiterror and enhanced-interrogation innovations or Obama’s immigration gambit and unconstitutional Libyan war. Trump’s worst human-rights violation, the separation of migrants from their children, was withdrawn under public outcry. His biggest defiance of Congress involved some money for a still-unfinished border wall. And when the coronavirus handed him a once-in-a-century excuse to seize new powers, he retreated to a cranky libertarianism instead.

All this context means that one can oppose Trump, even hate him, and still feel very confident that he will leave office if he is defeated, and that any attempt to cling to power illegitimately will be a theater of the absurd.

Yes, Trump could theoretically retain power if the final outcome is genuinely too close to call.

But the same would be true of any president if their re-election came down to a few hundred votes, and Trump is less equipped than a normal Republican to steer through a Florida-in-2000 controversy — and less likely, given his excesses, to have jurists like John Roberts on his side at the end.

Meanwhile, the scenarios that have been spun out in reputable publications — where Trump induces Republican state legislatures to overrule the clear outcome in their states or militia violence intimidates the Supreme Court into vacating a Biden victory — bear no relationship to the Trump presidency we’ve actually experienced. Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like “plotting” implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks.

OK, the reader might say, but since you concede that the Orange Man is, in fact, bad, what’s the harm of a little paranoia, a little extra vigilance?

There are many answers, but I’ll just offer one: With American liberalism poised to retake presidential power, it needs clarity about its own position. Liberalism lost in 2016 out of a mix of accident and hubris, and many liberals have spent the last four years persuading themselves that their position might soon be as beleaguered as the opposition under Putin, or German liberals late in Weimar.

But in reality liberalism under Trump has become a more dominant force in our society, with a zealous progressive vanguard and a monopoly in the commanding heights of culture. Its return to power in Washington won’t be the salvation of American pluralism; it will be the unification of cultural and political power under a single banner.

Wielding that power in a way that doesn’t just seed another backlash requires both vision and restraint. And seeing its current enemy clearly, as a feckless tribune for the discontented rather than an autocratic menace, is essential to the wisdom that a Biden presidency needs.