Questions … And More Questions

As most of you know, one of my favourite journalists is Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.  Kristof has received two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur.  He is often out and about covering humanitarian crises around the globe.  But, his political views back here at home are typically spot-on … his is the voice of calm, of reason amidst all the chaos.  His OpEd yesterday is no exception, as he weighs in on … what else?  Impeachment and Trump’s abuse of power.  His words are sound and well worth the read.

Mr. President, a Few Questions

nicholas-kristof-thumblargeBy Nicholas Kristof
Opinion Columnist
SEPT. 27, 2019

“Shall any man be above justice?” George Mason asked in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. “Above all, shall that man be above it, who can commit the most extensive injustice?”

That was a central question for the framers of the Constitution — to what extent should impeachment be a check on a president? — and it’s the central question for our political system today.

President Trump’s bullying of Ukraine to target Joe Biden is parallel to the kinds of abuse that the framers discussed when they adopted the impeachment clause. What they fretted about was a leader who abused power — by colluding with a foreign country, James Madison suggested — and threatened the integrity of our system.

So, guided by those concerns of abuse of power, let’s see what the impeachment inquiry turns up. Among the areas that merit further investigation:

What was Russia’s role? Did Trump discuss Ukraine with Vladimir Putin in their June meeting in Osaka, in their Paris or Helsinki meetings last year, or in their July 31 phone call? Did Putin plant misinformation that Trump acted on?

In his July 25 call with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump raised the bizarre conspiracy theory that it had been Ukraine rather than Russia that had hacked Democratic emails. Doesn’t that sound as if it was translated from the original Russian?

Likewise, Trump’s distrust of his ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and his faith that a trove of dirt about Biden corruption was sitting in Ukraine waiting to be dug up — why, all this resembles what a skilled K.G.B. officer might say to manipulate a naïve American acolyte.

Certainly Putin benefited from Trump’s hold on nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, from the American coolness toward Zelensky and from the sidelining of Ukraine experts such as Ambassador Yovanovitch.

There are whispers of this in the intelligence community, but let’s be clear that these are questions rather than allegations. Unfortunately, the Kremlin came out on Friday against releasing phone transcripts, and Trump has generally concealed details of his conversations with Putin — even taking away notes from an interpreter after one meeting.

Was there a substantial cover-up? The whistle-blower alleges a cover-up, in a complaint that the administration then tried to cover up. Hmm.

The rough transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky was placed in an unusually secure system. Why?

Ukraine is a longtime Trump fixation, with the president tweeting as early as July 2017 about “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign.” Rudy Giuliani rode roughshod over policymakers in an attempt to hijack foreign policy formation, and the White House has never convincingly explained its hold on military assistance.

Did administration officials try to hide all of this? Did they impede Congress from providing oversight? Was there a cover-up of not just a call, but of a long-term pattern of abuse?

What were the roles of Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? Pence dropped out of the delegation that attended Zelensky’s inauguration, seemingly as a way to pressure Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. Did Pence agree to this?

As for Barr, why did Trump repeatedly suggest him as a contact for Zelensky? And why did the Justice Department try to quash the whistle-blower complaint? Why does Barr regularly act as Trump’s cleanup man rather than as the nation’s lawyer?

Was Pompeo complicit in Trump’s efforts to shunt aside the State Department so that Giuliani could oversee relations with Ukraine? What role did Pompeo play in the recall of Ambassador Yovanovitch?

There’s much debate about whether Trump should or shouldn’t be impeached, but for now that seems to me to be premature. Before any impeachment vote, we need a substantial inquiry to determine facts.

Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor, has a smart book, “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide,” in which he advises people to think about whether they would favor or oppose impeachment if they felt the opposite about this president. In that spirit, I approach it this way: How would I feel about impeachment if these Ukraine revelations were about Barack Obama?

There’s a danger that Democrats rush this process in ways that antagonize swing voters, particularly when polls show that a majority of the public both disapproves of Trump’s conduct and does not favor impeachment.

In the end, Mitch McConnell may not even permit a Senate trial after an impeachment. Or if McConnell convenes a trial, he could immediately have the Republican majority vote to dismiss the case.

That makes it all the more important that the House impeachment inquiry meticulously gather information by a process that — to the extent possible in our polarized age — is perceived by the public as fair, deliberate and legitimate. The backdrop must be the question that George Mason properly posed more than two centuries ago: “Shall any man be above justice?”

$295 For A Hamburger???

Yesterday’s column in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof took my breath.  Literally.  I was all set to write this morning’s post about the political circus that has taken over our lives, but … Kristof’s column simply must be shared.  I warn you, it is not an easy read, for it is heart-breaking and enraging all at once, but it is well worth reading.  As he ends his column:  Something’s wrong with this picture.


The World’s Malnourished Kids Don’t Need a $295 Burger

A quarter of the world’s children are stunted from inadequate diets.

nicholas-kristof-thumblargeBy Nicholas Kristof

Opinion Columnist

June 12, 2019

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A child at the Casa Jackson Hospital for Malnourished Children, in Antigua, Guatemala.CreditCredit Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

ANTIGUA, Guatemala — Raúl is a happy preschooler, tumbling around among 4- and 5-year-olds, but something is off.

It’s not his behavior, for it’s the same as that of the other little kids. Rather, it’s his face. The baby fat is gone, and although he’s only 3 feet 5 inches tall, the height of an average 5-year-old, an older face seems grafted on.

Sure enough, Raúl turns out to be 9. Malnutrition has left his body and mind badly stunted. He’s one of almost one-quarter of all children worldwide who are stunted from malnutrition.

Here in Guatemala, almost half of children are stunted. In some Mayan villages, it’s 70 percent.

In another world, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the restaurant Serendipity 3  offers a $295 hamburger. Alternatively, it sells a $214 grilled cheese sandwich and a $1,000 sundae.

“Stunting is probably the best marker of child health inequality,” Dr. Kirsten Austad of the Maya Health Alliance told me. “Stunting is a key driver of intergenerational poverty.”

The big problem with stunting from malnutrition isn’t that people are short but that they often have impaired brain development.

“He’s like a 5-year-old,” Rina Lazo Rodríguez, director of the Casa Jackson Hospital for Malnourished Children, said of Raúl. He is now living at the hospital and has never attended school, and staff members aren’t sure to what extent he can recover physically or mentally.

Studies find that malnourished children do less well in school, and the mental impairment is visible in brain scans.

The implication is that billions of I.Q. points are lost to malnutrition, and that the world’s greatest unexploited resource is not oil or gold but the minds of hungry children.

For the diner who has everything, restaurants offer gold in food. A Dubai restaurant, for example, has sold a cupcake enveloped in gold leaf. The gold is tasteless (and nontoxic), so its only purpose is extravagant novelty and a glittering price — in this case, more than $1,000 per cupcake.

I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student with me on a reporting trip. This year the winner is Mia Armstrong of Arizona State University, and we’ve been dropping in on villagers in rural Guatemala — and seeing stunning levels of malnutrition. The problem isn’t just shortage of calories but of vital micronutrients, like zinc, iron, iodine and vitamin A.

Alas, the most boring word in the English language may be “micronutrients.” And boring causes don’t get addressed or funding.

One girl we met, Ingrid, was 14 years old and 4 feet 7 inches tall. I asked her if she was in school.

“I dropped out in the first grade,” she said.

I asked her to write her name in my notebook.

“I can’t write my name,” she responded.

Sotheby’s last year auctioned off a bottle of wine, a Romanée Conti 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The label was stained and there were signs of seepage, but the single bottle sold for $558,000.

Shawn Baker of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation refers to “the 45 percent-1 percent disconnect.” As he explained: “Malnutrition is the underlying cause of 45 percent of deaths in children under 5, yet less than 1 percent of global foreign assistance goes to addressing undernutrition.

“The bulk of the damage is done in the first 1,000 days — from conception through two years of life — and that damage is largely irreversible.” Aside from cognitive impairment, stunted children grow up to have more health problems in adulthood, and stunted women deliver smaller babies, sometimes perpetuating the poverty cycle.

The Ranch in Malibu, Calif., offers a luxury nine-night weight-loss program for $11,400 per person.

Nutrition programs are extremely cheap. often among the most cost-effective ways to fight global poverty.

School feeding programs promote education as well as nutrition, and cost just 25 cents per child per meal. Deworming costs about 50 cents per child per year to improve both nutrition and health, yet pets in the U.S. are more likely to be dewormed than children in many other places.

As Mia noted in a separate article, one nutrition initiative could save up to 800,000 lives a year and requires no electricity, refrigeration or high technology. It’s simply support for breast-feeding.

Fortifying foods with iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A is transformative. Ensuring that children are screened for malnutrition and promptly helped with supplements that are similar to peanut butter is fairly straightforward. Yet malnourished children aren’t a priority, so kids are stunted in ways that will hold back our world for many decades to come.

If some distant planet sends foreign correspondents to Earth, they will be baffled that we allow almost one child in four to be stunted, even as we indulge in gold leaf cupcakes, $1,000 sundaes and half-million-dollar bottles of wine.

“In 2018, an estimated 60 percent of cats and 56 percent of dogs in the United States were overweight or obese. Pet obesity remains a serious health threat.” — Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

Something’s wrong with this picture.

Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The Times since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can sign up for his free, twice-weekly email newsletter and follow him on Instagram@NickKristof Facebook

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Say WHAT???

My inbox this morning contained the latest column by one of my favourite journalists, Nicholas Kristof.  As I read his column, I was torn between rage and tears, disbelief and horror.  I present portions of that column, but you can read the entire column here

A Good Samaritan and the Border Patrol

A motorist may have saved a life when she stopped to help three desperate young adults. Then she was arrested.

Nicholas Kristof

By Nicholas Kristof

Opinion Columnist

The path to Teresa L. Todd’s arrest began when three desperate Central American migrants waved frantically at her car on a Texas highway one night in February.

At least one other car had hurtled by, afraid to stop. But for Todd, compassion overrode any fear. “I’m a mom,” explained Todd, who has two boys, ages 15 and 17. “And I see a young man who looked the same age and size as my younger son. And if my son was by the side of the road, I would want someone to help.”

Todd, a single mom who works as a lawyer for a city and county in West Texas, found three siblings: two brothers ages 20 and 22 and their sister, Esmeralda, 18. To escape violence, they fled their native El Salvador years ago and recently Guatemala, where friends were murdered and a gang leader wanted to make Esmeralda his “girlfriend.”

Teresa L. Todd was detained by Border Patrol agents after stopping her car to help a group of migrants in Texas. CreditJessica Lutz for The New York Times

Esmeralda was suffering from starvation, dehydration and a potentially fatal syndrome called rhabdomyolysis that can lead to kidney failure. Seeing that Esmeralda was very sick, Todd invited the migrants into her car to warm up, and she began frantically texting friends (including one who is a lawyer for the Border Patrol) for advice about getting Esmeralda medical attention.

A sheriff’s deputy pulled up behind Todd’s car, lights flashing, and a Border Patrol officer arrived shortly afterward. The officers detained Todd for three hours, confiscating her possessions and keeping her in a holding cell.

By stopping to help a stranger, Todd may have saved a life — but this also got her arrested.

“It was totally surreal,” Todd recalled. “Especially for doing what my parents taught me was right, and what I learned in church was right, which was helping people. So finding myself in a holding cell for that, it was hard to wrap my head around.”

Esmeralda was hospitalized for four days, and she and her siblings are now in ICE custody. Todd has not been charged with a crime so far, but the authorities seem to have been considering a federal indictment. I reached out to federal and local officials for comment; they did not respond.

Todd told me that she has no regrets. “I think it’s the right thing to help those in need,” she explained. “That’s what I learned from my parents. That’s what I learned in church.”

“This is all about trying to chill the willingness of people to help others,” Todd said. “A friend told me, ‘The other day, someone tried to flag me down by the side of the road and waved an empty water bottle, and I thought about what happened to you and didn’t stop.’”

Referring to Trump, Michele Bachmann, the former Republican congresswoman, recently said, “We will in all likelihood never see a more godly, biblical president again in our lifetimes.”

I thanked Todd for her humanity, and for helping save a life. She said her assistance had been instinctive.

“I’m simply a mom who saw a child in need and pulled over to try to help,” she said. “The whole time I was by the side of the road, I was thinking: What country am I in? This is not the United States.”

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One Man’s Take On The Recent School Shootings

As you already know, Tuesday’s school shooting in Colorado hit me like a ton of bricks, was rather the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Resources already teetering on the ‘empty’ line, this was my undoing.  I tried yesterday to write about it and couldn’t … simply could not do the heroes of this and the previous school shootings justice … my words were cold and flat.  Then yesterday, waiting in my inbox, was Nicholas Kristoff’s piece about the shooting and his related opinion.  I passed it over, bookmarked it for ‘later’.  And then, in an email chat with our friend Ellen, she mentioned that I should read it.  So, at 2:00 a.m., hot (our a/c is on the fritz), and unable to sleep, I read the piece … and it said just what I had wanted to say on Tuesday night.

I try to minimize the number of editorial pieces I share verbatim, but sometimes they simply must be shared, and this is one such.

We Have 2 Dead Young Heroes. It’s Time to Stand Up to Guns.

It’s too late to save Kendrick Castillo and Riley Howell, but we can honor them by taking on gun violence.

nicholas-kristof-thumblargeBy Nicholas Kristof

Opinion Columnist

May 8, 2019

Politicians fearful of the National Rifle Association have allowed the gun lobby to run amok so that America now has more guns than people, but there is still true heroism out there in the face of gun violence: students who rush shooters at the risk of their own lives.school-shootingLet’s celebrate, and mourn, a student named Kendrick Castillo, 18, just days away from graduating in Highlands Ranch, Colo., who on Tuesday helped save his classmates in English literature class from a gunman.

“Kendrick lunged at him, and he shot Kendrick, giving all of us enough time to get underneath our desks, to get ourselves safe, and to run across the room to escape,” Nui Giasolli, a student in the classroom, told the “Today” show. Kendrick was killed, and eight other students were injured.

At least three boys in the class — one of them Brendan Bialy, who hopes to become a Marine — tackled and disarmed the gunman. “They were very heroic,” Nui said. Bravo as well to the police officers who arrived within two minutes of the shooting and seized the two attackers.

The courage of those students in Colorado echoes last week’s bravery of Riley Howell, a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Riley, 21, charged a gunman there and continued even as he was shot twice. As he tackled the gunman he was shot a third time, in the head, and killed, but he ended the shooting.

Riley was deservedly given a hero’s funeral, and presumably the same will happen with Kendrick. But their parents didn’t want martyrs; they wanted children and grandchildren. And it is appalling that we as a society have abandoned American kids so that they must die to save their classmates.

When New Zealand experienced a mass shooting in March, it took the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern just 26 days to tighten gun laws and ban assault rifles. In contrast, America has had 53 years of inaction since the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966 claimed 17 lives. Sandy Hook … Las Vegas … Parkland — so many dead; so little done.

Since 1970, 1.45 million Americans have died from guns — suicides, murders and accidents. That’s more than the 1.4 million Americans estimated to have died in all the wars in American history going back to the American Revolution.

This should also make us all cringe: In a typical year, more American children ages 4 and younger die from firearms (110 in 2016) than police officers do in the line of duty (65 in 2016).

So let’s send thoughts and prayers to the families of victims in Colorado and North Carolina, but let’s also push for a sensible gun policy that would make such heroics less necessary.

Granted, this is complicated. America has so many guns out there that new restrictions may not be as effective as we would hope. The 10-year ban on assault rifles from 1994 to 2004 had trouble defining assault weapons and had an uncertain impact.

Still, there are obvious steps worth taking. A starting point would be to require universal background checks before all firearms sales. Some 22 percent of guns are still acquired in the U.S. without a background check; a person wanting to adopt a rescue dog often undergoes a more thorough check than a person buying an assault rifle.

Safe storage of guns — in gun safes or with trigger locks — prevents children and others from accessing firearms. Voluntary gun buybacks would reduce the pool of firearms out there. We should also invest in “smart gun” technologies that require a code or fingerprint to fire. We need more “red-flag laws” that make it more difficult for people to obtain guns when they present a threat to themselves or others.

And tell me: Why do we bar people on the terrorism watch list from boarding planes while still allowing them to purchase guns?

In 2011, a spokesman for Al Qaeda, Adam Gadahn, urged would-be terrorists in America to pick up an assault rifle at a gun show, where there might not be a background check. He emphasized how easy this is and added, “What are you waiting for?”

Other steps to lower gun deaths don’t even directly involve firearms. Programs like Cure Violence and Becoming a Man have been shown effective in reducing violence among at-risk young people. The military has conducted experiments showing that counseling can reduce suicides (a majority of gun deaths in America are suicides).

Every day in 2017, the last year for which we have figures, an average of 107 people died in America from guns. We’re not able to avert every shooting, but we can save some lives. We need not have the courage of the students who charged gunmen; we just need to demand action from our members of Congress and state legislators.

That’s the best way to honor heroes like Kendrick Castillo and Riley Howell, by making such heroics less necessary in classrooms around America.

Why Didn’t I Think Of That???

Nicholas Kristof’s column yesterday in the New York Times was his usual excellent analysis of the five craziest things about the government shutdown and Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for his ego wall.  But what iced the cake for me was the brilliant idea he posed at the conclusion of his piece.  And so, I share his column with you … let me know what you think of his idea!


Trump’s Five Craziest Arguments About the Shutdown

Oh, and about that wall. Here’s a financing plan that’s a win-win.

nicholas-kristof-thumblargeBy Nicholas Kristof
Opinion Columnist

I’d like to apologize to all the “banana republics” I’ve offended over the decades with snarky references to their dysfunction. This is karma: I now live in a nation where a petulant president has shut down much of the most powerful government in the world — so the White House isn’t even paying its water bills.

The government has shut down before, under presidents of both parties. But this shutdown is particularly childish and unnecessary; to revise Churchill, rarely have so many suffered so much at the hands of so few.

It’s difficult to pick the craziest of the arguments that President Trump is making about the shutdown — there’s a vast buffet of imbecility to choose from — but here’s my good-faith effort.

1. This is a crisis! Terrorists are crossing the border! Rapists!

This is more like a lull than a crisis. The number of people apprehended at the border remains near a 45-year low. From 1972 on, there were more apprehensions every single year than there were in 2017.

As for terrorists, experts say that there isn’t a single known case of a terrorist sneaking into the United States along unfenced areas of the southern border. Ever.

2. Only a wall can do the job. A big beautiful wall that stops people and drugs.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was wrong to describe a wall as “an immorality,” for we need border security, and a wall in some places can be effective. But a great majority of the undocumented immigrants in the country didn’t arrive by sneaking across the border, but rather came legally, often at airports, and overstayed their visas. The most beautiful of walls wouldn’t stop them.

Likewise, drug smuggling is a real problem, but narcotics have mostly been smuggled in on trucks, cars and airplanes at official ports of entry, or through tunnels under the border, or through the postal system — not by individuals crossing remote parts of the border.

“The Daily Show” dug up a 2004 college graduation speech in which Trump counseled perseverance of just the kind that makes walls, by themselves, not terribly effective: “Never, ever give up. … If there’s a concrete wall in front of you, go through it, go over it, go around it, but get to the other side of the wall.”

3. But this is a humanitarian issue!

Yes, it is. The most egregious humanitarian concern has been Trump’s brutal policy of separating children from parents at the border.

“Kids are still being separated,” Lee Gelernt of the A.C.L.U. told me. Mostly the government does this when it says that a parent has a criminal history, but the offenses sometimes were minor or unsubstantiated.

Meanwhile, the government shutdown causes other tragedies. For example, even in normal times 3,000 people a year die in the United States from food-borne illness, yet the Food and Drug Administration has now had to stop most routine food inspections, with inspectors sent home on furlough. The result may well be more people getting sick or dying from food poisoning.

4. The president doesn’t need Congress. After all, he’s the president!

Plenty of people would be a bit relieved if Trump took the dubious route of declaring a national emergency and trying to steal, er, divert money intended for disaster victims to pay for his wall. It might be a way out of our national stalemate, allowing the government to reopen.

But look, folks, when we welcome our president doing something possibly illegal, as he unjustly takes money from disaster victims, that just confirms that we have a crisis — not at the border but in Washington.

Trump’s wall isn’t about governing but about creating a political symbol and rallying his base. The problem is that it’s an expensive symbol.

By my calculations, the $5.7 billion could send 100,000 at-risk American kids to a high-quality preschool for a year AND provide Pell grants for 100,000 students to attend college for a full four years, with enough left over to ALSO provide a year’s comprehensive treatment to 115,000 Americans struggling with opioid addiction.

5. Anyway, Mexico will pay for the wall.

Trump repeatedly declared that Mexico would pay for the wall, and he still insists that Mexico will pay for it indirectly “many, many times over.” So I have a solution to the whole mess.

Since Mexico will pay for the wall eventually, the problem now is one of cash flow. Fortunately, we have financial instruments to deal with precisely this issue.

I propose that Trump pay the $5.7 billion himself, and then the U.S. will repay him (with a nice interest rate) as the Mexican payments for the wall pour in. The Federal Reserve can verify the Mexican income stream and forward the sums to Trump.

Since he’s so confident that the wall will pay for itself, he should be delighted with this option. Right, Mr. President?

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Now why didn’t I think of that???

Mr. Trump, Here’s a Teenage Hero; It’s Your Turn!

Long an admirer of Nicholas Kristof’s work, I try to catch his column as often as possible.  His latest column touched a chord and I realized that his thoughts echoed mine, but his were much more eloquently stated than mine could ever be.  With that said, I am sharing Mr. Kristof’s column of 07 March 2018.When a gunman rampaged through a high school in Parkland, Fla., three weeks ago, a 15-year-old soccer player named Anthony Borges showed undaunted courage.

Anthony, who is of Venezuelan descent, apparently was the last of a group of students rushing into a classroom to seek refuge. He shut the door behind him and frantically tried to lock it, but in an instant the gunman appeared on the other side. Instead of running for cover, Anthony blocked the door to keep the shooter out. He held his ground even as the attacker opened fire.

“I asked him why he would do that,” his lawyer, Alex Arreaza, told me. “He said, ‘What’s so hard to understand about what I did?’ He had no issue with risking his life.”

Shot five times in the legs and torso, Anthony phoned his father to say that he had been wounded. He was rushed to a hospital and survived: Photos show him with wires and tubes snaking from him. He still can’t walk — it’s unclear if that is just temporary — but fellow students say he saved their lives. No one else in that classroom was shot.

The world turned upside down: Armed law enforcement officers dawdled outside during the shooting, but a 15-year-old kid without any weapon at all used himself as a human shield to protect his classmates. More broadly, the Florida high school students have argued maturely for sensible gun laws, while Florida state legislators have acted like frightened toddlers, first passing a two-year moratorium on sales of AR-15 rifles and then undoing it 15 minutes later.

And now it seems that the grown-up world is again going to fail Anthony and other young Americans. Congress and President Trump have stalled on a push to pass meaningful gun legislation that has overwhelming public support. The grown-ups are once more loitering in a crisis, leaving kids to be shot.

President Trump said that if he had been on the scene, he would have rushed into the building to confront the shooter. “I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon,” he said.

Really? Even though when he is armed with the power of the White House he still doesn’t have the guts to confront the N.R.A. in a sustained way?

Given that gun owners largely trust Trump, he could hammer out a bipartisan deal for universal background checks — the single step that would make the most difference, one supported overwhelmingly even by gun owners — but the White House is AWOL on the issue.

Congress may pass “Fix NICS” legislation to improve the F.B.I. database used to screen gun buyers, and maybe the federal government will ban “bump stocks.” But those are baby steps that probably won’t have a measurable impact on American mortality (right now, one American dies every 15 minutes from a gun, including murders, accidents and suicides).

Incredibly, Congress seems as likely to ease gun laws as to tighten them. One measure backed by Donald Trump Jr. would legalize silencers, which have been rigorously controlled since the 1930s. Advocates had the gall to call it the Hearing Protection Act.

“It’s about safety,” Trump Jr. explains in video“It’s about hearing protection. It’s a health issue, frankly, for me. Getting little kids in the game.” In fact, the unmuffled crack of a gunshot is a warning of danger and draws the police; silencers would be a gift to criminals.

Even worse, the N.R.A. is pushing concealed-carry reciprocity, allowing people to carry concealed guns with them from places that permit them, like Alaska or Wyoming, to any other part of the country, regardless of local prohibitions.

This measure has already passed the House of Representatives, but attorneys general are fighting it. They warn that it would let a stalker, domestic abuser or suspected terrorist from a low-regulation state tote concealed weapons at will around the country.

All this is infuriating. But even if the federal government won’t pass meaningful new gun laws, states are doing so. Polls show that voters overwhelmingly favor universal background checks, a 21-year-old age restriction on buying firearms and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. has engaged unintentionally in an international experiment, relaxing gun laws as the rest of the world has tightened access. Gun advocates argued that more guns would make us safer, but instead the U.S. now has 25 times the gun murder rate of other advanced countries.

Indeed, since 1970, more Americans have died of gun violence, including murders, suicides and accidents (1.4 million), than in all the wars in American history (1.3 million).

Whenever there is a mass shooting, there are inspiring individual stories like Anthony’s. But the larger picture is disgraceful: the president and congressional leaders dillydallying on the sidelines, sending “thoughts and prayers” and nothing else.

This will change only when politicians are more afraid of voters than of the N.R.A.

How Democracies Die …

democracies die -3There is a new book coming out on Tuesday, 16 January 2017.  No, this one isn’t a juicy tell-all like last week’s Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, but rather a. provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.  The book is written by two Harvard professors of political science, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America.

In the book, Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four criteria that warn a leader is on a path toward authoritarianism:

  1. The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules.
  2. He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents.
  3. He or she tolerates violence.
  4. He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.

“A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern. With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century. Donald Trump met them all.”

The authors posit that today, the biggest threat to a democracy comes from within, at the hands of insiders who gain power initially through elections.

“This is how democracies now die. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”

One of the biggest safeguards of our democratic republic is built into the Constitution:  3 independent branches, and most especially the independent judiciary.  Look back, if you will, at that list of four warning signs, and think about how Trump has attempted to undermine the institutions the independence of our political system: judges, the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., the intelligence community, the news media, the opposition party and Congress. Think how he rallies and rants against anyone … anyone … who disagrees with him.  Remember how he has been quietly padding the judiciary with ultra-conservative judges, starting with Neil Gorsuch in the Supreme Court. Think of how he has questioned the legitimacy of judges who interfered with him. Remember how just a couple of weeks ago he referred to the U.S. Department of Justice as a “deep state”?  And how he referred to the mainstream media as the “enemy of the American people”?

Trump has largely failed in his attempts to undermine the Constitution, and the dam has, for the most part, held back the floodwaters, but for how long? Constitutions must be defended—by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms, or unwritten rules of toleration and restraint. Rules, for example, that say no matter what your platform or ideology, violence, racism and bigotry are always to be condemned.  Rules that say an opponent is just that – an opponent – not an enemy and not somebody to be taunted, harassed and bullied, nor called a criminal and jeered with chants of “Lock her up!”

democracies dieAmerican conservatives lacked courage. Once he was nominated, the only way to stop Trump was to endorse Hillary Clinton, and for a number of reasons, none sound, republicans were not about to do that!. Every senior Republican opposed Trump because he ticked the boxes on the authoritarian leader checklist. He talked the language of civil war: Clinton was not just an opponent but a criminal. Trump despised democratic liberties and said he wanted to remove restrictions on public figures suing for libel.

Trump incited violence at his campaign rallies. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato,” he told supporters, “knock the crap out of them, would you?” In power, he has fired the head of the FBI for doing his duty, just as Putin, Orbán, Chavez and Erdoğan have fired public officials they could not control.

Donald Trump’s surprise victory was made possible not only by public disaffection but also by the Republican Party’s failure to keep an extremist demagogue from gaining the nomination.

“Yet, when it came to it, every serving Republican leader – McCain, McConnell, Rubio, Ryan and Cruz – put party before country and endorsed a demagogue they knew was a threat to free institutions.”

The authors note that protest is of significant value in holding up the institutions, but that protest needs to be targeted against injustices, in defense of civil rights and institutions, not merely against the ruler and his followers.  In essence, exactly what we all know we should do, what I have duly noted, but often failed to do.  Anything else simply adds to the divisiveness, the polarization, and that is not beneficial to the protection of our democracy.

I found this book relevant, thought-provoking, and spot on in the authors’ analysis of how we came to be where we are, and what we can do to stop the downward spiral.   Nicholas Kristof over at the New York Times interviewed the authors last week, and you might find his take interesting. There is also a review of the book by Kirkus Reviews, in case you’d like a bit more.

 

Wit and Wisdom

First thing this morning I came across a gem from one of my favourite New York Times writers, Nicholas Kristof, and while I very rarely share more than a paragraph or two from another source, this one was just too good to pass up!  I am always a fan of sardonic, tongue-in-cheek humour and this fits that bill perfectly. Read on …

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Billionaires Desperately Need Our Help!

It is so hard to be a billionaire these days!

A new yacht can cost $300 million. And you wouldn’t believe what a pastry chef earns — and if you hire just one, to work weekdays, how can you possibly survive on weekends?

The investment income on, say, a $4 billion fortune is a mere $1 million a day, which makes it tough to scrounge by with today’s rising prices. Why, some wealthy folks don’t even have a home in the Caribbean and on vacation are stuck brooding in hotel suites: They’re practically homeless!

Fortunately, President Trump and the Republicans are coming along with some desperately needed tax relief for billionaires.

Thank God for this lifeline to struggling tycoons. And it’s carefully crafted to focus the benefits on the truly deserving — the affluent who earn their tax breaks with savvy investments in politicians.

For example, eliminating the estate tax would help the roughly 5,500 Americans who now owe this tax each year, one-fifth of 1 percent of all Americans who die annually. Ending the tax would help upstanding people like the Trumps who owe their financial success to brilliant life choices, such as picking the uterus in which they were conceived.

Now it’s fair to complain that the tax plan over all doesn’t give needy billionaires quite as much as they deserve. For example, the top 1 percent receive only a bit more than 25 percent of the total tax cuts in the Senate bill, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Really? Only 25 times their share of the population? After all those dreary $5,000-a-plate dinners supporting politicians? If politicians had any guts, they’d just slash services for low-income families so as to finance tax breaks for billionaires.

Oh, wait, that’s exactly what’s happening!

Trump understands, for example, that health insurance isn’t all that important for the riffraff. So he and the Senate G.O.P. have again targeted Obamacare, this time by trying to repeal the insurance mandate. The Congressional Budget Office says this will result in 13 million fewer people having health insurance.

But what’s the big deal? The United States already has an infant mortality rate twice that of Austria and South Korea. American women are already five times as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth as women in Britain. So who’ll notice if things get a bit worse?

Perhaps that sounds harsh. But the blunt reality is that we risk soul-sucking dependency if we’re always setting kids’ broken arms. Maybe that’s why congressional Republicans haven’t bothered to renew funding for CHIP, the child health insurance program serving almost nine million American kids. Ditto for the maternal and home visiting programs that are the gold standard for breaking cycles of poverty and that also haven’t been renewed. We mustn’t coddle American toddlers.

Hey, if American infants really want health care, they’ll pick themselves up by their bootee straps and Uber over to an emergency room.

Congressional Republicans understand that we can’t do everything for everybody. We have to make hard choices. Congress understands that kids are resilient and can look after themselves, so we must focus on the most urgent needs, such as those of hand-to-mouth billionaires.

In fairness, Congress has historically understood this mission. The tax code subsidizes moguls with private jets while the carried interest tax break gives a huge tax discount to striving private equity zillionaires. Meanwhile, a $13 billion annual subsidy for corporate meals and entertainment gives ditch diggers the satisfaction of buying Champagne for financiers.

Our political leaders are so understanding because we appear to have the wealthiest Congress we’ve ever had, with a majority of members now millionaires, so they understand the importance of cutting health insurance for the poor to show support for the crème de la crème.

Granted, the G.O.P. tax plan will add to the deficit, forcing additional borrowing. But if the tax cut passes, automatic “pay as you go” rules may helpfully cut $25 billion from Medicare spending next year, thus saving money on elderly people who are practically dead anyway. If poor kids have to suffer, we may as well make poor seniors suffer as well. That’s called a balanced policy.

More broadly, you have to look at the reason for deficits. Yes, it’s problematic to borrow to pay for, say, higher education or cancer screenings. But what’s the problem with borrowing $1.5 trillion to invest in urgent tax relief for billionaires?

Anyway, at some point down the road we’ll find a way to pay back the debt by cutting a wasteful program for runny-nose kids who aren’t smart enough to hire lobbyists. There must be some kids’ program that still isn’t on the chopping block.

The tax bill underscores a political truth: There’s nothing wrong with redistribution when it’s done right.

If The Romans Could Do It, So Can We …

My friend and fellow blogger Roger frequently reminds me, when I despair over our current situation, that the U.S. is yet a young nation, relative to his own UK, and that if we look at the lessons of history, we will see that other nations have overcome disastrous leaders and so will we. This morning on my journey through ‘Newslandia’, I came across a piece written by Nicholas Kristof that hit home and brought Roger’s words to mind.  Though I generally avoid doing this, I am sharing Kristof’s words in their entirety today, for I think it is a message we all need to hear.

There Once Was a Great Nation With an Unstable Leader

kristofWhat happens when the people of a great nation gradually realize that their leader may not be, er, quite right in the head?

When Caligula became Roman emperor in A.D. 37, the people rejoiced. “On all sides, you could see nothing but altars and sacrifices, men and women decked in their holiday best and smiling,” according to the first-century writer Philo.

The Senate embraced him, and he was hailed as a breath of fresh air after the dourness, absenteeism and miserliness of his great-uncle, Emperor Tiberius. Caligula was colorful and flamboyant, offering plenty of opportunities for ribald gossip. Caligula had four wives in rapid succession, and he was said to be sleeping with his sister. (Roman historians despised him, so some of the gossip should be treated skeptically.)

He was charming, impetuous and energetic, sleeping only three hours a night, and he displayed a common touch as he constantly engaged with the public. His early months as emperor brimmed with hope.

Initially, Caligula focused on denouncing his predecessor and reversing everything that he had done. Caligula also made popular promises of tax reform so as to reduce the burden on the public. He was full of grandiose pledges of infrastructure projects, such as a scheme to cut through the Isthmus of Corinth.

But, alas, Caligula had no significant government experience, and he proved utterly incompetent at actually getting things done. Meanwhile, his personal extravagance actually increased the need for tax revenue.

Suetonius, the Roman historian, recounted how Caligula’s boats had “sterns set with gems, parti-colored sails, huge spacious baths, colonnades and banquet halls, and even a great variety of vines and fruit trees.”

Romans initially accepted Caligula’s luxurious tastes, perhaps intrigued by them. But Caligula’s lavish spending soon exhausted the surplus he had inherited, and Rome ran out of money.

This led to increasingly desperate, cruel and tyrannical behavior. Caligula reportedly opened a brothel in the imperial palace to make money, and he introduced new taxes. When this wasn’t enough, he began to confiscate estates, antagonizing Roman elites and sometimes killing them.

A coward himself, Caligula was said to delight in the torture of others; rumor had it that he would tell his executioners: “Kill him so that he can feel he is dying.”

Caligula, a narcissist and megalomaniac, became increasingly unhinged. He supposedly rolled around on a huge pile of gold coins, and he engaged in conversations with the moon, which he would invite into his bed. He replaced the heads of some statues of gods with his own head, and he occasionally appeared in public dressed as a god. He was referred to as a god in certain circumstances, and he set up a temple where he could be worshiped.

“Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody,” he told his grandmother, according to Suetonius.

Caligula had a thing for generals, and he periodically wore the garb of a triumphant military commander. He removed the breastplate of Alexander the Great from his sarcophagus and wore it himself at times.

The Senate, dignified and traditional, watched Caligula with increasing alarm. He scandalized the public by sometimes dressing as a woman, and he aggravated tensions by scathingly denouncing the Senate, relying on sarcasm and insult, and showing utter contempt for it.

One of Caligula’s last allies was his beloved racehorse, Incitatus, who wore a collar of precious stones and lived in a marble stall. Caligula would invite Incitatus to dine with him.

Edward Champlin, a historian of Rome at Princeton University, says that Caligula pursued “a love of pranks that a 4-year-old might disdain” and had a penchant for “blurting out whatever is on his mind” — such as suggesting that Incitatus could become consul. These rash statements rippled through Rome, for leaders of great powers are often taken not just seriously but also literally.

Yet as Caligula wreaked havoc, Rome also had values, institutions and mores that inspired resistance. He offended practically everyone, he couldn’t deliver on his promises, his mental stability was increasingly doubted and he showed he simply had no idea how to govern. Within a few years, he had lost all support, and the Praetorian Guard murdered him in January 41 (not a path I would ever condone).

Caligula was as abominable a ruler as a great nation could have, yet Rome proved resilient.

Likewise, Rome survived Emperor Nero a generation later, even as Nero apparently torched Rome, slaughtered Christians, slept with and then murdered his mother, kicked his pregnant wife to death, castrated and married a man and generally mismanaged the empire.

“If there’s a hero in the story of first-century Rome, it’s Roman institutions and traditional expectations,” reflects Emma Dench, a Harvard scholar of the period. “However battered or modified, they kept the empire alive for future greatness.”

To me, the lesson is that Rome was able to inoculate itself against unstable rulers so that it could recover and rise to new glories. Even the greatest of nations may suffer a catastrophic leader, but the nation can survive the test and protect its resilience — if the public stays true to its values, institutions and traditions. That was true two millennia ago, and remains true today.

Some interesting parallels to our own tyrant, don’t you think?  The Romans survived and overcame, just as shall we.  Have a Happy Sunday, dear readers!

P.O.P. — Protect Our Press!!!

I did not and will not write an analysis of Trump’s speech in Phoenix, Arizona on Tuesday night.  Simply put, it was a disgusting display of lies, self-promotion, arrogance and rants against anyone and anything that has opposed him for the past seven months.  Oh yes, and throw in some bullying and a few threats as well.  That said, there is one element of his rambling speech that does bear shining a light on, and that is his almost non-stop attacks on the free press.

free-speech-3For those of you who read my blog regularly, yes, I AM obsessed with the freedom of the press and rail loudly against anything I perceive as a threat to it.  Why?  Because the free press is every bit as much a part of those checks and balances that rein in the person sitting in the Oval Office, and that person needs to be reined in, perhaps more than any in recent memory. Without our free press, we have no claim on being a democratic republic, a nation where people are free to speak their mind, even when it is to disagree with the person in the White House.

Is the press perfect?  No, of course not.  Could they do a better job?  Certainly.  In the words of one of my favourite New York Times writers, Nicholas Kristof …

Kristof-2.jpgLook, we in journalism deserve to have our feet held to the fire. We make mistakes all the time, and too often we are superficial, sensationalist, unfair, defensive or diverted by shiny objects. Critics are right that we in the national media are often out of touch with working-class America, and distressingly often, we are lap dogs instead of watchdogs.

Yet for all our failings, journalism remains an indispensable constraint on power. Trump has systematically tried to delegitimize the institutions that hold him accountable — courts, prosecutors, investigators, the media — and that’s the context for his vilification of all them, for we collectively provide monitoring that outrages him.

During Trump’s campaign-style rally (when will he realize that a) he won the bloomin’ election, and b) he will be long gone before the next?) he called journalists “sick people”, accused the news media of “trying to take away our history and our heritage” and questioned their patriotism. “I really think they don’t like our country,” he said.

free-press-2.jpgFor more than a year we have listened to Trump disparage the press, but on Tuesday he seemed to kick it up a notch or two. Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for The Washington Post, called it “the most sustained attack any president has ever made on the press.”

On ABC’s Good Morning America, Cecilia Vega said on Wednesday of Trump’s Tuesday media-bashing that “this was incitement, plain and simple. This one felt different. It really feels like a matter of time, frankly, before someone gets hurt.” The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has identified 16 physical attacks on journalists in 2017,  in addition to 20 arrests of journalists and 12 searches and seizures.

Mr. Kristoff agrees with Ms. Vega’s assessment, saying, “When Trump galvanizes crowds against reporters in the room, I worry that we may lose journalists in the line of duty not only in places like Syria but also right here at home. Trump will get people hurt.”

free-press-3.jpgDonald Trump and his supporters keep pointing to the 2nd Amendment, but today I point to the more important 1st amendment.  The freedom of the press to do their job, to keep us apprised of what our elected representatives are doing, is a stanchion of our very democracy.  They are not perfect.  Many a morning I get up, open up the New York Times or Washington Post website and utter a sigh of disgust as I am faced with story after story issuing the same news I read before I went to bed three hours earlier.  More often than not, I have to dig for the tidbits of real news, else go to European sources such as Reuters, the Guardian or BBC.  But perfect or not, they are ours.  They are trying, and I do not wish to live in a world without them.  I do not intend to live in a nation where journalists can be arrested for reporting something that the prez disagrees with or simply does not like.

A bit of true irony here … Trump keeps referring to the “failing New York Times”, yet nothing could be further from the truth.

NYT-stock.pngThe price per share of New York Times stock has nearly doubled, from $10.80 on November 3rd, to $19.95 on July 27th.  And readership?  According to CEO Mark Thompson, “We added an astonishing 308,000 net digital news subscriptions, making Q1 the single best quarter for subscriber growth in our history.”

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That’s failure?  I can’t wait to see success!

Mr. Kristof’s closing words will serve as mine also:

This is an extraordinary moment in our nation’s history, for we are enduring an epic struggle over the principles on which our country was founded. These include the idea that a flawed free press is an essential institutional check on flawed leaders.

So may I humbly suggest that when a megalomaniacal leader howls and shrieks at critics, that is when institutional checks on that leader become a bulwark of democracy.