Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Trump Supporter

In November 2016, to the surprise of many – including the candidate himself – Donald J. trump was elected President of the United States. His election and presidency have been called into question by many on numerous fronts. There are issues of personal character that would doom most politicians; issues of policy, to the extent that he has a consistent policy for more than a day; issues of leadership as he relies on bullying, insult and disrespect towards anyone who stands in his way. Nevertheless, his approval rating holds steady in the mid-30s% – albeit a record low contrasted with other previous presidents. But he holds a solid bedrock of support in spite of his moral / ethical / divisive shortcomings.

“Trump Supporters” gave Trump his 2016 victory, and he remains indebted to them. I said early in 2016 that to truly understand the Trump phenomena, the real meaningful American story was not Trump himself but his adherents. If one is opposed to Donald Trump, then one is obligated to find a proper understanding of the base that supports him. Yet who are they? To lump them together and call them simply “Republicans” is inaccurate. Rather, they are a community of diverse interests committed to their own separate agendas, loosely affiliated for expediency because there is no other place for them to go. Given an alternative, or a failure of Trump to deliver on their expectations, they would be gone. More precisely, Trump Supporters break down into roughly three groups.

Group 1 Trump Supporters include the despicable neo-Nazis, racists and fringe conspiracy believers who have been invited into “respectability” by Trump’s racial, anti-immigrant, anti-government and anti-media rhetoric. These neo-Nazis look to attack the judicial decisions of the past 70 years reaffirming America as a place where all citizens are treated equally and respectfully. They see America as a haven only for those of white Western European descent, that all others are the cause of America’s problems and their own personal failures. They are also ready to believe any imagined plot that comes along pitting the government against its citizens; outright destruction of the government is a prime objective. It is hard to imagine any common ground between this small but vocal and disruptive group and the rest of America. Ostracism is still the best response, but Trump still needs, and has a fairly safe lock on, their votes.

Group 2 Trump Supporters include those who see Trump as the opening for their individual social / political / religious / economic agendas. After years of government being the bulwark against these agendas, Trump promises to pull out such roadblocks, open the floodgates, and go down the road of unrestrained, selfishly myopic pursuits with minimal concern for “the greater good.” Legislative Republicans close their eyes and make the choice to “bargain with the devil,” despite risking long-term permanent damage to the Republican Party brand as 2016 voters drift away. Even though few have confidence, trust or respect in Trump, they suffer in silence for now and get done what they can while they can on their long-delayed political agendas. Further, many fear that crossing Trump will mean their defeat in the 2018 Republican primary elections by ultra-conservative Trump supporters who will likely determine Republican Party nominees without regard for their chances in the general election.

In addition, Wall Street sees opportunities to roll back the restrictions placed on them after their 2008 financial implosion. Energy companies and western ranchers see public lands becoming available for exploitation. Real estate developers see a rollback of “impact statements” and other regulations to let them build what and where they want. Businesspeople seeking cost cutting, price-setting / market domination, trade protections, and further monopolistic efforts see avoidance of previous levels of oversight. Religious leaders ignore Trump’s irreligious and immoral words and actions to get favorable legislation and judges – turning to Caesar to give them what God apparently has not delivered. For these businesspeople, clergy, and politicians, it is all about holding your nose and blinding your eyes to achieve personal wins from a man you pray your son would never become. For this group, the only interest is self-interest – and Santa Claus lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Group 3 Trump supporters include those people who feel that the last two decades have decimated the Promise of the American Dream for them. They are not “despicable” or selfish people. They are angry people who feel their needs and views have been ignored, even ridiculed, certainly unresponded to during the past three presidencies. They feel that government has gotten too intrusive into their lives, has built too many limitations on their business and private affairs. They sense that providing opportunities to others, however well-intentioned, has come at the expense of limiting opportunities to them. They have seen the economy and GDP grow steadily for some while they sit stagnant at the margins. They have seen America – the dominant post-WWII world leader – seemingly slide from its preeminence. Their future, once assured, now seems a future in doubt.

All of this happened while they have struggled to feed, clothe, educate and raise their families, and hold on to a way of life that had once worked for them, their parents, and their grandparents. It is one thing to aspire for cleaner air from new kinds of energy sources; it is another to throw thousands of life-long coal workers out of the only job they know with no recourse – a job they took in good faith because America said it needed electricity. Change is the enemy, not a friend, and government / big business / society have been all about change. They cross demographic groups, though are concentrated in older, white, males with less formal education. Having previously felt powerless to stop these trends, they now see an opportunity to reverse that course and make their agenda the country’s agenda.

Donald Trump spoke for their anger; still speaks for their frustrations, however coarsely; and affirms the “global and national conspiracy” that seems determined to work against their interests. Willing to ignore his excesses, his disrespectful conduct and his untruths, in 2016 they saw an opportunity to speak up and be noticed by voting for a man who would speak for them. Given that he was expected to lose, such a protest vote seemed safe. Many were as surprised to wake up and find out that he had become their president. They are now slow to discard Trump, even as each day shows him to be the fraud that Mitt Romney once accused him of being, because there is still no other alternative voice.

Who is principally responsible for creating this block of Trump supporters? The recent Congresses of the United States who have accomplished little over these past years, and less as each year comes and goes. Today, politics override governance; the quest for power rolls over the need for governance and solutions. People of all stripes are hurting, even though for different if not conflicting reasons. From DACA kids to soccer moms to farm families, they see politicians strutting around just trying to save their own jobs; living lives of special privilege and exemptions versus everyday Americans; taking “back door” money representing special corporate and institutional interests; working part-time days; avoiding tough decisions; failing to fund and budget the country properly; listening only to voters on one side or the other of the political spectrum; avoiding speaking the truth to the citizenry; raising doomsday alarms while doing nothing to prevent it; supporting partisan causes and prioritizing Party loyalty over national good. In the past, some Trump Supporters voted Democratic, some Republican. Today they share an anger at the institutions that are failing them. In fact, many non-Trump voters feel the same frustration and anger at our non-performing government, but just do not see Trump as the answer.

The Group 1 Trump Supporters need to be called out and pointedly rejected by all Americans at every opportunity. They are the antithesis of what America is and aspires to be. The Group 2 Trump Supporters need to be fought at the ballot box, in the courts, in local government, and in the marketplace competition for our dollars to move them back to “common good” versus “personal good.” But the Group 3 Trump Supporters need attention, dialog, and support from non-Trump Supporters. They are neighbors, just another part of the American Story. People may not see eye to eye on everything; may live different lifestyles and have different beliefs about some things; may get in each other’s way at times. But we all want to be left alone to get on with living our lives in peace; at our core we are not all that different. None of us really wins if we cannot find ways to balance our beliefs, accommodate each other, and work together. It all starts with being of good character, acting from better intentions, while being considerate and helpful to others. It is the spirit of middle-ground compromise that has made our democracy work from its beginning. Is that really so impossible for us to do now?

©   2018   Randy Bell               


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Our Divided Nation - Part 2

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Part 1 of this blog posting was a brief look at some of our internal conflicts and divisions since our founding. That review affirmed that America has always had its debates, its divisions of belief, its continual adjustments of what “America” means and aspires to be. We are highly unlikely to ever escape this heritage. Instead, the questions are a) how to manage our divisions in such a way so as to not tear ourselves apart and collapse, and b) how to build on our divisions towards something better for all. We will not succeed by futilely trying to eliminate conflict. We will succeed by following the precedent of our Founders in developing better skills at working together to resolve conflicts.

We continue this discussion with another brief review – i.e. where we are today. As a result of our current divisions, collective solutions are rarely found; our progress as a nation is near-frozen in place. In the last seven presidential elections, in only three did the winner get 50% or more of the popular vote; two elections were won in the Electoral College with less than the majority popular vote. Today, minimalistic short-term gains are hailed as major agreements; small-minded thinking edges out big-picture vision and creative aspirations. We have not passed a real national annual budget in years, versus a series of short-term “continuing resolutions” that keep spending on a status quo with no hard decisions made. The evil economic Armageddon of budget deficits is swept under the rug in the pursuit of a Christmas tax cut for (supposedly) everyone, a cut that disguises rewards to special interests and is built upon a disproven economic theory called “trickle down.” Paying taxes is resented, but the benefits and services received back from those tax payments go unrecognized and unappreciated. The states paying the least taxes receive back the most in tax benefits; the “reddest” conservative states advocating a limited role for government make up the bottom ratings of most all economic and social measures.

With our institutions, many supposedly “non-profit” charities, hospitals and cultural organizations have become de facto for-profit bodies. Public education, the traditional path to upward mobility that most of us benefited from in our youth, is being progressively defunded and devalued. Basic medical care is a “benefit” requiring employment, or affordable only by the very wealthy; medical expenses remain the primary cause of personal bankruptcies. Government regulations protecting Americans’ health, economic competitiveness, and the environment we live and play in, have become a nasty nuisance to be shredded in the acquisition of unrestrained business profit; one person’s stifling regulation is another person’s safety valve protection.

Ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich declared war on the federal government in 1995; Majority Leader Mitch McConnell upped that ante with a “Party over Country” strategy in 2008 with his “oppose everything Obama” stance; Democrats now exercise their own tit-for-tat negative block voting. Lying, ridicule, and character assassination have replaced substantive debate; facts are “fake news” in order to hide uncomfortable truths. Science has been downgraded into personal opinions.  Name-calling and slurs of all types dominate headlines; ugliness has found its voice, as exemplified at Charlottesville. “Enemies” are seen all around us – the government, the media, corporations and businesses, religions, entertainment. A minority of rogue actors discolor most all professions, including politicians, medical and pharmaceutical executives, police and the law.  The pursuit of power and wealth, rather than substance, drives the political landscape. The strategy is to emphasize our divisions, even creating division where there was none, thereby giving voice to extreme positions on all sides instead of searching for common ground. National and international leadership is defined as “loyalty above all” and just telling people – and other nations – what to do, rather than inspiring them by positive example appealing to our better selves. One cannot effectively lead with mid-30s% approval ratings; a nation cannot be properly governed with a 55-60% voter turnout.

“We have met the enemy, and it is us.”  Pogo (comic strip character)

How do we get out of this discouraging mess? By remembering our history. We have come out of tough times before, and we can come out of these times also. But history also tells us that it will not happen automatically, by default. We have to work hard to find our way out. We have to make it happen, not wait for someone else to do it for us. In many ways, living under Kings/Queens was easier: they simply made a decision, the royal court carried out the decision, and the people did what they were told without question. Governing was someone else’s job. Thirteen English colonies rebelled against that system, and had the audacity to say “we will govern ourselves.” Whether we are actually capable of doing it for ourselves has always been a key question inherent within our Constitution. It is a key question now facing us in these times.

Our solutions start with each of us acting as we wish our government and politicians to act. If we decry the partisanship environment, then what are we doing each day to act bi-partisanly? If we decry a lack of civility in our national conversations, what are we doing each day to speak civilly to one another? If we decry others’ lack of respect for our concerns, what respect are we showing for their concerns? If “they” are so wrong, what are we also possibly wrong about? If we are so right, what are “they” potentially right about? When our politicians state falsehoods in their quest for votes, do we challenge them for their proof and present our proof? Do we hold them – and ourselves – accountable for the hypocrisy that is spoken and acted? When political candidates talk about wanting to “work across the aisle,” that answer is usually obfuscated rhetoric designed to avoid the bi-partisan question while implicitly blaming “the other guy” for not cooperating. Instead, demand specific ideas for specific legislation or action, or ask for specific examples of bi-partisan actions (e.g. jointly sponsored legislation) and vote against that candidate if s/he does not provide them.

We do not change things by sitting on the sidelines. We do not change things by clinging to our own self-righteous convenient beliefs, challenging others without challenging ourselves. We do not change things by thinking small and avoiding the larger picture. I suggest we search out and find the broad and substantive thinkers. Discern between those people truly sacrificing in order to do good, and those demagogues and charlatans seeking our attention and money to benefit themselves. Choose to be part of a national conversation, not a shouting match. Call out and reject that which is said and done that is not acceptable and respectful conduct.

Nothing worthwhile will be accomplished while we are just insulting and yelling at each other. Seek the evidence; listen before speaking; find the worthwhile substance in opposite opinions. Then we can conclude, speak factually without malice, provide substantive ideas instead of complaints, and finally – act.  Perhaps in that process we can figure out what kind of a country we truly are: the nasty selfish country we seem to have dangerously become, or the generous welcoming country we have always aspired to be.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Mahatma Gandhi

Are we just interested in making noise, or making things work for one another. Are we in fact what we object to? Or are we what we aspire to see and be?

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Our Divided Nation - Part 1

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”   Abraham Lincoln

It is no secret that our nation is a highly divided one. At times, it is quite bitterly and antagonistically so. People seemingly cannot find agreement in much of anything. Except for calls for stricter background checks on gun purchases, an end to Donald Trump tweets, and the low esteem held towards Congress, almost everything else is within no more than a sliver of percentage points for/against.

Unfortunately, little is being done to end this divide – or at least lessen the degrees of division. Few are willing to budge from their positions; compromise is a deadly sin; right and wrong are absolute, with no gray shadings. I win; you lose. I could care less about your needs and concerns as long as I get what I want. My life and success is defined by obtaining wealth. Selfishness is supreme. This is what it often feels like in American conversations today.

The situation can feel quite hopeless, that this is the worst America has been, and there is no way out. But in fact, the way out of this negative environment starts with recognizing that we have been here before, sometimes in even worse circumstances and fractured divisiveness. Nevertheless, we are still around, alive and kicking, still trying to figure out how to make this “representative democracy” thing we call America work.

America has always been divided. Whereas most other countries have a relative homogeneous culture, America was populated from the outset as a common home for uncommon peoples. It provided a place for immigrants from diverse histories, cultures, ethnicities and ambitions. From that combustible mix, differences are part of our national legacies. Whether we, or any nation, can synthesize such a combustive mixture into a shared cooperative whole – “united we stand” / “e pluribus unum” (out of one, many) – has always been our national challenge.

The “United” States of America is some part actuality and some part myth. Our first two English-based colonies were driven by completely different goals: Jamestown, a pursuit of wealth; Plymouth, a pursuit of religious practice. (Reciprocal religious tolerance was not a high priority; at various times, religious discrimination by parts of Protestant America has been directed against virtually all other religions and varying religious thought.) Those two ideas – the secular and the religious – have been fighting with each other (and within themselves) since our beginning. During our Revolution against England, around half of the country were Tories favoring staying with the King. Our admired and unique Constitution barely passed the votes of all thirteen colonies. The slavery issue, the continual fights over balancing small state/big state representation, and the degree of power to be given to the new central government, almost broke the back of Constitutional unity. But we found the necessary compromises, and our Constitutional Nation was able to begin.

Political parties – never envisioned by the Founders – showed up just a couple of years into Washington’s first term (to his continual frustration), thereby formalizing and institutionalizing our divisions. The remaining old guard Founders were aghast when the government was turned over to the “common man” in 1828, a political revolution led by Andrew Jackson. After years of trying to compromise on slavery and states’ rights, we had our most divisive time in our history – the American Civil War. It was a “hot” war, not a political debate, pitting families against families, neighbors against neighbors. 11 of 34 states pulled out of our Union; 600,000+ died (our most costly war); the southern economy and its political and social systems were wrecked; we had our first presidential assassination. Separation and mistrust were embedded into the Southern cultural DNA. 150 years later, the after-affects are still influencing and distorting today’s conversations. But we did reunite; our union was preserved; together we limped forward.

Division continued. The mega-wealthy “robber barons” of the late 1800s gave rise to the Labor movement of the working people trying to rebalance economic power. There was racial and immigration ugliness throughout the next century. Then came the Great Depression, an unequaled economic devastation of this country, fueled by the unbridled and unregulated pursuit of wealth gone awry. We were deeply divided over how to end that Depression, with competing economic theories that are still debated today. It was an event that defined that generation’s thinking, and redefined the formal structures and expectations of government forever after.  The Depression ended; racial and ethnic intolerance did not.

We were divided as World War II spread over the globe. Do we get in, or do we stay out as the “America First” peace and isolation movement demanded? Pearl Harbor answered that question and reunited the country’s divides. Our swagger and self-confidence from our victory in that War gave way to a Cold War and Iron Curtain, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the fear of Communism. “Reds” were everywhere as citizens turned against fellow citizens out of fear stoked by self-serving demagogic politicians. It was the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Senator Joe McCarthy’s “big lies,” “red baiting,” blacklists / unproven accusations / reputations and careers destroyed by innuendo. In spite of the dark times at home, America led the free world, though often using highly questionable methods.

Our modern civil rights movement began with President Harry Truman’s executive order to desegregate the military in 1948, followed by the Supreme Court’s outlawing of school desegregation in 1954 (“Brown vs. Board of Education”). The promise of equality encountered the demand to actualize that equality. It was yet another re-scrambling of the social order and our sense of social right and wrong. Racial division and the drive towards integration were bitterly fought among the general populace and established order. For the first time in our history, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy used federal troops to protect protestors instead of the usual power structures in place. At times it was a violent fight: crowd beatings, murders, bombings, burned out Freedom Buses, political assassinations. The movement gave a venting to 300 years of African-American inequality, and opened new movements of their own: gay rights; women’s equality; Native-American rights. America was split apart on numerous fronts, the way forward elusive if not hidden.

Our civil rights fights segued into an anti-war movement that became its own war in the name of peace. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” became the defining oxymoron of the times, and America often felt like “the village” being destroyed. There was generational division between young and old, between older vets and young draftees, between government and citizens as more and more war lies were revealed. The meaning of patriotism itself was intensely debated. The hostile times led to a Constitutional Crisis; President Richard Nixon and his first Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned over their separate criminal actions, and a number of inner circle players went to prison. The public has never since trusted its government – or each other –in the traditional way. Division, and a loss of faith in our trusted institutions, became entrenched. Yet the country and its institutions held, thanks in no small part to the reconciliation efforts of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

So why this trip down the darker alleyways of America’s Memory Lane? Certainly not to denigrate the American Stories of inspiring accomplishments and the expressions of our greater humanity. These improbable stories are even more extraordinary when viewed against the hurdles and resistance they often had to overcome. The meaning of Roy Moore’s recent defeat for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat is even more significant in the context of former-governor George Corley Wallace – the poster boy for segregation during the 1960s civil rights movement.

Our past is the fuel that drives us to our future. Left unchecked, the past is our future. If we remind ourselves of our history, and ground our decisions within that context, then how do we assess where we are now? Where do we go from here? That will be the discussion in the forthcoming Part 2 of this blog posting.

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Tax Bill In Your Stocking

As Republican representatives, senators and president take their victory march down P. T. Barnum Avenue, some final thoughts and observations on the recently passed tax bill …

It is not long-promised and seriously needed tax REFORM, but just another simple tax cut giveaway. Nothing got simpler. No filing on a “postcard.”

The tax cuts promised to target the lower/middle income taxpayers. But virtually all economic analyses conclude that corporate America and the rich will get the lion’s share of tax breaks. So savings for lower/middle taxpayers had to be limited (or eliminated) in order to underwrite the upper-income savings, and to contain future anticipated budget deficits to “only” $1.5 trillion.

Tax cuts targeted to the rich do not “trickle down.” That was proven 35 years ago with the failure of the Reagan “supply side” tax cuts. “Voodoo economics” they truly were.

Corporations had their taxes cut by 1/3rd – permanently.  Did your taxes get cut by a 1/3rd – permanently?

No CEO hires more employees simply because the company has more cash in the bank from a tax cut. Instead, they keep the extra money as merely more profit on top of their current piles of cash, and ultimately use it for other self-interest purposes. It is increased consumer spending that creates new jobs to keep up with new sales demand; consumers are the ones who can actually grow the economy.

Headline stories of cash bonuses given out look good in the moment. But they do not create sustained higher base salaries nor any new jobs. Such stories are cheap p.r. wins for companies.

Donald Trump and his family will personally benefit substantially from these tax cuts, in spite of his lies to the contrary.

It is easy to be a deficit hawk complaining about excess spending when you are out of power. Once in power, politicians cave into more deficit spending and giveaways ($1.5 trillion) regardless of political party and what principles and priorities they claim. When the political chips are down and the obligations to the donors/lobbyists come due, hypocrisy knows no limits.

The tax bill was hatched in secret by Congressional leaders, given virtually no public hearings, allowed minimal floor debate, advanced while ignoring negative analyses by virtually all responsible economic impact studies, given minimal time for legislators to even read a final draft of the bill, and passed with less than 30% approval by the public. Democracy gone haywire and the citizenry be damned.

Be prepared to spend the upcoming years finding out about all the special exemptions, hidden deals, flawed assumptions, and “unintended consequences” contained in the bill. It is rife with them, none of them benefiting Mr. and Mrs. John Doe Citizen. Just enough token cuts included for the general population to distract them from the true beneficiaries and long-term consequences. Then listen skeptically to the “happy talk” of the legislators who passed this bill trying to explain away the surprises.

It was all done at warp speed to fulfill campaign promises, and to show at least one piece of significant legislation passed in a full year of trying. Most of us would be fired if we had so little to show for a year’s time of employment in a leadership position.

Horrible way to run a government.

Not much of a Christmas present after all.

A “Happy Holidays” wish for you – in spite of it all.

©   2017   Randy Bell     

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Recognizing Responders

The period from Thanksgiving to the New Year is typically a time for remembering and giving thanks for those special people in our lives. Sometimes those people are close to us, either geographically or by family connection; sometimes they are far removed. As we rightly honor the significant game-changing #MeToo movement, the annual Kennedy Center recognition of lifetime artistic achievements, and all of the excessive award shows, there is one other group that deserves special recognition this year.

In this year of destructive tornadoes and other weather crises, all-consuming forest fires, devastating hurricanes, and killings from mass shootings and terrorism, there in the forefront were always the First Responders. They wore the helmets of the Firefighters working at the fireline, the blue suits of the Police, the white coats and green work clothes of the Doctors and the Nurses, the military uniforms of our Defenders. In addition, First Responders of all kinds drove the ambulances, restored the electricity, directed the traffic, brought in the food and water, set up the first aid tents, organized the charity donations (both goods and cash).

Often, they were just unofficial helpers – neighbors from far and wide who just “had to do something.” They brought their boats or waded into dangerous waters to make rescues of those stranded. They drove the trucks loaded with donated emergency supplies – the basics – from unseen but caring and giving neighbors far away. They carried the wounded away in their pickup trucks turned into improvised emergency vehicles. They put their own life at risk, standing between a killer and his intended victim.

They were typically underpaid if not unpaid, usually unnamed, often unacknowledged. But they are not unappreciated. It was people at their best, people helping people, without regard to politics, race, gender, religion, age – or any of the many other categories that we use to estrange ourselves from each other. This has been a year of extraordinary human and natural disasters, a year when all-to-often we have descended into small-minded thinking and pettiness, unable to have a respectful and thoughtful conversation among our neighbors. Yet the images we saw on our television screens and social media posts affirmed once again our extraordinary better selves, our capacity for good if we just tap into it, and the periodic nobility of the human creature. To all of the anonymous First Responders, we thank you for your services rendered. We thank you for your reminder of the spirit of our human possibilities.

©  2017   Randy Bell    

Monday, November 27, 2017

Tax Cut Swindle

“The chief business of the American people is business.”      Calvin Coolidge, 30th President

Republican Calvin Coolidge was the ideological hero of our 40th President, Ronald Reagan. Coolidge was a pro-business Vermonter who believed in a conservative philosophy of limiting government in the affairs of business people and the everyday activities of citizens. Less than one year after leaving office, his “hands off” policies help lead to our decade-long Great Depression.  60 years later, Republican President Ronald Reagan espoused a similar pro-business agenda, passing a tax cut bill designed to “boost the economy.” He promised that the resulting shortfall in tax revenues would be made up by a spike in the economy from increased business profits which would generate new income. A short-term loss would be made up for by a long-term gain. Sounded good; everybody would win.

Except that it did not work. By the end of his second term, the deficit was soaring, paper profits were disappearing, and the savings and loan industry had collapsed. Republican President George H. W. Bush had to pass tax increases to try to close the resulting gap, which helped cost him reelection. It took Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich to pass the first balanced budget in over a century – all subsequently undone by Republican President George W. Bush’s unfunded Iraq War and expansion of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, sealed by yet another housing recession. History repeats itself.

Fast forward to 2017. Republicans control Congress and the presidency, but by the end of the new president’s first “honeymoon” year little-to-nothing of substance has been accomplished legislatively. Desperate to show their voter base some accomplishment, they roll out yet again the promised land of tax reform. The strategy in January was a) fast-track repeal of Obamacare after seven years of promises, then b) a quick passage of tax reform – two major objectives in an impossibly short timeline. Nine months later, Obamacare repeal was dead, exposing the weaknesses in Republican governance. So tax reform became the do-or-die face-saving – to be done in two months in the face of all the corporate lobbyists stacked up on the playing field.

Like their disastrous approach to Obamacare repeal, Republicans excluded Democrats from negotiations, as well as most of their own party members – another secret process by party leaders. When the proposed legislation finally came out, “tax reform” (hard to do) had become “tax cuts” (easier to sell). The Christmas tree of “something for everyone” was open for gift giving. Fast-tracked token committee hearings were held to hide the secret bargains therein.

Great pains were taken to claim this was not a giveaway to the rich, but was targeted to Middle Americans. Except that is a lie (confirmed by the CBO). Repeal the estate tax, which benefits only the tiniest percentage of the richest Americans. Reduce corporate tax rates from 35% to 20% – but is any big corporation actually paying 35% (versus less than 10%) given their armies of tax lawyers and accountants?  New exemptions for private plane owners. Keep special low tax rules for Wall Street investment bankers, while eliminating tax exemptions for individuals. Permanent tax cuts for businesses; temporary tax cuts for individual citizens. On and on.

And the middle income folks that are supposedly the target of all of this? Double the standard exemption – absolutely no help to homeowners and others who itemize their deductions. Increase the child care credit – good for struggling parents, but no help to adults with grown or no children and senior citizens. Cut the tax rates for lower income taxpayers – at last, an actual shared benefit. Except for the other things you lose to offset that benefit: e.g. caps on medical expenses that continue to bankrupt families; cap or eliminate state and local tax deductions (just “coincidentally” a higher impact on “blue” states); limit deductions for student debt; add new taxes on underpaid graduate student tuition stipends. Cutting the tax rates while raising one’s taxable income is supposedly a win for the middle class?

And by the way, while we are at it, stick in an unrelated attempt to kill Obamacare by gutting the mandatory medical insurance requirement – which has nothing to do with tax legislation. That will put 13 million people into the uninsured ranks, and send them back to emergency rooms for “free” treatment when they get sick – a visit that in fact will be paid for by all insured people. The resulting premium increases for the insured will more than offset their promised tax cut.

The end result? 1.5 trillion dollars of new debt over the next 10 years. This from the party of supposed deficit hawks, who resent “welfare bums and their entitlements” but willingly support special-interest corporate entitlements as “good for the economy.” But not to worry. This exploding debt will be paid for by extraordinary (and unprecedented) GDP and income generation, resulting in new tax income to cover the new debt. Sound familiar? Reagan, 1981.It did not work then; it will not work now, Economists are shaking their heads; lobbyists are laughing all the way back to their corporate headquarters.

In numerous polls, people prioritize concerns over healthcare, jobs, immigration, North Korea, terrorists both domestic and foreign. Tax cuts are way down the list. Yet nothing is being done about those priority issues. Less than 20% of people support this Republican tax plan, yet Republican representatives and senators are trying to push it through. 90% of Americans supported expanded gun background checks after the Sandy Hook massacre, yet their wishes were ignored. Who is Congress listening to and working for? Need you ask?

Beware of these Republican representatives, senators, and president bearing gifts. Keep billfolds and purses locked safely away. What is being advertised is not truth in advertising. It is slick marketing hiding a faulty product, with the real benefits hidden safely out of view within the secret legislation. Originally, ALL middle income taxpayers were guaranteed to get a tax reduction – a promise now being fully backpedaled. The current estimate is an annual tax savings averaging $800 for incomes less than $40K. Less than $70/month. $17/week. That is one family dinner per week at McDonald’s. Certainly every dollar helps for a family in need; we should not make light of that. But does dinner at McDonald’s warrant $1.5 trillion in new debt, disproportionate tax breaks for the mega-wealthy, and more income for corporations who are enjoying record boom times and have jobs begging to be filled? How about focusing on real tax reform and job training to fill those vacancies we already have, instead of squeezing lower-oncome taxpayers even further for “benefits” they will never really see?

Our nation has a full menu of important issues and significant needs to be addressed. They require the contributions of those among us who can see the big picture within which these issues and needs fester, but who also have the depth of thinking and insight to provide concrete and genuine solutions. What we do not need is another superficial bandaid that simply distracts us from the real work that needs to be done, driven by a crass and cynical short-term pandering for votes rather than the genuine long-term economic betterment of the citizenry. This kind of blatant flim-flamery trivializes our real concerns and deserves our complete rejection. We should all remember the full quote of Calvin Coolidge from 1925:

“The chief business of the American people is business ...  Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence … We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.”

©   2017   Randy Bell   

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Assessing A Life Lived

How are we to properly assess one person’s life lived? What criteria should we apply? What standards are relevant to our decision? What examination should guide our decisions?

In the year 2017, this has become more than a philosophical question. Rather, it has become virtually a daily challenge for us as news headlines routinely present a series of individuals for our judgment. Most notably has been a divisive debate over our statues and memorabilia to Confederate leaders in the American Civil War, and the tsunami of accusations of sexual assault against entertainers and other public officials.

For some, the discussion is easy. Guilt or innocence is black and white in absolute terms. There are good people and there are bad people. For others, the assessment is not so easy, oftentimes presenting such questions is a gray hue. Why do otherwise good people do bad things? Why do otherwise bad people do good things? Depending on one’s perspective and circumstances, was Robin Hood a mere thief stealing from the rich, or a savior of the suffering poor?

From a religious perspective, the question is never easy. The Christian asks us to love our neighbor without exception, and to judge not lest we be judged. The Buddhist asks us to love the person while also resisting his/her “unhealthy” actions. The Jew tells us not to take vengeance or bear a grudge against our neighbor. The Moslem asks us to repel evil deeds by responding with good deeds. If we aspire to be a person of faith, our scripture teachings will not give us much comfort in the land of black and white. So what compass do we follow out of this wilderness?

First and foremost, we ought to remind ourselves that the people we are tempted to judge are just that – people. Fallible, inconsistent, and often incomprehensible human beings. Humans are fully capable of operating on both sides of judgement, even as one side may dominate over the other. We are capable of doing good work and supporting other humans, even as we have our secrets and regrets for past actions that we guard from public display. Our history cannot be relived; our desired apologies are likely too late; our values, thinking and beliefs likely change in each of our successive decades. Right and wrong are rarely absolute, but are most often circumstantial. Because of their contradictions, assessing our contemporaries is hard enough. How to assess our ancestors can feel virtually impossible.

Today, we are witnessing a seeming never-ending flow of women coming forward to take on the powerful over acts of abuse they have experienced. And this time they are being heard. In many instances, these acts go back years, even decades, held in secret by a convergence of cultural apathy, the power of money and influence, the feeling of being all alone and humiliated, the “blame the victim” retaliation, and the sense of powerlessness. But when Gretchen Carlson went public with her story of abuse from Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, and she won, it opened the gates to a flood of shared stories involving other perpetrators and their victims. Each woman who has come forth has created a domino effect of encouragement, and a safety net for others who have finally been able to think: “Maybe now they will believe me, and maybe I can help to stop this in the future.”

And so the once-mighty are falling. Weinstein, Spacey, Cosby, Lewis CK, Roy Moore; the list grows. Yet one cannot summarily dismiss the reality of the brilliant movies and acting careers enabled by Weinstein; the acting accomplishments of Spacey; the racial barriers broken by Cosby. Those accomplishments are as real as their indecencies. The juxtaposition of acclaimed artistry adjacent to the endless abuse of power are not easily assimilated in our collective minds. Yet both are all too real.

The same difficult conflict exists with our historical figures and personal ancestors, complicated by the passage of time, changes of circumstances, and altered social norms and scientific opinion. We admire John Kennedy and his Peace Corps alongside images of Jackie, Caroline and John-John, while acknowledging his White House womanizing. We admire the high oratory of Abraham Lincoln who ended slavery while preserving the Union, even as we acknowledge his opposition to “mixing the races” and his suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War. We admire the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that proclaimed “all men are created equal,” even as he concurrently condoned limiting such equality. We canonize George Washington for winning the Revolution and turning the ideal of our unique Constitution into a working government, even as his slaves maintained his plantation at Mount Vernon. Southerners revere Robert E, Lee and assorted leaders of the Confederacy as well as the everyday grunt soldier for their wartime skills and their “noble sacrifice for the Cause,” even as we must finally acknowledge that they were insurrectionists attempting to break up the American Union, and their Cause of slavery was anything but noble – an abomination, in fact – and their Cause was defeated.

Monuments have been built, schools and buildings and institutions have been named, and quotations have been repeated for such contemporary and historical persons. Each had worthy output of note; each had output or conduct that is seen as unacceptable in today’s norms. So what monuments do we build? Which do we tear down or un-name?

We ought do well to anoint our heroes cautiously. The Abrahamic religious traditions talk about a full accounting of our life before God. If each life – including our own – has its share of “good and evil,” then both sides of that ledger will have entries. When we are required to assess the quality of any individual life lived, we need to avoid easy absolute judgements – a person is all good or all bad – and rather make the harder effort for a “net” assessment. Did the “good” (his/her contributions to the betterment of society) outweigh the “bad” (detrimental actions toward society)? And in the cases of historical figures, good and bad must necessarily also be measured against the cultural norms of the times – just as our honorable actions today must not be wholly assessed against the different societal norms of 100 years from now.

So I will watch a Weinstein movie and appreciate its brilliance, even as I support his expulsion from his Weinstein Corporation and the Motion Picture Academy. I will support the Jefferson Memorial, even as I acknowledge his slave-holding and affair with Sally Hemmings. Roy Moore has given a lifetime of public service, but he does not deserve a U.S. Senate seat due to a lifetime of ill-will towards others. I will support a statue of a Confederate soldier honoring a commitment to bravery and allegiance to community, but move that statue to a Confederate cemetery. Similarly, the Confederate Battle Flag and other War artifacts should be kept but moved into appropriate museums. They are historical memorabilia which have no place on public government grounds that serve all citizens. I would leave the statue of General Robert E. Lee at Washington & Lee University honoring his military leadership, university presidency, and model behavior for post-war reconciliation. Yet any statues of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan, should be obliterated due to his continued fight against such reconciliation. Un-name that which is no longer appropriate, but perhaps find another commemoration where appropriate. Service to the Confederacy should not be an automatic disqualifier for commemoration – what else did that person do in life? Extend compassion to the person; deter, condemn, and punish when necessary his/her unhealthy actions. For it is through compassion that we open that most difficult door to healing and forgiveness.

In the end, these are case-by-case decisions, not global knee-jerk ones. They should be made predicated on the harder work of taking a balanced view of a life’s contribution, without Monday-morning quarterbacking the times and circumstances. However, what is important in all cases is that we tell the FULL and complete story of these lives, not just selected versions. Stories of how good can be done in spite of our human shortcomings, and how bad can be done in spite of our propensity for good. How we choose to live, and how we resolve our human contradictions, is the real story of our lives. I am comfortable in these contradictions, because they are my own very human contradictions.

©   2017   Randy Bell