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     

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Man-Child Versus Child-Man

International diplomacy is a delicate thing. Established protocols, nuanced words, treaty niceties are designed to facilitate  relationships among nations and people. Yet oftentimes these formalities seem to be hurdles to the goal of bettering human relations. “Git ‘er done” seems frustratingly subordinate to “let’s talk about getting her done.” Diplomacy is not a happy place for one of little patience or subtlety.

It also by definition requires some sense of humility and respect for others. Even when the “power balance” is unequal – usually based upon money, arms, or population measures of power – diplomacy requires some measure of cooperation in order to advance shared goals. It is the same recognition that complicated the very founding of America. Achieving a working federation among the “big states” and the “small states” threatened the original creation of our nation, and resulted in an inefficient but necessary balancing of competing interests to successfully achieve a larger, overriding shared goal.

As cumbersome as diplomacy may often be, it has achieved much over the past 75 years since the end of World War II. That was a war so terrible that it inspired a commitment to “never again.” The financial cost and maddening rhetoric of the United Nations and all its agencies, the formal structures like NATO and SEATO, the individual trade and cooperation treaties that manage the daily interactions of nations, have nevertheless eliminated conflagration-scale wars, even as smaller conflicts still prick at our aspirations for world peace. Nevertheless, we have kept on trying.

All of these years of effort are now dangerously close to being blown up in our face – quite literally. Diplomacy is being replaced by confrontation; stability is morphing into chaos; leadership is defusing into a wandering vacuum. America has been the post-war leader in international diplomacy for decades – sometimes from the high moral ground, other times from questionable or ill-considered selfish interest. But we have never withdrawn from the expectations placed upon us to articulate our human aspirations and then back it with tangible goods, services, and sacrifices of its people.

Today, in a relatively short span of time, that ship of international leadership has been cast adrift on the rocky shores of “America First.” It is a catchy slogan, appropriate if one believes America is enduring a unique suffering unlike any other nation, or that it lives and works in isolation from all other nations. It is a hollow slogan if one understands that our worst days still leave us better off than much of an envious world. We enjoy notable accomplishments, while still necessarily confessing great shortcomings that need addressing. Our world leadership is not dead, but it is sitting just outside the diplomatic Intensive Care Unit.

Our most prominent conflict is the growing fight, and increasing threat, between the United States and North Korea. Unfortunately, it has become a fight not between two nations but between two individuals. Like meets like on a collision course that could easily envelop much of the globe, with millions (billions?) of people’s lives at stake. On the one hand, we have an old man behaving like a schoolyard child, name-calling and threatening the smaller kids using America’s superior size fueled by his own personal sense of inferiority. On the other hand, you have an overgrown child thrust into power too soon, intent on showing his toughness to the elders surrounding him and proving his worthiness to occupy the seat of his father and grandfather. Both were spoiled, pampered children used to having their way from living in a closed “family business” granting them absolute power. The power of intimidation in attempting to control the world around them is the only real skill that they have learned. The reality of people and the normal ways of the world are incomprehensible to them – as these two people in turn are incomprehensible to us.

The man-child has a compulsive need to show toughness and to “win.” What he wins is secondary to just winning for the sake of personal accolades. The child-man has a compulsive need to win, and what he seeks is a parity of respect. Both had successful fathers that they seek to now overshadow and are out do to prove successes in their own right. Both are trapped within entrenched cultural drivers: a Western culture that prioritizes intellectual and political dominance; an Eastern culture that prioritizes saving face and being shown respect. People with something personal to prove can be very scary; these two people are very scary. Both are playing the same game of taunting, threatening, and brinksmanship. Neither will succeed by fighting their battle on the public stage, backing each other into corners behind their various “red lines.” Left to their own ego battles, we can care less who wins. But when their ill-conceived battle threatens millions, then we all need to care.

Is it too late to stop this cold war-renewed march into a hot war? Very possibly. In a schoolyard fight of egos, there comes a point at which no one feels able, or is willing, to blink. Sitting in their respective corners, each has his self-respect at stake. Each has a home audience cheering them on, delighted to see a flexing of national muscle, and who expects “victory.” However, America’s track record as the big kid fighting against the little kid has not been great – think North Korea in the 1950s, Viet Nam, Iraq-2, and Afghanistan. Being greater in war power can still mean losing to a smaller but committed adversary. Did we learn nothing from our Viet Nam experience about gradual escalation, driven by overriding personal ego and reputation, and how hard it is to pull back?

Both of the kids need to turn off the spotlight. Get off the public stage. Quit acting like childish jackasses. This is not a game; the issue is too serious. More sane and experienced people need to come together to try to find a way out of this sinking morass. If pushed to a final confrontation, there will be no winner. The winds of radioactivity know no borders. Ducking under our school desks will not spare us. The World War III movies we watched in the 1960s do not seem so entirely fictional right now. The policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) thankfully worked out for the world when it was effected by rational leaders in the USSR and the US who knew how and when to pull back from the brink. The MAD premise will likely not work out so well with a man-child and a child-man in charge.

Now, Donald, it’s about that shared multi-nation agreement with Iran that you want America to unilaterally pull out of even though the Iranians insist on meeting their treaty obligations …

©   2017   Randy Bell     

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Case Against Impeachment

If you are so disposed, it can be very easy to dislike Donald Trump as President of the United States. One may dislike him on the basis of his character (or lack thereof): his disrespectful treatment of others; his lack of empathy; his untruthfulness; his constant need for positive attention; his disregard for the needs and suffering of others.

One may dislike him on the basis of his lack of leadership as President: his inability to define a position and stay with it; his willingness to blame others for his failures and throw supporters under the bus; his inability to articulate a case for his goals, versus relying on empty slogans or simple Tweets that threaten or ridicule his opponents; his inability to build political support when needed, versus his continual attempt to divide us; his unwillingness to do his homework, think an issue through, and craft a viable plan to accomplish his objectives; his abdication of America’s leadership role in the world. All of which raise questions about why “the art (and artist) of the deal” has accomplished nary a single deal to date.

One may dislike his stated priorities themselves: gutting governmental regulations for its own sake without offering alternative protections that they were designed for; backtracking on our substantial environmental progress; backtracking on the many hard-fought achievements made in our civil rights; backtracking on the expansion of healthcare access and improved healthcare delivery for all Americans; a legislative and Executive Order program that seems little more than a reactive “just undo everything Obama did” versus offering original ideas of his own.

One may dislike his incompetency as an executive manager – especially given all his bragging about his “business success”: his lack of plans; the consistent chaos surrounding him and created by him; a White House office that cannot speak consistently with one voice or coherently explain any Trump action to anyone; his demand for personal loyalty and adoration from his Cabinet and staff versus loyalty to the presidency and the Constitution.

One may dislike his total ignorance, disdain, and disregard for the dignity of the Presidency, and the precedencies set by all who came before him in that office: his indifference to the responsibility of the President to model that which is America (and Americans) at its best; his abuse of his position to commercially enrich himself and his family; his impression that being President of the United States living in the White House is a step down from being CEO of Trump Inc. and living at Mar-a-Lago; his complete lack of class and dignity in knowing what is appropriate to say or do with a given audience – whether embarrassing us at a G-20 meeting of international leaders or giving a speech to the Boy Scouts of America at their Jamboree.

All of these interrelated conclusions we might make are damning enough, fatally damaging to someone claiming leadership of this powerful yet flawed, hopeful but struggling country. They invite our continual assessment, and criticism where warranted, in an attempt to change the country’s direction towards a better, positive future rather than into the negative abyss Trump seems to want to take us. Is it political chaos? Yes. Is it a social breakdown? Yes. Is it impeachable conduct? No.

There is a reason that, among our 45 presidents, only two suffered official impeachment indictment (both found not guilty), and one more resigned under the certain threat of impeachment. Impeachment deliberately has a high bar, and political disagreement is not the vehicle to cross that bar. “High crimes and misdemeanors” do not include stupidity, personal coarseness, bad choices for one’s Cabinet, failure to run a competent organization, or disagreement over policy decisions. We are a republic form of government, not a parliamentary one. Rather, intimidation of free speech and free press; obstructing justice; covering up illegal activity; selling favors for personal profit; aiding foreign enemies of America – these kinds of action come closer to that bar. We can speculate about what Trump has done, but impeachment still requires a) high crimes, and b) proof. So far, there is an excess of smoke, hints of flames, but no photo (yet?) of the gun out of the holster.

News media and multiple Congressional investigations of the Administration are happening all over Washington. A special prosecutor investigation has barely gotten underway. We need to wait and allow these initiatives to follow their natural course before judgements are made. Current talk of impeachment is both wrong and premature, driven more by political frustrations than by impeachable facts. Such talk builds barriers and defensiveness with supporters of Trump, and dilutes future efforts when they may be needed. In the court of public opinion, Donald Trump is overwhelmingly guilty of being a very bad occupant of his office. In the well of the Senate, a vote to impeach him from office is not yet to be found. If the case proves ultimately to be made, then and only then should it move to that forum. Given Trump’s penchant for self-inflicted wounds, it is likely only a matter of time before such truths and circumstances arise. The clean water of Truth continues its slow drip day by day.

Certainly there are members of Trump’s Team (current and former) who are in real legal jeopardy for their decisions, actions and lies. But that is an insufficient indictment for the impeachment of Trump, only more damming evidence of incompetence. Until demonstrable proof of high crimes happens – if it does – the energy of protest of Donald Trump’s presidency requires political engagement. Letter writing; social media posts that say something worthwhile (versus ranting and complaining); community conversations are all required. Exaggeration and hyperbole does not help; neither does insulting or ridiculing people with different views. The only thing that will stop Trump is people of all stripes coming together to say “enough is enough” rather than holding up in our separate dueling camps. It is all about election days. Every election that comes up – federal, state, local – is an opportunity to effect change. It is by the long, slow slog of election strategies, campaign organizations, good candidates and turning out voters that real differences are made. Impractical and premature calls for impeachment only stoke the emotional fires without results. Like it or not, right now it is all about hard-nosed politics that matter.

In six short months, Donald Trump has turned our Constitution, Republic and civic traditions inside out and upside down. We must not let his outrageous treatment of his high office, and our revulsion towards his actions, cause us to abandon the foundations and principles of our democratic government that have survived and served us for over 200 years.

©   2017   Randy Bell   

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Constitutional Crisis Redux

In 1973/74, America experienced its worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War. The Watergate affair that brought down Richard Nixon was the grand finale of a nation torn apart for 15 years by divisive issues of civil rights, the upset of the established social order, a generational revolution, nine years of a seemingly endless no-win war, and governing by political assassination. It was an ugly time that shaped a world and domestic view for generations.

Near the end of this historical arc, a band of Nixon campaign operatives hatched a plan to hack the Democratic National Committee. Given the technology of the day (pre-personal computers), it was intended to be a burglary of paper records. Unfortunately for the team, but fortunately for the country, they got caught in the act. What could have been a footnote in history instead became the baseline for measuring government cover-up and illegality at the highest levels.

A small crime story attracted the attention of a few investigative journalists, then gradually many. A judge looked at the simple burglary case and decided, “there is more here,” and proceeded to press out the larger facts. Thus began a journey down a path of cover-up, bribery, and lies that went well beyond the original story and cast of characters. Finally, a Special Prosecutor was appointed to pursue what was the role of high government officials in conducting illegal activities, and who were those individuals. Concurrently, a bipartisan Senate Committee was formed to conduct a similar inquiry, ultimately asking the question, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”

The Special Prosecutor did his work doggedly as he went after the full facts of the Watergate break-in. As did the Senate committee as it brilliantly personified our best bipartisanship. And then the day came when the Special Prosecutor pushed for access to the Nixon tapes of private White House conversations – tapes that ultimately held the “smoking gun” of Nixon’s collusion in the Watergate cover-up. As a last-ditch attempt to try to protect himself, the President fired the chief accuser, along with the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General who had refused to carry out Nixon’s termination order. “Time to move on” was the President’s mantra. In the end, the courts ruled Nixon had to turn over the tapes and obey the law. In the public reaction that followed, Nixon was done. To save himself from certain impeachment, Nixon resigned – the only President to do so. In the end, he was in fact a crook. A cadre of his associates went to prison; others had damaged reputations to rebuild. The cover-up far exceeded the original crime.

44 years later, a similar story is eerily recurring on our TV/computer screens. A group of “dirty tricksters” (i.e. Russians) is caught trying to unduly influence a presidential election by nefarious means. A top campaign aide – Michael Flynn, intended to become a top security aide – is caught lying about his conduct and relationship with that group; lies unwittingly repeated to the public by the Vice President. A career Department of Justice official and Acting Attorney General – Sally Yates – who brings knowledge of this deception to the White House Counsel is fired by the President shortly thereafter, ostensibly for another reason while her role with the Flynn issue goes publicly unacknowledged. The accusations against Flynn languished for nearly three weeks until the press digs out the story. Only then did Trump fire Flynn – not for his actions and connections, but for lying to the Vice President. Senate and House committee investigations pop up looking into the extent of Russian dirty tricks and various Trump-campaign and Russian connections. Only this time the Watergate bipartisanship and “pursuit of Truth” are not as evident. Once again, a President blames “the Media” for inflaming the story. He sends out a multitude of denials of any wrong-doing by anyone – all while continuing to sing the praises of Flynn. Then, following public testimony by FBI Director James Comey confirming criminal investigations of Trump associates, and the stunningly capable testimony of Sally Yates about the White House handling of the Flynn issue, Trump moves into action. He does his usual Twitter impugning of Yate’s character, which falls flat given the credibility and authenticity of her testimony. But more importantly, he fires Comey – the chief investigator. “Time to move on” was once again a President’s mantra. Journalists were sent scrambling to the newsreel vaults looking at the Nixon archives.

Ostensibly, Comey was fired for his handling of Hillary Clinton’s email issue, conduct Trump had praised on the campaign trail. This is all very old news, and beyond credulity that Trump cares one twit about fairness to Hillary. Trump’s decision was also purported to be based upon advice from a newly installed Deputy Attorney General as a way to give the FBI “a fresh start.” Yet he was told to put that recommendation in writing by Trump who had already decided to fire Comey a week earlier. The recommendation was also endorsed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had supposedly recused himself from any involvement in the FBI’s Russian investigation – hence the made up “cover story” of the Clinton email handling. Once again, the man leading the investigation into the actions of the President and his aides was fired by that President. Once again a White House and his agency appointees have little remaining credibility regarding the investigations. But as of this time it is unclear whether there is a Congressional Committee, or court system, prepared to defend the rule of Law and pursuit of Truth.

We have watched this pattern from Trump for two years now. He is a man who lives in a protective bubble of a self-created image who will defend that bubble at all cost. He will exaggerate, lie, deny, or accuse his accusers however necessary, and without accountability, to protect that bubble. It is now clear that he will also simply disbelieve counsel from agency professionals, and will even fire anyone who comes bearing bad news or threatens to puncture Trump’s bubble. Since virtually none of the cover story is believable, we are left only with conjecture and speculation about what collusion and ill-doings have happened in this White House.

Clearly Mike Flynn is in a heap of trouble for his actions, non-declarations, and lies to cover them up. But one also to ask, what makes him seek immunity for “telling what else he knows?” And why does Trump continue to keep speaking so positively about him? Clearly other Trump campaign people are hiding something, and the FBI and Senate investigations are closing in on them. Else how could they have known in advance of the forthcoming DNC email leaks? And why would Trump have so forcefully announced during the campaign, “Russia, if you are listening – and I hope you are – I hope you find Hillary’s missing 40,000 emails,” unless he was aware of Russian hacking? Where else would such an off-the-wall statement come from?

This is not a witch hunt. This is not made up stuff. Supposed “fake news” media reporting has, over time, been consistently confirmed. There is substance of some kind here. But by following the Nixon playbook almost to the letter, Donald Trump invites speculation and encourages accusations. At no time has Trump cooperated or been forthcoming with any investigation. Instead, he has actively tried to block the investigations or create more phony side distractions. Firing from behind Presidential barricades of silence or unsupportable explanations never works out in the end. The bloodhounds and “Woodward & Bernstein wanna-bes” have been turned loose; things will begin to move more quickly, with tentacles reaching out many directions. Eliminating the investigators just confirms that something needs to be hidden. We have seen this movie before. We know how it ended. If the sequel insists on following the original script, we already know how this will also end. Firing those you legally can will not stop the investigations. It will actually encourage those you cannot fire. Trying to block a legal investigation did not work for Nixon, and it will not work for Trump. In the end, it will be every man and woman for themselves. At which time Trump’s defensive wall will come down, one brick at a time, opening a window into life behind the facade. The bubble will finally burst. Then what?

It is an important story of one shoe after another continuing to drop that we all need to follow closely. It matters.

©   2017   Randy Bell     

Friday, May 5, 2017

Give Him A Chance

It has been six months since one of the ugliest, divisive, most personal, non-issue based elections in American history. The popular vote results and the Electoral College outcome served as an appropriate statement of our ballot box indecisiveness. Two months later on Inauguration Day, Donald Trump started his presidency with the lowest approval rating on Day 1 of any modern-day president, a rating only gotten worse in the ensuing 100 days. Throughout this time, a steady call from some of his supporters has been, “give him a chance.” So 100 days in, what are we to conclude about Trump’s “Chance?”

Personally, few of my preconceptions about a Trump presidency have changed during these 100 days. As President, he is still acting as CEO of his family business. He assumes he is free to do whatever he chooses, accountable to no one, managing by direct orders to subservient underlings unwilling or unable to say No. His operating style reflects little knowledge of, or interest in, historical background, protocol, or precedent. It is all packaged in the personal aggrandizement of Trump the individual, with little awareness of fulfilling the larger presidential role.

There is certainly much talk coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump’s presidential decisions are seemingly made in the wee hours of the morning, thereafter communicated to the public almost off-handily in 140-character Tweets in lieu of hours of thoughtful internal discussions among staff, advisors, and department heads. Instead, these individuals spend their post-Tweet days (or weeks) explaining, correcting, interpreting or translating to a national / international audience left scratching their heads by the latest out-of-the-blue nonsensical, factually incorrect, or unintelligible Trump-Tweet.

The kindest thing one can say about the Trump White House team is that it is pure amateurism on very public display. It is about power positioning, infighting, jockeying for position, causng personnel to trip all over each other instead of advancing any agenda. This should be no surprise given that, except for VP Pence, hardly a single person surrounding Trump has any government experience – including “the Boss” himself.  It is all well and good to play the role of the “outsider” brought in to shake things up. But outsider is a short-lived job title; one has to reach inside pretty quickly to actually get things done. And that means surrounding yourself with good people who know how to pull the levers, press the pedals, integrate the governmental structures, and avoid unproductive fights with the Washington machinery. The hardest job in Washington used to be the President. Now it is the Press Secretary who every day has to try to rationally explain this irrationality to an increasingly skeptical public.

The glimmer of hope is the national defense team that Trump has managed to assemble which may be able to keep us on a rational path. Meanwhile, his domestic and economic teams have been virtually invisible, excepting Jeff Sessions at Justice clearly intent on rolling back civil and gender equality gains. Where these other cabinet officials will attempt to go remains to be seen, but corporate interests and making money at the expense of other quality-of-life goals is likely to be the governing compass.

The result of this chaos is that virtually nothing of substance has gotten done this far. The only Trump victory has been confirming a Supreme Court nominee. Trump has loved signing all of his Executive Orders – it brings out the CEO style in him. Many of his EOs mainly set a tone, point a direction, or initiate a review. Most of those that have actual impact have unsurprisingly centered on a full frontal assault on standing environmental protections in favor of corporate expansion and profits. (Few of these profits will actually move to the new jobs and wages Trump voters expect.) Other EOs have been blocked by the courts (the Muslim ban; withholding funding to “sanctuary cities”) due to the legal sloppiness of their preparation and attempted implementation. For a Party that regularly criticized Obama for being an “imperial President,” Republicans have been conspicuously silent about Trump’s greater number of EOs.

Beyond these “actions?” Nothing. Not a single piece of significant legislation passed in Trump’s 100 Days. Only one piece was even filed: the long-promised Republican repeal (and now “replace”) of Obamacare. Trapped in their own longstanding rhetoric, this bill went down in flames without even getting a vote as Republicans discovered that the public has long since moved on to acceptance regarding this law. Everything else on Trump’s agenda has yet to be seen. A laughable 1-page “Tax Reform Plan” consisted mainly of cuts for the wealthy with no details offered; even his economic team could barely present it with a straight face (“Details to come!”). A proposed 2018 budget of draconian cuts to every “social good” program in sight, cast amid stupid statements like, “Meals on Wheels has no hard data to prove that it is working,” and “Not every student needs a computer.” A proposed huge corporate tax cuts which will reward corporate officers and Wall Street, but which will never “trickle-down” to the average worker and never generate enough GDP growth to avoid huge new government deficits. (See history of Reagan’s trickle down/voodoo economics.) A unilateral ripping up of existing trade agreements because they are “unfair” to America, even as much of corporate America lies in wait to preserve those agreements. Trump continues to preach about a return of jobs to America – which is never going to happen (see coal miners) – so he claims credit for job expansions decided well before his election. And as previously noted, Trumpcare is in chaos as low-middle income and older Americans watch their Obamacare benefits evaporate. Meanwhile, not one fencepost has been driven into the ground for the Mexican Wall, and it has been conceded that American taxpayers will foot the bill, not Mexico.

Internationally, American leadership is fading because of our now unpredictable lurching from one supposed policy to the next. After a brief missile show, a Syrian airbase and air force was back in business bombing its citizens the next day. War with North Korea no longer seems to be a fictional novel. Trump’s administration is drowning in ever-widening investigations about Russia, Trump/Putin coziness, and Michael Flynn’s illegal deceptions, issues he tries to hides behind his stone wall of denials and false counteraccusations.

Donald Trump is quickly finding out the limits of his power as he learns that Congress and the Federal Courts are truly “equal branches of government.” Ditto internationally with the 200+ independent sovereign nations of the world. They are not underlings waiting and receptive to being told what to do. Actually, Trump’s biggest “success” is the one thing that successful politicians never want to achieve: mobilizing one’s opposition. He has awakened an opposition force that has been passive for a long time and all but ignored by its traditional Democratic Party home. Whether this energy will come to achieve anything tangible is as yet unknown.

Ultimately, after the inexhaustible list of shortcomings, misstatements, and failures is detailed, evaluating Donald Trump still comes down to the fundamental issue ever-present since he announced for the Presidency: Personal Character. The concern for Character arises over the ease with which he lies and exaggerates, and his willingness to say any outlandish thing for attention; his disregard for factual information (“fake news”); his approach to and basis for decision-making; his consuming need for continuous attention and praise; his refusal to admit mistakes and take responsibility for them; his inability to debate issues in favor of personal attacks against those with whom he disagrees; his profound ignorance of history and the course of human relationships; the phoniness in which he voices people’s concerns while having no true understanding of people’s lives outside the orbit of his own narrow experience. Donald Trump is simply not a person worth respecting nor one who has earned our trust. Water that flows from a clear well in good earth will nourish many good results. Nothing much good comes from the dark water of a poisoned well. Once poisoned, there is very little chance of a dark well ever running clear again. We take a Chance and drink from that well at our own risk.

©   2017   Randy Bell     


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Political Healthcarre

“Who knew that healthcare could be so hard?” mused President Trump a few weeks back. Who knew? Probably anyone who has paid attention to this topic the last eight years. Apparently the President has not paid attention, and had to get his education crammed into three weeks.

People talk about healthcare a lot. But in actuality what they are usually talking about has little to do with the actual provision and receiving of good health practices. Rather, what they are really talking about is political advantage and power, and using healthcare as the hostage issue. The political arguing continues unendingly, and the fiasco of the recent House “repeal and replace” effort shows how badly the politics are souring the discussion.

In 2009-2010, the Democrats controlled the House, Senate and Presidency. They still needed a full year to fulfill Obama’s campaign promise to expand and improve healthcare delivery. It took intense bargaining to get something agreeable even to one Party in political control. In the end, it passed without a single affirmative Republican vote, and cost more than a few Democrats their Congressional seat. Those Republicans on the sideline then took up the chant of “Repeal Obamacare” as part of their “anti-everything-Obama” strategy for the next six years, with the House voting over 60 times for repeal. It was always a safe vote to score points with their base, knowing that each resolution would be vetoed by Obama. But during all of those votes, not once was a credible alternative offered for Obamacare. It is easy to just vote NO when you do not have to come up with a solution.

But a funny thing happened. In November 2016 Republicans won the House and Senate, and brought in a President who said on the campaign trail he would repeal Obamacare and replace it with “something better” so that “everyone would get healthcare.” It was all going to happen on “Day 1,” given that Republicans had had six years to come up with this replacement. Six weeks after Inauguration Day, House leaders finally unveiled their legislative masterpiece. Drafted in secret, devoid of advance consensus support, nobody – except Trump and the leaders – liked it. Democrats sat on their hands, uninvited to the discussion, with memories of the Republicans in 2010 still fresh, and said, “show us what you’ve got.” What Republicans had got was not much. For some, the Repeal side didn’t go far enough. For others, it took away too much. Ditto the Replacement side. Every major health organization came out against it: doctors, hospitals, pharmaceuticals, patient groups, AARP, etc. Even the Senate said the bill was dead-on-arrival. When the Congressional Budget Office said 24M people would lose insurance, and federal spending would be reduced only modestly over ten years, the oxygen went out of the Capitol.

Along the way, another funny thing happened. The politicians found out that, over time, much of the public had become quite fond of the new health services they were getting – as long as it was not called “Obamacare.” A large number of uninsured people now had coverage. People with preexisting conditions could no longer be denied and did not need to stay tethered to unsatisfying jobs. Expanded services were welcomed; poor people were getting medical care. The destruction of American life and the healthcare industry did not occur. Tellingly, only 17% of the public supported the Republican Repeal and Replace bill, and a newfound majority actually expressed approval of the dreaded Obamacare. Times had changed.

Nevertheless, House leaders and Trump soldiered on. What took Democrats 12 months of contentious debate to do, Republicans thought they could do in only 17 days. In the beginning, Speaker Ryan said, “This is what we’ve got,” and Trump the Dealmaker tried the schmooze approach to get it passed. When that did not work, Ryan negotiated away the heart of his bill, and Trump resorted to the usual threats and insults toward the intra-Party opposition. None of it worked, and the bill never came to a vote. Everyone just gave up and walked away. The Art of the Deal folded.

The Republican bill was always driven more by a goal to quickly fulfill a six-year campaign pledge to their base than actually improving healthcare delivery. Reducing such an important issue to political theatrics deservedly died in infancy. Repeal is easy. Just revoke the laws of the last eight years and take everyone back to the “good old days” – which were not very good. But Replace gets very hard, because it begs the still unanswered question: what should a common baseline of healthcare services and delivery look like across America?

Trump and Republicans have long proclaimed Obamacare to be a “disaster,” without proof. Setting aside the “Chicken Littles,” in fact it works just fine in many parts of America. Around half of the states (including Republican strongholds) have adopted Medicaid expansion – but not all. Most Americans have multiple insurance programs to choose from – but not all. Premiums have gone down for many Americans – but not all. Coverage is now available to many who did not have it – but not all. Insuree rights have been strengthened – for all. But the prices of drugs and hospital stays are still too costly, affecting costs for everyone.

Some politicians look to private enterprise for a solution. Lest we forget, insurance companies and medical professionals have had at least 60 years to meet the public’s needs, and failed. Why would we assume they will achieve it now? If we really want to relieve corporations and businesses of their Obamacare problem, we should just eliminate company-provided health insurance all-together. Employer-provided health insurance is a stupid system in the first place, effectively requiring the public to have a job in order to have insurance coverage, provided by businesspeople who know nothing about the subject and which has nothing to do with their core business. Get corporate America out of a middleman role and we will immediately start off with a simpler system. Create a standardized administrative system for processing healthcare; we are drowning under the costs of multiple unique yet redundant systems/forms/regulations. Make all medical charges public so people can see ahead of time what services will cost; the whole system still operates under a veil of secrecy.

If you do not want to “force” people to buy health insurance, then are you willing to let health providers turn sick people away when the uninsured get sick or have an accident? Emergency Rooms are still the most expensive and inefficient providers of primary care. Would you rather tax me to underwrite their insurance premiums, or make me pay higher costs for my services to underwrite the Emergency Room costs? Either way, I pay. Should I? Debate the question.

If one is really serious about healthcare in America, these are the kind of discussions we should be having. Discussions about getting and keeping Americans healthy, not political slogans, campaign rhetoric, and ill-thought out plans. Otherwise, just move on to something easier. Like tax reform (right!). Who knew it could be so hard?

©   2017   Randy Bell     


Monday, March 20, 2017

Where Is The Outrage?

“Father, I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.” (George Washington)

“Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! … How low has President Obama gone … This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” (Donald Trump)

George Washington was our greatest President of the United States. My assessment is not only due to the long list of the accomplishments by which we usually measure presidential success, though he certainly had many. Successful businessman (perhaps our richest); a commanding general achieving victory against overwhelming odds; respected governmental leader.

But Washington’s biggest contribution was in being the first president, a job without precedence or model anywhere in the then-known world. In a world that had known only kings, he instead made the head-of-state into a people’s job, a role cast in ceremony without being regal, elected by the will of the people, serving for a limited time, turning it over to the next duly-elected person, and then going home. His high personal character would also define the character of the office: honest, above moral reproach, tolerant of dissent in spite of how exasperating, protective of the personal liberty that had fueled the Revolution and broken from the throne. He was the epitome of the aspirations of the American ideal, but also decided on being called “Mr. President” (versus John Adams’ recommendation of “Your Highness”). Ultimate respect for the office balanced with the (un-)common man. A mythic persona creating a mythic office, he and his service have been the precedent, and set the bar, for all Presidents since.

Fast forward 228 years from the First to the Forty-fifth President. To a President with a factually documented track record of outright lies on almost a daily basis. Lies about the trivial (crowd sizes; people and that are supposed “failures”; television shows). Lies about objective data (trends in murder rates; unemployment rates; voter fraud). Lies about the important (terrorist threat levels; fake news; terror events in Sweden). A continuing penchant for exaggeration and “alternative facts” until the day finally arrived when his knee-jerk obsession with Twitter sent him far beyond the boundaries of rationality acceptability.

March 4th was the day a sitting President Trump accused his predecessor, former President Obama, of the criminal act of illegally wire-tapping his phones. It was an accusation made with no proof offered whatsoever. An accusation that, if shown to be untrue, would constitute a criminal act of defamation of character and libel against Trump himself. The President of the United States commands a legion of agencies and professionals dedicated to obtaining information for decision-makers. Yet it was acknowledged weeks later that Trump’s accusations were based upon several unsubstantiated “news” reports that Trump made no effort to investigate and confirm/deny. He just made his charge without making a verifiable case. Any law-school student could have adequately counseled his client of the probable consequences and predictable outcomes of such a foolhardy move; apparently Trump chose not to seek any such counsel.

After distracting the country and the Congress for two wasted weeks of chasing our tails in circles, the truth is in. According to the House Speaker, the Senate Majority Leader, the co-chairs of both the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees, Trump’s own Department of Justice and the FBI, there has been no evidence found anywhere of wiretapping. There is not even an ability for a sitting President to order such a wiretap. Yet the lie from Trump continues unabated with legalistic wordsmithing by his frustrated and exhausted communications team. Instead of dealing with many pressing and divisive issues of critical substance (e.g. healthcare; national budget; jobs; security), energy is being wasted on a President who has been caught in a lie of his own making and who is unwilling to face up to the Truth, admit his error, and accept the consequences for the damage he has done to people’s reputations (including President Obama and members of the intelligence community).

This lie, and the other lies, are consistent with conduct we have watched from this individual all of his life. Except now this is happening on a much larger scale, performed on a bigger stage, with far greater consequences. As a mediocre television reality show performer, this pattern of exaggeration, outrageous claims, and lies could perhaps be laughed at as passing entertainment. As President, this conduct is damaging to the whole of what America has tried to represent, and deserves to be denounced – even by politicians currently afraid to take a moral stand. I do not say that as exaggerated hyperbole and overstatement. I say that because for 228 years the Presidency of the United States has always been charged to set the example of, and the standard for, our collective values and moral compass. Values and a moral compass that transcend and frame the details of coming and going government programs, legislation and political squabbles. And the greatest of these values is Trust. Lies, and continually acting without calm thoughtfulness, erodes Trust, at some point beyond repair.

This current outrage is no longer just “Trump being Trump.” Even if you supported his campaign promises, even if you think our government is due some kind of comeuppance, this is not how it is done. This is dangerous stuff from a man who has so many levers of governmental power at his disposal; will he choose to use them as Richard Nixon did? The day will come when a true emergency shows up at our collective doorstep (e.g. 9-11; invasion of Iraq; financial breakdown) and Trump will need the people to truly support him. Whether he gets that support in a time of crisis will depend upon our Trust in him as an individual. Trust his explanation of the facts, and trust why we need to react as he proposes. It is in the first 100 days that Presidents create the people’s trust or not – a decision that is carried throughout their presidency. What will we decide about this President?

In the end, every presidency comes down to Character. Given a good heart and moral character, plus a reasonable level of competency, mostly good things stand a chance to flow. Conversely, bad things will generally flow from bad character – as it is with all of us. Yet today it seems our collective desire for political power, lower taxes, and personal and economic security trump our expectations for decency and honesty. As parents, we try very hard to instill good character into our children. Telling the truth, and taking responsibility for our words and actions, are fundamental components of building that character. Can we honestly say that any of us can point our children to Donald Trump and say, “This is your role model. This is what, and who, I hope you will aspire to be?” Where is our outrage when we see the occupant of the highest leadership position in the country, in the world, act contrary to everything we are trying to teach to, or expect of, our own children? Regardless of the side of the political fence on which we live, where is our condemnation of unethical conduct?

The Presidency of the United States is a position defined by law, by the historical precedents of the forty-four people who have served in that role, by ceremony and tradition, and by being the embodiment of the highest aspirations of Americans – aspirations that have inspired people across the globe. Donald Trump was right in raising the specter of Nixon & Watergate and of Joseph McCarthy. But what he does not see is that he is the Nixon wiretapping his own phones, and defending his claim with a McCarthy-style series of compounding “big lies.” For that he has violated our Trust and our aspirations. Where is our outrage?

©   2017   Randy Bell     


Monday, February 20, 2017

Immigration Chaos

Within the onslaught of presidential Executive Orders (EO) recently issued, the one captivating the most attention established new restrictions on immigration into America. This immigration order generated much action, within great confusion, further subdividing us into opposing camps. It has not been America’s best foot forward.

What the EO Says: The EO contains many provisions and directives. In short, it affirms “the policy of the United States to protect its citizens from foreign nationals … [committing] terrorist attacks in the United States,” and “to prevent the admission of foreign nationals” entering the United States for “malevolent purposes.” Since “the visa-issuance process plays a crucial role … in stopping [terrorists] from entering the United States,” a 30-day review will be done to reevaluate the information needed to determine that an individual is not a threat. To enable this review, entry into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries is suspended for 90 days. If the applicant’s home government is able to provide the new vetting information required, approved applicants can resume entry. If not, applicants will continue to be excluded.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is suspended world-wide for 120 days while additional security procedures are developed. Refugees already in the process can still be admitted. After 120 days, refugee admissions from countries deemed to have adequate security procedures can be resumed. Applicants claiming religious-based persecution will have priority, provided that their religion is a minority in that county. Further, any refugee applications from Syria, as well as admission of more than 50,000 refugees from any circumstance or country, are suspended indefinitely until “I have determined that … such admissions [are consistent with] the national interest.”  State and local jurisdictions are newly given “a role in the process of determining the placement or settlement” of refugees.

The Bungled Rollout: On their face, many of these EO provisions might be very reasonable for enhancing our national security. Yet they provoked an immediate outcry of protest from much of the public as a result of the bungled rollout of the EO itself. The EO called for immediate action. Yet there was no coordination among government agencies in drafting the EO, no advance communication among the agencies charged with its implementation, no detailed plan for how to do it. Hence confusion at the ports-of-entry and in the overseas embassies was rampant. Green Card holders were not exempted by the EO, yet administration officials claimed they were. Valid visa holders, including people previously resident in the U.S., were turned back without warning. Families were split up; children detained. Iraqi citizens working side-by-side with Americans at great personal risk were deemed unwelcome in an America that has depended upon their service. Trump said no notice was given so “bad guys” would not sneak in during the transition, ignoring that current visa processes have so far excluded terrorists very well. However noble the intention, the administration came off looking unprepared if not incompetent, unfeeling regarding innocent people and families caught up in the politics, and shallow in its planning and thinking. Whatever positive publicity Trump sought regarding “extreme vetting of terrorists” disappeared under the extreme chaos that could have been avoided.

The Factual Arguments: People come to the United States within several categories: diplomats; political and war refugees seeking asylum; immigrants seeking a better life by becoming a U.S. citizen; guest workers (e.g. green cards) with skills needed by employers; and “visitors” (tourists; students, special events / ceremonies). Trump’s order affected all of these without distinctions except for diplomats. TIME magazine reported that 3+million refugees have entered the U.S. “since instituting rigorous screening in 1980; not one has killed anyone in a terrorist attack.” Most of the governments of the seven countries banned are, in fact, in a state of chaos, making the assessment of local credentials difficult. On that basis, a suspension of approvals could be a reasonable action if handled in a sensible manner. But there have been no terrorist attacks committed by immigrants from these banned countries; previous terrorists have all come from countries NOT included in the ban (e.g. Saudi Arabia; Pakistan). The current vetting program for immigrants requires a two-year wait before admittance – hardly a smart vehicle of choice for a terrorist to sneak into the country. The ban was said to be needed because “the threat is increasing” and new “extreme vetting procedures” are needed. But no basis for this increased threat, and no examples of what “extreme vetting” means, was offered to justify a need for new procedures nor the rush to implementation. Given Trump’s penchant for exaggeration and his increasing loss of personal credibility, accepting these actions on trust is not warranted.

The Constitutional and Legal Issues: A Facebook friend rightly pointed out that no foreign citizen has an inherent legal right to enter the United States. All do so only by the permission of the U.S. government. These permissions follow established rules and processes, and in 1993 the Supreme Court granted some legal protections to immigrants once they are resident. Given the haphazard manner in which this ban was formulated, announced and implemented, it was destined to wind up in court –where it sits now working its way through the hierarchal judicial system. What has gotten lost in the judicial posturing is NOT whether the President has the power to restrict immigration. What has been upheld three times is simply an injunction to put the order on hold while the legal rights of the President and his EO are clarified. All of the bluster and arguing about whether the President has the immigration power  are misplaced at the moment; that decision is still to come, and will likely find the President does.

However, what may trip up Trump’s case is 1) if the ban is deemed unjustified and over-reactive given no demonstrated new threat; 2) that the EO and its implementation was so ill-done, erratic and ambiguous that it in itself is unconstitutional; 3) that it is a discriminatory ban based upon religious bias against Islam/Muslims or preferential treatment to non-Muslims; 4) that it treated all classes of visa holders the same even though their circumstances are different and each class has different rules that apply. Undermining Trump’s court review are numerous statements during the campaign for a comprehensive ban of all Muslims. There is every suspicion that what is being called “temporary” is in fact an intentional step towards “permanent” and all-inclusive. Trump’s case is not helped by his (once-again) full-frontal assault on the integrity and independence of the Judiciary branch. “Equal branches of government” does not mean that the President’s power is unassailable and is “not to be questioned” (as one of his ignorant junior aides stated). It means each branch has its own sphere of Constitutionally divided and assigned powers, and within those defined powers each is supreme over the other. The Judiciary’s right to review Congress and Executive actions has been well established and ingrained in the American fabric for over 200 years (see Richard Nixon and Watergate tapes.)

The Fallout: It is shameful that this immigration ban was done as it was, further fueling the great neighbor-versus-neighbor divide that exists among us today. I have been shown nothing that shows our current vetting to be inadequate, nor more of a reason to fear for my safety from foreign-born arrivals than existed three months ago. There was no need to rush to judgment or to not do it right. “Doing it right” could have meant building the case for specific countries where vetting has  recently been made more difficult; writing a well-researched Executive Order with a reasonable scope considering all affected parties; properly coordinating this action among all the affected agencies; training that would yield consistent explanations and procedures. We need to communicate our intention in positive terms instead of the usual “anti-/agin-er” terminology we are so continually inundated  with – stressing getting the right people IN rather than banning everyone to keep the bad guys out. Words and tone still matter.

The fierce kickback against Trump is not a legal one. It is a reaction to his track record of stoking the fires of hate and prejudice to benefit his election. Hatred and prejudice against “foreigners” have plagued this country since its founding. Only the targeted class of people has changed – Africans, Irish, Chinese, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Japanese, now Arabs/Middle Easterners, and Jews, Catholics and now Muslims – even though we are all sons and daughters of immigrants. We have a long litany of mistreatment to each other. That collective weight competes with our tradition of welcoming the stranger – which we all once were – into our land. Welcoming the sufferer looking for a chance at the still-existing American Dream. Protect us against the threat of harm, yes. But do so in a reasonable way that protects us from our unreasonable fears. The Statue of Liberty, with her welcoming message to those who come here, is the most visible and definitive symbol of the American promise. She is our better self. She is who we truly are. Block the gate to the one with a gun in his hand. But make sure we shake the empty hand of the one who comes in peace. That is the message we must be sure does not get lost.

©   2017   Randy Bell             www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain,


Monday, January 23, 2017

Expectations Of A Trump Presidency

He has been in the public eye for 40 years. When he announced his candidacy for President of the United States, he was viewed as a clown jokester that got continually less funny over time. When the first votes were counted, he leapt to the head of the large pack behind him and never looked back. He surprised everyone by winning a major party’s nomination built upon a wrecking-ball campaign against the political status quo. His personality-driven campaign continued into the general election, which he was given no chance of winning. But a last-minute surge of disaffected and disenfranchised voters –mainly white, lower middle-income,  conservative voters fearful over the loss of jobs and the “traditional” social order – came together to give him the unexpected win. On January 20th, 2017, Donald J. Trump became our President.

By all traditional measures, he is the most ill-prepared President in our history. He ran as the advocate of the average citizen and working man/woman. Yet he has never spent a single day in public service (much less governance), never worked as anything but the absolute-control CEO of a closely-held family business, never suffered the difficulty of losing a job or being unemployed, never wondered where his next meal or dollar would come from. So what are we likely to expect from a minimum of four years of a Trump presidency? Speculating upon future political outcomes is always a risky sport, but there are a few framing themes we can perhaps see in the haze of the crystal ball.

1. No Core Principles. The bad news is that Trump has few, if any, core philosophical or political principles that guide him. The good news is that is that Trump has few, if any, core philosophical or political principles that guide him. Which means that almost any political/social position is theoretically possible to come out of a Trump presidency. Trump is guided by end results, not philosophy or process. Get his ear, convince him of a worthwhile financial or self-glorifying outcome, and that can drive his version of policy. He will most certainly (and intentionally) surprise us, frustrate both political friends and enemies, confirm opponents’ suspicions, and inevitably disappoint his supporters’ high expectations of him.

2. Rules Are For Others. Trump has never answered to a boss/supervisor. He has never been accountable to a Board or to stockholders. He has made his own rules, done what he has wanted how he has wanted. But a Presidency is borne and bred within the nursery of tradition and imagery, and Americans take their role expectations of “the President” very seriously. So far Trump has delighted in flouting these expectations. His ridiculing comments about people, his refusal to divest himself of conflicts of interest, his decision not to release his tax returns, his push to confirm his Cabinet appointments before being fully vetted, his personal attacks on the intelligence community and other government employees, all fly in the face of presidential tradition. It is a pattern that will permeate downward, and continually create unending crises of moral compromises and ethical complaints for him and his administration.

3. Beyond Criticism. The President is the most criticized individual in the world. Almost everyone thinks they know better than the President, and is free and willing to say so no matter how inappropriate their ideas may be. Trump has shown no ability to let such criticism slide off his back or to pick only worthwhile battles to fight. Instead, we are treated to an unending series of petty fights not worthy of presidential attention. Trump has shown no ability to debate criticism in substantive terms. The argument never goes beyond highly personal insults that seek to discredit the criticizer rather than disprove the criticism. People who praise him are “great” and “beautiful”; people who disagree with him are “losers” and their career accomplishments and organizations are “failures.” Credit is taken for achievements not of his doing; responsibility is never taken for failures; it is all “the media’s” fault. Trump lives in a self-made bubble designed to insulate him from admitting the slightest shortcoming; “facts” are invented out of nowhere without regard for truth or consistency to protect that bubble. The credibility of the White House will progressively take a huge hit; such erosion will do significant damage to the ability to lead the country. A person who takes him-/herself  this seriously does not warrant being taken seriously. While a Trump supporter may enjoy reading such insults in the moment, one should never forget that they could well be the next target for Trump’s angry words.

4. Presidents Are Not That Powerful. The presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world. But each ex-president has acknowledged how limited that power actually is. There are the Constitutional limitations on the president’s powers. There are the strong egos and career experience of Cabinet appointees. There is the intentional distribution of balanced power among the House, Senate, and Judiciary and the egos of these officials. There is “the bureaucracy” that was there before you came and will be there after you leave, the president being just “temporary.” There are 50 governors and state legislatures intent on going their own way. There are other countries and their leaders. Regardless of their smaller size and military prowess, they are sovereign nations able to make their own decisions independent of American desires. And then there are “events” over which you have no control (e.g. 9-11; school shootings; North Korean atomic weapons) but which nevertheless dictate the agenda. Trump has been used to giving orders and watching things automatically get done. The deliberateness of government and international diplomacy will frustrate him and create adversaries everywhere.

5. No Pivot. During the early campaigning, pundits said Trump would “pivot” and tone down the harsh and outlandish statements when the primary voting started. Same after he won sufficient votes to ensure the nomination. After the Republican Convention conferred the nomination, he would then pivot and “act presidential” for the general election. After he became president-elect, the weight of the impending office would sober him to leave the campaign mode behind. It never happened. His transition as President-elect has been a continuation of his campaign. He continually stepped on the toes of the one sitting President, inappropriately trying to act as a “second president” by commenting on national and international issues before his time. He conducted a rerun of “The Apprentice” by publically parading potential cabinet choices through Trump Tower in a disrespectful spectacle that demeaned their status while trying to enhance his own image of authority. All while the ugly Twitter words and criticisms continued to come. There was no Pivot. There will be no future Pivot. Trump will be stuck in campaign mode for the next four years. He will not act “presidential” as we have known it; he will act “Trumpial” as he defines it. What we have seen is what we will continue to see. Americans are noted for having a pretty short-term attention span; “Campaign Trump” will wear pretty thin for everyone over a four year span.

6. Yardstick for Presidential Success. Trump’s whole history is built around financial success. A large profit on one’s Income Statement may be a satisfactory measure of business success; it is not a sole measure of government service success. There are too many agendas, too many diverse “stockholders,” and – in spite of all the campaign rhetoric and economic statistics – too many financially successful citizens for economic success to be solely sufficient. There are many other issues that will drive the public’s response to Trump’s presidency. Unfortunately, it appears that Trump is setting up a bifurcated presidency going forward. He seems very interested in foreign affairs, defeating ISIS, negotiating trade deals and creating more domestic jobs. So he will be very engaged with those Cabinet departments. But domestic affairs / social issues will prove to be less interesting, so he will pay only cursory interest there. This will leave Vice President Mike Pence – the darling of social Conservatives – in de facto leadership over the domestic agenda and those Cabinet departments, several of which have truly reactionary Cabinet-level leaders. They will run amuck for a while in their moment in the sun. It will last until the negative reaction sets in as the public realizes that cutting budgets means cutting services, American jobs means higher costs at Walmart, tariffs on imports means reciprocal tariffs on exports, eliminating support for the Arts means no more Sesame Street for parents, restricting voting rights hurts everyone, not just minorities. Trump will cut heads when the blowback becomes personal against him.

Such is the framework for the next four years. Lacking both a popular vote mandate and high approval ratings, the upcoming political landscape will be an unending series of contentious adversarial encounters. We will each find much to disagree with, whatever is our political positioning. But some stuff will get done that we can agree with due to differing alliances on one issue to the next. We need to pick our battles, select the Tweets worth reading, conserve our energy, not get on the roller coaster. It is going to be quite the ride, regardless of our politics and for whom we voted. A unified America is not just around the corner.

©   2017   Randy Bell