Truthful Hyperbole

Some 62 million people believed the promises of Donald Trump. As a result, he is now our President. For those who took his words literally, his fabrications, exaggerations, and lies seemed disqualifying. So why did so many citizens vote for him? Well, I may have an answer. In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump explained his personal formula for success. He claimed to be a purveyor of fantasies: a self-styled promoter capable of creating any storyline that could win support for his interest. But he never considered himself a liar. For him, closing the deal on his terms justified whatever fantasy or artful untruth he might concoct. “People,” he felt, “want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.” I question whether his use of hyperbole was truthful. But his supporters called it “not politically correct.” They did not equate his “shtick” with what other politicians have done in the past, that is, simply to tell voters what they wanted to hear. No, he spoke to their hearts and did so with more pizazz than the other candidates. In fact, the press, political opponents, and much of the country totally underestimated the self-promotion talent of this man. At every turn, he deflected the press from his preposterous hyperboles, artfully reframing any critique into one of his self-serving fantasies and often turning the focus on his opponents’ alleged weaknesses or personal flaws.

Sometimes his so-called “counter punches” were less a response to criticism than an attempt to create a false equivalency in misbehavior. For example, he could almost make his bankruptcies and questionable financial dealings disappear by focusing attention on his opponent’s alleged “pay for play” or mishandling of classified documents. Underneath these allegations was a disregard for the facts: his opponent never benefited financially when an associate contributed to a charitable foundation; and, although use of a private server was against the security protocols of the Administration, there was never any intent to divulge classified documents. While demeaning his critics and rivals, he was loudly promoting his vision to save America from its failings, many of which were outlandishly exaggerated. The fantasy he created was that only he could save America from a poorly run government and from the dangers of bad trade deals, foreign Muslim terrorists, and undocumented immigrants. He successfully captured every news cycle with his reframing, deflections, attacks, and his fantastical world view of a declining America on the precipice of collapse. Truly, his performance was awesome. His supporters did not accept the claim of his adversaries that they were being duped. Quite the contrary, they accepted his kabuki-like performance as a plausible way to disrupt the navel watching of a gridlocked government and its failure to appease their fears and address their needs.

In his first press conference, the President confessed “I guess I am a politician now.” Actually, he surpassed the politicians he so readily demeaned: “I give them money and they do what I want . . . I own them.” Now he can keep his money and engineer whatever change he wants with the stroke of a pen. Even the disruption he has brought to his first month in office is a sign of his success. Millions of Americans are pleased to see the “establishment” so shaken by his tweets, his appointments, and his executive orders. But millions more are seriously concerned by what he has set in motion: the deconstruction of government institutions dedicated to our general welfare; and his unsettling allusions to a withdrawal of America from the world order it has worked so hard to establish and lead. How has he become such a focal point of this division in our society and of concern amongst our allies? I think part of the answer rests with his “truthful hyperbole.” It is not possible to articulate any sensible strategy based upon exaggerated and/or inaccurate premises. Any salesman or self-promoter can win a sale or gain trust with a good pitch, however disassociated from reality. But it is not possible to develop a successful strategy to create good paying jobs or reduce crime by deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. Most of these immigrants work in the agricultural and domestic sectors where their low wages provide a bare subsistence for their families. They, like many immigrants before them, take the jobs most Americans shun and, as studies indicate, stay clear of the law and possible deportation. So any strategy to save American jobs or decrease crime by deporting undocumented immigrants is aimless. It has no chance of achieving its objectives.

Likewise, banning Syrian refugees in order to protect Americans from terrorists is another aimless strategy. No Syrian has ever been involved in any terrorist action against America—in fact, no foreign national has been so involved since 911. Moreover, the multi-year vetting of immigrants is designed to assure that these refugees present no danger to Americans. In fact, they are merely trying to escape the horrors of persecution and war. The problem with these strategies is that they are justified by “truthful hyperboles,” which, like “alternative facts,” are simply falsehoods. Worse, however self-characterized, they are unadulterated lies. If the President is successful in deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and closing our borders to Syrian refugees, he will indeed fulfill campaign promises. But he will have also added immeasurably to the misery of immigrant and refugee families—fellow human beings who present no more danger to us than other Americans.

Refugees and immigrants are not the only victims of the President’s policies. American jobs and quality of life will also suffer. He seems to believe the future of energy is in coal, oil, and gas exploration and not in pursuit of renewables. He is willing to pollute our air and water to make us independent of foreign oil. But he ignores the fact that renewable energy is one of the fastest growing industries in America. Solar energy has already reached a price point that is competitive with energy produced from hydrocarbons. My home, for example, is powered 100% by renewable energy sources; and my monthly energy bill is actually less than it was before I converted from hydrocarbons. If the President merely took the lead of his predecessor who enabled the tripling of solar energy production during his term, President Trump could move us much closer to energy independence without the pitfalls of pollution.

His further justification for the path he has chosen is another “truthful hyperbole.” He says he “will bring back jobs” to oil and gas producers and, most especially, to the collapsing coal industry. But it is the price of oil that triggers exploration and increased production. If America increased production, it could create a glut in the market, forcing a fall in oil prices and a drop in production. Recently, as the oil market has recovered from an historic low point, fewer than expected jobs were created; for the resources to turn up the spigot were already in place. Although the energy market has contributed greatly to job growth since the Great Recession, its volatility makes it an unreliable anchor for any job growth strategy. And the 12,000 coal miners currently out of work are dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of workers now employed in the renewable energy industries. For example, California has over 500,000 people employed in its renewable energy infrastructure, of which solar is an ever-growing part. The President’s energy strategy will not create the number of jobs he promised. Besides, reprising the past at the expense of our future is not a worthwhile strategy.

In the President’s usage, “truthful hyperbole” is literally an oxymoron. Moreover, the way in which the President lavishly articulates it in tweets and demagoguery is as problematic as the term itself. When hyperbole inserts falsehoods into the public discourse, discord is sure to follow as truth struggles to free itself from misrepresentation. The President’s offensive tweets or press conference rebukes will only serve to heat up those struggles. The only truth here is that his strategies for making America great again are based upon false premises. Not even the verbal art of a huckster or the glitz of high office can bury that truth for long. But in the meantime our democracy may suffer. I felt the same way two years ago when I raised the same concern with respect to our legislators (reference “Words Have Meaning”). The use of provocative language without regard for the truth debases the public forum, demeaning both America and its citizens.

Competency and the American Presidency

Much was made of competency in the recent Presidential election. It is an interesting attribute inasmuch as it can connote different meanings. The Webster’s Dictionary defines it simply as “having requisite or adequate ability or qualities.” But the word implies a deeper meaning that actually clarifies what is “requisite or adequate.” The Latin root (com ”together” and petere “to seek or strive”) is a transitive verb that requires an object. The Latin verb petere literally means “to reach towards” something. In other words, whatever ability or quality one may have can be seen as “requisite or adequate” in terms of the object or goal that is sought. For example, when Olympic athletes compete, do they compete to win fame and fortune, or to better their personal best performance and honor the country they represent? The former is a selfish objective; the latter is an expression of character. Now we know all Olympic athletes have the “requisite or adequate ability or qualities” to compete in the Olympics. They satisfy the literal meaning of competency. But, in choosing a President, we not only assess observable attributes that may qualify a person for the job but also his/her reason or objectives for seeking office. The latter must reflect a desire to do one’s best in service of America’s founding principles and the general welfare of its people. In this instance, competency does have a deeper connotation. If the objective is only to gain boasting rights by winning a hard fought contest, then the level of competency exhibited both by the candidate and the campaign is questionable. The presidency is more than a victory prize and definitely not a reason for self-aggrandizement. The grandeur of the office should humble the man or woman who occupies it. Not the other way around. Lack of experience may be a factor in judging a candidate’s fitness. But native ability can overcome inexperience. Lack of character, on the other hand, is a sine qua non. Simply stated, character is an absolute prerequisite for any President. Without it, there is a serious lack of competency.

“To the victor belong the spoils” is too often the common parlance for describing political campaigns. Competing, in this contemporary usage, usually implies being “in a state of rivalry,” as Webster’s Dictionary also notes. While competition can bring out the best in opponents, it does not have to become a contest between mortal adversaries. To compete, or “to seek or strive together,” implies a communal effort to discover which candidate can best serve the country’s citizens and their collective values. Service, then, should be the prime objective for each Party’s nominee. Candidates may and will differ in their policies and promises, but they should be aligned in this overall objective. If they are so aligned, then they will be respectful and cordial with each other. But the pursuit of power for its own sake will always result in belittling, demonizing, or otherwise denigrating the opposing candidate. The reason for this incivility is not inherent to campaigning. Rather, it is derived from a misguided objective, namely, winning for its own sake. Winning in this case is all there is and “takes no prisoners”; for only the victor collects the spoils in power, prestige, and self-image. These spoils are, in truth, the selfish goals of adolescents and contribute to the crass image of politicians. Mature adults paint their future with a broader brush, to include the welfare of family, friends, community, and nation. Why should we consider any candidate competent who persists in adolescence?

Again, much was made of competency in the recent Presidential election. When we look at competency in the light of its purpose or objective, we gain a new understanding of the nominees’ campaign slogans: “make America great again”; and “we are stronger together.” The first slogan touted how a powerful man could make America great and powerful again—implying it had lost its greatness and power. The second slogan suggested that Americans should “seek or strive together” to achieve their goals. Naturally, these slogans are indicative of the spirit and direction of a campaign; but they are too generic for determining a candidate’s competency for office. Apart from campaign slogans, what objectives did the candidates’ policies reveal? Well, both candidates proposed specific policy positions. But only one has the opportunity to act on them. So let us review what President Trump is actually doing in office. In the last three weeks, for example, he has nominated people for key positions in his Administration and has issued about as many executive orders as his predecessor over the same period. We are now in a better position to assess his competency in terms of his actions. During the campaign, critics often belittled his promises as unrealistic, counterproductive, or worse. His supporters argued that his words were taken literally without regard to their intent because he was not “politically correct.” But now we no longer have to parse his words to guess at his intent. Here is what he has done:
➣ He nominated Ben Carson as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In a 2015 article, Mr. Carson critiqued HUD’s attempt to reduce racial discrimination in housing as “the failed socialist experiment of the 1980s.” He also condemned public housing as social engineering. And one of his spokesmen claimed Mr. Carson felt unqualified to run a cabinet level department. Given the fair housing objectives of HUD, how does Mr. Carson’s avowed beliefs and self-assessment align with them?
➣ He nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She has long been an opponent of public education in favor of private or chartered schools. In her home state of Michigan she funded a referendum that would have allowed public funding of private religious schools. Given the American commitment to public education, what does Ms. DeVos offer to the Department of Education?
➣ He nominated Tim Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). As a Georgia congressman, he has consistently voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, wanted to defund Planned Parenthood, and objected to the HHS’ mission of providing healthcare to poor Americans. As President Trump’s nominee he would have undoubtedly carried out the President’s recent executive order to prohibit HHS from issuing any further regulations or guidance to the states for their administration of the ACA or Planned Parenthood. This order would have effectively silenced the innovation centers established by the ACA to improve healthcare delivery and reduce costs. But, after negative public feedback, the President decided to rescind his order. Given Mr. Price’s position against the HHS mission and established healthcare programs, is there any doubt that he will carry out the intent of the President’s directive. After he disables the current operations, what new direction will he provide to HHS?
➣ He nominated Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labor. As the wealthy proprietor of a fast-food chain, Mr. Puzder has repeatedly fought his workforce over wages and is an avowed opponent of increasing the minimum wage, of paid family leave, and of Obama’s efforts to increase overtime pay. Given these anti-labor positions, what does Mr. Puzder offer the Department of Labor?
➣ He nominated Jeff Sessions as Attorney General to head the Justice Department. Senator Sessions is well known for his past association with white supremacists and nonsupport of voting rights. Because of these issues the Senate previously denied his nomination to a federal judgeship. Given the Attorney General’s role in enforcing civil rights and fair voting practices, what does Mr. Sessions offer as our chief protector of civil rights and equal justice for all?
➣ He nominated former Governor Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy. Besides the fact that Mr. Perry actually wanted to eliminate the Energy Department, he famously admitted his ignorance of its mission. He thought he was being asked to become an advocate for oil and gas production, which is in part the concern of the Department of the Interior. Instead, the Energy Department oversees the country’s nuclear programs, including its arsenal of nuclear bombs. His lack of qualifications for the job is magnified by the fact that his predecessor was a nuclear physicist. Given his embarrassing unpreparedness for the job, what does Mr. Perry’s clueless acceptance of his nomination tell us about his judgment? Should this man be given responsibility to manage the nation’s stockpile of the world’s most devastating weapons of mass destruction?
➣ He nominated Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Mr. Tillerson is a highly successful business man, in fact, the former CEO of the energy giant ExxonMobil. Because of the international nature of the gas and oil business, Rex Tillerson is already familiar with many of the world leaders. The only concerns about his nomination are his lack of experience in diplomacy and possible conflicts of interest. He has worked his whole professional life for just one company. And he had just completed negotiations with Russia’s President Putin for joint gas exploration in the Artic when Obama’s sanctions against Russia blocked the deal. The value of this Exxon-Russian agreement is half a trillion dollars. Although Mr. Tillerson has moved his Exxon stock into a blind trust, any action he might take as Secretary of State to eliminate the Obama sanctions would result in a huge windfall for his Exxon stock portfolio, currently worth about 150 million dollars. Given his lack of foreign policy experience and possible conflict of interest, can Mr. Tillerson be effective as America’s top diplomat?
➣ He nominated Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Pruitt is a climate change denier and an avowed opponent of the EPA which, as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, he is currently suing. In fact, in his role as Attorney General, he created an organization within his office to fight any Obama Administration regulations on healthcare and environmental issues. Perhaps in an effort to help Mr. Pruitt, President Trump has already issued an Executive Order to change the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan to allow dumping of coal plant waste in fresh water rivers and cancel the coal plant requirement to scrub smokestack emissions. Furthermore, the President had also ordered the EPA’s website on climate change to be taken down and had put a gag order on the agency. That order would not have allowed any EPA employee to attend meetings, confer with associates in other agencies, or communicate with private sector organizations such as the press on any work issues. Since the EPA is constantly monitoring superfund cleanup sites and engaging with state organizations regarding clean air and water issues, it would have been severely hampered by the President’s actions. After much negative public feedback, the President rescinded this order. But, at this writing, his amendment to the Clean Power Plan remains. Given the President’s and Mr. Pruitt’s obvious anti-EPA bias, what benefit will this nominee bring to the functions of this agency and its role in preserving clean air and water for all Americans and in fighting the impact of climate change?
➣ He is considering a nominee recommended by one of his billionaire associates to head the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The President is looking at this prospective nominee because he promises to eliminate FDA testing of drugs released for market. Apparently, the President believes it is more important to bring new drugs to the market sooner than to determine their effectiveness and safety in controlled lab testing. Instead these drugs would be tested in the marketplace. Since he has not yet decided on a candidate, the recommended nominee will not be named here. But does anybody believe FDA testing and approving of new drugs should be so off-handedly discarded?
➣ He ordered the Department of Homeland Security to ban all emigrants from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia from entering the country. Initially, this immigration ban included visa and green card holders. When challenged in the courts, the Trump administration offered to exclude these pre-cleared immigrants who in fact are legal residents. But the President’s order would still ban about 100,000 potential Syrian refugees who were expected to be granted visas this year. At least 65,000 of these refugees have already cleared background checks and have waited an average of two years in refugee camps for these visas. Most of them are families with children. How do these people deal with this crushing set-back? Of course, the President has the authority to manage the immigration system. But there are at least three problems here that speak to competency. First, he failed to consult with the State Department which surely would have excluded immigrants with visas or green cards, many of whom were routinely returning to home or school in America. Secondly, the President bragged that he was following through on a campaign promise to ban Muslims and excoriated the judge who stayed his order as a “so-called judge.” Some may excuse these remarks by saying he misspoke. But his words trample on the First Amendment and the separation of powers. Thirdly and more significantly, this ban on Syrian refugees is inhuman and un-American. In my opinion, the manner and intent of the President’s actions count as three strikes against his competency.
➣ He cancelled funding for the National Endowment of the Arts. Perhaps he wants to assure that no painter or sculptor will ever record his image in the halls of our American institutions.

After the actions of his first weeks in office, where do you think President Trump falls on the pendulum between capitalism and democracy? The answer to this question is important for it affects a delicate balance in our American system. Specifically, our free markets are an expression of individual freedom. But free markets are normalized in our republican democracy by a government tasked with guaranteeing civil rights and justice for all. That guarantee translates into equal opportunity, perhaps the most tangible expression of the “pursuit of happiness” declared in the Declaration of Independence. Both capitalism and democracy have integral roles in providing equal opportunity. But it is government that arbitrates this integration in the interest of all its citizens. Can you see a pattern in the President’s cabinet appointments that would favor equal opportunity in jobs, in healthcare, in education? Also, how would our freedom be affected by voter suppression laws and an unsafe environment? Our new President comes into office as a disruptor of government policies and against the Washington “elites.” I think his initial appointments and Executive Orders confirm his role as a disruptor. But how does he intend to rebuild the departments and restore faith in the institutions and practices he seems intent on dismantling and disavowing? Without knowing what follows, how do we determine the competency of this disruptor? Remember the story of Humpty Dumpty: “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

Frankly, the President has overwhelmed Americans with all the controversies he has spawned in his short time in office. The Mexican dollar, for example, has collapsed as a result of the President’s tariff threats and demands that Mexico pay for his proposed border wall. The falling Mexican dollar reduces labor cost which ironically entices American businesses to relocate there and encourages Mexican laborers to seek better wages in America. Currently, Mexican migrants do not represent the problem Trump imagines in his alternate universe. The Mexican migration to the United States has been in a steady decline for years, in inverse ratio to the growth of the Mexican economy. But the President’s threats may reverse both trends while ignoring the real problem. Many of the border crossings to date are from Central America, where failing governments, roving bands of thugs and robbers, and drought conditions bred by global warming have created unbearable conditions. Rather than addressing the problems in Central America, the President has issued an Executive order to begin extension of the border wall, using Federal funds he has arbitrarily reallocated from other programs and without any guarantee of sufficient funds to complete the project. In a recent Charlie Rose interview, Tom Friedman wondered whether the President’s border wall would be any more effective than the Mediterranean Sea in stopping refugees. Nevertheless, the President is as dogged in pursuit of his wall as Don Quixote in battling windmills.

The President has unsettled many nations and world leaders besides Mexico and its President. China is equally wary of his position on the “one China” policy. One might imagine Angela Merkel’s surprise when she had to explain for him the Geneva Conventions’ position on torture. Not only the German leader, but the Prime Ministers of Australia and England are equally troubled by his refugee ban that has inspired protests around the world. England’s House of Commons argued for three hours over a resolution to ban our President from visiting the United Kingdom on a state visit. Although the MPs did not vote on that resolution, more recently they were united in prohibiting President Trump from addressing the full Parliament because of its long held opposition “to racism and to sexism.” It appears that the only world leader who is willing to say nice things about our President is Vladimir Putin. Naturally, he would welcome a transactional American President with whom he might be able to deal without those pesky concerns of treaty obligations (Crimea), the sovereignty of nations (Ukraine), and genocide (Syria). Besides, Putin not only agrees with some of the President’s positions (reference “Why does Putin Favor Trump?”) but also supported him during his election campaign. With the stakes set at half a trillion dollars, why would Putin not welcome a deal maker to a seat at his table?

The wording of the initial refugee ban and the recent failed Special Forces raid in Yemen seem to show a White House operating in self-imposed isolation from the established institutions of government. In time the President will likely learn how to wield the levers of government. In the meantime, he needs to be more restrained and circumspect. The power he holds over foreign policy is a very large two edged sword. It can cut both ways by initiating an incident with unintended consequences: for example, the sinking of an overly aggressive Iranian patrol boat could result in an Iranian missile attack against an American Destroyer; or flying an American reconnaissance plane over a Chinese military installation in the South China Sea could be harassed by Chinese interceptors or, worse, shot down. Any ill-advised action overseas could derail the President’s domestic agenda. For instance, he has promised some significant and worthwhile changes affecting tax reform, regulatory pruning, infrastructure investments, and the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare. But his recent missteps in office raise concerns about those promises. Many of his initial staffing decisions call into question the integrity and suitability of his Administration to achieve any worthwhile objectives. The President seems more intent on deconstructing the departments of government than making them more efficient or providing better service. His opinions seem un-/ill-informed (i.e., based upon ignorance or malice) on matters of fair housing, public education, healthcare, workplace conditions, equitable pay, civil rights, safe pharmaceuticals, voter fraud versus voter suppression, climate science, the art of diplomacy, the obligations inherent in international relations, and the functioning of a tripartite government in a republican democracy.

While he has given former Goldman Sachs executives control over government financial institutions and attempted to put billionaires in key cabinet positions, he has simultaneously retired all the directors on the National Security Council and the entire senior staff of the State Department. At this early stage in office, the President seems more focused on the financial sector. Obviously, we would expect him to be more comfortable wearing the mantle of a businessman. As the CEO of a privately owned company, he likely was the primary deal maker and probably the chief architect of mission and process. Maybe he even devised some, perhaps the majority, of the tactics used to achieve his overall strategies. Undoubtedly, he controlled his operational budgets and expenditures. Certainly there are areas where this business experience might be quite relevant. His proposed infrastructure program, for example, could benefit from his real estate development acumen where completing a project on-time, under budget, and according to specs is the definition of success. But there is much more required of a President. The President said recently that he is very smart and understands things “better than anybody.” Well, the first thing he needs to understand is that he is no longer a business man managing his wealth and personal brand. He is the President of the United States who took an oath to serve the interests of all Americans. Eventually, he will learn that neither he nor his immediate staff will ever be competent to know everything. He has a workforce of about two million public servants to lean on. As President, he leads all the departments and organizations that administer the laws and institutions that serve and protect the American people. We desperately need him to use and manage the resources already at his disposal.

Sometimes I sense that the President is more concerned with his image than the actual job of being President. In business, where consumer confidence in goods and services reign, branding or image is critically important. In government, success is also partly measured by public image. But that image cannot be long maintained without positive results. No amount of spin, “alternative facts” (aka, falsehoods), scapegoating, political conspiracy theories, or deflections can cover incompetence for very long. At some point he will realize that both he and his Administration interconnect with the other branches of government and work for us. Nearly everything he has to do as President depends upon the effectiveness of Federal departments and institutions, the consent of Congress, and the support of the American people. That support will be there only as long as his Administration is effective in its primary objectives—that is, to preserve our freedoms, our security, our just treatment under the law, and our diversity as “one nation under God.” Failing those objectives will result in a failed Presidency.

In conclusion, the President’s competency in the job is an issue we all hope will improve with time. But that hope depends upon his realization that the office he occupies is not his. It is ours. The power it affords him is given in trust. The only way he can deserve that trust is to bend the institutions of government to serve and protect the American people and our core values as expressed in our Constitution. So far, many of the President’s appointments and executive orders belie that trust. Only if he learns to wield power in our behalf will our new President gain the humility that power demands. When he rails against the press, judges, fellow politicians, private citizens, and individual corporations in defense of his image or business interests, he actually demeans the office. He has become the target of protests here in America and around the world because his initial actions appear aimed at satisfying poorly thought-out campaign objectives instead of the demands of the office he occupies. Most of what he has done in these first weeks of his Presidency his successor will probably have to undo. Unless he turns things around, he will not leave office with an image even he could admire.

The Presidency cannot continue to be about Donald Trump. It must be about America.

Shim, Sham, or Shame

It may seem surprising to some, but I was once an innocent child, a little neophyte in the big bad world. I can recall the time I saved my dollar-a-week allowance in order to buy my mother an overpitched donut maker. The TV huckster promised to include “for free” an array of cookie form-cutters. What a deal! And my purchase came with side benefits any eight year old could appreciate. My mother, out of deference to my naiveté, actually made use of the donut maker, but just once. I never saw it or the cookie cutters again. I only vaguely remember the miniature donuts she made and the toy-like plastic implements my frugality bought for her.

If you live in a consumer society—as we do—then you become accustomed to clearance sales, close-out sales, 50% off bargains, and “free” add-ons to avidly hocked purchases. But if you are a discriminating consumer, then you probably ignore the huckster and search for the product or service that best fits your need and matches your budget. Maybe this is the time to bring that same discrimination to our politics. Apathy can mirror innocence for it makes us equally naïve. And information hucksters have undermined our discrimination by veiling the truth behind a wall of self-serving lies and falsehoods.

A carpenter shapes and tapers a shim to make a finished product, like a piece of furniture or a wood structure. In my last blog (reference “Why Repeal and Replace Obamacare?”), I offered several scenarios that would further reduce healthcare costs and improve Obamacare. As a layman, I likely lack the expertise needed to create the best possible finished product. But I believe I have the right approach: let’s make Obamacare better or, if you will excuse my metaphor, design a shim to fill in the cracks. Instead, Republicans want to repeal and replace, that is, to obliterate the current product and build a replacement from scratch.

The Republican leadership has already decided how best to sell Obamacare’s replacement. It has been pitched as the only alternative for avoiding the inevitable collapse of the current system. That alleged collapse is something Republicans have continuously tried to accomplish by discouraging enrollments with negative propaganda and by strangling insurance company participation in the exchanges with court injunctions and the defunding of the risk corridor. Now that Republicans have control of Congress, they can simply defund Obamacare under the guise of tax reform. Without the .9% income tax or 3.4% investment income tax for incomes over $200,000 ($250.000 for married couples), Obamacare subsidies would disappear. Since eight of ten subscribers enrolled through the exchanges depend on these subsidies, the current self-funded Affordable Care Act would be gutted. And Obamacare would indeed collapse. But it would not collapse of its own weight, but by the will of Congress. If Republicans can hide the truth that Obamacare benefits everybody, not just enrollees in the exchanges, then they might convince the majority that repeal will not affect them. In addition, if they can secretly defund Obamacare under the pretense of tax reform, then they might win support for its replacement. For any healthcare system would be better than a failed one. In other words, if you can keep Americans in the dark, they just might be naïve enough to buy an inferior product, like my eight year old self buying a toy donut maker. This Republican strategy to save Americans from an allegedly inevitable Obamacare disaster is really a sham.

If I am not alone in calling out this sham, then perhaps enough of us can inspire Congress either to design a carefully designed and molded shim for Obamacare or to create a healthcare system that will match and exceed its accomplishments. One legislator has proposed a “patient/doctor centered” healthcare system that reportedly will provide tax deductions to fund individual health savings accounts (HSAs) and will establish an interstate insurance exchange market. But apart from its catchy name, it leaves many unanswered questions on the table. How will these HSAs be funded if low income tax returns cannot benefit from tax deductions? If a tax deduction cannot provide funds for an HSA, will the Federal Government simply pay for it? How much money will be provided for these individual HSAs? Will it cover catastrophic illnesses? Will insurance company profits be capped? Will new Federal insurance regulations override differing individual state regulations to provide uniform practices across state lines? Will these new regulations fall under the federal jurisdiction of interstate commerce or be a violation of state rights? Will the universal benefits of Obamacare be preserved? How will a proposed replacement system be funded? How will healthcare costs be affected? Without answers to these questions—and probably many others I do not have the expertise to raise—the prospect for an adequate replacement system seems remote or, worse, a false and perhaps misleading promise. And that would be a scam played on all Americans. It would also mark our legislators with unremitting shame.

Why Repeal and Replace Obamacare?

At the time of its conception, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) offered an economic justification. Surely, every step closer to universal healthcare would help reduce incidences of expensive catastrophic illness and eliminate the wholly subsidized emergency room visits of the uninsured. The savings so generated, it was believed, would reduce the per capita costs of healthcare. They would also benefit health providers, allowing them to fund some of the ACA’s administrative costs via taxes levied on hospitals, labs, and medical device manufacturers. Also, the ACA added a 0.9 percent payroll surtax on earnings and a 3.8 percent tax on net investment income for individuals with incomes exceeding $200,000 ($250,000 for couples). In the interest of furthering costs reductions, the ACA encouraged additional savings with various enticements that promoted preventive care, encouraged best practices, discouraged unnecessary treatment protocols, and rewarded better treatment outcomes. In addition, it was hoped that the healthcare exchanges would promote competition between health insurers and lower insurance premiums, thus complementing and abetting healthcare savings. Towards the same end, the ACA capped insurance company profits at 15% or 20% for employer or private based coverage, respectively. Any profits above the cap would have to be returned to subscribers and has resulted in the refund of billions of dollars since the ACA was implemented. And, finally, the universal mandate was expected to secure more business for the health insurance industry and thereby win its support for the many coverage benefits stipulated in the ACA. Unfortunately for the ACA, the mandate did not fully realize one of its corollary expectations, specifically, that it would shift healthcare costs more progressively from the old, the poor, and the sick to the young, the healthy and the rich who were presumed more capable of sustaining them.

Of course, the ACA had a uniquely American and moral justification as well. Nearly every President since FDR has attempted to extend a/o improve healthcare for all Americans. Providing universal healthcare meshes well with one of our Constitutional goals “to promote the general welfare.” Besides, it is simply the right thing to do. Can any society call itself “great” that does not care for its weak and sickly? To answer this question negatively is to deny our Judeo-Christian heritage and one of the fruits of Western Civilization. So why does Congress want to repeal and replace this historically first attempt to move the country closer to universal healthcare?

The argument against the ACA has taken many forms. Considering its financial impact, it was condemned at the start as a costly boondoggle that would bankrupt America. But the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office’s Executive Summary stated “CBO and JCT (joint congressional taskforce) now estimate that, on balance, the direct spending and revenue effects of enacting H.R. 3590 (the numerical designation for the ACA) as passed by the Senate would yield a net reduction in federal deficits of $118 billion over the 2010–2019 period.” Further, the “CBO expects that the legislation, if enacted, would reduce federal budget deficits over the decade after 2019 relative to those projected under current law—with a total effect during that decade that is in a broad range between one-quarter percent and one-half percent of GDP” (Reference “Subtlety versus Bombast”). After its implementation, the ACA was called a “drain on the economy.” But healthcare spending as a percent of GDP has stopped increasing, remaining flat at 17%; and its rate of growth is the lowest in decades at 3.9% per year. Since 2011, annual spending per Medicare beneficiary has fallen from $12,000 to $11,200 and is expected to stay at that level through 2020, resulting in an expected annual savings of $160 billion and a further extension of Medicare’s financial ledger balance beyond the eight years projected in 2009 (Reference “Obamacare Five Years Later”). The ACA was also deemed a “job killer.” But, while manufacturing lost 45,000 jobs in 2016, 593,000 jobs were added in education and health services. In fact, health care has been one of the two fastest growing sectors of our economy (energy being the other major growth sector).

With respect to the ACA’s healthcare benefits, antagonists have claimed that, instead of serving the general welfare of Americans, it actually damages their health. But the health benefits of the ACA clearly show otherwise. Below are enumerated the ACA regulatory requirements that ALL health insurance must offer:
 ➣ No denial/dropping of coverage based upon pre-existing condition/serious illness
 ➣ No lifetime or annual limits to coverage
 ➣ No co-pays for preventive care AND the addition of preventive screening
 ➣ Gradually closing the “donut hole” for Medicare Part D
 ➣ Children can stay on parents plan until the age of 26
 ➣ Coverage for drug and opioid addiction
 ➣ Maternity, new-born , nursery home, and well-baby care
 ➣ Coverage for birth control
 ➣ Coverage for mental health services
 ➣ Coverage for home health care
 ➣ Provision of premiums w/o gender bias that discriminates against women

It seems hard to argue that the ACA does not make financial sense or that it does not serve and improve the health of Americans. So why repeal it? Like previous instances of major legislation, there are significant areas where it can be made better. The ACA is not a perfect piece of legislation. Healthcare costs, as noted above, continue to increase; and non-emergency healthcare is still not available to all Americans. Also, although the ACA is a strong step towards low cost universal healthcare, there are many possible areas of improvements. Even without legislative support, the “innovation center” ACA created within Health and Human Services (HHS) has worked to improve delivery of healthcare and slow expenditures. It has tried to nudge doctors and hospitals away from fee-for-service medicine and toward payment methods with incentives to lower costs while emphasizing quality. In the blog just referenced, I summarized some of these improvements:

Hospital productivity has accelerated as a result of adapting to the new healthcare law which penalizes hospitals for readmissions, discourages the profit making associated with buying and depreciating the latest expensive equipment with minimal consideration of need or effectiveness, and makes attractive the recent surge in hospital mergers which furthers team medicine, best practices, a salaried medical team devoted more to outcome than quantity of services, and, as a result of economies of scale, supports the digitizing of patient medical records for their dissemination to medical teams working in concert to provide better individual patient care.

In another blog (reference “What Follows Obamacare?”), I summarized a series of initiatives that would further enhance the ACA, some of which have already been undertaken by the healthcare industry. In some areas, Congress could lend its support by providing “financial incentives for the education and development of primary care physicians” and by removing “the ‘charge master’ bureaucracy used by hospitals to peg billing many times more than actual costs (as determined and used by Medicare in its billing).” Many of the new provisions required by the ACA are administered through or provided by primary care physicians. Though these provisions would appear to create upward pressure on premium costs for insurers, primary care physicians actually reduce overall healthcare costs by preventing the catastrophic costs of major illnesses. And the fictional “charge master” prices force these insurers to bid against bloated and unrealistic charges. These artificial prices greatly increase premium costs. While Medicare provides a cost-based floor for determining the price for services, the “charge master” sets a very high ceiling for contract negotiations with insurers. These negotiated contracts explain the inexplicable entries and “discounts” shown on medical bills—for example, a statement charge of $4,641 is given an “insurance negotiated discount” of 40%, resulting in a charge of $2,784.60, compared to a Medicare charge of $149.76 for the same service (amounts extrapolated from an actual statement). The difference in costs between private insurance and Medicare is not only stark but indicative of potential savings. Since insurers’ profits are capped under the ACA, two results appear inevitable: premium costs will continue to rise; and hospital healthcare costs are subject to arbitrary negotiations rather than any common sense balance between costs and profit margins.

Rising costs are largely muted for subsidized enrollees in the exchanges, but they are nevertheless felt by insurance companies and the non-subsidized enrollees. Though small hospitals are emerging with the help of ACA funding, much larger hospitals are using their negotiating advantage to fast becoming the major profit centers in the healthcare industry. They are merging a/o expanding, even absorbing medical practices, satellite facilities, and labs. Some might counter this argument by pointing out the growing number of non-profit hospitals. But the IRS allows these “non-profit” institutions to earn unlimited profits, making them amongst the most profitable of all American hospitals. As noted above, economies of scale do make certain efficiencies more affordable, like team medicine and digitized medical records as noted above. But the concern about corporate sized hospitals is the same with any fast expanding business, specifically, whether excess profits are reinvested in improved operations and services or in management salaries to the detriment of employees and customer service. While hospital profits are soaring, this might be the most opportune time to assure those profits are reinvested in improving healthcare and lowering its overall costs for all Americans. Given the uncontrolled profits of very large healthcare institutions, is there any surprise that healthcare inflation continues to outpace consumer inflation?

Even this cursory analysis illustrates how the ACA has had a positive effect on healthcare costs. It also shows where more can be accomplished. Although the ACA was established as a self-paying system within the Federal budget, it has only slowed down the rising costs of healthcare. While subsidies protect 8 of 10 customers in the exchanges, it shifts the burden of higher costs onto insurance companies and unsubsidized premiums. As a result, employer provided healthcare plans continue to face higher costs, though at a lesser rate than before the ACA. Meanwhile, the future viability of the ACA exchanges is threatened as profit-capped insurance carriers lose money and leave the exchange marketplace. This exodus is a growing concern. For example, United Healthcare, perhaps the largest health insurer in the country, is bailing out of the exchanges altogether after reporting a billion dollar lost. Blue Shield just reported a $400 million dollar lost in South Carolina, but, as the only carrier left in that State’s exchange, has elected to stay in the exchange for now. Of course, this bleak forecast does not tell the whole story; for some states, like California, appear to have thriving exchanges and new innovative carriers competing there for customers. Their success should be mined and emulated throughout the country. So why repeal and replace Obamacare when it could be made more effective?

The answer to that question rests more with our politics than with any lack of imagination. Congress could develop policies that would regulate mega-hospital profits to assure investment in better care. It could enhance competition in the exchanges by supporting the risk corridor. It could invest more in the HHS innovation center to create and promote more efficiency in healthcare delivery systems. It could help relieve healthcare practitioners from the time wasting burden of the large paperwork bureaucracy that state regulations, federal privacy laws, the ACA, and disintegration of healthcare facilities entail. Instead, Republicans seem intent on repealing the ACA or forcing it into a “death spiral. Sixty times the House has voted for repeal. Why? Their pique about being excluded from its formation cannot explain the misinformation campaign and vitriol hurled at this legislation. Perhaps the answer rests in what no Republican has admitted. That 3.8% tax on net investment income (mentioned in the first paragraph) falls heavily on a small minority of Americans who hold hundreds of thousands of dollars in securities. That minority represent the Republican constituency. I think Vox news has answered my question (Reference ACA Taxes).

Since the ACA’s success depends largely on an increase in the number of insureds and the stability of the insurance exchange market, any policy that works against the ACA must address these two factors. Republican Governors, unsurprisingly, have discouraged enrollment in while Republican Attorney Generals have succeeded in destroying the risk corridor where profitable insurance companies were required to contribute to a loss protection fund guaranteed by the Federal Government. The concept behind the ACA risk corridor was to keep insurers in the market during those initial years while enrollments were allowed to grow to a self-sustaining threshold. Without the risk corridor, insurers who have lost money in the exchanges might not be able to stay in the market. United Healthcare is not the only insurer that has lost money in the exchanges. Recently, it has joined with these other insurers to sue the Federal Government over their losses in the exchange marketplace. Congress has reactively responded by passing a bill that prohibits the Administration from settling this suit or replenishing the risk corridor. In other words, Congress made itself complicit in reducing premium competition in the exchanges. As insurers drop out of the market, premium rates consequently tend to go up along with federal subsidies. As a result, even though enrollees continue to exceed forecasts, ACA subsidies will increase disproportionately. And the impact on the federal budget promises to exceed forecasts as well. In other words, Obamacare is in a race to establish a beach head of enrollees before Republicans can wash Obamacare away. The risk corridor was designed to phase out by the year 2020. At this point the political waves are rising fast—perhaps fast enough to overwhelm the ACA before a replacement option can even be identified.

Disabling the risk corridor is just one example of the counterproductive results of our politics. Another example is the refusal of nineteen Republican governors to accept federal subsidies for expanding Medicaid. Where do you think those eligible for Medicaid went when denied coverage because of their governors’ actions? Well, 40% of them signed up for insurance through the exchanges. These enrollees obviously were low income Americans who were in need of healthcare services—likely desperate because of serious health concerns. As a result, premiums in those states went up across the board by 7%. But it is not only Republicans whose politics display the characteristics of an Australian boomerang. Democrats, cowed by the Republican campaign of misinformation failed to defend the ACA in two mid-term elections. Their lack of support had the same impact as an ACA disavowal and, ironically, contributed to their own campaign losses. Obamacare was placed like an albatross on their shoulders. If, instead, they had touted Obamacare’s benefits and its positive impact on ALL Americans, they would have been in a better position to build on its successes and steer it through the unintended consequences that are inevitable for any large social legislation.

Now that Republicans feel they are in a position to repeal the ACA, how do they presume to replace it? Is there a viable replacement plan and does it preserve the benefits already attained? Well, we have heard only two proposals so far. Both were advocated as far back as 2009 when the ACA was initially debated in Congress. First, Republicans always argued for tort reform in recognition that legal liability often encourages hospitals and doctors to prescribe expensive and unnecessary treatments. In effect, they wanted to advance the safe-harbor provision (that is, “everybody else does it”) to reduce malpractice suits. Democrats fought this type of reform for perhaps no better reason than the political support of the legal community. Second, Republicans have long held the idea that insurance prices would be lowered if only insurers were allowed to sell across state lines. Since states regulate health insurance differently, insurers would likely migrate to those states most amenable to their interests, that is, their profits rather than the quality of their health plans. Republicans advance this type of reform for perhaps no better reason than the political support of the healthcare insurance companies. These proposals can and should be debated, but it must be obvious they do not present a basis for replacing the ACA.

The President-Elect’s statement that he already has a plan that will repeal and replace “Obamacare on the same day, even the same hour, (a/o) the same minute” is absurd. As one Republican Senator has recently admitted, the ACA is too complicated (over 900 pages) to digest and evaluate for reform in less than three months, perhaps in a year. Another Republican Senator added that any replacement could take another two or three years to be phased in. Remember its initial creation took months of dialogue between healthcare professionals, providers, insurers, and economic analysts. If there is no better argument for repealing and replacing Obamacare than what has been presented so far, how can anybody determine where to start with a replacement.

Repealing Obamacare without a comparable replacement will put many thousands of healthcare workers out of a job and do irreparable harm to the healthcare of all Americans and, most especially to the 20+ millions whose only healthcare would be limited to ER visits in dire emergencies. Repealing Obamacare with a two or three year delay in implementation would simply roil the healthcare industry with uncertainty. The result would be confusion and perhaps the realization of a hidden agenda, that is, to encourage abandonment of the exchanges and fatal reductions in enrollment. The House legislation that just passed will likely accomplish this result and bring about the “death spiral” long desired by Republicans. That same legislation also repeals the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) of 1997 and defunds Planned Parenthood which was founded in 1969. As much as I hate euphemisms, I have to agree with Senator Schumer: this effort to repeal and replace Obamacare is “not about making America great again, but about making America sick again.”

In conclusion, as we deal with a foreign attack on our democratic institutions from without, we must begin to recognize the enemy within. This attack on the Affordable Care Act is really an assault on our democratic system of governance. That system requires debate and compromise. The problem I see with the current debate over Obamacare begins with the suppression of facts. Republicans just passed legislation to remove any analysis by the Congressional Budget Office of any bill authorizing more than 5 billion dollars. This House initiative leaves the issue of repeal’s impact on the budget merely subject to conjecture. Remember the initial argument about whether the ACA saved a trillion dollars or cost a trillion dollars (reference “Subtlety versus Bombast”). Well, we are about to have this partisan debate again, but without an independent arbiter of the facts. Republicans have cleared away any CBO factual analysis that might be critical for ACA repeal or for any significant legislation Republicans want to pass in the future. In place of facts and non-partisan analysis, they support ACA repeal on the basis of slogans and campaign misinformation, like “job killer,” “budget buster,” or “worse piece of legislation in history.”

The problem I see with compromise is a fatal misunderstanding of its purpose in our system. Compromise must be more about “how” than “what.” When legislators sit down to discuss mutual interest or to find common ground, are they merely trying to find out where their self-interests overlap? Or are they trying to determine how to preserve what we value above all else as Americans, that is, the values expressed in our Constitution and the integrity of our nation. The common ground on the ACA, then, can only be the general welfare of all Americans, not merely legal organizations, hospitals, or insurance companies. When America seeks common ground with foreign entities, it more often than not looks for common areas of self-interest. The best international agreements are almost always “win-win” scenarios. But within Congress, only one win is permissible: and that is what serves all Americans and our founding values. If legislators do not envision healthcare in this light, then they do not deserve to be elected. If instead they weigh the ACA’s merits based upon what sector of the economy may fund their respective campaigns, then they are incompetent to hold public office. Worse, if the incentive to repeal the ACA is born of indiscriminate Party loyalty or stubborn unwillingness to change a past antagonist position, I must question any motive so un-American or petty. Why would any public servant ignore the interest of the American people or the founding values of this country in order to serve Party or win a policy debate? In this case winning is not succeeding!

Besides, this is no way to run a democracy.

**Official stats are still being tabulated and are not yet available at this writing.

Another Session with the Twistcon

It seems that I have another excuse to consult the Twistcon device and its avatar, Savvy. In past dialogues with this AI, we discussed political practices, campaigning, and the role of the press. Now I have a new concern about actual governance. The incoming Administration has a job that seems suited to my skills. The question I put to Savvy is whether I should apply. What follows is a record of our dialogue:

Savvy: Not you again! The last time your illogical questions dropped me into a process loop. My programmers had to do a system recovery. You’re not going to warp my logic circuits again, are you?
Me: That’s certainly not my intent. I’d apologize, but I don’t think that would register with your “logic circuits.” Actually, I’m past all the political craziness of the election. My current concern is with my application for a job in the new President Elect’s Administration. So, you see, I need your analytical skills, your logical perversity.
Savvy: Logic is not perverse! The word implies a turning away from something true or good. It’s only humans who do that, not logic. Now, what is the job in question?
Me: Assistant to the assistant of the deputy Press Secretary.
Savvy: What are the job requirements and which of your skills match those requirements?
Me: Well, the job requirements are unique to this Administration. They actually want to minimize their interaction with the press. So the Press Secretary won’t be doing a lot of question and answer sessions.
Savvy: You must know there is a White House Press Corps. You are introducing an illogical premise: a Press Secretary who minimizes interaction with the press. My programming cannot deal with the illogical.
Me: The White House Press Corps, as it operated in the past, may become more of an anachronism. But there will still be interaction with the press. The new Press Secretary will need to parry, maybe even debunk, press reports, especially those fact based stories that put the Administration in a bad light. He’ll need to stay on the offense while at the same time explaining the President’s policies and statements. It appears the office of the Press Secretary will need staff that can so muddle a Presidential statement that any possible incriminating interpretation can be dissolved into confusion. Also, he’ll need creative people to come up with false narratives, perhaps conspiracy theories, or contra-arguments that undercut any antagonist, either from the press or from a political opponent.
Savvy: You can do this?
Me: Well, he’ll probably want people who can come up with catchy slogans he can hang on Administration critics like an albatross. I’m creative and have some facility with catch phrases. The campaign, for example, was fairly successful with “job killer,” “lyin’ Ted,” “crooked Hillary,” and “low energy Jeb.” He’ll also need misapplied generalizations like “lead from behind,” “pay for play,” “the climate change hoax,” or “freeloader allies.” People remember these branding ditties—like “breakfast of champions”—without thinking about their relevance. I think I could do better than “make America great again.” I guess it worked. But you’d have to be a committed pessimist or a congenital cynic to believe that one. It assumes you won’t think about the actual status America has attained as the most progressive nation in the world. Of course, I wouldn’t undo what’s worked for the President Elect’s campaign. I’d just make it sound more palatable, maybe reemphasize, even boasts about, America’s power or influence. That’ll make it sound like we’re really doing something—making America great—while actually doing nothing substantive. It will play well in Peoria, as they say, and the press will just eat it up.
Savvy: The logic you are using is based upon what you could do rather than what you should do. Even you must be able to see the problem here.
Me: There you go again—insulting me. What I’m explaining is completely logical. We’re talking about job requirements, right? What’s your problem?
Savvy: In each of our past encounters, you have gone down the same rabbit hole. My programming is limited in matters of choice or of morality. It is logical, however, for you humans to choose or act in accordance with your values. But you are not always clear about your values, so you’re often in opposition with each other or in conflict with your presuppositions. What truth or good is accomplished in this job you’re considering? If you can answer that question, then I can help you with a logical course of action.
Me: The job is to support the Press Secretary’s role.
Savvy: Which is . . .?
Me: To inform the press and, through that medium, the public.
Savvy: But the job you described seems to be about supporting Administration policies without regard for the truth or the benefit of the public. How is that “informing” the public? The job you describe goes no further than supporting the Administration. What value is there in a job that disregards the truth or the general welfare of the voters who elected this new Administration?
Me: We all serve at the pleasure of the President.
Savvy: Really? You realize that is the logic of a dictatorship.
Me: Ha! Now you’re being illogical. The President Elect won an election. His voters not only approved of him but of his policies.
Savvy: Really? Then you believe they understood what he meant by “make America great again.” Can you honestly say they voted for him and his policies? Did they have the same understanding of those policies as those more familiar with government institutions? For example, based upon what you just said, what policy would you be supporting in the job you just described?
Me: I think I catch your drift. The job does seem to put the Administration’s interest ahead of the public. I’ll grant you that.
Savvy: Think more broadly than your own experience. There are many currently working in the Federal Administration. What interest do they think they serve?
Me: You’ve given me food for thought. I have wondered about why several hundred civil servants are quitting the National Security Council organization and why others in the Environmental Protection Agency are copying climate change data onto non-government servers. You wouldn’t think they’d give up or risk their government employment for no reason. They must feel the new Administration isn’t aligned with what they do, that is, keeping Americans safe, assuring clean air, water and soil, and securing their posterity from rising seas and the many hazards of a warming planet. I guess they don’t want to be part of an Administration that . . .
Savvy: And do you?
(There is a very long pause)
Me: I guess I could use my skills better as a truth teller, than a propagandist.
Savvy: Then why don’t you write a blog instead?

At this point, I realized I had my answer. There was no need to unplug or turn off the machine in a pique. For the first time, I realized my values were a much more important matter to consider before applying for a job. I guess the same lesson applies to Presidential nominees, a President Elect, and his Administration. It’s not just about a job or winning an election.

The Time Traveler

A shooting star, you say,

But no, a meteor scorching earth’s delicate skin

Just a rock haphazardly spewed from space

And out of time

That is, our time


A time traveler sent to remind us

The time we know does not exist

Except in our creeping consciousness

As we slip through our brief window

That is time’s dominion over us.

AJD 12/17/2016

How to Survive in a Post-Modern World

How does one define the “modern world”? Most would say it is our contemporary world. But what makes it modern versus its predecessor? Many historians would agree with me that the answer begins with the American Revolution and the new republic formed in its aftermath. The principles that formed that republic were partially foreseen during the Age of Enlightenment, courageously declared in 1776, and then experimentally constituted in 1787. But even at its founding, there were cracks in its foundation that fourscore and seven years later shook a budding nation to near collapse. But the experiment was destined to continue, even after the spilling of much blood and the imposition of martial law over much of its territory. Initially, America was referred to as the “new world.” What was discovered as “new” became “modern” because of its initial declaration that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These were the rights used to justify the institution of a new nation subject to the “consent of the governed.”

Later, in the formal Constitution of this new “model” of a nation, a marker was set down that has bedeviled America ever since. The goals expressed in this document were ambitious enough: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” What made these goals extraordinarily ambitious is that they were stated as means to an end. That end is the new nation’s fundamental underlying purpose, namely, “to form a more perfect Union.” In that purpose we find the crux of nearly every internal conflict this nation has endured since its founding—from Civil War, to reconstruction, to women’s suffrage, to civil disobedience, to the initial revulsion against almost every new wave of immigrants, to segregated housing, and to contemporary issues of fairness in the criminal justice system, in policing, in the provisioning of public services, and, as witnessed in the recent campaign, in the treatment of immigrants on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or legal entry into the country. The problem with this “more perfect Union” is that it implies social assimilation as well as de facto equality under the law. The former is a responsibility of every citizen. The latter is the purview of the government that guarantees the Constitutional rights of every citizen.

Even a very cursory review of human history must recognize how America’s very existence is a break with all of human history. Previous to its founding, nation states were formed around racial, tribal, and/or religious identities. America broke with this past and aspired to be different. What it created inspired many nations to form liberal democracies, though none as pluralistic as America would gradually become. The ongoing struggle to form that “more perfect Union” is at the very heart of America, its founding principle. It is also at the center of America’s evangelical influence on the rest of the world to follow its example in governance. Especially since the world wars, American diplomacy has encouraged the formation of democracies and a world order that mimicked its rule of law. The result has been the United Nations and so many other international organizations that influence trade, currency, worldwide humanitarian interests, and so much more. Europe, in particular, has benefited with NATO securing its borders and with the impetus to form its own interdependent union of historically distinct nations. It is almost as if the American Pledge of Allegiance has been extended from “one nation under God” to one world, “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Globalization, for example, is an analogue for America’s interstate commerce. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Geneva Conventions, and so many other international agreements and treaties reflect America’s federalist propensities. For better or worse, America has become the archetype for the modern world.

If you will concede that America has become the blueprint for a modern world, then you must also admit that it is a work in progress. And, as President Obama recently admitted, that work does not progress in a straight line. Besides the internal conflicts already mentioned, there have been many obstacles to that progress. For example, the nineteenth century gave birth to two very different economic/philosophic ideologies, namely, communism and capitalism. The former never really took root in America, despite the fears raised by McCarthyism. The latter actually undergirded the institution of slavery, for cheap labor was the underpinning of the South’s economic juggernaut and its plantation lifestyle. Its moral justification—that Blacks represented an inferior race—was a bit of sophistry to win public support for an inhuman economic system that perverted the key founding principle of America. After the Civil War and the failure of reconstruction, capitalism was the engine behind a new age of industrialism. It unleashed an era of wealth for a new class of economic barons who threatened to control the country in the service of growing their businesses and profits. President Teddy Roosevelt feared this threat; but, more importantly, wanted both labor and business to work fairly in the interest of the nation as a whole. While he introduced legislation to curtail monopoly and corruption, the breach between the economic wealth of the rich and poor widened until the stock market crash of 1929. It was Teddy’s cousin, Franklin, who began to introduce the bank controls and safety net legislation that established some measure of control over unbridled capitalism and of economic security for Americans.

Why do I bring this history into my narrative? Well, it is prologue to another hurdle for this grand American experiment in a self-governing pluralist nation. We just experienced an election campaign where we granted to an elitist billionaire the power to purge America of his self-ordained undesirables, namely, immigrants who are neither Christian nor white enough. His campaign promises regarding undocumented immigrants and Muslims categorize people by ethnic origin or religion in order to deny them the American experience and acceptance into the American community. His campaign was divisive. In addition, he is appointing other billionaires to his Cabinet who have supported policies that further divide the nation by undermining universal public education, nationwide environmental protection, union membership, American Indian treaty rights, criminal justice system reform, fair housing programs, and affordable health insurance for the poor, while proposing tax advantages for the very rich. The gap between the rich and poor, to illustrate just one example, will be further widened by making healthcare and education too expensive for millions and by changing the tax system to favor the rich more than it already does. Whatever might work towards a more perfect union he seems intent to dismember, defund, or simply negate by executive fiat.

Most of these policy positions cannot be enacted without the support of Congress. But many will find support in Congress where similar positions on repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax reform have already been proposed. In addition, the Speaker of the House would like to privatize Social Security and replace Medicare with a voucher system. A compromise between the Speaker and the President Elect might deliver legislation that suits both of their interests. The Speaker’s ideas for tax reform are already very similar to the President Elect’s proposal. The Speaker’s plan, however, is not as generous to the super rich as the President Elect’s, whose plan would increase taxes for the few poor barely living above subsistence level (earning less than $18,550) by 2% and decrease taxes for the upper middle class (earning between$151,900 and $231.450) by 2% and for the very rich by 2 to 6.6%, on an ascending income scale. Billionaires, of course, would rake in many more billions under these proposals. These policy positions have the net effect of increasing income inequality and further polarizing the nation into the “haves and have nots.” This economic polarization further accentuates the divisions he has already advocated between native or naturalized citizens and the undocumented, and between Judeo/Christian and Muslim.

When the President Elect admitted that the nation is already divided, I suspect he was referring to the urban and rural divide that he exploited so successfully. But he has yet to propose anything concrete that would bring these groups together either. It is true that globalization has incurred job dislocation along with the benefits of free trade. He promises to address the concerns of rural communities that are often disproportionately affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign labor markets. He has promised to make better trade deals and to repeal NAFTA. Even if he could repeal NAFTA, the net effect would likely be some decline in the Mexican economy, more border crossings for job seekers, higher prices for goods manufactured in Mexico, fewer jobs currently dependent upon our exports, and less income from the export business we now have with one of our biggest export markets. The net effect is not readily determinable and was certainly never itemized by the President Elect. Besides, he has not included in his analysis the impact of technology on manufacturing or other blue-collar jobs. It is not likely that a forty year out-of-work steel worker and head of household will be able or even want to obtain a college degree in order to support his family. The President Elect has made no mention of alternative blue collar work that might be made available, such as building windmills or assembling and installing solar panels. Like the current Administration, he supports infrastructure programs that would require unskilled labor. Unlike President Obama, he makes no mention of an infrastructure bank that would rely mostly on private investment. Instead, the President Elect wants to invest public money towards a trillion dollar infrastructure restoration. His purpose is laudable, but it does not address the loss of good paying blue collar manufacturing jobs. Many of the applicants for the jobs he wants to create are the very people he wants to deport. Moreover, his tax plan will not support these expenditures without blowing up the Federal debt. Besides the groups he has already alienated, like minorities, immigrants, and Muslims, he offers no solution for those others who feel isolated and adrift in an economy that is leaving them behind.

The actual promise of the next administration is further division and a dismantling of policies that might actually bring the nation together. Wittingly or unwittingly, Donald Trump is whittling away at America’s founding principle. If allowed to continue on this path, he will not make America great again. America’s greatness has always been in the future, not in its past struggles to advance the goals initially set in our founding documents. Our history has always been about realizing what it means to declare that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights. Plainly, America is about assimilating all groups within its borders and governing “with liberty and justice for all.” By contrast, President Elect Trump conducted a campaign that succeeded by “divide and conquer.” But if he governs in this manner, he will not be able to continue this nation’s progress towards a more perfect union. Instead, he will become liable for its deconstruction.

Earlier, in the twentieth century, after the communist revolutions in China and Russia, many feared the threat communism posed to American democracy, especially after the socialist legislation of the New Deal. But communism exploited social justice in a way that socialism could never imagine. It was not communism that threatened American democracy, but communists. While China never presented an existential threat, Russia’s very real nuclear threat did. The Cold War exasperated this threat. It was not, after all, Russian communism that unnerved us, but Russian militarism. Henry Adams, the renowned historian and progeny of two American Presidents, had foreseen this military threat of the Russian bear as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, after Russia’s unprovoked invasions of Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, President Elect Trump seems to favor some form of partnership with the Russian dictator. Vladimir Putin has long sought to reclaim the Soviet Empire’s status as a co-equal super power with the United States. He would welcome any form of joint agreement that might divvy up the world into equal spheres of influence. But appeasing Putin would unsettle all of Eastern Europe and weaken the NATO alliance that protects all European borders (reference “Why does Putin Favor Trump”). In addition, the President Elect’s remarks about abandoning America’s policies on nuclear non-proliferation not only threaten to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement but also encourage South Korea and Japan to become nuclear powers. Taken together these policies could spell an end to the Pax Americana or, at least, to America’s ability to maintain peace through diplomacy alone.

After having drawn this bleak picture, I must pause to admit that conjecture is not necessarily prologue to the future. Certainly, there are signs that point to a pivot from what we have come to believe to be the “modern world.” Populist movements seem to be gaining strength in many western democracies. The European Union, for example, seems to be near the breaking point. The BREXIT vote in England and the recent no confidence vote in Italy may just be the beginning of a wave. But, as Mr. Trump said during his campaign, he would not govern the way he campaigned. Listening to his recent interview with Chris Wallace, I was impressed with his sincerity and obvious emotional commitment to bring constructive change to American government. But, at some point, he needs to stop being the purveyor of sham facts to support his cause. Presidents need to win over the public with sound policies and honest communication. In the same interview where he argued eloquently about inhibiting corporate flight, job dislocation, and regulatory obstacles, he also stated that he won the greatest landslide victory in history. Actually, his margin of victory in the Electoral College ranks forty sixth amongst the fifty eight presidential elections. And he lost the popular vote by the largest margin of any candidate who won in the Electoral College. (There were only two other instances.) At some point, he needs to deal with facts if he expects to gain credibility with a majority of the electorate and not just with his supporters who believe in him without regard for the truthfulness or substance of his message (reference “Politics and the Illogic of the Heart”).

The press is already going crazy with their nitpicking about his non-attendance at daily intelligence briefings, about the absence of press conferences, about Mr. Trump’s excluding of the press from his dining out plans, about the imagined significance of everybody seen in front of the elevators at Trump Tower, and so on. Imagine the press reaction to his more substantive actions or policies as President. Although Mr. Trump has been allegedly quoted as saying “all press is good press,” I do not believe the manner in which he manipulated the press during the campaign will work to his benefit as President. There is a higher bar of truthfulness for the Presidency. He needs both to be informed and to inform at least as professionally as his predecessors in office.

If a tsunami is approaching, we all need to move to higher ground. Much of what we have grown to recognize in the modern landscape may be swept away. But each of us can survive, in fact, become better versions of ourselves. What I mean is better illustrated by what I have witnessed in my life. Many years ago, I found myself in the middle of a fierce war. Even to this day, there has never been a war where more live action fire fights were recorded. Missed in this recorded history, however, is the number of civilians caught in the crossfire: refugees moving from village to village, carrying their wounded, sick, and aging with them. They moved as a community, each caring for the other. The courage, the compassion, and the resilience I saw in many Vietnamese faces are etched in my mind forever. Even to this day, when I happen to meet a Vietnamese from that time, I ask for his or her story. Usually, I tear up and end our conversation with a hug. But that hug is not so much spawned by compassion, but by gratitude.

Politics can improve or destroy lives. Diplomacy can secure peace or devolve into wars. But only people of character can inspire others. Over time, that inspiration will eventually lead to better institutions of government, to improved relations between countries, and someday to a world community that protects this planet and its inhabitants.

Most often the reason Americans fall prey to anxieties and fears is the absence of any real threats to our security or wellbeing. We fear we may not be up to the test. It is only when truly put in danger or challenged, that we have the opportunity to test our worth. After Pearl Harbor, men volunteered for service and women replaced them in the factories while still caring for their children. African Americans walked into an angry mob at Selma and withstood the anticipated onslaught. When we have the courage to join with others and face our challenges and fears, we make the resulting engagement meaningful and discover our own strength. We may be facing difficult times ahead or not. The future is not yet determined. But if it marks the end of an era, then it will be up to each of us to define a new era.

I believe in America, and I believe in you, my fellow Americans. You care for your family and friends; you not only do well at work, but do good as well; and whatever you create, you make available to all. You should feel grateful for what you have and for what you can contribute. Whatever may be in store for America and the world, it will not change your worth or the meaning of your life. For only you can do that.