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 healthcare.gov 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.

Standing Rock and Knowledge in the Information Age

A few years ago I walked into my local bakery and engaged the baker in our usual discussion, talking about her daily offering of baked goods and their ingredients. Often this dialogue would range over other topics, like the news of the day. Since I knew she was Native American, I referred to the Obama Administration’s recent settlements of decades old law suits—one for 1 billion dollars involving 41 tribes (4/11/2012) and the other for 3.4 billion dollars addressing US trust violations that affected over half a million Native Americans (11/27/2012). My intent in introducing this subject was to gain more perspective, specifically from a Native American. She did not disappoint. Quickly she pointed out that these monetary settlements cannot undue the moral, cultural, and personal harms inveighed against Indian tribes. Her father, as it happens, was a chief who had actually met then Senator Obama. She was a teenager at the time. She volunteered that the President was a “good person” who meant well, but likely did not understand the core problem, along with the rest of America.

Various legislation actions (such as the Indian Reorganization Act, the Indian Self-Determination Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act) affirm the status of Indian nations as “domestic dependent nations” under Federal trusteeship. And the financial settlements just referenced only reinforce the status of tribal populations as dependents and devalue them further by equating the indignities they have suffered with monetary remuneration. What Americans fail to understand—including Congress and our Presidents—is that the tribes are not seeking the same citizenship rights of freed African slaves, but the freedom of self-determination as independent nations.

The courts have often ruled in favor of Indian treaty rights. But previous Administrations had refused for decades to settle their civil lawsuits. And Congress had ignored their many grievances for an even longer period, apparently assuming that they should be satisfied with legislation from the 1940’s that acknowledged their right to hold their cultural property and to determine guardianship of their children. But actual reconciliation with these Native Americans requires much more. They demand that their land and its natural resources be restored to them, as well as their right to self-government within its boundaries. There is no better example of their persistence in this demand than the Lakota’s refusal to accept the Supreme Court decision in 1980 to award the Sioux tribes 122 million dollars in exchange for their lands. That award has been held in a trust fund and is now worth about 1 billion dollars. The tribal chiefs continue to refuse any financial settlement in lieu of restoration of their lands. They fought a war, spilled their blood, and signed a treaty with the United States of America to protect their birthright to these lands. Monetary compensation is not any kind of appeasement to them. It is just a further humiliation.

My local baker knew her facts. Of course, they are readily available on the internet. But she could also embellish her knowledge with personal experience, having a tribal chief as a father and having met Barack Obama as a young girl. Like a giddy reporter about to uncover “breaking news,” I asked her how these two men got along. She laughed, “They got along fine, like they understood each other.” Then she added, “Maybe it’s because neither were born American.” Her response jolted me. It was totally unexpected. Naturally, I questioned her meaning. She explained that Obama was a Muslim and was born in Kenya. I tried to correct her understanding. But she insisted that she had found many sources on the internet that corroborated the fact of his birth and his religion. Besides, she explained, various TV news personalities were constantly reporting on the failure of the President to prove otherwise.

What is my purpose in sharing this story with you, my patient readers? Well, it illustrates how much we can learn from each other AND how polluted can be our information sources in the age of fake or insubstantial news. There is no question that my baker friend was sharing what she knew. The question remains, however, how she came to know what she knew. And that question goes to the heart of what we mean by “knowledge.”

In general, we know something as a result of our experience or of critical inquiry. When Descartes said, cognito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), he justified knowledge of his very existence upon his experience of thinking. Of course, our experience is more inclusive than our thinking: I know the keyboard I am using to write this blog, because I feel it under my fingertips. I also know the speed with which the moon circles the earth because it is mathematically calculable—or so I have been told. We trust our senses every day of our lives. But we never know enough to trust the logic or mathematical precision behind everything we are told. Living in the information age means that we are exposed to many “facts,” “theories,” and “evidence” that we can never really know in the sense of personally experiencing or critically justifying. Instead, we must trust our sources of information . . . or not. This trust is a matter of belief. My baker friend, for example, had firsthand experience of being born on an Indian Reservation and of living in a place to which she was organically connected and from which she was being systematically disowned. But what she knew about the President’s birthplace was based upon her trust or belief in the validity of information available on the internet, inadvertently affirmed by TV personalities, and even touted by such supposedly “creditable sources” as elected politicians.

At this moment, protestors are digging in for the winter at Standing Rock, North Dakota, to stop the last connecting link of a 1,172 mile long pipeline that will deliver half a million gallons of oil per day to Illinois. The point of contention is where this pipeline will cross the Missouri River. At risk is the water supply not only for the Indian Reservation but for many Americans living downstream of that river. Originally, the land transgressed by this pipeline was apportioned to the native Sioux tribes in the Treaty of 1851. But in 1867, another treaty was signed to cede “navigable rights” to the Federal government, to include “roads, railroads, telegraph lines, mail stations, and other public improvements” (italics are mine). The latter could not have foreseen oil pipelines that can provide a unique environmental hazard and, in this case, a health risks to individuals. Since these lands our held in trust by the Federal government, the Obama administration sought to delay construction of the pipeline until these hazards and risks could be reviewed and alternative options identified.** But in September the courts intervened and ruled in favor of the pipeline construction plans. President Obama, who many tribal leaders claim has done more for Indian rights than all previous Presidents combined, has asked for calm, demanding that peaceful protestors not be forcibly removed. Unfortunately, his requests have not been met. Both hired security forces and local constabulary have prodded protestors with attack dogs, rubber bullets, batons, and high powered water hoses. Many arrests have been made. And women—both Native Americans and other Americans—have even undergone strip searches while held in custody.

My question is simple: what do Americans actually know about the crux of this problem: this standoff between a pipeline corporation and Indian tribes; this confrontation between the Federal Administration and the Judicial Branch of government; and this obvious conflict between Treaty jurisdiction and morality. The only time the press has covered this standoff at Standing Rock is when pictures of demonstrators being beaten, bitten, hosed down, or shot are made available. And, of course, the press was quick to interview a movie star who was arrested in the melee. What the press failed to report was a joint statement issued immediately after the court decision by the Federal departments of Justice, Army and the Interior. That statement reads as follows:

This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects. Therefore, this fall, we will invite tribes to formal, government-to-government consultations on two questions: (1) within the existing statutory framework, what should the federal government do to better ensure meaningful tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews and decisions and the protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights; and (2) should new legislation be proposed to Congress to alter that statutory framework and promote those goals.

The second point is most relevant. If you believe, as I do, that Federal trusteeship of Indian “dependent nations” is a treaty obligation that implies an ongoing review and determination of any necessary adjustments, then you must also recognize that obligation implies an underlying moral imperative. In other words, we Americans must demand a legislative response to any nationwide reform proposed by these government-to-government consultations.

Our legislators do respond to public pressure. And the public can be aroused at times to take action—to vote or contact a legislator for instance. We just witnessed 62 or so million Americans elect a new President they hoped would change the way Washington worked. The problem with public action in a democracy is whether it is motivated by passionate and informed positions, or merely by passion. An angry mob can overthrow a government. But an informed citizenry can demand legislative and administrative policies that serve their general welfare and effect real democratic change that suits the time. The key to this proposition is the quality of information provided to Americans. How can we know what to do or support if we only have questionable sources of information? How can we attain some level of certainty in what we think we know?

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**This blog was written last night. Minutes ago, a news bulletin reports that the Army Corps of Engineers has denied the easement the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, required to cross the Missouri River. The Corps has honored the President’s request to find an alternative route for this pipeline. This will be the second rerouting. The first was incurred at the request of citizens living in Bismarck. That request was honored without challenge. This rerouting around an Indian Reservation will likely be challenged. It may represent the last shot across the bow by our sitting President. He is about to be replaced in a little over a month by a man who reportedly owns stock in this pipeline company> (Whether he does or not own stock in Energy Transfer Partners has not been substantiated. Energy Transfer Partners is actually a consortium also comprised of Sunoco and Phillips.) The President Elect has already stated he favors building this pipeline. There may yet be more chapters in the telling of this story.**
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“Knowledge” is a very broad concept that includes what we have learned, the learning process, and the creditability of what we have learned or believe we know. Given the enormity of the knowledge landscape, how can we have certainty about what we know? My baker’s experience has a personal psychological verification of its truth. And I learned something from her experience because I believed in its authenticity. That President Obama was born somewhere, on the other hand, is certain for it logically follows the self-evident truth that no human exists who was not born. Whether the President was born in Kenya or Hawaii, however, can only be derived from creditable evidence. Even trusted sources can allege “facts” without verifiable evidence. But even when verifiable evidence is provided—such as short and long form birth certificates, relevant newspaper clippings, or the testimony of public officials—some may choose not to belief the evidence or at least question the certainty of that evidence. In addition, much of what we think we know may in time be proven wrong, even though our knowledge is based upon personal experience, belief, or trusted sources. Certainty can seem allusive.

An artificial intelligence can use mathematical logic to answer specific question with certainty. It mirrors human intelligence in this way. It also can deliver highly probable, though not certain, results by canvasing a very large volume of data. In this manner, it not only mirrors, but actually exceeds human intelligence. You see, our database is much smaller and takes a lifetime to develop. As we age, we continuously store our experiences in memory, expand the extent of our knowledge, and mature our understanding of its content. When I was 21 years old, I was really sure of almost everything. Gradually, as I grew in experience, I realized how little I actually knew with any degree of certainty. We all benefit from sharing our differing perspectives. Other than logic and mathematics, no degree of certainty is achieved without a lifelong accumulation of our stored perceptions, of the creditable testimony of others, and of the induced results achieved by the power of our reasoning. Whatever certainty we may attain, then, is dependent upon a learning process that never ends.

We in America are at a turning point in our acquisition of knowledge. The process of learning, as I just described, requires more of us in this age of information. Each of us need to be dedicated to self-reflection, to disciplined evaluation of information sources, and to critical thinking that weighs all aspects of differing opinions. Obviously, we need to be served by honest and in-depth reporting and by elected officials dedicated to justice and freedom for all within our borders. What is happening at Standing Rock is just one example of how far we have strayed from these needs and, as a result, from the promise of our democracy. America is not easy. No nation has ever successfully broken down the barriers of tribal, ethnic, and religious inflexibility. But only by tearing down those barriers will our common humanity emerge. The promise of America cannot be realized unless we constantly strive to learn from each other, insist on fair and honest reporting, and demand responsive government that reflects both our needs and our moral integrity. Otherwise, problems like Standing Rock will continue to undermine our values and the effectiveness of our institutions. Consider where our nation would be today if we had chosen to learn from the Indian nations how to respect the land and become coequal custodians of the American continent. Problems like Standing Rock, or Devil’s Lake, or Black Hills would never have surfaced.

The way in which we communicate and receive information should reflect our desperate need to learn from each other and grow in understanding. Information used to gain influence, power, or financial benefit is propaganda. It serves no useful purpose in helping Americans understand issues like Standing Rock or further the ideals of a democratic and pluralist society. Only when our communication bridges the gap between perspectives, will it bring racial, ethnic, religious, and culturally diverse groups together.

And that coming together is still the unrealized promise of America.

The President Elect’s Challenges

A new President Elect comes to Washington as an outsider, riding a wave of support from the common people of rural America. The Administration he will replace is aghast and, in the words of its Secretary of State, his supporters are “like the inundation of northern barbarians into Rome.”* That Secretary of State was Daniel Webster. And the President Elect was Andrew Jackson. Although “Old Hickory,” as he was famously called, had sought the White House for the previous six years, he had little background in politics and even less patience with the duplicity of politicians. He was, however, determined to alleviate the plight of the common laborer at the hands of a burgeoning industrialism. Like our current President Elect, that determination had to contend with his natural reluctance to leave a well-established home—in his case, a Tennessee plantation. And both men abhorred the hordes of office seekers and publicity hounds that awaited them in Washington. Jackson went so far as to sneak undetected into DC and, on the day of his inauguration, to scale the wall behind the Capitol to make his entrance as clandestine as possible. Mr. Trump’s secretive “comings and goings” between New York and Washington and his use of a private rear entrance into Trump Tower is reminiscent of Jackson’s natural recoil from public exposure of his movements. On the surface, there does seem to be some similarity between these two President Elects. Beneath the surface, we find a very different story.

Although our President Elect only has to fill 4,000 office vacancies compared to Jackson’s 11,000, his transition period is made more problematic by a barrage of media criticism both at home and abroad. Unlike Jackson who had been a Superior Court judge in Tennessee and a United States Senator, he has no public service experience upon which to draw. Moreover, Jackson was the much heralded hero from the Battle of New Orleans, as the general who defeated Wellington, Napoleon’s nemesis at Waterloo, and who effectively won the War of 1812. As a result, he came to Washington with a nearly universal mandate. Our new President Elect does not even have the majority support of the electorate and has no such reputation or public service history with which to leverage acceptance of his policies. Winning a/o maintaining public support may be a challenge for President Trump.

Although there may be similarities in the transition phases of these two President Elects, it is patently unfair to compare an American hero with the controversial character of Donald Trump. Something other than character was operative in Trump’s victory. And therein is a problem both for our President Elect and for our country. Besides lacking a popular mandate, a recent exit poll reported a fourth of those who voted for him believed him unfit for office. In other words, it may be assumed that at least some of those Trump votes were not actually for him, but were simply protest votes. In addition, many of his true believers admitted they bought into the native flamboyance of his character and his generic promises for change. They voted for him in spite of his lack of specificity and his more outlandish rants and hyperbole. Naturally the enthusiasm he generated amongst his supporters attracted an inordinate amount of media attention. But the same media that was so enthralled with his enthusiastic rallies and with the extravagance of his lies and conspiracy theories will now be prepared to criticize his every word and action—just as they did with his predecessor. Even as President Obama is preparing to leave office, the often liberal leaning MSNBC asked its viewers whether Obama was responsible for Trump’s victory. As preposterous as this question may seem, it is emblematic of a media obsession with finding fault in whoever holds the office. President Trump faces an unremitting adversary in the commercially supported media which tends to cater to the public’s eager consumption of “lies, sex, and videotape.” Mr. Trump has already wet this appetite. The press will be unrelenting in their attempt to feed this hunger. Securing press support for his administration, even from the conservative leaning FOX network, may prove to be a daunting challenge for President Trump.

I am not, as you may have already surmised, totally buying this comparison of Trump to Jackson. It was initially made by a political commentator in one of those 10-20 second soundbites. Besides the similarities I have noted, this commentator also proposed a similarity in character. He felt both men were similar in their ability to fight for their beliefs and personal honor and to inspire a movement. Regarding their respective pugnacity, Andrew Jackson was certainly a man of integrity who never backed down from a fight and, in tune with the honor code of his time, even took a bullet in the chest to defend the reputation of his wife. And Trump may be, as he explained, a “counter puncher.” But he seems to defend his ego more than any principle or respect for another. Regarding their respective movements, Jackson’s social cause was about the application of Jeffersonian ideals to the labor dislocation of the 1820’s nascent industrialization. His politics were nuanced to the times, on the one hand fighting Hamilton’s American system and at the same time welcoming Federalist support from the Supreme Court. In other words, his politics were anchored in the Constitution and our founding principles. Trump, by contrast, would appear to trample on the inalienable rights outlined in that document as I argued elsewhere in “Politics and the Illogic of the Heart.” His business acumen may have served him well in private enterprise, but its self-serving nature offers no platform for launching a selfless public service regime. His company is already engaged in a string of civil lawsuits. In fact, his post-election affiliation with his business enterprises, as currently planned, presents serious conflicts of interest that will likely run aground of the law. President Trump may well face Federal indictment as a result. Unless he establishes a blind trust, his ongoing business ties will present a serious legal challenge for President Trump.

Our President Elect’s avowed policy “leanings” may be well served by appointing to the position of Attorney General a former civil rights antagonist and supporter of torture, to National Security Advisor a Turkey lobbyist and outspoken advocate for Islamophobia, to Chief Political Strategist an alt-right activist supported by white supremacists, to Director of the Central Intelligence Agency an advocate for resumption of torture and unrestrained surveillance, and to Director of the Environmental Protection Agency a person who thinks climate change is merely a hoax. Currently, among the possible choices for Secretary of State, he is considering a Russian lobbyist. Considering his previous statements in support of Vladimir Putin and his complementary remarks about Putin on RT’s (Russia Today’s) telecast, it is not unlikely that our President Elect will choose somebody that mirrors his tendency to seek some kind of rapprochement with Russia. By allowing the stated policy preferences of these appointments, he would be undermining fundamental American values and any constructive role in foreign affairs. Earlier in “There are Five Stages,” I stated my hope that the President Elect would impugn his campaign positions; instead he appears to be doubling down on them. These appointments could spell disaster for America and may already be one of the greatest challenges to his Presidency.

Prior to any consultation with the State Department, he has already had a conversation with Mr. Putin. Perhaps in the future they might work out a “compromise” where Russia would agree to join the United States in fighting Daesh and limit its annexation of sovereign territory to Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in exchange for joint acceptance of Assad as President of Syria and of unfettered Russian interference in the Baltic States which it considers its historical sphere of influence. Although hypothetical, this type of “rapprochement” is well suited to our President Elect’s stated positions with respect to Russia. It is also antithetical to America’s current foreign policy, to NATO’s charter, and to the international coalitions America has formed with western democracies. President Trump would face backlash from many nations with whom we have partnered for the last 70 years. But he may count as a positive that not only Russia, but even North Korea has expressed support for his Presidency. If his foreign policy continues in its current direction, America would face increased isolation in world affairs and may well facilitate the dissolution of the Pax Americana.

But perhaps our new President Elect will find a threat to his tenure in office of greater concern than the challenges enumerated here. Paradoxically, the most severe threat that may face President Trump is from his own Party. As many have stated, he is more pragmatic than ideological. His Republican “conservatism” is suspect on many issues, as shown during his primary debates. Also, he violated the Reagan oath to never criticize fellow Republicans. In fact, during his campaign, he alienated many Republican leaders, including the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. The latter are the very people who would prosecute an impeachment if Trump failed the challenges put forth here, most especially any domestic legal charges or serious foreign policy mishaps like a conflict of interest or collusion with a foreign power. Having won the election, he appears to have regained support of nearly all Republican officeholders. But that support is opportunistic, not organic. Beneath the surface, there still lurks a smoldering distrust of his Republicanism.

Now you might think a Constitutional confrontation between the branches of government would be remote. But it was only eighteen years ago when a Republican Congress attempted to impeach a President for perjury and obstruction of justice because he lied under oath about a consensual affair he had while in office. Remember “I never had sex with that woman.” His only defense was what he thought sex “is,” thereby incriminating a defenseless intransitive verb. Compared to President Clinton’s failure with his personal challenge to marital fidelity, President Trump’s potential to fail before much greater challenges elicits risks both to the general welfare of all Americans and to America’s status in the world. If he should fail here, impeachment might not only be justified, but it would be politically desirable for the Republican Party. The current Vice President Elect is a very conservative Republican who served for twelve years in Congress and considers the Speaker a personal friend. Republicans would readily welcome him in place of an impeached President Trump.

Remember General Othello was undone by his trusted ensign. In the house of cards Donald Trump is building, there are many possible Iagos.

*As quoted by Marquis James, in “Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President,” p. 181.