Saturday, October 20, 2018

BULLIES NOT ALLOWED


While I vehemently and fundamentally disagree with President Trump on policy with respect to immigration, trade, America’s approach to international relations, environmental protection and fiscal responsibility, the one overriding reason why I appeal to all American voters to reject Trumpism in all of its aspects is DJT’s bullying behavior towards anyone who stands in his way, questions him and his motives, accuses him of inappropriate conduct or simply disagrees with him.

I find it ironic (and symbolic at the same time) that the First Lady has picked the fight against bullying as her primary public mission, because she lives it every day, if not at her own expense then at the expense of anyone her husband otherwise contends with.

Over a lifetime, I have experienced and witnessed bullying enough to smell it from a distance when it rears its ugly head. I remember walking a different route to my grade school about every day in order to avoid the older boys out to give us youngsters a hard time. I remember from my fraternity pledging the hazing rituals in which the same sadistic upperclassmen resorted to physical and mental abuse to satisfy their superiority complex, take advantage of their dominance and get even for the humiliation they once experienced going through the same pledge process. I remember my military training days, when some of the commissioned subaltern officers took delight in using their command and control not for the purpose of making soldiers out of us but to exhaust and humiliate us while they could. And I remember the many business situations in which bosses or counterparts were trying to get their way by intimidation, threats and falsehoods. These memories are vivid and all of them come back when I hear DJT deal with anyone who is not immediately subservient to his views, his version of the truth and his majesty.

Bullying always finds its expression in profane language, in intimidation and denigration, and in unbridled use of lies and half-truths. We have to endure all of these expressions on a daily basis in the communications from our President, never more so than in his tweets and campaign appearances. I cringe every time DJT ad-libs in his cable news appearances and I wonder all the time: ‘Is this truly our President and world leader? Are you serious?’

Bullies often get their way by the sheer fact that they have the upper hand in the relationship with their targets, which is more often than not a function of power or authority. This bullying is, in fact, an abuse of power and it will, in the end, inevitably prove to be counterproductive.

DJT resorts to bullying in his foreign policy relations as much as in his domestic governance role, perpetuating a pattern of behavior that served him very well in his 2016 presidential election campaign when he had to contend with 17 GOP challengers. He denigrates and belittles members of his own staff and cabinet and any member of the judiciary or the legislative branch who openly stands in his way or disagrees with him. More disturbingly, and detrimental to the interest of the country that he is sworn to protect, is his bullying of foreign nations and their leaders, friend or foe. His preferred tactic appears to be to accuse foreign powers of threatening the security interests of the USA or taking advantage of the USA in their alliances and then, under the threat of sanctions, intervention or withdrawal, have his administration negotiate a new deal. As if a deal arranged under duress and based on false premises will ever hold!

Just like every journey starts with the first step, bullying by verbal abuse and threats (veiled or not) is the first step in attempts to dominate and control the relationship with targeted individuals. And if these individuals don’t back down and submit, the bully will inevitably consider more drastic measures to drive the target into submission. Extreme examples of this are provided by the torture and abuse of prisoners by their guards, like in the infamous Abu Ghraib incident, but they abound in autocracies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, North Korea, China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Myanmar and the Philippines under Duterte; and frequently they end in murder, like we have sadly been forced to witness with the Jamal Khashoggi tragedy. Birds of a feather flock together. It is disturbing to find our President so often siding with these bullies or condoning their human rights abuses. The sense that he is quietly envious of the perpetrators of these abuses, bringing bullying to the ultimate expression that he is denied, is palpable.

If you give a bully a position of authority, you risk to implicitly create an abuse of power situation. We witness that every day in the treatment of refugees at our borders, undocumented immigrants at the mercy of overzealous ICE personnel, and with all the sex abuse cases now surfacing. A bully at the top of the pyramid will pull legions of covert bullies out from the shadows and so the bullying pervades and becomes par for the course.

Bill Kristol articulates, in a recent tweet, exactly what we get from putting a bully at the top of our pyramid: “The rhetorical extremism, the winking at violence, the reveling in vulgarity, and the embrace of amoralism are not bugs but features of Trumpism. Intellectual and moral coarsening is both a condition and a consequence of the demagogue’s success. Trumpism really does corrupt.”

We can legitimately argue about policy differences, but we should not have to argue about the need to preserve America’s moral authority and value-based governance. That is why, above all else, character should matter in elections. All eligible voters have a chance in November of this year, and again in 2020, to make clear to those seeking elected office that bullies are not allowed. Let’s hope that they come out in droves to validate that message.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME.......


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  

That is what Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet and that classic line comes to mind every time I hear my fellow citizens who are Trump supporters recite all the blessings the Trump administration bestows on us: the upbeat economy, the record Wall Street performance, the cutbacks in regulatory burden, and the more assertive way in which America is confronting challenges from China, North Korea and Iran.

The analogy is imperfect – like most analogies are – but the point is that these blessings could have been and would have been bestowed upon America if we had had a different, or should I say ‘real’, Republican in the White House. In other words, the reality is that if the GOP had nominated someone else than Donald J. Trump in 2016, the rose would have smelt as sweet (and there would be a lot less acrimony in the land).

It is water under the bridge, because the elections of 2016 have given us what we have today, but it is good to realize that in two years we have a new choice to make and maybe this time the voters will take character, experience and competency into consideration.

America could have enjoyed a strong economy and stock market performance, stimulated by close scrutiny and pruning of unnecessarily burdensome regulations, without disregard of the growing inequality between privileged and underprivileged citizens; without disregard of the looming national debt explosion; without disregard of the contributions immigrants make to the vitality of our economy; without disregard of the scientific evidence of global warming; and without a zero-sum approach to the trade relations America enjoys with other nations.

With respect to foreign policy, America could have solidified its global position of leadership and strength without alienating its traditional allies; without giving up on the liberal order America itself established following World war II; without bluff and bluster in lieu of carefully crafted and strategically focused diplomacy; and without a zero-sum approach to friend or foe relationships with powerful contenders for world hegemony, particularly the EU, China and Russia.

In both domains, the domestic and international environment, chances are that a real Republican (I call it ‘my kind of Republican’) would have better advanced America’s interest than the nativist, populist, narcissist person the Electoral College placed into the White House in 2017. In the first place, any 45th President would have enjoyed the fruits of the Obama era policies that brought the strength of our economy back coming out of the recession of 2008. Job creation was as strong in the last two years of the Obama administration as it has been in the first two years of the Trump reign.

Equities are now enjoying their ninth year of a record strong bull market, a trend that started long before Donald J. Trump was even running for office. The Trump tax bill, may have spurred the market to new heights, but how long is it going to be before the resulting deficit increases will start hurting the prospects for the future, for Wall Street as well as Main Street? Any President will always take credit for a booming economy and will always be blamed for a failing one, but how much of the up or down is really directly attributable to the actions or omissions of the person in the Oval Office?

Arguably, the economy could easily have been stronger and more sustainably growing if it was not for the misguided Trump policies that stand in the way of free trade, smart and compassionate immigration, fiscal restraint and entitlement reform.

Does anybody believe that, if the GOP had nominated my kind of Republican rather than the imposter who bullied himself up onto the platform in 2016, America would not have enjoyed, at least for the time being, the relative prosperity the nation as a whole experiences? My kind of Republican would have taken advantage of the favorable economic conditions by beginning to solve some of the problems that the predecessors have failed to address, like the out of control national debt, our crumbling infrastructure, our unfunded entitlements, our defense against cyber threats and the consequences of global warming and, most of all, our ever-increasing inequality in income and wealth.

The Clinton administration has rightly been chastised for squandering the post-cold war prosperity by not reinvesting in the American people and infrastructure and, rather than praising Trump for the superficial and unevenly divided prosperity of today, he should be chastised for not making hay while the sun shines. Is it coincidental that both Presidents have exhibited serious character flaws and struggles with morality?

My kind of Republican would have joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a constructive counterweight to the Chinese influence in Asia; called Mexico and Canada to the table to review, after almost 25 years, how NAFTA could be strengthened; stayed with the Paris Climate accord and the Iran Nuclear Deal; and called our NATO partners to the table to reassess the mission and the burden sharing formula for the defense of Western Alliance. My kind of Republican would have done all of that in a collegial, non-threatening, way, confident in America’s soft power and guided by the belief that the world is better off with an alliance of all democracies, lead by a strong, principled and disciplined United States of America.

That which we call America would be greater if the name plate on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW said something else than Donald J. Trump.

Friday, August 3, 2018

MIDTERM ANXIETY


We are now within a few months of the midterm elections of 2018 and I find myself in the uncomfortable position to wish for a resounding defeat of the party that I have felt most affinity with ever since coming to America and becoming a permanent resident here. Fortunately, I’m not alone in this unfamiliar territory, as I find myself in the company of credentialed conservatives like George Will, Bill Kristol, Max Boot and David Brooks.

I believe in a small, non-intrusive government and in delegation of governmental authority to the lowest level at which the expertise and resource resides to address the matters that governments are in charge of. In America, that means delegation to State and Local institutions. I believe in a smart, effective, and compassionate government that upholds the values enshrined in the nation’s founding documents andfor that reasoncommands the respect and envy of the world. I believe in a government that recognizes and venerates America’s heritage as a nation of immigrants and never puts up a sign that says that you can visit (unless you are coming from a certain Muslim country) but you can’t stay.

My disagreement with the current president and the republican partisans who have been supporting him in servile submission surfaces in almost every republican orthodoxy, whether it is free trade, fiscal responsibility, human- and civil rights, environmental protection, multilateralism or immigration. But most of all, I object to the tone set by the nation’s chief executive. In his tweets and in his staged campaign appearances, he whips his followers into a frenzy of hate and vulgarity against the free press, against immigrants, against political opponents, against our best allies, against or national security apparatus and, sometimes, against members of his own administration. In setting the tone like this Trump debases the decorum of the high office he holds. Furthermore, I object to his disregard of facts and science and the ease with which he feeds the public lies, half truths and fake numbers in his public appearances. I object to his zero-sum approach to just about any issue of political consequence. It seems he has never heard of a win-win situation. All that matters is his own vindication.

Who can have confidence in a commander in chief who changes his tune from one day to the next on America’s relationship with its allies and its adversaries and constantly questions the alliances and institutions that have kept the peace ever since World War II and have fostered unprecedented growth and prosperity on a global scale?

Everything I believe in, when it comes to political governance, is at risk if the voters in November don’t put the shackles on the imperial president now residing in the White House. We need a shift in power in the Congress for all of the following reasons:
·       To open up a realistic opportunity for a real republican to step up and challenge Trump for the 2020 presidential election.
·       To protect the Mueller investigation and assure that its findings, if incriminating for the president, are not swept under the rug.
·       To show republican voters and legislators that they have been betting on the wrong horse.
·       To clear the Congress of some of the worst nationalist populists.

It is deplorable that the actions and utterances of one person have made it desirable for the democrats, who have done nothing to lay claim to political leadership since nominating Hillary Clinton as their flag bearer, to win this election.

A cloud of trepidation hangs over the midterm elections for November. Will the outcome be influenced by foreign interference? Will the voters turn it, at least in part, into a referendum on Trump and his nationalist populist adherents and will the voters come out in large enough numbers to legitimize the outcome of the election?  It will be a real test of the strength of our democracy and God forbid that we fail the test.

The outcome of the midterm election will give us a first chance to see in real numbers how strong the Pied Piper effect of Donald Trump is. How many Americans−republicans, democrats and independentsreally believe that Trump is finally putting America back on track and that #NeverTrumpism is a dead-end street? The loudest voices always get heard the most. But is there a strong silent majority that abhors the narcissistic, imperial, above the law attitude and behavior of the current occupant of the White House? That is what we urgently need to find out. Let’s hope that the November election answers that question with an unambiguous rejection of the populist takeover of the republican party, which can then be followed by a restoration of a true republican platform for the GOP and a final exorcism of the Trump aberration in the presidential election of 2020.

Democracy preordains that elections have consequences. Will the voters follow the Pied Piper, leading them like lemmings to the precipice, or will they opt for new leadership that respects traditional American values and puts America back on the track of global leadership and respect?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

THOUGHTS ON IMMIGRATION


1.       Our existing immigration laws are anachronistic and -therefore- enforcing the law has undesirable consequences. The law should be changed to guide immigration policy towards a clearly articulated and desired outcomes in line with American core values and the national interest.
2.       America would not be what it is without the regular waves of immigration it has absorbed over the ages since the time that the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska allowed the settlement of the North American continent. America has proven capacity to assimilate masses of newcomers.
3.       Seventeen percent of the U.S. workforce is foreign-born. But about a third of immigrant workers do not have authorization to work legally in the U.S. and yet America has a labor shortage in several sectors of its economy. That should tell us something. And it will get worse: The government projects that the economy will add 9.8 million jobs between 2014 and 2024 and that the labor force will only grow by 7.9 million workers (only by immigration).
4.       Uncontrolled immigration is a sign of failed national security policy and inadequate border security measures. The blame for this and the task to address it falls in equal measure on all three branches of government, but Congress will have to rectify it.
5.       Responsible government of any nation needs to know at any time who resides within its borders, for what purpose and under what title (citizenship, visa, green card). This may be an unattainable feat without a legally required forge-proof, biometric, identity card for anyone who is not a casual visitor (tourist).
6.       The loop can then be closed, and stragglers can be kept out without building a wall, by mandating presentation of this identity card for obtaining a job, a bank account, credit card, driver’s license, access to education, and other similar life necessities.
7.       The U.S. economy needs immigration for three primary reasons:
a.       As the baby boom generation leaves the workforce, the number of working-age adults born in the U.S. to U.S. born parents will decline by 8.2 million. Between now and 2035, all growth in the U.S. workforce will be entirely due to immigrants and their children.
b.       Jobs that require little formal education will be of less interest to an increasingly educated U.S.-born workforce. There are numerous jobs Americans simply don’t want to do anymore.
c.       Immigrants and their children need to take the place of the retiring baby boomers, replacing them as contributors to our social security systems.
8.       The first order of business is to create an accommodation for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. – either in the workforce or a spouse or child of a worker – to allow them to legally reside and work in the U.S. (leaving aside, for now, the issue of citizenship). It is unthinkable to ask accelerated growth from our economy without the active participation of the approximately 9 million undocumented immigrants who are now part of the workforce.
9.       The only legitimate and compelling reason to expel undocumented immigrants from this country is if they have a criminal record unrelated to their entry into the U.S.; if they pose a significant security risk; or if they have no capability or intent to contribute to the U.S. economy and have no family members willing to support them.
10.   The next order of business is to align immigration policy with the core values and the economic interests of America. I posit that such policy would have to:
a.       Enshrine that America continues to be a safe haven for verified refugees.
b.       Keep immigrant families together.
c.       Attract foreign talent irrespective of origin and encourage foreign students to participate in the U.S. economy after graduation.
d.       Attract foreign workers for sectors of our economy that are highly dependent on immigrant labor.
11.   The only public interest in controlling and limiting immigration is in the need for national security, to keep undesirables out and guard against oversupplying the labor market.
12.   Immigration will only stop if America no longer offers the promise of a better future. We should all hope it never gets to that point.

Friday, May 11, 2018

FOUR YEARS LATER


It is coming up on four years since I finished writing my book ‘NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, a First-Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’ and it is time to review the assessments made in the book and update its conclusions.

The book concluded that changes in the American political system would be required to allow the nation to address the major structural flaws that had been creeping up in a house that has stood for almost three and a half centuries.

My presumption is that the effectiveness of a political system can, and should, be measured by its capacity to craft solutions to the most pressing challenges a nation and its population faces. And the contention in my book was that our existing political system, as it functions today, puts our nation at risk of losing its dominance and vibrancy by not offering any steps to deal with the flaws that threaten to undermine its otherwise impressive edifice.

In my book, I identified as cracks in the building of our nation: the national debt and deficit; a crumbling and outdated infrastructure; absence of a comprehensive immigration policy; a losing battle in the war on drugs, the war on terror and the war on poverty; excessive cost of and uneven access to healthcare and education; and neglect and denial when it comes to protecting the environment of our planet.
My further contention was that not addressing the cracks in our building has resulted in creating a level of inequality within our population that is a disgrace to the richest and most resourceful nation on earth and a threat to its stability, national security and economic outlook.

It is telling that all the cracks in the system are of a nature that only governments can correct. This has not changed. In my book, I drew attention to the sharp gap between performance of the private and the public sectors. That gap is wider today than it was four years ago. Our businesses are humming and they are addressing problems of public interest like the treatment of women, climate change, work environment and employment of disabled persons, people with a criminal record and immigrants. Our government on the other hand, under Obama and Trump, has not addressed anything of the kind over the four years that have passed since I finished writing my book. It has only rapidly further increased the national debt that now stands at $21 Trillion (a truly scary and unfathomable number) and is bound to accelerate pace fed by the Trump tax cut, the omnibus budget bill and rising interest rates. By not addressing any of the cracks in our building, our problems have festered, exposing in a painful manner the inadequacies of our political system.

I argued in NEITHER HERE NOR THERE that, if a building is structurally flawed and unsafe, it gets condemned. Nothing of the kind has happened to rectify the US political system, even though it is deeply flawed and manifestly unfit for the purposes it is supposed to serve. The structural flaws that I identified were:
·       The two-party system
·       The money influence
·       The election system
·       The absence of a national strategy
Let’s look if anything has changed in any of these areas.

            1) THE TWO-PARTY SYSTEM
The two-party system has not changed, at least not organizationally. But there are ominous clouds building over the future of the GOP and the Democratic Party. In fact, internal consensus is completely lacking in both parties. There have always been factions, but what we see today looks more like fractions. In the GOP we have long had a more conservative (fiscally and socially) and a more moderate, centrist, representation. And in the Democratic Party we have similarly had a more radical, leftist and a more moderate, centrist faction. But the factions were generally conversant and unified come election time. That may no longer be the case. It is hard to say who is in worse shape. The GOP has been split asunder by the Trump election, which the party did not want, but could not stop. The split has, so far, largely been plastered over by the refusal of most GOP members of Congress to openly revolt against a President who never was a Republican, or even a conservative, until he decided to run for the highest office in the land. But the primaries leading up to the midterm elections in November will expose the warring factions in full daylight display. The by-elections in Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania have demonstrated that Trump’s coattails have been trimmed to threads. Some observers go as far as saying that the emperor has no clothes. The fight for the soul (and platform) of the GOP will be fought by at least three distinctly different ideology adherents: 1) Far right conservatives (mostly coming from the Tea Party wing); 2) Centrists; and 3) Populists. The outcome of the primaries and the midterm election will show which faction is winning and then it remains to be seen if the losing factions will stay with the party.

The Democratic Party is not in much better shape. It suffers from a lack of leadership and strategic direction. The far-left is by far the most vocal and has the support of much of the younger population (that always seems to be the case and not only in the USA). But its policy proposals are so far out of the mainstream that the party cannot expect to come back in power on the far-left platform. Anything that smells or looks like socialism or communism is (thankfully) antithetical to American beliefs and values. The best chance for Democrats is to unify behind a pragmatic, forward looking agenda that systematically addresses the cracks in the building that have appeared over time and which are enumerated above. Here too, the upcoming primaries and the midterm election will show which faction will take control of the party.
Regardless of which faction will emerge victoriously from the primaries and midterm election of 2018, on the Republican side and the Democratic side, it is certain that large factions in both parties will feel left behind and will be pondering their options.

The discontent with the current positioning of the two main parties is already clearly exhibited by the number of legislators on both sides of the aisle (but primarily in the GOP) who have declared that they will not be running for re-election. As hard as it may be to establish a viable new political party, circumstances have never in my lifetime been better to see it happen before the next Presidential election in 2020. The nation would be well served with the creation of a centrist third party that would attract moderates from both sides of the aisle. It would give people like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Charlie Dent, John Kasich, Doug Jones, Conor Lamb, Mitch Landrieu, Jim Webb and Mark Warner a place to go to and stay active in politics.

2) THE MONEY INFLUENCE        
Money remains king in politics. If there ever was any doubt, you just have to look at the amount of money spent in the most recent by-election for the Pennsylvania 18th District, which was narrowly won by Democrat Conor Lamb. Reportedly more than $10 million was spent on the losing side and more than $2 million on behalf of the winner. This, for one seat in the House of Representatives that will change again in November as a result of re-districting. The ugly reality remains that our elected officials have to keep going back to the well to ‘buy’ their re-election chances and -as a result- end up to be more beholden to their donors than to their constituents. The law has not changed in the last four years. There is a vicious circle here: Change cannot be expected to come from members of Congress who depend on donor money for their campaign and the judicial branch condones the current situation. It has judged that ‘independent expenditures made by individuals….do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption’ (Justice Kennedy writing for majority in Citizens United v. FEC, 2010). The legislature can justify its self-serving inaction with the Supreme Court’s prohibition of rational steps to take the money influence out of politics.
As long as the US Supreme Court holds on to its judgment that limits on election campaign spending are unconstitutional (Buckley v. Valeo, 1976); that political spending is a form of free speech protected under the First Amendment; and that the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections (Citizens United v. FEC, 2010), the money will keep flowing, influencing the outcome of elections and the content of legislative action and inaction.

Noteworthy is that the 45th President, in his election campaign, was willing to finance his campaign largely with his own money and money from the Trump organization, not relying on donor money, although his campaign ended up accepting third party money where offered. His election was a rare case where the outcome at the ballot box was not significantly influenced by either the amount of money donated to the campaign by third parties or the breadth of the field of donors to his campaign. In the meantime, Trump has apparently changed his mind and is actively conducting fundraising events for his re-election campaign.
I have suggested to end the scourge of money in politics by paying members of Congress an honorarium of a million dollars per year but prohibiting them from earning or accepting any money from private sources for the time of their tenure. Always a very long shot, it seems that we are only further away from dealing with this scourge than we ever were before.

3)  THE ELECTION SYSTEM
The frequency of elections, specifically the need for members of the House of Representatives to campaign for re-election every two years, is an impediment to constructive, forward looking work by the legislative branch. The frequency of elections increases the dependency on donor money and takes away from the time that legislators have to do the work they are elected for.  The obvious solution of longer but fewer terms (term limits), in order to lessen the time needed for fund raising and to free up more time for the ‘peoples work’, is nowhere on anyone’s political agenda.
The system, in my view, is also hampered by the absence of any statutory requirement to address, in a national election campaign, the most important challenges for which the political system will have to provide solutions. How, other than by party affiliation and (mostly negative) political advertising, can the voting public determine who they want to vote in office, if it has to wait and see until after the election how, if at all, their candidate will deal with the most pressing needs of the nation?

While, in these two respects, nothing has changed, widespread dissatisfaction with the dysfunction in the Washington Beltway has spurred discussion and some action, bringing about change in other aspects of our election system. First of all, with the districting process. States are taking action against the gerrymandering practices that have drawn ridiculous district lines serving only one purpose: to bring together the highest possible number of politically likeminded people, offering ‘safe and secure’ districts to incumbents. And, just recently, the US Supreme Court has declined to hear a Republican appeal against the redrawn congressional map in Pennsylvania that has done away with gerrymandering in that State.
Another development pertains to the process of primary elections. Here too, the States are the laboratories of innovation and improvement. At least 22 States allow ‘open primaries’ where voters, regardless of their party affiliation, are allowed to participate. And three States, Washington, California and Nebraska, have adopted a ‘top-two’ primary system, where the top two vote-getters, regardless of their party affiliation, advance to the general election. This system makes it possible for two candidates with the same party affiliation (or independents) to advance to the general election. Nebraska utilizes the top-two primary system only for state legislative elections.

If these three developments, redistricting, open primaries and top-two primaries, catch on and become more the norm than the exception, it will enhance our democratic election process and reduce the sharp divide between the aisles in Congress. It will do so by increasing the participation in primary elections, making it harder for far-left or far-right (fringe) candidates to come out on top in their primaries and thus advance to the general election.

4) ABSENCE OF A NATIONAL STRATEGY
 American public governance has no tradition or statute for the creation of a binding strategic plan that is built on broad consensus and transcends the shifting balance of power between the Republican and Democratic parties. As a result, we allow the party in charge to set the agenda without regard to the larger national needs and priorities. And, with the constant shift in control of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, the interpretation of what needs to be done keeps changing. Each administration hurries to get policy changes implemented and resorts mostly to executive orders, since legislative actions are too hard to get through Congress or take too long to get accomplished during the four-year term of control of the White House. The Trump administration may not have completely succeeded in doing away with Obamacare, but it has otherwise been very busy and successful in reversing Obama age rule making, primarily in the regulatory realm. All of this is likely to be turned back again if and when the current occupant gets kicked out of the White House in 2020. So, the tug of war of political expediency continues and keeps the nation from getting the help it needs to solve its most pressing problems. In the meantime, a huge army of competent, dedicated and loyal civil servants, capable of solving problems, stands by as the politicians play their self-serving games of orders and countermands.

Big strategies take a long time to be developed and implemented and don’t fit in with the election-driven decision-making practices of our politicians. These realities cry out for a non-partisan definition of what the government needs to achieve in the interest of the prosperity, security and stature of the nation. Now more than ever is the country in need of the articulation of a national strategic plan, since the days of uncontested global dominance and hegemony are over. However, none of this was in sight four years ago and none of this is in sight today. A political system that does not mandate or even facilitate the creation of a long term strategic plan is duping the people it is supposed to serve and condemning the nation to underperformance, both against its potential and against its global competitors.

The world looks and feels different today from what it was in 2014 and it will look and feel different again in another four years. The difference stems primarily from the unforeseen rise of populism and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Nothing has been more affected by this than the character and the identity of the GOP. I am still incredulous that the Republican Party not only allowed a person with no political track record and without any bona fides conservative credentials to run on their ticket and that the voters carried him to victory.
Even more astonishing is that, since Trump’s election, GOP legislators have given him a free pass to toss out fundamental Republican beliefs in free trade, environmental stewardship, immigration and fiscal responsibility.

When it comes to public governance, we are always comforted by the strength of our Constitution and the separation of powers. But the separation of powers is only effective if we have a legislative branch and a judicial branch that are willing to push back on the executive branch when the latter gets off the rails. 

I am not sure that I will live long enough to be able to see the Trump episode in the rear-view mirror. Will it be a four-year aberration that will be corrected by the voting public in 2018 and 2020, or will it signal a fundamental shift in the political landscape in the US and in the role, America plays in global affairs?
Short term, the insertion of a populist element in the political scene around Washington D.C. has only deepened the gridlock that had the political system locked up. The only thing of consequence passed by Congress during the first year of the Trump presidency is the GOP tax reform, that will soon enough have to be reversed or amended because it is on course of bankrupting the country. The gridlock is the result of the GOP control of both chambers of Congress and the refusal of the GOP representatives to acknowledge the ideological divide between (most of) them and the President. This show of party discipline has masked, for the most part, the ideological differences within the GOP delegation on Capitol Hill and thus secured the pat stand between two monolithic and near equally sized voting blocks. It will be interesting to see if the dynamics change after the midterm elections of 2018. If the Democrats succeed in taking control of the House and the Senate (which is a big if, given the lack of unity within their party), in theory, the possibility opens for the centrists in both parties to find each other in legislative activities that can begin to address the cracks in the building. Then the question will arise if the President can get Congress to sustain a veto, which he will most certainly issue against any bipartisan initiative that bypasses his office.

This review would not be complete without an analysis of the role of the media in the politics of the day. My first observation is that today’s media is much more occupied with disseminating opinion than facts. It is largely a function of the 24-hour news cycle that has to be filled. In spite of the constant alerts of ‘breaking news’, there is only so much factual news to be brought up, so the rest of the time needs to be filled with opinion and interpretation. That would not be all that detrimental if media channels had not largely organized along ideological lines and technology was not allowing us to select our news feed only from sources that espouse our own political beliefs and opinions.

Social media allow us to ‘befriend’ only those people and organizations that echo and support our points of view. All of this deepens the polarization not only in the ranks of the professional politicians but equally so amongst the voting (and non-voting) public. It makes reaching across the aisle a politically risky move, where it should be a frequently used tool in the political process. It also puts family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors at odds with each other. Freedom of the press, enshrined in the 1st Amendment, is a cornerstone of our democracy. But freedom comes with obligations and the media flaunt their obligations if they do not pursue the facts, the truth, with more vigor than they voice opinion. The best hope one can have for the role of the media is that they keep the politicians and the judiciary honest. That they have the capacity and willingness to separate facts from fiction and factual news from fake news. A free and independent press is a vital component of a functioning democracy. It is the watchdog that will alert the public to transgressions by any of the three branches of government against the Constitution and the rules of the game. Social media have opened the field to anyone with web access. This form of free speech is equally protected by the 1st Amendment. But we have yet to find an effective and constitutionally permitted way to protect ourselves from propaganda, fake news and untruths, cleverly disguised as ‘news’. In short, communications technology has complicated society’s quest for clarity, honesty and truth in media coverage of the political scene.

Based on all of the above, we come to the conclusion that much has changed and yet, much has stayed the same. Gridlock and polarization stand in the way of an improved political system and the leadership capable of breaking the impasse with popular support is absent. The country has made no progress in solving the most pressing problems the nation faces. Four years later, the rise in inequality, the absolute level of inequality and the glaring visibility of inequality together stand in the way of a healthier, more motivated and better performing nation. There is a direct connection – in most instances causality – between the inequality we see within the American population and the most pressing social ailments of our time. Inequality is expressed not only in difference in income or wealth, but also in difference in access to the best healthcare and the best education; the safety of the neighborhoods we live in. The burden of drugs, incarceration and military service falls disproportionately on the underprivileged. And the underprivileged are the ones who have to compete directly with the undocumented immigrants for their jobs.

My contention is that inequality will not be brought back to bearable proportion unless these most pressing ailments of our time are cured. That is a job for the government. And therein lies our Gordian knot: The cracks in our building will not be healed unless our system of public governance is restored to functionality; and inequality will not be brought back to acceptable proportions unless the cracks in our building are healed. It all hangs together and our destiny hinges on the linchpin of a functional system of public governance.
My book and the columns on my blog CASTNET COMMENTARY have been interpreted by some as criticism of my adopted country. That is a misinterpretation. I am a legal immigrant of choice and a permanent resident. My criticism is not directed at the country but at the manner in which it is getting led or misled. Others have tried to convince me that, in my pursuit of the exceptional America, I am a modern-day Don Quixote, chasing windmills with no basis in reality. That may be closer to the truth, if only because windmills are the most recognizable Dutch landmarks. But, if we only chase the realities of today and forego a foray into our imagination of what could be and should be, won’t we do a disservice to the ones coming after us, by not using our unique human capacity for intelligent creativity? As Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” and as Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Today, America has a government of the people, but not a government by the people, nor a government for (all of) the people. What poor governance has pried apart, good governance will have to put back together. It is not the nation that fails its people, falling short of expectations, it is the political system combined with weak (or worse) leadership that fails the nation. What is our huge government apparatus for, with all of the enormous tax burden it entails, if it is not to serve the people by addressing and solving their problems?
America has made exceptional contributions to world civilization, in war and peace, in exploration, in science and technology, in creating wealth, and in advancing human rights. There is no denying that, in terms of its geography, natural resources, the size of its economy, and its relative youth as a nation, America is blessed unlike most any other nation on earth.

But I am convinced that America today is underperforming against its capabilities and I find the reason for that in the failure of our political system, and the people serving in elected office, to keep the nation from coming apart. The cracks in our building have only widened over the last four years and we are sitting by idle, fatalistically waiting for the building to crumble. We are more polarized than ever since the Civil War and we allow ourselves to be paralyzed in the process, unable to solve our problems, which should be eminently manageable given America’s wealth, resourcefulness and strong civil service component.
We refuse to come together and compromise on the way our problems will be solved. It takes high caliber leadership in the White House and on Capitol Hill to break the impasse. America has done it before and I’m confident it can do it again. But sometimes things have to get worse to the point of becoming untenable, before the nation pulls together. Change comes easier when the pain of staying with the same exceeds the pain and hassle of change.
At that point you pray first that the nation can absorb the shock and then for full political engagement of the younger generation and the presence of the kind of leadership that inspires a nation to right itself.

Friday, January 12, 2018

IN HIS OWN WORDS

I refuse to read the Michael Wolff book ‘Fire and Fury’, because it de-legitimizes the serious concerns about the intellectual and moral fitness of our current President that I share with a good number of people whose judgment I value more than my own. People like David Brooks, the NYT columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, and Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group. I wish the book had been written by a serious, professional journalist like Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein after being given authorized access to the White House. Because I am dying to get a credible read on what kind of Presidency we are really dealing with.

As David Brooks has pointed out in his excellent column ‘The decline of anti-Trumpism’ in the New York Times of January 8, it almost appears as if we have two White Houses, two Presidencies, one rational and effective and the other one irrational, erratic and dysfunctional (Brooks terms the first one the ‘Invisible White House’ and the other, more apparent, one the ‘Potemkin White House’). The rational and effective White House is represented by some of the key personnel in the administration and the staff of the White House. The irrational, erratic and dysfunctional White House is represented by Donald Trump himself and some of his spokespersons. Which White House controls the destiny of our country?

Since we have no credible inside view, what do we have on the record to give us a glimpse into the daily reality of what the White House is really like? I have taken the time to pull up the transcripts of Trump interviews, given between November 23, 2016 and January 11, 2018, to journalists from the New York Times, Associated Press, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. They make tough reading. They cover essentially the first year of the Trump Presidency and if you are looking for a learning curve, it is not apparent. Whatever the intellectual capacity of #45 may be, the transcripts show that if you ask him to answer questions without a prepared, scripted, response, you get an avalanche of words that are never grouped in fluent, coherent sentences and only sporadically address the question asked. The responses in the January 11, 2018 interview with Rebecca Ballhaus, Michael Bender, Peter Nicolas and Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal are as inarticulate and scattered as the first one with the executive and editorial team of the New York Times on November 23 of 2016.

Equally revealing from the transcripts is the lack of intellectual curiosity evidenced in the words of the President. Nothing gets questioned, other than the FBI’s hesitation to delve into the Hillary emails and other shenanigans of the Clinton clique. All the answers the interviewers get are self-congratulatory statements about how he can and will straighten out the mess created by his predecessors. A lack of command of the facts, including an intimate understanding of the US Constitution and the separation of powers, is pouring out of these transcripts.

I find it amazing that, to my knowledge, none of the interviewers have cared to publicly ring the alarm bells as they came away from these interviews with a President who is clearly incapable of articulating a sensible thought process off the cuff.  If, in a face to face interview, the President can’t offer a coherent commentary on his own actions, plans and expectations, how will he be capable to articulate his demands and intentions in encounters with other world leaders? This question is particularly compelling, given Trump's penchant for one on one sessions that allow him to report afterwards how an amazingly good relationship he has been able to develop with his counterparts (whether it is Merkel, May, Macron, Abe or Xi Jinping) without witnesses able to refute the story.

Newsweek has latched onto this and reported that the company ‘Factbase’ has analyzed the verbal vocabulary of every US President since Herbert Hoover and found that our current President communicates at the lowest grade level of all his 14 predecessors. Measured on the scientifically constructed Flesch-Kincaid scale, Trump gets a 4.6 grade, which equates to a 4th grade vocabulary. The Factbase analysis is limited to unscripted words uttered at press conferences and other public appearances (not prepared remarks or press releases). It should not surprise us. We hear the President speaking ad lib just about every day and come to the same conclusion. I thought ‘W’ was bad, but at a 7.4 grade he ranks far above the current occupant of the White House.

The problem with most politicians is that they have a tendency to say different, even contradictory, things to different audiences and are masters in hedging their positions, knowing full well that whatever they say can and will be held against them at some point by at least part of their constituency. Our current President, even though more a showman than a politician, is no exception. But most other elected officials have learned to explain their positions in understandable sentences.

Does any of this disqualify Trump for the highest office in the USA? Not by itself, but combined with the fact that, in these interviews, #45 constantly contradicts himself, repeats himself ad nauseam and flaunts the facts, it should at a minimum raise questions in the minds of the people who voted for him in 2016.

Unfortunately, Michael Wolff’s book undermines the foundation for the legitimate opposition to the Trump Presidency, much like the idle talk about impeachment of the President does. The hard truth is that the American voters have put an intellectual and moral minion in the White House. No one can in truth maintain that Trump misled voters in his campaign in who he is, what he stands for, or how he plans on making America great again. The handwriting, rather ugly graffiti, was all over the wall. We need to accept that only two forces can remove this stain from America’s honor by removing him from office: 1) Robert Mueller, if he finds irrefutable evidence of high crimes and misdemeanor committed by #45; or 2) the voters, but not until 2020. We also need to accept that there is this other, invisible, White House that is quietly and methodically going about its business of reversing the Obama agenda.

Ultimately, I am of the opinion that we need to judge the office holder and not the ‘Invisible White House’ and I will find that the current President of the United States is unfit for the office he was elected to for a number of reasons:
·       His refusal to eliminate every trace of self-dealing and conflict of interest between his business interests (his brand), his family interests and the sanctity of the public office he is entrusted with (the American brand).
·       His disrespect for the constitutionally imposed limits on the authority of his office.
·       His zero-sum approach to geo-political issues: if it is good for the other party, it can’t be good for America.
·       His rhetoric on global trade, climate change, the Western alliance, immigration, the refugee challenge, NAFTA and the nuclear deal with Iran.
·       His disregard for the intolerable increase in inequality and the national debt.
·       His narcissism and populism.

But I realize that, other than the first two points of critique, all these arguments are political in nature and need to be contested and resolved at the voting booth. In the meantime, let’s hope that no irreparable harm is done to the country, it’s institutions, it’s standing in the world, not to speak of world peace.

Monday, November 20, 2017

THE NEW NORMAL?

For my regular readers it is no secret that I am not particularly fond of our 45th President, not of his style, his substance (or lack thereof) or his character. But, as I wrote a year ago in my column ‘The Next Four Years’, the voters chose in November of 2016 to give him a chance and we should respect that. The good thing is that Presidents in the United States are term limited to a maximum of eight years and that they have to go back to the voters to ask for an extended mandate after the first four years. In addition, they (their actions and policies) will be assessed in mid-term elections which have the capacity to deny them support in Congress and thus clip their wings before they become a lame duck.

I have to believe, but I have been proven wrong about just about every prediction I have made about # 45, that this President will pay a price in the court of public opinion every time his presidency is subjected to the democratic process of free and fair elections. The sketchy results from the 2017 State and Local elections cannot really be interpreted as a verdict on the current federal administration, but they hint at a repudiation of conservative-republican candidates and policies. The mid-term elections of 2018 will be the first true test of whether we will have entered an era of nationalistic populism or are just going through a period of aberration.

Yes, there are people who don’t care about the federal government or what it does at all and just want to hear the man in the White House use the same rhetoric they like to use when confronted with opinions that differ from their own or when contemplating the lack of respect and dominance America commands abroad. These people cherish the satisfaction of ‘telling them like it is’ and despise political correctness, diplomacy and compromise. But rational people will be results oriented. They will want to judge politicians on how well or poorly they deliver on their campaign promises. Their chance to do that comes at the voting booth. I surely hope that the percentage of voters willing to live by promises, kept or not, and slogans, is not high enough to keep delivering electoral victories. We will have to wait, until November 2018, and see.

In the meantime, we will keep wondering where America will be heading. Will it revert to picking up its century long role of a global pathfinder, a living representation of the values expressed and enshrined in its declaration of independence and constitution, or establish a new normal in which a narrowly defined self interest becomes the norm not only for federal policy but also a model for personal conduct.

The fundamental difference that sets the new normal apart from the old is the axiomatic belief in the zero-point game: ‘There can only be winners and losers, not winners and winners’. In the new normal, the United States would have left Japan and Germany to fend for themselves after World War II had ended. The Allies had won and the Axis lost, as simple as that. Recovery from the Allied inflicted war damage would not have been an American responsibility. The new normal despises losers and idolizes winners. Winning means that you were right all along. The concept that a treaty or a multinational agreement, like NAFTA, the Paris Climate Accord, or the Iranian Nuclear Framework Agreement, can advance the interest of all parties is alien to the subscribers to the new normal. If America does not get it exactly its way, the deal can simply be no good, it must have been poorly negotiated. From this rationale, the new normal had every reason to reject the TPP framework even before it had been fully negotiated.

The new normal is pessimistic and cynical. In the new normal there is no ‘give and take’ and – in political terms – there is no reaching across the aisle. It looks at every challenge as a zero-point game: ‘We can’t all be winners, settlers and immigrants, protectionists and free-traders, Christians and Muslims, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, healthy and sick, educated and uneducated, white and black and Latino’.

If, God forbid, the 2018 and 2020 elections were to establish the new normal as the lay of the land, it will signal a complete abandonment of traditional American values, beliefs, and aspirations. There is no denying that America has always harbored self-centered, cynical, and confrontational elements, but most of the time and over the long run they have been kept at bay by a moderate, rational, optimistic, and forward looking public opinion.

Will the regular order prevail and bring America, by means of the voting booth, back on the course of leading the world by example and in a collaborative mode with other peace-loving nations, or will it require a life altering shock to the system, like a nuclear conflict, a cyber war, an economic collapse or a popular revolt? That is the existential question.