Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Democrats Tell Personal Stories and Explain Policy Ideas and Sometimes, Debate

After greeting the crowd at Texas Southern University, Julián Castro opened the Democratic debate last week with this important insight: “There will be life after Donald Trump. But the truth is that our problems didn’t start just with Donald Trump, and we won’t solve them by embracing old ideas.” All the Democratic candidates agree on Castro’s analysis of the past, that our American problems which need to be solved have been developing for a long time. They agree that we will go on, perhaps to a bright future, after Trump is gone. The fundamental disagreements among the candidates center on Castro’s rejection of “old ideas”: how much progressive change is the right amount in this election?

Joe Biden represents the most moderate positions, although his ideas are hardly old. In fact, he has had to repudiate many of his old ideas during this campaign: working with segregationists in Congress was a good thing; Obamacare as it was enacted was good enough; harsh sentencing did less to control crime than to put a generation of mostly African Americans behind bars. Politicians from the 1960s have had to change many fundamental ideas, but are very bad at admitting that positions they took long ago are not right for today.

Castro, and many of the other candidates who appeared at the 3rd debate, as well as others who still believe they have a chance, criticize Biden, hoping to peel off the moderate Democratic voters who support him. On health care, which has taken center stage as the crucial issue of 2020, Castro magnified a minor difference with Biden, but took what has become the moderate position, arguing for the retention of private health insurance plans: “If they choose to hold on to strong, solid private health insurance, I believe they should be able to do.” He claimed to be fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, a key clue that he stands with the more moderate candidates.

At the other end of the field, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders want to eliminate private health plans entirely in favor of Medicare for All. Sanders and Warren hold up the private insurance industry for ridicule as siphoning off billions of dollars in profit. Their differences between them lie less in policy than in approach. Warren has plans for structural reform in favor of the neglected little guy, while Sanders thinks instead of a revolution against the oligarchy.

Many of the more moderate Democratic candidates have already fallen by the wayside: John Hickenlooper, Steve Bullock, Seth Moulton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney. The latest poll from yesterday, like all last week’s polls, show Biden in the lead, but the very progressive Sanders and Warren combined have significantly more support. Among the rest, only Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke consistently get more than 2%. The field is thankfully shrinking, and will gradually become more manageable. The election is still nearly 14 months away.

As a prelude to the actual debate, ABC chose a sentence from each candidate’s earlier speeches to play in the order that the candidates were ranked. I found it notable that all these excerpts except Biden’s (“I will be a president for every American.”) talked about “we”. Who knows how that came about? Did someone pick these clips to demonstrate the fundamental unity among all Democratic candidates? I don’t know if we’ll ever find out.

That message of unity is my “takeaway” from the campaign so far. The cohesion and shared values are hard to see, though. The nature of a campaign is that everyone is competing with everyone, and against everyone. The media compulsion to broadcast conflict shapes the whole process, for candidates and for us all. That was apparent in the moderators’ questions: instead of asking “what do you believe?” or “what would you do?”, they demanded discussion of disagreements.

To see how the media shapes our impressions of the campaign, it is instructive to see two attempts to summarize the debate in a few clips, by ABC News, as fact, and by Stephen Colbert, for laughs.

Right after the debate, ABC produced 4 minutes of “Moments That Mattered”. The selection was a serious exercise in media repackaging. Every heated exchange was included: Biden and Sanders arguing about health care; Castro castigating Biden about the small differences in their health care plans and about his memory, and all of the other conflicts involving Castro; Klobuchar versus Sanders about health care. Harris was shown criticizing Trump, Booker only got to talk about his early electoral failures, Buttigieg only to complain about the emphasis on conflict. The more extreme proposals were highlighted: Yang’s philanthropic offer of $1000 a month to some needy families; Beto O’Rourke saying he would take away assault rifles. Elizabeth Warren apparently did not matter to ABC and was not shown at all, because she spent her time explaining rather than attacking.

Stephen Colbert’s monologue later that night tells a different story, not only because he is much funnier. For 12 minutes, he used excerpts of what America had just seen to get laughs after laughs. Colbert’s principles were clear: portray every candidate truthfully, and then make fun. He made fun of Sanders’ voice, Biden’s age, Harris’s vagueness on what to call the unmasked little Wizard of Oz, and Klobuchar’s movie reference.

Colbert began by talking about “fireworks” and gleefully displayed a few moments of real one-on-one conflict. But by the time Colbert wound up, most of the candidates had their say about something important, even when he fantasized something funny in response. Klobuchar expressed the “existential threat” to our environment. Beto told the world he would take away assault rifles. Bernie said that Medicare for All would cost our society much less than we’re spending now. Yang made his remarkable philanthropic offer. Harris showed off her plan on how to deal with Trump – laugh at him. Biden emphasized his link to Obama. Warren got a brief moment of real American family á la Norman Rockwell, which is a staple in her campaign. Buttigieg summarized a universal, but ever ignored wisdom about our never-ending wars – don’t start them. Castro said everybody would be covered under his health plan. Only Booker was left out.

Age is playing a surprising role in this campaign. It certainly matters, but it’s hard to say how it matters. Laughing at old men was in lots of Colbert’s jokes about Biden and Sanders. The clip of Castro and Biden interrupting each other was about age. But Buttigieg, the youngest candidate since the beginning, said nothing disparaging about the older candidates.

Warren is 70, but she gets left out of the public laughter about the elderly. Maybe because her age is not apparent in what she does. But it’s notable that everybody finds her hard to criticize. That may be a hidden advantage for her campaign.

Maybe a difference in purpose led to these differences in reportage. Although Trump incessantly whines about the mainstream networks as “fake news” trying to defeat him, ABC was much more interested in promoting conflict as significant, who’s ahead, who’s desperate, who is nasty about whom. All the networks and all the print media try hard not to put themselves on one side or the other, even as they pick and choose what to tell us.

Colbert was clear about his purpose in his monologue. Toward the beginning, he called Trump a non-violent criminal. At the end, he said: “What did we get? . . . hopefully, one person who can beat Donald Trump.”
The news isn’t fake, but it is spun, not false, but often misleading about important things. Colbert tells obviously fake stories, but gives us a better picture of reality. Unfortunately, this election is not a laughing matter.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
September 17, 2019

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Divine Right Presidency

Trump’s latest use of our government to cover up his mistakes, this time about weather forecasting, is revealing about the nature of his Presidency.

No government weather maps showed Hurricane Dorian threatening Alabama. On Thursday, August 29, Trump was briefed in the Oval Office on the Hurricane by the head of FEMA, which released a photo of him looking at a map of where Dorian had been and where it was headed. A white curved line showed the areas that Dorian might possibly hit. Not Alabama.

Early Saturday morning, August 31, the National Hurricane Center realized that Dorian was not going to hit Florida directly, and threat projections were shifted further east. The next morning, Sunday, at 7:51 AM Trump tweeted the following: “In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”

The National Weather Service’s Birmingham office reacted in 20 minutes, tweeting at 8:11: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”

For Alabamans, whew. For Trump, though, emergency – he had made a mistake. Nobody died, his tweet perhaps scared some people, but he had been wrong, and that was impossible. At noon on Sunday at FEMA headquarters, he repeated that Alabama remained in the path of the storm, based on “new information”.

As the Hurricane moved north, doing tremendous damage but having nothing to do with Alabama, the storm in Washington about Alabama intensified. On Monday Trump repeated his clam that Alabama was in danger. By then, it was clear to everyone that Alabama would remain untouched, and the controversy shifted to whether Trump was correct that Alabama had been part of earlier forecasts. On Wednesday, Trump brought out the map from his briefing 6 days earlier. Somewhere in the White House, a new black Sharpie line had been added, extending Dorian’s “threat” another 100 miles west into a corner of Alabama.

On Thursday, Rear Admiral Peter J. Brown, Trump’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, released a statement that Alabama had been in the path of the storm. Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce who oversees NOAA and the National Weather Service, threatened to fire any employee who contradicted Trump. On Friday afternoon, NOAA disavowed the Birmingham NWS office’s statement that Alabama would not be hit.

We all might soon forget this saga of Dorian and Alabama when the next outrage emerges, but its details display the character of our current government. Right-wing populist politicians and parties in democratic systems across the globe are being examined for their similarities to 20th-century fascists. Trump however is no strongman, he commands no armed militia of followers, who brutalize opponents. He acts more like the unelected monarchs who ruled for hundreds of years by divine right. Trump is the state and “L’état, c’est moi,” as Louis XIV is supposed to have said.

Trump’s equation of himself with the state emerges in many of his statements. When the prime minister of Denmark curtly rejected Trump’s notion of buying Greenland, he said, “She’s not talking to me, she’s talking to the United States of America. You don’t talk to the United States that way.”

Let’s add up some individual instances where Trump has identified the USA with himself, made the government into his personal servants, and claimed unprecedented powers to do whatever he wants. As soon as he was inaugurated, he enlisted the National Park Service to crop photos of the inauguration to pretend that his crowd was larger than Obama’s. He ordered by tweet all US companies to stop doing business with China. He claimed he had the right to end the Constitutional provision of birthright citizenship by executive order. He threatened to close our southern border with military force to stop migrants. He deployed the National Guard and active-duty troops to the southern border to deal with the “emergency” that he had created.

In response to Robert Mueller’s investigation, Trump’s lawyers created an argument that the President cannot commit obstruction because he can do anything he wants: “the President has exclusive authority over the ultimate conduct and disposition of all criminal investigations and over those executive branch officials responsible for conducting those investigations. Thus as a matter of law and common sense, the President cannot obstruct himself or subordinates acting on his behalf by simply exercising these inherent Constitutional powers. This led Trump to claim that he has the “absolute right to PARDON myself.”

King George III said during the American Revolution that “A traitor is everyone who does not agree with me.” Trump has often characterized his critics as traitors: when Democrats did not applaud his State of the Union speech in 2018; any Jews who vote for Democrats; congressional Democrats for opposing his anti-immigration policies. The website AXIOS counted 24 times by this past June that Trump had accused other Americans of treason.

Things didn’t turn out so well for George III, when the American colonists decided that he did not represent them. To prevent Trump from crowning himself King Don I, Americans will again have to reject divine right pretensions.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
September 10, 2019

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Seeing Our Environment

Two sets of opinions about our environment, the earth which makes our lives possible, are at war in our country. The scientific set is alarmed about the mounting effects of human activity on air, water, animal and plant life, and climate. As population and consumption grow, and industrial methods of doing everything proliferate, the earth has become unable to absorb the multiplying impact on its interlocking natural systems. The pollution of our water supplies, the increasing ferocity of storms, the warming of climate, the rising level of oceans, and the dying of species are already negatively affecting people around the globe. Projections of these trends into the near future predict severe problems for billions of people.

The ignorant set of opinions dismisses all evidence with stupid arguments. “The earth’s climate was much warmer long ago.” Yes, it was, before agriculture, before human life emerged, before millions of people lived on the edge of the oceans. “There is no scientific consensus.” Just a lie about the small number of isolated cranks who put forward specious contentions based on made-up evidence. “Computer models are unreliable.” You don’t need a computer to read a thermometer or see how the projections from 10 years ago have already come true. “The end times are coming, so don’t worry about climate change.” Religious dogma trumps science again.

Ignorant and stupid may be understatements. The political forces which have argued against doing anything to reduce our impact on the environment, and which now actively reverse previous efforts to protect the earth, deliberately lie about what has already happened. Republicans in Congress and the White House know that temperatures are rising. But they prioritize their own ideological short-term gains over the long-term prospects for our children and grandchildren. Their rich donors believe that their money can protect them against the disasters that will eventually befall the less wealthy, who have always borne the brunt of human-caused environmental disasters. The ignorant, stupid, dishonest set of opinions has been backed by billions of ideological dollars for decades.

Against the torrent of influence-buying, the willingness of ideologues like the Heartland Institute to twist the truth, and the self-interest of venal politicians, the honesty and empathy of someone like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who just sailed across the Atlantic to urge Americans toward bold action against climate change, stands little chance of success. It appears that no amount of evidence, neither scientific articles nor photographs of melting glaciers, can affect the deliberately ignorant.

The so-called age gap in climate consciousness might appear to be a hopeful sign for the future. A Gallup poll last year found that 70% of 18- to 34-year olds worry about global warming, but only 63% of 35- to 54-year olds, and 55% of people 55 and older. Nearly half of older Americans put themselves into the ignorant camp, not believing that most scientists agree that global warming is occurring, that global warming is caused by human activities, and that the effects of global warming have already begun. Maybe the key is that only 29% of older Americans think global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. As Louis XV is supposed to have said, “Après moi le déluge.”

Politics has an even stronger effect on beliefs about climate than age. The most ignorant Americans are older Republicans, less than half of whom believe global warming is occurring, and less than one-third of whom believe that most scientists agree about global warming.

But young people are also not that worried. Only half believe that global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes, which extend well past 2050, the nightmare date by which climate across the globe will be unrecognizable.

Opposition to efforts to ameliorate climate change comes not only from conservative politicians. A couple in Missouri who wanted to install solar panels on their roof had to fight for years with local politicians and neighbors who didn’t like the look. In some classic cases of “not in my backyard”, people in the most liberal places refuse to accept minor lifestyle changes. An attempt to construct a wind farm off the shores of Nantucket Island near Cape Cod resulted in years of controversy, litigation, documentaries, books, and polls, and was eventually shelved. The most significant argument against the tall turbines 15 miles offshore from Nantucket was that they would spoil the view. A 2013 law in Massachusetts that would have indexed the tax on gasoline to inflation was repealed by popular vote the next year.

Although my family believes I am a Luddite because of my reluctance to embrace cell phones, I blame their use for some of our environmental problems. I am constantly amazed when I walk around on a sunny day and most of the people I see are staring fixedly down at a tiny screen. A flock of ducks flies overhead, trees wave in the breeze, clouds march across the sky, but they earn not even a glance. The younger generations are turning away from the natural world in favor of virtual unreality. They may be watching videos of Greenland’s ice pack melting, but they miss what is happening to their own environment.

There is much discussion of the physical dangers of using smart phones while walking. I am more concerned about the intellectual danger of ignoring the physical environment during the short periods when most people are outside.

Some scientists are worried about the “human costs of alienation from the natural world”, which has been labeled “nature deficit disorder”. Biologists identify “plant blindness” as one symptom, “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment”. As our society has moved off the land into cities and suburbs, we have distanced ourselves from the natural world. Now the lure of rapidly changing images and instant communication distracts too many people from the slow degradation of the earth on which we stand.

The pace of environmental change is much faster than ever before, but slow in terms of human life span. It is difficult to convince anyone to accept something now that they don’t like in order to prevent a catastrophe decades away.

Looking down at our phones, we won’t see the cliff ahead.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
September 3, 2019

Thanks to my cousins, Roger Tobin and Saul Tobin.