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Future of the Republic

So, Donald John Trump became president after all. He won the election and was inaugurated and now he works in the Oval Office and lives in the White House. I’m still surprised. I occasionally read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but I get most of my news from TV. It turned out that the authoritative news analysts on NBC and ABC and CBS and CNN and MSNBC and PBS and NPR didn’t know what they were talking about.

President Donald J. Trump

President Donald J. Trump

They had been observing the political scene, day in and day out, for the two-year runup to the election, and they had got it wrong.

But the analysts weren’t daunted. The day after the election they sprang up on television again, as knowledgeable as ever, telling us about the voters in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania, explaining why so many of those folks had voted for Donald Trump. And the analysts continued their journalistic probing of president-elect Trump. During the campaign, Donald Trump had been a bullying nationalistic, “America first!” demagogue, attacking the media elite, sewing fear among our minorities, insulting and scaring our allies, delighting in his followers as they chanted “Lock her up!” about his opponent, and claiming if he were defeated, it would show the election had been rigged. But the political commentators, most of them, assured us that Trump would reveal his benign and civil presidential self now that he had won the election.

The commentators were somewhat uneasy and defensive as they ventured that prediction, because it was the same forecast they made when Trump had defeated his last primary opponent. But Donald Trump hadn’t turned presidential. He was still displaying indifference toward the norms of political discourse and a hostility toward what he called “political correctness,” which in his vocabulary meant ordinary politeness. And he lied a lot.

Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency on June 16, 2015. During the endless primary period he demolished each of his Republican rivals, crushing them with scorn, mockery, half-truths and lies. The billionaire won the Republican nomination on July 19, 2016. Without pausing to become presidential, he turned his attention to Hillary Clinton and, using the same low demagogic tactics he had developed in the primaries, he rolled through the sanctified electoral college and handily won the presidency. That was on November 8, 2016. He didn’t reveal a presidential self the next day nor on any of the days that followed to his inauguration.

Donald John Trump’s inaugural speech, much of which was shouted, included an insulting passage about the three presidents seated a few feet from him, conjured up a depressing and bogus picture of our nation’s economy and social state and, with a few notable exceptions, radiated a vague hostility toward other nations of the world. Donald John Trump is our president and is the same Trump we’ve seen for the past year and a half, the same bombastic billionaire we’ve seen for years on The Apprentice TV series and for decades prior to that. He’s not been in disguise. He’s not going to reveal a better self. He has no better self.

Some analysts of the political scene are calling Trump a populist. Theodore Roosevelt was a populist, Robert LaFollette was a populist. Both espoused progressive policies. It doesn’t clarify anything to call Trump a populist; quite the contrary, it puts him in an American tradition where he doesn’t belong. Our President is a billionaire who has gathered to his side the wealthiest cabinet in the history of the United States.

Donald John Trump, our Trump, is a vulgar man. He’s a boastful and clownish billionaire, a mocker, a bully, a distorter of the truth, a fabricator of errors of fact, a liar and a demagogue — one third buffoon and two thirds menace. Through the folly and opportunism of the Republican Party, and the complacent venal delinquency of the Democratic Party, he now commands more power than any other mortal on earth. And we, the people, are the only hope we have.

A New Word For New Times

Maybe you don’t frequent the Oxford Dictionaries site and you missed their choice for Word of the Year. The folks at Oxford Dictionaries don’t just put a bunch of neologisms into a hat and blindly pick one. In fact it took a lot of discussion, debate, and research before they chose post-truth as the Word of the Year — it’s an adjective they define as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal oxford-dictionaryof-english-220belief. ”

The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries are cool. They aren’t working in an ivory tower, remote from the rhetorical muck and fantasy of our eighteen-month campaign for president. They had this to say about the hyphenated word: “The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.”

There was a time when post-truth meant “after the truth has come out.” No more. Now the word is used to mean a disregard and discounting of facts and an embrace of whatever you wish to believe. So, greetings to post-truth, the Word of the Year, and to the weird politics of the year 2016..

College Students & Hunger

Oliver Twist asking for more.You knew that college students in the United States were being crushed under a mountain of debt. In fact, in this country the total amount of college debt now surpasses the total of all credit card debt. But you probably didn’t know that student finances have reach the point where some students are going hungry – they can’t buy food and pay college costs at the same time.

Sara Golrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,is also the director of the Wisconsin HOPE lab which researches, among other things, the financial hurdles that financially strapped college students face nowadays. The lab has uncovered some worrisome statistics. It turns out that poorer students are simply going hungry. Or as the HOPE people put it, “food insecurity is a growing problem on college campuses.”

Food insecurity is defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a “…social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” In other words, sometimes you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Surveys by the HOPE lab reveal that some students can’t afford to buy enough food to stay in college. They have to choose between food and, say, rent, family needs, or the courses required to graduate.

A survey at ten community colleges across the nation discovered that half the students said they were struggling with food and/ or housing insecurity. A whopping 20 percent were hungry and 13 percent were homeless. Professor Golrick-Rab’s team began to interview low income students at Wisconsin’s public universities and colleges back in 2008. At that time 27 percent didn’t have enough money to buy enough food, and 5 to 7 percent had gone an entire day without eating.

The problem of hungry students isn’t insoluble. One suggestion by the people at HOPE is for our government to make students eligible for food stamps by treating going to college as similar to going to work. That would certainly help.

(You’re right about the image at the top. The kid with the bowl isn’t a community college student. He’s Oliver Twist asking for more.)

Encryption & the 4th Amendment

Constitution - We the PeopleAlas, there’s no right to privacy in the Constitution of the United States. The closest we come to that right is in the 4th Amendment which states that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause —” and so forth.

For the past few years, the administration has been trying to get US companies to install “back doors” in their encryption programs. That way federal agencies will be able to access our otherwise private information. And now, as you know, a federal judge has ordered Apple, Inc. to hack its encrypted i-phone so the FBI will get into the device used by one of the killers in the San Bernardino massacre. Apple says No. Doing that, says CEO Tim Cook, would ultimately compromise the privacy of all i-phone users.

That’s a brave stand for privacy. And, frankly, if we have to rely on global corporations to protect us from government snooping, we’re in a bad way.

In 1890 a couple of law partners, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, wrote an article for the Harvard Law Review about privacy. In the years since then, it’s become one of the most famous articles ever printed in that review. In their article, the young lawyers found a right to privacy  — or, as they wrote, “the right to be left alone” — in common law, and also found it implicitly in a variety of statutes. It was a good start, but that was over 100 years ago.

Thirty years later, the same Louis Brandeis, by then a Justice of the Supreme Court, argued that a right to privacy was implicit in the 4th Amendment. The case was Olmstead v. the United States, and the question was whether recordings of wiretapped private telephone conversations constituted impermissibly seized evidence and consequently should be excluded from the trial. The case was well chosen to favor the use of wiretaps, because the people being wiretapped were in an outrageously huge bootlegging business. By a five-to-four decision, the Court said wiretapping had not violated the 4th Amendment. So Brandeis lost. As Chief Justice William Howard Taft said, there had been no searching and nothing had been seized, the conversation had been merely overheard. By the way, that decision was not overturned until 1967, thirty-nine years later.

The article written by Brandeis and Warren in 1890 had been stimulated by the invention of the camera and the public display in newspapers of photographs of private people. And in the 1928 Olmstead case, the decision followed upon the use of telephone wiretaps. In each case the interpretation of the 4th Amendment came in response to a technological advance that law didn’t cover. Now, of course, technology has advanced terrifically with the invention of the marvelous digital phone and all that it can do.

Clearly, any conclusive decision in the Apple case will have to involve an interpretation of the 4th Amendment. The Apple case, like the Olmstead case of 1928, is well chosen to favor the authorities, namely the FBI, since the phone they want to get into  was used by the perpetrators of the horrifying San Bernardino massacre. It’s a hard case. And there’s an old legal adage that say, “Hard cases make bad law”


If you’re interested, Critical Pages has an earlier post on Louis Brandeis.

The Downside of Democracy

Charlie Hebdo - survivors edition. Cartoon of Muhammad with a tear in his eye appeared beneath this.

Charlie Hebdo – survivors edition. Cartoon of Muhammad with a tear in his eye appeared beneath this.

In the aftermath of the slaughter in Paris our instinct is to condemn the killers and mourn their victims and to defend — defend to the death, as some have said — the right of editors and cartoonists to write and draw what they please. If they want to satirize Moses or the Pope or Jesus or Mohammed, fine, let them do it.

The offices of Charlie Hebdo had been firebombed in the past by Islamic extremists, so the editors and cartoonists there knew what they were doing. Workers on the magazine weren’t constrained by prudence or the unwritten rules of ordinary decent behavior, such as civility, politeness, and live and let live. They were, as their publication says of itself, irresponsible. We know that.

We also know that safe speech that offends no one, and safe cartooning that ridicules only the conventionally ridiculous, doesn’t maintain or test the limits of free speech. People on the social margin — anarchistic, pornographic, outrageous and disobedient — people working at the disreputable edge, they’re the ones who keep the mainstream free. We have no qualms or quibbles, no questions about any of that.

But we do question whether they had the right target when they lampooned Muhammad. Every nation engaged in fighting Islamic extremists has said over and over again that it is not at war with Islam — it’s at war with Islamic extremists. French President François Hollande has distinctly and emphatically said it many times this past week. About 18 percent of the French population is Muslim. Those Muslims aren’t visitors; they are citizens of France, they are French.

Satirists have generally aimed their barbs at the rich and powerful, at the people in charge who lord it over the poor and downtrodden. But in creating cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo offended all French Muslims — a group made up, by and large, of poor and marginalized citizens. Yes, yes, the cartoons were visual statements against Muslim extremists and terrorists. But extremists and terrorists don’t change their behavior by being bashed in a low circulation satirical magazine. Charlie Hebdo’s broad brush cartoons injured the religious sensibilities of all Muslims.

In France, as in the United Sates, there aren’t laws prohibiting the publication of magazines such as Charlie Hebdo. Open, pluralistic, democratic societies don’t pass laws against publishing satirical cartoons, no matter how offensive, nor do they punish editors for adolescent rebelliousness or gross misjudgment. They don’t even pass laws against cartoonists for being offensive simply for the sake of offending.  An open and democratic society puts up with a lot. It’s worth it.

 

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Better Angels of Our Nature cover image 235While our fellow humans are drowning themselves in each other’s blood, it’s consoling to remember Steven Pinker’s great book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The author’s preface begins with these words:
“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”

Pinker’s book, including notes and index, is 802 pages long. It’s overwhelmingly convincing. You may not want to choose a work of such length for summer reading, or for reading in any season, but even a random walk through these pages will be a corrective to the view that history is on a long downhill trajectory. Some readers may dispute his statistical methodologies, but by and large the trends he focuses on are beyond question.

There are passages describing what humans no longer do to each other, and those pages may be hard to take. The record of violence and cruelty increases as we read further and further back in history, and we’ve forgotten or averted our eyes from the bloody chronicle because we can no longer stomach thinking about what we have done to each other. If you lived in medieval times your chances of being murdered would be thirty times greater than today.

In Steven Pinker’s words “The centuries for which people are nostalgic were times in which the wife of an adulterer could have her note cut off, children as young as eight could be hanged for property crimes, a prisoner’s family could be charged for easement of irons, a witch could be sawn in half, and a sailor could be flogged to a pulp. The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human right almost incoherent. Genocide ad war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature is an important book not only because it adds to our understanding of human history, not only because it is a corrective to fanciful notions of a more just and peaceful past, but also because – and this is crucial – it encourages us to persist in our struggle to overcome what Steven Pinker calls “the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression.” Our progress has been straight or smooth, and it is certainly uneven today, but clearly we are moving in the right direction. Because we know we can live better, we should keep pressing forward.

How Much Does Free Speech Cost?

Chief Justice John Roberts

John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

The full majesty of the United States Supreme Court was on display the other day when the conservative majority proclaimed that rich and poor alike can now give as much money and they please to as many political candidates as they choose, so long as they don’t give more than $5,200.00 to any one individual.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion of the court’s conservative majority. He found that the restrictions on campaign giving, which limited the number of candidates to whom you could give money, violated the Constitution. Roberts wrote that such restrictions “intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise the most fundamental First Amendment activities.”

In a wonderful example of non-sequitor thinking, Roberts wrote, “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

Somebody from Sesame Street should point out to the Chief Justice that merely because we find certain things repugnant, doesn’t mean they have any other relation to each other or to something else we find repugnant.

Anyone who so desires can burn a flag, protest at a funeral or parade with Nazis. But only the very rich can give away money in the thousands or millions to influence an election. In the last presidential election, Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire, along with his family, gave over $53 million to super PACs to help elect Republican candidates from Mitt Romney on down to a Representative from New Jersey. Thanks to the conservative Roberts court, the rich have considerably more freedom of speech than the poor.

SNAP or “Food Stamps” and Free Lunch

About 20 percent of US households are on “food stamps.” Conservatives look at that number and say, “Good grief! Twenty percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program logothe US is getting a free lunch, and the rest of us are paying for it!” Liberals, seeing the same number, say “Good grief! Twenty percent of the US lives in such poverty that they can’t afford to eat without government assistance!”

Some facts may provide a clearer picture of the “food-stamp program.”

First of all, it’s no longer stamps – it’s a card, an Electrical Benefits Transfer (EBT) Card. It used to be called the Food Stamp program, but now it’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. It’s the government assistance program to help low-income households pay for food.

Last year, 2013,76% of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits go th these vulnerable household.

SNAP eligibility is limited to households with gross income of no more than 130% of the federal poverty guideline, but the majority of households have income well below the maximum: 83% of SNAP households have gross income at or below 100% of the poverty guideline ($19,530 for a family of 3 in 2013), and these households receive about 91% of all benefits. 61% of SNAP households have gross income at or below 75% of the poverty guideline ($14,648 for a family of 3 in 2013).

The average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $744; net monthly income of $338 after the standard deduction and, for certain households, deductions for child care, medical expenses, and shelter costs; and countable resources of $331, such as a bank account.

The statistics cited in this post come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. If you’d like more information on this subject, check out feedingamerica.org —  that’s what we did.

Putin and Geopolitical Poker

Republicans are beating up on President Obama, telling him to do something to stop Putin from interfering in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Senator Bob Corker, Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is good example of Republican thinking on the subject of Russia and Ukraine. “The Russian government has felt free to intervene militarily in Ukraine because the United States,” Corker said, “along with Europe, has failed to make clear there would be serious, potentially irreparable consequences to such action.”

Exactly what “serious, potentially irreparable consequences” does Senator Corker have in mind?  “The United States and our European allies should immediately bring to bear all elements of our collective economic strength to stop Russian advances in Ukraine,” he said.  Oh, our economic strength — maybe that means boycotts or trade sanctions or limiting the G8  to G7, something like that. Or, better yet,  maybe we can withdraw our ambassador from Moscow before they withdraw theirs from Washington, that’s been suggested, too.

The unpleasant fact is that in this game of geopolitical poker, Putin is holding the strong cards.

The US is currently trying to disentangle itself from its longest war; our voters are broke, the Republicans want to shrink government and cut taxes, the Democrats want to raise the minimum wage and the middle class, and everybody is tired of wonderful foreign adventures to bring democracy wherever. Furthermore, the US wants cooperation from Putin in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear facilities, and in Syria and in regard to North Korea.

Ukraine had been part of Russia for about 300 years. Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 when Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union – or Evil Empire, as President Regan correctly called it. And Crimea is sufficiently distinct from the rest of Ukraine that it’s a semi-autonomous republic with its own parliament. Ukraine has been an independent nation since 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart – that’s 23 years, during which time it’s  had a largely corrupt pro-Russian government, the underlying reason  it lost the support of its people.

What’s going on in Ukraine is terribly important for the Ukrainians. As for Russia and the West,  in terms of strategic geopolitics, it’s far more important to Putin and the future of Russia than it is to the United States or the nations of Western Europe.  We can jawbone the Russians and we can put together NATO meetings, committees and envoys and negotiators. But the principal actor in this dangerous game isn’t a politician in the United States or Europe, he’s an autocrat in the Kremlin.

How To Feel Good About The Less Fortunate

It helps if we call them the less fortunate, rather than the long-term jobless. Calling them less fortunate means they do have some good luck — they just don’t have as much as we do.

The beginning of the New Year is a time of optimism, so it’s a drag to know that 1.3 million of our fellow Americans — those who have been looking for a job for 27  weeks or more — will no longer get unemployment relief. Families dependent on assistance will lose an average of $1,166 a month. According to the Labor Department, that means that in California some 214,000 unemployed workers will cease getting their payments, and by June that number will more than double. And on the other side of the country, 127,000 New Yorkers will be cut from the rolls.  Duration_of_U.S._unemployment copy

On the surface, it looks grim.  Fortunately, there’s a brighter way to look at this. It comes from the Cato Institute.

The Institute says this about itself: “The Cato Institute is a public policy research organization — a think tank — dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. Its scholars and analysts conduct independent, nonpartisan research on a wide range of policy issues.” You can see right off that it’s a worthy enterprise. Of course, every think tank does independent, nonpartisan research.  We chose the Cato Institute because it’s a very conservative think tank and they have a much happier way of looking at the end of unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed. Makes us feel better.

When you read the research provided by the Cato Institute you learn that “extended unemployment benefits raise the duration and rate of unemployment,” especially if those are “generous” benefits. You probably never thought of it that way. In fact, says the Cato Institute, “bribing people to stay on the dole for an extra 53-73 weeks leaves them with less money to spend, not more. It also looks bad on resumes, and may cause lasting damage to future job prospects.” Wow! You probably never thought of your government actually bribing unemployed workers to not get jobs

All right now!  Looked at this way, we can all feel better — much, much better! —  that Congress has not extended unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.