Gridlock

It is common knowledge that the Republicans in the Senate have vowed not to allow President Obama’s nominee for the vacancy in the Supreme Court ever see the light of day. It is also common knowledge that those same Republicans are deep into the pocket of the NRA and recently voted as a group not to pass any laws restricting the use of AK-15s and other weapons of mass destruction. They have bought into the dream of the gun manufacturers, who support the NRA, that every man, woman, and child in this country should be armed against….every other man, woman, and child.

Furthermore, it is widely known that the core of the Republicans in Congress met soon after Barack Obama’s election and vowed not to pass on any legislation the man favored, to adopt what has been called a “scorched-earth” policy of no compromise. But, as has recently been pointed out, this policy goes back further than Obama and those who chalk it up to the determination of a group of racists not to cooperate with a black president may have to rethink their position. It appears it is not racism; it is simply twisted political thinking. As a recent article points out:

The link between the design failures of the presidential system itself and these failures is clear enough. The worse things go for the president, the better the chances for the opposition party to regain power. Cooperating would merely give the president bipartisan cover, making him more popular and benefiting his party as well. Republican leaders have openly acknowledged these incentives. In the Obama era, this has forced the Republican leadership to mount a scorched-earth opposition, demonizing the president as an alien socialist who threatens America’s way of life.
This Republican belief that compromise always helps the White House, at least when it comes to electoral politics, goes back further than the Obama years. It started in force with Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and the Republican reaction to Bill Clinton’s election in 1993, and what they did in the year that followed was a model for how Republicans acted in 2009. The GOP’s midterm victories in 1994, 2010 and 2014 seemed to validate it.

What this means is that the commonsense notion that politics is all about compromise, reaching the decision that works best for everyone — even though it may not be the decision that each individual wants — has been displaced in our era by a group of small-minded men and women whose only goal is to oppose the opposition, to see to it that their party is strengthened and the opposition party rendered weak and helpless. The central notion of the “Common Good” that goes back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas, has been preempted in our era by “what’s good for the party is good for me.” The idea is that the political party that one belongs to demands complete loyalty because it is that party — and the money that goes into that party’s coffers — that will determine whether or not I keep my high-paying job. And please note: this is not about party loyalty. It’s about self-interest.

If the Supreme Court must limp along with only eight members for a while, or if more and more people must be killed by weapons designed for modern warfare (and not for killing deer) so be it. What matters now is ME. If I am an elected official my only goal is to remain in office and do whatever it takes to remain there. What is good for my constituency matters not a whit. What matters is what is good for me and for my ability to remain in public office.

The two main players in this sick drama are, of course, the PACs and the lack of term limits in public office. The entire situation could be remedied if the Congress were to address these two issues. But they will not because those two factors are what keep them in office. And professional politicians, which is what we are surrounded by today, know what side their bread is buttered on — if they know nothing else.

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Noam Chomsky’s Prediction

I have decided to borrow the following article from a site called “Salon” despite the fact that Chomsky worries about the rise of an “honest” charismatic character and what we have is a dishonest charismatic character in Donald Trump (who, admittedly appears to be honest to the blind mice who follow him). But the prediction is remarkable and worth pondering. Can anyone still have doubts about this nation being a de facto oligarchy?

In an interview with Chris Hedges in 2010, Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and dissident intellectual, remarked that he has “never seen anything like this.”
By this, he meant the state of American society, relative to the time in which he was raised — the Depression years — and to the tumultuous state of Europe during that same period.
“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky said. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”
For decades, Chomsky has warned of the right turn of the Democratic Party, which has, in an effort to win elections, adopted large swaths of the Republican platform and abandoned the form of liberalism that gave us the New Deal and, later, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
“Trump has been viewed with bewilderment by politicians who have divorced themselves from the needs of the people and who have sold them false goods to get ahead. But Trump, as Chomsky’s prescient interview demonstrates, was inevitable.”
This new approach was canonized by Bill Clinton, who triumphantly declared that the “era of big government is over.”
With this declaration, Clinton ushered in a new era of the Democratic Party (the so-called New Democrats), which left behind the working class and cultivated amiable relationships with corporate executives and Wall Street financiers; many of them would eventually occupy key positions in Clinton’s government, and many of them emerged once more during the presidency of Barack Obama.
The philosophical bent of the New Democrats was best summarized by Charles Peters in “A Neoliberal Manifesto,” in which he defines neoliberalism as an ideology perfect for those who “no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business.” Democrats, since Peters penned his manifesto, have far exceeded the bounds of this seemingly neutral stance.
Bill Clinton, for his part, destroyed welfare, deregulated Wall Street, worsened the growing mass incarceration crisis, and signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement, a sweeping deal that harmed millions of workers, in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere.
Today, President Obama, in partnership with congressional Republicans, is lobbying aggressively for the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been deemed by critics “NAFTA on steroids.” The agreement, if made the law of the land, will encompass 40% of global GDP and will grant massive companies unprecedented power.
Despite President Obama’s promises of transparency, the public has been forced to rely on leaked information to glean any specifics about the deal — and, based on the information we have, the agreement is a disaster for workers and the environment and, unsurprisingly, a boon for multinational corporations.
Democrats, in short, have left the working class in the dust, often using “the excuse,” as a recent New York Times editorial put it, “that they need big-money backers to succeed.”
Republicans, meanwhile, as Chomsky has observed, are “dedicated with utter servility” to the interests of the wealthy, and their party, with its longing for war and denial of climate science, “is a danger to the human species.”
So we are faced with a political system largely devoted to the needs of organized wealth, which leaves working people anxious, worried about the future, and, as we have seen, very angry. In essence, political elites — on both sides — have created a vacuum into which a charismatic and loudmouthed demagogue can emerge.
As Chomsky noted in his interview with Hedges, “The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen. Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response.”

Making America Great Again

The Trumpet blows loud and almost always off-key. But what he tells us is that his business acumen will once again make America great. In saying this I am put in mind of a recent article in Yahoo Finance  titled “Why Donald Trump is a Lousy Executive” that points out the probable lack of success of a presidential Donald The Trumpet — based on his obvious personality disorders:

Awful executives also tend to think that they have all the answers — to all the questions. CEO Wolfgang Schmitt drove Rubbermaid into a ditch during the 1990s. A former colleague remembered that under Schmitt, “the joke went, ‘Wolf knows everything about everything.’” Not surprisingly, know-it-all executives suffer because they fail to consider other points of view that might have merit. In fact, no one is always right, yet lousy executives act as if they are. In this regard, Trump’s impression of his own judgment and intelligence is telling. As he tweeted in May 2013: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” In September 2015, he made a similar statement on “The Tonight Show,” telling host Jimmy Fallon, “I think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.” [Italics added]

In any event, his claim to restore America to its former greatness rests on the assumption that America is not great any more and that given his presidency he will have the power to effect radical change. He will do this apparently by turning over rocks that reveal bigotry, misogyny, racism, hatred, and intolerance; this will restore those years of greatness. But, we might ask, when were those years?

Perhaps he means the nation just after the adoption of the Constitution. But we had no army or navy and were terribly vulnerable to attacks by France, Spain, or Britain — which we discovered when we went up against the British in the war of 1812 , a time when president Thomas Jefferson reluctantly realized that we did need a navy and an army if we were to become a world power. But there wasn’t much of a nation at that time and there certainly wasn’t wide-spread prosperity (which, I suspect, is what the Trumpet means by “great”).

Could he be talking about the 1920’s when the Hoover campaign promised a “chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard”? But this was a time when, despite the general prosperity of the country at large, there was also wide-spread suffering and unemployment among farmers, laborers, and minorities. Indeed, there were those who saw a depression alongside the highest standard of living the world had ever known.

Or, will the Trumpet make America great again by returning it to the days of Eisenhower, a post-war economy that gave us widespread materialism and the promise of never having to put off until tomorrow what we can own today — thanks to the charge card? This was an era of moderate wealth within the middle class. Recently the gap has grown between the wealthy and the very poor and the middle class has all but disappeared, so it is hard to see how prosperity in the country at large can be restored when it is the middle class that must have the buying power necessary to turn the tide. I don’t recall the Trumpet pledging to restore the middle classes to their former strength by such things as, say, raising the minimum wage. But, then, I don’t listen to him any more; he might have made such a pledge. He would if he thought it would advance his personal agenda.

Perhaps the Trumpet means to return to the high level of prosperity during the Bill Clinton years when  unemployment dropped by 3.9%, the labor force grew by 2.8 million folks who had previously been unemployed under the Reagan Administration during which the 1% began to dodge the tax man and the rest of us waited for the money to “trickle down.” Or, when, under Clinton, the G.D.P. growth was at 3.8%, inflation was stable, and median wages grew from $661.00 a week to $700.00 a week. But, the Trumpet can’t be referring to those years, because they were years under a Democratic president and the Republican camp refuses to admit that Clinton restored an economy that had been crippled by his predecessor.

So, in the end, it is not clear what era the Trumpet is referring to. Which was the age we shall return to in achieving our greatness once again? He is certainly correct in saying that the tarnish has worn off the eagle, given the present state of the nation in the eyes of the rest of the world. But it is not clear how this man proposes to restore a greatness that is hard to define, much less quantify — especially since his preeminence in the political race has already driven much of the world community even farther away from America. He is long on generalities and half-truths — not to mention blatant falsehoods. So it is hard to see what he has in mind and how he thinks he can pull it off, given that he will not be a dictator, but simply the executor of the will of a corrupt and, I dare say uncooperative, Congress.

But none of the Trumpet faithful seems to be interested in these considerations. It’s not clear what they ARE interested in. Or what they hear when he speaks. Or what is going on between their ears, if anything.

 

 

True Diversity

There is a disturbing movement afoot on America’s college campuses. I speak of the growing tendency to exclude certain points of view from being heard. In the name of defending the campuses from what they regard as “hate speech,” numbers of liberal students and faculty members are banding together to make sure that opinions they strongly disagree with are not heard.

In an article in this month’s “Intercollegiate Review,” an author with a familiar name (David Ortiz) tells of a number of instances in which speakers have been refused a voice on a number of campuses. At Stanford University, of all places, a group known as the Anscombe Society attempted to get funding to bring in a group of “nationally renowned speakers”  to discuss public policy issues “driving the marriage debate.” The campus  LGBTQ community launched protests against the attempts and the funding, which had originally been approved, was withdrawn. Then the Anscombe Society was told it would be necessary for them to pay a $5,600.00 “security fee” to protect the student body against possible violence. Now, whether one sides with the political left or the right in this issue, it beggars belief that a group of students and faculty on today’s campuses would argue against listening to a point of view, no matter how strongly they happen to disagree with it. Whether one is for or against same-sex marriage (and I am in favor of it as it happens) a college campus is a place where one would think it is not only possible, but desirable, to hear opposing points of view. It engenders healthy debate which is the life-blood of intellectual growth.

This is only one of several examples of intolerance across the country on college campuses cited by Ortiz. Others involve Brandeis University, which refused to allow prominent women’s rights activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people, to be their commencement speaker. Her offense? “She has dared to critique radical Islam for its history of violence and bigotry against women.” More than seventy-five members of the faculty joined student leaders to force the Administration to withdraw the invitation. Similar incidents occurred at Rutgers University involving Condoleezza Rice and at Azusa Pacific University (whatever that is!) involving right-wing author Charles Murray. As Murray noted in a letter he wrote to the students at Azusa, “[Your] administration wants to protect you from earnest and nerdy old guys who have opinions that some of your faculty do not share. Ask if this is why you’re getting a college education.”

Clearly, this is part of a growing problem across the country — and one that was pointed out in a recent speech in Iowa by former president Bill Clinton: people are increasingly refusing to listen to opposing points of view. While dialogue is vital to a democracy, genuine dialogue is dying out. On college campuses, in the name of what many regard as cultural diversity, there are movements to “protect” students against intellectual diversity. And this is the real problem here. As I say, whether or not one agrees with a person’s opinion it ought to be allowed to be given a voice — especially in an institution that claims to be promoting a liberal education. Listening to only one point of view is not education, it is indoctrination. There is considerable truth in the cliché “a closed mind is an empty mind.” And of all people, liberals (so-called) should be opposed to indoctrination. For years they have insisted that conservatives have indoctrinated students on America’s campuses by promoting ideas put forth by “dead, white, European males.” Whether or not this is true, and I strongly believe it is not, intolerance is wrong no matter who happens to be practicing it. The students, who are paying through their noses, are the real victims here.

We live in strange times. But they are times that demand open and searching minds because the problems we face as a human race grow larger by the day. Any attempt to close those minds, especially by so-called “educators,” is alien to everything that is demanded in today’s world. Whether or not we have children in college we must all be concerned about the growing tendency to silence voices that should  be heard — from both ends of the political spectrum. Intolerance of any type should never be tolerated on a college campus, or anywhere else.

Socrates and New “Delivery Systems”

I have always been skeptical about the claims of the technophiles regarding the educational value of computers and other electronic devices. It seems to me that these devices are terrific for gathering information but unless people could assimilate, coordinate, evaluate and assort the information, separating the relevant from the irrelevant, they might prove useless. But as states cut programs such as music in order to fund the computers and the Federal government under people like Bill Clinton and George Bush determined to spend millions of dollars to put these toys in the classrooms, I have waited to see what the results might prove to be. It turns out it has been a terrible waste of money and some states have reneged on their initial decisions to allocate funds for this purpose. A number of studies now show beyond doubt that computers do not increase real learning one whit. On the contrary. As one study done in 2007 by the National Center for Education Evaluation concluded: “Test scores were not significantly higher in classrooms using selected reading and mathematics software products.” But more telling yet was a study done in Munich in 2004 that concluded: “. . . computer availability at home shows a strong statistically negative relationship to math and reading performance, and computer availability at school is unrelated to performance.” (Note that computers at home have a negative effect on math and reading.) Other studies show that computer usage reduces vocabulary — when computer users are contrasted with young people who read — in an already verbally impoverished cohort. A number of other such studies bear out these disappointing findings in spite of the agonized screams from the technophiles that these tests simply do not measure the intelligence gained from the use of these toys. But these screams are really signs of hysteria and they beg the question, since there seems to be no hard evidence whatever that electronic devices do much more than improve a person’s manual dexterity and sense of spatial relations. It would appear that users can collect information rather quickly but they have no idea what to do with it once they have it. Small payoff for a huge expenditure of time and money.

In any event, the on-line colleges and universities which rely completely on computers continue to prosper because they make outrageous claims and they are cheaper and readily available at a time when folks are busy and strapped for extra cash. But I continue to have my doubts about the entire endeavor, as I said in a blog two years ago and which I have reworked and re-post below given its continued relevance to the ongoing discussion. I should add that my doubts have increased since reading in Mark Bauerlein’s provocative book The Dumbest Generation that the Nielsen Norman Group which studies the way users actually interact with the computer concluded that:

“Web reading and Web learning on average are far less creative, complex, literate, and inquisitive than techno-enthusiasts claim. People seek out what they already hope to find, and they want it fast and free, with a minimum of effort. . . .In general, the content encountered and habits practiced online foster one kind of literacy, the kind that accelerates communication, homogenizes diction and style and answers set questions with information bits. It does not favor the acquisition of knowledge, distinctive speech and prose, or the capacity to reason to long sequential units.”

In short, beyond the mere disgorging of information, it is no longer clear that computers aid the intellectual skills that have always been associated with teaching and learning. Be that as it may, in an article posted on LinkedIn not long ago, the University of Phoenix was touting new educational “delivery systems” on the internet that will soon displace traditional learning “systems,” driving many marginal colleges and universities out of business. The only thing standing in the way, according to the article, are the accrediting agencies, which have of late come under fire as being a bit too political.  Students want credits that will transfer from one institution to another and most on-line courses do not, at present, transfer. But on-line colleges will soon find a way around the snag, the article promises — and the University of Phoenix, for one, now boasts several accredited courses available on-line.

One of the professors featured in the article is a tenured professor at Stanford who has given up his teaching position at that University to offer classes full-time on the internet. According to the article, “Sebastian Thrun, who retains a role at Stanford as a research professor, said he had been motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. ‘Professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,’ Thrun said in a presentation at digital conference in Munich, Germany.”

I have a couple of problems with this contention, though I do feel there is considerable truth in it as more and more “non-traditional” students will opt for the internet as an easier (and cheaper) way to earn college credits, despite the internet’s many shortcomings. The traditional students will continue to go to college for fun, as they do now, as long as their parents can afford to send them. But, I wonder, is any of this really about education? I honestly do not see that the new way is better — unless we collapse the distinction between information and education completely. If we mean by education simply “information,” then the internet is a great tool. But if the student is seriously interested in getting an education rather than simply collecting college credits, the best way may indeed be “the same way they taught a thousand years ago.” I cannot imagine a better way to engage young minds and stretch them to new dimensions than sitting around a table with a small group of enthusiastic students  with diverse interests and perspectives and a teacher who knows how to ask questions. Does anyone really think they can improve on the Socratic method of learning? Get serious.

As I have said many times, the purpose of education is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to make them free. As young people they are confined to their narrow worlds, filled with prejudices and misconceptions, and bullied by peer pressure. And this condition worsens as kids become more and more dependent on the small world of electronic devices, which are used almost exclusively for social networking with like-minded friends — not learning. Information alone cannot free them, though it is a first step. There must be an active engagement with that information that results in real thought: one must not simply collect information, one must also learn how to process the information, become aware of inconsistencies and contradictions, learn how to reason coherently and cogently. The computer cannot teach that even if it is connected with an instructor at the other end.

As it happens, however, many in our colleges paying through their teeth for a “quality education” aren’t getting one either as the colleges increasingly try to give the students what they want rather than what they need. None the less, there is always the hope that at some point the colleges and universities will wake up to their real purpose — which is not to provide students with “the best years of their lives” (as advertised), but to engage their minds and help them achieve true freedom so they can become thoughtful consumers and, more importantly, seriously committed citizens of this democracy  — and, oh yes, also successful professionals who both want to do well and to do good.

It’s not all about collecting credits. And accreditation is not the only thing standing in the way of on-line colleges. There’s also the matter of serious dialogue among diverse minds seeking answers to perplexing questions. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are those that cannot be answered. Computers don’t know what those questions are. Good teachers do. And that’s where education really starts.

Orchestrated Confession

Following the release of a 100 page document by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Lance Armstrong is an inveterate liar and a cheat, the man confessed his sins in a two-part interview with Oprah that has caused no end of ripples in the media pool. In a word, after getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar he has shed some crocodile tears and “confessed” that he was indeed stealing cookies. Among the other sources that have found Armstrong’s confession of interest is USA Today which led its January 19th edition with a story that asks the question whether or not Americans will forgive the man for his many sins.

The article contends that forgiveness is in the American character — “especially if you can throw a ball, sing a song, make a speech, coach a team, or hold a camera.” I would add that it helps if you can manage a tear or two.  A number of examples are mentioned, including such infamous types as Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Martha Stewart, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and Bernard Madoff. But Armstrong may be a horse of a different color: he lied so convincingly and for so long the author concludes that he may have a difficult time.

What Armstrong must do, apparently, is work his way through a proven procedure that includes public confession, contrition, conversion, and atonement. It’s not at all clear, however, that Armstrong has made it over even the first hurdle, given the staged format of his “confession” on the Oprah show. But in the end, the article concludes he may be forgiven because he has done so much good with his fight against cancer, his involvement with the culture of professional cycling which makes him only one of many rule-breakers, and the fact that “he didn’t hurt anyone.”

This is where I part company with the author and begin to wonder about the thoroughness of his research. He seems to ignore the people that Armstrong hurt in so many ways, including other cyclists whose careers he destroyed and whose lives he almost certainly destroyed as well — not to mention the people he took to court and collected money from because they supposedly slandered him. He was nothing if not a bully and a master at intimidation and it took years for people around him to have courage enough to speak up. So when the author says he “hasn’t hurt anyone,” he is clearly wrong, and this makes me wonder if we can believe anything we read — even if it is written in what is generally regarded as a reliable source. It’s enough to make one a bit cynical — even if Armstrong’s behavior hadn’t already accomplished that.

Political Scum

A recent story on Yahoo News was somewhat disquieting but not that surprising under the circumstances. It begins as follows:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. government agency has withdrawn a report that challenged Republican ideas about taxes and economic growth – an action that drew fire from Democrats who accused it on Thursday of bowing to political pressure.

Republican lawmakers blasted the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report when it was issued in September and then went to the agency to complain. The report suggested that lower tax rates on the wealthy are not linked to economic growth, an item of faith among many conservatives.

The attack on the agency was led by Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch who released statements replete with political gobbledygook about the unreliability of the study and questioning its methodology. This is standard operating procedure these days: we don’t like what the study concludes, so let’s question the methodology. That is to be expected. What is not to be expected is the pressure these Republicans were able to bring to bear on the agency to force them to withdraw the report. Do I hear cries of “foul!”?

This is the season for dirty politics as we realize — on both sides of the political aisle. But some tricks seem to be dirtier than others and refusing to allow a group to do its job on the grounds that they have uncovered evidence to support a conclusion that is in opposition to party ideology seems to be very low indeed: down there with political scum.

We are all concerned about the economy. For some it has become the only issue that matters in the present election. But the trickle down economic theory that began with Ronald Reagan and was later coupled with tax breaks for the wealthy under George W. Bush are the major reasons our economy is in such dire straights at the present moment. Despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary, the Republicans would still have us believe that reducing taxes on the wealthy in this country will benefit the rest of us and thereby turn the economy around and they don’t want us to believe anything to the contrary. In fact, while they weep crocodile tears about the weak economy, the wealthy are hoarding their wealth and not investing it in economic growth. There is no “trickle down.”

Consider the following: Prior to 1981 when this country was experiencing considerable economic strength, the percentage of their income the very wealthy paid in federal taxes was anywhere from 40% to 70%.  Then under Bill Clinton the wealthy who now pay at most 35% of their acknowledged income in taxes (Mitt Romney pays 14%) were asked to pay 39% and the economy began to recover from its slide that began soon after Ronald Reagan introduced supply-side Reaganomics early in his presidency — the infamous “trickle-down” theory, which George H.W. Bush called “voodoo economics.” When sizable tax breaks for the wealthy were ushered in during “W’s” regime in 2001 and again in 2003 the downward slide began again in earnest. Furthermore, this country as a whole has one of the lowest tax rates among all of the developed countries in the world while the Tea Party screams hysterically about “cutting taxes” and the wealthy insist that they should be taxed even less than they are at present.

One can quibble about probable causes, but the fact remains that when the wealthy paid their fair share of taxes the economy was on much firmer ground. Whether or not there is a causal relationship here one cannot say for certain. Economics is not an exact science. But it is clear that the wealthy in this country do not pay their share of the taxes; and the trickle down theory of economics has been a bad joke. The strength of our economy depends on the buying power of a healthy middle class, not pennies “trickling down” from the overflowing pockets of the fat cats.

Thus we have two conjoined issues here:  first, the wealthy refuse to pay their fair share of the taxes required to get this economy back on its feet, and next there are the foul political shenanigans that have forced a federal agency to withdraw a report that would confirm the fact that lower taxes for the wealthy don’t help the economy one whit.  What’s wrong with this picture?

Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire

There are a couple of excellent sources for checking the facts after political speeches and such “major” TV events as the current presidential debates. One of my fellow bloggers even gives a synopsis after the debates so we can see who told the biggest “whoppers.” This raises some interesting issues.

To begin with, both debaters tell falsehoods and half-truths and do so repeatedly. As one reads the fact checks one notes that while the facts have been checked before a number of the falsehoods are repeated even though the deception has been pointed out, perhaps several times. Strange. But more to the point is the obvious consideration that the average listener has no way to tell in the course of a debate or a political speech that a lie has been told or a half-truth has suddenly appeared from the politician’s hat. This is why the debates are so untrustworthy and leave us little else to go by except impressions. It really is all about theater — as I noted in yesterday’s blog. Consider the following fact check item:

Romney: It’s “already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons”
The verdict: False
The federal ban on manufacturing some semi-automatic assault weapons that President Clinton signed in 1994 expired in 2004, and wasn’t renewed. There are other regulations and restrictions still in place — the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968, and the Hughes Amendment in 1986, says Brian Bennett at the Los Angeles Times. But ”fully automatic weapons — guns that fire continuously when the trigger is held down — are legal to possess in the United States.”

How many people listening to a rapid-fire (sorry!) debate will know enough to realize that one of the speakers just told a whopper? And he did so on a vital and controversial issue that many people care deeply about, one way or the other. The matter of gun control is a hot topic and as a general rule very few people who argue with one another in bars about this issue have bothered to gather the evidence and check on their “facts” beforehand. That’s to be expected. But one does not expect this from seasoned debaters like these two politicians. Romney told the lie noted above, but Obama didn’t call him out.

How many people know that the second Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms is couched in language that makes it clear that the “right” is tied to a militia that was supposed to make it unnecessary to have a standing army? More to the point, how many people listening to this debate know that the federal ban on semi-automatic weapons was even signed in the first place, or by whom — much less that it expired in 2004? The central question here is whether or not this matters in the least. Will either of these men be asked to make important decisions on their feet? Does the quickness of their minds and a grasp of all relevantl facts really matter when important decisions will be made behind closed doors with well-informed advisers and time to reflect? Of course not. It’s about who presents himself better to the TV audience.

In any case what occurs in these events is that the politicians (all of them) have learned that if you say something with conviction and then repeat it often enough your listeners will accept it as true. The important thing is to have the “ring of conviction” in your voice and look the camera straight in the eye (as it were). It matters not whether what you say is true or false. No one “out there” knows what the hell you are talking about — and very few will bother to check the facts later on. So just let it go and let the (buffalo) chips fall where they may. Truth be damned: it’s all about getting elected!

Proactive Court

President Obama is attempting to explain away a comment he made regarding the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision concerning Health Care. It is generally expected that the Court will take a pro-active stand on the issue of mandating health care, one of the more controversial features of the new bill. In anticipation of that decision, due in June, the President recently said: “I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress. And I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraintthat an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.” Please note that the issue is not whether in Obama’s view the Court has the right to overturn laws that are deemed unconstitutional, but rather that they do not have the right to legislate (in effect) by overturning laws that are in fact in compliance with the Constitution. As I read the Constitution, Obama is correct.

Obama’s spokesman recently met with the press corps and spent several heated minutes trying to explain that the President wasn’t telling the court what to do, that he understood as well as anyone that the court’s job is to interpret law and determine whether laws are in compliance with the Constitution, But the President is confident that this law is in compliance and seemed to be expressing his frustration over what he anticipates the decision to be — to wit, a ruling against the mandate. It might have been wise for him to remain silent at this point.

In any event, earlier in the week, former President Clinton spoke out in favor of the law and quite candidly said that any attempt by the court to overturn the law would be politically rather than judicially motivated. As he noted, “Nobody knows how well it’s [the mandate] going to work, because it’s just now being implemented. But I don’t think it was unconstitutional in any way, shape or form. Even in the 1790s, George Washington mandated that shipping companies insure their employees, he signed a bill mandating that able-bodied citizens have firearms in their home because they thought the British were coming again, John Adams signed a bill to mandate that individual seamen have hospitalization insurance. To me, it’s hard to take the constitutional argument seriously, so I think there’s a little more politics.” Washington’s mandating the carrying of firearms came as a result of the unwillingness of the Quakers to bear arms in spite of the fact that the Bill of Rights guaranteed them that right. Those who holler loudest about the “right to bear arms” ignore how closely tied that right was to the felt necessity of an armed population in a country without a standing army.

In any event, a mandate is not a new thing, going back as it does to George Washington. But, as Clinton noted in his remarks, in appearing before the Court the government failed to point out relevant precedents in the law that would allow one to see that the Health Care mandate is not in any way unconstitutional. This may turn out to have been a capital blunder, if it is true. But as it happens, the court seems to be blatantly political these days, insisting in both Bush vs. Gore in 2000 and more recently in Citizens United that their role is to force their political ideology on the commonwealth rather than seek to determine on a case by case basis whether the legislative body is doing its work properly, as determined by the Constitution. It does appear we are at a most interesting period in our history and can anticipate a new chapter in the workings of the American government, though I confess it’s not one I am eager to read.