Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Don't expect change after Florida school massacre

The Ash Wednesday (Valentine's Day) massacre at a Florida high school was in some ways even more horrifying than all the other mass shootings America has endured over the past 20 years. The formula is a simple one: One disgruntled, angry, excluded individual (or more) armed with one or more rapid-fire guns, one location where scores of unsuspecting, defenseless people are gathered. Stir well, then listen to the grieving parents, survivors and others. Then hear the politicians express grief, regret, sorrow and comfort, then do nothing. Now await the next massacre following the above recipe.

After last week's massacre, students at Stoneman Douglas High School vocally stepped up to demand action by politicians who have too often obediently done the National Rifle Association's bidding while ignoring the pleas and opinions of their constituents. The elementary school children who were killed (20 children) and terrorized (all the others) in Newtown, Conn., could not advocate for themselves, and their grieving parents have been ignored.

These Stoneman Douglas students are different. They are at the cusp of adulthood. Some are eligible to vote or soon will be. They also have the idealism of youth. They expect elected officials to listen to them. The "younger generation" has not been so motivated since the Vietnam War. The draft protesters of the 1960s had "skin in the game." They (at least the males) faced a military draft that could send them to Southeast Asia as cannon fodder in an ill-conceived war half a world away.

Today's young people, male and female, face a more immediate threat from begrudged malcontents armed with rapid-fire military combat weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition in high-capacity magazines. This generation feels threatened, and for good reason. Mass shootings have become routine events. Schools have protocols for limiting casualties and alerting law enforcement quickly, but the massacres continue. You might be next. Or you. Or you.

The organizing students are determined to see action from their elected representatives, and they want more than "thoughts and prayers" or anguish about mental illness. They want combat weaponry out of the hands of murderous civilians. They want schools and other public places to be safe from crazed killers with arsenals.

History will not offer much hope to the Florida student organizers. Newtown, Columbine, the Colorado theater shooting, the Florida nightclub massacre, and the Las Vegas concert shooting gallery did not change anything, despite the grief and shock that followed each incident. Politicians have more motivation to do the bidding of the NRA, which buys congressional votes with millions of dollars in campaign contributions, than to protect America's innocent children. Youth movements also tend to falter on the fact that younger people are not regular, consistent voters, and their anger tends not to last through more than one or two election cycles.

Kudos to the organizing survivors of Stoneman Douglas High, but don't expect things to change. The odds are against it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Trump plan reverses 'revenue sharing'

President Trump has a nationwide infrastructure plan, but it's heavily dependent on state funding. The federal government will kick in just $200 billion of the $2 trillion proposal.

This "I'm going to buy myself a nice present; you guys get to pay for it" strategy made me think back to the not-so-long-ago old days when the federal government was offering "excess" funds to the states. The Nixon administration called it "revenue sharing." The federal government would use its expansive tax collection system to take money from taxpayers' pockets and would offer some of these funds to the states in the form of "revenue sharing" grants.

A few people at the time recognized the fact that the federal government was running a budget deficit (though nothing nearly as large as today's deficits) year after year. The United States didn't have money to give to the states without borrowing that money. "Revenue sharing" was really federal debt sharing.

Cliff Blue, a newspaper editor/owner from Moore County, state legislator and former speaker of the N.C. House, railed against revenue sharing repeatedly in columns he distributed to newspapers in North Carolina. I became familiar with Blue in the late-1970s. Nixon had resigned the presidency, but his "revenue sharing" scheme survived his embarrassing fall from power. Blue continued to complain about the states falling for the false promises of free money from the feds, who were taking money from taxpayers and scattering it like manna from heaven.

By the time Blue died in 1990 at age 79, "revenue sharing" was dead and buried, but federal grants to various local governments, nonprofits and others have continued. They just don't call it "revenue sharing" anymore.

The Trump infrastructure plan proposes a sort of reverse revenue sharing, in which the states would provide most of the funding on federal projects to build roads, airports, bridges and other infrastructure. If Nixon's "revenue sharing" lacked logic, this one is even more lacking. States are not flush with cash and have been aggressively cutting taxes to appear more attractive to business, industry and retirees. North Carolina's personal income tax rate is now about 5%, and legislative leaders want a constitutional amendment to make 5% the maximum income tax allowed. The new federal personal income tax tops out at 37%. Guess which one raises the most revenue.

I can agree with Trump and others who say America needs to improve its infrastructure, but the Trump proposal can't pass. States, many of whom are constrained by laws that require annual budgets be balanced, don't have the money that the Trump plan demands. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Punctuation, appositives, heresy and theology

Punctuation matters.

I emphasized that in three decades of mentoring young newspaper reporters and in teaching journalism and basic English (a part-time gig). Because of my long-term fixation for finding errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation, I have been unable to turn loose of my editing pencil, even while sitting in the church pew.

Sunday's church bulletin provided a copy of the Gospel for the day, along with the Old Testament and New Testament lessons prescribed in the lectionary. The day's Gospel was taken from Mark and included this passage in Mark 9:7, using the New Revised Standard Version: "Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud came a voice, 'This is my Son, the Beloved' listen to him!"

As I read the text, I realized that either a comma was missing after the appositive "the Beloved" or the comma after Son should be a semicolon, which would completely change the meaning of the passage. Dropping the following comma in appositives is a very common error.

An appositive such as "my sister, Margaret," is known as non-restrictive and behaves like a word in parentheses (beginning with an open parenthesis and ending with a close parenthesis), implying that I have one sister, whose name is Margaret. Without the punctuation, "my sister Margaret" implies I have more than one sister and I am referring to the one named Margaret. No commas are needed.

Here's what bothered me about the punctuation in Sunday's Gospel: Without the following comma, the appositive is incomplete. The reader is left to wonder whether "my Son, the Beloved" is a restrictive appositive implying God has more than one beloved son (a heretical concept). Alternatively, the passage could be punctuated in error by using a comma rather than a semicolon after "Son." That punctuation would turn the last five words into a declarative or imperative clause, changing the meaning of the sentence: "This is my Son. The Beloved listen to him." This makes "The Beloved" refer to all you folks listening.

Punctuation matters.

I double-checked the transcribed Scripture in the church bulletin against my copy of an NRSV Bible. It shows a comma after "Beloved," thereby completing the non-restrictive appositive. The older King James Version translation avoids this punctuational question this way: "and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, 'this is my beloved Son; hear him.'" I also checked the New International Version, which says: "a voice came from the cloud: 'This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.'"

Final verdict: the church bulletin's punctuation issue was likely a "copy and paste" error and not a theological revision.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Lower taxes and higher spending have consequences

That government shutdown didn't last long. By the time I knew about it, it was over. That can happen when Congress is doing its most important work in the dead of night.

But give Congress credit for doing something. The two houses of Congress and the two political powers managed to reach an agreement that will keep the government operating for another year. This, it was emphasized, is not another "continuing resolution" that Congress has too frequently relied upon to keep the government running, despite Congress' inability to pass a budget on time, or even at all. Before we celebrate another Era of Good Feeling, we must remember that the legislation dramatically increases government spending without offering a way to pay for it.

The authorizations approved very early this morning are expected to result in a budget deficit next year of more than $1 trillion. That is a monstrous deficit, and it comes at a time when the U.S. economy is growing. Unemployment is down, job creation is up, wages are rising. This is a stimulus package for an already stimulated economy. 

It comes just weeks after the December 2017 tax cut, which is expected to add $1.5 trillion to the federal debt. Between the tax cut and the newly generous appropriations, the U.S. economy is going to be like an out-of-control motorcyclist — headed for a terrible crash.

To fully appreciate this, consider that today's federal debt is about 77% of gross domestic product, which is the highest percentage since the aftermath of World War II. With the 2017 tax cut and added spending, the debt will rise to 111% of GDP by 2027, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calculates. 

President Trump had touted the rising stock market as proof that his approach to the economy was working. That was before a 3,000 point drop in the Dow Jones index. Now he will have to defend a stock market that has gone through turmoil and has arrived at a "correction," a 10 percent drop in tax values. Although still above where the market was before his election, the new reality on Wall Street is much less optimistic than it was just a month ago. 

Monday's 1,000 point drop in the Dow coincided with the swearing-in of Trump's appointee to chair the Federal Reserve Bank. Trump chose not to appoint the then-chair Janet Yellen to a second term, which had been the traditional choice. Yellen has said that she was willing to serve another term, and it looks like stock traders were more comfortable with the known Yellen than with a new Fed chair whose skills and philosophy are less known.

The new Fed chair is likely to face an economic crisis in the near future. The overheated economy will likely result in sharply higher inflation. Inflation has been a non-factor for the past two Fed chairs because changes in the economy and a tight leash by the Fed and other national banks have kept inflation at bay. But inflation has long been the greatest danger to the economy. The double-digit inflation rates of the late 1970s are reminders of how disastrous sharply rising prices can be.

The federal government will have a harder time meeting its new debt obligations when inflation causes interest rates to rise. Interest on the debt will become a larger and larger part of the federal budget. A huge tax cut coupled with more profligate spending makes an economic collapse almost inevitable.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Foreign agents infiltrate U.S. government; where's the outrage?

Where is Joe McCarthy when you really need him?

You remember Tail-Gunner Joe, the senator who claimed he had lists of ___ (fill in any outlandish number) communists working in the State Department. McCarthy garnered a lot of publicity for himself without ever outing a single commie before the U.S. Senate finally censored him.

That was more than 60 years ago. Now the U.S. government faces another crisis of confidence in the institutions of government. Rep. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has issued a four-page memo sowing doubts about the FISA court, which limits surveillance on American citizens, the Mueller investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential campaign, the Justice Department and the FBI. Democrats failed to stop the release of the memo, which the FBI and the Justice Department have said is deeply flawed and misleading. President Trump seems to be egging on Nunes and his GOP colleagues in an effort to cast doubt on the Mueller investigation. Trump, Nunes and other GOP sycophants, do not appear to be concerned that their actions are harming public confidence in the FBI, the Justice Department and other institutions.

Despite all of the back-and-forth over the release of the disputed memo, no one has pointed out what should be obvious: The Trump presidential campaign was infiltrated by individuals who were Russian agents or had clear links to the Russians. Carter Page, the Trump advisor who was the subject of a surveillance request (plus renewals) sent to the FISA court, had been on U.S. intelligence services' radar for his Kremlin connections since at least 2013. (A friend with closer ties to Washington doubts that Page was ever a Russian agent, but he had been in contact with the Kremlin. Michael Flynn, another Russia-linked Trump advisor, was fired by Trump after Flynn lied about his Russia contacts. Another Trump foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, has admitted to lying to investigators about his contacts with Russian agents during the 2016 campaign. It was Papadopoulos' contacts with Russian agents that first alerted U.S. intelligence agencies to Russian meddling and Page. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had worked for the Kremlin-backed government of Ukraine. Even Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was tainted by his Russian contacts during the campaign, and had to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation.

Trump, meanwhile, seems to be considering firing FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, both of whom were hired by Trump, as a way of stalling or capsizing the entire Russia investigation under Robert Mueller. Trump has spent much of his presidency trying to derail or de-legitimize the Mueller investigation.

During the paranoia of the Cold War, any foreign influence into U.S. policy would have sparked an outcry from the public, an outcry McCarthy adroitly exploited, at least for a while. With the Cold War nearly 30 years in the grave, worries about Russian (no longer Soviet or Communist) infiltration into the highest ranks of government seem hopelessly anachronistic. But U.S. and other intelligence services say the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin is manipulating the electorate in Western Democracies in order to expand Russia's own global influence and military strength.

Who will have the courage to channel Joe McCarthy and declare, "Mr. Chairman, I have here a list of four Russian agents who played active roles in the Trump presidential campaign." This time, the list would have actual names (see above) of real Russian agents or sympathizers who advised Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.

Now, what McCarthy did in the early 1950s and what needs to be done today are totally different. McCarthy needlessly inflamed public opinion to advance his own political career as he falsely alleged unnamed employees of the State Department were communists or communist sympathizers. What is needed now is someone who will point out the fact that the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency have attracted an extraordinary number of people with connections to the Kremlin. Whether there was collusion or coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign may not matter as much as this question: Why have so many people with Russian ties ended up in the the Trump campaign or administration? Russian agents or sympathizers have gained the ear of the president — something the Americans of McCarthy's day would have considered treasonous.

Nunes tried to inflame public opinion about a surveillance court application while ignoring the far more serious and undisputed fact that a U.S. presidential candidate was depending on advisors who were or had been agents or advocates of a foreign power.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Football, Super Bowls and the future

This Super Bowl weekend, numerous articles are pointing out the decline in the popularity of the National Football League. President Trump has suggested the decline in NFL game TV ratings is the result of players' protests during the pregame National Anthem. More sober analyses show many factors account for the ratings decline, including the "cut the cord" movement (which has resulted in an overall decline in network/cable viewing), the lack of success by fans' favorite teams (Dallas Cowboys and others) and individual players (Cam Newton and others), and the acknowledgement that traumatic brain injuries are plaguing the entire sport.

Another factor, largely unacknowledged, is the never-ending hype of the networks and the NFL to cram two entire weeks of anticipation into the calendar before the Super Bowl takes place. Sunday's game is scheduled for 6:30, but NBC's coverage of the game begins at noon. That strikes me as a textbook definition of overkill. Fans' capacity for minute details and "expert" opinions has been stretched beyond the breaking point.

This all-day coverage is aimed at selling more high-priced commercial time, of course. The Super Bowl captures the largest annual viewership and charges the highest quarter-minute price for commercials. Super Bowl commercials have become an event almost as anticipated as the game itself.

In the 52-year history (or the LII history if you're into the NFL's pretentious Roman numerals) of Super Bowls, I've probably closely watched 46 (that XLVI) of them. I'll watch number LII Sunday, even though my favorite teams faltered in the regular season or playoffs and won't be on the field.

Despite its inherent violent collisions and dangers of serious, even permanent, injury, football can provide moments of beauty, such as a perfectly arced pass that drops the football into the receiver's hand 60 yards from where it was unleashed, a sudden zig-zag that frees a runner to scamper into the end zone past prostate defensive players who were faked out by the move, or a ballet-like leap into the air to snag a pass and return to earth within the painted lines on the field.

These moments are why I still watch the game, even though I find college football more interesting and exciting. Both collegiate and professional football are facing an existential threat in the form of crippling brain traumas that leave retired players with severe mental disabilities and/or dementia. Participation in football is declining at the middle school and high school level. Parents are reluctant to allow their sons to play a game that can result in their permanent disability. Without youth football to supply the apprentices to the college and pro games, the sport cannot survive. Even though the NFL and the NCAA have imposed new rules to limit the severity of collisions to the head and neck, the hazard of debilitating concussions and dementia persists. Better helmets don't seem to be the answer.

I'll watch the Super Bowl Sunday knowing that the event might not reach its ninety-ninth year (that would be Super Bowl IC), and I will look forward to the start of the college football season (although my team isn't doing well) with all its hoopla, youthful excitement, and perfect blue skies. It's one of the reasons I love the autumn.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

State of the Union? A speech habitually too long

No, I did not watch the State of the Union address last night. It has been several years since I watched one of these extravaganzas. I think it was during one of President Clinton's SOTU speeches that I vowed I would never watch another one. The man never ran out of things to say, and he never read Shakespeare's advice that "brevity is the soul of wit." After an hour, it's time to rest your vocal chords and let your television audience go to bed.

My decision to ignore the live coverage of last night's speech had almost nothing to do with President Trump. Presidents come and presidents go, but State of the Union speeches go on forever (it seems) and rarely ever are consequential.

Having read various accounts of Trump's speech, I have a pretty good idea of what he said without staying up past my bedtime or sitting impatiently through applause lines, pauses and showmanship the annual address has become.

I feel sufficiently informed about what Trump said that I can confidently say that the president outdid himself. He did so by carefully sticking to the script on the Teleprompter and avoiding his habitual personal attacks, belligerence and insults to individuals or groups. Hooray for that. He has the capacity to appear presidential, which he has done before, but always before he has squandered his improved status by going on Twitter tirades that bring out his worst instincts.

I don't think President Trump has turned over a new leaf with this speech, but if he were able to parlay this mostly reasonable speech about policy and priorities, he might actually salvage his presidency and his party's chances in the 2018 congressional and state elections. Don't bet on it. Men in their 70s don't change their basic personalities and tactics.

It is Trump's caustic language, his profanity, his racial and ethnic insults and his endorsement of sexual misbehavior that most trouble voters. His policy endeavors, including taxes, deregulation and immigration, have substantial support among the electorate. Maybe not a majority, but substantial. But even many who agree with Trump on policy are disgusted by his profanity, his insults, his score-settling and his lack of sympathy for others.

Unless he can change these flaws — his basic makeup — his presidency and his party's future will be in jeopardy.