Monday, January 30, 2017

Travel ban and border wall are aimed at Trump support

President Trump's temporary ban on travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries has filled the news space today. There have been suggestions that Trump is in retreat under a barrage of criticism from Democrats, civil libertarians, refugee advocates, employers of foreign-born workers, protesters and others. Don't believe it.

Trump is not losing much, if any, support with his executive order. Trump's base, the people who gave him his victory three months ago, are not crying over travel bans that target Muslims or Muslim countries, any more than they are crying over the border fence Trump says will be under construction soon.

The question is why all the critics who are filing lawsuits and staging protests are surprised by this action. As someone in another Muslim country said 70-odd years ago, "I am shocked! Shocked!" at gambling in Casablanca. Keeping Islamic terrorists out of this country and building a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants were two of Trump's most frequently repeated campaign promises. Why is anyone shocked that he is doing what he said he'd do?

Opponents may complain, but Trump's supporters will cheer. Their man has carried out two of his key promises. That means their support for him is stronger than ever.

The ban on persons from seven predominantly Muslim countries may be un-American, ill-conceived, offensive to European allies and Middle Eastern governments, and it may condemn former U.S. government employees to remaining in their native countries at great danger to their lives and their families. But the Trump supporters don't care about the tears shed by separated family members or the betrayal of interpreters for the U.S. military or the condemnation of other governments. They won't even notice that Islamic countries that were not included in the order included countries where Trump had business interests. After all, Trump said he was going to put America First, and by golly, he's doing it. So the rest of you can go to hell.

Besides the facts that the travel ban is totally lacking in compassion and will likely encourage radical Islamists to attack U.S. interests, its issuance reveals a more surprising fact about the Trump administration. News reports show that the executive order was issued after being drafted by a small cadre of Trump's close advisers without input from the agency heads and cabinet members who are in charge of homeland security, immigration and international diplomacy. 

Furthermore, Trump seems to be drawing the leash around his inner circle tighter and tighter so that he is getting advice from fewer and fewer people. Unlike Abraham Lincoln, who famously appointed a "Team of Rivals" (Doris Kearns Goodwin's book) composed of former opponents and antagonists, Trump is building a Team of lackeys who will not disagree with the president on anything. He has banished the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Security from a key advisory committee to make room for his political adviser, Steve Bannon. Trump, it appears, is incapable of leading a team of rivals, only a team of sycophants who will hail whatever the Great Man does.

And that is more worrisome than either the travel ban or the border wall.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

From all the most dishonest people

Since I spent 33 years in the newspaper business, I'm thinking that Donald Trump includes me in his complaint that members of the news media are "the most dishonest human beings on the earth." Even though I have been out of the business nine years, I take offense at the president's insult.

Throughout my career, I had one goal in mind: to provide honest, accurate reports to readers of information they needed to know to be good citizens, good neighbors and knowledgeable voters. I repeatedly emphasized this to the reporters who worked for me. In an age when a few reporters "went undercover" to ferret out scandal and corruption, I warned the reporters who worked for me that they must always be honest about what they were doing. They couldn't pretend to be a survey-taker or a municipal official to get information they wanted. I did not require that they identify themselves as reporters upon greeting someone (though that is usually the best practice), but if asked what they were doing or who they were working for, they had to reply honestly. The only reporters I recall firing during my career were fired for lying to me about what they were doing or had done.

So I have good reason to be offended by Trump's attack on a profession that I believe is honorable as well as essential for a working democracy. Long ago, the press earned the nickname "the Fourth Estate." The name came from the French, who saw the church, the nobility and the common people as the three estates with the press tagged as the fourth. Although the press and government officials have often been at odds, never in American history has a president (even Nixon) been as hostile to the press as Trump is.

Trump speaks of "the media" and other politicians refer to the "mainstream media" as a monolithic organization with centralized management and orders issued from all-powerful and secret managers. As anyone who has spent any time in journalism knows, nothing could be further from the truth. The news media (a plural word — medium is the singular) comprise many thousands of news outlets, including newspapers, TV stations, broadcast networks, cable channels, radio stations and networks, magazines, and online news reports. No single hierarchy could control all these disparate and widely dispersed organizations, and no one would want to.

Yes, the Associated Press distributes news to news outlets around the world, but so do Reuters, New York Times News Service, and others. My experience with the AP was that it was exceedingly careful about making sure the facts were right.And most larger papers rely on their own remote bureaus for national and international news.

It is true that some news sources lean to the left or to the right, but the vast majority of news organizations, from the small-town weekly newspaper to the New York Times, aims to report fairly and completely all the news that their audiences want or need. The president likes to pick fights with people who threaten his self-image, so he condemns the news media for reporting facts that differ from his "alternative facts" (facts are facts, not alternatives).

The news media have gone through a lot in the last 10 or 20 years. Advertising sales, which pay for the news coverage you receive, have fallen off the cliff. Classified advertising, once the cash cow of newspapers, has gone nearly 100% to online sites. Hundreds of thousands of news personnel (including me) have been laid off. Newsrooms are hollowed out, yet newspapers and other outlets keep trying to keep their readers informed about the important events of the day. For that, they deserve the thanks of everyone who thinks an informed public is essential to democracy.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

When an inaugural address is a continuation

For 56 years, I've been a fan of inaugural addresses. I've watched most of them in those decades since I watched John F. Kennedy's on a small, black-and-white TV in a school auditorium. A few were excellent. Most were laudable, and many were inspiring.

I was not able to watch Donald Trump's inaugural address "live." I was in the car, traveling, but my NPR station carried the address and the ceremony leading up to it live, and I listened intently.

My reaction was immediate: This is not an inaugural address. It's a campaign speech. The new president made no attempt to extol American values or to inspire the citizenry. He spent his brief, 16-minute speech (bonus points for brevity) attacking U.S. policies, foreign countries, and societal trends and promising, with anger and vehemence, to make everything wonderful ... somehow. With all his promises, he never explained exactly how he would get those lost jobs back, how he would counter China's global strategy, or how he would fix the infrastructure, crimes and middle-class malaise in our own country.

He did something else no president I've heard ever tried before: He attacked the United States of America. His term "American carnage" was the most shocking of his address. "Carnage"? The word, with its roots in the word for bloody meat, suggests a scene of scores of dead bodies lying in the street following an artillery bombardment or air strike. The United States has some serious problems, but "carnage" is not a word most people would use to describe this nation. Certainly, there have been incidents, such as Sandy Hook, the Pulse nightclub, or 9/11, that warrant such a description, but the new president was referring to a national carnage — something on par with the Holocaust. Trump's use of the term is chilling and scary. Can he possibly believe "American carnage" is an apt description?

I was especially disappointed in the inaugural address because I had heard a Trump adviser say just hours before that Trump knew the difference between campaigning and governing, and he would begin governing as soon as he was sworn in. That didn't happen, and it's scary.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Single-payer health insurance has an opening

President Trump declared before his inauguration that his promised replacement for Obamacare would have a goal of "insurance for everybody." While that doesn't sound much like what Republican members of Congress have been saying for the past eight years, it does sound quite a bit like "single-payer" health insurance, which is the model most western democracies have in place to cover "everybody" with insurance backed by the government with payments to providers by the government entity that oversees health care.

Canada has this plan. Great Britain has this plan. France, too. Generally speaking, the citizens of those countries support their national healthcare plans. It's simple. It's more efficient than the dozens of separate private insurance providers and the thousands of individual businesses that pay insurance premiums for their employees. But whenever a similar system is suggested for the United States, conservatives complain that it's "socialized medicine." Well, yes, but so what?

America's messed-up system, which has given the United States the dubious honor of spending the largest portion of its gross domestic product on health care of any western democracy, evolved from labor union contracts. When World War II wage freezes took pay hikes off the table, the unions targeted health insurance as a way to increase worker benefits. Soon, employer-paid health insurance became an expectation of job seekers.

The 2009 Affordable Care Act attempted to keep the private insurance and the employer payments in place while guaranteeing coverage to all or almost all Americans. It didn't work perfectly, but it did reduce the number of uninsured Americans.

With the dominant GOP promising the repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with ... something, it's time to give the single-payer option a chance. It won't be cheap, but what we have now isn't cheap, either. Add what employers pay to the employees' "share" of the premium and the co-pays and deductibles employees pay, and it comes to large number, which could be replaced by health care taxes on employers and workers that would be approximately equal to what they now pay.

Cost savings from having a single organization paying all the bills (like Medicare) would result in cost savings. Instead of thousands of health insurers taking a cut of the money flowing to health care, on entity would cover all health care bills. With the federal government paying the bills, pressure on pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and other providers to reduce costs would result in a decline in health care costs.

If Trump is for it and his party controls Congress, why shouldn't it happen?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Cassette tapes and other innovations.

Rummaging through a cabinet yesterday, I found a cassette tape of the Moody Blues' "On the Threshold of a Dream," an album I found both musically brilliant and romantic at the time of its release. Forty-five years later, it seems to have less of both qualities.

But, as I played the tape on a stereo we've had for years, I realized how many musical recording formats I've lived through and used. The cassette tape was a copy of the LP album I had bought while in college. I continued to buy LPs and play them on the stereo I sank what seemed at the time a small fortune on. When I added a cassette player to the system, I began copying the LPs, which would sometimes get scratched, no matter how careful and protective I was.

When car stereos became practical and I added a cassette player to the small station wagon we bought in 1983, I thought I had reached music listening perfection. No longer would I have to search the radio dial on long road trips. I could take my music with me.

About three or four cassette player/recorders into this era, everyone began switching to CDs. I was skeptical at first, partly because of the cost, compared to cassettes or LPs. But a Christmas gift from my sister about 25 years ago pushed me into the CD world. I now own bunches of CDs — between 100 and 200, I would guess, without taking an inventory. The CDs, tucked into a CD wallet, were easier to carry, and we eventually graduated to a car with a CD player sometime after the turn of the millennium. For 10 years, we owned a car with both a cassette and a CD player, all in one unit.

Then came digital music. An early Apple user, I quickly added iTunes to my collection, playing music on my computer and streaming it to my stereo via WiFi. The next step was digital in the car, which we achieved by loading an iPod with music and connecting it to the car stereo. That connection was the primary reason I wanted to trade my 12-year-old but still reliable coupe for a new car with Bluetooth and iPod connectivity. Now I carry 1,129 songs on a device half the size of one cassette tape, and I can scroll through the music and find the song I want (though it's best to have a passenger do the scrolling if you are under way).

I cannot help being astounded at how far recorded music has advanced in less than 50 years, and how easily I have sailed along through it all. At least I missed the 8-track era, but only because I could not afford those tapes and the cars that went with them.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Trump and the intelligence reports

President Trump has been briefed by U.S. intelligence officials about their conclusion that Russia conducted a cyber campaign to embarrass and discredit his Democratic opponent, but he doesn't seem to have understood the message. 

After the briefing, Trump said, "there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines." True enough, insofar as we know, but he misses the point. It's not that the Russians "stole" the election in the way of small-town (or big city) political bosses allegedly have in the past, by stuffing ballot boxes. U.S. intelligence did not find any intervention in the vote-counting mechanisms. But they did find Russian meddling in the election campaign.

What the president-elect should be alarmed about is that a foreign government sought to influence the election by using cyber warfare tools to steal emails and then release those emails through cooperative hacker or fake news groups. Did Russia's orchestrated release of embarrassing emails at strategic times or its dispersal of fake news posts targeting Democrats have an impact on voters on Nov. 8? It's impossible to know with certainty, but it is not irrational to think that undecided voters might have been swayed.

Trump's dismissal of the intelligence reports is worrisome because the 2016 meddling can happen again and can be more destructive in 2018 or 2020. This Russian strategy can also happen in upcoming elections in Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain and other democracies.

President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump admires, has made no secret of the fact he would like to restore the old Soviet empire. He has shown a willingness in Georgia and Ukraine to use Russian troops to intimidate or topple governments or grab territory. How much easier it will be for him to use cyber weapons to effect regime change in Poland, the Czech Republic, or Estonia.

Trump had better take this threat seriously. All western democracies had better watch out.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Inauguraton is not the place for protest

Protesters are vowing to conduct a series of demonstrations to disrupt the inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20. I wish they would reconsider.

A presidential inauguration does not signify that all Americans are of one accord or that the disagreements of the election campaign is over. It merely means that the United States is transferring executive power from one elected president to the next elected president. Trump opponents will complain that a majority of Americans did not vote for Trump. True enough, but hardly unprecedented. Presidents elected in 2000, 1992, 1960, 1912 and 1876 were all "minority" presidents. What made them president was not the final tally of every single vote but the national consensus that they had achieved the required majority of electoral votes (or in the 1876 election, a majority of the U.S. House's vote).

John F. Kennedy's 1960 inaugural address (considered by many the greatest inaugural address ever) began, "We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change. ..."

Those who seek to disrupt an inauguration are not disrupting the newly elected president, who probably will see nothing of the protesters. They are disrupting the peaceful transfer of power, the "celebration of freedom," the "renewal as well as change" that characterizes American democracy.

So make your plans to oppose Trump appointees, block Trump policy changes, stymie Trump initiatives and prevail in the 2018 and 2020 elections, but let this transfer of executive power take place peacefully and deliberately. This "celebration of freedom" is not the time or the place to object to political change.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Visions of retirement from a four-day weekend

I was fortunate to be able to make New Year's a four-day weekend. Monday was a holiday, and I took Friday as my last personal day (read: vacation) of the year. Unfortunately, the weather was not conducive for doing the chores that called me outdoors, so we did some of the unappealing organizing, discarding and sorting activities we had pushed to the bottom of the priorities pile.

Nevertheless, we accomplished a few things, and still have some similar tasks to do the next rainy or snowy day off. We skipped social activities, except for a New Year's dinner (with black-eyed peas) at our daughter's home, and mostly just did the things we needed to do inside the home. We slept later than usual, but not obscenely late, and we set aside a little time most afternoons for some reading and potential napping. We downed an extra cup or two of coffee every morning and started dinner late. I found some good college football games on the television and watched a few impressive feats of athleticism. On a rainy Monday afternoon, we drove to the gym for an enjoyable workout of nearly an hour.

We enjoyed ourselves and our time together, the feeling of accomplishing some things without a strict time schedule. All of that made it harder to arise Tuesday morning and head to the office for work. That Tuesday feeling makes us more eager for the time when we will retire sometime in the next six to 18 months, when we will have the time to get to the bottom of our priorities, when we will have time to read every afternoon (or almost every one), when we will be able to travel to see kin, friends and places we long to see. We promise not to "flunk retirement" as one friend my age claimed he did. There will be time for volunteering as well as for the other important things in our lives.

Meanwhile, we anguish over the prospects of income after retirement, of health care costs, of long-term care, of our health, of the uncertainties of life. Retirement now is the dream we share, just as we shared a dream 45 years ago of a quaint, comfortable house, children and grandchildren (if we could imagine such a thing so long ago) and happiness unbound. Our long-ago dreams did not materialize just as we had imagined, but in some ways even better than we had dreamed. We will continue to dream.