Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Not a dictatorship but a dissoution

The most distraught opponents of President Donald Trump worried about all sorts of "worst case scenarios" — a declaration of martial law, dissolution of Congress, illegal firing of federal judges — in other words, establishment of a dictatorship.

These worried Americans can feel a little more optimistic. Trump has not done any of those things and has, at times, seemed reasonable, even presidential. He visited Saudi Arabia and Israel without a conflagration. But his first overseas trip ended with a harsh, ill-tempered speech to European allies in which Trump accused U.S. allies of failing to live up to their defense commitments. Given the opportunity to reaffirm the United States' commitment to NATO and NATO's foundational concept, that an attack on any NATO member will be treated as an attack on all NATO members, Trump refused to endorse the key clause that had been the heart of U.S. foreign policy for more than 50 years.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel interpreted the omission as a warning that Europe can no longer depend on its strongest and most important ally. In not so many words, Merkel told European democracies that they could no longer count on the United States to defend their democracies against existential threats.

Trump had previously declared NATO to be obsolete. The alliance designed to protect Europe, the United States and Canada against aggression by the Soviet Union no longer mattered, in his view, after the demise of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago. But Europeans and most American foreign policy specialists had a different view. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has become as threatening and nefarious as the Soviet Union, going so far as to meddle in U.S. elections, invade Ukraine and Georgia and generally undermine democracy around the globe. Trump seems blind to Russia's clandestine aggressions.

The greatest fears of Trump opponents might never come true. We might never end up with a Trump dictatorship or dynasty. But Trump's election has already resulted in the dissolution of alliances and international security that took decades to establish and nurture.

In one ill-worded and belligerent speech, Trump has undone generations of post-World War II security.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Trump's most vile insult: "LOSER!"


Is that all you've got, Mr. President? The worst thing you can say about someone is to call them a "loser"?

President Trump used that vile word to describe the person or persons who killed two dozen people in the Manchester bombing last. "You are losers!" Trump said. Few Americans would dispute the claim that people who strap explosives to their bodies for the purpose of killing other people are losers, but, really, is that the worst thing you can say about them?

How about "misguided," "depraved," "fanatical," "murderous," "malevolent," malicious," "execrable," "heinous," "diabolical," "deranged," "demonic," "heinous," "iniquitous," and others. None of these, apparently, are in Trump's vocabulary, so he relies on "LOSER," like an angry 8-year-old on a playground.

The president uses a term to refer to murderous terrorists that he would also use to refer to Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney. The equivalency is startling but revealing. In Trump's mind, there is nothing worse that being a loser. This explains why he claims wins in contests that no one else knew was a contest, such as how many people came to the inauguration or how large his political rallies were. The fear of being a "loser" requires him to claim victory in these contests and to assert that he didn't lose the popular vote because "three million" illegal immigrants cast fraudulent votes against him — despite the lack of any substantiation.

This "loser" fixation not only reveals the president's distorted way of keeping score against the world. It also belittles the United States of America as if Americans believe losing an election or losing a race is the equivalent of murdering dozens of innocent people. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Trump's overseas trip starts well, then falters

President Trump's first overseas trip as president began with glimmers of hope and amazement, but as the week wore on, familiar problems arose.

In Saudi Arabia and in Israel, Trump refrained from tweeting (glory, hallelujah!) and thereby avoided any insults and offensive remarks as he stuck to prepared remarks. What was most interesting in both countries was the apparent warmth and friendship between Trump and the Israeli and Saudi leaders. Nothing tangible was accomplished in these first visits to a region that has provided the spark for much of the world's violence and animosity over the past half-century. Nevertheless, the seeming camaraderie among the leaders of the United States, the Jewish state and the Islamic holy land was refreshing and hopeful.

Supporters of President Obama had to be confounded by the Israelis' and Saudis' declarations of friendship with Trump. It was clear that both countries preferred Trump to Obama, despite the fact that Obama is as personally charming, knowledgeable and cautious as Trump is offensive, unknowing and bombastic. In his determination to let the Middle East adversaries work things out on their own, Obama apparently offended both sides in the conflict, something that Trump has thus far avoided.

Trump could not, however, get through an entire week without saying something inappropriate or potentially destabilizing. In speaking to NATO leaders later in the week, Trump took on the tone of an angry teacher or coach, telling the allied nations that they weren't fulfilling their obligations. They were not spending enough on defense to meet their NATO obligations, he said. At the same time, he avoided any definitive endorsement of NATO's Article 5, which obligates each NATO country to come to the defense of any other NATO country if it is attacked by outside forces. Article 5 is the heart of NATO; without it, NATO would be as weak and helpless an OPEC without oil.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson followed up Trump's failure to say what NATO allies wanted to hear by clearly committing the United States to Article 5, but Tillerson's commitment could not erase Trump's overbearing lecturing of allied nations.

Trump's first overseas trip as president proved he can, when necessary, behave in a presidential manner. But he needs more practice at the craft.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Absent fathers the root of many problems

There's an elephant in the room. No one will admit it's here, right in front of us. Social scientists, policy wonks and politicians walk all around the elephant without ever acknowledging it. They make policies and rules and advocacy organizations to address the symptoms caused by that huge pachyderm that's taking up all the space, but they don't even acknowledge it's there.

The elephant in the room is fathers — the absence of fathers in the lives of millions of children, particularly boys. This absence of fathers is the root cause of many of the social pathologies we see today, particularly in communities with large numbers of fatherless households. The absence of a father can lead to young boys without guidance and discipline. Many of them become angry, violent, disrespectful, depressed and misogynistic. They fail in school and in the workplace. Look at the discipline problems in public schools; you'll find the absence of a father in the home. Look at the school dropout rate; you'll find many in that statistic without a father. Look at the unemployment list — or the unemployable list. Again, no father present.

A few ambitious nonprofits have attempted to provide surrogate fathers, mentors who will work with young men, teach them the importance of being kind and respectful, of working hard in school and staying away from the "wrong crowd." These mentors can demonstrate some successes, but mentors can never fully replace a father — a man who will love the boy's mother and be at home every night, not just a few hours a week.

A Wilson audience learned of a frightening situation that is all too common but, since it's the elephant in the room, is rarely discussed. The Wilson Times reported:  

The keynote speakers at the annual meeting, Ben David and Kip Blakely, spoke from their experience in Wilmington and Greensboro respectively in terms of programs they were a part of implementing to address workforce development.

David, the district attorney in New Hanover and Pender counties, acknowledged the multi-faceted cause of poverty and crime, noting they found only four dads for 253 kids in 87 homes in their target area of Wilmington.

Scary enough for you?

For half a century, the federal government has tried to solve the problems in households headed by single mothers. While some of these brave women manage to be both mother and father to her children, more of these single mothers are too young to make wise decisions about their own lives and cannot offer a successful role model for their children.

If we choose to face the elephant in the room, we should do several things:
  1. Redouble efforts to teach young women good decision making, especially when it comes to having children. Emphasize the marriage-first, babies-later path to a more successful and fulfilling life.
  2. Mentor boys, teach them in school, inspire them in church, but get the message through to them: Real men care for their girlfriends, and that means making their welfare more important than your own. It means avoiding pregnancy by whatever means necessary — abstinence, contraception, fear of failure — until both of you are ready to support and raise children.
  3. Re-emphasize the Protestant Work Ethic. Go back to "idle hands are the devil's workshop;" make sloth and lack of ambition traits to be avoided, not emulated.
  4. Make it clear that school is important, and hard work at school pays better rewards than a shot at a lottery drawing. Many single mothers are dropouts who did not have a good experience in school, and their anti-school attitude gets passed to her children and her grandchildren.

America has a crime problem, an educational problem, an employment problem, a morality problem, a violence problem. But at the bottom of all these problems is a problem in the home, where all of us learn what the world is like, how to treat other people, how to live, how to be responsible adults. Even the best school can't accomplish those goals in a few hours a day, especially if what is taught in school is contradicted at home. What almost nobody is talking about is the elephant in the room: there is no father in the home.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Watergate and showing Comey the door

I was working in Washington when the "Saturday Night Massacre" shocked and appalled America in 1973, creating a volcanic reaction against President Nixon.

President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey seems less volatile and less shocking than Nixon's firing of Archibald Cox, but the similarities cannot be missed. Firing an FBI director is within a president's prerogatives, but firing an FBI director, or anyone else who is directing an investigation of the president's actions, makes the firing suspicious and shocking.

The rationale for firing Comey was odd and somewhat contradictory. He was fired, it was said, for his poor performance in the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email server. This is the investigation that candidate Trump glowingly praised during the presidential campaign. The firing also comes many months after Comey's alleged missteps. And it comes in the midst of an ongoing investigation by the FBI into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential campaign with targeted leaks, planted false "news," and other conniving.

Jeffrey Toobin, the Supreme Court journalist and author, compared the Comey firing to Third World dictatorships, where investigations of the ruler or ruling family inevitably led to the firing of investigators. "What kind of country is this?" Toobin asked on CNN.

Comey made some mistakes as FBI director. His press conference to announce that no charges would be brought against Hillary Clinton over her email practices, followed weeks later by an announcement of the reopening of the investigation (and subsequent closing without new findings), led to harsh criticism from Democrats.

If you stretch credulity and assume Trump had legitimate reasons to fire Comey, the timing is still troubling. The Russia-Trump probe continues, at least for now, and it should gain greater urgency. Trump's unctuous and misleading compliment to Comey in the letter firing him attempts to portray Trump as innocent but just raises suspicions more.

Trump's readiness to fire the FBI director should lead to a special prosecutor, one outside of the Jeff Sessions Justice Department and the White House, one with independence and authority to subpoena and bring criminal charges. Congressional investigations into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign should gain importance and greater bipartisanship. Trump's bold timing and vague rationale surely raise suspicions.

This national crisis has not risen to the level of Watergate (where are Sam Ervin, Judge Sirica and John Dean?), but it does show that an independent investigation is warranted.

Monday, May 8, 2017

It's complicated ... so let's simplify

Republican members of Congress are catching hell from constituents after their votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with ... well, something different. The bill that eked through the House made a lot of changes in federal health care regulations. One of the most significant of the changes eliminates the guarantee that a pre-existing condition will not prevent you from getting health insurance. Instead of Obamacare's blanket prohibition against discrimination against people for pre-existing conditions, the new GOP rules would make insurance available to people with epilepsy, cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, etc., but only after a waiting period and only at much higher costs, if at all. An estimated 20 million-plus people would die in the next decade because of these changes.

"Obamacare" was passed on a party-line vote seven years ago in an attempt to standardize health insurance nationwide by setting standards that health insurers were required to follow -- free birth control and other services; pre-existing conditions could not be excluded from coverage, all policies had to cover maternity care; health insurers could make only so much profit; etc. Meeting all the requirements of the ACA strained health insurers, leading many to forgo writing policies in some states or to pull out of some places after finding their premiums did not cover costs.

As new-President Trump admitted, "Who knew health care could be so complicated?" Well, the Democrats who tried to pass health care mandates in 1993 and finally succeeded in 2010 knew. Health insurance is an arcane, complicated business. Throwing government regulation into the equation made it more so.

My prediction is that the health care plan that comes out of the Republican-led Senate will not satisfy consumers. The Affordable Care Act tried to make the system work by mandating coverage, penalizing with tax penalties those who refused to sign on and subsidizing those too poor to afford premiums. Doing all that requires a lot of regulations and a lot of monitoring. Mandating coverage creates a large enough pool, most of whom are healthy, that the costs are evenly and fairly distributed.

Instead of increasing the complexity of health insurance, why not simplify it? The way to do that is though a federally run health insurance program (like Medicare). Every employee and every employer would pay into the system, but every employee and employer would no longer have to pay private health care premiums. A single-payer system would enjoy great economies of scale and could operate more efficiently than the hundreds of scattered insurance companies and agents across the country.

Everyone would get the same coverage and pay a standard amount with the wealthiest and/or most unhealthy paying more. This system works well in England, France, Canada and most western nations. It works because if the entire population is in the "pool," the healthy can help pay for the care of others without exploding premiums.

The reason to pass a single-payer health-care plan is not because there is a "right" to health care (the Constitution is silent on this issue). It should pass because anything else is either too complicated or too controlled by a greedy health-care and insurance industry that sees sick patients as sales to be maximized.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Funerals are celebrations of life

The older you get, the more funerals you attend. It's a fundamental rule of this life. As you age, your friends, relatives and acquaintances reach the age of mortality, and funerals follow. Your time will come.

I attended another funeral Sunday, and I found it unusually uplifting and spiritually nourishing. The music and the liturgy of funerals usually are not — and should not be — mournful and despairing. Christian theology speaks of conquering death, and gerontologists speak of death as a phase of life. So it is appropriate that funerals are often called "celebrations of life."

As I sat in the balcony among the capacity crowd in the large church sanctuary, my mind turned to the stirring music from the organ and the carefully chosen readings from Scripture, as well as the praise and humorous eulogies offered by the decedent's grandchildren. I left the church not depressed but uplifted, fulfilled in a way that my heart needed.

After attending funerals that were like yesterday's — uplifting and positive — and others that were sad, mournful, despairing and even accusatory, I began thinking of my own funeral. I have become keenly aware as I read the obituary columns that the majority of the obits are for people younger than I. I have made a list of Scripture to be read and of hymns to be sung, including "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and "For All the Saints." The hymns should be sung by the congregation, not by a soloist, I decreed, because a funeral, like other worship, is a corporate experience in which all should participate.

 A well-done funeral is an uplifting spiritual experience, so it was only in partial sarcasm that I suggested years ago that someone start a new cable channel, The Funeral Channel, which would cover live and rerun funerals of celebrities, statesmen and others, funerals of people like Edward Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Princess Diana, Prince, Robin Williams, and all the others, perhaps even well-planned, uplifting funerals from Wilson, N.C.

It would beat most of what's on cable TV.