Unseen Fires

Flying west, I looked down on hundreds of miles of gauzy blue haze wreathing the mountains, which in time I recognized as smoke from forest fires.  Down there, something was raging: a cataclysmic process was underway, but from my vantage the details of the drama were lost, and what we classify as “a natural disaster” impressed me mainly as a profound, impersonal phenomenon, caused by forces of an epic scale.  Even after becoming aware that “something was wrong,” my primary response was awe, which, true to Burke’s famous observations on “the sublime,” was tinged with fear—appropriate given the danger and destruction unseen fires were generating below.

These were not the widely publicized forest fires sweeping Southern California, but spontaneous conflagrations in the northern Rockies, obscure fires that didn’t make the national news.  The sight of these unseen fires has stayed with me, supplying a metaphor for the state of the nation in 2017.  Despite the outwardly smooth operation of the federal government, political fires have periodically sprung up here and there, fires which must burn no matter how much Americans want to suppress them, no matter how much we tell ourselves these fires should not be.  These popular outbreaks, periodically rupturing the conventional veneer of the political order, point up a disconnect between our decrepit yet monopolistic party system and what ordinary Americans want and need.  Reckoning with the stunted and demeaning character of much of American life (let alone acknowledging it) is not exactly a priority on Capitol Hill.

Yet Americans’ unfulfilled cravings for respect and incorporation fueled many of the year’s top stories, including such diverse phenomenon as the #MeToo movement and the Charlottesville riots.  Sadly, as our political system becomes ever more consolidated into a national bureaucracy, picking candidates from Washington and funding them with outsider money, the need is ever greater for leadership that originates in and is oriented mainly toward the interests and distinctive character of localities.  Democrats looking for redemption could do worse than recommit themselves to the “reddest” and most woe-begone parts of the nation.  For only with good leadership at the local level will the dangerously divisive character of local culture wane.

Image: Aerial photograph of smoke from an unseen fire
in the Western US, @ 2017 Susan Barsy

Russia’s Patsy

What Americans know without further investigation is that their president is a fool.  President Trump is a laughingstock in the eyes of global sophisticates and rival nations.  His vanity and naiveté combine to keep him from realizing how ridiculous he is.

What we know about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign is that Russians wanted to see if they could manipulate Trump and his people and found that they could.

Donald Trump is all the more a patsy if his protestations of innocence are true.  Given his vanity, he could well have failed to recognize how blatantly the Russians were playing his team.  He has yet to acknowledge the wrong he committed in surrounding himself with people willing to serve parochial or rival interests rather than those of the United States.  Whether Trump colluded with Putin’s hirelings has yet to be established, but, by leaving the nation open to a sort of embarrassment that amounts to a dangerous vulnerability, Donald T. Rump showed a gross incompetence that is incontrovertible.

What prompted Trump to select Michael Flynn, as his national security advisor?  Flynn was an embittered army general intent on getting even with the US by selling his services to dubious foreign clients.  Even after the acting head of the Justice Department warned Trump that the Russians could manipulate Flynn by threatening him with exposure, Trump postponed Flynn’s dismissal, leaving him in a highly privileged position for nearly a month.  Trump’s stubborn loyalty to a man who mattered far less than our security interests must have filled the Russian establishment with glee.  While the president ingenuously bragged to high-ranking Russians about the quality of American intel, their compatriots were probably busy hacking the NSA.

Which is worse: having a grandiose bumbler in the White House instead of a person who, as the Founders intended, represents the best of America; or knowing that the President is incapable of serving the nation in accordance with his oath?

Image: Screen shot of Russian officials laughing,
as Putin jokes at the Americans’ expense (May 2017).

A Dearth of Virtue

Allegorical engraving showing the arts memorializing George Washington

One of the slipperiest aspects of republican government is the requirement that the citizens of a republic be virtuous.  Their moral discernment and scruples come into play, whether in evaluating the claims of their leaders or when called to exercise political leadership themselves.  Without virtue, the Founders thought, the entire republican project is doomed, because the power vested in the government is there to be used for the common good.

Where virtue was to come from was a little fuzzy.  Some equated virtue with economic self-sufficiency; others thought it followed from a good education—from a familiarity with the past, particularly.  For a time early in our history, Americans counted on “republican mothers” to inculcate the necessary virtues in their young.  And, throughout the ages, many believed that the right religious spirit could give republican virtue a powerful assist.

Regardless of the specifics, the success of our form of government ultimately depends on something beyond politics.  It depends on a culture that encourages prudence and goodness.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, wholesomeness and moral restraint have become unfashionable.  Society has thrown off a centuries-old association between virtue and the principle of respectability.  Virtue, once the cornerstone of reputation, has become an attribute too embarrassingly square to endorse or require.

As a culture, we have no shame.  As consumers of news and culture, Americans must tolerate acquaintance with people who behave despicably.  We are forced to take an interest in criminals and lowlifes, their heinousness smothered in a blanket of journalistic “objectivity.”  To be informed, we explore what journalists and artists have to offer, though these offerings imbue evildoers with celebrity and prestige.  In a more intimate society, miscreants would be marginalized, their importance diminished to neutralize their potentially toxic influence on a healthy culture.

Under the circumstances, virtue in America has become a private and personal matter, where once our collective need for it was publicly avowed.

Image: “American Literature & Fine Arts, Rewarding Patriotism & Virtue,”
from this source.
The print, created between 1800 and 1815,
shows the arts working to immortalize George Washington (d. 1799).

Rename and Repair “Affordable Care”


The struggle over the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as Obamacare, ended a crucial round last month, when, in the Senate, three Republicans–Susan Collins, John McCain, and Lisa Murkowski–joined Democrats in voting down the so-called “skinny repeal.”  Despite Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and despite the president’s scornful goading, the GOP has at long last stopped in its tracks: it has heard, from far off in the hinterland, the howl of the people.  To repeal the Affordable Care Act, to discontinue its hallmark features, has become politically unacceptable in the US.

Partisan representations of the bill notwithstanding, the guarantee of affordable medical coverage for all, which is at the heart of “Obamacare,” has become a grail to the American people.  Kate Zernike and Abby Goodnough of the New York Times co-authored a fascinating article describing how a sea-change in popular sentiment, running increasingly in support of the ACA, has occurred along with its threatened repeal.  First-hand understanding of the bill’s provisions and benefits are driving Americans to an acceptance of universal coverage that makes the GOP’s top-down rhetoric a tougher sell.  Americans do not want to return to the “bad old days” when insurers could turn sick or at-risk customers away.  They do not want millions of Americans who are now insured to lose the benefits guaranteed them under the ACA.

Politically, then, the President and the GOP face the issue of how to Affordable Care their own.  (After all, it has the makings of a smashing success!)  During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump wasn’t at the forefront of those calling for the ACA’s repeal.  He was the reasonable candidate then, wanting to find solutions that would remedy the defects of the legislation.  During the debates, he suggested eliminating state-level restrictions to allow insurers to create pools across state lines.  Ironically, President Trump has since decided that scapegoating others is essential to his popularity, a conviction that has led him away from an approach to health care that was more constructive and reasoned.  Has the President never heard the saying, “Revenge is a dish that is best served cold”?

Were I a Republican, I would vow never to utter the word “Obamacare” again.  Members of the Republican Party stand to become heroes by repairing the Affordable Care Act and re-branding it to heighten its associations with compassion and inclusion.  Forget about wreaking revenge on Obama.  Listen to the people.  Collaborate with Democrats.  Deliver a shared triumph to the nation.  It will matter far more than any partisan loss.

Image: from this source.
“The National Dime Museum” by Bernhard Gillam
is a send-up of leading American politicians circa 1884.

A challenge to the pension-protection clause


Two years ago, I wrote of Illinois, “The state’s deepening fiscal crisis will end when an ordinary citizen, who is not a public employee, successfully challenges the Illinois constitution’s ‘pension-protection clause’ in a federal court.”  Curiously, something along these lines is happening.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit will soon consider the case of Bargo v. Bruce Rauner, et.al. which argues that the state’s ironclad protection of public-employee pensions is unfair to the other residents of Illinois.

The petitioner, Michael E. Bargo, Jr., is appealing the decision of a district court, which dismissed his case in May.  The brief Bargo filed in the lower court argued that the Illinois constitution’s pension-protection clause violates the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.  A single sentence makes up Article 13, Section 5, of the state constitution (the pension-protection clause), which reads: “PENSION AND RETIREMENT RIGHTS: Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

This provision inviolably protects the the pensions of every public employee, setting up a privileged class of Illinoisans with a “retirement right” that no one else in Illinois enjoys.  The arrangement appears to violate the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which declares: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the Unites States . . . nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Much of Bargo’s brief concerns how the pension-protection clause affects Illinois taxpayers and the governments within Illinois.  Collectively, state and local governments are groaning under the weight of unfunded pension obligations totaling some $250 billion.  Meanwhile, Illinois sanctions several funding mechanisms that benefit the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF, the state’s largest pension fund) without regard to the needs and wishes of local populations.  These mechanisms allow the IMRF to seize state grants allocated to communities throughout the state without restriction and to seize revenue from county treasuries.  They empower IMRF to sue in circuit courts throughout the State.

Bargo seeks to demonstrate how the obligation to fund public pensions goes hand-in-hand with taxation that fails to benefit taxepayers, diverting funds away from public purposes.  As taxes are levied and engrossed for the sake of public employees, the general welfare of Illinois is suffering.  Pensions claim an ever larger share of the tuition that students pay at Illinois’ public universities.  School systems and social services throughout the state are suffering as a larger share of taxes must go to pension obligations.  As Illinois faces mounting financial embarrassment, its citizens must acquiesce in a system that transfers wealth from the general population and the State itself to one class of people, thanks to the superior protection the Illinois constitution affords public employees.

The pension-protection clause, which stipulates that a benefit once given to a public worker can never be reduced or taken away, robs government of the discretion to curb or modify pension provisions that are being abused or that are unduly generous to the point of being unaffordable.  The state’s courts have repeatedly cited the pension-protection clause in striking down pension-reform proposals, including several that the unions themselves have agreed to.  Unfortunately, Article 13, section 5, creates a class interest within the public sector that stacks the deck against ordinary Illinois citizens, making an appeal to the federal courts necessary.

Bargo v. Rauner, et. al., puts the pressure on the state’s most powerful officials to defend a principle gradually strangling once-vigorous Illinois.

Graphic by the Illinois Policy Institute.

Restorations

Lake Michigan, as seen from the terraced shore near the Barry underpass in Chicago.

The glory of the present is its offer of restoration: the chance to recoup on a loss, to recover from a painful reversal, to find redemption or liberation despite blows to one’s prospects or identity.  The American optimist wakes up of a morning intent on “making America great again,” though his or her vision of that greatness may substantially deviate from the official Trump version.  Chicagoans wake hoping for an end to the open-air homicides that mow down a few more of us every day.  And all Illinois hopes for something better from Springfield: something that will transform the state’s declining fortunes and liberate it from corruption and a seemingly inescapable pit of debt.  There is no reason (except for human folly) that the state cannot become the forward-looking powerhouse it used to be.

It all depends on synergy: a combination of individual energies–what we can spare of our selves, we whose cares might include a water-damaged apartment, a sick child, trouble at work, or a departed spouse.

I think of Teddy Roosevelt, whose cares included the grief of unexpectedly losing his mother and his young wife in a single day.  Hampered in childhood by health so bad he nearly died, Roosevelt nonetheless managed in adulthood to become strong while conceiving of himself as integrally one with an America every bit as bedeviled as ours is today.  His passionate commitment to public life ended up being a crucial force in turning the United States in a new more wholesome direction and away from the stultifying excesses of the Gilded Age.

Political intelligence

Today I’ve been at home, looking at the notes that have accumulated on my desk.  Many are semi-automatic notes I’ve written when I’m on the phone.  Often the notes are on post-its, very small post-its, sometimes post-it chains that I’ve stuck together to show that the notes are all from the same conversation.  The notes are often very informal, and they are undated.  There is no record of who I was talking with, so that as these notes accumulate the situations they refer to can easily become cryptic.  Sometimes I write on a small note pad, then tear the sheet of paper off the pad, with no particular purpose in mind.  Nonetheless, I do not throw these notes away.

Back in the day, some of this material might have been described as political intelligence.  This was information collected from political friends.  Leaders relied on their friends for understanding of local political conditions; the better connected and perceptive the friend, the more valued the friend was to the leader.  Before polling existed, political decision-making and leadership heeded these chains of intelligence, which stretched from the street to the drawing-room to the legislative chambers of the United States.  Intelligence might come from friends back home, from the political wife left behind, from a business or law partner, or a brother-in-law.  What a politician “knew” about national sentiment emerged solely from personal experience and from this subjective mass of relayed conversations, which being subjective and embroidered, were for that very reason, often productive of potent ideas.

One page of notes I’ve kept for months refers to a conversation I had with one of my sisters the first time we spoke after Trump’s election.  Her friends in the Twin Cities were very emotional.  Those who had voted for Clinton only to see Trump triumph were upset and scared.  They felt powerless and hated being on the losing side, in part because losing made them more vulnerable.  A current of hate was unleashed, with strangers saying horrible, threatening, and racist things.  Clinton supporters resented the winning side.

The losers were worried about what more they could lose.  Many were worried about Obamacare.  Some were looking forward to when they would turn 65, so that they could retire and be eligible for Medicare.

There was a kind of blinkered defensiveness among Democrats.  They still did not perceive the emptiness of the Democratic narrative, that is, the shortcomings of the type of “liberal progress” that establishment Democrats have gotten in the custom of being satisfied with.  How marvelous it would be, my sister said,  if officials were to go back to “representing” the people rather than “governing them” in the absence of any genuine identification.  This empty “governance” of the people in the abstract has become more or less habitual, the dominant M.O., which is a shame because it does not end up redressing the people’s acute needs.

Modern modes of communication have their place, but they have marginalized the human bonds formerly at the heart of the American political system.  These bonds were not necessarily egalitarian, but they connected American leaders and their constituents while enabling authentic political intelligence to circulate.  Even the scraps on my desk are eloquent reminders of how politics must change.

Green America Will Prevail

Two cosmic figures regard the Earth, framed in a proscenium arch.
President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord embarrasses us all, partly because it makes no sense politically, but also because it reveals Trump to be shockingly out of touch with the direction of the country he supposedly leads.  In the end, his failure to support his own nation’s movement toward clean energy and environmental responsibility will matter mainly as another proof justifying those who view him as a laughingstock.  Far from halting the nation’s progress toward reducing carbon emissions, Trump’s decision will likely accelerate it.

Over the past few decades, green capitalism—that triumvirate of forces combining consumer demand, emergent technology, and corporate leadership—has gradually matured and gone mainstream.  Regardless of government action, green capitalism will soon be a determining force in the US economy.  It will transform Americans’ sensibilities and requirements as surely and completely as the Industrial and Digital Revolutions have.  Among the parties vainly urging the president to hew to the Paris accord were many large corporations who recognize that accommodating green values makes good business sense.  President Trump’s harebrained decision to cling to the past instead makes him look benighted and irrelevant.

The silver lining is the galvanizing effect his retrograde action will have.  In the US, major technological revolutions (with the exception of space aeronautics) typically begin in the private sector, generating new synergies between innovators and consumers.  American government is often many paces behind, facilitating and regulating change only after new technologies and ways of doing have taken hold.  Some sources of greenhouse-gas emissions in the US will decline only if subject to tougher state or federal regulation; others are highly responsive to consumer choice.  Ultimately, the Trump administration’s intention to sit out the fight for clean energy opens up a field where many more forward-looking actors will contend to prevail.  The work of easing the nation’s transition to a green future will fall to other and wiser American leaders.

Image: Wladyslaw T. Benda, “The Earth With the Milky Way and Moon” (1918),
from this source.

The Five-Hundred-and-Thirty-Five Shareholders

A color panoramic view of the US Capitol taken from the driveway circa 1898.
Donald Trump doesn’t know how to share power.  His companies are private and he has never had to be accountable to other stakeholders.  He would be terrible at running a public company.  Now he is the head of the federal government, where the key concepts are “limited powers” and inter-dependency.  Still he behaves as though he’s running the family hotel chain.  Displease the big boss and one’s head will roll.

The situation presents Congress with an unusual opportunity to reclaim its former status as a branch co-equal to the executive.  Trump’s style of administration suggests why the Framers did not go all in for an imperial presidency: to look to the present White House as a source of legislation and policy is sheer folly.  This president may be capable of reforming (that is streamlining) the executive branch, and he may learn how to defend and represent American interests ceremonially.  But, being reluctant to extend his trust to professional experts, his White House is not likely to become a font of innovative and workable legislative initiatives–which, after all, used to be Congress’s domain.

Once upon a time, the Senate was a center of intellectual excellence, where the chief leaders of the states spent endless hours in one another’s company.  It was a tight-knit group, often described as a club, where members knew one another thoroughly, and where they took a strange kind of pleasure in devising bills that would meet the conflicting demands of (wait for it) their constituencies.  The House, the Senate’s more rambunctious sibling, could not equal it in prestige and in certain periods was of such low quality that it could not sustain the interest of the press: quite different from the situation that prevails today.

What will Congress make of this opportunity?  This era could be remembered as one when one-hundred senators and 435 representatives restored Congress’s vitality, when their creative and constructive energies went into crafting workable and forward-looking legislation, and when their power vis-a-vis the presidency earned them the nation’s gratitude and admiration.   The fortunes of the nation would look less bleak if Congress’s full power to work for the good were being deployed.

Image: William Henry Jackson photograph of the Capital taken circa 1898
Published by the Detroit Publishing Company in 1949
The Library of Congress

The Trump Years: Day 74


I regret not writing as much now as I did before the election.  When I ask myself why, I come up with a complicated set of reasons.  Few of them reflect well on me as a citizen or human being.  They range from the situational and emotional (my father having died recently) through the characterological (I hate conflict, so how will I survive the intense political conflicts of the Trump years?) on up to the super-structural (both the parties are defunct and I really think the only way forward is to create a new party).  The thought of how much we will all have to pivot and struggle in order to re-energize, re-organize, and purify our politics overwhelms me.  And, to be honest, I wonder whether we even have it in us as a society, to purify American politics, to cultivate a new generation of moral and responsive leaders, and to keep our nation and culture from sliding swiftly downhill.

After all, the political problems we confront can’t be blamed on a single person.  The creepy manifestations of decline emanating from the Trump White House and from Capitol Hill stem from a dysfunctional culture and institutions no longer organized effectively in support of the noble form of government that we inherited.  To make our politics praiseworthy again is going to take a massive jolt of collective energy.  Just as important, to transform our existing institutions, Americans are going to have to formulate and rally around a newly urgent set of principles and goals.

The burned-over district: In the nineteenth-century, the western section of New York State became known as “the burned-over district,” because of its unusual susceptibility to religious revivals.  Before the rise of the social sciences, Americans were collectively more inclined to see the hand of God at work in human history.  They were more likely to praise “the Almighty” or “Providence” when experiencing prosperity and to see adverse events (such as Trump’s election) as a divine punishment for society’s failings.  In western New York, such a mentality led both to religious enthusiasms and to a forward-looking social activism that fueled Americans’ determination to secure votes for women and freedom for slaves.

While not wholly efficacious in themselves, such movements inspired much ideological ferment and in time impelled major changes in the platforms of the political parties.  Leading Republicans of the Civil War era, like William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Charles Sumner, were undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the high-minded spiritualism associated with “the burned-over district.”  The United States could use some of that same pure, high-minded fervor today.

Image:
Casimir Bohn’s “View of Washington City and Georgetown” (1849),
from this source.