Saturday, January 20, 2018

A "Lifer" Reflects on Yet Another Government Shutdown

I won’t soon forget an experience I had this past September.  I was in “the Heartland,” as they call Indiana, but all my Hoosier friends were outside and I was stuck alone, watching my alma mater get its butt whipped playing a football game.  Looking to commiserate, I called a college friend in California to talk football.  Instead, my friend, who is a big fan of the current Administration, launched into a Jeremiad about what a fool I’ve been for serving as a career “civil servant.”  Well, he didn’t exactly use those words.  People who disrespect government work never refer to us lifers as “civil servants.”  I believe the word of choice is “bureaucrat.”  But my friend didn’t want to be cruel and harp on that insulting word.  Instead, he chose a backhanded compliment. He spoke about how I was “too smart” to work for the government and seemed truly frustrated that I had thrown away my opportunities in life by working as a fed.     

I remember that conversation vividly because it’s rare for me to experience the feeling of being pitied.  Who doesn’t hate that feeling?  Fortunately, I don’t feel today that anyone pities federal workers simply because the government is shut down.  We don’t want your pity.  We simply want to do our jobs.  And sometimes, we also want to remind people that our jobs matter.

During the previous federal government shutdown, I published a blog post reflecting on the furloughs. Frankly, I don’t remember the specifics of that post, but it seems appropriate to remind you, my reader, as well as myself of what my thoughts were at the time. You see, government shutdowns in contemporary America are spurred by different events, but they all have one thing in common – they take place in a climate where those who are furloughed are looked at by the society at large as anything but “essential.”  Such was the message I heard loudly and clearly from my friend when I was in Indiana this past September.  It wasn’t just that I could have made more money working somewhere else, it was that working as a civilian for the federal government is at best a waste of time.  I don’t see it that way.  And so ... I give you “Reflections on a Week of Furloughs,” unedited, from October 5, 2013.  Here goes:

“I should weep for a workforce of 2.7 million that is overpaid and underworked, does things I do not like or need, and gets laid off for a week or two every 17 years? I’ll save my tears for the 7.8 million people Obama has squeezed out of the national workforce – permanently.”

“My heart bleeds for these overpaid under worked Gov.t  [sic] workers.  We could probably lt [sic] half of them go.”

            Anonymous comments to an October 2, 2013 article on

            I went to synagogue last night with one primary purpose in mind: to remember and celebrate the life of my father.  As this Shabbat marks the anniversary of his death, I had been looking forward to that magical moment in the Jewish service right before the prayer of mourning where the rabbi announces the names of the individuals whom the congregation is asked to mourn.  The rabbi began reading out the names, but he never did say “Julius Spiro.”   I had to do that myself.    

            This being the week of a Government shutdown, last night was a fitting non-tribute to a man whose occupation could aptly be called “faceless bureaucrat.”  My mother practiced the same occupation.   Between the two of them, they put in roughly 77 years working for the United States Government.   Julius was an economist for the Department of Labor, where he researched such issues as minimum wage laws and handicapped-access provisions.  Evelyn was an economist and statistician for the National Institutes of Mental Health and, later, the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  Neither spoke much to me about their jobs.   Nor do I recall them bringing colleagues into the home to boast about the vital nature of their work.    All that I know is that they made a decent, but not especially large, amount of money, working on projects that they considered to be in the public interest.  In that regard, they were much like the parents of many of my friends growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. – highly educated, but relatively anonymous professionals who seemed content with their work, despite the lack of fanfare.  Theirs weren’t the jobs that kids aspire to do when they grow up, but I was proud of my mom and dad just the same.

            The last time I heard the term “faceless bureaucrat” was a few days ago. MSNBC commentator Richard Wolffe was talking about an incident when GOP Rep. Randy Neugebauer berated a federal employee for keeping the public out of a national monument. (Here’s a video of Neugebauer’s antics:  Wolffe was appropriately indignant about the Congressman’s behavior, and I was taken by the words he used to express this indignation.  To the best of my recollection, he suggested that the target of the Congressman’s wrath “wasn’t just some faceless bureaucrat but a park ranger” -- in other words, a woman who is obviously doing a job that the nation needs her to do.  

            I forget how old I was when I learned that neither of my parents had one of those jobs.  Garbage collectors, waitresses, and flight attendants may not be especially well compensated, but at least it is generally recognized throughout the society that they perform useful functions.  By contrast, Julius and Evelyn Spiro received taxpayer dollars doing work that many taxpayers resent having to pay for. And my parents are not alone.  Littered throughout the Washington, D.C. suburbs is a huge workforce that, according to the commenter quoted above, “is overpaid and underworked, [and] does things I do not like or need.”  

            If you watch MSNBC, you will think that what is going on these days is a “Government Shutdown.”  If you watch Fox News, however, you might think that what is going on is a “Government Slimdown.”  Those words were actually used on that network.  They are a reminder of the fact that the federal government has hardly shut all its doors.  Soldiers, border patrol officers, and prison guards are still working to keep our nation safe.  Air traffic controllers are also on the job, providing key assistance to the ongoing health of the economy.  According to the message that underlies most of the coverage on Fox News and right-wing radio, most of the folks who have been sent home – most of the so-called “800,000 non-essential employees” – are the faceless bureaucrats whom we shouldn’t be paying for anyway.

            In the minds of many Americans, this so-called “Slimdown” is providing a long-overdue opportunity to put folks like my parents on trial.   The ideologues who are behind the refusal to fund the Government can surely sense a holy mission: to showcase to the nation just how worthless much of the federal workforce is.   This is why their mouthpieces in the media keep talking about how all the furloughs are no big deal – how with the exception of a few national parks shutting down, nobody has missed out on anything they need.

Ever since I began studying economics in college, I have been reading about the “bloated” federal government.  Shortly thereafter, Ronald Reagan rode that theme into the Presidency, and even when a Democrat (Bill Clinton) finally returned to the White House, he spoke about how “The era of Big Government is over.”  But here’s my question: while everyone and her brother has been taking pot shots at “Club Fed,” who has been singing the praises of the federal workforce?  The local DC-area Congresspeople?  Don’t make me laugh – they, too, realize that faceless bureaucrats are about as popular as hemorrhoids.    Truly, Americans might romanticize our school teachers, doctors, lawyers, ball players, rock stars … you name it, we have TV shows and movies celebrating what they do.  But nobody romanticizes analysts at the Department of Commerce or Agriculture.  Now, finally, conservatives see an opportunity to shine a light on these people and ask the nation: do we really need them, or would we rather save our tax dollars and decide for ourselves what to do with the money?
           I have focused so much on the “faceless bureaucrats” because, despite the central impact of this week’s events on their lives, they are largely being neglected by the media.  Instead, most of the coverage I’ve seen has concentrated on the horse race: which political party is “winning.”   Since the polls favor the Democrats, most journalists have turned their slings and arrows on the GOP.   We’ve heard a lot about GOP infighting, how Ted Cruz is happy to refer to himself as a “looney bird,” and how the GOP is allowing the Tea Party to lead them off the cliff despite not having any leverage.   With respect to the GOP-bashing, perhaps my favorite quotation comes from Congressman Marlin Stutzman, who represents the rural Indiana district where my wife grew up.   He is the Einstein who told a reporter: “We’re not going to be disrespected.   We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”  Funny, I thought respect is something one earned.

            There’s no doubt about it -- it’s fun to bash politicians, isn’t it?  But regardless of what you think of those “statesmen,” let us not miss the deeper point here.  This is not a time to dump all over government.  This is a time to celebrate government.  

To be sure, I make no apologies for being a believer in capitalism.  I deeply appreciate the private sector for all the high-quality, low-cost goods and services that people in America and much of the world take for granted.  No doubt, this robust economy is the product of competition among profit-seeking firms, which is precisely what would be absent if the government controlled all of the means of production.   But Marx wasn’t completely wrong.  Just as socialism is no picnic (or at least not an efficient one), neither is unbridled capitalism.  Take it from a guy who has been investigating and litigating fraud cases for nearly a quarter of a century -- there are plenty of folks in the private sector who don’t exactly have the public interest in mind.  And frankly, even if the private sector was staffed entirely with saints and prophets, there would still be plenty of crucial tasks left unperformed, because there are certain vital jobs that simply don’t generate a profit.  That’s just basic economics.

Can the Government be more efficient?  Absolutely.  Then again, that could be said about any big company as well.  Are there folks in the Government who should be let go because they are unproductive?  Again – same answers.  But that doesn’t mean we should take a meat cleaver to the federal budget and hack away, which appears to be the position of the Conservative Crusaders.  I recognize that that last term sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, but here’s the thing: if you are a moderate Republican of the type who thrived 40 years ago and you somehow got elected to the House, you still would have cast your vote for John Boehner, and he is now a full participant in this “Shutdown,” or “Slimdown,” or whatever you want to call it.

Personally, I call it a slap in the face of the legacy of Julius and Evelyn Spiro and all the other fine men and women who have dedicated their lives to working for the public interest, despite receiving zero gratitude in return.  It is not enough that those who have been furloughed these past few days ultimately receive their back pay when they return to the office.   Let us not forget the many federal employees who were furloughed last year, during “Sequestration,” and the many more who will be furloughed this year if and when a budget is passed.  They are every bit as deserving as the 800,000 who have been told this week how un-essential their work is.  

By the way, lest this sound like a self-interested appeal, I have not yet had the displeasure of being furloughed at the Department of Justice, either during this past week or the previous year.  But I have done my job with a heavy heart.  For I don’t doubt that if my parents were still working, they would have been furloughed.  And even though I am but a short timer with a mere 28 years of federal service under my belt (29 if you include the year I spent, well after I graduated from Harvard Law School, as a poorly-paid contractor for the Department of Education), I can still dedicate my service to the examples of my parents.  

Those who think of Julius and Evelyn Spiro as faceless bureaucrats likely will forget the true tragedy of this week.  It is not that federal employees are getting disrespected.  It’s that they aren’t being allowed to serve.

Your loss, more than ours.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Play in Four Scenes

Scene 1:  I’m walking out of the subway station one evening shortly after the last Presidential election having a conversation with an old friend from my days at the Federal Trade Commission.  Before we go our separate ways, he offers me a final suggestion for how I should spend the next four years as a federal employee, “Hey, Dan.  Keep your head down.”   I say nothing to my friend, but this is what I say to myself: It must be such a luxury to be a gentile.  Anyone in the 21st century who feels entitled to ‘keep your head down’ whenever that suits your own interests can’t be a real Jew.   Not after what happened to our community in the 1940s.

Scene 2:  I’m attending an interfaith event last Sunday commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.  It takes place in the historical New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown DC, the church that Abraham Lincoln regularly attended.  There are probably 250-300 people in attendance.  I have one and only one opportunity to address the crowd, and briefly at that.  The topic was how to respond to MLK Jr.’s statement that "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."  I decide to address the “sincere ignorance” idea.  Here in America, I said, we are sincerely ignorant when we claim to live in a democracy.  People sincerely believe this is a democracy, and it’s certainly more democratic than a totalitarian regime or even America in its early years.  But how can this be a real democracy if so many of us don’t vote?   In the previous midterms, 36% of eligible voters showed up.  For some countries, the percentage is as high as 90.  “If we honestly want to make this country great again,” I told the crowd, “we need to work to get as many people as possible registered to vote.” That’s the only way we can hope to have a democracy, and not the plutocracy we have today.  

Scene 3:  This is a sedentary scene -- just me, riding the subway and reading a book (Matthew Crawford’s “The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction”).  I come across the following passage:  ‘In the boom after World War II, the left lost interest in economics and shifted its focus from labor issues to a more wide-ranging project of liberation, to be achieved by unmasking and discrediting various forms of cultural authority.  In retrospect, this seems to have prepared the way for a new right, no less committed to the ideal of the unencumbered self (that ideal actor of the free market), whose freedom could be realized only in a public space cleared of distorting influences – through deregulation.  Few institutions or sites of moral authority were left untouched by the left’s critiques.  Parents, teachers, priests, elected officials – there was little left that seemed defensible.  Looking around in stunned silence, left and right eventually discovered common ground: a neoliberal consensus in which we have agreed to let the market quietly work its solvent action on all impediments to the natural chooser within.”

I was sickened by the idea that the so-called “progressive” movement had lost interest in economics, but damned if that isn’t true.  I can’t get over the paucity of passion in the Democratic Party to confront the plight of the poor or the horrors of economic inequality run amuck.  When Flag-Bearer Hillary charged $250K per speech and Chelsea charged $65K, and when the so-called “progressive” Democrats I know seemed fine with that, I knew how out of touch I’ve become with that Party.

What’s more, Crawford makes a great point in arguing that what has taken the place of economic uplift in the aspiration of liberals is the fetish about individual freedom and the need for society to respect all our individual choices.  Our entire culture is geared to living as atomized individuals who are allowed guilt-free to do whatever we want for whatever reason we want, and we define our individual success by the ability to create the conditions that foster freedom of personal expression.  Immediately, I started thinking about politicians like the afore-mentioned Hillary Clinton who come across as “scolds” (cue the sexist connotations) and who don’t express themselves viscerally, openly, and joyously.  In a culture that’s all about “free to be you and me,” that won’t cut it.  Americans today are looking for characters, odd-balls, people that speak from the gut, mavericks – but who also respect the rights of others to live similarly.  And that has manifested itself in our choice of leaders – a Hollywood actor turned politician, a guy who plays sax in his shades and who talks to us about his choice of underwear, a frat boy who’s become Born Again and bought a baseball team, a smooth preaching black man who reminds us that in America anyone can be President, and last but not least, a business tycoon turned Reality TV star turned conspiracy theorist turned politician turned Donald Rickles wanna-be.  It should be painfully obvious by now that we’re certainly not looking for professional politicians who dress formally, look sternly into the camera and lecture us about morality.  Like it or not, and I don’t, morality in contemporary America is whatever the F-- I want it to be!

Are you listening Democrats?  If you won’t give a damn about economics, at least take back the country by adapting to its culture.  Nominate folks who don’t come across as tools.  Give “the people” what they want – plainspoken, courageous, joyful, liberating leaders.  I don’t remember the last time one of you had the guts to publicly stand up for a position that wasn’t popular with the majority of Americans.  If you hold such a position, say it anyway!   No wonder you let Donald Trump win the Electoral College by 77 points.   Y’all are a bunch of poll-testing, mask-wearing phonies.

Scene 4:  I should have been shocked when I first heard about the “shithole” comment.  I wasn’t.  In fact, I wasn’t a bit surprised.  Our President is one politician who is NOT a phony.  Howard Cosell boasted about “telling it like it is.”  Well, I cannot always say that about Donald Trump, but he at least has the guts to tell it like he thinks it is.  In this case, what he thinks is, well, an indictment of a species that has lived and breathed racism for more generations than I can count.

Soon after hearing about the “shithole” comment, I went on the computer and double checked my recollections from history class.  It has been decades since I learned in school about how the Nazis hierarchically “ranked” the various races.  The Nordics – together with the other Aryans – were at the very top.  Black people were at the bottom.   And believe it or not, we Jews were placed above even the “Mongoloids” – in fact, it was because we weren’t at the bottom that we were viewed by the Nazis as smart enough to be quite dangerous in our sinister attempt to take over the world.  

Folks, whenever your President says anything that sends you down memory lane to consider how the Nazis ranked the races, that’s not a good moment in American history. And it’s especially not a good moment when this topic is coming up (a) on MLK Jr. weekend and (b) in the context of meetings that are supposed to be a pivot away from the purely partisan, spit-in-every Democrat’s face legislative activities of 2017.  We have definitely entered the Twilight Zone.

The most amazing part of this entire “shithole” debacle is that our legislators in attendance won't even tell similar stories about exactly what they heard.  President Trump denies making the comment at issue.  Two Republican Senators in attendance similarly deny that they heard it.  Other Republican Senators in attendance are ducking the issue through obfuscation.  Obviously, the Democrats don’t have a monopoly on cowardice.

Perhaps, when all is said and done, the Republican politicians today are simply honoring my friend’s prudent advice and keeping their heads down.  Maybe their faith permits that sort of thing.  Convinced that this country is nobody’s shithole, they must believe that nothing truly awful can happen if we all just do our office work, run our 10Ks, watch our favorite TV shows, shuttle our kids to soccer games, and let the invisible hand guide us through life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We don’t even need our nation’s poor and middle class to vote in the mid-terms. 

So this is what it means to make America great again.  It's no wonder that the Norwegians aren't busting down the doors to get in.  

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Straight Talk about the Palestinian Leadership

Happy New Year, everybody.   For me, last year ended with a bout of bronchitis and an even more severe bout of indigestion.  In the case of the latter, it was a combo of heartburn and reading about the new tax law.   Talk about the ol’ one-two.   Personally, I’m looking forward to: (a) a massive infusion of national debt at a time when the economy doesn’t need a boost, (b) a massive tax cut to those Americans who need it the least, (c) tax increases to those who live in states who have implemented progressive tax systems, and (d) the inability for most of us to continue to take deductions on charitable contributions.  They have pills we can take for heartburn.  If someone knows of a drug that we can take for God-awful tax legislation – legal drugs, I mean – please let me know. 

The tax bill was surely the most significant development of December 2017.  But there was another event that transpired earlier in the month about which I was also highly critical in this blog – the President’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  That decision has spurred a cavalcade of critical comments on the left.  It has led many of us to point out that the men who now control Jerusalem are showing less interest in a two-state solution and more willingness to leave the Palestinians in a condition of permanent statelessness and dependence on Israel’s good graces.  If you have any concern about the well-being and the rights of the Palestinian people, the recent conduct of the right-wing Israeli government is highly troublesome.

With that said, I want to interrupt the regularly scheduled “progressive blogpost” with a reality check.   This just in:  the Palestinian leadership has not exactly been the easiest group to make peace with.  There was a time when their tool of choice was terrorism.  Remember Yasser Arafat?  Nobel Peace Prize winning Yasser Arafat?  He was the face of the Palestinian leadership when I was young.  Now, we have Mahmoud Abbas.  For years, I’ve been hearing my friends in the peace movement praise Abbas as the kind of guy Israel can truly work with.  He has been hailed as the best partner for peace Israel can reasonably hope to find, and far and away preferable to the alternative: Hamas.  Peaceniks tend to dislike Hamas, to be sure, but Abbas?  You will rarely hear him criticized in such circles.  For every critical comment I’ve heard about Abbas, I’ve probably heard 30 about Netanyahu.  That’s no exaggeration; it’s a fact.

Well please, allow me to speak for a moment about Abbas.  For I am tired of being part of a peace movement where Israel’s leaders are constantly trashed (including, frankly, by me) but Palestinian leaders are treated with kid gloves, as if they are children or mentally-handicapped people who aren’t responsible for their conduct.  As many of you know, I am the President of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, and I spend much of my free time working to build bridges between Jews and Muslims.  Those bridges start with mutual respect, which must include the ability to speak about one another as adults.  So allow me to hold the Palestinian leadership to the same high standards that I would hold the Israeli leadership.  And allow me to point out where Mr. Abbas, the so-called peacemaker, is demonstrating just why he does NOT appear to be the partner that Israel needs to end this conflict.

Last month, in response to Trump’s provocative declaration, Abbas gave a speech in Istanbul that included the usual denunciations of Trump and threatened even to abrogate previous peace agreements.  As translated by the Times of Israel, the speech also included the following statement about the Jewish people:

“… I don’t want to discuss religion or history because they [the context implies a clear reference to the Jews] are really excellent in faking and counterfeiting history and religion. But if we read the Torah it says that the Canaanites were there before the time of our prophet Abraham and their [Canaanite] existence continued since that time, this is in the Torah itself. But if they would like to fake this history, they are really masters in this and it is mentioned in the holy Quran they fabricate truth and they try to do that and they believe in that, but we have been there in this location for thousands of years.”

The comment that the Jews are excellent at faking and counterfeiting history and religion isn’t simply a slap at Zionism, it’s a slap at the Jewish people and our faith.  For me, it is reminiscent of all the times that Palestinians and other Muslims have told me during the past decade that so-called Ashkenazic Jews like me have no historical claim to a state in the Middle East because we’re not actually descended from Middle Eastern Jews; rather, we are simply Eastern European people whose family at some point converted to Judaism.   Palestinians, I have been told, actually have more Jewish blood than the Ashkenazic “Jews.”   

The game that Abbas is playing is certainly one that Jews can play as well.  Remember that the Muslim claim to Jerusalem as the third holiest place for that religion stems from a journey that Muhammad is said to have taken in which, during a single night, a steed whisked him from Arabia to Jerusalem where he ascended to the heavens, meeting one ancient prophet after another.   Now tell me, do you think this claim to Jerusalem is, as a matter of “history,” equal to the Jewish claims established by men like King David, King Solomon and generation after generation of their descendants?  

Last month, while Abbas was de-legitimizing Judaism in Istanbul, I was preaching to a synagogue in Chevy Chase about the beauty of Islam.  Over the next six weeks, I plan on participating in many more meetings designed to foster an appreciation for the fact that Jews and Muslims truly are the closest of cousins.  And at the end of February, I will be giving a talk to a mixed audience about the Biblical Patriarch Abraham, the father of both of these wonderful faiths. 

Frankly, it is because I love Islam so much that it makes me sick to see a man like Abbas hailed as a “peacemaker” when in fact he is obviously willing to trash my religion.  Israel is a democracy, she has had progressive leaders in the past, and there will come a time when she will have a progressive leader in the future.   But if, at that time, the Palestinians will be led by men like Arafat, Abbas, or worse yet, the heads of Hamas, then I think we can pretty well guess what will happen at any peace talks. 

Remember – Israel has control over the disputed land and the military might to retain that control.  If the Palestinians hope to gain the state that folks like me want them to have, they are going to have to convince the Israelis that they are truly partners for peace.  I’m not sure Abbas is the man for the job.  And if he’s the best hope we’ve got at the moment, then the naysayers are right – things are only going to get worse before they get better.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Reflections on One Crazy Year

As this will be the final Empathic Rationalist post for 2017, I figured that instead of writing a mini-essay, I’ll briefly reflect on a few of the year’s more noteworthy developments.  They are identified here in no particular order.

Alternative Facts – Move aside, Baghdad Bob.   Come on down, George Orwell.   Alternative facts are here!  Now, if we don’t like the facts of a situation, we can just change them.   We even have a euphemism for what we’re doing.   I would have preferred if we used the term “Bullshit.” 

Fake News – This is related to the notion of Alternative Facts.  If we don’t like the facts, we are now also justified, apparently, in ridiculing the ones who disclose them to us.   So we’ll refer to them by an insulting name: Fake News.   And we’ll use that term to refer to the most reputable news sources known to our society.  Once upon a time we had a leader who said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.  But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”  Suffice it to say that Thomas Jefferson, the author of those words, must be rolling in his grave right now.  He’s been replaced by a President who said “I love the poorly educated,” and could well have added, “and I hate newspapers.”   Mr. President, I’ve read Thomas Jefferson. I’ve written papers about Thomas Jefferson.   I’ve been inspired by Thomas Jefferson.  Mr. President, you’re no Thomas Jefferson.

Congressional Democrats as Maytag Repairmen:  From 1967 to 1988, Jesse White starred in one of the best political ads of my lifetime.  He played a repairman for the Maytag appliance company, whose appliances were touted as so durable that poor Jesse and his colleagues had nothing at all to do with their time.  “At ease men! Now, you men have all volunteered to be Maytag Repairmen and so I'm gonna give it to you straight. Maytag washers and dryers are built to last. That makes the Maytag Repairman the loneliest guy in town!"  Brilliant, right?   Well ol’ Jesse no longer walks this earth, but I haven’t forgotten him.  In fact, I’m reminded of him whenever I see a Senator or Representative from the Democratic Party.  As far as I can tell, they also have nothing to do.  Nothing.  Their Republican counterparts, rather than holding meaningful hearings or attempting to enlist bi-partisan support for pivotal legislation, simply try to ram through as quickly as possible one-sided bills with purely partisan support.  In doing so, the GOP is appealing strictly to their donor class and to the 49% of American voters who supported the GOP in the House, the 46% who supported the GOP for President, and the 42% who supported the GOP in the Senate.  As for everyone else, the message is basically “We own every branch of Government.  And you?  You own a bunch of do-nothing, pathetic Jesse Whites.  Have a nice day, losers.   Oh and by the way – enjoy your Blue State tax increases, suckers!” 

When You Go Old, We Go Older – Donald Trump is no spring chicken. At 70, he was the oldest person in U.S. history to be elected POTUS for the first time.  Could that be a political liability?  Not even close.  You see, the leaders of the Democratic Party are every bit as seasoned as Trump – and in many cases, even older.  At 67, Chuck Schumer is the baby of the bunch.  Elizabeth Warren is 68.  Hillary 70.  Durbin 73.  Biden 75. Bernie 76. Nancy 77.  Steny  78.   Is this the cavalry who’s going to lead the charge in 2018?  In 2020?  As a Baby Boomer myself, I’m perfectly willing to give a Gen Xer a shot at my Party’s nomination or at a leadership role in Congress.  Enough with the group that couldn’t out-maneuver Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan.  Let’s have some new blood.  Please. 

Me Too – I’m thrilled that guys who engage in behaviors that demean women are being called on it.  I hope their names keep getting identified and that the real pigs suffer the consequences.  Just like “Mean people suck” (as the bumper sticker says), so do misogynists.  In fact, I remember the late 90s when so many so-called “liberals” were falling all over themselves defending Bill Clinton and I was getting pilloried by my fellow Democrats for saying that he should resign.  But before I give Kirstie Gillibrand and Company a Standing O, I’d like to know this new movement’s ground rules.  What does “zero tolerance” mean?  Are there acts that might conceivably offend certain women that we as a society should actually tolerate?  Do we believe the accused are entitled to any due process whatsoever? (For example, was there a rush to judgment against Al Franken?)  And do men have a right to state their opinions on these issues, or should they just shut up for once and stop “mansplaining”?  I’ve always prided myself on being a feminist, and yet I’ve never prided myself on joining a lynch mob.  So I support this movement ... but cautiously. 

Sorry, but I Still Haven't Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb:  You can’t say “2017” without thinking about the cold war between POTUS and the guy he calls the “Little Rocket Man.”   I strongly believe that we will not get into a nuclear war with North Korea.  Then again, we all should acknowledge that the prospects of such a war have increased significantly in the last 12 months.   You see, not only are we now dependent on the fundamental sanity of our own government, we’re also relying on the sanity of Kim Jong Un.  If, indeed, our President is right that Kim is a “sick puppy,” then why are we tempting him to show off just how much of a Madman Across the Water he is?  Maybe all of this Kim-Trump stuff was dreamt up by Elton John’s publicist trying to sell records.  I guess that makes as much sense as any other theory – or as much sense as so many other things that have happened this year.

Sweet Home Alabama – Did you see Roy Moore going down to defeat in Dixie?  Prior to the election, I had thought such an outcome was possible, but unlikely.  Boy am I glad to have been wrong.  Alabama proved that when a really good candidate goes up against a really bad candidate, the good candidate tends to win.  Everywhere.  This is why we in Maryland sometimes elect Republican Governors.  It also partially explains why Donald Trump is President (Hillary just wasn’t a really good candidate, despite what her party’s apparatchiks would tell us).  The other lesson here is that you actually CAN lose money underestimating the intelligence of the American voter.  Stated differently, things are usually not as bad as the Chicken Littles claim they are.  It’s well and good to be cynical, but Empathic Rationalism requires that we be realistic, not pessimistic.  Realistically, most everything that makes our nation great will likely survive all the craziness that we’ve been dealing with these past several months.  Have a little faith.  Just think about Alabama.

So, in conclusion, here’s hoping for a saner 2018 – the kind the voters in Alabama opted for last Tuesday.  And here’s hoping that you, my loyal readers, enjoy great personal successes and happiness in the upcoming year.  Talk to you then.

The Empathic Rationalist.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Jerusalem is Israel's Capital

There, I said it.   I just don’t know why an American President had to say it. 

Trump’s declaration about Jerusalem is as obvious as the fact that the Palestinians will never be given a “right of return” to Israel.  We all know that if there is to be a two-state solution, Israel will require that (a) its capital be in West Jerusalem and (b) many Palestinians whose families come from pre-‘67 Israel can’t return there.  But we also know that Israel will have to make meaningful concessions to the Palestinians as well.  And right now, our President isn’t making proclamations reflecting any such concessions.   At least publicly, he isn’t putting pressure on Israel of any kind.  As a result, his comments this week come across as mere politics (appealing to his pro-Israel base), and we simply can’t afford to play politics when it comes to making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

To put our President’s proclamation in perspective, let’s place the statement in context.  Let’s consider the words published in a New York Times op-ed, barely a week ago, in which former Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister, Ehud Barak describes the government he once ran:

In its more than three years in power, this government has been irrational, bordering on messianic.  It is now increasingly clear where it is headed: creeping annexation of the West Bank aimed at precluding any permanent separation from the Palestinians.
This “one-state solution” that the government is leading Israel toward is no solution at all. It will inevitably turn Israel into a state that is either not Jewish or not democratic (and possibly not either one), mired in permanent violence. This prospect is an existential danger for the entire Zionist project.
The government realizes that carrying out its one-state plan must entail steps and practices that necessarily clash with Israeli and international law — which is why it has effectively declared war on the Supreme Court of Israel, the free press and civil society, as well as the Israel Defense Forces’ ethical code.
These are serious allegations. While I can’t personally vouch for all of them, what I can say is that Bibi Netanyahu refuses to make any unilateral concessions and won’t even encourage the resumption of peace talks or hope for a two-state solution until the Palestinians make unilateral concessions of their own.   Just think about it – the party with the power (Israel) won’t talk peace until the party without the power (the Palestinians) offers tangible olive branches.   Try that the next time you have power and want concessions from someone who doesn’t.   Push them around a while, don’t give an inch, and then start making demands.  See how well that works.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is the attitude on the street.  Increasingly, Israelis are simply giving up on a two-state solution.  Because they don’t the trust the Palestinians, they view any concessions that Israel might make as mere security risks.   Essentially, they look at the status quo, where millions of Palestinians are effectively stateless and living under Israeli control, as the best of all possible worlds, the key being the word “possible.”  In other words, increasingly, Israelis are reconciling themselves to a permanent one-state solution and voting for politicians like Netanyahu to deliver it to them.

Believe me, I fully appreciate that as partners for peace go, the Palestinians aren’t exactly ideal.  I fully appreciate that to Palestinians, the idea of a two-state solution is something that is widely detested and at best grudgingly tolerated. Worse yet, many Palestinians would support such a “solution” as a mere interim measure – as in, we will concede now, take soon, and demand more later.  I call that the two-stage solution.  And I find it monstrous. 

Nor do I support measures like the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement which singles out Israel, among all the places in the universe, to punish economically.   To me, BDS rests on imposing a double standard and on punishing Jews whenever they act the way gentiles would.  That can’t possibly be a path to peace, let alone justice.

But nor does making unilateral concessions to the Netanyahu government – rewarding that government for acting like bullies who are hell-bent on seizing whatever is left of Palestinian land.  If we as Americans are going to continue to oppose BDS, which for all its problems is at least a non-violent form of resistance, we had better come up with a different strategy.  We had better speak plainly and loudly about how much we loath settlement expansion in the West Bank.  We had better speak out against demanding preconditions from the Palestinians before Israel should have to re-engage in peace talks.  And we had better refrain from making gratuitous concessions to Israel about hotly-disputed issues ... unless of course, we are making gratuitous concessions to the Palestinians of an equal magnitude. 

In short, if the American government wants to be player for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians we had better act like we’re pro-Palestine as well as pro-Israel.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be Israel’s ally.  What it means is that we have an even greater ally in the region than Israel: namely, peace.  It’s time we put her front and center in our concerns.