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  He’s been replaced by a President who said “I love the poorly educated,” and could well have added, “and I hate newspapers.”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.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Ruminations about Our Brand Spanking New “Tax Cut” Prospects

I’m picturing a 60 year-old man from Great Falls, Virginia who hardly ever worked a day in his life.  Still, he’s lived very well – in the lap of luxury, to be frank – because his daddy made bank and has always been generous and kind when it comes to Junior.   Sadly, his father is gravely ill.  The doctors don’t think he’ll survive more than a few months.    Junior is distraught because he understandably loves his daddy.  Fortunately, Junior at least can take solace in the fact that when daddy passes away, he’ll be able to provide his only child with his entire estate, worth roughly $460 million, secure in the knowledge that Uncle Sam won’t be getting his itchy fingers on a nickel.  Otherwise, Junior could lose well over $100 million in taxes, which is maddening given that Senior already has had to pay taxes to amass that fortune to begin with.

There are some members of America’s ruling party who empathize with this family for reasons beyond the fact that the patriarch is dying.   They’ve identified a fundamental injustice in the current tax code – a so-called “double taxation” problem, which arises from the fact that our most successful people are taxed on the income they earn and taxed again on that same income when they pass away.  In their mind, whether Junior “earned” the additional $460 million he’s about to acquire is no more relevant than whether Junior “needs” all that money.  Senior earned it, paid taxes on it already, and has the God-given right to do with it what he pleases.  Full stop.

There are other members of America’s ruling party who aren’t so concerned about the justice issue here; they look at this topic from a utilitarian standpoint.  For these folks, the more wealth people like Senior or Junior amass, the better our economy will perform.  When such individuals receive a tax break, they’d go out and about and spend the money, thereby greasing the wheels of our economy.  That way, everyone benefits!  By contrast, if a tax break were to go to Senior’s former secretary, or his landscapist, or the Uber driver who takes Junior to the airport whenever he felt like piloting the family plane to Manhattan or Bermuda, they’d treat this new money as “savings” and give it to some conservative banker or broker.  He’d likely invest it in some uninspiring way that isn’t nearly as productive for the economy.  According to this argument, if only Robin Hood was born today and had a little honest-to-God practical knowledge about economics, he would take from the middle class and give to the rich.  And he’d do it precisely because in the long run, that would be in the best interests of the middle class and the poor.   

Do those arguments leave you cold?  Do you find them alienating?  Are you troubled by the fact that at the same time Junior is about to get a huge economic bonus, millions of other less affluent folks are about to see their taxes go up or their benefits go down?   Do you think that maybe, just maybe, a tax law that will dramatically redistribute wealth from the have-nots to the haves is at least worthy of a substantial national debate before it is passed so that the American public can digest and weigh in on what is being proposed? 

If so, you’re probably a Democrat like me.  Been one all my life.  I remember a time when the party had leaders with fire who would never have watched a massive tax bill like this one get passed without a fight.  I’m thinking of someone like Bobby Kennedy.   What would he have thought if he saw the way his party’s leaders have dealt with the GOP tax bills during the past several weeks?   Chris Matthews, who recently wrote a book about RFK, has been peddling the theory that the Democrats secretly support this legislation because (a) their donors will also be enriched by it and (b) they could use it to run against the GOP next fall.  I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t agree with Matthews.  But I can’t deny that the Democrats’ response to this bizarre tax bill has been so muted and incoherent that when Matthews spews that sort of cynicism, it absolutely does pass the laugh test. 

So what kind of choice are we left with today, my friends?  A ruling party that seems hell bent on redistributing wealth to the point where even a Dickensian world would look egalitarian by comparison.   Or an opposition party that would rather just shake their heads at their nutty neighbors across the aisle and hope that this mess can be over soon.  Either way, I’m feeling pretty “unrepresented” this morning.    

Today, there are 242 Democrats (or Democratic-leaning Independents) in Congress.  Not a single one voted for one of the tax-reform bills that have been floating around Capitol Hill.   By contrast, over 90% of the GOP legislators voted for it.  And this is why I keep voting Democrat.

But I have to say, I also can’t think of a single Democratic legislator who has captivated the media or the public with arguments as to why this tax reform legislation is so shockingly bad.   In other words, I can’t think of a single Democratic legislator who has become the face of the opposition.   Somehow, this whole topic of tax reform is being largely ignored – by the media, the politicians, even the grass roots -- while the Republicans are all sprinting toward the finish line with big fat cigars in their mouths.  

Soon, we will all be getting dramatic economic-redistribution legislation for Christmas.  But none of us will have the benefit of state-of-the-art projections about the likely consequences of this gift. 

What we will know is simply overarching generalizations:

-- at a time when the nation could be rebuilding its infrastructure, it will instead be getting even deeper into debt;
-- residents of states that voted against the ruling party will fare disproportionately worse than Red State residents;
-- the very rich will get richer and the poor/middle class will be in jeopardy; and
-- the people we Dems have entrusted to protect us from such legislation appear to be acknowledging that they have no more power than the rest of us, so what’s the use of fighting about any of this?    

Somehow, I feel like the guy who was listening to Nero fiddle.  I’m not enjoying the tune.  Are you?