Vacation Impressions

We just spent a week touring the eastern part of Wisconsin – some of which, despite its proximity to our residence in Madison, we hadn’t visited since our honeymoon, 45 years ago.  It was a wonderful trip.  (I’m our trip planner, and like George Peppard’s fictional John “Hannibal” Smith of the 1980s television series, The A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together.)  Amid a lot of fun and interesting sights and experiences, a few impressions linger. 

Whether it be as a result of the additional federal $300 weekly stimulus payment which just ended in Wisconsin, workers’ fear of contracting COVID, their assumption of new occupations during the pandemic quarantine period, or otherwise, a significant percentage of pre-COVID hospitality workers have not returned to their jobs at northeastern Wisconsin hotels and restaurants.  Hotel housekeeping services are provided upon request rather than as a matter of course.  Restaurant service is a little slower than one would expect in some establishments, abysmal in others.  “We can’t find anyone” was a common plaint, particularly in Door County (for those from outside the Badger State:  that’s the beautiful and heavily-toured part of the Wisconsin that juts northeast into Lake Michigan).  In a tale of dueling mixologists:  in one town, a genial dispenser of spirits bemoaned others’ unwillingness to work; in another, an equally genial bartender opined that the shortage wasn’t for lack of willing workers, but because employers weren’t willing to pay staff what they should.  My general sense was that the proprietors of many of the businesses we visited were eager to pay anything remotely within reason to get additional help.  Whatever its cause, we will soon see whether the hospitality staffing shortage recedes as benefit checks end and more of the vaccine-hesitant get their shots.  If not, it may require a significant shift in expectations for hotel and restaurant patrons in some parts of Wisconsin and the nation.

One of our stops was in the historic, quaint, and decidedly well-to-do town of Cedarburg, just north of Milwaukee.  At one point during the pandemic, the local authorities apparently instituted a mask mandate, but at this point, the town has adopted an honor system.  Almost every shop had a sign such as, “No need to wear a mask if you are vaccinated,” or “Please wear a mask if you are not vaccinated.”  Since TLOML is the shopper and I am simply her escort, it gave me time to chat with sales people about how they had fared when they had in a sense been required to enforce a mask mandate.  One woman told me that Cedarburg “is very closely divided [politically], which made it very difficult for us.”  Another:  “It gave me PTSD.  I actually hated to see customers come through the door.  If they institute another mandate, I’m closing rather than deal with the abuse.”  Another – from a charming, white-haired woman:  “When I asked a well-dressed older man to put a mask on, he screamed at me and called me, ‘A F*****g Nazi.’  My heart was still beating fast an hour after he left.”

Too many of us have lost our sense of decorum.  While former President Donald Trump clearly provided certain personalities the license to act out, they still have to take responsibility for their own behavior.  Although I have a fiery Irish side and have made it difficult for more than one salesperson in my lifetime [sometimes with good reason; sometimes, in retrospect, perhaps not  ;)], I cannot rationalize making a salesperson’s life difficult when anyone with the slightest sense of awareness should understand that the clerk is simply trying to abide by the law.  Anyone that reads these pages is aware that I support vaccine and mask mandates, and seriously question the sense of those that contest them.  Even so, if one is going to get angry about a mandate, go yell at those that imposed it.   

Finally, we have literally traveled Interstate 94 between Madison and Milwaukee hundreds of times.  There are signs along the highway indicating sights to be seen.  We have never exited.  On this trip, we did.

An early stop was Aztalan State Park, a National Historic Landmark depicting an ancient Middle-Mississippian village existing between 1000 and 1300 A.D.  The Aztalans had an advanced culture for the time based on farming with a clear social structure.  It was fascinating.  We recommend it to all in our area.  That said, aside from one gentleman who has made the study of ancient native peoples his hobby, there was nobody else in the park.  We assumed that the lack of people resulted from it being a weekday after school started.  Our companion advised us that he visited the park regularly, and there is rarely much attendance.

Our last stop of the day was Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, the vacation home of the Lunts, which has also been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a married couple, are at the forefront of the American theater pantheon.  Their work spanned four decades from the 1920s to 1960.  Mr. Lunt was born in Genesee Depot, and built – some of it with his own hands; he was a clearly multi-talented guy — an impressive home on 100-acre grounds to which the two repaired each summer.  At their estate they entertained such stage and screen luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier, Katherine Hepburn, Helen Hayes, and Noel Coward.  Mr. Lunt died in 1977, Ms. Fontanne in 1983.  The complex was interesting and certainly worth visiting if one has an interest in American theater history.  Clearly elegant in its day, more than a bit eccentric, now — despite extensive and effective restoration – it is a bit faded, a relic of a former age.  Only two other visitors joined our tour, conducted by two docents, all six of us senior citizens.

The day’s lasting impression:  the Aztalans are long gone.  Despite their impressive culture and community, today only a few archeologists know or care that they were ever here.  The Lunts dominated American stage in a way that perhaps no one else has.  Query how many Americans still recall the couple called “the greatest husband-and-wife team in the history of American theater.”  What it made me realize:  how few of us will make the impression upon our times that the Aztalans and Lunts did; and how even these have faded.

Our youngest grandchild is 2.  If I’m fortunate enough to live another 10 years and if he retains his faculties to a ripe old age and if he remembers me fondly, some vestige of a memory that I was even here might last to 2100.  It is more probable that any meaningful memory of TLOML and me will pass when the last of our children passes.  So it’s important to do what you can, while you can.  Help your loved ones.  In an observation perhaps more relevant for retirees with time and resources than for the younger among us having to deal with the obligations of family and career, a portion of one’s time might best be spent volunteering in one’s community.  But by all means, devote yourself now to what you feel is the most important — for however long now might be. Judging by the dimming legacies of the Aztalans and the Lunts, ultimately only the Almighty will remember that most of us were here.

On Vaccinations and Masking: John Stuart Mill … and Joinville, Brazil

Given the fact that three members of our family studied Political Science during their education regimes, we have a disconcertingly extensive collection of the works of political theorists from Plato to J. D. Vance.  [Given Mr. Vance’s transformation from telling observer to pandering politician, I suspect that being linked to Mr. Vance in the preceding sentence has made Plato cringe in the Hereafter ;)].  The persistent resistance of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers to employ or enable others to institute measures now clearly demonstrated to help limit the spread of COVID-19 – on the ground that it is an encroachment upon someone or other’s freedom – recently caused me to pull out John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay, “On Liberty.”  

Considered by some the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century, Mr. Mill, an Englishman born in 1806 who was among the first members of Parliament to condemn slavery in America and, author of the 1869 essay, “On the Subjection of Women,” among the first to argue for social equality between men and women, is a founding father of the notion that each person should be free to conduct his or her affairs in his or her own way.  “On Liberty” is an ode to individuality.  In it, Mr. Mill waxed eloquent about our need for eccentrics (he did literally talk about eccentricity).  He did not believe that society was advanced by those in the conforming, complacent majority.  Thus, I was curious to see if I could discern, if he was alive today, how he would assess the views of those staunchly opposing mask and/or vaccine mandates on the ground that such constitute an infringement of citizens’ “liberty.”

It didn’t take much guesswork.  Early in “On Liberty,” Mr. Mill wrote:

[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.  That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.  He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.  … [T]he conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one [sic] else.  The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.  In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.  Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.  [Emphasis Added]”

I would venture that given the strong evidence that masking and vaccines have helped check the spread of a deadly disease, Mr. Mill, a Godfather of Liberty, would have no patience with mask and vaccine mandate naysayers.  Some who claim to cling to the libertarian philosophy that Mr. Mill articulated over 150 years ago might still assert that such mandates constitute an infringement of their rights because the science is not completely settled.  Given the data we have, I suspect that at this point such supposed reservations would hold no sway with Mr. Mill.  He was also a scientist who believed that knowledge was derived from experience.  In A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, he wrote in 1843:

“After a general law of nature has been ascertained, men’s minds do not at first acquire a complete facility of familiarly representing to themselves the phenomena of nature … [T]his habit, in the case of newly-discovered relations, comes only by degrees. … But in time … a prolonged habit of arranging phenomena in certain groups, and explaining them by means of certain principles, makes any other arrangement or explanation of these facts be felt as unnatural … [The philosopher’s] real reason for rejecting theories at variance with the true one, is no other than that they clash with his experience … he adopts the true theory because it is self-evident …”

While the vast majority of those opposing vaccine and mask mandates as intrusions on their “freedom” probably have no familiarity with Mr. Mill – not all of us can be this geeky; somebody has to get stuff done – FL Gov. Ron DeSantis (possessing a Yale undergraduate degree and a Harvard law degree) and TX Gov. Greg Abbott (possessing a University of Texas undergraduate degree and a Vanderbilt law degree) should be and presumably are well aware of Mr. Mill’s philosophy and of the careful distinctions he articulated over a century and half ago regarding an individual’s right to liberty.  As they exert all of the powers of their offices against imposition of what are demonstrably the most effective measures for preserving the health of their respective states’ citizens, they are shameless, despicable provocateurs.

On a less ponderous note:  in an early April post, I entered portions of a close friend’s email describing the manner in which he had spoofed a young woman getting her first vaccination shot by suggesting that she would receive the inoculation not in her arm, but rather in a lower bodily area in which we have all received other injections.  [He also indicated that she later indicated by gesture that she did not appreciate his sense of humor when she discovered that he had been pulling her leg (so to speak  ;)].  Now, it turns out that our friend was perhaps not that far afield.  There is a link below to a Washington Post article by our favorite correspondent, “Most everyone gets the coronavirus vaccine in the arm.  Butt this Brazilian city is shooting lower,” in which he reports that in the Brazilian city of Joinville, medical personnel providing injections have elected to wage a rearguard action.  As justification for its bottom-up approach, a city spokesman has cited the Brazilian health ministry’s guidance that for vaccinations such as the COVID inoculation, the body’s ventrogluteal region is one of the “best options” for “alternative administration” of the shot.  In light of this guidance, I suspect all reasonable observers will agree with the Joinville medical community that given the world’s vital need for widespread COVID protection,  any twinges we have about vaccines should be put … behind us.

May you have an enjoyable Labor Day weekend.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/08/27/most-everyone-gets-coronavirus-vaccine-arm-butt-this-brazilian-city-is-shooting-lower/

Rage Surfing

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, March 31, 2016:

“I bring rage out.  I do bring rage out.  I always have.  I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do.”

  • Rage, Bob Woodward, 2020

It is clear that former President Trump is authentically enraged.  Throughout his public life and perhaps throughout his entire life he has genuinely felt disrespected, and what he considers rightly his to have been unfairly taken from him.  It doesn’t matter, in this context, whether such feelings are reasonable; they are sincere.  It enabled him to give voice to a large swath of Americans stung by the scorn of elites who feel that what makes sense to them, what seems fair and right to them, what should be theirs, has been robbed from them by those with ways foreign to them.  Some of their anger (certainly their resentment at the disdain of the elites) – if not Mr. Trump’s — is justified.  That said, our national fabric seems to be wearing dangerously thin because these — even if in many instances, their plight has resulted from an intentional or oblivious failure to adapt to an evolving world — consider themselves to have been dispossessed.  They are … Enraged.

I fear that we are at a perilous point in this country.  I would submit that while Mr. Trump made the rage socially acceptable, displayed a unique ability to exploit and exacerbate it, and for a while was arguably able to manage it, neither he nor anyone else any longer controls it.  One frequently hears commentators opine that if Mr. Trump would admit the truth about this or that, more aggressively tout COVID vaccines, etc., etc., our social conditions in various areas would improve.  I disagree.  Mr. Trump now appears to me more than a bit spent; he seems to be struggling to maintain his position as titular head of the Enraged to whom he gave license (I recently saw them referred to as, “Trumplicans” – an apt moniker.  I intend to use it.)  The former president is renowned for his ability to “read a room”; I suspect that he realizes that his influence is waning better than bootlicking Republican officials or the talking heads do.  Although he can justifiably claim credit for the development of life-saving COVID vaccines during his presidency, he gives at most tepid support to inoculation efforts because he fears losing the support of the anti-vaxxers.  He’s no longer leading the Enraged; he’s trying to stay in step with them.  Objective observers can appropriately decry Fox News’ despicable failure to accurately cover the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on the Capitol riot, the Coronavirus, and the value of the COVID vaccines; however, when Fox reports a fact that the Enraged don’t like – for example, (accurately) calling Arizona for President Joe Biden on election night – the Enraged don’t believe Fox but instead abandon it for outlets that will tell them what they want to hear.  The majority of Republican officials can be rightly castigated for spinning fabrications that they for the most part must recognize to be poppycock; I would venture that they, manifestly more desirous of retaining power than abiding by their oaths of office, realize that if they tell the truth, the Enraged will simply replace them with others who will support their reality.  Driving through the middle of Wisconsin this past weekend – six months after President Joe Biden’s inauguration — I saw a huge Trump banner flying above a peaceful corn field.  It used to be that a losing presidential candidate’s banners were quickly dismantled by his disappointed supporters.  Trumplicans are not only enraged … they are defiant

We have always had, and will always have, fringe elements.  What appears alarmingly clear is that at least at this point, a disconcertingly significant segment of our electorate will not accept truth.   One need merely note that 60 judges and innumerable state election officials, many of them Republican, found no merit in Mr. Trump’s electoral challenges in order to understand that he lost the election.  One need merely note the correlation between states’ vaccination rates and where COVID is again raging in order to recognize the effectiveness of COVID vaccines.  One need merely believe one’s own eyes in order to acknowledge that there was a seditious and murderous attack on our Capitol on January 6 undertaken by Mr. Trump’s supporters.  The Enraged are currently intentionally and wantonly choosing to ignore truth easily discerned.

Rather than leading a movement, I would submit that most of those courting Trumplicans are merely surfing the rage.  Some, such as U.S. WI Sen. Ron Johnson, U.S. FL Rep. Matt Gaetz, and U.S. GA Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, are enthusiastically leaning into it (although I concede that these may be sufficiently unbalanced to actually believe what they are spouting).  Some, such as U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are shamelessly attempting to stay atop it to further their own ambition.  Some, such as Fox News, and, ironically, Mr. Trump himself, are attempting to stay sufficiently abreast of it to maintain their relevance.  Still others, such as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are attempting to simply ride it out.

Rather a distressing picture.  That said, a leaderless cult is more easily divided and quieted; if Mr. Trump’s influence is indeed dissipating, as yet no demagogue combining his rage and animal magnetism has appeared to seize his mantle.  We can only hope that enough of the Enraged can be cajoled into accepting truth soon enough for us to maintain a viable democracy.

On the Catholic Bishops’ Vote and the Unsolvable Dilemma

As all who care are aware, last month the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted by a large margin to – in the USCCB’s own words – “… task [its] Committee on Doctrine to move forward with the drafting of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.”  In the Catholic faith, under the doctrine of “Transubstantiation,” the whole substance of bread and wine are changed into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus (the “Eucharist” or “Communion”) when consecrated by the priest during the Mass.  The words describing the Doctrine Committee’s assignment, innocuous in and of themselves, were widely interpreted as an initiative by conservative Catholic bishops to issue a statement disfavoring the provision of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians such as President Joe Biden.  The USCCB’s action stirred immediate and intense controversy, and apparently caused the body to issue a qualification that “There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians.”  Even so, American Bishops’ overwhelming support for creating a document which might at least impliedly cast disapprobation upon pro-choice Catholic politicians underscores the marked rift between Catholic liberals and conservatives that has developed in the U.S. Catholic Church.

That life begins at conception is one of the core tenets of the Christian faith.  Even the fiercest pro-choice advocates will presumably acknowledge that if one accepts the premise that the fetus is indeed a person, the conclusion that abortion is murder is inescapable. No one can deny the emotional force, the hope, the prayer that drives a couple yearning to have a child and the joy that accompanies their earliest awareness that a baby is in the mother’s womb; it makes one wonder why the Almighty grants conception to some who have no wish for it, while withholding the blessing from others so desperately seeking it.

I nonetheless find the seeming thrust of USCCB’s initiative deeply troubling both as a Catholic, and as an American.  From a personal standpoint, I, like the President, have been a practicing Catholic my entire life.  I, and I assume the President, believe that life begins at conception.  My spouse and I, and I assume the President and Mrs. Biden, would not have aborted a fetus.  It accordingly appears to me that despite the fact that I have tried for close to seven decades – while admittedly frequently failing — to be a faithful Catholic, any disapprobation that the majority of American Catholic officialdom may, even by implication, level at Mr. Biden is also directed at me, given my support for his candidacy against a materialist with notable fascist tendencies who, notwithstanding his purported “pro-life” stance, enthusiastically incites false and hateful discord among our people and intentionally implemented demonstrably inhumane border policies while in office.

I will always believe that the best way forward for our nation is through accommodation of competing positions held in good faith (i.e., not espoused for political or other self-interest).  Abortion is the one issue that seems to me by its very nature to defy compromise between Americans sincerely holding conflicting views. That said, I would submit that Christians’ belief that life begins at conception — no matter how fervently held — is, inherently, no more (or less) than a matter of Faith.  Many scientists reject the notion that the few cells existing upon and for a period following conception constitute “life.”  I claim no expertise in other religions, but understand that neither Jewish nor Islamic scholars consider life to begin at conception, and that these Faiths do not prohibit abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.  There are certainly millions of Americans of other or no faiths who reject the notion that life obtains either at conception or for a period thereafter.  Justice Harry Blackmun, in Roe v. Wade, observed, “It is undisputed [i.e., even those defending the Texas criminal abortion statutes at issue in Roe conceded] that, at common law, abortion performed before ‘quickening’ – the first recognizable movement of the fetus in utero, appearing usually from the 16th to the 18th week of pregnancy – was not an indictable offense. …  In this country, the law in effect in all but a few States until mid-19th century was the preexisting English common law.”  [Note to the Originalists now sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court.  ;)].  Notwithstanding more recent holdings arguably designed to limit abortion rights, the Supreme Court held in Roe and has maintained since that a woman has the constitutional right to abort a fetus.  It is Mr. Biden’s duty as President to protect women’s constitutional rights as defined by the Supreme Court and to not impose his personal faith beliefs on the American people – the majority of whom, if polls are to be believed, favor women’s right to early term abortions. 

Despite its backtrack, there is no little irony in the USCCB’s apparent intent to pressure Mr. Biden, given the reassurance that then-Democratic Presidential candidate U.S. MA Sen. John F. Kennedy delivered in September, 1960, to a conference of Protestant Ministers fearful of the influence that the Vatican might seek to assert on a Catholic president:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no … minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote …  I believe in an America … where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials …. I want a chief executive … whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation. … Whatever issue may come before me as president … I will make my decision … in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

One of our children remarked to me recently that while our family was being raised, there was much greater emphasis in our household on our Catholic faith than there was on our identity as American citizens.  Despite my many failings, I hopefully still place much greater weight on what I believe the Almighty expects of me than I do upon my responsibilities as an American.  Even so, I have not been able to avoid the conclusion that in a diverse secular civil society pledged to separate the affairs of church and state, I should accept the fact that my religious beliefs regarding abortion are not shared by a substantial segment of my fellow citizens.  I accordingly cannot make the abortion issue my overriding civic focus. I fear that any attempts by American Catholic hierarchy to impose its views upon the nation generally will ultimately severely undermine the Church’s mission in the United States. 

Although Mr. Kennedy’s words obviously no longer resonate with U.S. Catholic officialdom, I would venture that the following passage offers ample ground for reflection – perhaps providing solace, perhaps evoking despair — for an American Catholic who seeks in good conscience to differentiate between faith and civic responsibilities:

[Then the Pharisees said,] ‘Tell us, then, what is your opinion:  Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?’  … Jesus said, ‘… Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’  Then they handed him the Roman coin.  He said to them, ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’  They replied, ‘Caesar’s.’  At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’

Mt. 22: 17 – 21

On Lowering Your Hands

As one’s time in retirement extends, more and more friends retire; how one best approaches retirement is a topic that comes up from time to time.  This seems a suitable time for this note, since for the vast majority of my life, mid-summer meant … baseball.

In the fall of 1967, three teams were locked in a tight race for the American League pennant:  the Minnesota Twins, the Detroit Tigers, and the Boston Red Sox.  Boston wasn’t intimidating across the board, but where it was stong, its quality was superior:  Starting Pitcher Jim Lonborg, and most importantly, unquestionably the world’s best baseball player that year:  Leftfielder Carl Yastrzemski, then 28 (hereinafter, not “Mr. Yastrzemski,” but merely, “Yaz”).  After finishing ninth in a 10-team circuit the preceding season, the Red Sox bested the Twins and the Tigers to win the pennant by a single game (before the current playoff era) primarily because Yaz seemingly hit a home run to win a game in the late innings every day down the stretch.  I have the warmest memories of the Brewers’ Robin Yount’s 1982 MVP season, and concede that my knowledge of baseball deeds is dated, but I can’t name any player who so single-handedly brought his team a pennant as Yaz did in 1967.  He was the season’s American League Most Valuable Player and posted the last Triple Crown (combining the League’s highest Batting Average, Home Run and Runs Batted In totals) Major League Baseball would see … for 45 years.

A left-handed hitter, Yaz had a distinctive batting stance (for those more attuned to the current era, a stance somewhat similar to the Brewers’ recently-retired Ryan Braun):  he would stand in the batter’s box grasping the bat with hands held highhelmet-or-higher high – and from that position, without the assistance of steroids, would bring the bat through the strike zone with unnerving velocity to spray hits across the field and over the fence.  Think about the reflexes required to bring a bat through the strike zone from that high against a 90+-mile-an-hour fastball.  And even in those days, baseball had great fireballers – the best pitcher I’ve ever seen, Sandy Koufax, had just retired, and Bob Gibson, he of the mean heater, was in his prime.  [In those days, no statisticians were documenting pitch speed with radar guns   ;)].

The Red Sox lost the World Series in 7 games to the St. Louis Cardinals, although Yaz hit .400 with 3 home runs and 5 RBI.

Although he never again had – nor for decades, did anyone else have – as mighty a single season as he did in 1967, Yaz remained a force for pitchers to reckon with until he retired in 1983.  Even so, as the seasons passed, his batting stance changed; he kept lowering his hands.  When asked about it, he was candid:  his reflexes were slowing.  He kept lowering the bat to a position from which he could still react and get the bat through the hitting zone against baseball’s best.  He had become more selective about the pitches he went after.  Had he continued with his 1967 approach, he would not have been around to contribute to another decade and a half’s worth of Red Sox teams. 

We seniors are overwhelmed by a blizzard of data and opinion about how to “age gracefully.”  Some of the commentary is helpful, some not.  I would submit that one could do worse than to follow Yaz’s example:  be selective about where you devote your energy; and from time to time assess when, and by how much, you need to lower your hands to stay in the game. 

On Infrastructure and the Art of the Possible: a Correction

A good friend kindly pointed out to me that I incorrectly indicated in this post that the infrastructure proposal currently being put forth by the bipartisan Senate group including U.S. WV Sen. Joe Manchin and U.S. UT Sen. Mitt Romney is valued at approximately $IB ($billion), when the package is in fact valued at approximately $1T ($trillion).  I appreciate his calling my attention to the oversight; apparently it is true, as apocryphally attributed to the late U.S. IL Sen. Everett Dirksen (whose gravelly voice I fondly remember from my youth):  “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”  😉    

On Cheney for President

“Expelling Liz Cheney from leadership won’t gain the GOP one additional voter, but it will cost us quite a few.”

  • Tweet by U.S. UT Sen. Mitt Romney, May 10, 2021

Let’s put aside for the moment what matters:  our continuing existential threat arising from the dumbfounding choice by the majority of organizational Republicans nationwide to deny truth and seek in various ways to undermine democracy in order to run headlong into the embrace of former President Donald Trump and Trumpism – a movement which, as I have previously indicated in these pages, I consider a devolutionary step toward fascism.  Instead, let’s consider the possible political ramifications of U.S. House of Representatives Republicans’ recent expulsion of U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney from their leadership in the context of the 2024 presidential race.

I am now an admirer of Rep. Cheney.  If reports I’ve seen are accurate, she and I probably have significant substantive domestic policy differences.  Furthermore, as far as I know, she has never separated herself from the Bush Administration’s 2003 decision to invade Iraq – a decision driven in major part by her father, former Vice President Richard Cheney – which I consider to be the worst American policy mistake in the last 50 years.  I don’t care.  What matters is where we are today.  She clearly believes that being an American comes before either political party affiliation or attempting to cling to power for power’s sake, so in this most meaningful regard, she has my complete support (as does Sen. Romney and a few other Republicans).

In their haste to solidify the allegiance of the lowest and/or most credulous elements of their base by clinging to the demonstrable myths that Mr. Trump actually won the election and that there was no Trump-inspired insurrection last January 6, Republican party leadership has apparently accepted the notion that it can win (albeit perhaps through chicanery) the presidency and elections in swing areas without the support of the independents and conservatives who value truth and reality.  However, surveys show that over 25% of Republicans and over 60% of Independents opposed Ms. Cheney’s removal from Congressional Republican leadership.  These are seemingly ominous portents for Republicans.  Organizational Republicans are apparently calculating that enough politically center/right Americans will be sufficiently offended by President Joe Biden or some aspect of the Democratic agenda that they will be able to look in the mirror and say, “I am willing to vote for a candidate who I know is espousing a lie about the 2020 presidential election.  I am willing to vote for a candidate who I know rationalizes an insurrection.”  I think – I hope — it’s a bad bet.

Although the Founding Fathers envisioned the legislative branch – the Congress – as the primary protector of our democracy against any potential encroachment by the executive branch – the president — it is clear that at the present time, the vitality of our system of government rests almost entirely upon the character of the president.  I hope that for the good of the country, Ms. Cheney runs for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2024.  It’s hard to imagine her winning the nomination (although she might do well in the early primaries if she was the only anti-Trump candidate), but her candidacy would force the Republican field to take stands on uncomfortable general election questions regarding Mr. Trump (assuming he’s not a candidate himself):  Do you believe that Joe Biden legally won the 2020 election?  Do you agree that it was overwhelmingly Trump supporters that invaded the Capitol on January 6, 2021?  Do you believe that Mr. Trump played a significant role in inciting the insurrection?  Do you condemn any action by any state legislature to override a state’s majority vote?  Do you agree that Congress should not accept the Electoral College votes of any state in which its legislature has overridden the state’s majority vote, even if the action benefits you?  Requiring the Republican field to face these types of questions would potentially create a split among the Republican electorate that would be very difficult to mend for the general election.  I would submit that the Republican disarray that Ms. Cheney could cause by mounting a presidential campaign is the most patriotic step she could take.  In the current environment, it would certainly be a courageous step undeniably involving an element of physical danger.

In exiling Rep. Ms. Cheney from Republican Congressional leadership, I would suggest that in addition to turning its back on the truth, Republican leadership may have made a pivotal political mistake.  Ms. Cheney is not U.S. NE Sen. Ben Sasse, or U.S. IL Rep. Adam Kinzinger, or even, at this stage in his career, Mr. Romney.  Whether or not she retains her Congressional seat in the 2022 election, she has the marquee name, the gravitas, and now the record to command as much free media in a presidential run as any candidate could ask for.  If Ms. Cheney was to launch such an effort, it might well ultimately cause Republicans to ruefully recall the political wisdom of former President Lyndon Johnson, who, when asked why he did not replace the then-Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, famously replied:  “Better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent, pissing in.”

A Father’s Pride

I have never met, nor will ever meet, Richard Cheney.  There is no doubt that we strongly disagree regarding the wisdom of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and whether its aftermath strengthened or weakened America.  That said, as last night I watched Mr. Cheney’s daughter, U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney, speak on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, as a father I was confident that Mr. Cheney – a former White House Chief of Staff, a former U.S. Representative for the State of Wyoming, a former United States Secretary of Defense, a former Vice President of the United States — considered her stand his proudest moment.

We will never see more important words spoken in the defense of the United States of America.  A link to Ms. Cheney’s remarks appears below.     

A Couple of COVID Notes

Two unrelated notes pertaining to the pandemic:

I’m not sure how widely know this is — it has been reported by a number of news outlets – but those Americans who turned 60 in 2020 face an adverse, and potentially significantly adverse, Coronavirus-related reduction in their lifetime Social Security benefits if Congress fails to enact a remedy in 2021.  The potential shortfall arises from the manner in which Social Security calculates recipients’ benefits, which is based on the average wages of all workers in the year in which they turn 60.  Average wages fell notably from 2019 to 2020 due to the COVID-induced recession.  It is well worth recording on these pages since several that read these posts were born in 1960. 

This issue could arguably have been rectified as part of the recent COVID relief package, but wasn’t.  Members of Congress are aware of this impending “notch” in benefits, and there appears to be bipartisan support for fixing it; a couple of bills have been introduced to alleviate the irregularity.  That said, this is a problem deserving immediate attention; those that turned 60 in 2020 will be eligible to start claiming benefits as they hit age 62 during 2022, and at that point, it will seemingly become more difficult to unscramble the egg.  The links below are to articles, now spanning almost a year, calling attention to the issue.  One of the pieces reports that those turning 60 in 2009 faced a similar “notch” due to the Great Recession that was never addressed.

https://www.prweb.com/releases/people_born_in_1960_face_permanent_social_security_benefit_reductions_says_the_senior_citizens_league/prweb17706617.htm

https://www.aarp.org/retirement/social-security/info-2020/pandemic-impacts-1960-birth-year-benefits.html

https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/05/some-retirees-social-security-benefits-could-dip-unless-congress-acts.html

Separately:  all who care are aware that the average weekly number of Coronavirus vaccines being administered across America is beginning to decline.  Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran an account, “Officials Push to Encourage Shots,” which reported that nonprofit sources project that the United States’ supply of vaccines will exceed demand within the next month.  We are apparently yet reasonably far from achieving herd immunity.  Public health officials across the country are now devising programs on vaccine education to overcome the hesitancy of some citizens to get the shots and on making it more convenient for some population segments – not only those facing employment, transportation, or other barriers, but those whom the article refers to as “unmotivated” — to become vaccinated.  It was presumably to these “unmotivated” that an Alabama health official was referring when described in the article as declaring that he is ready to get down on his knees and beg residents to get shots.

The programs that these health professionals are initiating are obviously vital, and all efforts should be undertaken and no expense spared to get vaccinated those who truly seek the vaccine but are constrained by barriers beyond their control.  That said, there are people dying across the globe – e.g., India is on the brink of collapse, and Brazil remains in chaos — that would do whatever was within their power to obtain protection if vaccinations were available to them.  While being mindful that we need to maintain sufficient production and supply to provide boosters to vaccinated Americans if, as Pfizer has already suggested, such might be necessary, I would favor an Administration announcement on May 1 that starting August 1 – after all Americans wishing to be vaccinated will have had at least ten weeks to receive readily-available shots — the United States will start to divert its vaccine supply and priorities from the United States to other countries in need, and that there will no longer be a vaccine availability guarantee or federal funding available to vaccinate those Americans who had not already been vaccinated.

A suggestion born of exasperation with obstinacy?  Clearly.  Even so:  what would you wager that if currently-unvaccinated Americans believed that the Administration meant what it said — that indeed, as of a certain deadline, they couldn’t be sure of getting vaccinated even if they wanted to — another 10% to 20% of our people (which, according to the Wall Street Journal article, health experts believe would put us pretty close to herd immunity) wouldn’t overcome their recalcitrance and find a way to get their shots?

One Season Following Another

On a particularly cold Saturday morning in January, 1990, our two sons and I were returning home from an errand.  Our oldest, then 9, was in the front passenger seat; our youngest, then 4, was safely – at least by the standards of the day – strapped in a back seat.  Our oldest has always thought long term; even then, he and I were casually discussing when he would someday go away to college. 

We got home; our oldest went into the house; I came around to get his brother out of the back seat.  Our youngest looked up at me, and said, “I don’t have to leave, do I?” 

Faced with that question from a small one, you respond even as you know that things will change:  “No, son.  You never have to leave.  You can always stay here with Mom and me.”

Our son — whom I assured on that long-ago day that he never had to leave home – is now based in Brazil.  A COVID silver lining for his parents:  he and our daughter-in-law just spent the better part of a month with us while they received their two-shot COVID vaccinations.  While all are aware of the stresses families face when economic difficulties require adults to rejoin their childhood households, the pleasure of having one’s adult child return home for an extended stay without such pressure cannot be adequately described. 

As we settled into a routine, our Cariocas (the Brazilian term for residents of Rio de Janeiro) at first shivered in the chill of Wisconsin’s early spring, then acclimated … at least to an extent.  Our son took our daughter-in-law around the neighborhood, which it must be conceded still retains more than a passing resemblance to the Cleavers’ 1950s TV neighborhood.  After one of their walks, he brought home an old baseball he had found in a field near his grade school.  We played catch on a couple of occasions [our boys could fling the ol’ pill around a lot longer than I could; inasmuch as I had literally not picked up a baseball in over 20 years  and given my vintage, I quickly developed “Fauci Arm”  ;)].

The two worked throughout their visit; TLOML and I found it entertaining to watch the Rio de Janeiro Bureau Chief of a major news outlet provide insights on the chaotic state of Brazil’s politics and its COVID response in televised interviews against the backdrop of one of the walls of his boyhood bedroom. Our daughter-in-law maintains an Instagram site through which she provides enticing plant-based recipes to thousands of Spanish speakers throughout the Americas; as she posted her creations, our kitchen was beamed across the world [making us particularly glad we had remodeled a few years back  ;)].  [A number of her followers were intrigued by life in a Midwestern American neighborhood; others inquired as to how her decidedly carnivorous father-in-law was enjoying her vegan dishes.  I could assure them that each was, indeed, magnifico : )].

Vaccinated, our son and daughter-in-law have now returned to their life in Rio.  Although we have been empty-nesters for over 15 years, the house is and for a while will be empty, and silent.  Even so, we have mostly felt the joy and warmth of a great visit as we have moved furniture back to normal spots, reshelved books, and returned the lawn games to their accustomed places.  Where my pang came:  picking up the baseball gloves and the found baseball.  For whatever the reason, my immediate association was to a song from TLOML’s favorite musical, Fiddler on the Roof.  A part of one of its verses seemed the appropriate title for this note.

That said, I will venture that our vaccinations and the visit have made us ready to re-enter our lives.  As recently as this week, we have heard a medical professional opine that if one has been fully vaccinated, the primary obstacle to returning to normal pursuits is psychological – reticence born of a year of protective behaviors — not physical.  A number of those that follow these pages are, like us, of retirement age; I would submit that once one has become fully vaccinated, being too reclusive will result in the unnecessary forfeit of irretrievable life space.  Also, we can’t expect President Biden to run the country for too long without the benefit of our guidance  ;). 

The seasons have changed. Let’s go.