Things That Make You Go, “HMMM.”

I’m channeling my inner Arsenio Hall.

Make no mistake:  I haven’t lost sight of the fact that President Joe Biden, by his willingness to run for the most challenging office in the world at an age more than a decade older than most people – including me — retire, showed a level of selflessness and patriotism we’ve rarely seen in our public officials in recent years.  Mr. Biden is a good man.  I remain thrilled that he is in the White House.  That said, for an Administration whose primary foreign policy pledge has been closer cooperation with allies, it’s been Amateur Hour.

Put aside whether our decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was correct; I don’t think so; many do.  It was Mr. Biden’s call; he’s the President of the United States.  What is becoming apparent is that the allies who got embroiled in the Middle East quagmire 20 years ago because of a grotesquely misguided series of decisions by former President George W. Bush felt inadequately consulted and little considered by our decision to so abruptly withdraw.  This seems an unnecessary error in allied relations.

As I’ve already lamented in these pages, it was pretty darn clear to anyone who read any credible news accounts on Taliban activity in Afghanistan during 2020 and 2021 that it was pretty darn likely that Afghanistan was going to fall to the Taliban almost the minute we withdrew.  In fact, it fell to the Taliban before we withdrew, and it was only under its auspices that we were able to get a lot of Americans and our collaborators out.  To not anticipate that such a precipitous Taliban takeover was at least a possibility, and plan for it, I find a disconcerting oversight on the part of the Administration’s foreign policy team.

Perhaps the most glaring:  The grievous insult to France recently perpetrated by the announcement of our AUKUS arrangement with Australia and the United Kingdom.  I think the arrangement itself – providing nuclear-powered submarines to Australia to help it patrol waters in which China has been increasingly aggressive – is exactly the type of step we need to be taking as we adjust our foreign policy to fit current realities.  That said, anybody with a shred of sense – and Mr. Biden’s foreign policy team is supposed to be comprised of professionals – should have seen that in not being advised and mollified in some fashion before it was announced that they were losing a $60 billion submarine contract with the Australians, the French would feel outraged and humiliated.  French President Emmanuel Macron, in tight political competition with right wing political groups sympathetic to Russia that we do not want to see take control of France, was belittled.   It is reported that Biden Administration National Security Advisor Jake Sherman was aware of all of the AUKUS machinations as they were occurring.  Whether he was or not, this was a stunning unforced blunder.

In a separate vein, I am mystified by Congressional Progressives’ indications that they will withhold their support from the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package already passed in the Senate unless Democrats also pass most or all of the $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” package currently under their consideration.  Since no Republican support is expected for the human infrastructure package, its passage it will require the support of all Senate Democrats and virtually all House Democrats, moderates as well as Progressives.  If I thought that Progressives’ thundering was merely posturing, it wouldn’t bother me; as it is, I am concerned that some of the self-righteous among them may actually be serious.  If so, I would suggest that their harrumphing is akin to someone who threatens to jump off a roof unless others do what he wants.  Progressives should take whatever they can get on human infrastructure, and be satisfied.  It seems that too many continue to be oblivious that the majority of our citizenry – not only Republicans, but moderate Democrats and many Independents (including me) — have misgivings about the scope and extent of some of their policy aims; and that while their seats are mostly not imperiled by seeking the moon, many moderate Democrats’ seats will be at risk if the party is seen as acting too rashly, and the Democrats could end up forfeiting control of Congress to Republicans.  What will happen to their priorities then?  If Progressives indeed scuttle a bipartisan infrastructure bill that has widespread public support because they can’t get a number of initiatives that a significant segment of our people, correctly or incorrectly, have sincere question about, they deserve their fate.

Unless I’ve missed it, the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients remains uncertain as parties’ Congressional delegations wrangle over wider immigration reform.  For years, there has been widespread support, including among the Republican electorate, for granting these young(er) people, who were brought here illegally in their youth, a path to permanent legal status.  I believe that the House of Representatives has already passed a measure to safeguard DACA recipients.  Every minute Democratic Senate leadership delays, a law becomes more difficult, since immigration will undoubtedly be a contentious issue in the 2022 campaign.  I don’t understand why that leadership doesn’t put a simple bill on the Senate floor, requiring all Senators to vote, designed to secure legal status for these blameless individuals.  Either the DACA recipients get protection or the Democrats get an emotive issue.  My guess:  it would pass.

Finally, a good friend asked me recently why I haven’t posted on the Packers.  I never watch preseason games, and I missed the 38-3 debacle while we were vacationing, so my first look at the team was last Monday night’s victory over the Detroit Lions.  Green Bay seemed a long way from a Super Bowl champion to me.  Granting that one of its primary rushing threats, Za’Darius Smith, was absent, the defense was underwhelming, and I don’t think that the team can maintain a championship offense with only meaningful production from Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Running Back Aaron Jones (who will tire without the assistance of his former backup, Jamaal Williams), and Wide Receiver Davante Adams.  Hopefully, I’ll prove to be sadly mistaken.  Either way, Packer games will provide a wonderful distraction from the other issues we face.

Channeling my inner Mr. Hall was a good way to end the week  ;).  Have a nice weekend.

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.

A Summer Town Hall

We have spent a week in central Wisconsin virtually every August for more than 30 years.  At this time of year, I would submit that the weather in this part of this state is unsurpassed.  Although our political views and those of many of the Wisconsinites that live north of us have diverged ever more widely over the decades, such differences are easily avoided when all can share lakes, sun, and refreshers in congenial – and numerous 😉 – watering holes.

That said, we recently happened upon a town hall meeting conducted on a very pleasant day by a Republican Wisconsin Congressman in the park pavilion of a small community.  The gathering provided insight into both Republican political messaging and the startlingly different concerns of citizens sharing the same state and nation.

The format was customary:  the Congressman spoke first, followed by a question-and-answer period.  Although he is a member of a House committee responsible for immigration issues, I was nonetheless surprised to see how much time and emphasis was placed on border issues.  The Representative made notable reference to the drugs coming across the border, leaving the incorrect impression while not specifically stating that a significant number of those crossing the border are drug runners.  Fear of illegals played well with the crowd, and is clearly a theme that Republicans intend to use with their base nationwide.  What surprised me a bit was how deeply the message seemed to resonate in central Wisconsin.  This is an area of a northern state hardly overrun with illegal aliens.  What’s more, TLOML, whose family had a cottage in the area in the 1950s and 1960s, well recalls Mexican migrants who picked pickles here in those years in sufficient numbers to support Spanish food markets and Spanish movie nights.  Nevertheless, the attendees at the town hall – who, judging by their appearance, are old enough to remember those days of migrant labor – nevertheless seemed suitably worried about the prospect of brown peril at our southern border.  The Congressman was asked whether any of the illegals being processed by the Biden Administration came north, and he said they did, but — clearly experiencing a pang of candor — couldn’t bring himself to claim that he was aware of any illegals processed by the Biden Administration who had come to Wisconsin

The Congressman also mentioned in passing that there was a rumor that the Biden Administration supported teaching “Critical Race Theory” (a teaching based on the premise that race is a social construct) in public schools (although the Administration has specifically separated itself from the concept), stated that he opposed it, and declared that America was “not a racist society,” citing a Hmong family he knew that had made a good life in Wisconsin.  The total number of African Americans we have seen in our decades of coming to the area can be counted on the fingers of both hands.  Issues of African American depravation in Wisconsin’s two major metro areas are not part of the central Wisconsin experience.  The Representative’s declarations nonetheless earned appreciative nods from the crowd.  He observed that Democrats want to defund the police – which, admittedly, some do – while failing to mention that President Joe Biden unequivocally opposes defunding the police. 

At the same time, the Congressman avoided an overtly partisan tone when discussing the President – unlike the contentious approach of better-know Republicans playing for the camera.  Faced with a direct question regarding the legality of the 2020 presidential election, and while expressing some vague reservations about voting in Milwaukee County, he did not claim that either the Wisconsin or federal election was stolen from former President Donald Trump (clearly the sentiment of the questioner).  While expressing concerns about how the Administration’s and Congressional Democrats’ spending proposals could add to inflation – misgivings I share – he was careful to place a fair part of his inflation concern at the foot of the Federal Reserve Bank.

The question-and-answer period was both illuminating and at times, disconcerting.  There was marked unease about the Biden Administration proposal to eliminate the “stepped up basis” in willed property that legatees currently receive under federal tax law – obviously pertinent to a community in which the predominant value of many estates is appreciated farm land (and a valid point that will make me reflect).  The Representative understandably pledged to oppose the measure.  There was a appreciable attendee support for the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill, particularly as regards expanded broadband access.  The Congressman indicated that he generally supported the bill (since then, Mr. Trump has expressed his opposition to the bill; it would be instructive to learn whether the Congressman has changed his position).  There was criticism of the Administration’s abandonment of the Hyde Amendment (which prohibits the expenditure of public funds for abortions).  The Representative pledged to oppose abortion rights.  In response to a question we didn’t catch, he vowed to vote against any measure limiting the Second Amendment – hardly a surprising response in the middle of a hunting state in which a gun is considered a tool.  

At the same time, a notable number of questions dealt with local issues clearly outside the Congressman’s job description, such as concerns some citizens had with solar farm development next to their properties.  (Admitting the need to address Climate Change, one could sympathize with the questioners, but their grievance seemed best directed to town, county, and state officials, not the federal government.)  Most unsettling:  the citizen that asked what the CIA was doing about the UFO threat.  While at this point my visceral association with Republicans is at a pretty low ebb, I have to admit that at that moment, I identified with the Congressman:  How is he going to handle this one without either justifying the question or insulting this guy?  I should have realized that anybody that reaches Congress is a professional at dealing with absurdities by inoffensive means:  the Representative indicated that he didn’t have much familiarity with the issue, and invited the voter to provide his UFO information to the Representative’s staff for his later review.

The Representative did not discuss COVID vaccines; for a Republican facing what was undoubtedly a vaccine-skeptical crowd, undoubtedly the wisest political course.  There was nary a question about the Capitol riot or foreign policy; unfortunately, when surrounded by Wisconsin cornfields, it is easy to overlook that threats to our system of government presented by seditionists and malign foreign powers are, like objects in a vehicle’s side mirror, closer than they appear.

There is a book report feeling to this note, but the town hall was a new lesson in American democracy for this citizen. In a phrase most closely associated with the late former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., “All politics is local.”  I suspect a town hall conducted by a Democratic Representative would offer similar doses of manipulation and pandering.  While there was a sense of dignity to it, of Norman Rockwell, at the same time the session made one wonder whether the man in the well-known Rockwell town hall drawing was rising to ask whether the road in front of his farm really needed to be expanded from one to two lanes; and how a nation can proceed when so many of its citizens are too determined to largely denounce its past, while as many others are too determined to tenaciously cling to it.

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

A Couple of Postscripts

In a post a while back assessing President Joe Biden’s performance during his first 100 days in office, I awarded him an A+ for his Administration’s efforts against the Coronavirus, indicating that it had consistently under promised and over delivered.  The Administration recently announced that it will not meet its goal of getting 70% of adults at least partly vaccinated by July 4.  I stand by my grade, and think any open-minded American will agree.  The Administration’s failure to meet its goal arises from the lethargy and obstinacy of too many Americans.  As my mother used to say:  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

In a note last week on Infrastructure, I opined that Republican Senators working on a bipartisan infrastructure bill would be unable to muster support for their effort among 10 members of their caucus – the threshold to avoid a Senate filibuster.  While remaining mindful of another of my mother’s sayings – “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip” — and despite my suspicion that the Progressives apparently outraged by the compromise could be as intransigent as the Republican Freedom Caucus has been in the past, there is at the time this is posted at least the prospect of passage of a bipartisan bill allocating sums to refurbish our infrastructure that will exceed all such predecessor laws. If such a measure does become law, it will in our toxic political environment be a notable and heartening achievement by the bipartisan Senate group, Mr. Biden, and his team.  Hopefully, the doubts I expressed in my infrastructure post about the bipartisan group’s ability to get legislation enacted will prove to be woefully wrong-headed. 

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 Infrastructure and the Art of the Possible

At the time this is typed, the Biden Administration and the Senate are wrangling over what constitutes infrastructure, how much to spend, and how to pay for it.  Let’s leave taxes – a weighty subject worthy of its own note – for another post.

As to what constitutes infrastructure:  I am more aligned with the Republicans’ view than with the Democrats’.  The recent Texas power grid failure, the Solar Winds hack, the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack, and the recent internet cloud provider Fastly “glitch” (that affected, among others, the United Kingdom’s main public service portal and The New York Times) demonstrate the current vulnerability of many of the critical aspects of our infrastructure – both those under government and private control – to natural hazards and terrorist threats.  I would submit that we should focus our infrastructure investment – through governmental direct spending and tax concessions (buttressed by regulation and oversight) to those private entities controlling critical aspects of our infrastructure  — on roads, bridges, rail, public transit, national broadband expansion, reinventing our electric power grid, securing the safety of our water supply, and other like priorities.  There are some areas, arguably tangential to these “core” priorities, in which I would like to see us invest, including some climate-related initiatives, support for semiconductor chip industry, and technology to mine and exploit rare earths (a vital arena in which China currently wields almost monopolistic influence).  Although I have sympathy for a number of the priorities that the Administration and Democrats have sought to shoehorn within their definition of infrastructure – childcare assistance, elderly and disabled care, electric vehicle incentives, workforce development programs, and paid family leave — these are not infrastructure.  I would submit that Democrats’ attempt to include funding for these priorities within their infrastructure proposal risks, in an old business phrase, sacrificing the good for what they consider the perfect.

I am certainly not versed enough to know how much total infrastructure spending is appropriate or how whatever is finally enacted should be allocated among different core infrastructure priorities.  That said, based upon reports of their respective positions, I am again closer to the Republicans’ position than I am to the Democrats’.  The Republicans want to fund part of the new infrastructure program out of previously-enacted COVID relief; Democrats do not.  My view:  with the nation approaching herd immunity, vaccine doses going unused, the economy rebounding faster than the economic community expected, jobs going unfilled, and annualized inflation currently running well above 40-year norms, I harbor doubts that all of the still-unspent COVID relief is truly needed (there are undoubtedly areas in which unspent sums will still provide value).  To the extent that the enacted excess can be identified, it should be shifted to other national priorities including infrastructure.  We do not need gratuitous spending.  A notable segment of financial analysts, contrary to the belief of the Fed and the Administration, clearly feels that unhealthy inflation levels and a deepening federal debt are indeed potential respective outcomes of the Fed’s monetary policies and the Administration’s fiscal policies.  As all readers of these pages are aware, I have no economic background, but I share that segment’s uneasy sentiments. On infrastructure, we should spend what we need to spend, not feather ancillary aspirations. 

As all who care are aware, the White House called off infrastructure negotiations with a Republican Senate group led by U.S. WV Sen. Shelley Moore Capito right before the President left for Europe because it considered the Republican proposals unacceptably stingy.  This was seemingly a wise move, inasmuch as a bipartisan group of five Democrat and five Republican Senators including U.S. UT Sen. Mitt Romney and U.S. WV Sen. Joe Manchin has since agreed upon a heftier infrastructure package, with an expenditure approximating $1B over five years, focusing on core infrastructure and funded in part by repurposing some COVID relief funds.  As he returns from overseas, President Biden will confront conflicting priorities:  to get as much of his agenda through Congress as he can before the 2022 campaign season truly heats up, contrasted with a desire to strike a deal with Republicans that will demonstrate to the centrist Americans who voted for him that he is able to accommodate competing views as he claimed he could during his presidential campaign. 

Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor in the late 1800s, is generally credited with the observation, “Politics is the art of the possible.” The President is facing the reality that the vast majority of his party will wish him to use the Senate’s reconciliation process to push through their laundry list of priorities, and will threaten not to support a measure that they consider but half a loaf.  On the other hand, I fear progressives’ preferred approach will feed the Republicans’ claim that Mr. Biden has proven to be more “socialist” than he promised during the campaign, in my view thereby endangering Democrats’ electoral prospects in 2022 and 2024.  If advising Mr. Biden, I would suggest that he tell Sen. Romney and his four Republican colleagues in the bipartisan group that if they can get five more Republicans to publicly indicate by June 30 that they will vote for the bipartisan group’s proposal, Mr. Biden will publicly support it – and tacitly dare disgruntled progressive Democrats to oppose it.  At the same time, I would further suggest to the President that he tell Mr. Manchin and the Democrats in the bipartisan group that if the bipartisan Republicans cannot garner the support of five additional members of their caucus by June 30, it will prove that his and these centrist Democrats’ professed faith in bipartisanship and Republican goodwill was a pipedream, and that Democrats should stand together to use the Senate’s budget reconciliation process — including tax increases to be determined — to enact the expansive infrastructure priorities that the Administration originally proposed.

My guess: Mr. Romney and his colleagues will not be able to get another five Republican votes. The Democrats will have to go it alone on this, and, where they can, other measures. The dishearteningly intractable partisan posture maintained by most official Republicans and many Trump voters since Mr. Biden’s inauguration is certainly worthy of a post; but this note is best left to infrastructure.

On Illegal Immigrant Amnesty and Student Loan Forgiveness: A Postscript

As I’ve indicated before, I’m not sure that the comments entered in these pages are readily available to anyone but me.  What follows is part of a comment provided by a close friend, in which he noted a conceptual gap in what I had put forth in this post:

“I continue to find the student loan issue more vexing. There are studies that suggest that blanket forgiveness is regressive as the highest balances are carried by people of greater wealth and ability to pay. Is there a ‘way back’ or ‘earn back’ approach similar to your comments on immigration? One historical example … is student loan forgiveness [for teacher-borrowers that teach] in disadvantaged areas. There have to be many workable additional options.”

As a matter of principle, I absolutely agree, as our friend suggests, that student loan debtors seeking dispensation should provide consideration in return.  A financial condition — which I have suggested is appropriate for illegal immigrants seeking a path to legal status — seems inconsistent where the intent is to relieve a financial burden. A requirement that the borrower seeking dispensation contribute hours within a wider menu of community services than currently included in student loan forgiveness programs – with such hours to be annually certified by the governmental and/or authorized nonprofit provider receiving the assistance — appears a way to provide taxpayers recompense for the student loan assets they are affirmatively waiving.

Since higher loan balances are generally held by those with a greater ability to repay – and by those who arguably should have been relatively more cognizant of the risks inherent in the obligations they were assuming – it also seems appropriate to limit the amount of debt that can be expunged.  A January, 2021, post by Value Penguin (never heard of it; love the name; it came up in a quick internet search for student loan debt information) indicates that while the average student loan debt load – the statistic most frequently quoted — is almost $33K, the median debt load is $17K.  Although I understand that President Biden campaigned on a pledge to expunge up to $10K of student debt per borrower, I would be willing to increase that to $20K if the dispensation was linked to a community service or some other verifiable non-financial obligation.

On Illegal Immigrant Amnesty and Student Loan Forgiveness

It is a bit unusual to address in the same post whether legal amnesty should be granted to aliens who knowingly entered the country illegally [let’s put Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients aside] and whether the federal government should expunge billions of dollars of college student loan debt, but I would suggest that these issues are perhaps alike in the most fundamental respect:  each pits principle against pragmatism.

Before former President Donald Trump lent respectability to racially-biased xenophobia, both parties had generally agreed for decades that while America was refreshed and renewed by the entry of immigrants — those, in former President Ronald Reagan’s words, “from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness toward home” – we nonetheless needed border security:  an effective and humane way to determine which, and how many, immigrants would be allowed to enter our nation.  Today, it is commonly acknowledged that we have millions of people living here who knowingly broke the law when they entered our country.  One can have sympathy for why they did what they did, and indeed, might even feel that if presented the same desperate options, might well do what they have done; but the fact remains that they are, in fact, law breakers.  It is not only xenophobes who resent their presence; there are citizens who sincerely believe that the law is to be obeyed.  I have also seen indications that many of our legal residents born outside this country, who had to wade through endless bureaucracy to secure their legal status here, do not have much sympathy for those who “skipped ahead.”  For me, these are genuine issues of principle not easily dismissed. 

At the same time, we are obviously not going to deport millions of illegal immigrants.  We don’t have the resources to find them and deport them, and it seems universally accepted by economists that even if we did, such action would have an extremely adverse effect on American life and our economy.  The pragmatic answer would appear to be to give those among this group who have not engaged in other criminal activity – again, reportedly the vast majority — a path out of the shadows to legal status, which would at least have the advantage of increasing our revenues through increased tax receipts, perhaps buttressed by a financial penalty (calibrated according to means) for having broken the law.  While such a step would concededly provide an incentive for further illegal entry, our ever-more sophisticated border security is arguably the best way to address this concern. 

Since World War II, the most certain ticket to economic security in America has been a college degree.  Despite our growing need for tradespeople, such remains the case to this day:  the college educated fared much better during the Great Recession and the COVID crisis than those possessing lower levels of academic achievement.  It is accordingly not surprising that given the ever-increasing costs of college education during the last generation, ever-increasing percentages of aspiring college students were willing to take on ever-increasing levels of readily-available debt to go to college – including a number that failed to obtain a marketable skill or were not suited, for various reasons, for a college regime.  One can sympathize with their aspirations.  At the same time, one can also sympathize with the millions of other college students – some with a degree, some not – who have either paid off or are paying off their loans because it was what they agreed to do.  I have seen indications that at least some these do not favor student loan forgiveness for those who will benefit from dispensation of obligations that they knowingly assumed.

On the other hand, the billions in student loan debt owed by those who lack the means to repay it constitutes a millstone around the neck of our future economic growth.  As someone very close to me is fond of saying in a number of contexts:  “We’re going to pay, one way or the other.”  If these heavily-indebted people are consequently saddled with lesser career opportunities and lower credit ratings during their earning years, thus limiting their means to borrow for houses and “big ticket” durable goods and potentially increasing the welfare rolls, we are perhaps putting a permanent kink into our economic hose.  (Who is going to buy the Baby Boomers’ homes?  The electric cars?)  Forgiveness of much if not all of this debt seems a means of spurring long term economic growth that will benefit not only those whose loans were forgiven but those who paid off their debts.

In our polarized political world, we strike stridently from our corners – insist that the way we look at an issue is the only right way.  TLOML and I have close relationships with some born outside this country who stood in line to earn their legal status.  We have very close relationships with certain citizens who assumed, and have paid off, hefty levels of student debt.  If our nation enacts laws setting a path to legal status for those who knowingly entered the country illegally and/or forgiving large levels of willingly incurred student loan debt, the conservative part of me will be sharply offended for those who “played by the rules.”  I nonetheless believe that we should set a path to legal status and effect forgiveness of a significant level of student loan debt because the practical part of me believes that these approaches will lead to the best long-term outcome for the United States of America.

I readily concede that what I suggest here is “best” is more accurately described as, “arguably the best we can do.”

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.”