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 Messrs. Gutekunst and Rodgers

As every American sports fan is now aware, Green Bay Packer Quarterback and reigning National Football League Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers has indicated that he wishes to leave the Green and Gold.  Although Mr. Rodgers has expressed affection and respect for the team’s coaching staff, fans, and the city of Green Bay, it is apparent that he has been irritated with Packer General Manager Brian Gutekunst ever since Mr. Gutekunst traded up in the first round of the 2020 draft to select Utah State University Quarterback Jordan Love.  (Mr. Rodgers has nonetheless also professed his love for Mr. Love personally.)  (An aside:  despite Mr. Rodgers’ positive remarks about the coaching staff, one has to wonder about his true estimation of its competence, given the key blunders it made in last season’s playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  They have certainly made me wonder.)    

Mr. Rodgers is 37 and certainly toward the end of his career, but his performance last season, taken together with the manner in which Tom Brady, 43, led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory, would seemingly indicate that he is capable of several more very productive – and perhaps elite — seasons. 

I concede that I have paid less attention to the machinations between the Packers and Mr. Rodgers than I would have several years ago.  In addition to Mr. Rodgers’ professions of respect and affection for just about everybody in Green Bay except Mr. Gutekunst, I do understand that a number of learned analysts have speculated that Green Bay might garner as many as three first round draft choices from the right bidder in trade for Mr. Rodgers.  It also appears from my limited information that — in my estimation, most crucially — Mr. Gutekunst has done a good job leaving the impression that he wants Mr. Rodgers to start in Green Bay for the foreseeable future. 

If I was advising Mr. Gutekunst, I would suggest that his dispute with Mr. Rodgers is, at bottom, a public relations battle … and that he holds the better hand.  Mr. Rodgers has several years remaining on his contract.  Unless the Packers are confident that Mr. Love will quickly have the necessary skills to lead the team to a championship, the Packers should hold firm and not make a trade.  Mr. Rodgers will then be left with two options:  play or retire.  If he actually gets on the field, no one that has ever seen him perform could believe that he will ever devote less than maximum intensity to his performance.  If Mr. Rodgers plays well, Mr. Gutekunst will look like an empowered genius for sticking to his guns and the team gains further time for Mr. Love to gain experience; if Mr. Rodgers plays poorly, his antics will cause him, and not Mr. Gutekunst, to bear the onus if the team starts slowly.  On the other hand, if Mr. Rodgers retires in the face of consistent Packer declarations that they want him to stay, the perception will seemingly be that he chose to leave Green Bay, not that the Packers discarded him – which will enable Mr. Gutekunst to avoid at least some of the imbroglio that engulfed former General Manager Ted Thompson when he engineered Quarterback Brett Favre’s departure and will perhaps cause generally patient and good-natured Green Bay fans to provide Mr. Love greater leeway than will be the case if they believe that the team could have continued to enjoy the services of Mr. Rodgers.

There is, of course, the contrary notion:  if the Packers can indeed get three first round picks for Mr. Rodgers, squandering that many additional first rounders over a few-year period in the event Mr. Rodgers actually retires rather than play in Green Bay would deprive the team the opportunity to build an elite squad that would consistently challenge for a championship for a decade.  Trading Mr. Rodgers nonetheless seems to me a more dicey strategy.  First — and I may have to eat these words — I don’t think Mr. Rodgers will retire. Second, the NFL is a “Quarterback League”; unless the coaching staff is confident that Mr. Love will soon be good enough to win a championship, the team will probably need to sacrifice a couple of the first round picks it obtains in a Rodgers trade to move up in a future draft to secure a prospective elite quarterback talent.  [Even this will still be a gamble (consider Alex Smith, drafted ahead of Mr. Rodgers, and the six quarterbacks drafted before Mr. Brady)]. Third, Mr. Gutekunst has not shown the drafting acumen to provide confidence that he would effectively exploit the high-level picks he would have at his disposal.  

A final aside:  I find Mr. Rodgers’ fit of pique absurd.  I would submit that it is of no account, in this context, how well he has performed during his career, or whether Mr. Love will be a worthy replacement.  Many that follow these pages are now retired; many worked for significant operations; all are well aware of the emphasis that sophisticated organizations place upon succession planning.  Hiring someone you believe will be a suitable successor for a key employee who is unquestionably nearing retirement is simply what smart firms do.  Mr. Gutekunst was apparently willing to place a large wager – indeed, one that may well determine his professional destiny – on his selection of Mr. Love.  Despite my misgivings regarding his acumen, that’s his job.  Given the number of years remaining on Mr. Rodgers’ contract, Mr. Gutekunst was presumably — and arguably reasonably — calculating that he was providing his coaching staff several years to groom Mr. Love to assume his projected responsibilities.  Mr. Rodgers is by all accounts highly intelligent; he should understand and have taken no offense at this.  He’s indulging in a hissy fit.  That said, while in the long run, Mr. Gutekunst’s legacy in Green Bay will probably be judged primarily by the performance of Mr. Love, or whomever else ultimately replaces Mr. Rodgers, in the short run, the Packer General Manager’s standing will likely depend upon how adroitly he handles the current contest of wills with Mr. Rodgers.

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.”

On the Israeli – Palestinian Conflict

Although a cease fire in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Gaza Strip may be in effect by the time this note is published, the one thing all observers agree upon is that, from the larger perspective, the conflict seems endless and “intractable.”  I would pose that at this point there are no winners, only losers; and that Israel is the only party in a position to break the cycle. 

 (To set a context here:  in a view not universally shared, I consider Israel strictly a sovereign nation, and not a manifestation or fulfillment of religious faith.  I am an Irish Catholic, but if either Ireland or the Vatican – sovereign nations like Israel — implement a policy which I perceived as contrary to American interests, I would not feel divided loyalty.  I would submit that the only meaningful religious element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this:  the Almighty is not in favor of His [please excuse the male pronoun ;)] people killing or harming each other, no matter by what faith path they have chosen to reach Him.  Let’s keep God out of this; all human beings deserve the opportunity to live in freedom, peace and security.)

(To set further context:  accompanying my reaction that criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian civilians is warranted is the countervailing memory of a learned American foreign policy figure intoning years ago that Israel was the only nation in the volatile Middle East where America knew it could safely land a plane at any time under any conditions.  I would suggest that such remains true to this day.  Additionally, Israel is, and for the foreseeable future will be, our most effective and reliable regional ally in combatting Iranian terrorism and aggression.  No matter its faults, America needs a strong and secure Israel.  I would venture that President Biden, if not all members of his party, is acutely aware of our need to balance these competing realities.)

I don’t think that it is much disputed in the international community that the settlements Israel has established in the Palestinian territories that it has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war are contrary to international law.  Any comparison of maps of Israel, Palestine and the surrounding environs respectively depicting the region as it existed before 1949, after the establishment of Israel in 1949 through 1967, after the 1967 Middle East War, and evolving to the present day demonstrates Israel’s expansion into land intended by the international community to be inhabited and controlled by the Palestinians when Israel was founded.  While it must be noted that Israel gained a foothold in the occupied territories not because it attacked, but because it was attacked, the increased settlement activity in occupied territories by Israel in recent years seems gratuitous usurpation.  I have seen reports that the most recent conflict was precipitated in part by Israel’s eviction of Palestinians from an East Jerusalem neighborhood (subject to correction by more informed eyes, I am not aware whether this neighborhood was originally part of Israel under the United Nations charter, or an area since claimed by Israel as part its sovereign territory).  Ignoring Palestinians’ frustration serves no purpose.

Given the Holocaust, Israel is and throughout our lifetimes will understandably always be anxious given its close proximity to states and peoples that have for the most part hated it and the Jewish people, have denied its right to exist, and have literally sought to expunge it.  [As the old saying goes, if they really are out to get you, you’re not paranoid  ;)].  The Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, allegedly aided by Iran, has launched over 3000 missiles into Israel in the last ten days; this, too, cannot be ignored.  My general concern with Israel’s posture today:  through its own diligence and hard work, and its longstanding relationship with and aid from the United States, it is arguably the strongest military power and maintains the most sophisticated intelligence network in the Middle East.  Its security has been further enhanced by the split in the Arab world that has caused Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf Coast nations to currently have greater concerns about Iran than they do about Israel.  Its “Iron Dome” defense system has performed extraordinarily well and for the most part shielded Israeli citizens from harm.  While it is not hard to imagine what we would do if either Canada or Mexico launched over 3000 missiles into the United States, the fact remains that Israel faces no existential threat from the rag-tag Palestinians. 

More than one former Israeli soldier has publicly criticized Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory (do an internet search, “Project Outreach – Avner Gvaryahu”).  I have heard at least one former Israeli soldier actually compare Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid.  One American journalist visiting Gaza has described Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “unconscionable” – “effectively imprison[ing] … people.”  I would offer that Israel has pushed its advantage in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank because it can – and because such favors the political prospects of its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.  It seems inevitable that such provocations will trigger a response. 

Although Israeli leadership says it “targeted” Hamas leadership and tunnels with its recent strikes into Gaza, there appears to be disproportionate collateral damage among Palestinian civilians, including children.  What unfolded seems akin in kind if not in scale to the inhumanities currently being visited on Yemeni in the Yemen civil war; both conflicts are being pursued by interests that have no regard for the devastation being suffered by innocents caught in the middle.  In the Yemen conflict, the Biden Administration discontinued equipping the Saudis’ military operations.  In Gaza, the situation is more complex, but I would submit that the Administration needs to maintain meaningful pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to halt not only the recent hostilities but to roll back Israel’s aggressive efforts in the occupied territories.  I would argue to Mr. Netanyahu that adoption of a softer policy is in Israel’s long term best interests.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, undue aggression weakens his nation’s stability.  Israel’s perceived disregard for Palestinian civilians:  reduces sympathy for Israel in the international community; threatens its existing relationships with Arab nations (Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco and, informally, Saudi Arabia), and thus, Israel’s security; antagonizes American progressives and liberals, and thus weakens Israel’s alliance with the United States – the linchpin upon which its security rests; exacerbates unrest within Israel between Jewish and Arab Israelis, weakening Israel as a state; and, perhaps most vitally, seems an affront to the principle that justified Israel’s founding — that persecuted and downtrodden innocents deserve respite. 

At least since the time of the Obama Administration, Mr. Netanyahu has seemed to take solace from his support among Republicans, and may believe that such will sustain America’s relationship with Israel despite progressives’ increasing criticism.  If he has made such a calculation, it seems to me that his confidence is misplaced.  I would point out to him that some of those now expressing fealty to Israel count among their ranks those that have sought to whitewash Trump insurgents’ attack on America’s democracy, are attempting to rewrite history by denying that former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, and provided at best lukewarm condemnation of the white supremacists who marched through Charlottesville, VA, in August, 2017, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”  Indeed, this group includes past Holocaust deniers.  Can Israel really have confidence that its long-term security will be protected by the likes of these?

There is no question that Israel has the right to defend itself.  While it cannot afford to slacken its military and intelligence readiness, its defense in the coming decades may well rest at least as heavily upon its efforts to lower the Palestinian region’s tribal temperature.  It should extend the carrot while retaining the stick.  It should sincerely embrace the effort to find a viable Israel/Palestine two state solution – for its own sake as well as that of the Palestinians.

Mr. Biden’s First 100 Days: Part II

[If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there].

In addition to President Joe Biden’s demeanor, his staffing selections, his Administration’s response to COVID, and what appears to be at least his early strategic approach to the presidency, what’s left are the nuts and bolts of his early days:

General Domestic Policy:  B

Aside from proposing the massive COVID, Infrastructure, and Family Relief legislative packages listed in Part I, most of the President’s domestic efforts have been understandably directed at undoing what Mr. Trump had done, most prominently in the areas of immigration, “equity” in government, deregulation, and the environment.  (I understand Mr. Biden’s bold pledge to halve U.S. greenhouse gas pollution by 2030, despite the criticisms that it is imprudent and impractical; at the same time, I would not have so quickly cancelled the Keystone XL Pipeline approved by Mr. Trump — a cancellation which disappointed our Canadian ally and cost U.S. and Canadian jobs.)  The Administration’s first crisis has been over the southern border, but although this is an area in which polls show the President doesn’t enjoy the support of the majority of Americans, the situation was so malignly mishandled by the Trump Administration that I, and I’ll venture most Americans, will cut him some slack until at least mid-summer.  All that said:  while all that read these pages are well aware I am not an economist, my main concern about Mr. Biden’s domestic record thus far is that he is simply spending, and seeking to spend, too much money we don’t have.  Intuitively, it seems to me that the Democrats will not be able to sufficiently increase taxes, nor will the programs they are proposing generate enough additional revenues within an acceptable time frame, to avoid a notable increase in an already massive debt.  I do find credible the argument that the ample unemployment benefits provided in last COVID package have created a disincentive for some Americans to return to work.  According to a liberal Obama economist I recently heard, the economy is already “awash” in cash.  The Bond Market is clearly nervous about inflation, and is not as confident as Federal Reserve and Administration officials that any marked acceleration will be temporary and can be controlled.  I tend to agree with the Bond Market.

Foreign Policy:  C

While I most enthusiastically support Mr. Biden’s renewed emphasis on U.S. alliances after the debacle of the Trump “America First” approach, and absolutely applaud a number of steps the President has taken – presenting a strong front to China’s increasingly aggressive measures, imposing sanctions and diplomatic expulsions on Russia for its interference in the 2020 U.S. election, withdrawing our arms support from the Saudis in the Yemen conflict, declaring a “genocide” the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire over a century ago (a poke to make Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aware that we will not coddle him) – what I consider significant missteps raise greater cause for concern.  Strategically, Mr. Biden seems to believe that the world is willing to return to the state that existed the day Mr. Trump took office.  If so, he is laboring under a dangerous misimpression.  Our allies are understandably wary of our diplomatic constancy when Mr. Trump still garnered over 70 million votes.  China and Russia are significantly better positioned internationally than they were four years ago, and have given no indication that they will readily cede their gains.  Despite Biden Administration coaxing, Iran is showing no willingness to go back to the Obama Administration-negotiated nuclear arrangement without U.S. “concessions.”  North Korea’s nuclear capacity is greatly enhanced.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is raging – and is now creating discord between Jewish and Arab Israelis.  Mr. Biden precipitously renewed for five years the Obama Era New Start nuclear treaty with Russia, a renewal actively sought by the Russians and a renewal which former Trump Administration National Security Advisor John Bolton – now no friend of Mr. Trump, and acknowledged even by his detractors to be a savvy foreign policy expert – has opined does not further American interests.  The Administration has thus far refrained, apparently for fear of offending Germany, from taking steps to block the impending completion of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, through which Russia will deliver natural gas directly to Germany, undercutting Ukraine and enhancing Russia’s leverage over Europe.  (In a partial nod to Mr. Trump, he saw the impending Nord Stream 2 danger, but by that time had so boorishly antagonized German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he had no influence with her.)  However, I would submit that Mr. Biden’s most significant foreign policy failing thus far is his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.  It seems overwhelmingly likely that the Taliban, who oppose the Afghan government we have kept upright, will overrun the country almost as soon as we depart; we leave ourselves more vulnerable to terrorist attacks; we open the door to suppression of Afghan women; and we will appear to have abandoned another set of Middle East allies (remember the Trump Administration’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria), further reducing our credibility in the region.  I have made no secret in these pages that consider former President Barack Obama to have been a poor foreign policy president, particularly in his second term.  Rather than learning from Mr. Obama’s mistakes, Mr. Biden seems to be emulating them.  Both strategically and tactically, a disappointing foreign policy start.

So:  if we are grading on the 4-point scale, providing a .5 for every “+,” and giving equal weight to every category, Mr. Biden comes in with a cumulative “GPA” of 3.4 — about a B+  — with an Incomplete [looking not unlike my old report cards:  okay in some areas but less stellar in others  ;)].  That said, the President’s first 100 days are merely that.  For me, the most important grade from a prospective standpoint is the “Incomplete.”  The President’s aura of COVID competence won’t last but a couple of more months; I would submit that Mr. Biden needs to make a fiscally-responsible bipartisan infrastructure deal, bring humane coherence to the southern border, and better mind our foreign policy during his second 100 days if he is to continue his Administration’s momentum.  

Mr. Biden’s First 100 Days: Part I

[This was projected to run earlier, but a note relating to Congressional House Republicans’ recent untoward treatment of U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney seemed more immediate.]

Virtually every commentator we know has provided an assessment as to how President Joe Biden has conducted the first 100 days of his presidency – which President Franklin Roosevelt made an unofficial milestone of the American presidency during his first term – and I can’t resist doing the same.  This note will include brief references to several topics worthy of their own future posts; but in the meantime, here we go:

Presidential Tone and Demeanor:  A+

Mr. Biden owes his election partially to the promise that he would not be former President Donald Trump, and on that he has delivered handsomely.  Since he is by all accounts a kindly and decent man, he was undoubtedly going to do well here, but has excelled by reducing the national temperature, while making clear that he is sharp and fully engaged in conducting the office.  He has deftly distanced himself from hyper-partisan flashpoints such as Mr. Trump’s second impeachment and the recent FBI raid on Trump Attorney Rudy Giuliani’s home.  His address to Congress was conversational, sincere, and uplifting.  A Wall Street Journal columnist recently noted that one of the President’s strengths is that at least so far, and unlike his four predecessors, no electoral segment hates him.

Administration Personnel:  B

I would not have as affirmatively focused on achieving a diverse Cabinet as Mr. Biden did, but he has for the most part chosen experienced professionals.  The President’s selections are, furthermore, generally low-key in manner – again, conducive to reducing the temperature of the presidency.  (The exception was Neera Tanden, whose nomination for Director of the Office of Management and Budget, perhaps offered up as “red meat” to the Republicans, was ultimately withdrawn.)  If reports I’ve seen of his past positions are accurate, Secretary of State Antony Blinken perhaps whiffed on several Middle East issues over the last 20 years.  Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Attorney General Merrick Garland are superstar choices.  White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has been effective.  Personal Favorite:  Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who should use his time in the Administration to build relationships to key Democratic constituencies as he gets ready to make another bid for the presidency. 

Administration Execution:  A+

Mr. Biden came to the White House declaring his priority was to pass his COVID relief package and effectively disseminate the COVID vaccines.  Given his singular emphasis, the manner in which he addressed the pandemic became an immediate make-or-break test of his competence in Americans’ minds.  He passed with flying colors, consistently under promising and over delivering.

Administration Strategy:  INCOMPLETE

The President – to my surprise, and I believe to others’ – has thus far chosen not be an incrementalist or a bipartisan collaborator, but has instead “Gone Big.”  The $1.9T COVID relief bill seemingly included more than was strictly needed to address the nation’s pandemic (more on that in Part II), and was passed over Republican Congressional objections despite Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge to seek bipartisanship.  He has now proposed a $2.3T infrastructure plan including components arguably well beyond even a generous definition of “infrastructure” and a $1.8T Families Relief Plan.  He has proposed a sweeping Immigration reform.  He has pleased his party’s progressives, although he was elected in part because he was not overly progressive.  One bids high when one has strong cards; it remains to be seen whether his “Go Big” strategy is effective in a closely-divided Congress (and whether his now-proven willingness to “go it alone” on COVID relief makes Republicans more amenable in future negotiations) or instead proves too ambitious an approach that forfeits the opportunity for significant but more modest legislative achievement.

At the turn of this note, Mr. Biden is doing pretty well.  I don’t want to overwhelm these pages with too much Noise; it seems less exhausting to reserve views on Mr. Biden’s General Domestic Policy and Foreign Policy initiatives – where I would suggest that he perhaps hasn’t performed quite as well — for Part II.

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?