Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The "free" press

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It was reported yesterday that Donald Trump summoned a variety of executives and on-air talent from five news-reporting organizations to Trump Tower for a meeting that one participant later described (in more colorful terms than I will repeat here) as a dressing-down, primarily focused on their (mis)treatment of Donald Trump the candidate during the campaign.

Many of the participants in this meeting were expecting to have an off-the-record discussion about Trump's plans for media availability once he becomes president in January.  Traditionally, the White House has made arrangements that enable the various media outlets to pool resources for coverage so that they can bear witness to important events without each maintaining a 24/7 presence.  These arrangements acknowledge the importance of a free press in a democratic society, particularly as it relates to the accountability function.

Instead, what they got was--reportedly--a 40-minute harangue about supposed anti-Trump bias in their reporting.

I am gravely concerned about the media.  I am, of course, old enough to remember the George W. Bush presidency.  After the events of 9/11/2001, Bush was given extremely wide latitude by a credulous press that was fearful of losing their access to White House personnel--something that in theory they need to be able to do their jobs.  In addition, the Bush administration used "embedding" of reporters with military units in order to induce favorable media coverage, with disastrous results (at least as far as the role of the media in our democratic society is concerned).

That was bad enough.  But what's happening now is worse.

Two events from last Friday illustrate the problem.

Late on Friday, word came down that Trump had agreed to settle the claims against him in the "Trump University" fraud case, for $25 million.  While that settlement carries not express admission of wrongdoing, there are some important factors to consider:  The plaintiffs in that case were only seeking $40 million.  The $25 million includes payment of a $1 million fine to the State of New York for violating its laws against sham educational opportunities.  Trump thus paid 60% of the amount the plaintiffs were seeking in a case that had been scheduled for trial only 10 days after the settlement occurred—which is very nearly as close to an admission of guilt as you can get without actually saying the words.

Even later on Friday, Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton, the smash-hit Broadway musical that centers on the life of Alexander Hamilton.  The attendance was notable for two reasons; first, Pence was booed by the audience (not by the actors, as some alt-right fake news outlets reported).  Second, after the show, the star read a short, respectful statement to Pence advising him that they were fearful of the new administration's history and plans and urging him to consider the views of others, particularly including the LGBTQ community, whom Pence has famously and unrepentantly attacked over the course of his career.

Later, Trump tweeted about how disrespectful the Hamilton cast had been toward Pence.  Never mind how fallacious those tweets happened to be.  The media ate it up--allowing it to dominate the headlines for most of three days.

Look, I don't expect the media to skip the Hamilton story.  It's an interesting story.

But the fraud settlement got virtually no media coverage,* and I'm struggling to understand why.

* My morning news show of choice, CBS This Morning, devoted about 15 minutes of its first hour on Monday to the Hamilton story, but did not mention the fraud settlement at all.

If Hillary Clinton had just been elected, and had just paid $25 million to settle a fraud claim against her, what are the odds the media would (largely) ignore the story?  There would be inch-high headlines in the New York Times, top of the front page.  After all, when James Comey wrote a letter to Congress 11 days prior to the election saying that the FBI had discovered some new emails that might have a bearing on its investigation of Clinton's email server, the Times devoted 100% of its above-the-fold front-page space to the "story."

Meanwhile, Trump essentially admits to conduct that if he were less rich and less famous probably would have seen him indicted for fraud, and our "free" press can do no better than a yawn.

Trump is already the least-transparent candidate in modern political history, having refused to release his tax returns.  When presidents are elected, they traditionally put their assets into a "blind trust"--every investment they own is sold, and the funds are handed over to a trustee who manages those investments without the president's knowledge or input.  Trump has refused to do that.  Instead, he is turning his financial empire over to his children, whom--by the way--he is planning to include as close advisers.  Already reports are rolling in about foreign dignitaries who are seeking to curry favor with Trump by doing him business favors like booking rooms in his hotels and greenlighting projects in which he's involved.

These acts are truly unprecedented.  Even if past presidents weren't predisposed to recognize and avoid the potential for conflict, they were at least motivated to avoid the shame and political scandal that would result if they did not appear to be working solely for the country and not for their own personal financial advantage.  Not Trump.  He is giving every indication that he plans to use the next four years to line his pockets at every opportunity, the country be damned.  Nowhere is that intention more evident than in his plan to live most of the time at his residence in Trump Tower--presumably so he can continue to manage his business affairs.

We deserve better than a part-time President.

But we will never get better than that unless the media do their job, fearlessly and with only one constituency in mind:  the truth.

Unfortunately, after their dressing-down, it appears that they are instead going to serve as yes-men for this fraud of a man who has somehow slipped into a chair he should never have gotten near.

What are they afraid of?  They have all the power, if only they would simply use it.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Eating your vegetables

It's no secret that I weigh more than I should.  The reasons for that are simple:  I eat more than I should, I eat the wrong kinds of foods, I don't exercise enough.  I'm not a fan of vegetables; I tolerate them, mostly because I have to.  I'm on a diet now, and part of that diet involves eating vegetables I don't like--but I do it because I need to lose weight to improve the length and quality of my life.

Over the last 10 days, as I've watched the Trump transition move forward, it occurred to me that the eat-your-vegetables analogy can be used to describe the Trump/Republican approach to government.

I have heard several people tell me, in all seriousness, that they voted for Trump because, as a successful businessman*, he can do a better job of managing the federal government than a career politician like Hillary Clinton.  The theory, I suppose, is that running a vast business enterprise requires skills that, properly applied, will make the government run more like a business (and, by extension, like a successful business).  Meanwhile, the lack of business experience means that a politician will make all the same mistakes the supposedly inefficient government makes, and things will never get better.

* I think that at best the jury's still out on whether Trump qualifies as a successful businessman.  But we'll take that at face value for the moment.

This strikes me as the kind of argument that stupid people think sounds smart.  It's fraught with problems, and it takes for granted certain things that just aren't so.

First, the federal government is an enormously complex organization that has 320 million customers and 320 million owners.  With the possible exception of Facebook, no private business has that many different constituents to try to please.  (Facebook has, what, a billion accounts?  But it has an extremely narrow focus, compared to the federal government.)

Second, for what it must accomplish, the federal government is incredibly efficient.  I'll use health care as an example:  The federal government provides health care to the poor and the elderly through Medicare and Medicaid.  The cost ratio of those programs--the percentage of each program's budget that goes to "overhead expense" rather than health care services--is under 3%.  Private insurers, who by law are compelled to spend 80% of the premiums they collect on health care services, struggle to meet the implied cost ratio of 20%.  Meanwhile, Medicare and Medicaid must insure everyone who is eligible for them, while private insurers can choose the kinds of customers they want to serve, to some extent.

Third, private businesses exist primarily to serve their shareholders.  If a business line isn't serving the shareholders (i.e., it's losing money), the business will generally shut that business line down.  Private businesses have broad latitude to make those kinds of choices.  The government has to find a way to do the things that are needed, even if they are costly.

The problem with the Trump transition--and, I suspect, an enormous wake-up call that happened when Trump met with President Obama last week--is that Trump is used to running his organization as a top-down, hierarchical organization.  Trump has the authority to decide for his companies what they will do, to hire whomever he wants to do those things, to fire people when they don't meet his expectations, and to change directions when his businesses fail (and he has repeatedly done so, apparently with few consequences).

As President, Trump will not have that authority.  The President is powerful, but he is still subject to the law.  He cannot simply do whatever he likes; the law imposes on him certain duties that he cannot shirk; before he can spend money, Congress must agree that it should be spent; and the Constitution imposes still other limitations on his activities.  There is a process and procedure associated with doing things.

Which brings us back to the business of governing.  Only totalitarian dictators get to impose their will upon the governments they head.  Governance in a democratic republic like ours, with the separation of powers like ours, requires compromise and negotiation; it requires knowing the rules and following the procedures.  In short, being the President requires a special set of skills that is completely different from those of a standard--or even a celebrity--businessman.  It requires being able to eat your vegetables, even if you don't want to, because the instant gratification of a meat-and-dessert diet isn't worth the long-term problems.

There are many things about the government that could be improved.  Trump has focused lately on our free-trade agreements, Obamacare, and taxes.  Many of the people who voted for him did so because they liked his message on those topics--they see problems with these things, and they thing that simply removing the thing will solve their problem.

Lost your job because the company moved production to Mexico?  End NAFTA.

Can't afford health insurance anymore?  Repeal Obamacare.  (Or repeal parts of Obamacare.)

Don't have enough money?  Cut taxes.

The problem with these "simple" solutions is that the system exists as it does because the system was designed to solve a problem--perhaps a different problem than one you are experiencing, but a problem nonetheless.  We might take a broadsword to the establishment, but the yesterday's problems will still exist.  NAFTA came about because it was difficult for us to sell enough goods to our nearest neighbors because of trade barriers.  Obamacare came about because 45 million Americans didn't have health insurance and mostly resorted to emergency care.  Our tax code exists as it does because deciding who pays for what is a matter of negotiation and compromise.

It might feel good to end NAFTA, but what about the American companies that sell products to Canada and Mexico?

It might feel good to repeal Obamacare, but what about the 20 million Americans who will lose their access to health care?

It might feel good to cut taxes, but how do we fund the programs that you rely on?

Governing is hard work, and it requires smart work from people who know what they're doing--from people who are willing to eat their vegetables because that's required for the best outcome.

I have more to say on this topic, but it's been a long week.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A duty to oppose

If you know me—and, let's face it, if you read this blog, you probably know me personally—you know that I'm unhappy with the results of Tuesday's election, to put it in the weakest terms possible.  Over the last 36 hours, I've been fending off some of the darker aspects of my personality and experiencing some emotions that I don't often feel:  anger, fear, depression, anxiety.

About a year and a half ago, I challenged the Republicans to nominate Donald Trump.  I believed at the time that there was no way that the American people would see fit to put him into office.  It's sort of the equivalent of electing Elvis as president.  Sure, he's popular, but he's utterly without qualifications.  (Those who watched the 1990s Teri Hatcher-Dean Cain version of Superman will recognize the election of a "surprise, I'm alive" Elvis as a minor plot point.)

So, I guess, the lesson is "be careful what you wish for."

But make no mistake:  His election cheapens the Presidency.  And that he was apparently elected with the second-most votes cheapens his election.

Various responses to this development suggest themselves.  My first thought was to move.  That's not a hysterical reaction, steeped in hyperbole.  Rather, it's a pragmatic solution to a central question:  Do I really want to live in Donald Trump's America?  Why not move to Australia or New Zealand, or to Canada, or even Belize (where they speak English, not that it's a problem)?

See, for the first time in my lifetime, in Wednesday's early-morning hours, I felt ashamed to be an American.

I didn't feel this way when George W. Bush was elected, because even though I thought he was a buffoon, he did have significant experience at the business of governing.  In fact, I believed--and still believe--that Bush was and is a good man who tried his best, sometimes under very difficult circumstances, to do his job in a way that would benefit people.  While we have strong disagreements about the best way to do that, I believe that his goal was to leave things better than he found them.  He may have failed, but I'm talking about motivations.

Donald Trump, by contrast...I can't speak to what's going on inside his mind.  But his words, his plans, his rhetoric, his behavior—all of them point to a classless, uncouth person who lacks decorum, who acts exclusively in his own self-interest, and who is willing to access his constituents' darker inner hatred of others to achieve his goals.  He is a disgusting human being who has no place in the Oval Office.  Unfortunately, the framers of the Constitution failed to include "not being a disgusting human being" among the qualifications for the Presidency.

I thought we were better than that.  I thought we had finally turned the corner and moved past that.  Unfortunately, we have not.

I should make clear, of course, that I do not believe that everyone who voted for Trump hates racial and sexual and religious minorities.  But everyone who voted for him is willing to tolerate, activate, and use that sort of hatred, as long as it doesn't interfere with their goals.  In a way, that's far worse.

See, the problem with Jim Crow wasn't only that the laws and the policies themselves we so onerous and degrading--it was also all the ostensibly good people who stood by and let it happen, who couldn't be bothered to take a stand.

So let's not mince words:  Even if you don't personally hate black people and Latinos and homosexuals and Muslims and disabled people, and even if you personally think that women shouldn't be subjected to sexual assault and degradation, if you voted for Trump, you said, loud and clear, that you are completely OK with people who do think that way having access to the levers of power in this country.

And that, my friends, is a viewpoint that I find shameful, and I'm not afraid to say it.  If it offends you, tough. It's up to you to repent of that particular sin.

So, in the end, the most important question is, "What do we do now?"

The next four years are going to be tough.  Even if Trump ends up resigning or getting removed from office—I think the odds of that are far greater than any president in my lifetime (I was born more than a year after Nixon resigned)—the next guy in line is no better and is in many ways much worse.  So our goal is to spend the next four years limiting the damage that these people have caused us, as best we can.

We will not be able to do a lot to stop this runaway freight train, but maybe we can slow it down, and maybe we can make sure that if anyone has to feel the pain this causes, that pain is visited on the people who caused it.  I don't have specifics on that point, but I do have the general solution. 

We oppose everything.

We use every available lever, every parliamentary trick, every delay tactic, everything we have at our disposal, to oppose this hateful agenda.

We use the courts and the court of public opinion.  We protest. We sue. We kick and scream and yell.  We rise up.  We say no, even if it's something we might like.

We make them earn everything.

Above all, we stay and fight, because this is our America, too, and we have a duty to save her.