Dealing with Political Overload

The political news these days comes barreling at you in relentless waves, and so much of it is depressing, discouraging and scary.  And, of course, some of it is merely a distraction, bright shiny objectives that have little or no real importance.  Worse yet, some of it is fake.

If you are a person who feels a responsibility to keep up with current affairs, to be knowledgable about what our government and its leaders are doing, you can’t just shut yourself off or bury your head in the sand.

To take an example, how does someone sift through the torrent of news items from the past couple of week?  Roy Moore and teenage girls.  A Republican tax bill that threatens to exacerbate the income and inequality gap in this country.  Continuing Congressional efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act.  Mass shootings followed by Congressional “thoughts and prayers.”  Jeff Session’s incredible shrinking memory.  Donald Trump’s foreign travels that emphasized his high esteem for dictators.  More revelations about Trump campaign officials meeting with Russians during the presidential campaign.  The threat of a nuclear war with North Korea.   Further dismantling of environmental protections by the EPA.

And the surprisingly positive results from the 2017 election.

I’ve only scratched the surface, but even this list is more than most of us can absorb.   Yet, our in-baskets are filled with countless news summaries and updates.  Some of us start the day with “Morning Joe” and make sure we are still up to date by evening by checking in with Rachel Maddow.

The challenge is finding the happy medium between being constantly outraged and being disengaged.  How do you fulfill your responsibility to be an informed citizen without driving yourself crazy?

I certainly haven’t figured out a foolproof approach, but looking back at recent events may help develop some rough guidelines.  In any cases, here’s my best shot.

Robert Mueller is going to figure out whether there was collusion or improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.  Neither the additional public revelations nor the continuing denials will change that.  Until the investigation fingers the President or people really close to him, it’s not important to follow the day-to-day drama.  That should free up a lot of time and emotion.

Roy Moore is a Republican problem.  That party is now in a lose-lose situation of its own making.  We already have enough information to confirm without doubt that Moore is a slimy hypocrite and sexual predator.  Additional disclosures will only be further confirmation.  Other than the priceless material he is providing to late night comics, Moore isn’t worth much of our attention.

When the Alabama election results are in, one of two things will happen, either of which is significant.  Democrats may pick up a Senate seat which would cut the Republican majority to one.  That would be important.  On the other hand, a Moore victory would mean that every Republican office holder for the foreseeable future would have to answer questions about the Party’s association with him, a prospect none of them will relish.

Both Donalds, the original and Jr., are going to continue their vaudeville performances.  Much of it is tweets and stupidity signifying nothing.  We know Jr. is a lightweight who has stumbled into incriminating acts, but his antics are only worth Mueller’s attention, not ours.

President Trump is obviously a more complicated category.  He draws a lot of attention for his erratic behavior, his buffoonery, his endless lies that often have no point and his stunning lack of a moral compass.  While we shouldn’t ignore those characteristics, neither is it worth obsessing about them.  He is what he is.

On the other hand, his actions should get our attention.  In foreign affairs, he has already done great damage to this country’s national interests and seems eager to do even more.  Pulling out of the international climate agreement.  Shredding trade deals.  Calling into question our collective security treaties.  Engaging in irrational taunting of North Korea.  Acting as if Vladimir Putin is our friend rather than a deadly enemy.

Trump has sacrificed our leadership position in the world, has made us a less reliable partner to our allies, has failed to understand much less respond to the serious threats that this country faces.  Our attention and activism should be focused on these areas, not on his idiotic tweets.

Similarly, the tax bill now under consideration by Congress, the efforts to dismantle the health care system and the relentless attacks on environmental regulations should have all of us up in arms.  Public opinion and political pressure have already contributed significantly to the many failures of the Trump legislative agenda.  This is no time to stop.

Nor  should we ever accept the level and frequency of deadly gun violence in this country as normal, as just another day in America.  Rather than periodic upswings of attention when another massacre occurs, we need to push every day for sensible gun laws.

With all the time that my suggestions have freed up from your day, the best way in which you can change the political landscape and at the same time enhance your mental health is to get involved in state and local elections in 2018.  As the results of last week’s elections demonstrate, there is a real opportunity to make significant gains in state legislatures.  The political winds are shifting and may even lead to a change in party control of both houses of Congress.

The winds aren’t enough however.  Volunteering, organizing, and making campaign contributions are essential if the light is to be restored to American politics.

 

Not a “Gun Situation”

 

Aren’t you sick and tired of the bullshit? Some white kid–not a Muslim, not a terrorist from the Middle East, not even some urban bad guy–walks into a church in a small Texas town and kills 26 people, but it’s not a “gun situation”? How did he murder all of those people? Was his weapon some sort of laser beam, or a Koran or polluted air?

In fact, as is pointed out every time there’s a mass shooting in this country, it’s never a “gun situation.” We either have enough guns laws in place already or laws won’t stop bad people.

And certainly we shouldn’t do anything to make guns less lethal. However many rounds they can fire, however rapidly they can discharge their deadly cargoes, wherever they can be carried either openly or in secret, none of those considerations causes or contributes to the epidemic of deadly violence in the United States. It won’t be long, in all likelihood, before gun advocates slip a provision into some piece of Congressional legislation that allows silencers to be put on guns without restriction or limitation.

We are told that when the fault doesn’t lie with religious fanatics–and, actually, it usually doesn’t–it’s because some person with mental health problems went off on a killing spree.  The logical implication of that argument–not that logic has ever had much to do with the arguments of gun advocates–is that we should be strengthening our programs for the mentally ill and increasing the funding for those efforts.  You can scour the federal budget in vain for any signs of increased funding. The mental health explanation is merely a dodge to change the subject from any consideration of gun regulations.

Have you ever heard Donald Trump, any representative of the NRA or the Members of Congress who they own put forth a serious proposal about improving mental health services in this country?  No sign of it in the President’s agenda.  No indication that Paul Ryan has included something in the tax bill.  Republicans have about as much interest in mental health services as they do in health care generally.

And certainly don’t resort to facts.  Comparisons with the records of other developed nations apparently are irrelevant because the United States is “exceptional.”  Unfortunately, the reality that stands out most clearly as exceptional is our addiction to gun violence.

Meanwhile, you might be tempted to feel better because of the press accounts of the hero with a gun who chased the killer from the church.  His presence will be argued by gun advocates as proof that if only all of us were fully armed all of the time, there would be no mass killings.  Only  that guy arrived too late, after 26 were dead.

You’re going to tell me it could have been worse. Perhaps, but there’s never been any indication that Second Amendment “true believers” actually care about the magnitude or horror of gun deaths.  Newtown, with its massacre of school children, changed nothing.  Concert goers in Las Vegas being mowed down are already far in the rear view mirror for most gun supporters.

Other people’s deaths become merely the cost of freedom, as long as you define freedom solely as the right to possess as many guns as you want with few–preferably no–limits.

Maybe we need to go back to an Originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment.  I’m sure the late Antonin Scalia would approve.  What if we let everyone own a single-shot musket as long as they are members of a local militia?  How’s that for trying to find common ground?

To borrow from one of the President’s favorite phrases, we are the laughing-stock of the world because of our stance towards guns and gun violence.  If people weren’t blinded by their ideology and their fanaticism, if they only opened their eyes and the minds, they would clearly see that we are facing a public health crisis.  In so many other ways, we are a nation that has identified problems, worked together to find solutions and then whole-heartedly implemented them. Just not about guns.

Instead, we keep shooting ourselves in the foot.  And the head.  And everywhere else.

Revising the tax code: What do Republicans really want?

There is actually widespread, even bipartisan, agreement that the U.S. tax code is in serious need of revision. In fact, the most recent major revision was in 1986 and, as historians note, since the federal income tax was instituted in 1916, there has been a major rewrite every 32 years.  Which means, 2018, it’s your turn.

However, there’s no real consensus on what changes are needed and no guarantee that a Republican-controlled Congress won’t make the current problems even worse. Although “alternative facts” are much in vogue these days, there are a few real facts worth keeping in mind as the debate unfolds in Washington this week.

First, despite what Donald Trump keeps saying, the United States is not even close to being the most heavily taxed country in the world. Many nations tax their citizens at much higher rates as part of a deliberate choice to fund a much broader range of services than are available in this country. Universal health care. Free higher education. A much more extensive set of social services.

Second, on the other hand, Trump’s contention that the corporate tax rate in this country is among the highest in the world is correct.  Few companies actually pay that rate,however, because they are able to find loopholes, tax havens and other evasions.  Many pay nothing.  How do you reduce the nominal rate while also increasing the amount of corporate tax revenues? Is there any will in Congress to address the abysmal level of compliance or collection among U. S. corporations?

Third, the “theory” of supply side economics–that the economy and the rest of society will benefit when the wealthiest among us pay minimum taxes–has never worked in practice.  If supply side economics actually worked, the growing disparities in wealth and income in this country in the past two decades would already have stimulated major growth in the economy.  Instead, executive salaries are rising to historic highs, stock buy-backs and increased dividends are much more prevalent, and employee pay raises and investments in business are lagging. And wage earners fall farther and farther behind.

Fourth, the tax code is entirely too complicated.  Only 10% of Americans fill out their own tax returns; 60% use tax-preparation agencies and another 30% use tax-preparation software.  It is estimated that American families spend 3.16 billion hours each year getting their tax forms completed.  By contrast, many European countries have returns that can be filled out in less than half an hour.

Here we get to the challenge of rewriting the tax code.  The 1986 revision was widely seen as a significant advance, simplifying the rules, achieving a progressive structure and raising enough money to fund government.  Since then, however, Congress has regularly found ways to modify and amend the law, carving out exceptions and special provisions, sometimes for a single company.  The irony is that while the IRS is routinely seen as the villain in our tax system, it is Congress that keeps messing it up and Congress which makes it more difficult for the IRS to do its job by repeatedly reducing its budget.

One of the great acts of hypocrisy that we see regularly is members of Congress pledging to make the system easier for taxpayers–while knowing that their capitulation to lobbyists requesting special favors is a major reason why tax forms are so complicated.

Similarly, new tax legislation will test whether Republicans actually care about budget deficits or only are concerned when there is a Democratic President.  I would bet on hypocrisy triumphing yet again.

What can we expect from the latest Republican tax initiative?  Its really hard to say since they have kept their proposal secret.  Any piece of legislation that impacts as many people as the tax code does and is as complicated deserves–indeed demands –extensive public hearings and lively debate, what Senator John McCain has called “regular order.”  If they have their way, Republicans will pass a bill in the dead of night with no hearings and little public awareness of what is being enacted.

Donald Trump clearly has no idea what the proposal will do, just as he had literally no understanding of the various pieces of health care legislation that were proffered earlier this year.  He wants something he can call a “win”, regardless of its content.  While he has made various promises in the past about what he would support–no changes in 401 (K) plans, tax increases for the wealthy–he is very likely to renege on those pledges just as he has so many others.

Similarly, because he has never released his own tax returns, Trump’s claim that he will not personally benefit from the new tax law is impossible to verify.  The exception is the effort to eliminate the estate tax, which would save his family hundreds of millions of dollars.  In fact, the beneficiaries of such a change would constitute far fewer than 1% of taxpayers and is hard to justify on any grounds.

Most Republican tax proposals in the past have had two objectives: lower the tax burden for the wealthy and force a reduction in the size of the federal government by making less revenues available.  The rhetoric surrounding the current proposal is substantially different from that, but, unless a few brave Republicans stand up for the truth, that will be the outcome again this time.

There are, in fact, examples from other countries of how we could greatly improve our tax system, but there’s no chance that any of those will receive any consideration in the current political environment.  The best we can hope for is less rather than more damage.  Unfortunately, that sentiment can be applied to most of what is going in in Washington these days.

 

Military-Civilian Relations in Donald Trump’s White House

 

In the adult day care center at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, General John Kelly has been generally seen as a leading pillar of stability. Since replacing the hapless Reince Preibus as Chief of Staff, he has brought a degree of order to the President’s schedule and cut down on unfettered access to him particularly by the most zealous staff members.  He has also reassured many outsiders by his mere presence.

Managing the White House may well be the most challenging job of Kelly’s long and distinguished career.  We continue to be reminded that not even a career Marine General can bring total order to the chaos that defines the Trump Administration.  Trump continues his tweets at all hours on all topics, big and small.  He lurches from position to position with no warning and no apparent rationale.  The family kiddie corps still occupies offices down the hall despite their absence of relevant qualifications or discernible impact on the issues they claim to care about.

In fairness to Kelly, he can hardly be expected to perform miracles.  As a staff person in the White House with no operational responsibilities and a history of strict adherence to the chain of command, Kelly likely sees his job as managing rather than weighing in on major policy issues.  Those looking to him to save the Affordable Care Act or prevent a massive give-away of tax dollars to America’s richest 1% are almost certain to be disappointed.

The main hope of Trump-watchers is that Kelly will keep him away from the nuclear button and rein in his reckless threats to start a war with North Korea because his pride has been hurt by Kim Jong un. They also hope he can insure that Trump maintains the United States’ membership in NATO and avoids a confrontation in the Middle East.  Whether Kelly plays a role in Trump’s apparent desire to dramatically increase the military budget as well as the country’s nuclear arsenal is much less clear.

Kelly certainly does not conform to the stereotype of military generals sometimes found in popular fiction.  Neither “Seven Days in May”–depicting an attempted military coup–nor “Dr. Strangelove”–scary satire about a nuclear war resulting from unhinged fingers on the levers of power–seems relevant.

In fact, the authors of the Constitution consciously constructed a system in which civilian control over the military was one of the fundamental principles of American government.  By contrast, in the contemporary world, we have numerous examples of the military seizing control in countries with less well-established traditions of constitutional government.

Among the critical strengths that Kelly brings to his job are his reputation and his credibility.  While he clearly possess political skills–anyone who rose to the most senior levels of the military as he did had to be politically adept–he is now operating in a totally different political environment.  At times, his lack of experience in national partisan politics has shown.

Beyond that, Trump has continuously disregarded traditional political norms and has left even wily veterans of Washington scratching their heads trying to figure out what makes him tick.  Kelly, in other words, is not the only one having to learn on the job how to deal with a president who frequently simply disregards the existing rules.

That’s the context for assessing Kelly’s dive into the ugly mess Trump created last week regarding calls to families of service members killed since he assumed office.  The General is certainly incredibly knowledgable about the challenges of comforting families who have lost a loved one in war.  That one of those lost was his own son makes the issue an understandably emotional one for him.

Kelly’s very human side showed when he took the podium at a press briefing to support Trump in a dispute with a family who publicly objected to the tone and content of his “condolence” call.  The politics of the issue were further complicated by the fact that a Congresswoman and friend of the family was riding in the car and overheard Trump’s call on a speaker phone.

Whether Kelly learns from this experience will be a key to his continuing effectiveness as Chief of Staff.  He made at less three significant errors, all of which reflect the dangers of working for Donald Trump.

For one, Kelly made an accusation about the Congresswoman that was false.  He has yet to correct the record or apologize.  His mistake was almost certainly the result of believing something that he had been told in much the same way that Colin Powell made the case at the United Nations for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction based on a faulty briefing.

Distortions of what political opponents say or do are much too common in today’s politics.  Whether the information passed on to Kelly was known to be false or was the result of sloppy staff work is less important than that his credibility took a big hit as the result of his public assertion.  I assume that Kelly will be more careful in the future about who he believes.

A second costly mistake was to engage in the kind of name calling that is a staple of Trump’s political style.  Calling a critic an “empty barrel” diminishes Kelly and makes him look like less of a general and more of a partisan mud-slinger.  That’s Trump’s job, not his.

Finally, even though he was operating in an area of personal expertise and experience, Kelly failed to see the other side of the argument when he made sweeping statements about the “correct” way to receive condolence calls.  He dismissed out of hand the right of a grieving family member to handle the information in any way she chooses.  That Kelly was “shocked” that someone else heard the call is imposing his personal preference and ignoring the rights of others.

The big lesson for Kelly from this incident should be that his credibility and reputation are on the line every time he goes public in support of the President.  He may believe that it buys him more leeway to manage Trump, but the President’s incredibly short-term focus suggests that he will care only about what Kelly has “done for him lately.”

Count me among those who hopes that Kelly learns from this experience and that he continues to be a stabilizing force in the most erratic and dangerous presidential administration in American history.

 

 

Donald Trump’s Destructive Rampage

 

This President of the United States likes breaking things. He particularly likes breaking things that have former president Barack Obama’s name on them. Last week may have been the most destructive ever. Up to now. But, of course, you’ve heard that before.

Ever since Donald Trump took office, we have struggled to understand what motivates him.  Observers have offered a variety of psychological labels, a range of metaphors, a cacophony of adjectives.  After his most recent burst of executive orders, tweets and public declarations, the image that seems most apt is of a bull in a china shop.   Debris is flying in every direction and a lot of Americans are being hit by the broken shards.

Trump’s most recent act of destruction was to cut off health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.  Given that assistance to less wealthy Americans is a core part of the legislation, it’s really not clear that he has the authority to take such action.  Yet, he and his Congressional Republican supporters seem indifferent to either that issue or to the great harm that will be done to millions of citizens.  Fortunately, a number of State Attorneys-General have already filed suit challenging his legal ability to so sabotage the law.  Whether a court will intervene quickly enough to prevent the literal bleeding will be known soon.

In that same week, the President began undermining the nuclear deal with Iran, cut back on environmental regulations concerning coal-fired power plants, withdrew from UNESCO, threatened to abrogate the NAFTA agreement and undercut protections for LBGQT Americans.  In none of these areas does Trump have an alternative policy.  He just hates the ones that currently exist although he would be hard pressed to explain why other than in the most vague terms.

Trump is basically a destroyer.  He’s certainly not a builder even if you factor in his efforts to have a wall erected along the Mexican border.  The Administration still doesn’t have a national infrastructure program although it was one of his major campaign promises.  He has never had a replacement for Obamacare other than empty promises about how much better things would be without it.  He has “decertified” the Iran agreement — and left it to Congress to fix his mess.

Of all the dangers arising from his presidency, the most serious is the threat to the rules and norms of our democracy.  While there are multiple strong, clear voices warning us of the risks that his actions pose–the new book, “One Nation after Trump” by E.J. Dionne, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann is an important example; a recent Vox report on the concerns of 25 prominent political scientists is another–Republican office holders have almost universally turned a blind eye and pretended that everything is pretty much normal.

Normal is absolutely the last word you should use to describe Trump and his presidency.  If our democracy survives–and it’s hardly a sure thing at this point–history will have damning things to say about those Trump enablers who could have put the brakes on but chose instead to advance their own agendas in the wake of his turbulence.

Similarly, Trump voters who continue to support him are failing the most basic test of citizenship. Much has been written about the importance of listening to and trying to understand the plight of white working class people who have suffered under the shifting global economy.  You have to wonder, however, whether they’ll ever notice that coal and manufacturing jobs are not coming back despite Trump’s blustering.

His support also comes from better educated, affluent Americans.  My own experience with trying to listen or to have a serious conversation with them is analogous to talking to a brick wall.  They ignore or make excuses for his ethical lapses, his constant lies, his crude behavior, his racism and misogyny.  We are told that using facts is not a good way to appeal to people with different opinions.  That does narrow the options.

Ta Nehisi Coates expressed it well in a recent publication.  Most of Trump’s supporters are not racists, but they are willing to tolerate and support a man, Trump, who is a racist.  His outrageous and irresponsible posture toward the suffering in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is hard to understand through any lens other than racial bias.  To say that first responders are not going to stay there “forever” shows a callousness that is totally at odds with the basic values of this country.  It’s pretty clear that he does not view Puerto Ricans as Americans.

What’s to be done?  First of all, don’t expect help from Republicans.  Some agree with what he is doing, some view him as a “useful idiot”, and some are so focused on squeezing every dollar they can out of the system that they really don’t care what he does.

What are the chances that Trump supporters, of all income levels, will come to the realization that he is a con man who won’t fulfill any of the promises that he has made?  While polls show a slight eroding of his base, a large portion of Trump backers remain unfazed by his reckless and irresponsible presidency even when they stand to be harmed by it.

Can we look to Robert Mueller for a remedy?  There are a lot of signs that he may be getting closer to some recommendations–which might explain Trump’s current unraveling.  A report to Congress urging impeachment of the President would probably be met with delays and more likely outright opposition.  The chances of a 25th Amendment remedy by the Cabinet seems even less likely.

A grand jury indictment is not implausible, but would raise legal issues about whether a sitting president can in fact be indicted.  The bright, albeit somewhat perverse, side of that approach, might be to bring all of government to a screeching halt.  In this case, less would definitely be more.

The more promising scenario, one which will take longer and allow continued damage in the meantime, is for the current upsurge in political activism to result in dramatic changes in the 2018 congressional election, including Democrats regaining control of at least one house of Congress.  That’s far from a sure thing, but it’s definitely a worthy goal.

As the American patriot Thomas Paine put it during the founding of our nation, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  Once again, we face an existential test of whether this nation will endure.

 

Words are not enough

The recent barrage of horrible news defies an easy response. It feels overwhelming. Even worse, so many of our “leaders” have already slid easily into clichés and meaningless expressions of concern. “Thoughts and prayers” for the victims of the Las Vegas massacre, like those offered up on innumerable occasions in the past, seem particularly hollow.

Carnage of innocent victims should not be “the price we pay for freedom” as some Second Amendment extremists have argued. The cold hard reality is that the NRA, members of Congress who are afraid to oppose them and too many on the far right give no evidence that they actually care about the lives that are lost on a regular basis to gun violence.

To the contrary, the price we pay for living in a civilized country should be the choice to make big guns and ammunition clips, etc. available only to those with demonstrated military needs for them.

Politicians, briefly, express a phony piety after each deadly incident, then quickly move on to advocate for legislation that will make it even easier for the next person to engage in deadly rampages. Next up on their agenda: a proposal to make the purchase of gun silencers easier. You certainly won’t want that deer or the concert goer to hear the shots being fired.

It used to be that elected officials saw their job as being problem-solvers.  The goal was not to find a perfect solution, but to improve conditions.  With respect to the prevention of deaths by firearm, the posture of the gun lobby is that either no regulation whatsoever is permissible under the Constitution–a position that even the U.S. Supreme Court does not agree with–or that any proposed step will not provide a perfect solution.

The much-used straw man is that any regulation is but the first step to taking away all guns.  How many times did you hear that warning while Barack Obama was president?  There is no data or evidence that moves this debate a centimeter.  Comparisons to the record of other countries are dismissed out of hand.  Examples of nations with stronger gun laws having fewer deaths by firearms are ignored or denied.

We have engaged in a wide-spread program to counter terrorism.  In the process, we have been willing to give up some of our freedoms in the name of greater safety.  Similarly, we have undertaken massive campaigns, spending millions of dollars, to counter public health threats.  In reality, the number of deaths from terrorists in this country pale in comparison to the human tragedy of gun violence.

Yet some keep proclaiming that “now” is not the right time to talk about gun regulations.   We continue to let our public officials get away with mouthing empty expressions of regret, but taking no remedial actions.

As often as I have written about the scourge of gun violence in this country, I have no expectations that this most recent “most deadly gun rampage in American history” will change anything.  We have too many elected officials who are cowards, who don’t really care about the victims, who have political agendas that focus only on the wishes of their largest donors.

This could be a moment for a courageous leader to stand up and speak truth to cowardice.  While there are some voices calling for action, those with the largest pulpits are totally silent.  We know there’s no chance of a bipartisan approach.  When last seen addressing this issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was toting a rifle around at an NRA convention.  House Speaker Paul Ryan seems to have no interest other than slashing the federal budget and is totally lacking any signs of a backbone.

What about President Trump?  At one point in his life, he expressed support for gun regulations, but that was several twists and turns ago.  During the presidential campaign, he promised to be a really good friend to the NRA.

Is there anything in his time as president that would lead to a glimmer of hope about this issue?  How many ways can you say no?  Trump’s overriding political strategy is to play to a conservative base that does not support any gun regulations.  His shaky relationship with fact makes him most likely to deny that guns constitute a public health crisis in this country.  Trump may well claim that current gun regulations are working just fine.

In his initial comments after the Las Vegas shooting, he described it as an act of “pure evil.”  Hard to argue with that assessment, but where do you go from there?  It’s far too easy then to assert that behavior of the shooter was so unpredictable and random that nothing could have been done to prevent it.  Of course, something might have been done to prevent an evil person from having 23 rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition and high-powered sights readily available.

If Trump is criticized for his response to Las Vegas, and there’s no certainty that he will be, he is likely, as he has done with the criticism of his administration’s feeble response to the plight of hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, to lash out and blame the victims.

At a moment when we could really use courageous, moral leadership in this country, the odds seemed stacked against it.  Spare us the words of condolence that we have heard so often in the past.  What is desperately needed is action to prevent future carnage in the streets of yet another American city.

 

Larry Hogan Paving his Path to the 2018 Election

 

Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland had a major campaign event last week. With all the trappings of a political rally, he revealed his “plan” to spend $9 billion to widen three of the State’s major highways. Hogan’s announcement needs to be seen more as a multi-layered bid for reelection than a major transportation policy initiative.

The timing of the event, the list of specific projects and the initiatives that were not part of the plan add up to a well-conceived launch of his 20018 campaign to win a second term as governor.  What it did not do, however, is present a coherent route to an improved transportation system in Maryland.

Start with the splashy $9 billion price tag.  You can easily visualize a campaign ad that features that figure as its centerpiece.  The inconvenient truth is that neither the eventual cost nor the source of the funds is nearly as clear as Hogan has suggested.

First of all, in his plan, the funding comes from neither the federal nor the state government.  It is, instead, a public/private partnership, taking advantage of legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly when they envisioned a Democrat sitting in the Governor’s chair.  In exchange for a significant share of the revenues to be produced by the new toll lanes that Hogan is planning to have built, private developers will be asked to front the money for the projects.

Will he find private financing?  Hard to know.  The next formal step in the process is for the State to issue a “Request for Interest.”  Besides not knowing if there will be sufficient interest to allow the three separate projects to move forward, there’s no guarantee that the terms that the Governor and his people assumed when they put together the announcement will be acceptable to potential developers.

A second unknown is what the three projects will actually cost.  The $9 billion estimate is the result of taking the average cost per mile of new highway construction and multiplying it by the number of miles of new lanes to be built.  Does that average figure take into account right-of-way acquisition?  Does it take into account the challenges of building next to existing roadway?  Does it take into account places where there is little or no excess space adjacent to current roads?

Even if all those questions have easy answers, the reality is that there hasn’t been a major construction project in the history of major construction projects that didn’t end up costing more than the original projections.  Will those overruns be the responsibility of the developer or of the State?

The additions to the Maryland section of the Washington Beltway, I-270 and what is currently known as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway will all be toll lanes.  That approach is not unprecedented.  Consider a section of I-95 north of Baltimore as well as the Inner-County Connecter.  Additionally, the Virginia section of the Beltway near Fairfax has toll lanes.

What will the relationship be between these new toll facilities and the existing ones?  Who will set the level of tolls on these new facilities?  How much do we know about the impact of the existing toll roads on non-toll road traffic?  The campaign announcement provided little or no information on these “details” which could go a long way to determining how successful this new initiative will turn out to be.

There is another more overtly political dimension to the Governor’s highway announcement last week.  The same chief executive who called the Baltimore Red Line a boondoggle and cancelled it has yet again snubbed the State’s largest city in his transportation priorities.

None of these project provide significant benefits for City residents. It’s clear that Hogan doesn’t expect many votes from that jurisdiction and would, actually, prefer to use Baltimore as a punching bag for his more conservative supporters.

What makes the decision to favor roads over mass transit even more significant is the Governor’s claim that he will be a fierce advocate for locating the new Amazon headquarters in Baltimore.  The disconnect between actions and words is unlikely to be missed by Jeff Bezos.

These observations don’t mean that there isn’t a case to be made for the roads Hogan is proposing.  It is likely to be a highly popular political gambit.  On the other hand, that the new lanes will actually ease congestion, based on past history, is highly dubious.  They will probably be over capacity the day the ribbons are cut.

Making this announcement one year before the 2018 election means that voters on Election Day will only know what Hogan has promised rather than what he has delivered.  In light of his incredibly thin record of accomplishments this far, it makes a lot of sense for him to go bold at this point.  Beyond good politics, however, the outcome is not going to be apparent for a long time.

 

 

Who Gets to Protest?

 

At one level, the furor precipitated by Donald Trump’s twitter attacks on professional athletes who kneel during the national anthem is a huge political distraction. While his losses pile up and the promised winning is nowhere to be seen, the President, as he so often does, has tried to change the subject.

His tirades, containing more than a tinge of racial overtones, certainly appeal to his political base. But they are also attracting some Americans who might not normally support him but agree on the importance of national symbols.  That fact alone guarantees he will keep up the attacks for quite some time.

Meanwhile, all the commentary on social medial and elsewhere that there are more important issues to be discussing–the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, the fate of yet another Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, an administration tax plan that will further exacerbate inequality in this country, a ransacking of environmental protections, and so much more–is exactly correct.

Yet, on the other hand–and there is always at least one more hand to consider–the right of citizens who happen to be professional athletes to protest racism in this country is not exactly a trivial issue.  Americans give up some rights when they join the U.S. military, but they certainly don’t relinquish their basic freedoms when they step on a football field or a basketball court or any other sport venue.

The constitutional issue is not a complicated one despite Trump’s bellowing.  That you could be fired from your job for expressing a political point of view is totally un-American.  That you are labelled a “son of a bitch” by the President is beyond despicable.

Trump’s behavior doesn’t surprise me.  In fact, despite his capacity to constantly further demean his office, nothing that he does should be seen as a surprise.  It’s just Trump being Trump.

What is dismaying, however, is that so many Americans have come to accept his ignorance, bullying and generally erratic actions.  He has contributed to a coarsening of politics which has made rational discourse, compromise and problem solving harder and harder to achieve.  It didn’t start with Trump, but he certainly put his foot on the accelerator.

I’m trying to understand why so many Americans are so disturbed by Colin Kaepernick’s protest or by that of large numbers of NFL players this past Sunday.  They weren’t engaged in violent protest.  They weren’t even engaged in civil disobedience, which generally involves being willing to accept the consequences of breaking a law that you believe to be unjust.  None of them burned a flag or trampled on one.

Rather, what we saw was a symbolic protest.  Let’s be clear.  The flag is not the same as our country or as the members of the military who fight  to defend us.  It is a symbol.   To assert, as Trump and others have done, that the players were disrespecting the country or the military is nothing but demagoguery.

As an American, you have every right to disagree with their actions, to criticize them, to boycott NFL games if that is the way you choose to express your political views.  Conceptually, those actions are no different from what the players did on Sunday.

Ken Burns’ newest documentary on the Vietnam War is particularly relevant to this debate.  Supporters of that tragic mistake used as one of their tactics questioning the patriotism of critics of the war and arguing that, somehow, their opposition was illegitimate.  In fact, those critics were right and the defenders of the war policy were tragically wrong.  We were lied to, the war policy was based on fallacies piled upon falsehoods covered in secrecy.

At a time that we have a president who blatantly disregards truth, fact and science, it is more important than ever not only to allow dissent, but, indeed, to encourage it.  Nothing could be more patriotic, more fundamentally American, than that.  Even those who disagree with the tactics of NFL players last Sunday should be vigorous defenders of their right to engage in those tactics.

No one was harmed.  It is actually ironic that those on the political right in this country invest enormous energy in criticizing what they call “political correctness.”  Their position on the NFL protests is merely another form of insisting on conformity that they would otherwise condemn.  Get over it.  There really are life and death issues facing the country.  Choosing to protest during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner is not one of them.

Amazon HQ2 Skirmishes

 

Let me start by saying that Jeff Bezos has not yet responded to my offer to help with site selection for his new headquarters. My comments are not based on inside information, but reflect only my own observations. On the other hand, they are not influenced by a personal or professional stake in the outcome.

The war of words that broke out this week between the Baltimore Sun and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, on the other hand, demonstrated yet again that where you stand depends on where you sit. The last daily paper standing in Baltimore accused Baker of stabbing the City in the back by promoting his own proposal for the new Amazon headquarters rather than supporting Baltimore’s Port Covington bid.

The Sun editorial can best be described as snarky and misguided. If the City fails to land the Amazon project, it won’t be because of a competing bid from Prince George’s County. Given that this is a national competition, both these proposals have to be seen as long-shots at best– probably true of most of the bids that will be submitted.

In fact, the Sun’s attack on Baker could well end up backfiring and hurting the Baltimore bid.  It comes across as petty and parochial, hardly the kind of global, inclusive environment that Amazon prides itself on and is undoubtedly seeking.

Rather than whining about Baker’s effort, City advocates should be focused on putting together the best possible package they can. At the end of the day, there will be negotiations between Amazon and, in all likelihood, several bidders. Either Baltimore City or Prince George’s County would, in such an eventuality, be strengthened by being able to point to other assets within Maryland that would benefit an Amazon facility located within the State.

Both contestants have significant obstacles to overcome.  While Baltimore is close to an international airport, its mass transit system is far from outstanding and has been the subject of ongoing disputes between city residents and the State. However, the success of Under Armor, the presence of numerous institutions of higher education and available land in Port Covington are all assets.

On the other hand, its national reputation has taken a real hit in the last couple of years with continuing stories about crime, drugs, poverty and police misconduct.  Unless Amazon views the headquarters decision as an opportunity to “rescue” Baltimore, the odds are very long indeed.

One curiosity of the Port Covington proposal is that it has created an odd mix of bedfellows.  Governor Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, with the first two often in loud public disputes with the third, have all come out in favor of the location.  Still, Amazon might be concerned about Hogan’s general antipathy to the City and his tendency to use it as a whipping boy for political gain.  Would Bezos make a calculation on the Governor’s chances of being reelected?

With respect to any Prince George’s site, the threshold question is whether Amazon would be willing to settle in a suburban location.  While Prince George’s is certainly an urbanized county, that’s not the same as being a city. Access to two major airports, DC metro and, eventually, the Purple Line, are all positive features.  Having a close relationship with the University of Maryland at College Park is also a plus, particularly if that campus ended up receiving the $1 billion in added support that State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Rich Madaleno has proposed.

Still, the competition is likely to be fierce and neither Maryland proposal bears much resemblance to Amazon’s Seattle environment.  Does Bezos want a totally different sort of second headquarters or does he want to try to replicate what he already has?

The list of prospective bidders is a long one.  Denver has been seen by some analysts as a leading contender, but that’s as much guesswork as anything I’ve written.  Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York, Atlanta?

How about Philadelphia, the other location I know a lot about?  At this point, the City is considering three different possible sites, and Wilmington is also in the mix.  Unlike the Maryland skirmish, this one has not yet involved public name-calling, but it’s still early.

One of the Philadelphia locations seems to me to offer a particularly intriguing set of characteristics. The site being discussed is adjacent to the 30th Street train station and to the campuses of both the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.  It is 20 minutes from the airport and is served by a subway line, several trolley routes and buses.

There’s no question that this location is urban.  Philadelphia has a vibrant and thriving Center City with lots of cultural attractions, but it also has many of the persistent problems of older metropolitan areas.  The most troubling is the highest rate of residents living in poverty of any major U.S. city.

Does Amazon have an algorithm for factoring in all the calculations needed to select the location for its new headquarters?  It certainly does for making suggestions on what books I should buy next.  Or will this be a highly personal decision made by the Bezos?

Chasing Amazon HQ2

 

Jeff Bezos will soon be confronted with a fascinating decision. Public officials all over the country are claiming that they can provide the perfect site for Amazon’s new second national headquarters.  And who can blame them if they engage in a little hyperbole. After all, the winner of this sweepstakes is looking at the prospect of 50,000 new jobs and being home–or at least partial home–to one of the world’s leading tech giants.

The  announcement that the company was looking for a second headquarters site included a set of selection criteria sufficiently broad to encourage a lot of applicants.  Chief among those criteria are a highly educated workforce, access to good transportation and location in a major metropolitan area.

If applicants have visions dancing in their heads of becoming the next Seattle–a booming tech center–they might want to take a close look at the characteristics of that city which have made it so appealing to Amazon.  There’s actually a bit of circular reasoning involved since Amazon has clearly helped transform Seattle even as it has thrived in the atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest location.

I recently spent several days there and, as a result, suspect that it won’t be as easy to appeal to Bezos as it might appear from the selection criteria.  Seattle is home to a large major research university, the University of Washington, as well as numerous other institutions of higher education in the Pacific Northwest.  It’s also true that Amazon has attracted lots of bright, ambitious employees from all other the country, indeed all over the world.

Access to good transportation certainly includes having a major international airport. But transportation within the city also matters. Seattle’s mass transit is more buses than rapid transit, but it helps that the core of the city is not terribly large.  Riding buses to Seattle attractions, we saw lots of casually dressed and relatively young workers arriving around 10:00 am each morning.

Amazon HQ1 is located in the heart of Seattle.  Would the company really consider a suburban location?  Perhaps, but it would be a significant departure from the model that has developed in Seattle.

Amazon is such a behemoth that its arrival in a second headquarters city will help shape the future of the place.  This is more than just lots of new jobs, although that in and of itself would be transformational for most cities.  Amazon may well prefer that kind of dominant role and may, as a result, avoid a location like New York City where it would just be part of the crowd.

My guess is that the overriding factor in the decision that Bezos ultimately makes will revolve around quality of life for employees.  Again, think of Seattle as a model.  Progressive political environment, lack of extreme weather, cultural amenities, easy access to the outdoors, casual lifestyle.

Based solely on that perspective, Amazon HQ2 would most likely end up in Portland or Vancouver.  That’s probably not going to happen, although it wouldn’t be impossible.

Then the question becomes what locations meet the basic criteria and also provide an attractive quality of life.  The Internet is flooded with educated as well as wild guesses about the likely winner of this megabucks challenge.

Many contestants will approach the issue with a very traditional economic development bid.  What tax breaks and other incentives can be packaged together to appeal to Bezos?

Past history has shown that some benefits offered to lure companies to a particular state or city have in fact exceeded the value of having them there.  Cities with fragile tax bases have sometimes given away years of tax revenues in order to attract a new business.  Some of those businesses have failed or moved when the benefit period was over.  How much to offer is a very tricky calculation to make, often driven as much by political considerations as economic ones.

One of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for Governor in Maryland in 2018, State Senator Rich Madaleno, has come up with one of the few truly creative and innovative proposals for how to attract Amazon.  Madaleno has promised, if elected, to invest $1 billion in the University of Maryland, the state’s flagship research university, to enhance its ability to be a working partner with Amazon.

I have no idea whether Bezos will take the idea seriously, but it certainly is more responsive to the logic of where he wants to take Amazon in the future than receiving a bundle of tax breaks.  There will of course be lots of other proposals with various elements that go beyond tax incentives.  The race to win the Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes looks like a once in a lifetime opportunity that should bring forth some really good ideas.  If Bezos is lucky, he will have difficulty making a choice.