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Time To Take A Stand

The news media and my Facebook feed are full of stories about the horrific mistreatment of families and small children at the border.

Children are dying of disease and neglect. One seven-year-old girl died of dehydration--she wasn’t given enough  water to drink! A four-month old was separated from his family. Hundreds of people are packed into shelters built to hold a fraction of the number crammed in…the horror stories go on and on.

From Lawyers for Good Government, we learn that

The Trump administration argued in court this week that detained migrant children do not require basic hygiene products (like soap and toothbrushes) to be held in “safe and sanitary” conditions. Lawyers who recently interviewed detained children report that kids are living in “traumatic and dangerous” conditions – insufficient food and water, going weeks without bathing, kids as young as 7 years old being told to care for the babies and toddlers.

Our delusional and mentally-ill President has no intention of doing anything to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis he has created. In interviews, he insists Obama began the family separation policy (he didn’t–the only time his administration removed children from their families was when they were believed to be in danger) and simply denies what numerous reports have documented.

Meanwhile, rather than calling on Congress or all those self-proclaimed “Christians” to intervene, conservative apologists attack those who–like AOC–call these facilities what they clearly are: concentration camps.

There is no ambiguity about what is happening. The heartless people who are defending the documented abuse and inhumanity are telling the rest of us who–and what– they are. 

“Fox & Friends”co-host Brian Kilmeade showed his support for President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” approach to border policy, adding that the migrant children who have been separated from their families“aren’t our kids.”

“Like it or not, these aren’t our kids,” said Kilmeade on Friday’s episode of the Fox News morning show. “Show them compassion, but it’s not like he’s doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas. These are people from another country and now people are saying that they’re more important than people in our country who are paying taxes and who have needs as well.”

Is this really what America has come to?

Are we really prepared to defend unforgivable and inhumane treatment so long as the objects of that treatment aren’t “our” kids?  Are we content to be like the “good Germans” who wouldn’t personally have taken their Jewish neighbors to the camps, but who were quite willing to close their eyes and pretend not to see the atrocities around them?

This isn’t about immigration policy. Good people can disagree about border security, about the criteria for allowing migrants to cross the border, about the number of refugees America should resettle. Good people do not and cannot excuse callous, barbaric, inhumane treatment of children and families trying to escape desperate conditions–conditions that our country has some measure of responsibility for creating and that our ignoramus President has made worse by cutting off aid that would to some extent ameliorate the conditions they are fleeing.

This humanitarian travesty is being done in our name. And to add insult to injury, private prison companies are profiting from it. Big time.

For me, there is nothing worse than the feeling of powerlessness–the recognition of a great wrong that I feel helpless to address. Surely other people feel the same.

What would it take to organize a national strike? A day when only critically important workers (policing, hospitals, etc.) show up? Those of us for whom morality means caring for our fellow humans rather than fixating on other people’s genital activity need a way to tell our broken, pathetic excuse for a government–in Howard Beale’s famous words– that we’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore. That we aren’t going to sit by while an American government perpetuates unforgivable behaviors in our name.

I’m open to other ideas, but we need some vehicle to express our collective outrage, and send a message. We can’t just avert our eyes.

 

Culture Of Entitlement

Among the (many) things that irritate me is the widespread habit of attributing characteristics or behaviors to whole groups of people. I’m not just talking about obviously reprehensible–and racist–broad-brush assertions about African-Americans or Jews or Muslims, etc., but accusations about “businessmen” or “poor people” or the growing animus against “rich folks.”

With respect to rich people, there are obviously significant differences between, say, a Nick Hanauer and a Charles Koch.

Of course cultural differences do exist, and people who have been socialized into specific cultures will reflect those differences . What’s important is to recognize that not every member of Group A will exhibit characteristics that are statistically more prominent among members of Group A.

With that extended caveat, there is growing evidence that affluent people as a group are more likely to exhibit “entitled” behaviors. As an Irish journalist has reported,

DID YOU EVER get the feeling that people driving fancy, expensive cars are more aggressive on the road, more domineering or that they think they own the road?

Well, what if I told you that isn’t just a ‘feeling’ – there is a significant body of research to support the idea that people driving expensive cars are more inconsiderate on the road.

Researchers at the University of California in Berkeley monitored motorist behaviour at a pedestrian crossing in California.

It is illegal for cars in California to not stop for a pedestrian at a zebra crossing but half of the drivers in expensive cars broke that law and didn’t stop for their fellow citizens who were waiting to cross the road.

Perhaps the most interesting thing in that survey is that the very oldest and least expensive vehicles were classified as ‘beater cars’ – In Ireland we would call them ‘bangers’.

Every single one of the people driving a banger stopped at the pedestrian crossing.

It wasn’t simply driving behavior. The article referenced a number of other studies that seemed to confirm that–as a group–wealthier individuals were less considerate, less ethical, and more likely to “cheat, lie and steal.”

In another experiment researchers sat a jar of individually wrapped sweets in front of a group of people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. The participants were explicitly told that the individually wrapped sweets were for children in a nearby laboratory but that they could take some if they wanted.

Were rich people more willing to take sweets meant for children? Of course they were. Rich people took twice as many sweets as the people from the lower income groups.

Other studies have found that rich people were more likely to cheat. In one study, people earning more than €130,000 a year were four times more likely to cheat than someone earning €14,000 a year. They are also less likely to be generous. Students of philanthropy can cite to numerous studies confirming that people on low incomes give proportionately more to charity than rich people do.

In the U.S., differences in social class are overwhelmingly a result of parental income and what the article identifies as a “multitude of structures from good addresses to parent’s social contacts, financial backing and private education.”

But very few of the fortunate recognize the factors that have benefitted them.

Far from being aware of the advantages they have had in life – they think that they succeed because they are the smartest, the hardest working or the most determined.

But why are they more likely to cheat, lie and to cut off pedestrians? And why are they less likely to give to charity?

It may be in part because they are cut off from the reality of poverty – living in an upper-class bubble. But primarily the researchers found that greed is actually viewed more favourably in upper-class communities.

“We reason that increased resources and independence from others cause people to prioritise self-interest over others’ welfare and perceive greed as positive and beneficial, which in turn gives rise to increased unethical behaviour,” the researchers concluded.

One of the great drivers of American innovation–and one of the significant protectors of civil liberties–has been a culture that respects individualism and rewards individual effort. Over the years, however, that culture has become corrupted. Not only has much of America lost sight of the “golden mean” between individualism and the common good, the culture has promoted a mythology that allows many beneficiaries of inequality to lie to themselves–to believe that their good fortune is solely the product of their obvious superiority.

We can see this phenomenon rather clearly in Donald Trump and his enablers.

Do all wealthy people wear these ethical blinders? Absolutely not. But these days, far too many do–and the mounting resentment they engender may well result in a blowback that will not discriminate between the good guys and the Trumpists.

 

Credit Where Credit Is Due

One of the unfortunate effects of our corrupt and paralyzed political structure is the “drowning out” effect, sometimes described as Washington “sucking the oxygen out of the room.” While our attention is fixated on the more dramatic consequences of our national government’s “brokenness,” we fail to notice the harms being done by the multitude of problems that government is simply not fixing.

One of those is the way creditworthiness is measured.

There’s no doubt that credit card companies charge excessive rates of interest. But as scholars at the Brookings Institution point out, simply legislating a cap would actually compound the problem.

When does the interest rate a lender charges cross the line from economically justified to immoral? Societies have struggled with this question since biblical times. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) took a crack at this puzzle, proposing to cap credit card interest rates at 15 percent. They’re concerned that the U.S. credit system traps working families with unsustainable debt. We share their concern, but their proposal uses a blunt instrument to attack a nuanced problem.

The Loan Shark Prevention Act, as the new legislation is called, is likely to hurt the people it’s designed to help, driving the market away from consumers with low credit scores. Some people may have their interest rates reduced, but many would no longer have access to credit at any price. Banks have been clever in figuring out how to hide credit in fees, as anyone who has paid $35 for an overdraft knows.

Instead, the authors propose making affordable credit accessible to a much larger group, by fixing what they identify as “the flawed scoring system that allocates credit.”

Our current system decides who gets credit and at what price using algorithms that analyze a person’s credit history and calculate a credit score. FICO, the most common credit score, employs a range between 300 and 850. There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a prime or subprime credit score but, generally, people with scores above about 680 are rewarded with cheap credit and high borrowing limits. Those classified as either near-prime or subprime, whose scores largely fall below 680, have a tougher time accessing and paying for credit.

The apparent objectivity of the algorithm masks a whole host of issues. A peek behind the credit-scoring curtain reveals that, as in “The Wizard of Oz,” there are humans feeding imperfect information into the machine. You could be the most creditworthy person on the planet, but if you lack a credit history, are a young adult or a recent immigrant, or had financial hardship in the past five years, your score will be low. Credit reports are rife with errors: One out of 5 Americans has a material error on their score.

I recently encountered this precise circumstance with my granddaughter-in-law: she is young and had virtually no credit history. It wasn’t bad credit, it was no credit, because she had been prudent and avoided debt. No credit became a real problem when she and my grandson applied for a mortgage. (Even more maddening, one of the three reporting agencies kept telling the bank her credit was “frozen”–whatever that means–but continued to insist to her, during her multiple calls to correct the issue, that it wasn’t.)

The Brookings scholars write that “Congress should start examining this system and aggressively pushing for its improvement.”

Lawmakers should push for credit-scoring formulas that take a wider range of data into consideration. Paying a mortgage on time improves your credit score, but paying your rent on time does not, because mortgages are tracked and rents generally are not. That’s just not fair…

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that 45 million Americans lack the data that credit bureaus use to create a credit score. If you don’t have a score, it can be very hard to get a loan, rent an apartment or persuade an employer to hire you. Credit scores have become an essential component of what Princeton sociologist Frederick Wherry calls “financial citizenship” — the ingredients necessary to participate fully in the economy and civil society.

If we had a functioning Congress, this is one of the multiple tasks to which they should attend. But of course, we don’t. Right now, Mitch McConnell (aka the most evil man in America) is preventing the Senate from even considering one hundred bills that have been passed by the House.

We have a legislature that is incapable of doing anything, and an Administration trying its best to undo what was accomplished in the past. We aren’t even a banana republic: we’re a failed state.

A Lesson On The Constitution

Jamin Raskin was a Professor of Constitutional law when I met him, many years ago now. That meeting occurred only because Beverly Hudnut was in his law school class at American University, and introduced us when I was in D.C. Raskin had recognized the Hudnut name from the famous First Amendment case that struck down an Indianapolis ordinance outlawing an ill-defined “pornography”–a case on which I had served as local counsel.

Raskin was an impressive constitutional scholar and teacher, and his subsequent performance as a legislator from Maryland and activist for the National Popular Vote Project has been equally impressive. That’s why his recent Washington Post op-ed on the proper relationship of the executive and legislative branches during the current constitutional crises is well worth reading.

He began by documenting the current–unprecedented– intransigence of the Executive branch:

Constitutional crisis looms, preceded by constitutional illiteracy and confusion, which now hang like a thick fog over Washington. President Trump’s administration refuses to cooperate with any congressional investigations he disfavors, drawing a curtain over the executive branch and blockading our oversight work: His treasury secretary has declinedto produce the president’s tax returns, as demandedby the House Ways and Means Committee under federal statute. His attorney general has refusedto comply with a House Judiciary Committee subpoena for special counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted report and the evidence underlying his findings, and he has orderedJustice Department official John Gore not to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee (without even bothering to assert a legal privilege). Trump is suingHouse Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) for seeking documents from one of the president’s accounting firms. And the White House has directedformer counsel Donald McGahn and other witnesses not to appear before Congress. “Congress shouldn’t be looking anymore,” the president-king proclaims. “This is all. It’s done.”

Oversight isn’t the only area where the president thinks he can supersede and supplant Congress. He believes he can declarea national security emergency when lawmakers reject funding for his border wall — and then reprogrammoney Congress has appropriated for other purposes to build the wall behind our backs. And despite the fact that his main job is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” as the Constitution’s Article IIprovides, he routinely sabotages the effective administration of the Affordable Care Act (by starvingrecruitment efforts and promoting“junk” plans) and encourages government officials at the border to violate the law on asylum seekers. All this falls outside of his constitutional power.

Raskin then reminded readers (at least those who paid attention in civics class, assuming they had a civics class) of the traditional story we tell ourselves about “co-equal branches” and the operation of checks and balances.

Then he dissents.

But this naive cliche is now the heart of our current troubles. Congress was never designed as, nor should it ever become, a mere “co-equal branch,” beseeching the president to share his awesome powers with us. We are the exclusive lawmaking branch of our national government and the preeminent part of it. We set the policy agenda, we write the laws, and we can impeach judges or executives who commit high crimes and misdemeanors against our institutions. As James Madison observedin the Federalist Papers, “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” Congress is first among equals.

Raskin’s column proceeds by detailing the history and jurisprudence that support his assertion of legislative superiority, and he also illuminates the path by which Presidents have amassed unauthorized powers. I really encourage you to click through and read the column in its entirety.

It’s tempting to think of the president as the main actor in the story of America, because he (or she) is a cast of one. But as the great Rep. Thaddeus Stevens reminded Americans during Reconstruction, “The sovereign power of the nation rests in Congress,” and its members stand around the president “as watchmen to enforce his obedience to the law and the Constitution.”

One of the most disappointing aspects of the travesty that has been triggered by a corrupt and incompetent Executive branch and a President who consistently displays his contempt for the law and his ignorance of even the most basic provisions of the constitution, is the continued refusal of Republicans in the House and Senate to defend the institution and the country they presumably serve.

They should listen to Raskin.And grow some balls.

Trump–Frankenstein’s monster

Regular readers of this blog–for that matter, even occasional readers–could hardly avoid noticing that I’m no fan of Donald Trump. When I read through the comments, it’s pretty obvious that most of my readers are equally repelled.

Sometimes, however, it is hard to put into words the (numerous) reasons so many usually civil and thoughtful people become tongue-tied and sputter when asked to identify the characteristics that most appall them–which is why I’m sharing one of the best descriptions I’ve encountered.  (If I did embroidery, I’d make it into a wall hanging….)

It’s from an Englishman, and the British do have a way with words.

Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.

Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.

The writer goes on to say that Trump is not merely a spoiled child of wealth, but “A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.” There’s an image I won’t soon forget!

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.

That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.

There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:

Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.

After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.

He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart.

In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

I have taken the liberty of quoting most of the post, because it is so perfect–it captures virtually everything I find despicable about Trump and incomprehensible about the people who–despite it all–support him.

Some even, apparently, like him.

That’s the worst part of all of this–the fact that so many Americans can look at the damage being done, not just to this country’s policies, norms and institutions, but to the very ideal of decency, by this fatuous, empty, self-absorbed facsimile of a human, and not recoil in disgust.

I want to ask them: are you raising your children to behave like this?

For that matter, if you were drinking in a bar, and someone at the other end of that bar was bragging ungrammatically and embarrasingly like Trump, wouldn’t you assume there was something really, really wrong with the guy, and edge away?

The last poll I saw gave him a 38% approval rating. It’s shaken my faith in my fellow-humans.