Sunday, January 13, 2019

Weekend Roundup

For many years now, I've identified two major political problems in America. The most obvious one is the nation's habit and obsession with projection of military power as its leverage in dealing with other nations. As US economic power has waned, and as America shed its liberal ideals, it's become easier for others to challenge its supremacy. In turn, American power has hardened around its military and covert networks, placing the nation on a permanent war footing. This near-constant state of war, since 1945 but even more blatantly since 2001, has led to numerous social maladies, like domestic gun violence and the xenophobia leading to the current "border crisis."

The other big problem is increasing inequality. The statistics, which started in the 1970s but really took off in the "greed is good" 1980s, are clear and boring, but the consequences are numerous, both subtle and pernicious. It would take a long book to map out most of the ways the selfish pursuit and accumulation of riches has warped business, politics, and society. One small example is that when GW Bush arbitrarily commanded the world to follow his War on Terror lead ("you're either with us or against us"), he was assuming that as US President he was entitled to the same arbitrary powers (and lack of accountability) corporate CEOs enjoyed.

I used to wonder how Reagan was able to affect such a huge change in America despite relatively sparse legislative accomplishments -- mostly his big tax cut. The answer is that as president he could send signals to corporate and financial leaders that government would not interfere with their more aggressive pursuit of power and profit. Reagan's signals have been reiterated by every Republican president since, with ever less concern for scruples or ethics or even the slightest concern for consequences. All Trump has done has been to carry this logic to its absurdist extreme: his greed is shameless, even when it crosses into criminality.

Still, what the government lockout, now entering its fourth week, shows, is that we may need to formulate a third mega-ailment: we seem to have lost our commitment to basic competency. We should have seen this coming when politicians (mostly Republicans) decided that politics trumps all other considerations, so they could dispute (or ignore) any science or expertise or so-called facts they found inconvenient. (Is it ironical that the same people who decry "political correctness" when it impinges on their use of offensive rhetoric are so committed to imposing their political regimen on all discussions of what we once thought of as reality?)

A couple things about competency. One is that it's rarely noticed, except in the breech. You expect competency, even when you're engaging with someone whose qualifications you can properly judge -- a doctor, say, or a computer technician, or a mechanic. You also expect a degree of professional ethical standards. Trust depends on those things, and no matter how many time you're reminded caveat emptor, virtually everything you do in everyday life is built on trust. We can all point to examples of people who violated your trust, but until recently such people were in the minority. Now we have Donald Trump. And sure, lots of us distrusted him from the start of his campaign. He was, after all, vainglorious, corrupt, a habitual liar, totally lacking in empathy, his head full of mean-spirited rubbish.

On the other hand, even I am shocked at how incapable Trump has been at understanding the most basic rudiments of his job. There's nothing particularly wrong with him having policy views, or even an agenda, but the most basic requirement of his job is that he keep the government working, according to the constitution and the laws as established per that constitution -- you know, the one he had to swear to protect and follow when he took his oath of office. There have been shutdowns in the past -- basically ever since Newt Gingrich decided the threat would be a clever way to extort some policy concessions from Bill Clinton -- but this is the first one that was imposed by a president.

His reason? Well, obviously he's made a political calculation, where he thinks he can either bully the Democrats into giving him something they really hate ($5.7 billion so he can brag about how he's delivering that "big, beautiful wall" he campaigned on) and thereby restore his "art of the deal" mojo from the tarnish of losing the 2018 "midterms" so badly, or rouse the American people (his base, anyway) into blaming the Democrats for all the damage the shutdown causes. Either way, he feels that his second-term election in 2020 depends on this defense of political principle. Besides, he hates the federal government anyway -- possibly excepting the military and a few other groups currently exempt from the shutdown -- mostly because he's bought into the credo that "politics is everything, and everything is politics" (which makes most of the Democrat-leaning government enemy territory).

On the other hand, all he's really shown is that he's unfit to hold office, because he's forgotten that his main job is to keep the United States government working: implementing and enforcing the laws of the land, per the constitution. One might argue that using his office for such a political ploy is as significant a violation of his trust as anything else he's done. Indeed, one might argue that it is something he should be impeached for (although that would require a political consensus that has yet to form -- not that he isn't losing popularity during this charade).

Some scattered links this week:

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