The Bargain

August 2, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Deep below the U.S. Capitol Building, several men stand guard outside a door. Inside the room are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. With each of them is an aide.

“If you can arrange a voice vote to impeach on Monday, my members can deliver the needed two-thirds majority to convict,” the Senator says. “Vice-President Pence will serve out the term. Utah Senator Mitt Romney has agreed to accept the party’s nomination this August.”

Ms. Pelosi eyes McConnell warily. “We like our chances against Trump. Romney’s a moderate that a lot of Republican voters – maybe even some Democratic voters – will welcome. I need more.”

McConnell clears his throat. “I’ll reduce the liability protections for big businesses, but my members will not budge on lawsuit protections for smaller businesses. This is something your own members can get behind. Who doesn’t like small business in America?”

Pelosi motions to her aide who hands her a summary of the second relief bill that the House passed in May. She glances at it. McConnell fights the smile that tugs at the left corner of his mouth. Pelosi is not fooling him. The paper is a sham. She’s got her demands memorized.

“Revoke the SALT provision in the tax bill,” Pelosi says. McConnell shakes his head. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, for God’s sake, Mitch. We can argue it out in the next Congress. One year of relief. One year only.”

“You agree to the one trillion package we passed this week,” McConnell says.

“We passed a three trillion dollar bill back in May and your members and the White House couldn’t agree on how much the American people should suffer,” Pelosi accuses him.

“Unlike your coalition, Nancy, ours comes from a lot of diverse areas from all over the country,” McConnell argues. “They have a wide range of concerns and perspectives.”

“White concerns, white perspectives,” Pelosi shoots back. “I need more help for state and local governments.”

“States like Illinois and New Jersey have underfunded their public pension plans for years,” McConnell says. “We’re not using the Covid crisis to bail out corrupt state politicians with no fiscal discipline.”

“We’ll set up a joint oversight committee to monitor how the states and cities spend the money,” Pelosi offers.

“Money is fungible,” McConnell says. “No way to properly monitor it. I’ve got too many members from small states who have struggled for years to attract good talent for city and state government. They couldn’t offer fancy pension packages. They were responsible. Their pension funds are not badly underfunded like Illinois. They just won’t go for it.”

“I’ll take SALT off the table and meet you two-thirds of the way on aid to the states and cities. You’ll look like a tough negotiator, but I’ll have to go back to my members and tell them that I gave away $1.5 trillion in aid that they voted for in May. You want to build fighter jets that the Air Force doesn’t want and yet you’re taking money away from students and teachers? That will be a good campaign ad this fall.”

“Not negotiable, Nancy. My members will take their chances with Trump if I give in on the military aid. Too many communities depend on that production. I’ll go halfway on aid to state and local governments.”

Pelosi turns to her aide. “How much is the final package?” McConnell knows that she has calculated exactly what the figure is. The aide says $1.6 trillion. Pelosi holds out her hand and they shake. “I’ll make the announcement at 9 A.M. on Monday.” She and the aide leave the room.

“Stop, stop, stop,” my wife says as she shakes me awake. “You’re yelling ‘you won’t believe it!’ over and over.”

It’s still dark out but the first half-light of early dawn is in the sky. Boy, it seemed so real. I sit up.

“This is not like you,” she says. “What won’t I believe?”

I give her a hug. “Never mind. Sorry I woke you.” I lay down and go back to sleep.

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Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash

Moral Hazard

July 26, 2020

by Steve Stofka

This week additional unemployment benefits will cease but Senate Republicans and the White House announced that they could not agree among themselves about the appropriate course of action for a second stimulus bill. What is the problem? Many Republicans think that an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits rewards people for not working. The issue is a familiar one to policymakers and economists: moral hazard.

Moral hazard arises when party A has no incentive to do X because party B will pay the cost. In this example, Party A = a taxpayer. X = go to work. Party B = the federal government. An insurance policy illustrates the problem of moral hazard. If an insurance company – called the principal – provided comprehensive insurance for a house, the homeowner – the agent – would have less incentive to maintain the property because the owner bears little of the cost of repair. Comprehensive is the key word. There must be some cost to the insured. Moral hazard was evident during the financial crisis over a decade ago. Financial traders made a lot of money by taking risks. When those risks blew up, taxpayers picked up the bill for the loss.

Another key ingredient of moral hazard is asymmetry of information. In a purchase transaction, the seller – the one receiving the money – knows more about the item being sold than the buyer – the one paying out the money. Laws and regulations attempt to minimize the asymmetry, but it is an inherent feature of a transaction. In a principal-agent model, the agent – a babysitter or the CEO of a public company – knows more than the principal – the parents or the stockholders. The principal must trust the agent to some degree and monitor the agent to some degree.

With that bit of background, let’s return to the issue of extended unemployment benefits. Who is the agent and who is the principal? Republican leaders think of themselves as the principal, as though it was their money that they are paying out. In their thinking, we, the taxpayers, are the agents who cannot be fully trusted. If Republicans pay people unemployment benefits, how do they know that people will look for a job?

This concern demonstrates the patriarchy that is the core ideology of the Republican Party. Lawmakers are not the parents, or the principals. In a democratic republic, lawmakers are the agents of the citizens. We worry about the moral character of our representatives, not the other way around. We, the citizens, are the principals.

Senator McConnell says that he is acting on behalf of taxpayers. Which taxpayers is he referring to? The ones who will be unable to pay their mortgage or their rent next month? The taxpayers of the future? He wasn’t concerned about them when Republicans passed their tax bill a few years ago. That tax bill was meant to appease the stakeholders, the big moneyed interests that are the real principals in this country. In effect, we, the citizens, are but their agents.

230 years ago, American colonialists rebelled against the aristocracy that controlled the economy and politics of Britain and its colonies. Here we are again. Senator McConnell is one of the most powerful men in this country because he is an agent for the American aristocracy. For one day a year, citizens act as principals by voting. Sensing that the tide of sentiment is going against Republicans in this election, Republican lawmakers and the White House are trying every legal maneuver to deny the vote to as many people as possible.

The moral hazard is when the agent takes effective control from the principal. That is the government of Venezuela under Nicolás Maduro. The Republican party proclaims that they are the champions of “small government.” What those two words mean is government by a small elite. If you prefer an impotent and passive role as a citizen, vote Republican this fall. If you want a more robust government which acts like an agent of the people, make another choice.

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Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash

Pandemic Detour

July 19, 2020

by Steve Stofka

World War 1 and the flu epidemic that followed was the death knell for the 19th century. Previous epidemics ended the Middle Ages in the 14th century and the Renaissance in the 17th century. Pandemics are permanent detours onto an alternative route through time. Will historians regard the Covid pandemic as the close of the 20th century? Depends on what happens in the next hundred years. History travels slow as a tortoise. The present is as fast as Achilles and eventually overtakes the past.

Pandemics cleanse the politics of the age. Both political parties have fractured in the past two decades. Will this pandemic close the coffin on one or both parties? In name, no. Both parties have a duopoly on voting in each state so sub-groups within each party try to take over the party apparatus. The 2016 election was a takeover of the Republican Party by conservative media, legal and political interests that have been fighting for control of the party since the 1980s.

President Trump is the poster boy of that effort. Conservative groups needed someone to sign off on judicial appointments and other legislation. They preferred someone with little experience, who was impressionable and a bit dim for the rigors of the office. They got more buffoon than they bargained for. If he becomes a one-term President, the people, organizations and money that put him in power will fight their long game – to gut or eliminate most of the federal bureaucracy. The few Federal government institutions left will be the military, a slim State department, domestic policing agencies like the DEA and the Border Patrol, the Treasury, IRS and the courts. In a strict conservative view, defense, enforcement, monetary authority and justice are the only legitimate functions of a federal government.

Each pandemic is a challenge to competing visions of the future. Conservative groups have patience, resolve, and money. If they have their way, the 20th century will have been a political experiment in American socialism that began when progressives gained political power at the start of the last century. The 21st century will return the country to its founding principles.

Liberals envision a more expansive role for a central government. Should there be a limit to the role of government in our daily lives and where should it be set? Without a limiting principle, liberal groups struggle to develop a concise and cohesive philosophy. Perhaps that is the strength of a liberal viewpoint.

Americans have been fighting each other for far longer than they have fought with the rest of the world. In a country with diverse cultural backgrounds, social and political tension is inevitable. The 1918 epidemic helped reshape the country but did not end this grand experiment in republican democracy. Let’s hope that the 2020 pandemic doesn’t change the chemistry of this country so drastically that the experiment ends.

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Notes:

Photo by 35mm on Unsplash

Public and Private Law

July 11, 2020

by Steve Stofka

A recent Tik-Tok video shows a woman berating some unseen worker at a dental office. The problem? The woman is not wearing a mask and is not allowed past the reception desk for her appointment. She claims to know the law and is going to sue them. She does have intimate knowledge of a private law that she carries around in her head. She is Queen of her own private island. Public law and the courts disagree with her, but many of us live by two laws – the public and the private.

This is a good jumping off point for a discussion on the freedoms of private businesses. In 1960, in Greensboro North Carolina, four black university students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s 5&10c store which would not serve them at the lunch counter. Woolworth was well within their rights at this time. It was the southern way.

Over the next few weeks, the number of people grew and attracted national attention, including President Eisenhower. White residents staged a counter protest which turned violent. Boycotts of other stores began and caused substantial sales losses to Woolworth. A few months later, Woolworth desegregated their lunch counters. Discrimination in places that served the public was made illegal with the passage of the Civil Rights Act four years later.

Generally, a business has the freedom to screen their customers based on a criteria that applies to everyone. Restaurants often post “No shoes, no shirt, no service,” and may add “no mask” to that list. Inebriated customers at beach communities sometimes protest about the “no shirt” provision. This is America, man. I have my rights! The bouncer ushers the customer out the door or the proprietor calls the police.

We understand that religious communities have a set of laws different from civil law. People who object to a woman’s right to an abortion may do so based on a 19th century papal proclamation that life began at conception (McGarry, 2013). That papal bull overturned centuries of Catholic teaching.

At a campsite near Lake City, Florida, I was first introduced to an alternate interpretation of civil law, but one based on a historical, not religious, foundation. Following the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were passed over the objections of many southerners who felt that the North was an occupier in their land (Foner, 2020). These amendments had been forced on the southern states. Within a decade, southern states passed Jim Crow laws that undid much of the three amendments.

Under this interpretation, I was informed, Supreme Court decisions based on these coercive amendments were “illegal and void” under the exclusionary rule. This included the court’s 1954 ruling that desegregated public schools and the Roe v. Wade decision that invalidated state laws that prohibited abortion. Crazy talk? The exclusionary rule relates to the admissibility of evidence, not the validity of court decisions (Web Solutions, n.d.). That private interpretation of the law certainly guides the actions and attitudes of too many.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act hoped to end many decades of housing discrimination in state and federal law. Instead, it pushed the discrimination underground (McGhee, 2018). A real estate agent might be hesitant to show a house to a black couple in a white neighborhood. She wants to get referrals from neighbors or other agents, who might wonder: Can she not navigate the subtle dynamics of filtering out less optimum clients? Keep silent. Two laws – public and private.

As discussed last week, all states require people to wear seat belts. The NHTSA reports that almost half of those killed a few years ago were not wearing seat belts (NHTSA, n.d.). But what about the law of personal freedom? It is written in the Constitution, man! I have my rights! Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The phrase is a declaration of intent and sentiment found in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. It has no force of public law but is the cornerstone of private law.

There are laws against dumping but many contractors will dispose of remodel trash in dumpsters to save the time and expense of driving to the city dump. According to a contractor’s private interpretation of the law, it’s not really dumping because the debris is going into a container. Private law vs. public law.

Let’s now revisit the woman in the video who yelled at the worker in the dentist’s office. Under contract law or maybe it is appointment law, she made an appointment with the dentist and she showed up on time so the dentist has to see her. Those are the only facts that matter. Aren’t we all angry when other people do not recognize the same private laws that we carry around in our heads? Does someone else have the same personal freedom that I do – to form a private interpretation of the Constitution? Well, of course. But if they are wrong, then no they don’t, man. That’s in my private Constitution.

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Notes:

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Foner, E. (2020, April 03). Reconstruction. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Reconstruction-United-States-history

McGarry, P. (2013, July 01). Catholic Church teaching on abortion dates from 1869. Irish Times. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/catholic-church-teaching-on-abortion-dates-from-1869-1.1449517

McGhee, F. (2018, December 04). The Most Important Housing Law Passed in 1968 Wasn’t the Fair Housing Act. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from https://shelterforce.org/2018/09/05/the-most-important-housing-law-passed-in-1968-wasnt-the-fair-housing-act/

NHTSA. (2020, January 15). Seat Belts. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/seat-belts

Web Solutions. (n.d.). Search and Seizure – The Exclusionary Rule And The Fruit Of The Poisonous Tree Doctrine. Retrieved July 11, 2020, from https://law.jrank.org/pages/10054/Search-Seizure-Exclusionary-Rule-Fruit-Poisonous-Tree-Doctrine.html.

Wikipedia. (2020, June 15). Greensboro sit-ins. Retrieved July 12, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greensboro_sit-ins

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

The Social Contract

July 5, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Am I my brother’s – or sister’s – keeper? If I am, what is the extent of that care and concern? We’ve been discussing this issue for a few thousand years, and this pandemic brings several issues to a sharp focus. On this Independence weekend, how independent are we? How do we view the social contract?

Writing in the 1840s, Ralph Waldo Emerson distinguished between “direct” and “reflex” recognition of duties (Emerson, 1841). A direct type is one based on principles that we respect and embrace. A reflex type is one we recognize simply because others hold it as a duty. The second type is like wearing an uncomfortable style of shoe because it is a popular style. Who decides what my duties are?

There was a video of Florida protesters chanting, “My body, my choice.” Sound familiar? No, it wasn’t a pro-choice rally. It was a protest of the governor’s requirement that people wear masks. Is my freedom more important that your health? Let’s say that it is. It’s a soccer match and the team “My Freedom” with green uniforms beats the team “Your Health” in blue uniforms. Should choices about priorities be a dualistic – win or lose – debate? We are often forced to make such choices when we vote.

This past week two women in their twenties walked out of a clothing store. One hurriedly took off her mask and said, “God, I can’t stand these things.” Her friend was calm and kept her mask on as they walked to their car. Some people may protest “My Freedom” when it’s just a matter of being uncomfortable. Chanting “My Freedom” sounds like a principle. It’s noble. Chanting “My Comfort” sounds like an 18-year old who wants to wear sandals and surfer shorts to a job interview.

Most hospital employees who have contact with patients must wear masks or they are fired. Businesses serving the public may require that their employees wear masks as well. So why the objection to being told to wear a mask at the park or beach? Several decades ago, many people had this same debate about seat belts and being forced to wear helmets while operating a motorcycle. Does the government have a right to require people to wear safety equipment?

NO) It’s my body and I have a right to not wear a seat belt or a helmet.
YES) We don’t have a constitutional right to drive. It is a state-issued license.

In 1972, the Supreme Court settled the legal question, concurring with many state Supreme Courts that people did not have a constitutional right to drive a vehicle (Jones & Bayer, 2007). The case was about helmet laws for motorcycle drivers but the decision threatened car manufacturers who did not want to be forced to install seat belts in cars. Federal legislation was passed that exempted states who wanted to repeal helmet laws. Three states still don’t have helmet laws. Despite more than a decade of legal battles and lobbying, Congress passed legislation that required seat belts to be installed in new vehicles (Wolinsky, 1985).

What is a license and what is a right guaranteed by the Constitution? In 2012, the Supreme Court heard a legal challenge to the ACA, or Obamacare. Does the government have a right to require a person to buy health insurance?

YES) The government requires that people buy auto insurance. Same thing.
NO) Health insurance is our health, the act of simply being alive. That is a right protected by the Constitution. The government cannot require you to buy health insurance.

In 2012, the Supreme Court agreed with the No argument. “The federal government does not have the power to order people to buy health insurance,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote (Norman, 2012). However, the government can charge a person a tax for not buying health insurance. The penalty was a tax. With that understanding, Obamacare was allowed to stand.

Wearing a seat belt or motorcycle helmet protects us. Wearing a mask protects others. Don’t we have a duty to others in our community? Isn’t that part of the implied social contract? This debate is similar to the one about vaccines, especially those given for childhood diseases. Getting a vaccine helps protect others. Can a public school require my child to be vaccinated?

The Yang Gang is a group of supporters named after former Presidential candidate Andrew Yang. He proposed a Universal Basic Income program that would send money to most households every month. The program recognizes human dignity and provides a minimum threshold of financial support. Members of the Yang Gang recognize a broad social contract that includes a duty to help support others. Their motto is “not left or right, but forward.”

Some recognize two forms of the social contract. The first is an involuntary participation in society that is regulated by a coercive government. This is the reflexive form of duty that Emerson wrote about. We accept the rules, duties and principles even if we don’t agree with them. We make a bargain to ensure some security of our freedom and property. The second type of social contract is voluntary, or at least non-coercive, akin to what Emerson called a direct duty. This includes our family, our church, civic groups and the people we mingle with.

We feel strongly about our opinions, and weigh the various aspects of an issue differently. Emerson thought each person’s synthesis of experience was unique and that each of us formed “a new classification” of the world. A democracy requires consensus. In a nation that prides itself on its independence, we have chosen a form of government that makes us dependent on each other to create the rules for our society. On July 4th , we declared our independence from Britain, and our in-dependence on each other.

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Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Emerson, R. W. (1841). On Self-Reliance. American Transcendentalism Web. Retrieved July 04, 2020, from https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/selfreliance.html

Jones, M., & Bayer, R. (2007, February). Paternalism and its discontents: Motorcycle helmet laws, libertarian values, and public health. Retrieved July 04, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1781413/

Norman, J. (2012). Supreme Court Upholds Health Care Law in 5-4 Decision. Retrieved July 04, 2020, from https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/newsletter-article/supreme-court-upholds-health-care-law-5-4-decision

Wolinsky, L. (1985, February 19). Big Lobbies Clash in Fight on Seat Belts : Hearings Open Today as California Joins Auto Safety Debate. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 04, 2020, from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-02-19-mn-546-story.html.

Rational or Reasonable Police

June 28, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Last week Senate Democrats blocked a Republican sponsored policing bill that did not go far enough. This week House Democrats proposed a bill that Republicans said went too far. A divided Congress where nothing gets accomplished but many fine speeches are made. Giving a microphone to a politician is like giving a lollipop to a young child.

Libertarians prefer a divided Congress. Aren’t there enough rules already? Each year, the Supreme Court decides on the different interpretations of more than hundred laws that are already on the books. They turn down thousands more cases (U.S. Courts, n.d.). Voters send their elected representatives to Washington to write laws. Even in a divided Congress, a few hundred bills pass both houses of Congress and become law. The media attention often focuses on those bills that are blocked by either chamber (U.S. Congress, n.d.). Policing laws…hold onto that thread for a minute.

Apple TV has announced the 2021 release of Isaac Asimov’s groundbreaking Foundation Series (Apple, 2020). Mr. Asimov is also known for his imaginative stories about robots. He invented the 3 laws of robotics, and his stories explore the contradictions and complexities of writing rules, or algorithms for robot behavior (Anderson, 2019).

Pick up the policing laws thread again. What rule for supervising police behavior might Asimov suggest? In a situation under review, ask this question: would a highly  sophisticated robot cop behave in such a manner? A quick refresher on the 3 laws: 1) don’t cause or allow harm to humans; 2) obey humans unless that conflicts with the first law; 3) a robot’s self-preservation unless that comes into conflict with the first two laws.

Let’s look at the George Floyd case (Hill, 2020), and begin with a consideration of possible violations of Law #1. Did the officer cause harm to George Floyd, a human being? Yes. But wait, there’s possible rule conflict here and this is the subject of some of Asimov’s stories. A robot might have to cause harm to a human being to stop that human being from causing even greater harm to another human being. So let’s ask. Did George Floyd cause harm to another human being at this time? No. Was he likely to cause harm, given that he was handcuffed and several officers were surrounding him? No.

On to Law #2: When George Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe,” did the officer respond by adjusting his position so that Mr. Floyd could breathe? No. A violation of Law #2.

Law #3: Self-preservation. Was the officer in imminent danger of destruction? No.

If the officer were a robot, his behavior would have been in violation of the laws. His positronic brain would have been replaced and later analyzed to understand the circuitry malfunction.

The laws and many of Asimov’s works explore the tensions and interpretations of several foundational philosophers: the universal rule-making of Immanuel Kant; the utilitarian and consequentialist principles of Jeremy Bentham; and the virtue ethics of Aristotle. Could R. Daneel Olivaw, the robot detective found in many of Asimov’s novels, practice virtue (Fandom, n.d.)? Yes, if a robot’s behavior is indistinguishable from that of a human being who acts with virtue.  

Like the behavior of Asimov’s robots, most of our laws are guided by the principles stated by Aristotle, Bentham and Kant. Our courts and juries judge human beings based on those laws. Police officers are not expected to act rationally like a robot, but like a reasonable person whose actions can be justified in the circumstances (Gardner, 2019). The reasonable person standard is a fictional person just as Daneel Olivaw is a fictional robot. Our legal institutions have difficulty defining and employing a consistent reasonable person standard.

Programmers would have as much difficulty coding mostly-rational-but-sometimes-erratic-but-understandably-so algorithms. Our cells behave like those algorithms – rational most of the time and cancerous when they become erratic.

In the far distant future, if we have robots policing our communities, we will have problems similar to our current concerns. Supervising the legal use of force has troubled many human societies and technology will not solve that persistent problem. Some robots will have defective positronic brains and commit acts of violence in violation of their programming. We’ll argue over the rules for robots and how to write them – at least I hope so. I hope that there is a Congress or some other deliberative body that argues over policing tactics as the House and Senate did these past two weeks. I worry when we stop arguing. That’s when the guns start arguing.

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Notes:

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Anderson, M. R. (2019, November 11). After 75 years, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics need updating. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/after-75-years-isaac-asimovs-three-laws-of-robotics-need-updating-74501

Apple. (2021, April 01). Foundation on Apple TV+. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://tv.apple.com/us/show/foundation/umc.cmc.5983fipzqbicvrve6jdfep4x3?at=1000lDR

Fandom. (n.d.). R. Daneel Olivaw. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://asimov.fandom.com/wiki/R._Daneel_Olivaw

Gardner, J. (2019). The Many Faces of the Reasonable Person. Torts and Other Wrongs, 271-303. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198852940.003.0009

Hill, E., etal. (2020, June 01). 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody. NY Times. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html

U.S. Congress. (n.d.). Public Laws. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://www.congress.gov/public-laws/116th-congress

U.S. Courts. (n.d.). Supreme Court Procedures. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/supreme-1

The Underdog and the Elite

June 21, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Americans love the underdog. American colonists were the underdogs, weren’t they? Black people have been the actual underdogs but white people didn’t like to be thought of as topdog overlords. Aggrieved white slave owners advertised in the newspaper when a slave ran away. They paid good money for that slave, darn it. The slave owner was the victim!

How did a real estate billionaire become the leader of an underdog cult of white people? He is a populist who claims persecution, a key component of being an underdog. Who is persecuting the president? The IRS, for one. From his golden tower on 5th Avenue, he has endured constant audit and can’t release his tax returns.

He is persecuted by the media. Yes, the same media that gave him thousands of hours of free publicity during the 2016 campaign. They handed him a megaphone because they thought he was a buffoon in a political side show. Hillary Clinton would win, of course, but she was boring. A policy wonk. Check out Trump. He’s always been a nut. CNN’s ratings went up when Mr. Trump was on. Follow the ratings. More Trump.

Mr. Trump was the ringmaster, the P.T. Barnum of the political circus. He employed his limited vocabulary effectively when he spoke to his cult. Social media had become the carnival barkers of America’s political circus. He understood that and welcomed the publicity. He is fond of conspiracy theories because they attract attention like Barnum’s two-headed Queen from the Amazonian jungle. Conspiracies heighten the sense of persecution and validate his status as the leader of the underdog cult.

Tim Scott is a Republican Senator from S. Carolina. In an interview with the Wall St. Journal this week, he criticized a Democratic Senator, Dick Durbin, for characterizing the proposed Justice Act as “token, halfhearted legislation” (C-Span, 2020). Mr. Scott is black, one of the few black Republican Senators in the past 150 years. Mr. Durbin characterized the legislation as token, not Mr. Scott, but he later apologized. The legislation is a federal effort to impose some constraints on the police and Durbin did not think it went far enough.

In the interview with the WSJ, Mr. Scott thought the word was used intentionally to slight him and he referred to Mr. Durbin as an “elite liberal.” Thus Mr. Scott played to his voters and claimed underdog status. The entire Senate is composed of the wealthy and the powerful, a liberal and conservative elite. Why do grown men in positions of power behave like middle-graders? Why do our political institutions attract people who repeatedly demonstrate an arrested emotional development?

This weekend in Tulsa, President Trump will cover up his east coast eliteness with an underdog costume, stand before members of the underdog cult and speak of his persecution by the institutions of America, by the media, by the Democrats, and by [fill in the blank]. He has claimed to be blameless before God and needs no forgiveness (Scott, 2015). He is Job of the Bible. Is God also on the list of Mr. Trump’s persecutors? Did God send this pandemic to humiliate him?

When a white mob burned down a black community in Tulsa a hundred years ago, they were angry at the success of the black businesses and community, dubbed Black Wall Street. The blacks were taking business and jobs away from whites during the severe recession of 1921. Capitalism be damned. The white community felt it could not honestly compete with black people.  That is the underlying truth of racism in this country. Some white people worry that, if blacks were not kept down by discriminatory housing, education and employment practices, whites could not compete with them.

The cult has chosen as their leader a man who is a poster boy of the elite, the paragon of immaturity. He wants A on Monday and non-A on Tuesday. No, he doesn’t want to read his daily Presidential briefing. Don’t bother him about world affairs; he needs to watch the TV and see what people are saying about him. How are his re-election chances? Everyone is against him. Poor little him, the persecuted rich billionaire.

Mr. Trump has already ordered the U.S. Army to stand ready in Washington, D.C. and has threatened other cities that he will take harsh measures with protesters if the mayors of some cities will not. In 1989 the Chinese Communist Party sent tanks to confront and destroy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The soldiers killed an estimated 10,000 people (BBC, 2017). Would Mr. Trump do the same? Would military leaders follow his order? That much is not certain. Without a doubt, he would claim that the protesters had forced his hand. He is the underdog. He is blameless before God and needs no forgiveness. He’s a good dog.

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Notes:

Photo by Chase Fade on Unsplash

BBC. (2017, December 23). Tiananmen Square protest death toll ‘was 10,000’. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-42465516

C-Span. (2020, June 17). Senator Tim Scott on Police Reform. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?473151-9%2Fsenator-tim-scott-police-reform

Scott, E. (2015, July 19). Trump believes in God, but hasn’t sought forgiveness – CNNPolitics. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2015/07/18/politics/trump-has-never-sought-forgiveness/index.html

Obligations

June 14, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Here’s a question that comes up in our public discourse. What obligation does Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, have to the workers at the company? Amazon is a public company as well. What about the obligation to shareholders of the company’s stock? What obligation does Mr. Bezos have to the personal capital – money, knowledge, time and risk – that he has invested in the company?

Mr. Bezos is one of a number of people who have helped engineer an extraordinary transition into today’s digital age. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, is another example familiar to readers. Both men have donated billions of their wealth to charity and public causes, including health care and climate change.

Each month these titans of technology implicitly send many of us a dividend check. We receive the dividend whether we own Amazon or Microsoft stock. The dividend is not included in government survey data because it is hard to quantify. The dividend is our time and time is money.

To understand this analysis, let’s step into an alternate reality, one familiar to older readers. Payments are done with cash and checks. Few merchants accept credit cards. Checks take 5-7 days to clear. There is no mail-in banking or electronic deposits. There are no picture IDs. We have stepped into a reality that looks like 1980.

This world is rocked with a global pandemic. Congress passes a relief and stimulus bill that provides money to each adult in the country. We all wait for our pandemic stimulus checks. People steal the checks out of the mailboxes of people with common last names like Smith, Sullivan and Gonzalez. If the thief does not share that last name, they can sell the check to underground brokers who will find someone with that exact name. 

Once we receive our stimulus checks, we go to the bank and stand in a long line. We always bring something to read or a crossword puzzle to pass the time while we wait. We are practiced at waiting.

If we have a checking or savings account, we can deposit the stimulus check but not cash it unless we already have the money in our account to cover the amount. We cannot spend the funds until the government check clears in 5-7 days. 

After 3 days we start calling the bank to see if the funds are available. The teller is polite but no it hasn’t cleared yet.  After a few more days it clears and we can write a check to pay our rent but there is a late fee. Some us went to a paycheck store and cashed our check after showing 2 forms of ID. Some will take a utility bill as one form of ID. They charge a fat fee as well.

Most of us enjoy the convenience of modern banking and payment services without paying much attention. Little of that time saving convenience is captured in government surveys.  How much time do we save every month? 4 hours? 8 hours? What is that convenience worth? That’s our technology dividend.

Let’s do another common task in our imaginary world – send an email. We need to return a form and we want a record of our communication so we don’t use the phone. We go down to the public library, where the librarian faxes a scan of our paper (Borth, 2020). If we have a message but not a form, we can go to the telegraph office and they will send the message to another telegraph office where the recipient can pick it up.

Since we are nearby, let’s go to the Post Office to get stamps. A fifteen minute wait but we are practiced at waiting. Once we are done at the Post Office, the office supply store is just two blocks away. We need some new typewriter ribbon. Our essay for school is due next Monday and typed papers get a ½ grade bonus. Oh yeah, we want some typewriter ink erasers and a box of paper. The total is a half day’s pay for a person working at minimum wage.

The post office, library and office store are all closed by 5 or 6 P.M. and are not open on weekends, so we take some time off from work to get all this stuff done. Either we call in sick and take the whole day off or fake being sick after lunch and take the afternoon off.

The grocery store closes at 6 PM on weekdays, too late to do shopping after work. It is closed on Sundays, so we do our shopping on Saturday. There are long waits at the cashier but we are practiced at waiting.

All of this inconvenience took time. An average wage in 1980 was almost $7 an hour, about $22 in today’s purchasing power (BLS, n.d.). How much is my technological dividend each month? Let’s make the math easy and call it $100, almost 5 hours of time saving each month.

Let’s return to our question of obligation, but ask it of ourselves – do we have an obligation to donate our technological dividend each month? This could be in the form of time or money. Decades ago utility companies in New York State charged urban customers higher rates to subsidize rural customers living in areas where providing service was more expensive. “We are part of a larger community. We share the burden,” my mother replied to my complaint that this was unfair. How many of us have that sense of community?  

We are far better at recognizing the obligations of others than our own. We are more comfortable discussing the duties of others. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of the human tendency to notice the speck in another’s eye and disregard the splinter in our own eye. That was 2000 years ago. In the past two decades, we have seen many changes in our daily lives but the essential qualities of our nature have changed little in two millennia.

2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato asked what are our obligations. We are still working on the answer. Plato, give us just a few more centuries and we’ll get back to you on that.

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Notes:

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

BLS (n.d.) Average Hourly Earnings of Production and Nonsupervisory Employees, Total Private, FRED Series AHETPI. Federal Reserve. Retrieved from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/AHETPI

Borth, D. E. (2020, February 18). Fax. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/technology/fax

A Tug of War

June 7, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Is grandma your enemy? An uncomfortable thought. Different generations have different concerns. Funding a solution to one generation’s problem may take resources from other generations. Grandma wants to protect her Social Security and Medicare. Grandma votes her interests.

The introduction of Social Security eighty years ago marked an extraordinary shift in federal policy. For the first time in the history of this country the government took money from one set of people – those who were younger and working – and gave it to other people. This transfer was not a reward for military service – an old soldier pension – but a reward for getting old.  

During the Great Depression thousands of banks failed and millions of people lost their savings. That crisis called for a solution. Instead of addressing the problem, FDR and a super-majority of congressional Democrats created a permanent program that transferred money from people raising families to retired people. No military or community service required. The combined tax contribution to fund the program was 2%. It is now more than six times that.

In 1965, Democrats again enjoyed a super-majority in Congress and a Democratic President. Never waste a super-majority. There are no checks and balances. They passed the Medicare program, funded by a tax on working families who were ineligible for benefits under the program. In every election, old people vote to keep their benefits, and are the largest demographic of voters (Census Bureau, 2019). 

Younger voters change addresses more often. In dense urban areas with multiple voting districts, they are more likely to have out of date voter registration. Voters in rural districts remain in the same voting district when they move a few miles. Rural voters are predominantly older, white and conservative. In the first half of the 20th Century, rural populations migrated from the farm to the city. Rural voters controlled political power in many states because one rural vote counted far more than one urban vote. In two decisions in the 1960s, the Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution to mean one person, one vote (Mosvick, 2020).

As the children of farmers continued to move away in the last half of the century, rural voters adopted other strategies to control electoral power. Less funding for polling places in urban areas, claims of voter fraud, lifetime restrictions against voting by convicted felons, and locating prisons in rural areas where the prisoners are included in the county’s population, but the prisoners cannot vote. Groups like Judicial Watch initiate hundreds of lawsuits in Democratic leaning counties to invalidate the registrations of many voters (Lacy, 2020).

In 1965, a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson hoped that the newly instituted Medicare program would help stem the defection of Southern voters from the Democratic Party. It didn’t. The Party had successfully stifled the voting power of black people in the south for a century. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments which gave black people voting power and citizenship status had been forced on the Southern states after their defeat in the Civil War. Feeling that President Johnson and the party had betrayed them, voters sought a champion who could protect white voting power. 

Richard Nixon became their champion by default. In the 1968 race, the Republican candidate employed a “ southern strategy” that spoke to white voters worried that the recently passed Civil Rights Act would give blacks too much electoral power. In the spring, riots and demonstrations broke out after Martin Luther King’s assassination. At the Democratic Convention that summer, bloody conflicts broke out between Chicago police and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators. Nixon promised to be a law and order President, protecting the “old order,” older Americans and the white rural domination that had been the calling card of the Democratic Party in the South. When leading Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated that summer, the party was too disorganized to mount a challenge to Nixon. He won by a convincing margin in the electoral college, but bested Hubert Humphrey by only ½% of the popular vote (Wikipedia, 2020). 9 million voters chose Independent Party candidate George Wallace, who appealed to disaffected conservative Democratic voters in the South (PBS, n.d.).

Some of us have supremacist attitudes, some of us condemn those attitudes. Some of us feel threatened at the sight of a black man and call the police. Some of us understand Black Lives Matter; others don’t. We all understand our point of view a lot better than our neighbor’s. We all want to be believed more than believe.

We grant police the sanctioned use of force but we require temperance in their use of it. Clearly, there are many officers who do not have a tempered behavior. The lie is that it is a few bad apples. Smart phones have become common only in the past decade and there are hundreds of videos of officers acting without restraint. In another ten years, there will be thousands.

 One person, one vote. This country has been engaged in a tug of war since its founding. Regional and generational interests pitted against each other. Rural against urban. Businesses vs workers. City governments vs. workers. States vs. citizens. Decide which end of the rope you are on and pull. Grandma grabs the rope. In every election, a lot of money and effort is spent to prevent people from voting. If you don’t vote you are doing those on the other end of the rope a favor and they thank you.

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Notes:

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

Census Bureau. (2019, July 16). Behind the 2018 U.S. Midterm Election Turnout. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/04/behind-2018-united-states-midterm-election-turnout.html

Lacy, A. (2020, May 28). Right-Wing Groups Aims to Purge 800,000 Voters in Pennsylvania. Retrieved from https://theintercept.com/2020/05/28/pennsylvania-voter-rolls-purge-judicial-watch/

Mosvick, N. (2020, March 26). On this day, Supreme Court reviews redistricting. Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/blog/on-this-day-supreme-court-reviews-redistricting.  Also, see Stahl, 2015.

PBS. (n.d.). Thematic Window: The Election of 1968. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/johngardner/chapters/5a.html

 Stahl, J. (2015, December 7). Baker v. Carr: The Supreme Court gets involved in redistricting. Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/baker-v-carr-the-supreme-court-gets-involved-in-redistricting

Wikipedia. (2020, June 06). 1968 United States presidential election. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_United_States_presidential_election

Rage

May 31, 2020

by Steve Stofka

There are three kinds of rage: the silent and composed rage of men who kneel on necks. Derek Chauvin, the killer of George Floyd in Minneapolis, belongs to that group. There is another group that loots and destroys to express their rage. There is yet another group that displays their rage in organized protest. On Saturday in Minneapolis, that group cleaned up the debris left by the looters Friday night. A CBS reporter was disheartened, or bored, by the lack of violence.

Those in the first two groups – the destroyers – are mostly men. Those in the first group – the quiet destroyers – are middle-aged men who rob others of life, dignity, and basic human rights. They destroy the self-esteem and social cohesion of others. Those in the last group, the noisy ragers, are young, shot full of testorone and unmuzzled. Neither of these groups cleans up after the wreckage they leave behind. Their instinct is to break, not build.

A hundred years ago white people in Tulsa, Oklahoma took out their rage at the success of the black community in their town (Brown, 2018). They burned down most of the black owned businesses and homes, killing more than 300 people and leaving thousands homeless. Rage and revenge provoked many lynchings of black citizens by white mobs. In 1963, white people in Alabama threw rocks at black children trying to go to school (Bell, 2013).

It’s been almost four years since Philando Castile was shot in his car by a police officer in St. Paul. It’s a 20 minute drive across the river from the site of Castile’s death to George Floyd’s death this week in the sister city of Minneapolis. Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile, was found not guilty of 2nd degree manslaughter. Derek Gauvin, the murderer of George Floyd, has been charged with 3rd degree manslaughter. Unlike 2nd degree manslaughter, the prosecution does not have to prove intent.

Over 1200 black people have been shot by police in the past five years (Code Switch, NPR, 2020). Only four police officers have been convicted of some crime (MPV, n.d.). Many victims were going about their day when police officers targeted them. Guilty of being black. Some, like Tamir Rice, were children. Such is the rage of white society that they will not let black children play with toy guns.

Mr. Trump, the self-styled King of the United States, threatened to shoot black people for looting stores on Main Street (Lichtman, 2020). White people looting in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles on Saturday night were arrested and loaded into police wagons. Don’t shoot white people. White people stood on charred police cars and took selfies. How many likes could they get?

Four hundred years of white rage against black people. Four hundred years of systemic looting of black labor through slavery and forced prison labor. Two hundred years of vandalism of black communities through housing discrimination and vicious lending practices. When will the rain extinguish the rage in our spirit?

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Notes:

Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

Bell, D. (2013, June 11). George Wallace Stood in a Doorway at the University of Alabama 50 Years Ago Today. US News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/press-past/2013/06/11/george-wallace-stood-in-a-doorway-at-the-university-of-alabama-50-years-ago-today

Brown, D. (2018, September 28). ‘They was killing black people’. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2018/09/28/feature/they-was-killing-black-people/

Code Switch. (2020, May 30). A Decade Of Watching Black People Die. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/05/29/865261916/a-decade-of-watching-black-people-die

Lichtman, A. (2020, May 29). The ugly history of Trump’s ‘looting/shooting’ threat. Retrieved from https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-ugly-history-trumps-loot-shoot-threat-20200529-64c2wp6vhjeazigbgega76r33q-story.html

MPV. (n.d.). Police killed more than 100 unarmed black people in 2015. Mapping Police Violence. Retrieved from https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/unarmed