Our Dues

November 29, 2020

by Steve Stofka

In the vacant greenspace near my childhood home some kids built a makeshift treehouse using cardboard and pieces of plywood. My brother and I occasionally played baseball and football with these guys, but we didn’t hang out all the time. I pulled myself up and sat in the treehouse, surveying the area from this private space.

One of the kids lived across the street from the tree and came running over. We needed to pay dues to use the tree. How much? Half of my week’s allowance. Too much. My little brother for free. How come he gets in free and I have to pay? They used a ladder to get the plywood up there. If the tree house had a ladder, maybe it would be worth it. No ladder. Negotiations broke down, but we respected their space.  

A few weeks later, a city crew mowed the tall grass, weeds, and flowers, and removed the treehouse. Even though the space was public, the public didn’t own the space, my dad explained; the city owned it. “Who did the city buy it from?” I asked my dad. He shrugged and guessed it was the Indians.

As a kid I struggled to understand the difference between owning something and using something. We could use public spaces, but we couldn’t dispose of them, like selling them to someone else. The example everyone used was the Brooklyn Bridge. Any person who offers to sell you the bridge is trying to cheat you.

As a result of this, many of us associated ownership with responsibility. If the city owns the Brooklyn Bridge, then the city is responsible for the bridge. Many people extended this association to other common goods: our schools, roads, parks, museums, hospitals, and libraries; and to public goods: the air we breathe, the water we drink; and to our natural resources: our forests, national parks and seashores. We could use them, but some government was responsible for them.

The Buddhist, Christian and Jewish traditions charge us to help the poor. Despite this moral tradition, too many of us believe that the poor are responsible for their own condition. Why? If it’s their problem, we don’t have responsibility. If it is not their problem, it’s the “city’s” responsibility. What a wonderful relief to have dodged that problem!

We have many programs to help the poor; despite this, thousands of poor crowd our downtown streets. Driven by crime and power struggles in other nations, poor people come to our country to make a better life for themselves.

This week the Supreme Court will hear arguments whether the Trump administration can exclude illegal immigrants from the census count. If the court rules in favor of the administration’s position, New York, Florida, Texas, and California will lose representation and Federal funding for programs that help the poor.

Like many of our common resources, people can attend their local church without contributing to the collection basket. However, members of the congregation are supposed to put money in the collection basket, not take it out. Should the same rules apply to the people of an entire nation?

Most of us are net takers from the collection plate because we benefit from the institutional wealth accumulated by our society, the congregation. We do not own the wealth, but we use the wealth without paying our dues. Instead we store those savings inside of us in different forms: education, skills, health and a respect for law. Undeveloped countries do not pass the collection basket around; it stays in the inner sanctum away from the prying fingers of the congregation.

The urbanization of the American population has taken place over the past 150 years; in China it has happened in the past 20 years. Freed from the need to grow our daily food from the land where we live, we have congregated in the cities, where we can tap the wealth of our institutions.

An entire set of property rights had to be negotiated for any of us to have access to a familiar institution: the internet. Institutions are built on incentives and regulations; without incentives, an institution becomes weak. Without regulations, corrupt. When regulations overwhelm the incentives, the institution becomes a yoke; the concentration of political power within Executive agencies is an example. When incentives control the institution, it becomes a rampaging monster; slavery was an example.

Many of us are distrustful of institutions; we may dislike our growing dependence on them. The American myth was built on the self-reliant individual as exemplified by the actor John Wayne. Most westerns dwell on the romantic individual, not the quotidian institutions that supported that individual. How did the wood get to the prairie to build the cabin? How did the guns, the saddles and all the accoutrements of the cowboy get made? A network of connected industry and artisans.

In the past century we have established several institutions whose benefits are accessible only by those who have paid a lifetime of dues: Social Security and Medicare. These are built on the Catholic Clubhouse model for admission to heaven: pay dues for most of a lifetime before admission to the benefits of the clubhouse.

The fitness club model lets a person access all the benefits of the club from the moment they start paying dues. The Universal Basic Income (UBI) plan is such a model in disguise (Yang, 2020). Wait, what?! One of the features of UBI is that people start getting money from the federal government even if they don’t pay federal income taxes. Where’s the dues, dude?

The funding for the program comes from a 10% VAT tax, a value added tax on many goods and services. It is a sales tax added at the production point, not at the transaction point, so it is added to the cost of goods. Because most people spend all their income, the UBI payment is put back into the economy. The dues and the UBI payment happen simultaneously.

Imagine a fitness club which pays its patrons $10 a month to join the club, the amount of the monthly dues. Why would they do that? The gym equipment is part of a network that generates electricity while the patrons work out; they generate the power for the club each month. How does the club make money? The patrons are more productive away from the gym and earn more income. The businesses that surround the gym get more sales from the gym patrons and pay a fee to the gym. The city makes no additional sales tax from the gym but makes a great deal more tax from the surrounding businesses.

Can a business model like the UBI be successful? Yes. It promotes local business growth, reduces uncertainty for firms and people, and circulates money in the economy. It incentivizes micro businesses to take a risk and boost the fortunes of local communities. In supporting the financial fitness of our communities, it promotes the fitness of our families.


Photo by Fidel Fernando on Unsplash

Yang, A. (2020). The Freedom Dividend, Defined – Yang2020 – Andrew Yang for President. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.yang2020.com/what-is-freedom-dividend-faq/

A Man and his Kingdom

November 22, 2020

by Steve Stofka

In Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Richard III offers his kingdom for a horse after his is struck down in battle. Mr. Trump echoes the reverse sentiment, bargaining and plotting to retain his kingdom.  

The White House has archived a Heritage Foundation sampling of election fraud (Heritage Foundation, n.d.) Most of them are for local and state elections because fraud has some degree of potency in smaller elections. In a Presidential race, an attempt at fraud is like pouring a cup of water in a lake. Some of the cases are sad. A son is convicted for submitting a ballot for his mother who has just died. Some vote twice in an election even after being warned not to by election officials. Some cheat to get their friend or their boss elected to city council.

Conspiracy theorists claim that this is just the tip of the iceberg. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” they claim. Christians explained that objects fell to the ground because angels pushed them. They used the same reasoning, evidence of absence, to counter Newton’s claim that it was a force called gravity. Newton’s theory was more predictive, but I dare anyone to show me that angels are not making things fall to the ground.

Why won’t President Trump concede the election? Trump’s efforts have been dismissed by courts, including one state Supreme Court. Some on the right point to the 2000 election and the lawsuits brought by Democrats in the Florida count as a justification for Trump. The 2000 Presidential election was decided by 537 votes out of 6 million in the state. That is a small probability multiplied by the small probability that such a result would matter in the Electoral College. Perhaps 2 in a 1,000,000; it had never happened before in U.S. history. The probabilities indicate that it has never happened before in human history. Are Mr. Trump’s election numbers as close as the 2000 election? Hardly.

Katherine Harris, Florida’s Secretary of State, may have committed fraud in the 2000 election; it makes sense to risk fraud when the vote difference is that narrow. A difference of 10,000 votes – the smallest difference in any of the states that Trump is contesting – is not narrow.

Mr. Trump claims fraud before every contest. When he picked one wrestler in the 1988 WBF wrestling championship that he sponsored, he claimed that the other side was cheating. His guy won despite the cheating. Huzzah! He is a promoter. If accusations of cheating arouse the crowd, let’s do it.

After the 2008 election, Mr. Trump led the “birther” movement, claiming that Mr. Obama had cheated because he was not born in the U.S. Before – not after – the 2016 face off with Ms. Clinton in 2016, he claimed that Democrats were stealing the election (Zeitz, 2016). What works in wrestling works in elections, doesn’t it? Get the crowd’s attention. Play to the 5-year old in each of us.

Supporters of Mr. Trump point to the 1960 Presidential election as evidence for fraud. JFK (this is the anniversary of his assassination) won Illinois’ electoral votes by a slim margin of almost 9,000 votes in Cook County, where the mayor was a supporter of JFK and a family friend (Zeitz, 2016). Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence.

Did Nixon throw the 1968 election? Just before the election, President Johnson called a halt to bombing in South Vietnam to give Vice-President and candidate Humphrey a boost in the polls. The Nixon campaign countered by promising a better deal to the other side if Nixon was elected. Aiding and abetting a foreign enemy? (Kilgore, 2018).

To distinguish this from election fraud, let’s call it election rigging; a campaign conducts a strategy which will help win them the election without altering votes per se. The Watergate scandal in advance of the 1972 election was an attempt by the Nixon campaign to get intel on the other side’s campaign. If Nixon had admitted to it early on, the press might have made a big brouhaha for a few months and it would have blown over. The public might have regarded it as corporate espionage – an attempt to discover the competition’s secrets. Nixon kept it within the American family.

That was not the case in the 1980 election; like the 1968 Nixon campaign, the Reagan campaign sought help from a foreign power, Iran. The Carter Administration had negotiated through Algiers a release of American hostages who had been in captivity for a year. The Reagan camp promised better terms to Iran if they would delay the release of American hostages until after the 1980 election and the swearing in of Ronald Reagan. The drawn-out hostage crisis was one of several key events that cost President Carter re-election, and Reagan handily defeated Carter. Iran released the hostages the day that Reagan took the Presidential oath (U.S. Dept. of State, n.d.). Americans spent an additional 90 days in prison so that Reagan could win an election. Election strategy, not election fraud.

Voting is essential to a democracy. So is free speech. Unless one can control speech as they do in Russia and China, the best offense is to add more speech to dilute authentic opinion. When Mr. Trump claims that more “illegal” votes were added to dilute the votes of true American opinion, he is taking a page out of the playbook that the KGB and Communist Party use.

He has cozied up to Vladimir Putin, to Kim Jong-un, and Xi Jinping, all Communist dictatorships. That is the America that Mr. Trump wants – a private kingdom of his own just like those guys have. He is jealous of their power and their control of the media. He wants his own kingdom for just four more years. How many Republicans will help him achieve his dream?


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Heritage Foundation. (n.d.). A Sampling of Election Fraud Cases from Across the Country. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/docs/pacei-voterfraudcases.pdf. (Notice that this report by a private foundation has been archived at the White House).

Kilgore, E. (2018, October 16). The Ghosts of the ’68 Election Still Haunt Our Politics. Retrieved November 21, 2020, from https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/10/1968-election-won-by-nixon-still-haunts-our-politics.html

U.S. Dept. of State. (n.d.). An End to the Crisis. Retrieved November 21, 2020, from https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/short-history/hostageend

Zeitz, J. (2016, October 27). Worried About a Rigged Election? Here’s One Way to Handle It. Retrieved November 21, 2020, from https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/10/donald-trump-2016-rigged-nixon-kennedy-1960-214395

The Armies of the River

November 15, 2020

by Steve Stofka

This is a story about two armies camped on either side of a river running down the center of your screen – and this nation. On the right side are the Conservatives, and further away from the river, toward the right edge are the Regressives. These radicals of the right include the Tea Party and Christian Evangelicals. On the left side of the river sit the Liberals, and further toward the left edge the Progressives. I hear tell that there are a few Socialists in that bunch. While the Conservatives and Liberals fight each other for control of the river, they must tangle with their more extreme brethren on each side.

Both the Regressives and Progressives are convinced that they should have control of the river, but first they must take the shore position from the Conservatives and Liberals. To do that they have to pull the Conservatives and Liberals away from the river, away from the political center.

I’ll begin with the Regressives, who believe that the way forward is a return to an idealized past. They hearken back to the Constitution, written at a time when less than a few thousand people, the legislatures of each state, voted. In a room with 1000 people, one person got to make all the rules. America was founded on aristocratic, not democratic principles.

The popular vote for President was not tallied until 1824 when some states began to allow popular voting for President. 1.2% of the country’s population voted in that election. These were white males who owned property. Andrew Jackson won the popular and electoral vote but did not win a majority of electoral votes. The winner, John Quincy Adams, was decided by the House of Representatives. Andrew Jackson championed a loosening of voting restrictions to allow white landless men to vote. That got him enough votes in the mid-Atlantic and southern states to win the next two elections. Such is the course of voting rights.

Christian Evangelicals are strongly regressive as they look to the past and future. Again, I caution that these are broad strokes I am painting here. They profess or imply a belief in the saved and the not saved, a Calvinist theme that has influenced Protestant belief since John Calvin in the 16th century. Jesus Saves is a restatement of that Calvinist theme.

The saved vote Republican. Mr. Trump is not one of the saved but offered the saved a way to grab an advantageous position nearer to the river and control the political agenda. Some of the saved believe he is the flawed messenger of God.

Some Evangelicals think that professing their faith is living their faith. They wear their faith on their sleeves, not in their hearts. A fundamentalist Christian preacher cheered the Trump hotel near the White House as the Grand Central of angelic spirit. The faithful are encouraged to patronize the hotel to support the President. It’s harder to hear the stronger and moderate voices of those who live their faith as a profession of their faith. It is they that the loud voiced Evangelicals on the fringe want to unseat.

The representatives of foreign conglomerates patronize the Trump hotel on visits to Washington to promote their country’s interest. “First Tuesdays” at the hotel bring in $1000 donations to various political campaigns. Meeting planners for the gun association get preferential rates at the hotel. Long ago in the 1990s, Republicans raised their voices in outrage when President Clinton allowed influential donors to sleep a night in the White House. Many of those Republicans were pushed into the river by the Tea Party and Evangelicals who were intent on winning control of the party’s agenda.

As many Republicans saw it, Democrats – and the Mainstream Media – punished Mr. Trump for winning the 2016 election. Former President Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton and the FBI and the deep state conspired to get her elected. Their plans were foiled by the Constitutional machinations of the electoral college.

Here is a Christian Regressive interpretation of the Electoral College. It was created by the Constitutional Convention which was inspired by God himself. They can see God’s hand in Mr. Trump’s 2016 win. Some, including Trump himself, are convinced that he won the popular vote as well. In a black and white world, the facts must line up. If they don’t, change the facts.

God’s inspiration created the Constitution; this implies that God approved slavery, of course, and there in the Bible we can see support for slavery. In the black and white, saved or not saved, conceptual framework of Christian Regressive thinking, slaves became slaves because they were not saved. None of the saved become slaves. A slave may become saved but the saved do not become slaves.

The Progressives think in several colors but share a fundamental belief in change, but not gradual change. They are an experimental bunch, willing to try policies that will affect over 300 million Americans. If it doesn’t work out, they believe that the country can flip a switch and try something else. They dream of a fairer world; they disagree on the path to get there. They interpret the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause to mean that the government’s job is to take care of us; that the sum of each’s welfare is the general welfare.

Let’s ask a question, “If your proposed program were failing, what signs could I look for?” What is the answer? The proposal will work because Progressives are confident that they will. They tug at the centrists who believe in gradual change; Progressives cannot get to their vision quickly enough. Despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, they believe that human nature can change quickly. Legislative change is too slow; frustrated with the legislative process, both the Progressives and Regressives look to the courts to enact their visions and beliefs.

From the fringes of conspiracy believers and devotees of the anarchy that will bring on the promised Apocalypse, Donald Trump has torn open the Republican Party in a rush to command the river. To accomplish that, he relied on the Republican fealty to party, not person. The hordes that follow him are convinced that he will bring a return of traditional American values to this country. How his untraditional and vulgar personality and lifestyle will accomplish that is a mystery to many. Most of the moderates in the party have been brushed aside or are quietly acquiescing to his influence. Only those legislators who are retiring dare speak their true opinion of the man for fear of reprisal.

Is there a person from the utopian fringes in the Progressive wing that could tear open the center of the Democratic Party? Bernie Sanders tried and lost – twice. He, Andrew Yang and AOC are candidates for the role, but they are intelligent, devoted to their principles and vision more than they are to themselves. The successful candidate will be someone like Mr. Trump whose loyalty is to himself, who has little analytical intelligence but lots of people smarts.

For much of the last century, only the Democrats have had a strong enough legislative coalition to bend the course of the river. They did so during the Great Depression and again in the 1960s with the programs of the Great Society, Medicare, and Medicaid among them. In each of the past Presidential elections, Republican candidates struggle to capture 50% of the vote. They have not held a filibuster proof majority in the Senate for more than a hundred years. The changing demographics of the country are threatening to consign them to a minority in the Federal power structure. If they are to bend the river, they must do it with a smash and grab person like Mr. Trump.

Mary Trump made a remark about her uncle that has stuck with me. “Don’t look away.” It’s the kind of caution a park ranger might give someone when encountering a wild animal. He is prowling on the bank of the river. Don’t look away.


Photo by Gláuber Sampaio on Unsplash

What’s In the Mirror

November 8, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Every hour of the day, Mr. Trump issues a barrage of tweets about massive voter fraud. No evidence. He began his four-year term with the ridiculous claim that he had larger inauguration crowds than former President Obama. The overhead photos clearly showed that not to be the case. He claimed the photos were doctored.

Some families are unfortunate to have a crazy uncle that no one wants to invite for Thanksgiving. Mr. Trump is our crazy uncle President. Chris Christie, his former campaign and transition manager in 2016, has challenged the President to show the evidence.  There is none. There are a few isolated irregularities as always but no evidence of massive voter fraud.

I grew up a few miles from our wonder boy President. In our neighborhood, his whining and sniveling would have earned him a “put on your big boy pants, peckerhead.” He never had big boy pants, because his daddy kept him in diapers, buying him whatever he wanted, covering up for his stupidity and recklessness. 

Where I grew up you learned to fight your own battles. Our daddies didn’t coddle us. We didn’t have an army of lawyers to protect us, or doctors to get us out of the draft. We didn’t have the money to buy women. We had to earn our own way.

During the Cold War years, Americans trained their paranoia on the Communists. They were everywhere in America. At mid-century, people lost their jobs and had their careers cut short in a Republican witch hunt to rout out the Communists. Whenever Republicans want to rouse up their base, they complain of Socialists and Communists trying to take over the country. From the 20th Century playbook the older people are passing on their hate and paranoia to their kids who will carry on the tradition through this century.

Our culture thrives on conflict, and our media and politics profits from turbulence. Like our judicial system, we have an adversarial political system. Competition rather than cooperation is the default strategy. Both sides of an issue try to obscure rather than clarify issues. Our conflicts become our entertainment.

During the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861, congressmen and wealthy families from Washington picnicked at an observation point while young men slaughtered each other. They didn’t have TV then. Their picnic turned to panic when they were caught in the rout and retreat of Union soldiers.

America is a congregation of the world’s refugees. Persecuted or disadvantaged in their home country, many of our ancestors came to America to create a space for themselves. They brought their hopes and their hatreds. The first civil war was the American Revolution, when thousands of colonial citizens fled to Canada to avoid death at the hands of their countrymen.

In the 19th century immigrants from other European nations came streaming in through the ports and borders of America. Thousands of Irish farmers fled during the potato famine in their country at the mid-century. Chinese workers helped build the railroads during and after the Civil War. Shortly thereafter, in 1882, they became the first nationality to be excluded.

Expanding industrial businesses in America needed workers at dirt cheap wages. America opened the door to Europeans from north and south. They carried with them their hopes of a better life and decades or centuries of prejudices they had been taught since childhood.

One of those was a German young man fleeing obligatory military service. He was Donald Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump (Frost, 2018). His son and grandson, our President, would disavow their German heritage in later years. Like his grandfather, Donald Trump evaded military service when his daddy paid a doctor to falsify medical records. Some traditions are important in the Trump family.

After World War I, America closed its borders to all but a few European nations. Antipathy to Germans ran high after the war. Returning servicemen still clung to their belief that the only good German was a dead German. Still, the nation was not among the excluded countries in the immigration act of 1924.

In 1965, a new immigration act reopened borders; now refugees from Asia and Latin American countries came to America. Like the Europeans, they brought their peculiar prejudices and a centuries long history of slaughter and civil war.

This country is founded on hope, prejudice, and tolerance. People of other nations have despised their neighbors because of religion, culture, ancestry, and history. America is the melting pot of that ugliness brought here by people from around the world. The torch held aloft at the top of the Statue of Liberty burns bright with the starshine of our ideals and the burnt cinders of our hatreds. People in other countries look to America and the millions of guns stashed in homes throughout our country; they wonder how is anyone still alive in America? If we can tolerate each other, there is hope for the rest of the world.

We are a tolerant people, civilized savages in a nation of laws. We go to church on Sunday and throw rocks at 6-year old Ruby Bridges, a black girl walking to school (Hilbert College, n.d.). That was sixty years ago this coming week. We pour out our sympathies and open our pocketbooks to help those whose lives have been torn apart by disasters around the world. We swear on our bibles, then tuck them away, pick up our torches and light Vietnamese children on fire. Love, charity and the darkness within.

Mr. Trump tapped into the power of our hatred and will continue to be a force in American politics. With millions of Americans following his Twitter feed, he delights in the conspiracies that feed the flames of righteous anger and justified hatred. As Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us.  


Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash

Frost, N. (2018, July 13). The Trump Family’s Immigrant Story. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from https://www.history.com/news/donald-trump-father-mother-ancestry

Hilbert College. (n.d.). Social Justice Activists: Ruby Bridges. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from https://www.hilbert.edu/social-justice-activists/ruby-bridges

Connect America

November 1, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Listening to a talk show “Rambling with Gambling” when I was a kid, I was surprised to learn that city people – that was my family – paid for a small part of the telephone service that country people had. Why was this? I asked my mom. She explained that it cost the telephone company less to supply service to city folks. We helped the country folks, so they did not have to pay such high rates.

Well, what do they do for us, I asked? She thought for a moment. We spend less on milk, she said. No matter what the weather is, the farmers must wake up early every morning to milk the cows so that we can have fresh milk every day. If they were to charge for all that extra effort, we would pay a lot more for our milk. The dairy farmers help pay for our milk and we help pay for their telephone service, she explained.

Community was an interconnected web of people sharing their advantages and disadvantages so that everyone’s circumstances were a little more equal. If a classmate did not understand fractions and we did, we should help them. We shouldn’t call them stupid.

Everyone’s brain is wired a little bit differently. Some ideas “take” easier in one person’s brain than another. It’s like a telephone circuit. A teacher might show a math idea and it goes in one kid’s brain, easily makes all the right connections, and finds a permanent place. In another person’s brain, that idea loses the connection or gets a busy signal, and the idea doesn’t take hold the first time. That person might need to be shown the idea in a different way. That’s why some people have a knack for certain professions.

Well, I always get it the first time, I said. Well, no you don’t, my mother said. When we “get” something, it seems new so we think that this must be the first time we’ve heard it. Then we get impatient when we must show something more than once to someone else.

I can look back with amusement at the simplistic view of humanity that I had as a child, but I want to believe that there is a sense of cooperation, tolerance, and rationality in people.

In Donald Trump’s America, there is less of that. Cooperation is composed of temporary transactional alliances with others in a battle with our neighbors. Tolerance is weakness. Rationality makes one’s actions predictable to the enemy. Donald Trump justifies his irrational, flip-flop style of decision making as gamesmanship. Rationality makes law and order possible. Without it, despotism rules.

I heard a BBC reporter describe Donald Trump’s style of politics as “pugilistic.” I would call it demeaning, and a danger to democracy. Those with experience and rational planning have left the administration. They include Jim Mattis, who has devoted his life to national service and shares a belief in the American ideal and America’s leadership role in the global community. He could not be party to Donald Trump’s trampling on the Constitution and the ideals embodied in the American flag.

Cooperation, tolerance, and rationality are ideas that find a permanent home in the minds of some more easily than others. At 74, Donald Trump is unlikely to make the new neural connections that nurture those ideas. He loses his train of thought more frequently, so he prefers rallies where his words are written out for him on a teleprompter. After an impromptu jab at his political enemies, he can recover his sense of continuity. When he doesn’t have cue cards, he relies on favorite phrases and superlatives to convey the sense that he remembers what he is talking about.

Donald Trump may fancy himself as an innovative disruptor, but he is little more than an angry child, an anarchist who rips all the wires out of the switchboard. A hundred years ago, the telephone connected Americans. Almost thirty years ago, the internet connected the global community. We need a President who can connect and implement the ideas of cooperation, tolerance, and rationality that have distinguished America. Joe Biden’s Presidency can be the switchboard that Connects America.


Photo by John Barkiple on Unsplash