The Lion’s Roar

January 17, 2021

by Steve Stofka

After encouraging a rush on the Capitol building, the man whom the Russians helped get elected in 2016 is stepping down. 25,000 troops have been deployed to protect the area around the seat of power during Inauguration week, turning Washington, D.C. into a green zone like that of Baghdad in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion in 2003.

Around the country, governors have deployed troops to protect state capitols against threats of violence. At a news conference this week, Ohio’s governor was asked how many groups had applied for permits to peacefully demonstrate. His answer – none.  He promised an aggressive response from troops stationed around the capitol in Columbus.

On the C-Span call-in show Washington Journal some callers made an equivalence between BLM protestors defacing statues and breaking into stores with the assault on Congress. Fox News posted a graphic comparing the summation of hundreds of summer protests with one event on January 6th, pointing out that Jan. 6th wasn’t so bad. Hundreds equals one.

The Russians had a small influence in Mr. Trump’s 2016 election. The media – mainstream and not so mainstream – gave him the megaphone, the broadcast time and let him roar. Anderson Cooper of CNN explained that he was available when other presidential candidates were not. Media channels need to fill airtime and retain viewers. That’s the way it is.

Mr. Trump’s entire presidency has been a media feast. He likens himself to a lion, paying particular attention to his mane. He spent four years roaring his thoughts and emotions on social media, then watched them echoed on Fox News an hour later. He surrounded himself with sycophants seduced by the chance to pull the strings of the nation’s dancing puppets. He gloried in his power to dominate but lamented the fact that his pride of supporters were so low class. A great lion deserves a good pride.

By his own account, he was the greatest president. He was certainly a president without precedent. Being impeached twice in one term earns him a place in the history books. He inherited a low unemployment rate of 4.6% from the previous administration and, before the Covid crisis, helped lower it to 3.6%. Presidents have far less influence over the broad economy, but they are the ones that wear the crown of roses when the economy is good, and the dunce cap when it is not so good.

During the four years of the Trump administration, the country will likely come close to the $6.8T deficits that it accumulated under eight years of President Obama. Mr. Trump inherited a healthy economy from his predecessor but wanted robust growth, besting some of the growth during the Reagan years. He gambled that big tax cuts for the wealthy would induce them to invest in more domestic manufacturing, that the economic growth would compensate for the loss of tax revenue. It didn’t.  

Christian Nationalists applauded him for moving the capital of Israel to Jerusalem and appointing a roster of right-wing judges to the courts. Their project is to turn the U.S. into a theocracy like Israel, Iran, and Iraq, ruled by leaders of one religious sect. Mr. Trump was a warrior king, like David, and like that ancient Biblical figure, was driven by his character flaws. Instead of white KKK bedsheets, his followers donned horns and capes and grabbed pitchforks as they stormed the castle of Congress, determined to turn the Capitol into the cathedral of a white Christian nation, the New Jerusalem.

Mr. Trump certainly got our attention. Americans are a hard-working bunch, yet we found time to jab him with rancor or praise his pitchfork rhetoric. He was either a menace or mensch. His was not a neighborly disposition; he shoveled coal into the flames that power the engine of American politics.

After touching the snarling beast that hides within our body politic, we now turn to a more measured man, Mr. Biden, in the hopes that there is some sense of cooperation left in our soul.  We see our Capitol surrounded by barriers and remember the words that Mr. Rogers sang, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

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Photo by Catherine Merlin on Unsplash

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?

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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

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.  

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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

America Thirsts

October 18, 2020

By Steve Stofka

“America First” was a rallying cry of the 2016 Trump campaign but the isolationist sentiment and the name go deep into our country’s past. It is more fundamentalist than conservative, gathering its supporters from the far right. An America First Committee formed in 1940 as an opposition movement to America’s involvement in World War 2. After Pearl Harbor, it was disbanded, but an America First Party fielded a fundamentalist candidate in the 1944 election.

Was Mr. Trump the first to adopt the slogan for an election campaign? No. Both Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding used the phrase a century ago. The journalist and 2000 Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan ran under the banner of the Reform Party. Known for his isolationist stance even when he worked in the Nixon administration, he famously – or infamously – cost Al Gore the election in the 2000 election. Because of his placement on the ballot next to Al Gore’s name, many voters who had voted Democratic incorrectly marked Buchanan on their ticket.

Russia and China would prefer that America stay out of world affairs. Our intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia is actively working to re-elect Trump. When pulled the U.S. out of the Iran treaty, that left Vladimir Putin holding the major foreign influence in that country.

While China has had its difficulties with Mr. Trump’s erratic trade policies, they prefer someone who pays more attention to his poll numbers and the daily fluctuations in the stock market. Both countries needed an American president with little experience of international politics; someone who does not read his intelligence briefing book; someone who uses a large sharpie to sign his name because he doesn’t write much but his name. While Mr. Trump stumps around on the stage of American politics, Russia and China gain more influence daily. He has become America’s vulnerable spot in global affairs.

Mr. Trump’s business philosophy is not isolationist; he owes hundreds of millions to Deutsche Bank. He owns a golf resort in Scotland and has tried to build a hotel in Russia. This week he joked – I think it was a joke – that he might have to leave the country if he loses the election. He might do so to avoid the many legal proceedings against him for election fraud, financial fraud, and securities fraud. Perhaps he will build a golf course or a hotel in Russia, where Mr. Putin will protect him from extradition.

Americans thirst as they line up at early voting polling places. They thirst for someone less headstrong, someone more mannered and less combative, someone who reads, someone who prepares, someone who takes the job of President seriously. Americans thirst.

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Notes:

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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

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

Revival

March 8, 2020

by Steve Stofka

A heartfelt endorsement by veteran S. Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn ignited a outpouring of voter support for Joe Biden in that state’s primary a week ago. Mr. Biden rode that momentum into Super Tuesday a few days later and the campaign that was on life support became the leading candidate in the Democratic race.

The following day the stock market rallied a whopping 4%. Big investors know that Mr. Biden will not make life difficult for them. He is old school. He knows that there are two sets of rules and the rich write the rules. Mr. Sanders makes Wall St. uncomfortable because he also knows that there are two sets of rules. He wants to write a new rule book where the rich don’t write the rules. That’s bad for rich people. Here’s why.

Bernie Sanders is often branded as a socialist. He brands himself with the qualifier Democratic Socialist. As the Wall St. Journal’s Richard Rubin pointed out this week, Mr. Sanders is not proposing a European model of socialism (Rubin, 2020). Those progressive systems are funded by a regressive sales tax called a VAT (Wallop, 2010). This tax burden falls mostly on middle class and working families. Mr. Sander’s plan funds progressive programs with progressive taxes falling mostly on the wealthy. That ain’t socialism. We need a naming contest for a system where the wealthy do extra to help the community. Four syllables or less. I’d suggest Neighborism based on the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart. What’s your suggestion?

Last month President Trump launched a political tweet missile at the Supreme Court (Baker, 2020). This past week Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hand carried his warning to the steps of the Supreme Court. He was part of a protest regarding a current course case that tests the court’s earlier decisions beginning with Roe v. Wade almost fifty years ago. Chief Justice John Roberts has admonished President Trump, Mr. Schumer and others that they should not threaten the Supreme Court. Mr. Schumer says he regrets his remarks (Pecorin, 2020). President Trump last apologized for his remarks when he was in the first grade.

The high court’s Bush v. Gore decision chose the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election and tarnished the court’s reputation as an objective body. Since the beginning of his tenure as Chief Justice in 2005, Mr. Roberts has tried to resuscitate the court’s reputation. In this age, tarnished reputations stay tarnished.

Was the court ever impartial? Over a hundred years ago, Albert Einstein sparked a revolution in physics with a set of mathematical equations which showed that impartiality was impossible. Our observations and conclusions are based on our frame of reference. In the past century an overwhelming body of evidence has substantiated Einstein’s claims.

A central proposition in physics has spread to the humanities. Is this a “hey man, everything is relative” moment? No. Understanding an argument’s frame of reference takes time and research. Most of us are too pressed for time and tend to discard arguments that we don’t instinctively like. Chief Justice Roberts maintains that the members of the high court are not prone to this common human fallibility. Do they cast aside the ideological framing they have formed during their life and career and reach a deliberative decision that fully balances all the considerations of a case before the court? No, of course not. Mr. Roberts is still living in a Newtonian world of imagined impartial justice. Perhaps he should remove his robe while shaving and see the man reflected in his mirror.

A long time ago, my sales manager said to me, “Either you believe in your own b.s. or someone else’s b.s. Wouldn’t you rather own it?” This week Mr. Biden looked like a man who owns someone else’s b.s. – that of Jim Clyburn and the folks in S. Carolina who gave Mr. Biden a sense of confidence. His walk up the stairs to a stage platform has grown more vigorous since Super Tuesday. His voice projects with a confidence and assuredness that I didn’t hear just two weeks ago. He no longer sounds like a frail man. I’m still not convinced he owns his b.s., but he may get there in the next few months.

Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, is a man who has owned what he says for decades. As an Independent, he has played a minor role in the Democratic political hierarchy despite his many years in the Senate. Will voters choose the man of measured manner, Mr. Biden, or put their money on the impassioned and principled Mr. Sanders?

I wish my teachers had told me that I needed to be 70+ to run for President. We have too many old people in Congress. I thought so when I was young. I think so today. Yes, old people have experience, sagacity and some have a more measured temperament. The age of the people we send to represent us in Washington does not reflect us.

The Congressional Research Service recently computed the average age of the House at nearly 58 years; of the Senate, 62 years (Manning, 2018). According to the Census Bureau, the U.S. population – including children – has a median age of 38 (2019). If we take out the 25% of the population under 18, a reasonable estimate of the median age of adults might be an age of 50, ten years younger than the current average age of the members of Congress.

Patrick Leahy, the other Senator from Vermont, has held his seat for almost half a century. They come to Washington and die in Washington. They believe that they have earned an objective wisdom through their long service in their seats. To paraphrase Socrates, the man who thinks he is wise is a danger to himself and others. Step aside. Let the young blood walk the halls and make a different set of mistakes than the ones you once made. Let go. Our country will be better for it.

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Baker, P. (2020, February 25). Trump, in India, Demands Two Liberal Justices Recuse Themselves From His Cases. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/25/us/politics/trump-supreme-court.html

Manning, J. (CRS). (2018, December 20). Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from https://www.senate.gov/CRSpubs/b8f6293e-c235-40fd-b895-6474d0f8e809.pdf

Pecorin, A., et al. (2020, March 5). Schumer says he regrets comments Chief Justice Roberts called ‘dangerous’ threats. ABC News. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/chief-justice-john-roberts-calls-sen-chuck-schumer/story?id=69396928

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

Rubin, R. (2020, March 6). Bernie Sanders’s Tax Plan Would Be Biggest Expansion of Taxation Since World War II. Wall St. Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/sanders-plan-would-hoist-taxes-11583449105 (paywall).

U.S. Census Bureau. (2019, July 16). Median Age Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/06/median-age-does-not-tell-the-whole-story.html

Wallop, H. (2010, April 13). General Election 2010: a brief history of the Value Added Tax. The Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/election-2010/7582869/VAT-a-brief-history.html

President Mayor?

March 1st, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Among the Democratic candidates for President are two mayors. Mike Bloomberg was mayor of New York City for the twelve years following 9-11. Pete Buttigieg just completed an eight year stint as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Americans have never elected a recent mayor to the presidency (Badger, 2019). Will this year be different?

Mayors are responsible for everything that happens in their city – from policing practices to snow removal. John Lindsay, a former mayor of New York City, almost lost his job because of a snowstorm (Marton, 2019). Too many homeless people in Los Angeles? Mayor Eric Garcetti takes full responsibility (City News Service, 2019). Few residents write to the mayor to say that they are so happy that their streetlights are working. The lack of complaints tells a mayor that he or she is doing a good job. Mayors are a tough bunch with strong shoulders.

Do we take the same responsibility for our savings portfolios? If interest rates are too low, do we keep all the money in a savings account and blame the system? When the market goes down, do we rethink our risk appetite, or do we blame those invisible market forces?

 At nearly 11 years, this bull market is the longest running in the past one hundred years. The 400% gain since the March 2009 low beats both the gains of the 1920s and 1990s bull markets. Just a month ago, the investment firm Goldman Sachs estimated that there was still room for more price appreciation this year (Winck, 2020).

This week’s downturn was made sharper by several practical factors. In any abrupt downturn that last a few days or longer, margin calls prompt more selling. What is a margin call? Let’s say I borrow $50 from my broker to buy a $100 stock. If the price goes down to $90, my broker wants me to pony up another $5. If I don’t have the cash, the broker will sell some of my holdings to raise the cash.

The Coronavirus prompted investors to reassess projected earnings for this year and to assign a greater risk to their stock exposure. A lot of investors bought bonds with the proceeds from their stock sales. Worst time to buy long term bonds? Probably. An ETF of 30-year Treasury bonds (TLT) hit its highest price ever this week.

President Trump regards stock market performance as an important indicator of his success. What will he do if market prices decline another 10%? Will he attack Fed chairman Jerome Powell as he did in 2018? Has Mr. Trump become the most wearisome President in modern history?

Joe Biden took almost half the votes in the S. Carolina primary this week, but Bernie Sanders is still leading the roster of candidates with 54 delegates (Leatherby and Almukhtar, 2020). It’s a long road to the goal of 1991 delegates to secure the nomination. The delegates captured in the first four primaries are dwarfed by the 1344 delegates in play this week on Super Tuesday. 643 of those delegates are in California and Texas. It’s a reminder of the power of a few states in the selection of a President.

What about the mayors in the race? Pete Buttigieg is 3rd in delegate count. Because Mike Bloomberg entered the race late, he set his sights on Super Tuesday and currently has 0 delegates. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar have both worked long and hard, have enthusiastic supporters but have earned few delegates. Running for the top office is a hard job.

Will this week bring more downturns in the market? There was a big surge of investors willing to buy late Friday afternoon. It’s a good sign when large investors are willing to take a position before the weekend.  

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Notes:

Badger, E. (2019, November 18). Pete Buttigieg Tests 230 Years of History: Why Can’t a Mayor Be President? N.Y. Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/18/upshot/Buttigieg-2020-race-mayors.html

City News Service. (2019, August 26). Mayor of LA Promises More Help to Solve Homelessness Problem. Retrieved from https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/streets-of-shame/mayor-garcetti-homeless-los-angeles-crisis-response/129407/

Leatherby, L., & Almukhtar, S. (2020, February 3). Democratic Primary Election Results 2020. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/elections/delegate-count-primary-results.html

Marton, J. (2019, January 28). Today in NYC History: John Lindsay’s No Good, Very Bad Snowstorm of 1969. Retrieved from https://untappedcities.com/2015/02/09/today-in-nyc-history-john-lindsays-no-good-very-bad-snowstorm-of-1969/

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

Winck, B. (2020, January 23). GOLDMAN SACHS: Lagging fund inflows can drive the stock market even higher | Markets Insider. Retrieved from https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/stock-market-higher-forecast-inflows-safe-asset-crowding-goldman-sachs-2020-1-1028840905

Branders vs Builders

February 23, 2020

by Steve Stofka

At the National Press Club this week, Army secretary Ryan McCarthy spoke about people resisting change “because they focus on what they are going to lose instead of what they are going to gain” (C-Span, 2020). True? Not true?

In 2016, almost half of voters voted for change. In 2008, former President Obama ran on a platform of change. In his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders is touting big policy changes. He is leading in early caucus primaries and early caucus results place him as this weekend’s winner in Nevada.

Americans have been able to embrace change because our political institutions resist change. Unlike Britain, we have a written Constitution that proscribes or sets boundaries for change. In the U.S., minority interests are given more power to play an obstructionist role and this is particularly true in the Senate. When Harry Reid was the Democratic Majority Leader, he accused Republicans of obstructionism (C-Span, 2011). When the Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, became the Majority Leader in 2015, he made the same accusations against Democrats (C-Span, 2017). The parties trade scripts.

Tired of listening to the same script, a lot of voters chose an off-script candidate, Donald Trump, in 2016. For most of his term, the White House has been run on an informal basis, changing policy with the political weather in Washington. President Trump is a brander, not a builder.

Presidents who want to enact a large part of their agenda must be both branders and builders. It is an unusual combination of traits. In the 20th century, only FDR and Ronald Reagan were both. Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt. This is a subjective call. What are your candidates for the title of both brander and builder?

When a President is capable of both roles, the other party reacts strongly to what they build and their brand. This is certainly true of both FDR and Reagan. Republicans continue to tear away at the federal bureaucracy first erected by FDR. President Reagan was and is the champion of that movement among mainstream Republicans.

Responding to the worst recession since the Great Depression, Democrats elected a leader they hoped could emulate the substantial change in direction that FDR brought about. President Obama was neither a brander nor a builder. His “no drama” demeanor could not build coalitions in an age when people wanted a “fire in the belly” leader like Mr. Trump.

Bernie Sanders is such a “fire in the belly” candidate, but can he build the coalitions needed to pass direction changing legislation? He has not done so during his thirty years in the House and Senate, according to NYU historian Timothy Naftali (Stein, 2020). His campaign slogan is “Not me, us!” He is asking voters to play a vital role in melding political coalitions.

Mr. Bloomberg’s anemic first performance on the debate stage this week was hardly encouraging. Yet, Mr. Bloomberg appeals to practical Democratic and Independent voters, as well as establishment Republicans like Clint Eastwood who have tired of watching President Trump playing in his White House sandbox. This weekend Mr. Eastwood gave Mr. Bloomberg a thumbs up (Berley, 2020). Why would Republicans vote for a Democratic candidate? If the Senate remains in Republican hands, they will act as a check on a Democratic President and House. If other notable Republicans signal an approval of Mr. Bloomberg, that might persuade pragmatic Democratic voters to choose him as well. The road to the White House is a maze of planning, circumstance, and shifting voter and donor alliances.

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Notes:

Berley, M. (2020, February 22). Clint Eastwood Endorses Bloomberg, Citing ‘Ornery’ Politics. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-02-22/clint-eastwood-endorses-bloomberg-citing-ornery-politics

C-Span. (2011, September 6). Opening Remarks from Senators Reid and McConnell. [Video, Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?301374-4/opening-remarks-senators-reid-mcconnell (01:11).

C-Span. (2017, July 11). Senators McConnell and Thune on Health Care. [Video, Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?431157-2/senators-mcconnell-thune-health-care (13:24).

C-Span. (2020, February 14). Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy at the National Press Club. [Video, Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?469279-1/army-secretary-ryan-mccarthy-national-press-club. (8:14)

Photo by Alfred Kenneally on Unsplash

Stein, J. (2020, February 12). As Bernie Sanders ascends, his potential White House approach to the economy comes into focus. Washington Post. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/02/12/bernie-sanders-ascends-potential-white-house-approach-obstacles-come-into-focus/

The Billionaire Ballot

February 16, 2020

by Steve Stofka

“Dad, can I get a new bike?”

“What do you think money grows on trees?”

“No. If it grew on trees, I wouldn’t ask you for a new bike. I’d ask for a ladder so I could pick my own money.” A great comeback that I never said. No new bike. I could still dream of being President someday.

My dad was born before the Great Depression, a time when money lived in the ground. In 1849, people went crazy when they learned that there was gold in the dirt of California (PBS, n.d.). It’s God’s will, some said. In 1876, eight years after the Federal government signed a treaty with the Sioux Indians, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of North Dakota. Sorry, Sioux Indians, but you’ll have to move (NPS, n.d.). 

It took labor and money to dig up money when it lived in the ground. Now it lives in the digital “cloud.” Are we inherently distrustful of money that can be created with the push of a finger on a computer terminal? Seems too easy. We are 50 years into a system that is untethered from any practical restraint. The Federal Reserve guides their monetary policy according to goals set by a law passed at the height of inflation in the 1970s. They do not have to dig up dirt to get more money. They don’t have to keep gold or silver reserves. It seems like the same magical thinking of a kid who dreams about becoming President.

Presidential candidates must work hard to generate enthusiasm and donations of time and money to fuel their campaigns. A successful candidate for the Presidency usually finds a phrase that resonates with supporters.  In 2008, former President Obama used “Yes, we can” and various combinations of “Change” (List of U.S. presidential campaign slogans, 2020). President Trump used “Make America Great Again” during his 2016 campaign. His current slogan is “Keep America Great.” I heard Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren sound out “Fighting Back” at a Virginia rally this past Thursday (C-Span, 2020). Mike Bloomberg has blanketed media with the phrase “Mike will get it done” (Mike Bloomberg, 2020).

In 2016, Marco Rubio and other Republican candidates complained that the inexperienced Donald Trump could buy the party’s nomination with his vast resources. Mr. Trump had promised to spend $100 million of his own money and spent $65 million in the final accounting (Peters & Storey, 2016). This was only half of the $121 million in inflation adjusted dollars that Ross Perot spent on his Presidential campaign in 1992 (Boaz, 2019).

Enter Mike Bloomberg. In the few months since he announced his candidacy, his campaign has spent $400 million (Burns & Kulish, 2020). His political spending is dwarfed by his charitable giving. In 2019, Mr. Bloomberg’s foundation donated more than $3 billion to charity. Unlike President Trump, Mr. Bloomberg has demonstrated his business acumen and has past political experience in the mud pit of New York City politics. He is used to the tough bargaining and political alliances that consume Washington. Mr. Trump knows only intimidation, not bargaining. He is the Twitter version of Venezuela’s former President, Hugo Chavez, who used radio to attack his political enemies.

What entices these billionaires to want a high stress job in Washington? What lies in the ground in Washington is not gold, but great power and reputation. Under FDR in 1932, the Democrats first began to consolidate political power in Washington. World War 2 and the Cold War helped grow that power base. So did the Federal programs of social support – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and countless others. Beginning in the 1960s, Congress began to grant the President more executive power to conduct war and administer the growing array of Federal agencies.

As the power of the Presidency grew, each Presidential campaign attracted more money. Through a series of campaign reform bills, Congress attempted to regulate the flow of money into politics. In the past decade, two recent Supreme Court decisions have undone many campaign regulations (Ballotpedia, n.d).

The discovery of gold in California and South Dakota attracted many prospectors who worked hard to grab the prize. Like today’s Presidential candidates, many miners did not have the resources necessary to capitalize on the opportunity. Well-funded companies like Homestake Mining proved successful. This is the era we are in now. Little Johnny or Mary can put away their dreams of being President. Is that good for the country?

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Notes:

Ballotpedia. (n.d.). Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Retrieved from https://ballotpedia.org/Bipartisan_Campaign_Reform_Act

Boaz, D. (2019, July 9). RIP Ross Perot, the Billionaire Who Ran for President. Retrieved from https://www.cato.org/blog/rip-ross-perot-billionaire-who-ran-president. Mr. Perot spent $65 million, or about $121 million in current dollars.

Burns, A., & Kulish, N. (2020, February 15). Bloomberg’s Billions: How the Candidate Built an Empire of Influence. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/02/15/us/politics/michael-bloomberg-spending.html

C-Span. (2020, February 14). Senator Elizabeth Warren Campaigns in Arlington, Virginia. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?469313-1/senator-elizabeth-warren-campaigns-arlington-virginia (43:08).

List of U.S. presidential campaign slogans. (2020, February 14). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._presidential_campaign_slogans

Mike Bloomberg 2020. (2020). Mike Bloomberg for President: Official 2020 Campaign Website. Retrieved February 14, 2020, from https://www.mikebloomberg.com/

Peters, J. W., & Shorey, R. (2016, December 9). Trump Spent Far Less Than Clinton, but Paid His Companies Well. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/us/politics/campaign-spending-donald-trump-hillary-clinton.html

Photo by annie bolin on Unsplash