A Coin of the Realm

December 20, 2020

by Steve Stofka

As bitcoin surged past $20,000 in value this past week, I wondered what the world would look like if bitcoin were the dominant medium of exchange on our planet. A little more than a decade ago the algorithm behind bitcoin was invented. From its inception, the supply of bitcoin was limited. Although it may function as a medium of exchange, its fixed quantity makes it ideal for buying – not being – currency.

When a currency is limited, the value of that currency increases, a matter of supply and demand. The goods and services that the currency buys fall in value, a process called deflation. It is the opposite of inflation or rising prices.

Limited currencies encourage saving, not spending. Bitcoin savers are called “hodlers” after a typo for advice to “hold” the currency on a message board in 2013 (Frankenfeld, 2020). In a deflationary environment, that is the best strategy because the currency will buy more next year. It pays to delay consumption. Businesses put off buying equipment that will make them more productive. People who own equipment are motivated to sell it before it loses even more value. These two impulses cause a deflationary spiral. At the bottom of that spiral, everything sells for dirt cheap.

A version of this happened during the Great Depression eighty years ago. In the years after the 1929 stock market crash, the central bank was, believe it or not, worried about inflation and limited the supply of money (Friedman, 1968). The central bank turned a sharp correction into a severe depression. Knowing that perverse history, former Fed chief, Ben Bernanke, assured Congress that the central bank would not make the same mistake in response to the 2008 financial crisis.

Let’s imagine a world where bitcoin is the medium of exchange. Because your car is eight years old, you anticipate more repairs. Is now the time to buy? The local dealership is offering a reliable car for 1 bitcoin, but you remember that just a few years ago, that same car sold for 1.5 bitcoin. If you wait until next year, you can probably get it for maybe ¾ bitcoin. You decide to drive your old car for another year.

A lot of people make that same decision and hold off buying new cars. Auto repair shops see an increase in business because people are repairing their cars instead of buying new. Car dealers, anxious to move cars off their lot because they owe the bank for those cars, lower prices even more. This induces some people to buy new cars, but it convinces even more people that their prediction was true; it is better to wait.

Car dealers start slowing their purchases from the factories, cause some factories to close. Those workers lose their jobs; why don’t all those workers just become car mechanics? First, car factories employ a concentrated workforce; auto repair shops are dispersed across a wide area. Second, building new cars and repairing old cars take two different sets of skills. Some workers will make the transition, but many won’t.

Because there are fewer cars being made, the price for new cars doesn’t fall as fast. People who had expected the price for a particular model car to fall to ½ bitcoin are disappointed. Some decide to buy now because car repair rates have gone up faster than new car prices are going down. But some people look around at the people losing their jobs and decide to play it safe. The buying power of the bitcoin currency holds steady for a while.

Uncertain about the growth of auto sales, auto manufacturers close more factories. The reasoning is simple. Although bitcoin as steadied in buying power, they anticipate that the currency will continue to grow faster than profits from making cars. As more auto factory workers lose their jobs, people become more cautious and hold off buying. The anticipation of future deflation contributes to further deflation.

For those who remember the hyperinflation of the 1970s, inflation does the same thing. That is why central banks are wary of a strong tendency toward inflation or deflation. They are self-reinforcing phenomena.

Let’s step out of the world where bitcoin is the global medium of exchange and back into the present world. What is bitcoin? Its limited quantity makes it like a collectible – a fine painting, or an old coin, but is not a collectible because there needs to be an agreement of the blockchain before anyone can buy a bitcoin. You can buy a painting without that consensus.

Its ability to act as a medium of exchange makes it like a currency, but it is not a currency because it doesn’t have a critical feature of a sustainable currency. As a unit of account, it behaves like an asset or commodity itself, not a ledger of account for a commodity. A stable and sustainable currency is an asset of the larger community, not just a store of value for an individual.  

So, what is bitcoin? It is a hybrid animal like the platypus, part bird and part mammal. Like the platypus, bitcoin is a species best suited to an island ecology. Bitcoin advocates point to the number of asset and hedge funds buying bitcoin as a demonstration of its growing acceptance as a global currency. Some funds have added bitcoin to their portfolios because it is a specialty, part of a broad asset mix. Like the platypus, it will only survive in a protected environment. Protected by? A stable currency like the dollar.

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Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

Frankenfield, J. (2020, August 29). HODL. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/hodl.asp

Friedman, M. (1968). The Role of Monetary Policy. American Economic Review, 58(1). https://www.aeaweb.org/aer/top20/58.1.1-17.pdf. p.3.

Dueling Dancers

December 13, 2020

by Steve Stofka

As I read and listen to arguments on both sides of an issue, they fall into two categories: the ontological and the utilitarian. Those terms make our arguments sound erudite and rational. In the wrestling match of ideas and opinions, we need shorter names that will fit on a wrestler’s robe: the Onts and the Utis. This fight has been going on a long time.

If you are an Ont, you argue about the nature of things. Most of the time, you try to gain the upper hand in defining an issue. If someone is new to this country and is hungry or homeless, you might argue that people who have just arrived here are not entitled to government benefits. They may be human beings, but you narrowly describe them as free riders, something which is of great interest to Onts, who see everyone else’s free riding, but not their own.

The Ont does not think city governments should tolerate homeless people on downtown streets. Onts have characterized homeless people as drug addicts and self-indulgent people who should get a job or sit in jail making license plates. Homeless people command a lot of city services, particularly visits to the local emergency room. Taxes support the well-being of free riders, a divisive issue with Onts.

Onts are concerned about moral hazard, the inducement to take on more risk when a person doesn’t have to suffer the consequences. If an Ont gave a homeless person some money, that person would probably spend it on drugs, putting themselves further at risk. The Ont is doing a noble act by not encouraging the ruinous behavior of a homeless person.

If you are a Uti, you think that the practical solution is the right solution in an imperfect world. You care about the homeless person because you care about yourself and can’t stand the thought that you live in a society that would permit such human tragedy. Do you go downtown and hand out some of your savings to those homeless people to show you care? Well, maybe that wouldn’t be practical, you tell yourself.

A Uti recognizes moral hazard but doesn’t crusade against it the way that an Ont does. People put themselves at risk because they don’t bear the consequences of their risky behavior. Yes, we’d like to minimize that, but we don’t want to put others at even more risk because the community ultimately bears the consequences of their risky behavior.

A Uti lives in the real world, an imperfect version of the imagined utopia of the Ont. Yes, things are supposed to work a certain way, but “frictions” – messy entanglements – interfere with the perfect. The Uti wields his scythe, cutting the harvest while the Ont hoists his pickaxe and joins the crusade against the unholy.

A thousand years ago, Pope Urban II called on Christians in Europe to free the Holy Land from the Muslim infidels. The Pope appears on his balcony above the faithful crowds at the Vatican. At his rallies, President Trump emerges from his big plane and speaks to the devoted crowd. Think of President Trump wearing a pope hat embroidered with “MMGA” – Make Me Great Again.

Like the crusades of old, 136 Congressmen joined the army behind Texas’ attempt to get the Supreme Court to nullify the electoral votes of four battleground states. The court told them to turn in their pickaxes and go home. An Ont clings to their conviction that their solution is right even when it is not practical. If challenged, an Ont redefines the issue.

The practical problem that an Ont wants to solve is how to be right on every issue. The Ont is a Uti in disguise. The Uti use an Ont maneuver when they define the practical solution as the right solution in an imperfect world.

When both wrestlers in any argument take their robes off, it is difficult to tell them apart. As the two wrestlers circle each other, bystanders cheer on their favorite fighter but it is the bystanders who get hurt in a tangle between two political heavyweights. Media companies profit hugely; we are both the unpaid performers and the spectators of the political and cultural circus.

Who knew that philosophy could be so much fun?

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Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

Alt Belief

December 6, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Cognitive dissonance controls our political sensibilities. We speak in cryptic code and listen only to those whose code we understand. Our understanding is the standard by which we judge all other versions of reality. There is a dedicated band of people determined to preserve out of fashion ideas and explanations. Life would be easier if the people who disagreed with us would change their minds.

Listening to Washington Journal on C-Span this past week, I realized why my sensibilities lie with the Democratic Party. I can argue with their ideas, some of which I do not agree with. A Republican Congressman said that the government has no right to dictate the personal behavior of people, even though that behavior might kill people. On the other hand, the government does have the right to dictate the personal behavior of women on the chance that they might kill their fetus. My head exploded and I moved on to something else.

Several decades ago, Republican voices used to make more sense. Either the party has changed, or I have. Is this any way to discover my political allegiances? American politics is driven more by disaffection. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend, but more like my foxhole companion on the political battlefield. Both sides of the political aisle would benefit more if they cooperated, but it pays to compete, or to defect as it is known in Game Theory. If the other side says 2+2=4, then our side will claim the answer is 5. Rally ’round the flag, boys. In this prisoner’s game, the American public is forced to play along.

The American people and the members of Congress, but especially the Senate, live in different realities. Many families cannot pay their rent; the lines at food pantries stretch for many blocks; 20% of retail businesses have closed their doors; depression, drugs and suicide are increasing. Lounging in their Roman baths, our Republican Senators argue the ontological points of another aide package. Republican led states, dependent on energy or tourism, are begging their party for help. Senate Majority Leader McConnell wraps his white tunic about him, bids his slaves to draw his bath, and refuses to budge.

It’s always the other fella who is living in an alternate reality. When Einstein first noticed that, he built himself a theory. Some people thought he was living in an alternative reality, but after a century, most agree that his explanation was a good one. E=mc2 is as well-known as the 2600-year-old Pythagorean theorem a2 + b2 = c2.

Many alternate realities die as people come to agree on things. There are a few people who won’t let an explanation die. The earth is still flat. The moon landing was a hoax. So is Covid. Massive voter fraud gave Joe Biden a 7 million vote victory over Donald Trump. I used to think that ideas changed one death at a time. Now I’m not so sure. Some ideas are stubborn.

People and mules have much in common. We respond better to carrots in front of us instead of whips behind us. Why then do people on each side of the political aisle whip each other with words? Did we all run out of carrots?

People fix their minds on something and never change. That’s a conservative. Facts will not budge them from their ideological foxholes. The economist John Maynard Keynes said that he changed his mind when presented with new facts. That’s a liberal. They respond to the whip of facts and the carrot of something better.

We begin life with no fixed ideas. Our parents and the people around us put their ideas in our heads. Some of them grow, some fall out. People get mad at us when the ideas they planted don’t take hold in our minds. As adults, we learn that lesson at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

We are more comfortable when we are with those who share a common perspective. Perhaps we think God controls every detail of our lives, or that [insert name here] is part of a conspiracy that controls every detail of our lives.

No matter how different political and religious institutions are, they want us to believe what they believe. That is the problem: getting others to believe what we believe. We believe that what we believe is not a belief, but reality. Your belief is a belief. You see that, don’t you?  

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Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

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.

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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?

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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

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.

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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.  

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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

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.

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Photo by John Barkiple on Unsplash

Not So Free Speech

October 25, 2020

By Steve Stofka

In doing some research on lobbying for an Environmental Economics class, I learned that the environment is the third area of concern after money and health (CFRP: Top Issues, n.d.). Lobbying is a tug of war, a battle of interests. It is a messy but essential component of a democratic society with a guarantee of free speech. Affected businesses complain that they are overburdened. Environmental groups complain that progress is too slow. Elected representatives depend on the controversy for campaign contributions.

Would we achieve more effective solutions if we abandoned lobbying, free speech, democracy and appointed a king? Yes, but for how long? We hope to make decisions today that have a positive impact on our children and grandchildren. That task is made more difficult when we are constrained by legislation and judicial precedent crafted by past generations with different concerns.

There is a conflict of interests not only between the regulators and regulated, but within each of those parties. Agency employees may be loyal to their agency more than the law, to their own careers, job satisfaction or ideology. Political appointees who head an agency may have an opposite philosophy to the career employees who work at the agency. Mr. Trump has a habit of putting a fox in charge of the henhouse.

The regulated include businesses who put the immediate interests of their executives above the long-term interests of either their customers or their stockholders if company practices incur long-term environmental liabilities.

Legislators reach consensus by using vague language then delegate its interpretation to an executive agency and the courts. The U.S. has adopted a judicial model of regulation which encourages both sides to obscure rather than clarify the underlying issues. This process tends to exaggerate the differences over scientific and economic issues rather than generate a consensus position that the agency can accept as reliable. The deliberate vagueness of the law’s text refutes the claim of some Supreme Court justices that they can reach an objective interpretation of a law by using a “textualist” approach.

The drafting of agency regulations invites lobbying. Rules may be published in obscure bulletins where they get the attention not of the general public but lobbyists, private industry affected by the regulations and environmental groups targeted toward those issues.

In every year, the pharmaceutical industry outspends all other industry groups by a large margin. Included in the price for prescription drugs that you and I pay is a lobbying fee so that the pharmaceutical industry can protect the profits they make from their customers.

In 2018, the oil and gas industry alone spent $125M tax deductible dollars lobbying Congress on various issues (CFRP:Industries, n.d) That same year, two of the top environmental groups, the National Resource Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, collected almost $400M (Charity Navigator, n.d.), most of which was not deductible by ordinary folks after changes in the 2017 tax law. Some economists have suggested that lobbying expenses be excluded as business deductions. The government has an obligation to respect free speech; it does not have to subsidize that speech.

Lobbying for the development of alternative energy sources has not only increased their share of energy but focused attention and investment on cleaner sources of carbon-based fuels for power plants. Long resistant to wind and solar power, Texans have adopted wind turbines with enthusiasm. Drill, baby, drill, and set the foundations for those turbines. Attitudes can change.

Many clamor for a property right when there is money to be made but want no responsibility when a mess must be cleaned up. Under an 1872 mining law, the government still leases mining claims for 19th century prices. After the land had been dug up and desecrated by leaching fields, owners of smaller mines claimed bankruptcy and abandoned the properties. Mining locations are included in Superfund sites, toxic areas that are expensive to restore. To this day, large mining companies like BHP and Anglo-American lobby Congress for legislation that will reduce their long-term liability for site restoration.

In this country, private companies and individuals direct much of the production and resource use. Lobbying is ineffective but essential in a democracy. It works to the good, for the bad, and yes, it is ugly.

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Notes:

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Center for Responsive Politics (CFRP). (n.d.). Top Issues. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.opensecrets.org/federal-lobbying/top-issues?cycle=2018 The top three environmental issues had a combined number of 3419 Lobbyists: Energy & Superfund – 1571, Natural Resources – 1068, Clean Air and Water – 780.

Center for Responsive Politics (CFRP). (n.d.). Industries. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.opensecrets.org/federal-lobbying/industries?cycle=2018

Charity Navigator. (n.d.). Your Guide to Intelligent Giving: National Resources Defense Council. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.charitynavigator.org//index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=4207&fromlistid=435  $182M in revenue in 2018.

Charity Navigator. (n.d.). Your Guide to Intelligent Giving: Environmental Defense Fund. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.charitynavigator.org//index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=3671&fromlistid=435 $207M in revenue in 2018.

Note: some passages excerpted from comments I posted on a private discussion board

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