Prepare for the False and Misleading Denials

It is as predictable as clockwork.  Just as every horrific mass shooting is immediately followed by a rapid-fire chorus of declarations from the gun lobby that the unchecked proliferation of guns is not part of the problem, after every major hurricane, Americans are bombarded by hurricane-force denials that the event was caused by climate change.

Particularly after – or during – each weather disaster, professional climate change deniers are joined by others, including representatives of respectable news organizations, who look and sound like reasonable individuals as they patiently explain the complex atmospheric and water conditions that precipitated the latest calamity.  The apparent goal of these reasonable individuals is not to serve the cause of the deniers but to provide an in-depth look at exactly what happened in order to provide Americans with fact based information rather than politically-charged rhetoric.  Unfortunately, many of these analyses are based upon a misunderstanding that leads to a string of reasonable sounding but false, or at least deeply misleading, statements.

The misunderstanding that leads to eventual falsehoods begins with an innocuous question: “did climate change cause this hurricane (or drought, or fire season or other disaster)?”  Given that question, a conscientious scientist will inevitably respond with a statement along the lines of “we cannot directly link this weather event to climate change.”  While some reporters will report that answer verbatim, others will interpret and rephrase the answer so that it winds up as a headline declaring that “climate scientist declares that climate change is not behind hurricane Florence” or some other weather disaster.  Those headlines will be wrong, perhaps not maliciously wrong, but wrong nonetheless.  What lies at the heart of the rapid progression from reasonable scientific statement to misleading or false headlines is a recurrent miscommunication between the version of English used by scientists and mathematicians and every day English that is rooted in the use of statistics.

The misunderstanding arises because statistical methods can be used to very accurately describe the cumulative actions of a large group (of people, atoms, storms, or whatever) even when they may not understand the causal linkage and cannot predict the activity of any single individual inside that group.  The inability to accurately predict a single instance is often perceived by people who do not understand statistics as ‘proof’ that the entire statistical relationship is wrong or unproven.  That is a fundamental error.

The classic coin flip model helps to explain the difference between predicting long-term trends and predicting specific, individual results.  Anyone with basic familiarity with statistics can tell you with absolute certainty that if you flip a coin 1,000 times, there is a better than 99% chance that the coin will land with ‘heads’ up between 450 and 550 times.  Despite being able to predict the long term results of a marathon coin flipping session with great certainty, that same person would have absolutely no idea whether the next flip in the sequence will come up heads or tails.  Or, to be more precise, he or she will have the exact same 50-50 odds as any other random person in guessing the outcome of the next coin toss.  It does not matter if the toss came up heads ten times in a row, the odds of the next toss coming up heads is still exactly 50-50 and thus completely unknown.  (And, by the way, there is a 1 in 1024 chance of flipping heads ten times in a row, but knowing that does not change that fact that the 11th toss still has a perfect 50-50 chance of coming up heads.)

To expand the simple coin toss example to real life, think of the example provided by the tobacco industry.  Americans of a certain age will likely recall the heated debate in the 1950’s through 1970’s over the health impacts of smoking cigarettes.  For decades, professional deniers of the adverse health consequences of smoking would state that no one has ever proven that a single case of lung cancer was caused by smoking.  They would then shake their heads as they assured Americans that the medical science just wasn’t there on the risks of smoking.  To drive their point home, they would point to numerous individual cases of non-smokers who suffered lung cancer as well as other cases involving heavy smokers who lived to a ripe old age.

While their statements were so misleading as to have the impact of lies (and were eventually found to be such in courts of law), the deniers weren’t necessarily technically incorrect.  Even though by the 1960’s doctors knew beyond any doubt that people who smoked had a much higher rate of lung cancer than those who did not, there was never a perfect one-to-one relationship nor was the exact chemical and genetic mechanisms that lead to lung cancer precisely understood.  As a result, even though doctors could state with virtually 100% certainty that if Americans stopped smoking then thousands of lives would be saved each year, they could not look at an individual case of lung cancer and state with certainty the patient would not have contracted lung cancer if he/she did not smoke.  Thinking back to the coin toss example, doctors based their certainty on the health consequences of tobacco use on the results of tens of millions of “coin flips” in the form of known health results for Americans who either smoked or didn’t.

While the tide of both science and public opinion eventually turned against the tobacco companies, for decades many perfectly reasonable people, including many dedicated journalists, were seduced by the verbal sleight-of-hand employed by tobacco industry spokespersons whose rhetoric was designed to portray the lack of perfect medical certainty in a specific case as a lack of any medical certainty about the overall, society-wide impacts of smoking on health.  That’s a bit like saying that because a statistician cannot tell me whether the next flip of the coin will come up heads or tails then it stands to reason that the statistician cannot really tell me anything about how many ‘heads’ will come up as a result of 1,000 — or 100,000,000 — coin flips.  That was the lie that eventually led to the legal downfall of the deniers of the health risks of smoking.

Today, a very similar scenario is playing out with climate change.  Nearly all geophysical scientists in the USA and around the world agree that burning fossil fuels and other human activities that increase the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere are leading to a rise in the average surface temperature of the earth.   They also (nearly) all agree that even though the net aggregate rise in temperature may sound small – just a few degrees – the rise will precipitate enormous changes in weather patterns.

Rather than the whole world warming up just a bit, climate change is playing out in very different ways in different places.  Rising temperatures are already inducing significant changes in established weather patterns, but even as some areas of the globe are already seeing fairly large increases in average annual average temperature, others are experience cooling.  As major ocean currents and jet streams change in response to rising temperatures, one very common result will be much more extreme weather, meaning that a small net increase in annual average temperature will be experienced as a combination of much colder winters combined with a much hotter summers.  Changes in cloud patterns also mean that established rainfall patterns are changing and will continue to do so.  Some areas are wetter than ever while others are caught in historic droughts.  Climate models can even predict which regions are likely to become drier and which wetter — but they still can’t predict the weather for next Tuesday or next month.  The models can, however, explain that hurricanes are packing more of a wallop because rising sea temperatures are causing more water to evaporate into the atmosphere.  As all of these changes unfold, there will be many, many more severe weather events, including both droughts, floods, hurricanes, hard freezes and heat waves.

Ultimately, however, all of this scientific certainty about what is happening due to climate change and what lies in store is based on predictions involving statistical averages.  Just as knowing the exact statistical probability of tossing a certain number of ‘heads’ in 1,000 coin tosses does not help in knowing whether a specific toss will come up heads or tails – or just as a doctor who is certain that smoking greatly increases the risk of lung cancer cannot say with certainty if a particular case of lung cancer was directly caused by lung cancer or if it might have happened anyway — knowing that human induced climate change is leading to many more, and much more severe, weather events still does not mean that climate scientists will be able to say whether any given storm is “caused” by climate change or would have happened anyway.

So, when you begin reading or hearing the inevitable reports that a renowned climate scientist states that hurricane Florence was not caused by climate change, take it with a huge grain of salt.  If you can find the actual original words and place them in the context of a conversation, you will almost certainly find that what the scientist actually said was something like “there is no way to say if hurricane Florence is a direct result of climate change” or even “climate change models did not predict this hurricane.”  Those are both reasonable statements but neither means that there is no relation between hurricane Florence and climate change.  A more in-depth conversation with virtually any geophysical scientist on earth would lead to the broader, and more policy-relevant observation that conditions created by a changing climate, including warming ocean surface temperatures, increased evaporation, and shifts in air and water currents all play a role in making destructive weather events such as hurricane Florence much more common.

 

 

 

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One Law for All — Or Not

This is an entry that might be of particular interest to anyone who has been interviewed by the FBI (such as in the course of a security clearance issuance or review) or testified before Congress (such as when being confirmed for a senior position).  While a small group, it is a group that includes many of my friends and colleagues.

As I read a recent story in the Washington Post about how former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is now facing a Grand Jury looking into whether he lied to or misled FBI agents regarding his discussions with the press, it brought to mind an interesting contrast that shows, once again, that “the rules” do not appear to apply equally to all.

As past readers of my occasional blog may recall, I wrote a couple of pieces a few years ago about former Secretary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server for official business.  (For example, look here and here.)   For those who didn’t read those, here’s a quick summary:  (1) Clinton’s use of a private server was absolutely wrong and was against State Department regulations. (2) Every other Secretary of State since the dawn of e-mail had done either the same thing or something similar.  (3) This is just a symptom of a long-standing problem that “the rules” don’t apply equally to all.  If a career person had done what Clinton (or James Baker or George Shultz or Madeline Albright or any other Secretary in the modern era) had done, he/she would have been fired and likely prosecuted. For political appointees, however, such transgressions are so routinely ignored that they are considered “the norm.”  This special treatment does not stop with the Secretaries of State.  Throughout the Federal Government, there is a long-standing habit (policy seems too strong a word) of ignoring violations of rules, regulations and even laws by political appointees that would lead to termination and likely prosecution of a career federal employee.

Since I wrote those entries about Clinton’s emails, the problem of “different rules for different people” has not only continued, it has gotten worse – much worse.  Think about former Deputy Director of the FBI and career FBI Agent Andrew McCabe, who is now facing a Grand Jury over charges that he made misleading statements to the FBI.  (FYI for those who haven’t been through the process: It is against federal law to lie to an FBI agent.  The penalties for lying to an FBI agent, even when not under oath, are essentially the same as for committing perjury.)  In McCabe’s case, the charge is not that he lied, per se, but that his statements may have been less than 100% of the truth and thus misleading.

Now contrast McCabe’s predicament with that of Brett Kavanaugh, who is now appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee as a nominee for the Supreme Court, a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court of law.

The Washington Post article referenced above does a good job of laying out the details of McCabe’s situation and alleged transgressions.  Now compare those alleged transgressions to Kavanaugh’s record. In 2004, while giving testimony under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh denied playing any role in the nomination of William Pryor to serve as a Federal Judge.  When asked about Pryor, Kavanaugh stated, while under oath, that “I am familiar generally with Mr. Pryor, but that [Pryor’s Senate confirmation] was not one that I worked on personally.” Later, while still under oath, Kavanaugh gave the broad blanket assurance that “I was not involved in handling his [Pryor’s] nomination.”

Now, fast-forward to 2018.  As emails that have been made public from the 2003 – 2004 show, Kavanaugh was much more than “familiar generally” with Pryor.  More importantly, Kavanaugh played a personal, direct role in planning the Administration’s confirmation strategy for Pryor. Some Senators allege that he made use of illegally obtained e-mails from the Senate Judiciary Committee to plot that strategy.  Whether Kavanaugh knew the e-mails were illegally obtained or not, there is no doubt that Kavanaugh used those e-mails to play an important, personal role in shaping the Bush Administration’s strategy for gaining Senate confirmation for Pryor.  E-mails personally written by Kavanaugh about the confirmation strategy leave no doubt that he lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2004.

In attempting to “explain away” the obviously false statements he made under oath in 2004, this time around Kavanaugh told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was not the lead person on Pryor’s nomination. I don’t doubt that is true.  Nonetheless, it does not change the fact that Kavanaugh was involved in the confirmation process and thus lied under oath in 2004.  His sworn testimony in 2004 was quite emphatic when he stated that “I was not involved.” If he had declared “I was not the lead” or “I was not in charge,” that would be different, but he did not make those statements.  Instead, he issued the unequivocal statement that “I was not involved.”  Except, as we now know, he was involved.  Therefore, his sworn 2004 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee included a lie.  A lie under oath. That is the definition of perjury.  It was not a misunderstanding; it was perjury.

Now turn back to Andrew McCabe who is facing possible criminal prosecution for telling less than 100% of the truth while Kavanaugh awaits confirmation to the nation’s highest court despite obvious perjury.

This strikes me as the worst, most flagrant example yet of how there are two sets of rules: one for political appointees (which Kavanaugh has been for nearly all his adult life) and one for career employees.  This example is not “like” Clinton’s e-mail server.  It is worse and much more blatant since it does not involve rules subject to interpretation but lying under oath.

I have no doubt that many people will wear political blinders while reading these observations and will therefore see them as partisan, which they are not.  Whether it is a Democratic Secretary of State such as Hillary Clinton, a Republican nominee for the Supreme Court such as Brett Kavanaugh, or a janitor who empties trash cans in the White House, I believe that everyone should be subject to the same rules.  What separates Kavanaugh from Clinton, McCabe or anyone other government employee is that Kavanaugh both committed perjury and is slated to take a seat on the highest court of justice in America.  Can there be a greater irony?

 

 

Thoughts on the “Why” (rather than the “How”) of Cryptocurrencies

Reading media articles about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies left me frustrated because none of them directly addressed the real question that needs to be asked.  Yes, various articles are correct that Congress has no idea what blockchain is or what a cryptocurrency is.  Yes, other articles are correct that Bitcoin has emerged as a combination Ponzi scheme and money laundering tool.  Yes, cryptocurrencies are hard to comprehend because there appears to be (in Alice Walker’s words) “no there there.”  Against this backdrop of relatively uninformed speculation, there are articles in both financial and academic journals that clearly explain the potential of blockchain technology to create an entirely new type of currency – one that is beyond the control of any single government and which can be freely used by anyone and everyone as a unit of exchange as well as a reserve currency.  What I have not seen (outside some dense academic pieces) is an explanation of why anyone should care.  In other words, why should people around the world abandon their heavy dependence on the US dollar both as a unit of exchange and as a reserve currency in favor of some strange computer bits floating out in “the cloud” (whatever that is).

The potential economic advantage of cryptocurrencies lies in the promise of a genuinely global unit of both reserve and exchange that is no way dependent on the political or economic policies (or whims) of any one government.  Such a currency could facilitate world trade by providing a fair, impartially valued universal unit of exchange and.  It could provide a reserve currency that is not dependent on the economic fortunes of any one nation over which most holders of the currency have no control.  Because the value of a cryptocurrency is determined by global market forces, there is the potential, at least, for a cryptocurrency to become the only currency for which the value is managed by everyone.  While the benefits to many countries around the world are obvious, the emergence of a genuinely globally accepted world currency could also help the US by greatly strengthening the ability of the Federal Reserve to manage the dollar.  While there certainly are advantages to the USA of the US dollar (US$) being the world’s primary reserve currency and unit of exchange, there are downsides as well.  At present, the fact that well over half of all US currency is held outside the USA means that domestic policies implemented by the Fed are watered down.  Looking beyond physical (paper) currency, literally trillions of dollars are held as electronic balances in banks around the world – banks that are outside of the Federal Reserve’s purview.  Both multinational corporations and national governments may choose to trade in dollars for reasons that have nothing to do with, or are even diametrically opposed to, Federal Reserve policy goals.  It’s no wonder that some economists have joked that the Federal Reserve managing the dollar is a bit like the captain of a ship attempting to change course by dipping a teaspoon into the water.

While the Bretton Woods agreement remains the most commonly cited reason why the US Dollar is the leading international reserve currency, in reality the Bretton Woods agreement only explains how the US$ became the world’s primary reserve currency.  It does not explain why the US$ has remained the world’s de facto reserve currency and preferred unit of exchange for over half a century.  The most interesting — and often ignored – question is why the US$ has retained and even deepened its role in the immediate post-WWII world.

The first answer is that for most of the post-WWII era, the US had been kept a remarkably free exchange policy.  Nixon’s decision to (finally) break the formal tie between the dollar and gold represented a decision to keep dollar markets free rather than to limit them in the face of rent-seeking behavior by traders who profited off disparities in the dollar/gold exchange ratio.

Today, there are almost no limits on who can hold dollars, where they can be held, how they are exchanged, etc.  If someone (or corporation or national government) wants to exchange a billion dollars or even issue a billion (or 10 or 100 billion) in US$ bonds, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so.  They don’t even need to come to the USA or involve the USA in any way since dollar exchanges exist around the globe.  While the US$ is not completely uncontrolled, the controls that do exist are light and rarely implemented.  For example, persons carrying more than $10,000 in cash across the US border need to declare it, but there is absolutely no prohibition to transporting $1,000,000 or even $1,000,000,000 with absolutely no duties or taxes. The reporting requirement was implement as an anti-crime (primarily anti-money laundering) measure rather than to restrict the movement of dollars.

To understand how “hands-off” the US government has been toward the US$, remember that there are nations that use it as their national currency even though they have no “permission” or agreement from the US government to do so. They don’t have an agreement because they don’t need one.  There is absolutely nothing in US law to stop anyone from accumulating or using US$ for any purpose or in any location on earth.  For countries (such as Russia and much of the Foreign Soviet Union as well as others) that prefer to hold large quantities of actual paper money rather than electronic bank balances, the NY branch of the US Federal Reserve will even assist them in shipping billions of dollars in currency to wherever it is needed (which is why three-fourths of all paper currency in circulation is in the form of $100 bills).

The second answer to the question of why the US$ has remained the world’s most widely-used unit of exchange for so long is that there have been no real rivals.  While many touted the Euro as a potential rival, eventually the inherent weakness of a single currency that is effectively managed independently (and issued in bonds, etc.) by more than two dozen national banks and governments caught up with the currency.  Until and unless the EU can work out some basic and divisive issues regarding the rights of member states versus the European Central Bank, the fate of the Euro will remain uncertain.  The Japanese Yen was, at one time, thought of as a competitor to the dollar.  The reality is, however, that Japan’s national laws governing currency and exchange are not nearly as liberal as the USA’s.

Countries such as China and Russia sometimes promote their own currencies as units of exchange, but have thus far been unwilling to relinquish control over those currencies.  Anyone dealing in Roubles or Yuan is always at the mercy of Moscow and Beijing.  Exchanging a large quantity (or technically, a small quantity) of currency requires the permission of the government.  If one government or the other decides to declare a devaluation or to limit trading in order to support some national economic policy, there is no appeal.  Similarly, there is no recourse should one of the governments decide to demonetize certain paper bills, something Russia has done repeatedly.  For all its faults, the US government has never, in the post-WWII era, sought to control trading in its currency in the same way that other governments do.

Having cited the laissez-faire policy that the US government takes towards its currency many times, I must also admit that even the US policy is not without limits.  Sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea all represent rare instances in which the US government has deviated from its overall policy of free and open exchange.  More importantly, the value of the US$ is managed (to the extent that management is possible) by the US Federal Reserve for the sole purpose of supporting the US economy.  While the Fed has a stellar reputation among world bankers and is not driven by foreign policy concerns when setting monetary policy, it nonetheless remains committed to the goal of supporting US economic growth.  No one outside the USA, not even other countries that use the US dollar as their currency, has any say in US monetary policy.

Cryptocurrencies hold the potential to break the linkage between a unit of exchange used by the whole world and a currency managed for the benefit of one country.  A theoretically ‘perfect’ cryptocurrency could represent a genuinely independent unit of exchange, the value of which is set by billions of market actors (people, corporations and governments) functioning independently around the world via free market transactions rather than by a group of economists (all of whom were appointed by politicians with often partisan agendas) meeting in DC once a quarter.

Thus far, the reality of cryptocurrencies has fallen fall short of perfect.  Bitcoin, the best known of all cryptocurrencies, made fundamental decisions early in its development that make it not only impossible for governments to control but also make it an ideal medium for money laundering and other criminal pursuits.  World governments – and most ordinary people – will not adopt Bitcoin as their primary reserve currency and unit of global exchange for the simple reason that Bitcoin has already been adopted by the criminal world.  I don’t mean to fault Bitcoin too much; they were among the pioneers.  Like many pioneers, they did not get it right on the first try.  The important point to remember is that the manifold weakness of Bitcoin are not inherent in the blockchain technology on which it and other cryptocurrencies are based.  Instead, Bitcoin’s problems can be traced to policy and marketing decisions that shaped the currency we see today.

If a cryptocurrency is ever to emerge as a genuine rival to the US$ as a unit of global exchange, it must combine the key trait of independence from any one government with the vitally important traits of transparency and accountability.   The simple yet hard to fathom reality is that blockchain technology, along with closely related technologies of distributed or “hyper” ledgers, open the possibility of a currency that is as transparent and resistant to manipulation as it is independent of the political policies of any one government.  If blockchain technology and the enormous networked computational power that supports it had existed in the 1940’s, Bretton Woods may have reached a very different conclusion.  While the technology did not exist at that time, eventually someone is likely to find (or stumble upon) the perfect mix of technologies and policies for creating a unit of exchange and reserve medium that is not just a mode of Ponzi-scheme style speculation or a tool for money laundering.  Once that happens, those who now dismiss cryptocurrencies as a ridiculous passing fad will look just as foolish at the vast majority of 18th century economists and bankers who dismissed fiat currencies as ‘the promises of fairies.’

Arming Teachers is Fantasy, Not Policy

Having “20% of your teaching force” trained and armed with concealed weapons is not a serious policy proposal but a talking point written by the NRA and dutifully recited by President Trump — the man the NRA spent $30 million electing.  Arming teachers to stop gun violence sounds plausible only to those who so devoutly want to believe that more guns are the answer to gun violence that they will ignore reality. To understand why the idea is pure fantasy rather than serious policy, please consider what would happen if a shooter burst into a classroom after Trump’s “arm the teachers” proposal had been fully implemented.

First, there is an 80% chance that the teacher in the classroom would not be armed (since only 20% are armed). In those cases, the shooter then proceeds to shoot the teacher first (just to make sure he/she is not one of the 20%) and then methodically murder every child in the classroom before moving on to another classroom, thereby taking another 1-in-5 chance that a teacher could be armed. They would inflict maximum carnage in each classroom rather than wandering the halls since each move entails facing that 1-in-5 risk of encountering an armed teacher. While the NRA would like us to believe that another, armed teacher would intervene, that won’t happen since it would require the armed teacher to abandon his/her own classroom, leaving all of the terrified students completely unprotected and without any adult guidance. Every armed teacher would need to think about questions such as what if there are multiple shooters? What if the shooter kills the teacher and then takes vengeance on the students in that teacher’s classroom? What would parents say when they learned that the trained and armed teacher responsible for their children’s safety simply abandoned them?

Second, if the teacher in the classroom chosen by the shooter is one of the trained and armed 20%, it would boil down to a contest of who could shoot first – a teacher with a concealed handgun or a shooter who bursts into the classroom holding a semiautomatic (or even automatic, given the continued availability of bump stocks) weapon held at the ready and already aimed at the teacher. Remember, this is real life and not the movies; the odds of someone pulling out a concealed handgun, disengaging the safety, firing and hitting the shooter faster than the intruder could squeeze off rounds from an AR-15 already held at the read is virtually zero.  In most schools, the shooter could simply fire through glass in the door to kill the teacher before the victim knew an attack was about to happen.

Third, since the most common school shooter is a current or former student, the odds are very high that the shooter will know which teachers are armed even before entering the school. As anyone who has spent time around undercover or plainclothes police knows, “concealed” weapons are only concealed in the sense that they are not obvious. Anyone with even a bit of knowledge (easily gleaned from the Internet) would recognize the tell-tale bulges around ankles, under suit jackets or near the waistband.  Children are naturally curious, particularly with respect to scary or forbidden things such as guns.  Students also spend time with teachers every day. They see them stand up, sit down, reach for objects and bend over countless times. In lower grades, the teacher likely squats, kneels or sits on the ground with young students.  In the upper grades, teacher move among their students.  With hundreds of pairs of curious eyes and a typical gossip network, within a week of school starting every student would know exactly which teachers are armed.

Fourth, knowledge that some teachers are armed will make every teacher a target. Even if an armed intruder believes that he/she (although it always seems to be ‘he’) knows which teachers are armed, the obvious course of action for aspiring mass murderers will be to shoot the teacher first. Remember, President Trump is only going to give bonuses to those teachers who carry weapons. All other teachers will, in effect, become target #1 without any compensation or training.

Fifth try to imagine the warped psychology of an intending mass murderer contemplating committing an atrocity at a school. From what we have learned after the fact, these individuals tend to be isolated and angry, but more importantly they believe that the act of mass murder will prove some type of point. Most expect to die. Will knowing that some teachers are armed deter such an individual or only serve to excite and thus further motivate violence? Knowing some teachers are armed may cause an intending mass murderer to modify tactics (just as the Florida shooter took steps to distract the police officer at the school by pulling the fire alarm), but knowledge that armed individuals are present will not reliably deter an attacker.

Sixth, and last, think about mass shootings in America. The Law Vegas massacre did not occur in a school. Neither did the San Bernardino attack, nor the Colorado Springs, the Southerland Springs, Texas, church shooting, the Charleston church shooting, the Aurora cinema shooting or countless others. Trump’s proposal does nothing to deter the majority of mass shootings in America. Even beyond that, there were armed and trained people present at many of those shootings, including San Berdardino, Colorado Springs, Law Vegas and others. Their presence did not deter or prevent the shooting.  Remember, President Reagan was surrounded by a half dozen or more of some of the most highly trained and dedicated weapons experts there are — Secret Service Agents.  Nonetheless, he was shot by a deranged, untrained youth.

President Trump’s proposal for arming 20% of teacher with concealed weapons is not a policy proposal; it is a talking point dreamed up by the NRA and recited verbatim by politicians that the NRA – and their backers in the arms industry dreaming of profits from classroom sales – have bought and paid for.

The Auto-Obit of an Unassuming Hero

This is a different sort of post from my usual rants on “Lies and Damn Lies.”  Nonetheless, it somehow fits the theme.  (At least I think so; you can decide for yourself.)

A friend of mine passed away recently. Bob Peirce was an amazing person. In many ways, the sort of person I admire most – the person who does the right thing just because it is right.  About a year before he passed away (and just a year or so after he ceased leading trekking expeditions through the Himalayas for people 30 to 60 years younger than himself), he decided to sit down and write his own “auto-obituary.”  Below is what he wrote.  I know that I should present his words without commentary, but I just can’t.  So, here’s my commentary: don’t be fooled by Bob’s modesty. Bob was a man who moved people. Nepal named a mountain after him.  Out of the blue, they just did it.  On his 90th birthday, he led a 130-mile fund-raising bike trip from Portland to Seattle. The Portland Art Museum held a retrospective of his artwork.  When he became weak, Bob never asked for help.  Without prompting, Nepalese Sherpas tried to convince him to retire to Nepal.  When he refused, they simply moved from Nepal to care for him in Portland. He was that kind of person. To this day, don’t be surprised if, while trekking through Nepal, you meet a Sherpa whose middle name is Peirce.  So many loved him that much.  Anyway, here’s his auto-obituary.  I claim zero credit for his brilliance and all blame for any faults, typos or errors I introduced while transcribing it.

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“Bob Peirce never made it to the top.

He never much got to the top of anything.

For that matter, he didn’t get to the top of Mr. Robson, the highest mountain in Canada, and he didn’t get anywhere near the top of Grand Teton in Wyoming (it turned out they were climbing the wrong peak, anyway).  Nor did he really get to the top of Mera Peak, the highest trekking peak in Nepal.  He said he did, but that was because getting up to the real top would be too much of a challenge and would take too long, so he told his group that what they were standing on was the top, that it was higher than that other hump over there (never mind appearances), and that they had reach the summit.

He was in an honors department at Harvard, the only honors department that that college had at the time, but he did not receive honors.  That was because on his very last term at Harvard, his grades dropped below a B average and that disqualified him.  He had to write a thesis anyway and the reader said it certainly deserved a summa cum laude,’ but he was already disqualified, so he graduated without honor.

He took the test for Officer Candidate School when he when into the army but, because he didn’t know any math, his grade was just below what it should be to make him an acceptable candidate.

So he spent his time in the US Army as a Private.  Sometime before the war was over, there was a change in the Table of Organization, the chart by which the army matched rank with jobs.  The job he had been doing was now supposed to be done by a Technician Fifth Class, a kind of broken-down corporal and only a small step up from Private.  Whether anyone wanted it or not, that meant a promotion for Bob Peirce.  Peirce was one of the people who did not want it (maybe this had to do with the ugly prospect of having to sew stripes on his sleeve).  He even went to his commanding officer to tell him this.  The CO agreed that it did not make sense for Peirce to be promoted, yet he had no choice.  You do not argue with the TO, which is created in heaven and inscribed on tablets.

In spite of two degrees from Harvard and a private school education, Bob Peirce was not qualified for any line of work when he finally had to leave school.  His job search took him from universities to hardware stores to the Federal Reserve Bank (where, at the end of his job interview, they felt compelled to ask him, as delicately as they could, just what ever made him think he would want to work there).  It was not until he walked into the Portland Art Museum that anyone asked him “which job do you want?”  (When, not having listened to the choices available, he answered, “Curator,” it turned out that was the job of the man who was interviewing him.  They hired him anyway, but as Librarian).

Earlier – back in New York where he had spent a year in the Statistical Department of Oxford University Press, he was presented with one of those opportunities that come out of the sky and can change a person’s life.  One of the editors had been impressed by Peirce’s hand-drawn Christmas card and had a proposition.  The Press was about to publish a book that they thought was very good (I’ve forgotten what kind of book it was) but the author wanted it to be illustrated by his friend, and the friend’s illustrations, in this editor’s view, were “pretty awful.”  Bob Peirce’s assignment was to take up pen and make his own version of what the friend had illustrated and to do such an outstanding job that the author would have to agree that Peirce would be the illustrator instead of his friend.  It had to be a secret mission; the author was not to know what was afoot until presented with drawings so dazzling that he would forgive the Press for its misgivings about his own choice of illustrator. And the fact is that the drawings Peirce made were outstanding – maybe even dazzling.  He did them in Maine where he had gone to spend a few days with his grandmother, and they were right there in the bag when he arrived back in New York.  What he had managed to leave on the train, and what was never recovered in spite of frantic searches, were the original drawings of the author’s friend.  There is no way of knowing how they explained this to the author.  What is known is that this marked the end of Bob Peirce’s career as an illustrator.  The rumor is that it was his picture that the editors posted just outside the bathroom door to throw darts at during their lunch hours.

Except for the Portland Art Museum, Bob Peirce was fired from ever job he ever had – and there is a good reason to believe that he was about to be fired from the Museum when, after 24 years and his first trip to Nepal, he quit.

And then there were smaller things where he missed the top.  After spending many hours interviewing Portland Symphony Conductor James dePreist and writing what would have been the feature in the forthcoming issue of Portland Quarterly, that magazine folded up before publication.

Later, Nancy Russell, a Portland lady who had done more than anyone else to preserve the natural beauty of the Columbia Gorge, asked him to write a book on the subject.  He worked on this for two years, interviewing many people and doing extensive research.  Nancy was suffering from A.L.S. (better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), under which you slowly deteriorate.  At some point (I think two years into the project), her son told Peirce that he had taken things over from his failing mother.  But because he wanted a book that would be something different from what he mother had in mind or what Peirce had already written, the latter dropped out of the project, turning over his manuscript with all his notes and files, yielding to a new author.  Not long after, Nancy died.  No book has ever been published.

Still later – he was asked to write a piece that would be an introduction to the catalogue for an exhibition at the Portland Art Museum celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Pacific Northwest College of Art.  They paid him handsomely (by his standards) but the catalogue was never published – they did not have enough money for it.

And, earlier, there were academic setbacks of one kind or another.  Peirce did not do well with languages, even his own, so he was happy when his freshman advisor, who happened to be Dean of Freshmen, told him not to worry until later about taking the language courses needed for graduation.  When “later” arrived, it turned out that the man was wrong: Peirce now was told he would have to stay in school a full year beyond his expected graduation date in order to complete the necessary language requirement.  There was only one language that could qualify him on time and that was Ancient Greek.  That was how, unexpectedly, he landed in the Greek History and Literature Department.

While there, he received another piece of bad advice (academics are not to be trusted).  He enrolled in the summer session of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens partly because he was told he would earn academic credit by doing this.  This too turned out to be false information, as he learned when he got back to the US, yet he had a wonderful summer.

Then, of course, there is the fact known to everyone that Bob Peirce never got married.  Nor do we think he ever had a serious love affair.  Even in a carnal sense, he was never on top.

But there were serious moments of truth in his life.  There was the time – he says he thinks it was 1953 – when, one night, he experienced a kind-of moment of revelation, the sort of thing that Saint Augustine or Moses talked about happening to them, except that in his case, God did not appear and nothing was revealed other than what seemed to be the certain knowledge that the world was good and that no matter what happened to him in future years – no matter how depraved he or it became, all was good.  And yes, there was a blinding light – or not exactly blinding but a real increased illumination of things that stayed with him for some time, diminishing as the days went by.  He remembered that in his vision, he could see that he was near the top of The Mountain, yet that was a far as he would ever go.  He would never get to the top, that that did not seem to matter.

So even though Bob Peirce never got to the top of anything, he had some kind of satisfaction in being where he was, wherever he was, wherever that happened to be, and knowing, in a way, that that’s where he was supposed to be. It’s like always hovering somewhere near ten minutes before the hour on the Buddhist Wheel of Life.  You may forever be below the pinnacle, but as you look ahead, you can have a chance to observe that the people on top of this moving wheel have nowhere to go but down.”

 

An Assault on American Democracy

One of the key – and very expensive at $250 billion or so – components of the GOP tax reform plan is the immediate reduction of the estate tax followed by its complete elimination in five years.  To many people, that sounds reasonable.  After all, isn’t the “death tax” a bad, un-American thing?

Actually, the opposite is true.  Very soon after the signing of the Declaration of Independence – and well before the U.S. Constitution was ratified – the Continental Congress voted overwhelmingly to eliminate certain aristocratic laws that had been inherited from Europe.  First among these was something called “primogeniture and entail,” a strange-sounding term that reflect political reality in Europe at the time.  The reason the “founding fathers” (that sounds sexist, but everyone in the Continental Congress was indeed male – a sign of the times) acted so quickly and decisively to outlaw primogeniture and entail was that it was the basis of the European aristocracy.  What the obscure-sounding term “primogeniture” referred to was the common practice – often enforced by law – of leaving the entire estate of a family to the first-born son.  Everyone else – including, of course, all daughters – were (in more modern parlance) SOL.  The “entail” part refers to the common practice among European aristocracy of including a clause in the will of an aristocrat that forbids his (it was always ‘his’) heirs from ever breaking up the estate.  The idea was to ensure that the family name and family fortune endured for eternity.

The reason that America’s “founding fathers” put such great emphasis on outlawing these practices was that they realized that not just the aristocracy but the entire concept of a class-based society rested on such laws.  Thomas Jefferson went farther than his peers in this regard, arguing that all wealth should be redistributed equally every 50 years.  His hope was that this frequent redistribution would keep democracy alive and fresh and allow what he called the “natural aristocracy” – those individuals that, for whatever reason, are more intelligent, capable and public-minded than all others – to rise to the top of society and lead our nation.  As Jefferson’s one-time adversary and life-long friend politely explained to him, the proposal might have merits but was utterly impractical, if not impossible, to implement.  Despite not agreeing with Jefferson on one of his more audacious proposals, there was essentially zero dissention among the leading figures of the American Revolution that preventing the rise of a hereditary aristocracy was one of the most important tasks facing the young United States of America.

Then, as now, the idea was not to prevent children from inheriting the family farm or continuing the family business.  The goal was to prevent the emergence of a class of wealthy overlords capable of controlling the political process in America for their own benefit.  That’s why Benjamin Franklin pushed (unsuccessfully) for the constitution of the Pennsylvania to declare concentrated wealth “a danger to the happiness of mankind.”

While neither Jefferson nor Franklin were successful, that does not mean that leaders of the Revolutionary Era disagreed with their goals.  The method for avoiding the possible disaster of American Democracy being overthrown by a European-style aristocracy was the inheritance tax.  Over the ensuing two hundred-plus years, the exact implementation of the tax has changed, as has the rate.  At times, it reach 90% on large estates, but at other times it was much lower.  Today, it is as low as it has ever been in American history.

Under current law, only estates with a net value of over roughly $5.5 million for an individual or $11 million for a couple are subject to any taxes at all.  “Net value” means that farms and small business are not taxed on the value of land or the value or all assets, but on the net value of assets minus all encumbrances such as loans, other debt, contractual obligations, etc.  What this means in practice is that 99.8% of Americans’ estates pass to heirs without any estate taxes.  Zero.  Of the remaining 0.2%, most pay relatively little.  Even though the top rate for the estate tax is 40%, the average tax paid by those who paid estate taxes is just 17%.  In 2012, total receipts from the estate tax equaled less than 1% of the $1.2 trillion inherited that year.  1%.  Another way of looking at this question is to realize that in a nation composed of roughly 325,000,000 Americans, just 400 families stand to reap 80% of the benefit from the elimination of the inheritance tax.  That’s right, the top 0.0001% of the population reaps 80% of the gains.  Looking back at the correspondence between Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the other founders of American democracy, there can be no question that this is exactly the type of concentration of wealth that they all agreed should be avoided.

In the eyes of the people who literally wrote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the GOP “tax reform” is nothing less than a frontal assault on American democracy itself.

 

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

Note:  This is a post I wrote back on Feb 19.  I thought I had posted it, but I guess I didn’t press the right combination of buttons.  In light of recent developments, I thought I would post it despite the long delay.  The only changes I made today (Aug 1) were to add this comment and to correct two typos that I saw.  (Sadly, everything I do has typos.)

The conventional wisdom among many analysts not happy with the direction of President Trump’s administration is that Russian President Vladimir Putin supported candidate (now President) Donald Trump because Putin expected that Mr. Trump would follow more “Moscow friendly” policies that Hillary Clinton would.  While that explanation might have a grain of truth, I do not believe that it is correct since it misses the primary reason why Putin behaved the way he did and, more importantly, why the Putin-Trump “bromance” is destined to end acrimoniously.

Early in the primary season, before Donald Trump had emerged as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Moscow was already following its well-established policy of attempting to undermine faith in the American electoral system and the American system of government in general.  Moscow followed these decades-old policy initiatives with a modern twist, supplementing traditional propaganda tools such as fabricated anti-American rumors and news with an aggressive social media campaign backed by a veritable army of human and robotic “trolls” to help ensure that Moscow-created and Moscow-approved propaganda reached the maximum number of Americans as well as others around the world.  After all, the traditional target of anti-American propaganda is not just American citizens but pro-democracy activists around the world – and particularly those in Russia or in its sphere of influence.  In Putin’s world view, making Russia great involves making America weak since the world is a zero sum game.

As the primary season progressed, not only did Mr. Trump emerge as the front runner, he emerged as the perfect example of what Russian intelligence services have referred to for decades as the “useful idiot” – the individual who willingly and without payment spouts the exact false propaganda that Russian intelligence agencies devised in Moscow.  Given that Moscow’s traditional role was to “throw bombs” in an ongoing attempt to undermine faith in American democracy, the Kremlin’s attraction to a political “bomb thrower” such as Mr. Trump who cast aspersions on both parties and on U.S. government as a whole was clear.  The repeated assertions that American cities are collapsing under the weight of an unprecedented crime wave, that patriotism is under siege, that American government institutions are actively working to take away American’s basic rights and freedoms were right out of Moscow’s playbook.

Certain elements in the Kremlin may have also believed that Mr. Trump would pursue more “Russian friendly” policies than would Ms. Clinton, but that was secondary.  The main rationale for supporting Mr. Trump was almost certainly to support the person whose stump speeches denigrated American democratic institutions as vociferously as the Kremlin’s paid propagandists did.

It is alleged, but not proven, that Russian intelligence agencies have additional compromising information, or kompromat, on Mr. Trump and his inner circle.  While I have no inside knowledge, even if the dossier complied by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele is wildly inaccurate it is highly unlikely that Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Carter Page were the only three Trump insiders in touch with Moscow and that no one else in the entire Trump campaign organization and administration knew anything about those contacts.

Even if such kompromat exists in Kremlin vaults, however, that does not mean that Putin ever intended to use the material to blackmail or manipulate the White House into adopting pro-Moscow policies that are antithetical to American interests, whether those policies involve ceding Ukraine to Russia or turning a blind eye to Russian violations of treaties limiting intermediate nuclear forces. Neither Mr. Putin nor his top propaganda experts are stupid.  They understand that the American “establishment” – the Congress, the courts, public opinion, the media and even President Trump’s own party – would have very limited patience for abrupt changes in U.S. policy that favored Russian actions at the expense of American interests.

Putin’s motive was never to control the White House.  Instead, he was always playing (quite effectively) an old game to undermine faith in the U.S. government and thereby to weaken the U.S. government’s ability to act to check Russian expansionism.  Until very late in the campaign – likely on Election Day itself – Putin did not even expect Trump to win.  Putin supported Trump solely to give more voice to Trump’s almost apocalyptic view of American society and government.  When Trump actually won the election, Mr. Putin and his intelligence/propaganda services were almost certainly as surprised as anyone.

While I certainly do not rule out that President Putin will take a few stabs at coercing the Trump Administration into adopting policies that favor Russia’s drive to recreate an empire, I seriously doubt he anticipates a continued string of successes.  Instead, each attempt to manipulate the Trump Administration will simply add to the Kremlin’s stockpile of kompromat that will eventually be utilized to undermine both Americans’ and the world’s faith in American democracy.

According to this theory of Russian actions, it has always been a given that Russian President Putin would not only cease supporting Donald Trump once he became President but Putin would use all of his intelligence assets to actively undermine the newly-inaugurated President.  This is because the goal has never been to support a “Russia friendly” President of the USA but to undermine the very basis of American democracy such as respect for the rule of law, the separation of powers and equality under the constitution.

If this view is correct, the only reason Putin has not yet begun to dole out kompromat against President Trump and his inner circle is that U.S. media, law enforcement and intelligence have already been highlighting the grievous shortcomings of both the President and his inner circle.  Should U.S. domestic criticism of President Trump being to die down – either due to fatigue or an active anti-media, anti-dissent campaign orchestrated by the White House – President Putin is waiting to fill in the gap because, in Putin’s world view, there is no better way to advance his desire to create a new Russian empire than to undermine faith in American democracy and to render the American government so internally conflicted that it is unable to take meaningful again against Russian aggression.

In this view, the only real question is when, not if, President Putin will turn against President Trump.