Does having Donald Trump as President of the United States frighten me? Absolutely. He appears to be a loose cannon who might more effectively fight against the evils that assail us ... or he might turn his fire on all that is good in our country. Most likely, he will do both.

Am I panicking? Absolutely not. Frankly, I would probably be more afraid if it were Hillary Clinton in the White House, because she's a well-entrenched part of the system and would quickly settle into the job-as-usual. As happened with President Obama, Big Things Would Get Done.

I am not a fan of Big Things Getting Done when they are issues on which the country is deeply and closely divided.

Maybe with Republican control of both houses of Congress there might have been effective opposition to Mrs. Clinton, but I doubt this election could have produced that situation without also putting Mr. Trump in the White House.  Even now, that control is tenuous.

I find a recent George Friedman essay to be somewhat comforting. Once again he points out the limited powers of the president, especially an unpopular one.

[The American presidency] is the most noted position in the world, imbued by observers with all the power inherent to the world’s most powerful country. Everyone is now trying to understand what Trump intends to do.

At the same time, the American president is among the weakest institutional leaders in Euro-American civilization. He can do some things unilaterally, particularly in foreign policy, but Congress can block them. He can do some things by executive order, but the Supreme Court can overrule them. He can pass certain programs that require cooperation from states, but the states can refuse to cooperate. At every step, as the founders intended, his ability to act unilaterally is severely limited.

[The defection of only three Republican senators would] make it impossible to pass any proposed legislation. As such, any Republican senator who can position himself as a potential defector will be able to negotiate for the president’s support on any number of issues. The president will either be forced to compromise or risk having the legislation defeated.

Senators are not free actors. They need to be re-elected. Their calculation on whether to oppose a Republican president will depend heavily (if not entirely) on whether the president will help or hurt them in their re-election bids. That depends on the president’s approval ratings, particularly in the senators’ home states.

Trump’s approval ratings are unlikely to fall below [the current] 37%, but to be effective, he can’t stay at that level. Republican senators will look at the president’s negative ratings in their states and calculate whether supporting his programs might lock 50% of voters against them. It is important to recall that constitutionally, a senator is supposed to serve the people of his state, not the president.

I confess I'm not completely comfortable with that much "power to the people"—largely because approval ratings give more power to the loudest and most obnoxious among us. But there it is. Speak up or be left out.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 27, 2017 at 8:08 am | Edit
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When it comes to paying out money, I know who "The Government" is.  That's you, me, and all other taxpayers out there.  Including those overseas who bear the burden of paying taxes to the Federal Government even if their money was earned totally outside of the United States.  But that's another issue.

Even as our family watches carefully how our personal money is spent, so we try to be careful that the government's money is spent wisely.

Thus we were concerned when we received a bill from an insurance company we'd never heard of, for a health insurance plan we had not signed up for, assuring us that we owed $0.00 and the government had already paid the full premium of $1375.36 for the first month.  I will spare you the details of all the hours Porter has spent on the phone trying to get this cleared up.  How do you cancel a policy that can't be found in the system, but for which the government is paying out at the rate of over $16,500 per year?  Finally, he wrote an e-mail to the Inspector General.

Mr. Inspector General Levinson,

I am not sure you are the correct person to send my issues to - but hope your office can point me in the right direction if you are not the appropriate channel.

I have two issues, one involving money paid out by the government incorrectly and one involving the difficulty in pursuing such questions via the healthcare.gov team and system.

First, I received a bill from "Florida Health Care Plans" for an ACA plan that I never signed up for, but rather was assigned to automatically by the ACA computers.  No one at "Florida Health Care Plans" can tell me how this came to be.  Further they say they cannot cancel the policy under the law as they can only do that if healthcare.gov sends them a notice to do so.  Further they have no connecting key that can be used by the healthcare.gov team to show how this policy came into existence.  When I called the ACA they could not find any trace of this policy with "Florida Health Care Plans."  The only policy they show for me is the CORRECT policy I signed up for myself with "Florida Blue," an entirely different company despite the similarity of their names.

The bogus bill shows that the government will pay "Florida Health Care Plans" $1375.36 per month for each month in 2017.  I will owe nothing.  In other words my payments are to be zero each month.  This is the rub.  If a "policyholder" does not pay his premium his insurance is cancelled - and the payments from the government to the insurance company would at least stop.  However, since I owe nothing each month on this policy there is no trigger to automatically stop payments!  The government will be out over $16,000 by the end of the year paying on this bogus, useless policy.

Second issue.  Healthcare.gov is not following the ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) standards.  I understand that all federal computing systems are supposed to follow ITIL.  When I was a consultant for IBM on the Fannie Mae account this was certainly the case.  ITIL provides that all issues should be recorded and a ticket or issue number assigned to them.  Further, this ticket number should be given to the person who reported the issue.  In my case I should have been given a ticket number so I could reference it in future calls.  I was told by the supervisor of supervisors (which was as high as I was permitted to go in my telephone inquiry with healthcare.gov) that no ticket numbers are ever generated, but rather I should wait for a call back from the "Advanced Resolution Center" in 5 to 7 days.  I am very doubtful this will happen as in 2016 I got an incorrect "Corrected" 1095a and went through the same process without ever getting the issue resolved.

Please advise how to proceed with these two issues.

Or, I should say, he tried to write the Inspector General.  But having sent this to their published e-mail address, he received it back with the following explanation:

Delivery has failed to these recipients or groups:

hhstips@oig.hhs.gov
Your message couldn't be delivered to the recipient because you don't have permission to send to it.

Ask the recipient's email admin to add you to the accept list for the recipient.

For more information, see DSN 5.7.129 Errors in Exchange Online and Office 365.

So he respectfully requested to be added, using the e-mail address postmaster@oig.hhs.gov—the sending address for the above rejection.  The reply?

alt

How much time would you spend trying to save the United States $16,500?  How many bogus charges like this do you think are being made?  How many of the people in whose name the government is being billed will put any effort into trying to correct a bill on which they owe nothing?

Stay tuned.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 24, 2017 at 6:13 am | Edit
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We're back again to another George Friedman essay, this time on Nationalism, Internationalism and New Politics. It's not new; it's been sitting in my "Drafts" folder for a while.  But it's good.  Some excerpts:

The world is experiencing a shift from the old liberal-conservative model to an internationalist-nationalist model. Nationalist challenges against the internationalist model have moved from the margins of the political system to the center, winning victories in the United States and the United Kingdom, and rising in strength in other countries.

What began as a lesson learned from World War II and a prudent response to containing the Soviet Union became a moral orthodoxy and a moral imperative. In many ways it buried political distinctions. All major parties were internationalists.

In 2008, the underside of interdependence showed its hand. Capitalism is prone to financial crises, and one occurred in 2008. In a nationalist environment with barriers between countries – from tariffs to currencies – a financial crisis in one country has the strong potential of being moderated in other countries. The crisis of 2008 tore through the world.

The 2008 crisis clearly revealed the core weakness of the interdependent system. But the very success of interdependence had been gnawing away at the system for decades. It is true that barring serious malfunction, intensified international integration can increase economic growth on the whole. But human beings cannot make a living off economic growth “on the whole.”

It was discovered that with interdependence and integration, individual nations had lost control over their destinies. An impersonal system that seemed to be uncontrolled determined the fate of nations and their populations. It also was discovered that the idea that nations were obsolete might be true for elites, who followed capital where it went, but being Greek was very different from being German, and being Chinese was very different from being American. The nation mattered because where you lived determined how you would experience life.

What followed was an attempt by the internationalist state to suppress what it saw as parochialism, and what those who had benefited least from internationalism saw as the fabric of life.

The battle is in the first stages, but it is a battle that was inevitable. The world is vast and humanity is an abstraction. My place in the world, my town, my culture and my nation are conceptually more manageable. The core principle of liberalism is the right to national self-determination. The instruments of internationalism ... ignore the nation and the right of citizens to govern their nation.

As in all things, the issue is not simple. Internationalism has been dramatically successful in enriching the world since World War II. Its problem is ... that only part of the population has enjoyed this wealth, and there are things more fundamental than wealth such as cultural identity and differences. Internationalism is tone-deaf or hostile to cultural identity, which is its weakness.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, January 16, 2017 at 6:09 am | Edit
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I've said it over and over again this past year:  Good people don't necessarily make good presidents, and vice versa. Lo and behold, George Friedman said the same thing today, only he said it much better and gives plausible reasons for why that's true. Some tidbits:

The idea that policy optimization is at the core of the presidency is incorrect. The president is not the U.S.’ chief administrative officer. He is a leader and manager of the political process. His job is to be a symbol around which a democratic society draws the battle lines of who we are. He must express his vision as something aesthetic, not prosaic. The president cannot spare time from his real job to craft policies. Successful presidents know that and hide it. Trump doesn’t try to hide it.

No U.S. president has the ability to comprehend the vast array of policy issues that face him, nor can he grasp the depths of any single issue. Some presidents have tried. They generally did not do well.

Presidents who succeed have certain characteristics. They can lead. They provide the public with a sense that they understand what is needed and how to get it done, and that they care deeply about those who are hoping problems will be solved. They rarely take office with that ability, but rather gain it in the course of balancing things that cannot be balanced. In many cases, their ability to lead is best seen after they leave office.

Reagan was charged with being detached. Jimmy Carter was praised for his deep involvement in the details of governing. Carter was defeated after his first term. Reagan won two terms and has become an iconic figure. Some defend Reagan by claiming that he was far more involved in policymaking than it appeared. That may be true, but Reagan knew something Carter didn’t. Making policy is not a president’s central task, except in crisis. Presidents should be leaders who create a seductive image of what the country should be like and allow the love and hate of a country to focus on them – by allowing themselves to become a battleground that drives the country forward. Carter created an energy policy. He could not lead, seduce or accept his role as an icon. He missed the point of the presidency.

Trump’s supporters expect him to be extraordinary. His opponents believe he will be a disaster. From my point of view, he will be the 45th president of the United States, the 45th man whom some imbued with the powers of the messiah and others saw as the devil incarnate. I doubt he will be either. He will not spend his time making policies. He will be too busy doing what other presidents do: making calls pleading with obscure congressmen to let his bill out of committee, with very little to offer or threaten. He will bargain away many things to get a little of what he wants.

The whole article is worth reading, at least if you are as ignorant as I am about the political process.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 11, 2017 at 9:44 am | Edit
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One year ago we were five days away from embarking on our Gambian Adventure. (Yes, I'm all too aware that I still have most of that trip to write about.)  If our trip were this year instead, we would have had to cancel it.

The Gambia is poised on the brink of real political reform, but it may not come as easily nor as peacefully as originally hoped. From a New York Times article two days ago, emphasis mine:

The longtime leader lost a Dec. 1 election to opposition coalition candidate Adama Barrow. Jammeh initially conceded, but later called for a new vote. The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and others have united in criticizing him.

Jammeh's party filed a petition to the country's Supreme Court against the election, and a key court ruling is expected Jan. 10.

What might follow the court ruling is anybody's guess. Civil war could erupt. Most Gambians are happy with the regime change, but not all. The Gambia's neighbors have not ruled out military intervention if necessary, and even diplomatic and/or economic sanctions could devastate the Gambia's shaky economy.

The uncertainty has already disrupted the educations of those who are the country's best hope for progress, and it could get much worse.

In recognition of the solidifying crisis, the United States on Saturday advised American citizens not to travel to Gambia "because of the potential for civil unrest and violence in the near future."

The U.S. State Department also ordered relatives of diplomats and embassy staff to leave Gambia and warned all its citizens to depart now, saying those who choose to stay should "prepare for the possible deterioration of security."

Per these recommendations, the Gambia's Most Awesome Math Professor is away on what she hopes will be a short visit out of the country. But of course her home, her job, her beloved students, and our new Gambian friends are left behind.

Please pray that the transition will be smooth and the disruption short-lived. If all goes well, the new president should take office on January 19, and the Gambia will embark on a new, democratic path of reform. It will be a difficult road—the Gambia is desperately poor and lacking in resources—but a hopeful one.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, January 9, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Edit
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altInto the Atomic Age: A Plan of Action for Canada Now edited by Sholto Watt (Montreal Standard Publishing Company, 1946)

This, the fourth of my father's collection of early post-Hiroshima books (see here, here, and here), is as fascinating as the others, although the fascination has less to do with atomic energy and atomic bombs than with the immediate post-war culture.

The Greatest Generation was, in a word, terrified. For the scientists who developed the Bomb itself, the politicians attempting to address the consequences of its very existence, and those whose business was social and political commentary, these were "what hath Man wrought?" times, just over a century after Samuel F. B. Morse's famous telegraph transmission.

In 1946, The Standard, a Canadian national weekly newspaper, published a series of essays on the subject of atomic energy. The contributors were diverse, from military men to scientists to politicians to prominent men from a variety of fields, whether or not they bore any relation to atomic energy. (Contract bridge, anyone? Ely Culbertson was one of them.)

In the early years of my adulthood, I remember hearing people express great fear that we were headed towards a "one world government."  They were suspicious of the United Nations, and viewed every international agreement through the lens of how it might affect our national sovereignty. I confess I gave them little respect, because I saw not a shred of evidence that anyone was interested in forming a unified world government.

But I was young. Even if I did grow up with "duck and cover" drills in elementary school, and spent time pondering the feasibility of building a fallout shelter in our backyard, I was blissfully ignorant of the politics of it all. Almost to a man, the writers of these essays were convinced that the only alternative to nuclear annihiliation was for all nations to give up their sovereign rights to an international government—either entirely, or "only" in the right to maintain armed forces and to wage war. The United Nations was brand-new in those days, and much hope was expressed that it would become the entity that would rule the world.

Fear makes people do crazy things, and put up with crazy things done by their leaders. It wouldn't surprise me if more freedoms have been lost through fear than through outright conquest. Fortunately for us, the one-world-government crazy idea never made it off the ground, though we've certainly lost plenty of freedom through fear—the Patriot Act and the bailout of companies "too big to fail," for example.

Be that as it may, here's a sampling of what people were thinking 70 years ago in response to what they perceived as the world's biggest threat. Text in bold is my own emphasis.

The picture of the next war thus becomes one of surprise, of sudden and unannounced aggression, of an “anonymous war,” in which the aggressor leaves no traces, mobilizes no armies, proclaims no hostilities.” A city might explode one night, another the next. In one night, a flight of rockets might demolish 20 cities and kill 40 million.

“This is the one-minute war of the future,” the scientists state. “This is the war that will be hanging over the heads of the nations of the world when all have possessed themselves of atomic explosive and sit in fear and trembling, wondering when their neighbor—or a country on the opposite side of the globe—may press the fateful key. … This picture is not projected a century or even half a century into the future; it is a possibility five years from now, a certainty in 15.”

To every man and woman it may be said with certainty that to secure a world authority is now part of the business of personal survival.

The more deeply one ponders the problems with which our world is confronted in the light … of the implications of the development of atomic energy, the harder it is to see a solution in anything short of some surrender of national sovereignty.

We are afraid that the understanding and sympathy that binds us together may not be as strong as the conflicts of national interest and the dark hates that threaten to separate us. Atomic energy in itself does not endanger us. It is the possible use of atomic energy by persons and nations motivated by hate that causes our fear.

The establishment of this world government must not have to wait until the same conditions of freedom are to be found in all three of the great powers. While it is true that in the Soviet Union the minority rules, I do not consider that internal conditions there are of themselves a threat to world peace. (Albert Einstein)

That one is evidence, as if any more were needed, that intellectual brilliance and practical sense do not necessarily reside together.

The scientists give us five short years in which to save ourselves and the world…. Five years in which we must build out of the present infant United Nations organization a world government capable of outlawing wars and the causes of wars. Five years in a world in which, from the dawn of Christianity from which our own democracy stemmed, it took nearly 2,000 years for our democracy to develop. Five years in which to project ourselves 1,000 years in maturity, in understanding, in social development.

But not to worry. The public schools can fix the problem.

I am optimistic enough to think that, with success in the intermediate and short-term period, we have a margin of twenty years in which to work. The long-term programme, the twenty-year programme, is the establishment of world government under principles of law, justice and human freedom. Such a world government cannot be imposed by force. It cannot be successfully negotiated by the statesmen of the nations of the earth. The plain fact is that world government requires as its foundation a moral and psychological sense of world community, and that foundation does not exist. To impose or to negotiate world government under existing conditions of prejudice and hate would do nothing more than set the stage for world civil war. The minds and hearts of men are not yet prepared for a world of law, justice and mercy.

We in North America are not prepared. Too many men despise women. Too many women despise their servants. Too many white men despise black men. Too many Christians despise Jews. This lack of sympathy and respect extends not only across group lines, but also within the groups themselves.

I feel that with twenty years to spare, the moral and psychological foundation for world peace can be laid. The hope is not that hundreds of years of history, tradition and custom will automatically and suddenly change their direction. The hope lies in the fact that it takes only a period of about a dozen years to implant a basic culture in the minds of a man—the period of childhood between the age of two and the age of 14.

The following may sound absurd now, but I know for a fact that Kodak built a special bomb-proof facility in Rochester, New York so that they could continue to manufacture paper in the event of nuclear war.

Drastic changes in defence measures would be called for, including the abandonment of all large cities, the decentralization of communications and the placing of all important factories far underground.

Not everyone was all gloom-and-doom. Some were downright science fiction in their ambitions.

The world-shaking discovery of atomic power, the greatest since the discovery of fire, can have only one of two end-results: either the unparalleled shattering of our civilization through atomic blasts, or an unparalleled era of peaceful science and mass happiness.

We have now within our grasp the means for creating an abundant life for all peoples of the world. Even before the development of atomic energy this was true, but now that we have tapped this tremendous new source of power, perhaps within half a century all nations can be raised to the same economic level occupied by the most advanced nations today.

There has never before been a discovery equal to that of atomic energy. The greatest discoveries of the past have advanced the material aids to humanity but a few years, but the forward move in the development of atomic energy must be measured in centuries. It can open the door to an age of plenty without revolution or war. It can make equality of opportunity a reality in our day. It can give the backward areas a chance to reach equality with others.

Some were downright nuts.

Why go slowly shepherding great liners through the locks on either side of the Culebra Cut when you could readily use atomic energy to blast a sea-level canal from ocean to ocean? (You would, of course, have to arrange for the temporary evacuation of all the population of the canal zone, but that, in these days of mass transfers of population, is perhaps not impossible.)

How many people realize that we could alter the entire climate of the North Temperate zones by exploding a few dozen or at most a few hundred atomic bombs at an appropriate height above the polar regions?

As a result of the immense heat produced, the floating polar ice-sheet would be melted; and it would not be re-formed. It is a relic from the last Ice Age, and survives today because most of the heat of the sun is reflected from its surface.

If it were once melted, most of the sun’s heat during the polar summer would be absorbed by the water and raise the temperature of the Arctic Ocean. Ice would form again each winter, but it would not cover nearly so large an extent as now, and would be thick enough to be melted in the succeeding summer.

As a result, the climate of Scandinavia would become more like that of Southern England, and the climate of Southern England would become much like that of Portugal.

As usual with all grandiose projects, there are snags.

Thus with the northward movement of the warm temperate and cool temperate zones, the arid zone would move too; and the countries which had the prospect of being turned into the Sahara of the future might reasonably object!

Perhaps it would be best to begin in a small way, by melting a small chunk of the ice-sheet with the aim, say, of slightly ameliorating the climate of Nova Scotia and Labrador, and seeing what happened elsewhere, before attempting anything further.

And we think we have climate change problems now.

Some writers had a better grasp of political realities than others.

We should do well to take stock from time to time of our original purpose in establishing the UNO [United Nations]. What was that purpose? The commonest reply perhaps would be, “To preserve peace.” For many years statesmen have been in the habit of saying, “The greatest interest of our country is Peace.” They have said that usually with complete sincerity and in bad confusion of thought.

For it is not true.

Any nation which suffered invasion would fight if it could. That is to say, it would sacrifice peace for the purpose of defending its national independence. Which means that we do not put peace first; we put defence first: the right to existence, national survival. And no international organization can succeed if it ignores this truth that defence, security, the right to life, must in the purpose of men come before mere peace. We could have had peace by submission to Hitler and Hirohito; we refused it on those terms.

But that brings us to the question: “What is defence? What rights of nations must an international organization defend if its purpose is to be fulfilled? Russia declares that its rights of defence must include “friendly” governments in the whole of Eastern Europe. What precisely does “Friendly” mean? More than once Russia has described Switzerland as “unfriendly and semi-Fascist.” On one occasion Russia refused participation in an international conference on aviation because Switzerland was included. If each nation is to claim in the name of defence conformity with its own special views to the extent which Russia seems to claim that conformity, a workable international organization for collective security is going to be extremely difficult to establish.

No kidding.

Despite the book's small size, there's a lot more to Into the Atomic Age, from following a spelunker deep into a cave in search of a place to set up an underground factory, to the convincing argument that there is no effective way for international inspections to prevent a country that has nuclear energy from also being able to make nuclear bombs. I wish those who negotiated our treaty with Iran had read this book.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, December 29, 2016 at 7:10 am | Edit
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Why do people hate the rich?

Perhaps it's simple jealousy, especially since we tend to define as "rich" anyone who has more money than we do ourselves. Differences in wealth and power have been around forever and likely always will be. Jealousy and resentment have plagued us at least as long.

The hatred seems particularly virulent these days, however, especially among those who are themselves wealthy beyond the dreams of most of the world, both now and throughout history. It has bubbled up recently in the idea that being rich somehow disqualifies many of the people whom Donald Trump has chosen for his Cabinet.

I hate conspicuous consumption, and I despise waste even more. Most of all, I grieve that the lifestyles of the rich and famous, fueled by unwise use of money, consumes their souls like an aggressive cancer. But as Scottish author George MacDonald—himself often desperately poor—takes pains to make clear, the love of money destroys the souls of those who have too little just as surely as it destroys those who have too much.

But through the years I've come to respect most rich people and see their importance to all of us.

Rich people get things done.

We all know spoiled "rich kids" of any age who have inherited their wealth and done nothing to earn it, nothing to increase it, and nothing good with it. But by and large, people become wealthy because they make things happen. They work very hard, too—but hard work alone is insufficient. The same character traits that enable some people to get rich often also enable them to accomplish great things. Sure, there's some luck involved, but it takes something else to make that luck work in your favor—a something else most of us do not have. (One of my favorite quotes, which I learned thanks to my friend the Occasional CEO, is J. Paul Getty's secret to success: 1. Get up early. 2. Work hard. 3. Strike oil.)

The neighborhood we live in would probably be considered lower middle class. There are people of all classes in the huge—over 900 homes—subdivision, but on average I'd say lower middle class covers it. Our kids go to the same high school as kids from some very wealthy neighborhoods, and there's certainly some resentment over their cars and fancy clothes. But when it comes to doing things for the school, the wealthier parents—at least those wealthier than us—lead the pack. And when a planning decision at the school board level threatened to split up our school, it was people from the rich neighborhoods who saved ours along with their own, because they had the experience, the knowledge, and most of all were willing to put in the time and effort, to propose and fight for an acceptable alternative plan. The rest of us cared, but the wealthy made it happen, not because they were rich, but because they knew what to do and worked till the job was done. Frankly, I'd consider that an asset in any Cabinet position.

Our recent trip to New York City, with its museums, big and small, public and private, also showed me the advantage of having rich folks around. Where would high culture be without the wealthy? Not only do they support art, music, and theater by commissioning works, but they collect, preserve, and protect works of art—art that the rest of society may not fully appreciate for a century or so.

Not to mention the fact that rich people create jobs for the rest of us. Even those fancy cars, ridiculously large yachts, and over-the-top opulent houses provide work for a whole bunch of people. Most important of all is that the people who have the qualities that enable them to become rich are the ones who create the industries that we depend on. Would I rather see a rise in family-owned industries, small farms, and sole proprietorships, in which more people work for themselves rather than for someone else? Sure. But not everyone can do that, and not everyone wants to. Someone like me can give an poor person a handout, but a rich person can provide a job that will give him self-respect and lift him out of poverty.

We don't have to approve of everything about the way rich people behave to recognize their value to society—and to a government. Would you be happier if John, Robert, or even Ted Kennedy were in one of the Cabinet posts? Take a closer look at some of that family's behavior, and especially how they amassed their fortune.

Are many wealthy people being irresponsible with their money? Certainly. Aren't we all? It's a disease as widely distributed as the common cold, afflicting businesses, institutions, and governments even more than individuals. But that issue is completely irrelevant to someone's fitness for a Cabinet post.

Envy is an ugly trait, and a terrible advisor.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, December 27, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Edit
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George Friedman has written a clear explanation of why we have the Electoral College. It's worth reading if you're one of those who want to dismantle it—or one of those unsure if it's defensible.

I understand, and agree, that a direct democracy is not necessarily the best political system. Pure democracy, after all, is another word for the tyranny of the majority—or worse, if the choice is not binary. I also agree with the assertion that at least some form of free market is necessary to make a democracy fair, because without economic freedom all other freedoms go out the window. What puzzles me is Switzerland.

In the European Union, equality and unanimity between members is critical, but the United States chose a much more sophisticated system, combining a deep democratic process, with mediating layers to limit or block public passions.

The United States is a vast nation with highly differentiated interests. From the beginning, the founders were forced to face the fact that holding the nation together required concern for the interests of all states, and not only for those densely settled. A pure democracy would consider the nation’s interests as a whole. The founders were aware that the nation was not a whole, although all regions were needed.

The United States is a geopolitical invention. The 13 original colonies were very different from each other. As the nation expanded westward, even more exotic states became part of the union. Constantly alienating smaller states through indifference could undermine the national interest. The Senate and the electoral college both stop that from happening, or at least limit it. Any state can matter in any election.

You might charge that this is undemocratic. It is. It was intended to be. The founders did not create a direct democracy for a good reason. It would have prevented the United States from emerging as a stable union. They created a republican form of government based on representation and a federal system based on sovereign states. Because of that, a candidate who ignores or insults the “flyover” states is likely to be writing memoirs instead of governing.

I get it. It makes a lot of sense. But Switzerland, though much, much smaller (about half the size of South Carolina), comprises 26 cantons that are at least as diverse as the American states. Think four official national languages and cultures, and that doesn't even count the dozens of different forms of German. Moreover, its individual cantons have much more independence than the states of the U.S. 

Yet Switzerland is both a direct democracy and a very stable union. Is it the size that makes the difference?  Or something else?

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, December 15, 2016 at 9:58 am | Edit
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Here's another George Friedman article that asserts, Great leaders did not make history.  History made them.  He's not talking about revisionist history, but about the impotence of leaders to kick against the goads.  It speaks to my contention that a Trump presidency will be neither as bad as his opponents fear, nor as good as his supporters hope.  Even with as powerful an Executive as we have in the United States, other factors are much more important than who's in the White House. As Shakespeare put it, There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.

In thinking about the presidency – or political leaders anywhere – it is important to distinguish between ambitions and constraints. ... Beyond constitutional limits on a president, reality imposes others. Lincoln did not want a civil war; Roosevelt wanted to end the depression; Reagan wanted to energize the economy; and when he took office, Bush had no intention of invading Afghanistan nine months later. But it really didn’t matter what they wanted. Other forces were at work shaping and undermining their presidencies. Given their circumstances, some could achieve some of their goals, none could achieve all of them, and few could achieve them in the manner they planned.

Leaders aren’t iconic, they are human beings. The idea that they will rebuild society in a manner that is more just to one group vastly overstates their power. Obama is a case in point. He was expected to end all wars, end the rage against the United States in the Islamic world that led to terrorism, create jobs and so on. He likely believed in many of these things, and he may well have expected to accomplish them as president. ... Leaders inevitably disappoint, because they must claim extraordinary powers.... Their election is followed by great excitement and long periods of growing disappointment.

Roosevelt and Reagan were both regarded by opponents as completely unsuited for office. Reagan was called an ignorant and evil actor, and Roosevelt was a rich dilettante with an empty head. Abraham Lincoln was likened to a monkey and regarded as an ignorant and uncouth lout who would shame the country. And these weren’t Southerners talking. ... None were devils and none were miracle workers. 

The whole article is short, and worth reading, whether you're happy, depressed, or merely confused by the current political situation.

I still believe that the American executive branch is too powerful, but Friedman's point is well made.  I like his take on President Reagan and the fall of the Soviet Union (emphasis mine):

We like to speak of Reagan defeating the Soviet Union. The truth is that the Soviet Union was collapsing regardless of any outside effort. Reagan did not impede the process and certainly contributed to it. What he intended happened, but it was minimally influenced by anything he did. The Soviet Union fell because of internal failures built into the system.

May we always be found impeding the evil and contributing to the good, with neither elation nor panic over who holds the highest political office.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, December 12, 2016 at 10:14 pm | Edit
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More surprising than Brexit, more shocking than the election of Donald Trump, is the news from the Gambia:  President Yahya Jammeh has not only been voted out, but has conceded the election and appears ready for a peaceful transition of power. The unexpected winner is Adama Barrow, whose name makes me smile because I know that he probably has a twin sister. I've not seen that confirmed, but I know from our visit to the Gambia this year that male/female twins are not uncommon there, and are usually named Adama and Hawa (Adam and Eve).

You can find quite a bit about the election on the Internet, but here's a bit from an Economist article:

Mr. Barrow staged a big political upset in results announced on December 2nd, winning by 45.5% to Mr. Jammeh’s 36.7%. Even more surprisingly—and to his great credit—Mr Jammeh quickly conceded defeat. By the evening, streets that many had feared could be a battleground were full of partying crowds tearing down posters of their outgoing president.

The election was scary for a while, I'm told, because the borders were sealed and communication with the outside world cut off. But afterwards, my friend who lives there, and who was also living in Germany in 1989, described the scene like this:

Everyone is now running around celebrating. It feels a lot like when the Berlin Wall came down, but without the beer.

Everyone is full of hope, but it's a big transition and the Gambia needs all the prayers it can get. Some fear another coup (that's how Mr. Jammeh came to power in the first place), and the country is desperately poor and lacking in natural resources. Mr. Barrow has a difficult road ahead of him. But hope is a great thing.

Gambians vote using a system of marbles and metal drums. There's a video in this BBC report that shows how it works. What I like best is that it was filmed in Brikama, where we spent most of our time, and everything looks and sounds so pleasantly familiar.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, December 3, 2016 at 8:21 pm | Edit
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What adjectives come to your mind when you think of someone who voted for Donald Trump?

Racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, selfish, idiotic?  Probably.

How about compassionate, loving, open-minded, generous?  I didn't think so.

Ever since the election I have found myself in the incongruous position of defending the supporters of Donald Trump.  Perhaps it's due to my shock at the virulent attacks against them from the mouths and pens of people who have in the past taken pride in their openness, tolerance, and love of diversity.  Maybe it's because of my natural tendency to be contrary. My daughter said, "Mom, if you were a salmon, you'd be swimming downstream."  I had to think about that a bit.

I'm pretty sure, however, that my change of heart came mostly because I took a good look at the only Trump supporters in my circle of friends.  We have friends who are staunch supporters of Bernie Sanders and reluctantly switched to Hillary Clinton when she became the party's nominee; friends who supported Hillary Clinton all along; friends who couldn't stand Donald Trump from the beginning and voted for him only because the alternative was unthinkable; and friends who voted third party or sat this election out because they couldn't bear to cast a vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.  Out of all my friends, only two openly cheered for Trump.

So I took a good look at them.

  • Smart, educated, and well-travelled
  • Raised five children, as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic family
  • Personally settled and supported over a dozen refugees, and assisted hundreds more
  • Took in hundreds of the most difficult-to-place foster children
  • War veteran
  • Cleaned the homes—often on hands and knees—of elderly people in the community who could no longer do the work themselves
  • Support orphans and others in need—financially and in person—on three continents
  • Open their home and hearts to countless visitors from all over the world, of diverse cultures and religions
  • Are unabashedly and enthusiastically Christian, for whom that is always a reason to be more active, inclusive, and loving—not less
  • Have uncompromising moral values which never deter them from loving and helping those who do not share their standards
  • Have a joyous enthusiasm for life, in good times and in bad, that spills over into everyone they meet
  • Are called Mom and Dad by enough people around the world to populate a small city

These are the only Trump supporters I know well enough to judge, and I don't have a fraction of the cred I'd need to cast a stone their way.

Before we write off as immoral subhumans half the people we share this country with, maybe we should get to know them better.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, December 1, 2016 at 10:16 am | Edit
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Fact-checking sensational headlines is more important than ever, and I just discovered how hard that can be.

It started when my daughter posted a link to this petition requesting the government of France to lift its ban on showing this heart-warming video about children with Down Syndrome on French television.

From the petition page:

The State Council in France just affirmed a ruling that bans the video on the grounds that it is “inappropriate.” They argue that allowing people with Down syndrome to smile is “likely to disturb the conscience of women who had lawfully made different personal life choices.”

Essentially, France is telling people with Down syndrome that they do not have a right to show their happiness in the public sphere. This decision is discriminatory, and it violates the rights of individuals with Down syndrome.

That's certainly weird enough to require fact-checking. With the Internet, that should be easy, right?

Snopes made no mention of it whatsoever. Ditto for truthorfiction.com. Google News, however, was replete with articles. The trouble was that most of them were from sources that I knew many of my readers would reject, unread, without a second thought. And then there were the headlines:

France bans video because children with Down syndrome are "inappropriate"

France to ban people with Down syndrome from smiling

French TV Bans Smiling Down Syndrome Children--Might ‘Disturb’ Post-Abortive Women

French court bans TV ad showing happy kids with Down syndrome

Don't they just scream "clickbait" and the kind of story that must be misleading if not actually false? But my daughter had posted the link ... and she almost never does anything like that, certainly not unless she's sure of her sources.

I'm not surprised that the first sources I found were from right-wing publications—plus the Catholic Church, which is often left-wing, but not when it comes to anything that touches abortion. But to find the truth, I felt I needed to consult a source that was, if not neutral, at least biased in the other direction.

Enter the Huffington Post. Not that I trust everything they print, not at all. But I trust their liberal bias, which was exactly what I needed. And here it is, in the words of a mother of three children, two of whom have Down syndrome. Here are some excerpts, but it's worth reading the whole article.

Last week another big step was taken towards the mass persecution of children with Down syndrome. On November 10th, the French ‘State Counsel’ rejected an appeal made by people with Down syndrome, their families and allies to lift the ban on broadcasting the award winning “Dear Future Mom” video on French television. The ban was previously imposed by the French Broadcasting Counsel. Kids who are unjustly described as a ‘risk’ before they are born, are now wrongfully portrayed as a ‘risk’ after birth too.

The video features a number of young people from around the globe telling about their lives. Their stories reflect today’s reality of living with Down syndrome and aims to reassure women who have received a prenatal diagnosis. Their message of hope takes away the fears and questions these women may have, often based on outdated stereotypes.

[O]ur kids, whom studies from the USA and the Netherlands have proven to be much happier than the cranky, sulky bunch who go through life without Down syndrome, are banned from public television because their happy faces make post-abortion women feel uncomfortable. Women must continue to believe in the myth that society and medical professionals portray; that Down syndrome is a life of suffering, a burden to their family and society.

What’s next? Will kids with Down syndrome be banned from school? Will they be segregated from society and placed in institutions like in the old days, because their presence upsets post-abortion parents? See this ban is akin to putting people with Down syndrome away because their presence ‘confronts’ society with the reality of their systematic eradication. Eradication not to ‘prevent suffering’, but because authorities have decided that their differences place a burden on our lives and society. ... Let’s show them the truth that families with Down syndrome have an enormous good quality of life. Let’s show a future of hope, unconditional love and yes, a lot of smiles and happiness.

While Lejeune Foundation takes the matter to the European Court for Human Rights the French press has remained quiet about it. A petition has started to ask the French government to intervene. Please sign, support and share happiness!

I am not much of a petition-signer, and I generally believe that what is shown on French television is none of my business. But I think I'm going to sign this one, because I believe this policy has crossed a line. Will they ban smiling "typical" children from TV because they might disturb anyone who has aborted a healthy child? If not, that is certainly discrimination based solely on handicapped status.

My heart grieves for anyone who has suffered the loss of a child, and I have known those times when the sight of happy children was painful. When our first grandchild died two days after his birth, just before the Christmas season, all those songs about a newborn baby boy were more than a little hard to take. But our own particular griefs are no excuse for taking away another's happiness, and if aborting Down syndrome babies is likely to cause such trauma and regret with regard to what might have been, maybe we should take another look at how we approach that decision.

But that's another issue.  Regardless of one's position on when in the gestation process a life becomes fully human and deserving of our compassion and protection, regarding a handicapped person as subhuman puts us on the same level as the eugenicists of a hundred years ago, or the worst of the Nazis.  I don't think France really wants to go there.

Any of my readers who know more about this story—particularly those of you who live or have lived in France—please chime in with what it looks like from the French point of view.  I know there's almost always another side to a story.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, November 26, 2016 at 7:32 pm | Edit
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It has been a hard week.  It is hard not to fall into depression at the concentrated and violent hatred I have seen expressed.  It's worse to see the deep divisions among my friends.

However, it has all been through the media, especially social media.  What I have personally seen has been amazing in the other direction.  In person, people are so much more polite than on social media!

For example, we just spent several days in New York City.  New York is like Paris, apparently.  Both have a reputation for being rude and unfriendly.  But when we went to Paris a few years ago, we found that in 99.9% of our encounters people were friendly, patient, and helpful.

So it was with New York.  We stayed in three hotels, and visited several different parts of the city.  We saw strangers helping strangers, people reaching out to one another.  We saw smiles, and heard friendly greetings everywhere.  We overheard politically-charged, random conversations that were measured, reasonable, and willing to give others the benefit of the doubt.  "Please," "thank you," and other forms of polite social interaction abounded, and—in marked contrast to social media—profanity and angry words were almost nil.

There is much more good out there than we think, and it's not limited to our own social circles and to those who agree with us.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 23, 2016 at 7:54 am | Edit
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Below I have quoted 99% of a post I wrote eight years ago, following the election of Barack Obama. It was part of a series; all I've changed is the introduction and the one sentence that makes no sense outside of that context. When I reread it on the day after Election Day, I was struck by how applicable it still is, for ALL sides. (Note: not both sides. One of our greatest mistakes is thinking there is a single dividing line and each of us falls on one side or the other.)  Change the names of the players as you will, the sense remains the same.

Note: This was written specifically for a Christian audience. Anyone else is more than welcome to come along for the ride, but be prepared for a lot of quotations from a source of which you do not recognize the authority. You may still find value in the meaning.

How We Can Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
       while in a foreign land

Psalm 137:1-4

First of all, we pick ourselves up with as much dignity as we have remaining and give respect and support to our new leaders. "Fear God, honor the king" (I Peter 2:17) applies in a democracy, too. Humor has an important place in discourse, but mean-spirited mockery does not. I'm extremely uncomfortable with the abuse heaped on George W. Bush, just as I was when it was Bill Clinton on the receiving end, and I will accord Barack Obama the respect due the President of the United States, as well as that due a human being created in the image of God.

We pray for Barack Obama, and for all "who bear the authority of government."  If the Apostle Paul could write, per I Timothy 2:1-2, "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made....for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness," while living under the Roman Emperor Nero, we can do the same living under an elected president who is not likely to include among his alternative energy polices the burning of living, human torches.

We attempt to live our lives in the best, most honest, most noble, and most loving way possible. Back to I Peter again (2:15-16): "[I]t is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God."  The Republicans would do well to remember that scandal and wrong-doing among office holders has done more than anything else to bring them down. Granted, it's not fair that the Democrats mostly get a pass for their equal or greater sins—although it's actually a compliment that better behavior is expected of Republicans—but the reality is that Republicans were hurt badly first by misbehavior and even more by not visiting swift and sure justice upon the miscreants. To live purely and act rightly, with justice and love and in quiet confidence, will win more hearts than the most reasoned argument.

Do not repay anyone evil for evilBe careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-18, 21)

Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe. (Philippians 2:14-15)

[L]et your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16).

We attend to the wisdom of the serpent as well as the harmlessness of the dove. Now is not the time to retreat from the political process, but to be all the more involved that we might be alert to dangers that threaten what we hold dear, and to how we might best meet those threats. History has proven that when we are caught unaware we react hastily, badly, and often ineffectively.

We don't flee to the hills, or to another country (as many threatened after losing the 2000 and 2004 elections), or withdraw from the system in sulky silence. It's not time, yet, for "those who are in Judea to flee to the mountains."  If we feel like exiles in our own land, it is time to remember what God said to his people at the time of another exile: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29:5-7). We continue to live our lives wisely and without fear. The administration may have changed, but the basic rules of life have not. There's still the Big Ten—don't steal, don't murder, don't mess with someone else's spouse, and all the rest—and the sound-bite version provided by Jesus: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, [and] love your neighbor as yourself."

Many of us are accustomed to feeling alienated from the general American culture; it may even be easier—or at least clearer—when there's no pretense that "our guys" are in charge. Whether it's financial responsibility, ethical behavior, or wise decision-making, in a democracy the citizens get no better from their government than the majority lives out in their lives. True progress, then, requires that we balance a deliberate counter-cultural structuring of our own lives, families, and communities with a creative engagement of the larger culture. That is how we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land.

[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Against such things there is no law.
Galatians 5:22-23
Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, November 12, 2016 at 9:31 am | Edit
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A friend of a friend of a friend on Facebook posted an interesting and perceptive analysis of the election based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.  It's a public post, so you should be able to see it here.  It may be somewhat simplistic for explaining a complex phenomenon, but I believe he has hit upon an important truth, the same truth that Christian missionaries found when they tried to address spiritual issues before basic material needs.

I've made my own, definitely simplistic, summary of the idea into a graphic.

alt

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, November 11, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Edit
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