The Case Against Trump

Many Republicans of principle are refusing to support the re-election of Donald Trump. Indeed, more than 70 senior officials who have served under Republican administrations signed a letter calling Trump “unfit to lead” and, along with at least 28 Republican former members of congress, have announced that they will be voting for Biden.

A separate group of onetime Republican presidential appointees who served as senior ethics or Justice Department aides are also endorsing Biden. “I think a lot of us are extremely alarmed, frankly, at the threat of autocracy,” said Donald Ayer, former Deputy Attorney General during the H.W. Bush administration. This group says their goal is to “restore basic honesty and integrity to the U.S. Department of Justice and to Executive Branch decision-making.” You can read about that here.

Despite the subservience of most current Republican office holders, a number of Trump’s own appointees have stated their opposition to him. For example, Miles Taylor, the former Chief of Staff to Secretary of Homeland Security Kristen Nielson, has described Trump as “terrifying” and “actively doing damage to our security.” Taylor expressed his view that, if re-elected, Trump will “align with dictators around the world.” Taylor too, is forming a group, from both outside and inside (anonymously) the administration. You can read about that here and/or here.

In a most unusual break from military tradition, 489 generals, admirals, and other national security officials have excoriated Trump and endorsed Biden in another letter published in September. In a video for Republican Voters Against Trump, General Michael Hayden, who was Director of the CIA and the NSA under George W. Bush, said that “President Trump doesn’t care about facts. President Trump doesn’t care about the truth.” … “I think if Trump gets another term, many alliances will be gone.” … “I absolutely disagree with some of Biden’s policies, but that’s not important. What’s important is the United States.” Then he stated the obvious: “Biden is a good man. Donald Trump is not.”

These are only the most recent defections from Trump or the Republican Party altogether. Many left the party or have railed against Trump since 2016. For example, long-time Republican and conservative columnist George Will left the party just after then House Speaker Paul Ryan endorsed Trump during the 2016 campaign. Along with many others of the so-called “never Trump” movement, Will could plainly see how Trump would sow division and ultimately weaken our country’s standing in the world. (Of course, Vladimir Putin can also see how a Trump presidency weakens the United States. That’s why he worked so hard for it in 2016, and is doing so again this year.)

For those who may wonder why so many Republicans and other people of conscience are against the re-election of Trump, they can see a few of the reasons in what follows. First, we will examine his character and fitness as a leader (and as an example to our children). Then we will have a brief look at his policies.

Of course, people often believe what they wish to believe, and no amount of contradicting evidence, new information, or rational argument can dissuade them from their preferred reality—often, an imagined reality that best accommodates their own proclivities and is reinforced by their preferred “news” sources. But that shouldn’t discourage us from our civic duty to make the case for our nation’s well-being.

His Character

Dishonorable: During his campaign for the presidency, Trump said that John McCain wasn’t really a war hero because he was captured. He has referred to American casualties of war, including McCain, as “losers” and “suckers.” Learn about John McCain’s captivity here. See what Trump really thinks of military service here.

Disloyal: Trump infamously admires despots of all sorts. His favorite, however, has always been Vladimir Putin. When Bill O’Reilly and others have pointed out that Putin often has his critics and political opponents killed, Trump has equated the casualties of war against the United States with Putin’s murders.

Amoral/Arrogant/Criminal: Trump bragged that, as “a star,” women didn’t really mind when he would “just start kissing them” and “grab ’m by the pussy.” We might imagine that such a claim was just harmless “locker-room banter.” But the testimony of more than twenty women tells us otherwise.

Immoral/Criminal: During his campaign, Trump paid off a porn star and a Playboy Playmate to keep them quiet about his affairs with them. Not reporting it was a violation of campaign finance law, for which his lawyer was imprisoned.

Foolish/Clumsy: Trump has repeatedly and recklessly exposed classified information, beginning with his infamous 2017 meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office. He told Bob Woodward (on the record) about a new secret Nuclear Weapon System that had been top secret. Now Russia and China know what to look for.

Shameless: In that same 2017 Oval Office meeting, we recently learned, Trump told the Russians that he didn’t really care that they had meddled in the election.

Racist/Amoral: Trumps comments regarding the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and his hiring of Stephen Miller (a well-documented white supremist) to oversee his immigration and refugee policies, are only two indicators among a great many that Trump’s policies are based upon a racist perception of the world.

Vindictive: Trump’s (and other Republicans’) undermining of the Affordable Care Act without a replacement has caused as many as 2.3 million Americans to lose their Health insurance. This was done, not to help people, but because they irrationally despise Obama.

Fraudulent: The Trump Foundation was shut down by the state of New York for self-dealing and other fraudulent activities. The infractions were so egregious that all members of the Trump family are now barred from sitting on the board of any charity in the state.

Gullible/Disloyal: In his infamous July, 2018 Helsinki news conference, Trump revealed that he was more inclined to believe Putin than American intelligence agencies.

Disloyal/Deceptive: Trump has repeatedly allowed no one else in the room when meeting with Putin, and even confiscated the notes of his interpreter after one meeting. We can only imagine what he is telling Putin that he doesn’t want the American people or even members of his own administration to know.

Criminal: Robert Mueller’s report offered no criminal case for the interactions of the Trump campaign with Russian contacts, but it illustrated that Trump and his associates interacted with Russians at least 140 times, and then most of them lied about it. Given Trump’s vigorous attempts to thwart the investigation, obviously he thought crimes were committed. The Mueller Report made it clear that Trump’s efforts constituted criminal obstruction of justice. Bill Barr can deny it, but more than a thousand federal prosecutors say it was criminal, and that anyone else would have been jailed for it.

Shameful: Trump is obsessed with keeping his tax returns and business dealings secret. We have to wonder what he is so very ashamed of—perhaps fraud, Russian financing?

Foolish: Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership will serve only to strengthen China’s strategic position at our expense. His withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and, more recently, the World Health Organization has significantly weakened America’s leadership role in the world.

Foolish Betrayal: Trump’s withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria, at the request of his autocratic friend, Erdogan of Turkey, was a betrayal of an American ally. It significantly damaged American credibility and, therefore, national security. Of course, it strengthened Putin, and prompted his Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, to resign.

Amoral: Trump pardoned two war criminals and restored the rank of a third, over the objections of the Pentagon and his own Defense Secretary. Trump was told that it would weaken morale within the ranks and damage American credibility around the world. But Trump saw some unprincipled bonehead on FOX News advocating for it, and that’s where he gets his shallow and fallacious understanding of the world.

Corrupt: Under Trump, SEC enforcement of insider trading has dropped to its lowest level in decades. Government contracts have regularly been awarded to friends and donors. More ambassadorships have been awarded to donors than any other president. One of them, Trump’s envoy in London passed along Trump’s request that the British Open golf tournament be moved to a Trump property. In direct violation of the Constitution, Trump has repeatedly used his office to benefit his personal business interests.

Gullible/Deluded: Trump seems to genuinely believe the government of Ukraine hacked the Democratic party server (not Russia) and also worked against him in the 2016 election. He believes this because Putin told him so, and because (as Putin well understands) Trump’s fragile ego needs to believe it.

Heartless: In addition to his expressed interest in buying Greenland, Trump asked aids about how he could sell Puerto Rico. He sees Puerto Rico in much the same light as those “shit-hole” countries from which he doesn’t want immigrants. It wouldn’t occur to him to attempt to alleviate the plight of the American citizens in Puerto Rico. He just wants to be rid of them.

Impeachable: No impartial observer could fail to recognize that Trump committed the explicitly impeachable crime of bribery when he held out a White House meeting and military aid in exchange for an announcement of an investigation into Joe Biden and into a conspiracy theory that is the product of Russian disinformation. It was a betrayal of an American ally for the personal benefit of Trump and to the strategic benefit of Putin.

Corrupt: Trump has often told us that he hires only the “very best people.” His first campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was charged with 18 crimes, including 5 falsification of tax returns, 9 counts of bank fraud or bank fraud conspiracy, money laundering, failure to register as a foreign agent, and conspiracy against the United States. Trump’s deputy campaign chairman under both Manafort and Steve Bannon, Rick Gates, was charged with money laundering, failure to register as a foreign agent, lying to the F.B.I., and conspiracy against the United States. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, was charged and pled guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his discussions with Russians to assure them that Trump didn’t care about their interference in the election, and that Trump would reverse the sanctions that Obama had imposed. (Something Trump personally told them after he took office.) Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time personal lawyer, received a 3-year sentence for tax evasion, bank fraud, lying to Congress (about Trump’s efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, while saying he had no dealings and was working on no deals with Russia), and campaign finance violations—violations that Trump had instructed to cover for his affairs with porn actresses. Long-time Trump friend Roger Stone was convicted of crimes that include obstruction of justice, lying to Congress, and witness tampering. Trump’s second campaign chairman and trusted advisor, Steve Bannon, was recently indicted for fraud in his bilking the gullible Trump supporters who had donated to build “The Wall.” Other members of Trump’s team that have been convicted of crimes are George PapadopoulosRichard Pinedo, and Alex van der Zwaan. The recently released, Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election included criminal referrals for Steve BannonEric Prince (Betsy DeVos’s brother), Sam ClovisDonald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner.

Perhaps the only reason that those criminal referrals have not resulted in indictments is Attorney General Bill Barr, arguably the most partisan and corrupt attorney general in modern history. Barr has been such an embarrassment to his alma mater, George Washington University Law School, that much of its faculty, including the president of the National Bar Association have disavowed him. As a result of his behavior, more than 2,000 former DOJ prosecutors and other officials have urged Barr to resign. More recently, 1,600 DOJ lawyers have accused Barr of illegally using the Justice Department to help Trump in the election.

A Cheat:  Trump’s older sister recently confirmed what others had alleged—that Trump had someone else take his SAT test in school. She also said she often did his homework for him in college. Trump is well known for regularly cheating in golf, revealing his true character. His long-time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified to Congress about how Trump would illegally inflate the value of his assets to procure loans, and undervalue his assets for tax purposes. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that he has sought to cheat in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. His proclamations of “mail-in voter fraud” are obviously designed to set the stage for his claim of a “rigged” election. If it is a close election loss, he may well refuse to relinquish the presidency, convincing himself, along with his gullible followers, that he actually won.

Irreligious:  There isn’t much that can make Christianity look more silly than young-earth creationism. But Donald Trump can. Polls consistently show that self-described “evangelical Christians” support Trump by large margins—the same Donald Trump that paid off porn stars with which he had extramarital affairs, that childishly taunts his detractors (real and imagined), that lies about nearly everything, that admires murderous dictators, that repeatedly flouts the law, and that sows racial division—the same Donald Trump that doesn’t know much about and doesn’t care at all about Christianity. 

After his election, before he took office, Trump held a meeting in Trump Tower where “prominent evangelical leaders” laid hands on him in prayer. After the meeting, his attorney, Michael Cohen recounted Trump saying, “Can you believe that bullshit? Can you believe people believe that bullshit?” He thinks the Christians who buy his act are suckers. Unfortunately for the credibility of Christianity, so does much of the world.

Complaining about having to decorate the White House, Melania was recorded saying, “Who gives a fuck about Christmas stuff and decorations?”

Compromised:  Trump has exchanged at least 25 letters with Kim Jong Un of North Korea that he described as “love letters.” He even bragged to Bob Woodward about how Kim had told him how he had killed his uncle (he disintegrated him with an anti-aircraft gun.). Trump has described their relationship as a “special friendship.” Trump told president Xi Jinping of China that concentration camps for the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of minority Uyghur Muslims was “exactly the right thing to do.” Trump has also done several favors for his friend and autocrat Erdogan of Turkey. But Trump’s favorite autocrat has always been Vladimir Putin.

Trump has never criticized Putin—not for interfering in the 2016 or 2020 elections, not for invading Ukraine, not for offering bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. troops, not for interfering in U.S. operations in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, and not for killing or imprisoning his critics and political rivals. A number of Intelligence professionals as well as most casual observers tend to think this is because Putin has something on him. It’s a logical explanation. Since Russians (as well as Saudis and other dictators) are well known to have laundered money through Trump condos and other properties, the dirt could be of a financial nature. But he could also have something concerning Trump’s behavior with women while in Russia.

In 2008, Dmitry Rybolovlev paid $95 million for a mansion for which Trump had paid $41.35 million in 2004. Rybolovlev never lived there, and the house was eventually demolished. According to his attorney, Michael Cohen, Trump believed that the money and approval to buy the property really came from Putin. Whether he has something on him or not, Trump unquestionably admires Putin, a murderous adversary of U.S. interests.

Ten Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder:  1) Lack of empathy— 2) Conversation hogging— 3) Attention seeking— 4) Inflated self-image— 5) Rule breaking—6) Unrealistic expectations— 7) Charming— 8) Manipulative— 9) Desiring control— 10) Blames others for failings. Trump exhibits all of these symptoms.

Now, His Policies and His Competence

The Economy and Fiscal Policies       

Many people credit President Trump with the strong economy that existed before the pandemic. Though, in recent decades, the Federal Reserve has much more to do with the stability of the economy, there is little question that Trump’s policies contributed to the extension of the economic growth that preceded his tenure. The questions we might ask, however, are “by what means, and at what long-term cost?”

The policies are tax cuts, increases in federal spending, and deregulation. It is borrowing from the future. It is classic Keynesian economics, mis-applied. 

Keynesian economics is best known for its advocacy of deficit spending to mitigate the hardship and the psychology of recessions—i.e., economic stimulus—the very thing that Republicans rail against when Democrats propose it. (Remember the hand wringing over Obama’s stimulus package during the Great Recession of 2008-2009.) As the theory goes, during times of economic growth, the debt that was accrued from the stimulus is to be paid down.

This time, however, Trump and Republicans have introduced stimulus during a time of growth. So, instead of paying the debt, they have significantly added to it, leaving the service of that extra debt to our children.

The hazard of large deficit spending during periods of growth is that those tools will be less available when needed during an economic contraction, like the recent downturn resulting from the Coronavirus. Fortunately, interest rates are so low that added debt is not as costly as it could be. Because rates are low, liberal economist Paul Krugman has said that we have little to worry about concerning the tripling of the federal deficit this year. But, as we add more than four trillion dollars to the national debt, it is certainly a debt that our children will bear.

Deregulation creates a similar problem. Regulations were enacted for a reason—i.e., to protect us from unscrupulous and reckless actors and to preserve resources for future generations. Wholesale deregulation does the opposite.

The economy will benefit in the short term from the infusion of borrowed money and deregulation. Those of us who own stocks, in particular, will realize significant gains. But, is short-term gain worth the risk of the long-term weakening of the United States’ financial strength, and the additional debt that is imposed on future generations? Is short-term personal gain really worth the sacrifice of virtue?

Immigration 

Perhaps the second most compelling reason cited by many people who support Trump is his handling of immigration—mostly, illegal immigration. They believe him when he tells them that illegal immigrants increase crime and cost American jobs. They believe him when he says that Democrats want “open borders.” Maybe they even believe it when he tells them that Democrats want to take away their God. (Evidently, he has a low opinion of the power of God.) It’s all nonsense, of course.

The reality is that President Obama deported more people than Trump. You can read about that here and/or here. The difference is that Obama is a decent human being, while Trump is a racist, stoking fear into a racist constituency. Trump implemented Jeff Sessions’ child separation policy because he places little value on those children. He is largely amoral. Trump’s attempts to end the DACA program are indicative of what his sister has described as his cruelty.

Everyone should be aware that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a significantly lower rate than the general population. The jobs they take are mostly those that would otherwise go unfilled, or would be filled at a much higher cost, increasing the cost of living for all Americans. The truth is, we need the labor and they need the work.

The Environment

Almost certainly, the most important reason to avoid a second Trump term concerns the wellbeing of our planet’s ecosystem. Since he is an avid FOX News watcher (and because he isn’t bright enough to know better), he thinks climate change is a “hoax,” perpetrated by liberals (or China). He appears to think that all environmental rules and laws are unnecessary obstacles. Here is a list of 100 environmental rules the Trump administration has slated for reversal. With merely his first term, his policies have and/or will cause significant damage to the environment and, ultimately, to our quality of life—most significantly, to the quality of life of our children and grandchildren.

For the first time in its 175-year history, Scientific American magazine is endorsing a presidential candidate—Joe Biden. It’s not because Joe is so awesome. It’s because Trump is so destructive to the environment and to human health, as his appointees undermine the work and the credibility of the NOAA, the EPA, the NIH, the FDA, and the CDC.

In addition to a continued worsening of the fire seasons in the United States and Australia, climate change will likely result in a significant rise in sea levels over the next few decades, disrupting populations in the United States and around the world. Read about a rather alarming new development that could result in a 10 foot rise in sea levels here.

A recent study by the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund concluded that wildlife populations (of the 3,700 species of birds, fish, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles studied) have declined by 58 percent in just the last 45 years. Insect populations have declined even more. In fact, we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction event on earth. Read more about that in my own essay found here. Donald Trump’s policies are greatly accelerating the problem.

Health Care

Trump has no healthcare plan or policies, only opposition to his predecessor’s efforts to reduce costs and provide insurance to more people. To Trump, very little is more important than undermining the efforts of his predecessor. This is a matter of competitive pride, having nothing to do with policies or the best interests of Americans. As noted above, some 2.3 million Americans have lost health insurance coverage under Trump. If he gets his way and the Supreme Court upholds a lower court ruling striking the entirety of the ACA as a result of a Republican lawsuit, more than 20 million Americans will lose their insurance, and insurance companies will, once again, be able to reject people with preexisting conditions, despite Trump’s denials.

Abortion

Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, a few people view the issue of abortion as their first consideration when choosing a political candidate. A few others use abortion as an excuse for voting for candidates that share their right-wing reactionary proclivities. In any case, their votes over those 47 years have had little to no effect on the incidents of abortion in the United States. In a couple of states, they may have prevented a few abortions when the women were too poor or too dysfunctional to travel. But their votes have had no effect on women’s privacy and reproductive rights in federal law.

The incidents of abortion have been falling for decades. That is because of better access to contraceptives and to cultural changes, not prohibitive laws. In the event of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, it would not criminalize abortion. It would merely turn it back to the states. And most states, at the insistence of women, would keep such a choice the purview of the woman, her family, and her doctor. Women in those states where it would be outlawed could simply travel to the states (or to Canada or Mexico) where it would be legal. Most tragically, many of those who were too poor or too dysfunctional to travel would revert to illegal and horribly unsafe methods of managing their own lives.

So, a vote for Trump is very unlikely to significantly reduce the incidents of abortion.  It would, on the other hand, be detrimental to the health and well-being of a great many children in other ways, as described above and below.

COVID 19 Response

As of September 10th, there were some 6.42 million cases and more than 192,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States. These numbers far exceed those of other developed countries because of President Trump’s failures of logistical response and of national leadership.

Because he takes his cues from professional partisans on FOX News, rather than scientific experts, for a while he said any dangers of the virus were just imagined by Democrats. He said it was “a hoax.” It wasn’t until Tucker Carlson said he should take it seriously, that Trump began to publicly acknowledge the danger.

Bob Woodward’s tapes reveal that Trump knew very early how dangerous it is, and that it is transmitted primarily through airborne particles, but intentionally “downplayed” it. He says, so as to avoid panic. It was, of course, panic in the stock market that Trump had in mind. (Of course, he doesn’t mind inciting panic over immigration or Antifa.)

Knowing how dangerous it is and that it is transmitted through airborne particles, Trump has downplayed it and even ridicules mask wearing. Only the dishonest and divisive Donald Trump could have turned a robust response and the act of wearing a mask into political issues. Trump has now hired someone else he saw on FOX News—a new pandemic adviser who uses made-up stats and false claims to support Trump’s avoidance of responsibility.

For the first time in its 208-year history, the New England Journal of Medicine has called for the defeat of a political candidate. In an editorial, the journal says that Trump has “taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.” By the end of this year, there is a very good chance that more than three hundred thousand lives will have been lost in the United States as a result of the virus, two-thirds of which—that’s two hundred thousand—can arguably be attributed to Trump’s dishonesty and incompetence.

Trump’s Worldview

It is pretty well known that Trump’s understanding of the world has been largely shaped by FOX News. He doesn’t read. He “listen[s] to the shows,” as he put it. As a result, he has an extraordinarily shallow, partisan, and divisive understanding of the world. In exasperation, his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, described him as “a fucking moron.” He is also rather gullible, believing the most bizarre conspiracy theories and whatever Putin or Erdogan might tell him.

Trump is, or he pretends to be, so gullible that he believes in the FOX News and OAN promoted conspiracy theory of a “deep state” out to get him. Recently, he even refused to disavow the QAnon movement—a pro-Trump conspiracy theory that posits, among other variants, that the government is run by a “deep state” of child-eating, pedophile, Satan worshipers, from which Trump is trying to save us. They like Trump, so he can’t bring himself to criticize them or to discourage their thinking. One might imagine that this is just too silly to be true, but with Trump…

Trump’s primary campaign theme this year is that, if Joe Biden is elected, there will be riots and chaos in the streets, just like we see in “Democrat cities” today. Of course, those riots we see today are on Trump’s watch, not Biden’s.

Even General Mattis, who had never before made a political statement, said that Trump is the only president he has seen that actively works to divide the American people, rather than to unite us. The result has been deadly. The bonehead who drove from Dallas to El Paso to kill 23 people in a Walmart, did so to stop the “invasion” of brown people that Trump had been complaining about. (Never mind that illegal border crossings were at a 46-year low when Trump took office.) It was Trump’s dishonest and irresponsible rhetoric that prompted the murders.

Of course, Trump has his enablers in Congress and on radio and television, as well as a number people lacking moral competence who work in his administration. In fact, much of the Republican Party has morphed into a cult of the personality of Donald Trump, taking on his worst character traits. A cultish dishonesty has overtaken the party and its adherents as they invariably seek to justify Trump’s fallacious claims and immoral conduct and policies.

Remarkably, for the first time since 1854, the Republican Party offered no policy platform at its nominating convention. Instead, they have merely pledged an allegiance to Donald Trump, breathing new life into John Calvin’s doctrine of Total Depravity.

A couple of words about Joe Biden

I remember Biden mostly from his years as a Senator. He was never intellectually gifted. But I remember him as a moderate who was very good at working “across the aisle.” He could bring people together. With age, he probably has lost some of his mental acuity, but, like Ronald Reagan, he can assemble a team of very smart (and morally competent) people. He’ll do just fine. Most importantly, he’ll respect common decency, the rule of law, and Congressional oversight.

Is This What It Means to be a Republican?

In a 1789 letter, Thomas Jefferson famously declared, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” Jefferson was one among several of our nation’s founders who abhorred political parties—an artifact of English corruption which they sought to avoid in the newly established United States. They could easily see how parties tend to put factional interests ahead of the greater public interest, and how partisan alliances can devolve into a tribalism that inhibits rational and ethical conduct.

Nevertheless, a two-party system has emerged. So, we are left to hope for two parties with at least some degree of integrity. For example, the excesses of the Democratic Party should be countered by a strong and morally principled Republican Party. But events in recent weeks have clearly demonstrated that our founders’ fears were well advised.

As President Trump has been accused of impeachable abuses of power, his political party has impulsively “circled the wagons” for a vigorous defense of their leader. The “no holds barred” defense that Republican office holders and their television allies have mounted appears to suggest that Donald Trump very much exemplifies their ideals for a leader. So, we are left to wonder, “has the character and the behavior of Donald Trump become indicative of what it means to be a Republican”?

Perhaps we should be reminded of a few indicators of the president’s character and leadership—a description of what Republicans are defending, leaving us to wonder why.

 

Dishonorable: During his campaign for the presidency, Trump said that John McCain wasn’t really a war hero because he was captured. This revealed that the candidate had little understanding of history, and even less understanding of the concept of honor.

Disloyal: Trump infamously admires despots of all sorts. His favorite, however, has always been Vladimir Putin. When Bill O’Reilly pointed out that Putin often has his critics killed, Trump equated the casualties of war against the United States with Putin’s murders.

Infantile: Trump childishly and publicly mocked a disabled journalist.

Amoral/Arrogant/Criminal: Trump bragged that, as “a star,” women didn’t really mind when he would “just start kissing them” and “grab ’m by the pussy.” We might imagine that such a claim was just harmless “locker-room banter.” But the testimonies of more than a dozen women tell us otherwise.

Immoral/Criminal: During his campaign, Trump paid off a porn star and a Playboy Playmate to keep them quiet about his affairs with them. Not reporting it was a violation of campaign finance law, for which his lawyer was imprisoned.

Foolish/Clumsy: Trump has repeatedly and recklessly exposed classified information, beginning with his infamous meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office.

Shameless: Also in that meeting with Russian officials, we recently learned, he told them he doesn’t really care about their meddling in the U.S. election.

Dishonest: It has become well documented that Trump will shamelessly and repeatedly lie about anything and nearly everything.

Racist/Amoral: Trump’s comments regarding the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and his hiring of Stephen Miller (a well-documented white supremist) to oversee his immigration and refugee policies, are only two indicators among a great many that Trump’s policies are based upon a racist perception of the world.

Vindictive: Trump’s (and other Republican’s) intentional undermining of the Affordable Care Act without a replacement has caused a great many people to lose their health insurance. This was done, not to help people, but because they irrationally despise Obama.

Fraudulent: The Trump Foundation was shut down by the state of New York for self-dealing and other fraudulent activities. The infractions were so egregious that all members of the Trump family are now barred from sitting on the board of any charity in the state.

Gullible/Disloyal: In his infamous July, 2018 Helsinki news conference, Trump revealed that he was more inclined to believe Putin than American intelligence agencies.

Disloyal: Trump has repeated allowed no one else in the room when meeting with Putin, and even confiscated the notes of his interpreter after one meeting. We can only imagine what he is telling Putin that he doesn’t want the American people, or even members of his own administration, to know about.

Criminal: Robert Mueller’s report offered no criminal case for the interactions of the Trump campaign with Russian contacts, but it illustrated that Trump and 18 of his associates interacted with Russians at least 140 times, and then many of them lied about it. Given Trump’s repeated attempts to thwart the investigation, obviously he thought crimes were likely committed. The Mueller report made it quite clear that Trump’s efforts constituted criminal obstruction of justice. Bill Barr can deny it, but over a thousand federal prosecutors say it was criminal, and that anyone else would have been jailed for it.

Shameful: Trump is obsessed with keeping his tax returns and business dealings secret. We have to wonder what he is so very ashamed of—perhaps Russian financing?

Foolish: Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership will serve only to strengthen China’s strategic position at our expense. His withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, has similarly weakened America’s leadership role in the world.

Foolish Betrayal: Trump’s withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria, at the request of Turkey, was a betrayal of an American ally. It significantly damaged American credibility and, therefore, national security. Of course, it strengthened Putin.

Amoral: Trump recently pardoned two war criminals and restored the rank of a third, over the objections of the Pentagon and his own Defense Secretary. Trump was told that it would weaken morale within the ranks and American credibility around the world. But Trump saw some unprincipled bonehead on FOX News advocating for it, and that’s where he gets his shallow and fallacious understanding of the world.

Gullible/Deluded: We recently learned that Trump genuinely believes the government of Ukraine hacked the Democratic party server (not Russia) and also worked against him in the 2016 election. He believes this because Putin told him so, and because (as Putin well understands) Trump’s fragile ego needs to believe it.

Impeachable: No rational man or woman of integrity could fail to recognize that Trump committed the explicitly impeachable crime of bribery when he held out a White House meeting and military aid in exchange for an announcement of an investigation into Joe Biden and into a conspiracy theory that is the product of Russian disinformation. It was a betrayal of an American ally for the personal benefit of Trump and to the strategic benefit of Putin. If America is to be a virtuous nation, it cannot act approvingly.

Admittedly, some Republicans don’t like Trump. But they support him because they like his policies. They like his immigration policies. They like his deregulation. But mostly, they like his tax cuts, and they suppose that low unemployment and the growing economy are the result. What they overlook, however, is that while tax cuts, deregulation, and increases in spending will boost the economy, it is only in the short term and at great expense to the future—at the expense of our children and grandchildren.

The federal budget deficit now exceeds a trillion dollars per year. So, when the next recession comes, and it will, we are left with fewer options to mitigate the effects. It could lead to a deeper and longer recession, maybe even a depression.

Similarly, deregulation comes with long-term costs—costs for our children to bear. Regulations are enacted for a reason—to protect us from unscrupulous and reckless actors and to preserve resources for future generations.

Regardless of public policy, however, the most disturbing thing about current events is how the Republican Party has morphed into a cult of the personality of Donald Trump, taking on his worst character traits. A cultish dishonesty has overtaken the party, leaving us to wonder if, like the followers of Jim Jones and David Koresh, Republicans might very well be following their leader into perdition.

 

 

 

 

 

The Reveal

William J. (Bill) Bennett served as Secretary of Education and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Reagan and as Director of the Office of Drug Control Policy under President H.W. Bush. After leaving public service, Bennett has been best known for his publication of two collections of stories of moral instruction—The Book of Virtues in 1993 and The Moral Compass in 1995. These books were very well received at a time when many Americans had long perceived a trend of moral decline in American culture, and particularly when the President of the United States at that time, Bill Clinton, had exhibited acute moral deficiencies.

In 1998, Bennett wrote The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals. Speaking for the “loyal opposition” and for what had come to be known as the “Religious Right,” Bennett argued that, though the Clinton presidency had enjoyed popularity during a period of relative peace and prosperity, the real issue to be considered was the president’s facilitation of the nation’s moral decline. The book’s central message was summed up as it cited the words of John Updike: “The fact that we still live well cannot ease the pain of feeling that we no longer live nobly.”

“In the end” Bennett wrote, “the president’s apologists are attempting to redefine the standard of acceptable behavior for a president. Instead of upholding a high view of the office and the men who occupy it, they radically lower our expectations.” It is appropriate that Bennett used the word “our,” for his own expectations have been so lowered that he is now an apologist for Donald Trump. As Bennett recently explained to FOX News, those who refuse to support Trump “suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.” It appears that it was never really about the moral integrity of the president at all. It was, as it continues to be, about factional politics and Bennett’s and like-minded others’ reactionary worldview.

Most interesting is the split among evangelical Christians that has emerged from Donald Trump’s candidacy. While perhaps most Christians are rejecting Trump because of his moral vacancy and/or his irrational understanding of the world, others have not. In fact, a great many self-described Christians—some in prominent positions, like Bennett—are actively supporting his candidacy.

Christian author Eric Metaxas, for example, has espoused Trump’s election so that he might appoint the next two or three Supreme Court justices. But surely Metaxas is aware enough to recognize that those appointments would unlikely result in a reversal of Roe-v-Wade or gay marriage (as we can assume he wishes). Even if those reversals did occur in some distant future, that would only allow the states to pass or not pass their own prohibitions, and we know that not all states would prohibit abortion. Women could then travel to the states where it was available or to Canada. Some, of course, would not be able to afford the cost of travel and would either give birth to unwanted children into poverty or seek illegal (and dangerous) abortions, while only a minimal number of healthy babies would be adopted into stable families. A reversal of gay marriage, on the other hand, would be completely futile. Given that more and more people are coming to recognize that homosexuality is not simply “a lifestyle choice,” most all states would soon legalize gay marriage anyway. So that really just leaves us with a preference for Trump’s policy proposals on immigration, international trade, foreign policy, defense, taxes and regulation—policies that, in many instances, run counter to traditional Christian values.

We need not detail the many problems with Trump’s proposed defense policies beyond noting that an isolationist stance, an official sanctioning of torture, and a weakening of NATO will hardly make America safe, much less great. It is also worth noting that if Trump can be so easily manipulated by Billy Bush (as proclaimed by Melania), then we can well imagine what Putin and other world leaders could do (beyond what we have already seen).

Trump’s tax policy is nothing new. It’s essentially the same philosophy as that of George W. Bush, just much more extreme. Though a reduction in corporate taxes could be of some benefit, his personal income tax proposal won’t help the poor or reduce income and wealth disparity. It also won’t help the economy, since it would explode the deficit and national debt to dangerous proportions. And it won’t prevent the next recession, just as it didn’t from 2007 to 2009.

The notion that regulations have shackled the American economy, as Trump claims, is mostly false. His regulatory policies would increase the risk of another financial crisis and, perhaps most importantly, his denial of well-founded science will likely prove detrimental to the wellbeing of future generations of Americans and vulnerable populations around the world.

Trump would repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, not because its problems are irreparable, but because his disdain for President Obama far exceeds his compassion for those who struggle to afford health insurance.

Of course Trump’s first and signature policy proposal—immigration reform—is not just irrational, it, along with his trade and foreign policy proposals, were conceived from a particularly un-Christian, xenophobic worldview. Trump imagines that illegal Mexican immigrants are “pouring across the border” and he intends to stop it with a great wall. The net flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico is actually currently near zero. Illegal immigrants come from many other nations, and a wall would have little effect. He imagines that illegal immigrants are increasing crime and come for government handouts. The reality is that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a far lower rate than the general population, and come for available jobs, not handouts. We do tend to pay for their use of emergency room services and public schools, but would any true follower of Jesus really deny poor children an education and medical treatment?

Perhaps the two most important Biblical mandates for how Christians are to interact with others in the world are to be compassionate and merciful, and to spread the Gospel. Trump’s immigration and refugee policies reject both. To prohibit Muslim refugees demonstrates a lack of compassion and it precludes the Christian duty to proclaim the Good News to those who haven’t had an opportunity to hear it.

We can dismiss Donald Trump’s sophomoric insults and his boasts about his adultery and assaulting women as “locker-room banter,” or we can see them as indicators of an underlying true character—a character that has been well illustrated over the course of his campaign to be childish, selfish, thin-skinned, vindictive, impatient, shallow, unprincipled, dishonest, iniquitous and racist. Of course it is no accident that white supremacists favor Trump for president, while, despite Clinton’s deficiencies, nearly two hundred prominent Republican current and former office holders, senior government officials, and intellectuals do not. So why do some Christians?

The Anthropocene Epoch

Have you ever wondered why penguins are only found in Antarctica and the Southern Hemisphere, not in the Arctic or Northern Hemisphere? The climatic conditions and the requisite resources are similar enough that penguins could flourish in Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, or Siberia. So why are they absent? Humans.

The word “penguin” was originally used in association with a Northern Hemisphere flightless bird called the great auk. Standing as much as two and a half feet tall, with diminutive wings that had evolved for swimming and sporting black and white plumage, they resembled the penguins we know today (though they were from a wholly different family of birds).

When European explorers began regular ventures to North America early in the sixteenth century, the birds could be found in abundance on and around Iceland and on tiny Funk Island off the coast of Newfoundland. Though fast swimmers, like today’s penguins, they had to waddle ashore to breed and incubate their eggs, leaving them very easy to catch. Explorers filled their ships with vast numbers of great auks to be used for the birds’ meat and feathers. Their oily bodies even made them suitable as fuel for fires.

As was common in those years, little thought was given to conservation or cruelty. As an English seaman named Aaron Thomas, who sailed to Newfoundland aboard the HMS Boston, remarked,

If you come for their Feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the Feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leisure.

The last great auks to be seen alive were in June 1844, when a small group of sightseers rowed to a tiny island off the shore of Iceland. By then, the birds’ rarity had made them valuable to collectors. In rough seas, only three men managed to get ashore. Upon seeing the humans, a single pair of auks made an effort to run, but they were quickly caught and strangled. The single egg the pair had been incubating was evidently cracked in the struggle and so was left behind.

The story of the great auk is but one among many such tales of human history. Similar fates befell the Dodo bird, Passenger pigeon, Elephant bird, Giant Moa, Carolina parakeet, Tasmanian tiger, Falkland Island wolf, Zanzibar leopard, Caribbean monk seal, Atlas bear, Sea mink, Steller’s sea cow, Baiji white dolphin, West Africa black rhinoceros, Woolly mammoth, Mastodon, and a great many more species that were extinguished by human sport or consumption.

Superstition, greed, callousness, and short sightedness today are threatening the extinction of many more species. Economic growth in Asia has been accompanied by greater demand for rhino horn (foolishly believed to be an aphrodisiac and a cure for cancer) and for ivory (seen as a status symbol and an artistic investment). Since 2008 in South Africa alone, some six thousand increasingly rare rhinos have been poached just for their horns. Tens of thousands of African elephants are killed each year by poachers, some of whom have been known to use automatic weapons to wipeout entire herds, including the calves, just to steal the ivory. Day after day, Chinese fishermen in the South China Sea near the Philippines are intentionally destroying coral reefs that took five to ten thousand years to form, in order to harvest rare, hundred-year-old giant clams. New wealth in China is making trade in endangered species, including the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle, more lucrative than fishing.

Most species extinction resulting from human activity, however, is not the direct result of the harvesting of those species, but is merely the side-affects of the expansion of human civilization. As we harvest old-growth forests, deplete fish numbers, expand cities and agricultural tracts, and build a multitude of roads all over the planet, ecological habitats are altered, severed, or totally lost, leaving the species that depend on them to adapt or perish. Many have perished. Even the plants, animals, bacteria, viruses, and fungi that humans have carried (intentionally or inadvertently) around the world, have affected the viability of a great many local species. For the last two centuries, growing emissions of greenhouse gasses have—and increasingly will—alter the atmosphere in ways that add stresses to a great many species, not to mention some human populations. A recent study by the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund concluded that wildlife populations (of the 3,700 species of birds, fish, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles studied) have declined by 58 percent in just the last 45 years.

Though it may be difficult for many people to imagine, we are living in the midst of The Sixth Extinction—an event preceded by five similarly devastating mass extinction episodes over the course of the 3.6 billion-year history of life, such as the so-called K-T event when an asteroid impact is believed to have resulted in the demise of a large percentage of the Earth’s organisms, including the dinosaurs.

This is not the first time a phylum of life has affected the planet in such a dramatic way. After all, it was the photosynthesizing activity of a great volume of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) over a period of some three billion years that first produced the oxygen and the ozone layer in the Earth’s atmosphere that enabled terrestrial animal life. This too might be difficult to imagine, until we come to understand just how thin (and vulnerable) the Earth’s atmosphere is. This time, however, it isn’t a phylum and billions of years. It is a single species that is dramatically changing the planet over just a few thousands, hundreds, and even tens of years. We are witnessing the unfolding of the Anthropocene (human affected and recent) geological epoch—so named by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen because:

  • Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet.
  • Most of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted.
  • Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.
  • Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the oceans’ coastal waters.
  • Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible fresh water runoff.
  • Through fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, humans have significantly altered the composition of the atmosphere.

So the questions at hand are: Is this something to be truly concerned about, and is there anything we can realistically do about it anyway?

Yes, and perhaps.

In 1968, a bestselling book by Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich, entitled The Population Bomb, warned that humans would experience massive starvation and other calamities due to overpopulation as early as the 1970s or 80s. The alarmist tone and wildly inaccurate predictions of the book (among other books) only served to discredit the cause of population control in the minds of many. In the 1980s, support for worldwide birth control initiatives in the United States Congress was supplanted by the politics of abortion. Ironically, as opposition to abortion grew, so did opposition to government sponsored birth control programs, despite those programs propensity to reduce the incidents of abortion. Today, there is little discussion of population control issues in the public arena.

In fact, among highly developed nations, a lack of population growth is of some concern. Birth rates tend to fall in prosperous nations, resulting in a demographic imbalance of the young and the old. A large population of pensioners is difficult to support with a minority of young people. This is the main reason that China is now abandoning its one-child mandate. It has induced a reduction of pension benefits within the wealthy nations of northern Europe. And it is becoming a strain on our own Social Security system (though that strain has been somewhat mitigated by a regular influx of legal and even, dare we admit it, illegal immigrants).

Nevertheless, if overall human population growth is not significantly mitigated very soon, we can be sure to expect an increasing number of conflicts over the world’s resources. (Note what China is now doing in the South China Sea to claim disputed islands, in an effort to secure the associated oil resources.) Our, and particularly our descendants’ quality of life will undoubtedly be diminished in any number of ways.

There is little doubt that human ingenuity, particularly that of capitalist motivations, can make the necessary accommodations for a great deal more population growth. Most developed nations can remain sufficiently fed and even comfortable. But what will be the character of the world in which we choose to live? Do we not also wish for the wellbeing of all the world’s populations, and do we not have a stake in preserving the natural state of our own surroundings and resources? Do we want a synthetic Brave New World? Or do we want to protect the natural Earth from which humankind arose to ponder the universe and our own role and accountability within it?

Consider the words that were attributed to Chief Seattle of the nineteenth-century Duwamish Tribe of indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest:*

This we know: the Earth does not belong to man—man belongs to the Earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

*     *     *     *

 

Population chart 2

 

For a more thorough account of the great auks as well as many other cases of human induced extinction, I recommend Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

*Though commonly attributed to him, it is doubtful that Chief Seattle actually spoke those words. I have nevertheless included them because they well reflect a widely held view among a number of Native American tribes concerning the symbiosis of humankind, other creatures, and the natural world.

 

The GOP Brought This Upon Itself, With a Little Help From Obama

We hear a lot about the consternation of the Republican Party “establishment” as a result of the rise in popularity of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Worse yet is that one of them could become their party’s candidate for the presidency. It seems that long-time power players and office holders have been caught by surprise. But it really shouldn’t be a surprise. We can see how the Republican Party has brought this upon itself, with, of course, a little help from President Obama and a largely vacuous press.

Here are a few reasons why Trump and Cruz are so attractive to a great many people in the Republican Party “base.” The first is mostly a natural consequence, while the others have resulted in more of a self-inflicted reverberation.

Firstly, these two men tend to attract those people whom social scientists refer to as “authoritarians.” The concept of an authoritarian personality is not exclusively applicable to politics. It’s more fundamental. But the associated traits do affect political leanings. And not all Republicans or conservatives are authoritarians, but many are—and they are drawn to leaders like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

An authoritarian personality is characterized by a tendency to understand most all things in terms of absolutes and to fit them into tidy categories. Such as, good or evil; Or government programs are always wasteful; One race or culture is superior to all others; Illegal immigrants come for government hand-outs; Poverty is usually the result of a lack of initiative, etc. Authoritarians abhor nuance or ambiguity, rely heavily upon emotion and instinct, and tend to shun any new information that might compromise a strongly held belief (often a preferred belief). They are distrustful of outsiders and very passionate about defending their beliefs, their group, and their leaders. Two extreme manifestations of these traits are the Militia and Tea Party movements.

Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall to keep out Mexican rapists and drug dealers and to prohibit Muslims from entering the country are well fitted to these simplistic, xenophobic tendencies. Ted Cruz’s passionate claims of absolute good and evil, and the certainty of his antigovernment ideology make him attractive to the disaffected—those who feel put-upon by the strain of civic responsibility.

These are largely natural consequences—the products of basic, though regrettable, human nature. But the title of this essay refers to other reasons why so many people think that Trump and Cruz are viable candidates for the presidency. They are the unintended result of several decades of incessantly exaggerated and often false claims by, usually, the GOP and the “conservative” talking heads of radio and television, and by the cynicism and distrust of government fostered by the behavior of members of Congress.

For many decades the Republican Party was mostly the minority party in both houses of Congress. As the opposition party, members were free to criticize the actions of the majority without the responsibility of actually governing. The criticism of Democrats and government became particularly exaggerated with the rise of Newt Gingrich in Congress and Rush Limbaugh on the radio in the early 1990s. Even when Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they were in opposition to the Bill Clinton presidency.

People often complain about how newly elected politicians change when they get to Washington. They invariably fail to do what they had promised. Of course, the reality is that when politicians are confronted with the requirements and the constraints of actually governing, they are usually unable to fulfill the unrealistic promises of their campaigns. Similarly, when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress and the presidency in the 2000s, many people were disappointed with the result. They didn’t fix Social Security. They didn’t reign in healthcare inflation. They didn’t stop illegal immigration. They didn’t win the “culture war.” Most significantly, they not only didn’t shrink the government, they significantly expanded the size and the reach of government. As a result, something of a split emerged between the Republican Party “establishment” and so-called “true conservatives.” The stage was set for the Tea Party movement.

The financial crisis at the end of the Bush presidency, the Great Recession, and the election of President Obama only made things worse—much worse. The necessary bailouts of financial institutions by both the Bush and the Obama Administrations was puzzling to many. They felt like the fat cats were being protected at the expense of the average guy, and besides, they had long subscribed to the notion that government was the problem, not the solution. They didn’t like the bailouts at all, and they blamed the “career politicians” or “the establishment” of both parties.

When Republicans lost both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2008, they sought to channel that anger toward President Obama and the Democrats, and they largely succeeded. Here is where we can blame Obama. While pretty good at giving speeches, the president proved to be really awful as a leader and effectively communicating with those people whom he most needed to reach—the mostly working-class white men who didn’t vote for him. Not only has he been unable to competently wield political power in working with Republicans in Congress, he has enabled the opposition to control the narrative and to disseminate an abundance of disinformation.

Meanwhile, Republicans had little interest in working with the president. They just wanted to regain power. As President Obama began his term in the midst of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that his number one priority was not to rescue the financial system, not to create jobs or to restore the economy, but to ensure that Obama would be a one-term president. Subsequent events showed that sentiment to be widespread among Republicans in Congress.

In January 2010, Senate Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad crafted a resolution to create an eighteen-member deficit-reduction task force to alleviate the national debt problem. The task force’s recommendations would be sent to the Senate floor for a “fast-track” up-or-down vote. The proposal garnered widespread bipartisan support, until President Obama offered his support too. Because it could have been politically beneficial to the president, Republicans changed their positions, including seven co-sponsors of the resolution who allowed a filibuster to kill their own idea. Fred Hiatt, of the Washington Post, wrote of Mitch McConnell’s change of position, “No single vote by any single senator could possibly illustrate everything that is wrong with Washington today. No single vote could embody the full cynicism and cowardice of our political elite at its worst, or explain by itself why problems do not get solved. But here’s one that comes close.”

After serving as a Republican congressional staffer for some twenty-eight years—the last sixteen as a senior analyst for the House and Senate budget committees—Mike Lofgren resigned in exasperation in 2011. Among the many observations he revealed was this:

A couple of years ago a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) that there was a method to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in preventing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. In such a scenario the party that presents itself as programmatically against government—i.e., the Republican Party—will come out the relative winner.

In 2011, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner negotiated a “Grand Bargain” in which a combination of tax increases and spending cuts would substantially reduce the deficit and avert a crisis over the debt ceiling. The package included entitlement reforms that Republicans had sought for many years, and which would have been difficult for Obama to persuade the Democrats to accept. The Grand Bargain was a grand compromise that would have been hugely beneficial to the nation, both immediately and long term. At the urging of Paul Ryan, however, Majority Leader Eric Cantor scuttled the deal primarily for two reasons—any tax hikes at all would taint their ideological purity, and they believed a compromise agreement with Obama might help his reelection.

The irony is that Obama was reelected anyway and Cantor was defeated in 2014 by a (Tea Party) primary opponent after radio personality Laura Ingraham, along with Ann Coulter, had accused Cantor of supporting “amnesty” for illegal aliens. Of course no one in Congress, including Eric Cantor, had proposed or supported amnesty. Such is the power of disinformation in American politics.

Disinformation abounds because the press has too often failed in its responsibility to inform the public of the facts. While partisan outlets, such as FOX News, MSNBC and Talk Radio, make great profit (FOX anyway) by offering their patrons ample doses of a preferred, but imagined, reality, legitimate press outlets find themselves wanting for viewers or readers. What Sarah Palin calls the “lame-stream” press is so afraid of being accused of a “liberal bias” that they merely report the claims of two sides of a debate without bothering to parse out and report the truth, even if the claim of one side or the other is dangerous or ridiculous. As Paul Krugman quipped, “if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ‘Views Differ on Shape of Planet’.” And if FOX News repeated the claim often enough, a great many people would believe it.

The cynicism fostered by obstructionist members of Congress and the misconceptions fostered by disinformation from congressmen and conservative radio and television has produced an angry and misinformed portion of the electorate that is apt to believe the wildest claims—like Donald Trump’s claim that, as a better manager and negotiator, he can “make America great again” (as if America isn’t great now), or Ted Cruz’s claims that the national debt is a result of “Obama’s out-of-control spending” (the rate of growth in discretionary spending during the Obama presidency has been the lowest since Eisenhower), that climate change is a hoax, that “Obamacare is a job-killer” (unemployment has dropped from 9 to 4.9 percent since its enactment) and has caused premiums to “skyrocket” (medical inflation remains near historic lows), that “millions have lost their health insurance” (the uninsured rate is now the lowest in history), that “Blue Cross Blue Shield cancelled all their individual policies in Texas” (I still have one), that Obama has “degraded our military,” that the president “ignores our immigration laws” (Obama has deported more people than any other president), Syrian refugees are entering the U.S. without “any meaningful background checks,” and the truly idiotic claim that a flat tax is the remedy for an overly complex tax code.

To tap into a populist mindset by appealing to fear and emotion and to less educated voters, the Republican Party has taken to dumbing down its narrative and agenda, at times completely abandoning rationality. No longer the party of Barry Goldwater who brought Planned Parenthood to Arizona or George H.W. Bush who chaired a Republican task force on population issues, the party now acts as if abortion has little to do with unwanted or unsafe pregnancy. To protect coal mining constituents and to avoid regulation of any sources of greenhouse emissions, they deny the science of climate change. To protect their hold on ill-informed religious conservatives, they either eschew or deny the findings of evolutionary science. To attract gun “enthusiasts,” they pretend that gun ownership is a practical means of self defense, while stoking fear of gun safety laws. To avoid driving away xenophobes, they refuse to pass sensible immigration reform and, instead, cynically mischaracterize the character and aspirations of immigrants. In place of the intellectually sound party of Bill Buckley and Irving Kristol, the Republican Party has become the anti-intellectual party, where the word “elite” is a pejorative. It has become the party of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin (who is pretty sure that Paul Revere rode to “warn the British that they weren’t gonna be takin away our arms”), and now of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Of course the Democrats have their own problems—problems that require wholly different explanations. Among them are, like on the Republican side, the primary process pulls them too far to the extreme, and so few Democrats are willing to go through the ordeal of running for president, they are left with two extraordinarily weak candidates. There is no shortage of Republican candidates, but because of the irresponsibility of their party’s culture, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that competent candidates are rejected while it is Donald Trump and Ted Cruz who are preferred by a substantial portion of their party’s electoral base.

The Second Amendment

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

James Madison is surely rolling over in his grave with consternation and regret for his wording of the Second Amendment. It is perhaps the most misunderstood and most contentious clause in the United States Constitution.

It seems quite reasonable to assume, just as the Supreme Court recently ruled, that the Amendment refers to individual gun ownership. After all, with the exception of the 10th, every other Amendment in the Bill of Rights is intended to protect the rights of individuals from the restraints or the excesses of government. Furthermore, given that Madison explicitly stated the purpose of the established “right of the people to keep and bear arms,” that stated purpose must inform us as to the nature of those arms for which the Amendment was intended—those “necessary to the security of a free state.”

The Second Amendment, as written, appears to grant individuals a right to own the weapons necessary to defend the nation—not just handguns and hunting rifles, but assault rifles with high-capacity magazines, machine guns, hand-grenades, RPGs, bazookas, flamethrowers, tanks, missiles, Apache attack helicopters, as well as chemical, biological, and even nuclear “arms.” While Madison did refer to “a well regulated militia,” he did not mention any regulation of the “arms” individuals have a right to possess. Of course when Madison penned the language of the Amendment, the only arms available were single-shot rifles, very inaccurate single-shot pistols, and a few small canons. Evidently Madison didn’t foresee the development of complex armaments or didn’t think through the dangers of individual ownership of such weaponry. We can expect that Madison would be utterly dismayed at our nation’s inability to correct this oversight.

Of course the Supreme Court has repeatedly disputed the claim that we have a constitutional right to own any kind of armaments we might want. In the 1875 case of United States v. Cruikshank, the court ruled that the Second Amendment “has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government,” leaving state and local governments free to restrict firearm ownership. The court reiterated this view in an 1886 case, Pressler v. Illinois, ruling that the Amendment “is a limitation only upon the power of Congress and the National government, and not upon the states.” In United States v Miller in 1939, the Court cited the Militia Clause of the Amendment, concluding that “[i]n the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a [sawed-off] shotgun … has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”

After the Miller case, most federal courts presumed that the Second Amendment was intended to preserve the authority of the states to maintain militias, not a right of individual citizens. However in a 2007 case, Parker v. District of Columbia, the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts struck down local gun regulations for the first time, basing its ruling on an individual’s right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. Then in a 2010 case, the Court extended that precedent by declaring that basic Second Amendment rights supersede the authority of all state and local governments, just like other rights described in the Bill of Rights, as ensured by the Fourteenth Amendment. While striking down the D.C. statute, the opinion authored by Antonin Scalia declared that the right to keep and bear arms continues to be, nevertheless, subject to regulation.

Despite Justice Scalia’s famously describing himself as an “originalist” (meaning he interprets the Constitution according to how it would have been applied at the time of its writing), his opinion pretty clearly illustrates that he, like the other justices, is affected by modern politics. Ignoring the Militia Clause, Scalia’s opinion stated that the D.C. ban on handgun possession violated the Second Amendment because it prohibited an entire class of arms favored for the purpose of personal self-defense. “Self-defense” is, of course, the justification most commonly cited by political advocacy groups who object to most any firearm regulations because the idea induces an emotional response that can undermine rational perception.

Some people believe that the Second Amendment was intended to ensure that the people could rise up against the federal government if it becomes too oppressive. They presume that the Constitution is so irrational that it affirms war against itself as a crime—Article III: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them”—and then grants its citizens permission to do so with the Second Amendment. Nonsense. As Abraham Lincoln aptly noted in his first inaugural address, “It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.”

The Founders feared that a standing army could be used by the federal government to oppress the people, as was then common among the armies of monarchs. So the use of militias instead of a standing army was thought by some to be preferable. Militias would be used to defend the nation and its government, not used to oppose the government. But even at the time of the writing of the Bill of Rights, that notion had already proven to be misguided. Having personally witnessed the ineffectiveness of militias, George Washington wrote in a letter to the Continental Congress that, “To place any dependence upon militia, is, assuredly, resting upon a broken staff.” The United States has had a standing army ever since, fortunately with very few instances of it being used to oppress the people.

Aside from any questions regarding the original intent of the Second Amendment, the American gun culture has fostered considerable confusion about the practicality of gun ownership and the usefulness of laws intended to promote gun safety. At the urging of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in 1996, Arkansas congressman Jay Dickey introduced an amendment that stopped the funding of scientific studies of gun safety conducted by the National Center For Injury Prevention, a division of the Centers for Disease Control. In 2011, congressional Republicans further restricted funding by also applying the Dickey Amendment to funding for the National Institutes of Health. (Now retired from Congress, Mr. Dickey has expressed regret for his role in the matter.) Despite NRA attempts to hide the truth, enough studies have been conducted to debunk gun industry and NRA propaganda and to reveal some of the pernicious effects of an abundance of guns upon American society.

The biggest myth propagated by the gun culture is the idea that gun ownership is a reliable means of self-defense. If you are a drug dealer, an inner-city gangster, or if you live in an unusually crime infested neighborhood plagued by home invasions, then perhaps a gun could be of some benefit—but probably not, since it would more likely be stolen than used for defense. Studies have clearly shown that for each occurrence of a gun kept in the home being used to injure or kill in self-defense, such a gun is used in 11 attempted or successful suicides, 7 criminal assaults or homicides, and 4 accidental shootings. That’s about a 22 to 1 chance that a gun kept in the home will kill or injure someone other than an intruder.

Some have suggested that the mere presence of a gun deters crime and, therefore, wouldn’t be accounted for with studies of gun injuries and deaths. There is no evidence that the two-thirds of American households without guns experience higher rates of crime than those with guns. In fact, a 2003 study found that counties with higher levels of households with guns have higher rates of burglaries, not lower. This could merely be the result of higher-crime areas inducing people to buy guns for protection. It also illustrates how so many criminals acquire their weapons by stealing them from people who think owning a gun is a good idea.

Some suggest that the increasing number of mass shootings in the United States is not the result of a culture of easily accessible and abundant guns, but instead, of too few guns. They proclaim that if everyone were armed, any mass shooter could be promptly neutralized. While in some circumstances an armed citizenry could likely stop an attacker, in many others the chaos would undoubtedly be exacerbated. In a column entitled “The ‘Good Guy With a Gun’ Myth,” combat veteran James Hatch wrote that even highly trained and experienced military professionals often have difficulty determining “who’s who in the zoo” in a firefight. Just imagine a crowded theater or concert hall with 10, 20, or 30 armed citizens when the bullets start flying.

The uncompromising passion of gun advocates and the defensiveness of the gun industry have elicited wholly irrational reactions to any discussion at all of gun safety measures. After having spent his entire adult life writing for gun magazines and describing himself as a “Second Amendment fundamentalist,” 67-year-old Dick Metcalf was fired from Guns & Ammo Magazine for writing that “all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.” Metcalf had concluded that a requirement of 16 hours of training to obtain a concealed carry license was not an infringement. A number of other writers for guns and hunting magazines have similarly found themselves in trouble with gun industry advertisers for any mention of sensible regulation.

Most irrational is the hold the NRA and other gun lobbyists have on a great many members of Congress. In addition to basic common sense, two recent studies have provided evidence suggesting that background checks for gun purchases can curb violence—or at least background checks that are associated with licensing permits. A 1995 Connecticut law requiring permits (and with them, background checks) was associated with a 40 percent reduction in homicides and a 15 percent drop in suicides. Obviously an association is not proof of cause and effect, but we can certainly reason that making it more difficult for felons and the mentally impaired to obtain weapons and reducing the lethality of those weapons will reduce homicides and suicides. Nevertheless, Congress has repeatedly failed to restrain the availability of assault weapons with high-capacity magazines or to impose background checks on gun show or Internet purchases of firearms, despite the wishes of an overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners. (A recent Quinnipac University poll showed that 93 percent of Americans, including 92 percent of gun owners, prefer universal background checks.)

It seems that the gun industry and members of Congress are perfectly willing to imply that the United States is somehow inferior to all other nations—that we can do nothing to reduce our overwhelming lead among nations in gun violence. But then again, perhaps if we, as a society, come to recognize that we have been duped by the gun lobby and those members of Congress who do their bidding, then we can begin to hold them accountable and to shed such a shameful distinction.

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Since 1968, more Americans have been killed by private gun violence than were killed in all U.S. wars combined, from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Viet Nam, and the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Pundifact/Politifact)

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A few of the faces of those who were murdered by Adam Lanza, the son of gun-enthusiast Nancy Lanza, using her Bushmaster XM15-E2S assault rifle.

Combatting Islamic Extremism

Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001 by al Qaeda—attacks that Osama bin Laden and his followers claimed were in defense of Allah and the Islamic holy-lands in which U.S. military forces were present—President George W. Bush declared that the terrorists had “high-jacked a great religion.” A few days later, on the 17th, the president made a point to visit the Islamic Center of Washington DC, where he publically expressed his view that the perverted and murderous interpretations of Islam espoused by al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban were inconsistent with the beliefs of the vast majority of Muslims the world over. (President Bush recognized that the Quran’s directives to kill unbelievers, just like similar passages in the Bible, should be seen in their historical context, not as universal mandates.) The president pronounced that he and all honorable Americans stood in solidarity with Muslim Americans. In the years that followed, President Bush repeatedly emphasized that the United States was not at war with Islam, but with terrorism.

Similarly, since the rise of the self-described “Islamic State” (or “ISIS”), the Obama administration has attempted to refrain from calling such terrorists “Islamic,” in an effort to deny them, ISIS in particular, what they want—to be a legitimate Islamic state and the caliphate of Muslims around the world. Refusal to call them “Islamic” is a very small but nevertheless meaningful effort to deny them legitimacy. Cable news talking heads and Republican presidential candidates pretending that they don’t get it appears to simply be a partisan longing to deny the president that is stronger than any desire to deny the enemy. (Of course insisting that the struggle is about Islam is to unnecessarily and unwisely pit the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims—about a fourth of the world’s population—against us.) Or perhaps the practice is simply seen as too insignificant to be of any real meaning. In isolation it probably is. In concert with a broader effort, perhaps it would not be.

It is possible that the leaders of ISIS—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his lieutenants—don’t really believe in the perverted brand of Islam that they espouse. It might just be an excuse for their rape, murder, and hunger for power. But ISIS has proven to be very effective at convincing a great many naive followers that they are fighting for Islam. It is religious fervor that makes them such a tenacious fighting force. It is a genuine belief that they will be rewarded in heaven that entices gullible souls to be suicide bombers. And it is the promise of the emergence of a virtuous and devout Islamic society that beguiles troubled young men and even teenage girls to travel to Syria to join the cause. Of course they are not just in Syria. They constitute an ideological entity that is present in many parts of the world. In large part, the ISIS (as well as al Qaeda and Taliban) problem is a propaganda problem.

When journalist James Foley was publicly beheaded by ISIS in 2014 (the first among several Americans), President Obama unfortunately missed a crucial opportunity to turn ISIS’s propaganda back against itself. It was an opportunity to hit them where they live—their perverted theology—and to use ridicule to sow seeds of doubt among potential followers. The president could have said:

The release of a video of the murder of James Foley has provided an important service to the world. For the entire world to see, the video clearly illustrates that those calling themselves “Islamic State” are neither Islamic nor very bright. If they actually had a noble cause, they would be courting journalists, not murdering them. The murder of innocents while wearing facial cover is the work of, as Australian Prime Minster Tony Abbott has put it, a “death cult” of cowards. If they were not ashamed, they would show their faces. Killing journalists and destroying ancient artifacts illustrates that they not only worship death and cruelty, but ignorance too, as they seek to hide the true nature of their organization and the history of civilization.

A death cult that depends on the ignorance and gullibility of its followers cannot be doing the bidding of Allah—more likely, Satan. Therefore, I urge the world to defend true Islam and refer to this band of evildoers with a name that is more fitting of their behavior—“Satanic State.”

Such rhetoric would unlikely affect the current core of ISIS. But if every time someone blows themselves up believing it was for Allah, the world expresses pity for another gullible fool who has been duped by the enemies of Allah, or by Satan, then at least a few will have enough doubt that they will refrain from doing it. If the entire political world and particularly the Muslim intellectual and clerical world were to call ISIS anti-Islamic, then the effectiveness of ISIS propaganda would surely subside and its source of recruits would be diminished. Then with the help of the US military, in concert with our Arab and NATO allies, justice would then likely befall the remaining combatants in due course.

Given the horrific atrocities we have witnessed at the hands of ISIS, it is certainly tempting to send American ground forces to eradicate the problem forthwith. But then, that is exactly what ISIS wants. The main reason they behead Americans publicly is to enrage us and thereby draw us into a ground conflict with them. ISIS uses extra-Quranic apocalyptic prophesies to recruit motivated followers, as they profess that the end of the world is very near. To fulfill the prophesies, ISIS must goad “eighty flags” (nations) into a battle where the caliphate will then destroy the “infidels” of Western Civilization. (Interestingly, toward the end of the battle, Jesus—Islam’s second-most-revered prophet, and its only prophet believed to be without sin—is expected to return and lead Muslims to victory over evil.) As much as anything else, ISIS would love for American ground forces to lead the opposition. We can certainly destroy them as we did the regime of Saddam Hussein, but like squeezing soft fruit, the crux of the problem would, once again, just ooze through our fingers.

History has clearly shown that U.S. intervention in the Middle East usually creates more problems than it solves. For example, the C.I.A.’s participation in the 1953 overthrow of a democratically elected prime minister and installing the ruthless Shah of Iran ultimately turned that country into a fierce enemy with a long memory of hatred toward the United States; President Reagan’s 1983 deployment of a contingent of marines in Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war resulted only in the deaths of 241 American servicemen; Operation Desert Storm, the war with Iraq in 1991 was an easy victory in pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia facilitated the strengthening of al Qaeda and its focus on the United States, resulting in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, Khobar Towers in 1996, the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, and then the attacks of September 11, 2001; The 2003 war with Iraq unleashed long-simmering sectarian hatreds, empowered Iran, introduced al Qaeda into Iraq, and eventually led to the formation of ISIS (The founders of ISIS met each other and began hatching their plan while in an American Army prison in Iraq.); President Obama’s rhetorical or military support for popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria has fomented more chaos than democracy. Most significantly, American military intervention in the Middle East has repeatedly served to propagate the very idea of a “clash of civilizations” upon which al Qaeda and ISIS feed.

Therefore, in order to most effectively defeat ISIS (and “Islamic” terrorism more generally), we must defeat their propaganda, while also supporting our Muslim allies’ military operations on the ground. Instead of another counterproductive American military ground attack, let us confidently triumph with a more assertive battle of ideas—ideas of human dignity, individual liberty and religious tolerance.

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For more of a Christian perspective on this subject, go here to see an excellent essay by Reverend Daniel McNerney.

The Party of Jesus?

In nineteenth-century America, through the Great Depression, and into the early 1960s, politically active Christians tended to be aligned with the causes of the political Left. They fought to end slavery. They fought for an end to child labor. They fought for a minimum wage, limited working hours, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, and the right to unionize. They fought for women’s suffrage. Just as James Madison had explained in the Federalist Papers, they believed that civil government could be utilized as an instrument of social justice, where the rights and the well-being of the weak, as well as the strong, could be protected. Their belief that the use of civil government to provide support for the poor seemed to them well fitted to Jesus’ mandate that we provide for “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

Since the 1970s and 80s, however, the political sentiments of many Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, have more often been associated with the Republican Party and, thus, the political Right. While a comprehensive explanation of this transition would be too lengthy for this post, we can at least point to a few significant factors.

The turbulent and rebellious 1960s spawned a cultural revolution that was rather unsettling to many Americans. Newfound expressions of sexual freedom and feminist causes were particularly objectionable to conservative Christians. While the Democratic Party mostly sought to embrace the liberal idea of individual liberty in matters of personal lifestyle, the Republican Party mostly did not. The natural result was that the Republican Party became more attractive to Christians.

The “southern strategy,” implemented by Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and most effectively by Ronald Reagan, was an election strategy based on exploiting racist attitudes in the southern states, but its momentum nevertheless helped to transform the South more generally. The South came to no longer feel any particular obligation to the Democratic Party as a legacy of the Civil War era. Since the so-called “Bible belt” runs across the South, a great many Christians were included among those who had broken a habit of supporting the Democratic Party. President Reagan then bolstered the attractiveness of his party among Christians with his strong opposition to abortion and his eloquent expressions of lamenting the widely perceived decline of “traditional values.”

Another Christian tradition that aligns well with Republican ideology is that of individual responsibility and, thus, individual liberty and prosperity. The roots of this tradition are found in Protestantism, particularly its Calvinistic branch. Historians have argued that the cultural value of individualism and personal achievement have been instrumental benefits in enabling prosperity among the northern Protestant nations of Europe, and of North America.

There are other cultural and psychological factors that help to explain why so many Christians feel an allegiance to the Republican Party and its conservative ideology. Many are consistent with traditional Christian moral values. But any analysis of Republican ideology and its alignment with Christian principles must include a discussion of a pervasive worldview among today’s Republicans—a worldview that largely underpins the party’s political philosophy and virtually all of its policy positions, whether domestic social policy, economic policy, immigration policy or foreign policy—a worldview that, I will argue, is undeniably at odds with the views of Jesus, as reported in the Gospels.

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has been described by many, in recent years, as the intellectual leader of the Republican Party. As chairman of the House budget committee, his budgets (always adopted by the Republican majority) established him as the ideological leader of the party as well. His budgets have reflected his ideological worldview—a worldview he has said was primarily shaped by economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and more particularly by novelist Ayn Rand. Though he denied it when vying for a chance to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, an audio recording of Congressman Ryan at a gathering of The Atlas Society confirmed what he had said many times before: “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” Rand’s books are required reading for Ryan’s staff and interns. (Rand’s books are popular among a number of other Republican office holders as well as with conservative radio personalities too.) It is Rand’s view of economics that most interests Congressman Ryan, but her economic philosophy cannot logically be separated from her broader view of humanity.

Rand was an outspoken atheist who described Arabs and Native Americans as “savages,” and expressed her view that, as such, the latter should have no rights. She objected to any government programs to help the poor. She was particularly repulsed by programs for educating disabled, or as she put it, “subnormal,” children. She famously told Mike Wallace in a 1959 interview that she believed altruism to be evil, while selfishness a virtue, as it is the necessary driving force of capitalism. Fundamentally, Ayn Rand saw humanity as consisting of virtuous self-reliant people and inferior and/or slothful people. Her social and economic philosophies presumed a struggle between “producers” and “moochers.”

Of course this worldview didn’t enter the Republican Party with Paul Ryan. As part of his “southern strategy” Ronald Reagan repeatedly spoke of “welfare queens” who drink martinis and drive Cadillacs while receiving welfare checks. There had been an infamous case of welfare fraud in the news that roughly fit that characterization. But as politicians usually do, Reagan used it to paint a broader picture in propagating the notion that taxes are high because too many undeserving moochers are suckling from government teats.

More recently, Mitt Romney expressed a similar view—a view that voters will act exclusively in their own immediate personal interest—when he suggested that 47 percent of the American electorate direct their votes toward simply gaining more benefits for themselves from government coffers. Of course Romney wasn’t completely wrong. Most Americans do tend to put personal interests ahead of the national interest in choosing their preferred candidates. But that is true of all sides of the political spectrum. Consequently candidates always promise government benefits, tax cuts, or both, believing it will help them get elected. This ongoing problem is a symptom of a failure of effective and constructive leadership. It is regrettable that Romney could evidently see only one side of that equation.

Deriding moochers is also a sentiment regularly expressed on AM talk radio and FOX News. FOX attempted to denied it, but their strategy of vilifying “moochers,” as they endeavor to define the political Left, was pretty well illustrated (even if not an objective analysis) by Jon Stewart and Comedy Central as seen here.

It should not be a surprise to anyone, therefore, that when Donald Trump made the (demonstrably false) claim that Mexico was “sending rapists and drug dealers” across the border, a great many Republican voters saw his assertion as valid. Never mind that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than American citizens generally, and come to the U.S. primarily to fill available jobs (a natural consequence of supply and demand). Never mind that children come as refugees from horribly dangerous circumstances in Central America. (Jesus was a child refugee too, of course, as His family fled the violence of Herod.) Trump’s assertion well fits the ideological worldview of “us versus them”—of patriots and parasites.

Since none of the dire predictions of catastrophic side effects of the Affordable Care Act have come to pass, the continuing vehement Republican opposition to the ACA as a whole (rather than simply repairing its flaws) can only be attributed to an opposition to the subsidies and the taxes that pay for them—the public assistance to those who otherwise cannot afford health insurance. It is evidently thought that such people are undeserving of our assistance. (Though another explanation could be that pride simply prevents an admission that President Obama has done something worthwhile.)

Very often the sentiment of “us versus them” is much more subtle and, instead of moochers and producers, it is manifest as a hierarchical view of society. Republican economic policy, for example, hinges on the idea that capital is paramount to labor (or supply paramount to demand) in the function of capitalism. As Republicans speak of “job creators” they tend to assume that employment is merely the result of the activity of producers, with little recognition of the fundamental role and needs of the labor from which demand arises. Republicans decry what they call the “death tax” (inheritance tax), supposing no particular obligation to the society that enabled an accumulation of wealth, while assenting to more of a financially aristocratic society. Similarly, patriotism morphs into a nationalism that supposes our nation can do no wrong. After President Obama expressed regret for some of the errors of the United States in a speech in Cairo at the beginning of his term, Republicans have ever since accused him of going around the world apologizing for America, as if, contrary to the teaching of Jesus, humility is a regrettable vice.

There is no doubt that there are a great many unscrupulous and unmotivated people in the world who resent others who have prospered as a result of initiative and hard work, and many of them are aligned with the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party too often confuses the goal of fairness of opportunity with a redistribution of wealth. But an ideology that presumes people are poor because of a lack of initiative is not an ideology informed of reality. More to the point of this post, it is not an ideology that Jesus would recognize as grounded in Godly thinking.

There is no indication in Scripture that Jesus saw the poor as mere slackers. On the contrary—the Gospels tell us that Jesus spoke of the poor in the most sympathetic terms. “…the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:5) Throughout the Gospels Jesus expressed grace toward the poor and the disabled, and implored us to provide for them. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20-21) When the tax collector Zacchaeus told Jesus that he would give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times any amount he may have cheated anyone, Jesus told him that his salvation was assured. (Luke 19:1-9) This does not necessarily mean that giving to the poor secures one’s salvation, but it is a clear proclamation that such behavior is a measure of one’s faithfulness to God.

Some of us may prefer to believe that private philanthropic initiatives are sufficient, or even more effective than the use of civil government, as we might envision the political struggle in America as one of redistributing wealth, rather than one of ensuring fairness of opportunity. But let’s face it—the worldview of many in today’s Republican Party can be aligned with the views of Jesus only if somehow we imagine that Jesus spent His days among us complaining about how moochers would inherit the earth.

The Politics of Fear

Well understanding how fear, as a powerful motivating force, can induce irrationality in the arena of public sentiment and public policy, President Franklin Roosevelt famously declared in his first inaugural address, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Indeed, America has seen some rather infamous manifestations of this when, for example, Roosevelt himself ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and with two so-called Red Scares—one shortly after the Russian Revolution, in which President Woodrow Wilson imprisoned Americans for their political beliefs, and then another after World War II, in which the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the committees of Senator Joseph McCarthy imagined widespread Communist infiltration of the United States government and sought to ruin the lives of so-called “Communist sympathizers” and anyone associated with them.

Of course, fear in the arena of politics is not always irrational. Those conscientious Germans who feared the rise of Nazism were certainly justified. A fear that our federal government will be unable to implement a more sustainable fiscal policy before a damaging fiscal crisis occurs is not without some foundation either. But among politicians, the peddlers of fear are very often unconcerned with informed and rational conviction. They just want to win. So they seek to exploit fear that can be induced by deception.

Fear is very often a product of uncertainty and, particularly when accompanied by its companion—loathing—a product of ignorance or misunderstanding. Politicians and political advocates of all stripes routinely make exaggerated claims and use quotes or data out of context to incite conviction for their cause among constituents who lack a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand. They not only induce fear of the effects of alternative points of view through subtle or even not so subtle deception, they often succeed in demonizing the advocates of those alternative points of view. Once a political figure is sufficiently demonized, people are apt to fear and believe that they are capable of a multitude of evils.

All Americans, whether they may tilt to the political Left or the political Right, are vulnerable to the politics of fear. It can be said that those on the Left tend to fear corporate greed and malfeasance, overpopulation, global warming, pollution, government intrusion into personal matters, war or an unwarranted use of military force, and the agricultural use of pesticides, hormones and genetic engineering. It shouldn’t be suggested that these things are not important and should not be of concern, but there is little doubt that their pernicious effects can be exaggerated, resulting in irrational fear among some.

On the Right, fear resulting from uncertainty, or fear of uncertainty itself (or at least an uneasiness with uncertainty), may be an integral part of what induces one to lean to the Right to begin with.  A Stanford University social psychology study, encompassing some fifty years of data and published in 2003, concluded as much:

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear. Specifically, the avoidance of uncertainty (and the striving for certainty) may be particularly tied to one core dimension of conservative thought, resistance to change. Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality.

By “endorsement of inequality,” the authors appear to have merely meant that conservative thought is in acceptance of inequality as the necessary price to pay for the preservation of its perceived natural order of society.

We might easily dismiss such a study as the psychobabble of liberal university professors, but we need not look very far to see that many on the Right quite readily respond to the politics of fear. We certainly cannot assume that everyone who holds conservative political views does so as a result of fear. There are some very practical and principled reasons to hold conservative views. Nevertheless, we can find quite an abundance of behavior and convictions motivated by fear on the Right.

Have you ever wondered why all of those purveyors of minted gold coins as an “investment against inflation” find such fertile ground on Fox News and on AM (conservative) Talk Radio? While such coins might be fun to collect, they are a horrible investment. These proprietors are capitalizing on an underlying fear that the economy might suddenly collapse and/or that run-away inflation will ensue (particularly with that “socialist” Obama at the helm). On these venues, Glenn Beck in particular has been a successful merchant of the fear of economic collapse and massive inflation.

Among those on the Right, we also find fears of government intrusion into our businesses and societal or religious choices, government incompetence, very competent government wickedness (ironically), socialism (being asked to contribute to the benefit of undeserving people), illegal immigrants, foreign invasion or subversion, the U.N. and the possibility of a one-world-government (villainous black helicopters and such), drones, religious persecution, losing one’s cultural or religious identity (the so-called Culture Wars), gun confiscation, crime, men of other races, homosexuals and gay marriage, sharia law (this danger appears greatest in the state of Oklahoma), Common Core, and the possibility that President Obama is a socialist, Muslim, or even the Anti-Christ. If you find yourself on mailing lists resulting from having given to Republican campaigns, you’ll likely see emails from a variety purveyors of survivalist supplies taking advantage of fearful and gullible people. One need only have a couple of Right-leaning friends or family members who forward circulating emails to witness a pervasive sentiment of impending doom resulting from the deceitful and nefarious motives of President Obama and the Left.

It is little wonder then, that when the Democrats and President Obama passed comprehensive (very voluminous and perhaps too complicated) healthcare reform without any support from Republicans, the political opposition had little trouble in instilling fear of the law’s allegedly pernicious provisions. After all, they say, the law provides for “government run” healthcare and includes “death panels,” an assault on Medicare, forced participation, a “job-killing” burden on the nation’s businesses, and will result in reduced care and greater costs for us all.

Ironically, given the fervor of their rhetoric as they endeavor to repeal the law before its implementation, perhaps what Republicans fear most is that people will discover that there wasn’t really all that much to fear after all.

The Telling Politics of the Individual Mandate

For some time I have been intending to write about how partisanship affects the way we think—how partisanship corrupts fair minded and sound reasoning. There is a great deal to consider on that subject. Numerous factors can be cited as contributing to the partisan divide that has increasingly afflicted our country—the hardening of ideological stances that inhibits those who get caught up in partisan thinking from being able to appreciate any merit at all in opposing points of view. I simply have not yet had the time to construct a comprehensive essay on the subject. Given the great passion that has recently ensued from the Supreme Court’s decision concerning the individual mandate included in the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), however, I thought I would go ahead and write of that one example—a prime example of how partisanship distorts perception.

It is pretty widely understood that those of us who pay property taxes and who pay for our own health insurance are, in doing so, also paying for the medical care of those citizens who have no health insurance. Through our property taxes we pay to support the county hospital district that treats the uninsured for free, and hospitals tell us that much of the cost of treating the uninsured is also passed along to those individuals and insurance companies who pay for medical services. In 1989, as part of an insurance reform proposal, the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank) proposed a solution to what they called this “free rider” problem. Their plan, named “Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans,” included a suggestion to “mandate all households to obtain adequate insurance.” The proposal was fully consistent with the politically conservative principle of citizens not being imposed upon to support other citizens who can reasonably support themselves. As Mitt Romney would later describe it to reporters in 2005 when he proposed that it be enacted as law in Massachusetts, “It’s the ultimate conservative idea, which is that people have a responsibility for their own care, and that they don’t look to government … if they can afford to take care of themselves.”

After that initial 1989 call for an individual mandate, the idea then became part of a number of conservative and Republican proposals for insurance reform, including one that was developed at the request of the H.W. Bush administration in 1991, but was never acted upon. When Hillary Clinton spearheaded an effort to achieve universal healthcare coverage in 1992 and 1993, Republicans in congress responded with various alternative proposals, all of which included an individual mandate. A bill called the “Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act” was introduced in the Senate by Republican John Chafee of Rhode Island and co-sponsored by Minority Leader Bob Dole and 18 other Republican Senators. The bill called for health insurance vouchers for low-income individuals, along with a mandate that all capable individuals buy their own health insurance. As House Minority Leader at the time, Newt Gingrich strongly endorsed the mandate. Of course Gingrich has been a vocal supporter of an individual mandate until only very recently, when a run for the presidency and a new political dynamic prompted a change of heart.

Republican proposals in response to so-called “Hillarycare” were met with skepticism by Democrats. Democrats were particularly opposed to the individual mandate, which they saw as a “giveaway” to insurance companies. Rather than seriously consider the merits of the mandate and incorporate it into a bi-partisan healthcare reform effort, Democrats were evidently blinded by partisan thinking and assumed, by default, that Republicans were once again simply trying to protect the interests of big business—in this case, the insurance companies—at the expense of ordinary citizens. As a result of that partisan divide, the Clintons’ efforts to enact reform and ensure universal coverage failed.

Here’s where it begins to get interesting.

As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama repeatedly denounced the individual mandate, which, by then, Hillary Clinton had adopted as a part of her campaign’s healthcare proposal. One of his campaign mailers explained, “The way Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan covers everyone is to have the government force uninsured people to buy insurance, even if they can’t afford it. … Punishing families who can’t afford healthcare to begin with just doesn’t make sense.” As candidates usually do, Obama mischaracterized Clinton’s proposal and offered no alternative of his own that would ensure universal coverage.

By some accounts, Obama’s attitude toward an individual mandate began to change as soon as he had secured his party’s nomination for the 2008 election. In any case, he didn’t have to reverse himself publicly when reform was being crafted because all of the proposals were originating in the House and Senate. It was concluded that the mandate was an important component of any proposal that could realistically ensure universal coverage, other than a government-run single payer system. And since it was a Republican idea to begin with, it was thought that its inclusion would help to ensure Republican support for reform.

It turned out, however, that reforming our nation’s insurance and healthcare delivery systems is very complicated business, and therefore, an easy target for political posturing and propaganda. There are a number of reasons why the “Affordable Care Act” lost the support of all Republicans in Congress and perhaps a few of them are good reasons. The particulars of the legislation are far too voluminous and complicated to get into here (and they are not the point of this writing anyway). But perhaps what is most interesting, and rather telling, is how attitudes completely changed regarding the individual mandate to buy health insurance.

By the time the “Affordable Healthcare Act” or “Obamacare” was enacted, the individual mandate had evolved from a soundly conservative idea espousing personal responsibility to, in the minds of many, a typically liberal, “nanny state” idea espousing an obtrusive government and less freedom for us all. Since the healthcare law had been enacted solely by Democratic members of Congress at the urging of President Obama (which can perhaps be blamed, at least in part, on Obama and the Democrats), it became, especially for those who live exclusively in the partisan world of the FOX News culture, a clear example of a horrible abuse of power by politicians who have no regard for personal liberty and the Constitution. Since virtually every other component of “Obamacare” is rather popular among the public, the individual mandate became the primary focus of attack. When partisanship fully takes hold, simply winning for the sake of the tribe takes precedence over truth or principle.  As a result, ironically, Republicans put themselves in the position of, contrary to everything they believe, defending the right of a few citizens to sponge off of the rest of us.

That’s what partisan thinking can do.

When the Affordable care Act was enacted, President Obama and the Democrats insisted that the sanction for those who didn’t buy health insurance was a penalty, not a tax.  They didn’t want to be accused of raising taxes. They well understood that even though the penalty (or tax) would be imposed only on those who neglected to buy health insurance and would likely lower everyone’s healthcare costs, political opponents could rather easily mischaracterize it for political gain.  (They understood this because that’s the way the game is played in politics, and, make no mistake, Democrats do the very same thing all the time.)  Just as Chief Justice John Roberts aptly pointed out, however, regardless of what politicians might call it, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and flies like a duck… well… it’s a tax.  After the Supreme Court’s ruling, we have seen that the Democrat’s concern was well founded.  Since, when the tribalism of partisanship takes hold, winning elections is more important than principle or sound public policy, Republicans have now accused Obama and the Democrats of perpetrating a huge tax increase on the middle class.  Naturally, we are expected to overlook the fact that the tax is imposed only on those whom the Heritage Foundation and Republicans had for many years called “free riders,” and partisans undoubtedly will.

*  *  *  *

As a side note: Since the Supreme Court has now declared that the government can penalize us for not buying health insurance, many have worried that the government can tell us anything about our personal lives—make us buy and eat broccoli, for example. Keep in mind that we still have the 14th Amendment that, according to a long line of precedents made by the Court, ensures that we have a right to privacy. The government cannot tell us to eat broccoli or how we should wear our hair because those are private matters. Whether or not we buy health insurance is not a private matter, on the other hand, because such a decision ultimately affects everybody else.

Of course eating broccoli (or green vegetables in general) is good for our health and some may argue, therefore, in the general public interest. There will always be such judgments to make. That’s why we have a Supreme Court that is, by design, insulated from partisan pressures and, at least theoretically, resistant to partisan thinking.

The Trouble With the Two Parties

Here are a couple of good essays on how the two parties have gone off the rails—one by a Republican on what has happened to the Republican Party here, and one by a Democrat on what has happened to the Democratic Party here.  Both essays appeared in New York magazine’s  November 2011 edition.

Why Not A Flat Tax?

What could be more fair than a flat-rate income tax? All citizens would be taxed at the same rate—no special treatment for anyone. Such a system is progressive in that, the more one earns, the more tax they pay. And those who are unemployed would pay nothing until they are able to find work (unlike with sales or “value added” taxes).

Some flat-tax plans are even more progressive. Such plans exempt income below a specified level, allowing the very lowest income earners to avoid paying any tax at all.  Such an exemption increases the progressive nature of the system all the up the income scale too.  For example, with a 20 percent flat rate and a $20,000 exemption, someone making $20,000 per year would pay no tax, while someone making $40,000 would pay tax at a rate of 10 percent, those making $80,000…15 percent, $200,000…18 percent, $5 million…19.92 percent, and those bringing in $20 million per year would pay tax at a rate of 19.98 percent.  It’s progressive.

Is it progressive enough?  What are the considerations that need to be addressed in determining whether such a flat tax is fair to all citizens and prudent for the health and wellbeing of our economy and our society?  Here are a few.

Social Justice

One might ask why should we not simply let nature take its course—let freedom and the free enterprise system do what it does best. That is, reward those who work hard and those who, through their own initiative and ingenuity, realize the highest incomes. Our free enterprise system, because it rewards hard work and ingenuity, is the most efficient and productive economic system the world has ever devised.  We certainly wouldn’t want to compromise the economic system that has enabled the United States to become the most prosperous nation in history.

But of course, while free enterprise has been the primary engine that has produced American prosperity, it has not been an unfettered free enterprise.  It has not been the kind of laissez-faire economic system that operates on the principle of “survival of the fittest,” with utter indifference to those who do not succeed and prosper. There are two reasons why we do not subscribe to a simple laissez-faire economic system. One has to do with practical economics, as we will see momentarily. The other reason concerns American principles of social justice.

In his first draft of our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson described the principle “that all men are created equal” as a “sacred” truth.  (It was the impious Benjamin Franklin who urged the substitution of “self-evident” for “sacred.”)  It had not escaped Jefferson’s attention that, in fact, men possess quite a wide range of physicality, intellect, initiative, and moral aptitude.  He simply meant that, since all men are created by God, we are all equal in the possession of a common humanity, and that natural law, therefore, dictates that everyone is entitled to the same inherent rights.  The notion that we are all “equal in the possession of a common humanity” also suggests, just as Christianity and other religions teach us, that we have a responsibility to our fellow human beings—a duty to see to it that everyone is given an equitable chance to live freely and prosper.

This does not mean, of course, that everyone should be guaranteed an equal financial outcome. Rather, it prescribes that we have an obligation to see to it that everyone has as equitable a chance to get ahead, relative to other citizens, as can be practically ensured. Unbiased formulation of tax policy, therefore, demands that we consider the advantages that higher incomes and wealth provide in the quest for greater prosperity relative to lower incomes.

Though in his day taxes were based primary on property ownership, Thomas Jefferson believed that a progressive tax structure would best serve the cause of social justice.  In a 1785 letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote:

Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise.

Wealth Begets Wealth

We’ve all heard the expression, “it takes money to make money.” Such colloquial sayings are very often over-simplifications, yet, like this one, they are also usually grounded in some truth. It isn’t always just harder work and greater initiative that enables some people to make more money than others. It is very often affected more by their position in life than by an intensity of labor.  There are a great number of factors that can help to establish one’s position in life—initiative, foresight, education, intellect, imagination, inheritance, familial or personal associations, appearance, and health, for example.  We have some control over many of these factors.  Others, we do not.

The most significant circumstance in determining our station in life is usually our immediate family, or lack thereof.  It is from our parent(s) that we learn what to expect in life.  This is why descendents will usually rise to roughly the very same socio-economic status as their parents—expectation, more than anything else.  If we are unfortunately born into poverty, or of slovenly or disabled or otherwise dysfunctional parents, it is up to us to expect and achieve more for ourselves.  But, while expectation is perhaps the most significant factor in determining one’s station in life, it is by no means the only factor.

Achieving an undergraduate or graduate degree, for example, is a result of not just desire, but of intellectual capability and an ability to navigate the economic demands of attending school. Sure, many people have been able to attain degrees on their own through loans and/or part-time employment, but many others have familial obligations that make such a scenario impossible (even if they may be brilliant).  In any case, there can be no doubt that excelling in college is facilitated by economic security.

Those young people who come from a family of substantial means also have the advantages of a safety net—a supportive family to fall back on in case of failure or setbacks, enabling greater risk taking and bolder ambitions.

There are also more direct ways in which having money enables us to more easily make additional money.  Those of us who have been in the work force long enough and have been successful enough to have accumulated substantial savings, or those of us who have inherited wealth, have an ability to generate “unearned” income in addition to our ordinary income—i.e. rents, royalties, interest, dividends, capital gains, etc. And the more we have, the more abundant and the more profitable such investment opportunities become.  Having assets also enables us to secure loans or to apply our own resources toward a business enterprise.

For those who start with no assets, no higher education, and no “connected” acquaintances—especially those who lack exceptional intellect—accumulating enough savings for productive investment can be exceedingly difficult.  The lower one’s income, the greater portion of it is required for the very basic and essential costs of living, such as food, clothing, housing, utilities, transportation, and healthcare (if affordable at all).  Even maintaining a bank account for somebody with very little money requires service fees that those of us who have more money are not required to pay.

Today 20 percent of Americans hold 84 percent of our nation’s wealth and a mere 1 percent of Americans hold half of that—42 percent.  There can be little doubt that the advantages of wealth do not follow the same one to one correlation that is implied by the use of the same tax rate for all income levels.  The advantages of wealth are exponential.

Societal and Corporate Infrastructures

None of us live in a vacuum. We live in a complex and dynamic society—the American society that well affords us an opportunity to prosper. No one can become wealthy, or even make a living at all for that matter, alone. We are either an employee or an employer. Even a self-employed one-man-enterprise has to have customers, suppliers, utilities, roads, general police protection, as well as his own basic education. We all make our living, at least in part, in conjunction with the labor of others.

As Americans we have today’s opportunities to prosper in large part because of those Americans who came before us and built our nation’s governmental, physical, and economic infrastructures, and because of the institutions that maintain those things today.  In exchange for the economic opportunities made available to each of us as a result of public investments and our safe and orderly society’s greater infrastructure, each of us is obligated to financially support our nation at a level that is commensurate with the financial benefits that we come to realize within it.

As we consider the degree to which those who realize the largest incomes do so only in conjunction with the labor of others, we might also consider the practical limits to how much someone can actually earn.  The salaries of some corporate managers, for example, have become quite large in recent years.  There is nothing too troubling about that.  It is merely the result of supply and demand.  If several companies are vying for one of a just few exceptionally talented managers, it makes sense that they will have to pay at least as much as any other company is willing to pay. And given the enormity of the financial stakes involved in properly managing a multi-billion dollar corporation, offering a manager an enormous sum in salary and bonuses can be prudent. We have to ask ourselves, however, “can anyone really earn $50 million per year?” There are people who bring in that much, and rightfully so, if that’s what the market dictates.  But can anyone really work a thousand times harder and/or a thousand times smarter or be a thousand times more deserving than those people who make only $50,000 per year (the median income in the U.S.)?  No one attains a position in which they make $50 million per year as a result of merely good luck. Such individuals possess tremendous talent and they have worked very hard.  They have made a lot of the right decisions in their rise to such a position in life.  But however one has risen to a position of making $50 million per year, they can receive that much money only because the money has been generated by the labor of those below them in the corporation, and within the context of our society at large.

The wealthier we are, the more direct benefits we tend to realize from our nation’s assets and infrastructure too. Business owners and corporate shareholders enjoy the unlimited use of roads and waterways, the availability of a publicly educated work force, and our nation’s armed forces protecting American economic interests around the world.  While we all enjoy the benefits of these things, those of us who realize the largest incomes as a result of business enterprise tend to gain the most benefit from them.

Supply-side Economics

Doesn’t taxing the rich hurt the economy? “Supply-side” macroeconomic theory does indeed proclaim that citizens with the largest incomes are the driving force behind our nation’s economy. Many of them, after all, are the small business owners and the entrepreneurs who produce the majority of America’s jobs. The more they are taxed, advocates of the theory declare, the less money they have available to invest in their businesses, and therefore, the less productive the American economy becomes.

Actual supply-side economic theory is not quite so simple as that, but this is generally how it is presented by a great many politicians and political advocates.  What these advocates overlook, or willfully ignore, is that such business investment is not taxed at all.  In fact, higher marginal personal income tax rates can actually induce some business owners to invest more in their businesses, rather than taking the money out as personal income and paying the tax on it.

The Heritage Foundation and others who advocate lower taxes for the wealthy as justified by macroeconomic assumptions cite several occasions in history when the lowering of the top marginal income tax rates were following by periods of accelerated national economic growth.  As we often find when someone advocates for a particular faction of society, they leave out pertinent information that does not support their preferred conclusion.  In economics there are always a multitude of variables that must be taken into account in order to reach a more objective conclusion. Not only does the Heritage Foundation tend to disregard factors outside of the tax rate changes, they also leave out those tax cuts that were not followed by accelerated growth, the tax increases that were followed by accelerated growth, as well as the more comprehensive historic correlation between personal income tax rates and economic growth.

Recent history provides a pretty clear indication that lower tax rates alone are not a panacea to an ailing economy, and that raising taxes on upper incomes is much less harmful to the economy than some proclaim.  Two of the most prosperous decades of the twentieth century were the 1950s, when the top income tax rate was 91 percent, and the 1990s, which immediately preceded all of the many tax cuts enacted at the urging of the Bush and Obama administrations.  Because of the Bush and Obama tax cuts, the top marginal income tax rate today is lower than at any time since 1931 (except for the brief period from 1988 to 1992), and the overall tax burden of Americans as a percentage of the GDP over the last three years has been lower than any three year period since 1941 to 1943.  And yet, our economy continues to struggle to recover from the economic contraction that occurred from December 2007 through July 2009, the resulting banking crisis, and subsequent high unemployment.

Trickle-up Economics

Another name for supply-side economics, often used pejoratively, is “trickle-down economics.” Perhaps a more relevant and authentic dynamic in the function of an economy could be characterized as “trickle-up economics.” That is, an economic model that emphasizes the importance of demand.

The reality, of course, is that both supply and demand are essential elements of any economic system.  But we do well to realize that, without demand, all of the supply in the world cannot make an economy grow and prosper. The first and foremost ingredient in a healthy economy is demand—i.e., lots of people who are able and willing to buy goods and services.

At the urging of a member of his board of directors in 1913, Henry Ford raised the wages of his factory workers from an average of around $2.50 per day to $5.00 per day.  It was an unprecedented and bold gesture.  Other automakers accused him of being a “traitor to his class,” and said that he would “wreck the industry.”  The Wall Street Journal called it blatantly immoral, a misapplication of “Biblical principles” in a field where “they don’t belong.” The dramatic wage increase was intended as a humanitarian gesture as well as a rather clever advertising ploy, but the consequences of the wage increase benefited the Ford Motor Company, its directors and stockholders, and ultimately the nation, in a number of ways that were unanticipated.

Absenteeism at the factory dropped from 10 percent a day to less than one half of one percent, saving the company millions of dollars in productivity and training costs for new hires.  Ford workers suddenly became proud of their association with the company.  The most significant aspect of the five dollar wage, an aspect the importance of which would only later become apparent, was the fact that it created a whole new group of consumers for Ford products. By increasing the workers’ salaries, Ford had elevated them to the middle-class and thus enabled them to buy middle-class consumer goods, such as new cars.

Similarly, a smaller tax burden on the lower classes can afford them a better opportunity to become enabled to improve their circumstance and to ascend into the middle-class.  As the middle-class is enlarged, the infrastructure of the marketplace is enlarged, and ultimately the opportunities for free enterprise and prosperity for all citizens are enlarged.

Wouldn’t a Flat Tax Be Simpler?

Many flat-tax proponents over the years have held up a postcard and declared that their flat-tax proposal would mean that everyone could do their own tax return on a short form the size of the card they were holding.  It’s a ruse.

Internal Revenue Service statistics show that roughly 70 percent of Americans already file their tax returns on simple “short forms.”  Those who file the longer more complicated returns do so because it is a benefit to them and to our entire nation.

Tax law is an effective way to encourage certain behaviors. We want to encourage people to give to churches and to other charitable organizations, for example. Our society has also chosen to use the tax code to encourage marriage, home ownership, and energy conservation—all things that have been judged to be beneficial to our society. Our tax returns, therefore, necessarily have provisions for reducing our taxes when we respond to the greater public interest.

Business owners have to account for wages, payroll taxes, the cost of supplies and other expenses, depreciation, capital gains, etc.  Various sources of “unearned” income also need to be reported if they are to account for and/or treated differently.

There is little question that our current tax code is too complicated and too cumbersome.  It is so much so that it is a significant drain on productivity—an issue that certainly needs to be addressed.  But its complexity, of course, has nothing to do with tax rates.  Most anyone who is capable of earning an income should be able to read a tax table or calculate a percentage.  Those who suggest that we need a flat tax “because our current system is too complicated” are being dishonest.

Doesn’t a Progressive Income Tax Punish Some People By Taxing Them at Higher Rates Than Others?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about how proposals to increase taxes on upper incomes constitute “class warfare.”  We often hear the expression “soak the rich.”  These expressions are born of the idea that taxing higher incomes at a higher rate is to treat some people differently than others—to punish those of us who have worked the hardest and smartest and who have succeeded, through our own initiative, in realizing a plentiful income.  Such an idea misunderstands the principle of progressive taxation entirely.

Properly implemented, a progressive rate income tax treats everyone in exactly the same way.  It is income above specified levels that are taxed differently, not people. Everyone would pay tax at precisely the same rate on every level of income that they may bring in. So an individual who makes $50 million per year would pay tax at the very same rate on his first $50,000 in income as the man who only makes $50,000, even if he might pay tax at a higher rate on income above $50,000.  Everyone is taxed in the same way, with the same set of rates.

At whatever rates we may choose to collect the taxes needed to pay for our national defense, highways, waterways, national parks, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, medical and other scientific research, space exploration, resource management, and the many other things undertaken by the federal government, it appears that the most fair and prudent method of doing so is through a progressive rate income tax. We can see that, while treating all citizens by the same standard of taxation, such a system is considerate of the plight of the poor, understanding of the exponential advantages of rising income levels, and beneficial to the whole of our economic system and everyone who prospers from it.