Category Archives: All Politics Is Local

Convinced Against Our Will

“A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

–old saying, used by Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People

The newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts explored a few fake news items of the recent past (“Truth, sadly, is not something we all value,” The Seattle Times, Oct 8, 2017).

One fake story led to a shooting in an innocent pizza parlor by an individual who believed ridiculous stories about the business, repeated on propaganda sites.

The fact that Barrack Obama has a legal birth certificate from Hawaii or that his birth was reported in a verifiable news item does not stop birther stories that he wasn’t born in the United States.

Pitts lists reputable groups (newspapers, schools of journalism, fact checking sites) all attempting to bring discernment to our decisions on what we read and believe.

He’s a pessimist, pointing to research suggesting that people tend to “double down on the false belief” when facts prove them wrong.

Our worth seems tied to what we believe. We find it difficult to think that we can be imperfect, that we can be duped. We seek, not truth, but validation of our perfection.

We are in need of listeners. We need to listen, not just to what our neighbors say they believe, waiting impatiently to argue our side. We need to understand why our neighbors believe as they do, to be touched by the needs they express. If we understand each other, we may be able to move closer to finding truth.

Removing “Servant” from Public Servant

“ . . . the federal workforce has the same number of employees in 2017 as it did during the Kennedy administration, despite the creation of the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and various agencies, as well as a roughly 40 percent increase in the total U.S. population during that interval.

“And yet one popular narrative is that the federal workforce has become too large, and must be pruned. But the work still has to be done by someone.” (Paul Verkuil, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, quoted by David Thornton, Federal News Radio, October 20, 2017, “Federal Workforce in Jeopardy”)

The work that must be done, Thornton goes on to say, is often picked up by contractors. Verkuil points out two differences between government workers and contractors:

“‘For me, the first reason is the oath of office. You may not think about it, it may be just a symbolic act, but … it means something,’ he said. ‘It differentiates you, it separates you. It should; you took an oath to uphold the constitution. It’s meaningful. … If you don’t take the oath, you’re not in the same club, if you will. It’s an important club.’

“And that speaks to another difference Verkuil pointed out: motivation. Federal workers overwhelmingly point to the mission of public service as one of their primary motivations for what they do. Contractors don’t.”

After swearing the oath to protect the Constitution and defend my country when I joined the U.S. Foreign Service, I was assigned to a U.S. consulate in the Middle East. Contractors came in for a few weeks to set up a new computer system. As far as I know, the contractors did a good job, and certainly fulfilled a vital need for expertise not available at our post.

They left at five o’clock in the afternoon. I stayed to finish my work, which seldom could be done in an eight-hour day. I was available for any American citizen who suddenly ended up in a foreign jail. If danger threatened from terrorism, I came in no matter the hour and sent off a warning to our American wardens to pass to all American citizens in the district for which we had records.

The contractors, as skilled they may have been, were there for the money. For them and their companies, it was the bottom line. I and the other officers had been assigned there to serve.

War on Coal; War on the Planet

Until I moved to the Pacific Northwest, most of the salmon I ate came from cans. I was not fond of it. Then one day I ate fresh salmon and became a salmon lover. An added plus is salmon’s contribution to a healthy diet, one of those foods you can enjoy that is good for you.

Salmon fishing also provides jobs. One of the greatest habitats for wild salmon is Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. Salmon harvesting provides jobs for 14,000 Alaskans, according to Timothy Egan, columnist for The New York Times. It’s a clean and sustainable industry.

However, the Trump administration has recently reversed protection for the bay, favoring a mining conglomerate’s proposed plan to mine copper and gold there. Previous findings indicated the mine could send tons of toxic waste into the bay, harming the salmon habitat.

Scott Pruitt, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, met with leaders of the mining company before the reversal of protection,

In addition, Pruitt has termed President Trump’s intention to end the regulations curbing greenhouse gas emissions as the end of the “war on coal.”

Some thought of those regulations as the war on polluted air.

Egan refers to Trump’s reversal of many formal environmental protections as “the war on the planet.”

Business and Politics: A Match Made in Hell?

We have sometimes elected business people to legislative bodies, but not generally to the U.S. presidency. For that job, we have tended to go for politicians already holding elective office at the state or U.S. congressional level or else military leaders.

Donald Trump is the first president I can think of, at least since the twentieth century, of one elected to the office directly from a business career. Some of his supporters reasoned that a business person practices efficiency in order to make profit. Thus, Trump could drain the inefficient swamps of the U.S. government.

The problem is that a business leader is more like a dictator. Business experience does not necessarily prepare a person for heading a representative government.

As he took office, Trump appeared to think that members of the U.S. congress were his board of directors, beholden to him to carry out his wishes. In fact, they are not beholden to him; they owe their jobs to the people back home who elect them.

As a business leader, Trump could fire any underling who disagreed with him, free to make absolute loyalty to him a primary requirement. This appears to be his style as president.

Like the French king, Louis XIV, he has assumed the role of Sun King. He takes criticism personally, spewing unverifiable insults on anyone, even a supporter, who dares intimate that he isn’t the greatest president who ever held office.

Sad.

Vote When You’re Not Angry

During my childhood, my parents volunteered to man our neighborhood voting station during elections. It was located in the multipurpose room of the elementary school I attended.

My parents did what election workers did and still do all over the country. They verified voters as they entered. They recorded names of each participant. They also visited with friends and neighbors and caught up with their lives. It resembled a neighborhood block party.

They were not allowed, of course, to influence a person’s vote in any way. I don’t remember if our small neighborhood precinct had watchers from political parties, but I don’t think any allegation of voter fraud ever touched our district.

Perhaps my parents’ involvement in the voting process is one reason I have, as far as I can remember, voted in every election of my adult life for which I was eligible. That includes a fair number of absentee votes when I was out of the country.

I’m always amazed at the number of eligible voters—sometimes more than half—who fail to darken the doors of their voting halls for an election. Or, as in my current voting district, fail to cast their ballots by mail.

Some people vote only when they are angry. They might vote more intelligently if they voted when they weren’t so angry, examining issues with a clearer mind.

A government run for the people isn’t a given. What we don’t use, we may lose.

The politicians voted in by a minority may  pass laws only for a few powerful interests, since the majority don’t seem to care about what their government is doing.

Of course, having lived in countries without elections and citizen participation, I’m less likely to take voting for granted.

Why the Healthy Should Buy Health Insurance

I’m the daughter and sister of insurance agents. I understand that an insurance program is an agreement to provide buyers of insurance with funds to overcome some kind of misfortune. Examples include automobile accidents, house fires, and illnesses, to name a few.

For the insurance provider not to go broke, payments into the insurance program must be enough to accumulate funds needed to pay out for the misfortunes.

A provider of automobile accident insurance would soon go broke if the provider allowed people to begin the insurance after having an accident. Likewise, so would a company providing house insurance if people were allowed to begin fire insurance after having a fire and expecting to receive funds.

In a sense, insurance programs are community programs. Some are profit driven. Others, like social security for the elderly, are not. Even with social security, however, workers are required pay into social security whether they know they will live to old age or not.

Popular sections of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) include the provisions covering preexisting conditions and those guaranteeing people’s continued coverage even if they get sick.

Highly unpopular, however, is the mandate that all must purchase health insurance or pay a penalty.

Unfortunately, adopting a plan with the first two requirements is most likely impossible unless all people are required to have a policy or pay a penalty. Health insurance, no more than car or house insurance, needs regular payments over a long period of time to balance the outgoing.

Otherwise, it becomes too expensive. The cost of caring for sick people is too expensive unless a large group of people pay for coverage.

Of course, people with health insurance are more likely to enjoy good health than people without it.

If their insurance covers doctor visits, they are more likely to have regular checkups. They are more likely to visit a doctor when they first have symptoms of an illness rather than later when the illness may require longer and more expensive treatment.

The term”health” insurance is instructive. The primary goal is better health, rather than paying to correct ill health. It’s also less expensive in the long run.

Deep State: What Is It, and Do We Have One?

A “conspiracy of powerful, unelected bureaucrats secretly pursing their own agenda” is one definition of a deep state, according to Jon D. Michaels in Foreign Affairs. ( “Trump and the Deep State,” September/October 2017).

This type of nation does exist, says Michaels. As examples, he includes Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey, “where shadowy elites in the military and government ministries have been known to countermand or simply defy democratic directives.”

The United States, Michaels points out, is operated much more transparently than the countries mentioned above.

That is why President Trump complains so much about the established news media. Freedom of the press is not some slogan spouted by politicians. It’s been ingrained in our national fabric since before the American Revolution.

When I applied for and eventually was accepted into the U.S. Foreign Service, I had to pass both written and oral exams. Nothing on the exams concerned my political persuasions or my voting record.

My class of Foreign Service officers included various ages and educational levels and previous occupational experience. The dedication, especially of the younger members, impressed me. None of us came in because of who we knew. None of us were political appointees.

The U.S. government is run by and large by mid-level bureaucrats, more of whom live outside Washington than in. These mid-level workers are not appointed by some presidential cabal or political party. They are hired over the years based on professional merit. They run the government and remain through various administrations.

Writes Michaels: “U.S. administrative fragmentation makes it hard for things to get done—but it also makes the notion of a coordinated, secret conspiracy by multiple state actors laughable.”

Landing of Another Black Swan

Hurricane Harvey developed in a short time to an unprecedented rain maker. These unexpected events, sometimes likened to rare black swans, have a way of changing our viewpoints.

As we see nursing home patients waist deep in water in their wheelchairs and families struggling to carry their children to safety, our perceptions change.

We do, in fact, need strong government agencies to rescue these people, to give care in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and to support them in the long term as they seek to rebuild their lives and businesses.

Ordinary citizens will show compassion. Charitable organizations will help, but we will need organized aid that only a strong central government can provide. We will need more money to rebuild, yes, in Texas, but ultimately to replace older infrastructure all over the country.

We all know how unpopular taxes are. Yet taxes are how these programs are paid for. Our tax system must be reformed in a way that does not weigh heaviest on the middle and working classes. Some taxes, like a sales tax, weigh on the poor as well.

Despite the present political dysfunction, our elected representatives still can come together for a tax system that is fair and asks from the rich what it already demands from the non-rich. Taxes on corporations may indeed be too high, but so are the tax breaks available to them and rarely to ordinary citizens.

At some point, for the United States to continue as a developed society, we will need more money to maintain and improve it—infrastructure, education, preventive health care, security, and hosts of other needs. Middle income citizens are already paying their fair share.

More black swans will land in the future, and we need to prepare for them.

Embassies Without Ambassadors: Who’s In Charge?

About a third of U.S. ambassadors are political appointees under any given president, Democratic or Republican. Massive campaign contributions often count in such appointments.

These appointments are normally to European countries or perhaps to Caribbean island nations. Political ambassadors are rarely appointed to what are known as danger or hardship posts, like Pakistan or Sierra Leone. Those are for the career diplomats.

Unlike most developed nations, we think nothing of sending a diplomatic neophyte to serve in the capitals of our important allies.

Nevertheless, even political appointments have been slow for our current presidential administration. Take Switzerland. The country has been without a U.S. ambassador for seven months, since the ambassador, a political ambassador, resigned, as is customary for political appointees when a new president takes office.

Who’s directing the embassy in Switzerland? As in all of these ambassador-less posts, the second in command oversees operations, almost always a career diplomat, a U.S. Foreign Service professional. In this case, Tara Feret Erath, serves as temporary overseer.

Ms. Erath has served at U.S. posts in Afghanistan, Belgium, Brazil, France, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She speaks German, French, and Portuguese.

One wonders why they don’t just appoint Ms. Erath to be the ambassador.

How The Hiring Freeze Affects Lives

The White House announced a government hiring freeze soon after the current administration took office in January.

Blanket orders often are not well thought out and can have unintended consequences. A recent article in The Foreign Service Journal (July/August, 2017) pinpointed one such consequence. Foreign Service officers, the Americans who staff U.S. embassies and consulates overseas, transfer frequently, moving with their families from one assignment to another.

As American citizens, spouses often fill critical positions at posts, as they move with husbands and wives. The hiring freeze means that they cannot be hired for jobs at their spouse’s new post. They cannot serve as office managers, back up visa officers as they interview foreigners, or help security officers with classified data.

Many of these spouses staff critical positions in U.S. embassies and consulates . The government saves money because they already are in the country and do not have to be moved there or paid housing allowances and other expenses to take the jobs.

Family members who had jobs lined up have suddenly had to change plans. Some must pay for unexpected housing back in Washington as the spouse waits there for the freeze to end. Others must do without the planned salary from the job while waiting at post.

One view from a long-term spouse: “. . . there is absolutely no indication that this administration has any interest in mission staffing, from either a practical or a morale perspective.”

Another says, “It is devastating for families and demoralizing for those blocked out of positions.”

Not to mention damage to U.S. diplomacy as supporting roles remain unfilled.

  Experts Propose; Politicians Decide

“Some of the smartest people on earth have a significant presence on the Internet. Some of the stupidest people, however, reside just one click away.” (Tom Nichols, “How America Lost Faith in Expertise,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2017.)

From taxation to terrorism, we often follow events haphazardly or don’t follow them at all, busy with other things. Yet if we don’t stay on top of the issues that affect our lives, we cede the outcomes to those who yell the loudest and receive the most attention.

It’s easy to do. We live in a complex world, difficult to grasp, not only for us but for our elected representatives as well.

How important, then, Nichols writes, “to choose representatives who can act wisely on our behalf,” representatives willing to listen to those with knowledge of a particular subject.

“Experts can only propose; elected leaders dispose. And politicians are very rarely experts on any of the innumerable subjects that come before them for a decision. . . . China policy and health care and climate change and immigration and taxation, all at the same time . . ..”

Forget those closed legislative sessions, shutting out both the public and those who spend their lives studying the issues that affect us.

As Senator John McCain recently pointed out, the most important consideration isn’t winning the next election but governing wisely for the people.

Dictatorship: Such an Efficient Form of Government

From the standpoint of efficiency, dictatorship is attractive. No lengthy election campaigns. No disagreement among the dictator’s supporters. No troubling scrutiny from a questioning press.

After a period of wars and uncertainty, some populations welcome a strong man (usually a man) like Hitler, who will end strife and allow citizens more certainty to go about their lives.

The problem is that even the most patriotic strongman is often corrupted by the power he possesses. He will begin to believe that he has all knowledge and that everything he does is ordained by a higher reality. He often attempts to pass power to family members and close friends, founding, in reality, a family fief.

No legislature or judiciary holds a dictator in check. The progress he might make when first taking office dissipates into cronyism and nepotism, a selfish dividing of a country’s resources among a few top contenders.

Representative government, by contrast, can be messy and time consuming, but over the long run has the potential to better serve the citizens.

However, the disadvantage of representative government is that, if it is to work, competent people must be elected. For that to happen, the electorate must be informed about issues.

In other words, effective government is more about us, not the leaders. It has to do with the responsibility we take or don’t take as citizens to learn and vote intelligently.