The Noblest Roman

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on September 23, 2017 by deborah1960

This was the noblest Roman of them all… Say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

Julius Caesar, Act V, scene 5

 

It will perhaps come to no surprise to the readers of this blog that I really, really disagree with Senator John McCain on a whole array of positions he has taken, especially in the last few years.  He seems to believe in trickle down tax cuts, he is no fan of Roe v. Wade, he favors tax credits to fund health care over universal coverage, and he supports mandatory sentencing.  I admire his stand against CIA torture, but I wish he’d lighten up about lighting up the American flag.  His decision to elevate Sarah Palin to the level of Vice Presidential candidate remains mystifyingly bonkers to your humble correspondent.

And yet, despite all this, I have a grudging respect for Senator McCain.  Yes, he’s everyone’s grumpy grandpa, but he’s a grumpy grandpa who has made enormous sacrifices to his country.  He spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton, enduring torture, illness, and serious injuries that resulted in permanent physical disabilities.  What’s even more incredible, he could have been released early, on the “Dad is the Commander of the Pacific Fleet” ticket—but he refused.  A fundamental sense of fairness and (dare I say it in this age of hyper-irony?) innate nobility prevented him from accepting the unexpected offer of immediate release—and he paid for it with five years of misery.

So, yeah.  I have a soft spot for Senator McCain.  Sue me.

But even if he weren’t such a bona fide war hero, I would still muster more than a grudging respect for him because he has a deep and profound love for the Senate, as both an institution and as a bulwark against tyranny.  One of the theories about why the Roman Republic fell is that the Senate’s increasing irrelevancy made it too weak to stand up to the tyrannies of Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar.  I have no idea whether this is true (who do I look like? Mary Beard?), but I’m pretty sure that the Founding Fathers thought it was true, which is why they structured the Senate the way that they did.  The Senate is the wise old man of the government (in fact, “Senate” even comes from the Latin “senux”—“old man.”)  It isn’t hasty in its judgments.  It likes to mull things over, chew the fat, think things through.  It gives advice and consent.  It has dignity.  Subsequent rule makers in the Senate took up the cause:  the Senate, unlike the more boisterous House of Representatives, has a body of rules and procedures that are designed to promote deliberation and bipartisan collaboration.  Now, design and reality often do not meet, but until recently, the Senate committee system of hearings, debate, and compromise chuntered along fairly well.

And John McCain loves it.  He gets off on the deliberative nature of the Senate.  And frankly, so do I.  Yes, I’m a wild-eyed liberal, but I’m also a lawyer, and as such, I have a natural predilection towards deliberation and process.  How we arrive at a solution is often just as important as the solution itself. Dialogue and compromise are not dirty words to me.   I like the whole Hegelian system of dialectics:  you know, the clash of thesis and antithesis arriving at a stronger synthesis.   So I get John McCain.  I really do.

In fact, I was totally unsurprised by the literal thumbs-down Senator McCain delivered to TrumpCare on the 28th of July.  McCain might not agree with the Affordable Care Act, but the process through which Mitch McConnell tried to ram its replacement down the Senate’s throat—the result of occult meetings among a few chosen GOP senators, with no meaningful opportunity for debate or amendment—was repugnant to him.  So McCain chose loyalty to the institution over loyalty to party, and killed the bill with a single gesture, both wordless and eloquent.

We thought that the zombie was dead.  The hero had killed it, and we were safe.  But like a particularly dreadful horror film franchise, the sequel was even worse than the original.  Same process, same false urgency, same animus directed against the poor, the ill, and the vulnerable.  This time, however, there was a key difference.  This time, the legislation was co-sponsored by Lindsey Graham, Senator McCain’s closest and dearest friend in the Senate.  Commentators debated whether McCain would side with his friend and forsake the Senate rules and procedures that had animated him for thirty years.

And today, 22 September 2017, Senator McCain delivered his answer:  he chose the Senate.  And again, I am not surprised.

Senator McCain has terminal cancer and he is very likely to die soon. As it happens, I have had more than the average amount of experience with the dying.  I was a hospice volunteer for many years, and I’ve cared for both a dying mother and a dying sister.   As a result, I’ve had lots of opportunity to observe the dying, and the most striking observation I’ve made is that the process of dying rarely causes great changes in character.  Instead, it strengthens and emphasizes who you actually are.  If you are a selfish bastard in life, then you are quite unlikely to become a deathbed philanthropist.  On the other hand, if you are a loving wife and mother, then you will also be a loving hospice patient.  So, if you have spent your life devoted to a particular institution, chances are you’re not going to say, “Oh, to heck with it.”

I’m sure that this was a painful decision for the Senator.  He strikes me as the kind of guy who takes friendships and loyalty seriously.  But he’s also the kind of guy who takes oaths to the Constitution and service to country very, very seriously.  He’s the kind of guy who thinks the ideals of the Founding Fathers are important not because they are empty rhetoric but because they enable sound government.  He’s the kind of guy who cares about how this crazy old country is governed, both now and in the future.  This is perhaps the greatest distinction between Senators McCain and McConnell:  McConnell subverts the Senate and its procedures in order to exercise power, while McCain upholds them in order to govern.

So, in honor of Senator McCain, I offer no sarcasm or irony.  Just respect.  And gratitude.

©2017 D. R. Miller

 

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Greetings From Nambia!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 22, 2017 by deborah1960

Dear World Traveler,

We at the Trump Executive Travel Group are delighted to invite you to explore Nambia, the jewel of the African Riviera and the home of the newest and most exclusive Trump Golf Club, Club Oligarch.

Located along the shores of the Bamboozle River in the outskirts of the capital city of Ponziville, Club Oligarch has fully exploited the natural riches of Nambia in order to ensure that you have easy access to the very best presidential golfing experience in the world that money can buy, bar none.  Believe me!

Personally designed by President Trump himself, the golf course is nestled between the legendary Quagmire Morale and the richest covfefe fields in the world!   Imagine teeing off on the first hole, with its splendid vista of the Nambian Alps, the strip mines barely discernable to the human eye.

Trump Executive Travel Group has also arranged special armed guard guided tours through the bustling neighborhoods of Ponziville, where you can explore Nambia’s rich cultural heritage from a safe distance.  While there, be sure to check out the newly unveiled Monument to Benevolent Colonialism, donated by the Trump Foundation.  This impressive twenty foot statue represents President Trump holding out his tiny hands in friendship and congratulations to the plucky Nambian natives, and is an appropriate token of his thanks on behalf of all his friends who made a killing in Africa.

Speaking of which, visiting Club Oligarch would give you an opportunity to investigate the many and varied business opportunities available in Nambia.  European and American investors have already established a very huge and amazing infrastructure to support a beautiful array of industries, including pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, gold mining, blood diamonds, pesticides, and the harvesting of human organs—all with total freedom from pesky health, environmental, and occupational safety rules.  Nice!

Finally, if you are concerned about your personal health while visiting Nambia, have no fear!  The government of Nambia has inaugurated a health care system and insurance program the likes of which has never been seen before.  In case you didn’t know, that’s really saying something.  Do you have any idea how complex health insurance is?

So, we hope you will take advantage of this very fantastic opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a very, very huge deal.  Inquiries may be made by calling 555-COV-FEFE.  Call before midnight tonight, and we’ll throw in a pair of Ivanka’s latest designer sandals from her extremely nice Plagiarista ™ line.

Meet me at the nineteenth hole—you’re gonna love it!

Reynard Foxworthy

Director of Marketing, Nambia Section

Trump Executive Travel Group

Donald in the Classroom: Could Do Better

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on September 21, 2017 by deborah1960

Dear General Kelly,

I understand that you are concerned about your ward Donald’s lack of progress in Rhetoric and Critical Thinking, especially in light of Professor McWhorter’s latest assessment, and you have requested this update as a matter of some urgency.  It distresses me to inform you that I share your concern.  I cannot recall the last time I ran across a student with so little affinity for the subject.  It is not that he lacks ability—Donald certainly exhibits native cunning—but it is almost a badge of honor for him to disregard the most basic tenets of the discipline.

Perhaps the problem has its roots in a common, if inaccurate, belief that “rhetoric” is synonymous with “insincerity.”  However, given Donald’s tendencies, I would have thought that this false equivalency would have been an attraction for him.  But rhetoric, the study and practice of writing as a means of communication and persuasion, is more than glib flourishes. The truly persuasive writer marries eloquence to clear thinking.  Both are necessary:  persuasion without substance descends to demagoguery, while logic without fluency is devoid of humanity.  Perhaps that explains Donald’s lack of interest in the course.

Or perhaps he is just a lazy bugger.  Whatever the root of the problem, it is obvious that Donald’s ability to express himself clearly, persuasively, and logically is strikingly anemic.

While his areas for development are legion, it would be utterly dispiriting (and, I should think, beyond the realm of human possibility) for Donald to attempt to correct all of them.  Therefore, I think that he should take small steps and focus on improving his register and avoiding dangerous hyperbole. His most recent speaking and listening assessment (a speech before the UN entitled “Why America is the Best and the Rest of You Suck (Except You, Vlad)”) provides a dazzlingly apt vehicle for illustrating these deficiencies in his rhetoric.

“Register” refers to the degree of formality adopted by the writer or speaker.  To appropriately gauge register, the writer needs to be aware of his audience.  Here, Donald was supposed to be addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations, for heaven’s sake—not a bunch of bros hanging out in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.  Referring to a fellow head of state as “Rocket Man on a suicide mission” is simply not the done thing, no matter how crazy you think he is. To call it juvenile would be an insult to adolescents everywhere.  Frankly, it was excruciating just to hear it, and judging from the photo of your reaction  while listening with the other grown-ups in the auditorium, I think you agree.  No wonder the judges gave him such poor marks.

However, such cringe-worthy remarks are indicative of an even greater problem.  Maybe, as has been suggested by some members of the faculty, his audience was NOT the legions of dignitaries and ambassadors seated before him.  Perhaps his actual audience were the very yahoos and locker room fauna that made him the student body president of this erstwhile fine institution of learning in the first place. The jarring informality of his tone certainly indicated that, even though Donald was standing behind the most prestigious podium in the world, his heart was in a half-empty convention hall in Phoenix.  But if that were indeed the case, then it might indicate that Donald’s narcissism is even more full-blown than the school psychologist had previously reported.  It takes a damning degree of self-regard to twist a solemn occasion into a campaign rally—especially when the election is long over.

I also believe that his tone deaf register is inextricably linked to his use of dangerous hyperbole. Instead of using facts, expert opinions, or any of the other tools available for developing reasoned arguments, Donald relentlessly resorts to facile exaggeration to make his points.  It’s always easier to use bombast than to take the time to unravel the threads of a diplomatic tangle, and it’s tempting to lob a grenade when we lack the patience (or wherewithal) to devise new approaches to intractable problems.  But as personally satisfying such tactics can be, they frequently cloud the issue, blind the listener, and needlessly antagonize the opposition.  We need only look at how the delegates’ collective sphincter visibly tightened after Donald threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” to understand how destructive gratuitous and emotional hyperbole can be.

Finally, although you did not request information about Donald’s behavior in school, I would be remiss in my duties as his homeroom teacher if I did not express my concerns about Donald’s continued association with young Stevie Miller.  Frankly, I find Stevie’s mesmeric hold over Donald not only confusing, but pernicious.  Donald exhibits truly nasty tendencies towards Mohamed and Maria whenever he and Stevie spend recess huddled together in a corner of the playground.  I hardly need to remind you of the trauma the class experienced earlier this term when Donald ripped Barack’s prize-winning essay, “My Birth and Childhood in Hawaii,” out of his hands and force fed the pages to the class’s pet lizard, Tucker. Furthermore, I’m aware that Vice Principal Mueller will be sending you a thorough report on Donald’s unhealthy relationship with Vladimir and its possible consequences on the student body president election.  On a more positive note, I would like to point out that Donald has become far less disruptive (although perhaps more disgruntled) since we moved the Bannon lad to a different homeroom.

I hope that this information is of use to you.  If you require any further assistance, please let me know.  God knows you’ll need it.

Best regards,

 

The Critical Thinking (And Homeroom 7B) Teacher

The New York Military Academy for Troubled Scions

 

©2017 D.R. Miller

My Non-Racist Bones Will Not Suffice

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2017 by deborah1960

Dear Fellow White American,

I’m afraid I have a confession, and it is this:  if I hear one more time that you don’t have a racist bone in your body, I think I might have to smack you.  It isn’t that I don’t believe you, even though we both know that this statement or something similar is frequently the preface to an outrageously racist remark.

No.  That’s not it.  I’m willing to assume the truth that your skeleton is, indeed, lacking the racist bone.  I’m even willing to go even farther in my assumptions:  not only are you entirely non-racist, you are also utterly colorblind and totally devoid of implicit biases (you know, those impulses that make you assume that the black woman in your doctor’s office is a nurse’s aide and not the new internist).  Somehow, you’ve managed to escape the pernicious effects of living in a racist society. I know you, and I honestly believe that most of you possess good faith and good will in abundance.  But even under those conditions, I’m afraid that your non-racist bones (and mine, for that matter) do not suffice.

That’s because, as innocent as you individually might be, you (and I) are still the beneficiaries of centuries of racist attitudes, actions, and policies that have placed us at the top of the heap.  The issue is not that things would change if only black people were more like us.  The issue is that things won’t change until we are less like us. And if that surprises you, then I suggest that all of us (myself included) need to stop blathering on about our non-racist bones, and instead shut up and listen.  If we did that, we might understand that nothing is going to change unless we change our attitudes, assumptions, and actions about race.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  A lot of people I know get very riled about the idea of “Black Lives Matter,” not because they are racist, but because in their idealistic, good old fashioned liberal way, they think that all lives matter[1].  People of a certain generation were raised to believe that because race doesn’t matter, we shouldn’t ever make distinctions based on race.  And when applied to things like water fountains, school buses, and public restrooms, that seems about right.  But we need to make distinctions based on race if not to do so would result in the perpetuation of an injustice.

Frankly, the reason why the movement is not called “All Lives Matter” is that our history has shown time and time again that this is simply not the case.  White American hands have torn, broken, and burned black bodies with impunity since the arrival of the first black slaves to Virginia in 1619.  You don’t have to go far back to see the violence wrought upon black bodies.  There is no reason to look at the Civil War photos of Private Gordon’s scourged back or the photos of Emmett Till’s desecrated body in his coffin to see what I mean; you can look at Trayvon Martin’s body, shot down for buying Skittles in the wrong part of town.  Perhaps they should have called the movement “Black Lives Matter, Too.”  Sigh.  For want of an adverb, a cause was lost.  And who says grammar doesn’t matter?

But easy flippancy aside, I doubt that even the inclusion of “too” would make the acceptance of “Black Lives Matter” more likely, because it flies in the face of what we white people believe about our country and ourselves.  We are raised to believe in the fundamental fairness of America, where due process and equal rights exist for all, and the American dream is attainable to anyone willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve it. But what due process did Trayvon Martin have when George Zimmerman tried and convicted and executed him for being a young black man in a white neighborhood?  What equal protections were afforded to Sandra Bland, who was pulled over for not signaling a lane change, beaten by the cop who arrested her, and then found swinging from a sheet in her cell three days later?  And how attainable is that American Dream to a black child born into a black neighborhood that had been transformed by racist housing policies from a “nice” white neighborhood to a living diorama of urban ills?

And the list goes on:  incarceration rates sky rocket among black men and women; schools are increasingly segregated, while white schools receive more funding than black schools;  and  even though the life expectancy gap has narrowed, black life expectancy is still significantly below whiteeven in the same city.

The easy and, frankly, most popular way to explain these disconnects between white patriotic ideals and grim African American realities is, simply, to blame the victim.  To assert that there must be something wrong with them that creates these difficulties.  A nice idea, except for one tiny flaw:  it ain’t so.  These ills have their roots not in black capacities or inclinations but in the systems that allowed and then justified the subjugation of blacks.  Crap housing and dilapidated neighborhoods?  Thank the block busters who instigated white flight by terrifying white homeowners with the vision of black neighbors, while selling the resulting abandoned houses to black families at inflated prices they couldn’t afford.  Shitty schools in black neighborhoods?  Take a hard, long look at Brown v. Board of Education, which enshrined in educational law the belief that black schools were inherently inferior, thereby holding up the white school as the institution worthy of support and improvement.  Entrenched poverty?  Blame the vast difference in wealth between white families (with a median nest egg of $111,146) and black families ($7,113—not so much a “nest egg” as a “nest crumb”) on, among other factors, the lasting impact of the discriminatory housing policies in the GI Bill.  Most of our wealth takes generations to build, and the houses of our ancestors have contributed much to our present wealth.  But what if your ancestors were precluded from buying houses?  Or if they were forced to buy inferior housing stock?

See?  The typical American narrative—the plucky immigrant who came to America and worked his socks off so his children could have a better life—doesn’t apply to the African American experience.  For one thing, despite the assertions of a Texas history book to the contrary, the African Americans who found themselves on our lovely shores were not “immigrants” or “workers”; they were slaves, property, chattel, whose designation as “souls”  in their owners’ accounting books demonstrates unequivocally their absolute subjugation to the white population who regarded the black people in their midst with little more respect than what they would show a draft horse or mule.  And despite their emancipation, they were subjected to an unrelenting campaign to keep them “in their place.” To white eyes, the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King, and the election of Barack Obama are proof that the campaign is over and the battle against racism won.  However, the hate-filled faces of the white-supremacists in Charlottesville, and the support given to them by our Equivocator-in-Chief, are chilling reminders that the struggle is far from over.

And the fact is, the struggle might never be over if we white people don’t do our part.

So, what is our part?  Well, as I said above, we all need to shut up and listen.  How about inviting a black friend for dinner, and then letting him or her speak without interruption, explanation, or excuse?  Just take it on the chin, no matter how much you want to interject.  And then we need to read histories and analyses to learn what our textbooks have long hidden from us.  A great place to start would be “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, recently published in The Atlantic. It is an eye-opening analysis of the role white supremacism played in the 2016 election of that man.  For a magisterial history of how racism and racist policies shaped our country from its foundations, you really need to read Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is another crucial book.  But you should also check out Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, because you can never underestimate the power of metaphor to explain the truth.  And there are lots more out there.

After that?  I don’t know.  Taking a stand?  Calling out bullshit? Writing a blog? Going on a march? Donations to Black Lives Matter or the Southern Poverty Law Center?  Any constructive ideas gratefully received.  It’ll be a start.  But not a finish.  Not by a long shot. But in the words of John Milton, “Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”

© 2017 D.R. Miller

 

[1] I’m perfectly aware that there are many rabid racists who foam at the mouth at the thought of “Black Lives Matter,” because they really think that black lives don’t matter.  Some of them even hold the highest positions of authority in our government.  But I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to you!

Budgets, Tax Cuts, and Dog Whistles—Oh, My!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2017 by deborah1960

 

Unless you have the amazing good luck of living under a rock, you have, by now, heard about Trump’s proposed budget. In a nutshell, the budget factors in the $600 billion tax cut to the wealthiest citizens resulting from the not-yet repealed ACA, slashes governmental programs across the board with an extra whack of the budget axe to those that provide assistance to the poor, and gives a nice, fat increase to defense spending.

It is a mark of Trump’s diminishing standing among his fellow party members that several GOP members of Congress have chipped in and bought themselves a spine, and declared the budget “dead on arrival.”  However, the moribund status of Trump’s proposal has not prevented a spirited –nay, dare I say, feisty?—defense of this latest manifestation of Trumpism by a variety of surrogates from the Office of Management and Budget,  Congress,  and various “think” tanks.  And from Mick Mulvaney on down, these apologists have glommed onto one particular talking point with alarming alacrity.  In defending their slash and burn budget, they claim that they are “showing compassion to the taxpayer” by cutting federal programs to the bone.  It is not fair, they declare, to expect hardworking middle-class tax payers to continue footing the bill for the lazy slugs who are sucking undeserved milk from a worn out public teat. Fully 45% of American households do not pay income taxes!  Why should we subsidize them?

In other words, they’ve cynically split American citizenry into two camps:  makers and takers.   On a certain gut level, this argument seems to make sense.  You work your butt off, this line of reasoning goes, so why should you pay for free breakfast and medical insurance for the illegitimate spawn of a feckless welfare queen?  And the legitimacy of this position appears to be bolstered by the additional fact that approximately 45% of American households do not pay federal income taxes.  But the very ire that this stance provokes in the listener—that sting from the enormity of this insulting injustice—is precisely what should make you pause and consider the legitimacy of the argument.  Remember:  logic is boring, dull, and analytical.  It should rarely make you need to reach for an extra dose of your blood pressure medication. If an argument leaves you feeling absolutely murderous, then you need to see if it is grounded in logic, or if it is mired in knee-jerk provoking emotionalism.

So, let’s put on our Spock ears and look dispassionately at what they’re saying.  Personally, I think there are at several logically sound reasons for rejecting Mulvaney’s argument.

First, that 45% figure that’s bandied about is interesting as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really go that far.  For example, it doesn’t include all of the other taxes that people pay:   even if you don’t pay federal income taxes, the chances are pretty great that you do pay some combination of payroll, state, property, excise, sales, sin, and gas taxes. According to Roberton Williams, an analyst for the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, the actual percentage of people who pay no taxes is actually closer to 1%.[1]  Pretty much all of us are makers, as it turns out. Similarly, many of the households who didn’t pay federal income taxes had taken advantage of various deductions and credits that they were entitled to because Congress decided to use the tax code as a mechanism for carrying out important social policies, such as encouraging home ownership or giving to charities or making sure that the working poor can afford to go to work or keeping your granddad out of the poorhouse[2] or deciding that families that make less than $20,000 probably have too much shit on their plate already to worry about paying taxes.  You know, compassion.

Second, let’s just look a bit at who is eating the federal pie.  According to their really pretty pie chart, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that in Fiscal Year 2015, the federal government spent $3.7 trillion, of which $3.2 trillion was from taxes and the rest from loans.  In that year, 16%  of the federal budget went to defense, 24% went to Social Security, 25% (or $938 billion) went to Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP[3] , and ACA marketplace subsidies, and 10% went to Safety Net programs.  Debt, vets, transportation, education, science and medical research, non-security related international programs, and miscellaneous crap made up the rest of the expenses (about 25%).  Now, you might tot up the Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, marketplace, and safety net programs and think, “Holy shit!!  The poor really are sucking up all of the federal resources.”  But slow down, okay? First of all, Social Security, including Social Security Disability Insurance,  is an insurance program, and current recipients have contributed to the program through their payroll tax contributions.  Second, of the 25% of the federal budget that went to paying for the poor’s health bill, two-thirds went to Medicare—which is available to all Americans over the age of 65, both rich and poorall you have to do is pay in and hope you make it to 65.  Social Security and Medicare are not programs for the poor.

But let’s be truly Scrooge-ish in our analysis and do our best to root out the freebooters in Granny’s nursing home. In 2015, 24% of Medicare recipients were at or under 200% of federal poverty levels.   However, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 41% of Medicare payments come from general federal revenues, while 38% was from pay roll taxes, 13% from beneficiary premiums, and the rest from state transfers, interests, and the ubiquitous but tantalizingly vague “other.”[4] Part A of Medicare, which covers hospital, nursing home, hospital, and home care, is the most expensive part of Medicare ($261.2 billion), and, guess what:  in 2014, only 1% of the Part A bill was paid for through income taxes!  The bulk of Medicare payments that were covered by federal income taxes were under Medicare B and D. These two programs totaled $338 billion, of which $253.5 billion (or 75%) is paid for by federal tax dollars.[5]  So, if we assume that 24% of that $253.5 billion was spent on the elderly poor, then the total of federal tax dollars spent on the poor for Medicare B and D is $63.4 billion. Add in the $633 million the feds chip in to the poor in Medicare A (25% of $2.5 billion in federal income taxes paid under Part A), the total payments to the poor under Medicare that originated from federal income tax is $64 billion.

So, let’s add up the federal income tax dollars that were spent on the poor (in billions of dollars):

 

Medicare 64
CHIP 9.7
Medicaid 351
ACA marketplace subsidies 41
Safety net programs[6] 362
Total: 827.7

 

Now, let’s see what percentage of federal income tax dollars were actually paid directly to the poor.  Taking the $3.7 trillion 2015 total budget as our starting point, I’ll immediately knock out the $938 billion in Social Security because, as I’ve pointed out before, that is funded by payroll taxes.  Similarly, I’ll toss out the $343.2 billion for Medicaid that came from non-federal income tax dollars.  That leaves us with roughly $2.4 trillion, of which $827.7 billion is 34%.  And since in 2015 32% of Americans were at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, I would be inclined to say that seems about right.  And here’s a point:  if you thought it was unfair for 55% of potential federal income tax payers to subsidize the 45% who don’t pay income tax, then how fair is it for 32% of the population to bear the burden of 60% of the budget cuts?

When you think about it, the middle and upper classes get quite a lot out of the budget.  After all, who benefited from bank bailouts?  Who gets the most benefit from agricultural subsidies and shiny new airports?  I have a guess, and it isn’t the under-employed white guy living out in the country who’s about to lose his pick-up truck because he can’t make his loan payments.  Furthermore, this is not taking into account the very real benefits to the rich that are not accounted for in the budget. In 2015, $1.2 trillion dollars were exempted, excluded, or deducted from potential federal income tax and payroll tax revenues.  Also known as “tax expenditures,” these funds would have been enough to pay for Social Security, or Medicare and Medicaid combined, or defense and non-defense discretionary spending. In essence, because these dollars that are not captured by the federal government, they act as subsidies for the people who are eligible to claim them. While the poor benefited from the Earned Tax Credit, most tax deductions and exclusions are overwhelmingly skewed towards the wealthy[7] :  according to the CBPP, 50% of tax expenditures were claimed by the top 20%.[8] But because by their very nature they are not revenue, this benefit is not reflected in the federal budget. So who’s the real piggy at the trough?  Not sure, but I bet it’s the one whose chauffeur drove it to the food fest, and not the one who can’t afford the bus fare to get there.

All of this raises an important question:  why focus on the poor if they represent only a third of federal income tax dollars spent?  Well, for one thing, it’s easy to pick on the poor.  Practically by definition, they are vulnerable to attack, lacking the education, savvy, and resources to defend themselves and their interests.  And, let’s face it, we don’t really like the poor.  For all our protestations about being a classless society, we have a long, extensive and fairly vile history of abusing and denigrating the poor[9].  They make us feel bad, especially when it turns out that it’s not people’s  poor choices that create poverty (or even their state of mind), but ingrained societal inequities, including the failure to provide a living wage and the disproportionate impact of inherited wealth.[10] So when we’re feeling sad and scared and want to blame someone for our shitty state of affairs, the poor make a convenient whipping boy. Perhaps that’s why Trump’s budget really packs a wallop against the same white, rural, poor who voted for him.

But let’s be real here, right?  We know what Mulvaney is really trying to do.  He’s blowing on his dog whistle.   The tendency of white Americans to associate poverty with African-Americans has been well-documented, as has its connection to attacks on welfare systems.[11]  Using “poor” as a surrogate for “black” is a time-honored tradition at least since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in the 1968 presidential campaign—and not just for Republican presidents.[12] And nobody can blow on that particular dog whistle half as well as Donald Trump. He won not despite using overtly racist language, but because of it.  So Mulvaney, by picking on the poor, by pitting hard-working “us” against shiftless, feckless “them,” is using the same tactics his boss used to such great success back in November.[13]

So what do we do?  Point out that in 2015 41% of people living under the poverty line were white? Discuss how his budget will actually hurt Trump supporters the most?  Convene symposia on the links between structural racism and poverty? Well, as much as I love to think that reasoned discourse would bring an end to our racial woes, I really, really, doubt it.  Racism is an emotional response to the world, mired in shame, guilt, and greed, and as such is pretty immune to logic.  Anybody who has had Thanksgiving dinner with their Archie Bunker uncle knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Engaging in the debate on Mulvaney’s terms will do nothing to eradicate the inherent racism of his argument, but it would actually play into his hands by deepening the chasm between Trump supporters and reasonable people and hardening the differences of our positions even more. I therefore suggest that we reject Mulvaney’s position in its entirety and refuse to participate in it at all.  Instead, we need to replace his emotional appeal with one of our own.  And ours, I humbly suggest, would have the double charm of being grounded in fact and patriotism.  Hooray!

Here’s how it goes. While a mere 99% of households are makers, I would argue that 100% of us are takers.  We don’t all take the same things, but we all take something.  Some people get retirement benefits from having served our country, while others get help getting preventive medical care for their kids.  Hipsters might go to an exhibit funded in part by the NEA, while little kids like going to their local libraries and museums to learn[14].   Student loans help our kids get further education, and clean water and fresh air are universally popular, even if, for some unfathomable reason, you don’t “believe” in the impact of greenhouse gasses.  Nobody wants to lose their fingers at work.  The National Park Service is nifty, and how would I get my giggles without the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report? I don’t know about you, but I like  science and medical research, and disease prevention is something I could definitely live with.  Some of us need help to afford to eat, while others like to rake in agricultural subsidies . See how it works?  Something for everyone.  The federal budget accommodates the needs and desires of all citizens, and that’s cool because this country, like all countries, is a joint enterprise.  If Justice Holmes were right, and taxes are the dues we pay for a civilized society, then the budget is the mechanism for establishing and maintaining that civilization. What we need, instead of attacking the users, is a fair and equitable means of raising tax revenues—including from the oh-so-favored top 20%.

Basically, there is a division in our country, but it is not between the makers and the takers.  Instead, it is between those who see government as a means to provide for the common welfare of all its citizens and those who see it as a way to redistribute funds from the poor to the rich. Reader, I think the choice is obvious, but we need to beat our drums about it more, because there are those who will buy Mulvaney’s false dichotomy and deepen the rifts that are already dangerously close to ripping our nation apart.  Sad!

 

©2017 D. R. Miller

[1] For a good explanation of the limitations of the 45% figure, click here.

[2] According to The Economist, in 2011, 22% of families that didn’t pay federal taxes were seniors receiving tax-exempt Social Security benefits.

[3] Children’s Health Insurance Program.  Oh, those pesky kids.

[4] Figure 6 on the KFF fact sheet.  The KFF fact sheet is based on FY 2014 figures, but, you know what?  I’m willing to bet that the percentages are about the same for FY 2015.

[5] Part B = 259.8 billion, and Part D = $78.2 billion.

[6] These programs include SNAP, and Supplemental Security Income for the elderly or disabled poor, and unemployment insurance

[7] The disparity between the haves and have-nots is especially eye-watering when looking at who benefits from the capital gains preferences.

[8] 16.6% went to the top 1%.

[9] And if you don’t believe me, check out this light-hearted tome, the genteelly named White Trash by Nancy Isenberg .  Also available on Audible for your listening pleasure.

[10] Stupid poor.  Always choosing the wrong parents.

[11] See, for example, Gilens, M. “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the News Media” Public Opinion Quarterly, 1996, found at http://www.uvm.edu/~dguber/POLS234/articles/gilens.pdf.

[12] Bill Clinton’s campaign for welfare reform springs to mind, for example.

[13] You really need to read the National Book Award winning Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kelly of the University of Florida.  I mentioned this book in my last blog, but I really can’t recommend it enough if you’re at all interested in the evolution of racist ideas and their role in justifying racist beliefs, actions, and policies.

[14] Because Christ knows they won’t be able to learn anything at their local public school, thanks to Trump’s budget!

Presidential Grammar 101: Dynamic, Stative, and Modal Verbs

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2017 by deborah1960

Verbs are wonderful.  The root of a verb is aptly called “the infinitive” because any given verb can take place at any time: the past, the present, the future.  With verbs, we can express actions that occurred in the past but continue into the present (present perfect:  Trump has always been a buffoon) or that will take place in the future after something else occurs (future perfect:  I hope that Comey will have completed his public testimony before Sean Spicer’s ass is fired.)  Heck!  Verbs are so flexible that we can even use them to express hypotheticals, situations contrary to fact, or wishes (conditional:  If Paul Ryan loved his country more than power, he would start impeachment proceedings; and subjunctive:  I wish McConnell weren’t such a bald-faced liar and hypocrite.)

So, verbs are gifted with temporal agility, and if that were all they were capable of, I think we could still agree that they are pretty remarkable indeed.  However, the true beauty of verbs is their ability to allow us to express a limitless range of physical and mental and emotional actions.  In other words, they not only allow us to express what we do, but also what we are—and even what we should.  It is this aspect of verbs, which is so fundamental to their nature that it is frequently overlooked, that I wish to examine.

In general, then, there are three basic types of verbs:  dynamic, stative, and modal.[1]  Dynamic verbs, as their name suggests, involve some type of action, process, or behavior.  In other words, it’s what we do.  Here are some examples:

Hillary Clinton laughed until she nearly wet herself at the notion that Trump had fired Comey because of the FBI’s bungled investigation of her emails.

Anderson Cooper’s eyes rolled like a wheel of fortune during his interview with Kellyanne Conway.

The hundreds of Benghazi “patriots” who had gathered in front of the White House to protest Trump’s loosey-goosey sharing of top-top-top secret intelligence with his Russian comrades screamed, “Lock him up!”[2]

Stative verbs, on the other hand, reflect our states of being, or who we are. These include verbs of existence (“Trump is totally irresponsible”); appearance (“Kellyanne seems really shifty”); feelings and emotion (“McMasters really hates lying to the press on behalf of his shit-storm of a boss”); mental processes (“Mitch McConnell forgot the meaning of the phrase ‘checks and balances’); and possession (“To their chagrin, many GOP congressmen own their votes in favor of TrumpRyanCare”).  Generally, you don’t use the progressive (continuous) tense[3] with stative verbs.  So, for example, you would say “The chocolate cake tastes all right but really it’s nothing to write home about,” but not “The chocolate cake is tasting all right but really it’s nothing to write home about.”  However, there are lots and lots of stative verbs that can also be dynamic.[4] Here’s an example of what I mean:

Sean Spicer lies to the press (stative:  he always does it).

Sean Spicer is lying to the press again (dynamic:  he is currently in the act of lying).

Sean Spicer is lying prostrate on the rug after the daily briefing (dynamic: using a different meaning of the verb “to lie”).

“To be” can, under certain circumstances be either stative or dynamic, depending on how it’s used:

Sean Spicer is a liar (stative:  he always is a liar)

Sean Spicer is being a liar (dynamic:  right now, at this moment, Sean Spicer is lying).[5]

“To have” can also be dynamic or stative:

I have had a nasty case of nausea since November 9, 2016 (stative:  possession)

I am having a particularly nasty case of nausea right now (dynamic:  I am in the process of being sick right now).

However, even though they can behave similarly,[6] they really do not mean the same thing.  Consider the difference between these two sentences:

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts”

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which is absolutely right to do, facts”

Now, as delightfully refreshing as it is to see Trump dealing in facts, even in the most unfortunate of circumstances, I think we can agree that the first sentence (his actual tweet) is quite different from the second sentence (which is what I think he wishes we would think he said).  To have the right to do something does not mean that it is right to do it. You would think that was obvious, but, well, you know.  Trump.

But this exploration between having a right and being right—the difference between “can” and “ought,” in other words–makes a nice segue to modal verbs.  Modal verbs are words that express degrees of necessity and possibility.  They include could, should, would, ought, may, might, can, shall, will, and must. Hardly anyone (besides English teachers and other grammar enthusiasts, that is) realizes that these words are verbs at all. They simply don’t act like normal verbs; hell, they don’t even have an infinitive form (there is no “to must”).  When diagramming a sentence with modal verbs, most students just scratch their heads and wonder where in the world the goddamned predicate is.

Yet, in many ways, the modal verb is what makes civilization possible.  They establish our bounds, and also act as a reality check.  When joined by “have”, could, would, and should allow us to evaluate our past actions, and enable us to learn from our mistakes.  They really are the most marvelous words.  But don’t just take my word for it:  look at these incredibly useful examples to see what I mean!

A president may disclose top secret information to a traditional enemy, but perhaps he oughtn’t.

A president could choose to share top secret information with a traditional enemy, but he should not do it just to prove how cool his intelligence sources are.

The Russian officials must have been beside themselves with joy when they received the top secret information from the president.

The next time the president thinks about sharing top secret information with the Russians, he might want to remember that he has a duty to the citizens of his country to act in their best interests.

So, that’s it, then.  Dynamic, stative, and modal.  Now, you might be thinking that all this is nice, but has nothing to do with real life.  Reader, I could not disagree more.  If you think about it, looking closely at these verbs should remind us about the difference between our thoughts and our actions, between innate qualities that cannot be changed and attitudes that can be, between the things we can do and the things that we ought (or ought not). That’s because our words and the rules that govern them are not separate from ourselves and our actions, but are entwined in them.  We once had a president who understood that, and chose his words carefully as a result.  Alas, that is no longer the case.  So, if the current president won’t pay attention to his words, then we have no choice but to do it for him.  Sad!

[1] Yes, yes, yes.  I know that there are auxiliary verbs (AKA “helping verbs”)—to have, to do, and to be.  But when these verbs are functioning as auxiliary verbs, they are used to just change the tense of verbs.  In other words, they perform a purely grammatical function.  So screw them—they’re boring.    But please note that I said “functioning as auxiliary verbs” because all of these auxiliary verbs can be dynamic, and two of them can be stative and dynamic (but no prizes for guessing which ones). Verbs.  As slippery as the slope the GOP is pushing us down.

[2] Not really—I’m just fucking with you.

[3] The continuous or progressive tense is formed by joining some form of the verb “to be” with the present participle (-ing) of the verb in question.  Here’s what I mean:

Past continuous:  Donald Trump was eating the most delicious piece of chocolate cake when he shared state secrets with the waiters at Mar-a-Lago.

Present continuous:  Right now, Donald Trump is eating the most delicious piece of chocolate cake while sharing state secrets with the waiters at Mar-a-Lago.

Future continuous:  Without a doubt, Donald Trump will be eating the most delicious piece of chocolate cake the next time he shares state secrets with the waiters at Mar-a-Lago.

[4] Well, of course there are.  This IS English grammar we’re discussing, after all!

[5] However, you need to be careful—there are some conditions that are so innate that you cannot convert them to a dynamic state.  So, you can say “Donald Trump is a narcissist,” but not “Donald Trump is being a narcissist.” That’s because Trump’s narcissism is the very core of his personality, and not something that he can turn on or off like a faucet.

[6] And now you know which two auxiliary verbs are both stative and dynamic!  Good for you!

© 2017 D.R. Miller

How to Tell BF from BS

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2017 by deborah1960

A recent op-ed article in the New York Times raised an interesting (and eponymous) question:  has Trump stolen philosophy’s critical tools? The author, Casey Williams, argues that some of the blame for Trump’s rather casual relationship with the truth lies in some measure with the philosophers, literary critics, and social scientists who have chipped away at the notion that truth can in any way be deemed objective, universal, and unquestionable.  In a world where the one universally acknowledged truth is that the truth cannot be known, it is a short hop, skip, and a jump to proclaiming the legitimacy of “alt-truth.”  Certainly, truth is subjective.  If nothing else, neuroscience has established that the evidence of our eyes and of our memory is anything but reliable.  A quick peek at Neuroscience News reveals how researchers are learning how fragile, friable, and fantastical our memories—so critical to our understanding of “truth”–are.  Trump therefore cannot be lying, because there cannot be such a thing as the truth.  Instead of lies, Trump is merely recasting his version of the truth, or rather, is positing one of an infinite possible truths.  This situation raises the hitherto unthinkable possibility that Trump is a b.f. (bona fide—good faith) philosopher, and not a b.s. (bullus shittus) artist.

And yet this prospect doesn’t sit well with me, and I think Williams finds it a quite uncomfortable notion, too. Indeed, he ends by stating that the only way for us to determine the legitimacy (or otherwise) of Trump’s pronouncements is for us to use critical thinking skills.  After all, philosophy and truth-seeking should be supported by sound reasoning, right? So, let’s put on our Critical Thinking Caps and do it!  Let’s root out rotten reasoning!

First, intentions should matter. And something tells me that Trump’s intentions are not pure.  Someone who acknowledges the possibility of a subjective truth, and who rejects the notion of a universal truth, tends to be anti-authoritarian.  If you have a nuanced view of the world, and are willing to accept that there is, indeed, more than one way to skin a cat,[1] then you are far less likely to attempt to impose your world view upon others.  This is evident in literary criticism, which by its very nature encourages the reader to develop personal interpretations of texts.  Analyzing a canonical work such as Othello through a feminist lens, for example, enables us to view the characters of Emilia and Desdemona as far more critical (and interesting) than if we simply accept the heavy-handed traditional view that the female characters are merely stock figures whose sole purpose in the play is to move the plot along.  Similarly, adopting different ways of viewing the world might make one a bit more sensitive to the impact of history upon current events.  So, for example, one might be a tad more willing to concede the importance of asserting that “black lives matter” if one looked at the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching through the eyes of African Americans.  I know that if I were African American, I would be a bit shrill in asserting my right to exist in the face of a power structure that has done everything possible to downplay the importance of black lives.[2] Absolutists, on the other hand, appear to have no difficulty with declaring that their point of view is the correct position to take. Frankly, there is nothing in Trump’s biography, rhetoric, or actions to support the idea that he is a subtle observer of the human condition.  Indeed, I think that Trump himself would scoff at the idea that he really need to see things from another person’s point of view. Atticus Finch he is not.[3] At the very least, his sweeping generalizations indicate that he is a man who sees the world in absolute terms.

But even if we assume that Trump’s intentions are as pure as Sir Galahad, and that Trump were posing an alternative truth instead of a downright lie, there should still be some relationship to the “truth” he is refuting.  Let’s look at the example Williams used:  Trump’s tweet in response to the increased heat generated by the investigation into Russian interference with the election.  Here it is, in all its glory:

 “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism.”

Now, you might look high, and you might look low, but there is nothing in this statement that is in any way relevant to the question of just how far up his puppet Putin’s hands go.[4]  This lack of a logical relationship between the statement (“Putin really had his hand way, way, WAY up his puppet!”) and the refutation (“Obama bugged me!”) can be either intentional (a red herring) or inadvertent (ignoratio elenchi)[5].  But either way, as any Critical Thinking Teacher worth her salt can tell you, this disconnection is a fatal flaw to the argument Trump is making, because all it does is throw sand into the reader’s eyes.  Instead of shedding light on the matter at hand, Trump is obscuring it.  Blurts do not sound reasoning make.

Furthermore, even if “truth” doesn’t exist, “facts” sure do.  There are observable, measurable phenomena whose existence can be verified.  Temperatures can be measured, stock prices recorded, and hot mic remarks  replayed.  To date, he has not offered any evidence to back his claim about Obama bugging Trump Tower.  Nor is this an isolated lapse: Trump’s relationship with facts is notoriously lax. Politifact, an independent fact-checking website, reckons that 71% of the 394 statements by Trump that they fact-checked were mostly false (20%), false (33%), or “pants-on-fire” (16%).  And these statements include easily fact-checked falsehoods (“All pipelines that are coming into this country from now on has (sic) to be American steel”) and some just plain silly pants-igniting lies ( “Before the presidential campaign, ‘I didn’t know Steve [Bannon]’”). I think that we can all agree that a philosophical truth-seeker will, if nothing else, at least try to make his or her statements consistent with the factual record.

But mostly, Trump’s rhetoric is simply not consistent with typical philosophical discourse.  Can any among you honestly say that The Critique of Pure Reason was simply un-put-down-able?  Or that Of Grammatology was a real page turner?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?

Of course not.  And there is an excellent reason for this:  philosophical writings are intellectual, rational, and about as exciting to read as paint can labels.  That’s why most people don’t read them and instead use Sparknotes.[6]

Now, there are many things you can call Trump’s rhetoric, but “dry” and “intellectual” certainly aren’t among them.  Look at these examples to see what I mean:

“Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”

“I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

“If I were running ‘The View’, I’d fire Rosie O’Donnell. I mean, I’d look at her right in that fat, ugly face of hers, I’d say ‘Rosie, you’re fired.’”

They are not identical in tone or subject.  In that first quotation, Trump’s New Year’s greeting manages to conflate love and vague threats to his “enemies” in a rather memorable –and disturbing—manner, while the repeated references to the greatness of his wall in the second quotation brings to mind the hubristic musings of an illiterate eight-year-old.  The revenge fantasy of the third quotation is marked by its viciousness.  But they share a vital quality:  they are all riddled with emotive language.

Emotive language, as its name strongly suggests, is used to create an emotional response in the reader or listener.  And that emotional response is often visceral, which literally means taking place in the gut.  Fear, love, humor, horror all have physical manifestations: sweat, increased heart rate, laughter.  Even my usual response to Trump’s language, nausea, is merely the physical manifestation of my disgust.

You might notice that in the midst of all this emotion, there is very little intellectual reaction going on.  It takes real effort to think after reading a Trumpism, because you feel emotionally drained.  A b.f. philosopher, on the other hand, leaves you exhausted because she exercised your brain.  By purposely creating an emotional reaction, Trump is using linguistic prestidigitation to distract the reader from the critical task at hand of evaluating the legitimacy of his “alt-truth.”  Far from seeking his own subjective truth, he is preventing the reader from engaging with the meaning of his words in any substantive way.

And that, dear reader, is why I feel utterly comfortable with labeling Trump as a b.s. artist, and his “alternate truths” as lies.

[1] My cat hates this expression.

[2] And in case you think I’m being ever so slightly hysterical, you might want to check out this book.

[3] I am, of course, referring to the Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird, or, as I like to call him, the real Atticus Finch.  Someday I will write a blog about the immorality of tricking an old lady with dementia into publishing a draft of a crap novel she had abandoned decades ago.  But more of that anon.

[4] My!  That’s a disturbing image!

[5] If you want to know the difference, I suggest you click here to read a really, really AMAZING blog that uses the best words to explain it!! Nice!

[6] Yes, yes, yes.  I know that there are a few among you who have, indeed, read these works in their entirety and really, really liked them.  Bully for you.  But I was talking about normal people.

 

Copyright 2017 D. R. Miller