Thursday, March 22, 2018

TRUMP: WARTIME COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF

 From his perspective and with his interests, Trump has made some very smart moves recently.  The departures of Rex Tillerson and H. R. McMaster in the past two weeks and, I predict, the departure of James Kelly by May Day; and the transfers or appointments of Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and, if confirmed, Gina Haspel—mean one thing: Trump has assembled a wartime administration.

I further predict that Trump, with the support of these new advisers will launch or threaten to launch attacks on North Korea or Iran or both.  There is no reason to think that he has changed wishes which he has intimated in the past.  Now, he has a war-prone group of advisers to aide and abet him.

These threats or attacks will not occur at least until late spring and may await mid-summer because Trump will want them to have maximum political effect at home.  He expects that they will rally the American people to support the country in its military posture or operations.  He expects them to help Republicans in the off-year elections.  He expects them distract the public from the harmful effects his tariff policies.  And he hopes that they will derail Robert Mueller’s investigation, if only by pressuring Republicans to withdraw financial support for its continuance during wartime, because, so they will claim, it undermines the president at a perilous time.


Oh, I do so hope that I am wrong.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

REPUBLICAN REBELLION: THE NEXT AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

The signers of the Declaration of Independence subscribed their names under this concluding statement: “And for the support of this Declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”  It expressed less brotherly comradeship or political braggadocio than a life-and-death commitment under threatening circumstances.  What the British called a rebellion we have called a revolution, and colonialists’ armies were losing.  So signers of the Declaration were either British traitors or American patriots depending on the outcome of their actions against the government in England, its designated colonial governors, and its military forces.  Had England suppressed the rebellion, the signatories would have been hunted down and executed or imprisoned, and their families impoverished and exiled from society in disgrace.

Americans won the war and the peace.  They achieved not only political separation from England, but also a political rebalancing of authorities between central and regional governments.  However, it began with a false start.  Fearful of concentrated power in a monarchy, political leaders approved The Articles of Confederation, which limited the powers of the federal government and immediately proved too weak to serve the shared interests of the states.  They soon corrected their error with The Constitution of the United States, which gave greater but still limited authority to the federal government.  Since then, the boundaries of authority between federal and state governments, though flexible and fluctuating in changing circumstances, have made neither side too weak for effective government or too strong for a robust democracy.

From the larger perspective of a cross-Atlantic polity, the hostilities between England and its colonies constituted a civil war—America’s first civil war (1775-1783).  Its second was the Civil War (1861-1865), a rebellion with a similar structure: a central government and secessionist states (not, as the Southern misnomer would have it, “The War between the States”).  The argument over causes of the rebellion—slavery or states rights—relies on a verbal distinction without a material difference.  All rebellious states viewed slavery as the, not a, fundamental issue of states rights, so fighting for states rights was fighting for slavery, and vice versa.  United by only this shared ideology, but divided by separate state interests, the Confederacy could not—in the end, did not—prove successful as a functioning government of a cohering country. 

The concepts of government and its appropriate purposes differ greatly between those accepted by Americans at its founding and those asserted by Confederates, as the different preambles to the U.S. and the Confederate constitutions indicate, respectively:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

“We, the people of the Confederate States, each state acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity — invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God — do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.

Indeed, the constitution of the Confederacy made its failure inevitable because it gave no real authority to its central government in Richmond.  The Confederacy thus repeated the first mistake of the Founding Fathers in over-correcting for unrealistic concerns about excessive centralized authority.

The Confederate constitution, drafted and adopted in wartime, asserts the states’ “sovereign and independent” status.  It creates a federal government concerned with only law and order, and liberty, for whites.  Otherwise, it creates nothing viable.  It says nothing about perfecting the Confederacy as a whole; understandably, in view of slavery, nothing about promoting the general welfare; and, not at all understandably, during an ongoing war, nothing about ensuring the common defense.

In the short term, in the midst of a war of succession, with some of America’s best military leaders and most dedicated soldiers, Confederate politicians were so parochially, polemically ideological that they could not create a federal government with the powers to conduct a unified effort against what its members regarded as a common enemy.  At most, it could request, not require, troops and supplies to fight for succession, to which requests, states responded if, when, and to what degree they chose.

In the long term, in decades of acrimony leading to hostilities, Southern politicians thought more about a “Southern way of life” dependent on plantations and enjoyed by their owners than about protecting an increasingly inefficient economy increasingly less able to sustain it or satisfy the needs of other Southerners.  Indeed, twenty years before the Civil War, poor whites began their emigration westward over the Oregon Trail.  Those politicians never considered, before or during the war, whether, and if so, how, a federal government with limited powers could assist a slave-based, soil-depleting, cotton-crop economy and keep its member states from competing with or undermining one another.  Thus, Southern and Confederate leaders inspired and fought America’s second civil war and first culture war with no sense of what winning them would mean for their people in changing economic and social circumstances.  Since defeat, they have romanticized and tried to restore that vanished way of life more than recognized new realities and rebuilt a new life for the South.  To this day, Southerners have retained and spread their anti-government politics despite the fact that federal investment helped improve their standard of living.  And, to this day, despite their patriotic rhetoric, they still resist the basic values and virtues of America’s founding documents.

America is approaching its third civil war, a war resembling its first two.  The major issue remains the balance of authority between the central, or federal, government and regional, or state, governments.  The partisan divide between Democrats (also liberals) and Republicans (also conservatives) reflects the divide between the preambles to the two constitutions.  Democrats act in accordance with the U. S. Constitution; Republicans, the party of the “Southern strategy,” with the Confederate constitution.  The differences begin with their first words: Democrats mean “We the People” to mean all people; Republicans mean “We, the people” to mean white people—with one notable difference between upper- and lower-case spellings.  Corresponding differences are evident in Democratic support and Republican opposition to programs and practices respecting the rights and benefits of people, in civil rights, education, health, safety, and the environment; accordingly, they size the role of the federal government large or small.  The differences are also evident in the Democrats’ and the Republicans’ respective views of what it means to be an American; Democrats embrace equality and diversity, and Republicans, inequality and conformity.  Thus arise the controversies and conflicts—or culture wars”—over moral, religious, and social issues, and the size of the role of the federal government in them.  The paradox is the inconsistency on this critical point.  Between the two sets of issues, Democrats and Republicans switch their positions on large or small government.

All of these issues still involve, directly or indirectly, America’s fundamental issues, the ones which divided the country when it wrote its Constitution and when it fought its second Civil War: equality and race.  Because of changing historical circumstances, these issues have metastasized by association with others: gender, religion, ethnicity, and nationality.  A federal government which advances equality for all citizens rejects “states rights,” a stance used to justify legal discrimination on the basis of membership in one or another group, and thereby sanction the bigotries of Americans who have inherited the cultural legacy of Tories and Confederates, sustained the bigotries of their European countries of origin (e.g., Reagan Republicans), or embraced bigotry to prop up their self-assurance against their insecurities.  Thus, Republican-controlled state governments have enacted laws which impose restriction on members of the LGBTQQ community or which impede voting for racial minorities as well as other groups inclined to vote for Democrats: naturalized citizens, Muslims, women, and students.

At the same time, the election of Donald J. Trump as president has given expression in legislation, regulation, executive orders, and appointments to traditional Republican ideological impulses akin to those of the Confederate, not the U. S., constitution.  He is the modern Republican Party’s proxy to represent small-federal government positions on deregulation favoring business, and limitations on rights and benefits for citizens; and to represent large-federal government prejudices on “real Americans” and the “American-way-of-life,” biases, which have been dominant in the Republican Party since Goldwater’s GOP opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Necessarily, Republican leaders House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell approve of Trump’s fronting for them.  Indifferent to his sins of office, they must appear uneasy about his nepotism, conflicts of interest, influence peddling, profiteering, and possibly treason.  They allow Trump to denigrate and dismiss experts and professionals, discredit and debilitate agencies, and disrupt and disregard civil and political norms.  They propose a Confederate-style mix of small government deregulation favoring corporations and oligarchs—the new plantations and their owners—and reduced programs for all others; and of big government meddling favoring Christian and conservative culture warriors—the new “states rights” advocates of inequalities and injustices affecting minorities of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and national origins.  As a prologue to a putsch against the state, they support the growing size, strength, and scope of paramilitary agencies under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the growing callousness of their client and other federal courts, especially a reactionary activist Supreme Court.  They accept the increasingly unrestrained police powers of the Border Patrol (BP), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  The activities of these agencies are preliminary skirmishes in an incremental Republican coup against the government and rebellion against its Constitutional democracy.  America’s third civil war has begun.

I close with a personal note of contempt for the agencies (BP, INS, and ICE) and their uniformed agents.  When I served in Vietnam, I was a member of armed forces which faced an armed enemy in its country.  I admit that American military forces did kill many thousands of civilians as a matter of inadvertence or recklessness in wartime, or of weak or corrupt officers in the field.  But no government policy or legal discretionary practice intended to make war on civilians, especially unarmed women, children, and old men; we did not make war on Vietnamese who sought our protection or a better way of life.


By contrast, these paramilitary agencies (BP, INS, ICE) and their uniformed agents make war on civilians in this country, either those who have fled recently to this country from extreme distress and terrorism in theirs or on those who have lived peacefully and productively in this country for years and decades.  They target the weakest and most vulnerable first (whatever their purported priorities): those who have obeyed the laws or have committed misdemeanors because they are easier to apprehend than those who have committed felonies.  They harass and terrorize them before arrests and raids, violate traditional sanctuaries of schools and churches, arrest them without distinction, incarcerate them for long periods of time, and treat them badly throughout the process.  They intend cruelty to families; they specialize in separating members of families from one another, including small children from their mothers, in humiliating and painful ways—just like slaveowners who broke up black families for advantage.  These BP, INS, and ECI agents have no excuse for their inhumane conduct, even if the law allows it; they voluntarily joined these paramilitary agencies and can just as voluntarily quit them.  Their conduct in obedience to brutal orders disgraces their pose of professionalism.  Shame on these agencies and shame on all these uniformed agents for the dishonor which they bring on America, for their mockery of the Statue of Liberty, and for their part in debasing this country’s best values.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

THREE CHEERS FOR GUNS--NOT

 Take what follows with more than one grain of salt.  My record of writing blogs and columns is, I think, one of restraint, within the boundaries of reasonable discourse and emotional release.  Not now.  I want to express thoughts perhaps less than feelings, all of the frustrated-more-than-angry variety, with an assumed, satirical callousness.  But I shall still let loose: I am “ready”; I “aim”; I “fire.”  My target is guns.

But not a popular target.  Let’s face it: as a populace, Americans love maimings and murders.  They are as American as the western frontier; since every part of America was, at some time, the West, it has always been wild with weapons.  So shooting first, last, and always is as American as America.  Today, having nearly exterminated all indigenous peoples, we settle for mass murders of students at schools, worshippers at churches, and other citizens in large gatherings; and let the media do the rest.  They give us thousands of inches of newsprint and hours of television and internet coverage.  They show pictures (not “shots”) of large numbers of parents and parishioners weeping and wailing, politicians making statements of regret and offering their condolences, men of God praying, police promising justice, people gathering in somber candlelight vigils, flower arrays looking like wedding decorations as we marry ourselves to death.  What a show by and for the survivors!  The only thing missing is another TV series.

According to Einstein’s definition of insanity, Americans are stone-cold crazy, repeating themselves and expecting a different outcome—assuming they want a different outcome.  But they don’t; they are content with the same outcome.  So it cannot be all wrong to endorse guns; our collective behavior clearly says that we are pleased by the news of shootings and oppose meaningful action which would impair our pleasure.  So, despite scattered protests and short-lived protestations to the contrary, Americans want thousands of other Americans maimed or murdered by guns.  The NRA knows this truth; it sees through our hypocrisy and makes a lot of money because of its insight.

So the NRA’s and its supporters’ two main responses make sense.  One is “now is not the right time” to discuss gun control—after every massacre at least since Columbine, in 1999.  No one asks them when would be the right time and how would we know it.  Most of those who say now is not the time are, or are like, those who once said “never” to the end of segregation.  The other is “the massacre should not be politicized.” No one asks them to explain how a discussion of a life-or-death policy can and should avoid being political, hence politicized.  Still, if the staunchest defenders of death do not like being targets of questions, they should consider how much people like being targets of guns.

Still, we do love guns if we can fire them at others.  Or else, we would reject spurious and sophistical arguments justifying them and their status as sacred untouchables.  The argument for guns for self-protection is an absurdity.  Most gun-owners cannot protect themselves or others when the occasion arises without endangering others, including family members.  The number of gun-related deaths from accidental discharges or domestic assaults says that many parents or spouses have little regard for their children or each other.  The argument for more guns is a wish for more deaths—of others, and for bigger profits.  The argument that, if guns are regulated, only bad guys will have them is nonsense.  Strict regulations on manufacturing, importing, and purchasing will diminish their numbers.  Police confiscation will also reduce their numbers.  Strict laws—automatic (no plea deal) charges with stiff, mandatory jail sentences for illegal ownership, possession, transfer, and use of guns—will reduce numbers.  The argument for guns for hunting does not justify the availability of military-style—that is, multi-round, rapid-firing guns—to the public.  No one hunts with them; no one protects others by strolling into malls or movie theaters or schoolyards or public parks with AK-47s or AR-15s.  (The camouflage-clad pseudo-patriots of the rural hinterlands, after watching too many video action games and traipsing too often around the countryside while playing soldier, probably cannot distinguish a real threat from a Terminator.)  Indeed, the casual gun-toter of such guns in such places may be the perpetrator pretending to be, but not, the protector—how can anyone tell the difference beforehand?

My charge that Americans enjoy the maimings and murders from guns results from knowing that they do almost nothing about it.  On the one hand, consider the politics.  If its base can scare Republicans into voting stupidly, perhaps an organized electorate can scare Republicans and Democrats into voting sensibly.  But no: the American people in true bipartisanship would rather enjoy the media blitz or feel sorry for themselves, if the time comes, than do something to stop the carnage, including their kids.  PTAs/PTOs, parents, and students are taking no action (they are not even mad, much less minimally effective, like MADD); they are not powerfully and persistently opposing the virtually unrestricted sale of and access to guns.  They do not criticize senators in their states or representatives in their districts, in hometowns, neighborhoods, gated communities, or country clubs, or through the social media, as enablers of maimings and murders.  They live in a democracy but do not reject them for not solving this problem or elect them to solve it; otherwise, their ballots should be bullets targeting incumbent candidates.  Truth to tell, the survivors of these shootings get their just desserts for the consequences of their collective fecklessness.  Who should care if those closest to the problem and paying the highest costs do not care?  I can conclude only that Americans love guns more than they love each other, hunting more than schooling, and depressed loners and homegrown terrorists more than domestic tranquility.


On the other hand, consider the value of human life.  If you take the dollar value of an NRA contribution to an elected senator or representative for one election and divide it by the number of gun deaths (I set casualties aside) since the previous election, you get a rough idea of the monetary value of a human life to a member of Congress (maybe: the gun lobby, of which the NRA is a part, spends more, so a life is worth a little more).  In 2016, the NRA’s average campaign contribution to senators, all 23 Republicans, was $5873; to representatives, 214 Republicans, 5 Democrats, $2668.  (Source: 2016 NRA federal campaign contributions)  In 2015, 469 people were killed in mass shootings; in 2016, 606—for a total of 1075 deaths in the two years leading up to the 2016 election.  (Source: 2015 mass shootings and 2016 mass shootings)  The math is easy; the results, clear: you are worth $5873/1075, or about $5.47, to your senator and $2668/1075, or about $2.48, to your representative.  When the two NRA contributions per capita are added up, you are worth $7.95 (tax not included).  Two questions.  If you accept that you are not worth much—in fact, are virtually worthless—why bother about gun control if your elected federal official agrees that your life is worth next to nothing?  Or would you give that much to a candidate who valued you more highly?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

TAX TIME IS THE TIME FOR NEW MEXICO’S REFUND RIP-OFF

[Note 1: This blog up-dates my May, 2017, blog on this issue.  As I acquire more information, I shall blog again.]
[Note 2: I overlooked the Fourteenth Amendment, which specifically applies the language of the Fifth Amendment to the states: "No State shall ... deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."  Thanks to Peter Ossorio for this "amendment."]
[Note 3: The indifference to this likely abuse of the Fifteenth Amendment appears at high levels of both sides of the partisan divide.  What the Republican Martinez administration has augmented, Hector Balderas, the Democratic New Mexico Attorney General and one of his party’s great hopes for higher office, has ignored my complaint about this tax-refund rip-off since I submitted it in early June 2017.  When the second-highest official charged with enforcement of the law avoids a violation of this nature and magnitude, the state government shows justice to be corrupted by the condition of the economy.]

No politician likes to raise taxes; every politician wants state revenues to cover expenses; many politicians encourage or tolerate devious efforts to raise revenues without raising taxes.  New Mexico has every reason to seek and sneak obscure sources of tax revenues.  In its annual report (Sep. 2017), State Data Lab, a project of the non-partisan Truth in Accounting, states that “New Mexico does not have enough money to pay its bills.... [Its] “D” grade is given to states with a taxpayer burden between $5,000 & $20,000.  Because of New Mexico’s balanced budget requirement, their taxpayer burden should be $0” (https://www.truthinaccounting.org/library/doclib/NM-2016-2pager.pdf).  It does not help that, according to a summary in a recent 24/7 Wall St. [Journal] report, New Mexico raised its 2017 ranking for quality of management to 49th (Las Cruces Bulletin, 26 Jan.).

So it is that, in the name of fighting identity theft and fraud, the Taxation and Revenue Department (T&RD) conducts annual dragnets to coerce taxpayers claiming refunds to prove their identity or innocence, or permit the state to confiscate refunds for the state treasury.  In 2017, its dragnet reportedly swept up about 59,000 claimants, imposed multiple requirements for documentary proof, and, by delaying the mailing of a dated letter, used up about 7 days in its stated 15-day deadline period, after which, and after a 90-day window for appeals, New Mexico pockets the refunds.  I do not know the amount of revenues thus obtained, but I know that state legislators to whom taxpayers have complained have said and done nothing to the purpose.  How else can they not wonder how the state reasonably makes such demands of 59,000 people?

To justify its political ends, like not raising taxes, the Martinez administration has a record of crying “fraud.”  Dianna Duran, Secretary of State, in the name of ensuring voter integrity, used a claim of about 60,000 possible instances of voter fraud to justify the use of the State Highway Patrol to investigate but closed it without reporting the results: not one instance of voter fraud.  The only fraud in her agency was Duran herself: “New Mexico Secretary of State, Dianna Duran, Pleads Guilty to Fraud” (New York Times, Oct., 2015).  Diana McWilliams, Director, Behavioral Health Services Division, charged 15 behavioral health providers of Medicaid fraud, defunded them after a cursory look-see, gave them no chance to defend themselves, and hired out-of-state providers.  Again, no case of fraud was found, the number of accounting errors was miniscule, but services were disrupted, with damaging effects on the medically needy.  Now, Benjamin Cloutier, T&RD’s Principal Investigative Officer, expanding past policies and practices, implies that thousands of taxpayers claiming refunds have filed fraudulent returns and impels them to prove otherwise or forfeit money otherwise theirs to the state.  The fraud likely is T&RD’s.  One straw in the wind: Tiffany Smyth, its Taxpayer Advocate, lied to a local journalist that the deadline period was 30 days.

Because it is difficult to discover relevant data on any state website (and to get data from elected legislators), I have to assume that a relatively large number of relatively small refunds are thus forfeited because many claimants have neither the time, energy, or determination to jump through administrative hoops to get what is rightfully theirs.  If half those 59,000 claimants avoid or abandon an attempt to recover their refunds, and the refunds average $100, the state retains $2.95 million, a good rate of return on the costs of a one-page letter, an envelope, and a stamp per claimant.  Even more interesting may be the geographic and racial/ethnic distribution of the refund-claiming taxpayers.  If their distribution is proportionate to population, the number of all claimants and the number of Hispanic claimants are, respectively: in Dona Ana County (pop: 209,233), 5,912 and 3,843; in Las Cruces (pop: 101,759), 2,875 and 1,869.  For each of the five Las Cruces or Las Cruces area representatives or senators, the numbers are 575 and 374; for each of the six city councilors, the numbers are 479 and 311.

Though the numbers of claimants and their complaints to state representatives are not negligible, no evident action has resulted.  Surely, John Arthur Smith, long-time chair of the Senate Finance Committee, knows everything which needs to be known about this T&RD program and deems even the paltry contribution of its revenues helpful to the state’s woeful financial condition.  I spoke with Representative Nathan Small soon after he was elected and appointed to the House Taxation and Revenue Committee; understandably, he knew nothing about it.  He said that he would look into it and get back to me; less understandably, he did not.  I spoke with Senator Jeff Steinborn, who, in nearly nine months and despite occasional inquiries, has not fulfilled assurances and has broken repeated promises to investigate this issue and provide me detailed information on the program.  He has both personal reasons for stringing me along and a personal and pecuniary background which seems to abate his concern for constituents with backgrounds unlike his.  I am happy, though my happiness is tempered somewhat by this experience, that Representative Angelica Rubio is interested and has assigned one of her staff to support my efforts.  So far, so good.


I always look forward to filing my state tax returns, especially this year.  Because of a one-time, sizeable, charitable contribution, I am sure to claim a large refund.  I am also sure to get a T&RD letter requiring me to prove that I am who I am—sounds Biblical, does it not?—if I wish to receive it.  Meanwhile, I am not only seeking data relevant to this program, but also exploring its legality, even its Constitutionality.  Thus far, I have learned that no legal or regulatory document, only administrative decision, explains its 15-day deadline.  But I have been unable to obtain much data or to discover the legal basis for T&RD’s withholding and retaining refunds when claimants fail to document that their certified returns claiming refunds are not fraudulent.  After all, no one has to pay a speeding ticket for a specified offense before going to trial or prove innocence to get the payment back (the state must prove guilt before getting payment).  So non-compliance with T&RD’s administrative requirements which lack probable cause specific to any claimant and sufficient for legal action does not seem to justify withholding or retaining refunds.  Indeed, T&RD’s stop-and-frisk-like program seems a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which states that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  (Oddly, the Executive Director of the New Mexico ACLU shows no interest in this issue, which I called to his attention.)  T&RD’s program insinuating that claimants have filed fraudulent returns, allowing it to decide “guilt or innocence,” and thereby justifying it in confiscating their refunds is not a “due process of law.”  Still, in its desperate financial straits and deplorable managerial disarray, New Mexico may recklessly empower its T&RD to do as it sees fit.