Thursday, May 04, 2023

Oh, no, not again

 Once again America's financial credibility is on borrowed time. On January nineteenth, 2023, US Treasury Secretary, Janet L. Yellen notified Kevin McCarthy, House Speaker, and other leaders of both houses, of the steps she was taking to prevent the United States defaulting on its debt. She would cease investing in the retirement funds of civil and postal workers, stop new borrowing, and cash in some retirement fund investments. By law, she has to pay it all back once the debt ceiling is raised or suspended. However, Kevin McCarthy and fellow Republicans intend to put conditions on raising the debt limit, while President Biden has said he won't negotiate over money that's already been spoken for. Biden has the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment on his side for what that's worth. Section 4. of the amendment basically says if the US owes money, it must pay it back. Quibbling about the debt is not okay.

Yet quibbling over repayment of the debt has occurred on multiple occasions. Some of this quibbling has caused partial government shutdowns which force affected workers to scrimp and borrow until their paychecks are restored. The 2011 stand-off over the debt ceiling caused a downgrade in the country's credit rating costing the US an extra billion dollars in debt interest. This time around, President Bidden has made it clear that he has no intention of bargaining.

While the Obama administration considered invoking the 14th Amendment, it quickly dismissed the idea. Instead, Obama agreed to spending cuts. This time, the House Republican majority has passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling that would reverse much of the Inflation Reduction Act intended to tackle climate change. Another of it's provisions would de-fund the IRS, a move that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said would reduce future revenue. A third provision would place additional work requirements on those already burdened by poverty and poor health.

President Biden released his 2024 budget proposal in early March. If implemented, it would raise taxes on those earning over $400,000 and roll-back tax benefits granted to the wealthy in 2017. During the final week of April the House Republicans passed a bill that would raise the debt ceiling at the expense of Democratic gains. It stands no chance of passing since the Senate won't take it up and the President will veto it. On May first, the Treasury Secretary warned that the US could reach the debt ceiling by as early as June first. Talks between the president and Congressional members are scheduled for May 9. Those talks could be rocky since there is little consensus among Republicans and Biden's firm stance leaves little room for negotiation.

Legal experts disagree about what would result if the Section 4 of the 14th Amendment were invoked. One fundamental question comes down to who besides the House has authority  to force the House to do it's job of repaying debt. Some say the President could order the Treasury to continue borrowing, but others argue that the President lacks this authority.

Sadly, we budget and spend before sitting down to discuss how much we're willing to borrow. The debt ceiling carries legal weight, but so too does Section 4's requirement that we pay our debts. The legal conundrum that results when the 14th Amendment bumps up against debt ceiling legislation, provides an underhanded opportunity to whichever party wants to bludgeon an already approved budget.

The 14th Amendment has a Third Section that could make a difference in these stalemates, yet I've never seen that Section mentioned in discussions of the debt ceiling. Section 3. says one can't be a President, Senator or Congressman, etc. if one has taken an oath to support the US Constitution and has engaged in insurrection or rebellion against it. "Insurrection" generally implies violence, but "rebellion" can be simple obstruction, such as a refusal to obey an order or fulfill a duty. Repaying government debt is one such duty. Refusing to pay it is rebellion.

If the debt ceiling is breached, then those responsible will have refused to honor US debt, will have engaged in rebellion, and will, therefore, be ineligible to remain in office. But who would enforce this? Certainly not the very Congressmen that voted not to honor the debt. Perhaps the President or the Senate could force those Congressmen out of office. Perhaps not.

What could make a difference is if the American people themselves called out their errant Congressmen. Here's what I'm writing:

Dear Congressman ______,

Please be advised that if you do not honor the United States debt you will have violated Section 3 of the 14th Amendment this act of rebellion will result in your being ineligible to remain in office. Should that happen, I will urge your removal from office.

The Fourteenth Amendment
Section 3.
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

The oath that the amendment refers to is this:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”

Section 4.
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

un Civil un War

January brought news that a second civil war might be in store for America. On January 6, Michelle Goldberg wrote about two books predicting civil war in the near future. She notes, however, that not all scholars agree. Goldberg quotes Josh Kertser tweeting that few civil war scholars believe the United States is on the verge of civil war. Goldberg adds, "yet even some who push back on civil war talk tend to acknowledge what a perilous place America is in."

On January 11, Ron Elving wrote that a number of polls show civil war is on peoples' minds. While animosity remains between north and south states, the main division is between "metro and non-metro" citizens. How would the battle lines in such a civil war be drawn? Throw out history — we're in new territory here.

I divide Republicans into two camps, pragmatists and die-hard Trump followers. I believe it's the  die-hard Trump followers who are most likely to rebel. I estimate these constitute about a third of voting Americans. Clearly not a majority, albeit a meaningful minority. These voters are angry. If our society addressed their anger it could move foreword, and by doing so we would address shared societal needs. However American voters differ in their approach to meeting our societal needs. One approach allows Trump die-hards to continue embracing The Big Lie even as Trump and his allies face legal scrutiny. This third of voters lives in an alternate reality, in denial or unaware of what the majority accepts as fact.

Some label Trump die-hards Low Information Voters. Traditional news sources (fake news to some) reported overwhelming evidence of a fraud-free 2020 election. Big Lie supporters failed to provide evidence of election fraud. Instead of evidence they provided only unsubstantiated claims. For these voters trusting a personality matters more than trusting information.

Personality cults are the nemesis of democracies. The Trump Cult is destroying what's left of ours. Democracy demands cooperation while personality cults and partisanship drive selfish ambitions. Political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution. Americans should eliminate parties entirely and minimize the influence any one politician can have. Political discourse should be issue driven instead of limited to party chestnuts.

Discourse driven politics, however, is not possible under our current system. We address too few issues, not always factually, with slogans rather than dialogue. One reason we're this way is that we are influenced by blame-fueled partisan radio and cable programing and by hate-fueled social media. Such media couldn't behave this way before the Fairness Doctrine was toppled. The cost of unrestricted free speech is that it allows people to lie without consequences. Before we can meaningfully address issues we must first agree upon facts. We need renewed standards and laws that would ensure falsehoods would rise no further than exaggerations. Under such laws, severe exaggerations would face consequences. Such a society would require enough education to suss out facts and meaningful arguments, but it wouldn't require geniuses. It would only require that people respected the rules of polite discussion. Facebook or its imitators would not exist in a dialog driven society. Useful discussion would replace the current troll fest.

But changing the rules of dialog is not sufficient to rebuild our democracy. We must also eliminate political parties and the ability of the wealthy to spend unrestricted amounts to influence political opinion.

In other words, we must become a democracy again. The idea of corporations as persons allows a few wealthy individuals the ability to buy voters' opinions at the expense of corporate employees. In a true democracy everyone's opinion matters. But to make that work, informed polite discussion must occur. We need to eliminate parties and partisanship and to do so candidates must become more issue driven, and parties need to be replaced with issue-centered coalitions. Eliminating congressional districts would not only eliminate gerrymandering, but would force candidates to choose among a number of state wide issues.

While every state has two senators, states have varied populations. Both California's millions and Wyoming's' thousands are represented by two senators. This is inherently undemocratic because it favors the few over the many. However nothing in the Constitution says we must elect senators at the state level. Why not elect them nationally instead?

Maybe my ideas seem goofy. That's okay, we don't have to use them. But we do need to start thinking outside the box, because the democracy we've got isn't working well anymore. Lying partisans are destroying our country. Let's keep what works, build around commonalities and dump the damaging bullshit.

Friday, March 04, 2022

Poisons and profundities

When We Cease to Understand the World

Benjamin Labatut
Historical Fiction, 191 pages

The book begins with mustard gas and cyanide — mustard gas caused death in the trenches in the first world war, while cyanide exterminated captive Jews and suiciding Nazis in the second. Between those two wars a scientific revolution occurred. At the 1927 Solvay Conference quantum physics theory came into being. While that theory makes sense mathematically, it defies sensibility when described in words. That's as true today as it was in 1927.

Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity in 1915, ten years after his theory of special relativity. At the time, Europe was at war. Einstein made no attempt to solve the equation backing his theory. Shortly before his death, a German soldier sent a letter containing the equation's solution from the trenches to Einstein. This soldier-mathematician was Karl Schwarzschild whose solution implied the possibility of singularities, the oddities at the centers of black holes. Mustard gas, in part, caused Schwarzschild's death.

Benjamin Labatut writes of two other mathematicians, Shinichi Mochizuki and Alexander Grothendieck. As yet, no other mathematicians understand Shinichi Mochizuki's proof of a basic mathematical concept and he withdrew its publication. Alexander Grothendieck realized that humanity wasn't ready to understand the "heart of the heart" of mathematics and became a recluse. The heart of Labatut's book, however is the emergence of quantum theory, one that like Einstein's, challenges human understanding. 

This historical fiction is a brief and elegant explanation of the persons and ideas that resulted in quantum physics. But the fictional bits, while entertaining, are unnecessary, and add little to the story. The same can be said about the section following the epilogue. That section, "The Night Gardner," only adds extra pages and could have been skipped entirely.

While quantum physics and relativity theories both played parts in our losing our understanding of the world, Labatut missed a third theory which played a part in that loss. However Darwin's theory of evolution didn't cause that lost understanding. Rather, it was some peoples' response to that theory which caused our loss. Prior to Darwin, the new science of geology caused many Christian theologians to accept that the earth couldn't have been created in the six thousand years of Biblical time. It had to be far older. The Bible, therefore had to be read figuratively rather than literally. Darwin's theory was generally well received by his religious contemporaries. It wasn't until shortly after World War I that evolution was rejected by North American religionists. Throwing out evolution also means throwing out geology and archaeology. some have argued that dinosaur fossils must have been planted by God or Satan to test believers' faith or deceive us. Other explanations that pit the Bible against science strike me as equally far-fetched. In my view, faith must be guided by science and reason lest religion become superstition. Once one builds ones beliefs on blind faith rather than on faith tempered by science and reason, it becomes possible to ignore politicians' lies and vote on faith alone. We cease to understand the world at our peril.