Author: Berry Muhl

Wannabe rocker robot guy tech geek poet warrior pencil artist graphics painting pets software coder fisherman photographer singer argument person. From the future.

Building the Perfect Constitution, Part 1

Identifying the Gaps

Making good on my earlier threat to present a nine-part series on the Constitution, I now present you with Part One.  In the introduction (or Part Zero) to this series, I pointed out that the Constitution is contentious, partly because it initially (and for some time afterward, including, in the opinions of many, right now) failed to live up to its early promise, and partly because it can be “interpreted” in a number of ways, usually with some kind of partisan bias.  Interpretation is naturally problematic any time you don’t have full access to the thoughts of the individual(s) who wrote something.  In this case, the best way to resolve matters is to resort to their available writings and other relevant records.  Some of those who contributed to the Constitution made their feelings known prior to its ratification, in the so-called Federalist Papers (John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, all writing under the pseudonym “Publius”); many others had their various thoughts and objections recorded during the debates that took place during the Constitutional Convention, between May 14 and September 17 of 1787.  We can also read the writings of the anti-federalists (“Cato,” “Brutus,” Patrick Henry and others), to discover what they objected to under the proposal to more tightly bind the sovereign States under a strong federal government.

The greatest concern of the anti-Federalists, of course, was the threat of the eventual loss of hard-won liberty to yet another overreaching government.  As previously noted, these guys had just fought a war to eliminate the double threat of burdensome economic regulation and disarmament.   It was only grudgingly that some of these fellows came around to the notion of centralized power, and some retained reservations about this well afterward (three of the delegates to the Convention never signed off on the new Constitution).

Patriot, statesman, writer of epic breakup letters.

The Federalist writers did succeed, over the course of 85 essays, in convincing the masses (or at least their delegates)  that a stronger form of government was required. 

For many progressives, here is where the story ends:  states don’t have (or need) rights, a federal government should be as strong as it has to be, and the “general welfare” can be promoted, for various definitions of “general welfare,” with the raising of as much tax revenue as is required.  For many conservatives and libertarians, here is the past as prologue:  the modern phenomenon of unchecked government growth, economic pathologies inflicted by regulation, and a long series of abuses of the citizenry, all begin with this interpretation of the Preamble and the “Taxing and Spending Clause” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 1) of the Constitution.  This divergence in interpretation is precisely what’s at issue at the deepest recesses of the ideological divide in America, and the only way to resolve that issue is to finally determine, once and for all, just which interpretation is the correct one.

Not that doing so would convince those in the wrong, but maybe we can hope to prevent future generations from being indoctrinated in that set of beliefs. 

This is a thorny problem.  Education about civics, history and political science is in the hands of educators who quite often have a vested interest in promoting the progressive viewpoint.  Moral hazard, in this regard, should not exist at all (but here I’m waxing tautological, since moral hazard shouldn’t exist in any form).  However, it’s an inevitable consequence of the politicization of education, which itself is an inevitable consequence of the parallel existences of public education and of public sector unions.  (I’ve just nicely set myself up for a future blog topic, so feel free to wait with bated breath for that.)

I can recall the earliest discussions of the Constitution in my classes, coming up through the public school system in Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in the northwestern suburbs of Houston, Texas.  In one class, we were asked about the role of the Constitution.  The teacher had some difficulty getting her message across, and the question was asked repeatedly, each time after some amount of discussion.  One response that eventually bubbled up, partly in response to her urging, was that the Constitution “is a blueprint for government.”  That is a satisfactory response to a teacher whose income is assured by government activity, but it would have been a major disappointment to the Founders. 

Among the most strident opponents of the government’s monopoly on the use of force; along with Jefferson, one of the earliest prominent libertarians.

The Constitution is indeed a plan for government, but as is the case in the visual arts, it’s the negative space that really defines the subject.  It’s what the Constitution doesn’t authorize the government to do that is key to its operation.  The simplest statement of this principle is “if it’s not expressly authorized, it’s forbidden.”  The broader reality is expressed, explicitly, in the Tenth Amendment, which is part of the Bill of Rights:  “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  This statement is clear enough, but can be seen to have been presaged by a provision in the Articles of Confederation:  “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

While it can be demonstrated that partisans on both sides of the early debate over General Welfare had their reasons, some of which from both are quite valid, the prevailing point of view was steeped in the paradigm of the time, which was embodied in those Articles.  What I said about the guys just having fought a war is relevant here:  their understanding of the role of government was what it was, and was manifest in the somewhat more verbose wording of the Articles.  Less time was spent justifying the Articles than in stating their purpose.  (The justification itself was eloquently provided by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.)  When concepts were brought forward from the earlier document to be applied to the Constitution, a wide range of assumptions came with them, which the Framers put to parchment in sometimes more verbally-efficient ways.  The downside of that textual parsimony is that context was lost to subsequent generations, members of whom had never participated in the Revolution nor the Convention debates.

A recent argument I had on social media is a case in point.  Progressives, you might have noticed, tend to be somewhat hostile to the notion of states’ rights.  They regard the pathological case of the southern states retaining slavery as proof that states should not be permitted to govern themselves, as if a single problem renders the entire concept moot.  (This argument’s “negative space” is a particularly interesting disregard for the numerous examples of oppressive federal legislation.)

Although the Tenth Amendment has never been overturned, or altered in any way, the Left tends to regard the Civil War as some kind of repudiation of its content.  In the aforementioned debate, I struggled mightily to convince my opponent that the concept of state sovereignty is intrinsic to the Constitution, it being the paradigm in which the Founders were operating.  Whereas my adversary argued that state sovereignty had to have been defined somewhere in the Constitution in order to be a valid principle of government, I held that it was assumed from the outset, because that was the way they’d been doing things from the end of the Revolution.  Since the Constitution never asserts that the states are not sovereign, the prevailing assumption, that they were sovereign from the start, must remain in place.  Although he was manifestly incorrect in his assertion, he did have one valid (if inadvertent) point:  that the Constitution does not effectively define its terms.  People who were writing mostly for the benefit of themselves—those who would have to sign off on it and then undertake the process of bringing their own states around to its prescriptions—brought their own assumptions to the table, and sometimes overlooked the need to elucidate those assumptions for those who would follow.

We’ll cover this problem in detail in the third installment.

In order to clarify the purpose and intent of the Constitution, it is necessary, then, to draw on the words and writings of the Founders, and where possible, to disentangle opposing views.  The seminal arguments for drawing up a Constitution were made in the Federalist Papers, notably #23 and #s 37-51.  While Jay, Hamilton and Madison were in close agreement throughout the Federalist project, they parted ways over the very issue I identified above, with Hamilton advocating a more powerful federal government, with greater power to regulate the market and raise taxes, for purposes of a virtually unlimited range of “general welfare” programs.  It is worth pointing out here to Democrats—those ostensibly more concerned with the democratic process than Republicans, who are ostensibly more concerned with republicanism (Constitutionalism)—that Hamilton’s view was decidedly the minority view, and that from 1800 onwards, it was held to have been repudiated by the election of Thomas Jefferson and the ensuing primacy of the Democratic-Republican Party.

More than any of his contemporaries, Madison espoused the view that gradual encroachment, rather than sudden violence, was the means by which the government would eventually become tyrannical.

My thesis is that when interpreting the Constitution, we should, whenever possible, rely first on Originalist intent, and failing that—when it is too obscure or manifestly no longer applicable to our modern situation—to fall back on plain language.  Only after exhausting plain language—and to properly interpret that, we must often resort to other writings in order to discern meanings and connotations that have fallen by the wayside since then—are we justified in regarding the Constitution’s content as antiquated or unclear enough to require novel interpretation.  In this way—relying on what was originally meant, then what is actually said (as heard by the idiom and phraseology of our modern ears)—we can reserve actual interpretation for use as a last resort, thereby minimizing controversy and schism.  As I turn up examples of Originalist intent, and occasionally of plain language stating the Constitution’s positions, I will identify them as Resolutions that can be used to outline our model Constitution.

The Articles of Confederation were a pretty good start, but they, like their successor, left some gaps to be contended with.  Several incidents in the wake of the Revolution made this clear, most notably Shay’s Rebellion.  There were also problems collecting pre-war debts from the states and their citizens, with which to repay Britain, a provision of the Treaty of Paris.  The ratification of this Treaty itself was problematic, because there was little means of compelling delegates to participate in the proceedings.  It was drafted in April of 1783, but not signed off on by the Americans until January of the following year.

The confederacy had no taxation power, and had to request money from the states (this posing a severe limitation on that common defense).  There was no central judiciary, although the states had their own courts.  The most significant binding feature of the Articles was the confederate legislature, which was unicameral and allocated one vote to each state delegation.  Decisions entailing action by the confederacy required a unanimous vote, and there was no real provision for enforcing its resolutions.

Although the Constitutional Convention had initially convened with the intent to amend the Articles of Confederation, the focus quickly shifted toward devising an entirely new government and governing document.  The arguments in favor of replacing the Articles with a new Constitution were laid out on May 29 by Edmund Randolph, and included the following (from James Madison’s notes):

First, that the Confederation produced no security against foreign invasion; Congress not being permitted to prevent a war, nor to support it by their own authority.  Of this he cited many examples; most of which tended to show, that they could not cause infractions of treaties, or of the law of nations, to be punished; that particular States might by their conduct provoke war without control; and that, neither militia nor drafts being fit for defence on such occasions, enlistments only could be successful, and these could not be executed without money.

Secondly, that the Federal Government could not check the quarrel between States, nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power nor means to interpose according to the exigency.

Thirdly, that there were many advantages which the United States might acquire, which were not attainable under the Confederation — such as a productive impost — counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations — pushing of commerce ad libitum, &c. &c.

Fourthly, that the Federal Government could not defend itself against encroachments from the States.

Fifthly, that it was not even paramount to the State Constitutions, ratified as it was in many of the States.

So the most important justification for the new government was the need to provide for the common defense, a need covered by the first two items above.  (This was also the most prominent justification listed in the Articles themselves.)  The next most important was the need to maintain a free market, one capable of engaging with foreign markets without limit, or at least one with enough government backing to be able to deal with any foreign interference.  The next was the perceived need to maintain a governing sovereignty exceeding—but not superseding—that of any individual state.

Nowhere in this list is mentioned the need to “do things for the people.”  The “general welfare” did not, for a majority of the Framers, entail taking care of the masses via appropriation of taxes.   Indeed, the notion of income taxation appears not to have occurred to any of them.

We’ll go more deeply into the general welfare problem in the next installment.  For our purposes today it is sufficient to demonstrate that this was an issue right from the start, and to demonstrate that the need for a common defense was the principal driver of the Convention.  It is also instructive to bear in mind that these were highly-educated men, men for whom the history of far-flung empires like that of classical Greece and Rome were well-known, along with the problems of maintaining unity and stability across any expansive geographic scope.

Resolved:   while differing in some particulars, we can agree that a Constitutional republic is now called for, and we can regard the Constitution as upholding the need for a stronger government as predicated on some specific, identified needs (such as to maintain a sort of national unity and to protect a free market).

They nonetheless wanted a government that was decidedly less strong than the one they’d just overthrown, in the interest or preserving liberty.  They intuitively regarded the available liberty as inversely proportional to the power of government.  And they were right.  Every additional act of legislation is another chip off the block.

Utopia and dystopia: two interchangeable faces of the same coin.

Let’s take a look at Federalist #41, which I keep handy in a vest pocket for just this kind of occasion:

To the People of the State of New York:

THE Constitution proposed by the convention may be considered under two general points of view. The FIRST relates to the sum or quantity of power which it vests in the government, including the restraints imposed on the States.  The SECOND, to the particular structure of the government, and the distribution of this power among its several branches.

Under the FIRST view of the subject, two important questions arise:

Whether any part of the powers transferred to the general government be unnecessary or improper?

Whether the entire mass of them be dangerous to the portion of jurisdiction left in the several States?

Is the aggregate power of the general government greater than ought to have been vested in it? This is the FIRST question.  It cannot have escaped those who have attended with candor to the arguments employed against the extensive powers of the government, that the authors of them have very little considered how far these powers were necessary means of attaining a necessary end.  They have chosen rather to dwell on the inconveniences which must be unavoidably blended with all political advantages; and on the possible abuses which must be incident to every power or trust, of which a beneficial use can be made.

This method of handling the subject cannot impose on the good sense of the people of America.  It may display the subtlety of the writer; it may open a boundless field for rhetoric and declamation; it may inflame the passions of the unthinking, and may confirm the prejudices of the misthinking: but cool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused.  They will see, therefore, that in all cases where power is to be conferred, the point first to be decided is, whether such a power be necessary to the public good; as the next will be, in case of an affirmative decision, to guard as effectually as possible against a perversion of the power to the public detriment.

That we may form a correct judgment on this subject, it will be proper to review the several powers conferred on the government of the Union; and that this may be the more conveniently done they may be reduced into different classes as they relate to the following different objects:

Security against foreign danger;

Regulation of the intercourse with foreign nations;

Maintenance of harmony and proper intercourse among the States;

Certain miscellaneous objects of general utility;

Restraint of the States from certain injurious acts;

Provisions for giving due efficacy to all these powers.

The powers falling within the FIRST class are those of declaring war and granting letters of marque; of providing armies and fleets; of regulating and calling forth the militia; of levying and borrowing money.  Security against foreign danger is one of the primitive objects of civil society.  It is an avowed and essential object of the American Union.  The powers requisite for attaining it must be effectually confided to the federal councils. Is the power of declaring war necessary?  No man will answer this question in the negative.  It would be superfluous, therefore, to enter into a proof of the affirmative.  The existing Confederation establishes this power in the most ample form. Is the power of raising armies and equipping fleets necessary?   This is involved in the foregoing power.  It is involved in the power of self-defense.  But was it necessary to give an INDEFINITE POWER of raising TROOPS, as well as providing fleets; and of maintaining both in PEACE, as well as in war?  The answer to these questions has been too far anticipated in another place to admit an extensive discussion of them in this place.  The answer indeed seems to be so obvious and conclusive as scarcely to justify such a discussion in any place.  With what color of propriety could the force necessary for defense be limited by those who cannot limit the force of offense?  If a federal Constitution could chain the ambition or set bounds to the exertions of all other nations, then indeed might it prudently chain the discretion of its own government, and set bounds to the exertions for its own safety.

Seems pretty straightforward to me.  The Paper is arguing for a strengthened provision for the common defense, while at the same time admitting a need for care when arrogating powers to a federal government.  The prevailing message is “we need to grant a federal government more power than it currently has, so that we can maintain military preparedness…but let’s not go overboard, OK?”

Resolved:  that the need for a common defense, being pressing in this hostile world of ours, is perhaps the highest priority for a fledgling nation, and a pretty cogent argument in favor of strengthening federal government; but a parallel need exists, to question and limit just how much power we’re going to grant it.  We can build limits into the government by distributing its power among various divisions or “branches.”

The Paper goes on to argue some particulars about standing armies and the need thereof, and these particulars fall somewhat outside our scope here.  But I will cite another portion from the last few paragraphs:

It has been urged and echoed, that the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction. Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it; though it would have been difficult to find a reason for so awkward a form of describing an authority to legislate in all possible cases. A power to destroy the freedom of the press, the trial by jury, or even to regulate the course of descents, or the forms of conveyances, must be very singularly expressed by the terms “to raise money for the general welfare.

”But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? If the different parts of the same instrument ought to be so expounded, as to give meaning to every part which will bear it, shall one part of the same sentence be excluded altogether from a share in the meaning; and shall the more doubtful and indefinite terms be retained in their full extent, and the clear and precise expressions be denied any signification whatsoever? For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.

But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity, which, as we are reduced to the dilemma of charging either on the authors of the objection or on the authors of the Constitution, we must take the liberty of supposing, had not its origin with the latter. The objection here is the more extraordinary, as it appears that the language used by the convention is a copy from the articles of Confederation. The objects of the Union among the States, as described in article third, are “their common defense, security of their liberties, and mutual and general welfare. ” The terms of article eighth are still more identical: “All charges of war and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defense or general welfare, and allowed by the United States in Congress, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury,” etc. A similar language again occurs in article ninth. Construe either of these articles by the rules which would justify the construction put on the new Constitution, and they vest in the existing Congress a power to legislate in all cases whatsoever.

But what would have been thought of that assembly, if, attaching themselves to these general expressions, and disregarding the specifications which ascertain and limit their import, they had exercised an unlimited power of providing for the common defense and general welfare? I appeal to the objectors themselves, whether they would in that case have employed the same reasoning in justification of Congress as they now make use of against the convention. How difficult it is for error to escape its own condemnation!

The takeaway from this is that while it is impossible to enumerate every specific power a republican government must exercise, and so we must deal with the somewhat hazy realm of “implied powers,” we can restrict implied powers to just those necessary to carry out the mission of the federal government as outlined in the Constitution.  The crux of the matter is what is meant by “the general welfare,” and we’ll dive into that in the next installment. 

Resolved:  that we cannot specify every contingency in which the federal government might find it necessary to legislate, but we can keep it on a short leash by placing sensible limits on the meaning of expressions like “the general welfare,” and limiting the “implied powers” to just those required to exercise the explicitly-authorized powers.

Sadly, this is precisely where the Constitution goes off the rails, and why I’m indulging in the academic exercise of designing a new one.  We know what the Founders meant by the “general welfare,” but they didn’t spell it out for those who followed, so they don’t.  Or rather, we know what most of the Founders meant, and we know what a minority preferred to mean, and we know what the eventual compromise between these two views became.  It is my intention to demonstrate that the original meaning—the originalist interpretation—was the correct one.  But even that compromise view, had it held sway over succeeding generations, would be preferable to the wide-open interpretation that we currently shoulder.

More to come as this series unfolds. 

To pinch off this first installment, we’ll recap the main points. 

Various citizens of various States were happy to have thrown off the yoke of overbearing government, but were concerned that the resulting sovereignties were insufficient to govern their polities, given the hazards that still existed in the world at the time.

  1. In particular, they wanted to strengthen commerce between the States, to eliminate the possibility of harmful trade wars between them, and to present a common front against trade aggression from other sources.
  2. They also wanted the States to be able to face off, together, against any foreign aggressor.
  3. They wanted a central government that could enforce existing laws, including those regarding taxation, which were being managed inconsistently at best.
  4. And they wanted all this while still striving for as minimal an authority as could be devised.

Hence our list of Resolutions:

  • We need a Republic, rather than a loose confederation of States.
  • We need a strong national identity.
  • We need a Constitution to restrain the Republic’s federal government.
  • We need to divide the Republic’s government into separate Branches, each checked in its tendency to assume power by the watchful eyes of the other two.
  • We need to protect a free market, the source of our prosperity (and a good portion of our liberty).
  • We need a means to provide for the common defense.
  • We can justify our actions on the basis of a “general welfare,” so long as we know and agree beforehand exactly what that means.
  • We can imply certain powers that a federal government ought to have, since it would be onerous and all but impossible to list every single power we’re willing to grant it (and we might never finish off our debates if we have to brainstorm them all in order to set them onto parchment).
  • At the same time, we have to limit the federal government’s natural tendency to grow and become more powerful.  We can do this by asserting that “implied powers” must have a basis in explicit powers; we must only grant the existence of those powers that are implied by the existence of an associated explicit power.
  • Beyond those quite necessary contingencies, we must demand that the federal government relinquish all other powers not expressly granted to it.

We’ll revisit and expand upon these in the next chapter, by way of walking through the Federalist Papers.  See you soon.

The President Show

…the pilot episode.

This President’s Day, I figured I would start a series on the presidency, maybe beginning with an introductory post and then following up, on an annual basis, with a profile of an American President, say, in chronological order from the very beginning.

Then it occurred to me that this would require forty-odd annual blog posts, which would run afoul of my remaining life expectancy.  I’d like to retire, at least, somewhere well short of president #30.

So instead I’ll just offer an introductory episode, including some thoughts on the current presidency, in the context of all those who’ve gone before.

  • To start with, 12 of the first 18 Presidents owned slaves (including four of the first five, and the last, Ulysses Grant, who defeated General Lee in the Civil War).
  • George Washington used force to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.  It’s worth pointing out, though, that the rebels fired first, and that Washington was opposed to the tax measure that sparked the Rebellion.
  • Bill Clinton engaged in perjury to Congress, for which he was impeached, in lying about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.
  • Ronald Reagan’s administration was found to have sold arms to Iran, in violation of an embargo, presumably in order to secure the release of American hostages held there.  Some funds from the sale were diverted to provide aid to Contra rebels in Nicaragua.  Congress’ investigation turned up nothing to implicate Reagan himself, although he did at least appear to be aware of the arms sale, at some point, as he later admitted in a public speech.
  • Richard Nixon resigned the presidency after being implicated in the burglary at Watergate, one in a series of paranoid actions against his political opponents.
  • The Teapot Dome scandal erupted under Warren Harding’s administration, in which his interior secretary, Albert Fall, was found to have accepted bribes and other compensation for awarding no-bid contracts for access to oil and gas in Wyoming, on lands that Fall had had the Department of the Interior secure for that purpose.  Fall was the first former Cabinet member to be imprisoned.  While Harding’s administration is widely regarded as the most corrupt (or at least the most scandal-ridden) in history, there is little to no evidence tying him directly to any wrongdoing.
  • The “Whiskey Ring” was a soak-the-IRS scheme cooked up by whiskey distillers operating during Grant’s second administration.  The conspiracy was wide-ranging, with 110 eventual convictions, and implicated Grant’s own personal secretary, Orville Babcock.  Grant’s testimony helped secure an acquittal, but the scandal was damaging nonetheless:  Grant’s administration is regarded as being second only to Harding’s in terms of corruption.
  • Andrew Johnson was impeached after refusing to obey a law passed specifically to prevent him from firing a Lincoln appointee, the Radical Republican and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  The Senate procedure failed, by one vote, to remove Johnson from office.
  • The 1824 election involved a sordid quid pro quo operation between John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams (a Founding Father and second President of the United States).  A failure of the election that year to secure a winner resulted in Congress taking a vote and appointing Adams, largely on the strength of House Speaker Henry Clay’s speech.  After taking the White House, Adams appointed Clay to Secretary of State.  The resulting fallout galvanized Adam’s presidential opponent, Andrew Jackson, and his supporters, eventually resulting in the founding of the Democratic Party.
  • That was actually the second time the House decided the presidential winner; the election of 1800 required Congress to appoint Thomas Jefferson, defeating incumbent John Adams and ushering in a generation of Democratic-Republican rule (as mentioned in my ongoing series on the Constitution, thereby repudiating Federalism for years to come).
  • The 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided not by popular vote, nor by electoral college, but by the Supreme Court.
  • The 2016 election, in which Trump won the Electoral College vote despite not winning the popular vote, was likewise not the first of its kind.  Aside from the aforementioned Bush election, Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) and Benjamin Harrison (1888) were installed by the electoral vote, which bucked the popular vote.
  • George W. Bush’s administration pushed for, and got, an invasion of Iraq in 2003, nominally another front in the War on Terror, but of questionable justification.  Although there is no evidence that the administration fabricated evidence of a weapons-of-mass-destruction program operating in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and despite the fact that caches of chemical munitions were found on a number of occasions, the intelligence utilized by the administration in making that decision was of dubious quality, and evidently cooked up by Saddam’s own intelligence forces in order to promote the illusion that Iraq still posed a WMD threat to its hated enemy, Iran.
  • President Obama’s bumbling immigration policy resulted in its own “humanitarian crisis” on the southern border in 2014, although the administration did eventually find its footing. 
  • Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, however, is widely derided as being premature and misplaced, with even Nobel Committee members expressing remorse for the award in the wake of Obama’s expanding drone program and increasing involvement in conflicts throughout the Middle East.
  • On the continuing subject of Obama, we also have the IRS scandal, the hugely divisive Affordable Care Act and the various falsehoods (“keep your doctor”) associated with it, as well as the numerous unconstitutional provisions and actions thereof (such as unilaterally delaying the implementation of key provisions, a power not granted the President).

That’s the backdrop against which the Trump administration comes into play.  I haven’t even gone into the various personal warts of each president (other than to point out Nixon’s paranoia).  Most of these men had unfortunate character traits; Lincoln, for instance, privately espoused a kind of benevolent or neutral racism, and opined that he wished he could preserve the nation without freeing a single slave. 

By the same token, Nixon, despite his deep-seated distrust of political opposition, seems to have been a hell of a nice guy, willing to promote race relations quietly without exploiting his successes for political gain.

What I’d like us all to take away from this is that it sometimes seems as though greatness and assholery are intertwined to some degree.  Every great person has character flaws.  It’s almost as if you have to be a particular brand of prick in order to achieve much in this world, but the nature of some positions places checks on just how dicky you can get away with being.

I have the misfortune of being exposed, on about a daily basis, to news and editorial programming on CNN and MSNBC, with the latter predominating.  I think it’s safe to say that Trump occupies something like 80% of their air time.  It’s rare that Trump doesn’t lead off any program, and almost never that he isn’t mentioned at all.  Some programs, like those of Katy Tur and Nicolle Wallace, appear to have come into being specifically to cover the Trump White House, and Maddow, Hayes and Melber never stray far from the topic.

It may well be the case that Donald Trump is the single most scrutinized President ever to occupy the office.  This means in turn that We the People will eventually end up knowing more about him than any other (assuming we don’t already). 

Another way of putting this is that Donald Trump is going to be one of the most consequential Presidents in history.  This is true not only of his impact on the media (and , perhaps, on our lives as individuals), but also on the presidency itself, whether by dint of the avenues for action that he has opened up, or the policies and procedures that will be put in place by Congress in order to restrain the actions of later Presidents.

Think about that just for a second.  Love him or hate him, Trump may end up being the most epochal President in US history.

He’s of great commercial importance as well.  There’s an entire cottage industry, beyond the 24-hour news networks, in informing us about him.  On my parents’ bookshelves I can count at least five books, touted on MSNBC, CNN or the “Tonight Show,” discussing some aspect of his administration, behavior, or ethics.  My sisters have also undoubtedly bought some of the same works.  This industry, at least, might be expected to continue churning after Trump leaves office, although the NeverEndingTrumpShow television programming probably won’t.

Now, we can debate until 2020, or even beyond, the merits of Trump’s character and politics.  I personally subscribe to the view that what he does is far more important than what he says, and that his bragging of sexual exploit and abuse, his endless tagging and trolling of political opponents, and his perpetual stream of gaffes are all but meaningless drops in a rather large and sloppy bucket, itself almost entirely diluted by the much vaster tide of American history. 

The following meme (which may or may not have originated with Rush Limbaugh) seems applicable:

So cute to begin with, so eventually destructive.

Far be it from me to come between a leftist and outrage, but I think we might consider withholding our indignation for things it truly merits:  his actions.  In review:

  1.  Trump pushed for tax cuts which seem to have helped promote economic growth and reduced the average taxpayer’s tax burden.  (Complaints about this year’s tax refunds being smaller have been met with the objection that tax withholdings throughout last year were also smaller, meaning people kept more of what they earned.)  Although it was claimed (by some) that the tax cuts would “pay for themselves,” this hasn’t exactly happened.  A quick review of government spending reveals why:  although tax revenues are up roughly 0.5% since the implementation of the tax cuts, government spending has increased 9% in that same interval.
  2. The Trump administration implemented a zero-tolerance policy at the southern border for illegal immigration.  While different in scope from previous administrations’ policies, it did entail a continuing separation of minor children from their parents (not exactly a new thing).  There are sound reasons for detaining minor children away from adults in the chaotic environment of border detention, the administration botched it, effectively losing hundreds of children and precipitating a media-frenzy backlash, in turn galvanizing the pro-illegal-immigration camp.
  3. Trump has further exacerbated this problem by blocking entry of migrant caravans.  While the nation is well within its rights to turn away illegal immigrants, preventing petitioners for asylum from making their case is bad policy on several levels.
  4. He has evidently taken steps to impede or prolong the various investigations of his campaign’s possible ties to Russian saboteurs of the Democratic National Convention.
  5. He has instituted a “Muslim travel ban,” more of a moratorium, that stays ingress from selected Muslim-majority nations while travelers can be better-vetted (and the system for vetting can be overhauled).  This ban has been variously challenged, blocked, and eventually authorized as Constitutional.
  6. He has imposed tariffs on China, the European Union, Canada and Mexico, and has threatened to institute more.  The results have been mixed.  Some US industries and workers have suffered, due to shortages and retaliatory tariffs, although the targeted nations, particularly China, seem willing to work with the administration going forward.  I cannot regard tariffs as sound economic measures, but I do see them as having foreign-policy value, and that may be how Trump is using them.  In any event, he may have a solid rationale, based on the preexisting trade situation, for targeting China and Japan.  Tariffs just may not be the best solution.
  7. He has also renegotiated NAFTA, rechristening it USMCA and securing what seem to be more favorable terms for the US.
  8. He has issued a ban on the military service of transsexuals.  While this triggered trillions of progressives around the globe, there is a quite valid rationale:  deployability.  The military demands that every serviceperson, regardless of MOS, be ready and able to deploy anywhere in the world at any time.  People who are undergoing long-term therapies such as hormone treatments, or are on waiting lists for elective surgeries like gender reassignment, are not eligible for deployment.
  9. He appears to now be in the early stages of a sweeping gay-rights initiative, having launched a global effort to end the criminalization of homosexuality.  (Worst.  Homophobe.  Ever.)
  10. He has repeatedly fired, or pressured to resign, officials whom he has appointed to office or hired as staffers in his administration.  The high rate of turnover is a meme in itself, but there is also question about the quality of those he initially onboarded.  Whether the overall quality of the administration is improving over time remains to be seen.

That’s the list of major accomplishments:  the dos.  What about the says?  Has his speech provoked any dire consequences?  So far, the main result has been the continuing enragement of the progressive proletariat, and the enrichment of those news networks and authors.  One real casualty appears to be General James Mattis left the administration, in which he served as Secretary of Defense, after Trump announced his intention to immediately withdraw American ground troops from Syria.  Mattis, widely regarded as the Adult in the Room, is seen as a major loss for Trump and his credibility.

The question I want you to ask yourself is:  Has it been all bad?  I know that progressives will oppose most of these measures just on general principle, but the performance of the economy alone is enough to vindicate the actions behind that performance.  In a world in which we see Democrats gleefully rejecting the prospect of 25,000 new jobs being created in New York city, in favor of $3 billion in tax revenue that would easily have been recouped (to the tune of $27 billion) over the next few years, it’s hard to credit liberals with a surplus of objectivity or economic sensibility.

But can you put aside your disgust and your disapproval long enough to weigh the consequences of words against the consequences of actions?  Like any President, Trump will do some good and some bad while in office.  Opposing everything he does will land you on the wrong side of those good things. 

Like Nixon, Trump seems to be flailing largely due to his defensiveness.  He is constantly being attacked, constantly kept off-balance, constantly having to respond to criticism.  It’s not his strong suit, and I suspect that he overcompensates quite a bit. 

He can do better.  Much better.  He can start by listening to his advisers.  And by cooperating more with the political opposition, or at least giving an ear to their grievances in the interest of promoting bipartisanship. 

But frankly, he could also do much worse.

Although presidents do often leave office under a cloud of disapproval and even disgrace, history tends to be kinder.  Obama’s divisiveness appears to be an unintended consequence of his constant pursuit of legacy, and Trump’s is much the same.  The harder politics and the public push back on a president, the greater their perceived need for permanence.  The Border Wall may well be the ultimate vanity project, a literal monument to Trump’s ego.  The irony is that it might not even be an ongoing controversy had he not faced such strong opposition over the past two years…and that might not have happened had he not said so many things that pissed so many people off.

With the Wall steadily decreasing in probability, Trump’s legacy may well be limited mostly to things he says, rather than things he does.  I’ll continue to support the things he does right, and oppose the things he does wrong, but I’d very much like to see my fellow Americans giving much less of a shit about

guest columnist Jose Chung

Cult of the Occasional Cortex seeks tax-exempt status, self-annihilates

DERP wire services

Taking one page from Das Kapital, and another from the Koran, followers of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez founded a religious organization and sought tax-exempt status earlier this week.  The resulting philosophical self-contradiction almost immediately resulted in a total collapse of the group.  Only four members survived the initial carnage, and two of them were reported to be deep in shock, unresponsive, and unlikely to ever wield hammers (or sickles) again.

The sole fully-lucid survivor, Allie O’Reilly Campbell, evidently running late to the meeting, witnessed the incident from the threshold of the building serving as the group’s headquarters.  At the moment the cult’s founder, Alessandra Ocampo Cordell, finished filling out the Form 1023 that it planned to file with the IRS, the witness entered the door.  As the last box in the form was being completed, the survivor saw a bright flash, of “Einsteinian proportions,” and the gathering vanished in a “puff of logic.” 

Upon being treated and released, Campbell issued a statement, saying that the cult was founded on the basis of a political interpretation of the Islamic concept of taqiyya, which permits believers, under certain narrow circumstances, to make untrue statements (mostly to non-believers).  The cult’s political justification for this practice is rooted in the Social Justice Warrior’s Handbook, which asserts that “feels are superior to facts” when pushing certain issues.  Emboldened by Ocasio-Cortez’ recent statement downplaying the public’s concern about statements being less “factually and semantically correct” than “being morally right,” the group (originally a James Frey book club) determined that they had a religious justification for advocating specific untruths.  Taqiyya seems to be the group’s sole nod to existing dogma of any kind, and it is suspected that it was employed specifically to justify the seeking of tax-exempt status.

The event left Campbell suffering from radiation exposure, which prompted the attending physician to opine that the incident was a form of “mutual annihilation” seen in nature when subatomic particles, and their antimatter counterparts, collide.  In this case, the opposing factors would seem to be socialism and tax-free status.  He cautioned that socialism, in American political discourse, “remains radioactive” and should be avoided by those engaged in certain lifestyles and activities (especially, anything involving the earning or spending of money).

Cult of the Occasional Cortex seeks recognition, members

DERP wire services

Elated by the election of one of their own to Congress, the newly-branded Cult has called for the creation of a new socialist party.  Undeterred by the existence of another national socialist party in the United States, the Cult is ready for open battle in the streets, if need be.  Modeling their revolution-to-be on the Great Purge, the Cult has announced an initiative to evict all non-Cult members from socialist orthodoxy, calling for separation from the Democratic Party, with the eventual aim of completely supplanting it (to which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has responded, in a Capitol Hill press conference, “Pthpthpthpth”).

While eschewing any form of religious test, the Cult has asserted that among the qualifications for membership, members must speak with a clear Bronx or Queens accent (and reeducation centers are being proposed throughout the South to facilitate this).  Its secret handshake reportedly involves flipping the bird at the birthplaces of Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek.  The Cult’s emblem is still undergoing design revision, in light of the early consensus that hammers and sickles are too “toxically masculine” to represent their membership.  Slogan possibilities have been narrowed down to “Ideas so good, they should be mandatory” and “Waiting in lines for food, toilet paper and medicine brings us all closer together.”

In a preemptive move against being cited as a “socialist” nation, Denmark has once again hoist high the head of Bernie Sanders, impaled on a pike during the 2016 election and preserved in a lutefisk cask. Venezuela, meanwhile, has opened diplomatic relations with the Bronx, seeking normalization of trade relations.  In exchange for Venezuelan oil, the country seeks to obtain a steady supplier of toilet paper, and of rats, stray cats and dogs, all of which have been eaten to extinction within its own borders, and which are naturally abundant throughout New York.

Opinion | Crisis at the Border

No, not that border.  The one further north.  The one around Washington, DC.

President Trump is delivering a speech on the “crisis at the border” as I type, and it’s being carried by MSLSD, among many other networks.  I have the perennial misfortune of being in a position to hear these, hour after hour, even when they’re not additionally sullied by his voice.

While many of Trump’s specific claims about the “crisis” can and will be debunked in the coming hours, the basic premise is correct.  The ability to fairly easily cross the southern border creates an incentive for those of ill-will to do so.  Claims about specific, astronomical numbers of terrorists crossing illegally may be Trumped up, but that border is nonetheless as easy and economical a place to enter as any other.  At the very least, it provides a handy way to equip terror cells that are already in place.

And yes, the border is not the predominant mode of illegal entry to this country.  Here, the numbers become sketchy, since we’re dealing with estimates, and because we’re forced to consider two different, but overlapping, populations:  those who are currently already here illegally, and those who are coming here illegally more or less contemporaneously with this debate.  For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that approximately 43.5% of all illegal immigrants “becoming illegal” this country are doing so by overstaying their visas (this is a figure about halfway between the current estimate of 42% by the Center for Migration Studies and a somewhat older 45% figure produced by Pew Research).  But if you look at the larger historical picture, including illegal immigration of all kinds going back years, even generations, approximately half of the permanent illegal population can be shown to have crossed the southern border at some point (and quite a few will cross it several times over their lifetimes).

Given that the illegal population is estimated variously at between 11.1 million and 12.1 million individuals, that’s something between five and six million illegal border crossings…not counting the various, sometimes repeated, round trips.

Claims about diseases being brought here are overblown, as well, but it remains true that many parts of Central and South America are reservoirs of parasites and pathogens that have been, for the most part, eradicated in the United States.  The CDC lists several major health concerns endemic to Latin American nations, including a handful (such as Chagas’ disease) which are not directly communicable between humans.  Several more, including hepatitis B, syphilis, HIV, and gonorrhea, most definitely are human-transmissible, although these are also common in the United States, and so not particularly as grave a concern as “exotic” or “conquered” diseases might be.  But the list of tropical diseases, mostly spread via mosquito bites, is alarming:  dengue, eastern equine encephalitis, chikungunya, and Zika.  Concern about these is mitigated by the fact that mosquito-borne diseases tend to have specific vectors, most of which have not yet established a foothold north of the Rio Grande.  But as climate changes, and tropical biomes spread northward, this, too, will change.  (It’s worth pointing out that disease vectors themselves are not necessarily reservoirs of disease.  Mosquitoes require a blood meal from an infected host in order to transmit the pathogen to another individual.  In the absence of infected individuals, most mosquitoes are relegated to the role of loathsome pest.  So the spreading of mosquito populations northward, in and of itself, need not be a health issue.)

One figure of indisputable, immediate concern is the rate of tuberculosis infection.  The CDC points out that although hopes were once high for total eradication, the rate of decline is now too slow to expect that to happen within this century (of which we still have 81 years left!)  One potential factor:  more than 70% of all reported cases of TB are in foreign-born individuals.  While the Center does not break down figures for legal and illegal immigrants, we can infer, from the health screenings given legal immigrants, that most of this 70% occurs in illegals.  (Tuberculosis is ranked #1 among health conditions being screened out.)  Given that the risk of contracting TB among foreign-born individuals falls to about the national average around the ten-year mark, which can be regarded as a proxy for “permanence,” it is reasonable to assume that the subset of the population which is truly “migrant”—crossing and recrossing the border in a cycle lasting for years—is somewhat exempt from this security, and therefore probably contributes a disproportionate amount to that 70% figure.

So are illegal crossings bringing disease into this country?  Almost certainly, yes, but most likely at rates much lower than the Wall rhetoric would suggest.

What about drugs and violent crime?  Again, yes, these things are imported across the border (and, frequently, under it).  But we’re constantly subjected to objections along the lines of “most illegal drugs come into the country in shipping containers from overseas.”  While this is undoubtedly a route taken by not a few smugglers, the “most” qualifier remains in dispute.  Several readily-accessible sources, including interviews of DEA and Border Patrol agents, suggest that the southern border remains remarkably porous to smuggling efforts.  Some 224 tunnels beneath the border were found between 1990 and 2006.  One thing the opponents seem to have right is that most intercepted drug transports take place at official points of entry (some 328 of them), with the contraband found stashed inside vehicles of every kind.  This does not inform us, however, about the number of successful transports taking place elsewhere on the border.

While my preferred solution to the problem of drug crime would be to completely legalize all Schedule I drugs, I’m willing, for the time being, to grant that drug smuggling remains the kind of concern that pro-Wallers have in mind.

As for other forms of crime, yes, we know that gang members use the border to get into and out of the country illegally.  The Center for Immigration Studies has found:

  • Over a 10-year period (2005-2014) ICE arrested approximately 4,000 MS-13 members, leaders, and associates.  This represents about 13 percent of all gang members they arrested nationwide (31,000) during that period.
  • 92 percent of the MS-13 affiliated aliens arrested were illegal aliens.  Of those, 16 percent had entered illegally at least twice.
  • Just over half of the MS-13 affiliated aliens ICE arrested were citizens of El Salvador.  Among the others, 16 percent were Hondurans, 14 percent were Mexicans, and 8 percent were Guatemalans.
  • While MS-13 affiliated aliens made up 13 percent of all the arrests, they accounted for 35 percent of the murderers arrested by ICE.

While the Trump administration’s claim of “4000 terrorists” being intercepted at the border is evidently balderdash, it might be argued that they are (deliberately or otherwise) conflating MS-13 gang members with terrorists in this regard.  Either way, the freedom of violent gang members to come and go at will is a concern (one which can, again, be addressed in large part by legalizing drugs, although in the case of MS-13, there seems to also be an underlying ideological or racial motivation to the violence).

Another crime-related concern is human trafficking, and this is one not to be dismissed.  In addition to the coyotes (or “coyotajes”) engaged in bringing migrants to and across the border, there are prostitution and sex slavery networks, and the human toll here is almost too horrific to contemplate.  (And, I’m sad to admit, legalizing drugs probably won’t eradicate sex slavery, as it doesn’t matter whether the drugs used to addict child prostitutes are legal or not.)  This is a problem that has to be addressed head-on in as many ways as we can come up with, and clamping down on illegal border crossings is as good a way as any.

Even those who simply accept money from the desperate in order to get them into the States are a major problem.  The criminal element comprises a wide swath of motivations, and it’s safe to say that among its members are those who simply lack compunction or compassion.  Guiding people northward in order to “help” them across the border doesn’t preclude exploiting them along the way.  As Trump correctly points out, an inordinate number of female (and underage!) migrants are sexually abused by their coyotes along the way.  And this transit benefits the drug gangs as well; coyotes are compelled to pay tolls to them as they near the border, on the order of thousands of dollars per head.

And it’s also worth mentioning that illegal immigrants do, themselves, commit crimes during and after entry.  Statistics are frequently pointed out to the effect that illegals commit crime at a rate lower than that of the general population.  These figures are in dispute, not least because they can only be applied to known crimes and to those known to be in the country illegally.  Convictions are rarer than crimes, and we have, at best, only estimates of the size of the illegal population here.  At the same time, we know that illegals who accept payroll checks must do so via falsification of records, which amounts to felony crime.  Add to those the number who obtain Social Security numbers via stolen identities, and you start to see a very different picture from that of the benign worker, toiling away quietly and under the radar.  (The fact that nearly four times as many identities have been stolen in service to illegal immigration than the estimates of illegal immigrants currently living here should give you some pause with respect to accepting those estimates.)

The rabbit hole deepens when you take a close look at federal crime sentencing rates.  The US Sentencing Commission releases an annual report of criminal convictions at the federal level.  Breitbart, in 2014, and Sean Hannity, in 2016, both cited these reports in claiming that illegals accounted for 36.7% (in 2014) and 75% (in 2016) of federal convictions.   Interestingly, PolitiFact rates this latter claim as True, and the USSC’s numbers, regarding the former, can be added up by the intrepid individual (although the overview report appears to be unavailable to the “unauthorized” user such as myself, the fiscal-year quarterly report can be found online).  To drill down and examine the inevitable caveats, you can do the math yourself in the quarterly report:  non-citizens committed 42% of all federal (convicted) crimes, 14.7% of all murders, and 25.6% of all drug trafficking (and 80.5% of all simple possession).  Unfortunately, these figures do not segregate legal immigrants from illegals, but they do seriously undercut the “immigrants commit fewer crimes” meme.  Given that illegal immigrants comprise only about 3.7% of the population, it is undeniable that they contribute a disproportionate amount of crime (even if they only engage in a fraction of the total listed under “Non-US Citizen” in the report).

PolitiFact provides some greater insights, by way of approving of Hannity’s claims:  illegals were responsible, in 2016, for 18% of all drug trafficking convictions, 30% of kidnappings, 75% of drug possessions, and 5% of all murder sentences…and all of these numbers exceed the estimated portion of the illegal population, indicating that it commits these crimes at disproportionate rates.  If you eliminate federal sentencing for immigration-related crime, you’re left with some 14% of all federal crimes…a percentage approximately three times as great as that of the illegal population.

Leaving all those criminal and health concerns aside, what about illegal immigration itself?  Should we be concerned about those who make it here and simply attempt to live their lives?  I have to part ways with some of my libertarian brethren on some issues, and this is one.  I do not regard illegal immigration as harmless to society.  While the “illegals are only doing the jobs Americans won’t do” argument holds some water, some of the time, the fact of the matter is that during recession, there are no jobs that Americans won’t do.  More to the point, the disdain American laborers have for those agrarian positions is largely a matter of cultural conditioning, the fact that illegals have been willing to work under the table, for less than minimum wage, for generations.  As illegal labor becomes less prominent a factor in our economy, and new equilibria emerge, more and more Americans will step in to fill the gaps.

And there is the subtler sociological angle regarding assimilation into our culture.  In-group identification, lo these thousands of years after the advent of civilization, remains a thing.  People have to regard themselves as members of a society in order to be members of that society…and they likewise have to be accepted as such by that society.  Diversity is a fine thing, up to a point.  Beyond that point, we cease to be “a people” and become just people.  (One can compare and contrast crime and exploitation rates in culturally- and ethnically-homogeneous nations like Japan with those elsewhere in the world to see the result.  This isn’t to say that a diverse society will necessarily be divided and violent, but it does imply that society takes time to absorb newcomers, and newcomers take time to assimilate.)

But wait, say the progressives and pro-open-borders libertarians—isn’t immigration a net gain for the economy?  The answer, as is often the case, is “yes and no.”  By and large, immigration benefits the market, but like all economic factors, this is not true of unlimited input.  Every economic quantity can be expressed in terms of some optimal amount…and this optimum is never the maximum.  It is uneconomical for factories to produce, indefinitely, at their maximum capacity.  There is an optimal rate of production, which typically falls well short of the maximum.  So it is with immigration.  The greatest benefit to society can be found in the optimum level of immigration, which is well short of the actual numbers coming in during a given year.  To most benefit the market, immigration policy should attempt to steer the influx toward that optimal level, perhaps by annually calculating the market’s needs and then admitting only that number of persons in a given year.  However, this method is completely untenable when we cannot accurately track or control the numbers of people coming in illegally.  If “C” equals the optimal level of immigrants, and “B” equals the number of legal immigrants we admit, then given “A”—the number of illegal immigrants coming in—we can straightforwardly express C as the sum of A and B.  But if A remains unknown, so does B, even if we can calculate, on the basis of economic necessity, the value of C.  Properly managing immigration requires that we limit the illegal influx to a manageable level.

Moreover, there is indeed a cost to taxpayers.  We’re told that “illegals can’t receive welfare,” but somehow, despite bare assertion such as this, they manage to do so.  I refer you again to stolen and forged identities, which can be used to claim benefits.  I also refer you to the households that collect SNAP benefits for their children.  Children born here, irrespective of the legality of their parents, are (legally, for the moment) citizens, and legally entitled to welfare handouts.  But these handouts don’t go directly to minors; they are disbursed to their illegal parents.  Add to this emergency-room hospital care, which is the preferred means of securing treatment in some quarters, even for decidedly non-emergency conditions such as the common cold.  In one NIH study, involving patients at a specific hospital found that 8.6% of patients admitted were illegals, a number more than twice the portion of the illegal population.   FAIR estimates the cost to American taxpayers at $100 billion annually, although this burden is typically borne at the state level.  My home state of Texas is hit particularly hard.

And this cost doesn’t include the approximately $56 billion or so annually siphoned from the economy by being sent south of the border to the families of illegals currently residing here.

So there are obviously a number of valid “pro” arguments when it comes to border security, many of which can be applied to the specific question of whether to build a Wall.  (At the very least, there are a number of “pro” arguments with respect to limiting the illegal influx, which can be regarded as a slightly different question from whether a Wall is necessary.)  Of course there are numerous objections as well:

  • The expense (although this can be mitigated by the Cruz Plan, which would save the taxpayers the total expense and provide Trump a graceful way to assert, with minimal mendacity, that Mexico did, indeed, “pay for it”).
  • The ecological concerns regarding blocking animal migration routes and destroying or denying territories needed by large predators for hunting and mating behaviors.
  • The fact that a Wall wouldn’t, alone, prohibit illegal border crossings, since there are ways of circumventing one.
  • The problems inherent in utilizing Eminent Domain to acquire the properties the Wall would eventually occupy.

I can suggest that by “the Wall,” we need not assume a monolithic physical barrier, but rather a set of physical barriers in conjunction with other measures, such as onsite surveillance, drone surveillance, and technologies such as ground-surveillance radar, infrared sensors, and seismic detectors.  Integrated and used intelligently, these could track the digging and use of tunnels while funneling overland smuggling efforts toward bottlenecks that can be directly observed.  In such a way, problematic sites such as private properties and wildlife areas can be left open, while still adding difficulty and expense to border crossings elsewhere along the line. 

Critics of the Wall are absolutely correct in that it would never stop 100% of illegal immigration or smuggling.  But perfection is a pretty lofty goal, and we need not concern ourselves with attaining it.  The point of border security isn’t to effectively block every illegal entrant, but to limit the availability and affordability of illegal border crossings.  If crossing the border becomes more difficult, more time consuming, and more uneconomical, then incentives to do so will taper off, and with them, the number of crossings.  Think of the Wall as a sort of “border tax,” and bear in mind that when you tax a thing, you end up with less of it in the long run.

So I can remain cautiously open-minded about the employment of a “Wall” in the sense that I defined above, provided the cost doesn’t exceed the benefit.  If a physical barrier can be expected to cost taxpayers anywhere from $5 billion to $125 billion, then in an interval between much less than a year and somewhat more than a year, the Wall can pay for itself (assuming FAIR’s $100 billion figure to be accurate).

But is such a measure even needed?  Critics often point out that illegal immigration has tapered off in recent years, and they’re correct.  Not only is the absolute number (and population percentage) of illegals dropping over time, but the number of illegal border crossings is falling as well. 

And a large part of this reduction can be traced to the 2008 recession, with a perhaps much smaller portion assignable to increased border security and the political rhetoric thereof. 

But we can’t conclude that this is a permanent situation.  If economic conditions drive migrant behavior, then the pendulum must swing the other way as well.  And, as pointed out previously, the best way to counter economic inducement is to proffer powerful disincentives.  And by tilting immigration policy in favor of those who are willing to take an ethical approach to getting (and being) here, we can actually strengthen and improve society.

The right way.

So let’s put aside the media-fueled frenzy over the Wall, and over immigration, just for a moment.  (Oops.  I forgot to include “illegal” before “immigration” there.  That’s a leftist error.  My total bad.) 

Kids in cages, you say?

Let’s ask ourselves another question entirely:  What if none of this matters at all?  At least to the current Crisis at the Beltway?  What if the border is a giant tail, and the nation a big dog, and we’re all being wagged by the Wall?  What if I’ve TLDRed you over twelve pages of seeming irrelevance? 

Could you possibly forgive me?

It’s probably a foregone conclusion that unless the Cruz Plan goes into effect—and its remarkable simplicity is matched only by its apparent absurdity—then Trump will not get funding for the Wall during his first term.  So the “government shutdown” may or may not actually be relevant to border security.  Trump isn’t as stupid as his detractors claim; he’s simply egomaniacal, closed-minded, biased, populist, and unwilling to listen to advisers.  All of these things will necessarily impact his decision-making and policies, but they won’t necessarily impact his ability to discern hard truths.  I can’t assume that he knows at this point that he won’t get the Wall he wants; even if he does, he will still have to keep up appearances, vis-à-vis the expectations of his base.  So, after a dizzying hour or so of factual presentation, we finally get down to the opinion part of this piece:

Trump is probably using the shutdown to avoid Democratic intervention in his administration.

He has already admitted that he’s willing to keep it up for “months or years.”  To that, let’s add a tidbit from one of the MSNBC programs that was TiVoed last night, and which I overheard this morning.  Someone I took, in my pre-breakfast haze, to be freshman Congresswoman Elaine Luria was spoken of as being “only a shutdown Congresswoman.”  By this, it was meant that she was sworn in during the shutdown, and has seen nothing but shutdown over the course of her entire career.

Given that many Dems have sought and won office on the promise of either impeaching Trump or bringing his administration under heavy oversight, I have to wonder whether the entire shit-show is an attempt on his part to forestall the turning of the Wheels of Justice, or at least the Casters of Scrutiny (or perhaps the Ball Bearings of Bipartisanship).

As regards those seeking asylum, they don’t have to reach our border in order to do so; there are stops along the way in Mexico.  But by all means, yes, let’s help out as many refugees as we can, bearing in mind that poor economic conditions are themselves not real grounds for asylum.  Violence, crime, persecution:  yes.  But we can also admit that these things tend to have causes in common with poverty and corruption, and in so doing, we can acknowledge that maybe the best thing to do for those regions has already been covered:  ending the Drug War.  Mexico has decriminalized drug use to a broad extent, so it cannot be blamed for the inflated demand that drives drug violence.  At the same time, we have to be willing to consider the role of burdensome regulations, and in some cases, Marxist philosophy, in having created those conditions.  The best thing we can do for the poor, everywhere in the world, is foster the growth of markets.  And the best way to accomplish that is to apply political pressure to governments in order to compel them to strengthen and enforce property rights.  This would be a very real humanitarian triumph, in addition to greatly reducing the problems associated with illegal immigration.

Ponder that as you partake of Colbert and Noah this evening.  Meanwhile, the facts and figures presented during the preceding twelve pages remain relevant to the ongoing debate over illegal immigration, and that debate will persist long after the Wall has been prevented. 



Unless of course it isn’t.

Building the Perfect Constitution

                “Constitution” carries an immediately-understandable connotation, for just about anyone, anywhere in the world.  But the definitions vary considerably from society to society.  To a Briton, the Constitution is a loose collection of documents, scattered throughout time and geographical scope, outlining the operations of government.  To an American, the Constitution is a specific document, drafted at a specific point in time in response to specific historical events, punctuated by a couple dozen appendices (called “Amendments”), serving to explicitly enumerate the government’s responsibilities, and thereby restrict its actions to just those mandates.

                I’ve studied our own Constitution reasonably minutely over the years, and have also occasionally pored over others, such as the Constitution of the Confederate States of America.  I’ve noticed that the latter, while enshrining government approval of some practices more abhorrent than any we might observe in today’s federal government, does a better job in filling in the gaps in language and concept that have permitted our own federal government to so badly abuse the former.  In other words, although the CSA Constitution is not one we would in good conscience be willing to adopt today, it is, arguably, overall more efficient and effective in limiting federal power, and therefore has some lessons for us American citizens today.

                And this has got me thinking over the past few years.  If I were to design a model Constitution, how would I go about formalizing the requirements, filling in the gaps, and making the whole mesh together in a way that actually promoted individual sovereignty and protected individual rights?  Could such a thing be done in such a way as to avoid the long-running divisions and philosophical conundrums that have accompanied the enactment of well-intentioned legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or Court decisions like Roe v. Wade?  How best, in other words, to secure the blessings of tranquility and promote the general welfare for our posterity while still exerting what is essentially authoritarianism, a virtual monopoly on force, on the citizenry?

                In some my recent reading—Arthur Clarke’s The Songs of Distant Earth—it is mentioned that the Constitution of the United States had undergone several revisions—not just Amendments, but complete rewrites—prior to the time of the great human diaspora that provides the novel’s backstory.  Some of the human colonies established during this period of migration received what is called a Jefferson Mark Three Constitution—“utopia in two megabytes”—a designation that implies there was at least a Mark Two after the original (and even here, we might surmise a Jefferson Mark One could have been drafted at some point prior, the “Jefferson” label serving to distinguish it from the original Constitution, which was in fact drafted by James Madison).  The dialogue mentions that the civilization in question was “still on Amendment Six,” implying a degree of perfection (on the original homeworld) so magnificent that it still managed to apply to a colony, consisting largely of fishing and farming villages, some fifty light years away.

                It seems that Clarke, writing in 1986, had his own views on the perfection and permanence of the Constitution, while still regarding it as the model whence all other (good ones) must derive.  And, well, Clarke was one of those authors so astute and perceptive that he is regarded in some quarters —indeed, has been regarded for decades—as a prophet of sorts. He, too, might have some lessons to offer, despite his reticence to espouse any explicit partisan position on the issues.

                My reverence for the Constitution stems largely from its intent, namely, to constrain federal government by placing explicit limits on its power and capabilities.  (Bear in mind that the Founders had recently thrown a Revolution in order to wrest free of the yoke of burdensome government.)  But we all know that this intent has been violated, repeatedly, throughout the history of the nation.  Evidently the words on parchment are themselves not proof against abuse and encroaching authoritarianism. 

This guy. THIS GUY.

                Part of the problem seems to be that the Constitution lacks teeth for enforcing its restrictions.  Although nowhere is this stated as an assigned power in Article III, nor anywhere else, the Courts have long been regarded as the arbiter of what is “Constitutional” with respect to government action.  Jeffrey Segal and Harold Spaeth, authors of The Supreme Court and the Attitudinal Model, point out that there are three bases for SCOTUS jurisprudence:  “plain meaning,” or the most literal interpretation of the language in the Constitution; “original intent,” or what the drafters actually had in mind as words were put to parchment; and “stare decisis,” or precedent, which refers not back to the Constitution itself but to prior decisions made by previous Courts. And the long-running debate on the comparative merits of these approaches is, in some ways, part and parcel of the ideological divide in the United States.

                In an ongoing feat of authoritarian elitism, the Supreme Court has long assumed that its fundamental purpose is to interpret the Constitution.  Again, this is not a role defined anywhere within that document, and as such is an assumed power of the Judiciary Branch.  What is more explicit, and to my thinking far less controversial, is the Court’s role in interpreting law.  Obviously someone has to interpret the Constitution and the law, but I submit to you, citizen, that as citizens, we are all empowered to interpret the Constitution.  Let the judges and Justices, let the lawyers and interns and paralegals and flunkies interpret the law.  The abstrusity of law all but requires the existence of an entire industry of experts paid to interpret and argue its details and nuances; but the Constitution isn’t so large, nor so difficult, that we can’t all become experts, at least on those areas of special interest to ourselves.   Certainly the Framers had no intention of concealing any of its dicta from We the People.

                In any event, the Court’s self-appointed role in maintaining Constitutionality seems to be limited to striking down laws that it sees as invalid.  (I’ll continue to resort to Segal and Spaeth over the course of my career here, in order to demonstrate the flaws in this approach.)  There is little the Court can do, or at least does do, to inhibit burgeoning federal growth, or to prevent any future attempts to circumvent Constitutional restrictions. 

Father of the Country is not amused by your shenanigans.

                It will be my aim, over the course of the following nine posts, to bring you into greater understanding of our Constitution and its principles, by demonstrating its flaws and addressing them in a model Constitution of my own devising, and by demonstrating its strengths and showing how those have been realized in the success of our great nation.

Introducing the Opposition

                I am not a progressive.

                I am not The Resistance.

                I am the counterpoint.

                I am opinionated.

                I am a voter.

                I am an electrical engineer and a software engineer.  And I’m an artist, a writer, a musician.

                Eric has kindly asked me to participate in this growing community, and so, to the best of my ability, I will provide and expound on principles espoused by centrist and Constitutional conservatives and right-libertarians.  I will, from time to time, engage in light debate with him by tacking comments on to his blog posts, but for the most part, my role here is to author posts in order to promote thinking along lines outside of your comfort zone.

                I will probably provoke and outrage, albeit not (usually) intentionally.  I will be pedantic and detailed.  I may at times be savage in my critique of policy.  I do not (often) troll, but I’m not above the use of memes when it suits my purposes.

You can expect some economic discourse, some advocacy of Constitutionalism, and some defense of widely-misunderstood conservative views.  Don’t expect to see any support of Trump or partisanship, except in those very rare instances where such support is (perhaps accidentally) warranted.  Do expect to see criticism of corruption and of policies that produce unintended consequences, from both sides of the aisle.  As regards progressivism itself, just remember:

                I am the opposition.

                Following Eric’s introductory example, I’ll provide a list of books I found informative to my economic and ideological understanding.  (Note that he’s beaten me to some of entries, but I’ll nonetheless produce a list of the same length as his.)  I see a proper understanding of politics as having to be based in a proper understanding of economics and of society, with both of those requiring bases in human nature.  Taking a multidisciplinary approach provides you with a sort of pyramid of learning, with a broad base and an ever-narrowing region of specificity, capped by the field in which you’re most directly involved.  At the base of my pyramid are ethology and evolutionary biology; atop them sits evolutionary psychology, paleoanthropology, archaeology, and history.  Human nature is, after all, just a special case of ape nature, which is just a special case of social animal nature, which is just a special case of animal nature.

                I highly recommend this approach to anyone wanting to achieve a deeper understanding of why we’re here and how we got here.  The most vocal advocates of views at either end of the ideological spectrum refuse to grasp the existence of their own blinders with respect to human nature.  While it’s true, for instance, that religious conservatives refuse to acknowledge that we’re apes, many progressives refuse to acknowledge that we’re territorial, hierarchical, acquisitive, carnivorous, aggressive, pack-hunting apes.

  1.  The “Personal Investigation” (Nature of Man) series by Robert Ardrey:
    1. African Genesis
    2. The Territorial Imperative
    3. The Social Contract
    4. The Hunting Hypothesis
  2.  The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond
  3. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  4. Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  5. The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
  6. After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5000 BC by Steven Mithen
  7. Before the Dawn:  Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade
  8. The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
  9. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
  10. The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek
  11. The Fatal Conceit by F. A. Hayek
  12. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt
  13. The Great Depression by Lionel Robbins
  14. Free to Choose by Milton Friedman
  15. Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman
  16. The Golden Bough by James George Frazier
  17. The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  18. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
  19. New Deal or Raw Deal? by Burton W. Fulsom
  20. The Myth of the Robber Barons by Burton W. Fulsom
  21. The Prize by Daniel Yergin
  22. The Commanding Heights by Daniel Yergin