Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Letter to Senator Grassley About His Refusal to Act On Any Supreme Court Nominee

Dear Senator Grassley,

Image result for senator charles grassley
Abdicates his duty. We expected better.
My wife C and I want you to know how deeply disappointed we are in your decision to abdicate your duties as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman. We refer to your statement that you will refuse to act on any Supreme Court nominee that the President sends to the Senate. Your statements intended to mask that act of blatant partisanship by "letting the People decide" is almost comic. The people made their decision about whom should make this decision some time ago--the President. The President, not some future president. Of course, this is what the Constitution provides. It is ironic that this appointment will be to fill the seat once held by Justice Scalia, the self-described originalist. But as you well know, the Constitution worked to keep "the People" away from federal judicial appointments. It provided an indirectly elected President (such as George W. Bush) would make the appointment subject to the approval of an indirectly elected Senate (until that was modified by the 13th Amendment). But the arguments of you and your colleagues fool no one into believing that this is anything other than an act of rank partisanship. If the shoe were on the other foot, you and your colleagues would be howling with indignation, as you should.

We expected better of you. You once demonstrated a desire to make Washington work by avoiding the type of obstructionism we now see on shameless display. You owe yourself and the people of Iowa better.

Sincerely yours,
Steve & C Greenleaf

Monday, February 22, 2016

Some Remarks & an Endorsement for President

Preliminary remarks
Preliminary Remarks by Mr. A Hamilton

Before I commence my endorsement, I’m calling upon Mr. A. Hamilton, of current Broadway fame, the face on the ten-dollar bill, and political genius, to provide an invocation with an eloquence that I can only aspire to.

. . . . The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

 This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.

 . . . . I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views. Candor will oblige us to admit that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable--the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears. So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.

 And yet, however just these sentiments will be allowed to be, we have already sufficient indications that it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion. A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives. An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.

 In the course of the preceding observations, I have had an eye, my fellow-citizens, to putting you upon your guard against all attempts, from whatever quarter, to influence your decision in a matter of the utmost moment to your welfare, by any impressions other than those which may result from the evidence of truth. . . . Yes, my countrymen, I own to you that, after having given it an attentive consideration, I am clearly of opinion it is your interest to adopt [the Constitution, or, in this case, this person to serve as President.] I am convinced that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness. I affect not reserves which I do not feel. I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation when I have decided. I frankly acknowledge to you my convictions, and I will freely lay before you the reasons on which they are founded. The consciousness of good intentions disdains ambiguity. I shall not, however, multiply professions on this head. My motives must remain in the depository of my own breast. My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all. They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth.

 “Publius” Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1.

Mr. Hamilton was writing in favor of what became the United States Constitution. However, I believe that his words can—and should—guide me in giving an account of why I favor a particular candidate to serve as President of the United States beginning January 2017. With Hamilton’s invocation in mind, I shall proceed.

Video for mary poppins fiduciary bank
A Thought Experiment                                                   

Before beginning a consideration of any individual, and to further set the tone for my undertaking, I want to propose a thought experiment that will help guide me, that will provide a talisman for my thoughts. The fantasy is this:

I am a shareholder in a very large corporation. There are about 219 million shareholders each holding an equal vote about hiring a new CEO for the corporation. I am no different than any other shareholder, at least in theory. I have only one vote. I have no insider information, no special financial stake, no personal connection with the candidates wanting to hold office as CEO. In fact, because I have no direct stake, no inherent personal bias, I’ve been awarded a proxy by all of the other shareholders to make this selection! My only duty is that of a fiduciary. I have a legal duty to act in the best interest of the corporation and its shareholders. If I am negligent in discharging my fiduciary duty, I will be held accountable—someone will sue me “for every penny you’ve got!”. I don’t have all that many pennies, but still, it’s all I’ve got! But more importantly, I feel a strong moral obligation act in the best interest of the corporation and its shareholders. This includes me, my family, my friends, my fellow Americans, and the rest of world. Every one of us and future generations will feel the effects of my decision. I can’t guaranty that things will work out all for the best. I could misjudge. But my duty is to make a diligent inquiry and use my best judgment based on fact and reason that I can now muster. On what criteria should I base my selection?

As you have no doubt discerned, the “corporation” that I’m speaking about is the Federal Government of the United States of America, and the “CEO” is the office of president. My fellow “shareholders” are the citizens of the United States, with the rest of world (or most of it) holding an interest in its well-being. It remains a beacon of hope and a model of billions around the world.

By the criteria set forth above (in addition to a great number of other reasons), I exclude Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Since Trump remains a viable nominee, I will limit comments to him. He wants to serve as CEO without any prior experience in government; in other words, he’s working on his undergrad degree (campaigning), and yet he believes that he should become the head of the company. He has no strategic plan, he has no compelling history of financial success (his money would have done better over the years in an indexed fund), but he is a salesman. This, I can’t dispute. However, a successful political leader must have return customers; i.e., supporters with whom he will have to deal successfully on a continuing basis. But Trump is a huckster, a P.T. Barnum, who sells snake oil and then plans to . . . what? Trump can only offer more snake oil as he appears to act on impulse and improvisation, as do most demagogues. No, to select Trump or Carson would be a prima facie case of breach of fiduciary duty.

My Criteria

So by what criteria should I judge the candidates for this most powerful office while meeting the requirements of my fiduciary duty and my self-respect (if not outright pride) in reaching my decision? The criteria broadly put are the following (with a discussion of particulars to follow):

1.    Proposed policies and attitudes on matters foreign, domestic—and given the reality and demands created by climate change and environmental degradation—global.
2.    Character as composed of sound judgment, experience, and ethos (ethics broadly speaking).
3.    Political Realism, Incrementalism, & Conservatism; or, Dealing with the American People

Now to the Particulars: Policies and Attitudes

In the spirit of Mr. Hamilton, let me be frank. None of the Republican candidates offer policies or attitudes (on the whole) that I can endorse. Indeed, I have a hard time making sense of what most of them say most of the time (and it’s not just a matter of the tangled syntax and logical nonsequiturs that lead me to this conclusion). I say this having been a Republican at one point in my life, and as someone who appreciates concerns about the size and scope of government, the level of the tax burden, the reasonableness of regulations, the usefulness of markets and decentralized decision-making, and the need for a strong national defense. But the Republican brand has become unhinged from reality such that this party can no longer speak to these core issues. With the obvious choice now between former Secretary of State Clinton and Senator Sanders, let me note the issues that should most concern us:

1.    Campaign Finance Reform and Ending Legalized Corruption. Our system is broken—corrupted—by the influence of big money in politics. We—led by our Supreme Court—have legalized corruption by equating money with speech. In a sense, of course, money talks, but such talk is not political speech, it's blunt bribery for the most part. The bigger the donation, the greater the expectation. Senator Sanders deserves strong commendation for speaking out on this topic (and before him, Lawrence Lessig). And Sanders has less “connections” that Secretary Clinton upon which to draw currently for money. But Secretary Clinton has said the right things. I don’t blame her for playing the system the way that it’s set up now, but I think that she’ll push for the appropriate change as well (just as I think Sanders would about reasonable gun limitations).

2.    Addressing Climate Change. The Republicans (except perhaps Kasich) are still in denial and have forfeited all credibility in the light of the accepted science. The question isn't (and hasn’t been for some time) whether we’re experiencing climate change, but how will we address that within a global context. Limited by a no-nothing, do-nothing Congress, Obama has taken some initial steps, but we need so much more.

3.    Economic Inequality. Going back far before the Obama years, the American Dream has become too remote for far too many. Many Americans are getting left behind. This is a long-term, multi-faceted problem that will not be cured overnight. We will need to work on some levels to keep opportunity available to all. We need to concentrate on good jobs, education, and fair trade. We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, especially in judging issues like trade agreements, but we don’t want to continue the slide toward greater inequality, which will only foster greater social disharmony and political demagoguery.

4.    Reasonable Limitations on Guns. Our greatest threats are from within, not from terrorists without. (Remember Oklahoma City?). Not that there aren’t terrorists motivated by radical ideologies (often Muslim-based), but the greatest number of deaths come from Americans shooting other Americans. It’s crazy, insane. We need to stop our gun idolatry. Presidential leadership is necessary, and President Obama deserves great credit for trying. We should all be weeping at our folly and the deaths of innocents.

5.    Foreign Relations. We can’t blast our way into a world more to our liking. We are the strongest nation in the world, and not just because of our unquestionable military dominance, nor even because of our economic dominance. We have to use our cultural dominance, our ability to realize a global order that can last. This means mixing day-to-day judgment with a long-term strategy for assuring American security in a changing world. Force is always an option and may be needed, but as a matter of both morality and intense practicality (and are they so different?), force should remain a last resort.

6.    Immigration. We need secure borders, and we need to recognize that millions of person who’ve long lived and worked in America must receive a fair deal. We have a problem: we’re still a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. Let’s use that fact for our benefit, and not as a basis for xenophobia.

7.    Race Relations. Race relations have improved immensely in my lifetime, and they need to improve immensely. Democrats as a whole recognize this. There are no quick and easy answers, but our next president needs to be sensitive to these problems and continue to work towards a plural, diverse nation that recognizes the dignity of all of its citizens.

8.    Court Appointments. We need judges who know that the Constitution isn’t a sacred fossil, but a road map that we need to reference and expand as times change. We need men and women who will avoid partisanship and will honor the rule of law. We don’t need a more “conservative” (pro-business) court.

9.    A Sound Economic Policy. We need economic policies and policy-makers who recognize that we’re in a poorly charted area. But we know that some things will not work, such as austerity. We need a plan to upgrade America’s sagging infrastructure, and we need to focus on creating and maintaining good, quality jobs. This means allowing enterprise to flourish within a system that protects workers and the environment. It happened in the post-WWII era, and we should attempt to replicate that success and balance.

The Republican candidates fail these tests as a whole. They ignore the corruption of big money; they ignore climate change; they offer the same medicine for inequality that they’ve prescribed for the last 40 years, only to see inequality increase. They honor the high-priest of the gun-god, the NRA and refuse to act to end the on-going sacrifice to this malicious god. They mostly offer military intervention and tough-guy talk for a foreign policy. They insult immigrants and ignore the reality of those already here who are contributing to our nation. They largely ignore the problems of race (Marco Rubio, though, made some nod toward the problem, for which he should—perhaps unwillingly—receive some credit. But then, after criticism from the right, he ran away from real, equitable immigration reform.) The Republicans want to appoint “originalists” to the federal courts when such an attitude—the late Justice Scalia notwithstanding—has no legs and only serves to reinforce existing power structures. And Republican economics worships at the altar of free markets and laisse faire while current realities call for changes in our system to take it away from crony capitalism, rent-seeking, and fortune-hunting and toward practices that are more equitable and sustainable. And that isn’t the gold standard, austerity, or tax-cuts for the wealthy.

Between the Democrats, there’s not lots of difference in policies, although Sanders on health care changes and taxation goes off far beyond where Secretary Clinton (and most of the American public) would venture. But the real distinction doesn’t come from policy differences, so let’s turn to character.

Character: Experience, Judgment, & Ethos

Judgment comes from knowledge gained through experience and study. As to experience, I can’t think of anyone better qualified to become president than Secretary Clinton. She’s been First Lady, a U.S. Senator (from New York, no less), and she’s served as Secretary of State. When we look back at Presidents Clinton (Bill), Bush (W.), and Obama, we see what a challenge the presidency was to each of them initially. With most new presidents, the costs of the learning curve are high as measured by the quality of our governance. (We also saw this with Secretary Clinton as well in her healthcare project during Bill’s term.) I contrast this will Sanders service as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and his many years in the House and later in the Senate. He was an independent until 2015, although he caucused with the Democrats. Sanders has been around a lot longer than Barack Obama, for instance, but nevertheless the quality of his resume pales in comparison with that of Clinton.

The quality of person’s judgment is hard to forecast, especially in a new position. In this, Sanders is mostly a blank slate, as his experience at the federal level has remained in the legislative branch. This has allowed him to act and campaign as a true believer, someone unsullied by having to make tough, compromising choices (which are inevitable, wishes to the contrary notwithstanding). As for Clinton, she’s not always had the best judgment: her handling of the Clinton health care plan, the Iraq War vote, and the use of a private email server. But in each of these instances, she didn’t cross any lines that I find immoral or unethical. Like all politicians, she sometimes walks the line, but I haven’t found her crossing over it. I hope that she’s learned from her mistakes and that the intense and mostly irrational scrutiny that she’s undergone hasn’t ruined her sense of forthrightness and risk-taking, but I suspect it’s all had a toll. The business of Benghazi and the email server, both of which I’ve looked into, I find on the whole trifling and not at all disqualifying.

And all of this leads to ethos. Clinton has the ethos of a battle-hardened veteran of some very nasty political fighting. She has a distinctly pragmatic attitude. She expects and is willing to work for incremental change. She’s an evolutionist, not a revolutionist. Sanders, on the other hand, draws his energy and his voters from the purity of his motives and views. He is a believer, a socialist from way back (no big deal in my book, although certainly retro). This means that he carries a deep and abiding commitment to equity and fairness, admirable qualities indeed. But having labored for so long in the vineyard of the pure vision, how will he deal with the reality of political wheeling and dealing, not to mention attacks, that he would face as president? Clinton has taken all manner of punches and remains standing. Against Sanders, the Republicans have not yet begun to fight. And is Clinton “ambitious”? Yes. But then so is every man who’s running, and every man [sic] who’s been elected president. Of course, too much ambition and too much purity can prove frightening (i.e., Ted Cruz). Character does matter. Look at the flawed characters of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on the extremes. And when you think about it, flaws in every president become apparent with the unremitting glare of the public limelight and the number of decisions to be made and interests to resolve. You need leaders who can make mistakes and still get back in the saddle, who can trim the sails and make adjustments as circumstances dictate.

By the way, in one sense I agree with many of the young women who discount the importance of gender in making a decision about whom to select as president. Secretary Clinton qualifies on her merits, as it should be, and as did Obama. The issue should no longer be whether we chose a woman to serve as president, but rather why it took so long to do so.

Political Realism, Incrementalism, & Conservatism; or, Dealing with the American People

Garry Wills
I fancy myself a political realist, an incrementalist, and a conservative (in the Garry Wills sense of the term). I don’t believe any political leader will prove flawless. I hold that if we have a leader who doesn’t do “stupid stuff,” we’re ahead of the game. Politics is a matter of compromise; legislating is the equivalent of making sausage: it’s not pretty, a lot of junk goes in, but in the end, it’s edible. Change in too great a measure will likely result in a backlash or to spiral out of control. Sometimes you swing for the fences, but you must know when to swing, when to hold, and how far you can hit. It’s easy to strike out.
Max Weber

Reinhold Niebuhr
I understand the appeal of Sanders (and even Trump—although I find them in no measure equivalent in fitness for office). They appeal to primal fears (Trump) and hopes (Sanders), but in the end, if elected, those hopes and fears will prove ephemeral and constraining. Following Garry Wills, I avoid purity in politics. We need saints and prophets, but we need politicians, too. Officials who compromise and make deals, who bring home a half-a-loaf because it’s better than none. They don’t often inspire us, but they serve us. Politics is the art of the possible. It requires the ethics of responsibility (Max Weber). Democracy is a form of protection for the majority, not a guaranty of good results (Reinhold Niebuhr; Churchill). Government is the business end of politics, attempting to turning ideas (good or bad; communal or selfish) into reality. It requires smart, dedicated leadership and judgment.

It’s for all of these reasons that I support Hillary Clinton for president. 
Does she look happy? Of course, after my endorsement!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Favorite Books Read in 2015

Now that the real new year has arrived, the Year of the Monkey, here in Vietnam and back in China, it’s time to review the best books I read in 2015 (using the Western calendar for my cut-off date).  So here are some favorites in a variety of categories.

Favorite Re-read Fiction: TheName of the Rose by Umberto Eco (English translation 1983). I’ve read this book several times before, but I thought—and then confirmed—that it would be an excellent introduction to Italy, where we were planning an extensive summer visit. This book is clever and intriguing on so many levels that it’s hard to cite exactly what makes it worth reading. Of course, it’s a murder mystery, the setting is a Benedictine monastery, and the detective is a Franciscan proto-Holmes. But that’s just for starters. What intrigued me most about this reading was the extensive information that Eco provides about the tremendous social upheaval in the late medieval era, the intersection of economic and social change, religious conflict, and personal power. Sound familiar? As always, highly recommended.

Classic Fiction: A Room with a View by E.M. Forester (1908). Another book read in anticipation of our visit to Florence. Compared to other Forrester works, this is a bit of a frolic, a romance. The setting is not limited to Florence and Italy (the setting moves “home” to England), but that’s where the nub of the story unfolds. In the end, it’s a “who-marries-who” story and a delightful one at that. Good for a visit to Italy or any occasion. (The Merchant-Ivory film production, by the way, does a fine job of translating the book into a film.)

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Recent Fiction: Science in the Capital Trilogy: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson. These three well-integrated books aren’t so much science fiction as imaginative fiction about contemporary science and life. Stanley’s novels follow a small group of scientists and their friends as they attempt to grapple with the scientific, political, and personal consequences of climate change. Read the headlines and then read these titles, and you’ll note a strong correlation as any number of the characters might note. The characters are quirky and engaging, with intrigue and adventure mixed into family life and the quotidian world. It’s the type of fiction that doesn’t rock you with poetic insight, but that does give you insight into the world in which we live. Very enjoyable, despite the frightening topic.

You'd Never Read This Before? The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstram (1972). As I read this book last fall, while visiting south China and while anticipating our current visit to Vietnam, I kept asking myself how I’d not read this book before. It was often assigned to college classes and was everywhere for a while. I doubt that it’s ever been out of print. The author was well-known. I’d just never gotten to it, but last fall I did, and I was enthralled. The book details the men [sic] of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who led the U.S. into the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s known here). As Halberstam notes, these men were considered the best and the brightest, the top-notch, get-it-done guys who would lead the fight against Communism based on their brains and their will power. And then things went to hell. Halberstam, writing after the release of the Pentagon Papers and with lots of personal interviews and experience as a correspondent in Vietnam, paints carefully measured portraits of the players involved (McNamara, the Bundy brothers, Dean Rusk, etc.) and brings them each into focus as he details the unfolding of events. This book is a first draft of history, and an exemplary effort. In a sense, Halberstam is an American Thucydides, attempting to chronicle and understand how this horrible failure of judgment and policy unfolded. While there are now other works that I want to read on this subject, I can’t imagine a better place to start when considering the acts of the decision-makers. I was just young enough to avoid having to face being drafted, but I am old enough to know how the war tore our nation apart and how it shattered this beautiful country. Given the ways of the world, we’d do well to burn these lessons into our psyches.

Nerd Reading. The Idea of History and The Principles of History and Other Writings on History by R.G. Collingwood. I finally read The Idea of History, one of the great works on the topic and according to The Guardian, one the outstanding English non-fiction works published after the Second World War. Collingwood remains a relatively little-known figure compared to others philosophers in the U.K. during his time (the inter-war years), such as Wittgenstein, Russell, Moore, Ayer, and so on, yet he was—and remains—a formidable thinker. His work and training as an archeologist of Roman Britain, along with his thorough grounding in the history of philosophy and the history of history (as a discipline and way of thought) give him the intellectual muscle to complete this momentous task. His assessment of his predecessors and his original perspective creates an amazing work. And The Principles of Historybased on manuscripts discovered by Oxford University Press in the 1990s—over 50 years after Collingwood’s premature death—helps round out our sense of Collingwood’s project. It’s deep, nerdy, and amazing.

General, Overall Fun Favorite: Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall. This book had it all, like a great salad: some greens, some crunch, some sweet meat, all properly dressed. My review pretty much says it all, but I’ll say it again—it was a fun read and listen.

A lot of fine, fun books are ignored on this list, but these are some of the highlights. Happy reading to all in the year of the monkey!