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Trends to be aware of in funerals

A summary of a report by a funeral director and a Monument company owner

On Thursday, October 29, 2020 on a Zoom Elmhurst Rotary meeting we had an informative presentation by a funeral director and a Monument company owner about trends they have observed in their line of work.

  1. A major shift from burials towards cremations.  It used to be rather rare to have cremations but now it is close to 50/50 between burials and cremations.  It is surprising to many that cremations are not as inexpensive as they thought they would be.
  2. Those who elect to have a cremation almost never have thought through what to do with the cremains.  If the cremains are to be buried, they need to have a marker which essentially conveys the future message to not dig there.  If they are not to be buried, what is the family going to do with the cremains?  Contrary to myth, few put them on their mantel piece.  A closet is more common.
  3. Those who elect to have a burial rarely know the kinds of mandatory expenses they will face such as having to have a concrete enclosure for the casket, the grave site dug and then filled in after the burial.  Few have done the research needed before they see a funeral director and a monument provider.  Few realize the importance of having a monument to guarantee the burial site will not be disturbed.
  4. The nature of the religious commitment of those coming to funeral directors and monument companies has changed from the great majority being affiliated with a specific religion towards close to 50% non-affiliated.  The latter are looking usually to have a religious service but do not know how to arrange it.  So, the funeral director has to inform them of their options.  Most funeral directors have a short list of those who are going to provide a thoughtful service at a reasonable cost.  A significant number of the non-affiliated do not want a religious service; but wish to have some kind of service.  However, they do not know what their options are.  There still are religions that insist on there being no cremations such as the Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews.
  5. A growing trend towards the majority thinking: It’s all about my convenience.  So many are adamant about having some kind of service; but not anything that would interfere with their existing commitments like a soccer match for one of their children.  These folks are ignoring the reality of death and the need for a grief process.  They do not want a funeral or memorial service to interfere with their existing commitments.  Many appear to have only a little commitment to honoring the family member that died.  Those folks do not provide support for the family that lost someone.  They will put off services of any kind until it is convenient.
  6. Few are aware that in many urban areas there is a growing lack of burial space. There are cities such as San Francisco that have no burial sites available.  Many cemeteries are going out of business for lack of income.  The U.S. is not yet to the stage of parts of Europe where burial space is rented, not owned.
  7. There are fewer and fewer monument providers.  Be sure to choose wisely.  There is also a trend of funeral homes going out of business.
  8. COVID has hit cemeteries hard with more bodies to bury than would be normal just as many hospitals lack sufficient space for patients especially in rural areas. 

Concerns about Iran buying weapons

There has been a fair amount of concern expressed about Iran being at liberty now to improve its weaponry.   It is correct that the UN embargo imposed on Iran’s purchase of weapons has expired.  What will Iran do?  There is also concern about whether Trump’s sanctions are having the desired effect and that more will surely get Iran to toss out its regime.

The Trump administration had demanded that the UN embargo stay in place; but it faced a humiliating defeat at the UN by America’s allies and adversaries.  Thus, the embargo expired on October 18, but the restrictions on Iran’s development of ICBMS with nuclear capacity remain in place for three more years.

Yes, Iran could now buy and sell weapons at will.  Russia and China have expressed interest.  Iran may pursue some opportunities as with Venezuela.  However, a full-fledged effort to buy and sell weapons is not likely.  Iran’s annual military spending has been only 1/5th of Saudi Arabia’s; and, Iran will not be able to catch up any time soon.  American sanctions are so deleterious to Iran that few are going to take the risk of buying and selling weapons with Iran.  Russia and China have stronger interests elsewhere.


Plus, Iran does not need to enter into this market. Their military strategy does not depend on traditional weaponry.  They have put an emphasis on asymmetrical weapons and even more on their continued strong relationships with armed militia groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria along with the Houthis in Yemen.  Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are the real power here and not Iran’s seriously degraded regular military.  They are not about to buy a bunch of warplanes or tanks.  They operate through drones and proxies as mentioned above. They will focus on producing their own better cruise missiles and maybe enhancing their diesel subs. 

Iran does not have a history of huge arms deals since the Shah fell.  They may make some weapons purchases but not enough to change the strategic picture in their region.  Pompeo has actually been ridiculed for saying that new Iranian warplanes would mean that “Europe and Asia could be in Iran’s crosshairs.”  The map he attached to his tweet displayed ranges that would amount to one-way suicide missions.  Just not going to happen.

Well, how are Trump’s sanctions playing out?  They have effectively strangled Iran’s economy.  They have made it real hard for Iran to keep its domestic consumers satisfied.  Plus, even long before the sanctions, their economy was a wreck.  Iran just never was much of a likely market for goods, tourism and investments then and certainly not now.

However, the regime has only tightened its grip. The opposition is fragmented and leaderless.  The regime has not shown any signs of collapse and is not likely to.  Further, Iran has responded to the American actions by developing their nuclear capacity.  Trump’s sanctions have had the exact opposite effect of what they were intended to do.  It was a touch of hubris to think they could do otherwise.  President Trump has no support from any of the other signatories of the Iran deal. Without that, he cannot succeed.  He has backed himself into a corner that it is hard to get out of honorably.

Well, what about carrying out a military attack on Iran to really cripple Iran?  Invasion would be no more successful than have been our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Further, Hezbollah and the Houthis have made it crystal clear they will come to Iran’s defense.  Hezbollah is formidable with its thousands of missiles and its combat experience.  The U.S. would face a much wider war.  Iran has the capabilities to shut down the Strait of Hormuz for a couple of months.

All in all then, Iran is not going to be a significant threat to the U.S. and its position in the Middle East. It is not now and it won’t be.  I predicted back in early January that Trump’s approach to Iran would fail; and, it has.

Partisanship and the Supreme Court: Is there a way out?

I would like to take this discussion to a level above partisanship.

Here’s how partisans see it, as in any serious partisan conflict, there is no agreement on when the fight for control over the Court began.

Republicans and their supporters like to say the cause of the judicial conflict started with the attacks on Bork since Ted Kennedy ignored a long-standing de facto agreement to weigh a nominee based on their qualifications and not on their values.  And, that the Dems followed that up with their allegations of sexual abuse against Clarence Thomas and later Kavanaugh.

Democrats counter by pointing out they readily supported Anthony Kennedy as Reagan’s alternative to Bork.  Further, the efforts to block Thomas and Kavanaugh were not successful.  They feel that the GOP’s angst is based on the feeling that the Court became too liberal in the 60s, maybe you, the reader, remembers the Impeach Earl Warren sentiments.

The issue at hand involves Mitch’s actions.  There is a strong feeling that Mitch abandoned fair play by blocking Garland’s nomination without any hearing let alone a vote—an unprecedented action in a President’s last year in office.  He lied by inventing the fraudulent idea that there were precedents for his action.  He said let the voters decide in the next election. Graham and Grassley both said the same thing. 

Mitch and the rest all abandoned that notion by saying that it was not relevant when the Senate and the President are of the same party and by the Democrats being nasty to Kavanaugh.  They thus ignored the Dem Senate’s resounding support for Reagan’s appointment of Kennedy in Reagan’s last year as President.  They also abandoned the tradition that a replacement for a Supreme should be a like-minded successor. They had forgotten that in 1968, the Dems controlled the Senate and with members of the GOP rejected both of LBJ’s appointments of Fortas and Thornberry leaving Nixon the opportunity to fill those two seats.  Fortas was the first one rejected for his views and not for his qualifications.  He and Thornberry were rejected for cronyism with LBJ and for backlash against the Warren Court.

The bottom line is that Mitch had the power to do what he has done; and, he used it.  He has used it to guarantee a 6-3 conservative majority on the Court.  Dems fear what that majority will do to the ACA and Roe v Wade.  They believe that it was Mitch that ignored norm related niceties.  They have reason to think that.

Understandably, Republicans fear that if the Dems win the Senate and the Presidency in this upcoming election they will retaliate by using their power to do so. They don’t want to acknowledge that the thirst for revenge has a solid basis in Mitch’s actions.

However, Dem moderates are highly unlikely to do that. It could set off a fire storm akin to when F.D.R. tried court packing in 1937.  Yes, there are progressives like AOC who want to do what the Reps fear, but they are a relative fringe of the party.  Biden and his rivals, including Sanders, ruled court packing out in the Primaries.  Biden does not feel he needs to repeat what he has already said.   Essentially, he is saying much depends on how much the GOP would do to stiff Biden’s attempts to reform, for example, the ACA.  Further, it is unlikely that the Dems will gain more than 51 seats. 

Is there a way out of this partisan war that has threatened the public perception of the Court being above partisanship?  It is hard to see how this partisan war can end up well.  The Court’s authority really rests on the trust of the public that they are not there for partisan reasons; and, will be impartial.  The more audacious the attempts to skew its membership the more the Court will lose in credibility.  The Court needs to be trusted as being impartial.  That has been Chief Justice Rodgers main thrust.

How to get to that stage?

There is a way.  As The Economist has pointed out, we are the ONLY democracy whose judges on the highest court enjoy lifetime terms.  Germany, for example, is a good example where their constitutional court justices sit for 12 years.  In our case, 18 year non-renewable terms would fit the bill.  It would guarantee that each four-year Presidency would have the ability to appoint two new judges.  This would reduce the partisan spectacle of big battles over the ideology of the judge.  It would reduce the court being central to our politics and more centered on the law.  Let us make RBG the last judicial superstar.

I will end with what I have said before that in any normal universe Barrett would be confirmed and should be confirmed.  I am not troubled by her faith.  She has made it clear that her faith animates her in private; but, she would be ruled by law on the Court based on Scalia’s originalism theory.  I do not agree with that theory but not enough to oppose her candidacy.

It is a fact of our history that once Judges are free to not have to worry about our partisan battles they may not act as their supporters would have wished.  That has already been the case with both Gorsuch and Cavanaugh not to mention our Chief Justice.  They will do what they believe is the best way to resolve very difficult cases.  I think Judge Barrett is well-qualified to do that and I do not worry about how she will treat the ACA and Roe vs. Wade.  I also do not think Trump can count on her ruling in his favor in a contested election.

Fair enough?  I think so, but I could be wrong. What do you think?

Has there been a presidential election as contentious as in 2020?

Yes, we sure have.  More than one, in fact.  Historians still regard the 1800 election as the nastiest on record.  1824 had to be settled in the House; and the losers refused to accept the results by doing everything they could to make sure the elected President was not successful, and they succeeded.  1860 led to the Civil War.  2000 and hanging chads comes to mind as well.  The 2008 and 2016 elections were also quite divisive.

But, the closest parallel to this one has to be the one fought out in 1876.  It took four months to finally arrive at an accepted winner with the 1876 Compromise. It came close to tearing the fabric of the Union apart, again.  There has been quite a bit written about this terrible situation so I can only summarize the story for you.

By the evening of election day, the GOP chairman went to bed believing that their candidate Rutherford B. Hayes had lost and the Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden had won.  But, it became clear to the GOP headquarters that if Hayes won South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, which were all controlled by the GOP, Hayes would win by one electoral vote.  So, the GOP leaders in their states made sure the results made Hayes the winner. 

Needless to say there were outcries of fraud from the Democrats. Threats of severe civil strife broke out.  There were stories that circulated of armed partisans descending on D.C. to determine the outcome.  It was so contentious that the results were not clear as the inauguration date in March approached.

What had happened?  Two separate slates of electors provided by the two parties in the states in question were presented to Congress.  The Constitution did not provide a remedy for this and that could be what would happen this time since the Constitution has not been amended to fix this.  The GOP feared that the party of secession, the Democrats, would prevail—though Tilden had strongly opposed secession at the time.  He had also opposed slavery then.

What was done?  It took until January for Congress to pass an Electoral Commission Act setting up a special commission to settle matters.  The results awarded all disputed electoral votes to Hayes on a party line vote thus making him President by one electoral vote.  Democrat did not accept those results so a behind the scenes compromise was worked out that had long standing consequences, especially for blacks in the South.  The Democrats accepted Hayes as a one term President while the GOP gave up on Reconstruction.  This meant southern white Democratic party rule until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  It meant white Southerners, who called themselves Redeemers (Meaning “redeeming” the south from any rights worth spit for blacks.) could do whatever they wished to maintain their rule.

Former Union soldier and Alabama legislator Charles Harris described these results well in 1877:

                We obey laws; others make them.  We support state educational institutions, whose doors are virtually closed against us. We support asylums and hospitals, and our sick, deaf, dumb, or blind are met at the doors by invidious distinctions and unjust discrimination.

Matters would progressively get worst as slavery by another name became well established.  See the PBS documentary Slavery By Another Name.  Hundreds, even thousands, of white mob extralegal lynchings of blacks took place.  The eugenics movement, fueled by a distorted Social Darwinism, justified all this. It was THE Nadir of race relations which still impacts us today.  The past is never really past.

There was a very important other consequence which must be understood in view of Trump’s threats to derail the results of this election if it looks like he will lose.  He and his enablers are apparently prepared to contest the election results claiming fraud in the use of absentee ballots.  They could send in their own set of electors by declaring the results by the end dof election night.  But, the Speaker of the House is not obliged to accept them; and could insist on waiting until the votes have all been counted leading to a different set of electors being selected.

What to do in this nightmare scenario?

The parties involved in the 1877 election took a decade of intricate squabbling to come up with a law to deal with issues like this in the Electoral Count Law of 1887.  The results would not be sent to the House floor or to the Supreme Court as apparently President Trump hopes because in either case he has said he would have a likely winning majority. 

By the 1887 law, The House and Senate would each serve as a referee with the governor of each contested state would be the tie breaker if the two Houses can’t agree on which set of electors should be used.  It is a complicated and in sections opaque law, but it is all we have.  The authors expected that it would be amended to make it clearer; but, this never happened in large part because the threat of another 1876 mess didn’t take place.  One important provision under this law is ff the results are not straightened out by Jan. 20, then the Speaker of the House is sworn is as Acting President. 

Right now, there are 8 likely battleground states: Arizona, Fl, GA, Mich, MN, N.C., PA, and WI.  The first three have GOP governors and the last 5 have Dem governors.  Biden is leading in all of them but barely in FL, GA and N.C. at the moment.  A close race seems likely.  Biden’s lead nationally has stayed consistent at 7-9 %, though polls can be inaccurate, but it’s the individual states that matter.

To put it bluntly, as one sarcastic comic put it, an asteroid may hit the U.S. on November 3 upsetting all results.  Let’s hope that reason and rationality prevail.  Let’s hope that Trump and his supporters don’t contest the results. Let’s hope that neither party cheats to get the voting results it wants.  There are already a near multitude of claims of fraud now—so far all that I have read or watched have been debunked, and there will surely be more. The best solution would be a Biden or Trump landslide where there’s no question of a winner.  It would help if the great majority of those who have or soon will receive absentee ballots will vote early.  Biden’s legal team is preparing for all contingencies.

But, a real mess could be heading our way, much worse than hanging chads. 

What is your view of this controversy?

Iran’s foreign policy from their point of view

Iran is in a very tough neighborhood.  To its east is nuclear armed Pakistan which quietly backs the Taliban—both are Sunni and Iran is predominately Shia.  To its Northeast is Afghanistan which has a significant U.S. military contingent and a civil war. Next to Afghanistan is secular Turkmenistan with whom Iran gets along despite their issues with gas ownership and its close working relationship with the U.S.  Iran has been building better ties with Turkmenistan to counter its ties with the U.S. To its far west is nuclear armed Israel. In between is Sunni Jordan which works closely with Israel along with the U.S.; and, has tense relationships with Iran.

In between, there is a seriously destabilized Shia controlled Iraq. Iran also borders a mercurial Sunni dictatorship in Turkey which has the second-best indigenous military in the ME second only to Israel.  Turkey and Iran edgily work together because they do not care for American support for the Kurds. In the Persian Gulf there are multiple U.S. bases along with a French base and a British base (both are nuclear powers).

In short, Iran has its reasons to be able to protect itself.  Iran believes that the U.S. is hypocritical in criticizing Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas.  The U.S. has consistently supported opposition groups to Iran including the MEK which has been on the U.S. list in the past as a terrorist organization and sided with Saddam in his war with Iran.  The MEK intends to overthrow the regime in Iran and replace it with itself—the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran.  It has a complicated history: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/nov/09/mek-iran-revolution-regime-trump-rajavi

It allegedly has a secret training base in Albania and has been carrying out secret operations within Iran with quiet support from the Trump administration. It has little hope of success.

The U.S. aided Saddam in his war with Iran with weapons, and satellite photos of Iranian troop dispositions in 1987. In the same year, the U.S. destroyed two of Iran’s oil platforms in the Persian Gulf and attacked the Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf.  In 1988 the U.S. shot down an Iranian airliner carrying 290 passengers.  Since 1995, the U.S. has done all it could to prevent foreign investments into Iran.

When Trump withdrew from the Iran deal, his withdrawal was arguably illegal under international law.  When the JCPOA was signed in 2015, it was endorsed by the UN Security Council, which approved unanimously Resolution 2231 expressing its endorsement. The Resolution was filed in the framework of Chapter VII of UN Charter that deals with peace and stability in the world. According to the Charter, it is mandatory for all members of the UN to abide by the provisions of any Resolution filed under Chapter VII. Thus, not only has the US broken its promises to Iran and violated its commitment to the JCPOA, it is also in violation of its obligations toward the U.N. Security Council.

Add to that the U.S. has levied sanctions against Iran without the approval of the U.N. Security Council. There also it is in violation of its obligations towards that Security Council. To Iran and the other signatories of the Iran Deal, the U.S.’s arguments about the rule of law are hypocritical. None of the existing signatories accept those U.S. sanctions. This is a case of America First–alone. Withdrawing from the deal was one thing, to levy unilateral sanctions isn’t supportable under Security Council rules. The U.S. in addition put sanctions in place against Iran’s Foreign Ministry while claiming it wanted to negotiate. That is a non starter to Iran and the other signatories.

Iran’s economy was already a mess before Obama or Trump took any action.  It has become worse thanks to the U.S. sanctions. See the Heritage Foundation’s 2019 report: Iran’s economic freedom score is 51.1, making its economy the 155th freest in the 2019 Index. Its overall score has increased by 0.2 point, with higher scores for judicial effectiveness and investment freedom exceeding declines in labor freedom and business freedom. Iran is ranked 13th among 14 countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, and its overall score is below the regional and world averages. Even if we developed relations with Iran, it has little potential for foreign profitable investment.

Iran supports Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthi in Yemen.  The first has existed since Hezbollah organized in reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  Israel got rid of the Palestinian presence in southern Lebanon, but got worse on its hands in exchange.  Hezbollah is determined if it could along with Hamas to eliminate Israel; but, will never have the capability to do it without fearsome consequences.  Hezbollah was instrumental in helping Syria’s government survive with Iranian assistance.  Syria is a ruined country.  Hezbollah suffered significant casualties in rescuing Syria to the dismay of Hezbollah’s base in Lebanon. 

Hezbollah is part of the government there so to call it a terrorist group is a bit of a misnomer.  But, it is state supported terrorism.  Hamas has its own miserable state in Gaza so it also isn’t like Al Qaeda but it too is state supported terrorism.  Iran sees supporting these groups as essential for its own survival and to advance its interests in the ME. Iran is highly unlikely to give up its support for these groups as the U.S. demands.  The Houthis control the northern part of Yemen and are in a civil war with the opposition supported by Saudi Arabia.  It has become a miserable stalemate.

Iran has developed multiple asymmetric weapons so that it could shut down the Persian Gulf for a spell but at the cost of a likely unwinnable war with the U.S.  They are developing ICBMs but the U.S. demand that they cease runs right against Russian and Chinese interests in selling them weapons. Iran can not possibly hope to dominate the Middle East, however.  Turkey, Russia, Israel, the U.S., and the Sunni states will make sure of that.  The U.A.E. has committed itself to working with Israel and other Sunni Arab states already have been doing that de facto. Some may make that formal as the U.A.E. has.  Iran is Shia and the bulk of the ME is Sunni.  The numbers are not in Iran’s favor.  Iran also can not hope to be an existential threat to the U.S., Israel, or NATO.  We should not treat it as if it is.

So, if you’re Iran faced with what it sees as threats to its existence especially from the U.S., what would you do?  Probably what they are already doing including enriching uranium.

Secretary of State Pompeo’s demands amount to requiring regime change. Regime change will almost certainly not lead to a more friendly government to Israel and the U.S.  It would probably lead to the Revolutionary Guards taking over; and, they are really bad news.  The Ayatollahs are a check and balance to that taking place.  Iran has a written Constitution of checks and balances in its own fashion.  It is better structured than the total top down Saudi system. The RGs opposed the Iran deal arguing that the word of the U.S. could not be trusted, but went along with it.  Their argument turned out to be accurate which gives them credibility within Iran.

Now, we have to realize that Iran along with Hamas and Hezbollah would eliminate Israel if they could.  Genocidal ambitions.  You would think by now Iran would get the message that this goal is unachievable and thus would very grudgingly accept Israel’s existence. Working with Israel would make sense from my view.  Israel has so much to offer. But, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah show no signs of doing that.  We have to take their aims seriously.  Israel certainly does. 

So, we must do what we can to help Israel maintain a serious technological/military advantage over these nasty enemies.  And, we do.  Obama did with the technological and material support needed to aid Israel build a multi layered anti-missile system.   Obama also negotiated a multi-year arms deal with Israel–the best deal they’ve had.  Trump has added to these efforts. Israel also has serious offensive weapons that could readily turn Iran, Gaza, and Lebanon into smoking, radioactive wastelands for a long time. If Iran were to develop nuclear weapons, they would not be able to have first strike capability against Israel.


I suspect all we can hope to do is to contain Iran.  Containment with the long-term view of hoping they will sometime come to their senses; and, accept that Israel is not going to disappear.  Maybe we could rejoin the Iran Deal but I doubt that Trump will do that.  And, I’m not sure Biden, if he wins, would be able to do that.  Iran just doesn’t trust the U.S. for good reasons. And we shouldn’t trust them either. We should recall that the Iran Deal was not based on trust.

Is this a F.D.R. moment for Biden?

First of all, the stock market crash precipitated much of what followed under Hoover.  It crashed because so many had bought their stock on margin meaning they had to borrow to buy them.  That can’t happen now.  The SEC helps make sure of it, plus other regulations.  Second, literally thousands of banks went under making what had been a panic into a depression.  ¼ of all family savings had been wiped out.  The FDIC changed that for good. Third, the federal government had never been involved in housing, but it still is.  The Federal Housing Administration is THE largest home insurer in the world. Third, the Smoot-Hawley tariff was designed to protect American industries and jobs resulted in retaliations and international trade was seriously harmed and jobs with it. 

Fourth, there wasn’t any unemployment insurance, a 40 hr work week with 1 ½ pay for overtime, safety standards, social security, workman’s compensation, and a federal labor relations board.  Fifth, so many farms went under particularly due to the Dust Bowl that the New Deal created the Farm Credit Bureau which is the largest farm lender in the U.S. Sixth, there was no social security and the New Deal created it.  Unemployment was so catastrophic that F.D.R. did what Hoover would not do and that was to put millions to work with the PWA, WPA and the CCC.  Those agencies did what they were supposed to do and thus were all put to bed in WWII.  And, finally, the T.V.A. which is still with us—the one lasting socialist institution created as the federal government owns and operates the dams and sells electricity.

Whatever Biden may be able to do, he can’t possibly be as consequential as the New Deal.  That fundamentally changed the relationship between the public and the federal government. 

Well, what about LBJ?  Not a better comparison since he did not inherit an economy in turmoil.  Quite the opposite as he inherited an incredibly prosperous economy. He used JFK’s murder as a rationale for pushing for lasting civil rights legislation in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968.  And, he went far beyond that because he won one of the most resounding electoral victories in our history.  He made multiple lasting reforms in our society with Medicare and Medicaid, Headstart, and many others.  He introduced 87 bills to Congress and 84 of them passed or 96%–a record never likely to be equaled.  The trade off was that his legislative agenda spawned a counter revolution among conservatives which led to growing partisanship that has led to a pretty toxic political environment.  It also led Southern white Democrats to desert the Democratic party to become Republicans which led to Nixon’s successful Southern Strategy and painted the GOP into a likely demographic mess.

And, of course, there’s Vietnam. Our grandchildren will still be paying for its consequences.

So, I don’t think there’s enough of a comparison here either for Biden to latch onto.  If he wins, he inherits a very different set of circumstances than did either F.D.R. or L.B.J.  And, even if he wins, his supporters agree on one main goal—to retire Trump. If they succeed, I don’t think his supporters will be able to coalesce long enough to get anything like the legislative records of F.D.R. or L.B.J. passed.

What will Biden be faced with?  First of all, he has to deal with a seriously dysfunctional political party system which has managed to secure very little public trust.  How can he rebuild that trust?  Good question.  He has the temperament and experience to make a good effort.

But, from the get go, he will face considerable opposition from Trump’s base.  Many look at Biden and Harris and can only see what they term as “baby killers”.  I don’t think Biden can cure that.  That base will believe Trump’s accusations of a fraudulent outcome.  Many more believe that Biden’s win will bring the unwanted Progressives to power. There have already been a plethora of conspiracy theories about Biden and/or Harris. I expect that to get worse. However, as I suggested above, his own coalition will likely fray.  Those who fear the progressives taking over have little to fear.  They are a minority within the Democratic party which is an unwieldly coalition.

Second, the pandemic and its consequences have exposed multiple serious weaknesses in our system.  Inequalities between the bottom and the top are imbedded and hard to resolve. Unemployment insurance and paid sick leave have been woefully inadequate. Many of the former jobs will be gone for good.  Their employers have not survived.  Congress passed palliative temporary care, but not lasting fixes. 

Many, many more are without health insurance and Trump is in court to dismantle the ACA with no plan to replace it.  How to improve on the ACA in a manner that can gain enough support to get through Congress is a hard question. Other democracies have done much better in doing the needed testing and care.  They have universal health care and we don’t.  We are still a long way from having control over Covid without a useful vaccine.  Partisan conflicts over opening schools, wearing masks, and other issues have divided us; and the President has aided in enhancing those divisions.

The rise of telework; the demise of retail; the uncertainties of the gig economy; more automated manufacturing; and even the role of restaurants, theaters, tourism, and theme parks in this new environment will take time to sort out. The economy will NOT go back to where is was before Covid hit.

The third challenge is international.  In previous crises, the U.S. took the lead in dealing with them.  That has not happened.  America First has meant trying to be THE hegemon with little international support and trust from its allies.  The world IS multipolar and the U.S. has not adjusted to this reality.  It has tried to muscle China into an agreement without international support.  How to contain China’s worst tendencies without alienating the regime is a hard road to go without that support.  How to work with China where we can and contain them is a tough challenge.

What a tough agenda for Biden if he wins.  If Trump wins, we can expect even more of the same of what he’s done so far. And, our structural weaknesses will likely not be addressed.

Vietnam: 45 years later

DO YOU REMEMBER THE PHOTO ABOVE? 

It doesn’t show what you may have thought it did. 

The photo and explanation: https://nypost.com/2019/04/23/new-book-reveals-truth-behind-this-famed-fall-of-saigon-photo/

How should we remember this war?  Are there any lessons worth paying attention to without getting into the: if we had only done (fill in the blank) we would have won useless debate?

First, the underlying justification for the war was not critically examined at the time.  https://www.americanforeignrelations.com/A-D/The-Domino-Theory-The-eisenhower-administration.html#ixzz3fJKEO2nT

Always question your justifications for any potential use of violent force elsewhere.

Second, while the Vietnam War does not permit specific lessons, it should lead us to consider two key principles.  A) The importance of local forces in conflicts.  The above justification was not appropriate.  The Vietnamese were not ever going to be an existential threat to the U.S. or even anything beyond the former French Indochina.

In this regard, I recall reading Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s memoir. In it, he debated whether Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist or a communist.  He did not consider that he was both and thus made an incorrect assumption that as a communist Ho had to be part of the international communist conspiracy directed from Moscow.  He could not see that Ho’s goal was to make Vietnam independent and he had sought U.S. help to do that in a letter he sent, based on the advice of his O.S.S. advisors, to President Truman.  That letter apparently never got to Truman.  We had no one in the upper reaches of our government who knew Ho.

Instead of seeing Ho Chi Minh for who he was, the U.S. misinterpreted him as an agent of communism directed from Moscow.  Yes, he had studied there, but he was not their agent.  Later, LBJ saw Ho as being directed by China.  Yes, he had Chinese advisors, but he did not take their advice on several key occasions.  Ho directed an independence movement and was going to use the Russians and the Chinese to help him be successful against the U.S.  He had not wanted their aid but saw no other option than to use it once Ike created South Vietnam.

B) There were and are limits to American power.  The U.S. was not ever going to be able to set up a lasting non-communist regime in South Vietnam or create a viable alternative regime to Saddam’s or to the Taliban.  The locals would and did resent our intrusion.  Containment yes, invasion no.  It was and is hard to admit there are limits to what we can/should do.

We had created a weak client in South Vietnam that could never achieve our ambitions for it.  We faced a determined foe who was willing to take enormous casualties to achieve independence.  Don’t ever underestimate your foe.  The U.S. could not imagine losing to a third world insurgency, but we did.

The U.S. had been so successful it was hard to imagine that our power had limits and that we could lose.  Still, many believe we should have won if only we had done______________(fill in the blank).  But, the North Vietnamese were not going to quit.  Have we resolved the issues that led to Al Qaeda or ISIS or Shiite Iran?  Should it be up to us to do that?  No. 

Since the Soviets collapsed, we have been overly tempted to use the military because we don’t have a relatively equal adversary.  This was predicted then and it has sure come to pass.  J.W. Fulbright’s The Arrogance of Power is still a cautionary warning.  Our military involvement in the Middle East led us to forsake our commitments to the rule of law, prudence, ethics, and more.  To defeat the jihadists, who never were an existential threat, we became like them.  Once W. signed an order that terrorists would not have any rights, excesses in their treatment were likely to take place.

Declaring a “war on terror” was much too broad a “goal”, and thus not capable of being achieved.

NIetzche aptly warned that if one is going to confront a monster, you have to be careful you don’t become like the monster.  Having read accounts of what happened at the “black sites” for alleged terrorists after we invaded Iraq without being invited, we became like the monster.  

Just as the photo above has been misunderstood so has our former war in Vietnam.  It still haunts us and the Vietnamese.  Go to the Vietnam memorial in D.C.  Feel its presence, touch it.  I have several times and it has always been a deeply emotional experience.  We can’t go back and change anything done in that war, but we can be more careful in the future.  I don’t have much faith that we will.

An update on several of President Trump’s foreign policies

STATUS OF SEVERAL OF TRUMP’S MAIN FOREIGN POLICY INITIATIVES

1. NAFTA REVISED TO THE USMCA—accomplished with bipartisan support, without Speaker Pelosi it would not have passed. Was NAFTA completely revised? No, it didn’t need to be, but it did need to be updated. Its main goal was to integrate Mexico into the highly developed world of the U.S. and Canada. It did that. Mexico went from an underdeveloped nation to one of the top twenty in the world, currently ranking 15th and that is the main reason why few illegals come from there to the U.S. Here’s a reasonable analysis of NAFTA’s pros and cons: https://www.thebalance.com/nafta-pros-and-cons-3970481
Another analysis comes from: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/nafta-and-usmca-weighing-impact-north-american-trade.
And, finally, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/29/business/economy/usmca-deal.html
Trump can claim ½ credit for USMCA and Pelosi the other ½.

2. ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS—accurate figures are not easy to come by since most who are illegal don’t want to be known, still try this: https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/how-many-undocumented-immigrants-are-in-the-united-states-and-who-are-they/
It is important to note a main source of illegals since 2010 has not been from those coming into the U.S. illegally, it has been those who have overstayed their visa requirements. Suzanne, my wife and I, know how this works. Trump’s wall and its supporters either are unaware of this or choose to ignore it. I’m not going to touch the issues related to the wall except to say there was no serious security threat that required it. It is significant that when the GOP controlled both Houses of Congress they did not fund it.
For Trump’s promises and the realities they face try this: https://www.brookings.edu/research/hitting-the-wall-on-immigration-campaign-promises-clash-with-policy-realities/ Most of the land on the TX side of the border is privately owned and Texans are very loath to accept eminent domain. https://www.revealnews.org/article/this-land-is-our-land-many-property-owners-wont-sell-for-trumps-wall/
Trump has had a small part of his wall built. On the other hand, he has made it much more difficult for asylum seekers to get here.

3. NORTH KOREA—While Trump’s efforts gained much publicity, little of substance has transpired as a result: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/11/north-korea-decries-stunted-us-ties-after-historic-summit. It appears his efforts granted legitimacy to the North Korean dictator with nothing to gain from it except photo ops. It has not stopped North Korea from testing its weapons. It does not appear that Trump’s objectives for North Korea have been met.

4. CHINA—Again, a great deal of publicity but not that much of substance has been accomplished. The Chinese Communist Party was formed with a goal of never again agreeing to “unequal” treaties and Trump’s efforts appear to have convinced China that that is what he has in mind.
America First clashes with Chinese First. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-45899310. Some progress was made: https://www.china-briefing.com/news/the-us-china-trade-war-a-timeline/. But: https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/19/economy/us-china-trade-war-resume-coronavirus-intl-hnk/index.html
Another look: https://www.ft.com/content/6124beb8-5724-11ea-abe5-8e03987b7b20
Trump has shifted to re-election mode and believes it is advantageous to attack China’s reputation. That is not going over well in China. He seems to believe the U.S. alone can bring China to heel, but that won’t happen. Again, he has little international support for his efforts. The first phase deal is but a start, yet it is a start.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is breathtaking in its reach, and its implications. Suzanne and I have been on the Old Silk Road and witnessed some of the implications of this vast new initiative. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative

5. TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership)—The TPP was designed originally in large part to deal effectively with China, but Trump withdrew from it arguably because it was negotiated by Obama and not whether or not it was a good idea. https://asiasociety.org/video/tpp-current-state-trans-pacific-partnership. By withdrawing, now Americans must pay TPP tariffs. That has been mitigated some by a new trade deal between Japan and the U.S. The TPP is working well for those in it. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF11120#:~:text=On%20October%207%2C%202019%2C%20after,expansions%20to%20improve%20market%20access.
Trump’s withdrawal has not aided American interests.

6. The E.U.—For all the emphasis on China, this is the main economic relationship for the U.S. See: https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/united-states/
The E.U. offered to work with the U.S. to deal with China but were rejected by Trump. So, the E.U. negotiated its own strategic deal with China: http://eeas.europa.eu/archives/docs/china/docs/eu-china_2020_strategic_agenda_en.pdf
The E.U. also offered to work with the U.S. to improve the Iran deal, but Trump also rejected that offer and despite the serious efforts of Macron and Merkel, Trump withdrew from the Iran deal.
Trump’s relations with the E.U. has not been helped by his praise for Hungary’s dictator Orban: https://balkaninsight.com/2019/08/05/why-trumps-role-model-is-hungarys-viktor-orban/
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/05/13/donald-trump-says-hungary-prime-minister-viktor-orban-doing-tremendous-job/1190060001/
This fits with a pattern of Trump’s praise for dictators such as for China’s Xi, Russia’s Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jung-un, the Philippines Duterte, Egypt’s el Sissi, Turkey’s Erdogan (a phone call with Erdogan led to a precipitous withdrawal of US troops that stood between Turkish and Kurdish forces leading to a bloodletting on the Kurdish side); and the long dead Mussolini—see Madeline Albright’s book Fascism. Trump has been publicly proud of their praise of him. By the same token, he has been known for criticizing democratically elected leaders such as Macron, Merkel, Trudeau, and others. According to Carl Bernstein’s sources, he has been especially obnoxious personally to former PM May and Chancellor Merkel.
His relations with the EU have not improved.

7. WITHDRAWING FROM THE IRAN DEAL: This simply has not worked out as Trump had imagined it would. He has had no support from any of the other signatories of this deal for his withdrawal and its consequences. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-status-iran-nuclear-agreement
Trump complained the deal did not include provisions to halt Iran’s development of ICBMs, but neither Russia nor China were supportive of such provisions. Russia had already sold its state-of- the-art antimissile system to Iran and China is Iran’s main weapons supplier. He also complained the deal did not touch Iran’s penchant for proxy wars. True, but the signatories could not agree on doing that.

Why not? Iran’s support for Assad’s regime suited Russia’s efforts to keep him in power. In actuality, Iran’s commitment to proxy wars has increased since U.S. withdrawal from the deal. Pompeo’s 12 demands of Iran are perceived by Iran to mean forced regime change and that just isn’t going to happen. Even if it did, the U.S. might eliminate the mullahs, but the power would then go to the Iranian Rev Guards and all would suffer from that. Iran’s domestic critics are not united and lack a common agenda.
At any rate, Iran has a host of internal problems that existed before Trump and have only gotten worse. Iran was not a good candidate for investments and trade. Iran is not an existential threat to the U.S. or Israel. The main threat if Iran becoming a nuclear power has always been that the main Sunni states would then feel they needed to do the same. Recently, the UAE announced the creation of their own nuclear reactor.
Having unilaterally withdrawn from the Deal; and applying severe sanctions on Iran have not achieved Trump’s objectives and don’t seem to be likely to in the future.

8. OVERTHROWING THE MADURO REGIME. No doubt about it, the Maduro dictatorship is wretched, but Trump’s efforts have not been nor are they likely to be successful. Why not? Support for the regime by Russia, China, Iran and Cuba. Trump’s recognition of Juan Guaido as the actual President of Venezuela have not been successful. Juan has been unable to gain the internal support of enough potent interest groups to carry out his potential presidency. Nor, is he likely to do that. The good news is that Trump has wisely avoided military intervention.

9. NATO—Trump has consistently complained about the relative lack of European countries as members of NATO. He has a point there, but they agreed already in 2014 for all to meet the 2% of GNP spending each should supply by 2024 as a result of Putin’s acquisition of the Crimea. He tried to get them to increase their giving but got in return only a recommitment to their existing agreement. Further, see: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-03-20/nato-thriving-spite-trump.
Recently, he, unilaterally without consulting NATO, began the process of withdrawing 9,500 troops from Germany. This naturally reinforces doubts about his commitment to NATO. And, there are good reasons for those doubts: https://qz.com/1585911/does-the-us-need-nato/
This fits a pattern of Trump just not liking international treaties and organizations that the U.S. has been the main party within them. He appears to want only bilateral agreements where possible. That would undermine the post WWII world the U.S. created. He has withdrawn from a significant number of international agreements already. He has significantly frayed our relations with NATO. But, we are still in it.

Overall, there is a mixture of plusses and minuses in his initiatives.

When was the decisive moment for the U.S. in making a lasting commitment in South Vietnam?

It took place during and after the Geneva Conference of April 26 to July 20, 1954.  We’ll focus on that part of it that dealt with a resolution of the conflict in French Indochina which had lasted eight years at the instigation of the French.  The agreement temporarily separated Vietnam into two zones, a northern zone to be governed by the Viet Minh rebels who had defeated the French, and a southern zone to be governed by the temporary State of Vietnam, then headed by former emperor Bảo Đại, who had been put there by the French. A Conference Final Declaration, issued by the British chairman of the conference, provided that a general election be held by July 1956 to create a unified Vietnamese state.

The U.S. took a unique approach to this conference that still seems a bit bizarre.  We sent a delegation to the conference.  But, they were instructed to not participate, in fact to not say anything. They were there just to observe.  Try to imagine being in that delegation’s shoes.  Observe and do nothing?

Why?  So that the U.S. government could do whatever it wanted to do.  Here was an opportunity to just let the Final Declaration be implemented.  The U.S. could have done that and then there likely would not have been a Second Indochina War.

But, instead, we ignored the Declaration and helped set up Ngo Diem as the ruler of South Vietnam. That regime never had a good chance of being able to work.   He had played no role in defeating the French and could never get past being set up by the U.S. and thus being dependent on the U.S. for his survival.  He was part of a corrupt elite, though he was not corrupt, that never had built any strong constituency of its own in Vietnam.  He was Catholic, a minority in Vietnam, and set up his regime to marginalize all others.  That was bound to fail.  He was the Eisenhower administration’s candidate, not Vietnam’s.  The Viet Minh had won and felt cheated of its likely victory in the forthcoming election which was never held.  Why not?  Ho Chi Minh would have won.

By setting up and sustaining a South Vietnamese government with American advisors, that made it quite difficult for any of the succeeding US administrations to withdraw or win (winning meant having a sustainable South Vietnamese government that could survive without being dependent on the U.S.). 

The U.S. turned a local conflict into a much bigger one.  Did Ho Chi Minh deserve better?  See below:

HO CHI MINH LETTER TO TRUMAN ASKING FOR U.S. HELP

Ho Chi Minh letter to Harry S. Truman, 16 February 1946.

I avail myself of this opportunity to thank you and the people of United States for the interest shown by your representatives at the United Nations Organization in favour of the dependent peoples.

Our VIETNAM people, as early as 1941, stood by the Allies’ side and fought against the Japanese and their associates, the French colonialists.

From 1941 to 1945 we fought bitterly, sustained by the patriotism of our fellow-countrymen and by the promises made by the Allies at [the summits in] YALTA, SAN FRANCISCO AND POTSDAM.

When the Japanese were defeated in August 1945, the whole Vietnam territory was united under a Provisional Republican Government which immediately set out to work. In five months, peace and order were restored, a democratic republic was established on legal bases. and adequate help was given to the Allies in the carrying out of their disarmament mission.

But the French colonialists, who had betrayed in war-time both the Allies and the Vietnamese, have come back and are waging on us a murderous and pitiless war in order to reestablish their domination. Their invasion has extended to South Vietnam and is menacing us in North Vietnam. It would take volumes to give even an abbreviated report of the crimes and assassinations they are committing every day in the fighting area.

This aggression is contrary to all principles of international law and to the pledges made by the Allies during the World War. It is a challenge to the noble attitude shown before, during and after the war by the United States Government and People. It violently contrasts with the firm stand you have taken in your twelve point [January 1, 1942, United Nations] declaration, and with the idealistic loftiness and generosity expressed by your delegates to the United Nations Assembly, MM [James] BYRNES, [Edward] STETTINIUS and J.F. DULLES.

The French aggression on a peace-loving people is a direct menace to world security. It implies the complicity, or at least, the connivance of the Great Democracies. The United Nations ought to keep their words. They ought to interfere to stop this unjust war, and to show that they mean to carry out in peace-time the principles for which they fought in war-time

Our Vietnam people, after so many years of spoliation and devastation, is just beginning its building-up work. It needs security and freedom, first to achieve internal prosperity and welfare, and later to bring its small contribution to world-reconstruction.

These securities and freedoms can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United States as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.

What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.

_______________________________________________________________________________

There is NO evidence that President Truman ever saw this letter or anyone else of any major consequence.  Would he have paid attention? We can not know that.

Some modest suggestions for dealing with poverty

  1. Why have there been such a high rate of out of wedlock births for Hispanics, whites and blacks?

The Center for Economic Opportunity Feb. 26, 2020 report found that illegitimate-birth rates “vary considerably by race and Hispanic origin.” The percentage of out-of-wedlock births for non-Hispanic whites is 21.9 percent, but for non-Hispanic blacks it’s 69.3 percent. For Hispanics it’s 41.6 percent, and for American Indians 59.3 percent.  Center for Economic Opportunity Feb. 26, 2020 report based on 2018 stats.  I’m not at all afraid of telling the truth here.

If we know anything about causes of poverty, this is definitely a major cause as it results in single moms trying to raise children.  Why have the rates increased?  Not because of welfare, contrary to myth.  Gingrich and Clinton took care of that.

Want to guess why?  Primarily two causes: 1) disappearance of “shotgun weddings” or the stigma of having unmarried children.  2) the ready availability of contraception and abortion has not accomplished what its advocates believed: that that would reduce the number of out of wedlock births.  It had the exact opposite effect.  Why?  Too many males no longer felt they had to stay in the house to take care of their offspring.  Pro choice meant males too often were left out of the decision.  A third factor for blacks, of course, would have been the impact of the anti drug laws resulting in mass incarceration.  Those issues have been addressed such that the main remaining discrepancy has been in the length of sentences that blacks received compared to whites for the same offense.  What jobs are available to convicted felons?  Not many good ones though that is being addressed.

I’ve taught in prison and visited county jails for quite some time.  If there was any commonality among the males there it was that few whites or blacks or Hispanics had ever had anything like a decent male role model.  Single moms, black or white, have a rough time raising children and making ends meet especially in today’s fractured economy. Most of them have to live in poor neighborhoods where violence is more common, the schools are not as good as in non-poor neighborhoods, and there’s a relative lack of public services including health care.

OK, so what can be done about this? Shotgun marriages aren’t going to return.  Contraception and abortions are still available. Trying to force the sperm donors to support their children has not worked well.  More integration of poor with the not so poor.  How do you do that?  Do away with the zoning rules that prevent affordable apartments in better neighborhoods.  In other words, the children don’t have to grow up in systemic poverty.  As it stands right now, federal assistance is by a lottery where winners can get the subsidies needed to live in such apartments while the losers get nothing.  Right now, most subsidized apartments are in areas with an average poverty rate of 26.3%.  That just ain’t a good situation

Besides any subsidies, the feds or states or local governmental agencies or NGOs could provide assistance in terms of finding affordable accommodations and dealing with landlords.  Our son does this routinely in his rapid rehousing efforts in D.C. on behalf of a good NGO.

2. Education.  Schools in poor neighborhoods need good teachers and teaching resources.  But, too many get the most inexperienced instructors with little financial encouragement, not to mention mentoring assistance from more senior teachers, to stay in those schools.  I think of what happened to our oldest daughter in her practice teaching assignment to a very poor school and was not provided with a mentor or any aid.  She gave up on her dream of being an English teacher as a result.  Some municipalities have made it possible for parents to send their kids to the better schools.  Dare I say this? Properly regulated charter schools often deliver much better outcomes in poor neighborhoods.

How to keep poor college students in college?  It doesn’t help to just let them in the door.  That is a road map for failure.  You have to have community colleges that can and do deliver the kind of advising, small cash grants for work study students, support services, and metro tickets to those students.  Modest amounts can make big differences in graduation rates, double in fact for those who are poor.  Don’t send poorly prepared students to four-year colleges.  They are usually not set up to help those students adequately.

3. Child poverty.  There are two changes that can make a huge difference.  Canada did these two and it took just two years to reduce child poverty by a third.  1) Expand the earned-income tax credit by up to 40% which tops up the wages of working low income single or even married couples.  (2) a universal child tax credit of $2,700.  These two would cost maybe up to $110 billion BUT will results in better tax revenues and less expenses in incarceration, health care and homelessness.

Expansions of cash welfare grants and health coverage ARE not likely to go far in Congress.  Better to improve Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Those tend to be politically acceptable since they are universal benefits.

A significant portion of this blog was aided by information provided in The Economist’s July 11-17th issue entitled The New Ideology of Race and What’s Wrong With it. Excellent analysis.