All posts by Dr. ESP

Bad Checks and Unbalances

 

It is one thing to have a system where different rules apply to different population cohorts.  Quite another when a subsector of society accepts it.  Or worse, imposes a different standard on itself.  Yet, that is exactly what Congress has done when it comes to the system of checks and balances across the three branches of the federal government enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.  It is called the filibuster.

The executive branch makes decisions based on a majority of one.  When a president issues an executive order he does not need a super majority or support of even one member of the opposition party.  Abraham Lincoln best articulated the powers of the chief executive during the Civil War.  Often he would discuss conduct of the war with his cabinet, even allowing them to take a vote.  But often summarized the outcome as follows.  “Seven no and one aye, the ayes have it.”

The same holds for the judiciary.  Two recent cases  which have contributed to corruption of American democracy were decided by simple majorities, i.e. 5-4 decisions.  Nor does an opinion require concurrence by at least one judge appointed by a president of each party.  [NOTE: In both cases, all five justices who joined the majority opinion were appointed by Republican presidents.]  In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the Court nullified federal and state restrictions on campaign financing which led to an increase in both the number and anonymity of large individual and corporate donors and the amount they contribute during an election cycle.

Likewise, in Shelby County v. Holder, a simple majority overturned federal preclearance of changes in state election laws authorized under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Not because the federal government does not have the authority.  Instead, the majority focused on a technical issue.  Identification of specific states which were subject to federal oversight, based on past voter suppression practices, used outdated information.  And this is what is most important.  In Chief Justice John Robert’s majority opinion, he specifically noted that reinstatement of preclearance was dependent on Congress enacting a new coverage formula.

Which brings me to the King Edward VIII of American constitutional government, the U.S. Senate.  If the Supreme Court, by a simple majority, says that Congress has the right to update the 1965 legislation, why would the Senate hamper its efforts to do so by imposing a rule which requires a super majority, i.e. three-fifths of its members.  So, even if there are some senators who do not want to fully eliminate the filibuster, the Supreme Court has handed them the criterion for carving out an exception.  When the Court declares by a simple majority that Congress is responsible for correcting a deficiency in current legislation, Congress should be able to do so by a simple majority.  Such legislation is sitting on Chuck Schumer’s desk in the form of H.R. 4 The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advanced Act of 2021 and could be enacted tomorrow if the Democrats chose to invoke this exception to the filibuster.

Sometimes the Senate need not call for a vote.  The current debate over the debt limit could be solved by simply reading Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the Constitution.

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

Please show me where it says Congress has the right to default on the national debt. It says “The Congress shall have Power…to pay the debts.”  As with the Second Amendment, this may be a case of punctuation.  One could argue that the other financial authorities–taxes, duties, imposts and excises–are established “in order to pay the Debts…”  Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi could immediately announce the Constitution does NOT require Congress to take any action to cover the nation’s obligations.  Therefore, no additional legislative remedy is needed.  And add, “if we are wrong, let the Supreme Court tell us and the Treasury we are mistaken.”

And if the court decides the case by a simple majority–five to four–the Senate should then be able to raise the debt limit by the same standard, sans filibuster.

POSTSCRIPT: CAVEAT EMPTOR

As readers know, I have been wary of eliminating the filibuster for fear of what would happen the next time the GOP controls both houses of Congress.  Not because I do not think Congress should be responsive to the will of a majority of voters.  Rather, because it institutionalizes the fact that even when the Trump/McConnell/McCarthy version of the Republican party might retake control of both houses of Congress in 2022, they still do not represent a majority of voters.  Take North Carolina for example.  In 2020, Republicans won eight of the 13 House races despite the fact Democrats outpolled Republicans by 30,000 votes when you add up the aggregate statewide ballots in all 13 contests.

Even in states, such as Ohio, where the GOP wins the popular vote, their share of the congressional delegation is disproportionate to their share of the popular vote.  In 2022, Republicans won 10 of 16 seats (62.5 percent) in House races with only 56.4 of the popular vote.  Can you say “gerrymander?”  I knew you could.

Which brings me to yesterday when Mitch McConnell agreed to a two month increase in the debt limit to avoid a Treasury default on current obligations.  I have a theory McConnell wants the Democrats to blow up the filibuster.  If he honestly believes he will return as majority leader in January 2023, nothing would make him happier than a filibuster-free pathway to make America more like Texas, Florida and South Dakota.  And being able to make the argument, “Don’t blame me.  Chuck Schumer made this possible.”

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

TTFN

 

I never claim to be the smartest person in the room…with one exception.  It is a right reserved for every Ph.D. candidate on the day of the oral defense of his or her dissertation.  Having spent years (in my case, five), focused on a narrow topic which theoretically no one else has ever explored as deeply or from such a unique perspective, you are the master of your tiny piece of the intellectual universe.

My time came on a November 1979 morning, before two professors of political science and one each of psychology and history.  The topic?  “Crisis and Change:  Voting Blocs in the U.S. Senate 1963-1972.”  Using methodology designed to isolate different types of abnormal behavior, developed by Dr. Warren Torgerson, then chair of Johns Hopkins’ Psychology Department, I was able to statistically identify trends in the formation of coalitions across hundreds of votes cast on the Senate floor over a decade beginning with the Kennedy assassination and ending with Watergate.  The major finding?  The make-up of a voting bloc was highly predictable based on the macro-topic of each bill.  For example, procedural votes, not unexpectedly, were always cast along party lines.  Civil rights bills were decided based on a senator’s region of residence.  Social welfare bills on ideology.  When professors Peabody, Cummings, Torgerson and Palumbo gave four thumbs up, it was more about relief than celebration.  (NOTE:  Dr. Palumbo did not put his hand to his forehead and say, “Uh, just one more question,” though he did somewhat physically resemble Peter Falk.)

I often thought about how I might duplicate the feeling of that moment.  To some extent this blog has served that purpose.  My goal has always been to approach a subject from a perspective that others have missed.  To see different aspects of society through a counter-intuitive lens.  In 2003, having just finished reading Best Evidence, David Lifton’s highly criticized account of JFK’s assassination and aftermath, I wondered if there was any scenario under which Lifton’s theory the dead president’s autopsy had been falsified might be true.  The most questionable aspect being the necessary participation or cooperation of individuals within Kennedy’s inner circle.

But a counter-intuitive approach does not stop with a single question. It requires a flood of questions.  Lifton’s narrative requires that all the planning and execution take place between the 12:30 pm CST when Oswald fired his rifle and the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews AFB at 6:00 pm EST (approximately four and a half hours).   Was that possible?  If not, were there insiders involved prior to November 22?  If so, who and for what purpose?  Addressing those questions and others was the genesis of 18 years of on and off research in search of a “Rosetta Stone” which might make a seemingly implausible story credible.  Last year, I found it buried in the digital archives of the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

I now find myself in the same position as I was in the spring of 1979.  I had completed the research on my dissertation.  All that remained was writing it.  After several fits and starts, I decided to alleviate as many distractions as possible, including selling my first sailboat.  In a little over six months, I completed and twice edited a 300+ page document.

Therefore, it is time to put aside other things and focus on the singular task of turning the pages of notes, timelines, decision trees and documents into a fact-based political novel (ala Gore Vidal’s Burr).  That includes this blog.  So TTFN (Ta Ta for Now).  If all goes according to plan, I hope to finish drafting the novel sometime next spring.  At which time, with the mid-term election in sight, I intend to be back on this blog with regular posts.  And I have no doubt, in the interim, there will be some event or issue which requires an occasional exploration here.  But those will be few and far between.

In closing, I want to thank all the readers who have given me the energy and desire to keep this up on a regular basis for six years.  It has served a secondary purpose which was critical to my tackling this next project.  Writing any major work, fiction or non-fiction, is a marathon which demands stamina and discipline.  This blog has been the equivalent of base-mileage, those three to five day a week workouts needed to prepare for a marathon.  I could not have reached this point without your support and encouragement.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

War and Peace (and Golf)

 

The America of 2021 is a constant game of tug of war between high and low expectations.  At one extreme, “Team High” is all about striving.  Which billionaire will almost make it to outer space first?  Which athlete will push the envelope to perform better?  Which company has the highest market cap regardless of fundamentals? Which students will have a longer list of extracurricular activities on their resumes?

At the other extreme, “Team Low” suggests all this striving leads to unhappiness and anxiety.  Dr. Jeremy Sherman made this point in a 2014 article in Psychology Today, presenting a counter-intuitive take on an oft-told story about optimism.

The joke goes that a child was so optimistic that, to test the extent of his optimism, his parents gave him a pile of horse manure. The kid’s eyes open wide with delight. He dives into the pile and starts digging.

“What are you doing?” his parents ask.
The kid replies, “With this much manure, I’m betting there’s a pony in here!”

Imagine his disappointment when there wasn’t.

For “Team Low,” being in the game is enough.  That participation trophy is a monument to trying, even when it does not lead to success.  Taking on a challenge is its own reward.  The journey, not the destination, is the source of the highest dividends.

As in most debates, the answer is probably somewhere between these extremes.  However, there is a bigger problem which I will call “situation expectations.”  It is not uncommon that one’s definition of success or failure will depend on the specifics of a given situation.  However, in this case, individuals occasionally adjust their position in the middle of an on-going scenario.  This is sometimes referred to as “moving the goalposts,” though it is more akin to donning an opponents’ uniform in the middle of a game.

SIK Golf's Bryson DeChambeau finishes 2nd in MexicoConsider the recent exploits of the golfer we love to hate Bryson DeChambeau as an example of how expectations can change in a matter of hours.  During the second round of the BMW Championship, after an eagle on the 16th hole, DeChambeau was in reach of a 59 with one birdie on either of the last two holes.  Missed putts of 17 feet on the 17th and six feet on the 18th resulted in “only” a course and tournament record 60, 12 strokes under par.  In the post-round interview, DeChambeau did not hesitate to voice his disappointment about misreading the putt on 18.  “I wanted to make it so bad.”

Rewind the video (I know, an anachronism) to DeChambeau standing on the first tee at the start of his second round.  Imagine if someone had asked, “Would you be satisfied if you could shoot 60 today and be tied for the lead going into Saturday’s third round?”  There is only one response.  “HELL YEAH!”  Of course, the irony is that missed six foot putt on Friday was the difference between taking home the BMW trophy and losing in a six-hole playoff on to Patrick Cantlay on Sunday.

Which brings me to the question of expectations when it comes to war and peace.  Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush rallied the international community to avenge the attack on the United States.  The goal: punish those directly responsible and disrupt potential future attacks.  Operation Enduring Freedom was initiated on September 26 when a CIA team arrived in Afghanistan to analyze the situation and identify potential anti-Taliban allies.  Soon thereafter, American and British special forces with U.S. air support pursued al-Qaeda militants in the Tora Bora region, forcing the survivors to retreat into Pakistan.  One could argue “First Tee” expectations, with the exception of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, were met when U.S. and Afghan forces decimated the 800 remaining al-Qaeda fighters in Paktia province in March 2002.

Perhaps initial success in Afghanistan came too easy (just as it again did in Iraq).  Why stop here?  Especially when anti-Taliban Afghans from the Northern provinces, led by Hamid Karzai, were eager to take complete control of the country even though U.S. military leadership on the ground advised against supporting the broader offensive.  President Bush then moved the goal posts with the April 2002 announcement of a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, financial aid accompanied by an International Security Assistance Force as a counter-insurgency measure.  A lot transpired over the next 20 years, but I will leave that to historians to parse.

Which brings us to August 2021 during which expectations rose and fell faster and more frequently than the wave at a college football game.

  • Expectation #1: An equipped and trained security force of 300,000 Afghans could hold off Taliban advances long enough for an orderly evacuation of U.S. citizens and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders.
  • Expectation #2: Once Kabul fell to the Taliban, the possibility of a mass evacuation was slim and none.  On August 19, CNN foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward estimated American forces would be lucky if they got 50,000 evacuees to safety.
  • Expectation #3: Deploying 5,000 U.S. troops to secure a small geographic footprint surrounded by hostile forces (Taliban and ISIS-K) was extremely risky.
  • Expectation #4:  Sending troops to secure the evacuation would require an extension of Biden’s August 31 departure deadline.
  • Expectation #5:  Following the tragic loss of 13 service men and women, additional suicide bombings or worse, i.e. rocket attacks on departing aircraft, were likely.
  • Expectation #6: As U.S. forces began to leave, the last remaining contingent would be “sitting ducks.”

Imagine a meeting of the National Security Council in the White House situation room immediately following the fall of Kabul.  President Joe Biden asks for an honest assessment of the next 17 days.  National security advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin paint the following scenario.

For a couple of days there will be complete chaos until we can secure the perimeter of the airport with approximately 5,000 troops.  By the third day we should be able to begin a round-the-clock airlift evacuating as many as 18,000 people per day.  By the departure date August 31, we estimate we can evacuate a total of 125,000 U.S. citizens and SIV recipients.

U.S. troops will need to be within close contact of Taliban forces and potential terrorists.  We cannot guarantee there will be no casualties.  We should expect 25-50.  However, we will be able to protect the airfield and planes from incoming rockets and secure the area until the last plane takes off.

Biden suggests they have painted a far too rosy picture and asks for the worse case scenario.   It is not pretty.    Decimated runways shutting down the airlift.  A filled mess hall or barracks becomes the target of an ISIS rocket.  A downed C-17 with 600 evacuees and troops killed.  Every critic and many pundits raised these possibilities, yet said nothing when they did not happen.

Out of Bounds: How to make F-word part of golfing vernacular?Which brings me to my last point about expectations.  Americans should heed the axiom, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  [NOTE:  The origin of this phrase is attributed to Voltaire who wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary, “The best is the enemy of the good.”]  Every PGA and LPGA tour player would love to shoot an ideal score, 16 birdies and a couple of eagles for good measure.  But they have not given up the game because it is, for all practical purposes, out of reach.  Instead, they yell, “FORE,” to acknowledge the errant shot, look for opportunities to recover and know the final tally never rests on a single stroke.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

Not So Fantastick

 

BLOGGER’S NOTE:  One of the personal rewards of authoring this blog has been the opportunity to reminisce and draw on many past experiences which help clarify my understanding and influence my perspective of current events.  Today is no exception.  In February 1967, I was cast as Luisa’s father Huckebee in the first ever high school production of The Fantasticks.  Fifty-four years later, this longest running off-Broadway musical in American history (over 17,500 performances and still counting) is more than an evening’s entertainment.  Tom Jones’ (pictured) brilliant book and lyrics are perhaps the the best artistic metaphor for the adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Yesterday on Morning Joe, president of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass suggested there could be residual value from the U.S. military’s 20 years in Afghanistan if we take advantage of and heed the lessons learned from the experience.  To his credit, substitute host Willie Geist pushed back, asking whether we should have already learned those lessons from previous incursions such as Vietnam and Iraq.  Haass’ inability to see the obvious suggests we need to pull back the blinders taking a different tack, employing the power of metaphor.

The Fantasticks (Original Off-Broadway Production, 1960) | Ovrtur

In this case, the source of our analogy is the arts.  A musical in two acts.  The Fantasticks, in which two fathers become accomplices in a love story that begins in the shadows of the moon only  to sour when exposed to bright sunlight.  Sound familiar?  The Pentagon Papers? Echoes of “mission accomplished” in Iraq?  And now the Afghanistan Papers? Our guide in this journey from fantasy to reality is El Gallo (Jerry Orbach in the original 1960 cast pictured with Rita Gardner/Luisa).

At the conclusion of Act I, the lovers Matt and Luisa join their fathers in a song, “Happy Ending,” after which the actors freeze in place creating a tableau of the newly merged families.  Only El Gallo anticipates what is to come.

Hmmmmm.
I wonder if they can hold it.
They’ll try to, I suppose.
And yet it won’t be easy
To hold such a pretty pose.

Time and time again, military interventions in far away lands track the the lover’s fate, like a roller coaster, initially reaching highs, soon followed by accelerated plunges into valleys.  All well intentioned.  Bathed in hubris and unrealistic expectations.  “Shock and awe.”  “A slam dunk.”  “We will be welcomed as liberators.” At the same time, ignoring time-tested axioms.  “If you break it, you own it.”  “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”  “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else (Yogi Berra).”

There is one more adage worth consideration, “We learn more from our failures than from our successes.”  However, situations resulting in positive outcomes should not be overlooked.  In the case of recent U.S. military interventions, that exception is Operation Desert Shield, the response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait for the purpose of seizing Kuwait’s oil production capacity.  The United States, with support from 35 allied nations, launched an air and naval attack on January 17, 1991 followed by a ground assault on February 24.  Three days later Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered a retreat from occupied areas of Kuwait.

Despite calls to pursue Iraqi troops all the way to Baghdad and remove Hussein from power, President George H. W. Bush, in consultation with then chairman of the joint chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, pulled back U.S. forces once Kuwait was liberated.  They understood, the devil we knew was preferable to one which might arise from the aftermath of Hussein’s overthrow.  How unfortunate junior and his vice-president did not follow suit.

The lesson?  Military engagements should never be based on what happens in Act I.  History tells us happy endings at intermission are not permanent.  As does El Gallo.

So we would like to truly finish
What was foolishly begun.
For the story is not ended
And the play is never done
Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit
And burnished by – the sun!

Perhaps the time has come for The Fantasticks to take its place along side Sun Tzu, Josephus and Colin Gray as mandatory instruction for military leaders and national security policy officials.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

In Defense of Secularism

 

My favorite part of 9/11 (pause) was the Muslim terrorists, when they went to Muslim heaven, which we all know isn’t true.  They can’t be in Muslim heaven because they’re in Christian hell.  Unless they go back and forth, which you can do because they’re both pretend.

~Comedian Dana Gould/”Anything Can Be Funny”

As is so often the case, the theme of today’s post was triggered by the convergence of the following unrelated events.

  • An August 26 New York Times report by Emma Goldberg titled, “The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard?  An Atheist.”
  • Reports, upon the departure of last U.S. military from Harmid Kharzi Airport, of Taliban soldiers shooting their weapons in the air, chanting, “Allah Akbar” (“God is most great.”)

The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist. - The New York TimesI became aware of the Harvard University story when a friend and colleague, who also happens to be an ordained minister, emailed it to me and sought my opinion.  My response, as any regular reader of this blog might suspect, “I find this somewhat refreshing.”  A perspective affirmed as I read Greg Epstein’s justification for his appointment to his new post, one in which he is expected “to coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus.”

There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life.

There it was, a focus on universal spirituality rather than membership in any religious movement.  More relevant today than ever.  When the Taliban believe they were commanded by their God to twice rid Afghanistan of foreign invaders.  Or American religious leaders who declare certain candidates for public office are part of God’s plan.  The irony, in this latter instance, being the white evangelical community preferring the least Christian-like option in 2020 over a practicing Catholic who continually draws on his faith.

Please do not take the above as a denunciation of all religion.  If participation in a religious community helps one find the path to spirituality, no argument here.  After all, a religious leader in the Jewish tradition is called “rabbi,” which literally means “teacher.”  But the role of educator and mentor is not reserved for any single denomination.  The same can be true of any priest, pastor, minister or imam.  The question associated with Harvard’s choice of Epstein as chief chaplain is whether he can serve that same function without the trappings of a church, synagogue or mosque.

To answer that question, look at a principle of religious faith which transcends one’s choice of religious affiliation, belief in something greater than oneself.  For many that “something” is belief in a divine presence.  For the atheist or agnostic, that “something” needs to be more tangible.  One’s community.  Human rights.  A mission with an external purpose.  Something other than one’s own well-being or acquiring power.  There is no dearth of available alternatives.

However, as a devout agnostic, my personal spiritual journey must also be one of continuing questioning and discovery.  In that vein, I often find atheists as frustrating as those who are convinced their religious testament–old or new–is the literal word of God.  Especially since so many before them watched (assuming there is an afterlife) their absolute religious tenets become literature (Bulfinch’s Mythology) or their deities displayed as mere works of art relegated to museums.

In Genesis, Abraham is portrayed as the father of monotheism.  As the story goes, he refused to accept the fact an idol, easily destroyed by humans, had divine power.  How is that any different from questioning whether an omnipotent, compassionate God would tolerate genocide, innocent children dying from cancer or a global pandemic?  In 1988, on a flight from Dallas to Honolulu, I sat next to Victor Stenger, a physicist and author of Not By Design: Origins of the Universe.  Stenger, who died in 2014, continued to pursue this theme in later books such as God: The Failed Hypothesis (2007) and God and the Folly of Faith (2012).

Victor Stenger (1935-2014) - Atheism's Arguments Against God? - YouTubeAs Stenger explained to me, the existence of humanity on earth without divine intervention was not only possible, it was mathematically probable considering the infinite number of galaxies, stars and planets.  However, it also explained both the biological and sociological shortcomings of mankind.  The probability of a perfect world with no disease, where everyone gets along with each other, though possible, is exponentially less likely.  As I recall our conversation, I realize why I could never fully embrace his atheist views.  In a universe with so many possibilities, there still remains that slight possibility there is a divine presence that is responsible for creation though not quite the way it is described in the first chapter of the Old Testament.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson admits, “I know HOW the big bang happened.  I just don’t know WHY.”

Maybe this explains Harvard’s counterintuitive choice of Epstein as chief chaplain and why a institution of higher learner is the right place for this “experiment.”  If I were Epstein, I would begin my first conversation with the other religious leaders on campus as follows.

To paraphrase Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the beginning of the second Iraq war, “You go to life with the world you have, not the world you might want or wish to have.”  It is why a university has two roles as it trains generation after generation to address the reality of an imperfect society.  We of the spiritual community can help these adults in training find purpose.  The academics train them to be doctors, scientists, politicians, historians and artists, giving them the tools to eliminate, or at a minimum ameliorate, the negative consequences of the imperfect world in which they were born.

In closing you might wonder if Epstein’s appointment is one more example of elite “woke” liberalism of a university president or board of trustees.  It is not.  Epstein, who has served as humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005, was the unanimous choice of his peers.  It suggests students who are seeking a different form of spirituality are not the only ones having second thoughts about their religious upbringing and training.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP