Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in August 2019

Leadership failure


The shambolic, incoherent, incompetent, lie-infested and often just plain crazy foreign policy of Donald Trump was on full display in recent days, while what passes for the TOP (Trump Old Party) foreign policy establishment, including Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, was on August vacation.

In the space of a few days:

Trump threw a hissy fit when the Danish prime minister rebuffed his scheme to “buy” Greenland and Trump responded by cancelling a state visit.

The chaos of the president’s Iranian policy was on full view at the G-7 summit in France where Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement to control Iran’s nuclear weapons program, with no realistic alternative in place, has become a signature foreign policy failure.

Trump claimed, with no evidence that talks with China to end an escalating trade war were back on. They were not. Nor had the U.S. made a trade deal with Japan, as Trump claimed.

And, of course, Vladimir Putin’s best friend, the president of the United States, was doing PR work for the Russian thug with our G-7 allies, while dishonoring years of bipartisan and international condemnation of the former KGB officer.

Oh, yes, after three Trump photo ops with Kim Jong Un, events that gave the North Korea dictator precisely the legitimacy he craves, that murderous thug is still firing off missiles in violation of United Nation’s sanctions.

“The First Lady has gotten to know Kim Jong Un, and I think she’d agree with me—he is a man with a country that has tremendous potential,” Trump told reporters at the G-7.

But as journalist Robin Wright pointed out, “Melania Trump has never met Kim.” The White House later issued a “clarification.” Stephanie Grisham, the latest dissembler in the White House press office, said that Trump “confides in his wife on many issues including the detailed elements of his strong relationship with Chairman Kim—and while the First Lady hasn’t met him, the President feels like she’s gotten to know him too” Right.

It’s difficult to pick the most serious of Trump’s fables from among his smorgasbord of foreign policy lies, half-truths and bouts of wishful thinking, but the continuing championing of Putin has to be among the most worrisome.

In arguing to readmit Russia to the group of seven, which include the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, Trump offered a twisted rationale that was head spinning in its nonsense. Remember that Russia was expelled from the group after Putin’s unlawful and forced “annexation” of Crimea in March 2014. That move marked the first time since the end of World War II that national boundaries in Europe were altered by force. It was, and remains, a very big deal.

Yet, Trump said, “[Crimea] was sort of taken away from President Obama. Not taken away from President Trump, taken away from President Obama … President Obama was not happy that this happened because it was embarrassing to him. Right. It was very embarrassing to him and he wanted Russia to be out of the, what was called the G8, and that was his determination. He was outsmarted by Putin. He was outsmarted. President Putin outsmarted President Obama.”

No, Putin did not “outsmart” Obama. Putin invaded a territory that was once part of the old Soviet Union because he wants to put the old union back together. It’s why he’s constantly meddling in Ukraine. His action was a blatant, aggressive violation of international law and the world’s major democracies sanctioned him and kicked him out of the G-7.

“Trump is the one working to undo those punishments,” Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine, “allowing Putin to reap the rewards of the invasion at no cost, and possibly to grab more territory if he desires. It is a completely Orwellian spectacle: the president trying to reward Russia’s attack is blaming the president who punished the attack for the invasion itself.”

And this from conservative writer Andrew Egger: “The fact that Trump is more comfortable savaging other U.S. politicians than our actual adversaries isn’t exactly surprising by now, yet the brazenness of it is still sufficient to shock.”

Which brings us to Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who recently announced his re-election campaign and promptly received Trump’s full-throated endorsement “Senator Jim Risch of the Great State of Idaho has been an incredible supporter of our Agenda!,” Trump Tweeted. It was pay back for Risch’s blind adherence to a foreign policy, as former Defense Secretary James Mattis said recently that “puts us at increasing risk in the world.”

In the state’s history only a handful of Idahoans have been given – or earned – a place of national leadership. I think of Republican Sen. James A. McClure, who led the Senate Energy Committee in the early 1980s with considerable distinction, while also serving in a Senate leadership position. Cecil Andrus’s tenure as Secretary of the Interior ranks among the very best in history. William Borah and Frank Church both chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and distinguished themselves by, among other acts, calling various presidents over foreign policy blunders.

Risch has now reached the pinnacle of a lifetime in public office – he’s a case study of a career politician – but he’s apparently willing to squander any influence he might have over foreign policy to remain “an incredible supporter” of Trump’s agenda.

Does that mean Risch endorses Putin’s return to the G-7? Does he really believe the efforts to control Iran or North Korean nuclear weapons are in good hands with this president? Does he think it appropriate that the next G-7 summit should be held at Trump’s struggling Florida golf resort, a multi-million dollar scheme to put money in the president’s own pocket?

We don’t know the answer to these and a dozen other questions because the senator rarely – if ever – comments on anything having to do with Trump’s foreign policy. No statements. No hearings. No leadership. And there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that Risch’s strategy of whispering in Trump’s ear, as he claims to do on a regular basis, has had any effect on either his behavior or his policy.

It’s not his job, Risch infamously said, the call out the president’s lies.

Risch has arrived at his moment of power and prestige, but he’s opted for partisan politics – and his own re-election – over the national interest. If there were any justice in politics it should cost him his job.

The pot initiative


Was it only two years ago that seemingly quixotic ballot issue effort was underway to expand Medicaid health insurance in Idaho?

It seemed like an improbable thing. Nearly all of the elected officials in Idaho who had anything to say about the Affordable Care Act, of which Medicaid expansion was a critical piece, were heaping abuse on it at every opportunity. The intensity of the opposition among the state’s political leadership at least was overwhelming, which should have been an indicator that expansion just wasn’t likely to happen, even at the voter level, right?

But it didn’t work out that way. Medicaid expansion not only passed among the Idaho voters, it passed in a landslide. And while the legislature fought back, a modified version of it is now going on the books and coming into place.

Legalized medical marijuana, the subject of an intensive petition drive, must seem about as improbable now as Medicaid did then. But the state’s Medicaid experience now tells us this: Don’t write off the prospects that it will go on the Idaho books.

While the Affordable Care Act never polled massively well in Idaho (probably it does better now than it did six or eight years ago), Medicaid expansion in recent years at least consistently polled well. While complete marijuana legalization still does not poll well in Idaho, medical marijuana does,; well enough to suggest that the narrowly-crafted measure to legalize and regulate it would have a decent chance of passage if it reaches the ballot in November next year.

Will it reach the ballot? The effort already has cleared several bars, and the petition signature process is underway; it will continue until next spring. The Medicaid expansion campaign was unusually well organized and did a terrific job; it will not be easy to replicate. But it also created a template, a specific set of steps and plan of attack that other ballot issue campaigns could use in the future. Such as medical marijuana, this year.

Backers need to collect more than 55,000 signatures, distributed around the state in specific ways. That makes the effort more difficult, but - and this was a lesson coming out of Medicaid expansion - it also means that if organizers develop a powerful and thorough enough campaign to get that done, they also have developed a strong enough campaign to sell the case affirmatively to the voters.

The case also has another advantage: Earlier adoption by neighboring states. By the time Idaho voters got to decide on Medicaid expansion, they could look around and see a number of nearby states that already had taken action on that front, and found no great negatives accruing. In the case of medical marijuana, most of the states bordering Idaho already have taken the legalize-and-regulate route (which resembles what Idaho does with alcohol), and the skies have not fallen in on them. In southwest Idaho, residents are seeing regular visits between the Boise metro area and the city onf Ontario, less than an hour away, as Idahoans buy what they want and can’t buy (legally) at home. The same thing happens in other border areas. None of this is going unnoticed by Idaho voters.

If the measure does make the ballot and does pass, many legislators would not doubt want to take an ax to it at the next legislative session. But they might have cause to hesitate. The effort by legislators this year to undermine the will of a landslide portion of Idaho voters, followed by an effort to virtually kill off the initiative process in Idaho, has led to some backlash. If on top of that a majority of Idaho voters choose to legalize medical marijuana, and legislators move to repeal it, what might be the political impact of that?

Imagine opposition to a marijuana liberalization law as the basis for a serious political threat to Idaho legislators. As unlikely as it sounds, the pieces for that could be coming together.

That’s down the road, of course. The legalization advocates have a long way to go before all that could happen.

But as the Medicaid expansion activists would tell you, never write off an effort backed by enough people.

Waiver Season II


Harvest is well along here on the Palouse, tomatoes are ripe, and it’s the second season for waivers thanks to our state leaders. The open comment period for this round began last Friday and runs through Sept 22nd; you can read about commenting here.

We haven’t heard any response from the Trump administration on the first waiver application, “Idaho Coverage Choice”. That one would allow folks on the Idaho Exchange to choose to “keep their insurance”. That was submitted back in mid-July. It would add to our expanding federal budget deficit. I can’t see how it will be approved. I’m waiting for a tweet.

But the current waiver application has to do with the “work requirements” the legislature added and the Governor signed.

I’m all for helping, indeed expecting folks to climb out of poverty, and a good paying job is one honest way to do it. But the requirements for reporting and maintaining eligibility for health insurance have proven difficult for many states to implement. In Arkansas 18,000 folks got kicked off the rolls just because they couldn’t (or didn’t) file timely reports. I would hope Idaho could do better. But keep in mind, doing better costs more money. Do you want to grow government to keep nudging people to get to work?

Montana did it right. They tied Medicaid applicants to job training and work openings through their Department of Labor. It didn’t add any bureaucracy to their system, but boosted employment.

One of the blessings of being in a conservative state is we can learn from early-adopters mistakes.

Kentucky’s efforts to add work requirements were initially approved by the Trump administration but then thrown out twice by a Federal Court; same with New Hampshire. There are currently six states with Trump-approved Medicaid work requirements, but not enacted yet. I suspect Idaho will join this group. And then we will send our Attorney General to defend a lawsuit in Federal Court. Our tax dollars would be better spent helping the working poor, not paying lawyers.

One of the dirty little secrets of work and Medicaid is that there are lots of folks working even full time who would still be eligible for Medicaid. It’s because their employer doesn’t offer health insurance and their wages are so low. There are currently in the US over 5 million workers (35% of adult Medicaid enrollees) on Medicaid. They are janitors, food service, construction, hospital, retail workers. But not in Idaho; up until Medicaid Expansion passed, able-bodied adults without children were not eligible for Medicaid.

In Idaho, where our wages are so low, the Department of Health and Welfare estimates 60% of the newly eligible Medicaid population would be working the equivalent of full time. Keep in mind, Idaho’s unemployment is rock bottom.

So, this waiver proposal would set up reporting requirements. We saw what that did in Arkansas. Somebody forgets to file their monthly work report, falls off a ladder, goes to the ER, and who’s paying the bill then? Yup, the taxpayer pays, and our costly county Indigent Program and state Catastrophic fund pony up.

It makes sense to expect good behavior from folks getting public support. When I first was running for office I met with a group of union workers at the local. They didn’t seem too keen to see a Democrat. I asked them what was most important to them. One guy offered, “Why don’t we drug test people on Welfare?” I told him I’d look into it since it made some sense. Some states have done this. It turned out the expensive tests proved drug use in applicants for assistance was less than a third of the general population. And states paid out millions to deny benefits to less than 1% of applicants.

If we want folks to act responsibly, we should do so with our dear tax dollars.



When libertarian sentiments take a populist form, it looks like this: a mix of anger, fear, anti-intellectualism, and fierce government hostility. Welcome to the Tea Party movement.
► David Niose, Fighting Back the Right

Populism can include a bunch of things, some good, some not.
This could be a subject purely for political scientists to hash over … except that populism has been moving into ever-broader discussion. Soon, someone is likely to appropriate the term and run under it, so we should have a sense of it means. Or, historically has meant.
And as with so many others, it gets complicated. It has meant a number of different things to different people.

George Will (in an interview) offered, “Populism is the belief in the direct translation of public impulses, public passions. Passion was the great problem for the American Founders.” And it certainly was, though not all public desires, though, necessarily fall under the populist umbrella, and the founders’ concerns largely were met in their efforts to mediate and slow decision-making to inject more intellect and less emotion into the process. It was a process concern, not one of subject matter. The populism of the last century mostly definable by what it addresses.

The Oxford Dictionary offers these definitions: “Support for the concerns of ordinary people. The quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.”

Just what you should want in a democracy/republic, right?

Except that there’s a subtlety in the definitions from Oxford: Think carefully and you’ll sense that what populism really is about is less a platform or a movement than a style.

Writer George Packer approached that current sense of the word with, “Populism is a stance and a rhetoric more than an ideology or a set of positions. It speaks of a battle of good against evil, demanding simple answers to difficult problems. ([Donald] Trump: ‘Trade? We’re gonna fix it. Health care? We’re gonna fix it.’) It’s suspicious of the normal bargaining and compromise that constitute democratic governance. (On the stump, [Bernie] Sanders seldom touts his bipartisan successes as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.) Populism can have a conspiratorial and apocalyptic bent …”

It is not polished; it is raw, emotional more than thoughtful.
It can start with specifics and even specific ideas and proposals. But the internal machinery usually processes them into blood-churning vagueness.

A few specifics, then:

There was a Populist Party in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, and for some years it pulled a significant number of votes even in presidential contests; it proclaimed that “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.” In his Political Dictionary, William Safire referred to it as “a liberalism deeply rooted in U.S. history.” Many of the political progressives of that era and just beyond shaded over into populism, and by other names (such as the Nonpartisan League) it remained felt through the twenties. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Democrats absorbed many, though not all, of them.

Much of this was based around economic issues, but not all. Packer wrote in his populism article about Georgia politician Thomas Watson, who railed that “the scum of creation has been dumped on us. Some of our principal cities are more foreign than American.” That anti-outsider thread has persisted too.

The populist style while persistent is not always equally popular; it rises and falls. In the middle of the 20th century gained relatively little traction. In 2016, and the elections leading up to it, it proved popular.

Political analyst John Judis has argued that “populist campaigns and parties often function as warning signs of a political crisis. In both Europe and the U.S., populist movements have been most successful at times when people see the prevailing political norms – which are preserved and defended by the existing establishment – as being at odds with their own hopes, fears, and concerns. The populists express these neglected concerns and frame them in a politics that pits the people against an intransigent elite. By doing so, they become catalysts for political change. Populist campaigns and parties, by nature, point to problems through demands that are unlikely to be realized in the present political circumstances.”

And there are the two problems, which have nothing to do with the goals – real or purported – populist movements espouse.

They make demands, in the most emotional and emphatic terms, that cannot be fulfilled. (This seems to be a core component of modern populism that distinguishes it from the population of a century back.)
And they attack the very people and institutions which most plausibly might make their demands happen, and often would be inclined to … if they weren’t under attack from populists.

Populism doesn’t have to be self-destructive, and it can have good intentions, but those who fall under its spell seem to have a weakness for folding rapidly and dangerously into darkness, despair and fury. It has a hard time fitting into a system of practical self-government of, you guessed it, the people.

Afghanistan’s fate


After Osama bin Laden launched his attack against the U.S. on September 11, 2001, we responded with a military operation to destroy him and his terrorist network. We started with an air attack on his bases in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, and soon followed up on the ground with a relatively small fighting force. Bin Laden unfortunately escaped, but he and his cutthroats were forced out of Afghanistan and his Afghan hosts, the Taliban, were removed from power.

Despite having an opportunity to consolidate our remarkable success and help Afghanistan get back on its feet, the U.S. allowed despotic warlords and corrupt politicians to take control of the country. Worse yet, we decided to invade Iraq on the false pretense that it had played a part in the 9-11 attack.

Instead of taking advantage of the good will we had established with the Afghans as a result of lifting the oppressive rule of the Taliban, we shifted vital equipment and military personnel to the costly wild goose chase in Iraq. More than anything else, the virtual abandonment of Afghanistan in order to depose Saddam Hussein doomed any chance of a favorable outcome for the Afghans.

After 18 years of struggle in Afghanistan with no happy ending in sight, the U.S. is trying to negotiate a departure from the country that will not look like an admission of failure. It is taking on the look of declaring a partial victory and then bugging out of the country, much like we did in Vietnam.

It is odd that the negotiations do not involve the government of Afghanistan since it obviously has a vital interest in the outcome. And, it appears the substance of the negotiations primarily relates to when U.S. troops will leave the country. We seem to be willing to commit to a troop withdrawal schedule so long as the Taliban officials promise to be good boys.

The Taliban also say they will try to work out some sort of deal with the official government but there is no indication of what that would look like. The Taliban can’t speak for the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which is a serious and growing danger to the U.S. Is ISIS going to be free to plot attacks on America from Afghanistan like Bin Laden did? The proposal is silent about the ISIS threat.

The negotiating posture of our side has not been helped by the President, who is desperate to bail out of Afghanistan before the 2020 election. Just after he appointed his lead negotiator, Trump surprised his advisers last December by declaring he wanted to immediately withdraw half of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan--probably not the best negotiating technique. It might be best for the President to refrain from publicly making unilateral concessions that undercut his negotiators.

The sacrifices of American troops, who fought so hard for an honorable outcome, demand that we negotiate an outcome that does not amount to cutting and running. A definite and workable settlement between the Taliban and Afghan government should be a requirement for any U.S. troop withdrawal. There should be assurance of protection of womens’ rights. The Taliban should firmly commit to intensify its fight against ISIS. It should face military consequences if it fails to honor its obligations.

America is also honor bound, regardless of how the negotiations turn out, to offer refuge in our country to those Afghans who put themselves at risk by protecting and helping our troops. The U.S. has a special visa program for these folks but there are nearly 20,000 Afghans desperately waiting in line while the number of visas issued has slowed to a trickle. We owe it to these people who put their lives at risk to help our forces.

More special visas will be needed following almost any settlement and the Congress should act immediately to substantially increase the number authorized. I am still haunted by our abandonment of so many of our South Vietnamese friends to a horrible fate at the hands of the communists in 1975. Let’s not repeat that national disgrace again with our Afghan friends.

The downside


On a daily basis, we’re told by all the pundits “This early in the presidential election, polls don’t mean much.” Then they trot out the latest numbers and make all sorts of comparisons.

They’re right, of course, about how little numbers mean 15 months out. Interesting, but predictive of nothing you can hang your hat on.

Still, there’s one polling category taken that I don’t see included very often and, to me, it means as much - or even more at times - than all the others. Even now. And that’s the “unfavorable” count.

The reason for the interest in “unfavorables,” is a case can be made voters falling into that category probably assured the unexpected 2016 victory of Trump.

Clinton was the clear polling leader going into that election with a good margin in her favor. But, underneath those numbers were her “unfavorables.” And they were sizeable. Over 50-percent.

Some of the pollsters I trust most have a similar interest in those figures and several have what seems to be a reasonable explanation for how they fit into her loss.

They opined people in that category looked at her - looked at him as an unknown - closed their eyes and voted for Trump. The unknown. Broken down by polling data such as age, education, race, economic and party indicators, their reasoning seems sound.

So, if you measured the “unfavorables” of all the Democrats running at the moment, who do you think would have the highest rating? My guess would be Biden.

Yes, he currently holds a wide lead over the rest of the pack when voters are asked who they favor. Solid lead. Good numbers. But, the same four decades of valuable experience Biden brings to the contest also work against him.

The reason for that is clear. Take the crime bill Congress passed in the ‘70's. Biden voted “no.” He had his reasons at the time. Given his experience, that vote may have seemed right. Then. But, nearly 40 years later, with crime in the streets and mass murders in our schools, churches, synagogues and the marketplace, it’s very difficult to face questions about such a vote in today’s campaign. So far, he hasn’t developed a clear response that makes sense under today’s conditions.

There were other votes of his that, at the time, were probably solid but which are now outdated. That’s the trouble with longevity, as I’m also finding out. Times change. Thinking changes. Issues evolve. Sanders and Warren, with years of elective service, also have some votes they’d probably like to take back. Or, would just as soon not talk about on the campaign trail. Same reasons. And both have sizeable “unfavorables.”

In current polling, yes, the figures are mushy and subject to change day-to-day. But, a pattern is developing that shows about 16 of the 20 candidates should seriously think about going back to their day jobs. Biden, Warren and Sanders have double-digit leads over everyone else. The numbers separating the top three change with each poll. But, the placement over the rest of the field doesn’t.

I’m especially disappointed in Beto. He’s not going to win the race and he’s not favored as a vice presidential pick. His numbers are bad and not likely to get better. At the same time, in his home state of Texas, incumbent John Cornyn is vulnerable in his re-election try. And, Beto, who came within three-percent of beating Ted Cruz in 2018, could likely beat Cornyn if local polling is accurate.

That U.S. Senate race is extremely important for Democrats, along with a couple of others because if they don’t take the Senate, the gridlock will continue. If O’Rourke continues his doomed campaign, you can write it off as an ego trip but it ain’t smart politics.

Pundits all talk about how important the 2020 election is. And they’re right! But, some of the presidential candidates - like Beto, Booker, Bullock and Gillibrand - seem more wrapped up in their own little worlds than considering the big picture. While Democrats stand to pick up even more of a majority in the House, the Senate is in doubt. And that’s where the action is.

Former Colorado Governor Hickenlooper saw the writing on the wall, dropped out of his losing presidential effort, and is running for the Senate against a troubled incumbent in what seems to be a “purple” state. Washington State Governor Inslee quit and decided to run for a third term at home. Good thinking by both men.

But, back to the “unfavorables.” If the media really wants to fulfill its role of helping voters be more informed about the candidates and issues, that number should get more attention and be used often. I’m certain the candidates know what they are. You can bet the farm Trump and his people know his.

Their importance weighed heavily in determining the 2016 race. They deserve a lot more public notice this time around.

Personal responsibility


Personal responsibility or something like it has been a mainstay in recent American politics, back to a speech by Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts,1 delivered at the Constitutional Convention on July 18, 1787 (although his reference was to the behavior of “public bodies” rather than individual action or obligation).

More recently it has been associated with the limitation of governmental social programs, as in the Personal Responsibility and Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

It has been used most often by conservatives but with some frequency across the political spectrum. Essayist Alan Wolfe wrote in 1998, “To liberals and leftists, the message would be equally blunt. In particular, your insistent, almost pathological, fear of understanding the importance of personal responsibility astonishes us.”

The concept is often enough taken up on the left too, however. In his inaugural address, for example, Barack Obama spoke of “a new era of responsibility,” especially directing his point to younger people.
The concept as such is broadly popular. In 2014, for example, a Pew Research study showed that “being responsible” was considered the single most popular value in the rearing of children, over many options, across the whole of the ideological spectrum.

But what does “personal responsibility” actually mean?

Wikiquote’s definition is that “Personal responsibility or Individual Responsibility is the idea that human beings choose, instigate, or otherwise cause their own actions. A corollary idea is that because we cause our actions, we can be held morally accountable or legally liable.”

Ron Haskins expands on that, bringing the definition into the realm many conservatives ordinarily would use, with this: “Personal responsibility is the willingness to both accept the importance of standards that society establishes for individual behavior and to make strenuous personal efforts to live by those standards. But personal responsibility also means that when individuals fail to meet expected standards, they do not look around for some factor outside themselves to blame. The demise of personal responsibility occurs when individuals blame their family, their peers, their economic circumstances, or their society for their own failure to meet standards.”

This definition matches with a great deal of public policy, especially with arguments that people who receive public help may not be doing enough to help themselves, and become too reliant on assistance from others.

In the endless variety of human beings, some – there’s no way to get a clear number – fall short of exactly that test, failing to take personal responsibility for what they can control.

We all have different levels of ability to control what happens around us, of course. For economic, health, educational or other reasons, different people are able to handle different levels of demand and stress. To require personal action to take care of every problem may be entirely justifiable in one case, but unrealistic – and heartless – in another.

Drawing the line between the two is never easy. But that’s part of the implicit responsibility in treating people with decency and respect.
There is another aspect to calls for “personal responsibility” and declining to seek help from others: It can be turned into an argument against organizing to accomplish a task that might be beyond the capability of a single person acting alone.

Imagine a city whose leaders are proposing an expensive, tax-heavy project opposed by many residents. Calling on those residents to act on their “personal responsibility” – and offer individualized opposition – instead of organizing, would be a simple prescription for the city leaders to prevail easily over a deeply and hopelessly divided opposition. An organized, coordinated opposition (which appears to cut against the grain of “personal responsibility”) might instead prevail. Obviously the same concept applies in many places, including union organizing (bearing in mind that many political critics of unions have eased “personal responsibility” into their rhetoric).

When does this translate to: Don’t you dare organize against your (wealthy) betters?

The journey may not be lengthy.
But what does “being responsible” mean?

Depends, on who’s responsible for what.

Devaluing education


My dad never went to college. He graduated from high school in 1930 when unemployment rates were on the way to 15% and eventually reached 25%. He needed – and wanted a job – so he never seriously thought about taking the time to get more education. I believe he regretted that decision for the rest of his life.

It was the same for my mother, a high school graduate who ended up working in the administrative office of a small state college in Nebraska. She had all the skills needed in those days to be a secretary. She could type, take shorthand and knew how to format a business letter, but I’ve always suspected she longed for more. For many in her generation, particularly women, more was just not an option.

Both my parents were avid readers and our home was filled with books and magazines and newspapers, but no degrees. They valued what they never had an opportunity to achieve and there was never a doubt that my brother and I would go to college. It would be a financial struggle to some degree, but tuition at a state college in those days was remarkably affordable and besides my parents – children of the Great Depression – accepted it as an article of faith that a college education was a stepping stone on a path to a better, more financially secure life.

Yet, opinions about the value of higher education divide Americans like most everything else divides us. The Pew Research Center reported recently that, “over the past two years, the share of Republicans and Republican leaners who view the impact of colleges and universities positively has declined 18 percentage points (from 54% to 36%), and this shift in opinion has occurred across most demographic and ideological groups within the GOP.”

Views on the part of Democrats about the positive role of colleges and universities are almost the reverse of those held by Republicans, with wide majorities of Democrats saying, “colleges have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.”

It’s no coincidence that the Republican Party “base,” the die hard supporters of the current president, are dominated by non-college educated voters who apparently broadly subscribe to the notion that higher education is dominated by “elites” peddling dangerous ideas. It’s also no coincidence that Republican elected officials from coast-to-coast are increasingly critical of higher education.

Alaska’s Republican governor, a Donald Trump favorite, recently proposed an immediate $130 million, 40% reduction in state support for the Alaska university system. Public outrage and the real threat that such drastic action would decimate the University of Alaska prompted a pull back. The university system now has three years to absorb a $70 million haircut.

Two years ago the attorney general of Arizona sued the state’s university system because tuition was too high, but of course failed to acknowledge that the GOP dominated state legislature has wacked higher education funding by more than 40% over the last decade.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the school year ending in 2018 was more than $7 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation.”

In eight states – Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina – per-student funding declined by more than 30 percent over ten years. Still, state funding and how it has impacted tuition and fees is just a part of the higher education story.

In Idaho, of course, some Republican lawmakers want to wage a culture war over diversity programs on Idaho campuses and critiques from the political right often involve the accusation that liberals dominate college and university classrooms and administration.

While my own college experience is mighty dated, I’m confident the culture war aspects of modern higher education are vastly overblown. My most memorable college instruction was a rumpled old prof who made me grapple with the causes and effects of the American Civil War. He didn’t have a political agenda. He was a teacher. I still have the textbook he used. I know dozens if not hundreds of teachers and administrators in higher education and to a person their motives are education, not indoctrination.

The new leaders who are now in place at all of Idaho’s public colleges and universities face daunting challenges, including raising tuition costs that can be tied directly to decreased state support. But no issue is more important than impressing upon law and policy makers that higher education is vital to personal and societal success. College presidents can no longer, if they ever could, be content to assume, as my parents did, that everyone gets the message about how important higher education is and will be in the future.

Amid the culture wars and partisan divides it’s worth focusing on the cold hard fact that the current and future American economy demands more education for more Americans. Not everyone needs or wants a four year degree, of course, and community colleges and skills training of all kinds must be a critical part of producing a talented workforce. A still too little tapped role for colleges and universities are robust partnerships with workforce and skills training program. Policy makers need to find the resources to make that work.

Yet with evidence showing that the higher educational achievement in the United States has now been overtaken by some of our principal economic competitors, including South Korea (where 70% of young people earn a college degree), as well as Canada and Japan. In fact, the U.S. ranks eleventh among 35 developed nations in college attainment according to a new study by the American Enterprise Institute.

Like so much that divides Americans, the “is college worth it” gap that has Republicans challenging higher education’s value is based more on ideology than facts. At its core a valuable and valued higher education produces critical thinkers, able to reason a way though problems and opportunities by applying learned knowledge. Never have we needed that kind of education more.

Opioids, microscopically


The last time opioids were this big a deal in Idaho was almost a century and a half ago, when they made their way into Boise and beyond through trade routes on the west coast. Opium became a big enough commodity that - in part because Chinese immigrants were implicated - the territorial legislature clamped down, and raids and prosections ensued. The opium market was not eliminated but was largely quashed.

All these years later, opioids have found Idaho again.

The stereotype of an opioid problem area might bring to mind Appalachia or the troubled industrial areas of the northeast, or maybe parts of the rural south. Surely not places like Idaho.

But it’s been no mistake that the state of Idaho (through the attorney general’s office) and a growing bunch of local jurisdictions (Twin Falls just joined the list) have joined into a national lawsuit over opioids - especially their marketing.

Idaho, it turns out, is one of those places in the country harder-hit than most by this new epidemic.

And unlike most contagious diseases and unlike most problems with drug abuse - methamphetamines, say - the opioid drug abuse problem has many of its roots in “legitimate” society, with licensed physicians who got their patients hooked, and with corporate manufacturers of patented products. Filing a lawsuit against a meth dealer would be ludicrous (such an actor would simply be locked up), but that’s not so in the case of opioids, where the road to addiction so often has started with legal prescriptions.

On May 3, the Idaho Falls Post Register reported, “If you live in eastern Idaho, you don’t need anyone telling you about the ravages of the opioid epidemic. Bonneville and Bannock counties have the highest percentage of drug-overdose deaths in the state. Bonneville, along with Elmore, Owyhee and nine other Idaho counties got so fed up with the opioid epidemic they joined a federal lawsuit last year against the makers of OxyContin, Lortab and other opioids.”

And yet the worst of the opioid problem in Idaho seems to be further north. The Centers for Disease Control has broken out prescription rates for opioids by county, and the hottest area in the region - in either Idaho or Washington state - turns out to be the Lewiston-Clarkston area, with adjacent Lewis County (on a per capita basis) coming in slightly higher still. For many recent years, little Lewis County had the highest prescription rates of any county in the western United States.

The Lewiston Tribune’s detailed August 18 story on the problem locally quotes veteran Moscow physician Dan Schmidt, who works around the region - and doesn’t seem especially surprised at the high rates. He notes that Lewiston and Clarkston, with their large stores, may rate high because people from smaller nearby counties shop (and get their drugs) there. He also suggested that the medical community has failed to regulate itself - the profession “dropped the ball.” He recalled, the story said, “drug company sales representatives showing up at his clinic with free food, three times a week.” When Schmidt declined to buy, their visits stopped. But, as he seems to indicate, not all physicians in the area may have reacted the same way.

And he thought the large number of people on disability or who live on very small incomes have a strong incentive to sell legal opioids they get through the local pharmacy.

Legal opioids, of course, often have led to heroin and other illegal opioid addictions; the problems are closely related.

The reports we’re seeing seem to show that the problems are systemic as well as personal. Any attempt to solve the problem will have to consider the systems of medical and pain treatment as well as control over the substances.