Writings and observations

mckee

We are now 15 years into the wars in Afghanistan with no end in sight. We stiff-arm Iran in order to embrace Saudi Arabia, which is suddenly causing problems. Inconsistencies abound as situations continue to stagger and wobble from worse to worse, with no clear paths to follow, and no favorable solutions in sight. All this illustrates with unmistakable clarity that choosing up sides in the Middle East has become really, really tricky.

Some of this is inherited from Bush, some is the result of Obama’s decisions, much is just the consequence of unfolding events and choices that appeared to be right at the time but are turning out badly today.

The cacophony of bumper-sticker quality criticism from the Republican candidates, and the equally abbreviated responses from their Democratic opponents, are of no real help in understanding the depth and breadth of the problems we are about to face. It is disingenuous to think that the solutions to the Middle East quagmire is to be found in any of the sound-bite size proclamations coming from either end of the current political spectrum.

As an example of the complications that exist, let us examine one strong pull of a single tangled thread of diplomacy all the way to the end. The beginning of the thread is a bill that Congress is considering to allow individual victims terrorist attacks to bring lawsuits for damages in federal courts against the foreign countries responsible for the attacks. It might appear to be a simple little issue.

Several groups of victims of 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center are attempting to seek damages from the nation which is believed to have been responsible for financing al Qaeda operations. Their efforts have been stymied, at least in part, because of a 1976 law that recognizes judicial immunity of most foreign nations from suit for money damages brought by private citizens in U.S. courts. So, a bill has been drafted and is pending in Congress that will carve-out a narrow exception from the general policy of sovereign immunity, and allow suits for damages where the defendant nation is directly culpable for a terrorist attack that actually occurs on United States soil. The bill has some healthy support; it is jointly authored and supported by a prominent list of senators from both parties, and has already cleared the Judiciary committee on a unanimous “do pass” vote.

A laudable objective, one might think; who could be opposed to this? Well, as it turns out, plenty. Pull the thread some more, and the main foreign opponent of the bill appears. Saudi Arabia is probably the principle target for such litigation, and it is up in arms over the prospects of this bill. It has announced that it will dump over $750 billion in U.S. treasuries and related securities if the bill passes and is signed, rather than risk impoundment by an American court.

Pull some more thread out, and we see that most economists doubt that Saudi Arabia would carry out such a threat, as it would de-stabilize the economies of the entire region and do proportionately more harm to Saudi Arabia than to the United States. Nevertheless, there is now unrest in the economic markets throughout the world waiting to see what happens to this little bill in the Senate.

As a consequence, the White House is weighing in with pressure on Congress to accommodate the Saudi objection and sidetrack the bill. Aside from offending our supposed chief ally in the region, and potentially wreaking havoc on the financial markets of the world, the administration also argues here that weakening the reciprocal sovereign immunity provisions of our laws would put the government at legal risk generally abroad if other nations retaliated with their own legislation. To start monkeying around with the reciprocal provisions of sovereign immunity, the argument goes, is to play with fire. Secretary Kerry told a Senate panel in February that for this reason, the pending bill would create a terrible precedent.

Viewed from a few steps back, we see that the thread of difficulty with Saudi Arabia over this bill is but the most recent of a long line of disagreements with the Saudi royal family. Also involved are the Saudi’s interference with White House attempts to improve relations with Iran, the Saudi’s objection to our participation in the nuclear arms negotiations with Iran, the White House concerns and objections to the manner in which the Saudi military is conducting its part of the fighting in Yemen, ongoing disagreements between the Pentagon and the Saudi military over the accounting and use of military resources being provided by the United States, and, quite recently, our aghast reaction to the ISIS style beheading of 47 individuals in Saudi Arabia, including a Shiite cleric whose only crime was his vocal disagreement with the Saudi royal family.

What may be of more strategic concern, while we appear to be accommodating the Saudi requests on one hand, we also appear to be ignoring the ongoing support and financing by the Saudi regime, or at least individuals within the Saudi regime, to the more extreme of the Wahhabis and Salafist factions Islam, both in Saudi Arabia and out. These extreme factions of Sunni ideology fueled al Qaeda in the past and appear to be at the base of ISIS in the present.

In the past, our dependence upon Saudi Arabian oil forced us to turn a blind eye to such inconsistencies. Our present increased production of petroleum from the shale fields of North America have all but eliminated this economic dependence, and there is now no reason to ignore such practices by a supposed ally. Nevertheless we continue to not question the Saudi actions here.

The White House is cautiously beginning to make overtures towards Iran, but much of what will be needed to warm relations between the countries will require Congressional approval.

Further, a significant problem to improving relations with Iran is the perpetually sour relations between Iran and Israel, and the strong insistence, both by Israel and by her supporters within the United States, that the United States stand fast behind Israel no matter what. At the present time, Congress appears to favor continuing relations with Saudi Arabia at the expense, if necessary, of relations with Iran.

Western Europe, on the other hand, appears to be beginning to swing toward Iran. The apparent belief is that Iran, not Saudi Arabia, will inevitably emerge as the stabilizing force in the region. Iran is clearly seen as the key to peace in Syria and Iraq and to the containment of ISIS within the Middle East. The European community is appalled at the recent executions, and at the insouciant attitude of the Saudis towards any improvements in the area of human rights. Unless there is another change in direction, we may find ourselves backing the wrong team – or at least a different team from that of the rest of the Western World.

Swinging around to even another view, the general consensus is that the Saudis do not want any reconciliations with Iran. They would prefer that Iran be derailed from any engagement with the West, and this includes throwing monkey wrenches into any effort to bring Iran into the peace effort in Syria. It is difficult to imagine a peace accord for Syria, for example, that would not involve cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Without their joint involvement, peace in Syria may be unattainable unless refereed by either Russia or the United States.

If that day comes, whoever lands the job as POTUS will be wound into a political pretzel trying to determine whether to accept Russian participation in the region, with Russian troops occupying Syria and the contested regions, or to tolerate the commitment of necessary U.S. forces to occupy the territory, and to oversee the tasks ourselves. This probably means that countries with mixed Sunni and Shiite populations – Syria and Yemen, where civil war is presently raging, and perhaps Bahrain, where there is a potentially explosive division between the religious factions – will continue to fall even further into chaos.

After pulling this one little thread to the end, the take away that jumps out is that there are no right answers on the horizon. No matter what is done, no matter who does it, and no matter which way it goes, every action we take from this point on is going to be wrong. Period.

How could it possibly get worse?

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McKee

mckee

There is not yet a definitive name for the main militant group drawing all of our attention in the Mid-east. The lack of an acceptable, universal label here is much worse than the petty disagreements over the spelling of “Qaddafi” or “al Qaeda” (here, The New York Times preferences) which troubled us somewhat in years past. How can we mount a serious campaign against an enemy if we don’t even know what to call it.

Most of the media, including The New York Times, and all of the candidates on both sides, usually say “ISIS,” short for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” or perhaps “Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham,” where “al Sham” refers to Damascus, the capitol and surrounding regions of Syria. While descriptive, there is no historical significance to the term ISIS. One feature in support of the term is that it appears generally accepted in all major publications to write the abbreviation without periods.

President Obama avoids the term “Islamic Terrorists,” for good reason, preferring the more generic term “radical jihadist” when he wants a generic reference that might apply throughout Islam. But that term is too broad to refer to the particular militant group battling for control in Syria. Then, Obama uses “ISIL,” short for “Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant.” “The Levant” is a historic or traditional name that originally referred to the entire belt of countries on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt. To a minority of academic declarants, “The Levant” is used to describe the French mandate over Syria and Lebanon. The French adaptation apparently fostered the use of the term in today’s circumstances, although it is relevant only to Syria and not Lebanon.

While the term ISIL has some history and tradition to support its use, it includes unacceptable inconsistencies which are inaccurate and misleading in today’s setting. Also, the term ISIL now brings an immediate political reaction depending upon whether one favors or opposes Obama’s policies.

Secretary Kerry, and some others, have begun referring the militant jihadist group as “al Daesh,” an acronym from the true Arabic name ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām, which is largely unpronounceable to the Western tongue. Abu al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph, and his followers accept the full name, but reportedly do not like the shortened acronym. Abu al Baghdadi calls his domain the “Islamic State,” or IS, a term or abbreviation that none of the Western allies have adopted.

While I personally prefer the historical panache of ISIL, even though not geographically accurate, I would lean towards “al Daesh” if it picks up steam and becomes generally accepted. At the present time, this is not happening, for the term, whenever used, continues to draw blank stares.

All this leaves me with The Old Gray Lady, and her unswerving insistence on ISIS with no periods. But then, all said, this is pretty good company.

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McKee

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A guest opinion in a recent issue of The Idaho Statesman suggests that minimum wage laws are an anathema to a free market society, destined to result in economic ruin for us all. The article is a recitation of hard right theology dressed up to look like sound economic theory, but is really unadulterated poppycock.

First dose of balderdash is the claim that the higher the price of labor, the lower the demand for it will be. This phony theorem is advanced to support the argument that increasing the guaranteed minimum wage will cause a correlative decrease in employment. The contention is, in a word, nonsense. It comes from substituting labels and torturing the basic supply and demand curve, which does hold that where supply is fixed, the higher the price of goods, the lower the demand. However, when measuring the cost of labor, the supply and demand curve usually has no application.

Generally, the cost of labor is a made up of a combination of elements, starting with the fluidity of the labor pool combined with functions of scarcity and specialty, and overlaid with the options open to the individual worker. This means that where there are few laborers available to accomplish the tasks demanded, the cost goes up. This was demonstrated in the shale oil fields of the Midwest where pay rates skyrocketed when the fields were first opened with (relatively) few laborers in the area. As workers flocked to the oil fields, and as the pool of available workers grew, the pay rates normalized somewhat. Then, as the price of crude plummeted, and as some owners began taking shale wells off production, the demand for labor dropped precipitously. Unemployment arrived in some areas, and pay rates plummeted further. The point to take away here is that demand drives the cost of labor – not the other way around.

On the other hand, in established markets at the bottom of our economy, where the greatest sea of the unemployed are to be found – the supply of unskilled labor is plentiful and demand is not an element. Fluidity, scarcity and specialty are not involved. The job seekers at the bottom are seldom able to move to follow or seek out new opportunities. They do not possess qualifications or skills which would narrow the supply. The price of labor here gravitates to minimum levels established by tolerance among employers, not to levels arrived at by negotiations with employees. The owner needs a certain level of labor – to get his field harvested, for example, or to get his takeout joint staffed with hamburger flippers – which he can fill by simply paying whatever the “going rate” is. He need not pay more, for the supply of unskilled labor is ample, and if he offers to pay less, the worker can find equivalent work for the “going rate” elsewhere in the same area. At the bottom of the pile, the cost of labor is a limiting factor, not a deciding factor.

In the world we live in, and in the general case, the labor pool is more fixed than fluid and cannot react. One form of strengthening the position of a relatively fixed labor pool is organization – labor unions insert the element of scarcity into the formula and change the balance of power. Strong labor unions are probably the most significant factor in creating a middle class in the industrialized middle of our economy. In many states, right-to-work laws have been enacted limiting the effectiveness of unions to organize. In these states, the wage rates are usually considerably lower than in states with strong unions.

Without the ability of labor to relocate freely, or to organize into effective unions, and absent some form of regulation, the bottom wage could theoretically decline to a penny. If that became the going rate, the owner would be under no motivation to pay more. Overall scarcity will affect the labor pool, but not the individual worker’s need or desire for higher pay. In a scarce market, the worker would never be called upon to work for a penny because the guy across the street will pay a dime, or more, and so forth, until an equilibrium with the level of scarcity is reached.

In the world market, this allows owners to move production from the United States to other areas of the world, where the going rates for labor are indexed much lower than here. It has also resulted in owners relocating production facilities within the United States – away from the traditional industrial states with strong, well organized unions, for example, into states with right to work laws that favor management and offer opportunity to obtain labor at lesser rates.

But in the true unskilled, unqualified bottom rungs of our economy, there has to be regulation to avoid abuse and exploitation. Even Adam Smith recognized that the greed inherent to a true free market would require regulation for the protection of the masses. We have never had a true free market economy, and would not tolerate it if we ever did.

The second dose of blarney claimed by the far right is that imposition of a higher minimum wage will have a disastrous impact on employment. The notion that raising the minimum wage to a reasoned level would have any measurable impact upon employment in the economy is a blatant, pants-on-fire, bald faced, whopper. In all of the history of the federally mandated minimum wage, being since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, or 78 years, there is no instance where the reasoned addition, imposition or increase of a minimum wage has had any measurable net effect on the overall economy generally, or upon net levels employment within the economy specifically.

In a landmark study in 1994, two economists compared the effect on employment in the restaurant industry following a 1992 modest increase in the New Jersey minimum wage. They concluded that the rise in the minimum wage had no impact upon employment. More recently, a 2013 Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) review of multiple studies over a 10 to 12 year period since 2000 indicated that there was little or no employment response to the increases in the minimum wage that had occurred.

In a more specific study in 2014, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that if the minimum wage was raised from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour, being an increase approximately to the poverty line, this might lead to a reduction of 500,000 entry-level jobs, for an impact on GNP of around $3.5 million. But the trade-off would be a substantial increase the income of over 16.5 million workers who were paid at or less than the bottom wage rate. If one assumes that the increase would directly increase consumer spending, the result would be an increase in GNP of something in the range of $48 million — which would offset negative impact many times over.

Another CEPR study in 2014 found that job creation within the United States is faster within states that raised their minimum wage. The study observed that in 2014, the area with the highest minimum wage in the nation, Washington D.C., exceeded the national average for job growth in the United States.

The final dose of hogwash delivered from the teapot right is the contention that any increase in the minimum wage will be passed on directly to the consumer through increased prices. The hyperbole is that the lower cost family cafes will disappear into mechanized do-it-yourself places with only the upper crust establishments surviving. While increasing labor costs do put pressure on management, there is no certainty that the increased costs will necessarily result in increased prices. The high rates of profitability being experienced by the upper levels under present conditions would indicate that margins are more than sufficient to absorb some level of additional cost before price is necessarily affected.

Price is a function of demand, not cost – and if demand will not support an increased price, management will have to accommodate the effect of increased labor costs somewhere else. Better management practices is always a possibility, as is accepting lower profit margins. While marginal operations may fail, the blame is far more likely to be upon management practices than upon any modest rise of the minimum wage floor.

The other side of the whole argument is that the far right objection and continued blockage of any increase in the minimum wage regulation is a contributor to the stagnation the middle class that has sustained in our economy for close to 30 years. At present minimum wage level, the bottom levels of income are below the levels of poverty. This has resulted in welfare supplements like food stamps, Medicaid and direct aid to the working poor. This allows the upper levels of management and owners to enjoy a heightened profit margin at the expense of the taxpayer, which one would expect the right wing to violently oppose.

Our economy continues to grow at a steady clip; the higher brackets of individual earnings, at the entrepreneurial management and owner levels, have seen record increases. However, the middle classes and below have been flat-lined for the years. The result is a growing disparity between those upper range income levels and the levels of the middle class and below.

Most commentators of political science, economics, history and sociology who have been studying this phenomena believe it imperative that the growing income imbalance be aggressively addressed. A strong adjustment to the federally guaranteed minimum wage would be a key ingredient and a good beginning.

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McKee

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We get our supreme court all settled down from welcoming the improving health of the court’s practical realist, and just barely get the chairs rearranged from electing a new chief justice, when the table gets tipped over.

Chief Justice Jones’ decision to hang it up comes as a complete surprise to most of us. Although the Chief is just turning 74, judges tend not to slow down so early – especially if one has just been elected chief. Nevertheless, it’s done, and of course, we wish him well. Life will go on; the hat is already filled with new names.

The judicial election will be with the normal state primary for legislative and state offices in May. The overwhelming problem will be name identification, and determination of qualifications. The three candidates are reasonably well known around their own legal circles and communities, but their names are certainly not household words. I suspect that more than some people are going to say, “Clive who? Isn’t he that rancher from Nevada?”

This means within the next six to eight weeks, each of the three must vie with the local politicians everywhere and the drumbeat from the national presidential machinations, not only to get themselves introduced into the far crannies of the state but also to offer the voter some rational reason to select one of them over the others. A daunting task.

Whatever they can muster will be all that the people of Idaho will have to use in making up their minds on the individual who will hold an undivided one-fifth of the supreme judicial power of the state. Or perhaps to deselect one of them, and leave the other two to run it off in November; which will only compound and prolong the confusion.

Of all the methods of selecting judges, their popular election at periodic intervals seems the least satisfactory. The draftsmen of the U.S. Constitution believed that an independent judiciary was an essential ingredient of government, and they guaranteed this independence by making judicial office a lifetime position. This was a controversial step then, and remains such today. There are some – fortunately not many — who advocate taking away the independence of the judiciary, and trading it in for popularly elected judges.

Idaho follows most of the states in disregarding lifetime appointments. In two area of judicial selection, for justices of the supreme court and for judges of the district court, Idaho follows the popular election at regular intervals. I was appointed to the bench to fill out the term of my predecessor. I ran three times for reelection, each time with trepidation that someone would take me on – but I was unopposed each time. I am not sure how I would have fared in a contested election; I detest campaigning and have no stomach for the contest.

Idaho also uses an appointment system with retention elections for selection of magistrates and judges of the court of appeals. This is a system coming into use in a growing number of states. The judge is appointed from a select, vetted list for a specific term of years, and then stands for a retention election – yes or no. This method retains most of the characteristics of judicial independence, but injects an element of public interest and control in the ability to turn out the unsatisfactory jurist. It prevents the possibility of demagoguery in electing the most popular candidate, but does offer a trap door to dump the unwanted.

On balance, it seems that the magistrates’ courts and the court of appeals benefit from the lack of upheaval and consternation that the supreme court and district courts endure every time there is a contested election. The same system could be carried over to rest of the courts in Idaho, albeit with a constitutional amendment.

Perhaps, as the judicial campaigns for Justice Jones’ seat unwinds, and the difficulties and uncertainties of our current method of judicial selection begin to emerge, a closer examination of alternative methods of the selection of judicial officers might be in order.

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McKee

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With our attention riveted elsewhere, on the imbroglios of national politics, a remarkable development in the Middle-East is slipping past without raising any of the hullabaloo to which it deserves. An election is going on in Iran, with results that appear to be significant to the future prospects of world peace.

The government of Iran is a complex structure of civic processes tightly intertwined with religious infrastructures. The government exists in an arcane duality dictated not only by a constitution but also by the Quran, with everything subject to limitation and oversight to ensure compliance with the demands of Islam, and with all of it under the exclusive and absolute control an Ayatollah. It is abundantly clear that most of us have no idea how the various parts of Iran’s governing machinery are connected up or relate with one another or with the rest of the world.

Perhaps partly as a consequence of this lack – since by nature, we tend to dislike that which we do not understand – but apparently and mostly out of a desire to make the President look bad and denigrate the importance of the nuclear arms agreement negotiated on his watch, the campaign rhetoric from the pack of Republican candidates treats Iran with suspicion and disdain.

The country is considered an enemy, as though Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the odd-ball hardliner from the past, was still the president, that the reform movement was non-existent or had made no progress, that the Ayatollah of today was of the same ilk as the Ayatollahs of yore, and that no changes had been made in any parts of the country since the hostage days of Presidents Carter and Reagan.

Despite the eyes of the rest of the world watching with aghast fascination, the nuclear arms agreement is dismissed as a huge mistake, the trade embargoes are praised for the misery they have caused, and it is repeated blatantly and often that the United States should have somehow managed to confiscate the Iranian assets embargoed in banks throughout the world. This representation of the Iranian situation by the Republican beseechers could not be more wrong.

In fact, dramatic changes have begun to occur within Iran. The visible change began with the unexpected election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as president to replace Ahmadinejad in 2013. The nuclear arms agreement was largely possible because of Rouhani’s efforts in heading off opposition from the hardliners by stressing the importance to Iran of lessening the crippling economic sanctions, and in securing the Ayatollah’s agreement not to interfere. While Secretary Kerry pulled off a diplomatic coup in assembling the impossible coalition of allies that included Russia and China at the same table, all would have been for naught without Rouhani being receptive to the idea from the outset.

With this background, on last Friday the Iranians went to the polls to elect members to their 290 seat parliament and the 88 member “assembly of experts,” a council of clerics and religious leaders that plays a role in the selection of the successor to the Ayatollah. These bodies had been overwhelmingly in the hands of the principlists or hardliners. The election of 2016 was the first general election since the announcement of the nuclear arms agreement.

The results of the election are not final yet, but with a dramatic turnout in excess of 60% of the qualified electorate, it appears the results will be continued gains for the reform and moderate candidates in both the parliament and the assembly of experts. The principlist majority in parliament appears to have disappeared, and their hold on the assembly of experts lessened considerably. The election is being seen as a referendum on the nuclear deal as virtually every prominent critic of the nuclear pact was defeated.

The long range impact of this shift in power on foreign policy is still uncertain. The Ayatollah has made it clear to President Rouhani that he does not foresee a relaxation of tensions with the United States. Nevertheless, with the influence of the hardliners beginning to wane, President Rouhani and his moderate allies within Iran are working for more open communications with the West. While it is way too early to count on anything, and no one is suggesting that the United States drop its guard for an instant, the developments are unmistakably a positive sign of at least the potential for better relations between Iran and the United States in the future.

With all this properly in context, is it too much to ask of our candidates for election that they shut the bleep up about Iran? Or if they have to talk, that they explain the situation in Iran as it actually exists, instead of making stuff up as they strive to make Obama look bad? There was a time, in my lifetime, where both parties subscribed to the principle that when trouble was brewing, we had one President at a time and all politics stopped at the water’s edge. If there was an international crisis afoot, then no matter what the individual or even partisan beliefs might be, as to the world, we stood solidly behind the words and actions of the current President.

Would that we could return to that day, instead of having to tolerate the intemperate, hyperbolic and plainly fallacious remarks of Trump, Cruz and Rubio as they shoot off their collective mouths striving to climb over each other on a subject they know nothing about.

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McKee

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The Republicans are determined to present us with a rude, ill-qualified, arrogant buffoon as the best of their best, while the Democrats are splitting themselves into the left, the far left and the farther left, with the most extreme manning the barricades to demand that the party’s candidates are not liberal enough.

The country has never in its history faced an electoral challenge with as odd a collection of enigmas as this one.

Trump, who to any rational observer remains a catastrophe in progress, is actually becoming palatable to the hidebound of the right wing pols. The reddest of them are beginning to talk of accommodating his presidency. O’Reilly, for example, is looking fondly on Giuliani to be homeland secretary and Christie as his obvious pick for attorney general.

It could be worse. If Cruz gets his hands on the levers of power, with his 19th century Victorian views of social mores and his iconoclastic attitude towards the role of government, the country could be set back to the middle of the last century. And the mere thought of entrusting the “football” to Rubio appalls. He is no more than an immature school boy in an empty suit running for class president.

Trump needs 1,237 delegates to win on the first ballot. He has accumulated 82 delegates out of the 133 available from the first four states, or 61%. Counting all few caucus states that start their processes on Tuesday but won’t have reports until later, there are 661 more delegates up for allotment, with results immediately available from 11 states by the end of the day. If Trump continues at anywhere close to the same rate, he will have close to 400 delegates by when all the votes are counted, or over 480 total. This will put him substantially ahead of the curve as the campaign moves along, and far ahead of any of his competition. He will only need fewer than 760 or so delegates out of the remaining 1,600 plus delegates to be awarded, or something in the range of 45%. This means that so long as Cruz, Rubio Kasich and Carson continue to split the anti-Trump vote between them, Trump will be in no trouble. Any combination of plurality wins in the same ration as before Super Tuesday will sweep the remainder of the states by an ample percentage, almost certain to be sufficient to deliver a bullet proof majority before the convention.

The only hope now to derail Trump appears to be a sudden and sustained surge by one of the remaining candidates sufficient to deny Trump enough delegates to win on the first ballot. If the convention goes to a second ballot, Trump delegates who are no longer committed by law might bolt and either support one of the others or get behind a last-minute white knight. Hello, Governor Romney – anybody wonder why he has not endorsed anyone yet?

One would think that all of these Republican machinations would serve to solidify the eventual race to the Democrats. But, the Democratic candidates have their own set of problems. Clinton, who for the second time in her career is running a meandering, unfocused Presidential campaign, continues to give the singular impression that her principle theme for running is that she wants to be elected. She does, however, bring a set of skills to the task that are unmatched by anyone else. She is the only one capable of taking over immediately, without risking the country to a learning curve or a trip through la-la land.

But her candidacy, and her administration if elected, will be laden with the baggage she is dragging around that runs back 30 years. Never has a candidate with negative popularity numbers in the range of Hillary’s managed to get elected. Unless, of course, one compares her negative numbers with the unpopularity index of Donald Trump.

Now that Hillary has turned the corner, the polls seem to indicate that the major primary states are all going to deliver for her from here on out. But Sanders shows no sign of slowing down, and continues to draw huge crowds. He has been the enigma of every pundit and curious onlooker with access to internet commentary in the country.

Not one of the cognoscenti gave Bernie a chance to rise out of single digits when he announced last year. He should never have had a chance on the national scene: he’s too old, he’s Jewish, he’s an atheist, and he is a committed socialist. He qualifies his position to being a “democratic” socialist, but nobody to the right of the centerline pays attention to that distinction.

In another time, it might also have been crippling to any national campaign that he was a pot-smoking, draft-dodging, hippie father of an illegitimate child in his youth. But he never made any attempt to keep any of this secret, and when the press tried slinging some of it around last summer, none of it stuck. If he gets the nomination, all of this will come pouring out of the woodwork again, but as of today, it does not appear to make a whit of difference to the huge crowds following him around. It is impossible to count him out until the last votes are in.

A pragmatic problem to the movers and shakers within the party is that Bernie has no ties to the Democratic party organization other than his decisions to caucus with them in the Senate and to run on their ticket for national office. This leaves nothing to attach coattails to, meaning it is uncertain how his candidacy might impact the down-ticket races for governorships, congressional seats and state legislatures. These races are of critical importance to the Democratic party organization as the country approaches the 2020 census and the mandatory round of legislative and Congressional redistricting that will follow. While the Democrats can justly console themselves by maintaining that either of their candidates would be better than any from the clown bus, many of the older pols are apprehensive of a Sanders’ administration as it may affect the integration of the Democratic party down-ticket. This would tend to indicate that the super delegates, who are made up almost exclusively of party insiders, will opt overwhelmingly for Hillary come vote time.

But then, what do I know? These opinions and a buck won’t even get a cup of coffee anymore. Approximately one year ago this week, my predictions were for a Republican circus of modest interest until the party reluctantly coalesced around Jeb Bush – maybe as early as Halloween, followed by a stately and probably boring Democratic procession to Hillary’s coronation. Hoo, boy! Did I ever get it wrong.

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McKee

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One age-old rule of politics, when looking for issues to run on, is never rip the scab off of a loser from an earlier time. Donald Trump, of course, is rewriting all the rules, including this one.

The Donald has dragged up waterboarding, saying that not only will he bring it back into use, but that he will double down and authorize much worse. He doesn’t say what “worse” is, but promises it will be terrible. No one will be able to withstand it, but that is OK because “they deserve it anyway.” In a few key venues, the media’s hair is on fire and the cognoscenti are piling on. But their uproar does not seem to be collecting any steam.

There should be no room for political grandstanding here, and the outrage growing at Trump’s remarks ought to be overwhelming. Torture is morally, legally and rationally wrong. The morality and legality issues have been thoroughly litigated elsewhere. The only conceivable avenue for discussion here is on rationalization – if necessary to save lives, can torture, even though wrong, be justified? Can the illegality and immorality of this tool be rationalized away if it will make the world safer?

In a word, the answer is “no” – not “no” as an alternative response to a legitimate option, not “no” as one answer to an acceptable political question, but “no” because the underlying premise of the entire issue is demonstrably false.

Torture is not designed to get at the truth. Torture is designed to get an answer the interrogator wants. As has been repeatedly established in history, there is no assurance, and no way to gain assurance, that what is revealed under torture will be the truth. Today, every country that recognizes due process of law refuses to accept confessions extracted under torture. The problem compounds in military intelligence, where false information can be more dangerous that no information at all. Given the high degree of probability that information produced by these methods will not be true or reliable, and given the absence of any accurate basis upon which to determine what is and what is not reliable, torture is useless as an intelligence tool.

This conclusion was reinforced in December of 2014, when a Senate select committee on intelligence issued a declassified summary of a 6,700 page report on the CIA interrogation program in Iraq. According to the report, none of the information produced by any of the harsh interrogation methods, including waterboarding, used by the CIA throughout the period of the Iraq war was of any use. None of it.

Finally, waterboarding is torture. There is no basis to keep this question open to debate. It can cause extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, physical injuries including broken bones due to struggling against restraints, lasting psychological damages, and death. The immediate effect of waterboarding is a gag reflex that shuts off breathing and creates a sensation of drowning. The gagging can trigger vomiting, which may then be inhaled. Death from aspirated vomit is a significant risk.

Following World War II, Japanese officers were prosecuted for waterboarding prisoners of war. Some were hanged. When it was first revealed that the United States was waterboarding al Qaeda suspects during the Iraq war era, the country was appalled. President Bush initially tried to contend that waterboarding was not torture, but faced with overwhelming revulsion from all corners, he was forced to concede. He finally signed an executive order banning its use in 2006. Waterboarding was declared torture under international law by a United Nations Convention against Torture, which was then confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights in 2008. The international ban is absolute and without exceptions. President Obama has consistently declared waterboarding to be torture, and continued the executive order banning it in 2009.

Trump’s promises are pointing the United States directly into the international criminal courts at The Hague. The entire world may well be aghast at this hyperbolic, unfocused wall of doubletalk as Trump continues to try to dismantle the aura of international good will Obama has spent the last seven years rebuilding. Nobody knows what to do with any of this stuff, and nobody knows what’s coming next.

This brings to mind the ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.

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McKee

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In a stump speech full of hyperbole, mistakes and pants-on-fire lies, Donald Trump routinely blasts Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) as a complete disaster, a trainwreck, and a total failure. He lists no specifics but only generalities, claiming he will replace every bit of Obamacare with something “terrific.” But he won’t say what his replacement plan is, other than it will provide broader coverage to more people at less cost than the present law.

In his rant against the present act ignores all of the evidence that it is working as planned – bringing affordable insurance to millions, allowing people to change jobs without losing their insurance to pre-existing condition exclusions, relieving the unfortunate who have encountered catastrophic health situations from worry over caps and limits of coverage, and providing assurance to most of us who obtain coverage through their workplaces by eliminating the risk of sudden cancellations, and guaranteeing consistency, certainty, reliability and permanency.

In countless ways, the ACA has made the health insurance coverage that is presently available from private carriers financially safer, more certain, less arbitrary, and more reliable, with better claims procedures, more resources allocated to claims, and better and more consistent processes for the adjudication of disputes than ever before.

Trump also ignores that fact that the ACA is fundamentally a Republican program – hatched from research by the Heritage Foundation created for Nixon in the 1970’s, and formed after the Massachusetts plan sponsored by Mitt Romney during his term as governor there. It has worked successfully in Massachusetts ever since – a point that Romney completely tried to ignore during the 2012 campaigns, and the Republicans continue to ignore to this day.

The only specific aspect of the ACA that Trump points to as indicative of its failure is the rising costs of current coverage, in terms of higher premiums, higher deductibles and higher co-pay. However, Trump fails to recognize that costs and premiums have gone up less under the ACA than they were predicted to increase without the ACA. More important, Trump ignores the fact that the federal law has nothing to do with the premiums, deductibles or co-pays under any of the private insurance plans being offered.

Even here, Trump badly exaggerates the situation, claiming insurance premiums have skyrocketed by almost 50%. While there are a few pockets with significant increases, the overall average increase in premiums has been under 7.5% per annum – which is high, given our low inflation rate, but nowhere near the disaster Trump predicts, and less than economists predicted for insurance premiums before the ACA was enacted

Trumps’ tactics are proving to be an interesting campaign device, because all this is irrelevant if Trump should deliver on his plan – to replace Obamacare with something better. He won’t talk specifics, but the only plan out there that has ever been presented that will provide broader coverage to more people at less cost is single payer, government administered, tax financed, universal health insurance in the manner of Medicare for all – which Donald Trump advocated at one time, which is a keystone of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and which is exactly what is presently offered by every other country in the industrialized world.

Bring it on!

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McKee

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What a weekend. The culmination of a remarkable diplomatic effort with Iran is announced. An unheard-of cooperation with both China and Russia. A world shaping nuclear limitation agreement that might – just might – last forever, sealed by a performance no one thought possible. This was topped by the release of all American prisoners in Iran. Under a separate and delicately balanced agreement reached after months of work. A completely separate but parallel negotiation carried out in complete secrecy. Finally, a potentially explosive naval confrontation is finessed into a non-story, over before anybody actually realized what had happened. It was a stunning clean sweep of U.S. diplomacy.

The reporting of these events unfolded within hours of one another, delivered to the sound of an unending cacophony of insults, jeers, heckles, outrageous threats and just plain lies from the resources of right wing television, talk radio, and the entire passel of Republican Presidential wannabees. What was totally ignored by these responses was that a new Iran appears to be emerging and at hand. No one expected Iran to comply with the nuclear agreements. It had routinely stiff-armed demands for the release of prisoners for years, even those detained on the shakiest of grounds. And similar military incidents had dragged on for months while this one was over in a few hours. What did remain over it all, however, was the stench and stain of the vitriolic attacks from the Republican candidates and the far right commentariat.

In political campaigns of the not-too-distant past, the firm principle observed by the working media and by both sides of any political issue was that we have one President at a time, and that in any developing crisis on foreign soil, politics stops at the water’s edge. It would have been unthinkable for the press or anyone in a campaign mode from either party to comment upon anything happening in a foreign land in the middle of a developing crisis, while any American lives might be in jeopardy. We had one President at a time, and while we campaigned ferociously over domestic matters, or over issues of future policy, in any matter pertaining to current foreign situations we stood resolute, in full and complete support of our President.

In those days, for anyone to say anything negative about the deal for the four prisoners being released in Tehran, or anything at all about the ten sailors or their predicament on Farsi Island, while these individuals were still in Iran’s custody and before their safe return had been assured and actually carried out would have been regarded as unthinkable – something just short of high treason – and would have earned the outrage of the speaker’s own party as well as that of the observing public. It was a good rule, and we should return to it.

In the events of this last weekend, if there had been anything other than a leaderless Republican party with its primary campaign in shambles, the entire country would be still be on its feet cheering and celebrating the results that had been achieved. What this all truly deserves is a Wall Street parade with a Sousa march dedicated to it, and a fireworks display.

Maybe somebody ought to at least try … How about at a quiet Hip-Hip-Hooray, softly anyway, three times, with maybe a “Go Team Go” at the end?

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McKee