Getting Carried Away

President Trump is easily the most deeply, passionately hated American political figure in my lifetime.  No other nationally known politico — not Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, not Sarah Palin, not President George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — really even comes close.  Among some people, at least, the wellspring of absolute loathing for Donald Trump is off the charts, and it’s causing them to say and do things that are amazing.

hqdefaultConsider, for example, this op-ed piece published last Friday in USA Today.  One of their “opinion contributors” argues that President Trump has “broken the presidency” and that the office needs to be abolished.  It’s not exactly a reasoned essay about constitutional principles and structural reforms in the government of our republic.  Instead, the article says things like “[t]here is a bloated authoritarian lounging in his bathrobe in a 200-year-old mansion that used to symbolize the principal republic of the world” and “[i]f you’re stunned that President Donald Trump is still in office because he’s so horrible and so unpopular and so obviously corrupt — you are not alone — the overwhelming majority agrees with you.”

Clearly, the author thinks that President Trump is a very bad person . . . but what about the office of the presidency?  Well, the writer argues that impeachment won’t solve the problem, because “[i]t’s never lived up to its promise” and has never removed a bad president from office.  And her concern now that Trump holds the office is that the presidency has become so powerful that it is beyond repair:  “My fear isn’t Trump; it’s that the next autocrat is most likely smarter and savvier than Trump. Every partisan from every niche of American politics should be alarmed. We have a branch of government that stinks so bad it’s wafted over the entire nation and its outer territories. The entire world sees it. We’re in trouble. The presidency is broken. Our little democratic experiment is in peril.”  The answer, she suggests, is to follow the Swiss model, and replace the executive with a “council of boring bureaucrats.”

This alarmist piece in a national publication isn’t alone, it’s just one symptom of much bigger, deeper issue:  how their disgust with everything President Trump does and stands for is causing some people to seriously advocate for actions that could affect the foundations of our republic.  I’m not sure how serious the USA Today op-ed writer really is, but after more than 200 years and more than 40 Presidents, good and bad, I’d say the Office of the President can withstand the election of Donald Trump.  And I wouldn’t like to even think about how a “council of boring bureaucrats” would have dealt with guiding the Union through the horrors of the Civil War, or leading the country forward to victory during World War II.

The people who hate President Trump are entitled to their views and have the right to express them vigorously.  I just hope that everybody recognizes that there is a difference between a man and an office.  We shouldn’t let our feelings for the current occupant cause us to make changes to how our government works that could have serious repercussions down the road.

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Rethinking Prison

It hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention — at least, not compared to Twitter wars and Russian collusion claims — but Congress and the Trump Administration appear to be working hard, and making progress, on a tough topic:  prison reform.

The House of Representatives passed a prison reform bill in the spring, and the Senate is now working on its version of the legislation.  President Trump has weighed in by hosting meetings of governors and federal officials and pointing to the issue in some of his tweets.  And, in an era where it seems like Republicans and Democrats never agree on anything, the prison reform bill seems to be attracting bipartisan support.

prisonerjaildeathpenalty2The House legislation, called the First Step Act, seeks to reduce recidivism by funding education, drug treatment, and job training programs, and allowing inmates who complete programs to earn credits that would permit them to leave prison early and complete their sentences through home confinement or a stay at a halfway house.  The Senate bill would add to the House legislation by tacking mandatory minimum sentence measures.  Among the topics being addressed are changing the “three-strikes-and-you’re out” mandatory sentence for drug offenses from life in prison to 25 years, reducing the disparity in sentences given for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, and reducing the mandatory sentences imposed when a firearm is used in an offense.  Still other provisions would give judges more flexibility to depart from mandatory penalties when sentencing offenders for less serious offenses.

I’m glad Congress and the President are focused on prison reform.  Studies indicate that there are significant racial disparities in sentencing, and although the gap is closing, black men are still much more likely than white men to be imprisoned.  It seems that prison often makes inmates more violent and irredeemable.  And if you speak to a federal judge about their job, one topic they’re likely to mention is their frustration at the mandatory sentencing guidelines and the lack of discretion they currently have in recognizing special circumstances that would allow them to shape more appropriate sentences that are tailored to the individual defendant and his or her specific conduct.  All of these are important, substantive topics that need to be addressed.

One other thing:  prison and sentencing reform is politically thankless.  It’s easy for politicians to rail about crime and boast about tossing people into prison and throwing away the key; it’s a lot harder to look thoughtfully at a broken system and try to figure out how to fix it in a sensible way.  A vote for prison reform today might produce campaign ads about a Senator or Representative being “soft on crime” when the next election rolls around.  We’ll have to see whether these kinds of political considerations derail the prison and sentencing reform effort.

For now, though, I’ll give President Trump and Congress credit for stopping the name-calling, rolling up their sleeves, and actually working on a challenging issue.  If only other important issues could be addressed that way!

A Good Neighbor In Telephone Hell

This morning when I walked to work in a torrential downpour I found a person’s debit card on the street.  Wanting to be a good neighbor, I picked it up rather than leave it for a potential fraudster to find, and abuse.

The card was issued by one of the Big Banks.  There was a phone number on the back of the card, as well as a stern, all-capital-letters notice advising me that the card was the property of the Big Bank.  So, I called the telephone number to let the Big Bank know that I had found its card in the rainwater sluicing down Third Street.

phone_from_hellBut when I called the Big Bank’s phone number, no one answered.  Instead, I was routed immediately into telephone hell — one of those seemingly impenetrable automatic phone thickets, where a computer voice gives you a range of “press one, press two options,” and those options in turn lead to new levels of “press one, press two” options.  After going several levels deep, and retracing my steps to try different routes, without finding any options that dealt with reporting a lost card — or that allowed me to press for a real person to talk to — I gave up in frustration.  I figure I’ll just stop by the branch of the Big Bank when it’s open on Monday and, assuming that Big Bank employs actual human beings, give the card that I found to somebody who can figure out what to do with it.

I’ve been blessedly sheltered.  In our family, Kish is the poor soul who makes the calls to the automatic phone lines and suffers the frustration that inevitably results.  I’ve got a new, even greater appreciation for her willingness to handle that thankless task and an even deeper gratitude that, thanks to her, I’ve dodged that particular bullet.

But I do find myself wondering — is putting people who just want to do the right thing into computerized telephone hell really how American businesses conduct their affairs these days?  It makes me think that maybe we should attach a few conditions the next time Big Bank comes to us taxpayers for a bailout — like, say, giving people the option of talking to an actual, human customer service representative.

Betting On Sports

The Supreme Court made a lot of important rulings earlier this year.  One ruling that got a bit lost in the shuffle may end up having an important impact on states across the country, colleges that play big-time sports, and professional sports franchises, too.

300px-eight_men_bannedIn May, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that effectively banned gambling on sports, with some exceptions, in all states but Nevada.  The federal law, called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, was based on concern that allowing widespread gambling might undercut sports as a form of wholesome entertainment.  Nevada, which already permitted gambling on sports, was allowed to continue, but other states were largely barred from doing so.  New Jersey passed a state law allowing gambling on sports and then challenged the federal law, and the Supreme Court sided with New Jersey, ruling  that while Congress has the power to regulate sports betting at the federal level, it can’t dictate to states what their individual laws must be.

Why did New Jersey decide to challenge the federal law?  Do you really need to ask?  Of course, the answer is money.  New Jersey’s casinos were struggling, and it objected to Nevada having a federally sanctioned monopoly on sports gambling.  If sports gambling were allowed in its casinos, New Jersey reasoned, it might promote tourism and increase tax revenues.  And these days, states are all about increasing their revenues.

With the Supreme Court ruling, Ohio legislators are now looking at whether Ohio, too, should legalize gambling on sports.  One argument made in favor is that many Ohioans already bet on sports through the underground economy — so why not take the activity above ground and get some tax revenue from it?  But the existence of the illicit sports betting also poses a challenge, because states that want to legalize the activity in order to earn revenue have to figure out how to make legal gambling as easy and attractive as calling the local bookie.  One issue for legislators to consider, for example, is whether Ohio should allow on-line gambling, so long as the website has some Ohio presence and the state gets a cut of the action.  Or, should such betting be limited to licensed casinos?

And colleges, universities, and professional sports leagues are holding their breath, too.  They opposed New Jersey’s effort to overturn the federal law, because confining legal sports gambling to Las Vegas kept it separate and apart from 99.9 percent of campuses, stadiums, and sports arenas.  Now legalized gambling on sports will be out in the open, and there are concerns that gamblers hoping to get an edge might bribe professional and amateur athletes to throw a game or do something to affect the point spread.

College sports administrators and professional sports leagues are worried about another Black Sox scandal — who can blame them?  After all, it’s been 100 years, and the 1919 American League champions from Chicago are still called the Black Sox.

Totally Fried

Yesterday I went to lunch and had a cheeseburger.  I got the combo, which came with fried potatoes.  They weren’t exactly french fries, because the potato had been sliced horizontally, rather than vertically, in an obvious bid to introduce a slight difference to a lunchtime staple — but they were fried potatoes, just the same.

French friesAs I sat at a table, munching on one of the potato slices and gazing down at the remainder, I realized that I’ve had it up to here with fried potatoes.  Cheeseburgers never get old, but I think I’ve hit, and now surpassed, my spud tolerance threshold.  And I suspect that I’m not alone, because restaurants seem to be desperate in their search to serve potatoes in a different form.  In the past few weeks my cheeseburgers have been accompanied by tater tots, and thick-cut “steak fries,” and potato wedges, and “natural-cut” fries with some of the potato skin still on, and kettle chips, and “shoestring potatoes,” and sweet potato fries, . . . and of course standard, run-of-the-mill, french fries.  It’s been more potatoes than a cheeseburger aficionado should reasonably be expected to endure.

Some time in the distant past, before the cheeseburger combo meal was invented, people ate side dishes that consisted of food items other than fried potatoes, so we know that potato-free dining is, in fact, possible.  Cooks and chefs and restaurant owners of America, it’s time for you to rise to the challenge!  Bring your culinary creativity to bear!  Cast aside your sacks of potatoes, and put down the potato peelers!

We cheeseburger consumers beseech you to find an alternative to the ubiquitous side of french fries.  Crispy plantain slices, perhaps, or carrots, or apple chips, or even crispy kale — I’m so desperate I’ll try just about anything other than a greasy mound of spuds that have been sliced or diced in some fashion and tossed into the deep fryer.

10 Million Mustangs

Yesterday, somewhere in the Detroit area, Mustang No. 10,000,000 rolled off the assembly lines at a Ford manufacturing plant.  In a vehicle world now dominated by oversized pickup trucks and high-end sport utility vehicles, the Mustang is one moderately sized passenger vehicle that has held its own, and Ford is making a big deal of the milestone.

51rkn5udqhl-_uy462_A lot of car models have come and gone since the Mustang was first introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.  As its perfectly chosen name suggests, the Mustang was a “pony car,” designed to be a smaller, more affordable sports car that would appeal to both men and women.  Indeed, women were a prominent target audience for Ford’s advertisements for the initial Mustangs.  And with its iconic grillwork and front end, adorned with the silver wild horse running free, the Mustang was an immediate hit.  Its popularity has endured.  Although sales of the car have lagged here in the U.S., its sales have been strong overseas, where car buyers no doubt associate the car with the classically American concept of the freedom of the open road.

In the more than 50 years since the Mustang was introduced, countless other cars have been introduced to great fanfare, only to end up in the dustbin of automotive history.  The Mustang is one of the few cars to achieve iconic status — but it, too, has changed over the years.  It seems like the designers at Ford just can’t resist fiddling with it.  Over the years, the Mustang has progressively gotten a lot bigger — the Mustang Mach I of the early ’70s, for example, was a true muscle car — then downsized; when I was in high school in the ’74-’75 ear, Ford introduced the Mustang II, which was much smaller and less powerful.  I drove a red Mustang II with a white vinyl roof, and it was a great car.  (At least, it was until my sister got her hands on it, but that’s another story.)

But through all of the design changes, and all of the changing tastes of the car-buying populace, the Mustang has retained its ultimate allure.  When you think about it, ten million vehicles is a lot of cars.  Mustang Sally would be proud.

Today’s Political Test Market

Columbus has a long and storied history as a test market for new products.  Soft drinks, fast-food offerings, and other consumer goods are often introduced here because central Ohio is a fair microcosm of the country as a whole, with a spread of income levels, races, ethnicities, and urban, suburban, and rural settings in a small geographic area.

12th_congressionalToday, the Columbus area will serve as a test market of a different sort.  The product being evaluated is politics.  There’s a special election to fill the congressional seat in the 12th District, which is one of three districts in the central Ohio area, and all indications are that the race is neck and neck.  The national political gurus are focused on the race as a potential advance indicator of the country’s mood when Election Day rolls around in November.

Republicans are worried because the 12th District has long been a GOP seat, but when long-time Congressman Pat Tiberi retired in January the seat went up for grabs.  The Democrats nominated Danny O’Connor, who has campaigned as a centrist and raised a lot of money.  In a bid to appeal to a middle of the road electorate, O’Connor originally vowed not to support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House if he was elected, although he recently retreated from that pledge.  The Republican candidate is Troy Balderson, a state Senator who has been endorsed by both Ohio Governor John Kasich, who once represented the 12th District, and President Donald Trump, who has been here recently to campaign for Balderson.  The most recent polls show the race is effectively tied.

Which way will the test market go?  There’s a reason the polls are close.  The economy is going strong in central Ohio, and the 12th District, which in Richland Country, follows I-71 south to touch down in the northern suburbs of Columbus, then sweeps east to Newark and Zanesville, includes some of the fastest growing areas of the state and areas that, until recently, were in a prolonged slump.  But central Ohioans are notoriously, well, centrist in their politics, and for many people President Trump’s bare-knuckled, name-calling style of politics hasn’t been well received.

Interestingly, although the race has drawn national attention, there hasn’t been a lot of chatter about it in our town, outside of Democratic and Republican circles.  I think many voters are keeping their cards close to their vests and are still making up their minds, and I wouldn’t even venture a guess on which way the race will go.

Many Democrats are hoping for a Blue Wave come November that will turn control of the House and Senate over to the Democrats and allow them to block President Trump’s initiatives.  If the Democrats can win the 12th District today, the Blue Wave may well have started rolling just north and east of Columbus.