Saturday, May 16, 2020

It Makes a Difference...

Some people thought there was no real difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump - so why bother voting?  After all both are in the pockets of "special interest groups" - so what's the difference?  I wonder if they still think that now.

A reader writes that there is no difference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, so why bother voting?  Both are too conservative, if viewed from the prism of the Socialist Bernie Left, or too liberal, if viewed from the prism of the Ron Paul Libertarian Right.   Nothing seems to change much, no matter who you vote for.  What's the difference?  Both have big-money donors and just pander to those "special interests" - so why bother voting at all?

At first, some may dismiss this question as stupid, but it bears analysis.  There is no such thing as a dumb question.  One reason many people feel this way is that they have no idea what the actual powers of the President are.  Many believe he is a dictator who tells the country what to do, or even enacts laws.  No, really, some people believe this.  But the direct powers of the Presidency, even as they have expanded over time, are rather somewhat limited.  The real power is in things you don't see every day, but make a profound difference, over time. The evangelicals vote for Trump, not because he is a "Christian Man" - I doubt he has seen the inside of a church more than once or twice during his tenure (can you imagine, him listening to a sermon?  Some minister telling him what to do?  I don't think so!) - they vote for him because of policies that make a difference, a real difference, in how our country is run.

What sort of things am I talking about?  Here are a few:

1.  Supreme Court Nominees:  The President nominates people to the Supreme Court and these are confirmed with "advise and consent" of the Senate.  With the Senate in GOP hands, this means whoever the Republicans want on the bench, they get.  Supreme Court Justices serve for life, which is why the GOP has been pushing young candidates with limited experience, but potentially long lifespans.   And they have done a good job of putting "their people" on the court.

Once the Right has a solid majority on the court, they may be able to wield power long after Trump has left office, and even if they lose both the House and the Senate (which happens, periodically, to both parties) and even most or all the Governorships.   Laws can be overturned as "unconstitutional" or even modified or created from whole cloth - as in Roe v. Wade.   Love it or hate it, it was a bit of "legislation from the bench" in creating the trimester model in that decision.

The evangelicals hold their noses and vote for Trump because of this one social issue - well, that and a host of others as well.  A stacked Supreme Court will mean reining in Roe v. Wade if not overturning it, entirely, not to mention a host of other social issue decisions.

Of course, the Supreme Court never overturns a decision - right?  Stare Decisis and Red Judicata and all that.  But they find a way to "tune" their previous decisions to the point where they are often the opposite of what they held before.   And in terms of Bowers v. Hardwick or Dred Scott, this is a good thing sometimes.

But beyond social issues are economic ones, and decisions by the Supreme Court - and the lower courts, that will affect "pocketbook" issues for people for decades to come.

2. Circuit Court Nominees:   Trump has been very active in appointing judges to the Federal Courts and the Circuit Courts of Appeals.  The once-liberal 9th Circuit in San Francisco, for example, is rapidly becoming conservative, thanks to Trump.    And again, Judges, like Justices, are appointed for life.   They are appointing a lot of young ones, too.

Does this make a real difference in your life? You Betcha, perhaps moreso that who is elected to Congress or Governor or local dogcatcher (although those offices are important, too).  Courts can interpret laws and strike them down, and this can make a big, big difference in issues like gun rights or gun control, the rights of unions to organize (or the rights of companies to stifle unionism), your rights as a consumer, a tenant, a landlord, and so on and so forth.   In other words, your entire economic life as well as personal freedom is constantly interpreted and adjusted by the court system.

You want to sue a company in a class-action suit for malfeasance?   I mean, after all, all they did was put asbestos in children's toys, right?  Well, your right to sue may be abridged by the courts, and in fact, has been.  If you think this is a good thing, vote for Trump.  If you think it is abhorrent, vote for Biden.  The point is, it matters.   There is a difference!

Courts may also place procedural hurdles in your way, should you decide to sue.  It makes a difference - no matter which "side" you are on.   And if you are more to the "Right" then the last three years have been nirvana for you.

Slide 1 of 50: Bill Bramhall/New York Daily News
I'd be surprised if the GOP doesn't require a doctor's physical as well as a search of nominee's family history for longevity, before they vet him for the bench.  Methuselah's only need apply!

Sadly - or gladly, depending on your point of view - Trump's legacy in judicial appointments will span future decades.  During the Obama era, the Senate blocked many if not most of Obama's appointments (and one Supreme Court nominee!) and as a result. a backlog of judicial appointments was created - quickly filled by Trump and the GOP Senate.   Even assuming Biden wins the White House - and the Democrats take the Senate - Trump's legacy will live on.

So here's a big "Thank you" to all those Bernie Bros who thought Hillary was "too conservative" - hoisted by our own petard!  But again, if you favor judicial conservatism, then Trump is your man.  The point is, it makes a difference who wins.

3.  Regulations:  The President is the "Chief Executive" - what does this mean?   Well, it means he is in charge of the hundreds of government agencies that exist - from the Patent Office, to the CDC to NOAA to the Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the IRS, the Social Security Administration, and so on and so forth.  Most of these agencies operate pretty independently, but the heads are usually appointed by the President, and these agency heads often imbue the agency with their own political beliefs.

Sounds rather trivial, until you turn on your NOAA weather radio one day and find out that since you didn't pay for a subscription to the privatized weather service, you can't find out whether a hurricane is coming.  Sounds far-fetched?  Some Republicans, including Trump's appointee to head NOAA, have been proposing privatizing this weather forecasting service for decades now.  I mean, he's the head of Accuweather so there is no conflict of interest there.   Why should people know for free that their home is about to be hit by a tornado?  Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed - so far.

But our reader is right - who cares?   Some fisherman has to pay for weather data or plow through a sea of pop-up ads first.   But that is the nature of the beast - small changes over time, boiling a frog. Before you know it, the world you live in is unrecognizable to the person you were a decade ago.  But since it was so gradual most folks don't notice - maybe you don't notice, either.

Or, take the Department of Education, for example.   Betsy DeVos is in charge of that - and has stamped the place with her own right-wing political imprimatur.  One of the biggest struggles between Right and Left has been over parochial schools, which many on the Right want government funding for and now are getting.  This debate has been going on since Kennedy's day, and it brings up the whole issue of separation of Church and State (Supreme Court, again!) and what actually gets taught in school.

You want your kids to come home from school telling you that evolution is a lie and that your gay neighbors are going to hell?   Well, if Betsy has her way, that is what could happen - and should happen, according to her.   On the other hand, some on the Left are pushing ideas like having children "choose their gender" in grade school.   It matters who is appointed, and who is appointing.

Betsy's other pet project is to unleash the power of for-profit schools - to impoverish yet another generation of students with useless degrees and staggering student loan debt.   Do we really want that to happen?  If you run a "for-profit" school, the answer might be "yes, hell yes!"

It doesn't matter which side of these debates you are on, the point is, who is President matters as to how they play out.  The idea that Hillary and Trump would have handled these things the same is laughable - as is the idea that Biden and Trump's positions on these issues are indistinguishable.

Trump has tried to rescind regulations, such as those relating to gas mileage and emissions, and oddly enough the car companies have fought him on this.  Arguably, the Obama-era rules may have gone too far (50 mpg average is a bit of a stretch!) but Trump is pushing the needle too far in the other direction.

What will change as a result?   Well, if your name is Elon Musk, you might be sweating bullets right now, as without tax subsidies and carbon credits, the whole Tesla business model could collapse under its own weight - not that the virus-recession is helping any.

If you breathe air or don't want to be drafted into an oil war in the Middle-east, maybe these issues matter to you.  Maybe not, I guess.

I am just scratching the surface here - the Federal government is so huge, and there are so many decisions and policies made  (and Rulemaking is not like passing legislation) that affect your personal life every day, from the price of gas, to the price of cheese, or how easy it is to get a mortgage on your house.  Yes, these things matter to you, on an everyday basis.

4.  Military:  The President is also Commander-In-Chief of the military, and oddly enough, it seems that Democrats these days are more hawkish than Republicans.  Bush got us into two wars that have lasted nearly two decades - with no easy way out.   Trump has sort of let these things lapse, for the most part - talking about pulling out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and others.    Hillary and Biden were more for a policy of "engagement" with the world, which often meant putting soldiers in harm's way.

Some argue that if you don't remain engaged, countries like Russia, Iran, and China will be emboldened - are emboldened - to engage in our place, to fill the power vacuum.   And perhaps this is happening right now, in the South China Sea, in the Middle East, Africa, and other places.  On the other hand, Americans seem pretty fed up with endless foreign wars.

Again, your personal position on these issues is not the issue.  The point is, it makes a huge difference who is the White House.   To say "it doesn't matter" is just being disingenuous.

5.  Head Cop:  The President also presides over the Justice Department and thus can decide what cases to bring and what cases to let lapse - as headlines in the papers recently illustrate.   Trump, for example, has changed sides on many cases brought during the Obama era, which is kind of odd.

Regardless, the Justice Department decides who and what to prosecute - which can often have profound effects on your personal liberty.  For example, so far, the Justice Department has declined to go after the numerous marijuana dispensaries in the States that have legalized marijuana.   They could all be shut down in a heartbeat, everyone thrown in jail for decades - even the girl who worked behind the counter.

So far, the Trump Justice Department has chosen not to do this.   Hmmm.... in a second term, when they are less concerned with re-election, I wonder if they will change their mind?  Jeff Sessions was chomping at the bit before he was dismissed.   Yes, it makes a difference who is President.

6.  Foreign Policy:  The President also directs our foreign policy through the State Department.  I guess one could argue this doesn't affect them personally, but then again, our trade policy with China is kind of important, whether you are a guy who just lost his job to a Chinese factory (or to theft of IP) or a consumer who enjoys buying a television set that costs less than a pair of sunglasses.

Foreign policy can affect us directly, too, as the events of 9/11 point out.  Which countries we favor, and which we are against, can have personal consequences.   For example, we take the side of the Sunnis in the Sunni/Shia rift - and possibly promote this rift as well (along with the rest of the West, which wants cheap oil).

Fill up your pickup truck with gas?  Foreign policy comes into play here as well.  In fact, almost everything you buy or consume, whether it is made in the USA or imported, is affected by foreign policy.   Yes, we are now the world's largest oil producer - but the price of oil is determined on the world stage, not just in the US - as many fracking companies are finding out the hard way today.

7.  The Economy:  The President has some leverage over the economy, not just in terms of proposing annual budgets, but by appointing Fed chairmen.   Tax cuts, interest rates, deficit spending, the national debt - the President may not be directly responsible for these, but has a hand in them.

And by the way, I am sure if Biden is elected, and has to deal - as Obama did - with an economy in ruins handed to him by a Republican predecessor, the GOP would suddenly discover they are deficit hawks, and the "debt clock" will once again be dusted off and displayed - with the irony that much of this debt occurred under GOP administrations. But I digress.

* * *

So.... why doesn't anything change dramatically when a different party is voted into power?   I can see where the reader is coming from in that regard.  We elect Bill Clinton and America doesn't immediately turn into a socialist paradise (despite what the far Right says).  We elect George W. Bush and America doesn't turn into a Nazi state (despite what the far Left says).   Why bother even voting if nothing ever changes?

But actually, it does.   It is just that changes are so gradual and our society and government are like a large flywheel - dampening any attempts at radical change.   And this is a good thing, too.   Radical change rarely works out well for anyone, particularly those pining for radical change.  Ask Trotsky how that all worked out in the end.

But change does occur - a little bit here and a little bit there.  Under the eight years of Obama, we had a health care system created that provides free or heavily discounted health insurance for poor people - many of whom never had health insurance before.   Trump wants to abolish that- Biden wants to preserve and reform it.   If you can't see the difference between the two candidates, I can't help you.

And maybe that doesn't affect you directly, until you lose your job and need health insurance, that is.  Even if you aren't on Obamacare, it is nice to know it is available if you need it.  And no, COBRA coverage isn't an answer - it is staggeringly expensive and lasts for only months.   And Trumpcare?  A sad and cruel joke on its users.  You pay money and end up with no coverage!  Sort of like Trump University for healthcare.

Or take Elizabeth Warren's Consumer Protection Agency which was poised to eliminate or at least curtail some of the worse abuses in consumer lending - until the Republicans gutted it.   Again, if you think "there is no difference" I am not sure what to say.  Maybe you don't sign up for payday loans, but wouldn't the world be a better and safer place if more people weren't exploited this way?  Just a thought.

Do candidates on both sides of the spectrum pander to special interests and big donors?  Well, of course they do, and that's how Democracy, or at least our version of it, works.   You know why it works that way?   Because of people who think that there are no differences between the candidates and thus refuse to vote.   To get elected, you need votes.  To get votes from the people who care about the issues, you have to address those issues. That's the easy part - those folks actually care and you don't need 800 hours of attack ads to convince them to get out and vote.

But the vast majority of Americans vote for candidates like they are buying a brand of beer - Bud Lite or Miller Lite.   I know people who say they will never vote for a Democrat, not because of issues or policy positions, but because their minds have been so poisoned by Fox News that they think all Democrats are like Bernie Sanders (who isn't even one) or Nancy Pelosi.   They have this caricature in their head about the opposition - and many Democrats feel the same way about Republicans.

So, every election the "attack ads" come out because they work.  The great unwashed masses will believe whatever is on television.  After all, the television told them to lease a new car!  And that didn't work out for them because.... Democrats.  Or maybe Republicans?   But nothing they did - right?

The answer, of course, is to take a bath and no longer be part of the great unwashed masses. Understand how government really works (which I didn't really understand until I worked for it, and went to law school and studied it).   Despite our courses in "civics" in High School and episodes of School House Rock, the vast majority of Americans have only an inkling of how their government works.  Most vote only every four years - if even then - and think the President is a King.

So what makes a difference is not only your vote, but your dollars.  Because while you might vote on the issues, the vast unwashed masses vote on attack ads.  If you want your candidate elected, it helps to donate money to that candidate.   And as you might guess, people who want grazing rights or drilling rights, or an FCC license, donate a lot of money, directly or indirectly, to candidates - often to both candidates running against one another.   Act shocked.

You could argue this is an example of why our system of government is flawed - special interests skewing elections results.  Or... you could use it as an example of why you should care about elections and actually vote on the issues, because the system we have, with big-money donors, wasn't one created by the Constitution, but by the vast majority of people being easily swayed by advertisements, or - like our reader - thinking that it doesn't matter and not caring.   It ain't the big-money donor's to blame, it is the people who believe an attack ad over logic and reason.  We brought this on ourselves and have no one but ourselves to blame.

And in that regard, it is a great system - people too dumb to figure this out will constantly be manipulated to do things against their own self-interest, such as vote for a candidate who will gut them economically, while pandering to social issues, or better yet, get them to not vote at all, as our reader proposes.

And that sort of is the point of this whole blog - our system may be flawed, but it is largely a voluntary system.   If you want to believe that leasing a car "frees up your cash-flow to invest!" you are free to do so.  But when you are facing $5000 in back-end charges on that Lexus, well, don't say I didn't warn you.  Hey, just roll it over into a new lease.  Swell idea!  Our system allows you to commit financial suicide if you want to - or you can leave your pen at home and not sign documents that ruin you.

Similarly, our political system panders to the child in all of us - creating heroes and villains to root for or boo against.  Or, you can see through the smokescreen and make logical choices.  And if everyone made logical choices, well, the world would be a much better place, wouldn't it?   On the other hand, if they did, it would mean fewer opportunities for the clever.   Act rationally in an irrational world.

The sad thing is, we do have choices in this country - choices that people in many parts of the world don't have.   And yet a huge number of Americans don't even bother to vote, convinced, like our reader, that it doesn't make a difference.

Consider the first George W. Bush election in 2000.  If a few hundred people had gone to the polls and pulled the lever for Al Gore - and the people making protest votes for Nader had come to their senses, we would never have gone to war in Iraq.   Imagine the billions that would be in the treasury that we squandered there.  And perhaps Iran would not be throwing its weight around so much, with Iraq keeping them in check.   Perhaps - perhaps - we would be exiting Afghanistan as victors, instead of leaving with our tail between our legs, Vietnam-style.

Maybe. I guess that is the other part of the problem - people don't see and cannot see what could have been had another candidate won.  And thus, they assume history is preordained and nothing they do can change the world.  Suppose Hillary won in 2016?   We wouldn't have had the tax cuts and deficit spending of the last three years, which have made our position in this post-virus world even more untenable.   Our standing in the world would be better, and who knows, maybe we would have handled this virus thing better.

Or it could have been far worse - with Hillary fighting a intransigent Senate, losing the House in the mid-terms, and endless political investigations into e-mails and "Benghazi" and whatnot. And perhaps if  Hillary ordered a lockdown, the push-back would have been greater and sooner.  That's the problem with "what-ifs" - we never could know how good - or bad - things could have been if the other fellow got elected instead.   Or maybe, as our reader suggests, not much would have changed.

Hmmm..... Ask the migrant in the for-profit detention camp about this.   I suspect they may have done better under Hillary.  But hey, that's not me, so it doesn't count!

The reality is, everything we do changes the world, for good or bad.  Typing this blog entry may change someone's mind, for example - or perhaps entrench it further.  Who knows?

All I do know is, doing nothing isn't an answer, it is just a cop-out.  If you don't vote, then you have no cause to complain about anything.  You had a chance to have a voice in government and decided not to exercise it.   This means you don't get to bitch about how things aren't going your way.  Perhaps there should be a law to that effect.

Sounds like a plan to me!  I suspect 99% of the protesters and loudmouths and troublemakers in the world would be silenced this way.  Freedom of speech - it should be limited to those who are willing to do something to protect it.   Don't vote?  Then shut up.

Just a thought.