The Real Emergency Isn’t About the Wall; It’s About the Separation of Powers.

US president Donald Trump recently declared a “national emergency” under which he intends to divert money from the US Department of Defense’s budget and use it to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.

No biggie, Trump said as he announced the “emergency.” Happens all the time (59 other times since 1976, to be exact).  Purely routine.

But it’s not routine at all. It is, in fact, a declaration of presidential dictatorship that shreds the US Constitution’s separation of powers requirements.

Most presidential emergency declarations have been either on matters supposedly requiring immediate action which Congress could be expected to subsequently approve (for example, George W. Bush’s 2001 declaration of emergency in the wake of 9/11), or pursuant to policies already approved by Congress (for example, specific sanctions on countries already condemned by Congress to general treatment of that type).

Trump’s declaration is different — but there is applicable precedent to consider. We’ve been down this road before, just not quite so far.

In 2013, Republicans in Congress flirted with refusal to raise the  “debt ceiling” — a limit on how much money the federal government allows itself to borrow.

As  a deadline approached after which the US government would be in default to its creditors,  House Democrats urged president Barack Obama to ignore Congress  and raise the debt ceiling by emergency decree.

How are the two situations alike?

Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution assigns the power to “borrow Money on the credit of the United States” exclusively to Congress.

Article I, Section 9 of the US Constitution similarly empowers Congress to decide how money may and may not be spent: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

By unilaterally raising the debt ceiling, Obama would have become an outlaw, an extra-constitutional dictator rather than a president. Republicans pointed this out at the time. Fortunately, an 11th-hour deal averted the possibility of Obama following his co-partisans’ advice.

By asserting the “emergency” power to spend money on  a project that Congress has explicitly declined to fund by appropriation (multiple times, in fact), Trump has effectively resigned the presidency and declared himself an absolute monarch.

And THAT, friends, is a REAL emergency.

If Congress has any desire to save what’s left of the Constitution — and any political will to act on that desire — the obvious, immediate, and absolutely necessary next step is the impeachment of Donald Trump and his removal from the office of President of the United States. Nothing less will suffice, and the case against him is airtight.

Over the course of more than two centuries, the Constitution has frayed, and sometimes broken. Maybe it’s time to let it go. If that’s the case, I’d personally rather it gave way to something better than the banana republic style dictatorship the American presidency has descended toward in recent decades.

If Congress doesn’t make Trump the bottom of that slide, there is no bottom, and we are doomed to suffer through a dark new era of uncontested presidential tyranny.

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Deadlock and Partisan Bitterness

Why does American politics seem so deadlocked?  The media mostly focuses on issues where Democrats and Republicans refuse to compromise because they strongly disagree: immigration, guns, health care.  But American politics often seems deadlocked even when both parties agree.  For example, supermajorities of both parties want to protect DREAMers, but they’ve never reached an agreement to do so.  How is this possible?

1. Transactions costs.  Hammering out a deal is hard work, so many mutually beneficial deals don’t happen.

Critique: Economists routinely appeal to these alleged costs, but how high can they possibly be?  Seriously, why should it take more than a single day for the DREAM Act to become a law?  Vote, vote, sign, done.

2. The hold-out problem.  Suppose we agree that X is good, but you want X a lot more than I do.  In this situation, it makes sense for me to demand some “compensation” from you even though we basically agree.

Critique: This might make sense for a year or two.  But if we’ve failed to reach an agreement after many years of negotiation, you’d expect both sides to moderate their demands to cut their losses.  Yes, they could conceivably be investing in their reputations for intransigence to secure favorable terms in the future, but does anyone seriously expect to see the day when one party finally submits to the other?

3. Insincerity.  For example, perhaps Republicans only claim to want to protect DREAMers in order to seem nice and reasonable.  In fact, however, they never genuinely favored the DREAM Act in the first place.

Critique: This is often plausible, but it’s hard to see it as a general explanation.  Politicians have clear incentive to lie about their goals, but why would average citizens bother to lie in anonymous polls?

4. Partisan bitterness.  The two main parties intensely dislike each other.  Like a quarrelsome couple, they could find something to fight about at a fancy restaurant on Valentine’s Day.  As a result, the two parties have trouble cooperating procedurally even when they agree substantively.

Critique: This is my preferred story.  What I wrote about divorce a decade ago cleanly explains political deadlock as well:

Unfortunately, the Coasean argument overlooks a pretty obvious fact: Couples contemplating a divorce often hate, loathe, and despise each other. We’ve all heard of stories of divorcing couples deliberately destroying objects of sentimental value to each other. Indeed, many couples in this situation wallow in petty spite; they can’t stop bad-mouthing each other to anyone who will listen.

With these facts firmly in mind, how confident are you that Coase’s zero transactions costs assumption is remotely true? At risk of sounding Austrian, transactions costs are subjective: Bargaining with your mortal enemy hurts.

If this story seems grim, I should add that bitter politics has one major advantage over bitter divorce.  Namely: Partisan bitterness throws much-needed sand into the gears of the state.  Given public opinion, amicable government is likely to be big government.  As long as political antipathy is too shallow to cause civil war, both libertarians and pragmatists should welcome it.  Will Rogers once mused, “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.”  I’d add, “Be thankful we’re not even getting all the government both parties support.”

P.S. I’m well-aware that deadlock locks existing bad policies in place, too.  But I see little political support for repealing such policies, and broad political support for adding new bad policies.  Tragic, but that’s the world we live in.

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Right and Wrong

Nobody asked but …

Right and wrong are not sides of a coin.  Right is according to principle.  That which is not according to principle is wrong.  Ethicists like to do thought experiments that only muddy the water.

Take, for instance, the trolley problem.  The problem is defined at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as follows:

 … a trolley driver must choose between turning a trolley so that it runs over an innocent man attached to a track and allowing the trolley to run over and kill five innocent people.

But we make a mistake by trying to find a principle that will fit either leg of this dilemma.  There is no principle, and certainly not a lame one such as the lesser of two evils, a pseudoprinciple.  There is no right choice.  There are only wrong choices.

Relax.  The trolley problem is unlikely, but one may nevertheless encounter gray-area problems.  These usually involve two or more wrong choices, however, they may hide a good choice.  There are unnumerable actions that may have forestalled the trolley problem.

It is always a right action to follow the NAP — the non–aggression principle — do not initiate aggression.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Including the Renegade

In the last six months, I’ve found myself stuck in two separate Sermons on Inclusion.  These were public events.  Neither was branded as left-wing.  Both, however, gave the floor to speakers who explained the supreme value of making everyone feel included in the community.

In each case, my mid-sermon reaction was the same: “I don’t think I’ve ever before felt so excluded in all my life.”

Why would I react so negatively?  It’s not because I disagree with the one-sentence summary of the sermons.  Sure, be friendly to people.  Make them feel welcome.  It’s common decency.  So what’s the problem?

I’m tempted to blame the glaring hypocrisy.  It was obvious that the speakers had zero interest in making Republicans, conservatives, macho males, traditional Christians, veterans, or economists feel included.  In fact, the Sermons on Inclusion were full of thinly-veiled accusations against members of these groups.

Yet on reflection, glaring hypocrisy is too ubiquitous in life to explain why I personally felt so excluded by the Sermons on Inclusion.

The real reason I felt so excluded was that the preachers of both Sermons on Inclusion spoke as if human beings naturally value their cultural heritage.  Frankly, I usually don’t.  I don’t value my religious heritage.  My mother was Catholic, and I was raised Catholic.  But I deem the religion false and don’t care about it.  My don’t value my ethnic heritage.  My mother was Irish, my father was Jewish, but neither identity matters to me.  I don’t support Ireland or Israel… or any other country for that matter.  My parents raised me to be an American nationalist; my schools taught me about the wonders of democracy.  But in all honesty, the only institution I really believe in is business.

So what am I?  A renegade.  And I’m not alone.  Lots of people turn their backs on the religion of their birth.  Lots of people never feel – or lose interest in – their ethnic heritage.  Lots of people dissent from “their” political culture.  Cultural loyalists may call them traitors, sell-outs, self-haters, or gusanos.  Yet despite our cosmic diversity, we renegades have one thing in common: We refuse to be ruled by the circumstances of our birth.  And any sincere Sermon on Inclusion ought to acknowledge our existence and outlook.

Unfortunately, this omission is hard to correct.  Why?  Because one of the main goals of Sermons on Inclusion is to foster group pride, and the existence of renegades is an affront to group pride.  You can’t favorably discuss the assimilated Irish without tacitly snubbing people who cherish their Irish identity.  You can’t people who leave Orthodox Judaism without tacitly snubbing Orthodox Jews.  Et cetera.

But don’t Sermons on Inclusion lionize some renegades, like anti-war veterans or the transgendered?  Sure.  But since the the Sermons barely acknowledge the existence of these renegades’ groups of origin, there’s little tension.  It’s easy to welcome renegades from group X if your default is to exclude typical members of group X.

Are efforts to promote inclusion therefore self-defeating?  Not if you’re careful, because actions speak louder than words.  As I’ve argued before, the best way to make people feel included is just to be friendly and welcoming.  Sermons divide us.  Common decency brings us together.

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Use Charity To Become More Practical

If you look closely, you’ll find that even in (especially in) your kind acts to others, you are probably doing an important kindness to yourself.

When I think back to the (occasional) times I’ve helped a stranger jump-start a dead car battery, or the time I stopped to assist a stranger with a flat tire, or the times I’ve tried to help homeless folks, I can see that I’ve learned a tremendous amount that helps me.

These kinds of human interaction (especially for someone who has some shyness) certainly build character and courage. But for me they’ve also been great ways to build a base of practicality in know-how, equipment, and preparedness habits.

Now I don’t go anywhere in my car without my jumper cables or a jerry can for gasoline. I’ve picked up a bit of knowledge  about the homeless shelters in Atlanta: their requirements, specialties, and drawbacks. I even learned some of the basics of the tire-change for the first time from stopping to work with a stranger, so I’m much better prepared for the next time.

I’m not as consistent as I should be in helping others. And when I do I sometimes grumble to myself about it. But I am grateful that I can be valuable in situations where people need help.

Charity can make you more practical – and it’s very friendly to people who want to learn on the job.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC

Washington’s political establishment went berserk when US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) publicly noted that US-Israel relations are “all about the Benjamins”  — slang for $100 bills, referring to money shoveled at American politicians by the American Israel Public Affairs Group (AIPAC).

Omar was accused of antisemitism — immediately by Republicans, shortly after by members of her own party — and bullied into apologizing. She may or may not be prejudiced against Jews,  but even if she is, that wasn’t her real offense.

Her real offense was  publicly mentioning the irrefutable fact that many members of Congress take their marching orders from a foreign power’s lobbying apparatus (an apparatus not, as required by law, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act), at least partly because those marching orders come with promises of significant donations to those politicians’ campaigns.

AIPAC itself doesn’t make direct donations to political campaigns. But AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups like Christians United For Israel punch well above their weight in American politics, largely by motivating their supporters to financially support and work for “pro-Israel” candidates in general elections and help weed out “anti-Israel” candidates in party primaries.

By the way, “pro-Israel” in this context always means “supportive of the jingoism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party,” and never “supportive of the many Israelis who’d like peace with the Palestinian Arabs.”

One AIPAC supporter  alone, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, spent $65 million getting Republicans elected, including $25 million supporting Donald Trump, in 2016.  But that $25 million was only put into action after Trump retreated from his early position of “neutrality” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, publicly prostrated himself to AIPAC in a speech at one of its events, and pronounced himself “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history.”

But: We’re not supposed to talk about that. Ever. And it’s easy to see why.

If most Americans noticed that many  members of Congress (as well as most presidents) are selling their influence over US policy to a foreign power, we might do something about it.

For decades, howling “antisemitism” any time the matter came up proved an effective tactic for shutting down public discussion of the “special relationship” under which Israel receives lavish foreign aid subsidies, effective control of US foreign policy in the Middle East, and lately even state (and pending federal) legislation requiring government contractors to sign loyalty oaths to Israel’s government.

The Israeli lobby’s power to prevent that discussion seems to be slipping, however. Why? In part because the lobby’s money and political support, which used to be spent buying both sides of the partisan aisle, has begun tilting heavily Republican in recent years, freeing some Democrats to not “stay bought.” And in part because the newest generation of politicians includes some like Ilhan Omar who aren’t for sale (to Israel, anyway).

Decades of unquestioning obedience to the Israel lobby has drawn the US into needless and costly conflicts  not even remotely related to the defense of the United States. We’ll be better off when the “special relationship,” and the corruption underlying it, ends.

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