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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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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Judicial Secrecy: Where Justice Goes to Die

The traditional depiction of Lady Justice is a woman wearing a blindfold to demonstrate impartiality. In her right hand she wields a sword (symbolizing swift punishment for the guilty). Her left arm holds aloft a scale to weigh the opposing sides’ cases — publicly, for all to see.

Over time, American judges have become increasingly inclined to demand that the public itself wear the blindfold, and that the opposing parties wear gags.

Headline, New York Times: “Supreme Court Stays Out of Secret Case That May Be Part of Mueller Probe.”

The Court refused “to intercede in a mysterious fight over a sealed grand jury subpoena to a[n unidentified] foreign corporation issued by a federal prosecutor who may or may not be Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating the Trump-Russia affair.”

Headline, Sacramento Bee“California judge will keep Planned Parenthood names sealed.”

The judge says he’ll “punish” anyone who reveals the names of the alleged victims in the prosecution of two anti-abortion activists charged with secretly taping them in conversations regarding procurement of fetal tissue.

Headline, CNN: “‘El Chapo’ Guzman jury will be anonymous, judge rules.”

Before the trial even began, the judge pronounced Guzman guilty of “a pattern of violence” that could cause the jurors to “reasonably fear” for their safety.

Headline, ABC News: “Federal judge warns she may impose gag order on Roger Stone, prosecutors.”

The judge doesn’t want the flamboyant Stone, charged in the Mueller probe, treating his prosecution as a “public relations campaign” or a “book tour.”

Secret proceedings. Secret subpoenas. Secret juries. Secret alleged victims.

Always with excuses, some more or less convincing than others.

And all flagrantly in violation of the First Amendment’s free speech clause and the Sixth Amendment’s public trial clause.

Nowhere in the Constitution is there mentioned any prerogative of government to operate in secret or to forbid public comment by anyone.

From what source do these judges claim to derive the powers they’re exercising? Certainly not from the taxpayers whose expense they operate at. Nor from the public they claim to serve.

To allow such secret judicial proceedings invites corruption and makes a mockery of the conception of justice the courts supposedly exist to uphold.

Paired with secret police operations (how many times have we heard police chiefs refuse to answer simple and germane questions to “protect an investigation?”), such proceedings constitute the necessary elements of a police state as ugly as any in history.

If American freedom is to stand a chance of survival and recovery, judges who engage in this kind of misconduct must be removed from their benches, stripped of their robes, and punished harshly — after the speedy, and very public, trials they’re entitled to, of course.

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The Pleasure of Disproving the Experts

Want to run? Experts say you need nice running shoes, controlled diets, and fancy nutrition gels.

Want to start a podcast? Experts might tell you that you need the latest microphones, a sound mixer, a perfectly soundproof room, and high-cost conferencing software.

Want to get into photography? Experts might say you need to get a fancy camera and understand aperture, shutter speed, ISO speed, exposure, and all the rest.

Of course, they’d be mistaken.*

You *can* become a runner without equipment. Equipment can help prevent health risks in the long term, but then people have also been running long before running stores were a thing.

You *can* be a decent photographer without investing tons of time and money. If you know how to capture the right moments and you use the right light and angles, you can get good shots.

You *can* start a podcast, even if you don’t have the production capabilities of FOX News or CNN. Just get a microphone and someone interesting to speak into it.

Expert opinions are great, especially when they help you to get a job done. But I get rebellious when expert advice seems calculated to terrify the hearer into helpless dependence on experts (and the things they sell). I’ve seen myself and others get to that place of paralysis before. I get out by doing the things I’m not supposed to be able to do, and doing them with a lot less knowledge and a lot fewer resources.

It takes a bit more work, but it’s well worth it to try things your way (without being cocky or careless) when experts tend to stand in the path instead of clearing it.

And it’s so much fun, because it’s so much fun to set people free from fear of starting.

*Or you would be mistaken for taking their advice as absolute. These words are wisdom when applied to the extremes in running, photography, podcasting – if you’re going pro, you do want to make investments like these.

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The Socialist Century (-ies?)

Looking back at 20th Century “world leaders” [sic] such as the domestic enemies Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and LBJ, and foreign thugs like Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, and all the rest, it seems socialism was all the rage– even when called something else.

So many “common people” also fell for the socialism lie and thought envy was a great thing to rally around and use as a foundation for a “society”. Socialism was everywhere, and we are still suffering the effects.

The 20th Century should be known as the Socialist Century.

My hope would be that it would be a singular mistake, not repeated in the 21st Century. But I’m not optimistic. Judging by current trends, we may be entering Socialist Century 2.0. And it may end up being even worse than the previous century before it’s over and done.

Too many pseudo-thinkers still love the idea of stealing from some and giving to others. For political power and money. They lie when they claim it’s about caring. But, all politics is based on lies, so what do you expect?

It seems obvious that socialism will increase until self-inflicted disaster forces an end to it.

I hope you and I can use the awareness of what’s coming to prepare and prosper throughout it– or at least survive it. If you can profit from it, on the backs of the socialists who are trying to eat you alive, do it with a clear conscience. If you can profit off the socialism by helping the rare fellow non-socialist through the rough times, just know you are providing a service– you are one of the good guys.

Through all the pain it causes you, just remember the monumentally greater pain it will cause the dolts who embrace it when their chickens come home to roost. They’ll be shocked and caught by surprise. You won’t. That makes you mighty.

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