The Jackboot of Government

In the face of a surging pandemic, with infections rising daily across the country, you’d think that people would practice some common sense self-discipline. You’d also like to think that local governments would applaud and encourage anything that might turn back the tide. You would be wrong.

In the Granite State, Governor Chris Sununu has signed the “medical freedom” law ensuring that a COVID-19 vaccine can’t be required for entry to “access any public facility, any public benefit, or any public service.” This takes the state’s motto — “Live Free or Die” — to its logical extreme by making a mockery of those who just might want to live without the threat of contagion. “Live Free AND Die” might be more accurate.

In the Sunshine State, Governor Ron DeSantis — determined to show he’s got the chops to replace the former guy in the Oval Office — is trying to block any restriction on the cruise ship industry. The CDC thinks unvaccinated passengers should be barred from boarding a floating Petri dish; DeSantis disagrees, and would like the legislature to prohibit such restrictions by private companies, too. Not since Anita Bryant has any one person been such an embarrassment to Florida.

The Republican chorus decrying regulation has become farcical. If the market is going to decide, let it decide: the cruise ship industry isn’t asking to be free from CDC regulation and is perfectly capable of asking passengers to show proof of vaccine before boarding. It doesn’t need the jackboot of government regulators (the favored image of GOP antagonists to even sensible regulation) on its neck. Restaurants, concert venues, sports franchises — all can take sensible precautions, and should.

Indeed, as noted here, former GOP strategist (and McCain campaign manager) Steve Schmidt believes that such private pressure is the best way forward. And while I disagree with his assessment, I’ll also note the extreme irony of today’s straightjacketed Republicans: They can’t abide the idea of any public regulation, even those that protect the health of their own constituents; and now they can’t abide private actors who might have the temerity to suggest that hey, you can’t come in here if you might spread a deadly disease.

Did I say straightjacketed? They should be. Turns out the jackboot of government regulation fits them just fine.

The Consent of the Governed

I am still riled up about Steve Schmidt and vaccine mandates. Something has been bothering me about the libertarian streak in the Republican psyche — the part that wants to stop reading after the first five words of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law”). Something has been nagging at me, and until now I hadn’t been able to quite put my finger on it.

Libertarians are just one short step away from being anarchists: they prefer no laws, to laws that might regulate behavior or mandate safety standards of any kind (workplace, traffic, gun, drug, food, you name it). Because, you know, Freedom! And Liberty! “That government that governs least,” they declaim, “governs best.” We should all be Free and have the Liberty to decide what is best for ourselves, as individuals. And so we should, within limits. Setting those limits is the hard work of self-governance, something we as Americans think we’re quite good at. And we used to be.

Lately the “governs least” crowd has become the party of governs-not-at-all, by imposing parliamentary gridlock on Every. Single. Piece. Of. Legislation. A bill to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure? Not without sixty votes. To be clear: not without sixty votes to allow debate. The modern filibuster doesn’t require a supermajority to pass legislation; it requires a supermajority before the Senate can talk about legislation. If this strikes you as oddly undemocratic, you are not alone. It angers political observers at home, and bewilders those abroad. If de Tocqueville were writing today, “Democracy in America” would be a very different book indeed.

Self-styled libertarians like Rand Paul (R-KY) are one thing: they believe not in the concepts of liberty but in the soapbox a Senate or safe House seat provides them; they spout off because they can, and because their diatribes make good television back home and enrage the Other Side — whoever that might be. (As the latest Internet meme has it: Opposition to common-sense public health measures might be deadly, but at least we own the libs!)

Then there are more thoughtful libertarians, old-school Republicans like Steve Schmidt and Bill Kristol, who oppose “big government” because, well, it’s big and government should be small. People should be free to choose, they say, what is best for them: government shouldn’t decide for them. The problem with this argument, it seems to me, is right there in Jefferson’s text which they revere:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed: ten words that define, it seems to me, majority rule, the very essence of self-governance in what we call democracy. Here, finally, is what has been bothering me all along about libertarianism generally, and about the opposition to government vaccine and mask mandates: “Government shouldn’t tell me what to do,” is all well and good, but it’s not “government” telling you: it’s your friends and neighbors. They speak through government, by virtue of their greater numbers at the polls. They tell you. They limit your personal freedom, according to their collective wisdom.

This is not the Wild West, and this is not the world as we all might wish it should be: this is the world as it is, and as it is requires that we all abide by the same set of rules: rules that limit our personal freedom, so that our behavior doesn’t impinge on someone else’s rights; rules that limit what we sell as food, as drink, as medicine; regulation of construction materials and methods. Glass-Steagall wasn’t an arbitrary and capricious limitation on banking; it was enacted to remedy conditions that led to the Great Depression: it created rules and structure, within which banks could operate freely. They couldn’t be under-capitalized and they couldn’t take excessive risks. The erosion of Glass-Steagall over the years, culminating in its repeal in 1999, led directly to the Great Recession of 2008.

History might not repeat exactly, but it certainly echoes. It might benefit us all if the champions of Liberty! and Freedom! bore that in mind before spouting off.

Vaccine Mandates

A friend directed me to a thoughtful piece by Steve Schmidt regarding vaccine mandates. In this Twitter thread, Schmidt suggests that the way to achieve better vaccine compliance isn’t by vaccine mandate, per se; he prefers “incentives” such as barring admission to shows and restaurants, airline travel, public events and public spaces.

The piece presents as thoughtful to be sure, but when you cut through to the core it’s the same bullshit he’s been peddling for 30 years: freedom from regulation and let the market decide, because that fixes everything. It doesn’t and he knows it. He’s now caught in his own trap, and he’s desperate to get out without admitting he’s been worshiping a false god (free = unregulated) all this time.

As I’ve written elsewhere (here, and here, as well as here and here) the human capacity for cognitive dissonance is unlimited. Schmidt wants people to get the vaccine, but doesn’t want government to force them. Rather they should be persuaded by coercive forces — of government agencies like the FAA, of private parties like restauranteurs and producers. It seems to me that this is “regulation” by another name. But regulation bad, incentive good. This would be comic gold if it weren’t so deadly.

Schmidt decrees that, “NOBODY should be FORCED by the GOVT to take the vaccine. EVER…. That means never, ever.” Instead he’d coerce people to make the “right” choice by denying them access to public buildings, public spaces, public benefits… etc. That’s at best a distinction without a difference, and it’s utter crap. It’s the religion of “personal responsibility” and “freedom of choice” wrapped in fancy-dress, the same old whine in new bottles.

Schmidt and his ilk are all for “personal responsibility” and I am almost willing to take them at their word if, for example, I can deny them emergency medical care because they made the PERSONAL CHOICE to remain uninsured. They did so freely, after all, and (in Schmidt’s view) it was their choice to make: let them accept the consequences, and not come running to their fellow-citizens, the taxpayers of the United States, to be the insurer of last resort against their (objectively stupid) choices. Choices like going without health insurance, or building a house on a flood plain (and purchasing government flood insurance when private insurers turn them down, with reason), or rebuilding in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy took your home and everything in it out to sea.

Sure, Schmidt and Bill Kristol and a lot of others have been vocal for years about the former guy; and they’ve admitted they played a part in creating him and continue to express regret. It might be more helpful if they explained the role played by Newt Gingrich and his politics of personal destruction and demonization of The Other (i.e., anyone who stands in their path to power, mostly Democrats). Instead their road to Damascus conversions have only gone so far; they haven’t reconsidered their core beliefs, the things that made them Republicans in the first place and that (in my view) led us, inevitably, to the unhappy place we are now. When Ronald Reagan declared rhetorical war on the federal government, these folks took it a little too seriously and a little too much to heart.

Contrary to St. Ronald’s assertion, government is not always the problem and is often the solution, a fact easily demonstrated when (for example) an uninsured individual receives medical care in the ER, or when FEMA brings much-needed relief — food, water, medicine, temporary housing, and more — to flood and fire victims. Many of the beneficiaries — indeed, most of the beneficiaries — of such government largesse are people who resemble the people who stormed the Capitol far more than they do Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or George Floyd. The politics of resentment and fear play an outsize role, distorting public policy and thwarting goals everyone can agree on, like pandemic recovery.

I should (and do) welcome Schmidt to the majority that acknowledges, unequivocally, that what happened January 6 was an insurrection and EVERYONE responsible should be brought to justice. But his argument about vaccine requirement fails to convince me. Government REQUIRES a measles vaccine, a mumps vaccine, a rubella vaccine, a polio vaccine; not many years ago a smallpox vaccine, too, was required. Why is this any different?

Government requires us to purchase auto insurance. It requires us to wear seatbelts; it requires cyclists to wear helmets. I could go on and on. These are not controversial obligations. They protect us from others and — to a lesser extent — from ourselves. Isn’t that the purpose of government? To institute the rules of a civil society?

Mr. Schmidt, I applaud your efforts; really, I do. But governments are instituted among men, as Jefferson had it, to secure our unalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s not a stretch to suggest that life itself is easier without the threat of deadly disease, and that happiness is easier to pursue when we’re not worried about whether our neighbor has done the bare minimum to ensure his own health AND MINE. 

I’ve been fond of saying that there are very few things a national government must provide, but there is something much more fundamental than army, currency, or post office. Governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and they exist to create, promulgate, and enforce the simple rules by which we all must live if we are to be a cohesive nation. Seatbelt laws were once controversial, but are no longer — and were instituted with the consent of the governed: that is, by simple majority. “Conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is a noble ideal but it doesn’t give due respect and even homage to the more mundane aspects of self-governance. Like making sure we don’t kill each other through thoughtless, selfish, and stubborn refusal to consider our neighbors. Most of us think vaccine and mask mandates are a good idea. Get over it.

Contractor Hall of Shame

The master bathroom door was originally hinged left. I asked the contractor to “please hinge it on the other side” — make it a right-hand inswing, so the door would swing against the wall and not into the glass shower stall.

I ended up firing them for other reasons but not before they moved the door, following my instructions to the letter. (See the photo.) Sure, it is now a right-hand inswing; but how am I supposed to open and close it?

Hall of shame
don’t let this happen to you

Bipartisanship

Questions for Senators Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema (and fifty Republicans): is it “bipartisan” to suggest that Joe Biden is not the President of the United States? To hold on to the fiction that the election was “rigged,” “stolen,” or “corrupt”?  To buy into the lie, or seem to, that Trump didn’t actually lose? To pretend that GOP senators will compromise on legislation in any meaningful way? To insist, year after year after year, that asking wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their own way, constitutes class warfare?

No, I didn’t think so, either. Senators, do the right thing: kill the filibuster, or amend the rules to require an actual filibuster. If Ron Johnson wants to thwart the will of the people, make him hold the floor to do it. Arguing that the filibuster increases bipartisanship — when all recent experience points the other way — is akin to saying that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. It’s myopic, historically inaccurate, and — at best — naive. Such naïveté should be disqualifying for anyone running for, or holding, public office.

What Leadership Looks Like

President Biden does not have the rhetorical gifts of Barack Obama. He isn’t a natural teacher like Bill Clinton, who can explain — ex tempore, no less — the most abstruse concepts in clear and unpatronizing language. He can’t twist congressional arms to pass legislation the way LBJ could like no other before or since. But anyone who paid close attention to his first address to Congress would have recognized real leadership. If it went unnoticed, perhaps that’s because for too long we have been without it.

The opinion pages and TV pundits and bloviators have all had their say; I’ll wager that few if any noticed this gem, tucked into his introductory remarks:

Universal public schools and college aid opened wide the doors of opportunity. Scientific breakthroughs took us to the moon. Now we’re on Mars, discovering vaccines, gave us the internet and so much more. These are investments we made together as one country. And investments that only the government was in a position to make. Time and again, they propel us into the future. That’s why I propose the American Jobs Plan, a once-in-a-generation investment in America itself. This is the largest jobs plan since World War II.

[Emphasis added.] Investments that only the government [can] make: This is a subtle rebuke to Republicans and free-marketeers. There are in this world some things that only government can do. It isn’t enough to hope that ambitious capitalists will undertake the basic research that leads to so much more; it isn’t sufficient to believe that government regulation is ipso facto oppressive and that corporations can better regulate themselves, with no ill public effect.

Just this past week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) opined that, “No policymaker would allow a company to dump toxic waste into a river upstream of a thriving town he is charged with governing.” This is like saying that no company would ever prioritize its profits over the interests of its customers by, say, cutting corners on workplace safety or using poisonous food additives. Except that it happens all the time. Rubio represents a political party ideologically opposed to government regulation of any kind. The only part of his statement that rings true is its cognitive dissonance.

Things only government can do. This gets at the very purpose of government, of good government. Republicans might be fond of quoting Jefferson — “That government is best, which governs least” — but they emphasize least while paying little or no attention to best. They know quite well that “least” doesn’t mean, as little as humanly possible; it means, just enough to get things right. There are things only government can do: provide for the general welfare and common defense, for example.

But really, that isn’t enough: good government should be aspirational — “We choose to go to the moon”1; good government should rise to the occasion; and good government should set new goals for itself as a nation, for its people’s betterment. Some great things aren’t ever going to be done by the private sector; some things, these things, only government can do.


  1. John F. Kennedy, address at Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962.

The Unexpected Benefit of Bumper to Bumper Traffic

I am stuck in traffic on the West Side Highway. They are fixing potholes up ahead and so two lanes are closed, backing things up for what seems like miles but is really no more than three or four furlongs. Nothing to do but sit; I look around and see the cherry blossoms along the riverfront (to my left) and in the parkland (to my right). Other trees are starting to bud; cyclists enjoy the riverside trail on this first warm day of spring.

In the distance is a tugboat pushing a barge upriver, framed by the George Washington Bridge but not, I know, nearly there yet. I am at 86th Street: the trees don’t yet obscure the prewar buildings up on Riverside Drive, and the Normandy is unmistakable: its Art Deco line takes up the whole block. I think of Nick and Nora, swilling too much gin and having too much fun while they sort out the identity of the Thin Man.

As suddenly as traffic stopped, it starts again: I have arrived at the pothole brigade and make my way past, reluctantly now: eyes on the road instead of on my surroundings, this grand pocket of nature (one of many) tucked alongside the concrete and the steel, the granite and the glass.

The Unthinkable

My Apple News feed includes headlines from Fox, to the mild consternation of my children. “Why do you want to do that to yourself?” Because I want to know what they’re saying; because it can be entertaining (in a Jerry Lewis kind of way); because the tenor and content help illuminate the why and how of our riven social fabric.

A few days ago the clickbait headline screamed: “A woman was angry because of the long wait at the Burger King drive-thru window. Then she did the unthinkable.” Hoping to be surprised, I clicked. I was not surprised that she opened fire through the window. Nor did I think this in any way unthinkable. It was, in fact, all too thinkable: it was in fact exactly what I thought.

A very modest suggestion: Let’s start using words to mean, well, what they actually mean.  An angry woman who arrives at the drive-thru window and pays for the next ten cars? As unthinkable as it is unlikely. That woman shooting into the store? Neither surprising nor unimaginable. This kind of event has become so common it’s not just not unthinkable, it barely attracts any attention any more. We are benumbed: a mass shooting in Boulder is neither unthinkable nor unimaginable.

A woman opening fire through a fast-food drive-thru doesn’t move the needle on our emotional, intellectual, and political outrage. That is precisely the problem — and precisely what the NRA wants.

The Personal Responsibility Party

It has been fashionable at least since the time of Saint Ronald for politicians to speak piously about “personal responsibility.” Since that time, too, it has been generally understood that those who most fervently preach this particular Gospel — including Saint Ronald himself — never mean for it to apply to Themselves; it is only for Others: Black people, poor people, gay people, any people who do not look or behave or think like they do. You know who they are: Those people. Such mind-bending blatant hypocrisy would make an ordinary mortal blush, at least; but our lawmakers are made of sterner stuff, and they make a virtue of denying their own actions. They are miracle workers.

An obvious case in point is the (second) impeachment trial of one Donald John Trump. Just listen to the comments of some of the jurors, oath-bound to do impartial justice: Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, suggests that “everyone should get a Mulligan.” One could reasonably infer, then, that Senator Lee’s estimation the fellow who robs a bank (or plans the robbery) should get a pass. As should the intoxicated driver, the junkie, the Ponzi schemer, the serial sex offender. The most obvious problem — but by no means the only one — with this very noble and forgiving sentiment is that Trump’s entire life has been nothing but Mulligans: his pandemic response; his Ukraine phone call (and first impeachment); his “grab ‘em by the p***y” Access Hollywood sniggering (“Just locker talk,” his wife would have us believe); and going back further, his six bankruptcies, his shuttered casinos, his Fair Housing consent decrees. The list goes on and on.

The Party of Personal Responsibility will take none for having created Trump and set him loose in the world; nor, for that matter, does it have the stomach to ensure that he, at least, is forced at long last to face responsibility for his failures and excesses. The late Leona Helmsley famously said, “Taxes are for the little people.” By which she meant, presumably, her many employees (both personal and corporate). Personal responsibility, then, is strictly for suckers. Leona at least spent some time as a guest of the state for her crimes. Republican senators — devout faithful of the Church of Personal Responsibility — don’t appear poised to convict Trump for anything, not even sedition against the United States. To do so would require not just selfless patriotism but a little self-knowledge. And a little acceptance of personal responsibility.

The Party of Stupid

Eight years ago Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal addressed the Republican National Committee at its winter meeting. Barack Obama had just been reelected, defeating Mitt Romney in an Electoral College blowout: 332-206. Jindal exhorted his fellow Republicans to “stop being the stupid party” and to “stop insulting the intelligence of voters.” RNC chair Reince Priebus conducted an “autopsy” of the GOP’s 2012 defeat.

Young people and minorities, the report concluded, viewed the GOP as a bunch of cranky old white men. The party could change its image by deemphasizing social issues and coming out in favor of immigration reform. A set of tactical recommendations got less attention but may have been more consequential: Based on the report’s ideas, the party shortened the primary calendar, reduced the number of debates, and began a huge investment in data and ground operations.

“The Final Humiliation of Reince Priebus” (The Atlantic 7/30/2017)

Over the last eight years the Republican Party has reemphasized social issues and rejected immigration reform. Rather than develop policies that might win more votes, the Republican Party has moved to suppress votes — the votes of minorities, especially. Rather than embrace the idea that among the rights of all Americans is the right to vote, and that exercising that right should be easy, the Republican Party promotes laws and policies that make voting more difficult: removing polling stations, restricting absentee voting, requiring voter ID — these are nothing more than poll taxes and eligibility tests by another name.

In today’s Republican Party, Bobby Jindal is out; Marjorie Taylor Greene is in. Science is out and Jewish space lasers are in. Big-tent rhetoric is out; xenophobia is in. And of course imaginary threats to American sovereignty, security, and stability are all the rage, while actual Russian threats to national security are ridiculed, denigrated, or ignored. And while Mitch McConnell and other “establishment” Republicans would like us to believe that this is an aberration, that the Party of Lincoln has not become the Party of Trump and that rebirth of a vibrant and sane — if conservative — party is not only possible, but inevitable, I have to disagree.

Trump didn’t co-opt the party or turn it to his own use; he didn’t create the infection nor did he drive it deeper: he is, rather, the apotheosis of the intellectual rot that began in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran on the risible theory of supply-side economics: lowering tax rates will increase tax revenue. This demonstrably false idea — forty years of experience have proved, over and over and over again, that it just isn’t so — refuses to die. Economist Paul Krugman refers to it as a zombie policy, something which should be dead but isn’t; George H.W. Bush, running against Reagan for the 1980 nomination, rightly called it Voodoo Economics. As realized policy it has been an abject failure each and every time; and yet each and every time tax cuts fail to deliver the promised boom the GOP doubles down. Intellectual honesty would have inspired at least a little soul-searching, a reevaluation of the premise and (one would hope) the repudiation of a false god. Instead the rot spreads, a cancer on the party, devouring its adherents’ ability to think for themselves.

Trump is a symptom — a virulent, violent, repugnant, and highly infectious symptom. So is Marjorie Taylor Greene; and so too are the many elected officials who really do know better — but whose small, craven, pitiable need for approbation directs their legislative conduct. “The American President” provides a little insight here, as it so often does:

Lewis Rothschild : People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

President Andrew Shepherd : Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.

Boys and girls, you were elected to lead: so, lead. Don’t take people where they want to go: explain to them, teach them, guide them to where they need to go. Leadership, real leadership, is hard. Maybe that’s why magical thinking and doubling down on demonstrably bad ideas are so rampant.