Sunday, September 13, 2020

What's Changed?

There are advantages to being old.

One is that you were there when some of the history younger folk talk about was taking place. It’s easier to understand and appreciate changes that have occurred during your lifetime. You have a lot more information to work with.

Take for example our Vietnam saga and its subsequent impact on American politics and our nation’s security.

In my recently published memoir, Joint Ventures, I write about spending time in Vietnam as a young Army officer between March 1962 and March 1963. US involvement in the fighting at that point was limited. In an administrative role, I was not in grave danger, but I did realize we faced a serious challenge. When I left the military in spring 1963 and began a journalistic career, I tried to inform the public about Vietnam, but Americans were not yet tuned in.

Things started to change after the 1964 election. Primary focus in that contest was on civil rights. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 initiated the shift in the Solid South from Democratic to Republican. It was ironic since a higher percentage of GOP members of congress had voted for the act than Democratic members.

As for Vietnam, LBJ was the candidate of reason in that race. Although disturbed by Barry Goldwater’s remarks about how to use the military in Vietnam, I voted for him. I still hoped it possible to introduce party competition into South Carolina; less optimistic about that today.

Only a few months after the election, Johnson began escalation. In February 1965, bombing of North Vietnam began and in March, two US Marine battalions landed at Danang. At the end of 1965 there were 200,000 US servicemen in Vietnam.

In fall of 1964, inspired by my experiences in Vietnam, I began graduate study at USC Columbia in international studies. What I learned made me skeptical about LBJ’s course of action. Did our national interest in Vietnam justify the allocation of the required resources?

Over the next few years, I vacillated between journalism and academia as career possibilities. Rejecting a Yale fellowship to study Vietnam in spring 1966, I returned to television news. When invited to participate in a Taiwan research project in summer 1967, I switched again. Fortuitously, WBTW agreed to send me and a camera to Vietnam to interview Carolina servicemen in the warzone. What I saw and heard confirmed my skepticism about our goals.

Serious setbacks continued to plague us in Vietnam over the next six months. Despite the persistent buildup of US military forces, the Viet Cong and its patron North Vietnam were gaining ground. In 1967 an average of 31 Americans servicemen were killed every day.

The Tet Offensive in January 1968 was the decisive blow. Eventually, the surprise attack against cities and small towns in Vietnam was beaten back, but confidence in a US military victory was dashed. During 1968 US military forces suffered almost 17,000 deaths, an average of 46 per day.

Throughout the escalation of our military involvement in Vietnam, I noted the willingness of Democratic US senators to challenge policies of a Democratic president. Two Democratic senators, Wayne Morse (OR) and Ernest Gruening (AK) even opposed the modest Gulf of Tonkin resolution. In 1966 Democratic Sen. William Fulbright (AR), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held hearings on US policies in Asia, inviting respected scholars to share their expertise regarding the wisdom of LBJ’s strategy.

By winter of 1968, two Democratic US senators, Eugene McCarthy (MN) and Robert Kennedy (NY) were contesting LBJ’s re-election. Their challenge likely factored into Johnson’s decision to withdraw his re-election bid. At the time US personnel deaths had reached approximately 30,000.

The courage of those senators willing to take on a president of their own party impressed me. LBJ was a formidable politician. His domestic policies had been well received, especially by the traditional Democratic coalition formed under FDR. That there were senators who would put their own political future on the line to confront LBJ spoke highly of their character.

I am reminded of the courage those Democratic senators demonstrated when I consider our current circumstances. America has been traumatized for nearly a year now by a raging pandemic. The country is approaching 200,000 lives lost in less than a year, our economy had been brought to a standstill, our schools and higher education institutions crippled, and our health care system overwhelmed. More than 30 million jobs have been lost.

The president has admitted deliberately misleading the American people about the dangers of the pandemic. Yet he has done little to organize and lead a coherent response to the threat. Whatever his motives, he has failed to protect the nation’s health and prosperity.

Inexplicably, among the Republicans serving in the US Senate only Mitt Romney has dared to criticize the president’s performance. His voice was easily drowned out when his colleagues rallied to the president’s defense after evidence revealed the nation’s chief executive had used the powers of his office to seek personal political advantage. The president’s response to that support has been to wreak vengeance against any dissidents within the administration.

Following the lead of Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (KY), GOP senators have doubled down on their support of the president by refusing to provide meaningful relief to Americans currently suffering serious economic distress because of the pandemic. Unconcerned earlier about the impact on the nation’s deficit of a $1.5 trillion tax cut for corporations and rich individuals, Republicans in the US Senate have suddenly discovered the need for fiscal restraint.

Many years have passed since the US ended its involvement in the Vietnam war. Democratic US senators were vital to bringing about that needed policy change. Responding to the current pandemic, which has already killed more than three times as many Americans as the Vietnam war, requires similar courage. The question is where are the courageous US senators in the GOP willing to challenge the errant president of their party?

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Broader Focus Needed in Campaigns

The presidential campaigns are cranking up in earnest, but the issues being discussed are too narrowly focused. Overcoming the pandemic and addressing racial unrest are clearly important challenges, but there are other problems that deserve attention.

Donald Trump is maybe the worst US president in modern times, and Joe Biden is not everybody’s first choice. But the election should be about more than the personalities of the candidates. Their views on a broad array of critical issues need to be carefully scrutinized.

Major attention must be given to the issue of the nation’s foreign policy because few of the challenges the country faces can resolved unilaterally. Unfortunately, America’s relations with the rest of world today are almost uniformly bad, and their future trajectory does not look any better.

Robert M. Gates, a former secretary of defense and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has recently published an unfavorable assessment of US foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. In his book entitled, Exercise of Power, Gates claims that when the Cold War ended “the United States dominated the world militarily, economically, politically, and culturally---in every dimension of power. Not since the apogee of the Roman Empire had one country been in that position.”

But things have not gone well for the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A member of the National Security Council in four administrations, Gates places part of the blame on the failure of both executive and Congressional leaders “to recognize, resource, and use the arsenal of nonmilitary assets that proved of critical importance in the long contest with the Soviet Union.” He contends that “our place in the world…will depend for certain on a strong military but also on reimagining and rebuilding those nonmilitary tools.”

Among the nonmilitary tools Gates cites are trade, development and humanitarian assistance, cyber, and strategic communications. The last he describes as essential to our ability to capitalize on the successes resulting from exercise of the other instruments of power. Cyber warfare he labels as the most powerful weapon in a nation’s arsenal today, allowing the perpetrator to inflict great damage on military and civilian infrastructure while maintaining deniability.

As for America’s economic power, Gates is concerned that trade and other economic tools are being deployed principally in a punitive manner. Sanctions are never successful without broad international cooperation. Tariffs are more likely to cause damage to domestic producers than they are to change foreign behavior. 

China is seen by Gates as the major threat to American interests. Impressed with China’s accomplishments, he calls it “a multidimensional power eager to challenge the US in every sphere.” Since both sides apparently recognize military conflict between the two would be horrendous, the competition is likely to be conducted with largely nonmilitary tools, and China has been far more diligent about enhancing these instruments of power than has the US over the last twenty-five or thirty years. Managing our relationship with China will require a willingness to work with an international coalition.

Critical of budget cuts that have been imposed on the US State Department and other areas of civilian expertise relative to our foreign policy objectives, Gates also faults the failure to tap the talent available at America’s colleges and universities for economic and political development assistance. He suggests as well that it is a mistake to allocate so much aid money to the Defense Department instead of to other nonmilitary agencies

Although a Republican, Gates is bipartisan in his criticism. The errors he writes about have occurred under Democratic and Republican administrations. He is not interested in assigning blame. Instead, Gates urges the crafting of a comprehensive foreign policy strategy less reliant on military force and more innovative in the deployment of the country’s nonmilitary instruments of power.

Clearly, the capacity to develop and implement an effective foreign policy must be a major requirement in 2020. It is fortunate that both major party candidates this year have a known record relative to their skills in setting priorities, managing government and conducting international communications and negotiations, so it is possible to have a reasonable understanding of what may be expected from each.

Furthermore, the analyses contained in Exercise of Power can be useful for voters trying to determine how well a candidate can meet the overall responsibilities of the American presidency in these stressful times. Overcoming the pandemic will ultimately require an orderly strategy, inspirational leadership and a willingness to work with other interested parties. The same is true in addressing the racial unrest in America. Recognition of previous mistakes is necessary, but neither fear nor denial will be useful in moving us towards reconciliation.

What it boils down to is which candidate has the knowledge and temperament to appreciate the complexities of the world; which candidate is willing to and capable of working collaboratively with the diverse personalities that have an interest in addressing our common problems; and which candidate is capable of inspiring confidence in our collective efforts?

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Where Is Harry?

As the dangers of a war approach in 1941, Harry Truman, then US Senator from Missouri, proposed creation of a committee to oversee the defense expenditures being made by the federal government. Although at first viewed skeptically by President Franklin Roosevelt, the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program was soon uncovering a variety of unsavory abuses: shoddy camp construction, bad planning and sloppy administration in allocation of vital raw materials, willful misconduct in production of ships and planes, and divided loyalties among dollar-a-year men put in charge of elements of the defense effort while keeping financial ties to their corporations.   

Quickly labelled the “Truman Committee” it would continue to function throughout the war and save billions in defense spending. Truman remained chair until nominated as FDR’s running mate in 1944.

Based on recent news coming out of Washington concerning the pharmaceutical industry’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the country would benefit from another Harry Truman. Maybe everybody is chomping at the bit to know more about the FBI scheming to elect Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it just might be that how the drug barons are taking advantage of the health crisis and why our government has planned so poorly for a pandemic would be more relevant to the nation’s future.

Let’s look at the planning issue first.

Given the persistent occurrence of major health threats over the past fifty years---AID, HiNi flu, SARS, MERS, etc.---more attention to being prepared for a major pandemic could have been expected. Instead, Congress and administrations under both parties were asleep at the switch.

As early as 2009 the New York Times was reporting that outsourcing of drugs was a cause for concern. Critical ingredients for most antibiotics were being produced primarily in China and India as well as most generic drugs. Applications related to generic drugs mentioned nearly 1200 pharmaceutical plants, but only 13 percent were in the US. Forty-three percent were in China and 39 percent were in India.

Despite the inadequacy of domestic supply, appropriate additions to the Strategic National Stockpile were not made, nor did the federal government insist that hospitals take steps to create a reasonable reserve of PPE. Faced with using over and over the same N95 mask for multiple shifts, a Charleston nurse declared, “Our lives are disposable.”

The Trump administration has attempted to prompt American companies to bring production back to the US, but with little success. America’s for-profit health care industry considers the bottom line above all else.

In another planning miscue, apparently no one gave any thought to how to deal with the economic fallout from a pandemic. The country’s unemployment insurance system is premised on the idea that a quick infusion of money into the pockets of consumers will remedy any economic downturn and workers can expect to be back on the job in short order. But when a health threat is responsible for the economic downturn, the situation is different. Normal economic activity, either on the part of workers or consumers, is not restored until the health threat is gone. With unemployed workers numbering over 30 million, finding a well-paying full-time job to replace unemployment benefits, much less to match earlier earnings, will be nigh impossible

Dealing with the current pandemic is similar to preparing for war. The difference is there is no one you can negotiate a truce or peace treaty with. Only by finding a vaccine to wipe out the virus can the pandemic be ended, but this effort has opened the door to abuse and even criminality normally identified with war.

The Trump administration initiated Operation Warp Speed (OWS) in April with $10 billion provided by Congress to accelerate the process of producing an effective vaccine. At first they announced 14 companies would participate in the program. Since then, the federal government has expanded its funding activities to include several other biotech entities with associated missions. Corporate management has not hesitated to take advantage of the speculation surrounding the chosen companies.

For example, Vaxart, a San Francisco-based outfit with no track record in vaccine development and only 15 employees, announced in late June that its vaccine had been selected for preliminary funding by OWS and its shares began to soar. By the time the New York Times reported in late July that Vaxart had not been selected for funding in the last round at OWS, the hedge fund that owns much of the company had collected nearly $200 million in stock profits.

One of the core companies in OWS, Moderna, also has the distinction of not having brought a vaccine to market. Apparently, it is making some progress in its effort to produce an effective vaccine, but insiders at Moderna have not waited to take their profits, cashing in nearly $250 million since January.   

In late July, the Wall Street Journal reported that Kodak, not known as a drug company, had won a $765 million government loan to assist in expediting domestic production of drugs to treat several medical conditions and to reduce US reliance on foreign countries such as China and India. The loan was to be the first of its kind provided under the Defense Production Act, but two weeks later the loan was on hold. Bloomberg reported that questions arose about purchases of additional shares by Kodak board members shortly before the loan announcement.

The litany of abuses by greedy corporate managers and their financial enablers goes on. Just as in wartime, during this pandemic we need the vigilant attention of government officials committed to the public interest ready to protect the public treasury.

Where is our Harry Truman?    

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Saving the Economy

For some time now it has been obvious the US stock market does not reflect accurately the broader conditions within the US economy. The lockdown resulting from the coronavirus surely has convinced any remaining doubting Thomases.

As the threat of the pandemic became clear in early March 2020, the US stock market dropped precipitously. By mid-March when the coronavirus had taken approximately 100 lives in the US, and US unemployment was 4.4 percent, the Dow had sunk to 20,188.52, the NASDAQ was down to 6,904.59, and the S&P had fallen to 2,386.13.  

Now as we near the end of July and the coronavirus has taken more than 150,000 American lives and unemployment in the US is above 11 percent the stock market is firing on all cylinders. The Dow has gained 31 percent since mid-March and the S&P 35 percent. The tech heavy NASDAQ has steamed ahead by 52 percent.

Major factors in the hyper confidence of the stock market have been policies of the Federal government. On the one hand, the Federal Reserve has committed to keeping interest rates low and ease access to credit for businesses and state and local governments. And on the other hand, Congress and the Trump administration have provided roughfully $3 trillion in economic relief through four separate measures since late March. Much of that aid was directed towards business in the form of grants and loans.

Federal legislation also targeted individuals and families, providing $1200 cash relief payments to families, emergency family and medical leave and a $600 per week subsidy to state unemployment benefits. Given that consumer spending accounts for approximately 68% of the total US economy, these measures have helped the country avoid a financial collapse.

Meanwhile, America’s corporate elites are not passing up any opportunity to fatten their wallets, even in the face of the pandemic.

Some companies provided temporary pay increases to their employees and even one-time bonuses. But several, including Amazon, Molson-Coors and Kroger have already withdrawn those raises. Also, a number of companies indicated the desire to hire additional people, but the numbers of jobs added can be calculated in the tens of thousands, while the number of unemployed are in the millions.

 A few corporate CEOs have had their salaries reduced as result of the Covid-19. One in ten members of the Russell 3000, a broad index of listed American companies, has cut the top man’s salary.

But total CEO pay includes things like bonuses and stock awards that typically make up the bulk of what a corporate boss takes home. CGLytics, a compensation analysis firm, claims most reductions were generally only 10 percent or less of 2019 salary. Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger, for example, took a $2 million salary cut, but it just amounted to slightly more than 3 percent of his total compensation in 2019.

An even more egregious example of corporate avarice was the decision this spring of Raytheon Technologies to make an adjustment in the pay package of its head man, Gregory J. Hayes likely to increase his future income by an estimated $12.5 million. At the same time, the company, one of the nation’s biggest defense contractors, was cutting wages for thousands of employees by 10 percent and furloughing a number of its 195,000 employees, including 1,500 in Winston-Salem.

While this scenario is playing out in the US economy, the Congress and the Trump administration are engaged in a heartless and financially ruinous battle over how to extent federal relief. The Democratic-controlled House passed in May a proposed expansion of assistance with a price tag of an estimated $3 trillion. In control of the Senate, Republicans under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, and without any leadership from the president, have elected to drag the legislative process out to the point that millions of Americans may face a dire fall and winter.

Neither side is proposing sufficient money for state and local governments, including the public schools that everyone would like to see opened. Republicans are also insisting on giving a blanket liability waiver to employers with regards to potential exposure of employees and customers to Covid-19. This seems overkill given the conservative judges they have approved during the past three years.    

The big fight appears to be over extending the $600 subsidy to state unemployment benefits. Republicans criticize the $600 as being a disincentive to work because many people have higher income on unemployment insurance than they did in their prior job.

But this ignores three facts: 1) there are three times more unemployed workers than there are job openings; 2) in general, workers prefer a steady job instead of unemployment benefits, but given the spike in coronavirus cases, how likely will opportunities for regular employment return soon; and 3) the return to normalcy in our economy will continue to be hampered by our failure to gain control over the coronavirus.

The irony is that by keeping millions of households financially intact and reducing the negative impact of the coronavirus threat to the overall economy, the original federal aid also shored up the stock market. If the $600 unemployment subsidy is now axed with over 30 million Americans still unemployed, the stock market may finally resemble our economy.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

School Openings Require Federal Funds

As the normal time for opening schools approaches, it is becoming increasingly clear the country is not ready. Despite broad recognition of how important it is to get young people back in a learning environment, political leaders have failed to provide the resources for a safe launch.

Most responsible citizens recognize that schools are essential to the wellbeing of our society, not only for education, but also for the socialization that occurs in the school setting. Parents can meet some educational needs and provide a foundation of respect for learning in general, but they cannot cover all subjects, nor replicate the interaction with other students critical to helping young people understand the challenges and values of community.

The shutdown of schools in mid-March brought home to Americans the central role schools play in our daily lives, especially in our working lives. Schools not only educate our children, but they accept responsibility for them while parents work. Parents with minor children comprise almost one-third of the nation’s workforce. Nearly 34 million families have at least one child under 14.

If our economy is to recover anytime soon, it is critical that our schools open. But opening schools without proper safeguards against the coronavirus would be foolish. In recent weeks we have seen the tragic results of trying to open major sectors of our society without sufficient planning and protective measures.

How are school districts responding to this challenge? In general, education experts identify three possible approaches: 1) relying on remote learning and forego opening of schools until the coronavirus is under control and a vaccine is ready; 2) opening schools on a hybrid schedule allowing students to attend in-school classes for a couple of day each week and relying on remote learning the other three, and 3) fully opening schools with as much social distancing as is affordable given existing resources and facilities.

The first approach does nothing to meet the socialization goals of schools and raises serious questions about maintaining continuity in the education process. Professional educators are already concerned about the negative impact of closing schools thus far. In addition, it has become apparent that many youngsters do not have resources necessary for remote learning.

The second approach seems the most popular, but such a halfway measure is not likely to satisfy either the goals of education or of socialization. Also, families are likely to find it severely disruptive. What if multiple children in a family are not scheduled for in-school classes on the same days? What child care arrangements can be made on a three-day week schedule? How do working parents coordinate their job schedules with their children’s class schedules?

All in all, the second approach seems to be a “Hail, Mary” by frustrated school administrators faced with the task of trying to address a need without adequate resources.

The third approach is the only one that meets society’s interests, but there are two caveats: 1) although the threat of the coronavirus cannot be eliminated until there is a vaccine, its spread can be brought under some reasonable degree of control. Several European countries have successfully opened their schools, but only after significantly reducing the spread of the pandemic. At the moment in the US this is not the case, and 2) the states are not in a position to provide the resources and facilities necessary for success.

What is necessary for schools to fully open in a reasonable, safe manner? Given the continuing risks from the coronavirus, social distancing rules must be mandated to protect students, teachers, school nurses, and other essential workers. Masks, space restrictions, modified school buses, frequent testing and contact tracing, access to sanitizing materials, and sufficient quarantine areas all must be in place.

Meeting space restrictions may involve modification of existing facilities or even the acquisition of additional buildings. Most school districts have within their boundaries empty structures that could be converted to meet educational purposes or to expand the availability of child care.

These requirements will necessitate buy ins by parents and students, but they also will cost money. Most states have been struggling with school financing for several years, especially since the Great Recession. A primary source of school funding, the sales tax, has suffered greatly during the pandemic, and state income tax revenue is also likely to fall. State budgets for public schools in 2018 totaled slightly more than $700 billion. Estimates of state shortfalls range from 20 to 30 percent of anticipated revenue.

Only the federal government with the power to run deficits is in a position to provide the states the help they need to open schools safely. The US Congress provided $13.2 billion in emergency aid for public education in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) last March, but this is less than a drop in the bucket towards the need. While the Democratic-controlled House passed in May another stimulus bill that includes $350 billion for state and local government, the Republican majority in the Senate does not appear supportive or even agreeable to negotiating a compromise.

Trump has not been helpful. He has encouraged states to reopen without adequate controls and has refused to recognize any federal responsibility for securing necessary PPE resources. Also, he has demanded schools reopen regardless of the status of the pandemic or the availability of the necessary funding for social distancing. If districts fail to comply, Trump has threatened to withhold federal education funds. It is doubtful he has the authority to withhold funds, but Trump’s threat is an obstacle to resolving the problem. His secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, who does not hide her disdain for public education, has indicated a desire to divert federal monies to vouchers that could be used for families to send students to private schools.

The federal government should provide funds for more teachers and other key personnel, such as nurses and counselors, for additional facilities (temporary or otherwise), for other essential support personnel (maintenance, housekeeping, and bus drivers). The Council of Chief State School Officers estimates schools need between $158 billion and $245 billion in additional federal support to cover funding cuts and follow the Center for Disease Control’s coronavirus recommendations for reopening safely in the fall. If federal politicians can figure out how to funnel billions of dollars to lawyers, car dealers, lobbyists and well-funded private schools, surely they can find a way to provide the money needed by public schools for a safe opening.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Preserving a Free Press

Before I entered the academic world, I was a television newsman and editorial writer for a few years at a local station in Florence, SC.  WBTW was an affiliate of Jefferson Standard Broadcasting. While there I learned to value responsible journalism in a society that believes in a free press.

Some news reporters and commentators will claim they are totally unbiased with regard to political viewpoint, but that is implausible. A journalist should be deliberate in reaching any judgment about public policies or candidates, but no one can inform himself adequately to cover an issue or a set of candidates without likely forming a viewpoint. If he is to perform his job as a journalist, he must bend over backward to give some time and space to those policies and candidates he finds less attractive.

Editorial writers have more leeway than reporters because they are recognized as the source of a newspaper’s or broadcaster’s opinion.  An editorial writer should still acknowledge differing viewpoints either through op-ed columns or letters to the editor. At WBTW every time I wrote an editorial I had to invite an outside individual to offer on air a differing opinion or perspective.

Broadcasters at the time, radio and television, had to abide by the “fairness doctrine.” A mandate of the Federal Communication Commission, it required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in an honest, equitable and balanced manner. Each station periodically had to submit evidence it was fulfilling this goal with documented community support.

Unfortunately, the fairness doctrine was repealed during the Ronald Reagan administration. The growing plethora of cable and satellite channels in the 1980s appeared to offer an alternative to the fairness doctrine. In reality, individual channels now are more likely to offer narrow opinions, if any, and discussions of important issues are not approached in a comprehensive and balanced manner.

Newspapers did not have to contend with the fairness doctrine for a couple of reasons. One, most newspapers were locally owned and managed and depended upon local advertisers and there was no license required to operate a newspaper. The threat of potential competition encouraged presentation of a broad array of opinions. Second, most newspapers considered one of their roles to be that of educator, informing the public about the issues of the day. Editors offered their own opinions, but usually printed differing views on an op-ed page or in letters to the editor.  

With this background in mind, let us take note of the current controversy revolving around the op-ed piece by US Senator Tom Cotton that appeared recently in the New York Times.

Exactly how many Americans are aware of Senator Cotton’s essay I do not know, nor how many may have actually read it. But it has caused considerable discussion in the world of journalism about the meaning and function of a free press.

For the benefit of those who do not read the Times or pay excessive attention to political pundits, Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, in a June 3 op-ed called for using US military troops in response to demonstrations like those sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

A graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School, Cotton served five years in the US Army Infantry between 2005 and 2010, spending time in both Iraq and Afghanistan. 
In 2012, he was elected to the US House representing Arkansas’ 4th District. After serving one term, Cotton was elected in 2014 to the US Senate. He was 37 years old.

Cotton has been a vocal supporter of Donald Trump and despite his youth and limited experience has been touted as a potential candidate for Director of the CIA and for Secretary of Defense. His views are hawkish on foreign policy, immigration and criminal justice reform. In February 2020, Cotton suggested the coronavirus may have started in a Wuhan, China, lab and spread under suspicious circumstances.

Cotton’s message parroted President Trump’s earlier threat to employ the US military to quell disorder if local law enforcement could not, or would not, act. To justify use of military force, Cotton cited several instances in the past where US military or National Guard units were deployed, including Little Rock in 1957 and Los Angeles in 1992.

He did not mention Kent State in 1970 when National Guard troops killed four students in what had been a peaceful protest.

But it is not the validity of Cotton’s opinion that is at issue. The fallout from the Times’ printing of his op-ed piece is the problem, for it led to the resignation of the editor of the opinion page and raises some disturbing questions about the newspaper’s policy regarding future op-eds.

After Cotton’s essay appeared there was an immediate and hostile reaction from members of the Times news staff.  A twitter assault accused the op-ed editors of publishing a call for violence that included several factual inaccuracies and did not meet the newspaper’s standards. According to a statement from the NewsGuild of New York, a labor union that represents Times’ journalists, “This rhetoric could inspire further use of force at protests---protests many of us and our colleagues are covering in person.”

However, the day Cotton’s op-ed was published was also the day retired Marine General James Mattis blasted President Trump for proposing to use US military troops against protesters. The attack by Mattis has since been echoed by a number of key military leaders, including Colin Powell and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Even members of Trump’s administration have pushed back at his suggestion.

As an elected member of the US Senate, Cotton’s opinion should be of interest to all Americans, even to those, like me, who strongly disagrees with both his thesis about the use of force in response to public protest s and his dismissive treatment of the motives of most protesters. 
Apparently, he is on a fast track to leadership within the Republican Party and has the ear of the current president.

The purpose of a free press is to alert the public to possible threats to our liberty and well-being.  Censoring those perceived as threats could leave us in the dark about potential dangers. It also risks elevating possible tyrants to martyrs. Better to let miscreants do themselves in with their own words.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Is Social Distancing Unconstitutional?

As the nation attempts to move away from “staying-in-place” towards a reopening of various elements of everyday life, there is a lot of discussion about the relationship between the pandemic and the US Constitution. It is not unusual that this should be occurring. Americans are proud of our founding document and reference it often.

The problem is the US Constitution was written over 230 years ago when things were a bit different. That leads often to disputes about the meaning of various clauses and provisions. Especially when disputants have competing axes they wish to grind.

As for me, when I attempt to determine what a particular provision of the US Constitution means, I try to ascertain how it relates to the framers’ purpose when they were creating our federal government. The preamble gives us a useful clue:

“We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

No surprise that “…to form a more perfect Union…” came first. The framers had a number of other objectives: justice, public safety, national defense, economic security, and individual liberty, but they likely understood that accomplishing any and all would require the combined efforts of the approximately four million Americans living at that time. Throughout most of our history union has been the key to our successes as a nation.

With three-hundred-twenty-five million Americans today, continuing to progress towards the goal of “a more perfect Union” is a lot tougher, and our inability to deal with a variety of long term problems reflects this challenge. Still, it is an important goal.

As for our current dilemma, faced with one of our nation’s more serious health threats, most Americans seem to be on board with regards to the need for a common effort, even if it involves significant financial costs and personal inconvenience.  

Some, however, claim the social distancing guidelines imposed or suggested by state and local governments are unconstitutional. Mixed and contradictory messages from the White House regarding the recommendations encourage dissent from the common sense proposals. Fortunately, Congress has been willing to step into the void and provide significant funding to lessen the financial impact of the resulting economic lockdown. But more needs to be done.

Those who assert the social distancing recommendations are unconstitutional seem to suffer from mass paranoia. The guidelines have not been drafted to diminish individual rights, but just as is the case with any threat to domestic order, to national security or to the rights of other individuals, legitimate restraints may be appropriate.  In the current situation, the purpose is to protect our health care system from being overwhelmed by a dangerous virus for which we have no known cure or even treatment.

The speed and extent of the virus has been mindboggling. Unrestrained, it could have swamped our health care system, especially the nation’s hospitals since we maintain, reasonably so, a limited capacity. Even now, there is the possibility of another surge that could leave our health care system unable to respond to other health threats, such as cancer, heart attacks, stroke or flu.

What is the severity of the restrictions? Private businesses, schools and colleges, churches and synagogues, cultural organizations and health care institutions, all have had  their operations shut down, or at least, severely restrained. This is why Congress has sought to mitigate the economic damage suffered by employers and employees.  Allowing society to continue as if the virus did not exist is not a reasonable alternative.

Social distancing does not impose an oppressive burden on the individual. In fact, social distancing, including wearing a mask , is an individual’s obligation to his fellow citizens. It does not interfere with free speech, free press, or religious freedom.  An unrestrained pandemic and death would.

Access to essential human needs have not been shut down. That is why health care facilities remain open, as do grocery stores, the Post Office and other delivery services. All of this is intended to be temporary and it will be if social distancing is practiced by everyone for a reasonable period of time---measured by the course of the virus and by the success of science in developing a cure and improving treatment for those who contract the virus.

President Trump’s cavalier attitude towards social distancing is apparently motivated by a concern that economic sluggishness will torpedo his re-election in November. He has good reason to be concerned. Officially, the US is already in recession. The last president to be re-elected during a recession was Harry Truman.  Too bad Harry is no longer around.