Category Archives: comment

Parliament: At Least Debate

One of the more esoteric debates in academia for those studying politics is the contrast between the American form of government, with a strong executive and an elected legislature wielding equal power, with the democratic parliamentary system in which the elected legislature is the ultimate power, the head of state subservient to it and the executive chosen by it. In other words, America v. England.

I frequently got into this debate with my father, a true Anglophile, and we never resolved the issue. The compare and contrast form of discussion was, in many way, ironic because of the historical circumstances. England had a strong executive at the time of the American revolution. King George III reigned at that time, had considerable real power compared with today’s Queen Elizabeth II, and was for Americans the perfect example of a leader to be avoided.

And they did at first avoid entirely the idea of an executive. There was a president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation which preceded the Constitution of 1787. But the president, like the Congress itself, lacked real power. Every decision required a consensus, the agreement of all 13 independent sovereign states.

What is ironic is that while England has evolved into a system where the popularly elected legislature is most powerful. America has evolved into a system where a powerful executive, elected not by the people but by an electoral college chosen according to practices set by state legislatures, often dominates the political debate.

Moreover, America has evolved into a two party system, something the framers of the Constitution generally opposed, while England has evolved into a multi-party system where coalitions between parties with different legislative agendas are often needed to dictate policy.

I don’t have an answer for the obvious question, which is better? But I do have an opinion on one aspect of the differences between the systems. One that is apparent to anyone following the British parliament debate over Brexit, the plan to leave the European Union. The difference is, in Britain, there is a very public, acrimonious and, in my opinion, healthy, debate.

Watching the British members of parliament go at it is something I find curiously refreshing. When was the last time we saw a major issue of the day being robustly debated in the American Congress? In both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the party with a majority of the votes controls the floor proceedings. That has meant of late that issues not supported by the leaders of the majority party simply never come up for discussion and often never even come up for a vote.

The President, unlike England’s Prime Minister, never appears in Congress except by invitation generally for the once-a-year State of the Union address. He is constitutionally required to sign legislation, but there are times when his position is not publicly known.

Watching the Parliament debate I was both entertained and informed. Congress could learn something from its ancestor. In 1776, one of my favorite musicals, Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins casts a deciding vote in favor of having the Continental Congress debate Virginia’s motion that the 13 colonies declare their independence from England. Hopkins says he’s never heard of an issue so dangerous it cannot even be discussed.

A lot of the dialogue in the play comes from the historical writings and speeches of the characters. And it is remarkable how prescient many of them were. However, I’ve never been able to locate proof that Hopkins actually cast such a vote or spoke those words. Or if they were the invention of the late Peter Stone, who wrote the book. Still, I agree with the sentiment. And I wish Congress would debate the issues of the day in public and not, if at all, behind closed doors.

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Again With the Guns

I have now learned that a great way to increase the amount of public participation on your blog is to talk about guns. The feedback on my last post set a record.

I have also learned that having a reasonable debate on this subject is pretty much impossible. There is so much disinformation out there that people involved in the discussion seem to be speaking different languages.

Part of the problem is that there really is, as I noted in the last post, not a lot of good data on the effects of gun ownership and gun regulation. I know that sounds crazy and I have to tell you, as one who believes in making informed data driven judgments it is very frustrating. But it is true mostly because the government, which funds much of the academic research in the United States, has for years forbidden the organizations responsible for public health and safety to fund studies into the causes of death by gunfire. That leaves us arguing, for example, on the effectiveness of the assault weapons ban which expired in 2004.

There is an excellent and new study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in The American Journal of Medicine which finds, “The U.S. firearm homicide rate is 25 times higher than in other high-income countries, and the firearm suicide rate is eight times higher.” That is fine as far as it goes. But it does not try to connect the high rates of death to the differences in gun regulation between the United States and those other countries. In addition it was funded by The Joyce Foundation, which advocates for regulation.

That funding source leaves the study open to criticism from the pro-gun people, who spend vast sums of money debunking even the most straight forward studies of the gun death epidemic, my words, in the United States. The so-called “Just Facts” site looks to make a well argued and graphically supported point that the news media in America exaggerates the gun related death rate. I direct you to the link and will not copy their charts here. How many people will read carefully? I fear not many as I laugh at charts comparing a less than 10 in 100,000 murder rate in the United States with a 10 per 1,000,000 homicide rate reported by police in England and Wales. That indicates the rate in the U.S. is ten times greater, although the charts look the same.

We know that the killing rate in the United States is off the charts. And we know that the only significant difference between America and the other countries is the number of high powered, large capacity, rapid fire weapons of war that are available to the public in America. These are not the weapons the authors of the Second Amendment knew when they wrote. There is no reason why we must be bound, in the Twenty-First Century, by an Eighteenth Century law.

Moreover, we never were. Common sense applied until the gun manufacturing lobby and its National Rifle Association began its campaign in the 1970s to change the way our political leaders and courts read the Second Amendment since it was enacted. See the Brennan Center’s, How the NRA Rewrote the Second Amendment.

Perhaps the late Chief Justice of the United States, Warren Burger, a conservative and a Republican, put it best:

The Gun Lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American People by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies — the militia — would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.

Warren Berger,
Chief Justice of the United States,
MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, 1991

We can’t look to anyone else to fix this problem. It is up to us. The next time you hear about a mass killing skip the thoughts and prayers. Register and vote.

 

 

 

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Medicare for All: The Possible Dream

Oh, “The Impossible Dream”. How were we to know that David Brooks, a true compassionate conservative torn asunder by the Trump led takeover of the Republican agenda, is a Luddite at heart?

New York Times columnist Brooks is one of my favorite writers. I never miss a column. And I never miss his Friday joint appearances with liberal syndicated writer Mark Shields on the PBS NewsHour. Brooks usually writes from a unique perspective, but his recent effort branding Medicare for All “The Impossible Dream” seems to have been written from the Twilight Zone.

The Blank Slate

“If America were a Blank Slate,” Brooks writes, “Medicare for all would be a plausible policy, but we are not a blank slate.” The problem, Brooks goes on to explain in detail, is that Medicare for all would require vast segments of America to “transition”, and that would, according to Brooks, be unacceptably disruptive.

The devil is in the details and in truth, as Brooks admits, we don’t know just what Medicare for all means or how we would plan to get there. He tends to cherry pick the proposals to focus on the most disruptive versions. But there is nothing in the history of this great nation to suggest that we will be unable to face whatever challenges the endeavor might raise.

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Post Oscars

So. Its over. What did you think?

It wasn’t as long as some. And frankly, I didn’t miss the host. Besides, any show that begins with a trialog featuring Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph is an instant hit in my book. Why can’t we have these three host every event from this day forward? TV Shows, shareholder meetings, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, etc. You get the idea.

Special recognition must be given to  Randy Thomas. “Never seen her,” you say? Probably not. But you’ve heard her. Ms. Thomas is the voice-over talent and announcer who for the last ten years has introduced presenters and vocally escorted winners to the stage with information about previous nominations and wins. For this hostless Oscar ceremony, Ms. Thomas was a star.

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Journalism? When Pigs Fly!

I could never have anticipated this post. In fact, I can see myself sitting in my journalism class alongside my friends, Marc, Mark and David, Alanna and Lori, and my professors, Isaacs, Patterson, Wood and Friendly. What I wonder, would have happened if I had predicted that 45 years later I would write, and publish where anyone in the world could see it, a commentary containing a reference to a “dick pic”? Never have received my degree, probably.

For those of you who have been on the far side of the moon, shielded from any electromagnetic radiation emanating from earth, a quick recap. Jeff Bezos, who the style books demand must be referred to as, “Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world,” on first reference, woke up one morning to find himself on the front page of the National Enquirer.

bezos-enquirer-div

One generally finds the Enquirer at the supermarket checkout, where it might come in handy if the store is out of toilet paper. This issue featured the details of Bezos’ impending divorce, along with pictures of Bezos and a woman, not his wife, who he was reportedly seeing.

In spite of the headline, I am not going to argue that this report is not journalism. The press has a special place in the history of the United States. It is the only occupation specifically protected by the Constitution. The framers who wrote that document knew exactly what they were doing. They had employed the press to spread the word, sometimes false, about British abuse of colonialists. That helped fan the flames of insurrection. In fact, I’ve often thought the British might have won the Revolutionary War if they had just confiscated every printing press in America.

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The Name Game

Calling another kid by an unflattering nickname is a habit most of us left on the grade school playground. Of course, Donald Trump is not “most of us.” Donald Trump seems to take a particular delight in coming up with a derogatory nickname for people he is not too fond of. “Crooked Hillary” is just one example.

Some of the people he attacks don’t take the bait and engage him in this fashion. I admire them. I don’t think I would capable of that much self restraint. If a punch in the nose wasn’t an available option, and the guy is of course surrounded by Secrete Service agents, I’d at least resort to the obvious retorts. “Donny Draft Dodger” is a good fit. And “Pussy Grabber” would work for an adult audience.

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Me Academy. Pick Me.

Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

I respectfully submit my name for your consideration as the host of the 91st Academy Awards broadcast. I know you’ve had some difficulty filling this role. In fact, your track record in this area is pretty shaky. It’s another nice mess you’ve gotten yourself into!

Its hard to understand why finding a host for the movie industry’s biggest night, and one of the highest rated television broadcasts of any year, should be so difficult. But the rumor mill says many very big names in the entertainment industry turned you down this year. Oscar, you have a problem.

This year’s announced choice, comedian Kevin Hart, withdrew. Those darn social media posts from the past just keep coming back to haunt you. What you got here is a failure to communicate. I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.

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