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Got a Disaster Plan?

Terry H. Schwadron

May 24, 2023

As the endless political posturing continues, we all can understand that the debt ceiling game of chicken draws ever closer to real and substantial problems – as much over the threat of default on the government’s ability to pay bills as on the actual arrival of that fateful day.

Clearly, we’re missing the Big Compromise that may pop up at the last moment – after politicians from both parties, but particularly the extreme Republican House caucus wrings the last drop of would-be electoral advantage.

Still, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is doubling down on the real dangers starting two weeks away that will strike services, financial markets, everyday prices, and an unprecedented undercutting of U.S. power in the world.

While information abounds freely about the expected impacts, there has been little public reporting to date about what exactly government agencies are doing to implement the effects of a meltdown or even the results of a slowed inability to pay our bills if the Congress comes to its senses and kicks the can down the lane for a short time to extend these negotiations that finally seem to be getting to the nub of the issues.

Instead, of course, we have free-flowing opinion-making with few specifics to bolster the power politics of a showdown and open speculation about which magic button the White House can push to suddenly recognize Constitutional power to ignore the debt ceiling or to mint a trillion-dollar coin or two to cover the problem with newly created cash.

We prefer magic to hard solutions – especially if the problem has been totally created out of political division and not out of need. This debt ceiling problem is not only manufactured but created of whole cloth by extreme right-leaning House Republicans acting like spoiled children looking for attention. That Republicans refuse to look at taxing the rich at a fair rate or companies that currently pay nothing belies any commitment to balancing building debt as political and not serious.

If you want the other side over “fairness,” Joe Biden and company should have known this was coming since last November, but apparently thought logic would apply to what is an emotional outburst from their opponents.

Protecting Investments, Not Health

From the various news reports, the Republican caucus in the House has quite a few members who believe the problems are hyped and over-stated, that shutting down government on the one hand and defaulting on our bills on the other won’t prompt a market crash or tip a set of global dominoes.

Indeed, you can tune into Fox News panels or visit right-wing websites to see a certain glee in the idea of shutting government, the ultimate anti-Deep State sentiment. Donald Trump seemed to buy into that notion last week at his CNN town hall presentation, and there is no real variation in polling among would-be Republican voters about threatening the sudden stop of Social Security checks or services to veterans or even closing national parks just before summer.

There has been a good deal of reporting about how Wall Street and financial markets are preparing themselves, as well as dissemination of advice on what to do about your own investments. Forbes Magazine, for example, which is quoting experts who see default by the U.S. Treasury as triggering “financial Armageddon,” even is offering information about which sectors might thrive best through a default.

If investment protection is your priority, the magazine is pointing positively to defense stocks as safest since international tensions will rise, and bank stocks because default will hike governments’ reliance on additional borrowing to pay inflated service costs. Even treasury notes might be a good choice because they will become cheap quickly through devaluation, and utilities, real estate and precious metals holdings are always considered good as the world suffers. CNN adds that other financial securities, derivatives, and international finance will be hit in a fast-increased widening of ripples.

If on the other hand, you might be a tad worried about a millions losing health care or Social Service checks that pay the monthly bills or airplanes that require federal air controllers or even Border Patrol defenders to address the ever-criticized southern border, we have little information about exactly how the government will set its priorities in a cash-starved mode.

What’s the Plan?

As with most emotional set-tos, reason is of limited concern in this dispute. If the showdown did not come as a part of a routine debt ceiling discussion, it would have come in the fall for budget week.

And even in the best of times, economists argue about strategies that are best for the country. Arguing after the fact that helping people and small businesses survive covid shutdowns seems particularly futile. Arguing that the best answer to our strange times of high prices and high prices is to cut social services seems Darwinian. Arguing that we need to grow dependence on fossil fuels at a time when the climate has begun its rage campaign over destructive policies seems, well, unrealistic at best,

If Biden thought he could wish away a split Congress with tiny majority margins, he was wrong; if Republicans believed that thinking makes all possible without the hard facts associated with spending cuts, they need to hear from constituents who in real life take more proportionately from government services in red states than they do in blue states.

I’d like to know that there is a plan, even if that last-minute compromise arrives to provide more time or even to settle the matter.

Are we going to make our international debt commitments while putting upwards of two million federal workers on furlough? Are we going to keep our military and veterans fully covered? Are we making immigration deportation services a priority over continued Social Security payments?

We’re due some real reporting on how the government plans to manage all of this. We have plenty of time for politics later.


Censorship vs. Sensitivity

Terry H. Schwadron

May 23, 2023

The push and pull over who’s telling the stories of our times, how we experience it and what issues we might consider as a result are spiraling.  

A recent Washington Post column reflected as much concern about these times of heightened sensitivity as it did about how we read or engage with art. Columnist Kathleen Parker sparked my interest as her column explored concerns of fiction writers and publishers about language choices, characters, and cultural appropriation that are increasingly finding criticism.

Her column really sets a bigger buffet of interesting questions to ponder about expectations from novels, drama, and other performance at a time when identity – racial, cultural, gender, national, and more – clearly are undergoing serious reconsideration.

She calls our age one of “censorship” by publishers, in which “certain words are essentially verboten.” She adds that “at the heart of the new restrictions is the notion that novelists can’t (or shouldn’t) write in the voice of someone whose experience and heart they cannot know. This means that Whites should write only about White characters, Latinos about Latinos, Asians about Asians and so on.”

While I think there is a distinct gap between increased sensitivity about the aims of our arts and censorship, the questions here for publishers, producers, writers and readers are engaging. We hear similar plaints about casting in plays and movies and in discussions of taxing our art products to reflect celebratory aspects of identity.

While I consider “censorship” some government or official pulling books off the shelf or banning art based on writer backgrounds, for sure, something is going on here in the name of sensitivity and responsibility. The problem with “censorship” labels is that they are one-way limitations on incoming information.

By contrast, “sensitivity” requires engagement by readers, listeners or the audience with whom any artist seeks to engage. After all, it is the act of engagement that is at the heart of art.

As the arts intend to mirror our times, Parker’s column raises contextual questions that apply equally to how we talk with one another – or misinterpret – through immediate and knee-jerk response. .

Growing Pressure

Since Jeanine Cummins’s “American Dirt” in 2020, she says, there has public pressure towards matching storytelling to the identities included in the text. That book concerns an undocumented immigrant forced to flee Mexico with her son after her journalist husband exposed a local drug kingpin. It was an Oprah’s Book Club selection and a New York Times bestseller that sold 3 million copies worldwide in 37 languages.

Some Mexican Americans panned the book for containing stereotypes Spanish phases that seemed generated by Google Translate.  Cummins, a New Jersey resident, wasn’t Latina enough, said critics, and her book tour eventually was canceled.

Since then, publishing houses have hired “sensitivity readers,” Google Docs offers a feature that assists users in making their work more “inclusive,” and there’s a hashtag that helps guide young adult readers find books in which the characters and the author share an identity.

From her account, it’s not hard to find examples of book deals that have soured over identity.

None of this is new, of course. Men have written books with women as emotionally believable characters, or the reverse. People from one racial ancestry have written successfully about characters from another. Some writers of television dramas have created credible plots involving characters who were straight, gay, or fluid. For that matter, science fiction writers are creating whole planets and alien races for which we have no immediate means to criticize.

We’ve seen orchestras avoid composers whose politics they abhor, and museums held to account for “stealing” artifacts from different cultures. Now we have boycotts of J.K. Rowling over her views on transgender issues or calls to look anew at “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

As often arises in the reading of books written in eras past or about years past, the sensitivity of our personal or even societal reading lens shifts over time.

Rather than standing on principles of one-truth-forever, there have been questions about language or image choices that were acceptable in past generations of Dr. Suess books or other novels that make us more than a little uncomfortable to read again today.

It is an open question whether such books, such language choices or such cultural characterization would be published today.

Celebration, not Confusion

Parker acknowledges that “It is surely a net positive when authors from diverse backgrounds tell their own stories. But their contributions shouldn’t interfere with writers who dare to imagine a fictional character’s experiences.”

On the other hand, publishers or readers who bar storytelling about someone with a different background than the author seems bizarre.

Can’t we see that it might be artistically interesting to cast a disabled actor in the role requiring a disability, but it doesn’t seem reason enough to boycott the film if there was a different choice. That all-Japanese version of “Fiddler on the Roof” we ran into obviously wasn’t cast with Ashkenazi Jewish shtetl descendants in mind, but rather as a specific way to show that the storyline was closer to universal.

“What are we losing when we curtsy to identity demands? Where does it stop?” Parker asks, “Literary criticism requires, among other things, consideration of an author’s historical time and cultural context. Instead of protecting young people, why aren’t we teaching them to think? This seems to me the more damaging effect of preemptive strikes against emotional triggers. Psychology informs us that emotions are information. They’re our invisible guides in the human quest for meaning. We must learn to navigate life’s lessons without imagined or self-imposed trauma, or we may eventually lose our ability to communicate,” says Parker.

Hmm. Sounds like a call to teaching and valuing critical thinking.

Look, the balance here involves both concern about unnecessary cultural appropriation or the use of inappropriate cultural overlay in the name of freedom of expression and awareness that words, images, and setting can overly simply pressures that someone other than oneself might be feeling.

Successful art is that which speaks to audience – and then starts a conversation.  Choosing characters and situations that lack credibility fail both writer/artist and reader. That the publishing industry apparently thinks that finding commercial success by bars and bans hardly seems responsive to either.


Ukraine and Our Debt Crisis

Terry H. Schwadron

May 22, 2023

Ahead of a promised, sustained “counteroffensive” push against the invading Russian Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is winning renewed and heightened weapons backup from his allies.

But the timing of more war preparations is coming as the financial underpinnings of support in the United States are hitting a shaky moment.

Even as President Joe Biden, under pressure from other allied leaders, is now offering training on modern and lethal F-16 fighter jets, Biden is neck deep in crisis talks with Republican opponents about U.S. spending on a wide scale that certainly will include pressure to cut back on aiding the Ukrainians.

Of course, everything about the conduct of these debt ceiling showdown talks between the most extreme but controlling elements of the U.S. House and the White House are ugly, unnecessary, and dangerous. Even the threat that the United States either will have to default on some payments or do some kind of fancy financial legerdemain to stay within its legal debt spending is destabilizing. By all accounts, those talks are marked more by difference than agreement.

The spending cuts that will be required to make for a successful negotiation to sidestep the issue will carry ill effects for all but the richest, likely will not accomplish what even opponents want, and certainly will end up endangering U.S. leadership in the world.

But in a direct sense, the nonsensical squabbling in Washington is threatening to whether Ukraine will be able to successfully repel the Russians. The hundreds of billions of dollars that the U.S. has committed to Ukrainian defense will be running out soon, and there are serious questions about whether these same ultra-Right House members in Washington will support renewal and sustenance of the war effort.

Voices of Isolation

The House’s loudest voices from the Right are basically isolationist in tone: The oversimplified argument is that the U.S. government should keep its money for U.S. citizens, not in faraway defense of democracy.

Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, a conservative Republican freshman from Florida, is among those who say Ukraine ranks low on her constituents’ concerns.

As The New York Times reported last month, Luna is among the boisterous proponents in Congress of Donald J. Trump’s “America first” worldview that regards financial commitments overseas with extreme skepticism. Like Mr. Trump, they maintain that every dollar spent on Ukraine “is a dubious investment of taxpayer money that could have been better used on domestic priorities, like fighting the spread of fentanyl.”

Senior Republicans who support the war, and maintain the party’s hawkish traditions, fear the movement will gain momentum as the conflict grinds on and Trump’s candidacy consumes the spotlight, the paper reported.  Speaker Kevin McCarthy has declared that Ukraine would not receive a “blank check” from the United States, but he supports fighting the Russians. But that’s not the case for Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, or Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., or Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and more.

Indeed, a recent survey found that 52 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents do not think U.S. interests are at stake in Ukraine. Another found that 57 percent of Republicans opposed providing weapons and financial support to Ukraine.

They are the same people pushing for spending cuts in this invented debt crisis, which, regardless of specific outcome, will melt into a continuing battle over spending until the next elections.

The Biden Question

For Biden, the calculus over Ukraine has been how to best provide specific support for the most immediate defense against occupying Russian forces without threatening a spread of war to Russia itself. Primarily out of such concerns, Biden has dragged his heels about providing aircraft and training to Ukrainian pilots to be most militarily aggressive on the battlefield.

But the results of delay in the air war have allowed for bombardment and drone attacks on residential areas, threats on nuclear and conventional power and water plants and civilian hospitals and schools. A Ukrainian with whom I talk regularly described the effects of an attack on a nearby munitions storage area near her defenseless Western Ukraine city, with attacks breaking nearly all the windows in the area, breaking water supplies and forcing yet more people to flee to what they hope is safer ground.

By agreeing to supply training to Ukrainian pilots on F-16s – not the newest air weaponry we have – Biden is committing to providing some number of jets as well, though there has been no such announcement. Other countries, including Poland, are already doing so, and the United Kingdom and Canada are reported to be pushing Biden to join.

Meanwhile, we’re hearing Trump simply assert that he alone could unilaterally stop the war in 24 hours without offering an iota of how, nor does he pledge support either for Ukraine over Russia, or for democracy over Vladimir Putin’s autocratic ways. Clearly, Trump wants to cede Ukrainian territory to Russia to gain some kind of temporary halt in Russian aggression.

Zelensky’s whirlwind tour of allied capitals in search of more weapons and aid seems to be winning continuing pledges, but the coincidental timing of coming as U.S. domestic political standoffs are hitting seem more than odd.


Mistaking Politics for Science

Terry H. Schwadron

May 19, 2023

Overlapping news reports poured in this week to confirm that, as a society, we have replaced scientific, medical thinking with outright partisan politics – even as the proponents of doing so exclaim that it was partisan politics that forced the medical messes in the first place.

For openers, we are looking for medical findings in court filings and legislative bills rather than to doctors, practitioners, and regulators of clinical test information. And, if some of us are not getting the answers we want not only for ourselves but for everyone, we take it all to the next court and the next legislature.

It is a spiraling mess that suggests we consider daily life too complicated, and it seems apparent that a good chunk of the country wants someone to reset rules to match our biases.

In New Orleans, the federal appeals court hearing an appeal from that single Texas federal judge who decided he knew better than the Federal Drug Administration what kind of clinical tests were necessary 20 years ago to approve user of medical abortion pills was busily taking apart Biden administration arguments to keep the drug as a safe medication. The three judges showed what reporters heard as discernible sympathy for the arguments that the FDA had erred in judging safety, despite the two decades of use.

Of note was the argument of Judge James Ho, a Donald Trump appointee, that courts have every right to revisit FDA decision-making as they do with any agency. “We are allowed to look at the FDA just like we’re allowed to look at any agency. That’s the role of the courts,” he said from the bench.

Actually, the questions before the court in this case involve determination of fact – as determined by medical clinical information rather than by attitude toward the use of the drug mifepristone to allow abortion by pills available in person or through the mails.  The main legal issue surfacing in the case – whether the ad hoc anti-abortion group that had formed only to file this challenge to the drug has “standing” before the court – is a question these judges seemed to waive away.

The scientific certainty for safety argued by Danco, the manufacturer, and the FDA, has been backed by teaching hospitals, medical associations, health experts and studies.

The whole case is certain to go the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, regardless of the circuit court findings.

The point is the balance among law, medicine and scientific fact-finding is clearly giving way to political overlay of government-imposed values.

Growing Number of Examples

In Texas, meanwhile,  a bill passed by the Republican-dominated state legislature became the 18th state and the most populous to bar hormone and puberty blocking treatments and surgeries for transgender minors.

With exceptions for those already in treatment – ordered by this legislation to switch medications to wean themselves over an unspecified time – the bill would halt all medical help or procedures performing mastectomies or surgeries that would sterilize a child or remove otherwise healthy tissue or body parts, or from prescribing drugs that would induce transient or permanent infertility.

Again, stepping back from the moral or even values questions here, we see legislators telling doctors their business.

A similar bill in Florida that just passed another Republican-controlled legislature not only barred treatments for transgender minors but established a new set of felony criminal charges for those who offer services. Indeed, State Bill 1580 allows doctors, nurses, pharmacies, hospitals, mental health providers, medical transport services, clinical lab personnel, nursing homes, and other licensed health care professionals and providers to discriminate and deny coverage or care based on any moral, religious, or philosophical differences.

The American Counseling Assn. notified members that this statement contradicts the professional association’s code of ethics to offer counseling services to anyone requesting them,

The irony of this law coming as there are national concerns about our mental health crisis are astounding, But the hypocrisy of the law coming from legislators whom one would think would want to encourage more counseling over gender fluidity questions rather than less is striking.

The zeal to replace political positioning for medical consideration has become a runaway train.

Abortion as a Values Yardstick

In South Carolina, that Republican-majority state House again has voted to limit legal abortion – this time to six weeks, as in Florida, a time period in which many women don’t even recognize pregnancy. There are exceptions for incest and rape only if a police report or restraining order can be shown, 

But here’s the weirder part. The state’s top court ruled in January that the state Constitution guarantees a right to abortion and struck down a previous six-week ban. Then, the state’s only woman justice retired, and was replaced by a male judge supported by the House’s Freedom Caucus.

So, the inevitable court battle here will serve as a direct test of whether it is the law or politics – to say nothing of medicine – that will dictate the outcome.

Indeed, to preserve the independence of the judiciary, we allow judicial candidates to avoid having to say where they stand on issues facing their respective courts all while recruiting and politicking like crazy to get a bench majority of people willing to look at precedent, law, agency power or medicine in ways that match our predisposed values.

These legal and legislative skirmishes in our continuing culture wars are a direct result of flaws in our democracy that increasingly are creating partisan gerrymandering, district line-drawing, a widening rural-urban split and so forth. The continuing polling that shows overwhelming support for abortion rights and the number of tangible election outcomes in Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states where the question comes to voters mock the insularity of these Republican-dominant legislatures.

It is crazy that abortion, transgender treatment, or other medical procedures should vary from state to state, and crazier yet that politicians beholden to anti-abortion forces should use every legal excuse to eliminate reliance on scientific or medical information for decision-making.

It’s no wonder why artificial intelligence software is drawing such interest.


Politics & Violence

Terry H. Schwadron

May 18, 2023

What we know is that a middle-aged man walked into the congressional office of Rep. Gerry Connolly in Virginia, asked for the congressman who was at work in Washington, and swung a metal baseball bat in the office, injuring two staffers, including one intern otherwise marking her first day at work there.

Police later arrested the man, who faces three felony criminal charges and a misdemeanor charge.

It was eerily reminiscent of the hammer-carrying attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at their San Francisco home, and the latest in a series of personal attacks that have gotten more widespread and harder to anticipate involving not only elected officials but their families or staff members.

It is unclear whether this attack was especially partisan in nature or just a reflection of pent-up frustrations and mental unbalance, but it does seem to be drawing bipartisan concern among elected officials. The suspect did sue the CIA a year ago claiming that the agency had been “wrongfully imprisoning [him] in a lower perspective based on physics” and alleging that he is being “brutally tortured … from the fourth dimension.”

Capitol Police, charged with protecting congressional personnel, recorded more than 9,000 threats against members of Congress this past year, Chief of Police Thomas Manger told a Senate committee a few months ago.

What is clear is that the rising wars of words that mark our public political lives are giving way to increasing numbers of physical violence. What is not clear at all as politicians led by Donald Trump in particular is whether we want to do anything about it all.

The continuing insistence on undercutting policing agencies – federal or state, courts and judges, regulatory agencies, or border agents — who act to intervene in conflicts are being framed in the political arena as picking partisan targets. Thus, we have open assertions flying around that the FBI needs to be reined in or that prosecutors need to refrain from filing charges against one political side or another.

Violence as a Human Trait

Vehemence of political team defense is intensifying, and physical violence for those who cannot fully control themselves is the natural outcome.

Heavily salted by times of perceived individual and group grievance and the refusal to press for addressing what clearly seems a growing mental health crisis, these growing number of politically violent incidents are more than coincidental.

In turn, the fear of violence is spurring acquisition of more and more dangerous weaponry, including the notable rise in the number of automated gun purchases, which, inevitably, are leading to more individual and mass attacks.

Yet, the most obvious solution – to dial down the intensity – remains elusive.

“Conventionally, violence is understood to be often driven by negative emotions, such as anger or fear,” says a study by The Social Psychology and Neuroscience Lab at the University of Virginia’s  the College of Humanities and Sciences. The center is studying psychopaths, revenge, domestic violence, and whether violence can be treated like an addiction.

Aggressive behavior can be reinforced by positive feelings of power and dominance, and that positive sensation, the study says, works on the same neural circuits as other addictive behaviors, such as cocaine, gambling and engaging in risky sexual behavior.

Other studies note that most animals use aggressive displays to ward off competitors for food or mates without the intention of causing serious injury or death. Predators kill primarily for sustenance — preying upon species other than their own. Two notable exceptions to this general rule are humans and chimpanzees.

Throughout the history of organized political life, violence has played an enormous role in every society created by man, wrote social scientist Gopal Singh in 1976. He was talking about wars rather than internecine individual violence, but it applies, nevertheless.

That’s why we have laws to guide and set up guardrails in our societies.

It seems like time for an update.

We Don’t Agree There is a Problem

Recent declarations by President Joe Biden that white supremacists and white nationalists are now considered the nation’s greatest terrorism threat echo the warnings we have heard from FBI Director Christopher Wray and other national security figures. Just check the numbers behind our domestic terrorism problem. 

But the knee-jerk reaction from the political Right has been to decry Biden’s “divisive” talk and essentially to double-down on defending those white nationalists who tend to support Republican candidates.

Almost in response, the House Homeland Security Committee held its own partisan-tilted hearing this week to discuss the threat of organized left-wing violence. The hearing was titled “‘Mostly Peaceful’: Countering Left-Wing Organized Violence.”

Naturally it featured moments in which Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.) lashing out against a terrorism expert witness for apparently laughing at her depiction of protests in 2020 led by Black Lives Matter in Seattle and Portland, noting that a “George Soros funded” group was demonstrating outside the hearing itself, and insisting that abortion rights protests were violent to millions of babies.

It seems patently obvious after watching Trump reels promoting violence in the name of pro-Trumpism — from the handling of rally hecklers to the promise of pardon for most Jan. 6 rioters — that he has helped usher in a resurgence of acceptability in physical and increasingly violent confrontation.

It seems clear that there is more aggression on the highway, there are more sharp exchanges about racial, gender, and identity affiliations, there are more efforts to shield ourselves from unagreeable information. There is more rejection of caring or even thinking about the effect on The Other.

Where is the call to stop this spread of unrestrained violence from our leaders, our pastors, our public educators?

Oh that’s right, doing so might involve the critical thinking we’re so busy rejecting.