When Deregulation Can Be Bad

As a general rule deregulation is a good thing for business, and the public. Director of the Office of Business and Management Mick Mulvaney has found the exception to that rule, while working as the interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. NPR reports:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created after the financial crisis to protect Americans from being ripped off by financial firms.

Now, President Trump’s interim appointee to run the bureau, Mick Mulvaney, is making radical changes to deter the agency from aggressively pursuing its mission.

An internal memo obtained by NPR says the CFPB on Monday will unveil a new strategic plan to that end. A “revised mission and vision of the bureau” for the years 2018 through 2022 will call upon the agency to “fulfill its statutory responsibilities but go no further.” It also says the bureau should be “acting with humility and moderation.”

To Mulvaney, that means dropping lawsuits against predatory payday lenders that happened to contribute to his campaign war chest when he was in Congress. In a perfect world, it would be fine to say “buyer beware” or the like, but these lenders that have been targeted for lawsuits by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau engage in deceptive practices. They also target people who can’t afford a lengthy legal battle to recoup losses.
In truth, Mulvaney is essentially legalizing loan shark operations, and apparently believes it is fine for these companies to threaten consumers as a part of their daily business. Also, he has no problem with interest rates far exceeding 100%.

With the exception of the anarchist fringe and perhaps the most radical conservatives, it’s fair to say that most Americans would say that they are morally opposed to companies that had been targeted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, because the public honestly does need protection from that level of deception. Unfortunately, Mulvaney probably will continue to tear down this agency, and the Trump administration obviously is fine with that idea. The public just needs to hope that these deceptive business practices don’t seep into more mainstream financial services, since we definitely cannot expect this administration to prevent the public from being deceived. Not all deregulation is a good thing.

Image: Photo by Alice Pasqual on Unsplash

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When Deregulation Can Be Bad

Is Mike Pence Helping or Hurting Relations During the Olympics?

Vice President Mike Pence is in South Korea for the Olympics, but he has been using the games as an opportunity to repeat the foreign policy positions that the U.S. holds on North Korea. That includes words and actions, since Pence has been stating that the U.S. intends to push more sanctions, and he has said nothing to the North Korean contingent in spite of being seated near Kim Yo-Jong – Kim Jong-Un’s sister – at the opening ceremonies.

First, it is important to remember that all of this is happening during the Olympic Games, which have historically been a point in time for nations to set aside their differences to celebrate the athletes who were chosen to compete. It is true that North Korea may be hoping to use these games as a way to restart a conversation with South Korea, but it’s also true that once the Olympic flame is extinguished in PyeongChang any good will generated during the games will likely disappear as well.

Pence appears to be operating under the misconception that South Korea is utterly unfamiliar with the actions and tactics of its northern neighbor, since he’s apparently at least a little concerned about the North Koreans winning points in a propaganda campaign now. If that isn’t foolish enough, he’s also engaged in a little comparison between Kim Jong-Un’s military parades and the one that Trump has requested in the U.S. That means that it will be more difficult for the U.S. to keep saying that the military parades in North Korea are nothing more than childish saber-rattling by a tyrant. In the end, the impression is that Pence is playing the petulant bully – a role description that typically fits Kim Jong-Un – while Kim Yo-Jong is just quietly attending the games.

Perhaps Pence needs to remind himself about a couple adages – “Politics is perception” and “There is a time and place for everything.” Tough talk against a silent foe during the Olympics makes the one doing the talking seem like the real bully, regardless of what reality is. Also, the last place where politicians should be talking politics is the Olympic Games, period, full stop.

Image: YouTube Capture/Al Jazeera

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Is Mike Pence Helping or Hurting Relations During the Olympics?

Writers – Read Your Old Stuff

“But, I’m a fiction writer. I can’t write essays!”

Just about any writer who has spent time mentoring has heard something like that, regardless of the writing style involved. I’ve personally protested against the concept of ever writing (good) poetry, because I sincerely question my ability to write anything beyond some rhymed verse for a toast.

But, deep in my own archives there are a few items that contain some lines that certainly are fairly lyrical, and probably could be turned into passable poetry if extracted and toyed with a bit. The same applies to some old essays of mine that could easily be turned into short fiction, if I chose to switch out real names for fictional ones, and remove some factual information that would interrupt the flow of the narrative.

It’s not new advice to suggest that writers read their own writing months or years after it was originally composed, but too often, the point of that suggestion is just about seeing concrete proof of growth as a writer. While that remains solid advice, it’s also important to suggest a fresh reading of old work when a writer is saying that she is incapable of creating work in a particular style or genre.

The fact is that while each type of writing has its own characteristics, cross-overs between them are numerous. Growing as a writer isn’t just about honing one’s skills in one particular area. It is also about exploring the boundaries, and crossing them.

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Writers – Read Your Old Stuff

Why Rob Porter Is a Symbol of the Trump Administration

The left-leaning media is having a field day thanks to former White House aide, Rob Porter. Partisan politicking aside, Porter honestly is a typical example of the kind of people who are currently in power in this country, and voters have placed them there. This is not to say that every person in government has something to hide in their personal lives, but it is pointing out the fact that voters have been increasingly more willing to overlook many unsavory details when they cast their ballots.

While the media and the political class are busy focusing on the details of Porter’s situation and making public statements of disapproval, a deeper issue will be left largely unexamined. How did we get to this point as a nation?

It is simple to toss around adages like “power corrupts,” but there are a few clues being offered in the comments from people in Washington who are trying to distance themselves from the Porter situation. While people in politics definitely do exist primarily in the public eye, the fact remains that they still have private lives. People like Sen. Orrin Hatch and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly initially came out making statements defending Porter, which were later back-stepped to commentaries about their knowledge of the man in the workplace.

Tempting as it may be to suggest that these people intentionally overlooked Porter’s alleged history of violence at home, the fact is that they probably were not privy to as many details as some might think, especially in Hatch’s case. Kelly is being called to task for failing to demand Porter’s dismissal as soon as he found out about the allegations, but it’s possible that the public will never know when that was. No matter what, the fact remains that both Hatch and Kelly measured the character of Porter solely on their personal and professional experiences with him – not his private life.

One statement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is particularly telling: “The American people knew this and voted for the president, and we feel like we’re ready to move forward in that process.” Sanders stated this in December when the press was focused on allegations of inappropriate behavior toward multiple women were surfacing against President Trump. Indeed, the public did decide that crass (misogynistic?) behavior could be overlooked when Trump won the presidency. Since then, the administration has been moving from one scandal to the next, and Porter just happens to be the latest chapter.

The bottom line is that U.S. voters have lowered the bar on acceptable behavior for their leaders since our nation began. Neither side of the aisle has managed to hold the high ground, and the only reason why Republicans are currently making most of the headlines for their misdeeds is because they are currently holding the majority in office. While the Trump administration may go down in history as an important point on the timeline tracking the degree of morally questionable behavior the voters have tolerated in their leaders, that is all it will be. It’s highly unlikely that the public will suddenly turn around, and start demanding higher standards from anyone. Perhaps the real question should be whether or not there ever will be a break point – will the public ever reach the point where they will not vote for someone because of defects in their character?

Image: By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Why Rob Porter Is a Symbol of the Trump Administration

Did the Media Misunderstand Chief of Staff John Kelly?

While White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is under scrutiny for several issues, one public statement might not have deserved the firestorm it received from the media. CNN reported Tuesday:

“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the President sent over what amounts to be two and a half times that number, to 1.8 million,” he said on Capitol Hill after meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to audio posted by The Washington Post.

“The difference between 690 and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up,” Kelly added.

The media response to this statement was quick and ugly, but it failed to take into account both the actual words said, and Kelly himself. While suggesting that people who could be eligible for DACA protection were “too lazy” to do it certainly can (and should) be considered objectionable, Kelly did not state that he believed they were. In point of fact, Kelly was stating the public opinions of many – from the left and from the right – which is clear if one bothers to pay attention to the actual words he said. But, that didn’t stop the media from accusing Kelly of being everything from insensitive to (possibly) racist:

It is important to keep in mind that previous to becoming Chief of Staff, Kelly spent his time in the Pentagon and in the Department of Homeland Security. In both of these environments, precision in speech is a necessity because imprecision can have a body count. That past experience also undoubtedly colors his attitude toward lawmakers who are willing to hold the military hostage while they argue over the status of people who aren’t U.S. citizens.

Because of his background, Kelly is as close as anyone can get to “apolitical” in the West Wing, regardless how much the media might wish it otherwise. In this case, it seems that reporting with bias against White House won the day, and the media missed the fact that Kelly was probably intending his statement to be taken as a condescending hit against the Hill, not a commentary on people who are eligible for DACA protections.

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Did the Media Misunderstand Chief of Staff John Kelly?

Death of the Gerrymander in Pennsylvania and What It Means

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that gerrymandering is a bad thing, and it’s going to stop in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The knee jerk response from some might be to say that the justices removed a perk for the ruling party in our legislature, since drawing the lines for the U.S. Congressional Districts could be done to favor one party or the other – the whole point of gerrymandering, of course.

As for the timing of this particular ruling, it is rather inconvenient for the 18th Congressional District, recently vacated by Tim Murphy and due for a special election in March. By May’s primary, the result of the special election will become meaningless, since the 18th District was gerrymandered to benefit Republicans.

Both Democrats and Republicans have taken advantage of gerrymandering U.S. Congressional districts over the years, so while the timing of this ruling isn’t advantageous for Republicans right now, it’s disingenuous to suggest that ending the practice is aimed specifically at Republicans. (We can revisit this if the court allows Democrats to re-draw the lines to their own advantage later.)

The current ruling requires that the lines be logically drawn, without splitting up counties or municipalities unless it’s absolutely necessary. In other words, district lines will theoretically overlap county and municipal lines throughout most of the Commonwealth, one way or another.

While the current ruling may very well have been influenced at least a little by a desire to break down some of the power of the Republican party in Pennsylvania, the long term result will likely cause political moderation in U.S. Congressional races. Running on a highly partisan platform for most seats simply won’t work anymore. Perhaps that will become an unintended consequence for the justices, but for the people of Pennsylvania, it will mean that they could end up largely above the hyper-partisan political fray on the national level. That is at least a little idealistic, but not impossible, since the voting populace of the Commonwealth has been generally moderate historically anyway. No matter what, removing the ability to draw U.S. Congressional districts from the pile of political perks for both Democrats and Republicans will hopefully ensure that candidates for the House will have to pay more attention to one thing they occasionally forget – the constituents they represent, regardless which party they happen to be registered with on their Voter ID cards.

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Death of the Gerrymander in Pennsylvania and What It Means

Advice to Congress on Passing Bills

As we are getting beyond the shutdown of the government in January of 2018, it seems like an appropriate time to think about exactly how we get into situations like this. Most Americans who managed to take and pass a basic class on government in high school (or earlier) should have learned about how laws are actually passed. Of course, that very basic lesson isn’t very close to reality, but it’s definitely worth remembering now.

The pundits have been overdrive pointing fingers over who should be blamed for the current shutdown, but only a few are digging at least a little deeper – commenting on the logistics of avoiding another shutdown in February. Donald Trump is the primary focus of those discussions, primarily because our Congress isn’t like those old government classes described it. Theoretically, Congress is supposed to make laws, and the President is supposed to enforce them. As part of our “checks and balances”, enforcement includes signing bills into law. Of course, there is also the presidential power of the veto, which is what our current Congress is probably worried about happening when it comes to (for the moment) our spending and immigration bills.

If you don’t remember talk in the classroom about presidents exerting a great deal of power over Congress or involving themselves in the drafting of or debate over bills, you probably didn’t fall asleep in class. That is something that was rarely taught in any classroom, since it wasn’t drafted into our Constitution. However, it is the reason why many people became highly annoyed with President Obama for “legislating from the White House” – something our current Congress is theoretically supposed to fix now with DACA legislation.

Right now, Republican leadership in the House of Representatives and the Senate have been saying that they are annoyed with President Trump for not telling them explicitly what laws he’s willing to sign into law. If that sounds to you like they are trying to please a dictator by going through motions in Congress, your aren’t far from the truth. The problem we have now is that Congress stopped attempting to making laws on its own decades ago, thanks to the high degree of partisanship in American politics and presidents who did not back away from exerting more power than they probably should have when it comes to making laws.

Trump had characterized Obama as a power-grabbing tyrant because of this behavior, so perhaps he is only willing to tell Congress what he’s willing to sign into law as opposed to outright telling them which laws to pass. No matter what, the end result is the same – Congress is left with three choices:

Do nothing – Don’t even try to figure out what Trump will sign, and just don’t bother trying to pass any laws. Of course, this would probably lead to them all being voted out of office, but it is still one option open to them.

Try to guess what Trump wants – This apparently will be just a guessing game, since it seems that Trump has issues with saying what he wants, and – more importantly – sticking to it long enough for Congress to actually act on it. Since Trump is used to people jumping to appease him, this probably will never work well. Congress moves much slower than the executives employed by Trump’s (former) businesses.

Pass only veto-proof laws – This rule would apply to the big issues, so it’s unlikely that Congress will actually make this choice. That doesn’t change the fact that this is probably the best solution they have for their current problem – an executive who easily changes his mind.

People have said that the Trump administration would change history, and they’re probably right. If it forces Congress to go back to its roots, re-learn the nearly extinct art of statesmanship, and manage to get work done without needing a presidential signature to enact laws, that would be a significant change for the better. At the very least, it would restore strength to our system of checks and balances, and perhaps chip away at a little of the power that has been grabbed by the executive branch over the years.

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Advice to Congress on Passing Bills

Trump, Clumsy Handshakes, and Media Illiteracy

Thanks to a less than graceful handshake during the Association Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila, the media decided to lose their collective minds over Trump. Of course, this has played out predictably – ostensibly left-wing media calling the president an oaf, and right-wing social media getting upset – or something. First, let’s take a look at the video that started it all:

While it is true that Trump really did have trouble with the social situation, it could have been worse. He could have just stood there like Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev did, without even attempting to do the handshake properly. If nothing else, maybe Trump will have a chat with his tailors about making suits a bit more generous in the shoulders for any future contortionist-inspired diplomatic activities. (Yes, pulling his suit tight probably was the cause of the much-maligned grimace he made – undoubtedly hoping not to hear a ripping sound.)

All in all, this situation should have been barely a blip on the media radar, and thanks to the general rush of headlines on a typical Monday, that is mostly how this went. However, there are people out there with “hurt feelings” over the media poking fun at Trump. Perhaps they have a short memory, and don’t recall the eight years of ridiculing “mom jeans”, demanding birth certificates, and primate references about the First Lady.

Cries against the “mainstream media” aren’t as meaningful as they once were. While the “big three” networks still enjoy a fair amount of popularity, when it comes to news coverage there really is no effective way to determine how many viewers are really engaged in their news content. Remember, local news is delivered by their affiliates, and their national news shows are either right after them or actually mingled with local content. Also, the number of people who say that they get their news primarily from the major networks have been dwindling for years, so many of the programs are swaying into the realm of “infotainment” more than ever.

When it comes to political news, viewers are generally divided on political lines, just like in everything else. The whining about the mainstream media treatment of Trump follows that line, too. This all would theoretically settle itself in the political “wash”, with the public seeking out preferred content, but we have one little problem that is making the media wars a little more heated.

Trump has an exceedingly thin skin for a president.

The media knows this.

It has almost become a sport at this point. Trump loves to throw tantrums over the media – calling some outlets fake because they disagree with him, and threatening to shut down others for “reasons.”

And his base is just encouraging the battle.

So, every time Trump does something awkward or flat out stupid in front of a camera, they capitalize on it.

Wash, rinse, repeat…

The end result is that the president gets to use his own “outrage” to monopolize headlines, and keep the media from examining what he doesn’t want on the spotlight – because they are too busy poking fun at him.

If anyone should be upset with how this is going, Trump’s detractors should be furious that the media is focusing on the trivial minutiae of every social faux pas the president does, instead of staying focused on the business of state.

The bottom line is that the media is an active participant in lowering the bar for American leadership by engaging in this game. Once upon a time, we were worried about Americans suffering from media illiteracy because they are living on a steady diet of “news-light” via social media blurbs. Now, we need to start worrying about the media itself being illiterate.

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Trump, Clumsy Handshakes, and Media Illiteracy

No, This Isn’t an ‘Off Year’ for Elections

It’s election day here in the US, and it’s likely that voter turnout will be very low. Odd numbered years are usually ignored by many voters for many reasons – all of which are generally misguided.

People tend to get excited about going to the polls in presidential election years, of course. Turnout numbers are highest then. Even numbered years in general enjoy higher turnout rates, because there are lawmakers on the ballot.

But, with the exception of some special elections, odd numbered years tend to only have municipal and judicial seats on the ballot. Also, lawmakers often schedule otherwise contentious referendums for these elections, counting on low turnout and voter laziness to keep the numbers where they would like to see them.

Here are a few of the misguided notions voters have about why this year’s election doesn’t really matter:

There are no “important” offices up for election – Just because winning today doesn’t earn a trip to Washington or a state capital for a candidate doesn’t make the office unimportant. Typical offices on the ballot today include local executive, legislative, and judicial seats – yes, that system is at work even in your home town. Local executives are mayors, managers, county executives, etc., and they do essentially the same job as the president for your local area. Council people, commissioners, board members, etc. are the equivalent of Congress in your town or school district. Magistrates and judges are your local judicial branch. The reason why these people are arguably even more important than the people who end up in Washington is because the decisions they make will have an immediate effect on your daily life. The taxes they levy will be felt by you first, and unlike taxes from the Federal government, there are very loopholes (if any) for you to avoid them. If you end up with a pushover for your local executive, that means your local legislators will have a much easier time passing higher taxes, or cutting services your community really needs. You can think that it doesn’t matter who your local magistrates and judges are, but you will care about that when you end up getting hit with an expensive traffic citation or fine for not cutting your grass.

My vote doesn’t count anyway – Ironically enough, that argument might be slightly more accurate in a presidential election than it ever will be in a local one. Many of the offices up for grabs today will be decided by margins of under 100 votes. Yes, it is quite possible that a single vote could trigger recounts in some races today. When races have such a small number of people eligible to vote for a given office, every vote counts. These are also the elections where a write-in candidate could very easily win the election.

I don’t even know what half the offices on the ballot do anyway – While some of the offices up for election today are obvious (like coroner or tax collector), there may be some that are utterly unfamiliar. Ones like prothonotary (chief court clerk) are a little nebulous for many voters. Before the age of Google, questions about those offices could be posed to poll or election bureau workers. You can still ask them, but let your fingers do the walking! Learn about the offices, and what those people do. In the case of the prothonotary, that person is in charge of overseeing court documents, and that person’s office is where you would go in a courthouse to see case files that haven’t been sealed from public view. Given all the trouble that we see daily about information being withheld by the government (or leaked by people who shouldn’t have that information), maybe the gatekeeper of your own local court files really is an important office after all?

What’s a referendum? Why should I care? – Referendums are usually issues that legislators put on the ballot so that they can get a popular vote on something that they don’t want to decide on their own, or that they must put on the ballot because of rules built into a state’s constitution. The former are usually hot button issues, and the latter are usually state constitutional amendments. Unfortunately, the rules usually don’t require that these issues be placed on the ballot during a particular year, so they end up on the odd numbered years – legislators are relying on you skipping the polls today. Another trick of their trade is to word these measures in a confusing way, even to the point where people will think that they are voting for one thing but in reality they are choosing the opposite. This is where the poll workers can help you out a little. While they can’t tell people what position to take, usually they can let you know which choice to make when you tell them where you actually stand on the issue. If they honestly can’t, you can still contact your county election bureau by phone or online, depending on how “plugged in” your county is. Otherwise, watch the “no’s and not’s” in the wording. One typical trick used in referendums is double and triple negatives. Remember, double negatives usually do add up to a positive. Also, check the status quo on the issue. Pennsylvania tried to pull a fast one on this with mandatory retirement ages for judges, by not mentioning in the referendum that the existing retirement age was actually lower than the one proposed. The way it was worded, it appeared that the people were voting on creating a mandatory retirement age for the first time, not extending an existing one. Why it mattered was that it would cost taxpayers more money when the judges finally would retire, because their pensions were based on their highest pay and they receive raises yearly. Also, increasing retirement ages could leave the people with judges who honestly shouldn’t have been on the bench due to mental deficits from old age – senile judges are cute on TV, but not in actual courtrooms. The bottom line is this: Do you really want to sit at home and let some politicians pull a fast one on you with a questionable referendum?

Today, you have the opportunity to elect the people who will have the most influence on your daily life when they take office. There is no “trickle down government” effect here, like we see with most changes in federal government. The decisions these people make in your home town will effect every person in your community immediately. Thankfully, these leaders are also going to have to deal with the voters directly on a daily basis. But, do you really want to skip deciding who collects your local taxes, determines the fines for your grass being too tall, sets the cost of parking in your business district, when and if your local roads get repaired, what your kids learn in the classroom, etc.? This is where the rubber hits the road in government. Are you in the driver’s seat, or just along for the ride?

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No, This Isn’t an ‘Off Year’ for Elections

Disaster Relief – Do We Need Government?

In the wake of hurricanes and wildfires, many Americans are facing the fact that they either need to rebuild where they were, or move on. This is also causing a fair amount of debates in Washington, as politicians and the public alike are taking the Trump administration to task for not leaping quick enough to meet the needs of people and communities that have suffered the greatest losses.

As John Stossel explains, this is a relatively new mentality – assuming that the federal government should “fix” things.

The public generally believes that the government is inefficient, and in spite of this, still calls for the government to deal with rebuilding after a disaster. In spite of evidence on the ground, in the form of non-profits and businesses stepping up to help people in need, the people still call for the government to help?

This attitude that the federal government can cure all ills has been around for a very long time, but it became far more popular after 9/11. People quickly learned to expect the government to step in, and “fix” things. That also means that the people stopped thinking that they could do a great deal on their own, without governmental assistance. There was no material change in private assets, and there was actually a significant growth in number of private charities, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But still, this attitude of “needing government” has prevailed, and is leaving us with debates in Congress over how much deeper in debt our country needs to go in order to have the federal government inefficiently rebuild wide swaths of our nation.

Have the American people really become that helpless?

Oddly enough, our culture has simultaneously been pushing various dystopian narratives in film and on television, all of which center on societies that have become utterly dependent on government. This attitude that we “need” the government to cure all ills is just a step toward a future like we’re seeing on the screens. Why are we catering to that path?

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Disaster Relief – Do We Need Government?