Wednesday, May 24, 2017

President Trump in Saudi Arabia

A long-time friend recently told me that I ought to be “sick to my stomach” at Trump’s behavior. I replied that my stomach is fine, but I asked him to please list a couple of things that Trump has done as President that he finds objectionable. He declined to provide anything except to say that it was Trump’s personality and behavior that disgusted him. Like many he played the amateur psychologist and claimed that Trump was “narcissistically self-aggrandizing.” In other words, he doesn’t like the President and it won’t matter what he does.

I suspect that this attitude is shared by most of those who were shocked and dismayed by Trump’s election. They vehemently dislike the man and everything about him including his family. As a result, they will not rest until he leaves office either by resignation or impeachment.
In a post written after the President’s speech to Congress I wrote that “the true test of the Trump administration will be on how much it can deliver. If President Trump can just deliver on a third of his promises, it will be a successful Presidency. Batting .333 is good in any league. I hope commentators will begin to focus on what the Trump administration is actually doing, and not on what they feat he will do.”

Unfortunately, relentless hatred against Trump has meant that few have bothered to discuss or assess what he has actually done in office so far. There has been a steady flow of vitriolic venom directed against every word or even gesture but no real discussion or evaluation of his public policies or actions. Even though actions are supposed to speak louder than words, words travel faster and fake news travels even faster.

The ship of state is like a giant aircraft carrier that takes time to turn. Even after the captain orders a change of direction, momentum will still carry the ship forward for a while. A huge ship cannot turn on a dime. It is the same with government. So what has Trump done so far?

I’m not going to spend much time discussing his various appointments, none of which seem to be those of some psychopath. Also, health care and tax reform are working their way through Congress in a much more open and constitutional fashion than in the previous administration.

It would appear that this week President Trump began the slow process of changing the course of American foreign policy. Interestingly, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, John Bolton, a foreign affairs guru, argued that so far Trump has followed the same basic course as his two predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. However, Just this week President Trump began his first overseas visits with stops at the seats of the three great Western religious faiths.

To me the recently concluded visit to Saudi Arabia marked a real turning point. It is obvious that the visit had been well planned.  No one makes a $400 billion arms deal on the spur of the moment. Yesterday, my local Connecticut newspaper, a virulent opponent of Trump, featured an article indicating that the Saudi deal would provide much needed jobs at Sikorsky Aircraft, one of the country’s leading helicopter manufacturers.

But it was not just the trade deal. Despite his alleged Islamophobia, Trump received a royal welcome from the Saudis who were obviously happy to see him. The visit itself as well as the well- crafted speech that Trump gave on Sunday marked a real change over the policies of Obama and Bush. Trump announced that he was there to repair the relationship with Saudi Arabia that had been so damaged during the Obama administration. He declared his full support of Saudi Arabia not only in the fight against terrorism but also against Iran.

We don’t need Saudi oil anymore but we do need them as an economic and military partner. Trump also appealed to the Saudi leadership by stating that the era of nation building and outside interference was over. He expressed no desire to call for democracy or civil rights reforms in Saudi Arabia. He will not mess with their internal affairs or their religious doctrines and culture.

This marks a real change in policy. The policy of supporting and arming rebels in places like Libya, Egypt and Syria would appear to be over. Ivanka Trump might want to work for women’s rights in the Moslem world but her father and his advisors seem to understand that the greatest attacks on civil and women’s rights have come in countries where we have intervened to bring down autocratic rulers.

Saudi Arabia is a royal despotism where women have to cover their faces and bodies in public. But we just have to compare it to its neighbors where the breakdown of authority has led to the total denial of civil rights. In neighboring countries women are routinely kidnapped, beaten, raped, forced to flee their homes, and murdered.

In many ways Saudi Arabia is a business more than a country. Trump intends to do business with them but leave the running of their own business to them. Time will tell whether this strategy will work or not but it is worth a try. It has worked in many times and places. Discussion of this strategy should be based on its merits and not on the personality of President Trump. It is not the strategy of a psychopathic narcissist.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day 2017

Gong Li in To Live

My mother died when I was only eleven, after a debilitating illness that lasted over a year. Back in 1950 her doctors could hardly come up with a diagnosis much less a cure. She was only in her early thirties. I have only the fondest memories of my mother even if they have been dimmed by the passing years. I don’t think it is just sentimentality on my part. In old black and white photographs, she is usually wearing a simple housedress, the uniform of a young mother of three back in those days. She is always smiling. I don’t recall that anyone ever had a bad word to say about her.

When I think of her, I think of the words that the apostle Paul wrote to the young Christian community in Corinth almost 2000 years ago. (First Corinthians, 13: 4-9)

Charity is patient, is kind; charity does not envy, is not pretentious, is not puffed up, is not ambitious, is not self-seeking, is not provoked; thinks no evil, does not rejoice over wickedness, but rejoices with the truth; bears with all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Charity never fails…

My bible commentary calls these words “a portrait of fraternal” love but it seems to me that the words are more a portrait of maternal love. I don’t want to sound sexist but I think that the characteristics of charity or love that Paul described are more to be found in women than in men. My opinion is based primarily on personal experience.

After my mother died my two younger brothers and I moved in with our grandmother who lived next door. For us the loss of a mother was largely made up by the charity or love of this incredibly caring woman. At the age of 62 she became a mother to three young boys. Thank heaven she was assisted by her daughter, Nan, a married woman who could have no children of her own. For the rest of her life, our Aunt Nan also became a surrogate mother to us. My brothers and I were extremely fortunate to find two such loving women in our lives.

My experience of maternal love did not stop there. In subsequent years I have found this caring love in countless women including my own wife, daughters, and daughters-in-law. Selfless love can be found in women with no children of their own who have taken upon themselves the task of caring for others.

I wonder how the Apostle Paul came to know about charity or love. Many years ago I attended a lecture about St. Paul and his writings by a prominent biblical scholar who was also a nun with feminist leanings. In her talk she was critical about some of the things that Paul had said about women. You know, things like obeying your husbands, and being quiet in church. In the question and answer that followed I asked her if there was anything in all the literature she had read on the biblical period that resembled the words about charity in First Corinthians. She replied that she couldn’t think of any that matched the lofty spiritual truth contained in that brief passage.

In other words, despite his seeming misogyny, Paul had somehow arrived at a lofty spiritual concept of love. He might have gotten it from his deep study of Hebrew scripture and tradition but that didn’t stop him from persecuting Christians like so many do today. He might have gotten it in his encounter on the road to Damascus with the risen Jesus, and with his subsequent involvement with the early Christians.

But I like to think that Paul’s first encounter with love was with his own mother.

One of the best depictions of motherly love is in the Chinese film epic, "To Live." It is an incredibly powerful and emotional depiction of a family trying to stay together during the turmoil of the Maoist revolution in China. I originally saw it in a theater in 1994 and was blown away. Since then I have seen it a number of times with the same effect. Here is a link to the trailer or just click on the video below. The complete film is available on YouTube.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Medical Insurance Reform 2017

Most Americans under the age of 65 are still covered by employer sponsored health insurance plans. Nevertheless, even though they are an integral part of Obamacare, s0-called progressives demand a “single-payer” plan that would abolish these employer sponsored plans. One of the objections to these plans is that they provide a greater tax break to high salaried corporate employees than to low income workers. Since the cost of each employee’s insurance benefit is not taxed as income, employees in higher tax brackets do get a better tax break.

For example, if the cost per individual is $10000, an employee whose top tax bracket is 35% would save about $3500 per year in taxes. But an employee whose top tax bracket is 15% would only save about $1500 per year in taxes. A first glance this may seem like an inequity but let’s look a little deeper and contrast the CEO making $1 Million per year with the secretary who makes $40000 per year.

In the first place, the CEO’s annual federal tax bill is probably about $300000, and so a $3500 tax saving shaves about 1% off his or her tax bill. On the other hand, the secretary’s annual federal tax bill is probably less than $4000, and so the $1500 tax saving shaves about 40% off his or her tax bill.

Moreover, the employer sponsored medical insurance fringe benefit is a great equalizer. Every employee, from the CEO down to the mail-room clerk, gets the same plan. There can be no Cadillac plan for high salaried employees alone. Also, when a corporation provides medical insurance for the CEO, the cost represents only a tiny fraction of the $1000000 compensation plan. Adding a $10000 tax free fringe benefit to the secretary’s $40000 salary represents a 40% increase in total compensation.

Finally, individual employees do not have to choose a particular plan themselves. Company experts or consultants wade through the variety of insurance offerings and options and pick the plan. Anyone who has tried to pick from the various Medicare supplement options, or choose between the gold, silver and bronze plans offered through Obamacare will understand how difficult it is to assess these complicated plans.

From their beginning after World War II, the employer sponsored plans were incredibly attractive to all concerned and sparked a veritable revolution in health care in this country. Employers could deduct the cost of their plans as an ordinary business expense while employees could rely on their pre-tax medical insurance plan to cover major medical expenses. Since these were group insurance plans all employees had to be covered even if they had pre-existing medical conditions. Actually, increasing the employment rate is a great way to provide for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

There were obvious problems, however, that needed to be fixed. People would lose their coverage when they lost or changed their jobs. People with pre-existing medical problems would find it almost impossible to get coverage on their own once they left the group. Self-employed people did not ordinarily have access to these plans, although they could become members of groups that offered plans. Unemployed workers would eventually lose their coverage.

Attempts had been made to deal with these problems but back in 2008 critics of the system still insisted that over 30 million people were without medical insurance. Even if this figure was correct, it still meant over 270 Million Americans had medical insurance.
Instead of trying to fix the problems in the old system, proponents of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) sought to overhaul the entire health care system in this country.

Now instead of using a tax break to encourage employers to provide medical insurance, for their employees, employers would be forced to provide such insurance or pay a penalty. Some employers have actually opted to drop their plans and pay the penalty rather than be faced with uncontrollable costs.

Advocates of the single-payer system think that Obamacare did not go far enough and want to throw out the whole system that has worked so well for the great majority of Americans. So far it looks like the Republican plan that recently passed the House of Representatives will eliminate the employer mandate but still retain the privileged tax status of these plans. We’ll have to wait to see what happens.