Stop using the phrase “GOP”

I never use the phrase “GOP” (except now, apparently). I don’t like it because it’s not true.

The “Grand Old Party” is supposed to be the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt. But as I’ve voraciously been consuming the definitive autobiographies and books on these and other Presidents, I can’t draw a line from Lincoln to Republicans today. I could maybe have an easier time with Democrats, but it would take a wild line through and around issues of slavery.

The best theory to explain this that I can come up with is partially due to Grover Norquist, who mused in Leave Us Alone that a lot of voters vote for one party or another because their father did and their grandfather and great-grandfather before that. In other words, a lot of people vote party-line like the way children often assume the religious beliefs of their parents.

This happens everywhere but has been particularly sticky in the south. This still explains Kentucky today. When you wonder how Kentucky votes for a Democratic governor in what should be a reliably red state up and down the board, it’s because people are still voting at least partially on their family’s civil-war era tradition when Democrats were the more like the “Republicans” (by a modern definition).

My theory is the country changes, the electorate changes, but the south is always the laggard by a wide margin. And there are enough of them, plus Texas and Oklahoma, maybe Indiana, that it puts a dent in the course of the country’s leadership.

Most people have a casual understanding of the “flip” in the parties’ beliefs and core voters, mostly around the Civil War and later Nixon’s election. But for years before Nixon, to put it bluntly, many southern voters were somewhat unaware that the Democrats weren’t really the bearer of their character and beliefs anymore. Eventually, they caught up. I suspect we may be another 75 or 100 years away from another flip like that. This is a generations-long process that is altered only by death and slow, steady, change.

So when I hear the phrase “GOP”, I hear the Republicans of today taking credit for things their forefathers did under the same label but with entirely different context and pretenses. That’s offensive to early Republicans. It’s like if the producers of the Jason Bourne films said they were proud of the work they did in early James Bond films. You don’t get to take credit for that. You weren’t even there, so sit down and shut up.

As one example, Theodore Roosevelt wouldn’t recognize either party today. He could arguably be considered an independent today, and some may consider him one of his time (George Washington was our only true independent President, as he never declared a party and has been the only unanimous vote-getter in the electoral college). Roosevelt wanted big government projects in Panama and around the US. He wanted to bust up large trusts and monopolies like railroads and banks. He also wanted a big, strong, and world-dominating military. Roosevelt wasn’t keen on racial discrimination either and was the first President to welcome a black man to the White House.

Roosevelt was most proud of his achievements in civil service reform, which stopped the practice of appointing people to lush government jobs without real qualifications. He weakened the parties by stomping on their machinery in races small and large.

Trump has Roosevelt’s portrait hanging in the Oval Office and he says he admires him and Andrew Theodore most. Theordore Roosevelt was a conservative, not a Republican. He conserved nature and limited resources, was a populist and true champion of miners, coal workers, and factory workers. He had no use for big corporations running afoul of laws both real and moral. If he were alive today he’d punch Trump in the face and call him a sissy for not being able to kill a moose with his bare hands.

There’s no comparing the Republicans of today to 1950, 1910, or 1864 or the Democrats of today to 1963 and 1944. Heck, Andrew Jackson was a “Democrat”.

Trump’s Brain in a Vat

There’s a philosophical argument dubbed “The Brain in a Vat”. If I can oversimplify it, the brain in a vat argument asks you to imagine the possibility that your brain is hooked up to a computer (like the Borg!). This computer can simulate all that we encounter in the world, including your body. The question goes: If you can’t be sure that you’re not hooked up to a computer, then you can’t rule out the possibility that all your beliefs are false, can you? In meme terms, “You can’t be a God-fearing Christian with a love of classical music if there is no God and music!”

That would all be very comforting to a lot of people right now. My Trump-supporting Facebook friends have gone dark over the last couple of weeks. Most have turned to non-issues like the removal of confederate monuments as a proxy for their character beliefs. My left-leaning Facebook friends are frothing at the mouth over this impeachment talk like it’s their first orgasm all over again.

It’s bad enough that I almost opened LinkedIn. It’s that bad.

The problem with impeachment is three-fold. First, it’s likely to take a very long time. People conveniently forget government works slow and the gears at the Bureau of Bureaucracy aren’t designed to work fast. The Nixon-era Watergate scandal took two years or more to fully play out. In that time the midterm elections happened and Republicans lost big and continued to do so. In 1974, Republicans lost 49 seats in the House 3 months into Gerald Ford’s term. I’m not sure what it would take for Republicans to move to impeach Trump and remove him from office, but I doubt they’re there yet. Remember, the Constitution only calls two items specifically and one broadly as impeachable offenses: “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors”. The last part is up to Congress to define.

The second impeachment problem is people think impeachment is removal from office. It isn’t. Impeachment is like indictments for mortals – it just means charges have been raised against you. Removal from office is a whole other process. Trump could be impeached and remain in office in the current environment.

The third issue is a Theseus paradox. If you replace all of the components of an object, is it still fundamentally the same object? In other words, if you replace Trump with Pence, is it still the same White House? With exception of a few close aides, it’s hard to imagine Pence replacing the entire cabinet. Jeff Sessions would still probably be sitting there. It’s not hard to argue that the current state of affairs is bad for the country, but it’s also bad for getting things done domestically. In some ways, we have a blissful moment of inaction because Trump is so mired in scandals all the time. Pence is much more adept at handling and deflecting that. He could move legislation.

Trump’s budget proposal is a mean, necessary, first step.

On principle, I’m a fan of some of Trump’s budget proposals. I’ve long argued our funding is upside down. There’s no reason New Yorkers should pay for art projects that get displayed in Indianapolis. There’s no reason people in Alaska should pay for a highway in Fort Wayne. It’s safe to say almost no one could name one thing paid for by the National Endowment for the Arts in Indianapolis. I’m sure there are things, but it’s unlikely anyone knows what they are on a grand scale. Asking for money from the Feds is like asking the Mayor’s office to buy you lunch.

A discussion just the other night with someone working here in Indiana suggested the millions of dollars flowing in from the federal government to help Indiana’s HIV crisis has been responsible for a hiring spree of people who work in Indianapolis and never visit the impacted areas. That’s a situation where there’s a clear order of operations: give addicts needles, then detox beds, then send them on their way with some job training. The Federal money isn’t doing much of that if any. There’s no reason Indiana can’t handle this itself. We caused it, after all.

We’d all be better off if we kept money at the local and state level, with the most going to local governments. It’ll get stuff done faster, too because nothing cuts red tape like not having any red tape to cut through.

Trump’s proposal even cuts IRS funding by $293 million, which I guess most people won’t mind.

My biggest problem with the plan is it just shifts money around, mostly to defense. There are no true net cuts to spending. If we’re going to cut these programs nationally, let’s reduce expenditures. Move money to the debt in the short term so we can lower taxes at the federal level long-term.

If I have to spend 30% of my income on taxes, I’d rather 20% of it go to Indianapolis. I live here. I walk on these streets. I have to look at the art projects done here. Cutting taxes at the federal level means we can maintain the status quo of tax expenditures if states and cities want or can increase taxes. If they don’t, at least I have some ability to move. It’s a lot easier to move from Indianapolis to Chicago than it is to move from the US to Canada. Shifting money this way would maintain the balance to a person’s tax status quo, but now people can see what they’re paying for. That’s a big deal, and this plan doesn’t do that at all. It just throws money into an existing pile no one asked for.

If there’s a big political problem in this country, it’s the perceived or real failure of governments to provide for their residents competently and efficiently. This leads to division in spending a bunch of money on taxes because you can’t see what you’re paying for. A healthy market – even of ideas – can’t function in that system.

This just leads to the federal government taking on a disproportionate amount of work to support what were always local issues and feeds more resentment. There’s no reason Congress should fund street lights for Detroit and buses for Indianapolis. The only time the federal government should provide local funding is in the event of large-scale disasters, attacks, or catastrophes that approach a scale unforgiving to a local unit of government. I’d argue flint’s water disaster qualifies.

PBS is going to be another sore point for people. We had this same outcry when Mitch Daniels cut public radio funding in Indiana around 2009. That continued just fine, WFYI is still on the air, and life went on. Remember, too, that HBO owns the rights to Big Bird first now.

It’s nuts so many great, deserving services and programs, like nonprofits funded with federal money, is so reliant on random whims of legislators who don’t know who they are. States may be in a race to the bottom on tax rates, but that’s surely driven in part by this cycle of increasing federal taxes that take money away to put it somewhere else far away. Pressure from voters in this cycle has us moving upside down.

I get that this proposal sounds bad, and there are certainly some downright mean things in there, like cutting Meals on Wheels. But we have to be adults and recognize we’re in debt. We have to make some hard decisions. One example is The Legal Services Corp., which provides legal aid to the poor, is getting cut entirely in this proposal. Legal-help services have always been over-burdened to the point no one thinks they help. They just fulfill a constitutional requirement to the minimum level. What use is that? Can’t we do better? We’re going to have to do better. A good way might be looking to the legal help in one’s community. I’d rather pay for that here in Indiana than Florida because at least the money can stay here and it might promote a stronger sense of community and pride.

A lot of America could use that right now.

Mike Pence is not “Indiana nice”

I’ve always heard this claim about the Midwest being “Midwest nice.” More locally, “Hoosier hospitality” and “Indiana nice” might as well be on our license plates. But then a guy like Mike Pence comes along, and he’s just not a very nice man. He seems downright mean.

My grandmother used to say some people “had a lot of meanness in ‘em.” No one was safe from her scorn – Democrat, Republican, young, old, didn’t matter. Her litmus test seemed to be if you caused someone harm, damage, or were otherwise uncouth, you were mean. I feel the same way about Mike Pence. More broadly, it’s starting to feel that way about the entire Republican party.

When Pence was still Governor, I began to realize why a generation of people had begun to shift to the left and continue to stay there: everyone in my generation was taught more than any other to “just be nice to people.” I can’t prove it, but I’d bet 50% of Indiana’s brain drain problem is directly related to the politics of our State House. I’m not even talking about bag bans and Tesla sales. I’m talking about all the social cruft that strikes an entire generation as somehow mean, like a bully.

The Republicans aren’t doing a superb job of framing their agenda as “being nice.” And when someone isn’t “nice,” they’re probably being “mean,” and that’s very off-putting. The Democrats may just be better at hiding their meanness because the government can certainly be a bully to a lot of people the more it expands.

“Justin, this is ridiculous. Just because a bunch of sissy millennials can’t handle some toughness is no reason to coddle them,” you might say. If you did say that I would say you just proved my point by being a dick.

It doesn’t make a generation of people weak to be nice. It just means we don’t see a reason to push large groups of individuals away. Pence’s, and now Trump’s, Muslim ban, the wall, Sessions, the Supreme Court nominees, etc. are all just mean dick moves. Their downsides are worse than the potential purported benefit.

Don’t get me wrong – everyone’s kind of a dick some of the time. Left-leaning folks love shows like The Daily Show and Full Frontal precisely because they’re mean. They poke at people in a way that you’d never do to someone’s face. Bill Maher is mean. Sean Hannity and others on the right are mean.

Pence, and certainly Trump, come across as that kind of person. A sort of faux-niceness that’s him just pushing people in ways they don’t want to be. That is against the grain of what it means to be “Indiana nice” where we stay out of the way, help when people ask, and kindly say hello and smile when interacting with others.

As an aside, I find anyone who blindly supports a specific party, votes straight ticket, doesn’t question everyone and everything, and anyone who lacks some level of empathy to be psychopathic. That can’t be healthy. In what other endeavor do we do that? Do you only drink one beer? Do you only ever always and forever buy one brand of batteries or toilet paper?

I can support a lot of reform efforts that Democrats largely don’t like. I can get behind a lot of issues that Republicans generally don’t like. And I can feel at home with a good chunk of the Libertarian party because they’re increasingly just, “Leave people alone, and be nice.”

Don’t be mean. Leave people alone when they want to be left alone. Be Indiana nice.

Last night was pretty normal

Pew in June of this year reported 55% of Democrats say the Republicans make them “afraid”. 49% of Republicans say the same thing about the Democrats. Think about that. Half the country is afraid of the other half.

Trump won last night and half the country is afraid. The other half is happy. The same thing was said when George W. Bush won. And when Obama won. And when Lincoln won.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year reading up on Presidents, their administrations, their leadership styles, and the electorate at the time. One thing jumps out at me: we’ve always been crazy. Americans, and people in general, are not very good at assessing risk. I’m not sure yet that Trump’s election is anything too out of the norm.

In fact, a lot was normal last night:

  • Voter turnout was relatively low.
  • White people turned out to vote, because they always do.
  • The country swung back to the opposite-incumbent party. It always does that. “Three terms” is rare.
  • The stock market freaked out. It always does.
  • Half the country freaked out. That always happens.
  • Urban centers voted on a slew of progressive movements favorably.
  • Rural areas voted against liberalism. They always do.
  • Everyone complains about long lines and voter suppression. One news story on TV last night was a man complaining his vote changed to Democrats when he voted straight Republican. I also just saw a man at a restaurant hand his phone to another random man and ask, “Do you know how to use Facebook? I think I’ve just posted the same thing three times.” Those aren’t related, but computers befuddle people. Nothing new.

Here’s what’s not normal (yet):

  • You being insulated by algorithms that makes you think things are how you’d like them to be.
  • We increasingly have a government that’s so large in people’s lives any changes to anything throws legitimate fear, glee, or confusion into markets.

I always tell clients that ask for “samples of previous work” that “past work is no indication of future performance, but here you go.” The same holds true here. Trump has said so many things we don’t know anything about his governance style yet. He could defer to Pence for everything. He could buck his party all the time. We have no idea.

I do think, however, that many voters are pushing for an ideal they’re not going to get: being left alone.

Everyone must stop insulating themselves from the working class. You must stop treating them like a block of “others”. To say things like, “They like this and don’t do that” is only slightly helpful and immensely harmful at worst. You’ve failed to understand deeply.

I’ll give you an example. In the modern era, starting after WWII and expanding rapidly under Nixon, Carter, and Reagan, our government structure has begun to look like this:
fed-state-local1

Where large amounts of income flow to the federal government and then down to states and local governments. This is exactly backwards of how most people would reasonably want it to be. It should look more like this:

fed-state-local

Where our local government receives most of the income for things used in that community. Where the separation of powers and authority still applies. This makes cities truly more competitive against peer-cities. It ensures a greater allocation of resources (fewer “bridges to nowhere”), and makes sure people see the benefits, or lack thereof, of their money in their daily lives.

The fact that our government has become so large, so powerful a force in people’s individual lives, that people fear it or jump in glee when something as simple as a president is elected is the problem.  I wouldn’t be so worried about marriage rights if the government weren’t even in the business of marriage (instead opting for civil unions for all), for instance.

Today I woke up to see people saying they were unsure of what to tell their kids now that Trump is elected. Do you remember what you said when gay marriage was allowed by the Supreme Court? “You’ll tell them people can get married now.” The same response applies here: “You’ll tell them a guy like Donald Trump is President”. Because that’s what happened and like learning about gay marriage, they’ll go back to playing Pokémon.

People in my stream, left and right, are saying they’re scared for their lives. But remember that you, too, can arm yourself. You can protect yourself. Just like you can change your diet or learn something new. You may not want to, but you can. And you can, you know, talk to people. Invite them out for a beer or a cookout or something.

Today for a lot of people the ideal of a limited federal government is more appealing. For me it was always appealing. Because without a “strong” federal government you may never get Alabama and Mississippi to legalize gay marriage or expand health coverage. But it’s a lot easier to move from Alabama than it is the entire country. Despite half a century of federal intervention by progressives, none of them want to live in Alabama. And despite half a century of federal intervention by conservatives, none of them want to live in New York.

Voters are just saying they want to be left alone. I think progressives and conservatives alike can find a lot of reasons to say the same.