An open letter to Benjamin Franklin

Dear Ben (if I may),

I know it takes an article of faith to presume these words might reach you, but faith sustains much of the world, so I thought I would give it a try. You were one of the most celebrated and perceptive thinkers of your time. You were an internationally renowned scientist, inventor, and diplomat. You were also America’s greatest political philosopher, and the senior statesman at that extraordinary meeting in Philadelphia 234 years ago when you and 68 other patriots produced our most sacred document, the Constitution of the United States of America. Sadly, you were the first of your compatriots to pass away only twenty-one months after playing such an essential role in creating this most precious gift to all of us.

Ben, you may recall that Elizabeth Willing Powel, the wife of Philadelphia Mayor, Samuel Powel, was among those who were eagerly awaiting word of what had transpired at the just-concluded constitutional convention. She asked you, “Well, Dr. Franklin, what have we got a republic or a monarchy?” According to notes of the exchange, you replied to Mrs. Powel, “A republic if you can keep it.” To which Mrs. Powel shot back, “And why not keep it?”

It was reported that you replied, “Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.”

That probably sounded a bit cryptic when people first heard of your exchange with Mrs. Powel. Still, when George Washington was elected to be our first President in 1789 by all 69 electors who participated in that first vote for President, you elaborated, “The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterward.” Well, Ben, we’ve had a lot of good men at the helm, and as you presumed, some real clunkers too.

You were prescient when expressing your fears about the durability of our new democracy. I still marvel at what you said when the drafting was complete. “I agree to this Constitution,” you said, and you continued, “I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” History recognizes you as a thinker for the ages, Ben, but I pray you were not a prophet as well.

Ben, I’ll get right to the point. The country you served for so long and in so many capacities is riven with dissension. I think you and most of your colleagues would be heartbroken at just how divided our country is today. The formation of political parties, or factions as they were referred to in your day, that you and George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison so dreaded did evolve almost immediately, as you knew they would.

Your concerns were well-founded, Ben. All of you were concerned that political parties, rather than becoming a rigorous source of competing ideas, would simply become strident opposing forces fighting for power. Our two main political parties are no longer simply advocates of differing ideas but rather antagonists in opposing camps primarily dedicated to defeating the other, almost at any cost.

Today, political discourse has grown contemptuous rather than contemplative. While you and the others at that remarkable constitutional convention didn’t always see eye-to-eye on the same issues, you were all pulling the same oar and shared a similar vision. It was a grand and audacious vision that changed the world, Ben. Today it seems as though every Democrat thinks every Republican is a fascist, and every Republican thinks every Democrat is a Marxist, at worst, and a socialist at best. These political philosophies, neither of which had gained currency in your day, are inimical to the American story. But that is how half the people in our country seem to view the other half.

Even when America is attacked and American servicemen are killed, our political parties, both of them, immediately grasp the opportunity to malign the leadership of the other. We had just such an example this week Ben; an awful example. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but thirteen American servicemen were killed, and over one hundred others died in a vicious bombing on the other side of the world. This was a horrible event that, at one time, would have had all Americans pulling together. Not this time though.

As one of America’s fine newspapers, The Arizona Republic, editorialized, “Republicans are using this moment, this failure to plan a complete and strategic retreat, to batter the Biden White House.  Were the tables turned Democrats would do the same, unmercifully. There was a time when Americans believed our differences ended at the water’s edge, but there is so much internal strife in the country that we aren’t likely to see that again soon. Perhaps not in our lifetime.” There is no question that there will be a time for serious recriminations, but today one party literally couldn’t even wait until the smoke cleared. And as the editorial correctly observed, the other party would have behaved the same way.

Ben, the concerns you expressed about human nature, that man always seems to drift toward despotism, were prophetic concerning the rest of the world because that is what has happened at one time or another almost everywhere, but so far not here in America. So far, the institutions you and your colleagues created have kept our democracy intact. Our democracy has certainly been tested. So far, however, the guardrails you created with our other founders like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton have held, but, it seems, just barely.

The ruling monarchies you were worried about over in Europe pretty much died out during the twentieth century. Ten monarchies disappeared in one year between 1914 and 1915, a time of unspeakable carnage and bloodshed.

While those monarchies generally (but not always) gave way to democracies modeled after the one you and your colleagues created for us, we have seen democracy after democracy trashed by authoritarian strongmen who used democratic institutions to attain power and then destroyed those very same institutions to hold on to power. During the last one hundred years, we have seen many democracies descend into strong-arm authoritarian regimes. It happened in Poland from 1926 to 1989, Germany from 1933 to 1945, Austria from 1933 to 1945, and Spain from 1939 to 1976. It happened in Latin America too—in Brazil from 1964 to 1985, Chile from 1973 to 1990, Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 and then again from 2006 to the present, and even Venezuela from 2002 to the present.

The story has always been the same. Politicians gained power through democratic means and then schemed to keep control by dismantling the very democratic institutions that brought them to power. Even Hungary, which fought so hard for its democracy, has seen its democratic institutions enfeebled today, as has Poland and other countries in the Balkans.

Ben, our country, and a few other democratic countries recently funded a study through a non-governmental organization called Freedom House and found “a stunning democratic breakdown.” Specifically, fewer democracies were found among the twenty-nine countries studied than at any point since these studies began over twenty-five years ago.

Ben, we’ve seen democracies, time and time again, devolve into authoritarian regimes run by authoritarian strongmen just as you predicted they would. These authoritarian figures who enter the political arena invariably claim to be outsiders to the political establishment and vow to “get tough” on everyone they target as having sapped the nation’s strength, thereby saving the country. The technique is the same everywhere, and it seems to be very effective. Authoritarian strongmen often target many different groups; you know, minorities, immigrants, the political opposition, and, always, the established national leaders. Authoritarian strongmen tend to view these groups as both personal and national enemies. We’ve seen it so many times in the past, Ben, as you knew we would.

I will not be surprised if readers of this open letter to you comment by finding in it a reason to attack the current President or his predecessor. Among your many inventions Ben was the bifocal eyeglass to help those who were either farsighted or shortsighted to see more clearly. Perhaps, our best way to thank you would be for all of us who are the beneficiaries of your foresight to really work to see things more clearly. There is so much at stake.

I don’t know if my words will reach you, but I’ll try from time to time. Ben, I know you are pulling for us.

With heartfelt thanks for all you’ve given us.

Your steadfast admirer,


All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the essay’s subject or are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

Afghanistan: What Didn’t We Know, And When Didn’t We Know It?

There is much to unpack regarding the fiasco in Afghanistan.

Neither the Trump camp nor the Biden camp should point with ridicule at the other. Both camps are partners in the tragic spectacle playing out in Afghanistan. The tragedy isn’t that we are leaving with such dispatch. Both Trump and Biden were correct in pursuing our departure. The time had long since passed when we should have been exiting the country. It was time.

There was little American support for the never-ending American presence there. That we are leaving isn’t really the issue.  How we are leaving, however, is. Any aspirations we may have had that we would democratize Afghanistan, modernize Afghanistan, or turn Afghanistan into a reliable ally were never realistic.

We went into Afghanistan following 9-11 to rout the Taliban, which had provided a safe haven to al Qaeda. We accomplished that mission in short order. We stayed for a while to keep the Taliban and the terrorists they had hosted from returning. Mission creep kept us there for the next twenty years. During the two decades we have remained, an estimated 300,000 Afghans joined Team-USA, providing various direct or indirect services to the United States. Only a few percent have been relocated to safety. They and their families remain at great risk now that the Taliban has solidified its control of the nation.  

For years, we should have had a well-conceived plan to move to the United States and/or to other safe-haven countries those Afghans who were at great risk once we knew the countdown to departure had begun. Plans for protecting those who had worked with and protected us should have been the first order of business when we decided to ink a deal with the Taliban. We should have begun this process years ago, but as of July 31st, we had admitted only 494 Afghan refugees for this fiscal year which ends September 30th. Last fiscal year, we admitted 604 Afghan refugees. There is an enormous discontinuity between the predictable need to resettle Afghans who have helped us and the actual resettlement of these people. Other nations have also resettled Afghans, but the numbers have been pitifully small.

That our departure has turned into such a human tragedy raises serious questions regarding the reliability of our intelligence establishment, especially our military intelligence. What did we not know about the Taliban’s intentions, and, more importantly, when did we not know it.

Remember, it was February of last year that the Trump Administration reached a deal with the Taliban in Doha. That deal required the United States to be out of Afghanistan sometime in April of 2021. Under Trump, Afghanistan was to be free of all American military presence by May 1st this year. Biden added another three-and-a-half months to that departure schedule. It seems either Administration gave little thought to the well-being of the Afghans on whom we relied.

Some of the criticism being leveled at President Biden is just political jockeying and par for the course in this ugly partisan environment we find ourselves. Some opposed to the American withdrawal point to South Korea, where we have had troops for nearly 70 years. But South Korea is a strategic ally, a modern democracy, a robust trading partner, and an industrial powerhouse.

Others have suggested that we should have removed the huge arsenal of weapons we have maintained in Afghanistan lest they fall into Taliban hands, which they, indeed, now have. That would have, essentially, meant disarming the country we have been there to protect. Taking responsibility for securing those munitions would have required an indefinite American troop presence.

Much of the criticism of President Biden is, however, fully justified. We had an obligation to assure that those who worked for us or openly opposed the Taliban and supported the United States would not be left high and dry once we decided we had had enough.

President Biden has protested that the deal President Trump negotiated with the Taliban left him with few alternatives and little flexibility. Really? Since when did a Trump policy constrain President Biden when it was a policy he opposed. President Biden’s unbridled rush to get out of Afghanistan has left him with few alternatives and little flexibility.

One would think President Biden conferred with his national Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, or other security officials, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs before he assured the nation that it was highly unlikely that the Taliban would quickly overrun the country once we left. Instead, the Taliban quickly overran the country while we were still there.

Judgment would be an issue if President Biden made that statement despite warnings he may have received from his security advisors that a swift Taliban takeover was highly likely. Worse yet, judgment is still an issue if the advice he received was that an immediate Taliban takeover was highly unlikely.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the essay’s subject or are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

COVID Opinions and Myths Versus COVID Facts

Opinions and myths determine the politics. Only facts determine the outcome.

The comment section of this column has logged numerous opinions by our readers regarding the COVID pandemic, and many readers have also emailed me various opinions as well. I thank them all and appreciate the level of engagement by readers of this column. We all harbor opinions about a wide variety of subjects and COVID-19 is, of course, no exception.  It is, however, difficult to identify a time when the gap between opinions (or myths) and facts has loomed so large.

So, now is as good a time as any to address the dichotomy between the strong opinions and myths about COVID, and the simple facts regarding COVID. The information that follows is based on reports from Johns Hopkins University Medicine, other leading university medical research centers, The Cleveland Clinic, and the United States Center for Disease Control.

Myth: “Natural immunity” following COVID is better than the immunity one gets from a vaccine.

Fact: COVID-19 often produces long-term health issues that do not occur with the vaccine, making the disease itself a far less desirable way to attain immunity. While the Cleveland Clinic recently found that there was no reinfection among employees of the Clinic who had previously contracted COVID-19, the Cleveland Clinic states, “This is still a new virus, and more research is needed. It is important to keep in mind that this study was conducted in a population that was younger and healthier than the general population. In addition, we do not know how long the immune system will protect itself against reinfection after COVID-19. It is safe to receive the COVID-19 vaccine even if you have previously tested positive, and we recommend all those who are eligible receive it.” While there have been some breakthrough cases among vaccinated people, the vaccine vastly reduces severe illness, and, therefore, reduces the need for hospitalization. The vaccine provides remarkable protection against the disease.

Myth: The vaccine can cause the disease itself.

Fact: None of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines in the United States contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. This means that the COVID-19 vaccine cannot make you sick with COVID-19.

Myth: The COVID-19 vaccine can affect women’s fertility.

FACT: The COVID-19 vaccine will not affect fertility. The COVID-19 vaccine encourages the body to create copies of the specific spike protein found on the coronavirus’s surface. The vaccine does not contain syncytin-1 (a totally unrelated spike protein involved in pregnancy) as has been falsely reported in some social media.

MYTH: Researchers rushed the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, so its effectiveness and safety cannot be trusted.

FACT: Studies have demonstrated that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both very effective and reported few if any serious or life-threatening side effects. There are many reasons why the COVID-19 vaccines were able to be developed so quickly. Here are just a few:

MYTH: The side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are dangerous.

Fact: The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines can produce normal side effects, but they are generally very short-term —not serious or dangerous. Some people experience discomfort where they were injected; body aches; headaches or fever, lasting for a day or two. These are signs that the vaccine is working to stimulate your immune system.

Myth: If one is young and healthy and, therefore, not at risk for severe complications of COVID-19 they don’t need the vaccine.

Fact: Regardless of your personal risk of getting very sick from COVID, you can still contract the infection just like anyone else, and spread it to others. Even if you don’t get very sick from COVID, you can still make other people very sick. The vaccine not only protects you but your family and community as well.

MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccine enters your cells and changes your DNA.

FACT: The COVID-19 vaccines are designed to help your body’s immune system fight the coronavirus. The messenger RNA vaccines do not enter the nucleus of the cell where DNA resides. The mRNA causes the cell to make protein to stimulate the immune system, without affecting your DNA.

MYTH: The messenger RNA technology used to make the COVID-19 vaccine is brand new.

FACT: The mRNA technology behind the new coronavirus vaccines had been in development for almost two decades. Scientists began creating mRNA technology at the turn of the last century to enable the country to respond quickly to a new pandemic illness, such as COVID-19. Operation Warp Speed made funds available to focus mRNA technology on COVID-19 and to pay for the roll-out of the vaccine. The development of this technology did not begin with Operation Warp Speed.

Myth: The current vaccines cannot protect against emerging variants of COVID.

Fact: So far, the current vaccines recognize these variant viruses and induce excellent immunity against them. It is, of course, possible that new variants, yet to have emerged, may be more resistant to the vaccines. Variants are produced from time to time when the virus replicates in human cells. That means the unvaccinated population, those who remain susceptible to infection, are the primary source of new variants. This is another reason why everyone should get vaccinated.

Myth: Many have died and have been injured by the vaccine.

Fact: The vaccines are remarkably safe. Here is what is known as of this date. More than 351 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the United States from December 14, 2020, through August 9, 2021. During this time, deaths occurred among 0.0019% of those who received a COVID-19 vaccine. FDA requires any death to be reported following COVID-19 vaccinations—not whether the vaccine was the cause. A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established any causal link to COVID-19 vaccines.

President Trump made a wise decision when he approved funding the use of mRNA technology for a COVID-19 vaccine, and for the procurement and distribution of the vaccine. President Biden also deserves credit for the massive effort currently underway to get the country vaccinated.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell referred to the COVID-19 vaccine as a miracle. How often can we make an appointment with a miracle?

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the essay’s subject or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

Identity Politics and COVID: An American Tragedy.

That’s what it is, and that is what we are living through—an American tragedy.

Politics in America works best when it is, essentially, transactional; we get this, and they get that, and the country, in the process, gets something done. Traditionally, Americans who identified as Republicans were for lower taxes, free trade, and minimal government intrusion into the lives of the people and the country’s institutions. Democrats tended to favor government programs they believed improved the lives and working conditions of Americans. One Party leaned toward activist government, the other toward minimalist government. Republicans generally did not like regulations. Democrats tended to favor greater government oversight of business.  

All of that is entirely rational. The people sometimes would vote Republican, and sometimes they might vote Democrat. There was, traditionally, give and take, and on balance, the country progressed– sometimes more slowly or more rapidly than at other times, but, on balance, we progressed.

When identity politics replaces rational politics, as is the case today, one’s political party becomes one’s team rather than an expression of one’s leaning. When, during a public health crisis, a party’s leadership decides that resisting federal leadership is a winning issue, and the party’s rank and file follow suit, then identity politics rules the day. Individual rational thought is jettisoned while the rank and file wait to see what position the party takes.

And so, today, an astounding swath of the nation’s Republicans embrace the notion that Trump won the 2020 election because Trump told them so, that January 6th was no big deal, that wearing masks is a matter of personal choice, and, to an astounding extent, they have resisted vaccines, notwithstanding the devastating cost the anti-vaccinators are imposing on the country.

With identity politics, both Democrat and Republican party leaders often take positions simply because they constantly search for combat rather than compromise. Today, this is playing out on an immense scale as the country confronts the raging coronavirus pandemic–no mandates for masks or vaccinations, say the Republicans. There is to be no intrusion into the individual’s right to decide what they or their children may or may not do during a public health crisis. This is identity politics on steroids.

Imagine where we would be today if another generation of politicians decided to draw battle lines over requiring vaccines for smallpox, polio, chickenpox, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. Even something as simple as mandating the wearing of masks during a highly contagious pandemic has, ridiculously, emerged as a raging issue.

Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Governor and presidential wannabe is playing his identity politics hand like a poker player who thinks he’s about to draw a royal flush. Or, perhaps, more to the point, like a politician who believes he can make resisting something as benign and sensible as wearing masks during a highly contagious and dangerous pandemic into a hallmark of Republican political identity.

That the pandemic is raging in Florida like no other state is, it seems, of little concern to DeSantis. He has threatened to withhold funding for schools requiring masks. His argument isn’t about public health and safety, but rather about the rights of parents to decide whether their children should or should not wear masks. This is, to him, about Republicans versus Democrats, anti-mask Republicans against pro-mask Democrats. It is identity politics at its worst.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker has mandated that masks will be required in all public and private schools following a rapid 10-fold increase in COVID infections in the state, and a rapid doubling of demand for intensive care in Illinois hospitals. As expected in this era of identity politics, Republican political operatives fell over themselves protesting the Governor’s mandate. Former Illinois State Sen. Paul Schimpf, a GOP candidate for governor, proclaimed with a straight face, the governor’s school mask mandate “usurps the authority of parents, school board members, and superintendents, further undermining confidence in the rule of law. I vehemently disagree with Governor Pritzker’s action today.”

Not to be outdone, Illinois Republican State Senator Darren Bailey, of downstate Xenia, in high dudgeon fulminated, “Anyone who wants to force masks on children or force a vaccine is a tyrant. I will fight to my last breath for freedom and common-sense policies. Call your school board members and tell them to stand up. Local control matters. Your voice matters; mental health matters,” he wrote. Talk about identity politics!

Meanwhile, back in Florida, DeSantis is playing with fire. Listen to former US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, “This surge that we’re going through right now has every potential to be — and already looks to be — the worst surge we’ve faced so far.” The Delta variant, which represents a growing threat to school-age children and which now accounts for nearly 95% of all coronavirus circulating in the US, is hitting DeSantis’s state particularly hard.

School children are catching COVID, and cases requiring hospitalization in Florida have begun to soar. Last Tuesday alone, 46 pediatric patients were admitted to Florida hospitals with COVID. So far, 4 million have been diagnosed with the disease nationally, and the actual number is, of course, higher because kids are often asymptomatic. They or their parents may not know they have COVID, but the kids can spread it to their parents and grandparents just fine. 72,000 cases were diagnosed among kids during the last week in July, an 84% increase from the prior week, when about 39,000 cases were reported. But DeSantis, grandstanding for the identity politics crowd, says mask-wearing in our public schools should be left to the parents and not the public health authorities or the school administrators. DeSantis has also blocked any business, government entity, or school district from requiring proof of vaccination. Thank goodness he wasn’t around when the polio vaccine became available.

I hasten to add that not all Republicans are playing the identity politics card. As Mayland Governor Larry Hogan, addressing the nation’s anti-vaccine and anti-mask crowd warned this week, “I don’t care what misinformation or conspiracy theories that you have heard…You are the ones threatening the freedoms of all the rest of us…”

Identity politics is a bit of monkey see, monkey do, and it is all the rage today. It’s a killer, and it’s a great American tragedy.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the essay’s subject or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

Legislating Through a Crisis: A Ruse By Any Other Name.

Don’t waste a Crisis—your patient’s or your own.” So wrote Dr. M.F. Weiner in the Journal of Medical Economics in 1976. Years later, the very politically astute Rahm Emanuel schooled President Barack Obama and his vice president on the same lesson. A crisis can be used as a grand ruse to justify spending on all manner of priorities. Never wasting a crisis has become political holy grail.  

It’s a lesson President Biden has now eagerly taken to heart. He, like his immediate predecessor, is no shrinking violet when it comes to federal spending. Keep in mind; President Trump had no problem running a pre-pandemic trillion-dollar deficit. At a projected $3.0+ trillion, President Biden’s federal deficit will be about 70% of last year’s entire federal budget. Let that marinate for a moment.

As a share of the economy, the deficit this year will be the greatest since 1945, the last year of World War Two. Now, to be clear, I am not a deficit antagonist. Quite the contrary. I believe the near historic low cost of borrowing represents a grand opportunity for the country to wisely invest in high-return programs such as 21st-century infrastructure, pre-K and other early childhood education enhancements, and more universally available healthcare delivery systems.

The federal government is projected to spend about 6.8 trillion this year. That’s about $3.0 trillion more than the government’s tax revenue will produce. So, what is going on here? That’s not really a serious question because we all know the answer. No one ever lost an election throwing money at the electorate. That’s why former President Trump argued that the $600 per household second COVID relief payment toward the end of last year should have been $2,000 per household, and that’s why President Biden quickly accommodated Trump’s entreaty as soon as he took office with an additional $1400 distribution to most families. Keep in mind, $1200 per family had already been distributed early in 2020 at the outset of the pandemic.

According to the Federal Reserve, given the COVID relief payments thus far and the lingering hesitancy many families have to venture out to spend money, household checking and savings accounts jumped by nearly a trillion dollars in the first quarter of this year. In total, a record $15.5 trillion has been accumulated in these accounts. So far, the federal government has provided nearly a trillion dollars in direct payments to families. That helps account for an increase of $5 trillion in accumulated household wealth from the end of the fourth quarter last year through the end of the first quarter this year. And while this largess of accumulated cash in family accounts is not evenly distributed throughout the country, an analysis by the JP Morgan Chase Institute of 1.8 million family checking accounts found that as of the end of October last year, the median balance was up by about 40% from a year earlier. Median balances for families in the lowest economic quartile were up about 45%.

And, here’s the thing; there is another $3.5 trillion waiting in the wings, which the Republicans are simply not going to buy, and to which President Biden is now solidly committed, and which the progressive wing of his party protests is too little. This additional funding will only see the light of day through the arcane reconciliation process, which requires only a simple majority, assuming the Senate parliamentarian rules that this funding qualifies under the rules for reconciliation.

As of now, there is no assurance that President Biden can corral all 50 Democratic senators, which he would have to do to get the $3.5 trillion of additional spending through reconciliation. It’s also possible that Biden will lose the support of Senate Republicans for the infrastructure agreement if he is seen as too heavy-handed, pushing another $3.5 trillion through reconciliation, and he actually could lose some progressive Democratic support for the infrastructure legislation if the $3.5 trillion budget enhancement fails.

Meanwhile, Republicans and some Democrats are keeping a nervous eye on the nation’s burgeoning public debt, which now stands at about $28.5 trillion, about 70% of which is held by American citizens and institutions. Conventional wisdom once held that a nation’s public debt, which, in the case of the United States, now stands at about 104% of GDP, shouldn’t exceed 70 to 75 percent of GDP. That’s old school, to which fewer people seem to pay much attention anymore.  Green eye-shade economists traditionally took a dim view of excess debt to GDP because such a high debt load relative to the size of a nation’s entire economy brought into question a nation’s ability to service its debt. At least a dozen countries in addition to the United States have debt to GDP ratios at around 100%, or higher, including Japan, Belgium, France, and Singapore. On the other hand, Germany and China currently maintain a debt to GDP ratio hovering at about 55%.

Of course, one’s debt is another’s asset, and $21trillion of US treasuries held by American families is nothing at which to sneeze. Whether the economy needs or needed the level of stimulus the Trump and Biden Administrations have thrown at it will be debated for years to come. We are seeing inflation warning lights beginning to blink, and some prices have risen sharply. Most prognosticators believe inflation will tame to a steady 2.0% to 2.5%, which is quite manageable and consistent with the Federal Reserve’s objectives.

One thing, however, is certain. Far fewer economists will be paying much attention to debt to GDP ratios anymore.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the essay’s subject or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

the Unvaccinated, the Vicious Delta Variant, and the rest of America

They, those who refuse to be vaccinated, endanger others while placing themselves at risk. But, hey, it’s a free country.

I am not writing this column to convince those who are determined not to get vaccinated to change their minds. Really, I’m not, because I am convinced they are not convincible. I do, however, think it is a good idea for those who refuse to be vaccinated to think twice before congregating with any of the 15 million Americans under the age of 65, including children, who, for various medical reasons, have compromised immune systems, as well as the 55 million Americans who are senior citizens and may, therefore, have less robust immune systems with which to fight the far more virulent Delta variant, even though they may have wisely chosen to be vaccinated.

Unvaccinated populations, and that includes children, remain the most vulnerable. This is especially relevant because children below age 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination, and medical experts are worried about a potential wave of new cases in the fall as the school year gets underway.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that more than 4 million children have been diagnosed with Covid-19 or about 14.2 percent of all cases, including 31,000 new cases that were reported between June 24 and July 8. While serious complications in children have been extremely rare, there is growing concern that more serious cases among children will increase as the more virulent Delta variant spreads.

The deliberately unvaccinated have, with eyes wide open, pretty much self-selected themselves to comprise the universe of those who are highly vulnerable to the remarkably infectious variants of COVID-19. How vulnerable are they?  The Delta variant, which is now the dominant COVID virus in the United States, spreads about 225% faster than the original COVID virus. That’s because it grows and spreads much more rapidly inside the respiratory tract of those who are infected. That’s why they get so much sicker. To be precise, the Delta variant will introduce an estimated 1,000 times more copies of the virus into the respiratory system of those who are infected than did the original COVID-19 virus. That’s a lot of pretty awful disease spreading in these new COVID patients.

Think of a virus as a microscopic, inanimate, and inactive packet of genetic material present in the environment that is quite harmless until it is introduced or infiltrates or, figuratively, hijacks a host cell of another living creature; maybe an animal or, more specifically, a person. That hijacked host cell then begins manufacturing viral material from the virus instead of performing the cell’s intended necessary function. When these new cells begin producing viral material that affects the human host in a detrimental or even deadly manner, as happens with COVID-19, we call that a disease. As is true in all genetic replication, sometimes copying errors occur. When that happens, a variant, such as DELTA is born. So, unvaccinated people, those who are now responsible for nearly all of the new cases of COVID-19, are actually responsible for the mass manufacture of these new and often more dangerous variants. These variants will continue to evolve and threaten people as long as COVID-19 finds vulnerable hosts or, more specifically, unvaccinated people.

Hospitals all over the country that worked valiantly to fight COVID-19 in 2020 are now seeing a frightening new uptick in cases, nearly all of which are among unvaccinated victims of the very dangerous Delta variant. Case in point, the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California, close to my home, has successfully treated and discharged 6,844 cases of COVID-19. Eisenhower had as many as 163 COVID inpatients at one time. Just before the recent July 4th weekend, Eisenhower had only one COVID patient. As I write this column two and a half weeks later, the hospital has 14 COVID patients (a three-month high).

I know several people who were successfully treated for COVID-19 at Eisenhower. One friend who was a COVID patient at Eisenhower wrote to tell me he wept as he watched how hard the Eisenhower staff worked to save their patients. And sadly, I, like so many, had friends who didn’t survive COVID. 

Today, the CDC reports that nearly ninety percent of new COVID patients are infected with the more virulent Delta variant, the strain that deposits more than 1000 times more viral copies of itself into the respiratory tract of its victims than did the original strain of Covid-19.

There is a growing consensus among epidemiologists that COVID is now reaching or has reached endemic status in the United States. That’s a very sorry reality. It means COVID is much more than just another epidemic that comes and goes. It means COVID isn’t going anywhere. As the folks at State Farm tell us; Like a (not so) Good Neighbor, COVID is there.

This is very serious stuff. Because so many of our fellow Americans have refused to get vaccinated; COVID probably now calls America home. It means COVID will probably never die out in America. COVID will, more than likely, remain with us in an endemic steady state. Infections that begin as an epidemic either eventually die out (with some possibility of cyclically resurging from time to time) or, owing to insufficient inoculation of the population, reach the endemic steady state we seem to have reached, or are about to reach in America.

History will not look kindly at this moment. According to CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, 83% of new COVID cases are of the more virulent Delta variant. One can probably assume that almost every new case of COVID in America is transmitted to some unvaccinated person by another unvaccinated person.

As I complete this column today, the current 7-day moving average of daily new COVID cases in the United States is 40,246, a 46.7% increase over the previous 7-day moving average. It didn’t have to be this way, but as I noted at the top of this column, hey, it’s a free country.

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Race and the “ism” That Won’t Go Away.

It’s the “ism” that sullies any discussion of race in America.

Race, after all, is simply a social construct that describes various ethnic groupings. The “ism” defines how we react to the other, those who fall into one of those not-like-us ethnicities. Race or religion-based isms illustrate how various ethnicities negatively react to everyone outside of their particular ethnicity. The isms are the boulders societies seem condemned to eternally push up uphill just as Sisyphus was condemned to do after incurring the wrath of Zeus.

Racism has played a sad and often tragic role that has tormented the life of millions throughout history. Addressing the impact of racism on society, any society, is appropriate and essential if humanity is to evolve toward a more just paradigm for the cultures that inhabit the planet, let alone our country.

Many people seem to believe that the history we teach should simply acknowledge that we once had slavery in America, that it was abolished in 1865 when the Union defeated the Confederacy. And, yes, there was lingering racism and Jim Crow laws, but that ended when Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So much for racism in America.

But that would be a national lesson plan that educated no one. That would simply be an exercise in classroom anesthesia. On the other hand, imparting a sense of guilt to this generation of young Americans for the agonies visited upon generations of African Americans by prior generations of Americans is both wrongheaded and certain to further confound the quest for harmony in America.

Let’s recognize that our history has, at times (including the present), constituted a painful journey for many Americans. But let’s also acknowledge that we Americans, every one of us, have an obligation to acknowledge, if not embrace, our most sacred founding principle that, “We (Americans) hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Those words electrified the world. They constituted a radically new paradigm and a sacred commitment to one another as true today, for 21st century Americans, as for any generation of Americans in our history. If we, as Americans, no longer embrace these inalienable rights and that commitment to justice for all, then that remarkable 245-year old declaration of our purpose and our independence is but a relic—nice, but not very relevant.  

While our declaration that all men are created equal may be accurate at the miracle of conception, any notion of real equality thereafter is, of course, nonsense here in America and everywhere else as well. The ideal we strive for is that everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve life’s blessings consistent with their talent and determination to succeed to the full extent of their capability.

Until the 1964 Civil rights Act was passed and signed into law, we could not even seriously pretend that liberty was equally and commonly enjoyed in our country. Quite the contrary, it was in varying degrees systematically denied or infringed concerning America’s black citizens in much of the country, both in the south and, to varying degrees, in the north as well. Indeed, the history of unequal application of the law in sentencing whites and blacks for similar infractions of the law is an agonizingly well-documented “ism”.

A 2015 study of men facing first-time felony charges found that darker-skinned black men received sentences that were, on average, 400 days longer than their white counterparts, while medium-skinned black men received sentences about 200 days longer than their white counterparts. On average, black men received a sentence 270 days longer than white men.

I hasten to add that serious efforts are underway at all levels of the criminal justice system to address these inequities, these remaining isms. The system understands that this systemic racism exists, and, belatedly, serious efforts are being made to address the problem. Nonetheless, systemic racism lingers on throughout the economic life of the country.

I have discussed, in these columns, studies that demonstrate the quantifiable extent to which applicants for advertised corporate job openings are routinely culled, resulting in obviously white candidates being called for interviews five or six times more frequently than identically qualified candidates who are obviously black. The routine advantage or disadvantage many job applicants experience simply because of their race has immense, lifelong implications for their pursuit of economic mobility and security and, therefore, their fundamental, inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

So, let’s face it; the pursuit of happiness, which is so integral and foundational to the American experience, is seriously compromised when that pursuit is institutionally made more difficult for some.

That reality remains the “ism” that just won’t go away unless we collectively strive to banish it.

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500th Column: Of Thee I Sing 1776

Hard to believe, even for me.

My first essay in this 500-long series of articles was titled “A Stimulus That Would Work.” It was published twelve years ago on July 21st, 2009, as the nation struggled to regain its footing following the near melt-down of many of its leading financial institutions.

I had asked my friend and brilliant attorney, the late Stephen Porter, to review a draft of the column. He liked what he read and floated the idea of writing an ongoing series of essays, and Of Thee I Sing 1776 was born. In the early years, Steve and I alternated writing the column each week. And, later, when he was no longer able to write because of illness, I made it a point to send him each week’s draft so that he could comment and continue to feel a part of the project. “Stop splitting your infinitives,” he would delight in telling me.

As I write today’s essay my wife, Diane, and I are on our way to Washington, D.C. (Thursday, July 8th) to say goodbye to Steve’s wife, Susan, who passed away just 24 hours ago. Susan and Diane were first cousins and, of greater note, lifetime closest of friends. It is a sad time for us.

I profess no great expertise regarding any of the subjects about which I write. The best self-endorsement I can offer to my readers is that I consistently work at staying informed, mostly because I enjoy the process. I try hard to corroborate the efficacy of any information that captures my interest. I have learned, time and time again, that “information” is often just supercharged noise intentionally crafted or carelessly repeated, as news. To an alarming degree, faux news is just fraud noise regardless of how “news-like” it is formatted and served to the public.

During the dozen years this column has been published, it has, or more forthrightly, I have drawn the ire of both sides of the political spectrum. In the early years, many readers voiced surprise and disappointment that I was “so right-wing” because I was pretty critical of how Obamacare was sold to the public and even more critical of the partisan manner in which it was legislated into law.

Barack Obama became a strong candidate for the Presidency of the United States in 2008 primarily because of a great keynote speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention. He really had no impressive accomplishments that commended him to the Presidency before that event, nor had he been considered a particularly effective legislator while serving in the Illinois legislature. He had excellent oratory skills and a great team of political advisors. As it turned out, however, he rose to the occasion remarkably well. While I did not vote for him, I told many people that I considered his election to the Presidency of the United States to be one of the greatest American moments of my lifetime.

Nonetheless, these columns were rather consistently, and often harshly, critical of the Obama Presidency, although there were, of course, exceptions. For example, I applauded the signing of the NEW START TREATY by Presidents Obama and Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev and was highly critical of Republican partisan bickering. I wrote, at the time, “There are many battles worth waging between Republicans and Democrats. This doesn’t seem to be one of them.” 

The treaty had been endorsed by virtually all of the Pentagon high command, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and each of the service chiefs, as well as Republican Senator Richard Lugar, and many Republican foreign policy experts, including former Secretaries of State James Baker, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, national security advisor to President George H. W. Bush, General Brent Scowcroft, and Colin Powell. It was clear that the Senate Republicans were unwilling to see Obama get credit for anything positive. 

Now, I frequently draw critical fire from the right because I have so often lamented the divisiveness of the Trump presidency and the depths to which I believe he has dragged (and is dragging) down the state of discourse in our country. The Trump presidency will, I believe, in the years ahead often rank alongside the James Buchanan Presidency. While James Buchanan, unlike Donald Trump, probably had the best resume of anyone who ever aspired to the Office of President, he was, nonetheless, the incredibly wrong man for the time. James Buchanan ineptly presided over a presidency that all but assured war between the confederacy and the union.

Donald Trump was, in my opinion, also the wrong man for the time and for the office. His self-aggrandizement coupled with his poor judgment led him to send a mob to the United States Capitol to “fight like hell” to convince Vice President Mike Pence not to perform his ceremonial constitutional duty to announce the count of the electors’ ballots that had been certified by every American Governor, both Democrat, and Republican. Trump’s insurrection was, to him, necessary because, under our remarkable constitution, the President cannot fire the Vice President. Thank you James Madison.

I do not write these columns with the hope or expectation that people will embrace my point of view, but only that readers will consider the relevance of the perspective I try to present each week. That is all any opinion writer has the right to expect.

These 500 columns, to a great extent, have captured my evolving perspective on public policy and politics in America. If there is a conclusion to be drawn, it is, perhaps, that we as a nation travel far from the collaborative center, either to the left or the right, at our national peril.   


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July 4th—A Good Time to Celebrate Liz Cheney and Margaret Chase Smith

They stood up for America and our constitutional democracy when their own Republican Party wouldn’t.

It is eerie how much they share in common. These two principled Republican women, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming and the late Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, put their political futures on the line by standing up to a Republican Party gone rogue. Yes, it was then, and is now, the Republican Party that had, and that has, gone rogue, and not the few principled members who drew a proverbial line in the sand. As a former life-long Republican, it has been painful to watch a once great political party descend into such sycophantic allegiance to a self-absorbed pretender.  

As is so often the case, it was the women (along with pathetically few male colleagues) who stood their ground in the face of risk and ridicule. They declared that an assault against our constitutional democracy could not go unchallenged. They understood that cowardly or venal acquiescence to a historic calumny had to be challenged.

Liz Cheney has drawn a line in the sand over the political savaging of an American presidential election, and it was Margaret Chase Smith who, seventy-one years ago, said NO! to the savaging of innocent fellow Americans by Republican Senator, Joseph McCarthy. Both women knew political warfare had run amuck. Both women showed political courage when nearly all of their male colleagues quaked in fear of angering a rogue; a rogue who had then, and another who has now seized the momentum of their Party; a Party that, itself, had and has gone rogue. Most of all, these women exhibited spine among the spineless.

Margaret Chase Smith first ran for Congress in 1940 to fill the seat of her ailing husband. The popular and hard-working lady from Maine won election after election by wide margins for thirty-three years. She was a loyal, moderate Republican who consistently put judgment and conscience above partisanship. While more Republicans eventually turned on the infamous Joseph McCarthy in 1954, it was a fearless freshman, Margaret Chase Smith, who, four years earlier, stood before them in the well of the Senate chamber and delivered her historic Declaration of Conscience. “…The American people are sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared and the guilty whitewashed,” Margaret Chase Smith said. She was, of course, also speaking of the political fecklessness of so many of her colleagues.

It took four years for the U.S. Senate to condemn McCarthy, and even then, half the Republicans in the Senate could not bring themselves to vote against him. In that dark era, Margaret Chase Smith was willing to stand alone and call out Joseph McCarthy at great personal political risk. She famously challenged her colleagues when, she declared, “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”

There should be a chorus of Republicans echoing those sentiments today, but there are pitifully few.  Enter Liz Cheney, who, almost alone in the House of Representatives, has faced down her own fellow Republicans.

I think it’s clear to all of the people…that our oath to the Constitution, our duty, our dedication to the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power has to come above any concern about partisanship or about politics,” she said addressing a cowed and cowardly Republican caucus.

Liz Cheney knows she represents voters in the reddest of red states. She knows there is probably no state in the union in which Donald Trump could saunter to victory as effortlessly as in Wyoming, but Liz Cheney has shown herself to be more principled than partisan. She is as Republican as a real Republican can be. She is pure Republican aristocracy, but she is an American patriot first. Following the Capitol insurrection on January 6th, Liz Cheney voted for the impeachment of then-President Donald Trump (she voted against impeachment in his first Senate trial). Her Republicans colleagues, in retribution, have now booted her from leadership.

Ironically, Cheney has an off-the-charts Republican voting record. She even voted for Donald Trump twice, both in 2016 and 2020. She supported, however reluctantly, her Party’s standard-bearer until he turned his petulance and wrath against the Constitution and, therefore, against his Party and his country. She understood where real Republicans had to draw the line. And like patriots before her, she has been willing to put her political future on the line by choosing fidelity to the Constitution over fidelity to a rogue party leader.

Both of these women, especially on this July 4th, are worthy of the gratitude of the nation and, in particular, of those members of the Grand Ole Party who still might have some inkling of what once made their old party grand.


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Critical Race Theory and Other Political Wedge Issues

A well-devised or contrived political wedge issue is pure political gold. Anyone who has ever managed a political campaign knows that.

Political wedge issues often force voters to make political decisions, even when the issue does not represent an impending public policy decision. The undecided voter is often swayed by being for or against an issue that is imputed to be favored or opposed by one of the political parties or by one of the candidates for office.

Some wedge issues are entirely legitimate. Even before there was a United States of America or any American political parties, Thomas Paine, in 1775, created a world-changing political wedge issue when he published Common Sense. Common Sense made the case that the American colonists should be focusing on independence from rather than reconciliation with England. While they were not yet voters in national elections, the colonists were presented with a choice. Were they for allegiance to England or for self-determination. At the time, that was about as controversial as any wedge issue could be, but it was a legitimate issue. Independence rather than reconciliation was a wedge issue for the ages.

Critical Race Theory is not really an issue that school boards in America are pursuing. Some politicians, however, have erected it as a great American bugaboo, creating angst among voters way out of proportion to any existing reality. Critical Race Theory has become a raging wedge issue.

Political wedge issues are commonplace in American political discourse. For example, most Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, today, support universal access to quality healthcare, especially after our long COVID-19 ordeal. However, a dozen years ago, access to healthcare became a magnet for wedge issues. Republicans, led by Sarah Palin, created a compelling wedge issue in fighting the Affordable Care Act by raising the specter of “death panels.” There were no such provisions in the Affordable Care Act, but it dominated much of the debate a dozen years ago. Republican criticism of the Affordable Care Act isn’t heard much today, but wedge issues such as the death panel controversy fanned the flames of discord when the Affordable Care Act was being debated.

So, today, politicians and others are rallying citizens to fight against a rather non-existent public-school movement to teach Critical Race Theory. Political apoplexy over Critical Race Theory presupposes that teaching it is on public school board agendas all over the country. It isn’t.

Critical Race Theory is a forty-year-old movement that focuses on the root causes of racism, the pervasiveness of racism, the alleged centrality of racism, and the considerable lingering impact of systemic racism. Critical Race Theory has become a revisited topic in some academic circles, among various civil rights scholars and activists, and more recently, spurred on by Black Lives Matter activists.

However, few, if any, school boards are pushing to incorporate Critical Race Theory into public school curricula. Creating a controversy over the teaching of Critical Race Theory even though there is little to no teaching of Critical Race Theory in America is a textbook exercise in wedge-issue creation. It forces voters to decide for or against a happening that isn’t happening.

Does race, including racism, have any place in American education? Of course. It would be irresponsible (and impossible) to sidestep an integral part of our own history. Should we teach Americans, especially young white Americans, that they are, by definition, guilty of racism or guilty of the sins of their forbears? No, of course not. Should Americans be taught the lingering effects of racism? Why not? Ignorance is not bliss. It is the handmaiden of demagoguery. Is stigmatizing any cohort of Americans for the behavior of any other cohort of Americans ever justified? No, never. Should a more just society be an essential American ideal? Always. If America means anything, it means justice for all. Without justice for all, there is no justice at all.

And there you have a reasonable way to address the complexities of the generations-old and now rapidly evolving question of race in America. Teaching American history should not embrace an obsession with race or racism, but, at an appropriate grade level, an understanding of the role and toll of racism in the American experience. We should neither avoid it nor should we obsess over it. We should simply be determined to learn from it and to continue to pursue that more perfect union; that work in progress that was the promise of America.

To pretend that racism doesn’t exist in America is absurd. To pretend that we haven’t made substantial progress in confronting racism in America is equally absurd.

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