Border Security

February 15, 2019

I’ve been looking into the border situation.  My goal is to reach an understanding of what’s really going on, because the political rhetoric has my head spinning.  Here is what I found:

Depending on which source(s) you are comfortable with, you may agree that the 1,900+-mile border between the United States and Mexico is the most heavily crossed – both legally and illegally – international boundary in the world.

Today – mid-February 2019 — barriers which block people and vehicles along 650 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border are in place and operational.  These barriers include stretches of steel and barbed wire, fortified with infrared cameras, imposing watchtowers, and blinding floodlights, and it is patrolled by thousands of guards. These 650 miles represent a four-fold increase over 2005, when there were 120 miles.

About 1,300 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border lacks fencing because the Rio Grande forms a natural border along most of those miles. Remaining sections are in rugged, inhospitable terrain, where building a barrier would not only be impractical, but fail the most rudimentary cost-benefit analysis.

The legislation President Donald Trump needs to build his promised wall along the U.S. southern border with Mexico was passed in 2006 and remains on the books.

The Secure Fence Act was introduced in Sept. 2006 by Rep Peter King (R-NY) and was quickly passed by Congress on a bi-partisan basis.  The House passed the Fence Act 283 to 138 on September 14, 2006; the Senate passed the Fence Act 80 to 19 on September 29, 2006; and the Act was signed into law by Pres. George W. Bush on October 26, 2006.

The goals of The Secure Fence Act of 2006 envisioned helping to secure America’s border with Mexico to decrease illegal entry, drug trafficking, and security threats by building about 700 miles of physical barriers along the Mexico-United States border. Additionally, the law authorized more vehicle barriers, checkpoints, and lighting as well as authorizing the Department of Homeland Security to increase the use of advanced technology such as cameras, satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles to reinforce infrastructure at the border.

The initial concept imagined in the King-sponsored law anticipated a continuous barrier of double-layered fencing with a sufficient gap that a vehicle could be driven between the layers.

Once it became clear that the geographic and topographic diversity along the border could not accommodate a simple double-layered fence, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R, TX) worked with the Department of Homeland Security to propose an amendment to give DHS discretion to decide what type of fence was appropriate in different areas.

The law was subsequently amended to read,

“Nothing in this paragraph shall require the Secretary of Homeland Security to install fencing, physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors in a particular location along an international border of the United States, if the Secretary determines that the use or placement of such resources is not the most appropriate means to achieve and maintain operational control over the international border at such location.”

By mid-2011, the Department of Homeland Security reported that fencing for 649 miles of border had been completed.  As described in the 2007 Hutchinson amendment, much of the total fence reported by DHS consists of vehicle barriers and single-layer pedestrian fence, deemed most appropriate at those locations by DHS.

Purists looked back to the original King-sponsored bill and decried the type of fencing DHS was counting as “completed”.  They said that vehicle barriers and single-layer pedestrian fences can’t meet the amended letter of the law.

Yet, according to Customs and Border Patrol reports at that time,  the border barriers they included in their report include: ‘Post on Rail’ steel set in concrete;  Steel Picket-style fence set in concrete;  Vehicle Bollards similar to those found around federal buildings; ‘Normandy-style’ steel beam vehicle barriers; and concrete ‘Jersey Walls’ reinforced with steel mesh.

I don’t know much about barriers, but these sound pretty substantial and imposing to me.

Many people will take exception to something President Obama said in 2011 when addressing the issue of border security.  I include this here because it is emblematic of the political discourse we seem to have devolved toward in the past decade or two:

“We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement.  All the stuff they asked for, we’ve done. But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I’ve got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time.”

“They’ll want a higher fence,” Obama said. “Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.”

Political rhetoric is to be expected, and most of us prefer it to be witty, sharp and to the point.

There really is no place in a civilized society for the sort of caustic and unforgiving political hate speech and outright lies we all too frequently seem to encounter in 2019.

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Economic and Fiscal Policy

February 12, 2019

Our current POTUS rarely stands still long enough for anyone to really examine how his positions and policies impact us in the present, or potentially in the future.

Here are a couple of observations which I managed to glean from rapidly moving targets:

Fiscal Policy:  Failure

By late 2017, the U.S. economy had enjoyed over 8 years of economic expansion (since June 2009), leading virtually all economists to conclude we were moving toward the end of an economic expansion cycle. Most experts agree that the government should constrain both borrowing and spending during an expansion phase, concurrently decreasing government debt.

When the expansion phase of a business cycle comes to an end, and the economy begins to sputter – and ultimately to contract – a government with reduced debt will have the capacity to spend more and tax less, helping to support the softening economy return to equilibrium faster and smoother.

The much-touted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act enacted at the end of 2017 introduced a $1.5 Trillion tax cut, sold as a source of economic stimulus when it was least needed.

In times of economic expansion, the government is on notice to reduce its deficit.

On February 12, 2019, the national debt passed a new milestone, topping $22 Trillion for the first time.  According to the U.S. Treasury Department, total outstanding public debt hit $22.01 Trillion, up from the $19.95 Trillion when President Donald Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017.  This is mighty dangerous stuff, folks.

Trade Policy:  Failure

Tariffs are a tax on consumption, paid by end users.

Over several decades, the U.S. developed a dependence on manufactured goods from China.  In turn, U.S. exports to China – predominantly agricultural and unfinished goods – enjoyed strong growth over time.

President Trump abruptly started a trade war with China, imposing tariffs on goods imported into the U.S. beginning in July 2018.

China quickly retaliated, raising tariffs on American goods imported into China, resulting in significant shifts by China to alternative sources.

Winners?  Brazil; Russia; Germany; Japan.

Losers?  American agricultural producers in Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Kansas; some American manufacturers; and American consumers overall.

It was once said, “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win.

The evidence seems to emphatically refute that position.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid created in 1960, originally introduced as an anesthetic. Because it is synthetic, it can be easily and inexpensively made in a lab. It was approved by the FDA in the early 1990’s for use as a painkiller and anesthetic. It works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, but it does so faster — and in much smaller doses — than morphine or heroin. Like other opioids, it boosts levels of the chemical dopamine, which controls feelings of reward, pleasure, euphoria, and relaxation.

Today, Fentanyl is typically prescribed to treat patients who need long-term, around-the-clock relief from severe pain. When used for medical purposes, it is often given in a shot, a patch on the skin, or in lozenges.

China has become a global source of Fentanyl because (a) it can be easily and inexpensively made in a lab; and (b) the vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries in China are lightly regulated.

Some Fentanyl comes straight to the United States from China, while other shipments come in from China to Mexico (and to a lesser extent) Canada before making its way into the U.S.

There currently is no tariff on Fentanyl imported into the U.S. from any point of origin, which indicates that the Trump administration has missed a major revenue opportunity.

Build The Wall?

January 23, 2019

Ever ready to incite a riot and to encourage acts of violence, President Trump recently tweeted, “Four people in Nevada viciously robbed and killed by an illegal immigrant who should not have been in our Country… We need a powerful Wall!”

[Background:  Wilbur Martinez-Guzman, 19, has been jailed in Carson City, Nevada since January 19 on an immigration violation. Federal immigration authorities said that Guzman entered the U.S. illegally from El Salvador. Guzman is a prime suspect in 3 home invasion burglaries in Nevada over a 6 day period during which four people were shot and killed.]

No, Mr. President.  We probably don’t need a Wall.  Certainly not because of this particular case.

What we need is elected officials who consistently adhere to the highest standards of mature, honest and responsible leadership.

And, we need our elected officials to separate day-to-day federal government operations from capital projects.

We need immediate restoration of funding for the day-to-day operations in all sectors of our federal government, at the same time putting debate and deliberations over capital projects into the traditional federal budget process.

Monday, January 21, 2019The International Monetary Fund pared back its world economic growth forecasts for 2019 and 2020 due to sustained economic weakness in Europe and some emerging markets. They also said looming trade tensions and the longer-term ramifications of the U.S. government shutdown could further destabilize a slowing global economy.

“After two years of solid expansion, the world economy is growing more slowly than expected and risks are rising,” IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said.

In addition to other forces, IMF economists pointed to: (a) challenges to German auto manufacturers due to new fuel emission standards; (b) uncertainty in Italy where a newly elected coalition government has clashed with EU leadership over a budget proposal which would dangerously increase the Italian sovereign deficit, combined with limp domestic demand; and (c) the uncertainty of fallout from a less-than-smooth exit from the European Union by the U.K. a.k.a. ‘a no-deal Brexit’.

Fears of a global slowdown began to jinx financial markets in early November 2018 as investors began to worry about increasingly weak signs in China.

The ripple effect of Sino-U.S. trade frictions over the past year apparently has exacerbated the slowing of China’s official growth rate to its weakest level since 1990, attributed to a combination of diminishing domestic demand and damaging U.S. tariffs.

Each of these issues is important, and they generally share a common theme:  bad policy decisions made by incompetent and/or uninformed people, some of whom are voters; some private-sector executives; and some unconstrained elected officials.

On Day 30 of the 2018-19 U.S Shutdown:  It is becoming increasingly evident that this partial federal government shutdown is taking an increasingly negative short-term toll on consumer and business confidence, and by extension, the overall US economy.  The White House’s Council of Economic Advisors recently updated their estimate that the shutdown will reduce current economic growth by 0.13% for every week that it lasts.  Doesn’t sound like much, you say?

We can look back to the “Ted Cruz Green Eggs & Ham” shutdown of 2013 – a mere 16 days – to see estimates of negative economic impact:

  • $24 billion in lost domestic economic output;
  • $2.1 billion in non-productive government costs (primarily the cost of paying furloughed workers for hours they didn’t actually work);
  • $2.4 billion in lost travel spending (based on a combination of estimated reductions in business travel for federal contractors and federal employees, plus cancellations of discretionary travel by tourists);
  • $7.2 Million in lost revenue at National Parks (based on an average collection of $450,000 per day);
  • Most alarming? While we can estimate current economic effects, there really is no valid means to estimate long-term economic – and societal – effects of an extended shutdown.

The message?  Political decisions made by unqualified and/or inexperienced individuals can and do have long term negative consequences. A comprehensive system of checks and balances is a critical ingredient in the long-term viability of any institution. In the public sector, a key ingredient seems to be the involved and active participation by a well-educated and well-informed body of citizens who are able and willing to vote.

What is there about the simple concept of separating day-to-day operations from long-term planning that our elected federal officials seem unwilling or unable to comprehend?

Our current federal budgetary process was set into law by the 1974 Budget Control Act, based on a federal fiscal year which runs from October 1st to September 30th.  Thus our current Federal Fiscal Year — known as FY 2019 — runs from October 1, 2018 until September 30, 2019.

In February 2018, President Trump – through the Office of Management and Budget – submitted a proposed budget to Congress for FY 2019. The operating budget for FY 2019 was discussed, deliberated and adopted, and it needs to be funded.

There just isn’t any room in the process for the President – or any other elected official — to demand modifications to the current FY budget prior to approving ongoing funding for current government operations.

While it is unfortunately true that Congress doesn’t always follow the schedule as proscribed in the 1974 Budget Control Act, the proper time for the President to present new spending initiatives to Congress is during the annual federal budget deliberations process which typically begins in January when the OMB presents a proposed FY budget to the President.

President Trump’s current demands are only legitimately appropriate as a component of a proposed FY 2020 federal budget proposal.

PLEASE:  Let’s get the federal government back into its day-to-day operation by providing necessary current funding, and bring the debate over additional border funding where it belongs – in the discussions and deliberation toward a FY 2020 federal budget.

Where’s Mitch McConnell?

January 17, 2019

Where’s Mitch is a question many people are asking.

There are 800,000 federal workers and their families who are going without pay right now – including thousands of Kentuckians.

Here in Florida, we have about 5,000 Coast Guard members doing their jobs to protect our 1,350 miles of Gulf and Atlantic coastline, and they are not currently being paid.

The new Democratic House, on its first day in office, passed two bills funding and reopening the government.

McConnell has refused to allow a vote on any of those bills in the Senate. He’s even twice blocked a bill reopening the government from coming to the floor that he himself voted for back in December.

Despite the fact that Majority Leader McConnell has the ability to end this shutdown right now, Mitch is seemingly nowhere to be found.

I’m angry that this one man who has the power to stop this absurd drama has refused to do his job.

If you are nearly as angry as I am, perhaps you will consider donating $15 – or what you can afford – to the Ditch Mitch movement.  Let’s shine a bright light on McConnell’s irresponsible behavior.

http://ditchmit.ch/

 

Remember Benghazi?

January 16, 2019

I refer to a deplorable attack by members of the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Sharia on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya during which four U.S. citizens were killed. That atrocity occurred in September 2012, just over 6 years ago.

Today (January 16, 2019) — just a month after President Donald Trump declared that the Islamic State had been defeated and that he was pulling U.S. troops out of Syria — a suicide bombing in northern Syria attributed to the Islamic State killed at least 16 people, including two U.S. service members and two American civilians.

About four hours after this vicious attack by Islamic Militants – and after having been briefed on the bombing — Vice President Mike Pence told the world, “Thanks to the leadership of this commander in chief and the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces, we are now actually able to begin to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria to our coalition partners. And we are bringing our troops home. The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.”

Cold? Callous? Confused? Disconnected?

Even some senior Republican elected officials have pushed back on this mess, warning President Trump that his statements have served to encourage and inspire ‘the enemy we’re fighting.’

Back to Benghazi: At two years and four months, Trey Gowdy’s Benghazi investigation was longer than previous Congressional probes into 9/11; Watergate; the JFK assassination; and Pearl Harbor. Add to that time wasted: the $22 Million of public money spent in a clearly partisan attempt to “get” former Secretary Clinton, it must have been deeply disappointing to those who backed Gowdy when they read the final report which found no evidence of wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.

Lessons Learned: Despite the temptation, let us be sure to tell our elected officials in Washington:  Please don’t waste any scarce government resources investigating the direct impact of President Trump’s actions on the January 16, 2019 Islamic State fatal attack on innocent people in northern Syria.

Trump does what he is told, and there is no reason to investigate what we already know.

The Winning December Tale

December 21, 2018

Not to be outdone by venerable sources such as Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe and Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), President Donald Trump and his loyal sycophants — Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway — have created a number of fabulous and fantastic episodes for December 2018.  We have endeavored to select the very best for your enjoyment tonight:

The Tale of A Shutdown

December 11, 2018:  Nationally televised from The Oval Office:

“I am proud to shut down the government…I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not gonna blame you for it.”

  • Donald J. Trump (speaking to Sen. Chuck Schumer)

December 17, 2018:  Bloomberg News:

Among those who have opposed Trump’s wall proposal is Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd, whose district is along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Among other observations, Hurd said that the response time from the border patrol on issues of illegal immigration is hours to days, making a border wall a waste of money because a wall is no obstacle if the response time is that slow.

  • Will Hurd, (R) TX

December 19, 2018:  Nationally broadcast on CBS News:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on the Senate floor Wednesday that he’ll introduce a short-term spending bill to fund the government into early February, and one of the president’s top aides suggested earlier in the day Mr. Trump may be amenable to that.

“We need the government to remain open for the American people,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and presumptive incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced their support for the legislation as well, paving a path to avert a shutdown.

Pelosi said in a statement, “Democratic and Republican appropriators have been ready to pass these bills in a bipartisan way, and we are grateful for their leadership to meet the needs of the American people. This is a missed opportunity to pass full-year funding bills now. However, Democrats will be ready to fully, responsibly fund our government in January, and we will support this continuing resolution.”

  • McConnell, Schumer, Pelosi

December 20, 2018:  Nationally televised on “The Ingraham Angle” (Fox News):

“I think that not funding the wall is going to go down as one of the worst, worst things to have happened to this administration. Forget Mueller. The wall, the wall, the wall. Has to be built. And it’s a scandal that it hasn’t been built.”

  • Laura Ingraham

December 21, 2018:  Broadcast via Twitter from @realDonaldTrump:

“The Democrats, whose votes we need in the Senate, will probably vote against Border Security and the Wall even though they know it is DESPERATELY NEEDED. If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time. People don’t want Open Borders and Crime!”

  • Donald J. Trump

December 21, 2018: 

It seems clear that Donald J. Trump and his loyal sycophants have created another alternative reality in their attempt to destroy the foundation of American democracy, and Vladimir Putin is very, very happy!

The Trump Trifecta

October 26, 2018

Since taking office in January 2017, Donald Trump has stood with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to proclaim various ‘victories’ for the American people.  Here are what seem to be the top three, A.K.A. “The Trifecta”:

  1. Complicit with Russia, Saudi Arabia and several other suspect regimes. Trump has continued to send public messages which downplay and/or absolve bad actors from behaviors which are contrary to existing international standards.

One clear reason:  Trump — and his close advisor Jared Kushner —  is involved in highly leveraged real estate development.  Neither Trump nor Kushner have the liquidity or availability of traditional financing sources to invest their own money.  Instead, they are forced to chase shady money from around the world, including huge sums of money sourced from Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, etc.

Essentially, Trump (along with the Kushner Companies) is beholden to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; Vladimir Putin; various Chinese investors; along with ‘dark money’ sources in Cyprus, Panama and the Cayman Islands, among others.

2. The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” (TCJA) was passed in late 2017 incorporating some modest temporary individual and small business tax cuts while focusing in on very substantial big business and corporate tax cuts.

Traditional economic models, developed and refined over countless economic cycles, encourage tax cuts and deficit spending during economic downturns as a means to stimulate economic growth.  During times of economic expansion, increased government revenue from tax collections is then used to pay down public debt and help stabilize the economy.

N.B.  There was a strong case to be made for a modest corporate tax cut as the U.S. economy began to improve post 2012; there was zero legitimate case to be made for the magnitude of the corporate tax cut which was a cornerstone of the 2017 TCJA.

The foundation of the TCJA was a promise that slashing corporate taxes from a maximum 35% rate to a 21% cap would result in dramatic increases in capital investment, resulting in job creation and wage growth.  Americans for Tax Reform, a vocal advocate for the plan, generated promises of employee bonuses, increased wages, increased retirement contributions and/or expanded business operations as a result of the TCJA.

Actual outcomes of the Tax Cuts?  Record stock buybacks; extraordinary executive compensation; flat employee compensation; and continued failure of venerable American corporations.

Definitive proof of the foolishness of cutting taxes in a time of economic expansion?  A rapidly expanding federal budget deficit.  According to the final monthly Treasury Statement for Fiscal Year 2018 (the year that ended on 9/30/2018), the deficit was $779 Billion — a $113 Billion (17%) increase over the$666 Billion deficit recorded from FY 2017.

Perhaps most egregious to the American people?  Mitch McConnell is blaming self-funded safety net programs [Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid] as the root cause of our rising federal deficit.  Visualize McConnell as he does a little smile; looks straight into the camera; and then blatantly lies to the American people.  Was he also lying when he took the Oath of Office?

3.  Incendiary, Irrational and Emotionally-Inspired Immigration Policy:

Right or wrong, the U.S. economy depends on immigrant workers – documented or undocumented. Industry sectors which rely on immigrants for between 1/4 and 1/2 of their employment needs include: agriculture; hospitality; construction; textile, apparel and leather manufacturing; food manufacturing; and private households.

Through a series of small moves that add up to dramatic change, the Trump administration has bypassed Congress to create new process and procedures which could have lasting effects on how the US welcomes and evaluates immigrants.

In his election campaign in June 2015, Trump told us, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…”

By painting virtually all immigrants with a broad brush as criminals; as a national security threat to the U.S.; as bad people; as people who steal jobs from Americans;  he has created a hostile environment on the world stage, offering fear and fallacies with no attempt to find viable and sustainable solutions.

In late October 2018, facing a ‘caravan of migrants’ moving north from Central America toward the U.S. Southern border, Trump has proclaimed that there are ‘criminals and people of Middle Eastern descent among the migrants within the caravan’ and has pointed to it as evidence that the U.S. has weak immigration laws. He has also threatened to cut off aid to Central American countries in response to the caravan.

An internal report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found that the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown at the border in early 2018 was troubled from the outset by planning shortfalls, widespread communication failures and administrative indifference to the separation of small children from their parents.

It has been said that the Trump Child Separation Policy is related to the worst abuses of humanity in history.  Child separation is connected by the same evil that separated families during slavery, and which dislocated tribes and broke up Native American families.

What’s the point?

The point is that differences of opinion are a cornerstone of society, and a critical ingredient of humanity.

The very essence of Debate relies on formal discussion on a particular topic.

In an honest debate, opposing arguments are put forward to argue for opposite  viewpoints. Genuine and honest debate can occur in public meetings, academic institutions, and in legislative assemblies.

A genuine debate requires some ground rules, particularly in the areas of logical consistency and factual accuracy, yet it also allows some degree of emotional appeal to the audience.

Sadly, today’s discussions on topics of importance to the American People seem to lack any rules about civility, logic or even factual accuracy.

Turn on the television and we find absolutism, tribalism and a “win at any cost” approach to delicate yet important societal issues. Dialogue has effectively been replaced by diatribe.

Worse, people can select news sources which support and reinforce their biases, finding comfort in “being right” by selective listening or watching. No time or need to consider other options when the platform has been fully developed to mirror your comfort zone.

Add to this dilemma the continuing disenfranchisement of American adults from the political process.

More adult males in America today are able to recite NFL statistics than are able explain issues facing American society, and women are not far behind.

Voter turnout in the United States fluctuates in national elections. In recent elections, about 60% of the voting eligible population votes during presidential election years, and about 40% votes during midterm elections. Turnout is lower for odd year, primary and local elections.

If we compare national voter participation in the 2016 presidential election to viewership of the 2016 Superbowl, we find a dead heat at around 112 Million.

Not necessarily the same people, but it does strike me that we have a real disconnect between the American public and our governance model, perhaps helping to explain why our system seems to be in need of some serious adjustments at this point in time.