Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Most Destructive Speech in American History: Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address

Ronald Reagan's swearing-in, Jan. 20, 1981
Before anyone gets riled up, I think that President Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address, delivered on January 20,1981 was a fine speech: noble in principle, thoughtful, democratic in the little-d sense, and a blueprint for American freedom. It was a speech to admire, delivered with surpassing skill by one of the most articulate presidents in American history. It has become a terrible shame, however, that the subsequent history of the Republican Party has reduced this wonderful speech into one incoherent slogan.

Did Reagan anticipate the iron machinery that he was setting in motion? I doubt it. One, out-of-context comment, subsequently transformed into a mindless slogan, has come to drive the Republican ideology:
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
The lesson in this is that slogans aren’t ideas. Enthusiasts do not need to think when they chant a slogan. Ideas, however, require people to think before they speak.

Did Reagan really mean it? Yes and no. Context always matters. Let’s look at the context.

Context #1

Reagan did not say the government was always the problem. He did not say that government was bad. He said that government was bad “in this present crisis.”

The crisis to which Reagan referred was the burst of inflation under the Jimmy Carter administration, which was followed by a series of unpleasant economic shocks. Those shocks caused problems—I lived through them myself—but they only lasted a few years. But “government is the problem,” taken out of context, sounds like a long-term issue.

Context #2

However, before discussing those long-term issues, Reagan spoke up firmly against all forms of discrimination. A Republican of 2023 would most likely call Reagan “woke.” Dismissing special interest groups, Reagan said that the only special interest group that mattered was the American people, regardless of rationalism, ethnicity, or race. Indeed, even the most liberal politician of 2023 could utter this same passage and mean every word:
“Well our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries, or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we’re sick -- professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers. They are, in short, ‘We the People.’ This breed called Americans.”

Ronald Reagan Spoke on the Fourth of July: Celebrating Freedom, Shared Values, and Diversity 

Context #3

Yes, Reagan promised to reduce the size and scope of the federal government, which, like many conservatives, he considered to be a potential threat to liberty. Note, however, that he did not stand for destroying or disrupting the government, but rather for an orderly redistribution of power. He stated his economic principle:
“It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the states or to the people.”
Note that he did not call for shutting down the government or defaulting on government bonds.

Unfortunately, like many conservatives before and since, Reagan neglected to list the government programs that he intended to reduce. So, although his promise was based on traditional American ideals of liberty, this speech laid out no specific program.

Context #4

Predating the concept of a “compassionate conservative,” Reagan insisted that reducing government power did not entail dumping people to flounder on their own. He did not speak for a Darwinian contest, in which the winners would announce themselves to surpass the losers. No, Reagan emphasized community responsibility. He said that we should love all our fellow Americans, help them when they were in need, and ensure that they have the chance to become self-sufficient. I fear that Reagan’s remarkable statement of values seems to have disappeared from the conservative movement of 2023. How sad. This is what he said:
“We shall reflect the compassion that is so much a part of your make-up. How can we love our country and not love our countrymen -- and loving them reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they’re sick, and provide opportunity to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?”

Context #5

Ending this epic speech, Reagan reminded his audience that the United States of America can accomplish whatever we want to accomplish. Insisting that success required ambition and determination, Reagan assured the American people that the crisis of 1981 could be resolved: 
“It does require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.

“And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”

Context #6

Let’s look back at how Reagan began his magnificent speech. He started with the American tradition of orderly transfer of power. Former President Jimmy Carter himself sat in the front row to recognize Reagan’s ascension to the presidency. It was, Reagan reminded all of us, a momentous occurrence. It was a remarkable thing that the loser conceded and the reins of power were handed over smoothly, in accordance with the Constitution and the law, with no violence or disruption. As Reagan said:
“The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”

George W. Bush Used His Prestige to Call Out the January 6 Terrorists

George W. Bush on 9/11: A Forgotten Vision

Yet, 40 years later, in January 2021, the losing candidate, Donald Trump, heir to Reagan’s party, refused to concede victory. Instead, swarms of his supporters attacked the Capitol to interrupt the counting of the electoral votes and halt the peaceful transfer of power. Reagan had commented that “few of us stop to think how unique we really are.” Sadly, we are no longer unique, as Reagan’s own party, and the conservative movement he proudly ensconced, has now utterly rejected that keystone of the United States Constitution.

Did It Work?

Did Reagan say “crisis?” Yes, he did. And now, in September 2023, Republicans in Congress are threatening to shut down the American government until someone meets their poorly articulated demands, on which they themselves do not even agree. Isn’t that a crisis? And does it not arise from the slogan, “government is the problem?”

While in office, Reagan cut domestic spending but greatly increased military spending. Overall, it’s questionable whether he articulated a clear program of how to reduce the federal government, much less to leave an ongoing program that could inspire his successors. So, unfortunately, even today, in angry voices that contradict Reagan’s affable style, Republican politicians continue to insist on massive cuts in increasingly unspecified government programs, in dollar amounts that they rarely state aloud.

Reagan’s speech was destructive and dangerous, not because it was a bad speech (it was a wonderful, inspiring speech), but because its ongoing influence today is now mired at the slogan stage. Republicans today have sadly forgotten the contexts that Reagan gave to this speech. “Government is the problem” is not a policy. It’s only a slogan. Unfortunately, slogans only take us so far.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

George Washington Plunkitt Explained about “Honest Graft”

Tammany Hall Headquarters

I encountered a wonderfully brazen historical speech by a crooked politician on the subject of “honest graft.” Yes. New York State Senator George Washington Plunkitt, a cog in the Tammany Hall machine in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, said that he only committed “honest graft.” Let’s take a closer look at Plunkitt’s moral inversion, his vision of honest graft:
“Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft—blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc.—and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.”
So, Plunkitt started his talk by saying that there is honest graft and dishonest graft. He explained that the crooked ways in which he made his fortune differed from the crooked ways that other politicians made their fortunes. With no trace of shame, Plunkitt gave a moral argument to justify public corruption. But how, one asks, can he make such an argument? The answer turns out to be simple. Indeed, politicians today give similar explanations. Well, maybe not explanations, but excuses. Surprised?

Politicians and Their Excuses

Yes, crooked politicians love to make excuses, don’t they? They continue to make plenty of excuses today.

During Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s recent impeachment trial, his lawyer commented that the man’s behavior was “ratty,” but “if campaign donations were bribes everybody in this town would be impeached.” (I could only wish.) Paxton was acquitted.

After former White House advisor Peter Navarro was recently convicted of contempt of Congress, former President Donald Trump blamed, not Navarro, who had obviously broken the law, but his accusers:
“I can’t believe that these Fascist Monsters have so viciously gone after the great Peter Navarro for defying the totally partisan January 6th Unselect Committee of political Hacks and Thugs.”
Similarly, arguing that members of Congress should be able to engage in stock trading, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi patiently explained that:
“We are a free-market economy. They should be able to participate in that.”
Excuses and more excuses, from both sides of the aisle.

If we could peek inside the hallowed halls of American government, what might we see? Insider stock trading, lobbyists wandering around Congressional offices with envelopes full of cash, a revolving door to the K Street lobbying industry, free luxury vacations—surely you don’t think any of this is new. Do you?

I, like most voters, would like my politicians to run their cities, states, and federal agencies in the best interests of the people. When folks start to make a fortune in politics, I ask myself, why they didn’t just become bankers or real estate brokers, which are legitimate careers, instead of pretending to be public servants?

Plunkitt’s Bold Defense of Corruption

So, let’s go back a century or so and see if we can learn more about this “honest graft.”

Plunkitt, who was probably no more corrupt than most of his era’s politicians, but much more brazen about it, is reported to have given a talk in the early 20th century about “honest graft.” Now, “honest graft” makes about as much sense as “frozen, melted ice” or “nonviolent stabbing.” All the same, my thesis is to talk about how people make excuses, and Plunkitt’s speech is a doozy.

Tammany Hall was the Democratic Party’s organization in New York City, which became corrupt in the late 1800’s and was a major political force through the early 1930’s. Plunkitt, a member of Tammany Hall, bragged about being corrupt and said that corruption was fine.

In fact, Plunkitt said:
“Tammany was beat in 1901 because the people were deceived into believin’ that it worked dishonest graft. They didn’t draw a distinction between dishonest and honest graft.”
Plunkitt’s rhetorical tactics were as simple as they were bold. First, he created a meaningless distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. Second, he equated honest graft with simple cleverness, which, I guess, he thought we should all admire. Finally, he pointed out that the beneficiaries of honest graft tended to be grateful for the kind ministrations of the crooked politicians who helped them prosper.

Next, Plunkitt talked (boasted) about how he used insider information to make money. As a member of government, he spotted opportunities of which other people would be unaware. Suppose, for example, that the city wanted to build another of New York’s excellent parks:
“Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

“I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.”
So, he used insider information to buy valuable land at discount prices and sell it to the city for a profit. For another example, he learned that the city was selling a huge pile of granite blocks, left over from a street project. Plunkitt planned to buy the stones and sell them for a nice return. His opponents arranged for out-of-state bidders to compete with Plunkitt. Plunkitt outsmarted them. He went to his competitors privately and told them that, if they let him bid without competition, he would give them all the blocks they wanted for free:
“I went to each of the men and said: ‘How many of these 250,000 stones do you want?’ One said 20,000, and another wanted 15,000, and another wanted 10,000. I said: ‘All right, let me bid for the lot, and I’ll give each of you all you want for nothin’.
“They agreed, of course. Then the auctioneer yelled: ‘How much am I bid for these 250,000 fine pavin’ stones?’
“‘Two dollars and fifty cents,’ says I.

“‘Two dollars and fifty cents’ screamed the auctioneer. ‘Oh, that’s a joke. Give me a real bid.’

“He found the bid was real enough. My rivals stood silent. I got the lot for $2.50 and gave them their share. That’s how the attempt to do Plunkitt ended, and that’s how all such attempts end.”
Plunkitt’s insider trading schemes worked out great for almost everyone. He made money while his competitors got free paving stones. His conspiracy cheated no one except the unknowing taxpayers. (The auction’s purpose, of course, was to ensure that the city would get a fair price for its paving stones. Oops.)

Finally, Plunkitt frankly reviewed how Tammany bought votes by raising the pay of city workers:
“Another kind of honest graft. Tammany has raised a good many salaries. There was an awful howl by the reformers, but don’t you know that Tammany gains ten votes for every one it lost by salary raisin’?

“The Wall Street banker thinks it shameful to raise a department clerk’s salary from $1500 to $1800 a year, but every man who draws a salary himself says: ‘That’s all right. I wish it was me.’ And he feels very much like votin’ the Tammany ticket on election day, just out of sympathy.’”
Plunkitt did not, however, merely defend graft. Even worse, he made corruption out to be a positive civic virtue:
“The books are always all right. The money in the city treasury is all right. Everything is all right. All they can show is that the Tammany heads of departments looked after their friends, within the law, and gave them what opportunities they could to make honest graft. Now, let me tell you that’s never goin’ to hurt Tammany with the people. Every good man looks after his friends, and any man who doesn’t isn’t likely to be popular. If I have a good thing to hand out in private life, I give it to a friend. Why shouldn’t I do the same in public life?”
Plunkitt’s schemes were complex enough to confuse the average voter, who would easily understand that bribery and extortion would distort the government, but who might not comprehend the baffling intricacies of insider trading.

Of course, similar things go on today. Members of Congress openly trade individual stocks. This is legal if disclosed. (“Put the American public first,” is the futile yell of Congressional ethics reformers.) Lobbyists wander up and down the halls of Congress passing out envelopes full of campaign contributions. Cash preferred, of course. The idea is to find ways to cheat the taxpayers without actually getting arrested. 

Is There Such a Thing as Honest Graft?

As a businessperson, do you want to get a concession on federal property? Well, good luck, have you made enough campaign contributions? Do you want to be the architect on a state building project? Outstanding! Be sure to get an architect’s license, prepare good bids, and make sufficient campaign contributions. Do you hope that Congress doesn’t cancel funding for the new military airplane that your company wants to build? Just hire subcontractors from the home districts of powerful members of Congress. Does the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about wish to build a new submarine? Don’t forget to name it after the home state (Ohio, for example) of a powerful senator, not some non-political sea creature (Nautilus, Albacore). (As Admiral Rickover said, “fish don’t vote.”) Problem solved!

Is any of that good for the government’s budget? Of course not. When powerful figures make public decisions for their own benefit, everyone else loses. But it is good old, time-honored, honest graft. All of that stands proudly in Plunkitt’s tradition. The United States currently rates with a corruption index of 31, well behind Denmark at 10 but far ahead of Somalia. We can do better. 

It’s sad when politicians lie about their crooked schemes. I think it’s worse when they brag about them.

What Can We Do? 

What we can do is, we can vote! Don’t get cynical. Cynical voters make the crooks happy. Cynical voters are crooks’ best friends. Be sure to vote, and remember to vote for the most honest (or least crooked) candidates you can find. Support anti-corruption laws. Please. 

Oppose the Citizens United case, which pretty much legalized honest (and dishonest) graft in the United States. But vote! If you don’t vote, they will never care about you. These guys commit graft for one reason only, and that is because the voters don’t stop them. And always keep an eye on your government. When politicians like Plunkitt tell you that they are crooks, please believe them. Honest graft is still graft. The operative word in “honest graft” is not “honest.” The operative word is “graft.”
By William D. Harpine

Earlier Posts about corruption and political speech:

Al Franken, the Loss of Truth, and the Problem of Credibility

Theoretical note: “Honest graft” is an example of the rhetorical trope called “oxymoron;” that is, a self-contradictory phrase. When a badly planned 1980 mission to rescue hostages in Iran ended with a fiery helicopter collision, President Jimmy Carter called the debacle an “incomplete success.” Donald Trump once talked about “truthful hyperbole.” Those are classic oxymorons, cleverly phrased to conceal the speaker’s true meaning.

Copyright 2023, William D. Harpine

Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, September 11, 2023

George W. Bush on 9/11: A Forgotten Vision

George W. Bush
From unity we grow strength, while division leads only to weakness.

When President George W. Bush addressed the Unites States on television the night of September 11, 2001, shortly after the terror attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, his theme was national unity. In the most famous passage of that speech, he said:
“A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.”
Nothing unites people more than a common threat. He did not talk about any one group or ethnicity or political faction. Instead, he talked about “American resolve.” He attributed the attacks to the forces that oppose “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” The 9/11 attacks were, in Bush’s view, an attack against humanity’s most basic values.

As I re-read this speech, I found myself only able to mourn the United States’ loss of unity. We are now divided family against family, friend against friend. What has gone wrong?

Yes, Bush soon followed this value-laden speech with badly managed and cruel wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the repercussions of which still revisit us today.

But what has happened to our values, our idealism? For two decades after 9/11, a sitting president told a bunch of lies and tried to overthrow his election defeat. Millions of otherwise decent people support him in this. The Freedom Index now lists the United States of America as a “flawed democracy” because of our divisions and political instability. When we speak of American values, of liberty, of justice—of unity—do we still believe in them? Or not? 

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell Explains Inflation Policy

Jerome Powell
Although most people ignore it, the Jackson Hole summit, sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, always commands the financial community’s breathless attention. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell spoke yesterday on the topic, “Inflation: Progress and the Path Ahead.”

Disregarding the fevered riots of political controversy, Powell gave a calm, reasoned, and technical economic speech. He explained the causes of inflation and the Fed’s plan to control it. His thesis was that economic decisions should be driven by data. His unspoken point was that the Federal Reserve operates with information, not by politics. (I wish that more decision makers would live by that rule: instead of looking for ways to scream about the political opposition, shouldn’t we pay attention to the facts?) Powell toned down the public’s expectations and presented factual, expert analysis in this critical but low-key speech. Powell’s speech was very much not designed to attract massive public attention. Instead, he sought to clarify policies and calm fears in a speech designed for the consumption of specialists.

The Federal Reserve, of course, operates under a dual mandate: to keep inflation and unemployment alike at reasonable levels. Any economics student knows that those two goals often clash, and Powell examined them with great care.

So, in this speech, Powell attributed recent inflation to factors like the war in Ukraine, “unprecedented pandemic-related demand and supply distortions,” and Federal Reserve policies. Noting that energy and food prices are inherently volatile, Powell focused instead on core inflation. His explanation bulged with numbers, for example:
“On a 12-month basis, core PCE inflation peaked at 5.4 percent in February 2022 and declined gradually to 4.3 percent in July.”
Powell supported that claim with this informative but complex slide, which, no doubt, invigorates the thoughts of financial experts even as the public’s eyes glaze over:

Nevertheless, Powell also warned that the economic picture remains unclear and that more work needs to be done to control inflation:
“We can’t yet know the extent to which these lower readings will continue or where underlying inflation will settle over coming quarters. Twelve-month core inflation is still elevated, and there is substantial further ground to cover to get back to price stability.”
Powell also explained that the dual mandate would require the Federal Reserve to restrict economic growth to keep inflation down to the 2% target rate:
“Getting inflation sustainably back down to 2 percent is expected to require a period of below-trend economic growth as well as some softening in labor market conditions.”
No matter how good your data might be, of course, no one can actually predict the future. In that vein, Powell literally waxed poetic about the need to rely on precise, exacting, but always uncertain data analysis:
“As is often the case, we are navigating by the stars under cloudy skies. In such circumstances, risk-management considerations are critical. At upcoming meetings, we will assess our progress based on the totality of the data and the evolving outlook and risks.”
Given the complexities of economic judgment, combined with politicians’ eagerness to confuse the issues with screaming lunacy, the Federal Reserve is, at least in theory, above politics as it tries to guide the economy in a sound direction. Obviously, economic decision making also requires informed, responsible action by Congress. Sadly, we could lose a lot of sleep expecting something as chimerical as that to happen.

The problem with expert data analysis is that only experts can readily interpret it. To understand serious economic analysis requires, at the very least, that a person understands algebra and analytic geometry. (See the above graph.) Powell’s speech was very much addressed to the audience of experts who gathered for the Jackson Hole conference. He also surely remembered that the financial community was listening; indeed, the stock market immediately reacted by going both up and down (well, down and up in this case), as investors did their best to predict an opaque future from Powell’s data-driven but inevitably uncertain predictions.

Historically, the Federal Reserve Chair tries to avoid emotional and political considerations. Instead, the Chair’s goal in these speeches is precisely to dampen panic, on the one hand, and calm unreasonable expectations, on the other. Powell’s data-driven analysis was delivered to a specialized audience, in an era when the very concept of expertise often comes into question. Powell did not give a speech for the ages. Instead, he reported on current economic policies to reduce uncertainty and calm fears. Needless to say, uncertainty always dominates our lives, while uncertainty leads to fear. Powell did his best.

By William D. Harpine

Earlier Speeches by Central Bankers:

Shaktikanta Das Gave a Central Banker’s Perspective on the Coronavirus Depression


Research note: Communication critics often engage in what they call genre analysis. They analyze speeches according to audience and purpose, so sermons, persuasive speeches, wedding toasts, and so forth each follow culturally-defined guidelines. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s brilliant introduction to Form and Genre: Shaping Rhetorical Action is recommended. Speeches by central bankers, which speech scholars usually ignore, may lie in an unrecognized but vital category of their own. Do any genre experts care to comment?

Image of graph, Federal Reserve Bank
Image of Jerome Powell, Federal Reserve Bank via Wikimedia
Image of Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Bank

©  2023 William D. Harpine

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Vivek Ramaswamy Suffers from Talking Points Disease--as He Attacks a Program that No Longer Exists

Political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy became something of the rising star in last night’s (August 23, 2023) Republican primary debate. He suggested that the nation needs civics education, and then quickly showed that he, himself, could use some civics education. Be careful what you ask for! (Clue: speakers need research.)

The culprit? Ramaswamy fell victim to Talking Points Disease. This terrible disease, which is endemic among American politicians, threatens to rot away our national polity. The symptom is that the candidate repeats false, often ridiculous, talking points that appeal to voters’ preconceived ideas. The infection’s cause is not doing research.

Earlier Post: Speakers Need Research, Donald Trump Suggested Injecting Disinfectants to Cure the Coronavirus

Earlier Post: Mike Pence Stepped on the Third Rail in the Republican Primary Debate
So, first, expressing his ideas about American education, Ramaswamy suggested that every voter should take a civics test. He wanted to—
“… revive our national identity, where every high school senior should have to pass the same civics test that frankly, every immigrant, including my mother, had to pass in order to become a citizen of this country.”
Although I’m tempted, I cannot agree with Ramaswamy’s proposal. Every school system in the country already requires students to study American history and government, as do most colleges. Students seem to forget the material soon after they pass their tests.

Unfortunately, a few moments after mentioning the civics test, Ramaswamy complained about injustice and social harms supposedly caused by a government program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC):
“Part of the problem is we also have a federal government that pays single women more not to have a man in the house than to have a man in the house contributing to an epidemic of fatherlessness.”
This was a standard Republican talking point from the 1960s and 1970s. Little did Ramaswamy know that President Bill Clinton signed a repeal of AFDC in 1997. Republicans, of course, have continued to complain about this program ever since, seemingly unaware that it no longer exists.

Indeed, after hearing Ramaswamy’s comment, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman commented, tongue in cheek, that “It just occurred to me that a man who believes that the Constitution won the Revolutionary War might well believe that AFDC, eliminated under Bill Clinton, is still supporting the bums on welfare. But yes, let's require that voters pass a civics test.”

Will Ramaswamy’s talking point help him gain voters? I'm sure it will! Are voters who can't name the three branches of the federal government or remember the Bill of Rights going to correct him on the intricacies of long-canceled economic policies?

The cure for Talking Points Disease is to look up your information in credible sources before you open your mouth. Altogether too often, however, politicians simply repeat talking points that their aides have sketched out for them on little note pads. Sadly, in too many cases, the politicians’ aides have no more actual knowledge than the candidates themselves. The voters seem to be fine with that. Certainly, no one in the room challenged Ramaswamy’s audacious factual error. On the contrary, I suspect that many of them wished that they had said it first.

Earlier Post: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Both Suffered from Talking Points Disease
Can a nation long survive if its leaders are infected by the gangrene of unreality? Talking Points Disease is a serious business.

by William D. Harpine


P.S. Thanks again to the good people at, a transcription service, for preparing a debate transcript for the public to read. 

©  2023 William D. Harpine

Mike Pence Stepped on the Third Rail: He Attacked Social Security and Medicare!

Mike Pence
Mike Pence stepped on the third rail: he attacked Social Security and Medicare!

My loyal readers will recall that, at the February 7, 2023 State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden accused a few Republicans of wanting to “sunset” Social Security and Medicare. Republican firebrand Marjorie Tayler Greene shouted, “liar!” Republicans backed down, but not for long!

During last night’s (August 23, 2023) Republican primary debate, former Vice President Mike Pence announced that he, unlike (he claimed) any other Republican, was ready to talk about cutting Social Security and Medicare. Yes, a Republican presidential hopeful stepped on the third rail of American politics and didn’t get electrocuted, at least not yet. The question for today is, how could Pence attack his voting bases’ deepest needs and expect to survive politically?

That’s a hard question, and the answer requires us to look at the smoke and mirrors tricks that unscrupulous politicians use to deceive their supporters. Pence presented his position as mature, sober, and courageous:
“I was the first person in this race to say that we’ve got to deal with the long-term national debt issues. You got people on this stage that won’t even talk about issues like Social Security and Medicare. Vivek, you recently said, ‘A president can’t do everything.’ Well, I got news for you, Vivek. I’ve been in the hallway; I’ve been in the West Wing. A president in the United States has to confront every crisis facing America. I will put our nation back on the path to growth and prosperity and restore fiscal responsibility, just as I did in Congress and as governor.” [italics added] 
For decades, fear-mongering conservative pundits have warned that Social Security and Medicare will go bankrupt at any moment. When I took my new job at the University of Akron in 1982, the dean told me to be grateful for the state retirement system because Social Security would go bankrupt before I retired. Well, I’ve now retired, and I nevertheless receive Social Security and Medicare benefits. So, my dean, like a long line of doomsayers before him, was wrong.

It is no secret that the Republican voting base runs toward the elderly. We all know that elderly Americans depend on Social Security and Medicare. We also know that Republicans will never actually cut Social Security and Medicare; their political movement would drift away like a puff of smoke if they actually tried it. So why do they make these absurd threats?

Let’s speculate:

1. Press reports about the Republican primary debate talked about which candidates seemed strong, their tone of voice, whether they liked Trump, how they raised their hands, and their ages. There was remarkably little reporting about their programs. Knowing this, Pence could advocate ridiculous policies, confident that no one would notice.

2. Although former President Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to protect Social Security and Medicare, cutting those programs has dominated Republican economic ideology for years. Sometimes movement conservatives threaten Social Security and Medicare as a ritualistic obligation.

3. Pence did have a point, of sorts. According to the Department of the Treasury, 21% of federal expenditures go to Social Security and 12% to Medicare. Together, they amount to one-third of federal spending. So, if it is your main economic goal to cut federal spending, Social Security and Medicare need to be on the chopping block.

4. Now, yes, Republican voters do tend to favor cutting government spending. However, I cannot conceive that they would support cutting Social Security, Medicare, or national defense, which doesn’t really leave much else. (Relatively tiny programs like the Department of Education, Amtrak, or foreign aid are little more than rounding errors in the federal budget.)

5. Now, no one thinks that Pence is a plausible candidate for 2024, so he may be preparing for a future run after Trump fever dies. Who knows?

In his State of the Union Address, Biden stated that cutting taxes on rich people does not justify gutting Social Security and Medicare. That, of course, is a value judgment on which people might disagree.

So, like a long line of candidates before him, Pence promised an economic policy that he cannot possibly deliver. Aren’t political spectacles grand?

by William D. Harpine


P.S. Thanks again to the good people at, a transcription service, for preparing a debate transcript for the public to read. 

Follow-up post about the debate:

Earlier Post: 

Images: White House photo; Department of the Treasury

© 2023 William D. Harpine

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Matt Gaetz, Sedition, and the Politics of Fear

“Years ago, whenever I entered the USA, I had to sign a declaration that I was not intending to overthrow the American government by force. I never realised that this applied only to foreigners.”

British actor John Cleese tweeted that interesting tidbit about Donald Trump and his recent indictments for trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election. 

Speaking next to Trump at a campaign event on August 12, 2023, Representative Matt Gaetz advocated using force to overthrow the United States government:
“We know that only through force do we make any change in a corrupt town like Washington, DC.”
So, a member of the United States Congress advocated insurrection and disloyalty to the United States Constitution. Trump hesitated but then nodded sagely as Gaetz offered his chilling words. The mainstream press briefly noted Gaetz’ seditious comment and then calmly moved on. How do people betray their country and yet call themselves patriots

All the same, Gaetz offered his justifications. That is, he implied that mysterious powers threatened ordinary Americans, evil powers that can be resisted only by force. This twist led Gaetz to reject legitimate, peaceful political action:
“Mr. President, I cannot stand these people that are destroying our country. They are opening our borders. They are weaponizing our federal law enforcement against patriotic Americans who love this nation as we should.”
Gaetz was channeling common but obviously hyperbolic Republican talking points. Republicans hear diatribes about supposedly open borders and the allegedly unfair treatment of the January 6 Capitol rioters so often that they take them for granted. Indeed, Gaetz polarized the American people. “These people that are destroying our country” contrasted against the “patriotic Americans” who were convicted of rioting in the Capitol building. 

Broadening his conspiracy theory, Gaetz accused unnamed forces of threatening every Republican:
“Know that they are coming for our movement and they are coming for all of us.” [italics added]
The unnamed “they” might be the Deep State, the Illuminati, the FBI, woke people, the New World Order, or, for all I know, any combination of the malevolent forces that populate right-wing conspiracizing. Gaetz’ vagueness—“they”—let the cheering audience fill in the blanks from their own imaginations.

Earlier Post: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Both Suffered from Talking Points Disease in 2016

Was Gaetz’ rhetoric particularly unusual? No, it was not. Gaetz talked the way people talk when they commit wrongful deeds. Dr. Albert Bandura’s theory of moral disengagement shows how people justify their unethical behavior by reframing moral issues. From SS soldiers who justified mass murder as “following orders” to more complex reasoning patterns, people find ways to rationalize doing harm. They think of themselves as good people even as they perform horrifying acts. The bizarre talking points that Gaetz parroted gave otherwise patriotic Republicans a shallow (but evidently convincing) way to reframe their destructive intentions.

So, in real life, the violent overthrow of the United States government is, as John Cleese implied, massively unpatriotic. Sadly, too few people seem to care. The Republican Party received Gaetz’ brief speech with rousing cheers and no peep of protest. Lincoln, who fought to save the Union, weeps.

by William D. Harpine

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© 2023 William D. Harpine

Image: Official photo, US Congress, via Wikimedia