Cuba: Carrots and sticks

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

There are two ways in politics to change behavior: power and influence. Power is the stick – using your greater strength to make someone do what you want them to do. Influence is the carrot – encouraging them to want to do it themselves. Sometimes you use both.

We’re somewhere in the middle of all that when it comes to Cuba, as shown in recent weeks by Arkansas’ political leadership.

As a congressman, Gov. Asa Hutchinson supported the Cuban embargo, and as undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security he was part of an administration that enforced it.

But American policy – and American attitudes – are changing. This summer, President Obama announced the two countries were re-opening diplomatic relations that had ended in 1961. Many people who usually disagree with him don’t this time, including many Arkansans. The U.S. embassy is now open there, though the 55-year-old trade embargo will remain until Congress ends it.

Last week, Hutchinson returned from a trip to that island nation saying it’s time to gradually end the embargo as Cuba modernizes its economy and politics – especially when doing so would give Arkansas’ rice, poultry and pork producers access to a large, nearby market.

Hutchinson is hardly alone in this viewpoint. Traveling with him were business leaders from Tyson and Riceland Foods; Randy Veach, president of Arkansas Farm Bureau and a Mississippi County farmer; Dr. Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System, and others. In June, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce coordinated a trip to Cuba for about 40 Arkansans.

Two other Arkansas political leaders have been outspoken in support of more open relations with Cuba. Sen. John Boozman has passed through a Senate committee a bill that would allow goods to be sold to Cuba on credit rather than cash only, which is a challenge in an impoverished nation. He also is co-sponsoring the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would loosen travel restrictions but hasn’t moved much since its introduction. Rep. Rick Crawford, whose eastern Arkansas 1st District depends on agriculture, also supports opening up trade with that country.

On the other side is Sen. Tom Cotton, who opposes ending the embargo. He says a change in policy only rewards a dictatorship that hasn’t changed itself, and won’t have to change because it’s being propped up by trade with the United States. Cuba must become freer first, he says.

So Hutchinson, Boozman and Crawford’s position could be summarized as, “After 55 years of mostly stick, it’s time for more carrot.” Cotton’s position is, “Stick with the stick. The carrot becomes available if Cuba changes.”

Power is the language everyone understands, and sometimes it makes sense to use it. It’s not possible to come and reason together with the ISIS beheaders in Syria and Iraq. However, power should be focused on threats, which Cuba no longer is now that it’s lost its Soviet benefactor. Now it’s just a poor country with a population of 11 million – 1/29th the size of the United States.

Exercising influence is softer, subtler and harder. Sometimes the effort merely masks weakness, sometimes it can be an excuse for inaction, and sometimes it fails miserably. But it can do things that power alone can’t always do. Through influence, people enact permanent change because they realize it’s unquestionably in their best interest, not because they are trying temporarily to avoid the pain you inflict.

Consider what a more open relationship with Cuba would bring. American companies would flood the island. Local entrepreneurs who under communism have eked out a living through their wits would use their talents to become job creators. When 84-year-old Raul Castro dies or steps away from power, his successor will face great pressure to continue raising Cuba’s living standards. Because an international business can’t be run without the internet, Cuba will become increasingly wired, and, unlike China, it won’t have the means to control it. Missionaries will descend on that hungry Caribbean nation 90 miles from Florida’s Key West. Churches will sprout, as they have throughout China, and the Cuban government will not be able to stop it even if it tries.

Hutchinson, Boozman, Crawford and Cotton all want Cuba to reach that place. They only disagree about the right path. Stick with the stick? Or offer some carrots – and rice, and poultry, and pork, and ideas?

Congress gets an “F” in finances

Uncle Sam hangs on for web
By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

This might only be early October, but for Congress, the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. If it were a school year, what kind of grade should Congress receive?

In math, probably an F.

In fiscal year 2015, the government spent $426 billion more than it collected, adding to a national debt that has now reached $18.2 trillion.

Congress should be looking for ways to improve those numbers. Instead, as pointed out by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, this year it increased deficit spending over the next 10 years in a variety of ways.

Meanwhile, when it comes to its most important assignments, Congress gets an incomplete. The federal government is supposed to be funded through 12 appropriations bills dealing with various areas of spending. The 2016 fiscal year has started, and so far the House has passed six, and the Senate has passed zero.

Because the government has to be funded somehow, Congress this week passed a continuing resolution, which basically keeps things as they are. That’s a problem when the status quo is a $426 billion deficit. This latest one will keep the government functioning until December – just before an election year – when Congress probably will pass another last-minute deal that doesn’t solve much long term.

On some assignments, Congress didn’t score an incomplete, but it was tardy. It waited until Dec. 19, 2014, to extend a series of tax deductions that had expired at the end of 2013, which meant businesses and individuals spent the entire year uncertain if those deductions would continue. Waiting so late defeats the theoretical purpose of having deductions, which is to encourage behavior that is good for the economy.

Unfortunately, there is no way to hold back Congress a year until it learns the material. It must be promoted to the next grade, where it will face ever-growing challenges.

There are two ways of measuring the debt: the total debt; and the debt held by the public, which doesn’t include what the government owes itself as a result of activities such as raiding the Social Security Trust Fund. The total debt is $18.2 trillion. The debt held by the public is $13.1 trillion.

The second figure is 74 percent of the gross domestic product. That’s the highest it has been since World War II. Historically, since 1965 the average has been 38 percent.

How do we get back to just being average? The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says that, taking the long view and setting 2040 as a goal, lawmakers should reduce total deficits over the next 10 years by $5 trillion. That puts the country on a path to 38 percent. But remember, Congress actually made things worse this past year, not better. So it’s not headed in the right direction.

In the short term, Congress must make some tough decisions quickly. In December, the government reaches the debt limit, which by law sets a ceiling on how high the national debt can go. Ultimately, the limit will be raised. The government can’t just stop going into debt without changing its habits any more than you and I can. Over the next couple of months, Congress’ assigned project is to raise the debt limit responsibly by tying it to meaningful reforms. If it does that, it gets a passing grade. If it does what it usually does – bicker until the last second and then pass the buck – it flunks the test again.

It’s students’ fault when they fail to learn the material, but it’s also the schools’ and the parents’. Elected officials are failing to complete their assignments. However, the classroom where they operate makes success almost impossible. The two-party duopoly, campaign finance laws, the filibuster, political consultants, the media environment – they’re all conspiring to turn Congress into an unworkable institution. The Founding Fathers rightly designed a government that was not meant to run smoothly. In today’s political climate, it’s often not running at all.

Meanwhile, kids tend to do what their parents will allow, and certainly what their parents encourage. If voters demanded fiscal responsibility, then even the most ill-behaved members of Congress would oblige, and even this imperfect system could be made to work.

If that were to happen, there wouldn’t need to be a group called the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. We’d already have one, it would be composed of 535 members, and it would have a different name: Congress.

Why the GOP loses in a shutdown

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

There’s been talk of two potential government shutdowns: one this week over funding Planned Parenthood that’s probably not going to happen, and one in December if the government reaches the debt ceiling. Whenever a shutdown occurs, Republicans will be blamed more than Democrats. That’s because of the brand Republicans themselves have created.

Branding is the process of creating a simple identity for a product, service or idea. It involves the entire organization’s efforts, from the product itself to the packaging to the advertising. Done correctly, it produce a powerful association with certain values and lifestyles (think Harley Davidson), overcoming temporary obstacles and even contrary facts.

How powerful is branding? At the beginning of the computer revolution, Apple branded itself as the company that sold easy-to-use personal computers. Its business model, however, was inferior to Microsoft’s, which copied Apple’s products and then made them widely available through Windows and Office. Apple almost went out of business.

Then Apple began a marketing campaign based on two words, “Think Different,” and introduced a series of revolutionary products and services, including the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone. In each case, Microsoft offered the same things, but none of them enjoyed great success. By then Apple didn’t just sell computer products; it sold thinking differently, while Microsoft just sold Windows and Office. Apple now is the world’s largest tech company.

But branding can backfire, as is currently the case with McDonald’s. For decades, McDonald’s branded itself as the place for a fast, inexpensive, tasty meal. It was the restaurant for families and kids. Its spokesman was a clown.

That brand still works with a lot of Americans, but for many, including many younger consumers, what once was considered inexpensive is now just cheap, and what once was considered a treat is now just fattening. Many American consumers would rather spend $8 for a better hamburger than spend $5 for a Big Mac. McDonald’s has tried to offer an upgraded menu, but it hasn’t caught on. If you have $8 to spend, you don’t spend it at McDonald’s.

Since 1980, Republicans have been better at branding than Democrats. Their message – “Less government” – fits neatly on a bumper sticker. Democrats, on the other hand, have been unable to sum up their message so succinctly. They don’t want to say they support a more activist government, so instead they’ve often simply branded themselves the “not Republican Party.” They need a better message. But that’s another column.

Whenever the government shuts down, it’s the result of decisions made by both parties. If the government were to shut down this week – which, as of this writing, it probably won’t – it would be because the Republicans forced the issue over Planned Parenthood. But Democrats also would be at fault. Republicans last week offered legislation that would run the government without funding Planned Parenthood, and Democrats blocked it.

But because of the two parties’ brands, whenever the government shuts down, casual observers of course will blame the Republicans. Who else would shut down the government but the anti-government party? Why would the Democrats shut down something they support?

At first, government shutdowns don’t have much of an effect. National parks close, but Americans can live without them for a while. Paychecks aren’t sent, so government workers take a few days off.

Over time, however, shutdowns start to sting. Paychecks are missed. National priorities go unfunded. Families cancel their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Washington, D.C., because the museums are closed. Credit agencies talk about downgrading the government’s rating. While anonymous members of Congress bicker from their little seats, the president steps off Air Force One and tells them it’s time to do their jobs.

Eventually, the anti-government activists capitulate, forced to concede that Uncle Sam really is necessary. The whole thing inevitably ends as a victory for big government. Then the blame games start.

A year before the election, voters would blame Republicans more than Democrats. Hillary Clinton’s campaign would tie the GOP nominee to the effort, knowing that, in the voting booth, casual voters tend to choose the party they think is least crazy.

So if Republicans force a government shutdown any time this year, they might as well call their efforts the “Hillary Clinton Employment Act.” When you’ve branded yourself the anti-government party, then you can’t use a government shutdown as a tactic. It looks a little clownish, which, as McDonald’s will tell you, isn’t working so well right now.

Free market requires moral core

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Life, the pope is telling us, is about more than the bottom line. This past week has given two examples of why people should listen to his big economic message even if they disagree with some of his little ones. One involves a giant automaker. The other manufactures a little pill.

The automaker, Volkswagen, doctored its diesel engines so they would temporarily meet EPA emissions regulations while they were being tested, and then they would emit much higher levels when actually driven by car buyers. As a result, those cars performed better on the highways while releasing up to 40 times more pollution than the legal amount. Volkswagen did this in 11 million vehicles sold worldwide.

Environmental considerations aside, the company lied and cheated its competitors and its customers. People thought they were buying a clean vehicle that ran great. Rule-abiding competitors were selling products that had a disadvantage against Volkswagen in the marketplace.

The pill manufacturer is Turing Pharmaceuticals, which bought the rights to Daraprim, a niche drug that fights deadly parasitic infections. The drug has been on the market for 62 years and has no generic equivalent. Shortly after buying the rights, the company raised the price – from $13.50 per tablet to $750 each.

This is not the first time a drug has been purchased and then inflated recently. But the company’s owner, a 32-year-old former hedge fund manager, seemed particularly proud of himself. He said the price needed to be raised to make the drug profitable (which would mean the previous rights holder must have been losing a ton of money at $13.50). Frankly, the drug would be cheap at $750, he said.

If your only guiding principle is the bottom line, then those arguments make sense. Guy’s just charging what the market will bear, right? Everything he’s done is legal. Under traditional laissez-faire economics, the free market’s unseen hand will correct all wrongs, and somebody eventually will produce a generic version if they can make money doing it.

But humans are more than economic beings. We’re also spiritual, moral and social ones. In fact, we must be for the free market to function.

The free market is the greatest anti-poverty mechanism ever created by humanity. It allows entrepreneurs to produce goods and services valued by the marketplace, thereby creating jobs and raising a society’s standard of living. Those who do this exceptionally well – people like Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett – are celebrated and richly rewarded, as they should be.

But the free market is only as good as the values of its practitioners. It can be perverted by those who, instead of producing goods and services, merely play games with money and take advantage of others. While Jobs created world-changing products, Turing’s hedge fund manager produced nothing new. He just bought the rights to a pill and then jacked up the price knowing people had to pay or die, and knowing there probably won’t be a generic competitor soon, if ever.

I watched a brief cable “news” segment where the host and a couple of his guests either defended the hedge fund manager or expressed ambivalence about his actions. The host said this kind of situation is preferable to having the government in charge of health care.

Which is ironic, because if the free market isn’t governed by both the unseen hand and a moral core, then bigger government is unfortunately what we’ll get. Two days after Turing Pharmaceutical’s price hike came to light, Hillary Clinton announced a plan to limit drug price gouging. Supporters of a single-payer government health system can use this episode to bolster their arguments. Meanwhile, Volkswagen’s actions likely will add to the regulatory burden faced by all automakers. They’ll have to do more to prove they’re not cheating.

In these two cases, it’s all ending as it should. Volkswagen stock has tumbled, it faces huge fines, and its CEO, who said he knew nothing about the cheating, has resigned. Meanwhile, overwhelming public condemnation wiped the smirk off the young hedge fund manager’s face, and he announced he would reduce the price hike.

That happened because humans are still spiritual, moral and social beings, instead of merely economic ones. Most of us know it’s wrong to cheat, and we know it’s wrong to take advantage of the vulnerable, or to use the vulnerable as a tool to take advantage of society.

We’re going to be governed by something. Preferably, it’s a conscience.

Arkansas Democrats becoming simply Democrats

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

There’s a relatively new phenomenon in Arkansas politics: Democrats are starting to run alongside their national party instead of running against it.

For the past few decades, in-state candidates have followed a formula perfected by Bill Clinton, Sen. Dale Bumpers and Sens. David and Mark Pryor: campaigning as “Arkansas Democrats,” meaning they supported popular government spending programs like Social Security but shied away from their national party on cultural issues such as guns and gays.

That tightrope has become difficult to walk. Nationally, the two parties have become so polarized – the Democrats moving to the left and the Republicans moving to the right – that few can occupy the center. It’s much harder for Arkansas Democrats running for Congress to tell voters they are culturally conservative these days because often they’ll have to vote along their party’s line in Congress.

Geographically, Democrats are now concentrated in coastal and urban areas and have a dwindling presence in the South outside of districts led by racial minorities. That process was happening throughout much of SEC country before President Obama was elected and then happened here afterwards. In 2008, Democrats controlled five of the state’s six congressional offices, all seven statewide constitutional offices, and 102 of the 135 seats in the Legislature. Now Republicans control all six congressional offices, all state constitutional offices, and 88 of the 135 legislative seats. It’s 88 because last month, Rep. Mike Holcomb, who had represented Pine Bluff as a Democrat, announced he had switched parties.

Amidst the mounting evidence that what they are doing isn’t working, some in the party have stopped trying to be Arkansas Democrats and instead just be Democrats. Unlike Republicans, the Democrats are united in support of the private option, the state’s program that uses Obamacare dollars to purchase private insurance for lower income Arkansans. Led by its chairman, Vince Insalaco, the state party has vigorously defended Planned Parenthood since the release of those videos, which Arkansas Democrats like the Pryors never would have done. Holcomb cited that defense as a factor in his party switch. In response, Insalaco basically said the party was glad to see him go.

Then at a campaign rally in Little Rock Monday, Hillary Clinton enthusiastically endorsed not only Obamacare but also President Obama, saying, “It gives me great joy to go around bragging about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama every chance I get.”

Everything Clinton says is for national consumption, of course, and she was speaking before a supportive crowd. But Clinton knows the polls in Arkansas as well as anyone, and she knows how unpopular Obama is here. Instead of running away from him while in Arkansas, she ran alongside him.

The state’s Democrats have not unanimously decided to embark on a new strategy. In announcing he was running as a Democrat for U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. John Boozman, former U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge took a page from the old Arkansas Democrat playbook and almost sounded like a Republican. I’m sure that’s partly a political strategy and partly a reflection of who Eldridge is and where he came from. It’s hard to run as a Democrat in Arkansas now. However, if you really are an Arkansas Democrat at heart, then you might not be comfortable in today’s Republican Party.

Prior to Clinton’s speech, Insalaco told the crowd that the state’s Democrats would gain seats in the 2016 elections. That’s probably wishful thinking. Some incumbent Democrats are vulnerable just because they’re Democrats. Republicans are finding candidates – including former Democrats – to run in places where they traditionally haven’t been competitive. Candidates like Holcomb – white, conservative, rural – who used to default to the Democratic Party are now running as Republicans. It’s probably going to get worse for Democrats before it gets better.

And it probably will not get much better for them for a long time. Democrats controlled Arkansas for a century and a half after the Civil War, and now Republicans will control the state for a while. Too many Arkansans now culturally identify with the GOP in ways that are more deep-seated than simple policy positions. Democrats in Arkansas must look to the long game and be patient. More and more, they’ll embrace positions such as supporting gay rights, which is a popular position among young, up-and-coming voters.

That topic came up more in Insalaco’s speech than it did in Clinton’s. In fact, she didn’t mention it. She spent too many years as an Arkansas Democrat.

Trump, Carson and the vaccine debate

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

One of the most interesting moments in Wednesday’s l-o-o-ng Republican presidential debate came when two candidates sort of stopped debating.

Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon, was asked about comments Donald Trump had made espousing a link between vaccines and autism. Carson responded that numerous studies have shown no link between the two. The only study that did show a link has been thoroughly discredited. However, he said children are vaccinated for many diseases and that parents should have some discretion for those not deadly or crippling.

Trump responded with a personal story about an employee whose child had developed autism shortly after being vaccinated. He said he favors vaccinations but would like to see smaller dosages stretched over a longer period of time. Carson again disagreed that vaccinations cause autism but suggested cutting down on the “number and proximity” of shots, not mentioning dosages.

Logic is a tough thing for human beings to achieve, which is one reason democracy is so hard. We have a difficult time separating correlation – things happening at the same time – with causation. We place too high a value on emotional personal anecdotes and not a high enough value on data. That’s why we need research.

On the other hand, researchers are human, too. For years, we’ve been told that silly old Mom was wrong and there’s no link between cold weather and people catching colds, other than the fact that we’re more likely to spread the disease while stuck indoors in the winter. The data was unequivocal, even though Mom’s personal experiences said otherwise. Now research indicates that cold temperatures in the nasal cavity might slow the body’s immune response to rhinoviruses after all.

The scientific process has resulted in an explosion of knowledge and a vast improvement in our living standards. But it is an imperfect way of arriving at truth. Instead of a straight line, it zigzags. It gets some things right and some wrong and then corrects itself.

It especially runs into trouble when generalizing about humans, which are extremely complex and similar but not identical. It’s very likely true that vaccines do not cause autism across the broad spectrum of humanity. But it is not necessarily true that vaccines do not ever cause autism – or some other adverse reaction – in a particular person. These many parents who say their child changed immediately after being vaccinated – are they all foolishly failing to see that it was just a coincidence? Every last one of them?

If you are a health professional, you might have responded to the Carson-Trump exchange (and that last paragraph) with horror. While studies show there’s no link between vaccines and autism, there’s clearly a link between a lack of vaccines and increased cases of childhood diseases.

But many parents are opting out of vaccines now, so maybe it’s time for the medical establishment to rethink its approach. An atmosphere of distrust is being created, which happens when people’s concerns about their children are summarily dismissed. Maybe it’s time to stop arguing with parents and start working with them. Certainly, medical professionals and not presidential candidates should determine dosages. But would alternative vaccination schedules really be completely unacceptable?

Carson and Trump are both Republicans, but they’re about as different as two candidates in the same party are going to be in this day and age. They addressed this issue from very different perspectives. Within three minutes, it was apparent that their positions actually were at least in the same ballpark.

The truth is that Americans are divided on a lot of issues, but on many of them, it’s a difference of degree or approach. Almost all Democrats enjoy making more money and do not enjoy paying more taxes. Very few Republicans favor completely dismantling the social safety net. Nobody wants Iran to develop a nuclear bomb.

None of us will get everything we want – even if we are completely right. The trick in a complex society is to find an acceptable common ground. Does one exist in the great vaccine debate? Isn’t it worth trying to find out?

In the most adversarial of circumstances, Trump and Carson, the two frontrunners standing next to each other, ended up not so far apart on an issue where they seemed at first to be totally at odds. If that can happen in a presidential debate regarding vaccines, maybe it can happen on other issues after the election, too.

Who gets first dibs on Uncle Sam’s money? Its creditors, of course.

Uncle Sam hangs on for web
By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Question: If the federal government were to reach the point where it couldn’t pay all its bills, who should be paid first?

A. Soldiers
B. Veterans
C. Investors, domestic and foreign, to whom the U.S. government owes money.

If you answered “C,” then you would agree with 24 Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee. They voted last week to advance legislation that would allow the government to keep borrowing money to pay U.S. Treasury bond investors, even if the government reached its supposed debt limit. Payments to Social Security’s trust funds also would continue.

Unfortunately, all 25 of you would be right. The 15 Democrats who make up a minority of the committee voted no, but that’s politics. If the majority and minority roles were reversed, then the Democrats likely would have done what is necessary to keep the U.S. from defaulting on its obligations for the first time ever.

The topic has come up because Congress once again is approaching one of those entirely foreseeable and often manufactured financial crises that threaten the economy and cause the world to question if the United States still knows what it’s doing.

This time, the federal government will exhaust its ability to borrow money in late October, which means it would reach its debt limit in the weeks that follow. Supposedly, that would mean the government couldn’t create more debt. In reality, it just would mean the government temporarily would stop paying its bills – which, of course, would have to be paid later.

That probably won’t happen. What will probably happen is what almost always happens: In Washington, they’ll posture and threaten and argue right up until the last minute, each side accusing the other of “kicking the can down the road,” the most overused cliche in politics these days. And then they’ll pass some measure that keeps the government running for a while – probably until after the November 2016 elections. And then we’ll be stuck wherever that can stopped rolling.

So why even consider that bill approved by the 24 Ways and Means Republicans? The United States government is considered a very safe investment, which is why taxpayers are paying very low interest rates on the $18.2 trillion national debt. Investors – everyone from middle class Americans to the Chinese government – reason that if anyone will pay their money back plus a little interest, it’s Uncle Sam.

What would happen if investors started to doubt that? A U.S. government default would rattle world markets. Meanwhile, interest rates on the debt would rise because investors would see Uncle Sam as more of a risk and would demand a higher return. More of your tax dollars would go into the pockets of investors, domestic and foreign, to pay for the debt the government has already incurred. Less would be available for soldiers and veterans.

Bad things happen when you don’t pay your bills.

At some point, this nonsense must stop. It’s time for the country to stop tiptoeing up to these fiscal cliffs like a teenager trying to scare his girlfriend, One of these days the rocks will be less steady than they seem, and then … well, let’s not be too dramatic. Let’s just say the kid slips several feet down the slope, sprains his ankle, and barely makes it back up the ledge where his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend is waiting.

There’s a simple reason why this keeps happening: Because the voters tolerate it. In fact, they reward it. Members of Congress know that playing these games probably won’t cost them an election. They can always blame the other party and say they did their best as part of a dysfunctional institution. Voters don’t really expect them to do differently. Meanwhile, if they were really to try to balance the budget – by some combination of spending cuts and tax reform that would increase revenues – they’d risk being voted out. Voters like their government programs, but they don’t want to pay for them.

Ultimately, the investors who are financing the national debt will get their money. So will soldiers and veterans, though not enough.

Also pretty certain is that the costs will be passed on to our children and grandchildren. Kids don’t vote, and they don’t donate money to campaigns. They depend on older generations to look out for their interests.

We’ve all apparently decided not to vote for that.

Laws can’t fix tattletale nation

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

“This is America. You’re going to be offended,” said my 13-year-old daughter and political philosopher.

Good thing she’s figured that out at 13. Can the rest of us?

Maintaining a peaceful society based on the rule of law is hard, which is why our Constitution includes very clear phrases such as these from the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Unfortunately, such clarity only solves so much because societies are complex organisms made of complex people. This country values separating church and state but has a Judeo-Christian heritage – one that’s fading, which is troubling to many people, but it still matters. So what’s important to some is not important to others – or it may even be seen as a threat.

Moreover, how do you balance the bedrock guarantees of the First Amendment with those of the Fourteenth, which declares that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”? Lately, courts seem to be leaning toward the Fourteenth, even if it means violating the First.

So this is hard, and it will probably keep getting harder, as this past week has shown.

The obvious example from a national perspective is Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who briefly went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

Actually, this particular one was easy. A government magistrate receiving a government paycheck ($80,000 a year, in this case) must enforce the government’s laws. Otherwise, a police officer (or a president) could pick and choose which laws to enforce, which would be bad, right? If those laws so violate the official’s conscience that she can’t do her job, then she should resign, as did Cleburne Country Clerk Dana Guffey, who much more quietly left her job of 24 years earlier this year.

Where it gets harder is when it’s about private businesses such as bakers and wedding photographers. In Arkansas, those professions currently can’t be required to participate in a religious ceremony that violates their religion, but that could be changed by a legislative act (fat chance for now) or an unfavorable court ruling (looking more likely, eventually).

Fayetteville tried to settle the issue this past week. There, voters passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against gay people in many circumstances. The measure passed handily with support from the Chamber of Commerce after a similar one had failed with the Chamber opposing it, saying it was unclear. But the new measure may conflict with a state law passed earlier this year. Opponents sued after losing the election, so it’s not settled yet.

Meanwhile, Arkansas is dealing with another dispute – this one over a legislatively approved, privately funded monument to the Ten Commandments on the State Capitol grounds. Legislators who approved the monument argued that the Commandments are an important, historical basis of the law.

What has followed was entirely foreseeable. A group of Hindus requested a monument to their religion. Now Satanists want to erect a huge statue of a goat-like figure.

So we’re back to the issue posed at the beginning of this piece. What do you do in a country that values freedom of all religions but whose history is tied most closely to one of them, which is becoming less dominant? Accommodate only religions that the majority, for now, deems acceptable? Accommodate all, so that the Capitol grounds are littered with monuments? Try to push faith out of the public square entirely, and then squeeze it into houses of worship and tell it not to come out? When you value separating church and state, what do you do when the state is in so many places?

I don’t have the answers. I know this: Regardless of whether it’s a constitutional interpretation, as with the Kentucky case, or a state law, as with the Ten Commandments, or a local ordinance, as in Fayetteville, it’s impossible to codify into law a system that ensures that no one ever has to be exposed to beliefs and lifestyles with which they don’t agree. At some point, there has to be some give and take in our complex society. There is no legal remedy if this is going to be a nation of touchy tattletales running to the teacher over every issue.

This is America, after all, and we have to be willing to be offended.

What if the Republicans can’t pick a winner?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

In order to win the Republican nomination for president, one candidate must amass 1,144 delegates. What if no one does that?

That’s a possibility – not a probability, but a possibility – with 17 candidates splitting the vote. If that were to happen, the nominee would be chosen at the Republican National Convention in July. Instead of a boring speech-a-thon in Cleveland, such a “brokered convention” would be marked by candidates courting delegates and making deals.

Pundits bring up this possibility every election cycle, and every election cycle it doesn’t happen. The 2016 elections, however, could be different because of the number of viable candidates, their geographic distribution, and the resources available to them. The 17 candidates hail from 14 states, where many have strong political organizations. Meanwhile, because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision removing many donor limits, candidates can stay in the race longer than in the past because they need only a few big contributors to pay the bills.

So here’s a possible scenario. Donald Trump or Dr. Ben Carson wins Iowa Feb. 1. Then Trump or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Ohio Gov. John Kasich wins New Hampshire Feb. 9. Then on Feb. 20 comes South Carolina, home state of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s currently polling at only 5 percent there – far behind Trump, who has a big lead over everyone.

Then comes Nevada Feb. 23 and then the big one, March 1, when delegates are selected in about a dozen states, including Arkansas as part of a bloc of Southern states known as the “SEC primary.” Sen. Ted Cruz could be the big winner that day if he wins his home state of Texas and does well elsewhere in the South, while Gov. Mike Huckabee should win Arkansas. Four days later, Sen. Rand Paul could win his home state of Kentucky while struggling Gov. Bobby Jindal will try to turn things around and win his home state of Louisiana.

By that point, there’s usually a mass exodus from the race, leaving a clear front-runner with some diehard challengers. But candidates who have won a state will be able to tell their supporters (and themselves) that they can still win, so many may still be running.

Moreover, the campaign calendar and the party’s rules could give some candidates a reason to continue. Before March 15, most of the states will have awarded their delegates on a proportional basis. In other words, a candidate who wins 50 percent of the vote wins half the state’s delegates. Starting March 15, states can award their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, which is a big advantage for three candidates from big states whose elections occur that day: Ohio’s Kasich, and Florida’s Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. If Bush loses Florida, he’s out.

By the end of that day, more than half the states will have had their primaries and caucuses. It’s conceivable that so many candidates will have won delegates that no one will have a big lead. From that point, it could be a long three months before June 7, when primaries are held in California, home state of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and New Jersey, home of Gov. Chris Christie.

If 2016 is like previous elections, the race will be over before then. Someone will be on the way to a coronation, and the challengers will have dutifully given their endorsements.

Could that be Trump? Sure. Currently, he maintains a large lead that seems to get bigger whenever he says something controversial. Big poll numbers nationwide don’t necessarily translate to winning one state at a time – but he’s winning now.

I’ve always expected that Republican leaders eventually would pressure lesser candidates to leave the race so the party could coalesce behind an “anybody but Trump” alternative. But a recent poll by SurveyUSA found him beating not only Hillary Clinton but also other Democrats. At some point, Republican voters must seriously ask themselves if he’s really their best choice. But for now, he’s looking more and more legitimate, so instead of trying to stop him, the party may have to ride this wave wherever it goes.

Which could be all the way to a brokered convention in Cleveland. If that’s the case, there would be a lot of back room politics and dealmaking. And which of the candidates is the best at making deals? Trump, supposedly.

Confessions of a journalist

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: There is no media conspiracy.

Certainly there’s not one in Little Rock, where I spend a lot of my time, and I’m pretty sure not elsewhere, either. Bigwigs with CNN, Fox News, and the New York Times do not gather in a smoky room to decide what to propagandize and what to hide from the American people.

What there are, are tendencies. And I’m going to confess to some of them.

We journalists often suffer from a herd mentality. We chase after the same people, sometimes literally. We choose what to cover based on what other journalists cover. We worry too much about what other journalists think.

We’re too close to the people we cover, and not close enough to you. We try to keep our distance from the politicians – they’re not our friends – but sometimes we like them, which shows in our reporting. Sometimes, in fact, we take jobs working for them, as I have twice. If we don’t like them, it can affect our reporting as well.

Being part of an insider culture affects our priorities. Who’s up, who’s down – it becomes too important to us, so we’re writing about the latest poll while you want to know about what’s actually in the Common Core.

We’re often in too big of a hurry. There’s pressure to get stories on the web or on the air before others do. In some ways this is good, because consumers get the news fast and because it forces reporters to get to the point quickly. But it also leads to mistakes and shallow reporting.

It also weds us to writing formulas. A story often is composed of a lead (spelled “lede,” for some reason), a few explanatory paragraphs, a quote from one side, a quote from the other, and then a rewrite of yesterday’s story beneath it.

We’re biased. Of course we are. Everyone has a way of looking at the world, and that includes journalists (and readers and viewers). Most journalists are liberal, though that’s not necessarily so in Arkansas.

Journalists often try to overcome their biases, but sometimes not hard enough. Sometimes those biases are obvious, but sometimes they show up in more subtle ways based on what’s important to us. For example, I really care about the national debt, so if there’s an opportunity, I’ll work it into an article, perhaps by pointing out that it’s grown from $1 trillion in 1980 to $18 trillion now. See how I did that?

Here’s a big one: We’re dependent on our advertisers. We provide a service that you, the consumer, expect to be free or very cheap. Advertisers are who really pay for our time and expenses, and that leads to compromises. Some things don’t get reported. Many journalists may be liberal, but big business rarely is.

So why would you trust anything you read in this newspaper after reading this column? Judge it by its own merits. Read the front page stories from beginning to end, and you’ll probably find most are presented fairly and objectively. Flawed human beings produce them, but nobody wants to be called a hack, and there are processes and pressures that encourage balance. That probably can’t be said for some guy’s internet blog.

The media is governed by what governs most industries in America: competition. On the negative side, the winners of this competition are often those best able to get news consumers’ attention through sheer loudness and by appealing to their biases and fears. On the plus side, news providers compete to be the first and best at informing the public about important things.

That’s why stories like Hillary Clinton’s emails are reported – so people can decide for themselves if they want to to vote for her. In fact, the media has covered in depth many stories that have made it less likely she will be elected: Benghazi, Whitewater, and, of course, Monica Lewinsky. You think you don’t like the mainstream media? Clinton probably hates it. If there’s a conspiracy to elect her, it’s an inept one.

News consumers today have access to enormous amounts of information, some of it very bad and some of it very good. When you have enough time and interest, you often can watch the actual speech, study the actual report, or read the actual bill.

When you don’t, there’s the media’s summary, flawed as it may be. There’s no conspiracy among reporters, but they have many tendencies. Be aware of them. I am.