Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

October 11, 2019

Punishing the Poor for Being Hungry


By David K. Shipler
The latest in a series: Making America Cruel Again

                The United States might be the only country in the world where poverty is considered a moral failing—on the part of the victims, not the society. When conservatives are in charge of government, this judgment infiltrates policy. Republicans move repeatedly to twist regulations around an assumption that the poor don’t want to work and don’t make sound decisions. And when this bias affects children’s nutrition, it can cause lifelong impairment.
                In the last year alone, the Trump administration has taken multiple shots at food stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program), which helped feed about 40 million people last year. The latest change, one week ago, would cut benefits by $4.5 billion over five years. Even in a booming economy, one in seven children are in families considered “food insecure,” according to the Department of Agriculture’s 2018 survey, meaning that they weren’t sure of having enough food for everyone.
                Research in the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience has documented the severe biological assaults caused by inadequate nutrition during sensitive phases of brain development. Numerous studies, compiled in a lengthy National Academy of Sciences report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, portray a devastating landscape of cognitive deficiency resulting from nutritional deprivation. The insufficiency of healthy food during a pregnant woman’s second trimester can reduce the creation of neurons, the brain’s impulse-conducting cells. Malnutrition in the third trimester restricts their maturation and retards the production of branched cells called glia.
Iron is essential to promote the growth of the brain in size and the creation of the nerve-transmitting myelin sheath around the brain’s nerve fibers. The impact of iron deficiency in a baby, therefore, never disappears, even once the deficiency is eliminated. One longitudinal study that followed children from infancy through adolescence found that they scored lower “in arithmetic achievement and written expression, motor functioning, and some specific cognitive processes such as spatial memory and selective recall.”
Teachers reported that such children displayed “more anxiety or depression, social problems, and attention problems.” It is no great leap of logic to see learning disabilities as one result of malnutrition, and a child who can’t do decently in school, who can’t follow half of what a teacher is saying, is more inclined to drop out.
For those Republicans who are moved more by self-interest than empathy, it’s worth noting that high school dropouts earn less that those with degrees, pay less in taxes, have more serious medical problems, and are at higher risk of ending up in jail.
Yet Trump’s people have sought to saddle the $68 billion-a-year SNAP program with restrictions and cuts to the monthly benefits, which now come on debit cards with declining balances, and typically last a family only two or three weeks. Certain regulations that the Trump administration has either enacted or has openly considered would treat needy Americans with suspicion and distrust. For instance:

·         Officials have considered imposing a drug-testing regime on recipients (although not on farmers who receive huge federal subsidies as part of the same legislation).
·         The Agriculture Department, which administers the program, published a rule in July to eliminate states’ option to raise eligibility limits above the federal ceiling, which is 130 percent of the poverty line. Previously, states could get waivers to enroll families earning more if their housing and child-care expenses soaked up a big percentage of their income. More generous housing subsidies would help, because in many parts of the country, where rent can consume 50 percent or more of a family’s budget, the money for food gets squeezed. The comment period on the rule change ended in September; once adopted, it will cut off about 3 million recipients.
·         In last week’s action, the administration effectively took away $75 in benefits from one out of every five families by recalculating how housing and utilities costs are figured.
·         The Trump administration tried to tighten work requirements in this year’s budget, Congress refused, and officials have gone ahead anyway to partially evade the legislative intent. Since 1996, single able-bodied adults with no dependents, up to age 49, could get SNAP benefits for only three months in a three-year period unless they worked or were in job training at least 80 hours a month. States could waive the rule in areas with acute joblessness. Trump wanted to expand the requirement to age 59 and, more damaging, apply it to those with children over six years old. That was rejected by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. So last December the Agriculture Department did what it could administratively by making it much harder for states to get waivers.
·         In his 2019 budget, Trump proposed replacing half of a family’s cash grants with a food package of cereal, pasta, peanut butter, canned fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry, and other items deemed good for them. Sending such packages to 40 million people would have been so costly and impractical that the idea collapsed of its own weight. But the notion seems borne of a patronizing attitude toward the poor, who suffer from a disparaging stereotype that they do not act responsibly.
Clinics treating childhood malnutrition see a broad array of causes. Lack of money is the centerpiece, but lack of knowledge about healthy eating can also contribute to some cases. Health providers find that some parents don’t know how to cook with relatively inexpensive ingredients. New immigrants unfamiliar with American food can be fooled by ads into thinking that Coke and Cheetos are healthy. So can Americans themselves. Lots of junk food is cheap and filling, hence the nation’s epidemic of obesity, which can be a sign of malnutrition.
Supermarkets with fresh, healthy food are scarce in many low-income neighborhoods. A child’s food allergies can be baffling without the funds and information required to have a large assortment of choices on hand. Single parents doing shift work can’t keep track of what their kids are being fed by multiple caregivers. Nor do they usually have the orderly life that allows them to sit children down calmly to feed them, or have a regular family meal.
 In other words, childhood malnutrition is created at the confluence of problems and disabilities that magnify and reinforce one another. They must all be addressed. The cognitive impairment that results cannot be attacked by a country that keeps electing officials who entangle the safety net in a set of punitive impulses.
First published by the Washington Monthly.

October 2, 2019

The Constitutional Stress Test


By David K. Shipler

                For a country ostensibly devoted to the rule of law and worshipful toward its Constitution, the United States is in a peculiar state of dishonoring both. It has a president and a supposedly conservative political party that brushes away the ingenious checks and balances that the Framers devised to restrain authority. It is politicizing its judiciary and entangling its legislature in partisan stalemates while its executive branch evades, ignores, or derides the other branches of government.
This could have more than a transitory impact on the dynamics of the democratic system. In resisting the constitutional duty of Congress to monitor and limit executive behavior, Donald Trump and his acolytes are undermining a keystone of constitutional governance. The damage might turn out to be more serious than a phone call with the president of Ukraine, and more lasting than an impeachment inquiry. Conceivably, once the judicial branch gets involved, a “conservative” Supreme Court could codify curbs on the legislature’s authority to subpoena, question, and investigate administration officials. Such cases are now being litigated.
How is Congress to enforce its orders? By declaring recalcitrant officials in “inherent contempt” and seeking to have them fined or arrested? That would be an extraordinary step, and nobody seems to know how it would be carried out. Otherwise, though, Congress is defied with impunity, and the system is impaired. The smooth running of government would have to be discussed in the past tense, when it relied on a basic respect for the norms of balance among the branches, when it did not conduct debates across an unyielding divide of political tribalism.

September 15, 2019

Interpreting Biden on Race and Poverty


By David K. Shipler

                Former Vice President Joe Biden must have had millions of Democrats wincing during last Thursday’s debate as he fumbled his way through a pointed question on racial inequality in schools. His sentences were incomplete, his thoughts jumped around erratically. He revealed, once again, his tin ear on race.
But if you distill his incoherent response—which did not directly answer the question of Americans’ obligations in the long wake of slavery—you can see that he actually identified the essence of key problems facing impoverished families and their schools. He displayed deeper understanding and proposed more solutions in a disjointed sound bite than all the other candidates combined.
Here is what he said, annotated in italics:
            “Well, they have to deal with the … Look, there is institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where--” He doesn’t finish his thought, but he is pointing to banks’ long practice of denying mortgages to blacks and “redlining” poorer neighborhoods out of consideration for loans. That has contributed to entrenched poverty and de facto segregation by community, which has meant that schools have been segregated as well, by race and income.
“Look, we talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title One schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year.” Pumping more funds into poor schools is essential to improve kids’ life opportunities. That’s because education funding relies mostly on local property taxes, which create vast disparities in per-pupil expenditures between wealthy and poor school districts. What Biden does not say, and should, is that these difficulties, and others he mentions subsequently, afflict poor whites as well as blacks. There are public schools that don’t have enough textbooks for all students, and teachers pay out of their own pockets to photocopy chapters.

September 6, 2019

Wanted: A "Shithole Country"


By David K. Shipler

                Donald Trump, who has come to realize that he was born in the wrong country, has ordered his Trump Organization to look for one to buy that he can run unimpeded by legislators, judges, news reporters, experts, and meteorologists. He thinks it would be great fun after leaving the presidency.
                “Maybe one of those shithole countries,” he reportedly told Ivanka just before she set out for Latin America. “Look around down there, will you? I’d rather one of them than in Africa . . .” The rest of his sentence is unprintable.
                Word has gone out in high-powered real-estate circles that Trump is willing to pay a small fortune for a nation where he can draft his own weather maps predicting what he has imagined, publish his fantasies in every newspaper, turn every newscast into unreality TV, make skeptical questioning a felony, reward corruption as smart business, and summon nubile young women to his palace. (He wants a Trump Palace, preferably on a hilltop flattened for a golf course.)
                Trump has told associates that the property must have this key quality: no constitution, or at least one that can be ignored. The US Constitution is a royal pain, as he keeps discovering, and he’s sick and tired of trying to get around it. “In the old adage,” he told one close aide, “the price of real estate is determined by three factors: location, location, and location. What I’m looking for is a place that is valuable because it is lawless, lawless, lawless.”
                Hearing about this, a disillusioned, patriotic Trump voter declared, “It is terribly selfish to say this, but let’s hope his search for a ‘shithole country’ is successful before he turns ours into one.”

August 17, 2019

Israel Forfeits Its Case

By David K. Shipler

                Before Israel became extremely right-wing, officials used to be eager to make their case with facts and reason. They were so confident in the legitimacy of their position in the Arab-Israeli conflict that they actually seemed to welcome a good opposing argument, because they thought they had a better one. When I arrived there in 1979 after four years covering the Soviet Union, the refreshing air of openness by government was like a tonic. There were exceptions, but as a rule, Israel’s officialdom didn’t try to silence painful disagreement. Comfort with flagrant debate was one of Israel’s most admirable qualities.
There is still plenty of noisy, acerbic dispute in the country. But the government lost its footing in denying entry to two Muslim US congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who wanted to visit the West Bank to champion the Palestinian cause and condemn Israel’s continuing “occupation.” That would have been an annoyance that the old Israel could have handled with sensible rebuttal, and hopefully some healthy introspection. In an earlier time, leaders stood tall in self-assurance. In the new Israel, it seems, they cower pathetically in fear of on-the-ground criticism.
The ironic result is the opposite of what President Trump imagined. He had said that Israel would look weak if it allowed Omar and Tlaib to visit. Israel now looks weak for having banned them—and for taking Trump’s bad advice. (Of course Trump’s idea of weakness is that you listen respectfully to views that differ from your own. He doesn’t seem to realize how weak he looks in his thin skin.)
This episode brings to mind Israel’s decision in 1979 to allow Jesse Jackson to enter the country for a highly publicized visit to Israel and the West Bank. Because of Jackson’s pro-Palestinian tilt, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan convinced Prime Minister Menachem Begin to deny Jackson any meetings with senior government officials, a rebuff that displeased some of Begin’s aides, who thought Begin himself should have met him. Yet the discomfort with Jackson’s views, including his earlier anti-Semitic remarks, did not rattle the conservative governing coalition enough to block his trip.

June 27, 2019

Jared Kushner and the Palestinian Pretense


By David K. Shipler

                Jared Kushner’s economic proposal for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is comprehensive, bold, and visionary, full of noble goals in commerce, trade, agriculture, manufacturing, road-building, local electricity production, water supply, education, vocational training, health care, women in the workforce, and the arts. Titled “Peace to Prosperity,” it imagines the West Bank as a trading center akin to Singapore or Dubai. Its calls for judicial independence, dependable contract law, anti-corruption measures, and administrative transparency that would be hailed by any “good-government” advocates. It envisions some $50 billion in international grants, loans, investments, and global expertise.  
                This would be nothing to sneer at if it related to reality. But to take it seriously, you have to play Let’s Pretend. So let’s pretend that the West Bank and Gaza constitute a normal country, independent but poor, with no Israeli overlords, and free to accept whatever outside assistance it chooses. Let’s pretend that the Palestinian rulers control their own borders so that people and goods can move easily, as Kushner recommends. Let’s pretend that West Bank land is all under Palestinian authority, rather than being fragmented into leopard-spot jurisdictions favoring expanding Israeli settlements and security concerns. And let’s pretend that the radical group Hamas no longer controls Gaza with a policy of relating to Israel by rockets alone.
                 In that fictional environment, Kushner’s plan is utopian in the best sense of the word. The document is silent on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so depending on how charitable a reader wants to be, Kushner’s effort is either ignorant or presumptuous, either blind to the political resolution that would be required before his proposals can be implemented, or based on an assumption that a resolution will have occurred.

June 16, 2019

Phantoms of War


By David K. Shipler

                On the night of August 4, 1964, as two US destroyers were reporting attacks by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Tonkin Gulf, Navy Commander James Stockdale took off from the USS Ticonderoga to fly support. He spent more than 90 minutes below 2,000 feet searching for North Vietnamese vessels. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” he wrote in a book twenty years later, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . . . there was nothing there but black water and American firepower."
                Yet the imagined incident, coming two days after an actual attack, prompted President Lyndon Johnson to denounce Hanoi’s “repeated acts of violence” and order a bombing run against a North Vietnamese oil depot. The sortie of 18 planes was led, ironically, by Stockdale, who knew conclusively what had not happened but followed orders to help “launch a war under false pretenses,” as he said in his book. (He was shot down on a later mission, spent seven years as a POW, and in 1992 ran for vice president on Ross Perot’s ticket.)
                The cautionary tale of the Tonkin Gulf has been revived in recent days by the Trump administration’s assertions of absolute certainty that Iran was responsible for attacks on two oil tankers. The evidence is sketchy—primarily a video showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards removing, not planting, a limpet mine—and sundry sightings of Iranian vessels in the area, as they always are. There might be intercepted communications, called SIGINT (signal intelligence) in the trade, but they haven’t been released.

June 13, 2019

Trump Tells the Truth


By David K. Shipler

                In a rare moment of candor and accuracy, President Trump today used the word “incredible” to describe his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Upon her announcement that she will be leaving the post, Trump tweeted, “She is a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job!”
                The entire White House press corps suddenly found itself in unfamiliar agreement with a tweet from on high.
                Reactions to the unprecedented spasm of presidential honesty came swiftly from an array of eighth-grade English teachers. “While the adjective ‘incredible’ has been corrupted in slang to substitute for such superlatives as “amazing’ and ‘extraordinary,’” said Mrs. Matthews of Chatham (NJ) Junior High School, “all of my students know very well that it means, ‘not believable.’ Its root is credo, Latin for ‘I believe,’ and is made negative by the prefix ‘in.’” For emphasis, she slapped her 15-inch ruler on her desk, her routine method of keeping her students awake and attentive.
                Trump surely knows the proper definition of “incredible,” several other teachers observed, because he went for a couple of years to Fordham, a Jesuit college where precise thinking and respect for language are de rigueur, and then to an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania.
                Jane Doe, who covers the White House for the East Overshoe Gazette summed up the feeling among her colleagues: “We just hope his next press secretary is less incredible.”

In case you’re wondering, this is satire—although the Trump tweet is real.

June 3, 2019

The Circular Spectrum

By David K. Shipler

“It reminds me of the Soviet Union.”
--Philip B. Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, on the Trump Administration’s politicization of climate science.

                The spectrum of political and social views is usually pictured as a straight line running from left to right. But the range of positions on some matters might better be rendered as a circle, with the line bent around until the two extreme ends are joined in common excess.
                Take the rejection of science, for example. On the right are the deniers of all the careful and extensive research documenting the human contributions to global warming. On the left are the deniers of all the careful and extensive research into the human immune system’s activation by means of vaccines. They are not identical in their suspicion of elites in the scientific community, but they are close enough to be put together at the bottom of that circle.
                And anti-Semitism. Typically seen on the extreme right among neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, ugly manifestations have also surfaced on the left. In the US, some college students have mixed anti-Semitic stereotypes into their criticisms of Israel, as has Democratic Congresswoman Ihlan Omar. Britain’s Labour Party is under investigation for anti-Semitism by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. Seven members of Parliament quit Labour in February in protest over its leadership’s failure to deal sufficiently with anti-Semitism as well as Brexit.
                Left-right similarities can be seen on some college campuses that have been stages for intolerant assaults in both directions. Shortly after 9/11, conservative students and alumni monitored and reported liberal professors for views expressed in and out of class, and tried to get some fired. More recently, liberal and minority students have shouted down conservative and racist speakers, or have pressed administrators to disinvite them. These attempts to silence expression are less prevalent than they appear from the news coverage they receive, but they have special gravity at institutions supposedly devoted to free intellectual inquiry. In places of higher learning, especially, a viewpoint considered offensive is best confronted with solid research, sound argument, and precise rebuttal.

June 1, 2019

Bad Spellers for Immigration Shutdown


By David K. Shipler

                After years of dithering about the immigration issue, the national Bad Spellers (BS) movement has finally endorsed President Trump’s border wall and other tough restrictions. But the organization also warned that his proposal to base immigration on merit would pose great dangers to American culture.
                “The risks are obvious when you look at the pictures and the names of the eight co-winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee,” said a BS statement. “Rishik Gandhasri, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, Rohan Raja—and, by the way, the only one who seems like a white Anglo, Erin Howard. All these kids with families originally from India or somewhere else in South Asia who can spell all those ridiculous words that nobody ever uses—are they even English words?”
                BS went on to point out what every red-blooded American knows, that the right to misspell is enshrined in the Constitution (First Amendment) and exemplified by our president, who was made an honorary member of BS even before his inauguration. “Donald Trump is a true repesentative [sic] of the Peopel [sic],” said the announcement at the time. “He knows how to capitalize randomely [sic] and use apostrofes [sic] at will. He’s all about substence [sic], not spelling.”
                The fear, BS explained, is that hordes of hostile “aliens” will invade the country and undermine its devotion to the pluralism of spelling and grammar, which are core principles practiced daily in tweets, emails, conversations, and even classrooms. The evolution of the English language will be frozen at a pompous stage. It is obvious from the spelling bee results, BS argued, that immigrants’ high regard for education and their ambition to get ahead threaten American values. “Here is the question: What freedom do we have if not the freedom to spell as we wish?”
                In an effort to appeal to Trump, BS drove its point home with this: “The insistance [sic] on propper [sic] spelling is just another form of political correctness.”

Full disclosure: This is satire!