In Trumpland, belief equals truth

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on August 1, 2017.

That we want it to be so does not make it so. Truth is not so friendly. But that’s a big problem today. We have “filter-bubble” chat rooms, echo chamber television networks, algorithms that anticipate the images we want, and politicians ever so willing to pander to our philosophical predilections. So how are we supposed to know what’s true and what’s not?

It is not the ability to love that sets us apart from other mammals. I’ve had dogs I loved, and I know they loved me back. What most distinguishes us is our ability to invent symbols to communicate facts we perceive and the ideas they generate. These symbols free us from being trapped inside ourselves or being limited to purely physical means of expression. We incorporate memories with anticipations of the future and meld them into an idea of the present. Then we record these symbols, speaking from the present into the future. We call this language, and with it, as a species, we have changed ourselves and the world around us.

If you agree with me, then like me, you must also value truth. But truth needs precision. When I speak of the color “green,” the use of the word must always mean the same thing, a common experience of greenness. It cannot sometimes mean brown or yellow, and must always be referring to something I have actually experienced. When I use the word, I must be trustworthy. Those to whom I speak, or who read what I have written, must have a basis for believing that I saw what I described. My words are otherwise useless. This is the entire basis for science and for disciplines such as economics and sociology. It is also the basis for friendship, society and democracy.

If, at this point, we remain in agreement, then like me, you should also be concerned with Donald Trump’s butchery of language. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently wrote on the subject.

Trump’s usage, Blow wrote, is “a way of reducing language to the point that it is meaningless because the use of it is mindless, and in that compromised state, language becomes nearly worthless. As a consequence, truth becomes relative, if not altogether removed.”

And:

“Listening to Trump speak is a dizzying experience for anyone interested in candor, clarity or concision. It’s as if he puts language through a meat grinder and what emerges is nearly unrecognizable, in either comprehension or certitude.”

I do not think this is accidental. Trump’s definition of truth is different from mine; truth as I’ve defined it is, to him, irrelevant. He is more concerned with what might be described as belief. The facts are as he wants them and therefore believes them to be. For Trump, knowing flows from believing. In this paradigm, whatever is believed can become fact — belief, not observation, being the gateway to truth.

Many Americans believe illegal Mexican immigrants are dangerous and that millions of them vote illegally. So, Trump echoes these beliefs, and in so doing validates pre-existing beliefs. In the relativist world of Trump this validation is truth enough. Indeed, in a Trumpian view, those in power will ultimately record what happened, and the record they make will become truth. Thus, truth can be whatever we want it to be, if only we have the will to make it so.

The foundations of democracy are literacy and an informed citizenry capable of understanding facts and making rational decisions. Against this backdrop the Trumpian idea that the will creates truth is not new; it has been common parlance within the last century. Read, for example, Benito Mussolini’s 1933 pamphlet on “The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism.” To Mussolini democracy was an evil that Fascism despised. To him, belief is more powerful than reason; only belief matters. As Mussolini put it, truth is revealed by what men die for. Death is truth, and a belief men have died for is validated as truth.

Trump has been quoted as saying his financial worth is based upon his “own feelings,” that it “goes up or down based on (his) feelings.” His financial worth is whatever he believes its value to be. And, so it was for those who bought Trump brand tequila, or steaks, or college degrees, or condos. If you want to believe they are valuable, then they are. It is the way of all hucksters; what they sell is belief. In Trump’s world, if he’s telling you what you want to hear, he’s not lying.

Deep down we know: Health care is a right

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on July 17, 2017.

At this moment, two events crowd my consciousness, requiring some comment. First, Donald Trump Jr.’s dalliance with a Russian lawyer in hopes of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton. Second, the Trumpcare bill pending in the Senate.

An email chain unabashedly reveals the Russian government’s plan to support the Trump candidacy, a fact that does not seem to have surprised Trump Jr. How could material support from a historically hostile government be good, or even be rationalized? The email, from Russia-linked publicist Rob Goldstone, states:

“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

The email chain directly contradicts what the White House has been saying publicly for months. Junior, along with then campaign manager Paul Manafort and super-son-in-law Jared Kushner, hustled off to meet a Russian lawyer, and have concealed the existence of the meeting or details of it ever since.

There’s more to say about this, but there will be time, and I’ve elected to spend this space on something more urgent: the Trumpcare bill. However important collusion with Russians may be, it doesn’t as immediately threaten the lives, health and happiness of so many millions of us in the way that the bill pending in the Senate does.

Obamacare really boils down to whether medical care is a necessity or a luxury. At a minimum, we all need air, water, food, clothing and shelter. These are necessities; we cannot live without them. You can think of it in terms of feeding a child. If your child is starving and will die without food, can you morally refuse to break the window of a bakery to get the needed bread? For that, in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean spent 20 years in prison. Yet, Valjean is no villain, but one of the great heroes of literature. The point is that natural law sometimes supersedes human law, and necessity can create rights. The child had a natural right to the bread and Valjean violated no moral law in taking it — indeed, would have violated his moral duty had he not done so.

An Op-Ed piece by a New York City emergency room doctor makes the point. He’s treated many unconscious patients brought to him by ambulance. He never asks their permission to render treatment. Indeed, the good Samaritans who found them and got them there did not question whether medical treatment was affordable and should be given. Some were victims of emergency medical conditions, some had been assaulted and nearly killed. But in the end, a few, who lacked insurance or the resources to pay for the care they had already received, upon gaining consciousness complained about the decision to save their lives, saying they would rather have died allowing family members to collect life insurance, than face financial ruin.

Like a loaf of bread for a starving child, emergency care, maternity care and care for debilitating health conditions such as cancer and birth defects is not a choice; it is a necessity. In the July 10 New York Times, Dr. Farzon A. Nahvi wrote:

“So why does this happen with health care? The answer is that we don’t truly believe in free-market medicine. We know that in an empathetic and caring society, life is valued above all else, especially when the life in question is in the most helpless condition possible. Deep down inside, we all intuitively know that health care is not a free market, or else society would not allow me to routinely care for people when they are in no position to make decisions for themselves.

“Republicans need to be honest with themselves and the public: If they want medicine to be truly free-market, then they have to be willing to let the next man or woman they find lying unconscious in the street remain there and die.”

In the Kansas City Star on July 11 Michael Gerson wrote about a woman, Medina, who is struggling to feed a starving family in famine-wracked Kenya. So, why should I care? Gerson answers in writing about the international response to this crisis. “Whatever happens, Medina says, will be ‘God’s will.’ But a failure of compassion would be entirely our own.”

We care because we’re wired that way. We have to care or we stop being human. Let’s just face it; health care is a right.

Individuals should still step up for honor

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on June 23, 2017.

David Bonderman stepped down from the corporate board of Uber after speaking disparagingly of women by saying putting them on corporate boards would be bad because “it’s much more likely to be more talking.” He must have felt entitled. He’s not alone. My daughter, who works for an architectural firm in New York City, says that during business meetings women get talked over all the time, and people just seem to accept it. Studies back her up. And you could see it during the Senate hearing while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was being interrogated. The only senator who was interrupted was Kamala Harris — a woman. Again, no one did anything about it.

Recently Bill Maher took heat and eventually apologized for using the N-word during an interview with U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska. The consensus is that some people get to use that word but others cannot. Recently it’s even been debated whether Mark Twain is someone we will allow to continue using that word with each new printing of his masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Fortunately, the majority verdict on that seems to be “yes.”

A teenager in Massachusetts was recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter for sending texts encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide. The girl, Michelle Carter, faces 20 years in prison for speech “that is considered reckless enough to cause harm.” The legal question on appeal will be whether her words can be considered the legal cause of the boy’s death or whether he was responsible for his own conduct.

Do you remember the old children’s rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? I don’t think we truly believe it. After nearly 65 years of living, I’ve come to believe that words are the most powerful and hurtful of tools. We should be careful of what we say or face the insult of a slap across the face with a demand for satisfaction. But we won’t; dueling has been outlawed, along with honor. Deceased classics and humanities professor J. Rufus Fears said that “no society that has outlawed dueling can truly understand the meaning of honor.” His point was that words matter and often require a response. In a society that understands honor, silence is cowardice.

It’s surprising to me how few people remember one of the truly great movies, “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” made right after World War II, in the same year Joe McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate. Gregory Peck plays a newspaper reporter who pretends to be Jewish to expose anti-Semitism. In the most powerful scene his fiancée, played by Dorothy McGuire, from upper crust Connecticut society, relates to Peck’s Jewish war buddy that she was offended by a virulent anti-Semitic joke in otherwise polite, white-gloved company. The friend, played by John Garfield, asks what she did about it. She seems put off, saying she shunned the teller of the joke, but, when pressed, admits she had done nothing, had said nothing. It resonates with me because I remember a particular event, years ago at a country club, when in the presence of a Jewish friend I was similarly guilty of being similarly offended but doing nothing about it. I’ve sworn in the future I will not be shy.

The political right is often heard complaining about political correctness from the political left, but it seems to me there’s lots of that going both ways. Political discourse these days is devoid of decorum because it seems anyone can say anything without consequence. Our Constitution prohibits government regulation of speech. Just recently the Supreme Court struck down a law that denied trademark protection for names that might be “offensive,” like the Washington Redskins. So, it is left to us, as individuals, to stand against abusive words. It’s up to each of us to do something, to demand honor. That saying words encouraging another person to commit suicide can be a crime has frightening implications. However abhorrent the speech, making it a crime seems dangerous. Nor can we accept the lawlessness of dueling. But in the end, each of us remains responsible for refusing to tolerate injustice, whether in a workplace meeting, or at a country club, or wherever we find ourselves. Honor demands it.

Finding common cause is the only answer

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on June 14, 2017.

My last column was about Arlo Guthrie singing “This Land is Your Land.” The song says we’re all in this together, togetherness is necessary to our well-being, and such togetherness requires fairness and equality. It won’t work any other way. This land was made for all, not the few.

But now, less than 1 percent have more than 90 percent of the marbles. People don’t like paying taxes when others with more don’t pay a fair share. Think about Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax experiment and President Trump saying not paying income taxes “makes me smart.”

David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times on June 2 after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Europe. Trump’s America is in with the Saudis because the money’s good, regardless of stark differences on human rights and democracy, and we’re out with the European Union despite common democratic institutions because it doesn’t pay. In a recent article top Trump advisers H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn said: “The President embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

Brooks comments: “In this world view, morality has nothing to do with anything. Altruism, trust, cooperation and virtue are unaffordable luxuries in the struggle of all against all. Everything is about self-interest.”

And, Brooks goes on: “The error [of this view] is that it misunderstands what drives human action. Of course people are driven by selfish motivations … But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.”

The day after Brooks’ column, Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece about inequality in The New York Times. It seems that primates, both chimps and human beings, have innately low tolerance for unequal treatment. The mere presence of a first-class section on airplanes makes “air rage” more likely even than when passengers experience long flight delays. It works the same for chimps. Watching each other interact with humans they expect equal treatment. Just like our primate cousins, when people see others get better seats, better jobs, cushier deals, they resent it.

Trump was elected because many Americans think the game is rigged. I spoke recently with Norm Diggs, who lives in the country between Hutchinson and Wichita, who said he voted for Trump out of complete frustration with a system that endlessly favors a few and screws the rest. He voted against the status quo. I think Trump promotes unfairness, and told Norm so. But Norm said, “Why not give him a chance? It’s all crooked, Trump can’t be worse?” He felt he had to do something, and voting for Trump was the only something he saw. Violently as I disagree, I’ll give Norm this, the message resonates.

When Woody Guthrie said that you and I are in this together, he meant the entire country, from the Redwood forests to the Gulfstream waters, with all the endless skyways and golden valleys in-between. That’s bottom-up democracy; it’s also the idea of a Christian community. The United States got out of the Depression, and through World War II because we pulled together, remembered what we had in common, and gave our precious lives with uncommon selflessness.

I’ve been to Omaha Beach and to the American Cemetery in Florence, Italy. I’ve read the stories of Dick Winters, Eugene Sledge and Jack Neville, real human markers of a time when there was no room for selfishness. Families were treated equally, regardless of social or economic status, and rich and poor alike sacrificed their best. John F. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr., died piloting a flying bomb against a German submarine pen. Read their stories in Rick Atkinson’s “An Army at Dawn” trilogy, Steven Ambrose’s “D-Day” and “Citizen Soldiers,” and Drew Neville’s “Jack’s 45th.” These stories tell me that we’re all connected and are at our best, and happiest, when we are acting for the benefit of one another. We live in a time when we have to pull together. We are of and from this land, and as Woody wrote and Arlo keeps singing, “This land was made for you and me.”

2 septuagenarians’ views of America

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on May 31, 2017.

There are two septuagenarians, both Americans, who know America and how to work an American crowd. I saw both on different stages in a single day.

On May 18 Arlo Guthrie ambled out slowly onto the stage of the old brick Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., a big shock of white hair and a droopy mustache. Gaudy painted figures festooned the ceiling, as white, blue and red lights shifted in steamed air among the four figures who moved with him. In blue jeans and without any discernible ceremony he sat on a stool in the middle of his countless precious guitars.

Around him were a middle-aged guy who played electric guitar like a bank teller working an adding machine and Arlo’s plump, shaggy-haired son, who beamed a smile down onto the keyboard. In back was a 50-some-year-old drummer and over his left shoulder was the woman who had been there 40 years ago playing a tambourine.

He mumbled something about playing their “stuff” and went right into some recent songs. The crowd, which did not completely fill the venue, did not wait until he started playing the old stuff to become enthusiastic. But when he started into “Coming into Los Angeles” it got warm. Holding a shiny blue 12 string guitar, he picked a tune while telling a story that mostly made fun of himself. He was passing the songs around. It seemed from his telling that he’d just been lucky. He pulled “Alice’s Restaurant” from some recess in his old white head, meandering through a convoluted tale of littering and the insanity of a Vietnam era New York draft station.

He took all of us right with him down along the Mississippi from Chicago to New Orleans, right through the middle of America. With every word and chord he told us about who we are. And we all knew it. He joined us together with a kind of gentleness. There was no welding going on, just a coalescence. We seemed to belong there and together. He brought out a little Bob Dylan and more than a little Woodstock.

He only got serious a few times, when telling the tale of a Chilean singer who’d been murdered by generals and whenever he talked about his dad. That’s the first time we opened up our throats and sang along with him. We’d do it again at the end of the show.

This land is your land, this land is my land From California to the New York Island From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters This land was made for you and me

And that’s when I really started thinking about what’s going on in the world right now. Woody Guthrie’s old song made me think about the only good solution to any kind of real trouble. When he wrote that song there were few reasons to be optimistic. The world was pretty messed up in 1940. But I think what Woody Guthrie said about us in that song had more to do than anything else with us getting through it.

After he finished his second set everyone knew we’d clap hard enough for him to give us one more song. He said it really didn’t count as a song, it was just some of Woody’s scribblings he’d found and set to some music. Arlo called it “My Peace.”

My peace my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you My peace is all I ever had that’s all I ever knew I give my peace to green and black and red and white and blue My peace my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you

Of course, we’re not always that good, no one is. I’m pretty sure neither Woody nor Arlo was always so good, maybe never. But sometimes we forget who we are, who we can be. We forget that we can be that good. Sometimes we’re scared and mean. Sometimes even worse. Sometimes who we are depends upon whom we listen to. Sometimes we’re listening to the wrong song. Sometimes we just need reminding.

I almost forgot to talk about that other old guy I saw on a different stage. He’s almost exactly one year older than Arlo. He has a head of carefully combed-over blond hair. He was on TV saying how hard he’s been working for us. He spends a lot of time in a place in Florida called Mar-a-Lago where he says he worries about the little guys, like you and me.

The difference is always the stand we take

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on May 15, 2017.

I have The New York Times from May 10, 2017 — the real print edition. I’m reluctant to throw it away. Mark you, I’ve trashed lots of newsprint: KU winning two national championships and even the Chicago Tribune the day after the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years, but I’m reluctant to throw this one into the trash bin.

The headline reads (capitalized, bolded and italicized in the original): “TRUMP FIRES COMEY AMID RUSSIA CONTROVERSY.” I have fear — no that’s not true; I have hope, is more like it — that this headline will be remembered. There aren’t that many, really, that have been. The beginnings of wars and assassinations, mostly, but there is another: “The Saturday Night Massacre.”

“Nixon Discharges Cox For Defiance; Abolishes Watergate Taskforce; Richardson and Ruckelshaus Out.”

The common thread is that We The People have always been the difference. Each headline is the beginning of a story, but the outcome depended upon us. It always does.

Every year has its seeming crises, its tempests in teapots, but really it’s mostly stuff that comes out in the wash. Run it through an ordinary wash cycle and the stain disappears, completely forgotten only days later. That’s how most of history is, preserved only by historians. But not all of it, and if our national history began on July 4, 1776, how many events are there that even the least historical of us knows?

When Nixon ordered his own attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire the Watergate special prosecutor he was refused. The AG and the deputy AG, William Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than comply with the order. Nixon was trying to interfere with the legal process; he was trying to protect himself from investigation. Our representatives in Congress stood tall, and together Republicans and Democrats ignored party lines and joined together in their condemnation. The investigation of Watergate went forward and the result was that Nixon became the only president to resign his office. Congress knew it could not let Nixon get away with it. It knew it was accountable to us. It happened because of us and who we are.

It was reported that the White House justification for President Trump’s firing FBI Director James Comey was his “atrocities.” Really, atrocities? What does that word mean? I’ll leave it to you to look up. Let’s not strip our language of its meaning. Whatever Comey did, there were no atrocities. In apparent agreement with the White House, Kansas GOP Sen. Pat Roberts says the firing was justified. But, should it end there? If Trump is able to appoint the person who will investigate Trump and the actions of his campaign, how can we ever know the truth? Roberts’ eager complicity wouldn’t have been acceptable in 1974 because that is not who we were then. Is it what we’ve become? We are at one of those moments when we will discover who we are.

Whether you think the Russians interfered in our election isn’t the question. Even if you doubt the Trump campaign was involved, you should want the truth to come out. You should want the process to work and to take its due course. Faith in the process is all that stands between us and anarchy. Freedom depends upon it.

Reflecting on The New York Times headline, as I began to throw it into the recycle bin, it occurred to me that this headline would only be remembered, would only be historically significant, if we are as good as we were in 1974. Whether the firing of Comey becomes the dust of our history or one of its turning points depends upon who we are. Wars and catastrophes thrust themselves into our memories regardless of outcomes — Pearl Harbor is as much a part of the national memory of defeat to Japan as it is of victory for us. But the Saturday Night Massacre is remembered because, and only because, we rose to the occasion, we stood tall, we acted courageously, with honor and virtue.

If a Democrat had done this, do you imagine for one single minute that Roberts would give it a pass? This is not about politics, it’s about something much more important. The power is in your voice.

Let’s have good reasons for good laws

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on May 8, 2017.

The headline read “Governor tightens waterslide regulations” (Lawrence Journal World, April 25).

Caleb Schwab, the son of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, was killed last summer riding a waterslide at the Schlitterbahn waterpark in Kansas City, Kan. Less than a year later the “anti-regulation” Kansas Legislature passed a bill regulating waterslides, and “anti-regulation” Gov. Sam Brownback signed it into law. The vote was overwhelming, in the House 124-1; in the Senate, 35-2.

I’m glad we passed a public safety law; though, I don’t know why it was not already on the books. Maybe with good laws that child would be alive today. But does a child need to die before we recognize the need to create, or tighten, safety standards? It’s not like amusement park rides are something new.

The argument against regulation is that it distorts free markets; markets, the argument goes, naturally punish bad actors. The argument continues that government regulators are inept and that when the “nanny state” intervenes to protect us, it does the opposite by interfering with the market and in the process, “kills jobs” and punishes “job creators,” actually hurting far more than it helps.

The news article reported:

“The death of a colleague’s son spurred the governor in anti-regulation Kansas to toughen the state’s inspection requirements for amusement parks on Monday.

“[Bill sponsor, GOP Rep. John] Barker described Kansas’ current amusement park regulations [as] some of the loosest in the country.

“Brownback had promised to follow [Rep.] Schwab’s lead. Schwab didn’t comment on the bill until he gave an emotional speech in support of it last month in the House. He told fellow House members that he didn’t come to the Legislature to increase regulations and he wouldn’t hold it against anyone who didn’t vote for the bill.”

So, I’m trying to follow the logic here. The “regulations” need to be made tougher to “protect the next kid,” but the father of a child who unnecessarily died feels he needs to apologize for supporting tougher regulations?

Apparently 98.1 percent of our legislators recognize that regulations are necessary. Safe elevators, for example; should there be a law requiring elevator inspections? Or how about food? Should there be health standards for food? We’re not China, after all. How do you think cars got safer or Lake Erie got cleaned up? The answer: regulatory laws. Regulation created safe workplaces and stopped child labor. It wasn’t market-place innovation; it was government regulation.

What’s also clear is that everyone involved ­­­— Rep. Schwab, Brownback, everyone — understood that recognizing the need for safety regulation conflicts with Republican political orthodoxy. Big business doesn’t like it. So much so that Schwab felt obligated to tell his fellow legislators he would not “hold it against anyone” who voted against tightening regulation of amusement park rides, even though he might very reasonably believe the loosest laws in the country led to the death of his child.

And, only three actually voted “no,” then, as Brownback made clear he was “following [Rep.] Schwab’s lead,” regardless of his well-known stance against any kind of regulation.

So, it boils down to this: It seems that regulations are OK when something bad happens to — and here’s the critical point — not just anyone, but to someone who matters. Caleb Schwab mattered to the Kansas Legislature. Do you imagine this law would have been passed had Caleb not been a child of a legislator? Do you imagine the bill would pass with 98.1 percent of the vote, and be immediately rubber-stamped into law had the victim not been a member of the legislative family?

The problem is that if we pass laws in response to something bad happening to special people, what will happen when something bad happens to forgotten people? Lady Justice wears a blindfold because law should not be about “who” but about “what.” Someday the tragedy of this young boy will pass from the memories of legislators, and to those who did not know him this safety law may become just one more job-killing, nanny state regulation. What then? Does someone new need to die in every generation?

That’s not how good government works — fixing problems one at a time when someone special is involved. What happened to this family was awful and unnecessary. Had adequate safety regulation been in place, rather than the “loosest” in the country, Caleb might be alive today. Let’s make preventing unnecessary tragedy for all of us a goal of good government.

Our trust in democracy is under attack

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on April 17, 2017.

Can we trust democratic institutions? To bring this home, think about a bank account. You deposit your paycheck; during the month there are automatic withdrawals, you use your bank card, write a few checks, and at the end of the month you get your online statement. You’ve actually seen few real green dollars. You balance it all out, hopefully, and start again the next month. We’re fine so long as the bank card works but are suddenly poor when it won’t. And when you’re standing in the checkout line at your local grocery store, who will the clerk believe, a person whose card won’t work or the bank on the other end of the computer? If you’ve ever had a credit card turned down you know the answer. The store believes the bank, so do the people standing in line behind you, and their belief is based upon trust in the checks and balances of the banking system.

How are votes counted? Like money in the bank, mostly by computers. We’re long past the day when a local election clerk, like an old-time bank teller who counted your green dollars and put them into a safe, actually counts the votes. Elections aren’t tallied by officials who know everyone in town and, after watching them vote, add it all up. So, it’s like bank accounts; we deposit votes into the computer, one by one, and then they’re spent by the candidates to get elected. But how do we know who actually got the most votes? How do we know it was all done honestly? The answer, again, is mostly trust. We trust the checks and balances of the voting system.

But trust itself is under attack; trust in science, the press, the legal system, academia, and trust in the democratic process. Before becoming President, candidate Trump questioned the integrity of the voting system. He told us the system was rigged. He’s not alone among politicians sowing distrust; some have been doing so for awhile, notably Kansas’ own Kris Kobach. Before the election, Trump, echoing Kobach and others, was telling us that we can’t trust voting because the system is riddled with fraud. And he’s kept on message. Even after winning he’s kept it up. Three million illegals, he says, voted for Hillary Clinton, thousands were trucked from one state into another state to vote for Clinton, cheating him of a popular vote win.

That Russian oligarchs, who have little use for democracy, have been working to make us doubt the integrity of elections is a story that continues to unfold. Reportedly they’ve been doing this for some time, influencing European elections. Last year their involvement in the Trump/Clinton contest was detected by the intelligence community. The New York Times reports that the internal debate within the national security establishment was whether the Russians’ goal was specifically to help Trump or generally to sow seeds of mistrust. The CIA thought the former, the FBI leaned toward the latter. An April 6 story in the NYT has congressional leaders sufficiently concerned by intelligence briefings that they sent a letter to local election boards warning “of unnamed ‘malefactors’ who might seek to disrupt the elections through online intrusion.”

Our legal system recognizes that conspirators rarely write agreements on paper. Rarely is there a document that says: “If you do this, I will do that.” So, criminal prosecutors routinely document the conduct and timing of suspected conspirators and correlate their words and actions. Actions that are synchronized can evidence a collusive agreement. Whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians is being investigated, and we’ll have to wait to learn what Congress and the FBI discover. Of course, ironically, at the end of the day we’ll be asked to trust the investigators, which is what the whole thing is about, because the FBI and Congress are themselves important democratic institutions, and it is trust in democracy itself that is under attack.

Distrust leads to disunity. What is clear is that we must resist siren songs of distrust, and fight against those who are determined to undercut the foundations of our democracy by spreading alternative facts as the seeds of doubt. Democracy is fragile and can easily be eroded by a fringe few who actively work against it. We are required to earn the power of decision every day by careful involvement — the only way of preserving trust in a democratic process.

Student debt situation is creating indentured servitude

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on April 7, 2017.

Perhaps as much as half of settlement in the British American colonies was by indentured servants. Mostly under the age of 25, they lacked the money for passage to the New World and “indentured” themselves to repay the cost of getting here. Their time and labor was owned by their masters; they were not free to go where they wished, work where they wanted, or marry without permission. Their debt could not be discharged or avoided. If one escaped and was caught, he would be sent back, where he could be legally beaten by his master. Remember the book and movie “The Last of the Mohicans”? There’s a good chance the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Natty Bumppo, was the progeny of fugitive indentured servants. For generations this underclass lived on the edge of colonial society, squatting on wilderness land, often integrating into Native American communities. The stories of indentured “pilgrims,” like Natty Bumppo, are not often told, but now might be a good time to reflect on the earliest American slaves: indentured servants.

What prompted this column was a recent two-part series by Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times about the college dropout rate. The point of the articles was to explain an apparent anomaly. With the clear economic evidence supporting the long-term value of a college degree, how do we explain the college drop-out rate? The series reports that 25 percent of people in their 30s who attended college have dropped out. Why, the NYT asks, would anyone drop out when a typical college graduate working full-time earns 54 percent more than a full-time worker who attended some college but has no degree?

When I arrived at KU in 1970 tuition was less than $400 per year, and for that you could take as many classes as you could physically get to. One semester I took 21 hours; another I took 20. Of course, prices were lower then, but not by that much. Compared with tuition costs today, college was virtually free. We were the Baby Boomers, children of the post World War II GI Bill. By 1956 approximately 8.8 million veterans had gone to school on GI benefits, with 2.2 million attending college. Schools like KU exploded, expanding tenfold. How many became teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers and the like?

This continued into my generation. The generation before us did not pull up the college ladder, but left it down for us. My wife and I graduated from KU in 1974, and I from law school in 1978, with less than $3000 of debt. We had to work some, but received, in essence, a free education paid for by the taxpayers of Kansas. And when we went from Lawrence out into the world we were free to go where we wanted, to buy cars and houses, and start having kids. We had no indentures that bound us to the wills of others, but were free to work for ourselves.

I don’t have to tell you that we have not left the world of educational opportunity as good as we found it. The average student today graduates with over $37,000 of debt, and for kids who attend $40,000 per year elite private colleges, or who seek post-grad degrees, debt can exceed $200,000. Over 44 million now owe more than $1.4 trillion, and 25 percent are delinquent. Interest rates are 6.8 percent, though the prime lending rate for banks is far lower, 4 percent, and the Fed Funds rate, what banks pay the Fed, recently has been between .75 and 1 percent.

As with the indentured servants, there is no way out through bankruptcy. Lenders have persuaded a friendly Congress to close the door on college debt. Most other kinds of debt can be discharged in bankruptcy, but not college debt. Donald Trump gets to use bankruptcy, but not an underwater college graduate. We even let lenders garnish Social Security payments to delinquent student debtors. We are ruthlessly soaking this generation and stifling their futures. Many can’t buy cars and houses, and many are putting off having children. When Bernie Sanders campaigned on the issue of student debt forgiveness and free college education, he hit a nerve with Millennials. Too bad the selfish old Boomers are still calling the shots. Natty Bumppo could take his long-rifle and melt into the frontier; where can today’s indentured servants escape?