The Art of the Budget Deal

The good news is that President Donald and the Republican and Democratic leaders have reached a deal, expected to be voted on and signed by the end of the week, which will avert a governmental default and the economic cataclysm that would surely follow. The bad news is that deal adds another couple trillion dollars to a national debt that sooner or later will be just as catastrophic.
For now, though, no one seems to care. The Democrats remain the party of big government, and realize that for the two years of the budget deal they are unlikely to get the big tax increases they want to address the deficit, and the agreement gives them a few hundred billion dollars more to spread around to their voters. The Republicans are no longer the party of fiscal responsibility but rather the party of Trump, the self-proclaimed “king of debt,” who told reporters on Monday that “We are, I think, doing very well on debt, if you look at debt limit, however you want to define that, but we’re doing very well on that and I think we’re doing well on a budget.”
We’ll leave it to Trump’s die-hard supporters to explain exactly what the heck that means, as they seem to speak his language better than we do, but the gist of it seems to be that he’s quite comfortable about another couple of years of trillion dollar deficits, and maybe four more after that if he gets reelected. He and his die-hard supporters will probably revert to the old-fashioned Republican outrage about fiscal irresponsibility as soon as another Democrat occupies the White House, but for now they’ll talk about the great deal he got.
The Democrats agreed to another big hike in defense spending, and Trump told reporters “Very important we take care of our military, our military was depleted and in the past two-and-a-half years we’ve undepleted it, okay, to put it mildly,” adding another Trump neologism to the language at no cost to the taxpayer. There’s no money for the big beautiful border wall that Trump the Mexicans pay for, but neither is there anything to prevent Trump from diverting funds from the military budget to build a mile or two. The Democratic leaders also gave oral assurances they wouldn’t complicate future budget negotiations with with any “riders” regarding abortion or other controversial issues, although it’s not clear how Trump will hold them to that.
The deal does allow a few hundred billion dollars more of discretionary spending, but for at least two years and maybe six that Democrats won’t have much say in how it’s spent, so a lot of Democratic congress members are publicly fuming, especially those newcomers that Trump has lately been urging to back where they came from.
The last of the old-school Republicans who really believed all that talk about limited government and fiscal responsibility and the looming were also disgruntled, with the president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget saying “It may end up being the worst budget agreement in our nation’s history.”
Despite all the grumbling on both sides of the aisle we expect the deal will be sealed by week’s end, when Congress takes it annual summer vacation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer retain a fairly tight rein on their caucus, hardly anyone in the Republican party dales challenge Trump on anything, the entire political class seems to realize that few of us still care about about the looming debt catastrophe, and absolutely no believes that anyone in Washington, D.C., can come up with solution before vacation time.
The deal at least kicks the can of crisis a bit further down the road, and no one’s likely to have to run for reelection a year from next November explaining what they did the the global economic Armageddon happened, and they can all hope they’ll be dead or retired with a sufficient stash of gold and guns and canned food when the reckoning does come.
Addressing America’s debt will require tough talk and harsh medicine for the American people. The Democrats will have to acknowledge that their utopian dreams are for now too expensive, the Republicans will probably have to forgo another round of their beloved tax cuts, and both parties will have make unpopular changes in such popular programs as Social Security and Medicare and even our recently undepleted military. That kind of political courage is scarce these days in either party, though, and far scarcer than the deficit dollars the Fed will keep printing.

— Bud Norman

Summer and the Supremes

Way, way back in our wide-eyed youth we had a swell summer job as messengers for the Supreme Court of the United States, and although most of it was spent lazily in the court’s summer adjournment we got to be there for the big day when it announced its final decisions of the session at the end of June. At this point we can’t recall what any of the cases were about, and are too lazy to look it up, but we well remember how very historic it seemed to our young and hayseed sensibilities at the time.
The latest version of the Supreme Court headed off to its summer vacation by issuing three notable decisions, and we took a livelier interest in that. One had to do with President Donald Trump’s executive order that either restricts or limits or bans travel from six Muslim-majority countries, depending on what you want to call it, and two others that concerned the religious liberty of the dwindling minority of traditional Christians in America. For the most part we were pleased with the results, but noticed enough wiggle room in the majority opinions to suggest that none of these issues have been definitively settled. Most Supreme Court opinions are like that, as we’ve noticed over the past many decades of avid court-watching.
Trump probably isn’t bored with winning yet, but he can claim at least a partial victory in the case of Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project.
As for the facts of the case, the plaintiff had challenged the defendant’s constitutional authority to impose restrictive new rules regarding travel from the aforementioned six Muslim majority countries. Each of those countries contains a troublesome number of potential radical Islamist terrorists, and the Constitution’s plain language grants the chief executive broad powers to restrict entry to the United States for almost any old reason he chooses, but the underlying statutory authority also mentions some prohibitions on religious discrimination, and the First Amendment has been broadly interpreted to back that up. The plaintiffs argued that Trump’s loudly and clearly stated campaign promises to ban all Muslims from entering the United States for any reason demonstrated the discriminatory intent of the new rules, the defendant’s counsel argued that the rules didn’t amount to a ban at all, but rather were reasonable restrictions and limitations, the defendant himself then “tweeted” that, no, it darned sure was a travel ban, and all the lower courts in all the liberal jurisdictions had found for the plaintiffs.
The highest court found by a surprising unanimous decision that pretty much any old president does indeed enjoy broad powers granted by the plain language of the constitution to restrict entry to the country for any old reason he might choose, and for the most part it lifted the stays that had been imposed by the lower courts. Even when the president is Trump this pleases our originalist Republican souls, and although we don’t doubt he he does have an Islamophobic bias the restrictions on those specific locations seemed reasonable even to the rather Islamophilic administration of President Barack Obama.
Some limits remained on the president’s broad powers to restrict entry to the country, however, and the court conspicuously decided not to weigh in on that matter of whether Trump’s campaign promises proved an intention of religious discrimination, and whether that matters or not, and it seems clear that the first executive order Trump issued would have fared far worse than what he called the “watered-down politically version” that the court eventually ruled on. The first one arbitrarily revoked already-issued green cards even to such well-vetted entry-seekers as translators for the American military who were fleeing for their lives, and was a political as well as a legal disaster, and even Trump was careful not to use the word “ban” when crowing about his victory, which resulted in a better and less controversial policy than the one he wanted.
The high court has put off until next fall any consideration of whether the crazy things Trump sometimes says about his arguably reasonable policies should have any legal bearing, and that will be a decision to watch for. An astute writer for the Venerable National Review compellingly argues that it would be unprecedented for the court to consider a president’s rhetoric in assessing his actions, but we’re sure other astute writers at that publication will admit Trump’s rhetoric is also unprecedented, and there’s no telling how even the most hidebound Republican originalist jurist might come down on the decisions that are no doubt looming during the Trump presidency. That travel ban was supposed to be for the 120 days Trump needed to impose “extreme vetting” on travelers from those countries, and he claims that they’re now in place, although no one can explain what they are, so we can well imagine the court might just leave those unresolved until something more relevant comes along.
There was the same sort of ambiguity in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, although it was also mostly a win for the good guys as far we’re concerned. The plaintiffs, who operated a religiously-affiliated children’s school in Missouri, alleged that the defendant, a bureaucrat in the state’s educational bureaucracy, had violated their First Amendment rights by declining to pay for some safety-enhancing improvements to its playground. By another surprising margin of seven to two the court found that religious schools providing a good education to tax-paying citizens who also paid for the public schools are entitled to the same taxpayer support as the public schools that are generally providing a lesser education. The decision included some of the same legal weasel room and also deferred broader questions to another date, but it had the effect of doing away with a long discredited but still on-the-books anti-Catholic law, and got two of the more liberal Catholics on the court on board with the Lutherans, so we count it as a win.
In the other big decision the Supreme Court merely decided that come sometime after next fall they will consider the case of Masterpiece Bakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The plaintiffs allege the defendants fined them in the violation of their First Amendment for declining to bake the cake for a same-sex wedding, so that should be a big story sometime next fall. We have friends who are married to people of the same sex, and we have friends who choose for reasons of conscience not to participate in that, so far as we can tell they are all peacefully coexisting, in some cases quite convivially, so we hope the Supreme Court will choose to not interfere with this mostly happy state of affairs, but these days, when even the Republican president is chiding the Republican convention for its reluctance to embrace Gay-Lesbian-Bi-Transgender-and-Questioning causes, there’s no telling.
Another big hubbub on the final day of the Supreme Court’s session was about the possible impending retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who’s currently the last of the swing votes that decide those five to four decisions, and at least one of those reliably liberal justices surely can’t hold out much longer, so Trump seems likely to influence future decisions. We liked Trump’s first pick, who voted for the defendant in that Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project case, expect he’ll be obliged to appoint similarly originalist justices in the future, and hope they’ll put the constitutional brakes on his craziest rhetoric at some point in the future.
It all starts up again on the first Monday in October, as we still remember from the tours we led as part of our Supreme Court messenger duties, and in the meantime we’ll follow baseball and wait to see how it all turns out.

— Bud Norman

A Chilling Wind and Childhood

Wednesday was wet and chilly and glum, at a time of year that is expected to be dry and hot and cheery in our prairie city, and we took a moment in our melancholy to feel sorry for the local children.
Even in our middle age we can well remember how very irksome it was to be homebound by the weather on any day of summer vacation. Those precious days of freedom were meant to be spent on a bicycle, on rides into town or out to the remotest countryside, and the rain that would sometimes fall on the just and the unjust alike was a hated imprisonment. The driveway basketball games could still go on in soaked t-shirts and shorts, except during lightning strikes or hail, but otherwise it meant being confined to the indoors. There were great old movies from the golden black-and-white era of Hollywood showing on the “Dialing for Dollars” afternoon show, and an ample supply of books the folks had stocked, and a chess set that a younger brother also knew how to use, but even these sublime indoors entertainments could not compare to the glorious Huckleberry Finn feeling of being out in the open air and away from adult supervision.
Much good and little harm came to us during those early boyhood forays into the world, or at least that prairie portion of it that could be reached by bicycle and returned from by dinnertime, and we fret that the urchins we encounter on our walks around the neighborhood will never know the same benefits or learn from the same slight scrapes. All of the kids scurrying around the nearby parks and playgrounds always look to be excessively supervised, not only by their omnipresent parents but also by the regulators who have welded the old metal spaceship shut and made all the other public playthings so boringly safe, and in our middle-class and well-educated neighborhood they don’t have much scurrying around time left in between the violin lessons and crafts classes and the rest of highly structured schedules that middle-class and well-educated parents insist on these days. The slightly swarthier kids from the nearby barrio predominate in the local parks, and we’re pleased to note they’re at least allowed to frolic in the modern art fountain near the old zoo on the sultry days, but they also have parents watching over them with a wariness that teaches a fear of even a dry and hot and happy day in a picturesque park on the prairie.
At Reason Magazine we read of a mother who was jailed for her letting her nine-year-old daughter play alone at a nearby park, and we think of the times we climbed three stories up a rusty steel ladder to the top of an abandoned cement factory miles from home at about the same age, and we wonder what’s become of a country that won’t allow reasonable latitude to its children. If it is truly so unsafe for a nine-year-old to wander a few blocks to a public park by herself that her mother should be charged with dereliction of parental duty, the community should insist on a higher standard of public safety. Those afternoon black-and-white movies always featured an “Our Gang” short that documented how kids would wander their worlds even in the dangerous days of the Great Depression, and that ample supply of books on our parents’ shelves included Twain and Dickens and other authors who testified about the unfettered childhoods of even earlier generations, so we conclude this is a modern complaint.
More wet and chilly and glum weather is forecast for today, but we’re hopeful that we’ll eventually some of that global warming that the alarmists have been terrorizing the kids about. When it comes we hope some of the local youngsters will sneak off and do something that hasn’t been scheduled for them. We’ll try to do the same, and will revel in the memory of America’s lost freedoms.

— Bud Norman

Back to School

All the fresh-faced youngsters in these parts are already back in class, judging by the emptiness of the parks and the flashing yellow lights that are once again slowing us to a 20-mile-per-hour crawl through the school zones, and we can’t help feeling a bit of sympathy for the little bastards. Way back in our school days the glorious Huck Finn freedom of summer vacation lingered into the early days of September, and the thought of being stuck behind a cramped desk while the days are still long and hot and full of possibilities seems tantamount to child abuse.
A friend of ours shrugs off such complaints about the extended school year, saying that there’s more for the kids to know these days. He has a point, perhaps, but there has always been more to know than could be fit into any amount of schooling, and we’re not at all sure the kids will be learning any more of it in a classroom than they could on their own. Our summer vacations always proved more educational than our time in school. We were fortunate enough to have parents who provided plenty of books, museum visits, and permission to stay up all night for the invaluable history lessons on the late, late movies, but any kid with a yearning to learn won’t stop when the class bells rings and will likely begin to learn with even great enthusiasm after it does. When you take into account the desultory sorts of schools we attended, and what we can make of the schools the kids are trudging off to nowadays, those extra days of summer vacation seem all the more valuable.
All of the teachers we know assure us that the schools are much better now than when we were stuck there, and to back it up they cite all the same test scores and statistics that the school board and teachers’ union lobbyists use to justify their budgets, but we have our doubts. Our friends over at the wichitaliberty.org web sit delight in debunking the inflationary methodologies behind those encouraging numbers, and their conclusions are almost always corroborated by our occasional conversations with young folks, most of whom we regret to say are every bit as stupid as they look. It’s not so much what they don’t know, which is voluminous enough to fill a lifetime of year-round schooling, and includes the basic facts of 20th Century history and a rudimentary understanding of economics, but rather the blissfulness of their ignorance that is so appalling. There’s almost a sense of pride in not being the sort of bookwormish dork who would know who Winston Churchill is or have read about the consequences of Marxism, and after so many of the self-esteem fad they’re fully assured of their right to an opinion no matter how uninformed it might be. They know all about how global warming is killing the poor polar bears and the venal racism of the founding fathers and the oppressiveness of western civilization, and they know that governments exist to take stuff from people who have it and give it to people who don’t, but they don’t know enough to question whether any of that is true.
We know some smart kids, too, most of them home-schooled or privately educated, and in some cases they’re smarter than the smart kids we knew in our youth and have since become successful in life, but for the most part they don’t seem to question much. The smart kids of today got an early start of highly regimented education, and by first grade were checking their day planners and telling a classmate that they’d love to do the sandbox thing but are booked up with violin lessons and French lessons and Pilates, and while the results are often impressive this lifestyle does not encourage a necessary degree of rebelliousness in a child. Our classmates of the ‘60s and ‘70s were rebellious far beyond that necessary degree, and took a healthy skepticism of authority into a sickly cynicism, but it seems that educators have now gone too far in rectifying that.
This combination of ignorance, unquestioning obedience, and unearned self-esteem is perfectly suited for the modern age, when politics make improbable promises and imposes ever-expanding restrictions and assures the people who fall for it that they are the ones we have been waiting for. All the virtues required for a different sort of politics — freedom, self-reliance, and suffering the bumps and bruises of a mean old world and realizing one’s small role in it — seem absent from modern education. Those lessons are best learned during summer vacation, though, and even though our own school days have long since passed we still hate to see it end.

— Bud Norman