Sanity and the U.S. Supreme Court

By Christopher Harper

At least the U.S. Supreme Court brings a bit of sanity to the otherwise chaotic state of Washington politics.

The court recently blocked a California order that restricted religious services that limited the study of the Bible. The ruling arose from a California prohibition on gatherings of people from more than three households and affected specific Bible study and prayer meetings held in a home.

“California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise,” the 5-4 majority said in the order, “permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time.”

Referring to the lower appellate court that had permitted the California household restriction, the majority added, “This is the fifth time the (Supreme) Court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise.”

Those in the majority were Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett.

Thank God for the three justices appointed under Donald Trump!

But the court rankles Joe Biden, who wants to change the structure of the highest judicial body in the land. He ordered a commission to study Supreme Court changes, such as adding seats, an idea pushed by progressives in his party.

The 36-member commission is charged with completing its findings within 180 days of its first public meeting.

The White House said topics before the commission would include “the genesis of the reform debate; the Court’s role in the Constitutional system; the length of service and turnover of justices on the Court; the membership and size of the Court; and the Court’s case selection, rules, and practices.”

It’s somewhat ironic that one of the liberal justices on the court, Stephen Breyer, thinks the whole thing is a bad idea.

In a presentation at Harvard University, Breyer said proposals to restructure the Supreme Court could damage its reputation as an apolitical body. The court’s eldest justice at 82, Breyer said he hoped “to make those whose initial instincts may favor important structural (or other similar institutional) changes, such as forms of ‘court-packing,’ think long and hard before embodying those changes in law.”

It’s rare that I agree with Breyer, but his fellow liberals should take his message to heart.

Biden’s train wreck

By Christopher Harper

Joe Biden and I have at least one thing in common. We both love riding the rails.

Unfortunately, Biden’s proposed $80 billion for Amtrak over the next 10 years is a train wreck. 

Biden rode the line between his home in Delaware and Washington, D.C., during which he says he has traveled more than two million miles.

My mileage is somewhat above 100,000 miles. But I’ve traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and China, the world’s best rail system. I’ve slogged through subways in Chicago, Washington, London, New York, and Guangzhou, China. 

Much of Biden’s plan is to repair Amtrak lines, particularly in the Northeast Corridor that runs between Boston and Washington. That’s like repairing your aging car rather than buying a new one. At this point, it’s time to quick paying for a fix-me-up.

To make rail travel a serious alternative for Americans, people must see trains as a fast and easy way to get from place to place.

That’s a tough sell without high-speed trains. In 2019, for example, Americans traveled an average of 15,000 miles by automobile, 2,100 miles by plane, and 1,100 miles by bus. Amtrak’s contribution was less than 20 miles per person. Even in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak carried only six percent of intercity travelers.

According to the best available estimates, Americans bicycle 8.5 billion passenger miles a year compared to Amtrak’s 6.5 billion passenger miles. With less traffic than bicycles, Amtrak certainly doesn’t deserve the current $2 billion in annual subsidies unless it reinvents itself. 

What’s more is that Biden has a terrible history in trying to make the rails better. 

When Biden was tasked with implementing the Recovery Act in 2009, the $8 billion dedicated in the bill to high-speed trains was his favorite initiative. He equated it to the beginning of the interstate highway system, but it was a bust.

“The high-speed rail program that Vice President Biden and our team proposed ended up being a pretty big disappointment,” said Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation at the time. 

For example, the high-speed line between San Francisco and Los Angeles won’t be ready until 2033, if at all. 

His current play includes the expansion in the South and West, with new rail lines connecting cities like Nashville and Atlanta, Houston and Dallas, and bringing back service between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Amtrak has also proposed “enhanced services” on nearly all of its routes in the northeastern United States, with CEO Bill Flynn saying a priority would be rebuilding the “many major tunnels and bridges” in the Northeast Corridor.

Meanwhile, Americans will continue to fly in aircraft and drive their cars because nothing really will have changed after spending $80 billion. 

Foreign follies

By Christopher Harper

Joe Biden’s foreign policy is shaping up as a real mess.

China, the West’s most powerful adversary, obviously sees weakness in the Biden administration. China’s director of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, Yang Jiechi, noted what he called the superiority of “Chinese-style democracy” and listed “America’s sins.” The latter included a reference to Black Lives Matter, human-rights problems, and that the U.S. “has exercised long-arm jurisdiction and suppression and overstretched the national security through the use of force or financial hegemony.”

Yang added: “We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world. Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.”

Instead of giving Yang the verbal back of his hand, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken seemed like a kid who’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Blinken responded that the U.S. “acknowledges our imperfections, acknowledges that we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, we have reversals, we take steps back.” But then the United States makes progress again.

Round One to the Chinese.

Although I realize Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t a nice guy, it seems pretty silly for Biden to call him “a killer” and expect the two to conduct a way to conduct business and at least some diplomatic niceties.

Responding to the comments, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “these are very bad statements by the president of the United States. He definitely does not want to improve relations with us, and we will continue to proceed from this,” Peskov said.

Vlad the Bad offered Joe a chance to calm down in a meeting sometime soon.

Round Two to the Russians.

But there’s more. The Biden team has managed to anger Saudi Arabia by temporarily halting the sale of weapons to the kingdom, mainly because of its role in the death of a Saudi journalist and the ongoing war in South Yemen. Let’s face it: Saudi Arabia has been a key ally in the Middle East, particularly in halting Iranian moves in the region.

At least Biden finally got around to speaking with Israeli leaders. In a telephone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden reaffirmed the relationship with the Jewish state.

The two leaders were described as speaking for about an hour and having a “very warm and friendly” call, touching on their personal ties and saying they’d work together to “continue strengthening the steadfast alliance” between the two countries, according to the Israeli reports.

Biden also said he hoped to strengthen the partnership, including on “defense cooperation,” according to the White House. The president said it was important for the two nations to work together on “regional security issues” such as Iran.

Nevertheless, one out of four isn’t particularly good when it comes to such critical elements of U.S. foreign policy.

Common sense in South Dakota

By Christopher Harper

If you want some common sense in this uncommon time, you should look toward South Dakota and its governor, Kristi Noem.

I have a strong fondness for South Dakota since I went to high school there and wrote a book about my teenage cronies.

But Noem makes sense when it comes to politics and policies.

At 49, she’s a rising star in the GOP and may have enough heft to seek the presidency in 2024. She served from 2007 to 2001 in the South Dakota legislature and then eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives until she became the state’s first female government in 2019.

During the pandemic, she took a rational approach to COVID-19. She did not implement face mask mandates and left communities the flexibility to do so. She expressed her doubts about mask-wearing for children because of studies on the decreased risk from exposure to the virus. As a result, she encouraged schools to stay open.

When vaccines became available, South Dakota’s distribution system was so flawless that The Wall Street Journal dubbed Noem “The Vaccine Queen.”

Noem is a pro-life, fiscal conservative who has railed against federal spending, such as the recent stimulus package.

She said she believes the package “bails out those states that shut down their economies” and “rewards them for making people stay in their homes and for taking away a business’ right to be open and take care of their customers and their employees.

“So it’s incredibly detrimental to our state because we made the right decisions. We trusted people,” she said. “We have the lowest unemployment rate in the nation and are tied for it with Nebraska, and we’re getting through this together.”

Noem complained that the package rewards Democrat strongholds like California, Illinois, and New York and punishes Republican states like South Dakota.

When MSNBC’s Joy Reid recently did a hit job, attacking Noem and the public event she attended last year at Mount Rushmore with President Trump, the South Dakota governor didn’t take back down.

“Some of today’s radical Left just hates America–and rather than being shunned, the most toxic voices are rewarded with TV shows and newspaper columns. Criticism of my policies isn’t enough. They must also attack America’s history and most basic institutions,” she told supporters. “I will fight back by doubling down on conservative principles. I’m only a target because we’ve been effective, and this is no time to let up.”

Kristi Noem talks common sense. It’s what makes her a serious possibility for 2024.

A royal mess

By Christopher Harper

I’ve never really understood the American fascination with the British royal family.

For centuries, the monarchy has been a dysfunctional band of malcontents who battled over religion and turf. Henry VIII and George III were bona fide madmen. Princess Margaret and Lady Diana didn’t get along with the other royals. Prince Charles always struck me as a dopey mope.

So why did 17 million Americans watch an interview by Oprah Winfrey with Prince Harry and Princess Megan?

I don’t know. Maybe prurient interest?

A quick survey of my friends on Facebook found no one would admit to watching the two-hour attack on the royal family.

One British friend, a former BBC reporter, disagreed. “It’s quite important, he wrote. “Just think about it. It’s about institutions, race, personal freedoms, mass idiocy, and it’s told through a story of two young people who went against the grain. Yes, they’re rich. But does that make The Grapes of Wrath better or less significant than The Great Gatsby?”

It’s not a bad defense for watching the program. Since there’s little I haven’t watched on Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix during the pandemic, my standards are pretty low, but I still wouldn’t spend two hours on Harry, Meghan, and Oprah.

Then there’s the money. It’s reported that someone—probably Oprah’s production company—paid between $7 million and $9 million for the interview. There was a time that paying for news was an ethical breach. I guess the interview may not be technically news, but still.

It’s unclear who got the money. Everyone swears that Harry and Meghan didn’t get a dime. Since they face being cut off from the royal treasury, particularly after the interview, I find the disclaimer hard to believe.

Since the program aired on CBS, how much did the one-time “Tiffany Network” plop down?

I never thought Oprah was a particularly good interviewer. I worked with the best: Barbara Walters.

It seems that Oprah didn’t press the royal couple on what I would consider the most crucial question: What did they expect to happen after they got married?

In 1936, King Edward VIII took over the reign of England. However, he abdicated his throne to marry the love of his life, Wallis Simpson, an American and two-time divorcee. In an interview many years later with the BBC, Edward provides a path Harry and Meghan should take. See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/royal-family/2021/03/07/meghan-can-learn-mrs-simpsons-tell-all-tv-interview/

At the end of the interview, the reporter asked the duke if he had any regrets about not having remained king. “No,” he said. “I would have liked to have, but I was going to do it under my conditions. So I do not have any regrets. But I do take a great interest in my country – my country which is Britain – your land and mine. I wish it well.”

Changing how we work

By Christopher Harper

Like more and more Americans, I decided to leave the big city and move to the hinterlands, where I can work via computer and save on taxes and housing costs.

Three years ago, I had proposed to my employer, Temple University, that I teach only online. I have taught online classes since 2005 and was good at it.

Unfortunately, my supervisor fought the plan. I challenged the decision throughout the bureaucracy, including a decision to join the teachers’ union. I finally got to teach one class a semester online after I filed a disability claim because of a bad back.

Fast forward to the pandemic. I was advising my colleagues and my college on how to teach online effectively.

Since I only have a few years left before I retire, my wife and I decided to move from Philadelphia to Muncy, Pennsylvania, a town of about 2,400 people in the north-central part of the state.

That move saves us about $1,000 a month on city taxes. Housing is half the cost for twice the space.

Moreover, research has demonstrated that students learn just as effectively online as they do in person. I’ve found that the discussion is far better online than in person because students don’t feel anxious about talking when they’re outside the classroom setting.

I teach asynchronously, which means there aren’t any silly Zoom meetings. I post prepackaged videos and study materials to a website. Students can work on the material at their own pace and refer back to materials they find challenging.

So far, Temple and other universities have not lowered the price for online classes—a reduction that should happen because virtual learning requires fewer buildings, less maintenance, and only a slightly higher increase in technological assistance.

I’m not alone in my desire to continue working from home. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly a quarter of all Americans worked from home during the pandemic. A new Bucknell University Freeman College of Management survey also found that workers over 40 preferred telework. In contrast, younger workers are more likely to return to in-person work when possible. For more information, see https://www.bucknell.edu/sites/default/files/college_of_management/covid-19_telework_study_report.pdf

The survey of 400 people reported other interesting results:

–67% of those surveyed said telework helped improve the quality of their work. 
 –61% noted a productivity improvement.
 –60% said they performed their jobs better.

Coupled with the savings I and others made, I am more than happy to stay at home and continue teaching online. 

Obviously, some industries cannot be restructured for online-only work. But rethinking how we work has been at least one good effect of the pandemic.

The violence of lockdowns

By Christopher Harper

Violence from firearms nearly doubled in Philadelphia—a trend that occurred throughout the United States—during the city’s lockdown for much of last year.

That’s the conclusion of a group of doctors and scientists from Temple University and published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association. See 10.1001/jama.2021.1534

“These analyses provide evidence of a significant and sustained increase in firearm violence in Philadelphia following the enactment of COVID-19 containment policies. Counts of individuals shot per week continued to increase during protests following the killing of George Floyd and remained high during the partial lifting of containment policies until the end of the study period,” the authors found.

This study accessed data from the Philadelphia Police Department’s registry of shooting victims from January 1, 2016, through November 26, 2020. This registry is updated daily and includes all individuals shot and/or killed with a firearm. There were no changes in data collection policies or practices in 2020. Compared with trauma center records, the police registry contains approximately twice the number of individuals shot with a firearm. 

The authors examined the data after three events:

  • The enactment of Philadelphia’s first COVID-19 containment policy (closure of nonessential businesses; March 16, 2020).
  • The killing of George Floyd (May 25, 2020).
  • The partial lifting of containment policies (June 26, 2020). 

During the 256 weeks included in the study, 7,159 people were shot in Philadelphia. The shootings stood at 25 per week before the lockdown in March. However, after the lockdown, the incidents jumped to 46 people shot per week in the 37 weeks of the policy. 

During 2020, Philadelphia saw 499 murders, an increase of 40 percent over the previous year and the second-highest rate in homicides since 1960. The city had 500 murders in 1990. Other cities saw similar increases. See https://www.securitymagazine.com/articles/94292-us-homicide-rates-skyrocket-in-2020-exacerbated-by-the-covid-19-pandemic 

“The sustained nature of the increase in firearm violence observed in this study may be related to longer-term effects of COVID-19 containment policies, including intensifying unemployment and poverty, particularly in lower-income Philadelphia communities where shootings are most concentrated,” the analysis found.

Jessica Beard, a physician at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine, headed the inquiry.

Biden’s foreign faux pas

By Christopher Harper

Joe Biden was wrong on “nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

That’s the appraisal of Robert Gates, the former defense secretary under Barack Obama. Gates made the assessment in a memoir and has confirmed his appraisal in later interviews.

“We disagreed significantly on Afghanistan and some other issues. I think that the vice president had some issues with the military,” Gates told CBS News in a 2019 interview.

So far as president, Biden’s policies have been almost startling wrongheaded.

For example, Biden has failed to contact Israeli officials since he assumed office, and his press secretary has sidestepped questions about whether the Jewish state was an important ally.

Sure, Israel can be challenging to deal with. But the country has been a solid counter to radical Islam and repressive regimes in the Middle East.

Moreover, Israel entered into various groundbreaking peace agreements under President Trump with a host of Arab nations.

But there’s more. Biden promised from the campaign trail to be hard on Saudi Arabia, particularly when it came to their involvement in Yemen’s six-year-long civil war.

“We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” Biden said during a Democratic primary debate, adding that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

Again, Saudi Arabia can be difficult. But the country remains a powerful force in the region, particularly in countering Iran’s negative influence.

In a neck-snapping reversal of policy, Biden has suddenly realized that China poses an economic and military threat to the United States.
During the campaign, Biden criticized Trump’s policies of higher tariffs and other tough stances against the Beijing government.
After a two-hour telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden made a 180-degree turn in his thinking.
“Last night, I was on the phone with for two straight hours with Xi Jinping,” Biden told reporters in the Oval Office. “It was a good conversation. I know him well. We spent a lot of time together over the years I was vice president. But if we don’t get moving, they’re going to eat our lunch.”

That’s precisely what Trump said for nearly his entire presidency—a position Biden scoff at.

Maybe Biden has gotten one foreign policy initiative right: Staying on course with Trump’s approach to China.

Boomers are in trouble

By Christopher Harper

Amid the carnage of economic shutdowns during the pandemic, baby boomers have suffered more than any other age group, according to MarketWatch.com.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 900,000 Americans between the ages of 60 and 69 lost their jobs between December 2019 and December 2020, a 5 percent decline in the number of employed people in that age group. Some 21.2 million Americans in their 60s are no longer in the labor force, the BLS reported.

MarketWatch interviewed several people in their 60s, with long records of professional success who were “trying to find purpose or, at least, some income to help pay the bills. None of them ran a hedge fund or cashed out in an IPO. None attended Ivy League colleges but went to state universities or technical schools and lived solid middle-class lives as loyal, productive employees, raising families on high five- to low six-figure incomes.”

All had been laid off with no explanation. Those interviewed had sent out dozens of resumes but got few job interviews and even fewer offers. All firmly believed they faced systemic age discrimination.

Curtis Berndt, 65, told MarketWatch that he thinks that people eliminated him because of his age, “You go in, they look at you, and they say ‘too old,’ and you’re done.”

Berndt began as a draftsman and then moved into product design. For more than 40 years, all in Indiana, he did advanced quality control and streamlined manufacturing processes to reduce defects and improve efficiency.

“Everything was good, and then all of a sudden — and I mean, really, all of a sudden–there was a huge financial issue, and they decided they were going to have to get rid of people,” he said. “I had just turned 65, and three days later, they didn’t need me anymore. It’s impossible to prove, but they assured me that my age had nothing to do with it.”

Berndt has applied for about 50 full-time job openings and gotten a handful of interviews.

“They say everything’s good until the face-to-face interview, and then it’s dead. From other people I’ve talked to in my age group, that’s pretty much the pattern,” he said.

When Karen Mater was a young geologist working on oil wells in southern Indiana, a male rig worker said to her one day, “I don’t think women belong in oil fields. What do you think?”

“I said, ‘Well, I’m the wrong person to answer, because here I am,’” she told MarketWatch.

But the strain on her young family of being away for two or three weeks at a time caused her to change careers. Using the computer knowledge she’d acquired as a geologist, she took a job at nearby Central Michigan University, where she had earned her master’s degree.

Twenty-three years later, in August, the university let her and others go.

“They decided they had to really slim down, and for whatever reason, they picked my job to eliminate,” she said.

Since then, she’s applied to at least 45 jobs, but with no luck.

While Berndt and Mater said they should be all right financially, more than half of those 55 and older are expected to end their lives in poverty, MarketWatch reported, mainly as a result of the shutdown of the U.S. economy during the past year.

My generation is in trouble. I hope someone in the Biden White House is paying attention!

Biden bought the election with questionable campaign money

By Christopher Harper

Even if Joe Biden didn’t steal the election, he certainly bought it through a record-breaking amount from anonymous donors whom Democrats have decried for years until 2020.

A Bloomberg investigation, which not so ironically came after the election rather than before it, noted that “the public will never have a full accounting of who helped him win the White House.”

Biden’s winning campaign received $145 million in so-called “dark money donations,” or roughly 10 percent of his record-breaking campaign chest of $1.5 billion. 

Biden’s haul of dark money dwarfed the $28.4 million spent on behalf of Donald Trump tops the previous record of $113 million in anonymous donations backing Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.

In the past, many Democrats wanted to ban dark money since it allowed supporters to quietly back a candidate without scrutiny and obtain undue influence over victorious candidates. But in their effort to defeat Trump in 2020, they embraced dark money.

For example, Bloomberg reported that Priorities USA Action Fund, the super political action committee that Biden designated as his preferred vehicle for outside spending, used $26 million in funds originally donated to its nonprofit arm, called Priorities USA, to back Biden. The donors of that money do not have to be disclosed.

Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, was unapologetic in comments to Bloomberg. “We weren’t going to unilaterally disarm against Trump and the right-wing forces that enabled him,” he said.

Campaign finance laws are supposed to limit the influence big money has over politicians. But the system has gaping loopholes, which groups backing Biden exploited.

In fact, the Biden campaign called for banning some types of nonprofits from spending money to influence elections and requiring that any organization spending more than $10,000 to influence elections to register with the Federal Election Commission and disclose any donors.

Overall, Democrats received $326 million in dark money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That was more than twice the $148 million that supported Republican groups. 

Bloomberg found that Future Forward PAC, a super-PAC that spent $104 million backing Biden, got $46.9 million Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, $3 million from Twilio Chief Executive Officer Jeff Lawson, and $2.6 million from Eric Schmidt of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. But the most significant source of funds was from a sister nonprofit, Future Forward USA Action, which contributed $61 million. The names of those who put up the $61 million don’t have to be disclosed.

I guess you aren’t exactly stealing an election if you buy it with questionable donations, but it’s awfully close.