Thursday, May 16, 2019

Who pays for the trade war? We do. -- May 16, 2019 column


How or when President Donald Trump’s trade war will end is anyone’s guess. There’s no long-term plan or end game in sight.

But two things are clear: You’ll pay more and Trump will claim he won.

Despite what you’ve heard, China is not paying for the tariffs any more than Mexico is paying for the border wall.  

“We find that the U.S. tariffs were almost completely passed through into U.S. domestic prices, so that the entire incidence of the tariffs fell on domestic consumers and importers,” three economists wrote in a report on the impact last year of Trump’s tariffs. They are Mary Amiti at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Stephen Redding at Princeton and David Weinstein at Columbia.

Trump imposed tariffs on nearly $283 billion in imports last year – about 12 percent of total imports – and foreign countries retaliated with tariffs of their own on American goods amounting to $121 billion. 

By the end of the year, tariffs reduced U.S. income by $1.4 billion per month, the economists calculated.

Trump says consumers can buy American to avoid tariffs, but that’s easier said than done in our global economy. 

Besides, “We also find that U.S. producers responded to reduced import competition by raising their prices,” the report said.

A tariff is basically a tax at the border that’s paid by the importer, usually an American firm. Businesses may try to absorb the costs for a while, but eventually they pass them on to the consumer.

Even Trump’s top economics adviser, Larry Kudlow, conceded on “Fox News Sunday” that American consumers and businesses are paying the tariffs.

Trump says the world has been ripping off America too long. He insists tariffs bring back industries, like steel, and create jobs -- but the cost is astounding.

The steel tariffs Trump imposed last year created about 8,700 jobs in the U.S steel industry, according to calculations by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. But the price tag for American consumers and businesses for each job created or saved was more than $900,000.

“Wow!” the report said.

Trump has told allies and advisers the trade war is very popular with his base and will help him win re-election, The Washington Post reported.

“You want to know something? We always win,” Trump said on the White House lawn this week.

Well, let’s hope so. The last time the United States fell hard for tariffs was the 1930s, when tariffs probably worsened the Depression.

But Trump loves tariffs. After trade talks with China fell apart, he hiked tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods last Friday. China announced retaliatory tariffs of $60 billion on U.S. goods.

Trump wants to impose tariffs on another $300 billion of Chinese products, and he’s eyeing tariffs on autos from Europe and Japan.

Everyone agrees China should stop its aggressively unfair business practices -- like making American companies share technology and trade secrets. The question is whether tariffs are the right tool.

While the economy remains strong, the trade war is hurting the nation’s farmers who rely on overseas markets for soybeans. That’s opened a rift between the president and some Republicans in Congress.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and a lifelong farmer, complained he can’t through to Trump on the need to lift tariffs.

Trump gave farmers a $12 billion bailout last year and is planning another for $15 billion.

“Our great Patriot Farmers will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of what is happening now,” he tweeted.

But Sen. Patrick Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, isn’t buying.

“Think about what we’re doing. We’re inviting retaliation that denies our farmers, the most productive farmers on the planet, the opportunity to sell their products overseas and then we say, `Don’t worry, we’ll have taxpayers send you some checks and make it OK,’” Toomey said.  

Consumers can expect to see higher prices of Chinese goods by mid-June, experts say. Items affected include auto parts, bicycles, dog leashes, fish and seafood, furniture and luggage.  

So grab your wallet. You’re likely to suffer collateral damage in the trade war.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Can anyone save what's left of privacy? -- May 9, 2019 column


First came the email saying my credit card may have been compromised “at an undisclosed merchant,” and the bank was sending a replacement card.

Wait, what happened? And what’s an undisclosed merchant, anyway? When I called to find out, the customer representative said the bank doesn’t share that information.

The bank says it gets information from various outside sources – such as Visa, MasterCard and American Express and law enforcement agencies – and details about a specific breach are not disclosed, even to the bank.

That’s good, I guess, but it leaves customers in the dark.

My new card arrived promptly, and I started updating accounts where my credit card is on file for payments. That’s a downside of convenience and reward points.

We’ve all been there. No matter how hard we try to preserve a semblance of control over our personal data, we constantly lag enterprising crooks.

What we don’t willingly share on social media, companies “harvest” for their own business purposes. That word, harvest, grates on me, but, like it or not, our personal information is a commodity.

In our hyper-connected age, privacy is melting faster than glaciers on our warming planet.

Now, Congress -- after years of railing about the loss of privacy -- is holding hearings on the issue and fussing at corporate leaders. But lawmakers are divided on how to write a federal privacy law to replace our confusing patchwork of state and federal laws.  

The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down somewhat on Facebook and other mega companies that shirk their responsibilities.

Even social media and tech giants claim they’re on our side and promise – again – to do more to protect our privacy.

“The future is private,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg declared April 30, insisting he was serious.  

Facebook is negotiating with the Federal Trade Commission a fine up to $5 billion  in a settlement for failing to abide by a 2011 consent decree to protect users’ privacy.

Facebook shared the personal information of about 87 million users -- without their knowledge or consent – with Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm that has since gone out of business. 

The fine, expected any day, would be the largest in American history, and may require the company to take such steps as appointing a top level privacy official and a privacy oversight committee.

It’s just a slap on the wrist, critics say.

Two senators, Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Josh Hawley of Missouri, say the enormous fine is a “bargain for Facebook.” They suggest the FTC hold Zuckerberg and other corporate leaders personally responsible.

Facebook is redesigning and updating its services to encourage private messages, communication within groups and Story. Stories disappear 24 hours after they’re posted.

Other companies now use privacy as a selling point, following Apple’s lead.

“We believe privacy is a fundamental human right,” Apple’s website says.

But it doesn’t come cheap. Apple’s budget iPhone XR starts at $749.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times Tuesday: “Privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services.”

Google unveiled a $399 smartphone and promised tools to help customers control their data, such as expanding incognito mode, which allows users to search without being identified, to maps and other apps. 

Our smart products already record and send back our conversations and activities – often to train artificial intelligence, but still. Amazon workers and contractors reportedly listen to consumers’ conversations with Alexa. That’s creepy.

And, Amazon’s Key will deliver your online purchases inside your home, car or garage.

All Prime members need do is allow access to their property. A promotional video shows happy people opening their car trunk, garage and front door and finding packages safe and sound. What could go wrong?

In this fast-changing world, we can’t expect the government to save our privacy. And we can’t trust the big tech companies to have our privacy at heart.

We each must decide how much we want smart machines to do for us and how much privacy we’re willing to give up for the convenience.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Divide on gun laws sets stage for 2020 -- column of May 2, 2019


Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris threw down the gauntlet on gun control.

“Upon being elected, I will give the United States Congress 100 days to get their act together and have the courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws, and if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action,” the senator from California declared April 22 at a CNN town hall in New Hampshire.

Taking a strong stand on gun control used to be politically risky. Today, not so much.

Not after the Virginia Tech massacre of 32 students and professors in 2007, the slaughter of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the mass murder of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year – and countless other shootings, including at a synagogue in California Saturday and a university in North Carolina Tuesday.

Democratic leaders agree on the need for universal background checks for gun purchases, reinstatement of the ban on sales of military-style assault weapons and red flag laws meant to keep guns out of the hands of those likely to hurt themselves or others.

In February, House Democrats passed two gun safety bills with a smattering of Republican support. If lightning should strike and the bills make it through the Republican-controlled Senate, though, President Donald Trump will veto them.

And that divide sets the stage for the 2020 campaign.

Trump told the National Rifle Association convention April 26 the constitutional right to bear arms is “under assault – but not when we’re here. Not even close.”

He urged NRA members to “get out there and vote” next year. “It seems like it’s a long ways away. It’s not,” he said. 

The NRA poured tens of millions of dollars into electing Trump, but its clout appears to be fading amidst internal strife and investigations into its tax exempt status.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, hardly a “gun grabber,” reportedly is drafting a red flag bill to help police confiscate guns temporarily from people who are likely to hurt themselves or others.

“I think most Americans believe that multiple murderers shouldn’t have gun rights. Most Americans support background checks,” he told The State newspaper in South Carolina. “The Second Amendment’s important to me, but it’s not a suicide pact.”

Polls show the major issues for 2020 are likely to be health care, the economy and immigration. Gun laws don’t make the cut, although few polls even ask the question.

But Quinnipiac University does ask, and its polls since 2014 consistently have found over 90 percent support for background checks for all gun buyers. Most recently, in January, 95 percent of Democrats, 94 percent of independents and 89 percent of Republicans said they favored background checks.

Gun rights groups say background checks are ineffective and infringe on constitutional rights. When several states passed more stringent firearm laws after the shootings in Parkland, Florida, dozens of rural counties declared themselves Second Amendment “sanctuaries,” refusing to enforce the new laws.

How did we get here? For a clear-eyed account, I suggest reading “After Virginia Tech” by award-winning journalist Thomas P. Kapsidelis, a friend and former Richmond Times-Dispatch colleague.

Kapsidelis tells victims’ stories and what happened next to survivors, families, first responders and others -- and where the political system failed them.

“One Tech parent told me that all sides could have come together to make progress. That hasn’t happened,” he writes.

It’s a sobering, unsentimental assessment, but Kapsidelis cautions against losing hope.

He quotes an editorial by Gerald Fischman, who was murdered, along with four colleagues, last summer when a gunman with a grudge burst into the newsroom at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. After the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando where 58 were killed in July 2016, Fischman wrote: 

“Of all the words this week, hopelessness may be the most dangerous. We must believe there is a solution, a way to prevent another mass shooting.”

No one wants more mass shootings. The 2020 campaigns and election offer us the chance to show we care enough to try to stop them.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Shakespeare triumphs over time and place -- April 25, 2019 column


Visiting America in the 1830s, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville discovered William Shakespeare in the unlikeliest of places.

“There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America.” "I remember that I read the feudal drama of `Henry V’ for the first time in a log cabin.”

Shakespeare would have celebrated his 455th birthday this month, and people around the world ate cake.

Shakespeare was born around April 23, 1564, and left the earth 52 years, 38 plays and 154 sonnets later, also on April 23 – in 1616.

That we still read, argue over and perform his plays is remarkable for many reasons, not least because the First Folio of his plays wasn’t published until seven years after his death.

American settlers carried only two volumes on their travels west: a Bible and Shakespeare. What better company for their long, lonely journey?

Poet Walt Whitman, critical of Shakespeare as antithetical to the “pride and dignity of the common people,” ultimately came around and acknowledged his debt to the Bard.

“If I had not stood before those poems with uncover’d head, fully aware of their colossal grandeur and beauty of form and spirit, I could not have written `Leaves of Grass,’” Whitman wrote.

How much of our contemporary, throwaway culture will survive 400 years?

In our time of disposable tweets, we’re fortunate and grateful Shakespeare is alive and vibrant in towns and cities coast to coast.

I saw a rollicking performance of “The Comedy of Errors” last Saturday at one of my favorite venues for Shakespeare, the Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton.

The performance was hilarious and totally engaging. Do yourself a favor and catch a play at this treasure of a theater, now in its 31st year.

The theater will celebrate Shakespeare’s 455th with a free, family-friendly party this Sunday afternoon.

On Broadway, the acclaimed actor Glenda Jackson is playing King Lear. 

Jackson at 82 is proof there are second – and third -- acts in life. The winner of two Academy Awards, she spent more than two decades as a member of Parliament before returning to the stage.

She, who first performed Shakespeare in 1965, also played Lear in 2016 at the Old Vic theater in London. She told The New York Times he “is the most contemporary dramatist in the world today.”

Shakespeare asks three questions, she said: “Who are we? What are we? Why are we? No one’s come up with sufficiently satisfying answers.”

The Times praised her “powerful and deeply perceptive performance” and said the play “has never felt more vibrantly responsive to the moment, to a crisis in global leadership.”

We wonder whose birthdays future moderns will celebrate. Will Shakespeare still be No. 1 in 2419? Will people in that age know any of our 20th or 21st century politicians, authors, composers or video game developers?

Don’t scoff. A new video game called “Play the Knave” uses virtual reality to perform scenes from Shakespeare. Players control avatars through motion capture cameras and speak lines of the play karaoke style. The game has not been released to the public yet, but teachers are already using it.

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington invited the game’s co-developer, Gina Bloom, an English professor at the University of California, Davis, to give the Shakespeare Birthday lecture last Monday.

In the game, “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s dramatization of the 1609 shipwreck on the magical island of Bermuda of the Sea Venture, an English ship bound for the Jamestown colony, presents the spirit Ariel as a digital avatar.

So, Shakespeare is constantly adapting and being adapted to new audiences.

The National Endowment for the Arts expanded its Shakespeare in American Communities program to provide grants to theater companies to bring Shakespeare to juvenile justice facilities.

“Evidence has shown that these programs provide positive rehabilitative outcomes and prevention for youth involved in the juvenile justice system,” Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the endowment, said. Shakespeare can even help reduce recidivism rates, she said.

Shakespeare truly was, as Ben Jonson wrote in his tribute: “not of an age but for all time.” And for all places.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The populist is a millionaire -- now what? -- April 18, 2019 column


At the ripe age of 77, Bernie Sanders finds himself in an enviable predicament.

He lost the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 but became a bestselling author.

His book, “Our Revolution,” was published just after the 2016 election, and “Where We Go from Here” came out last November.

Mostly because of book advances and royalties, Sanders and his wife reported income above $1 million in 2016 and 2017 when they released 10 years of tax returns April 15.

In 2018, the couple had substantially less, but still hefty, adjusted gross income of $561,293, about $393,000 from book income. The Sanderses reported $19,000 in charitable giving last year.

And yet, all is not clover for the independent senator and leading Democratic presidential contender – at least until Joe Biden enters the race.

A headline in The New York Times said of Sanders: “He’s part of the 1%.”

Trevor Noah joked on “The Daily Show” that Sanders’s being a millionaire is like finding out Trump is secretly a Mexican.

Good one. But wait.

Yes, Sanders has railed for years against income inequality, a corrupt political system and “millionaires and billionaires” not paying their fair share. But he did pay his taxes. 

The Sanderses paid $372,368 in taxes in 2016, $343,882 in 2017, and $145,840 last year.

“These tax returns show that our family has been fortunate,” he said in a statement. “I am very grateful for that, as I grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck and I know the stress of economic insecurity.”

He said he won’t apologize for his best seller -- nor should he. In a Fox News town hall interview Monday night, Sanders also called on President Donald Trump to release his taxes, which Trump will never do willingly.

Congressional Democrats hope to force Trump to release his taxes, but the longer Trump delays, the more people wonder what he’s hiding.

Unlike Sanders who seems embarrassed by his own wealth, Trump’s returns might embarrass him by showing he’s not as rich or as charitable as he says, or that he’s found legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes.   

Everyone knows a turn in the White House can unlock a treasure chest. Forbes magazine estimated Hillary Clinton’s worth at $45 million in 2016, almost all amassed after she and President Bill Clinton left the White House. 

Michelle Obama wrote the bestselling nonfiction book of 2018. “Becoming” sold 2 million copies in its first 15 days and still occupies the Times bestseller list 21 weeks later.

Sanders, though, is proof that running – and losing the nomination -- can also boost one’s bottom line. In 2015, the Sanderses had adjusted gross income of about $205,000 – mostly from his $174,000 Senate salary and Social Security benefits for both.

His 2016 campaign captured imaginations with populist, “us versus them” rhetoric. 

Some 13 million Americans voted for Sanders in the primaries and caucuses, and he won 22 states. People wanted to read what he had to say -- and not just in the United States. “Our Revolution” has been translated into five languages, the Sanders campaign says.

Sanders needs to accept his good luck and stop sounding peevish. The self-styled democratic socialist denied on Fox his success is proof capitalism works. So much for winning disaffected Donald Trump voters.

And to The New York Times, Sanders said, “If you write a bestselling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”

It’s doubtful, of course, he’d have had best sellers or that Jane Sanders would have received an advance of more than $106,000 in 2017 to write a book about the couple’s public service, had he not run for president.

Even if he’s uncomfortable, Sanders did the right thing in releasing his returns, as have six other Democratic presidential hopefuls. Kamala Harris is a millionaire, and Elizabeth Warren is close. The other contenders need to release their tax returns, too, 
so voters know who they are voting for.

Populism isn’t defined by how much – or how little – money someone has in the bank. It’s defined by the commitment to creating jobs, improving education and other policies that ensure opportunity for all.    

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

A window for Obamacare -- April 11, 2019 column


After nine years of fighting Obamacare, congressional Republicans and the White House have a new bogeyman.   

Look, over there, it’s a radical, socialist scheme! A nightmare that will ruin the economy! It’s Medicare for All!

When independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont Wednesday introduced his revamped proposal to transform Medicare into a universal health program, he said Americans want “a health care system that guarantees health care to all Americans as a right.”

But to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, a “Self-proclaimed socialist . . . is proposing a total government takeover of healthcare that would actually hurt seniors, eliminate private health insurance for 180 million Americans, and cripple our economy and future generations with unprecedented debt.” 

The concept of Medicare for All is the latest danger du jour – and that, at last, opens a window for endangered Obamacare.

President Donald Trump has tried repeatedly to kill Obamacare by declaring it dead -- it isn’t – and Americans like it more than ever.

Fifty percent of adults surveyed last month had a favorable opinion of Obamacare while only 39 percent had an unfavorable opinion, the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll reported. That’s up from 46 percent favorable in April 2010.

Similar results among registered voters came from a Morning Consult-Politico poll taken March 29 to April 1.

Without a viable plan to replace Obamacare, Senate GOP leaders have moved on to fear-mongering about Medicare for All.

“This radical scheme would be serious bad news for America’s hospital industry,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the American Hospital Association this week. “You should not be the guinea pigs in some far-left social experiment.”

Four Democratic presidential hopefuls have endorsed Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, but he has only 14 cosponsors this time, down from 16 last year, a sign Democrats are more wary.

People like the idea of Medicare for All, polls show, until they’re told they may pay higher taxes and wait longer for care.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wisely says Congress needs first to protect the Affordable Care Act – the official name for Obamacare -- before it considers any Medicare for All plan.

The requirement to buy insurance stuck in Americans’ craw, but several surviving provisions remain popular.

About 11.4 million Americans get their health insurance through the law, and 12 more million more are covered because of the law’s Medicaid expansion.

The law protects people with pre-existing conditions – about half the population under 65 – from being rejected for health insurance or paying higher insurance premiums.

Young people under 26 can stay on their parents’ health care plans. Seniors save money on preventive care and prescriptions. Caps limit how much patients must pay annually or in a lifetime.

Trump’s obsession with obliterating all things Obama means he can’t admit there’s anything worth saving in Obamacare. His Justice Department has joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the entire law.

A federal appeals court will hear arguments in early July, and the case could reach the Supreme Court before the election.  

Trump promises a better, cheaper health care plan to replace Obamacare by and by. Sometime. Eventually. After the election. 

Democrats believe health care helped them win back control of the House. Polls before last November’s elections on which party would do a better job on health care policy found Democrats with an 18-point advantage over Republicans.

Democrats need now not to overplay their hand. Several iterations of Medicare for All legislation are in Congress. A key sticking point is cost. Some analysts say Sanders’ proposal could cost upwards of $30 trillion over a decade.

Medicare for All excites the Democratic base, but if Democrats want more than a campaign talking point, they’ll need to work deliberately and collaboratively and study the intended -- and unintended -- consequences of universal health coverage.

Now is the time to shore up Obamacare. A group of Republican senators proposes, in case the courts do invalidate Obamacare, to preserve parts of the law, such as protecting people with pre-existing conditions.

Even in the run-up to an election, saving the best parts of Obamacare is a worthy goal for Democrats and Republicans.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Appreciation: John Hall, an ally of the people -- April 4, 2019 column


In an era of “fake news” and the press as “enemy of the people,” let us today remember an ally of the people: journalist John Hall.

As a reporter, editor, columnist and bureau chief in Washington, he went to work every day for decades with the goal of informing readers about the nation’s capital and the world. He died of pneumonia March 26 in a Falls Church hospice at 81.

It’s not an exaggeration to say John changed my life. I couldn’t believe my luck when he hired me as a reporter in Media General’s Washington bureau, and I worked for him for about 20 years.

But if you were reading newspapers in Virginia and elsewhere from 1979, when he was hired to build the Washington bureau, until he retired in 2006, John may have changed your life too. 

He believed in the duty of a free press to educate the electorate, and he challenged his reporters by example to be fair and get the facts right.

He and Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Charley McDowell were unlike many Washington reporters then and now in that they didn’t follow the journalistic herd, and they were great listeners.

“We zig when they zag,” Hall would say.

The bureau was a window on Washington, and Hall used it as a base to open a window on the world.

One of the few American journalists to report from Iran during the hostage crisis in 1980, he courageously covered demonstrations in Tehran, where he faced a million people marching toward him, shouting, “Death to America.”

He wrote countless columns over the years on foreign policy, reporting from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, Poland, Great Britain and Western Europe.

Hall came up in the gravy days of newspapers, when print was king and papers were fat with want-ads and department store display ads. Local newspaper owners used the good times to hire reporters and editors, open state, statehouse and Washington bureaus, and start investigative reporting teams.

Travel and expense budgets were generous. Hall once gently scolded a young reporter who, after an assignment in New York City, submitted an expense report with a cheap lunch at an automat.  

“Don’t go back there,” Hall said. “You’ll make the rest of us look bad.”

He consistently put his reporters forward, often stretching the sense of their own possibilities.

Before the 1984 Democratic National Convention, my first, Hall asked if I wanted to rent a car in San Francisco and take a reporting trip across country, stopping to join bureau staff covering the Republican convention in Dallas, and continuing to Washington. 

Did I? I was on the road seven weeks.
Hall and McDowell were members of the Gridiron Club of journalists, and I later was invited to join as well. Hall was a prolific song-writer for the annual white-tie dinner that “singes but never burns” government officials. One of his songs was performed at Carnegie Hall.

As Gridiron president in 2006, Hall sat next to President George H.W. Bush at the head table, while Sen. Barack Obama was the Democratic speaker.

But Hall never forgot his roots in Philippi, W.Va. He fumed for years after a pompous member of Congress, on hearing where Hall was from, offered what amounted to condolences.

Married to his wife, Susie, for 60 years, Hall was the devoted father of two sons, Mark and Doug, and grandfather of five.

John did have a tornadic temper – mostly directed at himself. He didn’t suffer machines gladly; computers confounded and passwords perplexed him. To help him keep up with his appointments, he kept weekly engagement calendars.

One notation, Susie Hall told me, read: “ANNIVERSARY!! Don’t screw it up.”

But his reportorial instincts were spot-on. When a turret explosion aboard the USS Iowa in 1989 killed 47 sailors and the Navy blamed two young crewmen, Hall said the explanation didn’t smell right.

He headed home one Friday evening loaded with documents. After poring over the official reports and much dogged reporting, he wrote an award-winning series showing the Navy had scapegoated the young sailors.

John Hall was an ally of the people.

Don’t let anyone tell you the news media are the enemy.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Mend, if not end, Electoral College -- March 28, 2019 column


President Donald Trump now praises the Electoral College as genius and brilliant, but he wasn’t always a fan.

On Election Night 2012, citizen Trump tweeted the Electoral College was “a disaster for a democracy . . . a total sham and a travesty.”

He thought, mistakenly, that his choice for president, Republican Mitt Romney, would win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College.

“More votes equals a loss . . . revolution!” Trump later deleted this and several other 

President Barack Obama won both the popular and electoral votes. Four years later, Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, but she lost in the Electoral College.

When we vote for president, we’re actually voting for electors. To win the White House, a candidate needs 270 of the total 538 electoral votes. Trump won 304 to Clinton’s 227. Seven electors voted for others.

Trump says he realizes “the Electoral College is far better for the USA.” But is it?

The Electoral College has been unloved for decades. Author James A. Michener, an elector in 1968, called the college a “time bomb lodged in the heart of the nation.”

He presciently worried that one day “the man who wins the largest popular vote across the nation will not be chosen President, with all the turmoil that this might cause.” Indeed. Except the man was a woman.

Since the ‘60s, Democrats and Republicans have told pollsters they favor the popular vote over the Electoral College, but numerous attempts to amend the Constitution and abolish the college have failed.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren says she’ll scrap the college as part of a plan to expand voting rights. The current system results in small states being mostly ignored, while swing states get all the attention, she said March 19 at a CNN Town Hall in Mississippi.

“We need to get rid of the Electoral College so that presidential candidates have to ask every American in every part of the country for their vote, not just those in battleground states,” she said.

Democratic contenders Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke also support changing to the popular vote.

Trump warns letting the popular vote prevail would mean “the cities would end up running the country. Smaller states & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power & we can’t let that happen,” he tweeted.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham and other Republicans oppose a constitutional amendment -- but that’s not the only avenue to change the system.

The Constitution determines how many electors a state has: one for each House member and two for the senators. But it does not say how states must allocate their votes.

All but two states use a winner-take-all system, which means most states are not in play. A candidate doesn’t have to win a majority of votes in a state to win all its electoral votes.

“In 2016, Donald Trump won all the electoral votes, totaling 101, in six states where he received less than 50 percent of the popular vote: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (Hillary Clinton won seven states this way),” Edward B. Foley, a law professor at Ohio State, wrote in an essay for Politico in January.

“In reality, the current system works to the detriment of both Republicans and Democrats,” he said. His book, “Presidential Elections and Majority Rule” will be published in December by Oxford University Press.

Nebraska and Maine use a better system, splitting their electoral votes according to  the outcomes statewide and in each of their congressional districts.  

Another approach is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. So far, 12 states and the District of Columbia with 181 electoral votes have pledged their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, ensuring the popular vote winner was also the Electoral College winner.

The compact would kick in only after the total number of Electoral College votes in member states exceeds 270. It likely would be challenged in court.

The Founding Fathers couldn’t agree whether the president should be elected by popular vote or the Congress, and their compromise led to the Electoral College.

That compromise has outlived its usefulness. It’s time to look at ways to minimize its role, whether through the compact or splitting up results by congressional district. 

Either would deliver fairer and more representative presidential elections.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.