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Five Times Trump Bucked the Russians

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

The overwhelming opposition narrative of President Trump’s first term revolves around Russia. At best, critics say that Russia interfered on Trump’s behalf during the 2016 election. Others say that Trump actively colluded with the Russians. Some Democrats say that Trump remains under Russian control. Several times, however, Trump has actively taken actions counter to Russia’s interests when he could simply have done nothing or made a symbolic effort. The complex truth of the Trump-Russia relationship reflects Trump’s geopolitical philosophy and view of himself as a dealmaker.

The accusations

In 2012, President Obama ridiculed Mitt Romney for citing Russia as America’s major geopolitical threat. A mere four years later, attitudes changed:

  • Some Democrats blame Hilliary Clinton’s loss on Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to have preferred Trump and ordered his henchmen to interfere; Trump disputes that narrative.
  • The Steele dossier accused Trump of various nefarious acts and sparked a years-long investigation by Robert Mueller to evaluate collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Regardless of how one views Mueller’s various prosecutions, the collusion narrative fell apart.
  • At worst, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently stated that the Russians must have something on Trump, “…politically, personally, financially, or whatever it is…” in response to reports that the Russians placed bounties on American soldiers.

The roundup

If President Trump serves Putin, many of the actions he’s taken over the last few years make little sense.

#1 — Attacking Syria, twice

On April 7th, 2017, President Trump directed US forces to launch a missile strike against the Syrian Air Force in response to the reported use of chemical weapons against civilians. Syria is a long-time ally and client state of Russia. Various countries were notified before-had, and Russia might or might not have tipped Syria off to the strike. Reports conflict as to effectiveness.

Why bother in the first place? The president could have made speeches and sent a sharply worded letter. The American people were not clamoring for a military strike against the Syrian regime, and minor economic sanctions could have been hyped as punishing. By attacking a Russian ally, the US reduced Russia’s credibility as a friend and protector.

On April 14th, 2018, barely a year after the previous strike, the United States attacked Syria again. The world suspected the regime used chemical weapons against Douma, an insurgent hotbed. Alongside Britain and France, Trump launched an attack directed at facilities connected to chemical weapons.

The US notified Russia before the strikes, but fixed production facilities are hard to move. Putin referred to the attack as an “act of aggression,” though they made little other response. As with the first Syrian attack, Trump could easily have avoided attacking the Russian client state.

#2 — Selling lethal aid to Ukraine

In December 2017, long Joe Biden announced his run for the presidency and the antics of his son became a political issue, Trump approved lethal military aid to Ukraine. Regardless of pressure from the right, the issue would have been easy to sidestep with “We are conducting an ongoing review…” or “We’ve consulted with our allies and agree not to escalate…” or any number of deflections.

One enterprising writer at The Daily Kos postulated that Putin directed Trump to approve the sale so that Putin could use it as a domestic issue in Russia’s 2018 elections. The explanation seems tortured…could it be satire? When was the last time there was a question about Putin winning an election? Trump could easily have continued Obama’s policy.

#3 — Pushing NATO to increase spending

Throughout his first term, President Trump pushed NATO member countries to increase spending. Sometimes, he threatened to withdraw from NATO, leading to widespread media frothing. In the end, though, his pushing may have influenced NATO to build up.

Recently, Trump announced plans to remove 9,500 of 35,000 troops in Germany because of that country’s notable delinquency as the second-largest economy in NATO behind the US. Of other NATO countries also in the G8, only Italy struggles more, and Italy houses far fewer American troops. France’s spending is under the two percent threshold, but stable and higher than Germany’s. Britain spends above the threshold, and even Canada has made faster progress.

Democrats predictably called the troop withdrawal a “gift to Putin.” Trump reportedly stated:

“…we’re protecting Germany and they’re delinquent. That doesn’t make sense. So I said, we’re going to bring down the count to 25,000 soldiers.”

No scenario exists where increased NATO spending makes Russia happy. Increasing NATO spending wasn’t Putin’s idea, and Trump could withdraw troops from Germany and just call it a budgetary or strategic decision. Perhaps Trump wants spending to increase so that the United States sells more weapons. Perhaps he just doesn’t like that many member countries routinely fail to meet obligations and rely on America’s outsized military spending. Trump could have said nothing and no one would have noticed.

#4 — Building up US troops in Poland

Under President Obama, in the summer of 2016, NATO members agreed to bolster defenses in eastern Europe. There were concerns that Trump might reverse course when he came into office, but Trump continued the policy and even expanded troop strength. Trump is also selling F-35s to Poland and may send even more troops. President Trump has also indicated that some of the troops withdrawn from Germany may move to Poland rather than back to the United States.

Advanced fighter jets and a troop buildup in Poland do not align with Putin’s or Russia’s interests. Perhaps Trump wants the Poles to name a military base after him, or perhaps he wants to sell more weapons. Whatever the reason, this action can’t make Putin happy.

#5 — Calling out Germany’s natural gas dependency

In addition to criticizing low defense spending, Trump sharply criticized western Europe and particularly Germany’s growing dependency on natural gas. Trump began criticizing in 2017 and kept it up in 2018. This ties into Trump’s stance on NATO; it doesn’t make sense to defend countries willfully becoming dependent on their potential adversary.

Trump is also expected to sign bipartisan legislation to block Russia’s opening of a second pipeline to Germany, a pipeline that would bypass Ukraine and deprive it of funds needed to fight the Russian-backed insurgency. Perhaps President Trump simply wants to supply Europe with American natural gas instead. Blocking a petro-oligarchy’s plans to sell carbon is no way to make friends or curry favor.

President Trump’s reality

Trump’s actions and statements confuse politicians and pundits because he sees the world differently. Cold War American foreign policy saw the world as a network of allies and enemies. Clarity ruled the eighties; communism bad, everyone else good.

Instead, Trump sees a landscape of strategic rivals competing for growth, dollars, and dominance, much like in business. Sometimes rivals can do a deal together and both profit. At other times, one undercuts rival companies to diminish them and promote one’s own interests. If a business deal is bad, even with a friend, walk away. Business is business.

So why the confusion? Much of it stems from the fact that Trump says nice things about authoritarians. At various times he said glowing things about Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi, Turkey’s Erdogan, and of course Korea’s Kim. Trump’s number one rule seems to be to avoid personal attacks on anyone that you want to make a deal with. Instead, he buries them in flattery.

Trump praised China and in particular President Xi at the same time he criticized China and the World Health Organization (WHO). John Bolton relates that Trump called Xi China’s greatest leader in 300 years, but Trump also fought a trade war.

President Trump’s photo-ops and nice letters to North Korean leaders haven’t produced results yet, nor are they likely to. Of note, when North Korea acts in belligerent fashion, Trump ups the American bluster as well, deploying carriers or menacing with new military exercises after eliminating old ones. Does Trump love Kim Jong-un? Or does he just want to make a deal? Interestingly, South Korea’s president recently called for another summit, so somebody likes this approach.

This pattern also plays out domestically. As late as early 2019, observers noted Trump had for years avoided personally attacking Nancy Pelosi. He unleashed tough personal smears and slurs on political rivals, but not her. That changed when Trump came to regard her as a personal enemy, and she now faces the brunt of his criticism. Especially after impeachment, he likely views any compromise with Speaker Pelosi as impossible.

If one starts from the known and obvious fact that the Russians hacked American elections so that their plant could do their bidding, Trump’s actions are hard to parse. The paradigm of a business president, on the other hand, provides a framework for analysis. He will be the nicest person in the world as long as a deal is in the offing.

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Five Times Trump Bucked the Russians was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Will Police Pay? Qualified Immunity, Rich Lawyers

Image by Claim Accident Services from Pixabay

Someone will pay lots of money; it won’t be the cops

It seems like an outrage that victims can’t sue police officers for damages. Activists cry for justice and victims scream in frustration. Politicians line up one either side. It doesn’t matter; widespread accountability through civil suits is fantasy.

Breathless headlines screech that police officers “…act like laws don’t apply to them…They’re right.” News reports on qualified immunity dwell on lack of recourse but skip over important points:

  1. Qualified immunity applies only to civil lawsuits. Criminal statutes clearly apply. Derek Chauvin faces second-degree murder charges. Garrett Rolfe faces felony murder charges in Atlanta with the potential for the death penalty. Concerns plague both cases, and many officers avoid charges, but the mechanisms exist.
  2. Even with qualified immunity, victims recover damages from police agencies, just not from the individual officer. Rodney King famously settled a civil suit with the city of Los Angeles for $3.8 million. In 2018, Chicago alone paid out $85M in settlements and paid lawyers an additional $28M for police misconduct cases. In its best recent year, 2015, the city still paid out $31M and $13M in settlements and lawyers.
  3. The dirty secret that no one talks about is that eliminating qualified immunity won’t put officers in much financial jeopardy. One way or another, government agencies will usually make officers whole and protect them from financial risk.

How we got here

In 1961, a group of both black and white Episcopal clergymen toured the South in a “prayer pilgrimage.” In Jackson, Mississippi, these brave and peaceful men intentionally entered the segregated waiting room at the bus station. Police promptly arrested them for ‘a breach of the peace’ when they failed to leave when ordered. In 1965, the court decisions in similar cases made the statute segregating the waiting room unconstitutional. The clergymen they sued the police officers as individuals for violating their rights by enforcing an unconstitutional law.

In Pierson v. Ray, the Supreme Court ruled that police do not enjoy absolute immunity like judges, but retain immunity from suit when acting in good faith and with probable cause. Police cannot predict which laws will be ruled unconstitutional in the future.

In 1982’s Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the court tightened the requirements by separating the idea of intent from the good faith defense. The old standard held officials accountable if the official:

“knew or reasonably should have known that the action he took within his sphere of official responsibility would violate the constitutional rights of the [plaintiff], or if he took the action with the malicious intention to cause a deprivation of constitutional rights or other injury. . .”

The relatively uncontroversial 8–1 decision delivered by a liberal-leaning court determined that trying to determine intent was expensive and ultimately irrelevant.

The standard of knowing that an action is unconstitutional sounds reasonable, but has become an impossible hurdle in practice. Courts interpreted this to mean there must be an explicit statute or a previous court case ruling specific actions unconstitutional. This devolved into a chicken-and-egg fiasco. Plaintiffs cannot simply argue the obvious that, stealing $250K from a suspect during a search violates their rights to “life, liberty, or property” without due process. Instead, they must show that there has been a previous court case that established that stealing money under that particular circumstance was ruled unconstitutional.

The responsibility for correcting interpretation of statutes and precedents resides in the judicial branch. Despite several opportunities to address an area that most regard as an injustice, the US Supreme Court declined to take up the issue this term.

Who pays the bill?

Civil suit decisions, typically use a ‘preponderance of evidence’ standard. Liability only requires the act to be more likely than not. Consider it the 51% rule. Criminal cases use the much harder to prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard. A jury acquired OJ Simpson of murder in his criminal case. A different jury found him liable in a wrongful death lawsuit, costing him $33.5 million.

Photo by Viacheslav Bublyk on Unsplash

Mississippi police salaries average around $33K, compared to $46K needed for a living wage. How will an officer in Mississippi pay a million-dollar judgment? Even for lower offenses, what if a jury finds that an officer ‘more likely than not’ shoved someone when he or she didn’t need to? Even a $10K settlement would be ruinous. Why would someone work in today’s volatile environment exposed to that kind of risk?

In medicine, doctors mitigate risk by paying tens of thousands of dollars in malpractice insurance. Costs vary by state and specialty, with an OB-GYN in New York paying over $200K per year and an internal medicine specialist paying just less than $16K per year in New Jersey. What would an insurance company charge to indemnify a beat cop on the south side of Chicago? Whatever the number, an individual policeman couldn’t afford it.

Instead, cities provide insurance. Large cities self-insure, while smaller towns might buy expensive third-party insurance. Unless acting in a manner so grievous that prison is likely anyway, cities will extend insurance to cover individual judgments against officers.

Colorado has already started down this road. This week, the state passed legislation stripping qualified immunity from law enforcement officers and subjecting them to civil suits in state courts. At the same time, the law requires that agencies indemnify officers unless found to be acting in bad faith or if they were criminally convicted. Even if forced to pay personally, the officer’s damages are capped at the lesser of $25K or 5% of the judgment.

Moving forward

Eliminating or paring back qualified immunity will lead to increased litigation. It will not lead to police officers routinely paying claims out of their own pockets. So who wins and loses?

  1. The plaintiffs. Victims might recover more damages more often. Perhaps lawsuits will become easier to win by naming both the city and the individual, or perhaps smart lawyers will file separate suits against both.
  2. The lawyers. Whether or not victims receive higher or more frequent awards, the increased litigation will benefit one key Democratic constituency: the trial lawyers.
  3. The cities and states. As litigation increases, cities and states will pay more judgments, settlements, and especially legal fees. That money comes from the taxpayer.

If the increased cost were to eliminate some amount of police misconduct then the price might be worth it, but cities will be forced to limit out of pocket payments by officers except in situations that will send them to prison anyway. If prison fails to deter criminal misconduct, additional fines on top of prison will not help.

Despite the fact that eliminating qualified immunity will not change much, the issue provides a new political wedge. Democrats in the Senate are using the issue to justify, at least in part, their opposition to the Republican police reform bill. Republicans are digging in. As a result, reform has morphed into the usual political gotcha game about painting the other side as responsible for failure rather than working together for success.

Senator Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, introduced a bill seeking to carve a middle path. Instead of completely eliminating qualified immunity, the bill shifts the burden to the police officer to show that law or precedent allowed the actions in question. Perhaps a middle ground will emerge from the swamp.

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Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.


Will Police Pay? Qualified Immunity, Rich Lawyers was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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