Double Devotion by Nancy Mugele

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A poem comes looking for me rather than I hunting after it. —Richard Wilbur

Last week several concurrent events made me think a lot about one of my favorite subjects – you guessed it. Poetry. Richard Wilbur, poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet known for lyrical elegance written in classical form, died. He was 96. One of the preeminent poets of the past century, his work maintained traditionalism in an expressive genre where he was sometimes criticized for his formalism. “Richard Wilbur reminded us of the enduring power of tradition: that poems about the natural world and about love, written in classical, traditional rhyme and meter, would continue to matter going forward into the future,” said Robert Casper, who leads the Library of Congress’s Poetry and Literature Center.

In my humble opinion, no one does poems about the natural world better than Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, whose new collection, Devotions, was published last week. Devotions is her personal selection of her best work spanning more than five decades. I could not wait to purchase it and I am still pouring over its pages. Don’t tell Jim but I bought two copies, one for my office so I can read it during DEARS (Drop Everything And Read Silently) time at Kent School and one for evenings and weekends at home. Maybe I will gift one copy eventually but for now, I love having it at my fingertips wherever I am!

I believe that when Mary Oliver wrote pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it. She was speaking to me. She also noted attention is the beginning of devotion. Mary Oliver’s collection with its inspiring book title and Richard Wilbur’s loyalty to traditionalism, have made me reflect on my devotions this week. Defined by Dictionary.com as love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause, I am sure you know already that my family is, first and foremost, my single most important devotion.  Yet, this past year, through my attention, I have discovered that Kent School is a close second. I am so fortunate that my life’s work has brought me to this incredible learning community in Chestertown where I am fortunate to have realized double devotion. And, when I can combine my two devotions – family and Kent School, it is truly poetic for me.

Sunday, I did just that. I had the privilege to watch poetry in motion at Kent School’s Osprey Triathlon. Individual racers and teams participated in biking, kayaking (under less than optimal conditions – I believe there was a small craft advisory!) and running. I was so proud of my husband and daughter who each placed third in their age groups in their very first triathlon, but I was even more grateful that they came out to support me and my School. At each event, perseverance and resiliency were exhibited by the racers and I stood in awe of the physical strength of their bodies as well as their hearts and minds, all moving gracefully with keen focus. The participants believed in themselves and believed in supporting Kent School. It was humbling and inspiring.

Throughout the morning I kept thinking about the first two lines of Mary Oliver’s poem Don’t Hesitate:

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,

don’t hesitate. Give in to it.

The Osprey Triathlon was joyful and none of the participants hesitated for a second – especially if they had a good transition team! Not sure I qualified as that for Team Mugele but you will have to ask Jim and Jenna.

In my constant role as resident cheerleader and encourager, I am feeling empowered this week by poets everywhere, and especially Mary Oliver, to take time to observe the world around me in its purest details, wonder about its magnificence and its significance, and write it down. And also, to celebrate, wholeheartedly, my double devotion.

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown and a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s

Save the ACA

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The Affordable Care Act (ACA), sometimes called Obamacare, is legislation designed to help people who cannot get health insurance through their employers buy affordable health care.

It requires companies to cover pre-existing conditions which had made insurance unavailable at any price to many people.  It also eliminates lifetime caps on coverage that in the past forced people with serious illness into bankruptcy. Finally, it requires companies to cover essential services necessary to maintain good health and recover from illness or accidents. Those services include outpatient, emergency and rehabilitative services; hospitalization; maternity/newborn care; mental health, substance abuse services; prescription drugs; laboratory services; preventive and chronic disease management; and pediatric care. Even if you are healthy and don’t expect to need any of those services, you are covered if you do. With preventive care covered, people stay healthier and serious conditions can be caught earlier when they are easier and cheaper to treat.

The ACA also requires insurers to cover women at the same cost as men. It limits premiums for older people to 3 times that for younger people. It allows young people to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, giving them more time to establish careers and afford their own insurance.

What does the ACA mean for Maryland?  In Maryland, only 54% are covered by employer-based insurance. Those who are self-employed, working for small organizations, between jobs or who lose a job find themselves without insurance. The ACA solves this problem by helping people who cannot get health insurance through their employers.

Thanks to the ACA, 309,202 more people in Maryland have health insurance now than before the law was implemented. The ACA accomplished this by using federal funds through subsidies and tax credits to help those who could not afford insurance plans.

Though it has been controversial, and has some problems that need resolving, the ACA has enjoyed popular support. An October 13 Kaiser poll found that 71% of those polled wanted legislators to keep the ACA and fix the problems rather than adopting proposals designed to make it fail. Despite the fact that a majority of people would rather keep the ACA and resolve its problems, it has been under attack since the 2016 election, with several failed attempts to “repeal and replace” it.

With Congress unwilling to repeal the ACA, President Trump has now tried to undermine it using executive actions that do not require congressional approval. Last week, he signed two such orders that will undermine the ACA and make it more likely to fail.

The first executive order promotes small group insurance plans to be sold with no essential services required.  So while the premiums might be cheap, the policies would not cover services most people need, and insurance companies could exclude pre-existing conditions or charge sky-high rates to cover them. These policies might be attractive to healthy people, but they are useless if those people get sick. They could also exclude older, sicker people or charge them so much that they would be forced to go without. Trump’s proposal returns health insurance to the scatter-shot coverage the ACA was designed to correct.

We’ve been here before. Prior to the ACA, insurers could sell bare-bones plans many people bought because premiums were lower. Those plans were popular with younger, healthy people, but they were useless to people who got sick or were injured because they did not cover many services. That’s why they were so cheap! That’s also why so many people found themselves with serious medical debt or unable to obtain affordable healthcare.

The second executive order immediately ends federal subsidies to insurance companies that had helped insurers offer affordable plans to lower-income people. Under the ACA, insurance companies used that funding to subsidize the costs of deductibles and out of pocket expenses for people who otherwise could not afford insurance.  Without that federal funding, insurance companies still have to cover lower-income people but they will have less money to do so.  That means that they will have to raise rates for everyone, making health insurance costs out of reach for many people.  Their alternative is to stop offering plans on the individual market. If many insurers stop offering plans, that leaves fewer plans from which consumers can choose, making rate increases even more likely.

The ACA is under attack, but the fight to save it is not over. The are several bi-partisan proposals being discussed in the Senate, including one by Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Patty Murray, that would keep the features of the ACA most people want while finding solutions for the problems.  If you or someone you love depends on the ACA for health care, or if you believe that everyone ought to have access to affordable health care, contact your representatives in Congress and urge them to find a way to keep the benefits of the ACA while resolving the problems:

Senator Ben Cardin:   www.cardin.senate.gov or call: (202) 224-4524

Senator Chris Van Hollen: www.vanhollen.senate.gov  or call: (202) 224-4654

Representative Andy Harris: www.harris.house.gov or call: (202) 225-5311

Linda Cades

Kent and Queen Anne’s Indivisible

Che Guevara and Steve Bannon by Al Sikes

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Che Guevara’s father said of his son, “In my son’s blood flowed the blood of Irish rebels.” Perhaps Steve Bannon, the son of an Irish Catholic family, has a similar emotional core. Anyone want a Steve Bannon t-shirt?

Che Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who is said to have been the intellectual energy behind Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, has had his experiment–fifty years’ worth. Guevara’s thoughts, animated by Castro’s leadership, impoverished the island.

Bannon with his initial proxy, Donald Trump, will have a similar effect on the Republican Party.

Today the ideological battle plays out on the East side of the congressional grounds as the United States Senate plays its role as a legislative bottleneck. This drama pits Bannon against the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. McConnell is short on assets.

Bannon is colorful; McConnell is dull. Bannon is strategic; McConnell is tactical. And so history once again plays out through personalities.

Bannon has created an interesting new engine—it makes rip tides, cross-currents that tear apart. McConnell, being from a non-tidal state, Kentucky, fails to understand the power of tides. He bobs around in an unnatural state—a relentless ebb tide. And so goes the Republican Party. Its putative leader, President Trump, being a transactional politician, only wants wins—bills presented to him for signature. Alternatively, executive orders. Today’s dynamic will ebb and flow. Bannon’s brigade will attack almost everybody who is an elected Republican, although many of the Bannon proxies are losers. McConnell, who is in a leadership position, has been given an even higher profile by a President who periodically trashes him and key members of the Republican majority in the Senate. Why build, the President must think when demolition feels so good? Having demolished the establishment in the Party, it would seem to be a good time to build but Trump, who can build hotels, has no philosophical core which might serve as a foundation.

In the meantime, Republicans, who continue to think, have actively begun floating the possibility of a third party. Hooray, because the Democrat party of Bill Clinton ceased to exist a long time ago and for most right of center voters is not an option. Centrism is a half continent away from the leftist takeover and coastal dominance.

Bill Kristol, who has impeccable Republican and Never-Trump credentials (yes that is possible) recently floated four pairings of candidates for President and Vice-President in 2020. The two that received the most votes in a Twitter poll paired Republican John Kasich and Democrat John Hickenlooper, Governors of Ohio and Colorado. Coming in second in the poll were Mark Cuban, the owner of lots of assets and a reality TV show role along with Niki Haley, the United Nation Ambassador, as his running mate. The names and standings are less interesting than the fact there is active discussion about other than fringe candidates.

Poll after poll for decades have shown the decline of the Democrat and Republican parties. And as the leaders of each Party have increasingly been scripted by their left and right movements, the decline, if anything, has steepened. Polls regularly show that most people are most comfortable around the center. Yet, it seems that the passion that stirred Guevara’s blood and now seems to stir Bannon finds its source in the latest revolution against the latest establishment with compromise being especially detestable.

The United States was born of revolution. The founders then designed a profound framework to avoid the pathology of most revolutions—tyranny. I would suggest the next revolutionary needs to come from the Center where the limits of humankind are understood.

While I am in the unsolicited advice business, let me also suggest to whoever might want to try and revive the Republican Party, a governing core. Only Party leadership that embraces Lincoln’s passion for equality and union and that can, in the 21st Century, translate Theodore Roosevelt’s insistent battle against concentrated power, and give voice to Reagan’s optimism about freedom, have a chance. The rhetorical and public policy blend that captures their contribution to the Party, articulated with understanding and passion, will be enormously persuasive. The pinched and often harsh public policy and rhetoric that thrives on division is both anti-Republican and American.

America’s greatness does not come from a large central government with its inevitable appetite for human engineering. Greatness will also not be sustained by the power of a wealthy oligarchy using its wealth to manipulate the levers of authority. We need a better way as a movement, not a slogan.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.

 

Free Fallin’ (For Tom Petty) by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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With discontented winter just over the calendar’s horizon, let’s all take a minute to extol the fiery splendors of fall. While I have nothing against its three seasonal cousins, here’s why fall is my personal favorite:

The fire pit has come out of summer retirement. The aroma of burning hardwood—birch, cedar, black walnut—hangs in the air. The porch light comes on ever earlier and that evening glass of wine tastes even better when there’s a fire blazing out front.

If you’re a sports fan, fall is your smorgasbord. Football (high school, college, and pro) is in full swing. Hockey and basketball are back and every team has hope. But for me, a life-long baseball fan, the divisional playoffs and the World Series are the height of drama. Do-or-die games, entire cities holding their collective breath, little Jose Altuve as David, flying around the bases in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Goliath Yankees, are moments that will warm me on the cold winter nights to come. Four teams remain—Dodgers, Cubs, Astros, and Yankees; soon there will be but two; then one, a World Champion! And when the final out is recorded and one team celebrates while the other stares out at the field in stunned disbelief, there’s that bittersweet moment when you feel in your bones that the arc of the season—the promise of spring, the dog days of summer, the climax of fall—is finally over and a long winter’s night is nigh.

Leaves: fiery reds, soft yellows, brilliant oranges. (Yes, there are also the dead ones that clog the gutters and the ones in the yard that need raking, but I’m overlooking those particular leaves for the purposes of this Musing Author’s prerogative.)

Long shadows: the low slant of sunlight at this time of year can produce some dazzling effects. Moments seem to linger longer in the glow of autumn. The same golf course that baked under the summer sun is now transformed into a quiet cathedral bathed in an etherial light. Our river shimmers, turning from bright blue to slate grey when the sun darts behind a scudding cloud. The stalks in the corn fields look brittle enough to crumble to dust in your hand; the soy fields are a succotash of bright yellow and pale green. One morning, a fine haze hangs over the tables and chairs out in front of Evergrain, but on the next morning, every little detail of the same scene is finely wrought by the sparkle of crystalline sunlight. Summer has its long hot spells that beg for relief; winter can become tedious; but in between the two, fall is moody, capricious: you’re never quite sure what the next day will bring.

Food: I’ll give summer plenty of credit for its fresh produce and light fare, but with the arrival of cooler weather, I crave heartier stuff: soups and stews, roast meat, tart apples, pumpkin pie, a glass of red wine or a wee dram to warm me on a chilly evening.

Sounds: Autumn has its own singular symphonic soundtrack: doves and starlings are the strings, ducks and geese play the horns, hunters provide the unmistakeable percussion of gunfire.

If you love autumn, you’re in the company of great poets: Shakespeare, Keats, Rossetti, Wilbur, and Frost, among others. Artists, too: Monet, Cezanne, van Gogh, Constable have all used autumnal colors to explore themes of change and decay. If spring is about renewal and new growth, then autumn is an introspective time to ruminate and reflect on what has been accomplished and harvested, like a life well lived.

And I’m free. Free fallin’.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Out and About (Sort of): Scattered Thoughts by Howard Freedlander

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About 10 days ago I had the pleasure of driving former Governor Harry Hughes from an Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (I am a board member) gathering outside Chestertown to his home in Denton. Time spent with Harry is always a lesson in Maryland politics as related concisely by one of the prime actors in the second half of the 20th century.

Nearing 91, Gov. Hughes is feeling the ravages of old age. He moves more slowly. His balance is unsteady. All expected in a person’s ninth decade. But when this reserved, gentlemanly political luminary talks, it’s best to keep quiet and learn.

A Caroline County native, Hughes served as a state delegate, state senator, secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and then governor from 1978 to 1986.

I first met Hughes nearly 40 years ago when he ran for governor; he was given little chance to win. He did, with significant help from Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun endorsements two weeks prior to the election. That was a time when an endorsement from a major statewide newspaper meant something—when people paid attention to “mainstream media.” Perhaps they still do. Showing my age, I still assign credibility to the printed word.

As my wife and I rode for about an hour in the car, we learned he loved being Secretary of MDOT because he could get things done, he liked President Bill Clinton, his political career just seemed to take off in a positive direction –and he fondly recalled having his mother as his homeroom teacher for three years at Caroline High School.

What was evident, as it always is when you spend time with Harry Hughes, is his innate modesty and mild manner. He is eminently likable.

In an op-ed piece published Dec. 1, 2016 in The Baltimore Sun by John Frece, a former Maryland State House bureau chief for the Sun and co-author of Gov. Hughes’ autobiography, “My Unexpected Journey,” about Hughes’ 90th birthday party, Frece wrote:

“The most important words that were uttered throughout the evening by a half-dozen speakers were the ones that described the values that this native of the Eastern Shore brought to Maryland’s political life: honesty, integrity, fairness, compassion, humility and restraint. In a word, civility.”

In recent years, a close adviser and friend of Hughes twice has invited me to join him for lunch with the former governor. Once, other former staffers joined the group. I was an interested bystander, noting the affection that these staffers still bore for their former boss. There was good-natured kidding aimed at Harry Hughes, who in turn kindly jabbed back. Meanwhile, people in the restaurant would stop by the table to say hello to the unassuming man from Denton.

While Gov. Hughes and his loyal lieutenants would tell stories about achievements, Harry Hughes would delight in the memories, but never dominated the conversation with anything resembling boastfulness. His willingness during his two terms to focus on Chesapeake Bay pollution–as well as management of the declining rockfish, instituting a controversial moratorium—was one of his shining accomplishments.

Though the tall, handsome former governor shows the ravages of aging, he continues to impress me with his calm, civil demeanor and dedication to environmental issues that still challenge and vex public officials and concerned non-profits.

*************************************
In seeking reactions to “The Vietnam War” documentary produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and the two columns that I recently wrote about the remarkable 10-episode series, I spoke with a few Vietnam veterans in the area. I learned that two in particular thought that the documentary failed to portray accurately the North Vietnamese (NVA), specifically their fervent communism that they viciously imposed on villagers in the South to gain their fear-driven loyalty.

A friend and veteran forwarded an article written by a veteran in Georgia that was unyielding in its criticism of the soft way that he believed that the documentary treated the NVA, while acknowledging the duplicity of our political leaders and their unwillingness to unleash full American firepower on our enemy.

With this reaction in mind, I ask readers to submit their unvarnished opinion of the documentary. Did you consider it fair and balanced? Did you consider it skewed and too favorable to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong?

As I wrote, the Vietnam War still lives on in the minds and hearts of civilians and veterans who lived through the 10-year war and the consequent chaos and divisiveness that gripped our country.

Please give me feedback.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Better than Baseball by David Montgomery

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Although October has been depressingly familiar for Washington baseball fans, it has been just the opposite for political observers. While Congress continues to dither, the President has been moving ahead to reverse the expansion of the Administrative State. And he has done so by using his executive authority to force Congress to do the work assigned to it by the Constitution.

In the case of immigration, the President sent a letter to Congress with a comprehensive plan for strengthening enforcement of immigration laws and screening out those who would be a threat or a burden. And he has been explicit about the message he wants Congress to hear: If you care so much about those who are now in the United States illegally, pass a law to change their status. I do not have the authority to do that on my own. Quite a contrast to President Obama’s “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone. And that’s all I need.”

In the case of Obamacare, the President sent the liberal press all atwitter by terminating subsidies to insurance companies losing money under Obamacare. Again, he sends a message to Congress that they must fix the structural problems in Obamacare and not rely on the public purse to hide them.

Third, his EPA Administrator has declared that the Clean Power Plan put into effect by his predecessor is illegal, because it goes beyond what Congress authorized EPA to do in the Clean Air Act.

In taking these actions, the President is fulfilling what I saw as the most important of his campaign promises, to stop government agencies from issuing regulations that make new laws never passed by Congress. That is, he is challenging and attempting to rein in the Administrative State.

I admire the subtlety in President Trump’s cancellation of subsidies to insurance companies for many reasons. The subsidies make the insurance companies fat and happy and motivate them to work against his goal of reforming ACA. His action shows that the excessive delegation of authority made by Congress in ACA can be used to reduce as well as increase the administrative state. And he tosses the political problems back to Congress in a way that should send the message that Congress cannot avoid political responsibility for legislation by leaving all the details up to bureaucrats.

The critical flaw in the Clean Power Plan that took it to the Supreme Court is its insistence that electric utilities pay others to reduce emissions on their behalf in order to satisfy regulatory requirements. This is contrary to the explicit language in the relevant parts of the Clean Air Act that such requirements be feasible for the regulated companies to meet on their own.

I am known as an advocate of emission trading where appropriate, but only when applied through Constitutional processes in which its suitability for a particular task is examined openly, not by an agency using legal casuistry to require something prohibited by the clear wording of the law.

Likewise, I fully support the goal of open borders for all who qualify to be future citizens, but equally, strongly opposed President Obama’s refusal to enforce a clear requirement of the law – not to mention his willingness to accept the lazy and criminals along with those who support themselves and obey the law.

There are much broader issues at stake here than just these specific abuses of powers delegated by Congress in regard to immigration, environmental regulation, and Obamacare. It is the growing role of unaccountable administrative agencies in creating rules and regulations that go far beyond anything considered or authorized by Congress. Philip Hamburger calls this the “Administrative State” and describes its influence by saying “Americans must live under a dual system of government—one part established by the Constitution and another circumventing it.” The Trump Administration has been trying to rein in the Administrative State since its first day in office through its deregulation initiatives.

First, the Administration and Republicans in Congress are reversing the flood of regulations issued by his predecessors. Economically significant rules are defined as those with an annual cost of $100 million or more, and during the Obama Administration, almost 500 of these regulations with an estimated burden of $890 billion were issued. The burden of regulation accelerated under Obama, but it has been growing since the 1970s. Between 1995 and 2016, Congress passed 4260 public laws but the Executive Branch issued 88,899 new final rules. Since regulations have rarely expired or been repealed, this adds up to a growing cumulative burden. These regulations proliferate – 27 new regulations for every new law – because Congress delegates its legislative responsibilities to administrative agencies, which have proceeded without hindrance beyond what Congress intended.

In comparison, under President Trump agencies have pulled or suspended 860 pending regulations, and the number of economically significant regulations still in process fell to 58.

One of President Trump’s first actions was to require all agencies to re-examine their past regulations and eliminate two existing rules for each new one they issue. His Executive Order also required agencies to reduce the burden of existing regulations by an amount at least as large as the cost of any new regulations. Some of my colleagues in the field of environmental economics complained about this order on the grounds that costs should be weighed against benefits and not be the sole criterion. Although I agree with the principle, I am unconcerned about the application because among the regulations issued under the Obama Administration there are ample to choose from that do no net good.

This is also an area where Congress has done good, by exercising its authority to disapprove regulations and especially those issued by a lame-duck President. Voting under the Congressional Review Act, which limits debate on disapproval resolutions, Congress repealed 14 midnight regulations issued in the last days of the Obama Administration.

These actions are the beginning of an effort, with a clear populist base, to rein in the Administrative State that has grown in power and size for decades. Visible actions to limit and repeal unnecessary regulations only address part of the problem of the Administrative State. Like the iceberg, most of the Administrative State is hidden. Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has called this “regulatory dark matter,” which he defines as “thousands of executive branch and federal agency proclamations and issuances, including guidance documents, memoranda, bulletins, circulars, and letters, that carry practical (if not always technically legally) binding regulatory effect.” None of these show up in the counts of regulations in the Federal Register, and they are subject to none of the public comment and appeal processes that apply to published regulations.

This is also a target of the Administration, and a particularly difficult one since decisions behind these memoranda and guidance letters and individual rulings are not made in open regulatory processes. They are made day to day by permanent bureaucrats buried in agencies and often difficult or impossible for their political superiors to reach and control.

One of the reasons for the expansion of the Administrative State before President Trump was the deference of the courts to decisions of regulatory agencies that did the proper paperwork, no matter how vague the facts or casuistical the legal arguments justifying them.

This is the major uncertainty about whether President Trump will succeed. Courts have already shown a willingness to block his Executive Orders that they never showed to his predecessors. Thus the question is whether courts will defer as readily to an Administration that wants to reduce the Administrative state as to one that wants to expand it. As Philip Hamburger put it “The courts often defer to the executive—both to its interpretations of law and to its fact-finding” and he decries this as depriving those who challenge regulations of due process.

What really matters here is the attitude of 5 Supreme Court justices. Some, like Justice Stephen Breyer, have attitudes toward actions of regulatory agencies that appear to go even further and sound more like admiration than deference. Once again, the key to Making America Great Again may be less in what regulations the President abolishes than in whom he appoints to the Supreme Court.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

 

Let’s Give God a Break by George Merrill

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I would like to write in defense of God. In my opinion we have abused him (or her) shamelessly. It’s high time we give God a break.

Biblical history has its own problems with fake news. “God rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah,” the bible tells us in one epic account. Why? God abhors homosexuality. Lot’s wife became collateral damage: she looked back on the city about to be destroyed. God instructed her not too. She was reduced to a pillar of salt on the spot because she turned around to look. Disobedience? Maybe, but another possible transgression suggested is that she became too interested in what was going on there. In either case the punishments, in my view, did not fit the crimes.

With the advent of modern biblical scholarship and scientific archeology, many of these accounts of divine retribution are believed to be more mythical than historically credible. Historically credible or no, myths make their point and this one and many others like it are that God’s wrath can be savage and spiteful. Much of historic religion has targeted gays and lesbians for just such punishments.

I recall after 9/11, televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were outspoken about how America’s tolerance of gays, abortion, lesbians and the ACLU caused God to open the gates to the terrorists allowing them to enter and cause this national tragedy to happen. In short, the attacks on 9/11 were God’s judgment against America’s growing liberal agenda.

Significant numbers advocating for this vengeful God have traditionally been associated with the Republicans who share their party’s contempt for liberals and their agenda. This has created a delicate situation now since the Republicans hold not only the house and senate, but the executive branch as well. Conservatives are more cautious about calling the disasters God’s retribution since Republicans are now in the driver’s seat and for the most part are setting the national agenda.

Rush Limbaugh, a loyal pundit of the right, got God off the hook this time by handling the recent hurricane tragedies this way. He just couldn’t help but blaming somebody.

“There is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it … All you need is to create the fear and panic accompanied by talk that climate change is causing hurricanes to become more frequent and bigger and more dangerous, and you create the panic, and it’s mission accomplished, agenda advanced.”

He seems to me to be saying that anyone even talking about the reality of destructive hurricanes makes the storms bigger and more frequent. He gives climate change talk the same power that God possesses; during the creation God only had to say ‘Let there be light”, and it was everywhere.

Televangelist Jim Bakker was determined to keep God active in the retribution mode and stated that “this flood is from God.” Why? To punish Houston’s former mayor for attempting to subpoena ministers’ sermons. Wouldn’t you wonder what the mayor knew about Texas clergy that God preferred to keep classified?

Pastor Kevin Swanson asserts that Irma’s path could have been altered had the Supreme Court only decided that abortion and gay marriage were illegal. God didn’t move the hearts of the Supreme Court in a timely manner. The pastor suggests that, the whole mess happened because God dropped the ball and didn’t act sooner. It doesn’t make God any less retributive but God is now also accused of not staying on top of things.

Ann Coulter, not averse to speaking her mind, interestingly wasn’t sure hurricane Harvey was God’s way of punishing Houston although she tweeted that the explanation was “more credible than attributing [natural disasters] to ‘climate change.’ ” I think she was uneasy attributing the hurricanes to God outright but she did so in a disingenuous way.

James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame, while describing the Sandy Hook shootings as God’s punishment for tolerating gay marriage and abortion, was curiously silent on the recent storms. He championed God’s wrath in the past. I wonder why he remained silent on the matter? Too busy with family business, I suppose.

Pat Robertson also did not comment directly on God’s role in the recent storms, but spoke to it obliquely. Robertson saw the hand of God in the Haiti and San Fernando earthquakes and suggested that the political pressures America puts on Israel, causes natural disasters. My guess is that he’s soft on Israel because Jesus was born there. He also warned that gay tourists at Disney World could cause a meteor strike. So much for star of wonder, star of night.

Michael Brown, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board, cautioned that, “we must be very careful before we make divine pronouncements about hurricanes and other natural disasters.” He praised Houston for having stood bravely against the rising tide of LGBT activism concluding with this observation: “Why would God single out Houston for judgment?” One preacher suggested that Houston got it big time because they elected a lesbian as their mayor.

God gets portrayed as having sex on his mind all the time. I think those who champion his vengeful acts are the ones obsessed with sex and I would add, violence.

What are we to make of all this?

Four things come to mind.

One, we are still adolescent children in gaining a wholesome understanding of human sexuality. Secondly, nature, for all our scientific advances, remains mysterious and unpredictable. We try controlling it, but we can’t.

I don’t think we’ve grasped the reality that we are a global community and we have responsibility for each other, not to punish, but to heal. Finally, we keep trying to draft God into our causes, like selective service once called us up to serve in the military. We require of God that he do our bidding. It is very hard to grow into the knowledge that we’re made in God’s image when we keep trying to make God into our own. We fashion him in our own image, and unfortunately, not with our more endearing qualities: deceit, manipulation, coercion and violence. And for all that, would you believe, that at the end of the day God doesn’t punish sinners, but forgives, loves and welcomes them into his arms. Now that’s the real miracle.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord”

Thank God for that.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Fire: So Unrelenting by Craig Fuller

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Anguish and heartbreak descend upon those caught in natural disasters. To be sure, they have visited too many, too often this year. There is no hierarchy when it comes to anguish and heartbreak, no one disaster worse or less severe than the next. There is only anguish and heartbreak.

I comment on the tragedy surrounding the fires in California perhaps because they impact me more directly.

I am from California.

I have made frequent visits to the California wine country since 1971.

I have family and friends living in the Napa and Sonoma areas.

I have lost a house to a fire.

Oh, and I was there when these fires started last Sunday night.

We just finished dinner during our fourth and final night of a tour through the Napa Valley as part of a celebration of a good friend’s birthday. I had a camera with me and a member of the wait staff suggested I go outside and take a picture of the fires. It was 10:00 PM local time in Yountville, California with 50 mile per hour winds wiping the fire across the ridge of nearby mountains. Twelve hours later we would be airborne in our aircraft headed back home, but those twelve hours were long and draining.

While never in imminent danger, the uncertainty as one fire became two and then six was stressful, to say the least. Power failed at one of the Napa Valley’s finest hotels. The hotel had generators, but soon they failed. Cellphone service began to fail in what a day or so later we learned was failure caused by the destruction from the fire of over 80 cellphone towers.

Inexplicably, through most of the early morning hours on Monday, the internet worked and I found a site to monitor fire emergency radio transmissions. However, being informed didn’t reduce anxiety as repeatedly dispatchers would say, “…we have no resources to send to that address.” And, this was when “that address” had been reported as a structure on fire.

While lacking resources, the first responders never lost their cool professionalism. Dispatchers guided firefighters to where they were needed most. They reminded that the first priority was protecting the lives of citizens and their own lives.

Sitting in the middle of the Napa Valley proved to be the safest place to be. At one point, there were some 30 fires reported. When we departed and even as I write this many of the fires have containment defined as “zero.” The anguish and heartbreak continue!

As bad as the reports look some three days after the fires started, it will get worse. Probably, it will get much worse.

Fire simply destroys everything in its path. It came suddenly upon the Valley. It was dark. People were asleep. There were no “forecasts” warning of tides or rainfalls. Fire just lit up the sky and overran everything in its path.

Anyone who spends time with the winemaking community in the Napa and Sonoma areas knows of their total commitment to caring for the earth, the crops, the harvest and for each other. These communities are filled with some of the finest people I’ve ever met. I am certain they will band together and rebuild even though there will be a long and painful process ahead.

While our group of ten people are safely back on this side of the country and for that we are very grateful, our hearts and prayers are with old friends and new as they face the challenges of the future.


Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore with his wife Karen.

To Kneel or Stand by Al Sikes

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We have been, for several weeks, greeted each morning by news of which athletes at what game refused to stand during the National Anthem. Most recently the Vice President, Mike Pence, decided to make the body’s posture an even more fractious political stance. It was as if he said, “If you disagree with President Trump and me, you should kneel.”

Generally, the anthem divide is racial and began with Black Lives Matter protesting police killings of black men. As the initial reason for the protest has morphed, it is hard to know whether the current expressions are driven by heartfelt belief or politics.

In church each Sunday, the spiritual leader leads his or her congregation in both personal and global prayer. This past Sunday the theme of the global prayer was for the families of the Las Vegas shooting victims. The theme of the sermon at Christ Church in Easton, Maryland, was the divine guidance to honor God, not our chosen gods.

The Las Vegas shooting featured a white shooter who had concluded that he was a god and for reasons obscure would kill as many as his weaponry would allow. A man humbled by an understanding of the evil within us and connected with forgiveness and redemption would not have sprayed bullets on concert-goers or anybody else.

The theme of evil within us and opportunity for redemption is the sacred text of the two most important spiritual hymns we sing. And you certainly do not have to attend church to have listened or sung either song. They, at least tonally, are a part of our culture. I suspect after the Star Spangled Banner and America they are the two most familiar songs. The songs: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Amazing Grace.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written by Julia Ward Howe at the outset of the Civil War. She reflected: “I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’ So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”

Howe’s song is woven into our culture. The lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” appeared in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons and speeches, most notably in his speech “How Long, Not Long” from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol building on March 25, 1965, after the 3rd Selma March, and in his final sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on the evening of April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination. In fact, the latter sermon, King’s last public words, ends with the initial lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Amazing Grace was written by John Newton. He had been a soldier and then a slave trader and redemptively, a pastor. The first two verses reflect his humility and his understanding of the gift of grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Music for many of us, no for most of us, is often our translation key—an emotional expression of what we have come to believe. I stand for our National Anthem, and I do that recognizing that our collective use of weaponry has not always been warranted whether in police shootings or global wars. But, I also understand that for the overwhelming majority of people our anthem is an iconic expression of national unity—“out of many one.”

The President and Vice President look for opportunities to express their faith in Jesus Christ. They should, in His spirit as captured by John Newton, strive for a more graceful presence. It would indeed be a “sweet sound.” A contrary sound suggests exploitation whether by athletes or elected officials.

Historical material sourced from Wikipedia

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.