First Amendment vs Second Amendment?

If a person who is clearly mentally disturbed threatens to kill someone, can such a statement be used to get appropriate authorities to intervene?

The First Amendment properly gives the broadest protection to citizens’ speech. As such, Courts and most other authorities are reluctant to intervene solely based on such a threat, which has not been demonstrated as serious by some real action.

Consequently the Second Amendment interacts with the First Amendment in a very dangerous way. Because courts have generally interpreted the Second Amendment as permitting essentially unregulated gun ownership, it is nearly impossible to determine what threats are credible and actionable. Almost anyone can buy a gun for any reason. So far it has been very difficult to argue that buying a gun is the sort of action by itself to make a threat credible enough for the government to act.

The consequence of this “somewhat” hidden interaction between these two vital constitutional rights is that threats alone tend to be treated with kid gloves despite obvious risks.

Perhaps the time has come to deal with this increasingly serious problem by clearing up the historical mistake that is an integral part of the Second Amendment.

It is widely known and accepted today that the Second Amendment was intended primarily to enable an armed citizen militia, which was necessary because the army that won the Revolutionary War had to get back to normal life and work.  Today we have a large standing army and basically no longer rely on anything like standby militia.

Courts have long been reluctant to take that point head on. With well over 2/3 of the population now in favor of gun control, perhaps this might be a good time to fix the Second Amendment to clarify this basic long standing misunderstanding.

The Constitution must be made explicitly clear that ALL military-style, rapid-fire weapons are NOT covered by the Second Amendment. This same interpretation already applies to tanks, airplanes, and other weapons of potential mass destruction.

If things ever get to the point that citizens at large could own military hardware, the consequences would be too grave to imagine.


BOTS: What Are They?

Given the recent news about the Russia investigation, I have been wondering a lot about “bots”. What are they? What do they have to do with our elections? How are they regulated?

After talking to some young folks, I believe I can bring you some answers!

‘Bot’ is, as you may have guessed, short for ‘robot’. However, this is not the kind of robot that exists out in the world and does your laundry or vacuums your floor. Bots only exist as software. They are programs that repeatedly perform simple tasks, such as sending “out-of-office” emails or gathering data on the internet.

Like any tool, bots can be used to help or harm. Many bots are harmless, working behind the scenes to make our lives a little easier. But some are less benign. Some of you may have received phishing emails from a friend’s email address asking for money or private information. Most often, those emails are sent by bots programmed to exploit vulnerabilities in email security and pretend to be a real person.

Slightly over half of all web activity is performed by bots. Though not all bots are malicious, “bad” bots (those that pretend to be people, extract sensitive data, send spam, or aid criminal hackers) account for about 28% of all web activity. According to Imperva, a cybersecurity company, about a quarter of all web activity is performed by bots impersonating human beings.

The bots used by the Russians during their recent assault on the American election are similar. Instead of infiltrating peoples’ email to steal your information, Russian bots used invented or stolen social media accounts to amplify pro-Trump fake news and other divisive content.

Most recently, Russian bots attempted to sow discord by spreading misinformation about the Parkland shooting. Before that, they were instrumental in promoting the online campaign that led to the release of the Nunes memo.

(If you’re still interested in bots after reading my thoughts, this New York Times article detailing the recent actions of the “Russian bot army” is a good place to start.)

Unfortunately, it seems that bots are barely and poorly regulated. While it is possible for websites to employ programs that restrict the activity of bots, the internet is the site of an arms race between the developers of benign and malign software.

When those developers are nation-states or global corporations, the stakes are very high indeed.

There is no way of knowing whether the activity of Russian bots on American social media had any discernible effect on the 2016 election, but that attack was just the beginning.

While the Internet has often been compared to the Wild West, the era of low-stakes individual activity is over.

Governments and corporations have moved into cyberspace, and they have brought armies of smart well trained troops.

We should expect to see far more bot activity in the future as the struggle for power moves into the world of information, where the weapons are not guns or missiles but hashtags and headlines.


Dems are Stuck in their own Political Mud

Recently, The Atlantic posted an article by Will Stancil that shed some light on an interesting phenomenon. Like many, Stancil has been thinking about last month’s government shutdown and asking why the Democrats caved. He reached the reasonable (and accurate) conclusion that the Democrats seem to have abandoned their stance of uncompromising resistance to Trump. He also observes that their willingness to work with Trump and the Republicans appears to have led to declining poll numbers for Dems.

The Democrats are endangering their electoral prospects to work with a historically unpopular president whom many of them see as uniquely dangerous. Why?

There are many reasons for the Democrats to become more open to compromise and Stancil points out a few: institutions like Congress prefer to rehash familiar fights rather than open unpredictable new theaters of war; the much-feared normalization of Trumpian policy and rhetoric has occurred; a strong economy makes Trump a stronger political foe; a President to whom none of the old rules seem to apply is impossible to fight; the Democrats have become complacent after a string of unlikely electoral victories. Or maybe fewer Democrats see Trump as a unique danger to American democracy?

Stancil seems sympathetic to the final justification. As he writes of the immigration debate, “Whatever the outcome, the course of these negotiations demonstrates the erosion of the idea that Trump constitutes such a crisis in American governance—that he should be treated differently than any other president.” I somewhat agree with Stancil on this point. But I also agree with the Democrats.

The current threat to American governance predates Trump. As I have written before, he is a symptom, not the disease.

Our current crisis has been building for a long time, but I would argue that the true crisis began during the presidency of Barack Obama with the rise of the Tea Party. After the 2010 midterms, the Republican majority began an unprecedented campaign of obstruction, which culminated in the 2016 “theft” of a Supreme Court nomination from President Obama. Under the guidance of Mitch McConnell (in particular), the Republicans waged a scorched earth campaign against Democrats, violating norms (and possibly the Constitution). In doing so, the Republicans have altered American governance and severely damaged our democratic institutions. But they also won control of every branch of government despite receiving fewer votes than Democratic candidates nationwide.

The central question of the Trump era is whether or not the Democrats will attempt to replicate McConnellesque tactics in the pursuit of their goals.

The Democrats are in a unique bind. They have two sets of incentives shaping their behavior, and those incentives strongly conflict.

The first (their electoral incentives) seem to dictate use of the same obstructionist playbook as the Tea Party and McConnell. Their use of such tactics in the first year of the Trump presidency coincided with shocking electoral wins in deep red areas. Enthusiasm among liberal voters has been sky high and the resistance in Washington has heartened and strengthened the “Resistance” in the rest of the country. If Democrats want to retake the House, the Senate, governor’s mansions, state legislatures, etc. in 2018, it seems that their surest bet is to forsake compromise and start playing the game the way Republicans have been for years.

However, Democrats have a second set of incentives that motivate them to work with Trump and the Republicans. Unlike the Tea Party, modern Democrats have an ideological commitment to functional governance. It is a central belief of the modern American Left that government (particularly the federal government) can and should be a force for good in the lives of its citizens. It should actively guarantee people their rights, intervene in the economy, and regulate just about every sector of American life in order to promote health, safety, and the public good. Such beliefs make obstructionism abominable, a dereliction of duty and hypocrisy of the highest order.

Clearly, this is not the case for Republicans. Though many (though certainly not all) of members its seem to have a firm commitment to their individual right to tread on the rights of others, the Tea Party has been incredibly consistent in its belief that the government should not interfere in any aspect of the lives of its citizens. They view government as the problem. Therefore, their electoral incentive to obstruct our process of governance and secure partisan wins at any cost was aligned with their ideological commitment to reducing the role of government in—well—everything.

In the end, Democratic obstructionism may only further the goals of Republican ideologues and help Trump erode the democratic institutions he clearly despises. But abandoning obstructionism can (and will) be seen as cowardice or lack of principles.

However, a willingness to work with the Republicans is necessary if we hope to restore American democracy. We have recently learned how much of our democratic process is governed not by laws but by norms. It is only through concerted action by public figures committed to American liberal democracy (not just on the Left but also on the Right) can those norms once again come to ensure that our system of governance works for the public good.

But if abandoning obstructionism loses the Democrats elections, does any of it matter? The Republicans seem willing to drive the car off the cliff by themselves.

The Democrats can’t win. If they work with Trump, they risk putting more of the government into the hands of Republicans. If they pull back into knee-jerk obstructionism, they will join the Tea Party in burning our governance to the ground. Both outcomes are basically intolerable.


The solution likely resides in the grassroots Left. Instead of demanding undifferentiating obstruction, activists should be more open to ad hoc cooperation on certain issues, even as some things remain non-negotiable.


But the real future of American governance depends on ultimately restoring our elected officials’ ability to work together. Unfortunately, that will require Republicans to play their part in restoring our democratic institutions and norms.

The Sound of Shoes Dropping is Rising

After Mueller’s recent indictments of 13 Russian citizens for violating several US laws about interference in US elections, it seems unlikely that there will be any trials of those accused because they will remain beyond the reach of our legal jurisdiction unless they choose to come to the US.

So why bother?

Mueller issued indictments because he needed to “lay a foundation” of indisputable facts regarding Russian interference in US elections. Eventually, Mueller clearly plans to connect these Russians to US citizens associated with Trump to strengthen the case that there was a degree of cooperation between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Currently, two Trump associates named Rick Gates and Alex van der Zwaan are in the process of pleading guilty to lying to the FBI. They sought to hide their links between the Trump campaign and the Russians indicted for interfering with our 2016 election until caught by the Mueller probe.

These steps may not have had to be taken sequentially, but doing so creates a stronger case—possibly in a court of law but certainly in the court of public opinion.

It is too early to predict the public, political, and legal consequences of these steps completely or clearly.

But it is already safe to say that Trump’s trap is closing in fast.


How to Age and Die Comfortably

I am NOT going to tell you how to age and die comfortably.

Having never done so, I know about the subject primarily from my son in law, Dr. Sam Harrington, whose new book At Peace: Choosing A Good Death After a Long Life is now available on Amazon and in bookstores!

Like most of you, I have read Atul Gawande’s books. If you like his work, then you will find Dr. Harrington’s book fascinating and helpful.

Dr. Harrington’s book is a bit more granular about many particular aspects of aging and medicine and how to deal with those parts of life.

I think the essence of the book is that in many cases less medicine often enables better quality of life in one’s remaining years to an almost perfect death where you “wake up in heaven”.

If you think it sounds intriguing, you can download the introduction for free and listen to his recent appearances on NPR through his website!

I am proudly breaking my ironclad rule NOT to promote anything for anybody, partly because Harrington is such a good guy BUT also because I truly believe you will find the book important, interesting, and worthwhile.

Adolescent Behavior Warnings

It is scary and confusing for all of us to see violence, particularly gun violence, in schools, which are supposed to be a place of safety and learning. Before each deadly shooting, there have often been numerous warning signs. However, a lack of communication and coordination between parents, schools, and law enforcement ensures that the complete picture of the danger emerges only when it is too late.

Often, parents and teachers have different perspectives on and understandings of a student’s behavior. For example, students who act out in school are often well behaved at home or vice versa. Meanwhile, a fascination with guns may be known only to a child’s parents or his classmates.

Most students who act out at school will never murder any of their classmates, and the majority of gun owners will never commit a mass shooting. But students who are violent and/or make disturbing remarks at school and who own a lot of guns are far more likely to become extremely dangerous.

Unfortunately, parents and teachers do not like to discuss such things—while a teacher might tell a parent that a child is acting up, the parent is unlikely to inform the teacher or an administrator that the child also has a fascination with firearms—which means that tragedies occur that probably could have been prevented.

No parent wants to believe that his or her child is capable of mass murder. No teacher wants to imagine a shooting in his or her classroom. But our unwillingness to think such things should not be a barrier to communication aimed at solving the problem.

Improving networks of communication between schools and parents would go a long way towards making sure the warning signs that precede a school shooting are spotted and acted on. I am not sure exactly what action would be appropriate, and such things would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis—as long as a decisive conclusion is reached in each case.

Obviously, the FBI’s failure to act on the information they received about the Florida shooter is a problem, but it’s important to remember that we do not know exactly what they heard or what form the tips took. Better communication might have solved that problem.

Even if we manage to make such societal changes, however, it would not absolve the federal government (the Republican Party in particular) of the guilt it carries due to its unwillingness to pass sensible gun safety legislation. America is so unsafe not because we have higher rates of mental illness (which has never been shown to be associated with violence) or even violent crime than other Western industrialized democracies, but because our legislature has refused to act to stop the carnage.

However, in the face of today’s shameful inaction, everyday Americans must do what we can, such as communicate better to prevent further tragedies.



A Reunification of the Koreas?


A touch of background: in the last 50 years, South Korea has grown its GDP at an average annual rate of 5+%. After the Korean War, its land was ravaged, its population poor and illiterate, and its natural resources minimal.

North Korea was less ravaged but had a protective neighbor that was happy to keep them as a buffer state.

South Korea took its cues from Western, free market democracies and became a giant in the economic world. At the same time, North Korea took its cues from Chinese autocracy and communism, and became one of the weakest and poorest nations on earth save for its nuclear developments.

In addition, North Korea nurtured/fostered a vicious primogeniture monarchy and kept its poor and starving population in line with oppressive force both inside and outside of its borders.

Now, the world is teetering on the brink of a global nuclear conflict that could spread dangerously around the whole globe. And the whole world is riveted with the stupidity and volatility of North Korea’s leader (as well as the US President), which could precipitate nuclear war.

At this same moment, the Winter Olympics has led to a new opportunity for performative diplomacy between the two Koreas. They seem to be rediscovering each other in a new and curious positive light with the help of sports—of all things?

Thus the BIG QUESTION is could they really unite again?

So LET’S HAVE some speculative FUN!

How could the two countries be governed as one?

If democracy was used, the monarchy would quickly disappear unless Kim Jong Un was found a nice big island somewhere! For instance Japan?

If the autocracy was maintained, the powerful business interests in South Korea would never accept the dictates of a dictator (or vice versa).

How would China feel about a reunited Korea that was rich AND powerful?

How would Japan feel about a powerful Korea next door? With or without Kim in residence.

How would S Korea like being a nuclear power?

The sheer impossibility of finding clear, satisfying answers to the above questions strongly suggests to me that reunification is practically IMPOSSIBLE.

Why, therefore, are we being teased with that possibility?

The Essence of Democracy is a Process

Most of us think we know what democracy is.

Perhaps we should think again.

Democracy is, of course, government of and by the people. However, there is a lot that familiar formulation leaves unsaid. How and when do the people choose? How do the people correct their mistakes? For which people does the government work and not work? By which people is it chosen? All this was much simpler in earlier times, particularly before the internet connected (or perhaps disconnected) so many people. It begins to seem to me that democracy is really a complex process used by people to manage a free society.

We all relearn daily that democracy can be one person’s heaven and another person’s hell depending on who you are and where you are sitting. The nature of majority rule always creates some minority of citizens who likely are unhappy with a direction the country is taking. Fortunately, the Founders tried to put some safeguards against tyranny by any group into our Constitution but those safeguards are today insufficient. And because of money in politics, gerrymandering, and the Electoral College, it is increasingly common that a party elected without even a plurality of votes gains control of one or more branches of our government.

For much of our history, too many Americans were effectively locked out of our democratic process and were forced to struggle (often against violent resistance) to make their voices (votes) heard. Remember the Civil War.

Today, for many, the struggle continues. New assaults on voting rights and the multiplying influence of money in politics have led to a situation in which most Americans feel that their government no longer represents them and that their voices simply do not matter.

At the same time, a new form of tribalism is taking hold in America. Partisanship is on the rise and issues of identity have become increasingly paramount in American politics. The nation is splintering: young versus old, urban versus rural, college graduates versus those with less education. And beyond the above there are the harmful rifts that recent elections have opened with their focus on race and ethnicity.

Increasingly, Americans see the other party, broadly defined, as a foe to be defeated not as fellow citizens to be worked and lived with.

Despite all that, we still have more in common with our fellow Americans than we usually admit, even to ourselves. With the exception of a fairly small vocal minority, Americans would be surprised at the many things they agree on. When people actually sit down and talk outside the echo chamber of social media, they find—often to their surprise—that they want many of the same things from their government.

What we need is more neighborly connections between Right and Left and between haves and have-nots in this country.

It should not require an act of God or rare genius to find a way for some form of social media to bring more people in America closer together rather than further apart. Why can’t more Americans reach out to people they do not know or understand? How about simply reaching out to learn about other people’s lives and how they feel and think—not really to persuade them of anything?

Curiosity can be a great driver to learn and people are generally quite curious. Many harbor a wish to know more about their fellow citizens who see the same world so differently. But it is often difficult to identify those people who both disagree with you and may be open to respectful exchange of ideas. But some of those people might also see the broader social benefit of having private conversations with citizens with whom they may disagree.

Some sort of mobile app might make it easier to engage in exchanges of views without attempting to persuade the other person. Such an app could give us all the opportunity to better understand how so many Americans understand the same world so differently.

If such a thing could be developed—and only an experiment can answer that question—it could organically grow and spread and might over time begin to reverse some of the divisive trends that are so splintering our beloved country today.

All reactions and ideas are more than welcome to help plan such a process!