The Dallas Morning News. October 4, 2020
If this presidential election feels particularly divisive, without a consensus about where the country should be headed on big issues, it may just be because we are actually engaged in a much larger struggle about who we are as a people and who we want to be as a country. We may actually be in a fight over national culture, broadly defined, and those fights are never easy.
A country’s culture is hard to define, but critically important. It involves the stories we tell ourselves about our past and future and who we celebrate as heroes (or whether we stop allowing heroes to emerge, as we too often do today). It involves our aspirations. And it involves the work and behavior all of us engage in as we go about our daily lives. Culture comes out in how we engage in commerce, how we practice and profess faith and, of course, how we interact with other people, whether they live next door or on the other side of the planet.
It mattered, for example — as the late historian Stephen Ambrose once noted — that in World War II civilians who saw a band of American soldiers come over the hill could rest easy that those soldiers would likely offer comfort and even food, when the same could not be said for soldiers from many other countries.
A country’s culture emerges organically based on shared experiences as well as hopes and dreams and even fears, but it is also shaped by significant events and leaders willing to look past parochial politics to offer a broader vision for the future. The leaders who are worth following call on us to serve a purpose larger than ourselves. They inspire us to translate our prosperity and our talents into achievements that will endure and grow over time.
What’s more, if our leaders are going to save us from being at the mercy of events, they will also have to find a way to unify the country behind universal ideals. If such unity seems impossibly elusive in the current environment, we’d argue the key ingredient is actually ingrained in core American values that have animated this country since its founding, even if the country itself hasn’t always lived up to those values.
Those values start with recognizing the equality of all people and the dignity and worth of each person regardless of background, faith, race or any other factor. If that sounds straightforward, applying our values gets messy as we walk through policy disagreements. Often we lose sight of the broader view, and we can end up looking past what might have brought us together. What should be a unifying idea is that each person has moral agency, each person has the capacity to decide for himself or herself how to live and the ability to act. And therefore public policy should be predicated on empowering Americans and fostering a culture where more people have the ability to address the problems they face.
In practice, however, we too often skip past moral agency and assume when we design programs to combat poverty and other issues that many Americans are incapable of making decisions to govern their own lives, or we institute initiatives that actively deprive Americans of opportunities to act in the face of adversity. A few basic examples include neighborhoods walled off from the cities in which they sit by highways without off-ramps, or schools that lack resources to enable students from all backgrounds to succeed. We enact tax policies that hobble the efforts of Americans to rise into the middle class or amass assets that can keep them there. And we push forward with trade policies that too often encourage companies to push jobs offshore while some also fuel fears that newly arriving Americans will displace those already struggling to get by.
It is possible to shape a culture, but we need to actively work against being at the mercy of the next crisis.
Truth be told, this nation has had more than its share of culturally shaping events in what’s been a very crowded two decades.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 had profound cultural effects. Even with the first Gulf War successfully completed, at the time of the attacks this country still operated under its post-Vietnam reluctance to engage in military contests abroad. That reluctance collapsed along with the World Trade Center towers. As a result, a generation of Americans volunteered for military service even as (and often because) they understood that doing so would send them to war.
Similarly, the financial panic of 2008 fed another cultural change. Before the housing crisis, homeownership had been seen as a path to the middle class for generations. To buy a home was to attain a portion of the American Dream. Today, homeownership rates still haven’t returned to pre-financial crisis levels.
Now we’re deeply engaged in a debate about racial equity at the same time that we are facing a pandemic and a recession that undercut the financial stability of tens of millions of Americans. We still can only guess at the full contours of this recession, but it should be clear that it will have long-term effects because it is already reshaping the landscape of American life.
A large number of Americans are pulling up stakes and moving to new communities. Mostly, that movement is into the suburbs or exurbs or even to rural communities and out of urban centers. That’s the case in New York, where Manhattan now has a 5% apartment vacancy rate for the first time in its history, according to real estate firm Douglas Elliman and appraiser Miller Samuel. And it’s true in Vermont, where towns that had long seen declining populations are seeing a flood of new residents and new school-age children.
It’s also the case in Texas. We’ve long seen an expansion of suburban communities such as Plano, Frisco and Allen. Austin has grown so much its suburbs seem likely to someday merge with the suburbs of San Antonio. And Houston may periodically battle floodwaters, but we haven’t yet seen the crest of its suburban tide expanding outward. And judging by real estate trends, the influx we get from California and elsewhere will continue to fill the outer rings of our cities.
America is on the move, and no one yet knows what policy implications that will have. But it seems clear that if Americans settling now in suburban and rural communities stay there, we’ll see changes on policies ranging from how communities are policed to how schools are run to how transportation issues are worked out. Rather than denser growth with smaller footprints, we can expect a more spread-out populace to want more highways. Parents who settle in a community because of the quality of its schools can be expected to engage in protracted fights about education.
So how can we shape events and improve our society? In the What’s at Stake series, we’ve offered ideas on economic growth, foreign policy and presidential leadership. We believe that progress can be made in each of these areas. But first, we need to step back from the brink of political destruction and ask what should be demanded from our public leaders and what should be demanded of the rest of us ordinary Americans.
And here, John F. Kennedy is instructive. In his inaugural address he called on Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” In that statement was a call for a level of cultural agreement and sacrifice that can sustain a free society on ideals that go beyond ourselves. In a world of a limited government and limited resources, it’s incumbent on all of us to ask what work can be done by ordinary Americans to make our society thrive.
Some of that work will always involve mobilizing others against injustice. But some of it will also always involve what political commentator Peggy Noonan once called “patriotic grace” in a book of that title. We need to give our fellow Americans a little grace as they work through their lives. Be a little less judgmental of others and also a little more understanding of what it takes to enact significant change.
We’d add to that thought a call for a more objective reading of our history and an understanding of what this country has accomplished, even as it has a long way to go and a lot of improvement ahead.
It’s true that the legacy of slavery and the impact of racism are an uncleansed stain on our country’s history that still threatens out future. It’s also true that this country produced the first anti-slavery organization (the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery) and an abolition movement that eventually crushed that evil institution. We had legal segregation, and we had courageous leaders who finally found a way to remove the pillars that propped up that form of oppression, even as much work remains to be done.
It’s true the United States has a lot of work to do to ensure that opportunities are more broadly available. But it’s also true that this country has figured out a way to unleash human creativity not seen elsewhere that serves as a massive magnet that has pulled people here for as long as we’ve been a country (and before). We’re a nation of immigrants in part because we’re a nation of opportunity. The story of America is very much the story of human flourishing in the arts as well as commerce. That flourishing stems from an ingrained sense of liberty that allows creativity to run free and has made the U.S. leader in new technology, patents and innovations that have lifted the spirit alongside the standard of living.
And it’s true that we’re a peaceful country that prefers comity over war and has, nevertheless, built the most powerful military the world has ever seen. That’s not a random occurrence. The same creativity that fuels innovations fuels the military arts as well, but there is another force behind it. We have an all-volunteer, professional military that is filled with individuals invested in a larger purpose of defending free, democratic societies rather than seeking conquest. There is power in that moral grounding.
Finally, we’re also a free people who lean heavily on rules and the law. The American system of justice needs reform, but the American adherence to the rule of law is still unusual in many parts of the world. American courts and an adversarial legal system drive the country relentlessly toward constitutional requirements and laws legitimately enacted and applied. This system undergirds liberty because it constrains our political system as well as individuals. So even while the sitting president may stir controversy over a peaceful transfer of power, no one can seriously doubt that American institutions from the federal marshals to the Marines who guard the president would meet, above all else, their constitutional responsibilities.
So in developing the culture we need to help sustain our efforts to meet the very real challenges ahead, we encourage all Americans to set cynicism aside and look to core values we can unite behind. With that in mind, it should be easier to offer grace to others and see through the politics of the moment. We’re in a moment when many wish to tear down institutions. What we actually need is for Americans to step forward to do the work to build up the institutions we need to address national problems. That means not tearing apart institutions — such as the Supreme Court — because the quirks of our political system are moving against your party. And what we also need is for Americans to recognize when our existing institutions are acting reasonably. Congress might not be popular, but when it passes a reasonable solution to a pressing problem that may not be your party’s preferred solution, it’s incumbent upon voters to accept that this is how a democratic society advances.
From our houses of worship to the branches of government and much more, we need functional institutions. We’ll only get them if we hold them accountable and help them function. If they need to be rebuilt, Americans should offer ideas and turn their shoulders to the work necessary to forge the consensus a democratic society requires. If we need clear decisions, we should be prepared to work within our institutions to advance the national interests.
If that sounds like hard work, it nonetheless is within our grasp. Or to quote a president who, in noting the problems of a stumbling economy and a divided country, said in his first inaugural address, that what’s required is “our best effort, our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together, with God’s help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.”
Houston Chronicle. October 4, 2020
Editorial: Texas leaders failed to prepare for a pandemic. It can’t happen again.
We are far from writing the final chapters on the novel coronavirus pandemic, but seven months since the first diagnosed COVID-19 case in Texas — as deaths from the virus reach 16,000 and cases near a million — we can now look back and see how it all went so wrong.
As detailed in the three-part Chronicle series Exposed, public officials at all levels, some with the best intentions and others full of little more than wishful thinking and political calculations, were unprepared to face a foreseeable crisis, confusing Texans with mixed messages and using faulty information that led them to roll the dice and needlessly put lives at risk.
Although it had been more than a century since the 1918 flu pandemic brought the world to its knees, killing about 675,000 people in the U.S. alone and millions around the globe, the last decade alone had health experts facing two outbreaks that left them sounding the alarm and issuing dire warnings that went largely unheeded.
In 2009, the H1N1 pandemic claimed 240 lives in Texas. Experts found the state responded well but they cautioned of a potential shortage of personal protective equipment, including masks, gowns and gloves. Texas reacted by buying large quantities of protective equipment and hand sanitizer, placed them in caches around the state — and, the Chronicle found, largely forgot them.
In 2014, the Ebola virus response led medical professionals to warn about a lack of epidemiology staff and the need for more public health funding. There was an effort to bring up the number of epidemiologists to national standards — 1.9 per 100,000 residents — but Texas didn’t even reach half, stalling at .73.
Over the past 12 years, the federal government has also cut funding for emergency preparedness by more than half, and Texas did nothing to close the gap. A bill introduced in the Legislature after the Ebola pandemic would have placed the head of the Department of State Health Services in charge of a unified pandemic response. It died in a House committee.
In 2018, the Texas Task Force of Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response discussed having pandemic training. They did not meet again until COVID-19 was already on its way.
In Houston, officials tried to balance economic concerns with public safety, going forward with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with the belief they could monitor the situation and pull back once there was a confirmed case of “community spread.”
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was a constant voice of caution and safety, but even she now believes she should have been more aggressive. By the time that first community spread case was diagnosed, the Chronicle found there were already at least three dozen people infected in the region.
Houston got lucky that the rodeo, which was eventually shut down two weeks and 851,000 guests later, did not become a super-spreader event. Local officials drew the right lesson from the near-miss and have been consistently pushing for restraint ever since.
State leaders should have followed Houston’s lead.
Gov. Greg Abbott partially shut down the state in March, which undoubtedly helped slow the spread, but he chose to listen to people such as salon owner Shelley Luther over his own medical experts, such as Dr. Mark McClellan, and reopened the economy before the state’s own criteria were met.
Compounding the error was the state’s use of flawed data, which painted a far rosier picture and made it easier to follow the more politically palatable response. Over the past few months, the number of cases, of hospitalizations and the positivity rate, the percentage of how many people test positive in relation to the number of tests, have all been revised — adding to the confusion.
The number of deaths has also been affected. As the Chronicle investigation shows, while state officials were using the state’s comparatively low death rate to justify reopening, a lot more Texans were dying of COVID than were being reported. At its worst, the undercount reached 3,811 — roughly 44 percent of the deaths reported by late July.
The Chronicle series prompts us not just to look back — but forward.
There will be a time to hold our leaders accountable, and single out any who deserve praise, but we also must push ahead to make sure we are better prepared for what comes next, either from this pandemic or from another virus. Experts made many recommendations to the Chronicle reporters, including the proper funding of public health, shifting more protective equipment manufacturing to the U.S., expanding the state stockpile, and creating the position of Texas pandemic czar to have a strong single voice that can communicate the best way forward.
We failed to properly prepare this time and it has cost us dearly. We can’t let it happen again.
San Antonio Express-News. October. 4, 2020
Editorial: Biden offers compassion and rigor on immigration
Much like climate change and health care, immigration is an issue that starkly divides President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. In policies, they are mirror opposites.
This isn’t to say Biden has a strong record on immigration. President Barack Obama, with Biden as vice president, deported a record 3 million people in eight years in office. Obama also oversaw widespread family raids that sought to deport Central American mothers and children.
But Obama also sought to protect young immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation, and Biden and Obama have advocated for comprehensive immigration reform.
Trump is the most anti-immigration president in modern history, having signed more than 400 executive actions on immigration.
Biden’s immigration plans begin with reversing Trump’s actions over the past four years, including an amended version of the travel ban that marked the beginning of the Trump administration.
They also differ on the border wall. In 2016, Trump’s repeated promise of a border wall emerged as both metaphor and real structure. The wall along the United States’ 2,000-mile border with Mexico, and Trump’s vow that Mexico would pay for it, was the centerpiece of his campaign and immigration policy.
But construction has been slow going — and Mexico hasn’t paid for any of it. Instead, the $15 billion which the administration has allocated for 738 miles of wall and fencing has been diverted from the budgets of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and the Treasury Forfeiture Fund.
Biden, who voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, would stop this diversion and use the money for border enforcement efforts.
Trump has also repeatedly challenged the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, created under Obama. In 2017, Trump ended the program, but last June, the Supreme Court ruled against Trump, giving “Dreamers” a reprieve.
However, the decision wasn’t made on the program’s substance, but on administrative procedure and the manner in which the administration exercised its decision. After the court’s decision, the administration limited DACA renewals to one year instead of two and rejected new applications.
Biden has said he would strength the program and establish a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and their parents.
The decades-long inability of the United States to come up with a fair and comprehensive immigration policy is a bipartisan failure of Congress and the executive branch. But there is a cruelty to Trump’s policies. He not only has made asylum — which is a legal right — more difficult, but he punishes those who seek it.
Before his Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” program, migrants were held at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility until it was decided if they should be released, transferred to immigration detention or deported.
Now, they are sent back to Mexico until their immigration court hearings. Thousands of asylum-seekers have languished in unsanitary camps along the border, where they are often preyed upon by gangs and bad actors.
But nowhere are the cruelties more unconscionable and heartbreaking than the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which forcibly separated thousands of children from parents and legal guardians at the border.
Trump eventually signed an executive order ending his administration’s practice of forced separation of families, but the harm done to the children is incalculable. Because the administration wanted this to be a deterrent to other immigrants coming to the United States, there are parents and children who may never see each other again.
Biden has said he’ll make it a priority to reunite the separated families.
Biden should have to answer for the mistakes and deficiencies of his and Obama’s immigration policy — he has called the deportations a “big mistake” — but he does offer ideas to address them and create a more compassionate, yet rigorous, policy.
Trump’s focus remains on simply punishing those not fortunate to have been born in the U.S. but who dream of being here and making a better life.
We favor Biden’s blend of compassion and rigor over Trump’s cruelty.