A March 9 story in the Colorado Springs Gazette noted that nearly 4,000 people working for the state of Colorado have salaries higher than the governor. Our Mr. Hickenlooper has an annual salary of $90,000, which is not bad as incomes go, but that ranks him near the bottom of the pay scale nationally. Gubernatorial paychecks range from a low of $70,000 for the leader of Maine to a high of a bit over $190,000 for Pennsylvania’s chief executive. A handful of independently wealthy governors decline their salaries.
There is a great deal I could write about this week regarding national politics — such as a president thinking it witty to tell a Pocahontas joke to a group of Native American war heroes, or the increasingly interesting race to become the next governor of Colorado. I could write about the dangerous and draconian Republican tax bill, and the hogwash the GOP is spouting to support it. Yes, there are many important subjects that merit a close and insightful examination, because they may change the world. But I’m not going to do that.
Back in the mid 1990’s, I was sent by the Air Force Academy to the University of Michigan to pursue a Ph.D., after which I returned to the USAFA faculty to continue teaching. During that grad school stint, we chose to live in a small town about 45 minutes north of Ann Arbor. We enjoyed the small town atmosphere, including Fourth of July parades with lots of tractors and summer youth concerts in the town square. And thank you, kindly tax payers, for affording me that opportunity. It was great!
As a former congressional candidate this may seem like an odd thing for me to say, but folks, you are paying way too much attention to our national government, and way too little attention to the state and local governments.
For years now there has been a heated debate on energy in Colorado, with one side stating we need to rid our state of fossil fuels and the other stating we need to rid our state of renewable energy. Neither side has been willing to give an inch.
The folks wanting to rid our state of the evil renewable sources of energy and their policies state that it is costing jobs in coal, gas and oil. The other side? Well, they will give you numbers on how fossil fuels will kill our planet (or already have), are dangerous all the way around, and are dinosaurs (no pun intended) in the world of energy.
Do you know the name George Santayana? I suspect not, unless you are a student of late 19th and early 20th century Spanish philosophers. Heck, I had to look him up myself, and learned that he was born in Madrid, was educated at Harvard, and died in Rome in 1952. You may not have heard of old George, but I very much suspect you heard a phrase he is credited with first uttering, something like: Those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. There are other versions, of course, but the basic thought is that if we don’t remember the lessons taught to us by our own history, we may well repeat the same mistakes.
I spent the bulk of my 25-plus-year military career dealing with the fabled sword of war. I started off in 1981 as a “finger on the button” ICBM launch officer just north of here, at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. There, with the Cold War in full bloom, I was very much at the “pointy end” of the military sword. As an ICBM Combat Crew Commander, I had direct control over 10 Minuteman III missiles, and secondary command over 40 more, each capable of carrying up to three “re-entry vehicles,” which was the “explod-y” part (we were told to call them RVs and never “warheads” because that would seem somewhat – I guess – war-like).
I was proud then, and remain so today, to serve in the now-disbanded Strategic Air Command, which had custody of two of the three legs of the nuclear triad. We in SAC had both the land-based and the aircraft-based nuclear weapons. The third leg of the triad, the nuclear-capable submarines, belonged to the Navy. The motto of SAC was “Peace is our Profession” I was proud to sit nuclear alert, some dozens of feet below the western prairie, because I was quite certain that our nuclear capability was the key factor in limiting aggression by the two big nuclear nations we pointed things at.
Following my time underground, I found myself at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, teaching political science to the cadets. I would ultimately spend 15 years of my time in uniform at USAFA, mostly teaching American government, the founding, and American defense policy. Thus I departed the pointy part of the sword for the other end – wherein policy is crafted and evaluated. I enjoyed the entire 25 years, and I am quite certain that my military life played a very significant role in creating the humble columnist whose words you are now reading.
In graduate school, earning first the Masters Degree and ultimately the Ph.D. that are required to teach at USAFA, I was re-introduced to a concept I had first heard of in high school – the rational actor (RA) model. This is an attempt by political scientists to create models to help explain – and perhaps more importantly, to predict – the behaviors of those in leadership positions. Like any effort to predict behavior, the model makers had to make certain assumptions. A physicist might assume, for example, that gravity won’t vanish from the solar system. A theologian might assume that the Catholic Church will continue to be run by popes. And a sociologist might assume that parents who love their children won’t let them grow up to be Dallas Cowboy fans.
In the world of political science, the rational actor model is used a great deal to try to understand and project the future actions of both governments and the leaders therein. And here is where the RA model seems to be letting us down with the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
A rational actor will, the theory assumes, act in his or her own best interests. This is why the model doesn’t really work well for the truly mentally ill, but it actually does a pretty good job of predicting behaviors of a number of world leaders, if you make the correct assumptions. People look at the actions of, say, Saddam Hussein, and think he was not acting rationally. But he was. And so was Muammar Gaddafi. And so were lots of other “crazy” people. That is because the core assumption is that the person involved will act in their own self interest. See how the italics help there? If you understand that Hussein or Gaddafi were only interested in staying in power, and being pretty rich, their other actions seem to make a lot more sense. It’s not how we think they should act in their own interest; it’s only about how they act in their own self interest. If all you care about is staying in power, then killing your uncle, or other leaders of your dead dad’s military makes sense. So, Kim Jong-un is, in fact, acting in a rational manner, at least from his very narrow perspective and his near-pathological desire to hold on to absolute power.
But there is another key assumption in the rational actor model – that the leaders have the information, the knowledge, the facts and figures, to fully understand the situation they face. It seems unlikely that Kim actually has the complete information needed to act rationally, at least in the international politics sense of the term. I have my doubts that any of his “advisors” tell him really bad news or challenge him to defend his thinking in any meaningful way. Thus you cannot be a rational actor if you don’t have your self interest AND have near-complete information. So it is unlikely that North Korea is an appropriate place to predict behavior based on being rational actors.
This brings me to the troubling times in which we now live, here in the U.S. During my time with the nukes, and in all my years in the military that followed, I never once, regardless of the occupant of the White House, seriously doubted that the president had good information, and that his view of his own self interest was directly tied to the nation’s self interest.
But I have since had a change of heart. It started about… let me see.. six months ago, and became more acute recently.
Every presidential candidate has holes in his or her knowledge about the world. But prior to the most recent election, you saw candidates from both parties work very hard to learn about the vital issues of the day, and of the responsibilities of the office. National security was a particularly challenging area for candidates who had not served in the military, and we therefore often saw robust efforts at self-education when it came to military operations. At least we used to.
For me the most horrifying aspect of the Trump presidential campaign was his approach to issues of national security. Specifically I found two things profoundly troubling – first that he was largely ignorant of the major international security threats we face and second, that he seemed oddly proud to not know too much. Remember his “I know more than the Generals about ISIS” remark? Recall how he said being president was basically easy? This twin problem of being uninformed and proud of it came to a shocking head in one of the Republican candidate debates. Hugh Hewitt, a thoughtful gentleman who leans strongly to the right, asked what should have been a softball question on national security. Mr. Hewitt asked “what is your priority among our nuclear triad?” And it soon became very clear that Mr. Trump had absolutely no idea what the nuclear triad is. This is akin to asking a doctor where the heart is, or an auto mechanic to find the steering wheel. This is basic fundamental military knowledge, and Mr. Trump didn’t know it.
Since that fateful day, there have been a number of additional demonstrations that Mr. Trump doesn’t really understand the military and military operations. His recent bombastic rhetoric aimed at North Korea and – bizarrely – Venezuela suggests he has not engaged in a great deal of on-the-job training regarding mil ops.
And so the Rational Actor model is imperiled by the president’s profound lack of critical knowledge. But recall that the RA model also assumes that people will act in their own rational self interest. Mr. Trump creates a challenge in this area too. He has demonstrated throughout his life, and continues to do so in the White House, a willingness to turn on those whom he feels are in his way or oppose him. It is unprecedented to have a sitting president, whose party controls all three branches of the national government, attack his own party’s leadership. Mr. Trump’s tweets about the Senate majority leader are both remarkable and shocking, though we are becoming less able to be shocked by this president.
In what analyitical framework can we say Mr. Trump is acting in his own self interest? I suspect it is only the most basic version of the theory – Mr. Trump only cares about Mr. Trump. His record of stiffing those who did work for him, of being only tangentially committed to honesty and his actions against a sitting (and Republican) FBI director call into question any broad notion of self interest. Rather, I suspect Mr. Trump operates moment to moment, and defines his self interest as that which makes him feel good at the moment. Be it two scoops of ice cream or threats of fire and fury, I just don’t think Mr. Trump contemplates the meaning of things more than a few minutes or hours in the future. This selfish trait is disquietingly similar to what we think we see in Mr. Kim.
Thus we find ourselves, in trying to understand the current problem with North Korea, in a tough spot – the Rational Actor model, a core analytical tool, seems to fail us twice. We can’t assume either leader is acting with full knowledge of the situation, nor can we assume that either leader is acting in what we would like to believe regarding self interest – that they see their nation’s self interest as more important than their own self-aggrandizement.
And we elected our guy.
We walk a dangerous road when we embrace a distain of knowledge. We put our own life at risk when we use the services of an ignorant physician. We risk our homes when we employ an under-educated HVAC tech. What can we say when we elect a man who is proud of being uninformed, and give him the nuclear launch codes?
It is politically correct these days to rail against, well, being politically correct. We see people bombastically pronouncing political correctness as an evil affronting all that is good and decent in society. We see extreme pronouncements of self-righteous rage and sanctimonious cheerleading. We toss around the term “snowflake” to mean anyone we think is not talking the way we think is correct, regarding free speech. A great many pots are calling a great many kettles some very rude names.
Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty, though recent years have seen the far Right expressing a particularly extreme version of PC aversion. For example, an April 2017 essay in the Washington Times asserted that “In today’s academy, truth is an invention. Expecting people to show up on time is racist. Censorship is good. Silencing opposing viewpoints imperative. Violence to enforce safety is natural…It sounds dramatic, and it is, and it’s also the only way the left maintains power — brainwashing people into believing that social norms must be destroyed in order to create a more perfect society…Just ask the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Cuba and Venezuela how well that works out…Last year, we watched political correctness on campus jump with abandon into its perfected state of fascism. To read this suggests that free speech has been cancelled to make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings and that we are just a few censored words away from becoming a brave new world.
This is nonsense, of course, but it sells papers. Universities have become the special target of the PC police, due to both some very stupid polices adopted by some schools, coupled with a rabid and unreasonable hatred by some on the right of higher education itself – but that discussion will have to await a future column. The idea of “elites,” which are apparently whatever you want them to be, being the true danger to free speech is both laughable and dangerous. When your roof leaks, do you want an elite roofer, or one that is fun to have a beer with? When you need heart surgery, do you want an elite surgeon? Or do you want a fishing buddy with a Buck knife? Elites are not the enemy. Censorship is.
Simply put, the battle to fight political correctness has become that which in theory it was created to oppose – an effort to stifle free expression. And those that fight the battle against what they see as the evils of PC are largely missing two key points: first, political correctness is a spectrum, not a binary choice, and second, we should all always oppose any effort to infringe on free speech, whether it be in defense of PC or in opposition to it.
Let’s take the first point – that political correctness is a spectrum. The bottom line is that we all embrace political correctness in our words, every day. We used to just call it being polite. We don’t scream obscenities in the public square. We don’t use the N word, we don’t call women by demeaning terms (unless, perhaps, you hold very high office), and we try to remember that people are Asian, and objects are oriental. Why? Because we were raised by our moms and dads to be nice to people, to share, and to be polite. Basic politeness is, to an important degree, being politically correct. So let’s stop claiming that all political correctness is by definition wrong. Political correctness is a spectrum from being polite to your waitress to not using racist words and beyond. And even that will vary with time and circumstance.
Can PC go too far? Without a doubt. One recent example of political correctness taken too far has been seen on a variety of college campuses. No doubt well-meaning college leaders have created “safe zones” wherein individuals are expected to restrict speech that might make others uncomfortable. This is, in my view, exactly the opposite of what the higher education experience is supposed to be. College is absolutely the place where you should be exposed to ideas from all sides, comments that offend and inspire. You should explore ideas that horrify and ideas that enlighten.
My second point, however, is the more important of the two. While I fully embrace the idea of trying to be polite in civil society, making the case for reasonable political correctness must never be part of an effort to limit fundamental freedom of speech. And in this arena, my friends on the left, at least in recent years, have from time to time been more guilty than those on the right.
Let me say this as clearly as I can: I believe free speech is a near-absolute. Nearly every single thing you can say, you should be free to say, regardless of whom you may offend. There can only be the tiniest limits on free speech. You shouldn’t be able to lie in a commercial advertisement (e.g., Ford can’t claim a 1000 mpg car) and you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater (unless, of course, there really is a fire, then you should).
But outside of those few classes of speech, I am a Hugo Black absolutist on the 1st Amendment. Justice Black, while a member of the Supreme Court, refused to attend any showings of movies brought before the Supreme Court on obscenity charges. He believed then, as I do today, that by definition, such speech is protected. There are obvious exceptions, with child pornography as the most dramatic example. Such films would not be protected as they are evidence of a crime, not entertainment. But beyond those few types of speech, I believe your right to free speech is near-absolute, no matter whom you offend. Indeed, that’s kind of the point.
Thus, gentle reader, I defend political correctness on the one hand, as one of the many compromises we make in civil society to live civil lives, while poking at its excesses. I believe we are better off when we reflect on what we say. Political correctness is a spectrum, and it varies with time. I remember in the 1960s, when visiting my grandparents on their Iowa farm, and discussing civil rights (I was a nerd even then, fascinated with political issues), my grandparents did not use the then-more PC term “black” but rather used “negro.” I talked this over with my dad, expressing my concern that my dear grandparents were, dare I think it, racist? My dad explained that his folks, born in the 1890s, were, in fact, quite liberal on civil rights issues, but that they were somewhat locked in time. In their youth, coming of age before the First World War, they chose to use the more “liberal” N word, rather than the other N that was far more common among their neighbors. I found that a powerful lesson, and one that I try to keep in mind as I inevitably (because I’m human) judge others on what they say and how they say it.
Thus I find myself in the inelegant position of arguing that some political correctness is just a matter of being polite – of not being a jerk, while also condemning the extremes of the “movement.” And to those that embrace the claim that all political correctness is some sort of a plot to rob you of your basic freedoms, I say calm down.
The real test of whether you believe in free speech is not when you defend the right of someone to say something with which you agree. The true test of your support of the 1st Amendment is when you defend the right of someone to say something that offends you to your very core. Defend that person, and you have truly defended freedom of speech.
So, play nice, be respectful, but say what needs to be said. Snowflakes are great, but only in the winter, and they aren’t people. Be a person. Be like Hugo.
For the past month, I’ve written about my 2008 run for the U.S. Congress. These essays have looked inward, at my campaign and the lessons I learned from running. In this essay, please allow me an outward look at my Republican opponents, and to let me swap out my partisan “candidate” hat for my old and battered political-science-professor-at-the-U.S.-Air-Force-Academy hat. I’m going to try to be both insightful and a wee bit profound. Wish me luck.
The U.S. Constitution requires a census be taken every 10 years for the purpose of enumeration — or more simply put, counting folks to figure out how many representatives in the U.S. House each state should have. This is why the political parties are particularly obsessed with the state legislatures in the elections right before and right after a census, because those legislatures will end up redrawing congressional districts based on the census results.
Colorado is no different from the other 49 states in that the Democratic and Republican parties seek to maximize their electoral advantages by gerrymandering the heck out of congressional districts every 10 years. Your own partisanship will help you decide which party is acting more “fairly” and which party is disingenuously trying to grab seats unfairly, but ultimately, across the country, the Dems and the GOP will argue mightily after the decennial census.
Because of the gerrymandering of Colorado, wherein both parties appear to have decided to give each other one truly “safe” seat, the Democratic candidate in the 2nd District (Boulder and beyond) is really tough to beat, and in CD 5 (Colorado Springs and beyond), the Republican candidate is considered unbeatable. Win the appropriate party’s primary in those two districts and you will, very likely, coast to a comfortable victory come November.
Those with a long enough memory will recall that the 5th was represented for many years by a man named Joel Hefley. Congressman Hefley was widely respected across the political spectrum. He was a likeable and competent representative who often garnered upwards of 75% of the vote, meaning a number of Democrats felt comfortable in voting for this moderate and thoughtful gentleman.
This changed in 2006, when Mr. Hefley announced his retirement from Congress. Thus an “open seat” was created in what was considered the safest of the safe Republican congressional slots. Win the GOP primary in 2006, avoid key mistakes, and you would almost certainly win the general election in the fall.
Thus, the 2006 open Republican primary saw no less than SIX candidates, including Mr. Hefley’s former senior staffer, Jeff Crank, the then-mayor of Colorado Springs, Lionel Rivera, a retired two-star general, Bentley Rayburn, and a state senator named Doug Lamborn. As one might expect, the primary campaign was — to use the traditional term — “hard fought” with accusations of naughty behavior abounding. Crank, Lamborn and Rayburn proved to be the most powerful candidates. When the votes were counted (with much yelling and objecting), Mr. Lamborn had edged Mr. Crank by 892 votes, less than 2%, with General Rayburn a close third. All this happened while I was still on active duty with the Air Force, and so my perspective was that of a poli sci professor. It was messy and hinted at a circular firing squad, with a take-no-prisoners attitude all-round.
Two years later, when I tossed my hat into the ring. I found myself in a campaign against not one, but rather three people. This was because, unlike nearly every other congressional campaign in America, the incumbent congressman was challenged by members of his own party, in a primary. And it wasn’t just one person who had the audacity to take on a sitting member, it was two — both Jeff Crank and Bentley Rayburn. Upset by the manner in which the last primary had been run, they sought the GOP nomination for CD5. That meant there were three Republicans and one lone Democrat seeking the seat – Lamborn, Crank, Rayburn and little old me.
I was invited to take part in a series of debates with the Republican candidates, and I happily accepted. At all these events, there were just three of us. Mr. Crank and General Rayburn would attend from the GOP side, and I was there as the Democrat, but Mr. Lamborn never showed up. This was smart politically, in that showing up would, in some minds, acknowledge publically that he was being challenged, and that might demonstrate weakness. But I do think it irritated his challengers.
For me, it was very interesting to watch. I genuinely liked and continue to like, both Jeff Crank and Bentley Rayburn. We disagree on… well… nearly everything, but they are good men who believe, as do I, that the government can do a better job of serving the American people. We just really, really disagree on what needs fixing and how.
But even though I liked both gents, I was mystified as to why they were both running. If you add up the votes from the 2006 primary, Mr. Lamborn only earned 27% of the Republican votes. His top two opponents – Crank and Rayburn — took in a combined 42%, with the remainder spread across the other three vote getters. This would imply that either Crank or Rayburn could possibly beat Mr. Lamborn one-on-one, but that if they split the GOP opposition vote, Mr. Lamborn’s re-nomination was virtually assured. Yet both men stayed in the race all the way to the primary election day. Thus the Republican congressional candidates neatly arranged themselves into what might be called a circular political firing squad and opened fire, with the result being neither of them beating Mr. Lamborn. So much for 2008.
But history seems intent on repeating itself in 2018. Currently two Republicans have jumped into the primary campaign in an effort to take the GOP nomination away from Mr. Lamborn – State Senator Owen Hill and El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn. Both gentlemen would seem to be strong contenders to defeat Mr. Lamborn.
Mr. Hill appears to be a smart and able state legislator. Though I disagree with him on nearly every issue you could mention, there is no denying his appeal to conservative voters, and he has already amassed a war chest of nearly a quarter of a million dollars just for the primary.
Darryl Glenn is, in theory, also a strong contender to win a primary against Mr. Lamborn. Glenn, like Hill, is a retired Air Force officer, which plays well in this district. Mr. Glenn is well-known in the area, and ran against my old boss for the U.S. Senate in 2016.
So once again the Republicans seem to be in the process of forming that same circular firing squad we saw in 2006. A fairly weak incumbent, and two stronger-than-average challengers, seek the GOP nomination in 2018. If history is instructive in this case, it seems likely that the Hill/Glenn duo will split the opposition vote, leaving Mr. Lamborn safe for another two years of relative ineffectiveness in D.C. Will there be a Hill-Glenn deal to have one drop out if the other is stronger? It could happen. But were I a betting man, I’d guess not. Perhaps it’s time to take off my old and frayed professor hat and to put on a helmet. It may be a bumpy ride.