Toward a real debate

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that a problem cannot be solved by using the same kind of thinking that created it. This astute observation provides a useful key to resolving the current “debate” over funds for President Trump’s proposed wall project and to ending the disastrous federal shutdown whose spreading consequences are ravaging the country.

The first error in thinking that needs to be corrected is the diminished capacity for critical analysis, a symptom of the epidemic of intellectual sloppiness spreading from the Oval Office. Let us take, for example, the notion that this manufactured crisis has anything whatever to do with preventing unrestricted immigration, as the president claims. For two years this administration has squandered its absolute control of Congress and the White House in an obsessive effort to obliterate Barack Obama from the history books and to overturn a well-established global order. Having thus fumbled away a golden opportunity to create and enact meaningful legislation on immigration reform, the president, with his bloated ego on the line, is in a panic that he will look “weak” and/or “foolish” in the eyes of his “base.” As usual, it’s all about Trump, and he is now running scared before of the taunts of Ann Coulter, Fox News and their ilk. He is increasingly desperate to blame “Democrats” for his failure and to reframe the conversation in his favor by casting his opponents as dangerous supporters of “open borders,” eager to admit all the rapists and terrorists who inhabit his imagination and from whom he is heroically (he thinks) seeking to protect the nation, even by inventing a fake “national emergency.” This is nonsense. No one, whether Republican or Democrat, disputes the need for secure borders, and to claim otherwise is merely a dishonest, politically motivated distraction from the real issue at hand, which is whether Trump’s wall is the best (let alone the only!) way to achieve that end.

Which brings us to the second area in which our thinking needs to be corrected. We must relearn how to think in specifics. The easiest route to that is to put it in terms of grant writing. A grant proposal normally includes several standard sections: need, program, budget and timeline. It addresses (and is evaluated on) such questions as: Why, exactly, is this program needed? What are the alternatives? Why is this the best one? Is it feasible? What resources are needed? Are they available? What is the cost of the program (broken down by category or budget lines)? How, specifically, will the program be carried out over time? Proposals which do not answer these questions satisfactorily remain unfunded.

The point is obvious. The president, even after years of inflammatory but provokingly vague rhetoric, has in fact never provided either Congress or the American people with a rigorously detailed project proposal that would enable us to assess the merits of his idea. Has a feasibility study been done? Is this really the best solution to the problem? Why? Have the complex legal and environmental issues been considered and dealt with? Are we talking about concrete or steel? (Some confusion about this has emerged over the last week or so.) Which is better? Why? Which is more cost-effective? If steel, where it is coming from? Who will be the contractors doing the actual construction? How, precisely, was the $5 billion figure arrived at? (Trump’s seeming willingness to accept a lower figure a couple of weeks ago before being spooked by his hardliners suggests that it’s an arbitrary number pulled out of the air. Now, suddenly, it’s $5.6 billion — that’s an additional $600 million! — with no explanation for the increase.) Are there more pressing uses for this money at the moment? (What about repairing the infrastructure damage from this year’s hurricanes, floods, wildfires and earthquakes?) How long will all this take? These are questions that any thinking person, again, whether Republican or Democrat, would naturally want to ask and have answered, particularly since this might be the largest national construction project since the building of the interstate highway system. Unless and until such specifics are thought out and made clear, Congress (and not just Democrats), like any responsible funding agency or foundation, is absolutely right to continue to reject the proposal out of hand.

These two corrections point the way forward out of the presently insoluble impasse produced by our faulty thinking: Instead of allowing the country to be held hostage by “Fox and Friends” any longer, let us reopen the government and demand that the administration, if it’s really serious about building a wall along our southern border, produce and publicize (at long last!) a convincing, evidence-based case for the project. Such a proposal can then be discussed and evaluated rationally instead of emotionally. Trump’s already “evolving” account of what he wants (“I never said concrete …”) suggests that the whole scheme will turn out to be yet another of his bad ideas which will not bear scrutiny. But maybe not. Presenting a solid plan would give him an opportunity to save face.

Taking a reasonable and constructive approach like this — in contrast to our current course of (in)action based on threats, political bullying and brinkmanship — would without doubt address and accommodate the concerns of all parties involved, especially of those whose lives, disrupted by an unnecessary federal shutdown, are being used as a political football.

John Radigan lives in Saranac Lake.