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Other view: No wall, no shutdown

The following editorial appears in Sunday’s Washington Post:

Remember how President Donald Trump was going to construct a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico—paid for by Mexico? There’s been a change of plans. Now Trump wants the Democrats to put up the cash.

All right; that’s a slight exaggeration. What’s actually happening is that the government’s current spending authority runs out April 29. Without a new bill, the country could face a partial shutdown of federal agencies. No one, Trump included, wants that, and the two parties are negotiating a deal to avoid it. However, his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, threw a wrench into the talks Thursday by declaring that the final deal should include money for Trump’s wall. Yes, Mulvaney said, Democrats “don’t like the wall, but they lost the election. And the president should, I think, at least have the opportunity to fund one of his highest priorities in the first funding bill under his administration.” A down payment on the wall might be the White House’s price for agreeing to the Democrats’ own priority: a key health-care subsidy for low- income consumers.

Republicans do not have the necessary 60 votes for passage of any spending deal in the Senate, which gives the Democrats leverage despite their minority status in both houses. They would be crazy to capitulate, and not only because the politics of the issue favor them. (Sixty-two percent of the public opposes building a wall along the entire border, according to a Pew Research poll.) As a policy matter, the wall is a foolish and wasteful enterprise, one whose legitimate purposes—stopping unauthorized immigration and drug smuggling—could be achieved at far lower cost through other means. In the unlikely event that this pharaonic enterprise ever did get completed, it would stand as a monument to the xenophobia Trump tapped to get elected. The sooner he can be forced to abandon it, the better.

Democrats are in the right on the health-care issue as well. At issue are billions of dollars to help lower-income health insurance exchange customers afford out-of-pocket expenses, money that the Obama administration provided but that the Republicans insist was not properly appropriated; they have a lawsuit pending on that point. Ideally, the Republicans would be abandoning that fight and engaging the Democrats in a genuinely constructive update of Obamacare, not the “repeal-and-replace” exercise they have been pursuing, without success, due to their own internal divisions. Intra-GOP talks are ongoing, with Trump suggesting that a compromise might be ready for a vote in the House next week. “The plan gets better and better and better,” Trump said, which is the opposite of the truth: Leaked versions of the bill would, under certain circumstances, allow states to let insurance companies sell policies that people with preexisting conditions could not afford.

April 29 also marks the 100th day of Trump’s presidency; he may be trying to conjure some sort of legislative victory before then, or at least put up a convincing show of trying. What he’s mainly demonstrating, though, are the reasons his accomplishments so far have been so paltry: His vaunted negotiating skills have delivered little, and his priorities have been misguided.

Letter: Country lacks leadership

How can our political leaders — Congress — pay down our every increasing national debt by cutting taxes and increasing our military to fight wars? Anyone else think we just might have the wrong leadership — and I mean both parties— leading this nation of ours?

Keith Nielson


Airline exposes our flawed idea of dignity

The outrage surrounding United Airlines’ brutal treatment of a customer has made one thing crystal clear: The story isn’t really about airline travel, overbooking policies or even consumer rights. It’s about the nature of dignity itself, and it doesn’t reflect well on the society it has so preoccupied.

The algorithm that decided to bump Dr. David Dao from an overbooked flight was trained to find the “lowest value customer” to inconvenience — a coach passenger, naturally, not a business traveler, but also a passenger who had paid less than others and wasn’t a rewards member. In addition, the algorithm considered the immediate cost to the airline of bumping someone, which meant avoiding families, or requiring an overnight stay, to save reimbursement fees.

This all makes sense. Companies build algorithms to protect their interests, which in this case are profits. It illustrates how, in the age of big data, the customer has gone from an unknowable chap who might expect standard good treatment to a sized-up marketing category that can easily become expendable. Farewell to quaint sayings such as “the customer is always right.” We have been separated by our potential to generate income, and we can expect no more than what we’re worth.

There are countless examples like this online. For example, the websites of various companies — including Capital One Financial Corp. — have used data from people’s computers to help determine their value as customers and decide what specific products or perks to offer them. Some companies even size you up when you call customer service numbers. If you’re high-value, you get connected to an agent quickly. If not, you can stay on hold indefinitely.

It’s the consumer reality, and it’s not pretty — especially when people start to accept ideas like making online privacy available only to those willing and able to pay for it.

Now consider the response to the video of the man being removed from the plane. It was more than mere outrage. It was the collective umbrage of millions of middle-class consumers who pay their fees and expect the human dignity that comes with the ticket price. The problem is in that last part: We demand to be treated with dignity by dint of our money, rather than our humanity.

Imagine a different scenario: a public park bench, with a young black man sitting on it, defiantly refusing to leave at the request of security guards. A police officer is called, rudely tells him to go, then yanks him from the bench and drags him off the premises, bruising his head and bloodying his mouth in the process.

I’d wager this would not have sparked the same outrage on social media. It would have been seen as a young ruffian disobeying direct orders from authority figures. The consumer context matters: He hadn’t paid for that seat, and even if nobody explained why he had to leave, he had nothing more than a human right to be there.

We have fallen for this paradigm shift, in every conversation about Dr. Dao’s consumer rights, the exact definition of “boarding the plane” and whether he has grounds to sue. The underlying assumption is that we deserve dignity, but only if we’ve paid for it.

This is short-sighted. It won’t serve us well when we’ve all lost our jobs to the oncoming robot army. Until we demand good treatment of everyone — not just middle class ticket holders — we will be contributing to a system that commodifies our dignity.

Stapilus: Ins meet the outs

Credit Raul Labrador with holding a town hall meeting, and for not hot-footing in and out. The three hours he spent there must have been an endurance challenge; most town halls I have attended over the years have been substantially shorter, usually half as long.

In other respects, compared to other recent town halls around the country, it was not terribly different: Republican representative appears and is jeered by hundreds of people in normally friendly locations. Across the state line in the adjacent eastern Oregon congressional district, Rep. Greg Walden encountered much the same in Hood River (his small home town), Bend and elsewhere: A Republican routinely re-elected by supermajorities over two decades faced unusually large and stunningly hostile crowds. It must have been unlike anything he’d seen before.

And in Idaho? Would anyone other than Labrador’s loyal chorus show up?

They did; and, true, some Labrador (and Donald Trump) backers did too. But the fact that this event was held in the Republican heartland of Meridian, and lines formed hours in advance, did not discourage the opposition from showing up and getting loud. The crowd was reported as numbering around 800, an unusually big number for this sort of thing. At town halls, organizers usually have to search out prospective questioners; this time, questioners lined up by the dozens at the available mics.

All that was secondary to the electricity in the air (evident even if you watched the video), and the reason was clear: This was one of the relatively few occasions when the inside and the outside of Idaho politics came face to face.

It doesn’t happen a lot. Mostly in Idaho (with variations happening as well in other states), there’s the Republican infrastructure and its supporters over here, and what’s been dubbing itself the Resistance (Democrats and others in opposition) over there, usually in their highly separated bubbles. Theoretically, actual contact could happen more often at the Idaho Legislature, where it should happen, and it does in a limited way on specific issues. The town hall, though, was a chance to raise ideas and frame them independently. The outsiders here were able to face off directly with their opposition, and hear back in kind.

Along the way Labrador may have heard some things from constituents he might not have heard from them before, or at least not in force, things politicians don’t hear often—and that many Idahoans don’t often hear from each other.

When he said, “I don’t think there’s anything in the law that requires the president to provide his tax returns,” he got boos. Whatever else, this marked a clear expression of different world views bumping against each other.

When he said, “I do not believe that health care is a basic right,” much of the crowd roared its disapproval. (Question: What other rights are meaningful without health, or while you’re crushed underneath medical bills?) Labrador did say he thought people should have access to health care. One woman responded, “I have access to buy a Mercedes. The only problem is, I can’t afford a Mercedes. Many people can’t afford decent health care if it is not provided by the government.”

Mostly and traditionally, Idahoans have been polite and gentle-spoken around their elected officials. Contrariness usually isn’t a big part of the picture; the ideas “espoused” by most elected officials (in Idaho, Republicans basically) rarely draw much direct blowback. But on Wednesday in Meridian, they did. Some of it wasn’t polite, as Labrador noted ironically (“I’m super popular tonight”). But he certainly was hearing from more than the hallelujah chorus. And remember: The yelling often comes from pent-up frustration at not being listened to, as it did in the days of Tea.

A side of Idaho that doesn’t usually make itself very visible is doing that now. And again Monday, when Labrador has scheduled another hall at Nampa.

In Idaho’s other House district, Rep. Mike Simpson has been quoted as saying, “I’ve never been really active in doing town halls. Town hall meetings I have found, generally, disintegrate into yelling efforts.”

Meridian was a demonstration that even if they do, something awfully useful can happen there. Simpson might be well advised to reconsider.