President Trump’s Political Avalanche?

Reposting one of our most popular posts for two reasons. First, the post is about the so-called “sandpile effect.” I wonder whether yesterday in Helsinki wasn’t the grain of sand falling on President Trump’s sandpile that catalyzes a political avalanche.

Second, our community has grown so nicely (thank you) that many followers haven’t seen the earlier posts yet. Apologies to those of you who have, but given yesterday’s events and today’s reactions, the sandpile effect is worth thinking about.


The “sandpile effect” in political and economic worlds

The term “the sandpile effect” was coined by the Danish-American physicist Per Bak and his co-authors Chao Tang and Kurt Wiesenfeld to describe how, as someone builds a sandpile by dropping one grain of sand on another, the pile eventually becomes so steep that little sand slides occur and then, eventually, an avalanche. But it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to predict which single grain of sand will create the cascading avalanche. One grain of sand is dropped and nothing appears to happen. Then, the next grain of sand is dropped… and there is an avalanche. (Think about California immediately before a devastating earthquake, or Texas before a devastating storm–all appears stable, but a moment later comes vast destruction.)

In‎ The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo illustrates how the sandpile effect exists in political and economic worlds as well as the physical world, and how seemingly small and random events can undo complex political and economic systems in momentous and unpredictable ways.‎ Query whether our national tendency to “kick the can down the road” on many of the problems that confront us–our decaying infrastructure, our mounting national debt, our disappearing social cohesion–may lead us to a sandpile effect ending. Everything will appear pretty much the same as yesterday–infrastructure decaying just a little bit more, the debt getting just a little bit bigger, our social fabric getting just a little more frayed as politicians, the media and others pound away at their adversaries. But then, bam, that one additional grain of sand causes an avalanche. One only needs to remember the onset of the 2008 financial meltdown to see the vast and long-lasting harm such an avalanche can cause.

A good motto for Liberal Republicanism would be the words of Singapore’s famous Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew,”Let’s start thinking about it now.” This is how America should face it’s problems–not by kicking the can down the road, nor by continuing to engage in the degree of political partisanship we do today. Neither families, businesses, religious congregations, nor sports teams stay strong if they are divided against themselves, and neither can a nation. We need to change the political culture in America so that our politicians are only reelected if they compromise and succeed in enacting broadly-supported legislation– together they “think about it now” and do something. As John McCain stated on the floor of the Senate recently, “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.”

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Historic Liberal Republicans: Nelson Rockefeller

Nelson Rockefeller, the grandson of the oil tycoon  John D. Rockefeller (who at one-time was the wealthiest man in America), was Governor of New York from 1959 to 1973. After unsuccessfully seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968, he served as Vice President from 1974 to 1977 under President Gerald R. Ford.


Rockefeller was “a man who got things done.” According to his biographer, Richard Norton Smith, he was “the optimist to end all optimists.” “He would be the first to tell you he’s a pragmatist. He was not an ideologue. But more important than that, he believed every problem had a solution. And the contrast between then and now- when there’s such pervasive cynicism… [and] a notion that government isn’t working and the seeming total inability of government – right, left, liberal, conservative- to address those issues. There’d be none of that with Rockefeller.”

As Governor of New York, Rockefeller vastly increased the state’s role in education (including by quadrupling state aid to primary and secondary schools, and vastly expanding state higher education), in environmental protection, in transportation (for example, by winning approval for the largest state bond issue to date, $2.5 billion, for the coordinated development of mass transportation, highways, and airports), in housing (by completing or starting over 88,000 units of housing for limited income and aged families), in welfare and medical aid (by carrying out the largest state medical care program for the needy in the United States), in civil rights, and in the arts. When Rockefeller later ran for President, he was asked if his stance on racial justice might harm Republican prospects in the Southern United States. Rockefeller replied, “We have certain responsibilities that transcend political advantages… and one of them is certainly in the field of civil rights.”

Prior to running for Governor, Rockefeller served in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Administration and in the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations. His recommendations fostered the creation of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Rockefeller was active in implementing measures that added coverage for ten million people under the Social Security program.

As New York’s Governor, Rockefeller worked with the State legislature and unions to create generous pension programs for many public workers, including teachers, professors, firefighters, police officers, and prison guards. (Rockefeller had good relations with unions, especially the construction trades, which benefited from his extensive building programs.) He proposed the first statewide minimum wage law in the U.S., which was increased five times during his administration.

For more about Rockefeller, please visit our video page or click here.

Historic Liberal Republicans: Margaret Chase Smith

This month’s posts will introduce some historic Liberal Republicans.


Margaret Chase Smith (December 14, 1897 – May 29, 1995) was a member of the Republican Party and served as a U.S Representative (1940-1949) and a U.S. Senator (1949-1973) from Maine. She was the first woman to serve in both houses of the United States Congress.
Smith is best remembered for her 1950 speech, “Declaration of Conscience,” in which she criticized the tactics of McCarthyism.
Smith earned a reputation as a moderate Republican who often broke ranks with her party. For example, she supported much of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Congresswoman Smith was also a strong supporter of women in the armed services. Smith was sworn into the Senate on January 3, 1949. After less than a year in office, she gained national attention when she became the first member of Congress to condemn the anti-Communist witch hunt led by her fellow Republican Senator, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

In a well-publicized speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, four months earlier, McCarthy claimed to possess the names of 205 card-carrying Communists in the State Department. Smith, like many of her colleagues, shared McCarthy’s concerns about Communist subversion, but she grew skeptical when McCarthy repeatedly ignored her requests for evidence to back up his accusations.

On June 1, 1950, Smith delivered a fifteen-minute speech on the Senate floor, known as the “Declaration of Conscience,” in which she refused to name McCarthy directly (bowing to Senate rules on comity) but denounced “the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle.” She said McCarthyism had “debased” the Senate to “the level of a forum of hate and character assassination.” While acknowledging her desire for Republicans’ political success, Smith said, “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horseman of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.” Six other moderate Senate Republicans signed onto her Declaration, including Wayne Morse of Oregon, George Aiken of Vermont, Edward Thye of Minnesota, Irving Ives of New York, Charles Tobey of New Hampshire, and Robert C. Hendrickson of New Jersey.
Smith’s speech triggered a public explosion of support and criticism. “This cool breeze of honesty from Maine can blow the whole miasma out of the nation’s soul,” stated the Hartford Courant. “By one act of political courage, [Smith has] justified a lifetime in politics,” commented another. Newsweek magazine ran a cover story entitled “Senator Smith: A Woman Vice President?” But critics called her “Moscow-loving,” and much worse. McCarthy dismissed her and her supporters as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”

In the 1952 election, Smith was widely mentioned as a Vice-Presidential candidate to run with General Dwight D. Eisenhower. When asked by a reporter what she would do if she woke up one morning and found herself in the White House, she replied: “I’d go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I’d go home.”
Smith was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination in the 1964 presidential election.
Nonetheless she was the first woman to be placed in nomination for the United States Presidency at a major Party’s convention. Upon leaving office, she was the longest-serving female Senator in history.

Smith was the first (and as yet only) woman to serve as chair of the Senate Republican Conference, serving from 1967 to 1972. She voted against President Nixon’s unsuccessful nominees to the Supreme Court, Clement Haynsworth in 1969 and G. Harrold Carswell in 1970.

Smith was a strong supporter of the space program. NASA administrator James E. Webb once commented that the United States never would have placed a man on the Moon if it were not for Smith. She also supported increased educational funding, civil rights, and Medicare.

Recently retired Republican Maine Senator Olympia Snowe was asked what Senator Smith would think of today’s Republican Party. Snowe responded, “Oh my gosh! She’d be appalled. I don’t think she could conceive of how it’s all evolved today. Even in my own experience, it’s hard to comprehend.”

Listen to Senator Susan Collins’s tribute to Senator Smith to learn more about her life here:


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A Present for America on Her Birthday

Americans encounter the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of Many, One”) ‎daily. It appears on the one dollar bill and on all U.S. coins.

But from colonial times to recent times, some of America’s greatest minds have doubted that certain groups could ever be part of the “one.” For example, Benjamin Franklin stated “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”‎ (It’s amazing how the complexion thing has always been a focus of excluding people from being part of the “one”–even, once upon a time, Northern European, Protestant Christian Germans.)

Yet people adhering to such pessimistic beliefs have generally been proven wrong.‎ America has continuously and–though sometimes taking two steps forward and one step back–successfully widened the groups of Americans to whom E Pluribus Unum applies.‎  (In this regard, see the 2016 episode of Anthony Bourdain’s television show Parts Unknown about Houston [here– ].)‎

America’s success in achieving E Pluribus Unum is clearly incomplete. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of Americans don’t aspire to it as an ideal for our country, and are proud of what has been accomplished in that regard to date.‎ ‎Yet today more people on both sides of the political aisle are questioning loyalty to common values and ideals, as well as whether America possesses a culture of inclusion and belonging. It would be a nice present to our country this holiday if more of us could take a deep breath and reflect for a moment on how‎ many of us in America–of all races, religions and ethnicities–are in fact striving for the same things: a decent opportunity to make a better life for ourselves and our families, regardless of our race, religion or ethnicity; the right, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, to live and experience the world as individuals (in the words of Donald Glover, as “a blank slate”, or, more colorfully, as “big and White…like Will Smith”); and the freedom to lead our lives in accordance with our own beliefs and wishes, unencumbered by the arbitrary abuse of power. In this regard, Americans are remarkably “one”.

Happy Fourth everyone.


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Roller Coaster Government

“Maintain an even strain.”

This famous line from the wonderful movie “The Right Stuff” is about how astronauts handle themselves–steadily, while keeping their eyes on the tasks at hand. ‎It’s a theme that runs through astronaut movies: in Apollo 13, when two of the three astronauts  are quarreling, Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks), says ” All right, we’re not doing this, Gentlemen…We’re not gonna go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes. ‘Cause we’re just gonna end up right back here with the same problems.” And in the movie The Martian, the Matt Damon character spends years alone on a desolate planet Mars “maintaining an even strain” to keep himself alive and to establish communications with Earth so he can be rescued.

Contrast this with Washington today. Our elected representatives and the executive branch pretty much engage in behavior as unlike “maintaining an even strain” as possible. Our laws change constantly, zigzagging back and forth between the preferences of the people on the more polarized ends of the Republican and Democratic parties. For example, our tax laws change constantly. In the area in which I practice, the rules have changed almost every year for decades. (Some of these changes result from provisions that expire automatically, sometimes for smoke and mirror budgetary reasons, and other times–pardon my cynicism–to catalyze campaign contributions to extend the expiring provisions further.) How is anyone supposed to proceed steadily, keeping their eyes on the tasks at hand, when the rules they need to navigate change constantly? [1]

Other examples of this instability in how we are now governed abound. In the area of urban poverty, Patrick Sharkey (whose most recent book, Uneasy Peace: the Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and The Next War on Violence, is well worth reading) has commented that money for disadvantaged areas has “fluctuated wildly”. He argues that poor areas need a consistent investment policy that touches multiple generations (just as poverty has touched most residents of poor areas for generations). A consistent investment policy is something that such neighborhoods have never had. [2]

In the area of industrial policy, we likewise live in yo-yo land. Andrew Liveris, ‎the CEO and Chairman of the Dow Chemical Company, laments the uncertainty of U.S. government policy. For example, he states, “America’s R&D credit has always been temporary–designed to expire unless Congress renews it. Congress failed to renew it eight times since 1981, including in 2010. Each year, businesses have to face the distinct possibility that the R&D tax credit will be suspended, drastically cut, or discontinued. This makes it awfully hard to plan for the future.” [3]

One of the policy platforms of Liberal Republicanism should be to value stability in legislation and regulation. Let’s do our best to find practical solutions to problems that a broad swath of Americans can live with, then give them a chance to work. Too often the partisanship that has taken over in Washington has led to policies that are undercut before they even have a realistic chance of working. First one side enacts programs of its ideological bent with the support of a narrow slice of passionate Americans–then the political winds change and the other side undoes what their adversaries did, substituting policies that a different but similarly narrow slice of passionate Americans support. This cannot possibly end anywhere good. [4]

I recommend that as many of us as possible make a bowl of popcorn, grab our favorite liquid refreshment, then spend an evening with any one of the movies The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 or The Martian. And afterwards contemplate what we each can do to help our country again maintain an even strain.


‎1 For a discussion of many sensible things that could be done to address not only the volatility but the complexity of our tax policy, see the discussion with commentary of Bruce Bartlett’s book The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform–Why We Need It and What It Will Take in the bibliography with commentary section of the website [here].

2 See‎ “The Neighborhood Effect: 25 years after William Julius Wilson changed urban sociology, scholars still debate his ideas. Is anyone listening?”, by Marc Parry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 5, 2012.

3 See the discussion of Andrew Liveris’ book Make It in America in the Bibliography With Commentary section of the website. [here]

4 This is not to suggest that there hasn’t always been plenty of ‎confrontation in American politics. There has. But the lack of consensus today is almost unparalleled. See the dancing dots video in the video section of the website for a one-minute illustration of how apart our politics have become. [here]

Which Posts Do You Like?

Other than the blog entries and the material in Chapters 1, 2 and 6 of the “Chapters” section of The Lone Liberal Republican website, at present the bulk of the content on the website is in the “Bibliography with Commentary” section. This is because I think there is greater credibility and authority in channeling the thoughtful work of established authors in the areas discussed than for me to expound personally on these matters. All of the content included in the Bibliography With Commentary section of the website relates to policies that I think should form the foundation of a Liberal Republican platform, or to the kinds of pragmatic thinking that should filter Liberal Republican thought.

As always, all comments welcomed, as is sharing this with people who you think might be interested. I would love to hear from followers which of the entries you find most interesting. (Some of the entries, like the Leovy, Sawhill, Schlesinger, Ramo and Liveris blurbs, have been linked in weekly posts before, but lots of them have not.) Click on the citation to each book or article to access the commentary.‎
Link to Bibliography with Commentary section here.

Make It In America: The Case For Reinventing The Economy

In the book, Make It In America: The Case For Reinventing The Economy,  Andrew Liveris, the CEO and Chairman of the Dow Chemical Company, makes a powerful argument for reinvigorating “highly advanced, highly specialized, high value-added” American manufacturing. Liveris states that the manufacturing sector “can create jobs and value and growth to a degree that the service sector cannot.” He states that for this reinvigoration to happen though, we need a strong national commitment to advanced manufacturing. Liveris says, “[E]very business person I know sometimes wants government to get out of the way…that doesn’t mean it should get out of the picture.”

Liveris discusses the importance of investing in modern infrastructure and education. As to education, he states, “Didn’t the United States used to have the world’s greatest educational system?  As recently as 1995, the United States was still tied for the top spot in graduation rates. But by 2006, we had dropped from first to fourteenth. That’s partly because many other countries are investing substantially in education, raising their standards, and often exceeding them. They have longer school days, longer school years, and give students homework over the summer… Other countries are far more serious about getting results.”

And, says Liveris, “Too many [American] students,having done all that was required of them, are graduating from high school unprepared either for college or the working world.” 

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