Can Trump’s bombastic style shake things up on two crucial issues?

David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN March 15, 2018

President Donald Trump is rolling the dice on two issues near-and-dear to me — the future, perhaps a last gasp, of America’s steel industry and the fate, at least in the short-term, of the Korean Peninsula. Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum and his decision to accept an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before May are in the face of about 50 years of prevailing economic doctrine and diplomatic history.

Little of Trump’s personal and governing style appeals to me. Apparently, he listens to few people, hardly reads policy briefings, and is largely uninformed about American political traditions and practices. Is it possible that his bombastic, often erratic, operating style just may shake up the foreign affairs establishment and the free trade club and set new us on a new course in Asia and renewed hopes in Ohio and Pennsylvania steel towns?

There are sharp contrasts in these two issues, and Trump’s involvement in them. Protective tariffs are an old issue that largely has been turned over to trade agreements and international organizations. Despite my fond memories of Pennsylvania steel towns, the parade has left town with few people, except Trump and his steel-town voters staying behind.

North Korea is also an old issue, at least 50 years, but one that national policy makers have not solved. Perhaps it is Trump’s political naiveté and international affairs inexperience that causes him to take on a challenge that his three immediate predecessors avoided. Trump showed some courage, and performed rather well, in speaking to the South Korea National Assembly last November. Perhaps he now thinks of himself as an international diplomat.

Both these policy issues that have pervaded recent American history but never really became the issue of the day. International trade policy largely has been bipartisan in supporting “free trade” and now consists of many international agreements and organizations. American interest in the Korean Peninsula also has been bipartisan — but largely one of inattention and inaction.

Academics and think-tank observers have tended to sing the same song to themselves without clearly connecting with American citizens about the real-life impacts of each issue. The decline of American manufacturing and the rise of the North Korea Kim dynasty have gone practically unchecked because no one knows the perfect solution. Enter Trump and his impulsive decision style to shake up conventional thinking and overcome inaction.

The American steel industry that once prospered in Pennsylvania and Ohio has been in free fall since the early 1980s. Despite talks of industrial policy to rejuvenate economically depressed communities, unemployed workers could listen to Washington leaders and experts talk about the benefits of free trade. Free trade appears to have benefited the information technology industry and American higher education and lowered some consumer price. It did little, however, for Western Pennsylvania and Ohio — three areas where voters somewhat inexplicably supported Trump in 2016. It was as if voters threw up their hands and collectively said “what the heck, at least he sounds like he feels our pain.” While these voters may feel good about Trump throwing some attention their way, trade tariffs will not restore their jobs and communities. The impacts are likely to be a symbolic victory appreciated only by Trump’s political base.

The United States are now almost powerless to affect the world steel industry. International trade globalization is too far along for one nation to garner economic gain through protectionism. The World Trade Organization will not permit Trump’s tariffs to stand. The time to effectively resist free trade agreements was a generation ago.

Alternatively, Trump’s announced willingness to meet with North Korea’s Kim has the potential to reduce the North Korea nuclear threat and promote stability in Asia. While both announcements were surprises, his decision on North Korea can be directly linked to his visit to South Korea last November. In this space, I wrote on Nov. 13, that time is running out, that conventional diplomatic relations have not been successful and that Trump meeting directly with Kim could work. Circumventing the “Six Party Talks” that have become another diplomatic obstacle in achieving peace in the region. Just as Trump has little patience with Congressional negotiations and compromise, he is unlikely to be patient with one-level-at-a-time diplomacy. This may be Trump’s most risky adventure. There needs to be a second, a third, and many future meetings, to chart a path toward a lasting Korean peace. Most important, Trump cannot lose interest and back off from meeting with Kim.

How will all this turn out? As Trump often says, “We’ll have to wait and see.”

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

What Presidential Leadership on Gun Violence Might Look Like

David Webber
Columbia MISSOURIAN February 27, 2018

A Presidential Commission on Reducing Gun Violence should be established. We need a facilitator of a national discussion on how to preserve the legitimate use of guns for hunting and self-defense without exposing innocent citizens to gun violence and mass shootings. President Donald Trump is not that facilitator, but he can lead us in making it happen.

It is hard not to be cynical when learning of another school mass shooting and hearing special interest reactions and made-for-TV media commentary and town hall forums. Before Parkland, there was Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and all the way back in 1999 there was Columbine. The estimated 34,000 fatalities annually from guns — about the same as the number of vehicle fatalities — seem hopelessly high.

But we have solved other seemingly insurmountable problems in the past. We have eradicated small pox, reduced the prevalence of smoking and reduced traffic fatalities. Yes, vehicular deaths are about 35,000 per year — down from almost 55,000 in the 1970s. Adjusted for population growth the driving fatality rate per 100,000 population has been cut in half. That’s amazing. How did we do it? A variety of public policy decisions and private incentive, that’s how. We reduced the speed limit, increased the drinking age, enforced DWI and seat belt laws, and auto manufactures improved vehicular design. These changes were driven by research, insurance companies and committed citizens like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

America can do the same again. We can reduce gun violence and ensuing deaths through persistence along several tracks. For starters, it would be helpful if journalists and politicians carefully examined the politically motivated claim that the “Second Amendment prevents any gun control.” The Supreme Court did not rule this in District of Columbia vs Heller (2008) because it was limited to hand guns for use in self-defense. Moreover, citizens need to reject the proposed Interstate Conceal and Carry Reconciliation Act that sounds like a victory for freedom but would circumvent local control of concealed weapons in their jurisdiction.

Reasonable gun controls might upset that NRA but will garner broad public support. Public opinion polls going back to 1975 find that a majority have always favored stricter controls. Presently more than two-thirds of Americans favor some restrictions, primarily on assault weapons.

Gun control advocates should accept half a loaf rather than campaign for a full-course meal. They should be realistic and accept that there are an estimated 300 million guns floating around American society and that political opposition to any change will be fierce. The planned March 24 March for Our Lives should stay focused on reducing gun violence not defeating the NRA.

President Donald Trump’s discussion after the recent Parkland, Florida, mass shooting was a good symbolic step, but his suggestion of arming teachers, and his speech a few days later, are wanting. I don’t expect him, or any president, to have solutions to tough problems, but I expect them to lead. Trump should appoint a Presidents Commission on Reducing Gun Violence. Presidents have created similar bipartisan commissions after 9/11, after the riots in 1965 and after the Kennedy Assassination. The 9/11 Commission, took almost three years to complete. We already know the facts about gun violence, we need a consensus on solutions. This can be done in less than one year.

Outgoing Sen. Orrin Hatch, former President George W. Bush, former Missouri governor and Attorney General John Ashcroft might be good practical picks to head the commission. The Gun Violence Commission should do the following.

1) Admit we have a gun violence problem and commit to reducing it.

2)Encourage research about gun violence. There are presently Congressionally imposed restrictions of the Centers for Disease Control conducting research about gun violence. The commission should be asked to research “how to reduce gun violence.”

3)Ensure only non-dangerous people are permitted to buy guns. Congress should fund national background checks.Given the likely link between mental health and using guns to hurt people, mental health policy needs to be examined to reduce the incidence of mental disturbances.

4)Reconsider computer and internet violent games. Surely these are not good.
Require gun owner insurance or other forms of promoting gun owner responsibility.

5)Take a close look at “no tolerance” school provisions intended to promote safe schools that may be contributing to the “school to prison pipelines” without making schools any safer.

Public policy does change. In addition to reduction in traffic fatalities, there have been significant changes in same-sex marriage and de-criminalization of marijuana. Even so, advocates of controlling guns have a steep slope to climb.

Best wishes to the March 24 March for Our Lives for keeping gun violence on the public agenda and for giving Trump the courage to lead in reducing gun violence.

Matthes’ diversity speech provokes many reactions

David Webber   Columbia MISSOURIAN, January 24, 2018

A national conversation on race that so many call for, yearn for, must begin with local conversations on race. Meaningful conversations require honest dialogue accepting that people talk in different styles and use different words. City Manager Mike Matthes’ speech at the Columbia Values Diversity Breakfast can contribute to local conversation about racial differences in employment and economic well-being. Alternatively, it could spark a chilling effect on attempts to further community interaction and racial understanding.

Matthes’ breakfast speech was “bashed” by Race Matters, Friends for being “culturally and racially illiterate.” The speech would have been instructive in a college classroom because it demonstrated several truths about race in America. Among these are that media images make a difference in our perceptions of other people and that government and social programs can address “perception gaps” and biases.

The reaction also demonstrates that achieving the theme of the breakfast, “Forward in Unity: Embracing our Beloved Community,” is made more difficult by subsets of the community looking for political advantage rather than helping grow the local conversation.

Matthes set up his speech reporting on Columbia’s efforts at closing the job gap by illustrating how media images affect our perceptions. He recounted that during the protest in Ferguson in August 2014, the media was criticized for using unflattering images of Michael Brown as a thug rather than as a recent high school graduate who was college bound.

In response, protestors created a social media site where they posted photos of themselves in casual street dress and in more formal professional dress to illustrate that they are the same person that can project different images to society and the media.

To illustrate the importance of a job, Matthes’ showed two sets of images of five African-Americans. To be honest, as Matthes showed casual photos of the five Americans with comments such as, “The guy in the middle looks like he could rob a bank,” I squirmed in my seat a little and thought, “What the heck, where is he going?” I noticed some of the other people in the 1,000-person audience looking more closely at the images and shifting in their chairs. Matthes then went on to display and commenting on job-related photos of the same five people. For the guy in the middle he said, “The funny thing about the guy who looked like he was gonna rob a bank — he is a banker.” With that, I exhaled and thought, “Oh, I get it — ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’” and “clothes make the man (sic)” as our parents would say. We know this to be true, but we seldom admit it so publicly, especially before a crowd of well educated, racially sensitive people who bought, or were given, tickets to the event.

Matthes then went on to discuss a city youth internship called CARE — Career Awareness Related Experience — that provides at-risk 14-20 year olds with job readiness and internships in local businesses and organizations. Matthes said that it costs about $1,500 per participant and asked that we consider contributing. I had not been aware of the program but certainly see its value in closing the racial job gaps that exists across America.

Overall, Matthes’ choice of words and examples were startling but appropriate although it made me squirm a little. Personally, I would not have said “as a white man” because I have been educated to be an academic wimp and would have used the more vague “some people.” Secondly, rather than saying “it is good to be on time and to take a bath before a job interview,” it would be more politically hygienic to say “be punctual and dress for success.” Matthes seemed to be genuine and speaking “personally” so I accept his choice of words. Too often we repeat the same old socially acceptable slogans out of fear of being blasted for being “culturally and racially illiterate.”

Columbia has two race-oriented discussion programs this spring in which I will eagerly participate. The Inclusive Excellence program is a collection of city events focusing on promoting understanding of our diverse population. The second is book study of Jim Wallis’ “America’s Original Sin” involving 12 local churches supported by a reconciliation grant from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I hope all participants will speak frankly and honestly using their own words rather than repeating rhetorical platitudes that make us feel good but seldom result in change. I hope that if I say “take a bath” rather than “dress for success” that fellow participants either say “some people find that too personal to be polite” or say “oh, I know what you mean and I will cut you some slack.” Productive, genuine conversation about racial topics require us to persevere, be understanding, and not look for reasons to be disagreeable.


David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Melissa Carr’s retirement marks end of career for exemplary public servant


January 9, 2018

David Webber

Melissa Carr, presently the Director of the Danial Boone Regional Library, will retire next week after 46 years of service to our libraries, 21 years as director. Mid-Missouri was fortunate to have her all these years.

Melissa is an exemplary public servant whose likes we probably will not see again — not only in public libraries, but in education, social services and across many institutions of our society. Combined with the loss of local ownership of the Tribune, the sale of MBS, and rapid turnover of University of Missouri System and MU administrators, it feels like the passing of a generational torch.

Show me a leader in higher education, health care or public corporations who is likely to serve as the head of her organizations for the next 21 years. If Melissa had been a collegiate sports coach, we would name a sports facility after her.

It was my responsibility and pleasure to serve on the Daniel Boone Regional Library Board of Trustees from 2005-2013. From that vantage point, I observed Melissa through countless committee meetings, full board meetings, public functions and personal conversations. The board of trustees consisted of 19 appointed individuals with different personalities, familiarity with a public organization, verbal skills and inclinations to use them, and level of involvement in board decisions. Melissa could relate to all of them.

I served on the evaluation, finance and strategic planning committees watching Melissa interact with staff, other board members and the public. Melissa was always prepared, focused and patient. Over the years, I have heard many board members describe and comment about her integrity, her work habits, and her knowledge of library operations, library law, property tax levies and health care insurance.

Melissa, as everyone calls her, has a sixth sense for human relations. Several times I observed her gently nudging a stubborn, obstructionist board member along toward making a group decision. In one of my early years on the board, I met privately with her suggesting she take a stronger, quicker hand similar to what I observed by many public administrators. Her response was “David, I’ve tried it that way and it works out better if we take more time and let everybody be involved.” Repeatedly I found that Melissa could always give good reasons for her decisions.

Melissa was expert at keeping in touch with four different groups of people: her staff, the mid-Missouri public, local and state public officials and the national American library network. Professional positions at the local library did not become vacant very often. Melissa has a loyal and committed staff whose skills she uses and opinion she listens to. Melissa has won awards from local groups and the American Library Association. She always comes through.

Melissa was director of the library during an era of extraordinary change. Among these were re-opening of the Columbia library, building the Ashland branch, adding satellite lockers and drop boxes around two counties, and transitioning into the information technology age with ebooks and databases rather than just good ole books.


In the eight years I served on the library board, the trait that I kept noticing about Melissa was her openness to change in order to improve the library. Watching Melissa figuring out how to fund the Ashland branch and dealing with individual patron concerns was rather inspiring. The Daniel Boone Regional Library is an excellent organization devoted to improving library services to a diverse and changing population. Appropriately, one of her last achievements is the merging of the Boone County library district with the city of Columbia district. Few citizens will notice this legalistic change but it will streamline library governance, making library boundaries conform to the growing Columbia metro area. Melissa could have easily kicked this issue  down the road, passing it on to a future library director.

Melissa faced, and survived, several library and family health challenges. When she became director in 1996, she not only succeeded two icons of local library service — Virginia Young and Gene Taylor — but faced several board members skeptical about her selection. A few years later a proposal to expand library facilities was defeated at the polls. Melissa led the library in taking a step back, conducting a deep survey of public preferences, and launching a strategic plan that expanded services using present resources.

About five years ago, Melissa spoke to my MU senior capstone class of students who were getting ready to graduate. A student asked what was the most important trait for new employees to develop. Melissa told them “be a team player — do your part and share the credit.” This is the best single description of Melissa’s approach.

Politics may have never been normal, but this is ridiculous

Politics may have never been normal, but this is ridiculous

David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN December 27, 2017

Politics has always been a messy business but the process for passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act rose, or sank, to new levels of self-interest, chaos and irrationality. That nice orderly diagram of “how a bill becomes a law” (“regular order” as it is called on Capitol Hill) should be banned from school textbooks for being a long-lost fiction.

In a democracy, open, transparent policy deliberations are essential to reducing the uncertainty of alternatives because policy-makers are not experts. Political expediency seldom results in better policy decisions. In a democracy, as stated in our Constitution’s preamble, “we the people” established government to “establish justice and to promote the general welfare” not to further the private fortunes of the powerful.

President Trump and Congressional leaders last week compared the Tax Cuts Act with the Tax Reform Act of 1986 proclaiming the recent act was a broad sweeping reform and the biggest tax cut in history.

Bigness is not always better. It is almost certain that the Tax Cut Act of 2017 will result in the biggest federal deficit in history and the biggest reduction in Medicare in history. Hardly accomplishments. The recent tax act passed the Senate on a party line vote was formally introduced in the House Nov. 2.

Compare that to the 1986 Tax Reform Act, which was the second of two tax cuts in the Reagan Administration, that was subjected to more than five years of open debate. Moreover, its co-sponsors included Democratic House leader Richard Gephardt and Democratic Senator Bill Bradley.

The 1986 Act was more of a “reform” in that it increased compliance and reduced tax complicity compared with the most recent act which largely reduced corporate taxes and various income “pass thrus,”  ” The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was ironed-out on C-SPAN with members of Congress having copies of the bill on which they were debating and voting. Of course, that was before the Internet, texting and, and tweeting — all of which should have made us better informed rather than more quickly overwhelmed. Congress operated, mostly, in “regular order” in a bipartisan fashion.

The genesis of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was the “Kemp Roth Proposal” that was developed in the 1970s; the idea for the Tax Cuts Act of 2017 was evidently when Republican Leader Mitch McConnel decided there would be a first-year legislative success at any cost.

To be sure: Congress has operated outside of “regular order” for at least two decades. Two well-publicized examples at the time are the Prescription Part D expansion during the Bush Administration in 2003 and the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) in 2009.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 and the 1995 Republican House Majority during under Speaker Newt Gingrich are two pivotal events in the steady decline of Congressional legitimacy. NAFTA with its specialized trade provisions was too complex for the mere mortals in Washington, making it more acceptable for members of Congress to repeat things they did not understand. Before that, major public debates were simple and clear. Deciding about civil rights, Vietnam, abortion, and clean air and water is less complex than the incidence and impact of specific tax provisions. Political observers could differ on the desirability of different outcomes, but policy alternatives were clear and Congressional deliberations were open and more bipartisan.

Gingrich was the political czar who led the Republicans to take the majority in the 1994, and became speaker earlier than he would have had the man who would have been speaker, Bob Michael of Illinois, not retired that same year. Gingrich stayed in campaign mode and the Congress has been more partisan since as evidenced by having five different men take a turn as Speaker the years the Republicans have been in the majority.

The American public is not well-versed on public policy issues and its unlikely it understands the 2017 Tax Cuts. Even so, public opinion surveys in early December found that less than a third of citizens supported the Act. My hunch is that about a third of Congress and the news media understand the provisions of the Tax Cuts Act and its likely impact on society. Much of the media coverage focused more on when the House and the Senate would vote on the tax bill rather what was actually in the bill and the difference it would make.

Most troubling is the increase in the federal deficit that will contribute to “automatic spending cuts” in domestic programs and increased borrowing from international sources, mainly China. Both impacts will be gradual, practically invisible to the American public, and long-lasting.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994

Here is a national win-win: Turn up the political calendar to 2020

Here is a national win-win: Turn up the political calendar to 2020

               We are in national pickle: we have a delusional president who could do serious damage, an irresponsible Congress that is too partisan to serve us and save us, a crisis-crazed media that needs constant adrenaline rushes, and a special prosecutor who may soon be squeezing the president, and his family and staff, for the truth about their involvement with Russia. It seems hopeless, like we are trapped, bound to suffer thru three more years of an unpopular president.  But there is an easy solution that might get a good deal of support: turn the calendar to 2020.   Continue reading

It’s a Traffic Jungle Out There

DAVID WEBBER: It’s a traffic jungle out there


Daily driving has gotten tougher over the past decade or two. More round-abouts to contend with, J-turns on Highway 63, U-turns confusion at any time, more bicyclists on the streets, sitting behind texting drivers waiting to turn left at a busy intersection and the light turns amber. Here in Columbia, the City Council will soon consider an ordinance to ban texting while driving by all drivers, not just those under 21 or commercial drivers as is the current ordinance. This is a necessary, but insufficient, to make Columbia’s roads safer and less stressful.

Forty-seven states ban texting while driving, all but five have primary enforcement, allowing officers to issue a citation when they see a driver texting regardless of other infractions. Missouri is not one of them, choosing instead to ban texting for drivers under 21.

In the Midwest, driving is essential to most people’s lives. For some, it is joy and escape, for others it is stress and anxiety. As the population grows so do the number of registered vehicles to nearly 270 million. Increased economic development may mean more jobs, but it also means more vehicles with more drivers. More of these drivers have cell phones, some use them while driving despite knowing it is not a wise social practice. We may have smartphones but we have a lot of not so many smart drivers. The American fatality rate is 40 percent higher than Canada and Australia. Americans still drive too fast and too many still resist seat belts.

With two decades worth of data, the facts support prohibiting cell use while driving. One insurance company estimated that in 2010 more than two-thirds of drivers use cell phones. A California Highway patrol study found that about 10 percent of drivers are using cell phones at any time. The National Highway Safety Administration reports that more than 3,000 fatalities in 2015 were due to distracted driving. That’s about 10 percent of all traffic fatalities.

Individuals who drive while sending or reading text messages are 23 more times likely to be involved in a car crash than other drivers. A crash typically happens within an average of three seconds after a driver is distracted.

Modern information technology can be tools for solving the problems it created. Two websites are useful for discouraging texting while driving. offers a pledge that you, the driver, will put your phone down while driving. The site also provides educational materials including a realistic simulation demonstrating the impact of distracted driving. is a mobile application that reads text messages and emails aloud in real time and automatically responds without drivers touching their cellphone.

My own informal observation of local drivers is that a lot more than 10 percent use cellphones while driving. My eyes see that closer to 25 percent of drivers who pass through Stadium and Broadway are actively using a cellphone and that at least that many have a cellphone on the seat or console ready to go, if needed. There has been an epidemic of cellphone users and it is not limited to drivers 21 and under. In fact, I would venture that 21 and under drivers are probably no riskier than are older drivers.

The chief consequence of text while driving is distracted driving. Despite our desire to make it so, multi-tasking is a myth. The brain cannot not competently handle many tasks at once. A distraction is interrupted thought. Failure to see an object or another vehicle is a textbook example of distracted driving.

Driving patterns have changed over the past decade — most likely due to cellphones. Failure to signal, delayed passage through left hand-turns and four-way stops, and hogging the left lane are widespread driving practices due to cellphones. It is common practice, i.e. more than half, for vehicles leaving the University hospital or the MU sports complex via Stadium towards the Mall to go immediately into the left lane and stay there until they exit at Broadway, the mall or I-70. They prefer the left lane because it gives them more flexibility while checking their cellphone.

Running on city streets has become more hazardous as well. Running in the bike lane toward traffic is dangerous because of the vehicles that straddle the bike lane so the driver has a buffer on both sides. Similarly, running in subdivisions is dangerous due to the vehicles turning right at a stop sign without ever looking for oncoming runners or pedestrians.

Regulating distracting driving presents several challenges, including deciding between “primary” and “secondary’ enforcement and deciding how much surveillance is appropriate. Designating distracting driving as an illegal driving behavior is a deterrent in itself. Most citizens prefer to comply with the law. A local ordinance will serve as a little nudge to cause drivers to do what they know they should do, i.e. put down their phones and drive more safely.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Campus sex culture meets public policy

David Webber Columbia Missourian Oct 30, 2017

Vanessa Grigoriadis’ “Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus” is the most thought-provoking book I have read this year — not because of its tales of sexual encounters (although it is a bit shocking to readers over 50) but because it is a street-level report from a political and social revolution in progress.

Grigoriadis’ approach is to understand and solve a problem rather than engage in rhetorical warfare. She artfully shows the importance of language, ideology and culture in shaping public opinion and public policy. She argues that most cases of college sexual assault are better labeled as “acquaintance assault” rather than “date rape.” The term “sexual assault” itself needs clarification.

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