Monday, November 13, 2017

Paying at the Pump

I don’t want to see the economy collapse. I am not even wishing for a mild recession. But I watch as Wall Street continues to celebrate the Trump presidency, and I know this can not end well. I once worked as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley. There are many reasons why it did not work out for me, but one was the toxic political environment I found there. There was a near religious belief in Republican policy prescriptions, despite the fact that the market had ultimately fallen in every Republican administration, and risen in every Democratic one, since World War II. That was in 2001, but even though it remains true today, Wall Street does not seem to have learned anything from this streak. I have talked about the reason for this disconnect before: the market is not the economy. Supporters of Donald Trump like to point to the Wall Street rally under his rule so far as evidence that the Republicans got it right this time, so let’s take a look at why the market, and corporate profits, are doing so well, and why that might not continue. I am not an economist, so I am going to focus on something most people aren’t talking about yet: the price of oil.

The price of oil is something anyone can see for themselves at the gas pump. It has a great impact on consumer spending. Far away from Wall Street or Capitol Hill, most Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, so more expensive oil means we must cut costs elsewhere in order to afford fill our tanks. When gas prices jump, there is a period of denial, in which Americans increase borrowing to make up the difference. We are in such a period now, but borrowing has its limits, so gas prices must come back down soon if consumer spending is to remain unaffected. Even now, Wall Street is being surprised by earnings reports in the retail sector. There are some exceptions, but the story these earnings reports are trying to tell is that Americans are downshifting their spending, so McDonalds and WalMart are doing well, but mid-range retailers and restaurants are not.

So what does Donald Trump have to do with the price of oil? Americans enjoyed a sharp drop in oil prices during the Obama administration. To give credit where it is due, this was partly due to a continuation of energy policies started in the administration of George W Bush that promoted and greatly expanded domestic oil production, and Trump is continuing this effort, possibly even expanding it by pushing for exploration and drilling on public lands. That’s bad news for the environment, but it helps keep prices lower at the pump. However, Obama also applied downward pressure on oil prices with his push for alternate energy, and here, Trump has completely dropped the ball. Trump has exerted upward pressure on oil prices by placing obstacles in the way of alternative energy development, thereby freezing our dependence on oil at current levels.

Less obvious but possibly more important is the conduct of foreign policy. Obama had a fully staffed State Department, and he understood the subtleties of diplomacy. While he was president, OPEC was knocked off balance, and it became harder for them to commit to unified actions to control the global market for oil. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but Trump believes the State Department is wasteful, and he has deliberately left many key positions unfilled. He also appointed as Secretary of State former oil executive Rex Tillerson. Tillerson knows that more expensive oil globally means increased profits for companies like the one he used to lead. Just recently, OPEC seems to have recovered their balance: their recent agreement to lower production quotas has been the main driver behind the recent rise in oil prices.

There is one other driver to consider, and that is the Republican tax plan. Tax cuts and credits for the working poor and the middle class translate to consumer spending. But when you have all the money you need already, a big tax cut allows you to put more away for the purchase of stocks and more speculative investments. One of those speculative investments is oil futures. The price of oil on world markets includes a speculative premium. By that, I mean that investors buy oil futures, and those purchases translate into higher prices at the gas pump than you and I would otherwise pay. In normal times, this speculative premium is modest, and the sale of futures helps to stabilize prices. But now the Republican tax plan threatens to provide oil speculators with additional funds to play the futures market. No one wants to miss the party, and we have seen that other trends are favorable, so the speculative premium for oil is increasing in anticipation of the Trump tax cuts. This is true even if the tax cuts do not ultimately pass, because speculators do not want to wait to take their positions until the tax bill is law, for fear of missing the profits to be had in the meantime.

So I expect that oil prices will at least remain at their current elevated levels, and possibly go higher still from here. That will put pressure on consumer spending, as would any cuts to safety net programs that Republicans manage to pass. Eventually, even Wall Street will notice, and with stock prices already high by most historical measures, that won’t be pretty. It is notoriously difficult to predict the timing of the stock market, and I failed badly last December. So I will simply leave you with this meditation on oil, and a song about oil prices from forty years ago:

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Road to Impeachment

I have friends who have been calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump since the day he was elected. As a practical matter, impeachment would generally require a president to take office, and then commit an impeachable offense, in that order. Still, I share the sentiment. This is a man who settled fraud charges against himself out of court in December, without admitting wrongdoing, but still. This is also a man who had a twenty year old rape charge disappear when his accuser once again dropped the case when faced with new death threats. So I have believed since Election Day that Trump could not possibly finish his first term. He has a long history of contempt for our laws, suggesting that he is simply incapable of behaving as if they apply to him. He regards out of court settlements not as penalties for wrongdoing, but simply as costs of doing business. Having said all of that, there was still a certain sequence of events that would be needed to actually get us to an impeachment. The first of those events finally happened this week. Robert Mueller unveiled criminal charges against those in Trump’s orbit. So what has to happen to get us from here to the end of the Trump presidency?

First, let’s talk about the charges that were brought, and why. Paul Manafort and Rick Davis grabbed the headlines at first. They were jointly charged in an elaborate scheme that involved secretly working for foreign actors, and collaborating with them on a plan to evade paying US taxes on the income gained. That last bit, the collaboration with foreign actors to evade income tax, is the basis for the charge of conspiracy against the United States. The charge sounds spectacular, but it is a much lesser charge than treason, which is not indicated here. Trump was right when he said that there was nothing in these charges about collusion regarding the election, and that the events that gave rise to these charges began long before the campaign began. Any normal campaign would have discovered much of this, and never brought Manafort aboard, but a lack of proper vetting is not an impeachable offense. But here we should also remember that Al Capone finally went to jail for tax evasion. So the charges against Manafort and Davis that were filed this week do not tell us that they did not collude regarding the election; instead, they mean that these are the crimes Mueller feels he has enough evidence of to gain convictions. The plan now is to use a plea bargain process to get Davis, and especially Manafort, to testify about what they know. These are also just the federal crimes that Manafort and Davis may have committed, and Trump can only pardon potential federal offenses. Mueller is saving plenty of potential crimes for charges especially in New York State, in case Trump tries to protect his people with a pardon. Even so, Monday was not free of collusion. Later, Mueller revealed a guilty plea from George Papadopoulis. The charge here is lying to investigators, but the substance of the lies had to do with a Russian offer to provide the Trump campaign with dirt on Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulis is cooperating with investigators, and what we know so far could form the basis of perjury charges against Jeff Sessions.

That’s how it is done. When Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, it was after months of watching associates being arrested, and turning state’s witness. We are only at the beginning of that process now, but it has begun, and there is every reason to think it will go further, involving people closer and closer to Trump’s direct orbit. Trump foolishly repeated his attempted command that Mueller must not investigate Trump’s business and financial dealings; this only serves to make the public wonder what we will find there. So the legal and investigative steps that could lead to impeachment are well under way. But more is needed.

Impeachment is the bringing of charges by the House of Reprsentatives, and the charges are then tried by the Senate. The Senate must vote to convict with a two thirds majority. The strongest possible criminal case must be backed up with a political climate that makes impeachment possible and successful. That climate is not in place now. Based on what we know now, the House as currently constituted is more interested in protecting Trump than impeaching him. Even if they did, there are not the votes in the Senate to convict. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was a sham trial, because the Republicans who brought it knew they could not get the votes to convict in the Senate. To get to impeachment as the evidence against Trump accumulates, we will also need changes in the political environment. We may well need the Republicans to lose a significant number of seats in both the House and the Senate in next year’s election. But even if that happens, we will still need to convince many Republicans that we the people will punish them for a failure to bring Donald Trump to justice. We must convince them that loyalty to a corrupt president from their own party will cost them enough votes to cost them their seats. We must make them choose between party loyalty and the good of the nation.

In order to force that choice, we must vote, and it can matter if we start doing so this coming Tuesday. If we make sure we go to the polls in large numbers in this odd year election, and we make sure that every possible member of the Republican Party is defeated, that would send a powerful message. For many years, the Republicans in general, and the Tea Party movement in particular, have been able to count on us staying home in off year elections. They have encouraged the idea that the two parties are the same, that your vote does not matter, and you have helped them immensely if you believed it. But, in direct contradiction to that, these same people have worked hard to create new obstacles to voting, especially for minorities who lean heavily Democratic. Clearly, your vote must make a difference, and your party preference must matter as well, if they are willing to work this hard to keep you home. So Tuesday’s election is mostly for local offices. Maybe there is someone you have known all your life and liked, maybe even given your trust to, and this year he is running for the proverbial dog catcher position as a Republican. Sorry, but we must make sure his Democratic opponent wins. If you are lucky enough to live in a place where an independent can win, more power to you, but please be careful with this one. The important thing is, this election can be a powerful rejection of the current path of the Republican Party, but only if we show up, and turn any and all Republicans out or away. That is how we can convince sitting Republicans in Washington to walk the road to impeachment with us.

I’m cheating a bit this week with my song choice, in order to share an old favorite. Only the title of the song really has anything to do with my subject. You may know The Road from Jackson Browne’s version, which is well worth hearing if you haven’t. But this is the original version, by an artist who deserves to be better known, Danny O’Keefe:

Monday, October 30, 2017

Truth is Relative

There can really only be one topic here this week. Jeff Flake gave his retirement speech, and became a new Republican hero. Don’t get me wrong; it was a great speech, well worth reading in its entirety. But the reaction to it in the press misses some very important points. This is Jeff Flake, people. Flake was elected courtesy of the Tea Party movement, so it is horrifying that he has found someone too extreme for his liking. But he delivered this speech, and then voted later that night to outlaw class action suits against financial institutions. Flake has voted for each and every one of the horrible healthcare proposals his party has put out there. So his speech is not a clarion call for policy change in Washington, as so many in the media would have it. John McCain at least helped torpedo the healthcare atrocities with no votes, although he too was upset by process, not policy. Flake deplores the dangerous extremism of the president, but Flake himself was the dangerous extremist when he first came to Washington.

You read that right. We have now have a president whose extremism is shocking and deplorable to a Tea Party stalwart. It has gotten so bad that a Jeff Flake is on the verge of realizing that Mitch McConnell has brought the Republican Party to this point with his stratagems to exclude the Democrats from governance, even when they were the Party in power. But Flake focuses his criticisms on the president, and it is easy to miss his comments about how things are being done in the Senate. Flake calls for a return to “shared facts”, but he has relied throughout his career on only those facts that suited him. He can not see the essential fallacies of supply side economics, and he invokes faith and moral authority in his speech, not the Constitution and established law. On Social issues like abortion and gay rights, it appears to be Trump who has come around to Flake’s point of view.

Where Flake differs from Donald Trump is not in matters of policy, except regarding trade and immigration. Their economic agendas are largely simpatico, and I would expect Flake to be a reliable vote on tax cuts for the rich, for example. The big difference and point of contention is their goals. Trump has pushed his Party toward the Steve Bannon world view. Where Flake believes that the government should exist to help the wealthy produce more wealth, Bannon believes that the government has failed. It must be destroyed, so that something better can be built in its place. While it is not entirely clear what this new better world would look like, it appears to involve reasserting the supremacy of white Christian males, and putting everyone else in their place. Along the way, however, many of the same policies apply. Both Flake and Bannon seek to completely dismantle the safety net. Flake sees programs like Medicare and Social Security as unfair burdens on the wealthy, while the Bannon wing of the Party sees them as handouts to “them”. They are also simpatico on social issues, but Flake sees a moral imperative where Bannon sees government intrusion.

Flake, to his credit, does feel that the United States has an important role to play in world affairs, where Bannon does not. Flake refers to the United States as “the architects of this visionary rules-based world order,” which implies that we should be the ones making the rules, even though he praises our policy of reconstruction after World War II. But the meaning of Flake’s speech changes greatly when you consider the speaker. This is not a shaming of the Republican Party for the harm their policies will do to the people who elected them. This is not a sudden conversion to progressivism from one of the most conservative members of the Senate. No, this is simply a call for a return of responsible governance, from a man who believes his policy positions are correct. Flake feels that, if the Republicans were to return to normal governance, their ideas would prevail simply on their merits. He believes that “shared facts” will bear him out. I think the results would be otherwise, but I applaud Flake for being willing to risk that. In the context of politics as it is being practiced in 2017, it was a brave speech. It would have been braver if it had been made by a man who was willing to stand for reelection after giving it. But that is a lot to ask. It falls to the general public and the people of Alabama in particular to stand up to the wrongness of our country, and reject the Bannon- approved candidates running in 2018. Jeff Flake has signaled that he does not have it in him to take on that job. and I don’t blame him for that.

So the short answer is that Flake’s speech is something of an illusion. Hence, this week’s song:

Monday, October 23, 2017

Tax Fraud

I have discussed before how Donald Trump and his allies use marketing techniques to sell us programs we would be better off without. I have also discussed how we should be marketing our own agenda. Up to now, I have confined these discussions mainly to the subject of healthcare. But now it is time to look at “tax reform”. When you say those words, it sounds like you want a new system of assigning taxes that is fairer for everyone. You want to ease the burden on regular people, and get the rich and corporations to pay their fair share. You want a system that collects enough overall to fund a robust set of government programs that benefit everyone, but you want to do it without squeezing the poor or the middle class. The current “tax reform” proposal that Trump has put forth and the Republicans are trying to enact fails every one of these tests, miserably. They sell it with a lie they may even believe: that giving as much money as possible to the rich and corporations will put that money into the economy and thereby create jobs. In fact, the experience of the Bush tax cuts, as well as the results of similar programs in other countries, shows us that this money would instead bolster the stock market and also free up funds for more speculative investments. There is a word for a time when the performance of the financial markets becomes divorced from the economic realities of the poor and the middle class: a bubble. It ends in a collapse, with the financial crisis of 2008 being a recent, dramatic example.

So what would real tax reform look like? I have a proposal for corporate taxes that illustrates this, and also how we could sell it. At the moment, it is generally agreed that our corporate tax system is unduly complex. It puts a burden on our corporations in terms of record keeping and preparation. The system is riddled with loopholes that allow highly profitable companies to dodge their responsibilities, and pay little or no taxes. I have a solution that simplifies corporate accounting, reduces fraud, discourages the use of tax shelters and foreign tax dodges, and increases the overall revenue in corporate taxes paid to the government. It involves eliminating the requirement for corporations to file tax returns at all.

Wait, what? Hear me out. Our system now requires corporations to file a tax return with the IRS, and it is considered in a vacuum. No other evidence of the financial condition is considered, which allows for all manner of schemes to dodge paying taxes. But the government already collects other information on the financial condition of our corporations. Players in the stock market eagerly await quarterly earnings reports from companies, and those are followed a few weeks later by the filing with the SEC of the form 10Q. So let’s simply use the 10Q as the basis for corporate income tax. Do you want to use a foreign country to shelter your income from taxation? Fine, but you don’t get to report that money as earnings. Do want to follow in the footsteps of Enron, and artificially inflate your earnings with “creative accounting”? Fine, but you have to pay more taxes as a result. So using the 10Q for taxes should provide powerful incentives to discourage tax sheltering on one side of the ledger, and accounting fraud on the other. It reduces the burden on corporations by simplifying reporting. And, since no company wants to report zero or negative earnings to their shareholders, this proposal would encourage companies to pay their fair share of taxes.

As with healthcare, the best way to expose the Republican tax plan for the cynical fraud that it is is to put forward a true tax reform proposal for comparison. This can be the start of that plan. Let the experts score this plan, and provide an estimate of how much additional tax corporations will pay. Then propose using that money to relieve the tax burden on the middle class and provide additional relief for the working poor. Unlike the current proposal, this one is revenue neutral, meaning no budget cuts to popular programs are needed to pay for it. There also does not have to be an explosion of the deficit, such as the one the Bush tax cuts produced. By actually putting a meaningful amount of money in the hands of people who will spend it, this plan stimulates the economy where the Republican plan does not. So let’s put this out there, and watch the Republicans squirm as they try to explain why their plan would be better.

This week’s song is not one of Robert Cray’s best lyrics, but it does express the frustration ordinary people feel with our tax system. It also has some very tasty playing by the whole band:

Monday, October 9, 2017

Commas and Periods

I wrote most of a perfectly good post last week, and then set it aside for some finishing touches. Before I could get to those, however, Las Vegas happened. This past week has seen the usual outpouring of articles on gun violence in America. “The usual…”. How it pains and disgusts me to write those words on this topic! Each time one of these senseless tragedies occurs, the Republicans line up to do the bidding of the gun lobby with the ritual parroting of the same tired excuses for why there is nothing to be done, and each time I make the same observation: if he had only been armed with a knife, a lot of lives would not have been wasted, and a lot of people would not have been injured. So let’s talk about the Second Amendment.

The mad disciples of Wayne LaPierre love to misquote it as:

“The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
They even got the Supreme Court to accept this text as the true one in the Heller decision in 2008. But the actual text in full reads:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
It makes a big difference, but it also scans for the modern reader as so much gobbledygook. The placement of the commas is particularly bizarre. But the extra words and clauses are important to our understanding of what was intended. So is the study of the history of the period in which it was written.

The founding fathers did not intend to establish any individual right to own weapons, and certainly not stockpiles of the types of military weapons we find in too many cases today. The right to bear arms was deliberately limited to the context of “a well regulated militia”. The clause about “a free state” tells us more. The Constitution was born in a highly contentious meeting, and ratification was only possible because an agreement was made that several points of conflict would be resolved later. That later resolution became the Bill of Rights. Keep in mind that the whole point of the Constitution was to establish a single nation from what had been thirteen semi-autonomous colonies under British rule. The new states did not want to give up that autonomy, so the Constitution devotes a lot of attention to the rights of the individual states. The Second Amendment is a continuation of that theme. In historical context, it established that there would be no national army in peacetime; instead, each state would maintain “a well regulated militia”, and these state militias would be welded together into a national army only when the entire nation was threatened with war. To the modern mind, this is a bizarre and unworkable arrangement, but to the founding fathers, it meant that the national government could not impose its will on the individual states by military means. That was vital to obtaining the cooperation of the new southern states, who feared that a national army would be used to impose an end to slavery.

Technology has rendered all of this obsolete. The weaponry we need today to pose a credible threat to other nations can only be built and managed on a national scale. Even the most avid gun rights supporter is not calling for the individual states to have tanks and military aircraft, and certainly not nuclear weapons. And just as certainly, no one has said that the Second Amendment guarantees any personal right to such an arsenal. In fact, a national army did impose the end of slavery 150 years ago. So I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the Second Amendment should be repealed. Politically, that would be impossible without a replacement that makes individual gun ownership a right, but that is the conversation we should be having, instead of how to twist the founding father's intentions to fit a twenty-first century agenda.

Let’s start by agreeing that state militias with the military technology necessary to defy the national government are not the goal. Let’s also remind ourselves that we all understand that cars are dangerous. For that reason, we have enshrined in our laws that owning and operating a car is a privilege that comes with legal responsibilities. State laws vary, but broadly we expect and accept that a person must demonstrate that they understand the laws that govern the use of a car, that they have completed training that allows them to operate it safely, and that they maintain it in a safe working condition. We also assign legal responsibility for any harm that comes from operating a car. And we assume that a person must be mature enough to operate a car. In our laws governing alcohol, we further assign liability to an adult who allows or encourages the use of alcohol by a minor. All of this should apply to guns as well.

Then there is the question of which guns to allow, and how many. I personally do not feel comfortable with the idea of owning any guns, but that is my personal decision. It is also a reflection of what might be called rural privilege: I live in a small town where I feel safe, and I do not feel that I need to defend myself. It seems to me that self defense is the key. Any provision that allows a person to arm themselves with weapons that suffice for their personal defense and the defense of their loved ones should also be sufficient for hunting. So the question then becomes, defend themselves from what? If you believe that you will have to personally fight off a horde of well armed and trained terrorists, or a raid from US government agents, you need much more powerful weaponry than if you believe the greatest threat you face is a group of three armed intruders in your home. But the terrorist and government agent scenarios are simply fantasies promoted in our popular media. In Las Vegas, there were plenty of “good guys with guns” among the bands performing, but they realized that drawing their weapons in that situation would have only increased the confusion of the situation, thereby making it more dangerous rather than less. Even in a war, highly trained soldiers can miss and inadvertently claim the lives of innocent civilians, so no one can assume that they would only hit their intended target in the heat of the moment.

From all of this, we can formulate a new Second Amendment that would modernize and clarify the rights and limits of gun ownership. It might read something like this:

The right of individuals to own and bear arms shall be recognized, but Congress and the states shall have the responsibility to regulate their nature and use in the name of public safety and the greater good.
The final language would be worked out by constitutional lawyers, but it must strike this balance. People should be allowed to have their guns, but government bodies should have the obligation to regulate them in sensible ways. Balance is something that has been hard to find in discussions about guns, but we will not make progress without it.

Let me leave you with some questions that may help someone who believes in gun regulation have a calm conversation with someone who owns guns. What kind of gun do you own? How did you learn to use it? If you have it for self defense, what kinds of threats do you believe you might need it for? I am not opposed to self defense. I think we should work to end rape culture, but until that happens, I would support any girl who wants to learn karate, for example. I believe that a majority of gun owners would like to have a national conversation about gun control, but they must feel that we are not judging them when we bring up the subject. I hope some of the ideas I have discussed here can help us have that conversation.

I could have chosen any number of songs that relate to guns this week. Some of those would be in poor taste in light of the Las Vegas tragedy. Others present a strong opinion, and would serve to block conversation, rather than encourage it. So I have chosen instead a song about conversational gambits to avoid:

Monday, September 25, 2017

What Makes a Hero

I am getting tired of hearing John McCain hailed as a hero. Let me hasten to add that I am not casting aspersions on his military service. McCain spent a long period as a prisoner of war, and that could have broken a lesser man, Instead, McCain returned to civilian life and devoted himself to continuing to serve his country, and in a very public way. Even given my frequent disagreements with him on policy, I salute him for that. But his recent no votes on Republican healthcare bills do not make him a hero in my eyes. He has said of the current threat, the Graham Cassidy bill, that he would vote for a similar bill if it had been developed as part of the proper process. At least he is willing to stand up against the shadow law making of Mitch McConnell. But the true heroes here have been Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who have been willing to oppose the bill because it would hurt their constituents and the nation. Even so, none of them to my knowledge has taken the next step of speaking out forcefully against these bills and the manner of their crafting on the floor of the Senate, and shaming their fellow Republicans. Keep in mind that Mitch McConnell has insisted on completely shutting the Democrats out of the process of crafting these bills. Here is what such a speech might sound like:

“My fellow Republicans,

“Let me remind you that Donald Trump lost the popular vote last year. We also lost seats in both this house and the House of Representatives. Further, as we have shown the American people bill after bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, their support for the ACA has grown to the point where poll after poll shows majority support for it. So let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that we must repeal ‘Obamacare’. We have no such mandate, and in fact the American people have now instructed us to do the opposite. Faced with the repeated threats of the bills Senator McConnell has presented us with, the American people have come to understand that they care how we improve or replace ‘Obamacare’. They do not want us to remove it, unless we can give them something better, and the current Graham Cassidy bill dismally fails that test. We can expect the American people to tell us as much in next year’s election if we pass this bill. We can also expect, after three years of living under Graham Cassidy, that the American people would remove our control of both the White House and both houses of Congress, and that they would do so forcefully. And we would deserve it.

“Senator Cassidy, you especially should be ashamed of putting your name to this bill. As a physician, you know better than any of us the great harm it would do to the people of your state and our country. You have allowed your devotion to the President’s campaign promise of ‘repeal and replace’ to blind you to the medical needs of your constituents. You have forgotten your professional oath to ‘First do no harm.’

“Senator McConnell, we followed your lead from the beginning of the Obama administration to refuse to govern responsibly, and that has brought us here. To our shame, we have failed to prevent you from having these healthcare bills developed in the shadows, without any input even from us. We have failed to insist that open hearings be conducted, and that we be open even to the input of the Democrats, so that we can truly develop a responsible healthcare bill that serves the people who put us here. We have allowed you to place the needs of a few wealthy donors to our party above the needs of the people we truly work for. That must now change. We have what we wanted. Our party controls the White House and both houses of Congress. You have led us in trying to use the power of that, but now it is time for us to accept the awesome responsibility that comes with it.

“That responsibility begins now. We must begin by rejecting the bill before us. Then, we must move to immediately begin open hearings to improve the healthcare system in this country. We must invite the Democrats to participate, to give their imput, and we must listen and truly consider it when they do. We must ignore our president, who has not cared enough to try to understand the bills we have proposed up to now, and solicit the testimony of experts in medical care and policy.

“Let us truly make America great again. Let us start to learn to govern again, and let it begin now. Let us commit ourselves to winning back the trust the American people once placed in their members of Congress. My fellow Republicans, my fellow Senators, thank you for your time and attention today. Let us now go and do the right thing.”

Such a speech would be very risky within the Party for the Republican who delivered it. They would risk the complete withdrawal of Party support for any future campaign, as well as the ire of the right wing media machine. But that is what heroes do. They take risks in the name of doing what is right. John McCain has annoyed the Republican establishment, but he has not shown this kind of courage. Perhaps it is too much to ask of him right now especially. But I will not hail him as a hero for making sure he is the last Republican to announce opposition to a terrible bill. I will thank him for his help, but I will not forget that the united opposition of the Democrats and the actions of other Republicans were needed to make it meaningful.

There can really only be one song with this post:

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Few Words

I have written before about how right wingers are much better than us at marketing. One of the places this comes up is in the weaponizing of the English language itself. Words have power, and controlling their meanings is a very powerful thing. Let me explain with a few examples.

Let’s start with a win for the good guys (and gals). I recommend reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass if you haven’t already just because they are wonderful books. But notice also the way the words gay and queer are used. Gay simply meant demonstratively happy. To be gaily festooned meant to be dressed or decorated in bright colors in celebration. When Alice said, “How very queer!”, she meant that she had noticed something odd that merited further investigation. Author Lewis Carroll was a mathematician who would have strongly believed in the value of such investigations. Carroll wanted his readers to see the value of creative thinking. But later, of course, the words gay and queer were coopted as insulting terms for homosexuality. Still later, what we now know as the gay rights movement fought to reclaim these words, and they are now used as rallying terms that denote a shared identity that is worth fighting for. We still need to remind ourselves of this history when we read Lewis Carroll, but the words are no longer weapons of hurt.

Now consider the word liberal. It was once an honorable thing to be a liberal. The word means generous and inclusive. Liberal arts is a term for an education that is broad based, encompassing many disciplines and finding value in each. Likewise, as a governing philosophy, liberalism indicates the belief in a society that is broad based, finding value in all of its citizens. A liberal believes that it is the responsibility of a government to provide fairly for all of the people. We believe in a system of laws that asks the more fortunate to provide support for those who are less fortunate, for the good of all. We believe, in the wealthiest nation on earth, that we have the economic resources to take care of all of our citizens. And we believe that this is a worthy goal in the context of an elective form of government. But the right wing managed to turn “liberal” into an insult. It is no longer necessary for them to refer to “tax and spend” liberals, as they once did; this negative branding campaign got us to the present day, where the “tax and spend” part is implied. The right wingers won this language war without us firing a shot, and now we call ourselves progressives, until they ruin that word for us as well.

Conservative, on the other hand, contains the root “to conserve”. It implies a belief that economic resources are limited, and must therefore not be taken from those who worked so hard to earn them. What is being conserved is individual wealth, with no regard to the common good. Government exists only to provide services like law enforcement and the military, to further the accumulation of wealth. Put another way, the job of government is to remove uncertainties, for the benefit of what conservatives see as the natural economic order. Seen this way, it should not be difficult to create a negative branding campaign against the word conservative. In 1860, the conservative outlook would have favored the preservation of slavery, seeing abolition as a source of uncertainty. In 1930, they would have viewed the New Deal the same way. But also notice that conservatism, taken literally, can find common ground with liberalism. Today, assaults on Social Security and Medicare would increase economic uncertainty, so those who favor these assaults are not truly conservatives. Here we are on the firmest ground we have. We must stop accepting the labeling of today’s Republicans as conservatives. They seek not to conserve but to destroy. Led by Grover Norquist, they seek to drastically cut taxes on the rich not to preserve any perceived economic order but to “starve the beast”, that is, to impair the ability of the government to function at all. We should start calling these people what they are, which is right wing anarchists. The Tea Party movement named themselves after an act of terrorism that was a direct assault on the economic order of the day. It suits them, but it hardly makes them conservative. Seen this way, Trump’s embrace of neo-Nazis and Klansmen is entirely consistent with his economic priorities. The Republican Party has been going in this direction for many years; Trump is simply the first one to openly embrace this form of political anarchy. As a skilled marketer himself, he is happy to be labeled conservative by others, but he is no conservative. The word conservative implies a measure of safety that he hardly provides.

Finally, let me add my two cents regarding the word antifa. This is not a corruption of the existing language, like gay and queer. This is an attempt at branding using the coining of an entirely new word, and it must be done with care. Sure, antifa is short for anti-fascist, and who could object to that? But abbreviating this way strips the word of its meaning. As a brand, we are left with the provocation that being antifa means you are acting in a negative way; you are against something, not for anything. To see how this works, ask yourself if you would find it more appealing to be anti-abortion or prolife. Coming back to the question of who could object to being against fascism, the answer is those who feel that they are being unfairly labeled as fascists. We all saw Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables on the march in Charlottesville, but it was still a stupid thing for her to say during the campaign, because it made a much larger segment of the population feel that she had written them off. Antifa contains the same danger. If you leave it to me, I would let the term antifa die, and replace it with a word that says what we are for, not what we are against. Antifa pushes people away, at a time when we need a word that invites them to join us.

Words matter. We must be clear not only about what we want to say, but also how we say it. Queer and gay show that the language wars can be won, and that it is worth the fight. We must reclaim liberal, and insist on accuracy in the use of conservative. In coining new words, we must take care not to create weapons that can be used against us. We have enough to do defending the language we already have.

A song that asks, “What are words worth?” is my obvious choice this week: