Tuesday, December 5, 2017


The Republicans got their fantasy last week. The tax bill that nobody read passed the Senate, and now it only has to go through reconciliation with the House version to become law. There is no question that Donald Trump will sign it, also without reading it. All along we have heard how this will spur job creation. This is pure fantasy. What this bill will do is damage the insurance marketplace created by Obamacare, thereby raising premiums for everyone, and causing a drop in consumer spending as a result. Before that happens, companies who are already more than able to afford to hire new workers or give raises to existing ones will instead ramp up their efforts to acquire other companies, costing the economy jobs rather than creating them. Wealthy individuals will now have more money to invest in the stock market and more speculative items, and the stock market will also benefit from a rise in stock buybacks by corporations. This will fuel a rise in stock prices, but without a corresponding rise in value that would come from an increase in consumer demand. For a while, top executives will love the rise in the value of their portfolios of company stock, but something will have to give in the end. The prospects for consumer spending get even worse if the Republicans are able to use the sharp increase in the national debt that this bill will cause to justify cuts in social spending.

But let’s focus on that speculative investing I mentioned before. In the wake of the Bush tax cuts, a lot of that money went into mortgage backed securities, and we know how that ended up. As I discussed in a previous post, some will fuel speculation on the price of oil, which will mean that we will pay more at the pump. That will also cut into consumer spending. But it is the possibility of a speculative bubble that concerns me the most. On the one hand, Barack Obama was never able to completely undo the Bush tax cuts. Politically, the only way you can get tax increases through Congress is if you have a total economic collapse. I can make the case that George W Bush was an evil president, but faced with the prospect of a total financial collapse on a scale that would have rivalled the Great Depression, Bush was smart and sane enough to push for emergency measures to prevent that. Today, we are not so lucky. Even if Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told Donald Trump that a new Depression loomed, Trump might simply refuse to believe it until even his real estate empire lay in ruins.

So where could the next financial collapse come from? It won’t be mortgages this time. In the wake of any collapse, measures are put in place to prevent a repeat. That’s why the last collapse wasn’t about internet stocks or savings and loans, to use two recent examples. The most famous collapse in financial history was the brutal end of the Dutch tulip mania, as shown in the chart at the top of this article. Today, the price of a tulip bulb reflects its value as an addition to your garden. There is a premium that allows tulip growers to make a reasonable profit. But during the Dutch mania, tulip prices rose astronomically, as everyone feared missing out on the enormous profits being made by others. People traded away their estates in order to possess a single bulb. By 1637, sanity returned and the prices plummeted, ruining many people financially in the process. But a tulip bulb is a tangible object. You can hold it in your hand. So it is clearly worth something.

We would all like to believe that we are smarter today. After all, the tax cuts for the extremely wealthy are going to those who are rich enough to invest in hedge funds. Hedge funds are lightly regulated because our law considers these wealthy investors “sophisticated.” Mutual funds are available for far lower prices, and are therefore regulated to protect the consumer. Of course, a lot of “sophisticated” investors fell for the Bernie Madoff scam, so you have to wonder. Where then might the next financial collapse come from? Something else might happen first, but let’s talk about bitcoins.

The chart of bitcoin prices above bears an eerie resemblance to the first part of the tulip chart. A bitcoin is different from a tulip bulb, however, because you can not hold a bitcoin in your hand. That means that, unlike a tulip bulb, the value of a bitcoin can drop to zero. If you are just hearing of bitcoins for the first time, they are the most popular of what are called cryptocurrencies. Basically, someone invented them out of thin air, and created an admittedly brilliant software package to monitor and control their exchange. This software is referred to as blockchain technology, and it has practical applications for transactions conducted with traditional currencies. But the bitcoin itself is a fabrication. The key selling point is that bitcoins are not controlled by any government. They are a pirate currency, and sure enough, many early adopters were engaged in illegal activities. But this is also libertarian money. You can conduct business in bitcoins, and pay no taxes because it is difficult to track the profits. Officially, only a limited amount of bitcoins will ever be issued, so prices reflect planned scarcity as well. But already billions of dollars have gone into bitcoins. Now, the CTFC has approved the selling of bitcoin futures, which makes it possible to speculate on the price of a bitcoin without even owning one. That means that the amount of money involved in the bitcoin market is about to explode. But who controls the bitcoin? No one knows. The trading is controlled by a company in the Philippines called Satoshi Citadel. The company has three co-founders and two additional officers, but nothing else is known of these men. They have no history before their involvement with this company. Miguel Cuneta is one of the co-founders, and the chief mouthpiece for the company. He talks a good line, but we have no way of knowing if he might have intentions that are not discussed in his official utterances.

Both the CTFC action and the tax cut bill mean that more money will go into bitcoin speculation. They will become further enmeshed in the global financial system, just as mortgage backed securities did. And then, one day, something will happen, and people will start to demand answers to uncomfortable questions. I hope I am wrong about this. I hope bitcoins really are the next great innovation after the internet itself, as Miguel Cuneta would have us believe. But I am chilled by having seen this show before. And if all of this results in a crisis, I have no faith in Donald Trump to get us through it. The only positive I can see is that it might create the political climate that would make possible the removal of both the Trump and Bush tax cuts. But it would come at a very high price.

If there is a song about the Dutch tulip mania, I do not know of it. However, this one describes a crash pretty well:

Monday, November 27, 2017


If you rely on a cable company or satellite provider for your television programming, you start by paying for a basic package that includes the most popular, and innocuous, programming. If you want to add sports coverage, that’s extra. Movies, extra. And so on, to a very large bill if you want everything. And everything isn’t everything. With a full package, you still don’t have any alternative news sources. There is nothing comparable to this blog, or any other blog for that matter. There are no outlets for individual voices, because there is no money to be made from that, so the content providers believe. Even small record labels and distributors have no way to get word to you on cable or satellite about their artists.

Fortunately, for the moment, we have net neutrality. The term is intimidating, but what it means in plain terms is that all of the missing elements I mentioned above can be found on the internet. Unlike cable and satellite providers, internet providers are currently required to provide the entire internet, even the nooks and crannies that could never be profit centers for them. And that is really what the current struggle to save net neutrality is about. Donald Trump and his friends can talk all they want about the best way to promote innovation on the internet, but the truth is that they want to do away with net neutrality in order to allow large companies to monetize our online lives more effectively. That means having access only to websites they believe the can sell to large numbers of people. It means your preferred social network might become part of a premium package. It means you might lose access to Facebook for several months while they fight through a contract dispute with your provider. And it means that many independent musicians would lose their careers. That last one may be more important to me than to some of my readers, but it is part of a larger suppression of independent voices that would result from the loss of net neutrality. Many truly independent political websites would be lost, or at least lost to most people. Russian propaganda sites would not be lost, however, because they are well financed. They could meet the prices internet providers would ask to carry their services.

So far, I have only mentioned the natural consequences of the loss of net neutrality. By that, I mean the effects that accrue from the new financial model that would follow from a closed internet. This stifling of independent voices would happen for purely financial reasons, without any intent from internet service providers. But surely, there would also be intent. My current internet provider is Verizon, and they could decide that they will not allow access to any website whose politics they don’t like. There would be no way to stop them from doing this. Initially, there might arise new internet providers who fill the gaps by allowing access to these niche sites, but the financial aspects of doing so would make it hard to stay in business, while the Verizons of the world would be busy lobbying Congress to eliminate these competitors.

I hope my readers already know that I am writing this post now because Trump’s head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has proposed eliminating net neutrality, and ushering in a new era of a fully monetized internet. The FCC has to allow public comments until December 14, and they will then make a final decision. During that time, we need to flood the FCC with our comments. We also need to pressure our Senators and Congressmen to go on record in opposition to Pai’s plan. We do not have to listen to any politician who wants to tell us what the new, monetized internet would look like. We already know. Almost all of us have cable or satellite television, so we’ve seen this show already. Fortunately, there are many links like this one that make it easy to send comments to the FCC. Please do so, and remember that adding your own comments counts for extra on the receiving end; it shows the FCC that you cared enough to personalize your response, and that it did not come from a bot.

My musical selection this week has to come from an independent band. Red Molly have self produced and released all of their albums. They have made a good career for themselves, using the strength of their performances, the occasional video like this one, their website, and online vendors for their CDs. One such vendor is CD Baby, and that is a site that would be hurt by the loss of net neutrality. So I would like to believe that artists like this would continue to be able to share their art with us even if we lose this fight, but surely their careers would suffer.

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:

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Storm Before the Storm

This is not the time to praise or criticize Donald Trump with regards to Hurricane Harvey. For now, he is simply one man who is as powerless as most of us to do anything concrete in the face of the disaster that is continuing to unfold. As president, he can make sure the right words are said, which he chose to do on Twitter. But the concrete work of a president in the face of a natural disaster comes in the aftermath of the event. Trump should be judged by how well he helps to mobilize federal relief efforts in the days ahead. For now, our thoughts and prayers must be with the people of Texas who are being struck by the storm. I have already seen one article pointing out that the storm is hitting a state whose Republican Senators both voted against aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy; this too is inappropriate now. I would hope that anyone who has the ability to volunteer to help the victims of the storm would not make life and death decisions based on how the victims may have voted last year.

A natural disaster of this magnitude can make or break a political career, so it comes at a key moment for Donald Trump. In 2005, George W Bush was serving the first year of a second term that he won by a landslide, based on the idea that he was leading the nation’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. In the 2004 elections, the majority of the voters did not question whether he was the most competent man to serve the nation in an emergency; nor did they consider the question of whether he lied to get us into the war in Iraq. Hurricane Katrina changed all of that. Bush had, as part of his push for huge tax cuts for the wealthy, made savage budget cuts, particularly impairing FEMA and other programs designed for emergency responses. He had also appointed as the head of FEMA Michael Brown, a man who had no qualifications for the job. The federal response to Katrina became part of the disaster, and the American people turned on Bush, with his approval ratings plummeting. Suddenly, everything he had done up to that point became fair game, and people began to accept that he had led us into war under false pretenses. The American people as a whole never trusted him again.

In 2012, another Republican met another disastrous storm. Like Bush, Chris Christie, then and now the governor of my state of New Jersey, had imposed cuts to key programs in the name of providing large tax cuts to the wealthy. Like Trump now, Christie was known for his abrasive personality. He was considered a political bully, although the Bridgegate scandal would come later. The Democrats had good reason to believe that they could foil his reelection bid in 2013 until Hurricane Sandy hit. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie took full advantage of the fact that Barack Obama had rebuilt FEMA and the federal government’s disaster response capabilities in general. Christie even took advantage of Obama’s visit to the disaster area for a photo op with the president, allowing Christie to share the credit for the success of federal relief efforts. At the time, this photo op was consider fatal to Christie’s chances of winning the Republican nomination for president in 2016, but played well in my state, which had gone for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Christie then vandalized a state fund which was supposed to go for public service announcements to help further with disaster aid to create the “Stronger Than the Storm” ad campaign that unofficially marked the beginning of his gubernatorial reelection campaign. In the wake of that, the Democrats made no serious effort to oppose him the next year, holding back their most promising candidates for this year instead.

All of which brings us back to the present. If you have been reading this blog, you are well acquainted with all of the reasons Donald Trump is historically unpopular. Like George W Bush, Trump wants to severely impair the federal government’s ability to respond to a disaster in the name of providing a massive tax cut for the wealthy. But that has not happened yet. Hurricane Harvey comes at a time when the government is still operating under president Obama’s last budget. Trump also has the benefit of the efforts by Obama to rebuild the government’s disaster response capabilities in the wake of the damage done by Bush. Where Trump does deserve some credit is in the confirmation of Brock Long on June 19 to lead FEMA. Long is no Michael Brown; he is by all accounts highly qualified for his new job, unlike so many other Trump appointees.

We can hope for the sake of the people of Texas that this all means they will get the help they deserve and need. We can expect Trump to try to take credit for this, and it could easily turn his approval ratings around. Going forward, we as progressives should celebrate the successes of the relief efforts, while making sure we keep shining a bright light on Trump’s failures in so much else. If you are able to make donations to the victims of Harvey, or even provide material aid now, I would hope you would not withhold such aid for fear that Trump will take credit for it. We as progressives support an agenda that helps all of the people of this country, and our concern now must be for them.

My song choice this week could not be more obvious:

Monday, August 21, 2017

Simple Truth

I was disturbed this morning by the reporting in my local newspaper of the events this weekend in Boston. They reported that a small group of “conservatives” had to end their demonstration early because of the actions of the “anti-hate activists” who showed up to oppose them. Language matters, and the paper was taking sides here. Substitute “white supremacists” for “conservatives”, and “civil rights groups” for “anti-hate activists”, and you will see what I mean. Technically, the “conservatives” in question were not white supremacists at all. They were not invading the streets of Boston, carrying swastikas and Confederate flags, and they were not armed to the teeth. They were assembling for what was billed as a free speech rally, but there can be no doubt that their interest in “free speech” applied mainly to the hate groups that terrorized Charlottesville VA a week earlier.

There is a sick irony in the fact that we are still talking about this a week later. President Obama had to respond to hate crimes during his time in the White House with appeals for a national conversation on race, but it is the reprehensible reactions of Donald Trump that have kept this conversation alive this time. Donald Trump looks at swastikas and Confederate flags, and hears hateful chants of torch bearing peasants, and he sees “great people” marching to honor “beautiful statues”. Many people have chimed in with all of the reasons Trump is wrong about this, so I am going to keep it simple.

When I see a swastika, I don’t see “great people”. I see a brutally broken family tree. I am a Jew. My immediate family came here long before World War II, so we have no stories of narrow escapes from the Nazis, or of relatives who died in the concentration camps. But I have no doubt that I have distant cousins who have such stories. That I can not find them in my personal experience does not matter. Nor does it matter that I was raised an atheist. We are all one people, and we celebrated that fact every year at Passover when I was growing up. What was done to any of us was done to all of us.

I can speak even less authoritatively of what a black person sees when they view the Confederate flag. I have had many black friends over the years, but this was not something we discussed. But I imagine that they also do not see “great people”. I imagine that they see these symbols, and these “beautiful statues”, and they think, “we were slaves”.

We were slaves. In Hebrew it’s avadim hayinu. In my family, we equated the time of slavery in Egypt with the time of oppression under the Nazis. We celebrated the freedom fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. And we also always included Martin Luther King in our seders. Maybe Jared Kushner’s seders when he was growing up were different. All we know for sure is that Donald Trump does not understand this simple truth about these symbols, and there does not seem to be anyone close to him who can explain it to him.

I could choose a Hebrew or Yiddish song this week, and go into a long explanation of my choice. But I am keeping it simple, so Bob Marley gets the nod:

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Invasion of Charlottesville

By Thursday of each week, I try to have the basics of each week’s post written in my head. This time, the weekend had other plans for me. I can not be silent about the events in Charlottesville VA. The question is, what can I add to the conversation? Let me just say that I still believe in our system of government, even in the face of the apparent contradictions embodied in these events. Robert E Lee fought to defend a system of slavery that was defined in the Constitution, but he was wrong, and he was no hero. I agree with the Bill of Rights, which means that I will defend the rights of those I vehemently disagree with to freedom of speech and to peaceably assemble and protest, but the hate groups that came to Charlottesville this weekend abused both of those rights.

You might expect that I would agree with the “protestors” that the statue of Robert E Lee that stands in what is now Emancipation Park should not be removed. After all, I deplore those who try to scrub our children’s textbooks of inconvenient history in the name of promoting their agenda. This is not the same, however, and I can invoke history to prove it. The Constitution defines those who were forcibly brought to this country as three fifths of a person, thereby justifying them being traded like livestock. Even at the Constitutional Convention, there were those who thought this was wrong, but they were overruled at the time. But the Founding Fathers expected that future generations would improve on their work. That is why the Constitution has provisions built in to amend it. By the time of Robert E Lee, the nation as a whole had found its moral compass, and defending the institution of slavery meant betraying the United States and fighting a war to secede from the country. That does not make you a hero or a patriot, unless you live in an alternate universe where the Confederacy won the war. Further, the statues that were constructed of Robert E Lee and other Confederate “heroes” were not memorials to those who fought and died in the Civil War. Most, including the one in Charlottesville, were built about fifty years after the war ended. Reconstruction had just ended, and Jim Crow laws were about to become a way of life in the former Confederate states. Supervisors from the north were being kicked out, and the southern states were erecting these statues as statements of defiance and newfound sovereignty. The statues were built as a message that blacks would once again be treated as three fifths of a person, despite any Constitutional amendments to the contrary.

So I deplore the neo-Nazis and other hate groups that gathered in Charlottesville to promote their false history. I am proud that my father served the United States and his conscience in World War II, in an effort to defeat such views and their implementation. But I defend the right of these groups to express these views. There are, however, limits on how they can be expressed. Donald Trump began to stretch these limits during his campaign last year. He actively sought the support of such groups, and then used them as muscle at his campaign events. Oh, I know he did not formally request that they beat up protestors and even reporters at his rallies. Trump always does things in such a way that he can deny responsibility, but he encouraged these “enforcers” from the stage. He made it obvious that he would take no action to reign in any excesses. So the hate groups that participated in the invasion of Charlottesville could reasonably assume that, as far as Trump, and by extension the federal government, were concerned, they could do whatever they wanted to in Charlottesville, and there would be no effort to control them. This has mostly proved to be the case, except where lives were lost. But this was no protest as defined in the Bill of Rights. There was nothing peaceable about it. These people came armed for battle. They carried makeshift or actual weapons, including homemade shields that resembled riot gear. This was a provocation, not a protest. This was a schoolyard bully hoping to provoke a fight he expected to win. This was in no way protected speech. There was a scheduled rally that would ostensibly have been a protected version of free speech, but it is hard to believe, given how events unfolded, that the rally was ever the point for these invaders, and it never happened.

I am proud of a sign on my lawn that says “Hate has no home here”. We got it and put it up in response to Trump’s first attempt at a Moslem ban, and to celebrate the fact that the town I live in had voted to become a sanctuary city. But I say again in the face of the Charlottesville invasion, “Hate has no home here.” I have known in my life people of various pigments, faiths, and nations of origin. Some, not all but certainly some, have become friends. All were a full five fifths of a person, deserving of all the dignity and respect that that implies. If I choose to attend a protest to affirm that, I will not be armed, except with my voice. That human beings are human should not be a provocation to anyone, so I should not need any weapons to say so. It pains me that, after all this time, any one should want to start a fight in the name of saying otherwise.

I often give a lot of thought to my song choice for these posts. This was not one of those times. The choice of song became obvious as I wrote, with the only question being what version to use. This one is a live performance in Japan, which serves nicely to reinforce the universality of the song:

Monday, August 7, 2017


I usually try to keep up with the news all week, and try to organize my thoughts around a single topic for these posts. This week, however, I am going to take off from two items, and wander in several directions, to see where I wind up. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Generally speaking, the jobs report is released on the first Friday of every month. A positive report, such as we had this week, is an occasion for a sitting president and his allies to crow about how well they are doing, and Donald Trump is not one to pass on such an opportunity. The opposition has the task of trying to punch holes in the report, to explain why a positive report is really not so positive after all. In fact, all of the jobs reports since Trump took office, taken as a whole, present a pretty solid case that the economy is doing well. So I propose that we stop trying to find negatives in each report, and instead ask a simple question: what action or actions Trump has taken can explain the strength of the economy? Put another way, what has he done to deserve any credit for this? Because the simplest explanation is that the strong economy is the direct result of the continuation of Obama policies that Trump has been unable to eliminate or change yet. Most significantly, the federal government is still operating under President Obama’s last budget. Beyond that, we have Trump’s brainless executive order that two regulations must be eliminated each time one new one is created. This is largely political theater, since the laws Congress passes mandate that the executive branch must come up with regulations to enforce these laws. With that in mind, it can not be so easy to simply do away with a regulation, and doing so could be challenged on constitutional grounds. In any case, I have not heard of any specific regulation Trump has eliminated that has had any economic impact.

So, if Trump has not contributed to our economy through deregulation, as he would like us to think, what has he done? That brings me to the second event from this week that I wanted to talk about. Trump’s greatest impact so far has been on immigration. His directives regarding immigration enforcement have created an atmosphere of fear for both legal and illegal immigrants in this country. The threat of deportation has had a chilling effect on industries such as agriculture that are highly dependent on immigrant labor. The jobs impacted by this are ones that most native-born Americans refuse to do. Yet Trump continues to blather on about how he is keeping illegal immigrants from taking jobs away from Americans. His announcement of a new green card policy this week is deliciously ironic. He seeks to limit green cards to those entering this country who speak English well and have demonstrable job skills. Put another way, he wants to only let in those who actually will compete with native-born Americans for jobs. I wish CNN’s Jim Acosta, in his now infamous exchange with White House spokesman Stephen Miller, had not bothered arguing about the history of the Statue of Liberty, and had pursued this instead.

Acosta also had another line of questioning open two him that could have been very powerful. He could have asked Miller if he thought Acosta’s family should be in the United States. Jim Acosta’s father came to the US as a refugee from Fidel Castro’s brand of communism. Jim Acosta, in his choice of journalism as a career, represents perfectly the special American freedoms his father was seeking when he came here. It might not have been considered “journalistic” to talk about immigration policy in such a personal way, but this is one of the most personal issues we face, and I wish someone would say so in a highly public forum.

I work as a customer service representative. It is part of my job to talk to whoever comes up on the call list, and that includes people whose English is not the best, to say the least. These people are still our customers, and we must treat them accordingly. On the other hand, we are evaluated in large part by the volume of calls we take, and calls where we have to use an interpreter really slow us down. So you might think that I would be in favor of limiting green cards to those who speak English well. But I remember where I came from. Just this week, a coworker was venting about customers who don’t seem to learn English despite how long they may have been in this country. I reminded him of the Jewish heritage that he and I share. Did he have a relative who arrived here speaking only Yiddish, as I do? It turns out that my coworker had a grandfather who lived in the United States for 60 years and never learned English. That was possible because immigrants often live in communities where most neighbors share their heritage, and they work and shop in businesses that serve those communities. These communities are largely self-sustaining, but they also represent unique pockets of economic activity that Trump wants to get rid of. Go into any bodega today, and you will see products on the shelves from both Goya and Kelloggs. Those products represent American jobs.

Immigration is also a vital part of American culture. The melding of cultures to achieve something wonderful and new can be clearly heard in the song Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. The title phrase is Yiddish, but the song is unmistakably jazz. Klezmer musicians arrived here as Jewish immigrants, and heard jazz for the first time. It influenced their music to the extent that any klezmer you hear nowadays includes this jazz influence, but it was a two way street. That is how jazz legends like Bennie Goodman and Artie Shaw made the clarinet a jazz instrument. I can think of no better way to celebrate the melding of cultures in our country than a video of Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen set in New York City’s subways:

Monday, July 31, 2017

“Learn, Damnit!”

I am reminded this week of the movie War Games. That in itself is not a bad thing. The movie is a favorite of mine. In the film, Matthew Broderick’s character hacks into what he thinks is a soon to be released commercial computer game, and, in playing it, he sets off a military simulation program that comes close to causing a real world nuclear war. In the climactic scene, Broderick’s character yells, “learn, damnit!” at a computer that can not hear him, as he tries to teach it the futility of “global thermonuclear war”.

Healthcare is no game, but the Republicans have not learned yet that the only way to reform it is not to play. They remain focused on how to enact the largest transfer of wealth possible from healthcare programs to the very wealthy, with no thought of the real life consequences for the health and even the very lives of the Americans they supposedly serve. Because they have not made this intellectual leap, any celebration of the demise of the Senate healthcare bill is premature. Continuing the metaphor of War Games, no one has yet taught the Republicans tic tac toe. In this case, that would mean showing them and the American people what a healthcare plan would look like if the goal truly was to provide a better and more affordable system for everyone.

To be sure, something has been gained. What was defeated was Mitch McConnell’s cynical effort to ram a reform bill down America’s throat without hearings, debate, or even allowing his supposed Republican allies the time to read and try to understand the actual bill. It was this process, not the actual bill, that John McCain voted against. Where Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins actually voted against what the bill would do, McCain was more offended by how this result was arrived at. He deserves some credit for that, but it does not make him worthy of the adulation he has received in the press this past week. McCain’s vote also means that the Republicans can no longer pass healthcare “reform” with a simple majority in the Senate. By voting to open the bill to debate and only then insuring its defeat, McCain made sure that no healthcare bill can be passed using the budget reconciliation process this year; instead, Democratic votes will now be needed to avoid a filibuster and pass anything. That in itself means that the Republicans must actually learn to govern. They must hold hearings, have a floor debate, and find at least six Democrats to support any bill they come up with.

The problem is, any bill that passes the Senate must still be reconciled with the version that actually passed the House. That gives the Republicans the chance to restore much of the harm they still seek to do. The job now, in the Senate, is to bring enough Democrats on board to get the bill to conference committee. Once any Democrats sign on to this, it will be hard for them to back out of passing the final version. The real hero to this point then is not John McCain but Chuck Schumer. He is the one who has kept the Democrats united as the opposition Party, making sure that no one strays across the aisle to abet the Republicans.

How then can we end the threat of “Repeal and Replace”? As activists, we must push the Democrats to do what they have not been interested in doing up to now. They must develop a healthcare plan of their own to hold up against the Republican efforts. They must demonstrate with their plan that they hear the concerns of the American people, that simply preserving the Affordable Care Act is not enough. Any new Democratic plan must address the problem of skyrocketing deductibles and copays. It must have a mechanism to assure that coverage is available in all markets, that insurers can not simply bow out. It must mandate negotiated drug prices to insure that premiums can actually go down.

Universal healthcare would seem to be the obvious solution. But keep in mind, the ideal plan is one that Chuck Schumer can secure 48 Democratic votes for. Even so, we can not expect any Republicans to support such a measure, so it has no chance now of becoming law. Even a bill that passed the Senate would be shot down in the more rabid House. Passing the bill is not the point now. The point now is to extend the debate into the 2018 campaign season. We need to present the American people with a clear choice on healthcare as they choose the next Congress, and we need to make sure that what the Republicans just tried to do to them is still fresh in their minds as they go to the polls. More, we need to get the Democrats in Congress to give unambiguous proof that, on this vital issue, the two parties are not the same. Donald Trump is the master of distraction. His outrageous antics can easily get the American people to forget the healthcare issue in next year’s elections. We must push the Democrats to make sure that does not happen.

War Games came out in 1983. There were no songs on the soundtrack album, just the orchestral score. Perhaps that is why this one, from 1980, was not used:

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Context Matters

Earlier in the week, I had decided that I wasn’t going to write about Donald Trump Jr’s e-mail reveal. This is the biggest revelation so far in the seemingly endless stream of news regarding the Russian connection to last year’s election. Here at last we have evidence of an actual crime committed by someone close to Donald Trump Sr, his own son and son-in-law. The e-mail string makes it clear that they and Paul Manafort, Jr in particular, took the meeting with Natalia Vilnetskaya in the hopes of receiving information they could use against Hillary Clinton. Here is clear proof of intent, which is required to prove collusion. But I wasn’t going to write about it because everyone else already did. What more was there for me to add to the conversation, given the great reporting on this that I was seeing? I finally did decide that what I could add was context. By putting a collection of historical details together in one place, I hope to shed additional light on where we are and where we might be going from here.

Donald Trump Sr began his career in the 1970s in the family real estate business. It was immediately clear that he was not at all concerned with the legality of his actions. When he and his father were cited by the government for discriminating against minorities in their rental policies, they went right back to the behavior that had earned them the first citation, and were cited a second time. Clearly, they regarded this as an acceptable cost of doing business, part of their calculations of profit and loss. There was no consideration of the moral or legal aspects of what they had done. We know that Donald Trump still thinks this way: last year’s out of court settlement of the fraud charges against Trump University cost Trump $25 million, but that left him with a tidy profit.

In the 1980s, Trump began to cultivate ties with organized crime figures. To be fair, the mob controlled the concrete industry in New York City at the time, so you had to deal with them if you wanted to build something in the city. But the story that emerged last year of the alleged rape Trump may have committed twenty years earlier was chilling to me. In that case, “Jane Doe” persuaded a judge to ignore the statute of limitations because she had feared for her life, which was why she had not come forward sooner. She said Donald Trump had raped her repeatedly over a series of sex parties he attended. She further stated that she submitted to this, and did not speak out at the time, because another girl at these parties, identified as “Maria”, was going to speak out, but she disappeared instead. “Jane Doe” said further that Trump himself had led her to believe that she would share “Maria’s” fate if she resisted or went public with what she knew. Two things about the case particularly bother me. Did Trump have friends at the time who he could count on to make inconvenient people disappear? And, the case was quietly dropped last year after the election when “Jane Doe” began to receive death threats. Since her identity was never made public, who knew who she was, and how did they know? No jury ever got the chance to consider any of this, so we don’t know for sure if this account is what happened. But someone appears to have gone to some trouble to make sure of that.

Now at last we come to the Russian connection. Last year, in the heat of the campaign, something Donald Trump Jr said in 2008 came to light: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets”. In fact, starting with the first Trump bankruptcy in 1990, it became increasingly difficult for Trump to obtain financing from western banks. Trump’s business credit was shot, following a deal in which the banks never recovered what they were owed. So, even without Trump’s tax returns, we know that Russian interests provided important funds that were used for Trump’s operations. In return, they got space in Trump owned or operated buildings, and proceeded to use these spaces to conduct money laundering. Some of Trump’s new associates may also have been involved in sex trafficking and illegal drug and gambling operations. These are shady figures, so it is difficult to prove anything, but you can find more details here. It may be that Trump himself was unaware of these activities in his own buildings until they were discovered by the authorities. But at least one of these suspicious Russians, Felix Sater, had personal meetings with Trump and appears to have done business with him. The kindest interpretation is that Trump may have had some idea of what was going on, but refused to delve into the details, thereby evading personal or legal responsibility.

Given all of this, it seems likely that Trump already had the Russian contacts he needed to fix the 2016 election before the Vilnetskaya meeting. It does not seem to be much of a stretch to say that the Kremlin had reason to believe his campaign would be receptive to their overtures. As detailed here, the meeting seems to have been a feeler from Russian interests to make sure the Trump Campaign would accept their help before moving on to more substantive operations. The Russians wanted to know that Trump’s people would take the meeting and not report it to any authorities, and the Trump campaign passed the test with high marks.

I must hasten to add that I can not offer proof of many of the things I have stated in this post. I can observe that Robert Mueller seems to be thinking about at least some of these questions as he pursues his investigation. Why else would he have added to his team experts on money laundering, for example? But we must wait for more evidence to emerge before jumping to conclusions. Donald Trump Jr’s e-mail string and the subsequent revelations regarding the Vilnetskaya meeting are an important break, but this is only the beginning. Many years of possible wrongdoing are bound up in this knot, and we should not expect that it will be unraveled all at once.

For my musical selection this week, The Specials seem perfect to me:

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Trump’s European trip last week provided another occasion for pundits to proclaim that “this is not normal.” In fact, Trump is almost completely normal for today’s Republican Party. His views of what government should be and do represent the logical endpoints of positions that various factions within the Republican Party have been promoting for many years. What is new is Trump’s bluntness, his complete lack of subtlety. To his supporters, this is seen as refreshingly honest. Even Trump’s many lies are so crudely executed that they count for his adherents as signs of authenticity. He speaks his mind, as they see it, without any premeditation, which is often offensive and frequently inaccurate, but is always a true picture of his feelings at that moment. It is this quality that won him the Republican primaries last year.

Trump’s already notorious Poland speech last week presented an undisguised contempt for American traditions. His model for governance as laid out in the speech was medieval in its depiction of a holy war between a West that includes Putin’s Russia and the Islamic world. This is where Trump’s insistence on the term “Radical Islam” leads us. In this worldview, the United States is a Christian nation with a sacred mission to take on the greatest enemy of the faith. The notion of the US as a Christian nation is one that Trump certainly did not invent. The Republican Party has been actively seeking to fan and exploit religious feeling at least since the Roe v Wade decision in 1973. The religious right was a well developed and cultivated phenomenon by the time Trump began his candidacy in 2015. Likewise, it was George W Bush, in the wake of the 2011 attack, who first exploited these views in his foreign policy decisions.

Trump is considered “not normal” too for his overt racism and xenophobia. Here too, however, he is simply saying openly what has been spoken of in code until now. This is Nixon’s southern strategy run amuck, but is not something new in Republican thought. The job of the president and the government, in this view, is to represent “real Americans”. Reagan’s welfare queens and the infamous Willie Horton ad are two of the precedents for Trump’s embrace of the ideas of people like Steve Bannon. This manifests as policy in the longstanding attempts by the Republican Party to destroy safety net programs by depicting them as handouts to people who “are not like us”, so it should come as no surprise that such attempts have become more ferocious in the current Congress. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have been working on this since long before Trump came to power, but he leaves no doubt that he will sign whatever legislation they can send him.

In the European trip, Trump reminded us of his admiration for Putin’s model of how to wield power. Russian elections are nothing more than endorsements of the prevailing ruling power. Their outcomes are entirely predictable, because they are controlled. But Trump did not invent American strategies for voter suppression. Here too we see the exploitation of something that was a Republican initiative long before Trump. By the same token, even if the Trump campaign did collude with the Russians to sabotage the election last year, both Trump and Putin were simply exploiting a media landscape that was born when Republicans succeeded in eliminating the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1973. Modern technology, the internet in particular, have made it far easier to spread biased and even false information, but the removal of the requirement to present opposing viewpoints is what set us on this course.

Trump is also not the first Republican president to believe that his will should be law. In Russia, Putin is wielding power in much the same way as the Communist leaders of old. Nixon also believed that the presidency allowed him to use power however he pleased, but our system of checks and balances held him back then. Now, with the modern Republican Party in control of all branches of our government, it is not clear that Trump’s misuses of power will be checked. There have been almost no signs of any Howard Bakers, ready to challenge the authority of a president from his own party in the name of the greater good. It comes down to a view of government that should be unconstitutional, and would be if Republicans over the years had not made so many judicial appointments, particularly to the Supreme Court.

The sick irony here is that this is just the kind of governance the Founding Fathers of our nation were rebelling against. State religions were a phenomenon of European nations at the time, England in particular. The modern Tea Party stands in opposition to the ideals that prompted the actual Boston Tea Party. Those original Americans wanted elections that empowered all free men, although they lacked the foresight to include women, and they lacked the vision to abolish slavery. What they did do is deliberately create a system that would facilitate these improvements later. They wanted elections where the outcome was uncertain, where the best man could win. They tried to build in safeguards to prevent a man like Donald Trump from becoming president, or to facilitate his removal if that became necessary. Some of the most important of those safeguards were the rights of free speech, a free press, and the right to peaceably assemble and protest. The Founding Fathers knew that we needed to have a free flow of good information in order to make the best choices for the governing of our nation.

So yes, Donald Trump embraces racism, seeks absolute power, and hopes to use the religious right to further his agenda. What is new is that Trump does so so openly and bluntly. He couches nothing in polite language. Where other Republicans might be playing an elaborate chess game, Trump resorts to professional wrestling. It’s ugly, seeking to appeal to our basest impulses, but it allows him to present his battles as entertainment. He can make the Poland speech, because he has conditioned us to expect him to say outrageous things, but he hopes to blunt our outrage through repetition and sheer fatigue. The goals, and the worldview that supports them, have been part of the Republican Party for decades. Trump was simply the first one to realize that it was time to express them openly.

For my musical selection this week, I present Kate Bush contemplating the risks of deception. This one has an official music video that is a fine example of just how bad 1980s music videos could be. Trust me, it’s much better to just stare at the album cover, and let your imagination do the rest of the work:

Monday, July 3, 2017

Happy Birthday

This is a political blog, and there is plenty of material for me to work with this week. I am not happy about the Supreme Court’s decision to allow any part of Trump’s Muslin travel ban to go into effect. I am proud of the 24 states that are resisting the fraud that is the Trump election commission, And so on. But, in honor of our nation’s birthday, I thought I would quiet things down this week. There will be no lack of new material next week, I am sure. In the meantime, I thought we could all use a little breather. So this is a mostly non-political post on my political blog. This week, I am going to talk about fireworks.

I went with my family to our first fireworks display of the season on Thursday. While we were there, my thirteen year old son made me think fast with a perfectly reasonable question. He asked why we celebrate the birth of the United States with a Chinese invention, fireworks. I replied that fireworks celebrate the use of gunpowder in the winning of our freedom from the British. It is certainly true that the British also used firearms during the Revolutionary War, but that is all the more reason why we would have lost without them.

I grew up in a very small town in New Jersey. Our annual fireworks display was on the Fourth of July, and the whole town showed up for them. Probably, that is not quite true, and many residents went elsewhere or missed them, but it seemed like it had to be the whole town to my childish mind. Looking back, it is clear to me that my town did not have much money to put into fireworks, and there would therefore have had to be much more impressive displays elsewhere. But I had little basis for comparison, so I was happy with our display. Towns mostly paid for their displays out of local taxes, so the quality of the fireworks was a show of power in a sense. The display we go to now is in the next town over from ours. I live in a town that does not do its own display, although there is certainly enough local wealth to manage it. But a few years ago, the display we attend suddenly lost its tax funding. There was a year when they threatened to cancel their fireworks, and went begging for donations. Since then, they have lined up corporate sponsors every year who have booths at the event and must be thanked from the stage before the fireworks begin. So the fireworks were saved, but something was lost.

I strongly believe that accurate and detailed information is our best weapon against Donald Trump and the Republican Party that has created the healthcare atrocities in both the House and the Senate. The need for solid information extends well beyond the healthcare debate, and it is the reason I have links to fact checking sites on my blog. However, my need for solid information does not extend to fireworks. I once had a friend who insisting on analyzing each firework that went off during the display. He knew, or thought he knew, the chemistry behind each special effect we saw, and he had a compulsion to share this information. I prefer not to know how the trick is done in this case. I prefer to relax and allow myself to experience the wonderment. It is perhaps the biggest innocent pleasure I allow myself. There is no comparable sense of wonderment to be experienced in politics. Perhaps that is because there is no fire department on the scene to put out the fires if anything goes wrong. We, as informed citizens, must be that fire department.

So there are my random thoughts on fireworks. Maybe this post is more political than I expected, but so be it. Let me close by thanking everyone who reads this blog, and wishing you and yours a very happy and safe Fourth of July, however you choose to celebrate it. As for music this week, it is probably true that many of my readers have never heard of Grant Peeples. That is a shame. This song is a fine display of his wonderfully warped sense of humor: