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

Wandering

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

Unmasked

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:

Monday, June 26, 2017

We Need to Talk

Mitch McConnell finally confessed to his sins this week in going public with the Senate version of Republican health care. Of course, the bill is a travesty. It does not really have anything to do with healthcare at all, except as an obstacle to its true goal of massive tax cuts for the rich. Amazingly, the bill is not only more dishonest than its House counterpart, but it may actually be worse in the severity of its outcomes. So much for the Senate as the more reasonable body,

But here is truly scary part. In discussing the possibility of this atrocity becoming law, the press talks about a handful of Republican Senators. There is, rightly, no mention of what the Democrats might do. Sure, this partly reflects the fact that no Democrat is expected to vote for the bill. But it also reflects the fact that the Democrats have done nothing to make this bill harder to support. In part, this is because they refuse to acknowledge one truth that Donald Trump has accidentally told: we the people are now worse off with respect to healthcare than we were when the Affordable Care Act first went into effect. This is not for any of the reasons the Republicans or Trump name, but it is true all the same. The Affordable Care Act was not the success that it should have been, but Democrats need to explain that its failure was that it its design was vulnerable both to the trickery of the insurance industry and to outright sabotage by the Republicans. To explain, let me talk about my own situation.

I am the sole breadwinner for a family of four. My job is good enough that I do not qualify for the subsidies provided under the ACA, but I have my company health plan. My family and I have a host of pre-existing conditions, so we are heavy users of healthcare and we need a large menu of medicines each month. Over the past seven years, I have seen a steady increase in the dollar amount that comes out of my check for health care, and my out of pocket expenses have shot up as the insurance companies have gotten better at imposing copays and deductibles. So I am grateful for the fact that I can get insurance at all, given the pre-existing conditions. I am glad that my daughter, who is turning 22, can still be on my plan. And I understand that my health care expenses are still much less than they would be without the ACA. But my family and I are hurting, and Hillary Clinton is not our president in part because she did not sufficiently acknowledge and address this hurt. The situation is worse for my brother-in-law and his family. They do not have jobs that provide them benefits like mine, and they live in a state where a Republican governor and legislature blocked the Medicaid expansion that would have meant so much to them. For the first few years of the ACA, they had to choose whether to use the healthcare they could afford for themselves or their children, and of course they chose their children. Thankfully, they have now reached the point where they no longer have to make that devil’s bargain, but we were really worried about them for quite some time. Again, the provision regarding pre-existing conditions in the ACA meant that they could get healthcare for themselves once their job situations improved enough that they could afford it.

I am sure this country is full of families like mine, and like my brother-in-law’s. The Democrats are simply not talking to us. They are not acknowledging our hurt. Instead, they are reacting to what the Republicans are doing, and thereby letting Donald Trump and his allies control the conversation. Hillary Clinton spoke vaguely on the campaign trail of improving the ACA, but I regard myself is more politically aware than most Americans, and I don’t know what improvements she thought were needed. Only Bernie Sanders offered a solution, but he got bogged down in the question of how to pay for it in a way that suggested he was unable to master the details needed to make universal healthcare the law of the land. His approach also would have failed to persuade most Americans to support him in the face of Republican fearmongering. I have explained before how universal healthcare can be sold to the American people, but I have yet to hear any Democrat make this pitch. Barring that, the Democrats must explain all of the ways the ACA has made lives better, and all the ways it could be made to do so much more. They must help the American people to see how much better the ACA could be if the Republicans were not so intent on its destruction. One way or another, they must take back the conversation, and make the Republicans react to them for a change. The results of the midterm elections next year will depend on whether or not they can get it done.

I believe Americans are ready to hear the truth. Here is Sheryl Crow with the alternative we have now:

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Best Defense

The Washington Post has a slogan on their website that is very apt right now: “Democracy dies in darkness”. From the struggles in the House of Representatives to get the atrocity known as the American Health Care Act (AHCA) passed, Mitch McConnell might have taken the lesson that this was a terrible bill for the American people. Instead, he decided the real lesson was that the Senate version must be kept secret as long as possible in order to get it passed. Even his fellow Republicans in the Senate must not have the time to read the full bill before having to vote on it, and under no circumstances should the public have a chance to react until the bill was law. This is darkness at its finest, and democracy stolen again by the Party of voter suppression. It has meant that, in the face of severely limited news of how the new law was being shaped, press coverage has been overshadowed by other issues and developments. Democrats have decided to hope that it will be enough that the public prefers keeping Obamacare to the public efforts so far by the Republicans to repeal and replace it. It will not be enough, but there is still time to do something about it. If preserving the status quo was the best defense against Republican aggression, I would be writing now about how the presidency of Hillary Clinton looks as we approached the six month mark.

What we need instead is a way to put the subject of health care back in the forefront of public discussion. To begin with, let’s take the wind out of one of the Republicans’ favorite arguments by admitting that Obamacare has not delivered on all of its promises. But Democrats need to reframe that argument. They need to say that the Affordable Care Act was not crafted well enough to withstand Republican sabotage, and certainly not to withstand the onslaught of a united Republican government. They also need to say that prices were not controlled as well as they should have been, because Obamacare still makes the American people pay for items that have no bearing on health care outcomes: marketing costs, obscenely high CEO paychecks, and stock dividends for health insurers and big pharmaceutical companies. Democrats furthermore must coopt one of Donald Trump’s favorite promises, to deliver better healthcare that costs every American less. To make all of this news worthy, the Democrats in the Senate must introduce their own healthcare plan in the Senate, and force a very public debate on it. Let it become the standard that any Republican bill will be measured against. During the Obama presidency, it was common for Democrats to point out that the Republicans never presented an alternative plan. If only for that reason, it is essential that there be a Democratic alternate plan now.

I am talking, of course, about universal healthcare, and I have previously laid out the pitch for it here. Bernie Sanders lost the primaries to Hillary Clinton while advocating universal health care, so why should the Democrats play this risky card? First, Sanders never made the capitalist case for it, as I have done. But Sanders also fell into a trap that Hillary Clinton laid for him during the campaign. He got bogged down in the numbers, and wound up proposing large tax increases for everybody to pay for his plan. In doing so, Sanders failed to make the point that universal healthcare will be paid for in large part with moneys that are now being spent on other health care programs, including Obamacare. So the actual funds needed to get from here to there are lot less than the total price tag for universal health care as a stand alone item. It is also not enough to say that it would be less than the average American spends now on health care. The Democrats and the press must explicitly state where those savings will come from. The public resents having to pay for corporate profits out of public funds, but that resentment needs to be harnessed.

Clearly, there isn’t much time, and the Democrats will not do this on their own. Activists must coalesce around this strategy, and start pushing for it immediately. We need to find a Democratic Senator who can be persuaded to introduce a new Democratic health alternative to the Republican plan. So much the better if this starts with someone other than Bernie Sanders, because that would be more newsworthy. The goal here is to control not only the discussion in the Senate, but also the news cycle. Imagine the reaction in the media if someone like Cory Booker were to introduce this with an impassioned speech on the floor of the Senate. That’s what needs ideally to happen, in order to steal this issue from Mitch McConnell’s darkness, and bring it back into the light where it belongs.

This week’s song has everything to do with the news cycle:

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Morality Play

The takeaways in the media from James Comey’s testimony last week were certainly interesting. For many, the argument to be had was over whether Comey was saying that Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice. Comey was very careful to not say that himself, but he also explained why not. Comey as a private citizen has no standing to bring that charge, and that legal distinction is important to him. Keep in mind that Comey was our nation’s top law enforcement officer until Trump fired him. However, his testimony was an offering to Robert Mueller. If Mueller wants to pursue the charge of obstruction, Comey just let him know what his evidence would be. The media also spent a lot of time on the Republican’s attempts to defend Trump. But if Trump was just inexperienced at governing, or just too immature at age 70 to know better, why did he have everyone leave the room, even waiving off Jared Kushner and Attorney General Jeff Sessions when they tried to stay behind, before discussing the Michael Flynn case with Comey. That was a clear act of intent. You do that only if you want to make sure there are no witnesses later to what you are about to do. If the Republican excuse that Trump was simply handling things the way he did as a businessman was true, that is very interesting information, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t obstruction. It just means that when he pursued this tactic as a businessman, he grew used to it working so well that we never heard of it until now. Meanwhile, what Comey was willing to come right out and say was that Trump’s lies about the Comey firing constituted defamation of character. Comey knows that that is a legal charge, and that he has the standing as a private citizen to bring it. He is not a man to use the words without being fully aware of the legal implications.

But the larger picture is that the testimony gives the Democrats a huge marketing opportunity for the 2018 elections and beyond. The Republicans, in their responses to the Comey testimony, showed a complete lack of morality. When the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal arose, the Democrats had the decency to be ashamed that one of their own could behave in such a manner. Privately, that stance may well have involved cynical calculations, but the public act is what concerns me here. The Democrats make mistakes, but they have the good grace to be ashamed, and to apologize. The Republicans do not. John McCain surrendered the last claim he may have had to be the conscience of the Republican Party with his line of questioning. Republicans, faced with behavior that was clearly wrong, rush to explain why they are OK with it. And it’s not just the Comey testimony either. Donald Trump sat back and let the Republicans in the House and now in the Senate craft their own versions of a healthcare bill, and the results once again show a complete lack of morality. As long as there are tax cuts for their donors, Republicans simply do not care at all who their legislation hurts. Remember too that it was not the current Republican president who wove an elaborate tapestry of lies to get the nation into a completely unjustified war that may have been nothing more than a personal vendetta. Here again, there was no concern with the innocent Iraqi or even American lives that would be lost. The Republicans do pretend to care what happens to the veterans of that war, but their legislative actions say otherwise

. So the Democrats must put all of this together, and start making the case to the American people that the Republicans are a once respected legislative partner that has lost their way. It is not simply that Donald Trump is immoral, although he certainly is. But he is a Republican for a reason, and the Democrats need to say soon and often what that reason is. Make Republican a bad word, in the same way that the Republicans made being a liberal anathema. There were articles last year about how the Republicans were destroying themselves by making Trump their standard bearer. What we should have learned from his victory is that that destruction will not happen by itself. We need to help it along, and we were just handed an easy way to get started.

Muddy Waters gets the nod for the song this week:

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Logic of Trumpism

There have been many attempts to understand how anyone could have voted for Donald Trump, and how anyone could still support him now. In this blog, I myself have marshalled various logical arguments that one might use to try to turn someone from the path of Trumpism. But there is a hard core of Trump support that does not respond to appeals based on the kind of logic most of us understand. They have a weird logic of their own, in which the worse things get under Trump, the closer they are to their goal. Fortunately, this hard core represents the floor for Trump’s approval rating, and the figure now appears to be 35% or less of the voters. That’s still enough to win elections in some parts of the country, but not to keep control of the nation as a whole. For now, these people are aided and abetted by cynics like Paul Ryan, who believe that they can control the Trumpites, and use their support to advance their own agenda. Ryan is from the faction I described over the last two weeks, who can not tell the difference between the financial markets and the economy. The Trumpites, however, have a completely different set of beliefs and goals.

The Trumpites believe that our system of laws and governance has failed. They do not distinguish between themselves and anyone the system may have worked for, believing instead that it has failed everyone. Hillary Clinton’s promise to defend the status quo was the last thing they wanted to hear. Where Bernie Sanders promoted the argument that it was a moral imperative to do better, the failure of his vision for positive change only reinforced the Trumpites’ idea that the system we have would never allow such change to occur. It doesn’t matter who has rigged the system in this worldview, only that the system is rigged. The only way to change this pattern, in the eyes of the Trumpites, is to first utterly destroy the system we have now. For these supporters, Donald Trump’s job, the one they helped elect him to do, is to be the agent of this destruction. Trump’s performance over the last two weeks was a great success in this view. Trump placed strain on our alliances in Europe and pledged to remove us from the Paris Accord. It’s all good, the Trumpites feel, because it attacks the established order of the world. Trump’s budget represented a frontal assault on the welfare state, and that too must be destroyed.

The Trumpites did not suddenly emerge during the election last year. They represent the logical end point of ideas the Republicans have been promoting for years, only in a context that establishment Republicans never imagined. Paul Ryan is only the most recent in a series of warriors devoted to shredding the social safety net and undoing the legacy of the New Deal. Grover Norquist has long promoted the notion of “starving the beast”, cutting taxes to the point where the government could no longer afford to help the needy. Republicans have also long promoted the notions of restoring American purity in their arguments for immigration reform. But, where establishment Republicans pursue these goals within our systems of governance and laws, Trumpites want to see it all destroyed. They perceive a government that has never done anything for them, and they have no further use for it. They have been taught by Republicans for years that it is shameful to take government handouts, that it is a sign of moral weakness, so why should they care if those “handouts” cease to exist? And why should they care if those who are morally weak suffer as they wreak their destruction?

The Trumpites are of course what the media have decided to call the “alt right”. Given my formulation, you can see how evangelical Christians fit in. Trump, for them, is a deeply flawed human being, but he is the agent of change who will bring on the end days. While certainly a sinner himself, his proposals will redeem him by punishing the real sinners, and cleansing our society. The racial and ethnic implications of this make it clear why the Trumpites include racist and neo-nazi organizations. What may be less clear is the fact that some former progressives also fall into this camp. I touched on how this can be with my comment earlier about Bernie Sanders. Look up the story of a man named David Horowitz. Horowitz was, at one time, very involved in the left wing politics of the Vietnam War era. He was even an editor at Ramparts. But one day, he woke up disillusioned, and quickly became a rabid “conservative”. Horowitz was an important mover behind the scenes in last year’s election, with Trump benefiting greatly from his help.

On the left, we also feel a great deal of anger. We find it hard to accept a system that can not give us either universal healthcare or sensible gun control, even in the face of clear public support for both policies. The vitriol that was exchanged during the primaries between the Sanders and Clinton camps was a symptom of this frustration. We must be aware that, as Yoda said, “that way leads to the dark side.” Trumpism is that dark side, and David Horowitz is proof that any of us can go there. So engaging with the Trumpites and trying to reason with them is dangerous for us. Their anger may prove contagious. The Trumpites are properly understood not as some edgy new genre, “alt right”, but as dangerous extremists, right wing anarchists who represent a tangible threat to our way of life. And they should not be allowed to call themselves patriots as they trample on the Constitution. Patriots can believe that our system of laws and governance is ailing, as long as we recall that the means for a cure are built into the system itself. I have a primary to vote in on Tuesday, where I will do my bit to try to affect a cure.

Jackson Browne wrote Before the Deluge in 1974. At the time, all of the implications of the loss of 1960s idealism were not yet obvious, but Browne instinctively knew at least some of the dangers.

Monday, May 29, 2017

John and Mary

This week saw the release of the Trump budget plan. I was disappointed by the coverage of its likely outcomes in the media sources I go to for this kind of story. The budget assumes that the economy will grow at a rate of 3% as a result of the changes proposed. It is assumed that the extreme tax cuts in the American Health Care Act and the further tax cuts Trump wants Congress to afford in a separate bill that we do not have yet will bring about this growth, and that the increased tax revenues from this economic growth spurt will pay for the impact of the Trump budget on the deficit, that the deficit will in fact be reduced. Critics in my media sources have ranged from calling this “unlikely” to “overly optimistic”. It is nothing of the sort. Pardon my French, but this assumption is complete bullshit. I explained part of why in my last post. Tax cuts for the wealthy will go not into the economy, but rather into the financial markets. The rise in the markets that will result will not be sustainable without economic improvements to support it. But it’s much worse than that. To understand why, I would like you to meet John and Mary.

John and Mary are my creations. They are not real, in the sense that I am not talking about actual people I know. But I have named them John and Mary, not, say, Zeb and Lu-Ann, because I want you to take them seriously. John and Mary voted for Trump. They live in western Kentucky, because I wanted to put them in a deep red state that had approved Medicaid expansion. They both work, but they can only afford one used car between them, and hope nothing ever happens to it. So Mary works days at Walmart, while John works the night shift. During the week, they see each other during the time John drives Mary to work. Then John sleeps as much as he can while the kids are at school, and then gets up to be there for them when they get home. John and Mary have two boys. John and Mary work hard, but they rely of SNAP to have enough to feed their family. Mary sometimes has to work on Saturday, so Sunday is the only time the whole family can be together. They go to church in the morning, so only the afternoon is truly theirs. Mary gets human contact during the week from her customers, but for John, church provides a vital lifeline to the outside world. Most of the people they know are coal people. Their families and the families of almost everyone they know had someone who used to make a good living working in the mines. Hillary Clinton, they feel, never cared about those jobs, while Donald Trump spoke to the anger they felt over their loss.

Now we have the new budget proposal. John and Mary don’t have time to try to understand all of the details. They do know that it cuts SNAP, so they will have to make up the difference by doing without something else. They already know that they may need more money from somewhere to cover increased out-of-pocket expenses for their healthcare. Sure, they are basically healthy, so their premiums will go down. But they realize they will not only pay less; they will also get less coverage. But they have not considered the impact on people they know, and what that means to them. Everyone they know will have less money to spend, and will cut back wherever they can. This includes members of their congregation who have pre-existing conditions from the time they spent working in the mines. That means they will spend less at Walmart. John’s job also is in retail, so there will be reduced spending there is well. Although John and Mary have not thought about it, it is possible that one or both of them will be laid off because their employer needs less staff to handle the drop in sales.

So there you have it. 3% growth is not simply overly optimistic or unlikely. The budget cuts at least $1.5 trillion from consumer spending over ten years, and that will mean job losses for people like John and Mary. Those job losses in turn mean even further drops in consumer spending, causing more job losses, and so on. People in Congress, and certainly in the White House, have never lived in John and Mary’s world. They do not understand that the Johns and Marys of the world far outnumber them, and gain nothing from the tax cuts that provide more play money for Wall Street. Our lawmakers call that cut of $1.5 trillion “entitlement reform”, and they believe that the people who will suffer those cuts do not matter to the health of the economy. The budget basically says that John and Mary are expendable, and there are all kinds of rationalizations to explain how anyone who needs public assistance isn’t trying hard enough. John and Mary can’t try any harder. They have already had to sacrifice so much.

People like John and Mary used to reliably vote for Democrats. They or their families remembered the Great Depression, and how Roosevelt worked so hard to help the working man. They saw labor unions as a positive force in their lives, especially if you were a miner. But the Republicans seized on the corruption that afflicted unions to begin a campaign of vilifying organized labor. They also promoted a narrative that life was a fierce competition for finite resources, and that every dollar that went to someone with skin darker than yours came out of your pocket. Now they are positioned to blame the economic downturn that would result from the new budget on people who “just want handouts.” John and Mary don’t want handouts, but they will take whatever help they can find if it means their children are fed. It is long past time to find the Johns and Marys of the world, and make sure their stories are being told. For progressives, it could be the beginning of a new narrative, one that Roosevelt knew well, but has since been lost. More importantly, for John and Mary, it would let them know that they are not alone, and that the desperate circumstances they find themselves in are not their fault. The United States is still among the wealthiest nations on Earth. It is time John and Mary got to see some of that wealth in their own lives.

As it happens, I found this week’s song quite a while ago for my music video page on Facebook. But it certainly fits here as well:

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Fun House Mirror

I often see people using the performance of the stock market as a way of evaluating the success the political climate of the time. A meme made the rounds last year that included the rise of the S & P stock index during his presidency as a measure of Barack Obama’s success. If that is an accomplishment that one should be proud of, then Donald Trump must be the best president we ever had. You only need to look at how the stock market has performed since Election Day to see this. There are indeed some people who believe this. Even the sharp drop in the stock market last Wednesday does not dissuade them. That drop came as a special counsel was appointed to investigate the Trump campaign and the possibility of obstruction of justice within the administration, but the market has rallied in the following four sessions and regained most of what it lost as the news cycle quieted. This is a fine example of what I like to call a “just kidding rally”, and it points out how the stock market is not reality.

That said, Wall Street does mirror our political scene in bizarre ways. There is a battle of two different ideologies that mirrors our partisan divide. One side has more real world facts on its side, but the other has the better marketing for its positions. There is a blurring of who is on which side that serves to confuse matters, and strengthen those who eschew real world evidence. The two schools of thought combine in ways that do not always stand up to close inspection or analysis.

Wall Street is divorced from the real world in the first place because it is a game for the wealthy. You have to be able to afford the buying and selling of individual stocks, as well as more esoteric and speculative investments, to have an influence on how the market moves. You live in a world where your personal spending is not affected by increases at the pump in the price of gas. The jobs that are lost in mergers and acquisitions are not real to you. Drastic cuts in programs for the poor are seen in the light of deficit reduction, while the impact on consumer spending, and therefore ultimately on jobs, is conveniently ignored. The majority of the members of the House and Senate also live in this world, which makes it easier for them to evaluate the laws they pass in terms of how the market responds. Massive tax cuts for the rich do not go into the economy and create jobs; instead, they are invested for long- and short-term profits in the market, boosting the portfolios of many who voted for them. Market growth is not economic growth, and eventually even investors pay the price for this dichotomy, but too many policy makers can not see this. I just referred to “investors”, and thereby illustrated part of the problem. Wall Street is actually divided into investors and traders, and this is also reflected in our politics. Traders are looking to buy and sell stocks and other financial instruments rapidly, a year being a long time frame for them. They are looking for positions they can take for short term gains. Real world reasons why a stock should do well over time, such as the viability of the product or the soundness of the company, do not interest them. Instead, traders have developed an esoteric method of analyzing price charts to predict near term price movements of a given financial instrument. This type of analysis has become so involved that there is a tendency to lose track of the real world reasons for these price movements. Often, these reasons come down to mob psychology. A stock may have already risen to a level that is appropriate to the company’s worth by the time an analyst recommends it, but a trader’s charts measure the effects of new buyers piling in as the price of the stock rises to unsupportable levels. Traders hope to take advantage of this rise, and get out before the inevitable return to hard reality. Traders also know that their approach often fails, but they seek to balance their losses with a few big wins, so they need to exit their losing positions quickly. Donald Trump is a trader. His bankruptcies do not matter; they were just him monetizing the quick losses, while pursuing the next big win. In this game, it does not matter who gets hurt on the other side of a trade.

Investors are different. The real world matters to them, even if they don’t exactly live in it. They seek to find investments that are worth more than their current market price, and then hold them for as long as it takes for reality to catch up. The viability of a product and the financial health of a company are important to them. Peter Lynch once made investors in his Fidelity Magellan fund very happy with this approach, and Warren Buffet has become very wealthy this way. In politics, investors understand that safety net programs are vital to the long term health of the country. Where a trader sees the people of this country as competitors for a finite set of resources, investors see each person as representing a long term value to the nation, even if it takes a generation or more to unlock that value.

In a political campaign, traders offer short term solutions that may seem wonderful if you don’t look at them too closely. They can vilify political investors, knowing that they offer an easily visible quick fix, in contrast to a slow developing investing approach that solves nothing in the near term. In eight years, the full benefits to society of Obamacare had not had time to play out, making it easy for the Republicans to run against it. Political investors such as Hillary Clinton can also lose track of the fact that most Americans do not and can not actively participate in the market at all. To her, the status quo established under Obama was fine, just needing more time to play out. She could not appeal to those who needed not just health insurance but health insurance they could actually afford to use. She was asking for patience, while Trump was offering someone to blame for the time things were taking to get better.

It comes down to this. Would you rather buy a stock that should be worth twice its current price, but may take years to get there? Or would you rather buy a stock that a star analyst says will double in six months, even if it currently sells for more than the company is worth? It is the job of corporate Democrats to sell us the first stock instead of the second. It is the job of Republicans like Paul Ryan to get us to ignore any misgivings and buy the first stock. There is hardly anyone in Washington who will speak for those who can’t afford to actively play the market at all. That is actually most of us, and our laws would look very different if we were also considered. Ironically, the times when we have been considered, with policies such as the New Deal and the Great Society, have been very good times for the stock market. There many good reasons for this, but they may be the subject of a future post.

I really could only see one choice for this week’s song:

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Big Man

This week, the comparisons of Donald Trump to Hitler had to take a back seat to comparisons to Richard Nixon. But I would like to make a different comparison, one that I think has much to tell us about the unique threat that having Donald Trump in the White House poses to our nation. Allow me to present Donald Trump, mob boss.

In fact, we know that Trump has had dealings with mob figures in the past. This was waived off during the campaign by some who pointed out that anyone who wanted to build something in New York City in the 1970s had to deal with the fact that the mob controlled the local concrete market. But Trump also had such figures as honored guests in his casinos, even enforcing their wishes not to be served by black employees on at least one documented occasion. More disturbing to me was a case that emerged during the campaign that resulted in statutory rape charges being brought and then dropped against Trump. The story goes that Trump attended a series of sex parties in the 1990s organized by Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein was convicted of similar activities, and is now a registered sex offender. Trump admitted to his friendship with Epstein in the 90s, but he was not a party to the charges that led to Epstein’s conviction. During the campaign, a “Jane Doe” emerged who said Trump raped her at these sex parties, and that he knew she was thirteen at the time. She had a witness, identified as “Tiffany”, who worked as a procurer of underage girls for these parties. The judge in last year’s case ruled that the charges could be brought even though the statute of limitations had expired, because he found credible the claim by Jane Doe that she had received death threats to her and her family, and it had taken her this long to feel safe. Jane Doe told a story, backed up by Tiffany, of a girl she called Maria, who was going to bring charges of her own back in the 90s until she disappeared one day.

All of this must be regarded as hearsay. Jane Doe dropped her case abruptly last year, saying she was once again receiving death threats. So the case was never tried, and the evidence was never weighed in court. Around the same time, the fraud case against Trump University was settled out of court. We never learned the extent of Trump’s involvement in that one. This speaks to a perverse kind of privilege that Trump has known all his life. He is the son of a man who made his fortune in part by surrounding himself with cleaners, men who could make any story that could have damaged his reputation go away. Trump the son has always had his own cleaners as well, and now some of them are in the House and the Senate. Mitch McConnell, Devin Nunes, and Paul Ryan come to mind. It’s not hard to see that Trump hoped James Comey would become one of these cleaners as well. That would be why he tried to get Comey to swear loyalty to him at that dinner in January. If you grow up believing that the laws of this land only apply to those who don’t know how to make them go away, this would seem to be a natural role for the FBI, and it gives us an idea what qualities Trump will be looking for in a new FBI director.

Cleaners know the job they have to do. Bad stories must be made to disappear, and no knowledge of how it was done must ever be traceable to the boss. The boss makes statements that, for example, the investigation into Russian meddling in the election is over, and the cleaners make it so by whatever means necessary. People who say, or worse insist, otherwise get silenced, and sometimes vanish. A phrase we learned during the Watergate case does apply here. The boss must at all times have plausible deniability. This week, we crossed a line in the chronicle of alleged misdeeds by Trump. First with the testimony of Sally Yates, and then with the events surrounding the firing of James Comey, we learned of attempts at damage control that occurred since Trump took office. If this turns out to be the first hints of an illegal cover up, this will matter because only illegal actions that occur while a president is in office are impeachable offenses. So Trump’s cleaners now have their hands full.

With so much of a protective shell around them, what can bring down men like Donald Trump? For Al Capone, it was income taxes. A more spectacular downfall can come from a stool pigeon. One guy sings, and suddenly the whole structure begins to collapse. That is what happened in the Watergate case. Our best hope now lies with the planned testimony of Michael Flynn. This also made it easy to pick this week’s song: