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:

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Great Irresponsibility

Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben tries to teach him that, ”With great power comes great responsibility.” During Spiderman’s origin story, after Parker gains his powers and Uncle Ben dies in his arms, these words become the guiding principal that makes Spiderman a hero. But, after fifty issues, that responsibility becomes so great a burden that Peter Parker considers giving it all up, and trying to have a normal life instead. The image above is from that fiftieth issue. There is no supervillain, just a young man battling the words of his uncle, and those words finally win.

This past week, anyone who did not already know learned that Donald Trump and the Republicans in the House do not have any sense of responsibility to anyone to go with the power they wield over all of our lives. How else can you explain the passage in the House of the atrocity known as the American Health Care Act? Despite the late addition of an amendment to provide political cover for moderate Republicans, this was not a serious effort to improve health care for anyone. Instead, there was the actual goal of making savage benefit cuts in order to try to pave the way for huge permanent tax cuts for the wealthy. There was a mad rush to get the bill passed for several reasons. For Donald Trump, the fact that his first one hundred days in office passed with no major legislative victories was galling. His ego demanded the passage of something to brag about, no matter what its merits. For Paul Ryan, the bill is his greatest victory in his nearly religious crusade against the safety net. For the Republican leadership in general, two deadlines were looming that meant they had to get the votes, even if no one had so much as read the bill they were voting for. They knew the bill was doomed if the Congressional Budget Office had a chance to score the AHCA, giving precise details of how much harm it would do. And the Republican leadership also didn’t dare let their members leave on recess, and face their constituents in town halls, with the AHCA vote pending on their return. There was to be no epiphany, no chance for anyone to wake up and realize that the nation needed them to do what is right.

The greatest danger we face now is complacency. We must not assume that the ACHA will die in the Senate. We assumed that Donald Trump could not possibly win the Republican nomination, and I like so many others wrote about that. Then we assumed that he could not possibly win last November, and again, I am as guilty as anyone else, having written about how we should handle a Hillary Clinton presidency. Finally, we assumed it was time to move on to other issues, with the AHCA dead in the House without a vote in March. Now we have a last chance to prevent this atrocity from becoming law. We must pressure Senators of both parties to craft a much better, and substantially different bill. But our job does not end there. We must then make sure that the House and Senate can not reconcile the two and pass anything that even remotely resembles the AHCA. We have the majority of the American people on our side, despite the result last November. But, as Peter Parker discovered, we have a power, and with it the responsibility to use it for the greater good. Like him, we must not walk away again until the job is done.

My song choice this week may seem to have nothing to do with this post. But Luka is about what happens when someone misuses the power they have over another person. I always interpreted the song as being about a woman, but the video suggests that Luka is a child. Either way, I am calling out Trump and the House Republicans for abusive behavior towards the American people, and I stand by that:

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Toxic Environment

I wish Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke could be made to take a hike on one of the trails near my house, through the woods of central New Jersey, with a guide to help them understand what they are seeing. In the air, they might observe a large bird with a mostly black body, but having beautiful white markings on the undersides of its wings. They might also come upon young holly bushes growing in the wild. I go hiking with a good friend who serves as such a guide. He has explained to me that the bird is the black vulture, a species that has not been known to range this far north until just recently. Likewise, the holly bushes grow very well here when planted on people’s lawns, but they only just become viable in the wild. It is one thing to blame a string of warm days in March on climate change, but it is observations of changing ranges of plants and animals that really make the case. Anyone can observe these changes if you know what you are seeing. Once you confirm with your own eyes that climate change is real, there is a large body of research to draw upon to explain why it is happening.

Of course, taking Trump and his cohorts on such a hike might not be enough to change the disastrous course they have set for environmental policy. The closest thing Donald Trump has to an ideology is a pathological need to undo any policy that was implemented by Barack Obama. An overview of this administration’s actions on the environment shows this quite clearly. In addition, there is Trump’s bizarre obsession with “saving” the coal industry through deregulation. So the mining industry now has permission again to release their toxic waste into our waterways, poisoning both wildlife and human beings unfortunate enough to live downstream. Trump has also signed off on measures to allow oil drilling in formerly protected forests and fisheries.

There is, unfortunately, very little that we as concerned citizens can do to stop this. Here is where Trump’s use of executive orders has been most effective. Some can be challenged in court, but the president has a great deal of latitude regarding the environment, and many of Trump’s actions here simply reversing executive orders that were signed by Obama. So, since no legislation is needed, protests at town halls of moderate Republicans will not win this fight. Trump has also practiced action by neglect here. Simply by refusing to appoint the necessary staff, Trump has hampered the ability of the federal government to enforce even those regulations that he can not eliminate.

One cause for optimism comes from a source that certainly surprised me: Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has a new book out, written with former Sierra Club chairman Carl Pope. The book is a reminder that the words conservative and conservation have the same root. A conservative, in the old meaning of the word from before the hostile takeover of the Republican Party by the Tea Party, used to be someone we could count on as an ally on environmental issues. Indeed, Bloomberg and Pope lay out the capitalist case for sound environmental policy. Coal is dying for market driven reasons, not because of overregulation. Bloomberg and Pope make the case that stewardship of the environment is not only good for the planet but also smart business. Bloomberg was the mayor on New York City for two terms, so it is not surprising that he sees solutions as coming from cities, especially at a time when the federal government is so misguided about the environment. To be fair, I have read about the book, but I have not read it yet. But it seems to me that these are arguments that can only help our cause. As activists, we should be making arguments that help us attract the widest possible backing. We stand in opposition to a president whose positions are far from the mainstream. On the environment, as on so much else, we need to draw support from everywhere, and press the advantage we have. The majority of Americans agree with us. We don’t even need to take them into the woods to help them see it.

For my musical selection, a bit of irony felt appropriate:

Monday, April 24, 2017

Play Money

Donald Trump is looking for a big win as he draws close to the end of his first 100 days in office. Healthcare reform has failed, Obamacare is very much still with us, and the smoke and mirrors of the new healthcare proposal doesn’t seem to be fooling anyone. The travel ban is held up in the courts, and looks like it will never happen. Even the stock market has not been cooperating lately. As I write this, Donald Trump’s biggest accomplishment has been putting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, and even that came with the asterisk known as the nuclear option. So Trump is pretty desperate for a legislative win, and he thinks he can get it with tax reform. “Tax reform”, of course, is a euphemism for a massive tax cut for the rich. George W Bush had relatively little trouble getting Congress to approve his tax cuts, but they were set to expire in ten years, making it relatively easy for Obama to get rid of them when the time came. Now, Trump and his enablers in Congress want to avoid that problem by making the new tax cuts permanent. That, fortunately, is harder to do.

The reason for that is something called the Byrd Rule. Approved in 1985 and amended into its current form five years later, the Rule allows anyone in the Senate to object to any legislation on the grounds that it increases the deficit for a period longer than ten years. The objection can only be overcome by a 60 vote majority, which means at the moment that Trump would need to find six Democrats to join him while keeping all of the Republicans on board. So far, this has proven impossible on any issue. His other choice is to get passed into law measures which would offset the impact of his tax cuts on the budget, and he was hoping to do this with massive cuts to healthcare. Now, however, we are starting to hear noise about something called “dynamic scoring”.

Dynamic scoring is the pretext for tax cuts for the wealthy in the first place. You sell the idea to voters based on the ridiculous idea that the stimulus these tax cuts will provide to the economy will be so powerful that they will actually reduce the deficit. That is, a sharp drop in federal revenues will magically result in the government taking in more funds than it spends. I explained a couple of weeks ago why this idea is doomed to fail. Paul Krugman, when he talks about this, refers to what he calls “the confidence fairy”. But this is not simply an argument about competing theories. Tax cuts like these have been tried before, and we don’t have to guess what will happen when recent history tells us. I mentioned that Bush passed his temporary tax cuts. The deficit exploded. As should have been obvious, when the government took in a lot less money, it wound up owing more. Fans of dynamic scoring will point out that Bush then engaged in two costly wars, and they will try to claim that, without those wars, the Bush tax cuts would have worked as advertised. OK. Suppose we take them at their word. Are they willing to end all US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pledge to not take any military action anywhere in the world, in the fight against terrorism or for any other reason, to pay for their tax cuts? Do they expect to convince us that they could keep such a pledge with this president in office? Barring such a pledge, we have every reason to expect that paying for Trump tax cuts with dynamic scoring would lead to a repeat of the Bush deficit explosion. Keep in mind as well that we should have expected the jump in military spending from the Bush wars to stimulate the economy, but instead we saw the weakest recovery from any US recession since World War II. So let’s score dynamic scoring, and give it the failing grade it deserves. Let’s recognize that tax cuts are a form of government spending, and insist that they can not be paid for with play money. Let’s force Trump and his friends to explain what cuts they will make to coddle the rich, and see if they can sell them to the voters.

Tonight’s song is one I had not heard before tonight. I stumbled upon it quite by accident, but its tribute to government in dementia seems fitting:

Monday, April 17, 2017

War Shopping

Donald Trump has started shopping for a war. Two weeks ago, his approval ratings were almost impossibly low. This is very important to him. In fact, his personal popularity may be the thing that motivates Trump before anything else. He knows that becoming a wartime president is the quickest way to become more popular. If he had any doubts on this point, he saw it work powerfully for George W Bush. Ultimately, Trump knows that he needs a war that is long enough to establish him as a wartime president. But he also knows that the right war is important. He is old enough to remember how the Vietnam War made Lyndon Johnson hugely unpopular. So Trump has been trying different wars out, to see how they play.

First, there was the missile attack against Syria. This one made Trump a hero, in that he was acting nobly, in response to Assad’s gas attack on his own people. It played well, giving Trump’s approval ratings a nice bounce. But it was a theater piece. Trump had to get permission from Vladimir Putin to launch the strike, which meant Assad knew in advance of the attack. So there was no lasting damage, but Putin played his part publicly, making it look like the attack “proved” that Trump was willing to stand up to Russia. The attack served its immediate purpose, which was to deflect attention from the probe into Russia’s meddling in our election with the Trump campaigns possible cooperation. But Trump clearly owes Putin a debt of gratitude, so a sustained campaign against Assad is not an option.

Next, Trump tried a provocation against North Korea. That nation’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, is a good choice for an enemy, a man who is almost as unpopular among Americans as Trump himself at his low point. But there are two wild cards here that make a shooting war too frightening to pursue, at least for now. Kim Jong-un is perceived as being crazy enough to actually use nukes, and even the generals around Trump do not want to go there. Even more frightening is the possibility that China could become involved. China would be a potent enemy on the battlefield, and there would be great damage to our economy as well. China is a major provider of cheap labor and goods for us, and is also a major buyer of our goods. Trump may not be capable of seeing that far ahead, but surely someone in his circle has pointed it out. This one, however, is still simmering, and there is the horrifying possibility of having a battle of bluster lead us to a place where Trump feels he must start a shooting war.

And then there was the bombing of the cave complex in Afghanistan, with ISIS as the target. In this one, we dropped the “Mother Of All Bombs”, a gigantic bomb as devastating as possible without going nuclear. For Trump’s shopping, the problem here is there is no possible follow up. A weapon that powerful is supposed to be a closer. We were already fighting against terrorists in Afghanistan, so this attack should have finished the job. There is also the absurd claim that every precaution was taken to avoid civilian casualties. You simply do not use a weapon like this if you are trying to spare civilians.

So none of these situations give Trump the war he wants. For that he needs an enemy foolish enough to attack out shores, or a terrorist attack similar in scale to 9/11. He needs a situation that makes it clear that he is standing up for all of us, responding to a new enemy or threat. He needs, in short, a justification for a sustained campaign against a nation we can all agree is dangerous enough to us to justify the sacrifice of American blood. Anything else will only be good enough for a short term popularity boost, doomed to fade in the absence of any peaceful domestic successes.

All of this is disturbing enough, but we also need to be concerned about Trump’s choice of weapons. Barack Obama seemed almost embarrassed by the need to wage war. He favored weapons which were subtle and precise. These are not very splashy, but they actually do limit civilian casualties as much as possible. Trump, on the other hand, likes big explosions. Even though the Syrian airfield was somehow usable the next day, 59 Tomahawk missiles made quite a show. Like a drug addict needing a bigger fix, Trump topped that by using the “Mother Of All Bombs” in Afghanistan. It’s not even clear why this weapon exists. It is hard to drop, and there are very few situations, if any, where its deployment makes any strategic sense. The man who designed it must have been a bit unbalanced. Now it seems that Trump must find a new weapon to top this for next time, and that scares the hell out of me. I hope he understands that any place we nuke will not be a suitable place to build a Trump-branded property during the rest of Trump’s lifetime, because that may be all that saves us.

I would very have preferred that tonight’s song had become obsolete, but it may be even more relevant now than when Tom Lehrer wrote it:

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Theories of Fear

This week’s news has provided plenty of material for me to write about, from the nuclear option to the Syria strike, but none of that has distracted me from the apology I feel that I owe my readers for my post last week. I wrote about the myth that tax cuts create jobs, and I stand by that. But, in making my case, I vastly simplified matters, and in particular I denigrated the entire profession of economics. The resulting post had a tone of anti-intellectualism that goes against everything I hold dear. Things are more complicated, and economists can be very important to us in making our arguments. So this week’s post is devoted to understanding where supply-side economics came from, and what the political implications of that are.

Our politics these days is in many ways an ongoing war between two schools of economics: Keynesian and supply side. Both theories arose in response to an extreme economic event, and represent a reaction to fear. I caution, as I did last week, that I have not formally studied economics.

Keynesianism began to take hold around 1935, and was a direct response to the Great Depression. In particular, it was and is based on the fear of deflation. In any depression, consumer prices drop in response to a lack of demand, but that in turn suppresses demand, causing further price declines, and so on. John Maynard Keynes described a series of remedies for this that involved powerful government interventions to spur demand. The New Deal represented such an intervention, but so did Lyndon Johnson’s New Society programs, which were enacted at a time when the economy was already on much stronger footing than it had been during the Great Depression.

Conservatives, or what we call conservatives these days, surely object to the Great Society programs and parts of the New Deal for the ugly reason that these programs help minorities through the mechanism of higher taxes on whites. But the economic case they make is based on the fear of inflation, not deflation at all. This fear is the basis of supply side economics. In this formulation, the existing New Deal programs and Johnson’s additions were the direct cause of the hyperinflation and severe recession of the 1970s. The nation experienced periodic depressions until the big one in the 1930s, but the New Deal prevented any further depressions since then. On the other hand, we have not seen a recession as severe as the one in the 1970s since then, but the continued occurrence at all of recessions tells a supply sider that their work is not done. The so called Great Recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008 is a special case that we need to understand in the context of Keynes vs. the supply siders in order to counter their arguments.

The Federal Reserve is supposed to find a balance between the threats of inflation and unemployment by controlling interest rates. That is, they are supposed to raise interest rates when the greater fear is inflation, and lower them when the greater threat is unemployment that can bring on deflation. To a supply sider, higher interest rates are an unacceptable burden on the economy. They make it more expensive for businesses to borrow money, which encourages more price increases and creates a feedback loop. Instead, supply siders favor suppressing inflation by attacking demand. That means redistribution of wealth through regressive tax policies to reduce the buying power of workers. It means attacking labor unions in order further reduce buying power. It means promoting the idea that levels of unemployment that are high by historical standards represent a new normal brought on by demographic changes.

It would be political suicide for any candidate to say that the country needs fewer people working, and lower incomes for those who are working. Yet, that is exactly what supply side economics tells us is needed to combat the terrible threat of inflation. The economic crisis that followed from the financial crisis of 2008 is often referred to as the Great Recession, which would seem to bolster their argument. But this was not anything like a classic recession. We did not face any threat of inflation in this period. Instead, we saw severe un- and underemployment, and we narrowly averted a depression that could have rivalled the one in the 1930s. Just as supply side economics was founded on the idea that Keynesianism went too far in the 1960s, leading directly to the recession of the 1970s, so we must now make the case that the near depression that began in 2009 was the direct result of supply side policies that went too far. Even now, we face a greater threat of deflation than inflation.

To be clear, the supply siders have a valid point that we must find a balance, and understand that we may at some point need aggressive remedies against the threat of inflation. They go wrong, however, in asserting that this is such a point. A shock to the economy now would not cause inflation. Instead, it would put us back on the brink of a depression, as we were in 2009. The Affordable Care Act was the only remedy Obama was able to pass that was anything like permanent, and it hardly puts us where we were economically in 1972.Our energy policies have left us less vulnerable by far to an oil price shock than we were then. Years of increasing income inequality have left a landscape where our workers simply can not support inflation of the sort we saw in the 1970s. Aggressive union busting and the change to a service economy have made these trends harder to reverse.

It is my belief that we need to understand supply side economics and Keynesian economics as well. We need people with the skill to measure the condition of our economy, and give us the foresight to anticipate and prevent crises. But I fear that the continued dominance of supply side thinking in our politics will lead us back to the brink of the crisis we avoided in 2009. This time, Donald Trump will have neither the inclination nor the personnel around him to respond appropriately. I hope I am wrong, and that we do not need to experience an actual depression before we realize that it is the supply siders who have gone too far this time.

The song for a post about fear had to be this one: