Sunday, February 18, 2018

All That Needs To Be Said About Trump's Vanity Parade

I leave you, for the time being, with these words of wisdom regarding our not-so-beloved leaders attempts to imitate the vast parades of military power he has seen in countries he otherwise hates, like North Korea and France.  Never mind the sheer cost (estimated at somewhere between $20 million and $30 million) that could be better spend on increasing military pay, or the potential for sinking Washington streets into the swampland upon which they were built.  No, these words come from a senator of Trump's own party, the ironically-named John Kennedy, who has been quoted thusly on the subject:

"I think confidence is silent and insecurity is loud."

Couldn't have said it better myself, sir.  Until next week.

A Few Words Of Skepticism Regarding the GOP "Crack-Up"

Donald Trump, as we all know, has never been able to command a majority of support within his own political party, let alone the entire nation.  Save for Neil Gorsuch's appointment to the Supreme Court, and the midnight ride of the tax-cutters, he has no serious legislative accomplishments toward which he can point with pride.  And even among the conservative chattering classes, there are many members who not only openly despise him in terms that are inseparable from those used by their Democratic counterparts, but who surprisingly argue that his presidency may very well prove to be the beginning of the end of the Republican Party.  In a nutshell, they make alternatively the case that Trump will either permanently associate Republicans with corruption of the worst sort, and/or that he will permanently associate the party with white nationalism at the expense of identifying it with more saleable ideas (e.g., limited government, personal responsibility, etc.).

You can find any number of examples of this line of reasoning in social media, especially on Twitter, coming from such conservative luminaries as Bill Kristol, Bruce Bartlett, Jennifer Rubin, and David Frum.  Kristol, in particular, has been especially vehement in his disdain for Trump, going so far as to say that people who want to leave the GOP as a consequence of his occupying the Oval Office should not look to him to stop them.  Kristol would prefer, and has advocated for, the emergency of a third party that would embrace so-called true "Reagan principles," again, small-government-except-for-defense, hawkish foreign policy, conservative religious views, and so forth.  Two writers have even gone so far as to suggest that conservative voters consciously vote against Republicans in this fall's midterms, as the only hope of preserving the hope for a party that (ta-da, once again!) will uphold conservative values.

I suppose that I should look at these signs of a potential dissolution of the GOP as a source of joy and enthusiasm, a sign that the political universe in this country is moving toward some sort of harmonic convergence in which Democrats and Republicans can once again find ways to work together for the greater good of the nation.  And a naive, idealistic part of me would actually like to do so.

That part of me might have won out as recently as twenty years ago.  The more pragmatic, experienced-hardened part of me finds the whole concept very easy to reject.

Small government?  Look at the ballooning of the national debt over nearly 40 years of uninterrupted Republican political thinking.  Triumphant military?  Three words:  Iraq and Afghanistan.  Christian values?  Five words:  Jimmy Swaggert and the Bakkers.  And those last five words, of course, have had five more added to them by the current "President":  Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.

Let's sum all of this up by asking this: when we follow the advice of the late Governor of New York, Al Smith, and look at the record, do we actually see a series of anything that look like "principles" in action?

No.  What we see instead are two things that have defined the modern rise of the
Republican /conservative movement:  abuses of power, and white nationalism.  The former can be found in almost an unbroken line, from Teapot Dome to Sherman Adams to Watergate to Iran-Contra to the Florida recount, all the way up to not only the Russian interference with the last presidential election, but the naked theft of a Supreme Court seat that preceded it.  (Incidentally, I don't recall many of the current crop of "dissenters" objecting vehemently to that one.)  The latter can be found in the so-called "Southern strategy" of Richard Nixon, which was recycled by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, before it reached Olympian heights of perfection under Trump.

So, to those who argue from the right about how Trump has spoiled the Republican Party, I ask, in the words of the late John Anderson, a moderate Republican back in the days when it was possible to be such an animal, "What's there to spoil?"

Maybe a better question to ask is this.

Do you conservative critics of all things Trump have what it takes to return to the American people the fruits of the poisonous tree?  To allow Merrick Garland a chance to take the place on the Supreme Court that Gorsuch, with a lot of help from Mitch McCONnell, usurped?  To repeal and replace (to borrow your Obamacare words) the rancid excuse for tax reform you enacted at the end of last year with a bill crafted the way tax reform was crafted during Reagan's second term?  On a bipartisan basis, with give-and-take on both sides?

Or, if a Democratic wave in 2018 truly does leave Trump as the last Republican standing in a position of power, will you forswear allegiance to him as you do now, and work with the victors to re-establish a truly ethical government that is fully and promptly responsive to the peoples' needs.  Or will you go back to putting party first, put a "just kidding" sign next to all of your posts and articles of the past several months, and become the sharks filling the shrinking moat around the Trump White House?

Maybe we don't even have to wait until November to get an idea of how sincere your denounciations have been, up until now.

Among the dissatisfied Republicans in Congress at the moment are two Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona.  Collins is upset that McCONnell has not kept a promise to vote on a fix for Obamacare subsidies, in exchange for her voting yes (as in fact she did) in favor of the midnight tax scam.  Flake, on the other hand, is upset over the unwillingness of his party to support legislation providing a straight-up pairing of immigration relief to young foreign nationals brought here without documentation at an early age, in exchange for enhanced border security, and without any additional measures to restrict legal immigration.  As I said, they're both upset about these things.  Or so they say.

Well, Susan and Jeff, why not put a little meat on the bones of your displeasure?  Why stand around whining but still staying true to Team Red?  Why not do what another dissatisfied Republican Senator, Jim Jeffords, did a few years earlier when he found himself in a similar situation?

No, he didn' switch parties.  He became an independent.  Not just as a label.  He actually registered as an independent, and caucused with the Democrats, so that he could talk to people who were not only willing to actually listen to him, but even to respond in a positive way to what he had to say.

If both of you were willing to do this, together, simultaneously, and shift the balance of power away from the awful, unbearable Trump, without sacrificing anything you actually believe in, well, then, maybe, just maybe, I'll think there's some fire behind the smoke of conservative objections to The Donald.

But, until then, and certainly until the midterms, I reserve the right to be skeptical as hell

Maybe, Just Maybe, This Time It's Different

I remember very clearly what I felt when I first heard the terrible news of the 17 innocent lives that were lost in yet another military-style assault on a public school, this time in Parkland, Florida.  All of the things I felt every time one of these disasters has taken place in the past.  Sorrow, both for the victims, and those who knew and loved them.  Anger, that something so utterly preventable and unnecessary could have ever happened even once, let alone the obscene number of times it has happened already in the past several decades.

And one more thing.

Despair.

The despair that comes from having to associate phrases such as "yet another" and "this time" and "every one of these" to these awful events.  Because they have happened again and again and again.  They follow the same basic pattern, each time.  And there is an aftermath in which we reveal the damaged character of our divided nation, with one side of the divide expressing its outrage to those who are supposed to protect us, public officials, and those who think that the pattern can be best explained by poor school security.  By untreated mental illness.  In short, by anything but guns, the ultimate idols of worship in a society that has historically defined itself by violence.

And then, the aftermath fades.  The public officials, who have been bought by the gun manufacturers, offer "thoughts and prayers" tweets, and then uncharacteristically run away from the microphones as fast as they can.  The manufacturers use the tragedy to sell more guns to those who worship them.  Everyone else falls into a state of hopelessness, as they catch on to the fact that our nation is in the grip of those who define public order solely by violence.  And we go on living in fear, waiting for the vicious circle of gun violence to start all over again.

But, maybe, not this time.

For one thing, this time, the victims' families and friends are not going away quietly, the way that the gun fanatics think they should.  They are speaking up.  Loudly and clearly.  Especially the children, the ones who suffer the most, whether as victims, or as survivors who will have their entire lives defined by a single, senseless, horrible moment.  And they are not content with thoughts, prayers, or any other sanctimonious method for making them go away.  Take a look.  Take yet another one.

For yet another thing, there are some signs that the media might not be in a hurry to walk away from this horror show.  It's possible that their coverage of it might linger a little while longer and, in turn, might help the survivors find a way to light a fire under the cowardly tails of government "leaders."  After all, it's one thing when the New Yorker refers to gun violence in schools and other public spaces as "a national disgrace."  It's quite another when Rupert Murdoch's New York Post declares that it's time to rethink the national position that the Second Amendment confers an absolute right to bear arms--and to suggest government action in restricting their use.  After all, the Post loses money on a regular basis, subsidized as it is by Murdoch's liberal business interests in Hollywood.  If he's willing to risk more red ink over this position, that has to be treated as a sign of a potential sea change among the moneyed classes on this issue.

Too, it may not just be Republican business interests that are turning against unrestricted access to guns; it may also be the Republican donor class.  This guy, at the moment, looks like a bit of a lone wolf.  But there's always the possibility that, where there's one, there's another, and another ...

And there's one more thing.  This time, there's incontrovertible evidence that the shooter was connected with the white nationalist movement.  In other words, the very people who did so much to put Donald Trump in the Oval Office, and whose violence he has at least indirectly encouraged by referring to them with such compliments as "very fine people."

Whatever else can be said about Trump, he spares no effort to pander to his base, and is quick to see a potential threat to its support of him.  Here are his "thoughts" on what could have been done to prevent the disaster in Parkland.  That's right:  he does exactly what conservative advocates of law-and-order police tactics accuse liberals of doing--blaming the victims.  Of course, he has shown many times that he is as cowardly as he is dishonest, so its hard to expect him to do anything else.  The same goes for Florida Governor Rick Scott, who blamed the FBI for not investigating information it had on the shooter and called for the FBI director's resignation.  Hey, Rick, what have you done about the unbelievably permissive laws your state has concerning guns?  Maybe you ought to resign.

Despite some foolish statistical inflation to be found in a handful of recent polls, Trump remains what he was on the day of his election:  a president supported by a minority of the American people.  It's doubtful that either he or the current Congress is going to produce any sensible gun regulation, so long as they are willing to kneel before the National Rifle Association and have its money shoveled into their pockets.

Then again, that's what elections are for, among other things.  To change the nation's course when the nation is signalling that it is ready to do so.  And, this time, I believe that it is ready to do so, barring more interference from Trump's patrons in the Kremlin.  We as a people have an opportunity to make that change at the end of this year.

But, once we do so, what should we ask of a new Congress and new state legislators?  Is it as simple as reinstating the 1994 assault weapons ban, for which there is at least some evidence that it had an impact on reducing gun-related deaths while it was in effect?  Are there lessons to be learned from the experiences of other countries?  Australia, in particular, could be a useful model for the U.S., especially since, like our nation, it began its existence as a frontier nation settled largely by violent means.  Do we try to find a meeting point between what experts and the public both support?

We can do all or some of those things, and certainly we need to try at least some of them.  But many of them have been tried before and, however effective they have proven to be, they have in many cases proven to be all too susceptible in the long run to demagoguery from gun fanatics in and out of government.  Which leads me to think that it's probably past time to try a couple of new approaches.

For one thing, we don't need to regulate guns.  Just the one indispensable thing that makes any gun dangerous:  bullets.  After all, the Second Amendment says nothing about ammunition.  This is not, strictly speaking, a brand-new idea:  it has been proposed in the past by such diverse advocates as Chris Rock and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  But it has thus far only been enacted in a few states.  Enacted on a national level, such laws could do a lot more to stop the senseless carnage in lost lives.  They might even help to pay for the damages that result from gun violence, by raising taxes on the sales of ammunition and using them to create a fund to compensate the families of victims.

Or, there may be an even more effective approach.

Since gun-rights advocates "sincerely" believe that all regulation of guns is terrible, why don't we let them have their way?  Why not a federal law that outlaws all restrictions on guns?  One that would allow literally anyone to carry a gun anywhere at any time?

Including the halls of Congress.  By the members themselves.  By their staffs.  By reporters.  And, above all, by the visiting public.

After all, if all gun regulation is bad, why permit any at all?  Why not given the public a chance to back up a beef they have with a representative or a senator with a piece?  Could give them a whole new source of leverage.

Ah, but I think we're forgetting the operative guiding rule of Republican politics and policies.  The best of everything for me, but not for thee.

Well, if gun restrictions work so well for Republicans on the Hill, it's high time that we had a Congress that made them available to the rest of us.  Especially to children.  The first duty of any government--literally, any government--is to protect its people.  The modern Republican Party doesn't protect the people.  In so many ways, and by no means just with regard to gun laws, it protects itself.

That has to end.  And it has to end right now.  This time feels different; it absolutely MUST be different.  Before there is even one more Parkland.  So that America can not only be the land of the free, but the home of the brave AND the safe.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Coming Trump Recession

In those moments when I am not lamenting the bigotry that shapes so much of our political debate, especially over immigration, I lament the utterly unwarranted credit that Donald Trump takes for the current state of the American economy, which grew steadily under the stewardship of Barack Obama, and has continued to do so during Trump's first year in the White House.  The same economy that Trump despised as a candidate is now a source of pride to him, because he can now attempt to manipulate the public mood from the Oval Office instead of the campaign trail.  But the reality is simply that this has been Obama's economy, up until the so-called "tax-reform" bill that Republicans drafted and approved for Trump's signature last month.

And now?  Well, watch out.  Because the Obama recovery and expansion is about to be supplanted by the Trump Recession (or the Trump much-worse-than-that).

To begin with, the tax bill is paid for 100% with your grandchildren's money, in the form of T-bills.  This, combined with the ending of the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing policy of expanding the money supply, will ensure a spike in interest rates--a spike that, in fact, has already begun to show signs of starting.  The reason for this is very simple:  interest is the price tag for money when, in the form of borrowing, money is treated as a commodity.  Consequently, as the supply of money shrinks, borrowing becomes more and more expensive for individuals and businesses who want to borrow, which in America is just another way of saying everyone.

And it becomes even more expensive when people start to do one of two things--dipping into savings, or liquidating investments--that further reduces the available amount of money in the marketplace.  Surely, both of these things can't be happening at once.  Oh, wait.  For that matter, wait yet again.  Looks like people aren't waiting for their $30-dollars-a-week "tax bonanza" to "trickle down" to them.  Instead, they know a stock bubble when they see one, and they want their money now.

They also know that the tax bill, currently being marketed as middle-class tax relief, is anything but.  Not only because their share of it is so pathetically small, but because they see the money going from the employers to the shareholders, as well as CEOs.  It will then be offshored to overseas tax shelters, far, far away from the economy it was supposed to benefit.

What happens when, because of the cost of borrowing money, a business can not expand, or can only do so at great additional operating expense?  It may choose to slowly decline and go out of business, or it may simply try to pass along the additional cost to the consumer.  Either way, jobs will be lost, and purchasing power will shrink, which will increase the spiral of job losses.

And, before you know it, Donald Trump will have lived up to his resume.  He'll have done for America what he did for Atlantic City, going bankrupt four times in the process.  Remember that word:  bankrupt.  There's a decent chance that it will describe many of you, sooner than you think.

No one should misinterpret any of the foregoing as a defense of the tax code status quo.  There are many, many arguments for changing the tax code.  We need to bring home money that has been stashed away abroad, and encourage its investment in an economy that relies on renewable resources, trains Americans for 21st-century jobs, and ends the hardships of those who have been left behind in the globalization of the world's trade.  We need to discourage industries that contribute to extreme patterns of weather that use up productive resources faster than we can replace them.  We need to rebuild communities that have been devastated by the predatory business practices that began with Ronald Reagan's Presidency.  We need to find ways to rebuild the infrastructure that once made us the envy of the world, and that now looks pathetic and dangerous compared to much of what is now being accomplished in so-called "third world" countries.

All of this can and should be accomplished by sensible tax reform, one that focuses on advancing the public interest and stops pretending that there are no differences between public and private interests. That kind of tax reform can and should take place through a legislative process that involves representatives of the interests of all Americans, not one in which the investing class instructs the Representatives and Senators it has bought to conduct a midnight raid on the pantry of our public fisc. That kind of tax reform can and would take place if we had a President who believed in paying contractors whether they were in a position to blackmail him or not (I'm thinking about you right now, Stormy Daniels, with an acknowledgment to Stephen Colbert).

Instead, we have a tax bill that is guaranteed to take us into the coming Trump Recession--or worse.  There is only one sensible thing that you and I can do about it--vote Democratic, in 2018, 2020, and beyond.  Stop waiting for purity; the other side certainly isn't.  This isn't about purity any longer.  It's about preventing the economic suicide of the United States, and everyone in it.

I hope there are enough of you, starting this fall, to prevent it.  I'm counting on it.

The "Undocumented" You Will Always Have With You

It's a massive understatement to say that immigration is the most controversial and divisive political issue of our time.  It's a mistake, however, to say that the modern era is the first time the country has been bitterly divided by this issue, or to think that it can be laid to rest once and for all with some sort of legislative "silver bullet" that has not been previously considered, debated, and/or voted upon.  As this article from the New York Times shows, much of the previous century was focused on heated debates over various aspects of immigration, and various attempts to resolve those debates by enacting new laws and bureaucracies.  The significant thing about all of these attempts is that all of them were attempts to "definitively" resolve the "problem" of "illegal immigration."  And all of them failed.

Why?  Has it been simply a question of poorly-drafted legislation, or poorly-thought-our responses to the issue?  Has it been an unwillingness to spend enough tax dollars?  Has it been the willingness of the American public to look the proverbial "other way" when it comes to utilizing immigrants for a variety of purposes, in spite of the knowledge that, in at least some instances, doing so meant breaking the law?

No to all of the above.

I think that it might surprise a number of today's conservatives, in particular those who advocate reducing the annual number of visas currently available as well as adopting some sort of "merit-based" system of attracting people from abroad, that, in trying to "regulate and restrict" what has been recognized by the Supreme Court as one of the most fundamental of rights--the right to travel
--they have essentially been engaged in a form of centralized economic planning. 

Conservatives, at least in theory, are supposed to abhor this.  They claim to be defined by the fealty to the concept that the best, most productive, most innovative economy is one that has the fewest possible restrictions.  Logically, that should include not only the free, unfettered movement of money, but also the free, unfettered movement of people who make it, invest it, and spend it.  In theory, therefore, if a conservative vision of immigration were to be consistent with its vision more generally of how political economy works, it would favor open immigration with no restrictions except for individuals with a history of criminal activity and/or terrorism. 

Such a system would, by definition, be a less expensive system, one that relies heavily on records that already exist to serve other public purposes, such as law enforcement.  To argue against my self-interest (and that of my wife/law partner), such a system would also require fewer attorneys, since it would be far simpler to apply for and obtain a visa through an embassy.  But, above all, and again taking an orthodox conservative point of view, such a system would be truer to Adam Smith by letting the marketplace sort out the question of who should (and shouldn't) come to the U.S..  And, by being less bureaucratic and less restrictive, there would be few, if any, official "mistakes" in the form of undocumented individuals.

This, in fact, is precisely the point that the Times article is making.  Put simply, it states that all of our efforts to legally restrict the presence of immigrants within our borders does nothing except to create a class of people who have no authorized identity, and could arguably said to have no authorized existence.  This in turn simply makes it easier for demagoguery to play a prominent role in the immigration debate, by using demeaning and even inhumane rhetoric to describe men and women who are effectively in the position of not having a country.  The class of immigrants who have been the object of efforts to enact the so-called DREAM Act, or "Dreamers," individuals brought here as children by their undocumented parents, are a currently-prominent example of such people.

And yet, despite the failure of restrictions to solve the "problem" that the restrictions have largely created in the first place, conservatives go on advocating their further and greater use.  Even more amazingly, they attempt to fortify their objections with economic rationales:  immigrants take jobs away from citizens and consume resources needed for those same citizens, despite study after study showing that neither rationale is rational, or even true.

When you pair these facts with America's long and troubled history in the area of race, along with the increasingly racial tinge of the anti-immigration rhetoric, it becomes impossible to see today's conservative restrictionists as being motivated by anything except racial animosity, and the hypocrisy that characterizes that animosity.  Consider:  the U.S. is the by-product of white Europeans displacing dark-skinned Native Americans, and then importing dark-skinned Africans to perform all of the tasks needed for living but despised by the Europeans, who did not so much believe in the right to travel as they did the right to conquer and dominate.  It is that belief that lives on today in the vile racial language of our current President, and many of his supporters.

That racial animosity is precisely why any so-called "merit-based" system is doomed to be enforced in an inherently corrupt way.  Those who are in charge of enforcing it will be quick to find fault with applicants whose main offense will be a lack of paleness.  That animosity is what will undoubtedly cost this nation the gift of people who are not obvious gems, but who nevertheless prove to be diamonds in the rough.  Harry Pangemanan is one such person, as are many of the people who currently can obtain green cards through the so-called "diversity lottery."

And, in fact, that animosity is precisely why the current debate, from the Republican perspective, needs to continue without a resolution, so that the party's voter base will continue to be "fired up" and vote, time after time, against its own interests in promoting a welcoming society and not one that treats itself as a prison.  In consequence, this is why I believe this story to be painfully true.

So long as we fail to account for the need of every human being to move about in search of a better life, so long as we fail to allow the whole human race (criminals and terrorists excepted) to sort out their personal and economic interests, so long as our bitterly racist souls allow us to attempt to formulate immigration policy that is at odds with our economic realities, so long will we be not only a nation of immigrants, but also a nation of undocumented immigrants.  We will be surrounded by people who are people in the eyes of everyone but the law.

Whose interests does this serve?  Only the interests of bigots.  Those are the people we should be the most afraid of.  In their short-sighted inhumanity, they're the most un-American of all of us.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

What All Of Us, And Not Just Millenials, Can Learn From Talia Jane

Before you do anything else, stop reading this blog.  And read this, from end to end.

Done that?  Good.  Now, let's take a few minutes to talk, via way of cyberspace, and see what all of us can take away from it.

First, it goes without saying that Talia Jane is a very brave young woman.  Granted, it may be the kind of bravery that emerges only out of desperation.  But, cards on the table, that's how most bravery emerges.  When it has to.  Not when we want to summon it up for other's amusement, like a parlor trick or a game of Charades.

In any case, she put her livelihood (such as it was) on the line for her sake and the sake of her employees, many of whom were at the ends of their financial and emotional ropes, and publicly called her employer's CEO out for paying wages that were grossly disproportionate both to the quantity of work expected and to the cost of living in the area where the work was being performed.  In this case, San Francisco, which has one of the highest costs of living anywhere in the nation.

She did this, and paid the price.  Both short-term, and long-term.  But she made a difference for her co-workers.  One that may never have been made, had it not been for her late-night crie de coeur to Yelp!'s CEO.  And, in the process, she discovered that she had the ability to survive a disaster that would have completely crushed many people.

Here's the point I really want to make about Talia Jane.

She should be an inspiration to us.  To all of us.  Not just millennials.  Not just people living in San Francisco, or blue states.  Or red states.  Not just customer-service workers.  Not just Silicon Valley companies.  All of us.  Whether young, old, black, brown, red, yellow, white, male, female, transgendered, cisgendered, gay, straight, bi (yes, I believe it's possible), rich, poor, or any of the other demographic identities by which we too often limit our potential, or allow others to limit it.

Because none of the progress that has been made in the history of the human race has ever been made without someone sticking out his or her neck.  And taking a chance on it being cut off.

And we need a lot of very willing necks at this point in our history.

We have a national government whose three branches have been almost completely corrupted by a political party whose members are united only by their lust for power.  We have the vast majority of our state (but, thankfully, not yet our local) governments infested by the exact same corruption.  We have a national economy that is, in fact, merely a subdivision of an international economy that has turned its capitalistic backs on the needs of the people whose work and consumption makes it possible in the first place.  Our tax dollars go largely not to promote the general welfare, but the private profit of businesses that not only don't need it, but who have proved time and again that they do not deserve it.  Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor no longer feel as if they are in the service of our interests, or of a cause greater than any of us, such as the freedom and dignity of the human race.  Our expectations are burdened by dread, instead of lifted by hope.

If you're hoping that the Romans named Status Quo are going to magically wake up one day, realize the errors of their ways, and suddenly give us the great big beautiful Tomorrow that all of us in fact deserve, you can put your lantern down right now, Diogenes.  They expect everything going on now to go on forever, and they are just fine with that.

But it doesn't have to go on forever.  And it shouldn't.

And it won't, if you make your number one resolution of the New Year to be a willingness to stick your neck out like Talia did.  Speak up for those who are being squashed by the dead weight of those whose power exist only so long as the people who really create wealth--the workers--tolerate its existence.  And, in the process, discover that you actually have more power, and otherwise more to offer others, than you might have ever imagined before.

Go ahead.  Do it for yourselves.  Do it for your co-workers, your friends, your relatives, your neighbors, everyone.  We're all in this crazy thing called Life together.  And together, we can make it worth living for all of us.  Or we can pretend we deserve nothing better than what we have.

Talia Jane decided to stop pretending.  She discovered that the risk was worth it.  Are you ready to join her in taking that step off the ledge that, in fact, takes your life and those of others to a higher level?

I hope so.  I pray so.  I'm ready and willing.  I'll let you know what happens.

A Word With Which To Start Thinking About 2018: Kakistocracy

There's a line from Jason Miller's play, "That Championship Season" that, for some reason, has always stuck with me.  The line has one of the main characters describe someone as being "too stupid to be corrupt."  Perhaps it's simply because it's a funny line.  Perhaps because there's an important truth wrapped up in the humor:   deceit, in order to accomplish its aims, has to have a degree of talent behind it, often talent that could be put to a better purpose.  Whatever the reason, it turns out I'm not the only admirer of this line, because I have seen it--or variations of it--in a variety of contexts, especially political ones. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, I have seen it used with reference to Donald Trump, and his conduct in the Oval Office over the past year.  In some cases, the intention has been to reassure the American people that, contrary to their worst fears, as well as to appearances, things aren't as bad as they may seem.  Trump is, ultimately, too stupid as well as too lazy to be a true totalitarian.  He'd much rather spend time on a golf course, especially one of his own golf courses, than conquering a nation or torturing his opponents.  Or even, for that matter, how to ask those around him how he could go about doing those things.

Unfortunately, anyone who allows themselves the luxury of being comforted by this line of reason is living in something far worse than a fool's paradise.  Something close to the tenth circle of Dante's Inferno--if not in our lifetimes, then in those of our children and grandchilden.

That something far worse can be, and has been by The Atlantic, summed up in a single word:  kakistocracy.  As defined by the linked article, kakistocracy amounts to government by the corrupt, placed into power by a corrupt leader backed by a corrupt constituency.  Trump, obviously, is the corrupt leader in the case of our current misery.  As for the corrupt constituency of that misery, the article views it as a tandem:  Trump voters, blinded by Trump's real estate and TV credentials.  Their unthinking votes, along with a Republican Party establishment that cared only about regaining the White House, ultimately outweighed the will of 54% of the American voting public.

But, once Trump was in place in the Oval Office, the membership of the kakistocracy grew exponentially, to include his staff, the Republican Congress elected along with him, and the leadership of the agencies that operate under presidential authority.  Many of the individuals who make up each of these cohorts are far from idiots--and, like the GOP establishment, they are motivated only by a desire for power, for themselves and the private interests they represent.

And it's not just The Atlantic describing this in detail, as well as the effects this is having on our domestic and foreign interests.  There's also this by Michelle Goldberg, writing in the New York Times, in which she also notes that Trump's stupidity, conceded by everyone who spends any amount of time working with him, is not always contained successfully, as in the case of Trump's firing of James Comey as F.B.I. director.  Trump is aware that he is being managed and, rather than submit to the process, he is working actively to surmount it.  As Goldberg herself points out, "Now imagine Trump taking the same approach toward ordering the bombing of North Korea."  One's imagination does not have to stretch very far to be completely horrified by the implications of that sentence.

Trump is indeed an idiot, by the standards of our very best Presidents.  He has no curiosity, no belief in anyone's expertise except his own (such as that is), no willingness to consider the lessons of history, no interest in trusting the judgment even of the people he's selected to staff his Administration, and, perhaps worst of all, no ability to even consider the possibility of being wrong, or to accept responsibility when he is in fact wrong.

But none of this is stopping Trump from effectively being corrupt.  Not only has he been enabled by the political apparatus of which he is now a part, but he is also finding ways to circumvent that apparatus when he needs to eliminate a perceived or actual threat.  That need is the only thing that seems to motivate him to pay attention to what's going on around him outside of the disco of his mind.  And what's best for Donald Trump is not always what's best for the country.  Which is why we should have no confidence in the people who think they are "containing" him.

Especially when the damage that has already been done by the Trump White House, the GOP Congress, and the GOP itself (as well as its media/Internet echo chamber) has already percolated down through some of the biggest, most important Federal agencies, like the Social Security Administration, jeopardizing the financial interests of our country's most vulnerable citizens.

Or down to the level of State government, where, in the case of North Carolina, democracy has almost disappeared.

Or down to the level of individuals willing to speak out against Republican corruption, who suddenly find themselves the victims of cowards willing to take their political differences to the level of violence.

Or down to the level at which the truth itself is in jeopardy, through Republican efforts to confuse the public about who is and is not breaking the law.  (Hint:  nowadays, in the majority of cases, it's the folks pointing the fingers, not the people on the other end of the pointing.)

I'm afraid there is no such thing, after all, as being too stupid to be corrupt.  If corruption plus stupidity puts stupidity into power, and then manipulates the stupidity for its own benefit, the rest of us are left to wonder whether an analysis of stupidity vs. corruption is an attempt to find a distinction where, as measured by the results, there is no difference.  They are both the enemies of truth, justice and the American way.  And, if we are ever to get out of the kakistocracy into which we have fallen, we will need to find ways to simultaneously fight both

And give in to neither.

Kakistocracy:  the marriage of the stupid and the corrupt.  Remember that word.  Remember what it means.  And, on all fronts, fight it like hell.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2018: The Fire Next Time

It's New Year's Eve.  It's been an exhausting year.  It has, at times, been a very happy year.  But, for the most part, it feels like it has been a year of survival.

I am deeply grateful for two things, both of them grandchild-related.  My oldest granddaughter, who suffers from a series of congenital heart defects, had her third and hopefully final round of open-heart surgery this year, and came through it very well, thanks to the truly amazing physicians and medical staff of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.  She started kindergarten this past fall and, apart from a need for extra napping, she is doing very well in it.  Her life going forward is going to be a series of challenges.  But she is strong and brave and smart, and I'm grateful for each chance I get to spend with her and her younger sister.

And they welcomed a cousin into the world a little under two weeks ago!  So I now have a grandson to go along with my granddaughters.  They truly are the consolation of my later years, as well as my wife's later years.  I look forward to getting to know him better over the coming year.

It has also been a year of disappointment on other fronts.  This past fall, I was forced to resign from the board of a non-profit organization for which I had enjoyed the privilege of doing a lot of good work.  The resignation was forced by circumstances beyond my control, and finding peace about that fact has taken a while.  Frankly, it is still taking a while.  But I believe I'll get there.

I find myself still wondering when I'm going to settle down and fixate on one type of work.  I still want to be a lawyer, an actor, a preservationist, and a producer.  That's in no particular order.  I'm frankly not sure what I'm meant to be known for.  I'm 61, and I still can't figure it out.  My wife tells me that what stands out about me is versatility.  Perhaps she's right about that.  Maybe I'm not a starting outfielder or ace of the pitching staff.  Maybe I'm more of a relief specialist or a utility player; more of a Bob Bailor than a Jim Palmer or Tom Seaver.  If you can't forgive the baseball references, I'll understand.

As for politics, and the nation?

I think that it's been just about as bad as I expected it to be, with Trump and the Republicans in control of the White House and Congress.  But, lately, I've also been thinking about something else.

I was reading this article on the Mother Jones Web site, about how decades of fire suppression have made the recent wildfires in California more intense and more deadly.  I think there's a political metaphor to be found in that fact.

For almost 40 years, we have suppressed the destiny of this nation to become a more perfect union, to promote the general welfare as well as to provide for the common defense, to ensure justice and tranquility, to secure the future for our posterity.  We have stood all of these ideals on their heads, in favor of an Orwellian formulation that claims that tax cuts for the rich pay for themselves, that spanning the globe with weapons ensures peace, and that freedom of religion is really the freedom of one religion to persecute all others.

And, ironic though it may be to do so, I am forced to ask a question, one that I think the next Democratic presidential candidate should ask in the final presidential debate in 2020:

Are you better off now than you were 40 years ago?  For that matter, is America better off now than it was 40 years ago.

I think the response to that is going to be a prairie fire of populist, progressive activity such as we have not seen in almost a century.  And I think that the Republicans would be well advised to work with it, rather than suppress it, lest its energy become destructive and turn violent.  That, to borrow a phrase, is not a threat, but an unfortunate truth.

Because 40 or so years of reactionary Republican politics has pushed this 21st century back into the 19th.  Don't believe me?  Consider the fact that we have turned public welfare benefits into a slush fund for local politicians.  Or the fact that we can now allow public officials to throw people in jail because they are poor.  Or that employers can allow employees to die in unsafe working conditions, and get little more than a slap on the wrist.

Is it any wonder that, at long last, there are signs that the Trump voters are finally waking up?  And, when I say signs, I mean quite literally signs.

And is it any wonder that Trump himself feels embattled, with every day a matter of political survival?

For that matter, it's not just Trump who's in danger, it's his party as well.  Again, for the past 40 years, the party of millionaires has managed to fool people into thinking that it is really the party of working-class Americans.  But there are signs that the end of that masquerade may very well be at hand.  Maybe it doesn't help to go around talking about paying for your investor-class tax cuts by cutting Social Security and Medicare.  Maybe it also doesn't help if the party is in the middle of its own civil war over whether or not to support its own president.

That's why it's no longer time to be afraid of talking about impeachment.  Impeachment, as this author says, is just another way of correcting a mistake.  In this case, a colossal one.

And it's no longer time to be afraid of the progressive wildfire.  It will come, whether American wants it to come or not, because America needs it, or America will die.  It may die anyway, if we make the wrong response to it.

I'm betting we won't make that mistake.  I'm counting on it.  For my grandchildren, and for yours.

Happy New Year to all of you.  Thanks for reading THR.  May 2018 bring you all the blessings you deserve.

Who Does New York Really Belong To Now?

In a former and much younger life, when I had the good fortune to live in New York City (first as a student intern, and then as a civil servant), I think that what I enjoyed about it most, apart from the arts scene, was the feeling back then that the city could feel like home to anyone, regardless of background or income level.  That feeling was, in part, a reflection of the liberal tenor of New York politics.  The predominantly Democratic leadership of the City and State, and even many of its Republican politicians, understood that diversity was the key to making New York both a cultural and economic mecca.

Not so much anymore, I'm afraid.

Twenty years of Republican mayors (yes, Bloomberg was technically an independent) have shifted New York politics very far to the right.  Not quite all the way; the city's progressive constituencies are far too powerful for that.  But far enough that the cityscape is being rapidly remade to suit the needs of the 1%, with very little regard for anyone else.

Almost every day, there are Gotham press stories about some new, faceless glass tower, usually with a highfalutin' name (One Impressive Tower, or something like that), replacing spaces where people from all walks of life lived, worked, and made things a little bit better for everyone around them.  And who lives in the faceless towers?  Very often, no one.  They are little more than tax shelters for overseas investors, looking for gains in the almost always overheated Manhattan real estate market.  And the people who used to live in the spaces occupied by the newer buildings?  Where do they go?  It's doubtful that they go anywhere in the City; almost nothing is affordable.  You can track the progress of the demolition (oh, irony!) by visiting Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, if you can stand the pain of doing so.

It has, in fact, gotten so bad that the city is literally joining in the process of making itself disappear, selling pieces of itself off to private investors in exchange for a few short-term shekels in in coffers.  What happens when it runs out of space to sell?  Who will effectively be in charge of the city then?  Does anybody care?  Is anybody there? (with apologies to the authors of "1776").

I'd like to think that there's enough people to care that something can be done about it.  But, clearly, New Yorkers can no longer look to the Democratic Party for leadership on the issue of New York's livability.  Bill de Blasio is apparently what passes now for a liberal New York Democratic mayor now, but he seems to be little more than a servant of real estate interests.

It's up to you, New Yorkers.  Fight however you can, to save the City for everybody.  Including former residents and current tourists.  Like me.

Taking Income Inequality Into Their Own Hands

My blogging this year has, admittedly, been relentlessly negative.  Given the current state of our political and economic system, it's been difficult if not impossible to be anything else.  But I haven't given up on the people of this country, because I try to never lose sight of the fact that, in spite of the electoral mistakes that many of them make, over and over again, they (for the most part) still deserve better than what they get out of the horror show that masquerades as our government.

So, in the spirit of every-one-in-a-while-sharing-something positive, I offer this.

It's a campaign called Cards Against Humanity Saves America, sponsored and operated by the creators of a card game called Cards Against Humanity.  But, in fact, funded by you.  Or some of you.  Or, perhaps potentially, all of you.

The CAHSA campaign has several phases, as can be seen from its Web site.  One phase involved buying a piece of land that would be needed for Trump's proposed border wall, and then hiring a law firm to ensure that it is tied up forever in proceedings to prevent it from being condemned for the wall.  Yet another phase involves promoting alternatives to traditional homework, something I'm all in favor of, and that I wish had been around back in the day.

But the most interesting phase to me, and the part that has the greatest impact in the short run, and possibly the long run, is the effort to redistribute wealth from the campaign's richest subscribers to its poorest.  You can read about it in detail here.  And, when you do, please pay close attention to the stories of the fortunate recipients, and realize how big even a relatively small financial blessing can be.

This campaign, all by itself, of course is not going to solve the problem of inequality.  It's not really trying to.  What it ultimately hopes to do is to use small-scale change efforts to promote larger ones in the system as a whole, by reminding us that our problems are ultimately only as hopeless as the willingness of people to do something about them.  Yes, at some point, in order to make a real difference, there has to be systemic change.  But we didn't get into this mess in the first place by a small number of dramatic efforts, but through a large number of little ones.  If you read enough history, you realize that's largely how big changes take place, through little ones that lay the foundation for them.

Yes, organize, donate and vote next year, and every year there's an election.  But, in between, never forget that the power to change the world is always in one place.  In your hands.

Pandering To Those Who Await The End Of The World

Donald Trump operates at such a rapid-fire pace that it's almost impossible for anyone, including me, to keep track of all of his misdeeds.  That's actually a cardinal operating rule not only of the hard right in this country, but around the world:  do so many bad things that people can't keep up with them, and you'll at the very least get away with a large number of them.  How many of you, for example have heard about this?  Sounds like the sort of United States that you were taught to believe in during civics or social studies classes?  Sounds like the sort of thing a Democratic president would try, or get away with if he/she did?  But, for Trump, it's just another day in what is paradise for him, and Hell for the rest of us.

And, speaking of paradise ...

Trump's decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, ostensibly, is about pleasing the corrupt government of Benjamin Netanyahu as well as neoconservatives in this country, who believe every penny of your tax dollars, including the ones that go for Social Security, should go for the defense of Israel, a country that possesses over 100 nuclear weapons and is in no danger from anyone except the Palestinians, whom they have basically imprisoned behind a wall that simply adds fuel to the emotional fire of suicide bombers.  Trying to build two nations on land to which both Jews and Palestinians have legitimate claims is, apparently, no longer an option, so long as oppressing the Palestinians works.  Thousands of years of history forbids me from saying good luck to that.

But, as I said, it's only ostensibly about all of that.

It's really about pleasing the true core of Trump's domestic base:  evangelical Christians.  Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, from their perspective, is just one more sign, according to a very cramped and not entirely honest reading of the book of Revelation in the New Testament, that the end times and Jesus are all coming, and they won't have to lift a finger to make their lives or anyone else's better, because G-d's going to take care of all of that.  So much for believing that G-d helps those who help themselves.  That's hard work.  Easier to believe that G-d's going to do it all, and all you have to do is trust and believe.

It's why I'm grateful not to be a part of that world anymore.  But it's why I worry about the world you and I wake up in.  Trump and his evangelical friends may yet succeed in blowing it up.  And they don't care.  Which is why you should care--and organize, donate, and vote in the new year.

John Anderson, Perhaps The Ultimate "Spoiler"

Nil nisi bonum. Say nothing but good about the dead. It is a maxim I try to honor in all circumstances. And yet, I have not always done so. Some circumstances, for me, don't seem to justify applying it. And some people, in particular, don't seem to warrant it.  Consider the case of the recently-deceased John Anderson, a one-time Republican Representative from Illinois who is mostly remembered for his run as an independent presidential candidate against then-President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

It is not entirely fair to remember Anderson exclusively for that campaign. He was a moderate-to-liberal Republican back in a now-almost-forgotten time when it was possible to be one and not be stormed by a crowd of people from within your own party armed with torches and pitchforks.  Although he was a fierce critic of Carter, he was also nevertheless capable of cooperating with him, as he showed when he supported Carter's grain embargo against the Soviet Union after that nation's invasion of Afghanistan.  And he was an early voice among Republicans in predicting doom for the party if it let its most extreme elements take it over--something that, sadly, he lived long enough to see happen.

But, no less sadly, he also enabled it to a significant degree with his presidential campaign.  He drew Democratic support away from Carter in a close and often volatile race--support that, had it been consolidated early in Carter's favor, might have helped him to run a more successful campaign against Reagan.  Reagan, ultimately, won with an enormous majority in the Electoral College, but a minuscule majority in the popular vote.  In truth, even with the deliberate effort by the Republicans to sabotage the election by delaying the return of the Iranian hostages, it was an election that Carter could have won.

And what a different world we might be living in if we had.  We would have had both sound fiscal and monetary policy.  Universal health insurance.  A steady stream of progressive accomplishments, without the bigotry and con artistry of the hard right, which might very well have ceased forever to be a major force in American politics.  And absolutely, positively, no Donald Trump in the White House.

Yes, hindsight is always 20-20, and their have been other opportunities over the years to derail the rise of the Republican extremism.  But, if not for Anderson, there would have been no need for those opportunities.  There would have been more positive ones--more opportunities to build a better America.

What was there to spoil, Mr. Anderson?  Plenty.  And you helped.  Rest in peace anyway.

A "Dirty Way" To Save Our Planet?

In my previous post, I mentioned the role that energy science can play in promoting economic growth through the development of new industries that can help to replace departed industrial jobs.  The truth is that the potential for this goes far beyond alternative energy for transportation.  It has the potential to do much more--among other things, benefit our ability to feed ourselves as well as the rest of the world.

This New York Times article provides one example of how this can be done.  It explains how carbon can be found not only in our air, oceans, trees and fossil fuels, but in the soil itself.  In fact, as a consequence of several millenia of farming, much of our farmlands have been heavily depleted of carbon, which is needed if the land is going to be continued in use for agriculture.  This depletion is in part a consequence of the overuse of synthetic-based forms of fertilizer, which contain no carbon.  But now, according to the article, scientists are looking at ways to use soil as a vehicle for sequestering large amounts of carbon. 

Some of this effort is taking the form of research into technology that would literally pull carbon out of the air.  Some of this technology already exists, and I think that the potential for expanding the role that it can play in our future is a potentially existing one.  The author of the article takes a somewhat different view of the potential that these technologies possess.  He dismisses it as "geoengineering" with "a high likelihood of disastrous unintended consequences."  He prefers a focus on the use of traditional natural resources--manure and compost--as a way of recapturing carbon from other parts of our environment and sequestering it in the soil.  He even makes the case that cattle, and the manure they produce, may play a role in this process, effectively taking a trope away from conservative efforts to mock climate science.

I certainly am not opposed to more natural methods of farming in any case, especially if the net effect of that is to reverse the effects of climate change and save the planet.  If that's a way that we can have an immediate impact, then I'm all for it.  However, just as Obama believed in going "all-in" on everything when it comes to developing sustainable forms of energy production, I'm a big believer in going "all-in" when it comes to the potential for sequestering carbon, especially if we can put it into places where it can do more good than harm, like our soil.  So-called "geoengineering" may very well help us do that. 

I can't help but feel that the author's take on this stems from a fear of large-scale scientific innovation, like nuclear energy, that ultimately may have done more harm than good.  While I understand and respect that perspective, fear of science is not going to help us get out of the mess that, admittedly, science helped us to create in the first place.  Every possible solution has to be on the table, especially now that we've waited this long to do anything major at all.

Whether we use new or old methods, if the best way is a "dirty way," then by all means let's follow it.  Time is no longer on our side.

Electric Cars: The Future Is Already Here

One of the most successful aspects of the Obama Administration was its ability to jump-start the alternative energy movement--in fact, transforming it from a movement into an actual business.  A short time ago, cars that ran only or largely on fossil-fuel energy were the norm, and anything else was science fiction.

Well, science fiction is now science fact.  Not only are hybrid vehicles like the Prius a standard part of the automotive landscape (I now own my second one), but all-electric cars are slowly beginning to nudge them and their gas-powered ancestors out of the mainstream of motoring.  According to a recent article in the Guardian, electric cars already cheaper to own and operate than cars that run on gas.  And, while this is due in part to the existence of subsidies, the current expectation is that, in just a few years, they will still retain their cost advantage over fossil-fuel-powered vehicles even without the subsidies.  Science fiction is now science fact.

This has the potential not only to protect the environment, but also to revolutionize the economy.  As uses for alternative energy expand beyond transportation, jobs can be created in areas where traditional forms of heavy industry have vanished.  Initially, those jobs will require subsides, but eventually, they will help to create new local economies that will thrive in part on lower economic costs from cheaper, more abundant energy.  It could very well be the case that these new economies focus on other forms of sustainable development, such as using crops and other forms of plant life to create new raw materials for heavy and light industries.

What is not a part of the future, in any case, is fossil fuel, and the underground fossils that are used to make them.  Throw aside the questions of air pollution and climate change, as our foolish (fuelish?) excuse for a President has done, out of ignorance and his racially-motivated hatred of his predecessor.  And then, consider this:  does it make sense to build an economy on resources that have a finite supply to begin with?  Perhaps more to the point, does it make sense to build an economy on those resources when there is every reason to think that we are perhaps no more than a generation from running out of them?

If your answer is yes, I can only assume that you must be a stockholder in a fossil-fuel company.  And, hopefully, there aren't enough of you to stand in the way of the only future we have.  Better that you should get out of the way--or, better yet, get on the right track, by investing in industries and research that promotes sustainable economic development.

If nothing else, buy a Prius.  They're great cars.  And they offer a taste of the future.

A Refusal To Compromise "DREAMS"

Ever since Donald Trump, by way of his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced an end to the Obama-era policy of deferred prosecution of U.S.-born children to undocumented parents, commonly known as DACA, there has been a political scramble to address the problem Trump effectively created by taking this step, one that had no positive practical effect except to throw a hefty slice of red meet to his immigrant-hating base.

In the case of congressional Republicans who have at least an inkling that Trump's decision may create serious political problems for some of their colleagues in the short one, ones with Hispanic bases, and all of them in the long run, as the population of the country as a whole shifts to a point at which whites are a minority, they understand that they need to engage on the issue.  In the case of Democrats, of course, for both political and humanitarian reasons, they want a legislative solution that will protect not only all of the children in question, but also their spouses, parents, and minor siblings, by providing them with  the ability to obtain permanent residency and, ultimately, citizenship.  This is why Democrats have, for several years, consistently sponsored the DREAM Act, which would do all of these things.

Unfortunately, the Republicans want to take a Christmas-tree approach to negotiating on this issue, in much the same way as they did with their recent, so-called "tax reform" bill.  They only want to grant protections for those who formally enrolled in the DACA program, about 800,000, and not all of the 3-million plus who are or were eligible to participate in it. They are unwilling to do anything to protect the family members of DREAMers.  They want to drastically curtail the ability of family members, and other residents of foreign countries, to obtain permanent residency into the United States, paving the path for a so-called "merit-based" system ("merit," of course, should be effectively translated as "money").  Above all, they want a series of draconian enforcement measures put into place--above and beyond all, Trump's proposed wall along the southern border, which is neither physically practical nor otherwise cost-effect in promoting security.

Democrats, unfortunately sound like they're prepared to cave on some or perhaps all of this.  They have a disturbing habit of going into negotiations looking needy, instead of tough.  And there's no reason to do, especially since DREAMers are strongly in favor of an all-or-nothing approach to this issue.  As are other members of the Democratic coalition.

So, Chuck and Nancy, here's my pitch.  Grow a pair of spines.  Stand up for the people who vote for you and give you money.  Don't take a deal that's less than your supporters are asking for.  And, if you have to, take the "Christmas tree" approach yourself.  Take the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill that House Republicans didn't get a chance to vote on, tweak it a bit, and say "It's THIS or nothing."

And then see what matters more to Republicans:  their beloved Trump, or the potential future voters for their party.