Saturday, July 9, 2016

Serena Wins Wimbledon And Ties Graf's Record

Serena Williams defeated Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon final 7-5, 6-3 and won her 22nd Grand Slam singles title, tying Steffi Graf for that record.  Kerber played a very good match and was able to move Serena around the court for most of the day. But today Williams avoided the unforced errors that had kept her from winning the last two Grand Slam finals at the Australian and the French. And when Serena confronted a break point in the second set, she promptly served her way out of it. A historic win and now Williams will be poised to break Graf's record at the US Open where once again she will be the favorite.

Way back in the 1920s, the French had four great players, Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, and Rene Lacoste, who were known as the Four Musketeers. In 2008, along came the New Musketeers, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet, and Gael Monfils, who were all ranked in the top 20. And today, we have four Frenchmen fighting in the final of the Wimbledon doubles competition. The top-seeded pair of Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut are taking on the unseeded Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin and it looks like Mahut/Herbert are on their way to victory with a 2-0 set lead as I write this. In any other era, the French would be considered the dominant force in men's tennis. But Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray have been so dominant they've eclipsed all else.

Natural Weekends - Yosemite, Washburn Point

The Definitive Transgender Bathroom Symbol

Hat tip to Kerry Eleveld over at Daily Kos for providing a picture of what should be the definitive transgender bathroom symbol.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Perez As VP Should Satisfy Sanders And His Supporters

As Bernie Sanders gets ready to endorse Hillary Clinton, he is also trying to push her towards a progressive choice for Vice President. "I happen to believe that we should have as our vice presidential nominee a very strong progressive voice, somebody who has a history of standing up to big money interests, somebody who is gonna fight for the working families of this country and who has a history of doing that", Sanders has said. Elizabeth Warren has been mentioned as has Jeff Merkley who seems to have Sanders' backing. I have already gone on record against losing a progressive voice, or any Democratic vote, in the Senate in order to fill the VP slot. Democrats can't afford to waste that vote. That's why I support Tom Perez for VP. Whatever he may lack in experience, he makes up for with a strong progressive resume that will appeal to Sanders' voters.

Reality Check - Warren Highlights Oligopoly Control Of Our Economy

Reality Check - a weekly presentation of facts and figures to help us all discuss important issues with some degree of understanding. Because, despite living in this post-modern, post-truth world, the fact remains that facts still remain.

I'd like to highlight something that you may have missed right before the July 4th weekend. Elizabeth Warren gave her usual fabulous speech on the need for better antitrust enforcement in order to break up the oligopolies that rule most American industries these days. Among the sectors of the economy she highlighted were:
  • Four airlines, American, Delta, United, and Southwest, control over 80% of the airline traffic in this country.
  • Five health care insurers, Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield, United Healthcare, Aetna, and Cigna, control over 80% of the health insurance market in this country.
  • Three chains, CVS, Walgreen’s, and Rite Aid, control just shy of 100% of the drug stores in the country.
  • Four companies, Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS USA, and National Beef control 80% of the beef and 65% of the pork slaughtered in this country.
  • Four companies, Tyson, Perdue, Sanderson Farms and Pilgrim's Pride, control over 60% of the chicken market in this country.
  • Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft dominate the tech industry.
  • Comcast has over half of all cable and internet subscribers in the country today.
  • Five banks, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and US Bancorp control nearly half of the assets in the financial industry.
Warren then highlights five important reasons why this type of concentration is dangerous and counterproductive.  First, it leaves consumers with fewer choices, higher prices, and worse service. Americans pay higher prices for broadband than any other country and get far worse service. And many areas of the country are still basically not served because telecoms have deemed the lack of population density makes service there unprofitable. Beef and poultry prices are higher than they should be. And we don't have to be reminded of the damage that the "too big too fail" banks did to the US and global economy.

Second, the dominant players in  the market can use their power to freeze smaller players out. Just look at telecoms trying to create the two-tiered internet to give priority to their own content. Or Amazon favoring its own published content over others. Or Apple restrictions on rival music streaming platforms.

Thirdly, bigger players can decimate smaller companies simply through economies of scale. WalMart controls 30% to 50% of all goods sold in America and over half of the groceries in some cities and its entry into geographic area usually leads to the collapse of smaller stores in that locale.

Fourth, these big oligopolies wield enormous political power that they use to tilt the playing field even further in their favor. Industry lobbyists have undue influence on legislation and trade deals that go through Congress. They can and do push through regulatory changes that actually increase the barriers to competition.

And finally, the enormous profits that these huge firms create primarily go to only the top executives and shareholders, increasing inequality and helping to destroy the middle class. The top 500 firms in the US account for nearly 50% of all profits. The aforementioned WalMart pays its workers so little that it is estimated that their employees receive about $6 billion per year in government assistance even as the company rakes in big profits.  Taxpayers are actually subsidizing WalMart executives' and shareholders' income.

Other side effects of this increased concentration in all sectors of the economy could be the decline in productivity that has occurred since the Great Recession. Without any real competition, firms spend more effort exploiting their market position while firms with innovative new ideas cannot hurdle the barriers to enter these markets. In addition, higher CEO pay has also been linked to this increased concentration due the common ownership of these oligopolies by mutual funds.

How did we end up here? Well it all goes back to the infamous Robert Bork in the 1970s who managed to convince the Supreme Court that there should be no antitrust enforcement if it could be shown that the consumer will somehow benefit from the creation of the larger company. And companies could always find a way to show that consumers would benefit, at least initially. If the efficiencies of that larger company never materialized, then, Bork reasoned, the market would intervene and break the monopoly or oligopoly up. It was a classic laissez-faire argument that totally ignored the reality of the political power and the ability create enormous obstacles to any other competitor trying to get in the market. But that's how all these firms were allowed to get bigger and bigger until we are left with what we see today.

So how do we start to break up these concentrated industries and bring in some real competition. Warren highlights three areas where the executive branch can act without legislation to rewrite the current antitrust laws. First is to begin to block anticompetitive mergers again. Secondly, carefully scrutinize vertical mergers that allow control of the supply chain. And third, require all agencies to promote competition.

These are all good ideas but I'm afraid the real answer is to go back to the previous standard where a certain size and market share will just not be tolerated. Unfortunately, that will require legislation and guess what, all those powerful companies listed above will be fighting every step of the way to make that legislation never sees the light of day.

We love to talk about all the great competition in the American economy, but these days that is just a myth. In some of the most important areas of our economy, there really is no competition, just an oligopoly controlling the vast majority of the market. Please go and read Warren's speech in its entirety. Low wages, inequality, higher prices, lack of choice, and poor customer service are all problems that are rampant at present. Reducing the concentration of power in our business sectors won't solve these problems but it will mitigate them. Competition is the lifeblood of capitalism and a dynamic economy. Sadly, we have lost that over the last 30 or 40 years in this country.

Raonic Takes Out Federer In 5 Sets

Milos Raonic played attacking tennis from the very first point and took down Roger Federer in 5 tight sets. Federer will look back at the fourth set with some regret as he had some break points against Raonic but couldn't convert as Raonic played fearlessly on those critical points. In addition, Federer was up 40-0, serving at 5-6, in the fourth but two double faults let Raonic back in the game, allowing Raonic to get the break and win the set. And Raonic was flawless in the fifth, closing the match out at love and advancing to the Wimbledon final.

Sanders To Endorse Clinton Next Week

I have always been pretty confident that Bernie Sanders would eventually come around and endorse Hillary Clinton. He definitely has no interest in seeing Donald Trump become President. But he had every right to keep on fighting for his positions and using his pretty extensive leverage to effect Hillary's position right up until the final bell. And he has done that and done that successfully. During the campaign, he certainly moved Hillary more to the left than would have otherwise occurred. On Wednesday, Hillary basically adopted his plan for free college tuition and the two have apparently agreed on the terms for Bernie's speech at the convention. In addition, there are rumors that Sanders also got Hillary to commit to a "public option" addition to Obamacare which was another important policy that he ran on. So it really is no surprise that he is now scheduled to endorse her early next week at a rally in New Hampshire. Despite the worries of some pundits and Democrats, you knew this day would have to come.

Ganim And Unions Reach A Deal

Mayor Joe Ganim and the unions have come to an agreement where both sides seem to come out ahead, exactly the way a good negotiation should end. Unions delayed their raises for one year in return for further job security down the line. In addition, employees that were terminated after the unions rejected Ganim's first offer will also be brought back. Unfortunately for Ganim, he probably needed a bigger win here as he only managed to save $700,000 dollars with this deal. This still leaves another $3.3 million hole in the budget that the mayor must fill.

Excellent Unemployment Report Offsets May's Disappointment

I don't know whether the Fed is breathing a big sigh of relief or tearing their hair out or doing both at the same time when they see the unemployment report this morning. The headline numbers look very good - 287,000 new jobs, unemployment rate at 4.9%, hourly earnings up 2 cents, and participation rate up to 62.9%. Revisions to April and May amounted to a loss of only 6 thousand jobs. The new jobs number is a bit deceiving as 70,000 of that represents the striking Verizon workers returning to their jobs. So, in the same way that May's number was distorted downward by that strike, this month's number is distorted upward. But make no mistake, this was still a very strong report.

Where this leaves the Fed is hard to say. I'm guessing that the hawks will once again start to push for at least one rate increase this year despite the global risks to the downside over Brexit, concern over European banks, and the collapse of interest rates around the globe. The latter should concern the Fed most of all - US 10 and 30 year bond interest rates sank to all time lows; 10 year rates in Germany, Switzerland, France, and even Australia also hit all time lows. Shockingly, forward rates out 15 years in Germany and 9 years in France are negative. The markets are signaling years of record low interest rates for the foreseeable future. Yet, year after year, the Fed predicts that inflation will shortly reach its target range and rates will rise accordingly. The markets are strongly saying otherwise and every time the Fed signals another rate increase that they have to pull away from creates an even greater lack of confidence that the Fed truly understands where we are.

Right now nothing will be decided - there is still plenty of new data to be seen between now and the September meeting. I also have a feeling that, despite what they may say, the Fed will be a little gun-shy about making a move right before the election for fear of being labeled "political". So any push for a rate increase or even decrease won't happen until December, if at all. Let's hope that in the intervening months, Fed statements start to reflect the reality of the markets. And let's not forget what a low interest rate future means for fiscal policy either - but that's for another post.

Police Officers Ambushed And Killed In Dallas

What is there to say. The shootings in Dallas where 5 police officers were killed and 11 wounded in an ambush by snipers at a Black Lives Matter rally are brutal, shocking, and despicable in all the same ways that the videos of unarmed men shot by police have been. What is truly sad and dispiriting is that this is really not that surprising. And that says a lot about the state of this country right now. Let's just pray that somehow things do not escalate.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Theories Why Trump Openly Shows No Interest In Actually Governing

Martin Longman picks up on a theme I brought up earlier this year, theorizing that Trump wants to win but has absolutely no interest in governing. Longman backs his thoughts up by referencing a New York Times interview where Trump was asked whether he would actually serve as President if he won the election. This is not a typical question for the presumptive nominee of a major party but, then again, we are dealing with Trump. Trump's truly shocking answer was, "I’ll let you know how I feel about it after it happens." He apparently made no effort to clarify that statement. As Longman points out, it's taking a pretty bold step to hint that you won't serve even before you've become the official Republican nominee. Longman goes on to state, "I think this show was a lot more fun for Trump when he was leading in the polls and he wasn’t responsible for anyone else’s fate. Maybe, consciously or unconsciously, he actually wants to have the nomination wrested away from him in Cleveland. That’ll make him much more of a martyr than a loser, or at least he might feel that he can spin it that way." While I don't disagree with Longman about Trump's disinterest in governing, I think he is playing a different game with these comments. He is desperately searching for a Vice President with at least some credentials. Just in the last two days, Bob Corker and Joni Ernst have dropped out of the running. What better way to entice a potential VP than by hinting that you may actually decide to not serve as President. In fact, some of the named VP potentials apparently are only interested because they don't believe he can last as President, either through disinterest or through Mitch McConnell's "constitutional constraints". But you have to be a pretty narcissistic fool to believe that a guy with as big an ego as Trump will actually go away quietly. Then again, they are politicians.

California Strenthens Its Already Tight Gun Control Laws

California is the latest state to implement sweeping gun control restrictions, passing a law last week that bans the sale of high-capacity magazines, expands the definition of prohibited assault weapons, and requires background checks for the purchase of ammunition. This law was introduced in response to the mass shooting in San Bernardino late last year. As we have noted, the Supreme Court has recently upheld many of these state restrictions and it does not seem like there would be anything in this law that the Court would view unfavorably.

California has some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation and the reason for that is filled with irony. It all began in the late 1960s when Ronald Reagan was the Governor of California. The Black Panthers had recently started armed patrols in the city of Oakland that basically shadowed police on patrol. In addition, the Panthers started showing up outside courthouses and other public places with loaded weapons. In response, the legislature passed a law that banned the carrying of a loaded gun in public. The Panthers responded with an armed march to the State Capitol in Sacramento in order to try to block the bill. But Reagan signed the bill into law with the support of a majority of Republicans in California. The irony, of course, is that gun control in California was primarily implemented to control the minority population. Today, of course, gun rights advocates, especially Republicans, fight to repeal these gun control laws primarily to make sure they can control the minority population.

Trump Gets Le Pen's Endorsement

Donald Trump may have just received the most important and full-throated endorsement yet. Yes, that's right, the anti-immigrant Islamophobe Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far right National Front party has enthusiastically thrown her support behind Trump. I'm guessing the anti-Semitic Le Pen probably also approved of Trump's retweet of white supremacist garbage. I'm also sure Trump will use this endorsement to tell us all how much Europeans love him. But it's really just another sign of the disgraceful campaign that Trump is running.

Police Execute Two More Unarmed People Of Color

The virtual executions of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police in the last two days are brutal and shocking. And all too common. How many of these videos will we have to see before something gives. The victims are almost always people of color and I guess it goes without saying that the police are always overreacting. Obviously, racism has to play a significant role. But there is also clearly  a lack of proper training. And even more importantly, I think the proliferation of guns and the concealed and open carry laws have helped build this climate of fear among the police that every potential contact may have a gun. In the case of Castile, it appears that he was only reaching for his wallet during a routine traffic stop with his family in the car, hardly a situation where officers should feel threatened. And yet he ends up dead.  Because our government and apparently our media can not properly document these police actions, we have to rely on the British newspaper, The Guardian, to inform us that this is nearly the 600th person to be killed by police this year, a number that is simply unfathomable. One change that would really help is to finally make these police officers accountable for their actions. Yes, we all understand how difficult the job is but many of these incidents are clearly so far over the line. One way or another, this has got to stop.

Carlson Apparently Not Ailes First Victim

We should hardly be surprised to find out that Fox News is a hotbed of overt sexism and harassment. After all, it was readily apparent on the air at times and we all know Bill O'Reilly's sordid history. But apparently Gretchen Carlson's lawsuit has apparently opened the floodgates for plenty of other women to come forward, as at least 10 other women have reportedly contacted Carlson's attorney. This is on top of a string of other accusations that have occurred over the years that were apparently settled out of court. You have to wonder if the HR department at Fox News fulfills any role at all.

Ryan Can't Get Republicans To Vote On Gun Control

Paul Ryan must really be wondering why he bothered to take the job as Speaker of the House. In another failure for Ryan's leadership, a weak gun control bill that even the NRA has endorsed was scuttled before it could even get to the floor for a vote by his own Republican colleagues. Ryan had promised a vote on this bill in response to the Democrats' sit-in before the July 4th recess. The bill, which was similar to the measure introduced in the Senate by Senator Cornyn and failed to pass there, would allow a judge a few days to block the sale of a gun to someone suspected of terrorism. Despite the NRA's endorsement, one Republican House member called the bill "among the most egregious gun control measures ever to pass either house of Congress".  The chances of this bill even getting through the House was pretty slim as it was and it was going nowhere anyway because the Senate had already rejected the very same bill. But, once again, Ryan was not able to control his own Republicans who have delayed getting the bill out of the House Rules Committee. It remains to be seen how Democrats will react - they have already been threatened with punishment for the prior sit-in and they were hardly likely to vote for this bill anyway. But that can't be too happy that Ryan did not deliver on his promise for at least a vote. And House Republicans, especially the Freedom Caucus, will look at this as another example of Ryan's and the leadership's weakness.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Tsonga Comes From 2 Sets Down But Murray Prevails In Fifth

Jo-Wilfred Tsonga did his best to duplicate Roger Federer's earlier effort in his quarter final match with Andy Murray, coming back from two sets down, but didn't have enough as Murray closed him out in the fifth. The fourth set in particular had some of the best points of the day and that means that they were simply fabulous. But, credit to Murray, he held his nerve and picked up his game to dominate the final set.

In the other quarter final Tomas Berdych survived a first set tie-break and then went on to cruise past Lucas Pouille in three sets. That sets up a Murray-Berdych semifinal.

It was a great day to have center court tickets as both matches on that court went five sets and included comebacks from being down two sets. Tsonga couldn't finish but Federer did in one of the great days of tennis.

Bridgeport Taxpayers Revolt

Taxpayers in Bridgeport got their chance to vent at Mayor Ganim and their City Council representatives last night at a packed City Council meeting. Citizens, especially those in wealthier areas of town, have been outraged in the 29% increase in the mil rate, primarily due to a long-delayed revaluation and the general poor state of Bridgeport finances. Ganim was in a difficult situation with a larger than expected budget deficit inherited from Bill Finch, the revaluation, and reduced aid from Hartford all contributing to put a further squeeze on the perpetually stressed city finances. But, as  candidate who ran on a pledge to "Stop Raising Taxes", he can hardly be surprised by outraged citizens accusing him of betrayal.

City Council members, who acted as a rubber stamp for the new budget and mil rate, also bore the brunt of criticism and it would seem that a number of those members will have a very difficult time getting re-elected. City Council President Tom McCarthy chances in a State Senate race against Marilyn Moore may also be permanently damaged.

But, after all the sturm and drang, what can and will be accomplished. I have to say I am adamantly opposed to Dave Walker's idea of a financial control board. This is equivalent to saying the situation is so bad that we need a dictator. It is anti-democratic and a recipe for real unrest. We can always vote these bums out, but you can't vote out a financial control board. They will make unilateral decisions and those decisions will not be made with any understanding of the local community.

Black Rock residents talk of seceding from Bridgeport into Fairfield but it is doubtful whether that can be done unilaterally and unclear whether Fairfield would also be willing. There is also talk of withholding taxes, but that would just mean more cuts in services and hurt the least among us even more, creating an even greater rift between the haves and have-nots in the town.

It will be interesting to see what happens at future City Council meetings and whether citizens will stay engaged. If everyone just disappears after venting once, then nothing will change. It is sad to say, but it will take all of us staying engaged in order to turn things around. That means showing up at City Council meetings, understanding the issues the city has with pensions and salaries, and staying informed and involved. It will not be easy and it will take a long time. But it is the only way forward.

Hard To Believe 16GB Isn't Enough, But It Isn't

It looks as though Apple may finally be giving up on offering phones with just 16GB of storage, just as they did a few years ago with the 8GB. As a programmer just starting out in the 1970s, 8GB of storage seemed like it was the size of the universe. Today, it is hard to imagine that 16GB isn't big enough anymore for just my own personal use. Incredible changes.

Clinton Basically Adopts Bernie Plan For Free College Tuition

In another move to bring Bernie Sanders' voters into her camp, Hillary Clinton has announced a revamped education plan that would make public colleges tuition-free for all in-state students from families earning up to $125,000. Bernie Sanders has made free college tuition a major theme of his campaign and Clinton seems to have adopted his position after meeting with Sanders last month. Once again, this is another example of how Bernie's candidacy has helped pull Clinton to the left. And it also shows how correct Sanders is to keep his campaign going all the way to the convention. Holding off endorsing Clinton only enhances Sanders' leverage and if he can use that leverage to move Clinton in his direction, it will only be good for Clinton and the party. Earlier today, House Democrats actually booed Sanders when he didn't give a clear answer about when he was going to endorse Hillary. But this move by Clinton shows exactly why he hasn't. Now, I will definitely change my tune if Bernie still refuses to emphatically endorse Hillary after the convention. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Fox News' Ailes Sued By Former Host For Sexual Harassment

Are we seeing the end of Fox News' domination of right wing politics. First it was Donald Trump who took on Fox News directly with his attacks on Megyn Kelly and boycotting a Fox News debate. Not only did he survive after those attacks but he actually went on to win the Republican nomination without much support from network at all. And now Gretchen Carlson, former co-host of "Fox & Friends", has filed suit stating that the network had a sexist culture and, more explosively, that Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes sexually harassed her, suggesting she would be better off if she had an affair with him. Ailes has been the driving force and power at the network since its founding. These explosive allegations may not effect the aging Fox viewership all that much, but you do have to wonder how advertisers will react if more details emerge. I wouldn't be surprised if you see a relatively quick out of court settlement as Fox probably won't want to risk the potential damage dragging this out would do. But then that largely depends on what Gretchen Carlson wants to do.

Messi Convicted Of Tax Fraud - Why Did He Bother

Lionel Messi, Argentinian soccer start and arguably the best player in the world, and his father were both convicted of tax fraud by a Spanish court today. Messi was sentenced to 21 months but under Spanish law any term under two years can be spent on probation, meaning he will probably not do any jail time.  The case revolved around shell companies set up by his father to essentially hide nearly $5 million in income from Messi's image rights from Spanish tax authorities. Can I ask what exactly people like this are thinking? Messi has reportedly made about $350 million over the past ten years. Surely that should be enough to make sure he and his family are set for life. Other than greed or the idea that the rules just don't apply to them anymore, why would his father or he bother to try and hide a measly $5 million from tax authorities. It just defies understanding.

Republicans Gamble Future On Gerrymander And Voting Restrictions

One of the biggest reasons for the Republican party's increasing move to the right is the gerrymandering that they were able to exploit in the wake of the 2010 election and census not only at the federal level but also at the state level. In subsequent elections, there have been numerous cases where Democrats win nearly half the votes across a state yet still end up with a small legislative minority that is not nearly indicative of the votes they won. And because the US Senate gives so much weight and power to smaller states, Democratic Senatorial candidates can actually win 20 million more votes than their Republicans but still end up as a minority of 46 in that chamber.

With the success of Republican gerrymandering has also come increasing restrictions on voting. For this election year, 17 states will have enacted some sort of new restriction on voting, ranging from photo IDs, early voting cutbacks, and stricter registration requirements. Some of these changes are not trivial. For example, it is estimated that fully 9% of the electorate in Wisconsin, about 300,000 registered voters, do not have a photo ID that would be valid to vote. The Republicans in the state legislature openly admit that they believe these restrictions will hurt Democratic voters and help Republicans win elections. And, in the short term, they are probably right.

But as a long term strategy, this is doomed to failure. Republicans already lose the growing minority vote by significant margins and those minorities understand that these restrictions specifically target them. So Republicans are gambling an enormous amount on maintaining control of state legislatures. If and when they lose control, Democrats will lift these voting restrictions and the resulting flood of "new" Democratic voters will make things even more difficult for Republicans. Similarly, if that new Democratic legislature is able to redraw existing districts more equitably, that will put Republicans at an even greater disadvantage. Once the dam is broken, the floodgates will open. Republicans will become a small minority party and it will be a long, hard road to rebuild. And that may happen to Republicans sooner than they think.

Federer Rallies To Win Unbelievable 5 Set Thriller

Roger Federer came back from 2 sets down today to win a thrilling 5 set match against Marin Cilic. Federer was not really moving as well we all might be used to, but, after all, he is 35 now and coming off an injury plagued season that required him to miss the French Open. And he really wasn't serving that well either, giving Cilic lots of looks at his second serve. Cilic was serving well and really dominated the first two sets. In the third and fourth sets, Federer had a number of remarkable escapes on his serve, fighting off three match points and numerous potential match points, and gutted out an incredible 11-9 fourth set tiebreak. Going into the fifth, Federer had all the momentum and it seemd only a matter of time before Cilic cracked which he did at 3-4, allowing Federer to serve out the match. Another fantastic match from one of the great players of all time. And his reward for reaching the semifinals is to face another huge server, Milos Raonic, who overpowered Sam Querrey in four sets and is playing the best tennis of his career. It will take another big effort from Fed to win that one, especially after this grueling comeback.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Kansas Disaster Trickles Down To Its Roads

The disaster that is Kansas just keeps on growing and growing. It is now estimated that as much as $2 billion has been diverted from the Kansas Department of Transportation in order to help Kansas plug holes in its budget that the extreme experiment in supply-side economics has created under Governor Sam Brownback. This is equivalent tone year's worth of road funding for a state that has the fourth largest amount of public roads in the nation. This just adds to Kansas' woes that include brutal education cuts and a ratings downgrade that will raise the states borrowing costs, all in the name of tax cut ideology. Rural roads in Kansas were already in egregious shape, causing traffic fatalities at nearly four times the rate as other roads in the state, and these reductions will only make things worse in the coming years.

Australian Elections Still Unresolved

You may not have noticed but there was a national election in Australia on Saturday and, as of today, it is still not clear who has won enough seats to form a government. In fact, it may turn out that only a minority government could actually be formed with some of the smaller parties that have won under 20 seats which would probably pave the way for new elections sometime in the near future. There are still a handful of races to be determined and mail-in ballots are currently being counted but it appears the governing Liberal coalition is barely in the lead and looks the most likely to be able to form a government. Whatever happens, this election was a big win for the opposition Labor party led by Bill Shorten. He focused on the broken promises of the current government, especially with regard to Medicare, and also benefited from the unpopularity of former Liberal MP Tony Abbott, who was ousted in a leadership battle by Malcolm Turnbull, and the divisions that caused in the Liberal party. As the remaining ballots are being counted in an excruciatingly long process, the calls for electronic voting are increasing throughout the country. Finally, this is yet another example of recent elections that have basically been virtual ties, including the one in Spain earlier this year and the most recent Austrian election. It seems that the electorate everywhere is deeply divided.

Clinton Will Not Be Charged Re Emails

I kind of doubt that the FBI's recommendation that no charges are appropriate regarding Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server will put an end to this faux scandal once and for all. After all, the Republican obsession with making this into an impeachable offense has been going on for years now. They will harp on the fact that she gave top-secret information to our enemies because some of the emails contained classified material. And, of course, we'll have the new faux scandal of Bill Clinton's incredibly ill-timed and ill-considered "meeting" with the Attorney General to focus on. But as far as reality and the election goes, this is just another bonus for Hillary as the cloud of potential illegality is now removed.

More Brexit Fallout

The fallout from Brexit continues to build. The vote has triggered an almost total realignment in British politics. Yesterday, Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP and probably the biggest proponent of leaving the EU, resigned as party leader. Announcing his resignation, he said, "During the referendum campaign, I said ‘I want my country back’. What I’m saying today, is, ‘I want my life back,’ and it begins right now." Of course, he is actually leaving with unfinished business - Britain won't officially leave the EU until Article 50 has been invoked and there is no sign that that will happen before the fall. Like Boris Johnson, Farage has had to backtrack some of his claims made during the referendum such as the $350 million pounds that will be saved. And, like Johnson, it is clear that Farage really had no plan for moving forward beyond the referendum. The reasons for his departure are a bit unclear but it does seem the UKIP thinks they might be able to make further gains as a party with someone more moderate at the helm. But I'm not sure that is what UKIP supporters are looking for, nor is it guaranteed that the next leader will have the charisma and leadership qualities that made Farage and the party successful.

Meanwhile, the Labour party's self destruction continues apace as Angela Eagle she has the support of at least 51 Labour lawmakers needed in order to make a leadership challenge to Jeffrey Corbyn. Corbyn, who endured a vote of no-confidence last week, has refused to resign, feeling he still has the backing of the majority of Labour party members.  Apparently, negotiations are ongoing with the trade unions that financially back the Labour party to see whether Corbyn's exit could somehow be worked out. But that does not seem likely as Corbyn has vowed to still run of the leadership challenge is made. Eagle represents the more centrist elements within the Labour party who accuse Corbyn of not being aggressive enough in fighting to remain in the EU and do not believe that he can lead them to electoral victory in the future. With the swath of Labour supporters in the north of the country who voted to leave the EU either out of belief or as a protest vote against Cameron's policies, it is uncertain that this centrist bloc accurately represents the current Labour constituency. It is striking just how much David Cameron's referendum gambles have put the Labour party in an impossible position and led to its diminution as a party.  In both referenda, Labour took the high road and acted like the adults in the room, supporting both Scotland remaining in the UK and the UK remaining in the EU. And what did this get them. Their electoral stronghold in Scotland was obliterated by the Scottish National Party and now the traditional working class voters in England have seemingly abandoned the party and turned more towards the message embodied by UKIP. On the other hand, with the adoption of a lower threshold to joining, Labour has more members than at the height of Tony Blair's popularity and added over 60,000 new members in just one week. If and when the leadership challenge does come, it is these new Labour party members who will determine the course of the party in the years to come. The question will be whether the winner of that contest can keep the left and moderate wings of the party together.

The economic damage of Brexit is also starting to ripple through the economy. Yesterday, Standard Life Investments, a mutual fund that invests in the London property market, announced that it was suspending withdrawals from the $3 billion fund. Standard Life and similar funds had seen the value of their commercial property investments reduced by up to 5% in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. And it won't be long before the large number of foreign investors that have fuelled London's property market for years either stop buying or start to unload their London properties and move to Europe's other large cities in order to have easy access to the EU.

Finally, the plans that the Conservative government has for the British economy post-Brexit is also starting to take shape. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne proposed to reduce the corporate tax to 15%, making it the lowest of any major industrialized country. Of course, this is borne out of the necessity to somehow get businesses to remain in the EU and not migrate to the continent. It is doubtful that EU leaders will look on this too kindly, probably making the exit negotiations even more contentious. And it is hard to see how England is going to keep its economy growing simply by becoming a tax haven.

In the coming months, the damage from the Brexit vote will become even clearer and the pressure to find some way out of the current impasse between the will of the voters and financial reality will become even greater. It promises to be a long, hot summer in the UK.

Juno Enters Jupiter's Orbit

Just a few minutes before midnight last night, the signal finally came back from the Juno spacecraft indicating that the 35 minute engine burn was complete - Juno was now in Jupiter's orbit. Over the next year and a half, Juno will orbit the gas giant and provide data that should give scientists insight into the composition and formation of the gas giant as well as the creation of the early solar system.

We take these satellite investigations of our solar system for granted these days, but just reflect on the technological scope of what Juno has accomplished. It has taken 5 years and traveled nearly 2 billion miles in order just to get to Jupiter and then slowed itself down enough to be captured in the planet's orbit. And it did the journey on solar power.

Monday, July 4, 2016

More Thoughts On Fourth of July

On this day celebrating the founding of our country, we need to also remind ourselves of our country's remarkable achievements. I have taken the liberty of taking our top ten from Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones.


And if you're looking for reasons to be proud of America today, here's a quickie top ten list. Every country makes plenty of mistakes, and we've certainly made our share. But even taking our shortcomings into account, we've done an awful lot right:
  1. We have the most dynamic culture of entrepreneurship in the world.
  2. In the postwar era we have consistently supported free trade, often at our own expense.
  3. We were on the right side of history in the fight against fascism.
  4. We were on the right side of history in the fight against communism.
  5. We are on the right side of history in the fight against terrorism.
  6. We have the strongest protections of speech and religious freedoms in the world.
  7. We protect the world's sea lanes all but single-handedly.
  8. We are the most benign hegemon in world history.
  9. Even today, we accept and incorporate immigrants better than nearly any country in history.
  10. American science is the most vigorous in the world, to the benefit of nearly every person on the globe.

Thoughts on July 4th

Fear-mongering, racism, and xenophobia are what we are fighting today. But it is important to know that those strains have been powerful forces in this country since the days it was founded. I've republished below on Op-Ed piece in the New York Times today by historian Robert G. Parkinson that recounts the incidents at our country's founding that few of us probably have learned of or known about, but more of us should.


For more than two centuries, we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong. Or rather, we’ve been celebrating the Declaration as people in the 19th and 20th centuries have told us we should, but not the Declaration as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote it. To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.

The Declaration’s beautiful preamble distracts us from the heart of the document, the 27 accusations against King George III over which its authors wrangled and debated, trying to get the wording just right. The very last one — the ultimate deal-breaker — was the most important for them, and it is for us: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” In the context of the 18th century, “domestic insurrections” refers to rebellious slaves. “Merciless Indian savages” doesn’t need much explanation.

In fact, Jefferson had originally included an extended attack on the king for forcing slavery upon unwitting colonists. Had it stood, it would have been the patriots’ most powerful critique of slavery. The Continental Congress cut out all references to slavery as “piratical warfare” and an “assemblage of horrors,” and left only the sentiment that King George was “now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. What became the official version was one marked by division.
Upon hearing the news that the Congress had just declared American independence, a group of people gathered in the tiny village of Huntington, N.Y., to observe the occasion by creating an effigy of King George. But before torching the tyrant, the Long Islanders did something odd, at least to us. According to a report in a New York City newspaper, first they blackened his face, and then, alongside his wooden crown, they stuck his head “full of feathers” like “savages,” wrapped his body in the Union Jack, lined it with gunpowder and then set it ablaze.
The 27th and final grievance was at the Declaration’s heart (and on Long Islanders’ minds) because in the 15 months between the Battles of Lexington and Concord and independence, reports about the role African-Americans and Indians would play in the coming conflict was the most widely discussed news. And British officials all over North America did seek the aid of slaves and Indians to quell the rebellion.

A few months before Jefferson wrote the Declaration, the Continental Congress received a letter from an army commander that contained a shocking revelation: Two British officials, Guy Carleton and Guy Johnson, had gathered a number of Indians and begged them to “feast on a Bostonian and drink his blood.” Seizing this as proof that the British were utterly despicable, Congress ordered this letter printed in newspapers from Massachusetts to Virginia.

At the same time, patriot leaders had publicized so many notices attacking the November 1775 emancipation proclamation by the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, that, by year’s end, a Philadelphia newspaper reported a striking encounter on that city’s streets. A white woman was appalled when an African-American man refused to make way for her on the sidewalk, to which he responded, “Stay, you damned white bitch, till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.”

His expectation, that redemption day was imminent, shows how much those sponsored newspaper articles had soaked into everyday conversation. Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were essential in broadcasting these accounts as loudly as they could. They highlighted any efforts of British agents like Dunmore, Carleton and Johnson to involve African-Americans and Indians in defeating the Revolution.

Even though the black Philadelphian saw this as wonderful news, the founders intended those stories to stoke American outrage. It was a very rare week in 1775 and 1776 in which Americans would open their local paper without reading at least one article about British officials “whispering” to Indians or “tampering” with slave plantations.

This idea — that some people belong as proper Americans and others do not — has marked American history ever since. We like to excuse the founders from this, to give them a pass. After all, there is that bit about everyone being “created equal” in this, the most important text of American history and identity. And George Washington’s army was the most racially integrated army the United States would field until Vietnam, much to Washington’s chagrin.
But you wouldn’t know that from reading the newspapers. All the African-Americans and Indians who supported the revolution — and lots did — were no match against the idea that they were all “merciless savages” and “domestic insurrectionists.” Like the people of Huntington, Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere this weekend. It haunts us still.

Natural Weekends - Happy Fourth!!


Sunday, July 3, 2016

Dark Irony In Trump's Anti-Semitism And Elie Wiesel's Death

There is something very dark about the fact that Donald Trump's blatantly anti-Semitic tweet comes out on the very same day Elie Wiesel dies. It is frightening that a certain section of this country wants to return to the "good old days" of the 1950s with all its racism, anti-Semitism, gay-bashing, and misogyny. What's even more frightening is the intentional fueling of these hatreds by one of our major political parties. But Mr. Wiesel knew better than most that the battle against these dark forces must continually be fought - he spent his lifetime doing so.

Natural Weekends - Fireworks

Last night we had the local fireworks show in an early celebration of the Fourth: