Saturday, August 6, 2016

US Wins First Gold at Rio - For Shooting

The irony is a little bit hard to take but the first gold medal at the Rio games was won this morning in a shooting event - by an American, of course. 19 year old Ginny Thrasher won the gold in the 10-meter air rifle event.

Natural Weekends

Opening Ceremony At Rio Is Stunning And Powerful

The Olympic Games in Rio officially began last night with a pretty spectacular and beautiful opening ceremony, considering the supposedly limited budget the organizers were working with. The artistic vision and creativity of the folks who put these kind of huge extravaganzas together is quite amazing. The theme of the ceremony was to illustrate the history of Brazil from the creation of the rain forests to the modern day country that it is today. And, frankly, the story told was incredibly honest about the various influences that created the country, much more so than many other ceremonies have done so in the past. There were clear depictions of European settlers driving the indigenous tribes out, the importation and use of slaves, and the battles between rich and poor and among the diverse races and classes that make up  the country. And then there was the music. By the time the ceremony was starting to end, it looked like much of the stadium was on their feet, singing and dancing in the aisles.

And then the heresies began. First, in a depiction of what Brazilians claim was the first real flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft, Alberto Santos-Dumont took off in his self-designed and built 14-bis. The reality is that this was done in front of huge crowds in Paris in October, 1906 and was the first flight of its kind in Europe. Needless to say, this created a tweet-storm from outraged Americans pointing out that the Wright brothers were "First in Flight" based on the short flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. But, of course, as any proper resident of Bridgeport knows, the first flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft was actually made by our native son Gustave Whitehead in 1901 and 1902 and there are many contemporaneous accounts to support this claim.

But if you think questioning the Wright brothers' place in history created a firestorm, then nothing could compare to the final segment of the opening ceremony which was dedicated to the impact of climate change and showing ongoing efforts at replanting and reforestation to counter the threat. Using an animation that showed the increase in global temperatures, pictures of the shrinking Arctic ice cap, and projections of large parts of major global cities that will become underwater as the melting glaciers raise global sea levels, the segment was an incredibly powerful statement. And it obviously drove the climate change deniers absolutely crazy.

It was a beautiful and powerful opening ceremony. Now let the Games begin.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Ryan Tries To Walk Tightrope To 2020 Nomination

The polls keep on slipping away for the Trump campaign and other down-ballot races are also starting to look a little grim for Republicans. Polls in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and, in today's shocker, Georgia show Clinton with significant leads in what today looks like an electoral map wipeout for Trump. More importantly, Republican Senators in Illinois and Wisconsin are in serious trouble, Evan Bayh's entry into Indiana Senate race provides another opportunity for a Democratic pickup. In Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey is in a tight race with his Democratic challenger Katie McGinty. And the most recent poll in New Hampshire shows Republican Kelly Ayotte getting crushed by Democratic Maggie Hansen.

Yes, there is plenty of time for all these races to change in a big way before the November election. But we are now over one week away from the end of the DNC convention and all the polls show Republicans have a huge mountain to climb. And if Trump's poll numbers do not improve, it is going to be tough for Republicans to get out the vote on election day, hurting their chances in state and local races even more.

So you really have to wonder why Paul Ryan continues to condemn Trump's words but continues to support him. Hanging on to Trump as he goes down to a massive defeat, probably losing the Senate, and even possibly losing the House, would not make Ryan a popular guy with his fellow Republicans. I have no special insight into Ryan's thinking but let's take a couple of educated guesses about what his motivation might be. I guess I would start off with the assumption that Ryan desperately wants to become the Republican nominee in 2020. If Republicans lose the Senate but still maintain their grip on the House, then Ryan becomes the most powerful Republican left standing, providing a great position for him to set up his 2020 campaign.  In addition, he also probably knows that, with the changing demographics in this country, he will still need a lot of that core Republican group that supports Trump and the Tea Party. If he can walk this tightrope between condemning and supporting Trump, he can always point to the fact that he did not abandon Trump when he starts his 2020 campaign. This is a continuation of his rationale to take the thankless job of Speaker of the House to begin with. He knows that he needs the support of what the late Republican moderate Steve LaTourette called the 40 or so House members that "were not interested in governing" in order to pass Ryan's unpopular economic agenda. And he will need the support of those same members and their supporters to make any headway in 2020.

Of course, Ryan still has not been able to corral those Tea Party House members and has failed to meet most of his legislative agenda so far in this session. Perhaps, he might also have a slightly freer hand if some of those Tea Party members go down to defeat in Republican primaries, as happened to Tim Huelskamp. And there is certainly plenty of time for Ryan to pull his support for Trump, especially if things still look horrendous for Trump and the Republicans as we get closer to election day. That is why he keeps on giving himself an out with comments like "an endorsement is not a blank check".  On the other hand, he runs the risk of looking like he is just another pandering politician if he keeps this up too long. And the Republican base is not fond of those who pander as shown by Hannity's latest outburst decrying Ryan's insufficient support for Trump and conservative causes. But by far his greatest risk is that a massive Trump loss also sweeps Republicans out of control of the House and he loses his platform as Speaker. Right now, that seems like a risk Ryan seems willing to take.

Lost Stadium Keys May Be Metaphor For Rio Olympics

Tonight is the official opening of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio and these Olympics are probably like no other. The people of Brazil have made it clear they have no interest in hosting the Games, as best illustrated by the fact the Olympic torch relay was pelted with stones as it came near Rio. And most Games always have problems completing the infrastructure needed for such an event in a timely and less than shoddy manner. But Rio has managed to carry those issues to an extreme. From Zika, to polluted water for sporting events, to athletes' housing being unfit to live in, Rio has managed to set a new low for an Olympic venue. Of course, this is largely due to the collapse in Brazil's economy which was heavily dependent on the price of oil as well as significant political dysfunction in the government. But I don't think we've ever seen a situation where officials managed to lose the keys to the Olympic stadium and needed bolt-cutters to let spectators in. That may be the most appropriate metaphor for the entire Rio Olympics.

Let's hope that the athletes can help Brazil and the rest of us rise above it all. Forget the meaningless medal count and focus on those athletes who come from countries where there is virtually no support at all for sport. Just getting to the Games is an incredible accomplishment and for those athletes winning a medal, any medal, is the embodiment of the Olympic spirit. And, despite the disasters in Rio, it is those athletes we should be cheering and celebrating.

Bank Of England Tries To Head Off Recession

The dismal news on the British economy has forced the Bank of England to take some dramatic measures to ward off the oncoming recession caused by Britain's decision to leave the EU. The actions announced today constitute a four-pronged attack by the Bank. First, the Bank cut interest rates in half, from 0.50% to 0.25%, marking the first time in Bank's over 300 year history that the rate has been set so low. Second, it promised an additional 60 billion pounds for its quantitative easing program which tries to lower yields by purchasing bonds. It also enacted another 100 billion pound program to help banks provide cheap loans to UK businesses. And, in a somewhat controversial act, it also pledged to buy 10 billion pounds of corporate debt from those "making a material contribution to the UK economy". The controversy will, of course, center on who actually makes that decision and how the decision will be made. The Bank also announced a severe contraction in its growth forecasts for the UK economy for 2017 and 2018. The new growth forecast for 2017 is 0.8%, barely more than one-third of the pre-Brexit estimate of 2.3%.

Governor Mark Carney made it clear that he expects banks to pass on the savings in the reduced interest rates and new lending plan to consumers and businesses, but there is no guarantee that the banks will comply. That has always been one of the huge issues that central banks have had in trying to stimulate the economy in a low-investment environment. Initially, it appeared, most, but not all, variable rate mortgage rates had taken the rate cut into account. Carney also did not rule out further rate cuts or other measures in the near future if the economic situation continued to deteriorate.

This was about as strong a move as the Bank could make. The stock market rose and the pound fell slightly after the announcement. The next move now is clearly with the May government to see what kind of fiscal stimulus they will add to the economy sometime this fall. If the economic numbers continue to sink, the pressure for a significant stimulus will only grow.

Strong Employment Report Gives Ammunition To Fed Hawks

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the July unemployment numbers this morning and the report showed yet another month of strong job growth. Employment increased by 255,000 and the prior two months' numbers were adjusted up by a combined total of 18,000 jobs. The unemployment rate maintained at 4.9%. And, importantly, hourly earnings increased at an annualized rate of 4%. This was well above the consensus forecast of around 185,000 jobs and once again showed continued strength in the labor market.

A poor jobs number in May seemed to dampen enthusiasm for a rate hike by the Fed anytime this summer. But the last two months of very strong employment results makes it clear that May was an anomaly and that the employment situation will not be a great concern to the Fed in the short term. Unfortunately, these strong reports, and especially the hourly earnings increase, will provide a little more ammunition to the hawks at the Fed who will want to see rates rise sooner rather than later. The next meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will be on September 20-21 so it will be interesting to listen for any comments from Fed members between now and then.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Astronomy Adventure - Great Seeing and Poor Picture of Saturn

Last night was one of the best "seeing" nights we've had around here in a long time. I live just within the limits of a city of around 150,000 and the light pollution is pretty bad. In addition, the humidity here in the Northeast and my proximity to Long Island Sound also contributes to some poor seeing. But last night was absolutely crystal clear - so clear you could actually see the contours of the Milky Way, which is a real rarity around here. My lovely wife was kind enough to indulge me and get me a new 6.3mm lens and, combining that with the 3x Barlow, I was able to get a magnification of around 240x. I could clearly see the Cassini division in Saturn's rings and finally saw a little detail on Mars. I was also able to get great views of the many open clusters around Sagittarius, Scutum, and Serpens, in addition to a decent view of the Lagoon and Swan nebulas. Sadly, I just didn't have the energy to get the camera set up and get some photos. But here is a photo of Saturn that a took a few days before at 240x when the conditions were actually pretty lousy:

Trump Becomes Litmus Test For Ideological Conservatives

Following up on my earlier post about the ideological strains contributing to the collapse of the Republican party, it is beginning to look like the Trump campaign is becoming the litmus test for down-ballot Republican races. Conservative ideologues are incredibly lining up behind Trump and taking on more moderate Republicans who are playing the "yes, but" game with Trump. Many conservative challengers are running on the very fact that that their primary opponent is not giving a full-throated endorsement to Trump. I'm not sure that this will be a winning strategy for the conservatives as Trump's negatives are so high and his poll numbers are shockingly low. More importantly, Trump's positions on many issues is decidedly not the conservative position. It will be interesting to see how these primary results shake out, but I wouldn't be surprised if the conservatives end up a diminished influence in the party.

More Bad News For Post-Brexit British Economy

The disaster of the Brexit vote in Britain continues apace as the latest consumer confidence survey dropped 11 points, it sharpest one month drop in over 25 years. The survey covered the month of July. Combine this with the largest drop of the Purchasing Managers Index in the history of that survey and it looks almost certain that Britain will be headed for recession. And with numbers like these, it will take more than a small rate cut or a small stimulus boost from the government. Theresa May has already conceded the end of austerity, but she may be forced to a much greater stimulus than she or the Conservatives would like. And the pressure from business and consumers to end the uncertainty over the break from Europe will continue to build. I know I probably sound like a broken record on this last point but I just don't see how you can delay invoking Article 50 as the economy collapses. May is either going to have to somehow abandon Brexit or start getting on with it.

Climate Change Revives Anthrax In Siberia

I've been highlighting the tremendous progress on renewable energy on this blog, but have shied away from commenting on the devastating effects that climate change is already having on our planet. It is just simply too depressing to cover. From the bleaching of coral on the Great Barrier Reef to the new record temperatures being set virtually every month, it is just worse news piled on top of bad news. And it is clear that nothing will stop this process from continuing for the foreseeable future. In a sign of just how bad things will become, it appears that the Siberian tundra is starting to melt, potentially releasing massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. It also appears that long-dormant bacteria are also coming back to life as the tundra begins to melt. Anthrax has appeared for the first time in about 75 years in western Siberia, killing thousands of reindeer and infecting at least dozens of humans. Sadly, this may be what the future looks like. And Republicans still live in denial about climate change.

GOP Falling Apart Is Not Just Trump, It's Ideological Too

The disintegration of the Republican party continues. And it's not just Donald Trump's campaign that's doing the damage, although two other sitting Republican House members, Charlie Dent and Adam Kinzinger have joined Richard Hanna in saying they will not vote for Trump. It is also increasingly looking like Republican voters have finally had enough of the hard-core ideological right wing of the party if the primary votes in Kansas are any indication. Tea party favorite Representative Tim Huelskamp badly lost his primary battle against Roger Marshall, primarily because Huelskamp's demands for ideological purity antagonized party leaders so much that he lost his seat on the Agriculture Committee. He compounded that by then voting against a major farm bill, citing his conservative purity once again. That proved to be political suicide when representing a farm district. On the state level, eleven conservative supporters of Governor Sam Brownback lost their primaries to more moderate Republicans and there were a handful more races that were still undecided but leaning toward the moderates.

Kansas may be a unique situation as Governor Brownback's dedication to supply-side tax cuts had decimated Kansas, creating massive budget deficits which resulted in sever budget cuts to schools, road maintenance, and cut other state agency budgets by 4%. He had promised a "red state model" that was supposed to create more jobs and increased revenue by cutting taxes, just as supply-side theory maintains. The reality, of course, is quite different. The tax cuts fueled huge deficits resulting in massive budget deficits and then massive budget cuts. And the jobs never materialized, perhaps because not many businesses want to move into an economy that's collapsing. That has always been the fate of every implementation of the supply-side theory but this time, thanks to Brownback's insistence of ideological purity and continuing with his plan in the face of its failure, the theory should be put in the dustbin of history once and for all. And it appears that even Republicans in Kansas have come to that conclusion.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Clinton, Press Must Pound Trump Daily On Taxes

Donald Trump's campaign may be disintegrating before our eyes and there are even unsubstantiated rumors today about Trump withdrawing from the race, but I'll believe that when I see it. But I believe the Clinton campaign and the press really need to pound on Trump's refusal to release his tax returns and this needs to be done on a daily basis. I know this is hard because Trump creates so much chaos and so many new lines of attack every single day. For the Clinton campaign, it is simply good politics as the release of his taxes may provide some insight into who his investors really are as well as quite probably showing, like Mitt Romney, what a low rate of tax he actually pays. But for the press and the country, the stakes are much higher. Because if Trump is allowed to get away with not releasing his taxes, there will be no incentive for future candidates to do the same. There is no requirement to release your taxes - it is simply that, after Watergate, it was simply unacceptable not to do so. The pressure from the press and electorate was just too great and the refusal to do so was looked upon as having something so egregious to hide that you would not be fit for President. That may very well be the case with Donald Trump. But allowing him to go all the way through to November without paying an enormous price on an almost daily basis would set the precedent for future nominees to also avoid releasing their taxes. And that would be another blow to democracy here in the US.

Foreign Nationals Use Citizens United To Fund US Campaigns

Once again, it appears that the Supreme Court has not fully understood the far-reaching effects that some of their decisions would have. The rollback of the Voting Rights Act unleashed a wave of voting restrictions, many of which have been shown to primarily target minority voters and have been subsequently rule unconstitutional. And Citizens United has added an exponential amount of money into the political system, sometimes getting results and other times getting nothing. As Kevin Drum points out, one of the biggest complaints against Citizens United was that it would allow foreign money to flow into US political campaigns. When Obama mentioned this in a State of the Union message, Justice Alito could be seen mouthing the words "not true" when he heard that. Unfortunately, Alito is wrong. Today, the Intercept detailed how a Chinese owned company was able to funnel over $1 million to Jeb Bush's Right to Rise Super Pac through a US subsidiary. There are a number of hoops that needed to be jumped through including that fact that the political donations must come out of the earnings of the US entity, thereby eliminating the use of just a shell company. But the fact is, it can be done. And you can be sure that, if the Chinese were able to do it, there are a flood of others who are lining up to do the same thing. Please read the whole article for all the sordid details. It is yet another example that we need a ninth Supreme Court justice - Merrick Garland is still waiting for a simple hearing - and justices that understand the ramifications of the decisions they make.

Good Turnout At Bridgeport Council Meeting

The turnout at the Bridgeport City Council meeting was quite large, certainly smaller than the last meeting, but still large enough to reflect a high degree of anger about the property tax hike. The business of the Council lasted all of 10 minutes and then the floor was given over to the public. Dave Walker and Pete Spain once again made the case for an independent financial control board to manage the city's finances. I'm not sure I agree with Mayor Ganim on much, but, like him, I would oppose this move. Turning over the city's finances to an independent board that does not answer to voters may seem like the quick and easy solution, and it might very well be. But it is totally anti-democratic. The way to move Bridgeport forward is to ensure citizen involvement in all areas of the city. Right now, this tax protest is coming from the wealthier residents in the city who have been hurt the most by the tax increase. If they could somehow merge that movement to address the concerns of other areas of the city, that would lead to the real changes Bridgeport needs.

GOP Defections To Clinton Begin

The defections from the Republican establishment are starting to come. Today it is my old school classmate Meg Whitman who had not only come out and endorsed Clinton but also agreed to raise money for her. Whitman said, "Time and again history has shown that when demagogues have gotten power or come close to getting power, it usually does not end well." She also said she would campaign with Clinton and reach out to other traditional GOP donors on behalf of Clinton. Another somewhat less prominent Republican, Maria Comella, a longtime aide to Chris Christie in addition to running his Presidential campaign, also announced she would be supporting Clinton. This is even more surprising because Christie has so clearly hitched his wagon to Trump. And yesterday Richard Hanna became the first Republican House member to come out and say he would vote for Clinton.

I expect the Republican defections will continue and those who come out early in support of Clinton will actually be in a much stronger position to help build the Republican party than those in the "yes, but" camp that continue to support Trump. Perversely, Obama's strong condemnation of Trump yesterday and his call for responsible GOP leaders to repudiate Trump may make it even harder for elected Republican leaders to stop backing Trump. Anything that remotely looks like caving into Obama is met with fury by the hard-core Republican primary voters. But sticking with Trump may be even more damaging for those leaders in the longer run.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Trump Won't Support Ryan, McCain, Or Ayotte

Well, I guess I was wrong and Trump really is going after Paul Ryan. Earlier today, he specifically refused to support Ryan by using almost the exact same words that Ryan used earlier before he endorsed Trump, saying, "I'm not quite there yet." This comes after Trump had words of praise for Ryan's primary challenger. This is the thanks that Ryan gets for actually supporting Trump. On the other hand, Ryan really has only himself to blame for playing footsie with Trump for a while before finally endorsing him. As Trump has shown time and time again, he only believes in dominance and, having achieved that position, he has no qualms about ridiculing those he has dominated. Just ask Chris Christie. Khizr Khan knows this, but apparently Republicans just can't see it. Trump also included John McCain and embattled Senator Kelly Ayotte in the group that he is not ready to endorse. As I keep on saying, the pressure is going to continue to grow on Republican leaders to withdraw their support from Trump and sabotaging fellow Republicans will only increase that pressure from both inside and outside the party.

Zika Cases Grow But GOP Leaders Feel No Urgency To Act

I don't imagine the people of South Florida are too happy with the Republican-led Congress these days. As new reports of an expanding number of Zika cases come in and the CDC issues a travel advisory for a community north of Miami, Congress remains in recess until after Labor Day. President Obama had asked for nearly $2 billion to fight the virus earlier this year but the Senate passed a bill that appropriated a bit more than half that amount and the House version was nearly half of the Senate's. After weeks of wrangling a $1.1 billion bill that was loaded up with toxic amendments ranging from contraception and Obamacare to the Confederate flag, of all things, was unable to pass and Congress adjourned for the summer having appropriated nothing to fight Zika. The administration acted by moving over half a billion dollars from efforts to fight Ebola to the Zika fight but that money will run out this month and any progress on vaccines or other Zika-fighting measures will be stopped or slowed.

Meanwhile, the number of Zika cases in Florida pales in comparison to the explosion of cases in Puerto Rico. And it will only get worse on the island troubled by economic collapse, distrust of the government's chaotic response to the virus, and an apparent lack of urgency among the population.

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell continue to insist that there is no hurry for Congress to address the issue and point to the couple of hundred million dollars that was transferred from Ebola that has still not been spent. But as the money starts to run out this month and the virus continues to spread, especially in the continental US, that position will become harder and harder to defend as will their lack of action in providing the funds necessary to fight this virus earlier in the year. After all, the course of this virus was predicted a long time ago and everyone knew the day was coming when it would reach the United States. But, as usual these days, the dysfunction in the Republican party kept the responsible thing from being done and the people of the United States will suffer the consequences.

Obama Goes For Trump Jugular

President Obama came right out and said it today: "Donald Trump is unfit to serve as President." And he then increased the pressure on GOP leaders to withdraw their support and endorsement for Trump. "If you are repeatedly having to say, in very strong terms, that what he [Trump] has said is unacceptable, why are you still endorsing him. What does this say about your party that this is your standard bearer." As I mentioned before, the calls on responsible Republican leaders to repudiate Trump will only get stronger and their "yes, but" position will no longer be a viable option. Watch Obama's whole statement below:

Weak GDP, Higher Wage Growth Adds To Fed's Conundrum

It's been a busy few days and I'm just starting to catch up on some stories of importance. On Friday, the Commerce Department released its preliminary estimate of second quarter GDP and it was a rather disappointing result. GDP increased by only 1.2%, less than half of the 2.6% increase that the consensus forecast had predicted. In addition, the first quarter GDP was revised down from 1.1% to 0.8%. Consumer spending was a particular bright spot in the report increasing at an unsustainable rate of 4.2%. The GDP number was reduced by 1.1% due to the reduction in inventories. The usual spin is that this reduction of inventories will be offset by replenishing those stocks later in the year, thereby increasing future GDP. This was a pretty anemic report, especially with the reduction in the first quarter GDP number.

On the other hand, workers are finally seeing some real increase in wages as the latest BLS Employment Cost Index showed an increase of 0.6% in compensation for latest quarter. Inflation adjusted real wage growth is now back to levels last seen before the Great Recession, increasing by 1.3% over the past year. Combined with the increase in hourly earnings seen in the last few unemployment reports and the Atlanta Fed's Wage Growth Tracker, these number indicate that workers wages are finally rising and that the slack in labor demand may finally be diminishing.

June's excellent unemployment report and the Fed's recent statement that the near-term risks to the economy had diminished has put a fall rate hike back in play for the Federal Reserve. These indicators of wage gains will probably also add some pressure to act as well. On the other side, falling interest rates and indicators of low future inflation as well as the pretty poor GDP numbers provide a counter-argument to any rate hike. The employment report at the end of this week will be another number that the Fed and the markets will be watching closely. With few other indicators showing the economy is seriously heating up, it would be nice if the Fed continued to allow wage growth to increase without feeling the need to raise rates. There is no indication that we are entering anything close to the wage-price spiral of the 1970s and workers wages have along way to go before they recoup the losses of the last few years. It would be a real mistake to cut these wage gains off with a rate hike - the workers of the country deserve no less.

Trump Praises Ryan's Primary Challenger

Donald Trump probably doesn't have any idea who Paul Nehlen is because the other option is even worse to contemplate. Trump gave a twitter boost to Nehlen thanking him for his words of support for Trump in his running battle with Khizr Khan and his stance on immigration. The problem for Trump is that Paul Nehlen is a Tea Party Republican who is challenging Paul Ryan in the GOP primary in Wisconsin. Whether knowingly or not, having the Presidential candidate express support for the primary challenger of the Speaker of the House from his own party is probably unprecedented in modern American history. It is yet another barrier in the norms of governance that Trump and GOP have managed to shatter. And you just have to wonder how long Ryan will denounce Trump's words and actions while still supporting him after something like this.

Khizr Khan, Joseph Welch, And The Republican Party

For those of you too young to remember, Joe McCarthy was a Senator from Wisconsin back in the 1950s who built his career by being a shameless demagogue and exploiting the fear of Communism. In 1950, he claimed to have a list of over 200 Communist Party members who were working in the State Department. A subsequent investigation found no such thing. But that didn't stop McCarthy and in 1953 he became head of the Senate Committee on Government Operations which allowed to continue his witch hunts that cost over 2,000 people their jobs despite the lack of any real evidence against them. He then expanded his search for Communist subversives into the armed forces and this time those hearings were broadcast on television, which proved to be McCarthy's downfall. Like Trump today, McCarthy attacked witnesses and tried to bully them into submission. But the end came when the general counsel for the Army, Joseph Welch, stood up to McCarthy, thundering, "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" McCarthy endured as long as he did because fellow Republicans refused to stand up to him, even though they privately opposed him and his hearings. President Eisenhower also acquiesced, saying, "I will not get in the gutter with this guy". But Joseph Welch put an end to McCarthy's bullying once and for all.

Today, it looks very much like Khizr Khan is playing Joseph Welch to Donald Trump's McCarthy. Khan's speech at the Democratic Convention where he asked if Donald Trump had even read the Constitution and then offered to lend Trump his copy so he could read about liberty and the equal protection of the law was one of the most powerful moments of the four day event. And Khan followed that up by asking, "Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America -- you will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities.
You have sacrificed nothing and no one." Needless to say, a narcissist and a bully like Trump could not let this attack stand. He accused Khan of muzzling his wife who was silent at his side during his speech. Khan's wife responded in an editorial about her still uncontrollable grief over having lost her son in Iraq, saying she could not speak about it without breaking down. Khan added that Trump's lack of respect for a Gold Star mother like his wife showed he had a dark soul that could not be trusted with the Presidency. And he called out Republican leaders, in particular Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, to repudiate Mr. Trump, saying, "I am saying to them that this is your moral duty — and history will judge you. . . . This will be a burden on their conscience for the rest of their lives."

Trump and his advisors still will not give up this ridiculous fight. Trump claims that Khan opposes him because he wants to crack down on all those radical Islamic terrorists who are apparently streaming into our country and his surrogates have suggested that Mr. Khan is a secret agent for the Muslim Brotherhood or some other Islamic terrorist group. Of course, as with all things Trump, those accusations are patently false. Perhaps the best note came from another Trump surrogate who claimed that Donald had "sacrificed" two marriages due to all the hard work he did building his business, as if this somehow equated with parents losing a son defending our country.

Trump's attacks on the Khan family have even inspired the anger of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and veterans in Congress are calling out Ryan and McConnell to not only repudiate Trump's statements but withdraw support for the candidate. The pressure on all those Republicans who say "yes what Trump says is despicable, but I still support the nominee" will continue to build until it is no longer a viable position. Already, at least one prominent Republican House member, Richard Hanna, has now come out and said that Trump is a total embarrassment and that he will be voting for Hillary Clinton. I would venture to guess that there will be a few more who will join him by the end of this campaign.

The Republican party has completely gone off the rails - the reasons for that will have to wait for another post. But it is currently being led by a narcissistic, egomaniacal bully who thinks only of his own gain and interest. He is enabled by party leaders who have turned a blind eye or, worse, given a knowing wink to appeals to America's worst instincts in order to further their own political power and careers. The party's propaganda arm, Fox News, has been run by a serial sexual predator. It is long past time for Republican leaders, Romney, the Bushes, McCain, Ryan, McConnell, and other elected representatives to forcefully repudiate Trump and withdraw support from their nominee. It may be the only way for them to save the Republican party as they know it. As Khizr Khan so clearly states, "this is your moral duty...and history will judge you".

Voter ID Law Blocked In North Dakota

Another voter ID law has just been blocked by a federal judge, this time in North Dakota. A US District judge issued an injunction against North Dakota's voter ID law, concluding it created "substantial and disproportionate burdens" for Native American voters in that state. This decision adds to three earlier decisions in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Kansas that also blocked new, restrictive voting laws and adds to the wave of victories for voting rights advocates lately.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Bridgeport City Council Meeting Tonight

Tonight there is another City Council meeting for the city of Bridgeport. The last meeting was overflowing with citizens irate about the latest property tax increases. Tonight will be a test to see whether that anger and engagement will continue or whether it was a one and done. Hopefully for the city, the turnout will be strong. While I may not agree with Citizens Working for a Better Bridgeport, relentless citizen engagement can only help turn this city around.

Trump is a Congenital Liar; Hillary Is Not

Donald Trump is a congenital, pathological liar. It is an almost impossible, Herculean task to monitor Trump's daily outpouring of factually incorrect statements. And that does not even include his bigoted ravings. The big whoppers of this past weekend included his claim that he was being sarcastic about having Russia hack Hillary's emails, that the NFL complained to him about the debate schedule, that Hillary set the debate schedule, and that he has no relationship with Putin despite his prior claims he spoke to Putin many times and developed a good rapport. That's just the tip of the mountainous iceberg of his lies. Yet the press seems to merely act as stenographer when it comes to Trump's lies. I heard it dutifully reported on NPR and on MSNBC that Trump's call for Russian hackers was sarcastic, according to the candidate. Everyone who saw that press conference is well aware that it is a lie.

On the other hand, the press had already written the script for Hillary Clinton over 20 years ago with the bogus Whitewater and Vince Foster investigations. And the script calls her a continual liar, jumping on any misstatement or shading of the truth as an example of her inability to be straight with the American people. In fact, the opposite is more probably the truth - Hillary lies far less frequently than most politicians. And now there is a study to show that. Courtesy of Kevin Drum and Politifact comes an analysis of the fact-checked history of recent candidates:

As you can see, Hillary manages to be somewhat truthful in her statements over 70% of the time. And the Donald, - he can barely say anything that is even remotely truthful, managing to AVOID the truth nearly 70% of the time. Does anyone think that this will change anyone's minds or shape the ongoing coverage that each of these candidates receives. Me neither. But, at some point, the press may want to look at how and why they enable a pathological liar and denigrate someone who mostly tells them the truth.

Lourie Luhn Describes Roger Ailes' Sickening Abuse

For anyone who might think that Roger Ailes was just a throwback and only engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior that was common during the "Mad Men" times of the sixties and seventies, please read NY Magazine's account of the experience of Laurie Luhn. Ailes' abuse of her lasted more than 20 years and involved much more than demanding she wear dresses to show off her legs or making improper comments. It was forced sex, including sadomasochistic sessions, and psychological abuse. And Fox executives were apparently well aware of what was happening and did nothing to stop it. In fact, there were numerous FORs, Friends of Roger, who had amorphous jobs and were strictly on the payroll to service him. It is a disgusting portrait of a truly sick man who wielded almost dictatorial powers with Fox News.

Voting Rights Victories In North Carolina, Wisconsin, And Kansas

The ruling in by an appeals court on Friday tossing out North Carolina's voter ID law is a huge win for voting rights and may help Democrats win that state in November's elections. That ruling was followed later in the day by another from Wisconsin that also ruled portions of that state's voter ID requirements unconstitutional. Wisconsin, like North Carolina, may also be a hotly contested state come the fall. And in Kansas, a county judge has issued an injunction preventing the state from setting up a dual voter registration program, one that complied with federal law and a much stricter version that would only apply to state elections.

The North Carolina ruling was particularly pointed, saying the law's provisions "target African-Americans with almost surgical precision." In fact, lawmakers requested data on voting behaviors based on race and then crafted the law to target the behaviors that were more likely to be used by African Americans. It invalidated IDs and early voting times that were predominantly used by African Americans and eliminated early voting periods when they were most likely to vote. "Thus, in what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race — specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise," the judges write in their decision."

Voter ID laws and other voting restrictions are basically the modern equivalent of a poll tax or literacy test that was used to restrict minority voters for decades. The entire idea is to make it as difficult as possible for various sectors of the electorate to vote. In this case in North Carolina, the clear racial discrimination used in creating the law might make the Supreme Court re-think their decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Perhaps that case might be re-heard if we ever get a ninth Supreme Court justice.

The End Of Austerity

It was exceptionally notable that budget deficits, rising national debt, and "runaway" government spending barely got a mention in Donald Trump's or Hillary Clinton's acceptance speeches. These areas have been articles of faith for Republicans for the last 40 years and centrist Democrats like Hillary have often joined in that chorus. But Donald Trump merely mentioned the doubling of the national debt under President Obama and pointedly did not follow that up with any pledge to reduce it. Hillary Clinton never mentioned these issues directly at all, only saying her new programs would be paid for by increasing taxes on the 1%. The elimination of these issues from the campaign is a welcome relief as they were total red-herrings in the first place. Neither our debt or annual deficits are anywhere near the dangerous levels that the rhetoric surrounding these issues claimed. In fact, the fear that was created around deficits and debt only held the country back from recovering from the Great Recession more quickly.

In the United Kingdom, Theresa May has explicitly abandoned the Cameron/Osborne pledge to balance the budget by 2020 in the wake if the Brexit vote, although she apparently is still committed to that goal eventually. "We have not abandoned the intention to move to a surplus; what I have said is that we will not be targeting that at the end of this Parliament," the prime minister said. And there are already indications that the government will increase borrowing and spending, especially after the budget statement comes out at the end of this year. It appears they will try to finesse the two positions of vaguely supporting a balanced budget while increasing borrowing and spending by using a trick that excludes investment spending from the budget calculation.

At the IMF, a scathing internal report shows the lack of any substantive analysis with regards to the structural problems of a currency union without a political or treasury union and the bailouts and austerity imposed on Greece, Ireland, and Portugal were purely designed to save the currency union and bail out European banks. The fiscal multiplier of austerity was underestimated by a factor of five, and, especially in Greece, the country is no closer to reducing its unreasonable debt burden. The IMF apparently broke its own rules by allowing Greece to borrow from the IMF without any clear path to reducing its debt burden and repaying those loans, either through debt relief or currency devaluation. Due to the structure of the Euro, devaluation could not occur and debt relief was out of the question as it could create a panic run on the big European banks.  The IMF apparently got around this rule by slipping in a clause that voided this requirement if there was risk of systemic contagion. The IMF board was not aware of and never signed off on this clause, in clear violation of IMF rules. Non European member of the IMF board are especially furious as 80% of the lending from 2011 to 2014 went to dealing with the European crisis, leaving the impression that the European board members simply used the fund to bail out their banks and save the currency union.

The last remaining holdout for austerity these days is, of course, the Germans. But with yields on their bonds in negative territory and the possibility of at least some slowdown related to Brexit, pressure is starting to build on the Germans to re-think their position. It can only be good for all of Europe is they do so.

Weekend Golf Recap -PGA And Women's British Open

Jimmy, not Johnny, Walker won the PGA Championship yesterday at the rainy and soggy Baltusrol Golf Club, shooting a bogey-free 4 under par 67 to beat world #1 Jason Day by a shot. It was a long day for Walker as he had to play 36 holes to complete his victory. Walker led wire to wire and became another first-time major winner, as had been the case in all three prior majors this year. With the soft conditions, the golfers were just pin hunting on every hole but the moist greens somehow did not yield as many birdies as you would expect, given the conditions. Walker holed out a chip shot on the 10th to take a two stroke lead, made birdie at 11 to keep that lead intact, and held what seemed like a comfortable 3 shot lead as he teed off on 18. But Day made a fantastic eagle at the par 5 finishing hole to cut the deficit to just one shot, putting the pressure on Walker to make par, which he did with a nervy 3 footer to seal his first major victory.

On the other side of the pond, Ariya Jutanugarn won the Women's British Open, becoming the first player from Thailand to win a major. She started the day with a two shot and lead and seemed on her way to an easy victory as she extended that margin to five, but a double-bogey on 13 cut her lead to a single shot. She held her nerve and birdied 17 and cruised home to win by three shots. Asian golf has taken off in an unbelievable way, especially on the women's side. And a win by a Thai will only give a bigger boost to golf in that are of the world.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Natural Weekends - Ospreys And Herons

PGA Is All Wet

The PGA Championship, golf's final major of the year, will wrap up today, weather permitting. The tournament usually takes place in the middle of August but was moved up a couple of weeks in order not to conflict with golf at the Olympics, which many of the top players have opted to skip for various reasons including the fear of Zika. Most of yesterday's round was rained out and the forecast for today and tomorrow is for showers so with a bit of bad luck this tournament may not end until Tuesday. Tournament directors were criticized by the press for not doubling up the tee times (starting players on holes 1 and 10) yesterday in order to get the full third round completed before the expected rains came, but that would have meant the round would have finished around 3pm. The money and TV demands for filling that Saturday afternoon and early evening time slot with championship golf meant that the split-tee option was never going to happen, despite the press criticism. But, because of the washout yesterday, the PGA has decided not to re-pair the groups by score as they usually do but to keep the same pairs that started the third round. This puts certain players, who may be in contention after good third rounds, in the unusual position of playing their fourth round while other contenders or leaders are still playing their third rounds. This is somewhat reminiscent of the debacle at the US Open this year when the USGA informed the leader Dustin Johnson that he may be assessed a penalty based on a review after the round, leaving Johnson and his contenders unsure of what the leading score actually was. Today, that same situation will apply to a large portion of the field. As of this writing, the third round is being completed and world #1 Jason Day is currently the leader with British Open winner Henrik Stenson in contention. It promises to be a long day, or perhaps days, of golf for whoever the eventual winner will be.