Saturday, November 19, 2016

So Tired Of Being Adult - Time To Go Low

Somewhere on the blogosphere yesterday I saw a petition designed to encourage the current members of the technocratic government bureaucracy to stay in their jobs and not resign in protest against the racist, xenophobic Trump presidency. The obvious thinking behind this well-intentioned petition is that the country will need a relatively decent functioning bureaucracy that could perhaps resist some of the probably illegal or immoral acts the Trump administration will end up taking. Then later in the day, I read about all the Senate Democrats who sang a constant refrain about their "concern" with Jeff Sessions appointment as Attorney General, a man with a history of racist rhetoric, but a willingness to give him a "full and fair" hearing.

I understand the rationale behind both of these positions. I understand that the Trump administration is so lacking in governmental experience that the country will need as many competent bureaucrats as it can get. And I understand that Republicans have the votes to get Sessions through the Senate no matter what the Democrats do, so we might as well act reasonably.

But I am so tired of Democrats having to be the adults in the room as the Republicans set about destroying our norms of governance and destroying our democracy. Obama always remained the adult in the room even as the GOP questioned his heritage and blocked his appointments and legislation simply because they were his. Democrats accepted George Bush's election in 2000 because we were the adults in the room and mistakenly rallied behind Bush after 9/11 because we believed America needed to be unified. Democrats voted for TARP and the stimulus because we were the adults in the room and knew the economy needed saving. Democrats accepted the fact that Republicans refused to give Merrick Garland a hearing, breaking all norms, because Republicans were in control of the Senate and that's the way the Senate works. We have had two elections basically stolen from us in the last 16 years, one by the Supreme Court and one by James Comey, and we move on for the good of the country. And what does all this adult behavior get us? A racist, xenophobic, Putin-loving Donald Trump.

Josh Marshall has long held what he calls the "dominance" view of American politics which he describes as "the inherent appeal of power and the ability to dominate others." I think it is high time for Democrats to quit being the adults in the room and engage in the same sort of dominance politics that the GOP has engaged in for the last quarter century. It may mean destroying some very old and worthy traditions, engaging in parliamentary sabotage or other extreme actions to disrupt effective governance. For example, perhaps we should create our own new rule which states that only a President who wins the popular vote can appoint Supreme Court justices. That really is no different from what Republicans did with Garland. We have to be prepared to go there. Yes, we are working from a position of almost total weakness. But that means we must use every weapon at our disposal, tradition or even responsible behavior be damned. We must make it clear to the American people that we will fight with every tool we have and some we haven't thought of against this un-American and undemocratic regime. The future or our republic may depend on it.

Another White Collar Settlement Without Any Admission Of Wrongdoing - This Time From Our Next President

Trump has apparently settled the Trump University fraud case for $25 million. According to the press release from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the settlement will provide restitution for the over 6,000 people defrauded and, in New York, an additional $1 million penalty for violating state education laws. However, as usual, Trump will agree to the settlement without admitting any wrongdoing. (You think the media might have wanted to spend more time exploring the potential next President's defrauding thousands of fellow citizens instead of EMAILS!)

It has become an almost daily occurrence that white collar crime essentially goes unpunished simply by paying a fine and admitting no wrongdoing, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Just on Thursday, we saw JPMorgan Chase pay a fine for bribing Chinese officials in clear violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. And again, there was no admission of wrongdoing. Wall Street has been getting away with this kind of slap on the wrist forever and it makes me sick. Yes, I understand in the Trump case the goal of the AGs is to get restitution for the victims and pursuing a criminal charge makes that more difficult, if not impossible. But those defrauded deserve more than just restitution. They have been inconvenienced or worse for years and deserve actual compensation for that disruption. For the offender, in this case Trump, it is merely the cost of doing business. At some point, however, you just have to say enough is enough and actually charge and convict these offenders.

Natural Weekends - Summer Leftovers

It's been a gorgeous few days and you can just feel that last bit of summer fading away. So this weekends photos are devoted to some of those summer pics that didn't get posted.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Executives Finally Criminally Charged In Pharma Fraud Scheme

Valeant, the high flying pharmaceutical stock that was Wall Street's favorite for years, has collapsed in a cloud of illegality. And today two executives associated with this collapse were actually charged with multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy. The fraud involved an executive at Valeant, Gary Tanner, and another at a mail order pharmacy called Philidor Rx Services, Andrew Davenport. In 2014, Valeant purchased an option to acquire Philidor but neglected to inform investors of that fact until a year later. Valeant then used a number of methods to direct business to Philidor and increase sales. One of those methods was apparently actually changing prescriptions to specify that a Valeant drug be used as opposed to another, cheaper alternative. Both sides benefited from this cozy arrangement as Valeant's sales increased and Philodor grew quite rapidly and began to make tens of millions of dollars after just starting up in 2013. Mr. Tanner was the person in charge of developing relationships with mail order pharmacies and directed Valeant's relationship with Pilidor, to the exclusion of others. In return for Tanner's help in steering Valeant's business to Philidor, Davenport kicked back $10 million of the $50 million that he had received via their scheme.

As Dean Baker points out, virtually every economist agrees that protectionist policies lead to corruption in the industries that are being protected. Drug patents work virtually like tariffs, raising the cost of the product. So it should be no surprise to economists to see this kind of corruption, although none were cited in the Times article. And it is nice to see a real executive finally criminally charged. Too bad that never happened with those Wall Street executives who destroyed the global economy and led to the rise of the right and Donald Trump.

Flynn's Appointment And Intelligence Sharing

With new National Security Adviser General Flynn's extensive ties to Russia, you have to wonder about how badly our intelligence-sharing with other allies will be effected. I'm sure there are a few countries who already felt burned by the way the British and the Americans twisted the intelligence in order to launch the ill-fated Iraq War, which is really the father of ISIS. And with the belief that US intelligence apparatus has apparently been infiltrated by Russian sympathizers, I would imagine that there will be quite a chill on our allies' intelligence agencies willingness to share certain key data with us. And, as we all know, one of the best methods for stopping terrorists is a coordinated and open intelligence sharing system between multiple countries. That will certainly continue in some areas but in others I have a feeling it will be shut down, threatening the traditional Western alliance and even relationships with those in Asia. And we may all end up being less safe because of it.

Obama Declares Trump Is Culmination Of Republican Party

President Obama summed up the bankruptcy of the modern Republican party in one concise statement in an interview with the New Yorker. "Donald Trump beating fifteen people said less about his skills and more about the lack of skills of the people he beat...Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years". One of the major parties in our country is now controlled by a racist and xenophobic supporter of Russia. And apparently very few members of that party have the willingness or the guts to stand against what their party has now become, either through fear for their own jobs, the raw desire for power, or, even worse, agreement in principle. The party has long stopped believing in democracy and now we will all pay the price for their cowardice, greed, and indifference.

The Brain Drain Begins As Trump Scares Away Foreign Students

Whatever happens during the Trump administration, and it will be horrendous, the damage done to America's reputation abroad already is catastrophic and long-lasting. Already, foreign students are re-thinking any decision to come to the United States for education. Today, the NY Times has an article that quotes students from around the world unsure of whether they really want to come to the US for their education. Said one student, "It’s the main topic of conversation among my friends. They don’t want to apply to the U.S. under Trump." Most of the foreign college students in the US come from India or China and they provide a significant tuition boost for some colleges. Many of the most successful foreign students have decided to stay in the US and build their careers here, providing a real benefit to our economy. In addition, other immigrants have brought their sons and daughters to this country to have them educated and many of those, especially Russian emigres, have become the engine of our new economy. Sergey Brin and Elon Musk are examples of foreign nationals who were educated here in the US. As Thomas Friedman pointed on Maher after the election, the next great inventor will not come to this country and we will see the impact of that a decade or two down the road. According to the Times' article, Canadian universities have seen a surge in applications in just the brief time since the election. Many Trump supporters will probably look at this as a feature of the Trump administration. But, in the end, it will reduce the already weak dynamism of our economy.

The UK is already experiencing this effect after its decision to exit the European Union. One university in Wales saw at least 100 applicants withdraw from the process immediately after the Brexit vote. It is expected that other universities are seeing similar reactions. But, for Britain, it is even worse than just the withdrawal of foreign students. Many joint UK-EU research projects are forcing the British academics to withdraw from those studies because of Brexit. And many EU students in Britain are planning to return to the EU after their studies are completed.

For both the UK and the US, the brain drain will be real and it will have a lasting impact. For the US, the unwillingness of foreigners to come to this country for education will not end when Trump leaves office. The world's view of America has changed forever and will taint the next generation of young people around the world for years to come.

Trump Fills Three Posts And Signals His Pro-Russian, Anti-Islamic, Anti-Immigrant Agenda

The first three appointments in the new Trump administration have been made and they are even worse than can be imagined, if that is possible. General Michael Flynn has been named National Security Adviser. He perfectly represents what we can expect from the Trump administration, a noxious combination of conflicts of interest, racism, xenophobia, and ignorance. Flynn has been receiving classified briefings since last summer while at the same time consulting for foreign companies and has also been feted in Moscow by the Russian propaganda network RT. Flynn has called Islam "a political ideology based on religion" and during the campaign retweeted a blatantly anti-Semitic remark. Finally, he seems to be an avid consumer of fake news. He has also supported the Muslim ban. Flynn was fired as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency a few years ago, reportedly for abusive and irrational management and it is reported that many current intelligence officers believe that Flynn is compromised by Russia and those officers have already prepared their letters of resignation. Those letters will probably soon be submitted as the National Security Adviser is not a position that requires Congressional approval.

For Attorney General, Trump has put forward Senator Jeff Sessions. Sessions is named after two Confederate heroes so his racial views will come as no surprise. Sessions' past racist comments scuttled his bid for a federal judgeship in the 1980s so it will be interesting to see how the Republican Congress reacts to him now during his confirmation hearings. I expect that we will hear that Trump is entitled to be able to fill his cabinet with people he would want which is a slight change from the GOP position with Obama. Sessions' past comments included statements such as calling black attorney who worked for him as US Attorney "boy", that the NAACP and ACLU were "un-American", "communist-inspired", and trying "force civil rights down the throats of people", and agreeing with the statement that a white lawyer defending a black man "was a traitor to his race". Needless to say, he supported the gutting of the Voting Rights Amendment by the Supreme Court and is a hardliner on immigration.

The final position filled was for CIA Director and Trump has nominated a Congressman from Kansas name Mike Pompeo. Right now, Pompeo seems to have the least objectionable background compared to Flynn and Sessions, which is not saying much, but his positions are certainly ominous. He opposed the nuclear deal with Iran, believes the NSA's broad monitoring of US citizens' communications is legal, and has accused American Muslim leaders of being complicit in crimes committed by other Muslims.

If these three are any indication, which they most definitely are, Trump is going all in on his anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant agenda and will definitely be cozying up to Putin and Russia. Funny, but that is exactly what he campaigned on and so many people did not believe he would actually follow through. For those that haven't already learned, they should know better now.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Trump Transition Is A Daily Dose Of Insanity And Evil

Is it possible to keep up with the daily dose of insanity coming from prospective members of the Trump administration. It is a barrage of racist, xenophobic, war-mongering rhetoric and a blatant lack of concern for many fellow Americans, much less fellow human beings. Here are three headlines from just today:

John Bolton, Top Contender For Secretary Of State, Calls For Regime Change In Iran

Every transition to a new administration has its own set of problems and sometimes names of some truly bad people pop up for important positions. But we have never known anything like the mainstreaming of views that are so repugnant to the values of our country in our lifetime. And, as I say, it is a barrage of bad and evil ideas every single day. We can only pray that none of these people end up in significant posts in the Trump administration but the fact that they are even being considered is frightening. And there is no way to accept that this is "normal".

Did Obama's Decisions On Mortgage Relief And Prosecuting Wall Street Spell Doom For Hillary

Steve Schale, the guru on elections in Florida, has written his post-mortem on what happened in that state on election night. In contrast to the early post-election analysis, it seems Clinton's problem was not so much that she did not bring the Obama coalition to the polls. It was more that Trump was able to overperform with his base. And, as usual, the Florida election came down to who won the I-4 corridor, the area between Tampa and Orlando. According to Schale, "In Florida, the basic rule winning is managing margins, particularly in suburban and exurban I-4. In 04, Bush did it and won. In 08 and 12, Obama won that battle. In 16, Trump did."

Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money has an interesting theory on why moderate Republicans in the I-4 corridor simply held their noses and voted for Trump. He says, "[G]iven that the Orlando and Tampa suburbs and exurbs won Florida for Trump, I wonder if Obama’s failure to provide substantial relief for people with foreclosed houses and failure to punish the malefactors had an important effect."

I think it will become more apparent over time that Obama's failure to provide mortgage relief for regular homeowners while at the same time bailing out the big banks and refusing to prosecute any Wall Street executives may have been the actual decisive points in Hillary Clinton's defeat. Yes, it appears that the appeal to white nationalism, sexism, and xenophobia may have helped drive some turnout for Trump. But Clinton's inability to capture the wealthier and educated suburban white voters may have been driven by decisions Obama made that were beyond her control. And, of course, we should never forget James Comey.

Regional Fed Chairman Has A Plan To Break Up The Big Banks

The Chairman of the Minneapolis Fed, Neel Kashkari, has come out with a bold plan to eliminate the too big to fail banks. Mr. Kahskari was previously known as the man who oversaw TARP and was a right-hand man to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson during the financial crisis. So he knows a thing or two about the big banks. Mr. Kashkari delivered a powerful indictment of current financial regulation to the Economic Club of New York, stating that there is still a nearly 2 out of 3 chance that big banks will need to be bailed out again some time in the future. His bold plan is basically to increase capital requirements to a such a level that the bank would either break itself up into smaller entities or almost be full protected from a crisis such as 2008. Specifically, he would force banks with over $250 billion in assets to nearly double the amount of equity issued to 23.5% from the existing requirement of 13%. His plan also eliminates the use of long-term debt as a capital cushion as the financial crisis showed that was not necessarily an effective buffer. Mr. Kashkari's also provided a subtle explanation of the success of Donald Trump when he said, "The bailouts violated a core belief that has been handed down from generation to generation in our society that if you take a risk you bear the rewards and consequences of that risk. We had to tear that up during the crisis because the biggest banks were going to fail and bring down the U.S. economy. And when you violate the core beliefs of society it does lead to anger and a feeling that this wasn’t fair."

There must be something in the water at the Minneapolis Fed. Mr. Kashkari's predecessor, Naryana Kocherlakota, began his tenure actually opposing the 2008 stimulus plan and was a monetary hawk. But, shortly into his tenure, he shifted his position almost 180 degrees and became a real dove on interest rates and, after leaving the Fed, a vocal proponent of fiscal expansion, saying that the country was wasting a golden opportunity to rebuild our infrastructure virtually for free. Mr. Kashkari's plan will probably go nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress and a Trump presidency. But it is a bold solution to the problem of the too-big-to-fail banks, a problem which is not only just the risk of another bailout but also the impunity with which the big banks break the law because they know they can not be shut down, as illustrated by the JPMorgan Chase bribery settlement today. It is a plan that the Democrats should support and run with. Not only it is a plan endorsed by a chairman of a regional Federal Reserve Bank but it will be provide a real counterpoint to the predicted Wall Street friendly actions of the Republican Congress.

Another Bank Avoids Criminal Prosecution For Admitted Illegal Actions

What a surprise. Yet another bank has been caught in clear violation of the law but has essentially bought its way out of any real punishment. JPMorgan Chase (JPM) has been accused and essentially admitted that it had engaged in a long-running foreign bribery scheme in China. The bank hired the children of Chinese business and political leaders in a direct quid-pro-quo attempt to win business in that country. The practice was formalized into what was called the "Sons and Daughter Program" and the bank even tracked how much business each of these "employees" managed to generate for the firm. The bank has reportedly admitted to violating the law on foreign bribery called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act but managed to work out a non-prosecution agreement with the government and pay a truly pathetic fine of $264 million. Part of the rationale for such light punishment is that the bank apparently cooperated with the government in its investigation and offered the defense that "everyone else is doing it, too", claiming that this practice was common in China. That defense further implicates other big banks who are also suspected of having similar programs.

I think we all know how well the "everybody else does it" defense works for most of us when we are caught on the wrong side of the law. Not only does it never work, but it actually creates the situation where the criminal justice system is more inclined to make an example out of the criminal party because it shows the criminal is "not really willing to take responsibility for his/her actions". But if you are a corporation, the rules are quite different. The Times points out that JPM has already been forced to pay nearly $20 billion in fines for violations related to derivatives and mortgage-backed securities before and during the financial crisis. The Times article describes this as "a painful period for the bank".  NO! Painful is when you lose your job and your house because of unscrupulous bankers. Privileged is when you consistently break the law and manage to avoid criminal prosecution while paying a small portion of your profits as restitution.

One of the reasons that Donald Trump is going to be the next President is because the Obama administration refused to criminally charge any of the Wall Street banks or executives involved in the massive fraud that led to the financial crisis. And that lax attitude toward continual criminality extends to most American industries but the financial community has benefited far more than most. And the crimes in the financial community are continual. If it was a normal small business, the government would be going after them for RICO violations as a continuing criminal enterprise. When Trump says the system is "rigged", it is exactly this type of settlement with JPM that most people think of. And you know the behavior must be truly egregious if you can agree with Donald Trump. Somehow, this must end and companies and their executive must be held accountable for the criminal behavior they engage in.

Trump, Medicare, And Memory

It is truly amazing how quickly we all can forget things that actually did happen. It's been a little over a week and James Comey seems to have passed into oblivion. And just to show you how easily the past slips away, I seem to have completely forgotten Trump detailing his plans for working with Paul Ryan to turn Medicare into a premium support or even voucher system. Perhaps I just missed it since the media barely touched on policy issues during the campaign but did manage to spend most of its time discussing Hillary's emails. However, my recollection was that Trump was opposed to touching Medicare and Social Security, saying, "We will not cut Medicare or Social Security benefits, but protect them both." But maybe I was just dreaming.

It will be interesting to see how the grass roots of the Tea Party reacts to this news. I know it has been six long years since the Tea Party revolt began and some of the details driving their anger might have faded from memory. So perhaps this will help them remember:

I guess we'll find out whether their objection was based on tribalism and opposing anything Obama wanted to do or whether they really did want to keep their Medicare exactly as they knew it. Or maybe I was just dreaming again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Even Our Allies Threaten Trade War If Trump Follows Through On Election Promises

Nicolas Sarkozy, a man whose political future seemed to have no way forward after losing to Francois Hollande in the French elections of 2012, has re-emerged and will be a contender in next year's French elections. Sarkozy, Alain Juppe, and Francois Fillon are all battling to gain the nomination of Les Republicians party and its center right allies. The winner will lead a pretty broad coalition against the far-right, anti-EU, anti-immigrant, nationalist Marine Le Pen and her National Front party.

In what might be an indication of what's in store internationally for a Trump administration, yesterday Sarkozy gave a glimpse into the possibility of a spiraling global trade war if Trump follows through on many of his campaign pledges. When asked what France and Europe should do if Trump pulled out of the Paris climate change agreements, Sarkozy responded, "Well, I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3 per cent, for all products coming from the United States, if the United States doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies." Sarkozy is a pretty crafty politician and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't stake out a position like this unless there was some real support for it. Whether the EU will actually go along with this is another question.

In the campaign, Trump used the example of the Carrier plant in Indiana to illustrate how he would protect American jobs from being outsourced to other countries, in this case Mexico. Trump promised to institute an 35% tariff on air conditioners and furnaces imported from Mexico which would force Carrier to keep those jobs in the United States. And many of those Carrier workers voted for Trump because of that. And they expect him to keep his word. As one worker declared, "If he doesn’t pass that tariff, I will vote the other way next time."

Now that Trump has actually won the election, the impossible promises he made will somehow have to be dealt with. If he does forge ahead and keep his promises such as imposing tariffs on Mexican goods and withdrawing from the climate change agreement, he will find that the rest of the world can and will respond in kind, as Sarkozy has just made clear. I'm pretty sure that the business elites in the US will not be too happy if that were to happen. Whether they can actually control Trump and his anti-establishment cohorts remain to be seen. But I'm guessing that the Carrier worker will be voting the other way next time.

GOP Poised To Take Credit For Improved Economy

As if Democrats' luck isn't bad enough, recent economic reports indicate that the economy really looks like it is beginning to take off.  Retail sales were up 0.8% in October while September's numbers were adjusted up 0.4% to 1.0%. The Atlanta Fed's GDPNow forecast is predicting 4th quarter GDP growth at a pretty robust 3.3%. Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) is also forecast to show a 2.9% gain. Average hourly wages are up and nominal wage growth for the year in October was a healthy 2.8%.

The PCE number is important as that is a number the Fed keeps its eye on. With strong fourth quarter GDP, rising wage growth, and rising bond yields as the markets believe in increased deficits under a Trump administration (and you thought that the GOP was filled with deficit hawks - that's only when Democrats are in power), the Fed is almost certain to increase interest rates in December.

Of course, you can hear all the usual GOP suspects saying the economy is taking off because Trump is President and Republicans are finally in total control. Of course, it was the Democrats hard work that once again bailed the country out of its economic doldrums in the face of implacable obstruction from the GOP (see Bill Clinton's presidency as well as Obama's) but they won't get much credit for it. But don't worry - in a few years the economy will again go to hell and Democrats will be called upon again to fix the mess that the GOP created and the Republicans will begin to worry about those darn deficits again. 'Twas ever thus.

Normalizing Trump And Living Under Autocracy

I have already posted about my skepticism about media reports emanating from the Trump campaign. Trump and his senior advisers despise the media so it is doubtful that any significant leaks will be coming from them. And since Trump's world is purely confined to his trusted advisers, it is almost impossible to know what exactly is going on. Of course, no administration can actually function like this because the volume of decisions to be made and people to be hired is just too great. Which is why we are seeing the reports of a transition in chaos.

Meanwhile, the press is desperate to turn any move that Trump takes into a sign that he is moderating and beginning to understand his role as President. The appointment of Reince Preibus as Chief of Staff was taken to be a sign that Trump was beginning to moderate and "learning how to govern". For example, the Wall Street Journal hailed Preibus' appointment, saying that it was "a selection that suggests the Republican is interested in a more conventional approach to governing after his insurgent campaign." Needless to say, the announcement of Preibus' appointment came second in the press release from the Trump campaign to the announcement that the white nationalist Steve Bannon would be Trump's senior adviser and strategist. This was then spun by some in the media that, like FDR, Trump was setting up competing blocs of power within his administration.

Masha Gessen, a journalist very familiar with autocratic governments, wrote about the six rules for surviving autocracy in a recent article. It might behoove the media to actually pay attention to the first two which I quote here:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable...
Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Consider the financial markets this week, which, having tanked overnight, rebounded following the Clinton and Obama speeches. Confronted with political volatility, the markets become suckers for calming rhetoric from authority figures. So do people...

A perfect, yet tiny, example of what Gessen refers to in these two rules involves Trump's statement when he emerged from his meeting with President Obama in which he declared that he might be interested in keeping some of the popular features of Obamacare. Specifically, he mentioned allowing those under the age of 25 to stay on their parents' insurance and preventing insurers from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions. Some in the media leapt on this as a sign the Trump would not be as extreme in governing as he was in the campaign. But, as Jonathan Gruber points out in an editorial today in the NY Times, Trump can actually keep those features but still destroy Obamacare and deny health insurance to millions. Without the other features of Obamacare, insurers could either deny insurance coverage entirely to someone with a pre-existing condition or price the coverage at a level that would be unaffordable. In fact, as Gruber points out, this would actually take us to a point where we would be worse off then we even were before Obamacare. At least back then, insurers would not insure for the costs of the pre-existing condition but would insure for other, unrelated medical costs. It is possible under Trump's proposal that that option would just not exist.

We are seeing a similar story play out with the question of whether the GOP will eliminate the filibuster. I have read multiple stories describing Mitch McConnell as interested in the traditions of the Senate and maintaining the rights of the minority. The New York Times wrote about McConnell a few days ago, saying, "Mr. McConnell is what is known on Capitol Hill as an institutionalist, a strong believer in the traditions and practices of the Senate. He was very critical of the decision by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, who is retiring this year, to rally his party into limiting filibusters against nominees in response to Republican delaying tactics. Mr. McConnell has said repeatedly that it is crucial to American democracy to respect the special rights of the minority party in the Senate, and that it would be a mistake to limit the filibuster, since the decision could backfire if his party fell out of power." Perhaps the Times might want to consult Gessen third rule:

Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.

The idea that Mitch McConnell has any interest in the traditions of the Senate that do not devolve to his and his party's benefit is pure fantasy. As the above quote indicates, Reid's stance on judicial filibusters was in response to unprecedented Republican obstruction on judicial appointments. That followed on McConnell's unprecedented use of the filibuster when he was in the minority. And was subsequently followed by the unprecedented step in the history of our nation of not even giving a President's Supreme Court nominee a hearing. The idea that McConnell is an institutionalist is simply laughable and the author is simply deluding himself and us with is willful ignorance of the traditions and norms of governance that McConnell has already destroyed. That does not mean that McConnell will repeal the filibuster - he may find it more useful to let the Democrats use it and then clobber them about their obstruction in the 2018 midterm elections when Democrats have many tough seats to defend. But I know that, whatever decision he makes, it will not be because he respects the traditions of the Senate and traditions and norms of governance that have existed for years.

As Gessen stresses time and again in her article, the natural instinct for people and the press is to consistently look to normalize the situation. Her fourth rule reminds us to fight against that instinct and temptation.

Rule #4: Be outraged. If you follow Rule #1 and believe what the autocrat-elect is saying, you will not be surprised. But in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.

Let us hope all of us, especially the media, can remember this rule as the Trump administration plays out. And that we can all resist the temptation to think that any of what is going on should be described as "normal". Please read Gessen's entire article - I have a feeling we will have to refer back to it often in the years ahead.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Think Trump Will Be Bad? How About Rewriting The Constitution

If a Trump presidency doesn't scare you enough. If Republicans controlling all three branches of government doesn't scare you even more. If a right-wing Supreme Court for the next generation or two does not truly frighten you. Then you are a calmer person than I. But this tidbit from Charles Pierce should really scare you to death. The Republican party now has total control in 33 state legislatures. The number of state legislatures needed to call a Constitutional Convention under Article V of the Constitution is 34. They need just one more. As Pierce and many other constitutional scholars point out, once a Constitutional Convention is called, we have absolutely no idea what new constitutional order could emerge from that. The idea of a Constitutional Convention has been bandied about on the right for decades. And, although proponents say they can limit what items the convention can discuss, many other constitutional scholars believe that once that Pandora's box has been opened, it can not be closed. You can imagine every crackpot right wing idea will be brought forth and we could very well end up with a national government that does nothing more than provide for the national defense, taking us back to the 19th century, and devolve even more power to the smaller rural states and make our country even more undemocratic. Be very afraid.

Democrats Need To Realize That We Do Not Live In A Real Democracy

It is time for Democrats to realize that we do not live in a democracy as we generally envision it. We have never lived in the democracy that we all convince ourselves exists. The structural obstacles to the current Democratic coalition on a national level are enormous and they are built into the system.

The House of Representatives probably comes closest to the vision of democracy that most of us have. Congressional districts are comprised of areas that are nearly equal in population, currently a little over 700,000 constituents per district. But even here, there is some skewing because less than a handful of states have less population than the standard district but still receive a full seat in the House. In addition, clever gerrymandering can pack one party's voters into one district while building other districts where that party has just a slight minority of voters. This is how Republicans have created their largest majority in the House in nearly a century. Computing the total number of national congressional votes for each party is not really an appropriate measure but, in general, the winner of that vote has almost always become the majority in the House. In 2012, Democrats won 50.59% of the congressional vote but only held 46% of the seats in the House. Much of this is due to successful gerrymandering. Similar results have occurred in state legislatures across the country, again due to successful gerrymandering.

As we have seen this year and also in 2000, the Electoral College clearly does not reflect the vision of democracy that most of us have. Here is where we see begin to see how the power of rural states vastly outweighs the population they hold. California has 80 times more people than Wyoming but only has 18 times more electoral votes. Projections are that Clinton will win the popular vote by about 1.5 million votes if not more and some projections have her winning the popular vote by 2%. If you factor in the successful suppression of voting rights since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act as well as the restriction of convicted felons from voting, it is quite possible that Clinton's popular vote lead would be almost twice as high. Trump will end up with around 47% of the popular vote but will win 54% of the Electoral College. That will be the largest discrepancy between the popular vote percentage and the Electoral College percentage in our history in a primarily two-party race.

But by far the most undemocratic institution around is the US Senate. Take the case of California and Wyoming again. California, with a population 80 times larger, has the exact same representation in the Senate as Wyoming, just two votes. The "greatest deliberative body in the world", as the Senate loves to call itself, is also one of the most undemocratic.

In 2004, John Judis and Ray Teixeira wrote a book called "The Emerging Democratic Majority" that explored how demographics were going to create an almost insurmountable majority for Democrats. And after every Democratic election defeat since then, Democrats wonder where that majority went. But, as this election shows, the majority is clearly there but the structural barriers in our supposed democracy make it more difficult for that majority to win national elections.

One of the factors that would normally mitigate these "discrepancies" in our democracy were certain norms of governance that were adhered to by both parties. But, beginning with Newt Gingrich in the mid 1990s, the Republican party has destroyed those norms on a continual basis, both in the House and Senate. Impeachment, government shutdowns, changing votes in the House after the vote had closed, aggressive and mid-decade gerrymandering, restricting voting rights, filibustering judicial appointees and most legislation, refusing to even give a hearing to a Supreme Court nominee, and many more that I haven't mentioned. And it is quite possible that now, with control of all three branches, the GOP, as a minority ruling as a majority, will eliminate the filibuster which was supposed to be used as a last-resort measure for the minority to protect itself from truly egregious legislation.  As a result, Democrats will have a majority across the country but will have absolutely none of the protections that have protected Republicans in the past.

Even worse, as the country divides between the rural and the urban, the possibility of a disconnect between the majority of the popular vote and the actual winner of the election will probably keep on increasing as will the differential for the popular vote loser in those cases. Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections, but have only managed to win the Presidency in four. I am almost certain that Democrats will win the popular vote in 2020 and 2024. I have far less certainty that they will win those elections.

Yes, the election is contested under the rules of the Electoral College. We all knew what those rules were and we lost. But the demonstrations we are seeing today after Trump's victory will be nothing compared to what we might see if Democrats continue to win the popular vote and lose elections. We have all seen how quickly countries that are ruled by a minority can collapse when the majority finally turns against them. The situation is just not healthy for a country that calls itself a democracy and the damage of a continuation of this kind of Electoral College result will be incredible damaging to the country.

Do I have a solution to this problem? Unfortunately, I don't. Perhaps expanding the House of Representatives from the current 435 will force smaller Congressional districts and make the aggressive gerrymandering we see today more difficult. Of course, abolishing the Electoral College would be preferable but it is hard to see how that could be accomplished. And I have no clue on how to fix the Senate. But these are issues that Democrats need to think about and perhaps come up with some creative answers. and we need to be ready to implement these hoped-for solutions if and when we next get the chance. Because these are not just questions for Democrats but for a functioning democracy in this country.

Memo Outlines Brexit Chaos In May's Government

A report prepared by the consulting firm Deloitte about the plans for Brexit has created even more chaos for Theresa May's government. The report highlights the belief that the complexity of any kind of Brexit agreement may require an additional 30,000 civil servants to handle the over 500 Brexit-related projects. The more damaging parts of the report state that the government really has no plan for Brexit, as May's senior advisers are split on how to move forward. It accused May of being a kind of control freak and trying to keep all the decisions for herself which is also contributing to the lack of a plan. It also claims that May and her government are primarily focused on maintaining the Conservative party in power rather than any economic and business considerations. In fact, the report states the business community has come to two realizations, "first, that the Government's priority remains its political survival, not the economy. Second, that there will be no clear economic-Brexit strategy any time soon because it is being developed on a case-by-case basis as specific decisions are forced Government...The public stance of Government is oriented primarily to its own supporters, with industry in particular barely being on the radar screen - yet."

A government spokesman has denied that the report was commissioned either by or for the government, which contradicted other sources. It is possible that Deloitte prepared the memo internally and/or provided it to the government as it explored business opportunities related to Brexit, especially in providing some of those 30,000 civil servants the report says are needed. Whether the report was commissioned by the government or not, it clearly represents a pretty informed and frank analysis of the current situation regarding Brexit.

The current chaos in Theresa May's government may portend what we also might see from the early Trump administration. Just like the "leave" campaigners, the Trump campaign ran largely on promoting falsehoods and fanning racism and apparently a belief that they really would not win. When the unthinkable happened, it seems clear that they are totally unprepared to lead and struggle to find a way to reconcile the false promises made during the campaign with actual governance.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Times Creates Sickening Equivalence Between Emails And Torture

A TPM post brought this item to my attention over the weekend and it pretty much encapsulates the problems that the media had in covering the election and does not bode well for how they will cover the Trump administration going forward. The NY Times had an article entitled "Trump Camp Refuses to Close Door on Campaign Pledge to ‘Lock Her Up'" which discusses the possibility that the Trump administration would still pursue Hillary Clinton even after this election. The fact that this is even a discussion is disturbing enough but the false equivalence in the Times article is even more shocking. According to the Times, "Chants of 'lock her up' became a frequent rallying cry at Trump campaign events, and Mr. Trump told Mrs. Clinton at the second presidential debate that if elected, he would instruct his attorney general 'to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there has never been so many lies, so much deception.' If he were president, he told her, 'you’d be in jail.' That threat unnerved both Republican and Democratic legal analysts. When Mr. Obama took office, he and his first attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., also faced a decision over whether to investigate the previous administration. While Mr. Holder said the country was owed 'a reckoning' for torture of terrorism suspects carried out after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Obama administration ultimately did not conduct a broad criminal investigation of officials from the Bush administration. Mr. Obama declared that 'we need to look forward, as opposed to looking backwards.'"

Frankly, the New York Times taking the question of whether to prosecute people for torture which violated a number of our own laws as well as international treaties and the moral standing of this country and equating that with a decision to prosecute a former political opponent who has never been charged with a crime is simply sickening. And it is a classic example of the false equivalence in the media that helped elect Donald Trump and is apparently continuing even after his appalling election. And it should make us all fear for our democracy.

Enjoy The Supermoon Tonight

Tonight is a full moon and what is also hyped in the media as a "supermoon". In fact, the moon will actually appear about 7% larger and 15% brighter that a normal full moon. This is because the moon is making its closest approach to the Earth since 1948 and it will not be this close again until 2034. Today it is just over 220,000 miles away. Since there was a chance it might be cloudy in our area tonight, I went out last night to have a look. It was certainly bright enough under the nearly full moon - you could almost read a book out there. I took a couple of photos using the Starblast 4.5 and the 25MM lens.

Hopefully, the weather will be clear in your area tonight so make sure you get out and take a look at this magnificent moon. You want see it like this for another eighteen years.

The above is the original photograph and the one below is with some slight adjustments in GMIP using Curves.

Some More Post-Election Analysis

All the usual recriminations are coming out after this admittedly devastating loss for the Democrats last Tuesday. Hillary was a terrible candidate, the DNC misallocated resources, Bernie would have done better, we ignored the working and middle class, and so on. And, to some degree, some of these probably contributed to an incredibly narrow loss while for others it is impossible to know. But there were also larger issues at play in this election that are beyond the control of our candidate and the DNC.

Early exit polls are notoriously unreliable but they always seem to set up the narrative for analyzing the election. And one of the prime narratives that has emerged is that Democrats insulted and ignored the working class. The problem with this narrative it is contradicted by other early exit data. Hillary won among all voters who make under $50,000 which is hard to square with the argument the working class was turned off by the Democratic message. As John Legend pointed out on Maher, the problem for Hillary was not the working class but the white working class and the operative word there is "white". In addition, one of Hillary's economic themes was growing the economy from the middle out and it was backed up by numerous policies that are designed to support the working and middle class. You can possibly argue that Hillary did not pound these themes home hard enough but it was almost impossible when the media totally ignored policy and focused on Trump's daily atrocities and Hillary's emails and the Clinton Foundation. You can say that the message did not get heard but that does not mean Democrats weren't trying to send it. Other data from the exit polls showed Trump's greatest strength in counties where there were virtually no minorities. The more diverse a county was, the less strength Trump had. That is more suggestive of a problem that is less to do with economic anxiety than race. That is also suggested by Trump's winning the majority of votes of white women.

This is not to deny that economic anxiety and the declining standard of living for many non-urban communities is real. And I don't think any Democrat denies that reality. It just so happens that, in this election, the empty promise that someone will bring back the jobs that have been lost combined with a bigoted, racist message that "other people" were responsible for the decline in their communities won just enough votes to allow Trump to win. For many of us, that choice is quite shocking. But the reality is that neither party really has a plan that can bring the jobs that have been lost back to these communities. Globalization inflicted near-mortal wounds on the industries in these towns and now automation is finishing them off. For example, some steel mills have actually re-opened in the last decade or so but these new, automated mills only employ about one-tenth of the labor that mills used in the past. Democrats have policies that will reduce the pain for these communities and possibly create a path forward. Republicans only have empty promises and possibly protectionism and even that will not bring the jobs back.  But neither party has a plan for real recovery. So far, no one in the Western industrialized world does.

I have already written about how Democrats underestimated the difficulties facing Hillary in this election. It is always hard to win an election after a two-term President and Hillary faced other obstacles, such as sexism and Comey, that made it even more difficult. And she came up short by 100,000 votes across three states. She will win the popular vote convincingly. These facts hardly seem to indicate that the Democratic party's message is not resonating with a large part of the electorate and that the party needs to change its entire direction. Rather, I think it means Democrats need to continue to pound away with their message and wait for the probable Republican overreach and be fully prepared to take advantage of it. Yes, that is not the greatest game plan but it's the best one we've got.

Democrats also need to understand that there are huge structural, anti-democratic barriers facing the party as well that make it incredibly difficult for Democrats to actually govern. The structure of the Senate gives inordinate power to smaller, rural states. California, with nearly 40 million people, has the same voting power in the Senate as Wyoming, with around half a million people. The Electoral College is similarly skewed. California only has 18 times more electoral votes than Wyoming with nearly 80 times the population. Now people will say that those are the rules and Democrats need to learn how to win by those rules. And that can not be denied. But Hillary will win the popular vote by close to 1.5% this year. Al Gore won it in 2000 and also lost. As the country continues to divide between the urban and the rural, the chances that Democrats will continue to win the popular vote and lose the election will become increasingly more likely and increasingly more common. And that will not be a healthy situation for a country that calls itself a "democracy". So part of being prepared for the next chance to govern means that the Democrats should work on cobbling together a plan to reduce these structural barriers that are antithetical to democracy.

Obama's Theory Of Change To Be Sorely Tested

President Obama has often been described as an incrementalist, believing that change is difficult to enact and that you build a different future with numerous small victories rather than one sweeping change. He has often compared the ship of state of a large supertanker where a shift of one or two degrees will leave you hundreds of miles off your original path some time in the future. That theory of change will be sorely tested in the next few years.

With control of all three branches of government, Trump and the Republicans are in a position not only to roll back Obama's signature achievements such as Obamacare, the Iran nuclear deal, and the climate change agreement but also undo or radically change many of the progressive gains made since the New Deal. Already Paul Ryan is proposing to turn Medicare into a voucher system and Trump's appointment(s) to the Supreme Court may result in Roe v. Wade being overturned and a further erosion of labor, consumer, and voting rights.

Obama has had many outstanding achievements in his Presidency but the two of the three biggest complaints that many on the left had against him turn out, in hindsight, to have been prescient. Many believed, Krugman, Summers, and Stiglitz in particular, that we needed a far greater stimulus plan back in 2009 in order to get the economy back on its feet. Obama's defenders counter that they did the best they could considering the mood in Congress. As it turns out, the critics were correct because, even as unemployment dropped, many were finding their standard of living declining. The second complaint was the seeming unwillingness to make Wall Street pay for essentially destroying the world economy. Not one Wall Street executive ended up in court, much less was convicted for the financial crisis. Even if the DOJ had taken a couple of these executives to court and lost, it would have at least sent a signal to the rest of the country that the Obama administration was serious about holding Wall Street to account. Instead, much of the country saw Wall Street get right back on its feet while they continued to struggle. Both of these criticisms then lead to the final complaint against Obama which is that he was always too willing to compromise. This complaint is probably slightly less valid in that Republicans controlled Congress for most of his two terms. But it should provide a lesson for the future that Democrats need to be ruthless in a desire to advance their goals if and when they ever control all three branches themselves. You can expect the Republicans will do so now.

The next few years will be a real test of the incremental theory of change. If the filibuster remains in place in the Senate, it is possible that Democrats will be able to slow or mitigate the changes the GOP will make. If the Republicans eliminate the filibuster, it will only take them a couple of years to obliterate many of the gains made in the last 75. And Obama may find out that a combination of a hurricane of economic anxiety and a tsunami of misogyny and racism can blow that ship of state on a different course quite quickly.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Few Thoughts On The Future

I have refrained from speculating about what Donald Trump will actually do as President because, frankly, I have no idea. Primarily, that is because the media did such a pathetic job of actually pinning Trump down on any policy, no matter how ridiculous the proposal. And, to paraphrase Bill Maher, Trump could totally flip his policy stance from the beginning of a sentence to the end. The biggest wall ever became a virtual wall and then back to being a wall and is now talked about as a fence. Similar contortions occurred with the deportation force and the Muslim ban. So the default position should be to take Trump at his word for the most extreme proposal he has made on every policy. That is surely what his voters are expecting. Already, we have seen no move by Trump or his surrogates to condemn the rash of hate crimes that is sweeping the country. Rather, they continue to focus on mythical paid protestors as being behind the demonstrations against Trump and demand that Obama and Clinton speak out against these people peacefully expressing their constitutional rights. Not an auspicious start. And we know the establishment Republican party is intent on essentially dismantling the New Deal and re-establishing a Jim Crow environment by restricting voting rights. So we should always presume the worst.

In addition, Trump will absolutely hate being President. By definition, it is a very lonely and difficult job. Trump has already expressed a desire to be less engaged by not being in Washington so much and in his desire to continue to go around the country holding rallies. So the tension will always be between his need to be somewhat of a control freak and his lack of interest and resulting delegation of decision making to Pence, Giuliani, etc. Who knows how that tension will be resolved on each individual issue. Incredibly, there may be issues where it would be preferable for Democrats to actually have Trump involved and engaged. (I can't believe I wrote that last sentence.)

Finally, do not believe a word about the Trump administration's plans that comes from the mainstream media. Trump, Bannon, and his team know how the play the media for the fools they are. Trump despises the media and will probably severely limit their access, meaning that the press will rely even more heavily on "unnamed sources" who will merely be passing along propaganda. They know the media is always looking for that mythical "middle ground" which has meant for years that Democrats have to "compromise" by moving to the right. You see this with the calls for Clinton and Obama to "normalize" Trump by saying we all need to support him; by the way media glommed on to the offhand comment that some parts of Obamacare might be retained; and by the resistance to call out Trump for not condemning the racist attacks around the country. So the Trump administration will feed these hints to the media who will say Trump is moderating but the actually legislation will turn out to never include any of those "moderating" elements that were hinted at. And the media will be shocked but probably blame the Democrats for not negotiating on the issue or some other nonsense.

There are many reasons to fear what will happen in the days ahead. But adding to that level of fear is the fact that we really have no idea to what extremes a Trump administration will go. We have always had a pretty good idea of the parameters that any administration, Democratic or Republican would be working within. Until now. And that alone should make us all afraid.

Natural Weekends - Full Moon Rises As Darkness Descends