Saturday, November 26, 2016

Would Focus On Working Class Issues Really Have Made A Difference

The NY Times has an article today about Trump voters in Florida who count on Obamacare for their health insurance and now hope that it won't be taken away. One woman who is currently on Obamacare and who voted for Trump did not believe he would take it away, saying, "Trump is going to keep it for a while, at least the part where if you have a disease you can still get coverage." She seems to think that would work for herself, despite probably hefty rate hikes and elimination of her subsidies under a Trump plan, as she will be eligible for Medicare next year. But she probably didn't contemplate that she could well be paying a lot more out-of-pocket for Medicare if Paul Ryan's proposals goes through. Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Republicans in the legislature have blocked Medicaid expansion in the state and they will be just as stingy with Medicare dollars. Another Floridian who is on Obamacare but is having problems with the out of pocket costs and high deductible said, " I think it was rammed down our throats. I’m taking advantage of it because I’d be silly not to. But it needs to be changed." He actually supports repeal of the law despite his own admission that it would be silly to live without it. Another voter who does not receive any subsidies at all felt that the law was unfair because so many did receives subsidies while he did not. He said, "Maybe Mr. Trump can make it better by making it more equal."

It is hard not to hear what these people are saying and not focus on the fact that Hillary Clinton addressed every single one of their concerns with her plans for Obamacare. Donald Trump promised only "repeal and replace" without really defining what that replacement would be, a problem Republicans have had since the law was enacted. Virtually all of those mentioned above were purely relying on what they hoped Trump would do, which was totally contradicted by what Trump actually said he would do during the campaign. Now, admittedly, this is purely anecdotal evidence, but, along with other similar reports on different subjects, it seems to be a constant refrain from the Trump voter. They did not take his statements at all literally and never really believed that he would do all the things he said he would do. And I think you can also say that about the Republican party. A large segment of Republican voters do not really think that the GOP will actually privatize Medicare and/or Social Security despite repeated statements from party leaders that that is exactly what they would like to do. When seen in this light, it adds to the belief that these voters acted purely out of tribalism and it is highly doubtful that a laser-like focus on proposals to help the working class would have really made any difference. For these voters, Clinton had proposals that directly addressed the issues they cared about. They just didn't care to listen and preferred to rely purely on hope.

Natural Weekends - Progression Of Fall In Four Days - Part 1

For the next two Natural Weekends, we will feature photos for the Deck View as fall progresses and the colors change. This is for all those unfortunate souls who don't get to experience the beauty of the season here in the Northeast.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Jill Stein Plays Us For Fools Again

Jill Stein managed to pull enough votes from Hillary Clinton and arguably allow Donald Trump to win Michigan and Wisconsin. The final totals are in in Michigan and Trump beat Clinton there by a little under 11,000 votes. Jill Stein won over 51,000 votes in that state. In Wisconsin, Trump's margin of victory was just over 27,000 votes and Stein received nearly 31,000. With a Trump presidency, there is a good chance that the US will withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement, making Stein's presidential run one of the greatest own-goals in environmental and political history. So, having essentially played the 2016 version of Ralph Nader, Stein is now raising money to contest the election results in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. This is based on a study by some cyber experts who pointed out that counties with electronic voting machines showed about a 7% drop off in votes for Clinton compared to counties that used optical scanners and similar methods that actually produce a paper trail. Nate Silver pretty much debunked that analysis but it is certainly Stein's prerogative to challenge the vote totals if she wishes. Realistically, her challenge will accomplish nothing and is a total waste of time and money because, even if the voting machines were hacked, it would be almost impossible to prove it.

Originally, Stein had asked to raise $2.5 million in order to challenge the results in those three states. She managed to raise that money and more in very short order. But, as Josh Marshall points out, once the original threshold had been reached, Stein raised the goal to $4.5 million and then to $7 million. With these donations, Stein is adding to her own voter/donor list and is probably raising far more money than the challenges will actually cost. In fact, it looks like the Stein campaign will keep any residual monies and use them "for election integrity efforts and to promote systemic voting system reform", although that has not yet been confirmed.

Stein has already played many environmentalists and progressives for fools in this campaign and, in doing so, probably set back the US and global environmental movement back for years and perhaps provided millions of creatures on this planet with a death sentence as global warming remains unaddressed. It looks like she is continuing to play us for fools with this ill-fated election challenge that will, once again, probably only benefit Jill Stein.

Connecticut's Incentives To Keep Jobs Makes Sense But Won't Really Create Any New Ones

Connecticut has suffered financially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Fairfield County, the driver of much of Connecticut's revenue, has lost a number of financial industry jobs. In another huge blow, General Electric, a company that has been headquartered in the state since 1974, decided to move out and up to Boston. Although GE claimed that two recent tax hikes drove their decision, the real explanation is that the company, having largely divested its financial services divisions, is transforming from a manufacturing firm to a technology firm and felt it needed a vibrant city environment to attract the talent it will need in the future.

So, Connecticut is under pressure to keep the businesses it already has in the state. This summer, it offered $22 million in loans and grants to Bridgewater Asset Management, one of the largest hedge funds in the world, in return for the firm's agreement to stay in the state and add another 750 jobs. Massachusetts apparently gave GE upwards of $150 million to move 800 jobs to the state while Connecticut is promised 750 probably higher paying jobs from Bridgewater for about one-seventh the amount. Earlier this week, the state offered another financial firm, AQR Capital Management, $35 million in incentives similar to Bridgewater in order to keep the company in Connecticut as well as adding 600 new jobs in the next decade.

You can understand why Connecticut would be so eager to provide these incentives in order to keep these jobs in state and add new jobs. These will, in general, be higher paying jobs that will generate revenue. On the other hand, it does seem counterintuitive to have to offer such incentives to such already-profitable firms. And, at over $27,000 per new job, it seems like a pretty expensive method to add new jobs, no matter whether it proves to be a profitable investment. You have to wonder if those $37 million in loans and grants had been spread out among a larger number of younger, smaller, and slightly less profitable firms whether it would end up providing a bigger bang for the buck. Studies have shown that these types of incentives do not end up really adding any new jobs per se. Rather, they keep existing jobs and jobs that would be created anyway from moving from one state to another as the states essentially engage in a race to the bottom.

So what Connecticut is doing with these loans and grants is perfectly understandable. But from a federal perspective, this really is lunacy. States are wasting precious tax dollars in an effort that apparently does nothing to create new jobs for the country, while at the same time just creating even more profits for companies that are already profitable. A rational federal jobs policy would actually do something to alleviate this situation. I'm afraid we are a long way from seeing that happen.

End Of Austerity And The Adoption Of Liberal Economic Policies

Britain's Conservative government of Theresa May has apparently adopted the economic platform of the Democratic party in the United States in what amounts to the end of the failed austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne. Philip Hammond, May's Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the government's new spending plans on Wednesday and the important features included a rise in the minimum wage and welfare payments, providing additional aid for child care, and a significant investment in infrastructure and new housing. At the same time, Hammond also officially abandoned the prior government's oft-adjusted pledge to balance the budget by 2020, simply saying that it would happen as soon as practical. Hammond admitted that the national debt would actually rise to over 90% of GDP in the next year. Despite these immediate stimulus measures, Hammond stated, "real earnings growth will consequently fall close to zero next year", primarily because the falling pound due to Brexit will actually add 2% to consumer prices over the next two years.

Hammond's proposals could have virtually been lifted word-for-word from Hillary Clinton's campaign site, despite now being proposed by a Conservative government. As opposed to Osborne, Hammond seems to understand the need for traditional Keynesian stimulus in the face of a contracting economy. But, as he even he admits, this will allow those who are "just about managing", as the government calls them, to simply tread water in the next year.

In the US election, Trump managed to co-opt some traditional Democratic positions, specifically protecting American workers from the effects of globalization and investment in infrastructure. In many ways, May and her government are now effectively co-opting some traditional positions taken by Labor. That this has happened speaks to how weak both Labour and Democrats have been at protecting what should be part of their core constituencies. Part of this is simply that structural issues in the global economy have helped decimate manufacturing in both the US and the UK. But both Labour and the Democrats were far too lax about the devastating effects of globalization and became too enamored and enmeshed with the financial industry. In particular, Labour and Miliband's decision to essentially run their last election campaign as Conservative-lite created the opening that May is now exploiting. In the US, Trump and the Republicans are only too willing to take credit for the improvements in the economy that Democrats had to fight tooth and nail to achieve. To be clear, there are still vast areas of disagreement between liberals and conservatives in both the US and UK, especially in the area of the privatization of the public, as demonstrated by the Conservatives desire to privatize the NHS and even the BBC and the Republicans' proposal to privatize Medicare. But, in certain areas of economic policy, conservatives seem only too happy to finally adopt some economically sound liberal positions. Too bad neither the Democrats nor Labour will actually get the credit they deserve.

The Potentially Chilling Effect Of The Professor Watchlist

In a nice follow-up to the white supremacists' victory celebration hosted by alt-right leader Richard Spencer a few days ago, the super-PAC Turning Point USA has begun a "Professor Watchlist" that attempts to catalogue university professors who exhibit "liberal bias". Specifically, the mission of this watchlist is to "expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom." Appropriately, the list is being effectively trolled by liberals with Indiana Jones and Jesus being added. But the fact that it includes names, institutions, and photos is disturbing. At the meeting of white supremacists, Richard Spencer declared, "America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us." To follow that rhetoric with something called a "watchlist" just adds to the fear that pervades much of the country at this time. Any censorship of the watchlist would be probably be a violation of free speech, unless, of course, Trump decides to restrict free speech by "opening up" the current libel laws as he had threatened to do in the campaign. But I know the chilling and, yes, deadly effects a prior list like this has had. In the 1990s, the American Coalition of Life Activists began to compile a list of abortion doctors, accusing them of "crimes against humanity", and offered a monetary reward for any information that would lead to an "arrest, conviction, and revocation of license to practice medicine". The group then would cross out the names of those abortion providers who were subsequently wounded or killed. Seven people were subsequently murdered in attacks on abortion doctors and/or clinics in the next few years. The amount of fear and intimidation created by these attacks is impossible to underestimate. I know, because a close relative appeared on one of those lists. Eventually, the list was ruled an incitement to violence by the courts in 2002. This new Professor Watchlist is, for now, not directly inciting violence. But it is just a small step to get there.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Thought On Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving! No matter how grim things may look these days, we all have something to be thankful for, some far more so than others. The holiday of Thanksgiving is very much tied up in the ancient tradition of a harvest festival. Here in the US, the current holiday is directly associated with the harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621. While the legend of that particular Thanksgiving is a bit more fiction than fact, it is true that the Pilgrims were warily joined by Native Americans at that first festival. The Pilgrims, representing England, had actually signed a peace treaty with the Wampanoag Nation in the spring of 1621 which basically said that both groups would watch out for each other. Despite the current myth around that first Thanksgiving, it was not nearly the "kumbaya" kind of gathering that has been passed down to us. The Pilgrims and the Native Americans largely lived separate lives with their paths occasionally crossing, as would be expected from peoples with a different language, different customs, and different traditions. But it was mainly the Native Americans who were looking out for the Pilgrims, not vice versa. And at that first Thanksgiving both groups celebrated the bounty that they had received in their own way, with their own customs.

We need to carry that spirit of Thanksgiving forward to today and in the days ahead. In many ways, with the split between urban and rural in this country, we are like the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. We live largely separate lives, speaking an almost separate language and, in many ways, have different customs. But just like that brief time in 1621, we will need to warily come together and look out for each other. Some of the lucky ones will need to care for others who may be less fortunate while others may have to rely on people they barely know or even trust to care for them. If we can all remember to do that, we will all be better off for it. And if we can do that, perhaps we can avoid the disaster that befell both the Pilgrims and especially the Native Americans subsequently.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Koch Brothers Even Win In Madoff's Ponzi Scheme

How many honest people were bankrupted in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. I knew a few of them and they lost everything they had. But not the Koch brothers. A Bankruptcy Court judge has ruled that proceeds from Madoff's Ponzi scheme that are held overseas cannot be "clawed back" in order to pay restitution to Madoff's victims. So far, the trustee appointed to recover money for the victims has obtained nearly $12 billion of the nearly $18 billion in outstanding claims. Apparently, there are now close to $2 billion held overseas by approximately 90 entities that are now out of the trustee's reach. One of those entities is controlled by the Koch brothers. According to the NY Times article, "Koch Industries began investing in the Madoff fund well before its collapse and pulled its $21.5 million out in 2005. The money withdrawn from the Madoff fund went to a fund registered in the British Virgin Islands and then to a Koch entity in Britain." Because of that, the profits the Koch brothers made from Madoff's Ponzi scheme will not be available to Madoff's real victims. Too bad the single mom who lost all her savings to Madoff didn't really have that option to move her profits overseas.

Court Strikes Down Overtime Rule

On December 1, the Labor Department's new overtime rules were supposed to kick in. The new rules moved the salary limit on paying overtime from $23,660 to $47,476, allowing around 4 million more workers to actually get paid for the overtime they work. The last time the salary limit had been raised by the Labor Department was in the mid-1970s and inflation has eaten away at that limit substantially over time. In 1975, 60% of workers were eligible for overtime pay. Today that number is 7%. Even more importantly, the new rule requires that the limit be adjusted for inflation every three years going forward. The salary limit is just one of three elements to determining whether an employee will not be eligible for overtime. The other two are whether they are salaried, as opposed to hourly, employees and the actual duties, such as supervisory, that they perform.

Yesterday, a judge in Texas put a nationwide stay on the implementation of those rules. This is the fourth time in less than two years that a Texas judge has put a nationwide injunction on a change implemented by the Obama administration. In his ruling the judge declared, "The salary level was purposefully set low to 'screen out the obviously nonexempt employees making an analysis of duties in such cases unnecessary.'…But this significant increase to the salary level creates essentially a de facto salary-only test." In other words, the salary limit must be kept low in order to prioritize the analysis of the actual duties the worker performs. This is what allows fast-food places to force "managers" to work 60 or 70 hours a week, with the majority of that time just cooking fries or flipping burgers, and still not get paid overtime. The judge, however, ruled that "high" salary limit in the new rules essentially negates the other two elements of determining who receives overtime. In fact, his opinion suggested that any salary limit may not be legal although he seemingly backed away from that later in his ruling by stating that that opinion only applied in this case, similar to the Bush v. Gore ruling. Perhaps we can call this type of ruling an invocation of the "Democratic precedent", in that it only applies in just the one specific instance to the detriment of Democrats.

The Labor Department, however, had done extensive research in order to come up with the new $47,476 level. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) regularly publishes data on supervisory workers and the Labor Department used that data in order to come up with its new limit, a level that is actually below the median BLS level for supervisory workers. Needless to say, that did not sway the judge.

This ruling, in effect, kills the implementation of the overtime rule, unless, of course, the Trump Administration wants to appeal this judge's ruling further in the courts. Perhaps moving the jurisdiction out of Texas might help just a little. If Trump is intent on helping the working class, here is a way to help four million of those workers. Democrats in Congress should hold his feet to the fire on this one, putting pressure on Trump to keep his campaign promise to American workers. And if, as expected, he does nothing, Democrats need to make sure the public knows exactly where he stood the very first time he had a chance to increase the wages of working Americans. Democrats will have lots of fights in the years ahead in order to defend the progress since the New Deal. Here is a fight where Democrats can actually play a little offense. They need to do so.

A Not So Happy Thanksgiving...

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday and weekend, I'm expecting to see some seriously bad appointments being made by the Trump campaign. Most people will not be paying attention and these appointments will pretty much slide under the radar. We've already seen Betsy DeVos, a school voucher champion, named as Education Secretary today. I would expect to see more appointments like her later this afternoon or over the weekend when press coverage will be minimal.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A New JFK Assassination Theory

In my younger days, I always ate up those books on conspiracy theories and I guess I still enjoy them now but perhaps with a healthier dos of skepticism. And, of course, the biggest ones in my day revolved around the JFK assassination and Watergate. So I was interested to see a post from Kevin Drum about a three-year old book from James Reston, Jr. that claims that John Connally was actually Lee Harvey Oswald's target of that fateful afternoon in Dallas 53 years ago today. Reston argues that Oswald had it in for Connally because, as head of the Navy Department, he had denied Oswald's request to have his honorable discharge reinstated. According to Reston's book, "A Secret Service officer named Mike Howard was dispatched to Oswald’s apartment. Howard found a little green address book, and on its 17th page under the heading 'I WILL KILL' Oswald listed four men: an FBI agent named James Hosty; a right-wing general, Edwin Walker; and Vice President Richard Nixon. At the top of the list was the governor of Texas, John Connally. Through Connally’s name, Oswald had drawn a dagger, with blood drops dripping downward." Of course, this doesn't necessarily negate so many of the other Oswald conspiracy theories that say he was a CIA spy sent to Russia but then turned or perhaps not turned but continued to work for the CIA and colluded with the Mafia in JFK's assassination, as well as many others. He could have been furious at Connally specifically because he believed he was still working for the US Government and deserved to have his honorable discharge reinstated. But Reston's theory is one I've not heard before and the fact that another new theory about JFK's death has only recently been formed shows just how searing that tragic day in Dallas still is.

Another Day In Trump World

Here is today's probably incomplete wrapup of Donald Trump's continued destruction of our democracy.  The Washington Post reports that filings from the Trump Foundation with the IRS show that it is admitting that it was self-dealing in violation of the law. The admission covers 2015 and some prior years as well. According to the Post, "[s]uch violations can carry penalties including excise taxes, and the charity leaders can be required to repay money that the charity spent on their behalf." I'm guessing that this self-reporting of self-dealing might have something to do with David Farenthold's relentless reporting and NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's ongoing investigation of the Trump Foundation. As the article also points out, Trump had signed prior year's submissions which have now proven to be incorrect and that could present other issues for him. Of course, it might have helped if the media had actually stressed Trump's illegal behavior rather than focusing on the "clouds" hanging over the Clinton Foundation and EMAILS!

Earlier Trump apparently indicated to the NY Times that he did not want to pursue a criminal prosecution against Hillary Clinton saying, "My inclination would be for whatever power I have on the matter is to say let's go forward. This has been looked at for so long, ad nauseum." KellyAnn Conway followed that up on Morning Joe with, "I think when the President-elect, who's also the head of your party, tells you before he's even inaugurated that he doesn't wish to pursue these charges, it sends a very strong message, tone and content." But, as Josh Marshall points out, this is just a total misapplication of how our criminal justice system actually works. It is not up to Trump to decide whether of not to prosecute Hillary Clinton. It is up to the prosecutors who may or may not decide to investigate her. Of course, the media will blow this off (although I'm not sure whether the Trump diehards will) because they always believed that it was an empty threat all along. But they played along with it all the same rather than pointing out how dangerous and unacceptable the rhetoric was.

The NY Times also passed along this gem from Trump in response to a question about his conflicts of interest, "The law's totally on my side, the president can't have a conflict of interest." Trump also implied that he had spoken to Nigel Farage about eliminating the wind farms off the coast of his golf club in the UK. He also recommended that Theresa May appoint Farage as UK Ambassador to the US. There are still open questions about whether Trump discussed permits for his hotel in Buenos Aries with the Argentine President. I've already posted about the solicitation of foreign delegations for his hotel in DC and the talks with his Indian business partners about his hotels there.

And let's not forget his settlement of the Trump University class action suit. So, in just the last few days, Trump has basically admitted to defrauding thousands of fellow Americans, lying to the IRS about his Foundation, and aggressively using his position as President-elect to promote his business interests. It's going to be a long four years if he even makes it that far.

Race, Democracy, And The Power Of Rural States

Yesterday, the NY Times ran an article entitled, "As American as Apple Pie? The Rural Vote’s Disproportionate Slice of Power". The piece talks about the fact that, as this election has shown, "we still live with political institutions that have baked in a distinctly pro-rural bias, by design". It attributes this rural bias to our founders' firm belief in an agrarian society and our continued romanticism of rural life and the family farm. Of course, the urban population passed the rural all the way back in 1920 and the gap between the two has been growing ever since. And the disproportionate power of rural areas is now quite shocking. I've already posted about the absurd rural bias of the Electoral College where California should have nearly 4 times more votes than it actually has compared to Wyoming. But by far the most undemocratic institution that reflects enormous rural bias is the US Senate. California has 80 times more population than Wyoming but the exact same number of votes in the Senate. Today, it is possible for just 17% of the population to elect a majority in the US Senate. Aggressive gerrymandering not only in Congressional districts but also in state legislative districts have created the situation where a party, usually Democrats these days, can win over 50% of the vote in each of this areas and still end up as a minority. This bias obviously then extends to the kinds of legislation that gets passed and how and where government spending is apportioned.

Incredibly, the article neglects to even discuss two important corollaries to this rural bias. First, it blows the mind that race is not even mentioned in the article. The piece mentions the Connecticut Compromise which created the bias for smaller states in the Senate. But that compromise was not the end of the discussion, especially with regard to the structure of the House. It needed to be and was followed by the Three-Fifths Compromise which determined that slaves would count as three-fifths of a person in order to create Congressional districts. Slave states feared that they would be overwhelmed in the House if slaves did not count for Congressional apportionment despite the fact they were not allowed to vote. This compromise also accounts for the structure of the Electoral College. In fact, the tension over how to deal with slaves factored in virtually everything about the structure of Congress.  Similarly, the article implies that the rural bias was expanded by whichever party was in power as a means to maintaining that power. They mention the Homestead Act of 1862 and the division of the Dakota Territory into two states as examples of Republicans attempting to expand their power at the expense of Democrats. The article might have noted that the Homestead Act of 1862 was right smack in the middle of the Civil War and much of the point of the Act was to expand the number of free states. Similarly, the Dakota Territory was split into two states in 1869 because Democrats were forced to that compromise in order to ensure that a probably Democratic Montana would also be given statehood. The existence of South Dakota as a state was problematic, however, because most of the land was held by the Sioux. That resulted in nearly half the Sioux land being taken from them in an underhanded deal by General George Crook. We still see the legacy of that action today with the protests by the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota to protect the integrity of their land.

The second amazing thing about this article is the inability to reach any conclusion about what this rural bias will mean for the future of our democracy. And this blind spot seems to be widespread. Even Chris Hayes talked about Hillary Clinton's growing popular vote lead and the fact that Democrats have won the popular vote in six out of the last seven elections but managed to only gain the presidency in four without extending that discussion to a logical conclusion. The concept of one man, one vote is the bedrock of our democracy for most people. But our governmental institutions are not designed that way. How long do we think that Democrats will continue to stand for a result where they get a large majority of votes and end up with minority representation, both at the national and state level. Eventually, there will be a backlash and a refusal to accept such a result any longer. If we believe in a real democracy, then the rules regulating our elections are going to have to change. Right now, Republicans have no reason to make those changes so Democrats must begin to make the case. Without a more fair electoral system, a time may come when our democracy may cease to exist.

Identity Politics And The Working Class

Maybe I'm just na├»ve or just missing it entirely, but I just don't get this enormous push for Democrats to choose between identity politics and the working class. Mark Lilla wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times over that weekend that got a lot of attention with its declaration that "the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end." Lilla's piece starts with a condemnation of Hillary for focusing on identity politics and assumption that this emphasis cost her the election. It proceeds with a few platitudes about the positive effects of affirmative action, the Black Lives Matter movement, and homosexual rights. But it then launches into a tirade about how "the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life." Lilla's prime examples for this fixation is apparently the fact that gender choice is now being made earlier in childhood, that everything kids learn today in high school and college is focused on identity so that they lack the understanding of citizenship and miss the importance of how our founding fathers' granted us the many rights we have, and an anecdotal observation based on what he read in the European media versus the American. He then brings up the old criticism that is heaped on every losing campaign, that it did not have an overarching message that captured "Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny". He then ends the piece by saying that the "whitelash" theory on the election "absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by 'political correctness'." 

Then yesterday, the media pushed this meme even further in implying that Bernie Sanders reiterated this thinking when he responded to a Latina's question by saying, "One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics." That sounds like Bernie is on board with Lilla's approach. Of course, what was left out was what he said before he got around to that part of his answer, namely, "It goes without saying that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political processLatinas, African-Americans, Native Americansall of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen. But it is not good enough for somebody to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina. Vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country and is going to take on big-money interests." I'm not sure there is any progressive out there who doesn't agree with that.

To my mind, identity politics and concern with the working and middle class is two sides of the same coin. First of all, most of the groups that are subsumed in identity politics are members of the working class, in particular. One side of the coin is focused on the civil rights of all Americans and fighting the continued discrimination at all levels in this country. When women get equal pay for equal work, that helps the working class. When minorities can get equal access to loans and capital, that helps the working class. When the LGBTQ community is accepted into the mainstream of our society, that helps the working class. Perhaps not all of these changes will specifically help the white working class, but certainly most of them will. Lilla seems particularly blind to this reality. On the flip side of the coin is an economic message that is almost blind to identity politics. Obamacare, even with the flaws inflicted by the GOP, helps the working class. Providing free public education through college will help the working class. Raising taxes on the 1% to pay for improved infrastructure will help the working class. Providing high speed broadband across the country will help the working and middle class. Paid family and medical leave helps the working and middle class. Increasing the overtime cutoff to $46,000 helps the working class. I could go on and on. But you get the idea. These were all issues that Hillary ran on and they all would have had a positive impact for the working and middle class. You can argue that her economic message was not strong enough or didn't get through, but that has nothing to do with identity politics. In fact, Hillary's closing argument to the country by saying, "This is about more than winning an election; it's about the kind of country we want for our kids and grandkids." That certainly sounds like the uplifting theme that Lilla was looking for. And then came the Comey letter.

Lilla's piece, in particular, is so frustrating and annoying. I'm not sure what the Democratic party can do about the curriculum in high school and college. Does he propose that part of the party platform is to abandon Women's Studies or African American History departments in universities? I hope not. And Hillary's campaign slogan of "Stronger Together" seems like a repudiation of everything he says about her in the piece. As Lilla himself point out, "the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists." For him, this example shows that liberals must give up identity politics. Somehow, I think this proves just the opposite. Ever since the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s, the Republican party has been trying to cleave the white working class away from the rest of the working class. They have been playing identity politics for decades. Despite what Lilla may believe, the Trump campaign's open support of white nationalism seems to have had a greatest effect in the areas that were least diverse. Lilla may be correct in interpreting that fact as meaning  the people in those areas "think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored." But, again, I reach the opposite conclusion from Lilla who states, "[s]uch people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country)." I rather happen to thing they are.

The structure of American "democracy" gives enormous power to small and rural states and, because of that, it is easy to reach certain conclusions based on a result that is basically undemocratic. The Democratic message will have received more than 2 million more votes that its opponents. But, in order to win elections in the current structure, Democrats will have to become more forceful with the economic message that appeals to all the working class. And there will certainly be opportunity to do that as the GOP is already abandoning many of its promises to the working class in order to cater to their business interest and the 1%. But there is no reason to abandon civil rights and strictly focus on economic populism. The two actually go hand in hand.

Monday, November 21, 2016

France Will Fall To Right Wing Populists And Germany May Not Be Far Behind

Way back in May, even before the vote on Brexit, I posted that this seemed like a year where revolutionary change driven by an almost global sea of discontent would sweep the world. And, with Brexit and the election of the charlatan Donald Trump, it appears that is so. And now it looks like France will be the next country that will fall to xenophobic, right-wing nationalism. Over the weekend in France, the first round for the election of the center-right candidate produced another surprise winner, Francois Fillon. Fillon, who had long been languishing in third place behind the second place finisher Alain Juppe and Nicolas Sarkozy, pulled off a surprisingly strong victory. Fillon finished with 44%, Juppe at 28%, and Sarkozy at 21%. Sarkozy has now been eliminated and Juppe and Fillon will battle in a second round to determine who will represent the center-right in France's Presidential election next year. The disastrous administration of Francois Hollande has thoroughly discredited the Socialists and, as a result, the left will not even be a factor in the upcoming election. That will leave the winner of the runoff to face Marine Le Pen, the leader of the xenophobic, anti-EU, nationalist National Front party for France's President.

Juppe represents more of an establishment candidate, with a centrist, inclusive, and integrationist message. Fillon, on the other hand, wooed the same more right-wing voters as Sarkozy. Fillon promised to expand the number of prisons, create an anti-terrorism judicial unit, and strip French citizenship from those participating in jihad. Considering that France is already working under a state of emergency that is still in place from the attacks in Paris, Fillon is promising an even more aggressive and repressive approach. On the economic front, Fillon promises to eliminate over half a million public sector jobs, eliminate the 35 hour work week, and introduce the ever popular "structural reforms" that will reduce the burdens on business. Internationally, he also is looking to improve relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin.

Sarkozy has already thrown his support behind Fillon whose policies largely resembled his own, making Fillon the prohibitive favorite in the runoff. Assuming Fillon prevails, the choice for France would then be between Fillon and Le Pen. As Le Pen has already pointed out, Fillon's won largely on the themes that have driven the popularity of the National Front - French identity, a crackdown on immigration, law and order, and a reset of France's role in Europe. The election would then seem to come down between a choice between the National Front and Fillon's version of almost a National Front lite. Along with Fillon's distinct lack of charisma, it is hard to see how Marine Le Pen will not become the next President of France.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Angela Merkel has agreed to run for a fourth term as Chancellor in national elections later next year. Merkel, who is now regarded as one of the last bastions of traditional Western liberalism, will have a real challenge to win another term. There will be the usual challenge from the left but Merkel's most powerful opposition will come from the right wing Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party. AfD has pulled off a number of surprisingly strong results in recent regional and local elections, putting into doubt whether Merkel would even run for re-election. AfD is another populist, anti-immigrant party and it now has seats in 10 of Germany's 16 regional parliaments. Merkel has been Chancellor for the last 11 years and leads the current centrist, coalition government. But that government has no natural successors. As one member of Merkel's CDU party pointed out, the upcoming elections will be very difficult to win but virtually impossible if Merkel was not running. It is clear that AfD will gain even more seats and will become a force in shaping whatever governing coalition emerges from the upcoming elections.

European leaders are finally coming to grips with the fact that the European experiment is in danger of collapsing. Last week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared, "Europe is in danger of falling apart." But the current European leaders have only themselves to blame for the current situation. Not only do they have to deal with the rising wave of nationalism that is apparently sweeping the world but they have also been unable to confront the problems confronting the structural problems that have long plagued the European Union. The straight-jacket of the Euro and the continued emphasis on self-destructive austerity has just fed into the rise of xenophobia and right-wing nationalism. Just as in the US and Britain, the failure of the economic elites to deal with the fallout of globalization, technological disruption, and the declining standard of living for the have-nots has created the perfect breeding ground for the rise of populist nationalism. It represents the complete failure of the neo-liberal order of the last 25 or 30 years. And we will all suffer terribly for their total failure.

Democrats Must Learn How To Be A True Opposition Party - And Quick

It really has not been an auspicious start for the Democrats since the election. Somehow, they must learn to become a real opposition party, united against the extremism and corruption presented by a Trump administration and Republican control of Congress. That means that Senate and House Democrats must, with few exceptions, speak as one voice and focus on the negative aspects of a Trump administration and their determination to obstruct those policies in every possible way, even at the expense of minimizing their own positive message. Of course, the press will lambaste Democrats for going negative but that strategy worked quite well for Republicans and it will work quite well for Democrats if, and this is the big if, they can frame these questions in the right way and stay on message.

So far, the indications have not been encouraging. It is certainly understandable that Democrats' initial responses to the election focused on perhaps building unity and finding potential common ground with a President Trump. Even Elizabeth Warren went there, saying, "We’re going to stand up and say there’s a lot we’ll try to work with you on, there are a lot of places where there are going to have to be compromises,” At least she qualified that remark by continuing, "But on those core issues about treating every single human being in this country with dignity, on that we stand up and we fight back. We do not back down. We do not compromise, not today, not tomorrow, not ever." Some Democrats were less equivocal with that kind of qualification. Part of that was just the mistaken belief, for the umpteenth time in this election, that Trump might "pivot" to the center now that he had to actually govern.

But if Democrats didn't realize Trump would govern as he campaigned (and history shows that virtually every President has) when he appointed white nationalist Steve Bannon as his senior adviser, they should be in no doubt after the appointments of Flynn, Session, and Pompeo. The response of senior Democrats to these appointment was unnecessarily weak. Charles Schumer, asked about Jeff Sessions, stated, "It's premature to make any decisions but, except to say a very thorough and tough vetting for a Senate colleague, as well as for anybody else." It is hard to say how wrong this answer is. The default position for Schumer and the Democrats should be that Sessions is clearly unqualified for Attorney General based on his past racist comments and views, especially considering the parlous state of racial relations that the Trump campaign has further inflamed, and it will be up to Sessions to show us otherwise in his confirmation hearings. And never mention the words "Senate colleague" about a Republican - it just feeds the narrative of the old boys club. Warren came closest to a proper response when she said, "Instead of embracing the bigotry that fueled his campaign rallies, I urge President-elect Trump to reverse his apparent decision to nominate Senator Sessions to be Attorney General of the United States. If he refuses, then it will fall to the Senate to exercise fundamental moral leadership for our nation and all of its people...Thirty years ago, a different Republican Senate rejected Senator Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship. In doing so, that Senate affirmed that there can be no compromise with racism; no negotiation with hate. Today, a new Republican Senate must decide whether self-interest and political cowardice will prevent them from once again doing what is right." The only thing I might have changed in that statement would be to say that Democrats will not compromise with racism and hate and expect Republicans to join them.

A second area where Democrats are also playing a weak game is in this idea of embracing the progressive ideas that Trump was able to essentially "steal" from the Democrats in this campaign. Schumer, now one of the principal voices for Democrats, showed that poor approach in comments today, saying, "Surprisingly, on certain issues, candidate Trump voiced very progressive and populist opinions. For instance, getting rid of the carried interest loophole, changing our trade laws dramatically, a large infrastructure bill...I hope on the promises he's made to blue collar America on trade, on carried interest, on infrastructure, that he'll stick with them and work with us, even if it means breaking with the Republicans who have always opposed these things." He is not the first Democrat to talk about working with Trump on an infrastructure bill. Pelosi, Warren, and Sanders have all mentioned it. But you have to wonder if any of them have actually read Trump's infrastructure plan, which he only introduced days before the election. It is less of a plan to rebuild than it is just another give-away of tax dollars and the public commons to private enterprise. It is in no way an infrastructure plan as most people define it. At its core is the development of public-private partnerships (PPP). These "partnerships" essentially provide tax credits for private companies to invest in mostly already planned infrastructure projects. With that government backing, the private companies would be able to lower their cost of borrowing, a tax credit of 82% of the equity they put in, and will get paid primarily through higher usage and end-user fees such as bridge and highway tolls or higher water rates, etc. It is basically a plan to privatize our public infrastructure. As Jordan Weissmann points out in the above linked article, this will actually encourage even more investment in high wealth areas where private companies believe customers can afford the higher usage fees. And it would do nothing for poorer areas that need infrastructure development more than ever or for those kinds of infrastructure where there is little or no return, such as infrastructure to improve more isolated and less populated areas.  It is just another con-job on Americans just like Trump University. Why any Democrat would be for this is beyond me. So it is beyond me why we would already be agreeing to work with Trump on his infrastructure plan. But Democratic leaders are now already on record as supporting a Trump infrastructure plan. And those words will come back to haunt them.

Democrats could be in similar bad situation with Schumer's comments on the carried interest loophole and trade laws. Trump could easily eliminate the carried interest loophole as part of a horrible tax bill that will be a give away to the 1%. And who knows what kind of rewrite Trump can and will make to existing trade deals. But Democrats are now already on record as perhaps being interested in helping Trump accomplish those unknown objectives and now may be partially responsible for any negative outcomes.

The Democratic message since day one should have more in line with the tone that Harry Reid took in the aftermath of the election. He was right on point when he stated, "If this is going to be a time of healing, we must first put the responsibility for healing where it belongs: at the feet of Donald Trump, a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate. Winning the electoral college does not absolve Trump of the grave sins he committed against millions of Americans." The default position for every Democrat should be that he is a racist, xenophobic, sexual predator and swindler whose limited and sometimes vague policy proposals never added up. He has continually lied to the American people. We will not allow Trump to destroy our civil rights, sell our foreign policy to the Russians, break his promises on Medicare and Social Security or give massive tax breaks to the rich. We expect Trump's proposals will not, in fact, help the middle class but will certainly consider any of his proposals that actually do. He does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. He will have to show us he really means to help the middle class and be a President for all Americans.

I certainly have no love for Frank Luntz but he has taught Republicans how to frame an issue and build a narrative. Phrases like the "death tax" and even "climate change" may be Orwellian but they have been effective. And Republicans have marched in lockstep to his message for years. Democrats have never paid enough attention to framing and they constantly neglect to speak with one voice. Sure, we can always expect a guy like Joe Manchin to go off the reservation. But Schumer, Pelosi, Warren, Sanders, and most of the remaining members of the Democratic caucus need to get and stay on the same message. The default position must be that it is up to Trump to prove he has serious, positive proposals because his campaign and his business life has shown otherwise, that he is a liar and a swindler. And, on every issue, they must stick to that position. That will take discipline that has long been lacking from the Democratic party.

Media Failure Continues

Jamison Foser highlights the difference in coverage that the New York Times gave Comey's letter versus the announcement that Trump had agreed to settle the Trump University lawsuit, which included a $1 million payment for violating New York State education law. Notice anything different about how much and where the coverage is placed:

Already, Trump has started to merge his business interests and his Presidential duties by soliciting foreign delegations to use his Trump Hotel in DC and attending to his business interests in India. Meanwhile the Philippines appoints his business partner there as its new trade envoy to the US, an example of how foreign governments will actually use Trump's business interests to advance their own agenda with the President. Today, the Times at least has a front page article on Trump mixing his business affairs with the office of the Presidency, but with the watered-down headline of "Trump Brand And Statecraft: A Hazy Divide". It is quite clear, not hazy, that there currently is no divide between Trump's business interests and his role as President. And having his children run his businesses will do nothing to actually create even the hazy divide that the Times wishes it could see.

If the media is going to continually downplay Trump's corruption as it did during the campaign, then we are truly be doomed to becoming just another kleptocracy.

Your Week In Trump Outrages - The Grift Begins

Donald Trump took the next steps in mixing his business affairs and the office of the President of the United States. Earlier last week, Trump's hotel in DC began soliciting foreign delegations to use the facility for their business. As Josh Marshall points out, this is probably in violation of Article 1 of the Constitution. And he also make the important point that because Trump has not divested himself from his business, foreigners are even more likely to ingratiate themselves with our President by advancing his business interests. As an example, Trump's business partner in the Philippines being named the country's trade envoy to the US.

Also during the week, Trump took time out from his busy schedule that "forced" him to settle the Trump University lawsuit in order to meet with his business partners in India to discuss expanding Trump's business in that country.  Besides the fact that Trump continues to transact business overseas as President-elect, what is more shocking is that apparently the American media was unaware of this meeting until it was reported by an Indian newspaper.

Later in the week, Trump met with Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were also in attendance. Ivanka and Kushner are, of course, two of the family that will be "running" Trump's businesses in the Trump version of a "blind trust" while he is President.

On Saturday, Trump met with Mitt Romney for an apparently wide-ranging and substantive discussion. Romney has been floated as a possible Secretary of State, but I'll believe it when I see it. Romney has rightly decried Trump's divisive rhetoric during the campaign and clearly recognizes that fact that he is a fraud. Why he would provide cover for Trump by even agreeing to meet with him is beyond me but it just shows how spineless and lacking conviction the leadership of the Republican party has become and how that institution has collapsed as a positive force for democracy and is now just a vehicle for power and greed.

And, to cap it off, on Sunday, Reince Priebus refused to rule out the possibility that the Trump administration would implement a Muslim registry. You have to watch the video to see just how uncomfortable Priebus was with the question and how unsure he was about how to handle it. Mike Pence then followed that up by specifically not ruling out the possibility that the Trump administration would order the use of torture. When asked about whether Trump would re-authorize waterboarding, Pence responded, "President Donald Trump is going to focus on confronting and defeating radical Islamic terrorism as a threat to this country. We're going to have a president again who will never say what we'll never do."

The values of America and its democracy continue to sink into the abyss. And it's only just begun.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Natural Weekends - More Summer Friends

Continuing this week's theme of the last bits of summer, here some more animal friends that I met up with this summer. This slightly out-of-focus little chipmunk get a close eye on me from behind his tree-root bunker. And the (red-bellied?) woodpecker was working on (what I surmise) is a winter food storage space - he already had made quite a nice hole in the tree.