Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Monday, August 21, 2017

Astronomy Adventure - Open Clusters

Photos of open clusters Messier 7...

and Messier 6

Note To Readers

Light blogging for the next few days as I work on another project and revamping the site. Hopefully, something to look forward to...

You can follow me on twitter as I will probably be a little more active there.

Since there will be light blogging, I'm expecting the worst from Donald Trump. He never disappoints in that regard.

Preparing For The Solar Eclipse Today

Depending on where you are today, there will either be a total or partial solar eclipse. PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN DIRECTLY AT ANY POINT DURING THE ECLIPSE! Here are a few tips to safely view the eclipse if you do not have the proper eye protection.

Here is an initial test of the solar filter I will be using on my camera during the eclipse:


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Natural Weekends - Feathered Friends

Looks like it is time for a little repair to the osprey nest!

And a heron looks for lunch...

Friday, August 18, 2017

Power Of Military In Trump Administration May Indicate Failure Of Democracy

Joy Reid had Larry Wilkerson on the other night and noted the irony of having generals, in the form of Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis, essentially being the responsible parties in the current administration in keeping civilian control of government. I can only paraphrase Wilkerson's response but it was that this was typical of empires that relied on the projection of military power as they began to fail. The military leaders were the only ones who were seen as having the competence and ability to run the empire. We're not there yet, but it is another frightening sign that our democracy could well be failing, with the resulting rise in the appeal of authoritarianism.

Share Of GDP Going To Profits Is Increasing, Highlighting Need For Strong Antitrust Enforcement

Kevin Drum had an interesting post the other day about the share of GDP that goes to labor and capital. We have known that the share of GDP going to labor has been shrinking for the past thirty years. The assumption has also been that the decreasing share of GDP going to labor was going to capital. But a recent study indicates that capital's share has also been decreasing as well, both dropping by around 5% since the mid-1970s.

So, if both labor and capital's share of GDP are decreasing, what's making up the difference? Corporate profits. And the main reason that corporate profits have increased is that the markup that corporations take on the items they sell has risen to 67% today from 18% in the 1970s. And corporations have gotten away with these outrageous markups primarily because of deregulation, technology, and increased market concentration and power. With labor costs low and easily replaced by technology and most industries dominated by oligopolies who have incredible market power, the environment for generating large profits that gets passed on to shareholders. For many of these companies, there is simply no real competition to undercut these outrageous markups.

This has two important implications. First, it should make clear that offering massive tax cuts to corporations in order to keep jobs or bring jobs to your locality is a fool's errand. The corporations certainly don't need these tax breaks to be competition. And most of these massive tax breaks will be used to further automation within the company and reduce the total number of jobs, in essence paying the company to take more jobs away. You can see this with the Carrier deal in Indiana and the Foxconn deal in Wisconsin. And these corporations certainly don't need another tax cut or even an extra incentive to repatriate their offshore profits. What they really need is an incentive to invest, something that can be accomplished by actually increasing the taxes on their profits.

More importantly, this once again highlights the need for stronger antitrust enforcement, a key plank in the Democratic "Better Deal" plan. Stronger antitrust enforcement will increase real competition, leading to reduced markups which means lower prices. It will mean an increase in jobs as new companies are able to enter existing markets and a resulting increase in wages as competition for workers increases. It will reduce corporate profits which will reduce at least minimally reduce income inequality as well as constrict some the political power of these corporate behemoths. As I've said before, what other single policy can give hit as many important political points as this.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The GOP Assault On Voting Rights Continue

I have written many times about the erosion of our democracy under the relentless attacks from Republicans for the last quarter century at least. Under Trump, the assault on voting rights is actually increasing on both the federal and state levels.

In Indiana, Republican members of local election boards have continually blocked the extension of early voting in the most heavily Democratic district in the state. Meanwhile, early voting in predominately Republican areas has actually increased, resulting in higher early voting turnout among Republicans and lower turnout among Democrats.

The reason this could happen is that state law requires the extension of early voting to be unanimously approved by local election boards. Democrats, who actually believe in the right to vote and extension of the franchise, will approve early voting in Republican as well as Democratic districts. Republicans, on the other hand, rely on voter suppression to maintain their grip on power and routinely block early voting in heavily Democratic districts.

Meanwhile, down in Texas, federal courts have ruled that the election districts in that state were illegally racially gerrymandered for the seventh time since 2011, when the original illegal maps were drawn. After those original maps were challenged in court, new maps went into effect in 2013. After another four years of legal wrangling, those maps have now also been ruled illegal. In effect, elements of the Texas electorate have been voting under an illegal and unconstitutional system for the last three election cycles. And there is no redress for that.

This sets up yet another battle as the state is now required to draw new maps for the 2018 election. The GOP strategy to resolve this issue in the near term will probably to engage in more legal delaying tactics, trying to drag the process out so that the existing maps will have to be used once again in 2018. It is a tactic that was successfully used in North Carolina previously.

On the federal level, Trump's "Electoral Integrity" Commission is determined to scrub as many voters from the polls as it can. In addition, it refuses to fight the increased requirement of voter ID as well as state election roll purges.

The anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College combined with the Republican reliance on voter suppression to continue to win elections is making our country less and less democratic each day. And, accordingly, the faith that our citizens have in democracy is falling.

Trump's Legislative Failures Hide The Damage Being Done At Federal Agencies

While there is rightly a lot of focus on just how little the Republicans and Donald Trump are getting accomplished legislatively, there is still an enormous amount of damage being done with only the use of executive power. From climate change and other environmental issues to voting rights to turning over the airwaves to right wing propagandists, Trump and his executioners are doing real damage, damage that will take years to rebuild.

Scott Pruitt, working under lock and key and surrounded by armed guards, has been systematically removing data from the EPA web site, eliminating monitoring of oil and gas well emissions, and ordering the economic benefits of wetlands to be removed from any analysis of the protection of large bodies of water implemented by the Obama administration. In addition, Pruitt is also planning to water down the limits on water pollution from coal-fired power plants, another rule implemented by the Obama administration. As one environmental lawyer cried, "It’s hard to believe that our government officials right now are so beholden to big business that they are willing to let power plants continue to dump lead, mercury, chromium and other dangerous chemicals into our water supply." Welcome to the Republican party and the Trump administration.

Over at the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions is leading the continual attack on innocent undocumented aliens, refusing to defend voting rights, and going after colleges and universities over mythical "reverse discrimination". His latest attack on civil rights was to demand 1.3 million IP addresses accessing an anti-Trump website that was trying to organize protests at Donald Trump's inauguration.

Meanwhile, the goals of Trump's  "Election Integrity" Commission, headed by Mike Pence and Kris Kobach and abetted by Sessions at the DOJ, have made their goals quite clear and that is to make sure that state and local election boards remove as many people from the voting rolls as humanly possible on the flimsiest of grounds. The aim of the commission is to "prove" there are far more registered voters on the rolls than are actually eligible to vote and force the election boards to purge those rolls. Those purges will inevitably lead to eligible voters being unwittingly or illegally purged.

There are plenty of other terrible policies being implemented across a wide variety of federal agencies headed by Trump's oligarchic cabinet. And, like Pruitt at the EPA, much of the dirty work is being done as far under the radar as possible because they know none of it will be popular. The changes these agencies make have no basis in facts or policy and will cause lasting damage. that damage will cause the next Democratic President, whomever that may be, to waste valuable time and resources merely rebuilding what the Trump team has destroyed. But that is pretty much the general GOP policy these days.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

GOP Supply-Side Policies Devastate Another State - New Mexico

We already know that GOP supply-side economic policies have decimated the state of Kansas and are currently having a detrimental effect in Wisconsin where Scott Walker is trying to get the state's taxpayers to potentially pay around $1 million per job for around 3,000 Foxconn jobs. We can also add New Mexico to the list of failing states that follow GOP economic policies.

Ever since the Republican Susan Martinez became governor and began implementing tax cuts and deregulation, the state has fallen farther and farther behind its competitive neighbors. Now the state is losing population at an extraordinary rate, an incredible feat for a Sunbelt state in an era where retiring baby boomers are flocking to the region.

In the prior six years, 53,000 more people actually left New Mexico than moved in and it was only new births that allowed the state's population to grown by just 1.1%. That compares to population growth anywhere of 4.6% and 10.8% for its three neighboring states, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona. In addition, the majority of the people leaving the state were working age adults between the ages of 30 and 60.

Part of this exodus is due to the fact that the state is more reliant than most on government funding for its major employers such as hospitals, universities, and research laboratories. Martinez's commitment to balanced budgets, deregulation, and tax cuts have unsurprisingly put those employers under pressure and led to reduced funding for basic services such as health care and education, making the state a less attractive place to live. In addition, again unsurprisingly, the tax cuts have not generated the jobs that Martinez promised.

According to various surveys, New Mexico was rated the worst state to live in and ranked in the bottom five in terms of opportunity and education. With a declining labor force participation rate, anemic population growth, and Martinez's supply-side policies, those ratings are unlikely to get much better any time soon. That is truly hard to believe for a beautiful state in the Sunbelt and once again shows the failure of GOP economic policies.

Trump Poses Another Test For Republicans; They Will Fail Again

After Donald Trump's racist rant yesterday, it seems that we have crossed another threshold of shock and outrage that is all too familiar with the President. We heard his racist bile, equating neo-Nazis with those protesting against them. We heard him equating a treasonous and racist Civil War military leader who was in part responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans with the founders of our country. We saw his unrestrained, uncontrolled, and vicious anger. And our immediate reaction is that this can not stand. But, sadly, it will.

Yesterday afternoon felt almost exactly like the immediate aftermath of the Access Hollywood tape where Trump admitted to being a serial sexual predator and when we also thought that Republican support would melt away. But it didn't.

There were forceful statements from Marco Rubio, John McCain, and even Paul Ryan decrying bigotry and hatred and declaring that this is not what the country stands for. But as David Jolly pointed out on Last Word last night, none of those statements denounced Donald Trump for his racist rhetoric and views. And until Republican leaders do that, their words are almost meaningless.

Unless I'm mistaken, it appears that Mitch McConnell has retreated inside his shell once again. And most of the GOP Congressional caucus has joined him in silence. Their silence speaks volumes, making it clear that, even if they actually oppose racism, hatred, and bigotry, which is a real question for many of them, they are still quite happy to have their Republican party have a racist bigot as their standard bearer. In addition, they realize that the core base of support in their party actually believes everything that Trump says and, overtly or tacitly, endorses the racism and bigotry he represents. To oppose Trump is to put their own election in jeopardy. So they stand silent. And so it will continue.

Even Republicans with a conscience, an apparently rare breed indeed, have nowhere to go right now. There is no way to tackle an attempt to remove Trump with the budget and debt ceiling battles needing to be resolved in the next month or two. And that's ignoring that tax cuts that their corporate and oligarchic overlords are counting on them to produce. So, once again, they will give Trump a pass.

Even a token gesture, such as resigning from the Republican party and becoming an Independent would at least be some sort of signal of real opposition to the white nationalist turn of the Republican party. Instead, we just get wonderful words, devoid of any real power or impact. And soon we will move on to the next Trump atrocity and do it all again.

These Congressional Republicans knew exactly what they were getting. From the "Mexican rapists" to Judge Curiel to Gold Star families to a Muslim ban to "inner city carnage", Trump's racism and bigotry was on full display. Whether they believed he personally felt that way or was trying to gain political advantage is irrelevant and now moot as he has shown his true colors. Those Republican leaders and the nearly 63 million people who voted for this monster all knew exactly what they were getting. And they all supported him anyway.

Yesterday, Trump posed another test for the Republican party. It is the same test that he posed when he attacked John McCain, Judge Curiel, Khizr and Ghazala Kahn, and admitted to being a serial sexual predator. It is the same test that he posed when he claimed he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in broad daylight and still not lose support. In all those cases, the Republican party failed the test. It will be no different today.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

New Report Shows Russians Repeatedly Trying To Open Channels To Trump Campaign

A Washington Post report today details that the Russians contacted the Trump campaign on multiple occasions in the hope of getting the Trump team to meet with Putin at some point down the road. The Post report focuses on a young staffer named George Papadopoulos who repeatedly sent messages to senior campaign officials passing along his Russian contacts' desire to set up a meeting between Russian officials and the Trump team. Papadopoulos was one of Trump's original group of foreign policy advisers, along with Carter Page and others.

Those meeting requests were rebuffed by the senior figures in the Trump campaign and that is now being used by the Trump team to support their accusation that the Russian story is a hoax. Paul Manafort's spokesman said the fact that these attempts were rebuffed shows "concrete evidence that the Russia collusion narrative is fake news."

While it is true that the Post report shows no collusion, it still creates some rather large issues for the Trump team. Obviously, the fact that the Russians continued to probe the Trump campaign even after being rebuffed on multiple occasions shows that they believed that at some point the campaign might play ball with them. And that clearly happened with the meeting they were able to set up with Don Jr. in exchange for promised dirt on Hillary. Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns claim they were not similarly targeted by the Russians.

In addition, the Post reports that Manafort, Sam Clovis, Charles Kubic, and Corey Lewandowski, all senior members of the Trump campaign at one point or another, were all aware of these meeting requests and were included in the decision to rebuff them. That, however, creates the rather interesting question about why the Trump team continues to lie about the contacts they had with Russian interests during the campaign even to this day. Clearly, all four of those people, some of whom have made blanket denials about the campaign's Russian contacts, know that those denials are clearly false.

Lastly, despite Manafort's claim that the Post report shows no collusion, it is entirely plausible to speculate that the Trump team already had established contacts with the Russians and rebuffed this pressure specifically not to highlight the relationship that might already exist. Another plausible explanation is that these attempts to force a meeting were actually a way for the Russians to pressure Trump, knowing they had dirt on him. Or, more likely, it could simply be that these were initial attempts that were rebuffed but eventually the Trump team did agree to meet with these Russian interests later in the campaign. We certainly know that happened with Don Jr.'s meeting.

The most important takeaway from this story, however, is that there is yet more evidence that the Trump campaign was repeatedly being contacted by the Russians. Whether or not those contacts were rebuffed, the Trump team continues to lie about those contacts and downplay them as the details emerge, creating an indelible impression that they really have something to hide.

Sinclair TV Deal Will Enable Right Wing Propaganda To Be A Force In All But Print Media

I just wanted to do a quick follow up to my post about the Sinclair Broadcasting deal with the FCC to purchase another 42 TV channels that would give the company access to nearly 75% of American viewers and how this transaction was just another step toward government "managed media", similar to what Putin has built in Russia.

Kevin Drum kindly points out that we are probably a lot closer to that reality than we think. With the conservative leaning Clear Channel dominating radio with right wing talk shows and Fox News clearly being a force in cable news, the addition of Sinclair would provide the right wing propaganda machine with a triple threat. As Drum says, "Fox News (cable news), Sinclair (broadcast TV), and Clear Channel (AM radio) are essentially state media in the Trump era. That’s a mighty useful thing for a demagogue to have."

Monday, August 14, 2017

US Business Executives Refuse To Stand Up To Trump

It is appears that even leaders of the Republican party have more political courage than the current crop of business "leaders" in our country today. Besides the lone voice of protest from the African-American CEO of Merck, that deafening silence you hear is the rest of the business community's silence in the face of Donald Trump's refusal, once again, to denounce his supporters on the racist far right. At least a handful of GOP Senators managed to say publicly that Trump's statements over the weekend were totally insufficient and enabling the alt-right. No such equivalent has arisen in the business community.

Yes, Trump finally came out today and made a relatively forceful statement but that was after two days of outrage over his refusal to do so. Today's words were the equivalent of a child being forced to apologize for abusive behavior and, when he or she eventually does so, everyone knows that it is not sincere. In addition, Trump followed up that statement of criticism of the far right by apparently floating the idea of pardoning the racist Sherriff Joe Arpaio.

Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck, resigned from the American Manufacturing Council, a presidential advisory council, saying, "America’s leaders must honor our fundamental views by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal." Of course, Trump's response to this resignation was to viciously attack the CEO, tweeting "Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council,he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!"

Of course, Trump could address the issue of high drug prices by asking Congress to allow Medicare/Medicaid to negotiate directly with the drug makers. But there is no chance of that happening. Instead, as he always does, Trump will do nothing to alleviate the problem, and blame everyone else instead.

Besides Mr. Frazier, business leaders have condemned the violence and hatred in Charlottesville, but there has been almost universal silence about Trump's clear enabling of the far right racism. Tom Glocer, the former CEO of Thomson Reuters gave his clear support to Mr. Frazier, saying "Ken has stood up for true American values. I call on all other members of Trump’s image-burnishing committees to do the same." But you will note that Mr. Glocer is a former chairman and it appears that not many other business executives are heeding his call.

A prime example of how cowardly these business leaders are is one executive who refused to be named who said "Just look at what he [Trump] did to Ken [Frazier]. I’m not sticking my head up." As Larry Summers said back in June, "At what point as a patriot is your allegiance to your country rather to your president? I’ve always thought of my allegiance as a patriot as being to my country." Too bad the rest of his peers in the business community have long given up on that concept. From offshoring jobs to massive tax evasion and/or avoidance to hoarding profits while screwing workers, the words "American" and "business leaders" have basically become an oxymoron.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Charlottesville: Inspired By Trump, Enabled By The GOP

Donald Trump's tepid response to the fatal violence of the white nationalists in Charlottesville yesterday is par for the course for Trump. From not leasing to black tenants at his rental properties to his birtherism to the Muslim ban, Trump has shown his racist streak his entire life. But the Republican party has been playing footsie with these groups since the Democrats threw the racists out of their party in the 1960s and Nixon decided to capitalize on that politically via the "Southern strategy", which has been a staple of every GOP presidential campaign since then.

Yesterday, David Duke said, "This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back." While the white nationalists may have found their voice again because of Trump, they only believe they can "take their country back" because the Republican party has been telling them that for the last 50 years. The "promises" Duke pledges to fulfill are promises that have been made by Republican party for decades and that the alt-right actually believes Trump will help deliver on.

Steve Bannon explained why the Trump campaign was never concerned about Trump's associations with and support from the white nationalists, saying "We polled the race stuff and it doesn't matter. It doesn't move anyone who's not already in her [Hillary Clinton's] camp". In simply and starker words, Trump's Republican supporters who were not already racists did not care that the leader of their party was probably also a racist and that their party was actively seeking the support of racists. They would still pull the lever for Trump.

So, while Trump's refusal to denounce the white nationalist violence yesterday may seem extreme, it really represents the attitude of not only the core of his support but also the core of support for the Republican party. No doubt, some "friend" of Trump will come forward and tell us he's not a racist. But even in the unlikely event that it is true, he is clearly willing to tolerate racists and use racism to his advantage. And the same is true for a large portion of the Republican party writ large. While we should certainly condemn Trump and highlight those few Republican leaders who have spoken out against this racist violence, we should also be crystal clear about where the heart of the Republican party stands.

Natural Weekends - Red Skies

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Chauncey Gardiner Presidency, Without The Supposed Wisdom

When Trump was elected, I wrote that we should focus far less on anything he says and far more on the things that he actually does. And the events of the last week show just how relevant that rather mundane observation has been. It should be clear by now that virtually every word that Trump utters these days is, excuse my language, total bullshit. It is clear that many foreign leaders already know this but, unfortunately and dangerously, it is unclear whether all of them do. But it is time that the mainstream media reaches that same conclusion and treats his words with as little respect as they deserve and focuses purely on the actions of his administration.

Despite all the rhetoric about North Korea, there is no indication that American forces are mobilizing in any way for an attack on that country. Nor are there massive and intense efforts at protecting American forces and soil from attack from the North Koreans other than what has been built up over the last few decades and a few newly deployed anti-missile systems. His threats against Venezuela are equally vapid. And in both cases, other officials in the administration have mitigated the importance of, or even directly contradicted, the President's words.

There are reports of back-channel negotiations with the North Koreans and the Chinese and those negotiations may be driving the Monday Trump press conference. Those are the details that are truly important and Trump's over-the-top rhetoric is probably more aimed at his domestic base than at the North Koreans. That's assuming, of course, Trump's words have any intention at all, other than perhaps distracting us from the Russia investigation.

It has been the same on the domestic front as well. The Muslim ban was real. The transgender ban is apparently just more Trump bloviating. The constant spouting of repeal and replace was largely crafted by Congressional Republicans with no input, understanding, or even advocacy from the President. His statements about infrastructure and even tax reform are never backed up by any details or programs. Meanwhile, the deportation of undocumented immigrants, whether criminal or not, continues. His words mean nothing. The actions of his administration do.

Like all Presidents, there are plenty of speeches or meeting about nothing at all of substance. But, Trump, with his tweeting and apparently general ignorance, takes to ranting and raving about all sorts of matters with no follow-up. In addition, there is no focus. In the beginning, I figured he would be tweeting and touting every new job that was created during his administration, but that disappeared, like so many Trump initiatives, in just a week or so. The administration has had weeks upon weeks of policy themes like infrastructure week or jobs week, but Trump can't even stay on those topics for more than an hour or two before he is off creating chaos in a totally different direction.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of horrible policies Trump and his cronies are implementing from the gutting of the EPA to mass deportations to stacking the federal judiciary with Federalist Society clones. And yes, he does talk about these things rarely. And there may come a time when Trump does follow up his irrational statements with irrational actions, like doing the unthinkable and attacking North Korea. But we should not take every statement he makes as indicating any intention other than opening his mouth and allowing a few words to spill out.

Trump is the real Chauncey Gardiner President, addicted to TV and ignorant of the world. But, rather than having Chance's innate wisdom from working in the natural world, Trump only knows the bluster and dominance and the need to feed his enormous ego. He may be President, but that doesn't mean we should have to listen to him. We should only watch what he does.

Natural Weekends - Hawks

Friday, August 11, 2017

July Inflation Is Soft Again But Fed Seems Intent On Raising Rates

In the wake of another positive employment report for July, with over 200,000 new jobs created and average hourly earnings up by 9 cents, it appears that the Fed is prepared to continue with its planned rate hike or even hikes before the end of the year. But today's inflation numbers might want to make them think a little harder about that plan, even though it is doubtful they will.

The CPI came in at a 2.0% annualized rate, CPI less food and energy is at 1.7%, and Core CPI was at 1.4%. All of these numbers are incredibly soft and, in fact, there is only one inflation measure that exceeds the Fed's 2% target, and remember, that is just a target.

According to Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari, the other Fed members have this unsubstantiated belief that higher hourly wage growth is signifying a sudden outburst of inflation. Kashkari, who has dissented from the last two rate hikes, calls this a "ghost story". He said, "there is no evidence in any of the data that wages have this acceleration factor and are all of a sudden going to take off...We’ve been around ...a 1.7% [inflation rate]. If inflation starts to climb and we end up at 2.3% or 2.4% or 2.5%, so what." Adding to Kashkari's point is that fact that the Fed's inflation estimates have overshot reality every single year since the economy stabilized in the wake of the Great Recession.

As I've said many times before, the Fed has spent the last 30 years fighting the inflation wars of the 1970s. Since then, of course, the Fed starts raising rates at the first sign of wage growth, causing wages to stagnate, and sending inequality skyrocketing. When it comes to inflation, the target has become a ceiling and workers have suffered for that policy for the last few decades.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

WaPo Poll Shows How Fragile Our Democracy Really Is and How Close We Are To Autocracy

I have written a lot of words over the last year or more detailing how the Republican party has been subverting our democracy for the last two decades at least. While Trump has shown himself to be a special danger to our democratic institutions and norms, he is merely the culmination and epitome of Republican anti-democratic actions over many years.

A truly frightening poll by the Washington Post shows that 52% of Republicans would support Trump if he proposed postponing the 2020 election until we could be assured that only citizens could vote. That number increases to 56% if Trump and Republicans in Congress supported the idea. 47% of Republicans believe that Trump really did win the popular vote and 73% believe that voter fraud occurs somewhat or very often.

I really don't believe that people in this country understand just how fragile our democracy is and how much it has already been subverted in the last few decades. The fact that a majority of one party believes it would be OK to postpone an election means that autocracy in this country is closer than most of us believe.

Monopoly Monsanto Now Prohibiting Researchers From Investigating Effects Of Its Products

Last we checked in with one of our favorite monopolists, Monsanto, they were passing off research they had written as independent analysis and essentially colluding with an EPA official in order to make sure their cancer-linked product, Roundup, could be declared safe and stay on the market. Apparently, writing research papers on their products and then paying scientists to pass it off as independent analysis has been standard procedure for Monsanto. Now, however, it has taken to simply not allowing independent researchers study aspects of their new products and the result may already be a catastrophe for farmers.

According to the Huffington Post, as the growing season began to reach its peak this summer, farmers began noticing that many of their crops were simply withering away. Farmers are blaming a new Monsanto herbicide called XtendiMax for this phenomenon. Apparently XtendiMax may be drifting from areas where it is sprayed onto other fields where it was not intended to be used. Interestingly, Monsanto specifically refused to let independent researchers study whether the product had a tendency to vaporize and drift on to neighboring fields, essentially the herbicides volatility. According to Monsanto, the company's internal testing showed that XtendiMax was less volatile than its previous product and that allowing the independent research of its volatility was unnecessary because "This product needed to get into the hands of growers".

The EPA authorized the use of XtendiMax without any independent volatility testing, simply relying on Monsanto's internal studies. And individual states that asked for more detail about that Monsanto testing were stonewalled or given summaries of the results. In Arkansas, a Monsanto employee apparently testified to the Arkansas Plant Board’s Pesticide Committee that volatility testing was blocked by Monsanto because it feared the results would effect its EPA approval. Interestingly, BASF had also introduced a competing product that did allow volatility testing.  Interestingly and perhaps relevantly, BASF had also introduced a competing product that did allow volatility testing.

Whether XtendiMaX is responsible for the now millions of acres of crop damage still needs to be clearly determined. Whether or not that is the case, it is frightening that Monsanto has now taken the step of forbidding independent researchers to study specific aspects of its chemical products.

Intelligence Committee Staffers Secret Trip To London Actually Adds Credence To Russian Dossier

Rachel Maddow highlighted the fascinating story of two House Intelligence Committee staffers taking a trip to London and trying to meet with either Christopher Steele's lawyers or Steele directly. Steele was the author of the infamous "Russian dossier" on Trump and a number of allegations in that dossier have since been corroborated. What made the story fascinating is that none of the members of the Intelligence Committee except, it appears, for Devin Nunes were aware of the trip. Nunes was the Intelligence Committee chairman until he had to recuse himself after promoting White House propaganda on the Russian hacking issue one too many times, especially by potentially leaking classified information in order to smear members of the Obama administration in order to back up Trump's lies that Obama had wiretapped Trump.

The trip by the two staffers was authorized by a longtime aide to Nunes without the knowledge of other committee members. Since it required federal dollars to be spent, it is highly doubtful the aide authorized the trip without a sign off from Nunes himself. As of now, it is unclear what the staffers hoped to accomplish by secretly meeting with Steele or his lawyer.

What we do know, however, is that everything that Nunes does with regard to the Russia investigation is almost certainly done at the behest of the White House. So the fact that he authorized the London trip can only mean that Trump or his lawyers believe there is really something to worry about in Steele's Russian dossier. We can be certain the staffers weren't there to urge Mr. Steele to come to the US and testify truthfully. They were more probably there to get information on his sources or to somehow intimidate Steele or taint his testimony when it is given. One thing is for sure, and that is their presence is yet another confirmation that elements of the dossier are probably true.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Bush Led Us To Current Korean Crisis And Trump and GOP Are Taking Same Path With Iran

All day and all night yesterday, the mainstream media was telling us that no President has found a way to effectively deal with North Korea. And it is true that there are no good options available today. But it is an absolute misreading of history to imply that it was always so.

In fact, Bill Clinton, with a big help from Bill Richardson, did in fact negotiate an agreement with the North Koreans to halt their nuclear ambitions in return for economic help. The deal required an international group to replace the North Korean plutonium reactors with two light-water nuclear reactors and, in exchange, the US would provide half a million tons of fuel oil to the North every year. Closing the plutonium reactor would cut off access to the plutonium needed for the North Koreans to create a nuclear bomb. In addition, the agreement made some unspecific references to future economic cooperation.

When Bush won the presidency in 2000, there was initial confusion about how the new administration would proceed with North Korea. Despite Colin Powell's recommendation that the administration continue to engage with the North, the US broke off continuing talks about missile development. Then, in 2002, the administration accused to North Koreans of trying to pursue their nuclear ambitions via the path of highly-enriched uranium (where have we heard that before?). That charge was never proven but it provided the excuse for Bush to abrogate the agreement and refuse to deliver the agreed upon fuel oil, over the objections of South Korea and Japan. North Korea then kicked out the UN inspectors who had been monitoring their nuclear plants as part of the deal and began to restart its nuclear program. The North Korean's determination to develop nuclear weapons was probably solidified by being included in Bush's "axis of evil" and seeing what happened to Iraq when it had no real nuclear deterrent.

By 2006, Bush tried to do a 180 degree turn with North Korea as it became apparent they were getting ever close to having a bomb, if they didn't already. Bush removed the country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and desperately tried to restart negotiations, all to no avail. The North Koreans felt Bush had betrayed them once before and the lessons of Iraq were still fresh in their minds.

Of course, we will never know what would have happened if Bush had stuck to the agreement and taken Powell's suggestion to remain engaged. Perhaps North Korea would have ended up going down the same path that led us to where we are now. Or, possibly, increased trust and engagement might have moderated North Korea's need for the bomb. It's all too late now. The only logical way forward is acceptance that they have a nuclear capability and an renewed attempt at engagement. Kim Jong-Un may be reckless but he is focused like a laser on his survival and the survival of his regime. It is highly doubtful that he will risk all that with a foolish attack on his neighbors or us.

The failure of Bush to take advantage of the opportunity that Clinton had opened also lies with the Republican party and the especially partisan politics practiced by Newt Gingrich and his cohorts. In order to win the nomination and the presidency, Bush had to placate the radical right which looked askance at anything that Clinton accomplished and painted the North Korea deal as "appeasement". When Bush got into office, he was actively looking for an excuse to abrogate the Clinton deal and, just like he sought a reason to invade Iraq, he "found" it.

As Josh Marshall rightly notes, we seem to be replaying this very same story when it comes to Trump and Iran. The radical right has called it appeasement and Trump has called it the "worst deal ever". Just as in 2001, Trump and the Republicans are determined to roll back as much of what Obama accomplished as possible. And Trump himself has already stated that he wants to pull out of the agreement with Iran. If that does indeed happen, I imagine we will soon find ourselves with the very same set of limited options we currently have with North Korea when it comes to Iran.

The Horrific Tactics Of ICE and CBP Under Trump

If there is any group that combines the cruelty of the Republican party and the arrogance and abuses of the Trump administration, it would have to be ICE and CBP. Having been huge supporters of Trump during the campaign, they have acted like attack dogs let loose ever since Trump's inauguration.

When the initial Muslim ban was ruled unconstitutional, it appeared that CBP intentionally ignored that court order for a significant period of time. CBP officers were also instructed not to speak to the press or members of Congress. Even worse, they were also instructed to ignore calls from attorneys for individuals being detained or those trying to find information about those who might be detained. In addition, CBP monitored protests at airports and other ports of entry that followed Trump's announcement, including photographing the protesters and distributing those photos within the agency. As Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly eloquently put it, "They built a stone wall and gave us the middle finger. They feel they can do that with impunity because Trump’s in the White House and Sessions is at the Department of Justice, and they can behave outside the law or inside the law as they see fit."

CBP may be horrible but ICE is even worse. On Long Island, in response to Trump's PR push against MS-13, immigration officials are deporting children based on the flimsiest associations with the gang and based on questionable evidence from school officials. Many of those picked up by ICE had been suspended from school, indicating that school officials are complicit in facilitating a school-to-deportation pipeline. One high school girl was detained by immigration officers for a month simply because she had spoken to suspected gang members at school. ICE agents have picked up other students and accused them of gang membership based on the clothes they were wearing, who they spoke to, or whether another family member was in the gang. One student was suspended from school and detained by ICE because he drew bull horns, the symbol of the MS-13 gang, on a calculator. The mascot of the high school he attended, however, is a Blue Devil making it entirely plausible the drawing was actually in school spirit.

As if detaining children who have committed no crime isn't bad enough, ICE is apparently also using children as bait in order to detain their parents. In Connecticut, a undocumented child was turned over to his undocumented father over a year ago on the condition that the child report to ICE on a regular basis. The father, who did not have a criminal record and was gainfully employed as a mason, was recently summoned to Hartford to sign papers for his son where he was immediately arrested and detained for deportation. According to a Connecticut immigration lawyer, "My colleagues and I have been witnessing these deceptive practices for the last couple of months. This new practice of luring parents with the sole purpose of tearing them apart from their children is the most despicable and inhumane practice we have witnessed".

Despicable tactics using children is probably a new low for ICE. The prior low may have been when they detained an undocumented woman who had appeared in court to get protection from her abusive boyfriend. What was even more disgusting about this case is that the tip that led ICE to detain the woman apparently came from the boyfriend, essentially making ICE complicit in the domestic abuse.

ICE and CBP are really so horrible it is hard not to succumb to Godwin's law. But they are merely a reflection of the insanity of the Republican and Trump attitude toward immigration. We are wasting money and resources to break up families and deport immigrants who are actually employed and contributing to our economy while allowing companies to bring in cheaper foreign workers by using and abusing the H1B and H2B visa programs. But logical consistency has never been a Republican strength.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Sinclair TV Deal Is Another Step Toward "Managed Media"

Shortly after Trump was inaugurated, I warned that the country needed to be prepared for the inevitable movement toward a "managed media", similar to the situation that Putin has created in Russia. Obviously, Trump was not going to convert America into Russia overnight, especially where the media was concerned. But there would be a concerted effort to intimidate effective media oversight and promote Republican propaganda outfits.

With his continual attacks on the media, Trump has certainly gone after the independent press. But it has been far less effective than one might have thought, primarily because Trump is so transparent in his motives for specific attacks and is so constant in his criticism so that people have become immune to their impact. Sadly, this is at least part of the normalization of Trump's outrageous and illegal behaviors.

We have all known for years that Fox News is merely a propaganda outfit for the Republican party. When Roger Ailes was in charge, he clearly set the tone and the message for the channel. Whether that was based on his own insights into conservative ideology, personal preferences, or direct coordination with Republican political leaders was always hard to know.

Now, however, it appears that whatever level of deniability the network had before is slowly falling away. The indications that the Fox News "story" that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich sent the DNC emails to WikiLeaks rather than the Russians was actually coordinated with the White House is another step down the road to government managed media. Fox was eventually forced to retract the story, as it had to when it reported that Hillary Clinton was going to be imminently indicted immediately before the November election, yet another story clearly based on "information" from officials associated with the Trump campaign.

With the announcement that the FCC is allowing Sinclair Broadcast Group to purchase another 42 TV stations from Tribune Media, we have taken yet another step. This would allow Sinclair to reach 72% of the American TV audience, nearly double the cap of 39% imposed by Congress. In order to do this, the FCC restored an decades-old rule that did not include former UHF channels above channel 13 in determining the viewership reached, thereby getting Sinclair down the legally acceptable level of 38%. This rollback was led by the horrid FCC chair, Ajit Pai, in a 2-1 party line vote by the Commission.

Sinclair is well known for its already conservative bias and it was reported that Jared Kushner actually boasted that the Trump campaign had struck a deal with the company in order to receive positive coverage. But its most insidious policy is to force local TV stations that it owns to essentially run conservative propaganda pieces under the guise that it is actually local programming. At present, it forces local stations to run a commentary segment from short-lived Trump White House staffer Boris Epshteyn nine times a week. As John Oliver describes it, "[W]ith Sinclair, they're injecting Fox-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors."

In addition, the horrid Pai has also proposed repealing a rule that a station owner must have a main studio in the local area it serves. If that passes, it would allow Sinclair to impose even more control over its local broadcasts, with a reach that includes nearly three-quarters of the country. And isn't that what every would-be autocrat exactly wants.

Wells Fargo Racketeering Continues Apace, Without Restraint

As a blogger, I have to admit that my favorite corporate criminal, Wells Fargo, is just a continual font for posts. Today's news is that the bank decided not to refund the portion of what is called GAP, or guaranteed asset protection, insurance due back to the customer when the loan was paid off or, worse, when the car was repossessed.

This Wells Fargo fraud is an adjunct of their previously reported scam of forcing people to buy collision insurance when they took out a car loan with the bank. Customers were signed up for this insurance without notification from Wells Fargo and even if the customers already had purchased that insurance on their own. That particular rip-off affected over 800,000 customers and created 275,000 delinquent payments as well as 25,000 repossessions because customers were not aware of the additional insurance charge on their loan. In addition, the bank prioritized the insurance payment, thereby extending the principal paydowns on the loan and increasing the customers' total interest costs and, unsurprisingly, increasing Wells Fargo profits.

GAP insurance is not required for car owners but it pushed heavily by auto dealers and lenders for the very simple reason the car loses so much value when it is driven off the lot. The insurance protects the lender from that loss of value and is usually included in the total cost of the loan. However, if the loan is paid off or the car is repossessed, the unused portion of the GAP insurance should be credited back to the customer. Wells Fargo did not do this, essentially ripping off tens of thousands of its auto loan customers. For those whose cars were repossessed, the failure to refund this insurance actually hurt their credit score even more as it appeared they owed more then they really did. And, as in previous Wells Fargo scandals, the company can not tell us when this scam began. In prior cases, the fraud had been going on for a decade or more.

When it comes to Wells Fargo, I keep on repeating myself so I will just quote from my prior post: "Basically, it now appears that Wells Fargo has been engaged in ongoing illegal activities since the turn of the century. You would think that just maybe one person, one executive, would be going to jail or at least being prosecuted for this record of criminality. Instead, the bank just continues to pay slap-on-the-wrist fines and continues on with business as usual. As I've said until my face turns blue, until a senior executive does some real jail time, business will continue to feel that illegal behavior will actually be rewarded because the profits will outweigh the fine." Sadly, this case will not end any differently than all the others that came before it and all the others yet to come, and they will come, because the bank never, ever incurs a significant penalty.

Big Pharma Now Forcing Consumers To Use Brand-Name Instead Of Cheaper Generic Drugs

The absurdity of the for-profit healthcare system was revealed again yesterday in a New York Times article about the use of brand-name instead of generic drugs. According to the article, pharmaceutical companies are cutting deals with insurers and benefit managers requiring the use of the brand-name drug where the generic would be a cheaper and equally effective alternative. Since most Americans now have high deductible plans, that added cost comes directly out of the patient's pocket.

Drugs to treat attention deficit disorder are prime examples of this phenomenon. About two years ago, doctors started being notified by pharmacies that they had to prescribe the brand-name version of Adderall XR, for instance, instead of the generic. For one family, that resulted in $50 per month in higher expenses for the child's medication which added hundreds more to their annual deductible costs.

The reason this is happening is that pharmaceutical companies are desperate to squeeze the last bit of profits out of their patent-protected drugs before and even after cheaper generics hit the market. For the pharmaceutical company Shire, Adderall XR was its top selling drug accounting for around one-third of the company's sales in 2008. But starting in the mid-2000s, the company was already making efforts to protect its star product from generic competition. First, it sued to stop generic competitors, claiming patent infringement. Then it made a deal with two generic drug makers to sell copies of the drug in return for royalties on the sales. That deal fell apart when Shire apparently provided so few pills to the generic drug makers that it was impossible for them to gain any market share at all. After that, Shire resorted to the tactic of striking these deals with insurers and benefit managers to require the use of their brand-name drug, which is what has triggered the increased costs for the family above. Essentially, Shire has spent the last decade doing everything in its power to lock out generic competition for its top selling drug.

Of course, Shire is not the only pharmaceutical company engaging in these kind of aggressive tactics to keep cheaper generics off the market. Virtually every pharmaceutical company with a patented product has used similar methods over the last couple of decades. What is new are these agreements with insurers and benefit managers to require the use of the brand-name drug. As on pharmacist said, "There’s only one reason why they’re requiring you to use a more expensive product. Because somewhere down the road, somebody is earning more money." And, consumers and patients end up paying for that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Trump Campaign Inexperience And Incompetence Is Exactly Why They Colluded With Russians

I was travelling this weekend and had the unfortunate experience of watching an early morning Saturday show on CNN. The premise of at least two of the panelists on the show was that the Trump campaign was far too inexperienced and disorganized to run a complex strategy coordinated with the Russians. I had to restrain myself from yelling at the TV.

Yes, the Trump campaign was woefully disorganized and inexperienced and in no way capable of running a traditional presidential campaign. That is exactly why they brought in Paul Manafort. And who had more experience in using the Russian disinformation system to help sway elections than Manafort. That had been his primary job while working in Ukraine. He would be able to bring in and use that same expertise here in the US.

While Don Jr. is portrayed by his own father as an incompetent child and his defenders as a political neophyte and Jared Kushner simply showed up for a meeting that he had apparently read nothing about and then left when apparently nothing of interest happened for ten minutes, there is no doubt that Paul Manafort understood quite clearly what the Russians were doing there and what they were prepared to offer in the way of assistance to the Trump campaign. There is no doubt that he knew exactly who Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin were and who they represented. And, yet, according to the reports of the meeting, Manafort provided no objection and heard them out.

In addition, there have been numerous reports that Manafort was still in touch with Trump and his campaign even after he had essentially been fired over the revelations of his off-the-books payments received in Ukraine. But by then, the wheels of Russian collaboration were already well in motion.

The fact that the Trump campaign was incompetent and ill-equipped to run a national presidential campaign is exactly the reason why they would collude with the Russians rather than a reason why they didn't.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Schumer Unveils Democratic Trade Policy Geared For 2018 Election

Chuck Schumer has laid out the Democratic approach to trade in the latest addition to the "Better Deal" plan being put together for the 2018 election. While the media reports describe the approach as being very similar to Trump's, I don't think that is entirely accurate. Although there is clearly an emphasis on protecting American workers, the trade plan outlined by Schumer does not involve tariffs or trade wars that Trump favors. Instead the plan focuses on targeted protection of American workers from overseas buyers, ensuring standards are raised for foreign workers in trade agreements, and preventing offshoring of jobs through changes in the tax code.

One of the major planks of the plan is to create an agency that would have the ability to block foreign purchases of US companies if it was determined that purchase would threaten American jobs. The new agency may, in fact, be redundant as there is already an agency, the CFIUS, tasked with determining whether a purchase of a US company may provide a foreign company with the ability to get an upper hand in certain technologies. In fact, Schumer is proposing a bill that would allow the CFIUS to do exactly what the proposed new agency would do. In addition, Schumer's bill would ask the CFIUS to block Chinese purchases until they do more to help defuse the North Korean nuclear threat.

Another part of the plan is the creation of an "independent trade prosecutor" who would be responsible for investigating unfair trade practices by other countries and challenging those practices in a venue outside the World Trade Organization (WTO). I have to admit that this part of the plan is a bit disturbing because going outside the WTO will only end up with similar retaliatory actions by other governments and potentially cause chaos down the road in international trade.

More importantly, Democrats want future trade agreements and a renegotiated NAFTA to include specific outcomes to raise standards for foreign workers so that American workers will be less disadvantaged. As one analyst says, "There is no legalese about ‘striving’ to meet nonbinding ‘declarations.’ It's outcome-focused: full stop." This is critically important and a way to protect American workers while making sure the living and working standards of foreign workers actually improves.

In addition, the plan includes taxing American companies for outsourcing jobs overseas and, admittedly mimicking Trump's "Buy American", encourages the use of American made products in new infrastructure.

While, as I've noted above, I'm not crazy about resolving disputes outside the WTO or think that the "Buy American" plan will be particularly effective, it is without doubt good politics as far as the Democrats are concerned, especially for those Democratic Senators who are defending seats in states that Trump won. In addition, Schumer has a chance to create a split between the President and the free traders in the Republican party over the next year, not only on trade but also perhaps on infrastructure.

Economists are screaming that the Democratic plan is protectionist. But virtually every country has some kind of protective policies. In Europe, much of it is geared to protecting the agricultural sector. And here in the US that is also true to some extent, with wasteful and useless subsidies for things like ethanol or the sugar industry. Instead, in this day and age, we should protecting important nascent technological industries for a limited period. The chip and solar panel industries are two cases where technology largely developed and perfected here in the US were essentially handed over to the Asian tigers to destroy our manufacturing base, primarily because those Asian countries subsidized those industries. Even now, in 2016, China is planning to spend $170 billion over the next few years to develop a domestic chip industry.

Despite what economists may say, governments are continually engaged in protectionist activities. Dean Baker has been railing for years about how white collar professionals in the medical and pharmaceutical industries here in the US have been effectively insulated from foreign competition. The real answer is to make sure those protectionist policies are actually benefiting important industries and workers, rather than those with the most powerful lobbies. That, of course, is admittedly easier said than done.

As with so many policies, Trump ran on a slogan that was admittedly popular but had no detailed thinking behind it other than slapping countries he thought were dumping illegally here in the US with across-the-board tariffs. Democrats, on the other hand, seem to be taking a much more nuanced and targeted approach to "protecting" the actual workers and industries that are being harmed by unfair foreign competition. But I'm guessing you could make that statement about the difference in approach of the two parties on so many policies.

Natural Weekends - Storm Clouds

Friday, August 4, 2017

Primacy Of Shareholders Is Actually Holding Back Economic Growth

One of the mythical mantras of Republicans is that oppressive regulation and increased capital requirement are keeping banks from lending money, stifling potential economic growth. This, of course, is total fiction and the vice chairman of the FDIC recently explained the fallacy of that position.

Thomas Hoenig testified in front of the Senate Banking Committee that a study of the 10 largest bank holding companies distribute over 100% of the current year's earnings to investors. Those earnings could have supported $500 billion in new loans. In addition, $83 billion in stock repurchases to simply inflate banks' stock prices could have funded another nearly $750 billion in new loans. Said Hoenig, "While distributing all of today’s income to shareholders may be received well in the short run, it can undermine their future returns and weaken the growth outlook for the larger economy."

As I've written many times before, the concept of the primacy of shareholder value is actually eroding capitalism and exacerbating inequality. Banks, and Wall Street in particular, have strayed so far from their intended purpose which was the efficient distribution and use of capital. Today they barely fulfill that function at all. And now, according to Hoenig, the efforts to reward shareholders are actually impinging on economic growth.

Trump Goes On Vacation And Is Freer To Tweet As Mueller Impanels Grand Jury

Here in the Northeast, August is usually the hottest and most humid month. It will be again this year for Donald Trump as he heads for his extended "working" (i.e. golf) vacation in Northern New Jersey. With the revelation that Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in Washington, DC as well as reports that subpoenas have been issued regarding Don Jr.'s meeting with the Russians, the pressure on Trump is increasing. In addition, there are also reports that top FBI officials have been notified they may be called to testify regarding Trump's obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, Trump himself will be on vacation for the next three weeks, away from the consistent discipline provided by Kelly, and probably free to tweet at will. As I said, it's going to be a hot few weeks.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

As Trump's Approval Sinks And Agenda Fails, Republicans Distance Themselves From President

The conventional wisdom in the mainstream media continues to be that Trump's base is sticking with him and that his support among Republicans continues to be nearly universal. Back in mid-June, I challenged that assumption, pointing out the not only had his support among Republicans dropped by over 10% but that the level of strong support for Trump among that group had fallen to near the 50% level. And, as Nate Silver pointed out, that support among Republicans may actually be artificially higher than it appears as more and more Republicans refuse to self-identify that way simply because of Trump.

The latest Quinnipiac poll seems to indicate that all those trends are increasing. Trump's approval rating is down to an abysmal 33% and his support among Republicans has fallen to just 76%, dropping from around 90% when he began his term. Of that GOP cohort, again, only 53% strongly support Trump. His support among his assumed base, white workers without a college degree, has actually fallen into negative territory with 50% disapproving and only 43% approving. Around 60% of voters do not believe that he is honest and that he considers himself above the law, especially alarming numbers if we ever get to impeachment proceedings. In addition, the question about whether American are optimistic about the next four years with Trump as President has flipped entirely since his inauguration, going from 53%-43% optimistic to 53%-43% pessimistic. As the assistant director of the survey said, "It's hard to pick what is the most alarming number in the troubling trail of new lows for President Donald Trump."

Now this is just one poll so it needs be taken with that grain of salt. In addition, it comes after the disaster of Trumpcare and continuing revelations about Russian collusion. So I expect this might be a temporary low, especially as the White House renews its white nationalist agenda. On the other hand, Silver's point about the reduction of self-identified Republicans still holds as a possible inflator of his support among Republicans. But the fact of the matter is that Trump's support is still falling and it is falling fairly quickly among Republicans and even among his core base.

I don't think it's any coincidence that, now that dream agenda of gutting Medicaid to pass massive tax cuts has essentially failed, vulnerable Cngressional Republicans are starting to distance themselves from Trump. Poll numbers like this will only exacerbate that trend. So don't believe it when you hear Republicans are still sticking with Trump. Republicans in Congress don't seem to believe it.

Trump's White Nationalist Agenda Will Only Make US Weaker And Poorer

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Bannon was taking back control of the Trump agenda as he became virtually the last man standing among Trump's inner circle who has remained untouched by the Russia investigation. With Bannon now in the driver's seat again, we would expect to see the revival of the white nationalist agenda with the added benefit of shoring up the Trump base. And that is exactly what's happened.

Some of the actions to shore up the base will substantive and others will not. The transgender ban, for instance, was so typical of many Trump policies, an announcement followed by no concrete action at all. And, based on the negative reaction across the Washington political spectrum, from the military to Congress as a whole, I wouldn't expect any concrete proposals to actually appear.

It is still too early to know whether anything concrete will arise from the attempts to reduce the number of legal immigrants and restrict affirmative action in universities or, again, whether they are merely morsels of red meat thrown to the base. In both cases, there will probably be ancillary negative effects even if there ends up being no change in either policy.

Take the case of immigration. The Muslim ban and Trump's campaign rhetoric changed the view of the whole world about coming to America. I wrote back in February that Trump's immigration policies would be a drag on US economic growth going forward. According to a Goldman Sachs' study, "Reduced immigration would result in slower labor force growth and therefore slower growth in potential GDP—the economy’s 'speed limit'. In addition, academic studies suggest there could be negative knock-on effects on productivity growth. As a result, we see immigration restrictions as an important source of downside risk to our 1.75% estimate of potential growth."

As we have seen with tourism and border crossings, rhetoric can have an impact even without any actual implementation behind it. And a NY Times article yesterday showed just how that rhetoric is already creating a negative impact. The tech hubs in Mexico, Canada, and China are all starting to attract foreign technology and entrepreneurial talent that would normally come the US under the H1-B program that Trump has specifically targeted. Yes, there are problems with the abuse of the H1-B program, but that is not what Trump is attacking, as his hotels are exactly the kind of abusers we should be cracking down on.

In Jalisco, Mexico, the state's minister of innovation, science, and technology called Trump, "our best marketing." As the talent moves offshore, so will companies. The article provides examples of two firms that abandoned the US for Mexico and Canada. And it won't be long before Silicon Valley begins offshoring work to those entrepreneurial centers. And one last absurdity of the legal immigration reduction is that it says it will favor applicants based on skills, education and language ability, But, as Vox points out, current legal immigrants are already actually better educated than native born workers.

This one chart alone shows what a farce the latest immigration bill really is. And the chances of it actually becoming law are also pretty slim as the majority of both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress will oppose it under enormous pressure from the business community. But, as the increased interest of foreign workers to go to Mexico and Canada instead of America shows, the impact of this proposal will still be negative for the US economy even if the bill does not pass.

Once again, Trump's stated policies will actually hurt his base in the real world that we live in, while providing the pretense that he is protecting them. In the end, however, we will all suffer as economic growth stagnates even further.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Trump, Republicans, And The Future Of Our Democracy

Yesterday Yascha Mounk had an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "The Past Week Proves That Trump Is Destroying Our Democracy". Mounk is also the co-author of an article in the Journal of Democracy entitled "The Danger of Deconsolidation" which describes the increasing dissatisfaction with democracy in developed countries around the world.

It is clear that Donald Trump has created a unique threat to American democracy, with his blatant disregard for political and governing norms, his lack of understanding and assault on the separation of powers, and brazen violations of law, essentially daring the other branches of government to try and rein him in. As Mounk says in the very first sentence of his op-ed, "America is on its way to a full-blown constitutional crisis".

Mounk documents the attacks on the intelligence community, Robert Mueller, and Jeff Sessions and the trial balloon of the President pardoning himself. He cites the use of the Boy Scout Jamboree as a political rally, the encouragement of police to abuse those they arrest, despite the constitutional presumption of innocence, and the threats to indict Hillary Clinton. All of these occurred last week and all are direct attacks on our democracy.

Says Mounk, "This is worrying. The Constitution cannot defend itself. If Congress does not stand up to Mr. Trump because Republicans are afraid of their own base, the president may be able to obstruct the course of justice with impunity. Worse, he may then conclude that he can get away with violating even more basic limits on his power...And since nobody can say for sure that the Constitution will become toothless if congressional Republicans let yet another infraction pass, their instinct will be to defer their patriotic duty to some more opportune moment in the future. But that moment may never come. There may never be a time when we know for sure that this decision, today, will determine whether the American republic lives or dies."

It is right and proper to take Republicans to task in the way they have handled Trump with kid gloves. And their unwillingness to vigorously and vociferously oppose Trump is, as Mounk says, clearly threatening our democracy. But it would have been more helpful if Mounk had also documented the over two-decade effort by the Republican party to attack the institutions and norms of our democracy. Starting with Reagan's "government is the problem", to Newt Gingrich's assault on congressional norms, to the with hunt and bogus impeachment of Clinton, to stealing the 2000 election, to illegal gerrymandering and voting restirctions, to lying about the Iraq War, to Katrina, to the delegitimization of Obama, to Merrick Garland, the Republican party has transformed itself into a reactionary white nationalist party and has been a primary factor in creating what Mounk describes as "democracy deconsolidation" here in the US.

According to Mounk's this trend of increasing loss of faith in democracy is not unique to the US.  "Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated."

I have already written about Mounk's findings that younger citizens across a wide range of countries are far less enamored with democracy and increasingly support other forms of government including authoritarian rule. Equally disturbing is the trend to not believe that many of the cores values of a democracy, such as civil rights or even fair elections, are even necessary. This is not just the ignorance of youth, as the study confirms the steady increase in these trends over time.

One might think that these trends might be a reflection of the disruption that globalization and automation has created in advanced Western economies. Younger people are seeing that their futures are far less secure and prosperous than the previous generations and are reacting accordingly. It might also include the prototypical white working class Trump voter as well. But one of the surprising results of Mounk's study is that the trend is actually highest among the rich.

The people who have benefited the most from democratic expansion, globalization, and automation are increasingly less likely to support democracy. What they fear most of all is having their riches taken from them and given to those "undeserving", in other words, the redistributive powers of democracy. As Mounk says, "with the exception of a brief period in the late twentieth century, democracy has usually been associated with redistributive demands by the poor and therefore regarded with skepticism by elites. The newfound aversion to democratic institutions among rich citizens in the West may be no more than a return to the historical norm."

This finding, of course, tracks the transformation of the Republican party, and, to some extent, the Democratic party as well. As both parties came to rely on the rich, the wealthy, and corporations in order to fund elections campaigns while at the same time the power of unions were decreasing, the acceptability of anti-democratic actions became more and more acceptable in order to protect the parties' benefactors.

Our democracy, as Trump has clearly illustrated, is far more fragile than we think. And with not only younger people but also the powerful wealthy increasingly unconcerned about the deconstruction of our democracy, the future of our democracy looks as grim as any period in my lifetime.