Saturday, January 7, 2017

Obamacare Is Wildly Popular Among The Enrollees Who Actually Use It

The Kaiser Family Foundation has come out with its latest survey about how Americans feel about Obamacare and healthcare in general. For the most part, ever since the ACA was enacted, surveys have shown that about half of the country wants to either repeal or change the law and other half is relatively satisfied. It was always a little unclear how many of the people who wanted to change the law actually wanted to expand it. A Kaiser poll from 2015 shows that the public has consistently been pretty evenly divided on the issue.

Earlier this week, Kaiser released a new survey that showed a clear majority of Americans want to either keep Obamacare or see the details of the(mythical) Republican replacement plan before the law gets repealed.

The biggest complaint about Obamacare has always been the high deductibles, the cost of prescription drugs, and the high premiums for those who do not qualify for subsidies. All of these problems, of course, could be solved by making the problem offer greater subsidies but that would have made the program more expensive and created even more Republican opposition to getting it passed.

Now I think I'm a relatively well informed guy and keep up with the news pretty religiously. But I don't think I had ever seen a poll of how only Obamacare users felt about the program. Obamacare only has about 20 million enrollees compared to the US population of around 318 million, so it is a small fraction of the population that is directly effected by the ACA. Most Americans probably have no direct or even indirect contact with Obamacare or its recipients. Therefore, their views are probably more likely colored by what they hear in the media or their own particular partisanship or tribalism. The views of that greater population are what Kaiser has measured in the polls above. So imagine my shock when I found a recent survey that showed that consistently 80% of Obamacare enrollees are very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the coverage they have received.

Geez, you think Democrats might have wanted to highlight this result for the last few years rather than letting the GOP and the media define Obamacare they way they did. And you would think that an independent media might have also made this clear. But that group no longer exists in the mainstream.

Think about where we are today. Republicans are contemplating ripping health insurance away from 20 million Americans who are overwhelmingly happy with the coverage they are receiving. They have denied Medicare expansion to millions more over the last six years. As I have pointed out, even if the repeal vote does not succeed, the uncertainty over what the GOP might do and the resulting uncertainly in the future market may force enough insurers to pull out of the exchanges and destroy Obamacare anyway. The resulting collapse of the private insurance market and other externalities would probably cost another 10 million Americans their health care coverage. In any sane world, the GOP would be laughed right out of the building. It is a credit to their impressive propaganda machine and the supine American media that the repeal proposal is even taking seriously.

On a personal note, I am an Obamacare enrollee and am satisfied with the coverage I receive, along with about 16 million others. I have already written about how I feel differently about acquaintances who voted for Trump and, therefore, voted to deny me health insurance. And I know that I, along with at least 16 million other Americans will never forget the Republicans who will vote for repeal.

Natural Weekends - More Colors And Clouds

It's a snow day here on the creek, so let's remember some brighter days with clouds and colors:

Oligarchy In Trump's Cabinet Won't Stop Rise Of Renewable Energies

I've written many times about my belief that the changing demographics will soon put the Republican party into a minority status for the foreseeable future. I know that seems hard to believe today. But it is also what makes the current GOP so extreme and the current situation so dangerous. In the same way, Trump's cabinet also reflects another group that will also be fighting off greater irrelevance - the fossil fuel industry.

In 2016, for the first time ever, solar and wind energy is now cheaper than coal and is responsible for most of the new power generation created in the US  and globally over the last couple of years. The price of solar, especially, keeps on dropping exponentially. Every time the capacity of solar power doubles, the costs drop 25%. By the middle of the next decade, solar power will become the cheapest option for energy globally.

In spite of this unstoppable trend, the Trump administration is geared up to do the bidding of the oil and coal industry. With Rex Tillerson from Exxon leading the way to help Russia drill more oil and evade sanctions to Scott Pruitt at the EPA letting the oil and coal companies foul our air and water to the GOP Congress opening up federal lands to oil, coal, and gas degradation, the Trump administration is clearly looking backward rather than forward. And if Trump imposes tariffs on Chinese products, that will spike the cost of solar panels here in the US, dampening the growth of solar deployments here in the US. That, of course, is music to the ears of oil, coal, and power generation companies. It is an open question whether that would boost the production of panels here in the US, but it would certainly increase their price.

In the US, the coal industry is terminally ill and will effectively be killed off by the sinking cost of renewables. In just the past year, jobs in the coal mining industry dropped by over 15% and the industry now employs only a little over 50,000 workers.

Meanwhile, China is continuing its enormous investments in renewable energy. The Chinese plan to invest over $350 billion in renewables in just the next four years, targeting half of the new energy produced in the country over those for years to come from renewables. In 2015, the US only invested about $44 billion in renewables while China invested nearly $150 billion. We have long ago lost the lead in solar panels to the Chinese, basically through lack of will power and support for the industry. And we already trail them again in the implementation of that technology as their country has become the leading solar power generator in the world.

This doesn't mean that oil, gas, and even coal will no longer be huge industries worldwide. Even in China, the remaining 50% of power that is not renewable will probably be fueled by coal. But the fossil fuel industry will be far less significant than it once was. And, like the Republican minority, that does not mean it can not still wield enormous power. But they are clearly shrinking industries and their dominance in the Trump cabinet will just allow them to continue to be protected, rather than challenged.

It is funny that the party that constantly rages about letting the free market rule is now openly supporting clearly protectionist measures for these industries. The oil and gas companies will continue to be hugely subsidized and protected from the social costs of their product. And, sure, Trump will bring those coal jobs back, even though they are clearly gone forever. But intellectual consistency has never been a GOP strongpoint - just look at their position on deficits.

The ten largest oil producing countries in the world are Russia, Saudi Arabia, US, Iraq, China, Canada, Iran, UAE, Kuwait, and Venezuela. Of those ten, only the US and Canada could be considered liberal democracies these days. Of course, much of that has to do with both geography and history. But when you look at Trump's cabinet, it is hard not to say that it is not that much different from the oligarchy in Russia. And, like all oligarchies, they are only interested in protecting and exploiting their monopoly power. They have no interest in preparing for the future, only maximizing returns in the present. And that pretty much sums up the Trump mentality and what we will have to endure for what is hopefully only four years.

Friday, January 6, 2017

GOP Hates Workers' Rights Until They Lose Their Jobs

It looks like there was a reason the Trump administration wanted to know which federal employees worked on climate change and gender equality. The new rules that the House passed to govern the 115th Congress included the resurrection of procedural rule that was devised in 1876 but had been dropped since 1983. That rule would allow any member of the House to add an amendment to any appropriations bill that would specifically target the wages of a specific federal worker or workers or eliminate those jobs entirely. In theory, the worker's pay could be mandated to drop as low as $1. The amendment would still have to pass both the House and the Senate, but that should be no problem with Republicans holding a majority in both houses.Needless to say, this could put quite a chilling effect on the federal workforce and adds to the fears created by the Trump transition's requests. Hopefully, Democrats could make creative use of this new power to potentially gum of the works of some of the most egregious House actions, perhaps slashing whole swaths of employees in the Pentagon. Let's see how the GOP would react to that.

In the same way that Trump is a serial abuser, so Republicans seem to be when they are in power, as evidenced by the abusive nature of the above rule. But it's amazing how things change when they get out of power and their jobs are actually threatened. In the recently formed banana republic of North Carolina, the outgoing Secretary of the State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Donald Van Der Vaart, was going to be out of a job when Democrat Roy Cooper took over as Governor. But Van Der Vaart decided that government work actually suited him. So he demoted himself to merely an environmental program manager. Now, as a regular civil servant in North Carolina, Van Der Vaart enjoys job protections that may protect him from being fired by Cooper. Van Der Vaart had opposed Cooper's decision not to oppose new greenhouse gas emission rules proposed by the Obama administration. It would therefore be doubtful that Cooper's new Secretary of the DEQ would actually give any work to Van Der Vaart, meaning that he may get civil service protection to keep the $97,000 per year job by just basically showing up. My inclination would be to get him to write endless reports that could basically be ignored.

All this goes to show that the GOP loves to abuse workers and unions when they have the power. But when their job is threatened, all of a sudden all those workers' protections suddenly must not be violated.

Mnuchin, Price Are Perfect Reflections Of Trump's Business Practices

The Trump transition team has been pretty thorough in vetting Trump's appointees, making sure they all adhere to Trump's standards of corruption, conflicts of interest, and self-dealing. Yesterday, it was Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin's day to have his Trump-worthy talents exposed as reports of widespread fraud and abuse of the foreclosure process while Mnuchin was the CEO of OneWest bank. An investigation in California indicated that OneWest may engaged in over 5,500 foreclosure sale violations and that virtually every single one of the 35,000 foreclosures in California was based on illegally back-dated foreclosure documents. Some of the back-dating was just blatantly falsified, showing dates on supposed OneWest documents that preceded the actual formation of the bank. A OneWest Vice President admitted under oath that she robo-signed up to 6,000 foreclosure documents a week, not even bothering to read the false documents that she was signing and attesting to. In addition, OneWest engaged in "credit bids" that allow the owner of the foreclosed property to make an initial bid to keep the property in the foreclosure process. These credit bids have the additional advantage of not being subject to the normal real-estate transfer taxes. OneWest used these credit bids to purchase houses where it was not actually the mortgage holder and therefore not the owner of the property. They were merely a servicing agent for the real owner. The bank then forged back-dated documents to make the foreclosure look proper, all the while saving on taxes. In essence, OneWest stole these properties. Lastly, let's not forget that Mnuchin also uses his personal foundation for self-dealing, just like Trump. When OneWest was purchased by CIT, Mnuchin used money from his foundation to fund astroturf groups that wrote letters in support of the merger to regulators. Mnuchin received an $11 million payout when that merger finally went through, probably a good return on his illegal investments.

Yesterday, we learned that Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price has apparently been consistently violating the STOCK Act while overseeing the House Budget Committee. Over the past four years, Price has apparently traded in over $300,000 worth of nearly 40 healthcare related stocks while he was working on legislation that directly effected the companies involved. The STOCK Act was passed in 2012 specifically to block members of Congress from using the securities markets to benefit from the inside information that they have as legislators. Under pressure from Republicans, the Act was expanded to include the President and Vice-President, something that will probably be an issue for Donald Trump. While an investigation might show that these transactions were legal, the sheer number of companies involved would potentially indicate something more sinister was going on. Chuck Schumer is demanding an investigation by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics before Price's nomination can move forward. It's probably no coincidence that the House wanted to gut that office as the first action in the new session. That move, which would have quashed any independent investigation of Price, was blocked by a huge public outcry and the unwillingness of even some Republicans to go along.

One last point needs to be made about Mnuchin and the abuses at OneWest. The state of California had a difficult time investigating OneWest's practices because the current law does not allow a state to issue subpoenas for a national bank without first initiating a lawsuit. This makes it quite difficult for state investigators to actually discover whether a bank is committing crimes in their state. In fact, OneWest successfully sued the state in order to stop it from collecting documents about OneWest from loan processing companies. In essence, federal law was protecting OneWest from a serious investigation. Former federal prosecutor Mark Zanides provided a comment on OneWest's foreclosure abuse saying, "The foreclosure statutes establish a proper way to do things that will ensure that all parties are treated fairly. If you ignore that, you’ve reduced yourself to a banana republic, where courts sworn to uphold the law are precluded from doing so by being given documents that are false." Like most of the press today, Zanides does not seem to understand that, in many ways, Republicans have already turned America into the banana republic he describes.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Trump Is In Debt To 150 Financial Firms So Dems Must Push Tax Issue, Despite Futility

I am glad to see some Democrats haven't given up taking Trump to task for not releasing his tax returns. Ron Wyden has once again introduced the Presidential Tax Transparency Act that will require the President and every Presidential candidate to release at least three years of tax data. Of course, this has no chance of getting passed, but it is important for Democrats to keep pounding away on this issue. I would suggest that Democrats also introduce this proposal as an amendment to every single bill that they are allowed attach it to. The press totally fell down on the issue of the importance of forcing Trump to release his taxes. For the future of our democracy and transparency in future elections, Democrats must not let the issue die.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Trump is in debt to over 150 financial institutions, ranging from Wall Street banks to mutual funds to other financial institutions. Part of the reason his debts are so widespread is that his mountain of debts over the years has been sliced up and sold off, a process called securitization. It is virtually the same process that Wall Street used to slice up the tranches of mortgage-backed securities, a process that they combined with massive fraudulent representation of the risks to create the financial crisis in 2008. Many of these loans are, incredibly, backed by Trump's personal guarantee, a promise that would seem to be worth very little. Trump's financial disclosure form from last May listed $315 million in loans held by 10 institutions. There was an additional $1.5 billion in loans to partnerships where Trump had at least a 30% interest. The Journal's report also admits that the list they have compiled may not and is probably not complete. Among the institutions that are known to own Trump's debts are Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo, and Met Life, all of which present sever conflicts of interest for Trump as President right now. Deutsche Bank is a serial criminal who has been involved in everything from mortgage securities fraud to money laundering. Wells Fargo is also another serial offender who has committed massive fraud against its own customers by opening millions of accounts without authorization in order to extract extra fees. The bank has also recently failed the Too-Big-To-Fail test for the second time, opening the firm up to disciplinary actions that may require the firm to divest certain lines of business. Met Life has been fighting its designation as a "systematically important financial institution" under Dodd-Frank and is interested in seeing the law rolled back, something that Trump has proposed. These are just three examples of the conflicts of interest facing Trump. And his personal guarantee is also why Trump can never cede control of the Trump Organization. If her were to do that, these personal guarantees would be called in and could possibly push Trump into insolvency. As Trevor Potter who has served as general counsel to two Republican Presidential campaigns says, "The problem with any of this debt is if something goes wrong, and if there is a situation where the President is personally beholden or vulnerable to threats from the lenders."

Let me lay out a hypothetical situation where terrorists decide to simultaneously target Trump properties around the world. In an instant, rather than becoming a status symbol for aspiring moguls, these properties become shunned and un-rentable as too dangerous. All of sudden, Trump's properties' value plummet and can no longer support these loans. One or many of these financial institutions then decide to call in Trump's loans. And now Trump will have to pay up on his personal guarantee, which may in fact bankrupt him. I don't think Trump will take too kindly to that but he will have the full weight of the persuasive power of the US Government to prevent those parties from calling in those loans. It is not a far-fetched possibility.

The potential conflicts of interests posed by these loans are widespread and huge, simply on their own. The bigger problem is the conflicts of interest that we don't know about. And the only way we will find those out is through Trump's taxes. That alone is a good enough reason for Democrats to keep pushing the tax issue, in addition to setting a standard for passing the law in the future.

Another Day In Trump World - Trump Stiffs More Contractors; Don, Jr. Sets Government Policy

Becoming President still isn't keeping Donald Trump from stiffing the contractors who work on his hotels. A company that did all the plumbing, mechanical, and HVAC work on Trump's new DC hotel has sued the Trump Organization and the hotel's construction manager, Lendlease US, for nearly $3 million of work it has done over the last two years. Reflecting a bit of ambivalence that many Trump voters are feeling, the owner of the firm admitted he had voted for Trump but was concerned that Trump, in a bid to reduce at least some of his conflicts of interests, will transfer ownership of the hotel before his bill gets paid. A smaller firm has also sued for nearly $80,000 for work done in the immediate run-up to the hotel's opening. In addition, Trump was scheduled to be deposed today in his $10 million breach of contract suit against a restaurant that was originally supposed to open within that hotel. The owners of the Spanish-themed restaurant pulled out after Trump's racist comments against Mexicans during the campaign.

Meanwhile, Republicans have had enough of President Obama using the Antiquities Act to designate land as national monuments only through executive order. This is part of the general GOP strategy to either turn over federal land to the states, who can then sell if off to private interests, or simply take the direct route and sell it to their cronies directly. Unfortunately, that strategy is opposed by Trump, specifically Donald Trump, Jr. Donnie, an avid hunter like his brother Eric, told Oregon Public Broadcasting during the campaign, "This is where we’ve probably broken away from a lot of the traditional conservative dogma on the issue, in that we do want federal lands to remain federal." It's nice to know we have a royal family in the Trumps and that the Trump children are now driving policy decisions. That is when they're not running the Trump Organization for dad.

Shock As Wall Street Trader Pleads Guilty To Criminal Conduct - Finally!!

I nearly fell of my chair this morning when I read that someone on Wall Street actually plead guilty to participating in a conspiracy to fix prices. Jason Katz admitted to conspiring to manipulate currency prices, becoming the first individual to admit criminal conduct related to the massive fraud in the foreign exchange markets.

In 2015, four of Wall Street's biggest banks admitted to the same currency manipulation scheme and paid fines totaling about $10 billion. That may seem like a lot of money especially when you consider that the total foreign exchange revenue for the top 10 players in the market was about $12 billion that year. In 2008, however, that total was around $22 billion. The problem is that this fraud went on for over five years, meaning that these four firms probably still came out ahead in the end. And, by and large, all these banks have continued to continue with business as usual even after the fines and the guilty please. To quote the Times article, "For the banks, though, life as a felon is likely to carry more symbolic shame than practical problems. Although they could be barred by American regulators from certain activities, the banks scrambled behind the scenes to persuade those regulators to grant exemptions. That process, which delayed the Justice Department’s announcement by a week, already led to the Securities and Exchange Commission providing a number of waivers that allow the banks to conduct business as usual."

The extent of this fraud is hard to believe. Ever day, for over six years, Katz and his cohorts in other firms blatantly manipulated foreign exchange prices. The traders created online chat rooms where they openly described themselves as "the cartel" or "the mafia" and colluded on how they would manipulate the market. One trader was quoted in the chatroom as saying, "If you aint cheating, you aint trying." A newcomer to the price-fixing scheme was warned, "Mess this up and sleep with one eye open".

Katz has agreed to be barred from the banking industry and will cooperate with the continuing investigation. I'm guessing that, in return, he will face no jail time. And I also doubt his hefty bonuses from the three firms in the six years in which he was part of this massive fraud have or will be clawed back. He will probably live a comfortable life after this all blows over. Because on Wall Street, crime does pay.

Britain's EU Ambasador Resigns In Protest Over May's Brexit Stance

Theresa May seems unable or unwilling to get a handle on Brexit negotiations. Tuesday, Ivan Rogers, the British ambassador to the EU, resigned with a blistering attack on the government's approach to Brexit. Rogers had already tried to introduce some reality to May's government a few weeks ago, saying that the unwind negotiations could take a decade to conclude. May originally brushed off those remarks as the ambassador reflecting the views of the Europeans. Tuesday's resignation puts lie to that idea, as it clearly reflected Rogers informed view having worked with the EU for years.

In his resignation letter, Rogers stated, "We do not yet know what the Government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK's relationship with the EU after exit." Since May has promised to invoked Article 50 before the end of March, that seems like it might be a problem. Rogers continued, "Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall...Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities: increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral that we strike, and the terms that we agree...I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power."

Admittedly, Brexit has put May in a tough spot, either laying out her terms for Brexit to build support from voters and in Parliament while at the same time tipping her hand to the EU or playing her hand close to the vest until Article 50 is actually invoked. The problem with the latter is that the details on that position for exit will not have been thoroughly worked out. In addition, the Supreme Court will be ruling shortly on whether Parliament is required to vote before Article 50 can be invoked. If the Court rules that Parliament must vote first, then it will be impossible for May not to lay out her goals and strategy for Brexit.

The prion disease that has taken over the Republican party here in the US also seems to be effecting Britain's Conservative party as well. In both parties, there is an attitude that allows for summary dismissal of expertise and ideas that run counter to some fixed and simplistic ideological beliefs that can score some cheap political points. It was that kind of attitude that allowed Brexit to happen in the first place. Rogers resignation is yet another example.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

GOP Wants To Eradicate Obamacare From (Legal) History Books

The inmates are running the asylum. In their apparent demented desire to expunge everything Obama, they are not only going to repeal Obamacare but they are going to order the Supreme Court to ignore the fact that it ever existed. Steve King, one of a number of lunatics Republicans seem to find in Iowa, has proposed a bill that would bar the Supreme Court from using any Obamacare-related decisions "from citation for the purpose of precedence in all future cases". Now, you might think that a bill like that would violate the constitutional separation of powers. You would be wrong but, on the other hand, it probably wouldn't even matter to King and his fellow Republicans if you were right. King relies on Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution which says, "In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make."

According to King, passing this bill is important to ensure that "we will be truly eradicating this unconstitutional policy from all three branches of government so that the repeal will be complete." Of course, many of the cases King does not want SCOTUS to cite actually reinforce many of the things that King believes in. Those cases supported states' rights, limited judicial deference to federal agencies, and even broke new ground in expanding the concept of religious liberty. None of that matters to King in his quest to eradicate Obamacare from the face of the planet.

GOP Can Destroy Obamacare Even Without A Repeal Vote

Democrats are plotting on how they might best be able to defend Obamacare with Obama himself meeting with top Democrats today to figure out their best options. Democratic leaders are being urged to hold Republicans to account for earlier statements that gave the impression that the transition from repeal to replace could be smooth. Nancy Letourneau over at Political Animal wants to hold Paul Ryan to his word that "no one will be worse off" during the transition and she's listed nine parameters by which we can measure Ryan's promise:
  1. 20 million people have access to affordable coverage via the exchanges and Medicaid expansion.
  2. You cannot be denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition.
  3. Medicare spending was reduced by $802 billion over 10 years.
  4. Obamacare closed the Medicare prescription drug donut hole by 2020.
  5. Regardless of whether your health insurance is via your employer, Medicare, Medicaid, the exchanges, or the individual market, you have access to free preventative services – including annual exam, birth control and screenings for breast and colorectal cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
  6. Children under 26 years of age can stay on their parent’s health insurance plan.
  7. There are no annual or lifetime limits on what insurance plans will cover.
  8. If insurers charge more than 15% for overhead/profit (20% on the individual market), they are required to provide you with a refund.
  9. Women cannot be charged more for insurance than men.
Meanwhile, Republicans still seem to be in chaos over how to actually go about "repeal and replace". Various trial balloons have been floated, all of which seem to end up in the same place for Republicans. Millions of people would lose insurance and, if and when the GOP can actually craft a replacement, it will end up covering far fewer people than now. Some Republicans think that they can get Democrats to support a "lesser" replacement once repeal has been enacted but it is hard to imagine Democrats would actually go along with this as their political position would be stronger by pointing out how ineffective the replacement is. Admittedly, just as you can never underestimate the stupidity of the American voter, you can never underestimate the lack of spine in some Democrats.

Nevertheless, Republicans seem adamant on fulfilling their "promise" to the voters to repeal Obamacare on day one of the Trump kleptocracy. But, as J.B. Silvers points out over at Marketwatch, Republicans don't really have to pass anything to destroy Obamacare. Simply discussing the legislative options well into to this summer would probably be enough to cripple Obamacare without ever having to pass anything. Silvers, a former health care CEO, lays out the awful truth:

"And now comes the reality of the 'repeal and replace' initiatives from the Republicans. If the uncertainty of this market was large before with the ACA, it is almost unknowable under whatever comes next. Thus the initial exit of some latecomers, including United Healthcare, and undercapitalized minor entrants, such as nonprofit co-ops, is almost certain to become a flood of firms leaving the exchanges. They have little choice since the risks are too large and the actuarially appropriate rates are still not obvious given the political turmoil and changing rules. Some in Congress seem to think that passing the 'repeal' part immediately but delaying its implementation for two or three years will somehow leave everything as it is now. But this naive notion misses the fact that the riskiness of the Obamacare individual insurance exchange markets will have been ramped up to such a level that continuing makes no sense. Even if a company reaches break-even in the 'delay' years, it will lose when the repeal is effective. If the premium subsidies now available to lower-income enrollees go away immediately and the mandate to sign up for an insurance plan disappears, then the number of people purchasing individual policies on the exchanges will drop like a rock. In fact, it is clear that even debating this scenario is likely to be self-fulfilling, since insurers must decide on their participation for 2018 by the late spring of 2017. Look for many to leave then." (Emphasis mine).

Silver believes that the mere discussion of repeal and replace or repeal and delay by Republicans will effectively destroy Obamacare in 2018. So, in fact, Republicans don't have to do anything but jawbone about repealing Obamacare and they will destroy it. In fact, by not actually doing anything other than talking about repeal, Republicans could reasonably argue that Obamacare collapsed on its own. There would be no need for a vote to repeal. Luckily for Democrats, it seems that Trump and most Republicans feel they have to actually vote on repeal. But I wouldn't bet that the evil Mitch McConnell allows a couple of GOP Senators to join with Democrats in blocking that repeal sometime early this summer. By that time, enough insurers may have already backed out for 2018 that repeal would be moot but Republicans will not "own" it.

If that hypothetical were to come to pass, Democrats would have to do some serious thinking about what to do. Do you allow the GOP to kill Obamacare silently or do you allow a couple of red state Senators to vote to kill Obamacare and try to make the Republicans own. Either option is terrible. But when Obamacare is repealed, either by stealth or a vote by the GOP, Democrats ought to use the opportunity to say that the private market is obviously unreliable for providing health care for all segments of the American market and that only a public option will do. The death of Obamacare gives progressives and Democrats to draw a line in the sand for any future replacement. And that line is the public option.

Credit Reporting Giants Caught Defrauding Their Customers

Today's edition of corporate crime comes from the credit reporting giants Equifax and TransUnion. The two have been fined a combined $5.5 million fine for deceiving their customers. The two are also required to pay nearly $18 million in restitution to those customers they defrauded, about $14 million for TransUnion and nearly $4 million for Equifax. The companies promised customers that credit reporting would be free or cost just $1 but in actuality charged them up to $200 for the reports. In addition, the companies said that they were providing their customers with the very same credit reports that they would be providing to lenders but that was patently false.

The companies were accused of violating Dodd-Frank laws and the fines and restitutions cover the period from 2011 onward. It's possible that the reason the period only goes back to 2011 is because that is when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which is enforcing this action, came into being. Needless to say, Republicans want to dismantle the CFPB and will probably be able to successfully strangle it in the next year or two. The credit reporting agencies already settled with a large number of state's Attorney Generals in 2015 over the difficulty customers had in erasing clear mistakes from their credit reports and settling disputes about those reports with their customers.

Of course, the companies denied any wrongdoing and claimed they were abiding by the law. A skeptical person like myself might wonder how the companies were unaware that the reports being sent to customers were different from the ones being sent to lenders or that they were charging customers for what the companies advertised as free reports. On the other hand, since the companies were being charged for violating Dodd-Frank, it's quite possible they were, in fact, obeying the law before Dodd-Frank came into effect. That would be even more depressing. In any case, we all know that, as opposed to us mere citizens, companies never engage in any wrongdoing. At worst, they just misinterpret the law. Sadly, for us mere citizens, that defense rarely succeeds.

College Coaches In Big Bowl Games Showed No Faith In Their Defenses

College football coaches in these bowl games have either an inordinate faith in their quarterbacks or a total lack of faith in their defenses. Let's start with Florida State versus Michigan. Florida State's defense had held Michigan to just three field goals with about a minute left in the third quarter. FSU had the ball deep in their own territory and they had one of the premiere backs in football, Dalvin Cook. Cook only torched the Wolverines for over 200 yards on 23 touches, including a 71 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. But FSU elected to let quarterback Deondre Francois throw the ball. Unfortunately, he threw a pick-six which totally changed the momentum and nearly cost FSU the victory.

Next we go to Washington versus Alabama. Washington's defense had held Alabama in check all first half, despite the fact that 'Bama was winning the battle of field position. With just under two minutes left in the half and the Crimson Tide leading only 10-7, Washington started a drive from inside their 10. A couple of running play actually got first downs and the Huskies had moved the ball out to just beyond the 30 yard line. Alabama was giving Washington the run and protecting against the pass. Of course, Washington played right into their hands, deciding to go to the air to perhaps get in field goal range. QB Jake Browning's first pass to the sideline should have been intercepted but was dropped by the Alabama DB. But Browning tried again with a swing pass and gave up a pick-six. So, rather than going into halftime having been badly outplayed but just down 10-7, the Huskies walked off the field down 10 and never got any closer.

Down in Texas at the Cotton Bowl, Western Michigan was down 17-10 early in the fourth quarter. Their defense had just forced a Wisconsin punt and they started the drive from inside the 5 yard line. QB Zach Terrell made an ill-advised pass over the middle that was intercepted at inside the 15. Wisconsin scored to make it a two touchdown game and WMU was never able to get closer than that original 7 point deficit again.

Finally, we go to the Rose Bowl. After a furious USC comeback, the game was tied with 1:20 to go when Penn State got the ball in their own territory. I'm pretty sure they made one first down with Saquon Barkley running the ball. Barkley ran for 194 yards for the game. Penn State decided to go for the win and let Trace McSorley throw the ball. On second down, McSorley had a receiver wide open but threw up a duck that hung up so long the defender was able to get over and make a play. The pass should have been intercepted but was dropped by the USC safety. So they tried it again on third down and McSorley threw up another duck that was intercepted by Leon McQuay who ran it all the way back to the Penn State 33.. That set up USC's game-winning field goal as time expired.

Coaches seem to thing their quarterbacks can run a two-minute drill from deep in their own end like Tom Brady or Aaron Rogers. But most quarterbacks aren't Sam Darnold and they make mistakes, big mistakes. What's especially frustrating is that, with the exception of Penn State, all those teams that threw the big interception were underdogs. Keeping the game close would only have added to the pressure that the favorites felt, perhaps forcing them into the big mistake. Everyone agrees that Nick Saban is a master. And Saban was happy to just keep punting the ball and letting his defense, which is admittedly awesome, win the field position game. Perhaps the other coaches might have shown the same faith in their own defenses.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Will North Carolina Ever Have A Real Democracy Again?

Democracy in North Carolinastan possibly took another hit today as Chief Justice John Roberts requested a delay in the last minute emergency request by outgoing North Carolina Governor McRory to postpone special elections in the state in 2017 after the current election districts were deemed an illegal racial gerrymander. Roberts requested the delay so that the original appeal of that gerrymandering could be resolved first.

A federal appeals court ruled earlier in 2016 that the state's legislative districts have been racially gerrymandered since redistricting in 2010. The court ruled that it would be too disruptive and kept the districts in place for the 2016 election. But it ordered the legislature to redraw the districts by March of 2017 in order to hold special elections later this year. North Carolina appealed this decision. Then, after McRory lost the gubernatorial election to Roy Cooper, the state made an emergency request to the Supreme Court to stop the 2017 special elections because that represented "the most extreme and intrusive remedy possible.". The state also requested that a decision be made before January 11th, which just so happened to be when the new legislature convenes. This was all part of a power play by the outgoing North Carolina legislature to strip power from incoming Governor Cooper.

As I understand it, Roberts request basically delays the state's emergency request until the regular appeals process is completed. This is not unusual since the state's request was asking the Supreme Court to intervene before the normal appeals process has allowed the original gerrymandering case has reached the Court. On the other hand, Roberts involvement makes a skeptical guy like me a little suspicious because of his penchant for believing that racism no longer exists in this country and his support for gutting the Voting Rights Act. That decision led to the proliferation of extreme gerrymanders like the ones that exist in North Carolina. It also led to severe voting restrictions like voter ID, reduced polling places, and fewer early voting days. So I'm not too sure that Roberts would uphold the lower court's ruling that these were illegal racial gerrymanders, despite the overwhelming evidence and virtual admission by those in the legislature that it was designed to be so. In addition, determining this case now at the Supreme Court would end in a 4-4 tie meaning the lower court’s ruling would stand. By delaying this case and allowing the regular appeals process to continue, Roberts gives Trump and the Senate time to confirm a new justice who would presumably join Roberts in thinking their was nothing illegal in these gerrymanders.

Incredible as it may seem, these racial gerrymanders have been in place since 2010. If the districts are not redrawn for either a 2017 special election or the 2018 election, North Carolinians will have virtually gone an entire decade voting in illegal districts that have been designed to help Republicans and disenfranchise Hispanics and African-Americans. Worse, if the Roberts Court overturns the lower court ruling, those racial gerrymanders would all be legal and we would be back to Jim Crow. Such is the state of American democracy these days.

Three Lessons From GOP Backing Down On Gutting Ethics Oversight

After an eruption of protest and outrage, the House Republicans have decided to drop their plans to gut Congressional oversight. One Republican House member seemed surprised by the negative reaction to their plans, saying, "The calls we’ve gotten in my district office and here in Washington has surprised me, meaning the number of calls." Apparently, House GOP members are just waking up to the fact that people will finally be paying attention to what they actually do now that Republicans control Congress and the Presidency. There really won't be any more of those "free" votes where they can satisfy their radical base with the knowledge that what they passed would never become law or go into effect.

There are three important takeaways from this debacle. First, the House GOP caucus is still pretty fractured and Paul Ryan has very little control. Media reports say that Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy apparently both spoke out against this move when House Republicans voted on it last night. They were ignored. It is this kind of dysfunction that meant the House could never put a budget together all last year. Despite his supposed opposition, the fact that the House's very first move after the election has resulted in a total PR disaster for Republicans will be held against Ryan. Steve Bannon has admitted to wanting Ryan out and this kind of debacle will be just more fodder to help bring Ryan down.

Second, despite the fact that Republicans have backed down on this issue, it is important to remember that the majority of their caucus voted to go along with this as the very first act they would take in the 115th Congress. The media still seems to be unaware, but no one should be surprised by the radical nature of the Republican agenda. Despite warnings from their leaders about the optics of this move, the majority of Republicans decided to go ahead.

Which brings us to the final point and that is that the GOP would not have withdrawn this proposal without the negative reaction from the public. The shocking thing is that this proposal was made just last night and had to be withdrawn this morning. It goes to show the power and spontaneity of the backlash.There will be plenty of other items that Republicans will try to pass in the depth of night when they hope no one in looking. And they can only be blocked in the same way this was - through awareness, exposure, and reaction. It will require vigilance, organization, and making our will known.

But let's not kid ourselves either. The only reason this failed is that there were enough Republicans who refused to go along with it. Unfortunately for all of us, that won't always be the case.

The Kleptocracy Officially Begins As Congress Is In Session

It was nice to see Republicans in the House make sure their very first act in the new Congress was to hang a nice bright sign outside the Capitol saying that the kleptocracy was open for business. Forget repealing Obamacare. That can wait until the GOP first makes sure that its corruption will not be impinged by any spurious investigations.

The House will adopt the rules for the 115th Congress today and one of the new rules that House Republicans voted on last night and will be adopted over Democratic objections today is to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent agency that investigates Congressional misconduct. Under the new Republican rules, that office will cease to exist as an independent entity or an entity at all. A new Office of Congressional Complaint Review (OCCR) will take its place but importantly not be independent. Instead it will report to the totally partisan and ineffective House Ethics Committee. If that was not bad enough, the new Republican rules effectively muzzle the office from sharing information with the public and restrict paths of investigation. First, the new OCCR will not be allowed to investigate any anonymous complaints. In addition, the OCCR would not be allowed to relay any information to law enforcement officials if it determines that a crime has been committed. And lastly, just to ensure that these potential Congressional crimes remain totally hidden from the public, the OCCR is specifically prohibited from providing any information to the public or employing any person "for a position involving communications with the public". The opportunity for outright bribery and corruption is now wide open. And, under these new rules, pedophiles like Mark Foley would probably still be in Congress abusing House pages.

While Congress is just hanging out the shingle to be bribed, Donald Trump has already been out there banking hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling access. There was the development projects in India that Trump helped move along in the immediate aftermath of his election and the solicitation of foreign embassies to use his DC hotel. Trump projects are going forward in Indonesia, India, Uruguay, Dubai, and Canada. With the exception of Canada, all of these countries are places where greasing the hands of powerful politicians and building interests are useful in getting things done. The NY Times describes Trump's ethical morass in Indonesia thusly, "[Trump's] tangle of relationships includes an Indonesian business partner who aspires to high office; a powerful politician accused of trying to extort billions of dollars from an American mining company; as well as Mr. Trump’s adviser on regulatory issues, Carl C. Icahn, who is a top shareholder in the same mining company."

Trump also used the occasion of New Year's Eve to bank nearly half a million dollars for himself through his exclusive party at Mar-a-Lago. With "ticket" prices to the event of between $500 and $600 dollars per person and a guest list that was supposedly around 800 people, the for-profit gala easily brought in over $400,000 for Trump. And that assumes that people limited themselves to the price of the ticket rather than throwing a little something "extra" to help Trump's worthy cause (himself) along.

Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks laid down the ground rules that Trump will be operating under, saying, "the president cannot and does not have a conflict." Despite all the bluster and promises about detaching himself from his business, Trump's position has always been that, as President, he cannot have a conflict of interest. And now that Congress has limited any independent investigations into their own conflicts, we can all happily settle in for corruption on a scale we probably haven't seen for a century. Trump's admiration for Putin and his government is already being reflected in our new President and Congress. It will be an oligarchic kleptocracy that I'm sure we will all be proud of.

Update: It looks like GOP may be having second thoughts on this brazen move due to the outrage that has erupted. Heck, even Trump is scoring some cheap points by saying this shouldn't be their top priority. (Note he didn't say that it should not be done, just questioned the timing.)

Update 2: Apparently the immense outrage has forced the GOP to back off this move to enable corruption as the proposal has been dropped from the rules to be adopted by the House.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Driverless Cars Will Just Add To Traffic Congestion

Kevin Drum believes in the future of driverless cars, trucks, and buses. Atrios thinks otherwise. I have my doubts that they will ever work as advertised. But, even if I accept Drum's premises, it seems to ignore the problem of distribution and traffic. If driverless buses mean cheaper buses and cheaper buses mean buses can run more frequently, it still does not mean that it will still be affordable to reach underserved low-density areas. And, in high density areas, more buses may actually mean more congestion. But I think his final point about the "last mile" is even more debatable. The idea that there will be this fleet of cars that track your progress on mass transit and then show up to take you the "last mile" seems highly unrealistic. Where, exactly, is this fleet of cars going to be waiting when no one wants them? What happens when dozens of people arrive at a mass transit hub wanting to be taken the "last mile"? Are there really going to be dozens of cars available for them and won't that just add to traffic congestion? And, lastly, do you really think that this "last mile" service is really going to be affordable for those underserved low density residents who actually need it more than most? More likely, it is likely to be a pricey service that will primarily benefit richer travelers. In the meantime, as Atrios points out, taxpayers will be subsidizing this technology through improved signage at minimum.

Wall Street Fleeces Pension Funds As Workers Pay Twice

Gretchen Morgenson had an interesting article on Friday that illustrated how Wall Street firms are fleecing pension funds as those funds search for higher returns to keep themselves even reasonably funded. The New York State Teamsters Conference Pension and Retirement Fund has$1.3 billion in assets but just 44.8 percent of its obligations are funded. A recent actuarial study found that at the current rate the fund would be insolvent in less than 20 years. Because of the underfunding, current and future retirees are now facing 20%-30% benefit cuts. There are many reasons that the pension fund is underfunded. The decline in unionization has meant there are fewer workers than were anticipated contributing to the fund. In addition, the stock market crash in 2008 and this extended period of low interest rates have also hurt the fund's performance. It is not alone in that regard.

Some concerned members of the fund raised enough money to have any independent investigator to a forensic study of the fund. The investigator found that the fund has invested in many illiquid and opaque products, chasing returns promised by private equity managers. Those returns, however, have not even kept up with the returns in the equity market averages over the same period. According to the forensic study, the fund suffered $500 million in excessive expenses and fees and another $400 million in losses due to underperformance.

It is really hard to see what purpose Wall Street actually provides these days. However, they do engage in massive schemes to defraud their customers; they continue to avoid responsibility for massive mortgage fraud that destroyed the economy and required taxpayers to actually bail them out; and they no longer fulfill their supposed role as an efficient allocator of resources. They are, however, exceedingly good at fleecing the rest of us.

For those pensioners who are now facing cuts of 20%-30%, this is a brutal blow. And it just reflects another broker promise to the workers in our country. Many of these workers agreed to forgo wage increases in the 1980s and 1990s specifically in order to protect their pensions for the future. Now, when the day comes to actually pay the piper, the pensions are not full funded. So the workers helped keep wages lower which benefitted the corporations. And when they are due the money they are owed, they are told the money isn't there because some other corporation has managed to rip off their pension funds with excessive fees. Once again, for corporations and Wall Street, it's "heads I win, tails you lose".

More Two-Tiered Justice In The American Legal System

We all know that we have a two-tier justice system here in the US, one for corporations and the rich and another for pretty much the rest of us. Increasingly, however, it seems that we don't even bother to provide any legal services for the least among us. Thursday's NY Times had side-by-side stories which illustrates the current dichotomy.

Prosecutors are apparently nearing a settlement with Takata over the faulty airbags it produced and the company's decade-long effort to hide the fact that Takata knew their airbags were defective all along. The settlement reportedly includes a fine of $1 billion dollars but it remains unresolved as to whether the company will also plead guilty to criminal charges as well. Takata's defective airbags exploded without warning, killing eleven and injuring over 180 people in the United States alone. Over 40 million vehicles have been recalled because of the issue but there is no guarantee that all of them have or will be fixed as many drivers might ignore the recall as it only effects the airbag, not realizing the deadly possibilities.

The issue began in the early 2000s when the airbag maker opted to use a propellant for deployment that was known to break down and become unstable and prone to explosion over time. The propellant was a cheaper alternative and allowed Takata to gain market share and join the oligopoly of three companies that dominate the airbag business. The first explosion occurred in 2004 but the company treated the issue as purely an anomaly and did not report it to federal regulators. As the incidence of exploding airbags increased, Takata dismissed any inquiries by saying they were the result of isolated manufacturing problems. But the company did agree to use outside researchers to determine whether the propellant might be the problem. That study began in 2010 and the researchers reported their findings to the company in 2012. The report concluded that the propellant was indeed the culprit in the airbag explosions. Rather then reporting these findings and working to resolve the issue, the company sat on the report until 2014, when federal regulators demanded all relevant documents from Takata on the airbag issue. Incredibly, since the company was not under a formal investigation in 2012, it was apparently not illegal for Takata to withhold the study. Of course, the only reason they were not under formal investigation is that they had misled investigators in 2010 about the issue. The extent of the fraud inside Takata is extensive. Investigators have discovered emails as far back as 2006 where a Takata engineer tells his cohorts "Happy Manipulating" when sending airbag test results. Lastly, it is also clear that automakers, especially Honda and Toyota, conspired with Takata in downplaying and covering up the extent and danger of airbag problem. And the regulators are hardly blameless either.

So, a company that knew its product was defective for perhaps two decades and that it caused 11 deaths conspired to hide that fact from federal regulators for at least a decade. Yes, the result is a massive fine that may endanger the future of the company but there is potentially no criminal liability. At worst, Takata may declare bankruptcy and the resulting pieces will be picked up by the other two members of the airbag oligopoly.

The next story comes from Hobbes, New Mexico. Hobbes is the classic oil and gas boom town but it is in the bust phase ever since oil prices crashed a couple of years ago. Felonies have doubled since 2011 and alcohol and drug abuse and their consequences also have risen. The state of New Mexico has been struggling to balance its budget and its court system has been receiving less and less funding. The system faces an over $1 million shortfall this year so even more cuts are coming. Things are so bad that the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts recently said, "We are strained and we consistently hear prosecutors and public defenders tell us there are not enough of them to do the job that they ought to do. We’ve reached a point where the judges have grave concerns about the system’s ability to deliver justice." The state's New Mexico’s chief public defender, Bennett Baur, decided he had finally had enough. His public defenders in Hobbes were representing over 200 cases each. With further cuts coming and an inability to add qualified defenders, Baur ordered the public defenders in Hobbes to stop taking new cases. Says Baur, "We have to turn off the spigot. It is unconstitutional, inefficient and, frankly, not fair to represent more people if we can’t give them a functioning attorney." As of now, the situation remains unresolved, forcing more and more defendants to opt not to go to trial as they have no lawyer to represent them.

This lack of resources for legal help is not just restricted to red states or states with serious budget issues. In New York, Governor Cuomo took the opportunity of New Year's Eve to veto a bipartisan bill that sought to address the problems with the state's public defender system. The bill instituted state-wide standards for effective counsel as well as shifting the responsibility for funding from individual counties to the state. The bill would have established limits on public defenders' case loads, required a lawyer for a criminal's first court appearance, and provided resources for an adequate defense. The bill was actually prompted by a class action lawsuit that alleges the current system violates the U.S. Constitution, the New York State constitution and the laws of New York.

The legal system in the US today is in many ways indistinguishable from a banana republic. Well-connected corporations violate the law with impunity, avoiding any criminal responsibility for their actions and occasionally paying a fine. The executives at these companies can knowingly conspire to evade the laws but hide behind the corporate veil, avoiding any culpability for their actions. Meanwhile, the rest of us are literally defenseless in front of the power of the state. Underfunded and understaffed public defender systems merely provide the legal fiction that all defendants will receive their constitutional right to legal counsel.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Nixon's Treason Set Pattern For All GOP Presidents; Trump Is No Different

John Farrell in the NY Times has an article that shows that recently discovered notes from H.R. Haldeman show conclusively that Richard Nixon directed his campaign to scuttle peace talks with the North Vietnamese in the run-up to the 1968 election. There has always been plenty of concrete evidence that members of Nixon's campaign were involved in a back channel to the South Vietnamese government advising them that they would get a better deal when Nixon became President if the backed out of the peace talks. The Nixon campaign used Anna Chennault, Chiang Kai-shek, and Louis Kung, all Chinese nationalists, as its intermediaries to the South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu. Earlier releases of documents from both Nixon and LBJ demonstrated Nixon aides coordinating the back channel negotiations. However, there has never been any direct proof that Nixon knew of these actions or approved and/or coordinated them. White House tapes show that Nixon denied being involved when confronted by Johnson and that provided at least some defense for Nixon not being involved. That defense has crumbled with the release of the new Haldeman notes which clearly show Nixon directing his aides to do whatever it took to throw a "monkey wrench" into Johnson's peace initiative. The direct result of this treasonous act was another four more years of war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, costing the lives of 20,000 Americans, another 100,000 American wounded, and over a million Southeast Asians killed or wounded. Nixon's treason came at a very high price.

The next Republican President after Richard Nixon was the sainted Ronald Reagan. Like Nixon, Reagan and his campaign have also been accused of a similar deal with the Iranians in order to scuttle the release of the hostages until after Reagan's election. Those initial accusations were deemed unworthy until the later revelation of Reagan's Iran-Contra deal, which sold military hardware to the Iranians in order to illegally fund the war in Central America. While there have been multiple sources on both the US and Iranian sides who say that a deal like this did take place, investigations have shown no definitive evidence to substantiate that claim.

George H. W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan as President and continually claimed he was "out of the loop" when it came to the Iran-Contra deal. But the investigation by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh showed that Bush had been aware of the deal almost from the beginning, in direct contradiction of his claims. In addition, Bush apparently withheld important documents from Walsh and preemptively pardoned those senior officials who had not already been convicted of a crime as well as those who already had, leaving Bud MacFarlane and Oliver North to take the fall.

Dick Cheney learned the lessons of the successful cover-up of the Iran-Contra affair quite well and that was to stonewall any investigation, by legal or other means, in order to get what you wanted done. And he took that attitude with him in the George W. Bush administration where he was largely the instigator of the successful effort to distort the intelligence in order to pave the way for the invasion of Iraq. Thirteen years later, we are still dealing with the fallout from that fateful decision. The country of Iraq has largely been destroyed and the rise of ISIS is a direct consequence of that invasion.

Based on this history of Republican treason, lies, and deception, I don't think anyone should be surprised that the announcement of a cease-fire in Turkey comes in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's election. I have no proof that there was any direct quid-pro-quo but for someone as skeptical as myself it does seem "interesting" that the Russian's rebuffed all our efforts for a cease-fire before suddenly implementing one with last week with America excluded. More importantly, Russia clearly hacked this election and did everything in its power to help Trump get elected. A number of Trump advisers, some of whom are now cabinet appointees, have had close connections to Putin and the Russian government. And Trump's own positive view of Putin as well as his wish that the Russians hack Hillary all add to the suspicions of some sort of deal between Trump and Putin. We know that the most important item that Putin wants is to get the sanctions that are strangling the Russian economy lifted. The real question is why Trump is so eager to please Putin and what he thinks he may get in return. Rumors of Trump being compromised on his visits to Russia abound. But it is hard to see that anything Trump did in Moscow would be any worse than what we already know about the philandering, narcissistic, congenitally lying abuser. Like the Republican Presidents before him, he will sell our country down the river. Will we only get a few Trump hotels in return?

Natural Weekends - Geese, Ducks, And A Hawk

With the high tides lately, the ducks and geese have been coming into our little inlet on the creek to feed. They are about the only wildlife consistently seen on the creek these cold winter days.

Earlier, this hawk swooped down and the ducks scattered in an instant but the geese weren't phased at all.

This goose is doing his best to hide from 2017.