Saturday, February 11, 2017

Uber Angers Customers, Drivers, And Even Its Few Supporters

You really have to hand it to CEO Travis Kalanick and Uber. They sure know how to piss off their drivers, their customers, and now even one of the few municipal governments where they actually had some support.

In late January, Uber filed suit against the city of Seattle over its law that would allow drivers for Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services to unionize. The bill actually passed unanimously in the Seattle City Council but was held up for almost a year as the ever worker-friendly US Chamber of Commerce challenged the bill in court, essentially carrying the water for Uber and Lyft. That suit was dismissed last year as being premature, since the law had yet to be implemented. The city's implementation began in December when rules about what drivers would be eligible and how organizations could be certified to represent drivers were finally announced. That prompted Uber's suit which called Seattle's law "arbitrary and capricious". It certainly was an odd way  to start off the company's self-proclaimed "Year of the Driver". Interestingly, Lyft has not joined or filed a suit of their own, preferring, it seems, to let Uber take all the heat while Lyft is content to see where the chips fall.

It also appears that Uber was once again using an outside firm to investigate "Seattle's political stakeholders and the dynamics of labor unions in the city".  This all seems a little too reminiscent of another Uber "investigation" of a citizen who was suing Uber and his lawyer that earned a stern reprimand from a federal judge. The judge in that case believed "the purpose of the [Uber] investigation was to try to unearth derogatory personal information about Mr. Meyer and his counsel that could then be used to try to intimidate them or to prejudice the court against them." Uber has confirmed the investigation in Seattle but says it is not designed to target specific drivers or union organizers. Sure.

It was only a few days later, that Uber's effort to take advantage of the taxi strike in support of the protests against Trump's Muslim ban backfired in the worst possible way. A reported 200,000 customers deleted their Uber app in protest and Kalanick was forced to resign from Trump's economic advisory council.

That event may have also been the straw that broke the camel's back in Pittsburgh. That city has been a long-time Uber supporter, defending the company when Uber was fined over $11 million for another one of its blatantly illegal moves, operating in Pennsylvania without proper authorization. In addition, the city also was a testing ground for Uber's autonomous vehicle trials which created even more problems for Uber when they were tried, again illegally, in San Francisco. Pittsburgh hoped to get something in return for its work with Uber such as information on traffic flows and perhaps even convince Uber to manufacture at least parts of their autonomous vehicles in the city. In addition, they also wanted Uber's help in winning the Smart City Challenge that would entitle the city to a $50 million US Department of Transportation grant. To that end, it asked Uber to provide a transit connection from Carnegie Mellon University to the area of the city that Uber was testing its autonomous vehicles. What the city got in return was a list of demands from Uber about what the city needed to do for the company including, according to Quartz, "access to bus lanes, designated pick-up and drop-off spots for self-driving cars, and 'prioritization of snow removal' on self-driving car routes." In essence, Uber said it would do nothing to help Pittsburgh while demanding Pittsburgh do more to help Uber. So far, the only thing Uber has apparently done for the city is a $10,000 donation to a homeless shelter. As the exasperated city controller said, "“Unfortunately, to this point, the relationship with Uber appears to be a one-way limited-access highway.They currently operate as though they have been given carte blanche access to our city." But that is pretty much the way this serial criminal enterprise treats every municipality where it provides its service.

As Erik Loomis says about Uber, "Whenever it comes up in the news, you know it’s going to be because they are doing something awful again." Truer words may not have been spoken.

Natural Weekends - Colors in Clouds

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bureaucracy, Courts Show Signs Of Reining In Trump

It's beginning to look like the bureaucracy is finally starting to rein in Donald Trump. He is already backing away from some of his more extreme positions or at least putting them on hold. And his press conference with Prime Minister Abe today showed Trump clearly hewing to the script and not going off on the wild and destructive tangents he is famous for. There was no declaration that Japan was getting a free ride on its defense and must pay us back. In fact, Trump committed to longstanding US policies with Japan. Part of this may be that someone is finally explaining to Trump just how dangerous what was fiery campaign rhetoric in the past is when it is repeated as President.

First, in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump apparently reaffirmed the US commitment to the "one China" policy that has been US policy for decades. This is a total repudiation of Trump's earlier comments that he did not feel bound by that policy and his breech of protocol in contacting the Taiwanese leader before speaking to Xi. In addition, Trump again insulted the Chinese by not sending good wishes on the Lunar New Year, although he did send a belated message on Wednesday. It is unclear whether an affirmation of the "one China" policy was a condition of the long awaited call between Trump and Xi.

Just days after renewing his campaign promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Trump himself backed off that promise in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. Said Trump, "It’s a big, big decision but we’re studying the issue right now; I’ve always liked the concept of doing it, I will tell you that, and I’ll have a decision in the not-too-distant future". As we've seen with so many of Trump's promises, a pledge to do something in the future is often soon forgotten.

The courts have played their part in restraining Trump as they unanimously agreed to a temporary suspension of the Muslim ban over the unconstitutionality of certain provisions. It now appears that Trump has now decided not to carry the fight over the ban to the Supreme Court and will now set about rewriting the order in order to hopefully comply with the constitutional issues the courts have raised. Of course, this all could have been avoided by thoroughly vetting the order and laying the groundwork for it before it was announced.

So, there appear to be a few signs that some degree of normalcy is finally taking hold in the Trump administration. But it is clear that Trump can still go off the rails if he is not managed correctly. During a call with the French President Francois Hollande, Trump apparently went ballistic over NATO, telling Hollande "we want our money back". A senior official who had knowledge of the call described Trump as follows, "He speaks with slogans, and the conversation was not completely organised." On the other hand, Trump still reaffirmed the US commitment to NATO even in this call.

There will still be the outrageous lies, total fabrications, and outright ignorance such as the statements about the US murder rate and illegals voting. And there will still be overreach such as ICE officers such as taking into custody people who simply could not provide documentation and were in the vicinity of the deportation raids, something that I would hope has to be a constitutional violation. But the important takeaway is one that everyone from ISIS to Xi has learned - Trump is weak and will retreat under pressure. That is why relentless resistance is so crucial. As a lawyer described Trump's cave-in to the "one China" policy said, "Trump just confirmed to the world that he is a paper tiger, a 'zhilaohu' — someone that seems threatening but is wholly ineffectual and unable to stomach a challenge." So challenge him we must.

None of this means that the Trump administration is going to be any less disastrous. In fact, by reining Trump in, it will mean that Trump's terrible policies will be put in place through the normal legislative and bureaucratic procedures, potentially without Trump's inflammatory statements to rouse opposition. As his cabinet gets ensconced, we will probably begin to see more effective and coordinated implementation of his destructive policies. I suspect we will see less and less of Trump as Congress passes and he signs terrible and damaging legislation over united Democratic opposition. And in six months, we will start to read stories about how Trump is "growing into the job of being President". I'm sick already.

Connecticut Starts To Revamp How It Funds Education

Here in Connecticut, there is another great example of the battle between urban and suburban/rural interests, this time over education funding. After a decade long legal battle, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) finally won a landmark court case that challenged the way the state allocated money for education, claiming it violated the state constitution's requirement to provide an equal education for all students. The CCJEF also asked the judge to rule that the state must increase funding for education but were not able to prevail in that part of the case.

The inequity in the Connecticut school systems are vast and striking. Here where I live, the city of Bridgeport continually struggles to properly fund its schools, its students have below average reading and math scores, and only graduates about 63% of its students from high school. The wealthy neighboring town of Fairfield, on the other hand, graduates 94% of its high school students and sends many of them to some of the most prestigious colleges.

Rather than letting the courts decide the new allocation of funds, Governor Malloy has decided to bite the bullet and ask the legislature to help craft a new system entirely. Unfortunately, Connecticut is already suffering a budget crunch so all Malloy's proposal will do is rearrange the existing money spent on education. But even that will make a huge difference to some of the least performing school districts located in the poorer cities of the state. According to Malloy, his proposal would be the first step in "rectifying what Connecticut has done to itself over a long period of time, which is to not properly support pockets of poverty in urban environments and some small towns. So we’re seizing the moment to rectify that situation."

Under his proposal, the actual number of students in each particular district would drive the funding. Incredibly, that is not the way the system works now. In addition, the proposal would look at the number of children in that district who are eligible for the children's health insurance program in order to estimate the number of students in poverty. Malloy believes this will capture far more poor students than the current system which looks at whether students qualify for school lunch support. His plan would also shift about $400 million in teacher pension costs from the state to local governments. All in all, this will reduce funding for 138 localities in the state while increasing funding for 31. The town of Fairfield mentioned above would lose over $7.5 million in funding under Malloy's plan.

You can expect the resistance to this plan to be pretty fierce. Some of the wealthiest towns in the state stand to lose quite a lot of funding and they are going to fight this tooth and nail. So this is just the opening gambit in what will be a protracted struggle in the legislature. It is quite probable that teacher seniority and evaluations will also get dragged into this battle as bargaining chips as will funding for charter schools which Malloy has consistently supported.

Malloy is already an unpopular governor with his approval rating falling to Chris Christie-like numbers in the middle of last year, a low of 24%. He had probably anticipated parachuting out of the governor's mansion and into some position in the Hillary Clinton administration, but that was not to be. So, while he is governor and unpopular, it seems like he has decided to be unpopular while doing the right thing. It will make for an interesting legislative session in Hartford.

Immigration, Trump, And Labor Shortages

Kevin Drum points out that the largest garlic grower in California has discovered a remarkable method for solving the chronic labor shortage that the farm had struggled to fill in the last few years. According to the LA Times, the farm "announced recently that it would hike pay for farmworkers from $11 an hour to $13 hour this year, or 18%, and then to $15 in 2018. At the end of last year, the farm was short 50 workers needed to help peel, package and roast garlic. Within two weeks of upping wages in January, applications flooded in. Now the company has a wait-list 150 people long." Somehow the fact that raising wages actually increased the pool of prospective employees astonished the owner of the farm who said, "I knew it would help a little bit, but I had no idea that it would solve our labor problem." As Drum says, perhaps other businesses in the US might learn something from this.

Meanwhile, those same California farmers are becoming increasingly concerned by Trump's seeming determination to actually cut back on immigration. These farmers and many others across the country rely on a large pool of immigrant and migrant workers to actually harvest and pack the crops that we all eat. And it is unlikely that, even at $15 an hour, they will be able to get enough "real" Americans to do the backbreaking, manual labor that these farmers require. Today's news about the deportation of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos in Arizona will do nothing to alleviate these farmers' concerns. Far from being one of those hardened criminals that Trump railed about during the campaign, Garcia de Rayos's only crime was to actually come here illegally when she was a teenager and then live a quiet and productive life, raising a family, for 22 years. Her "crime" was to be caught working illegally 8 years ago and for that she is being deported today.

Trump's executive order on immigration basically considers anyone here illegally who did anything other than simply exist as eligible for deportation. If they worked, if their child received free school lunches, if they received food stamps, or any benefit from state or federal government they are subject to deportation. And the order authorizes the building of massive new detention centers (by private contractors, of course) and the enlistment of state and local police in the deportation effort. It threatens to cut federal funds with localities that refuse to cooperate with the effort.

Farmers, who probably overwhelmingly voted for Trump, are finding out that they probably should have taken Trump literally. For them, the days of low cost immigrant labor may be ending and a new round of labor shortages beginning.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Local Control Presents Pitfalls And Opportunities For Democrats

As America's politics increasingly breaks down to a split between urban and suburban/rural voters, the issue of local control will become a more and more important area of contention. This, of course, is nothing new as the tension between the states and the federal government has been almost the defining issue of our democracy, where the battles over slavery, racism, and equality have been fought. The new battleground going forward looks to be between individual localities and the states and the political skirmishes in this area provide some pitfalls and opportunities for Democrats.

The premiere example of this battle is the "bathroom bill" that passed the GOP-controlled North Carolina state legislature in a special session and was signed into law by the Republican governor, Pat McCrory. The sole purpose of the bill was to override a measure passed by the city of Charlotte that allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of their gender preference, as opposed to their birth gender. The Charlotte ordinance also offered other LGBTQ protections such as prohibiting Charlotte businesses from discriminating against LGBTQ employees and customers. While they were at it, the legislature also added in a requirement that no locality in the state can mandate a minimum wage higher than the state's minimum wage.

The minimum wage is where we will really see that battle for local control take place. Just last week, the Ohio legislature passed a bill that prohibits localities in that state from regulating the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and even employee scheduling. The city of Cleveland was supposed to vote on just such a minimum wage ordinance later this spring, but the legislature's action effectively preempted that vote. A similar tactic was tried in Arizona but that eventually backfired as the voters in that state passed Proposition 206 which not only raised the minimum wage to $10/hour but also mandated paid sick leave. It is this kind of scenario where the GOP-dominated legislature overturns a broadly popular measure that provides the opportunity for Democrats to exploit as it provides a clear example of which party is really on the side of the working class.

It is not just GOP-controlled legislatures overriding predominantly Democratic localities, it is also happening in blue states as corporations exert their power over state legislatures. In New York, New York City passed a bill that instituted a 5-cent fee on plastic bags that was meant to go into effect later this month. The bill had exclusions for takeout bags and also exempted people on food stamps, providing them with free reusable bags instead. The New York state legislature is nominally controlled by Democrats, although a breakaway group in the State Senate allows Republicans some control. Under pressure from powerful plastics industry groups such as the misnamed "American Progressive Bag Alliance", the legislature passed a bill delaying implementation of the fee and it is currently awaiting Governor Cuomo's signature or veto.

For Democrats, the pitfalls of arguing for local control are obvious. Just as Democratic arguments that cities like Cleveland should be able to regulate their own minimum wage, Republicans will argue that the states should be able to regulate their own minimum wage separate from the federal government. Republicans will take and have taken a similar tack with education, for example, with the promotion of creationism. A far better tack for Democrats is to use the overreach of the state legislatures to mobilize not only their base but the rest of the state in backing these largely popular measures, as was done in Arizona. Obviously winning a state-wide ballot initiative is substantially easier than winning enough local elections to swing the balance in these Republican dominated legislatures but is at least a start. And it allows Democrats to fight statewide over specific popular issues that highlight their real support for the working class rather than engage in a theoretical discussion over the role of government which is rarely fertile ground for Democrats.

The Misogyny Of The GOP Is In Full View

If there was ever a better example of the fact that racism and misogyny were important drivers in the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it would be have to be the silencing of Elizabeth Warren and, simultaneously, the voice of Coretta Scott King by Mitch McConnell and the Republicans on Tuesday night. And let's be clear, it was not just Mitch McConnell but the entire bloc of Republican Senators that silenced Warren and King in a party line vote. To make matters even more clear to women around the country, male Democratic Senators also read Mrs. King's letter and were not censured. That may be because it was already clear that the move was backfiring for the GOP, but the more likely explanation was that Warren, a woman, was the real target.

That suspicion was seemingly confirmed today by a supposed "moderate" voice in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, who said, "The bottom line is, it was long overdue with her. I mean, she is clearly running for the nomination in 2020." This is pretty rich coming from a failed presidential candidate himself. But it speaks to the real misogyny in the Republican party that any woman who has the temerity to run for president must be rebuked.

And it's not just misogyny, but racism and anti-Semitism as well. Jeff Sessions is the poster boy for racist politics but the GOP had no problem ramming him through the confirmation process. And on Tuesday, the House refused to consider a resolution which had been signed on to by 100 Democrats that would "affirm that the Nazi regime targeted the Jewish people in its perpetration of the Holocaust." The GOP House defeated the procedural maneuver to consider the resolution in a party line vote. The measure was introduced to highlight the fact that Trump's Holocaust Remembrance Day statement intentionally left out any mention of Jews.

The farther we get away from the 2016 election and the actions of the GOP majority come into stark relief, the more and more it becomes clearer how important not only racism but especially misogynysm was in Hillary Clinton's defeat. Without re-opening the civil war between the Hillary and Bernie camps, it seems more and more likely that Bernie Sanders might have squeaked through to the Presidency had he won the nomination. In many ways, he would have blunted not only Trump's inroads on trade but also been able to deflect the attack that he was really a closet Communist by focusing on Trump's fondness for Putin. More importantly, there are apparently a huge swath of marginally blue voters who seem to simply find it hard to pull the voting lever for a woman. Bernie would not have presented that problem. It is sad to admit, but probably true.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Spin Round The Laboratories Of Autocracy

First off, I must give credit where credit is due. Charles Pierce is the one who came up with the moniker of the "laboratories of democracy" when talking about the states. I have simply coopted and modified that moniker for my purposes.

Let's start off in the home of the hogs, Arkansas. There, the GOP controlled legislature tried to take another run at mandating a photo ID in order to vote. A similar law in 2013 was struck down by the Arkansas State Supreme Court as being unconstitutional, citing the fact the state constitution only lists four items as a requirement to vote - being over 18 years of age, being a US citizen, being registered to vote, and a resident of the state. There is nothing in there about needing a photo ID. But this time things could be different, primarily because the four members of the court that ruled it unconstitutional have been removed. The three remaining justices all wrote a separate opinion that struck down the law only because it did not pass with the required two-thirds majority to change the state constitution. The Arkansas House passed the bill 74-21, more than the two-thirds required, and it now awaits a vote in the Senate.

But restricting voting rights was just a warm-up for the Arkansas House. The House also voted some extreme abortion restrictions as well. The bill provides some clear definitions of an unborn child, "an individual organism of the species Homo sapiens from fertilization until live birth", and a woman, "a female human being whether or not she has reached the age of majority." Based on what's in the rest of the bill, they may want to change the definition of a woman to just a vehicle with which to give birth to an unborn child. The bill bans the most common and safest abortion procedure after 14 weeks of gestation. Arkansas already makes it difficult for women who want abortions. 97% of the counties in the state do not have an abortion clinic and those counties account for 77% of the women's population in the state. But by far the most outrageous part of this bill is that it allows the husband of a woman seeking an abortion of what the bill calls "an unborn child" and who is that "child's" father to file a civil suit for monetary damages against the doctor providing the abortion or an injunction to prevent the abortion. The woman's parents or legal guardians could also sue if she is a minor. Even worse, while the bill restricts the right to sue for monetary damages in the situation where a woman is the victim of spousal rape, it will allow the rapist to sue to prevent the abortion. As Shakezula says, "Nothing says law and order like letting violent criminals control their victims". The bill also passed the Senate and was signed into law by Governor Asa Hutchinson. Other states who have tried similar laws have had them struck down as unconstitutional. But all these bills are just a prelude to the presumed overturning of Roe v. Wade when Gorsuch gets on the Supreme Court and abortion is left to the individual states.

Let's move on to Virginia where the state legislature also introduced its own version on restricting voting rights. Virginia already has a photo ID requirement but is now introducing even stricter measures in order to register to vote in state and local elections. Now citizens would be required to show a birth certificate, passport, naturalization document or other federal ID in order be able to vote in state and local elections. These requirements have already been ruled unconstitutional for federal elections but the state can still mandate them for local elections. This splitting of the requirements for registering for federal and local elections will merely confuse citizens and prevent people who don't have these documents from registering at all. Governor Terry McAuliffe will veto this measure and it appears the GOP does not have enough votes to override him.

While they were doing their best to restrict the right to vote, the GOP in Virginia was also making sure that they would not protect children working on tobacco farms in the state. In the House Commerce and Labor subcommittee, Democrats put forward a proposal to crack down on child labor on tobacco farms, especially to protect them from the toxic chemicals in the tobacco plants. A report from Human Right Watch documented that "Child tobacco workers in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia often experienced nausea and vomiting while cutting stalks of burley tobacco during the harvest." Democrat Alfonso Lopez challenged his GOP committee members saying, "If this was your kid, would you be OK with having them work in this job? Would you? I don’t think you would. So why is it OK for kids you don’t know to do this job?" The GOP responded by saying they had already voted this proposal down last year and really didn't want to hear it again. Said one GOP member, "I’m just curious if there was new things you could bring? Because I’m sure everybody was here from last year on this committee." In fact, two of the largest tobacco firms had recently put new protections that prohibited children under 18 from working I direct contact with the tobacco plants. But the GOP was more interested in what the tobacco lobby had to say. "We believe that setting out one Virginia commodity outside of every other when farming is inherently a practice we want to encourage people to get into,” said Katie Frazier, president of the Virginia Agribusiness Council. “Singling out tobacco as one specific commodity that would be dangerous for children under the age of 18 to work in is concerning to us". By a party line vote, the proposal was killed.

The Show-Me state, Missouri, is going to show how to bust unions by passing a right-to-work law. Right-to-work laws basically allow a union member to forgo paying dues. The member gets all the benefits of union membership - higher wages, better workplace protections - without having to contribute to the proper functioning of the union. Missouri is now the 28th state to allow "free-riding" by union members. But the action may have been moot anyway as the a right-to-work bill has already been introduced in the US House of Representatives and there are indications that Trump might sign it.

Finally, the GOP controlled legislature in Iowa is ready to strip collective bargaining power away from its public sector unions. According to the Des Moines Register, "The changes would remove health insurance from mandatory contract negotiations for most public sector union workers, and it would limit mandatory negotiations to base wages, cutting out discussions over things like insurance, evaluation procedures and seniority-related benefits." Basically, the only thing unions could negotiate would be wages. The state could strip away health insurance without the unions having any way to fight it outside of an illegal strike. Of course, the bill exempts cops and fireman in another classic maneuver to divide and conquer the working class.

I'm sure there are many more bills like these in other states around the country. These are just the ones that came to my attention in the last week or so. It is worth noting that absolutely none of these measures does anything to bring well paying jobs to any of these states. It's all about restricting the rights of Americans in one way or another. That is the mantra of the GOP these days and its epitome is Donald Trump.

Quick Update On The Trump Kleptocracy

Here is a quick update on the Trump kleptocracy. Yesterday's news was that Melania Trump has sued the Daily Mail over their reporting that the modeling agency she worked for in the 1990s was really an escort service. The suit, filed in New York, is seeking damages of $150 million, specifically because "the plaintiff’s brand has lost significant value" due to the Daily Mail article and Melania has now lost the opportunities "to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multimillion dollar business relationships for a multiyear term during which plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world." Melania's spokesperson denied that she was trying to profit off being the first lady.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump himself has declared time and again that he has separated himself from his businesses that his sons supposedly now run. But, according to Vox, 10 of the 41 accounts Trump follows on twitter are businesses owned by Trump himself or his family. Considering the amount of time he spends on twitter, he is obviously going to be well informed about all those businesses he has separated himself from.

Apparently the Department of Defense under James Mattis is also looking to get on Trump's good side. They are apparently looking to rent space in Trump Tower. Actually, there is nothing out of the ordinary about this as the DOD needs personnel and equipment in the residence of all presidents. What is unusual and, more importantly, unconstitutional is paying rent to the President the DOD is protecting.

Then today, he took a shot at Nordstrom's because they dropped Ivanka Trump's clothing line earlier this week. Trump tweeted, "My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by Nordstrom. She is a great person -- always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!" And now it's not just Trump. He is enlisting the federal bureaucracy to tout his daughter's business. At the press briefing just now, Sean Spicer declared Nordstrom's decision was "a direct attack on his [Trump's] policies and her [Ivanka's] name".

It's pretty clear that Trump has fully separated himself from the business affairs of his own and his family. We really have nothing to worry about...

Trump Is Alienating Muslim Allies At Home And Abroad That Are Key To US Security

Donald Trump manages to alienate both friends and foe alike with equal ease. And now it is beginning to negatively effect our foreign policy in tangible ways. The New York Times is reporting that Yemen has barred the United States from conducting further ground operations in that country in the wake of the botched raid that apparently killed multiple civilians, including children. It probably does not help matters that Yemen is also on the list of seven countries singled out by the Trump administration for what is essentially a Muslim immigration ban. According to the Times report, it appears the Trump administration did not properly coordinate and consult with the Yemini government before the attack. That fact, plus the civilian casualties, has angered the Yemeni government. In addition, another victim in the attack, although aligned with al-Qaeda, was actually a government ally in the civil war against Houthi rebels.

A subsequent report in the Huffington Post has the Yemeni government specifically saying that they have NOT barred the US from further ground operations but have made their displeasure with the way the raid was conducted known to the Trump administration. Reuters quotes a senior Yemeni official as saying, "We have not withdrawn our permission for the United States to carry out special operations ground missions. However, we made clear our reservations about the last operation. We said that in the future there needs to be more coordination with Yemeni authorities before any operation and that there needs to be consideration for our sovereignty." Reading between the lines, it appears that the Yemen government may now require its own approval before it allows any future US ground operation. This flies in the face of Trump's and National Security Adviser Flynn's desire for more streamlined authority to conduct operations like this.

Yemen is currently the battlefield in a proxy way between Iran and Saudi Arabia and in many ways is a failed state. The internationally recognized government of President Hadi is supported by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni governments. The Shia Houthi rebels, supported by Iran, now control much of the country including its nominal capital, Sanaa, while al-Qaeda holds pockets of control of their own.

Losing the cooperation of the Hadi government could be a real blow to US intelligence capabilities in Yemen. The Muslim ban also makes it more difficult for other majority Muslim countries to offer outright assistance to the US, although they may continue to pass information along clandestinely.

The Times is also reporting that the Trump administration is considering labeling the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization with millions of followers, as a terrorist organization. In many countries in the Middle East, the Brotherhood is purely a political and social organization. In other countries, certain spin-offs from the organization have been and continue to be engaged in terrorism. By painting the entire organization with the broad brush of terrorism, Trump will be further alienating millions of Muslims, many in countries that are important allies and critical to US national security. Egypt is probably the best example. While it may be true that the governments of Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are advocating that the Brotherhood be designated a terrorist organization, it is clear that their position is driven by a desire to crack down on the internal dissent that the group poses, rather than any direct links to terrorism. In his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Tillerson equated al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, calling both "agents of radical Islam".

As an indication of just how far removed from reality the Trump administration appears to be, the Times reports, "Some advisers to Mr. Trump have viewed the Brotherhood for years as a radical faction secretly infiltrating the United States to promote Shariah law. They see the order as an opportunity to finally take action against it." Despite Republican rhetoric and self-generated fear, there is no indication that Shariah law is infiltrating the United States. According to an assistant secretary of state under Mr. Obama, designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization "would signal they are more interested in provoking conflict with an imaginary fifth column of Muslims in the U.S. than in preserving our relationships with counterterrorism partners like Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, or with fighting actual terrorism." A spokesman for the Council on Islamic-American relations was even more direct, saying, "We believe it is just a smoke screen for a witch hunt targeting the civil rights of American Muslims" and would "inevitably be used in a political campaign to attack those same groups and individuals, to marginalize the American Muslim community and to demonize Islam."

Trump's Muslim ban has already frightened many Muslim asylum seekers. In a shocking turn of events, Canada is seeing a small wave of illegal immigration from the United States as those who feel threatened desperately try to get to Canada as refugees. In the last week alone, up to 30 refugees had walked across the border into Canada in order to avoid having to declare refugee status in the United States. According to a 2004 agreement between Canada and the US, refugees must claim asylum in the country in which they land. But that agreement apparently only covers coastal areas, not inland Canada. Rather than reporting to US officials, those seeking refugee status are traveling into the interior US and crossing into the plains provinces of Canada. According to the Guardian article, "More than 7,000 refugee applicants entered Canada by land in 2016, up 63% from the previous year, according to the Canada Border Services Agency". Canadian citizens are demanding the repeal of the 2004 agreement and increase the number of refugees the country accepts. The head Amnesty International of Canada said, "It is a fictitious reality to continue to pretend that the US is safe for refugees".

The botched raid in Yemen and the Muslim ban have already made our country much less safe. If the Trump administration follows this up with designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, our relations with allies that are key to our national security will further deteriorate. In addition, it will create a backlash among Muslim Americans who are our best eyes and ears in detecting home-grown Islamic radicalism and terrorism.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

GOP Silences Elizabeth Warren And Coretta Scott King

Elizabeth Warren was silenced tonight on the Senate floor by Mitch McConnell for reading a letter from Coretta Scott King opposing Jeff Sessions' nomination for a federal judgeship back in the 1980s. Warren was making the point that the points King was making thirty years ago still apply today. Mitch McConnell appealed to the chair that Warren was impugning the integrity of a sitting Senator on the floor of the Senate should be silenced and the chair agreed. Warren is now not allowed to speak on the Senate floor about Jeff Sessions until the confirmation vote is concluded. It is another sad day for American values as the GOP is now starting to attack free speech, even by those who no longer have a voice.

Trump's Easy Path To 4% GDP Growth

During the presidential campaign and its aftermath, Donald Trump has made numerous promises about restoring economic growth. As usual with Trump, there is no consistency in his promises, but at various times he has pledged to raise GDP growth anywhere from 3.5% to 7%. In his hearings, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin reduced the expectations slightly to "3 to 4 percent". Considering the economy has barely nudged above 2% growth since the Great Recession, pushing the economy to nearly double that would certainly be a major accomplishment.

An article in today's New York Times provides a clear roadmap for how the Trump administration could reach that 4% target. It is deceptively easy and it is certainly an approach that will absolutely appeal to the grifter that Trump is. And it even has the backing of the GOP's favorite economist Martin Feldstein.

According to Feldstein, "I think the official data on real growth substantially underestimates the rate of growth". Feldstein and some of his fellow economists doubt that the current method for measuring GDP is accurately reflecting the true state of growth as the country has moved from a manufacturing economy that produced tangible goods to more of a consumer economy that relies on services and information, items that are much more difficult to evaluate and measure. Feldstein takes it one step further and says that real incomes for most Americans, which traditional measurements show as being stagnant for nearly three decades, are actually rising and that this inaccuracy "creates pessimism and a distrust of government,” leading Americans to worry that “their children are going to be stuck and won’t be able to enjoy upward mobility." Feldstein believes, admittedly without evidence, the GDP growth is currently underestimated by around 2% per year.

This dispute has actually been around for a very long time. The GDP measurement primarily looks at prices but prices don't always capture improvements in quality. Smart phones didn't exist 30 years ago but they are probably worth far more to the economy today than simply the cost of producing and purchasing them. Technological advances are difficult to capture in the GDP stats and improvements like free anti-virus software don't even show up at all. Feldstein's favorite example is the widespread use of statins that substantially reduced the risk of heart attacks. In the early 2000s, the death rate from heart disease for those over 65 fell by about one third. Surely that should count for something in GDP, but it doesn't. The dispute over the proper measurement of GDP primarily revolves around these kind of improvements in health care and technology.

On the other hand, Jason Furman, Obama's head of the Council of Economic Advisers, points out, "Growth statistics have always missed some important quality improvements, and it’s not obvious that we’re missing more today than in the past". In other words, GDP has always undervalued improvements in quality and there's no reason to think that it's any worse today, certainly not enough to dramatically change how GDP is calculated. Additionally, putting a value on a qualitative change becomes much more subjective and is easily manipulated. That is also why it might be especially appealing to Trump.

The thing to watch out for with the Trump administration is, however, exactly that, an attempt to change the way GDP is measured. Trump has already questioned the "true" unemployment rate many times. And he will probably soon begin to question the "true" rate of GDP growth. If you take Feldstein's guesstimate that GDP is being under-reported by around 2% and you add it to the existing growth rate of around 2%, voila!, you get your 4% growth without having done a thing. For Trump, the temptation to do this will be hard to resist. So keep your eye on any Treasury Department announcements about "tweaking" GDP calculations down the road.

Passing Another Marker On The Road To Authoritarianism

We all know the Trump administration is going to be attacking the idea of net neutrality and catering to its overlords in the communications industry. And new FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai is wasting no time getting started.

His first acts as commissioner have been to cease providing high speed internet service at a discount to low-income households, withdrawing support to keep prison phone rates down, and abandoning the effort to free users from the cable set-top box, allowing cable shows to be delivered through AppleTV or Roku as some channels allow now.

All of this was to be expected from the Trump administration. What was probably not expected was the way these decisions were executed and delivered.  Most of these decisions were made in secret and were "announced" by burying them deep in the weeds of the FCC website. According to the Times article, "Mr. Pai released about a dozen actions in the last week, many buried in the agency’s website and not publicly announced, stunning consumer advocacy groups and telecom analysts".

This seems to be a clear pattern for the Trump administration as data is being deliberately withheld from the public. From the removal of climate change data to the elimination of USDA reports on puppy mills, the Trump administration seems to feel the less the public knows, the better. Restricting information from the public and decisions made in secret without any real public notification are just more examples of the creeping authoritarianism the country is facing under Trump.

Scottish Parliament Votes To Oppose Article 50; UK Parliament Will Vote On Final Deal

The Scottish Parliament voted overwhelmingly today to oppose the triggering of Article 50 and the start of Brexit negotiations. The vote was 90-34, with most of the opposition coming from Theresa May's Conservative party representatives in Scotland. The vote is not binding on the British Parliament which is currently debating the bill to officially invoke Article 50. But it sends a strong signal about Scotland's preferences and will lay the groundwork for yet another vote on Scottish independence.

Scots are especially upset because they were told they would be considered "equal partners" in the union during the run-up to the first vote on Scottish independence, which failed 55%-45%. Unsurprisingly, it now seems that promise was meaningless. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said, "This vote is far more than symbolic. It is a key test of whether Scotland's voice is being listened to and whether our wishes can be accommodated within the UK process." It seems pretty clear that the answer is no to both of those questions.

This will not be the last shot at stopping Brexit as it appears that May's government has been forced to bow to pressure from MPs to allow another vote in Parliament to approve the final Brexit deal as part of the deal to allow the invocation of Article 50. Whether or not Scotland will still be part of the UK at that point is becoming more of an open question.

DeVos Confirmation Destroys Another Governing Norm

Vice President Mike Pence showed up on Capitol Hill today in order to cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. This marks the first time in our nation's history that the Vice President had to perform this duty to get a cabinet member confirmed. In any other administration, DeVos' nomination would have been pulled long ago and replaced by someone who at least had some understanding of the Education Department and federal education law. But, these days, with Trump and Republicans, it is all about "winning" and showing no weakness, admitting to no error. As Al Franken asked Republicans on the Senate floor, " is there anyone President Trump could nominate for any position that you could vote against?" The answer is a resounding "NO!" And, with Pence's vote, another governing norm gets destroyed by Republicans.

And let's give a shout-out to Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski for exceptional profiles in cowardice. They could have killed DeVos' nomination in committee but voted to let her nomination come to the floor of the Senate. There they could make their Potemkin vote of "courage" against DeVos with the knowledge that the rest of the GOP and Pence would push her nomination through. This has been Collins MO for decades and it is getting really sickening. She always manages to position herself as a "moderate" early on in any debate, but when the rubber hits the road, she always caves to the GOP position or finds a way to cast a vote like this that makes no difference.

Can Someone Please Explain The GOP Obsession About Puppy Mills

Can someone please explain to me what the GOP fascination is with puppy mills. I don't mean to be (too) snarky, but are they a source of huge employment in "real America". It first came to my attention when the state of Ohio felt the need to prevent any attempt for localities in the state to stop pet stores from selling dogs from commercial breeders. And, of course, the GOP resistance to these laws has very little to do with the actual breeders and more to do with catering to the needs of the big pet store chains.

The cities of Toledo and Grove City passed laws that limited where pet stores could buy the dogs they sell. This became quite a problem for Petland, the pet store chain which is also headquartered in Ohio. Petland complained that it would make it impossible for their business if every town in Ohio had differing regulations on purchasing dogs from puppy mills such as the ones in Toledo and Grove City. Animal welfare advocates felt this was an appropriate way to ensure substandard dog breeders are put out of business. And local control advocates joined those animal welfare advocates in an unusual alliance opposing the bill, temporarily derailing it.

Ohio Republican legislators, however, saw this puppy mill bill as an opportunity to expand it to include overriding local ordinances on another issue, specifically raising the minimum wage. The city of Cleveland was scheduled to have a vote on raising the minimum wage in that city sometime this spring. Legislators applied the same logic as Petland to describe this as a totally unworkable solution for the state. One legislator said having cities set their own minimum wage would "help destroy the economy" of Ohio. The idea was so appealing that they also threw in prohibitions from cities regulating paid sick leave and employee scheduling. And to make sure this mammoth bill passed, they decided to throw in an anti-bestiality law as well. That meant anyone who opposed the restriction on the minimum wage would have to cast a vote for bestiality. Apparently, the GOP dominated Ohio legislature isn't really that concerned about the economic anxiety of the white working class since they seem quite comfortable with making sure the minimum wage won't rise, there will be no sick leave, and employers can schedule workers any darn time they want. But those puppy mills will still be in business. And Petland is happy.

Now we learn the Trump administration is removing data on commercial breeders as part of its general attempt to restrict public information from the public. The USDA has removed a mass of animal welfare data from its website, data that included inspection records of commercial breeders. Rather than using the USDA website, citizens are advised to use a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get information on specific breeders. FOIA requests are expensive and it sometimes takes months or years to get a response. An animal rescue group says, "This move makes it IMPOSSIBLE to find out where animals are located, their treatment and any violations, essentially giving carte blanche to anyone to hide animal violations, and violate animal welfare laws, among other things." According to the Huffington Post article, "One member of President Donald Trump’s USDA transition team, Brian Klippenstein, has a long history of fighting animal welfare regulations. Klippenstein is executive director of Protect the Harvest, a group that, among other things, has vehemently opposed legislation meant to fight abusive puppy mills".

Is this really the power of the pet store lobby? Is this a sop to the dominionists in the Christian right who believe that man has power over all creatures on the earth? Is this a libertarian thing? I just don't get it. Please explain.

Monday, February 6, 2017

In German Election Polls, Merkel Falters And Schulz Surges

Some interesting developments in the run up to German elections as the announcement of former European Parliament President Martin Schulz as the candidate for the center left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has apparently given an enormous boost to that party. In addition, the evidence of at least a small split over the immigration issue between the two center right parties, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led by Angela Merkel, is weakening support for that coalition slightly. Germany is currently governed by a Grand Coalition between the CDU/CSU and SDP parties.

In recent polls, the SDP has seen its support climb shockingly fast since Schulz's announcement as candidate for chancellor. One poll has SDP support rising eight points and another has it up six, while still trailing the CDU/CSU coalition by around five or six points. Additionally, polls show that a majority of voters would prefer the SDP candidate to take over the leadership of the country while still maintaining the current Grand Coalition.

Meanwhile, Merkel's CDU party has seen its poll numbers drop around three points and a poll of a head-to-head matchup between Merkel and Schulz has shown Merkel's support dropping by seven points and Schulz rising by nine, with Schulz now holding a significant 50-34 lead. However, the German voting system is not a head to head matchup so this is more like a popularity poll than one with any political weight. But it is significant nonetheless.

The Nuclear Disaster At Fukushima Continues

Here is some unsettling news. The radiation levels at the damaged Fukushima reactors in Japan have risen to their highest levels since the disaster occurred in 2011. Radiation levels seemingly are increasing rather than decreasing. According to Tepco, the owners of the reactors, no radiation is leaking outside the containment vessel of the reactor that is showing what experts are describing as "unimaginable" radiation levels inside the reactor. The radiation levels recorded inside are 530 sieverts an hour. A single dose of 10 Sieverts would kill a human within weeks. The levels are so high that robots working inside the reactor would only last two hours before breaking down. In addition, experts have identified a hole in the metal grid at the bottom of the reactor which has apparently been caused by nuclear fuel that melted and then penetrated the bottom of the containment vessel - a mini "China Syndrome". At this point, Tepco engineers have yet to determine the exact location of the melted fuel rods in all three of the Fukushima damaged reactors. Finding them and removing them safely "represents a challenge unprecedented in the history of nuclear power", according to the Guardian.

Warning Signs For US Military

There were a number of disturbing stories about the military this weekend that should raise some real alarms. First, the botched raid in Yemen that resulted in one dead American Navy Seal, a young American child, and an undetermined, but significant, number of civilian casualties. Any covert action of this kind has inherent risks and dangers (as Jimmy Carter fatefully found out) but serious questions have been raised about how this operation was approved. Reuters reported that Trump approved the plan "without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations". Other reports indicate that that approval came over a dinner with Trump, Pence, Kushner, Bannon, Secretary of Defense Mattis, NSA adviser Flynn,  and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff. Although the target had been selected and the plan prepared under the Obama administration, it was ultimately up to Trump to decide to go ahead with it or not and to full understand the risks. It is unclear whether that kind of analysis did take place especially since the NY Times reports "Mr. Trump’s new national security team, led by Mr. Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a retired general with experience in counterterrorism raids, has said that it wants to speed the decision-making when it comes to such strikes, delegating more power to lower-level officials so that the military may respond more quickly."

The young American child was actually the eight year old daughter of American citizen and terrorist Nawar al-Awlaki who was killed in a drone strike authorized by President Obama in 2011. Although some still question the legality of that killing, the President did "create" legal authority to do so. Al-Awlaki's sixteen year old son was also killed some months later. What makes the death of al-Awlaki's daughter in Yemen potentially more disturbing is the fact that Trump has advocated killing the families of known terrorists, which is definitely a war crime. In 2015, Trump said, "The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families."

Earlier last week, a transport convoy moving Navy Seals was seen traveling through Louisville, Kentucky flying a large blue "TRUMP Make America Great Again" flag. Overt political expression by military personnel while on duty is forbidden. While this may seem like a minor incident, it is reflective of a recent FBI study that shows that white nationalist are attempting to infiltrate law enforcement here in the US in order to help tip off their members to potential investigations. It is not unreasonable to think that these groups are also interested in infiltrating the military as well.

Lastly, after the negative fallout from the botched raid in Yemen, the military's Central Command released a portion of some videos it claimed were part of the materials the raid in Yemen recovered. Central Command claimed that the videos were a DIY primer for bomb makers who wished to attack Western targets. Within an hour, Central command had to acknowledge that this material was in no way new intelligence as they were merely training videos that al-Qaeda had posted on the internet back in 2007. Of course, it is quite possible that important intelligence was retrieved in this costly raid in Yemen, but it is probably far too early to know that. The disturbing part of this story was Central Command's willingness to hype this old data is important intelligence. A scheduled news conference that was supposed to describe the importance of this data had to be cancelled. The question is whether releasing this material deceptively to the public was solely driven by Central Command or driven by the White House in order to deflect criticism from the questions about the process of how this covert action was approved.

Trump has not shown himself to be the most stable of minds, even threatening to send the military into Chicago. There is a reasonable chance that, at some point, the military will be asked to carry out an illegal order. If the military becomes increasingly politicized under Trump, it will be much harder for them to refuse to carry out those illegal orders. Either way, we will have a crisis of major proportions on our hands.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Patriots Miraculous Super Bowl Victory Aided By Falcon Blunders

Depending on who you were rooting for, either Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, certainly the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, or the Atlanta Falcons produced one of the greatest collapses in NFL and Super Bowl history. The Falcons were up 28-3 at one point in the third quarter but Tom Brady led the Patriots to 25 consecutive points to take the game into overtime and then won it by scoring a TD on the opening drive of the extra session.

This is Brady's fifth Super Bowl victory and he threw for 416 yards, both Super Bowl records. Running back James White had a record 14 catches and also scored three touchdowns including the game winner. The Patriots were completely dominated in the first half, unable to stop the Falcons rushing attack which then opened up the passing game. New England could not generate any offense as the running game was stuffed and Brady was constantly under pressure. That pressure turned a potential scoring drive by the Patriots into an 82 yard pick six by Brady. The only silver lining was that, even down 21-3 at the half, the Patriots had run more plays and led in time of possession.

When the Falcons scored on their second possession of the third quarter to make it a 28-3 game, it looked like this could easily be a blowout. But that's when the Falcons took their foot off the gas. They forced the Pats to go for it on 4th down from midfield but could not stop the conversion. Mark that down as the first chance to seal the game that got away. The pass rush started to be less effective and Brady was able to lead the Patriots on a time-consuming drive that culminated in a TD late in the third quarter, but Gostowski bounced the extra point off the upright to make it 28-9. The Patriots tried an onside kick that failed but the Falcons could not move the ball and punted. Mark that as Atlanta's second opportunity to seal the game that got away.

The Patriots had the ball as the 4th quarter began and need 3 scores to tie and hold the Falcons scoreless. Brady again led the Pats in a methodical drive down the field but Atlanta got a sack with the Pats inside the 10 and held New England to a field goal. There was a little under 10 minutes remaining and it was now technically a two score game. The Pats kicked deep but Atlanta was able to move the ball quickly out to their own 40 yard line. But that was where Ryan had his arm hit as he threw and fumbled and the Pats took over at the Falcon 25 with 8-/12 minutes left. Even a punt would have forced another methodical march from the Pats and eaten up more clock, another chance gone for the Falcons. Instead the Pats immediately capitalized and scored with 6-1/2 minutes left and converted the two point conversion.

Now it is a one possession game and again the Pats kick it deep and the Falcons start inside their own 20. But the Falcons move the ball again and Julio Jones makes a sensational and what should have been a game clinching catch at the New England 23 yard line, in easy field goal range for Matt Bryan. Instead Ryan gets sacked again and an offensive holding penalty sets the Falcons even further back and they are forced to punt.

Falcons fans will go to their grave wondering why the team did not run the ball three times, which had been effective all night, and kick a game clinching field goal. It will be a call that will be second guessed for decades. It was clear that the Falcons defense was flagging so it would have given them time to rest, eaten up New England's time outs, and a field goal wins the game. But it was not meant to be.

The Patriots got the ball with about 3-1/2 minutes left and it was clear they would not be stopped. Even worse, Atlanta used up their last time out on a useless challenge on a crazy catch by Edelman that easily could have been an interception. The defensive line was getting no pressure and the DBs were just that quarter step slower than earlier in the game. The Falcons only hope would be to stop the two point conversion. The Patriots scored with 51 seconds left and converted the two points on a play where Atlanta jumped offside.

For the first time in Super Bowl history, the game went into overtime and it was over as soon as New England won the coin toss. The Falcons had nothing in the tank and Brady and the Patriots marched down with White just getting into the end zone for the game winning score.

There are really two stats that tell the story of this game. In the first half, the Falcons ran just 19 plays and held the ball for only a little over 10 minutes, despite scoring 21 points. For the game, the Patriots ran 93 plays, more than double the Falcons 46. The Patriots held the ball for 40:31, the Falcons for just 23:27. The Patriots threw the ball 63 times. Atlanta's defense just was on the field far too long and for too many plays. And it's not like the Falcons running game was ineffective. They ran for 104 yards. In essence, the Falcons offense could just not control the clock enough to protect its defense. By the fourth quarter, the defense was simply exhausted and ineffective and the Patriots could not be stopped. And Falcons fans will always be left to wonder why they just didn't settle for the game clinching field goal when they had the chance.

In the analysis of the other part of the Super Bowl, it was clear that Lady Gaga was once again a show-stopper with a great halftime show. Luke Bryan, unfortunately, paled in comparison to Gaga when it came to the National Anthem. The ads, on the whole, were especially weak, with the two exceptions being the Adolphus Busch immigrant ad and the awesome Lumber 84 ad, which clearly stole the show. The ad apparently could not be shown in its entirety on the broadcast because of its political overtones but the response was so enormous that the website to see the full ad crashed. Here it is in it entirety.

NFL Owner Pushes Bill To Rip Benefits Away From His Players

Since the NFL is offering us today as a respite from worrying about our President's fondness for murdering autocrats, I'd just like to offer a glimpse as to some goings on in our state legislatures, or, as Charles Pierce lovingly calls them, "the laboratories of democracy". Erik Loomis over at Lawyers, Guns, And Money points us to a nice little story out of Illinois that has an NFL slant.

The Bears were one of the worst teams in the league this year and haven't really been competitive for a number of years. Everyone knew that betting the house on Jay Cutler was bound to end in failure but at least they could have surrounded him with something resembling talent. Matt Forte, who led the Bears in touches and total yards (at least until late season injuries) in the prior year, had enough and last year went to an even more dysfunctional team, the Jets. But it's never a good sign when your best player abandons ship, when even the Jets are a better option. And it may not get any better for the Bears any time soon.

There is a bill pending before the Illinois State Senate that will adjust the Workmen's Compensation Act in that state to stop paying out wage differential benefits to professional athletes after the age of 35. The bill is apparently being driven by the owners of the Bears, the McCaskey family, and is based on the premise that most professional athletes are not playing after the age of 35 and should therefore not receive these differential benefits. Since football is probably the one sport where players are more likely to be permanently disabled and with the knowledge of the debilitating effects of constant concussions that the sport almost demands, it is pretty clear that the football owners, and perhaps the hockey owners, would be pushing this bill far more than the baseball and basketball owners.

Needless to say, this potential legislation has not gone down too well with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said, "I will tell you from the bottom of my heart that this union will tell every potential free-agent player, if this bill passes, to not come to the Bears. Because, think about it, if you’re a free-agent player and you have an opportunity to go play somewhere else where you can get lifetime medical for the injury you’re going to have, isn’t a smarter financial decision to go to a team where a bill like this hasn’t passed?"

And even if the bill doesn't pass, would you really want to go play for an owner who was actively trying to cut your medical benefits? With ownership like that, it will be along road back for the woeful Bears. On the other hand, this kind of cold-hearted greed is typical of most NFL owners. But it looks like some of them may be starting to get a little nervous about the potential cost of the concussion issue which looks likely to soar. In addition, there is evidence that the NFL covered up damaging findings which potentially increases their liability even more. Meanwhile, Bears fans can watch the Super Bowl and dream.

Natural Weekends - Neither Falcons Nor Patriots

These feathered friends are definitely not Falcons. And it is questionable whether Trump would consider them Patriots as I'm pretty they do immigrate from other countries. But the make the creek their winter, and perhaps, permanent home.

Super Bowl Prediction

I know you are all waiting with baited breath for my Super Bowl analysis and prediction, so here goes. Both the Falcons and the Patriots offenses are incredibly prolific so this game will be about which defense is able to bend without breaking the most. That will mean holding the opposition to just field goals instead of touchdowns. The Patriots will want and need to double cover Julio Jones so the Falcons may be able to use their dual threat running attack to move the ball and keep the Patriots offense off the field. On the other hand, Belichick has had weeks to figure out how to contain the Falcons offense. For the Patriots, it's all about pass protection because if Brady has time, he will pick the Falcons apart.

Everyone in the NFL hierarchy knows that Roger Goodell does not want to be standing on the same stage as the Patriots after the game today. And that NFL hierarchy include the referees. Patriots fans won't forget the horrible defensive holding call on Patrick Chung in the Broncos game in late November of 2015 that gave the Broncos, and, by the way, Peyton Manning, home field advantage that they converted into a Super Bowl win.

The Patriots defense will hold the Falcons offense to more field goals than touchdowns until a late, and disputed, pass interference call in the end zone sets up the Falcons for a 30-27 win. And that will create another few days of buzz for the NFL that isn't focused on injuries and concussions - a win, win for Roger Goodell.