Saturday, March 11, 2017

TSA Now Joining ICE And CPB In Harrassing US Citizens

It looks like the TSA is learning a few tricks from CPB and ICE as the DHS continues its harassment of US citizens in clear violation of law. Muhammed Ali, Jr., who was detained at a Florida airport when he tried to re-enter the country from Jamaica and was asked whether he was a Muslim, was held up again as he tried to return to Illinois from Washington DC where he had been testifying about the earlier incident.

Ali claims that when he went to check in and provided his info, he was told that the agent would have to contact the DHS. After a delay, he was asked for his Social Security number and his date of birth. He was then informed that the Illinois drivers license that he had provided as ID and had used on his trip to get to Washington was not a valid federal ID for air travel. Ali then produced his US passport and was allowed to continue his journey.

All told the delay was under 30 minutes but the nearly immediate reaction of the agent to call the DHS does leave a strong suspicion that Ali had once again been targeted by DHS. If his identification was the real issue, wouldn't the agent have asked if he had any other federally accepted ID before calling DHS.

In a related story, the head of the DHS, John Kelly, was in Canada on Friday to meet with his Canadian counterpart, Ralph Goodale. There were two thorny issues that Goodale needed to address. First, a number of legal Canadian citizens have been stopped from entering the US for no apparent reason and virtually all of them have been minorities. Kelly' response was that "There is a reason why", saying either their credentials were not in order or that they appeared on a watch list. This seems highly dubious since some of those turned away had entered the US without issue on recent occasions. He continued, "It’s not their race, it’s not their religion, it’s not the language they speak." It is hard to believe there is any other explanation, though.

The second issue is the influx of refugees entering Canada from the United States, especially into the provinces of Manitoba, Quebec, and British Columbia. The belief is that these refugees no longer feel safe asking for asylum in the US and feel their chances and their safety will be better in Canada. Kelly had an especially bizarre comment in regard to this issue, saying that many of those refugees were already in the United States legally. He continued, "Everyone was perplexed. Many of them have only been in the United States a few days before they made the trek north, so it’s something we’re certainly trying to figure out."

Is Kelly really that dumb or is he being willfully ignorant? The rhetoric from the top of the Trump administration on down has been extremely anti-immigrant and xenophobic. There are rumored plans for a mass deportation force, families are being separated, and the Muslim ban 2.0 is in place. ICE, CPB, and now TSA are being highly aggressive and overstepping their authority regularly. The message is pretty clear that the US does not want immigrants. And Kelly is perplexed. And he says this with a straight face. Give me a break.

Failing Up, Repubican Style

There is a talent that seems particular to only rich white men and that is the uncanny ability to fail up. Donald Trump is the classic example. A man who has gone through six bankruptcies is still somehow able to portray himself and be portrayed as a successful businessman and become President. Normally, the talent for failing up requires a significant amount of usually inherited money so that no failure is really threatening to the lifestyle they lead. Other times, especially in politics, it only requires extreme sycophancy and tribalism to move on to your next failure without missing a beat. In business, it usually means you have a powerful mentor within the firm or, at the executive level, friends who will protect you. There is a reason it is called the "old boys' club" and don't kid yourself that it has gone away.

Sam Brownback, the current governor of Kansas manages to prove this rule by failing, if not up, at least sideways despite being one of the epic failures of all time. Brownback's dream was to finally prove the he alone could bring Arthur Laffer's myth of conservative economic orthodoxy to life. With total Republican control of the Kansas legislature, Republican Brownback could finally put all the elements of supply side economics in place and the resulting boom would show the world just how it should be done.

In 2012, Brownback implemented Laffer's vision, with Laffer's and his sidekick Stephen Moore's aid and advice. The plan compromised massive tax cuts for business and high-income earners and Brownback promised the result would be a "shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy." And indeed it was a shot to the heart of the Kansas economy, except it was more like a bullet than adrenaline. In the first year, revenues fell by nearly 25%, by over $700 million. The budget for other services like education and public works maintenance were squeezed and the state's bond rating was cut. But job growth remained sluggish and trailed the levels of similar states near Kansas. By 2014, there was even revolt within the GOP ranks but Brownback pleaded for patience, saying that the boom was just around the corner. He barely survived re-election that year but even that close call did not deter him, as he refused to raise taxes. By this time, the state was being hauled into court due to the underfunding of education driven by the fall in revenues. Last year, some school districts had to close school early due to lack of funds. Localities around Kansas are transitioning to dirt roads because their is not enough money for maintenance. And, of course, the poor and needy are suffering.

The numbers for Kansas since Brownback's plan went into effect are simply staggering, staggeringly bad. Tax receipts are still over 20% below where they were when it began, and this is with a generally improving economy. The rainy day fund to be dipped into when bad economic times hit has been depleted from over $700 million to just $40 million as Brownback and his allies continued to raid it to pay for essential services. They have also raided tax receipts originally destined for road maintenance and improvement. Brownback has continually been forced to cut the education budget and last year delayed a nearly $100 million payment to the state pension fund, forcing another downgrade in the state's bond rating.

But those are just the state's finances. I'm sure the job market is booming and incomes are up, just like Laffer predicted. Well, employment is up 2.6% since the plan went into effect. But that looks pretty pathetic when you realize that employment has risen 6.5% nationally. Personal income growth has fallen from 12th in the nation to 41st. GDP has risen 4.8% while nationally it is up nearly 12%. And the state's share of business creation has also declined compared to the rest of the nation.

Those are just the raw numbers. They don't take into account the untold suffering of the poor and needy, the destruction of public education, and the collapse of infrastructure investment, all of which will continue to haunt Kansas for years to come. And what is Brownback's response to all this. It is probably best summed up by Laffer's protégé, Stephen Moore, who has also been advising Brownback through this process. He says Brownback should continue with "full speed" on even more tax cuts. Considering that the original plan had already cut the tax rate to zero for all business owners and self-employed workers, the supposed "job creators", it is hard to see how much lower they could go.

Brownback is term-limited out in 2018, so he will be gone once and for all. But he's apparently not even waiting for a graceful exit from the governor's mansion. Reports are that Brownback has been offered and will accept a position in the Trump administration as our ambassador to the United Nations for food and agriculture. That position would mean that Brownback, poor guy, would have to relocate to Rome. Basically, anything to do with the United Nations is the equivalent of Siberia in the Trump administration. And it is an enormous comedown for a sitting governor. But when you've been failing as badly as Brownback, getting exiled to Rome may not be failing up but it sure is at least failing sideways. Meanwhile, Kansans will be left digging out the rubble he created and they admittedly abetted for years to come. That sounds like the usual outcome in the old boys' club.

Astronomy Adventure - Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda galaxy, also know as Messier 31, is the nearest major galaxy to our own Milky Way. Here are some photos that pretty much replicate what you will visually see with a small telescope.

If you look closely, you can see Messier 32, the small fuzzy ball at about 1:30 on the clock to the upper right of Andromeda.

Photos Details:

Scope: Starblast 4.5
Camera: iPhone 6 using NightCapPro with highISO boost on
Magnification: 20x;
Exposure: 15 seconds

Natural Weekends - Sunset

Friday, March 10, 2017

State Department Is Completely Sidelined By Trump/Bannon White House

It is pretty clear that foreign policy in the Trump administration will only be conducted out of the White House. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has apparently become mute since his confirmation, is merely a pawn or an emissary that Trump, Bannon, and Kushner use to appease other world leaders. He has no input into any policy decision making and the State Department is effectively cut out of everything the administration is doing.

Tillerson refused to make any comment on the North Korean missile tests and is now heading off on a trip to Japan, South Korea, and China in the wake of that incident. Incredibly, he is not taking any foreign policy reporters along on the trip with him so the only reporting we will get will be the scripted comments at press briefings with his Asian counterparts, it they actually occur. Any other reporting will therefore have to rely on the foreign press and that will allow Japan, South Korea, and China to drive the narrative about their meetings.

The tensions are already high in northeast Asia. South Korea and Japan are rattled by the North Korean tests. China is furious with the deployment of the missile defense system in South Korea. There is the aggressive Chinese expansion of power in the South China Sea. I imagine that Australia, long a key ally, will be further infuriated that Tillerson isn't even making a courtesy stop there. The question that these Asian leaders will have to ask themselves is whether Tillerson has any clout inside the White House. That decision will color whether they can "deal" with Tillerson or whether he is just a cipher to send messages back and forth with the White House.

But the real capper on the diminished state of State came when the Department's spokesman Mark Toner was not even aware that the Mexican Foreign Minister was in Washington and meeting with Kushner, Gary Cohn, and NSA McMaster. When asked whether the State Department would be meeting with the Foreign Minister, Toner said, "I was unaware that he was - the foreign minister was in town. I can't speak to whether there's going to be any meetings at the State Department at any level." Incredible.

It seems hard to believe that Trump/Bannon think they can run the government entirely out of the White House. The expertise and execution of policy in the individual departments of government are seemingly ignored. This, of course, is the way Trump and Bannon run their businesses. But it is a recipe for disaster in this complicated world and we will see the deficiency in that thinking if this White House has to confront more than one disaster at a time.

Strong Unemployment Report Guarantees March Rate Hike

This morning's unemployment report was another strong, solid report, with 235,000 new jobs being created and the unemployment rate ticked down to 4.7%. The consensus view was for 195,000 new jobs so this report exceeded expectations. In addition, the normal revision for the prior two months showed an increase of another 9,000 jobs. The average hourly earnings moved up by another 6 cents and the labor participation rate increased to 63% and the 25-54 participation rate came in up at 81.7%.

The increase in hourly earnings is especially heartening, following the trend for the about the past year. Workers are finally starting to see their paychecks increase, although that increase is still only just above the rate of inflation. Take a look at his chart from the Economic Policy Institute on the current state of American wages:

Last year, for the first time since the turn of the century, wage growth for the bottom 30% actually grew faster than that of the top 20%, with workers in the 20th percentile seeing their wages rise by over 6%. Some of this wage growth is driven by the generally improving economy but some of it is also driven by the Fight for $15 and the Obama overtime policies that were supposed to kick in at the end of last year but were blocked by a court in Texas and not taken up on appeal by the Trump administration. None of that wage growth had anything to do with Donald Trump.

Needless to say, wage growth at the bottom like this is a red flag for the Federal Reserve. Chairman Yellen and even some of the inflation doves have already indicated that we can expect an interest rate hike when the FOMC meets next week. This employment report and the rise in hourly wages will do nothing to stop that hike and will probably lead the Fed to increase rates at an even faster pace than they had anticipated. This despite the fact that inflation is just barely at their targeted 2% level and no indication it is rising at an unusually fast pace.

Trump will, of course, as all Presidents do, take credit for the improved economy. And, if the Fed doesn't choke off this recovery, his Presidency may well get a boost from the improved economic situation and we will see his popularity rise.

I have seen this movie before for virtually my entire life. It is a deadly cycle that the country just can't seem to get out of. Republicans come into power and destroy the economy with massive tax cuts for the rich and massive deregulation. Democrats inherit the financial mess and have to spend most of the first term trying to clean it up, with Republicans harping about the deficit they created. By the time the economy really gets rolling after two Democratic terms, Republicans steal the next election and the process repeats. Bill Clinton had to clean up the mess that Reagan/G.H.W. Bush created and finally got the economy really rolling as his term ended. Then the Republicans stole the election with Bush v. Gore. G.W. Bush used Clinton's surplus to give massive tax breaks to the rich and created the second Depression. Obama spent eight years trying to dig us out with no help from Republicans only to have James Comey hand the election to Donald Trump. And Trump is well on his way to cutting taxes and regulation that will lead us to the next crisis.

It would be nice if Democrats could finally make a good counter-argument to the supply-side voodoo economics that the GOP has run on for the last 40 years. In fact, when you raise taxes on the rich, it not only provides more revenue for the government to create a level playing field for all businesses and opportunity for all workers but it also creates the incentive for the rich to actually invest in the economy, rather than have that money taken by the government. And the history of the last forty years actually bears this out. But, as the GOP has shown for years, Trump in particular, a slogan is far better than reality for getting elected.

Trump/Ryancare Screws States Trump Won, And All For Tax Cuts For The Rich

A new report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CPBB) show the states that will lose the most in subsidies on the Trump/Ryancare plan. One of the biggest problems, among many, with Trump/Ryancare is that the tax credit is constant based on your age, ignoring your income level and where you actually live. That means that the "subsidy" will be buy much less insurance in high cost states than lower cost states, which tend to be more densely populated. Below is a snippet from a graph that CPBB produced that compared the current average Obamacare subsidies with the Trump/Ryancare tax credit. I have shown only the states where the Trump/Ryancare that would reduce the subsidy by over $2,000 per year.

There are 21 states on the list and 20 of those states actually voted for Trump. It makes you wonder what exactly Republicans are trying to do with Trump/Ryancare other than, of course, providing a big tax cut for the rich. Are they really so secure in their electoral position to screw millions of their own voters simply to provide tax cuts for the rich or pretend to "keep their word". I guess we shall see but if I were a Republican legislator in any of these states, I would take a long hard look at this chart.

GOP Revels In Their Ignorance and Cruelty

The GOP never ceases to amaze with their combination of ignorance and cruelty these days. And now, with total political control, they seem to be putting both of those qualities into overdrive.

Let's start off with Paul Ryan's presentation in support of Trump/Ryancare. In his little powerpoint demo yesterday, he had this to say. "The fatal conceit of Obamacare is that ‘We’re just going to make everybody buy our health insurance at the federal government level; young and healthy people are going to go into the market and pay for the older, sicker people.’ So the young healthy person is going to be made to buy health care, and they’re going to pay for the person, you know, who gets breast cancer in her 40s. Or who gets heart disease in his 50s. So take a look at this chart. The red slice here are what I would call people with preexisting conditions. People who have real health-care problems. The blue is the rest of the people in the individual market — that’s the market where people don’t get health insurance at their jobs where they buy it themselves. The whole idea of Obamacare is the people on the blue side pay for the people on the red side. The people who are healthy pay for the people who are sick."

Of course, that fatal conceit, as Ryan calls it, is how every plan that we commonly call insurance works. When your house burns down, it is money from my homeowner's insurance premiums that pays you to rebuild. And vice versa. That this cruel ignorance comes from a guy who was forced to live off survivor benefits from Social Security after his father suddenly died is especially galling and frankly sickening. In Ryan's terms, all those guys whose breadwinner didn't die when their children were dependent are supporting people like him. How unfair. It really makes you want to puke.

But Ryan's appalling ignorance and cruelty actually has to compete with the President of the American Enterprise Institute who was interviewed on the show Marketplace, hosted by the breezy Kai Ryssdal.  In the interview, Arthur Brooks says, "You know, one of the things that I ask when I'm in front of audiences is to do a little thought experiment: What would happen if all of the poor people in America just disappeared? Would you know it if all the poor people in America suddenly disappeared? I daresay that most people listening to us today wouldn't even know about it immediately. They have no emotional or moral connection to them."

Actually, I'm pretty sure even this condescending, obnoxious jerk would notice. There would be no one to take or prepare your order when you went to get your morning coffee and whatever. Your office would be dirty and your waste basket would still be full from yesterday because there would be no janitorial staff. There would be no security at his office building stopping angry poor people from harassing him. And when he goes out for a fancy business lunch there would be no one to serve him and no one to cook for him. I could go on, but you get the idea.

But this is the delusional world that Burns lives in. Incredibly, Ryssdal backs him up, saying, "Which is a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible thing, but probably true." No, in fact it is provably not true. In 2014, over 6% of people who actually had jobs were living in poverty. I'm pretty sure we would all notice if suddenly 6% of the work force disappeared.

In addition, the majority of people living below the poverty line are the elderly, the disabled, children, and women with children, a minority of whom are the likely candidates for being in the work force anyway. Incredibly, that seems to be Burns' additional point. He continues with Ryssdal, "And the essence of the American experiment is that we need literally everybody in the country, and we're contravening the American experiment when we say effectively we don't need whole groups of people. It's actually un-American. You know, I'm just going to guess that the Ryssdals came to the United States. Not saying, 'It sure is great to be in America where there's a better system of forced income redistribution.' They came here because they were needed. There was something for them to do. And that's an incredibly important thing to keep in mind. This is a country that was built on the back of ambitious riff-raff who are necessary. And today there's, you know, some non-trivial percentage of the population, maybe a quarter of the population, that effectively the rest of us are saying we don't need economically, socially, morally."

Well, maybe Burns and his GOP colleagues thinks these people are not wanted or needed. But I know most Democrats don't take that position. And, in fact, most immigrants to this country came here for an opportunity to improve their lives and to escape oppression, violence, and poverty. They did not come in response to a help-wanted ad or because they felt "needed". Remarkably, Burns' remarks in some way echo Ben Carson's comments that slaves came here as immigrants trying to build a better life. In fact, they were brought here against their will precisely because they were "needed". And let's face it, there are always going to be people who are not going to be able to participate in our society in an economic sense. That does not necessarily mean they are not needed or wanted. Just ask artists and writers and volunteers. Despite the belief of Burns and most of the GOP, you can contribute to our society in more ways than just economically.

Finally, let's get to Markwayne Mullin from the man-made earthquake state of Oklahoma. During the markup of the Trump/Ryancare bill in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Democrat Michael Doyle asked a pretty probing question when Mullin complained of skyrocketing insurance premiums "because of the mandates from Obamacare." Doyle's simple question was "What mandate in the Obamacare bill does he [Mullin] take issue with? Certainly not with pre-existing conditions, or caps on benefits or letting your child stay on the policy until 26, so I’m curious what is it we’re mandating?" Mullins response, "What about men having to purchase prenatal care? Is that not correct? And should they?" Do I really have to comment on the absurdity of that answer.

Republicans seem to revel in their ignorance and cruelty and their supporters seem to just lap it up. The sad part is we will all suffer horribly because of it.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

AIG Opens Office In Luxembourg, Driven By Brexit

In another blow to the economy of the UK in the wake of Brexit, AIG has announced that it will open an insurance company in Luxembourg in order to ensure that it will be able to serve European customers if and when the UK leaves the European Union. AIG would still maintain its office in Britain in order to serve British customers.

The decision is a specific response to Brexit, as the company decided not to put up with the uncertainty of waiting for the exact details of the exit agreement to be worked out. The head of AIG Europe explained, "“This is a decisive move that ensures A.I.G. is positioned for whatever form the U.K.’s exit from the E.U. ultimately takes."

Other UK financial institutions are already moving personnel from the UK over to offices on the Continent in anticipation of the final break from the EU. AIG is not the first and it certainly will not be the last as the slow burn of the Brexit decision consumes parts of the UK economy.

GOP Gerrymanders In Georgia In Attempt To Get Veto-Proof Majority

Well, Republicans are at it again, subverting democracy simply to make sure they expand their power. It's not a new tactic and it uses the same old tool of mid-decade redistricting and it's happening not because they are afraid of losing the majority but because they are trying to get a veto-proof majority in the state legislature. The state is Georgia.

Right now the House in the Georgia state legislature is dominated by Republicans by a margin of 118-62, which is just shy of the veto-proof majority of two-thirds. This attempt at redistricting is just another blatant attempt to rig the electoral system in their favor. This gerrymander was rammed through House late last week and will soon pass the GOP dominated Senate and then probably be signed by Governor Nathan Deal.

As usual with these GOP gerrymanders, it is designed to reduce the power of the minority vote as eight Republican districts and one Democratic district has been redrawn. If this gerrymander does become law, you can expect a raft of legal challenges to it.

It seems like the GOP changes the ground rules for virtually every election these days, either redrawing districts every few years or instituting new voter suppression rules. Yes, Democrats have only themselves to blame in some ways for letting the GOP dominate so many legislatures. But, that being said, these extreme gerrymanders have become so egregious that the number of Democratic seats the party wins is far less than the actual percentage of votes it receives. And that is no longer real democracy; it is a managed democracy.

The hope for Democrats in the short term is that the Supreme Court will have finally had enough of the GOP constantly rigging the democratic process and put some rules around the frequency and extremity of these gerrymanders. Yes, it's pretty sad when we have to rely on the Supreme Court, but that's where we're at.

NY Times Spouts GOP Propaganda In Article About Puerto Rico Pensions

Mary Williams Walsh has a piece in the New York Times that mixes in Republican propaganda talking points with a story about Puerto Rico's teachers' pension system. It is true the pension system in Puerto Rico is failing and is likely to actually run out of money next year. But Walsh insists on calling the present situation a Ponzi scheme, a favorite claim of the right about any social investment plan like Social Security.

The basis for Walsh's claim is that teachers today will end up paying more into the pension fund than they will get out of it. According to Walsh, "In Puerto Rico, for instance, the pension funds are so short of cash that money contributed by working teachers basically flows straight out to retirees. None of Puerto Rico’s current teachers can expect to get their money back, because the fund is due to run out of money in 2018, long before they retire. That is, essentially, a Ponzi scheme." The problem with Walsh's characterization, as at least she admits, is that this is entirely legal. "But this structure is legal in Puerto Rico because of a complicated series of changes in the law brought about in recent years by the island’s financial crisis."

Puerto Rico's pension problems are an extreme version of the ones facing other states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. They are not Ponzi schemes. They are the result of decades of mismanagement by lawmakers and investment managers. As Walsh points out, "plans have been poorly funded in the past by legislators who gave priority to more pressing budget needs, or who misjudged the costs of paying so many pensions as baby boomers retired. Some plans felt flush enough in the bull market of the 1990s to increase benefits, only to see the money melt away in the dot-com rout and the crash of 2008. Even longevity gains in life expectancy, normally a cause for rejoicing, are contributing to the pension woes."

In the 1980s and 90s, budget-strapped state governments refused to spend the money now to actually pay municipal workers like teachers, police, and firemen what they were worth and what they deserved. Instead, they put off those payments until the future via increased pension and/or health benefits. In addition, fund managers and state legislatures got used to the higher returns of the late 1990s and early 2000s and either expanded benefits even more, while keeping salaries down, or simply raided the pension funds for other obligations. Unfortunately, the future is now. The below average returns since the financial crash along with the increased demands of those heading into retirements are putting these plans under strain.

In order to fund their shortfalls, again, rather than really fixing the problem, governments are extending vesting times and using less and less of the current pension payments for investment and more and more to pay current beneficiaries. Once again, lawmakers are refusing to meet the obligations they made to workers years ago and are forcing existing workers to make those payments for them. This is much less of a Ponzi scheme than lawmakers stealing from existing workers to pay for deals those lawmakers agreed to decades ago.

Needless to say, the conservative answer to  this problem is to describe these plans as Ponzi schemes, as they have with Social Security. Their answer is to move away from a defined benefit plan and move these municipal workers into insufficient 401k plans or their municipal equivalent. Using such loaded terms as "Ponzi scheme" in describing the failures of state governments and fund investment managers just plays right into Republican talking points rather than placing the blame where it really lies.

ICE And CPB Continue To Abuse Their Authority And Foreign Backlash Begins

ICE and CPB really have become a law unto themselves and that's primarily because most of the people they deal with do not have all the protections of the US Constitution provides. But they seem to believe that they can treat everyone they way they treat non-citizens. And their aggressiveness has only moved into overdrive with the election and policies of Donald Trump.

It was bound to happen, but there is a growing backlash to our actions in foreign countries. One of the last places you would expect that backlash to begin is Canada, but it has thanks to the CPB. On at least three occasions in recent weeks, a valid Canadian passport holder has been denied entry for no apparent reason other than the fact they were are minorities and they were all from Quebec.

A Montreal woman was told the would need a visa to enter despite her valid Canadian passport but was given no information about what kind of visa. A student was turned away at the border because his documents were not in order despite a valid passport. And another woman was interrogated about her religious beliefs and her view about Donald Trump before being denied entry, again with a valid passport.

According to the CBC, Canadian "Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale has raised the issue with his American counterpart, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, his office said Monday.
But when questioned, Goodale was unable to offer any guarantees that other Canadians won't face similar treatment when crossing the border.  'Each country has the sovereign right to control their borders,' Goodale told reporters." That lack of response is annoying some political leaders in Ottowa, with Trudeau's government getting attacked on the issue from both the left and the right. Said one critic in the New Democratic Party, "They've got to rise up, find the courage, summon the courage within themselves, to stand up and say to President Trump that this is not acceptable."

It is not like these Canadians are some Afghan family traveling to the US on a special visa. Although that family, who was granted the special visa because of a family member's work with US forces in Afghanistan, was detained and illegally held in custody for four days in Los Angeles when they tried to legally enter the country.

Perhaps part of the problem has to do with the fact that CPB officials are not properly qualified or trained. The CBC quotes one CPB official as complaining about how hard his job is saying, "We get guys coming across, claiming to be from wherever it is, and you're like, That's not even a f--king country. Especially when you get into the 'stans — Uzbekistan. It's, like, 'Man, you're making that up.'"

Meanwhile, it appears that ICE has been acting as slave traders for one of the large private prison companies in the US. The Washington Post reports that a federal judge has ruled that a 2014 case against the GEO Group which ran the Denver Contract Detention Facility has reached class action status. The ruling means that up to 60,000 detainees could join the class action.

According to the Washington Post, "Tens of thousands of immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were forced to work for $1 day, or for nothing at all — a violation of federal anti-slavery laws...Specifically, the lawsuit claims, six detainees are selected at random every day and are forced to clean the facility’s housing units".  This is all done under what ICE calls the Voluntary Work Program which allows detainees to sign up to do housekeeping and cooking chores at detention facilities for $1 per day. "Just slapping the word ‘volunteer’ in front of ‘work program’ doesn’t exempt the prison firm from paying legally mandated wages any more than McDonald’s can use ‘volunteer’ senior citizens and pay them Big Macs", says an immigration researcher who uncovered these violations.

GEO is accused in the lawsuit of ignoring Colorado's minimum wage laws. In addition, since the detainees in Denver were picked at random rather than "volunteering", GEO is violating anti-slavery laws. According to the plaintiff's lawyer, "Forced labor is a particular violation of the statute that we’ve alleged. Whether you’re calling it forced labor or slavery, the practical reality for the plaintiffs is much the same. You’re being compelled to work against your will under the threat of force or use of force."

These detainees are different from normal prisoners in that they are merely being detained until their immigration status can be determined. Many will actually not be deported and none are in the facility as punishment for a crime.

Abuses like this at private prisons were one of the reasons the Obama administration ordered the federal government to stop using private prisons, although it did not cover detainee detention facilities like the one in Denver. Trump immediately rescinded that order. And the abuses are likely to become more widespread as Trump ramps up his plans for mass deportations.

One of the classic signs of an authoritarian regime is the random acts of abuse of power by law enforcement authorities. Minority communities like Ferguson or areas in NYC subject to stop and frisk have felt this arbitrary for decades. And I'm sure ICE and CPB have been abusing their authority for decades as well. With Trump's prodding, they are taking it to the next level.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

More Evidence That Comey Swung The Election To Trump

Here is more evidence, as if we needed it, that James Comey was the decisive factor in the 2016 election. A brand research company that also started including questions about presidential candidates since 2008 has shown that Comey's letter eleven days before election created at 28 point move in Trump's direction. That is simply massive and it was the decisive factor in the election.

According to the author, "[I]t is our conclusion that the Comey letter, 11 days before the election, was the precipitating event behind Clinton’s loss, despite the letter being effectively retracted less than a week later. In such a close election, there may have been dozens of factors whose absence would have reversed the outcome, such as the influence campaign of the Russian government as detailed by US intelligence services. But the sudden change in the political conversation after the Comey letter suggest it was the single, most indispensable factor in the surprise election result."

The company runs a daily online survey that asks consumers about what consumer products they have been talking about in the last 24 hours. Looking at that data over time helps them to model behavior rather than just opinion at a particular moment in time. When combined with other data, this methodology has been able to predict about 25% of sales in certain product categories.

The data collected from the presidential questions showed what we already knew, namely that both candidates were viewed fairly negatively. But, after the first debate, Clinton was viewed far less negatively than Trump right up until the Comey letter. That precipitated a 17 point increase in Clinton's negativity rating and an 11 point improvement in Trump's. What had been a 24 point advantage for Clinton almost immediately became a 4 point disadvantage. And that disadvantage never moved again before election day. Here is the devastating story in graphical form:

Comey's intervention in the election was unprecedented, unethical, and potentially illegal. His willingness to discuss the ongoing investigation into Hillary's emails stands in stark contrast to his silence regarding Trump's Russian connections as well as his unwillingness to publicly repudiate Trump's charge that Obama wiretapped him. And we should never forget that all the horrible things that the Trump administration will do and has already done are on his hands and, hopefully, his conscience.

Caterpillar Is Today's Corporate Criminal, With Help From PwC

Today's edition of corporate crime comes from Caterpillar, the heavy equipment manufacturer. The NY Times has a story on a report for federal investigators that claims Caterpillar evaded paying federal income taxes on billions of dollars in offshore earnings that it repatriated back to the US and accuses the company of tax and accounting fraud. According to the author of the report, "Caterpillar did not comply with either U.S. tax law or U.S. financial reporting rules. I believe that the company’s noncompliance with these rules was deliberate and primarily with the intention of maintaining a higher share price. These actions were fraudulent rather than negligent."

Caterpillar has been the focus of an investigation since 2014 when a Senate panel claimed it has evaded nearly $2.5 billion in taxes over a 13 year period. The company used its Swiss subsidiary to move earnings that originated in the US to Switzerland and avoid federal income taxes. Those earnings would then be taxed at the Swiss rate. If and when those profits were moved back into the US, the company would get a credit against their US tax bill for whatever Swiss taxes were paid. But Caterpillar went far beyond that strategy and, according to the report, repatriated nearly $8 billion without paying Swiss taxes and avoiding federal taxes because they were structured as loans. The company failed to report those loans, which should have been categorized as taxable distributions of cash, in tax and accounting documents. In addition, the Times also reports that the Senate panel uncovered warnings from inside Caterpillar's management that the scheme had no real business purpose and would and should be considered tax avoidance.

It's clear that federal investigators are closing in on Caterpillar. The IRS is asking for $2 billion in back taxes and penalties associated with the transactions with the Swiss subsidiary. Federal investigators, including agents from the FDIC, the IRS, and the Commerce Department, raided three Caterpillar offices last week. And, it should also be noted, Caterpillar's auditor and adviser on this tax evasion scheme is PriceWaterhouse Coopers, the accounting firm responsible for the Oscar's debacle, other tax avoidance schemes, and plenty of other scandals. I guess criminal minds think alike.

It will be interesting to see how aggressively the Trump administration pursues this investigation. Caterpillar is an enormous employer here in the US but it is tax evasion schemes like this that Trump railed against in his campaign. It pits his populism against his big business cronies. I know which side I'm betting on.

And one last comment. When you and I avoid paying our taxes it is called tax evasion. But when richer people or businesses use complicated structures to avoid paying taxes it is euphemistically known as "tax avoidance". Please tell me the difference.

A Far Reaching SCOTUS Ruling Based On Anecdote, Not Data

Yesterday I wrote about the delusional world of the Trump administration. But delusion is not limited to Trump and his minions. A story in the New York Times shows that the Supreme Court has based a ruling that has led to a whole raft of new laws and lower court decisions on a study that does not exist.

In 2003, the Court ruled that Alaska's sex offender registration law was constitutional. That ruling led to a whole raft of new laws around the country that limited the rights of convicted sex offenders even after they have served their time for the crimes committed. These include registration, limiting them from living near schools, restricting them from entering public parks, and now limiting their access to social media.

In writing the majority opinion in 2003, Anthony Kennedy stated "[t]he rate of recidivism of untreated offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80 percent", citing a Justice Department document named "A Practitioner’s Guide to Treating the Incarcerated Male Sex Offender". That document was a compendium of research studies on sex offenders and their recidivism. Many of the studies actually showed a recidivism rate in the single digits. The only report in the document that claimed the 80% recidivism rate was an article about a sex offender counseling program that was written for a general population psychology magazine and provided no scientific evidence for that claim. Yet that was the statistic that Kennedy glommed on to and cited in his opinion.

That citation in the Supreme Court decision has colored the perceptions and laws about sex offenders ever since. In fact, with laws restricting sex offenders' social media access now being challenged in the Supreme Court, Kennedy's statistic is being used by those defending those laws again.

Subsequent studies have shown that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is slightly higher than non-sex offenders but only around 5% and nowhere near the 80% level cited by Kennedy. There is another study that showing that, over a 20 year time span, a sex offender's chance of committing another sex crime rises to around 25%. That is certainly significant and important to consider and may still be enough to warrant the original Supreme Court decision. But again, it is nowhere near 80%.

If it was any other group other than sex offenders, do we really thing that laws based on a myth would have survived for a decade and a half. But the reality is that sex offenders are pretty hard to defend so it takes a lot of courage to oppose these restrictive laws. And perhaps these laws are necessary. But it would be nice to base the need for them in reality rather than engage in another delusion.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Is GOP Punting On Repealing ACA With RyanCare Proposal

Considering the enormous opposition from virtually all quarters to the Ryancare plan, you really have to wonder what the GOP strategy is here. Conservative Republicans, the Freedom Caucus, the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and other right-wing groups are all attacking the plan as Obamacare 2.0. At least four or five other Republican Senators as well as GOP governors oppose the plan because of the phase-out of Medicaid. The powerful AARP lobby has come out in opposition.

Yet Mitch McConnell is promising to move swiftly on Ryancare. As Jonathan Chait reports "that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his intention to jam the House bill through the Senate quickly. Rather than develop its own bills through committees and the normal debate process, McConnell declared he plans to bring it directly to the Senate floor".

There are two options here. One theory is that Ryan and McConnell are going to rush this bill through before the CBO can score the plan, essentially daring all those Republicans who ran on repeal and replace to vote against Ryancare virtually blind. The problem with that is it is hard to see McConnell even able to force a vote so quickly with the amount of Republican opposition, much less pass it.

The second option is outlined by Chait and that is that the Republican leadership in Congress has essentially decided to give up on repeal and replace. It would likely chew up most of this year's legislative calendar to get all the elements of the Republican party to hash out a plan that would actually be able to pass. Instead, leadership has simply decided to get a vote on a bill, any bill as we see with Ryancare, and have it go down to defeat. With that out of the way, they can then move on with the rest of their agenda especially tax reform and the rollback of business and environmental regulations that their corporate overlords really want. Perhaps they can find some creative accounting method (like they always do) to provide a massive tax cut for the rich in the tax reform plan.

There are dangers for both Republicans and Democrats with this strategy, but more so for the GOP. Democrats will be able to claim an enormous victory and claim they have protected American's health. But it may reduce the intensity of the resistance to the Trump administration and the GOP agenda. Personally, I think Trump and the GOP will still provide plenty of material to keep fueling Democratic engagement until the 2018 elections. The other potential pitfall for the Democrats is one that I've been harping on since right after the election and that is that the present uncertainty about health care will lead to may insurers to drop out of the exchanges in 2018, essentially having Obamacare implode that way. The GOP can then pick up a replacement bill after the midterms, having been "proven right" that Obamacare was collapsing on its own.

The danger for Republicans is that hard right conservatives will look at this as once again the ultimate betrayal. Have bleated constantly for the last seven years about repealing Obamacare and now having control of the White House and Congress, it will simply be unacceptable not to be able to pass a bill that unwinds Obamacare. That anger in the base will not be forgotten by 2018. And it certainly may put Paul Ryan's position as Speaker in serious jeopardy. In addition, I'm pretty sure Donald Trump will blame a defeat like this which leaves one of his signature promises unfulfilled squarely on the GOP leaders in Congress. That does not bode well for Republican unity on issues going forward.

Let's hope Chait is right about the GOP punting on repeal and replace and I am wrong about what will happen in 2018. For Democrats, hope and relentless resistance are our only options.

Living In A Delusional World

Delusion: Donald Trump will be great for America because he is a successful businessman and will be able to run the country like his business.
Reality: Donald Trump has been into bankruptcy six times.

Delusion: Don't take Trump's word literally; it's only a rhetorical device to connect with voters.
Reality: Muslim ban, mass deportations and making health care less available and affordable.

Delusion: Trump will bring back coal jobs.
Reality: Repealing stream protections or any environmental regulation will never make that happen.

Delusion: Millions of illegals voted in last election.
Reality: Trump lost popular vote by nearly 3 million and another 7 million voted for a third party candidate.

Delusion: Black colleges and universities are fabulous examples of school choice.
Reality: Blacks attended those institutions because they were not allowed to go to white universities under something called segregation.

Delusion: We use alternate facts.
Reality: Alternate facts are not facts.

Delusion: Murder rates are at a 45 year high.
Reality: Murder rates are just slightly above 45 year lows.

Delusion: Obama ordered illegal wiretaps on me during the campaign and I have proof so I need Congress to investigate and find my proof.
Reality: This guy is delusional.


Reality: These guys are all delusional.

I could go on but I'm losing my mind.

Ryancare Shows GOP Only Has Slogans But No Real Policies

OK, let's call this disaster what it is. From now on, and I believe with even some Republicans assenting, this is Ryancare and it is a disaster. They had seven years to come up with a plan and this is what they produce. It is yet another example of the lack of policy substance that is at the core of the Republican party these days. Their members are so entrenched by extreme gerrymandering that they simply run on campaign on slogans. And they can get away with it.

You can read in depth analysis from people who have plenty more knowledge and experience about health care law than I do. But the basic gory outlines are this. The massive tax cuts the GOP is really looking for are realized by repealing the Obamacare taxes on wealthier Americans and the assumption that federal Medicaid spending will end up being reduced by over half a trillion dollars. The plan will cover fewer people and premiums, deductibles, and copays will skyrocket for seniors and those with low income. The Obamacare subsidies will be replaced by a tax credit that increases with age, not need. It will be indexed to the CPI+1 meaning that it will become worth less and less as the cost of healthcare rises faster than regular inflation. In addition, the tax credit does not vary by region meaning that in some rural states like Alaska, premiums will be unaffordable. The individual mandate is repealed but to encourage continuous coverage, the plan allows insurers to charge a 30% premium for enrollees who have let their insurance lapse. There are serious doubts about whether the individual insurance markets will not collapse if the plan goes into effect. It defunds Planned Parenthood in a critical blow to women's health. Lastly, it will phase out Medicaid expansion in 2020 and convert it into a block grant, essentially transferring additional costs to the states.

There are also plenty of old GOP standards that are not included in the plan, primarily because they can't be done through the budget reconciliation process that requires only 51 votes in the Senate. These old hobbyhorses include selling insurance across state lines and reducing the minimum requirements required of all health plans. It is also a parliamentary question of whether the replacement of the individual mandate with the premium charge for not having continuous coverage will pass muster as a budget reconciliation item. Changing the Obamacare rules on pre-existing conditions and allowing a family member to stay on their parent's plan until they are 26 are also not included because they would not qualify under the reconciliation process, not because Republicans actually support those policies.

More importantly, the Republicans don't have the courage of their own convictions as many of the changes don't take effect until 2020. In addition, the Energy and Commerce Committee seems intent on forcing a vote on the bill even before the CBO can score the plan, meaning we have no idea what effect the plan will have on the budget, how much out-of pocket costs will increase, and, critically, how many people will actually lose insurance under the plan.

The reality of this plan is that it actually proves that the framework of Obamacare is the only way you can reduce the number of uninsured with real health coverage, other than moving to a national single payer plan like every other industrialized country. Obmacare relies on the three-legged stool of guaranteed coverage with no penalty for pre-existing conditions, subsidies, and requirement for everyone to buy coverage. Ryancare basically maintains this framework but not nearly to the levels that exist under Obamacare. It still maintains the guaranteed coverage; it maintains subsidies by using tax credits; and it tries to force everyone to buy coverage through the penalty for enrollees who have let their insurance lapse. Regardless of what Republicans say, Ryancare validates the Democratic approach to health insurance. Of course, Obamacare was really based on a conservative alternative to Bill Clinton's health insurance initiative in the 1990s but conservatives never really wanted their own plan to be adopted.

So, if this plan has all the features of Obamacare, as Ezra Klein so aptly puts it, what problem exactly is Ryancare trying to solve? The answer is, of course, to fulfill their slogan to repeal and replace while at the same time providing a massive tax cut to their rich and corporate overlords. The only policy that matters in the plan is repealing the Obamacare taxes and eliminating Medicaid spending so there is room for further tax cuts. The rest is just dressing to appease their base who believed and continue to believe in their slogans. Policy details are meaningless because they aren't necessary to get elected. That is why Trump can discover that health policy is incredibly complicated only upon taking office and Jason Chaffetz can say people will have to choose between a new iPhone and a healthcare plan.

Already the Freedom Caucus is opposing the bill and putting forward the 2015 bill that simply repealed the ACA. Heritage has come out against the bill. At least four Republican Senators have also denounced the bill. And Trump, Pence, and Price have all said that the bill is mainly a starting point in the legislative process.

This creates a problem for the GOP in that insurance companies have to decide in April whether they will participate in the exchanges next year. There is no way that Republicans are going to be able to negotiate a deal that will be able to pass both houses of Congress in a little over one month, especially with the vociferous opposition the bill is facing even before the CBO score has come out. While the GOP plan keeps most of the provisions in place for the next couple of years, it is hard to see why insurance companies would risk participating in the exchanges since they don't know how people will react next year and their business model will be obsolete the year after.

Democrats have better be prepared make sure any collapse in the markets next year get pinned squarely on Republicans. It is the easiest attack to make. Republicans aren't ready to govern, they are just good at getting elected on campaign slogans. The Trump administration is clearly not ready and probably unable to govern. And the uncertainty that the GOP's inability to come up with a viable plan for health policy will jeopardize people's insurance next year unless Ryancare or any of its alternatives are stopped dead in its tracks. Get going Schumer, Pelosi, and Perez.

US Allies Continue To Look Elsewhere For Leadership

I have already written about Australia's recalling their ambassadors in order to reset their entire foreign policy based on the Trump administration's abdication as leader of free world and the emergence and expansion of China's power and influence in the Asia-Pacific region. It was really the first indication that America's traditional allies no longer consider the United States a reliable partner.

Now today, there is an article in the New York Times that details the ongoing discussions in Europe to create its own "Eurodeterrent" by repurposing France's existing nuclear arsenal and bringing it under the European umbrella as part of the common European defense. There will be enormous hurdles to getting this done. The French have shown no inclination to go along with this idea. There will be an enormous fight over who will have ultimate control over these weapons. Public opinion is totally against the idea. Getting other countries other than Germany to house those weapons will also be a nearly impossible hurdle. A larger problem is that moving seriously on this idea in any way actually makes it easier for Trump to withdraw the US arsenal from Europe, while at the same time antagonizing Russia. But the fact that there are even discussion about this idea shows you how much the Europeans also are focused on the fact that the US can no long be relied on.

Steve Bannon probably thinks the Eurodeterrent is a wonderful idea. And Trump can say that he is making NATO members to "pay their fair share".  But the rationale behind making NATO pay their fair share would be that the military budget would therefore decrease and there would more money to spend domestically. But Trump is promising to "rebuild" the military and increase its budget by over $50 billion. It seems to be a contradiction to be rebuilding our military while withdrawing our nuclear arsenal from Europe.

Meanwhile, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles over the weekend as part of its continuing provocations. So far, there has been no official comment on the launch from the Trump administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was part of the group that announced the Muslim ban 2.0 yesterday but refused to take questions. Tillerson also had a photo-op at the State Department today and again refused to answer questions. In normal administrations, the State Department has daily briefings. Since the Trump inauguration, the State Department has had not a single briefing.

However, a spokesperson for the US forces in South Korea announced that the first of five components of a US missile defense shield to be deployed in South Korea arrived in the country on Monday. The US and South Korea agreed on deployment of this system under the Obama administration last summer but it appears that its deployment schedule may be moved up in response to North Korean provocations. In addition to domestic objections to the shield inside South Korea, China has strongly objected to the deployment of this system, seeing it as a threat to their own security, especially in light of Trump's threat to allow Japan and South Korea to become nuclear powers.

More importantly, the silence from the administration regarding the North Korean launch is frightening. Foreign media in South Korea and Japan reported their leaders' calls with Trump denouncing the missile launches, but there was no official announcement from the US. It truly raises the question who, if anyone, is actually in charge in this administration and where their focus really is. Was it just coincidence the first shipment of the previously agreed upon defense shield arrived on Monday or was it part of a conscious decision by the administration? If it was a conscious decision, was it made by Mattis and/or Tillerson or did Trump have to sign off on it? If it was a coincidence, will there be any other US response? What is the reason for no official comment on the issue from the US?

US allies are already worried and looking elsewhere for security solutions. The bizarre (lack of) an official US response to these North Korean provocations is bound to increase our allies anxiety and belief that the US is no longer a reliable partner.

What We Learned About Trump's Russian Connections This Weekend

Aside from more evidence that the President is delusional and his team are professional enablers, we did learn a few more things over the weekend about Trump's Russian connections. First, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence under Obama at the time in question, categorically stated that there were no wiretaps on Trump Tower or the Trump campaign and there was no FISA warrant to do surveillance on Trump or members of his campaign. But he clearly left open the possibility that other types of surveillance that may not have required a FISA warrant may have targeted the Trump campaign. Second, there is a pretty strong belief that there are transcripts of conversations between Russians and members of the Trump campaign and transition team. And yesterday the connections between Trump's development projects and organizations and individuals interested in laundering ill-gotten money were detailed in an in-depth piece in the New Yorker.

The interesting thing about Clapper's statement is that there was clearly some investigation going on that involved some of Trump's campaign team, including Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Carter Page. And there are also reports that the Obama administration sought a FISA warrant in June as part of an investigation into Russian hacking. That application was turned down but a renewed attempt was accepted in October. If that is true, then Clapper is saying pretty clearly that the October FISA warrant did not target Trump or the campaign. The assumption then would be that the targets were Russian operatives. And the next assumption would be that either the October FISA warrant, other monitoring of Trump campaign officials, or regular monitoring of Russian officials here in the US are the basis for the reports of transcripts of conversations between the Trump campaign and/or transition team and agents of Russia.

In addition, Roger Stone admitted in a tweet that he had a "legal back-channel to Assange" and WikiLeaks during the campaign. While WikiLeaks is not directly the Russian government, it is now widely assumed that the organization is a tool of the Russians. It certainly performed that role during the campaign as the assumption is that the hacked Democratic emails were provided to WikiLeaks by the Russians. Stone subsequently deleted that tweet.

The New Yorker article details a Trump development project in Baku, Azerbaijan that looks like it was merely a vehicle for money laundering, specifically in this case money laundering for Azerbaijan officials and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Trump Organization received anywhere between $2.5 million to $5 million for their work on the project. The extensive Trump involvement in the project, especially Ivanka, and the history of corruption of the Azerbaijani partners and their connection to Iran potentially expose the Trump Organization to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that ensures that a business perform due diligence to vet their potential overseas partners. The Trump Organization claims that due diligence was performed but refused to provide that information to the New Yorker. The whole article is worth a read to see just how obviously corrupt Trump's partners in this project are.

The Azerbaijan project looks quite similar to projects that Trump put together with Bayrock Securities and the mysterious Felix Sater. Bayrock itself was formed by a Kazhan businessman with money from Russian oligarchs and it is probable that money from those oligarchs or oligarchs in the states of the former Soviet Union funded many of Trump's projects as he tried to rebuild his company after yet another bankruptcy in the early 2000s.

So that's what we know now. How this all fits together will have to wait for another, more speculative post.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Comey's Silence Re Trump's Wiretap Allegations Speaks Volumes About His Bias

Ok, I don't know why I was so kind, but I gave James Comey the benefit of my patience. Over the weekend, it was reported that Comey asked the DOJ to publicly reject Trump's assertion that Obama wiretapped his phones. Comey believes that the accusation hints that the FBI may have broken the law and he wants to protect the reputation of the Bureau. But Comey himself has only made the request through the proper channels and has been silent on the issue himself.

I imagine the DOJ is pretty much a mess right now. Sessions has supposedly recused himself from the Russia investigation although it is unclear whether he is involved in this issue. If he is not, there are no Deputy AGs in place to handle Comey's request. So I was willing to at least wait and see what the DOJ would do. Then late this afternoon, I heard on NPR that the DOJ had specifically turned down that request. (It would be nice to know who at the DOJ made that decision.) And so far silence from Comey.

Meanwhile, Trump's flaks are out there actually insinuating that Trump knows something about this that no one else knows and that the allegations might be true. Based on the his prior opinion, Comey should also treat these rumors as a continuation of the insinuation that the FBI may have broken the law by facilitating the wiretaps. Sarah Sanders went even further and said that Trump does not believe Comey's rejection of his accusation. And still there is silence from Comey.

On the other hand, there is a sense of karma for Comey as he was instrumental in getting Trump elected and now he believes that Trump is paying him back by trashing his already tarnished reputation. It couldn't happen to a more deserving guy.

Revised Travel Ban Shows More Trump Weakness

So the long-awaited new travel ban 2.0 has finally been release as quietly as possible. I guess that is become Trump doesn't want his rabid anti-immigration supporters to realized what a massive climb down this is. And he also knows that cable news is ready to move on from Russia and his accusations about Obama after obsessing about that all weekend. I'm not sure that will entirely work.

Anyway, here are the salient details from the Huffington Post:

What changed in the new order:
  • Iraq removed from list of countries on the travel ban
  • Applies only to non-visa holders (anyone with a valid or multi-entry visa is exempt from the new order)
  • Will not go into effect until March 16 to avoid chaos
  • Exceptions for religious minorities removed

What remains from the previous order:
  • Refugee resettlement program banned for 120 days
  • Travel ban for citizens of some countries in effect for 90 days
  • Cap on refugee resettlement for fiscal year 2017 plummets from 110,000 to 50,000

Green card holders are now exempt although I'm sure that CPB will continue to harass foreigners as they have been. Interestingly, Iraq has been removed from the banned countries. Considering that Iraq is one of the two countries where ISIS holds physical territory, that seems kind of dangerous if you believe that ISIS is sending thousands of terrorists into our country as opposed to the reality that the terrorist group is actually collapsing and soon there will be nothing left of its signature caliphate.

Of course, even this order will be challenged in the courts. But it is a remarkable climb down and essentially a defeat for Trump. Yes, thousands will still be negatively impacted. But this watered down version is a victory for our functioning justice system and the power of relentless resistance. And Democrats need to weave this Trump retreat into the narrative of his weakness. Every time Trump has to back down, he looks weaker and weaker. He will eventually have to back down from his accusation about Obama, (even Comey is apparently demanding that), and that will again make him look weaker. Even now, Trump knows that people think "his presidency is screwed up". And these continued displays of weakness will eventually begin to sap the support of his followers.

GOP Crony Capitalism Part III - School Vouchers

One of Betsy DeVos' pet projects is school vouchers. We all know the hype - give parents some money so they can have the "freedom" to go to whatever school they want, which really means whatever school they can still afford. Like charter schools, vouchers are just a way to take taxpayer dollars out of public education and funnel that money to private businesses and individuals. That does not mean that there aren't any good charter schools or that vouchers can really benefit some children. But the overriding goal of these efforts for their backers is to privatize the money that goes into public education. And, as with most government money that gets privatized, the possibility of graft and fraud and misuse of funds expands exponentially.

Studies have shown varying degrees of failure and success with both charter schools and with vouchers. But most recent studies of three states that adopted school vouchers show the program failing in a somewhat spectacular fashion. In Louisiana, students in the school voucher program actually lost ground in the first two years, with an average student dropping by 24 percentile in math and 8 percentile points in reading. In Ohio, a study found that voucher students "have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools…. Such impacts also appear to persist over time, suggesting that the results are not driven simply by the setbacks that typically accompany any change of school". You may remember that Ohio was the state where Education Secretary Betsy Devos blatantly and illegally ignored the state's campaign spending limits by over three-quarter of a billion dollars in order to push a school voucher referendum. In Indiana, another study found that "voucher students who transfer to private schools experience significant losses in mathematics achievement."

As the LA Times notes, one explanation for these poor results is "state authorities don’t do a good enough job of vetting the private schools that are accepting the vouchers". You think. But that's the whole point, not to get better educational outcomes but to funnel public money to their private cronies. For example, in Louisiana, that meant lots of religious schools, some of which taught creationism, were the beneficiaries.

Another classic example of the crony capitalism of the voucher system comes from Arizona. There, Steve Yarbrough is the president of the State Senate, one of the most powerful men in the state, and a proponent of something called a tax credit school voucher system in that state. Essentially, you get a tax break for giving to a non-profit educational facility and that gift is really in lieu of tuition. For Arizonans, it is providing a tax break for private tuition. Of course, one of the main reasons Yarbrough is such a big supporter of these tax credit vouchers is that he personally profits from them. According to the Times, "The Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (Acsto) is one of the state’s largest voucher-granting groups...Arizona law allows the group to keep 10 percent of those donations to pay for overhead. In 2014, the group used that money to pay its executive director $125,000. His name? Steve Yarbrough. Forms filed by the organization with the I.R.S. declare that he worked an average of 40 hours per week on the job — in addition, presumably, to the hours he worked as president of the State Senate." I'm guessing they must not conduct much business in the State Senate in Arizona, barely even showing up or else Steve is a workaholic.

But it gets even better. Acsto outsources some of the bureaucratic overhead of running the organization to a company called HY Processing, paying that firm over $600,000 in 2104 alone. The owner of HY Processing? You guessed it, Steve Yarbrough. Acsto also pays rent to a landlord for the space it uses to run the business. The landlord, as you might have figured out, is Steve Yarbrough. What's incredible is that this egregious self dealing was made public way back in 2009 and Yarbrough is still there. And last year Yarbrough stated, "“It’s[the voucher program] been better and more successful than even those of us who were enthusiastic from the get-go imagined." I'm sure.

School vouchers are a double win in the attempt to privatize public education. First, it provides a way to provide taxpayer dollars to religious schools. And it provides legislators with a chance to funnel taxpayer dollars to either themselves or their donors. Remember that every dollar that Acsto spends, every dollar that Yarbrough pockets, comes out of money that could have been used to improve public schools. And these people have the nerve to complain about teachers salaries and the "educational bureaucracy". Read the whole article for all the horrific details.

GOP Attitude Toward Health Care Is Remarkably Callous

The Republican party has an horrific and, I would think, pretty unique view when it comes to providing health care to our citizens. The attitude exists across the entire range of the party, from the right-wing fringes to what is called a "moderate" Republican these days. And that attitude is that somehow people who do not have or cannot afford health care either do not want it or don't do enough to deserve to get it.

The extreme view comes from GOP Representative Roger Marshall from the no longer great state of Kansas, (thanks Sam Brownback and Arthur Laugher, I mean, Laffer). In a recent interview Marshall laid out his interesting views on health care. "Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us'. There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves. The Medicaid population, which is [on] a free credit card, as a group, do probably the least preventive medicine and taking care of themselves and eating healthy and exercising. And I’m not judging, I’m just saying socially that’s where they are. So there’s a group of people that even with unlimited access to health care are only going to use the emergency room when their arm is chopped off or when their pneumonia is so bad they get brought [into] the ER." Of course, the facts show that Obamacare has produced more preventive care and better outcomes for the recipients in those states that expanded Medicaid than those that didn't. And I'm pretty sure that Marshall isn't quite getting Jesus' larger point when he says the poor will always be with us. That was not meant to imply that we should just ignore them, as apparently Marshall thinks we should. But it certainly provides a nice rationale for the GOP health plan that will only offer the poor the emergency room as their only medical option.

Susan Collins is one of the supposed GOP "moderates" in the Senate and she has been getting some love from Democrats these days for some unknown reason. If you look at her history, she only casts a dissenting vote against any egregious GOP policy when she know her vote won't matter and the GOP will prevail. When the GOP needs her vote, she is always right there in line. In any case, here she is today, quoted by the NY Times. "Once low-income people are receiving good health care for the first time, it becomes very difficult for a member of Congress to take that assistance away from them. To deprive them of that health care is something that now makes a lot of people in my party uncomfortable."

For Collins, it is not that providing low-income people with health care will make them healthier and save lives. It is not that you might consider providing quality health care for your citizens something you would want to do as a compassionate society. No, for her it is a problem because once they have it, it makes it harder to take it away.

And these people probably call themselves Christians.

Uber, Corporate Abuse, Winners And Losers, And Trump

I know this blog is supposed to provide at least some (hopefully) original thought, but occasionally you read something that says everything you might want to say but in a much better way than you possibly could.

Erik Loomis highlights a piece that Miya Tokumitsu wrote about Susan Fowler's having to endure rampant sexual harassment at Uber with the firm's clear approval. Says Tokumitsu, "Fowler’s letter highlights how employers take advantage of their employees’ goodwill, using it as an excuse to inflict or ignore poor working conditions. Generally, workers want to succeed...Employers, particularly prestigious, white-collar firms like tech companies, banks, and universities, rely on their employees’ internalized desire to achieve...She did what most of us probably would do in her situation: she endured...Even an accomplished worker with highly marketable skills like Fowler has little choice. Most people require a stable income to survive, and quitters forego the right to unemployment benefits...On top of income, life’s practical realities make the sudden withdrawal of labor extremely onerous. Even if you could find a new employer right away, are you really going to disrupt your children’s school year, leave your community, break your lease or sell your house, give up the fringe benefits from your current job...Employers are banking that you won’t. Any amount of sexual harassment or bullying is unacceptable, but they know workers will put up with a fair amount of it because...the costs of quitting are so high."

Loomis then adds his own thoughts, "The problem isn’t Uber so much, even if that company is especially bad, as it is a broader workplace culture where we actively contribute to the decline of our own rights by not taking vacations, by taking work home with us, by not standing up to watching others being harassed, by seeking to please our bosses, by valuing performance-based bonuses that are driven by favoritism, racism, and sexism. Of course, none of this is the fault of a single worker. It’s the fault of a cancerous corporate culture mixed with the connection between unions and blue-collar manufacturing labor in the American mind that convinces these workers to see themselves more as aspiring partners than as workers with rights."

In many ways, it is the thinking behind that "cancerous corporate culture" that has actually given us Donald Trump. The current thinking is an even more destructive mantra than Vince Lombardi's "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing". It is the trader's mentality and it is best summed by looking at the world in a binary way. If my opponent loses, then I must win. And most of us spend our entire lives, from childhood on, being urged to be a "winner". As Loomis says, workers are desperate to see themselves as partners on the winning management team and will endure so much in an attempt to get there.

The story I love to tell about this is when that now convicted felon, Michael Milken, was in his heyday, he was giving out the annual bonuses to members of his firm. One particular trader had had a spectacular year, bringing in over $100 million in business to the firm, and Milken gave him a $1 million bonus. (This was the 1980s and that was big money back then.) The trader objected saying he felt he was worth at least $5 million. Milken told him that he would love to give him that money but that would mean he would get a bigger bonus than Milken himself. The poor guy, thinking Milken was being frugal himself, dropped his plea and went away fairly contented. Subsequently, during the investigation that led to Milken's pleading guilty to securities and tax fraud, the trader found out from public documents that Milken had actually given himself a $50 million bonus for the year in question. Milken could have easily given that trader the extra $4 million and it probably wouldn't have even had to come out of Milken's bonus. It was just that Milken felt better that he made the poor guy a "loser" in the bonus discussion.

That attitude pervades upper management in all large US companies these days. Screwing their workers while they take millions in bonuses is more than just outright greed, although there is plenty of that. It is all about making them feel like "winners" because they can make their employees "losers". Adding to that destructive attitude, is that they also need to be seen as winners to their peers in their industry and their social circle.  Many of these people seem to have at least some worry that this attitude will only last for so long before the masses come after them with pitchforks and fire, which is why you see so many rich people like Peter Thiel who have these survival plans in place, like his compound in New Zealand or bunkers, essentially converted missile silos, in the Midwest with their own private security guards. But they get away with it because so many workers dream about and have the drive to join the "winner's circle". You see it in every company, co-workers who will take credit for other's work, kiss up to the bosses, screw their own peers, and especially their subordinates, at the drop of a hat, all in the hopes of moving up to where they will be "winners" and not just another one of the "losers". Other more honorable people like Fowler work even harder and endure even more abuse.

On the political side, you can see it in the entire Republican party. So much of their focus in the last eight years has been on making sure that Obama became a "loser", thinking that would make them winners. It drove their entire mentality regarding health care. So now that they have actual control, they still have no plan for healthcare because making Obama a loser meant you never had to formulate a positive policy, just make sure his policy didn't work. Trump works in a similar environment. He spent most of the primary campaign denigrating his opponents as "losers". It is his favorite pejorative for anyone that he sees as a threat and it makes him, and his supporters, who have been the "losers" now for decades, feel like "winners" when he says it.

In many ways, this mentality is why capitalism has gone so far off the rails in the last few decades, failing millions of workers in the developed world. The essence of the ideal of capitalism is that there are multiple winners. Innovation means lower prices for consumers, meaning potentially higher profits, which can be shared with those same workers/consumers. "Free trade" is built on the same idea, that both countries will benefit from an open trading relationship. Yes, there will be some industries that will grow and some industries that will shrink, but the benefits from the bigger pie can be used to help those displace by the new arrangement, making everyone better off. All of that has gone out the window in the last thirty years. Driven by the myth of  maximizing shareholder value over actual workers, higher profits go to management bonuses and payouts to shareholders. Winners from trade just pocket the profits and the losers get nothing. For business and political leaders, the world is simply a binary choice between "winners" and "losers" and to the victor goes the spoils. And we end up with Donald Trump.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Trump Already Getting Bunker Mentality As It Is Preceived His Presidency Is Screwed Up

Trump was apparently furious that Jeff Sessions ended up recusing himself and with his team for letting him to so. In his own petulant manner, he booted Priebus and Bannon from Air Force One for the flight down to Mar-a-Lago.  And he created even more problems when he got down there with his tweetstorm accusing Obama of interfering in the election by wiretapping his campaign. As usual, he offered no evidence for this outrageous claim and it looks like it was based on an inaccurate (surprise!) article in Breitbart that appeared late last week.

With an administration that is beset by leaks from inside and outside the White House that it is unable to control, you can sense the beginning of a bunker mentality beginning to set in. There is already a belief by some in the White House, probably including Trump himself, that any of the holdover Obama appointees as well as the majority of career bureaucrats are enemies. That view of the world will create even greater pressure to try to run everything out of the White House. That was probably already the preference of Bannon. Trump probably just expected the bureaucracy would implement his vague orders and since that hasn't happened they all must be against him.

The self-inflicted wounds of the first month and a half of the Trump presidency has already made Trump "tired of everyone thinking his presidency is screwed up", which likely he means he will try to exert even more control which will result in even more self-inflicted errors. And he has more than self-inflicted wounds to worry about. The Russian scandal will be surrounding the administration for the next few months at a minimum. The internal divisions within the GOP are making repealing Obamacare difficult, if not impossible, although that my be a blessing because a GOP plan that does pass will probably create an even greater backlash than failing on that promise. But not being able to push through an Obamacare repeal imperils the GOP plans for tax reform because that relies on repealing the Obamacare tax increases. Another internal republican battle over the debt ceiling looms in the early fall. And the GOP in Congress are getting frustrated that Trump is really providing no leadership, leaving all the heavy lifting to them.

As his campaign promises continue to go largely unfulfilled and the internal divisions within the GOP create its own version of gridlock, Trump will get even more angry and apt to lash out. And it will probably lead him to rely more and more on his executive powers, creating even more self-inflicted wounds. And the cycle will just spiral inward, getting tighter and tighter as Trump feels more and more like his presidency is failing. It is hard to imagine that we are at this point only six weeks into his term.

Video Of Aldebaran Occultation By The Moon

Hope you were able to see the occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon last night. It was clear here but the temperatures were in the low teens and the wind was gusting around 30mph. So it was COLD! I had to set up the telescope on the hood of a car, and with the wind gusting like it was, it was not very stable. In addition, I had to overexpose the Moon in order to capture Aldebaran. But here is a quick video of the moment of occultation, with Aldebaran at the bottom right of the Moon. It was too cold and too windy to capture the star's re-emergence.