Saturday, April 15, 2017

How Low Can They Go?

As the protests over Trump's tax returns happen all over the country today, the Huffington Post has an article on the bills in 26 states to force Presidential candidates, and therefore Trump, if he makes it and runs in 2020, to release their taxes.

Bills have been offered in blue states like New York and California and red states like Iowa and Ohio. They have been offered by Republicans and Democrats alike. And polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans want Trump, and by extension all Presidential candidates, to release their taxes. One poll shows that 88% believe it is important for Trump to release his tax returns in order to “be more honest and transparent with the American people." Multiple attempts by Democrats in Congress to require Trump to release his taxes have been thwarted by the Republican majority.

There is an open question of whether such state bills would actually pass constitutional muster. But election law expert Rick Hasen believes that the outrageous Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 may actually open the door for states to take this action. According to Hasen, "the Court wrote that even though state legislators have given each state’s voters the right to vote for presidential electors, at any time a state legislature can ‘take back the power’ to appoint electors." This would mean that state legislators could "overrule" any electoral votes to a candidate who had not released his taxes. Whether they would choose to do so is another, entirely political, matter.

It is highly ironic that the entirely political decision of the Court in 2000, which the Justices at the time took pains to describe as having no precedential value, is being cited more frequently and could be used if these tax release bills are ever passed and challenged in court. As Hasen notes, lower courts, especially the Sixth Circuit, have begun to cite Bush v. Gore in certain voting rights cases.

But Hasen provides some caveats to the idea of these tax release bills in order to get on the ballot. He says, "Democrats should consider the Pandora’s box they might be opening here. Will solidly Republican states allow electors to vote only for Republican candidates for president? If the tax gambit is OK, then such a law might also be constitutional." 

This is where we have come to with the Republican party. A governing norm that has been in place for 40 years entirely because of the corruption of a Republican president has been ignored by the current Republican president, with full support of his Congressional party. So, using the normal democratic processes, Democrats have tried to enshrine this governmental norm into state law. This is hardly radical legislation and is well within the norms of the usual struggle between the state and the federal government. But the immediate thought that Hasen has is that Republicans will take this attempt to enshrine a governing norm in state legislation as an opportunity to create a purely partisan law that would mandate state electors in the states the GOP controls vote for the Republican Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidate. It is, in fact, Hasen's expectation that the GOP would try to do this.

Hasen is no political partisan. But this is what the expectations have come to these days. The Democrats attempt to enshrine a governmental norm will be twisted by Republicans into a partisan advantage. And, just to show how this has become the norm in expectations for the actions of each party, the Huffington Post article does not even mention how outrageous and anti-democratic such an action would be.

To repeat what I said in my last post, the Republican party is the reason for partisan polarization and, to quote Mann and Orenstein one more time, "The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier -- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." The anti-democratic nature of the Republican party has been on full display for the last twenty years at a minimum. It's time to stop accepting that analysis as just a given, point out just how damaging it really is, and fight back with everything we've got to save our democracy.

Natural Weekends - Migratory Birds In South Texas

Let's go back to the Texas Gulf Coast again and the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas.

Friday, April 14, 2017

NHL Playoff Predictions

I'm a little late out of the gate with this one as the NHL playoffs have already begun and I haven't laid out the matchups or provided my (usually useless) predictions. But better late than never:

The Washington Capitals were the class of the East all year and it will be yet another bitter disappointment if they do not at least make it to the Stanley Cup finals. The surprise team in the East could be the Columbus Blue Jackets who ran off an incredible 16 game winning streak in the middle of the season. It is basically a free-for-all over in the West as virtually every team is solid up and down the lineup. The traditional powerhouse Chicago Black Hawks are not the team they once were and the talented young upstarts include the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.

Eastern Conference

Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs - This is Toronto's first trip to the playoffs in a few years and that will show, despite having budding superstar Austin Matthews and a boatload of other young talent. The Capitals have already won game 1 at home in overtime as Toronto goalie Frederick Andersen was fabulous in net. He will have to keep up that level of play to make this a competitive series. Caps in 5.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets - Pittsburgh took game 1, shutting out Columbus despite their number one goalie Matt Murray getting hurt in warmup. Of course the Penguins had seasoned veteran Marc Andre Fleury to take his place. The Penguins will also be without star defenseman Kris Letang for the playoffs but should have enough firepower with Crosby and Malkin to take out Columbus. Penguins in 6.

Ottawa Senators vs. Boston Bruins - Someone has to win this series, I guess. Boston took game one on a late goal by the late-blossoming start Brad Marchand. Both teams have defensive weaknesses so this series may come down to goaltending, with Craig Anderson for the Senators and Tukka Rask for the Bruins. Anderson has the ability to get really hot but Rask is probably more consistent. I'll go with consistency in this one. Bruins in 7.

Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers - Both the Candiens and the Rangers were hot as the season ended but the Canadiens can't score enough and have to rely on goaltender Carey Price for too much. I believe the team won 16 games (about 20% of the season) in overtime or a shootout. The Rangers have scoring depth and still have King Henrik Lundqvist in net. The Rangers took game 1 by a score of 2-0 on a first period goal and a late empty net one. That game will summarize the series. Rangers in 6.

Western Conference

Chicago Black Hawks vs. Nashville Predators - This should be a classic series. The Predators are solid and the Black Hawks are not the team they've been in the last few years. P.K. Subban came over to the Predators from Montreal in exchange for Shea Weber, a trade that worked out for both teams. Paired with Roman Josi, they create a formidable defense duo that has to keep Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of the Hawks under wraps. If they can do that, and Predator goalie Pekka Rinne can be consistent, the Predators have a good chance for an upset. They already won game 1 with a 1-0 shutout and it will take that kind of effort to win the series. I think the Preds can do it. Nashville in 7.

Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues - The Wild have been one of the better teams in the West all season long while the talented Blues underperformed and struggled to even make the playoffs. The Blues took game one in overtime 2-1, after giving up the tying goal with just 22 seconds left in the third period and despite being outshot 52-26. Needless to say, Jake Allen was fabulous in net for the Blues. Unfortunately for the Wild, the Blues look like they are peeking at the right time and Allen has shown streaks of this kind of great play during the season. Blues in 7.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames - Calgary is back in the playoffs with a dynamic young team. Unfortunately, they are playing the experienced, but aging, Ducks. Brian Elliott has finally solved the Flames' problems in net but the Calgary defense is simply not deep enough and the defensive lapses will be too great for Elliott to cover up. Anaheim won the first game 3-2 and I think it will be more of the same. Ducks in 5.

San Jose Sharks vs. the Edmonton Oilers - The Oilers are back in the playoffs for the first time in forever, led by their young superstar Connor McDavid. The Ducks are kind of in a rebuilding phase while staying competitive and goalie Martin Jones has some bad nights. That's not a good recipe against the fast skating, talented Oilers. The Sharks escaped with a 3-2 win in game 1, despite looking pretty bad for most of the game. Edmonton got too comfortable with the 2-0 lead they had and let it slip away. The Oilers love just going up and down the ice and they will be at an advantage if they can get into that kind of game with the Sharks. In the end, however, experience wins out in this one. Sharks in 7 great games.

Tribalism Is Not The Cause Of Current Polarization - It's The Republican Party

There have been a myriad of stories lately that attempt to explain the partisan polarization in terms of tribalism. Party identification has come to mean more than what the actual party policies say or accomplish. And the concept of tribalism is used to explain why voters often vote against their own interests. Maybe I suffer from the same sort of tribalism and that makes me blind to other possibilities, but it seems that the tribalism largely explains the Republican party and that saying tribalism is responsible for the current political polarization is a kind of "both sides do it" analysis.

Take, for example, a recent NY Times article by Amanda Taub entitled, "Why Americans Vote ‘Against Their Interest’: Partisanship". In the article, Taub equates wealthy Americans who support tax increases on the rich, which leaves them with less money in their pocket, with working class voters who continue to support Trump and the GOP despite the fact that his health care plan would hurt them in disproportionate numbers. In Taub's analysis, both sets of voters are acting against their own interests. But that is an interesting nd rather dubious equivalence. For those rich Democrats who support higher taxes on the rich, their motivation is not monetary greed but a desire to improve the lives of their fellow citizens who are less fortunate. I admit that I do not understand the motivation of working class Republicans who seemingly do not want health care but I hardly think it is driven by a motivation to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. Rather, it seems more driven by a desire not to see those "others", whoever they may be, receive the benefit of healthcare. Somehow, that seems to be a more fundamental difference between the two parties and hardly seems an example of "tribalism" among Democrats.

In fact, it was Trump's direct appeal to GOP tribalism that increasingly looks responsible for his surprise election. As Lilliana Mason, a professor at the University of Maryland, says, "Older voters who scored high on racial resentment were much more likely to switch from Obama to Trump", and that his appeal to "white male identity politics" is what carried him to victory. Now I know that certain people will point to the solid bloc of African American voters as reflecting the flip side of the coin of white male identity politics. But the Republican party has specific policies designed to reduce black voting rights and has its own long history with overt racism since the LBJ threw the racists out of the Democratic party in the mid-1960s. I know that reverse racism is a popular meme on the right, but it simply does not exist in any degree when compared to traditional racism that African-Americans face in this country today. In fact, racism and sexism were far better predictors of a Trump voter than worries about economic anxiety. Misogyny, in particular, has been largely understated as a reason for Trump's victory.

Similarly, let's look at the way evangelicals lined up behind Trump, despite his clear moral and ethical lapses. According to Pew Research, over 80% of self-proclaimed evangelicals voted for Trump and over half those specifically said they were voting against Hillary Clinton, rather than for Trump. Incredibly, the study found that 40% felt that Trump was a good role model and two-thirds thought he was well qualified. It certainly takes some significant tribal blinders to think the thrice married, six time bankrupt businessman, and admitted sexual harasser was a good role model. Again, people will point to more progressive Democrats thinking that Hillary was a sell-out and a war hawk and yet they still voted for her. But let's get real. If you are a true Christian, there can be no comparison between Hillary Clinton's lifetime of work trying to improve the lives of women and children around the world in the fulfillment of the true Christian ideal and the actions of Donald Trump throughout his life.

Lastly, let's just take a look at the "tribalism" in the reaction to Trump's missile attack on Syria. As Kevin Drum points out, back in 2013, when Obama responded to Assad's chemical weapons attack, 38% of Democrats supported those strikes as compared with just 22% of Republicans. New polling in the wake of Trump's attack show that Democrats are consistent in their view, with only 37% supporting Trump's strike. Now, however, 86% of Republicans support the latest missile strike. Talk about tribalism.

Way back in 2012, Thomas Mann and Norm Orenstein identified the real cause of dysfunction and polarization in our political process in their book "It's Even Worse Than it Looks". In that book, they wrote, "The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier -- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." Yet, even today, after eight years of obstructing Obama and the theft of a seat on the Supreme Court, the punditocracy desperately wants to write the "both sides do it" story and tribalism is the latest theme for that meme. Yes, tribalism exists, but it is essentially a Republican party problem that has no real equivalence among Democrats. But I'm sure that's just my tribal outlook.

Student Loan Firm Spent Years Engaging In Predatory Loans To Boost Profits

Back in 2014, a company call Navient was spun off from the SLM Corporation (SLMC), the student loan agency known as Sallie Mae back when it was a government-run program before it was fuly privatized in 2004. When Navient was spun off, it took with it the loan servicing operation performed by Sallie Mae along with most if its loan portfolio.

Right before the Obama administration ended, the CFPB filed suit against Navient claiming that its loan practices drove up the cost of borrowing for millions of students and even overcharged active duty military service men and women on their outstanding student loans. Now a group of state attorneys general have filed and additional suit that the SLM Corporation has for years been engaged in a predatory lending scheme in order to boost sales and profits.

According to the suit, Sallie Mae used private subprime loans, not backed by federal loan guarantees, in order to gain favor with certain educational institutions. The loans were made to individuals that the company knew did not have the means to pay them back, essentially the "loans were designed to fail", according to the Washington State AG's office. The purpose of these failed loans was to ingratiate SLMC with the educational institution and thereby have that institution direct more federally guaranteed loans to the company. In addition, the educational institutions had an incentive for some students to use these private subprime loans because the law required that the tuition from federally guaranteed loans at an individual institution be less than 90% of the total tuition. The educational institutions were further complicit in the racket, with some agreeing to kick back anywhere from 20% to 25% of the SLMC losses on these private loans.

Essentially these private borrowers were just a marketing tool for SLMC and the fact that the loans would never perform was simply a cost of doing business. SLMC even estimated that the default rate on a majority of the loans would be as high as 92%. But those losses were offset by the increase in profits that SLMC could make when those institutions directed more federally guaranteed loans in their direction. Of course, it ruined the lives of those student borrowers, but that was simply a price that had to be paid.

Many of the institutions that benefitted from this program were nothing more than Trump University-like scams, in that they continually misled students about graduation rates and future job prospects. The students defrauded in this conspiracy between bogus educational institutions and the SLMC also run up against the usual hurdle of the fine print of their loans requiring arbitration for dispute settlement. Part of the states' lawsuit is asking that the private loans made to students who entered schools that deliberately misled them be voided. That protection applies to federally guaranteed loans but not to these private loans. For many of the students still suffering from having to pay off these never-ending, burdensome loans, this will be their only shot at relief.

Who could have thought that privatizing the student loan program would end so badly. As progressives have pointed out for years, it simply makes federally guaranteed loans more expensive by making a for-profit entity the middleman. But nothing will stop the GOP from funneling federal dollars to private corporations in the name of "competition" and "capitalism".

Trump's Coal Promises Will Bring More Misery And Fewer Jobs

Everyone, even the people who live and work there, knows that coal jobs are not coming back to coal country, despite Trump's campaign promises. As with everything else, Trump will eventually discover that it's not as easy and far more complicated than he ever imagined. But that doesn't mean he won't bring more misery and sickness to those very people he made those promises to as well as the rest of us.

One of Trump's first executive orders was to end the Surface Mining Stream Protection Rule. This rule forced mining companies to prevent the movement of mine waste, which may contain toxic materials like mercury and arsenic, from being dumped into streams and rivers, either through direct dumping or normal erosion. Now Scott Pruitt has decided to delay, if not kill, an Obama-era rule that would have required that the nation's power plants put in place by 2018 the most up-to-date technology to remove toxic materials such as arsenic, mercury, and lead from wastewater before it is dumped back into the environment. The impact of this rule would have been far greater on coal-fired plants than others. Says Pruitt, "This action is another example of EPA implementing President Trump’s vision of being good stewards of our natural resources, while not developing regulations that hurt our economy and kill jobs." Allowing arsenic and mercury to be dumped into public waterways is an interesting definition of "good stewardship".

The coal industry is already one of the worst in terms of worker's conditions and negative externalities. Last year, Don Blankenship, the head of Massey Energy, was sentenced to a year in jail and a $250,000 fine for the massive workplace safety violations at the company. And this conviction came down in the notorious pro-mining state of West Virginia. Massey Energy was a perpetual violator but the case really came to a head when an explosion at one of the Massey mines killed 29 workers. Subsequent investigation showed that Blankenship directed a vast conspiracy that mandated that safety concerns be ignored if they effected the firm's profitability.

In addition, with workers forced to work more shifts and longer hours and a change in how some coal is mined, coal country has seen a resurgence in black lung disease. Some workers in their 30s are being forced to retire because of the disease, mainly because of all the extra time they spend in the mines these days and the introduction of a mining technique called slope mining which creates silica dust. In Pike County, Kentucky, alone over 60 cases were diagnosed in the last 20 months. That is more cases than had been identified nationwide since 2010. The whole, depressing story at the link is really worth a read.

Coal companies are already under serious economic pressure as demand for coal plummets due to the availability of cheaper natural gas and alternative energy solutions. The increase in black lung disease further strains those companies as they are responsible for the health benefits of those workers. This will force more coal companies to go bankrupt and then the responsibility of those workers' benefits falls to the government, meaning us taxpayers, and the number of coal jobs further decreases.

Trump's actions to support the coal industry will not create any new jobs. At best, they will keep a few hundred jobs in place for extra year or two. Meanwhile the damage to the health of the environment, the miners, and the rest of us will increase and it will largely be left to the American taxpayers to pay for those costs.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Today's Corporate Criminals Are Partners At KPMG

I just love how what is essentially corporate criminal behavior get described as just some kind of small ethical breach. We should all be so lucky. Today's criminals are the partners at the accounting firm at KPMG. Six employees, including five partners and the head of its US audit practice, were fired for basically getting insider information about upcoming audits from KPMG's regulatory overseer and were then able to prepare the firm and its effected clients for those audits.

The Public Accounting Oversight Board (PAOB) is responsible for essentially auditing the auditors, providing spot audits of accounting firms' client audits. A KPMG employee who had joined the firm from the PAOB had a contact within the PAOB who would tip him off to upcoming audits. This employee then tipped off the partners who were responsible for those audits who, presumably, tipped off the clients whose KPMG audit was being audited. Obviously, the opportunity for hiding massive fraud because of these tip-offs is quite high. Significantly, KPMG was the auditor for Wells Fargo which led a massive defrauding of its customers for over a decade. It would be interesting to know, and I know some prosecutor will be asking, whether Wells Fargo was one of the PAOB audits about which KPMG was tipped off.

The KPMG response is just classic corporate PR, saying, "KPMG has zero tolerance for such unethical behavior. Quality and integrity are the cornerstones of all we do and that includes operating with the utmost respect and regard for the regulatory process. KPMG is committed to the highest standards of professionalism, integrity and quality, and we are dedicated to the capital markets we serve. We are taking additional steps to ensure that such a situation should not happen again." Look, these were partners in the firm as well as the head of the US audit practice. These are senior executives at KPMG and they all knew what they were doing highly unethical, if not illegal. And it would be pretty shocking if these were really the only senior executives who "knew" what was going on.

We all know that nothing will happen to KPMG because of this. The firm is one of the Big Four accounting firms, along with Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and EY, that dominate the accounting and consulting business for large and multinational firms. It used to be the Big Five and included Arthur Anderson, but that firm was convicted of obstruction of justice in the Enron scandal and, although that conviction was subsequently overturned, it spelled doom for Arthur Andersen as it lost its accounting license and went out of business. However, the lesson from this experience was not a warning shot to other firms engaged in unethical or criminal behavior. Instead, Arthur Andersen became a case study of the danger of criminal convictions of businesses, essentially driving them out of business. So, rather than acting as a constraint on other companies, it allowed big firms, especially those engaged in an oligopoly as so many US businesses are these days, the license to ignore ethical and legal breaches with impunity, knowing the chances of real prosecution and conviction were slim.

Growing Use Of Private Security Indicates A Failing Democracy And Two-Tiered Society

One of the signs of an oligarchic plutocracy is the fact that the elites always feel in danger and require constant security. As income inequality rises, oligarchs control the majority of American business, and marginal political and business leaders feel threatened, we have seen a proliferation in not only the use of private security forces but also the co-opting of regular police forces to ensure the safety of the chosen elites. If this doesn't remind you of Russia or some third-world plutocracies, it should. Because that is what America is more and more becoming.

Let's just start right at the top with Donald Trump. Even today, when the American taxpayer is spending millions on Secret Service protection, Trump has also decide to keep his own private security force. At least two of Trump's security team joined the White House staff after the inauguration and, from what I could find,  it is unclear whether his security team is still in place and in what capacity they might be working.

In the last few days, we have also learned that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt are using tax-payer funded security details of their own. DeVos was apparently spooked by the protests that prevented her from entering a DC public school and now has protection from US Marshals that cost around $1 million per month. It is unclear why she is using US Marshalls instead of the security team already in place at the Education Department. Pruitt has just received an around the clock detail apparently because of the danger of leftist activists and, incredibly, hostility from within the EPA itself.

I understand that Trump's security is paramount and even cabinet members need protection at times. But he clearly does not need his own private security; that's what we pay the Secret Service for. And it is hard to believe we have ever had an Education Secretary who needed $1 million per month in security or an EPA administrator who needed it 24/7. What these actions do reflect is a fear and a real disconnect from the people they are supposed to be representing, especially those people that have been protesting their policies peacefully.

When the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline started to really heat up last year, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the builder of the pipeline, originally brought in private security guards using dogs and pepper spray in an attempt to break up the protests. It was bad enough that ETP was using force to dislodge the protests, but they were also breaking North Dakota law as many of the private security guards did not have the proper license to work in that state. But that was no matter, because ETP just got the state police forces to come in and do the dirty work for them.

On Tuesday, United Airlines had a passenger forcible removed from a plane because of overbooking by the airline. I'm guessing the poor passenger had no idea he was violating some United policy by refusing to give up his seat because of the overbooking. Like any other normal person, he purchased a ticket and selected a seat on United and expected the company to comply with that explicit contract. He probably did not read the fine print somewhere on the ticket or website that gave the company the right to remove him for no reason at all other than they had overbooked, nor, I suspect, had he been warned that this might happen before he boarded the plane. But when United wanted him off the plane, they immediately called in the airport and local police who treated the man like a criminal.

Evan Osnos in the January 30th edition of the New Yorker had a fascinating story on the large numbers of the super-rich who are preparing for doomsday. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, estimates "fifty-plus percent" of Silicon Valley billionaires have bought what he calls "apocalypse insurance", a safe place either in the US or abroad. Peter Thiel is among the many who have purchased places in New Zealand in the belief that it is remote enough and unpopulated enough to survive there. But others have taken a more interesting turn, converting old US missile silos that were built to withstand a nuclear attack into safe bunkers that include their own private security force.  According to Larry Hall, the CEO of the Survival Condo Project that has converted one of these silos into essentially a 15 story apartment building, the owners are protected by a SWAT team that will also go and pick up owners within  400 mile radius or at the nearest airport 30 miles away. The super-rich know that the income inequality is unsustainable and that no one has a good answer for the jobs being lost to technology. And their answer is to not try and fix the problem, but create their own safe space with their own police and military power.

Another example of this fear in the elites and rich is the dramatic rise in gated communities in my lifetime, many of which are again patrolled by private security companies. And many of these communities simply "capture" public space as their own. I know I have driven down public roads in certain of these communities many times and been stopped by security asking what I was doing there and who was I seeing. The message was very clear and it was you are not welcome to use this road unless you have a reason to be here.

And now even state governments are authorizing local organizations to create their own police forces. Charlie Pierce points us to the not-so-great state of Alabama where the legislature has authorized Briarwood Presbyterian Church to set up its own police force that would have the same rights and powers of any other police force in the state. The only difference is these police officers would be answering to church leaders instead of state officials. Briarwood contends it needs these police officers to keep its school and congregation of 4,000 safe. Of course, some people who believe in our Constitution might just wonder a little bit about having what are essentially religious police.

The privatization of security is just another example of the two-tier society that America has become in the last few decades. Increasing corporate power and the inability or unwillingness to bring corporate criminals to justice is part of the problem, as is the ever-increasing income inequality. The destruction of our governing norms, primarily by the Republican party, also feeds this problem as does the resulting loss of faith in virtually all institutions. All told, none of this indicates a functioning, healthy democracy or society.

Trump's U-Turns Please DC Establishment But Make US A Less Reliable Partner

Yesterday, the cable talking heads were once again seeing a mythical Trump pivot as he engages in policies that the establishment generally approves of and seem based on reality. But the fact that Trump ended up in a place that seems sane and rational does not mean he got to that place by sane and rational reasoning.

Trump has made an incredible number of 180 degree turns to end up at the positions he espoused yesterday. His position on Syria today is directly opposed to his statements in prior years, during the campaign, and even administration positions advocated about a week ago. Today, Assad is an evil man who must go and the innocent men, women, and children that were killed by his gas attack show that he is a butcher. Apparently, the innocent men, women, and children that have been and continue to be killed by conventional weapons in Syria don't, and never did, show up on Trump's radar.

Regarding NATO, Trump said this, "I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete." Virtually nothing has changed within NATO that would prompt this change in attitude which makes you wonder whether Trump could have just as easily have another change of heart about NATO somewhere down the road.

Trump also has seemed to twig that we will need China to help deal with the North Korean nuclear problem but now understands that, like so many things, it won't be as easy as Trump had initially thought. Thankfully he has apparently "bonded" with President Xi and the Wall Street Journal reports that Xi had to explain the long and unhappy history between China and Korea that complicates the issue beyond just simply telling Kim Jong-un to stop. Said Trump, "After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy. I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over North Korea]. But it’s not what you would think." You think. In addition, and again in a total reversal from his prior position, Trump declared that the Chinese were "not currency manipulators".  Like NATO, there is nothing that has materially changed that would dictate this new position.

Regarding Russia, both Trump and Tillerson described the relations with that country as being at a low point. Trump even declared that it was possible that Putin knew about the Assad gas attack in advance, something that is actually quite probable.

All these moves reflect the realpolitik that appeals to the establishment and the neocons and is certainly a welcome change from the Trump/Bannon American nationalism that carried the day as the administration began. But I'm not sure that the idea that this reflects a Trump pivot or the ascendance of the Jared/Ivanka influence in the White House, as has been espoused for the last day by the cable TV talking heads, actually holds.

The warning signs of the administration's ignorance and incompetence are still out there. Tillerson's offhand comment "Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?" must have sent chills down the spines of not only the Ukrainians but also a lot of Europeans, especially those in the Baltics, and our NATO allies. This was an open invitation to further Russian adventurism and other leaders around the world will also take note, deciding what other countries US taxpayers would also likely have no interest defending. In addition, Tillerson apparently did not confront Putin and the Russians about their interference in the US elections in any direct manner and, importantly, did not make time to meet with the beleaguered Russian democrats who are doing their best to stand up to Putin at great risk to their own personal safety. In addition, Trump could not even bring himself to criticize Putin directly when asked point blank today. All of these are missed opportunities to confront Putin and the Russians and the inability and reluctance of the Trump administration to do so raises real questions about the seriousness of the supposed effort and the administration's position.

As far as China goes, Trump seems to have moved into total capitulation mode. Having folded in his attack on the "one China" policy and withdrawn from TPP, leaving China to lead the way on Asian trade, his meeting with Xi has produced even further concessions. He has now backed off his proposed tariffs on Chinese goods and refused to call them currency manipulators, both staples of his campaign. Even more, he is offering actual trade concessions in order to get Chinese help with North Korea.

And despite all the tough talk about Assad, there is still broad confusion of what our policy actually is. And virtually nothing Trump did or said today clarified that in any way.

Don't get me wrong, recognizing that Assad is a vicious killer, that Putin and the Russians are playing dangerous games, and that we need China to help solve the North Korean problem are all huge steps forward for this administration. But these points are simply a recognition of reality. The problem is that it is still quite evident that Trump has no coherent policy or strategy to deal with any of these issues. And the ease with which has adopted these positions, which have all been antithetical to his electoral campaign and his administration's rhetoric from just days ago, do not give one the sense of a President grappling with the issues. Rather, it further reinforces the idea that Trump simply lurches from one idea to the next with no coherent  view or strategy. The fact that today's ideas line up with the generally accepted state of the world does not mean Trump is dealing effectively, or even has a plan to deal effectively, with the problems we all face. For us and especially our allies, Trump's ability to change position on a dime, often for no reason at all, actually creates even less trust and further degrades the willingness of others to rely on Trump going forward.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Shell Finally Admits Massive Bribery In Nigeria After Six Years Of Denial

After six years of denial, Shell finally admits that it knew that most of the $1.3 billion the company paid to Nigeria in order to develop the OPL245 oil field in that country was not going to the Nigerian government but was instead going to pay off middlemen in the deal.

According to documents obtained by the anti-corruption organizations Global Witness and Finance Uncovered, the rights to the oil field belonged to a company controlled by Nigeria's oil minister at the time, Dan Etete. When Shell bought the rights to develop the field along with Italian company Eni, they paid the $1.3 billion to the oil minister's company. Nearly half of the money then went to pay off Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, and other members of his administration, including Etete who apparently made $40 million.

For years, Shell has claimed that the money was paid to the Nigerian government and dismissed reports that it knew of the payoffs resulting from the transaction. But the documents show that Shell was well aware of the bribes that would be taken as part of the deal. A Shell employee reported to his superiors in an email, "Saw my Delta man. 245. He spoke to Mrs E[tete] this morning. She says E claims he will only get 40m of the 300m we offering - rest goes in paying people off." Another colleague's email said, "Etete claims he has shown (though not copied) a letter from President reiterating Malabu’s 11pc equity/contract “award”. This letter [is] clearly an attempt to deliver significant revenues to GLJ [Goodluck Jonathan] as part of any transaction."

As the founder of Global Witness, said: “This is a huge U-turn that reveals Shell’s duplicity. For six years it has asserted it only paid the Nigerian government, insisting it has 'never been anything but transparent' about the deal for the oil block, and that its actions were morally OK'."  But there is something more unbelievable than just Shell's lies in this matter. Incredibly, Shell entered into this dirty transaction just months after the company paid a $30 million fine in the US for another Nigerian bribery scandal. That fine came with a deferred prosecution agreement that required Shell to not engage in any similar behavior going forward. In theory, US authorities should have been monitoring Shell's subsequent behavior after that agreement.

Right now, Shell is under investigation in Italy and the Netherlands concerning this bribery scandal. The US authorities should also be pursuing Shell for violating its deferred prosecution agreement, but that seems highly doubtful under the Trump administration and AG Jeff Sessions. But it is yet another example of the way companies, especially these large multinational corporations act with impunity and a near total disregard for the law.

An Administration, And Perhaps A Party, In Total Disarray

The Trump administration is closing in on its 100th day in office and, despite all the big campaign promises, the only real accomplishment has been to break a longstanding Senate norm to put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. Other than that, the administration has shown itself to be in almost total disarray which has now seemingly infected the entire Republican party.

Things started badly for Trump when his Muslim ban 1.0 and 2.0 were both soundly rejected by the courts. And his other grand-sounding executive orders either accomplished nothing or set in motion processes that may take years to complete, if ever. Then there was the raft of ethically challenged cabinet nominees, some of whom could not even make it through the ethics process despite the totally compliant Senate Republicans. That was followed by the Flynn debacle, where Trump fired his NSA only after press reports leaked regarding Flynn's lies about his Russian contacts, contacts and lies Trump had know about for weeks prior.

Trump's broad-strokes budget proposal was declared dead on arrival by congressional Republicans and the three week disaster of the Obamacare repeal and replace ended without even a vote. Even now, Trump still insists that negotiations are continuing on health care but it's hard to know who he is negotiating with since Congress is out of town on recess. In desperation, Trump is talking about packaging an infrastructure program with either health care or a tax plan in order to try to win over some Democratic votes. Meanwhile, Ryan's border tax is dead in the Senate and Trump is trying to start over on tax reform, with a rumored plan doing away with the Social Security payroll tax, the mechanism by which Social security is funded. I'm pretty sure that plan will be met with even more objections than Trumpcare.

In foreign policy, the disarray and confusion is even worse. There was the initial threat to break the traditional "one China" policy on Taiwan while at the same time signaling a withdrawal from Asian concerns by scrapping TPP and Trump's nasty phone call with Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull. Trump quickly backed down on the Taiwan issue but managed to annoy the Europeans with his continued lack of commitment on NATO and the EU. After an initial deafening silence on North Korean missile tests, Trump is talking tough and sending a battle group into the Sea of Japan. But any unilateral attack on North Korea would immediately put millions of innocent people in South Korea in real jeopardy and everyone knows this, even the Chinese. So it is a bit unclear what this show of force will accomplish. If it is trying to push the Chinese to act on North Korea, I'm afraid they will see it as another bluff, just like Taiwan.

On Syria, the disarray is nearly total. Spencer Ackerman has identified five different Trump policies in the span of just ten days. First, the approach was that the Syrians would decide on the fate of Assad. That approach may have emboldened the dictator to use chemical weapons again. The chemical attack created a 180 degree shift in policy and now Assad had to go. The missile strike created a third policy that made the issue more about the use of chemical weapons than the ultimate fate of Assad. That was followed by Tillerson saying that the priority was to defeat ISIS first and then deal with the Assad problem. And yesterday, Sean Spicer, in his disastrous press briefing, indicated that the use of barrel bombs, not just chemical weapons, would trigger a US response. As Tillerson heads to Moscow today, even the Russians are looking for a little clarity in the US position. But before he left the G-7 meeting, Tillerson shocked the Europeans again, asking "Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?" in an offhand remark. A rash comment like this just invites further adventurism by leaders all over the world, not just the Russians in Ukraine and possibly the Baltics, but also by Assad, the North Koreans, and others.

In the House, the disarray is also readily apparent. The complete breakdown between GOP moderates and the extremists in the Freedom Caucus came into the open during the Trumpcare debate. Paul Ryan is unable to bridge those gaps and lead the caucus and is being held responsible for the idea to lead with Trumpcare and its failure. His border tax plan is dead on arrival in the Senate and has created backlash even among big business, especially the retailers, who are traditional supporters. The daggers are definitely out for him. Trump tweeted that people should tune in to watch Jeanine Pirro on Fox and she demanded Ryan step down. Now Justin Amash of the Freedom Caucus is saying, "We need either a change in direction from this speaker, or we need a new speaker." 

Ryan also is complicit in Devin Nunes' ill-fated attempt to provide cover for Trump's unfounded accusation that Obama wiretapped him. And Nunes has failed to derail the House investigation of Trump's Russian ties, which only get more serious every day. It now appears that Nunes has been lying about the "information" that "supports" Trump's claim, as it is nothing more than routine surveillance.

Perhaps the only functioning body is the Senate where Mitch McConnell has managed to keep his troops in line. He has slowly and methodically gone about repealing any rules that the Obama administration put into effect in the last six months of his term. He has changed the filibuster rule in order to let Neil Gorsuch ascend to the Supreme Court. And I imagine that we will soon see McConnell and the Senate try to take the lead on legislation. But his task will become more formidable when he needs Democratic votes to pass legislation - unless he decides to do away with the legislative filibuster as well.

Meanwhile, the pall of the Russia investigation hangs over everything. The administration has all the looks of a team in full cover-up mode as they constantly get caught lying about the contacts between campaign and transition officials, some of whom are now in the administration, and the Russians. Today it was revealed that the FBI had received a FISA warrant to monitor Carter Page under the belief he was working as a Russian agent. Many of the details in the "Russian dossier" have proved to be true and now some payments detailed in the Ukraine secret ledger to Paul Manafort have been verified. The investigation is not going away no matter how much Trump tries to distract us from it. And new and incriminating details are emerging every day.

This brief history does not even mention the self-inflicted wounds of the Trump administration. The problem with anti-Semitism and Jewish history, the continual leaks about the internal battles in the White House, the tone-deafness on Trump's travel and security costs, and so many others too numerous to mention.

The surprisingly close result in the Kansas House election last night is a sign that the disarray is starting to have an effect even on the Republican base. If Ossoff can win in Georgia that will truly put fear into vulnerable House Republicans. In the Senate, even Mitch McConnell is warning not to "rely on the map" which is incredibly favorable to the GOP in 2018. Whether that fear brings the GOP together to actually get something, anything, done is an open question. More likely, the desire to protect their jobs in 2018 will create even more dysfunction and disarray, especially in the House. If things get really bad and Trump's numbers continue to sink among Republicans, you have to wonder whether Republicans may decide it is necessary to throw Ryan, and perhaps even Trump himself, overboard to save their sinking ship.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Gorsuch And The Further Destruction Of Our Democracy

I was going to write a story about the media and the citizenry vastly underestimating the damage the Merrick Garland/nuclear option power grab executed by Mitch McConnell and the GOP had done to our democracy. But it appears that I will have to include some congressional Democrats in the group who seem oblivious to what has just happened.

The Republicans in the Senate have permanently broken the Supreme Court. It will now just become another political organ in partisan warfare and, unless the Justices find some way to find some common consensus on the divisive issues in front of them, something that seems highly unlikely, the Court will lose the power and respect that it needs to be the final judicial arbiter in the land. Every 5-4 decision that the Court will make from here on out will be considered a purely partisan decision that a majority or near majority of the people will consider either not credible or illegitimate. Yes, we all know the Court has been political for a long, long time, but the Justices were there because they went through a democratic process where the minority had some input and control. That all went out the window with Neil Gorsuch.

By not having a hearing or a vote on Merrick Garland, McConnell and the GOP created more than just the precedent that a president will not get to appoint a Justice in the last year of his term. By imposing the nuclear option to seat Gorsuch, they created the precedent that no president will ever be able to appoint a new Justice unless the Senate is controlled by the president's party. And they have opened the floodgates to further destruction of the Court and our democratic norms and institutions.

Many rank and file Democrats, myself included, believe that Democrats would be perfectly within their rights to pack an additional two seats on the Court the next time they control the White House and the Senate. And that move will just set off another spiral of recriminations from the GOP, turning the Court into just a political rubber stamp for the ruling party. And I don't think the media or the general public understands just how angry Democrats are about having the swing seat on the Supreme Court stolen by the GOP or how damaging this is to the fabric of our democracy.

For the last few decades, the rules always seem to change, always to Democrats' disadvantage. We had the presidency stolen in 2000 by the outrageous Bush v. Gore decision that installed the popular vote loser as President. Mid-decade and extreme gerrymanders further diluted Democratic power. More racial gerrymandering and voting restrictions that clearly target Democratic voters have more recently been implemented by Republican-controlled legislatures. And Democrats have largely let these anti-democratic moves stand, while trying to fight them through the normal legislative, judicial, and political channels.

But the actions of James Comey and the resulting election of Donald Trump due to the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College along with the treatment of Merrick Garland and use of the nuclear option to install Neil Gorsuch has fueled an anger in the Democratic base not seen since the 1960s. Rank and file Democrats realize that the Republican party has and is engaged in the destruction of our democratic system solely to maintain power. The epitome of this attack is Trump's and the Republicans' blatant disregard for the Emoluments Clause and the inherent corruption in the Trump administration.

Democrats in Congress, however, seem to be oblivious to what their base sees as clear as day. The parts of our democratic process that Republicans break, Democrats in Congress seem to still believe they can put back together. Over the weekend, Ed Markey, Senator from Massachusetts, said, "When the Democrats return to the majority and capture the presidency, which we will, that day is going to arrive, we will restore the 60-vote margin. We will ensure that, for the Supreme Court, there is that special margin that any candidate has to reach because that is essential to ensuring that our country has a confidence in those people that are nominated, rather than just someone who just passes a litmus test." The ridiculousness of this idea is hard to overstate. Simply abiding by one set of rules while Republicans create their own rules is political suicide. And, unless Democrats can find a way to ensure that Republicans can never repeal that 60 vote rule for Supreme Court Justices, it is worthless. And even if Democrats could ensure that, they should not reinstate the 60 vote threshold until they have rectified what happened to Merrick Garland, either by impeaching Gorsuch and putting Garland on the Court or by packing the Court with two new Democratic-appointed Justices.

Last week, Rachel Maddow had a segment that basically asked the question of how the country gets back to "normal" after the Trump administration. How can we ensure candidates release their taxes? How can we ensure that the President is not personally benefiting from holding the office? How do we ensure that every vote counts? How can we ensure the Supreme Court is not a rubber stamp for the party that controls the Senate and the White House? These were all essentially rhetorical questions because the answer is clearly that we can't. Once broken, like Humpty Dumpty, the norms and institutions of democracy are not easily put back together. The only way it will happen is if the Republican party as we know it today disappears entirely and becomes a party interested in governing as opposed to simply maintaining power. But with the radical gerrymandering that keeps so many GOP seats safe, it is hard to see the party moving away from its extremist positions any time soon. And the sooner Congressional Democrats realize that and act accordingly, the better.

Astronomy Adventure - The Beehive Cluster

Messier 44, also known as the Beehive Cluster or the Praesepe, is an open cluster in the constellation of Cancer. Under dark skies, it can actually be seen as a blurry patch by the naked eye. This is the star cluster closest to us besides the Pleiades, another cluster easily seen by the naked eye under any conditions.

Here are the technical details for those handful who might be interested:
Scope: Starblast 4.5; tracking on, but clearly not perfectly polar aligned
Magnification: ~25x
Camera: iPhone6 using NightCapPro app; ISO 8000
Processing: 4x10 sec. images stacked in Deep Sky Stacker; with darks; adjusted curves using GIMP

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sergio Garcia Ends Years Of Frustration And Wins The Masters On First Playoff Hole

Sergio Garcia won the Masters on the first extra hole of a playoff with Justin Rose.  It was a fitting win for a talented player who could never quite get over the hump in the majors. And, in a remarkable twist of fate, it happened on what would have been Seve Ballesteros' 60th birthday. Garcia deserved this win, as he had lots of birdie opportunities and made his share even with his normal putting woes. He lost his swing in the middle of the round but rallied with wonderful ball-striking in the final six holes.

As for Rose, he will look back on his inability to make birdie on the par 5 13th, when he was just off the green in two and a birdie would have given him a three shot lead. But make no mistake, Sergio Garcia deserved to win this title and end years of frustration for the talented Spaniard. It was a popular win as even the normally reserved Masters patrons broke into a chant of "Serg-i-o".

From the start, it was really a two-man tournament between Rose and Garcia as none of chasers were able to mount any move whatsoever. Jordan Speith bogeyed the first and quickly went backward fast. Ricky Fowler could not hit enough greens in regulation and was scrambling the whole round. Matt Kuchar and Thomas Pieters were the only players to get within two shots of the lead after the early holes of the round.

Garcia started off on fire, with birdies on  the first and the third while missing another makeable birdie putt on the second. Meanwhile, Rose was scrambling to save par early in the round and bogeyed the 5th, leaving Sergio with a three shot lead. However, that didn't last long as Rose reeled off three straight birdies on 7, 8, and 9.

That charge by Rose seemed to rattle Garcia, who started to lose shots both left and right and bogeyed 10 and 11 because of that. It was a five shot swing in five holes and left Rose with a two shot lead heading to the 13th. Sergio's drive on the 13th ended up in the bushes on the left and he was forced to take an unplayable lie. Rose put his tee shot in good position and had an iron to the green. Sergio was force to lay up and needed to get up and down from the fairway simply to make par. When Rose put his second just over the green, it looked like he might wrap up the tournament then and there. But Sergio hit a great wedge and sank his putt to make par, while Rose missed his short birdie effort to keep the lead at two.

That miraculous par from Sergio seemed to energize him and he started to hit his ball as crisply as he did early in the round. He made birdie on 14 to get within one and then eagled 15 after a spectacular second shot that hit the pin to briefly take a one shot lead until Rose birdied on top of him.

So Rose and Garcia went to 16 tied at 9 under. They both hit beautiful tee shots into the par three 16th and each had birdie putts. Rose dibbled his in while Garcia's putter let him down once again as he let the putt drift away to the right. Rose took the one shot lead into the 17th but Rose put his drive in the first cut, while Sergio bombed his down the fairway. Rose's approach found the greenside bunker while Sergio once again put it in close with a makeable uphill birdie putt. Rose hit a god bunker shot leaving himself an uphill putt for par. Garcia came up short again on his birdie attempt as again his putter let him down. But Rose was not able to convert his 5-footer for par.

The pair teed off on 18 once again tied at 9 under and they both hit perfect drives. Rose's approach looked right but kicked off the hill toward the how, leaving him about a ten or 12 foot putt. Sergio hit a laser inside of Rose, leaving him only about six feet for his birdie. Rose burned the right side of the cup so it was left to Sergio to drain his six footer and win his first major. But, as throughout his career, his putter let him down and he didn't even hit the hole, missing it to the right.

So it was onto the playoff and back to the 18th tee. Rose's drive hit the trees on the right and, although it kicked back out toward the fairway, he still was blocked by the trees. Sergio hit another great drive and when Rose could only punch out a few yards beyond Garcia's drive, it looked like Sergio was in great position to win his first major. That was helped when he again hit a wonderful approach to within about eight feet. Rose hit a good iron into and left himself a chance to make par with about a 20 footer. But he missed it to the left this time, leaving Garcia to simply two-putt to win. With the pressure off, Garcia drained his putt and won the Masters.

Natural Weekends - Hawks From All Over

One of these hawks is from Connecticut and the other from California...Can you tell which is which?