Saturday, June 3, 2017

Bannon And The Deconstructors Of The State Seize Power To Save Trump

It appears, as I surmised, that Steve Bannon has effectively neutered the power of Jared Kushner, and with him the New York crowd that includes Ivanka, Gary Cohn and possibly Steve Mnuchin, to influence the President. With that, Bannon has consolidated his position for the near future and is now controlling Trump's defense against the Russian investigation while at the same time pushing for his dreamed-of deconstruction of the administrative state along with his fellow travelers Mick Mulvaney and Scott Pruitt. These are not separate issues, but, in fact, go hand in hand as the deconstruction of the state shores up support in the base which makes it even harder for Republicans in Congress to bring Trump to heel for fear of a primary challenge from the right.

Multiple sources seem to believe Bannon was behind the leak of Kushner's unreported meeting between Russian Ambassador Kislyak and the head of a sanctioned Russian bank. This theory is supported by the fact the head of the Government Accountability Institute, a group created by Bannon and the Mercers originally to take down Hillary Clinton, described Kushner's meetings with the Russians as having "conflict of interest written all over it". He continued, "You worry about a quid pro quo; you worry about Kushner getting some financial arrangement from a Russian financial institution; and you worry about White House policy being shaped in a way that benefits either those banks or Russia at large." There is no way these statements would be made without the approval of Bannon and/or the Mercers.

In addition to defanging Kushner, it also looks like Jeff Sessions is also toast. In his interviews earlier this week when reports of another unreported April, 2016 meeting between Kislyak, Kushner, Sessions, and potentially Trump emerged, Senator Franken seemed pretty convinced that it really happened. Franken had initiated the FBI's inquiry into that potential meeting and hinted that he had been briefed about the results in some sort of closed session. If true, it would be hard to see Sessions continuing on as Attorney General. I doubt he will resign or that Trump will push him out. Trump still needs him to exert some kind of control over the Russian investigation. In fact, sticking with Sessions will endear Trump to the base even more. But it will also marginalize Sessions and consolidate even more power in Bannon's hands.

The withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement was part and parcel of Bannon's current strategy, as are Scott Pruitt's decisions to roll back regulations on dirty energy producers and slash the EPA budget. As Chris Hayes pointed out last night, the withdrawal from the Paris accords especially motivated the Republican base, primarily, it seems, because the decision was so distressing to liberals as opposed to any conservative policy rationale. The slashing of the EPA budget accomplishes the same thing, while also fitting in nicely with Bannon's desire to dismantle the administrative state.

Scott Pruitt is certainly dreadful but Mick Mulvaney, head of the Office of Management and Budget, is far more important to realize Bannon's goal. His budget proposals are draconian and are straight out of the Freedom Caucus which is, after all, where Mulvaney came from. But it is also fits perfectly with Bannon's goals. Beyond the $800 billion cuts in Medicaid and the $275 billion in other safety net cuts, there are the massive cuts to the State Department, EPA, and other domestic agencies.

The fact that Mulvaney's budget double counts $2 trillion dollars in mythical economic growth, once to make the massive tax cuts revenue neutral and again to balance the budget, is not really a bug. As Mulvaney himself says, "I wouldn't take what’s in the budget as indicative of what our proposals are." But they are indicative of the message that Bannon needs to send to the base. It is the same rationale that had Republicans celebrating after the AHCA was rammed through the House. The fact that both the budget and the AHCA will never make it through the Senate in its present form are far less important than the signal that is being sent to the base that Trump is keeping his promises and making sure to finally put a stop to all the "others" who are freeloading off the government. And any health care or budget bill that does, if ever, pass it will still fulfill at least a portion of Bannon's and Mulvaney's goals.

Mulvaney's attack on the CBO, asking whether "the day of the C.B.O. come and gone", is in the same vein, as is the White House directive to refuse to cooperate with oversight requests from Democrats. Ratcheting up the partisanship and Trump's autocratic tendencies, ratchets up Trump's approval with the base, and ratchets up the pressure on Republicans to stick behind Trump as the Russian investigation gets worse and worse.

The fact that this could create enormous pressure on the Congressional GOP also suits Bannon's purposes. He has no love for the Republican establishment either. Mulvaney's aggressive statements about using the debt ceiling to extract concessions on spending or debt reforms will also put Congressional Republicans under pressure. It certainly increases the likelihood of a government shutdown but I doubt it will get to missing an interest payment, which would really be a catastrophic default. But you never know with Bannon or Trump.

But that pressure from the right merely ensures the Congressional Republicans stay in line behind Trump. And Bannon and Trump will continue to chip away at the administrative state with symbolic actions that will rally the hard right Republican base, such as privatizing the air traffic controllers. That energized base may be a minority in the country but it is the majority of the Republican primary voters. As long as they stay solidly behind Trump, the Republicans in Congress will not push the impeachment of Donald Trump, almost no matter how bad it gets.

The Mueller investigation will, it seems, eventually bring Trump down, either through collusion with the Russians or obstruction of justice or both. But the results of that investigation are a long way off. Until then, for Democrats and the country as a whole, we can expect the worst of both worlds, an increase in the Trump's "America First" economic nationalism along with Bannon's destruction of the administrative state and the encouragement of Trump's autocratic tendencies to keep the base riled up and the Russian investigation at bay.

Natural Weekends - Sun And Clouds

Friday, June 2, 2017

Big Pharma, Today's, And Every Day's, Corporate Criminals

Yesterday, I wrote about how the big pharmaceutical opioid producers were finally being sued around the country for their part in creating the opioid addiction epidemic that is tearing communities apart across the nation.

Today, we return to another pharmaceutical criminal, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the maker of EpiPens, the drug and delivery devices used to treat severe allergic reactions. You may remember Mylan from the stories that came out last summer concerning their massive price-gouging before their patent expired in 2015. Between 2009 and 2016, the price for EpiPens increased by over 600% without any substantial change in the product. These massive price increases were initially driven by a lawsuit which would end Mylan's patent protection that was settled in 2012 and which would allow a generic competitor starting in 2015. The company ran into even more good fortune when the generic drug and delivery device could not get FDA approval, allowing Mylan to extend their monopolistic price-gouging into 2016.

On Wednesday, the inspector general the the Department of Health and Human Services released its own study about how much the government overpaid Mylan for Epipens through the price-gouging of the Medicaid program. Incredibly, EpiPens were actually considered a generic product under Medicaid, meaning that the Mylan had to pay a far lower rebate for prescriptions written under Medicaid. According to the inspector general, this resulted in Medicaid having paid over $1.3 billion more that it should have for Mylan's product.

It's quite an arrangement that Mylan had. In the regular world, it was considered brand-name product that could demand the outrageous prices it was asking. Under Medicaid, however, it was considered a generic, lowering the rebates it owed under Medicaid. I guess at this point we should mention that the CEO for Mylan for a number of years was the daughter of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. You can draw your own conclusions.

These massive price hikes by the drug makers have actually begun to anger the pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) oligopoly of Express Scripts, Medco and Caremark as they suffer the customer and Congressional blowback from these price increases. Express Scripts has now sued Kaleo, the maker Evzio, the injectable overdose treatment, claiming the company owes them nearly $15 million. Normally, the PBMs are happy when the price of a drug goes up because that means they can pocket even more money in rebates from the drug manufacturer as the middleman of an essentially larger transaction. In theory, those rebates are supposed to be passed on to health plans, but there is no real mechanism to track that.

In this case, Kaleo raised the price of the typical two doses of Evzio from $937.50 in January of 2016 to $4,687.50 in April of that year. In response to the deserved criticism the company received for this price-gouging in the middle of the opioid epidemic, Kaleo created a program that provides support to those that cannot afford it and those uninsured with incomes less than $100,000. Critics claim that all this does is raise the price of the drug for those covered by insurance. While that issue is driving part of this suit, Express Scripts simply claims Kaleo is a "deadbeat dad" and not paying its bills.

Of course, Express Scripts has also been on the other side of these suits, as it was sued by Anthem for $15 billion for overcharging the health insurer for prescription drugs.

Then today, we learned that Pfizer has raised prices on over 100 drugs, including Lyrica and Viagra, by 20% this year alone. Please tell me what has changed in those 100 drugs or the current economic climate that would require a hike of that magnitude.

The entire prescription drug industry is dominated by monopolies and oligopolies. The drug makers receive patents for the products they produce, ensuring a monopoly for an extended period. The PBMs are an oligopoly themselves that provide no transparency on how they negotiate prices and rebates with those drug producers and how much of that flow of money the PBMs actually pocket. And then the health insurers are their own oligopoly, driving up the cost of insurance in virtual unison. With a set up like that, it is no surprise that health costs in the US far outstrip any other developed country and produce far worse results for patients, but certainly not for the monopolies involved.

Trump's Paris Decision Was All About Shoring Up His Base As Russia Probe Closes In

Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement has far less to do with climate change or the US economy and far more to do with shoring up his base in preparation for not only Comey's testimony next week but also the expanding Russian investigation in general as it engulfs more and more White House advisers and inches ever closer to the President himself.

Trump's rationale for leaving the agreement as outlined in his speech yesterday was full of lies and distortions. He falsely claimed that the greenhouse gas reductions were compulsory and, citing a study created by opponents of the pact, claimed that the deal would cost nearly three million jobs in the next eight years. He also claimed that China and India could build as many coal-fired power plants as they want, while the US would not be allowed to build any, essentially, he says, moving coal jobs from the US to China and India. The reality is that the agreement restricts no country from building more coal-fired plants but doing so will not really help those countries reach their voluntary targets. Trump falsely described those targets as mandatory which they are not. The greater reality is that there will be hardly any coal-fired plants built in China, India, or the United States simply because the economics no longer work.

Now you can never underestimate the possibility that Trump's decisions are made out of ignorance and spite and it is quite possible that this is one of those. But this decision has Bannon written all over it. And it is worth noting that Bannon, Kushner, and Priebus were sent home early from Trump's foreign trip in order to set up the war room to deal with the Russia investigation. More than Kushner, Bannon understands that the battle ahead for Trump will be a political one, probably much more so than a legal one. And that means shoring up that 35%-43% of the country that will support Trump no matter what. To me, this action on climate change is the first step in shoring up that support.

That thought was reinforced by Trump's bizarre outreach and attack on Democrats during his speech, saying that he is reaching out to them to come forward and help him craft a "better deal" on climate. That idea is absurd on its face. The agreement was specifically crafted so that it was totally in the realm of the executive branch and therefore needed no Senate treaty vote. Democrats had and will have no role in the negotiation simply because it is between us and the rest of the world.

In addition, Trump can not legally leave the agreement for another few years, so yesterday's announcement was largely meaningless. As I wrote earlier, the world will continue to act on climate change and China will fill the void of leadership left by the US in this area. In the US, the withdrawal from the agreement will have far less real impact than what happens in the EPA and the Energy Department in the near future.

In one week, James Comey will be testifying under oath that the President has lied in numerable statements to the public and has engaged in multiple attempts to obstruct justice. Trump continues to try and intimidate witnesses, claiming that Comey and Brennan have falsely testified to Congress. Two days ago he tweeted, "So now it is reported that the Democrats, who have excoriated Carter Page about Russia, don't want him to testify. He blows away their case against him & now wants to clear his name by showing "the false or misleading testimony by James Comey, John Brennan..." Witch Hunt!" (The silence from Republicans responding to this intimidation and defamation of long-time public servants is deafening.) In addition, NBC reported yesterday that Trump himself may have had a secret meeting with Russian Ambassador Kislyak, along with Kushner and Sessions, way back in April of last year. If true, it would be yet another meeting that Kushner and Sessions have lied about and the first directly linking Trump to the Russians. None of this is good news for Trump.

I would expect Trump to revert back to more of his faux economic nationalism as well, much like he did shortly after the inauguration. This means that we will hear more about the millions of jobs he will save and the great economy he will build. These will be as empty as his statement yesterday that his tax plan was moving briskly through Congress - there is not even a bill on either floor right now.

A couple of other thoughts as well. First, increased global warming will provide easier access to the Arctic mineral and oil reserves for the Russians, whose entire economy essentially depends on oil revenue. Any delay in converting to natural gas and renewables extends the shelf life for oil prices, benefitting again Russia and Saudi Arabia, two countries that Trump clearly favors. And lastly, the re-emergence of Bannon coincides with especially damaging leaks about Kushner's role with the Russians. It would not be surprising if Bannon was behind many of those leaks.

Bannon, probably more than Trump, realizes the existential trouble that Trump is in. The GOP legislative agenda is totally stalled and the President is getting swamped by the Russian scandal. If things don't change in the next few months, Republicans in Congress may start to abandon Trump and focus on their own survival in 2018. That could mean that impeachment actually starts getting floated as a real possibility. Shoring up his support now is the best way for Trump to hold Republicans at bay. With a damaged Kushner and Bannon in charge of the President's defense, we can expect more economic nationalism and more harmful policies from Trump in the near future.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Debt Ceiling Battle Is Nearer And More Dangerous Than We Thought

The debt ceiling battle was expected to be waged in September or, perhaps, even October, giving the GOP breathing room to work on the AHCA and tax reform before then. But last week we learned that the debt ceiling will be breached far earlier than anticipated.

At a House Budget Committee hearing last week, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said that "Secondly, regarding the timing [of when the debt ceiling would be breached], my understanding is that the receipts, currently, are coming in a little bit slower than expected and you may soon hear from Mr. Mnuchin regarding a change in the date." Treasury Secretary Mnuchin had indicated as much in his own testimony the day before when he said, "I urge you to raise the debt limit before you leave for summer", meaning the August recess. That leaves only about two months for Republicans to come to grips with the AHCA, tax reform, and the debt ceiling before leaving Washington in August. And, upon their return, they will be confronted by the 2018 budget battle. That's quite a plateful for a group that has shown it is sharply divided and finds it difficult to reach consensus.

The situation for Republicans is compounded not only by the ongoing distraction of the Russian investigation but also by what has now become the all to familiar infighting within the Trump administration itself. Mnuchin has publicly stated that he would prefer a "clean" debt ceiling bill that has no additional conditions attached. On the other hand, Mulvaney, as well as some members of the Freedom Caucus, would prefer to attach conditions that address spending and borrowing reforms. Mulvaney has said that he would "like to see things attached to it that drive spending reforms and debt reforms in the future." While Mulvaney made it clear that missing an interest payment was out of the question, it was "open for discussion" whether other missed payments would constitute default, essentially setting the stage for another government shutdown.

Whatever Republicans decide to do, they will need Democratic votes in the Senate, and possibly even, again, in the House, to raise the debt ceiling. With a White House distracted by the Russian investigation that is quickly reaching deeper into the White House and closer to the President and an angry and isolated Trump, it is quite possible that the administration would try to ram a "dirty" debt ceiling bill down the Democrats' throats or, in an even more unimaginable scenario, an angry Trump refusing to sign a "clean" bill, both of which will significantly raise the possibility of a missed interest payment and a real default.

All this will make for an interesting month of July.

Big Pharma Finally Being Called To Account For Creating Opioid Epidemic

I have written on a number of occasions about the fact that corporate greed was in large part a major driver of the opioid epidemic, one of the biggest public health issues currently facing this country. From falsifying the effectiveness of the drugs they produced, thereby encouraging addiction, to knowingly flooding places like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Ohio with unimaginable quantities of opioids, the big pharmaceutical companies have made a fortune essentially promoting drug addiction.

Finally, it appears that Attorneys General around the country are finally trying to make sure these pharmaceutical companies are held accountable for their actions. Today, Mike DeWine, the Attorney General for the state of Ohio, has sued Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Allergan and other big name opioid producers, accusing them of misleading both doctors and patients about the dangers of addiction to their opioid products. According to DeWine, these companies spent "millions of dollars on promotional activities and materials that falsely deny or trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain."

This Ohio suit adds to others similar cases filed by Mississippi, Chicago, and individual counties in New York, California, and West Virginia. These suits are on top of a prior case filed in By West Virginia that resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement and a far earlier Justice Department case against Purdue Pharma accusing the company of downplaying the addiction risk of its OxyContin product that resulted in a $650 million settlement.

According to a lawyer at the New York firm of Labaton Sucharow who is advising states on possible opioid cases, "We are in ongoing discussions with attorneys general about what can only be described as a national epidemic." This certainly is starting to look quite similar to a strategy that states took in dealing with tobacco companies. That approach ended up with the industry paying states more than $200 billion. That precedence should certainly be a frightening prospect for the pharmaceutical industry.

Amazon Must Pay For Reaping Millions In Profits From Children

Children have been a target for corporate greed for a long time. From tobacco companies targeting teens in order to get them addicted earlier to fast food companies creating highly specialized campaigns for kids and teens, corporation have long recognized children as easy marks and the best opportunity to create either early addiction or brand loyalty which are often times not mutually exclusive.

Today's prime example of this phenomenon is Amazon which reaped millions in profits from in-app purchases by children playing mobile computer games. As the Slate article describes, "Amazon’s troubles began in 2011, when the company first pioneered its Kindle Fire OS technology for mobile and tablet devices like the Kindle. As Ars Technica warned at the time, parental controls weren’t the default setting, while in-app purchases—things like virtual currency, stars, and acorns in mobile games including Candy Crush Saga and Ice Age Village—were facilitated by the 'one-click shopping' default. Although Amazon later updated its settings to mandate a password for in-app purchases over $20, a security update in 2013 meant that parental authorization for a single charge 'often opened an undisclosed window of 15 minutes to an hour during which the child could then make unlimited charges without further authorization', according to a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission."

The FTC brought the case against Amazon over three years ago and the judge finally ruled in the FTC's favor last year, saying, "a reasonable consumer unaware of the possibility of in-app purchases would not assume she was authorizing unforeseen charges." This ruling has finally resulted in Amazon refunding over $70 million to customers.

Despite this kind of behavior and years of not being profitable in order to drive its competitors out of the market to create its own monopoly is certain areas, Amazon stock recently crossed above $1000 per share. Could it be that the current capitalist system is rewarding the wrong behavior...

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Democrats Are Not The Problem

There have been a spate of stories and posts over the last few days that have, quite frankly, driven me up the wall. The basic theme is always the same, that we should overlook the cruelty and undemocratic nature of the Republican party and focus on the idea that Democrats don't have policies that speak to rural voters and that liberal coastal elites need to be less condescending toward the interior of the country. Frankly, I think its a load of claptrap.

I'll start off with the first story that raised my blood pressure, a story I largely agreed with but the writer somehow felt obliged to blame Democrats for things they haven't done at the same time. A New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik focusses on the fact the biggest difference between the US and French elections was the moderate and center-right parties and voters banded together to oppose the far-right xenophobic, nationalist populism of Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Here in the US, on the other hand, the institutional Republican party refused to openly condemn Trump, playing footsie with him to stay in power. There is nothing there to disagree with.

But Gopnik continues, "Yet the challenge remains for the left to avoid falling prey to tribal habits, as the right did. You see this risk in the insistence, surprisingly widespread, that there is no real point in resisting Trump, since the Republicans in Congress are complicit in his program...Trump is almost better than Pence because he is more nakedly unfit for the office...Democracies die when they can no longer distinguish between honest opponents of another ideological kind and toxic enemies who come from far outside all normal values. The Republican Party has functioned, by and large, within the constraints of liberal democracy. There are many obvious exceptions—the issue of the legality of government-sponsored torture, during the George W. Bush Administration, is but one key instance from recent years. But it’s a legitimate reproach to liberals that, by maximizing Bush’s violation of the norms, as substantial as they were, they helped make it difficult to distinguish adequately between the Bushes and the Trumps of the world."

This is just an amazing contortion. First, it is highly disputable that the Republican party has functioned "within the constraints of liberal democracy". I think the party's stated goal of obstructing anything and everything Obama wanted to try and accomplish and the refusal to even give Merrick Garland a hearing are just two of many points that put a lie to Gopnik's thesis. In addition, Gopnik himself notes the multiple exceptions, such as Bush's torture, but then goes on to blame liberals for making too much of it, so much so that Trump became acceptable. This is just total BS. The Republican party alone has been undermining liberal democratic institutions and norms for decades and it alone is responsible for Donald Trump.

Michael Tomasky, in a similar vein, calls out all those liberal coastal elites for being just too damn condescending and driving voters in the middle of the country to essentially vote against their own interests. According to Tomasky, "All of these people in middle America, even the actual liberals, have very different sensibilities than elite liberals who live on the coasts". Gee, who would have known. He notes those "real Americans" go to church, don't live and breathe politics, and are patriotic. Really. As if the large majority of liberal coastal Democrats don't do any of those things at all.

Kevin Drum at least tries to make the important point that the gap between Republicans and Democrats has evolved because of what he calls the great sorting out, the different paths for post-war Americans and their families who went to college and those who did not but made a living in blue-collar jobs that actually paid a living wage.

And Drum also rightly highlights the collapse of unions expanding the gap between parties. But, here again, the logic is incredibly convoluted. Says Drum, "But young liberals in the 60s and 70s broke with the unions over the Vietnam War, and the unions broke with them over their counterculture lifestyle. This turned out to be a disaster for both sides, as Democrats lost votes and workers saw their unions decimated by their newfound allies in the Republican Party". Maybe it's just me, but I would think if my new allies were destroying my ability to make a living wage, I might realign myself with my old allies who were actually trying to protect the institutions that allowed me to make that living wage in the first place. But, according to Drum, that would be condescending, saying, "lefties are implicitly lecturing them all the time. You are bad for eating factory-farmed meat. You are bad for enjoying football. You are bad for owning a gun. You are bad for driving an SUV. You are bad for not speaking the language of microaggressions and patriarchy and cultural appropriation."

Please. Give me a break. Most liberals still eat factory-farmed meat and most still watch an inordinate amount of football. Coastal elites like me who live in or near big cities want to restrict the flow of illegal handguns that fuel deadly drug wars, turn smaller crimes into homicides, and increase the chances of accident and suicide. We could care less about the guns people use to actually go hunt. There were around 66 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton and I think it is safe to say that less than 1% of those voters actually think any of the things that Drum mentions.

Finally, I will go to Martin Longman, another person I largely agree with most of the time. His post about Montana rightly points out the problem that Democrats are having in rural America. His focus is on Garfield County, where the Republican assaulter Greg Gianforte got over 90% of the vote, winning by over 600 votes in one of the most sparsely populated counties in the country. Juxtapose that with the more competitive Hill County which Democrat Rob Quist won, but gained only 26 votes. As Longman notes, "Quist would have had to carry 26 Hill Counties to match his losses in Garfield."

According to Longman, "These folks need an actual left-wing alternative and what we’ve been offering them has been driving them away in droves. For a while, it was thought that it wouldn’t matter" because rural losses would be offset by Democratic gains in suburban America. Longman continues, "So, it won’t do to cast all these folks as deplorables and wait from them to die off. It’s simply not true that none of them were ever going to vote for the Democrats no matter what because a lot of them voted for Barack Obama once if not twice. They have problems in their communities and right now the only party offering them something they’re willing to hear is the Republican Party. They need a left-wing alternative that isn’t complacent about their difficulties."

Well, Garfield County also went for Donald Trump by a similar amount to Gianforte. Barack Obama only got as high as 9% in 2008. So these are not voters who voted for Obama. These are not voters that Democrats have lost. They were never there to begin with. In addition, the issue in Garfield County is not the typical issue of the rural poor. Garfield has a median income $10,000 higher than Hill County and the rates of WIC eligibility and poverty are 23% and 8% in Garfield versus 45% and 12% in Hill.

Yes, all of these pundits have some valid points to make. It would be great if Democrats could craft a message that resonated with some of these voters. But Barack Obama couldn't do it, Hillary Clinton couldn't do it, and Rob Quist, a born and bred Montanan who lives and breathes the state, is certainly not condescending to his fellow Montanans, and largely adopted Bernie Sanders' message couldn't do it. And that problem stretches across broad stretches of Republican territory.

But let's be clear. The Republican party is responsible for Donald Trump. The Republican party is responsible for the undercutting of governmental and democratic norms that are shaking our democracy to its core. The Republican party is putting party over country, favoring a quest for power more than a functioning democracy.

As David Atkins, in a piece entitled "There's Only So Much We Can Do" where he discusses Oklahomans cutting their taxes so much that they can no longer provide for adequate police forces and schools can only stay open for four days a week, writes, "These people aren’t just hurting others, and they’re not just punishing minorities or some faraway urban elites. They’re not just trying to bring the low-skill jobs back. At a certain point it starts to take on the trappings of a mass ideological cult, little different from the Maoists of the Great Leap Forward or the widest eyed Jacobins of the French Revolution. Many of them are True Believers who will ride the supply-side, anti-government tiger deep into the jungle of no return even if it means the destruction of their communities and the deaths of their loved ones. In the states where these people hold sway, there’s not much that can even be done to save them. If the people in these communities are willing to destroy themselves for the sake of a warped ideological purity, the rest of us can sometimes only try to shield ourselves from the destruction while welcoming those who wish to escape."

Exactly. Democrats may have things they can do better, but the Republican party, its right wing media echo chamber, and Republicans themselves are the real problem. We should never lose sight of that fact.

Trump's Withdrawal From Paris Agreement Again Puts US On Wrong Side Of History

Reports abound that Trump will pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The decision will, in many respects, be largely symbolic because the US can not formally withdraw from the agreement until 2019. But it will allow us to join the esteemed company of Syria and Nicaragua in opposing the agreement and once again illustrate Trump's marching America toward a complete abdication of leadership, moral and otherwise, in the world.

To use the phrasing of the deaf, dumb, and blind Republican members of Congress regarding climate change, I am not a scientist. But I don't think the simple fact that Trump has withdrawn from the agreement is particularly catastrophic. It will surely slow down the already slow progress the world is making toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating future global warming.

China and India have already indicated that their efforts will continue regardless of what the United States does. China will reportedly invest $360 billion in renewables over just the next four years. And, as we saw with the solar panel industry, China is only too happy to fill the void when America abdicates its leadership in virtually any field. India, too, has created a blueprint to have nearly 60% of its energy come from renewables within the next ten years. The country has already received commitments of over $22 billion in private investments in renewables and just last week it canceled pre-existing plans to build 14 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants simply because the price of solar power has plummeted and is now significantly cheaper than coal. And in Europe, which has always been a renewables leader, 90% of new energy production is coming from solar and wind.

Even here is the United States. Trump's decision will not significantly slow the inexorable movement toward renewable energy and cheaper natural gas solutions and the resulting shuttering of coal-fired plants. This is largely based on pure cost analyses but also a result of utilities planning for the future they know is coming.

So, while Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will not change these trends, per se, other actions by the administration certainly would. One example is the report in the NY Times today that the Trump administration is considering removing subsidies for solar and wind power. Currently, government subsidies for wind power come to between $3 billion and $4 billion per year. At times of low energy demand and high production by wind farms, this actually allows the cost of wind energy to fall below zero. The Trump administration is apparently claiming that these subsidies undercut the competition from coal and nuclear power plants. The reality today, however, is that is the cheap cost of natural gas that is largely responsible for the problems in the coal and nuclear energy sector, as opposed to renewables.

The expiration of these subsidies in the past have been devastating for the wind power industry, with new installations falling by over 75% and then picking up again when the subsidies resumed. That may at first blush sound like it would be an unfair subsidy, but it has to be taken in the context of the estimated $20 billion in annual subsidies that go to the US coal, natural gas, and oil industries. Other estimates actually place those subsidies as high as $50 billion.

Rolling back these subsidies for wind and also solar power would actually be a form of protectionism for the ailing coal and nuclear industries. And, more than Trump's Paris decision, it is the decisions and actions that take place in the Energy Department and the EPA that truly would be a setback in attacking global warming. As Paul Krugman keeps on pointing out, the actual costs of really dealing with climate change are much smaller and manageable than most people realize. The fact that Trump is unwilling to bear some of that minimal cost is, to use a word, sad.

Whether or not the Paris Agreement can even do enough to minimize the catastrophic effects of global warming remains to be seen. Certainly the collapsing sea ice in the Arctic, the melting ice sheets in the Antarctic, and the thawing of the tundra is all enough to make one think it is already too late. Whatever effect Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, he has once again placed the United States on the wrong side of history.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sycophancy In The White House Reaches Totalitarian Levels

North Korea recently put out a statement praising their Dear Leader, Kim Jong-un, saying , "Our Dear Leader has a magnetic personality and exudes positive energy, which is infectious to those around him. He has an unparalleled ability to communicate with people, whether he is speaking to a room of three or an arena of 30,000. He has built great relationships throughout his life and treats everyone with respect. He is brilliant with a great sense of humor . . . and an amazing ability to make people feel special and aspire to be more than even they thought possible."

Oops! That was actually a statement from Presidential spokesperson Hope Hicks, just replace "Our Dear Leader" with "President Trump". I know it's kind of cheap shot to take an administration official's praise of the President out of context but sometimes the level of hyperbole in the Trump administration is downright totalitarian in its sycophancy. And we all know there is a good reason behind that.

Update: Here is a late addition to the leader worship from Sean Spicer's press briefing today: "I want to begin by recapping the incredible, historic trip that the president and first lady have just concluded because it truly was an extraordinary week for America and our people. [...] It was an unprecedented first trip abroad. [...] We've never seen before at this point in a presidency such sweeping reassurance of American interests and the inauguration of a foreign policy strategy designed to bring back the world from growing dangers and perpetual disasters brought on by years of failed leadership. [...] The leaders of more than 50 Arab Muslim nations was a historic turning point that people will be talking about for many years to come. [...] The president's historic speech was met with nearly universal praise. [...] This was a historic event [...] The president then went to Israel where he was received with incredible warmth [...] and gave a highly praised address at the Israel museum [...] This was an extraordinarily successful nine-day trip the president took."

The only thing left out of the last sentence is the phrase, "if you are Vladimir Putin".

Trump's Support Among His Base Is Slowly But Surely Falling

Donald Trump's foreign trip apparently required him to scale down his tweeting. That, along with the royal treatment by the Saudis, may have been just enough to push his approval ratings up slightly to just above 40% according the HuffPost tracker. And it is true that Trump still retains the overwhelming support of Republicans as over 80% of them still stand behind the President. But there are some signs that Trump's support is beginning to waiver, and it is possible that once they start to fall, they will fall fast and hard.

A Fox News poll out just before the holiday weekend showed that Trump's support among Republicans, which had been close to or over 90% at earlier points in his Presidency, has dropped to just 81%, falling over 5 points in just one month. That is still showing enormous support but the precipitous drop is certainly a real warning sign.

And Nate Silver also points out that the number of people that strongly support Trump in his surveys has fallen by a third and now sits at only just above 20%, a 10 point drop since mid-February. This is doubled by the number that strongly disapprove of Trump, a total that has increased by 10 points since Trump was inaugurated.

There seems to be a sense among Trump's most avid supporters and even among Republicans in Congress that Trump can somehow defy political reality and the polls can be ignored. And you have to admit, he is very good at deflecting attention and simply moving on to the next scandal. But the fact of the matter, the national polls were largely correct in 2016 and it was simply the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College and less than a hundred thousand votes in specific states that allowed Trump to win.

This Republican belief in the ability to ignore polls is also helped by the extreme gerrymandering and voting restrictions that the GOP has managed implement over the last decade and a half. The House member responsible for the 2018 election campaign recently said he felt the House would stay in Republican hands because of gerrymandering (sorry I can't find the link). And a Wisconsin state legislator bragged that their newly implemented voting restrictions would make it harder for Hillary Clinton to win the state in 2016. Some of those restrictions were later struck down by the courts, but there was obviously some truth to his statement.

But it is doubtful that Trump can win again with just 46% of the vote. And it is also doubtful that Republicans can keep on relying on gerrymandering and voting restrictions to maintain their grip on power, especially if Trump' approval remains as bad as it is. And those numbers could get much worse if there is any kind of economic downturn, something that is not beyond the realm of possibility after this long-running recovery, or real solid evidence collusion with the Russians is uncovered, (though I sometimes wonder how much this would even influence Republicans).

As Nate Silver notes, "If you look beneath the surface of Trump’s approval ratings, you find not hidden strength but greater weakness than the topline numbers imply." And that could spell real trouble for Republicans in Congress.

Monday, May 29, 2017

It's Not Just Trump But The Republican Party That May Be Totally Corrupted By The Russians

At this point, you really have to wonder how much money and support the Republican party is getting from Vladimir Putin and the Russians these days. We already know that the Russians helped elect down-ballot Republicans in the last election, in addition to Donald Trump. And while I have no proof that the party itself is being funded by Putin, that pretty much seems the only likely explanation for Republican reactions to Trump's disastrous meetings with the Europeans and the revelations about Jared Kushner.

Let's start with Kushner. Virtually every one of his actions is consistent with espionage or some other criminal behavior. He has lied on his security clearance about his contacts with the Russians, something that comes with a five year prison term. He was in charge of microtargeting data for the Trump campaign and the Russian hacking of the elections was similarly microtargeted. He attempts to set up a secret communication channel with the Russians using secure Russian communications in order to avoid scrutiny of US intelligence and diplomatic services. And, according to reports, the Russians offered Kushner, Trump, and their associates bank loans in return for the lifting of sanctions.

John McCain at least agreed that "I don’t think it’s standard procedure prior to the inauguration of the President of the United States by someone who is not in an appointed position...I don't like it".  Well strong language like that will certainly get Trump's attention. Lindsey Graham says "The whole story line is suspicious." Except, incredibly, his comment was not directed at Kushner but at the fact the Russian ambassador would report these details about Kushner over a communication line to Moscow that he should know the US was monitoring. For Graham, Kushner's lies don't matter because the story is so unbelievable that he simply won't believe it. Yes, these are the Republican "moderates" who are going to save us from Trump.

Or let's take a look at two of the guys who are supposed to protect this nation. H.R. McMaster, the National Security Adviser, said "I would not be concerned about it." And John Kelly, the head of Homeland Security, said, "I don’t see any big issue here relative to Jared". And then he offered the classic privileged defense of the rich white man, saying, "I know Jared. He’s a great guy, decent guy. His number one interest, really, is the nation." Well I feel so much safer after a thorough investigation like that. Perhaps Kelly could take the same attitude with some poorer, non-white American citizens his agency continually tries to deport.

It really is amazing that these are the same people who told us that Hillary Clinton's mishandling of a handful of post-classified emails was the greatest security breach in the history of the country.

And then there is the supposedly well-respected head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker. Trump pointedly did not reaffirm Article V of the NATO  treaty that calls an attack on one an attack on all. It has only been implemented once in history and that was to come to America's defense after the September 11 attacks. In addition, he never attacked Russian aggression in Ukraine or interference in US and European domestic politics, instead railing about the total fiction of how much money the NATO allies owe the United States. Lastly, Trump refused to sign on to the joint statement supporting the Paris Climate Agreement. The meetings prompted French President Macron to compare Trump to autocrats Putin and Erdogan and for German Chancellor Merkel to bluntly state, "the times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out...we Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands", essentially saying that US and, additionally, the UK could no longer be reliable allies. In addition, Merkel's challenger in the upcoming elections made it clear that he and Germany were appalled at Trump' treatment of the Germans during the meetings and that for him and his party, as opposed to US Republicans, politics stops at the border. Martin Schulz said, "In this situation, let me be entirely clear: the Chancellor represents all of us [Germans] at summits like this. And I reject with outrage the way this man [Trump] takes it upon himself to treat the head of our country's government. That is unacceptable."

If that wasn't bad enough, listen to what an experienced US State Department official had to say, obviously off the record in order to keep his job, "When it comes to diplomacy, President Trump is a drunk tourist...Loud and tacky, shoving his way around the dance floor. He steps on others without realising it. It’s ineffectual."

Bob Corker, however, had a much different reaction. Here is the initial portion his entire statement: "I spoke with President Trump at length this morning and told him that I could not be more pleased with his first international trip. The trip was executed to near perfection and it appears the president has made great progress on the broad range of objectives his team articulated to me when I met with senior White House and State Department officials during their preparations. President Trump should be commended on the success of this trip, and I look forward to continuing our work together to address numbers of important issues. The challenges we face around the world are vast, but with a strategic focus on our long-term goals, I am confident we can reassert U.S. leadership, strengthen key alliance and improve security both at home and abroad."

So Corker thinks that the French comparing Trump to Putin, Trump's refusal to positively affirm Article V, and the Germans' conclusion that the US can no longer be a reliable partner, is a "success".  Only to Vladimir Putin and the Russians who are closer to breaking up the Western Alliance than they have ever been since 1945.

Please don't tell me the Republicans are sticking with Trump because they are still hoping to repeal Obamacare and pass tax cuts for the rich. They would get those far more easily under President Mike Pence. There is really only one conclusion you can draw, and that is the Republican party itself has been corrupted to the core by the Russians. There may be no direct evidence of it right now, but it is the only story that fits with the circumstantial evidence available.

Stanley Cup Preview And Predictions

The Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight as the Pittsburgh Penguins face the Nashville Predators. The Penguins are trying to become the first repeat winners since the salary cap was instituted by the NHL. The Predators are looking for the first championship ever.

This shapes up to be a great series. Pittsburgh has had the most potent offense in these playoffs and Nashville has been the best defensive team. The Penguins were extended to a second overtime in Game 7 in the last round against the Ottawa Senators. The Predators are pretty much the same team as the Senators, with probably a deeper and stronger defense but slightly less offensive firepower, especially with top centermen Ryan Johansen out for the series and Mike Fisher hoping to be ready after an injury against the Anaheim Ducks in the prior series. But whatever the Predator forwards have lacked has been more than compensated by the scoring provided by the Nashville defense.

Pittsburgh has its own share of injuries, primarily on defense. Their best defenseman, Kris Letang, has missed the entire playoffs and the Pens have lost a number of others on defense because of injury as the playoffs have progressed. But the Pens just throw some guys on in their place who simply get the job done. Pittsburgh will get its offensive pest and goalmouth presence, Patric Hornqvist, back for this series which will just make Sydney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin even more dangerous than ever. It will be up to Nashville's solid defense led by Roman Josi and P.K. Subban to keep them in check.

In the playoffs, goaltending can be everything. But there is really nothing to choose from with the two goaltenders in this series. Pekka Rinne has probably been the Predators MVP, if not the entire playoff MVP, up until this point. His spectacular goaltending has stolen more than one game for Nashville and he really has just had one bad game the entire playoff run. Marc Andre Fleury provided great, but erratic, goaltending early on in the playoffs until starter Matt Murray could get healthy again. Murray has just been consistently good since his return, posting nearly a .946 save percentage, compared with Rinne's equally spectacular .941. Perhaps the only advantage here belongs to Rinne because of his phenomenal puck handling skills. In the prior series, the Ducks simply could not keep their dump-ins away from Rinne, who often made it easy for the Predator defense to avoid the forecheck and set up the break out.

Prediction: In the end, you have to score goals to actually win and, in that regard, the Pens have the advantage. They will only have to go to one overtime in Game 7. Pittsburgh in 7.

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day here in the US, where we honor and remember all those who have died fighting for this country. As opposed to Remembrance Day in Europe and Canada which was created in response to the horrific human cost of World War I, Memorial Day here in the US actually originated as a holiday remembering all those, Union and Confederate, who died in the Civil War.

There is probably no one alive today in this country who knew someone who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War I, but there are many who still live today who knew those who died in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, Beirut, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and many other engagements too numerous to mention. In remembering and honoring those brave men and women today, we might also reflect on the failure of humanity that made their sacrifice necessary and how we can perhaps do better today and in the future.

My father was lucky enough to survive World War II, and it really was just pure luck that he did so. But, as a child, when I asked him about his war experiences, he always replied with virtually the same answer, "The only thing you ever need to know about war is that is an enormous waste of resources and people". It's a lesson we never seem to really learn.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

GOP Gives The Pink Slip To The Blue Slip As Another Governing Norm Gets Swept Away

About ten days ago, I wrote that it looked like Mitch McConnell and the Republicans were planning to eliminate the practice of blue slips that they used repeatedly to keep President Obama from getting his appointments on to the federal bench. The blue slip process allowed a Senator from a state covered by the federal judicial district the nominee will serve on to essentially veto that choice.

Republicans constantly and repeatedly used the blue slip process to keep Obama's appointments from even being considered. Marco Rubio once proposed a nominee that Obama eventually selected and then Rubio proceeded to use the blue slip process to put a hold that very nominee. But perhaps the greatest abuse of the process came from North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis who abused the blue slip process to keep a seat on the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina open for over a decade. In another case, a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has remained open for the last 5 years.

All told, 17 federal judicial appointees never received a hearing because of the Republicans abuse of the blue slip process. And that actually understates the problem because Obama gave up even nominating appointees for districts covering states represented by two Republican Senators because he knew that they would be blue-slipped and it would be a waste of time. And we haven't even mentioned Merrick Garland.

Now, having abused the process for the Obama years, Republicans are planning to scrap the process in order to pack the federal bench with their Federalist Society extremists. In fact, Trump's first judicial nominee is for the 6th Circuit covering Kentucky. That seat has remained vacant since 2013 because Mitch McConnell blue-slipped Obama's nominee.

As Senator Feinstein rightly notes, "Eliminating the blue slip is essentially a move to end cooperation between the executive and legislative branch on judicial nominees, allowing nominees to be hand-picked by right-wing groups."

So, yet another governing norm is cast aside in order for the Republican party to grab more governmental power. Now some, like Erik Loomis, argue that getting rid of the blue slip process will be better in the long run because it will allow Democrats to actually get their nominees confirmed when they once again control the presidency and the Senate.

But I think that largely misses the point. There was a reason the blue slip process was implemented, just like there was a good reason for the filibuster in the Senate. These processes mitigate the tyranny of the majority, which is especially important in the Senate, because that is exactly how the House works. It encourages bipartisan solutions and creates a certain constancy in governance, so that policies have some sort of continuity and don't swing from one extreme to another.

In the judicial sphere, eliminating the blue slip will create a situation where you have districts with almost totally opposing judicial philosophies. This has three, largely negative, implications. First, it will encourage the appointment of younger, inexperienced, and more ideological nominees. That will not be good for enhancing the acceptance of the rule of law. We already see many on the right talking about simply ignoring judicial rulings.

Second, opponents of specific governmental policies will go venue shopping, bringing cases in districts where they know the judicial philosophy largely hews to the result they are looking for. We have already seen this happen with Obama's overtime rule where opponents filed in the Eastern District of Texas because they not only knew the judges on that Court would be sympathetic to their view but would also give them a quick decision.

The consequence of venue shopping will mean more conflicts between district rulings, meaning even more cases that need to be resolved by the Supreme Court. And the Court's docket will not be able to keep up with the conflicts that arise. Meaning that justice will continue to be denied for longer periods of time and policies will remain in limbo for equally extended periods. We see this in all the recent gerrymandering cases, which take multiple election cycles to get resolved, leaving voters disenfranchised in election after election. Certain voters in North Carolina have voted in illegally gerrymandered districts in three of the four elections this decade because of the lack of speed in the judiciary and the lack of a real enforcement tool ever since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act.

This is no way to run a country.

If you've read this blog, you will know how I continue to rail about the Republican party's continual attacks on our democratic norms and foundations in the pursuit of raw political power. Abusing and now eliminating the blue slip process is just another step down that road. And, yes, there is some truth to the fact that removing some of these obstacles will allow Democrats to push their agenda through more easily when they get power. But I think it is important to realize what exactly the Republicans have destroyed and what our democracy has lost with that destruction. These governing norms are what David Frum calls the "guardrails of our democracy". The GOP has been removing these guardrails section by section for the last 40 years. And without those guardrails, it becomes far easier to veer off the path of democracy and into autocracy, plutocratic oligarchy, and other dead-ends of governance. And it will take a long time, if ever, to put those guardrails back in place.

The Twisted Logic Of James Comey That Sabotaged The Clinton Campaign

James Comey got some good news on Friday. The stories about Jared Kushner's apparent collusion with the Russians totally overshadowed a CNN story that show just how convoluted Comey's logic had to get in order to sabotage the Hillary Clinton campaign.

I have already written about the report that Comey had apparently been duped by a Russian operation that delivered a Russian intelligence analysis that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had compromised herself by agreeing to limit the investigation into Hillary's emails. That report, along with Lynch's meeting with Bill Clinton on the tarmac in Arizona, prompted Comey to unilaterally decide to ignore DOJ protocols, brazenly assume the duties of the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General, and hold a press conference characterizing Clinton as "extremely careless" while essentially exonerating her.

That report was later shown to be false but Comey had indicated that he took the report seriously on multiple occasions, including testimony before Congress. That seemed bad enough. But the CNN report shows that the truth is actually worse.

Even before that fateful July press conference, Comey knew that the document was false but that made absolutely no difference to him. His rationale was that it would be assumed to be true if it ever became public and that would tarnish the entire investigation and its conclusions. Of course, if it did become public, the obvious position would be to come out and say that the document was known to be false Russian propaganda. But Comey did not want to have to deny the report because he felt that the denial would reveal the FBI's sources and methods.

So, in order to protect the FBI's sources and methods, Comey ended up, apparently wittingly, in colluding with the Russians in order to discredit Hillary Clinton and influence the election in Donald Trump's favor.

Of course, Comey's actions in July then led directly to his fateful decision to announce there was "new information" regarding Hillary's emails just 11 days before the election, an unprecedented injection of the FBI into an election and a move that most independent analyses believe threw the election to Donald Trump. And Comey used the same twisted logic in that case. Again, he feared that if the information came out about the existence of the Abedin emails, it would taint his investigation. So he went and announced the existence of those emails before he even had any idea of whether they were relevant or not.

In essence, on multiple occasions James Comey spread Russian or Republican propaganda when he either knew it was false or had no good reason to believe was true simply because he didn't want to deal with the consequences of the potential abuse he would take if that propaganda became public sometime later. It takes an incredible twist of logic to do what Comey did. But, in both cases, the result was far worse for Hillary Clinton than it was for James Comey.

Natural Weekends - More Local Birds

 New additions for the home: