Saturday, June 10, 2017

Astronomy Adventure - Globular Cluster Messier 4

Messier 4 is a globular cluster and one of the closest ones to us at a mere 7,200 light years away. But perhaps the biggest claim to fame for this cluster that it is apparently the very first globular cluster in which the telescopes of the mid-1700s could actually resolve individual stars. 

Here are the technical details for those handful who might be interested:
Scope: Starblast 4.5; tracking on
Magnification: ~30x
Camera: iPhone6 using NightCapPro app; ISO 8000
Processing: 2x7 sec. images stacked in Deep Sky Stacker; with darks; adjusted curves using GIMP

Belmont Stakes Predictions

The last of the Triple Crown races, the Belmont Stakes, will take place later this afternoon. In a typically thin field of only 11 horses, there is no clear cut favorite and the worst odds so far are about 20-1. It is a kind of bizarre year for the Belmont as the neither of the winners of the prior legs of the Triple Crown or many of the recently in-form horses are in the race for a variety of reasons.

There are six horses with odds ranging form 4-1 to 9-1, Twisted Tom. Tapwrit, Gormley, Lookin' at Lee, Irish War Cry, and Senior Investment.

With no clear favorite and the erratic results of the horses that are running, it's anyone's guess as to who can win this one. I'll go with the Irish War Cry and Gormley exacta for all it's worth.

Natural Weekends - Garden Flowers

Friday, June 9, 2017

GOP Violations Of Insider Trading Law Shows The Need To Improve The STOCK Act

Louise Slaughter, ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, has sent a letter to the SEC, the Justice Department, the House Ethics Committee, and the Office of Congressional ethics asking for an investigation into possible illegal stock trading by members of the Republican party, something Slaughter describes as a "major stock trading scandal among House Republicans".

This all got started when reporters overheard Republican Representative Chris Collins from upstate New York talking about "how many millionaires I’ve made in Buffalo the past few months." Collins is the largest shareholder and board member of an Australian pharmaceutical firm called Innate Immunotherapeutics and apparently has been touting the firm all over the place. Subsequent reports indicated that Collins was involved in legislation that could benefit the company, triggering concerns about insider trading.

Collins also convinced then House Budget Committee Chairman and now HHS Secretary Tom Price to invest in Innovate and it is alleged that Price also worked on legislation that would effect Innovate. Price has also been shown to have been buying and selling shares in companies that his budget proposals would impact and, although he claims that they have been "blind" trades place by his investment manager, on multiple occasions Price did direct the trades, sometimes immediately before introducing legislation or requesting regulatory intervention that would effect the stock in question. This appears to be a clear violation of the STOCK Act and, unsurprisingly for Trump's cabinet, Price lied about his actions in his Senate confirmation hearings to become HHS Secretary.

Last week, it was reported that New Jersey's two wealthiest members of the state's Congressional delegation, Tom MacArthur and Rodney Frelinghuysen, both transacted in health care securities as the debate over the AHCA was raging. Frelinghuysen managed to sell some of his health care stocks at yearly highs and MacArthur purchased over $800,000 of health care stocks as the debate over the AHCA wound through the House.

At this point, it would be important to remember that MacArthur was the head of the moderate Tuesday Caucus that had scuttled the first version of the AHCA. It was only with his efforts to compromise with the Freedom Caucus and actually propose a worse bill that the current version of the AHCA was able to pass. People can draw their own conclusions.

Besides engaging in questionable ethics, it is quite probable that all these Republicans have been violating the STOCK Act. This law was passed in 2012 in order to restrict the use of non-public information for personal gain. The law is not all encompassing and has as many loopholes as Swiss cheese and I can say with some certainty that Democrats probably abuse the law as well. But it appears that the violation of the spirit, if not the letter of the law, has become pretty brazen. Which is all the more reason why Slaughter's investigation needs to be done. If many of these trades were technically legal, I'm pretty sure the public would be outraged to know.

UK Election Wrapup

When we last left you in the UK election, there were just two dozen seats remaining to be called and the projected final result was 318 for the Conservatives and 262 for Labour. With just one recount continuing in Kensington, it looks like that number will hold. Theresa May will have lost 12 seats and Labour will have picked up 33. The result is a hung Parliament. Theresa May is determined to remain Conservative leader and will probably cobble together a working government by joining forces in some way with the 10 seats controlled by Northern Ireland's DUP party.

The Labour party - This election was supposed to create massive losses for Labour and essentially eliminate the party as a potential governing force for a generation. Instead, it has been the party's resurrection. Many disaffected Labour voters who voted for Brexit and abandoned the party in 2015 have apparently returned to the fold. More importantly, the party has found strength by attracting and motivating an enormous number of younger voters. Exit polls show that turnout among 18-34 year olds rose 12% over 2015 and 60% of that age cohort voted for Labour. Far from being damaged for a generation, Labour seems to have set it itself up quite nicely for the next decade if they can keep these voters motivated.

While some may say it is absurd to declare Labour winners since they did not win the election and will probably not be forming a government, only six weeks ago the party was looking at a 20 point deficit in the polls and a potential loss of over 65 seats. This morning, they look to have lost the popular vote by around 3% and have gained 32 seats. A 100 seat turnaround from the expectations is an enormous win, no matter how you look at it.

Jeremy Corbyn - Just over six months ago, Labour MPs supported a no-confidence vote on Corbyn by a whopping 172-40 and forced a leadership election that Corbyn won with over 60% of the vote of the rank and file members of the party. Election results since that challenge had not been particularly inspiring and it was assumed that Corbyn would be ousted after Labour was routed in this snap election. This morning, any challenge to his leadership position in the party looks to be a long way off and his critics, both inside and outside Westminster, are having to eat crow.

In fact, Corbyn proved to be an engaging and effective campaigner and it soon became apparent that he was not the raving Marxist lunatic that he had been portrayed as in the British tabloids. In fact, he equaled or bested May in the "debates" that they had. Moreover, by crafting a traditional left-wing, progressive platform that focused on anti-austerity and kitchen table issues, Corbyn defined the election as the age-old choice between left and right, energizing younger voters and bringing disaffected Labour voters back into the fold.

Lastly, from the very beginning of his leadership, Corbyn focused on signing up new members of the Labour party. Certainly part of the motivation for this effort was to help shore up his tenuous leadership. But, in the end, it has proved invaluable to Corbyn and Labour. Exit polls show that 66% of voters between the age of 18-24 voted for Corbyn's party. Of that 66%, 36% were first time voters who brought other voters or family members to the polls with them.

Ruth Davidson - The leader of the Scottish Conservative party was one of the only real winners in the Conservative party last night. In fact, Theresa May would probably not have been able to even try to from a government without the 12 seats that the Tories gained in Scotland. Davidson focused on areas that were not interested in another Scottish independence vote and were pro-Brexit and she succeeded.

The Democratic Unionist Party - The party gained two seats in Parliament and can pretty much get what it asks for as the Conservatives coalition partner. That will probably include increased spending in Northern Ireland and some kind of promise that the Brexit negotiations will not allow for a path to an independent Northern Ireland, access to the single market, and some free flow of people between the two Irelands at a minimum.

Theresa May - The Conservative leader managed to take an overwhelming advantage and essentially blow it. She ran a horrible campaign that showed that she was fragile, wavering, and unable to delve into details as opposed to the image of a strong leader she was trying to project. While she will probably be able to cobble together a coalition government and remain as PM, her days are clearly numbered. Boris Johnson, among others, is sharpening his knife for the propitious moment to make a leadership challenge.

Conservative party - For a party that was supposed to consolidate its ruling position perhaps for the next decade, last night was a disaster. Their manifesto was horrible and the "dementia tax" was probably the turning point in the campaign. May's closed leadership circle will now be dismantled but it is unclear what will replace it. The party will now be even more split by those Tories who somehow want a Brexit that allows access to the single market and perhaps even somehow maintains access to the free movement of people and those, like May, who championed a "hard" Brexit. In addition, the austerity budget and much of the rest of the disastrous Conservative platform is likely to be scrapped as well.

Nicola Sturgeon - Her Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) lost 21 seats last night as well as her top deputy, Angus Robertson, and her mentor, Alex Salmond. The SNP will still be the largest party in Scotland and Sturgeon's leadership is not in doubt. But it is clear that her intention for a second independence referendum was a key factor in the party's losses and that option is now clearly off the table.

UKIP and other smaller parties - As I wrote last night, both the Conservatives and Labour expanded their share of the vote from 2015 last night. And those votes not only came in the form of Labour's new voters but also largely at the expense of these smaller parties. UKIP, in particular, was decimated, winning no seats and leader Paul Nuttall has already resigned. The Liberal Democrats did not really increase their share of the vote, but did gain 4 seats. That was far below their hopes and expectations. In addition, their former leader, Nick Clegg, also went down to defeat. The Greens actually saw their share of the vote decrease but did hold on to the one seat they had in Parliament.

The Future
During the campaign, Theresa May warned of the "coalition of chaos" if Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP formed a coalition. Unfortunately, it is possible that May was correct, except the coalition will be the one she will be leading. She can probably count on solid support from the DUP but that may not be the case within her own Conservative party. The result will be months of continued uncertainty.

It is hard to see what the domestic Conservative agenda will now be and how they can actually move on it. In a similar vein, it is also hard to see what the negotiating stance on Brexit will be, although that may matter less as the EU holds all the cards anyway. But the uncertainty could just delay any real talks for a few more months, frittering away necessary time to reach some agreements before the two year deadline arrives.

In many respects, Labour should be happy that they do not have to form a government. It is far better for the party strategically to have a weak, ineffective Conservative government stew in their own juices for a few months and be forced to deal with the mess that will be Brexit. In addition, Labour may be helped by Nicola Sturgeon's and the SNP's losses as she is now abandoning independence and sounding much more accommodating about forming a progressive alliance with Labour to stop Tory inroads in Scotland.

The country is more divided than ever with younger, progressive, pro-EU Labour voters pitted against older Conservatives. In many ways, this election may have been the revenge of the 48% that voted to remain. Today, there is at least some sub rosa whispers that Brexit may not happen at all.

What all this means is chaos at a time when the country can least afford it. I expect another election in the fall, but with the current divide it is conceivable that another election would yield a similar result.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Corbyn Solidifies His Leadership While May Will Surely Lose Hers As UK Election Ends In Hung Parliament

Well, we are still waiting for around two dozen results tonight in the UK election but there are two clear losers, Theresa May and the Conservative party. When this snap election was called six weeks ago, May and the Conservatives had a 20 point lead and thought it was possible that they could expand their working majority from 17 to perhaps around 100. Instead, the results tonight show the Conservatives losing 13 seats, losing their majority, winning the popular vote by a mere 3%, and, while still having the most seats in Parliament, having to form a government with the Northern Ireland DUP party which gives her just a margin of two.

It is quite likely that May will now have to step down as leader of the Conservative party, making her the shortest serving PM since 1922. Her campaign was a disaster, as the more people saw her, the more they disliked her. It didn't help that the Conservative manifesto was also a disaster, largely remembered for the "dementia tax".

The idea of a hard Brexit now looks to be dead in the water and it increasingly looks like it will be difficult for the negotiations to actually to be completed within the two year period.

While this was a disaster for the Tories, it was a massive win for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party. The party was expected to experience a wipeout similar to what happened to the party in Scotland in 2015. Instead, it has gained 30 seats, defended virtually all of its marginal constituencies, and scored some shocking wins against the Tories, even taking down a number of the Tory leadership. Corbyn's decision to make a sharp difference between Labour and the Conservatives, renewing the traditional right versus left politics, was clearly a winning strategy. In addition, he ran a positive, open, and competent campaign that still acknowledged the reality of Brexit and showed that he was not the hard left whacko that he had been depicted as.

Interestingly, the Conservatives and Labour both increased their share of the vote from 2015, with Labour's share rising by around 10%. Some of these votes came from an increased turnout, probably coming from the energized youth vote that Corbyn has brought into the party and motivated with an anti-austerity, left-wing campaign that simply provided hope for a better future.

Another large factor in the increased vote for both parties was the total collapse of UKIP. It had been expected that most of these votes would swing to the Conservatives but, as it turned out, many of those UKIP voters were Labour voters who returned to the fold, drawn back by Corbyn's anti-austerity campaign. This was especially true in the Northeast where the Tories had hoped to make broad gains.

But it was more than the just the collapse of UKIP. This election basically returned the country to a two party contest and, to generalize, has divided the country between young Labour and old Tories. The Conservatives were actually saved by Tory pickups in Scotland, of all places, where they managed to flip 10 formerly SNP seats. Labour took an additional 6 seats from the SNP as well, putting another Scottish independence referendum in doubt.

This election turned expectations on its head. Theresa May ran to increase her mandate as a strong leader. Jeremy Corbyn had barely survived being ditched by a Labour revolt and a poor result may have ended his leadership of the party. Now that the votes are largely counted, May's leadership is in serious doubt and probably over and Corby has solidified his leadership of the Labour party in a way that no one could have believed just six weeks ago.

I'll have more on the overall implications for the UK and the future tomorrow but, for now, it's time for sleep.

Disastrous Night For Tories In UK Elections As Labour Dominates; Possible Hung Parliament

In the UK election, exit polls, which are being confirmed by early results and now by Conservative leadership, show that the Tories will actually lose between 10 and 20 seats and that Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, will have risen like phoenix from the ashes to gain anywhere between 30 and 40 seats. This is one of the most remarkable comebacks in political history. And it is also one of the most remarkable elections collapses for any party. Remember, when Theresa May called this snap election, it was expected that the Tories could expand their majority to over 100 seats. Tonight, they will actually see that majority shrink.

Exit polls in the UK are, by and large, quite accurate. Even in 2015, probably the worst year ever for the exit polls predicting the final result, the seat differential between what the polls predicted and what actually happened was only around 35 seats. And tonight it appears that, if anyone, it will be Labour that outperforms the exit polls.

Conservatives will still hold the largest number of seats but we will have to wait for the final votes to be counted to see whether they can actually hold a majority or whether the vote will end with a hung Parliament. If the result is a hung Parliament, it will be difficult to see who can craft a working government.

In any case, Theresa May will probably not be able to survive as Conservative leader, opening the door once again for Boris Johnson. In addition, this close result may even require another election in the not too distant future and whoever leads the country will be a weak leader with a very slim majority to work with. Neither of those bode well for completing the Brexit agreement in the 2 year window that has already begun.

Finally, it must be said what a remarkable job Jeremy Corbyn has done in rebuilding the Labour party. He may be hated by the Labour MPs but he went out and found the votes needed to keep his party relevant by energizing the young and bringing those voters into the party in droves. And they turned out to vote tonight. There is now an enormous age gap in the two parties, with Labour dominating the younger voters and the Conservatives relying on older ones. That actually presents the Labour party with a strong base going forward for the next generation.

One last thought - have there ever been two more disastrous decisions that Cameron's Brexit referendum and May's snap election?

I'll have more later on when more of the results become final. But there is no doubt that it is a massive win for Labour tonight and an equally massive loss for Theresa May and the Conservatives. And the continuing uncertainty and weakness of whomever becomes PM probably makes it a loss for the country as a whole.

Trump's Personal Lawyer Lays Out A Familiar Trump Defense

Trump's personal attorney Marc Kasowitz's statement in response to James Comey's testimony pretty much lays out their defense and it is the same tactic that Trump has used for most of his career. Just like all the women who Trump sexually assaulted, the tactic is to create a he said/she said stand off where the assumption is that Trump's fame, power, and prestige will hold sway. If that doesn't work, then Kasowitz can deliver the necessary intimidation and character assassination as an extra incentive. This has been the Trump/Kasowitz MO for decades. And they are going to try to roll this out again against James Comey.

Kasowitz began his statement by highlighting the fact the Comey confirmed that Trump himself was not under investigation. Of course, that may have changed significantly after Trump fired Comey and other revelations showed a consistent pattern of obstruction of justice. He followed that up by saying that Comey's testimony shows that "the President never sought to impede the investigation into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election". That fact, quite obviously, is subject to interpretation.

Kasowitz then moved on to explicitly deny that the President told Comey to "let Flynn go". Kasowtiz said, "Consistent with that statement, the President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that that Mr. Comey 'let Flynn go.'" Kasowitz continued, "The President also never told Mr. Comey, 'I need loyalty, I expect loyalty' in form or substance".

Kasowitz concluded his statement by trying to paint Comey as a leaker and  as part of "those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications", because of Comey's admission that he leaked his unclassified notes about his meetings with the President, notes, it must be pointed out, about conversations that the President has not invoked executive privilege.

These flat-out denials about statements made when only Trump and Comey were in the room are essentially turning the Comey accusations into a he said/he said battle, ground that both Kasowitz and Trump are quite familiar with. Trump is essentially pitting his word against Comey's. That is arguably a losing battle in the long run, as Comey's credibility and support for his recollections is far greater than Trump's, but it will give Trump's defenders and his Republican enablers in Congress enough to hold on to for quite a while.

In addition, I think Kasowtiz's denials make it highly unlikely that any tapes of Comey's conversations still exist. That does not mean that were not tapes but, if there were, they have been destroyed by now. (Some of us are old enough to remember that some Republicans believe Nixon would never have been impeached if he had simply destroyed the tapes.) That also may account for the administration's unwillingness to admit whether any tapes exist or not. Whether or not this would also constitute a further obstruction of justice would have to be determined.

Lastly, the larger problem with this he said/he said defense is that it only applies to Comey. It is hard to see how that defense can be used to counter the potential testimony from Priebus, Nunes, Sessions, Rosenstein, Coats, and Rogers, all of whom have been reported to have been asked by Trump to somehow impede Comey's investigation.

The Most Lawless Administration In Nearly A Century

Donald Trump is leading the most lawless administration that we have seen in nearly a century, probably since Warren Harding, and arguably engaging in far more illegality than even the Nixon administration. And that illegality stretches across broad swaths of the Trump administration. Let us count the crimes:
  • There is the widespread and continual violations of the Emoluments Clause.
  • There is the nepotism of giving Jared and Ivanka government positions.
  • There are the lies of Flynn and Kushner on their security clearances.
  • There is Flynn's apparent violation of the Logan Act.
  • There is Flynn's reported lying to the FBI.
  • There is the lying to Congress by Sessions, Mnuchin, Price, and others.
  • There is the widespread, overly broad, and retroactive ethics wavers to members of the administration.
  • There is the attempt by multiple advisers such as Carl Icahn to engage in blatant self-dealing.
  • There are Trump's multiple attempt to obstruct justice, including firing Comey and Yates.
  • There are the multiple cases of abetting obstruction of justice by Priebus, Burr, Nunes, Sessions, and Rosenstein.
  • There is Sessions' ignoring his recusal on multiple occasions.
  • There is the directive to not comply with Congressional oversight requests from Democrats.
  • And yesterday we had the situation where Rogers, Coats, and Rosenstein refused to answer questions from the Congressional oversight committee for no reason other than the answers might embarrass the President.
The last item is truly the most frightening, as Rachel Maddow pointed out last night, as it drives a tank through the idea of separation of powers that the country is built on. And it is an especially egregious violation for Admiral Mike Rogers, who, by the nature of his military position, owes a greater allegiance to the Constitution than to the President himself. Of course, the committee could have immediately declared them all in contempt of Congress, but, as I have written, both parties are in no hurry in this investigation.

These are not just small missteps by insignificant members of the Trump administration, but serious violations of law, including felonies and potential high crimes and misdemeanors. And these are just the ones we know about; there are probably others that I have left out or are to be uncovered. Nor have we even seen the tip of the iceberg in the underlying details of the Russian investigation. And we're not even counting the mountains of lies to the American people that people up and down the administration make on a daily basis.

Oddly, Both Parties Want To Delay Trump Impeachment Until 2018

I think there is a bizarre dynamic that actually merges Republican and Democratic interests when it comes to the timing of the looming impeachment of Donald Trump. I think, at this point, after Comey's statement and testimony to be given today, it is clear that Trump obstructed justice on multiple occasions. That alone probably makes his presidency untenable, even with Republicans. And everyone also knows that there are more instances of his obstruction of justice to come, based on his attempts to get members of the intelligence community and Congress to get Comey to back off or slow down.

Even worse, none of the Republicans know whether there is a further underlying crime in Trump's or his associate's contacts with Russia. This could be collusion with the Russians in their interference in the election or simply trading election strategy or policy decisions for personal profit. And, as I have indicated before, there is already evidence out there that the Russian interference in the election was to help Republicans in general, more than just Trump specifically, as well as evidence that GOP Congressional leadership knew about the Russian's interference and did nothing to stop it. In fact, they tried to ensure that information did not get to the American public. And I haven't even mentioned Trump's erratic and destructive foreign policy.

So, I think most Republicans in Congress know, deep down, that Trump will eventually have to go. But overriding that realization, for the moment, is the hope that they can ram through the elimination of Medicaid and pass a massive tax cut before they have to deal with a 2018 budget and the debt ceiling. There is just no time or will to deal with Trump right now. He will have to wait.

In fact, Republicans are only too happy to have the focus be on Trump right now. It gives them time and cover to work out the details of rolling back Medicaid and then ram it through without any deliberation, and probably without a CBO score, just like in the House. Once that is accomplished, they will probably take the same approach with the massive tax cuts they want to pass. Having actually passed some legislation, no matter how horrible it may be, actually puts them in a better position to win re-election in 2018, even if they impeach Trump. To impeach him without any legislative record to run on probably dooms them in the fall of next year.

Democrats, on the other hand, also believe that Trump needs to be impeached. While many Congressional Democrats are loathe to use the words "obstruction of justice", much less "impeachment", that is primarily because the evidence against Trump speaks for itself and there is no reason for Democrats to get ahead of themselves and the public at large.

In addition, in order to position themselves for 2018, it is far better for Democrats to let the Russian investigation and impeachment process play out for as long as possible. Forcing the Trump impeachment process to dominate the news next summer would be strategically ideal for the Democrats.

Right now, Democrats have no real ability to stop Republican legislation. The best they can hope for is to slow it down and rely on the dysfunction in the Republican caucus as a whole and in the Trump administration. So, tying up Congressional time with hearing about Trump's abuses is about the best tactic they currently have. But Democrats must still not lose focus on the cruelty of Republican legislation and be able to rally their troops to oppose it in the limited time Republicans will give them before the bills actually comes to a vote.

So, we are left in this strange position where both parties are interested in dragging out this Russian investigation for the time being. Yes, Republicans will continue to half-heartedly defend Trump and Democrats will say we need to get to the bottom of things. But right now both parties are probably not interested in dealing with the Trump problem until next year.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The "Trump Is A Businessman Defense" Highlights That Broader Problem In Our Society

There is an interesting thread behind much of the Republican defense of Donald Trump that I think speaks to a larger issue that pervades certain problems in our society today. The defense relies on the fact that Donald Trump is a businessman and he treats the rest of the government as though they were just his employees. And, because of this business attitude, this gives Trump license to not only ignore the institutional norms of our government but makes it almost OK to ignore certain legal requirements simply because he's the boss.

Francis Rooney, a Republican Representative from Florida, expressed this attitude in his interview with Chris Hayes tonight. He described Trump's asking Comey for loyalty as just a search for the intrinsic values that he would want in any employee. He also dismissed Trump's request that Comey "let this go", meaning the investigation of Flynn, as just the boss saying to Comey that I've already fired the guy so there's no need to continue to pursue him for his activities. For Rooney, the fact that the employee, in this case Flynn, had possibly broken the law was meaningless. Flynn's being fired was more than enough punishment even if he had broken the law.

Ross Douthat tweeted something similar as his response to Comey's opening statement, saying, "Trump's weird behavior re: Comey seems to reflect a man accustomed to being a boss, unprepared to be a president". Again, this implies that potentially impeding on ongoing investigation about one of your employees is just something bosses do all the time. Sadly, I think that is more true than Douthat wants or intends to believe.

It is a bizarre attitude that simply having a business background means that there are certain legal standards that you are somehow allowed to ignore. You and I may think it bizarre, but it is a far too common attitude in US corporate management these days. You see it in the massive mortgage fraud, both in the origination and foreclosure phases, in the financial fraud involving interest and currency rates, in the banking fraud epitomized by Wells Fargo, in the pharmaceutical industry, and a hundred other examples I could detail.

At some point, largely helped by the concept of the primacy of shareholder value and the Republicans obsession with "job creators", business became entirely divorced from the larger goals of our constitutional rule of law and society in general.  Business leaders today think they live in an environment that has an entirely different set of rules than those that constrain our government and our society. They have lost sight of the role that business was supposed to play in attaining the goals of our society as a whole. And we are all, with the exception of the handful at the top, literally and figuratively worse off because of that.

Time For Media To Stop Dancing Around Obstruction Of Justice

After James Comey's under oath opening statement that was released today, we now have direct testimony from a virtually unimpeachable source that Donald Trump has, on multiple occasions, attempted to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation. And it's time for the media to stop pussy-footing around this issue and call it exactly what it is.

According to the federal statute, obstruction of justice occurs when someone "corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice". (Emphasis is mine.)

Comey has outlined multiple examples of Trump's attempted obstructions. There was the simple question from Trump in a one-on-one dinner about whether he was interested in staying on as FBI Director. Since the Director serves a ten year term that is meant to be independent of Presidential power, that could easily be interpreted as a "threatening communication". That question was followed by Trump saying, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty", again more threatening communication. And Trump came back to the point a third time at the dinner saying, "I need loyalty".

On February 14, Trump asked Comey to stay on after a White House briefing to speak to him alone. Trump essentially threw Sessions and Kushner out of the room so that he could tell Comey, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy.  I hope you can let this go." If that is not endeavoring to influence the due administration of justice, I'm not sure what is.

On March 30th, Trump called Comey and asked if he could "lift the cloud" of the Russia investigation that Trump was complaining was impeding his ability to lead the country. Trump reiterated his desire for Comey to "lift the cloud" at the end of the conversation.

And, finally, Trump made one last call to Comey on April 11th again asking him to lift the cloud and to "get out" the fact that Trump himself was not under investigation.

These are just the instances that Comey has now documented under oath. In addition, there are many more media reports of Trump trying to use others to shut down the Russia probe. Eventually, those involved will also be forced to make statements under oath and will add to the litany of Trump's attempts to obstruct justice.

The media constantly asks the question of whether this amounts to obstruction of justice. And we constantly get mealy-mouthed answers from pundits who apparently aren't ready to apply the statute as written. I don't mean to pick on Ari Melber, but he was on MSNBC and responded to the question by saying that he couldn't answer whether this was obstruction of justice but that Comey's statement was testimony that that would not reflect well on Trump if a case was to be made. This approach essentially requires a conviction to answer the question. Indeed, the more relevant question should be, to use a phrase made famous by James Comey himself, would any reasonable prosecutor seek an obstruction of justice indictment with this evidence. The answer, of course, is yes. Let's hope a Democratic Senator asks the question as I present it tomorrow and not ask Comey to make a judgement of whether it amounts to obstruction of justice.

The Republican position is even more ridiculous. Besides harping on the fact that Comey assured Trump that he himself was not under investigation, they seem to be relying on the fact that Comey and others did not "feel pressured" to subvert the investigation. There are fallacies with both elements of the GOP argument. The fact that Trump was not individually under investigation back in January and February does not preclude the possibility he could become a target as the investigation moved forward. But the point about officials not feeling pressured has absolutely nothing to do with the statute on obstruction of justice. To make an extreme analogy, let's say a Mafia boss tries to bribe a judge by telling him that he knows the judge has two kids in college and he can help defray their education costs. The judge may not feel any overt "pressure" and he could politely decline to be bribed. That does not mean the mob boss is not guilty of obstruction of justice.

In addition, the GOP is also spouting the line that Trump may not have intended to obstruct justice with his comments to Trump and others. This relies on an interpretation of Trump's mindset and seems to offer the defense that Trump didn't realize that his word could amount to obstruction. But that is hardly a defense at this point, simply because of the number and nature of Trump's efforts to thwart the investigation.

It's time for the media to call this exactly what this is and that is obstruction of justice. Nixon was charged with obstruction of justice and impeached for trying, and failing, to get the CIA to shut down the FBI's Watergate investigation. Trump has apparently done that and more. And even with all this mountain of evidence against Trump, Republicans continue to enable the cover-up.

And one last thought based on what we have learned about Trump over the last year and without any evidence to back this up. But Trump's obsession about the "salacious" Russian dossier and whether he himself was under investigation makes me believe that the dossier is largely true and that Trump himself was involved in collusion with the Russians.

Disaster Of Kansas' Supply-Side Utopia Holds Lessons For Both Parties

The supply-side experiment in Kansas was officially ended last night as the Kansas legislature voted to override Governor Sam Brownback's multiple vetoes and basically restored business and income tax levels to the pre-Brownback era. Those massive supply-side tax cuts that were implemented in 2012 were supposed to jump-start the Kansas economy and lead to economic growth on steroids. Instead, the cuts led to massive tax avoidance, devastated the state budget leading to massive cutbacks in education and road maintenance, and job and economic growth fell below the national average and the state's regional competitors.

The same principles outlined in Sam Brownback's vision for Kansas are essentially embodied in the Trump/Ryan budget and the same group of deep thinkers that advised Brownback, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore, are providing advice to the Trump administration. The results will largely be the same for the country as they were for Kansas if that budget is passed as is.

In Kansas, the pain just became too much for even Republicans to bear. While Brownback did manage to squeak out a victory in 2016, moderate Republicans made some inroads into the domination of the legislature by hard-core conservatives. Distressingly, even after 4 years of enormous self-inflicted pain by Republicans, Democrats could not gain enough seats to erase the super-majorities that the GOP holds in both the Kansas House and Senate. Yes, Democrats did close the margin significantly in the 2017 special election for a House seat in the 4th Congressional District. But the fact remains that Democrats are just not competitive locally in much of the state.

As most Democrats realize, it will take more than revulsion at Donald Trump and at the cruelty behind the GOP policies for Democrats to win in rural red-state America. Martin Longman has proposed rebuilding the progressive coalition from nearly a century ago in what he calls the Anti-Monopoly agenda. It focuses on creating job growth outside of metro areas by using anti-trust and other local policies to break apart the business concentration that dominates nearly all important industries and therefore all aspects of our life.

As Longman says, "People in rural and small-town America know the dangers of industry consolidation better than anyone, having seen it strip away the livelihoods of independent farmers and local banks and merchants long before most city slickers even realized that corporate concentration was an issue...An airline industry in which just four companies now control 85 percent of the market increasingly gets away with overcharging and mistreating fliers, including forcibly removing paying customers thanks to an overbooking system that jacks up corporate profits.
At the same time, platform monopolies like Amazon and Facebook are stripping away the ability of musicians, authors, and journalists to make a living. Consolidation in health care means fewer and fewer hospitals competing to hire nurses, while independent doctors are forced to sell their practices to corporate masters." He summarizes, "All this points to a simple conclusion: Democrats should make fighting monopolies the central organizing principle of their economic agenda. This approach holds the promise of bringing together groups that seem inherently at odds: nativists and cosmopolitans, fundamentalists and secularists, urbanites and rural dwellers."

While I don't agree with Longman in his analysis of Democratic elitism, I do strongly agree that this is one path to winning in those deep red states that have been decimated by globalization, concentration, and automation over the last decade and a half. In Kansas, this would mean taking on the broadband monopoly and offering high speed internet in all corners of the state as well as breaking up Monsanto's seed monopoly, the Big Ag giants who have gobbled up family farms, and the meatpacking oligopoly of Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef. It could include the retail liquor monopoly and even restricting the ability of big box stores to move into certain areas.

This approach, at least, provides a plan to grow jobs in the rural America where Democrats find it so hard to compete. And one thing we know for sure, this plan has a much better chance at succeeding in delivering job creation and growth than Sam Brownback's tax cuts ever did. I encourage you to read Longman's article in its entirety.

There are lessons for both parties in the Kansas "experiment". For Republicans, Kansas has shown irresponsible supply-side economics causes so much pain even the GOP finds it unbearable. For Democrats, it shows that Republican failure is not enough to make Democrats competitive without an accompanying economic message that specifically targets job creation and growth in addition to the palliative policies such as access to affordable health care. Hopefully, both parties will learn these lessons.

The World May Look Quite Different By Friday

Today and tomorrow may see dramatic evidence that the wave of populist nationalism that overwhelmed both Britain and the United States may be encountering some severe obstacles. With the testimony before Congressional committees by DNI Coats, Deputy AG Rosenstein, Admiral Mike Rogers, and former FBI Director Comey here in the US, the general election in the UK, and a burgeoning crisis in the Gulf, the world may look significantly different when we wake up on Friday.

Let's start over in the UK, where Theresa May was expected to lead the Conservatives to a landslide victory, decimating the Labour party for a generation and expanding its working majority from 17 to perhaps over 100. However, that result now looks highly unlikely. Apparently, the more people see of May, the more they realize she is Trump-like in her desire to project strong leadership when in fact she has shown herself to be unable to lay out detailed policies and refuses to acknowledge the weakness of the UK's position in negotiating Brexit. The Conservative manifesto was a disaster, essentially proposing to bankrupt families who had elderly parents with chronic conditions. Meanwhile Labour and Jeremy Corbyn have run a much more normal and appealing campaign than anyone thought possible. Current polls range from showing a dead heat to a high single digit lead for the Conservatives.

May, in fact, has fallen so far in the polls so fast, that even a small gain in the Conservative majority would be considered a big victory. But the reality is that this election already looks like a loss for the Tories. And even if Labour loses some seats, that would be seen as a victory for the party and Corbyn as the expected total wipeout will have been avoided.

My prediction, which is not worth much, is that the Conservatives will end up with about a 40 seat majority and May will declare a triumphal victory that will be hollow in reality. But, even if Labour surprises and the election ends in a hung Parliament, Brexit will continue to go forward. The only question is whether it will be May's "hard" Brexit or something a little softer.

Meanwhile, here in the US, the next two days are expected to see testimony that will expose the multiple, over half-dozen as I count them, instances of Trump's obstruction of justice. Besides James Comey, it is also possible that DNI Dan Coats, Admiral Mike Rogers, and even Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein may provide information about how Trump tried to use them to stop the FBI's Russian investigation. And that will be followed Comey's descriptions of the multiple occasions when Trump tried to get Comey to stop his investigation, culminating in Comey's firing.

Representative Ted Lieu was quite blunt in his assessment to Chris Hayes last night. Lieu said he could not understand why everyone was tip-toeing around the obvious, that Trump has clearly obstructed justice on numerous occasions. As Lieu said, the President's actions speaks for themselves as do the President's own words about why he fired Comey. In addition, Trump has shown intent to deceive by asking Comey and Coats to speak to him in private about quashing the investigation and by floating a false story on why Comey was fired. For any other individual other than the President, there is more than enough evidence to indict Trump on obstruction of justice charges.

Lieu went on to point out that Trump's disregard for the law extends to members of his administration. Jared Kushner has clearly lied on his security clearance, which is a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison. In addition, Jeff Sessions clearly lied to Congress about his contacts with Russia and there may even be additional contacts that Sessions did not report in his updated testimony. As Lieu noted, the statute is quite broad and there is again more than enough evidence to indict Sessions for lying to Congress. In addition, depending on Rosenstein's testimony, if it becomes clear that Rosenstein and Sessions knew that Trump was firing Comey because of the Russian investigation but went ahead with the cover story about Comey's actions during the election, then Sessions is in even more trouble as he would have violated his promise of recusal and also engaged in another clear obstruction of justice.

Meanwhile, Trump's "successful" visit to Saudi Arabia has merely emboldened that country to take on Qatar, the home of the largest US base in the Arabian peninsula and the launch pad for US actions against ISIS and AQAP. The Gulf States allied with the Saudis have already begun a naval blockade of Qatar and the threat of an actual military confrontation is quite high.

It is doubtful that all this testimony about Trump's clear obstruction of justice or Trump's recent unstable behavior and ignorant tweeting about the Saudi-Qatar conflict will move the Republicans in Congress to abandon him. But the pressure to do so will be greatly increased and they will look more and more like the co-conspirators and enablers of a cover-up that they truly are.

When we wake up on Friday morning, it's quite possible the world will look a lot different than it does today. Interesting days ahead.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Today's Corporate Crime Blotter

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been taking on the big oil companies over climate change for years, specifically targeting ExxonMobil. After initially pretending to cooperate with Schneiderman's investigation, Exxon turned more adversarial last year as it became clear that Schneiderman was looking to show that Exxon was engaging in securities fraud over its deceptions about the cost of global warming and the resulting value of the company's unexploited oil holdings. Exxon even sued Schneiderman and Massachusetts AG Maura Healey, claiming "The improper political bias that inspired the New York and Massachusetts investigations disqualifies Attorneys General Schneiderman and Healey from serving as the disinterested prosecutors required by the Constitution." That motion was, quite rightly, thrown out of court.

Schneiderman has now filed a new motion which states that "evidence suggests not only that Exxon’s public statements about its risk management practices were false and misleading, but also that Exxon may still be in the midst of perpetrating an ongoing fraudulent scheme on investors and the public." The motion specifically revolves around something Exxon describes as the proxy cost of carbon. In essence, Exxon is putting a cost on carbon (essentially greenhouse gases) which it uses to judge its investment decisions. This proxy cost is especially important for estimating the value of Exxon's holdings that are still in the ground. A higher cost of carbon will actually decrease the value of those unexploited holdings and, if the price gets conceivably high enough, make them not worth extracting at all.

Exxon has publicly stated its proxy cost was $60 dollars per ton of greenhouse gases up until 2030 and $80 dollars per ton until 2040. But Scheiderman says that internal Exxon documents only show one instance where Exxon actually used its stated proxy cost. In fact, documents show that former CEO Rex Tillerson decided to use an internal proxy cost of $40 per ton until 2030, while still publicly pronouncing the $60 figure in public.

Even worse, Schneiderman claims that Exxon rarely if ever used the proxy cost at all. According to one of Schneiderman's deputies, "It appears that Exxon’s proxy-cost risk-management process may be a sham." And that is a clear basis for securities fraud as Exxon is constantly, consistently, and knowingly overstating the value of its assets that remain in the ground.

Meanwhile, it appears that the pharmaceutical industry is, in many cases, killing us with drugs meant to cure. I have already written at length about Big Pharma's complicity in creating the opioid crisis that has now morphed into a heroin crisis in states around the country. But the latest story revolves around Actemra, a drug designed to treat rheumatoid arthritis created by Roche.

We are all used to those television ads for the latest drug that eventually ends with a dizzying array of potentially deadly symptoms. The problem with Actemra was that none of those frightening disclaimers and warnings ever came with the drug or appear on the labeling for it. Since the drug was formally approved in 2010, Actemra patients have suffered from heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, pancreatitis, lung disease, hair loss, memory failure and other conditions at a far higher rate than other competing drugs that do contain significant warnings about the same side effects caused by Actemra.

The drug is Roche's fifth highest producing product, generating over $1.7 billion dollars in revenue last year. And, despite numerous reports of deadly side effects, Roche has repeatedly refused to include any warnings with Actemra.  The FDA has determined that well over 1,000 people have died from taking Actemra. In addition, over 25 people have died from pancreatitis, an incredibly rare phenomenon these days, after taking the drug. And these numbers probably understate the damage as the FDA does not really have a robust tracking system to collect data on the deadly side effects of approved drugs.

The FDA has created an environment to fast-track drugs to the market. But there has been minimal effort to monitor the effects of these quickly approved drugs once they have come to market and so we end up with a situation where a deadly drug can continue to stay on the market with no warnings for years, as with Actemra. What's even more frightening is that the Trump administration wants to speed up the approval process even more, meaning that more drugs will reach the market without a full understanding of the deadly side-effects they may have. And people will die as a result.

Abusing Charity

Trump supporters will read the title of this post and immediately think of all those "others" who are simply freeloading off of food pantries and government handouts instead of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and getting a job. Of course, the fact that many of the people who rely on these charities have either untreated health issues or, in fact, do have a full time job that does not pay a living wage never seems to break through the propaganda and epistemological closure that engulfs so many Republicans. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that ultra-rich are perhaps the biggest abusers of charities and the laws surrounding them.

The Washington Post had a disturbing story about how charities have moved well beyond advocacy for particular policy positions and have now "become essential to modern political campaigns, amid lax enforcement of the federal limits on their involvement in politics, while taking advantage of millions of dollars in what amount to taxpayer subsidies."

The story focuses on 1960s leftist turned hard right conservative David Horowitz and the various charities he has created with massive conservative funding over the years, especially a particular charity called the Freedom Center. The Freedom Center began as an "educational institution" to service the community at large. focusing on popular culture and free speech. But by earlier this decade, it was basically a political outfit that attacked liberals on every possible front, from climate change to immigration to accusing Democrats of being in cahoots with Islamic militants. It even started to donate to far right parties in Europe, including Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

Horowitz readily admits that conservative charities are coordinating their activities, usually at the direction of the large conservative donors that fund a number of them. He claims that a similar arrangement exists among liberal charities. Whether such coordination is legal is unclear but it has increased ever since Republicans forced the IRS to back off monitoring charities after claiming that the agency was targeting only conservative charities in investigating their tax-exempt status.

In essence, by the 2016 campaign, wealthy conservative donors like the Mercers and the Scaifes were donating large sums to conservative charities, taking the tax deductions that goes with charitable donations, and then helping coordinate those charities in attacks on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party.

IRS rules on charities state that they are "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office." In addition, they may not devote a significant portion of their activities on propaganda. But wealthy conservative donors and charities are flouting these rules and getting away with it.

Then, of course, there is the Trumpian abuse of the rules on charities where he uses the charity to funnel money into his own pocket. David Fahrenthold documented Trump's self-dealing and illegal use of the Trump Foundation during the campaign. Now we find out Eric Trump used his own foundation to funnel money to the Trump Organization. Part of the pitch that Eric Trump used for his foundation was that he could use Trump Organization properties free of charge so that virtually all of the money raised would go to the specific cause the Foundation was supporting. But a report from Forbes shows that, in fact, the Eric Trump Foundation has funneled over $1.5 million to the Trump Organization for services rendered. And the man directing that the Trump Organization bill for these services is none other than Eric's father and current President, Donald Trump.

Wealthy donors are using the tax-exempt vehicles of charities to get large tax deductions while coordinating the partisan political activity of those charities and engaging in self-dealing. It's a pretty nice racket.

The Apprentice President Tries To Rally His Viewers

It is becoming increasingly apparent that Donald Trump is merely playing at being President, treating the job in a similar way to his role on the reality show "The Apprentice". As most of us know, many "reality shows" are actually highly scripted and Trump is playing his role in the same way. The difference, of course, is that you can not just "play" the leader of the free world when you are supposedly the leader of the free world.

Trump's recent foreign trip ended in the predicted disaster with our European allies as he lied to his NSA, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State and pointedly refused to reiterate the US commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty and then professed his skepticism about climate change, which he eventually followed through on by pulling out of the Paris Accords.

On the other hand, the earlier part of Trump's trip, especially his visit to Saudi Arabia, was actually considered somewhat of a success. That included signing a much ballyhooed $110 billion deal with the Saudis and a supposedly successful summit with Arab leaders that focused on a coordinated approach to terrorism. We now know that this success was largely a mirage and has totally collapsed in the last few days.

Yesterday, the Saudis, along with the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen broke diplomatic ties with Qatar. This is all part of the proxy war between the Saudis and Iran which is also wrapped up in the intractable Sunni-Shia conflict that has riven the Islamic world and especially the Mideast for centuries. Observers believe that the Saudis were emboldened by Trump's support for them during his recent visit and took this step to isolate Qatar because of its reported funding of radical groups, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, its support for Al-Jazeera, and its more open outlook on Iran.

Trump, in his usual narcissism, took credit for this move, tweeting "During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!". The strategic problem for the US is that Qatar is the home of the largest base the US has in the Arabian peninsula.  It is a major intelligence hub for the US and a base from which we carry out operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and AQAP in Yemen. While the US may want to rethink our relationship with Qatar, Trump's support for the Saudi-led action does nothing to help our overall strategic interests in the Mideast as a whole. Expect NSA McMaster and Secretary of Defense Mattis to be heading to Doha, the capital of Qatar, at some point in the near future to try to defuse the situation.

We also learned yesterday that the magnificent $110 billion deal with the Saudis is also mythical. The majority of the agreement includes proposals the Obama administration had already made that were never acted on by the Saudis. This agreement essentially provides promises to consider those deals some time in the future, something called "intended sales", but there is very little immediate commitment for any of these projects by the Saudis. The fact of the matter is the Saudis are somewhat overextended already due to the continued low price of oil and the enormous amounts of money being drained by their own proxy war in Yemen. They really don't have $100 billion or so lying around to waste on deals they don't want or need at this time.

At this point, it might be worth mentioning that Saudi Arabia has paid the Trump International Hotel in DC over $250,000 in the six months between October, 2016 and March, 2017 for events held there. You can draw your own conclusions...

In a similar vein to the pretense of the Saudi deal, Trump has also made a pretense of announcing his supposedly $1 trillion infrastructure plan. The only problem, of course, is there is no plan, as I wrote yesterday. There is only a statement of principles that outlines the public-private partnerships that the Trump administration prefers. But that didn't stop Trump from pretending he was signing a major piece of legislation yesterday when he put his signature on a memo that outlined his principles for privatizing the air traffic control system, passing out pens to those surrounding him as though it was a major accomplishment. The piece of paper he signed is less than an executive order and is entirely meaningless.

But meaningless gestures are the hallmark of the Trump administration and Trump himself. The rollout of the infrastructure "plan" was almost identical to the tax "plan" that was simply a one page memo outlining "principles" and virtually no detail has been added since then. Similarly, the summary firing of the US Attorneys was another grand gesture but has been followed by virtually no nominations to fill those positions since then. And the same goes for US Ambassadors.

Of course, the narcissism in Trump forces him to blame others, claiming that Democrats are blocking all those nominations that have never been made yet. But, in some ways, those missing nominations redound to Trump's benefit because it results in more consolidation of power and decision-making in both the Justice Department on the legal front and in the White House regarding foreign affairs. In addition, these actions eliminate knowledgeable and reasoned pushback from the institutional bureaucracy against Trump's ill-advised and possibly treasonous policies.

Trump's recent tweetstorms about terrorism and the Muslim ban are again part of the gestures he makes in his current role. His attacks on the London Mayor, his refusal to acknowledge domestic terrorism that is not committed by a minority, and his support for the Muslim ban have nothing to do with an actual terrorism policy. The fact that his tweets actually undermine his administration's case before the Supreme Court is also beside the point. Like all the other largely empty gestures listed above, they are signals to his base in order to shore up their support.

The reason for all this is that Trump needs that base to stick with him if he is to survive as President. Reports indicate that he will be live-tweeting James Comey's testimony on Thursday where Comey is expected to outline and document the numerous occasions Trump tried to influence him to close down the Russian investigation in what everyone already knows were attempts to obstruct justice.

Sadly, it is likely that his supporters will continue to support his act as President. He has the right wing media echo chamber to help him as Fox News has spent the last few disastrous weeks focusing on the restrictions to speech on college campuses. And that 35% of the electorate that still supports Trump will keep on enjoying his show of playing the President.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Agonizingly Slow Justice In The Court System Abets The GOP's Disenfranchisement Of Voters

The Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court's decision striking down North Carolina's state legislative voting districts as being racially gerrymandered in violation of the Constitution. This follows on an earlier Supreme Court decision that ruled that some North Carolina congressional districts were also illegally gerrymandered.

Earlier, in March, a federal panel struck down the Texas congressional districts, again saying that the gerrymandering was more racial than partisan. Today's Supreme Court ruling on North Carolina does not bode well for the Texas case, although there are some differences.

For a detailed examination of the current state of gerrymandering and voter suppression, please read this informative Daily Kos post. However, the point I would like to make about both the Texas and North Carolina cases is that these illegal gerrymanders have worked for Republicans.

Both the maps in North Carolina and Texas were drawn in 2011 and voters in both states have had to participate in multiple election cycles where certain voters, particularly minorities, were essentially disenfranchised. It is quite possible that some voters will have participated in more elections this decade where they were effectively disenfranchised than not. This is largely due to the difficulty of challenging these districts to begin with and then having to fight Republican delaying tactics as these cases make the time consuming slog through all levels of the judiciary system. These maps were drawn in 2011 and are only being ruled unconstitutional now, six years later.

In addition, there is nothing to stop Republicans from re-drawing new illegal districts again for the 2018 and 2020 elections and then making voting rights advocates fight their way through the courts again, which will delay the process until new districts are created after the 2020 census, where the GOP can begin the process all over again.

The only enforcement instrument for restricting what the Republicans have done in Texas and North Carolina were the Articles 4 and 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). Section 4 required nine states, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as dozens of other cities and counties around the United States to get preclearance from the Justice Department for any significant changes in election law. Section 5 required Congressional re-approval and essentially required elections law to stay in place in those above jurisdictions until the clearance had been granted. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4 was unconstitutional, thereby making Section 5 moot.

More than just freeing those states, cities, and counties listed in Section 4 from effective oversight, the Supreme Court decision pretty much declared that it was open season for extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression across the country. And Republicans went right to it.

The courts have, understandably, been reluctant to interfere in the election process (except the egregious Bush v. Gore decision). But, by gutting the only enforcement measure to ensure voting rights in a timely and effective manner, the courts have essentially ended up denying voting rights to millions. And, unless the courts become more assertive in reviewing election districts and voting rights or define a clear standard that focuses on results and not intent, that will not change in the near future. In striking down the guts of the VRA and then refusing to involve themselves in the details of gerrymandering and voting rights, the courts have shown themselves unable and unwilling to protect the voting rights of minorities and defend the constitutional right to vote. And that does not make for a healthy democracy.

Trump's Cabinet Proves High-Priced CEOs Aren't Worth It

We are five months into the Trump presidency and the administration has proven its incompetence in almost every area except those benefiting Russia. Especially disappointing is the supposed Wall Street brain trust of Gary Cohn, head of the National Economic Council and Trump's top economics adviser, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

And when you look at the missteps and pathetic output of these three, you really have to wonder if these guys actually do anything. In late April, Trump announced his tax plan, which turned out to be a laughable one-page document of "principles". Now, Mnuchin and Cohn had three months to work on a tax plan. The AHCA was largely created in the House and hardly required a lot of input from Cohn and Mnuchin so they can hardly say they were distracted by other issues. So they had plenty of time to craft a real and detailed tax plan. But when the time came they were obviously not ready and had nothing. And, to this day, there seems to be no real progress on any tax plan, either in the Trump administration or in Congress.

Then, in early May, Trump announced a trade deal with China that largely incorporated agreements that the Obama administration had already reached with the Chinese. In effect, the deal allowed the US to finally resume beef exports to China, opened up China for US liquefied natural gas exports as well as certain financial opportunities in return for better access to the US market for the Chinese in cooked poultry and their own financial industry.

Nothing in this deal dealt in any way with all those manufacturing jobs that Trump claimed that had been lost to China. In fact, it was generally considered to be a bad deal that really got very little for the US in return for a bunch of promises for the future for the Chinese. But that didn't stop Ross from saying the deal was a "herculean effort" that "more than has been done in the whole history of U.S.-China relations on trade". This comment, like much of what the CEO does and is part of this administration's tendency towards the idolatry of the President that borders on what we see in totalitarian societies, is pure spin.

Then, yesterday, there was the announcement of the long-awaited infrastructure plan. The initial reactions to the plan focused on the plan to privatize the air traffic control system, so it seemed like this was a detailed plan that laid out the reported plans for the public-private partnerships on infrastructure that Trump favors. But again, after five months of time to prepare, there was nothing other than what the NY Times calls "the contours of a plan".

The contours of the plan essentially require minimal federal investment, the use of state and city moneys with the rest borrowed, and the privatization of public good. But, beyond the air traffic control issue which was apparently a bill that was already in the can, there are again no details. As has been pointed out repeatedly, the public-private partnership approach will only draw investors for projects with sufficient density, once again leaving rural areas underserved. According to Cohn, "We like the template of not using taxpayer dollars to give taxpayers wins". That is certainly an approach that Wall Street and Trump has used for years, using other people's money for their own benefit. In this case, what Cohn really means is that he can use public resources to line the pockets of private investors and executives.

Perhaps these guys are playing three dimensional chess and are working feverishly with Congress and will spring a detailed tax and in infrastructure on us that will get rammed through the House and Senate in short order. But, so far, there are absolutely no indications that this is so.

As studies have shown, higher executive pay is actually negatively correlated with company performance. In many cases, especially Cohn and Mnuchin, CEOs are simply better internal political operatives than their counterparts allowing them to rise to the top. Actual aptitude at their specific job may not even be necessary, especially if they are surrounded by people who actually do know what they are doing and do it well. In my Wall Street career, I have seen many people vault to another high priced opening and then fail, primarily because they had been part of a great team in their prior position and could not succeed on their own when that team was not there to support them. It looks pretty clear that Cohn, Mnuchin, and Ross fall into this category.

May's Dismal Unemployment Report Is Another Warning Sign For The Economy

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the warning signs for the US economy, as shrinking job growth, the collapse in the retail sector, both in sales and employment, and weak first quarter GDP could be a sign that the grindingly slow eight year expansion could be on its last legs. Those worries were somewhat abated by April's strong unemployment report, rising personal incomes, and growing consumer spending. But Friday's dismal unemployment report for May brings all those prior concerns back on table.

The headline numbers of the May report were actually misleadingly positive, showing 138,000 new jobs created and the unemployment rate again dropping to 4.3%. However, the 138,000 was well below the consensus of 185,000 and the prior two months' adjustment showed an additional loss of 66,000 jobs. Even more worrying was the fact that the reason the unemployment rate dropped was not because more workers were getting hired, but because more workers were discouraged and dropping out of the labor force entirely. Both the employment-to-population (EPOP) ratio and the Labor Force Participation rate declined. Much of this decline is due to demographic issues such as baby boomers retiring but an important component is simply people who have given up trying to find a job. Of course, those people are still unemployed but just not counted in the official statistics.

As Kevin Drum keeps pointing out, job growth peaked in 2014 and has been slowing ever since. In addition, hourly earnings have been increasing slightly faster than inflation in the past year but that rate of wage growth has actually slowed in recent months, dropping 3 cents from April, to a 4 cent increase. This is particularly disconcerting because, if we are at full employment as the Fed and others have suggested, we would expect the rate of hourly earnings to be growing, not shrinking.

This weak unemployment report is not likely to inhibit the Fed from another interest rate hike, probably later this month. That will be an additional damper on the economy as is the general dysfunction and uncertainty created by Trump and the inept Republicans in Congress. Health care is 20% of the economy and we still have no idea what will be the regulatory environment for that industry in the coming years. Businesses are also waiting to see about the GOP's tax plans, especially the repatriation of foreign profits and the corporate tax rate. But, besides a one-page outline, the administration and Congress have provided no real details, much less a bill that could be voted on.

None of this is likely to help the economy at large. And, if the economy does take a downturn, the already shaky prospects for the Republicans in 2018 will become as dismal as this May unemployment report.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Could The US Climate Alliance Be The Start Of A Progressive Counterpart To ALEC

If there is one thing that Donald Trump's presidency has accomplished, it has been to unite the opposition against him and his policies, that are essentially Republican party policies as well, just stated out loud.

There is no doubt the European Union is far stronger today than it was before Trump was elected and, while the elections in the Netherlands, France, and now Britain are decided on national interests, there is clearly a backlash against Trump and his pro-Russian, anti-Europe policies and pronouncements in those votes.

And here in the US, Trump has galvanized the opposition as seen by the meteoric rise of the Indivisible Movement. Yes, there are still those who want to re-litigate the Hillary-Bernie battles of the past and the Democratic party bureaucracy has been behind the curve when compared to the rank and file, but there is no doubt that there is a strong and united opposition to Trump.

The Muslim ban united blue state Attorneys General, as does Trump's immigration policies, on purely legal grounds. And the immigration issue has certainly created some linkages between sanctuary cities and states that refuse to allow their police to act as a deportation force. But Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement may finally see some real coordination between blue state governments.

Governor Brown of California announced the formation of United States Climate Alliance that includes California, New York, and Washington. The alliance commits these states to upholding the climate change commitments of the Paris Accords in their own states. Since that initial announcement, six other states have joined including Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont and the governors of Colorado and Virginia have also expressed their support.

The actual coordination and agreements that can be forged between all these states will be limited by the commerce clause of the Constitution. If the states merely commit to abide by the non-binding agreements in the Paris Accords, then that would probably pass constitutional muster. In addition, I would think there is nothing constitutional to stop these individual states from passing laws that commit to certain climate change targets in their own states.

In fact, Republicans have been playing this game for decades. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been writing legislation for Republicans and, once it passes constitutional muster in one state, the identical legislation is then offered and usually passed in multiple red states. Incredibly, there is still no real national Democratic or progressive equivalent to ALEC.

The impact of the US Climate Alliance on actual climate change may, in the end, turn out to be somewhat limited. California, New York, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Connecticut, and Vermont have the lowest per capita emissions. Red states like Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska, Louisiana, and West Virginia rely much more on dirty energy and have the highest per capita emissions. So blue states are already doing their job on limiting greenhouse gases.

But perhaps more important than their impact on climate change, any coordination between these blue states could lead to further agreements in other areas such as other environmental issues, reproductive health, health care, minimum wage, and other progressive issues. The laws passed on one of these issues could be used as a template for similar laws in the other blue states.

Now, we all know that the Democratic coalition is far more diverse and is not dominated by specific corporate interests in the way that the Republican party is, making the cookie cutter approach that ALEC uses hard to duplicate. But it would be nice to finally see a real progressive alternative to the success that ALEC has had since the 1970s at the state level.

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