Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Swift, Shocking Collapse Of Theresa May And The Tories

It is hard to believe but it was just two months ago that Theresa May called a snap election in the UK. With polls showing around a 20 point lead for Conservatives, the expectation was that May would solidify her "strong" leadership position for the difficult Brexit negotiations ahead, the Tories would get a 75 to 100 seat majority in the House of Common, and the resulting Labour party losses would put them into minority status for a generation to come.

It didn't quite work out that way. The election resulted in a hung Parliament. May and the Conservatives actually lost their 17 seat working majority and were forced to join with the anti-abortion, climate change denying Northern Irish DUP party in order to try and actually form a government. May, who had run as a "strong leader" that the UK needed to move forward for the next few years was severely weakened and just barely hung on to her leadership position and the PM job, at least for the short term, after having to confess her failures to her Tory peers. And things have only gotten worse since then.

Buzzfeed released a shocking expose a few days ago which claims that Russia has assassinated at least 14 people on British soil. Some of those killed were Russian nationals, some British, and all had either fallen out of favor with the Kremlin and were involved in deals in Russia that fell through. The Russians and/or the Russian mafia have seemingly perfected the ability to kill someone and make it either look like natural causes or suicide, which makes proving murder far more difficult. But the UK government has also made remarkable efforts to ignore evidence and avoid pinning the blame on the Kremlin.

According to a US national security source, the British, "downplayed involvement of Russians on their soil for years...The Brits made a deal years ago that the Russians could come in and spend money on housing and stimulate the economy and they’ll look the other way." Another national security adviser to the UK says the British "desperately don’t want to antagonise the Russians" and the government had no desire to take the "political risk of dealing firmly and effectively in whatever way with the activities of the Russian state and Russian-organised crime in the UK" because they feared backlash from the Kremlin and losing the influx of Russian money. (Please read the entire Buzzfeed article. It is an incredible tale of the amount of illicit money pouring out of Russia, the criminality involved, the total uselessness of anti-money laundering laws and the use of real estate transactions to avoid those laws, something relevant to Trump as well, and the impunity and brazenness of Russia's interference in other countries.)

Many of those murders took place while Theresa May was the Home Secretary and she herself has intervened in some of these cases. She personally intervened to protect "international relations" with Russia in delaying the investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko. She also was involved in the government's decision to withhold evidence in the death of another Russian, Alexander Perepilichny.

In addition, May has reduced the police budget by nearly $3 billion as part of the Conservatives' austerity budget and a switch in focus to anti-terrorism efforts. A number of senior police officials blame those cuts for reduced capabilities, especially in pursuing difficult investigations that these murders required.

That push for austerity also was a major factor in the next disaster to befall May and that was the horrific fire at the Grenfell tower. Apparently, the private building manager that the council had employed to upgrade the building used cladding that is banned in the US and Germany specifically because of the fire hazard. Using fireproof cladding would have cost just an additional 5,000 pounds.

The local council of Kensington and Chelsea has prided itself on its "efficiency", which is merely a euphemism for austerity. In 2014, the council rebated 100 pounds to every resident and last year actually had nearly $3.5 in its adult services budget that it could not find a way or need to spend. It is worth noting that this area was one of the biggest upsets for Labour in the election last week after being a long-time Tory stronghold.

In addition, in 2014 the Conservative housing minister refused to increase fire safety regulation to include sprinklers. According to the MP, "We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation...The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building – something we want to encourage – so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has." If there was ever a policy decision that can be shown to lead directly to deaths, this might be it.

Even worse for the Tories was Theresa May's initial response to the disaster. The day of the disaster she was silent until the evening. The next day she visited the site of the disaster, thanking emergency services, but pointedly ignoring the victims of the tragedy. She compounded that problem by being her usual evasive self and merely repeating talking points in subsequent interviews.

Compare that to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who arrived after May, met the victims, treated them with empathy and compassion, and promised to find out what happened and help them move forward. It was yet again another remarkable contrast that highlighted May's seeming lack of connection with voters and a propensity to avoid direct questions with evasions and talking points, issues that helped doom her campaign.

One Conservative MP described May thusly, "She's adrift" and therefore so is the Conservative party. Austerity is dead as is virtually the entirety of the Conservative party agenda. The task of finalizing a deal with the DUP and actually forming a government still needs to be completed and that will be followed by trying to build some sort of new, minimal governing agenda. And the difficult Brexit negotiations still lie ahead.

One Tory MP lays out the future, saying, "The next six weeks will show we can’t do very much. It may be she lasts a bit longer, but it will be a sheer grinding down. People will be fed up with impotence." After that will come another leadership vote or even a new election. No one could have imagined this two months ago.

Natural Weekends - The Fog Rolls In

Friday, June 16, 2017

Democrats Need To Oppose Amazon/Whole Foods Merger On Strong Antitrust Grounds

Amazon announced today that it has agreed to buy Whole Foods for $13.4 billion as Jeff Bezos' retail monopolistic predator moves into the grocery business in the biggest way. Whole Foods stock rose by around 25% at one point in the day, essentially meaning that Amazon was buying it for virtually nothing and implying that the price of this deal may have to rise.

In addition to merging Amazon's delivery capabilities with a large grocer, the Whole Foods acquisition provides Amazon with nearly 500 brick-and-mortar outlets for its other retail products. The announcement of this deal also drove the stock of other competing grocery chains and retail outlets down by anywhere from 5%-10%.

This is almost a perfect merger for Democrats to vociferously oppose on antitrust grounds and use it as a teaching moment to explain the inadequacies of our current antitrust law and lay the groundwork for reforming those laws in the future. I am under no illusion that the Trump administration will do anything to stop this merger. But fighting this admittedly losing battle is important if we are to win the war in the future.

One reason that makes this the perfect case to oppose is that Whole Foods is known for its pricey merchandise and the idea that this merger will somehow bring down those prices significantly seems not only hard to prove but largely irrelevant to most Americans other than the urbanites and suburbanites in relatively wealthy areas.

In addition, Lina Kahn in the Yale Law Journal has laid out the reasons that Amazon's rise is a perfect example of how current antitrust law is totally inadequate for today's economic environment, even before this takeover of Whole Foods. Current antitrust law focuses on whether the resulting merger will result in lower prices to consumers and virtually ignores market concentration and monopoly power. In addition, studies have shown that subsequent prices end up even higher over the longer term than they would have had the merger not taken place.

According to Kahn, "Specifically, current doctrine underappreciates the risk of predatory pricing and how integration across distinct business lines may prove anticompetitive. These concerns are heightened in the context of online platforms for two reasons. First, the economics of platform markets create incentives for a company to pursue growth over profits, a strategy that investors have rewarded. Under these conditions, predatory pricing becomes highly rational—even as existing doctrine treats it as irrational and therefore implausible. Second, because online platforms serve as critical intermediaries, integrating across business lines positions these platforms to control the essential infrastructure on which their rivals depend. This dual role also enables a platform to exploit information collected on companies using its services to undermine them as competitors."

Amazon has spent well over a decade focusing on growth over profits and driving retail competitors out of business in multiple industries, starting with retail bookstores. It has been able to do so because the supposed "free-market" and the company's shareholders have not demanded profits and prefer to see the company gain its monopoly positions with the intention of bigger profits down the road. In addition, the build-out of its online infrastructure creates even greater advantages for Amazon and enhances its abilities to undercut its rivals.

Kahn lays out a couple of changes in antitrust law to deal with the problems that Amazon and other platform-based monopolies such as Google, Facebook or even Uber create. Where companies are engaged in a pattern of below-cost pricing due to virtually unlimited investor funding, the assumption should be that they are engaging in predatory pricing, what the author describes as "the presumption of predation".  Kahn continues, "Several reasons militate in favor of a presumption of predation in such cases. First, firms may raise prices years after the original predation, or raise prices on unrelated goods, in ways difficult to prove at trial. Second, firms may raise prices through personalized pricing or price discrimination, in ways not easily detectable. Third, predation can lead to a host of market harms even if the firm does not raise consumer prices. Within a consumer welfare framework, these harms include degradation of product quality and sapping diversity of choice."

Along with the presumption of predation, Kahn also recommends restricting the power of vertically integrated platforms such as Amazon by looking at the data that may be exchanged in a potential merger. Kahn says, "Thus, it could make sense for the agencies to automatically review any deal that involves exchange of certain forms (or a certain quantity) of data. Data that gave a player deep and direct insight into a competitor’s business operations, for example, might trigger [antitrust] review."

Another option would be to simply regulate these platforms in same way we deal with deal with utilities, essentially recognizing their monopoly position and regulating them accordingly. Kahn calls these "prophylactic limits", saying, "This would recognize that a platform’s involvement across multiple related lines of business can give rise to conflicts of interest by creating circumstances in which a platform has an incentive to privilege its own business and disadvantage other companies. Seeking to prevent the industry structures that create these conflicts of interest may prove more effective than policing these conflicts. Adopting this prophylactic approach would mean banning a dominant firm from entering any market that it already serves as a platform—in other words, from competing directly with the businesses that depend on it."

Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been railing against the lack of antitrust enforcement for years and how the resulting enormous market concentration has worked to the detriment of consumers and workers. Warren has pointed out that most major industries in the US are now dominated by oligopolies, including airlines, health care, drug stores, beef and pork, tech, internet and cable, and banking industries.

These oligopolies create enormous barriers to entry for any potential competitors in those markets, enable price fixing, and actually restrict real competition. Breaking these oligopolies up will not only create real competition, hopefully resulting in more choices, better service, and perhaps even reduced prices. Breaking them up will create an enormous number of new jobs and some true competition for workers, hopefully resulting in rising wages.

Hillary Clinton tepidly endorsed increased antitrust enforcement in her campaign last fall. For Democratic candidates running in 2018 and 2020, it should become a major talking point and a campaign position that needs to be harped on. Taking on the airlines, banks, and cable companies may be costly for your campaign's finances but it will certainly be popular with virtually all voters. And opposing this Amazon/Whole Foods merger is a perfect starting point for Democrats to position themselves for those upcoming campaigns by taking a strong antitrust stance.

Regional President Says Federal Reserve Is Still Fighting Inflation Wars Of 1970s

Yesterday, I wrote about the unfathomable decision by the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates in the face of declining job growth, declining hourly wages, and declining inflation which is already low by historical standards. The only economic data that would even suggest the need for a rate hike is the unusually low unemployment rate, much of which is apparently driven by an exodus from the labor force rather than a huge growth in the numbers employed.

Today, Neel Kashkari, the sole dissenter in the vote to raise rates, outlined the rationale for his opposition. According to Kashkari, "For me, deciding whether to raise rates or hold steady came down to a tension between faith and data." Faith relies on the belief, technically defined by something called the Phillips curve, that a tight labor market will lead to higher wages which forces businesses to pass on those increased labor costs to consumers in the form of higher prices which produces inflation.

The data, however, belies the applicability of the Phillips curve at this moment. Not only does Kashkari point out that the data shows inflation is actually declining but also that the Fed has been predicting, erroneously, that inflation will rise above its 2% target for the last eight years.

Kashkari takes the approach of a risk manager and sees the downside risks of raising rates too soon far outweigh the largely minimal consequences of waiting a short period and even allowing inflation to rise slightly above the 2% target. Right now, even Kashkari admits, many people view the 2% as a ceiling when it is simply a target. If the Fed is wrong that this current drop in inflation is not temporary, this rate hike will make it even harder to raise inflation and perhaps slow down job, wage, and economic growth even faster.

But Kashkari's most revealing statement is that the Fed is still fighting a war that ended 40 years ago, saying, "The outcome that the current FOMC is so focused on avoiding, high inflation of the 1970s, may actually be leading us to repeat some of the same mistakes the FOMC made in the 1970s: a faith-based belief in the Phillips curve and an underappreciation of the role of expectations". In the 1970s, the Fed's belief in the Phillips curve and the weak economic data in terms of job and real GDP growth caused by that period of stagflation led them to actually cut rates twice as the inflation rate soared. Kashkari continues, "Today, that same faith may be leading the Committee to repeatedly (and erroneously) forecast increasing inflation, resulting in us raising rates too quickly and continuing to undershoot our inflation targets".

The global and domestic economies have radically changed since the 1970s. But that doesn't seem to keep the generals at the Federal Reserve from fighting that last war. As Europe found out in World War II or America discovered in Vietnam, that approach never ends well.

Today's Recidivist Corporate Criminal: Wells Fargo

When documenting the rampant corporate crime that occurs in America these days, it is interesting to see that some of the same companies keep on showing up again and again, like Uber. Another frequent company that makes an appearance on this dubious list is Wells Fargo.

Wells Fargo has been mired in controversy since it was revealed that it had defrauded thousands of account holders by opening up bogus accounts and credit cards in the account holder's name and without authorization, simply to generate additional fees and meet sales performance goals. After the usual round of corporate denials and minimization of the problem, it was finally revealed that this particular scam had been going on for nearly 15 years.

In addition, many Wells Fargo employees who complained about this illegal conduct or reported it to their superiors were ignored and often terminated. And, in a final indignity, Wells Fargo tried to force those account holders into individual arbitration proceedings as detailed in their account opening documents in order to recoup the money that was stolen from them.

With all this in mind, you would think that Wells Fargo would make sure they were on their best behavior. But no, not the cowboys who run these unaccountable financial firms. On Wednesday, yet another class action was filed against the bank alleging that it was unilaterally changing the terms of its home loans with customers who were currently in bankruptcy. The changes initially looked to benefit these customers as it reduced their current payments to the bank. But at the same time, the changes extended the terms of the loans, meaning that the customer ended up owing far more money to the bank over the life of the loan.

Any modifications to a loan to a person in bankruptcy must be approved by the court and the parties involved. It appears that Wells Fargo did not go through this process, leading one judge to call Wells Fargo's actions "beyond the pale of due process." Instead, the bank submitted documents to the court that claimed that the customers had agreed to changes outlined in the modification when, in fact, they customers had neither been notified or agreed to such changes.

For those customers in bankruptcy, the extension of the life of the loan without their consent was a potentially devastating move. One couple was under a payment plan that would have paid off their loan after nine years. Wells Fargo unilaterally extended the loan to 40 years, which did lower the couple's monthly payments. But the customers were unaware that the loan term had been extended. If they had not inquired about the change with their lawyer, they would have emerged after nine years thinking their loan was paid off only to find they had another 31 years of payments and owed an additional $40,000 in interest.

An additional incentive for this Wells Fargo fraud, besides the massive amounts of additional interest, was the fact that the government would compensate Wells Fargo up to $1,600 for every loan modification it made.

It was less than two years ago, in November, 2015, that Wells Fargo paid over $80 million in fines for not providing timely notification to borrowers whose payments were modified due to changes in tax and/or insurance costs. As part of that fine, Wells Fargo agreed to certain changes that would prevent future violations. Apparently, those changes were never implemented which has been a common problem with so many of these government fines and agreements with these giant Wall Street financial firms.

I have written this before, but it is clear that one of the major failures of the Obama administration was to treat the financial industry with kid gloves after the financial crisis, presumably out of the fear of once again destabilizing the financial markets. Instead, the administration should have hauled in many of these firms' senior executives into court and charged them with real crimes. Yes, I know that current securities law is designed so that it is virtually impossible to win a case against these financial firms and the individuals who run them. But it would have been a shot across the bow to restrain these firms' lawless and renegade behavior even if the government could not get a single conviction. It certainly won't happen under Trump, but Democrats should remember that it's never too late to hold these criminals accountable.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Perjury Case Against Sessions Gets Stronger

The perjury case against Jeff Sessions just gets stronger and stronger the more often he is forced to testify under oath. Having already lied under oath during the hearings for his appointment as Attorney General and having to "amend the record" when he was caught in that lie, Sessions has apparently suffered severe memory problems ever since.

In his hearings earlier this week, he denied that he had held a meeting with Russians at the Mayflower hotel but admitted that he may have had a brief "encounter" with the Russian ambassador and not remembered. Apparently, press reports indicate that intelligence intercepts show the Russian ambassador reporting that he had met with Sessions on that occasion.

Sessions also denied meeting with any other Russians or people working on behalf of Russia during the campaign but again qualified that statement with phrases like "didn't believe" or "has no recollection" of meeting them.

That denial is farcical on its face because Richard Burt, a lobbyist for Russian interests, has previously admitted that he attended at least two dinners with GOP foreign policy hands where Sessions was in attendance. Burt could not confirm whether Sessions knew he lobbied for Russia. Considering that Burt was reportedly heavily involved in Trump's first foreign policy speech and was lobbying on behalf of an entity controlled by the Russian state-owned energy company, Gazprom, you would think Sessions might have some clue about his role.

What makes Session's claim possibly more ridiculous but perhaps more credible is that Politico reported these dinners with Burt back in October. So Sessions clearly had the opportunity and the obligation in his amended hearing's testimony to research and report these additional meetings as well as include them in his testimony this week. He did not.

It is possible that Sessions is the dumbest man alive, I guess. But his inability to recollect meetings that are in the public record as well as his inability to remember the details of any of the conversations with Russians that he is eventually forced to admit to make it seem like his efforts are focused on minimizing the number and downplaying the significance of any and all contacts that he had with the Russians. It does not appear to be focused on giving an honest and truthful account.

Fed Raises Rates For No Good Reason At All

The Fed raised interest rates yesterday by 1/4 of a point despite recent economic performance actually pointing to a slowdown rather than an overheated economy. Importantly, the current inflation measures all point to a rate blow the Fed's target of 2%. But, ever the optimists, the Fed is predicting we will soon be rapidly eclipsing that target by .1% as early as 2019. And this is coming from a group that has underestimated inflation for the last 8 years. What, exactly, are they thinking?

Let's take a look at the numbers to see why this rate hike is so poorly timed. I have already written about the collapse in retail, both in sales and in hiring, with over 100,000 jobs lost in that industry just this year. May's unemployment report was also particularly underwhelming, with the decline in the overall rate driven by a massive exodus of people from the labor market far more so than a surge in hiring.

Even the Fed's forecasts for GDP growth never exceeds 2.2% over the next two years, and those expectations have dropped since the last meeting in March.

Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones has kindly provided even more important data points. The trend of average hourly wage growth has actually been decreasing since the end of 2015.

The Fed's favorite inflation measure has hardly budged, has actually decrease since the beginning of the year, is currently below the level it reached in mid-2014, and has yet to threaten the 2% benchmark.

In fact, the markets suggest that inflation won't reach the 2% level anytime in the near future as TIPS and swap rates in the 5-10 year range expect an inflation rate between  around 1.5% and 1.75%. As Larry Summers points out, the Fed's current matrix shows four rate hikes over the next year and a half while the market seemingly expects only two.

This has been the problem for the Fed for the last few years and, in some ways, they continue to get boxed in by their own faulty forecasts. They continually signal to the markets that they will raise rates but the data just doesn't support it. Often, they have been embarrassingly forced to back off as happened in May of last year. But, at times, like yesterday, they seem to drive ahead solely to convince the markets that they remain credible in their commitments. To say that approach may not be an effective way to manage the economy would be a gross understatement.

We are now in the eighth year of recovery and it seems far more probable that the economy is more likely to slow down rather than become overheated after such a prolonged period of expansion. The Republicans in Congress are screwing around with one-fifth of the American economy in total secrecy. Families are becoming increasingly concerned that health care will no longer be available, much less affordable. We have probably the most extreme Congress in decades and a President who clearly has no grasp of policy details as we approach another battle over the debt ceiling, with default as a looming possible outcome. Republicans are also intending to massively change the tax code and explode the national debt even further.

Everything in the above suggests greater instability and possible economic contraction. Nothing suggests the need to raise interest rates. And just to show how much the markets are ignoring the Fed's actions and intentions, mortgage rates, which are usually highly correlated with interest rates, actually dropped to an eight month low yesterday, focusing more on the weak Consumer Price Index number rather than on the Fed's announcement of a rate hike.

All this makes it hard to understand why the Fed took action yesterday. In fact, the only reason that truly makes any sense is that the Fed is desperate to push up rates whenever it can simply to have ammunition to cut rates when the expected downturn in the economy does come. Of course, that is quite probably a self-fulfilling policy.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

GOP Beginning To Resemble Parties That Serve Autocracies Such As United Russia

When I was growing up, an important slur used by Republicans was to constantly rail against the "Reds" that were undermining our democracy and colluding with Communists to destroy our country. Those so accused were supposedly supporting totalitarianism and autocracy because they resented the advantages of democracy and despised the free market. Needless to say, this slur was used to attack prior members of the actual Communist party from the 1930s as well as pretty anyone else who opposed the Republican party from the left or even from the right.

But based on what's happened in the last two decades, it is highly ironic that Republican-dominated areas of our country are now considered "red", a leftover from the contentious media description of states won by Republicans versus the "blue" states won by Democrats in the 2000 election. That's because the Republican party is more and more looking like the totalitarian and authoritarian state that the GOP of my generation used to condemn.

It is apparent that Republicans in the Senate are intent on trying to pass their version of the cruel and horrific AHCA without any hearings and without the public, much less Democrats, knowing anything about what's in the bill. The plan is to get a CBO score, which I believe is mandated by Senate procedures, and then vote as quickly as possible before any focused resistance could build. In many ways, it follows the same procedure that the House used to pass its own version of the AHCA. In a remarkable bit of candor that clearly exhibits the Republicans' attitude toward democracy these days and the remarkable unpopularity of what they are planning to pass, a GOP staffer said, "We're not stupid."

In addition, the Senate informed the press that it would not be allowed to film interviews in the Senate hallways without prior agreements from the individual Senator. This, of course, is designed to make sure the press has even less access in order to protect the details of the Senate's stealth health care bill from becoming public. At this moment, this order has apparently been rescinded due to the media outcry but don't be surprised if the GOP tries this tactic of suppression again.

Yesterday, we saw Attorney General Sessions using a novel theory to defy answering questions from Congress, that he felt it was inappropriate for him to comment on his discussions with the President. This is the same "theory" that DNI Coats and NSA Rogers used with this same committee days ago. They were not invoking executive privilege. They were not saying it involved classified material. They could provide no legal basis for their refusal to answer questions. Sessions, at least, tried to claim that were "longstanding" DOJ regulations that limited his ability to discuss his conversations with the President. When pressed, he could not provide any specific DOJ regulation, but shifted his argument to the "longstanding" principle, which obviously has no legal basis.

And, since were talking about totalitarianism, the Trump cabinet meeting the other day was pretty much the definition of the all-powerful leader being fawned over by the sycophants whose livelihood depends on his good graces. Reince Priebus won the prize for biggest brownnoser who thanked Trump for the "opportunity and blessing" to serve the Dear Leader.

Last night, a man who actually managed to get fired by the Trump campaign, not because his ties to Russian oligarchs were exposed but because he was actually too crazy for even the Trump campaign, managed to come in a close second in the Virginia Republican Gubernatorial primary.

This is the state of our democracy today. Legislation is crafted in secret and passed without any input from the public. The press is being intimidated and slowly seeing their rights and freedoms threatened and eroded. The executive totally ignores the constitutional rights of legislative oversight, creating novel new "theories" to render any restrictions on the executive power meaningless. And the leader must be praised effusively in order to stay in his good graces.

I have written many posts over the last year about the creeping authoritarianism and the destruction of governing and democratic norms that have become the hallmark of the Republican party over the last few decades. This has only been exacerbated and fueled by the Trump campaign and presidency. In its secrecy, loyalty to the leader and not the office, and the refusal to abide by the rule of law, the Republican party is taking the next steps down the path of autocracies that just maintain the veneer of democracy such as Russia and Hungary. It is coming more and more to resemble Fidesz in Hungary or United Russia under Putin, a party designed solely to serve the autocrat and not the people it supposedly represents.

GOP Will Use Russian Hack Of Voting Systems To Further Restrict Voting Rights

Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that the Russian hacking of our election in 2016 was far, far broader than had previously been reported and actually effected four out of every five states in the country. In addition, the hacks went far deeper that anyone had imagined, to the point where the Russians had the ability to edit the voter rolls in a number of jurisdictions.

According to the report, the Russians did not find a way to change any vote tallies nor did they try. And apparently the Russians did not mess with the voter rolls despite having the opportunity to do so. But that probably needs more investigation, simply because the Republicans were engaging in mass purges of the voter rolls in a number of states as well. I think we deserve a real investigation and a real assurance that the Russians did not change the voter rolls in conjunction, not necessarily in coordination, with those purges. This is especially true because the breadth of the Russian hack seems to grow wider and wider as the investigation continues.

There is already a mountain of evidence that the Russians tried to influence the election so that Donald Trump and the Republicans would win. It is reasonable to believe that that effort would involve suppression of Democratic votes by scrubbing the roles. The Bloomberg story claims that the Russians did not make any efforts to actually scrub the rolls because the Obama administration warned the Russians off. But that warning did nothing to stop the flood of leaks to support Trump and the Republicans which makes it a little hard to believe that it kept the Russians from messing with the voter rolls. I have no evidence that, of course, but it does seem logical.

While the Republicans cling to the fact there is no evidence that any vote tallies were changed, that is kind of a red herring simply because striking one Democratic voter off the rolls accomplishes the very same thing as reducing the Democratic vote tally by one.

As the contours of the Russian hacking become clearer and we see just how widespread their efforts were, it is important to remember that the Republican leadership refused to support a bipartisan statement on the extent of Russian hacking back in October when the intelligence community reached its finding about that issue. Instead, Mitch McConnell declared that he would consider even making a statement about the Russian hacking a partisan attack. And the leadership clearly knew that the Russians were trying to help Trump and Republicans get elected at that time.

Lastly, I am willing to bet that the GOP will use the Russian hack of the voter rolls as an excuse to create even more roadblocks to voting, requiring more IDs and creating other impediments. And, rather than blaming the need for these restrictions on largely Democratic voters on voter fraud, they will move to the excuse that it is to protect from the election being hacked. This fits in perfectly with the party's current MO. James Comey hands the election to them on a silver platter and the GOP praises his actions. But then those same Republicans go and fire Comey for his inappropriate actions regarding Clinton's emails when his investigation gets too close to the truth about the GOP. Trump and the Republican gain power with the help of the Russians and they will then use that hacking as a reason to disenfranchise even more Democratic voters.

It is the tactic of the authoritarian where they can say two things completely in opposition to each other at almost the same time and demand that they both be true. It is a display of power to control the "truth". It is today's Republican party.

Mob Boss Of Uber Forced To Step Aside

I've been really trying not to write about Uber again but the company continues to shock with its constant criminality and abusive behavior. And the more the company attempts to clean up its image, the more evidence of that criminal and abusive behavior comes to light.

Last week we learned that a senior Uber executive traveled all the way to India in order to illegally obtain the medical records of a woman there who claimed she was raped by an Uber driver. This seems to be part of an apparent attempt to somehow discredit the victim and/or blame this incident on a rival ride sharing firm that Uber claimed was trying to sabotage them.

Police in India floated the possibility of criminally charging Uber in the case for lax background checks but ultimately banned Uber from India for a period of time. Uber responded to the incident by rolling out enhanced background checks and other safety features. But, as usual with Uber, that was largely a fa├žade, as the company simply outsourced these tasks to companies that clearly were not thorough and had enormous language problems in even taking down reported incidents.

This incident with the Indian woman's medical records were part of a staggering 215 incidents of improper company behavior that has been reported to the investigators tasked with looking into the issues at Uber. According to the recode article, "20 employees were fired for a range of infractions, from sexual harassment to unprofessional behavior to retaliation. About 100 others are either still being investigated or saw some type of action — such as warnings or mandatory employee trainings."

I'm sorry but when you have a company with well over one hundred people being investigated or reprimanded for multiple infractions, you've pretty well defined an ongoing criminal enterprise.

Yesterday, the don of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was essentially forced to take an indefinite leave of absence. This is the business equivalent of the mob hit, where the new boss eliminates the old boss and takes over the criminal enterprise. It is an apt metaphor for Uber.

But even when taking this action, Uber managed to put its sexism and misogyny on full display. When the company highlighted a woman on the board and indicated it could lead to other women joining the board, a male board member said that those actions would just result in "more talking". The employees and board members at this meeting were aghast and the male board member has since resigned. But it is a telling sign of just how deep the abusive and criminal behavior goes at Uber. And it starts at the top.

If millions of dollars of other people's money had not been invested in this corporate disaster, this company would be shut down as a criminal enterprise. Virtually every act it takes in furtherance of its elusive profits have been unethical or illegal. It would only be divine justice if all those investors who have enabled the criminal enterprise actually lose their investment.

Closed Sessions

A few quick words about Attorney General Jeff Sessions' inadequate testimony yesterday. As the NY Times writes today in its editorial, Sessions pretty much ran the gamut in the excuses he had for not answering a question.

Sessions was at his most passionate when he declared that the accusations that he had colluded with the Russian were "appalling". Of course, no one has accused Sessions himself of colluding with the Russians, at least not yet. What is of more interest regarding the Attorney General is why he keeps on forgetting meetings with the Russians and whether that amounts to perjury. In that regard, Sessions simply claimed that he couldn't remember meeting Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel but that it could have happened. This conveniently lets Sessions have it both ways, protecting himself from perjury if in fact a meeting at that time con be proved.

Like DNI Coats and NSA Director Rogers, Sessions also used the novel "theory" that it was inappropriate for him to discuss his conversations with the President. While admitting that Trump was not exerting executive privilege and that the conversation did not cover classified material, the only two legal reasons for refusing to answer the questions under oath, Sessions claimed that he was basing his refusal on "longstanding" DOJ regulations which he could not cite or had even read.

Sadly, no Senator focused on the two questions I hoped would be asked. No one made the point, which is made in the Times editorial, that Sessions' recusal concerned the "campaigns" of last year and was not limited to the Russia investigation. It clearly included the Clinton campaign as well, which makes his recommendation that Comey be fired because of his actions in the Clinton email investigation a clear violation of his recusal.

The second question I had revolved around the firing of all US Attorneys at once and Sessions knowledge of the discussions that led to that whole affair.

But perhaps the most important admission from Sessions was that he had not attended a single briefing on the depth and breadth of the Russian interference in our electoral process. And he did not seem overly concerned about it either, in stead stressing supporting law and order, cracking down on drugs and gangs, and fighting terrorism. How curious...

Astrophotography Adventure - Open Cluster Messier 7

Messier 7, also known as the Ptolemy cluster, was identified in ancient times, first noted in writing by Ptolemy in 130 AD. It is located in the constellation Scorpius and is just under 1,000 light years away, which means that the light that this photo collected was created by these stars just a few decades before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Here are the technical details for those 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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Open Sessions

Rachel Maddow made a couple of important points in her show last night about the potential questions for Jeff Sessions. One issue covered the un-recusal that Sessions performed in the firing of James Comey. And the second issue covers the surprise firing on all US Attorneys at once back in March.

In the case of his Sessions' involvement with the Comey firing, Sessions will hide behind the fact that the letter he signed recommending Comey's removal, which was merely passing on the recommendations of Deputy AG Rosenstein, was focused on Comey's actions regarding Hilary Clinton during the campaign. That is a highly dubious claim on its face. But, even if you take Sessions at his word on the Comey firing, it would still be violating his recusal promise. That's because his recusal specifically stated that "I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States." There is no restriction to the Russian investigation or even a specific mention of the Trump campaign. Rather, the specific wording of "campaigns", clearly covers Hillary and the email investigation.

Regarding the US Attorneys, there is every indication that the intention was not to fire them all at once. The transition documents specifically stated that intention. Sessions apparently had a conference call with all the US Attorneys outlining the changes in prosecutorial focus he wanted to implement just two days before they were all summarily fired. That seems like a total waste of time if you knew everyone on the call would be fired within days. And now we have Trump's attorney stating that he told Trump to fire Bharara because "this guy is going to get you". This apparent total change in policy in just a matter of a day or two needs to be explored with Sessions more fully.

On the other issues regarding Sessions' conversations with the President, I would expect that he will invoke executive privilege or ask to answer in a closed session. And base on his strong denials, he probably will stand by his statements on another April meeting with Kislyak. But he needs to be pressed very hard on what he and Kislyak actually discussed in the meetings they did have.

Health Care Lobby's Unwillingness To Confront Congress Over AHCA Speaks Volumes

David Leonhart has an important editorial in the NY Times today where he outlines how timid all the various health care groups have been in opposing the AHCA and whatever its Senate version looks like. All these groups know what a disaster this bill will be for health care in America but their unwillingness to vociferously oppose it will condemn millions of Americans to restricted access to health care and end up allowing tens or hundreds of thousands of people to needlessly die.

According to Leanohart, "...the lobbying groups for doctors, nurses and hospitals as well as advocates for patients with cancer, diabetes, lung disease, heart disease or birth defects. Each understands that the bill would deprive millions of Americans of insurance. Each has criticized the bill, and some, including AARP, have done more, like organizing phone calls. But they have not come close to the sort of public campaign that would put intense pressure on senators".

Some of us are old enough to remember the "Harry and Louise" ads that contributed to death of the Clinton health care plan back in 1990s. At that time, there was a major PR push by the important segments of the health care industry to sink or sabotage the plan. But we see nothing like that today.

Now one might think that these industry groups are silent because, like the voters in this country, the Republicans have kept them in the dark about their plan's details. But, of course, that is not the truth. Most of these health care groups have some inkling about what's in the Senate bill from the legislators they lobby. And, according to Leonhart, some of these groups are quietly lobbying to make the bill "less bad".

So the real question is why are those groups so passive when they know what a disaster this health care bill will be for themselves and for millions of Americans. The answer, Leonhart believes, is that the profits for these various health care industries are not directly effected. And that is probably true for a majority of those groups. But I'm pretty sure that hospitals are not particularly thrilled with having millions of people with no medical insurance using the emergency room as their primary care physician. And rural hospitals especially will badly effected by Medicaid's rollback. But maybe these groups figure they can get better deals when they lobby the states directly, although I would doubt it.

Less powerful, I think, but still important, is Leonhart's second reason for these health care groups' timidity and that is they are afraid of the unlimited power of the Republican party and know they will be punished for opposing this plan.

But this whole scenario speaks to the utter failure of America's health care system. The people charged with protecting Americans' health have no interest in defending millions who will lose insurance and thousands who will die because their profits will not be effected. These groups refuse to reveal the details of how these millions of Americans will be effected to those very same millions of people because they are afraid of the raw political power of the Republican party.

If the health care lobby has no interest in the health and well-being of patients, then it's really no health care system at all. And the obvious solution, which I see Leonhart won't even address, is a true public option. When Democrats have their shot at health care again, and they will one day, they should never forget the cowardice and unwillingness of the health care industry to stand up for the people they allegedly claim they serve.

Monday, June 12, 2017

America's March Toward Autocracy Moves Swiftly And Largely Unimpeded

America's march towards autocracy and away from democracy gets more and more frightening each day. The forces of hatred that have long been nurtured by the Republican party have been unleashed by Trump's election and the attacks on our democratic institutions and norms now come daily.

In Binghamton, New York, a Democrat who announced he was running for mayor withdrew from the race just days later after he received a continual barrage of threats to his own person and his family. His decision was cemented when he was assaulted outside his home after picking up his two year old and 11 month of children from a sitter. The candidate was hit in the back by a full soda can that was thrown at him as he shielded his children. The attacker in this drive-by assault yelled "liberal scumbag" as he drove away.

This case follows on the heels of the Democratic opponent to the racist Republican Representative Steve King in Iowa announcing that she too was withdrawing from the race in part because of the threats and intimidation she had received since her campaign was announced. In addition to family health concerns, the candidate said, "One consideration has been raised again by recent events at my home. Beginning during my 2016 campaign, I have received very alarming acts of intimidation, including death threats. While some may say enduring threats are just a part of running for office, my personal safety has increasingly become a concern." King, of course, like most Republicans these days, was not interested in hearing or investigating any potential crimes that might inhibit our democracy and accused his opponent of lying, tweeting, "Death threats likely didn't happen but a fabrication."

Meanwhile. Trump supporters keep on framing the presidency as a national CEO, ignoring the democratic and constitutional principle that, in theory, all these people work for us. According to the Trumpsters, the President can fire anyone in the federal government that he wants to because they are all his employees. The only way this attitude is any different from totalitarianism is that is couched in free market economic language. Substantively, it provides the same result.

This theory of the presidency is clearly the path that Trump's defense against possible impeachment will take. Since the impeachment process is primarily political and not legal, the defense is simply ignoring or twisting our constitutional and democratic norms in order to keep the Trump base in line. I've already written about the tack that Trump's attorney Marc Kasowitz took in trying to turn the Comey testimony into a he said/he said dispute as he has done with all the women accusing Trump of sexual harassment in the past. Kasowitz's spokesman also took the "President as CEO" defense in reacting to Preet Bhrara's comments over the weekend, tweeting, "All US Attorneys work for and at the pleasure of POTUS. There is nothing abnormal with the executive speaking directly with his employees...I'd [sic] Preet refused to accept the President's call, he deserved to be fired." Of course, if Bharara did take the call, he would be violating DOJ guidelines and, of course, could also be subjected to firing.

In addition, Trump's lawyers and his supporters seem to be laying the groundwork to fire Mueller when the time comes. Jay Sekulow, a member of Kasowtiz's legal team, refused to rule out the possibility that Trump could fire Mueller in comments over the weekend. That attitude has been backed up quite vociferously by the right wing media machine. Here is New Gingrich's comments on twitter, "Republicans are delusional of they think the special counsel is going to be fair. Look who he is hiring. Check FEC reports. Time to rethink.". And Anne Coulter: "Now that we FINALLY got Comey to admit Trump is not under investigation, Sessions should fire Mueller. Why do we need a special prosecutor now?" And Byron York and Laura Ingraham are suggesting Mueller should be fired because he has a conflict of interest because Mueller and Comey have been long-time friends. Of course, that's primarily because they have worked together in the past. But it is an even more bogus argument when you thing of the many ongoing conflicts, in direct violation of the Constitution, that Trump, his family, and his administration engage in on a daily basis.

All these incidents are, to me, frightening signs that we are on our way to a Russian-style authoritarian oligarchy. We are seeing targeted physical violence against opposition candidates and a theory of the presidency that leads directly to autocracy. There are members of the Trump administration and family who are directly benefiting economically from their government positions on a daily basis. The majority of the people did not vote for this President, but there voices are ignored. And the Republican party is willingly complicit in Trump's blatant refusal to follow the laws and enabling his authoritarian tendencies.

If you really want to go deep into the dangerous fever swamp of the Republican right, take a look at this article from some who is, incredibly, an adjunct professor at Georgetown. In it, he demands the indictments of "James Comey for perjury, and he and all FBI officials who conspired with him to support the Clinton campaign; All three Clintons, both Obamas, and Loretta Lynch; The Clinton Foundation, its leadership team, some of its contributors, and all of the State Department and other national government officials who willing aided the Foundation while Clinton was Secretary of State;
John Podesta and his DNC leadership team; Eric Holder and all those DoJ officials involved in Fast&Furious; Lois Learner and the IRS officials who persecuted conservatives; All leakers of classified information, most especially serving and former senior U.S. Intelligence Community officials; George Soros and all U.S.-citizen, billionaire big shots who fund the violence of Democratic demonstrators; All the Democratic operatives who have rigged voter lists and otherwise assisted the dead and illegal aliens to vote; All of the mayors, governors, judges, police chiefs, ministers, priests, NGOs, and university leaders who establish and maintain 'sanctuary' domains; The people who killed DNC employee Seth Rich, as well those responsible for the long list of murders of people who crossed the Clintons." Gee, that doesn't sound like a political hit list, does it?

As Adam Gopnik pointed out, the distinct difference in the US and French elections is that the center-right in France banded together to ensure the National Front did not come to power. In the US, on the other hand, the center-right largely capitulated to Trump and refused to oppose him an any sensible way. Not one significant member of the Republican "establishment" came out and forcefully endorsed Clinton.

Last Friday, 53 years earlier, a Massachusetts lawyer, Joseph Welch, finally stood up to McCarthyism and red-baiting of Republicans, saying, "Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" Well, I think it is about time we asked that same question of certain Republicans. Not so much the Republicans in Congress, who have shown themselves to only be interested in enabling Trump's authoritarian tendencies, rolling back the social safety net built since the Great Depression, and passing tax cuts for the already richest group of Americans ever, but to those supposedly moderate sane Republicans outside of government. Yes, I'm talking to you, the Bushes and the Romneys. Your silence is deafening and you are just as much enablers of Trump's erosion of our democracy as anyone else at this point. And if you think that you can pick up the pieces of this Republican party after it implodes, you may likely find that there is no party worth inheriting, as it never imploded. It will simply have become the tool of the autocrat. And you may find yourselves in the same place as that mayor from Binghamton, coming under physical attack if you are dare to oppose the authoritarian leader.

And if you think that this post is simply hyperbole, take a look at this "cabinet meeting" that could have come straight out of the Politburo. We must all praise our Dear Leader.

NHL Stanley Cup Recap - Penguins Win Back-To-Back Titles

The Pittsburgh Penguins retained the Stanly Cup last night, defeating the Nashville Predators 2-0 and taking the series in six games. The Penguins become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in the late 1990s to win back-to-back titles. Sydney Crosby solidified his place as one of the all-time greats as he was selected MVP and, despite not scoring a lot himself, was clearly one of the dominant players on the ice throughout the series.

There seemed to be a decided home-ice advantage in this series as both teams only won in their own building until last night's game. In Game 1, the Predators appeared to score first but the goal was waived off on an off-side challenge that was seemingly too close to overrule. The Penguins then scored the next three goals, helped by a horrendous call that gave them a 5 on 3 power play, and the game seemed done. But the Preds rallied to tie it up before Jake Guentzel's late goal won it for the Pens.

Game 2 once again started with a Nahsville goal, this one allowed, on a beautiful individual effort by Pontus Aberg. But the Penguins scored three goals in the first four minutes of the third to win 4-1. Game 3 move to Nashville and the Predators, down 2-0, could not afford to lose a game at home. Again, the visiting team scored first and the Predators responded with three second period goals to win 5-1. In Game 4, the teams traded first period goals but two second period goals and great goaltending by Pekka Rinni allowed the Preds to tie up the series 2-2.

So heading back to Pittsburgh for Game 5, the Predators had all the momentum and promptly collapsed, giving up three first period goals. Peter Laviolette made, in my opinion, a tactical error by conceding the game at that point by pulling Rinne for the final two periods. The Preds had come back from a three goal deficit in Pittsburgh before but that move was basically a concession. In the end it was a 6-0 thrashing.

All of which took us to last night's game in Nashville. It was a tight-checking affair from the start and by the end of the first period it looked like just one goal might be enough. Certainly the first goal would be critical. Early in the second period, Filip Forsberg took an off angle shot that Murray seemed to save but the puck rolled away him into the center of the crease in front of an empty net, where Colton Sisson dove in from the high slot to knock it in. But the referee was positioned in the one particular place where he couldn't see the loose puck and blew the play dead. It was a horrendous call and there was no need for a quick whistle as there was no goalmouth scrum and delaying and moving his position for just a second longer would have allowed him to see the loose puck.

The refs clearly knew the call was horrendous and did as much as they could to let the Predators get the first goal, letting some potential Predator penalties go and calling as much as they could on the Penguins, including putting them down two men at one point. But the goalies had taken over as both Murray and Rinne were spectacular. By the start of the third period, it was clear this would be a one goal game. And it came with just a minute and a half left when former Predator Patric Hornqvist took a screen shot that missed the net and rebounded off the backboards and banked it in off of Rinne for the game and Cup winner. The Penguins added an empty net goal a short time later.

For the NHL, it was a horrendous way for the season to end. The officiating throughout the playoffs has been substandard at best. There were far too many games where the calls were brutally inconsistent and no one has a clue what constitutes goalie interference anymore. Just ask the Edmonton Oilers. But this call, which was such an egregious miss as opposed to a judgement call in such a tight and important game, will go down in NHL history as one of the worst.

For the Predators, it was a fabulous season but tempered a bit by what could have been. They just couldn't seem to get the calls or the bounces to win the series. They had a couple of own-goals bounce off their own defenseman and in many games actually out-chanced the Penguins but could not score. Pekka Rinne was not the brick wall he had been in the prior series but that level of superb play was probably unsustainable.

The Penguins completed a remarkable run to win back-to-back Cups. It is a testament to the ownership, management, coach, and leadership on the team. Remember, the Pens were playing without their arguably best defenseman, Kris Letang, the entire playoffs. Whenever a player went down with injury, another would just step right in and they never missed a beat. Steve Sullivan made all the right moves, switching back to Murray at just the right time and inserting Hornqvist, who hadn't seen a lot of ice time but ended up scoring the winning goal. Jake Guentzel tied the record for playoff points by a rookie. And Matt Murray arguable outplayed Pekka Rinne which may have been the determining factor in this series.

It was an awesome accomplishment for the Pens. Too bad it will be overshadowed by one of the most horrendous calls in Stanley Cup history.

French Open Round-Up

The French Open concluded yesterday with Rafael Nadal cementing his legacy as the greatest clay court player ever, winning his 10th French Open with a workman-like straight set win over an error prone Stan Wawrinka.

Nadal was a prohibitive favorite and he showed why, not dropping a set the entire tournament and never losing more than four games in any one set. It was complete and utter domination. The rest of the men's play was also pretty lackluster, highlighted by Dominic Thiem's rout of Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Djokovic has lost his mojo recently and looked particularly disinterested as he got bageled in the deciding set. Thiem returned the favor in the semis, getting bageled by Nadal in their third and final set.

The ladies tournament was expected to be far more interesting, with well over half a dozen players considered to have a legitimate shot at winning it, in one of the most wide open draws in memory. But no one was expecting a 19 year old Latvian, ranked 47th in the world, to battle her way through three set match after three set match and take the title. Jelena Ostapenko turned 20 on the day of her semifinal win over Timea Bacsinszky, who remarkably was celebrating her own birthday on that day. But Ostapenko played like a ten year veteran the entire tournament, remaining cool under pressure in every tight match. And there were plenty of them as Ostapenko had to go the three set distance in five of her seven matches. In the final, she defeated Simona Halep, coming back from a 0-3,-0-40 deficit in the second set to extend it to a deciding set where she again came from behind to win 6-3 and take the title. Ostapenko was capable of hitting five consecutive pretty bad errors followed by eight consecutive astounding winners. When asked about that in her post-match interview, she basically replied that she knew if she stayed aggressive she would start making those shots. Ah, the wisdom of youth.

Halep had made it to the final by defeating Elena Svitolina in the quarters and Karolina Pliskova in the semis, both in three sets. Svitolina, who had been the most in-form player coming into the tournament, was actually down 1-5 to qualifier Petra Martic in round 4 but rallied to win six games in a row, with help from Martic, to move on to the quarters. Once there, Svitolina returned to favor to Halep by blowing a 5-2 lead in the second after winning the first. And once Halep took the second set in a tiebreaker, the third set did not last too long as Svitolina totally collapsed and lost 6-0.

As far as my predictions went, I had 3 of the four finalists and I'm pretty sure no one had Ostapenko winning it, much less making it to the final.

Lastly, it was another dismal tournament for the Americans as no one on either side of the singles draw made it to the Monday of the second week. We were more successful in the doubles with USA's Ryan Harrison and Michael Venus overcoming USA's Donald Young and Santiago Gonzales in the men's doubles finals and Bethanie Mattek-Sands continuing to win women's doubles titles with Lucy Safarova. And there were two Americans in the girls singles final where Whitney Osuigwe defeated Claire Liu, providing, once again, some hope for the future. But that has been the state of US tennis for nearly a decade...

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Never Forget That Susan Collins Is A Partisan Hack, Always Has, Always Will Be

If anyone still has any doubt that Susan Collins is just another Republican partisan hack, take a look at her interview on CNN on Friday. She concocts amazing excuses for Trump's behavior and manages to blame Comey for the fact that Trump kept meeting with Comey in private in order to encourage him to shut down his investigation.

In the interview, she said, "The first interaction that the President had with Mr. Comey back in early January at Trump Tower, it was the FBI Director who cleared the room...I wonder if perhaps that made the President think that whenever there is some conversation to be had with the FBI director that it should be one-on-one because he had two subsequent one-on-one meetings as well as other phone calls with the FBI director. That doesn't make it right, but ironically perhaps the FBI's actions in that first meeting sent a signal to the President that this is how their interactions should take place."

Please! Considering how many times he's been sued, that proposition is taking Trump's proven incredible ignorance to a level that simply is not possible. And I love the nice twist of blaming Comey for Trump's actions. Partisan hackery at its best!

But since this is Susan Collins, "MODERATE!", she has to make sure she at least rhetorically gets on both sides of the fence. She earlier stated, "This reflects the fact that this is the first President in our history who has had neither a military nor a political background, and I think he just does not fully understand or appreciate the boundaries and that it is totally wrong -- I'll go beyond inappropriate. It is wrong for the President of the United States to tell or imply to an FBI director that an investigation should not go forward."

Gee, let's throw a few more excuses for Trump out there before finally understating the obvious, that Trump's actions were "wrong". And she even went beyond Republicans' favorite word these days, "inappropriate".

So, having basically admitted in the weakest language possible that the President has obstructed justice, you would think that Collins might feel a need to outline what the next steps should be concerning that crime, but, of course, we heard nothing on that score.

If you believe Susan Collins is going to stop the Senate from taking health care from millions in order to give tax cuts to the top 1%, I'm afraid you will be sadly disappointed. If Mitch McConnell has the 50 votes he needs, we may get Collins' vote. But if McConnell needs her vote, she will provide it. She always has and always will. Because Collins is just another partisan hack. She only plays a "MODERATE!" on TV.

The Difference Between British And American

Obviously, there are significant differences between US and UK elections- theirs is a parliamentarian system, their campaign only lasted six weeks, the geography makes campaigning across their country far easier and necessary, and a host of other factors.

But one thing that stands out is that, over there, the public and even the press actually takes the parties' platforms, or manifestos as they are called, seriously. It could be argued, in fact, that the Conservative and Labour party manifestos were actually the determining factor in yesterday's election.

The Labour manifesto attracted younger voters and previously disaffected traditionally Labour voters with its anti-austerity focus including pledges for abolition of tuition fees, spending nearly 8 billion pounds to improve the NHS, maintain free school lunches, and free childcare at a cost of nearly 6 billion pounds. All these were largely paid for with increased taxes on the top 5% of earners as well as increased business taxes. It was a progressive or, God forbid we use the word in America, socialist platform.

The Conservative manifesto, on the other hand, was not as well received. It abandoned the free school lunches and proposed cheaper breakfasts instead as a cost-saving measure. It reiterated a pre-existing plan to cut corporate taxes. It proposed to cut immigration by around 200,000 and increase defense spending by 0.5% more than inflation on an annual basis. It proposed to repeal the ban on fox hunting. Like Labour, the Tories also pledged to increase spending on the NHS by about 8 billion pounds.

But by far the most important item in the Conservative manifesto was the proposal to provide "free" social care for all those making less than 100,000 pounds, raising that limit from around 25,000. The catch was that the value of a person's home was to be included in the means test, meaning that millions of poorer homeowners would end up paying more for their social services. In addition, the government could recoup the cost of that care by selling the patient's home after death.

This became the so-called "dementia tax" and it was claimed that millions of children would end up paying more to take care of their parent or parents suffering from dementia and then lose the house they were living in upon the parent's death.

May and the Conservatives immediately tried to backtrack as it became clear that the "dementia tax' was becoming a potent issue against them but the adjustments they offered potentially made it worse. In addition, it looked like May was panicking and flip-flopping, in contrast to the continued harping on her "strong leadership", and it showed that she and the Conservatives didn't really know what they were doing.

Now, May was a pretty poor candidate and was unexpectedly outclassed by Corbyn as a campaigner. But it is also clear that the manifestos of each party, especially the Conservative's dementia tax, was the turning point in this campaign.

Wouldn't it have been nice if the media and the public had paid a little more attention to the actual policy intentions of the Democrats and Republicans last year, rather than focusing on emails, slogans instead of substance, personalities, and more emails?

Natural Weekends - Ducks, Swans, Egrets, And Herons