Saturday, July 8, 2017

Another Rant On The Radical Nature Of The Current Republican Party

Last fall, before the election, I wrote a post highlighting the coming split between true conservatives and the Republican party. That piece was largely based on an interview with Samuel Goldman, a professor of political theory at George Washington University.

Goldman is a conservative himself but believes that true conservatives no longer have a place in the Republican party. According to Goldman, "[I]t appeared not just to conservatives but to virtually everybody that a program of deregulation and free trade really did benefit almost everyone. For the last 10 or 15 years, that hasn't seemed to have been the case. George W. Bush, as we all know, brought the country into two inconclusive and at least one unnecessary war. The economic package that was associated with conservatism stopped delivering the goods. Since conservative politicians and policies have stopped delivering peace and prosperity, I think it’s more or less inevitable that voters have become dissatisfied. It took a while, as these things always do, but that dissatisfaction has found a focus in Trump."

At the same time, the Republican party moved away from conservatism and became a radical white nationalist party. Goldman again, "The answer has to do with the adoption of a fairly exclusive vision of American nationalism — which sees America not only as a predominantly white country but also as a white Christian country and also as a white Christian provincial country. This is a conception of America that finds its home outside the cities, exurbs and rural areas, in what Sarah Palin called the real America. If you project yourself as a white Christian provincial party, you're not going to get very many votes among people who are none of those things. That's what's happened over the last 10 or 15 years." On the flip side, this is the seemingly insurmountable problem that Democrats have in trying to appeal to the voters in the outer suburbs and rural areas.

In the same vein, Kate Antonova, a historian of conservatism, has a remarkable storify thread providing enormous amounts of history but ending up making the point that the Republican party under Trump is a radical, not conservative, party. She says, "Trump’s GOP has become a radical right. That sounds like a contradiction, but it’s an established term w/ many examples...There’s a fundamental difference in today’s radical right, which gleefully says FU to knowledge, education, demonstrable fact. A radical right that makes up absurd 'alt facts' & presents them confidently, fully aware that base will believe literally anything as long as it’s associated with their 'team' and/or serves as a hit against the other 'team'. Liberals & conservatives in the proper sense of those words are now both (uncomfortably) covered by the shade of the Never Trump tent. Both accept the premise of rights & representative govt. Current president, cabinet & Congress explicitly oppose the govt they run. Base voters, largely white, many evangelical, cheer undermining of democracy & boo defenses of traditional American values. They are not conservatives. They are a radical right. They were elevated to power thru hacking, bots, gerrymandering, PACs."  She neglected to mention voter suppression in that list. And I would also disagree that the party has only become the radical right under Trump. Like Goldman, I believe that has been going on since the 1990s and the opposition to Bill Clinton at a minimum. But the main thrust of her analysis is certainly correct.

Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker had an insightful article explaining why the French rejected the right-wing Marine Le Pen but Americans elected Donald Trump. As Gopnik explained, the center-right in France banded together with the left in order to defeat Le Pen. In America, "They [conservative Republicans] believed that people were exaggerating Trump’s personal flaws and underestimating the power of the Party and the constitutional structures to contain and moderate him". That turned out to be a massive miscalculation. Not one well-known member of the Republican establishment endorsed Clinton and, to this day, not one well known member of the Republican political establishment has repudiated Trump. The Bushes and the Romneys remain silent and Congressional Republicans do their best to ignore Trump while trying to ram through massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations at the expense of American workers and families.

Part of the problem may be that there is no such thing as a true conservative and never was. As Goldman says, "I think the great message of Trump is that there really are not that many movement conservatives. There is an infrastructure of journalists, intellectuals who are vested in a conventional combination of limited government, a relatively hawkish foreign policy, and a sort of religiously inflected public morality. There are a few hundred such people, and they all know each other. But it turned out that there aren't that many voters who actually care about these things — or at least cared about them in quite that combination."

While Goldman may or may not be correct that there are not that many movement conservatives, the conservative philosophy he describes created the intellectual framework that allowed right wing religious and ethno nationalists and either like-minded or opportunistic oligarchs like the Kochs, Adelsons, and Mercers to take over the GOP and turn it into the radical, white, Christian, nationalist party we see today. The oligarchs and the nationalists have a symbiotic relationship where the oligarchs fund the nationalists in order to be left alone to rule over the economic sphere to their advantage while the nationalists pursue their own agenda in foreign and domestic policy as long as it does not interfere too deeply with the oligarchs' interests. This is how we end up with no major evangelical Christian group even mounting minor objections to waging multiple wars of choice, splitting up families through mass deportations, and now a Republican plan to force millions of Americans to lose health insurance causing hundreds of thousands to die needlessly.

Neither the oligarchs or the nationalists believe in the Constitution or our democracy as it merely gets in the way of their stated goals. The oligarchs fear democracy as it is the only thing that will reduce their enormous and dominant political and economic power. The religious nationalists don't believe in democracy and government in general because they are answering to a higher authority. And the ethno nationalists don't believe in democracy because it gives voice to many they do not consider Americans. And for those reasons, both sets of nationalists do not believe that any opposition can be legitimate, as we saw with treatment Obama received, culminating in the refusal to give Merrick Garland a hearing.

This radical party has now seized power on a wide-ranging scale, from dominating most of the state governments, to controlling Congress and the White House and the Supreme Court. As Antonova states, the party no longer accepts the premise of rights and representative government and is doing its utmost to undermine our democracy even further before 2018 in order to further consolidate their power. I'm not an historian but, to my mind, there have been few examples of parties with this kind of anti-democratic attitude who have given up this kind of power both freely and willingly. And that should concern anyone who still cares about our country and our democracy.

Natural Weekends - Yellow Crowned Night Heron

I believe this is a yellow crowned night heron and it shows up pretty regularly just as high tide starts to recede in order to get some good eats. Like the egrets, this heron is incredibly patient and still and usually quite successful, as you can see below.

Nice catch!

Yum! That was good!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Trump And GOP Go Full Steam Ahead On Voter Suppression

The Republican party is intensifying its efforts at voter suppression under the Trump administration as it continues its decades-long attack on our democracy in its quest for raw political power. These attacks are occurring on multiple fronts, both at the federal and state level as well as with the help of outside, independent actors.

This week we had Kris Kobach's Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity requesting states to provide "full first and last names of all registrants, middle names or initials if available, addresses, dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, voter history (elections voted in) from 2006 onward, active/inactive status, cancelled status, information regarding any felony convictions, information regarding voter registration in another state, information regarding military status, and overseas citizen information." So far, this effort has largely been rebuffed by the states and it remains to be seen how the administration will react accordingly.

On the same day that those requests went out, Jeff Sessions' DOJ also sent out a letter to the 44 states covered by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) requesting details on their compliance with that law. One of the provisions of that law is specifics about how and when voters must be purged from the rolls. There would be nothing unusual about seeking this information from one or two states if there were specific incidents or complaints raised, but clearly asking all 44 states covered by the law raises some red flags.

As the former head of DOJ’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama notes, "These two letters [Kobach's and Sessions'], sent on the same day, are highly suspect, and seem to confirm that the Trump administration is laying the groundwork to suppress the right to vote. It is not normal for the Department of Justice to ask for voting data from all states covered by the National Voter Registration Act. It’s likely that this is instead the beginning of an effort to force unwarranted voter purges."

Sam Bagenstos, who served as the principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights from 2009 until 2011, worries that the DOJ effort will be far more successful than Kobach's, saying, "[T]he folks at DOJ know what they’re doing and I really worry that at the end of the day there’s gonna be a lot of noise about this Kobach-Pence commission and people will miss the enforcement efforts of DOJ. DOJ, at the end of the day, is more likely to be successful as a tool in this process than is this commission, so that’s why I worry more about them."

Meanwhile, the remnants of Karl Rove's voter suppression efforts under the Bush Administration have moved into the private sector but are still working as hard as ever on their goal. Charles Pierce reports that one of prime movers in that scandal has now moved on to something called the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU), an organization that bills itself as a right-wing ACLU. That group has sent out letters to local election commissioners in small, predominantly poor and minority counties across Mississippi, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, and Arizona threatening legal action if they did not purge voters from the rolls, based on the number of registered voters versus population compiled by the ACRU. Many of these poor counties do not have the means to mount an effective legal defense, much less incur the costs of a lengthy judicial process. Instead, they essentially agree to sign a consent decree to purge voters from the rolls to satisfy the numbers provided by the ACRU. This effort has now expanded to include larger election districts in certain swing states, again largely targeting traditionally Democratic voters.

All this is on top of the efforts at the state level to restrict voting rights in other ways such as restrictive voter ID, limiting voting hours and polling places, and making it as hard as possible to even register. Added to that is the extreme gerrymandering that has also taken place further diluting Democratic votes. Because the states and the courts slow-walk the judicial process, it takes years and many voting cycles to determine whether these actions are constitutional and, if they are ruled not so, the courts provide no redress to those effected voters, meaning that some voters have been disenfranchised in almost every election this decade.

One of the biggest problems that Democrats continually have is getting their voters out. This is clearly a failing that the party must deal with. But there is also no doubt that voter suppression and the hurdles to actual voting are also a part of that same problem. It is also clear that things will only get worse under the Trump administration.

Solid Employment Report Strengthens Resolve Of Fed Hawks

The BLS came out with a solid employment report today. In June, the economy added 222,000 jobs, far above the consensus forecast of around 170,000. In addition, the April and May numbers were revised upwards by 47,000. The average hourly earnings were also up by 4 cents, making that a gain of 2.5% over the last year which is slightly higher than inflation. The unemployment rate ticked up to 4.4% while both the participation rate and employment-population ratio also increased.

This report should be music to the ears of the Fed members who are determined to raise rates. That viewpoint was under pressure after recent poor unemployment numbers and falling inflation and other FOMC members were beginning to question the pace of rate hikes and even the intention to start unwinding the Fed balance sheet later in the year.

On the other hand, it was not all bad news for the doves. The uptick in the unemployment rate and growing participation implies that there is still some more slack in the labor market. And the even the increase in average hourly earnings, while holding steady from last month, has been falling since the start of the year. Lastly, just like it seems there is a constant data problem with first quarter GDP, there also seems to be an issue with June employment reports. As Bill McBride notes, "This is the 4th consecutive solid job gain in June:  304 thousand in June 2014, 206 in June 2015, 297 thousand in June 2016, and now 222 thousand in June 2017."

As we have noted, the Fed inflation forecasts have overstated reality for the last eight years and even today they don't expect inflation to rise beyond 2.2% in the next two years. And, while the inflation projections have been just plain wrong, Tim Duy now believes the Fed is making up its unemployment projections, essentially reverse engineering the number to match their plans for forthcoming rate hikes. The Fed expects GDP growth to exceed long-run potential growth by about .4% this year, implying a further drop in the unemployment rate. In addition, the Fed is not expecting any large increases in the participation rate which might offset those implied employment gains from GDP growth in the unemployment rate. Yet the Fed forecast shows unemployment holding steady at 4.3% for the remainder of the year.

Says Duy, "What I don’t like is the feeling that the Fed’s unemployment rate forecast is essentially being reverse-engineered. They have a rate forecast that delivers policy normalization in a time frame they think appropriate. And they have a reaction function. If policy makers forecast lower unemployment then they need to either adjust the reaction function or lower their estimate of the natural rate of unemployment more aggressively. They don’t want to do either.  So to keep their rate forecast intact, they need to set a matching unemployment rate forecast. And that produces a flat unemployment rate for this year."

This has serious policy implications, as Duy makes clear. If the Fed's other projections about inflation, which are admittedly optimistic, and the participation rate are correct, then the unemployment rate will continue to drop further. As it drops, the pressure from the hawks on the FOMC to raise rates at an even brisker rate will continue to grow. Again Duy, "Ultimately, the Fed sees the risks associated with undershooting the natural rate of unemployment as greater than those of low inflation. What this means is that the Fed will not turn dovish easily. Officials will not take their rate hike plans and go quietly into the night, even in the face of low inflation".

So we are left in a strange place where a falling unemployment rate and, presumably, higher hourly wages will create a push for increased rate hikes, despite low inflation, and, at the same time, any uptick in inflation will also create the same reaction. Once again, it seems, the Fed is determined to take the punch bowl away before the party even begins.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Even Beyond Trumpcare, Trump Admin Making It Easier For Nursing Homes To Abuse Or Kill

While Senate Republicans continue to work in secret to find a way to pass the BCRA and cause millions of Americans to lose their health insurance, they are also working hard to make sure that, even if Medicaid survives, the health care system will be able to more easily rip you off or kill you without paying any price.

Kevin Drum points us to an article by Nicholas Bagley at the Incidental Economist that reports that the Trump administration is reversing an Obama policy that required nursing homes to abandon the use of mandatory arbitration in order to participate in Medicare or Medicaid. According to the Trump administration, "Upon reconsideration, we believe that arbitration agreements are, in fact, advantageous to both providers and beneficiaries because they allow for the expeditious resolution of claims without the costs and expense of litigation."

Of course, without the threat of real litigation, nursing homes will likely provide worse care and become more deadly. If you want an example of how bad things can get, take a look at this article in the NY Times today that describes how bad nursing homes continually revert back to neglectful and dangerous behavior even after being under prolonged scrutiny under a designation called "special focus facility" that threatens the homes' eligibility under Medicare and Medicaid. According to the article, "Of 528 nursing homes that graduated from special focus status before 2014 and are still operating, slightly more than half — 52 percent — have since harmed patients or put patients in serious jeopardy within the past three years."

The fact is that these numbers probably vastly underestimate the serious problems at certain nursing homes where patients are being abused, given improper dosages or medications entirely, and even evicted from the facility to make room for new patients with a more profitable insurance policy for the home. The number of special focus facilities has actually declined by almost half since 2012. Unfortunately, rather than indicating that care at nursing homes has improved, it reflects virtually the opposite as the reason for the decline is solely due to federal budget cuts. According to the Times, "This year, the $2.6 million budget allows only 88 nursing homes to receive the designation, though regulators identified 435 as warranting scrutiny."

So, Republicans are working hard to gut Medicaid making it even harder for middle class families to get Mom or Dad into a good facility without bankrupting themselves. And, even if they don't manage to pass the BCRA, the Trump administration is making it easier for nursing homes to abuse or kill Mom and Dad, if they are lucky enough to get into one, and avoid responsibility for it by forcing you into arbitration. And, as with all mandatory arbitration clauses, it is yet another example of businesses forcing you to forego your legal rights in order to obtain services they provide. And they call this capitalism.

The Urban-Rural Divide Will Define Us For the Foreseeable Future

The urban-rural divide will be the dominant issue in this country over the next decade or longer. It will manifest itself in almost all areas of our society, in job creation, inequality, taxes, access to health care, voting rights, and, above all, corporate and political power.

I have already written about how this divide will impact our electoral system in the not too distant future. According to one estimate, by 2040 70% of the population will be living in cities in just 15 states represented by just 30 US Senators. Conversely, 30% of the population will be represented by 70 Senators. The perverse skewing this will have not only the makeup of the US Senate but also on the already perverted Electoral College is easy to see but also hard to imagine how it will be sustainable in something called a democracy.

Today, the NY Times outlines the current battleground of that divide, describing the various actions that state legislatures are taking to negate the locally-made decisions made in cities. According to the Times, using pre-emption laws, Republican legislatures "aren’t merely overruling local laws; they’ve walled off whole new realms where local governments aren’t allowed to govern at all...As standoffs between red states and blue cities grow more rancorous, the tactics of pre-emption laws have become personal and punitive: Several states are now threatening to withhold resources from communities that defy them and to hold their elected officials legally and financially liable."

States have use per-emption laws to restrict sanctuary cities, minimum wage, LGBTQ rights, paid sick leave, fracking, free wifi, and even bans on plastic bags. Those legislatures are also rewriting laws to restrict and/or punish legitimate protest, potentially leaving protest organizers with crippling financial liabilities. Now they are also trying to legally and/or financially punish duly elected officials who adopt local ordnances that conflict with state policy.

"Texas’ new sanctuary city law imposes civil fines as high as $25,500 a day on local governments and officials who block cooperation with federal immigration requests. And it threatens officials who flout the law with removal from office and misdemeanor charges...Ohio passed a law blocking a longstanding requirement that city construction contracts hire some local workers...North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill sought to squash a local ordinance in Charlotte adding gender identity to the city’s nondiscrimination policy...St. Louis this year passed an ordinance banning employer and housing discrimination against women who use contraception or have abortions. Gov. Eric Greitens of Missouri, a Republican, called the state legislature back into special session in June in part to undo that law (it would turn St. Louis, he said, into an 'abortion sanctuary city')...In Texas...proposals that would block cities from regulating trees on private land, restricting cellphone use in cars, and allowing transgender residents to use the bathroom matching their identity".

This is just another front on the attack on our democracy that Republicans have been waging for the last two decades or so. For years, "local control" has been a mantra of the GOP, mostly as a response to federal rules and regulations coming out of Washington. But it is clear that just was just another slogan in the Republican quest for raw political power. Any real "local control" that opposes Republican policies or power must and will be quashed. As I continually ask in my writing, can our democracy survive in this kind of environment? I certainly doesn't look good.

Uber May Have Stolen Over $200 Million From NYC Drivers

Last month, I wrote about Uber ripping off its drivers in New York City by forcing them to pay the sales tax out of their commissions, rather than having the passenger bear that cost. While determining who exactly pays the sales tax can be somewhat opaque, there were a number of indications that drivers in New York were clearly treated differently by Uber than elsewhere. In addition, Uber's explanation of how those sales taxes were being paid has changed over time as has its contract with New York drivers, seemingly in order to account for the sales tax issue.

The NY Times has followed up this story with a detailed examination of the sales tax issue and it presents pretty clear evidence showing that Uber was treating the New York drivers far differently than everywhere else where the sales tax was clearly marked as an additional cost to the passenger, separate from the driver's commission. In addition, the article calculates that Uber may have stolen as much as $200 million from drivers in this scam, based on a conservative estimate of an average fare of $15.

Despite stealing millions from its drivers and despite illegally avoiding regulatory oversight, Uber continues to hemorrhage billions of dollars in losses each year, all in the hopes of driving its taxi competitors out of business and creating a monopoly for itself in certain markets. As I've said many times before, Uber really is a criminal organization and it needs to be shut down.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pharmaceutical Industry Pushes Fentanyl On New Jersey

Much as Donald Trump and the Republicans like to imply that the massive opioid epidemic devastating America is somehow the work of illegal immigrants and related gangs, the reality is that this epidemic is largely created by the pharmaceutical industry in its quest to get patients addicted for profit. The most recent evidence comes from New Jersey, where pharmaceutical companies have been paying massive bribes in order to get doctors to prescribe the most addictive and deadly opioid of all, fentanyl.

Fentanyl was created in order to help terminally ill cancer patients deal with pain that perhaps other opioids could not deal with. The fact that is was incredibly addictive and dangerous was not so significant because the patients were not likely to be using the drug for long. Instead, pharmaceutical companies started pushing doctors in New Jersey to prescribe fentanyl for regular, mundane pain issues such as sore knees or tonsillitis. Correspondingly, the rate of addiction in New Jersey started to explode and the number of deaths related to fentanyl grew by a factor of 10 in the two years from 2013 to 2015. In fact, while oncologists, the group most expected to use the drug, wrote only around 2,200 Medicare prescriptions in 2014, internal medicine, family practice, nurse practitioner, and physical rehab specialists wrote over 50,000 prescriptions combined.

The basic method that these pharmaceutical companies used to encourage doctors was to simply bribe them. In that same two year period, 2013 to 2105, doctors in New Jersey were paid nearly $1.7 million by pharmaceutical companies to prescribe fentanyl. INSYS Therapeutics sold its version of fentanyl under the brand name of Subsys. Their preferred method of bribery was the bogus "Speaker Program" where doctors would be paid over $1,000 per speech discussing the benefits of Subsys. These speeches would often occur at fancy restaurants and were paid for by INSYS. In many cases the doctor giving the "speech" never even attended and the people who did attend were INSYS employees just getting a nice meal on the company. The doctors who received the payments for these speeches were just being paid for maintaining or increasing the number of fentanyl prescriptions they were writing. If a doctor started to cut back on those prescriptions, the INSYS bribes would also disappear and the INSYS sales staff would begin bullying and harassing them. According to, "dozens of doctors in New Jersey each received more than $10,000 from pharmaceutical companies marketing fentanyl between 2013 and 2015."

Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University, describes the situation thusly, "There's enough money going around that if you saw this in the abstract, you'd think there was a drug cartel happening." I don't think we need to look in the abstract to see this actually is a cartel at work. The pharmaceutical oligopoly actually exists on two levels. Not only are there just a handful of companies that dominate the industry as a whole, but within specific products there is often a monopoly or oligopoly that controls pricing. And as long as that is the case, we can expect the industry to engage in more illegal behavior and make more attempts to make Americans addicts for profit.

Wimbledon Predictions

I'm a little behind the eight ball due to the extended holiday weekend. We are already well into the second round of Wimbledon and I haven't even posted about my predictions. On the women's side, with Serena Williams still out on maternity leave, the tournament is wide open. Two past winners who would be expected to be favorites, Venus Williams and Petra Kvitova, are both coming into the fortnight with off-the-court issues. Venus was involved in a fatal car crash here in the States just before the tourney and Kvitova is recovering from injuries she sustained in a home invasion robbery/attack. Another normal favorite would also be Victoria Azarenka, but she has just returned to action from her maternity leave. Angie Kerber has regained some of her form that made her #1 last year but still seems a little fragile and grass is not the surface for the second-seeded Simona Halep.

No one even mentioned Jelena Ostapenko as even a contender in the French, which she won. I think the same pattern holds here at Wimbledon. Venus and Kvitova are in the same section of the draw but I think Venus will find refuge on the court this week and be able to fight her way to the final. On the top half, I think Coco Vandeweghe's game sets up perfectly for this surface and she will be able to fall back on her success here last year and push through to the finals. Prediction: Vandeweghe beats Venus in an all-American final that goes the distance.

On the men's side, this tournament looks far different from the French Open just a few weeks ago where everyone, correctly, was simply ready to hand the trophy to Rafa Nadal before the tourney even began. But it's really not that different. For the last fourteen years, Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, or Murray has won this title. It will be no different this year, although each of them is getting more vulnerable. Murray is coming into the tourney with a hip problem; Nadal may be in form but has hardly played any grass court tennis in a couple of years; and Djokovic has had a horrendous season where he seems to have lost his focus and commitment. Meanwhile Federer keeps rolling along and, incredibly, is probably the favorite.

Federer and Djokovic are in the lower half and Nadal and Murray are in the upper. Murray always loves something to complain about so his hip will be the perfect foil, enabling him to actually play better tennis. In what might be better than the final, I'm looking for an inspired Djokovic to beat Federer in a classic 5-set semifinal. Prediction: Djokovic defeats Murray in final in four sets.

At this point, we should also note that we are probably nearing the end of the golden age of tennis, although the late Bud Collins may correct me on this point. Serena Williams is arguably the best female player in history, although the extended era of Court, King, Evert, Navratilova, and Graf may have had more depth. On the men's side, neither the era of the French Four Musketeers in the 1920s nor the Aussie dominance of the 1960s, nor the Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi era of the 1970s and 80s had the dominance that these four legends, Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray have managed to show over the last decade and a half. And as all of them enter the twilight of their careers, we all should recognize just how good we've had it watching their excellence since the turn of the century.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Our Democracy In Peril

Americans are celebrating our independence for the 241st time today. The country has certainly endured some challenging times over those years, most significantly slavery, the Civil War, and the disenfranchisement of women and African Americans. And today we are once again confronting a serious challenge as the democratic institutions that the Founders' created are no longer allowing for a true functioning democracy. Added to this is the fact that one of our major political parties has also seemingly lost faith in democracy, preferring instead to rely on enormous sums of money from rich and powerful interests, the suppression of opposition voters, and the willingness to even allow foreign governments to interfere in our electoral process as long as that party is the beneficiary.

In an article in the Atlantic last fall before the election, Larry Diamond cited political scientist Juan Linz in describing the two greatest threats to democracies. "Democracies fail when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage. In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz stressed two factors in the failure of democracy. One is the growth of 'disloyal opposition”—politicians, parties, and movements that deny the legitimacy of the democratic system (and its outcomes), that are willing to use force and fraud to achieve their aims, and that are willing to curtail the constitutional rights of their political adversaries, often by depicting them as 'instruments of outside secret and conspiratorial groups.' But at least as great a danger, Linz warned, was 'semiloyal behavior' by parties and politicians willing 'to encourage, tolerate, cover up, treat leniently, excuse or justify the actions of other participants that go beyond the limits of peaceful, legitimate … politics in a democracy'." I think you can find not only Trump but a significant and in fact a majority element of the Republican party and the right wing media in both those factors.

As I've written many times, Republicans have been breaking democratic and governing norms with increasing regularity and brazenness over the last two decades. Prime examples include the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the stealing of the 2000 election, the attack on voting rights through extreme partisan gerrymanders and blatant voter suppression, and the refusal to treat Obama as a legitimate President and to allow him the political appointments inherent in the office, culminating in stealing the swing seat on the Supreme Court, breaking yet another democratic norm to do so.

But even beyond the Republican attacks on our democratic norms, the democratic institutions that we rely on are also failing. Because of the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College, twice in the last five elections the winner of the popular vote has not become President. Because of extreme partisan gerrymandering, multiple states have seen the party that won the majority of votes still remain a minority in the state legislature. Because of the delays in the judicial system and the courts' inability to actually enforce their rulings, voters in multiple states have been forced to vote in districts that have been ruled illegally gerrymandered for most of the elections in this decade. And Republicans continue to make every effort to disenfranchise minority voters and make it as difficult as possible for those eligible to actually vote, either through restrictions like voter ID or reducing the time of early voting and the number of polling places.

In addition, the most recent election has shown how vulnerable our actual election systems are to hacking and outside interference. It is clear that there is a real need for a valid paper trail for every vote and that the entire voter registration systems needs serious reform with some sort of automatic enrollment.

More disturbing is what the foreseeable future looks to bring. Trump is obviously determined to prove massive amounts of voter fraud and will use all the means that Kris Kobach and Hans von Spakovsky can dream up. Republicans in the states will continue to find ways to restrict the votes of Democrats. As the urban/rural divide grows even wider in this globalized economy, we will see more and more elections where the popular vote winner will not actually win.

David Birdsell, a political science professor and dean at Baruch College, has calculated "[b]y 2040, 70 percent of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states, which are also home to the overwhelming majority of the 30 largest cities in the country. By extension, 30 percent of Americans will live in the other 35 states. That means that the 70 percent of Americans get all of 30 Senators and 30 percent of Americans get 70 Senators. The drift of the population has been so starkly different from what any of the Founding Fathers could have imagined." Those are frightening numbers that should make every American fear for our democracy under our current system.

If Birdsell is correct, then those imbalances will make it virtually impossible for Americans to not lose faith in our democracy and it will fail. The entire electoral system needs a major overhaul and it is clear that it will be up to Democrats to lead the way on this issue.  This goes beyond the important issues of automatic registration, national holiday or weekend elections, and neutral gerrymandering. It goes to the very existence of the Electoral College and the structure of the Senate. These will be difficult if not impossible to change and Democrats will be accused of being sore losers and trying to change the rules. But, as we have so many times in the past, we can only save our democracy by fighting for it. As we have seen with the rise of Trump and the recent actions of the Republican party, the threat to our democracy already exists and 2040 is closer than we can imagine. If we don't begin to fight for our democracy soon, the battle may be lost.

Happy Independence Day!!

We had the fireworks here on Sunday night, so here's a little teaser for what you might see in your neck of the woods tonight...

Monday, July 3, 2017

Astronomy Adventure - Messier 28

Messier 28 is another nice globular cluster located in the constellation Sagittarius. It was actually "discovered" by Messier in 1764 and, although probably just beyond a naked eye object, it is easily seen as a fuzz patch with binoculars. The current claim to fame of this cluster is that it contains the third largest collection of pulsars in a cluster.

Here are the technical details:
Scope: Starblast 4.5; tracking on
Magnification: ~30x
Camera: iPhone6 using NightCapPro app; ISO 8000
Processing: 1x15 sec.; adjusted using curves in GIMP;

Chris Christie Epitomizes The Current Republican Party

If there was ever a perfect metaphor for today's Republican party, it is Chris Christie. He is yet another excellent example of the fact that there really are not only no "moderates" in the modern Republican party but also no room for anyone so called. And Christie epitomizes the sense of entitlement and quest for power, simply for power's sake, that is also reflective of today's GOP. He lies shamelessly, is belligerent, and is far more focused on his own fortunes than that of the country.

Christie rode his "moderate" credentials into power in New Jersey and made a national name for himself by actually working with Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But, in retrospect, that physical and symbolic embrace of Obama was merely a show, a charade, in Christie's quest for more power and prestige.

One of his first acts as Governor was to have New Jersey pull out of its end of building a third rail tunnel between his state and New York. Although much of the funding for that effort was federally funded, Christi backed out, lying that the state could not afford the cost of the project. Christie overstated the cost of the tunnel by a factor of 40% and stated New Jersey would incur 70% of the cost of the project when the actual number was below 15%. He also claimed that the state would be responsible for any cost overruns which was also a lie.  His repudiation of infrastructure investment is typical of the current Republican party where any government spending can never be considered an investment and the only groups the party believes capable of something called investment are the wealthy and corporations.

Needless to say, just like Republicans refusal to use the opportunity of below zero real rates of interest in invest in our infrastructure and our economy, Christie's decision came back to haunt his state when electrical failures in the tunnels, already over 100 years old and ravaged by salt water from Sandy, started to occur regularly, causing massive disruptions for New Jersey commuters and probably costing the regional economy millions. More critically, the tunnels that Christie cancelled would probably be coming online next year, providing relief for Jersey commuters, already suffering under Christie's other cuts to New Jersey Transit, and keeping the state just one failure away from an economic and transportation disaster.

For those not in the know, Christie's stance on the rail tunnel sounded like smart fiscal discipline in the wake of the financial crisis. In reality, Christie wanted to use the monies already allocated for the tunnel to shore up the state's transportation fund so that he would not have to increase the gas tax. Like Republicans around the country, raising taxes is verboten, an anathema, and they will rob our future in order to do so. The ironic thing is that the transportation fund eventually did run dry and transportation improvements in the state basically shut down in the state for months until Christie finally caved and raised the gas tax.

As we all remember, there was a time when Christie was one of the favorites to perhaps win the Republican nomination for President. He was still a popular governor running for what would be an easy re-election victory. But rather than just win, Christie was determined to force as many Democrats in the state to endorse and support him, all in the hopes of boosting his presidential chances. That led him to retaliate against the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse him and creating the Bridgegate scandal where he shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge for purely political reasons. While Christie avoided any legal consequences for himself, it was clear from evidence and testimony that Christie was well aware of what was going on and condoned it. And to this day, Christie continues to blatantly lie about that fact, just like Republicans lie about tax cuts paying for themselves or virtually everything about their plans to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Perhaps the only difference for Christie, at least so far, is that his lies about Bridgegate damaged his presidential hopes. On the other hand, it also seems pretty clear that the Republican electorate was in no mood to nominate someone with Christie's so-called "moderate" credentials. But just like the Republican party as a whole, Christie actually worked, even while still a candidate, to boost Donald Trump. And he became the first major Republican politician besides probably Jeff Sessions to endorse Trump, even before it was clear he would be nominated.

And now Christie, polling at numbers even lower than the Republican health care proposals, displays the sense of entitlement and privilege that pervades the GOP as a whole. Christie and the legislature were unwilling and unable to come to an agreement on a new budget, largely over a dispute about how much money Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield must hold in reserve before contributing to the state's public health fund. This forced Christie to shut down the government, including the state parks and beaches, over this extended July 4th holiday weekend. If that wasn't bad enough, Christie himself took his family and friends to one of those closed beaches where there is a state residence for the governor. He had the whole beach to himself as it was closed to the public. Christie's attitude was typically belligerent, saying, "That's the way it goes. Run for governor, and you can have the residence", sounding remarkably Trumpian. Christie was also asked if he got any sun while at the beach but replied he hadn't. That proved to be a lie when photos showed him lounging on the sun-washed beach. When confronted with that photo, his spokesman responded that Christie was telling the truth because he had been wearing a hat. And that pretty well sums up the Republican approach to almost everything today. They feel they can lie about anything and everything, even the most mundane issues, and expect to get away with it.

Christie pretty much epitomizes the Republican party today. A faux moderate who becomes Trump's biggest supporter. A serial liar who feels entitled to the perks of his office. And a man more interested in his own political future than that of the country.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Failure Of GOP Agenda Will Make Trump An Even More Dangerous President

Ever since Trump was inaugurated, the Republicans have been in a race to see whether they could pass their agenda of gutting the safety net built over the last 75 years and enacting massive tax breaks for the rich and corporations before Trump becomes such a liability that he had to be impeached. As the GOP agenda stalls, Trump becomes even more erratic and frustrated. And as he gets more frustrated, he will get angry and lash out. This will include American targets such as the media, immigrants, Democrats, and even some recalcitrant Republicans. But it will also include foreign targets as Trump falls back on Bannon's nationalism in order to keep his base in line and deflect attention from his domestic failures. Because of this, we are now entering the real danger zone with Donald Trump.

The Senate has just left town without moving on health care. Whether Mitch McConnell can cobble something together between now and when the GOP returns from the July 4th recess remains to be seen, although his legislative maneuvering and arm-twisting is legendary. Tax reform has barely even been discussed and the internal battles within the GOP will only get worse as they have to confront the budget and the debt ceiling in the fall. It seems quite possible that we could get well into November and Trump will have nothing to show for his vaunted leadership and GOP control of government other than Neil Gorsuch.

There is now new direct evidence of probably collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, with Flynn, Bannon, and Conway now being specifically named. Indications are that Manafort and Flynn are probably cooperating with the investigation. And the investigation is now focusing on the financial dealings of Trump and his associates before, during, and after the campaign. Other damaging revelations are liable to dribble out over the coming months, provoking Trump even further. It is quite possible that at some point he will even fire Special Counsel Mueller.

Trump's growing anger and frustration will mean increased focus on the terrible domestic policies he and his administration are already engaged in. Even beyond the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the EPA under Scot Pruitt is rolling back regulations at an unprecedented pace while at the same time ignoring and destroying any real science within the agency. Reports are now surfacing that ICE is now targeting the legal families and sponsors of undocumented children, moving the administration ever closer to an "expansion away from targeted enforcement and more toward a general population enforcement", as one former Justice Department official described it. The administration has also taken the most restrictive view of "close familial relationship" in response to the Supreme Court decision allowing the partial Muslim ban, probably provoking another court challenge. On the health care front, Trump is now talking about simply repealing the ACA and figuring out what to do to replace it at some later date. And his refusal to guarantee the CSR payments to insurers is helping to drive up premiums for next year.

After the collapse of the health care vote in the Senate and the revelation that a top Republican operative, who claims he was working with senior Trump advisers, was trying to work with the Russians in order to obtain Clinton's deleted emails, Trump went on a rampage about the media. He spent three days trashing Morning Joe and again admitted another potential crime, essentially trying to extort positive coverage from the program in return for spiking a negative story about Joe and Mika. Last night he used the occasion of an address to veterans to again bash the media. And this morning he retweeted a video basically endorsing violence against CNN specifically. This behavior will only get worse as things deteriorate for Trump on the policy front.

More disturbing is the prospect of what Trump will do in the area of foreign policy. We have already seen that Trump came incredibly close to pulling out of NAFTA, before being convinced the move would hurt his base of support in rural areas as much if not more than most. Now Axios is reporting that Trump is on the precipice of starting a global trade war by imposing tariffs of up to 20% on Chinese steel. The tariffs could extend to other imports such as aluminum, semiconductors, paper, solar panels, and even appliances. Trump is apparently scheduled to call Chinese President Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Abe tonight, apparently to explain his decision. Whether those two can talk Trump down from the precipice as Trudeau apparently helped to do with NAFTA, we will soon know. If Trump does go ahead with these tariffs, there is no telling what kind of retaliation will be forthcoming from the Chinese and others and the possibility of a global trade war and the collapse of the WTO, while still remote, would be real. Apparently, the entire cabinet with the exception of Wilbur Ross is opposed to the idea but Trump and Bannon support it. If Trump does in fact make this move, it too will immediately end up in court as those industries hurt by the tariffs sue to block it. And, if Trump is thwarted on his tariffs and the travel ban, expect to see even more open defiance of the courts.

Trump has largely left Mattis and McMaster take care of all matters military. This has seen the US take a much more aggressive stance in Syria, endangering a direct confrontation with Russia, and expanding our presence in Afghanistan. And the issue of North Korea's nuclear potential is still hanging out there. His relationship with China seems to run hot and cold but starting a trade war with the Chinese may just be a first step toward a military confrontation in the South China Sea. Trump has already created a crisis in the Mideast with his backing of Saudi Arabia and attacks on Qatar. So there is no telling when Trump will decide to focus his rage in the foreign policy arena with even more dangerous and unpredictable results.

It is possible at some point this fall, Republicans will realize that any chance for their agenda this year has completely collapsed. At that point, Trump may be lashing out in such damaging fashion that enough Republicans who actually have to fear a Democratic challenge as opposed to a primary opponent in 2018 may have to start thinking long and hard about whether they can afford the Trump baggage going into next year. And that will itself precipitate a vicious cycle where Trump becomes even more frustrated and aggressive in shoring up his base with America First nationalism, putting even more Republicans in Congress at risk. As I say, we are now entering the real danger zone in the Trump presidency. The next few months could provide an even wilder ride than they usual Trump chaos.

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