Saturday, July 29, 2017

Wells Fargo's Illegal Activity Never Seems To End

My favorite criminal financial services firm just can't seem to stop breaking the law. The NY Times reported today that Wells Fargo forced over 800,000 customers to buy unnecessary and unwanted auto insurance and apparently some customers are still paying for that insurance to this day.

In the mortgage industry, it is a common practice to have what is called "lender-placed insurance" so that there is some assurance the loan is backed to some degree by the customer. Wells Fargo decided to extend this practice to its auto loans and shared in the profits generated by the insurance company the bank chose to use for this insurance. This apparently mandatory collision damage insurance forced nearly 275,000 loan customers into delinquency and caused around 25,000 vehicle repossessions. Some of those ripped off in this particular Wells Fargo scheme were active military service members. Worse, it appears that this scheme violated the disclosure agreements in at least five states, Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Tennessee and Washington. Customers who tried to show they already had their own collision insurance and tried to cancel the one "provided" by Wells Fargo continued to be harassed by Wells' employees for payment. In addition, Wells prioritized the interest payment and the insurance payment before applying it to the principal, meaning that this unnecessary insurance added to the total interest payment that the bank would receive.

All this is on top of the 15 year scam that Wells Fargo ran that created thousands of bogus accounts and credit cards without the proper customer authorization in order to generate increased fees and revenue. That was followed by the revelation that the bank unilaterally changed the terms of mortgage agreements of customers in bankruptcy, again without proper customer authorization or notification, in order to extend the loan and create more interest income for the bank. According to the bank's internal report, this insurance scheme only ran from 2012 to 2016 but it is worth noting Wells Fargo began the lender-placed insurance practice back in 2006, raising the real possibility that the abuses occurred far earlier than the bank currently admits.

Basically, it now appears that Wells Fargo has been engaged in ongoing illegal activities since the turn of the century. You would think that just maybe one person, one executive, would be going to jail or at least being prosecuted for this record of criminality. Instead, the bank just continues to pay slap-on-the-wrist fines and continues on with business as usual. As I've said until my face turns blue, until a senior executive does some real jail time, business will continue to feel that illegal behavior will actually be rewarded because the profits will outweigh the fine.

Natural Weekends - Even More Clouds

Friday, July 28, 2017

Where Do We Go From Here After Failure Of Healthcare Repeal

Where do we go from here? Both Republicans and Democrats are asking that question this morning after the failure of healthcare to move through the Senate. At least for the moment, Democrats, as they have for months, are signaling that they are willing to work with Republicans on crafting some sort of deal that would address some of the problems with the ACA. That is especially true now that the Senate has essentially admitted that repeal is off the table. Republicans are also claiming they want to keep working on passing something, with a minority willing to try and work with Democrats. Trump and presumably the reactionary right are more interested in trying to sabotage the ACA and then try to blame the Democrats.

Unfortunately, I think Trump and his reactionary base are the only ones who are likely to get what at least they say they want. I just do not believe that there is any bill that Democrats could craft with Republicans, and presumably that would have to be done in the Senate, that could possibly pass in the House. In the end, for Republicans, that means that they will most certainly take a shot at trying to do this all again on their own and without any Democratic votes. Like a zombie, the GOP attempt to repeal and replace will never die, it just suffers a temporary hibernation. I do, however, think that the GOP is done with healthcare this year. They will allow Trump to kill the CSRs, the subsidies for insurers, and let Price further subvert the ACA through various actions at HHS and then try to take another run at this next year with the never-ending claim that the ACA is imploding.

For Democrats, there is a danger of actually trying to work with the GOP on healthcare right now as it actually keeps the zombie alive for time being. So the tack of spouting bipartisan hopes and laying out ACA changes that they know Republicans will not accept is the proper stance for Democrats. In addition, those changes should be designed to laying out a path to single payer, similar to what Bernie Sanders is currently proposing.

Republicans in Congress will now probably want to move on to so-called tax reform. But the failure to repeal and replace the ACA has added a trillion dollars to the budget baseline, meaning that any tax reform will almost certainly have to sunset in the ten year window. And the similar divides within the GOP caucus that were laid bare in the healthcare debate will be equally present in tax reform, which is inextricably tied up with the 2018 budget. Perhaps, in some small way, the failure of healthcare may make it marginally easier to actually get tax reform and the budget done. Once again, however, it will probably still be rather difficult for Republicans to get that legislation done via reconciliation with just GOP votes.

That difficulty might actually force Republicans to seek Democratic votes, once again asking Democrats to be the adults in the room. They will certainly need Democratic votes to raise the debt ceiling which will require 60 votes. Mnuchin has determined that will need to be done by the end of September, which does not leave a lot of time and further complicates the ability to get tax reform and the budget completed. But that will also finally give Democrats some leverage and at least some ability to try and help craft an acceptable bipartisan solution on the budget and the tax plan. If that creates some momentum, there is a remote possibility that bipartisan spirit just might carry over to healthcare next year, but don't count on it.

The failure of the ACA repeal and having to get Democratic votes to pass a watered down version of tax reform, pass a budget, and raise the debt ceiling will infuriate the reactionary base and create more calls for the leadership to be replaced. On the other hand, Trump is liable to glom on to any legislative achievement as one of the great landmarks as President.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress will do their best to ignore Trump and the chaos he surrounds himself with and revels in. And they will try to find a way to salvage their electoral prospects in 2018. Both Trump and the reactionary base of their party will make that job increasingly difficult. And more and more vulnerable Republicans will become more comfortable with asking Democrats to help them save their own skin.

For Democrats, the question is whether they should work with Republicans or let the GOP own its failures. If recent history is any guide, the tactic of united and implacable opposition has worked wonders for the Republican party while not necessarily serving the best interests of the country. The GOP has chosen party over country for decades. Democrats may need to make a similar choice in order to regain political power.

As Failures Mount and Resistance Increases, Trump And Hard Right Will Rip GOP Apart

There are signs that Republicans in Congress are finally beginning to stand up to Trump, intimating there are at least some red lines that he can not cross. Lindsay Graham said that it might be the end of the Trump presidency if Trump fires Mueller. Ben Sasse made similar remarks. The Republicans have also said that the Senate would not go into recess so that Trump could not fire Sessions and replace him with a recess appointment. And Chuck Grassley declared there was no room on the current Judiciary Committee calendar to even begin to address the nomination of a new Attorney General should Trump fire Sessions, meaning the position would remain open for a significant period of time.

Similarly, the House and the Senate have overwhelmingly approved new sanctions against Russia, China, and Iran. The votes passed with veto-proof margins meaning that Trump would clearly be overridden should he decide veto the bill. Anthony "Scamarucci" has said that Trump may in fact veto the bill because he wants a "tougher deal", proving that "Scamarucci" can tell a joke as well as spout expletives.

Obviously, there have been many people in government who have been doing their best to protect and warn the country about the ignorance and abuses of Trump since his inauguration. Now it appears the military is basically ignoring Trump's tweet about transgender service members, claiming that the Secretary of Defense is still waiting for specific instructions from the White House.

But as Republicans begin to rein in Trump there will be an equivalent backlash as Trump and hard right conservatives begin to rip the Republican party apart as his popularity continues to sink into the abyss and the GOP legislative agenda collapses. Trump will lash out and look for scapegoats his failures and the obvious place is his own party since it has total legislative control. And conservatives will join Trump in those attacks as we are already seeing in reaction to the Senate's healthcare failure.

Already, he has threatened and blamed the Freedom Caucus after the initial failure of the AHCA in the House. He has encouraged attack ads against Dean Heller in Nevada and overtly threatened him in public by asking if he wants to remain a Senator. Lisa Murkowski was just threatened with destruction of Alaskan jobs because of her healthcare vote by the Secretary of the Interior, presumably with Trump's approval. Trump has also jokingly threatened McCain, Capito, and others over the failure of healthcare so far. Both Murkowski and Susan Collins have been abused by fellow GOP Congressmen, and they are men, over their healthcare votes.

For GOP Senators, they have taken this abuse while they were still trying to pass a healthcare bill. Imagine how bad it will be now that the effort has finally failed. Of course, the initial target of conservative ire will be the three defectors, Collins, Murkowski, and McCain. But that fire is already turning on the GOP leadership and Trump will be sure to add to it. Paul Ryan is already under pressure from conservative Republicans and Steve Bannon has been trying to take his scalp ever since he became Speaker. Mitch McConnell now finds himself in the same precarious position as Ryan, as both have shown an inability to manage their caucus with the same unanimity that was much easier when they both knew that Obama was President and their votes were meaningless. Already one GOP Representative has called for McConnell to step down. Both Ryan and McConnell will face Trump's fury for the failure of Obamacare repeal and replace and conservatives will join in dumping on both of them.

But there are other pressures building as well. Even Trump's abuse of Jeff Sessions, which is driven by his fear of the Russian investigation, has created a problem with the GOP conservative base who largely likes the radical agenda that Sessions has for the DOJ. For those vulnerable members of Congress who voted for the AHCA or the various Senate bills there may be a sense of relief that nothing passed but they will still be held accountable for their votes and will be attacked from both the left and the right.

The failure of healthcare will simply exacerbate the fissures that already exist with the Republican party and, with total control of the entire legislative process, there aren't any Democrats to blame, no matter how hard Trump and other may try, which only leaves the GOP to attack themselves. And the upcoming battles over the budget and the debt ceiling will only increase the likelihood of more of the internecine warfare within the party.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Absurdity Of GOP Repeal And Replace Reaches New Heights

The Senate is apparently prepared to vote on the skinny repeal bill in the next 24 hours. There is no bill that anyone has seen yet. The bill would effect one-sixth of the American economy. There are at least six Republicans who are willing to say on the record that the bill will increase premiums and cause at least 16 million people to lose health insurance next year. There are probably many others who know that is true but aren't willing to say it. Yet many of these Senators will vote for this bill anyway. The reason they are willing to vote a bill that they know is a disaster is to say they simply passed something and then hope they can cobble together a bill that can pass in conference, a bill that they have not been able to come up with on their own in the last seven months or, in fact, the last seven years.

The problem is that the House may simply take the skinny repeal that passes the Senate and pass that bill itself, essentially making it law. So now four GOP Senators, Graham, McCain, Cassidy, and Johnson are demanding that Paul Ryan guarantee that the bill they pass will go to conference and not be passed into law by the House. The House, for its part, says that it can't make that guarantee until it sees the bill which, of course, no one has seen.

GOP Senators are now in the surreal position of promising to vote for a bill as long as the House promises to not make it law. In addition, they are again breaking another governing norm by trying to craft a bill in a conference committee in secret and without any hearings. That is not what a conference committee is for.

I'm guessing that Ryan will cave on this demand in the end. Neither the House or the Senate want to be the party that puts the final nail in the seven year Republican lie of repeal and replace and get blamed for it. Each of them will spin the process out as long as they can in order to avoid what seems like the inevitable.

The Republicans can not even state what the goal of their healthcare legislation is. There is no principle behind it other than gutting Medicaid and providing an enormous tax cut for their plutocrats. But even those "principles" have apparently been abandoned in the latest Senate bill. Right now, Republicans are essentially slaves to a slogan. They still fear their base more than the millions that will lose healthcare and the hundreds of thousands that will die. And they are led by a President whom they neither fear or respect and is clueless about policy. Are you tired of winning?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Trump May Have Brought The Korean Peninsula To The Brink Of Destruction With Transgender Tweet

While the media has focused on the obviously uncoordinated and botched rollout of Trump's transgender military ban, obsessing on the status of currently serving transgender forces and whether the ban applies even in the Department of Defense, one hugely important and potentially devastating foreign policy angle seems to me to have been largely overlooked.

Trump originally tweeted "After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow......" at 8:55am. An agonizingly long nine minutes later he continued, "Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military....". According to Buzzfeed, "At the Pentagon, the first of the three tweets raised fears that the president was getting ready to announce strikes on North Korea or some other military action. Many said they were left in suspense for nine minutes, the time between the first and second tweet. Only after the second tweet did military officials receive the news the president was announcing a personnel change on Twitter."

Look, if people at the Pentagon feared that Trump was launching a strike on North Korea, imagine what the North Koreans were thinking, especially in light of reports that the North Koreans are preparing another imminent missile test. I doubt that their missile detection systems are all that robust and, if they were paying attention to Trump's tweets (and we can be pretty sure they are), the North Koreans must have been preparing the massive military assault on South Korea that an attack would precipitate.

We will perhaps never know whether Trump's tweet prompted any action by North Korea. But, if the past is any guide, we have seen numerous occasions where simple misunderstanding like this nearly brought us to the brink of nuclear Armageddon.

Maybe I'm overreacting here but this does not seem like an outlandish proposition. Trump may have brought South Korea to the brink of utter destruction today and precipitated a deadly war with North Korea that could have easily expanded into a struggle with China and Russia. As far as I know, not one media outlet has focused on that possibility. And that is almost as frightening as the nine minute wait on Trump's incomplete tweet.

Daniel Nexon Reflects On Our Current Crisis - A Must Read

Daniel Nexon over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money had a fantastic post the other day that captured so many things I've been trying to say about the decay and collapse of the Republican party and the dangers to our democracy in far better words than I can. I beg you to read his entire piece.

Nexon starts by quoting Julia Azari and her point that weak parties and strong partisanship ultimately end up destroying faith in institutions. Says Azari, "It’s hard for institutions — elected ones like Congress, the presidency, or state governments — to have legitimacy when partisan motives are constantly suspect. This is also true for other kinds of institutions, like courts and, as we’ve seen most recently, law enforcement agencies like the FBI. Citizens view much of what these institutions do through a partisan lens."

In fact, one of the most important functions of political parties in this country is to nominate qualified individuals to run for President. According to Nexon, "The 2012 presidential nominating process, however, now appears something of a canary in the coal mine. We saw a succession of 'bubble candidates,' including Bachman and Cain, who were manifestly unsuited for the Presidency. But Romney prevailed, giving the impression that the party could still effectively screen out the lunatics." That impression obviously proved to be incalculably incorrect.

Nexon blames much of this on the G.W. Bush administration with its lies about Iraq, failure in two wars, government ineptitude peaking with Katrina, and the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. With Republicans blamed for these disasters and their approval numbers at near historic lows, "Republican party mounted a scorched-earth campaign geared toward delegitimating not only Obama and the Democrats, but the entire system of governance".

But the most important points Nexon makes are about the transformation of our political economy and how GOP strategies since Reagan have distorted our economy to the detriment of individual Americans. "Starting under Reagan, the United States has run pro-cyclical budget deficits. In the process, its accumulated a huge amount of debt. This has not only hamstrung progressive policies—the 'starve the beast' strategy—but its had widespread effects on American political economy. Servicing this debt depends on low interest rates, low interest rates encourage private-sector borrowing and help fuel the growth of the financial sector...This contributes to boom-and-bust cycles, and it is part of an overall story about the financialization of the American economy and the rise of the credit economy. The combination of low taxes, lax financial regulation, and the erosion of government policies aimed at combatting inequality through transfers, has been a toxic stew. The rise in college tuition paid for by accumulating student debt provides an examples of one of the relevant dynamics. Cuts to support for higher education drive up tuition. The policy instrument used to address the rising costs? Encourage the financial sector to provide loans. The shift to financing through personal debt allows colleges and universities to raise tuition. Rinse and repeat. More generally, people making middling incomes—and higher—compensate for wage stagnation by taking out easily available debt. This reduces labor mobility and bargaining power, because the ‘cost’ of missing a loan payment can be catastrophic—people making otherwise decent wages can no longer afford to go for periods without a paycheck. Those who don’t make enough to qualify for relatively cheap credit are forced into usurious ‘payday loan’ schemes. All of this is part of an enormous shift of risk onto ordinary Americans. Instead of defined-pension plans, we have taxpayer subsidized individual retirement schemes... Risk for large financial institutions are socialized—hence 'too big to fail'—but the stew of economic policy makes individuals particularly vulnerable."

To those factors I would add Reagan's destruction of unions which began to establish the supremacy of capital which has driven rampant and growing inequality since the 1980s. As the influence of unions waned, Democrats became more susceptible to the money and the opinions of Wall Street and colluded with the Republicans in the financialization of our economy and shifting the risks onto the individual. Reagan's elimination of the fairness doctrine also created the space for Fox News and talk radio to essentially become the propaganda arm of the Republican party but, because the party never had direct control, the messenger started to be able to craft the message, pushing the GOP to even greater extremes. And the erosion of campaign finance laws allowed fringe candidates like Newt Gingrich to continue their campaign with only the backing of a single multi-billionaire.

Nexon continues, pointing out not only how badly our institutions are under assault but also how much seemingly irreparable damage the Republicans have already done to them. "It means that the crisis of American institutions is grave indeed. It’s been here for some time, and it came to an immediate head with the election of a demagogue. Trump is weaponizing partisanship—and the underlying loss of faith in democratic institutions—in the service of his narrow interests: status, wealth, and, it seems increasingly clear, avoiding criminal and civil culpability for his business practices...How do we rebuild norms? If we leave Republican violations ‘unpunished,’ those norms are gone. But if we retaliate, we risk making the crisis worse. The treatment of Garland provides a nice illustration. With the Court profoundly politicized, the only norm we had was that the President got to appoint—and the Senate consider—nominees in the event of a vacancy. McConnell ripped that up. The only way recourse would be to pack the Court. But that’s extremely risky—not only in terms of the politics, but in terms of the downstream institutional implications for judicial independence."

In the end, it all makes for depressing reading but also makes clear that Bernie Sanders is correct in saying that we need a political revolution in this country or, as Nexon describes it, "a new institutional compact, as we saw after the Civil War or after the Great Depression". In the present political environment, that can only begin when the people rise up.

One Story Shows Fallacy Of GOP Approach As Senate Leaps Into the Abyss On Healthcare

As Republicans in the Senate decided to willingly jump into the abyss of potentially passing an unknown bill that would potentially kill hundreds of thousands of Americans, a single story illustrated the enormous fallacy behind one of the major tropes of the GOP about healthcare while at the same time showing Democrats why relying on the private insurance market in any way to provide quality, affordable, and universal health care for Americans is a fool's errand.

The story was from the NY Times and it details the tactics of a company called EmCare. EmCare contracted with hospitals to provide emergency room physicians, the lack of whom had become a problem for many smaller and rural hospitals. But many EmCare physicians are not part of an insurance network, meaning that their bills are treated as an out-of-network cost. A Yale University study showed that out-of-network costs at hospital emergency rooms that contracted with EmCare saw them increase by over 100% after EmCare took over. In addition, the use of the highest billing codes for complex care increased from 6% to 28% after EmCare took over, an increase of nearly 500%. According to the story, "At about 15 percent of the hospitals, out-of-network rates were over 80 percent, the study found. Many of the emergency rooms in that fraction of hospitals were run by EmCare." Of course, these out-of-network costs were not covered by most insurance plans and had to be paid directly by the patient.

The EmCare experience is part of a larger pattern of hospitals trying to use the emergency room as essentially a profit center. Part of EmCare's appeal is that they claim they can increase testing and hospital admissions, basically creating more revenue for the hospital. According to a Rand study, nearly half of all hospital admissions now come from patients originally received at the emergency room. In addition, the doctors working for EmCare were paid based on their own billing and the additional testing and admissions that they can provide. Obviously, this creates quite an incentive for widespread abuse, which is exactly what the Yale study shows. More disturbingly, EmCare looks to be trying to expand this kind of program into radiology and anesthesiology, probably creating even more hidden out-of-network costs. The hospital may save money in the ER and increase revenue in admissions and testing, but much of those savings end up being borne by the patient in out-of-network costs.

The whole situation with EmCare makes a mockery of the constant GOP line that patients much have "more skin in the game" in order to keep health costs down. For individuals, of course, this is simply impossible to manage. Even if you are lucky enough to be able to pick an in-network hospital when you go to an emergency room, you are now being asked to inquire whether the ER doctor attending you is also in-network before he treats you. And, of course, that assumes you are even conscious to actually make these inquiries. This insanity will be compounded if EmCare expands into providing anesthesiologists and radiologists, both of which are even further out of a patient's control.

For Democrats, it is another indication that the profit motive for the health insurance industry will always create incentives for companies to rip off the patient and drive unnecessary treatment to simply create revenue. While the GOP complains about the cost of unnecessary procedures, most of those procedures are driven by doctors and hospitals at this point. To really attack the cost of health care in this country, we obviously need a public option that is highly regulated. In addition, we must dismantle the existing medical cartel. As Dean Baker constantly points out, the legal and medical professions are two of the most highly protected industries in this country. That means busting the AMA's control of medical school accreditation and simply creating more medical schools. At the same time, we should it make it far easier for foreign-trained doctors to come work in this country. As we reduce the cost of doctors, we should be increasing the pay of nurse practitioners and giving them far more responsibilities, most of which are currently and needlessly handled by doctors.

While the GOP deliberates on how to destroy the health insurance market in order to give massive tax cuts to the plutocrats that it answers to, Democrats should be starting to talk about totally rebuilding the current medical delivery system in this country. This goes beyond Medicare-for-all and focuses on the real reasons that this country pays far more for healthcare and gets worse outcomes than any other industrialized nation. As we saw with expanding Social Security and the fight for $15, you have to at least start talking about it in order to make it a reality. For Democrats on healthcare, that time has come.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Trump Continues To Float Idea Of Replacing Sessions In Order To Fire Mueller

With another day of Trump berating Jeff Sessions, it is now clear that Trump is laying the groundwork for firing the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Beyond demanding that his Attorney General investigate his general election opponent, Trump's tweets put even more pressure on Jeff Sessions to go quietly into the night.

Sessions, of course, will not go quietly. He has his own agenda in rounding up undocumented immigrants, expanding the incarceration state, further attacking voting rights, and going after legal marijuana rather than simply protecting the President from the Russian investigation. Besides, if he does leave the job, he will have gone from Senator to nobody in less than a year. If Trump wants him to go, he will have to fire him.

Last night, the Washington Post reported that Trump advisers are admitting that removing Sessions is a first step in removing Robert Mueller and are floating potential successors such as Rudy Giuliani or Ted Cruz. More disturbing is the prospect that Trump would fire Sessions and make a new appointment during Congress' August recess, which means that a confirmation vote would not be immediately required. Once that new AG is appointed, he would fire Mueller.

It is clear that Mueller is getting far to close to Trump's apparently illegal activity. Trump has reverted back to constantly rehashing his election victory and claiming that the Russian hacking is fake news but also had no effect on the election outcome even if it occurred. The frustration and anger with Mueller's probe is reportedly obsessing the President.

Obviously, these plans are probably just taking shape and this story is designed to test the reaction of the Republicans in Congress who are the only check on Trump at this point. Those Republicans are far more focused on the budget, taxes, and health care right now but so far their reaction to the possibility of Mueller's firing has been remarkably mute. Don't expect that to change any time soon. As I wrote earlier this spring,  Congressional Republicans are in a race to see whether they can push through their radical agenda before it becomes necessary to impeach Trump. The longer it takes them to move that agenda along, the more tolerance they will have for Trump's abuses of power.

In A Metaphor For The GOP, Senate Republicans Will Vote On Unknown Bill Today

So Republicans seem intent on voting to move forward on some kind of health care bill today, although no one has a clue what exactly the bill will look like. In so many ways, this is a superb metaphor for the Republican party as a whole, essentially promising to vote on a slogan but having no real details beyond that, but at the same time demanding that their members just vote yes anyway.

The fact that the Senate parliamentarian has blown the original bill apart by saying that defunding Planned Parenthood, banning coverage for abortion, mandating a 6 month lockout for non-continuous coverage, and mandating the continuation of CSRs, the subsidies for insurers, are all ineligible for consideration under budget reconciliation and would require 60 votes has not seemed to dent Republicans enthusiasm for moving forward.

Right now the GOP plan is simply pass a motion to proceed which will allow Senators to propose their pet amendments and McConnell to start wheeling and dealing to find some kind of bill that will pass. How that wheeling and dealing would be any different than what McConnell has been doing up to this point is beyond me. But the theory is to simply get the ball rolling and then figure which way it will go.

In order to get this done, they are bringing John McCain back from his brain surgery to help them get to that motion to proceed. As Jeet Heer writes, "They are willing to kill John McCain so he can help them kill thousands more. Seems appropriate somehow." More importantly, it is hard to see why any of those supposed moderates concerned about the effect of massive Medicaid cuts on their states, people like Senators Collins, Murkowski, Capito, and Heller, would even consider going down this path that leads to the unknown. But the pressure on them is obviously enormous.

Another complication is that it appears that the GOP Senate leadership has already reconciled itself to the fact that any bill the Senate actually passes would probably not be taken up and passed as is by the House. That would mean that the House and Senate versions of the two bills would have to reconciled and then voted on again. For those moderates, that means that not only is moving forward on a motion to proceed leading them into the unknown but that even if they end up satisfied with whatever the Senate concocts, which is highly unlikely, it is virtually guaranteed that the bill will be modified, probably radically so, when it is merged with the House bill. Again, why any of those moderate Senators would even start down this path is beyond me.

Obviously, today is yet another day when the resistance must rise up with overwhelming force. Republicans will never give up on repealing the ACA, and gutting Medicaid in order give massive tax cuts to the rich which means that we must be prepared to fight this battle every single day until Democrats gain at least one lever of power.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Kushner Decides To Save His Own Skin

Jared Kushner's statement and testimony today is the beginning of the dissolution of unity among Trump's top advisers when it comes to the Russian investigation. By denying he read his emails carefully enough to know the meeting with Don Jr. was specifically to get dirt on Hillary from the Russians and then claiming he got to the meeting late and missed the Russians pitch about information harming Hillary, Kushner clearly throws Don Jr. and perhaps even Paul Manafort under the bus, while absolving Kushner entirely. It does not explain, however, why Kushner would even attend the meeting if he did not know what it was going to be about and, having made the effort, why he simply left the meeting early when it seemed not worthwhile. Nor does he offer any information if he subsequently inquired as to why Don Jr. had invited him to a meeting that was a total waste of time.

As expected, Kushner's statements raise more questions about his own actions and that of the Trump campaign. He takes credit for Trump's foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel but claims he was totally uninvolved in putting together the guest list which included putting Russian Ambassador Kislyak in the front row. In addition, Kushner's explanation for the December meeting with Flynn and Kislyak where Kushner proposed using secure Russian communications in order to coordinate actions in Syria is barely credible. Kushner admits that he "asked if they [the Russians] had an existing communications channel at his embassy we could use where they would be comfortable transmitting the information they wanted to relay to General Flynn." Two sentences later, however, Kushner states "I did not suggest a 'secret back channel.' I did not suggest an on-going secret form of communication for then or for when the administration took office." It is pretty hard to reconcile those statements.

Moreover, nothing that Kushner said today rules out the fact that the Trump campaign colluded or tried to collude with the Russians. He has only tried to absolve himself from that claim while stating that he has no knowledge of any campaign member who might have.

Antitrust Is Now A Pillar Of Democrats' "Better Deal" And Rightly So

Last month I wrote a post saying that Democrats need to make antitrust enforcement a pillar of their economic strategy. In particular, I thought the Amazon/Whole Foods merger was an almost perfect case on which to make a stand, especially as it highlighted the dangers of online platforms exploiting their position to harm competitors in other markets. Surprisingly, at least to me, I received a significant amount of pushback on the issue, with many commentators feeling the issue was not really a significant problem.

In light of that, it was nice to see that Chuck Schumer has included antitrust as one of the three main points in the current "Better Deal" strategy that he laid out today. So far, the three parts of the plan are to create 10 million jobs through increased investment in infrastructure and tax credits for training and hiring workers at good wages. It also includes a crackdown on predatory pricing in the prescription drug industry and forcing Medicare to negotiate bulk deals with the prescription drug providers, further reducing costs. In a similar vein, the third plank attacks concentrated corporate power by changing the rules for mergers, requiring the businesses to prove the resulting company would be more competitive rather than the government having to prove the reverse. In addition, it adds a new regulatory oversight agency that can recommend prosecutions of what it determines to be anti-competitive behavior.

Stronger antitrust enforcement is a touchstone for many Democratic policies. Breaking up monopolies and oligarchies will actually create jobs because the resulting business will have to duplicate efforts in many areas. As an example, splitting one big bank into four will result in four companies with the required compliance departments. The increase in the number of jobs and the number of firms will also raise wages as there will actually be competition among those firms for qualified people. In addition, breaking up the oligopolies will reduce their political power. Yes, as an industry, their lobbying efforts won't be reduced but there will probably be far less of sweetheart lines of tax code specifically written to benefit just one company. Competitive industries have shown to have higher rates of investment as well, hopefully resulting in reducing the incentives for oligarchies to hide their profits off shore and pressure Congress to reduce taxes in order to repatriate them but rather actually put those profits to use. Lastly, a less concentrated industry removes at least some of the barriers to competition wishing to enter a specific market, which can be enormously high in some industries currently, and again increasing competition for jobs and hopefully higher wages.

Name one other policy position that can create jobs, raise wages, and reduce the political power of corporations. That is why antitrust enforcement needs to be a critical part of the Democratic message and why those elements of antitrust need to be harped on to the American people.

There will be more to come with the "Better Deal" plan. Schumer has opened up the possibility of supporting a single payer health plan. But, for now, this is at least a decent start.

Lastly, although Schumer kind of took a pot-shot at the Clinton campaign in his editorial today, if I'm not mistaken almost all three of these policies were in the Democratic party platform last year in some form and included in Clinton's campaign. The real problem is the message never made it beyond the obsession with the messenger.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

As GOP Agenda Fails, Right Wing Push For Article V Constitutional Convention Intensifies

Back in November of last year, I wrote about the fact that Republicans need to win just one more state legislature in order to be able to call for a constitutional convention under Article V of the Constitution.

As of the last election, the GOP controlled 33 legislatures, just one shy of the two thirds of the 50 states required to call such a convention. Already 12 states have passed bills to begin the process to convene a new convention. And the failure of the federal GOP agenda in Washington even with Republican control of Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court has only added to the drive of those behind what's called the Article V movement to actually make it a reality.

The primary backers of this movement are the radical right, including recently ousted Heritage Foundation head Jim DeMint, and ALEC, the lobbying group that provides libertarian, pro-business, right wing legislation to be passed by those very same state legislatures. 

Right now, there are two separate but not necessarily conflicting agendas for what to accomplish at the convention. One group of supporters wants to pass a federal balanced budget amendment while another wants to simply implement spending and term limits while allowing states more latitude to basically ignore federal policy.

If you shudder at the prospects of those policies actually being enshrined in the Constitution, imagine all the other crazy ideas that will spring from the far right during such a convention and the pressure on the Republican delegates to pass them.

With the chaos of the Trump administration and the failure of the GOP agenda, we can be sure that ALEC and the ultra-rich, ultra-right, libertarian Republican donors will be pushing as hard as they can to make an Article V Constitutional Convention a reality. The results would be even better for those oligarchs than a functioning Republican party in Washington because their wish list would be enshrined in the new Constitution. And that should make us all afraid.

Sports Roundup - British Open And Tour de France

All the sports action was in Europe this weekend as golfers competed for the claret jug at the British Open and cyclists finally ended the three week marathon of the Tour de France with the traditional final stage on the Champs Elysees in Paris. And in both events, the top contenders came out with victories.

The famous golf saying is "drive for show and putt for dough" and Jordan Spieth showed exactly why the saying exists. Spieth held off fellow American Matt Kuchar in the final round, closing it out by going five under par over the last five holes after giving up his two stroke lead with a brutal start to his round. Spieth had pretty much made every putt all tournament long until missing several short ones early in his round and struggling to hit the fairways. When he drove it wildly right on 13 and had to take an unplayable lie, it looked like the wheels might have totally come off. But he salvaged bogey and then made consecutive bombs on 15 and 16 to basically put the tournament out of reach.

As usual with links courses, everything depends on weather and often your tee time on the first two days can determine whether you win or lose the tournament. Spieth managed to avoid the worst of that weather and the Royal Birkdale course was exposed when the winds went down and the greens had been softened by rain, with the course yielding multiple rounds of 63 and a major record of 62 by South African Branden Grace.

Spieth's adventures on the 13th hole today also show what's wrong with some of the rules of golf. After hitting his drive into an unplayable lie, Spieth spent the next 20 minutes taking his drop further from the hole and then determining line of sight relief from various obstacles until he finally found what was virtually fairway to finally hit his third shot which landed just short of the green. From there he was able to salvage bogey. One of the absurdities of the rules is the fact that, having taken the unplayable lie, Spieth was essentially able to hit his next shot from the fairway. Even greater was the fact that it took 20 minutes to do so while Spieth and Kuchar had already been warned for slow play.

Over in Paris, Chris Froome and his powerful Sky team once again enjoyed the ceremonial ride into Paris with the knowledge that the yellow jersey was his, making it four victories in the last five years for the Englishman. The Columbian Rigoberto Uran came in second and the Frenchman Roman Bardet squeaked into third place by just one second over Sky's Mikel Landa after 3 weeks of grueling racing. Uran truly deserves some credit because he largely did it on his own without much help from his Cannondale teammates.

This was the most exciting Tour in years. Going into the time trial in the second to last stage in Marseilles, there was under a 30 second difference between the top 3 riders. In addition, there were huge crashes and/or fantastic attacks on virtually every stage. Sprinter Mark Cavendish crashed out when he tangled in a sprint with the perennial green jersey winner Peter Sagan. Sagan was essentially disqualified from the race for his actions in that crash. Richie Porte, a serious contender for the yellow, had an even more brutal crash as he lost control on a speedy descent. The relentless Dan Martin and Thomas de Gendt just kept on attacking on virtually every stage as did Warren Barguil in the mountains.

Barguil ended up taking the polka dot jersey and it was truly well deserved. Barguil recovered from going out in a breakaway in a mountain stage and then losing it at the line to winning two subsequent mountain stages and thoroughly deserved the best climber jersey. With the departure of Sagan, Marcel Kittel put a stranglehold on the green jersey, winning four sprints before crashing out himself.

Meanwhile, Team Sky simply kept control of the peloton for Froome at every stage. Michal Kwiatowski and Mikel Landa just kept pushing the pace for Sky whenever Froome needed it. Landa, especially, seemed like he was actually in better shape to make a run for the yellow than Froome at certain points in the Pyrenees. Landa was desperate to make the podium and just fell one second short to Bardet. Expect to see him move to another team and become a serious contender for yellow in next year's Tour.

Regardless of who wins, just the fact that any rider actually finishes this race is a remarkable achievement. The race covers 2,200 miles in 21 stages over 23 days on the flats, up mountains with grades reaching 20% at times, in rain, wind, heat, and cold. It is truly an ultimate test of endurance and yet, as we saw this year, the difference between being on the podium or not could come down to just a single second.

Natural Weekends - And More Clouds