Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Chauncey Gardiner Presidency, Without The Supposed Wisdom

When Trump was elected, I wrote that we should focus far less on anything he says and far more on the things that he actually does. And the events of the last week show just how relevant that rather mundane observation has been. It should be clear by now that virtually every word that Trump utters these days is, excuse my language, total bullshit. It is clear that many foreign leaders already know this but, unfortunately and dangerously, it is unclear whether all of them do. But it is time that the mainstream media reaches that same conclusion and treats his words with as little respect as they deserve and focuses purely on the actions of his administration.

Despite all the rhetoric about North Korea, there is no indication that American forces are mobilizing in any way for an attack on that country. Nor are there massive and intense efforts at protecting American forces and soil from attack from the North Koreans other than what has been built up over the last few decades and a few newly deployed anti-missile systems. His threats against Venezuela are equally vapid. And in both cases, other officials in the administration have mitigated the importance of, or even directly contradicted, the President's words.

There are reports of back-channel negotiations with the North Koreans and the Chinese and those negotiations may be driving the Monday Trump press conference. Those are the details that are truly important and Trump's over-the-top rhetoric is probably more aimed at his domestic base than at the North Koreans. That's assuming, of course, Trump's words have any intention at all, other than perhaps distracting us from the Russia investigation.

It has been the same on the domestic front as well. The Muslim ban was real. The transgender ban is apparently just more Trump bloviating. The constant spouting of repeal and replace was largely crafted by Congressional Republicans with no input, understanding, or even advocacy from the President. His statements about infrastructure and even tax reform are never backed up by any details or programs. Meanwhile, the deportation of undocumented immigrants, whether criminal or not, continues. His words mean nothing. The actions of his administration do.

Like all Presidents, there are plenty of speeches or meeting about nothing at all of substance. But, Trump, with his tweeting and apparently general ignorance, takes to ranting and raving about all sorts of matters with no follow-up. In addition, there is no focus. In the beginning, I figured he would be tweeting and touting every new job that was created during his administration, but that disappeared, like so many Trump initiatives, in just a week or so. The administration has had weeks upon weeks of policy themes like infrastructure week or jobs week, but Trump can't even stay on those topics for more than an hour or two before he is off creating chaos in a totally different direction.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of horrible policies Trump and his cronies are implementing from the gutting of the EPA to mass deportations to stacking the federal judiciary with Federalist Society clones. And yes, he does talk about these things rarely. And there may come a time when Trump does follow up his irrational statements with irrational actions, like doing the unthinkable and attacking North Korea. But we should not take every statement he makes as indicating any intention other than opening his mouth and allowing a few words to spill out.

Trump is the real Chauncey Gardiner President, addicted to TV and ignorant of the world. But, rather than having Chance's innate wisdom from working in the natural world, Trump only knows the bluster and dominance and the need to feed his enormous ego. He may be President, but that doesn't mean we should have to listen to him. We should only watch what he does.

Natural Weekends - Hawks

Friday, August 11, 2017

July Inflation Is Soft Again But Fed Seems Intent On Raising Rates

In the wake of another positive employment report for July, with over 200,000 new jobs created and average hourly earnings up by 9 cents, it appears that the Fed is prepared to continue with its planned rate hike or even hikes before the end of the year. But today's inflation numbers might want to make them think a little harder about that plan, even though it is doubtful they will.

The CPI came in at a 2.0% annualized rate, CPI less food and energy is at 1.7%, and Core CPI was at 1.4%. All of these numbers are incredibly soft and, in fact, there is only one inflation measure that exceeds the Fed's 2% target, and remember, that is just a target.

According to Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari, the other Fed members have this unsubstantiated belief that higher hourly wage growth is signifying a sudden outburst of inflation. Kashkari, who has dissented from the last two rate hikes, calls this a "ghost story". He said, "there is no evidence in any of the data that wages have this acceleration factor and are all of a sudden going to take off...We’ve been around ...a 1.7% [inflation rate]. If inflation starts to climb and we end up at 2.3% or 2.4% or 2.5%, so what." Adding to Kashkari's point is that fact that the Fed's inflation estimates have overshot reality every single year since the economy stabilized in the wake of the Great Recession.

As I've said many times before, the Fed has spent the last 30 years fighting the inflation wars of the 1970s. Since then, of course, the Fed starts raising rates at the first sign of wage growth, causing wages to stagnate, and sending inequality skyrocketing. When it comes to inflation, the target has become a ceiling and workers have suffered for that policy for the last few decades.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

WaPo Poll Shows How Fragile Our Democracy Really Is and How Close We Are To Autocracy

I have written a lot of words over the last year or more detailing how the Republican party has been subverting our democracy for the last two decades at least. While Trump has shown himself to be a special danger to our democratic institutions and norms, he is merely the culmination and epitome of Republican anti-democratic actions over many years.

A truly frightening poll by the Washington Post shows that 52% of Republicans would support Trump if he proposed postponing the 2020 election until we could be assured that only citizens could vote. That number increases to 56% if Trump and Republicans in Congress supported the idea. 47% of Republicans believe that Trump really did win the popular vote and 73% believe that voter fraud occurs somewhat or very often.

I really don't believe that people in this country understand just how fragile our democracy is and how much it has already been subverted in the last few decades. The fact that a majority of one party believes it would be OK to postpone an election means that autocracy in this country is closer than most of us believe.

Monopoly Monsanto Now Prohibiting Researchers From Investigating Effects Of Its Products

Last we checked in with one of our favorite monopolists, Monsanto, they were passing off research they had written as independent analysis and essentially colluding with an EPA official in order to make sure their cancer-linked product, Roundup, could be declared safe and stay on the market. Apparently, writing research papers on their products and then paying scientists to pass it off as independent analysis has been standard procedure for Monsanto. Now, however, it has taken to simply not allowing independent researchers study aspects of their new products and the result may already be a catastrophe for farmers.

According to the Huffington Post, as the growing season began to reach its peak this summer, farmers began noticing that many of their crops were simply withering away. Farmers are blaming a new Monsanto herbicide called XtendiMax for this phenomenon. Apparently XtendiMax may be drifting from areas where it is sprayed onto other fields where it was not intended to be used. Interestingly, Monsanto specifically refused to let independent researchers study whether the product had a tendency to vaporize and drift on to neighboring fields, essentially the herbicides volatility. According to Monsanto, the company's internal testing showed that XtendiMax was less volatile than its previous product and that allowing the independent research of its volatility was unnecessary because "This product needed to get into the hands of growers".

The EPA authorized the use of XtendiMax without any independent volatility testing, simply relying on Monsanto's internal studies. And individual states that asked for more detail about that Monsanto testing were stonewalled or given summaries of the results. In Arkansas, a Monsanto employee apparently testified to the Arkansas Plant Board’s Pesticide Committee that volatility testing was blocked by Monsanto because it feared the results would effect its EPA approval. Interestingly, BASF had also introduced a competing product that did allow volatility testing.  Interestingly and perhaps relevantly, BASF had also introduced a competing product that did allow volatility testing.

Whether XtendiMaX is responsible for the now millions of acres of crop damage still needs to be clearly determined. Whether or not that is the case, it is frightening that Monsanto has now taken the step of forbidding independent researchers to study specific aspects of its chemical products.

Intelligence Committee Staffers Secret Trip To London Actually Adds Credence To Russian Dossier

Rachel Maddow highlighted the fascinating story of two House Intelligence Committee staffers taking a trip to London and trying to meet with either Christopher Steele's lawyers or Steele directly. Steele was the author of the infamous "Russian dossier" on Trump and a number of allegations in that dossier have since been corroborated. What made the story fascinating is that none of the members of the Intelligence Committee except, it appears, for Devin Nunes were aware of the trip. Nunes was the Intelligence Committee chairman until he had to recuse himself after promoting White House propaganda on the Russian hacking issue one too many times, especially by potentially leaking classified information in order to smear members of the Obama administration in order to back up Trump's lies that Obama had wiretapped Trump.

The trip by the two staffers was authorized by a longtime aide to Nunes without the knowledge of other committee members. Since it required federal dollars to be spent, it is highly doubtful the aide authorized the trip without a sign off from Nunes himself. As of now, it is unclear what the staffers hoped to accomplish by secretly meeting with Steele or his lawyer.

What we do know, however, is that everything that Nunes does with regard to the Russia investigation is almost certainly done at the behest of the White House. So the fact that he authorized the London trip can only mean that Trump or his lawyers believe there is really something to worry about in Steele's Russian dossier. We can be certain the staffers weren't there to urge Mr. Steele to come to the US and testify truthfully. They were more probably there to get information on his sources or to somehow intimidate Steele or taint his testimony when it is given. One thing is for sure, and that is their presence is yet another confirmation that elements of the dossier are probably true.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Bush Led Us To Current Korean Crisis And Trump and GOP Are Taking Same Path With Iran

All day and all night yesterday, the mainstream media was telling us that no President has found a way to effectively deal with North Korea. And it is true that there are no good options available today. But it is an absolute misreading of history to imply that it was always so.

In fact, Bill Clinton, with a big help from Bill Richardson, did in fact negotiate an agreement with the North Koreans to halt their nuclear ambitions in return for economic help. The deal required an international group to replace the North Korean plutonium reactors with two light-water nuclear reactors and, in exchange, the US would provide half a million tons of fuel oil to the North every year. Closing the plutonium reactor would cut off access to the plutonium needed for the North Koreans to create a nuclear bomb. In addition, the agreement made some unspecific references to future economic cooperation.

When Bush won the presidency in 2000, there was initial confusion about how the new administration would proceed with North Korea. Despite Colin Powell's recommendation that the administration continue to engage with the North, the US broke off continuing talks about missile development. Then, in 2002, the administration accused to North Koreans of trying to pursue their nuclear ambitions via the path of highly-enriched uranium (where have we heard that before?). That charge was never proven but it provided the excuse for Bush to abrogate the agreement and refuse to deliver the agreed upon fuel oil, over the objections of South Korea and Japan. North Korea then kicked out the UN inspectors who had been monitoring their nuclear plants as part of the deal and began to restart its nuclear program. The North Korean's determination to develop nuclear weapons was probably solidified by being included in Bush's "axis of evil" and seeing what happened to Iraq when it had no real nuclear deterrent.

By 2006, Bush tried to do a 180 degree turn with North Korea as it became apparent they were getting ever close to having a bomb, if they didn't already. Bush removed the country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and desperately tried to restart negotiations, all to no avail. The North Koreans felt Bush had betrayed them once before and the lessons of Iraq were still fresh in their minds.

Of course, we will never know what would have happened if Bush had stuck to the agreement and taken Powell's suggestion to remain engaged. Perhaps North Korea would have ended up going down the same path that led us to where we are now. Or, possibly, increased trust and engagement might have moderated North Korea's need for the bomb. It's all too late now. The only logical way forward is acceptance that they have a nuclear capability and an renewed attempt at engagement. Kim Jong-Un may be reckless but he is focused like a laser on his survival and the survival of his regime. It is highly doubtful that he will risk all that with a foolish attack on his neighbors or us.

The failure of Bush to take advantage of the opportunity that Clinton had opened also lies with the Republican party and the especially partisan politics practiced by Newt Gingrich and his cohorts. In order to win the nomination and the presidency, Bush had to placate the radical right which looked askance at anything that Clinton accomplished and painted the North Korea deal as "appeasement". When Bush got into office, he was actively looking for an excuse to abrogate the Clinton deal and, just like he sought a reason to invade Iraq, he "found" it.

As Josh Marshall rightly notes, we seem to be replaying this very same story when it comes to Trump and Iran. The radical right has called it appeasement and Trump has called it the "worst deal ever". Just as in 2001, Trump and the Republicans are determined to roll back as much of what Obama accomplished as possible. And Trump himself has already stated that he wants to pull out of the agreement with Iran. If that does indeed happen, I imagine we will soon find ourselves with the very same set of limited options we currently have with North Korea when it comes to Iran.

The Horrific Tactics Of ICE and CBP Under Trump

If there is any group that combines the cruelty of the Republican party and the arrogance and abuses of the Trump administration, it would have to be ICE and CBP. Having been huge supporters of Trump during the campaign, they have acted like attack dogs let loose ever since Trump's inauguration.

When the initial Muslim ban was ruled unconstitutional, it appeared that CBP intentionally ignored that court order for a significant period of time. CBP officers were also instructed not to speak to the press or members of Congress. Even worse, they were also instructed to ignore calls from attorneys for individuals being detained or those trying to find information about those who might be detained. In addition, CBP monitored protests at airports and other ports of entry that followed Trump's announcement, including photographing the protesters and distributing those photos within the agency. As Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly eloquently put it, "They built a stone wall and gave us the middle finger. They feel they can do that with impunity because Trump’s in the White House and Sessions is at the Department of Justice, and they can behave outside the law or inside the law as they see fit."

CBP may be horrible but ICE is even worse. On Long Island, in response to Trump's PR push against MS-13, immigration officials are deporting children based on the flimsiest associations with the gang and based on questionable evidence from school officials. Many of those picked up by ICE had been suspended from school, indicating that school officials are complicit in facilitating a school-to-deportation pipeline. One high school girl was detained by immigration officers for a month simply because she had spoken to suspected gang members at school. ICE agents have picked up other students and accused them of gang membership based on the clothes they were wearing, who they spoke to, or whether another family member was in the gang. One student was suspended from school and detained by ICE because he drew bull horns, the symbol of the MS-13 gang, on a calculator. The mascot of the high school he attended, however, is a Blue Devil making it entirely plausible the drawing was actually in school spirit.

As if detaining children who have committed no crime isn't bad enough, ICE is apparently also using children as bait in order to detain their parents. In Connecticut, a undocumented child was turned over to his undocumented father over a year ago on the condition that the child report to ICE on a regular basis. The father, who did not have a criminal record and was gainfully employed as a mason, was recently summoned to Hartford to sign papers for his son where he was immediately arrested and detained for deportation. According to a Connecticut immigration lawyer, "My colleagues and I have been witnessing these deceptive practices for the last couple of months. This new practice of luring parents with the sole purpose of tearing them apart from their children is the most despicable and inhumane practice we have witnessed".

Despicable tactics using children is probably a new low for ICE. The prior low may have been when they detained an undocumented woman who had appeared in court to get protection from her abusive boyfriend. What was even more disgusting about this case is that the tip that led ICE to detain the woman apparently came from the boyfriend, essentially making ICE complicit in the domestic abuse.

ICE and CBP are really so horrible it is hard not to succumb to Godwin's law. But they are merely a reflection of the insanity of the Republican and Trump attitude toward immigration. We are wasting money and resources to break up families and deport immigrants who are actually employed and contributing to our economy while allowing companies to bring in cheaper foreign workers by using and abusing the H1B and H2B visa programs. But logical consistency has never been a Republican strength.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Sinclair TV Deal Is Another Step Toward "Managed Media"

Shortly after Trump was inaugurated, I warned that the country needed to be prepared for the inevitable movement toward a "managed media", similar to the situation that Putin has created in Russia. Obviously, Trump was not going to convert America into Russia overnight, especially where the media was concerned. But there would be a concerted effort to intimidate effective media oversight and promote Republican propaganda outfits.

With his continual attacks on the media, Trump has certainly gone after the independent press. But it has been far less effective than one might have thought, primarily because Trump is so transparent in his motives for specific attacks and is so constant in his criticism so that people have become immune to their impact. Sadly, this is at least part of the normalization of Trump's outrageous and illegal behaviors.

We have all known for years that Fox News is merely a propaganda outfit for the Republican party. When Roger Ailes was in charge, he clearly set the tone and the message for the channel. Whether that was based on his own insights into conservative ideology, personal preferences, or direct coordination with Republican political leaders was always hard to know.

Now, however, it appears that whatever level of deniability the network had before is slowly falling away. The indications that the Fox News "story" that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich sent the DNC emails to WikiLeaks rather than the Russians was actually coordinated with the White House is another step down the road to government managed media. Fox was eventually forced to retract the story, as it had to when it reported that Hillary Clinton was going to be imminently indicted immediately before the November election, yet another story clearly based on "information" from officials associated with the Trump campaign.

With the announcement that the FCC is allowing Sinclair Broadcast Group to purchase another 42 TV stations from Tribune Media, we have taken yet another step. This would allow Sinclair to reach 72% of the American TV audience, nearly double the cap of 39% imposed by Congress. In order to do this, the FCC restored an decades-old rule that did not include former UHF channels above channel 13 in determining the viewership reached, thereby getting Sinclair down the legally acceptable level of 38%. This rollback was led by the horrid FCC chair, Ajit Pai, in a 2-1 party line vote by the Commission.

Sinclair is well known for its already conservative bias and it was reported that Jared Kushner actually boasted that the Trump campaign had struck a deal with the company in order to receive positive coverage. But its most insidious policy is to force local TV stations that it owns to essentially run conservative propaganda pieces under the guise that it is actually local programming. At present, it forces local stations to run a commentary segment from short-lived Trump White House staffer Boris Epshteyn nine times a week. As John Oliver describes it, "[W]ith Sinclair, they're injecting Fox-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors."

In addition, the horrid Pai has also proposed repealing a rule that a station owner must have a main studio in the local area it serves. If that passes, it would allow Sinclair to impose even more control over its local broadcasts, with a reach that includes nearly three-quarters of the country. And isn't that what every would-be autocrat exactly wants.

Wells Fargo Racketeering Continues Apace, Without Restraint

As a blogger, I have to admit that my favorite corporate criminal, Wells Fargo, is just a continual font for posts. Today's news is that the bank decided not to refund the portion of what is called GAP, or guaranteed asset protection, insurance due back to the customer when the loan was paid off or, worse, when the car was repossessed.

This Wells Fargo fraud is an adjunct of their previously reported scam of forcing people to buy collision insurance when they took out a car loan with the bank. Customers were signed up for this insurance without notification from Wells Fargo and even if the customers already had purchased that insurance on their own. That particular rip-off affected over 800,000 customers and created 275,000 delinquent payments as well as 25,000 repossessions because customers were not aware of the additional insurance charge on their loan. In addition, the bank prioritized the insurance payment, thereby extending the principal paydowns on the loan and increasing the customers' total interest costs and, unsurprisingly, increasing Wells Fargo profits.

GAP insurance is not required for car owners but it pushed heavily by auto dealers and lenders for the very simple reason the car loses so much value when it is driven off the lot. The insurance protects the lender from that loss of value and is usually included in the total cost of the loan. However, if the loan is paid off or the car is repossessed, the unused portion of the GAP insurance should be credited back to the customer. Wells Fargo did not do this, essentially ripping off tens of thousands of its auto loan customers. For those whose cars were repossessed, the failure to refund this insurance actually hurt their credit score even more as it appeared they owed more then they really did. And, as in previous Wells Fargo scandals, the company can not tell us when this scam began. In prior cases, the fraud had been going on for a decade or more.

When it comes to Wells Fargo, I keep on repeating myself so I will just quote from my prior post: "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." Sadly, this case will not end any differently than all the others that came before it and all the others yet to come, and they will come, because the bank never, ever incurs a significant penalty.

Big Pharma Now Forcing Consumers To Use Brand-Name Instead Of Cheaper Generic Drugs

The absurdity of the for-profit healthcare system was revealed again yesterday in a New York Times article about the use of brand-name instead of generic drugs. According to the article, pharmaceutical companies are cutting deals with insurers and benefit managers requiring the use of the brand-name drug where the generic would be a cheaper and equally effective alternative. Since most Americans now have high deductible plans, that added cost comes directly out of the patient's pocket.

Drugs to treat attention deficit disorder are prime examples of this phenomenon. About two years ago, doctors started being notified by pharmacies that they had to prescribe the brand-name version of Adderall XR, for instance, instead of the generic. For one family, that resulted in $50 per month in higher expenses for the child's medication which added hundreds more to their annual deductible costs.

The reason this is happening is that pharmaceutical companies are desperate to squeeze the last bit of profits out of their patent-protected drugs before and even after cheaper generics hit the market. For the pharmaceutical company Shire, Adderall XR was its top selling drug accounting for around one-third of the company's sales in 2008. But starting in the mid-2000s, the company was already making efforts to protect its star product from generic competition. First, it sued to stop generic competitors, claiming patent infringement. Then it made a deal with two generic drug makers to sell copies of the drug in return for royalties on the sales. That deal fell apart when Shire apparently provided so few pills to the generic drug makers that it was impossible for them to gain any market share at all. After that, Shire resorted to the tactic of striking these deals with insurers and benefit managers to require the use of their brand-name drug, which is what has triggered the increased costs for the family above. Essentially, Shire has spent the last decade doing everything in its power to lock out generic competition for its top selling drug.

Of course, Shire is not the only pharmaceutical company engaging in these kind of aggressive tactics to keep cheaper generics off the market. Virtually every pharmaceutical company with a patented product has used similar methods over the last couple of decades. What is new are these agreements with insurers and benefit managers to require the use of the brand-name drug. As on pharmacist said, "There’s only one reason why they’re requiring you to use a more expensive product. Because somewhere down the road, somebody is earning more money." And, consumers and patients end up paying for that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Trump Campaign Inexperience And Incompetence Is Exactly Why They Colluded With Russians

I was travelling this weekend and had the unfortunate experience of watching an early morning Saturday show on CNN. The premise of at least two of the panelists on the show was that the Trump campaign was far too inexperienced and disorganized to run a complex strategy coordinated with the Russians. I had to restrain myself from yelling at the TV.

Yes, the Trump campaign was woefully disorganized and inexperienced and in no way capable of running a traditional presidential campaign. That is exactly why they brought in Paul Manafort. And who had more experience in using the Russian disinformation system to help sway elections than Manafort. That had been his primary job while working in Ukraine. He would be able to bring in and use that same expertise here in the US.

While Don Jr. is portrayed by his own father as an incompetent child and his defenders as a political neophyte and Jared Kushner simply showed up for a meeting that he had apparently read nothing about and then left when apparently nothing of interest happened for ten minutes, there is no doubt that Paul Manafort understood quite clearly what the Russians were doing there and what they were prepared to offer in the way of assistance to the Trump campaign. There is no doubt that he knew exactly who Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin were and who they represented. And, yet, according to the reports of the meeting, Manafort provided no objection and heard them out.

In addition, there have been numerous reports that Manafort was still in touch with Trump and his campaign even after he had essentially been fired over the revelations of his off-the-books payments received in Ukraine. But by then, the wheels of Russian collaboration were already well in motion.

The fact that the Trump campaign was incompetent and ill-equipped to run a national presidential campaign is exactly the reason why they would collude with the Russians rather than a reason why they didn't.