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Friday, June 30, 2017

Our government is facing an existential threat from within.

The history of American politics features endless political conflicts, largely symbolized by debating the role that our government should play as embodied in the Preamble to the Constitution: the establishment of justice; the insurance of domestic tranquility; the provision for the common defense; the promotion of the common welfare; and the securing of Liberty. I'd argue (elsewhere) both that you can attach any of the political debates between partisans of any age in our country's history to one or more of those topics and that you can see a pendulum-like action to the government being more or less progressive in how it addresses those issues. That's normal and healthy for a republic riven by faction.

But what we are seeing today steps out of that traditional arena and takes a nihilistic turn for the worse.

With the election of Donald Trump as a nominal member of the Republican Party, the nation has placed its future in the hands of those who wish to destroy the government as it presently exists. On one side of the Executive stands Steven K. Bannon, who has publicly declared that the destruction of the state apparatus is his ultimate goal. Ideological warfare, not governance is his goal while in power. On the other side of the Executive rests Reince Priebus and Mike Pence, both men who have dedicated their political careers to adhering to Grover Norquist's stated desire to shrink government to the size that he can "drown it in a bathtub." Trump himself has demonstrated throughout his lifetime of self-service that he is first and foremost dedicated to the advancement of his own personal interests, and the early indications are that he will cheerfully do the bidding of those on either side of him. As a result, there is a suicidal, nihilistic tendency in the Executive Branch of the government to an extent that has never been seen in American history. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine Trump using an executive order to shut down the Executive Branch and not realizing what he has done until he comes downstairs in the morning to find that everyone is gone.

With the handing of power to Republican Party members in Congress, there is a frenzy of enacting the Party's ideological agenda, which is a normal part of the pendulum swinging with a shift in party power. However, this activity is coming at the expense of the Legislative Branch's responsibilities to serve as a check on the Executive, coupled with an outright repudiation of the standards of legislation that had endured for decades. As just one example, witness the way that health care legislation is being handled. Regardless of what one thinks of the responsibility or irresponsibility of the federal government providing health care (or not), the fact that this legislation, which impacts virtually every living American citizen and nearly a third of the total economy, was crafted by a few in secret, in denial of both proper procedure and tradition, and is being rammed down the throats of members of Congress without a timeline to allow for debate, input and change, again, as is both traditional and procedural. It is clear that Congress is not interested in self-preservation as a functional body of government. Collegiality is gone except in times of extraordinary stress, collaboration and compromise no longer exists between the members of either House or Senate party factions, and petty revenge for slights real and imagined is the order of the day. Party is more important than country. The Legislative Branch is collapsing upon itself, sinking to the level of the most base members' inclinations, which will only lead to its irrelevance or self immolation.

The Judicial Branch is populated by a majority of jurists who have articulated similar points of view to either Bannon or Norquist at various stages of their careers. It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court is dedicated to the rule of law derived from its own institutional settled rulings and traditions, or if it too is ready to overturn the government apple cart to fanatically pursue the "shrinking" of government through anachronistic interpretations of the Constitution. But there aren't a lot of reasons to hope that they, too, won't join in the feeding frenzy of non-creative destruction that grips the other two branches of government when presented with the opportunity.

Shrinking government is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Walking back legislation, overturning settled law, charting a new course for the nation are all to be expected when there is a transition of ideology in our government; that is part and parcel of being a democratic republic.

But to embark on that process in secret, behind closed doors, to deny the people the right to see, hear and discuss these issues is antithetical to the very bedrock of what makes us a successful and lasting Republic. Willfully letting ambassador's posts lie vacant, willfully causing under-secretarial positions across the Executive Branch to stand empty while naifs serve as Secretaries in the Cabinet, willfully repudiating the free press with inflammatory rhetoric, willfully lying about factual events and displaying no shame when caught, these are all direct challenges to that which preserves, protects and extends our democracy.

Representatives are answerable to the people, they must be for the people, and they must be of the people, or our government shall, indeed, perish from the earth.


Monday, February 6, 2017

Trump Foreign Policy, a beginning explanation

As confusing as the first two weeks of the Trump Administration was, I think I see the beginnings of a pattern to what Trump's (or Steve Bannon's) approach to foreign policy is, largely because it is devoid of nuance, and is actually frightening for its petulance and adolescent reactions.

Trump is presenting a theoretical construct of foreign policy that is even simpler than Reagan's was, which, ironically, is the last time the US actually had a coherent foreign policy.

This world view is: If you are "bad," you are Trump's "enemy."

If you are muslim, you are bad. Therefore, if you are muslim, you are Trump's enemy.

If you don't do what Trump wants, you are bad. Therefore, if you don't pay for Trump's wall, then you, Mexico, are Trump's enemy.

If you send Trump refugees, you are bad. Therefore, you, Australia, are Trump's enemy.

If you aren't bad, you aren't Trump's enemy. Putin, according to Trump, is not bad, and therefore isn't an enemy.

What has yet to be defined are the words "bad" and "enemy." What does it mean to be bad? Are there degrees of enemy?

We do know that"bad" is something that can be subjected to a multiplier effect.

North Korea is developing a nuclear weapon, (bad) China is expanding into the South China Sea (bad), international trade deals are bad, and, of course, the media is bad. However, because ISIS incorporates two bads (terror and Islam) it is a double bad, followed closely by Iran (Islam and a "bad deal") which is a bad and a half. Thus, Trump's focus on ISIS and Iran, despite neither posing an existential threat to the United States security at the moment.

Putin is personally admirable for Trump (for reasons that defy explanation at the moment) and is against ISIS. Therefore, Russia can not be bad and can not be an enemy.

Trump is approaching the conduct of international diplomacy from the standpoint of a real estate deal. To sell property, you pump the tires, you hyperbolize and accentuate the positives while denying knowledge of the negatives. (If I don't see the house inspection, I don't know that the foundation is crumbling, do I?) As a result, everything is really big and seemingly equally important. Trump also has shown that he believes that any publicity is good publicity, so he is not hesitating to put everything out there, good, bad or indifferent.

Diplomacy is traditionally a language of subtlety and nuance, and is best done out of the public eye. Trump is neither of those, and is a publicity whore.

I'm no expert, but I don't see this going all that well...

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A thought about a Coup De Comb-over

Just a thought:

Usually an incoming President brings along people from his past political life to staff up the White House. Trump has no political background, no group of advisors with political experience he can tap from his 70 years of life on the planet who are loyal to him.

But ah, the Vice President... The one who served in the House and forged tight friendships with Paul Ryan and others in the House Leadership structure. The one who has a solid long-standing strong relationship with Mitch McConnell. The one who is the darling of the traditional GOP establishment and who has street cred with the Tea Party faction of the GOP.

The one who emerged from a pack of contenders who oddly melted away to become the nominee's running mate.

The one who pushed Chris Christie out from running the transition team and stepped in to vet, court and select all of the Cabinet nominees.

The one who selected the wife of the Senate majority leader to serve in the Cabinet (in the line of succession) and who appears to have placed party loyalists into posts that allow them to control the access to the White House, and the messages it sends out. Like Reince Priebus. Like Sean Spicer.

So who in his administration is loyal to Trump? His son-in-law is his only advisor who owes his power and position solely to The Donald. Bannon? Conway? All they are: "special advisors." They have no Constitutional authority! And the latter two's loyalty is certainly suspect, as they have their own ties to the GOP establishment. The few in the White House who are loyal to Trump are outweighed by those who owe their power and position to...Vice President Mike Pence and the GOP establishment.

So what if, after a short time, when Trump goes off the rails, when he deviates from the Party desires, when he says no to what they want, when he gets sued, or returns to his pussy grabbing ways, or when he becomes too much of a liability, the GOP leadership can easily stage a democratic coup. Trump gets impeached and removed, and in his place:

President Mike Pence.

Just something to think about as you ponder our on-going transition to a full fledged Banana Republic...

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The marriage between Trump and GOP will end badly

Donald Trump has changed his Party affiliation five times since 1987. In the last decade, he joined the GOP in 2009 having been a Democrat for a while. So what brought him over to the GOP? Apparently he was motivated by the conviction that the President who was elected in 2008 was an African muslim, a position which he flogged mercilessly for two years, until he quit the Party in 2011. He then came back in 2015 to run for President/boost his brand recognition, having seen a number of business ventures falter in the intervening years. And then he won.

Regardless of his motivation, no matter how you look at him, Trump was never a true believer in Republican conservatism, the Tea Party movement did not get his blood pumping, and he has only a hint of conservative fiscal policy in his bones. On the social side of the conservative agenda, he has been, on the record, directly opposed to much of the "family values" agenda the GOP has espoused since the 1980s.  Indeed, his personal life stands as testament to his disagreement with the agenda of the moral majority, fathering five children with three different women, two of whom he divorced after being unapologetically unfaithful.

I recount this to raise the following question: Do Republicans owe their loyalty as members of a Party to Donald Trump, now the President-Elect and the de facto leader of the GOP?

It seems that thus far, this will be a wedding of convenience; Republican Congressional leadership is waxing rhapsodic about how the American people have given themselves a united government, and thus a mandate to advance the long-stalled Republican agenda.

Just as Democrats seized the moment in 2008 and passed a flurry of "progressive" legislation, signed into law by the progressive/liberal President, so too are Republicans hoping to see their agenda move forward over the next two years and be signed into law by a conservative President.

But the Republican's President isn't one of them, and two years is a long time in politics. Indeed Trump was elected through a primary campaign that was hugely disruptive, if not downright destructive, of the GOP narrative. Trump rode a wave of his own making that most times was openly dismissive of long held conservative beliefs, and his campaign was, in turn, openly dismissed by most of the conservative leadership. Trump gives no sign of being either an ideologue or even a partial believer in the GOP ideology. He is pro-business and pro-wealthy but only insofar as those align with his pro-Trump stance. And that last, pardon the pun, trumps all other concerns.

So going forward, I think we could either see: A) an open conflict between Trump and Congress erupt in the first year, as their mutual areas of agreement will be rapidly exhausted. Congressional GOP leaders are all proud, wealthy, white men, most of whom were openly disparaged by Trump during the campaign and all of whom know how to nurse a grudge. The longer serving members of the Party also have a nearly reflexive defense of their branch of government, and are long conditioned to automatically reject an Executive who seeks to seize power, as that is an expansion of government, which they deeply dislike. GOP leaders in Congress will expect Trump to go along and get along with their long repressed urges, and Trump will expect the GOP to go along and get along with his inchoate, whimsical agenda. Both will exhaust their patience with each other rapidly.

Alternatively, we could see B) a unanimity brought about by the fact that Trump has handed the reigns of domestic power to his Vice President, Mike Pence, in a deal similar to the one that Trump's son said was offered to John Kasich in the waning days of the campaign. Pence is a true believer in all of the most conservative stances of the Republican Party, and his record as governor shows that he will not hesitate to implement a reactionary conservative agenda. Trump will step away from areas of domestic policy and let Congress negotiate with itself and the VP, and the GOP agenda will advance.

I think that the latter is most probably what will happen, as Trump has clearly staked out areas of his interest and areas of his dis-interest over the last several months. So VP Elect Pence has the opportunity to turn that office into an actual seat of power unlike any other Vice President in history.

But...

As Vice President, Pence can't sign the bills. And the Vice President has no Constitutional area of executive authority. It is a bucket of warm spit. Executive authority resides with President Trump, a man who has demonstrated time and again that his ego is beyond brittle, his id rages out of control, and his insecurities are many and varied.

So if Trump begins to feel sidelined, marginalized, or God help us all, disrespected by members of his own Party, there is no doubt in my mind that he will turn to his wonderful Twitter followers, and unleash the inner petulant child we have all come to know and loathe. Then what? If Trump seeks to back out or change the imagined agreement with Pence, or simply to take what has long been the prerogatives of the President, he will enter into conflict with his VP and with Congress. And the GOP agenda will stall out in infighting and chaos.

It seems certain that no matter which of the above power-sharing scenarios is true, the end result is that the GOP leadership will face a problem as they attempt to enact their agenda. They will have to learn to soothe the savage Trump, cater to the whims of his ego, and make him feel as though their long-held agenda is actually his idea. If they do not, this marriage will become Trump's fourth divorce, and the GOP will end up more fragmented than it has been since the days TR bolted to be a Bull Moose.

Do the Republicans on Main Street owe their loyalty to Trump or Party? Do they owe their President Elect a staunch defense of his behaviors? Do they reflexively need to back his cabinet nominees and explain his Twitter rants? Should they take the "We need to give Trump time" argument as a push back against liberals who are already howling for impeachment?

It would be a mistake of their own making to do any of the above. Trump is not a loyal believer, nor will he become one overnight. It appears we are witnessing a new definition for the traditional Honeymoon period usually granted to an incoming administration. The Party and its members need to bate their own breath and wait to see if their President Elect will stay faithful now that they are married, or if he will be out groping other priorities and fondling other agendas once his term of office begins. The latter will be true.

So now, on the record and for the future: I told you so, Republicans. Trump is not what he appears to be. He will not be faithful to your agenda, he will not value your priorities, and four years from now your Party will be a smoking ruin because you bought his act. If only there were a way to get a quickie divorce...

Friday, July 29, 2016

Don't Boo...Don't Cheer...VOTE!

In my various social media feeds, now that the nominees are clearly determined, I’m seeing a version of the following statement: “I live in [insert Republican/Democratic leaning state name here], so it won’t matter that I don’t vote because I don’t like either Donald or Hillary.”


This angers me more than anything else I’m seeing about this election.


According to the Pew Research Center, in 2012, 84.3% of those of us who were eligible to vote, registered to vote. Of that number, only 53.6% chose to cast a ballot in that Presidential election. That means that not only did 16% of American citizens not even bother to register, but also 43.4% actively stayed home. Nearly half stayed home!


Now we all know about the Electoral College and how it works, so I hear you when you say “but the popular vote doesn’t matter.” But that’s not exactly true.


However! Electors are designated based on the outcome of the states’ popular votes. Win the state, win the Electors; win the Electors, win the Presidency. (Yes, Nebraska and Maine do it differently, I know…)


In 2012, at the state level, the state with the highest levels of voter turnout (according to the Washington Post, who was citing statistics from Nonprofit Vote) was Minnesota, who saw a turnout of 76.1% of eligible voters. So the state where nearly a quarter of the people stayed home on election day was the best performing. Minnesota’s electors were distributed based on what 39% or more of the registered voters of Minnesota wanted. Minnesota voted for Obama 53% to 45% (according to NBC News). So would those 23.9% of votes that stayed home have mattered to the outcome of the election? O you betcha!


In my home state of Massachusetts, the popular conception is that it is a Democratic stronghold when it comes to Presidential elections. 66.6% of the state turned out to vote in 2012. So one third of those who could vote, did not vote. Obama took Massachusetts 61% to 38%. But throw the 33.4% of people who stayed home into the mix, and you have a possibly very different outcome; if they were Republicans who stayed home because “their vote doesn’t matter in MA,” they cost their candidate 11 Electoral Votes. On an even more local level, in the town where I work, the split was Obama 52% to Romney 46% with 13,204 people voting out of the 14,295 who could vote, according to the US Census. So those 1,091 people who didn’t vote could have swung the town’s vote.


We can play this game with every state in the union and for both parties. The worst turnouts in 2012 were in Arizona (53%), Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Hawaii (44%). The best were in Minnesota (76.1%), Wisconsin, Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa, Maine, and Virginia (66.9%). No state should feel good about its numbers. In both lists, there are “red” and “blue” states that are critical to the Electoral College, and in all cases, the outcome of the last election could have been different if those who didn’t vote actually did cast a ballot!


So if you are saying “I don’t matter, so I won’t vote in the fall,” Please re-think it! You do matter, your choice matters, your vote matters! It may not feel like it does, but we each can add our voices to the collective whole and in that way be heard.


We, as a country, get more divided through apathy. Disagree with each other, support who you like, argue about it, but in the end get out and vote! This 2016 election is going to come down to how many people actually get to the polls to vote. States are making this more and more difficult to do, which is shameful and deserves our immediate attention. But the only way it gets attention, the only way our country gets better, the only way we can shape our future is for all of us to take that one day a year every four years and exercise our one responsibility as citizens.

So boo, cheer, post, tweet, all of that and more, but above all, in November: VOTE!

Friday, April 29, 2016

Something wicked this way comes

It's maybe time to get nervous. Rather than tell you lots of stuff, I'll tell you a little and let you click a few links and draw your own conclusions.  I'm not 100% confident that all that is in these links is fully accurate, but even if it is a little bit so, we've got another economic downturn on the way. It will be different from the last one, because the last one was centered in the bubble in the real estate market. This one will be bigger and badder. And I don't mean "bad" meaning "good"...

1. Retail store closings
Ask yourself: Why would so many of these super large chains be closing down so many of their stores? McDonalds? WalMart? This is just the list for this year, by the way. Remember two things: WalMart's method is to drive out all the "mom and pop" stores from an area with their "low low prices" so that the people have no other shopping options. What do people do when WalMart closes? Also, Sears/KMart/Macys are all anchor stores in malls.  When they go out, there is a huge ripple effect. Remember Ames? Remember Bradlees? You can still see the remnants of the malls they used to anchor...filled with weeds and empty storefronts with busted windows.

2. Subprime auto loans are on the rise
You don't even have to read the article. Just look at the graph in the middle. Then think to yourself: "Gee, I wonder if banks/investment houses are packaging this debt and selling it like they do with mortgages?" Yes. Yes they are. And the current default rate on these loans? 12% are 30 days past due, and 30% are more than 60 days past due. The auto industry relies upon steady sales to keep itself alive in this country. High sales=financial health, right? Wrong. Who are they selling these cars to? And who is dumb enough to invest in bundled high risk auto loans? Apparently, our investment banks are.

3. Inflation rates are starting to move
Yeah, sure, you say. But they aren't moving that much. Right. But they are moving. Why is inflation so low? Because the Fed has been flooding the nation with electronic cash ("quantitative easing," remember?) and keeping interest rates ridiculously low, despite a minor bump Janet Yellen announced a little bit ago. That's the only tool available to curb inflationary pressure: moving interest rates on government bonds. The current interest rate is nearly 0. (I think it is near 0.3% right now...) Some folks see rates as on the way up (see an article here). Why keep rates low? Because mortgages and loans are indexed to the Fed's rate. So if the Fed's rates are low, we get quick and easy money to borrow to pay for our cars and houses...

Why do we need to borrow? Because we need to have money to spend money at stores to keep the economy going strong. But retail stores are closing and laying off workers. So maybe we aren't spending enough money. So the Fed wants rates to stay low, so we will borrow more. And spend more. And be deeper in debt.

Oh, and the banks/investment houses are offering "bespoke tranche opportunities" to investors. These are bundled packages of the debt that you and I incur when we take a loan or get a mortgage. That should sound familiar. They used to be referred to as CDOs, and that practice of bundling them together is what caused the economy to crash in 2008 when too many banks loaned too much money out to too many people who couldn't pay it back. And then they bet against their own investors and the system collapsed.

Just recently the relationship between the long term interest rates and the short term interest rates (this is called the yield curve) were practically flat-lined. A flat yield curve is a concern because it usually presages an inverted yield curve, and that, my friends historically indicates a recession or depression.

Throw in the fact that the Chinese economy is certainly in the toilet, and their currency is really really stressed, (leading the Chinese government to hype nationalism with higher levels of aggression in the South China Sea to distract the Chinese people from their problems...); oil prices are wicked low (good for the gas tank, suuuuper bad for the global economy), the European Union is looking shaky (Brexit, anyone?) and the international scene is not so good.

Taken individually, those are all interesting facts. Put together, well, I'm saying it now and hoping I'm wrong:

Something wicked this way comes....

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Why Trump will kill the GOP

Listening to Donald Trump in these debates, I’m struck by two things:
  1. He is going to win the GOP nomination.
  2. That will spell the death of the GOP.


He’s going to win the nomination because he has tapped into a “Populist” anger. As the Boston Globe quoted him in the last debate: “I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,” he said. “Our military is a disaster. Our health care is a horror show. Obamacare, we’re going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry.”  It is worth noting that none of his statements there are objectively true.  But that doesn’t seem to matter to Republicans, who seem to be agreeing with his statements whole-heartedly.  As are his rivals, who don’t want to appear “weak” by disagreeing with the rage of the white males.  In fact, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Chris Christie are all attempting to out-Trump Trump, by raising their own levels of indignation with the incompetence of the Obama administration and the terrible state that America has fallen to under his watch.  


It is obvious to all that Trump is driving this race, and he has been since he entered it.  Unafraid of controversy, and funded by billions, he is free to say whatever he wants, and gleefully engage in “telling it like it is.”  His rivals are unable to match his braggadocio, verve and derision of others because they have played the politics game of hedging safely too long to keep up. And the poor, white, God-fearing, American male, trained by years of WWE and the NFL, eats up his testosterone-laden pronouncements, and, barring some catastrophic collapse it looks like they will head to the polls and support him enough to carry him through to the convention.  Momentum is on Trump’s side.


And that’s bad for the GOP. In the past, the pattern during the silly season has been to play to the base and foam at the mouth, then get the nomination, then wipe off the drool and drift to the center.  Trump won’t follow this plan, because Trump can’t.  He is trapping himself into this character that he has created. The base that is all riled up by his performances will feel utterly betrayed should he moderate his positions or his tone as he enters the general election, and it is an open question in my mind as to whether or not he even can moderate those things. So, should Trump win, which seems likely at this point, he will be in so deep as to not be able to do what’s necessary to win the overall election, which will be bad for his party. Why?


Firstly, Democrats, if they are remotely competent, should be able to pick up on the “__________ is from the party of Trump” opportunity to paint their opponents with the Trump brand of politics, energize their own base and make some gains in the House and Senate positions.


Secondly, Trump is paving the way for his successors, who will view his victory as the path to future dominance.  Especially if the next president is a woman, they will come back in four years convinced that viciously disparaging her record with half truths will lead them to the promised land.  And the GOP will become even more populist. And less able to appeal to moderates/centrists across the board, let alone women, people of color, thinking human beings…

So the GOP needs to have someone other than Trump win, or they risk a scenario where the long term prospects for the party is a series of losses on the national stage. If only their party had a living breathing leadership...