Monday, February 20, 2017

The Shape of Things to Come

The great American experiment in Democracy may not be over, but it has certainly failed. America, once a wealthy, militarily powerful, and culturally influential nation, now marches toward a future position of poverty, weakness, and irrelevance. Historians of the future will emphasize that this American collapse was not brought about by competition from greater nations, nor by Russian meddling, Chinese currency manipulation, international terrorism or illegal immigration. Americans, they will note, had an election, and thereby made a self-destructive choice. As they analyze the election of 2016 they will find confirmation of what has always been known about Democracy, that its weakness, its Achilles’ heel, is the ignorance of the electorate.

But for us Americans today, that historical analysis is irrelevant. We are now on the other side of one of the the major pivots in world history. Ineluctable forces have been unleashed, and the outlines of a new order are beginning to take shape. Whither America?

While tensions run high, it seems likely that President Trump and the Republican Party in Congress will agree on enough to achieve a major shift of power away from Washington. The plan, in broad terms, seems to be to reduce federal regulations and taxes. Reduced taxes, especially if combined with increased spending on military and border control projects, implies reduced federal funds for states. Given the anti-regulatory stance of both President and Congress, any transfers that survive are likely to be in the form of block-grants with few regulatory strings attached.

This would be a major and voluntary reduction of the power of the Federal Government. Constitutionally, the direct authority of the Federal Government over the states is quite limited. The power and influence that the Federal Government now has is largely based in its ability to attach regulations to the money it gives to states and to regulate interstate commerce. If the Federal Government is going to give less money to states, attach fewer regulations to the money it does give, and regulate interstate commerce less, the basis for a great deal of federal power and influence in America will simply disappear. States will be set onto much more independent courses.

At a sufficiently theoretical level, this is neither good nor bad; it is just different. Many Americans imagine such a system would be close to paradise, presuming that deregulated businesses would flourish, resulting in comfort and stability for all. This is probably more magical thinking than reality. Nevertheless, some of the outcomes of greatly reduced federal power seem logically predictable.

Though rarely acknowledged, federal power is not just regulatory glue, but is economic and cultural glue as well. For example, states are eager to accept federal funds for public schools, and those funds come with federal rules that require schools everywhere to adhere to certain policies, such as not discriminating against students or teachers on the basis of gender, pregnancy, or sexual orientation. One result is that public school systems tend be structurally and functionally similar from state to state. Reducing or eliminating federal funds, and reducing the rules that are attached to those funds, gives each state more authority to set its own policies. Major differences in policy from state to state, both in education and other areas, will quickly result.

The biggest difference between states, of course, is economic, and this constrains state reactions to changes in federal subsidies. If they have the political will, more populous and economically diversified states such as New York and California can raise state taxes to replace lost federal revenue. They can expand their own welfare, healthcare, environmental protection, and other agencies to take up the slack left by the exit of the federal government from those areas of concern. But for many states, smaller and less economically developed, political will is irrelevant. They simply don’t have the tax base to draw on, and will be financially unable to expand their own bureaucracies to replace lost federal services. What the federal government does not do for them won’t get done at all.

In the long term, the predictable result is a much looser confederation of states, with enormous state-to-state differences in the distribution of wealth and poverty, commitment to public education, consumer protections, environmental regulation, access to health care, and the type and number of companies providing jobs.

In the shorter term, a period of adaptive upheaval is all too predictable. With careful planning and a willingness to phase changes in over time, some of the disruption could be minimized. There is, of course, no rational basis for expecting such deftness of the Trump administration, nor patience from congressional Republicans who need to make changes before the 2018 elections, certainly before 2020. These changes are going to happen fast! As a result, state regulations and taxes will be in flux for some time, and individuals and businesses will struggle to adapt in an unstable environment. A lot of us will be voting with our feet, looking for jobs in states more amenable to our personal values.

All of this assumes that Trump and Congress can maintain a working d├ętente for at least a couple of years, and that the Republican base remains as enthusiastic about the defederalization process as they now seem to be (or at least are assumed to be). There are some potential stumbling blocks. The states that most solidly support Trump and Republicans in Congress are also the states that can least afford to lose federal subsidies, and are the states most likely to suffer economic dislocations. A lot depends on how soon the residents of those states recognize the full impact of getting what they wished for. A lot depends, too, on whether or not the federal government remains pure in its intent to reduce its own power, or tries instead to force anti-regulatory policies on economically important states like New York and California. If that happens, those and similarly well-heeled states could decide they’re better off leaving the union. Regardless of the economics, increasing cultural differences between states, especially between urban and rural states, is going to make it a lot harder to keep America together as a single nation.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Trump Offers Confidence at Press Conference

“Chaos? There’s zero chaos,” Trump said today an press conference held to announced a replacement nomination, Alexander Acosta, for Secretary of Labor,  “We are running — this is a fine-tuned machine.” He continued: “We have made incredible progress. I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done."
These statements were viewed with skepticism from many in the press corps, coming scarcely 24 after the previous nominee, Andrew Puzder withdrew from consideration, 48 hours after firing of Mike Flynn as the President's National Security Advisor, and 3 hours preceding the decision by retired Admiral Robert Harward to decline the invitation to replace Flynn, and approximately four hours prior to this just-released video by a leaker that is untrustworthy, dishonest, and—quite frankly—criminal. It depicts a scene during the President's weekend in Mar-a-Lago last weekend and Trump's (wearing the campaign ball cap) reaction after learning of the release of details on the Flynn debacle:

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Is this a Confession?

One of the President's Tweets this morning sounds an awful lot like a confession: "the real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by "intelligence" like candy. Very un-American!"
This is in response to expanding news reports that some of Mr. Trump's close associates had repeated contact with Russian intelligence operatives during the presidential campaign. Intentionally or otherwise, in this Tweet the President seems to be acknowledging that at least some of the information now in the hands of the news media is real and came from well-placed sources.

Whatever results -- or fails to result -- from these revelations, such leaks indicate failures within Mr. Trump's administration. Perhaps this wouldn't have happened had the President not worked so hard to make enemies of the press and multiple intelligence agencies.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Three Card Monte

Is the charge of election fraud by Trumpelthinskin a consequence of his wounded ego? Is a man who won the presidency by a sizable margin in the electoral college so consumed by his desire to be everything and all that matters in the universe overly prone to delusion and conspiracy theory from the  cognitive dissonance that comes with losing the popular vote by almost 3 million? Could this loss of the popular vote even be a personal moral failing in the weird logic of the patho-narcissist? So much so that the fantasy of the conspiracy must be amended and given new angles and subplots ?

The latest revision of the voter fraud theory was expressed to a group of Senators, assembled to talk strategy about the Gorsuch nomination. Trump quickly turned the discussion into a refined tale of how New Hampshire’s election was a total fraud, with residents from Massachusetts taking part in the election. The assertion was so delusional Commissioner Ellen Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission called Trump’s bluff. “Allegations of this magnitude cannot be ignored,” she said. Such rampant misuse of the election process would be a serious crime, urging the President to come up with the evidence. The administration trotted out its new spokesperson, the youthful, stone-faced Stephen MIller (who has been described as the architect of the immigration policy), on the Sunday morning circuit of TV politics, who embellished the story with how the fraudulent voters had been bussed in from Massachusetts, and that approximately 10 percent of undocumented aliens in the U.S. had registered to vote. Maybe the most remarkable statistic that all of these fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary Clinton.

There will be no evidence forthcoming, as there has been no evidence forthcoming for past claims.

And why does the megalomaniac bring up his continually revamped tale of intrigue at unpredictable intervals, but general always following a setback on another front? This latest iteration of the voter hijacking came on the heels of the appellate court rejection of the district court’s temporary restraining order on his executive order banning of travelers from 7 Middle Eastern countries. Trump’s original accusation came soon after, on January 25th, the final tally of voter turnout showed that he had lost the popular count by 2.8 million votes. He pledged to launch an investigation into irregularities in two (unnamed) states. “You have people that are registered who are dead, who are illegals, who are in two states. You have people registered in two states.” It turns out that some of his staffers are registered in two state. Details of an investigation were not mentioned again until this latest story; and he has appointed no one less that his second in command, Vice President Pence. To lead the election.

Large public demonstrations protesting Trump’s proposed policies were planned for  immediately after his inauguration January 21 and 22  by the worldwide Women’s March. Scattered demonstrations have sprung up across the country since. A scheduled appearance of right-wing firebrand and exhibitionist Milo Yiannopoulos drew a raucous crowd early at U. C. Berkeley, forcing Yannopoulos to cancel. The administration has claimed that the group Demand Protests had run ads recruiting protesters promising $2500 each for protesting against Trump during his inauguration. Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that those protesting the anti-travel ban Trump begun on February 3 were paid protesters, as were those at Berkeley. U. S. Senator Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) says the rowdy audience at a recent town hall meeting he hosted was the doing of paid protesters.


Given time and the likelihood of more demonstrations, this narrative will be reworked and modified with baleful details. The question of whether these plots are manufactured to neutralized the damage to the ego of the President, or could their invention be from something else; and is placing the root cause on an abnormality in Trump’s personality  a way of covering up more insidious motivations? Could the claim of voter fraud be laying the groundwork for getting even more voter restriction legislation on the books? Several states, including Texas and North Carolina, were already on this bandwagon; and if the fear of illegals stealing elections is contagious, it could make it even harder for citizens (primarily Blacks and the elderly) to vote.

And the protesters? The charge that they are in large part “paid” does one thing, if nothing else: it delegtimatizes the purpose and authenticity of the participants. These folks are either phonies and not to be taken seriously, or pose as a threat to incite  dissension where it is not warranted, or, worse, anarchists with violence and destruction in mind. Either of these could serve as  “emergency” situations where it would have more public support for restricting the right of assembly.

Rather than advancing what might be called a conspiracy theory itself, the fabrication and promotion of these two tales could probably be a result of both—Trump’s ego and the white nationalist agenda of Bannon and Miller—along with a third: in their throroughly maddening incredibility, they function as smoke and mirrors to distract from the ineptitude of the administration, like figurative Keystone Kops doing a security detail at the House of Horrors that has become the White House. We are so amused at the folly and tail-chasing  that real proceedings become a boring sideshow.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Our Legal System is Broken?

It is often difficult to tell whether President Trump is deliberately lying or is simply ignorant. A good example is one of his Tweets from this morning (11 Feb): "Our legal system is broken! '77% of refugees allowed into U.S. since travel reprieve hail from seven suspect countries.' (WT) SO DANGEROUS!"
There seems to be both ignorance and mendacity here.

The "77%" statistic is probably true, at least according to the Washington Times article Mr. Trump is quoting. But anyone reading the article, rather than just glancing at the title, quickly gets an understanding of the problem that is quite different from the President's claim. The sudden uptick in the number of refugee applications being processed from the "seven suspect countries" comes from within the State Department, not the courts. The Temporary Restraining Order only prohibited the administration's newly implemented restrictions, it didn't require any accelerated processing for those recently denied or likely to be denied entry in the near future. The State Department, of course, is part of Trump's administration, directly under his control. The failure here is with the President himself, not the courts.

No, our legal system is not "broken." Many conservatives, like Mr. Trump, have difficulty remembering that the federal government consists of three distinct powers, and that the judiciary is one of those. The "legal system" is doing exactly what it should do when the executive branch behaves with such incompetence that it gives explicit evidence of acting with discriminatory intent and creates upheaval in the lives of individual people.

Our inexperienced President and his equally inexperienced administration have only two choices. They can either fume ineffectively every time they don't get their way trying to govern by fiat, or they can learn to work together with Congress and the Courts. Unfortunately, the crash course they must undergo will generate a great deal of turmoil for ordinary Americans and around the world.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Some of those Pesky Facts

    In the new world of “alternative” facts, it is worth remembering some of the undeniable facts of which conservatives and Republicans so often disapprove:
  • The government of the United States is divided into three equal powers; the judiciary is NOT just a rubber stamp for Congress or the President. 
  • Running a large country and economy is complicated, and doing it well requires real knowledge and experience. 
  • Republicans don’t actually know anything more than anybody else does about business or public finance. 
  • Among wealthier and more developed economies, socialized medicine is normal; the U.S. is a rare exception. 
  • Budget deficits matter. 
  • Cutting taxes does NOT raise revenue. 
  • It is the nature of unregulated Capitalism to produce economic instability in the form of alternating cycles of boom and bust. 
  • Corporations cannot always be trusted to be good citizens. 
  • Most U.S. manufacturing jobs did not go “offshore;” they were eliminated globally by automation. 
  • Jobs that pay well generally require employees with higher levels of education. 
  • Charter schools and vouchers don’t automatically provide children with a better education. 
  • The vast majority of undocumented immigrants come here to work. 
  • U.S. laws and government are NOT based on the Bible; nothing even vaguely resembling a constitutional republic, universal suffrage, trial by jury, or a Bill of Rights can be found there. 
  • The United States was consciously designed to be a secular state. 
  • Neither scientific facts nor the scientific method change with political party. 
  • Global warming is real and is caused to a large degree by human activity. 
  • The most effective means for reducing abortion is to make sure everyone has affordable access to birth control and has medically accurate sexual education before puberty. 
  • No, the nuclear family is not a universal aspect of all cultures in all times. 
  • It is natural and normal for human populations to contain many variations within the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality. 
  • Much of what you think you know about gender, race and ethnicity is an arbitrary fantasy invented by the culture in which you grew up.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Incompetence Begets Incompetence

The Senate's confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education continues -- one dare not say completes -- the pattern of incompetence that started with the election of Donald Trump himself.

This should be no surprise to the 63 million Americans who turned the most powerful elected position on earth over to someone with no governmental experience and no comprehension of the responsibilities of the office. Their basic disrespect for knowledge, experience, and qualifications is embodied in Trump the President, who is now paying that favor forward. Rick Perry in Energy, Ben Carson over Housing and Urban Development, and now Betsy DeVos in Education, form a kind of trifecta of abysmal inadequacy with the President at the center.

Denying this post to DeVos should have been easy. Her position on public education is not central to the conservative or Republican identity, although the charter and voucher ideal of siphoning billions of tax dollars away from public schools and into the hands of private corporations may simply have been too tempting for Republicans to resist. With no experience running public schools or teaching in them, and no knowledge of the regulatory environment that applies to them, rejecting DeVos should have been automatic, regardless of political party. But only two Republican senators had the common decency to demand that the President's nominees actually be qualified.

The handwriting is on the wall. This administration intends to get the federal government out of its guiding role in public education. It wants schools that accept tax dollars to be able to discriminate against students and parents however they wish, to ignore curricular standards at will, and to force other institutions to accept substandard results. It might be a long time before they cut federal funding, but the administration will be gutting federal regulation of public education in short order. If Congress chooses not to intervene, K-12 education across the United States will be unrecognizable within four years.

The Liar in Chief

That the President of the United States would flat out lie, on the record, about press coverage of terrorist attacks, is beyond comprehension. Yet that is exactly what just happened. President Trump publicly stated that the "dishonest" press don't want to report on many terror attack, implying that the press had some motivation he did not clarify.

Mark this episode well. In time, Mr. Trump will deny having ever made this claim, as he has so often before denied saying or doing things the public has seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears.

Naturally, the media challenged the administration's claim. The White House today responded with a list of 78 terrorist attacks that were supposedly underreported. Of course, most of these were reported on, extensively, by multiple news agencies, both in the United States and around the world. On CNN, Anderson Cooper testified to his personal reportage, much of it at the scene, on many of the attacks on the list. CNN's Jim Acosta described the President's claim as  "a talking point that is in search of a set of facts that just doesn't exist" (click HERE to see the video). 

What the President himself actually believes or is trying to accomplish is difficult to assess. This lying administration needs to cast doubt on the mainstream news media, and needs to convince Americans that the world is a more dangerous place than, in fact, it is. However, most governments inclined to propaganda would manage the process well enough not to get caught in the lie the moment the paperwork was filed. 

Dishonesty coupled with incompetence! Welcome to the Trumpocene!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Take Responsibility!

On Sunday afternoon President Trump tweeted: "Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!" The Judge he's referring to, of course, is U.S. District Judge James Robart, who has temporarily blocked the Trump administration's poorly executed ban on travel into the U.S. from selected majority-Muslim countries.  A day earlier Trump, angry about the temporary halt, referred to Robart as a "so-called Judge," resulting in broad criticism for the President's lack of respect for the legal process.  Naturally, that criticism failed to stop him from further demonstrating his lack of understanding of the U.S. legal system works.

It is quite a reach to claim that a temporary halt to Trump's ban will "put our country in such peril." Extensive vetting of applicants for regular visas and for refugee status has already been in place for years. Judge Robart's order hardly flings open the door. It just removes some of the extra locks put on the door by Trump. The Judge's order simply will not result in "people pouring in."

More importantly, Trump and his administration are failing to take responsibility for the mess they created. If they don't take responsibility for their mistakes they're unlikely to get better at avoiding them in the future.

As a practical matter the President has broad powers to control immigration into the U.S. There is a good chance that Trump's ban, or at least large portions of it, will eventually be upheld by the courts. Had the administration implemented the ban with greater deference to the skilled and experienced people within the State Department there never would have been a legal challenge. Stranding people in airports, forcing people off of planes they're boarding, dashing research plans at universities and work plans in corporations, and failing to give airport and border security personnel the guidance they need, all produced the "irreparable harm" to which multiple judges have now responded. Trump and his gang of incompetents have only themselves to blame for the resulting law suits and any security breakdowns that result.

This lack of nuance, this basic lack of skill, seems already to have become an established habit of the new administration. Welcome to the Trumpocene!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Finding Wall Funds

Clandestine Planning Left on Bar 

 The Trump administration may have to come up with new ideas to reinvigorate the enthusiasm for a southern border wall that was so much a part of his campaign and election last fall.
Congressional skepticism about the project has been growing, even from some usually reliable southern and Republican delegations. Texas senior Senator John Cornyn (R-Tx), whose home state has the longest stretch of border common to Mexico, is wary of the economic impact a twenty percent border tax levied as a funding source for the construction would have on his state's economy.

"The United States imports into our refineries a lot of heavy crude...Those would all be subject to the tax. One refiner told me that they believed that would increase the cost of gas by 30 cents...We have a unique relationship with Mexico, with maquiladoras (factories which have duty-free privileges) right across the border and in the car-manufacturing business in particular." Cornyn isn't alone in the Republican congress. True to conservative principles, others, including Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak), vow that a 10-12 billion dollar expenditure for a wall would need be offset with reductions in other parts of the budget, which would be difficult to find.

As far as the demand that Mexico pay for the construction, Senator John McCain (R-Az), said curtly "No, that is not viable."

The junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, however, has made no public comments on the proposal, possibly still fuming about recent Obama initiatives normalizing relations with Cuba. He really seems to hate Cuba, so is holding out support until Trump undoes Obama's work.

Our sources have revealed a posssible contretemps that might have been an intentional leak of the administration's strategy to breath new life into the project. A bar service operator—call him "Moe"—related events at a recent evening in an out-of-the-way D.C. watering hole, in which he served White House dignitaries Kellyanne Clownway and Shaemus Spicer. After a couple of drinks the couple left, but not without leaving a scrap of paper, which, as it turned out, was an opened but empty envelope, and fairly covered with a scrawl of whirls, smiley faces, and what is now determined to be a literal back-of-the-envelope brainstorming session between the two about how to revive the national and White spirit for closing America that fueled support early in the campaign.

"Good fences make good neighbors" was printed fastidiously at the top. Between the doodles and check marks, the envelope gave up the following: Plan A and Plan B. It was unmistakable. Despite the attempt to render the notes to  hieroglyphical code, it was possibly a pseudo-cryptogram, intended to float a leak of possible strategies to reverse flagging interest in The Wall. After each bullet point was a short, abbreviated stream on consciousness.

A. Offset in spending--big one: Military ± $750 B--but OP [code for "orange president] want to stengthen military--How Jibe?--Reductio ad absurdum: 12B = only 1.6% of 750B! That now seems very affordable! Also make libs and pacifist Catholics  happy---win-win
B. OP to guarantee loan--has extensive open lines of credit in Russia--has bundles of cash--trustworthy? (good for it?)--he's a builder, anyway--would he?--Got It!: Naming Rights! Trump Wall Texas—Trump Wall Arizona—Trump Wall....well, you get the idea.

The chicken scratch near the end of Plan B., calling for the President himself to personally back the financing of the construction became less legible, as if the scribe, whether Clownway or Spicer, was losing confidence in B. and her cursive effort was weakening. And come to think of it, for good reasons: it wouldn't be like the OP would from $12 billion of his own cash, and getting a signature or collateralized loan for that sum would require proof of income, preferably in the form of a tax return. Not happening. The proposal seemed doomed.

Trimming even a measly 1.6% from the nearly trillion dollar defense budget (the estimated amount when all the spin-off costs are accounted for) would meet with much resistance from the generalissimos, supply contractors, and weekend militiamenas as well, given WWIII threats being exchanged between North Korea's Kim and the OP; and as an impediment to the previously planned "Pivot to Asia" and nuclear arsenal modernization plans are already underway. There is no glossing over reality or utopian dreaming about world peace allowed when it comes to freedom, right?

And maybe that was why the envelope was carelessly left behind: not as a plot to leak hare-brained trial balloons to bolster support for a bad idea, but just another dead-ended strategy session, a worthless crumple of paper, not worth a second look, like so many others lately that have been coming out with bad policy.

But just in case, just saying, you heard it here first!

Marty Bankson.  Updated and revised 02/04/2018

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Presidential Overreach

A clear and focused example of the kind of presidential malfeasance we must expect from President Trump appeared in one of his recent Tweets:

"If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?"
This is about campus protests opposing a scheduled appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, famous for the extremity of his right-wing views. Scheduling Mr. Yiannopoulos as a speaker at a major university is not a choice I would have made, not because I disagree with his views, but because of his habit of spouting opinions without bothering with factual support. Discourse such as his lacks academic value. But no matter. U.C. Berkley scheduled him, and many students on campus protested peacefully. Up to that point, all was as it should be.

The situation turned ugly when some individuals chose to use violence to express their opposition to Yiannopoulos. This left the university with little choice but to cancel Yiannopoulos' appearance. This is a point worth emphasizing: the university had allowed Yiannopoulos to speak, and revoked that permission only after physical violence broke out on campus.

This brings us back to the Trump's problematic Tweet, which spins and blames and threatens. Trump makes it appear that Berkeley was selecting which parts of the political spectrum to allow to be heard, which is clearly NOT the case. Trump makes it appear that the university itself organized the violence, which it simply did not do. These, obviously, are just more examples of this administration's "alternative facts."

But that's just spin-doctoring. The worst part of the tweet is its very last phrase: "NO FEDERAL FUNDS?" The President of the United States just threatened to withhold federal funds from a major American university unless it allows a speaker the President is promoting.

Could he do it? Absolutely! There are aspects of U.C. Berkeley's funding the President can't touch, because California state tax dollars get mingled with federal funds in ways that are not easy to separate. But a large school and major research institution like Berkeley also receives a vast array of direct federal grants, and as the Chief Executive of the all the granting departments, the President most certainly can interfere.

This wouldn't necessarily make such interference legal. Such selective and discriminatory interference in academic freedom is probably prohibited by a vast array of rules the President can change and laws he cannot. But Trump has already demonstrated his lack of concern for the rule of law.

This is the kind of micromanagement we are fast coming to expect from a President who has yet to learn what the powers and responsibilities of his office are. When a particular incident gets his attention, or the attention of one his cronies, he will act in a most non-presidential way, jumping over layers and layers of his own administration, disrespecting state and federal boundaries, and imposing his own brand of "political correctness" on others.

Welcome to the Trumpocene!