Category Archives: Current Affairs

Are all these policy changes targeted at me?

That’s how it feels. It’s not just Trump who is after me,  it’s the entire Republican party. I have a few basic issues that excite me and it seems that someone in Congress is singularly devoted to doing the exact opposite of what I believe in:

  1. All steps closer to universal coverage and subsidies for the poor are being undone – as though Republicans want the working poor and the nearly old – to die, literally.
  2. Net Neutrality is being revoked. I have (like most people) no choice regarding my internet provider. Now, if they want to jack up my rates because I use Netflix then they can and will.
  3. At every turn, the government seems devoted to anti-science. I seem to waste my time learning about such things as climate change as though my advocacy for clean energy production matters.
  4. Corporate taxation ranks right at the bottom of my priorities. Why? .. because profits as a share of GDP have never been higher! How does anyone defend lower corporate taxes in this context? Are many head offices moving to Switzerland? Have all those profits produced fabulous wage increases for workers?
  5. I seem to be the only person left in this country who cares about the US budget deficit. Why? I have to accept that neither party cares and the the Republicans are unfazed about jacking the deficit to $1 trillion/year. If there’s a new recession then maybe we’ll see $1.5 trn!
  6. Eliminating the estate tax moves us precisely to where the founding fathers said they didn’t want us to be. An up and coming business will be moat construction.
  7. The elimination of state and local tax deductiblity, is a perfect way for the Republican Party to hurt Democrats including yours truly. Let’s say it together -Double Taxation for all!

We have finally arrived at irrefutable proof that this is not a democracy. Gerrymandering had already pretty much accomplished this. A  new tax bill that raises personal taxes on non-millionaires in order to pay for a reduction of corporate taxes tells us that voters are irrelevant. This is precisely the kind of policy you would expect to see in a corrupt third world autocracy.

What surprises me is how this all contrasts wits other western democracies. They’re not taking the same anti-science anti-democratic bus to  insolvency town. They all have universal heath care – our House speaker wants to cancel Medicare!

I emigrated to the USA 31 years ago – I never felt as foreign as I do today.

Military Form Over Substance

No matter what people say about John Kelly’s remarks regarding Robert E. Lee – we all sort of understand him. We always default toward a feeling of respect regarding military men. They have great posture and perfect manners – always calling people ma’am and sir. Their uniforms are attractive and perfectly pressed not to mention the colorful medals that often accompany them. They march well in large powerful groups with shiny swords or rifles. When we see them at ceremonial events – parades or burials they are taciturn, appearing respectful of the flag or the coffin. The Germans in the 1930’s grew intoxicated by their glory.

We (too) are suckers for their appearance and countenance.

They may have spent the day torturing prisoners at Abu Graib prison or murdering innocent villagers at My Lai (Vietnam). Every culture forgives them of their stupidity and war crimes as soon as they see them up close looking pristine and noble. How dare we question the good intentions of a man on a horse looking dignified and proud even if it’s just a statue? To doubt the majestic warrior on his horse is to doubt all marching men with clean uniforms. We’re taught to revere all these people.

General Kelly got caught up in this unavoidable attraction to the military form just like the press secretary who, in defending him said – we should never question the intent or veracity of a general. Of course not – not with all those beautiful medals and impeccably clean shoes. Her reverence for Kelly is no different than Kelly’s reverence for Lee. Lee was famously dressed to the nines in his fanciest uniform when he surrendered to Grant. Even Grant who had known him for years and hated slavery found him to be irresistible.

The civil war should have taught us that we must consider what these people do rather than just how they look. If that didn’t teach you then maybe you want to question your judgment by looking at this guy:

He must have been a smooth operator. I’m sure he had a clean gun and called all his superiors sir. Jochen Peiper was a field officer in the Wafffen SS. He received the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross (a big deal). He was later imprisoned for 12 years for war crimes.

How about this guy?

Look at that immaculate uniform. Who wouldn’t applaud him for his service if he appeared at a football game? If you didn’t you’d be seen as unpatriotic. He is currently on trial for desertion.

Let’s face it the US is the least patriotic country in the world. People are just as happy to employ a foreigner as long as he costs less. They are just as happy to buy a foreign made product. They abhor mandatory military service and they would riot in the streets if their taxes were increased to pay for a military engagement. It seems that to make up for it we all wave flags and stand for the anthem at football games.

Form over substance wins every time.

Sundry Musings

Isn’t this exactly what the supreme court was created for?

Gerrymandering is a clear violation of the democratic principles that define a representative democracy. Both political parties are logically driven to use it when they can to gain an electoral advantage so neither will ever vote to stop it. As the 3rd branch of government, intended to be objective, it falls on these nine people to correct this. They shouldn’t throw up their hands and say it’s all too complicated. They should demand a serious quantitative measure to judge these districts. If the first solution doesn’t work well then they can accept another case and rework it. Our republic depends on them having the grit to fix this problem – not ruling on gay wedding cakes.

Should (Free) Health Care Be a Right?

No! You can’t have rights that demand other people’s labor. My right to freedom requires people to leave me alone. My right to happiness requires others to NOT hurt me. Health care requires medical professionals to work on my behalf. I can’t command them to do so so it can never be right – a privilege, maybe.

The INS Must Hire (virtually) Illiterate Agents.

We need to enhance our sense of community rather than divide it as we are doing with identity politics. How about this: Part of the inadvertent success of Ellis Island was its use of unilingual processing agents. If you gave them a hard to spell Polish or Italian name they butchered it into an anglo version that English speakers could pronounce and spell.  This inadvertently served to give people a new American identity – Katarzyna  Kowalewicz became Cassie Cowel. When Cassie gave up her old Polish name she truly felt more American. (I don’t doubt she was somewhat aggravated.) Everyone got on the same page without foreign names and impossible spelling that creates distance between people. What if every Middle Eastern person emigrating to Belgium was forced to change their name to a generic french one? Mohammed Hussein would become Hubert Fournier. A new British (former Afghani) would be renamed, Bob Pence. This would immediately reduce the distance between people that exists simply because of their names. It would also help people avoid bias and get work in a world of electronic resume applications. (See this Freakonomics podcast)

Authoritarians Who Love Well Armed Police 

The federal government (The Homeland Security Dept.) has provided local police departments with high powered weapons and war vehicles. Republicans applaud all these tools since they love such toys and they support “aggressive policing. But don’t these weaponized police geld private militias and private gun fanatics/owners? How can one be in favor of the former while obsessing over the second amendment?

Stop saying – The 2008 Crisis had nothing to do with banks.

This is becoming a common trope thanks to the statements of Hillary on her book tour and those of Lawrence Summers. Yes, the firms that went under were AIG (an insurance company) and 2 investment banks (Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros.) but that doesn’t prove the point. If the problem was localized to them then the government wouldn’t have had to get involved. The fear was that their obligations to commercial banks and the impact on those banks holdings, would destroy the institutions that hold our savings. Have they forgotten that Citibank was propped up with a $20bn cash infusion and a $300bn guarantee of its obligations? Financial crises are always about retail banks.

Originalists must strictly follow the text.

If you are a firm believer in the sacred writings of the bible then you must be forced to follow everything in it. You must stone your children when they are insolent, cut your hair precisely as Paul advocated (very short), eat strictly ancient middle eastern food and spend a lot of time washing other people’s feet. Supreme court justices who believe in the infallibility of the constitution may enforce the right of militias to own muskets but not AK-47s.

Where have you gone Walter Cronkite?

As President a Trump creates fake news with his lies, he tries to gain political advantage by denouncing accurate news reporting. This is straight from the totalitarianism playbook. I once met an older man in LA who had moved to the US in 2003 from Spain. He said “I spent most of my life (under Franco) digging for the truth, fighting through the ubiquitous state media which polluted everyone’s heads with lies. Now that I have arrived here I find that a form of Pravda (Fox News) has begun to infect people’s heads with lies and people are happy to watch!”

Is this split in the media a cause or an effect of our national political divides?

Some historians like to tell us how our political divisions were just as bad during the Vietnam war. There are differences that make the comparison useless. The political split in the 60’s was essentially a generational one – baby boomers with “modern” values vs their parents who were holding on to (largely) out of date beliefs.

Today’s divisions are more heterogeneous. The problems of the 60’s evaporated as baby boomers aged and got jobs. They became more conservative and much of their once-radical agenda – women’s rights, civil rights, greater government transparency, became accepted as indisputable truths. This time the split is based on irreconcilable views about the purpose and role of government, immigration, and income distribution. There is no demographic shift that will settle (or explain) these issues.

The severity of these divisions has led us to such a polarized state that there are almost no swing voters left. We have no authorized media that pull us together like say Walter Cronkite once did. Don’t tell me I’m mired in the past. Most other countries still have a government assisted TV station that the citizenry watch and trust. England has the BBC, France has RFI, and Germany has ARD.  A modern national voice need not have a political view but it would help settle  issues using facts like:

  • Climate change is real.
  • Russia really did interfere in our election.
  • The massacre in Newtown CT was real.
  • Al Quaeda was solely responsible for the destruction of the twin towers.
  • Barak Obama was born in the United States.

Wouldn’t it be nice if such things were indisputable? A common sense fact-based national voice would push InfoWars et al to political irrelevance. It could also provide the people with a common entertainment experience. It’s part of being French to listen to RFI. The BBC has comedy shows, human interest stories, international coverage and economic reports. It’s the first choice of news searchers in the UK.

Americans don’t share a common set of facts and this a huge problem. We’ve lost all our 60 Minutes heavyweights who spoke with authority. NPR is denounced as socialist. We desperately need a new Walter Cronkite – not the staid dull one, the one that denounced the Vietnam war after visiting the front. Opinions can and must be changed by new knowledge. Myths and conspiracy theories now take up as much space as the truth. Who would have thought that in an internet world so many lies could survive? Media leadership (and commonality) is desperately needed. Most other democracies have such national voices. We suffer every day by not having any.

Google alone isn’t getting the job done.

 

Nukes versus iPhones

President Trump proposed the idea that in order to stop North Korea we should stop enabling it by trading with any country that trades with it. This is necessary because US sanctions are worthless since we don’t trade with Nort Korea. The biggest impact would be on China since they are N. Korea’s biggest (only) trading partner and a large part of the Chinese economy depends on western (US) buyers so we have leverage.

We can argue about the efficacy of such a policy. If Europe doesn’t go along then China could just reroute exports to other countries which are not being sanctioned. We can worry about the time it would take to replace critical imports with locally produced substitutes. There are some goods that would become more expensive since you can’t really replace a billion peasant laborers. Inflation would rise as would wages. Finally, we could discuss the impact on raw material suppliers (to China) that would lose business by virtue of a big decline in Chinese economic activity.

What I hear instead is a lot of contempt and outrage over the idea simply because it would affect our supply of cheap stuff. The idea that we would use a powerful stick like trade as an incentive to get countries to behave appalls people. Is it not reasonable to ask: Why do we trade with Russia (or Turkey or Azerbaijan or…) at all? These are totalitarian states engaged in global crime, sometimes devoted to wrecking our elections. How many more reasons do you need to cut them off?

China keeps North Korea functioning and North Korea is considering nuking Los Angeles!

We have seemed to reach the ultimate victory of consumerism over sovereignty and safety. How many tainted elections can you accept to keep Russian oil flowing? How many lives are you willing to spend in LA to keep your iPhone below $35/month? The one weapon we wield is the power of the US consumer to buy foreign stuff. Every country in the world sets policy and obsesses over us. Yet when we need something, they are utterly indifferent. Their nerve makes me crazy.  When our own press and corporate lobby facilitate it, we become our own worst enemy.

The artificiality of social media tells us that such real, bad things, can’t actually occur – not at least while we’re taking a selfie with our beautiful dinner salad. What’s real is Facebook updates, Twitter attacks, and Instagram bikinis. In that world, a real nuclear attack is only something you might see on an old youtube video. Politicians don’t want to disturb those people from their virtual world…

It would be bad for business.

Am I losing my sense of humor?

I particularly enjoy political satire especially the Malcolm Gladwell type where there is a bite. I prefer Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah. I like the edginess of John Oliver compared to the softer lighter style of the network late night shows. I don’t want it to be unclear who we are laughing at and who should be offended. If someone’s not offended then why bother? Trump’s presidency produces daily fodder for the likes of Bill Maher like manna from heaven. He can mock his hair, the moronic behavior of Sean Spicer, the infighting, the Russia scandal, the lies about voter fraud, inauguration crowds etc. I can and do laugh at all of it but there are some subjects that are simply not funny.

  1. Trump’s desire to destroy Obamacare and remove health care from 17-33 million people is just not amusing in any way. The Senate’s failure to repeal and Trump’s continued demands for it to get back and vote some more, are scary and (potentially) massively injurious.
  2. This week Trump has been taunting a crazed dictator asking him to “make my day”. Our quick descent to the verge of nuclear war is, to me, not funny at all. Stephen Colbert uses it in his nightly monologue and tries to laugh at Trump’s spontaneous outburst. If his bit had been about Trump calling the White House a dump – then that could be funny. If it’s an outburst that could destroy Los Angeles, I can’t find anything to laugh at.

Sometimes a satirist must stop making jokes and soberly express his outrage and sadness over a situation. They do this after a national tragedy. They should do it before a prospective national tragedy too.

Smart Republicans vs. Stupid Democrats

Friends of mine from Arizona recently made a coherent argument to me as to why they are registered independents. When I lived there, I too was an independent. Their argument is: We are pro-choice, we believe in science over superstition and we don’t want to destroy Medicare … but the Democratic party candidate was an idiot. We met her and she was completely uninformed about the issues. In fact, some of her positions were crazy!  

I get it. Let’s stay in AZ for a minute. Jeff Flake sounds like a reasonable man. He has a new book out where he talks at length about how Repubs must work with Dems to pass good laws. He thinks Trump is a buffoon. He is in favor of “free” trade and more immigration. Many Dems would see this well-mannered man as a better Senator than the Democratic party alternative.

Jeff Flake wins and off he goes to Washington and … Does he vote as an independent thinker? Does he question the leadership and work with Dems to write new bills? Not even close. Flake votes with Trump and Mitch McConnell every time (97%).  Yes, I understand that there is a lot of party pressure on all politicians and there are of course many demanding donors but what about the views of the candidate? Their views may get them “primaried” but with regard to their performance in Washington –

They don’t matter.

This new partisan world has set up loyalty as mandatory and the only people who can veer off the path are the famous senior party leaders or independents. Frankly, the opinions and intelligence of your senator or congressman mean absolutely nothing. Your moronic Democratic member in the house will always vote for the ACA. Your Republican renaissance man will vote against expanding the debt ceiling if Ryan tells him to. Unless the world changes dramatically, there is no role for the informed voter to cross over party lines and vote for someone in the other party. Do you believe in climate change and evolution? If you do then you don’t have the luxury of picking the smart Republican candidate, unless you want Texas style school books where Intelligent Design is given equal time.

Every politician has become a silent player on a team – following orders. The only direction he can go is further to the right (if he is a Repub) or to the left to join Bernie (if he is a Dem). Reasonableness and intelligence that bring someone to the center are features to be stripped away by Rush Limbaugh or the Freedom Caucus. You can be a maverick but you’ll only last one term.

Studying candidates carefully – expecting them to vote rationally and independently is a way to empower the leadership of the other party.

 

Defeating Michael Savage

Everyone is asking how we got here. Is America more stupid or  corrupt than it was ten or twenty years ago? We thought we had a country that was progressing, intellectually. After all, the internet delivered the widespread availability of information which can and should crush superstition and absurd conspiracy theories. Why have we gone the other way?

Hate Radio

A new medium started out in the 90’s – conservative talk radio. Its primary message had to be – “Don’t believe or listen to TV news, we’ll tell you what’s really going on.” Then they offered content loaded with entertaining what-you-want-to hear half-truths and fiction. They were successful beyond their wildest dreams. Even when Rush was discovered to be a hypocritical drug addict and Michael Savage made unconscionable statements about gay men, their audience returned every day because the shows were entertaining. Flaws and errors all became forgivable. There is only one thing that is never acceptable – dullness. That’s why Trump has been invincible.

The audience is primarily male and old so these entertainers fed them a healthy dose of racist and homophobic diatribes. Denouncing Washington came next because people find it hard to connect what happens there with their day-to-day lives. Politicians are easy pickings. It turned out that radio hosts’ success changed a political party and directly contributed to political dysfunction. But the one unexpected outcome was that a politician would embrace their tactics and use them to win the Presidency.

Who would have thought that old tech (AM radio) could defeat new tech (the internet)?

The question at hand has become – how do you ruin the ratings of Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones? Trump’s stupidity will continue to be interesting and it will get ratings. His sexist rants and ill-informed opinions are all forgivable by his followers as long as he is provocative and on their side, repeating well-known tropes about evil politicians, dysfunctional government, immigrant criminals and the lying media who fact check him.

This works for AM radio and it has worked so far for Trump but now that he is in office he becomes part of the problem. He must deliver huge changes or claim that his ineffectiveness is not his fault. So we move into phase 2 – the blame game. It would be better for him if no health care bill were passed so he could denounce both parties as losers who can’t get anything done. If a tax bill stalls because it would create a $2 trillion budget deficit then he can say he tried and then move on. His followers won’t blame an entertainer for getting nothing done in evil Washington DC.

The Dems must fight fire with fire. They must out-entertain the crazy right. A great speaker, joke teller or provocateur must appear who can play their game but with facts. Policy wonks need not apply unless they can deliver scathing satire. Their first job is to offer biting mockery. The opponent is a buffoon and if you can’t expose him as such (especially) to his own rabid base then the Democratic party can’t use you. You must entertain the mob like a good episode of The Kardashians.

Go hard and Go left.

The candidate must then offer some policy bait to the working poor (and even white) population in the middle of the country. (Start with trade.) Trump is failing to deliver on every populist policy he promised so the Dems have lots to steal from.

Mockery and (policy) theft – sounds like a job for Stuart Smalley:

Why did Jerry Seinfeld go to jail?

Do you remember why the Seinfeld cast were put on trial in the final episode? They watched someone get robbed and did nothing (in fact Kramer filmed it). They all decided that a person in distress wasn’t their responsibility. The cast were arrested for violating the Good Samaritan laws of Massachusetts. Normally Such laws protect you from liability in case you injure the perpetrator of the crime.
In England the laws are more aggressive (Seinfeld style):
In instances where there has been an assumption of responsibility by the bystander, a dangerous situation was created by them, or there is a contractual or statutory duty to act, criminal liability would be imposed on the bystander for their failure to take action.”

England already has the solution to terrorism!

All they have to do is enforce this law with new vigor. Anyone with knowledge of a person’s plans or desire to kill innocent people would be guilty as an accessory to murder. Yes, that would include girlfriends, Imams, parents, and roommates. If you don’t inform on suicide bombers then their sentence will also be yours. One of the men in the last British attack was in a video about the glories of Jihad. All the people who were in the movie with him and the director should be arrested. Call it aiding and abetting, or involuntary manslaughter if you like. We want every citizen to be an informant.
If a girl can be put in jail in the US for involuntary manslaughter because she told her boyfriend to kill himself, then an Imam can certainly put be put in jail for telling people to wage Jihad. He would have to be very sure that no one in the crowd would ever do anything violent.

It’s very hard to prepare to commit suicide while killing as many people as you can and stay totally silent during the planning (or contemplation) stage. We don’t need to find accomplices we just have to put the fear of God into the perpetrator’s friends and family. This could trigger a lot of false positives but it would also produce a lot of serious conversations with the prospective Jihadist about how he is putting all his friends and family in jeopardy. People would have to choose their friends carefully.

You may say this is too extreme and would create a society overloaded with informers like in East Germany during the cold war. The test question to ask is – If you knew someone who told you he was planning such an attack would you keep quiet? I wouldn’t.

So why can’t I demand the same level of civic duty from every citizen?

Tribalism and Cognitive Dissonance

Do you remember the scene in Casino Royale when James Bond runs through a courtyard in Venice. An expert marksman with a machine gun manages to miss him completely. A piece of you thought: that is ridiculous, but most of you said – let it go, after all he is James Bond. Such movies consistently test our willingness to accept absurd outcomes so that our hero can survive. We are left to reconcile (and ignore) what we know about physics and human biology [death] with what appears on the screen. Cognitive dissonance is the effort to think consistently. It’s OK for James Bond to be special but it’s not OK for him to be superhuman.


Apparently cognitive dissonance occurs less often among extroverts. Perhaps their higher level of emotion prevents them from appropriate introspection. Are all Donald Trump voters extroverts? Are Republicans less inclined to reconcile inconsistent facts then Democrats? The first question is impossible to answer but the second one is not. Republicans are more tribal simply because they come from a more homogenous demographic group than Dems. It is hard to break the bonds of tribalism. Even when clear evidence is presented to show that their beliefs are flawed or based on fiction, they feel the obligation to band together and fight back for group survival. Scientology still exists in spite of the exposure of fraud and criminal behavior within the sect.
Paul Krugman marvels at the inability of West Virginians to see that every part of the AHCA and the new Trump budget will hurt them. Tribalism guarantees that these believers won’t abandon their faith until their healthcare is completely gone. They won’t believe that Trump and his cronies are criminals until they are actually in jail.
There is one source of hope: People’s love of scandalous news. What would you do if you worked at Fox or Breitbart News and your guy offered a healthcare bill that destroyed health care, or a budget that blew up the deficit and included a huge adding mistake. Should they mention that Trump’s son in law felt a need for secret talks with the Russians? We know the answer: Bury the story or wave it off as absurd. Both reactions guarantee that neither outlet is where anyone would go to hear about these stories. The result – ratings implosion. Breitbart has gone from a website ranking around 63 last year to #284 now. Fox News ranks below CNN and MSNBC for the first time in 17 years. Trump believers are either changing the channel or turning the TV off.
There is another big problem for these media outlets. For decades their listeners have been programmed to believe in conspiracy theories. We thought the Glenn Beck had taken it to ridiculous extremes but now Alex Jones is out doing him. These talking heads play into a fundamental human weakness. Everybody is fascinated by the idea that powerful people are conspiring against us. What secrets are not being revealed? We are now being offered some of the best conspiracy stories we’ve ever seen from the presidency and there will be more. Trump is so stupid and so devoted to his business and ego over the office that he will have special private discussions and plots. There will be leaks. Everyone will want to hear the news and speculate about what it all means. If Fox and Rush and Drudge refuse to give credence to the stories by investigating them then their rabid listeners will go to CNN. Then the Repubs have a huge problem – tribalism depends on solidarity. They must stay together and constantly reinforce their mythology with rhetoric and rituals.
Belief will wither and die in direct proportion to the number of words heard from Anderson Cooper’s mouth.