Category Archives: Politics

And so it begins

Donald J. Trump was inaugurated today. I couldn’t bring myself to watch, but I did read his inaugural address on-line. A peaceful and orderly transfer of power is always something to be celebrated, I suppose. So while it may not be time for actual optimism, we can, perhaps, muster a certain grim hope. Let’s start by ignoring such events as the Deplora-ball, last night’s preening alt-Right celebration, complete with Nazi salutes, and also the prayer service, and the invocation by Pastor Robert Jeffress (who once said that “Mormonism is a cult dragged from the depths of hell”) and the other alarming signs and wonders of this moment. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump . . . we shall be changed.” For the better?

And while I’m being all sunny, let’s admit that some of his cabinet picks have been fairly reasonable: Nikki Haley, James Mattis, David Shulkin, Sonny Perdue. There’s a long American tradition of cutting new Presidents some slack. I wouldn’t go that far with this guy, but I don’t wish him ill. He’s going to try to do dumb and terrible things. Let’s hope he doesn’t succeed all that often.

Reading his Inauguration speech, though, I was struck by what seem to be Trump’s governing priorities. It seems to me that the first step to solving problems is identifying them. It’s not just that I think Trump’s approach to problem solving is likely to prove ineffective. It’s that the specific issues he wants to address are all things that aren’t really problems at all.

For too long, [those in politics] have reaped the rewards of government while people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed.

His first point–that money, in politics, tends to corrupt people, seems inarguable. (Though his solution seems to be to appoint corrupt people to begin with). But are people struggling so terribly? People do feel like they are, but evidence suggests it’s not true. More Americans are employed right now, in good paying jobs, than ever before in history. More people are working in manufacturing than ever before. This dark vision of a dystopic America where no one can find work and factories are shut down and regular folks live lives of quiet despair is, frankly, a fantasy. It’s likely to become true–Trump’s policies (tax cuts, trade wars, cutting safety net spending) will certainly hammer lower class and lower middle class Americans. It’s just not true yet. He inherits a very strong economy from Obama; he’ll turn over an economy in recession to President Warren.

An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. . .

We do spend a lot of money on education, but our schools are hardly ‘flush with cash.’ Teachers are badly underpaid, and basic school supplies generally come out of their pockets. And while we can certainly improve student achievement (starting by banning all unnecessary testing), our students aren’t ‘deprived of all knowledge.’ For one thing, there’s this resource called the Internet. Which kids are better at using than their parents.

We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth . . . of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first .

Trump hates international trade deals. He consistently spoke out against, specifically, NAFTA and the TPP, and has talked of pulling out of both. And that’s nuts. Both NAFTA and the TPP, though flawed, were net positives, both for the US and internationally. I know this is kind of an unpopular view, but it’s the only opinion actually supported by, you know, evidence.

Donald Trump comes from the zero-sum-game world of Manhattan real estate. He seems to have difficulty in conceiving of a deal in which both sides prosper. But those are the best kinds of deals imaginable. He says our policies should be driven by national self-interest. Sure, fine; every country on earth does that. Making a deal between nations requires balance. We all know how to weigh costs and benefits. By that standard, NAFTA was a success. NAFTA was a trade agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico–the three nations of North America. Since it passed in ’93, trade between those three countries quadrupled, from 297 billion dollars to 1.14 trillion. It boosted economic growth, created millions of jobs, and lowered consumer costs in all three nations. And yes, also a few American factories moved to Mexico.

In 1999, my wife and I bought our house. It provided a safe shelter for ourselves and our kids, and also, a great neighborhood for the kids to grow up in. But we also had to make a mortgage payment every month. Trump’s view of NAFTA is the equivalent of focusing entirely on that payment. ‘What a terrible deal! Look at all the money you spent!’

We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and reform the world against radical Islamic terrorism , which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.

Let’s be honest: absolutely nobody thinks it’s going to be possible to eradicate ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ Ask any military or intelligence expert in the world; it cannot be done. That’s the bad news; the good news is that ISIS, or Al Qaeda, or any other group you want to lump into the definition ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ cannot succeed in their stated aims and intentions. ISIS wants to establish a multi-national pan-Islamic caliphate. There is zero chance of that ever happening. ISIS is not an ‘existential threat’ to the American way of life, or to Western society.

What we actually have is a humanitarian crisis in Syria. That’s bad enough. And while we’re doing that, yes, we want to reduce the ability for terrorist groups to mount attacks on US soil or in Europe. Those are lofty and difficult goals. But let’s be honest; those attacks, when they do occur, are at worst, minor annoyances. I’ll grant you that they don’t feel so minor–our hearts go out to the victims of terrorist attacks. But such attacks really only achieve one thing; they affect us emotionally. They spread terror. They terrify us. They make us afraid. And when people are afraid, they tend to overreact. The kinds of violations of civil liberties that Trump has talked about are counterproductive. Terrorist groups can only disrupt us, and that can only happen if we allow it to happen. Which, believe it or not, we don’t have to do.

Trump, blessedly, said very little about the signature issue of his campaign; illegal immigration. He made passing mention to America’s ‘refusal to defend our own’ borders. That’s also nonsense, of course. The US does maintain a border patrol. But the larger point is this: immigration is good. Immigrants are a great blessing to our society and nation. And it’s doesn’t particularly matter whether they arrive here illegally. Of course, we should be accepting more Syrian and Middle-Eastern immigrants, and of course, we should be welcoming more immigrants from Mexico and South and Central America. They are, by every possible measure, an economic plus.

What’s needed is amnesty. What’s needed is a sensible immigration policy, that makes it easier, not harder, for folks to enter our country and work here and marry and raise families here. And create jobs here. Instead, Trump wants to waste time and money building a wall. At least, he didn’t include that particular piece of idiocy in his Inauguration address.

Meanwhile, of course, he said nothing about, you know, actual problems. Like world-wide climate change. Or universal health care. Or the rise in racial intolerance and bigotry. But that would have been asking for too much.

We have four years to get through. They’re going to be tough. We will survive, though. And starting in 2020, we can get back to making America great again.

News and Fake news

Donald Trump held his first press conference in months yesterday; I watched it, and thought it did not go well. (I acknowledge that others may have thought he did just fine). Trump’s stock-in-trade is, I think, a combination of belligerence, braggadocio, prevarication and ignorance; all were on full display. One exchange particularly got my attention. CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta stood to ask, well, essentially, if he would be allowed to ask a question, and the President-elect shouted him down, bellowing “No! Not you! Your organization is terrible!” Then, as Acosta persisted, Trump shouted “don’t be rude. You don’t get a question. You’re fake news.”

This was the election of ‘fake news,’ which is to say, the creation and dissemination of highly partisan clickbait nonsense on social media. There are guys, apparently, who do this for fun and profit; make up ludicrous stories, inventing a legit-sounding ‘news source’ for them, and clogging up your Facebook page. All human beings are susceptible to confirmation bias, which is why this stuff is so insidious. I’m a liberal. If I see some story that says that, say, Sarah Palin said something preposterous, I am likely to believe it, even if it isn’t true.

Each advance in human evolution must always first involve overcoming confirmation bias. To that end, I must begin by believing in the essential fairmindedness and objectivity of people I disagree with. It is my impression that conservatives are far more likely to believe in fake news stories than liberals are. That impression, that tendency, is simply confirmation bias at its most basic level. Hillary Clinton did not order the murder of multiple political opponents. George W. Bush did not order bombs to be planted in the World Trade Center. Both are conspiracy theories, one favored by conservatives and one favored by liberals. Both are silly. Can we at least agree on that much?

I like facts. But all facts are not news. It is a fact that the sun rose this morning, but it’s not news, which is, by definition, about things that are remarkable. News is noteworthy and consequential. As I write this, snow is falling outside, with more expected. That’s news, because people have to drive in it.

So if we want to be thoughtful consumers of news, it seems to me that we should insist that the stories the media present to us be truthful, remarkable and consequential. Ideally, the divorce of Mr. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wouldn’t make the cut. Their business; not ours.

CNN’s misdeed, in the opinion of the President-Elect, was to run a story about alleged connections between Mr. Trump and Russia. According to a dossier prepared by a British intelligence operative, Russia may be in a position to blackmail Mr. Trump. According to this source, not only did Russian hackers deliberately work to defeat Hillary Clinton, they coordinated their efforts with the Trump campaign. Not only that, they had evidence of kinky sexual practices Mr. Trump engaged in in a Moscow hotel. Not only that, but Russia may have evidence of Trumpian financial shenanigans.

So here we have a thinly sourced, unconfirmed story that could be highly damaging to Mr. Trump. And the information in that story has been known by American intelligence sources for months. We also don’t know if any of it is true. That’s not fake news. The fact of these allegations is the part that’s true; this British spy, Christopher Steele, does exist, and has written them down. What we don’t know is if the allegations themselves are factually based. It’s certainly consequential; Trump may have committed high treason. And yes, the story exploded yesterday; it’s absolutely remarkable. So Buzzfeed published a two page summation of this British guy’s accusations, and CNN ran a story on it. Did they show good news judgment? Is this real news?

Of course, comedians had a field day with the sexual allegations; the details in Buzzfeed’s story are just specific enough, and just salacious and disgusting enough to make for some dirty-minded comedy. Stephen Colbert had a lot of fun with it; so did Trevor Noah, so did Samantha Bee. My daughter and I watched ’em all, going ‘ewwwww!’ all the while. I don’t blame Trump for being angry.

It’s inevitable that the kinky stuff would, initially, dominate the news cycle. But that won’t last, and doesn’t really need much investigation. The real story has to do with possible collusion between Putin and Trump. So what we have is an important news story, and also one that may be false. We don’t know. The story may be untrue, which both Buzzfeed and CNN acknowledged. But if it’s true (and it will certainly be investigated), Donald Trump is a traitor.

What it isn’t, is fake news. It doesn’t seem to be something someone made up. This British spy is real. His name is Christopher Steele; he spent years working for MI6. He now runs a private research firm, Orbis Business Intelligence. He’s a Russian expert, specializing in the intricacies of the Kremlin’s business dealings. He prepared a dossier, and it’s been circulating for months. And now, Mr. Steele has gone to ground; is in hiding. Doesn’t this all seem like the plot of a new John LeCarre novel? But John LeCarre’s novels are, after all, pretty much all fiction.

This is not fake news, in other words. It’s a genuine news story, but one in its earliest stages. It might be false, in which case that falseness will become the story. It behooves us all not to come to any conclusions about it yet. We don’t have enough information to conclude anything.

Does it seem plausible, though? How we answer that question probably depends on where we stand politically and ideologically. If we voted for Trump, we probably think it’s all partisan nonsense. If we opposed Trump, we probably think there’s something to it. Because that’s how confirmation bias works.

 

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Trump Inaugural

For any of you who follow this, this will be my first post in weeks, a lapse for which I apologize, necessitated though it was by health difficulties. I actually began a post, back before Christmas, about the decision by the The Mormon Tabernacle Choir to accept an invitation to perform at the Trump inauguration. That decision was controversial; it has become less so, inevitably, with time. I mean, here we are, a third of the way through January, nine days from the events itself. Nonetheless, even now, I do have some thoughts about the issue, which seems to lend itself to an ongoing dialectic unique to this impending Presidency.

Let’s start with the pros. Of course the Tabernacle Choir should accept an invitation to perform at the Trump inauguration. Obviously, they should. An inauguration is a celebration of the American political system, and specifically, of the peaceable transfer of power which is one of the glories of our republic. To be invited to sing at such an event is a great honor. The Choir has performed at previous inaugurations, celebrating Presidents of both parties. This is not a partisan issue. The office of the President is one of the great creations of the Framers. Whatever concerns individual choir members may have about the policies or character of any individual elected President, they’re irrelevant to this decision. Americans held an election, as we do every four years. Incumbent Presidents stand down; the new President assumes power, which he (only ‘he’, so far) will relinquish in due time. That fact is worth celebrating and worth honoring.

Cons. Of course, the Tabernacle Choir should turn down this invitation. Obviously they should say no. Donald Trump is not like previous Presidential candidates or Presidential winners. He is unique, and his victory presents a unique challenge. He began his campaign for President by insulting Mexican/American immigrants, calling them criminals and rapists. He has proposed a ban on Muslim immigrants, and has peppered his campaign rhetoric with Islamophobic stereotypes. He has been caught on tape boasting of sexual exploits, including criminal assaults on women. He openly mocked a disabled reporter. And he continually and repeatedly lies about all of it. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir represents the Church, my Church, the restored Church of Jesus Christ. The values of the Church are, in every specific, incompatible with the character of the man, Donald Trump, as revealed by his own words, his own actions. The BYU football team is not allowed to play games on Sundays, because keeping the Sabbath holy is a central tenet of our faith. By the same token, the Choir cannot be part of a ceremonial meant to honor a man of such demonstrated vileness.

Precedent says the Choir should sing. Tradition makes the same case. It’s become normal for the Choir to be invited to sing at important events–an Olympic Opening Ceremony, for example. Well, an Inaugural is like that; a big public event. It’s normal to be invited, and normal to sing.

But that’s precisely why the Choir should have refused this invitation. It normalizes Trump. It makes his electoral victory seem like an ordinary part of American civil society. Every four years, we have an election, someone wins, and is inaugurated President. That’s part of what’s admirable about America. And that’s why we should suspend what’s normal this time, just this once. The guy who won this time is uniquely unadmirable.

That’s the key word, isn’t it? Normal. Donald Trump’s entire campaign was a repudiation of normal. In fact, that’s probably why he won. There’s nothing wrong with a candidate pursuing an unorthodox strategy; that’s fine. In fact, every candidate running (especially in a wacky year like 2016) is trying to distinguish him/herself from the crowd. Trump’s appeal was based on how  unnormal he was as a candidate. He self-financed. (He didn’t really, but he said he did, and some voters found that attractive). He took positions on issues at odds with normative Republican positions. Above all, he based his campaign on a full-out assault on what he called ‘political correctness.’

Which, frankly, I’m not a great fan of: political correctness. I’m disabled, not ‘differently abled.’ I certainly think we should be careful in our use of language. We shouldn’t set out deliberately to offend. But I find some examples of academic language comically punctilious.

That’s not what Trump meant by political correctness, though. Not at all. And for some of his voters, Trump’s language was a major selling point. Why pussyfoot around, they probably thought. Illegal immigrants are criminals, and probably most of them are rapists too; why not say so? Because Trump was the anti-PC candidate, he survived gaffes and misstatements that would have sunk most candidacies. By saying “I hate political correctness,” he essentially wrapped himself in Teflon. It allowed his alt-Right followers to say whatever they wanted to. And somehow, discovering that Trump supporters included borderline Klan members didn’t hurt him with the general electorate. He was opposed to political correctness, after all.

And that’s how Trump survived a scandal that would have destroyed nearly every other candidacy in the history of American politics; the discovery of the Billy Bush tape. For Trump to speak in such disgusting and disrespectful terms about women didn’t kill him. It was ‘locker room talk,’ guys being guys. Sure it was gross, but whaddya gonna do? That’s how men talk sometimes. Don’t overreact. It’s no big deal.

By attacking political correctness, Trump normalized what essentially amounts to bragging about criminal sexual assault. By electing him anyway, the good citizens of the United States normalized, at least, talking that way. We strained at the gnat of Hillary’s emails, and swallowed the camel of Trump-being-Trump.

And nothing has changed. Most Presidential candidates are very careful to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. If their business holdings could, in any sense, be seen as ethically questionable, they divest.  Trump has more extensive investments than any President-elect in history. He has done nothing to distance himself from the interests of his own corporations. He is already normalizing corruption. What’s the big deal? He’s a rich guy; he owns lots of stuff. So what if foreign diplomats already curry favor by staying at his Washington hotel? Who cares?

Donald Trump is not a normal President-elect. This was not a normal election, and this won’t be a normal inauguration. The Tabernacle Choir disgraces itself by normalizing his election in this way. His values are not our values; we should not pretend that everything’s okay, that all’s well in Zion. One choir member, Jan Chamberlin, has resigned over this. She’s the one genuine heroine of this narrative. The Trump Presidency is a unique phenomenon, and requires an unusual response. We have to do this; oppose everything Trump, all the time, always. A good place to start is by refusing to sing at his party.

Losing my sense of humor

Here’s what angers me most about the election of Donald Trump. It’s not the ridiculous policies. It’s not the corruption. It’s not the close association with the alt-right. It’s not the thin-skinned tweets. It’s not any of those things.

It’s that I don’t find all of that funny. And I should. Because it is.

I’m losing my sense of humor. This cannot be allowed.

Imagine that someone wrote a satire about a newly elected US President, a businessman with zero political experience. Let’s imagine that the screenplay or play or novel included a montage scene of congratulatory phone calls, from heads of state to the new President-elect. So the Scottish political leader calls, and the new President accepts his good wishes, then mentions how annoying wind farms are. Especially when they block the view at his/my/the President’s Scottish golf course. “Of course,” says the Scottish leader. “We’ll get right on it.” That scene would be funny, right? And then the Argentinian President calls, and the P-E mentions permitting problems the business is having for a skyscraper they want to build in Buenos Aires. Of course, in on those phone calls would be the P-E’s former supermodel daughter, now officially running the various Presidential businesses. Seriously; funny stuff, amiright?

The days after the election, I moped around the house, all depressed. I tried to find solace with my friends–John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah–only they seemed as discombobulated as I felt. It’s like we all forgot how to be funny, or how to laugh. I was heartsick for my country, depressed, close to despair in fact, that somehow America had voted for this orange-face, small-handed, thin-skinned buffoon. And I was angry. I was furious. At everyone and anything. Those losers in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida; especially them.

If Mitt Romney had won in 2012, or John McCain in 2008, I would have been fine with it. Not my preferred candidate, but an honorable man, capable, and a patriot–we could certainly do worse. That’s how I would have felt. Not now. Not this semi-Klan walking dumpster fire. Not this incoherent demagogue.

And that’s funny. My misplaced anger and sorrow and frustration. It’s funny; if I (we) lose my (our) ability to laugh at my (our) selves, then what else do we have?

And so we see Trump’s appointments, the people he’s going to hire to help run his government. And it just gets funnier. Someone who hates public education as Secretary of Education. A more-or-less open racist as Attorney General. Someone who hates Obamacare for Health and Human Services. My favorite is his choice for White House Attorney, the guy who is supposed to be the ethical conscience of the White House. He announced Don McGahn for the role. McGahn was Tom DeLay’s attorney. You remember Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ campaign pledge? McGahn’s the swamp. Probably the most corrupt attorney in Washington will be the Trump White House’s ethical watchdog.

Elaine Chao was named Transportation Secretary. The headline in Slate’s story pointed out, in tones of shock and surprise, that she’s actually qualified for the job.

All this stuff is funny. I mean, it’s kind of a grim kind of humor. How else do you report the fact that Donald Trump’s closest advisor, Steve Bannon, worked previously as CEO of a website beloved by white supremacists and, you know, the Klan? It’s one of those jokes without a punch line; you just report the facts and you get the laugh.

And it’s hard to laugh sometimes. I get it; it’s hard to find this stuff funny. Our country is falling from the sky, like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. Gravity has taken over. But Dr. Strangelove is an amazingly funny movie.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I don’t feel fine. But we still have to laugh. We still have to make jokes. Trump may destroy our country. But he cannot destroy our humanity.

 

Rebuilding the Democratic party

I have a candidate for the new chair of the Democratic National Committee.

There are a couple of problems. Potential problems. Well, okay: problems. For one thing, my candidate has never worked in politics. For another, I don’t know if my candidate is a Democrat. (JK: he is). And I get that that could be a deal-breaker. If he’s a Republican, he might not be completely committed to, you know, do what the DNC chair is supposed to be do: elect Democrats.

Though he could hardly be worse at it than Deborah Wasserman Schultz was.

Still, I’m making a serious proposal here. I’m suggesting a genuine, thinking-outside-of-the-box pick, fresh thinking. I mean, we’d need to ask if he’s interested, and if he’s a Democrat. But if the answer to both questions is yes, this guy has a track record. 

I nominate Theo Epstein for DNC chair.

Theo Epstein. Team President of the Chicago Cubs. The guy who built the World Series champs. The Cubs had not won the World Series since 1908. They were a bad team, a team of losers. Then they hired Theo Epstein, in 2011. Took him five years to build a winner. Course, he’d done it before. His first gig was as General Manager of the Boston Red Sox, another sad sack franchise, another team that hadn’t won, a team on an 86 year losing streak. He was hired by the Sox in 2002, at the age of 29, the youngest General Manager in baseball at the time, and one of the youngest in baseball history. They won the World Series in 2004. To repeat: the two most storied losers in baseball history hired this brilliant young guy, and in two years and five years, respectively, he’d built them into winners.

He’s 42 years old. He’s never not succeeded, spectacularly. He has no more professional mountains to climb. And he may well be looking for a different kind of challenge.

Here’s the Epstein method. He identifies and acquires underutilized talent. That’s it. He loves data and he loves computer geeks. He puts together a team of really smart guys, and they comb through player personnel records and they find talented guys who aren’t being valued by their teams, guys who, in Epstein’s words ‘are just about to break.’ Look at this year’s World Champion Cubs. Their best player (and team leader) Anthony Rizzo, batted .141 in his rookie year with the San Diego Padres. Epstein traded an okay pitcher, Andrew Cashner, for him, and Rizzo’s now a star. Likewise their best pitcher, Jake Arrieta. Struggled with the Orioles; Epstein traded a back-up catcher for him. Epstein does this all the time. Identify talent; develop it; motivate it; reap the benefits.

Okay, imagine that skill set in the DNC. Because, let’s face it, the number one task of the Democratic party has to be to rebuild the party from the ground up. State legislators, city council members, school board members. In the last election, it was depressing to see all the races in which the Republican was running unopposed. Granted, I live in Utah. Still, the Democratic party needs to compete; we need to compete everywhere. In the last election, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Utah was a woman who worked as a clerk at a grocery store. Nice lady, but she had no credentials. Shouldn’t the DNC have discouraged that? Encouraged her to run instead for the state legislature? Build a resume, get experience, start modestly. Wouldn’t that have been better than just running someone who was going to get clobbered?

That’s what Theo Epstein is great at. Find and identify talented people, put them in a position to succeed, motivate them, coach them up, and give them the resources to succeed. Oh, and one more thing: nobody outworks Theo Epstein. There’s a reason a 29 year old was given the reins of the Boston Red Sox.

He’s also personable, an excellent interview. He’s very comfortable hanging out with rich guys–has to be, to succeed in baseball. And there’s also this; he’s every bit as great at understanding and responding to the needs of ordinary folks. Both in Boston and Chicago, he’s made ‘improving the fan experience’ a high priority. He listens, in other words. He makes sure all the seats are comfortable, all the bathrooms clean, all the refreshments tasty.  He’d be an outsider, if he ran for DNC chair. That’s a good thing. He’s the best possible guy for the job. You know, if he’s a Democrat.

(Which, by the way, he is. He strongly supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign, with a big donation). When one of his players (Arrieta, in fact), came out for Trump, Epstein responded: “Tolerance is important, especially in a democracy. The ability to have honest conversations, even if you come from a different place, is fundamentally important.” He didn’t reprimand the player, nor did he reprimand Curt Schilling, the famously conservative former Red Sox player, when he spoke out. In both instances, Epstein found an opportunity to have a conversation with the guy. And, with both guys, cordially agree to disagree.

We probably can’t afford him. Epstein makes ten million a year to run the Cubs. But he’s the perfect choice.

In the real world, the DNC chair will probably be Keith Ellison. He’s the only Muslim in Congress, a strong Bernie Sanders supporter, a great choice in most ways. And there are other fine candidates. But really, it should be Theo Epstein. Right man for a tough and important job. Let’s see if we can make it happen.

 

 

Russia

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” Marx. That is to say: Groucho.

Russia has lousy weather. The one time I was there, in the summer, it rained a lot, and of course, Napolean and Hitler can tell you all about the impact Russian winters can have on military invasions. But, you know, you cope. That’s life as a Russian: coping. You carry an umbrella, wear warm shoes, keep a jacket around. Moscow has a fabulous subway system, so you can get around. And when I was there, years before Uber, amateur cab drivers would drive you anywhere, especially if you had American currency.

When I was there, Boris Yeltsin was President, and he was struggling. He was a democracy warrior, but the Russian economy was in a bad way, and Yeltsin’s health was poor, not least because the man enjoyed his vodka. But Russia was a free country. They were proud of that fact, though they didn’t seem to know what it meant. Free press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. It was a heady time. For us American visitors too. We thought that having a MacDonald’s across the street from the Moscow Art Theater was impossibly cool.

And I was impressed by their kids. I worked with some of their theatre students, and they were all terrific; energetic, bright, optimistic. Russians are resilient, with a do-it-yourself inventiveness. I was there with an international theatre conference, and they were all excited because the KGB had been forced to open up their files. The week I arrived, there was particular excitement because they had just discovered the KGB files for Meyerhold. Vsevelod Meyerhold, one of the great director/theorists in the history of theatre, murdered by Stalin in 1940. It was incredibly exciting, seeing KGB secret stuff about him, including rehearsals that the police had secretly taped. Reprehensible, of course, but you also got to see this grainy old footage of Meyerhold conducting a rehearsal. It seemed full of portents. Russia: free!

Under Putin, that’s not so much true anymore. No more freedom of the press, not really. No satire TV shows, like The Daily Show or the Samantha Bee/John Oliver shows. They still have satire, of course; they’re Russians, their greatest national play is Gogol’s The Inspector General. But dissent, again, is all underground. There is an emerging 21st century samizdat (that wonderful Soviet term for clandestine publications), critical of Putin and harshly repressed, but circulating nonetheless, especially on social media.

As I understand it, this is Russia now (and I’m certainly no Russian expert, so if I’m wrong, let me know!). Russians today don’t enjoy the political freedoms we Americans took for granted a week ago. Russians can vote, for representatives in the Duma, but their votes don’t really mean anything. You can criticize the government, but you have to be quiet about it, and only talk to people you know you can trust.

Religious freedom does exist, and the Russian Orthodox Church has made a comeback. You can worship, if you belong to the right, officially-approved-of faiths, but not if you’re Muslim or Jewish. And this new Orthodoxy has a distinct downside. Russia has become insanely homophobic. Legally homophobic, culturally hate-filled. Just a horrible place to be gay. And yes, you can listen to the music of their most famous punk band, Pussy Riot, but you risk arrest if you try to see them live.

The economy’s tanking. The Russian stock market crashed recently. But oil prices are rising again, and the economy is bouncing back. Long-term, of course, Russia’s doomed economically. Their continued prosperity, such as it is, depends too much on their oil reserves, and the world is moving towards electric cars. And because they don’t have the political freedom to be open to new ideas. That’s one problem with crony capitalism, corruption and dictatorship. Those aren’t good recipes for growth. They have dazzling computer engineers, and they waste their time working as hackers.

Their housing is undisputably improving. When I was there, everyone crowded into these insanely depressing identical high-rise apartment buildings, made of crappy commie concrete and ugly as sin. Now St. Petersburg is seeing a housing boom, as is Moscow. So if you’re an upwardly mobile urban dweller with some money, you probably have more living space than your parents ever did.

So that’s the point. If you have a job, if you have training, if you have some savings, you can survive in Russia. If you’re straight, and orthodox in your religious beliefs, and willing to keep your mouth shut about politics, you’d be able to handle living there. Consumer goods are available. The long-term outlook isn’t very good, and you’re not really free, not in the way we Americans are used to. And I’m certainly not suggesting anyone should move there. But it’s not a terrible place.

Because I’m very much afraid that’s what we have to look forward to here, in the US. With the Presidency of Donald Trump, that’s what our next four years are likely to look like. Russia. Until the economy tanks; then it’ll get worse. So, for now: Russia. Putin got the President he wanted and worked for: and we get to lose our country, at least for a few years.

Hope we get it back soon.

Conflicts of interest

In 1921, President Warren Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, leased petroleum reserves in Teapot Dome Wyoming to several private companies. Sweetheart deal for those companies; they got no-bid contracts at extremely favorable rates. Fall’s standard of living also suddenly and suspiciously improved. The Senate got involved, investigated, and it turned out that Fall had accepted bribes. He ended up in prison.

The Teapot Dome scandal remains about the one thing anyone remembers about the Harding administration. You think ‘corruption in government,’ and Harding comes immediately to mind, despite the fact that he wasn’t the guy taking bribes. Anyway, that’s what corruption in government is. It’s Albert Fall. It’s what we call it when a politician uses the power of government to get rich.

Which is why the Presidency of Donald Trump, which hasn’t started yet, is shaping up to be the most corrupt in history. That’s even assuming he makes a good faith effort to govern honestly. But the web of Trump-owned businesses is so entangled with government interests, even if Trump doesn’t personally profit (or only profits to the degree that his businesses are successful), it looks terrible. And could break the law.

When the older President Bush became vice-President, he turned his stock portfolio over to a blind trust, so he could avoid the very appearance of conflicts of interest. Jimmy Carter did the same with his peanut farm when he became President. And yes, President-elect Trump has said he’ll turn over the management of his company to his kids, an arrangement he calls ‘a blind trust.’ But it isn’t. That’s not what a blind trust is. And he’s already vetting Don Jr., Eric and Ivanka for White House jobs.

The New York Times did a big story a couple of days ago about some of the more obvious Trump conflicts of interest. For example, Trump International turned the Old Post Office in Washington into a luxury hotel. The government still owns the property, and the General Services Administration manages it. Trump International runs the hotel, and profits from it. And President Trump appoints the head of the GSA. The President also appoints members of the National Labor Relations Board, which would also decide union disputes against his hotels. As it did last week, for a Trump hotel in Las Vegas.

In both of these instances, the federal government, the executive branch of which President Trump runs, will be potentially involved in resolving disputes with Trump-owned businesses, from which President Trump personally profits. Are there are other, similar conflicts. Hard to say–Trump hasn’t released his financial information.

There’s also Article One, Section Nine of the Constitution. Here’s the text:

No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

Mr. Trump has business interests all over the world, and with many foreign governments. Remember during the campaign when Trump took a few days off from campaigning so he could show off his new golf course in Scotland? If he profits from any business deal with a foreign government, he could well be charged with violating the Emolument clause of the Constitution.

Remember the reason Trump gave for why he couldn’t release his tax returns? He’s being audited, he said. Audited, that is, by the Internal Revenue Service, whose director President Trump appoints. He’ll also nominate the Treasury Secretary, at the same time he owes millions of dollars to banks.

There’s also Michael Flynn. He was Trump’s first choice to be Secretary of Defense, a position he may be legally prohibited from accepting. He could be National Security Advisor, though. Right now, he works for a lobbying business. And one of his clients is Turkey. Again, at least a potential conflict of interest.

I just wonder if Trump even gets it. It’s not just that he’s a yugely successful businessman. It’s that a lot of his business success comes from his name, from marketing ‘Trump’ as a trademark. He’s 70 years old. He’s been a salesman his entire life. I’m not sure if the phrase ‘conflict of interest’ even registers for him. I’m sure he’s thinking ‘if I’m President, I won’t have time to run my company. I’ll just let the kids do it.’ And that’s it; that’s all; problem solved. But it’s not, not even remotely. It’s going to be a long two years. (That’s how long I give him before his impeachment).

 

 

Trump’s first 100 days, the legislative agenda

Following up on yesterday’s post, in which I outlined Donald Trump’s agenda for his first 100 days in office. Here, then, is his legislative agenda.

  1. Middle Class Tax Relief And Simplification Act. The title’s misleading; this is a tax cut for billionaires. Trump says it’s designed to grow the economy at 4% a year, and create 25 million new jobs. Those figures are fantasies; his plan will do nothing of the kind. Essentially, he wants to reduce the current 7 tax brackets to 3, with corporate taxes reduced from 35% to 15%. The highest tax bracket, currently 43.6%, would drop to 33%. He claims it would provide a 35% tax cut for middle class families with 2 children. But that depends on what you mean by ‘middle-class’. Poor families will derive no benefit from it at all. The big point is that the Trump tax cut is so huge, it will add trillions to the deficit. Of course, Trump supporters insist that those concerns are overstated; that the Trump tax cuts will free up trillions of dollars for domestic investment, that the corporate tax cut will incentivize companies that have moved off shore to come back. There’s no reason to think any of that will happen. Essentially, Trump’s economic plan is an argument that our two highest national priorities must be to let rich people get richer, and corporate profits to be higher. ‘Cause if we do, fairies and unicorns will flourish.
  2. End the Offshoring Act. Would use tariffs to discourage companies from moving jobs overseas. Sounds good; won’t work.
  3. American Energy and Infrastructure Act. Leverages private/public partnerships and private investments through tax breaks to spur 1 billion dollars in infrastructure investment. Okay, what does that mean? Some liberals are actually applauding this plan, saying that maybe infrastructure is an area where we can work with Trump. And, in fact, building bridges and highways and electric grids is a public good. And needs to be done, efficiently and effectively. Which Trump’s plan won’t accomplish. See, he wants to privatize it. First, by offering a trillion dollars in bonds, which people can invest in. Then letting private contractors do the building, with profits built into their bids. So why is this bad? First of all, it incentivizes construction companies to maximize profits by skimping on road quality. It also incentivizes the private sector to profit from public projects. That’s the private/public partnership part; you give private businesses control over a city’s water supply, or parking meters, or toll roads. Prices rise, quality falls. This is, in other words, ideological. Private good/public bad. That’s nonsense. You end up with roads built where they’re not needed, and badly needed projects in poorer communities neglected.
  4. School Choice and Education Opportunity Act. Redirects education dollars to allow parents the right to send their kids to any school they want to–religious, charter, private, magnet, or home school. Trump’s plan is a mishmash, frankly. Most federal funding goes to Title 1 schools; schools that are struggling, in poor areas of the country. It’s reasonable to assume that ‘redirecting federal education dollars’ to ‘promote choice’ means more money going to more affluent districts, to increase choice. As for the rest of it, who knows? He wants to end Common Core; but that’s not really a federal program. Right now, about all we can say is that, under Trump, public education takes it on the chin. This might also end school testing, which is the only good thing about it.
  5. Repeal and Replace Obamacare. That was always inevitable; you can’t really campaign harder against something than Trump campaigned against the ACA, and Republicans in Congress hate it too. The ‘replace’ part is the tricky one. Health Savings Accounts are the hot conservative idea right now. But they’ll only really help upper middle class people, and will prove inadequate for people with major medical events. ‘Selling insurance across state lines’ sounds good. Health insurance is generally cheaper in Utah than in New Jersey, for example. That’s because Utah insurance companies have negotiated prices with Utah providers. A New Jersey resident can buy Utah-based insurance, but he’ll have to visit Utah doctors, pharmacies, clinics. Also, what will happen to people with pre-existing conditions? What about children under 26, who, under the ACA, can keep their parents insurance? Repealing Obamacare will accomplish one thing; it will deprive millions of Americans of health coverage. People are going to die.
  6. Affordable Childcare and Eldercare Act. A tax deduction for childcare and eldercare. It will provide no benefit whatever for families who don’t pay federal income tax. In other words, this is a great deal for Ivanka Trump. She gets to deduct her nanny’s salary from her taxes. But you single Moms out there, desperately trying to make ends meet? Won’t help you one iota.
  7. End Illegal Immigration Fully. In other words, Trump’s building a wall. And Mexico’s going to pay for it. Also, if you’re deported once, and try to come back, you can get five years in federal prison. It’s just not possible adequately to express how loathsome everything about this proposed legislation is. I do rather hope that reasonable Republicans will temper this bill somewhat. I also don’t believe the wall’s ever getting built. I think we’re going to end up with a huge pile of concrete and rebar somewhere in Texas or Arizona. The question is, how long will it take Trump’s economic plan to bankrupt the government? I think we’ll run out of money to finish the wall. Hope so; what a stupid racist idea.
  8. Restoring Community Safety Act. It will create a National Task Force on Violent Crime, and give money to local police departments for extra training on how to do deal with gangs. Obama’s already done most of this, and in fact, violent crime is lower now than any time in the last fifty years. But I suppose some more money for cops isn’t a terrible idea. Lester Freamon gets to keep his Wire going a little longer.
  9. Restoring National Security Act. It increases Defense spending, because of course it does. It provides some money for efforts to reduce cyber attacks, like the Russian hacks that got Trump elected. Here’s the nasty part: “establishes new screening procedures for immigration to ensure those who are admitted to our country support our people and our values.” We’re going to ensure the loyalty (already unquestioned) of Muslim Americans by making their lives suck a little more.
  10. Clean up Corruption in Washington Act. He wants to Drain the Swamp, he says. As he goes into the White House still owning businesses providing him with the most blatant conflicts of interest in the history of the Presidency.

So. That’s the legislative agenda. He’ll get most of it through. None of its likely to do any good at all. It’s going to be a long four years.

Trumps first 100 days, annotated

Donald Trump is President. What does that mean? What will his agenda be?

Fortunately, back in October, he gave a speech in, of all places, Gettysburg PA, outlining his plans for his first 100 days in office. These are just his priorities as President; it does not include his legislative agenda. Here’s the text. I thought I would go through it with you, with commentary.

  1. Propose a Constitutional amendment imposing term limits on Congress. Constitutional amendments are really really hard to pass. This won’t make it through the Senate.
  2. A hiring freeze on all federal agencies, to reduce the size of government through attrition (exempting the military, public safety and public health). He’ll be able to do this. It’s one of those ideas that looks okay on paper, but ends up being practically unworkable.
  3. A requirement that for every regulation passed, two other regulations have to be eliminated. A nightmare to implement, with the probable result being all sorts of comical negotiation between agencies. The underlying assumption, of course, is that all regulations are bad, period. That’s nuts.
  4. A five year ban on federal employees and Congresspeople becoming lobbyists after leaving public office. I think he can’t just do this one; it’ll require Congressional action. So good luck; Congresspeople like lucrative lobbying jobs.
  5. A lifetime ban on White House employees becoming lobbyists for foreign governments. Is this seriously a problem? He actually might get this dumb idea through Congress.
  6. A complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections. As opposed to hacking DNC computers? Does anyone doubt that the Russian-hacked Wikileaks revelations contributed to Trump’s victory?
  7. Renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from it per article 2205. Yes, as it happens, the US can unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA. What would happen? Well, the last time the US withdrew from a previously negotiated trade agreement was 1866; there’s no precedent here. Pulling out of NAFTA absolutely will wreak havoc on American business. It almost certainly will start a trade war. It won’t bring back any jobs, and it will lead to a price hike for a whole range of consumer products. Positives? There really aren’t any. But, yeah, article 2205 says he can do it.
  8. Announce the US withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership. That one was inevitable. Again, Article 30-6 says we can just unilaterally withdraw. If we really want trade wars with most of the countries along the Pacific Rim. Consumer prices should rise, and the negotiated intellectual property rights provisions will be null and void. Watch how long it takes Vietnam to reverse-engineer I-phones.
  9. China declared a currency manipulator. Okay, this is complicated. Here’s a Wall Street Journal article that explains it pretty succinctly. Essentially, China’s monetary policy involves a small amount of currency manipulation, just as America’s monetary policy involves a similar amount of interest rate manipulation. It’s not a big deal either way; a normal exercise in sovereignty. As the WSJ concludes: “Movements in the nominal yuan exchange rate have almost no long-term impact on global flows of exports and imports or on broader considerations such as average wages.” In other words, worrying about Chinese currency manipulation is typical Trumpian nonsense. Yeah, they do it, so do we, and it’s not a big deal either way. But making this kind of official declaration, by Treasury, would be bitterly resented by the Chinese, and could result in a trade war. And China, as a market for imported goods, is just about ready to explode.
  10. The Department of Commerce will identify “all foreign trading abuses.” This one won’t mean much, honestly.
  11. Lift restrictions on the production of American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal. Screw environmental safeguards, in other words. Trump thinks this will free up 50 trillion dollars worth of energy reserves. “Fifty trillion dollars” is a nice, big number Trump just invented. Here’s what this means: fracking. You know those rural communities that voted for him? They’re going to be able to light their drinking water on fire.
  12. Allow ‘vital energy infrastructure projects’ to go forward. In other words, the Keystone Pipeline’s getting built. Big deal. Both opposition to and support for Keystone was always more symbolic than anything–it’s a minor issue on its merits.
  13. Cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs and use the money to fix America’s water and environmental infrastructure. The US commitment to lead the international effort to combat climate change just went pffft. And no, that money’s not getting spent on infrastructure. Bet that’s what pays for The Wall.
  14. Cancel every executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama. In other words, petty spitefulness and partisan rancor are officially the policy of the Trump administration. I do know that the Right dislikes some Obama executive actions, so this was inevitable. What bothers me is how indiscriminate this order is. No pause to consider if any particular order is a good idea or not. Just full-out de-Obamafication.
  15. Replace Justice Scalia with a conservative. Nothing we can do about that one. That’s a consequence of losing an election. Just pray for the health of Justice Ginsburg.
  16. Cancel all federal funding for Sanctuary cities. Sanctuary cities are cities that generally try to shelter undocumented workers, and will sometimes block federal efforts to deport people. Salt Lake City is usually considered one, for example. San Francisco, Phoenix, LA, San Diego, Austin, Miami. We’re all being targeted. This is where it starts, with losses of funding for cities who harbor innocent people.
  17. Begin removing 2 million ‘illegal immigrants’ from the United States. Cancel visas to countries who won’t take them back. He’s talking about deporting neighbors of mine, people I know. My wife and I have room in our basement for four families. That’s how we respond to Trumpism–we open our homes to Anne Frank.
  18. Suspend immigration from ‘terror-prone’ regions where vetting is impossible. All vetting will be extreme vetting. Again, this is inevitable. Elections do have consequences. But it’s inhumane, unAmerican, and cruel beyond understanding. Syrian refugees, the greatest humanitarian crisis of our day, are getting the back of Trump’s hand. No succor, no help, no aid, and no refuge. And the extreme vetting addendum suggests a religious test for anyone getting aid. Paranoid xenophobia has become the order of the day.

In that same Gettysburg speech, Trump also announced his legislative agenda. That will be the subject of my next post.

Final thought: we know he’s foolish, delusional and cruel. It helps to actually look at his agenda, though, and see just how radical and how dangerous he is. It’s going to be a long four years.

Trump won. What now?

Driving up to see a play last night, ordinarily a 50 minute drive, traffic on I-15 was stop-and-start the whole way, because of accidents. I saw the aftermaths of seven crashes. The one that sticks with me was a minivan, crushed, with a Mom and four little kids huddled together in the middle lane, just behind their destroyed car, while a cop tried to get them somewhere safer. The kids were all crying. The Dad was lying on the ground. That’s all I saw. I got to the play, and told a friend about all the accidents. “Checking their cell phones for election results,” was his immediate response. Could be, though it was early for that. Still, that one crash stays with me. Those crying children.

That’s where we are now, we Americans, huddled together crying behind the wreckage of our country. We had two possible candidates for President, one superbly qualified, but with many dedicated enemies, the other completely unqualified, but with a message that, for some people, for some reason, resonated. “We’re losing our country,” he said. “We white Americans, real Americans, we’re falling behind. It’s the fault of the Others, the brown-skinned, the Spanish speakers, and also the worshippers of a different God than Jesus. Washington’s corrupt, so corrupt that reform isn’t possible. What we need are hand grenades. Explosions and chaos: that’s how we make America great again.” An appealing, if appalling pitch from a lifelong con man.

And look what I just did. Cast this in partisan terms; accused my political opponents of racism. I should apologize, I suppose. I should work to heal, express love and unity and solidarity, invoke our shared patriot ideals. How do we do that, though, when we see the core base of Trump’s support? Check out Breitbart.com (the website whose CEO was also CEO of the Trump campaign, the website that provides a home to the alt-right, the website of the most savage misogynists (Milo Yiannopoulos, take a bow!), and of the various post-modern iterations of the KKK. It doesn’t feel like we elected a President. It feels more like we chose a new Grand Dragon. Or Imperial Wizard, or whatever nomenclature is au courant with the Klan.

So, no, I don’t feel much like seeking common ground. Normally that would be my instinct and preference; not this time. Nor do I feel much like mourning. We lost. We took it on the chin. It’s time to get off the canvas. It’s time to fight.

We don’t have a lot of viable political resources, and Trumpism provides a target-rich environment. We’re going to have to pick our fights. Here’s what I suggest:

Much has been made of the enmity of Paul Ryan and Donald Trump. Don’t believe it. They’re going to work together, because so much of what they want overlaps. Paul Ryan’s agenda is clear enough; he wants tax cuts for rich guys, he wants to cut the social safety net into ribbons, he wants smaller government and less spending, except for defense. He’s going to get it; his program will pass. We should let him; urge the Senate not to filibuster the Ryan budget. Let corporate taxes fall, person income taxes for rich guys lowered, cuts in discretionary spending. In the meantime, Trump will go ahead and start trade wars with China, South Korea, Japan, Mexico. Consumer prices will rise precipitously. And funding will be passed to built a Great Wall.

The results will be catastrophic. As Paul Krugman mordantly predicted this morning, if we’re lucky, the result will be a world-wide recession. By 2020, the myth that businessmen can run a country or that Republicans can manage an economy will be exploded once and for all. Donald Trump will be a one-term President. Our country has survived recessions before; we’ll survive the next one. And then President Warren will step in and set things right.

What we have to hope for is that we can contain the disaster–incur moderate, but not permanent damage. What we have to pray for is that Trump’s legacy doesn’t include hyper-inflation and complete world-wide economic collapse. He’s going to be the worst President in US history; that’s a given. We have to hope that’s all.

So we can’t fight him on economic grounds; or at least we shouldn’t. What we want is an economic debacle sufficient to discredit conservative economic orthodoxy forever, but only that. We want a fiasco we can recover from. And yes, there will be suffering, yes, there will be homelessness, yes, forty million Americans will lose their health coverage, yes, people will die. That’s all unavoidable. It will be our task to point out, as often as necessary, who caused all that destruction. And blame, not just on Trump. Ryan, too, conservatism generally.

As a patriot, I suppose I should now say “or, I could be wrong.” And that’s certainly true; I might be wrong. What if Trump is a good President; what if the economy thrives under his stewardship. Well, all right then. That would be swell. That would be groovy. And since it ain’t gonna happen, let’s not worry about it.

No, let’s not fight Trump on the economy. Let’s stand back and let the inevitable calamity take its course. Give more to the foodbank; volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. No, where we need to fight is in matters of race and prejudice.

We need, more than ever, to comfort and support and embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters. We need to oppose Trump’s immigration ban. We need to oppose his mass deportation scheme. We need to insist on keeping the progress we have made in race relations and civil rights. We need to fight for our Latino brothers and sisters. Above all, we need to protect and support the LGBTQ community. We need to work with moderate, virtuous Republicans (who exist, and in profusion), to ameliorate the worst of Trump’s racism and misogyny. We need decency and kindness and toleration and love. Show it, demonstrate it, fight for it. If the Senate is going to use the filibuster (and they should), use it to fight racism. Use it to block deportation.

Donald Trump is a liar and a buffoon. He’ll expose himself often enough. We need to fight the next two years to keep him from destroying America, and we need to fight like crazy in 2018 to deprive him of Congressional majorities. And then, in 2020, as our country gasps for air, we need to win.

We need new, aggressive leadership in the Democratic party. That new generation of leaders could include you. Get on it. Right now, though, let’s not feel sorry for ourselves. Organize. Fight. Convert people. And win.