Archive for July, 2018

Socialism

Monday, July 30th, 2018

via GIPHY

The recent nomination of a democratic socialist in a NY congressional district has awakened the great red scare among some conservatives.

The standard conservative line regarding socialism is that there isn’t one successful socialist country and it is a stepping stone to communism.

But that begs the question.

There isn’t one successful libertarian country either, but that doesn’t stop many of those same conservatives from suggesting that an unfettered free market is the solution to all that ails us.

So let’s start with a simple definition of what socialism is and the fairly successful history of socialism in this country.

Here’s the definition of socialism from dictionary.com

A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

Just for the purposes of comparison, here the definition of democracy.

A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

Notice the difference? Democracy is a system of government. Socialism is a political and economic theory.

A democracy can operate on socialist principles. There are many successful examples around the world. They generally provide a high level of services supported by a high level of individual and corporate taxes. In addition to taxation, industries are also highly regulated, workers generally have a place at the table when decisions are made, and public resources like air and water are protected. Fundamentally, the government is run by representatives, just like this country, who are elected by citizens who have decided that this is the way that they would like their government to operate, just like this country.

A dictatorship can also claim to operate on socialist principles, though that dictator would have to be benign. But just saying you are a socialist country, doesn’t make you one any more than just saying that you are a democracy, as Russia does, means that all elections are fair, opposition parties are free to campaign, and voters really have a choice.

Milwaukee was dominated by a Social-Democratic party for the first 60 years or so of the 20th century. The focus there was worker’s rights. They successfully eliminated child labor and ushered in the 40 hour work week. All this was accomplished in addition to all of the day to day operational needs of big city.

By definition, police and fire departments, our military, public schools, public libraries, and public infrastructure are all examples of communities getting together to provide a service that is owned collectively and regulated either locally or nationally.

Suggesting that socialism is bad for free markets also misunderstands both free markets and socialism.

We have seen over and over that free markets operate best in well-regulated environments. Those regulations and laws also provide a means of enforcement and a method where those who have been injured can seek redress. If you don’t pay your bills, someone can take you to court in order to get paid. If you fix prices or inhibit competition in order to illegally inflate your profit, the government can levy a penalty that could include repayment to those who were harmed. Google was fined $5B by the EU for that very reason. If you want to sell a drug, you have to prove to the FDA that the drug is effective and that all of the potential side effects are well known. If you want to start a bank, there are all kinds of rules to insure that your bank is going to be able to manage your deposits in a responsible way.

All of this regulation fits the definition of socialism. The community (voters) are agreeing to regulate the means of production/distribution/exchange for the benefit of the community.

So the REAL discussion should be HOW MUCH socialism is appropriate.

This is the same discussion that we should be having about libertarianism – HOW MUCH government is appropriate.

Serious questions have been raised that the United States is not really a democracy, at least if you look at the outcomes of legislation. A ground breaking study suggests that we are really an oligarchy where the rich and powerful, though a small minority of the total population, are the ones who benefit from virtually all of the legislation and rule-making done by our elected representatives. That study has since been questioned by a closer examination of the alignment between middle class and upper class interests. But clearly the poor are not well served in this democracy even though they represent 15% of the population.

There are good reasons to have a discussion about how healthcare is delivered in this country. The facts are that we continue to spend more money per person on healthcare than any other country in the world, but our outcomes are far worse than even the average among our industrialized peers.

There are good reasons to have a discussion about income inequality and economic mobility. The number one factor in this country that influences future success is your father. In other words, if you are the child of a poor father, the barriers to you becoming wealthy are significantly higher than if your father was wealthy, even if everything else in terms of talents, ambition, and determination are the same. The reasons are that poor kids simply don’t have access to the same levels of nutrition, healthcare, education, and investment that are available to wealthy kids. That’s not the case in the rest of the industrialized world. All children have access to healthcare. All children have access to high quality education. All children have access to good nutrition. The best and brightest have a much easier time rising to the top in other countries than they do here. That said, those who have received their education elsewhere are attracted to our country because of the advantages available for the well-off.

There are good reasons to talk about the influence that money has in our politics. Corporations and wealthy individuals have tilted the playing field to their advantage. The result is that taxpayers and small investors end up subsidizing CEO pay, for example, because of tax and trading rules that are in place. Other countries (e.g. Austrialia) have taken successful steps to rein-in corporate pay without damaging their economy.

There are good reasons to talk about the cost of higher education. Our current system is warping the future of kids with huge student loan debt when they graduate. Rather than start their own companies, they are forced to work for big companies that pay well for a decade or more so that they can pay off that debt. Other industrialized countries subsidize the cost of higher education which frees up those graduates to take more risk early in their careers than their peers in this country.

There are good reasons to talk about our spending priorities in this country. We spend way more money on defense and far less money on infrastructure, education, and social services than our industrialized peers.

Trump’s message to Make America Great Again was in part a promise to get government working again for those who felt government has ignored them.

The conversations that I’ve suggested that we need to have are motivated by the same interest. We need to get the government working better for those who aren’t getting healthcare benefits from their employers. We need to get the government working better to help working people who are not getting their fair share of the benefits of economic growth. We need to figure out how government can be made less responsive to the wealthy and more responsive to the majority of voters. We need to figure out what role government can play in making higher education more accessible to those who can’t currently afford it without going into debt.

None of these topics are specifically socialistic, but all of them can be organized under the larger banner of making government work better for the majority rather than the minority.

No one is suggesting that we dismantle our current representative democracy.

What is being suggested is that voters have a serious discussion about the way our government currently operates.

What is being suggested by some candidates who call themselves Democratic Socialists is that if they are elected, they will advocate for changes to the way government operates in some of the areas that I’ve listed. The ONLY way that these changes will occur is if a majority of voters agree that these changes make sense.

How different are these changes than the changes that outlawed child labor, the 40 hour work week, public schools, or public libraries?

IMHO, there is no difference.

So let’s try to have these needed conversations without the hysteria that the country is being overtaken by some evil force. It’s not, unless that evil force is the people who resist change and are willing to demonize even a discussion about change as a slippery slope into communism.

Are We There Yet?

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

via GIPHY

Let’s just do a quick recap.

Trump goes to the NATO conference.

He gives an interview to the Sun in which he blasts PM May, his host. Then he denies that he said it even though the Sun has the whole interview on tape. He blasts NATO, lies about how much of the burden the US is bearing, takes credit for spending increases that were underway before he was elected, and then suggests that the mutual defense pact that is at the heart of NATO may be dangerous. Then he claims that the meeting was wonderful and everyone is better off as a result

Trump has a summit with Putin.

He ignores the advice of his staff, the diplomatic corps, and the intelligence community.

He has a private 2 hour meeting where only interpreters are present. No details of that meeting have been made public by him. The Russian government has suggested some agreements were made regarding military deployments.

In the press conference following the meeting he says that he finds Putin more trustworthy than his own intelligence services regarding the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He also celebrates the Russian offer to allow the justice department to work with the Russian government to interview the 12 Russians recently indicted for election tampering. In exchange Russians asked to interview some people whom Putin considers political enemies including former Ambassador Michael McFaul and former US citizen Bill Browder.

He comes back to this country and is furious to discover that his Russian meeting isn’t being celebrated as the triumph that he thought it was. His own staff say that he is confuses Russian meddling in our election with collusion.  He feels that the whole thing is an effort to undermine the legitimacy of his election rather than a reasonable response to an attack by country that seeks to do us harm.  He immediately pushed Pompeo and Bolton to schedule a follow-up meeting in Washington with Putin which blindsided National Intelligence director Dan Coates among others.

Trump lies about what he said in Russia suggesting that changing one word would alter the whole fawning exhibition that he put on. When asked about the “incredible offer”, his press secretary could only say that Trump was planning to “work with his team”. It took almost a week for them to reject that offer.

The press asked Trump whether or not he believed that Russia was still attempting to disrupt our election process. This was after security officials had said that Russians have stepped up their hacking attempts. Trump said no. Later his press secretary made another clumsy attempt to rewrite history by suggesting that Trump was answering a different question than the one that the video shows he was clearly answering.

Former Trump staffer Michael Anton has been an advocate for populist policies in the Trump administration. He recently published a very controversial opinion piece in the Washington Post suggesting Trump could change the 14th amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship with an executive order. Even he couldn’t bring himself to defend the recent actions of this administration. He joined the chorus of conservative thought leaders encouraging all those who care about the future of this country to vote out the Republican party this fall.  They all suggest that this is the only viable strategy to curb a president whom appears to be a threat to our security.

Trump ran on the promise to improve relations with Russia. That begs the basic question, however, of whether or not Russia is interested in having improved relations and can be trusted to treat us as a friend rather than an enemy. Putin was asked that question during the Helsinki press conference. His response was that he was going to do whatever he feels is in the best interests of Russia and he would expect that Trump will act in the best interests of the United States. There has been no question that past presidents could be trusted to act in the best interests of the United States when they spoke with leaders from Russia or the USSR . In the opinion of security experts and experienced diplomats across the political spectrum, Trump’s actions and statements do not meet that standard.

Our intelligence services and the justice department have told us that Russia is actively engaged in attempts to destabilize our democracy. It is no longer a question of who or how. We know the people who were involved. We know what they did and we know why they did it. There is no question that all of this was orchestrated by Putin’s government. We also know that Putin continues to deny any responsibility and Trump has said he is willing to accept that denial.

Trump’s son admitted to being eager to obtain “dirt” on Clinton from Russians. He was only one of multiple members of the Trump campaign who had contacts with Russians during and after the campaign and then lied about it.

We know that a Russian hacking effort started the day after Trump publically asked Russians to try to locate “missing” Clinton emails.

We know that Russians shared stolen DNC information with the public which the Trump campaign then used. We also know that some of the stolen information was passed by Russians to Republicans who used it to win House seats.

We know that the Russians are continuing their efforts to disrupt our elections, but Republicans recently killed an effort to fund increased state level election security.

A Russian spy was recently arrested after infiltrating the NRA. The NRA was one of the biggest contributors to the Trump campaign. The FBI is currently investigating whether some of that money was illegally funneled from Russian sources.

The Trump administration recently changed campaign rules to make is virtually impossible to trace future political contribution like the NRA ones currently under investigation.

Trump partisans have recently been suggesting that even if it could be proved that the Russians were successful in helping get Trump elected, it was still better for the country than if Hillary Clinton had won.

Whether or not those efforts were successful, the question remains that we have a president who appears unwilling to take these risks seriously. Whether it is by design, incompetence, or dementia the result is the same. The president’s own behavior poses a risk to our country’s security.

What roles are Pompeo and Bolton playing in this strategy? If they support Trump’s strategy, then they should also be held accountable. If not, they should resign and share what they know with the American people so our representatives can decide how to respond.

The majority party in the Senate and House has a constitutional responsibility to act when the president betrays the interests of the country. While some leaders of the Republican Party have spoken out, the only action that has been taken so far has been a nonbinding resolution objecting to making any US citizens available for questioning by Russian authorities.

Partisans trotted out past actions by other administration suggesting that Trump’s actions are no worse in comparison. This is a common tactic suggesting that it is all just politics and media bias. A careful analysis of this argument, however, leads to a deeper question. If it is all just politics, then what would THIS president have to do in order to cause his supporters to take the warnings of conservative thought leaders seriously.

That’s why it is the responsibility of the leaders in the Republican Party to help Republicans understand the great risks we face as a country when our president doesn’t appear to be acting in the country’s best interests.  The fact that we can’t even have the discussion because Republican elected officials fear the repercussions of perceived disloyalty indicates the grave danger we may be facing.

This is also why an authoritarian leader is so dangerous in our democratic system. If the Republican Party took their constitutional responsibilities seriously and began a sincere debate regarding the president’s actions, Trump would likely abandon that party and try to convince his supporters that HE is the only one that matters. If he was successful in convincing enough people to support him, there would be no effective limit to his power. He could declare war. He could enlist the military to solidify his domestic power. He could fire everyone in the justice department that opposed him. He could begin jailing his critics as he has already suggested. He could appoint new judges whose loyalty is to him rather than the constitution.  This is the well worn path that many autocrats from Hitler to Pinochet have followed.

That’s why it is important to start the conversation now, before Trump takes any further steps to either erode our democracy or consolidate his power.

While all this is going on, Trump’s legal troubles are only getting worse. We now have tapes that prove that Trump lied about his relationship with Karen McDougal. It is highly likely that the National Enquirer’s payment to her to spike her story before the 2016 election will be found to be an illegal campaign contribution which Trump was aware of.  Trump’s response was to claim that “your favorite President” did nothing wrong.  How will he respond as Cohen continues to cooperate with the Mueller investigation?

It is time for this country to have an honest and open debate about whether or not this president is acting in the best interests of the country.

If not now, when?

Fleeing to Another Country

Saturday, July 7th, 2018

 

Fleeing to another country is the ultimate act of parental desperation.  Yet somehow those parents who are seeking asylum in this country are being cast as the villains in Trump’s twisted passion play.

Instead of embracing this situation with the compassion that we as a country normally exhibit when when people are in need, politics have overwhelmed the immigration discussion.

Here are a few facts in an effort to bring some reason to what otherwise seems dominated by emotion.

  1. Illegal immigration is at the lowest point in recent history. Border patrol apprehensions were 1.6M in 2000. Now they are a little over 250K. That’s a 6x reduction.  Even more important is for the last four years we have deported more people than entered the country illegally.  As a result, the number of illegal immigrants in this country has been going down.
  2. Our constitution and laws guarantee those seeking asylum the right to a fair hearing on their claims within a reasonable period of time.
  3. There are legal limits to the amount of time the government can hold a child.
  4. Numerous credible studies find that immigrants (regardless of status) reduce violent crime in the communities in which they settle. The numbers Trump uses have been widely debunked.
  5. Many of the mayors of border cities have said that illegal immigration is not currently a problem for them.

Here’s what has changed.

In past administrations, 90% of those seeking asylum presented proof of a “credible fear” of harm if they returned to their home country. Those people (mostly families) were released in the US while awaiting their hearing. In the current administration, the rates of release have dropped to single digits.  As the asylum seekers go up, those crossing in search of work has gone down.

The result is that a “zero tolerance” plan that may have been designed to discourage young single men from crossing the border to look for work,  has created a humanitarian disaster by traumatizing families and abusing children.

Most asylum seekers flee their country with their whole family. Those who have chosen to criticize the parents for putting their children at risk, clearly misunderstand the law AND are unwilling to admit that they would do the same thing if their family were similarly threatened.

The lawbreakers in this case are the Trump administration. They ignored asylum claims because it was politically inconvenient. Instead, they treated all those who cross the border as criminals. Once they committed to putting everyone who crossed the border in jail including those who presented themselves seeking asylum, they committed to family separation. It’s also because they wanted to use those separated children as leverage to coerce those in jail to drop their asylum claims in return for the promise of being reunited with their children.  Court documents indicate this promise was also a lie.

3000 children were separated from their parents by the time that Trump was forced to stop the practice. Courts found against the administration and ordered the Trump administration to quickly reunite children and their parents. The relevant child protection agencies finally had to admit what lawyers and immigrant activists had been saying from the beginning.  No records have been kept which can be used to reunite children with their parents.  For children under 5, the Trump administration has been forced to resort to DNA testing to even have a clue to who the parents might be.

The reason no records were kept was because the agencies charged with placing these children either with relatives or in suitable foster care were never setup to reunite parents with children.  They were setup during the Obama administration to deal with the flood of unaccompanied minors who started crossing the border in 2014.  While there were efforts to reunite these children with their parents, those parents were generally not being held in US jails awaiting an immigration trial.  No efforts were made prior to the implementation of the “zero tolerance” policy to add a layer of record keeping to the processes that were already in place.  These agencies and the Trump administration ignored all the warnings they received when they first announced their intentions to treat everyone as a criminal.

There are only two conclusions at this point regarding this policy. The first is that the Trump administration are incompetent liars. They put a policy in place with no understanding that it would separate so many children from their parents. They lied about their planning and ability to reunite those children with their parents. It was only after a judge intervened that the truth about the scale of this monstrous effort became clear.

The second conclusion is that the Trump administration are cynical liars. They knew that they were going to create a problem for which they had no solution, but they didn’t care. They felt that it was a controversy that would help motivate their base to rush to their defense when the truth came out about the abuse they had visited on innocent children. So they lied about virtually everything that they had done and then sat back as the media, those shocked by these actions, and the rest of the world reacted to what they were seeing.

Those who support Trump responded exactly as Trump had hoped. They blamed the media for bias. They repeated all Trump’s lies about secure borders, laws passed by Democrats, crime, and that old standard law and order. They blamed Democrats for criticizing something that Obama also did. They blamed the parents for putting their children in harm’s way. They blamed liberals for wanting an open border and lawlessness in return for increasing the ranks of illegal voters. They claimed it was all a conspiracy put up by the media and liberals to make Trump look bad.

The only person they didn’t hold accountable was the ONLY person who caused this calamity and the only person who eventually was forced to stop it – President Trump.

Objecting to this program is not advocating for open borders or lawlessness. Instead it is holding the current administration accountable for failing to abide by all the laws concerning immigration.

Those trying to defend these actions on the basis of politics, media bias, or parent-blaming should themselves be ashamed of what they have allowed themselves to become.