Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Liar’s Poker 2

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

The ink isn’t dry yet on whatever it was that Trump and Kim signed and we are already dealing with WILDLY divergent claims about what happened and why.

Before we start, however, I do want to acknowledge that at least in the short term, this is much better than threatening any kind of conflict. On the other hand the long term costs may be significant.

Let’s start with Trump.

He held a press conference yesterday to celebrate his supposed success. Here are some of lies that he told in the process.

“Chairman Kim and I just signed a joint statement which he reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula….We signed a very, very comprehensive document.”

Simply not true. Compared to past documents that were signed between NK and the US, this document has been described as “remarkably vague, leaving it open to interpretation and debate”.

Here’s just one example from the Wash Post.

The statement said North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) committed to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The phrase is not defined and “toward” is rather weak. In the past, North Korea viewed “denuclearization” to mean the United States removing the nuclear umbrella it provides to Japan and South Korea; there is no indication its definition has changed.

Contrast the Trump-Kim statement, for instance, with the Sept. 19, 2005, agreement signed by North Korea, the United States and four regional neighbors, which was much more specific:

“The DPRK committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards. The United States affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons.”

“We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money. Unless and until we see the future negotiations is not going along like it should. We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus. It is very provocative. … They are tremendously expensive. The amount of money we spend on that is incredible.”

Trump provided no facts to back up his claim. What we know is that SK pays 50% of the non-personnel costs to keep US troops in the region. Since the troops are not leaving, there is no cost savings there. Also this was primarily a training exercise. Since troops will still need to be trained it is unclear how training them some other way will save a lot of money over training them in the same way that we have trained them for decades. If he plans to simply skip the training, then you have to ask the question of how that will affect their readiness to respond in case they are needed.

“In one case, they took billions of dollars during the Clinton regime. Took billions of dollars and nothing happened.”

A big lie.

The Clinton NK deal centered on NK decommissioning a nuclear power plant that could also be used to create weapons grade plutonium. In return the US promised two things. We would supply heavy oil every year to replace the electricity that NK would get from the plant. We would also (as part of a consortium of nations) build NK different reactors that could supply electricity but couldn’t be used to make weapons grade material. This was the deal the George Bush blew up.

The US spent about $50M over the 8 years of the Clinton administration supplying fuel oil. The consortium spent $2.5B on the reactor project before the US withdrew. $2B of that was paid for by SK and Japan.

NONE of that money went to NK. It was spent on power plant contractors and oil producers. Also during that period of time, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed through regular inspections that NK did put all of the fuel rods from their reactor in cooling ponds and there was no evidence of any other enrichment activities. NK didn’t restart their program until Bush II pulled out of the deal and invaded Iraq.

“On the Iran deal, I think Iran is a different country now. I don’t think they are looking as much to the Mediterranean and so much as Syria like they were with total confidence.”

There is no evidence that Iraq has stopped supporting the insurgent groups that they have been supporting.

“I notice some of the people are saying the president has agreed to meet. He has given up so much. I gave up nothing.”

Presidential summits are usually reserved for the end of a negotiating process and are the reward for getting a deal done. Putting the summit at the front end of the process is a significant concession. Evidence is what NK is claiming was also promised.

“When you look at all of the things we got and when we got our hostages back, I did not pay $1.8 billion in cash like the hostages that came back from Iran which was a disgraceful situation.”

Another big lie which Trump has continued to tell even though it has been widely debunked.

The money ($1.7B) was paid by the Shah to the US for military equipment. Delivery on that equipment was suspended when the Shah was overthrown. But we kept the money. In parallel with the nuclear discussions were negotiations to return some hostages and give them their money back for purchases that we never delivered.

“[Iran was a] terrible deal. … I don’t think a deal could be softer. First of all, we’re not paying $150 billion.”

Another repeated lie.

The US IS NOT paying Iran. As Iran meets the various milestones of their agreement, billions of dollars of IRAN’s MONEY which had been frozen in foreign banks around the globe will become accessible to them. Most of that money was in payment for oil. Our Treasury Department estimates that the amount of money that will eventually flow back to Iran is $55B. Iran’s estimates are even lower than that ($32B).

“His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor.”

This is the most frightening thing that Trump has said regarding NK. NK is a gulag state with prison camps, forced labor, torture, and death for anyone who opposes KJU. Celebrating Kim’s regime sets the cause of freedom and democracy back decades.

Trump has already laid a solid foundation for being regarded as the worst president in history. He is now running the risk of going down in history as the Neville Chamberlain of his generation.

Here’s what the NK said they got from the deal.

“it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

We’re saying that this is going to be a rapid total and complete de-nuke process.

Rodong Sinmun, official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party — also claimed that the president pledged to suspend military drills with South Korea, and lift sanctions on the North.

Trump did suspend the military drills. He did not say he would be lifting sanctions. Though this WAS something that China recommended.

The KCNA report, as well as the joint statement after the summit, also mentioned that the president had offered North Korea unspecified security guarantees, which Pyongyang considers an indispensable precondition for nuclear disarmament.

Trump did not mention what security guarantees he had been offered.

Summary

The devil is always in the details and there just aren’t a lot of details. It is much better to be talking versus threatening to lob missiles at each other. This agreement is little more than an agreement to start working on an agreement, yet it is being promoted as a peace plan that will save the world from nuclear war.

The optics of this particular deal are that the meeting itself gave both Trump and Kim something that they wanted. It did little to advance the cause of a real and lasting peace. What is likely is that talks will continue for a LONG period of time. That will also benefit both parties. Kim will be able to pretty much continue what he has been doing without the threat of being overthrown. Trump will continue to live in his fantasy world about how much progress has been made and paint himself as an expert in solving intractable foreign relations problems.

KJU has not demonstrated that he has any interest in changing. Until he does, he is a dangerous person that we should not be treating as a friend. The risk is that KJU is a realist and fantasy rarely survives when confronted with reality.

The long term costs of accepting a NK as legitimate member of the international community without a commitment on their part to human rights reform is chilling. Apparently, a different set of rules applies to countries with nuclear capabilities. That lesson is not lost on the other dictators of the world.

Liar’s Poker

Monday, June 11th, 2018

via GIPHY

Here’s how the old joke goes.

Two liars walk into a bar. The first turns to the other and says, “Isn’t this the place that you always told me about?” The second says, “No”.

Liar’s Poker is a fun card game when you and your pals have tired of all of the other card games that require some math. This one is strictly bluffing. What makes it particularly entertaining is that the only person who can’t see your card is you. So everyone else knows immediately how successful you will end up being in your bluff. That’s how the game starts.

That’s pretty much the situation we have in the NK US summit in Singapore.

Both Trump and KJU are liars of monumental proportion. We don’t know whether that condition is the result of choice or disability, but the result is the same. Neither can be trusted with the neighbor’s cat, much less the fate of the free world.

So what happens when both of them are in the same room?

Liar’s Poker.

In this corner, the guy who distains preparation and thinks that he will have this situation figured out in the first minute. Here’s how the Wash Post described Trump.

Nothing compares to the boundless, unruffled confidence of someone who knows so little about a subject that he cannot even tell that what he is saying is wrong. This is why Trump has always been so successful on the international stage, or if he has not, he has not noticed.

In the other corner, the guy who killed his mentor (who happened to be his uncle) and arranged for his older half-brother to be poisoned when he learned of their plot to overthrow him. When his aunt complained, he poisoned her too. He killed another of his uncle’s supporters with a flame thrower. When people in his cabinet are caught nodding off at his meetings he kills them too. He machine gunned one of them and blew the other up in front of hundreds of onlookers with an anti-aircraft shell. He runs your garden variety dictatorship with corruption, torture, prisons, starvation, indoctrination, and censorship. The American prisoner, Otto Warmbier, whose only crime was attempting to smuggle propaganda posters out of the country; was beaten so frequently and severely that he died shortly after his release from NK because his brain ceased to function.

This is a guy who travels with his own toilet in order to prevent unfriendly countries from gaining intelligence about the state of his health. He also brought along his own bulletproof limo. He brought his own food to protect against poisoning. There were three identical jets in his flight from NK to thwart any assassination attempts. Does this sound like a guy ready to trust that the US is going to uphold their end of a deal?

Why are they meeting?

Trump says it’s to build a relationship with KJU.

Is this really the kind of guy we want a relationship with?

Also seems supremely ironic that we’re making extra effort to build a better relationship with a murderer while we are simultaneously burning down a relationship with our closest ally.

The reason the meeting is happening is that it works for both people.

Both like the optics.

In order to get the meeting, Trump had to agree that KJU was the legitimate head of the NK government and reject any previous calls for regime change. What did we get in return? KJU returned some US prisoners that NK had been illegally detaining and they blew up an old nuclear facility that they no longer were using.

Trump gets to strut on the international stage.

KJU demonstrates to the rest of the world that his nukes make him a player, regardless of his past history of despotism.

What’s worse, KJU has now written the script for every other dictator in the world that has aspirations for mutigenerational rule. Just get yourselves some nukes and you’ll be all set. And guess what, KJU knows just where you might be able to buy some.

I suspect that KJU has realized that the world has changed. These days, you CAN run a repressive dictatorial regime and the world is still willing to trade with you. Authoritarianism seems to be the new normal. KJU wants his share of the wealth that would come from opening up his new markets to the highest bidder.

Also if a deal gets made, it will certainly destabilize the Pacific Rim because it will involve some reduction in US presence there. That is something that Trump has already signaled he would be willing to do.

I suspect that we will get some symbolic agreement to formally end the war on the Korean peninsula. That won’t mean much unless KJU also agrees to dismantle both his nuclear weapons, his huge army, his stocks of biological weapons, and his large artillery guns.

More likely is just an agreement to keep talking. That way KJU doesn’t have to give anything up, but Trump can’t enforce anything either.

Any deal, however, won’t be worth the paper that it is written on.

That’s because it’s Liars Poker. It’s all for show. The winner will only have proven that they are the biggest liar.

At this point, it is a race that is hard to handicap.

Intent

Monday, June 4th, 2018

A great oldie from the Castaways is a good theme for this post.

As a follow-up to my previous post speculating on the effect of dishonest President, here’s a little more speculation on the difference between lying and simply being misinformed.

The difference in a word is intent.

The liar knows that they are lying.

It is also possible to spread lies unintentionally.

Here are a couple of examples of that.

People who are ill informed believe what they are saying is true, but that belief is based on inaccurate information.

People who are delusional believe that what they are saying is true, just like those who are ill informed. The difference is those who are suffering from delusion are unable to discern the difference between fact and fiction. That may be because of some illness or disability that is affecting their capacity to make rational judgments.

The way that you tell the difference between the two is how they react to learning that their previous statement isn’t supported by the facts. The ill-informed person will reconsider their statement based on new facts. The delusional person will continue lie because they are either unable or unwilling to accept the fact that what they are saying is not supported by the facts.

Within this context, let’s examine Trump’s behavior.

We start with the basic fact that he and his administration produce statements that are contradicted by the facts at a volume and rate unprecedented in the history of our country. He also repeats these statements long after the error of those statements has been widely documented. You can choose to argue around the margins of some of these claims but the shear volume of material makes it difficult to avoid the obvious. This administration can’t be trusted to tell the truth.

Here’s a link to discussion by CNN’s Brian Stelter where he goes through the challenge of parsing each of the statements that come from this administration.

While this discussion is interesting, I’m less concerned about how many of the President’s statements are distortions versus how many are lies. This is not a discussion of degree. This is a discussion of intent.

The second point before we go further in this discussion is something that Trump told Leslie Stahl. While this conversation was off the record, Trump has not disputed it. Since he disputes pretty much everything that is either printed or broadcast that he feels is negative, I think it safe to assume that Leslie Stahl quoted him accurately.

President Donald Trump told the veteran journalist Lesley Stahl of the CBS program “60 Minutes” that he bashes the press to “demean” and “discredit” reporters so that the public will not believe “negative stories” about him, Stahl said.

Why this is important is that it speaks to intent. Let’s parse this statement. First he says that his attacks on the trustworthiness of the press are intentional. Second, the attacks are in reaction to reporting that he perceives as negative. Third, he purposefully attempts to erode the trust of the public in those reporters that criticize him and the publications that publish those stories as punishment.

There was nothing in this statement about facts.

There was nothing in this statement about accountability.

“And he said: ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.'”

His only purpose is to punish those who write negative stories about him and make it more difficult for those who might consider writing negative stories about him the future.

It is possible that he believes that he is perfect. As a result, any criticism of his actions by definition had to be a malicious lie. If true, that in itself is evidence of a dangerous delusion which we will try to dig into. If not, he just doesn’t like being criticized and has determined that he is going to use the vast power of his office to punish and undermine anyone who criticizes him. That is authoritarianism.

The Phantom Spokesman
The facts in this case are pretty simple. Trump objected to a NYT article regarding the potential rescheduling of a US NK meeting. Specifically he was upset regarding this part of the article.

“a senior White House official told reporters that even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.”

Here’s what he tweeted.

The Failing @nytimes quotes “a senior White House official,” who doesn’t exist, as saying “even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.” WRONG AGAIN! Use real people, not phony sources.

The problem with all of this is that the “senior White House official” was in fact someone that the White House made available to a pool of reporters to provide background on the quickly changing situation in NK. The meeting, organized by the White House, included 50 reporters in the briefing room and another 200 on the phone.

According to the NYT, the White House was the one who declined to make the name of the person giving the briefing public. They were the ones who provided the term “senior White House official”.

If there was any question of whether this briefing took place, beyond the testimony of all of the journalists who participated, Politifact includes a tweet from a NY Magazine and Huffpost journalist who happened to record the first minute or so of the briefing by accident. Matthew Pottinger is introduced in the audio. He’s the one who provided the briefing. He is the NSC’s senior director for Asian affairs. So it makes sense that he would be someone the White House would trot out to talk about NK.

Trump was clearly wrong.

We don’t know whether he was misinformed, delusional, or malicious. Using our gauge, however, there has been no admission from the White House that Trump was unaware of the briefing and as a result was simply misinformed. That leaves delusional or malicious.

Here’s why those are the only choices. If he only became aware of the briefing AFTER his tweet and then chose NOT to retract that tweet, he has now become malicious. He is taking advantage of the situation to continue his attack on the press even though he KNOWS that it is based on false information.

If he WAS aware of the briefing BEFORE his tweet, then he is certainly being malicious and this is a lie. It is possible that the White House setup this briefing for the purpose of providing another opportunity for Trump to continue his attack on the press. Politifact called this statement Pants on Fire. Their worst rating.

The ONLY OTHER choice is that he is delusional which is also dangerous a possibility.

Revisionist History
When he first fired James Comey, Trump claimed that a memo by the deputy AG criticizing Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation was the reason. That excuse lasted about a day. Then Trump told Russians and later Lester Holt on national TV that he fired Comey because he was unwilling to drop his investigation of Michael Flynn. That claim was supported by Comey in his congressional testimony, his notes, and his book. It was also recently supported by memos that Deputy Director McCabe released.

Yet on May 31st, Trump tweeted.

Not that it matters but I never fired James Comey because of Russia! The Corrupt Mainstream Media loves to keep pushing that narrative, but they know it is not true!

Let’s go through our analysis again.

Could this be a case of being misinformed? Hardly. Trump himself has said on multiple occasions both in public and private that Comey’s Russian investigation figured into his decision to fire Comey. No information from any reliable source has disputed this claim.

That leaves us with malicious or delusional.

If it is malicious, it is the same argument as the previous situation. It is clearly a lie and the liar is simply following a strategy that he has already shared with the public. He will lie to undermine the credibility of the press in the minds of the public.

At the risk of putting a finer point on it, Trump’s own attorney Giuliani has admitted that they are actively engaged in a campaign to undermine the credibility of the Mueller investigation too. As a result, they continue to spread lies about that investigation as well.

Or he is delusional. He simply doesn’t remember what he has said in the past and has convinced himself that whatever has been written in the press about his past statements was a fabrication.

Conclusion
Hopefully you can appreciate the challenge that an untrustworthy executive branch presents to our democracy. If not, here’s a brief summary from my previous post.

We don’t know whether the President is intentional or delusional. What we do know is that he is abusing his power to discredit the press and the justice department. If that is the result of intention, as he suggested to Leslie Stahl, then he is a dangerous man following an authoritarian playbook. If it is delusion that is the result of some early stage dementia, he is also dangerous for different reasons. He really does believe what he is saying because his recollection of past and his grasp of the present is damaged. That makes him unreliable, unstable, and incapable of responsibly doing the job that he was elected to do.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Neither choice is good for democracy. But under normal circumstances, the other branches of government should check an executive who is abusing his power or is suffering from diminished mental capacity.

This has become a dangerous situation because the Republican controlled Congress and the leaders in the Republican party have been unwilling to provide a check on either a malicious or mentally ill President.

We had a similar situation in waning years of Reagan’s second term. You can see in the Iran Contra hearings that he was suffering from early stage Alzheimer’s disease. Even though Democrats had control of the House during both of Reagan’s terms, voters also turned the Senate over the Democrats in the last two years of Reagan’s second term because of concerns over his ability to govern.

What does that mean?
It means that when the President says that the NYT FALSELY reported information that came from a White House briefing, leaders in Congress tell the President privately and publicly that he is wrong and needs to set the record straight for the integrity of the office and the good of the country.

It means that when the President says that he NEVER said that the Russian investigation figured in his decision to fire Comey, that leaders in Congress tell the President privately and publicly that he DID in fact say exactly that in private and in public. As a result it is his responsibility for the good of the country and the integrity of the office to own his past statements rather than claim that they were falsely reported.

What are we going to do?
The only thing that we CAN do is to encourage everyone with a shred of conscience and patriotism to vote for a Democrat this next election cycle. It’s not because of policy or platform. It is also not because I think that Trump should be impeached. It’s because the ONLY way to prevent further damage to the fabric of our democracy is for that democracy to register a vote of no confidence in this president and the Republican Party that supports him. That vote will place control of at least one house of Congress in the hands of Democrats. It doesn’t matter whether or not they have enough votes to pass anything. It only matters that Democrats CAN be trusted to serve as a check on the executive branch until the country has a chance to vote for the next president.

I’ll close with Thomas Friedman who is not a liberal and very much a free marketer.

If I were writing the choice on a ballot, it would read: “Are you in favor of electing a majority of Democrats in the House and/or Senate to put a check on Trump’s power — when his own party demonstrably will not? Or are you in favor of shaking the dice for another two years of unfettered control of the House, the Senate and the White House by a man who wants to ignore Russia’s interference in our election; a man whose first thought every morning is, ‘What’s good for me, and can I get away with it?’; a man who shows no compunction about smearing any person or government institution that stands in his way; and a man who is backed by a party where the only members who’ll call him out are those retiring or dying?”

something more fundamental is at stake: It’s not what we do — it’s who we are, how we talk to one another, what we model to the world, how we respect our institutions and just how warped our society and government can get in only a few years from a president who lies every day, peddles conspiracy theories from the bully pulpit of the White House and dares to call our F.B.I. and Justice Department a “criminal deep state” for doing their job.

In the end, I don’t want to see Trump impeached, unless there is overwhelming evidence. I want to see, and I want the world to see, a majority of Americans vote to curtail his power for the next two years — not to push a specific agenda over his but because they want to protect America, its ideals and institutions, from him — until our next presidential election gives us a chance to end this cancer and to birth a new G.O.P. that promotes the best instincts of conservatives, not the worst, so Americans can again have two decent choices.

You Can’t Handle The Truth

Monday, May 21st, 2018

via GIPHY

For those who haven’t been paying attention, our President is a liar.

He isn’t just a garden variety political liar. Or an old-time used car salesman liar.

He is a liar of mammoth historically unprecedented proportions. He lies about small things (like the size of his inauguration crown). He lies about big things (nobody in this campaign had any contact with any Russians). He lies about everything in between. Very few days pass in this administration when he hasn’t lied about something.

I’ve been spending some time thinking about the impact of this level of presidential dishonesty on the country.

The challenge is that our democracy is based on a basic assumption that voters are well informed and make their decisions based on their own self-interest. One of the jobs of the president is to set the moral tone for the country and inform voters about what the government is doing and why.

But what happens to democracy when a significant number of voters are using false information to make their decision?

Turns out that I’m not the only one thinking about this problem.

Ex Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dedicated his whole graduation speech at VMI to this very topic.

I’m not a Tillerson fan, but we are both very much on the same page regarding our concerns about the impact of a dishonest President.

As I reflect upon the state of American democracy, I observe a growing crisis of ethics and integrity,

Here’s what I think that means.

Some of those who voted for Trump, did so because they wanted a change. They felt that government wasn’t working for them. They felt that the economy was rigged against them. They were anxious about their future because of industrial disruption and changing culture. They felt that their conservative and religious values were under attack. They felt disrespected by those who had more education, skills, and money. Trump ran a highly unconventional campaign which aligned itself with this deep feeling of alienation and anxiety.

To the surprise of everyone, Trump did win a narrow Electoral College victory and began the most tumultuous first year of any president in recent history.

The result is that Trump voters have either had to publically renounce their vote or double down on their support regardless of his actions. They had to choose to remain in the Trump tribe even though that might cost them friends and family, or they had to leave that tribe without some clear path to another group of like-minded people.

The challenge of remaining in the Trump tribe is that Trump is an unethical authoritarian figure who has been systematically dismantling the shared values that are at the foundation of our democracy.

That’s what Tillerson is talking about. One of those foundational values is the expectation that the President will both tell and the truth and be accountable when we discover that he didn’t.

Here’s how Tillerson described it.

When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America. If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society, and among our leaders in both the public and private sector, and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector, then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.

And

If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom.

And

This is the life of nondemocratic societies, comprised of people who are not free to seek the truth. … A responsibility of every American citizen to each other is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what the truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not, and begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness, and demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking; not hopeful outcomes made in shallow promises; but with a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges.

Here’s a quick review of some of the examples of this problem

Rigged Election
When it appeared the Trump would lose, he refused to commit to accepting the outcome of the election claiming that it was rigged for the benefit of his opponent. This in itself is a staggeringly reckless position. Then when he won the election, he blamed is loss of the popular vote on millions of fraudulent votes which artificially inflated popular vote totals of his opponent. He put together a panel to look for evidence. They couldn’t find anything even close to the scale that he claimed existed. Trump has never backed away from this claim that deeply undermines the confidence his supporters have in the election process.

Fraudulent elections are the stuff of what Tillerson called nondemocratic societies. We see them in places like Russia and just recently in Venezuela. Undermining the public trust in the reliability of the election system for the purposes of vanity is deeply troubling.

The truth is that that our election system is highly reliable because it is highly distributed. It is virtually impossible to rig a national election because thousands of independent voting boards across the country actually run them. The people on those boards are elected locally and are beyond the control of any one party or any administration.

Trump Stormy Giuliani Cohen
Facts are Stormy Daniels got paid $130K before the election in order to keep her from going public with her story about an affair with Trump. Whether or not her story regarding the affair is true, it’s the payoff that is the issue.

When that story came out, Trump and his administration denied that there was any affair or any payoff.

As more facts came out as the press dug into the details, the White House explanation changed from denying the whole thing to just denying the affair, but telling us that Cohen (Trump’s lawyer) did this all on his own using his own money and without Trump’s knowledge.

Then Giuliani (Trump’s new lawyer) said that Cohen WAS paid back in a method (retainer for services) that didn’t violate campaign laws.

Finally Trump files a financial disclosure form that lists the payment that he made Cohen last year from one of his personal accounts. This payment was not listed in the first financial disclosure form Trump filed last year.

In addition to the obvious questions regarding campaign finance reform violations, we have another question of why this payment was left of off the first financial disclosure form. Submitting false financial disclosure forms is also a crime.

Trump continues to deny that there was any affair but suggests that these sorts of payoffs are common for those with high public profiles. But neither he nor anyone in his administration including Giuliani have made any attempt to explain why the story went through so many twists and turns, why it isn’t a campaign finance violation, and why it wasn’t listed on the first financial disclosure form filled last year.

The result is that Trump appears not to hold himself or anyone else accountable for lying to the publc.

Witch hunt
Trump has yet to acknowledge that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is legitimate. Instead they have taken the position that this whole investigation is something that the Democrats made up because they lost an election. The problem with that position is that Trump and his party have all of the power. There is NOTHING that the Democrats can do to either cause, or continue an investigation on their own. The best example of this is the House Intelligence committee report. Fortunately the Senate did a more responsible job with pretty much the same evidence.

The Congressional investigations began because Jeff Sessions lied to Congress during his confirmation hearings about his contacts with Russians. That forced him to recuse himself from any ongoing investigation, so there was little that he can do to help Trump. That is also the fault of Trump and his administration in preparing Sessions to answer the Senate hearings.

As far as Mueller’s involvement, Trump has no one to blame but himself. He is the one who fired Comey, lied about why Comey was fired, then bragged to the Russians that he fired Comey BECAUSE of the Russian investigation. There was no choice but to hire a special prosecutor. That choice was supported by a majority of his own party.

The facts are that the Russians made a deliberate attempt to manipulate the election in favor of Trump. No one has been able to answer the question of why they chose to work on behalf of Trump.

Trump has made this all about himself, but it isn’t. The public deserves to know how and why the Russians were involved in attempting to disrupt the 2016 election. Anyone who knowingly helped the Russians should be held accountable. Any vulnerabilities in our systems should be identified and corrected. But that’s not how Trump has characterized this effort. Instead he paints it as a partisan personal attack. The result is that the public’s confidence in our election system, Justice Department, the FBI, and the Courts is being deliberately eroded for the sole purpose of political gain.

Obstruction of Justice
Trump fired Comey because he didn’t like the way the FBI was handling the Russian investigation – and then bragged about it to the Russians. Trump’s defense is that he was “fighting back”.

We’ve since learned that he asked the Post Office to raise Amazon’s rates because he doesn’t like the treatment he’s getting from Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post. Is that also “fighting back”?

We give president’s immense power. In return, we have high expectations. Presidents must obey the constitution and our laws. They must tell us the truth. The must not use their power against their political enemies. They must not use their power to enrich themselves, their family, or their associates at the expense of voters. They must not tolerate corruption in Executive Branch of government. They must exhaust every other option before starting a military conflict. They must treat our military with respect. The must treat out democratic norms with respect. They must treat the other branches of government with respect.

Tillerson said,

An essential tenet of a free society, a free people, is access to the truth

A government structure and a societal understanding that freedom to seek the truth is the very essence of freedom itself. … It is only by fierce defense of the truth and a common set of facts that we create the conditions for a democratic, free society, comprised of richly diverse peoples, that those free peoples can explore and find solutions to the very challenges confronting the complex society of free people.

When you call the press an “enemy of the people”, you are reducing access to the truth.

When you call the opposition party “traitors” because they didn’t stand enough during one of your speeches, you undermine the constitutional right of people to hold dissenting views.

The choice is being in the bubble or out. You can live a life committed to seeking truth and being honest. Or you can live a life constrained by conspiracy and ideology.

We are facing an important moment in the history of our country.

The choice is between a cult of personality where tribalism and fear allow an authoritarian to dictate the truth, or a reaffirmation of trust in democracy where the truth is not biased and isn’t owned by any party or ideology.

We’ve faced these moments in the past. We fought a civil war to answer the question of whether the principles on which our democracy was based could survive if some people were allowed to own other people. We went through a deep depression and a world war which questioned whether the free market and democracy were up to the challenges of the modern world. We went through a turbulent time during the Viet Nam War when the government lied, kids died, and the anti-war movement was born. Nixon ran a divisive campaign blaming the anti-war movement for social unrest and won in a landslide. Less than two years later he resigned in disgrace because he had abused his power.

We have had corrupt presidents in the past. We have had presidents who weren’t up to the job. We have never had a president who has used the power of his office to undermine the very system that elected him. My hope is that even as he seeks to dismantle the government in war against what Steve Bannon called the deep state, the press and the judiciary are holding firm and will ultimately uncover the truth of his actions.

What happens then?

That’s where the choice will ultimately be made. There are some whose support of Trump is part of their identity. They wear it as a rebel badge of courage. They feel all of this animosity proves that they were right all along about how the rich and powerful feel about them. They will never admit that he was wrong because that will mean they were wrong. It is a zero sum celebrity death match where only one will leave alive, and they have placed their bet on Donald Trump.

Authoritarianism in the defense of populism is NOT OK.

Our democracy works because we respect the outcomes of free and open elections.

My hope is that when the truth does come out, a majority of the country will recognize that this is not an “us versus them” conflict. This is an effort to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions. I hope a majority will appreciate that demanding decisions be made on the basis of facts is not a partisan position. It is a position that we should all support because ultimately we will all be better as a nation if we start from a shared set of facts.

In starkest terms here are a couple of warnings. The first is from Yale History Prof Tim Snyder. The second is from Hillary Clinton’s address to Yale Law School grads.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.

Attempting to erase the line between fact and fiction, truth and reality is a core feature of authoritarianism! The goal is to make us question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, even ourselves.

I hope that the next occupant of the White House will help heal the wounds and repair the damage that Trump is doing to both our government and our society.

This Is The End

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

This was the beginning of the end for the Nixon administration. One guy, Alexander Butterfield, decided to tell the truth that Nixon taped all of his Oval Office meetings. A year later Nixon resigned.

We are at that some point with the Trump administration. Though recent reports that Cohen could become a cooperative witness, does raise the possibility that Cohen could become the John Dean of this generation.

The reason is that reports coming out of Cohen investigation indicate three things.

1. Cohen lied about this trip to Prague
2. Cohen kept extensive notes of his conversations with Trump including tapes of phone conversations.
3. The investigation has been going on for months. Emails, phone conversations, maybe even meetings were all captured.

In order to answer the WHY this might be the beginning of the end, we have to back up a little bit.

The Trump organization isn’t really all that it is cracked up to be. It was a small organization run mostly by his two children and Michael Cohen. If President Trump has shown anything, it is that he is not a good manager. He let his kids do it under the watchful eye of his most loyal employee, Cohen.

If you take a look at the sorts of deals that they were cutting, it was with shady characters that couldn’t find more reputable partners. Those who have taken a look at those deals also suggest that the Trump organization sold their brand for far less than they could have received for giving legitimacy to developers that had none.

Here are a few examples.

In Azerbaijan, Trump was part of a hotel project that may have been a money laundering front for oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In the Republic of Georgia, Trump partnered with the group that is being investigated for the largest known bank-fraud/money-laundering case in history. In Indonesia, his development partner is up to his knees in dirty politics. His deals in Brazil are being investigated. The FBI is looking into his daughter’s role getting a Malaysian family who have already admitted to financial fraud to provide financial backing for a Vancouver Trump Hotel. The investigation into DTjr and Ivanka’s SoHo Trump Hotel was halted with no notice. His Taj Mahal Atlanta Casino was fined a record amount for money laundering.

As Adam Davidson pointed out in his New Yorker article.

It was not a company that built value over decades, accumulating assets and leveraging wealth. It burned through whatever good will and brand value it established as quickly as possible, then moved on to the next scheme.

The reason why we are near the end is that each of these shady business deals has its own set of risks and questions. But the questions boil down to the same set. How much did Trump and his kids know about the criminal backgrounds of their partners? Did that criminality have any effect on the price they were charging for the Trump “endorsement”? Cohen is the person who knows the answers. Those answers will determine who else besides Cohen goes to jail and for how long.

Some of the other things that the FBI are investigating include a business loan where Cohen used his three taxi companies as collateral. The license to operate a taxi in NY used to be a lucrative business. Cohen’s licenses at one time were worth over $1M. Their value has plummeted because of ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Cohen’s licenses may now only be worth $300,000. So there is interest in what he claimed they were worth when he took out the loan and what he used the loan money for.

They are also concerns about money laundering and campaign-finance violations.

The bottom line is that the authorized search had such a high bar for approval, that most informed observers believe that the NY prosecutor may already have had sufficient evidence to convict at least Cohen. There is also speculation that at least some of the justification for seizing the evidence is that FBI surveillance picked up discussion that the evidence was going to be destroyed.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think that Trump will be indicted on a charge of collusion. First of all, it’s just hard to prove. Second, it is just doesn’t fit with the Trump organization culture. A complex plan with a long-term uncertain payoff. Many reports suggest that Trump wasn’t convinced himself that he could win the election. Why would he ask Russians for help unless there was something else in it for him? The fact that the FBI now says that Cohen DID go to Prague supports a key element of the Steele Dossier. It also indicates that there was a deal in the works, or else Cohen would not have been involved.

That’s what we are going to find out.

With all this as background, it is easy to see why Trump said Mueller would be crossing a red line if he started investigating Trump’s businesses. Mueller not only crossed that line. He obliterated it. Even worse, he turned the business investigation over to the NY federal prosecutor. So even if Trump manages to fire Mueller and Congress does nothing in response, this investigation will continue. Even if Trump manages to dissolve Mueller’s Grand Jury, this investigation will continue. Even if Trump pardon’s Cohen, the information that the Feds already have on Cohen can likely become the basis for charges against Trump’s kids.

It may take a long time for all of this information to become public. We give the President a lot of executive power. If he chooses to use it, and Congress doesn’t hold him accountable, he can fight a very effective rear guard action. Eventually, however, all of this information will come out and Trump will finally be revealed for who he really is – a cheat, a liar, and a thief.

Authoritarianism and Christian Nationalism

Monday, March 26th, 2018

via GIPHY

One of the lingering questions after this year’s election is why are White Evangelicals continuing to support a guy whose personal life is the exact opposite of everything that they preach?

On the surface, it seems hypocritical.

A recent paper by three sociologists suggests some deeper understanding of what is going on. The paper is based on data gathered by the highly regarded Baylor Religion Survey. The most recent version of this survey was taken shortly after the 2016 election.

Here’s what the authors found.

Voters’ religious tenets aren’t actually what’s behind Trump support. While values voters are still concerned about personal morality, their real priority is Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is the view that the United States should be a Christian nation. If the United States ever to become a Christian nation in the way that white Evangelicals understand that term, the United States would become a theocracy like Iran where many of the things that Trump has done in his personal life would be illegal.  Abortion would be illegal.  Gay marriage would be illegal.  Heterosexuality would be the only sanctioned relationship and even that would have to be chaste until marriage.  Those who support Christian nationalism believe that this is the only way that this country can be “saved”.  That is consistent with the Evangelical view that Christianity is the only way anyone can be “saved”.

The results of this belief is a whole cottage industry of revisionist historians who have made a lot of money claiming that the founders of this country intended it to be a Christian nation.  In their telling liberal politicians perverted that vision and high jacked the constitution in the process.  If you are interested in more detail on that, please reference some earlier posts – Zombie Politics, Crazy Train, and Dear Mr. Lincoln.

In the words of the authors:

Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.

What are some of the tenants of this ideology?

Here’s a list taken from the questions that were used to identify this group

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values”
  • “The federal government should not enforce strict separation of church and state”
  • “The federal government should allow the display of (Christian) religious symbols in public spaces”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan”
  • “The federal government should allow (Christian) prayer in public schools”

These goals suggest a deep authoritarian strain. Here’s why.

Christian Nation
The issue here isn’t that the US isn’t a Christian nation. It is overwhelmingly Christian. The issue is that the demographics of the nation are changing. White Evangelical Christians feel as though their way of life is under attack because of these changes. It is also because in Evangelical terms, “Christian” is a much narrower definition than someone who believes the Jesus was the Christ – the Son of God.

It is the whole basket of catch phrases that we have heard from Republican Party for decades – family values, high moral standards, respect, discipline, self-reliance, personal responsibility, putting God back into government, traditional families, religious freedom, law and order, etc.

Finally, and most importantly, the constitution prohibits the government from giving preference to any religion. What they seek is a strong leader who is willing to ignore the limits of the constitution and enforce laws protecting and supporting “Christian Values”. Christian Nationalists see Donald Trump as that leader because of his appeal to both authoritarianism and white Christian Nationalism.

Conservatism, Race, Islamophobia, and Christian Nationalism
The authors were careful to gin out all other factors regarding Christian nationalism and support for Trump. Here’s what they found when looking at voting data.

Overall the strongest predictors of Trump voting were the usual suspects of political identity and race, followed closely by Islamophobia and Christian nationalism.

and

Ironically, Christian nationalism is focused on preserving a perceived Christian identity for America irrespective of the means by which such a project would be achieved.

This last observation is the most telling and explains why White Evangelicals continue to be Trump’s biggest supporters. It’s because when it comes down to a choice between personal values and a politician who supports Christian nationalism, they choose Christian nationalism overwhelmingly.

This end justifying the means is what moves us in the dangerous direction of authoritarianism. Steve Bannon understood this when he joined the Trump campaign. Trump has used a formula of dark, hyper-nationalism, racialized identitarian ideology dressed in the language of Christianity, contempt for the US Constitution, and the promise to use force if necessary; to take over the GOP. What he criticized as political correctness was really a whole set of norms that we have built up in our democracy to outline common ground.  Instead he declared war on the whole concept of common ground.  He placed himself on the side of Christian nationalism and declared that all those opposed to him were also opposed to Christian nationalism.  That included not only Democrats, but the whole Republican establishment.  That was also Bannon’s pitch at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit.

Christian Nationalism and White Supremacists are uniting in their support of Trump as a strong leader to make substantive changes to the country. It doesn’t matter that those changes are unconstitutional. It doesn’t matter that those changes may disenfranchise non-Christians, people of color, and women. All that matters is that the end is achieved. Christian Nationalists want laws that reflect their religion and distrust democracy to achieve that goal. White Supremacists want a nation where the color of your skin determines whether or not you are welcome. They also distrust democracy’s ability to deliver on their goal.  They both agree that people of color (particularly Muslims) are frightening.  They both agree that if dismantling our democracy can achieve their goals, they will support whomever is willing to do that work regardless of what other agenda that person might have.

This is how democracies die.

How Democracies Die

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

This video from VOX is good background on authoritarianism. As the video points out, Trump didn’t create authoritarian voters. Voters with authoritarian views have been part of the fabric of our politics for quite a while. Trump was the first national candidate of a mainstream party to appeal directly to these voters for their support.

Democracies don’t die in a conflict.

They die from rot. They die because people stop defending them. They die out of fear. They die because people are more concerned about their own personal gain rather than what is best for the country. They die because the unwritten norms of behavior that serve as guardrails against self-serving behavior are destroyed by those who claim winning and ideology are more important than the common good.

I just finished reading a book on the subject (How Democracies Die) by two Harvard political science professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They make a very convincing case for serious concern.

The big risk to democracies is authoritarianism. It’s what most worried our founding fathers. How do you give everyone the vote and protect the country from the majority voting democracy out of existence? Many claim that the original sin of our democracy was slavery, but that’s not exactly right. The original sin of our democracy was restricting the right to vote to white male property owners because a majority of those framing the constitution didn’t trust anyone else.

Democracies don’t explicitly exclude authoritarians from the electoral process. As a result, once authoritarians get into office, they can use the considerable power we invest in the executive branch to dismantle the democracy that just elected them. This blueprint has been followed in other parts of the world with remarkable effectiveness.

Once this process starts, it is very difficult to stop for two reasons. The first is the popular support that elected the authoritarian to begin with. The second is that the authoritarian leader uses their popular support to systematically eliminate all opposition.

Putin’s Russia is a perfect example.

Russians have made a devil’s bargain. They know who Putin is. They have accepted authoritarian rule in exchange for economic progress and a return to superpower status. In the process they have sacrificed whatever rights and freedoms they may have had in earlier more democratic governments.

Here’s the authoritarian check list.

1. Rejecting or showing weak commitment to democratic rules.
2. Denying the legitimacy of political opponents.
3. Encouraging or tolerating violence.
4. A readiness to stifle or limit civil liberties of opponents, including media.

Putin definitely qualifies.

So does Trump.

Rejecting or showing weak commitment to democratic rules
Trump claimed that the 2016 election was rigged against him. The only outcome he would accept is his victory. Even after he won, he claimed that massive election fraud prevented him from winning the popular vote. Republicans never challenged him on this claim even after the election commission he created failed to find any evidence of the massive voter fraud he claimed occurred.

There was a similar outcome to his claim that the previous administration had bugged his office and spied on his campaign without cause. Subsequent investigations could find no evidence that his office was bugged. Some in his campaign got caught up in FISA investigations into Russian interference in the election, but there has been no evidence that there was any directive from the Obama administration to gather information on Trump campaign in order to help elect Hillary Clinton. In fact, the evidence was just the opposite. The Obama administration was reluctant to act on all that it knew about Russian involvement BECAUSE they did not want to effect the outcome of the election. The Obama administration was demonstrating a commitment to the rules controlling our democracy (don’t use executive power to interfere in elections) at the same time as Trump was ignoring them.

Denying the legitimacy of political opponents
On the campaign trail, he said Hillary Clinton was a criminal and promised to lock her and President Obama up if he was elected. He called Democrats who refused to stand and applaud his State of the Union address traitors.

Encouraging or tolerating violence
Many of his rallies were violent. He encouraged his followers to beat up those who protested, offering to pay their legal bills. He refused to condemn Nazi and white supremacist violence.

A readiness to stifle or limit civil liberties of opponents, including media
He called the media that printed stories that he didn’t like, “enemies of the people”. He threated to weaken the libel laws protecting the media. He perverted the term “fake news” to reflect news stories that he disagrees with. Under oath, his communications director admitted that she lied to the press and the public in support of the Trump administration.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. There are many more examples in each category. The purpose is NOT to outline a list of Trump’s failures. The purpose is to point out that NO OTHER PRESIDENT IN HISTORY has satisfied all four criteria. Even Nixon bowed to court orders to turn over his tapes. He had hopes that he could survive an impeachment vote in the Senate. When Goldwater told him that he didn’t have the votes, he resigned.

In 1972, Nixon won with 60% of the popular vote and 97% of the electoral vote. He won on the promise to bring law and order back to the country. McGovern only won Massachusetts. Two years later Nixon resigned. On the day of his resignation he still had the support of 24% of voters.

In the past, the two major parties served as an effective defense against authoritarian candidates getting the nomination. Republicans failed in their role and then failed again when leaders in that party failed to take a stand opposing Trump after he won the nomination.

Some think that constitutional checks and balances will prevent a demagogue like Trump from solidifying his power. Those checks and balances, however, depend on a set of strong democratic norms which govern the behavior of both parties.

The two norms the professors mention are mutual toleration and forbearance.

Mutual Toleration
Both parties agree that the other party not only has a right to exist but that the party out of power will likely gain it back at some point in the future. By exercising restraint, the party in power hopes to benefit from restraint when they fall out of power.

Forbearance
Both parties refrain from demonizing the other party because at some point they know that they will be in the position to be demonized.

The most recent example of failure to respect these norms was the Republicans holding an open supreme court seat hostage for the first time in history and then also for the first time in history changing senate rules to allow their candidate to win senate approval with a simple majority vote.

The Bork nomination was an example of Democrats abusing their power in a similar circumstance.

Now we are witness to a President in open warfare with the FBI, trying to stop the investigation of an independent counsel, and continuing to lie on daily basis about virtually everything.

Under Trump, governing has become a zero sum game where there are only winners and losers. There is no longer interest in the common good. The only interest is in what Trump feels makes him look good. As a result, the country lurches from scandal to scandal, conflict to conflict, without any direction or any clear overarching principle to guide us.

What happens when Trump fires Mueller?

Are there REALLY enough Republicans willing to oppose that move? Some have said they would oppose that move, but legislation intended to protect Mueller has not made any significant progress in Congress.

What if the Mueller investigation uncovers information that implicates Trump in some criminal or treasonous way?

Are there REALLY enough Republicans willing to do their constitutional duty and hold Trump accountable? According to a recent Pew poll, 50% of Republicans are not confident that the Mueller investigation is fair. Only 23% of Democrats share that view.

If Trump isn’t held accountable, how will he respond to all those who attempted to bring him down? He believes that this conflict is good for him. I don’t doubt that he would fire whomever he feels he needs to fire to preserve his power.

If the Mueller is able to build a case against Trump, he will likely bring charges using the unindicted co-conspirator language that is reserved for the President. That because there are constitutional questions about whether a Grand Jury can indict a sitting President. The Courts have generally deferred to the constitutional process of impeachment rather than take up the case against a sitting President themselves. If Congress fails to impeach Trump based on those charges, I don’t doubt that Trump will retaliate with both the FBI and the IRS in the same ways that Nixon did with those on his enemies list.

What happens then?

You want to know how democracies die.

This is how.

Waffle House Economy

Tuesday, March 6th, 2018

The difference between fantasy and reality is that in the real world real stuff actually happens to real people.  If you live in a fantasy world, you have lost touch with reality.  You have not, however, escaped reality.  Reality will, sooner or later, assert itself.  At that point, you will suffer a rude awakening.

Our country is poised to experience several rude awakenings as we discover that our President and those supporting him have lost touch with reality.

Russians
We now know that the Russians have been and are continuing an effort to disrupt our democracy.  We know the who, the why, and even the where.  Some of those who worked on disrupting the 2016 election, have since come forward to provide detailed accounts of what they did and how they did it.  Facebook and twitter have identified the accounts that they used.  Mueller has the evidence and indicted some of the perpetrators.  Our intelligence community has documented the hacking that occurred to voter records and electronic voting machines.  Our intelligence community continues to sound the alarm that these attacks are expanding and becoming more sophisticated.

Our President and the party that supports him live in the fantasy world that the whole Russian effort is a partisan witch hunt intended to discredit Trump’s election.  They attempt to deflect blame to Clinton, the Democrats, or the media.  The REALITY is that concerted efforts by the President and his supporters to discredit the media left us vulnerable to Russian spreading REAL fake news.  Conservatives were eager to spread whatever stories they read that confirmed their fantasies about Clinton and the Democrats even though they were fantasies.

The reality is that we have been attacked in no less a real way than we were attacked on 9/11.  Why hasn’t our President and our government responded?

According to Tom Friedman, there can only be two answers.  Either Trump is simply delusional or the Russians DO have something on him that he does not want others to know.  Neither choice bodes well for the country.

Tax Cuts and Government Spending and Economic Growth
We have never provided this large a stimulus to an economy that was this robust.  We are in completely new territory as far as what is going to happen.  The tax cut and the associated budget bill killed off the “Trump” stock market rally because of concerns about the Fed raising interest rates to combat inflation.  More concerning is this massive reduction in government revenues is happening at the same time as costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are rising because of the baby boomer retirement.  The fantasy is that the tax cuts will pay for themselves, but even the Trump budget shows they don’t believe it.  The claim is that we will see 3% growth as far as the eye can see.  The reality is that there aren’t enough workers to support that sort of growth.  The worker situation grows worse each day that we actively discourage immigrants from coming here to work.  The second fantasy is that corporations will invest the tax cut in higher wages.  Wages are going up, but it’s because unemployment is so low.  Corporations have spent $6B in bonuses and wage increases.  They have spent $170B in stock buy backs.  That’s reality.

Tariffs
This is a terrible idea.  It based in Trump’s fantasy that trade is some sort of mano-a-mano wrestling match.  It’s not.  Even if other countries don’t retaliate, which the very likely will.  It will be a net looser for the economy.  Just like the tax cuts, nobody has tried to impose tariffs at time of very low unemployment.  That’s because the whole design of the tariff is to use price to replace imported products and services with domestic products and services.  The problem is that we do not have the employees to ramp up domestic production of much of anything.  How are steel producers and aluminum producers going to expand, if they can’t find skilled workers?  The result instead will be more pressure on wages AND more pressure on prices.  What’s that spell? INFLATION.  What happens when inflation goes up?  The dollar goes up.  What happens when the dollar goes up? Exports go down.  That’s why tariffs went out with the cold war.  The news suggests that Trump’s about face on tariffs was driven more by his frustration with his administration than a careful analysis of the subject.

So where does this leave us?

SNL said it best.  We hired a businessman to run the economy, and he’s running it like a Waffle House at 2AM.

The State of the Union is Fantastical

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

via GIPHY

President Trump’s first state of the union speech was just as remarkable as his first year in office.

David Graham from the Atlantic had a good summary.

The reality is somewhat less rosy: By a wide margin, Americans believe that the nation is on the wrong track, and the president’s approval rating is historically low. Trump has struggled to push his agenda through Congress, just squeaking a big tax cut in at the end of last year. That presents three challenges for the president, and his speechwriters: How do you boast about victories you haven’t had? How do you present new proposals when many of the old ones are still on the table? And how do you handle the Russia story that seems to consume most of politics each week?

The answer from Trump was simply to conjure his own reality, outlining a set of some accomplishments, delivering the standard list of policy proposals, and ignoring the Russia probe altogether.

This president is not often good at hiding his emotions, but he did so Tuesday. As a result, not only was the picture he painted of America removed from reality, but Trump himself was also practically unrecognizable. The speech somehow managed to render Trump the one thing he almost never is: boring.

One has to go no further than his claims of economic success to reveal the gulf between reality and fantasy that exists in the White House.

Since the election, we have created 2.4 million new jobs, including 200,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone.

Only 1.8M new jobs were created since he took office according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Instead of citing the real figure, he chose to cite a figure that included three months where jobs could only be attributed to Obama.  It’s also because during his first full year in office, the 1.8M new jobs was the slowest job growth since 2010. The reason is that employers are having a hard time finding workers, which is what he also could have said.  Instead he left the impression that this was an extraordinary accomplishment.

Of those jobs created during his time in office, 184,000 were in manufacturing which would also been a good number compared to the 16,000 jobs lost in 2016. But that doesn’t mean that manufacturing is in good shape. Total manufacturing employment is still down by more than 1M workers compared to 2007.

After years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages.

Wages did grow from 2014 through the third quarter of 2017, but the rate of growth has slowed and in Q4 wage growth actually declined (from $353/wk to $345/wk)  So why didn’t he mention that?

African American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded, and Hispanic American unemployment has also reached the lowest levels in history.

During Trump’s campaign, he claimed that more than half of African American youth were unemployed. The real number was 19.2%. African American unemployment fell from a high of 16.8% in 2010 to 7.7% last January. Since then it has fallen to 6.8%.  Why didn’t he just say that?  It is still really good news, and given his past campaign exaggerations, would have indicted a new respect for the facts.

Unemployment claims have hit a 45-year low.

That statement was true on January 13th. Last week the number went up. That’s still a good number, but it is only a six week low, not a 45-year one.  Why not simply say that they hit an 45-year low two weeks ago.

The stock market has smashed one record after another, gaining $8 trillion in value. That is great news for Americans’ 401(k), retirement, pension and college savings accounts.

Only about 50 percent of Americans own stocks directly or through retirement funds, according to a Gallup survey. And most of the value in stocks is held by the top 10 percent. And the bull market in the US is actually weaker than market gains in the rest of the world. So the truth is that the US markets are just part of a larger global trend, and if anything Trump has discouraged investment in US markets rather than encouraged it.

BTW, the markets fell more than 1% on Monday as money moved from stocks to bonds. This is generally an indication that at least some traders think that this market may be near its peak. Almost $360B is stock market wealth (using Trumps calculus) disappeared as a result.

Just as I promised the American people from this podium 11 months ago, we enacted the biggest tax cuts and reform in American history.

This claim is just wrong and has been widely debunked. Depending on how you count, it ranks 8th in terms of size. Both of Obama’s tax cuts were larger.

Our massive tax cuts provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small businesses

More wrong. This tax plan benefits large corporations and wealthy people. According to Moody’s, three-quarters of the $1.1T in individual cuts go to people earning more than $200K/year in taxable income. Those represent only 5% of all taxpayers. The same report warns that this plan will have negative consequences on federal and local government finances.

We slashed the business tax rate from 35 percent all the way down to 21 percent, so American companies can compete and win against anyone in the world. These changes alone are estimated to increase average family income by more than $4,000.

More voodoo math. As FactCheck.org points out, if every household averaged a $4,000 increase in income, that would add up to $500B/year. Corporate taxes collected last year only totaled $300B. Even if all corporate taxes were eliminated and all of that money flowed directly into individual income, it still couldn’t add up to the increase Trump claimed.

The real numbers, according to the Tax Policy Center, are closer to $1,610. That’s $135/mo. Most people are smart enough to realize that they are not the ones getting a big break.

Since we passed tax cuts, roughly 3 million workers have already gotten tax cut bonuses — many of them thousands of dollars per worker.

Less than 2.5% of the work force have received one-time bonuses.  That’s why the remaining 97.5% know that this wasn’t a good deal for them.

Since we passed tax cuts … Apple has just announced it plans to invest a total of $350 billion in America, and hire another 20,000 workers.

Apple DID give workers bonuses because of the tax plan. They do plan to repatriate $38B in overseas profit as a result of the plan. They did not say that their $350B five-year investment plan was the result of the tax plan. The capital part of that plan seems in line with past levels of annual investment.

The foundation of REAL economic growth is productivity. Productivity requires a large percentage of the population to be employed in doing things that make money. It is very difficult to increase productivity when you have a large growing retirement population. The only way to do that is to add as many new workers through immigration as you have retiring. You can’t simultaneously support lowering immigration, increasing retirement, and have a high growth economy. Japan already proved that it can’t be done.

The other end of productivity is businesses investing in new plants, new technologies, etc. That’s how you increase productivity without adding new workers. That investment is also NOT currently happening because businesses are able to make money without making those investments.

Another gauge of a healthy economy is the saving rate. Savings rates go up when people have more disposable income. The rate of savings is going down, which suggests that households are strapped for cash or they are drunk on spending. Neither is good. The first suggests that the cost of living is rising more rapidly than wages. The second suggests that any boost that the economy may be getting from consumer spending is short lived.

Finally, the government has a role in economic development too. That’s to stimulate the growth of new emerging industries. Trump is failing there too. That’s because of the stake in the ground that Trump planted regarding coal. First he has failed to keep the promise that he made to coal workers. Second his wrongheaded tariffs on solar panels is costing jobs in a rapidly growing sector of the industry while failing to make any difference in the coal industry which is in decline.

The problem with short term incentives like tax breaks and repatriation is that they are candy rather than substance. Bringing $38B of profits back to this country from Apple will make it appear as if something got made in this country. Unless Apple invests that money in making more stuff in the United States than it may have otherwise made, it will not be reflected in any increase in either jobs or productivity. If Apple just uses the money to buy back their stock and increase their dividends, any economic boost will be short lived and perhaps make the next stock market correction that much more severe.

When the President bases policy on false beliefs, the country will pay the price.

Adding $1.5T in additional debt now is a REALLY bad idea according to the IMF.

The I.M.F. warned against assuming that the current economic cycle would go on indefinitely, however, particularly given the towering debt of the United States and other countries. By borrowing so much, the government can crowd out other investors and drive up interest rates. At the same time, giant deficits crank up pressure to cut government spending on health care and housing, policing and schools. With less money to go around, spending dries up and consumer demand — the economy’s primary engine — slows.

This was the SAME warning that Republicans used during the Recession. It turned out not to be true, because that’s when the government SHOULD be spending money to get the economy going again. That deficit spending worked. The economy recovered. And NOW is the time to increase taxes in order to make investments in the future industries that will support the next generation of businesses and employment. That’s because a growing economy can support a higher tax rate.

Cranking down on immigration at a time of low unemployment and baby boomer retirement is another REALLY bad idea.

A single immigrant can bring in unlimited numbers of distant relatives

This was Trump’s big lie from his speech.  Politifact labeled is Mostly False.

We should be welcoming immigrants AND their families. New family formation is the bedrock of the consumer economy. Immigrants who bring in family members provide their own support system for those immigrants.  That means they will have places to live, jobs, churches, mosques, and people like them who will help them make the peaceful transition to becoming citizens. This family process that includes a path to citizenship is why we don’t have the same problems with domestic terrorism that we’ve seen in England, Germany, and France.  There is no good reason to scrape the family immigration system.

Trading citizenship for 1.8M Dreamers for cutting LEGAL immigration in half (from $2.1M to $1M) is a bad deal for the economy.  Dreamers are already here and already have jobs.  Reducing the ability for immigrants to bring in their family members will just reduce the number of legal immigrants.  I have no problem making our immigration system more merit-based, but the number of legal immigrants should be set by the number of unfilled jobs in the economy.  Right now that number is 6M.  What is wrong with expanding the H1B program which is merit and employer based until the number of unfilled jobs is reduced?

The only reason we can’t do that is because Trump has told the country that immigrants are dangerous.  He did that again last night.  Canada on the other hand has built their economy on merit-based immigration and has already told the world that if the US doesn’t want you, you are welcome to come to Canada where their political culture realizes the economic value of skilled immigrant workers.

The REAL problem we are dealing with in this country is the disconnect between reality and fantasy.

Until we have a government willing to tell the truth, we are going to struggle for any sort of reliable and unified plan for growth and stability.

What Would Jesus Do?

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

via GIPHY

This is such a common phrase that it now shows up on jewelry, t-shirts, license plates, and coffee mugs.

It is supposed to associate whomever is wearing or using or driving the WWJD thing with a certain Christian mindset. That mindset is summarized in these verses from Philippians 1: 1-5

If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.  Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.  Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

In other words, model your daily behavior on your best understanding of how Jesus would have behaved if He was in the same situation.

This post is based on a blog post I read from John Pavlovitz. He is calling a specific set of Christians out because he believes that they are hypocrites. He bases his comments on his belief that it is his responsibility as an evangelical Christian to act in the same way he felt Jesus would act. He definitely has a point of view that some may not agree with, but I think his questions regarding the politics of White Evangelicals are valid.

First the facts.

Obama won 26% of the White Evangelical vote in 2008 and 21% in 2012. 81% of White Evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. That in itself is just politics. White Evangelicals were originally mobilized by Jimmy Carter. Reagan and the Republican Party quickly recruited them, however, and they have been reliable conservative voters ever since.

This post raises questions about the differences between their political positions and their principles.

During his term in office, Obama was relentless demonized by conservative TV, media, and on the Internet. They claimed he was a Muslim. The claimed he wasn’t a natural born citizen. Scriptures were used to malign him and associate him with the worst racial stereotypes.

Through it all he didn’t retaliate. He remained a faithful husband, a good father, with no hint of personal or political scandal. He tried to work with those that opposed him, even after they said that their highest priority was to prevent his re-election. According to the NYT, he told 18 lies during his term in office.

Here’s how John Pavlovitz characterized the treatment Obama received from White Evangelicals.

And through it all, White Evangelicals—you never once suggested that God placed him where he was,
you never publicly offered prayers for him and his family,
you never welcomed him to your Christian Universities,
you never gave him the benefit of the doubt in any instance,
you never spoke of offering him forgiveness or mercy,
your evangelists never publicly thanked God for his leadership,
your pastors never took to the pulpit to offer solidarity with him,
you never made any effort to affirm his humanity or show the love of Jesus to him in any quantifiable measure.

You violently opposed him at every single turn—without offering a single ounce of the grace you claim as the heart of your faith tradition. You jettisoned Jesus as you dispensed damnation on him.

Now we have Trump. He is an admitted adulterer. In at least one case, it was allegedly with a porn star. He is working on his third marriage. He uses language in public that would not be accepted in any Evangelical Church or home. He bragged about committing sexual assault. He supported an accused pedophile because he said he needed another Republican in the Senate. He supported White Supremacists and Neo-Nazi’s. He has lied about his charitable contributions. In fact according to the NYT, he broke all recent records by telling 103 lies during his first year in office. Through all of it he is a braggart, unrepentant, and unapologetic.

Here’s how John Pavlovitz describes the treatment Trump has received from White Evangelicals.

And the change in you is unmistakable. It has been an astonishing conversion to behold: a being born again.

With him, you suddenly find religion.
With him, you’re now willing to offer full absolution.
With him, all is forgiven without repentance or admission.
With him you’re suddenly able to see some invisible, deeply buried heart.
With him, sin has become unimportant, compassion no longer a requirement.
With him, you see only Providence.

I think the question is valid.

What is the reason for this vastly different treatment between these two very different men? You would think that in terms of personal values, Obama’s life is MUCH closer to the lives that Evangelicals try to lead. At least on the surface, Trump seems to represent most everything in his personal live that Evangelics despise. But that doesn’t seem to have counted for much.

There are only a couple of possible answers.

If Obama committed any great sin in the eyes of White Evangelicals, it was his support of woman’s right to choose regarding abortion. If that one reason can justify standing quietly on the sidelines while an otherwise good man is vilified, then I would question how abortion became more important than helping the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the sick, the stranger, and the imprisoned. But that’s just me.

It also sounds a lot like the parable Jesus told of the Good Samaritan. All of the self-righteous men ignored the wounded person by the side of the road. It was only the Samaritan, the group that was vilified by the Jews, who did the right thing.

But it still raises the following question. If the “sin” of being pro-choice justified silence, does a pro-life stand excuse all other behavior? If so, then we are truly in Pharisee territory.

Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Matt:23:24-25

Or maybe it was because Obama was a liberal Democrat, or perhaps because he had dark skin.

If so, then John Pavlovitz is correct is pointing out what other people see in the White Evangelical’s slavish support of Trump.

They see that pigmentation and party are your sole deities.
They see that you aren’t interested in perpetuating the love of God or emulating the heart of Jesus.
They see that you aren’t burdened to love the least, or to be agents of compassion, or to care for your Muslim, gay, African, female, or poor neighbors as yourself.
They see that all you’re really interested in doing, is making a God in your own ivory image and demanding that the world bow down to it.
They recognize this all about white, Republican Jesus—not dark-skinned Jesus of Nazareth.

What would Jesus say about this?

I’m not qualified to say. I believe the Bible reserves judgement for God, so I try not to judge others. Besides, I’ve got way too much to do working out my own issues in hopes of my own salvation.

But for those whose faith includes a commitment to share the good word with others, here’s my own little bit of evangelizing. I suggest that White Evangelicals take these questions to heart. Ponder them. Chew on them. They may be bitter at first, but God had to knock Paul off his horse and blind him in order to get his attention.  Paul thought he WAS doing the work of God in killing Christians.  It was only after his conversion that he discovered his TRUE calling – spreading the good news of the Christ.  It was Paul, and not the other disciples, who saw that the good news of the Christ was meant for everyone, not just Jews.  It is certainly possible that, just like with Paul, Trump is the God’s way of forcing White Evangelicals to choose between politics and principle.  The blessing that lies beyond that choice could be healing the political and cultural divides that currently seem so insurmountable.

Above all, I encourage White Evangelicals to sincerely pray for guidance. It is possible that it isn’t all about abortion. There are many evangelical leaders who have already come to that conclusion. If it’s true that Jesus called us to a broader commitment to be like him in many ways, I would hate to face the judgement that Evangelicals preach about with opposition to abortion as my only good deed.

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Matt 25:31-43