The Thinker

Looking past the midterms, part two

(A continuation of sorts of this March post.)

Currently 43 Republican members of the House have announced that they will not be seeking reelection this November. This includes most famously the current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan who says he is leaving to spend more time with his family. Three Republican senators are also not seeking reelection too. The Atlantic is keeping a tally with all the details. In the House, Republicans currently hold a 237/193 majority with five seats vacant.

A party needs 218 seats to control the House. If you do the math it’s not hard to see why Ryan is throwing in the towel. If Republicans lose 20 seats in November they are in the minority. In the last wave election for Democrats in 2006, Democrats picked up 31 seats in the House and 5 in the Senate, giving them control of Congress. If anything, 2018 promises to be even more of a wave election for Democrats than 2006 was. Thus many so-called principled Republicans are deciding to hither thee elsewhere rather than face the wrath of voters and the sting of likely defeat.

The math is so brutal that Republican insiders are now assuming they will lose the House. Their focus is now on retaining the Senate. Currently there are 51 Republicans and 47 Democrats in the Senate, but the 2 Independents caucus with the Democrats, effectively meaning if the Republicans lose two seats they have lost that chamber too. If they lose just one seat we have a tied Senate where power will effectively be shared, with Vice President Pence breaking ties. Four Republican senators (Corker TN, Flake AZ, Hatch UT and Cochran MS) are retiring. The only Democrat retiring already did: Al Franken (WI) due to sexual harassment complaints.

31 Senate seats are up this time, 23 Democratic and 8 Republican. 11 are battleground states. In wave election years though it’s unlikely a Republican will pick off an incumbent Democratic seat. The most vulnerable Democratic seats are in Montana (Tester), North Dakota (Heitkamp), Missouri (McCaskill) and West Virginia (Manchin). The most vulnerable Republican seats are Nevada (Heller) and surprisingly Arizona (Flake, retiring). In fact, Nevada is likely to pick a Democrat. Tennessee might surprise by picking a Democrat, even though it is considered a safe Republican state.

Most likely Republicans won’t be able to flip more than two of these contested states. In a wave election year though most likely they won’t pick up any. If Democrats flip Nevada and Arizona, that should do it. Flake is retiring in part because he is not sufficiently supportive of Trump, which means that the Arizona Republican nominee will pander to Trump’s base, disenfranchising the nominee from Arizona independents. Nevada has been trending blue for a long time as is Arizona. But there may be surprises. Democrats may flip Ted Cruz’s seat in Texas.

When the dust clears Democrats have better than even odds of having recaptured Congress. Democrats recapturing the House is now a given. Most likely Democrats will control the Senate with 51 to 53 votes.

Of course much can change between now and November 6, but most likely any changes will help Democrats. Ryan’s retirement is symptomatic of a deeply depressed Republican bench that seems to understand they are going to get their asses whipped. Trump’s increasingly bizarre behavior will continue to accelerate. There will likely be reports from Bob Mueller long before the election that will further put Republicans on the defensive.

So much for my latest election analysis, still some six months out. Imagine though that Democrats do regain control of Congress. What will that mean with this dynamic? Clearly Democrats will be able to hold impeachment hearings. Since only a simple majority is needed for impeachment, impeaching Trump will only be a matter of time. The real action would then move to the Senate, which would have to convict Trump to remove him. 67 votes would be needed to remove Trump from office, so Democrats would need probably no more than 16 Republicans to vote to convict. Would a third of Republican senators vote against a president of their own party? It seems unlikely, since the U.S. Senate did not convict Bill Clinton in 1999.

Conviction though would be a political act. Republican senators will have to look at the Mueller report, the wreckage of the election and their party and determine whether they are better off without Trump. Given Trump’s lying, his histrionic nature and his open grifting, any party that hopes to rebrand itself in a more positive fashion should realize that Trump is their deadweight and they are better off without him than with him. Without him, Mike Pence is president. Pence is deeply conservative but at least he is sane. He is unlikely to have a stream of hidden affairs to be unearthed. He’s unlikely to launch a nuclear war. And his positions align with those of most Republican senators, at least those who will be left.

Trump expects loyalty from everyone but never gives any in return. He is burning a lot of bridges, as evidenced by how little of his agenda has made it through Congress. So most likely it won’t be too hard to find enough Republican votes in the Senate to throw Trump out of office. There will still be the Cult of Trump that will form an important part of the party’s base, but as Trump continues to devolve it’s likely his supporters will grow less passionate. They may also realize that Trump has proved a failure at governing and that Pence is a much more stable alternative.

Remembering my own reaction after Trump won the presidential election it’s not hard to imagine Republicans will receive their own wake up call on November 6. The most likely message from voters is that they want politicians who will govern again and this includes reaching out to a vanishing center and compromising. They will want politicians that will fix problems, not make them worse. The Tea Party brand is dying and 2018 should pretty much kill that part of the party.

Let’s hope we survive to vote on November 6.

 
The Thinker

Greed is a terrible sickness

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, the corporate raider Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) informed us that greed is good. His character fit in well with the Reagan years, because this was essentially the mantra of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. If anything since then the Republican Party has become even more extreme on the issue. Not only is greed good, but also by implication being poor is bad and a personal failure. Poor people are just not trying hard enough, which they view as something of a crime.

According to Merriam-Webster, greed is “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed”. “Than is needed” is of course somewhat relative. However, if you have or take more in the way of resources than you need almost by definition someone else gets less than they might otherwise have. Since Reagan was elected, the only constant is that more of our wealth has gone to the richest while the income for the rest of us has at best stayed the same but has generally declined.

It’s clear to me that greed is a terrible sickness, and not something that should be celebrated. It sure appears that those who are truly greedy are never satisfied. They always want more. Since they believe greed is good, they look on greediness as a kind of religion. Witness our president and most of his cabinet of very wealthy people and who seem to have no scruples. Government is for pillaging, which is why last year they gave themselves a tax cut and threw a few scraps out to the rest of us. Their reputed rationale was that tax cuts would pay for themselves, something that has never proven true. I don’t for a minute believe that they believe it. What they do believe is that if you have power then you should use it to enrich yourself, so they did, worsening income inequality and greatly adding to our national debt to line their pockets now.

Greed is bad and should be treated as a mental illness. A truly greedy person should be seeing psychologists to figure out what is the matter with them. There is something very wrong with our president, who clearly subscribes to the religion of greed. To see how greed perturbs someone, look at our EPA secretary Scott Pruitt. The “greed is good” mantra has him so captivated that he has no problem turning the EPA into the Environmental Destruction Agency. Entitlement is assumed. He has a round-the-clock staff of thirty to protect him, flies first class everywhere and built a soundproof booth in his office.

Being wealthy does not necessarily mean that you are greedy. Berkshire Hathaway head Warren Buffet seems to be one of these types: a billionaire many times over who otherwise lives modestly. To be greedy you need to flaunt it and be consumed by the need to become ever richer, and not always through entirely fair means. At its core, greed denies reality. It suggests for example that you will never die because it’s hard to actually spend and enjoy all the money you accumulate. I suspect Warren Buffet enjoys investing because he finds it personally interesting.

Then there are people like the Koch Brothers who are consumed by greed, so much so that they have no problem if their industries create their profits by foisting their pollution costs on the rest of us. That’s how much greed has perturbed their thinking. It’s not like there is another planet nearby that eight billion of us can go and populate. They either can’t see this reality or more likely simply don’t care. These people are very sick people indeed.

For much of my life, I pursued wealth. I wasn’t a fanatic about it but I wanted to be comfortable, particularly in retirement. It was a long and arduous struggle that I eventually achieved. To me, it meant feeling confident that I could maintain my standard of living until I died, that I would never go hungry or be impoverished again and that I no longer had to work to survive. It’s true that much of my wealth is dependent upon a well-earned federal pension, and I still don’t entirely trust that the oligarchy won’t take it away at some point to feed their insatiable greed. But I feel confident enough about it that I don’t worry about it anymore. In any event, I have a comfortable portfolio and plenty of cash assets set aside to handle future expenses. We have no mortgage payment nipping at our heels every month anymore, no college expenses to juggle and little in the way of electricity bills with the solar panels on our roof.

It’s reached the point where our relative wealth feels sort of surreal. What I don’t feel at all is the need to obsessively acquire more wealth. I feel no particular pull to buy a fancy car, for example. I take no particular pleasure in driving and see it as a chore. In January we took a 19-day vacation, 16 days of it on a cruise ship. It was nice but I don’t particularly feel the need for a more lavish vacation or more days dining on gourmet food in Holland America’s dining room. My needs and wants are pretty much satisfied. My financial anxieties are calmed. At my stage of life, people like me should simply enjoy life.

Today the things that give me the most satisfaction are the most prosaic: daily “constitutionals” around my community, doing the crossword puzzle in the paper, having a cat nearby that I can reach out and pet and having a spouse who I love and who loves me. And yet despite the ups and downs in the stock market, our portfolio keeps increasing. To the extent I still work through teaching and consulting (both very part time) it’s for enjoyment and to spread my knowledge to those who might benefit from it. This income is mostly saved, but occasionally it buys some nice stuff. We are planning a New York City trip next and hope to see some popular Broadway shows.

All these rich people could simply enjoy their wealth if they wanted to, rather than suffer from the psychosis that they must ruthlessly acquire more of it through pretty much any means available. A lot of our spare income now is given away to charitable causes. I feel not just a need but also a natural desire to share our wealth. I try to put it toward causes that I believe are productive uses. It goes to places like the Nature Conservancy, so it can buy up natural space for future generations. It goes to Planned Parenthood, so women in particular can make choices over their own bodies and get health care services at affordable prices. It goes to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, so fewer of the people I see holding cardboard signs at intersections have to go hungry. It goes to a local spouse abuse shelter, so mostly women can have a softer landing after from suffering domestic abuse. And increasingly a lot of it goes to arguably non-charitable causes: campaigns of people who seem to be sincere progressives who will work to reduce misery and straighten out the major problems with our politics most of which were caused by the greed is good falsehood.

For the truly greedy, to quote Mr. T., “I pity the fools”. They might want to read some Charles Dickens, particularly A Christmas Carol. Whether overtly or innocently, what they are doing to our planet and the rest of us is intensively evil.

 
The Thinker

The verdict

Eight years ago I was called as a juror, sat for a trial then learned over lunch that the defendant had copped a plea. This week I was called to be a juror again. Seventeen were called for a criminal trial, eight of us were empaneled and six of us got to render verdicts. I was one of the latter. I should have expected as much given that my juror number was 3. If hoping to get out of jury duty trial, hope they give you a larger number.

Aside from paying taxes and obeying laws, citizens have only two duties. Voting is optional, but jury duty is not. So I drove to the courthouse in Belchertown, Massachusetts (a really bad name for a town, BTW) and got predictably lost for a while, arriving about ten minutes late. Fortunately, I was not in trouble or the last to arrive. They forced us to watch Today on NBC and I tried to tune it out with a crossword puzzle.

The case involved someone I realized later I probably had met tangentially. Not only does she live in my little village, she also does a lot of ordering at the local pet food store we frequent. At age twenty-nine, she looked ten years younger and no more than one hundred pounds soaking wet. She was charged with negligent driving and driving under the influence. She had participated in a charity golf event for her employer, played eighteen holes of bad golf, retired to the clubhouse and consumed (she testified) about twelve ounces of an IPA. Sometime afterward she drove home, but probably missed the turnoff to the shortest way home on her GPS and ended up in South Amherst. There at a set of double roundabouts she flew over the circle, destroyed a tire and ended up on the side of the road. She said approaching the roundabout she had glanced down at her GPS to understand how to navigate the two roundabouts and that bad timing caused her accident.

A lady watched the whole thing and she and her husband tried to offer assistance. She testified that the defendant seemed shocked and/or drunk. She was not very coherent when she tried to talk to them, but was proactive enough to have her registration and drivers license ready for the officer who showed up some minutes later. She was given a sobriety test by being asked to walk a straight line, one foot in front of the other. After one step she leaned on her car for support. She attempted the test three times and was eventually arrested and taken to the police station. She never got a Breathalyzer test.

So it was up to the six of us who actually made it to deliberations to pass judgment on her. The woman who watched the accident testified, as did the arresting officer. Her husband who was also a witness was not called, nor was a second officer also there. The judge solemnly instructed us that we either had to find her guilty or not guilty, and we had to be unanimous.

In one respect Massachusetts law is good, since we were a jury of eight instead of the traditional twelve, and two were alternates who got to sit in a nearby room and twiddle their thumbs. Even with six of us in a room it looked like we might end up as a hung jury. However, no one really wanted to come back on Friday to deliberate some more because it didn’t look like we would have a change of mind.

At least it was easy to convict her of the first charge of negligent driving. Not only was there a witness, but also the defendant admitted it in her testimony. The driving under the influence charge though divided the jury. The standard for convicting someone was that the evidence had to be beyond a reasonable doubt. And we all had different ideas about what the criteria was for beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge was not too helpful either. When we filed back into the courtroom for more instructions he basically told us that we had to figure it out for ourselves and we had to be unanimous.

So when we filed back into the jury room we at least agreed that the beyond a reasonable doubt is an unreasonable standard. But it is useful in forcing us to compromise our principles, which is probably the point. Where was the reasonable doubt here? The officer testified her eyes were bloodshot and there was the smell of alcohol on her breath. Then there were those repeated sobriety tests. Was this beyond reasonable doubt? In my case, at age 61, I wasn’t sure I could pass the test completely sober.

It was to a couple jurors, but not to the rest of us. Would one beer affect one skinny woman that much? Maybe it was half a dozen beers. It’s hard to say how tanked she was because of the lack of a Breathalyzer test. Why was one not done? We weren’t allowed to ask any questions, simply judge on the evidence presented. And we were explicitly told we had to use our own life experiences as a guide.

I remembered a day thirty-two years earlier when my wife and I arrived with painting supplies to paint the townhouse we had just purchased. We opened the door to find the ceilings down and water flowing out the door. It was probably the most traumatic thing that had happened to either of up to that time, made more traumatic because we only had a verbal okay on our insurance policy. We were in shock for hours. That was my life experience. Could something like this have happened to this woman, who had only recently bought the relatively new Acura for cash? Maybe she was mentally ill too? Was she rattled because of something like that, or from having one too many IPAs at the club?

Who could say? When pressed I agreed that she was likely under the influence. But could I convict her for this opinion when I felt it did not meet the standard of a reasonable doubt? We all agreed we would have liked to hear from the witness’s husband and the second officer. But the prosecution didn’t think it was necessary for their case.

Ultimately, four of us felt there was reasonable doubt about her condition and two did not. The two who felt she was guilty compromised their reasonable doubt standard. And that was the justice we ended up delivering: not guilty. The forewoman said she could agree because she was at least found guilty of negligent driving.

The defendant cried when the verdict was read, whether from joy or sorrow is hard to say. It was more likely from joy because her license had been suspended. Because of our verdict she was allowed to drive again. I felt we delivered imperfect justice. On that no one in the jury room disagreed. We hope that if she was drunk at the time, she learned her lesson. We’ll never know.

I learned that despite all the legal mumbo jumbo and the sonorous words from the judge, our jury system is imperfect. I suspect the amicable judge presiding over the case silently agreed.

 
The Thinker

The perfect storm

In case you hadn’t noticed, Donald Trump suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, a side effect of his Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I’d say give the man some Ritalin but in many ways his ADD simply helps speed up his unraveling. The more I watch the man, the more convinced I am that he subconsciously wants to fail. He’s in way over his head. He can’t acknowledge it to himself so he spends a lot of time doing stupid stuff.

Stupid stuff like spending Easter tweeting that there will be no DACA deal and he’s going to blow up NAFTA if he doesn’t get his border wall. This is likely to blow over rather than blow up because when you have ADD by definition you have a short attention span. So it’s likely a week from now he’ll have totally forgotten he tweeted this stuff. In any event, if you are hearing a chorus of “ho hums” coming from Capitol Hill, it’s because they’ve seen stuff like this so many times that it’s becoming rote. Even the press is starting to move these presidential tweets below the fold. Hopefully they’ll move to page A10 pretty soon.

It’s obvious Trump is not a politician, which is presumably what his supporters like about him. When he tries to schmooze it comes across as wholly inauthentic. In any case, politicians quickly learn if you want to get stuff done you have to do a lot of schmoozing. That’s because power in the government is decentralized and not even Trump can change that, although he is trying. For now at least if he wants to get something major done, it has to be done through Congress, not executive actions.

It’s likely when you were growing up if your parents scolded you it did not enamor you toward them. It works the same way in Congress, which is why so little of Trump’s agenda has gotten passed despite having a Republican congress. In some ways Congress is digging in their heels. They’ve pretty much blocked Trump’s outreach to Russia and passed veto-proof legislation to tighten Russian sanctions. Congress has trumped Trump, and even Trump has seen the writing on the wall by expelling sixty Russian diplomats who were likely spies.

Trump obviously didn’t read the FY18 spending bill even though congressional leaders met with him to get his agreement on it before moving it through Congress. When it was sent for his signature he rebelled then reluctantly gave in. The legislation funds election system reforms, targets Russian hacking of our elections and hits many of the items on the Democratic Party’s wish list, such as major increases in funds for domestic programs. The CDC is allowed to research the effects of guns on public health again. Who would have thought with Republicans supposedly controlling government?

In any event, if Trump actually makes a stand on his border wall, the proper thing to do is to stand up to him. That’s what you do with bullies and arguably Congress is doing a pretty good job of it already. Granted, there are some exceptions. The Republican congress finds it in their interest to give the White House a pass on its general corruption. Mostly the Congressional leadership is well aware of his ADD and uses strategies like the spending bill to work around him.

Trump can renegotiate NAFTA and take many actions, but he can’t cancel it. His leverage on DACA is mainly of his own choosing. It won’t take for too many DACA recipients to actually be deported before he learns how counterproductive it will be. And these measures certainly won’t spur Congress to build a border wall, or convince Mexico to pay for it, mainly because he can’t really block these imports from Mexico by himself. He has to convince Congress to change the law. As long as he is yelling at Congress, it ain’t happening.

All this is leading toward the midterms on November 6, which is likely to return Democrats to the majority in Congress. It will still be a tough hurdle for Democrats, given the extreme gerrymandering nationwide and further voter suppression efforts. But Trump is doing pretty much everything possible to empower Democrats back into the majority. Just today I read that China is imposing its own tariffs against selective U.S. imports in response to recent U.S. tariffs that Trump authorized. This dropped the DJIA some 450 more points, putting all stock indexes in the negatives for the year. We are a hare’s breath away from correction territory. The downturn is almost exclusively due to the tariffs Trump has put in place, which will have the obvious result of restraining trade and thus reducing economic growth. These Chinese tariffs are specifically chosen to hurt his base of support. European and other countries are starting to do likewise. Not much can convince Republicans to vote for Democrats, but policies that hit them in their own pocketbook can bleed off a number of wavering supporters.

Underlying all this chaos is the epic turnover among White House staff. Trump can’t even find a new lawyer, as his brand has become toxic. Administration is missing from the so-called Trump administration. What his bullying has caused is an epic reaction, causing people to appreciate democracy and sound governance. It is spurring people (mostly women) to run for office. By some estimates, the recent March for our Lives was the biggest march ever in Washington. Trump has engaged young people in particular against him. This hastens not just his disempowerment, but also the end of Republican governance.

Leading perhaps to the perfect storm on November 6. With no sign that Trump will change tactics and every indication that he will double-double down, it’s not too hard a prediction to make.

 
The Thinker

The sound … and power … of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

From “The Sound of Silence”
Lyrics by Paul Simon
Simon & Garfunkel
1964

Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 of her classmates, may have delivered the most moving speech ever made simply by saying nothing. Make no mistake; her “speech” was devastatingly effective. People are moved by emotion. The sight of a woman silently weeping might make this “speech” the most effective ever delivered.

Which calls for a repeat of my 2013 post on why gun control is inevitable. Emma Gonzalez yesterday did much to advance the date. Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

Why are we surprised by the consequences of our Wild West tech economy?

Whoops. Well it looks like Facebook has some egg on its face, and its share price is off ten percent or so last time I looked. The problem? Facebook unwisely let Cambridge Analytica create a Facebook app. If you played their app, it gave them access not just to you, but all your friends Facebook accounts.

Cambridge Analytica claimed their app was for academic/research purposes, which is how they got the permission. As we now know they copied tons of data about you and your friends: about fifty million of us American, or about one in six of us. They mined the data to learn about our passions, biases and foibles. They thought they could persuade people to vote for Donald Trump or against Hillary Clinton from what they learned about you and your friends from the app. Although Hillary Clinton carried the popular vote by three million ballots, Trump won the Electoral College thanks to 50,000 or so votes in three key states.

We’ll probably never know if this alone swung the election. It probably didn’t hurt. But what really helped Trump were the many state laws mostly in red states that narrowed the voter pool to favor those who tended to be white. It’s curious that those laws, all perfectly legal, don’t earn our scorn while this breach of Facebook’s rules has everyone up in arms all of a sudden.

Anyhow, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is really sorry and has taken some steps that might prevent this in the future. Meanwhile, all this information about us is outside of Facebook somewhere, maybe still on Cambridge Analytica servers, maybe sold to other parties. This is data about us that we voluntarily and probably mindlessly gave away to Facebook is of course just a drop in the buckets of hacks and misappropriation of data that happens every day. It’s not going to get better. In fact, it’s going to get worse. Recently passed rules repealing net neutrality basically allow ISPs like Comcast to sell our use and search patterns on the Internet to any interested parties. This is not by accident; it’s by design. It’s part of Trump’s MAGA plan.

So Zuckerberg is sorry but I think what he’s most sorry about is the nine billion dollars of his personal wealth that got wiped out. It may stay wiped out until he can earn our trust again. The hashtag #deletefacebook is trending. The Washington Post is happy to show you how to get off Facebook. But really, what did you expect? This is one more foreseeable consequence of our wild, wild, “anything goes” Internet. It also demonstrates why you might want to rethink you love of Libertarianism. We aided and abetted this misuse because we like free stuff and Facebook is free, or sure appears free. And besides, you can spend hours a day playing their Farmville app … for free!

Implicit in this fiasco is the expectation from some that Facebook (a) was capable of ensuring that apps would not be misused and (b) cared about the problem. Facebook though is really an extended startup company. It succeeded by being fast and being agile, and that meant breaking the rules or in cases like these setting the expectation that there were no rules.

It’s hardly alone. Many of these successful startups and lots of the unsuccessful ones operate the same way. Gaining market share, traction, usage, page hits and metadata about people like you and me is their true capital. At some point though you become big enough where you can monetize this information. Facebook was something of a laggard in this area. Twitter is too, and just recently reported its first profitable quarter. Facebook though may be unique because it excels in micro-targeting. If you need to reach someone between 40 and 45 in towns of less than 50,000 people who prefer their toast dark brown and support LGBTQ rights, I’m betting they could find these people and you could throw an ad at them. That’s how much they know about us because we tell them somewhat indirectly in our many posts to our Facebook friends, likes and shares. Why wouldn’t Cambridge Analytica use this platform, particularly when they likely suspected the agile, entrepreneurial culture at Facebook would make this easy? Did they worry that Facebook would catch on to their scheme? Maybe. Did they care about the consequences if they did? Nah. Their mission would be accomplished long before Facebook got around to figuring it out, which they never did. You can’t be both agile and careful.

What do Facebook and these other companies care about? It’s not too hard to figure out: making gobs of money. With no government oversight and a Congress and administration that encourage tech companies to be entrepreneurial, all they saw were green lights. Maybe some executives worried a bit that this strategy would ultimately be counterproductive. Clearly there weren’t enough of them for it to matter and I doubt the size of their stock options depended on how careful they were to look out for the company’s long term interests.

The honest Facebook reaction should have been, “Why on earth should you care? We’re a profit-making company, like every other company on the planet. You knew this when you signed up. Besides, we give away our platform for free. We allow you to easily connect with extended friends you would otherwise probably quickly forget about.” Unless the heavy hand of government gives them a reason to care, they probably will just go through the motions. They are not motivated by your concerns or concerns about how governments like Russia use their platform against our election laws. They are motivated to minimize damage like this when it occurs so as to cut the company’s losses.

If you want to hit them where it hurts then #deletefacebook. I use Facebook but I don’t particularly like it. What we really need is the equivalent of the World Wide Web in a social network. The WWW was created to run on top of the structure of the Internet. It’s free and open source. If we must have social networks, we need an open source social network of peer-to-peer social media servers where you carefully control information about yourself and who it goes to. I’d like to think that’s in our future.

But this Facebook brouhaha and the many other “oops” like this in our tech economy shows the downsides of these proprietary platforms. Facebook should hope for regulation. That way maybe it will eventually survive. With these significant and predictable problems users may simply walk away when they realize the dubious virtues of platforms like Facebook really aren’t worth their largely hidden costs. Here’s hoping.

 
The Thinker

The Manchurian President

Six years back I opined about liberals I loathed, which says a lot for a liberal. I still loath two of them (Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann) but I’ve changed my mind on Cenk Uygur. I might not have, but retirement has given me a lot more free time, so I’ve been streaming The Young Turks on my Roku device.

Uygur is as abrasive as ever but he’s also down to earth and funny. Also, in the more than a decade since he’s been promoting his brand mostly via YouTube, he’s toned things down a bit and upped his game. The Young Turks now have their own professional studio in Culver City, California, have attracted a lot more followers, have plenty of supporters on Patreon and perhaps most importantly have become more entertaining. Uygur by the way is hardly young, although he is Turkish American. He’s 47 years old. But he’s attracted some interesting talent and now has something of a cohost, Ana Kasparian. Kasparian is at least young (31) but does not qualify as a Turkish American. She’s born in the USA but her parents are from Armenia, which is not too far from Turkey.

So the cheesy sets are gone and the talent, which was not usually buttoned down in suit and tie, now at least wear sport coats. More to the point, they are an interesting and persuasive group of progressives. They are a sort of the anti Fox News. Last night I was watching this video. It’s well worth your time if you have about twenty minutes to spare:

If you read my blog, it will eerily echo this post of mine. Cenk and I are perhaps channeling each other; he just does it for TV while I do it with words in an obscure blog. We both agree though that Donald Trump is clearly our Manchurian president. What do I mean by a Manchurian president? I am referring to the 1959 book by Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate. The novel is about three American soldiers abducted during the Korean War and brainwashed in Manchuria, so that one of them kills a presidential candidate, allowing his running mate to use the incident to promote the dictatorial laws he needs to try to do away with our democracy.

Remember when Trump was claiming that Barack Obama was not born in America? He saw Obama as a Manchurian president, presumably a participant in some grand conspiracy. I’m not suggesting that Trump was not born in America. He certainly met the legal qualifications for being president, as did Obama. The big difference is that it’s clear that if the Russians got the goods on him, which they certainly didn’t on Obama.

Uygur points out that almost immediately after a deal between Exxon-Mobil and the Russians was killed, Rex Tillerson was out as Secretary of State. Why? Uygur argues that Trump was told to select him because the Russians wanted him. Remember that Trump courted Mitt Romney for a long time, then abruptly dropped Romney for Tillerson? Tillerson had no qualifications for the job, after all and had never held a public office. But he was close to the Russians and ran the only oil company out there with the technology to successfully exploit Russian’s oil reserves. When Rex couldn’t make that happen, he was no longer of use to them. Moreover, Rex was not a moron. He could see the Russians were doing some awful things including this latest chemical weapons attack in Great Britain against a number of Russia’s bad actors. Rex turned out to be one of our worst secretaries of state ever, but he wasn’t a traitor.

It’s not coincidence that Trump has a blind spot when it comes to the Russians. It’s not a coincidence because the Russians have the goods on him. As I noted in the February 18th post, the breadcrumbs are all around Donald Trump and they clearly lead right back to the Kremlin. Trump simply won’t take any actions that make things worse for the Russians. He won’t implement additional sanctions required by law. He hasn’t explicitly said that he believes the Russians are to blame for this latest chemical weapons attack either. To an extent Republicans in Congress are aiding and abetting this conspiracy. Just two days ago the House Intelligence Committee (actually just a subset of Republicans on it) decided that there was no Trump-Russia connection and issued a hastily written report. Mission accomplished, apparently.

Over time special counsel Bob Mueller will show otherwise. Given his indictments against certain Russians, he already has a case that proves Russians interfered in our election. He has already proven that people within the Trump campaign had active ties with the Russian government prior to the election. Just a few pieces of the trail remain to be put into place. Mostly this involves tying Trump’s wealth to Russian banks, mostly via money laundering. It’s highly likely that the Russians also have evidence that will compromise Trump and that’s how they are leveraging him for their interests. If Mueller can’t get this out before the midterms, then after the midterms when Democrats take the House, a newly invigorated House Intelligence Committee probably will. It may be as simple as releasing his tax returns, which it can authorize.

Unfortunately for the Russians, Trump is hardly their ideal Manchurian president. He is easily exploitable by simply pandering to his biases: wealth, women and flattery. As a president though he is extraordinarily ineffective and vacillating. One of Trump’s strengths though is his ability to lie. He does it many times a day and does it shamelessly. He has no problem saying he didn’t collude with the Russians because he feels neither shame nor guilt. The ideal businessman is bereft of these qualities, as success is quantified in things like profits, income, status and market share. It’s impossible to feel ashamed if you never felt shame.

So while Trump can work in Russia’s general interests, his ability to do so well is affected by his bumbling style, his inability to plan and his massive ego. But it’s not hard at all to see these breadcrumbs all around him. In fact, it takes willful blindness not to see them. His defensiveness alone should make it obvious. With this intelligence committee report, he went to announce in all caps on Twitter that they found NO COLLUSION, one of many tweets like this. The committee found NO COLLUSION simply because they chose to abruptly end the investigation without even consulting Democrats on the panel.

And speaking of breadcrumbs, when this is all over it will be interesting to see how compromised the committee’s chairman Devin Nunes is. Someone who steals to the White House with inside dope learned by the committee as soon as it is aired likely is in this up to his neck too. As this investigation widens, it’s likely that Mueller will reveal a much larger level of conspiracy than simply between the Trump campaign and Russia. It will likely tar, feather and send to prison many members of Congress. Devin Nunes is likely to be on that list.

 
The Thinker

Project Muni

I have a new project of sorts: convince our city to construct a municipal network.

What’s a municipal network? “Munis” as they are sometimes called are publicly controlled Internet Service Providers. So rather than get Internet from Comcast or Time Warner, you might get it from your town or city instead, or more likely some legal entity chartered by your town or city.

Munis seem to be catching on. They tend to spring up in places that don’t have high-speed Internet, which means they are mostly more in rural areas. Some years back across the Connecticut River from us in Leverett, Massachusetts the citizens decided they were done with dialup. So they created LeverettNet. For $73.89 a month subscribers get a 1 gigabit per second true fiber Internet access to the home out in what is arguably the middle of nowhere. In my city across the river we already have high-speed Internet, and it’s called Comcast. For about $75/month you can get “up to” 60 megabits per second Internet to the home. (Comcast offers a good deal for the first year you would expect.) But there’s no true fiber to the home here; it’s stepped down to coaxial cable. Comcast doesn’t offer a 1-gigabit per second service like Leverett does, but you can buy 2 gigabits per second in some places of our city … for $299.99 a month. Ouch!

Like in most communities, Comcast is the only game in our community. There are plenty of communities mostly in the hill towns around here that are largely left to fend for themselves. Comcast doesn’t go there because it’s not profitable. There are fewer subscribers and the houses are further apart. The town of Leverett has only 1900 residents so they had to figure out how to do it themselves. In one sense though they were lucky. Amherst, Massachusetts is not too far away. They could get service there and extend it across the telephone polls to the town.

It’s too early to know if we will be successful in getting our city of 30,000 to build a muni. We haven’t formally petitioned the City Council yet. It seems kind of redundant since Comcast is available everywhere. But it’s the only game in town. Leverett across the river with a much more spread out population though has figured out it can deliver a service nearly seventeen times faster than Comcast’s for about the same price. That sounds … appealing!

So a group of us are organizing. Right now this involves mostly reaching out and research. On the face of it though there is a business case to be made for a city muni. Perhaps the best-known muni and one of the most controversial is one built for the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee against the strong wishes of Comcast. Its most popular service is the 100 megabits per second service, priced at $57.99 a month. This suggests that a muni should cost about a third less for similar service compared with Comcast.

It turns out that saving money is just one of the many reasons for communities to build munis. In our research we’ve uncovered a whole lot of other reasons. Here are just some:

  • Comcast is responsible to shareholders, so they have every incentive to bilk customers for all they can get. It’s not too hard since they are the sole provider. A public board though would oversee a muni. It would be not-for-profit and presumably accountable to its subscribers and our city government.
  • Comcast is “innovating” by doing away with Net Neutrality, although it claims it won’t slow down services for websites. But it certainly could, particularly if they think they could make a buck doing so. A muni would probably require Net Neutrality.
  • Comcast has no competition and thus no reason to lower prices but plenty of reasons to raise them. Verizon did introduce its FiOS service in a few neighborhoods but quickly learned it wasn’t profitable to do it citywide. They will make money in services that have fewer competitors, so they are concentrating on wireless access.
  • Comcast isn’t improving their network. Many of the telephone polls have their optical fiber on them, but not all of them and less so along stretches of road that are less populated. It’s all stepped down to coaxial cable at some point, but in places there is a lot of coaxial cable between your home and a fiber drop. There’s no reason for Comcast to improve their network because there’s no competition and doing so would lower profits anyhow.

I believe that high-speed Internet access is a requirement today. It is really a new utility, the same way power, gas and sewage are. To meet the needs of citizens in these communities, Internet service should be managed by some sort of governmental body. The private sector model is largely a failure. It has failed in the hill towns around here because the private sector won’t serve that market. It’s a failure also because you only have one choice in most markets.

It’s time. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created to bring electricity to Appalachia because the private sector wouldn’t. Massachusetts is making half-hearted efforts to subsidize high speed internet for the hill towns via a Wired West initiative, but it’s underfunded and mostly languishing.

One of the reasons Trump won the presidency in 2016 was because of the frustration of people in more rural communities. I’m sort of in this boat now. Here the economy has grown little if at all since the Great Recession. That’s is part of its charm to me. (I can actually see the stars at night again.) But it’s not too hard to see that a good part of the reason these communities are suffering is that they suffer from an unequal playing field. Cities with their natural higher densities are going to be profitable to serve so they will get robust high-speed Internet and maybe residents can choose from multiple providers.

In most cases these hill towns around here don’t have the money to create their own munis. Towns like Leverett found ways to do it through issuing bonds, and that’s probably how it will get built where I live if we can convince the City to sanction one. By having robust high-speed Internet out here in the more rural parts of the country at an affordable price, communities like mine can begin to seriously address the rural vs. urban divide, much the way the Tennessee Valley Authority brought Appalachia into the 20th century.

For the foreseeable future though not much in the way of resources will come from the federal government. So mostly we must roll our own, if we can figure out a way to do so. In the case of my small city I think it will encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to move here, where the cost of living is lower anyhow and where many natural beauties are literally just outside your door.

You can learn more about municipal networks at muninetworks.org. If like me you are frustrated by the lack or high cost of high-speed Internet maybe you should do what I am doing and rise up and demand it.

 
The Thinker

Looking past the midterms

Sometimes I think Trump wants to lose. Granted, Trump has made a career of losing. To the extent he has made money it is mostly from branding. Branding has some real advantages: mainly, you rake in fees (usually recurring fees) and someone else inherits the risk. This is true of many of Trump’s properties.

The shine is off the Trump brand as his presidency implodes. The owners of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Panama City want to kick out the Trump organization and take his name off their tower. It’s proving an uphill struggle but they have plenty of reason to persevere. With only about a third of the building occupied, the owners are losing money, bigly. Few love Trump anymore and pretty much everyone realizes now that his brand is more bronze than gold.

Trump finds new ways to turn off voters every day, and there are still eight months until the midterms. There used to be a daily scandal. These days you get a half -dozen new scandals a day. Trump is in meltdown according to his own staff, most of which have left him. It’s now literally impossible for me to focus on any one particular scandal. However bad it is now, it’s likely just to worsen day by day, leading toward a cacophonous crescendo on November 6 when voters finally get to weigh in on the Trump presidency. It’s not going to be pretty for Trump and Republicans.

How bad is it? It’s so bad that finally Republicans are starting to pull away from Trump. Just in the last couple of days he decided he didn’t believe in due process (most likely because he had no idea what it is), he pissed off the NRA and he is starting a trade war he is destined to lose. If he doesn’t back off on a trade war it will continue to sink stock markets, raise prices (possibly reintroducing inflation) and dramatically increase the risk of recession. If there is anything dearer to Republicans than staying in power, it is probably the value of their stock portfolios. They are realizing that Trump is becoming a toxic asset in their portfolio.

It’s unclear when Republicans will finally decide that they are better off without him. If they don’t get the message before the election due to all the scandals, I do expect them to get it after the midterms. There’s a Democratic tsunami approaching.

To begin with, Democrats will retake the House, which likely means a replay of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. One of the first orders of business will be for Democrats to open real inquiries into the tsunami of Trump scandals, which can only lead to Trump’s impeachment in the House. I put the odds of Democrats retaking the Senate at now better than 50/50, probably 60/40 and likely to grow. It would take 67 senators to throw Trump out of office.

Regardless there will be a huge amount of Republican hand wringing after the midterms. Republicans will have to ask themselves how they can survive as a party. As for going back to the racist Tea Party rhetoric: that trick was played in 2010. It’s not enough anymore to win elections. Millennial voters are going to come out in huge numbers to prove they can’t play this trick again. They will be Democrats for the foreseeable future and they are unlikely to lose their political engagement. As for Republicans, demographics alone means they will be a dying party unless they somehow rebrand toward the middle.

It’s unclear whom Republicans can attract to their smaller government message since they’ve made such a mess with it. Which means that the party will either go down (possibly splitting into two or more parties) or like a sailing ship after a hurricane, what remains of the party will realize it’s time to throw the fallen masts into the sea and stand up a jury rig. Republican senators will have a hard time not voting to convict Trump in his Senate trial when it’s in their own interest. What’s in their interest? Not only maintaining what will be left of their federal power, but also in retaining what power they can in statehouses. The parties that control statehouses draw district-voting boundaries after the 2020 census. What’s the probability of that if Trump somehow hangs on and tries to win reelection in 2020?

There are plenty of tealeaves for easy reading. Just this week alone Democrats picked up two state seats in special elections, one in Connecticut and one in New Hampshire. Since the 2016 election, Democrats have flipped 39 seats in both state and U.S. house special elections, not to mention the Alabama senate seat. The main reason they are winning is because Democrats are coming out to vote in droves. Their enthusiasm will only continue to grow between now and November. Come November 6, the pressure will be explosive. Trump has succeeded in keeping the focus on himself, which feeds the outrage of those who hate him. So they will be out in multitudes. Most likely Republicans will be demoralized and sit it out. Trump is likely to give them plenty of reasons to stay demoralized too.

As bad as things are for Trump now, when he has effective opposition in Congress he’s going to truly feel the heat for the first time. He will probably be looking for exit strategies. It may even come before the midterms. For example, if Special Counsel Mueller has sufficient incriminating evidence against Trump, Trump’s lawyer might make a plea deal with Mueller: Trump would agree to resign if Mueller does not recommend any criminal prosecution of Trump in his report. Trump may already be getting the message. He may be looking for scapegoats for his impending resignation. He just needs the thinnest façade to sell his supporters. It will likely be some variation of “deep state”, “fake news”, “witch hunt” and “they are all out to get me.”

Curiously, the best case for Republicans in the midterms would be if Trump resigned sooner rather than later. This might move the issues in the midterm from Trump and onto other issues. Most likely though Trump’s bloated ego won’t allow it, so this denouement is much more likely after the midterms than before it. But if it happens, well, perhaps you read it first here on Occam’s Razor.

 
The Thinker

Are you prolife? Or just pro-birth?

There are millions of “prolifers” out there. They believe that abortion should be illegal. Most believe that all pregnancies should be carried to term, regardless of the circumstances that led to pregnancy, such as rape or incest.

There is a lot of evidence though that virtually all of these so-called prolifers are really just pro-birthers. They want all pregnancies to be carried to term. What happens to the child after birth they don’t seem too concerned about. At least it’s not the focus of their efforts.

There are about 7.6 billion of us on the planet. Nearly 3 billion of us live on less than $2.50 a day, which is the basic test of poverty. 1.3 billion of these live on $1.25 or less a day, which is categorized as extreme poverty. It’s pretty rare to see a prolifer advocating for improved living standards for these folks. If they do, it’s not with the same passion that they advocate for children coming into this world.

In any event, 40% of humans live in poverty. Thus, any child has a 40% chance of living in poverty. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone living in poverty claiming to enjoy it. That’s why they spend much of their lives trying to escape their poverty, usually without much success. But hey, they’re alive! That’s a blessing, isn’t it? Living a life of misery is better than not being born at all, isn’t it?

If every life is truly sacred then I think by definition we must care at least as much about those already alive than those on their way to being born. It’s either that or you are not really prolife. So I ask you again: are you really prolife or just pro-birth? Which of these arguably prolife positions do you support too?

  • A universal basic income
  • No death penalty
  • Quality health care for all
  • Free education for all
  • Food stamps
  • Heating and cooling assistance for the poor
  • The U.N. Declaration on Human Rights
  • Housing as a right
  • Restrictions on gun ownership and possession, so fewer of us die from gunshot wounds
  • Free contraception for all women

I hope you can put a checkmark next to all of these. If you can, great, you sound truly prolife to me. But I also have to ask a harder question: are you willing to pay more in taxes to ensure that everyone can exercise these rights?

On the last question, I’m guessing probably not. And I’m betting that in spite of being prolife you don’t want to raise your taxes just to provide for high quality neonatal care for all pregnant women that don’t have it, or for a law that would give new mothers a paid year off from work after giving birth so they can take care of their child as only a mother can.

So I ask you again, are you really prolife? Or are you just pro-birth? Do you notice that there might be just a wee bit of inconsistency between making it unlawful for a pregnant woman to have an abortion and your refusal to bear any of the costs of raising that child if the mother cannot choose to legally terminate her pregnancy? Is there something more sacred about an innocent fetus compared to an adult who has transgressed enough laws where he is put to death by the state? Is it a newborn’s innocence that you find sacred?

And given that our population is increasing at unsustainable rates in spite of abortion being legal in many countries, leading to what looks like an ecological catastrophe along with an increase in poverty and war due to the mass migration of people fleeing these effects, maybe we need fewer people on the planet rather than more if we are truly prolife?

Being prolife strikes me as more pro-death than anything else. In the United States there were about 650,000 abortions in 2014, the vast majority of them in the first trimester, mostly chemically induced and occurring long before the zygote or fetus has developed beyond the size of a chicken egg. Worldwide there were plenty more than that. How much worse would our ecosystem be today if all these pregnancies had been carried to term? And how many of these women who had abortions would be dead if they had received back alley abortions instead?

I guess I don’t believe you when you say every life is sacred, since most prolifers are indifferent to the suffering of children after birth and are particularly tone deaf to the suffering of people all around them. A true reverence for life would manifest itself in all aspects and phases of life. But the most sincere reverence for life would also acknowledge that our current population trajectory is unsustainable and ultimately both anti-life and cruel for, well, at least 40% of us alive. With a complete destruction of the ecosystem, make that 100%.

But hey, at least in that event there would be no more abortions. Win!

 

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