I really think Nancy Pelosi has this viable “nuclear option”

The Thinker by Rodin

I had an idea the other day on how to get at least a few things done in our federal government again. It’s going to sound crazy because I don’t think it’s been done before. But I see no reason why it couldn’t be done, if for some reason Nancy Pelosi wants to show she has real balls.

As a preface, let’s recall what the House and the Senate are empowered to do. It would seem that the Senate is the more powerful body, simply because it is empowered to do a lot of things without the consent of the House. For example, the House has no say on what treaties the U.S. signs, or who gets appointed to senior government positions like department secretaries, federal judges or ambassadors. This is because our founding fathers saw the United States as a collection of sovereign states, with Rhode Island having the same stake as California.

What unique powers does the U.S. House of Representative have? Well, they can propose legislation, but so can the Senate. Similar bills that pass both houses of Congress go to a conference committee where both houses haggle out their differences and vote on an identical bill.

But there is one area where the Senate cannot go first: on any bill that appropriates money. The U.S. constitution says funding bills must originate in the House. The Senate can propose amendments to these bills, but they can’t originate one on their own.

Our new progressive House has been passing bills right and left for the Senate to consider. They go to the Senate where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell makes a show of refusing to take them up. He’s been proudly calling himself “The Grim Reaper.” This includes legislation that would pass easily on a bipartisan basis. One prominent example is legislation forwarded by the House to reimpose FCC net neutrality rules. There is arguably more important bipartisan legislation McConnell simply won’t advance, like protecting our elections from foreign interference or a path to citizenship for so-called “dreamers”.

What Nancy Pelosi could do is simply refuse to forward to the Senate any funding bill for the U.S. government until Mitch McConnell agrees in writing to advance a handful of these bipartisan bills to the Senate floor for an up or down vote.

It’s fair to say that McConnell won’t like this idea at all. But when the legislation is bipartisan it’s a lot harder to say no, particularly when the federal government must be funded. These days, most funding bills are continuing resolutions. These must originate in the House. The House can pass them long before they are needed. Nancy Pelosi though could simply keep them on her desk and refuse to move them to the Senate until she gets a letter in writing from Mitch McConnell that he will move to the floor of the Senate these likely bipartisan bills within a reasonable period of time, say a month.

Yes, Republican senators may start calling her “Shutdown Nancy”. But I bet they would cave because the American people and both parties are by definition in favor of bipartisan legislation. Pelosi and Democrats would look good for at least partially unsticking the levers of governance.

Prove to me I’m wrong, but I believe that the House does have this nuclear option. Given the intransigence in the Senate, I say it’s time to create this new weapon. Once used successfully, the House may find other ways of making government work again.

Playing Dr. Larch

The Thinker by Rodin

“Here in St. Cloud’s,” Dr. Larch wrote, “ I have been given the choice of playing God or leaving practically everything up to chance. It is my experience that practically everything is left up to chance much of the time; men who believe in good and evil, and who believe that good should win, should watch for those moments when it is possible to play God – we should seize those moments. There won’t be many.”

John Irving, The Cider House Rules

When I was young and a good Catholic, I assumed that abortion was wrong and evil. I remember thinking, “What if we abort the next Einstein?” I never pondered its opposite: “What if we had the chance to abort the next Hitler and didn’t?” Once pro-life, as I pulled away from the Church, I became pro-choice. As a man though it’s a largely theoretical position. I can father a child and did, but I can’t choose for the mother whether to carry the child to term or not. (Technically, I can’t father another child, at least not without getting my vasectomy reversed.)

Still, sometimes we get opportunities to be Dr. Larch. He’s a fictional doctor from John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules (made into a movie starring Michael Caine). Such an opportunity came in my inbox recently.

A site that helps women get abortions in a country where it is illegal needed my help. Their web host tossed them out when someone complained. They managed to find new hosting, but had to find a way to disguise their most pertinent information: where to get abortions and who can reliably provide them in that country. This comes mostly from women trading experiences and they do so in an online forum. They needed their forum not just upgraded, but tuned to keep it harder for prying eyes to discover their paid dirt: their listings of these providers and the experiences of women who used them. Once a woman was vetted as real and sincere, they would let them access the more sensitive part of their site.

So here was my opportunity to play Dr. Larch. I wouldn’t be providing abortions but I did have a choice to make. Like Dr. Larch, I could help women do what needed to be done if they made the choice to have an abortion, or I could turn away the business.

I chose to help women. I don’t expect to make a whole lot of money from the job. The woman who runs the website will at least get my noncommercial rate. It’s only the scale of the work that made me charge her at all: it’s quite complex what she needs done. It’s a half-week of labor at least, and for about a week I’ve been trying to nail down the requirements. They are so complex I wanted to chat with her on Skype. That was not an option. She was too afraid to use it.

Yes, abortion is still illegal in her country, though it can be obtained, particularly if you are a woman of some means. The same was true here in the United States when it was illegal. The Washington Post recently republished an article from 1966 discussing how Washington area women did it back then. States that outlaw abortion won’t stop women from getting them, but will make it financially infeasible for a lot of poor women, which is the basic point. They may also be able to imprison those women they catch. It will also kill or maim many other women as they resort to self-induced abortions using coat hangers. Meanwhile, in Alabama, which arguably has the strictest anti-abortion law, it also allows rapists to have custody rights.

If I didn’t do the work, this woman might find someone else to do it, although it’s pretty complicated and I have a specialized niche. At best it would have delayed her a few extra weeks.

Some would suggest I am abetting a crime somewhere. My work is quite legal in the United States, where I work. Others might suggest I will be going to hell. If so, at least I will have plenty of company. On the other hand, I may also be saving the lives of a lot of women who might try the old coat-hanger trick, or end up with a quack for a doctor, or behind bars from a sting operation. If I help just one woman save her own life, it’s a worthy and noble mission.

This woman has a lot of courage to persist. Like Dr. Larch, the least I can do is to seize those moments when I can play God. And I choose to do what I can to empower women to have custody of their own bodies.

Can you profit from a likely coming recession?

The Thinker by Rodin

There are a lot of wags predicting a recession in 2020. There are wonky predictors of recession, like sustained inverted yield curves, which have accurately predicted most recessions in the past. This happens when short-term treasury bonds earn more interest than long-term bonds, which has been the case for a while now. Historically, it’s a great predictor of a recession and gives you about a year of warning.

Much of the world’s investors are already paying for negative yields, basically paying governments to take their money in the form of negative interest bonds. This sounds crazy. They do this as a hedge against currency deflation. During deflation, there is no incentive to spend money because the same dollar will buy more in the future. Fear of deflation often predicts recession too. We saw a little of this in the Great Recession when some money market accounts actually lost money, at least until new rules were created to place the full faith and credit of the U.S. government behind these accounts.

Naturally, Trump is not helping things. By initiating trade wars, principally with China, Mexico and Canada, he is injecting even more uncertainty into the markets, not to mention reducing international trade. Making willy-nilly decisions, like his recent threat to impose new tariffs on Mexico, feeds this pessimistic narrative.

It seems paradoxical that the stock market is rallying. But it’s rallying only because the Federal Reserve is suggesting it will lower interest rates. If it does, it’s only to try on the hopes of stopping a recession from happening, a recession that appears to be likely largely due to Trump’s trade policies. The Fed though doesn’t have a whole lot of flexibility as interest rates were only modestly raised since the last recession, so there’s not much room for them to fall. No wonder that so many investors are scared of the specter of deflation.

It’s been a good stretch of growth – one of the longest ever – ten years pulling out of the Great Recession. Good times never last forever anyhow, but Trump has certainly been pulling the wrong levers. We should be investing in clean technologies because that’s where future growth will come from. We should be improving our infrastructure, which is decaying around us because the economy needs a robust infrastructure to keep humming. We should be promoting higher wages so people have more money to spend, not throwing more money at millionaires and billionaires who can’t spend much of it.

Recession is coming at some point; it’s just a question of when. Most economists think the likelihood of a recession in 2020 is sixty percent. Should you be buckling down for the next recession? Given that personal credit card debt levels are as high as right before the Great Recession, it looks like many of us are not well prepared, a situation made worse by income inequality. Those who could hopefully pared down debt and created an emergency fund. But since 40% of Americans can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense, we can only hope that when the next recession comes it not as severe as the last one. Since many of the factors that got us in trouble last time are back again, largely because Republicans insist on deregulation, that doesn’t seem likely. Most Americans will simply hunker down and pray.

Looking back on my experience from the Great Recession, my takeaway is that it inadvertently made me, if not rich, a lot richer. I was blessed with a steady job that paid well and a 401K I kept contributing toward regularly. I was surprised in 2014 to discover that recovering markets made it not only possible to retire, but to retire comfortably, and I haven’t looked back. Inadvertently, I bought a lot of cheap stocks through my 401K and in just five years this was more than enough time to greatly increase my wealth.

So if you are 10-20 years away from a retirement and in a comfy job that’s unlikely to go away, then perversely you might welcome another recession because you can profit from it the way I did. If you have the nerve (something I don’t have), like a short-seller, you might want to bet against America. By this I mean, count on recession and try to profit from it.

How? If you take the bet that markets are likely at record peaks, then sell. I’m not recommending selling your entire portfolio, but it might make sense to sell a good portion of those stocks, ETFs and mutual funds and park them in U.S. treasuries, which is what a lot of investors are doing. Or you could take them as cash. You can do this with your IRA or 401K without a tax penalty. Then you just have to wait until the inevitable happens. No one can predict how much markets will decline, but if they are down 25% or more, that would be an excellent time to buy some cheap(er) stocks, ETFs and mutual funds. During the Great Recession, there was a huge sale as which discounted Grade A stocks as much as 50% from highs. After all, those who need the money to buy stuff will sell it for any price they can get, which is when bargain hunters like you swoop in. Then, like me, wait for the inevitable appreciation as stocks recover.

Will I take my own advice? Of course not! I’m retired, in my sixties, and although reasonably well off, almost all of our saving are in retirement assets. I could up my percentage of bonds and then later move them back to stocks when the market is at its low. But at my stage of my life, I want to maintain my standard of living, not necessarily gamble on some prospect ten years from now of a much larger net worth which would also be harder to enjoy before I die. Also, I pay a financial adviser to make sure we stay on plan.

But if I were a younger person like I was at the start of the last recession, then I might be taking some joy in the misfortune of others, knowing that when markets recover I would reap substantial rewards.

We have the CVS Pharmacy from hell

The Thinker by Rodin

A couple of months ago, I stopped by our local CVS because I had asked for my medication refill to be ready and was passing by and I had asked for it to be ready earlier that day. I went into the store and immediately queued up in a long line at the pharmacy register. I was fifth in line. As I stood there, another five people queued up behind me. There are four registers including the one at the drive thru. But there was one guy at the front register looking tired and hassled. Behind the counter there were plenty of pharmacists and other people, but none of them could be bothered to actually help shorten the line.

After about fifteen minutes and advancing only one space in the line (one customer had innumerable issues) I said rather loudly, “It sure would be nice if they opened another register” hoping someone would take the hint. Of course they didn’t. They kept doing all this important stuff behind the counter, which apparently doesn’t include the “service” part of CVS. (CVS supposedly stands for “Convenience, Value and Service.”)

After twenty minutes with still two people ahead of me did something I rarely do (used a curse word in public) and told my wife we’re moving pharmacies. I … just … could … not … take … it … any … more! This particular incident was one of the more egregious exceptions, but it was hardly unusual. It’s like the staff is on lethargy pills. And clearly there are no managers on duty trying to make the experience more pleasant for customers. Even their drive-thru is no silver bullet. There is often a line and when it move it move so slowly.

I’d mind this less if we had fewer medicines. I have just one prescription, but my wife must have a dozen. So we are constantly shuffling by the CVS to pick up medications. And half the time when you go to pick them up, they are not ready at the time you asked for using their automated system. We have learned to not even bother to go to CVS until we get an automated call back, often a couple of days after the date and time you requested the medicine.

So why not take it to a non-CVS pharmacy? I checked with our health insurance plan and we can also get prescriptions filled at Walgreens. It’s a bit further away but every time I am in there, there is no line at the pharmacy counter. So we started to move prescriptions there.

But it turns out that if you need a 90-day supply, you pretty much have to get it from CVS. That’s because our health insurer, like most of them, contracts with just one pharmacy chain: CVS. If we want to buy them at Walgreens, we would have to pay a lot more because it suddenly becomes an out of network pharmacy. For 30-day supplies, Walgreens is fine. But since most of our medications are for maintenance drugs, CVS is must be. Costco is another possibility: buy it at their wholesale price, but it’s 25 miles each way. It’s not a realistic alternative.

But wait! There is an alternative! We can mail order them from CVS, actually Caremark in this case because CVS bought them. But since there are a lot of these, we have to coordinate a lot of paperwork to do it mail order. It’s at least as much hassle in our case to do it mail order as it is to go to our local CVS.

We could go to another CVS and hope for a better experience there. Our closest CVS is three miles away. There is one downtown, about the same distance, but that introduces a parking hassle and there is no drive thru. Otherwise, it’s about a seven-mile drive to the next nearest CVS. And there’s no guarantee our experience will be better at that CVS either.

CVS is everywhere. They were our pharmacy before we moved from Northern Virginia too. The service was somewhat better there, in that prescriptions tended to be available when you asked for them, but there were often long lines at the pharmacy counter or drive-thru windows there too.

CVS harassment comes in many forms. Their “helpful” automated service though is too much help. We get these calls most days with prescription reminders. Still, even if you call in your prescriptions and tell the system the date and time you want to pick it up, if their workload is such that they can’t physically get it done in time, the system won’t tell you. You have to learn from experience. You practically need a chart with all your medications on them to keep track of what has been called in, when you asked for it and whether you got a call back saying it was actually fulfilled and ready for pickup.

Our local CVS may be one of the worst ones, but it’s clear that there is a general problem with CVS pharmacies. It’s not too hard to figure out. First, they have way more business than they can handle because most health plans use CVS. Second, they don’t have enough staff. The pharmacists are usually running around at warp speed. Phone calls often ring off the hook. As for counter staff, when I do see them they look apathetic and/or hassled. Most likely they aren’t paying them a living wage, as evidenced by their faces changing so often.

One can understand why health insurers want to minimize costs. CVS is trying to lock in this market, as they are everywhere, and are probably seriously underbidding their costs to insurers. So there are pressure points and they are its customers, people like us who simply have to endure a lot of frustration and hassle just to get timely and relatively affordable medicine.

Our wonderful free market hard at work. As for CVS: it’s not convenient, I get no value from going there, and their service sucks.

Trump is functionally illiterate

The Thinker by Rodin

One of last week’s biggest stories was of course the “infrastructure” meeting between Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at the White House. It quickly blew up when Trump took offense at remarks Pelosi made earlier in the day when she accused Trump of a cover up.

His blow up looked quite staged since minutes later he was at a podium in the Rose Garden with preprinted signs that seemed to match the occasion. Also suspicious was an image captured by a photographer of Trump’s handwritten notes (written in Sharpie, of course) with prominent misspellings. Among other misspellings he noted that Democrats have “no achomlisments”.

Trump’s typos are hardly news, but these handwritten notes prove Trump is a very poor speller. He also has very poor grammar. He confuses words. On April 2nd, Trump was ranting about House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. He repeatedly used “oranges” when he should have used the word “origins”. Trump’s speaking is full of malapropisms. It doesn’t seem to bother his supporters. Should it bother the rest of us?

It should bother all of us because Trump is functionally illiterate. I know what you are thinking, “But what about all those tweets? He types them himself.” They tend to have occasional errors but most of the time the grammar and spelling is correct. And this is because his Twitter client points these out and suggests the correct spelling or grammar to use. We all do this, at least if we care about what we post online. Trump though sometimes slips up.

In 2016, The Washington Post compared the grammar and vocabulary levels of the major candidates at the time. Trump’s was at the bottom of the bunch: with a less than 8th grade vocabulary and less than 6th grade grammar. His speech is confusing, to say the least. My daughter does voice captioning for a living. She sometimes has to caption Trump live. Closed captioners hate translating Trump because he rarely speaks in compete sentences. Where do you place the period? It’s so hard to tell. But also, his “sentences” are rarely coherent and veer from place to place. It’s a sign of a very disordered mind that cannot think linearly.

Trump is not illiterate in the sense that he can’t read. But he can’t comprehend much of what he reads. No doubt every textbook he encountered during his education was a challenge. He misses a lot of nuance. In response, he basically doesn’t read and depends on TV and radio for information. That’s why he’s so anxious to hustle out of a meeting to watch Fox News instead: TV is the equivalent of his reading time. That’s why his staff stopped giving him briefing materials. At best he gets a one-page bullet summary of key points. Mostly he wants you to tell him information. Since it appears he is easily distracted, it’s unclear how much of what he hears he actually absorbs. To compensate, he declares himself an “extremely stable genius” and proudly proclaims most decision are made from gut feelings instead of, you know, absorbing the complex and nuanced information that staff could provide to him.

Lots of us share Trump’s disability, which may explain in part why so many people relate to him. Like him, they got through life by overcompensating in other areas and hoping that makes the difference. What his disability reveals though is a man who is far from an “extremely stable genius”. If he can’t master basic grammar and vocabulary, he’s hardly smart by any conventional definition and can’t understand a lot of the material given to him. This means he’s woefully uninformed about the many issues he has to confront and decide on as president. As for stable, someone who huffs out of a meeting after only a few minutes is hardly stable. No wonder Nancy Pelosi is openly calling for an “intervention”. I’m not sure though that Trump understands what that means. It’s one of these words with lots of syllables.

If you are functional illiterate, it means that you grasp most of the basics of reading but lack much of the ability to process and integrate the written word. And that describes Donald Trump’s entire career. It’s not just anyone who can lose a billion dollars over ten years, most of it his father’s money. But you can if you don’t know what you are doing, you can’t read a balance sheet and you run your business by talking to people on the phone instead of absorbing yourself in the minutia of your business.

It also explains why he is stonewalling Congress and blocking any attempts to reveal these underlying falsehoods. No wonder his former attorney Michael Cohen spent a lot of time sending threatening letters to places like Wharton, warning them not to publish Trump’s grades. His career is a cavalcade of false fronts. It doesn’t take too many of these to unmask this Lone Ranger for the fraud he is.

With so many potential vulnerabilities, his luck won’t hold on forever. This is why he finds being dictator much more appealing than being president: no accountability ever! Fortunately for him, the Republican Party is totally on board, because it too projects a different image of what it claims to be compared to what it actually is. It’s unclear though when he is finally unmasked – when his taxes returns show him to be the cheat that he is and his grades prove he is the ignoramus we also know he is – whether it will make a difference.

Until then we continue to have a government led by the most ignorant person ever to hold the office. We have to hope that our constitutional government can somehow survive it.

Attention Liz Warren: here’s my killer campaign idea

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been having a hard time getting a hold of Liz Warren, my senator and my preferred presidential candidate. She has had no trouble getting a hold of me because I’ve donated twice to her presidential campaign. Pretty much every day she (or rather her campaign) is hitting me up for more money. So far I’ve given her $100.

I’ve also tried to give her a really good idea. Replying to her many automated emails doesn’t work. Crawling her website, I did find a contact form. I first vetted my idea with my friend Tom, who works in advertising. He thinks my idea is good one, but advised that campaigns are pretty insular so they probably wouldn’t pay attention to any unsolicited suggestions. Why? First, they tend to have ad teams that do most of the media strategy and they are pretty insular and know best, unlike us unwashed masses. Second, campaigns tend to be overloaded and constantly play triage. Anything I send in as a comment goes to the bottom of the barrel, probably never to be read. I did look for a phone number that I could call, but one simply doesn’t exist.

Heeding Tom’s advice I sent a short note on their comment saying I wanted fifteen minutes of someone’s time and no I wasn’t trying to make any money. It didn’t have to be at the national level. Let me talk to someone running her campaign here in Massachusetts and if they like it they can pass it up the food chain. It’s true I didn’t say what my idea is. I don’t want them to reject it out of hand. But I will tell you and I’ll post and link to this post this on the campaign’s Facebook page. But I have a feeling it will linger there too, unread. If you like my idea, please promote it and share it. Then maybe someone will actually consider it.

Liz is my favorite for reasons I wrote about in this post. At the moment though she is just one of 23 Democrats who have announced they would like to be our next president. The good news for Liz is that she is at least in the top tier, or was before Joe Biden got into the race. She was in the #2 spot in a number of polls, but usually polls third or fourth.

Given that Liz is just 1 of 23, the challenge becomes for a candidate to distinguish themselves in a memorable way that can’t be forgotten, will command national attention and generate lots of dialogue. But how?

Like my most recent nightmare, this came to me in the middle of the night: 2 AM to be specific. This one though I could not shake. I never really got back to sleep. The next day I wrote it down and sent it off to Tom, thinking that 2 AM ideas are inherently suspicious.

Strangely, it all went back to my time in parochial schools. I spent ten years in their system. For eight of them (elementary school) the good sisters had a hard time getting our attention, particularly when recess was over. The solution: a big, loud, brass hand bell.

It was the idea of the bell that I could not shake. You cannot not hear a bell; it commands attention. And that’s what all candidates want: attention. The idea was for Liz to literally use a hand bell in her campaign and in her advertising to distinguish herself but also to rally America to the huge task ahead.

Imagine that Liz brings a hand bell to one of these to her major rallies. (Make sure there is plenty of media on hand.) Imagine if she kept it under a small box next to the lectern. As the crowd gets riled up and she moves toward the close of the rally, she raises her voice and says something like, “My friends, the status quo is simply unacceptable. Things must change!” Then she lifts the box and reveals the bell. “And so we ring this bell for change!” And she starts clanging it. People start cheering. “We are ringing this bell for future generations, so they can live on a green and peaceful earth again!” She rings the bell. “We are ringing this bell so women can have the right to make decisions about their own bodies again!” She rings the bell again and does the same for other prominent issues that must be addressed. “We are ringing this bell to restore government of the people, by the people, and for the people again!” Lots of bell ringing. Crowds cheer.

Tie this into an ad campaign. Show a student on the ground in front of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where alleged gunman Nikolas Cruz killed seventeen students and injured 17 others. There are tears in her eyes as she rings a small bell of mourning. Cut to similar scenes, like one with someone in front of a black church that was recently burned down in Louisiana. More snippets on this theme with crowds growing larger and the bells growing more intense, less mournful and more hopeful, not to mention louder. Cut to Liz at a campaign rally ringing her bell and her theme, something like: “Together, we are going to make America America again!”

Liz is the only candidate I can think of that can pull this off. But even so, it will have to be done deftly. Liz has a tendency to smile goofily sometimes. Not when ringing the bell, however. This will need to be practiced privately until she’s got the act down just right.

If it’s done right, I think it could be devastatingly effective. The bell could serve as a rallying cry and theme for the campaign. Like all good campaigns, to persuade voters it must make an emotional connection plus provides imagery and an sound and urgency that cannot be unheard. It has to hit voters on many levels simultaneously.

Ringing of bells could become features at all her rallies. People with hand bells could ring them in front of Congress, or the statehouse in Alabama, or any place where they need to be heard. It symbolizes the change that is needed and will be coming in 2020.

Liz, you gotta ring that bell!

Republicans are going for a dictatorship

The Thinker by Rodin

Things have been keeping me up at night lately. The latest thing to wake me up in a cold sweat at 4 AM was, of all things, judicial nominations. In case you haven’t noticed, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell has been working at a breakneck pace to put Trump’s judges on the federal bench. It’s pretty much all the Senate does these days.

Presidents of course are supposed to nominate people to the federal bench. It’s generally a good idea for the Senate not to tarry on these nominations as there are plenty of cases that need to be tried and in recent years federal case backlogs have been growing because of many judicial retirements. And that’s because until Trump came along, the Senate wasn’t confirming too many judgeships. Those they were confirming tended to bend toward the right side of the political spectrum.

To give you an idea of how bad it got, at the start of 2015, the last two years of Obama’s second term, there were 45 judicial vacancies. As more judges retired, Obama dutifully nominated 103 candidates, of which the Senate deigned to confirm just 22. During his last two years in office, Obama nominated 76 people. So there were a total of 98 candidates nominated by Obama, only 22 of who were confirmed. 54 nominations were returned. Effectively, less than a quarter of the nominees Obama forwarded to the Senate were confirmed in his last two years.

Obviously, Mitch McConnell was deliberately blocking these nominations, as he blocked Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. He was waiting for a Republican to win in 2016. Since then unsurprisingly things have picked up. After a slow 2017 where only 18 judges were confirmed (it took a while for Trump to nominate new people), 66 were confirmed in 2018 and through 7 more so far through March 2019. 91 judges that have been confirmed since Trump took office. That’s roughly four times the number that Obama got through in his last two years.

Unsurprisingly, there are no left-of-center justices being nominated or confirmed. Breaking with precedent like Mitch McConnell likes to do, he moved forward nominations that were disapproved by home state senators. Thus in the liberal 2nd Circuit which covers New York and New England, with the elevation of Judge Michael Park to the court, brought the number of Republican judges in the circuit to six. It is expected by the summer Republican judges will control the circuit court, meaning judges who disproportionately don’t have a mindset of the people they serve will be telling them what to do.

This stacking of the courts is having real world effects. Trump has plenty of reason to stack the courts because it is his “get out of jail free” card. He needs these judges to rule in his favor so he suffers no consequences for his many actions. For Republicans, it’s not so much saving Trump they care about as getting conservative judicial decisions. We got a preview of it this week when the U.S. Supreme Court broke with more than forty years of precedent in its Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt decision, which overturned its Nevada v. Hall decision. Basically, the decision invalidates the idea that states have sovereign immunity for suits filed in other states. In our federal system, states are supposed to be sovereign, but not anymore. Justice Breyer basically asserted that this precedent will be used to overturn Roe v. Wade, which rests on a similar assumption.

Toward that end various red states have been chomping at the bits to outlaw abortion. They are competing against each other to come up with the most restrictive anti-abortion law, on the hopes that the Supreme Court will uphold it. Georgia’s recently signed fetal heartbeat law, which outlaws abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected (at about the sixth week of pregnancy, when lots of women don’t even know they are pregnant), seemed to be at the top of the heap. But then Alabama outlawed virtually all abortions, including in the case of rape or incest. Its only exception: if the mother’s life is in danger. Georgia’s law would make it a crime for a woman to get an abortion out of state, and with the Hyatt decision it looks like the Supreme Court won’t object. Women who get abortions out of states could effectively become fugitives.

Our nation appears to be on the cusp of becoming a variant of The Handmaid’s Tale. Soon, if some states have their way, an 11-year-old girl raped by her own father will be forced to carry a pregnancy to term and probably care for the child for life too. And just as the Fugitive Slave Act at one time allowed federal marshals to go into free states to return escaped slaves to their masters, it’s more than possible that women who get pregnant in Georgia but get abortions outside of Georgia may be hauled by federal marshals back to Georgia to spend thirty years in prison for their “crime” which was inflicted on them by someone else without their consent. Left off the hook, of course, are the men who got them pregnant in the first place. Women are becoming chattel again, thanks to men like Mitch McConnell.

That’s why I woke up in a cold sweat at 4 AM. By stacking the courts with judges who don’t care about the law or precedent, they are poised to turn our nation into the dictatorship that Donald Trump so desperately wants. Republicans of course are all for all of this. They don’t care about democracy. They don’t even believe in a republic. They simply want to control power now and forever through any means, and they are working the legal channels to legally appoint judges to ensure future judges will always act illegally. Moreover, there’s no clear way outside of revolution for changing this.

We should all be breaking out in cold sweats like me every night.

Monetary policy and the danger of revolution

The Thinker by Rodin

My recent post on quantum computing and its impact on cyber currencies like BitCoin have taken me exploring the world of money some more. This exploration took me to this video, which discusses who controls money and how it is created.

I think this video is meant to be shocking. Most of us are painfully aware of how important money is, because we cannot survive without it. While vital, money is also completely abstract. We like to think money is a form of permanent liquid value. This video points out the “shocking” fact that money is not this and that it is created almost universally by central banks, the Federal Reserve in the case of the United States.

As you get on in the video, you also learn that banks create money when they issue loans. If you were hoping to trade in your dollars for gold bullion, those days are gone. President Nixon turned the U.S. dollar into a fiat currency. This essentially means that the dollar has value because the government says it does. If it’s backed up by anything, it’s backed up by your faith that our government can manage money intelligently.

But really, the only ones managing money is the Federal Reserve, since they are the sole suppliers of money. The degree to which the Fed controls the spigot of money generally determines the health of the economy. Quantitative easing, which the Fed (and other central banks) have been doing since the Great Recession is basically the creation of lots of money which are then used to buy assets. Doing this helped pick up the economy and over many years took us out of recession.

So one might extrapolate that it’s not how much money that gets printed that is important, but how frequently it gets circulated. If circulated a lot, the production of goods and services continues apace. If it gets circulated too much, you end up with inflation, which means the same money buys fewer goods and services. If it’s not circulated enough, you may end up with deflation, which seems worse than inflation, in that the same money tomorrow buys more than it will today. In a deflationary environment, you would rather hold onto money than spend it, and that tends to stifle economic activity.

Lots of people like Ron Paul don’t like the way money actually works, which is why they would prefer the dollar be based on a gold standard, or some standard which equates a dollar to some amount of something precious. These people are probably economic Don Quixotes chasing electronic money windmills that may have existed at one time but which are probably gone for good. They look for impartial standards of value instead, which is why they turn dollars into BitCoin and similar electronic currencies.

The video says that central banks, being run by bankers, are a system that essentially pumps money from the lower classes to the upper classes. There’s a lot of recent evidence that they are right, as our middle class seems to be disappearing. Americans owe a lot more than they used to and in general earn a lot less in real wages than they used to. It used to be that wage increases followed productivity increases, but for decades that has not been the case. Today, the level of personal debt is staggering. Without meaningful raises, it gets harder and harder to pay off debt or do things we used to take for granted, like buy cars and homes. The Uber/Lyft phenomenon may be in part a reaction to these new facts of life.

Something ought to be done. In part, Donald Trump’s election was due to these economic anxieties. Trump was going to be our fixer to these various problems by bulldozing his way through all obstacles. Of course, he has done just the opposite. There is more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, but Trump’s education secretary Betsy DuBois is actually making it harder for people to pay off their student debts, and is promoting pricey private education at the expense of relatively affordable public education. So Trump is turning the screws even tighter on the working class.

Democratic presidential candidates have all sorts of ideas for addressing these problems. My senator, Elizabeth Warren, is distinguishing herself by having the most comprehensive set of policies for addressing these issues, including a lot of student loan debt forgiveness. All these policies though are basically ways of trying to solve the fundamental problem of more of our wealth going to the wealthiest and to put more money into those who need it the most. They all depend on redistribution of income from the wealthy toward the poor.

This “socialism” of course has the wealthy up in arms, since maintaining and increasing their wealth is all they seem to care about. So they are dead set against any of these ideas. Based on how our money supply works though, all this will do is keep pushing more of the wealth toward the wealthy.

It makes me wonder how all of this economic anxiety ends. And that gets me to figuring out what money really means. Money is essentially a social compact for the exchange of wealth, and whoever sets the rules controls the flow of wealth. The Fed is essentially accountable to no one. At best, all you can do is wait for someone’s term to expire. Trump’s inability to get people like Herman Cain on the Fed speaks to Republicans true values: they want the Fed to be populated with people that think like them, and that’s not Herman Cain. He’s too out of the mainstream.

To cut to the chase, the real threat to the wealthy is revolution. That’s exactly what happens if you screw the working class for too long. Revolution is upsetting the whole apple cart and starting over because the system is fundamentally broken and cannot be fixed. I believe this is the root of the partisan tensions we see these days. It’s not about value, or whether you are white or not; it’s about money and who gets to control it and how it should be distributed and used. Revolution though is very dangerous. It brings severe economic disruption, likely civil war, complete upheaval and a fundamental reordering of society. Hopefully when it is over the new system is more fare, but as we watch these things play out in places like Brazil it doesn’t look like that’s likely.

Ideally, rich Americans would understand that giving more back to society is in their interest. Sucking ever more wealth from the lower classes exacerbates tensions and increases the likelihood of revolution. They don’t seem to believe it though, and want to maintain control of the levers of power. If they succeed they will likely bring about the real revolution that will destroy their wealth, because wealth is predicated on connected economic systems that work. Unfortunately, the rich seem to be deliberately tone deaf, increasing the likelihood of the exact outcome they fear the most. Should it occur, BitCoin is not going to save them.

As billionaire Nick Hanauer puts it, the pitchforks are coming.

Time for Mr. Mueller to be a true patriot

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed, our new attorney general Bill Barr is a horror. We shouldn’t be surprised because essentially he auditioned for his job by circulating a paper before his nomination on why the Mueller investigation was invalid.

Barr’s testimony yesterday in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed to anyone paying attention that Barr is Trump’s lackey and shill. He will do pretty much anything that Trump wants him to do because that’s how he sees his role. Which is why he thinks looking into Hillary Clinton’s emails yet again is worthy of investigation.

It’s likely to get much worse. Trump is likely to use the Justice Department as his political arm by having it open investigations into his 2020 opponents. Based on the Hillary’s email precedent, Barr shouldn’t object at all. In short, the Justice Department is becoming a new bludgeon that Trump hopes to use to win reelection. Its mission to impartially apply justice based on the law seems to be waning. In short, true justice in the Justice Department may be hard to find.

It’s painfully clear that Senate Republicans won’t check Trump in any meaningful way. It’s increasingly clear that our Supreme Court won’t either now that it has a reliable conservative majority. Trump is the outcome of over thirty years of corrupting the system to affect their ends. They don’t want democracy. They just want to be in charge and remain in charge. Which means that only voters can hold Trump and Republicans accountable.

But Trump has every incentive to corrupt the 2020 elections, and Republicans are jubilantly helping him along. Mueller’s report basically says Trump obstructed justice many times and that the only reason he wasn’t charged is because he wasn’t allowed to charge him due to Justice Department rules. With a five-year statute of limitations, if Trump loses reelection then there’s a good chance he will be prosecuted for these and many other offenses.

So in Trump’s mind he must not lose. He can see his future if he fails, and it’s inside a jail cell. He is clearly bending the power of the federal government in every way possible to stack the odds in his favor. And Republicans will aid and abet him: by making it hard for people of color to vote, through relentless gerrymandering, through fearless voter suppression and now apparently allowing the Justice Department to be used as a political weapon.

By grossly mischaracterizing Mueller’s findings, Barr’s summary of findings succeeded in muddying the waters. It’s hard to find someone without an axe to grind that the public can trust. Most won’t have time to read over four hundred pages of his report, much of it redacted. Which is why Mueller’s public testimony in front of Congress is needed. We need Mueller to rise to the occasion and be the patriot the country needs by simply telling the truth.

But will he get that chance? Trump’s policy is now to stonewall Congress and refuse to provide them any information, at least no information not in his favor. Mueller is an employee of the Justice Department, but presumably term limited as he was pulled from retirement to investigate Trump and his administration. Trump or Barr could prohibit Mueller from testifying in front of Congress. It’s unclear that they will, but it’s certainly possible if they are stonewalling everything else. It’s also unclear whether Mueller would not testify anyhow.

Polls do make one thing clear: the public trusts Robert Mueller. If anything can right this wrong ship, his testimony might. Clearly, if Mueller says things that upset Republicans, they will berate him and cast doubts on his integrity. It’s unlikely though that the public would buy it, as his integrity has so far been impeccable, unlike Donald Trump’s.

Mueller would be most helpful by simply stating the obvious: anyone other than Trump would have been prosecuted for obstruction of justice, the Justice Department is being turned into a political weapon, that government of, by and for the people is perilously close to disappearing, and the public needs to wake up and fight for its democracy.

Anti-vaxxers – Lock ’em up

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s nice to get some validation that you were a good parent. The latest was a tweet from my 29-year-old daughter publicly thanking her mom and me for getting her vaccinated. She was watching a documentary on rubella that scared the crap out of her until she realized that we had vaccinated her against it.

I’m not sure we deserve plaudits for doing what every parent should be doing, but that many are not. What I would like to do is to make it criminal for parents not to get their kids vaccinated against common communicable diseases. At a minimum, these parents are guilty of child abuse. Maybe their kids would end up in a foster home, but at least their foster parents would get them vaccinated.

Maybe I’m pro-life at heart. I think that kids deserve the right to grow up strong and healthy and with a minimum of unnecessary misery and death. These days, of course, being pro-life means forcing women to carry to term pregnancies, and to not give a damn about the mother and the kids afterward. This is borne out by, well, not caring if they get their kids vaccinated against wholly preventable diseases!

It’s hard to miss the news that there are a lot of bad parents out there, i.e. parents who won’t get their kids vaccinated. It’s not too hard to do it these days because you can claim it’s against your religion or deeply held beliefs or pretty much for whatever reason you want in some states. That’s because states are increasingly reluctant to trample on parents rights. It’s all about freedom or something, i.e. the parents’ freedom to make decisions for their kids, not their kids right to not become a victim to preventable diseases that used to kill millions.

Anti-vaxxer parents have their reasons for not getting their kids vaccinated, but none of them make any sense. For example, there is zero credible evidence that vaccinations cause autism. But even if you grant that parents should decide whether their kids should be able to catch these diseases, they shouldn’t have the right to inflict it on the rest of us. Because that’s what’s going on with these recent measles outbreaks: if almost all of us are not vaccinated, those of us who do catch these diseases can pass them on, sometimes to people who have been vaccinated because there are newer mutant strains of the disease, like measles.

I had measles, chickenpox and mumps as a kid because there was no vaccine available. Fortunately I was young enough not to remember the impact they had on me. While I don’t remember having them, you can bet that when it’s time for my booster shot I’ll happily raise my arm for it. Most recently, I raised my arm for a shingles shot, which is recommended if you are age sixty or over. The doctor didn’t have to ask me. I brought it up, even though my physical was a month before I turned sixty. (I got it about a week after I turned sixty; insurance won’t pay for it before then.) I have friends who got shingles in their sixties and each says that it was the most painful thing they have ever endured. I’m not going to take that chance.

Children of course can’t speak for themselves; it’s a parent’s job to act in their best interest. With my daughter, I got her vaccinated for everything I could legally get away with. She did end up with the chickenpox, but only because the vaccine was not approved at the time. A few months after she got it, the vaccine was finally approved. Tough luck for her. When the HPV vaccine came out though I made sure she got that even though she was a young teen who was not sexually active. It would be up to her if she chose to be sexually active, but most people are at least at some point in their lives, so there was no point in taking chances in getting cervical cancer. In addition, I made sure she was vaccinated against both Hepatitis A and B, also getting both shots for myself. As we’ve done a lot of foreign travel lately, they might have come in handy. I don’t know for sure but I do know I didn’t come down from these diseases. Neither will she.

I doubt any parent intends to be malicious by not vaccinating their kids. They probably think they are doing their kids a favor. What’s really going on though is that they are believing disinformation or not taking the time to truly study the issue. Certain vaccines can actually cause the condition it is supposed to prevent, but only in very rare cases, and it’s virtually impossible in the case of vaccines with dead viruses. In many of these cases, your kid would have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting the disease from the shot.

This is freedom gone amok. Whether we like it or not, we are all part of the same biosphere. We all have to live with each other. We have an implicit obligation to society not to transmit preventable diseases. Thankfully we haven’t had a real pandemic like the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed millions in a very long time, so long that we don’t think it can happen again. It killed an aunt I never met. But we are definitely playing with fire and when it happens, it won’t be just these anti-vaxxer parents kids that will die many miserable and preventable deaths. It will be millions of the rest of us who did our best for our kids but because we allowed boneheaded parents to opt their kids out of vaccines ended up killing millions of the rest of us too.

What these parents are doing to not just their children but also to the rest of us is criminal. It should be treated that way.