The Thinker

Trump: caught in the Chinese finger trap

It’s taken a while but a few people are figuring out how to use Trump’s narcissism against him. Anyone with sufficient influence or power who criticizes Trump will get a reflexive set of double-down tweets. Trump will point out how they are the flawed one and he is never wrong; after all he is a very stable genius.

Chinese finger trap

Chinese finger trap

Trump also uses his tweets to change the subject, hopefully resetting the narrative. This week former CIA Director and Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan felt Trump’s wrath by having his security clearance revoked. Brennan of course has been regularly criticizing Trump from his secure perch in retirement.

Removing his clearance means nothing; Brennan doesn’t need one and hasn’t used it since leaving office, except to prepare to answer questions from investigators. It is possible that by taking away his clearance it will ultimately work to Trump’s disadvantage. Trump is working to remove a bunch of other senior security clearances too in response to their “rigged witch hunt” against him. All but one of them no longer work for the federal government, so they are effectively toothless too.

What really got Trump’s goat recently though was the release of Omarosa Manigault Newman’s book Unhinged. The unflattering tapes she has been slowly releasing methodically prove she is speaking the truth. This resulted in a predictable set of new rage tweets from Trump against Omarosa, one of the few blacks in his administration. She has been part of his orbit since she first appeared on The Apprentice in 2004. Omarosa has nearly fifteen years of experience working with Donald Trump and is intimately familiar with his strengths and weaknesses. In response, he called her a “crazed, crying lowlife” and “that dog” among other insults.

Obviously her book is not flattering to Trump and Trump felt betrayed because of her disloyalty. Trump never returns any loyalty, but he hasn’t made the connection that true loyalty goes both ways. Trump thinks he can buy-off people, but he only rents them until they just can’t stand working for him anymore.

Fourteen years of observing Donald Trump, plus Omarosa’s own character flaws, have produced a character uniquely qualified to help bring him down, bigly. This is because unlike most of The Apprentice contestants, Omarosa played by Trump’s own rules. So of course she had no problem making surreptitious recordings (and reportedly videos) of Trump and his aides. This is completely consistent with Trump’s break-all-the-rules-to-succeed philosophy. Apparently she has quite a collection of these and plans to keep doling them out regularly, at least until Trump’s bullying against her stops.

Her condition that these releases would stop only when Trump stops bullying her is brilliant. It will show in time that Omarosa knows how to best Trump in his own game. Here’s why:

As someone with an extreme case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Trump cannot control himself when someone criticizes him. So with each tape released by Omarosa, Trump’s ego will require him to lash out at her some more, mostly through rage tweets. That in turn will keep his faults and her face constantly in the news. Trump will try to find surrogate issues (like these security clearances) to change the focus, but they are unlikely to work. He must stop bullying Omarosa to bring the pressure relief he craves. But he can’t do that because he has NPD. What’s really interesting is that Omarosa has done the impossible with Trump: changed the power dynamics. She is now his Alpha, on par with Vladimir Putin. Trump just hasn’t figured that out.

No wonder then that Trump is so scared. No wonder he has put together an enemies list and is revoking security clearances. Aside from bullying, Trump really doesn’t have much in the way of power to frustrate his opponents. His best weapon is Brent Kavanaugh, if he gets confirmed to the Supreme Court, as is likely. If cases against Trump come before the court, Kavanaugh is likely to rule in his favor. Removing security clearances though is largely a toothless exercise in retribution. Trump may sense that removing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is another trap that will make things worse for him. His narcissism and the feeling that the walls are closing around him though may impel him to fire him anyhow.

To Trump’s critics though Omarosa is the gift that keeps on giving. Each release shows more flaws in Trump and his hapless administration. This will cause an inevitable reflexive series of outrage tweets by Trump, which keeps the pattern repeating indefinitely. Omarosa has Trump is caught in a Chinese finger trap, and Trump simply lacks the life experiences required to get out of the trap. He can’t even picture them.

It is possible that Trump will figure out that ignoring her is more productive, but it’s unlikely he will figure this out by himself. Someone on staff will have to surreptitiously suggest it and hammer it in again and again until it gets absorbed. With his case of NPD so advanced though, he probably won’t. It will probably grow to become an every bigger cyclone of fury and hate.

As for Omarosa, just as Trump got tons of free publicity during his campaign by giving the media something shiny and new to follow, Omarosa gets tons of free publicity too, stays constantly in the news and makes a name for herself. Copies of her books fly off shelves, and her recording and videos inside the Trump White House get constantly played. Her future looks bright.

So effectively Omarosa has out trumped Trump. Well played, Omarosa. The apprentice seems likely to topple the king.

 
The Thinker

Pope Francis: let priests be people and this clergy abuse problem will largely disappear

Catholic clerical abuse, mostly of minors, is hardly news. And yet this week such a story broke through to the front pages for a change, mainly because it gave us an understanding of the truly vast scope of the problem. Yesterday, a grand jury issued a report saying an estimated 300 Catholic priests in the Pennsylvania abused more than 1000 children, and likely a lot more than that, since the 1940s. Some of the reports are so graphic they will literally turn your stomach. I won’t repeat them here, but if your stomach can handle it go ahead and read them.

And yet it was hardly the only story of this type recently. Last month the archbishop of Washington D.C., Cardinal Theodore Mc­Carrick, was suspended from duties by Pope Francis. McCarrick is accused of abusing a 16-year-old altar boy in the 1970s. He was probably not the cardinal’s only victim. You will find lots more stories but few more egregious lately than these two. A cardinal is just one step from being pope!

The problem is not confined to the Catholic Church. A Unitarian Universalist minister that married me was involved in sexual relations with women who sought him out for counseling, also a terrible violation of trust. The Roman Catholic Church has a much larger problem than other denomiations, and it’s not just because of its enormous size. Adjusting for denomination size, the Catholic Church is still by far the largest denomination with this sort of problem.

For decades the Catholic Church has been trying to control this problem. Whatever they are doing doesn’t appear to be working very well. It’s my opinion though that the root of its problem is that priests (generally) are forbidden from marrying. It’s not solely a matter of not having sex. It’s also a problem due to a lack of intimacy.

People become rounded out through having deep and meaningful relationships. Marriage is an excellent way to engage in such a relationship, providing you marry the right partner. When you are truly intimate with someone, you see him or her not only with their clothes off but with their souls bared too. As I have noted, when you are in a committed relationship you may discover the real meaning of love: not just to care utterly for another person, but also to reveal your real self to yourself. Lacking such relationships you are unlikely to uncover the real you.

The Church is proposing more of the same solutions: putting procedures in place to minimize these situations, oversight by the laity and maybe even background investigations of potential priests. It really needs to acknowledge the fundamental issue: priests are people with basically the same issues as the rest of us and thus need to have the privileges of people. Because priests are people, they can aspire to be Christ-like, but taking the sacrament of Holy Orders won’t make them so. The devastation is all around the church, mostly in the minors whose trust was abused, but also within these priests. Without deeply authentic and healthy relationships in their lives they can’t help but crave them. Given that they are expected to be celibate, they are going to crave sex too. The two together though are a toxic combination that pulls priests toward dangerous relationships. They must bring the minor into a shared secret of their own broken and scarred souls, in the process making it very hard for these children to escape a lifetime of trauma.

Pope Francis is a pragmatic pope. He has taken some daring stances recently, like saying the death penalty is wrong in all situations. I wish he’d take the next daring stand: to let priests marry again, and if their inclination is toward homosexuality, let them marry their own sex. This allows them to be authentic to themselves and others, and this will carry over to the people they minister too. It’s not like priestly celibacy was always a requirement in the Catholic Church. Many popes had wives and extended families. For the last five hundred years or so the policy has changed. Somewhere along the line theological wires got crossed. Jesus never had sex, or so the Catholic Church believes, although its never mentioned in the Bible that he was a celibate. It’s quite possible that he and Mary Magdalene were married, or what passed for marriage in those days, and they had children too. No one really knows, including the Catholic Church, but they think they know and demand it of their priests. The vast size of clerical abuse in its ranks though demonstrates that their approach to the priesthood has been horrendously wrong.

No marriage is perfect and certainly mine is not. However, marriage can let you see things through the eyes of your spouse and give you a much different perspective. To take one example: I am a much kinder person because I married my wife. She is kind by nature and takes delight in animals, which is why there are usually a cat or two in our home. She has made me more compassionate, and I suspect I have made her more human too. My own blindness of my good points though makes it hard for me to say how I have helped her, but I likely have in many ways too.

If you are a priest, I guess you are entitled to have deep and rich platonic relationships with other priests, if you can find one between being shuffled around parishes, but these are hardly a substitute for a committed relationship. In any event, while priests may be trained in theology and the tenets of their faith, they lack much in the way of practice of expressing feelings like empathy, compassion or universalism. You don’t get these things from reading about them. They come from living life. It’s hard to say how much of Jesus’s life was real or myth, but he certainly walked around Palestine and got to know people’s needs, problems and perspectives. This made him an effective minister.

I doubt there is much training like this in seminary. You may learn the Bible backwards and forward, but to really understand Jesus, don’t you have to minister like Jesus too? Don’t you have to walk around communities, listen to people, absorb yourself in their problems and help address them? Jesus at least got it, but I don’t think priests get much if anything like this kind of training. Instead, most likely after seminary they will end up in a parish, which is by nature a pretty closed and insular community.

A parish is not the real world that Jesus traversed in his ministry. Yet if you are going to have a priesthood of people who act like Jesus, these are the kind of people you would want to attract: people who broadly understand the world as it actually is from living it deeply and richly. They need to have the freedom to be true human beings and have fulfilling and messy relationships like the rest of us.

There will always be a few bad apples among ministers in any congregation. These steps the Catholic Church is taking so far is merely putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound. It doesn’t address the fundamental issues that cause these problems in the first place. For the sake of Catholic congregations worldwide, the sooner they let their priests marry, the better.

 
The Thinker

Dialing it to 12 with a new asbestos use proposal

It’s not hard to feel daily outrage at the Trump Administration. Doubtless it will be remembered as the worst administration in US history. The only part I am looking forward to (aside from the day Trump leaves office) are the many memoirs that will document the inside story. I strongly suspect that however much I imagine them that my imagination is not nearly broad enough.

One such soon to be released memoir is from Omarosa Manigault Newman, one of the few blacks with any power in the Trump White House. Her memoir, Unhinged: An Insider Account of the Trump White House sure looks juicy. The book’s royalties should more than make up for the $15,000 per month she says she was offered to shut her up after she was fired by Chief of Staff John Kelly. Manigault Newman also apparently has tapes of Trump and others. They may get more listens than Richard Nixon’s secret tapes. Some reported revelations though won’t be all that surprising: she says Trump is a racist, narcissist and lacks impulse control.

One bizarre theory going around is that when Trump was elected we entered an alternate universe, kind of like that episode “Mirror, Mirror” from the original Star Trek series. Yes, it’s crazy but lately has seemed to be the most plausible explanation. That’s because every day of the Trump Administration is full of events crazier than the day before. The crazy meter gets dialed to 11 every day. The one though that really got my attention this week and perhaps deserved more attention: a proposal from the EPA for asbestos to be used again. This proposal is definitely at Level 12. Naturally, Donald Trump seems to approve.

Let’s be quite clear here: asbestos is a human carcinogen. You breathe in asbestos dust and it could kill you. It’s associated with lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. In the past it was used principally for insulation. If your home had it, it was hard to sell. You usually had to pay a specialized contractor to remove it. Even its substitute, fiberglass insulation, is not without issues, which is why workers wear masks when installing blown insulation. For more than fifty years we’ve known this, which is why asbestos can’t be used as insulation and its few uses are heavily regulated. The EPA proposal will allow the EPA to approve it for new uses. Naturally, this was one of former EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s “great” ideas.

I literally didn’t think it was possible for an EPA to take an action more evil than its proposal this month to relax EPA fuel standards, which followed a 2017 proposal to relax power plant emissions. Apparently we don’t have enough pollutants in the atmosphere. These rules are truly toxic in that they actually kill Americans. They make the air unhealthier. In doing so, the additional pollution hospitalizes millions needlessly. Eight million people a year die from air pollution worldwide. It comes mostly from the particulate matter placed into the atmosphere by carbon polluters, including our cars. Those with lung problems and sensitive immune systems are most impacted.

While deaths by air pollution are indirect, by allowing for new uses of asbestos the EPA is promoting new ways for asbestos to directly kill people that don’t kill anyone anymore. I’m not sure, but it may have killed my father. As with air pollution, these effects can manifest over decades. My father coughed persistently most of his life and died of pulmonary disease. Basically, his lungs died before his body. He never smoked but he was exposed to industrial solvents in closed areas earlier in his career, and spent his time crawling around our asbestos-laden attics too. His lungs turned into a fibroid mass unable to put oxygen in the blood. Once we determined that asbestos caused preventable deaths, our government banned it.

The Trump Administration though simply doesn’t care. And now it is actively finding ways to kill more of us by reintroducing products like asbestos whose lethality is not even in question.

Why on earth would any administration want to do this? It’s because they are so evil and hateful that they simply don’t care. They want people to be more miserable. They want people to die. That’s because apparently they are a bunch of sadists. Sometimes though it bites back at one of their own. One of the infamously conservative Koch brothers, David Koch, has been battling prostate cancer for decades. It’s probably not related to the chemicals he and his brother’s industries have been pumping into the air, but who can say for sure? At 78, he is retiring.

But maybe it’s because the Trump Administration really believes its own bullshit: that everything is not related and that there is no limit to the amount of industrial pollutants we can dump into the environment because none of it impacts nature or people. I’d like to think that they aren’t really that dumb and just mentally ill sadists instead. But I’m sad to say I do believe that Donald Trump really is this dumb. Maybe I’ll read about it in Manigault Newman’s memoir.

 
The Thinker

Trade deficits don’t matter but tariffs sure do

A couple of posts ago I pointed out that trade deficits don’t really matter. This is because trade deficits merely report the difference of the value of goods exchanged between countries. A trade deficit with China demonstrates that in general we get better bargains trading with companies in China than from buying them internally or from other countries.

Tariffs on the other hand do matter, a lot. Over the weekend Donald Trump, our “very stable genius” president demonstrated how profoundly ignorant he was on how tariffs work. Trump stated that tariffs are helping to pay down the national debt.

In the sense that higher taxes make deficits lower if spending is kept constant, Trump is right. But Trump apparently thinks it’s foreign countries that are paying these tariffs, like before a freighter from China unloads its cargo in Los Angeles the government of China wires the tariff to the United States Treasury. That’s not how it works at all. Chinese manufacturers don’t pay a tariff to bring their goods into our country either.

So who is paying? You: the American consumer. Tariffs amount to tax increases, but these tax increases are sneaky. Since you don’t buy directly from companies in China, you don’t see a tariff added to your bill of sale. But when a company you shop at does, like Walmart, they send a check to the U.S. treasury for the amount of the tariff.

Companies can absorb the tariff. Being profit-making though they will almost always pass the cost on to you by raising their prices. We saw this recently when Coke announced it was raising prices, because its cost for imported aluminum used to make its cans went up.

The Coca Cola Company of course can shop around elsewhere for aluminum. It looks like there is no better deal. The kind of finished aluminum they use is either not made in the USA or is cheaper to buy from China in spite of the tariffs. This is true of lots of products in our modern economy. One way for companies to make profits is to specialize. However, the tariff system seems to assume we principally trade commodities like oil and wheat, not rolls of aluminum with the exact thickness Coke needs for its soft drink cans.

Tariffs thus amount to sneaky indirect tax increases. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of their detrimental effect on our economy. When we have to pay more for the same goods and services, this is inflation. And inflation from tariffs is already showing up. In June 2018, prices rose .4% from May 2018, largely due to tariffs. If this continues at this rate for the next twelve months, prices will be 4.8% higher annually. This is a significant increase in inflation compared to rates we are used to of 2% per year or less. It’s likelier though that the effect of tariffs is just beginning, and that soon inflation in June will seem like one of our better months.

As long as wages keep up with inflation, then perhaps inflation doesn’t matter. Our unemployment rate may be 3.9%, but wage growth has been anemic at best. In fact, most American workers have lost money because wage growth has not kept up with inflation. Unless Americans borrow money to make up the difference, which unfortunately they are doing at record rates, then without commensurate increases in wages they will consume less, dragging down the economy.

So it’s pretty clear that the real effect of tariffs is to stifle overall economic growth. Strict tariffs caused the Great Depression. While they allowed us to do more buying local, retaliatory tariffs as we are seeing now also made it hard to export our goods. With fewer buying our products, commodity prices for things we do make tend to collapse. So when the government charges tariffs, it is playing a very dangerous game. I’d like to think our administration knows what it’s doing, but Trump’s remarks this weekend show he fundamentally misunderstands how tariffs work. Apparently his supporters don’t understand either, as they roared their approval.

In any event, with recent tax cuts that benefit primarily the very wealthy, these modest tariffs will do little to boost tax revenues; the Post article puts the effect at .1%. But even the Post article understates the true cost of tariffs. Here are some of the other direct effects:

  • It increases government spending for social security, government pensions and many entitlements that are tied to the cost of living
  • It increases the cost of medical care, including Medicare, Medicaid and health care for veterans by pushing up prices for imported goods and services like certain medicines
  • It increases the cost of borrowing, as inflation tends to raise interest rates, which means the U.S. Treasury will have to increase interest rates to attract investors
  • Subsidies already announced will cost the government, for example the $12 billion the Trump Administration wants to give farmers to offset the effects of its tariffs

And then there are the indirect costs, which include:

  • Higher prices and inflation in general
  • Reduced employment in sectors affected by counter-tariffs
  • Lower profits as fewer goods and services are bought and sold
  • Likely increases in unemployment

Try as it might, the Trump Administration’s tariffs policies won’t do much more than partially offset tariffs’ downsides. It is likely to raise prices, reduce employment, feed inflation and reduce economic activity. Quite frankly, these tariffs are a disastrous policy.

But don’t take my world for it. The wreckage is already unfolding. It’s only going to get worse and may hit a crescendo around the midterms.

 
The Thinker

Upping authentication with a U2F device

As the saying goes, you are not paranoid if they really are out to get you. When it comes to online security, it’s fair to say we are justifiably paranoid. Which is why when I learned about a much better way to authenticate myself on the web, it didn’t take much arm-twisting to buy my first U2F device.

U2F what? What is it and why would you want one? The “2F” part stands for “two-factor”. When you login to many sites on the web, you have the option for two-factor authentication. This usually means that in addition to providing something you know (typically a username and password) you also provide some other different type of credential. This ups the likelihood that you are really you.

For example, when I login to my Google account on a new device, because my account is set up for two-factor authentication login, I have it send my cell phone a text message. The code I receive in the SMS message is then used to complete my login to Google.

That sounds pretty secure, but it’s not nearly secure enough. That’s because it’s still vulnerable. If someone knows your username and password, they probably also know who you are. And if they know who you are they can probably get your mobile number, if they don’t have it already from being your “friend”. And if they know your mobile number, it’s possible to trick your carrier to send the SMS to a different device. Moreover, there’s no security in SMS messages. They are sent as plain text over the cellular network. Suddenly, two-factor authentication seems a lot more like one-factor authentication.

This was a problem even at Google. To solve it they bought their employees a whole bunch of U2F (Universal Two-Factor) devices manufactured by a company called Yubico. These devices stopped phishing attacks dead, effectively making accessing Google much more secure for its 85,000 trusted employees.

My Feitan U2F device with NFC support

My Feitan U2F device with NFC support

Hey, I want some of that! And now you can too!

How does this work? First you need to know that U2F is a standard. Any manufacturer can make a U2F device, but arguably Yubico was first to market in a significant way. Second, it’s a hardware device, basically a chip embedded inside a piece of plastic, usually connected to a USB-A interface. The chip lets it create keys, similar to keys to securely access websites. It creates two keys, a private key that cannot be externally read and which exists only on the device, and a public key that works only with the site that you connect to. However, it only creates the public key after you login (usually with a username and password) and it verifies the site is authentic. Once the site has the public key, it can be used only with your device.

Is there a downside? Not in the technology itself, although some of the older models are slower than the newer ones at generating keys. Its main drawback currently is that not enough websites have integrated it. The big ones like Google and Facebook support it. One other drawback: not all browsers support it, at least natively. Chrome, Firefox and Opera do. Most of the rest can support it via a plugin.

Still, the list of sites that do support it is growing. Both Windows and Mac support U2F during login. When enabled, you must plug in the device, essentially authenticating your computer with the operating system. Other sites that can use it include: Dropbox, Twitter, Salesforce, GitHub, LastPass and Dell. Of these the one that tickles my fancy is LastPass. Like lots of people I used it as my password manager. Unfortunately, it’s a feature of LastPass Premium only, but if you spring for it, it makes it much more secure plus it removes the hassle of having to constantly type in your often not terribly secure master password. Unfortunately, most banks don’t support U2F yet. You would think that they would want to be on the leading edge of this technology.

These devices can effectively store an unlimited set of keys. In addition, you don’t always have to attach it to a single profile. If you have multiple profiles, the same device can securely support them, or even an anonymous association with a website.

In my case, I keep a lot of customer information in Google’s cloud, accessible only to me through my Google account. So I have plenty of reason to up my security practices.

One issue is whether you want to use these devices with mobile devices. It can be done, but most mobile devices don’t have a USB-A port. However, pretty much all of them support the NFC (Near Field Communication) standard, used for systems like Apple Pay. In this case, you just place the device next to your mobile phone when you login. So it might behoove you to buy a U2F device that comes with NFC support too.

That’s what I ended up buying, not a Yubico device with this feature (which costs about $50), but a Feitian ePass NFC FIDO U2F Security Key, which is equivalent but costs $30 less. It’s simple to use in both cases and I can easily store it on my key ring.

The device does not solve all security issues on the web, but it easily and elegantly solves the authentication issue. Even if you lose your key, you still have protection. Because it is used with two-factor authentication, someone would still have to know your username and password. Meanwhile, you could buy a new device and create a new public key for use with the website.

Some content management systems can work with it. WordPress is used by about 40% of websites, so if you have a WordPress site you can install the Contact plugin to allow U2F authentication.

I’m looking forward to less hassle and more security from my U2F device, and my clients should be too.

 
The Thinker

Do trade deficits really matter?

So we are having trade wars at the moment. Trump started all of them, first with a 30% tariff on solar panels manufactured in China but then on steel imports. It expanded into tariffs against Canada, Mexico, the European Union and more tariffs on China. Predictably these countries responded with counter-tariffs designed to give Trump’s biggest supporters a case of indigestion. And it’s working. Farming is typically a low margin business. With less demand, prices drop. With fewer crops being sold it is quickly making agriculture here unprofitable. Trump says that tariff wars are easy wins. That wasn’t the case in 1929 when they caused a global depression.

Trump acts like trade deficits really matter. Unquestionably they do matter to some businesses and people, i.e. those affected by them. After NAFTA was passed we lost a lot of our industrial base simply because countries like Mexico could manufacture stuff a lot cheaper than we could. To compete though in many ways we have upped our game. We are much more of a service economy now and we design leading edge stuff that is often manufactured elsewhere. Aside from Apple products, there is also stuff like my CPAP machine. This work is more specialized and the margins must be higher.

I don’t recall a time when the United States was not carrying a trade deficit. Perhaps we weren’t back in the 60s and 70s, but I was much younger then. And there are scattered months here and there when we do export more than we import. We have trade surpluses with some countries, like Canada. It’s a mystery then why Trump targeted that country. Mostly though it’s the other way around. While some sectors have suffered from all this free trade, I think overall it’s been a benefit.

One big benefit has been that trade has kept prices and thus inflation low. As long as these tariffs are in place, we are likely to see creeping inflation again. And Americans love imports. Low prices have helped us live beyond our means and our stagnant wages. It’s how companies like Walmart stay in business. Moreover, these imports increase competition and that too tends to lower prices. In many cases, the best quality products are available overseas. Take hybrid cars, for example. Yesterday I was in a neighbor’s Toyota Prius Prime and marveling at its engineering. This model may have been manufactured in the United States, but it’s an amazing value for the money. Since he too has solar panels on his house, most of the time he is driving using its electric motor. He’s getting very close to living carbon free, thanks to hybrids built and perfected overseas.

We have a choice of where we buy things. Most likely my next car will also be a foreign hybrid or fully electric car built or designed overseas. If I buy a Toyota Prius built in Japan and pay $30,000 for the privilege, while it causes a trade imbalance, it’s not like I didn’t get anything for my money. I get a great value in a car that gets 51mpg when it’s not running in fully electric mode. The effect of buying a foreign car is that some Americans (presumably) did not have a part in its design and manufacturing. Maybe that’s bad for the economy if we presume that whoever would have been building the car here in the states wasn’t doing work of similar or greater value. I’m not an economist but I’m not sure we can credibly make that claim.

In the case of hybrids and electric cars, American auto manufacturers are upping their game. In one case (Tesla) are providing a superior (albeit much more expensive) alternative. The Chevy Volt and Bolt are two other examples, although their cost is subsidized by generous federal tax credits. Tariffs on cars manufactured overseas do make our domestic versions more competitive, but only by raising foreign car prices. It doesn’t actually save buyers any money; in fact we pay a double penalty for tariffs: higher costs and potentially less competition.

There is certainly a convincing case to be made that China trades unfairly. To gain market share, it heavily subsidizes certain sectors like its solar and shipping sectors. It often doesn’t respect international copyright laws. In most cases though foreign products are cheaper because they can manufacture them for less. Often these industries are low profit. It’s unclear why we would want to compete in these low profit industries when doing so probably won’t give us a better lifestyle. Tariffs are at best a poor way for addressing these issues. They may work, but history is generally against you. Leveraging them in a large way like we are doing now is very dangerous, as the Great Depression attests.

In any event, the United States is not blameless. Even before these latest rounds of tariffs, we have been subsidizing many of our own industries through longstanding tariffs, including our sugar and peanut businesses. Free trade is one of these ideals that are rarely fully realized. When it is, someone is usually paying a price. Americans pay much more for sugar and peanuts than is necessary, and now we’re paying more for steel and solar panels too.

The evidence doesn’t seem to prove that trade deficits cause a country’s decline. In some ways they can demonstrate resilience. The strong U.S. dollar shows that we are a strong country in spite of these trade deficits. To me, trade deficits suggest that our knowledge economy is our real strength. Anything that we can do to continue to foster that, for example by allowing more technical people to acquire H1-B visas, should be a good use of government. On commodities like agriculture, we are highly efficient. In spite of the burgeoning world population, we can feed much of the world. Perhaps we should be strategically reducing the amount of farmland under cultivation to keep farming profitable.

I doubt that tariffs are the instrument we need. And I really am skeptical that trade deficits matter at all.

 
The Thinker

Trump is literally losing his mind

I’ve been returning to the original theme of this blog lately: Occam’s Razor. So let’s cut to the chase today: Trump is literally losing his mind.

Let’s stop pretending that Trump is the “very stable genius” that he claims to be. It’s just laughable. Last week’s “summit” in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin should put that to bed. In a press conference after the “summit”, Trump said he could not see how Russia could be responsible for hacking the 2016 elections, despite conclusive evidence from our intelligence community that he was presented with before his inauguration. After all, Putin had told him so very forcefully. Obviously the word of a former KGB agent is much more reliable than the consensus of our entire intelligence community. Back in DC his advisers got him to read a statement saying just the opposite, but he added that it could have been anyone. Last night he was back at it again, so apparently it’s Obama and “Crooked Hillary’s” fault, not the Russians. He called out Obama for not taking action when Obama in fact did take action. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s obstruction though led to a watered down statement prior to the election on Russian meddling instead.

Does he look like a “very stable genius” to you? On this one issue alone, he vacillates back and forth. But of course he does this constantly, making him the most unstable person in the world at the moment. Geniuses of course rarely vacillate, but being very intelligent most are open to changing their minds if the weight of impartial evidence is against them. The only part of “very stable genius” that applies to Trump is the very part. He is very something. Occam’s Razor suggests he is very mentally ill.

Trump is hardly alone there. Mental illness is rife in this country. I noted ten years ago that many very intelligent people I have met struck me as mentally ill. This is in part because intelligence by itself does not mean you won’t suffer mental illness. In Trump’s case though it looks like he is suffering true cognitive decline. Watch videos of Trump from ten or twenty years ago. He was still insufferable, but he could put coherent thoughts together. His vocabulary was much richer. He could express complex thoughts. He could express nuance.

Now his vocabulary sounds like a fourth grader. It’s not news to his staff. They give him briefing books he won’t read. They try to summarize complex topics into a few bullet points, but he still doesn’t absorb them. Heck, he walked into a “summit” with Vladimir Putin without a formal agenda and without aides taking notes. This allowed Putin after the summit to claim that Trump agreed with policies (like Russia’s annexation of Crimea) that he may not have agreed to. Trump’s attention span is very short and he can’t seem to remember anything.

He is placing our country in unique peril. Which means that it’s time for a 25th Amendment remedy. Section 4 of the amendment applies here. It basically puts the onus on Vice President Mike Pence to get a majority of the cabinet members to tell the Senate that Trump is unable to discharge his duties, in this case because of likely mental illness.

Pence of course is his sycophant so this doesn’t look likely, at least in the short term. But that doesn’t mean the conversation should not start in earnest. Yet it seems to be something even Democrats don’t want to say aloud. Certainly they and many Republicans in Congress are already thinking it. Republicans lack the political courage to bring up the topic. Democrats should not.

Americans need to know their president is not mentally ill. The White House tried to dodge this issue with Trump’s last physical. The White House physician Ronnie Jackson gave him the simplest of cognitive tests, which he passed. Jackson has since stepped down as his physician, given his failed nomination as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and allegations of the abusive environment he created within the White House medical staff.

Occam’s Razor is not always right, but it does suggest that the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct. So Democrats should openly express serious concern about Trump’s mental health. This way it at least becomes a legitimate topic of conversation. Ideally those speaking should be key Democrats like Minority Leaders Pelosi and Schumer. They could suggest perhaps three impartial leading psychiatrists give him a battery of evaluative tests and submit a report to Congress. It’s possible but unlikely that Trump will ace them all. In which case the question will be answered: Trump’s increasingly dangerous and bizarre behavior is due to some factors other than mental illness, in which case impeachment and removal is appropriate.

Our operating assumption has always been that our president would be a sane person. This is seriously under question now, particularly when you get tweets from Trump like this latest tirade against Iran:

We can’t start this process soon enough.

 
The Thinker

Occam’s razor makes Trump’s treason look obvious

Back in 2002, when I started this blog, I was looking for a theme. Occam’s Razor obviously came to mind since I thought it would have a largely intellectual bent. It best explained where my head was at, since the principle that the simplest solution was the most likely one is borne out in so many aspects of life. There wouldn’t be many posts on this blog though if I only discussed Occam’s Razor. Today though I return to my original theme to state what looks painfully obvious to me: Occam’s Razor plainly tells us that our president is a traitor.

There are other explanations out there but even for Donald Trump these other explanations look ridiculous. For example, I could go with the solution that he is a reflexive narcissist and such a complete dunderhead that even he has no idea that he is a traitor. I can’t discount this altogether but while Trump is pretty dumb and incredibly self absorbed, he’s not that dumb. If he is, well his narcissistic personality disorder is one for the textbooks.

Yesterday’s widely panned press conference after his two-hour “summit” with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki though should have made even the most partisan Trump supporter reel. Even for them, it should have been one of those “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” moments. Trump is so eager to please Vladimir Putin that he will take his word that the Russians had nothing to do with trying to influence the 2016 elections and throw the entire U.S. intelligence community under the bus if necessary.

Just late last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted twelve Russians for hacking into our election systems and political party websites at the behest of the Russian Federation, which is to say at the behest of Vladimir Putin. He identified them by name. A federal grand jury confirmed these indictments. This means in the unlikely event these people come to trial the evidence against them is solid. This evidence was accumulated by our intelligence agencies. Rest assured they have the goods on them and could prove their guilt in a court of law. This is because we have a vast (though at times imperfect) intelligence system that collected voluminous data on them. It’s so voluminous that Putin is likely astonished by its breadth and specificity and is wondering what spies he has in his government.

While these twelve are likely beyond the reach of our government, the same can’t be said about Mariia Butina, a Russian who arrived here a few years ago on a supposedly student visa and who was arrested yesterday for attempting to set up back channels between the Russian Federation and the Trump campaign. It’s not like there is any question about her guilt. She did a great job. Ask Donald Trump Jr. Ask the NRA, which met with her and apparently illegally channeled Russian money into its election fund to elect Trump. At least we have custody of Butina. It’s unlikely she will be a free woman again, at least not for many decades.

When following a trail, sometimes you only have a few breadcrumbs to go on. In the case of Trump’s collusion and treason there are large turds (and scattered Chicken McNugget containers) every ten feet along this trail.

It’s all in plain sight. (“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Later that very day, the hacking began.) Doubtless Robert Mueller is piecing it all together and I doubt he is breaking a sweat finding the evidence. But also ask yourself: what would you want from a U.S. president if you were Vladimir Putin? Would you want a president that would try to break up NATO as well as the G7? Someone that would start trade wars and call our closest neighbor Canada an enemy? That would okay Russia’s annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine? That tacitly supports Russia’s support for Syria? Can you name one thing that Trump has done that Putin would find offensive?

It’s not hard to see how Trump was compromised. We know for a fact at Russian oligarchs kept him in wealth through the Great Recession through loans via Deutsche Bank, facilitated by soon to be former Justice Kennedy’s son. (Curious that he resigned after he had appointed his law clerks for next year.) Trump looks up to his hips in money laundering, mostly by Russian oligarchs paying inflated prices for his condos, likely at the insistence of Putin. No Russian agent had to break a sweat trying to compromise him; the only thing he smells is money and like a bloodhound he follows it with single-minded focus.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, Trump has been compromised and has been used by the Russians for a long time. They simply could not have picked a better Manchurian president. Russian intelligence plays a long game. They baited him decades ago, fed his vanity and ego and played his family like a fiddle. They also played the Republican Party by feeding its obsessions and vanities. We saw this when they changed the party’s platform on Russia and Ukraine. No other explanation comes even close to being plausible.

Republicans are in denial but I’m betting that the astute ones know they are supporting a traitor. Many of them don’t care. They are democratic in name only; and freedom is a principle that only applies to people in their socioeconomic class. Like Trump, most of them love the idea of an authoritarian government, as long as they are in charge and thus feel some kinship with a dictatorial regime. Trump sees Putin and a Russian alliance as part of a great white hope strategy. By aligning with other bigots he can perhaps make America white again and use Russian resources to do it.

The only problem is that he swore to uphold the constitution of the United States and its derived laws. He’s obviously doing the exact opposite. Because of this, he should be impeached and convicted, but this depends on a Republican Party with a spine it no longer possesses. It’s quite possible though (yet still unlikely) that after a disastrous midterm they will finally inhale the smelling salts and throw this bloated orange bastard overboard. After impeachment and removal, he should be tried for being the traitor that he is and has been.

 
The Thinker

Linux Mint may be the Windows killer

I haven’t used the Windows operating system as my principle operating system for ten years. For a decade I have been using an iMac with its MacOS operating system and paying a premium for the privilege. I didn’t mind though. I just couldn’t stand Windows anymore. And since MacOS was basically written on top of UNIX, I could leverage my UNIX skills completely.

Linux Mint (Cinnamon edition)

Linux Mint (Cinnamon edition)

My loathing of Windows though was not enough to keep me from buying a Windows laptop. I don’t use it much and given this I didn’t want to pay the premium for a Mac laptop. I formally left the Windows world about the time I retired in 2014, where using Windows 7 was required. My laptop came with Windows 10. The more I used Windows 10, the more I realized I liked it less than Windows 7. It’s so flashy and so terribly annoying. Amongst its many faults is that it will frequently update itself during booting it up, sometimes taking ten minutes or more before I could actually use it. There’s that and it feels so bloated with all the flashy controls, not to mention all the junk software that came installed.

I’ve made it a goal to move off the Mac when I retire my iMac. The only alternative though seemed to be Windows. I couldn’t see myself going back to that. But maybe there was finally a distribution (“distro”) of Linux for the desktop that was finally mature enough to replace both Windows and MacOS?

This led me to a little project to partition my laptop’s drive so I could at least boot up to another operating system rather than wait for Windows 10 to be usable. In case you haven’t heard, Linux is an operating system. Haven’t heard of it? If you have an Android-based smartphone, you are already using it. Google’s Android operating system is actually a wrapper around a minimized version of Linux. So if you’ve been thinking that Windows was the most popular operating system, you are wrong. It’s really Linux, hidden inside your Android smartphone.

When Google created Android, it realized it was a completely different platform so the old constraints like “can I run Microsoft Office on it?” didn’t apply. They could build it properly and since Linux was already used on devices of all sorts (not to mention servers, where it predominates) they wrote a wrapper around free and open-source Linux and called it Android.

So if you are looking at trends, you are realizing that Linux is taking over. It’s only lagging behind on the desktop. One reason Linux is lagging on the desktop is that there are so many variants (distros) of Linux. I picked one pretty much at random to place on a partition on my laptop: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is nice but it doesn’t behave like Windows. It also doesn’t behave like MacOS. If you are going to move to a Linux desktop, it should at least work similarly to what you are already using.

It didn’t take me more than a week for me to say goodbye to Ubuntu. A friend recommended the Linux Mint distro saying it was written to be Windows-like. So I installed it and took it for a spin.

One thing I noticed right away: Linux Mint booted up fast: really fast, at least compared with Windows 10. Windows 10 gave the illusion that you could use it right away but in fact it sort of hung after you logged in while all sorts of background programs tediously loaded. Mint though was quickly loaded and usable. And it had a Start-like button in the bottom left corner and task bar on the bottom just like Windows. Clicking on the button brought up a Windows-like navigation pane. Nice!

But what was under the hood? Firefox came preinstalled, but also LibreOffice, an open source Office-like set of programs. I quickly learned that only the fussiest people would complain about these programs compared with Microsoft Office because probably less than 2% of us need the most advanced features of Office. LibreOffice is perfectly fine and you have to look hard to figure out what is different.

Pretty much everything I needed was already installed, but there was a Software Manager off the “Start” button that made quick work of installing lots of other useful software. What wasn’t in the Software Manager was often available from various websites. If you download a Debian package (.deb files) from a website, Firefox will recognize it and it is quickly installed. Since there is usually a Debian package for programs written for Linux, this means that few programs Linux programs that are not available for Mint.

While Mint comes with Firefox, if you love Chrome you can download that too. Only it’s not quite Chrome, but Chromium, basically the open-source version of Chrome. Google adds their own proprietary layers on top of Chromium to do things like make it friendlier with its services like GMail and call it Chrome. Since I do IT consulting, I didn’t have problems finding very familiar software I use every day. Filezilla is available for Mint. Since I couldn’t find a Debian package, I had to hunt for a RPM (RedHat Package Manager) package for XAMPP, a program that lets me install a local development environment for the web. This required some “hands on” work from the command prompt to install it, but it was the exception.

Strangely, I hooked my wife, a Windows bigot who spurned my iMac. Her needs are modest: mostly Firefox, Thunderbird for email, VLC for playing videos and Steam for playing games. It turned out there was a Steam engine for Linux that was preinstalled on Mint, as well as Firefox, Thunderbird and VLC. She put it on a rebuilt laptop, throwing away Windows 10 entirely and replacing it with Linux Mint. Tomorrow she is off to Las Vegas to visit friends, and doubtless she will show off her laptop with its Windows-friendly Linux Mint OS on it. She loves it and is amazed by how quickly it boots and is usable.

If you have to run Windows, you can run it virtually inside of Mint using WINE (a Windows emulator) which is also preinstalled. As for replacing my iMac, I don’t think there’s a way to run MacOS virtually inside of Linux. But there are Linux distros that try to emulate the Mac’s user interface. These include Elementary OS, Deepin Linux, Backslash Linux, Gmac Linux and Trenta OS. Of these, Gmac Linux looks the most Mac-like.

About the only software I can’t easily replace is Quicken. I could run it as a service online; I’d just prefer not to trust all my financial data online. Obviously there is some software like Photoshop that is not available for Linux distros, but may be some day. There are some programs that offer 90% of its functionality and are free. Chances are there is an open-source version that’s close enough to those you use everyday on Windows that you won’t mind trading a few differences for the cost (free!)

Playing with Linux Mint though has me thinking that it may kill off Windows. It behaves very similarly, is faster, more nimble, much more stable and doesn’t feel lethargic and bloated like Windows. Yet it’s also so familiar while feeling easier to use. Microsoft may be seeing the beginning of the end of Windows. To compete it may opt to turn Windows into a Linux distro, much like Android became a very unique distro of Linux for handheld devices. Or by being introduced to it through people like my wife, Windows users may discover Linux Mint and make the switch too.

 
The Thinker

Republicans reestablish the patriarchy

For Republicans, Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as the justice to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court is like winning the Triple Crown. It’s the greatest news possible for them. This is because with Kennedy’s departure and Kavanaugh’s likely lifetime appointment, Republicans will finally formally control all three branches of government.

The Supreme Court though has always been the one that has mattered the most. It’s just that for decades it has teetered between liberal and conservative justices, with Justice Kennedy usually the one making the final say on controversial issues like gay marriage. Arguably Kennedy was our only truly impartial jurist. That should disappear if Kavanaugh dons those black robes, which means it will be rare at best to get rulings without a Republican take on the law.

Notice I did not say a conservative take on the law, because the so-called conservatives on the court have been anything but that lately, frequently breaking precedence with previous courts. Traditionally, conservatives have respected jurisprudence. Kavanaugh’s record as a judge shows little respect for precedence. He has argued that the president has no checks on his power other than impeachment and removal. This would be news to previous courts such as the one that required President Nixon to turn over tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor. A real conservative should deride any judge that thinks anyone is beyond the law, but that’s what Kavanaugh has argued about the president.

I hesitate to tell our Democratic senators to give up on opposing his nomination. He has at best a 1:10 chance of being rejected. I’d like Democrats to fight dirty because that’s how Republicans won this trifecta. They fought dirty for decades to push their power far beyond the consent of those they govern. This nomination though is vindication for them in a strategy that clearly worked. They out-hustled Democrats by using tactics that were minimally suspect and maximally appalling.

Political gerrymandering is not illegal since the Constitution delegates voting rules to the states, at least those laws not dictated by federal law. The Voting Rights Act was one tool that for decades made it harder but clearly not impossible to disenfranchise voters. All that changed in Shelby v. Holder (2013), which overturned the rule that certain states needed preclearance by the Department of Justice before changing their voting laws. Five grumpy “conservative” justices (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) thus cemented voter disenfranchisement as an acceptable political tactic. Within 24 hours of the decision, Alabama announced that it would require photo identification at the polls, a direct result of this decision. Alabama simply could not wait to disenfranchise minority voters.

So not only are we likely to have a true “conservative” court soon, but the patriarchy is fully in charge, which is what really makes them giddy. The five “conservative” justices are all men. These five men will likely rule within the next few years that women no longer have control over their own bodies, when they allow states to outlaw abortions. Twenty-two states have laws in place that will immediately outlaw abortions when it is legal to do so. This strangely includes Massachusetts where I live, which never got around to overturning its law.

You would hope that conservative justices would be pro-freedom, but if you look at their actual rulings, it’s pro-freedom mostly for people a lot like them: white, rich and male. It’s not for women; at least not after Roe v. Wade gets overturned. It’s clearly not for blacks and Hispanics, who must jump through increasingly onerous hoops to vote if they can vote at all. It may not be for gays and transgender Americans, whose recent expanded rights to marry and use bathrooms of their gender are at jeopardy again. Their gay marriage ruling may get overturned since Kennedy is no longer the swing vote.

It’s all pretty bleak unless you are one of these “conservatives” that adhere to two levels of justice: one for people like them and a harsher one for everyone else. For them, this is good and with five “conservatives” on the Supreme Court they lock down the power that matter most to them – the power to make people do what they want – for decades to come.

There are some things that Democrats can try. They can hope to stay united and peel off Republican senators Murkowski and Collins. This probably won’t work, which is why I gave it 1:10 odds. They could refuse to vote on the nomination although it’s unclear if this would change the outcome. They could try to shut down all Senate business until after the midterms when Democrats might control the chamber again. Or they could insist that President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, first get the vote he was denied in simple fairness.

Of course, it’s fighting dirty that Republicans do best. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to bring Garland’s nomination up for a vote was very dirty and unprecedented. It would be fitting if Democrats refused to move this nomination until this error is corrected. Republicans though have no conscience. This tactic never bothered them at all. With them, it’s always party before country.

Still, demographics do matter. Our country is coloring up and becoming more liberal and secular every year, in spite of Republican actions to stem this tide. Democrats and independents must crash the gate somehow and regain control despite the wholesale gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement unleashed by Republicans.

The far right Infowars talk show wacko Alex Jones famously predicted that Democrats would start a new civil war this July 4. Republicans would be wise to remember that the people have a right to revolution to overthrow unjust governments; it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. Through dirty and undemocratic tactics, Republicans have created a fundamentally unjust government that have disenfranchised large blocks of citizens. These forces cannot be forever bottled up against the consent of the governed.

 

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