The odd advantages of having a stupid president

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed, Donald Trump is pretty damned stupid. Obviously he is not retarded. His vocabulary, while often elementary school level, is enough to be understood. He still knows how to apply the spray tan, dye his hair, then lacquer it with industrial strength hair spray. Anyhow, if you have any doubt, watch Trump’s news conference yesterday.

In any normal times, this would have leaders of both parties rushing to invoke the 25th Amendment. And they should have, but of course Republicans in Congress are too cowardly to admit the obvious. He is so stupid. Any half self-aware president would not announce that their national emergency for a border wall with Mexico wasn’t really a national emergency, undercutting the many cases that will come before various courts. But more than a few of them were probably thinking: He’s so stupid he probably doesn’t have the wherewithal to follow through anyhow, so what does it matter? Donald Trump goes for nice shiny objects that are dangled in front of him, hopefully with mirrors that reflect his glorious visage. He has proven staggeringly inept at actually getting anything done.

Think about it: he had control of all branches of government for two years and his signature accomplishment was piling on more tax cuts for the wealthy, something the Republican Party can always agree on. I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing that my federal taxes are actually going up, but I live in a relatively high tax state now (Massachusetts) and I can’t claim to be in the top ten percent of income earners. To the extent he has been successful, it’s been in putting minions in charge of various departments with unusual wile and animus, but who are usually deeply corrupt such as Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt. They have no problem throwing people under the bus if it makes millionaires and corporations richer. It’s obvious though that while Trump wants to appear as an effective president, he simply can’t bother to spend the time to actually be one.

So this in a way is an advantage. Yes, he can foul up the machinery of government, but he’s not smart enough to do it adroitly. This means if you are going to elect a fascist as president, he’s the best possible fascist if you want to keep your constitutional democracy. This is because he is so stupid and clueless. He can’t be bothered to actually spend the time necessary to be a mendacious fascist, as his official schedule shows because it is loaded with “executive time” (read: watching Fox News).

It must bother the heck out of Vladimir Putin, but doubtless he was smart enough to realize Trump’s limitations. You get the sycophant you have, not the one you actually need. He was better than nothing but he will hardly bring about the rapid collapse of the United States.

Under the circumstances, our democratic government is handling his presidency pretty well. Many of his cabinet secretaries work against Trump’s aims, and do so overtly. The civil service seems to be morphing as best it can to provide passive resistance. During the latest shutdown, air traffic controllers showed Trump who was really in charge. This is amazing if you recall that Reagan fired all air traffic controllers for going on strike. The courts seem largely untouched, but stacking them with more Republican jurists will prove problematic over time. And now that Democrats control the House, it’s pretty clear that Trump’s agenda is blocked. No wonder then that he is left to declare fake “national emergencies” to stop the flow of migrants into our country, which is just 25% of the peak of the problem during the Clinton presidency.

Although the precedence for this emergency is very bad, don’t lose too much sleep over any more wall actually getting built. While it’s unlikely that Congress will overturn it, it is very likely that it will be ricocheting through the courts at least until the 2020 election, by which time it is likely to be moot. Trump has to hope he can win reelection and convince the Supreme Court to uphold his bogus emergency. That is, if he can be bothered to focus on it for the remainder of his term. Most likely he will be off playing with other new and shiny toys instead.

Should this happen again though it’s unlikely that our next fascist president will be as stupid as Trump. Hopefully Congress will turn blue and rewrite the national emergency law to prohibit exactly what Trump is trying to do. Let’s just be glad that if a Republican had to be elected president in 2016, it was Donald Trump and not Dick Cheney.

Trump folds

The Thinker by Rodin

Yea! We get to have an open federal government again! Donald Trump threw in the towel this afternoon and agreed to reopen government, at least for three weeks and without getting his stupid border wall. Just a couple of days ago I lamented that I couldn’t see how this would end. I was not alone. But very suddenly, it all changed.

We’ll probably not know for a long time what changed Trump’s mind. If I had to guess, it was the wheels spinning off the federal government. Air traffic controllers were calling in sick in enough numbers that it caused the FAA to suspend air traffic in and out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. When stuff like this happens, the pain extends beyond federal employees, their families and federal contractors. It hits the general public. And that makes them mad.

So it may be the unpaid but essential federal employees who brought the shutdown to an end by refusing to take the crap they were dished out anymore and calling in sick. It’s one thing for Trump to piss off his base; he’s basically been holding the government hostage to show Ann Coulter that he’s a real man. It’s quite another thing to be held responsible, not for the shutdown (all the polls show he’s being held to blame) but for something truly serious like an E. Coli outbreak or two airliners crashing into each other because there were insufficient controllers on duty.

This whole shutdown has been counterproductive to Trump’s and the Republican Party’s ends. It was stupid to do. It was an impulsive and rash decision by Trump in the first place. He is consistent in not thinking through the consequences of his actions. But it has had some surprising results. For the first time in my memory, the general public sympathizes with federal employees. They are no longer an evil, overpaid, lazy bunch of bureaucrats. They are real people who are seen as necessary and underpaid to boot.

The Republican Party has promulgated a lot of myths about federal employees over the years. As a four-year federal retiree, these always chafed on me. These myths have now been laid bare. Federal employees have endured decades of little or no cost of living raises. In the name of deficit reduction, it’s always in fashion to make federal employees pay.

In fact, the benefits of being a federal employee have been dramatically reduced over the decades. Federal employees still have pensions, but they are being asked to contribute more toward them. Inadequate cost of living raises have eroded their ability to buy things. Most federal employees live or work in the cities, which are high cost areas. They have been financially stretched for years.

So was no surprise to me to read stories of furloughed federal employees going to food pantries and losing their leases. So many of them are living paycheck to paycheck because their pockets have been picked for decades. To add insult to injury, now they get regularly furloughed. While federal unions are allowed, they are effectively toothless. They can’t bargain on wages. The sorts of benefits they bargain for amount to the discount at their department’s in-house health club. In August, Trump canceled a federal employee cost of living raise, for no reason anyone can figure out other than spite. The proposed raise was meager anyhow and would not have even kept up with the cost of living.

But it turns out that we need federal employees after all. And to fulfill a Republican’s worst nightmare, the general public now sees the value of federal employees. They make things work. They also see them as human beings, not faceless bureaucrats. It will take many years before they can be effectively stereotyped again.

From our trashed national parks, to our Coast Guard operating without pay, to the TSA agents who keep us safe traveling to the customs agents I encountered a week ago flying home from Ecuador, federal employees do important stuff. Some of the most important work you don’t see but take for granted, like ensuring that your food and medicine you use are safe. But it’s also stuff that is harder to see. During the shutdown, weather instrumentation that could not be maintained. This reduced the reliability of local forecasts.

Strangely, some federal employees do vote for Republicans. Not so much anymore. Even the most hardcore Republican in the federal bureaucracy won’t vote for Trump again, and probably not their Republican legislator or senator either, at least if they had a hand in keeping this shutdown going.

So who were the winners and losers?

  • Loser: Donald Trump. He literally could not have done a worse job with this shutdown. He proved once again that governing is way out of his league. He has no idea how to govern, how to garner support or even the basics of our constitutional government. He literally pleased no one, including his base. He only squealed because he was frightened things could get irreparably worse and that he would indelibly bear the blame. As for winning in 2020, he’s toast with 57% of Americans saying they will never vote for him in 2020.
  • Winner: Nancy Pelosi. It’s clear that she can kick ass and Trump is actually afraid of her. It may be because she is smart and pretty, and he finds that intimidating.
  • Winner (of sorts): Mitch McConnell. By refusing to do anything that Trump wouldn’t approve of, he likely did not reduce his 2020 reelection chances by much because he did not piss off his base too much. That’s all he cared about anyhow. He judged that no one would hold him accountable in the end. He’s probably right on that. As for his reputation as a spineless person unwilling to do his constitutional duty, that’s intact and impossible to erase.
  • Losers: Republicans in general. The Senate will probably flip to Democrats in 2020, and this shutdown will be a major factor. It is now seared as a painful national memory. Expect Republicans to lose more House seats too.
  • Winners (of sorts): Federal employees. They have found new sympathy and respect from the public. Actually, they have garnered empathy. A lot of them will throw in the towel anyhow, at least those who can afford to cut their losses and get out. I wouldn’t blame them. They’ve been treated abominably.
  • Losers: The American public in general. If nothing else, the 20% of the government that was shutdown for a month bought you nothing of value and made things worse. This was money wasted. This shutdown is likely to result in a negative GDP quarter and quite possibly trigger a recession.

We’ll see if Trump has learned his lesson in three weeks. He’s obviously not playing with a full set of marbles, so he might shut down the government yet again. Here’s hoping he’s retained enough of them not to make the same mistake twice.

The price of the never-ending federal shutdown

The Thinker by Rodin

Before we left for our vacation in Ecuador, I was wondering if two weeks later there would be anyone left around to let us back in. I was not particularly prescient in believing that the government would still be shut down. Still, our trip home from Quito connecting in Miami was nervous. Would TSA and Customs be on the job? Would we be able to catch our connecting flight on time?

It worked out for us, only because some gods decided to put us on TSA PreCheck. We were scanned leaving Quito but that’s not good enough for the TSA; if you are an international arrival, you have to go through TSA’s scanning. So when we finally got to TSA screening in Miami, it took less than five minutes, while the queue in the regular line was 15-20 minutes. So we made our connecting flight to Boston, but just barely, practically running the whole way to our gate (not easy when my wife has a bad knee).

On these international flights coming into the U.S. you must also go through Customs. There things were a bit alarming. It’s not that we had to wait a long time to get through Customs. It was just the opposite. Everyone was being hustled through at warp speed. You make your declarations at machines now. When we finally got to a customs’ agent, he never bothered to ask us a single question, just glanced at our passport and waived us through. It was just as alarming after we claimed our luggage. Yes, you have to claim them and check them again on your domestic flight. You drag your luggage past a few CBP agents who may ask to check your baggage. But they couldn’t be bothered. We had just come from Ecuador. We could have easily smuggled many kilos of cocaine in our suitcase. Perhaps dogs were sniffing the luggage before we picked it up, but the CBP agents looked like they didn’t give a damn. No one’s luggage was being pulled aside. I was left with the impression that our unpaid TSA and CBP agents were present in body, but not in spirit.

I also suspect that things are going to get worse. At some point this house of cards is going to collapse. There are already signs of it. Over the holiday weekend, 10% of TSA agents did not show up for work. Certain airports, like Atlanta (the world’s busiest airport), are already experiencing moderate to severe delays due to insufficient TSA staffing. Federal employees are not allowed to strike, but you can only test their patience so long when they are not getting paid. If this government shutdown goes on long enough, it may be rebellious federal employees figuring they have little to lose who gunk up the machinery of government that manage to break the logjam.

It’s clear that the shutdown is just going to drag on and get worse. It’s also clear that in particular Republicans really don’t care who they hurt. Some of them see government dysfunction as a good thing. If federal employees go homeless or people starve because they don’t get their food stamps, hey, it’s no skin off their backs. So it will probably take some major government lapse to move things, but even so there’s no guarantee. If hundreds get sick from E. coli infections because food inspectors are furloughed, or airplanes start crashing because federal authorities haven’t inspected them, maybe some action will happen. This shutdown shows every likelihood of continuing for months.

Action may finally happen when sufficient numbers of businesses petition Congress to end it. Republicans do listen to business. The airline industry is already suffering, and they give lots of money principally to Republicans in Congress. Delta Airlines figures the shutdown has cost them $25M so far in January. Threaten to stop giving these politicians money and they may find the courage to do what is necessary. Or certain segments of federal workers forced to work without pay may find the courage to strike. How are you supposed to get to work if you can’t afford bus fare?

If TSA and CBP agents en masse stopped showing up for work, that would ratchet up the level of this crisis. The shutdown’s continuation depends of the patience and suffering of people who can’t exist in this state forever. If they strike then perhaps Trump, like Reagan with air traffic controllers, would decide to fire them all. Perhaps he’d send in the military to do their job. TSA agents though don’t have that much to lose. Most are paid around $30K a year, a pittance for a federal employee, plus they have to work at inconvenient times and at weird shifts.

I just don’t see how this ends. There is simply the absence of leadership to end it. Moreover we have a tone-deaf president that cannot see past six feet in front of him. Vladimir Putin must be ecstatic watching our great nation crumble into dysfunction.

Trump is likely to sink the Republican Party

The Thinker by Rodin

This NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll has some really bad news for Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The poll focuses on the latest government shutdown and Trump’s further sagging approval ratings. The real story though is a bit below the fold: 57% of voters surveyed said they will definitely not vote for Donald Trump should he run for reelection in 2020.

Assuming the poll is accurate and those polled will carry through on their threat, should Trump run for reelection in 2020, he can’t win. Democrats could presumably pick just about anyone for their nominee and he or she would win instead. Assuming that Trump does not resign or is not impeached and removed from office before his term expires, he’s destined for defeat.

I will grant you that elections are often decided in their final weeks and that what seems like a sure thing now it no guarantee in November 2020. However, the Trump brand is fully established now. It’s also quite obvious that Trump will not change. It looks like his idea of running the government models how he runs his businesses: they go bankrupt due to his insatiable ego and complete incompetence. It’s hard to see how any campaign by Russia can undo America’s opinion of Donald Trump now.

All this is good news if you don’t like Donald Trump. Savvy Republican operatives though (if there are any of them left) should not have too much trouble figuring out the implications of this: Trump is likely to kill the Republican Party. If so, it would be karmic justice, and perhaps some compensation for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and likely millions of federal contractors not being paid during the longest government shutdown in our history.

That’s not to say this shutdown might not injure the Democratic Party too. The longer it goes on, the likelier that both parties will share in the blame. Most voters though understand the real issue: Trump simply won’t compromise. He’s now gone out on a limb. To pull back now makes him lose face with the only group he cares about: his base. But his base keeps shrinking. By one measure it’s down 7%, based on his poll numbers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) thinks he is being savvy by not having the Senate take up any of the appropriations bills passed by the House to end the shutdown unless he knows that Trump will approve them. By his way of thinking, this keeps him in good stead with Trump, who doesn’t like him (the feeling is mutual). It’s quite likely though that if any of these bills were actually voted on, they would pass easily. There might even be veto-proof majorities in both houses. McConnell is up for reelection in 2020 too in a deep red state that sided heavily with Trump. So he thinks his strategy is smart: it innoculates him from criticism that he undermined Trump.

But it’s not. Republicans currently must defend 22 seats in 2020, including McConnell’s. Democrats have to defend 12. With the Senate 53R-47D, Democrats have to pick up just four seats to flip the chamber. Picking up 4 of 22 Republican seats while defending their own seas are excellent odds. This is easily doable but gets much harder for Republican senators who closely align with Trump. And the longer the shutdown goes on, the more pain it inflicts on their reelection prospects as more of their constituents are affected by the shutdown. Every day sears the memory more.

Basically, Trump is a huge and present threat to the viability of the Republican Party. After 2020, it might be effectively killed. The smart thing for Congressional Republicans to do is also the most risky in the short term: dump Trump. Trump’s negatives will probably inspire other Republicans to also run for the 2020 Republican nomination. These efforts are likely doomed because the Republican Party as we have known it ceased to exist with Trump’s election. So in some sense, the Republican Party is already dead. What is it without Trump? What is its center? What is its animus? Who does it represent? Whoever it represents, it will require a coalition to govern and Trump’s base is not nearly large enough. Trump is Humpty Dumpty. It’s hard to see how to bring the Republican Party together again.

Trump is leading McConnell and the spineless people that populate the Republican Party right off the cliff.

Sailing the Galapagos Islands

The Thinker by Rodin

The good and predominantly Mormon citizens of Utah (or more specifically, its politicians) are doing their best to tear up the state, replacing bucolic vistas of cacti, mesa and desert flora with strip mines, particularly near national monuments like Bears Ears. This is an obscenity, but Utah is hardly alone among red states. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration seems determined to kill nature and thus kill all of us by opening up federal lands to private interests and putting more pollutants into the air … part of its “culture of life”, I suppose.

So perhaps it’s not surprising then that we are seeking out what nature is left, the  more natural, the better. Specifically we are sailing among the Galapagos Islands, which are a few hundred miles west of Ecuador on the equator.  Around the time I was born, Ecuador decided to turn these islands into a giant ecological preserve and national park. They were betting that leaving it unadulterated was smarter than populating and exploiting it. Maybe before it’s gone, the citizens of Utah will also realize to leave well enough alone too.

Isabela Island, the Galapagos
Isabela Island, the Galapagos

Utah has one advantage the Galapagos do not: it’s easier and cheaper for tourists to get to. You have to really really want to visit the Galapagos Islands to go there.  Ecuador deliberately makes visting these islands hard. There are no international flights here, so you must connect through Ecuador’s international airports. You also need a tourist pass, which costs $100 per person and there are often other fees as well. Cruise ships don’t come here; Ecuador won’t allow them. So to see the islands you have to find a licensed tour operator. There aren’t many, which makes it a pricey vacation.

If you want what amounts to a cruise like we do, you end up on a large yacht, in our case the Coral I (which sails with a sister ship, the Coral II). Don’t call the Coral I a cruise ship. It’s less than 130 feet long, and handles just 38 passengers plus a dozen crew. There are no slot machines on board, and no fancy waiters with white linen napkins hanging from their arms either. Instead you get buffet meals and you had better be on time. Breakfast is usually served at 0715, lunch at 1230 and dinner at 1830, generally in the dining room toward the bow of the ship. Ship time amounts to -5 GMT, instead of -6 GMT used in the islands, which allow them to extend daylight into more tourist-friendly hours. There is no evening entertainment except a briefing by one of the naturalists on the next day’s activities. There is a tour or two during the day on one of the islands, and one or more opportunities for snorkeling either over open water or on a beach.

While the crew of the Coral I do their best to give you a good experience, it’s not Royal Caribbean. Cabins are small compared with cruise ships. Keep your expectations modest. It’s what’s outside that you are paying for. I went snorkeling twice in deep water, swam by two famous Galapagos sea turtles and under a pelican’s feet. Once I got on the dinghy just in time to see a shark circling nearby. Fortunately, they don’t bite humans.

Darwin Lake, near Tagus Cover, Isabel Island, Galapagos
Darwin Lake, near Tagus Cover, Isabel Island, Galapagos

These islands of course are known for the many uniquely adapted species. The naturalist Charles Darwin posited his famous Theory of Evolution by making careful observations of differences in similar species on different islands. Darwin is a rock star here. He has a volcano and lake named after him and a research institute that we’ll visit later in our tour. Herman Melville, a real life whaler as well as writer found inspiration for Moby Dick here, where whales were plentiful. For a time in the 19th century near Darwin Lake the cliffs ran red with whale blood from all the whale slaughtering. For what looks like a pretty dry, volcanic and arid area, the wildlife is quite abundant. On a hike we had a hard time not stepping on all the iguanas around us. Only here in the Galapagos can they swim and sneeze salt. They have adapted.

I expected these islands to be smallish and kind of squat, but they are not. They have mountains here, if you consider mountains to be a five hundred meters high or so. There are also plentiful sheer cliffs, usually inhabited by creatures in close proximity to each other. I didn’t expect to see a whole lot of green but there is more than I thought, particularly at higher elevations. I did not realize that these islands all have volcanos, and most are have active volcanos. New land is being created every day around here. You don’t see volcano cones, but you do sometimes see fissures on the sides of mountains with steam venting out of them, making them look like clouds. You also see what looks like frozen black rivers falling off cliffs and into the sea: igneous rock that was once lava. There isn’t much in the way of beaches, but those that exist are mostly black sand from all the volcanic activity. It’s not hard to find areas strewn with lava boulders and fissures.

As islands go, the Galapagos Islands are rather new. Volcanic eruptions have joined some of them together over the millennia. Eventually, they will probably become one larger landmass. Unlike Hawaii where land is being created eastward, here they are being created westward. Some of the older eastern islands are slowly disappearing into the sea. It’s a world that is evolving with astonishing speed, in both geological and biological terms.

In mankind’s quest to ruin the planet, we are also destroying species and decimating the population of those species that remain. In my short sixty-something years I have already seen the change: the outside is a quieter place. I am rarely swarmed by insects or have a hard time hearing over the birds chirping anymore. Here in the Galapagos Islands though nature is still abundant, thanks to its isolation and Ecuador’s insistence that it will stay that way.

Vicente Roca Point, Isabela Island, Galapagos
Vicente Roca Point, Isabela Island, Galapagos

The Galapagos are remote in the best sense of the word and largely unspoiled. The equatorial sun shines intensely all year here. The nights have zero light pollution, making it an excellent place to see stars if clouds disappear. I am unfamiliar with southern constellations. Here you can see both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross, but not necessarily at the same time.

The wildlife is largely inured to us human visitors. Most have no natural predators, which means they get to live in something of an animal Eden. The many sea lions spend most of their time basking on rocks or diving into shallow pools fed by incoming tides. The sea lions are often playful. We were watched curiously by a young sea lion as we got off our dinghy to walk a path over a boulder strewn beach. You will find blue-footed boobies sitting on a crag of rock next to some vertically hanging crabs, that are adjacent to iguana, penguins (some actually slighlty north of the equator) and sea lions.

Next, four days of day tours from a nice hotel before we fly home. It’s been nice to disconnect from politics for five days. Well, not entirely. I’ve been reading Michele Obama’s biography Becoming and am surprised to find that it’s very well written and quite a page turner. It’s worthy of a future blog post.

 

Getting out … of a shutdown and a presidency

The Thinker by Rodin

The missus and me are getting ready to bug out of the United States for two weeks. Saturday we are off to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. While in the Galapagos, we’ll spend four nights on a yacht out of range of all Internet and cell phone towers. We’ll be diving into the ocean and seeing species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, in an area that is largely untouched by the scourge of man. Somehow we’ll have to survive for a while cut off from all media, particularly those four nights we spend on a yacht island hopping. But we’ll be wondering if there will be any TSA or CBP agents still on the job to let us back in on January 18th.

As vacations go, this one will be a departure. In theory, there is no jet lag to worry about, as Ecuador is in our time zone and the Galapagos Islands are basically on Central Time. There are no international flights to the Galapagos; you have to go through Ecuador. So we will spend a few nights in Quito breathing the rarified air at 10,000 feet up, seeing the cloud forests and putting one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. You can do that in Ecuador, which is basically on the equator. It will be the first time I will have ever been in the southern hemisphere. Still, there will be jet lag of sorts: rising around 4 AM for a flight to the Galapagos Island is equivalent to a red eye to Europe. But we’ll survive these trials and have a lot of fun.

So don’t expect much posting from me over the next couple of weeks, but I do hope to document our journey to this rarely visited area of the world, albeit belatedly. It all depends on how much time I have to write and if I have Internet access. We’ll be kept pretty busy.

Still, I imagine our thoughts will frequently be of home and how much wackier our country has gotten since we left. Democrats now formally control the U.S. House, which means that our crazy government is about to get a lot crazier. Our national parks are overrun with litter and our museums are closed. Those asylum cases underway: postponed; no money has been allocated to pay the judges. Something has to break so you have to wonder how it will break and when.

A couple of Republican senators seem ready to cry uncle, specifically senators Susan Collins (ME) and Cory Gardner (CO), both up for reelection in two years in states swinging blue. House Democrats are swiftly passing bills to reopen the government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to consider them if they are not acceptable to Donald Trump. There is another meeting tomorrow at the White House that probably won’t change the dynamics. In any event, it’s hard to see how a Democratic House with forty new and mostly progressive members can be convinced to add funding for a border wall, since most of them campaigned against doing just this. Speaker Pelosi is pursing a logical strategy of trying to pass individual appropriation bills, but she has to convince people who are not thinking logically.

Divided government requires compromise but it’s hard to see how it will happen. It will probably happen when the pain gets too bad to endure. I’m betting that Trump declares victory to make it all go away. Today’s tweets suggest he’s already preparing his supporters for this out: because of the new NAFTA treaty, Mexico will somehow pay for the wall, so problem over! Of course the treaty is not ratified, Congress has not agreed to allow a wall to be constructed, and there are no revenues there that will be paid by Mexico to the U.S. government that can be used for a border wall even if the treaty is signed. In the end though this probably won’t make much difference to his supporters: they will dopily follow Trump anywhere. If Trump says black is white, they’ll believe him. Mostly they want to see him stand up and fight for something, and mostly he’s been full of bluster instead of action.

If Democrats want to concede something symbolic, then how about a small wall near Tijuana? A nice, outwardly arching wall would obviate the need to throw canisters of tear gas across the border. I’d like to see Democrats propose to open the government by throwing the border wall issue to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service to study. I doubt Trump would go for it, but it would defer the issue for another day and inject some honest research into the topic.

In reality, Trump has much bigger fish to fry. The subpoenas from House Democrats are going to come fast and thick. Hearings will be ramping up; Trump’s tax returns will be demanded from the IRS that must supply them by law. And of course we can expect Mueller’s report at some point, and it’s unlikely to be flattering to Trump.

Some posts ago I suggested that Trump won’t escape justice this time, but there is a way. It requires a deal, not with Congress or Mueller, but with Mike Pence. It is simply this: Trump agrees to resign if Mike Pence will pardon him for any crimes committed against the United States. He’d still have to deal with potential state crimes, but there is some hope that the Supreme Court will rule that states cannot prosecute people pardoned for similar federal crimes. This approach though assumes that Trump’s narcissism can abate long enough for him to execute something smartly in his self-interest. He’s obviously feeling the pressure, as his daily tweets get continually more unhinged. It’s clear he hates being president. He just has to figure out a way to justify his resignation. If he does resign, he will blame the deep state, Democrats and obviously anyone but himself.

And there is the 25th amendment route that Pence could choose, if he can get a majority of what’s left of Trump’s cabinet to agree. As an acting president, he could at least reopen the government. If it came to it, it wouldn’t be hard to find some top-notch psychiatrists to testify that Trump is dangerously mentally ill. I’m not holding out much hope on this. Pence is likely too much a coward, Trump’s base is too loyal and he would be seen as a turncoat.

It would be nice if it were all over when we return. But I’d best not hold my breath.

Shutdown dumbness

The Thinker by Rodin

There are lots of good things about being retired like me, but if you are an ex-federal employee like me, there is one truly great thing: not having to deal with yet another furlough from yet another government shutdown. These shutdowns became something of a regular thing during the last half of my career. They were always aggravating and pointless, as this current partial shutdown underway proves yet again. That’s not to say that they are easy to endure. Lots of federal employees live paycheck to paycheck, so even if they eventually get repaid it doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering. The ones who suffer the most are probably those required to work anyhow, the “essential” ones like your TSA agents. Lincoln freed the slaves but not the essential employees during a government shutdown.

Some people actually lose money, principally federal contractors. Most of them cannot work unless federal employees supervise them, and in that case their contract usually does not allow them to bill hours. Eventually though there is a whole host of connected people and businesses affected: childcare providers, local businesses, transit systems, the traveling public and those tourists who just want to visit a national park. The longer it goes on the more painful it gets. Sitting on your ass at home is really not much fun, as I discovered. There is a lot of angst to being furloughed as you have no idea when it will end and whether your bank account will hold out until then. And many federal employees were like me: very mission focused, anxious to simply do our jobs.

For me this is now moot. Somehow I will still get my pension payment on time. I guess that and delivering social security checks are considered essential. Chances are though if they weren’t, it would spur both Congress and the President to make choices neither wants to make.

So there is no such thing as a smart shutdown, but there are dumb shutdowns and dumber than dumb shutdowns. This current one is one of the latter. It happened because only at the last minute Trump changed his mind. He apparently was watching Fox News and found out he was being criticized for not being tough enough on his border wall. Suddenly the continuing resolution passed unanimously by the Senate that he had approved was no longer acceptable. It was put up or shut up time for Trump, or at least for a few shrill people in the media whose support he craves. This shutdown has the feeling of one that is going to linger a long time, which might make the 1995 shutdown look like small potatoes.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? We’re about to find out. Most likely it won’t end well, or quickly. Now that Trump is out on a limb, he has no way to back down without losing face, something a bully cannot do. Lose face and you look impotent.

He complains that it’s a Democratic shutdown, but until January 3 Republicans control all branches of government. And Congressional Republicans have decided to punt the whole leadership thing. When Democrats gain forty seats on January 3, they are unlikely to be in an accommodating mood. And since all spending bills must originate in the House, a Democratic House is not likely to add funding for a border wall.

The Senate could add it back in, but they didn’t feel it necessary last time, and if they send it back to the House with border wall funding it probably won’t pass. Meanwhile, the productivity of millions of federal workers and contractors are lost, while the “essential employees” continue to work without pay. How long before essential employees go on strike? Why show up for work when you have no income to give to the landlord for the January rent?

If the shutdown were about something that mattered, maybe it would be worth the price. But it’s about a border wall that two-thirds of Americans don’t want and that a Republican Congress has repeatedly refused to fund. Moreover, it’s for a wall that won’t even solve the problem that Trump is so concerned about. As Anne Applebaum points out, the number of people crossing the southern border illegally has fallen 90% since 2000. The real scofflaws? Those overstaying their visas, who mostly fly in, 700,000 of which are Canadians. Trump has not proposed building a wall along our border with Canada, so clearly the issue has much more to do with the color of the scofflaw’s skin than anything else.

As a method of keeping people out though a wall is a terrible idea. There are much cheaper ways to accomplish border security and they are working pretty well. One of the best ways is to invest in the countries sending these people, like Honduras. Given them safety and economic opportunity where they live and there is no reason to head north. Of course Trump is now threatening to take away what little aid we give these countries, exacerbating the problem.

Yesterday Trump threatened to shutdown the whole southern border. It’s not clear that he can do that but it would certainly get attention, as about half a million people cross the border legally every day. Considering the amount of trade that goes on between the U.S. and Mexico, including lots of produce and auto parts, doing this for any sustained period of time would be disastrous. If you are looking to tip an economy officially into recession, this should do it.

All this so Trump’s narcissism can be sated a bit. You have to wonder just how dumb his supporters are. Did they really believe all the bullshit he was claiming? If nothing else then perhaps this shutdown will finally reveal the fraud behind the curtain.

It’s unclear how this will all end. Will one side blink? I do suspect if it drags on long enough, Congress will find the wherewithal to override Trump’s veto. The Senate needs 20 of 53 Republican senators to overturn a Trump veto. With 40 new Democrats in the House, 55 out of 199 Republicans would have to vote against Trump, or 27% of the caucus. I think it’s doable if the pain gets bad enough. If Congress does it though it would set a good precedent by making Trump increasingly irrelevant. Here’s hoping.

Trump and the price of being a bullshit artist

The Thinker by Rodin

So basically our government is shutdown because of bullshit.

At midnight today much of the government shutdown again, but this time it was because Trump got caught in his own bullshit. For years he had been talking about a great, big, beautiful wall on our southern border to keep the “illegals” out. It was going to have a great big door, the best of course. I guess gates aren’t allowed on this border wall. And most importantly Mexico was going to pay for it. He said it over and over again. If there was anything about his 2016 campaign that will be remembered in the history books, it will be all the relentless repetitions on this theme:

So you would think that if he really wanted to deliver on his signature promise, it would be pretty simple: order the U.S. Marines to occupy Mexico’s National Palace where its treasury is located and loot the place of the $50B or so needed to build Trump’s beautiful wall and door. Take the money back to the U.S. and build the wall. He’s commander in chief and doesn’t need the approval of Congress to send in the Marines. Or he could order a small thermonuclear weapons to be used on a suburb of Mexico City to show the Mexicans we’re serious … they need to pony up the dough for the wall now.

But no. Apparently what he really meant was that if Mexico refused to pay for it, Congress has to pony up the money instead. He is now spouting the line that the shutdown is the Democrats’ fault, even though until January 3, 2019 Republicans still control Congress.

I guess reinforced fences aren’t enough. It’s got to be a wall, a wall that somehow won’t get tunneled under like happens now. It’s got to be a tall wall to keep the drugs from coming in, as if they won’t continue to come in the way they already have: tunnels under the border, hidden inside trucks and in airplane cargo, or by speedboats. It’s going to have to be a hell of a tall wall to keep a catapult from throwing drugs over the wall, assuming smugglers want to try such a brazen method. With over two thousand miles of border, it wouldn’t be too hard to find a spot to toss some of it over.

Here’s the saddest part: Trump never really wanted the wall. The wall was a means to an end: to get elected (which surprised him) but really to get the crowds at his rallies riled up. It gave him the adulation that he craves more than anything else. Trump as usual wanted to have his cake and to eat it too. Apparently Trump loves the “illegals”; at least he loves to hire them. Apparently the maid who cleaned his toilet at Mar-a-Lago was undocumented. Trump doesn’t want to pay pull price for anything, so of course he will have his managers look the other way to bring in the cheap help.

Anyhow, he apparently he did a good job of selling this wall thing with his base. Now they actually want him to build it. His base is only 25% of the public, but he’s convinced that somehow with this base happy he will win reelection, although a majority of Americans don’t want a border wall. Congress at least understands it’s kind of pointless: why spend $50B to build a wall that won’t even solve the problem?

In fact, if ever constructed it would make things a lot worse. It would be an eyesore for sure. It will get breached repeatedly. Like any other public infrastructure, it will require patching and maintenance. If Republicans’ willingness to spend money on highway infrastructure is any clue to how it will play out, the undamaged portions wall will simply deteriorate from neglect. Some migratory animals wouldn’t migrate anymore, not that this would bother them. Most importantly, the cheap labor we’ve depended on from the south to keep the economy humming might slow down, leading to our economic decline. I mean are you going to volunteer to clean all those airport toilets? Are you going to volunteer to pick crops in California and Arizona?

That won’t happen. But what will happen in time is that sufficient numbers of guest worker visas will get approved anyhow. Agribusiness won’t allow Congress to pull these visas anyhow; heck, Trump’s many resorts and winery depend on these special visas. Those from Central and South America who want to come here will do it the old fashioned way: on a tourist visa whose expiration date they will ignore. For the most part they will have to fly in, which is not cheap. Perhaps we’ll get a higher class of “illegal”.

This pointless shutdown is all about saving face for Trump. Someone pulled the mask of the old Lone Ranger. Ironically, Tonto did it.

Trump won’t escape justice this time

The Thinker by Rodin

Karmic payback is a bitch. Donald Trump has spent a lifetime avoiding accountability. He got out of serving in Vietnam by having the family doctor write letters saying he had bone spurs in his foot. He escaped poverty by being born into a rich family and by having a father who made him a millionaire (in today’s dollars) at age three.

Letting others take the hit for him cushioned most of his failures. His father bailed out his failing businesses at least three time. When his businesses failed, fellow investors often took it on the chin instead of him. He also stiffed lots of contractors. When things got tight financially, he found people and institutions willing to bail him out.

It’s pretty obvious now why he has refused to release his tax returns. They will show he is not nearly as wealthy as he claims to be. Investigations seem to be showing how he really got his money during the last decade or so: loans from Deutsche Bank, which were probably underwritten by Russian oligarchs. There was also lots of money laundering: selling condos for inflated prices, disproportionately to Russian oligarchs and always in cash.

For Trump, it’s always about the money. He’s assumed that money buys privilege. Wave enough green stuff under their noses and he can make affairs with Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy bunnies disappear. And to his credit, between this, his late father’s money and lots of suspicious money laundering, it’s worked for him. All his life he has taken huge risks, but most of them were cushioned. It’s given him a brash and oversized obnoxious personality. Trump has always stayed one step ahead of the game. However, he’s going to find out that he can’t escape consequences and justice this time.

Trump will be able to postpone a lot of the accountability that is coming at him. His best strategy for holding on is to win reelection in 2020 or die in office. Because of a Department of Justice regulation that declines to prosecute presidents while in office, holding onto power is essential to continue his no-accountability lifestyle. He’s also hoping his latest Supreme Court pick, Justice Kavanaugh, will go to bat for him in a future ruling. The question likely to make it to the court: can a sitting president be indicted while in office for state crimes if federal regulations won’t let him be prosecuted for similar federal crimes? A decision by the court there might expand protections to exempt these as well as long as he is in office.

So far it’s not looking too good for Trump. A federal judge has allowed an emoluments lawsuit by Maryland and the District of Columbia to go forward; subpoenas of the Trump Organization will soon be issued.

It’s hard though to see a scenario where charges are not filed after he leaves office. There is one really wacky outlier possibility: Trump decides to pardon himself for any crimes he may have committed. A president’s pardon power in the constitution is not explicitly limited to prohibit him from pardoning himself. That’s because the constitution assumed that the president would not be wholly corrupt. It appears that a president cannot pardon crimes explicitly specified in the constitution itself. Ultimately it would be up to the Supreme Court again to decide if Trump could legally pardon himself. As stacked as the court is with right wing judges, it’s hard to see how even a court full of “strict constructionists” could uphold such a pardon. It would make a mockery of the rule of law. Trump of course has explicitly said he has the power to pardon himself.

So in early 2021 or early 2025 at the latest, the game is up for Trump and his accountability moment will finally arrive. Fortunately for prosecutors, Trump has left numerous breadcrumbs that will make documenting his complicity and intentions a no brainer; his Twitter feed is an obvious place to start. Trump is his own worst enemy, a condition due to his obvious case of malignant narcissism. Far from being a stable genius, he is an impulsive dumbass instead.

Maybe he still suffers from delusions that he can get the justice he wants by appointing people who will stifle Mueller’s investigation. That horse is already out of the barn. Mueller’s final report may be squelched by a new Attorney General (who won’t recuse himself from the Mueller investigation), but Mueller has already written de-facto reports. They are called indictments. Moreover, Mueller has smartly decentralized parts of the investigation, for instance, turning over the prosecution of Michael Cohen (Trump’s late personal attorney) to the Southern District of New York. It’s unlikely that whoever oversees Mueller will do much to restrain him. The political costs are too high.

Trump is stuck, but so is the nation. I’ve suggested before that Trump might just resign. A more reasonable president would when he saw the odds against him. But in Trump’s case, a resignation opens the door for prosecutions against him to start. Trump is obviously not playing with a full deck; he may be too stupid to realize this and resign anyhow. But he has every incentive to hang onto power simply to avoid the accountability that has always been chasing him. The House may impeach him, but he’s unlikely to be convicted in the Senate, even though the legal case for his corruption is overwhelming. So likely we have two more years of struggling with a slowly dissembling Donald Trump instead.

Given Trump’s obesity and the psychological stress he is obviously under, it may kill him first. As he gets loonier and loonier, a 25th amendment remedy could be triggered. Given though how much lunacy he has already inflicted on us, and Pence has not triggered the 25th amendment, it’s hard for me now to see how this can happen. But it certainly could. There may be some limit to his lunacy that those left in his administration simply can no longer tolerate.

Ultimately justice should be served, in the courts if not from his premature death from a stroke or embolism. It remains to be seen though whether there will be much left of our democracy at the end of this national trial. But while our courts at least seem to remain largely uncorrupted, there is plenty of reason to feel confident that justice will eventually be served on Donald J. Trump.

An appreciation for George H.W. Bush

The Thinker by Rodin

There is perhaps some irony in the passing of our 41st president and the sad sack of shit we currently have as president. I loathed George W. Bush as president, but his father was a good president, which is hard for this Democrat to admit. George H.W. Bush was a moderate Republican from a different era, and one of the few Republicans that I genuinely respected and whose presidency was effective and well managed. In the future, if Republicans want to have any hope of having their nominee elected, he or she will have to act and look a whole lot more like 41 and a whole lot less than 45.

That 41 (I will use his number for convenience) did not win reelection was something of a fluke. He should have. It’s just that the 1992 election was weirdly complicated. Specifically, it had a viable third party candidate, Ross Perot, who managed to siphon off 19% of the vote. Most of Perot’s votes came from Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. Both parties learned from Perot’s candidacy. Mainly they learned to nip these in the bud and not let an independent candidate get in an official presidential debate in the first place. Perot was in many ways a harbinger of Donald Trump: plainspoken, rich but unlike Trump transparently honest. Tea-partiers to be found a lot to like in Perot: something unconventional and different who was also very concerned about spending and outsourcing. So did some Democrats, who didn’t particularly like Bill Clinton as their nominee.

41 was an effective president for many of the reasons that disqualify nominees today: he was one of those elite insiders. His father was a senator from Connecticut who groomed him for public life. 41 was thrown at a variety of bureaucratic roles and mastered them all from U.N. Ambassador to CIA Director. Bush was basically a stereotypical New Englander: born in Massachusetts, residing in Connecticut through his childhood years and spending summers in Kennebunkport, Maine. Officially he resided in Texas, but he never really seemed Texan. He was a New Englander in spirit, and that included his moderate Republicanism. New England is one of the few areas of the country where you can still find moderate Republicans.

Of course he was not a perfect president. It’s not hard to find things about him that rankled me, such as his cutting of funding for AIDS research. But he was unusually sober, and fully versed on the complexity of the modern world from having experienced it in so many roles in service of his country. He was perhaps best as Commander in Chief, assembling a coalition to evict Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, doing it at a modest and shared cost, and mindful (unlike his son) of the complexity of politics in the area, and the danger of removing Saddam altogether.

He was wise enough when running against Ronald Reagan to declare that Reagan was a believer in “Voodoo economics”, a term I’m pretty sure he coined. He was proven right; both Reagan, his son and now Trump ran up disastrous deficits. His attempt to stem the federal deficit by increasing revenues in a compromise with a Democratic congress earned him heaps of scorn from fellow Republicans, but it was a smart approach. Unfortunately this, plus an ill-timed recession largely due to the Gulf War ultimately doomed his reelection prospects.

In 2006, I rated our 20th century Republican presidents. George H.W. Bush is my pick as the best of the lot since Teddy Roosevelt. Pragmatic, world-wise, affable, sober and serious, he turned out to be the president we needed, just not the one we wanted.

History will treat he and his administration very kindly. It has already rendered judgment on his son’s, and it’s not flattering.