Republicans are going for a dictatorship

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monetary policy and the danger of revolution

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for Mr. Mueller to be a true patriot

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-vaxxers – Lock ’em up

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we must impeach Donald Trump

The Thinker by Rodin

So the Mueller report (with many redactions) finally was made public. Unsurprisingly, the report did not exonerate Trump. It was quite the opposite, in fact. While Mueller could not prove beyond a reasonably doubt that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia, he found plenty of evidence to show that Trump obstructed justice. He just refused to prosecute these obstructions, believing that constraints put on his investigation precluded this possibility.

Mueller basically laid out the obstruction charges and their underlying evidence and suggested that Congress could impeach Trump in part based on his evidence. Less noticed was another possible approach: wait until Trump was out of office and then prosecute him. But this is only viable if Trump does not win reelection and the subsequent administration chooses to prosecute these crimes within the five years of the statute. If Trump does win reelection, the statute of limitations effectively means he can’t be charged for these crimes. In short, in certain situations the president can circumvent his own accountability to the law. It’s all because of an opinion by the Justice Department that a sitting president can’t be indicted for crimes while in office. (This seems strange to me. What’s the point of having a vice president then?)

I noted before that Trump wouldn’t escape justice. Neither Richard Nixon nor Bill Clinton did. Nixon agreed to resign to keep from being impeached and convicted, a badge of shame that he carried to his grave. On Bill Clinton’s last day in office, Clinton agreed to pay a fine and lose his law license for perjury he committed testifying about his relationship with Monica Lewinski. This was to avoid facing these charges and possible jail time when out of office.

In some ways those were simpler times. Today’s hyper-partisan Congress means that if the House impeaches Trump, it’s almost a slam-dunk that the Senate won’t convict him, just as the Senate refused to convict Clinton and narrowly avoided convicting Andrew Johnson. Nixon would have certainly been removed from office for his cover up, i.e. obstruction of justice charges laid out by his special prosecutor. Mueller laid out ten obstruction of justice charges that could be filed against Trump and likely would have been filed against him if Justice Department regulations forbad it.

I’m surprised no one has filed a lawsuit to challenge these regulations. It’s possible but unlikely that the Supreme Court would declare them unconstitutional. There is no law that gives the president this special treatment, just an opinion (once amended) by the Justice Department’s legal team.

Mueller’s team made fourteen referrals to other prosecutors, only two of which we know about. It’s quite likely that some of these referrals will come back to bite Trump, either before or after he leaves office. It’s already quite clear that New York State will be prosecuting Trump and the Trump Organization for violating its charity laws. The Trump family may face prosecution since it looks like they fraudulently protected their father’s wealth to inherit more of it. Trump’s sister abruptly resigned her appellate court seat recently to avoid an internal investigation. So despite Attorney General Bill Barr’s spin that the report leaves the president untouched, it’s quite clear that Trump will be haunted by charges and court cases, probably for the rest of his life.

There are a lot of wags in Congress discussing whether Trump should be impeached or not. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already stated she doesn’t want to open impeachment hearings unless there are enough Republican votes in the Senate to make Trump’s conviction likely. Others like my home state senator Liz Warren have publicly stated that Congress has a duty to open impeachment hearings and if the evidence is strong enough, to convict the president and remove him from office.

I’m with Liz. Certainly I’m aware that there is little likelihood that the Senate would convict Trump. I suppose it is possible that hearings would bring to light enough evidence to persuade enough Republican senators to throw Trump overboard. I am for impeachment not for an idealistic reason, but for a pragmatic reason: the lawless Trump Administration must not be used as a model by future administrations hoping to escape justice.

Just two posts ago I noted how alarmed I was because I felt we were at the edge of autocracy. I’m just as alarmed today. The way for a democracy to survive is not to acquiesce but to rise to the occasion. It’s likely if the House held an impeachment vote that it would impeach Trump. It would set a mark in the sand for future presidents that this conduct is unacceptable. It would also force a trial in the Senate that, even if doomed, would hold senators accountable. It would mark those voting against his conviction for life. The case for Trump’s lawlessness is inescapable.

So while it might not actually hold Trump accountable, it would formally tarnish his legacy, give little sanction to his behavior, uphold the principle that no one is above the law, demonstrate that Congress had the nerve to push back against a lawless president and make it easier in the future to maintain our democracy.

Pelosi is looking at the 2020 election and wondering if impeachment would distract from a winning message for Democratic candidates. I am thinking that standing up for democracy and the rule of law is the primary responsibility of any member of Congress. That’s what they are elected to do, not to be weasels. If the American people object to that, well then our democracy truly is lost.

Let’s not give in to hopelessness and unaccountability. Let’s do the right thing and open impeachment hearings.

Invest in innovation, not exploitation

The Thinker by Rodin

America is a supposedly country that rewards innovation. The trouble is, a lot of this innovation is really exploitation. I looked into this briefly a few posts back when I looked at Lyft and Uber’s “innovation”. The only really innovative part about these ride services is their app. They’re both cheaper and generally faster than taking a taxi. So much for the innovation part. The rest of it is pure exploitation, mostly of its drivers who get cash up front that doesn’t begin to pay a living wage, particularly if you consider the wear and tear on their cars.

These days much of what passes for innovation in our economy is finding newer and cleverer ways to exploit people, who are generally among the most vulnerable among us. Granted, this may be as American as apple pie. We bought Manhattan from the Indians for the price of some trinkets. These days, the exploitation is less overt. But even if you don’t use Lyft or Uber, you don’t have to look far to see examples.

At the macro level, large companies that pollute exploit us all. Their cost of business is discounted by using our air and rivers as a sewer, and we pay the price. Tens of thousands of Americans die from air pollution every year, and the Trump administration is doing its best to make sure more of us will die. Generally though it’s the poor and vulnerable that get exploited. This is our innovation economy at work.

Perhaps you saw John Oliver’s recent show on mobile home investing. This is exactly the sort of “innovation” that I wish we could outlaw. By definition, if you live in a mobile home you don’t make a whole lot of money. You might own your mobile home but in most cases these homes are not truly mobile. And if you wanted to pack up your mobile home and move it elsewhere, you probably can’t afford to do so. In most cases your mobile home sits on a lot that you rent. There are plenty of investor groups buying these properties and regularly jacking up rents, knowing they have a captive audience. Some say this is a great way to earn “passive income”. What you are really doing of course is exploiting the least among us. In many cases these people are skipping medications or food to pay these rent increases. Some abandon their property, which is repossessed and resold to the next exploited victim.

I’m not prone to anger but these sorts of schemes make me positively irate. They should be outlawed. There are all sorts of ways we pick the pockets of the poor among us: pay day loans with incredibly usurious interest rates, lotteries that take their money but rarely pay off, casinos with a similar idea, higher prices for substandard food because supermarkets won’t serve their communities and of course the traditional: substandard public schools that are grossly underfunded because wealthier school districts won’t share their wealth. If that’s not enough, we shame them for taking food stamps or trying to compete for the vanishingly small market of affordable housing.

Most of us though don’t distinguish between companies that make money via exploitation versus innovation. That’s because it requires research, thinking and our capitalist system sees nothing wrong with exploitation. Look at some of the recent IPOs. How many of these are really driving innovation? Lyft went IPO, but Uber was first to this market. Lyft’s app is not noticeably better than Uber’s. Both depend on exploiting drivers and frequently change their payment terms to drivers to increase their revenues at drivers’ expense. Both are working hard on autonomous car technology. They can’t wait to boot their drivers altogether because they’ve run the numbers and maintaining a fleet of autonomous cars is way cheaper than even exploiting their drivers.

Some companies are both exploitative and innovative. How should I feel about owning Amazon stock, which I probably do somewhere in a mutual fund or ETF in my portfolio? Most of Amazon’s model has been exploitative: they’ve undercut competitors by sustaining losses funded by investors until competitors are out of business. I can see the problem locally with so many vacant storefronts. These customers are using Amazon instead.

Amazon was shamed enough by Bernie Sanders so that they raised their wages to $15/hour, which is good, but it’s barely a floor for a survivable wage. Meanwhile, they are finding other ways to “innovate”, most recently by creating their own air fleet that innovates by screwing their pilots. But other parts of Amazon are truly innovative. Amazon Web Services was a completely new idea that Amazon figured out and which fundamentally changed computing, dramatically lowering computing costs, increasing uptime for connected systems and spurring all sorts of innovation in information technology. Its web services are now the most profitable part of Amazon’s business. It’s proven extremely profitable for Google and Microsoft too, who have pockets deep enough to compete in this market.

Ideally I would not own any stock in companies that are exploitative. But like most of you I suspect, I don’t own any stock directly. Instead, I own mutual funds, ETFs and bonds. Mutual funds and EFTs are collections of ownership in lots of stocks. I could own a commercial bond for a specific company, but even here most of these are amalgamations of lots of bonds funds. There’s no easy way to invest in pure innovation, and hard to avoid investing in exploitative companies.

It’s not entirely impossible, however. You can invest in “green” funds and there are some socially active funds that avoid investments in arguably “evil” countries, which include Israel, which is effectively an apartheid state. Kiplinger has some suggestions for this kind of investing. But it’s not easy and in some cases impossible.

For example, if your company does not allow you to invest your 401K in funds like these, you have no options and may pay a penalty for doing investing outside of your 401K, particularly if your employer makes matching contributions to your 401K.

Which is why in the end what you can do is limited, unless we had a progressive Congress that changed investment laws. At a minimum they could require companies offering 401Ks to provide options for employees who want to invest in funds that are innovative but not exploitative.

I am overdue for a talk about this with my financial adviser. Frankly, I wasn’t thinking much about this until my recent trip on Lyft. Much of our portfolio has moved with retirement from 401Ks to IRAs. These could be shifted toward funds that reward innovation and socially progressive. Fortunately, I have a call with him tomorrow.

Autocracy and why Trump’s firing of his Secret Service director is extremely alarming

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m getting the sick feeling that we are this close to an autocracy. Things seem to be going rapidly from bad to worse to ohmigod this is incredibly dangerous!

The feelings got real when I learned what Attorney General William Barr was planning to do with the Mueller report: redact as much of it as possible and work as hard as possible to keep the full report from ever getting to Congress. It got worse when I watched our petulant Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brush off Congresswoman Maxine Waters: the idea of wasting his time talking to Congress when he had important things to do! Also, he seems to be aiding and abetting keeping Congress from getting Trump’s tax returns, even though the law requires it.

You don’t have to look far to find plenty of other signs. For example, Donald Trump is thinking of dumping migrants in sanctuary cities. Why? Because he thinks he can and he wants these cities to pay for having the audacity to oppose him. Then there’s his de-facto concentration camps that separate immigrant families and new reports that suggests he wants the U.S. military to build a whole lot more of them and run them, much like the German military ran its concentration camps. And if that weren’t enough, Trump was recently on the border urging CBP employees to break the law by not letting these asylum seekers in. Trump is implicitly saying: I can get away with anything, because Congress won’t hold me accountable in the end. And if you do break the law, I’ll pardon you!

All this is sickening enough, but then there’s the imperial way his administration seems to be blowing off the courts. He’s been under a court order for about a year to resettle these unaccompanied minors with their parents, or at least place them with relatives in the United States. Instead, most of them linger inside former Walmart stores under lock and key and out of sight. Recently, three congresswomen weren’t allowed in to inspect a detention facility for minors in Homestead, Florida. Trump doesn’t care that Congress has the responsibility for executive oversight.

More and more the Trump administration seems to be simply ignoring the courts. Until now, we’ve sort of assumed that if the courts tell you to do something, you must. More and more the Trump administration seems to be just ignoring the courts. After all, what can the courts do but issue more rulings? I guess there is the U.S. Marshal Service, which is supposed to enforce court orders if necessary. But the courts do not control it; it’s controlled by the Justice Department. And our new attorney general Bill Barr seems quite happy to take orders from Trump, even though he is supposed to uphold the law.

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? The constitutional remedy for executive overreach is congressional oversight, subpoenas and when all else fails impeachment. Trump’s lackeys are ignoring most congressional subpoenas. Nancy Pelosi has ruled out impeachment, mostly because she knows Trump has no possibility of being convicted in the Senate. And that’s not just because Republicans control it narrowly, it’s because Republicans are very clear that they don’t care about the rule of law. All they care about is expanding their power or, failing that, holding on to their power.

And it’s not like they feel the least bit compelled to follow the rules or precedent anymore. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an erstwhile conservative, broke with more than 230 years of precedence to speed up the debate on the nomination of federal judges and no longer allows home state senators to block these nominations either.

Meanwhile, deeply red states like Alabama and Texas are going out of their way to turn their states more authoritarian. In Texas, they are debating a law that could potentially give the death penalty to women who get abortions. Wow! The breadth of this should be astounding, but it’s par for the course these days. Ohio’s governor just yesterday signed a law that outlaws abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. These states are simply trying new tactics to see what might overturn Roe v. Wade now that Brett Kavanaugh is a justice. It’s all supposedly about being pro-life, but at least in Texas they are willing to kill people to do it. It’s all absolutely insane, particularly when you consider that not one of these states wants to give women contraceptives to not get pregnant in the first place, won’t subsidize their pregnancies and do their best to keep these kids off food stamps once they are born. Since so many are nonwhite, they’ll be happy to disenfranchise them when they reach voting age too.

Of course, these red states continue to do their best to gerrymander districts and suppress people of color from voting. Florida wants ex-felons to pay all judgments before being allowed to vote, essentially a poll tax, which is unconstitutional. Its state legislature is also working to overturn the referendum, which allows ex-felons to vote in the first place.

So it is crystal clear to me that Republicans will let nothing stop them from achieving their aims. Increasingly they are simply ignoring courts and Democrats in Congress. In essence, they are wholly abandoning democracy in favor of autocracy, and using inertia built into our system of checks and balances and Republicans open willingness to allow Trump to get away with stuff to bring it about.

Frankly, to me the most alarming sign of all was not Trump’s firing of his Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, but his firing of Secret Service Director Randall “Tex” Alles. Think about it. Let’s assume that Democrats do win the presidency in the 2020 election. And it is ultimately up to the Secret Service to evict Trump from the White House. Will his hand-picked lackey evict him? When push comes to shove, who decides to hand over the nuclear codes to the next president? And if you have a Republican senate that won’t fight back on Trump against anything, if he refuses to leave, how do you get rid of him?

It all makes for a constitutional crisis already well underway that looks like it will come to a crescendo on January 20, 2021, but which is likely to all come to a head much earlier than this.

These are crazy, deeply dangerous and incredibly scary times. We are facing what looks like the probable end of a 230 year old democracy.

Liz Warren for president

The Thinker by Rodin

I recently wrote a post saying Democrats should concentrate on bigger issues like fixing gerrymandering rather than get swept up in the personalities over the many, many candidates running for the party’s presidential nomination. That’s not to say that the field so far is not full of interesting and exciting candidates. Yes, any of them would be more than acceptable as a nominee.

In 2016, I was a Bernie supporter. I correctly assessed Hillary Clinton’s major problem: she wasn’t likeable and was a poor campaigner. I incurred the wrath of many including my wife who despite liking his policies can’t stand Bernie. I’m not sure why this is. It could be that he’s a man, or is white, or since he comes from Vermont can’t seem to relate well to people of color. She’s still anti-Bernie although she concedes she would vote for him in a heartbeat over Trump or any third party ticket. At this early stage, Sanders appears to be something of a favorite in a very divided field.

Yes, I like pretty much all of them with a few exceptions. I’m not sold on Cory Booker because he’s voted like a corporatist for much of his senate career. Ditto for Tulsi Gabbard who is even more so. There are bunches that are technically running that seem to be on nobody’s radar: John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Wayne Messam and Tim Ryan. I bet most of you can’t even say who these people are and what offices they currently hold. Maybe they will distinguish themselves between now and the first votes but there is no particular buzz around any of these candidates. The bigger ones currently running of course are Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg (a true come from nowhere candidate), Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

While any of them would be acceptable to me, as I ponder them in my mind I keep coming back to one candidate who is my heads on favorite in this crowded field: Elizabeth Warren. All candidates have strengths and minuses. Warren’s minuses are pretty well known, but are trivial. But as a potential president, she’s whom I would most like to next see in the Oval Office.

She also happens to be my senator, but I’ve admired her long before we moved to Massachusetts in 2015. Unlike all the other candidates with the exception of Bernie Sanders, Liz has the fire of commitment in her belly. But unlike Bernie Sanders, she understands the importance of policy, and her sets of policies are well thought out and address the root causes of the many issues facing our country. What you really notice though that truly sets her apart from other candidates is that she is egoless. You don’t hear from her that “only I can do this”, like you would from Donald Trump or many politicians. What you hear is an exposition on what the fundamental problems for our nation are and how she would fix things.

Fixing things is her passion. It’s what gets her up in the morning. And that’s what we need: a fixer, someone with determination, passion and persistence to move all levers of government to fix the fundamental problems with our governance. And what she correctly identifies as the most fundamental problem of all: getting corruption out of government. That is the one thing she would work on with the most energy because she realizes that all other things, including having a livable planet, depend on getting corruption out of government. Government must work for the people again, not the rich.

Listening to her, you so plainly hear this passion. It feels 100% real instead of faked. Moreover, we residents of Massachusetts see it from her every day. She lives it. She has never accepted a dime from corporate PACs. Her whole presidential effort is being run on a shoestring, depending on supporters to sustain her campaign. So if you want someone to change things, why not support someone who has given their all to do exactly this?

Why am I less enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders? It’s not that he and Elizabeth Warren vary that much on their positions and solutions. Bernie too knows what must be done and has the fire in his belly. What Bernie doesn’t have is Warren’s deep policy expertise. Warren knows not just how things connect and what levers to move to exact change, but comprehensively understands the steps to get there and how to do the work. This is because for much of her life she has been a policy wonk, which Bernie has not been. Having a vision for what America should be is of little use if you cannot connect the dots and move the levers of government to accomplish this.

If you have some time, listen to Crooked Media’s recent interview with Elizabeth Warren below to get a sense of what I mean. No other candidate brings this level of passion, depth and seeing all sides of an issue. So here’s hoping Warren’s candidacy takes off, and Democrats focus more on her than the many fly-by-night candidates good at theatrics but not so good at putting it altogether.

Quantum computers will kill cryptocurrencies, but that’s just the start of it

The Thinker by Rodin

About five years ago I took my first gander at the BitCoin phenomenon. In that post I wrote:

In short, to trust a Bitcoin you must buy into its assumption that it can’t be hacked. Since the dawn of the computer age, hackers have demonstrated their ability to hack anything. They love the challenge. It’s reasonable to believe that Bitcoin is going to be hacked one of these days.

Five years later, BitCoin and similar cryptocurrencies are still safe, but they may not be much longer. This is because quantum computers, which are still-in-the-laboratory are going to fundamentally reinvent computing.

When I wrote this post on BitCoin, I was thinking some hacker would just figure out a very clever way to hack these coins that wasn’t so computationally prohibitive. Right now you can throw supercomputers for years at the problem and they won’t succeed.

Quantum computers though are leveraging actual quantum physics, and that looks like a game changer. If you follow my blog, you’ll realize I’ve been fascinated by quantum physics and its implications, most recently this post. Quantum physics is the study of the ultra tiny; it’s a realm so tiny it cannot be seen at all, but only inferred. The foundation of quantum physics seems ridiculous: it postulates that two things can be in two different states at the same time.

Quantum computers take advantage of this seemingly impossible fact of nature. By allowing a bit of storage in a quantum computer (an atom) to take on not just two values (0 or 1) but an extra value (both 0 and 1 at the same time), putting a quantum computer to a task that would challenge even a supercomputer becomes doable. As a practical matter, this puts the security of the Internet and most of our electronic trust-based systems in jeopardy. It looks like someone with the right quantum computer will be able to decode anything electronically encrypted without breaking much of a sweat!

One thing this will impact is digital currencies like BitCoin. Right now to “mine” a new BitCoin requires rooms full of servers. As most BitCoins have already been “mined”, creating new BitCoins gets prohibitively more expensive. With the right quantum computer though, creating new BitCoins won’t be a problem, even if there aren’t that many more that can be created.

But any digital currency that depends on this blockchain technology could be minted quite easily on a quantum computer. Effectively this means that the “preciousness” of digital currencies is going to go away. Quantum computers will be able to “mine” new digital currencies in whatever quantities will be desired. These currencies then move from being on something similar to a gold standard (a finite number of Bitcoins, for example) to a fiat currency.

But with fiat currencies like the U.S. dollar, some entity controls the creation of dollars (the Federal Reserve). With digital currencies, anyone with a correctly programmed quantum computer can create as many units as desired and the currency permits. In short, digital currencies will reach a point where they cannot be trusted and quantum computers should kill them.

Much scarier though is how easily these computers will crack passwords and encryption keys. Consider that electronic commerce is carried out over the Internet using pairs of public and private keys. The private key is retained by vendors like Amazon, and the public key is handed out, but you need both to make the transaction secure. If you can figure out the private key though you can certainly purport to be some entity that you are not, and once you have someone’s credit card or bank account number grabbing their money won’t take much effort. Of course, if you can easily figure out someone’s password with a quantum computer, not much remains private anymore, at least not in electronic form.

As bad as this is, it has much worse implications. Suppose North Korea or China get a leg up on us on quantum computers. Imagine the havoc they could create. Right now, China is leading on quantum computing. It’s not clear if the United States even has a strategy in this area. We have to hope the NSA is studying the problem and perhaps surreptitiously developing quantum computers too. Quantum computers will break the model of electronic trust that we take for granted. We will need something else that can’t be broken with quantum computers but which can still be done electronically. I can’t think of what can viably replace it. But moving whatever solution we come up with, we have to retrofit every system to use it instead.

The United States would be well advised to become the leaders in quantum computing, and quickly. Unfortunately, our tone-deaf Trump Administration is much more concerned about people seeking asylum on our border or getting rid of Obamacare than tackling a super-huge national security threat like quantum computing. Let’s hope that when the grownups are back in charge again, there is still time to gain the upper hand.

To get your head around this, watch this 3:44 video:

Presidential nomination theatrics don’t mean much. Here’s what really matters.

The Thinker by Rodin

Are you a Bernie bro? Or just a Bernie supporter? Do you go gaga when Liz Warren comes up with new policy solutions? Does Kirsten Gillibrand’s blonde hair make you swoon? Can you identify with Kamala Harris’ multihued skin and mixture of black and Hispanic heritage? Do you feel a magnetically drawn to Beto O’Rourke but don’t really understand why? Does Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy flag your interest despite your inability to pronounce his last name properly?

There is no lack of Democratic presidential candidates out there, even though the first votes for the nomination are more than ten months away. It’s natural for us Democrats to project our hopes onto a candidate. I just want to posit that exactly who Democrats nominate won’t matter too much. Any of them will be more than acceptable, so let’s stop obsessing over their personalities and positions. Instead, if you care, place your energy behind movements, and not a particular candidate.

In electing Trump, Americans bought into the fallacious idea that one person can fix what’s wrong in America. Trump was going to be our strongman. Using bullying he perfected over seventy years; he was going to set America back on the right course. Of course, just the opposite happened. But even if you bought into his nihilistic vision of Make America White Again, he’s failing miserably at it even using his own benchmarks. Trump can’t save America. None of the Democratic presidential contenders can either. No one person can. We save American by caring enough about it to give it the time, attention and resources it requires.

We save America by taking back our government. So let’s talk about how to do that, noting that in 2018 we made great progress by gaining control of the House in a huge wave election. It’s not like we don’t have a whole lot of things that need immediate fixes. Otherwise, come January 20, 2021, most likely there will be only another long, dispiriting slog ahead of us trying to make change. No bully president or bully pulpit can make change. Only we can.

Nationally though there is plenty of work ahead of us. Here are some things we can do:

  • The Electoral College has got to go. The only official way to get rid of it is through constitutional amendment. The unofficial way is for enough states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. We need states representing 270 electoral votes to join in. States that join it will pledge their electoral votes to the candidate that wins the national popular vote. We have 181 electoral votes representing 11 states plus D.C. right now. This legislation is pending in fifteen states, consisting of 158 electoral votes. Considering the Electoral College brought us George W. Bush and the Iraq War, not to mention Donald Trump, it’s an effort worth your time and support. We need 89 more electoral votes. Check the map and see if your state is considering it and if so get involved. Just take a few minutes to write your state senators and legislators and urge them to vote for the bill. And if you can, join with neighbors to do it as a focused group.
  • Similarly, we need districts that aren’t gerrymandered to give disproportionate power to incumbents. I give money to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. In theory even a Republican who believes in this should support this effort. The committee is not trying to stack the odds to favor Democrats. They want districts that are drawn in a nonpartisan manner. Given them some money and time.
  • Elect Democrats to the Senate. Democrats need just 4 net seats to turn the Senate blue in 2020. It is doable since Republicans have to defend twice as many seats as Democrats in 2020. The Arizona seat is open and Arizona is trending blue. Easiest seats to flip are Maine (Collins), North Carolina (Tillis) and Iowa (Ernst). Holding onto Alabama (Jones) will be tough. It can be done, particularly in a wave election, but it requires good candidates, support from people like you and high voter turnout.
  • End the filibuster. The filibuster rules in the Senate are largely dead anyhow, but what remains keep most legislation from even being considered if it doesn’t get a sixty vote threshold. The exception is narrow legislation that meet budget reconciliation rules and many court vacancies. To wield a majority to affect real change, what’s left of it has to go. Vote for senators who pledge to end it. Otherwise initiatives like addressing climate change and voting rights are likely to die there regardless of who is president and how big our majorities are in the House.
  • Vote for change. Unless incumbents have a strong record for voting for the change you want to see, vote them out and vote for someone who will. This is true for state and city offices as well as for national offices. The one exception: do not vote for a third-party candidate for president. All you do is shoot yourself in the foot, as these voters proved again in 2016.