Archive for the ‘Politics 2018’ Category

The Thinker

Evangelicals rooting for Armageddon

On April 29, I inconveniently pointed out that most Christians in America are acting like the devil. Jesus himself seemed to be aware that people have this tendency, which is captured in the Bible in Luke 6:42 and Matthew 7:3:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye?

Christianity’s general failing in this area is obvious to most of us heathen and unchurched, as well as (I hope) to those Christians among us who still emulate the actual spirit of Jesus. Granted, it’s not easy to be cognizant of your own glaring hypocrisies. I don’t consider myself immune from this human predisposition. Having this understanding of the “Christians” around me though means nothing to those who would benefit from my insights. They aren’t listening and even if they were they would reject it out of hand. Since I’m not a Christian how can I be believed anyhow? When you have real faith, reason won’t trump it.

It’s one thing to have a lot of the devil in you while proclaiming your devout holiness. It’s another thing entirely to actively work for the end of the world. The latter is intensely evil. And yet as Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks points out, 25% of voting age Americans are hoping for the end of the world and are actively trying to bring it about by voting for people like Donald Trump. America sent a couple of them to Jerusalem the other day to celebrate our unwise decision to move our embassy to there. As you may have read, it led to the death of 62 Palestinians and the wounding of 1200 others or so who were protesting along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

“Praise be to Jesus”, say these end-of-the-worlders about this embassy move. That’s because they can check off one more item on their dubious list of conditions for bringing about Armageddon that they have somehow discerned from reading the book of Revelations. Although the New World wasn’t even imagined in Jesus’s time, apparently one of the conditions for bringing about Armageddon was for the USA has to open an embassy there. Go figure. More than anything else, they want the end of the world. If they can pull off the Biblical conditions, Jesus finally returns to Earth. They can’t wait to be rhapsodized because they are true believers. Oh, and part of the prophecy is the rest of us get to die what looks like painful and miserable deaths, apparently a very Christian thing to do. For 62 Palestinians, they are already fulfilling the prophecy courtesy of the Israeli military. The Lord does work in mysterious ways.

Among the speakers at the opening of our embassy were pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress. Back in the 1990s, Hagee had said that Hitler was fulfilling biblical prophecies because his Holocaust caused the creation of Israel. That sure sounds like maybe the Holocaust was okay, at least by him. Jeffress is on record as saying Mormonism and Islam are heresies “from the pit of hell”, said Catholics were led astray by Satan and said that President Obama was “paving the way” for the Antichrist. You would think this might disqualify them from speaking at such an event, but apparently they were featured speakers. Trump’s evangelical supporters form the base of his support so of course they were featured.

Apparently it’s not enough to allow the natural course of events to bring about Armageddon; they must coach it along. So it’s all smiles from these people as more misery and destruction happen across the Middle East. That’s because they see these events as signs that Jesus is getting ready for his second coming. They are not bothered at all by their advocacy of these events. They think they are doing God’s work. That’s right: they have to help others kill lots of people so the Son of God can return to earth and make sure they are raptured. This is sick, sick, sick. Evangelicals are becoming the Antichrist they are looking for. They are clearly suffering from a case of toxic religiosity.

The rest of us don’t matter. The rest of us know what these faith-based people don’t: there is no God (at least nothing resembling what they believe in), that we only have this one planet and that most of us just want to live in it peacefully and for everyone to get along. Jesus was all about love and peace. How on earth can they be pushing for hate and war instead? What the hell is wrong with these people?

If I could be dictator, I would do away with all religion. It’s pretty clear that it works against its own professed aims. It does nothing to unite us, but plenty to factionalize us. It provides a false certainty in an uncertain world and gives its believers a faith and rationalization to inflict endless misery on the rest of us. These kinds of religion are toxic and ultimately self-defeating memes that by its nature must wash over the rest of us who simply want to live decent and peaceful lives.

Doing away with religion wouldn’t mean that mankind would still not be rift in conflict. The communists recognized that religion was evil but even official state atheism could not kill it. If it’s not religion, then ethnic, racial and rich vs. poor conflicts would likely prove just as good at inspiring us to hate.

Some of us though believe that we have evolved past this crap. What we need are rational leaders, people that think through the likely consequences of their actions instead of relying on their biases and impulses. We want leaders that look to diplomacy to solve problems instead of dropping bombs.

Perhaps old-fashioned scorn would work. We should call out people like these Evangelical Christians and hold them to account for stoking the flames of hatred, certainly not to convince them but to convince others on the fence. We are not seeing much evidence of this now, as these people wrap themselves in the cloak of a false Christianity. However, the rational among us must proclaim them for what they are: perhaps nice-sounding people with an evil core perturbed by a religion that says they must be right. They must be opposed at every turn.

 
The Thinker

There is no Planet B

When I have time to fill in my retirement, I can easily spend it among the endless documentaries on YouTube. I have spent a lot of my free time watching videos on space-time. Space-time is the matrix in which we live and it’s very much a real thing. There is no way to separate space from time. It (not they) literally comprises the fabric of the universe, fabric that can be warped by gravitational forces. It’s fascinating stuff if you can wrap your head around it.

Some of these videos take on the topic of traveling to distant stars. They talk about why it’s prohibitively expensive in time and energy to even come close to approaching the speed of light. If we hope to escape our solar system and colonize planets around distant stars we will have to figure out how to do this. What I’ve gleaned from these videos is that there is basically no way to do this. In the embedded video, the sun is reduced to the size of pea. The videographer then shows the distance of our closest star, Proxima Centauri, which would be 125 miles away. Moreover, Proxima Centauri would be the size of a radish seed.

Proxima Centauri is about 4.25 light years away. If you could get a spacecraft to go ten percent of the speed of light, which doesn’t seem technically possible due to the energy required, it would take 42 years to get to Proxima Centauri. The chance of finding a habitable planet around it is virtually nothing, which means the closest habitable planet is likely to be much farther away. Moreover, humans hoping to emigrate there would have to bring everything they need with them. Many generations would live and die in the void of interstellar space on this journey. Given the law of entropy, it’s unlikely their vessel would make it to its destination with any of its passengers alive.

Which is why in practical terms that humans should look closer to home. Mars is probably the closest possibly habitable planet, but it really cannot be considered habitable. It has 1/100 of the earth’s atmosphere, its atmosphere is toxic and too cold for us and everything is covered in a fine dust that would probably have us looking like coal miners. We’d probably have to live underground. Most likely going there would be a one-way trip, as our muscles would likely atrophy in the lighter gravity. Pretty much everything would have to be imported from earth, at least for many decades. Just getting there would mean being exposed to high does of cosmic radiation that would change our DNA and likely mean our children would have birth defects. In short, actually living on Mars would probably be hellish. No sane person would want to stay there. Even getting there and back might kill you or at least shorten your lifespan. Perhaps we’ll find ways to shield ourselves from the cosmic radiation on the journey, but it’s unlikely.

Venus has a more earth-like gravity but is literally hotter than hell not to mention filled with an atmosphere of lethal gases and constantly swirling storms. There is some talk that maybe a moon of Jupiter or Saturn could support a human colony. Getting there would take much longer than to Mars and there is no moon that can really be considered Earth-like. Some appear to have water (ice) and something resembling an atmosphere, but life there would be problematic at best. Many of these moons seems to be rocked by earthquakes.

All this leads this space-buff to conclude that we humans are stuck here on Earth, barring some sort of incredible technology that seems extremely unlikely or some asterisks to the laws of relativity that don’t appear to exist. It’s understandable that humans will want to explore new frontiers. It’s also abundantly clear that we are quickly making the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation, pollution and deforestation.

Attempts to colonize these brave new worlds will likely prove disastrous and prohibitively costly. Yet that’s seems to be where people like Elon Musk are anxious to go. If he can shoot a Tesla toward the outer planets, a manned trip to Mars can’t be that far away. He’s hoping to do something like this in the 2020s. I confess I will be excited if he or NASA succeeds in something like this. While it is likely to be exciting, it is certainly fraught with peril. Assuming the astronauts make it back, it’s likely that their DNA will not be quite what it was. Astronauts who have spent long time periods in the International Space Station have already noted chromosomal abnormalities. Science Magazine in 2016 noted that lunar astronauts had a much higher risk of heart disease. This is likely due to the higher cosmic radiation in the space between the Earth and the Moon.

While mankind’s desire to explore other worlds is understandable, if much of our motivation for getting off-planet is to deal with the population crisis then we are being hopelessly naïve. Which means that as painful as it may appear to be, it will be infinitely less costly to address our climate, population and pollution crises here and now. Our lovely Mother Earth that we are quickly destroying is all that cocoons us.

Hopefully the Trump Administration’s foolhardy rush toward oblivion will be short-lived. Hopefully Americans will come to their senses and elect politicians that will address these problems. Resolving seemingly intractable problems like our religious and ethnic wars, or poverty or population control simply must happen or we doom humans and our ecosystem to extinction.

There is no Planet B for humans to colonize. We live on a planet that should be our Eden. We must make it that or perish.

 
The Thinker

Trump and the likely disastrous consequences of being vain

We learned Monday that back in February 2017, Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller and “another large man”, along with the chief legal officer of the Trump Organization “raided” the office of Trump’s then physician, Harold Bornstein. Thirty minutes later they left with all of Trump’s medical records, a likely illegal act. They also took a picture of Trump and Bornstein hanging on his office wall.

Physicians are required to maintain their patient records and may only release copies of the records to their patients, and only with a signed HIPAA form. It’s not clear though that Bornstein will make a legal case out of it. In some ways he has already extracted his revenge. When CNN inquired he admitted that his glowing assessment of Trump’s health during the 2016 campaign was not an honest assessment and that Trump basically dictated it. This is what many of us suspected at the time. Even if Trump were actually only 239 pounds at the time and actually 6’3” (he is at best 6’2”) and thus not technically obese, it was clear that he lives a largely sedentary lifestyle. If he is the healthiest 71-year-old man on the planet, God help the rest of them and they might as well regularly enjoy McDonalds and KFC like Trump does.

The “raid” occurred two days after Bornstein remarked that Trump took Propecia, a drug used to treat both enlarged prostates and to stimulate hair growth in men. Our ultra-vain president did not like this coming out. Bornstein should not have revealed this at all, as it is a breach of medical privacy. That may be another reason Bornstein is not pursuing legal remedies for this “raid”.

In any event the “raid” is extraordinary for its boldness. It’s also in these seemingly smaller matters that we gain insight into our president’s character. Trump of course has a storied history of acting first and hoping to evade the consequences by throwing lawyers at his legal troubles. For example, just today we learned that Trump did in fact reimburse his then lawyer Michael Cohen for the $130,000 Cohen gave to porn actress Stormy Daniels. Trump of course continues to deny the affair. With this admission, it’s pretty clear that Cohen’s payment was in fact an “in-kind” contribution to the campaign, one that was not reported. It may expose Trump to criminal charges along with Cohen.

This “raid” may be bold but it was also very stupid. Trump of course has a history of doing stupid things. If the government ever needs to prove a case against him, his Twitter feed contains voluminous supporting evidence. It clearly demonstrates that above all Trump is concerned about how he is perceived. The revelation that he takes a drug to help with his hair loss would be no big deal to most men but if you are an ultra vain man then it’s a huge deal.

It’s likely that no one other than maybe Trump really believes he has the body of a man in his prime half his age. Trump though feels he must project this image and crush any facts that could prove otherwise. Bornstein had the goods on Trump including facts like how much he really weighs. It’s clear it’s much more than 239 pounds. This has spawned a girther movement and a #Girther hashtag to show how ridiculous the claim is.

Clearly, Trump is running scared. It’s likely he cannot admit this to himself, but actions like this “raid” prove his subconscious feelings. Trump is a narcissist. Narcissists simply cannot acknowledge their own faults because doing so undercuts the pillar around which they have built their lives. As a consequence narcissists like Trump are driven toward extreme behavior so their false image can be protected. It’s not protected from the rest of us, not even from Trump’s supporters who see through this façade and simply don’t care. However, it is vital to Trump to maintain his own mental health. So when he feels that false image is under threat Trump does stupid stuff like this.

The volume of stupid stuff that Trump is doing just continues to increase. This is because the pressure on him is increasing, mostly as a result of Mueller’s investigation. It is exposing the real Trump. It causes Trump to do stupid stuff like his disastrous recent interview on Fox & Friends. Trump has built for himself an elaborate house of cards. He will go to great lengths to conceal information that would conflict with his image of himself while regularly undercutting his own case in his Twitter feed and in various interviews. He doesn’t seem to be self aware enough to know that doing this is stupid. This doesn’t surprise me because if you are a narcissist then by definition you are incapable of critically reviewing your own missteps.

Dissatisfied with advice from his lawyers he has fired them all and brought in a new team more attuned to his style. He claims that he wants to testify to Robert Mueller while setting up a framework to block him from doing exactly that. More recently he has threatened to end the investigation against him, using Nixonian logic that the president is somehow above the law, something that President Nixon learned not to be true.

It’s pretty clear to me that Trump’s psychic teakettle is close to boiling over at this point. The only surprising thing is that it hasn’t quite boiled over yet. There may be a small and sane part of Trump that keeps him from doing ultimately stupid self-immolation stuff. It’s not clear if that he can maintain control over that part of himself much longer.

 
The Thinker

The devil in American Christianity

A confluence of events is proving just how dead and unchristian most of American Christianity is today. There are exceptions, most notably the Catholic Church. If you can overlook its rampant misogyny and long history of pedophilia, it still thinks it’s important to feed the hungry and shelter the poor regardless of race, color or creed but not always sexual orientation. Moreover, it puts its time and resources where its mouth is.

You have to look pretty hard to find a mainstream Christian denomination in the United States that bears some resemblance to what Jesus preached. The United Church of Christ probably comes closest, but it’s been bleeding members for years. I could also possibly include Unitarian Universalists like me, except being creedless we can’t really be called Christians, although individual members might say they are Christian. We are also a tiny denomination.

For the most part though our churches are mirroring society: becoming socioeconomic havens for tangentially religious people mostly of the same race and social status. They mirror the values of their class and society far more than they practice Christianity as Jesus preached it. Last week in Congress though we witnessed an action that pretty much proved it was dead. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan dismissed its chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest, for apparently modeling Jesus a bit too much.

Conroy wasn’t too happy about it but while it lasted it was a great gig for a priest. Priests take vows of poverty but Congress paid him $172,500 a year, far more than I ever made annually in my career. Money though wasn’t the issue here. Conroy apparently got under the skin of influential House Republicans, including the Speaker for constantly reminding them of inconvenient truths about Christianity, such as Christians are supposed to look out for the poor rather than worship at the altar of mammon. Last November, for example, before the House debate on major tax legislation at the well of the House, Conroy said this:

May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.

Well, that’s awkward when the tax legislation was mostly about funneling new amounts of government debt directly into the pockets of rich people instead. No wonder Ryan was irked. How about a little prosperity gospel instead, preacher? These people seem to form the base of the Republican Party anyhow. (By the way, “prosperity gospel” is just another name for trickle-down economics.)

Also last week we got a rare moment of candor from a Republican politician, Mick Mulvaney in this case. Mulvaney is the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But he used to be a member of Congress. Reminiscing on those times to a meeting of the American Bankers Association, Mulvaney cut to the chase:

We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.

Mulvaney clearly believes in a government of, by, and for the corporation. If you wanted his attention, you had to bribe him through campaign contributions. No one else mattered.

Now in the ultimate irony, Evangelical Christians are wholeheartedly are behind Philanderer-in-Chief and complete moral failure Donald J. Trump. He garners at least 80% support from this group and nothing in his sinful personal life seems to dissuade them from supporting him. It’s not that they see Trump as a good Christian. Trump hardly ever attends church services. His church is the golf course. About the only time you will see him in a church will be if some prominent politician dies, and even then his attendance is iffy. He skipped Barbara Bush’s recent funeral. He clearly doesn’t read the Bible; in fact he doesn’t read much of anything.

These “Christians” tend to see Trump as a necessary evil: God working in mysterious ways. What they really care about is not his many moral failings but his willingness to move forward with a radical conservative agenda. If Trump can appoint another Supreme Court justice that overturns Roe v. Wade, doesn’t that justify their support? They must have excised Matthew 16:26 from their Bible:

What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

In truth though American Christians have largely thrown away the New Testament. What really engages them though is the Old Testament, particularly its authoritarian parts, parts that were largely replaced in the New Testament. One of Jesus’s primary missions was to redefine Judaism into a more benign, charitable and universal religion. American Christians though seem determined to place the Ten Commandments in government spaces. But they never demand that the Beatitudes to occupy such public places instead, and these are words Jesus actually said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

With the ouster of House Chaplain Conroy, it’s clear that these thoughts are unwelcome in Congress. But that’s okay. It’s abundantly clear they are unwelcome as well in what passes for American Christianity today.

The devil made them do it.

 
The Thinker

Looking past the midterms, part two

(A continuation of sorts of this March post.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

Greed is a terrible sickness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

The perfect storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

The sound … and power … of silence

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

The Manchurian President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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