The Thinker

How do you solve a problem like Donald Trump?

Donald Trump has us just where he wants us: by the scrotum. Trump’s faults are many, but he does have some assets. He knows how to get attention and keep it on himself. He’s leading a three-ring circus and like it or not we are all dancing to his tune. Trump pervades our thoughts from morning until night, and often haunts our dreams too.

Which to my mind raises the larger question: how do we get out of this dance? The presidency is a unique office in that its occupant cannot help but make news every day. For an egomaniac like Trump, it’s the perfect position. Even so the default attention that comes with being president is obviously not quite enough for him. Which is why our carnival barker-in-chief always keeps a half dozen issues in reserve certain to inflame his enemies and cheer his supporters.

It’s abundantly clear that he is a compulsive liar but to somewhere between 40 and 44 percent of Americans that approve of him at the moment it’s apparently not an issue. Or perhaps it’s not enough of an issue to stop supporting him. If you are looking for entertainment, Trump certainly delivers a nonstop show. To his supporters it is mesmerizing; to the rest of us it leaves us queasy, feeling unmoored and sick. The USA we thought we knew that at least aimed toward fairness and justice seems to be gone. What’s left is the ugliest seam of America: forces long largely kept bottled up, with a president who loves to flout all rules and conventions.

If the entertainment is good enough, it’s hard to be aware that your pocket is being picked while it’s happening. With the exception of Trump’s richest supporters, the rest of us are getting shafted. He is pretty much doing exactly the opposite of the things he said he would do during the campaign. One small example: he was going to deliver us the best and most affordable health care ever. Instead, he constantly works to undermine the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid leading to millions more uninsured and higher premiums for those of us still ensured. He does this while whipping up a “Celebration of America” event because the Super Bowl champs, the Philadelphia Eagles, apparently didn’t want to visit him in the White House. It’s so much easier to watch these theatrics than to notice our financial mooring slip from under our feet.

While there have been populist presidents before, Trump is clearly is a category we have never seen before: contemptuous of the rule of law, openly racist with every action designed to feed his insatiable ego. How do we break his spell?

Usually elections are pretty effective. We’ll see what happens in November, but Trump’s slowly rising poll numbers suggests he has plenty more tricks in his bag as the election nears. He’s operating intuitively, convinced that by ever more inflaming his base he’ll also bring them to the polls to counteract an expected Democratic wave. So it’s not hard to predict he’ll get wilder, crazier and wilier as November approaches.

I have two thoughts on how to break the Trump spell that are sort of opposite of each other for your consideration.

Stand up to the bully

The one thing you can count on with Trump is his insatiable ego. It’s quite possible that Democrats can use his ego can be used to walk him right off a cliff. There is plenty of evidence so far that ultimately this approach won’t work because Trump is intuitively one step ahead of everyone else. I’ve written about standing up to bullies before, and Trump is the perfect example. Bullies draw energy from a crowd of bullies surrounding them, and Trump seems to have a limitless supply of these. Democrats need just the right person to engage Trump. It’s hard to know exactly who this person would be, but the key is for Trump to be challenged and ultimately to lose face in the eyes of his supporters.

Ideally it would be a woman, which is why my senator Elizabeth Warren comes to mind. She’s already been quite eloquent speaking against Trump but for the most part Trump has ignored her. But she could challenge him to a town hall debate. CNN is doing more of these. Some months ago it held one between Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz and it sure was interesting to watch. Warren takes no prisoners and is exceptionally eloquent. There is one way almost guaranteed to get him to show up: repeatedly say he’s too chicken to show up. I’m quite confident that in front of a national audience she could cut him down to size.

An even better confrontation would be a physical one. A prominent Democrat could challenge him to a wrestling or boxing match. According to Trump’s physician, he’s exceptionally healthy and has the body of a man half his age (cough cough). If he has to go up against a peer, perhaps former Vice President Joe Biden would do.

Ignore him and concentrate on pocketbook issues

This is probably what most smart Democrats will do instead. Trump is a self-activating egomaniac. If he cannot be controlled, then the next best thing is simply to ignore him. Egomaniacs feed on attention, so why give him any more? Most likely the only way he can get gotten rid of is through the ballot box, that is if we can keep our elections free enough to elect more Democrats.

By ignoring him and concentrating on pocketbook issues instead, Democrats can gain the political power needed to control the policy agenda again. This is done through winning back not just Congress but statehouses and governorships. National elections happen only every four years anyhow. Democrats need to point out how our standard of living is being systematically lowered except for the wealthiest. They need to promise to take pragmatic steps to address these concerns if given the power of holding office again. It’s unlikely that Trump’s approval rating will ever above the low 40s anyhow. If Trump must be addressed, simply run on “ending Republican corruption” and putting the American people first.

Anyhow those are my ideas. I’m open to better ones if you have any.

 
The Thinker

Obama’s new long-game

President Obama’s biggest mistake was probably roasting Donald Trump at the 2011 National Press Club dinner. It likely infuriated Trump and led to his run for the presidency some years later and the current national disaster we are experiencing from his presidency. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think if Obama hadn’t lampooned him, Trump might still be busy laundering money by selling his condos at inflated prices to foreign investors.

Obama’s second biggest mistake was probably missing the 2010 midterm wave that turned control of Congress over to Republicans. Obama did what he could do. He certainly traveled the country and campaigned for Democrats and exhorted Democrats to turn out. But they didn’t. Republicans however did turn out massively, adding 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats. Eight years later Democrats are still reeling from this election. They are now hoping for a turn of the tide this November, similar to their success in the 2006 midterms.

Arguably it was what Republicans did after the 2010 midterms was much more important than that midterm results themselves. They used the wave of enthusiastic Republicans (many Tea Party affiliated) and Democrat apathy to gain control of more state legislatures and governorships. They also set up Operation REDMAP that worked relentlessly to flip Democratic state seats using two assets that Republican have in abundance: money and mean-spirited tenacity. This allowed them to control the redistricting process in ten out of the 15 states that would be redrawing their districts as a result of the 2010 census. Then they used the power of analytics to create highly gerrymandered districts to lock in their majorities. Since this redistricting effort, Republicans have picked up seats in states where Democrats took the majority of the votes, demonstrating the fundamental unfairness of their highly partisan gerrymandering effort.

Now out of office Obama is free to do what he does best: play a long game. Which is why he and former Attorney General Eric Holder have created the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Curiously though the NDRC goal is not to bring about Democratic gerrymandering, but to kill gerrymandering altogether. President Obama has put his finger on the nub of the real problem: gerrymandering is deeply undemocratic and must be killed to have a real democracy. What we are getting instead is bordering on autocracy.

The committee has four strategies to do this. The first is litigation, and here they have had great success. They challenged Pennsylvania’s highly gerrymandered map in court and succeeded in having it redrawn to be fairer, giving no party an unfair advantage. This will likely mean four House seats in Pennsylvania will flip in the election from Republican to Democrat, simply because of a more even playing field now. Similar efforts are underway in other states like Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin. In some states there are voter initiatives to make gerrymandering illegal, taking district drawing out of the control of politicians altogether.

The second strategy is to mobilize people in this effort. Toward that end I am getting mobilized, first by donating money to their cause but potentially in other ways too. Here in Massachusetts though, our districts are generally drawn pretty fairly already.

The third strategy is reform: passing laws in states to enact fairer redistricting laws. Here they have the support of Americans who generally disdain gerrymandering, 71 percent in favor according to one poll. I’ve complained about it before, noting that its worst sin was that it removed most moderates from political offices. Moderate politicians are the key to getting government working again.

The last strategy is to elect Democrats where it helps even the playing field. Here, working with other Democratic groups, they’ve had great success in many special elections since Trump was inaugurated. When Democrats trounce Republicans in special elections in Oklahoma, you know something is up.

There is no guarantee that getting rid of gerrymandering will necessarily mean that Democrats will control Congress and state legislatures again. But gerrymandering is the root of a much larger set of problems. When there were many moderates in office, political accommodation was possible. In the past, meeting in the middle was how government got things done. It was sometimes messy, such as in earmarks for congressional districts, but it did create a political space where such accommodations were possible.

So I’m in with Obama and Holder in playing this long game. Democracy is not possible if there is no space for political accommodation. In that sense this effort is very patriotic and perhaps the ideal response to our age of fake news and our fake presidency. For democracy to flourish, we all need a realistic chance to sit at the table again. We’ve lost that.

 
The Thinker

The stock buyback warning: stormy economic times are likely ahead

Remember when Trump’s tax cuts were going to put money back into the pockets of working class Americans and create more jobs for them too? Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a load of peanut butter. With gas now around $3 a gallon, whatever new modest tax cuts trickled down to working America are probably being eaten up in higher transportation costs. As for businesses reinvesting their tax cuts in their businesses and bumping up wage rates for employees, well, there’s not much evidence of that. According to this March report from the Roosevelt Institute, just six percent of these corporate tax cuts are going to wage increases and bonuses for employees. Just twenty percent of this money is going toward capital investments that will result in more jobs.

So what are companies doing with the extra money from this enormous windfall? There is little reason for CEOs to spend most of it investing on the long-term futures of their companies. That’s because CEO compensation tends to be based on making short-term profits. These days many CEOs make far more compensation from exercising stock options than they do from a salary.

So we should not be surprised that CEOs are trying to make money the easy way instead. And the easy way is to take this money and buy back their stock. It’s good for them and it’s good for shareholders. Or so it seems. Experts are questioning if these buybacks are just artificially inflating the price of corporate stocks. One traditional measure is a stock’s price to earning’s (P/E) ratio. The higher the ratio, the longer it takes for earning from owning the stock to be used to buy a new share of company stock. High P/E ratios are a sign that stocks are overvalued and due for a correction. We are now at a P/E ratio about where we were before the Great Recession.

If it were just a handful of companies, this would not be particularly worrisome, but it’s part of a large and broad general trend among American corporations. Bloomberg reports a record $800B in stock buybacks are expected in 2018. So how are these buybacks inflating the value of a company artificially? It’s quite simple. When a company buys back its own stock, the supply of the stock for purchase diminishes. Of course as supply diminishes, price increases for any shares that are traded. If a CEO has $5 million in his company’s stock, by channeling these tax cuts and profits to buybacks, all other factors being equal the price of the stock will go up. So his $5M might easily turn into $6M. And what work had to be done? Simply redirecting these tax cuts and profits to create “buy” orders for his company’s stock.

That’s a whole lot easier than creating new products, expanding into new markets or figuring out how to run the business more efficiently. Shareholders probably aren’t going to complain when they see the value of their investments rise. Smarter CEOs will be systematically selling their stock when its price goes up, so they can capture its inflated wealth. This gives them money in the bank that can’t be taken away and shifts the risks of owning this stock to other stockholders.

Which is why these record stock buybacks really worry me. They do nothing to actually make a company more profitable in the long run and actually add to a company’s vulnerability. They allow more agile competitors (if there are any) to get a leg up on their market. That adds risks to a company’s value. Companies are essentially betting on the profitability of corporate inertia. Traditionally, this has not worked well for companies in the long run.

Stock corrections are inevitable. There was evidence earlier this year that we had reached correction territory, but markets have recovered much of these losses. For now though these tax cuts seem to be juicing the markets instead of your pocketbooks. I get the feeling that a true correction will happen sooner rather than later, in part because of the volatility of the market so far this year. This suggests there is a general nervousness among investors.

Stock buybacks though are a clear symptom of corporate greed. Greed is simply the lust for more wealth, and the truly greedy will want to increase their riches now rather than wait for improbable future profits. Congress is aiding and abetting this greed through these tax cuts in the first place, but also by removing regulations that were put in place after the Great Recession to prevent these things from happening in the future. You can see this through Trump’s attack on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can see it in recently passed legislation that will remove more higher reserve requirements on midsize banks. And you can see it in record consumer debt levels, bigger even than before the Great Recession. I believe that these large stock buybacks are another sign that this financial house of cards is moving toward another correction.

This time we can hope that it won’t be as bad as 2008. It shouldn’t, but who can say? The Trump Administration is being both being reckless and shortsighted, and Congress is fine with this. Their insatiable greed means they simply don’t care about fulfilling their primary function. The primary function of government is to be fiduciaries for the nation, making sure it is properly managed for both the short and long term. To the extent they are interested, it is to convince them that their timeworn strategies that just do the opposite will somehow work in the long term this time.

You would be wise not to take their bet. Rather than practicing greed, you might want to practice prudence instead. My take: this is a good time for less market exposure. I’m not alone. When the Treasury bill rate made it above 3% for the first time in years, it pushed up other interest rates. Many investors saw this as a sign and began moving more money into bonds for the surety of a return.

I don’t think Republican governance is going to change any fundamentals of the economy. Needless to say, I’m limiting my market exposure now and putting more money into bond funds. Maybe you should too.

 
The Thinker

A truer understanding of the meaning of the Second Amendment

This Washington Post OpEd by Dennis Barron (who is an English and linguistics professor out of the University of Illinois) really intrigued me. He takes the late Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia to task for his reading of the Second Amendment. It’s this amendment that grants us gun rights. To refresh your memory, here is the Second Amendment in full:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Specifically he takes Scalia to task for his interpretation of “bear Arms”. Scalia said that it undoubtedly meant that it protected the right to use guns for self-defense. According to Barron, at the time it was only used in a military context. It meant the use of arms for “war, soldiering or organized, armed action” according to Barron.

As I pointed out years back, the court’s 2008 decision District of Columbia v. Heller in which Scalia voted with the majority essentially turned the Second Amendment into:

The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Perhaps some future true-constructionist court will rediscover the true meaning of the amendment. (Scalia thought of himself as a true-constructionist, i.e. someone who interprets the law as it was originally intended to be interpreted.) If Barron is right, then it’s quite clear the right to bear arms is derived only from the state’s need to have a well-regulated militia. Your right to bear arms is not because you like to shoot squirrels, target practice or even to protect your home. And it’s not like this is a mystery: it’s written in plain English.

If militias were actually necessary in 2018, given the number of firearms in circulation you would think there would be militias all over the place. If you were thinking our army is a militia, you would be quite wrong. Dictionary.com gives these definitions in order of most frequent use:

  1. A body of citizens enrolled for military service, and called out periodically for drill but serving full time only in emergencies.
  2. A body of citizen soldiers as distinguished from professional soldiers.
  3. All able-bodied males considered by law eligible for military service.
  4. A body of citizens organized in a paramilitary group and typically regarding themselves as defenders of individual rights against the presumed interference of the federal government.

Today, the Reserve and National Guard would qualify under the first definition, but not our standing army. They are very well regulated too. So clearly if you are a member of either of these, your right could not be infringed, at least as long as you remain a member. In practice though the state probably won’t tell you to keep your guns at home, particularly not those military grade guns. They’ll have you drive to your local armory to pick them up and truck you somewhere in uniform with a bunch of other soldiers.

The second definition is rather murky. A soldier presumably has had military training so perhaps this also covers the Reserve and the Guard. It’s unlikely that shooting at rabbits qualifies you as a soldier. If you haven’t been trained to maim and kill people with firearms under a chain of command using actual military-grade guns, you can’t credibly call yourself a soldier.

The third definition is pretty sexist in 2018 so presumably can be ignored. It should include women but presumably does not include the feeble. So grandma would probably not qualify to keep a gun in her nightstand.

The fourth definition perhaps cover unofficial militias. There are these militias out there today, but they have no legal sanction and are ephemeral organizations at best. Since they have no official sanction, they can’t be considered “well regulated” so presumably they don’t qualify at all. Around the time of our founding though, these militias were all we had. Given that, it’s probably not surprising the founding fathers said, “Hey, we need to ensure we keep our militias or the Indians might overrun us. So we need to make sure that citizens can bear arms.” There was nothing that can credibly be called a standing American army during the Revolutionary War. To the extent it was the “Continental Army” they were the ragtag militias that showed up to fight the war that George Washington did his best to train (with little in the way of funding from the Continental Congress, by the way). Our military of militias proved pretty ineffective. If France hadn’t helped us, particularly at Yorktown, it’s unlikely we would have won the war outright. Anyhow, it is murky at best whether a group of ad-hoc people calling themselves a militia are actually a militia, and would not be in a 1790s sense. To stretch the definition of militia though, perhaps these people have the right to bear arms because they meet the definition of militia.

Even if you say a citizen has the right to bear arms though, the wording of the amendment with a proper interpretation of its predicate “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” suggests to me that if Congress declared that a well regulated militia was no longer necessary to the security of a free state, then your right to bear arms could be infringed and no constitutional amendment would be needed. If at some future time Congress decided, “Hey, we need a militia again” then that right could return.

In any event that clause was not added as an afterthought. Rather, it’s a predicate. Its wording though is quite odd. In more modern English, it should be read as: “Only because a militia is needed for our country to survive, citizens have the right to own guns.”

It’s laughable to assert this right is unlimited because the Supreme Court has stated many times it is not an unlimited right. Inmates can’t own firearms. In many states, being mentally ill can disqualify you. You can’t own bazookas. States are free to regulate firearms providing they don’t take away the right altogether.

So it’s fine if one state decides that “arms” mean nothing bigger than a handgun and another an AR-15. It’s fine if one state says that minors cannot own guns and another state allows it. The Second Amendment is no more absolute than any other right in the Bill of Rights. And if properly framed in the context of the 1790s, it would be hard to argue that anyone has a right to bear arms for any reason other that to maintain a free state’s right to exist using a militia.

Maybe someday we’ll get there, but it’s now obvious that our interpretation of the Second Amendment is just dishonest.

 
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

Our new not-so-naughty Internet

I used to make monthly reviews of Craigslist’s casual encounters section a feature of this site. I gave it up about a year ago because it wasn’t bringing in that much traffic anymore, but also I felt like I had read it all. It used to be that I could reliably find a few nuggets of gold among the voluminous postings of horny guys and mostly women for sale. As you may have read, its casual encounters section, which includes its basic dating area, is shutdown. I wouldn’t have noticed except the event made the news. It became a victim of the recently enacted FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act – Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) law. The law adds tough penalties for sites like Craigslist that even inadvertently facilitate sex trafficking.

Also quickly caught up in the act’s passage was backpage.com, which has been shutdown and now comes with a warning that the site has been seized. The site was pretty much just a place for prostitutes to find clients, so it’s not surprising its top leaders had their homes raided and they were charged with crimes. The Feds seized the domain. Just six days after its passage, backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer pleaded guilty to both state and local charges.

FOSTA-SESTA’s passage into U.S. law has had sex workers in Canada scrambling. One of these is a client of mine who lives in Ottawa. Prostitution is not illegal in Canada, or at least not in Ontario, or I would not have taken her on as a client. Advertising these services in Canada though has always problematic and more so now that FOSTA-SESTA has been passed because backpage.com brought in most of their business. In my client’s case she needs to move her domains to web hosts outside of FOSTA-SESTA’s umbrella. She’s been proactive and for more than a year has had her hosting overseas. Now she needs to move her domains off GoDaddy to an overseas registrar too. One odd effect of the law is that since many Americans that used to find women on backpage.com may opt to travel to Canada instead. But in general it’s definitely becoming harder to find places to hookup online due to FOSTA-SESTA.

FOSTA-SESTA breaks a unique covenant that has formed the foundation of the web’s success: that website owners could not be held liable for content posted by others. Basically it amends the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which had given website owners a pass. The law’s domain is sex trafficking but now that the door has been opened it’s possible that future congresses will open the door widely to more Internet censorship. Sites that allow hate speech, even tangentially like Facebook, may be held liable. As a practical matter just like a cop cannot possibly arrest every lawbreaker, it’s impossible for most website owners to police all the content it gets as it is time and cost prohibitive. For sites like Facebook, laws like these put at risk its whole business model. Computer algorithms can help flag such content but no algorithm is perfect.

While I often enjoyed my monthly surfing of Craigslist’s casual encounters section, it was quite clear that the postings were rife with prostitutes and at least some of the posts probably involved sex trafficking. Many years ago I found one such ad, encouraging Craigslist users to fly to the Dominican Republic where having sex with a minor was apparently not much of a problem. In Craigslist’s case though they can at least say that they made no money off these postings. They did off its erotic services area until that was closed down after a client murdered a sex worker who advertised using this Craigslist area.

Unless FOSTA-SESTA is repealed it’s unlikely that I will be reviewing Craigslist’s casual encounters section anymore. There are plenty of reviews on my site if you are nostalgic for such stuff under my Craigslist tag. It is unclear to me though where people go if they are truly looking for a hookup. For the adulterous, after it was hacked in 2015 ashleymadison.com proved to be problematic. For hookups with random strangers, tinder.com is probably the place to go these days. But it requires a smartphone app plus you have to create a public profile with pictures and stuff. This is presumably not a problem if you are single, but if it is principally a hookup site you may not want the taint of having your boss or coworkers find you are on the site. For gays and bisexuals, grindr.com offers a similar service. Presumably these are policed reasonably well to keep the posters legitimate.

With FOSTA-SESTA, it sure looks like some twenty years after the World Wide Web took off, its glory days are gone. It had a Wild West feel to it, and sites like Craigslist were where you went if you found that sort of stuff titillating. Craigslist of course is still in business, but it’s back to finding more pedestrian ways to make money such as through job postings and facilitating the buying and selling of excess stuff. Its voyeuristic nature is not entirely gone. There is still its Missed Connections section where two ships passing in the night try to find each other. But its naughtiness is gone. Craigslist has to hope its brand can survive the gaping hole that was lost with the closure of its personals section.

 
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.

 

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