The free market is failing us

The Thinker by Rodin

Are you feeling freer yet? From all the free market stuff happening, I mean.

What I’ve been noticing – and what you are probably noticing too – are all the vacant storefronts. Retailing must be in recession.

We have a tiny mall across the river from us. I was in there the other day looking for Christmas presents. It was in sad shape. It still has a couple of anchor stores: a JC Penny and a Target, but inside there were a lot of spaces for rent.

It’s similar in the little downtown in our city of 30,000. When we arrived four years ago, it was vibrant. It’s doing better than some but now there are plenty of storefronts to rent on what should be prime property: Main Street.

It’s not entirely bleak. Despite these empty storefronts, I still see a new small shopping plaza go up now and then. What’s going in though is not so much retail as mixed businesses: doctors offices, restaurants and maybe a fitness center. Increasingly, if I need to buy something I can’t get it locally, so I have to go online. I’d really prefer not to, but increasingly if I do want to buy it at a brick-and-mortar store, I have to drive twenty miles or so to Holyoke. Our local Staples went out of business. A Petco opened across the river at the mall and closed a couple of months later. Our local Walmart looks anemic. Here in Massachusetts, one of the few growth retail businesses is Dunkin Donuts. Apparently we can’t have enough of them.

Our city is at least trying to keep a local economy vibrant. Chain stores are fairly rare around here. We have one Starbucks downtown, but otherwise all our restaurants are local. There are local hardware stores, mainly because few want to cross the river to Hadley to go to the Home Depot or Lowes over there. While there are plenty of Dunkins, we don’t have a Wendy’s, and just one McDonald’s and Burger King on the north side of town. The reason these chains largely avoid us is probably that it doesn’t make economic sense: our market is too small and too far away. We have too few customers and too much hassle to truck stuff in, I’m guessing.

Another sign of the retail times: Amazon put up a new warehouse in Holyoke. It’s probably stocked by now, which means they probably have hired legions of employees at $15/hour to fulfill orders twenty four hours a day. Amazon pushes these people to crazy levels of productivity. They can walk nine miles or more day pulling stuff out of bins and they get metered to make sure they don’t take too many bathroom breaks. They might as well be cattle. They may get treated worse than cattle. Also new: Amazon trucks are making deliveries to the home. A couple of months ago, I never saw an Amazon truck.

Our area is trying to keep a local banking sector, with some modest success. The success is because they had one before the big banks arrived, but it’s not too hard to find a vacant bank storefront. Community banks are clearly suffering but fortunately seem to still dominate the local mega banks here. There is one Bank of America downtown, but they apparently don’t care about the local villages.

I confess I am part of the trend. While I’d like to set up an account at a local community bank, I can’t justify it. Online banks like the one I use, Ally, can offer us a much better deal because they don’t have expense of storefronts. We will get more than 2% interest on a CD at Ally. No community bank around here can compete with that. I also never changed my credit union, which recently offered a deal too good to pass up, though they are 400 miles away. I now get 2% cash back on my purchases, and no annual fee for their card. No local bank can match that either.

We are lucky though to have community banks. In many communities, they are gone. Back where we used to live in Northern Virginia, they were pretty much gone. There was a Citibank or Bank of America store every couple of miles or so, and if not a storefront, at least one of their ATMs. And you paid for the privilege with misery interest rates and plenty of creative fees.

Community banks at least tend to keep the money local, helping to stimulate the local economy. I’m sure Bank of America makes loans locally, but the profits don’t tend to stay in the area. They go to shareholders, or to inflated salaries. During the last recession, it was the big banks that tended to be most vulnerable, mostly because they were the most exposed. They held lots of toxic assets. Pushing those dubious home loans increased their profits in the short term, but when the recession hit it pushed them toward insolvency. Judged too big to fail, Uncle Sam largely bailed them out, letting them keep their short term profits while pushing the long term costs for their risky behavior onto taxpayers. There is every indication that we’ll see this scenario play out yet again in 2020 or 2021.

What I see is not so much competition as consolidation. I see lots of monopolies. I have no choice with my ISP, so it’s Comcast, unless I and a group of citizens can convince our city to create a municipal network. We pay Comcast close to $100 a month for 300 mbps download to the home. Airlines consolidate and raise prices. Entertainment companies consolidate and do the same thing. We saw a movie yesterday at the local Cinemark. We were assaulted but what felt like endless commercials before the movie, including three clips of popcorn popping and Coke fizzing. Need a potty break? They are playing in the restroom too.

These days, you buy out your competition while setting higher barriers for new entrants into these markets. The result is not really more efficiency, but a whole lot less competition, which makes these companies fat and sloppy. If they excel in anything it’s in buying out the competition and paying their employees poorly. Where else are they going to go? Their competition doesn’t largely exist anymore.

To me the worst of these is not Amazon, but ride sharing services Uber and Lyft. They represent everything that is wrong with our “free market” today. Their “innovation” was to sidestep regulators entirely, creating facts-on-the-ground of independent contractor drivers. Yes, it lowered fares, but it’s clear now that they are doing it by cheating their drivers, who largely don’t understand they are working for negative wages when you factor in the depreciation on their cars. Oh, and if you are a female passenger, you stand a decent change of sexual assault. Uber reported more than three thousand sexual assaults in 2018.

What we needed but don’t have is some sort of regulatory authority to decide whether these businesses should be allowed to start up in the first place. Uber and Lyft have, in effect, bypassed our wage and hour laws. In many areas of the country, you can’t get a taxi anymore. You must use Uber or Lyft if you don’t have a car.

What all this proves to me is that money talks. It gets us an oligarchy that is clearly in charge, at least at the federal level. For the rest of us, it just squeezes us more. It’s a new gilded age where only those with money get to profit. The rest of us are just lemon for the squeezing.

The needless suffering all around us

The Thinker by Rodin

My wife is volunteering at the local survival center. Twice a week during the dinner hour she volunteers there, helping to serve 40 to 80 families (sometimes more) survive during her shift.

The center takes all comers, so the undocumented and homeless are served. It’s not mostly these people that the center serves though. It’s neighbors who look a lot like me, but unlike me (I’m largely retired) they are working. They work whatever they can get and whenever they can. There are virtually no freeloaders that come through their doors.

Our community is not unique. About eleven percent of the population is food insecure. Thank goodness the survival center keeps them from starvation. That’s because these days you can’t count on much if anything from the government. That’s because Ronald Reagan convinced Americans that welfare queens driving Cadillacs were using food stamps to buy steaks. For forty years the Republican Party (and to some extent Democrats like Bill Clinton) have been making it harder and harder for people to simply survive.

Some of these people are homeless, but most are not. Most of their income is going to keeping a roof over their heads. Housing prices keep going up and almost all of them rent because they can’t afford to buy a home. Demand can’t keep up with supply, and certainly their wages can’t, so they are squeezed.

I live in Massachusetts which is reasonably progressive. Our minimum wage is currently $11/hour, and will rise to $15/hour by 2023. Still, it’s clear that this amount does not come close to providing a living wage.

Most of the people at the survival center are working two or more jobs, and it’s still not enough. Lots have dependents. An increasing minimum wage helps, but it is being raised slowly. The sorts of jobs these people work rarely pay much more than the minimum wage. That’s because despite low overall unemployment rates, the pool of relatively unskilled labor is still pretty high, so employers usually don’t have much of a problem filling these jobs. Our area is somewhat rural. Aside from some colleges and one university, there isn’t a whole lot of higher paying jobs.

What often tips the balance for these people is unemployment or health costs. Probably the biggest variable is unexpected health costs. The good news is that it’s hard to be uninsured in Massachusetts, as the Affordable Care Act was based largely on our program. The bad news is that most of these plans are still not that affordable. Since it’s required, they usually buy high deductible plans. While they often get catastrophic protection, in some ways its a worse system: they must pay for health plans they cannot really afford, plus they pay huge deductibles before they can get what are largely catastrophic benefits. These deductibles can wipe out the money for things like paying the rent or buying groceries. It also puts them on a treadmill of getting by, if you can call it that.

In short, the standard of living they require simply to get by is not close to what society is willing to pay them to let them achieve it. A lot of these people end up at the survival center because they run out of government benefits. And every year, our betters make things worse. Just yesterday, the Trump administration announced it is finalizing rules that will amount to kicking 700,000 more people off of food stamps.

It’s being done by changing the criteria of how high a state’s unemployment rate must be for it to get a federal waiver. Right now these SNAP benefits cannot exceed three months over 3 years for an individual without being enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month, so if that happens these people are already at risk of homelessness and hunger. With the new rules, states could not seek a waiver unless their unemployment rate was at least six percent.

It’s based on the assumption that these people are lazy welfare queens who could easily get a job when in fact the vast majority are already working. In fact, most work a lot more than the rest of us. Most of the rest of us probably could not endure the superhuman amount of effort it takes for these people to survive. Without food stamps, they have to depend on their local survival center and hope there is food. My wife sees these people every day she volunteers. Fortunately, there are many giving individuals and organizations in the area willing to step up when the government clearly won’t. We give them $100 a month, in addition to volunteer work.

Prescription drug costs can also be killer costs. Recently, I sent $50 to an online friend, Jeff, whose state of Utah won’t provide Medicaid benefits. He’s currently homeless, living with a friend and despite having two jobs he can’t afford the $500 his specialized diabetes medicine costs. This is merely the most critical of his costs because he has other high cost prescriptions he needs and can’t afford because he is uninsured. He has no place to call home and his infrastructure crumbling around him. His car is giving out. He keeps looking for a cheap apartment, but there are none, at least not requiring very long drives from Salt Lake City. Oh, and he’s recently divorced, has a transgender teen and his ex expects him to pay for child support.

He’s hardly alone. I recently documented my friend Tom’s situation, which thankfully is not as dire at Jeff’s. They’re all over my community and they are all over yours too. All because those with money are largely in charge, they think these people are lazy, and they don’t want to contribute a dime to help them escape their misery or even keep them from going hungry. Ironically, a lot of these people are virulently pro-life.

These same people also tend to believe that we live in the greatest country. If we did, we wouldn’t tolerate the poverty and suffering of our fellow citizens.

No wonder candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have such support. Republicans are clueless, but the rest of us understand this suffering. We insist on a decent society that doesn’t allow it. For those of us who haven’t experienced it, we feel its closeness, knowing we are one job loss away from entering this hell.

It’s largely all because we allowed our energies and productivity to go to stockholders instead of the people whose sweat earned these profits. Moreover, we let people lead us who cut us off at the kneecaps. They turned our states into right-to-work states, which makes it hard for unions to form, but easier to give employers the upper hand.

As this Trump proposal demonstrates, there is no end to the level of cruelty Republicans will inflict on us to put yet more money into their pockets at our expense. If you are looking for a revolution, they may get one sooner than they expect. And they may be the ones found beneath the local hanging tree.

Republicans want to end our republic

The Thinker by Rodin

I must have been naive. All this time, I’ve been assuming there was some inner core among Republicans that would assert itself when push came to shove. For example, I figured they would be beating the bushes to find a 25th Amendment remedy to Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump is clearly mentally ill, has heart disease and simply does not have the intelligence for the complexity and nuance the job of president demands.

But that’s not it at all. Republicans want to end our republic through any means, fair or foul. For decades they have been waging a covert war to enable this to happen. They’ve been using built-in constitutional advantages that is more likely to give them power and to retain it.

The Electoral College, created to deal with the irreconcilable problem that our nation was formed with free and slave states, gave them disproportionate power from the start. The Constitution also gives states equal power, allowing them to generally hold the U.S. Senate with a minority of its population. The Constitution also allows states to determine procedures for voting. Republicans have used this to gerrymander relentlessly, making it very hard for another political party to gain power. With a Supreme Court decision pushed by its conservative majority, the court overturned the Voting Rights Act. And when they control state government, they have the power to purge voter roles and put fewer voting machines in neighborhoods with large minority populations.

None of this is news. But what is news is what Devin Nunes has been up to. Both CNN and The Daily Beast report that Lev Parnas, a Ukraine-related business associate of Donald Trump’s “personal lawyer” Rudi Giuliani, is willing to testify that Congressman Nunes (R-CA) and some on his staff traveled to Vienna, Austria last year to meet former Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin. Shokin was widely seen as corrupt when in power and someone former Vice President Joe Biden eventually succeeded in getting the Ukraine government to fire. Parnas also allegedly has thousands of pages of documents and recordings he has shared with the House Intelligence Committee. Parnas is now under arrest with his partner Igor Fruman when attempting to flee the country for Vienna on October 9th.

Allegedly, Nunes was there to try to help push the story that Ukraine, not Russia, had tried to interfere in the 2016 election and to find the DNC server he believes is in Ukraine that contains the so-called “missing” Hillary Clinton emails. Nunes is hardly alone. Our attorney general Bill Barr has been doing this as well, also on the taxpayer’s dime.

Nunes also sits on the House Intelligence Committee that has been initially taking testimony for Donald Trump’s impeachment. His action if true (and there are records he went to Vienna during the time alleged on official business) is powerful evidence of a conspiracy among Republicans to subvert the rule of law and to use the powers of government against the constitution they swore to uphold.

To me one of the most amazing aspects of this is that Devin Nunes and many Republicans that I assumed knew better bought into these ridiculous conspiracy theories. Congress itself, including a Republican-controlled Senate, issued committee findings that directly tied Russia to 2016 election meddling. So this is not seriously in question, at least it shouldn’t be. Yet despite this, lots of Republicans in Congress still believe it. And apparently if they can’t find any actual evidence, they are willing to manufacture it, or at least sow doubt. That’s why Trump wanted Ukraine to open an investigation into the Bidens as a condition for giving the country the aid that Congress had already approved.

It’s totally laughable. This CrowdStrike server is supposedly in Ukraine, but both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee contract with CrowdStrike to store their information.

Republicans don’t seem to understand what CrowdStrike actually is: an Information Services provider, based not in Ukraine but in Sunnydale, California, not too far from Devin Nunes’ congressional district. CrowdStrike specializes in cyber-security, important for both the RNC and the DNC, and helped detect digital intrusions from agents in places like China. So the whole notion of a “server” somewhere is so 20th century. CrowdStrike stores it’s clients’ data in the cloud. It’s encrypted and spread out digitally among a lot of data centers. This is easily checked, but no Republican can seem to be bothered. Facts no longer have any relevance, because they apparently have bought into the notion that if they believe it is true, it must be so.

So Republicans are fully on board with supporting Donald Trump in any way possible, even if it is illegal and against the constitution they swore to uphold. Logically, they would be better with a candidate without Trump’s flaws. In any event, it’s unlikely that if Mike Pence replaced Trump, he would act so unlawfully. That they aren’t willing to do so suggests they want someone as unlawful as Trump.

Why would this be? It all makes sense if you give up the fiction that they care about our republic. It makes no sense otherwise. Their existential fear of the other seems to be overriding all other principles. Not that there are any principled Republican left. They all left, or when they stand up to object, like Justin Amash, they get ejected from party for being insufficiently loyal.

So our republic increasingly hangs by a thread. Republicans may now have a Supreme Court willing to say the President is above the law. If they have that and can control most elections, we don’t have a republic anymore. They can do and get away with anything they want.

If Trump were sane, he might call this treason. I’m not sure it qualifies. Treason is giving support to any country with which we are at war, and we’re not at war with Russia. But it is clearly against their sworn oath to put country over party. A sham Senate trial of Trump will likely prove this to be the case.

About the only check left is a court system that both Republicans in Congress and Trump are likely to ignore when they don’t get the ruling they like, and our election system which is already rigged on many levels. Only an overwhelming vote of the populace can start to make things right again.

I was chatting with a client on Skype the other day. He’s German, but living in Barbados. He was leery of giving me his business because he thought I could be a Trump supporter. He is very, very worried about the USA and say that’s true of Europe in general. Everyone is terrified. So am I. We are living through the most scary time in our country’s history. And it’s clear that Republicans simply want an autocrat in charge and to be a republic in name only.

We must somehow defeat them.

Lessons from Book of Mormon (the musical)

The Thinker by Rodin

We visited New York City last week, our first trip there since probably 2003. You rarely go there and not see a Broadway show.

We saw two: Come from Away, a heartwarming musical about how a community of 9000 in Newfoundland, Canada took care of 7000 people after 9/11 when their flights were diverted there following the event. In a dark time, it was a reminder that people can be kind in extreme situations.

We also finally saw Book of Mormon, somewhat of Come from Away’s antithesis. Religion is dicey material to stage, and this sacrilegious musical is pretty ruthless with Mormons, Mormonism and their many beliefs. If you have a button to push, it will probably push it. Topics include AIDS, raping babies, murder and removing women’s clitorises, not to mention Mormon’s difficultly suppressing homosexuality. Also arguably it’s more than a little racist, as modern Uganda doesn’t much resemble anymore the thatched hutches that Elder Price and Elder Cunningham find themselves in. Yet somehow this musical works, as attested to by its long run on Broadway that shows no sign of ending. I haven’t had so much fun on Broadway since seeing The Producers there, probably when we were last there in 2003.

I haven’t studied Mormonism, but the musical will certainly expose you to its foundational beliefs, most of which are laughable. For example, devout Mormons believe that you get your own planet, and Jesus has his own planet somewhere out there.

What you do with your own planet and how you can visit Jesus on his is not discussed. Presumably these are Edens much like Earth and without all its strife. I’m guessing you don’t get tractors and bulldozers on these planets, so you live a simple life, probably hunter gathering. Since it’s all for you, I guess you have to be okay with your own company so it’s probably fine to go naked and hopefully the weather accommodates. I’m guessing you get to share it with your spouse, assuming you get married, and that’s pretty much a given for any Mormon.

And then there’s their whole story of ancient Israelites going to North America and creating gold tablets in what is now upstate New York that were the Book of Mormon that curiously only Joseph Smith ever saw. Oh, and there’s the whole polygamy thing, until it became counterproductive. Also we learn the blacks won’t get into heaven, until that became counterproductive too and God apparently changed his mind in 1978.

Some of the show’s biggest fans are Mormons, which suggests they are comfortable with its sacrilegious nature, that their religion is full of beliefs and arguments that make no sense, and they can laugh about it while claiming to believe in its teachings. To most of us, the idea that you get your own planet for being a good Mormon is good for a belly laugh.

Absurd as it is though, Mormonism is hardly atypical in this department. It’s just that we’ve gotten used to the idea that most religions are arguably crazy, but since they’ve been around so long, we don’t give it much thought. You have to look really hard to find a religion that doesn’t believe in wacky stuff.

Growing up Catholic, I was taught that the eucharist (once blessed by a priest in mass) was the actual body of Christ, and the blessed wine the actual blood of Christ. The Catholics even have a word for it: transubstantiation. To be a good Catholic you also have to believe a lot of other stuff arguably just as crazy as Jesus (and maybe you) getting your own planet: that Jesus rose from the dead despite no one but his disciples having witnessed the event (you would think the Romans might have noted it in their logs), that he bodily ascended into heaven, that he divided loaves and fishes to feed a multitude magically, and that he could heal lepers and other diseased people. You also have to believe that God comes in three parts: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that the Son (Jesus) was begat by the Father sometime after the Father existed, something very important in around AD 200 because if you didn’t believe this you were either killed or exiled. Then there’s that Holy Spirit entity which never made much sense. Most Christians subscribe to a lot of these beliefs, but most tend to see transubstantiation as metaphorical.

Islam makes a lot more sense: there is only one God, not a god with multiple personality disorder. One doesn’t have to wonder how Joseph Smith came up with the idea of gold tablets, since Muhammad went alone into a cave near Mecca where the Archangel Gabriel apparently started chanting verses that became the Quran. Although I don’t get why I need to pray in the direction of Mecca seven times a day, at least it’s pretty simple and I don’t have to worry about transubstantiation. I don’t understand though why it had to fracture like the Catholic Church, and that Sunnis and Shiites seem to spend more time bashing each other on the head over obscure theological points than finding common ground.

Jews don’t get off much better. Moses had to go up Mount Sinai, alone, to get his revelation from Yahweh. Moses apparently brought chiseling tools, which was helpful in creating the Ten Commandments. It’s unclear how the Jews managed to survive in the desert, but if we are to believe scripture it was due to manna sent from heaven. You also have to wonder how inept they could be to wander forty years in the Sinai desert lost; the Sinai isn’t that big a place. And it is a desert. They would need a reliable watering hole. Most likely Moses and the whole story of Jews exiled in Egypt is myth, which makes Passover a myth too.

And so it goes with religion after religion. Hinduism is full of deities with various powers. It may be the 21st century, but Hinduism has lost none of its sway in India and is now undercutting the state’s fundamental secularism to discriminate against Muslims, much like many Christians in the United States would like to do against Muslims too, and Jews also for that matter. Shintoism is also full of deities with various powers. All seems to have their roots in paganism, which they try to paper over somehow. Mormonism seems pretty wacky, but arguably Scientology is wackier and there are plenty of Hollywood elites who fell for it.

Try to stamp out religion and it’s hard not to invent something that seems to be a lot like it in a secular trapping. Communism seems a lot like Christianity without a holy book or spiritual leader, unless you count Marx and Engels and Das Kapital. Fascism and nationalism in general seem to be the sweeping political arcs of the moment, the latter here in the United States where for some Donald Trump might as well be God and divine.

Apparently, humans have an intrinsic need to believe in something wacky and just to worship something: a golden calf will probably do in a pinch. Being decent, secular, civil and tolerant just don’t appear to be enough to satisfy us. If we can’t have more, we’ll invent more.

So it was fun to laugh along with Book of Mormon, but every one of us including me still harbor some arguably crazy beliefs. One of mine is life after death: I don’t believe I will inherit my own planet, but I do believe I am a passenger on a journey and this life is one of many I will experience. In that sense, I am as loony as a Hindu, who also believes in reincarnation.

So laugh along with Book of Mormon, just realized that when we do we are all in some measure also laughing at ourselves.

Trump and Stone are poster boys for toxic masculinity

The Thinker by Rodin

Looks like Roger Stone is going to be off to prison for a long time. He was convicted yesterday of seven counts of tampering with witnesses and lying to Congress. Arguably, it was Roger Stone who took the Republican Party off the deep end. For twenty nine years, Stone courted Trump, trying to get him to run for president. But his roots go back to Richard Nixon where he first started performing dirty tricks to aid his 1972 election. In this case, he contributed money to a possible Nixon rival in the rival’s name to the Young Socialist Alliance, then gave the bogus receipt to the Manchester Union-Leader.

A young man at the time, Stone spent much of the rest of his career upping the ante refining his dirty tricks. Yesterday, at age 67, it all caught up with him. Stone becomes just the latest lawbreaker to be convicted of crimes. Stone saw in Trump a fellow narcissist, but judged that Trump was better at the game. During the 2016 election, Stone’s major role was touting his contacts with Wikileaks, which published damaging material against Hillary Clinton. His contacts were probably more bluster than real. In an attempt to maintain his dirty tricks reputation, he broke the law and was caught by Robert Mueller’s team. His only real hope is a Trump pardon, not an unrealistic expectation, but one that Trump will likely take a pass one. Trump has his own case of toxic narcissism, so he will find it expeditious not to pardon him, at least until after he wins reelection next year.

Stone though is an inspiration and arguably fueled the rabid right wing of the Republican Party, inspiring others to break the rules in pursuit of ever more power. Stone’s conviction should act as a warning to those he inspired that they can be brought down and thrown into prison too, along with many of Trump’s other cronies already there. Perhaps Stone’s lesson has been learned, and prodded many in the executive branch to testify before Congress despite Trump’s insistence that they do not. Stone is going to prison in part for lying to Congress. Ignoring congressional subpoenas is also possibly unlawful too. A lot of people in Trump’s orbit are skating on thin legal ice.

You have to wonder how people like Trump and Stone get created in the first place. I attribute it to having toxic parents. They taught them the wrong lessons: like the ends justify the means and that if you have power you have implied rights to do what you want. Grab the women by the pussy, seems to be what Trump learned. Just start kissing. It doesn’t appear that the Trump family had any real religion. Trump can probably count the number of times he voluntarily attended church on one hand. Trump and Stone though are hardly alone. They never learned how to become men. Instead, they got embroiled in toxic masculinity.

I was very fortunate to have a great father. While I grew up to distance myself from his devout Catholicism, I could hardly ask for a better role model. My father was a lot like Mr. Rogers long before he appeared on PBS. My father’s masculinity was not the sort that Trump got. It was not about power and pussy grabbing. It was about being humble, charitable, loving, kind and secure in himself. It’s not about emulating what others say masculinity should be, but finding your own true self and way of relating to the world, both as a man, but also as a human being. No one could make my father feel ashamed of how he lived his life. It was honest and sincere and simply was his nature.

People like Trump and Stone though were taught completely different lessons. Masculinity was not some sort of invisible skin they put on for themselves, but some sort of skin that projected what they though masculinity should be. Apparently it was based on what they learned. They are hardly alone, though. It’s common for men in America to subliminally pick up a lot of arguably toxic values: that power should be acquired and used ruthlessly; that women are objects for your pleasure whose feelings can be ignored; that you must compete ruthlessly and lay waste to the field if necessary; and that money buys status.

The result describes a lot of what is left of the Republican Party. Of course they cannot see the plank in their own eyes; it’s always been there so why not judge others? Why not reject any evidence that conflicts with their own views, which is why 95% of Republicans according to recent polls will simply not believe the staggering evidence that Trump is immoral, dishonest, a serial liar and likely a serial lawbreaker too. This is the kind of man that seems to inspire the godly among us to vote for him. A man who is everything they profess they don’t want to be is their ticket to salvation. The Lord is working in mysterious ways. Trump is their new king until Jesus returns. Or maybe Trump is Jesus. They obviously aren’t playing with a full deck.

A real man is humble, not full of hubris. A real man can admit his mistakes, take corrective actions and move on to a better place, not keep tripping over his own feet and making the same mistakes. A real man is quietly confident, and feels no need to bluster. A real man aspires to be honest, wholesome and good. None of us can do it all the time, but we know which way to go when we stray.

People like Donald Trump and Roger Stone though don’t. Humility is a word they can’t understand. They are trapped in cycles of destructive behavior and taking as many of the rest of us down with them as possible. They want more of us to be like them. They want a hurtful and toxic culture where they rise based on their ability to be mean and ruthless. They want everyone to be distrustful, because distrust gives them power.

Ultimately that leaves the rest of us simply to choose whether we will follow these fools or follow a better path toward wholeness or healing. It remains to be seen whether the rest of us will rise to the occasion and show them where true wholeness lies. It’s not in their world of toxic masculinity.

Election 2019 postmortem

The Thinker by Rodin

What can you really glean from an odd year election?

Quite a lot, but mainly that Republicans are going to have a hard time holding onto power next November. Consider:

  • A Democrat won the governorship in Kentucky, a state that went for Trump by thirty points in 2016. Kentucky is one of the reddest of red states, but it had one of the worst governors ever: Matt Bevin, an ultra tea partier who railed against one of the few things Republicans and Democrats can agree on: public school teachers and the need to compensate them adequately. Bevin was every bit as nasty as Donald Trump, just less inept. He tied himself closely to Trump, who rallied for him, yet he still lost, albeit narrowly.
  • Virginia went blue. Not purple, blue. Entirely blue. Democrats will control both chambers of the state legislature, the governorship, lieutenant governorship and the attorney general’s position. They also control both U.S. Senate seats and seven of its 11 congressional seats. Virginia is now a blue state, and likely to stay that way unless Democrats screw up monumentally. The inexorable increases in population in its suburbs and exurbs, mostly talented and ethnically diverse people from elsewhere, aren’t going to go away. It’s as blue as Maryland now, and some day may be bluer. Republicans haven’t won a statewide office since 2009 and without some terrible Democratic candidates the prospects for winning one look bleak. You can pretty much assign Virginia’s electoral votes to the Democratic candidate for the indefinite future. And speaking of which, Democrats will be drawing congressional districts in 2021. Any gerrymandering that happens won’t help Republicans.
  • If Trump hopes to win Pennsylvania again, it’s a fool’s hope. The outer suburban counties around Philadelphia, historically deeply Republican, swung dramatically blue. The Delaware County Council is now not just majority Democrat for the first time in anyone’s living memory, but Democrats controls all its seats. All four Republicans running for the judgeships on the Common Pleas Court lost too. In the even more traditionally Republican Bucks County, Democrats won control of the county council.

There is one minor anecdotal win too delicious not to share:

A legion of reasons propel political neophytes to run for office, but none may be as unusual as what inspired Juli Briskman, the cyclist who gave President Trump the finger two years ago and found herself without a job and at the center of a national uproar.

On Tuesday, Briskman got a new job, winning a seat on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors — ousting a Republican in the process.

Briskman now represents the district holding one of Trump’s golf clubs.

All this gives some credence to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that finds if an election were held today, pretty much any Democratic candidate would trump Trump by double digits.

Obviously, we are a year out from the presidential election and lots of things could change. One thing that doesn’t seem to change is Donald Trump. Every week he gets wackier and seems more unhinged. His impeachment and the open testimony to be given starting next week will keep him in the news, but you can count on his Twitter feed to do that anyhow. The Senate is still likely to acquit Trump, but any Republican that does is likely to pay a political price.

All this momentum suggests that the Senate is likely to flip blue next year too, despite odds that should favor the Republicans. If Kentucky can elect a Democratic governor in a state won so decisively by Trump, there’s going to be a lot of carnage in red and purple states. One of these may be Senator Mitch McConnell, whose favorability ratings in his own state are half those of Donald Trump’s nationally.

Trump is plainly toxic to Republicans, but they can’t disassociate themselves with him. Those that do get ejected from the party. These incumbents main concern is to get through a primary. Afterward they may find it convenient to distance themselves from Trump a bit to attract the swing voters they may need to hold onto their jobs.

It’s unlikely Trump will let them. Trump’s assumption is that he can win with his base. But that’s not how he got elected. He certainly had an enthusiastic base, but he also brought over many independents. Current polling suggests independents will break nearly two for one for a Democratic candidate for president. He eked out a victory in 2016 but he won’t have these coalitions again in 2020. Well, not unless he morphs into something he is not: more moderate, even tempered and statesman-like. When you are convinced of your own infallibility, there is no need to change strategies.

I say throw Trump an anvil. Let’s encourage him to have more frequent rallies. He probably will anyhow, as it’s one of the few things that he enjoys. Since most Republicans are going to be tethered to him whether they like it or not, many of them will go down with him. The sooner he and Trumpism disappear, the better for our country.

Letting Trump be Trump (not that we have a choice) is just what Democrats need to win next year.

Unstacking the deck

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve decided life is much easier if you are rich.

This is hardly surprising. While my wife and I don’t consider ourselves rich, at age 60 plus we are out of debt. No mortgage. No car payments. Now, precisely when I don’t need credit, I’ve discovered my credit score is 832 out of 850. I know this only because we applied for a 2% cash back credit card, and the credit union thought I needed to know the good news.

Yes, if you want to pay less, get at least relatively rich. Also, it helps to be retired. You have time to shop for the discounts, and you can time things like vacations (something of an oxymoron if you’re retired) for ideal times. For example, if you want a cheap Caribbean cruise, book it for early December. When you are retired, there’s no reason not to.

It’s the poor and those who work for a living that pay handsomely for the privilege. Of course, that was me for much of my life too, until recently. There was that mortgage, to start. It’s a great deal for the mortgage companies. For thirty years you pay for the privilege of being deeply in debt. If you get too far behind on your mortgage due to circumstances you probably can’t control, like losing your job, the bank will be happy to repossess your house. Maybe you’ll get some equity back after they sell it, but you sure won’t have a house bought and paid for. At best, you get to start the whole cycle again.

So it goes with much of life’s necessities: car loans, home improvements and college education for the kids. Neglecting fixing infrastructure to save money only does the opposite in the long run. Live within your means, our betters tell us. Only it’s not at all easy to do that, particularly today, as living is so expensive and wage increases are so niggardly.

The system is stacked against the vast majority of us. Worse, “our betters” tell us it’s all our fault when we fail. We fail mostly because they set impossible goals. It’s some defect in ourselves when we do, and it’s never the fact that the rich have used the system to bar the gates for most of us from making it to their level. Not that most of these rich ever knew poverty. So many, like Donald Trump, live on inherited wealth. Trump never went hungry, or homeless, or had to live in a cheap apartment. Yet these are the people who feel they have the right to tell us what we are doing wrong. In fact, they create the conditions to keep us mostly forever on the outside.

Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at least have acknowledged the obvious: the system is rigged against the vast majority of us. To the extent that I am rich is probably due to 20% being white and male, 20% the sort of doggedness my betters wanted out of me, and 60% being a former government employee who moved steadily through the ranks over 32 years. Because I stayed in it, I can take advantage of a system available these days only available to a vanishing few: a nice pension.

My daughter recently joined the civil service. She’s being trained to be a 911 operator for Prince William County in Virginia. She was shocked to discover when she was hired that she too could earn a pension, like dear old dad. My pension looked a bit problematic when I joined the civil service. Hers is probably more problematic, and ultimately depends on a future Virginia state government. Assuming she decides to hang around in this field that long, maybe she will climb that rung of financial security like dear old dad. But that will only be because there is a rung there for her to reach for. For most of us, that rung was pulled decades ago.

Ending pensions though was one of the biggest and earliest ways they pulled the rug from under us. You just have to do the math on 401Ks and IRAs to see how it just doesn’t work. If you can manage to save $5,000 a year for 35 years at 6% return and with a 2% inflation rate, your nest egg is about $560,000. Taking out inflation, that’s $237,000 in today’s dollars. To make that stretch over 25 years with a 4% rate of return and 2% inflation, you could take out $1255 a month. If you outlive your money, you will be reduced to social security income alone, assuming that system is solvent. “Our betters” are trying very hard to ensure it won’t be.

In most places, $1255 a month in today’s dollars won’t even pay the rent. Hopefully you will have paid of your mortgage before you retire, but how many of us can count on steady income and no major financial calamities? With a pension though, assuming it’s fully funded, it’s income for life. Any 401K or IRA supplements a pension. That’s exactly how we’re doing it.

And with such a steady income in retirement, that’s how we keep making our modest pile grow. You book vacations in off seasons. You pay cash for stuff and often get a discount. You buy in bulk. Like me, maybe, you find a 2% cash-back, no-fee credit card and try to put all expenses on it. Or you take out a CD at get 2.25% return on it, like we also did recently. It’s all nice, unearned money, free for the taking if you are savvy and have a nice pile of cash you don’t need to touch.

We save money in other ways now. We don’t need a car loan and probably won’t ever need to take out a loan again. We pay cash when we buy cars. As we discovered recently, we got a good discount from the dealership for the privilege. As we age, we can get senior rates: for hotels, for some meals, for movie tickets, and yes, for our medical bills. Socialized medicine is available at age 65. It’s called Medicare. It goes a long way to helping you keep whatever nest egg you bring into retirement.

So yeah, we’re fortunate. While corporations were giving you measly cost of living raises, their executives kept raising their salaries and your productivity was sent to shareholders, like, er, me I guess. Thanks! Meanwhile, you keep getting squeezed and more squeezed. Your costs go up but your salary doesn’t. So you scrambled. You work two jobs, maybe three. Your life is a treadmill. “Your betters” keep upping your pace and if you fall off, that’s fine with them. The problem obviously was that you weren’t trying hard enough.

No wonder we are so chronically anxious and depressed. “Your betters” have made you this way through ignorance but more likely by general sadism. When will we, like Howard Beale in Network simply acknowledge we won’t take it anymore?

The deck is stacked against us, but it doesn’t have to be. We have to stand up and demand it. Aside from a wealth tax and upping tax rates substantially for the richest, lets also make real pensions universal. Everyone should be able to enjoy retirement like we are fortunate enough to enjoy. It takes, yes, a welfare state, and our insistence that our productivity enjoys the same rewards “our betters” get.

Impeachment is the logical result of a break-the-rules presidency

The Thinker by Rodin

It looks like the House of Representatives will formally vote this week to open an impeachment inquiry on Donald Trump. The move is unnecessary but doubtless the Trump Administration will quickly find another rationale for why it can’t provide testimony and documents for the inquiry. One thing Trump is good at is moving goalposts.

To be clear, the House has the sole power to impeach. The U.S. Constitution is silent on procedures it must use. If the House wanted to, it could conduct it entirely in secret, including the final vote on impeachment. An impeachment is not a trial; it’s the political equivalent of a grand jury indictment. Trump has no more right to open impeachment hearings than he had to be in the grand jury room during Robert Mueller’s investigation into him. An impeachment is a political indictment saying there are probable grounds to think that the president engaged in high crimes and misdemeanors. The Senate has the sole power to remove someone from federal office. Trump’s trial would happen there and both prosecutors and the defendant would have the right to present their case. It’s a very high bar to remove someone from office by impeachment, as it takes two-thirds of senators present to convict.

Trump’s reaction to the impeachment though is symptomatic of his general problem: he assumes he can make whatever rules he wants. His lawyer has taken it to the ultimate extreme, claiming in court that the Constitution gives the president blanket immunity from all actions while in office. This cannot be. If courts upheld this, it would be the end of our republic. A president truly immune from prosecution while in office could cancel elections and declare himself president for life.

So presumably this has no chance in the courts. But to Trump, it may not matter. He thinks he is a dictator and acts like one. So why not ignore the courts? He wouldn’t be the first president. Andrew Jackson ignored Supreme Court decisions he didn’t like, figuring that the court had no way to enforce its decisions. He was right and this points to a fundamental flaw in our system of government: it assumes our Justice Department is not corruptible, because it’s that department which enforces federal law. And ultimately the Justice Department reports to the President. It would be better if the Justice Department was run by our court system.

But lately it sure looks like the Justice Department under Bill Barr is corruptible. Recently, it announced a criminal investigation into Robert Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump. Also, Bill Barr is running around Europe on taxpayer dollars trying to get foreign governments to investigate crazy allegations against Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee. Barr is breaking the law by illegally interfering in our election. Logically, he should be impeached too. By statute, the department is supposed to enforce the law as written. Bill Barr though believes his job is to follow out orders by the president instead.

Likely most of the people who voted for Donald Trump were sick to death of our system of government. They saw Trump as the Great Orange Bully that would be the bull in the china shop, breaking things so that the inertia that has characterized our government for the last couple of decades finally comes to an end.

There’s no question that our system of government is hard to legally change. The task is made much harder when those who control it largely are not accountable to voters. Gerrymandering, voter suppression and the endless amounts of money the U.S. Supreme Court is content to allow to be spent on elections makes this already Herculean task that much harder. This explains why some of the most prominent Democratic presidential candidate are running a campaign a lot like Trumps: calling for large structural changes. Doubtless a President Warren or a President Sanders would try to push things to the limit to affect these changes. But it’s unlikely that they would openly break the law to do so. In some ways, this is an admission that their campaign promises are doomed to fail if elected.

So likely is Donald Trump’s presidency. He certainly is breaking things, but our bureaucracy is the bigger and more enduring force and will probably be able to fix the china shop when he is gone, though it may take a few decades. You can see this in whistleblowers coming forward and people agreeing to testify anyhow. The only way that Trump’s changes last is if he can get away with things.

Chances are he will, if he can stay in office. Assuming our justice system is still around after he leaves, he’ll be spending most of the rest of his life as a defendant, if not in prison. Which is why dictatorship appeals to him. He figures he doesn’t have much of a choice but to act like a dictator. His only way out seems to be to never relinquish power.

The most dangerous time for our republic is not yet here. It happens after the November 2020 election. If Trump is reelected, he may well succeed in destroying our government’s fundamental structures. Acquitted by the Senate and presumably given the go ahead by the American people, there is nothing to stop him. If the Senate couldn’t convict him the first time for his many egregious crimes, they likely won’t during a second term.

But if he loses, he has to be removed from office. At that point we all have to hold our breath. He will rally his supporters to take things into their own hands to protect him, which means civil unrest. Ultimately it will come down to our military: will they support Trump or their country? Chances are in January 2021, we will find out. God help us.

Republicans are being buried by their own fake news

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump is in a heap of trouble. He’s going to get impeached, assuming he doesn’t pull a Richard Nixon and resign first. That will be one major blemish on his record as president, as if there aren’t many others. Getting thrown out of office by the Senate is a much higher hurdle, but every day it seems more plausible.

It’s pretty clear that most Republicans in Congress don’t like him. Oh they say they do for show, but if given their druthers you can bet that the vast majority would druther Mike Pence in his spot. Then maybe the crazy would stop for a while. Because it just gets more and more insane every day.

Trump is blaming Democrats of course, but if he really wanted to blame someone of course he could look in the mirror. He could also blame voters for unwisely picking him, although of course he famously lost the popular vote by three million votes. This of course became one of the first items he labeled as “fake news” once he became President-elect. Still, if he has to pick a villain, he could pick Fox News, the biggest propagator if not creator of fake news out there.

This actual fake news peddled by Fox News and many right-wing outlets is, quite frankly, over the top, outlandish and utter bullshit. This fake news was published by outlets that I hope at least knew they were peddling in fake news. Their fake news was a means to an end: political power. For at least twenty years they have been at it, and its been working. How many Tea Party members of Congress arrived sincerely believing that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya? Trump clearly did, and he’s been peddling this and many other outlandish fake news stories. It’s been his way of getting attention, something he craves more than power. Fake news gives him power, or at least it has until now.

A truly stable genius would recognize this fake news for what it is: complete and utter bullshit. But apparently our stable genius president doesn’t. He spends much of his day tuned into the Fox News network where this stuff is highlighted hourly. He’s been indoctrinated by Fox’s fake news. Who’s buying their bullshit? Or stable genius president is buying it, pretty obviously.

Just look at what is bringing him down: fake news the right wing has been feeding him. He actually believes the preposterous suggestion that there’s a DNC server somewhere in Ukraine. He has bent over backwards to move the levers of government to prove the allegation. Not only did he create a shadow State Department in the form of his lawyer Rudi Giuliani, who he sent to Ukraine to pressure its leaders to find this server, he also sent his attorney general to Europe to do the same thing. Imagine that: our chief law enforcement officer and supposed arbiter of the execution of the law is being sent on a crazy quest to chase this and other bogus theories that are the product of hyperactive, paranoid people that probably mostly inhabiting their mothers’ basements.

I’m sure there are some Republicans in Congress who actually believe this stuff, but I suspect they are only a small percent of them. Most of them know it’s all bullshit, but they simply don’t care as long as it allows them to acquire and maintain power. Now though a number of them are beginning to care, as they realize that their peddling of fake news is becoming counterproductive. Fake news is biting them in the ass. It’s also creating an out-of-control monster, manifest in the form of Donald J. Trump.

It used to be that Trump had some gatekeepers, but they are all gone now. His senior staff is now entirely filled with disposable yes men (and a few women), virtually all white. They are interchangeable and he changes them frequently. He doesn’t have to chafe because someone near him is suggesting that he is not the smartest person on the planet. He just decides stuff, the staff salutes and that’s that. Unfortunately, a lot of these decisions are terribly bad, such as his recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria, one of these ultra-stupid things that even Republicans in Congress could not forgive.

Stupid compounds stupid. There was no gatekeeper to tell Trump that hosting the G-7 next year at his resort was a bad idea. Instead, according to published reports, they said it was an interesting and intriguing idea. Not one person apparently had the guts to say, “Well Mr. President, if you are looking for a way to get removed from office, this brazen violation of the emoluments clause of the constitution alone should do it.”

The larger problem though is that you can only pretend the emperor has no clothes for so long. At some point, someone’s going to say, “Hey, he’s naked!” You can stifle the obvious for a while but at some point reality hits you on the head like a 2×4. Last week, arguably Trump got whacked.

Farmers affected by his tariffs can’t pretend his trade actions aren’t hurting. That’s true of all sorts of businesses affected by his tariffs. Denying climate change isn’t keeping it from happening, and already the impacts are being felt severely. Cutting fuel emissions standards won’t keep more people from ending up in the hospital or dying from asthma and other lung-related diseases. The greater the difference between reality and what is asserted, the harder it is to ignore. Reality works like this.

And so the pain continues until the body politic does the one thing it can’t help: instinctively vomit out the filth that is killing it, fake news in this case. It looks like that process is underway. Let’s hope we vomit out enough of it to survive. Vladimir Putin is hoping we won’t.

Reading the tealeaves on the Trump end game

The Thinker by Rodin

If it’s true that thirty Senate Republicans would convict Trump in an impeachment trial (if a secret vote were allowed), then perhaps what’s needed is a plausible reason they could openly vote to convict Trump. The obvious reasons don’t appear to be enough. Senate Republicans don’t seem to be bothered by his grifting, and likely won’t be the least bit fazed that he’s decided to host the next G-7 meeting at his money-losing Miami resort either. It appears that in general Republicans are on board with using public office for private gain.

They also probably won’t be bothered by what Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, openly confirmed today: that aid was withheld from Ukraine specifically to force Ukraine to look into possible Democratic misdeeds there, misdeeds that only appear in the fevered imaginations of the rightmost of the right wing. That’s open lawbreaking, but is most likely wholly excusable by Republicans.

But Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw our special forces from Northern Syria, in the process abandoning allied Kurdish separatists who were instrumental in neutering the Islamic State, well, that might do it. Hard to say yet but as bad as this is, it keeps getting worse. Turkish president Erdogan wasted no time in sending in paramilitary forces when our troops started to withdraw, and had them throw some volleys near our troops too for good measure too. The House voted 354-60 to condemn Trump’s actions in Syria. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is holding up a similar vote in the Senate, which would likely attract an even higher share of Republicans.

Trump is basically saying to Congress: Impeach me! I dare you!

His lawbreaking is open; the case irrefutable, and it will rest entirely on whether Republicans will put country over party. Right now that looks like a losing bet. However, this Kurdish mistake might be the fig leaf Republicans need. The scope of this disaster is just starting. It’s likely to get much worse.

For example, it looks like we have nuclear weapons in Turkey, a disclosure we only know about because Trump has seemed to confirm it, a breach of long-standing policy. We rent these bases from Turkey, but Turkey essentially control our forces there. Which means that Turkey might grab our nuclear weapons. Oops.

So it’s possible that Turkey would seize these weapons and once seized who knows where they might end up? Presumably it would be very hard to trigger one of these weapons. I hope all sorts of specially encrypted codes would be required, but who knows? They could probably be disassembled and, worse, reengineered. It’s not clear if there is anyone left in the Defense Department agile enough to get these weapons out of Turkey.

There is that plus a whole host of other bad things there that are underway. The Kurds were one of our few allies in the region, and now they are aligned with Syria and Russia simply to survive. There are already atrocities being committed against Kurdish fighters and civilians by Turkish paramilitary forces, if not the Turkish army itself. Hitherto, national security has been the Republican Party’s strong suit. Trump is rapidly making our country less secure. From this vote in Congress, it’s clear Republicans are deeply worried by Trump’s actions.

Trump gets more Captain Queeg-like every day. His latest meeting with Congressional Democrats was described as a Trump meltdown. Trump is pretty obviously cracking, if he hasn’t cracked already. I wonder if like Richard Nixon during Watergate he is talking to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Not likely. If talking to any portrait, it would be one of Andrew Jackson.

As Gallup pointed out, when a majority of Americans polled said Nixon should be impeached and removed, Nixon resigned. Trump has already met that milestone. This suggests that Trump’s resignation should also be forthcoming. Like Nixon, there would be no doubt that he would be impeached. It’s much less likely he would actually be removed from office, but that may be changing.

Our genius president would be wise to seriously consider resigning. That’s what most geniuses would do, looking at the bad hand of cards he has served himself. Many believed that Nixon made a secret deal with his then vice president Gerald Ford to pardon him for his offenses before resigning, which Ford did sometime later. A more rational Trump would be looking for a similar exit strategy. It’s really his best hope as his prospects for winning a second term diminish.

Why? Because of that darn U.S. Constitution, which he obviously hasn’t read. Article 2, Section 2 says that the president’s pardon power is unconditional, except in the case of impeachment. So a President Pence could not pardon a former President Trump who is impeached, convicted and removed from office by Congress. This means that after his trials for his many misdeeds are over, Trump would likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Trump’s vanity and boundless ego probably won’t entertain such a suggestion, and it’s doubtless anyone on his staff has the spine to suggest something pragmatic like this. Nixon was rational enough to know when to resign. It’s unlikely Trump will ever see the bad hand he dealt himself.