Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump’

The Thinker

The Manchurian President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thinker

Arming teachers is still crazy but the NRA is even crazier

Another tragic but predictable mass shooting happened last week in Florida, killing seventeen high school students. A 19-year-old former expelled student of the school had no problem purchasing an AR-15 — a semi-automatic rifle — entering the school and causing mayhem. The armed officer who was supposed to go after the assailant fled instead, probably because he was scared but also because a standard issue police revolver is no match for an AR-15. Two of the dead were teachers who died protecting their students.

What made this shooting especially memorable was that it got the surviving students up in arms, so to speak. Within days they were at the state capital in Tallahassee petitioning its legislators to enact common sense gun restrictions. There were also TV interviews with the students, town halls with politicians and a meeting with Trump at the White House. Short-attention-span Don was given a set of five talking points to make it sound like he was being empathetic, a skill he simply lacks. Once the students were gone though his “solution” seemed predictable. While calling for raising the age to 21 for acquiring rifles (under which the AR-15 qualifies) — a proposition more rhetorical than anything else — he next pivoted to his “real” solution: put more firepower in the schools, principally by arming teachers. The “solution” to these Republican politicians is always the same: you solve the problem by doubling down on a failed strategy.

I last wrote about the folly of arming teachers after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Some of the NRA talking points do make some sense. There are very few NRA members that would likely instigate something like this. Most NRA members are law abiding. It’s not the law abiding ones that I worry about though. The NRA’s real sin is not in causing these acts but in aiding and abetting them.

It’s all well and good for you not to take any lawless actions with a gun. But when you promote the equivalent of a huge open warehouse of guns and NRA members are encouraging anyone to come in and arm themselves, you are aiding and abetting. The NRA though goes far beyond this. They surround the warehouse with neon lights. There is a huge searchlight on the roof. They broadcast the warehouse’s hours on all the local radio stations. They make it easy to get a gun and encourage you to get as many not as you need, but as you want.

For an organization whose initial focus was gun safety this is a shocking turn away from their mission. It’s like encouraging kids to play with matches and open cans of gasoline. Okay, technically maybe this isn’t against the law. Matches and gasoline of course don’t kill kids by themselves. But they will kill some and injure a whole lot more if you make it super easy to play with matches and gasoline.

An organization at least originally chartered to promote gun safety should not be promoting people’s right to own AR-15s and enhance their semiautomatic weapons with bump stocks. This is because these actions are not responsible. First you need to demonstrate that you have the maturity to own a gun. Next you need to demonstrate that you can use a gun responsibly, perhaps by passing a required course in gun safety and marksmanship. Lastly you need to make sure that you can be held liable for your actions with a gun. Then maybe you should be able to get a gun. Maybe you should demonstrate for five years that you can use a handgun responsibly, and then are eligible to get an AR-15.

Obviously you can easily kill people with a gun. It’s pretty easy for me to kill people with my car too. To mitigate the likelihood that I will kill someone with my car, not only are there criminal penalties for doing so, but I also need insurance up the wazoo. Last I checked my wife and I were paying about $1700 a year for the privilege of driving. Most of that will compensate people who we injure driving or their property. If I had a history of driving aggressively I’d probably pay a lot more for insurance, if I could get it at all. Most states require drivers to carry insurance, which effectively means that if your driving is judged to make you a menace on the road, you can’t legally drive at all. Can you even get insurance that protects your liability for using a gun in this country? I doubt it. You should be required to get a gun insurance policy and show it to a dealer before you are allowed to even buy a weapon.

The NRA though aggressively promoted laws that allowed the alleged 19-year-old mentally unstable Florida shooter Nikolas Cruz to buy that AR-15. It actively worked against laws that would have kept mentally unstable people like him from acquiring these weapons in the first place. In fact last year it successfully got Congress to pass and Trump to sign a law that actually made it easier for the mentally ill to get weapons. The change said that no background checks were necessary unless the mentally ill person was likely to cross state lines.

And Trump’s new solution is to arm teachers, essentially putting out more open gasoline cans and matches as if by doing this will somehow make everyone safer. Of course it ignores the elephant in the room: guns are very lethal weapons and assault weapons are exponentially more lethal than handguns because they inflict greater injury, and much faster too. It’s like dumping gasoline on the sidewalk, giving kids burning matches and encouraging them to get close to the gasoline but not actually ignite it.

In short: it’s nuts. It’s absolutely true that barring some sort of bizarre accident, guns don’t kill people. People though kill people all the time, and in this country they principally do it with guns. Increasingly it is being done with ever more lethal weapons amidst denser populations. And they pack them in pretty tightly in our schools.

The Supreme Court has recognized that the right to own a gun is not absolute. You still can’t own a machine gun (unless it was manufactured before 1986 and you acquire it privately), although a bump-stocked semiautomatic weapon is virtually the same as a machine gun. No right is unlimited and that includes the right to bear arms. Society has every right to set boundaries on rights because no right is absolute, something the NRA likes to deny with guns. I have no right to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. I have no right to publish libelous information. I have no right to assemble a crowd for non-peaceful purposes. And I have no right to possess weapons if I am mentally unstable, cannot use them safely or if their power is such that they effectively cannot be countered. Since at best cops hit their targets 20% of the time, an armed teacher is going to be even less effective. Most likely he will be mowed down before he can raise his weapon. If it is used it is just as likely to be used to maim or injure some innocent person than a perpetrator.

These reasonable restrictions on guns in the past were why school shootings rarely happened. Part of reducing these deaths though is also changing the culture that says unrestricted use of firearms is somehow virtuous. It is not and it kills thousands of us a year as a result. Students can clearly see that our laws are not working and that adding more guns will not ease the problem. With their energy and passion, perhaps common sense gun laws will return again.

The Thinker

Scared to death

Did you see the video of Donald Trump’s hair (or more accurately his lack of it)? It looks like on February 6th Trump had a really bad hair day. The camera caught these moments when he was ascending into Air Force One. Trump of course goes through great length to hide his thinning hair. While only his hairstylist knows some of his secrets (and I’m not sure he has one), it looks like he’s getting by by letting his sideburns grow to great lengths and sweeping them back.

Frankly it looks stupid. It’s rumored that Trump has had scalp reduction surgery, presumably to pull back and make the most what he has left of his hair. It’s obviously dyed and lacquered with something to make it thicker than it is. It’s also obvious that Trump wears dentures. No one has quite that perfect teeth. But when you are 71 all you can do is make the best of what you’ve got or in Trump’s case, fake it … bigly. Trump wants to pretend he’s much younger than he is and full of vigor, but if anything he looks older than his age.

Since two posts ago I turned 61. I’m doing relatively well hair-wise, at least compared to my younger brother. But like Trump I have a lot less of it on the top of my head and what’s left is a lot thinner as well. My former hairstylist assured me I would always have a full head of hair, but I doubt it. In the sun it’s pretty obvious it’s going. Like it or not I too am aging. And while like Trump I don’t particularly want to look older than my age and would prefer to look younger than my age, I don’t intend to fake it.

Still, Trump and I share one undeniable fact: were both aging and it’s only going to get worse. I have no illusions that I’m handsome enough to attract some younger babe. Unlike a lot of the men in the news these days I’m not in the mood to try. I like the woman I married 32 years ago, faults and all. She loves me. If I were to hitch up with some younger babe I’d never really believe she loves me anyhow.

I can’t read Melania Trump but I really doubt she loves her husband. She now has more reason not to love him if these Stormy Daniels rumors are true. Even if not true, she surely knew she was marrying a man with issues and infidelities. My guess is Melania knew poverty as a child, or enough discomfort that she wanted to be kept warm and in opulence for the rest of her life. At least she got that with Trump. If he dumped her like he did with his other wives there would be a fat alimony and a big bonus: not having to endure her husband anymore.

Aside from 46 chromosomes, humans share one important thing: we are all destined to die. One way to measure a person is to see how they respond to this knowledge. I try not to think about it too much but I live in a strange family. My daughter says she is not death-phobic. She’s converting my wife who is spending her time on YouTube watching the Ask the Mortician channel, and enjoying it. For the last few years my main way with dealing with death is to live robustly. Make every day count and stay engaged. For me life is about living. Death will take care of itself, since it is inescapable.

I do get this much from listening to my wife and daughter: many of us are trained to fear death. It’s not like this in all cultures, Japan for instance. But here in the west we are in the death-denying business. Some take it to crazy lengths, and Donald Trump must be near the top of the list. Trump’s reputed recent physical was crazy. He’s 239 pounds, and was probably holding helium balloons while he was weighed. He also inflated his height to 6’3” so he can technically claim not to be obese. His doctor, the White House physician, said he was in fabulous health. But the doctor was clearly lying. You don’t need to be a doctor to see it for yourself. Trump looks terrible, gets no exercise of note, requires statins to keep his cholesterol in check and has a diet that consists of a lot of McDonalds takeout food.

Many religions teach us there is an afterlife which if true is a good reason to not be worried about death. The problem is that most of us in our hearts don’t believe it. We can’t acknowledge to ourselves that we don’t believe it and that feeds a lot of anxiety, anxiety that seems to grow worse as we age. Trump is denying his mortality bigly. So did my mom when she was dying. Her faith was pretty useless to her. She was scared out of her mind.

Only two aunts (one of them in a mental hospital) stand between me and everyone in the generation before me related to me dead. Both my parents are gone, my father most recently two years ago on my birthday. The one aunt who is still of sound mine is taking lots of supplements, is carefully watching her nutrition and is getting lots of exercise. She is the youngest of twelve. All the rest are gone. She reports its sad and scary to see all those you loved die. What are left are mostly children and grandchildren if you are lucky to have them. She’s got the children, but both her husband and daughter are dead and died just weeks apart in misery. Of the three boys, two are married and none produced heirs.

Being a middle child I am likely to see some of my older siblings die before me and they will experience my absence from their lives when I die. That too is part of aging and dying, at least in a large family (I have seven siblings), if you live long enough. In some ways it is better to die sooner so you don’t have to go through that crap.

With six decades to ponder death though I’ve realized a few things. Death does not scare me. I don’t want to die by having my head chopped off with an axe or from a gunshot wound but that’s a logical fear to a particularly horrible way of dying. Having watched two parents die though death is no longer a mystery. It’s natural and it’s a consequence of living. I should no more be afraid of being dead than I should be scared that there was no me before I was conceived.

I am afraid of dying a miserable death like my mother endured. I can and will take sensible precautions to avoid those kinds of death. The major cause of her death was Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. I am taking COQ-10 to make it less likely that this will kill me, although it might. Parkinson’s runs in her family. My father died primarily of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Basically his lungs died before the rest of him. I have a physical in two weeks and on my agenda is to ask my physician how I can avoid COPD. (Obviously I don’t smoke, and neither did my father. This is often where it begins.)

Something’s going to get me though and it will get Donald Trump too. You play the game, you do your best to stack the odds in your favor so you can at least optimally enjoy what time you have left, but a certain amount is left to fate. COPD is not a bad way to go if you have to go. My father was able to stay at home until nearly the very end.

So perhaps watching Ask the Mortician is not a bad idea. Maybe we have such phobias about death because we don’t want to confront our mortality. And yet there is nothing more natural than death. We will all experience dying but I suspect even in dying there is some living there. We will all find out in time if we can get suppress our fear of dying enough to enjoy living. That’s how I intend to go.

I don’t know how Donald Trump will go when his time comes, but I am confident he will fight it, lose like all of us do and maybe for the first time in his life feel humbled by forces outside of his control.

The Thinker

One year of Trump: it’s beginning to look a little Stormy (Daniels) out there

It’s hard to believe we are a year into the Trump presidency already. In one sense Trump has succeeded: he has kept the conversation on himself. It’s what he wants from a presidency since if you are a narcissist this is how you measure success.

Trump does have a strength of sorts: he intuitively knows when to spin toward another topic when something in his life becomes too uncomfortable. Like sheep the media go along because they are always looking for something new and shiny to report, and his Twitter feed provides plenty of this kind of fodder. So when he decides to rant about Hillary Clinton again that becomes their topic of focus, rather than whatever brouhaha he was being criticized about.

A year of a Trump presidency has however clarified a lot of things. He is exactly the man we Democrats said he was during the campaign. In many ways he’s proven worse that our worst fears. The one area where he has (so far) assuaged my fears was that he did get us into a new war. Trump seems to realize that this is a red line he should not cross, mainly because it will come back to bite him bigly. But it is consistent with a man who is 100% bluster.

During the filming of The Apprentice he fired people right and left. That was all for show. The show was entirely scripted. In real life Trump doesn’t fire anyone, at least face to face. Basically Trump is a coward. He wanted his White House Counsel to fire Bob Mueller, the special counsel looking into potential crimes against him. When his counsel refused to do it on threat of resignation, he backed down. Reince Priebus (his first chief of staff) was fired with a tweet while he was out of the White House. Former FBI director James Comey was fired with a letter hand carried by an assistant to his office. Trump was so clueless he had no idea that Comey was on the west coast. So at least we now know that Trump is like the Wizard of Oz: just a man behind the curtain generating a lot of smoke.

It’s also clear that we have a man-child as our president. The best analogy I can come up with is that Trump is a grown up version of Calvin (from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes.) In some ways though Calvin is more mature. Trump never left his terrible twos. This makes him utterly transparent. Just as a parent can read their child’s inner mind effortlessly, so can the nation read our president with ease. The only ones having trouble at it are those who voted for him. They see things like greatness in him that simply doesn’t exist. And they will excuse any behavior rather than face their own cognitive dissonance that they voted for this wreck of a man.

For example, there’s the latest Stormy Daniels controversy. It’s clear that Trump had an affair with the busty porn star about the time Melania gave birth in 2006. Trump of course denies it all. But there are three curious aspects of this affair that let you know it’s real:

  • In the Intouch Weekly interview, Stormy’s says they had sex, but not “porn sex”, just the unprotected kind. More tellingly in the interview she related Trump’s fear of sharks, something no one would know who had not spent a lot of time with him.
  • There is the picture of the two of them together.
  • The most damning proof is that when the allegations came out, Trump’s lawyers immediately issued a disclaimer from Stormy Daniels denying the affair. That’s right; Trump’s lawyers had this on file ready to issue the moment it came out.

No matter. His supporters and particularly the evangelical community seem happy to excuse him of this infidelity, one of many. They’ve excused plenty of other stuff too completely at odds with the morals they claim to follow. They are convinced the Lord is working in mysterious ways with Trump.

Trump has the attention span of a gnat and can’t remember a key point hammered in by an aide just minutes earlier. He constantly changes his mind because he can’t remember what his position used to be. The Washington Post documented more than 2000 lies and misstatements in his first year in office alone. Trump’s default response is to lie and he does it effortlessly and without thinking. He clearly does not feeling guilty about it. He doesn’t feel either guilt or shame. He can’t be trusted about anything, which is why Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says negotiating with Trump is like negotiating with Jello.

Trump though can be mendacious. He’s a pretty effective agent of chaos. He consistently appoints people uniquely unqualified for the positions they serve, but who are nonetheless capable of crippling institutions in their charge. This is because Trump is good at finding reprehensible people, as it takes one to know one. In general his appointees show contempt for the institutions they serve, dislike the people in their agencies, work to pervert its missions they are supposed to champion and are prone toward corruption. Some agencies are better than others at resisting the will of their new leaders. The courts are proving reasonably effective at restraining the worst of Trump’s impulses. Unquestionably though our constitutional system is under immense strain.

It’s also clear that Republicans don’t care about rule of law, at least when they are in charge. Whatever means are necessary to achieve their ends are fine by them. So they certainly won’t be impeaching Trump. I figured they probably would a year ago, but then I had more confidence in the integrity of Republicans than they have shown. It will take a wave election in 2018 to hold Trump accountable, and it’s clear that Republicans are pulling out all stops to discount their likely losses.

We can at least hope but not expect that 2018 will be less crazy than 2017. Given Trump’s track record though it’s a wan hope at best. So keep those seat belts buckled, passengers.

The Thinker

Report from some so-called “shithole” countries

Seeing Central America has been on my bucket list of a long time. Curiously Central America is largely not visited by cruise ships, but that’s changing. This Holland America 15-day cruise we’re on is mostly about getting up close and personal with Central America, or as close as you can get given that you will see it generally through shore excursions provided by Holland America.

I have been to so-called “shithole” countries before. Nothing I’ve seen so far quite compares with what I saw in the Philippines in 1987, when I was sent there on a business trip. It’s been thirty years and fortunately I’ve heard that tremendous progress has occurred there since then. I was quite appalled by the trip, even though I knew what to expect. A “shithole” country should almost by definition lack modern sewage systems. That was true of the Philippines back then, with some exceptions in Manila. Waste was generally dumped into the street and sewage for the most part into the rivers and tributaries, and most of the shacks that compromised housing lined these water sources. Cars had no emissions system so the atmosphere too was simply a toxic dumping ground, making areas in Manila in particular toxic to the lungs. The most appalling part was the lack of public education. It was a privilege available only to those who could afford it for their kids and most could not. So kids mostly grew up in the street, and were tempted into the abundant trade of services for the American seamen that I encountered. If you wanted to have sex with someone underage, it was not a problem. It was a grinding poverty where kids often smoked in the streets and worked hard to part us Americans from our money.

I was informed by some of the U.S. Navy people I worked with that as bad as the Philippines was, nearby Thailand was worse. Lots of people died there from completely preventable diseases. Things like netting to keep the mosquitoes off their bodies at night was unaffordable. People literally starved in the streets. Everyone was too inured to it all to care about it. I never saw any bloated bellies in the Philippines, except from many a pregnant teen, some of who I suspect were pregnant due to the presence of frequently visiting U.S. sailors.

On this cruise we have visited Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. The closest country here to what I witnessed in the Philippines thirty years ago was Nicaragua. But Nicaragua was still an improvement. They have a public education system, not a stellar one, but it exists. They also have universal health care, again not great health care, but it’s there and can be used by anyone though with some delays and perhaps some issues with the quality of health care. In that sense Nicaragua is ahead of the United States. There are still people in our country that cannot get health insurance, and if Republicans get their way the uninsured rate is likely to soar again. In that sense some reverse migration may be in order.

Nicaragua is the largest and most populous country in Central America. You can see in the local markets sanitation standards that would be unacceptable in the States. You can see stray dogs in the street and sometimes malnourished horses along the sides of the road. For most, housing consists of a shack or shanty with a corrugated metal roof, often with cinder block walls but often less. But unlike other countries I’ve visited, there are plenty of reasonably maintained highways and there are lots of cars, buses and trucks running around. Unlike the Dominican Republic that we visited four years ago, most of the roads are paved. If the potholes aren’t fixed they aren’t too bad and you can drive around them.

Guatemala is not that much better than Nicaragua, at least if you look at their statistics. We saw security guards in most establishments. But the roads are quite good and well marked and it’s clear there is a significant middle class, who often drive to the coast on the weekend to enjoy the beaches there. They cause traffic jams too, and we were caught up in one on Sunday. There are plenty of first-world establishments along the sides of the roads too, and we stopped for lunch at one classy place (Pueblo Real) along the Pan American highway. Few can afford new cars, but plenty of people have after-market automobiles that were crashed in the United States and restored and look new. A car is something of a status symbol and plenty of families have them. Obviously it’s beyond the reach of many, so these depend on private bus systems instead. They are everywhere but unlike the jitneys I witnessed in the Philippines, these are essentially blinged school buses that are well maintained and presumably quite affordable. There was some air pollution, but it was mostly due to burning the sugar cane so it can be harvested. The automobiles all seemed to come with their emissions control systems intact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America, such as it is. If Central Americans aspire to live somewhere in the area, Costa Rica is probably it. Costa Rica would still be seen as somewhat rough by most American standards. But the curious fact is that if anyone’s standards are slipping, it’s the United States’. Our educational standards are beginning to resemble Nicaragua’s more than Costa Rica’s. This is symptomatic of our refusal to invest adequately in our own human capital and infrastructure. And Donald Trump’s disdain for “shithole” countries has the effect of making us more like one of these countries every day.

As I have noted in many other posts, immigrants both legal and illegal have allowed Americans to maintain much of their standard of living. To the extent the Trump Administration succeeds in its war on immigrants, expect it to drag our economy down. Immigrants keep our productivity booming and inflation away. In any event, it’s unlikely Trump has visited some of these countries that I’ve visited on this cruise. He would probably refer to them as “shithole” countries, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t characterize the people there as lazy either. What they mostly lack is fertile educational soil to reach their potential, which is generally denied to them by the landed aristocracy that is essentially in charge in most of these countries. Some countries like Costa Rica have made huge strides, but most seem mired in slow progress at best. The real obscenity is that systematic forces by people like Donald Trump are keeping them from realizing their full worth.

As for Trump, his ignorance is appalling but not the least bit surprising. He and his fellow Republicans though are exacerbating their problems, not helping to solve them.

The Thinker

Is Trump a racist? Is the pope Catholic?

You can get thousands of miles from the United States and still not quite leave it. Such is the case here on the cruise ship MS Westerdam. As I write this (Tuesday) it is making its way toward Baja California for one last port of call before our cruise ends Saturday at San Diego. Excerpts of the New York Times are provided at various places on the ship, and if so inclined you can also watch a few American news channels like Fox News and MSNBC in your stateroom. You can also read the New York Times online at no extra charge.

In any event, while at sea I am informed enough about American politics to understand that things are just as fouled up as they were when we left the States on January 5th. Trump continues to bumble his way through his so-called presidency, now approaching the one year mark. I was actually watching MSNBC when his remarks about “shithole countries” first made news. The news cycle has pretty much stayed in this track since. As usual Trump keeps changing his mind about his remarks. At first he seemed not to dispute them, then said the exact words were not correct, then decided he never said them at all all while carrying out policies that do their best to bar people from these types of countries. Lately, the line is he used “shithouse” rather than “shithole.” More amusingly, yesterday he decided that no one was less of a racist than he was, remarks made on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Trump celebrated the holiday by playing golf and of course doing nothing that resembled performing community service. You can see where his real values lie.

It really doesn’t matter if Trump uttered these words or not. It sounds like something he would say because he has said things like this over and over again. Why would anyone believe otherwise? That’s why when I heard them I said, “Why is this news?” He based his campaign on racism. During it he explicitly criticized a Hispanic American judge because he believed due to his enthnicity he could not be unbiased adjudicating a case against him. Now somehow the “shithole” remark suddenly proved he was a racist as if there was some doubt before? When he’s obviously been a racist all of his life? He’s just taking after his father who was arrested in the 1920s at a KKK rally in Queens, New York.

If a man isn’t a racist, you might think he would be comfortable with all races and have friends with every hue of the human spectrum. Trump has no black friends, but really he has no friends at all. Believing him when he says he is not a racist, or really about pretty much anything, is a complete waste of time. He will change his opinion on a dime. It’s clear that most of what he is told goes right through him. To the extent he learns it has to be visually. So when you brief him give him a Powerpoint chart with one bullet. He still probably won’t retain it. According to news reports he cites this disruptive aspect of his personality that is the source of his “genius”. By this standard anyone who constantly vaccilates and acts like an asshole most of the time is also a genius.

So just in case you are wondering, our president is a racist and likely one of the most racist people that you will ever learn about. Racism was the foundation of his campaign and it’s why his caught on when others did not. He assumed the worst about Republicans, not the best and was proved right. But long before he became a candidate racism still formed his center. He spent years attacking Obama for not being a real American, asserting that he was actually born in Kenya. He has promoted whites at the expense of all other races. Moreover, he has consistently made racism an integral part of his business, starting early when he refused to rent apartments to non-whites. He surrounds himself with rich white men.

The core of racism though is simply the belief that certain races inherently deserve privileges and have superiority that other races do not. That’s been Trump throughout his entire life! It’s baked into his personality. The only thing that would surprise me is if he went against his own biases. For Trump, this would qualify as genius.

The Thinker


In case you haven’t noticed, it’s cold out there … at least across most of the country. In western Massachusetts where we live we’ve been bearing much of the worst of it, enduring temperatures more familiar to North Dakota in January than even here in snowy New England. We’ve only been residents here two years, but we hear from the locals that this is cold even by New England’s winter standards. Cold and snowy. Christmas was picture perfect, with four inches falling starting around midnight. Since then we got above freezing just once, and very briefly. Mostly though it’s been cold and getting colder with daily highs in the low teens Fahrenheit if it makes it that far. When I went to bed last night, it was -4F. Overnight it got down to -12F, breaking the -11F low from the day before.

This kind of cold pretty much makes you stay indoors. Some poor buggers have no choice but to endure the elements. Workers spent last week at a house next to us under construction, doing what looks like putting in plumbing. With strong gusts of wind the wind chill was frequently in the minus teens. Even inside our house with the gas furnace going it still feels cold. Perhaps it’s aging, but unless I am under the covers my legs feel cold.

Which is why New Englanders with money hie thee hither this time of year rather than endure it. On our cul-de-sac except for a widow across the street we are the remaining residents. Fortunately this arctic blast that won’t go away is at least well timed enough to make us appreciate our first attempt at being snowbirds in many years. Come Thursday we fly south to Fort Lauderdale. Come Friday we board the MS Westerman of the Holland America line and spend 15 days and nights on southern seas. I am hoping when we return eighteen days later it might be somewhat seasonal around here again, which means highs around freezing and lows around 20F. Then I can do things like walk outdoors again. Right now when I go anywhere I’m almost immobile in my many layers of coats, scarfs, hats and gloves. I resemble a larger version of Ralphie’s kid brother Randy from A Christmas Story.

It’s going to take a lot of time in tropical climes and sitting on deck chairs for me to thaw out. Of course, to Donald Trump this is all evidence that there is no global warming. Being a moron of course anything that agrees with his predispositions proves him right. There are mostly higher than average temperatures elsewhere across the planet but these reports of course Trump cannot acknowledge. Doubtless he would call these reports Fake News. So what we are enduring this winter is likely to become even more exceptional, which suits me fine. I’m okay with winter as long as it doesn’t become crazy winter. This is crazy winter.

Since we have the means, we’ll escape it for a while and I’ll try to keep you posted. Cruise ships theoretically have Internet, but it’s cost prohibitive for all but the wealthiest. I have discovered that you can rent WiFi hot spots that should work when we are in port. This beats the alternative of trying to find a free WiFi spot somewhere in port. We’ll see if it works out. So expect pictures and remarks of various ports of call over the next few weeks as we slowly sail through the Panama Canal eventually ending up in San Diego. It’s the longest cruise we’ve ever taken, with plenty of days at sea to enjoy on a desk chair and watch mighty oceans slowly slip by.

It’s not too hard to see us following the pattern here in our 55+ community of snowbirding for the winter. Winter in New England can be cruel and it is exceptionally cruel this year. The desire to get away to warmer climes is strong. I’m just hoping my shaking knees can make it two more days until we head south to Fort Lauderdale.

Happy 2018 everyone!

The Thinker

The coming blue wave

To my surprise, Roy Moore lost his bid to be Alabama’s next senator last Tuesday to Democrat Doug Jones. Jones won, but not decisively, by a 1.5% margin over Moore. One of the more curious aspects of the election was that 1.7% of the votes were cast as write-ins. It’s reasonable to assume that virtually all of these were from people who would normally vote Republican, but couldn’t stomach Moore but could not vote for a Democrat.

This is the first example I’ve seen of a “reverse Green Party effect”. It’s usually Democrats that shoot themselves in the foot. We do this by being so principled that we get the exact opposite result instead. In Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three states that swung for Trump last year, had Jill Stein’s (Green Party) votes gone for Hillary Clinton instead then Hillary Clinton would now be president of the United States.

What’s appalling in Alabama is that apparently almost all Republicans voted for the pedophile Moore anyhow. Those who voted for a write-in plus those who stayed home apparently gave Jones the edge. Huge kudos goes to blacks and women in Alabama that showed up to vote, which was the edge Jones needed. I can see why both would have incentive to vote. After all, Moore said he’d like to get rid of constitutional amendments after the 10th amendment. This would make slavery legal again and take away women’s right to vote.

When a Democrat can win a statewide office in Alabama again, that’s pretty much all you need to know about which way the political winds in this country are blowing. Granted that Jones’s victory pretty much is a fluke. There was literally no one worse in the whole state of Alabama that Republicans could have nominated. As one Republican wag put it, Republicans could have picked any other name out of the phone book and have won the election by at least 10%.

Unfortunately for Republicans, Steve Bannon seems serious about fielding a Trump Republican in every Republican primary next year. Moreover, Trump plans to aggressively campaign for Republican candidates. Given Trump’s track record recently promoting Ed Gillespie in Virginia, Luther Strange in Alabama and then Roy Moore, all who lost, it’s clear his endorsement is toxic. These tactics enflame Democrats, which is likely to have them coming out to vote in droves. A Trump endorsement also keeps establishment Republicans lukewarm about voting for any Trump Republican that survives the primaries and caucuses.

In short the 2018 elections are likely to be a blowout, ending eight years of Republican control of Congress. The House should flip. One scenario suggests that when the dust settles Democrats could take the chamber 255 seats to 177 Republican seats. Retaking the Senate no longer seems improbable, particularly if Trump Republicans run against Democrats. Democrats should not take this for granted. It depends on maintaining their enthusiasm, a skill at which Trump will predictably excel.

Moreover there are so many issues beyond Trump that will encourage not just Democrats to come out, but to lean independents toward Democratic candidates and even pull away many Republicans. Last week’s vote to end net neutrality is one example. Support for net neutrality is overwhelmingly bipartisan but changing it clearly won’t happen with Republicans in charge. Republicans’ tax bill that looks likely to pass is another animus as it clearly shifts yet more income toward the rich. Rank and file Republicans don’t like it either. On so many issues voting Republicans tend to side with Democrats but even where they don’t, independents do. Some of these include addressing climate change, shrinking our national monuments and the rank incompetence in the people that Trump is nominating. This included a recent judicial nominee who had never tried a case. Even Congressional Republicans seem to be blanching at this.

It’s unknown where the Mueller investigation will be come November. Rumors abound that Trump is about to fire Mueller, although he cannot without firing a whole lot of other people and putting in place sycophants to do the deed. In any event, when Richard Nixon tried this approach it was hugely counterproductive and led to his eventual resignation. It certainly would inflame voters even more and make Washington even more chaotic than it currently is.

So it’s not hard at all to predict that the political heat will continue to rise in our nation’s pressure cooker. Next November the pent up frustration should be overwhelming. So I for one hope that Trump keeps endorsing Republican candidates, as he is now toxic. Please proceed.

The Thinker

Want to be rich? Earn more money and work to unrig the system

Dave Ramsey is an American businessman and motivational speaker trying to get people rich by motivating them to get rid of their debt. There is certainly nothing wrong with being debt free. It’s a state that I happen to be in at the moment, which gives me a leg up on some surprising people, like Donald Trump. Trump owes at least hundreds of millions of dollars to Russian banks and likely lots more to others. Who knows for sure? It’s not like he’s telling us but it likely clouds his judgment and explains why he is so friendly toward the Russian government. Trump seems to celebrate debt in a way that Ramsey does not. He proudly called himself the King of Debt during the campaign.

However, I am quite convinced that if I hadn’t incurred strategically good debts over the years I wouldn’t be as comfortable as I am today. It turned out that for me the real key to wealth was earning more money than most people over a longer period of time. If you can do that and you invest your money wisely at some point you should exit a reasonably wealthy person and with no debts too.

So it turns out that garnering real wealth, unless you are lucky enough to inherit a bundle of it, is about using an effective strategy. Many of us do this without really thinking it through. For example, most of us live near or within cities. Do most of us prefer this sort of existence, which is much more costly than living in a trailer park somewhere in southern Alabama? It’s hard to say but it is clear that living in or around cities expands our possibilities for acquiring wealth. It puts us closer to a variety of different jobs. It makes it easier to expand our educational credentials should we need to do so because there are colleges and universities nearby. Better employers prefer to locate in cities because the talent pool is richer.

Obviously there are downsides to living in cities. I experienced them by spending over 35 years in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. The downsides are probably too numerous to mention but among them were a higher cost of living in general, housing prices that were frightening and barely attainable even at a higher salary, crushing and frequent traffic jams and long days that began before sunup and lasted past sundown. I was glad to cash in my chips in retirement and move somewhere without these issues. By doing so not only do these downsides go away but also I get much more value for the money I have. Having wealth doesn’t mean much if you can’t enjoy it before you die.

So there was that but there was also the trick of making more money than most people. This was made possible in my case by some combination of talent, passion, circumstance, risk, luck, strategy and privilege. When I made the decision twenty years ago to get a graduate degree, I didn’t have to look far. George Mason University was not far away and they had a top-notch software engineering school plus I got some employer subsidies for the tuition and a lower in-state tuition rate. Moreover, it was a great field to get credentials in as it distinguished me over many other candidates for higher paying positions.

About the time I got the degree I used the degree to successfully get a higher-earning position. I used the higher income to reduce debt, as Ramsey would advise. I also used it to squirrel away as much money as I could toward retirement. And I used a lot more of it than I would have liked doing sensible things like replacing the windows and roof of our house. I didn’t pay for this out of pocket. I paid for it using a home equity loan. Some debt is both good and useful.

One way to build wealth turned out to be allowing our house to appreciate in value. We paid $191,000 for it in 1993, mostly with borrowed money. We sold it for $505,000 in 2015. Not only did we get a place to live for 22 years, thanks to the crazy real estate market (made possible by so many people wanting to live in our neighborhood) we also made nearly $500,000 by occupying it, paying off the mortgage and maintaining it so we could sell it for a good price. If you are so debt-phobic that you live in a trailer park instead then unless you are very savvy with your extra money you probably aren’t going to get that sort of return on your investment. And even if you do, you will have spent thirty plus years living a cramped and challenged life. Is this a price worth paying to be debt free?

I mentioned that being a white male helped. I’ll never be able to attach a monetary value to this, but it was huge. I was always implicitly one of the guys. Cultural factors made it easy for me to fit in. Mostly it was other white males that promoted me. I knew what they were looking for and mirrored those behaviors.

And so today I am properly retired. And while I have no doubt that Dave Ramsey is wealthy, he’s still out there selling stuff. Me: I’m retired. I can enjoy the rest of my life. Maybe Ramsey takes joy in his work and it’s what he’d be doing for free otherwise. From all the marketing material he sells and the seminars he puts on I suspect his life is not quite as rosy as it seems. As for the quality of his advice, I for one take it with a grain of salt. Certainly it’s a good strategy to work toward being debt free, but it’s one of many strategies needed to acquire wealth. It begins with a clear-eyed assessment of your strengths, the labor market, current economic forces and figuring out how to optimize your assets to fit these forces.

Ramsey also peddles what I think is the false Republican notion that any man (or woman) can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. False! False! False! Some people through circumstance and by being blessed with nurturing parents can do so. There are lots of minefields to acquiring wealth and there are many institutional forces out there working actively to reduce your odds. Much of the wealth generated from recovering from the Great Recession came from something Republicans seem to loath more than anything else: Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act). People mostly lose wealth when unexpected medical costs balloon into crushing debt. By extending the health insurance franchise to more Americans, it cushioned these impacts. That plus a recovering economy created wealth, which allowed many to invest that wealth in places like the stock market that is soaring today.

So I firmly believe that it’s a combination of talent, drive, strategy and smart governance that brings real wealth. The only issue is who gets the wealth and right now it’s clear that most of it is going to those who are already rich. No combination of talent and drive can fix a rigged system. Bernie Sanders understands this, which is why his message resonated in the last campaign and is likely to resonate even more in 2020.

The Thinker

Fiddling while the USA burns

Reputedly Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Republicans pretty much reenacted this event this week when the Senate passed its version of a “tax reform” bill in the wee hours yesterday. As if Americans were not sufficiently appalled by the House’s version of the bill, the Senate’s version turned out to be even more of a looting spree. It got totally crazy in the generally gentlemanly Senate.

It turned out that cutting taxes was kind of incidental in this “tax reform” bill. Lots of taxes will get cut if you are wealthy. There is the illusion that middle and lower classes will have their taxes cut but at best it’s a temporary tax cut to make the budget math work. As for budgeting, apparently there is none because at least $1.5T in new debt will get authorized and most of that will go into the pockets of the rich who already can’t find enough ways to spend their existing windfalls. The permanent tax cuts the rich will get apparently aren’t good enough for the rest of us, but then again our current Congress is proof that not all the animals on the farm are equal. Even Republicans seemed less than enthusiastic about tax reform, but their donors were pretty explicit: cut our taxes or we stop funding your reelection campaigns.

Apparently regular order in Congress is now so 20th century. When asked when senators were supposed to find the time to read the tax bill, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said there would be plenty of time after the bill was passed. Amendments to amendments that were hand scrawled in the margins were submitted to the bill at the last hours of debate. No one had time to actually read the 400+ page bill chock full of new amendments. Lobbyists sitting outside the Senate chambers actually dictated the wording of many of these last minute amendments. There was one committee meeting that turned out to be a farce. Protestors were dragged out of the committee room as the discussion was going on.

A so-called budget reconciliation bill morphed into a social engineering bill. It tries to do lots of things that Republicans want to do. To kill the Affordable Care Act, it essentially lets people opt out of the requirement to get health insurance by removing any penalties for doing so. Last I checked, the bill sort of defined a person as not just a fetus in utero, but as potential human beings you might have at some future date, because it allows you to set up college trust funds for children not yet conceived. If all this were not crazy enough, the bill will require automatic Medicare cuts to kick in to save money because of the $1.5T in additional borrowing. We know this will effectively take away cancer treatment for many senior citizens because that’s what happened in the past when these cuts kicked in. Since senior citizens form the base of the Republican Party, senators effectively are giving the middle finger to their own base. Seniors had best hope they not get cancer. If they do, they better hope they can fund their treatment out of pocket. If not, well the Party of Life apparently wishes you a happy and premature entrance into eternal life because it’s far more important to give tax cuts to the rich than to keep you alive.

So the Senate bill now goes to conference with the House bill. It will be interesting to see what happens now, but something will likely get signed into law pretty soon. Trump will apparently sign anything Republicans put on his desk. He’s obviously not someone who pays attention to details. Whatever form of bill is signed into law it will take aim not just at Democrats, minorities and the poor, but Trump’s base and the Republican Party’s base too. Republicans think their base is the oligarchy. While they provide the money to keep them in office, these legislators actually stay in charge to the extent they can hoodwink the rest of their voters.

PT Barnum famously said that no one went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. So I can’t predict that come 2018 Republican voters will not stupidly continue to vote against their own interests. One clue may be next Tuesday’s special election in Alabama to replace Jeff Sessions’ senate seat. If Alabama voters are stupid enough to vote for Roy Moore, twice thrown off the Alabama Supreme Court and a documented pedophile, it might well predict modest Democratic gains at best in 2018. At best Democrats have a 50/50 chance of flipping the Senate.

I like to think though that Republicans will get their comeuppance next year. It sure looks that way with Trump’s approval rating at 34% and Congress’s less than half of that. Elections last month in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere showed Democrats very energized. The House should flip; the Senate looks more problematic. While the energy level from frustrated voters is very high, there are many unknowns. These include how gerrymandered districts will affect the outcome and continued voter disenfranchisement. An expected Supreme Court ruling next year may clarify the former issue.

Meanwhile, the circus continues. Trump is a terrible president but he continues to excel in one area: distracting us from stuff that matters. When Trump makes some crazy or inane tweet, it gets Washington all a Twitter, literally, while conveniently distracting us from the real issues at hand. Even for Trump though Trump is looking wholly unhinged. There seems to be a direct correlation between the Mueller investigation’s closing in him and the level of weirdness coming out of his Twitter feed. If it were a fire, it would be four-alarm.

Reality is slowly catching up with Donald Trump though. I expect he’s about to go Richard Nixon in a Saturday Night Massacre kind of way. When he senses Robert Mueller is too close, he’ll find a way to fire him, which will probably involve firing the Deputy Attorney General supervising Mueller and installing an acting sycophant who will fire him. That’s when the crazy gets even crazier. Like the fictional band Spinal Tap, the amplifier will then be set at 11.

Let’s hope voters can stay focused amongst the painful noise and vote rationally next November 6.


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