Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump’

The Thinker

Preventing future presidents Nixon and Trump

In my sixty-one years I have watched two disastrous presidencies implode. Nixon’s ended in an abrupt resignation following the Watergate scandal. Trump’s implosion is currently underway. It’s unclear how it’s going to end, but I’m reasonably confident he won’t survive a first term. It’s also unclear if our nation will too, at least in its form where branches of government keep a check on each other, which is already not happening.

Both Nixon’s and Trump’s presidencies qualify as national crises. Over the decades too much power has shifted toward the Executive and Congress has largely failed in its role to check the Executive’s power. Moreover, because the presidency has become so powerful, it attracts people drawn to power including people who should really not be president. Trump is the obvious poster child.

Given that about forty years spanned Nixon and Trump, it’s not too hard to predict that if nothing changes we’ll endure another disastrous presidency within a few decades.

One way of checking executive power has already been enacted: we passed the 22nd Amendment limiting a president to no more than two terms. Unfortunately, eight years gives presidents plenty of time to muck of the mechanics of government.

Time is revealing some flaws in our constitutional system. How do we fix things? These suggestions range from the idealistic and unlikely to the practical. They don’t necessarily guarantee another Nixon or Trump but make them less likely. Of course I am hardly the first one to suggest some of these solutions.

Elect a national attorney general. Many states do this already. It allows the people to decide who should impartially administer our laws. Being a constitutional office, this person could not be fired by the president but would take an oath to impartially administer the laws of the United States and would be in charge of managing the Justice Department. Because presidential election years are too consequential, I propose we elect an attorney general during midterm election years. The term would be for four years. Nixon and Trump demonstrate that you can’t count on a president to ensure that justice is fairly administered, particularly when the Justice Department has to look into the executive branch. The executive needs its hands constitutionally tied from managing the impartial administration of justice.

Get rid of the Electoral College. Presidents should be elected based on the popular vote. Of course, twice recently it didn’t happen. Had Al Gore and Hillary Clinton (who won the popular votes) become president, it’s unlikely that we would have invaded Iraq or had to worry about a lawless chief executive. Obviously a constitutional amendment is a steep climb given that it’s not in red states’ interests. Still, initiatives like the National Popular Vote would guarantee electoral votes to the popular vote winner nationwide by committing a state to assign all its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. These state laws are written to take effect only when enough states that comprise a majority of the electoral votes pass state laws. 12 states are currently onboard representing 172 electoral votes. We need states comprising 98 more electoral votes to make this a reality. No, it’s not unconstitutional because the constitution empowers states on how they wish to apportion their Electoral College votes. Most states have a winner take all system.

Require presidential candidates release their tax returns to get on the ballot. The constitutionality of some proposed state efforts has been questioned, which is probably while this has been introduced in a few state legislatures it hasn’t passed in any. However, Congress could pass such a law with no issues. Obviously, this has been a problem with Trump, who still claims the IRS is auditing his returns, which is false. Even if it were true, there is no law prohibiting a candidate from releasing his tax returns while being under audit.

Split the presidency into two positions: head of state and chief executive. Arguably the U.S. president has too much power, as he/she is both the head of state and the chief executive. As a practical matter, doing both competently is virtually impossible. Most other democracies split these duties. For example, Israel elects a president that represents the nation but has few powers, but can speak for the nation. Its prime minister is the chief executive. Great Britain has the Queen as its head of state. Presidents tend to be politicians, not statesmen. We need both, not one or the other. The head of state should be the moral voice of the country. They too could be elected in “off” years.

Decentralize first-use of nuclear weapons. It’s quite frightening that Donald Trump has the power to launch nuclear weapons against any country he wants at any time, given his impulsive nature documented in Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear. In general, this is a dangerous power with massive implications for the nation. Congress should pass a law that prohibits the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States without the consent of Congress. Since such a decision might clue in potential adversaries, such a decision should require agreement by the president, Speaker of the House and both the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate.

Reinstate the full Voting Rights Act. We need a law that explicitly overturns Shelby County v. Holder (2013). The case removed constrains on certain mostly southern states with a history of suppressing minority votes from enacting voter laws without a preclearance from the Justice Department. If we want to be non-discriminatory, make all states get preclearances. When a day after this decision, Alabama passed a Voter ID law you know this will be a problem for the foreseeable future.

Obviously I am against political or racial gerrymandering. I would like to see federal voting districts drawn impartially by federal judges, as is true in most republican forms of government. This effects the composition of the House of Representatives and state legislatures, so it’s off topic here. It has no effect on the national popular vote for president.

 
The Thinker

The 25th Amendment remedy to remove Trump is looking more probable

In case it’s not obvious, we are amidst a current constitutional crisis. It’s only not a constitutional crisis if you are perfectly okay with authoritarianism over the rule of law or are fine with one branch of government refusing to hold the other accountable. If that’s you, then you don’t believe in our constitutional government.

The New York Times published an anonymous OpEd the other day. In it, a “senior administration official” admitted they were managing Donald Trump the man-child, by keeping many of his impetuous decisions from actually being carried out. This OpEd is perfectly consistent with Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear in which many other senior administration officials anonymously say similar things.

However, these self-styled patriots apparently couldn’t keep the man-child from a disastrous policy of separating foreign children from their parents at the Mexican border, probably because they liked the policy. But at least they were awake enough to distract Trump with something shiny and new until he forgot about a boneheaded impetuous decision to assassinate Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. This anonymous insider says staff are whispering a 25th amendment while none of them are bold enough to actually resign and call for it to be invoked.

As for Trump, of course he is bursting blood vessels over this. He calls it fake news while demanding that the Justice Department find the official who wrote it and charge him/her with “treason”. This is his tacit admission that he believes it was written by someone on his inner staff. Our man-child president of course has no idea what actual treason is. It’s quite possible that Trump is guilty of treason by collaborating with Russia to rig our election. Given that no state secrets were released in this OpEd and freedom of speech and the press are privileges of our democracy, this argument makes no sense … unless it’s the open secret that our president is a narcissistic moron. Even Trump’s supporters must now agree he is one; they just see it as a feature, not a bug.

Apparently it takes a moron to bring down a constitutional democracy, which is what Trump means by Making America Great Again. I got to admit; I did not see this coming. I thought you had to be more devious to bring down our great democracy. But perhaps Trump is just a fool; unaware that overlord Vladimir Putin had surreptitiously pressed his buttons.

I have little doubt that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has already had discussions with the president’s military attachés who carry around the black box with the nation’s nuclear launch codes: if Trump wants to launch nuclear weapons, he has to clear it with Mattis first. So maybe that is something of a safety valve for our country, at least until Trump decides to replace him with a toady.

I personally am betting that Trump’s all-consuming malignant narcissism keeps him distracted from executing some of these impulses. Since his ego is at stake, Job #1 is to obsessively watch the media to see how he is being portrayed and to counter the relentless narrative that he’s an impetuous and dangerous moron. Curiously, his every tweet reinforces the narrative that he is one. I’m actually hoping this state of affairs will prevail until November 6, when voters are likely to deliver Trump a clear message.

The midterm’s results may finally give Republicans a clear message too: Trump is toxic to their party. With an election behind them it might stiffen some spines to get rid of him altogether. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. If it happens though it will because Trump further careens off the rails. They will have to hope they can toss him overboard to calm the seas before 2020 elections.

Much depends on Republican voters, who support Trump with a 90% approval rating. Lost in his high approval numbers among Republicans is the shrinking size of the Republican Party as lukewarm Trump supporters move into the independents column. This explains why Trump’s overall approval rating now averages in the high thirties.

Trump will probably get impeached next year when Democrats retake the House. But even if Democrats retake the Senate too, actually removing him will require fifteen or so Republicans to develop spines. So in practical terms, Trump can probably only be removed by the 25th Amendment. A disastrous midterm might be enough of a catalyst for some cabinet members to call for it, members that Trump can conveniently fire.

Vice President Mike Pence though really would have to initiate this process. Some speculate that he is the anonymous author of this OpEd. He is also the one person in the Executive that Trump cannot fire, as he has a constitutional office. Pence, of course, has been working hard to excel in the role of Chief Toady. But doubtless he has presidential aspirations. He might make the leap to “Betrayer in Chief” if he thought he could get away with it. If not, then resigning and offering himself as a Republican alternative in 2020 is not a bad strategy. He’s just as evil as Trump but can at least run the machinery of government. That may appeal to Congressional Republicans who would have to give Trump the heave ho.

It all depends on Trump’s behavior, of course. He is showing all the predictable strains of someone with extreme narcissism in its final stages of unraveling under threat. The best case for the country would be his sudden resignation in a fit of pique, which I still think is the most likely, perhaps after Mueller issues his report (“rigged witch hunt”). If he survives impeachment and removal and if no 25th Amendment remedy succeeds, this crazy constitutional crisis is likely to drag on through 2020, assuming we survive as a nation until then.

Stay tuned. It’s not like we have any choice.

Coming up: a blog post on how we can prevent these crises in future presidencies.

 
The Thinker

Whites are being horribly exploited … by other whites

Fox News host Laura Ingraham drew some attention in August when she said this on her Fox News TV show:

“In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love don’t exist anymore,” she said, with videos of agricultural work playing over her shoulder. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”

Donald Trump’s election proved there are plenty of white people worried that America isn’t quite white enough for their tastes anymore. It’s making them nervous and scared and not coincidentally is causing many of them to stock up on guns.

The browning of America is hardly new but for decades Republicans have been riding this anxiety to political power. Richard Nixon’s 1968 Southern Strategy (as well as his Silent Majority strategy in his 1972 reelection) harnessed this fear. Ronald Reagan stoked it too, with images of imaginary welfare queens buying steaks and driving Cadillacs. Donald Trump of course made this anxiety the center of his campaign and his presidency. Fear, particularly fear of “the other” is a powerful motivator.

Reagan’s imaginary welfare queen was probably not a white person. This is strange because whites receive the majority of food stamps. In 2015, 40% of SNAP recipients were white. That’s more than blacks (26%) and Hispanics (10%) combined. If you are one of those whites on food stamps though, it may be scary though because it suggests that you can’t do any better economically than those other “lesser” races in our country. That can be unsettling. But whites traditionally have always been the biggest recipients of food stamps because they are a majority of the country.

Still, Laura Ingraham’s remarks are awfully odd considering that she has an adopted Guatemalan daughter. With images of brown agricultural workers in the background during her tirade, you have to wonder how long it’s been since most of our agricultural workers were white. Whites don’t want to work agricultural jobs, even for increased wages. I live in Western Massachusetts where local farmers advertise heavily for agricultural workers but get few takers. That’s because these jobs are brutal, far away and don’t pay well. Just 23% of agricultural workers in the United States were born here. I was born in 1957 and I’d be very surprised if in my 61 years the majority of agricultural workers were ever white.

As for Ingraham’s assertion that none of us ever voted on these changes, what a load of malarkey! Congress makes immigration law so we have only ourselves to blame. Agricultural interests though doubtless pushed these laws. They succeeded with guest worker programs and policies that gave short shrift to immigration enforcement on our Mexican border. This was not bad. It allowed our agricultural section to flourish and keep their prices low. With native born Americans unwilling for the most part to take these jobs, that we still have an agricultural sector is due principally to these workers we’re told to despise. To this day, it’s largely unheard of for an employer to be held liable for undocumented workers they employ.

Yes, America certainly did look a lot whiter in 1957 than it does today. The places I lived in when I was young were so far in upstate New York that I don’t recall even seeing a black person until I was in high school. Lots of these places still exist, but in cities like Hazelton, Pennsylvania they are finally coloring up. And it’s making lots of whites in Hazelton anxious. In 2013, a Hazelton-area chief of police channeled his frustrations with a crazy YouTube video.

There are plenty of reasons for whites to be anxious, but it’s not because the nation is coloring up. It’s because pathways for whites to enter the middle and upper classes are narrowing. Things are particularly bleak for blue-collar whites, the base of Trump’s support who he’s largely left out to dry. A good paying blue-collar job is hard to find and harder to retain. When lost these workers usually quickly fall into jobs that don’t pay a living wage, even if they work two or three of them. People like Amazon warehouse workers, many of whom are on food stamps. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is worth $164B but can’t pay his warehouse workers a living wage. He’d rather let the U.S. government try to fill in the difference with food stamps instead. Amazon is hardly alone, which is why a $15/hour living wage proposal polls so well.

It’s the rise of wealth inequality that is driving most of this white anxiety. While courting whites though Republicans (and sometimes Democrats) have worked instead for their real masters: corporations and rich people. They’ve enacted tax cuts that disproportionately allow the rich to keep more money. They cut services and when possible entitlements that principally benefit the rest of us, like affordable public college tuitions, that used to be free in many states. Corporations use their tax cuts to buy back their own stocks rather than raise wages for their employees or invest in the future. Minimum wage laws rarely move upward, making it impossible for people falling through the cracks to reach for the next rung. So-called Right to Work laws make it hard for workers to organize for higher wages. Moreover, Republicans shamelessly feed the myth that if you work harder and try hard enough you can scale the economic ladder. In most cases though they took the rungs out of the ladder decades ago. Middle and lower classes have been disenfranchised not by accident, but by design. Bernie Sanders long ago recognized the real issue: the system is rigged against working people.

The game is rigged but there are some signs that whites may be waking up at last. Midterms in two months should be revealing. In deeply red states like Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona teacher strikes have drawn the sympathy of the public, including working and middle class whites. They are even electing politicians who commit to raising their taxes in exchange for more services. They can certainly understand how teachers are struggling economically on substandard wages. It may be that Republicans have played the race card about as far as it can be played.

In any event, it’s absolutely clear that the rich and the powerful, who are principally white men, have been systematically and cynically abusing middle income and working class whites, feeding their anxieties and promoting false rationalizations for their anxieties. Curiously the best way to make this anxiety ebb is for whites to rise up against their economic masters and elect people who will put rungs back in the economic ladder again, many of whom will be brown, black or female. White politicians are horribly misleading and abusing them.

 
The Thinker

Trump is an illegitimate president

The day of Donald Trump’s election is certainly seared in my mind, as it is in most Americans’. Like most people, including apparently Donald Trump, I thought Hillary Clinton had the thing locked up. And she did if we elected presidents by popular vote: she won by three millions votes. Trump’s lopsided win in the Electoral College was made possible by margins of about 4000 votes in Pennsylvania, 10,000 votes in Michigan and 22,000 votes in Wisconsin. Had Clinton won those states she would have squeaked a win of 273-258 in the Electoral College.

That night was surreal and every day since has been too. I didn’t sleep that night but the next day I felt that our country had fundamentally changed. As someone not given to conspiracy theories, I felt his election had to be something of a fluke. But based on what we now know, it’s clear that Donald Trump was not fairly elected and is hence an illegitimate president.

I’ll grant you that Hillary Clinton was a poor candidate. If you want to win, a party should never nominate a candidate with negative likability scores. But Trump’s were just as bad. Two really unpopular candidates were nominated. No surprise then that, like in 2000, so many on the margins voted third party. Libertarian party candidate Johnson got 3% and Green party candidate Stein got 1%.

Events this week though show clearly that the odds were unfairly and illegally stacked to elect Trump. With these tiny margins in three swing states, it’s quite likely that had Americans known that Trump had paid off at least two mistresses before the vote that our national nightmare would not now be underway.

This Tuesday of course both Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and ex-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort were convicted of multiple felonies each. Cohen directly implicated Trump, making him effectively an unindicted co-conspirator. If Trump were a nobody instead of president, he too would have been indicted for these campaign finance violations, a felony. Cohen of course should have never participated in this crime, but he would have never had the temptation had Trump not directed him to do so.

Then there are the Russian government’s efforts to help Trump. It’s also clear that at least some in the Trump campaign, specifically Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen attended a meeting with Russians for the express purpose of learning dirt on Hillary Clinton. Since just hours after the meeting Trump tweeted that there would be forthcoming dirt on Hillary, it really sounds like he was in the know too. I expect that these links will come out in time and we’ll discover genuine conspiracy.

In any event, it was not a free and fair election. The Trump campaign did not play by the rules. And it was enough, by a tiny margin, to swing the election. There were of course other acts, arguably legal but morally repugnant, that helped as well. These included voter suppression efforts and making people in certain precincts wait inordinately long to cast a vote. It’s impossible to say if the election had been fair that Trump would still have won. But it is clear that by playing dirty and by participating in illegal activities, things that voters should have known were not known and probably would have changed a lot of votes. Former FBI Director James Comey’s announcement late in the campaign that the FBI was reopening its investigation the Clinton investigation, against FBI policy so close to an election, obviously had some influence too.

While it’s surprising to me that Trump won, it’s not surprising to me that the Trump campaign fought dirty. Trump hasn’t changed at all. He always jumps first and expects not to pay a consequence. He attracts people with similar inclinations, which apparently consist of virtually the entire Republican Party. Unlike Richard Nixon, he is likely to escape the political consequences of these actions because Republicans show no inclination to put country before party, which they did in the Watergate era. I remember.

Still, karma may pay Donald Trump a visit at last. While he is unlikely to be forced from office, he is likely to get impeached (but not removed from office) if Democrats retake the house this November. Also, Trump has a history of bailing when things get too bad. Thus it’s quite possible that when the evidence of his guilt becomes overwhelming he will resign in a fit of pique.

His behavior this week has been his most bizarre to date; he is clearly under great psychological strain. Even if he can escape impeachment and removal, he is likely to be charged with crimes in the state of New York, most likely for running his charity in an illegal manner but quite possibly for money laundering too. He can’t pardon himself or his lackeys out of state charges. At best he can only defer these trials until he is out of office. It’s quite possible that Trump will spend years in prison after leaving office, a dubious first for a U.S. president.

As far as his reputation is concerned, he can now never escape having an asterisk next to his name in the ranks of U.S. presidents. The footnote will have to note that his election was likely illegitimate. Trump accused Barack Obama of being an illegitimate president because he asserted that he was born in Kenya. Oh the irony that his accuser will forever live with this asterisk, and with overwhelming evidence that will show him to be the worst U.S. president in history.

Rest easier, Richard Nixon.

 
The Thinker

Trump: caught in the Chinese finger trap

It’s taken a while but a few people are figuring out how to use Trump’s narcissism against him. Anyone with sufficient influence or power who criticizes Trump will get a reflexive set of double-down tweets. Trump will point out how they are the flawed one and he is never wrong; after all he is a very stable genius.

Chinese finger trap

Chinese finger trap

Trump also uses his tweets to change the subject, hopefully resetting the narrative. This week former CIA Director and Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan felt Trump’s wrath by having his security clearance revoked. Brennan of course has been regularly criticizing Trump from his secure perch in retirement.

Removing his clearance means nothing; Brennan doesn’t need one and hasn’t used it since leaving office, except to prepare to answer questions from investigators. It is possible that by taking away his clearance it will ultimately work to Trump’s disadvantage. Trump is working to remove a bunch of other senior security clearances too in response to their “rigged witch hunt” against him. All but one of them no longer work for the federal government, so they are effectively toothless too.

What really got Trump’s goat recently though was the release of Omarosa Manigault Newman’s book Unhinged. The unflattering tapes she has been slowly releasing methodically prove she is speaking the truth. This resulted in a predictable set of new rage tweets from Trump against Omarosa, one of the few blacks in his administration. She has been part of his orbit since she first appeared on The Apprentice in 2004. Omarosa has nearly fifteen years of experience working with Donald Trump and is intimately familiar with his strengths and weaknesses. In response, he called her a “crazed, crying lowlife” and “that dog” among other insults.

Obviously her book is not flattering to Trump and Trump felt betrayed because of her disloyalty. Trump never returns any loyalty, but he hasn’t made the connection that true loyalty goes both ways. Trump thinks he can buy-off people, but he only rents them until they just can’t stand working for him anymore.

Fourteen years of observing Donald Trump, plus Omarosa’s own character flaws, have produced a character uniquely qualified to help bring him down, bigly. This is because unlike most of The Apprentice contestants, Omarosa played by Trump’s own rules. So of course she had no problem making surreptitious recordings (and reportedly videos) of Trump and his aides. This is completely consistent with Trump’s break-all-the-rules-to-succeed philosophy. Apparently she has quite a collection of these and plans to keep doling them out regularly, at least until Trump’s bullying against her stops.

Her condition that these releases would stop only when Trump stops bullying her is brilliant. It will show in time that Omarosa knows how to best Trump in his own game. Here’s why:

As someone with an extreme case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Trump cannot control himself when someone criticizes him. So with each tape released by Omarosa, Trump’s ego will require him to lash out at her some more, mostly through rage tweets. That in turn will keep his faults and her face constantly in the news. Trump will try to find surrogate issues (like these security clearances) to change the focus, but they are unlikely to work. He must stop bullying Omarosa to bring the pressure relief he craves. But he can’t do that because he has NPD. What’s really interesting is that Omarosa has done the impossible with Trump: changed the power dynamics. She is now his Alpha, on par with Vladimir Putin. Trump just hasn’t figured that out.

No wonder then that Trump is so scared. No wonder he has put together an enemies list and is revoking security clearances. Aside from bullying, Trump really doesn’t have much in the way of power to frustrate his opponents. His best weapon is Brent Kavanaugh, if he gets confirmed to the Supreme Court, as is likely. If cases against Trump come before the court, Kavanaugh is likely to rule in his favor. Removing security clearances though is largely a toothless exercise in retribution. Trump may sense that removing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is another trap that will make things worse for him. His narcissism and the feeling that the walls are closing around him though may impel him to fire him anyhow.

To Trump’s critics though Omarosa is the gift that keeps on giving. Each release shows more flaws in Trump and his hapless administration. This will cause an inevitable reflexive series of outrage tweets by Trump, which keeps the pattern repeating indefinitely. Omarosa has Trump is caught in a Chinese finger trap, and Trump simply lacks the life experiences required to get out of the trap. He can’t even picture them.

It is possible that Trump will figure out that ignoring her is more productive, but it’s unlikely he will figure this out by himself. Someone on staff will have to surreptitiously suggest it and hammer it in again and again until it gets absorbed. With his case of NPD so advanced though, he probably won’t. It will probably grow to become an every bigger cyclone of fury and hate.

As for Omarosa, just as Trump got tons of free publicity during his campaign by giving the media something shiny and new to follow, Omarosa gets tons of free publicity too, stays constantly in the news and makes a name for herself. Copies of her books fly off shelves, and her recording and videos inside the Trump White House get constantly played. Her future looks bright.

So effectively Omarosa has out trumped Trump. Well played, Omarosa. The apprentice seems likely to topple the king.

 
The Thinker

Dialing it to 12 with a new asbestos use proposal

It’s not hard to feel daily outrage at the Trump Administration. Doubtless it will be remembered as the worst administration in US history. The only part I am looking forward to (aside from the day Trump leaves office) are the many memoirs that will document the inside story. I strongly suspect that however much I imagine them that my imagination is not nearly broad enough.

One such soon to be released memoir is from Omarosa Manigault Newman, one of the few blacks with any power in the Trump White House. Her memoir, Unhinged: An Insider Account of the Trump White House sure looks juicy. The book’s royalties should more than make up for the $15,000 per month she says she was offered to shut her up after she was fired by Chief of Staff John Kelly. Manigault Newman also apparently has tapes of Trump and others. They may get more listens than Richard Nixon’s secret tapes. Some reported revelations though won’t be all that surprising: she says Trump is a racist, narcissist and lacks impulse control.

One bizarre theory going around is that when Trump was elected we entered an alternate universe, kind of like that episode “Mirror, Mirror” from the original Star Trek series. Yes, it’s crazy but lately has seemed to be the most plausible explanation. That’s because every day of the Trump Administration is full of events crazier than the day before. The crazy meter gets dialed to 11 every day. The one though that really got my attention this week and perhaps deserved more attention: a proposal from the EPA for asbestos to be used again. This proposal is definitely at Level 12. Naturally, Donald Trump seems to approve.

Let’s be quite clear here: asbestos is a human carcinogen. You breathe in asbestos dust and it could kill you. It’s associated with lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. In the past it was used principally for insulation. If your home had it, it was hard to sell. You usually had to pay a specialized contractor to remove it. Even its substitute, fiberglass insulation, is not without issues, which is why workers wear masks when installing blown insulation. For more than fifty years we’ve known this, which is why asbestos can’t be used as insulation and its few uses are heavily regulated. The EPA proposal will allow the EPA to approve it for new uses. Naturally, this was one of former EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s “great” ideas.

I literally didn’t think it was possible for an EPA to take an action more evil than its proposal this month to relax EPA fuel standards, which followed a 2017 proposal to relax power plant emissions. Apparently we don’t have enough pollutants in the atmosphere. These rules are truly toxic in that they actually kill Americans. They make the air unhealthier. In doing so, the additional pollution hospitalizes millions needlessly. Eight million people a year die from air pollution worldwide. It comes mostly from the particulate matter placed into the atmosphere by carbon polluters, including our cars. Those with lung problems and sensitive immune systems are most impacted.

While deaths by air pollution are indirect, by allowing for new uses of asbestos the EPA is promoting new ways for asbestos to directly kill people that don’t kill anyone anymore. I’m not sure, but it may have killed my father. As with air pollution, these effects can manifest over decades. My father coughed persistently most of his life and died of pulmonary disease. Basically, his lungs died before his body. He never smoked but he was exposed to industrial solvents in closed areas earlier in his career, and spent his time crawling around our asbestos-laden attics too. His lungs turned into a fibroid mass unable to put oxygen in the blood. Once we determined that asbestos caused preventable deaths, our government banned it.

The Trump Administration though simply doesn’t care. And now it is actively finding ways to kill more of us by reintroducing products like asbestos whose lethality is not even in question.

Why on earth would any administration want to do this? It’s because they are so evil and hateful that they simply don’t care. They want people to be more miserable. They want people to die. That’s because apparently they are a bunch of sadists. Sometimes though it bites back at one of their own. One of the infamously conservative Koch brothers, David Koch, has been battling prostate cancer for decades. It’s probably not related to the chemicals he and his brother’s industries have been pumping into the air, but who can say for sure? At 78, he is retiring.

But maybe it’s because the Trump Administration really believes its own bullshit: that everything is not related and that there is no limit to the amount of industrial pollutants we can dump into the environment because none of it impacts nature or people. I’d like to think that they aren’t really that dumb and just mentally ill sadists instead. But I’m sad to say I do believe that Donald Trump really is this dumb. Maybe I’ll read about it in Manigault Newman’s memoir.

 
The Thinker

Trade deficits don’t matter but tariffs sure do

A couple of posts ago I pointed out that trade deficits don’t really matter. This is because trade deficits merely report the difference of the value of goods exchanged between countries. A trade deficit with China demonstrates that in general we get better bargains trading with companies in China than from buying them internally or from other countries.

Tariffs on the other hand do matter, a lot. Over the weekend Donald Trump, our “very stable genius” president demonstrated how profoundly ignorant he was on how tariffs work. Trump stated that tariffs are helping to pay down the national debt.

In the sense that higher taxes make deficits lower if spending is kept constant, Trump is right. But Trump apparently thinks it’s foreign countries that are paying these tariffs, like before a freighter from China unloads its cargo in Los Angeles the government of China wires the tariff to the United States Treasury. That’s not how it works at all. Chinese manufacturers don’t pay a tariff to bring their goods into our country either.

So who is paying? You: the American consumer. Tariffs amount to tax increases, but these tax increases are sneaky. Since you don’t buy directly from companies in China, you don’t see a tariff added to your bill of sale. But when a company you shop at does, like Walmart, they send a check to the U.S. treasury for the amount of the tariff.

Companies can absorb the tariff. Being profit-making though they will almost always pass the cost on to you by raising their prices. We saw this recently when Coke announced it was raising prices, because its cost for imported aluminum used to make its cans went up.

The Coca Cola Company of course can shop around elsewhere for aluminum. It looks like there is no better deal. The kind of finished aluminum they use is either not made in the USA or is cheaper to buy from China in spite of the tariffs. This is true of lots of products in our modern economy. One way for companies to make profits is to specialize. However, the tariff system seems to assume we principally trade commodities like oil and wheat, not rolls of aluminum with the exact thickness Coke needs for its soft drink cans.

Tariffs thus amount to sneaky indirect tax increases. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of their detrimental effect on our economy. When we have to pay more for the same goods and services, this is inflation. And inflation from tariffs is already showing up. In June 2018, prices rose .4% from May 2018, largely due to tariffs. If this continues at this rate for the next twelve months, prices will be 4.8% higher annually. This is a significant increase in inflation compared to rates we are used to of 2% per year or less. It’s likelier though that the effect of tariffs is just beginning, and that soon inflation in June will seem like one of our better months.

As long as wages keep up with inflation, then perhaps inflation doesn’t matter. Our unemployment rate may be 3.9%, but wage growth has been anemic at best. In fact, most American workers have lost money because wage growth has not kept up with inflation. Unless Americans borrow money to make up the difference, which unfortunately they are doing at record rates, then without commensurate increases in wages they will consume less, dragging down the economy.

So it’s pretty clear that the real effect of tariffs is to stifle overall economic growth. Strict tariffs caused the Great Depression. While they allowed us to do more buying local, retaliatory tariffs as we are seeing now also made it hard to export our goods. With fewer buying our products, commodity prices for things we do make tend to collapse. So when the government charges tariffs, it is playing a very dangerous game. I’d like to think our administration knows what it’s doing, but Trump’s remarks this weekend show he fundamentally misunderstands how tariffs work. Apparently his supporters don’t understand either, as they roared their approval.

In any event, with recent tax cuts that benefit primarily the very wealthy, these modest tariffs will do little to boost tax revenues; the Post article puts the effect at .1%. But even the Post article understates the true cost of tariffs. Here are some of the other direct effects:

  • It increases government spending for social security, government pensions and many entitlements that are tied to the cost of living
  • It increases the cost of medical care, including Medicare, Medicaid and health care for veterans by pushing up prices for imported goods and services like certain medicines
  • It increases the cost of borrowing, as inflation tends to raise interest rates, which means the U.S. Treasury will have to increase interest rates to attract investors
  • Subsidies already announced will cost the government, for example the $12 billion the Trump Administration wants to give farmers to offset the effects of its tariffs

And then there are the indirect costs, which include:

  • Higher prices and inflation in general
  • Reduced employment in sectors affected by counter-tariffs
  • Lower profits as fewer goods and services are bought and sold
  • Likely increases in unemployment

Try as it might, the Trump Administration’s tariffs policies won’t do much more than partially offset tariffs’ downsides. It is likely to raise prices, reduce employment, feed inflation and reduce economic activity. Quite frankly, these tariffs are a disastrous policy.

But don’t take my world for it. The wreckage is already unfolding. It’s only going to get worse and may hit a crescendo around the midterms.

 
The Thinker

Do trade deficits really matter?

So we are having trade wars at the moment. Trump started all of them, first with a 30% tariff on solar panels manufactured in China but then on steel imports. It expanded into tariffs against Canada, Mexico, the European Union and more tariffs on China. Predictably these countries responded with counter-tariffs designed to give Trump’s biggest supporters a case of indigestion. And it’s working. Farming is typically a low margin business. With less demand, prices drop. With fewer crops being sold it is quickly making agriculture here unprofitable. Trump says that tariff wars are easy wins. That wasn’t the case in 1929 when they caused a global depression.

Trump acts like trade deficits really matter. Unquestionably they do matter to some businesses and people, i.e. those affected by them. After NAFTA was passed we lost a lot of our industrial base simply because countries like Mexico could manufacture stuff a lot cheaper than we could. To compete though in many ways we have upped our game. We are much more of a service economy now and we design leading edge stuff that is often manufactured elsewhere. Aside from Apple products, there is also stuff like my CPAP machine. This work is more specialized and the margins must be higher.

I don’t recall a time when the United States was not carrying a trade deficit. Perhaps we weren’t back in the 60s and 70s, but I was much younger then. And there are scattered months here and there when we do export more than we import. We have trade surpluses with some countries, like Canada. It’s a mystery then why Trump targeted that country. Mostly though it’s the other way around. While some sectors have suffered from all this free trade, I think overall it’s been a benefit.

One big benefit has been that trade has kept prices and thus inflation low. As long as these tariffs are in place, we are likely to see creeping inflation again. And Americans love imports. Low prices have helped us live beyond our means and our stagnant wages. It’s how companies like Walmart stay in business. Moreover, these imports increase competition and that too tends to lower prices. In many cases, the best quality products are available overseas. Take hybrid cars, for example. Yesterday I was in a neighbor’s Toyota Prius Prime and marveling at its engineering. This model may have been manufactured in the United States, but it’s an amazing value for the money. Since he too has solar panels on his house, most of the time he is driving using its electric motor. He’s getting very close to living carbon free, thanks to hybrids built and perfected overseas.

We have a choice of where we buy things. Most likely my next car will also be a foreign hybrid or fully electric car built or designed overseas. If I buy a Toyota Prius built in Japan and pay $30,000 for the privilege, while it causes a trade imbalance, it’s not like I didn’t get anything for my money. I get a great value in a car that gets 51mpg when it’s not running in fully electric mode. The effect of buying a foreign car is that some Americans (presumably) did not have a part in its design and manufacturing. Maybe that’s bad for the economy if we presume that whoever would have been building the car here in the states wasn’t doing work of similar or greater value. I’m not an economist but I’m not sure we can credibly make that claim.

In the case of hybrids and electric cars, American auto manufacturers are upping their game. In one case (Tesla) are providing a superior (albeit much more expensive) alternative. The Chevy Volt and Bolt are two other examples, although their cost is subsidized by generous federal tax credits. Tariffs on cars manufactured overseas do make our domestic versions more competitive, but only by raising foreign car prices. It doesn’t actually save buyers any money; in fact we pay a double penalty for tariffs: higher costs and potentially less competition.

There is certainly a convincing case to be made that China trades unfairly. To gain market share, it heavily subsidizes certain sectors like its solar and shipping sectors. It often doesn’t respect international copyright laws. In most cases though foreign products are cheaper because they can manufacture them for less. Often these industries are low profit. It’s unclear why we would want to compete in these low profit industries when doing so probably won’t give us a better lifestyle. Tariffs are at best a poor way for addressing these issues. They may work, but history is generally against you. Leveraging them in a large way like we are doing now is very dangerous, as the Great Depression attests.

In any event, the United States is not blameless. Even before these latest rounds of tariffs, we have been subsidizing many of our own industries through longstanding tariffs, including our sugar and peanut businesses. Free trade is one of these ideals that are rarely fully realized. When it is, someone is usually paying a price. Americans pay much more for sugar and peanuts than is necessary, and now we’re paying more for steel and solar panels too.

The evidence doesn’t seem to prove that trade deficits cause a country’s decline. In some ways they can demonstrate resilience. The strong U.S. dollar shows that we are a strong country in spite of these trade deficits. To me, trade deficits suggest that our knowledge economy is our real strength. Anything that we can do to continue to foster that, for example by allowing more technical people to acquire H1-B visas, should be a good use of government. On commodities like agriculture, we are highly efficient. In spite of the burgeoning world population, we can feed much of the world. Perhaps we should be strategically reducing the amount of farmland under cultivation to keep farming profitable.

I doubt that tariffs are the instrument we need. And I really am skeptical that trade deficits matter at all.

 
The Thinker

Trump is literally losing his mind

I’ve been returning to the original theme of this blog lately: Occam’s Razor. So let’s cut to the chase today: Trump is literally losing his mind.

Let’s stop pretending that Trump is the “very stable genius” that he claims to be. It’s just laughable. Last week’s “summit” in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin should put that to bed. In a press conference after the “summit”, Trump said he could not see how Russia could be responsible for hacking the 2016 elections, despite conclusive evidence from our intelligence community that he was presented with before his inauguration. After all, Putin had told him so very forcefully. Obviously the word of a former KGB agent is much more reliable than the consensus of our entire intelligence community. Back in DC his advisers got him to read a statement saying just the opposite, but he added that it could have been anyone. Last night he was back at it again, so apparently it’s Obama and “Crooked Hillary’s” fault, not the Russians. He called out Obama for not taking action when Obama in fact did take action. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s obstruction though led to a watered down statement prior to the election on Russian meddling instead.

Does he look like a “very stable genius” to you? On this one issue alone, he vacillates back and forth. But of course he does this constantly, making him the most unstable person in the world at the moment. Geniuses of course rarely vacillate, but being very intelligent most are open to changing their minds if the weight of impartial evidence is against them. The only part of “very stable genius” that applies to Trump is the very part. He is very something. Occam’s Razor suggests he is very mentally ill.

Trump is hardly alone there. Mental illness is rife in this country. I noted ten years ago that many very intelligent people I have met struck me as mentally ill. This is in part because intelligence by itself does not mean you won’t suffer mental illness. In Trump’s case though it looks like he is suffering true cognitive decline. Watch videos of Trump from ten or twenty years ago. He was still insufferable, but he could put coherent thoughts together. His vocabulary was much richer. He could express complex thoughts. He could express nuance.

Now his vocabulary sounds like a fourth grader. It’s not news to his staff. They give him briefing books he won’t read. They try to summarize complex topics into a few bullet points, but he still doesn’t absorb them. Heck, he walked into a “summit” with Vladimir Putin without a formal agenda and without aides taking notes. This allowed Putin after the summit to claim that Trump agreed with policies (like Russia’s annexation of Crimea) that he may not have agreed to. Trump’s attention span is very short and he can’t seem to remember anything.

He is placing our country in unique peril. Which means that it’s time for a 25th Amendment remedy. Section 4 of the amendment applies here. It basically puts the onus on Vice President Mike Pence to get a majority of the cabinet members to tell the Senate that Trump is unable to discharge his duties, in this case because of likely mental illness.

Pence of course is his sycophant so this doesn’t look likely, at least in the short term. But that doesn’t mean the conversation should not start in earnest. Yet it seems to be something even Democrats don’t want to say aloud. Certainly they and many Republicans in Congress are already thinking it. Republicans lack the political courage to bring up the topic. Democrats should not.

Americans need to know their president is not mentally ill. The White House tried to dodge this issue with Trump’s last physical. The White House physician Ronnie Jackson gave him the simplest of cognitive tests, which he passed. Jackson has since stepped down as his physician, given his failed nomination as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and allegations of the abusive environment he created within the White House medical staff.

Occam’s Razor is not always right, but it does suggest that the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct. So Democrats should openly express serious concern about Trump’s mental health. This way it at least becomes a legitimate topic of conversation. Ideally those speaking should be key Democrats like Minority Leaders Pelosi and Schumer. They could suggest perhaps three impartial leading psychiatrists give him a battery of evaluative tests and submit a report to Congress. It’s possible but unlikely that Trump will ace them all. In which case the question will be answered: Trump’s increasingly dangerous and bizarre behavior is due to some factors other than mental illness, in which case impeachment and removal is appropriate.

Our operating assumption has always been that our president would be a sane person. This is seriously under question now, particularly when you get tweets from Trump like this latest tirade against Iran:

We can’t start this process soon enough.

 
The Thinker

Occam’s razor makes Trump’s treason look obvious

Back in 2002, when I started this blog, I was looking for a theme. Occam’s Razor obviously came to mind since I thought it would have a largely intellectual bent. It best explained where my head was at, since the principle that the simplest solution was the most likely one is borne out in so many aspects of life. There wouldn’t be many posts on this blog though if I only discussed Occam’s Razor. Today though I return to my original theme to state what looks painfully obvious to me: Occam’s Razor plainly tells us that our president is a traitor.

There are other explanations out there but even for Donald Trump these other explanations look ridiculous. For example, I could go with the solution that he is a reflexive narcissist and such a complete dunderhead that even he has no idea that he is a traitor. I can’t discount this altogether but while Trump is pretty dumb and incredibly self absorbed, he’s not that dumb. If he is, well his narcissistic personality disorder is one for the textbooks.

Yesterday’s widely panned press conference after his two-hour “summit” with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki though should have made even the most partisan Trump supporter reel. Even for them, it should have been one of those “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” moments. Trump is so eager to please Vladimir Putin that he will take his word that the Russians had nothing to do with trying to influence the 2016 elections and throw the entire U.S. intelligence community under the bus if necessary.

Just late last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted twelve Russians for hacking into our election systems and political party websites at the behest of the Russian Federation, which is to say at the behest of Vladimir Putin. He identified them by name. A federal grand jury confirmed these indictments. This means in the unlikely event these people come to trial the evidence against them is solid. This evidence was accumulated by our intelligence agencies. Rest assured they have the goods on them and could prove their guilt in a court of law. This is because we have a vast (though at times imperfect) intelligence system that collected voluminous data on them. It’s so voluminous that Putin is likely astonished by its breadth and specificity and is wondering what spies he has in his government.

While these twelve are likely beyond the reach of our government, the same can’t be said about Mariia Butina, a Russian who arrived here a few years ago on a supposedly student visa and who was arrested yesterday for attempting to set up back channels between the Russian Federation and the Trump campaign. It’s not like there is any question about her guilt. She did a great job. Ask Donald Trump Jr. Ask the NRA, which met with her and apparently illegally channeled Russian money into its election fund to elect Trump. At least we have custody of Butina. It’s unlikely she will be a free woman again, at least not for many decades.

When following a trail, sometimes you only have a few breadcrumbs to go on. In the case of Trump’s collusion and treason there are large turds (and scattered Chicken McNugget containers) every ten feet along this trail.

It’s all in plain sight. (“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Later that very day, the hacking began.) Doubtless Robert Mueller is piecing it all together and I doubt he is breaking a sweat finding the evidence. But also ask yourself: what would you want from a U.S. president if you were Vladimir Putin? Would you want a president that would try to break up NATO as well as the G7? Someone that would start trade wars and call our closest neighbor Canada an enemy? That would okay Russia’s annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine? That tacitly supports Russia’s support for Syria? Can you name one thing that Trump has done that Putin would find offensive?

It’s not hard to see how Trump was compromised. We know for a fact at Russian oligarchs kept him in wealth through the Great Recession through loans via Deutsche Bank, facilitated by soon to be former Justice Kennedy’s son. (Curious that he resigned after he had appointed his law clerks for next year.) Trump looks up to his hips in money laundering, mostly by Russian oligarchs paying inflated prices for his condos, likely at the insistence of Putin. No Russian agent had to break a sweat trying to compromise him; the only thing he smells is money and like a bloodhound he follows it with single-minded focus.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, Trump has been compromised and has been used by the Russians for a long time. They simply could not have picked a better Manchurian president. Russian intelligence plays a long game. They baited him decades ago, fed his vanity and ego and played his family like a fiddle. They also played the Republican Party by feeding its obsessions and vanities. We saw this when they changed the party’s platform on Russia and Ukraine. No other explanation comes even close to being plausible.

Republicans are in denial but I’m betting that the astute ones know they are supporting a traitor. Many of them don’t care. They are democratic in name only; and freedom is a principle that only applies to people in their socioeconomic class. Like Trump, most of them love the idea of an authoritarian government, as long as they are in charge and thus feel some kinship with a dictatorial regime. Trump sees Putin and a Russian alliance as part of a great white hope strategy. By aligning with other bigots he can perhaps make America white again and use Russian resources to do it.

The only problem is that he swore to uphold the constitution of the United States and its derived laws. He’s obviously doing the exact opposite. Because of this, he should be impeached and convicted, but this depends on a Republican Party with a spine it no longer possesses. It’s quite possible though (yet still unlikely) that after a disastrous midterm they will finally inhale the smelling salts and throw this bloated orange bastard overboard. After impeachment and removal, he should be tried for being the traitor that he is and has been.

 

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