No good options for controlling inflation

Americans are pissed about inflation and who can blame them?

It’s good news for Republicans, in a way, because voters tend to vent their economic anxieties at the polls. So no one will be surprised if they retake Congress in November, especially after all their recent gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts.

To control inflation though they would have to do a lot of non-Republican stuff like, say, break up the companies that control a lot of these markets due to lack of competition: think oil, meat processing and telecommunication services (like Comcast). In previous (mostly Republican) administrations, they passed over most anti-trust laws that would have prevented this.

In reality there’s not much else that can be done. Oh, they’ll want to open more federal lands to oil leasing, but oil companies will sit on their hands. Why should they drill for more oil when it’s chancy and they can enjoy record profits by simply constricting supply?

But also, there’s little anything any government can do to fix the problem because it’s not a national problem; it’s an international one. If you keep up on the news, you’ll discover people everywhere are experiencing the same thing; in fact it tends to be worse elsewhere else. In many third world countries, inflation means cutting meals or starving: they can’t afford the price of regular commodities. Everyone affected wants some sort of magic cure or, failing that, to shift the costs on someone else. Inflation and the pandemic have been causing a lot of global civil unrest. Global climate change is contributing to the problem as it interferes with growing patterns.

President Nixon tried wage and price controls, which artificially kept inflation in check for a while, then quickly zoomed up when controls were lifted. What most people want though is to have their cake and eat it too: check inflation and have the benefits of a fast growing economy. Supply bottlenecks, particularly from overseas where we get most of our goods, affects everyone. We can’t control that the Chinese government decided to shut down Shanghai for two months to control the pandemic. So prices go up and those who can’t afford the higher prices do without. Sometimes this amounts to malnutrition and starvation.

That’s basically the Federal Reserve’s approach to controlling inflation. Their main tool is to control interest rates and lately they’ve been going up. Applied long enough this should reduce inflation, but it’s a little like breaking legs of random people on the street in an attempt to control the problem of too many pedestrians. The Fed tries to do it as painlessly as possible, but it’s not a painless process. Pain is the whole point. If there is no pain, no easing of demand, then inflation continues to soar.

It’s just that a lot of things you really can’t do without. Like housing, for example. Except, yes, you can do without housing; you can join the growing ranks of the unhoused. By adding incredible amounts of stress to a lot of people’s lives, basically by impoverishing them, you cut demand and control inflation. You also dash a lot of other dreams, or at least defer them, such as buying a home.

President Biden is, of course, doing what he can. But it’s all at the edges because in reality there’s not much a president can do. It amounts to a lot of wishful thinking and hope. Open up some more oil leases and maybe oil companies will start drilling. But even if they do, bringing this new oil on the market will take years. Lately, he ended temporarily tariffs on solar panels. This will make it cheaper to set up solar systems and if more people move toward electric cars, maybe cut demand for gasoline too. But don’t expect it to do much before the midterms.

Changing policy in a meaningful way requires changing the law. It requires Congress to find consensus and to work in the national interest. There’s little of that going on now and you can expect less of it after November as our political polarization deepens some more. Which means that government will only become more ineffectual, making it easier for authoritarians to make their case. After all, as Trump told us, only he can fix it. Only of course he didn’t because the President of the United States is not God.

So any solution to inflation is likely long term at best. Real solutions require close international cooperation and tackling systemic issues like climate change. One thing I can say for certain though is that putting Republicans in charge of Congress next year won’t do a damned thing to make it better.

Pondering the Ukraine war endgame

I guess it’s good news that so many Americans now hate Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a way, I’m surprised because about 30% of voters tend to vote Republican and whatever Dear Leader (Trump) says goes. Trump has never hid is fascist inclinations. Indeed, he sensed them in the party and brought them to life. Trump’s initial praise of Putin’s invasion though was quickly tempered when he discovered it wasn’t working with his base.

Granted, the Republican Party in mostly Southern states has certainly not given up its fascist tendencies. They’re taking a mile instead of an inch. In Missouri, it’s likely that it will soon be a crime for a woman to go out of state for an abortion, a law which I suspect violates the interstate commerce clause of our U.S. constitution and will probably get invalidated. In Florida, you can’t say gay or LGBTQ and keep your job, at least if you are a public school teacher. This also seems to violate basic civil liberties and probably won’t stand up in a federal court either. Meanwhile, in Texas, which is all about ensuring parental rights by making sure students can’t get banned books in its schools, is perfectly fine with taking away parental rights to make decisions about helping their transgender kids get the hormones and surgeries they need to thrive. It’s an anti-freedom agenda masquerading as a freedom agenda. These sorts of policies would feel very much at home in fascist Russia.

But there is something about waging an unprovoked war on a neighboring country has them siding with Democrats, for unknown reasons. Or maybe it is sort of known. Ukraine is overwhelmingly White. When they get to see it up close on the news, it’s not hard to picture that happening here. They don’t want that. It might interfere with their church services and affect the value of their stock portfolios.

So on this issue pretty much exclusively they are aligning with the civilized world and even (ick!) Democrats. You know they are serious when they are for banning oil from Russia, even though it would push up oil prices at home. Their campaign ads will say otherwise, but they can’t hide their votes in Congress.

In the ten days since I wrote about Ukraine, not a whole lot has changed. Certainly a lot more people are dead, the carnage is increasing and likely people are beginning to starve, on both sides. A massive Ukrainian nuclear power plant had a close call and hospitals and residences have been blown up, but Russia hasn’t really gained any ground since March 3. It occupies at best about ten percent of the country, it has few troops in reserve, and logistical difficulties make some sort of partial retreat, or at least troop consolidation, likely.

But Russia still has nukes, and Vladimir Putin has ordered his nuclear force on high alert and has made vague statements like he might start a nuclear war unilaterally. If he is determined to win in Ukraine, nukes would probably do it. There likely wouldn’t be many Ukrainians left afterward. But he’s already reviled across the world, so it’s not implausible that he might use them.

Ukrainians are calling for a no fly zone over their country, enforced by NATO. If I lived there I’d want one too. But it’s a really bad idea if you consider nuclear war worse than horrendous bloodshed in Ukraine. I am grateful we have a president that knows this and won’t put our armed forced into play in or over Ukraine. Had Trump won reelection, he’d probably have encouraged Putin to do his worst to the country.

No one wants to see this continue but it’s hard to see an endgame. That’s not to say the future is hard to predict. This is becoming Putin’s quagmire. There is no face saving way to get out of it and declare a partial victory. It’s unclear if he even understands that he is losing. He’s surrounded by people who have survived by honing their skills as yes men. By controlling the Internet and the press, most Russians don’t understand what’s really going on and are cheering him on.

With time though it will be impossible for them not to figure out that their Dear Leader made a huge mistake. Their currency is becoming worthless and getting goods and services from outside the country is becoming impossible. With time, things will just stop working for lack of parts and people who can fix them. Putin can’t hide the closures of so many western businesses in the country, particularly the local McDonalds. Its military is already bogged down and supplying it will become increasingly problematic. As body bags keep returning regularly, it will become difficult to hide the scope of his misadventure. Moreover, most Russians are used to the Internet and richer Russians used to foreign vacations. They will resent what they have lost.

That’s not to say Putin won’t retain power. He has a powerful police state and saying anything not the party line can get you fifteen years in prison. But his focus will inevitably turn inward. His failures could tip him into the selective use of nuclear weapons. He doesn’t appear to be one of these people that can accept defeat or accept compromises.

So for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis there is a real possibility of the use of nuclear weapons. It may be the use of one tactical nuclear weapon, say a neutron bomb over Kyiv, or a bunch to quickly take control of major cities. Putin does not appear to be suicidal, which is what their use on the West would result in. But he’s a hard man to read other than he’s infinitely stubborn and unwilling to compromise, traits that unfortunately resemble the vast majority of Republicans in power too.

If we can keep Putin from using his nuclear weapons (a big if), it is likely that in a year or two this will resolve itself. Russia is likely to grind to a halt to be held together through intimidation and force of arms. While it may hold itself together, it will be a shell of its former self and increasingly unable to maintain even basic services. A new Russian revolution is certainly possible, but unlikely. Anarchy and large scale national dysfunction is the more likely result.

I don’t think socially-distanced Vladimir Putin will be alive in two years. I think it’s much more likely that someone close to him puts a bullet in his head first.

Tomorrow’s unfortunate news today

I can see the future! Obviously I’ve made lots of predictions over the years and many of them turned out wrong. And while I can’t say exactly when and how things will happen in the future, I can see the future of the United States easily enough over the next decade or so. Most likely, so can you. And it’s pretty depressing.

You can see it too if you are paying attention. Republicans have given up on democracy. They actually gave up on it decades ago, but they knew the only way to get rid of it was to make it a long term project. And they have. For forty years or so they’ve been chipping away at it and they are likely to win at the project, at least in the short term. One things which is clear: if you think things are crazy now, just wait. It’s going to get much, much crazier.

And so much of this is preventable. It requires two erstwhile Democratic senators, Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) to do something they don’t want to do: change Senate filibuster rules so national voting rules can change. Of course, Republicans won’t allow it. Why on earth would they ever vote against the self-interest of their own party?

The most modest proposal by Manchin would simply require all states to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department on their voting rules. This would presumably strip states of the ability to offer fewer polling sites in black and minority neighborhoods. House Democrats want to outlaw partisan gerrymandering, at least in federal elections. But in any event, it’s a dead idea. Even if Manchin agrees to amend filibuster rules in this case, Sinema has expressed no interest. So we’re going into the 2022 and 2024 elections with gerrymandering cranked up to an 11 in Republican states. This means Republicans are almost guaranteed to win back the House in 2022.

It’s abundantly clear that most Americans don’t really care about democracy. For decades Republicans have been stripping most civics classes from school curriculum, so it’s more than possible these now adult voters have only a hazy idea of what democracy is about anyhow. Gerrymandering and voter suppression have been going on for decades, distributing power disproportionately, and it’s left voters unmoved. What they do care about is gas prices and they will hold politicians in power accountable if they get too high. This largely explains Joe Biden’s tanking approval ratings.

Voters also have no patience. They expect everything to be done yesterday. Biden is doing a remarkable job moving legislation through a highly partisan Congress with tiny margins, but they don’t care. They are fixated on prices at the pump. Climate change? They don’t care. Climate change is an existential crisis but they are just trying to get through the day. There is plenty of evidence that voters are already ignoring plenty that Democrats have done for them, like temporary child care tax credits. They don’t see these things; they only see the price of gas at the pump.

Regardless, voting matters little if the results can be easily overturned. These red states are putting partisan hacks in charge of their election systems and are allowing state legislatures to overturn results if they don’t like the results. It’s the sort of election Vladimir Putin would approve of, and it’s coming to the USA. For sure though it will be in place in 2024 when narrowly red states like Georgia simply won’t let its voters have a say if their voters vote for a Democratic president. The state board of electors will assign them to the Republican candidate anyhow.

Once Republicans are in charge, adhering to the rule of law will seem quaint. Trump proved skilled at manipulating the Justice Department. In a future Trump or Republican presidency, the rule of law won’t mean much. In the unlikely event the Supreme Court rules against the administration, that won’t mean much either. President Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears was a direct result of openly defying the Supreme Court on the matter of relocating native Americans. Jackson realized the court’s authority could not be backed up by force. It depends entirely on the integrity of the president, who will have none.

So expect it: law enforcement will become partisan and selective. The president will ignore decisions he doesn’t like. The president will issue executive orders that violate the law and the constitution. With the Congress in Republican hands, and likely to stay there through a corrupt election process, rule of law and justice just become moot. The president does what he wants and we effectively have a Congress that merely salutes the president. It’s coming.

Of course there will be resistance. There will be inevitable court challenges, huge marches and demonstrations, etc. And because they can, law enforcement will get very heavy handed. Not just the National Guard but the entire U.S. military will be used to enforce martial law. And it won’t end there. Inevitably there will be pogroms and systemic retribution and persecution. Anyone who ever spoke up against Republicans will be targets, and you can bet they will include Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and plenty of others. At some point they will probably come for me too.

It’s coming, it’s coming. It’s all so clear and obvious. But it’s not clear to senators Sinema and Manchin, even though this behavior is entirely predictable. They just prefer to live life with blinders on. History will be extremely unkind to them, if it can be written at all. Like so-called Critical Race Theory, the victors won’t allow it and at some point will make truth illegal.

I wish this weren’t going to happen, but I don’t see how it will be stopped. God help us. If you are a praying person, it’s time to pray. And if you’re not, it’s a good reason to pray anyhow because there simply isn’t the political will to do what much be done to save the republic.

Biden is unlikely to pay a political price for getting us out of Afghanistan

The images all over the news and social media on Afghanistan are heart wrenching. It was made more so when the predictable happened: a suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS-K, an Afghani ISIS affiliate of sorts, killed thirteen U.S. soldiers and more than a hundred others outside the gates of Kabul’s airport. Everyone seems to be pointing fingers at Biden, as if there was ever a way to get us out of Afghanistan in a safe and orderly manner.

Lost among all the finger pointing and nervous nellies wondering about all the political implications is what, in general terms, has been a pretty good withdrawal, under the circumstances. We evacuated more than 100,000 people out of the country in only a few weeks, massively dwarfing the 7,000 of so when we hastily pulled out of Vietnam. Yes, we’re leaving some equipment behind but most of it is obsolete or had been rendered inoperative. The cost and hassle to remove this equipment, much of it by road, was more than the cost of leaving it there. Leaving behind equipment is standard practice when getting out of conflicts like this.

Biden is unlikely to pay much of a political price because Americans want us the hell out of there. A Hill-Harris poll, for example, shows 73% support for Biden’s actions. Generally, foreign policy is simply not a factor in elections, which turn mostly on local issues. You’d have to go back to 1968 to find an election where foreign policy was a major issue (Vietnam in this case). Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” for getting us out of Vietnam was likely why he won that election.

Even Donald Trump realized that staying in Afghanistan was a political loser, which is why he negotiated with the Taliban and released thousands of Taliban fighters. His agreement with the Taliban had some upsides. For example, the Taliban pretty much agreed to stop targeting our soldiers, an agreement they lived up to. Until the recent incident at Kabul’s airport, just three U.S. soldiers had died in Afghanistan in 2021.

Our withdrawal from Vietnam also suggests it will be quickly forgotten. Until Afghanistan, it had been our longest war. At the time (I was a teenager, so I remember), Vietnam fatigue was overwhelming. Virtually no one wanted us to stay there. Like in Afghanistan, South Vietnam’s government was wholly corrupt and there was no fixing it.

If you want to hold Biden responsible for something, it’s for putting too much faith in the Afghani army. The fall of Vietnam suggested Afghanistan too would fall quickly too. I was not the least bit surprised that the Taliban rolled into Kabul with virtually no opposition. I was also not surprised that Afghanistan’s president would slip away to a foreign country, reputedly with millions of dollars in secret bank accounts. The same was true with South Vietnam’s last “president”, Nguyen Van Thieu. What would have been surprising if it Afghanistan’s president Ghani stayed and fought it out.

The good news is that our returning soldiers should get a lot better treatment than those who served in Vietnam. Most were scorned for their service, and tried to hide that they had ever served in Vietnam. Many Americans took it out on our soldiers that we lost there, so a lot of these soldiers ended up depressed, unemployed and suicidal. Mostly though America wanted to forget Vietnam. At the time we were much more consumed by the oil embargo, the gas lines it brought and high inflation.

Of course, now we have a much bigger distraction: covid-19, the story that seems to never end. We’re starting wave number four and in many places hospitals are overrun with covid-19 patients. In Louisiana, residents are likely to suffer a double-whammy due to Hurricane Ida’s landfall.

It’s becoming impossible to ignore these events close to home as we are all impacted by them. A week ago it was Hurricane Henri that affected us locally. Fortunately being more than a hundred miles inland, its affect was minimal. These more powerful storms, not to mention forest fires in western stakes, bring smoke, haze and air pollution eastward. We just have to look outside our window to see issues that matter to us.

Frankly. most of us don’t give two hoots about the wreckage of our presence over nearly twenty years caused in Afghanistan. What we can say is that soon we’ll be wholly out of there, and that huge sunk cost estimated to have cost us $2T won’t enlarge.

After Vietnam, many political refuges (“boat people”) there fled to refugee camps in Thailand and off China. We’ll have over 100,000 refugees to handle this time around, so there will be recurring news items as processing that volume of people is bound to be tiring, time consuming and messy.

But mostly these will be a back page stories. Over time, Vietnamese refugees made new lives for themselves in the United States, and enriched our country with their talents, hard work and productivity. It is likely the same will be true with these Afghan refugees.

Should Biden run for reelection, I’m sure Republicans will raise the withdrawal as an issue. It’s just that almost nobody will care.

Biden is being presidential

I’m trying to remember the last time we had a president do something actually presidential … in a major way I mean. I’m not sure it has happened in my living memory, until recently.

Joe Biden is getting us out of Afghanistan, albeit with a large amount of pandemonium and confusion that comes with the decision. He’s proactively doing something no modern president has done. He’s fixing a mistake Bush, Obama and Trump dodged.

Most presidents want the veneer of being presidential, not to demonstrate the real thing. Even Barack Obama knew our presence in Afghanistan was doomed to fail; he just couldn’t pull off what he wanted to do, which was get us out of there entirely. In 2009, he surged troops there but also said he would get us out of in 2014, signifying to the Taliban that they just needed to wait. “Out of there” amounted to leaving a substantial number of troops in the country indefinitely while proclaiming that our war there was over. Like Bush before him, we were going to stand up an independent country that wouldn’t need us forever. And like in Vietnam, his generals and his State Department prettied up the reports to put lipstick on the pig. It was all a house of cards, something Obama probably knew but couldn’t find the strength to do.

Biden became presidential by doing what needed to be done and actually getting us out of there. It’s an effort obviously still underway. It doesn’t appear that he will change his mind and I hope he doesn’t. We’ve needed to be gone for a long time. This was always doomed to be an unwinnable war.

Granted, as Senator after September 11, Biden voted with virtually all of the rest of Congress to effectively wage war against Afghanistan. We were actually at war with those who caused September 11, and at the time al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were holed up on Afghanistan. In fact what led us to war in Afghanistan was achieved about eighteen months later when bin Laden left Afghanistan and went into hiding in Pakistan. That was the time to get out of the country.

It should be noted that President Bush turned down two opportunities to have the Taliban work as our agents. They were quite willing to turn over bin Laden to us; he just didn’t like their conditions, which would leave them in charge. Instead, he spurned them and we went on another righteous but pointless excursion of nation building. It was window dressing for what we really wanted: an imperialistic state there that we basically controlled. We controlled the government by making it impossible for them to exist without our funding and expertise.

This experiment in nation building was, like most of the others that preceded it, doomed from the start. More than ninety five percent of Afghanistan’s people are illiterate. It’s a third-world country that the U.S. expected could quickly evolve to act like a first-world country. Not surprisingly, it didn’t. We set up a lot of Potemkin cities to provide us with the illusion that Afghanistan could be a democracy, merely to make ourselves feel better.

For all practical purposes though, Afghanistan is not a country. It is too ethnically divided to be one. Multiple states are possible perhaps run by the ethnic minorities in that part of the “country”. Trying to make it one just proved how impossible a task it actually was.

As the saying goes, you got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. Biden became presidential by folding our hand and acknowledging reality. It was sustained only by spending vast amounts of money and by wearing rose colored glasses.

With the possible exception of Japan, we’ve done a lousy job of nation building. We like the idea of spreading democracy but are inept at doing so. The latest twist is that right here in our country many of our own citizens are working hard to ensure the U.S. becomes an autocracy. Many of Biden’s biggest critics on Afghanistan would be quite happy if our government looked and lot like their new Taliban-run government, just with Americans praying to a different deity.

I had misgivings about our war on terror from the start. I was in a tiny fringe, but it drove me to seek compatriots online on sites like Daily Kos. Everyone else I knew was excited to rally behind President Bush. I was concerned about mission creep and my concerns were justified.

This blog started in December 2002, after September 11. But if you read this post from eighteen years ago, you will read that I was in Washington D.C. with thousands of others protesting what looked like and became our imminent invasion of Iraq. That turned out to be a huge folly too. The lessons of Vietnam remained stuck in my brain at least.

While Vice President, Biden was the dissenting voice urging President Obama to get us out of Afghanistan. All these years later, as president he took the opportunity to do what should have been done more than fifteen years ago. Yes, it’s miserable to many Afghanis and of course we should get out as many interpreters, allies and legitimate refugees there as possible. But out we should get and Biden should stick to his plan. It’s also risky for Joe Biden’s reelection strategy, but it’s what needed to be done. To be presidential, you must put the country’s needs above your own political needs.

The real problem is not in Afghanistan, but in our own country. We have to give up the illusion that the United States’ might can impose order and our will where it cannot. It’s folly to try. We keep making the same mistake over and over again.

But in the minds of too many Americans, this is a delusion they cannot give up. Our country is not all that special and epic mistakes like these simply enforce this impression on the rest of the world, which largely doesn’t buy into our bullshit anyhow.

A real constitutional crisis is well underway

I was hoping Trump’s defeat would lead to the death of the Republican Party. Obviously that didn’t happen. It is fair to say that the Republican Party is basically the Trump Party now, so in that sense it is dead. Ronald Reagan, for example, would not recognize the party, although he did much to put it on its present course. Its mission now is to echo whatever Donald Trump says and to remove if possible the few remaining Republicans who dare to criticize him. It’s unstated but obvious mission is to end democracy in the United States leaving only Republicans in charge.

Since Trump’s defeat, the party’s behavior has been truly appalling. They will leave no stone unturned in their quest to regain power, but it must be on their terms. They have tacitly conceded that they cannot win power fairly, so most of their effort is to ensure it is won unfairly.

Many of the prerequisites have been long in place, in particular the extreme right-wing bent of the federal courts. Most of their focus is on voter suppression of those they don’t want to vote. But many states are passing laws that make it impossible for election officials to do their job. Among these is to charge these officials with felonies if they send out an unsolicited absentee voter application or leave an absentee drop box unguarded. Georgia has given the state legislature permission to remove local election officials, or simply to overturn the results of the popular vote for the presidency if they don’t like the outcome. None of these actions are in the democratic spirit, but are signs of desperation for a party for whom losing power fairly is no longer an option.

January 6 should have been the acme of their awfulness. Now it appears to be the first true skirmish of our next civil war, like lobbing the first cannon ball at Fort Sumner. They appear willing to kill democracy to save it for themselves. Basically, it’s a party of traitors. Now the rest of us have to figure out what to do about it.

Legislatively, the answer is H.R. 1, the For the People Act. It would prohibit exactly the sorts of legislative excesses we are now seeing, including gerrymandering and voter suppression. Getting it enacted into law though is a very tough job for Democrats. It currently would need to pass cloture in the Senate, which means it would require sixty votes to end debate on it and bring it to a vote. With a 50/50 Senate, that won’t happen unless Democrats either find the spine to end the filibuster rule or make an exception in this case. Without it, the likelihood is that Republican election law changes in many states will give the party the wins they need to retake the House in 2022.

These other laws tilt the 2024 presidential election in their favor too, even more than it already is. Assuming President Biden runs for reelection, he would need a commanding victory. So far at least with his popularity at 62%, that at least seems plausible. Of course, a lot can happen in the interim, and you can count on Republicans in Congress to do just this. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said his focus is just to obstruct every Biden initiative.

None of this matters if you rig the system. If Republicans regain their House majority, the next January 6 (actually January 8, 2025) won’t require an insurrection for Republicans to get a Republican president regardless of the Electoral College vote. They simply have to stand united and refuse to certify the results, which then allows the House to decide who the next president will be. In this scenario, the representatives of each state cast one vote as a bloc, so if a majority of states have a majority of Republicans representing them in the U.S. House of Representatives, they get to overturn the Electoral College and the popular vote.

As for presidential elections in 2028, 2032 etc., simply repeat. This is clearly where the party is going. They don’t intend to ever lose again and if it kills democracy in the process, so be it.

To change the way a president is selected would require a constitutional amendment. Good luck getting that passed by three-quarters of the states. There is some hope if the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact get passed by enough states, but that has stalled in recent years. Perhaps Democrats should focus their effort there.

In short, this is a four-alarm fire for our democracy. If we weren’t in a constitutional crisis before, clearly we are now. Fixing the problem looks increasingly unlikely.

It’s the end of times! Again!

There are lots of political and sociological theories going around about … well, what’s going around: current events. We are living through a pretty stressful time: covid-19, hyper-partisanship, so-called “fake news”, a climate crisis, a refugee crisis, police brutality against people of color … it all seems to be heaped on top of each other with seemingly no way out.

Okay, there are ways out of all this stuff, but it means persuading people and power brokers to act not in their immediate self-interest and, like the Grinch, let their hearts expand three sizes. Good luck with that.

One theory is that societies go through periods of great turbulence with some regularity and in a few years we’ll achieve some sort of new consensus where something like a new normal can resume. In this theory, President Joe Biden is the antidote to President Ronald Reagan. It was arguably Reagan who popularized “the government is bad” mantra and since that time, well, there’s been a lot of bad coming from government.

Some are hoping that by making government work again, Biden has the Reagan antidote. Except he’s a long way from that and his attempts to break partisanship likely won’t amount to anything. Our democracy feels very fragile at the moment, and there are few signs here in America in particular that we are rising toward our better selves.

Yet, it does seem like we’ve been through this before. Maybe the fever will break around 2030. This will be roughly two millennium since the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Or maybe in 2063, when I expect to be dead, two millennium since the Jewish Diaspora, at least the big one where the Romans retook Palestine, utterly destroyed Jerusalem and those few Jews they did not kill left the area permanently. In any event, reading the Muslim scholar and historian Reza Aslan’s book Zealot, about the lives and times of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s hard to escape that feeling of we’re reliving, at least in spirit, those turbulent days.

I’ve read many books about the historic Jesus of Nazareth, but Zealot fills in some important gaps. For one thing, when Jesus was alive Palestine was rife with messiah wannabees. Crucifixion, as horrible as it is, was pretty routine, at least for anyone that seemed to threaten order. This penalty did not seem to deter these potential messiahs. Indeed, Jesus’s death never made the headlines of the time. Only one reference from the time by Josephus alludes to Jesus, as the brother James. All other references come from the Bible.

Anyhow, the Jews were just one of many natives who fought occupations, and the Romans in 63 A.D. were just the latest. While the Jews were largely wiped out by the Romans (and later, the Nazis) the Jews also practiced genocide. That’s how ancient Israel was founded: not by routing non-Jews from Palestine, but killing the non-Jews living there. This is a matter of settled history and is commanded in the Old Testament. One of the wonders about the new state of Israel created in 1947 is they didn’t kill all the Palestinians living there as the Torah commands. But they killed plenty to again create a state by and for Jews.

It seems we just can’t abide comfortably with people too different from ourselves. These days it’s all seemingly coming to a head. Future shock has arrived and we’re not coping well. It feels something like being crammed into an elevator with too many people.

We refuse to cope with our new and more complex reality; we refuse to believe this is how it’s going to be. For Fox “News” commentator Tucker Carlson, it’s happening through “replacement theory”: we Democrats are supposedly trying to cancel the votes of whites by allowing too many non-whites into the country. Implicit in this theory is the idea that non-whites don’t deserve the same rights as the rest of us. To address their fears, they must do everything possible to marginalize the votes of non-white Americans; hence the many voter suppression laws emerging from the outcome of the 2020 election. Can ethnic cleansing be far behind?

Jesus of Nazareth believed the end of times was near. “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Luke 21:32) He was obviously wrong about that, unless we’ve had a new Methuselah around since he was alive. Similarly, many of today’s Christians believe the end of times is near. It seems they want to hasten it all along so the rapture can commence.

Two thousand years should teach us that no messiah is on its way to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. But by acting like the end of times is near, these people can certainly add to the chaos underway. Why care about the future if the end is near? Why take a covid-19 vaccine if you believe God will protect you from it anyhow, or rapture is imminent? Why use common sense when it’s easier to rely on gut feelings and prejudice? Why place hope in scientists when you don’t like what they are telling you?

Reading Zealot has affected me. It makes me angry that two thousand years after Jesus walked among us we are still mired in the same pointless conflicts and backwards thinking. What hope I can find is that more of us are just giving up religion. For the first time, a poll shows a majority of Americans are now unchurched. It may be in twenty years as this majority grows we will have a majority people who can act logically, rather than rely on a holy book.

If God exists, it works in mysterious ways. I can cite my wife, definitely unchurched but with Buddhist inclinations, as God at work in the real world. If God wants us to be loving, kind and create the Kingdom of God here on earth, she’s on the case by volunteering at a local survival center.

It’s her and others engaging in these largely thankless and necessary tasks of simply keeping people alive despite slim to no odds of solving these systemic problems. Her heart grows with compassion every time she volunteers.

I’m not convinced there’s much of this compassion within evangelical churches, except perhaps for people in their own congregation with that share their skin tone.

Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have done something amazing

The American Rescue Plan, expected to be signed into law shortly is, as Joe Biden would say, “a BFD”.

President Joe is of course too polite to articulate what the acronym means. What it means to me is that government is working for the people again. Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress are finally canceling Ronald Reagan (and, yes, even Bill Clinton) by declaring the government is not the problem. They are demonstrating the opposite: government in fact can be the solution. We literally haven’t seen this to this extent since before Ronald Reagan was president.


We’ve actually seen plenty of government working these last forty years, but it’s been working against the interests of the American people and for the companies that funded the campaigns of those in Congress. It’s no wonder then that Americans soured on government in general. The American Rescue Plan is amazing in that it gives literally nothing to the top one percent. It’s a bill focused on the people who have spent forty years trying to fend off poverty, with many failing at the task. It’s a huge step toward leveling the playing field between the haves and the have nots and boosting the income of working folk, through not only stimulus, but also through child tax credits, health care subsidies even to those making close to six figure income and covering the freight of Medicare for any states willing to allow it. Lose a job with health insurance? You won’t lose the latter and the government will pick up the COBRA premiums until you have a new one.

It’s true that it doesn’t increase the federal minimum wage, but it’s essentially 95% of what Biden proposed and was somehow pushed through a deeply partisan Congress by the slimmest of majorities. While it attracted the support of zero Republicans in Congress, it is supported by nearly sixty percent of Republicans polled. The plan is what the long suffering American people need. It explains why Joe Biden’s approval rating is 59% while Trump struggled to get out of the low forties.

Oh, and it does a lot of obvious covid-19 relief. Testing, contract tracing and vaccine deployment are all covered. There’s money to allow schools to reopen, to allow restaurants and businesses to avoid bankruptcy, and to assist state and local governments whose tax revenues plunged during the recession, making helping people difficult. It keeps a lot of people from being evicted from their homes. It does some actual racial justice, with money going to black farmers. It provides substantial credits to families with children, and delivers these payments monthly, instead of through once-a-year tax credits, credits that will be hard not to make permanent once parents get used to them. It puts a lot more money into people’s pockets, most of who will turn around and quickly spend it. So it’s going to juice the economy like a rocket.

For a change, me and the missus will be spending our stimulus money. There was nothing to spend it on a year ago, but it’s safer to let people into the house now and they know to wear masks. We have a huge unfinished basement and the stimulus should cover painting the floors, ceilings and posts.

Ideally this would not happen with borrowed money, but interest charges on government debt right now are minuscule, making it a great time for the government to run up debt at minimal cost. Ideally while providing the relief that most of us needed for decades, we’d also be tapping the overstuffed kettles of the rich. We could start by repealing the trillion dollar tax cuts passed during the last administration.

But Joe Biden is quite pragmatic and tactical. I can see these ideas are on his mind too, but he’s smart enough to know “not yet.” Making government function again feels novel. In fact, it is novel for most of us because only us oldsters remember a time when government functioned in their interest.

With nearly five decades in public service, Biden knows how to make things happen. It’s true he’s gotten some lucky breaks. Picking up two Georgia Senate seats made this bill possible – thank you Georgia voters! The Trump administration did not deserve to be called an administration. Calling it an administration assumed it was competent. It never was. You can’t say that about Biden’s administration. What he’s doing is tactically smart. Moreover, Biden is focused and tenacious. Just about every day I see something important and tangible getting done. Today, it was getting 100 million new doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine ordered. The current vaccine scarcity is soon not going to be a problem. Biden is systematically and carefully putting the pandemic behind us. He’s making government work.

This should rebound for the Democrats, but you never know. Biden is building a case for pragmatism over partisanship. It may turn into a majority and an enduring coalition. There are many forces though pushing against regular order. So far though Biden and his team seem to be one step ahead of them. He succeeds through intelligence, pragmatism, not getting on soap boxes and mostly by staying focused. It’s quite clear he wakes up every day thinking about what is most important to get done and spends his day on it. He adroitly greases the gears of government. It’s quite amazing to watch.

Quite frankly, Joe Biden has surprised me. He’s proving far more effective than Barack Obama, but a lot of this is due to a more favorable set of political cards. But it’s also because Biden plays a deft game of musical chairs and it seems forces allied against him just can’t keep up. He may be an old dog, but he’s got lots of tricks. He’s quite impressive. I keep expecting the other shoe to fall, but so far it hasn’t.

Joe Biden hasn’t forgotten his working class origins. His public school education, including his public university degree, are proving to be of much more use than any Ivy League degree. Joe is a man of practical action and much slicker than Bill Clinton ever was. You just don’t notice it behind his generous, every day man smile.

Keep me smiling, Joe. You’re surprising the heck out of me.

Just our Joe

Joe Biden’s presidency so far is such a contrast from Trump’s. While it should be no surprise, what is a surprise is just how well Joe Biden is filling the role of president. I am starting to see him as the president I always wanted but never quite got. He may well turn out to be a better president than the one he served: Barack Obama.

Biden’s effectiveness may be due to some good fortune. Democrats control Congress, albeit narrowly. We picked up both Georgia Senate seats — quite a surprise for a state that is just turning purple — plus Georgia voters elected both a Black man and a Jew! Barack Obama theoretically had a super majority in the Senate when he took office in 2009. It takes 60 votes to overturn a filibuster. But Al Franken didn’t take office until the summer, as his race was tied up in endless lawsuits. Also, Joe Liebermann was technically an independent as was as likely to vote as a Republican than a Democrat.

Back then there were lots of Blue Dog Democrats in the Senate that made sensible things like Medicare for All impossible despite a supermajority. Today, with a 50-50 senate and Vice President Harris breaking ties, arguably the Senate is more left than it was then, and it’s easier to get things passed. The Democrat’s most conservative member, Joe Manchin (WV) is arguably more to the left than any of the Blue Dog Democrats in 2009. Also, the filibuster has been gravely injured since 2009. There doesn’t appear to be a Democrat in the Senate willing to vote against a covid-19 bill at the price President Biden is asking for: $1.9T or unwilling to use the reconciliation process to do so, which allows spending bills to pass with a simple majority. In the House, Democrats are similarly united, at least so far.

Biden also remembered lessons from 2009 when he was tasked on a rescue bill. Then they went small mostly because they had to, though it muted the recovery and led to a Tea Party upset in the 2010 elections. This time they are going big because they can and because Biden remembered what happened to the party when they didn’t. Polling shows the American people are solidly behind him, with about seventy percent approving of his covid-19 bill. One poll has Joe Biden’s approval rating at 61%, a number that should make Obama jealous. The bill contains just the stuff we really need: stimulus, rent relief, unemployment compensation and money to get inoculations and testing going quickly.

Government is beginning to work again. This is because Biden is not doing stupid stuff, but instead is executing a well thought out plan. He’s got his ducks in a row before taking office and he’s moving forward with all deliberate speed. Unlike Trump, he feels no need to grandstand. He’s happy to delegate work and let others share the credit. We haven’t had a president since Jimmy Carter with his natural sense of modesty. It remains to be seen if Biden can avoid Carter’s mistakes.

Biden promised a cabinet that would look like America, and he more than succeeded. Aside from a Black/Asian vice president, he’s got four women in his official cabinet, one Native American (as Secretary of the Interior!) and three Blacks, including a Black defense secretary. And that doesn’t include the unofficial (non-departmental) appointments which even includes a transgender person. His administration is far more diverse than Obama’s, who seemed more comfortable with largely white males running things. He is systematically empowering women and minorities to key positions across his administration. By golly, his administration does reflect a changing America, and these people will be able to exercise the levers of power, as well as serve a president who doesn’t require that they continually grovel to him.

Biden sees clearly what our real problems are and is moving forward quickly to address them, including climate change. He’s doing his darndest to make government work for people instead of the elite. And he’s back to running a sane foreign policy, which won’t include needlessly stoking conflict with Iran.

Moreover, Biden is a decent guy. He’s more relatable as someone to have a beer with than Barack Obama. He’s a man of true faith, a genuine Christian who usually attends mass weekly, prays daily and keeps a set of rosary beads in his pocket. He doesn’t denigrate anyone and is enthusiastically inclusive toward everyone. Even his barbs against Republicans are relatively few and mild.

How can you hate such a person? You have to gin up fake animosity in order to do so.

Biden reminds me a lot of my father, who died five years ago. My father never was interested in running for public office but like Biden he was one of the few people who called themselves Christian that I felt warranted the label. My father never spoke ill of anyone that I can recall, and was genuinely nice and sincere with everyone. Both he and Biden were just fundamentally nice and decent people. Both are/were grandfathers, and both have/had a natural ability to relate to children as human beings. Biden brings fifty years of public service to his presidency, and unlike many politicians he paid attentions to his mistakes so he could learn from them.

So, while I wanted Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to be president, I’m not sure they would be as effective at the job as Joe Biden. Biden is a wonderful role model, and an entirely decent man and human being and showing himself to be an unusually competent president.

We’ll see how it goes. Grandfatherly Joe Biden may surprise us and end up as one of our most effective, decent and wholly admirable presidents. So far, it’s looking like he’ll be the best of those I’ve lived through. If so, he is the right person at the right time.

Running down the QAnon rabbit holes

It sucks to be a QAnon believer right now. Their god, Donald J. Trump, let them down. No message went out the day before Inauguration over the Emergency Broadcast System that their Lord and Savior was going to rescue the country from the peril of democracy and that the army was imposing martial law. Somehow, Joe Biden’s inauguration went off without a hitch. In fact, he was sworn in about ten minutes before he was legally the President of the United States. After four years of chaos, Biden seems to be aggressively focused on working for the American people instead raging, golfing and tweeting all day.

A less biased QAnon devotee might simply decide it was all BS, and at least a few of them seem to have sobered up. For most of course what didn’t happen requires recontextualizing and reinterpretation. So that’s mostly what’s going on in QAnon world at the moment. Some have figured out that Trump was never their savior, but that doesn’t mean someone else isn’t waiting in the wings. Maybe it’s Joe Biden.

Others are suffering from a guilt complex. They didn’t try hard enough on January 6 and that’s why it failed. Here’s one way it probably wouldn’t have failed: had Trump actually marched to the Capitol with them (admittedly, it would probably have severely taxed him as he reportedly only took elevators in the White House), perhaps leading the pack, pushing his way through the doors of the Capitol. Imagine how the Capitol Police would have reacted to that? Do they shoot the president? It would be a Storming of the Bastille, just in reverse. That probably would have been the end of our democracy.

But that would have been scary, and Trump is basically a coward. So instead, Trump went inside the White House to watch it on TV and criticize the insurrectionists he urged on for looking low class. And QAnon-ers and other conspiracy minded folk were forced to try to figure out what went wrong. Now Trump is officially an ex-president, stands some low but measurable probability of actually being convicted of impeachment this time, and still hasn’t found a Twitter alternative. No one knows what he’s doing at Mar-a-Lago, and most of us don’t care. It’s a good bet he’s mostly golfing, ranting at staff and drinking Diet Cokes.

For the moment, the whole QAnon movement looks rudderless,, not that there was ever anyone really in charge. Q him(her?)self was always cryptic. Like Batman, he couldn’t give away his secret identity. My theory of the moment is that it was Sheldon Adelson. Like Batman, he has plenty of money and wasn’t afraid to spend it. It’s just that Adelson has been declining for years, like Q, and is now unfortunately deceased.

Or just as likely Q is some troll from the liberal left having some fun. If so, he likely had a drinking problem, as his posts got less frequent and even less coherent with time. Maybe he is the guy that invented BitCoin. At least he knew how to obscure his identity. Or maybe it’s Julian Assange. It was likely someone who knew a thing or two about technology, as it takes a lot of tech smarts to evade detection all this time. Lately though according to reports it seems like Q has gone missing in action, or nearly so.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Q certainly did stir up a crowd, and knew what buttons to press to get his followers riled up. There were probably hundreds of other Qs out there trying something similar, but his was the one to get some traction.

It’s not a hard sell to make. There is always a crowd ready to believe in conspiracy theories, particularly here in the United States. You just don’t expect though that two QAnon supporters would actually get elected to Congress in the last election: Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA) and Laura Boebert (CO). Reportedly, Boebert was giving insurrectionists an inside tour of the Capitol the day before the coup attempt. Followers of Q can develop their own Internet entourage if they can play this crowd. I could be susceptible too, if I started getting thousands of reads and likes per day. Perhaps I could if I could whip up just the right conspiracy meme.

Q though seems to have spawned a lot of hate groups and a lot of organizing on various platforms, most of which are now shutdown. So, Q does seem to be something of a force. President Biden though won’t turn up as Q, as he’s too nice a guy not to mention a technology lightweight. But unlike Trump he’s smart enough to recognize a real national security threat when he sees it. Expect that white nationalist domestic terrorism to be the principle national security threat that he concentrates on during his term. This stuff is wacky and weird, but it’s obviously dangerous enough, as January 6 proved.

Luckily for the FBI, there are plenty of rabbit holes to investigate.