Posts Tagged ‘Republicans’

The Thinker

The perfect storm

In case you hadn’t noticed, Donald Trump suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, a side effect of his Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I’d say give the man some Ritalin but in many ways his ADD simply helps speed up his unraveling. The more I watch the man, the more convinced I am that he subconsciously wants to fail. He’s in way over his head. He can’t acknowledge it to himself so he spends a lot of time doing stupid stuff.

Stupid stuff like spending Easter tweeting that there will be no DACA deal and he’s going to blow up NAFTA if he doesn’t get his border wall. This is likely to blow over rather than blow up because when you have ADD by definition you have a short attention span. So it’s likely a week from now he’ll have totally forgotten he tweeted this stuff. In any event, if you are hearing a chorus of “ho hums” coming from Capitol Hill, it’s because they’ve seen stuff like this so many times that it’s becoming rote. Even the press is starting to move these presidential tweets below the fold. Hopefully they’ll move to page A10 pretty soon.

It’s obvious Trump is not a politician, which is presumably what his supporters like about him. When he tries to schmooze it comes across as wholly inauthentic. In any case, politicians quickly learn if you want to get stuff done you have to do a lot of schmoozing. That’s because power in the government is decentralized and not even Trump can change that, although he is trying. For now at least if he wants to get something major done, it has to be done through Congress, not executive actions.

It’s likely when you were growing up if your parents scolded you it did not enamor you toward them. It works the same way in Congress, which is why so little of Trump’s agenda has gotten passed despite having a Republican congress. In some ways Congress is digging in their heels. They’ve pretty much blocked Trump’s outreach to Russia and passed veto-proof legislation to tighten Russian sanctions. Congress has trumped Trump, and even Trump has seen the writing on the wall by expelling sixty Russian diplomats who were likely spies.

Trump obviously didn’t read the FY18 spending bill even though congressional leaders met with him to get his agreement on it before moving it through Congress. When it was sent for his signature he rebelled then reluctantly gave in. The legislation funds election system reforms, targets Russian hacking of our elections and hits many of the items on the Democratic Party’s wish list, such as major increases in funds for domestic programs. The CDC is allowed to research the effects of guns on public health again. Who would have thought with Republicans supposedly controlling government?

In any event, if Trump actually makes a stand on his border wall, the proper thing to do is to stand up to him. That’s what you do with bullies and arguably Congress is doing a pretty good job of it already. Granted, there are some exceptions. The Republican congress finds it in their interest to give the White House a pass on its general corruption. Mostly the Congressional leadership is well aware of his ADD and uses strategies like the spending bill to work around him.

Trump can renegotiate NAFTA and take many actions, but he can’t cancel it. His leverage on DACA is mainly of his own choosing. It won’t take for too many DACA recipients to actually be deported before he learns how counterproductive it will be. And these measures certainly won’t spur Congress to build a border wall, or convince Mexico to pay for it, mainly because he can’t really block these imports from Mexico by himself. He has to convince Congress to change the law. As long as he is yelling at Congress, it ain’t happening.

All this is leading toward the midterms on November 6, which is likely to return Democrats to the majority in Congress. It will still be a tough hurdle for Democrats, given the extreme gerrymandering nationwide and further voter suppression efforts. But Trump is doing pretty much everything possible to empower Democrats back into the majority. Just today I read that China is imposing its own tariffs against selective U.S. imports in response to recent U.S. tariffs that Trump authorized. This dropped the DJIA some 450 more points, putting all stock indexes in the negatives for the year. We are a hare’s breath away from correction territory. The downturn is almost exclusively due to the tariffs Trump has put in place, which will have the obvious result of restraining trade and thus reducing economic growth. These Chinese tariffs are specifically chosen to hurt his base of support. European and other countries are starting to do likewise. Not much can convince Republicans to vote for Democrats, but policies that hit them in their own pocketbook can bleed off a number of wavering supporters.

Underlying all this chaos is the epic turnover among White House staff. Trump can’t even find a new lawyer, as his brand has become toxic. Administration is missing from the so-called Trump administration. What his bullying has caused is an epic reaction, causing people to appreciate democracy and sound governance. It is spurring people (mostly women) to run for office. By some estimates, the recent March for our Lives was the biggest march ever in Washington. Trump has engaged young people in particular against him. This hastens not just his disempowerment, but also the end of Republican governance.

Leading perhaps to the perfect storm on November 6. With no sign that Trump will change tactics and every indication that he will double-double down, it’s not too hard a prediction to make.

 
The Thinker

Looking past the midterms

Sometimes I think Trump wants to lose. Granted, Trump has made a career of losing. To the extent he has made money it is mostly from branding. Branding has some real advantages: mainly, you rake in fees (usually recurring fees) and someone else inherits the risk. This is true of many of Trump’s properties.

The shine is off the Trump brand as his presidency implodes. The owners of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Panama City want to kick out the Trump organization and take his name off their tower. It’s proving an uphill struggle but they have plenty of reason to persevere. With only about a third of the building occupied, the owners are losing money, bigly. Few love Trump anymore and pretty much everyone realizes now that his brand is more bronze than gold.

Trump finds new ways to turn off voters every day, and there are still eight months until the midterms. There used to be a daily scandal. These days you get a half -dozen new scandals a day. Trump is in meltdown according to his own staff, most of which have left him. It’s now literally impossible for me to focus on any one particular scandal. However bad it is now, it’s likely just to worsen day by day, leading toward a cacophonous crescendo on November 6 when voters finally get to weigh in on the Trump presidency. It’s not going to be pretty for Trump and Republicans.

How bad is it? It’s so bad that finally Republicans are starting to pull away from Trump. Just in the last couple of days he decided he didn’t believe in due process (most likely because he had no idea what it is), he pissed off the NRA and he is starting a trade war he is destined to lose. If he doesn’t back off on a trade war it will continue to sink stock markets, raise prices (possibly reintroducing inflation) and dramatically increase the risk of recession. If there is anything dearer to Republicans than staying in power, it is probably the value of their stock portfolios. They are realizing that Trump is becoming a toxic asset in their portfolio.

It’s unclear when Republicans will finally decide that they are better off without him. If they don’t get the message before the election due to all the scandals, I do expect them to get it after the midterms. There’s a Democratic tsunami approaching.

To begin with, Democrats will retake the House, which likely means a replay of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. One of the first orders of business will be for Democrats to open real inquiries into the tsunami of Trump scandals, which can only lead to Trump’s impeachment in the House. I put the odds of Democrats retaking the Senate at now better than 50/50, probably 60/40 and likely to grow. It would take 67 senators to throw Trump out of office.

Regardless there will be a huge amount of Republican hand wringing after the midterms. Republicans will have to ask themselves how they can survive as a party. As for going back to the racist Tea Party rhetoric: that trick was played in 2010. It’s not enough anymore to win elections. Millennial voters are going to come out in huge numbers to prove they can’t play this trick again. They will be Democrats for the foreseeable future and they are unlikely to lose their political engagement. As for Republicans, demographics alone means they will be a dying party unless they somehow rebrand toward the middle.

It’s unclear whom Republicans can attract to their smaller government message since they’ve made such a mess with it. Which means that the party will either go down (possibly splitting into two or more parties) or like a sailing ship after a hurricane, what remains of the party will realize it’s time to throw the fallen masts into the sea and stand up a jury rig. Republican senators will have a hard time not voting to convict Trump in his Senate trial when it’s in their own interest. What’s in their interest? Not only maintaining what will be left of their federal power, but also in retaining what power they can in statehouses. The parties that control statehouses draw district-voting boundaries after the 2020 census. What’s the probability of that if Trump somehow hangs on and tries to win reelection in 2020?

There are plenty of tealeaves for easy reading. Just this week alone Democrats picked up two state seats in special elections, one in Connecticut and one in New Hampshire. Since the 2016 election, Democrats have flipped 39 seats in both state and U.S. house special elections, not to mention the Alabama senate seat. The main reason they are winning is because Democrats are coming out to vote in droves. Their enthusiasm will only continue to grow between now and November. Come November 6, the pressure will be explosive. Trump has succeeded in keeping the focus on himself, which feeds the outrage of those who hate him. So they will be out in multitudes. Most likely Republicans will be demoralized and sit it out. Trump is likely to give them plenty of reasons to stay demoralized too.

As bad as things are for Trump now, when he has effective opposition in Congress he’s going to truly feel the heat for the first time. He will probably be looking for exit strategies. It may even come before the midterms. For example, if Special Counsel Mueller has sufficient incriminating evidence against Trump, Trump’s lawyer might make a plea deal with Mueller: Trump would agree to resign if Mueller does not recommend any criminal prosecution of Trump in his report. Trump may already be getting the message. He may be looking for scapegoats for his impending resignation. He just needs the thinnest façade to sell his supporters. It will likely be some variation of “deep state”, “fake news”, “witch hunt” and “they are all out to get me.”

Curiously, the best case for Republicans in the midterms would be if Trump resigned sooner rather than later. This might move the issues in the midterm from Trump and onto other issues. Most likely though Trump’s bloated ego won’t allow it, so this denouement is much more likely after the midterms than before it. But if it happens, well, perhaps you read it first here on Occam’s Razor.

 
The Thinker

Much worse than Watergate

Our Chinese curse of living in interesting times continues. These days are truly extraordinary, although it may be hard for many Americans to see it. Our republic hangs in the balance on what happens over the next days, weeks and months.

It’s easy even for me to get caught up in the political drama of the moment, most recently the #ReleasetheMemo controversy. What’s harder to see is the big picture and how our republic is becoming increasingly tenuous. We are moving quickly toward an authoritarian state.

The #ReleasetheMemo controversy, with the said memo now officially released, allowed Republicans and Trump to release highly classified information to make the most tenuous possible case that the FBI and Justice Department is out to get Donald Trump. (A curious case to make since it is a department full of Republicans and has always had Republican FBI directors.) Releasing this memo also exposes sensitive intelligence sources and methods, which the Justice Department has said may result in people getting killed. You would think that this would give those approving this memo some pause, but not at all. Trump broadcast his approval of the memo even before even reading it. It’s not clear he actually has read it, as he has zero attention span.

How crazy is this conspiracy theory? Let Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press explain it:

Why Trump would do this is obvious: he’s trying to escape justice. It is now abundantly clear that minimally he and many on his team have obstructed justice. It’s also abundantly clear that Russia has the goods on him. Trump admitted as much after he fired former FBI director James Comey: he said it took the Russian heat off him. He wants to make this whole “Russian thing” go away.

The memo gives him the pretext to remove Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein oversees the Mueller investigation. Mueller’s report will never see the light of day if Rosenstein is gone and Trump’s own lackey is in charge. So I expect Rosenstein will soon be fired. Mueller doesn’t have to be fired, but Trump will probably require his replacement to fire him anyhow. Trump will not allow himself to be held accountable for his actions. He never has and never will. Escaping justice is all he cares about.

A side effect though would be to make the Justice Department partisan and for it to lose its independence. Think about what this means. The Justice Department and the FBI in particular are our primary means of enforcing the law of the land. If they didn’t do this, you don’t have justice. At best you get very selective justice.

And Congress, at least almost all Republicans in Congress, are all for this. That was the whole point of #ReleasetheMemo. Congress is supposed to execute oversight of the Executive Branch. What we got now is just the opposite: Congress is aiding and abetting the White House and abdicating its role in oversight, in particular its oversight in making sure the Justice Department operates impartially.

So for the first time ever both Congress and the Administration don’t want the Justice Department to actually impartially administer justice. I was about fifteen when Watergate broke, and this didn’t happen during Watergate. It’s true that Democrats controlled Congress, but once Republicans realized the scope of Watergate they worked with Democrats to hold Nixon accountable. Now it is just the opposite.

This should not be surprising. Republicans are just following through on a long-executed playbook. Their goal is to end democracy and our republican government. In 2016 we not only elected Trump, but we also disenfranchised millions of voters. If these voters could have voted most likely would have kept Trump out of office. Republicans worked overtime to reduce the share of minorities and poor people who were allowed to vote. They aggressively purged voter roles.

Of course it’s not just limiting voting that Republicans worked at, but also at populating the judiciary with conservative judges, “strict constructionists”. So we pretty much have one party control now: Republicans control Congress, the White House and effectively the Judiciary, at least the Supreme Court. In Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down much of the Voting Rights Act, we watched conservative justices aid and abet the process of disenfranchising voters. One of Trump and Congress’s major tasks has been to put more conservatives in the judiciary by filling openings denied to Barack Obama during his presidency.

When you have a Justice Department that won’t administer justice; when you have a White House actively trying to keep the Justice Department from administering justice and setting it up so that it can’t do so in the future; when you have a Congress aiding and abetting by blocking the administration of justice; and when you have a court system that increasingly won’t uphold justice uniformly, you have a complete perversion of our form of government.

You have in effect removed the checks and balances from our system of government. We end up with a republican form of government in name only. Moreover, we set the conditions for authoritarian government instead.

That’s what we are up against at the moment. In the past I had faith in the American people to rectify the problem, which hopefully they will do in this year’s midterms. But our voting system is badly frayed due to gerrymandering and voter suppression. Depending how the Supreme Court rules in two gerrymandering cases it is considering this year, it could make our voting system even more disenfranchising. And we are also deeply polarized voting for our tribe rather than in the best interest of the country.

It’s abundantly clear that Republicans only want the “right” person to vote, which largely means only “white” people. We have a president who is openly racist. We have a Republican Congress that is pretty much the same way. The #ReleasetheMemo controversy shows just how far extreme Republicans will go on this issue. They will put party before country, not just a little bit but by taking a mile instead of an inch. There is no bridge too far for them as long as they can hold on to power. Democracy and republican government don’t mean anything to them. They are not patriots.

All this is going on right under our noses but it is hard for many of us to see the full scale of the wreckage they are unleashing. True patriots will of course protest and work hard to change this. Republicans though have gotten so skilled at manipulating the system to favor only them that it’s unclear if anything short of a new revolution can actually restore democracy. Arguably, we don’t have it anymore.

 
The Thinker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

Raise our taxes!

Merry Christmas everyone! And it’s a merry one here as we had actual snow for Christmas, about five inches locally. So yes, we have a white Christmas, which was a rarity but now that I live in New England maybe not so much. It still seems kind of magical.

Can it be a downer to get money for Christmas? We don’t collect on this money for a while, but as part of my 2018 planning I have been trying to figure out our budget. Trump promised Americans a big fat tax cut for Christmas. Now that this tax bill has become law, I decided I needed to crunch the numbers. The bill is still being digested but based on one online calculator I figure that our federal taxes will be $3352 less than what it would be had Congress not passed the law.

And yet it is a downer. It is true that I could take that $3352 and write a check to the U.S. Treasury and they would be happy to take the extra money. If I did this I would be in the top .01% … of taxpayers who actually send money to the U.S. Treasury in excess of what they owe. (Hmm, maybe not, considering how many undocumented send in payroll taxes from which they will never derive any benefits.) Unfortunately, it wouldn’t patch the nation’s roof.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about spending tax money to fix what’s desperately in need of repair. We could start with our crumbling infrastructure, something even Republicans in the age of so-called “fake news” cannot deny. Where I live they recently closed yet another bridge over the Mill River because it was too dangerous to actually use. Another one across the Connecticut River went down to one lane for more than a year while it was slowly repaired. With the tax bill now law Trump wants to make a “deal” with Democrats to spend on infrastructure. We know two things about this: it will be paid for with borrowed money if it happens at all and it will go to enrich Trump’s friends, if not Trump himself. So as desperate as the need is, maybe Democrats should take a pass for now.

Our lack of political will has resulted in crazy solutions. In Northern Virginia where we used to live the solution to the traffic problems is not quite to actually solve it, but to add HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes to the capital beltway and other places. Those with the money can escape a lot of the crushing traffic. Since the pricing is usually dynamic, it depends on supply and demand. Recently I-66 between the beltway and D.C. was opened for HOT traffic. It got so crazy that recently a one-way toll reached $44 dollars. That works out to more than $4 a mile.

Even in the rich D.C. suburbs, that’s a lot of dough. In most cases these HOT lanes don’t feed the government’s coffers. Instead, they go to private companies given very long-term leases to construct these extra lanes. So they may make traffic flow for those who few that can afford it. But they don’t really solve the problem of crumbling highways and bridges elsewhere.

Needless to say, the Trump Administration’s infrastructure “solution” involves a lot of what they are doing in Northern Virginia. In short, driving is becoming a privilege for the wealthy. As for the rest of us, we don’t get to eat cake: we get to sit in more traffic and get stuck in more potholes.

I really don’t think the United States qualifies as a first world country anymore. Perhaps I can say it’s true about certain things we elect to fund adequately, which is basically only the military. We’re the best at waging high tech wars and blowing stuff up. It’s pretty much all the other stuff that we won’t pay the freight on. I recently finished teaching another dispiriting class at a local community college. My students were incurious, clearly didn’t study and usually didn’t seek me out when they were having problems. Granted that these are students who probably got by with C’s in high school, but it’s clear we have huge problems with our educational system. The general problem though is we won’t make the investment required for education. We pay teachers scandalously low wages while overworking them. And now teachers can’t even claim a deduction for school supplies. Yep, that’s part of the $3352 extra we expect from the tax bill: basically we’ve taking money out of the pockets of teachers!

I wish the federal government operated a lot more like New England towns. Here towns practice real democracy. Across the river in Hadley, Massachusetts there were a number of town meetings to debate issues like construction of a new senior center and a new fire engine purchase. Basically the issues are publicly debated and if you show up you can vote. These tax overrides are not trivial. It means citizens pay extra property taxes. Both issues though won.

Not in our current Congress. The tax bill’s process was just shameful. There were at best cursory hearings. Leadership behind closed doors wrote most of the bill. There was no attempt to even consider ideas from Democrats. It was narrowly tailored to technically qualify under Senate budget reconciliation rules, which required only 51 votes. Hand written amendments were inserted into the bill from lobbyists sitting outside the Senate chambers. It was the complete opposite of a New England town meeting. The process could not have been any more opaque, less democratic, or less republican either for that matter.

Republicans are hoping that taxpayers will be bought off by temporary tax cuts in the bill. Our share looks to be $3352. In reality, it buys us nothing. However, it makes the debt worse, makes our infrastructure worse and gives money to those who need it least. And we are on that list. For goodness sakes, we’re retirees with a very comfortable income! $3352 a year means nothing to my standard of living. We can’t give it to our employees as bonuses; we don’t any of them. It’s not enough money to coax us to buy a private jet or even a fancy car. The truth is there is really nothing more for us to buy that we want or crave. We have a paid off house, two cars, free electricity from solar panels and good pension plus plenty of savings and investments. We take a couple of really nice vacations every year too.

If we can afford to contribute more, certainly those that make more money that we do can too, and they likely wouldn’t notice it either. And it’s not like there aren’t lots of things that would make productive use of our tax money.

But it only works if it is done nationally. The .01% of us who might give extra to the U.S. Treasury can’t fix this problem. It must be done nationally and it really can only be done if richer people give proportionately more, and the even richer people give even more. And the truth is they won’t notice the extra taxes either. And that’s because (a) they’re rich (duh!) and (b) the rich don’t trickle down anything of consequence. Trickle down is a lie. Putting money into things like a crumbling infrastructure, education and allowing poor people to just get buy though buys a whole lot and improves everyone’s lots.

Raise our taxes!

 
The Thinker

Boy, Republicans passed one really nasty tax bill!

I mentioned recently about the audaciousness of the new tax bill expected to become law soon. Some years back I also mentioned that Republicans are basically sadists. This newest version of the bill that passed Congress this week proves Republicans have doubled down on both their bill’s audacity and its egregious sadism. I really hope they don’t believe their own rhetoric that this will actually grow the economy and make the middle class prosperous, since all previous attempts have proven trickle down simply doesn’t work. So I prefer to believe they are simply mendacious.

Apparently the House-Senate conferees decided to go through the bill and look for ways to make their tax bill even more in their favor and to screw the working classes even more. Now there are new tax break for real estate investors. It’s hard to believe Trump and his cronies didn’t phone this one in, not that Trump was not going to profit handsomely even before the addition of these provisions.

This bill has all the hallmarks of legalized bribery. Basically it’s a scheme to foist $1.5T in new debt on the American taxpayer and redirect the vast majority of this debt directly into their pockets. It’s like going to the Federal Reserve, taking $1.5T out of their vaults and doling out $1.4T of it to rich people and corporations over the next ten years.

Ah, but not for us little people. They have dangled some candy in front of us, but those who taste it are going to discover its initial sweet state will soon turn bitter. Consider:

  • You may pay a few hundred dollars less in taxes per year over the next ten years. But by getting rid of the individual mandate, the rising cost of health insurance premiums are going to quickly negate any of this extra money. After all, it’s not how much you are taxed; it’s how much you keep. Those who figure they can’t afford health insurance will opt out now that the penalty for not having insurance has gone away. These are illusory savings. Medical debt is likely to wipe out any savings they accrue by dropping health insurance. As for the rest of us with health insurance our costs will go up and up until we too decide we can’t afford it either, leading to ever-higher levels of working class impoverishment. This makes a lot of sense though if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • As a Disney heiress points out because of “pass through” provisions in the bill her income (none of it earned) will be taxed at a rate lower than most you saps who must work for a living. This is not entirely new. Those living off of capital gains and dividends have been tax-advantaged over those most of us who earn wages for a long time while doing nothing to earn it other than occasionally discussing their portfolios with their financial adviser. This just widens the hole. Remember how Trump was going to drain the swamp? He’s making it deeper. However, this makes a lot of sense though if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • Remember that Alternative Minimum Tax that made sure that many of these loopholes for the rich were mitigated by requiring them to pay at least some reasonable tax? It’s gone. Oh, and fewer wealthy people will have to bother their executors with the duty of paying estate taxes. The estate tax limit has been doubled meaning more money will go to their kids who earned none of it. Leona Helmsley once famously said only the little people pay taxes. Republicans are proving her right. This makes a lot of sense though if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • Why do Republicans hate charities? The charitable deduction is effectively gone for most of us, because they have doubled the standard deduction. This dries up any incentive other than pure kindness and a philanthropic nature for anyone but the richest to give any money to charity. If I had to guess we’ll see a lot more money going to Koch-funded charities and a lot less to the American Red Cross. It’s a likely red alert for charities across the country, who can almost certainly count on fewer donations in 2018 and basically forever. But this makes a lot of sense if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • Republicans don’t like blue states. How dare they vote for people they don’t like! Now to add insult to injury by capping deductions for property taxes they are effectively screwing the bluest of the blue states. States where property values are high (predominantly blue states) charge the most in property taxes. Since most states base state income taxes on the adjusted gross income on your federal return, this effectively cuts revenue for these states, which means fewer state services like money to public schools, police and food stamps. Blue states already send more federal revenue to red states than they receive. This actually makes it worse, and makes it permanent. This makes a lot of sense thought if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • Who doesn’t like teachers? Republicans don’t, perhaps because they suspect them of teaching subversive liberal ideology. Anyhow, our teachers who are already vastly overworked and vastly underpaid while serving an incredibly vital role in our nation’s future prosperity and going to be screwed some more. The expenses they paid out of their own pocked for school supplies for their own students that their own school districts were too chintzy to pay are no longer deductible. Apparently, Republicans loathe teachers and look forward to future generations of even stupider Americans. This makes a lot of sense thought if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • Apparently Republicans also hate people with business expenses. It used to be that you could deduct these expenses in excess of 2% of your AGI. That deduction is gone with the wind too. So if your employer does not reimburse your business expenses, essentially Republicans in Congress have reduced your salary. This makes a lot of sense thought if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.

There are also indirect ways the bill will further screw over the rest of us. Republicans are already making noises about how the $1.5T deficit that’s part of their tax reform means we need more austerity because … omigosh, the deficit’s so high! They obviously won’t repeal their tax cuts or defense spending so they are talking about “entitlement reform” instead. First out the gate will be automatic cuts to Medicare that will start in 2019. These would start on January 1, 2018 but Trump will wait until January 1 to sign the bill so these cuts start in 2019, conveniently after the midterms. Update: reports are that Trump signed the bill today so presumably that means Medicare cuts would begin in 2018, not 2019.

Thankfully, Americans aren’t nearly as stupid as Republicans think that we are. This is borne out by polls that show the law is deeply unpopular, in spite of the fact that most people will initially pay fewer federal taxes. It’s the most unpopular bill polled in the last forty year.

They will get their comeuppance next November 6.

 
The Thinker

Fiddling while the USA burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

Election 2017 postmortem

A year ago I remember the feeling of being punched in the gut by Trump’s election. What the hell had happened? The country that voted for Donald Trump did not resemble the country I knew, but I didn’t spend much time hanging out in red states. One takeaway was that blue-collar people gave America their middle finger by voting for Trump. It was a way of saying, “Pay attention to us!” Trump rode that anger into the White House, despite losing the popular vote.

It’s been a year of shock, upset stomachs and queasiness for the rest of us. It so affected my wife that she flew to Aruba to avoid all the hoopla around Trump’s inauguration. It’s also been a year of resistance and spine stiffening as Democrats and progressives resisted the Trump and Republican agenda against incredible headwinds. Yesterday’s off-year election, small as it was in scope, provided the relief we needed a year ago. Many of us are suddenly feeling like there may be a way to regain our mental health again. At least my wife has no plans to fly to Aruba next January.

The bellwether was Virginia, which elected a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general along with the entire House of Delegates. The results were stunning by any measure. Democrats swept all three spots with Democrat Northam swamping Republican Gillespie by over 8 points. In a legislature gerrymandered to ensure pretty much any Republican can win, a 66R-34D legislature currently stands at 48D-47R with five races too close to call. If the preliminary results stand, the Virginia House will split 50R-50D with Democratic Lieutenant Governor Elect Justin Fairfax (an African American) presumably casting the tie vote.

A couple of races though were emblematic of the change; but none more so than VA-13 near Manassas, which happens to be where my daughter lives. Danica Roem, Virginia’s first openly transgender candidate, trounced longtime delegate Bob Marshall 54.4% to 45.6%. To put it bluntly, Marshall was the biggest asshole in the Virginia House. His views were wacky in the extreme, including most recently a bill (which fortunately died in committee) that would have required women like Roem to use public bathrooms that aligned with the gender on their birth certificate. (Roem would have had to use the men’s room.) This race was emblematic of the change in the state. Democrats simply crushed Republicans. First time women candidates did exceptionally well.

Ironically, Democrats have mostly Trump to thank. Democrats swept most competitive offices that were on the ballot last night and many that were thought to be noncompetitive. I can’t think of a single prominent Democrat who believed Democrats might win back the Virginia House. This morning, Democrats are on the cusp of this achievement. This would be their biggest pickup in an election since 1899. Trump turned out to be a huge motivator for Democrats, causing them to turn out at a rate of 10% higher than Republicans. In short, Democrats showed up for a change. They did more than show up. They showed up in droves. This too is a rare event for Democratic voters, notoriously fickle as a party, inclined toward apathy and more comfortable at home watching Netflix than in the voting booth. Disgust with Trump and his agenda though brought them out.

Democrats did well practically everywhere. They took back the governorship and lieutenant governorship in New Jersey, doubtlessly propelled by Chris Christie’s miserable 14% approval rate. However New Jersey was largely returning to form. Virginia has been a swing state. With this election it’s quite clear that it will swing less and should move toward being a solid blue state.

Virginia could be an outlier but it’s probably not. With Trump’s approval hanging in the mid 30s, he is toxic. Trying to emulate his strategy, as Ed Gillespie tried to do, proved toxic to Gillespie and other Republicans. While it might have appealed to Trump’s base and helped Gillespie’s turnout, it inflamed the Democratic base more.

Republicans have a big problem and his name is Donald J. Trump. They can no longer assume that political gerrymandering will render sufficient numbers of safe seats so they can keep their majorities in Congress. If Democrats can make the Virginia model national, they will easily sweep the House in 2018 and might pickup the Senate as well.

In any event, Democrats period of long frustration and inertia is over. The tide has turned. Trump being Trump, he won’t learn anything from this election and will double down on a failed strategy. So there is no reason for Democrats not to turn out again en masse in November 2018.

 
The Thinker

The oligarchy in charge

Based on polls, only 25% of Americans want Congress to enact the Republicans’ tax “reform” plan. A look at the proposed plan (which will likely change substantially before getting a vote) makes it easy to see why: despite all the hoopla, there is nothing in it for most of us, since most of us are not wealthy.

If you are wealthy, well, it looks pretty good. Less than 1% of us will owe an estate tax when we pass on, but Republicans want to get rid of that altogether. By creating fewer tax brackets, more of us will pay at the 25% tax rate meaning the 28% tax rate goes away. So if you make over $156K, you will pay less tax than you did before, but probably not if you make less than this. To be taxed at the 35% level you would have to make more than $260K, which means the 33% rate disappears for those whose income is between $156K and $238K, effectively a tax cut for them. As for that top tax rate of 39.6% which applies now if you make over $480K, if this bill becomes law, you will have to earn more than $1M to pay this rate. That’s a lot of savings for those in the $480K to $1M bracket.

A lot of these tax rates though become just theoretical for the rich. Since many of the rich own LLCs (Limited Liability Corporations) they can pass income to themselves at a “pass-through” rate. It is now 20%, which meant most of these people saved money on their taxes because if this money were considered as ordinary wages they’d pay at a higher tax rate. This rate goes to 25% in the plan, but it’s still less of a tax rate than anyone making over $260K would pay if this income were counted as wages.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us this attempt to “simplify” the tax code means we’ll probably be paying more. There was a somewhat theoretical tax rate of 10% for those earning up to $19K. The rate changes to 12% so in principle the poor pay more than they do now. Those taxed at the 15% rate, which is most of us, will be taxed at 12% for income up to $77K. That sounds good but look what they are taking away: no deductions for state and local income taxes (which affects mostly blue states), no deductions for student loans (claimed by 25% of filers) and limitations on home interest deductions. The standard deduction goes up meaning fewer of us will itemize, which could have ripple effects like fewer of us giving to charities.

The bottom line is that at best most of us ordinary wage earners will be coming out even, but are more likely to be paying more taxes through a lot of smoke and mirrors, while the rich will generally pay a lot less. Oh, and that corporate tax rate falls, good if you are a corporation. However a lot of the old loopholes that keep many corporations from paying taxes remain in place. And to finance all of this there will be increased deficit spending.

So it’s unsurprising there’s little support for the plan as it’s pretty obvious who the winners and losers will be. And the winners will be those who financed the campaigns of these Republicans, i.e. the oligarchy. As Jimmy Carter noted, we no longer have a democracy, but an oligarchy. This stinky, duplicitous tax bill pretty much proves it.

How else would a bill that has 25% support make it through Congress? Most representatives are gerrymandered into safe districts. It’s all by design so incumbents can keep their jobs, so of course they are going to do the bidding of those who funded their campaigns instead, at least if they think they can get away with it. They need special interests to fund their next one. Which is why they have to do this now somehow. It has to be done before the year is up so there is plenty of time for the smoke to clear before next year’s midterm election.

While it all looks pretty bleak, it’s not. This bill and any subsequent amendments to it are more likely to fail than not. And this is because (blessedly) the oligarchy does not vote as a bloc. They each have their own interests at heart, which often conflicts with someone else’s interests. For example, the bill writers have proposed limiting the mortgage interest deduction. This has the National Association of Home Builders up in arms. They have vowed to defeat the bill unless this proposal is removed from the bill. Remove it though (like the proposal to end deductions for 401K savings, since rescinded) and something else has to replace it.

And this is because Republicans are trying to do this on their own using the Senate’s budget reconciliation rule, which allows bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. The other way would be to make it a matter of regular order, and that would mean that Democrats would have input into the legislation. Such legislation would likely pass and get broad support, but it wouldn’t resemble what the oligarchy wants. Can’t have that!

Yes, our tax code is a mess but it’s a result of lots of compromises along the way. It has its own inertia because reconciling all these conflicting interests happened long ago and has slowly evolved along the way. Our tax code is already a huge gift to corporations, LLCs and the wealthy. This bill is just trying to make it more so and is doing so using the unorthodox procedure of violating the normal committee process. I hope that like getting rid of Obamacare before it, it too fails. As bad as our tax code is, this makes it worse and increases our deficit, the one thing Republicans supposedly care most about, at least when Democrats are in charge.

Americans aren’t buying it. But don’t take it for granted that this will fail too. Call your representative and senators to let them know you know it’s a con, and you will hold them accountable at reelection.

 
The Thinker

Stoking toxic white masculinity or why we’re going postal

Go on. Take a look at Mother Jones’s Google sheet showing mass shootings in the United States.

The spreadsheet starts in 1982. Prior to that these were rarely a problem. Since then incidents of mass homicide by gun have increased in general year by year, with the number of fatalities and injured increasing too, often exponentially.

As I have noted before, in most cases the perpetrator was male and white. Of the 91 major incidents noted, a woman carried out only 2. A man and a woman carried one out. There are a scattering of these attacks carried out by Asians and blacks, but 80% or more were perpetrated by white men.

The spreadsheet does not begin to capture the extent of the problem, but does document the worst of the worst. Business Insider notes that through September there have been 273 mass shootings in the United States in 2017, which averages out to about one a day. They are so common they rarely make it beyond the local paper.

Obviously something is going on in our culture, even beyond the looser gun laws that we have now compared with 1982. A postal employee carried one of these first major incidents out. In 1986 postal worker Patrick Sherrill killed 15 and injured 6 others in a post office in Edmond, Oklahoma and then killed himself. Since then workplace shootings have become common, as the spreadsheet attests. There was another “gone postal” incident in 1991 that killed 5 and injured 5, this one from a laid off postal worker. In 2006 a forcibly retired and mentally ill woman killed 8 at her former post office in Goleta, California.

It’s hard to draw causation from correlation. But in general things were okay until around 1980. In 1981 Americans elected Ronald Reagan. He was the first president since Roosevelt to fundamentally change the implicit American “contract”. He quickly demonstrated the change by firing air traffic controllers who went on strike. Prior to Reagan it was generally possible for a man to provide for his family. Since then obviously many more women have entered the workforce. Women are often paid less than men for the same work, an obvious cost savings to employers. The man as family breadwinner slowly went the way of the milkman. This made men, particularly white men, feel disenfranchised. It was like living in a Twilight Zone.

Republicans piled it on in two ways. First, they promoted the idea of rugged individualism. They said men (particularly white men) should all be Marlboro men. We were all cowboys of sorts: loners, independent and self-sufficient. Only loser men couldn’t step up to the plate and provide for their family when necessarily.

Second, Republicans appealed to racists. Until the last election it was rarely overt. Nixon famously won based on a “southern strategy” which amounted to getting support from white Southerners that had previously voted Democratic. Southerners were played for their racist tendencies, just not overtly. Their prejudices were masterfully channeled against the “others” which amounted to people not like them: not white and working class.

At the same time they (often with the help of Democrats like Bill Clinton) unleashed forces that undercut their prosperity. They pushed right to work laws that had the effect of cutting wages by making it hard to collectively organize. They unleashed the forces of the free market that quickly found cheaper places to manufacture stuff, mostly outside the United States, jobs traditionally held mostly by white men. These actions exacerbated the tensions on the white working class, and white men in particular. I have seen these tensions borne out in my own family and among my friends. Many rightly feel shafted by what happened to them, particularly during economic downturns. More often they simply feel ashamed, as if there is some defect in them.

If your economic floor drops out from under you, your social safety net is shredded, you learn that you can’t provide for your family but you feel that you must do so anyhow and thus your status in society is dropping you are going to be severely stressed.

The NRA masterfully harnessed this anxiety by promoting a gun culture, not to emphasize sporting, but to sell the illusion that with a gun at least a man can still be a man. This anxiety is hardly covert. We saw it recently in Charlottesville. White men, self-identified Nazis and white supremacists were chanting, “You will not replace us”. They were asserting their special status as white men and those they saw responsible for their decline (such as Jews) would pay the price, perhaps with the guns they openly carried.

Now Donald Trump promises to make America great again. He rose to power on this very anxiety. Of course since becoming president he’s gone out of his way to not address these problems but to actually make them worse. Just yesterday Congress passed a bill that won’t permit consumers to file class action lawsuits against their banks. Vice President Pence broke the tie vote.

This though is pretty minor stuff compared to the way Trump is undermining Obamacare. It makes health insurance ever more costly and problematic, and if the government won’t subsidize it for middle and lower income Americans it becomes largely unaffordable again. This simply feeds more economic anxieties.

Trump though doesn’t seem too worried. He’s got a great game of distraction going on where he puts the blame on others, like undocumented workers. Even Congress is getting into the game. A tax reform package in Congress proposes to limit deductions into 401K plans. This amounts to a tax increase on the middle and lower class, all to give tax cuts to the richest Americans. Trump and Republicans believe — probably with good justification — that they can keep their base distracted and blame others for their policies that make things worse for their base.

All this really does is make bad much worse. The fundamentals of our economic and social anxiety haven’t changed and Republicans are actively trying to worsen them. The working class will still get fleeced. As for this Mother Jones table of mass shootings, it’s pretty easy to predict the number of incidents and their lethality will continue to increase as our politicians throw ever more wood onto this ever bigger bonfire of anxiety and hate.

 

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