Boy, Republicans passed one really nasty tax bill!

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Fiddling while the USA burns

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Election 2017 postmortem

The Thinker by Rodin

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 oligarchy in charge

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Stoking toxic white masculinity or why we’re going postal

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Democrats and riding Hurricane Donald

The Thinker by Rodin

Thursday’s White House meeting between Trump and congressional leaders was surprising, but perhaps should not have been. During a meeting in which a Republican president should be counted on to follow a plan by his Republican congressional leaders (Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), Trump went off the rails again. He let his grievances with Ryan and McConnell get the better of him. He surprised everyone by agreeing with a proposal by House Minority Leader Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer instead.

So instead of an eighteen-month extension of the debt ceiling wanted by Republicans (which conveniently kicks this can down the road past the 2018 midterms), he agreed to a three-month extension proposed by Democrats instead. Emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey was also agreed to. Oh, and that must have border wall funding? Seems to be off the table again at the moment. It was just more Trump bluster.

Republicans were flummoxed and furious. Democrats were smiling but wisely sitting on their hands. Trump had gone off the rails again. He let his petty grievances against Ryan and McConnell get the better of him, and spoke of Pelosi and Schumer like they were friends, calling them Nancy and Chuck. I doubt Nancy and Chuck expected this outcome, but perhaps it should not have come out of the blue. For when he feels grieved Trump will use whatever powers are at his disposal to wreak revenge. Typically he lashes out on Twitter, but this time he had something better: must-pass legislation. He could get vengeance against Ryan and McConnell by using a legislative approach that Democrats wanted.

Pelosi and Schumer won’t ever be Trump’s friends. Republicans in Congress though assumed that because Trump ran as a Republican that he would support their agenda. In reality Trump ran as a populist, used the Republican Party as a vehicle for getting elected and now that he is elected he feels free to wing it as he goes along. Trump will seek to support his own interests, whatever they happen to be at the moment. Since even he doesn’t know what they are and they can change on a dime, they will be whatever takes his fancy at the moment. And most likely whatever he supports will be in part aimed at punishing his foes, real or perceived because that’s what bullies and narcissists do.

However, despite Trump’s tendency to throw in his cards and demand a new hand, you can figure what breadcrumbs Trump is likely to follow. He will follow any that appear to give him greater glory and recognition and that will punish people who have fallen out of his favor. In this sense he’s predictable. So it is quite possible, in fact even probable, that if you bait him with the right breadcrumbs he will follow your trail and can thus be used to some extent.

So with a narcissist Trump as president, being in the minority is turning out to be something of an advantage. The majority (Republicans) cannot govern. They are too factionalized but they are also too at odds ideologically with much of Trump’s agenda. Moreover, they can’t possibly satisfy Trump’s desire for instant wins because they must follow a legislative process that requires actual debate and votes and that takes time.

However, at least through the 2018 elections Democrats are in the minority. They can’t be blamed for anything because they don’t set the agenda. (Yes, they can filibuster certain legislation, something Trump obviously doesn’t like, which is why many bills taken up in the Senate are written to adhere to reconciliation rules that require simple majorities.) Trump can make them temporary allies but they bear none of the responsibility for failures. In the past Trump has railed at both Pelosi and Schumer and called them nasty names. Most likely he will again the moment they obstruct his agenda of the moment. But right now he sees them as friends because it is politically convenient. Moreover, he has an incentive to keep them as friends because he literally has no political friends left in the Republican congressional leadership.

Pissing off Republicans in Congress is deeply counterproductive, not that Trump can see this. Consider whether Speaker Ryan agrees to take a resolution of impeachment against Trump to a vote. If you are in good relations with Trump, you probably won’t. If you are in bad relations, then why not take a vote? If Trump is impeached, convicted and removed then Pence is going to be better to work with. Similarly, despite his taciturn face, Senate Majority Leader McConnell probably harbors resentment against Trump now too. He’ll be required to try Trump if the House impeaches Trump, but he and many Republicans in the Senate would have plenty of reasons to vote him out of office too.

And all of this is not just possible but even likely because we have an inconsistent and severe narcissist as our president. A politically astute president of course would be building bridges with Congress because that’s how you move your agenda forward: through persuasion. Bullies perhaps can persuade, but their only real power is the power of intimidation. In Congress, intimidation works only at reelection. If in the primaries next year Trump can influence Republican voters to vote out those Republicans he disdains, these incumbents may pay a price. Given the wreck Trump is making of his presidency, it’s pretty good odds that most of these incumbents will survive their primaries.

So if you are a Democrat looking to regain power though, this horror is all good. If a Republican incumbent can be voted out in the primary for a Trump sycophant, then in a general election you’ve just increased the odds that a Democratic candidate can flip that seat by appealing to moderates. Candidates toting the line of a president with a 37% popularity rating aren’t likely to win. If a Republican incumbent survives their primary, they are still facing odds of losing in the midterms if the election framed as a referendum on Trump’s presidency, which is the obvious and powerful frame Democrats doubtless will use in 2018.

Trump’s actions Thursday are thus is very good news for Democrats. Trump will find it hard to back away from his new friends Nancy and Chuck because by doing so he would lose face with people he officially dislikes, including Ryan and McConnell. Nancy and Chuck are smart to stifle their grins, but rest assured they are ebullient in private. Trump has fallen into his own trap made possible by his fixed personality and his narcissism.

Like Hurricane Irma about to hit Florida, while you can’t stop this natural disaster you can ride it for all its worth. Trump is the wrecking machine of his own agenda. Democrats need to hang on, ride it and hope that voters have had enough in 2018 to flip the House and maybe even the Senate.

At the turning of the Trump tide

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s one thing to hope that Trump will be booted from office. I’ve hoped for it of course and have written a number of posts why I think it’s going to happen. However, it’s another thing to feel that it will happen. Yesterday for the first time I felt it in my gut. Trump’s a goner. It’s just a matter of time now.

Stormy seas have been hitting the Trump presidency, mostly caused by his own relentless and largely inchoate fury and mismanagement. For nearly seven months they have been persistently eroding his own presidency, leading to almost daily incidents that were often scary, troubling, befuddling, confusing and amusing, sometimes all at the same time.

Trump has proven to be his own worst enemy. This suggests at least on some unconscious level that Trump doesn’t want to be president so he is taking actions to bring it about. There have been countless things Trump has done or said that should have brought its swift end. But Trump’s “news conference” on Tuesday at Trump Tower wherein he laid bare exactly what he thinks about the protests and counter-protests last weekend in Charlottesville sure feels like his jump-the-shark moment.

Americans have been exercising extreme patience with this president, but his overt racism and his complete inability to distinguish between the racist and violent actions of the Nazi and white supremacists versus the scattered violent though overwhelmingly peaceful reactions by counter-protesters seems to finally be that bridge too far for Americans. It’s that and the horrific videos of the car James Fields drove mowing down protestors, then backing up and at high speed and mowing down more. Trump can’t distinguish a meaningful difference between these sides. Nor does he understand that there is no such thing as a good racist, and all of the protestors were racists. If you believe that you should have special privileges because of your white skin, you are evil.

Even many of the protestors are appalled by what happened a week ago today. Many are suffering the consequences. There is a reason KKK members usually cover their faces: they are secretly ashamed of their actions but also they didn’t want to be identified. In the Internet age when hundreds of cameras are recording the faces and actions of people at this event it’s not too hard to identify these protestors by name.

The reactions have been swift. After these events, organizer Christopher Cantwell delivered a tearful “I’m being so unfairly treated” video on YouTube and is now facing multiple felony charges, including possible federal charges. Protestors have had their social media, Internet services and PayPal accounts closed. The white supremacist website The Daily Stormer lost its GoDaddy hosting. Many protesters have lost their jobs. While they have the right to protest, most live in Right to Work states. This empowers employers to fire them for any reason at all, at least for any reason not protected by federal or state law and being a racist is not one of them.

Businesses, whose profitability depends on attracting customers of all races, religions and ethnicities, quickly realized that further association with Trump could be toxic for them. Enough ditched two councils Trump had created that within days Trump had disbanded them. At his Tuesday news conference he discussed creating another council to advise him on his supposed theme of the week: fixing America’s crumbling infrastructure. By Thursday this council too was aborted in the womb. Trump’s Infrastructure Week turned out to be a joke.

Instead on Thursday Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon gave two unauthorized interviews wherein he deliberately contradicted Trump on some points. I think he did this to get fired, as he was already estranged and operating from an office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Yesterday Trump formally fired Bannon, who was largely responsible for his election in the first place. Bannon’s real crime: contradicting Trump.

New chief of staff John Kelly’s actions to try to bring order to the White House seem to be flailing even while the worst of Trump’s advisers are slowly being thrown out. And that’s because Kelly learned Tuesday a painful but predictable lesson: Trump won’t let anyone control him. He’ll go rogue whenever he wants. Police will have more success getting guns away from NRA members than Kelly will have getting Trump’s hands off his smartphone and controlling his Twitter feed, something essential if his presidency is to survive.

So Trump has finally jumped the shark and thus it’s all downhill for him from now on. What’s new and telling in the last week is that his supposed advocates are estranging him. Moreover, this estrangement is having a snowball-rolling-downhill effect, picking up momentum everyday. Business interests have abandoned him. Republicans are becoming comfortable criticizing him, making it easier for other spineless Republicans to develop some spine. One minister finally left his prominent evangelical council. Let’s hope others soon follow. Trump deals with his shunning by canceling these councils and events. This morning we learn he won’t attend the Kennedy Center honors. It’s unclear how many would show up if they were held anyhow.

And Trump being Trump he’s accelerating his own decline. He’s pissing off the very people he needs to move his agenda, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. This makes it easier for them to not want to move his agenda too. Worse, should it come to impeachment and removal from office, it gives them animus to get rid of him. The math to rid him is not that hard to achieve. Aside from dealing with the wrath of Trump voters in many districts (voters who are becoming increasingly less supportive of Trump) there is little downside to removing Trump. For if Pence is put in, Republicans have some hope of accomplishing pieces of their agenda and making Republicans look sane again. With Trump it’s clear that it only gets worse and that Trump is facilitating his own end.

For me I have finally reached the point where I am more filled with a feeling of glorious schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the misery of someone else) than I am appalled and scared by our president. Granted, Trump still has the power to wreak nuclear havoc. His downfall to me now seems certain, not just intellectually but emotionally. I sense it. I think at some point rather than face the increasing scorn and legal tsunami heading his way he will just resign. He’ll find a fig leaf reason that he thinks will save his honor by finding something/someone to blame (“Who could have known that Washington was so corrupt?”) then hopefully go.

Real justice would be for him to be prosecuted for any crimes he committed, but also to be ignored and scorned. It seems that Steve Bannon has reached a post-Trump age, as has Fox News. I am hoping for the worst possible outcome for Trump after he is gone: he is imprisoned for crimes, reviled as our worst president ever, his businesses crumble from being toxic assets, and hardly anyone bothers to read his Twitter feed anymore. It would be poetic and real justice.

Trump is cracking

The Thinker by Rodin

The real Donald Trump could no more wrestle down a CNN reporter than he can ascend White House staircases without using the handrail. (Reputedly, most of the time Trump uses the White House elevators.) In short, as a bully Trump’s only weapons are his mouth, his tweets and his many followers. Of the three, the only weapon that means anything are his followers.

His recent tweet linking to an alt-right Reddit group video showing him punching a CNN logo shows what he’d like to do with CNN and the other parts of the media that don’t parrot him, a.k.a. the so-called “fake media”. Recently when CNN discovered inaccuracies in one of its stories, it fired the responsible reporters and published an apology. Trump saw this as vindication that CNN is part of the fake media. Of course firing those reporters demonstrates just the opposite: that CNN reporters who don’t report the news accurately will be fired.

Who likely won’t be fired? Don’t hold your breath for any National Enquirer reporters being fired. The National Enquirer is reportedly Trump’s surrogate bully. After all it was the one that filed a “story” about MSNBC Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, engaged to be married, from such stellar sources as a liquor store owner who reportedly told the Enquirer that Scarborough regularly buys six packs of beer at his store, a charge Scarborough denies.

Reportedly Trump was looking for apologies from Joe and Mika for saying nasty things about him on their show and if he had gotten them he would have called the Enquirer to pull the story. In any case, his previous anti-woman tweet mostly about Mika set a new low for Trump, at least until the publication of this latest tweet with the linked Reddit video. The video sure looks like the president is promoting violence against CNN in particular and the so-called “fake media” in general.

What a peculiar world we live in! CNN is part of the “fake media” because it occasionally publishes a factually incorrect story for which its reporters are fired. Meanwhile presumably the National Enquirer is now part of the trusted media. Of course the Enquirer routinely publishes many stories of dubious authenticity; it’s its whole business model. These included that a hooker murdered Justice Scalia, a Hillary Clinton sex romp was caught on video and that Florida senator Marco Rubio has a love child.

These tweets by Trump are both alarming and pathetic. They are alarming because they give glimpse into a spectacularly disordered mind of the person we unwisely chose to be our president. They are pathetic because as many on both sides of the aisle in Washington have responded, they are beneath the dignity of the office Trump holds. What they really show is a president who is in the process of cracking and thanks to his tweets and our 24/7 media we all have front row seats, whether we want to have them or not.

None of this is particularly surprising, at least if you read my post about Trump’s severe case of narcissism. Trump checks off all the checkboxes, often more than once a day. Trump perceives constant threats from the press. Aside from puerile acts like not letting CNN reporters into White House briefings, there’s really not much he can do to punish the “fake media”. It’s possible that some of his more unhinged supporters will do the attacking in person of the “fake media” that Trump obviously cannot. So someone call up Special Counsel Mueller and ask him to look into charges that Trump is inciting violence along with other suspicious crimes. A classic tactic of a bully when threatened is to bring in reinforcements: more bullies in this case. There are plenty of them among his followers. Some of them have already demonstrated they are unhinged enough to commit crimes against those he hates.

Expect Trump to keep egging these people on. Expect it because this is what narcissists and bullies do when under severe pressure. Trump feels the White House walls closing in around him. Apparently he keeps a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. How long before, like Richard Nixon shortly before resigning, he starts talking to presidential portraits?

Trump doesn’t seem to find much time for governing. He is too busy trying to defend himself from perceived threats. Perhaps that’s why at 9 AM instead of holding meetings or getting briefings he is tweeting instead. Perhaps that’s why his administration is probably no more than 10% staffed. Perhaps that’s why his agenda is in shambles, one of the few positive aspects of Trump’s illness from the Democratic Party’s perspective. Prospects for the repeal of Obamacare look dubious at best. Cutting taxes is usually high on the Republican agenda but seem to have been kicked down the road. It’s not even clear if a Congress in Republican control can even extend the debt limit. Trump’s dysfunction has real world consequences: grinding government to a halt and emboldening our enemies.

At this point it’s not too hard to predict how this will play out. Trump is dissembling. Since pretty much every day his tweets become more outrageous than those from the day before, his dissembling is picking up inertia. It’s clear that Trump doesn’t know how to get off this train and he likely doesn’t want to get off of it.

The longer it goes on the more likely it is that something will force this train off its tracks. My bet is that action behind the scenes is even more interesting that Trump’s train wreck of a presidency. I’ll bet the White House staff is taking macabre bets on how long Trump has. I’ll bet that Pence is making discreet inquiries among the cabinet about whether there is a support for a 25th amendment solution.

Most likely it will be Trump to push the locomotive off its track. He probably needs to do one spectacularly stupid thing, like physically pushing a reporter or badly bungling a foreign crisis, for politicians to find their backbone. In the meantime Trump continues to add to the pile of evidence that he is unfit for the office he holds.

There was not one thing that brought down President Nixon, but a culmination of factors. That will likely be the case here. For me, it’s looking like these factors will arrive sooner rather than later.

At the health care inflection point

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in January I mentioned a mindful eating course I was enrolled in. A full discussion of the course is probably for another time if I think it warrants a blog post. (I’ve become pickier about what I blog about, as I post less frequently and am trying hard to make my posts more relevant and topical.) One of the interesting takeaways from the course though was to learn to trust your body.

It turns out this is a really hard thing to do, particularly here in America. For most of us spend lives trying to respond to conformance requests coming mostly from outside ourselves. It’s constant and incessant. In the area of eating, you get endless “shoulds” and guilt-laden advice about what to eat, when, how much and using which techniques. These techniques rarely work in the long term because they are not natural to us, which is why so many of us are overweight and obese. Trusting to your own inner wisdom shouldn’t be hard, but it is hard because we simply don’t know how.

Of course it’s much more than food. We spend much of our lives being inauthentic to ourselves. We pray to gods we don’t really believe in. We chase after status symbols thinking we’ll be better or happier when we possess that McMansion or that BMW. We take advice from popular people in our class or some loudmouth on the TV or talk radio thinking they are actually wiser than we are. More topically, we vote for people who don’t have our best interest at heart, ending up more unhappy and miserable as a result.

We do this at least in part because we’ve learned that to get along you got to go along. We want to belong and since most of us don’t have local tribes anymore, we join our virtual tribes instead. They are often led by people looking to screw us over, if not monetarily then at least mentally. Facing the reality of our bad choices is hard. If we were to face them, we would often realize we were played for a fool. So rather than face them we continue to work against our own self-interest.

Logically most of those who voted Republican or for Trump should be regretting their choices. Many of them are but of course even Trump has a dependable group who will stick with him no matter how much he sticks it to them. As I noted recently, ninety percent of Republicans voted for Trump, despite knowing full well what he was about: a bankrupt-prone, pussy-grabbing businessman with zero common sense and a racist streak a mile wide.

It seems though that many who voted for Republicans are waking up. We see this not in a pressing desire to vote for a Democrat, but in polls showing waning enthusiasm for their fellow Republicans. There are other polls that show even majorities of Republicans disapproving of their party’s actions. Both the House and Senate health care “reform” bills are widely despised, even among Republicans.

Trump ran partly on a platform of reforming health care. It would be easy to reform he told us, and you would get better coverage for less. Whereas the sad reality is that Trump really has no idea what’s in the bills he has been promoting, other than he heard the House bill was “mean” so he instructed the Senate not to make their bill “mean”.

Trump is not being mendacious; he is simply unable to absorb detail. But if the Congressional Budget Office is to be believed, either 22 or 23 million people will be uninsured within ten years if either of these bills become law, with 14 million losing health insurance within the first year and likely a majority of them will be Republicans. Those with insurance will pay a lot more, both in higher premiums and higher deductibles. Technically these don’t amount to higher taxes since this money is not going to the government. If it did, it might buy something useful. It will feel like a tax hike however as your standard of living rapidly erodes.

If either of these bills becomes law, it will be a disaster. It certainly will be for those losing health insurance. The reality however will be much more brutal. Health care spending is a huge part of our economy. It will close hospitals, mostly in rural areas. Without insurance people won’t see doctors, so doctors will bill fewer hours and make less money. The cost of emergency care will be foisted on those still with insurance, raising the cost of insurance even higher. It will have a huge cascading effect of not only people dying prematurely and in misery, but in creating huge amounts of medical debt and lost health care jobs. It will careen like a locomotive off its tracks and wreck much of our economy. It won’t affect just the healthcare industry, but all those businesses that depend on health care employees and health care spending, which is most of the economy.

All this is to give huge tax cuts to the 1% who don’t need the money. Arguably the taxes these rich people pay pay for themselves in sustained economic growth, which is keeping stock prices and their portfolio rising.

Some lessons for me:

  • Our current healthcare system must be fundamentally changed if it is to survive at all. The current system works poorly, but it works a whole lot better than it will if either of these bills pass.
  • It’s really in everyone’s best interest to reform our health care system, as it is unsustainable. If there is any industry too big to fail, it’s not on Wall Street but our health care system. It feeds off patients. And patients need insurance to see doctors because only the top 1% can pay for their own healthcare.
  • Obamacare is dying, but not for the reasons people think. It’s dying because it tried to work using a system of private insurance. It’s the private health care system that no longer works as it puts profits first, not people.
  • Expanded Medicaid is demonstrating to new generations that socialized medicine does work. Ask most of Mitch McConnell’s constituents, who are on the program. Only to them it’s something called KyNect.
  • Like it or not we are at a health care inflection point. We must solve this fundamental issue in the only way it can be solved: through comprehensive national legislation that addresses its critical defects. Obamacare does not need amending. And it needs to be replaced with something that is the complete opposite of what both bills in Congress purport to call “health care”.
  • My life, and yours, depends on us rising to the occasion.

Dear Supreme Court: please free our political moderates

The Thinker by Rodin

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on whether Wisconsin’s state assembly map constitutes an illegal partisan gerrymander. The court has never struck down a voting district map based solely on its political boundaries, so it’s unwise for those who would like to see fairer voting districts to get their expectations up.

I’m not enough of a lawyer (not being one at all) to understand the legal issues, other than the constitution specifically delegates voting criteria to the states. The Voting Rights Act requires that certain criteria (like race-based criteria) cannot be used in drawing maps. This hasn’t kept states from doing this anyhow. In most cases courts strike down these maps after an election where they are used to partisan advantage. New districts are drawn that are generally still illegal, so the cycle seems to continue forever and never really gets settled. At least that’s been the case since the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that certain predominantly southern states no longer need to have their voting maps cleared in advance.

State assembly maps are where the real power is, because generally they draw the political boundaries for both state and federal voting districts. Republicans used this to great effect after the 2010 election when they won Congress and state houses. Voting districts were required to be redrawn based on the 2010 census so Republicans used it to lock in their power at least through 2020. Quite frankly, this has a lot to do with the mess we are in at the moment. These highly partisan voting maps as well as state voting restrictions that don’t pass the smell test have given Republicans enormous political clout that far overstates their power if voting districts were created fairly and impartially.

Pretty much everyone agrees that our politics are a huge mess. This is a direct result of extreme gerrymandering. I sure hope the court finds political gerrymandering illegal, but most likely they will not. I hope this not just because I necessarily am pining for more Democrats in office. I say this because to end our political mess we need lots of moderates in office. I can’t see any way to bring moderates back into politics unless we end political gerrymandering.

Democrats may be in the minority in Congress, but it’s becoming even harder to find any moderates left in Congress. Moderates of both parties used to form the political center. Their presence allowed government to function because they facilitated political compromise. These days significant change is only possible if one party controls both Congress and the White House. Usually when that happens you get laws that only appeal to the rabid wings of the party. Trumpcare is liked by only 16% of Americans, with even only 34% of Republicans liking it, but that doesn’t mean that Congress won’t pass it anyhow.

If it happens it will be a law of immense cruelty. Make no mistake: the Senate’s current version of the bill has nothing to do with improving health care. That’s merely a smokescreen. It has two principle purposes. The first is to give tax cuts to the wealthy. Republicans see it as restoring tax rates for the wealthy to what they were before the Affordable Care Act. The second is to end Medicaid as an open-ended entitlement program. For more than fifty years it has set a floor that no citizen could sink beneath. By limiting federal contributions, it encourages states to race toward the bottom: limiting enrollment and cutting benefits. In effect, the poor will simply get poorer, making the wealth gap even worse than it is now. The effect is pretty obvious: lots of people are going to die prematurely and painfully. It’s an outcome that only the Marquis de Sade and today’s Republicans can love.

All this is from a supposedly “pro-life” party. It’s obviously quite the opposite. I’ve discussed these gaping inconsistencies in many other posts, so I won’t revisit them here. What I will note is that whether it is Republicans who want to kill off their poor constituents because they don’t believe the rich should help subsidize their health, or whether it’s far left partisan Democrats who won’t accept anything less than single-payer health insurance, ideally at government-run hospitals and healthcare centers like the Veterans Administration, these are solutions favored by a fringe. Ask your typical man or woman in the street if they favor either of these approaches and you are likely to get a resounding “No!”

But you don’t see many of these people in Congress because gerrymandering conspires to leave them out. That’s the real crime of gerrymandering: trying to force the government to be run by the extreme partisans when it needs the consent of the governed, which includes a lot of moderates. Gerrymandering extends political dysfunction, empowers people that hate their own government, fosters conflict and may pave the way toward a new civil war.

All of this is preventable if government can become of, by and for the people again. With moderates forming about 35% of the population, but likely represented by no more than 10% of legislators their interests are simply not getting considered. This is political disenfranchisement on a massive scale. Blacks may be disproportionately under represented, but at least these highly-partisan voting maps gives them some diluted representation. Moderates though have little to no representation. Unless the Supreme Court steps up and declares political gerrymandering unconstitutional or (much more unlikely) Congress sees the light and acts against their own partisan interests to enact such a law, it’s not hard to predict that our government will become more detached from its citizens, ultimately representing mostly a highly partisan few. That’s a recipe for national disorder that only the Kremlin would approve because it is simply not democratic. It’s not even republican.

So the Supreme Court could become the savior of our democracy if they find the legal standing or discipline to do so in their upcoming decision. If there was ever a reason for Americans to pray, praying the Supreme Court sees the light on this seems a priority for religious Americans of all types.