No good options for controlling inflation

Americans are pissed about inflation and who can blame them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our nation’s biggest political mistake

The missus and me have been watching Showtime’s The First Lady. It’s a pretty good series and features three first ladies, at least in this season: Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michele Obama. All were groundbreaking in their own ways. Betty Ford though was an unusual choice. Her husband Gerald Ford became our only unelected president and he failed to win the 1976 election, which brought in Jimmy Carter instead.

Betty Ford was definitely an unusual first lady. She suffered from alcoholism and later famously founded the Betty Ford Center. She also had breast cancer and underwent a partial mastectomy, which she did very publicly, to the consternation of the White House. Betty (played by Michele Pfeiffer) spoke her mind.

There’s a scene in the series though that stood out to me. Not long after Jerry becomes president, he famously pardons his predecessor Richard Nixon for his Watergate-related crimes. As depicted in the series though, Jerry completely blindsides Betty on his decision: she finds out about it while watching him on TV.

She icily confronts him about it later when they retire. Nixon, she tells him, is a bad man and needed to be prosecuted. Jerry says the country needed to heal and it was impossible to get anything done unless he made the issue go away. He saw the pardon in the nation’s interest.

Betty was right and Ford’s decision famously cost him the 1976 election. Americans felt betrayed by Nixon and overwhelmingly wanted him brought to justice and put in prison. Ford’s pardon obviated all that. Watching it in 2022, it reminded me that we are still living with Ford’s catastrophic mistake.

That’s because it set a precedent, let alone spurred rumors that there was a secret deal between Nixon and Ford that Nixon would nominate him for vice president if he would pardon him when he was president. Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew resigned due to corruption during his time as Governor of Maryland. (Agnew, BTW, got off relatively light: a $10,000 fine and three years of unsupervised probation.)

I seriously doubt Donald Trump could ever have been nominated, less elected, if Nixon had been prosecuted. Maybe he would have gotten a relatively good deal from the courts like Agnew got, but at least he would have been held accountable by the law. Future seekers of our nation’s highest office would have looked at what happened to Nixon and think, “I’m not going to make his mistake.”

But so far anyhow Donald Trump has escaped consequences for his disastrous presidency. He survived two impeachment conviction votes because his party was spineless enough to put party above country. It’s absolutely clear that had Nixon been impeached, he would have been easily convicted and removed from office. Nixon just had the good sense to cut his losses by resigning.

The rule of law meant something in the 1970s. It doesn’t seem to mean that much anymore, particularly if you are granted a lot of political power.

Donald Trump was liberal in his use of executive power. He pardoned lots of his cronies and supporters, absolving them of paying any penalties for their unlawful acts, mostly on his behalf. Trump remains under investigation at both the federal and state levels, but he’s clearly going with a run-out-the-clock strategy. Our Attorney General Merrick Garland seems content to slow walk justice, working from the bottom up. Garland says upper level prosecutions will come in time if they are warranted. We’d be wise not to hold our breath.

Crimes by politicians seem to be the very last of the Justice Department’s priorities. In reality, it should be the other way around. Indeed, the Justice Department should arguably be a separate agency funded by Congress but overseen by the courts. If it’s accountable to the Executive, it’s susceptible to corruption, which is exactly how the department was managed during the Trump years.

Gerald Ford’s intentions in pardoning Nixon were likely noble. As I noted on his passing, Gerald Ford was a genuinely good person and likely our most decent president, something I don’t say lightly when it comes to Republicans. After leaving office, he and his rival Jimmy Carter became something of best friends, something hard to image today. Both men didn’t hold grudges and both were drawn to each other by suffering the shame of being one term presidents.

But his pardon of Richard Nixon remains a catastrophic mistake. The times we are living through today would likely be at least a whole lot less rocky if he had let the justice system work. Instead, our democracy is at the breaking point and our Justice Department’s inability to focus on what really matters is contributing greatly toward it.

Trump’s predictable denouement

What’s been going on this week, much like what happened last Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, was not too hard to predict. Trump is melting, much like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

What’s strange is that Trump isn’t the first president to suffer this, it’s just that his case is more severe. In the last days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, Nixon was reportedly frequently drunk, talking to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and at one point was down on his knees with Henry Kissinger praying. Neither were devout, by the way.

Both Nixon and Trump knew they were in over their heads, but reacted in somewhat different ways. In Trump’s case, he has never had to confront his obviously extreme case of malignant narcissism. It’s new to him and he’s taking it very badly. Moreover, the crutches he has depended on to maintain his psyche have been taken away from him: no more Twitter.

So, like with Nixon, Trump is going down hard. He’s unlikely to hit the booze because he’s a teetotaler, but he is reportedly raging and wholly unfocused on his job. The military is ignoring him and it seems to be taking orders from Vice President Pence. Trump has made no plans for a farewell address, which seems out of character for him. It’s hard for me to believe he won’t, but we’ll see.

Mostly, like Nixon, Trump is feeling very much alone with most of his staffers deserting him. He’s being abandoned both metaphorically and literally. And according to reports he trusts no one, not even Pence to pardon him if he were to resign early. This is not too hard to understand since he had never really trusted anyone; he’s always trusted only to his own instincts. And now those have proven catastrophically and undeniably wrong. His cognitive dissonance right now must be off the charts.

In fact, Trump has plenty of company. The 30,000 or so of his supporters that stormed the Capitol last week show there are plenty of people who share his ideas and delusions. Time is proving just how dangerous the attack on the Capitol was, and just how lucky we were that it didn’t turn out a lot worse. The one thing the attackers had going against them was that they weren’t very well organized. There is so much voluminous evidence of their crimes though that it’s only a matter of time before most of them are tracked down and prosecuted.

There is plenty of concern that more attacks are in the offing. But at least at the Capitol it seems unlikely. The National Guard has pretty much occupied the Capitol. Unlike on January 6th, there’s virtually no way a crowd is going to be able to get anywhere near the Capitol. The whole national mall is being shut down as a security precaution. The Joint Chiefs have made it clear that Biden will be inaugurated and they’ll have at least 20,000 troops, plus Capitol and D.C. police to make sure it happens. Any insurrectionist stupid enough to try to confront them is likely to find themselves with a bullet through their head.

It remains to be seen what if any threats happen in and around state capitals. Most states have sufficient National Guard troops to handle anything that comes up. Hopefully most governors will have learned from January 6 and deploy them heavily as a precaution.

As for Trump, his psychological crisis may be a blessing. Not only is he being largely ignored by staff, he seems to be too unfocused to take steps a more rational president in his predicament would take. I suspect he blames his own supporters for failing him on January 6th, thus it is looking less likely that he will try to pardon them en masse. Based on reporting, he does seem to understand that trying to pardon himself is at best a legally dubious proposition. Since he thinks mostly only about himself, in his confused state he may forget or simply decide to issue no more pardons. Here’s hoping.

So, it’s good for our nation if Trump spends his last days sulking, lost and feeling impotent. It’s good if his exit from the presidency looks small and ignoble. I still expect he will slink out of the White House, likely the night before or in the early hours of the 20th. For a showman, I suspect this is one exit he will want done discreetly and away from the cameras.

Where will he go? Mar-a-Lago, if I were to guess, at least in the short term. Scotland won’t have him. If he ultimately flees to Russia it would be fine by me if he stayed there. That would be a punishment as deserving as any we could give him here in a court of law. The less we see and hear of Donald J. Trump after his term expires, the better it will be for our nation. We need to put Trump in the rear-view mirror permanently.

Monetary policy and the danger of revolution

My recent post on quantum computing and its impact on cyber currencies like BitCoin have taken me exploring the world of money some more. This exploration took me to this video, which discusses who controls money and how it is created.

I think this video is meant to be shocking. Most of us are painfully aware of how important money is, because we cannot survive without it. While vital, money is also completely abstract. We like to think money is a form of permanent liquid value. This video points out the “shocking” fact that money is not this and that it is created almost universally by central banks, the Federal Reserve in the case of the United States.

As you get on in the video, you also learn that banks create money when they issue loans. If you were hoping to trade in your dollars for gold bullion, those days are gone. President Nixon turned the U.S. dollar into a fiat currency. This essentially means that the dollar has value because the government says it does. If it’s backed up by anything, it’s backed up by your faith that our government can manage money intelligently.

But really, the only ones managing money is the Federal Reserve, since they are the sole suppliers of money. The degree to which the Fed controls the spigot of money generally determines the health of the economy. Quantitative easing, which the Fed (and other central banks) have been doing since the Great Recession is basically the creation of lots of money which are then used to buy assets. Doing this helped pick up the economy and over many years took us out of recession.

So one might extrapolate that it’s not how much money that gets printed that is important, but how frequently it gets circulated. If circulated a lot, the production of goods and services continues apace. If it gets circulated too much, you end up with inflation, which means the same money buys fewer goods and services. If it’s not circulated enough, you may end up with deflation, which seems worse than inflation, in that the same money tomorrow buys more than it will today. In a deflationary environment, you would rather hold onto money than spend it, and that tends to stifle economic activity.

Lots of people like Ron Paul don’t like the way money actually works, which is why they would prefer the dollar be based on a gold standard, or some standard which equates a dollar to some amount of something precious. These people are probably economic Don Quixotes chasing electronic money windmills that may have existed at one time but which are probably gone for good. They look for impartial standards of value instead, which is why they turn dollars into BitCoin and similar electronic currencies.

The video says that central banks, being run by bankers, are a system that essentially pumps money from the lower classes to the upper classes. There’s a lot of recent evidence that they are right, as our middle class seems to be disappearing. Americans owe a lot more than they used to and in general earn a lot less in real wages than they used to. It used to be that wage increases followed productivity increases, but for decades that has not been the case. Today, the level of personal debt is staggering. Without meaningful raises, it gets harder and harder to pay off debt or do things we used to take for granted, like buy cars and homes. The Uber/Lyft phenomenon may be in part a reaction to these new facts of life.

Something ought to be done. In part, Donald Trump’s election was due to these economic anxieties. Trump was going to be our fixer to these various problems by bulldozing his way through all obstacles. Of course, he has done just the opposite. There is more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, but Trump’s education secretary Betsy DuBois is actually making it harder for people to pay off their student debts, and is promoting pricey private education at the expense of relatively affordable public education. So Trump is turning the screws even tighter on the working class.

Democratic presidential candidates have all sorts of ideas for addressing these problems. My senator, Elizabeth Warren, is distinguishing herself by having the most comprehensive set of policies for addressing these issues, including a lot of student loan debt forgiveness. All these policies though are basically ways of trying to solve the fundamental problem of more of our wealth going to the wealthiest and to put more money into those who need it the most. They all depend on redistribution of income from the wealthy toward the poor.

This “socialism” of course has the wealthy up in arms, since maintaining and increasing their wealth is all they seem to care about. So they are dead set against any of these ideas. Based on how our money supply works though, all this will do is keep pushing more of the wealth toward the wealthy.

It makes me wonder how all of this economic anxiety ends. And that gets me to figuring out what money really means. Money is essentially a social compact for the exchange of wealth, and whoever sets the rules controls the flow of wealth. The Fed is essentially accountable to no one. At best, all you can do is wait for someone’s term to expire. Trump’s inability to get people like Herman Cain on the Fed speaks to Republicans true values: they want the Fed to be populated with people that think like them, and that’s not Herman Cain. He’s too out of the mainstream.

To cut to the chase, the real threat to the wealthy is revolution. That’s exactly what happens if you screw the working class for too long. Revolution is upsetting the whole apple cart and starting over because the system is fundamentally broken and cannot be fixed. I believe this is the root of the partisan tensions we see these days. It’s not about value, or whether you are white or not; it’s about money and who gets to control it and how it should be distributed and used. Revolution though is very dangerous. It brings severe economic disruption, likely civil war, complete upheaval and a fundamental reordering of society. Hopefully when it is over the new system is more fare, but as we watch these things play out in places like Brazil it doesn’t look like that’s likely.

Ideally, rich Americans would understand that giving more back to society is in their interest. Sucking ever more wealth from the lower classes exacerbates tensions and increases the likelihood of revolution. They don’t seem to believe it though, and want to maintain control of the levers of power. If they succeed they will likely bring about the real revolution that will destroy their wealth, because wealth is predicated on connected economic systems that work. Unfortunately, the rich seem to be deliberately tone deaf, increasing the likelihood of the exact outcome they fear the most. Should it occur, BitCoin is not going to save them.

As billionaire Nick Hanauer puts it, the pitchforks are coming.

Why we must impeach Donald Trump

So the Mueller report (with many redactions) finally was made public. Unsurprisingly, the report did not exonerate Trump. It was quite the opposite, in fact. While Mueller could not prove beyond a reasonably doubt that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia, he found plenty of evidence to show that Trump obstructed justice. He just refused to prosecute these obstructions, believing that constraints put on his investigation precluded this possibility.

Mueller basically laid out the obstruction charges and their underlying evidence and suggested that Congress could impeach Trump in part based on his evidence. Less noticed was another possible approach: wait until Trump was out of office and then prosecute him. But this is only viable if Trump does not win reelection and the subsequent administration chooses to prosecute these crimes within the five years of the statute. If Trump does win reelection, the statute of limitations effectively means he can’t be charged for these crimes. In short, in certain situations the president can circumvent his own accountability to the law. It’s all because of an opinion by the Justice Department that a sitting president can’t be indicted for crimes while in office. (This seems strange to me. What’s the point of having a vice president then?)

I noted before that Trump wouldn’t escape justice. Neither Richard Nixon nor Bill Clinton did. Nixon agreed to resign to keep from being impeached and convicted, a badge of shame that he carried to his grave. On Bill Clinton’s last day in office, Clinton agreed to pay a fine and lose his law license for perjury he committed testifying about his relationship with Monica Lewinski. This was to avoid facing these charges and possible jail time when out of office.

In some ways those were simpler times. Today’s hyper-partisan Congress means that if the House impeaches Trump, it’s almost a slam-dunk that the Senate won’t convict him, just as the Senate refused to convict Clinton and narrowly avoided convicting Andrew Johnson. Nixon would have certainly been removed from office for his cover up, i.e. obstruction of justice charges laid out by his special prosecutor. Mueller laid out ten obstruction of justice charges that could be filed against Trump and likely would have been filed against him if Justice Department regulations forbad it.

I’m surprised no one has filed a lawsuit to challenge these regulations. It’s possible but unlikely that the Supreme Court would declare them unconstitutional. There is no law that gives the president this special treatment, just an opinion (once amended) by the Justice Department’s legal team.

Mueller’s team made fourteen referrals to other prosecutors, only two of which we know about. It’s quite likely that some of these referrals will come back to bite Trump, either before or after he leaves office. It’s already quite clear that New York State will be prosecuting Trump and the Trump Organization for violating its charity laws. The Trump family may face prosecution since it looks like they fraudulently protected their father’s wealth to inherit more of it. Trump’s sister abruptly resigned her appellate court seat recently to avoid an internal investigation. So despite Attorney General Bill Barr’s spin that the report leaves the president untouched, it’s quite clear that Trump will be haunted by charges and court cases, probably for the rest of his life.

There are a lot of wags in Congress discussing whether Trump should be impeached or not. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already stated she doesn’t want to open impeachment hearings unless there are enough Republican votes in the Senate to make Trump’s conviction likely. Others like my home state senator Liz Warren have publicly stated that Congress has a duty to open impeachment hearings and if the evidence is strong enough, to convict the president and remove him from office.

I’m with Liz. Certainly I’m aware that there is little likelihood that the Senate would convict Trump. I suppose it is possible that hearings would bring to light enough evidence to persuade enough Republican senators to throw Trump overboard. I am for impeachment not for an idealistic reason, but for a pragmatic reason: the lawless Trump Administration must not be used as a model by future administrations hoping to escape justice.

Just two posts ago I noted how alarmed I was because I felt we were at the edge of autocracy. I’m just as alarmed today. The way for a democracy to survive is not to acquiesce but to rise to the occasion. It’s likely if the House held an impeachment vote that it would impeach Trump. It would set a mark in the sand for future presidents that this conduct is unacceptable. It would also force a trial in the Senate that, even if doomed, would hold senators accountable. It would mark those voting against his conviction for life. The case for Trump’s lawlessness is inescapable.

So while it might not actually hold Trump accountable, it would formally tarnish his legacy, give little sanction to his behavior, uphold the principle that no one is above the law, demonstrate that Congress had the nerve to push back against a lawless president and make it easier in the future to maintain our democracy.

Pelosi is looking at the 2020 election and wondering if impeachment would distract from a winning message for Democratic candidates. I am thinking that standing up for democracy and the rule of law is the primary responsibility of any member of Congress. That’s what they are elected to do, not to be weasels. If the American people object to that, well then our democracy truly is lost.

Let’s not give in to hopelessness and unaccountability. Let’s do the right thing and open impeachment hearings.

Preventing future presidents Nixon and Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whites are being horribly exploited … by other whites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump is an illegitimate president

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest easier, Richard Nixon.

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.

Trump is cracking

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.