Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Blackmail Is Such An Ugly Word

How about “creative inducement”?

Via The Hill:

An update to Ivanka Trump’s financial disclosure report reveals that she and her husband, Jared Kushner, have taken on millions of dollars in additional debt over the past year, Politico reported Tuesday.

Trump’s updated disclosure form shows that Kushner appears to have tapped three different lines of credit since he began working at the White House.

The changes up the couple’s debts from a range of $19 million to $98 million to being valued at between $31 million and $155 million, according to Politico.

Trump had initially reported the debts to be at the same levels Kushner had reported in March, but revised the form in December to show higher levels on the three credit lines.

The three lines of credit added to the form are held by Kushner. He holds the Bank of America and New York Community Bank lines with his father, and one from Signature Bank with his mother.

Another revision on Trump’s form did drop the amount owed for a Visa account from a range of $100,001 to $250,000 to one of $50,001 to $100,000.

It’s unclear if the raised credit lines are linked to recent financial issues at Kushner’s family business, Kushner Companies.

A spokesperson for Kushner and Trump’s attorneys declined to comment to Politico, as did a spokeswoman for Kushner Companies.

This is the part in the episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” where the guy in the dark suit, dark shirt, and white tie and wearing a pinkie ring, accompanied by his well-muscled “administrative aide,” sits down across the table in the back of a little family restaurant in Brooklyn to have a little chat with the nervous white guy from Fifth Avenue who’s up to his eyeballs in debt.  The guy in the dark suit makes a generous offer to help him get rid of all his problems if he’ll do him just one little favor.  [Cha-chung!]

Except this time it’s a little Russian tea shop in Brighton Beach and the guy in debt is the son-in-law of the president and has a provisional security clearance and would do anything to stay out of trouble as well as out of the East River.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sunday Reading

Josh Marshall on Republicans and deficits.

It’s remarkable the degree to which television commentators are embracing interpretations of Republican fiscal profligacy which are either oblivious, unschooled or simply dishonest. One line has it that Republicans are shedding their former obsession with spending and deficits. Another had it that Republicans are realizing that their ‘base’ doesn’t really care as much about deficits as they thought. They really agree with Trump, who doesn’t care about deficits. All of this is nonsense – not based on a theory or interpretation but simple history and experience. In a word, facts. Deficits go up, often dramatically, under Republican governance and usually go down under Democrats. This isn’t an interpretation. It’s a simple fact. Nor is it an artifact of history or coincidence. It is because Republicans don’t care about deficits.

Modern American deficit spending began under Reagan. It was brought under some control under the first President Bush. This was largely because of pressure from congressional Democrats. But in his defense, Bush made major and highly difficult decisions to make this possible. It was largely by doing so that he started a war in his own party that played at least a large contributing role in his reelection defeat. The deficit went down dramatically under Bill Clinton and then exploded under George W. Bush. The deficit went up dramatically in the first year of President Obama’s presidency but almost entirely because of the financial crisis. It went down consistently over the course of his presidency. From 2008 to 2009, the deficit close to tripled to $1.413 trillion. It fell in each subsequent year both in dollar terms and in the more important measure of the percentage of GDP. Now we have it going up again. (Historical numbers here. Again, deficit as a percentage of GDP is the best measure.)

There’s an interesting and not implausible argument that it is divided government that is the best for the deficit. Let’s take the Clinton example. The argument here would be that what was critical were three things: First there’s the 1990 Bush/Dems budget deal. Then there’s the 1993 Clinton tax hike. Then it gets more complicated. Some would argue that it was the combination of Clinton’s tax increase followed by Republicans coming into power in 1995 and putting a brake on more Democratic spending. There’s some plausibility to this. And it may have played some role in enforcing spending restraint in the late 90s. The problem is that deficits have gone up most under unified Republican control. The early Bush years are the key example (as is today). President Bush came into office and pushed through a big tax cut which promptly pushed the country back into deficits. Spending also went up dramatically, both on the military (which at least in theory was driven by 9/11) but also on domestic spending.

After Bush left office and Republicans had seen their congressional majorities wiped away, they began to talk about Bush as some sort of outlier or heretic from Republican orthodoxy, embracing something called ‘big government conservatism’. But this was entirely retrospective and basically bunk.

The argument also doesn’t hold up on the Democratic side of the ledger. There’s a large faction of Democrats who do think Democrats should spend substantially more and not feel so bound by budget balancing. But in practice, this is not how Democrats govern, even when they have total control of the government.

Obamacare is a case in point. Democrats went to great lengths to make sure that the Affordable Care Act was deficit neutral, even marginally reducing the deficit. The same pattern applied generally under Clinton. Why do they do this? Partly this is because they feel cowed by decades of ‘tax and spend’ criticism. More importantly, the kind of people who believe in fiscal restraint and budgetary probity on principle are now mainly Democrats. You can see this in policy terms. But more interesting historically is that you can see it in geographical terms. That wasn’t always the case. Many or even most of those people were once Republicans. But this isn’t something that changed four or five years ago. You have to go back forty and even fifty years to find that. This is a decades-old change – almost as old as the segregationist Dixiecrat exodus from the Democratic party to the GOP. Indeed, they are all part of the same transformation.

The simple reality is that Republicans don’t like taxes. Full stop.

Deficits are a stalking horse Republicans use as a political cudgel when they are out of power. Again. Full stop. You simply cannot argue with the fact that deficits have risen dramatically under Reagan and Bush and now under Trump. Republicans do not care about deficits. They care about keeping taxes as low as possible. What has changed slightly over the last forty years is a marginal difference in attitudes toward spending. Since the late 70s, the guiding star of Republican politics is getting taxes as low as possible. Spending was basically an afterthought, except for the degree to which spending might create upward pressure on taxes.

But beginning in the Bush years, accelerating in the Obama years and now coming into its own in the Trump years spending has become more of a positive as long as it is being spent on Republican stakeholders, as long as it is being spent on the right people. Largely this means the military but also border walls and a bunch of other things. That is an interesting change and transformation which has tracked the GOP’s transformation from anti-government to ethno-nationalist orientations. But the one thing that has never changed in almost fifty years is that Republican do not care about deficits. Deficits will rise under Republican rule, especially under unified Republican rule, as surely as night follows day.

John Nichols on the need to get rid of John Kelly.

No one who was paying attention ever thought that John Kelly was going to make things better in the Trump administration when he abandoned his miserable tenure as Homeland Security secretary to take over as White House chief of staff. Kelly had already proven to be an enabler of Trump’s worst instincts on immigration, global relationships, and privacy rights, and there was no reason to assume that closer proximity to the president would make Kelly any less of a “yes man” for Trumpism at its worst.

But Kelly really has outdone himself.

With his scorchingly dishonest and demeaning attacks on one of the most honorable members of the House, Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, to his deliberately ignorant claim that a “lack of appreciation of history” inspired efforts to remove monuments honoring the Confederacy, to his ahistorical suggestion that “the lack of an ability to compromise” led to the Civil War, to his efforts (with alt-right favorite Stephen Miller) to derail negotiations on immigration reform, to his recent claim that many Dreamers were “too lazy” to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Kelly has accomplished something remarkable. He has established that, as wrongheaded as Donald Trump may be, the president is being advised by people who are more wrongheaded.

As Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, the Illinois Democrat who serves as head of the immigration task force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, says, the retired general who many thought would “[steer] a steady course and bring some balance to the White House, Mr. Kelly, is not that person, and he is clearly part of the xenophobic right that is entrenched in this White House.”

Kelly is not merely xenophobic, however. He has proven to be an atrocious player on multiple fronts.

This week, as reports of White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter’s physical abuse of women became public, CNN notes that “Kelly, who encouraged Porter to remain in his post despite the allegations, did not alter his effusive statement.” The “effusive statement” from Kelly read: “Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”

Only after Porter resigned was it announced that the chief of staff was “shocked” by the “new allegations” about his top aide. When pressed about reports that Kelly knew as early as last fall that both of Porter’s ex-wives had accused him of abusing them, CNN said, “The White House declined to comment on Wednesday when asked about Kelly’s knowledge of the allegations against Porter.”

Democratic members of the House, led by California Congressman Ted Lieu have sent a letter to Kelly asking him to explain when he had knowledge of the allegations of domestic abuse by Porter and what actions he took given that knowledge.

The letter to Kelly, which was signed by Lieu and Representatives Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, noted that:

As White House Chief of Staff, you are intimately involved in the hiring and subsequent management of senior level presidential personnel. As such, we respectfully request responses to the following questions:
• When did you learn of the allegations that Mr. Porter had abused one or both of his ex-wives?
• After you learned of these allegations, did you take any steps to remove or suspend Mr. Porter from the White House staff?
• At any point after you learned of these allegations, did you encourage Mr. Porter to remain on staff?
• At any point after you learned of these allegations, did you offer Mr. Porter a promotion or expand his responsibilities?
• Were you aware that Mr. Porter was unable to obtain a permanent security clearance, or was not in possession of a permanent clearance during his time at the White House?
• Why was Mr. Porter allowed to handle and view our nation’s most sensitive materials without a permanent security clearance?

Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana, responded to reports on the Porter affair by saying, “If John Kelly is covering this up, he needs to be held accountable. He better have a really good reason. Otherwise, he’s gone, too.”

The Senate cannot remove Kelly, as the chief of staff is a direct presidential appointee who is not required to go through the confirmation process that is required for cabinet members and agency heads. So the issue of removal goes to Trump.

Or Kelly could resign.

National Organization for Women President Toni Van Pelt argues, well and wisely, that the time for Kelly to remove himself has arrived.

“White House Chief of Staff John Kelly must resign. His pathetic defense of staff secretary Rob Porter reveals his true nature—an enabler of sexual abusers, a betrayer of trust and an avoider of responsibility,” says Van Pelt, who asks: “Why did John Kelly continue to support Rob Porter after he was told about Porter’s history of abuse? Why did he allow a man who was denied a security clearance because of his history of violence against women to continue in a high ranking position of trust? Why did he talk Rob Porter out of resigning, telling him he could ‘weather the storm,’ according to press accounts?”

Van Pelt concludes that

General Kelly should know better. As a military commander, he took pride in protecting his troops. As chief of staff, it is his duty to protect the people who serve in the White House. Women who work for John Kelly are asking themselves today if they can trust General Kelly to protect them from sexual predators.

Clearly, they can’t. John Kelly has shown his true colors. He’s on Team ‘Grab Them By The Pussy,’ leaving women who are victimized by sexual violence to fend for themselves.

John Kelly must go. Today.

I Am The Very Model — Matthew Dessem in Slate.

I am the very model of a New York Times contrarian,
My intellect is polished but my soul’s authoritarian,
From Allen down to Exxon, bullies’ water I am carrying,
Except for Donald Trump’s, because I find him a vulgarian.
I’m very well acquainted, too, with arguments political,
I love to mount defenses for the vile and hypocritical,
I filigree each sentence till its meaning I am burying,
My job is to distract you from the rising smell of carrion.

My eagerness to stand up for the powerful is frightening,
I’m always showing up when a sepulcher needs some whitening,
In short, with polished intellect and soul authoritarian,
I am the very model of a New York Times contrarian!

There’s nothing I like more than the chance to play Devil’s advocate,
My beat is moral virtue comma complete, total lack of it,
I’ll only call you “victim” if it’s clear that you’re a predator,
I’m lucky to have landed with a sympathetic editor.
Hate-reading makes my columns all go viral like canarypox,
Present me with the truth and I will turn it to a paradox,
I’ll spew undoubted bullshit till you’ll swear that it’s veracity,
Sometimes vocabulary gets confused for perspicacity.

I’ll never have to worry about financial adversity,
My sinecure’s secured by “intellectual diversity,”
In short, with polished sentences and soul authoritarian,
I am the very model of a New York Times contrarian!

I introduce myself in verse based on a comic opera,
Even though tragedy might strike my critics as more proper-a,
But cheerful, frantic forms can help obscure a darkness visible,
And keep people from noticing my arguments are risible.
I’m confident that confidence is all I need to dominate,
I’ll gladly share my theories with your business or conglomerate,
For money I will tell you money’s good for the environment,
Or argue that a safety net is nothing but entitlement!

The best people all know me and my pedigree’s immaculate,
That’s good, because my takes are generally quite inaccurate,
But still, with polished intellect and soul authoritarian,
I am the very model of a New York Times contrarian!

Doonesbury — Dreams dying on the vine.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Shutdown Again

This may all be over by the time the sun comes up today, but for now we have another shutdown.

The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan spending bill Friday morning, but not before the federal government shut down when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delayed the vote past midnight to complain about the budget deficit. It was the second government shutdown in less than three weeks.

The spending legislation passed 71-28, with wide bipartisan support. The bill would reopen the government while showering hundreds of billions of dollars on defense and domestic priorities, speeding disaster aid to hurricane-hit regions, and lifting the federal borrowing limit for a year. But first it must pass the House, where opposition from the left and the right made the outcome uncertain.

House votes were expected later Friday morning.

The shutdown was so unanticipated that the Office of Management and Budget didn’t tell federal agencies to prepare for it until Thursday evening. But depending on House action the closure could end up being brief and having little impact on federal workers and the public.

Or not.  You never know with these flakes.  So we wait and wonder why they get paid as much as they do to do as little as possible.

Update: And we’re back in business, such as it is.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It All Comes Down To Trust

So we have a bill to end the shutdown.  It isn’t perfect; the hard-cores on both sides hate it and there are cries of “Sellout!” and “Sucker!” from the likes of the Tea Party to Code Pink.  That usually means it’s a deal made to end an immediate impasse with promises of goodies for both sides later, neither of whom trust the other to keep their word.

That’s the main question: Do you trust them to keep their word?

Charles P. Pierce just before final passage:

If this bill passes, CHIP will be financed for the next six years, and that’s a very good thing. The military will get its money, and a lot of people will be mollified by that, I guess. (Also, the campaign talking point that the Democrats are stealing money from Our Troops to give it to the various branches of MS-13 is somewhat blunted. Golf clap. They’re going to use it anyway.) And, depending on your relative innate optimism, Schumer and the Democrats didn’t give up much at all but, rather, decided to live to fight in February on funding the government, and to fight on DACA in March. But, for me, McConnell is a rare combination of being ruthless and being truthless, and the House has lost its mind, and the president* has disappeared. And, these days, my innate optimism is not exactly brimming.

What gives me pause is what I saw and heard over the weekend and on Monday. A political party that wants to eliminate entire Cabinet departments defended a president* whose administration* has refused to staff vital positions all over the government by weeping crocodile tears over the plight of furloughed federal employees. And Tailgunner Ted Cruz, cornered in the basement of some Senate office building, insisting that he always has opposed government shutdowns. (I thought Kasie Hunt of MSNBC was going to be orbiting Mars by the time that little episode ended.) The truth is not in these people because, given the nature of their political base, and given the essential political immorality of their donor class, it hasn’t had to be for a very long time.

So, I’m not going to scream, “Sellout!” nor sing “Kumbaya.” I am just going to sum up the state of play in three questions.

Do you trust a promise from Mitch McConnell?

Do you think Paul Ryan can be trusted to control his caucus sufficiently to pass a bill based on a promise from Mitch McConnell?

Do you think the president* can be trusted to sign a bill based on a promise from Mitch McConnell?

Your mileage may certainly vary.

If it gets to February 8 and somehow Mitch McConnell backs out of the deal because he didn’t like the way Elizabeth Warren looked at him in the hallway, or Paul Ryan can’t or doesn’t try to control his caucus, or Trump hears something on Fox and Friends that calls into question the spheroid shape of the planet and he tweets his madness, the government will shut down yet again and this time there’s no way they can plausibly blame it on the Democrats.  (They still will; I said “plausibly,” and that’s an adjective that gets no respect in Washington.)  Then we start this whole thing over again, but it will squarely be on the DACA situation with no extraneous distractions such as military pay or CHIP.

No, I don’t trust Mitch McConnell any further than I can fly to the moon on gossamer wings.  But if this blows up, the turds will be in his punch bowl and the fun part will be seeing how he explains how he can’t trust himself.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Shutdown

Via the Washington Post:

The federal government shut down for the first time in more than four years Friday after senators rejected a temporary spending patch and bipartisan efforts to find an alternative fell short as a midnight deadline came and went.

Republican and Democratic leaders both said they would continue to talk, raising the possibility of a solution over the weekend. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said Friday that the conflict has a “really good chance” of being resolved before government offices open Monday, suggesting that a shutdown’s impacts could be limited.

But the White House drew a hard line immediately after midnight, saying they would not negotiate over a central issue — immigration — until government funding is restored.

“We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “This is the behavior of obstructionist losers, not legislators. When Democrats start paying our armed forces and first responders we will reopen negotiations on immigration reform.”

It seems pretty ironic to blame this on the Democrats since the GOP controls the House, the Senate, and the White House.  And why should the Democrats negotiate with Trump?  After all, the policy has been pretty simple all along: we don’t negotiate with terrorists.

The more the Trump folks try to pin this on the Democrats, the more you know that they know this shit is on them.

So as of now, Saturday, January 20 — the first anniversary of the Trump regime — a lot of people who work in the government are furloughed.  That means sent home without getting paid for the time off.  But it also trickles down to private contractors who get paid for working for the government; everyone from the folks who provide food service to the various departments to the military contractors who are providing material for the Department of Defense.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Looking Back/Looking Forward

Here we go with my annual recap and prognostication for the year.  Let’s see how I did a year ago.

  • I have no earthly idea what will happen with Trump in the White House.  But I can say that for the first time in my life — and I will hit 65 this year — I am frightened both for myself and my country.
  • At some point in 2017 elements of the electorate will realize that they got conned into voting for Trump and that they were played for fools.  The backlash will begin when they find out he can’t follow through on his bullshit promises, and reach a peak when they find out that repealing Obamacare and deporting 11 million people effects them personally.  When it happens, it will not be pretty.

I’m still frightened.  Nothing — not the Mueller investigation, the revelations coming from various sources, or chatter about impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment — has calmed my fear that he is still capable of doing something that puts us and the rest of the world in peril.  As for the second bullet point, we are seeing faint glimmers that disillusionment is happening in the nooks and crannies of America where he can do no wrong, and no amount of tweeting and bullshit from Fox News can turn around his dismal approval numbers.  But that just means that fully 1/3 of the electorate still approve of him.  Even his failures — Obamacare yet survives and the deportations haven’t happened — haven’t dimmed the hopes of the dim.

  • There will be a downturn in the economy thanks to the cyclical nature of economics and the instability in the market by the Twitter-In-Chief. He will, of course, blame it on Barack Obama.

Obviously I’m not an economist because if I was I would have known that the economy lags behind and the continued growth and low unemployment rate are a result of Obama’s policies.  Of course Trump is taking credit for it.

  • A year from now the Syrian civil war will still be dragging on.  ISIS will still be a factor, and if Trump does what he says he will do with the Iran nuclear deal, expect to see them re-start their nuclear program.  “Dr. Strangelove” will be seen by historians as a documentary.
  • The refugee crisis will continue and fester once nativists and right-wing elements win majorities in western European countries.

The Syrian civil war goes on but it’s not dominating the news cycles, and ISIS is a lessening factor.  I don’t know if it’s sheer exhaustion.  The refugee crisis goes on but with a lesser magnitude.

  • Our diplomatic thaw with Cuba will freeze as the attempts to end the blockade will not get through Congress. Only until Trump gets permission to open a casino in Varadero Beach will there be any progress.

Trump rescinded some of the Obama administration’s changes in our relations with Cuba but not enough to return us to Cold War status.  The blockade, such as it is, enters its 57th year.

  • Violence against our fellow citizens will continue and take on a more xenophobic tone as the white supremacists think they are now in control. The attorney general will do nothing to put an end to it because, in his words, “they had it coming.”

Charlottesville and Trump’s tacit support of the Nazis proved that to be true, more’s the pity.

  • We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. 2016 was an especially painful year. As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.

I lost two uncles and a nephew since I wrote that.

  • The Tigers will finish second in their division.

They traded Justin Verlander.  Yeah, he helped the Astros win the World Series, but…

Okay, now on to predictions.

  • There will be indictments at a very high level in the administration as the Mueller investigation rumbles on.  Plea bargains and deals will be made and revelations will come forth, and by summer there will be genuine questions about whether or not the administration will survive.  But there won’t be a move to impeach Trump as long as there are Republican majorities in the Congress, and invoking the 25th Amendment is a non-starter.
  • The Democrats will make great gains in the mid-term elections in November.  This is a safe bet because the party out of power usually does in the first mid-term of new president.  The Democrats will take back the Senate and narrow the gap in the House to the point that Speaker Paul Ryan with either quit or be so powerless that he’s just hanging around to collect pension points.  (No, he will not lose his re-election bid.)
  • There will be a vacancy on the Supreme Court, but it won’t happen until after the mid-terms and Trump’s appointment will flail as the Democrats in the Senate block the confirmation on the grounds that the next president gets to choose the replacement.
  • There will be irrefutable proof that the Russians not only meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, but they’ve had a hand in elections in Europe as well and will be a factor in the U.S. mid-terms.  Vladimir Putin will be re-elected, of course.
  • Raul Castro will figure out a way to still run Cuba even if he steps down as president, and there will be no lessening of the authoritarian rule.
  • The U.S. economy will continue to grow, but there will be dark clouds on the horizon as the deficit grows thanks to the giveaways in the GOP tax bill.  If the GOP engineers cuts to entitlement programs and the number of uninsured for healthcare increases, the strain on the economy will be too much.
  • This “America First” foreign policy will backfire.  All it does is tell our allies “You’re on your own.”  If we ever need them, they’re more likely to turn their backs on us.
  • The white supremacist movement will not abate.  Count on seeing more violence against minorities and more mass shootings.
  • A viable Democratic candidate will emerge as a major contender for the 2020 election, and it will most likely be a woman.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren is considered to be the default, but I wouldn’t rule out Sen. Kamala Harris of California or Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York just yet.  (Sen. Gillibrand would drive Trump even further around the bend.  She was appointed to the Senate to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat when she became Secretary of State in 2009.)
  • On a personal level, this will be a busy year for my work in theatre with a full production of “All Together Now” opening in March and several other works out there for consideration.  I will also be entering my last full year of employment in my present job (retirement happens in August 2019) but I’ll keep working.
  • People and fads we never heard about will have their fifteen minutes.
  • I’ll do this again next year.

Okay, friends; it’s your turn.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Make Them Pay

Now that the Republicans have passed their massive — $1.5 trillion in deficit increase can only be described as massive — tax bill, the vow among a lot of Democrats has been to make the GOP pay for this highway robbery and con game at the polls in 2018 and 2020.

But that won’t happen by itself.  We have seen all too often how inertia and propaganda have paralyzed organized opposition from the Democrats who have enough trouble among themselves to get their shit together to mount a campaign.  The fact that Doug Jones won in the special election is great, but that he won by less than ten points against an alleged child molester and a proven Constitutional scofflaw means that they still have a lot of hard work to do.

The Republicans will mount a rabid defense of the indefensible, using every means possible to suppress the vote, demonize the candidates, put the fear of Jesus in the hands of the paid-off preachers and religious hypocrites, and channel it all through Fox News at a rate that would make Josef Goebbels blush with pride.  And the response from the Democrats and progressives must be swift, organized, and merciless.  No Republican should go unchallenged for any seat in Congress, no district should be considered safe, and no state legislature should be unchallenged in their attempts to gerrymander the state into being held hostage by 35% of the popular vote.

Can Democrats and progressives do it?  Can they elect enough of their kind to put an end to this regime of smug kleptocracy?  They’ve done it in fits and starts in the past, but in the face of this boorish and brazen incompetence and possible treason, the hard truth is that if they cannot, then they don’t deserve to win.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Monday, December 18, 2017

Bought Off

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) was going to be a man of integrity and vote against the tax bill because it was a budget-buster and since he wasn’t going to run for re-election, he didn’t have to worry about defending his vote against the party at the polls in November.  But then he realized that he needed some money to keep him in the lifestyle he was accustomed to as a real estate mogul, so when the GOP came along with a nice little present in the form of a tax break, he was all aboard.

Trump has made tens of millions of dollars of a specific kind of income that could be subjected to a last-minute tax break inserted into the Republicans’ tax legislation released Friday, according to federal records reviewed by International Business Times. The same is true for Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker — a commercial real estate mogul who suddenly switched his vote to “yes” on the tax bill after the provision was added to the legislation. Previously, Corker was the only Republican to vote against the Senate version of the bill.

Trump told a Missouri crowd on Nov. 29 that he would personally take a hit from the GOP tax plan. “This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me…I have some very wealthy friends. Not so happy with me, but that’s OK,” Trump said. But a variety of experts have concluded that the tax bill overwhelmingly favors the wealthiest Americans — especially those with complex real-estate investments.

The reconciled tax bill includes a new 20 percent deduction for so-called “pass-through” entities, business structures such as LLCs, LPs and S-Corporations that don’t pay corporate taxes, but instead “pass through” income to partners who pay individual tax rates on that money. The Senate version of the bill included safeguards that would only allow businesses to take advantage of the new break if they paid out significant wages to employees. But the new provision, which wasn’t included in either version of the bill passed by the House and Senate, and was only added during the reconciliation process, gives owners of income-producing real estate holdings a way around that safeguard, effectively creating a new tax break for large landlords and real estate moguls.

Might as well cash in while they’re handing out the chips.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sunday Reading

Fox Evangelism — Amy Sullivan in The New York Times on how evangelical Christians have sold their soul for political expediency.

To hear the Christian right tell it, President Trump should be a candidate for sainthood — that is, if evangelicals believed in saints.

“Never in my lifetime have we had a Potus willing to take such a strong outspoken stand for the Christian faith like Donald Trump,” tweeted Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham. The Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress sees a divine hand at work: “God intervened in our election and put Donald Trump in the Oval Office for a great purpose.”

Testimonials like this confound critics who label conservative evangelical figures like Mr. Graham and Mr. Jeffress hypocrites for embracing a man who is pretty much the human embodiment of the question “What would Jesus not do?”

But what those critics don’t recognize is that the nationalistic, race-baiting, fear-mongering form of politics enthusiastically practiced by Mr. Trump and Roy Moore in Alabama is central to a new strain of American evangelicalism. This emerging religious worldview — let’s call it “Fox evangelicalism” — is preached from the pulpits of conservative media outlets like Fox News. It imbues secular practices like shopping for gifts with religious significance and declares sacred something as worldly and profane as gun culture.

Journalists and scholars have spent decades examining the influence of conservative religion on American politics, but we largely missed the impact conservative politics was having on religion itself. As a progressive evangelical and journalist covering religion, I’m as guilty as any of not noticing what was happening. We kept asking how white conservative evangelicals could support Mr. Trump, who luxuriates in divisive rhetoric and manages only the barest veneer of religiosity. But that was never the issue. Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.

Consider the so-called War on Christmas, which the president has made a pet crusade. Mr. Trump has been sharing Christmas greetings since October, well before decorations had even shown up in most stores, when the Values Voter Summit crowd gave him a standing ovation for declaring, “We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again!” He has spent November and December taking victory laps, telling crowds at political rallies in Utah and Florida that “Christmas is back, better and bigger than ever before.”

Every one of Mr. Trump’s predecessors declared “Merry Christmas,” too — including Barack Obama, whose message at last year’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony was virtually indistinguishable from Mr. Trump’s. What matters to Fox evangelicals, though, is not that Mr. Trump observes Christmas but that he casts himself as the defender of the Christian holiday.

From the beginning, the War on Christmas was a homegrown Fox News cause, introduced by the so-named 2005 book by John Gibson, a former Fox News host, and promoted annually by Bill O’Reilly. But it was never really a religious argument. Mr. O’Reilly and company weren’t occupied with defending belief in the Virgin Birth or worrying that the celebration of Christ’s birth had become too commercialized.

In an irony appreciated by anyone who remembers the original anti-consumption, anti-Santa meaning of the “Reason for the Season” slogan, Fox and allies like the American Family Association focused on getting more Christmas into stores and shopping malls. For more than a decade, Fox News hosts have kept viewers updated on which stores were “in the Christmas spirit,” and the American Family Association, which operates nearly 200 radio stations in the United States, maintains its very own “naughty and nice” list for retailers.

As a result, the War on Christmas has moved one of the holiest Christian days out of the church and into the secular realm. That may suit conservative activists who promote Christian nationalism and want to see Christianity officially dominate the public sphere. But at a time when a new Pew Research Center study shows that only about half of those Americans who celebrate Christmas plan to do so as a religious holiday, the War on Christmas may be damaging Christian witness by elevating performative secular practices.

These days, even though Mr. O’Reilly declared “victory” last year in the War on Christmas, Fox News still gives the supposed controversy wall-to-wall coverage and has folded it into the network’s us-versus-them, nationalist programming. The regular Fox News viewer, whether or not he is a churchgoer, takes in a steady stream of messages that conflate being white and conservative and evangelical with being American.

The power of that message may explain the astonishing findings of a survey released this month by LifeWay Research, a Christian organization based in Nashville. LifeWay’s researchers developed questions meant to get at both the way Americans self-identify religiously and their theological beliefs. What they discovered was that while one-quarter of Americans consider themselves to be “evangelical,” less than half of that group actually holds traditional evangelical beliefs. For others, “evangelical” effectively functions as a cultural label, unmoored from theological meaning.

But if the conservative media has created a category of Fox evangelical converts, it has also influenced the way a whole generation of churchgoing evangelicals thinks about God and faith. On no issue is this clearer than guns.

In fall 2015, I visited Trinity Bible College, an Assemblies of God-affiliated school in North Dakota, to join the conservative evangelical students there for a screening of “The Armor of Light,” a documentary by the filmmaker Abigail Disney. The film followed the pastor and abortion opponent Rob Schenck on his quest to convince fellow evangelicals — the religious demographic most opposed to gun restrictions — that pro-life values are incompatible with an embrace of unrestricted gun access. I found Mr. Schenck compelling, and my editor had sent me to see if his target audience bought the arguments.

It did not.

As two dozen of us gathered for a post-screening discussion, I was both astonished and troubled, as a fellow evangelical, by the visceral sense of fear that gripped these young adults. As a child in the Baptist church, I had been taught to be vigilant about existential threats to my faith. But these students in a town with a population of some 1,200 saw the idea of a home invasion or an Islamic State attack that would require them to take a human life in order to save others as a certainty they would face, not a hypothetical.

These fears are far removed from the reality of life in North Dakota, a state that saw a total of 21 homicides in 2015. Of those deaths, seven were caused by firearms, and only three were committed by someone unknown to the victim. Yet the students around me agreed unreservedly with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, who was seen in the film asserting that “in the world around us, there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers.”

This worldview is familiar to anyone who has spent time watching Fox News, where every day viewers are confronted with threats to their way of life. It’s also profoundly un-Christian. One of the most consistent messages of the Bible is the exhortation “Do not be afraid!” Before young evangelicals can read, we memorize verses reminding us to “be strong and courageous” and “trust in the Lord.” “Fear,” says Mr. Schenck in the documentary, “should not be a controlling element in the life of a Christian.”

Fear and distrust of outsiders — in conflict with numerous biblical teachings to “welcome the stranger” — also explain Fox evangelicals’ strong support for the Trump administration’s efforts to bar refugees and restrict travel to the United States from several majority-Muslim nations. After Mr. Trump’s initial executive orders during his first week in office, more than 100 evangelical leaders, including the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, published a full-page ad in The Washington Post denouncing the refugee ban and urging the president to reconsider. But those leaders didn’t speak for most white evangelicals, three-quarters of whom told Pew pollsters they supported the refugee and travel bans.

That disconnect underscores the challenge many pastors face in trying to shepherd congregants who are increasingly alienated from traditional Gospel teachings. “A pastor has about 30 to 40 minutes each week to teach about Scripture,” said Jonathan Martin, an Oklahoma pastor and popular evangelical writer. “They’ve been exposed to Fox News potentially three to four hours a day.”

It’s meaningful, Mr. Martin says, that scions of the religious right like Jerry Falwell Jr. are not pastors like their fathers. “There was a lot I didn’t agree with him on, but I’m confident that it was important to Senior” — Jerry Falwell — “that he grounded his beliefs in Scripture,” Mr. Martin said. “Now the Bible’s increasingly irrelevant. It’s just ‘us versus them.’”

The result is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized not just to complain about department stores that hang “Happy Holidays” banners, but more significantly, in support of politicians like Mr. Trump or Mr. Moore — and of virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war.

“It explains how much evangelicals have moved the goal post,” said Mr. Martin. “If there’s not a moral theology or ethic to it, but it’s about playing for the right team, you can do anything and still be on the right side.”

Three views of the Republican tax bill and the ramifications for America.

The Hairball — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on how the tax bill got through.

Grant the Republican Party leaders one thing: their tactics in passing their hugely unpopular tax bill have been consistent—consistently evasive. A few weeks ago, the Senate version of the bill was passed in the middle of the night. This weekend, the final iteration of the legislation was made public on Friday evening—a traditional dumping ground for bad news. The Republicans intend to hold votes on the bill early next week in both houses of Congress, and it seems certain to pass.

It is hardly surprising that Republicans don’t want to give anyone too much time to look closely at their latest handiwork. The final tax bill is the product of a conference committee that was tasked with reconciling the different bills passed in the House and the Senate. Almost eleven hundred pages long, the final bill is just as regressive and fiscally irresponsible as either of the two earlier bills, and it is arguably more so. At its center is a huge tax cut for corporations and unincorporated business partnerships—such as the ones that Donald Trump owns—while arrayed around the edges are all sorts of carve-outs and giveaways to favored industries and interest groups.

For individual households, the bill contains some tax cuts and expanded family credits. But these provisions are temporary, and they are also partially offset by changes to the rules about deductions. Because the deduction for state and local taxes will be limited to ten thousand dollars a year, for instance, some upper-middle-class households in states like California and New York could end up paying more to the federal government.

Nowhere to be found in the bill are three elements that House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and their colleagues originally promised to deliver when they urged the American public to embrace tax reform: revenue neutrality, simplicity, and fairness. The final bill is a corrupt, budget-busting hairball.

According to its authors, the bill will increase the budget deficit by about $1.5 trillion over ten years. That’s a lot of money, obviously, but it’s an underestimate. If you adjust the numbers for a series of accounting gimmicks, such as expiration provisions that are unlikely to go into effect, the real cost seems likely to come out at more than two trillion dollars.

To insure that the final bill would have enough votes in both chambers, the conference committee larded the bill with various additional handouts. They reduced the top rate of income tax to thirty-seven per cent, compared to 38.5 per cent in the Senate bill. (Currently, the effective top rate is close to forty-one per cent.) And they did a big favor to large businesses by getting rid of the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax, which many of them could have ended up paying because their tax rates under the new system will be so low.

The principle of simplifying the tax code met the same fate as the principle of fiscal responsibility: it was jettisoned. Originally, the White House proposed reducing the number of tax brackets from seven to three. The final bill contains seven brackets: ten per cent, twelve per cent, twenty-two per cent, twenty-four per cent, thirty-two per cent, thirty-five per cent, and thirty-seven per cent. On the business side, the revised treatment of pass-through income is so complicated that most tax experts don’t yet fully understand it. One thing we do know is that it will create big incentives for highly paid employees to turn themselves into independent contractors or L.L.C.s, which qualify for the new low business tax rates.

As for fairness, that principle was junked a long time ago. The final bill reflects the same principle as the previous two G.O.P. bills: Dom Perignon for the plutocrats, cheap swill for the masses. The bill is also cruel. In abolishing the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to purchase health insurance, it will make individual plans even more costly and more difficult to obtain, especially for sick people. This isn’t just a tax bill. It is a backdoor effort to overturn the principle of universal access to health care.

As reporters went through the bill on Friday evening, they discovered various quirks, giveaways, and clawbacks, which appeared to reflect last-minute lobbying and rushed rewriting. Businesses owned by trusts were given a break, and so were architectural and engineering firms. On the personal side, the bill was found to contain a substantial marriage penalty: the maximum deduction of ten thousand dollars for state and local taxes is the same for individual filers and couples. That’s bad news for people who are wed—though the blow will be cushioned for those married couples who own sports franchises. The Wall Street Journalreported on Friday night that the bill “preserves the ability to use tax-exempt bonds for professional sports stadium bonds—a priority for Mr. Trump, a GOP aide said.”

Another provision, which wasn’t in the House or Senate bills, allows real-estate developers who own buildings through L.L.C.s, as Trump does, to deduct twenty per cent of the income that these properties generate. To qualify for the break, the properties have to be newish ones that haven’t been fully depreciated. “This helps people who have held property for a while, like Donald Trump,” David Kamin, a law professor at New York University, told David Sirota and Josh Keefe, of the International Business Times.

Another beneficiary of this provision may well be Senator Bob Corker, of Tennessee, who is also a real-estate investor. Corker had been the only Republican to vote against the Senate version of the tax bill, but on Friday he announced that he’d changed his mind, and that “after great thought and consideration, I believe this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive is one we should not miss.” Corker didn’t mention his personal interests, but Sirota and Keefe did. “Federal records reviewed by IBT show that Corker has millions of dollars of ownership stakes in real-estate-related LLCs that could also benefit” from the final bill, they reported.

Sham and Con — Charles P. Pierce on the tax bill.

And, in the end, they all folded like cheap suits because empty suits are the easiest to fold. Friend of the kids Marco Rubio took a dive, and deficit hawk Bob Corker followed him into the tank. The vastly unpopular—and economically disastrous—tax bill likely will pass the Senate because senators come pretty cheaply these days, and accommodations are easily made when you know the only constituency worth your time is your donors, and when you know all the math in the monstrosity is 90 percent fudge anyway. From The New York Times:

The unexpected support from Mr. Corker, who had opposed the initial Senate legislation over concerns about its impact on the deficit, put the Republicans on the one-yard line in the final seconds of the tax bill debate. Lawmakers plan to vote next week with the aim of getting a bill to President Trump by Christmas. On Friday, as details emerged about the final bill, it became clear that the agreement would provide slightly more generous tax breaks to low- and middle-income Americans by reducing some benefits for higher earners, one of several tweaks intended to solve the budget problems standing between the bill’s passage and President Trump’s desk, according to people briefed on the final plan. With the finish line to their first legislative victory in sight, Republican negotiators agreed to provide a more generous child tax credit in the final bill to shore up support from Mr. Rubio, who said he would not vote for the legislation unless it provided more help to lower-income Americans.

It’s a sham and a con, and it was a sham and a con when Rubio and Corker were pretending to be so very bothered about what a sham and a con it is. There has been some tinkering, because senators come cheaply these days, but it’s still a vaporous collection of unmoored nostrums in search of a magic asterisk. I mean, listen to Corker. A Swiss Army Knife looks less like a tool.

Mr. Corker, a longtime deficit hawk, said he was swayed to support the bill as the result of “many conversations over the past several days with individuals from both sides of the aisle across Tennessee and around the country.” Mr. Corker said the bill “is far from perfect, and left to my own accord, we would have reached bipartisan consensus on legislation that avoided any chance of adding to the deficit and far less would have been done on the individual side with items that do not generate economic growth.”

Shut up. Just shut up. You know that “bipartisan consensus” always was impossible on this dog’s breakfast and you know why, too. Your party and its owners didn’t want any part of it. Go back to Tennessee and explain to your former constituents where their healthcare went.

New details from the text, shared with The New York Times on Friday, reveal that lawmakers offset other last-minute changes to the bill — such as eliminating the corporate alternative minimum tax and lowering the top individual tax rate to 37 percent from 39.6 percent today — through slight adjustments, not sweeping changes. And it was still unclear how they were going to pay for the entire package, which can add no more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit if it is to pass without Democrat support.

Christamighty, they’re not even trying hard any more. Just get a big truck and deliver the cash on pallets to the only people in this country who really matter to you. If you’re lucky, they won’t make you use the servant’s entrance. But get it while you can, fellas. Beggar’s Day is coming, and right soon.

And They’re Screwing Puerto Rico — AJ Vicens in Mother Jones on how the tax bill rips off the hurricane-devastated territory even more.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Friday that Republicans’ decision to leave a pair of provisions in the tax reform legislation that experts say will hammer Puerto Rico’s already struggling economy was “unconscionable.”

“It is devastating and unconscionable that Congress would do this at this juncture,” Rosselló told NBC News after it was clear the provisions remained in the bill.

Republicans released the latest version of their bill Friday evening and plan to vote it out of the House and Senate early next week. The tax bill, as written, would include taxes on payments between US companies and their foreign subsidiaries and profits from intellectual property. At a Friday news conference in San Juan, Rosselló called the tax reform plan “a huge blow for Puerto Rico,” according to Caribbean Business, and, the paper writes, the bill would have an “adverse impact” on 50 percent of the island’s gross domestic product, 30 percent of the government’s revenue, and 250,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Rosselló’s administration estimates that recovery from Hurricanes Irma and María will cost roughly $95 billion. The island was already grappling with more than $72 billion in outstanding debt, $49 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and a 45 percent unemployment rate, the result of a decade-long economic downturn. That crisis had already fueled an exodus of roughly 400,000 people over the last decade, a trend that has only intensified since the hurricanes.

Carlos Mercader, the director of Rosselló’s office in Washington, DC, tells Mother Jones the Republican decision was “shameful” and reflects the island’s lack of status in Washington when big decisions are made. “We’ve had many congressmen coming down to Puerto Rico, visiting the island, being amazed by the incredible devastation,” says Mercader. “They’ve been the most empathetic people in the world. But it’s all words, no actions. When actions need to come, this is what they do.”

In an attempt to make it harder for US companies to avoid US taxes via foreign subsidiaries, the bill would impose a 20 percent excise tax on payments from US companies to their foreign subsidiaries. For tax purposes, the IRS sometimes considers Puerto Rico and the other territories foreign countries. That shift could cause the US pharmaceutical industry, which generates billions of dollars in revenue and employs tens of thousands of workers on the island, to shift production out of Puerto Rico.

According to BloombergPoliticsthe way the current law works allows US companies to buy their own products from Puerto Rican subsidiaries and avoid regular income taxes, and pay just 4 percent in excise tax to the island’s government, as long as the money from that subsidiary is kept offshore. The arrangement has been a “paradise” for US drug makers and, the Food and Drug Administration estimates that drug companies and medical device manufacturers account for nearly 30 percent of the island’s GDP.

Rosselló said Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “turned a blind eye” on Puerto Rico. “I will be very active and I’m sure my colleagues will be very active, in different Puerto Rican populations or Latino populations and make sure everyone knows we were treated as second-class citizens,” the governor said.

Doonesbury — Creatures of habit.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Brave Sir Marco – Updated

Via the Washington Post:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) threatened Thursday to vote against Republicans’ $1.5 trillion tax overhaul unless it further expands a child tax credit to millions of working families, leaving GOP leaders searching for answers on a final deal that had appeared to be on the verge of sailing through the House and Senate.

Rubio, along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), wants Republican leaders to include the expansion as they reconcile separate tax measures passed by the House and Senate, working to craft a final compromise bill that could pass both chambers and be sent President Trump for his signature.

GOP leaders had said Wednesday they believed that they had reached a broad agreement that both chambers could pass, and they planned to unveil the package Friday morning with hopes of voting on it early next week. But opposition from Rubio and perhaps Lee — who has not yet decided whether to support the bill, a spokesman said Thursday — could delay or derail the tax effort.

Mr. Rubio will hold out just long enough to get the headlines and the attention that he craves before he caves.  The leadership will come up with some token concession — a few million here, a maybe a little cut there — and he’ll be on board.  This is how the game is played, and he knows it.

Marco Rubio used to be the darling — the “Republican Savior,” as Time magazine once profiled him — of the establishment GOP; the next gen of the GOP that would take them out of the Bush era and into the bright sunlight of real 21st century conservatism: anti-choice and pro-gun but hip enough to have gay friends and quote hip-hop.  Then Trump came along and trashed the joint and took with them Mr. Rubio’s Oval Office aspirations along with demeaning him like a schoolyard bully.  He tried to quit the whole thing in a huff, saying he hated being in the Senate anyway and it was all a waste of time.  But then the realization that being the used car manager for Norman Braman in Miami — even if they were pre-owned Rolls Royces — would be too much of an ego deflater, so he promptly switched back to running for re-election.  Because Florida has no visible Democratic Party mechanism, he kept his seat.

Now he needs some way of getting atop the heap again so he can make a plausible run in 2020 against the wreckage of what’s left of Trump, and a commercial intoning, “He stood up against the tide of tax reform that threatened little children” is just what he needs to get another fifteen minutes.

He’s going to vote for the bill pretty much as it is.  He was going to all along.

Update: Told you.