Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Back To Reality

It’s especially harsh to come back from nearly two weeks of not really paying attention to the news and land with a thud: Trump holding yet again a rally in Florida (although Karma sent in torrential rain to prove that his supporters are not smart enough to know when to come in out of it) and touting the various and sundry stupidities and cruelties foisted upon us by this cretinous vulgarian.  Living on the shore of a fjord in Alaska with no internet connection and eating reindeer pizza suddenly doesn’t sound so nutty.

Of course, I didn’t watch any of this kinderspiel in Orlando, and apparently those who did heard nothing new so they didn’t bother to broadcast it (except Fox News, which has announced that it will soon sell time to broadcast his potty-time).  But reports are that he spent most of the time re-running his 2016 campaign themes: attacking a retired grandmother from Chappaqua, New York, for imagined crimes that his own children have committed, and giving evidence out loud that will be used in some future hearing on mental competency (“I’m going to read you a series of numbers and I want you to repeat them back to me…”).  But as Dana Milbank pointed out, it’s all he’s got since he can’t run on his own record of incompetence, fraudulence, criminality, vulgarity, isolationism, greed, racism, and buffoonery.

On top of that, the regime is on the verge of announcing plans for immigration arrests and deportation.  You don’t need to be a historian to see that this reeks of another regime’s method of dealing with their political scapegoat; you can download “Schindler’s List” from Netflix.

It’s no wonder that two dozen Democrats want to run against him in 2020.  I’m surprised there aren’t more; this should be an easy target for them.  Yes, of course I know that Democrats could lose an ice-skating race to a snake, but if the polls are anywhere near accurate this far out and with this short-term memory-challenged electorate, Trump would lose to any one of the top ten Democrats.  And judging by Trump’s reaction to the reality of his falling numbers, he’s killing off the messengers who are delivering the news.  (Meanwhile, he’s got more people working in “acting” positions in his administration than the cattle-call audition for a revival of “Cats.”)

Today will be my first full day back at work, back to reading what’s going on, and wondering why I came back to this harsh dose of reality when there are otters to watch frolicking in Prince William Sound and reindeer pizza to be ordered in.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Better Things To Do

You would think that with all of the things going on in the world today, including natural disasters such as flooding the Iowa and Nebraska, an entire fleet of aircraft grounded, North Korea rattling their sabre (again), white supremacists shooting up mosques in New Zealand, an American president would have more important things to worry about than a late-night comedy program on TV putting up a re-run that made fun of him.

But no.

Other U.S. presidents have decried horror abroad as an affront to values shared among liberal democratic allies, but Trump has made no major address to mourn those gunned down last week as they worshiped at mosques in New Zealand. He has not condemned the professed white-supremacist motives of the accused killer.

Instead, Trump has spent the past few days, including the hours before and after the church service, rallying his most loyal supporters around his nationalist agenda against illegal immigration, attacking a familiar list of perceived enemies and adding new ones, all while casting himself as a victim of unfair attacks.

It was a weekend of nonstop grievances from the leader of the free world.

“It’s truly incredible that shows like Saturday Night Live, not funny/no talent, can spend all of their time knocking the same person (me), over & over, without so much of a mention of ‘the other side,’ ” Trump tweeted just before 8 a.m. Sunday. “Like an advertisement without consequences. Same with Late Night Shows.”

SNL had rerun an episode Saturday that opened with a sketch lampooning Trump as a bitter and bewildered George Bailey from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The president suggested the federal government should target the show. “Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this? There must be Collusion with the Democrats and, of course, Russia! Such one sided media coverage, most of it Fake News. Hard to believe I won and am winning. Approval Rating 52 percent, 93% with Republicans. Sorry! #MAGA.”

Okay, stop right there.  The federal government can’t target the show; the FCC has no control over the networks.  And it sounds like he’s calling for the return of the Fairness Doctrine, which was abolished during the Reagan administration because gas bags like Rush Limbaugh complained that they were under the mistaken impression that they had to give equal time to opposite points of view.  You really want that back?  (Actually, it wouldn’t make any difference.  Most, if not all, of the news, fake or otherwise, comes via cable, and that’s not regulated by the FCC either.)

The point is that with all the shit going down in the world, we have an obsessed narcissist and coward in the White House who seems to think the only thing that matters is what other people think of him.  That’s not how you run a democracy.  It is, however, how you run a dictatorship.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Looking Back/Looking Forward

Time for my annual recap and predictions for this year and next.  Let’s look back at how I did a year ago.

  • 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.

I’ll give myself a B on that since it was pretty much that way a year ago and the gears of justice grind slowly but irresistibly.  No high-level members of the administration were indicted, but shame and scandal did bring down an impressive number of folks who had hard passes to the West Wing.

  • 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.)

I’ll go with a C on that since I hit the nail on the head in the first sentence; I should have just left it there.  But no; I had it backwards: the House flipped but the GOP still has the Senate, and who knew that Paul Ryan would decide to quit?

  • 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.

I’ll take an A- on that since I got the timing wrong, but I think Brett Kavanaugh did a great job of flailing (“I like beer!”) before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The predator still got on the court, though, and we all hold RBG in the Light for at least another two years.

  • 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.

A+ Duh.

  • 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.

Another A+, but what did anyone expect?  Trump’s half-assed attempts to restrain trade with Cuba, along with Marco Rubio doing his yapping perrito act, only make it more ironic when it’s the administration’s policy to cozy up to dictators like Putin and the Saudis.  If Trump owned a hotel in Havana he’d be down there in a second sucking up to the regime with video to prove it.

  • 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.

I’ll take a B on this since I didn’t factor in tariffs and the trade war(s) he’s launched that led to wild uncertainty in the markets, not to mention Trump’s bashing of the Fed chair that he appointed and told him to do what he’s doing.

  • 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.

I get an A on this because it has and they are.

  • The white supremacist movement will not abate.  Count on seeing more violence against minorities and more mass shootings.

Sadly, a very predictable A on that.

  • 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.)

I get a B on this because it was rather easy to spot and I’m already getting begging e-mails from Ms. Harris.

  • 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.

This was a great year for my playwriting with a lot of new friends and opportunities out there and more to come in 2019 (see below).

  • People and fads we never heard about will have their fifteen minutes.

Yep.  I’ve already blocked them out.

Okay, on to the predictions.

  • Barring natural causes or intervention from an outside force, Trump will still be in office on December 31, 2019.  There is no way he will leave voluntarily and even with the House of Representatives in Democratic control and articles of impeachment being drafted they will not get to the Senate floor because the Republicans are either too afraid to rile up the base or they’re too enamored of their own grip on power to care about the government being headed by a poor imitation of a tin-pot banana republic authoritarian douche-canoe.
  • The Mueller Report will be released to Congress and even though it’s supposed to be classified it will be leaked with great fanfare and pundit predictions of the end of the Trump administration with calls for frog-marching him and his minions out of the West Wing.  Despite that, see above.
  • There will be no wall.  There never will be.  Immigration will still be a triggering issue as even more refugees die in U.S. custody.
  • There will be no meaningful changes to gun laws even if the NRA goes broke.  There will be more mass shootings, thoughts and prayers will be offered, and we’ll be told yet again that now is not the time to talk about it.
  • Obamacare will survive its latest challenge because the ruling by the judge in Texas declaring the entire law unconstitutional will be tossed and turned into a case study in law schools everywhere on the topic of exasperatingly stupid reasoning.
  • Roe vs. Wade will still stand.
  • With the Democrats in control of the House, the government will be in permanent gridlock even after they work out some sort of deal to end the current shutdown over the mythological wall.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will become the Willie Horton for the GOP base and blamed for everything from budget deficits to the toast falling butter-side down.
  • We will have a pretty good idea who the Democratic front-runner will be in 2020.  I think Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s chances are still good (she announced her exploratory committee as I was writing this), as are Sen. Kamala Harris’s, and don’t count out Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, but who knew that Beto O’Rourke, a charismatic loser in the Texas senate race, would raise a lot of hopes?  That said, fifteen years ago when I started this blog, Howard Dean looked like the guy who was going to beat George W. Bush.
  • The economy will continue with its wild gyrations, pretty much following the gyrations of the mood of Trump and his thumb-driven Twitter-fed economic exhortations.  The tax cuts and the tariffs will land on the backs of the people who provide the income to the government and the deficit will soon be out there beyond the Tesla in outer space.  But unlike that Martian-bound convertible, the economy will come crashing back to Earth (probably about the time I retire in August) and Trump will blame everyone else.
  • There will be a natural event that will convince even skeptics that climate change and sea level rise is real and happening.  Unfortunately, nothing will be done about it even if lots of lives are lost because [spoiler alert] nothing ever is done.
  • I’m going out on a limb here with foreign affairs predictions, but I have a feeling that Brexit will end up in the dustbin of history.
  • Personally, this will be a transition year.  My retirement from Miami-Dade County Public Schools occurs officially on August 31, 2019, and I’m already actively looking for something both meaningful and income-producing to do after that.  (E-mail me for a copy of my resume; nothing ventured, nothing sprained.)  My play “Can’t Live Without You” opens at the Willow Theatre in Boca Raton, Florida, for a two-week run on March 30, and I’m planning on returning to the William Inge Theatre Festival for the 28th time, either with a play or most assuredly with a scholarly paper.  I have my bid in for a variety of other theatre events and productions; I think I’m getting the hang of this playwriting thing.
  • I will do this again next year.  I hope.  As Bobby says, “Hope is my greatest weakness.”

Okay, your turn.  Meanwhile, I wish continued good health and a long life to all of you and hope you make it through 2019 none the worse for wear.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Trump Diplomacy

Sending out Rudy Giuliani to share diplomatic methods with our allies is like trying to find a gas leak with a box of matches.

Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un got “on his hands and knees and begged” for their summit to be held after Mr. Trump canceled it last month….

Speaking at an investment conference in Israel hosted by the “Globes” newspaper, Mr. Giuliani said Mr. Trump canceled the summit last month because senior North Korean officials insulted top Trump administration officials.

“They also said they were going to go to nuclear war with us, they were going to defeat us in a nuclear war,” Mr. Giuliani said. “We said we’re not going to have a summit under those circumstances.”

After Mr. Trump canceled the meeting, Mr. Giuliani said: “Well, Kim Jong Un got back on his hands and knees and begged for it, which is exactly the position you want to put him in.”

Given the touchy nature of Mr. Kim’s personality and his propensity for feeling slighted at the littlest thing — he once had a government official executed for falling asleep in his presence — this statement should go over well in Pyongyang.

This crowd would serve cheeseburgers at a Seder.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Monday, January 29, 2018

Russian Role Model

Via the AP:

Russian protesters shouting slogans including “Putin is a thief!” gathered briefly around the Russian government’s headquarters while marching through central Moscow.

The lengthy march Sunday by the mostly young group of several hundred protesters came after a large gathering at Pushkin Square dispersed. The rally was among protests nationwide in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s call to boycott the March 18 presidential election.

The marchers headed down Novy Arbat, one of Moscow’s widest and busiest avenues, to the riverside government building colloquially known as the Russian White House. They shouted slogans and some threw handfuls of snow through the high, spiked fence surrounding the building before moving on.

Navalny himself was detained by police earlier in the day.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was detained by police en route to an unauthorized protest rally in Moscow, is expected to be charged with a public-order violation.

That charge could bring a punishment of 20 days in jail.

Navalny called for nationwide demonstrations Sunday to support a boycott of Russia’s March 18 presidential election, in which Vladimir Putin is seeking a fourth term. Navalny has been barred from running in the election.

Navalny was seized by police Sunday while walking to the Moscow protest. Russian news reports cited police as saying he was likely to be charged with violating a law on calling public demonstrations.

I’m sure that there was someone at the White House taking notes on this and filing it away for the 2020 campaign.  It could come in handy, y’know.

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, November 9, 2017

From The Dictator’s Handbook

The Justice Department’s scrutiny of the AT&T / Time Warner merger is taking on the tone of a vendetta.

Via TPM, the Financial Times is reporting that in order for the merger to go through, Time Warner has to divest itself of CNN.

The sale of CNN, which President Donald Trump has fiercely criticised as a broadcaster of “fake news”, is just one of the demands being made by the US antitrust authority in order to sign off on the deal, those involved in the talks said. But it could prove a stumbling block.

AT&T is opposed to selling the TV network and is preparing to take the Trump administration to court, arguing the deal with Time Warner does not pose any competition violations.

“It’s all about CNN,” said one person with direct knowledge of the talks between the company and the DOJ, adding that the regulator made it clear to AT&T that if it sold CNN the deal would go through.

CNN has been a favorite target of Trump and throughout his campaign and his time in office he’s complained about “fake news” because the network is reporting things he doesn’t like about his administration and the Russian investigation.

This is how dictators operate.  Lesson 1 is get control of the message and the messengers, and intimidate or eliminate those who don’t comply with your wishes.  Brand them as traitors and enemies of the state.  Trump’s already done that, and now he’s trying to interfere with one outlet’s business.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the DOJ made selling CNN to Fox a condition of the merger.  Those people know how to really report the news.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Yelling At Clouds

This cannot end well unless drastic means are taken.

Responding directly for the first time to President Trump’s threat at the United Nations to destroy nuclear-armed North Korea, its leader called Mr. Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” on Friday and vowed the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”

The rejoinder by the leader, Kim Jong-un, who is about half as old as Mr. Trump, 71, added to the lexicon of Mr. Kim’s choice of insults in the escalating bombast between the two.

“A frightened dog barks louder,” Mr. Kim said in a statement, referring to Mr. Trump’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday in which he vowed to annihilate North Korea if the United States were forced to defend itself or its allies against it.

“He is surely a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire, rather than a politician,” Mr. Kim said.

What’s really scary is that Kim is pretty much spot on with his characterization of Trump; he knows a fellow authoritarian bully and bombast when he sees one.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Loose Cannons

Via the Washington Post:

Trump used his harshest language yet to warn North Korea on Tuesday that it will be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” if it does not stop threatening the United States.

“North Korea best not make any more threats,” Trump told reporters at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club, where he is vacationing. Saying that the threats had gone “beyond a normal state,” he twice repeated the “fire and fury” warning.

It was not immediately clear what Trump was responding to. A North Korean military spokesman said Tuesday that Pyongyang was considering a plan to fire missiles at Guam and that it would carry out a preemptive strike if there were any signs of U.S. provocation, Reuters reported, quoting state media.

Earlier in the day, North Korea said it would “ruthlessly take strategic measures involving physical actions,” in the wake of new economic sanctions approved Saturday by the U.N. Security Council. On Monday, Pyongyang threatened retaliation against the United States “thousands of times.”

Trump’s statement also followed a report in The Washington Post that North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its ballistic missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. The report quoted a confidential assessment by U.S. intelligence officials.

Talk about “fire and fury” is the stuff of dictators shouting from a balcony to carefully-marshaled rallies in soccer stadiums, not a hastily-called news conference at a golf club in New Jersey.  Once that kind of threat is made, there is no backing down.

If the hope here is to convince North Korea that our leader is just as much of a warmonger as they are, there’s not much of a chance that either side will decide to discuss it rationally.  The only hope for peace after this kind of crazy talk is for an ally of both sides — China or Russia — to try to calm everyone down.  And that’s where “Dr. Stranglove or: How Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” becomes a documentary.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Autocratic America

David Frum has a very troubling piece in The Atlantic.

It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.

Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.

The president’s critics, meanwhile, have found little hearing for their protests and complaints. A Senate investigation of Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential campaign sputtered into inconclusive partisan wrangling. Concerns about Trump’s purported conflicts of interest excited debate in Washington but never drew much attention from the wider American public.

Allegations of fraud and self-dealing in the TrumpWorks program, and elsewhere, have likewise been shrugged off. The president regularly tweets out news of factory openings and big hiring announcements: “I’m bringing back your jobs,” he has said over and over. Voters seem to have believed him—and are grateful.

Most Americans intuit that their president and his relatives have become vastly wealthier over the past four years. But rumors of graft are easy to dismiss. Because Trump has never released his tax returns, no one really knows.

Anyway, doesn’t everybody do it? On the eve of the 2018 congressional elections, WikiLeaks released years of investment statements by prominent congressional Democrats indicating that they had long earned above-market returns. As the air filled with allegations of insider trading and crony capitalism, the public subsided into weary cynicism. The Republicans held both houses of Congress that November, and Trump loyalists shouldered aside the pre-Trump leadership.

The business community learned its lesson early. “You work for me, you don’t criticize me,” the president was reported to have told one major federal contractor, after knocking billions off his company’s stock-market valuation with an angry tweet. Wise business leaders take care to credit Trump’s personal leadership for any good news, and to avoid saying anything that might displease the president or his family.

The media have grown noticeably more friendly to Trump as well. The proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner was delayed for more than a year, during which Time Warner’s CNN unit worked ever harder to meet Trump’s definition of fairness. Under the agreement that settled the Department of Justice’s antitrust complaint against Amazon, the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, has divested himself of The Washington Post. The paper’s new owner—an investor group based in Slovakia—has closed the printed edition and refocused the paper on municipal politics and lifestyle coverage.

Meanwhile, social media circulate ever-wilder rumors. Some people believe them; others don’t. It’s hard work to ascertain what is true.

Nobody’s repealed the First Amendment, of course, and Americans remain as free to speak their minds as ever—provided they can stomach seeing their timelines fill up with obscene abuse and angry threats from the pro-Trump troll armies that police Facebook and Twitter. Rather than deal with digital thugs, young people increasingly drift to less political media like Snapchat and Instagram.

Trump-critical media do continue to find elite audiences. Their investigations still win Pulitzer Prizes; their reporters accept invitations to anxious conferences about corruption, digital-journalism standards, the end of nato, and the rise of populist authoritarianism. Yet somehow all of this earnest effort feels less and less relevant to American politics. President Trump communicates with the people directly via his Twitter account, ushering his supporters toward favorable information at Fox News or Breitbart.

Despite the hand-wringing, the country has in many ways changed much less than some feared or hoped four years ago. Ambitious Republican plans notwithstanding, the American social-welfare system, as most people encounter it, has remained largely intact during Trump’s first term. The predicted wave of mass deportations of illegal immigrants never materialized. A large illegal workforce remains in the country, with the tacit understanding that so long as these immigrants avoid politics, keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, nobody will look very hard for them.

Read the whole thing, please, and then read the conclusion and hold on to it.

What happens in the next four years will depend heavily on whether Trump is right or wrong about how little Americans care about their democracy and the habits and conventions that sustain it. If they surprise him, they can restrain him.

Public opinion, public scrutiny, and public pressure still matter greatly in the U.S. political system. In January, an unexpected surge of voter outrage thwarted plans to neutralize the independent House ethics office. That kind of defense will need to be replicated many times. Elsewhere in this issue, Jonathan Rauch describes some of the networks of defense that Americans are creating.

Get into the habit of telephoning your senators and House member at their local offices, especially if you live in a red state. Press your senators to ensure that prosecutors and judges are chosen for their independence—and that their independence is protected. Support laws to require the Treasury to release presidential tax returns if the president fails to do so voluntarily. Urge new laws to clarify that the Emoluments Clause applies to the president’s immediate family, and that it refers not merely to direct gifts from governments but to payments from government-affiliated enterprises as well. Demand an independent investigation by qualified professionals of the role of foreign intelligence services in the 2016 election—and the contacts, if any, between those services and American citizens. Express your support and sympathy for journalists attacked by social-media trolls, especially women in journalism, so often the preferred targets. Honor civil servants who are fired or forced to resign because they defied improper orders. Keep close watch for signs of the rise of a culture of official impunity, in which friends and supporters of power-holders are allowed to flout rules that bind everyone else.

Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.

Resist.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Previews Of Comey Attractions

Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution took a long look at former FBI Director James Comey’s prepared opening statement for today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing and posted his thoughts on Lawfare.  Here’s his summation.

First, Comey is describing here conduct that a society committed to the rule of law simply cannot accept in a president. We have spent a lot of time on this site over seven years now debating the marginal exertions of presidential power and their capacity for abuse. Should the president have the authority to detain people at Guantanamo? Incinerate suspected terrorists with flying robots? Use robust intelligence authorities directed at overseas non-citizens? These questions are all important, but this document is about a far more important question to the preservation of liberty in a society based on legal norms and rules: the abuse of the core functions of the presidency. It’s about whether we can trust the President—not the President in the abstract, but the particular embodiment of the presidency in the person of Donald J. Trump—to supervise the law enforcement apparatus of the United States in fashion consistent with his oath of office. I challenge anyone to read this document and come away with a confidently affirmative answer to that question.

Second, we are about to see a full-court press against Comey. I don’t know what it will look like. But the attack instinct always kicks in when a presidency is under siege. And Trump has the attack instinct in spades even when he’s not under siege. It is important to remember what the stakes are here. They are not about whether Comey was treated fairly. They are not about whether you like him. They are not about whether he handled the Clinton email investigation in the highest traditions of the FBI or the Justice Department. They are not about leaks. The stakes here are about whether what Comey is reporting in this document are true facts and, if so, what we need as a political society to do about the reality that we have a president who behaves this way and seeks to use the FBI in this fashion. It is critical, in other words, that people not change the subject or get distracted when others try to do so.

Finally, it is also critical—though probably fruitless to say—that we eschew partisanship in the conversation. Tomorrow, this document will be the discussion text when Comey faces a committee that, warts and all, has handled the Russia matter to date in a respectable and honorably bipartisan fashion. It is not too much to ask that members put aside party and respond as patriots to the fact that the former FBI director will swear an oath that these facts are true—and was fired after these interactions allegedly took place by a man who then told Lester Holt that “when I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself … this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story,” and boasted to the Russians the day after dismissing Comey that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

The question they—and we—all face is simple: Do we care?

Forty-four years ago — June 1973 — another fired attorney, John Dean, testified before another Senate committee about private conversations he had with the president, revealing alleged criminal activity on the president’s and other White House officials behalf in pursuit of an election victory and the cover-up of that criminal activity.

Mr. Dean’s testimony, broadcast live on national TV and radio networks, broke open the Watergate scandal and took it from dirty tricks to the end of a presidency.  Whether or not the same thing will happen with Mr. Comey’s testimony today is open to speculation and hope, but at the least the parallels between what John Dean said in that committee hearing and what Mr. Comey will say today do have a certain rhyming quality.

The question Benjamin Wittes asks at the end of his summation is a good one: Do we care?  Have we come so far and become so jaded that meddling by a foreign power — one whose very mention of the name had us ducking and covering — in a presidential election gets a shrug and a rejoinder of “but her e-mails” from 32% of the voters.  Or did Watergate and the subsequent real or imagined -gates that followed immunize us against the expectation that elected officials would hold themselves to a higher standard since they were elected by the people and therefore had to represent our better angels, not the common denominator.

For my part, having arrived at advanced middle age and able to testify about living through one-quarter of the history of this nation, I can say that if we don’t care about what happened to elect this president and allow the legacy of the nation to be turned into a comment thread on an unmoderated blog, then perhaps we have invited the meddling by the Russians and the kleptocrats.  It wasn’t because they want to rule what’s left of our democracy and make it their own, but because they were bored with their own toys and found another shiny one.

So my question to you is simple: Do you care, and what are you going to do about it?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Friday, May 12, 2017

Loyal To A Fault

Via the New York Times:

Only seven days after Donald J. Trump was sworn in as president, James B. Comey has told associates, the F.B.I. director was summoned to the White House for a one-on-one dinner with the new commander in chief.

The conversation that night in January, Mr. Comey now believes, was a harbinger of his downfall this week as head of the F.B.I., according to two people who have heard his account of the dinner.

As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.

Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not “reliable” in the conventional political sense.

[…]

By Mr. Comey’s account, his answer to Mr. Trump’s initial question apparently did not satisfy the president, the associates said. Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty.

Mr. Comey again replied that he would give him “honesty” and did not pledge his loyalty, according to the account of the conversation.

Pledging your loyalty to a president is not something you do in a democracy.  It’s what you do in a dictatorship.  Here in America we ask officeholders to swear (or affirm) their loyalty to the Constitution of the United States.  Period.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sunday Reading

Millennials vs. Trump — Doug Bock Clark in Mother Jones on Jon Ossoff’s run for Congress in Georgia.

Jon Ossoff doesn’t like to talk about his age. His reticence is understandable. Since the media and liberal voters foisted the 30-year-old political neophyte from the Atlanta suburbs into the national spotlight, he’s been celebrated by Democrats as a wunderkind who might lead the resistance against Trump and simultaneously ridiculed by Republicans, who fear the same thing, as a “spoiled frat boy.” As the front-runner in the heated special election race to replace Tom Price, whom Trump elevated to be his secretary of health and human services, in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District—a seat not held by a Democrat since the 1970s—he has endured numerous attacks targeting his relative youth. One ad spliced authentic clips of Ossoff costumed as Han Solo from a college spoof video with stock footage of frat boys doing keg stands. “I don’t want to marginalize youth,” recently mused Bruce LeVell, 53, former head of Trump’s national diversity coalition and one of 11 Republican, five Democratic, and two independent candidates who will face off against Ossoff on April 18. “But I think that a wealth of life experiences can be a tremendous asset for a congressional seat.”

Speaking last week in Alpharetta, Georgia, at a mansion overlooking a lake, Ossoff had attracted so many supporters that the property’s owner nervously joked his deck might not be able to support the crowd. In the previous three hours, we’d visited four separate rallies where hordes of Democrats lined roads with signs reading “Vote Your Ossoff.” “I’m trying to make the case to voters across the political spectrum,” Ossoff told the assembly, “that someone who brings a younger perspective”—then he corrected himself—”a fresher perspective… can change the culture in Washington more effectively than someone who has run for office nine or ten times.”

With his campaign promise to “Make Trump Furious,” Ossoff is riding a wave of disaffection among all Democrats, but millennials are an especially important part of his coalition. Consistently polling in the mid-to-low-40s, Ossoff needs only a handful more percentage points to break the 50% threshold on April 18 and claim outright victory. If he fails to obtain a majority he’ll face a much tougher runoff vote on June 20 versus the second-place finisher, in support of whom a critical mass of Republican voters might unite. The Sixth District is deeply Republican, with a white, elderly, and affluent voter base, which may be hard to sway from their traditional voting habits. But the district includes 146,000 people aged 18 to 34—about 27% of all eligible voters in the district—and Ossoff is relying, in part, on these young voters to turn out in unprecedented numbers and nudge him to victory. The race is so close that one of the only ways for Ossoff to win, in other words, is for large numbers of millennials to do for him what they didn’t do for Hillary Clinton: vote.

“My generation has gotten complacent about our rights,” Alison Curnie, 31, said on the deck overlooking the lake, as she endorsed Ossoff to the cheering crowd. “We thought they would be there in perpetuity. But if anything good has come out of this last election, it’s that we’re no longer complacent.”

During the two days I spent on the campaign trail, young people were an inescapable presence. Most staffers and volunteers I encountered were of the millennial generation, though there were plenty of older people as well. Ossoff’s supporters believe his youth is a positive quality, a way to bring a new mindset to Washington. As Matt Tompkins, 26, told me, “Ossoff is the first time we’ve had someone who represents our socially conscious values. Someone who’s 60 doesn’t have the worldview of being raised in modern reality with technology, the internet, diversity, and everything else.”

So far, millennials have been a dormant power in politics. As John Della Volpe, the Director of Polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, told me: “There are more millennials than any other generation on earth, but they don’t vote in the same proportion that other generations do. The main reason they don’t vote is they don’t see a tangible impact from it, so the degree to which Ossoff can convince them that this election matters is going to be key.”

And so while a flurry of punditry in recent days has interpreted Ossoff’s campaign as a predictor of whether or not anti-Trump sentiment will be enough to buoy Dems to congressional victories over the next two years, his race also raises another and perhaps more pressing question: Can this 30-year-old, and the anti-Trump resistance of which he’s been anointed figurehead and bellwether, re-energize young voters’ enthusiasm for democracy in general and Democrats in particular?

“Previously, I’d been a registered Republican, even Libertarian leaning,” Curnie told me on the deck. “I used to have the luxury of being a Republican because I didn’t think anyone was coming for my birth control and civil rights. But this election has made me realize we’ve got to stick up for our civil rights before we worry about tax brackets.”

Ossoff’s success owes a great deal to his becoming an internet phenomenon. When he launched his campaign in early January with an email telling voters to “Make Trump Furious,” it caught the attention of liberal bloggers anxiously following the third Congressional contest of the Trump era. Daily Kos, the left-leaning website, began promoting him. Donations poured in, with each fundraising success spurring more coverage. Today he has amassed more than $8.3 million in about three months, much of it from out-of-state voters—a record for a candidate who is not self-financed. His campaign says he has received nearly 200,000 separate donations from all over the nation, at an average size of $43.

Just as Ossoff has seized national attention in a particularly social media-savvy way, his life before the race shows how a generation of millennials may be preparing for politics. Raised in the suburb of Northlake, Ossoff always dreamt of becoming a politician. He planted yard placards with his parents in support of local Democrats as a boy. By 2003, his childhood friend Karl Langberg, 30, remembers that he was running a blog devoted to politics and debating online with older readers, who didn’t know they were arguing with a teenager behind the screen. At Paideia, a pricy private high school, he started an alternative publication to the school newspaper, which he named the Great Speckled Pi in homage to a liberal underground Atlanta newspaper of the sixties and seventies. By then, his friends knew he wanted to one day run for office. “There was an understanding among our group,” says Dustin Chambers, another childhood friend, “that he wanted to run someday and he was equipping himself to do so.”

Ossoff’s focus on government continued while studying at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, during which he also worked part-time for Representative Hank Johnson. Facebook went global when he was a freshmen, forever transforming politics by recording every embarrassing moment of one’s youth. “But,” Chambers said, “Jon immediately became aware of how that altered the political landscape. It made clear to him that he needed to be a squeaky-clean guy.”  After graduating, he managed Johnson’s 2010 reelection campaign and then worked for him fulltime on the Hill, specializing in national security issues.

Ossoff’s work for Johnson has been the substance of the one attack that has dinged his reputation. He carefully claims: “I’ve got five years of experience as a national security staffer in the U.S. Congress. I held top secret security clearance.” All of which is true—though two of those years he was working part-time and he only held top-level clearance for five months at the end of his time on the Hill. “Technically, Ossoff walks a very careful line,” a Washington Post fact-checker wrote. “But the overall impression is misleading.”

In 2013, he earned a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, and then became CEO of Insight TWI, a VICE-like new media company, whose films have documented corruption among judges in Africa and the front-line battle against ISIS. As he traversed the globe with a camera, he still thought about seeking office, but assumed it would be far in the future.

On the night of November 8, he was filming a right-wing militia in rural Georgia as men sat around a campfire and watched the election results roll in on their cellphones. Distraught, he drove an hour-and-a-half to Manuel’s, a famous Atlanta watering hole for politicos, where he met his childhood friend Chambers and watched Trump claim victory. “I had never seen him so scared, so unsure,” Chambers, who is now a volunteer on Ossoff’s campaign, recalls. “He is one of those people who always has the answers. That night, I could see him calculating a lot of different disturbing outcomes for the next four years.”

The day after his appearance at the lake house, Ossoff sat onstage in the Dunwoody High School auditorium along with 17 other candidates—the full spectrum of American political opinion, from the Tea Party to moderate Republicans, including Karen Handel, his nearest competitor, with 15% of the vote in polls. The majority of voters were white-haired or bald, and paged through programs as each candidate spoke, making notes. But most millennials in attendance already had their minds made up: they wore Ossoff blue and loudly cheered him.

While he waited for his turn to speak, Ossoff kept his gaze fixed on each speechifying opponent, as a Republican tracker in jean shorts and hiking boots aimed a mini-cam at his face. A tracker has been video-taping Ossoff’s every move for about two months, sometimes shouting questions at him, trying to force a reaction that can be turned into an attack ad or negative news story.

When Ossoff took the microphone, he said, “I worked on Capitol Hill for five years, and I saw how things work and how they do not. I saw the partisanship, the gridlock, the pettiness, and the corruption. I think it’s time for fresh leadership in Washington.” Speaking, he kept his hands clasped in front of him, his fingers carefully interlaced, never flourishing his arms or stabbing a finger to emphasize a point. The rest of his speech sketched plans to grow the district’s burgeoning technology sector and to fight government corruption, though it presented few details and lacked the shots at Trump that initially fired up the base. If there’s one signature issue that Ossoff has promised to tackle in Congress, it’s bringing his investigative documentary chops to bear on Washington—but the specifics of what muck he’d rake are hazy.

Ultimately, this is probably part of his strategy. Acknowledging the Republican tilt of the district, Ossoff has kept his recent statements just a few inches left of the center and vague. He has appealed to progressive Berniecrats primarily by positioning himself against Trump, but without pushing their core platform positions like single-payer healthcare, free tuition, or steep taxes on the rich.

Ossoff also has to appeal to the nearly 317,000 minorities in the district, especially in DeKalb County, where many are concentrated. However, the worst early voting turnout has been in the heavily Democratic DeKalb County, though this may partially be due to the fact that it has the worst voting access in the district.

It’s in regard to Ossoff’s fuzzy policies that this race circles back to larger questions about the fight against Trump. Can a classic liberal, whose positions seem more in line with the pre-Trump-era Democratic party establishment, spark millennials to vote in significant numbers? If Ossoff ducks leading youthful progressives, is anti-Trump fervor and the implicit promise of shared life-experience going to be enough for them to identity with him?

It’s a question the party is wrestling with on a national scale. Many liberals are angered that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t invest in the race for the seat vacated when Trump picked Mike Pompeo to become Director of the CIA, believing they didn’t have a shot to win in the deeply red Wichita, Kansas, district—only to find that the Republican candidate barely triumphed. Ossoff’s surprise front-runner status is a testament to the power of the anti-Trump movement, but the flaws in his coalition also speak to fractures in the larger Democratic party alliance that may sabotage his chances of electoral success.

Ossoff’s reticence to deeply engage with policy questions, and his statuesque self-control on the campaign trail, has led some observers to criticize him as stiff and lacking depth, including a recent New York magazine profiler. When I asked Ossoff for his response to the article, he said: “I’m trying to win a congressional race, not give spellbinding magazine interviews.”

But many of his millennial fans interpret his self-possession differently: as the result of growing up in an era when every stray bit of speech can end up broadcast across the world. “He knows that he’s being recorded every second,” Alexandra Brosovich, 24, whom I met at a rally, later told me on the phone. “Someone who grew up in the 1960s before cellphone videos and social media just doesn’t understand how careful you’ve got to be when everything’s recorded. He made an instant connection with me and my friends.”

Political reporters often want to call the same back-slapping, Big Mac-chomping extroversion authenticity. But maybe at heart Ossoff is simply an even-tempered, conscientious, and deliberate man. He’s the kind of guy who used the word “duplicative” in casual conversation, and at rallies tried to substitute ten-dollar words for ones like “folks.” According to his childhood friend Chambers, Ossoff even studied Barack Obama as a public persona to emulate. Ossoff summed up his own character to me by saying, “I think, for me, it’s important never to get too high and never to get too low. I just try to remain in a grounded, balanced place.”

One day, we visited a baseball field just a few minutes walk from the redbrick house where Ossoff grew up (which still had a fallen Clinton-Kaine yard sign lying by its driveway).

As Ossoff and I slung a grass-stained baseball back and forth, even after he shucked his suit jacket, his speech remained precise. When I asked about his strongest memory of that field, he answered: “Just playing catch with my dad, man, in the crisp autumn air, just as the leaves are starting to turn, when you can taste the first bite of winter, coming down here for that last time before it gets too dark, before it gets too cold.”

Those close to Ossoff acknowledge he is meticulous, but also point out that his exactingness is subordinate to his adventurousness—whether running for Congress or producing documentaries about a female battalion in Iraq. Ossoff has had a pilot license since he was a teenager. Today, in rare interludes of free time, he will gather a small group of friends before dawn, rent a Cessna, and then fly them to remote airstrips in the Appalachian Mountains, where they will hike all day before returning to Atlanta by dusk. “I love the challenge of mountains,” he told me, “the accomplishment of the summit, the vantage point, and the solitude.”

Despite Ossoff’s discipline, spend enough time with him and you’ll find his intensity palpable. The unspooling way he pitched the baseball at me looked effortless—he didn’t even break a sweat despite his button-up and tie—but as he pounded my palm with pinpoint accuracy, my hand numbed. Walking off the field, I asked, “What’s the event that made you who you are today?”

He looked around at the backstop and the basketball courts of the nearby elementary school. Twenty-four seconds slid by. He was new enough to this that he didn’t have an answer immediately at hand.

Then he said, with a bit of a snarl curling his voice for the first time, “I remember kids getting bullied on the playground. It really pissed me off. And right now, there are a lot of people being bullied in this country.”

Take A Deep Breath — Robert Bateman says that North Korea’s nukes are not worth freaking out about.

I was not all that concerned when the news first broke last week. The Strike Group based around the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was diverting from a visit and exercises with the Australians and instead heading north from Singapore towards the Western Pacific (and, possibly, the Sea of Japan). The move was seen as saber rattling by many on cable news and in various op-eds, and a positive invitation for chaotic hand-wringing by those of a more anxious nature. But my own assessment was more along the lines of a giant yawn. This has not changed, a whit, since the talking heads here and there have lost their collective minds, worrying about an American strike on North Korea.

People, it ain’t happening.

Were something like that in the plans, you would see a whole lot of other moving military parts: Other carrier groups heading west from California, Marines being mobilized on Okinawa, amphibious ships being sent out, and Air Force and Army units being sent to staging bases.

None of that has happened, so let’s all relax.

North Korea, of course, responded with their normal bluster. As reported by The New York Daily News they issued this warning:

“This goes to prove that the U.S. reckless moves for invading the DPRK have reached a serious phase of its scenario,” the spokesman said in a statement, using an acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “If the U.S. dares opt for a military action, crying out for ‘preemptive attack’ and ‘removal of the headquarters,’ the DPRK is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.”

They react this way every single time, to every single item, so this press release went in the “so what” file immediately.

The bottom line is that, beyond all this hyperbole, the reality of the situation is much less about any American strike on North Korea. Here is why: We do not have the assets in that group to really do much, and in this case, conducting a strike against their homeland would be utter idiocy.

The US Navy battle group is assigned to the 3rd Fleet and it consists, officially, of just four major warships, the Aircraft Carrier Carl Vinson, the Aegis Destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and USS Michael Murphy, and the Ticonderoga class Cruiser USS Lake Champlain. We do not know, but it can be assumed with some degree of confidence that the group may also be operating in concert with one or more submarines, either regularly or temporarily as the situation dictates.

In conventional terms, a group like that does have the potential to pack a pretty good wallop. That close to Japan they would not be overly worried about using a larger percentage of their missile load such as the TLAMs I wrote about last week. But you might as well leave aside the carrier and its air wing, because that is moderately useless for offensive options in any North Korean scenario. (Except, perhaps, as a deception or distraction.) Each of the destroyers, however, has some 96 vertical-launch tubes that can carry both TLAMs and “Standard” air-defense missiles (the SM-2 to be specific), among others. The cruiser Lake Champlain carries an even bigger load, with 122 launching tubes. But as explained last week, those TLAMs would not necessarily be all that useful, given their fairly limited munitions options. The TLAMs carry either pure High Explosives, or a scatterable sub-munition option. Neither of which is much good for punching into things like hardened runways or caves dug into the sides of mountains.

So why send that naval package up north? Well, there is one system that has not gotten a ton of media attention, though I am not sure why. That system really could be a useful tool, and one that might be used to send a message while at the same time not leave us open to blame for conducting an offensive strike. It is a combination of the very sophisticated “Aegis” radar system carried by both the destroyers and the cruiser, and the upgraded “Standard” missile known as the SM-3.

The SM-3 missile (technically the RIM-161, Standard Missile -3) can shoot down other missiles, even ballistic ones. Even satellites in outer space for that matter. And although we do not know if those type of missiles are loaded aboard the Lake Champlain at this instant (information like that would be classified), if I was a betting man, I would probably lay some money that they are.

Why does this matter? Because in addition to being pretty loud lately, you might have noticed that North Korea has been testing a lot of missiles. On top of that, the North Koreans just hosted another one of their big self-congratulatory military parades. Sometimes they like to fire off hardware around the time of these events, international treaties and sanctions be damned. Usually those missiles are fired to the east, into the Sea of Japan, and sometimes into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. According to preliminary reports, this hasn’t happened yet. But if it did?

Let’s get back to our battlegroup, equipped with the SM-3s aboard an Aegis cruiser, operating in international waters well away from North Korea itself. What would international opinion be if we shot an illegally fired missile out of the sky when it was headed towards Japan? It would mean demonstrating at one stroke both North Korea’s inability to actually use those missiles they are trying so hard to develop, and enforcing the sanctions against those same launches that are already in place from the international community.

For now? Let’s all take a deep breath.

Fly The Arrogant Skies — Kaveh Waddell in The Atlantic.

A security guard stops a customer as she tries to enter a well-stocked aisle in a large department store. “Sorry, ma’am,” the guard says. “This sale is for our silver, gold, and platinum shoppers only.” He points her toward the meager discount corner at the back of the store, where bronze-status shoppers are allowed. She passes attendants who smile only at the elite shoppers, offering them refreshments and guiding them toward the best deals. When she stops for gas on the way home, she gets in a long line for the basic pump, while the priority pump sits empty and unused. At the grocery store, she doesn’t have enough points to approach the organic produce.

This beleaguered consumer lives in an alternate reality where businesses can discriminate between their high-value and low-value clientele at will, enticing the biggest spenders to stay while marginalizing bargain hunters and coupon cutters. Most companies couldn’t get away with triaging their customers this way. But some already do: airlines.

This inequality is enshrined in frequent-flyer programs. They’re not like typical rewards systems, which simply encourage loyalty with discounts. Instead, they create elaborate hierarchies, discriminating between platinum flyers and coach passengers in nearly every step of the air-travel experience, from booking to baggage claim.

These programs also help airlines gather data on their passengers. They track details like customers’ favorite routes, the fares they pay, and extra services they buy, says John Strong, an aviation expert who teaches at William and Mary’s business school.

David Dao, the doctor who was dragged from his seat on a United flight last weekend, was a victim of the airline’s algorithm (and, of course, of security officers in Chicago, who left him with a concussion, a broken nose, and two missing teeth). United’s contract of carriage, which lays out how the airline will treat its passengers, outlines how passengers might be “denied boarding involuntarily”:

The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent-flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.

Dao was more likely to be chosen than others because he wasn’t connecting to another flight, and based on the fact that the algorithm selected him, he probably didn’t rank very highly in United’s rewards program. Strong says a passenger’s itinerary and his or her value as a customer are the main criteria an airline considers when picking who to bump from a flight. “While airlines have the information to create a more detailed pecking order, they don’t go much beyond that in practice,” Strong said.

Airlines can game out just how much each customer is worth, and treat them accordingly, said Joseph Turow, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania. “Irrespective of any individual fare, they have this overarching notion of who their valued customers are, and what their lifetime value is,” he said. “And because of the structure of the system, they can take advantage of it to the point of being mean to people.”

Business travelers, who are less likely than leisure travelers to comparison-shop for airfare, reap the rewards of pricey, company-sponsored travel in the form of miles. They’re pampered, while passengers in the back, who are more likely to have simply searched for the best deal, are left without many frills.

Giving priority to some isn’t a practice unique to the airline industry, says Strong. “More valuable customers at brokerage houses get dedicated access communications and cheaper trades; hotels offer free wi-fi and other complimentary benefits to their best customers,” he said. “Almost anyone who has a loyalty program differentiates benefits by the value of different groups of customers.”

But the gap between coach and business class is particularly wide. That might partly stem from a lack of competition in the industry, which gives airlines a relatively large amount of control over their customers. Because of the disparity between premium and economy fares—and companies’ willingness to buy expensive seats for their employees, sometimes at the last minute—airlines are mostly interested in luring business passengers. But as they attract those travelers with fancy perks, they provide the economy cabin with only the bare minimum.

One reason this is the status quo is that there’s little budget passengers can do to avoid an airline they don’t like. The big U.S. carriers have near-monopolies over air travel from many (though not all) major American airports, leaving price-sensitive travelers little choice when they fly. That makes boycotting a major airline nearly impossible, as Christopher Ingraham wrote in The Washington Post this week. And so carriers can get away with a lot more than, say, retailers or gas stations: If Nordstrom’s starts treating its low-margin customers poorly, they’ll just walk on over to Neiman Marcus, or Bloomingdale’s, or Saks.

Those retailers can, however, discriminate between their high- and low-value customers more subtly. They might dole out coupons and discounts to encourage their “best” shoppers to keep coming back—and withhold them from the “bad” ones, like those who have a habit of returning items, or who buy things that don’t make the company very much money. Online stores can do this more surreptitiously, by showing different shoppers different prices and ads, and nudging them toward—or away from—certain products and services.

One thing that might be warding off the platinum-sale alternate reality in these other industries is antitrust law. These regulations help keep retailers from forming huge, inescapable monopolies—the kind that United, Delta, American, and Southwest enjoy in parts of the country, thanks to lax regulation of the industry in recent years—and prevent them from deploying these airline-perfected tactics.

For now, Turow says, other industries “don’t have nearly the ability to be as arrogant as the airlines are.” They have to be quieter about their discriminatory tactics, and maintain a pleasant enough atmosphere that won’t drive away their customers. “Whether this will ever change so they can get such a grip on people,” Turow says, “I don’t know.” But as antitrust policies weaken—as they have over the past few decades—and monopolies grow in power and number, the distance between airlines and the rest of the business world might be in danger of shrinking.

 Doonesbury — I got your facts right here.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

It’s “Embrace A Dictator” Week

Trump throws a big hug around Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the guy who seized power in Egypt in a military coup:

“We agree on so many things,” Mr. Trump said as he sat beside Mr. Sisi in the Oval Office. “I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. The United States has, believe me, backing, and we have strong backing.”

Yeah, who needs freedom and democracy when there are hotels to be built along the Nile?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Fellow Travelers

No one who was paying any attention to the presidential campaign can say that they are surprised now that Trump is following through on his boasts and threats about what he would do when he became president.  The border wall, the Muslim ban, the reinstatement of the Keystone XL and DAPL pipelines, the backing out of TPP, the actions against Obamacare; it was all shouted from the rostrums across the country, and anyone who thought he would change his way of doing things — fast and without thinking about the consequences — just wasn’t paying attention.

He bragged that things would be different now, that he would shake things up so that even the rituals that every president goes through that require little thought, such as signing a proclamation for Holocaust Remembrance Day, were going to be done his way, not the old way.  So there was no mention of Jews dying in the camps because, as the White House noted, “everybody suffered.”

So it’s also no surprise that there has been a backlash to each of these actions and to the Trump regime in general.  We knew that it would spark dissent.  What we didn’t know and what seems to have caught the Trump minions by surprise is the volume, the mass, and the intensity of the rebellion and resistance.  The marches in the cities on the day after the inauguration were off the charts, and the immediate reaction by protestors at the airports when the ban on travelers from Muslim countries was announced was breathtaking in both scale and intensity.

One other thing that is not a surprise is the craven complicity of the Republican leadership.

Facing intense criticism and dramatic news coverage of chaos and protests at airports worldwide, several congressional Republicans on Saturday questioned President Trump’s order to halt admission to the United States by refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were not among them.

Ryan was among the first lawmakers on Friday to back Trump’s order, and his office reiterated his support on Saturday.

“This is not a religious test and it is not a ban on people of any religion,” said spokeswoman AshLee Strong.

No, it’s just a ban on people from countries with a lot of Muslims, which as everyone knows, isn’t really a religion like, say, Christianity, right?  (By the way, someone prominent in the Christian faith once said something about welcoming the stranger, but hey, that was a long time ago.)

It’s also no surprise that the Republicans would demonstrate such complicity towards these actions against immigrants; it’s not like they haven’t shown that hand at every opportunity, along with the rank hypocrisy of complaining about President Obama’s use of executive orders to save some wilderness acreage as “unconstitutional overreach” and stand by in silence as Trump basically stomps his way through the Bill of Rights.  But as long as they get their tax cuts and free rein on regulation reform, who cares about a bunch of brown non-Christians stuck at an airport in Europe.  It’s not like they matter, right?

It’s within living memory that the United States took such an attitude about refugees and immigrants from a continent where war was brewing and people were fleeing, trying to get to our shores and safety.  We shut them out then, sending many of them back to where they came from, their fates sealed.  Eighty years later we remember — at least some of us remember — what happened to them.  But today we have a White House that won’t even mention them by name.

Those who remained silent then were just as complicit in the destruction that followed, and those who remain silent today are no different.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Playing The Marks

Vladimir Putin has no idea what we’re talking about.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he doesn’t believe that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump met with prostitutes in Russia, calling the accusations part of a campaign to undermine the election result.

Unsubstantiated allegations made against Trump are “obvious fabrications,” Putin told reporters in the Kremlin on Tuesday. “People who order fakes of the type now circulating against the U.S. president-elect, who concoct them and use them in a political battle, are worse than prostitutes because they don’t have any moral boundaries at all,” he said.

Putin said that Trump wasn’t a politician when he visited Moscow in the past and Russian officials weren’t aware that he held any political ambitions. It’s “complete nonsense” to believe that Russian security services “chase after every American billionaire,” he said.

The Kremlin has denied that it holds any compromising material on Trump after U.S. intelligence officials informed the president-elect about unsubstantiated reports that Russia had compiled potentially damaging personal information on him.

Yes, of course, and by the way he has those documents you asked for to prove that the property in Southeast Florida he’s offering you is not only above sea level, it comes with a guarantee that the unicorns who inhabit it will only shit rainbows.

Of course he’s going to deny any knowledge of what’s going on in his country.  It’s not like he used to work for the KGB, and besides, what do you think he’s running over there, a dictatorship?  C’mon; trust him.