Saturday Soother – February 4, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Grist Mill, Brewster, Cape Cod, MA – February 2023 photo by Nick Haveran

Ah, Florida. Wrongo and Ms. Right will be making our annual visit to the land of DeSantis in late March to see family. Florida has always been a destination for older Americans who are tired of the -2°F with the windchill making it feel like -25°F that we had last night in Northwestern Connecticut.

Martin Edic in his Medium column has it right:

“Picture a…retirement community with rules set by a Homeowner’s Association or HOA. An idyllic place to see out one’s final years, undisturbed by the reality of the outside world.

And then a man is elected leader of your HOA and he becomes consumed by writing rules and dictating how you should live your life….Welcome to the State of Florida under Ron DeSantis.”

Historically, Florida’s population skewed older. But its demographics have changed, driven in part by a large Latino population that is traditionally politically conservative. The older voters and the Latino block have become fertile ground for wedge cultural issues like those put forth by its governor Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis has a vision for Florida: His vision says that slavery really never happened in the Deep South, but if it did, it wasn’t as bad as people in the North say.

But since that’s controversial, DeSantis has ordered the Florida educational system to eliminate curriculum that differs from his worldview: No black history. No recognition that gay and gender fluid people exist.

His vision is to lesson plan by state government. If DeSantis says slavery was not a legitimate issue in Florida history, then it wasn’t. If kids have questions about their sexuality or gender preference, make it illegal for them to learn about it. Also make it illegal to help them.

So it’s no surprise that as we enter Black History Month, DeSantis announced a proposal to all but remove both the teaching about that history and the descendants of those who survived it from Florida’s public schools and universities:

“Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that he intends to ban state universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives….It really serves as an ideological filter, a political filter…”

In a press release about the legislation, his office called diversity, equity and inclusion programs “discriminatory” and vowed to prohibit universities from funding them. From CNN:

“The proposal is a top priority for DeSantis’ higher education agenda this year, which also includes giving politically appointed presidents and university boards of trustees more power over hiring and firing at universities and urging schools to focus their missions on Florida’s future workforce needs.”

DeSantis has seen his standing among conservatives soar nationwide following his public stances on hot-button cultural and education issues.

He announced his higher education agenda in Bradenton, a 15-minute drive from New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college where DeSantis has installed a new board with a mandate to remake the school into his conservative vision for higher education.

On top of all that, DeSantis wants to radically change the curriculum of Florida’s public education system:

“The core curriculum must be grounded in actual history, the actual philosophy that has shaped Western civilization,….We don’t want students to go…at taxpayer expense, and graduate with a degree in Zombie studies.”

Say goodbye to Black history, gender study, and any queer history courses in the state. And there’s also DeSantis’ criticism of the College Board’s new curriculum for its AP course in African American Studies.

DeSantis announced in January that he would ban it, because state education officials said it wasn’t historically accurate and violated state law that regulates precisely how race-related issues are taught in public schools.

That sent the College Board into edit mode, stripping much of the subject matter that had angered DeSantis and other conservatives:

“The College Board purged the names of many Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory, the queer experience and Black feminism. It ushered out some politically fraught topics, like Black Lives Matter, from the formal curriculum. And it added something new: “Black conservatism” is now offered as an idea for a research project.”

The College Board’s revisions address most of the DeSantis’s objections. Why? Because the College Board makes most of its revenue from AP courses. From Popular Information:

“In 2019, the College Board made over $1.1 billion dollars in revenue, according to documents filed with the IRS. Almost half of this revenue came from “AP and Instruction,” and 40% came from “assessments” like SAT exams. In 2020, revenue shrunk to $800 million dollars. “AP and Instruction” now constituted the majority of revenue…”

For the College Board, right-wing criticism of the AP African American Studies course presents a financial threat. Assessments are dying: Compared to 2019, when 55% of colleges required test scores, only 4 % of schools had a testing requirement this past fall. So it needs more students than ever to enroll in its AP courses.

So much for the Republican’s vision of “limited government.” DeSantis’ objective is seemingly to provide White Floridians with a version of the past that they can be comfortable with, regardless of whether it’s true.

On to our frigid weekend here in the Northeast: It’s time for our Saturday Soother. Try to forget about the Chinese spy balloon slowly traversing the US, or why Nikki Haley thinks she has a path to the presidency.

Instead, put on a turtleneck and grab a seat by a window. Now, listen to Gustav Holst’s “The Planets – IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” which can mean gayness (sorry DeSantis) played in Royal Albert Hall in London at the 2015 Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki:

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There Are No Partisan Facts

The Daily Escape:

Roaring Mountain, Yellowstone NP – January 2023 photo via Yellowstone NP. The steam vents are called fumaroles. With a limited water supply, the water in steam vents turns to steam and makes noise before reaching the surface.

Today let’s delve into the right-wing mind. Sadly we can’t go in too deep, because you know. Wrongo will try to connect the dots on a few ideas that three interesting people wrote about last week, First, the headline in Phillip Bump’s piece in the WaPo:

“There’s actually only one conspiracy theory: Democrats are evil.”

He’s writing about all of the online conspiracy theories surrounding the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, and then generalizes from the specific:

“Last year, Pew Research Center found that 1 in 8 Republicans (12.5%) liked it a lot when their leaders called Democratic leaders “evil.” Another 16% said they liked it a little.”

So, 28.5% of Republicans think Dems are mostly evil. Bump offers the long laundry list of Democrat conspiracies propounded by Republicans.

  • For example, the 2020 stolen election shows that Democrats are dishonest and will do anything to retain power.
  • The “deep state” is out to get Trump and the Republicans. This leads to demonizing the FBI and CIA as liberals out to get Trump. This year, we can add the National Archives who just wanted their secret documents back.
  • These conspiracies have led the new Republican House majority to create a committee to look at weaponization of the FBI, DOJ and other agencies against Republicans.

Next, let’s look at recent polling on the economy. Matt Yglesias provides two charts that show the US partisan divide on the economy. First is how Democrats view their family’s economic situation over the past 8 years:

On Election Day (ED) 2016, 50% of Democrats said their family’s situation was about the same. On ED 2020, 50% said it was the same. After two years under Biden, it was 52%, so no change. On ED in 2016, about 32% of Dems said their financial situation had gotten better. That fell to about 10% by ED 2020 and is now about 23%.

Contrast that with what Republicans think now and what they thought on Election Day 2016:

From ED in 2016 when Trump won the White House until ED 2020 when he lost it, the percentage of Republicans who thought their financial situation was about the same went from 45% in 2016 to 55% on ED 2020, meaning that they were pretty satisfied with the state of the overall economy. But with Biden, that dropped precipitously to 21% in just two years.

Republicans who thought their personal financial situation had gotten worse stood at 47% in 2016, and just 10% in 2020. But in January of 2023, after two years of Biden, 74% say their financial situation has gotten worse!

But what really happened with the economy? Paul Krugman has thoughts about what we learn from watching only cable news: (brackets by Wrongo)

“Would you know that real gross domestic product has risen 6.7% under President Biden, that America gained 4.5 million jobs in 2022 and that inflation over the past six months, which was indeed very high last winter, was [growing at] less than 2% at an annual rate?”

How does Krugman explain the disconnect between actual economic data and perceptions? More:

“Partisanship is clearly part of the story….. 90% of Republicans said the national economy was poor. A longer view, from the Michigan Survey of Consumers, finds Republicans rating the current economy worse than they did in June 1980, when unemployment was above 7% percent and inflation was 14%.”

Welcome to the United States of Cognitive Dissonance.

There always has been cognitive dissonance in the world. It’s part of being human. But today, people sincerely love to complain and persist in wanting to see the bad side of everything. Egg prices are up? This economy sucks. All that Americans seem to be capable of seeing is the downside.

The country Wrongo grew up in is still here, but its culture has changed. As a member of the Silent Generation, Wrongo and most others wouldn’t have bet against the USA, or its people. But today, we can’t be certain. This dumbing down of American citizens has happened in rapid and spectacular fashion, and the fact-free perception divide is weakening our institutions. This will be extraordinarily difficult to bridge.

Wrongo has no silver bullet for fixing this, but a very basic way to start is to read up on the big problems. Speak up whenever you hear bullshit spewing. That takes courage, but it can’t go uncontested.

Attend your town meetings. Join groups that sponsor educational exchanges on issues. And vote. Vote in every election no matter how trivial.

Wrongo lives in a semi-rural town. When he overhears political talk, it can be staggering to learn what some otherwise smart people believe.

We don’t have to convert all of them, maybe getting 10% to land on the side of the actual data would create a permanent change in our politics.

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Monday Wake Up Call – January 30, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Late afternoon, Mt. Baker, WA – January 2023 photo by jsmooth

Let’s take on a few key questions raised by the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of the Memphis police. Wrongo’s primary question is: “Is the life of a police officer worth more than the life of any other citizen?”

Police in the US are trained to see every interaction with the citizens that they are sworn to “protect and serve” as a potentially life-threatening situation. Their primary concern is to go home at the end of their shift, healthy and in one piece.

That level of fear encourages aggression. All police have heard stories of other officers shot as they approached a car, So they often are as tense as a solider in a warzone. And in an America that’s drowning in guns, that fear is well-placed.

When there’s a confrontation with a suspect, police culture focuses the cop on making the suspect comply with the cop’s initial order. And police culture tilts toward the use of physical force when compliance isn’t immediate.

Police culture is based in male bonding, and in an “us vs. them” mentality. Police culture brings with it a code of silence to protect even wrongdoers. Finally, police culture is reinforced by local police unions that are led by mostly older white men, who oppose any progressive change.

A second question is: “Where should we assign blame for continued police violence?” Sherrilyn Ifill’s newsletter has useful context. She asks if the failure of white people to effectively confront and contain the violence by white cops against Black people should be considered as a failure of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, as some pundits suggested this week.

She disagrees. You can read her piece here.

The BLM movement helped white Americans understand what systemic racism meant. It showed America how it impacted people’s lives through violence by police throughout the US. But to ask a Black political movement to change police culture which tilts conservative, White and military, places the burden on the wrong political organization. The correct place for managing this change is local city governments and their citizens. They need to take on the task of creating true civilian control over their local police forces.

The fact that the five officers charged in Nichols’s murder are Black complicates discussion of the role of race in policing. We’re used to cases involving White officers and Black victims. But this case makes it clear that there’s a larger issue at work: an entrenched police culture of aggression and dehumanization of Black people. It is as much the system and its tactics that fosters violence, as it is the racial identity of the officers involved in the brutality.

The NYT quotes Professor Jody Armour, a University of Southern California law professor:

“It’s not just a Black and white issue, but a Black and blue one. And when you put on that blue uniform, it often becomes the primary identity that drowns out any other identities that might compete with it.”

After the George Floyd killing by cops in 2020, Americans realized that police violence was a national and possibly an intractable problem. Various US states approved nearly 300 police reform bills after Floyd’s murder, creating civilian oversight of police, more anti-bias training, stricter use-of-force limits, and alternatives to arrests in cases involving people with mental illnesses, according to a recent analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.

But as the NYT’s Charles Blow says, America caught Covid and then simply walked away before the work was done:

“Too many liberal politicians showed us that their commitment to legislation, and even language, to protect Black lives from police violence was polling dependent….They ran scared of being labeled woke or of supporting a “defund the police” ideology.”

More:

“Police unions also learned a lesson: that they could survive the most intense and coordinated denunciation of their practices they had ever faced and still dodge federal legislation to address the violence that happens on their watch.”

We like to say, “this isn’t who we are.” The evidence, though, is that this is exactly who we are.

Time to wake up America! Let’s ask why police lives should be worth more to our community than the lives of those they are sworn to protect.

To help you wake up, listen to the late Tom Verlaine of the band Television who died last week. Television’s first two albums, “Marquee Moon”, and “Adventure” were critical successes but didn’t sell. “Marquee Moon” is considered one of the defining releases of the punk era.

Wrongo and Ms. Right lived in a loft in lower Manhattan in the very late 1970s – early 1980s. Wrongo occasionally went to CBGBs, then the mecca of punk rock. Once, we had the Dead Boys entertain at a party at our lakeside weekend place. It’s tough to think that the icons of early punk music are now in their 70s.

There aren’t many videos of Television performing live. But here they are doing “Foxhole” from their album “Adventure”, at the UK’s Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978:

The band included Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, and Fred Smith on guitar, with Billy Ficca on drums.

Sample Lyrics:

You show me the war but the war’s such a bore.
In the line of duty, in the line of fire
A heartless heart is my proper attire.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – January 29, 2023

By now, everyone has heard about the killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five former Memphis police officers. Some of you may have also viewed the video of Nichols’s beating by those officers. We won’t be linking to it on this blog, ever.

Wrongo will have more to say about this during the week. But for now let’s understand that this is due in large part to the US failing to get police reform.  There was a comprehensive package of legal reforms, called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed the House in 2021 but could not break the Senate filibuster. On to cartoons.

Never forget that there are two Americas:

Congress is useless:

What we should mean when we say “Everything everywhere”:

What threatens school kids more?

Soon it will be on milk cartons:

Making good news into Fox News:

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Saturday Soother – January 28, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Outside Mayfield, Utah – January 2023 photo by Robert Stevens

Wrongo read a review of two books on US agriculture in the New York Review of Books. The books are “Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It” by Tom Philpott, and “The Farmer’s Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm” by Sarah Vogel.

The review is written by Ian Frazier. This gives you an idea of his writing:

“We are eating a big hole in the middle of the Midwest and sucking up California’s ancient aquifers until the land collapses like an empty juice box. The awe that new arrivals from other countries feel when they see the bounty in a US supermarket is an illusion—more like what one might experience when stepping from a cold night into a nice, warm house where they’re burning the furniture. In short, we are plundering the natural sources of our food production and can’t go on this way.”

All of this is Big Agriculture’s doing. Corporate farming controls most of our agriculture, but it’s facing the challenge that American consumers can eat only about 1,500 pounds of food per person per year and the US population is only growing at about a half percent/year. But the investors behind Big Ag want more profit than supplying food to a slowly growing US population. So their strategy is to get Americans to eat more, and to find new foreign markets.

Philpott concentrates on just two of the US’s top food-producing regions: California’s Central Valley and the Iowa-centered Corn Belt.

The CA Central Valley constitutes about half of California’s cropland. Smaller farms concentrate on fruits while the large corporate farms mostly concentrate on nuts. Nuts are a highly profitable crop with low labor costs, but they need enormous amounts of water: To grow a single almond requires about a gallon of water.

Frazier says that almond groves cover about a fifth of the San Joaquin Valley and consume four times as much water as the city of Los Angeles:

“…I eat plenty of nuts myself, including almonds. Looking in the pantry, I see I possess the almond-growing equivalent of a few dozen bathtubfuls of California water.”

Philpott points out that TIAA, a leading provider of financial services owns a 40% stake in Treehouse California Almonds. The Farmland Index, which tracks the performance of agricultural investments, has outperformed the Standard & Poor’s index 11.8% to 9.6% in recent decades.

One problem with California’s Ag dominance is that it takes an increasing share of an increasingly scarce water supply. When irrigation water from snow and rain is scarce, as it has been for decades, farmers pump more of California’s groundwater. Nobody can say when the groundwater will run out because nobody knows how much CA has.

Turning to the Midwest, Frazier points out that the Corn Belt is one and a half times the size of California’s farming acreage. The Corn Belt uses so much fertilizer that it delivers a huge amount of polluted agricultural runoff via the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico. Off of Louisiana, there’s a marine dead zone the size of New Jersey.

Huge companies dominate Midwest farming, from fertilizer and seed manufacturers to large and expensive farm machinery equipment. There is concentration in the companies that buy, process and ship the grain: Three companies: Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and Ingredion control 87% of the US corn market. Four companies: ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Ag Processing handle 85% of the soybeans.

It is cheaper to raise pork in the US than it is in China because our feed is cheaper. Smithfield is the world’s largest pork producer and is Chinese-owned. AND, the 23 million hogs in Iowa along with Iowa’s other livestock produce as much excrement every year as do 168 million humans.

This data are called “fecal equivalent”. Iowa produces the same amount as the world’s eleven largest cities. Shouldn’t that be on Iowa’s license plate?

But the headline is that mid-sized and small farms are dying. Frazier says that midsize farms are too small to compete with the corporate farms in volume and price. OTOH, they are too big to be supported by the farmers’ outside income. In her book, Sara Vogel says the midsize farm is in danger of going extinct:

“In today’s economy [they] wouldn’t have a prayer.”

Frazier closes by wondering who in agriculture will work to save our environment. He concludes that Big Ag won’t try. A disturbing, but important article.

Time to take a break from politics and economics. It’s also time to ignore that inflation is down and an asteroid narrowly missed the earth. Instead, let’s relax with our Saturday Soother. Readers who are into football will spend their Sunday watching the NFL’s division championship games. That will probably include Wrongo. To kick off our weekend, listen to Alexandra Whittingham and Stephanie Jones perform “Helping Hands” by Sergio Assad. Assad is a Brazilian guitarist. We have featured Whittingham here before, but Jones is new to us:

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Keep Your Politics Off Of My Economy

The Daily Escape:

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Kennebunk, ME – January 2023 photo by Eric Storm Photo

From the WaPo:

“The economy posted another consecutive quarter of steady expansion between October and December, with economic activity increasing at a 2.9% annual rate. Consumer spending contributed to the strong fourth-quarter showing, especially given the slumps in large parts of the economy, including housing and manufacturing.”

The latest GDP figures show we have a resilient but slowing economy. Some of the slowdown is intentional, brought on by the Federal Reserve’s aggressive increases in interest rates as a way to control our high inflation. The Fed raised interest rates seven times last year, expecting that higher borrowing costs would lead businesses and households to cut back enough to slow the economy and curb price increases.

That’s happened in the real estate market, and to a lesser degree, in manufacturing. WaPo quotes Joseph LaVorgna, chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities America:

“You may see [growth] and think the economy is out of the woods, but that would be entirely the wrong read….There are a lot of variables that are all pointing in the same direction: There’s a housing recession. Manufacturing looks like it’s approaching recession. We’re seeing weakness in temp hiring. And it’s doubtful we’ve felt the full effects of all of the Fed’s rate hikes.”

So Biden can take credit for an excellent recovery so far, but many major banks are still forecasting an economic downturn this year. As Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Momentum has already begun to slow in response to rate hikes, but the bulk of the slowdown is yet to come….The Fed’s goal is to let growth stall out in 2023.”

So are we in for a bad downturn that will persist through the 2024 elections? It’s a possibility if we keep playing politics with the economy.

We need to let people know that inflation has been easing month after month while the unemployment rate has held steady at about 3.5%. The year-over-year change in the consumer price index peaked at just over 9% in June, and since then it’s fallen to just under 6.5%. Other inflation indicators like the producer price index (PPI) have trended lower from prior highs as well.

And the world’s biggest inflation scold, economist Larry Summers who has been saying for 2+ years that we need a deep recession to drive out high inflation is sounding less hawkish: (brackets by Wrongo)

“I still think it’s going to be hard…[but]…You have to recognize that the figures are better than somebody like me would have expected three months ago. It’s still a very difficult job for the Fed, but the situation does look a bit better.”

From prior experience, Larry knows how to prepare, cook, and eat crow.

Can the Democrats and Republicans get out of the way of our currently good economic growth? From Heather Cox Richardson:

“On Monday the Wall Street Journal reported that median weekly earnings rose 7.4% last year, slightly faster than inflation. For Black Americans employed full time, the median rise was 11.3% over 2021. A median Hispanic or Latino worker’s income saw a 4.8% raise, to $837 a week. Young workers, between 16 and 24, saw their weekly income rise more than 10%. Also seeing close to a 10% weekly rise were those in the bottom tenth of wage earners, those making about $570 a week.”

Overall, the economy seems to be on solid ground at least for now. But the average American probably doesn’t view it that way.

And who will the voter reward or blame in 2024? We’ve seen that the House Republicans want to hamstring Biden and the national economy by holding the debt limit increase hostage to budget cuts, possibly in Social Security and Medicare.

So the Dems countered by asking new Speaker McCarthy for a plan on what would be axed from the social services budget. Now, Roll Call is reporting that the GOP seems to be changing their strategy on the fly:

“House Republicans are mulling an attempt to buy time for further negotiations on federal spending and deficits by passing one or more short-term suspensions of the statutory debt ceiling this summer, including potentially lining up the deadline with the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.”

They’re trying to time the engineering of a debt default crisis to coincide with the government’s new fiscal year, thinking this creates a “mega crisis” of default/government shutdown that will bring Biden to agree to the egregious spending cuts the MAGAs want.

But this should help Democrats. First, Democrats will be able to point to the MAGA cuts as being far outside the American mainstream. Second, the GOP reckless attempt at hostage-taking will be on display just as the election season ramps up.

Are the wheels of the Republican clown car already coming off?

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What’s The GOP Plan For Negotiating On The Debt Limit?

The Daily Escape:

Dream Lake, Estes Park CO – January 2023 photo by Rick Berk Photography

(Wrongo and Ms. Right send healing thoughts to friend and blog reader Gloria R.)

We’re all aware that House Republicans are refusing to lift the debt ceiling unless Biden gives them well, something? And Republicans still haven’t decided what they want. The GOP also wants a balanced budget, but they can’t say what should go, or what should stay.

From the WaPo: (Brackets by Wrongo)

“They [GOP] say they want to reduce deficits — but meanwhile have ruled out virtually every path for doing so (cuts to defense, cuts to entitlements, wiping out nondefense discretionary spending, or raising taxes).”

The fact that Republicans are up in the air about what to do highlights the likely Democratic strategy is against their threats about the debt ceiling. Again, from the WaPo:

“Sensing Republicans are on the verge of a blunder in their schemes to use the debt ceiling to hold the economy hostage and try to extract draconian spending cuts, the White House has developed a two-part response strategy.

Part 1: Lay out the simple argument that Republicans are recklessly inviting an economic meltdown even by talking about a possible default.

Part 2: Force House Republicans to put forward a plan on the table and watch as they struggle with the fallout.”

The Democrats along with Senate Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) are daring Republicans to put forward a plan. Senate Majority Leader Schumer (D-NY) said:

“If House Republicans are serious about taking the debt limit hostage in exchange for spending cuts, the new rules that they adopted require them to bring a proposal to the floor of the House and show the American people precisely what kind of cuts they want to make….”

Everyone who follows politics knows that Republicans never take much interest in fiscal sobriety when their Party is in control. They agreed to raise the debt limit three times while Trump was in power.

It seems that Republicans are doing the Democrats’ job for them. They are asking for an economic catastrophe and seeking draconian cuts that their base doesn’t want.

Consider the Republican desire to reduce our deficits. They have pledged to balance the budget (that is, to have a zero annual budget deficit) within 10 years. But they haven’t laid out any plausible mathematical path for getting there. And of the current debt ceiling, 90% of it was committed before Biden took his job.

Some Republican House members want to cut military spending, an idea that both Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) are on board with. But others, including House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger (R-TX), have said defense spending cuts aren’t on the table. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL) said:

“We’ve got to get spending under control, but we are not going to do it on the backs of our troops and our military,”

Waltz thinks Republicans should focus on “entitlements programs,” such as mandatory spending programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But the bi-partisan popularity of these programs makes them hard to cut.

And last Sunday, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) was asked to name one thing she was willing to suggest as a spending cut. She instead stated things she wouldn’t put on the table:

“Well, obviously no cuts to Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security….That’s a nonstarter for either side.”

Wrongo has repeatedly suggested tax increases which would help lower deficits, but Republicans have ruled that out.

Instead they’ve changed the House rules so tax cuts will be much easier to pass, and tax increases harder to pass. The House’s rules package now says that any increase in taxes would require a three-fifths vote (60%) rather than a simple majority as previously.

They’ve also proposed doing away with income taxes, payroll taxes, estate taxes and even the IRS itself in favor of a supersized sales tax that would provide most revenue to the government. Republicans would substitute a 30% sales tax on all purchases and in exchange, do away with income, Social Security and Medicare taxes.

That means workers would keep the gross amount of their paychecks. But it also means that buying everything from groceries to automobiles would be hugely more expensive. It also provides a big tax cut for the wealthy and businesses.

The result is a smaller tax burden for the highest earners and a bigger one for people in the middle.

Once you reject trimming entitlements or defense spending and bake in the cost of the GOP’s proposed tax cuts, you’re left with an additional $20 trillion hole in the Federal budget over the next decade.

OTOH, the White House is expected to release its detailed budget in early March. It will build on budgets it has released previously. Republicans want Biden to negotiate on what to do about money we’ve already spent.

Try doing that with YOUR creditors.

 

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Send The Tanks To Ukraine!

The Daily Escape:

Cardinals in snow, Warrensville, NC – January 2023 photo by Keith Calhoun

If Ukraine is to stave off the Russians, it needs tanks, but Germany and the US are still reluctant to send their tanks to Ukraine. While each express slightly different reasons for withholding their tanks, it boils down to the fact that both countries seem to believe that their tanks should be used in defense of NATO, and Ukraine isn’t a member.

The question remains “Which weapons are ok to use in Ukraine?” The answer has evolved since the start of the war a year ago. NATO is now giving more advanced weapons than they thought they would, partly because they now perceive the battle for Ukraine as a clear proxy war with Russia.

It appears that the meeting of defense ministers over the weekend in Germany saw the first crack in NATO’s solid support for Ukraine. Military aid from Europe and the US for Ukraine has been the key to Ukraine’s survival and to its ability to blunt Moscow’s superior numbers of troops on the battlefield.

What was agreed isn’t chump change. It includes 200 new artillery pieces. Multiple countries, including Denmark and Estonia, are sending Ukraine literally all of their howitzers. That implies that Ukraine needs artillery pieces as a stop gap until battle tanks can be provisioned. But as of now, no battle tanks.

Germany has been reluctant to provide Leopard tanks. Why that’s what’s Wrong today is summed up by someone who Wrongo never thought he would ever quote, Bill Kristol:

Kristol is on to something. From the WaPo:

“Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks, several thousand of which are in the arsenals of its NATO allies around Europe, are the best such options for Ukraine’s use.”

The Leopards are far more numerous in NATO countries than any other tank. They are more suitable for Ukrainian terrain and maintenance capabilities than the US’ top-of-the-line battle tank, the M1 Abrams.

And it’s rarely a good thing in warfare to have a fruit salad of weapons that in general, have the same capabilities. Ukraine absolutely does not need what Michael Kofman has referred to as a “petting zoo” of battle tanks.

Some armchair generals may think that it would be nice to have one British Challenger or two, several Leopards, and a bunch of Abrams available. But from a training and logistics point of view that’s a nightmare. Of all of these possible weapons, the Leopard is regarded as ideal for Ukraine because:

  • There are a lot of them
  • They are less logistically complex than the Abrams
  • Tank people seem to think that the learning curve for operations and maintenance isn’t as steep as it is with other tanks

Retired US General Mark Hertling is adamant that the Leopard 2 is a much better fit for the Ukrainians than the US’s M1 Abrams. His position is based on logistics. Since his whole career was spent as a tanker, he’s probably correct.

The clincher for the Leopard 2 is that 16 European/NATO countries operate them, and thus have the resources to help train Ukrainians in their use and maintenance on a wide scale. These countries would be able to provide Ukraine with at least a base level of spare parts from their existing stores.

Germany also has an issue if they supply Leopards from their inventory: They can’t make enough of them to replace those they give to Ukraine. That would leave Germany needing to replenish by purchasing, you guessed it, M1 Abrams tanks! So, a big win for General Dynamics, maker of the Abrams.

Since the start of the winter, there has been an ongoing degradation of Ukraine’s war making capabilities, allowing Russia to keep pounding while it organizes its newly mobilized forces for offensive action in the spring. The western media has stopped talking about the Ukrainian “win” they spoke about last summer.

Soon, winter will be over and the early spring promises a Russian counter-offensive in eastern Ukraine. At Turcopolier, TTG says:

“By spring the Russians will probably field a large infantry force. But I doubt that force will be anything but ill-trained and ill-equipped. They are not using near enough artillery and armor now to support the infantry they have. Maybe this is because they are holding it back for future offensive operations…..Having said that, I do think they will continue to try to take the Donbas and do their damnedest to hold in the south.”

This means that time is short, not simply to decide on battle tanks, but to get them into position in Ukraine with supply chains up and operating. The alternative is a slow grinding but eventual Russian victory with all that will mean for eastern Europe.

If there are doubts about what losing Ukraine will mean, consider that stopping Russia from winning in Ukraine will end the threat of major war in Europe. We shouldn’t forget that for nearly 50 years, a confrontation with the USSR (and later Russia), was the likely scenario for Europe. A Ukrainian victory would make this scenario implausible.

Some “experts” are saying that provisioning Leopard tanks for Ukraine is not likely to be a game changer on the battlefield. That may be, but it’s a certainty that without them, the war in Ukraine will be won by the Russians.

We need to face it: We’re in a very long, very expensive proxy war between NATO and Russia.

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Monday Wake Up Call – January 23, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Near Government Camp, OR – January 2023 photo by Mitch Schreiber Photography

Everyone is talking about the national debt and/or about increasing the nation’s debt limit. Congress should increase the debt limit because it’s the right thing to do. But there are many in the “very serious” media who are concerned that the Fed can’t continue to hike interest rates to 5.0% or higher because the government can’t afford to pay such high interest rates on our gargantuan debt.

Some pundits are pushing the idea that the Fed must cut interest rates or else. Or else what? The US government won’t go broke, regardless of how high interest rates rise.

While it’s true that the government’s cost of borrowing rises when interest rates rise, what these pundits are missing is that US tax receipts (which are used to pay that interest expense) have also spiked. They’re also missing the fact that interest expense as a percent of tax receipts was at a historic low in Q1 2022. And while it has moved up, it remains quite close to historic lows. Interest expense as a percent of tax receipts is one primary measure of whether the government can afford the interest expense or not. Wolf Richter of Wolf Street provides us with a chart:

As you can see, while the percentage of interest/tax receipts has “spiked” in 2022, it was at a historic low in 2021. And compare that to when the ratio hovered around 50% in the 1980s and early 1990s. In Q3 2022, it was 22.9%, still very near a historical low.

One reason for this was that inflation helped to increase tax receipts thereby lowering the government’s burden for paying interest on our existing debt.

Between the Trump and Biden administrations, the government’s debt spiked by 34%, or by $8 trillion, in the past three years. That additional debt quickly added a lot of interest expense for the government, as we see with the spike above on the chart in 2022.

As older Treasury securities mature, and assuming the national debt doesn’t go down, they are replaced by new Treasury securities with today’s higher interest rates, and the higher interest costs of those new securities are starting to show up in the government’s interest expense. Richter says that total interest expense in Q3 2022 spiked by 24% from a year ago and by 43% from two years ago. This spike in interest expense looks like this:

And this scary chart is what the GOP will be presenting as their reason to cut the debt. When you omit the spike in tax receipts and the historically low level of interest expense as a percent of tax receipts, as we saw in the first chart, you’re not presenting the whole picture.

Another way to look at the situation is Government interest payments as percent of nominal GDP. This is a classic measure of the cost of government debt compared to the overall economy. Richter offers us another chart:

As you can see, by this measure, interest on our national debt remains lower than it was at any time between 1977 and 2003. And it has remained in a narrow band from 2004 to today.

Without question, we should reduce our national debt. But unless and until interest expense on our debt returns to the level of 50% of tax receipts as it was in the 1980s, we shouldn’t expect much to change in Washington. If it starts to get near those highs, maybe we’ll see action by Congress to increase revenues and reduce spending. And despite all the GOP’s screaming, the Federal Reserve is doing the right thing: Hiking interest rates to stem inflation.

Time to wake up, Congress! The Fed is trying to gently nudge you into thinking that the country needs to raise revenues while also cutting expense. You need to consider the revenue side of the equation more seriously, if for no other reason than what will happen to our currently high tax receipts whenever the coming recession strikes.

To help you wake up, listen to the late David Crosby’s song “Laughing” from his first solo album, 1971’s “If Only I Could Remember My Name. Crosby wrote it for the former Beatle George Harrison, who never used it, so Crosby used it instead:

Several legendary musicians appeared on this recording, including Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell on background vocals; Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar, and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Garcia is magical.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – January 22, 2023

There’s a difference between America’s national debt and our debt limit. Without question, our national debt must be reduced. That can happen only two ways, or by a combination of the two. We can increase taxes, or reduce future spending, or do both.

The debt limit is how much in total the US government can borrow. It uses borrowing (issuing treasury notes and bonds) to meet obligations for previously contracted goods and services. This is what must be increased as soon as possible by both Houses of Congress.

But Republicans say they won’t agree to increase the debt limit without action to reduce the national debt. The national debt is the accumulation of all the annual deficits (and any surplus – thanks, Bill Clinton!) that various administrations have racked up. It currently sits at $31.4 trillion.

The four Republican presidents from Reagan to Trump are responsible for more than half of that debt; they added $17.46 trillion to it by running whopping deficits each year. Trump was responsible for nearly half of that, $8.2 trillion, in just four years. About $3.9 trillion was pandemic relief and $2 trillion was the big tax cut he gave to the wealthy.

Republicans can’t explain why they voted to increase the debt ceiling every year of Trump’s administration. Even as he was racking up trillions of dollars of debt by increasing the annual budget deficit from the $665 billion he inherited from Obama, to a whopping $2.1 trillion deficit in just four years  ̶   the highest in US history.

But in the past two years, Biden has cut that $2.1 trillion deficit by 33%, to $1.4 trillion. That isn’t stopping the GOP from screaming that spending has to be curbed because there’s a Democrat in the White House. On to cartoons.

A high-stakes game of chicken:

Their plan is to never have a plan:

Alec Baldwin’s on line one Mr. Speaker:

Truth is always in the eye of the beholder:

Floods in California have people looking for new places to stay:

David Crosby would be spinning in his grave:

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