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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Trump’s Authoritarian Impulses

The Daily Escape:

Lake Superior from Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ontario CN – photo by crazytravel4

If you want to know where Trump is headed on civil disobedience in 2020, consider this about China’s Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Nicholas Kristof reminded NYT readers what Trump had to say about it in 1989:

“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it, Trump told Playboy Magazine….Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”

Overwhelming force is Trump’s plan, just like the Chinese. Here’s a list of the military, government police units and militia-like components of the US Government that are walking the streets in Washington DC:

That’s 14 discrete police and military groups patrolling DC. And it didn’t stop there. The Trump campaign just changed his MAGA hats from red to camouflage, and is calling supporters the “Trump Army“:

Yep, Trump wants an army to fight off the liberal mob.

The Daily Beast reported that Trump and Barr have come up with a possibly legal way to bring troops into America’s cities:

“The idea was to…rely on the FBI’s regional counterterrorism hubs to share information with local law enforcement about, in Barr’s own words, ‘extremists’.”

More from the Beast:

“That’s when Barr turned to an existing counterterrorism network—Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs)— led by the FBI that unite federal, state and local law enforcement to monitor and pursue suspected terrorists….The construction we are going to use is the JTTF. It’s a tried and true system. It worked for domestic homegrown terrorists. We’re going to apply that model….It already integrates your state and local people. It’s intelligence driven. We want to lean forward and charge… anyone who violates a federal law in connection with this rioting.

We need to have people in control of the streets so we can go out and work with law enforcement…identify these people in the crowd, pull them out and prosecute them…”

See any reason to be concerned?

According to multiple current and former Justice Department and law enforcement officials, Barr is misusing the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) in support of Trump’s insistence that antifascists are “terrorists” exploiting the nationwide protests. Using the JTTF against the protesters is a political ploy to make being anti-Trump look like terrorism.

Authoritarians world-wide call domestic demonstrators “terrorists”. Saddam did it in Iraq, so does al-Assad in Syria. Duterte does it in the Philippines, as does Erdogan in Turkey. Xi does it in China.

And now, it’s happening here.

On Wednesday, Trump again violated the First Amendment by authorizing federal police to block clergy’s access to St. John’s Episcopal Church (the one he used for his photo-op), effectively “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.

That, from the holy defender of religious rights.

Monday wasn’t the worst day in American civilian-military relations. But the use of force to create a photo-op, including ordering military helicopters to fly low, scattering protesters with the rotor downwash, broke many established norms.

Trump followed that by deploying many different groups of uniformed “peace-keepers” to the streets of DC. So Monday became the worst day for American civilian-military relations since the military attacked the veterans march on Washington when Herbert Hoover was president.

Political Violence at a Glance asks a few questions:

  • If Trump insists on sending troops to states where governors don’t want them, will they go? On Monday, elements left their bases for operations in DC, which has a special status that Trump could legally exploit. That’s different from sending regular US forces into states without an invitation. That would cross a red line.
  • What would Congress do in response? The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, vowed to bring the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to testify. Would they even show up to the invitation?
  • How will the public react? The US military is one of America’s most popular institutions. In part, because it is seen as non-partisan, whereas most other government institutions are viewed as partisan. If the US military enters American cities, public support of the armed forces will surely drop.

Trump’s rhetoric continues to support white supremacists and far-right militias, while encouraging violence by his followers.

His effort to label the demonstrators as outsiders is meant to justify an increasingly aggressive police/military response. In the past few days, we saw them attack regular people on the streets, along with the journalists reporting on what was happening.

Former high-ranking military officers are finally calling out Trump, but his authoritarian instincts combined with Barr’s right-leaning reflexes pose a clear and present danger to our democracy.

Let’s hope the republic is still here for us to defend by overwhelmingly voting him out on November 3d.

They’re already telegraphing how they might respond if they lose.

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Is Insurrection Brewing in Our Cities?

The Daily Escape:

Mt. McLoughlin, Cascades Range, OR – photo by kayalfainart. Unclear if that’s another mountain in the background, or Godzilla peeking at us.

…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” ― John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath

This could be written today, because new grapes of wrath could again be harvested.

Think about the grim future ahead for today’s high school and college graduates. With 40 million unemployed, jobs will be scarce. Wages will be stagnant. Many of those 40 million may be out of work for quite a long time, as will many of the new grads. Many families will go hungry.

Add to that the people who are protesting the killing of George Floyd. This uprising involves a direct challenge to police power, along with a clear challenge to political power as well. That’s visible in Trump’s militarized reaction to Constitutionally-guaranteed protest.

We’re experiencing confusion and tension that has put many cops on edge at a time when their goal should be de-escalation, not escalation. There have been an untold number of similar incidents in the past where police officers have been exonerated in cases of seemingly obvious abuses of power.

That has led America to understand that its police forces can act with almost total impunity. As Wrongo has said earlier in the week, historically, this has hurt black and brown people the most. Here’s a chart that shows American’s current attitudes towards the police:

Source: Morning Consult

People may finally be fed up. There’s the tension over the pandemic, and the economic pressures it’s created. And there’s Trump, who seems only capable of pouring gasoline on what is already a bonfire.

The militarization of American law enforcement, already a massive problem, has been taken to the extreme by Trump. He thinks nothing of brutalizing a crowd of protesters so that he can be filmed walking across the street to wave:

“…an upside-down Bible in front of a church he rarely attends and whose leaders and congregation work against the policies he trumpets.”

Trump has threatened to use the US military to put down protests, even if state leaders do not want the US military in their states. Secretary of Defense Esper has spoken of a need to “dominate the battlespace” (he subsequently recanted) in reference to something that is not a battle, and that involves civilians, not a hostile enemy.

Our military is monitoring protests in multiple states, including flying drones over Minneapolis.

On Monday, Washington DC saw a bizarre “show of force” with helicopters hovering much lower than permitted over crowds of peaceful demonstrators. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Milley, was patrolling near the White House in his camouflage uniform.

On Tuesday night, troops of the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division and 1st Infantry Division arrived at Joint Base Andrews near Washington DC.

But who would they be fighting against? These tactics — mass arrests, tear gas, rubber bullets, intentional and unconstitutional attacks on peaceful demonstrators and journalists — are familiar, because they’re the tactics employed by authoritarian governments all over the world in response to local insurrection.

But, is what’s happening in our cities an insurrection?

Replacing the police with the military would only escalate the situation. Violence begets violence. But creating more “resistance” may well be the Trump Administration’s plan.

Let’s agree that there was unnecessary violence and property damage in many cities. Facebook and Twitter are ablaze with comments saying that a massive show of force is absolutely necessary to put down the insurrection.

Out of nowhere, GOP politicians from local to federal levels are singing a chorus of “Antifa” is a terror group, and the primary cause of the problems on the streets of America. Antifa, short for anti-fascists, describes an amorphous group of people whose political beliefs lean far left, and do not necessarily conform to the Democratic Party’s platform.

The problem with Trump’s claim that it’s a terror group is that it doesn’t have central leadership, according to federal law enforcement officials. Worse for Trump is that many of Antifa’s Twitter accounts turn out to be run by fascists in Europe.

“Antifa” is vapor in the US, and recognizing it as some defined group is a joke that has been taken seriously only by America’s Right.

Painting disparate punk assholes as some kind of formal group is ridiculous and counterproductive.

We desperately need to get the twin problems of the coronavirus and the nationwide civil disobedience behind us.

These infections need to be cured.

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First Person Report: Boston’s March for George Floyd

The Daily Escape:

Boston, May 31, 2020 – all photos by Kendall Lavoie

(What follows is a first person report by friend of the blog, Kendall Lavoie. She, her fiancé and a few friends drove from western Massachusetts to show support for George Floyd at a demonstration in Boston.)

Eight years ago, when Trayvon Martin was murdered, my eyes were opened to how cruel and unjust the world can be for people of color, especially in this country. Every year since then there have been multiple instances of unpunished police brutality, many lives lost, and still no progress or real change.

When I saw the video of George Floyd being killed in the street I was filled with sadness, anger, and a drive to do something.

Yesterday, we haphazardly constructed signs that we decorated with our slices of free speech, gathered medical supplies, and headed to Boston to join our fellow citizens in need. We wore PPE and tried our best to socially distance, which is difficult in a crowd, and we will be self-quarantining for 14 days as a result of the contact we made yesterday.

When we arrived in Boston, we first joined an early march along the streets to the Boston Common. We listened to people talk about how they felt while we knelt in the gravel and grass. Some quotes from the early march include:

“Don’t let this moment be fleeting. You gotta live this shit as a lifestyle.”
“Why is my color a crime?”
“This is a movement of us, all of us.”
“True allies that are out here today willing to put their health on the line, that’s what makes this different- everybody had to take a risk to be the fuck out here today.”

 

We marched to the State House and peacefully stood outside for a bit, and then dispersed and went our separate ways.

The late march started at 6:30 in Dudley Square. The amount of people who showed up was just incredible- almost the entire time I couldn’t see the front of the crowd or the end of it. Community support from residents and businesses was amazing throughout, motorists showed their support despite being blocked by our marching at times, and there was a real sense of people coming together for change.

We marched toward the Common once again for about an hour and a half. I heard one man say:

“This is the proudest I’ve been of my city in a long time. Look at all these people, they actually care.”

The sun set while we sat in the Common and made our way up the steps to the State House once again. Some started setting off fireworks, and others climbed the fence and architecture in the front of the statehouse. Aside from a few people who threw trash over the fence (and were immediately called out by the rest of the protesters with the chant “stop throwing shit”), we were completely peaceful. We weren’t blocking traffic as there were no civilian cars at this point, and later when there were, we made a pathway for them to get through.

The crowd began to thin out as people went home, and we decided to give it a few more minutes before we headed back to the car. We started handing out our medical supplies since it looked like we wouldn’t be needing them, and maybe others would want them for later protests.

That’s when the Boston PD sent three cruisers speeding into the crowd. No warning, I just turned to my right and people were running and screaming. The first one sped past, and the second one was inches from me. I actually hit the third with my sign out of instinct to “push” it away from me because it was so close.

This was a blatant baiting tactic to incite the violence that ensued. I was angry, the people around me were angry, we started chanting “THIS WAS PEACEFUL!” and some started throwing things over the fence. When they sent the cruisers back through, they got blocked this time and the National Guard came out of the State House and began firing rubber rounds into the crowd, striking one girl in the ankle who we helped, and another in the ribs.

On another pass through, a protester threw a frozen water bottle at the side mirror of a cruiser and it detached. The back window was shattered by another flying object. People threw their milk jugs at the cruisers and the National Guard sent an armored car through the crowd.

The crowd fractured and began to move off in different directions. We walked down the side of Boston Common where a garbage fire burned in a barrel and many had embedded their signs in the wrought iron fence. Police were in full riot gear, and in the distance smoke billowed from something large burning, which we later learned was a cop car.

We crossed the street and a girl stood there rubbing her face and crying. She had been pepper sprayed, saying she was too close to the perimeter as she was trying to videotape a man being beaten in the corner by police. This 18-19 year old girl apologized profusely for seeming to inconvenience us as we poured milk in her eyes. Her friends stood by her and helped her find her phone and we parted ways.

Another man down the street had someone guiding him because he had been tear gassed, but refused our help. Farther, we came to a street where police were surrounding a girl on the ground. People were shouting and I started recording, getting closer so she wouldn’t be alone. The police came at us with wooden batons and pushed us back. The girl was helped up and stood at the edge of the crowd crying and demanding to know the name of the cop who pushed her down, breaking her box of belongings and dragged her across broken glass. I didn’t get the name or badge number of the officer because he refused to turn around, but another officer retrieved her box of things and we left as they radioed in to “come wipe down the street.”

We helped get glass out of her ankle and gave her a bandage. We gave her the badge number of one of the officers, in hopes that she could get the other one via that, somehow. The man who assaulted her refused to identify himself and is paid by tax dollars.

While we were helping her, squads of police cars flew past us down the street. In the distance we could hear popping, and I’m still unsure if it was fireworks or rubber rounds. We walked an hour back to the car, checking in with people on the way who let us know where to avoid as we did the same.

We learned later that the police had shut down the T after demanding that everyone go home.

As we drove home, I tried to process what I had just been a part of. I’ve always supported police. I was raised with the mantra, “don’t talk to strangers… except for police.” They were always heroes, always there to protect me, and the bad ones were negligible in comparison to the greater good. After last night my opinion has changed.

I saw how my fellow Americans are treated by police when they try to protest peacefully for their rights. I saw how the Boston Police Department acted like cowards and used their vehicles as weapons. And I saw the power that people can wield when they come together.

We won’t stop until they stop, WE DEMAND CHANGE NOW. Get out there and do something about it!!!

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Police Violence

The Daily Escape:

Fall sunrise at Crystal Lake, near Ouray, CO – photo by Ryan Wright

Wrongo is now certain that 2020 is the worst year for America since 1968. Why? We have had riots in 140 cities. 40 million are unemployed, and the Death rate from COVID-19 has reached 106,003. Here’s a map of where protests have occurred in the past few days:

We have a national problem of civil disobedience leading to rioting and looting. Note the number of states (in yellow) that have already activated the National Guard. We should assume that the number of cities with protests will probably grow.

Let’s talk briefly about policing in America. After the Ferguson uprising in 2014, we were astonished at the militarization of the police. We also started paying closer attention to the number of police killings in the US, but since there was no central database, independent groups started to compile them.

Cities and towns introduced new policies designed to reduce police violence, starting with police wearing body cameras. But according to the Police Shootings Database, police in America killed more people in the US in 2019 than in 2015, and the number has risen every year since 2017.

If police killings are increasing despite widespread public attention and local reform efforts, shouldn’t we be asking why?

Minneapolis, like most other cities, has a civilian review board, but it didn’t prevent Chauvin from killing George Floyd. In fact, the review board had failed to impose consequences for any of the eighteen previous complaints made against Chauvin. This shows how little these review boards are doing to change behavior.

Can change happen through the ballot box? Minneapolis implies that voting isn’t enough: Minneapolis has a progressive mayor and a city council composed entirely of Democrats and Green Party members. But it doesn’t prevent out-of-control racist cops from killing people. The glue holding this broken system together is police unions.

From Eric Loomis:

“That our police are openly fascist is finally becoming apparent to a lot of liberals who really didn’t see it that clearly before…..The police are openly declaring war on the nation. They are raising their fascist flag instead of the American flag. They are blinding good journalists. It is completely unacceptable…”

Loomis specializes in labor unions and labor issues. He says that it is in the public’s interest to force the police unions to give up the blank check for violence that they currently have. The two concepts that should be written out of the union contracts are arbitration in discipline cases, and qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity is a concept in federal law that offers government officials immunity from harms caused by actions they perform as part of their official duties.

Because of qualified immunity, police act like the laws don’t apply to them. This is a legal obstacle blessed by the Supreme Court that’s nearly impossible to overcome when the police violate our Constitutional or civil rights.

Despite that, blanket immunity shouldn’t absolve cops of responsibility for violence. Since they are state actors, the burden of proof should be on them to prove their violence was justified, not the other way around.

In many cases, the police unions are also run by bad people. In Chicago, the police union just elected as president a cop who has been reprimanded several times and is currently stripped of his police powers.

Minneapolis’s police union has a hard line and controversial president, Bob Kroll, who said that George Floyd had a “violent criminal history” and that the demonstrations were part of a “terrorist movement.”

Minnesota AG Keith Ellison blasted Kroll on “Fox News Sunday”:

“…he operates as sort of an alternative chief who, I think, undermines good order in the department.”

These are the kinds of people that rank and file police all across America want protecting them. That shows something about the true character of the rank and file.

Cities should pull the records of every cop with a double digit number of excessive force complaints and fire them. Force the unions to sue and then litigate it every step of the way. Make them defend the indefensible.

America needs stronger mayors, town councils and district attorneys who can be for “law and order” and also for protecting the rights of citizens who are swept up by day-to-day policing. We can have stronger public servants by voting them in.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms says just that in this video, which everyone can see here:

As an aside, Mayor Bottoms looks to Wrongo like an excellent choice for the Democratic VP.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging — Protesting and Looting Edition — May 31, 2020

Last Monday night in Minneapolis, 46-year old George Floyd was arrested. Police officer Derek Chauvin handcuffed him and pinned him to the ground, crushing his throat. Floyd died an hour later.

What happened next has played out time and time again in American cities after high-profile cases of police brutality. Vigils and protests were organized in Minneapolis and around the US to demand police accountability. Google the name of any large city in the US along with “police brutality” and your search will return many pages of results.

But while Minneapolis investigators waited to charge Chauvin, unrest boiled over. News reports soon carried images of property destruction and police in riot gear. This has now morphed into the Minnesota governor calling out the National Guard.

Wrongo can’t claim to understand race issues in America, but he thinks that we should take a minute to re-read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. In his letter, MLK identified “the great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom” not as the KKK, or the South’s White Citizens Councils. He said it was white moderates, people who:

  • Are more devoted to order than justice
  • Prefer the absence of tension to the presence of justice
  • Say they agree with your goals, but not your methods for achieving them
  • Constantly urge patience in the struggle, saying you should wait for a more convenient time

If you have watched the news for the past 40 years, you know that the Moderate is one stumbling block to universal justice. The Moderate’s tools are things like Non-Disclosure Agreements, loyalty to the team, and to the power of the hierarchy. Moderates may not be at the top of the power pyramid, but as long as Moderates can kiss up and kick down, they’ll hang in there, waiting for a better time to think about bringing justice to all Americans.

When it comes to violence in our cities, as Elie Mystal says in The Nation, it’s hard to name a city in America where the police aren’t working for white people. The police know it. And deep down, white people know exactly whom the police are supposed to protect and serve, and they know it’s not black and brown people.

Disagree? Go to any white suburb in America. Cops aren’t wandering the streets, people aren’t being arrested and neighbors aren’t being sent to prison. It’s easy for most of us to think that the George Floyd’s of America are simply a tragic cost of doing business, that a looted Target is evidence of the need for more policing.

We can hold more than one thought in our heads. People should be free to demonstrate, and that sometimes leads to rioting. Both are forms of protest. Wrongo doesn’t condone looting. But it’s also a form of protest. If you argue it’s not, then refresh your memory about the Boston Tea Party, when white protesters dressed up as minorities and looted to make a point about taxes.

If you are upset about protests, and were also pissed off at Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, you are probably a Moderate. People first need to be able to identify racism when they see it before they can understand the racial issues underpinning what happened in Minneapolis this weekend.

If you woke up today angry, confused, or frustrated about the direction our country is heading: VOTE!

Wrongo has looked hard for fun cartoons, without success. Here’s the best of the week. Sadly, her hope can only be aspirational:

How times have changed:

From 2016. All you need to know about demonstrating in America:

For Sunday, we include a rarely heard protest song written in 1966 by Malvina Reynolds (1900-1977). She wrote “Little Boxes” and many other songs. She wrote “It Isn’t Nice” as an answer to those who value order above justice. Here, “It Isn’t Nice” is sung by Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers:

Sample lyric:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is Freedom’s price,
We don’t mind.

It isn’t nice to carry banners
Or to sit in on the floor,
Or to shout our cry of Freedom
At the hotel and the store.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is Freedom’s price,
We don’t mind.

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Saturday Soother – May 30, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Cactus flowers, Devils Bridge, Sedona, AZ – May 2020 photo by sooperb4d

It’s hot and muggy at the Mansion of Wrong. Today we received our usual daily visit from a momma turkey and her eight chicks. Some are already able to fly for short distances, while the smaller ones just jog along.

This morning, Wrongo was thinking that he’d never expected to have to live through something as tumultuous and dangerous as 1968, but here we are. We’ve got:

  • A Plague killing people in every state
  • Economic collapse (potentially on the scale of the Great Depression)
  • An incompetent incumbent president who will say anything in order to win re-election
  • Heavily armed yahoos complaining about having to wear masks, or that they can’t get haircuts

But rather than talk about those four things, America’s talking about a racially based killing in Minneapolis that has morphed into an urban dystopia. Hennepin County finally brought charges against a cop who murdered a man in public with dozens of witnesses. That has incited urban violence. Second, Trump called for the looters in Minneapolis to be shot, tweeting:

“Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts,”

We will assume control? Does Trump think he has the right to invade Minnesota? And that wasn’t the worst of his tweet.

You may know by now that the other phrase was notorious in the civil rights movement. It was used in 1967 by Miami’s police chief at the time, Walter Headley, after he sent police dogs and officers armed with shotguns into Miami’s black neighborhoods in what he called:

 “…a crackdown on…slum hoodlums….We don’t mind being accused of police brutality.”

Headley claimed that Miami had not experienced “racial disturbances and looting” because he had put the word out that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Headley thus elevated stealing to a capital crime punishable by death without due process. And now Trump is advocating the same thing.

Some are saying that Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter has taken a courageous stand against Trump, that Dorsey is standing up for all of us. CNN reports:

“…Trump has angrily complained this week about social media companies, repeatedly accusing them of censoring conservative voices and going as far as to sign an executive order Thursday seeking to limit their power. But data from Facebook, the world’s largest social media company, pours cold water on the assertion that conservative voices are being silenced.”

Here’s the data:

The red bars represent conservative sites. CrowdTangle, the company that made the chart, says that in the last month on Facebook, Trump has captured 91% of the total interactions on content posted by the US presidential candidates. Biden has captured only 9%.

Trump and the Republicans repeatedly accuse Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms of bias, saying that they are the villains in the culture war the GOP uses to excite the conservative base.

The dispute is about whether Twitter has the right to disagree with and respond to the president. As a private company, it obviously does have that right. The chilling part is that the president and his advisers think otherwise.

Wrongo started by talking about 1968, the year that Nixon won the White House, running on a law and order message. He split the vote with George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey. That was 52 years ago, and a few things have changed. From Paul Campos:

“For one thing, the current president is somebody who makes George Wallace look like a statesman. For another, the country is much less white. (As a percentage of the total population, white non-Hispanics have declined from about 85% of the population to 60%).”

Nixon in 1968, like Trump in 2020, clearly exploited racial tensions, but a crucial distinction: Nixon wasn’t in power at the time of the 1968 elections. We’ll have to see whether Minneapolis helps or hurts Trump in November.

Time to take a break from our worst year in 52 years, and calm ourselves with a Saturday Soother. There is more yard work to do on the fields of Wrong, but we’re starting with a cold brew coffee from Greater Goods roasters in Austin TX. Food & Wine named them the best coffee in Texas in 2019. Their cold brew is called “Connections” ($15/12 oz.) and features the sweet, chocolatey goodness of beans sourced from Colombia and Brazil.

Now settle back and listen to the Tedeschi Trucks Band play a stunning live version of “Midnight in Harlem“, written by Minnesota band member Mike Mattison. Stay for the fantastic slide guitar solo by Derek Trucks:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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The Coming Disaster for America’s Colleges

The Daily Escape:

New Navajo Falls, Supai, AZ – 2020 photo by wanderin-wally. These falls were formed by a flash flood in 2008.

Colleges and universities are scrambling to figure out what to do this fall if their students can’t return to campus. Some students are reconsidering going to college. If they don’t return, what will happen to schools that are tuition-dependent?

Even before the pandemic hit, student enrollment for the spring 2020 had fallen for the ninth year in a row. Wolf Richter reports that the number of post-secondary students fell by more than 83,800 students (-.05%) to 17.18 million students. Worse, compared to the spring semester in 2011, enrollment is down by 10.6%, or 2.03 million students. Here’s Wolf’s chart:

Demo Memo says that college enrollment in the United States peaked in 2010 at just over 21 million, and as the chart shows, it has drifted downward ever since. For 2020s spring semester enrollment declined in all sectors compared to spring 2019:

  • Public two-year: -2.3%
  • Private for-profit four-year: -1.9%
  • Private nonprofit four-year: -0.7%
  • Public four-year: -0.6%

Public two-year schools have seen a 25% drop in enrollments since 2011, while enrollment in private for-profit colleges is down 55.2% for the same period.  The drop in for-profit enrollment accounts for 44% of the total drop in enrollment in all institutions since 2011.

Nathan Grawe says in the Harvard Business Review that demographics will not be a friend to higher education in the future:

“….since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the total fertility rate…has fallen by almost 20%….Tracing forward 18 years from the 2008 recession, we can anticipate a sizable decline in prospective college students beginning in 2026.”

He says that two-year colleges and non-selective four-year schools can expect to see falling enrollments, because these schools serve a demographically representative subset of students, so they will face the inevitable demographic arithmetic. This will be true particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, where declines are already well underway.

This will lead to price competition, which is precisely what Scott Galloway, professor at NYU’s Stern business school said on CNN recently. Galloway points out that schools in the top tier (Like Stanford, Oxford, Harvard and MIT) have deep waiting lists, and therefore will not be damaged by a smaller pool of college-age students. This means that the top-20 universities globally are going to become even stronger, as will universities between numbers 20 to 50.

At the other limit, for the Tier III schools who are tuition-dependent and who have no wait list, there will be carnage. The Upshot wrote about a college consultancy called Edmit that follows financial solvency of colleges:

“Edmit examined financial trends at 937 private universities and added a conservative estimate of the Covid-19 impact: tuition losses of 10% in 2020 and 20% in 2021, a 20% decline in endowment earnings, and an offsetting 10% reduction in spending on salaries.”

Their work shows that the number of colleges ranked with “Low” financial health (defined as being on track to run out of money within six years) was 345, more than one-third of all private colleges studied.

Beyond demographics, the fundamental question is today’s perceived value of a college degree. An MIT degree may be worth $250k in tuition, but is a Boston College degree worth that?

Since 1998, overall inflation is up 54%, while college education costs are up 150%. There’s now more student loan debt than credit card debt. Former students are in the hole for $2 trillion in student loan debt, a lot of which may eventually need to be written off. And the average price of a textbook has increased 812% in the last 30 years.

Galloway says that higher education has raised its prices at a faster rate than the health care industry! This, for a product/experience that is substantially unchanged in the past four decades.

The four-year public schools will survive, because they provide a better price-to-value proposition than the mid-tier private schools.

Dozens, maybe hundreds, of private middle tier schools will close, or partner with other schools, or possibly with businesses. They face huge price pressure, with many competitive alternatives available to the dwindling pool of students.

Many of the third-tier private, tuition-driven schools will simply shut down, continuing a trend that is already under way.

Change is sometimes the only way to make a service more efficient and affordable. The physical store is on the verge of disappearing. The physical office is disappearing. Similarly, colleges and universities need to understand the economic logic they’re facing, or else Mr. Market will educate them.

The questions to wrestle with are:

  • Is the statement “everyone should/needs to go to college” still true?
  • Does higher education still require a physical presence to be effective?

If the paradigm changes, what should it change to?

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Can America Avoid Becoming a Failed State?

The Daily Escape:

Fall sunset, Shenandoah NP, VA – photo by juliend73

Sorry, but this column is going to be a downer.

We’ve been talking for the past few days about how hard it is to get politicians to focus on fixing what’s wrong in America. Wrongo originally started down this path in 2009. His plan was to lay out the problems, and to suggest ways in which America might fix them.

But 11 years later, little of what has been suggested here has occurred. Explaining what’s wrong has made very little difference.

Our really big problems now seem to be locked in: Climate change will happen. We can’t (or won’t) deal with the burgeoning disinformation platforms that threaten civil society. It’s difficult to see what will change our growing income inequality. As always, politicians are itching for a fight with some country. Today, the villain is China. Globalization has won, our supply chains now hold us hostage, and our economic future is increasingly controlled by Asia.

America is fast becoming a failed state: Our president tells people to drink bleach. There are more than 100,000 dead in the pandemic, and a significant percentage of them probably were needless deaths.

We have the ability to deal with the crises,but we’re choosing not to. Trump and McConnell, along with Biden, Pelosi and Schumer, all have access to the same, or more likely better information than we do.

They are choosing to ignore that the country is going to hell. Instead, they use each individual crisis for their own political benefit, and for their patrons’ financial benefit. They choose to ignore the near-certainty of a second wave of infections in the fall of 2020, bringing with it the possibility of a second economic collapse, along with more deaths.

We no longer provide the basics for our citizens. We live in a nation where income, savings, happiness, trust in government, and social cohesion are all in free-fall.

This is a recipe for social collapse.

In America most infrastructure is decrepit, from airports, to schools, to roads, because there hasn’t been much public investment. That’s because Americans don’t want to pay higher taxes like the Europeans do. Politicians on both sides still believe the evidence-free ideology of neoliberalism: We’ll all be rich if we invest in nothing, and wait for Mr. Market to correctly allocate resources.

No one cares about anyone else. Nobody will support any group’s pursuit of any goal unless it is also their goal. American life is becoming purely individualistic, adversarial, and acquisitive.

We haven’t invested in the systems that provide healthcare, education, retirement, and childcare. As a result, the average American family now goes without many of these things, since they’re priced out unless they have high paying jobs.

We pay absurd prices for health care. Having a child? That’ll be $50K. An operation? It will cost about what you would pay for a starter home. If she didn’t have health insurance, Wrongo’s daughter’s medication would cost $10,250/month. These basics of life are affordable in the rest of the rich world, but in America, they cost more than the average person can pay.

The average American now dies with $62k in debt. Life has become a sequence of unrepayable loans. Student debt becomes credit card debt and a mortgage, which leads to medical debt. These forms of debt define life in America. The average American is now a poor person, in the sense that they barely make enough to pay for the basics of life. Today, 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, struggle to pay their basic bills, and 63% can’t raise $500 for an emergency.

These are the statistics of a nation that is descending into poverty.

Can it be fixed? Sure, but who’s going to pay for it? If taxes can’t be raised, if deficits can’t grow, what will happen? Nothing.

Except that we will move closer to a collapse. Our leaders say it’s because there isn’t an alternative. They say that we don’t have the money to pay for the changes we want. 70% of Americans say they want decent healthcare, retirement, and education, but they never vote for it.

Not even when it is offered during the primaries.

And it’s never offered in the general election, because nobody will vote for higher taxes to fund a functioning society. The idea simply isn’t acceptable to either of our political parties.

Wrongo’s decade of writing about what’s wrong hasn’t changed anything. Change requires a commitment to taking political risks, and massive voter turnout.

Otherwise, same old, same old is the path to our society’s destruction.

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Churchill’s Lessons For Our Time

The Daily Escape:

Algodones Dunes, CA – 2020 photo by _christopherjs. The Algodones Dunes cover 1,000 square miles of Sonoran Desert, making it the largest dune system in the US.

Wrongo fears that some of our country’s problems may be intractable. Blog reader Fred VK agrees:

“I’ve been distressed lately by how seemingly brain dead so much of the US population seems, not only regarding COVID-19 but more, the fragile state of our nation and what the forces of Trump have done and are doing. Some say we will never get back due mostly to lack of resolve. Years ago, I developed this notion that Americans were so complacent about our country and government because they believed that everything was so set in stone that nothing could shake it and that the republic was good to go as is forever.”

Things aren’t set in stone, and they don’t go to hell in a straight line, But from where we stand today, it’s questionable whether America can (or will) be able to solve its biggest problems.

So the question is: What should we be doing when we live in a country where you know bad things will continue to happen, and you can’t stop them?

Worse, in the time of COVID-19, we’re seeing that our efforts to prevent, or to moderate what’s wrong are failing. It’s worth considering that all of our efforts are barely slowing down the worst of what is happening to the climate, to inequality, to the re-emergence of racism, and the rising threat that factionalism presents. For many of us this hits home. We or our loved ones are among those suffering: losing our lives, homes, livelihoods, or living in despair.

We are far from the first to contemplate a civilization’s decline. From Ian Welsh: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“The Roman Empire went through multiple periods of decline…stoics and epicureans debated how to live the good life in an evil world. The Chinese practically had dealing with declining and corrupt imperial eras and warring…periods down to an art: When no good could be done in the world, one returned to one’s private life to write poetry, drink wine, and care for those close to one while refusing as much as possible to be complicit in the evil of the times.”

Words to live by: Avoid being complicit in the evil of the times. This can’t all be blamed on Republicans, but they are primarily responsible for the wrong that’s occurred in America since the 1980s. Can we work together to pull out of our current nose dive? It will require far better leadership than we have now.

Wrongo is reading Erik Larson’s book about Churchill and the Blitz. Larson focuses on Churchill’s first year as prime minister. On his first day, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Dunkirk was only two weeks away, and the blitz was about to begin.

Britain was woefully unprepared. They had just 45 fighter aircraft when Churchill took office, and no one thought Britain could hold out for long against the Nazis. Churchill managed to convince the British people of the “art of being fearless”. He bludgeoned his government and the military on to the same page. Many in England wanted to concede Europe to Hitler, if that meant even a temporary peace, and they had to be brought to see the fight was worth having.

This picture is from a London library during the blitz. It is also the frontispiece in Larson’s book, and shows how people try to normalize even under the worst of circumstances:

Via Shorpy

But we should no longer normalize. Churchill was able to bring his country together despite all the factionalism, and we must make that our goal. Reading Larson’s book puts our own political dysfunction in focus. It’s clear that today, when the stakes are very high (not as high as England in WWII), we also need robust and top quality leaders.

What is our job as citizens, if leadership is to be the difference? Wrongo isn’t saying we shouldn’t fight the big fights. The best way to lose the big fights is to not fight.

We need to cajole, or force if necessary, a few of our politicians to step forward and be the heroes we need.

Many heroes have emerged as the COVID-19 fight has unfolded. We’ve seen good people brought closer together. We’ve felt the pain that comes when we know we must transition from a weaker to a stronger place, but we know we’re not where we need to be.

Sadly, few if any of our current heroes have been politicians.

Some of them need to step forward, and take the chance to be the leader who can teach Americans the “art of being fearless” much like Churchill taught the British.

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Monday Wake Up Call, Memorial Day – May 25, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Reflection of sunrise at Vietnam Veterans Memorial – 2012 photo by Angela B. Pan

(There will be no column on Tuesday, 5/26. We will resume on Wednesday.)

Most years, today is about honoring those who have died in America’s wars. But this year, we should also be honoring all of those who have died from COVID-19. In the 80+ days since the first American death from the virus, around 100,000 people have died from it.

Let that sink in. The 2020 virus toll is now greater than America’s combined combat deaths in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, many people think that concern about the virus is simply a political move designed to keep Trump from being reelected.

Let’s take a look back at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. It is dedicated to deceased US service members whose remains were never identified. On March 4, 1921 Congress approved the first burial of an unidentified American serviceman from World War I in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater.

Then on November 11, 1921, another unknown WWI soldier was brought back from France and interred in the tomb. President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremonies. During his remarks at the ceremony, Harding said this:

“Our part is to atone for the losses of the heroic dead by making a better Republic for the living”.

Harding was president from 1921 to 1923, when he died, apparently of a heart attack. Despite his being in office only two years, Harding managed to appoint four justices to the Supreme Court.

We see Harding as a failed president, but if all presidents made “making a better Republic for the living” their highest objective, America would likely be a much better place today.

The AP reports that, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 1,000 veterans have been killed by the Coronavirus, but that number does not include hundreds more who have died in state-run veterans homes. Most people know someone who died.

Despite that, Coronavirus deaths are being politicized. Trump says the numbers are exaggerated. Many Republicans say that masks and social distancing aren’t necessary. Some still compare the rate of deaths from the yearly flu to COVID-19 and say “what’s the big deal?”

On this Memorial Day, we seem to be hopelessly divided. Polls show that just 53% of Democrats have a great deal of confidence that medical scientists are acting in the public interest. But among Republicans, just 31% express the same “great deal” of confidence in them, a 22 percentage point difference.

Perhaps looking at a little more history would help. America was founded on principles of mutual help, compromise, and provision for the common defense in a hostile world. Ben Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that “We must all hang together, or surely we will all hang, separately.” What he meant was that unity was essential to achieving victory in the Revolutionary War.

Our Constitution codifies the golden rule into civic responsibility for finding solutions to shared problems. The expectation is that will be accomplished through reasoned debate as a part of the legislative process.

But our infatuation with neoliberal economics has brought us unregulated greed. That has led to failures of the commons. Management of health care by MBAs means we can’t provide our own medicines, or our own PPE. We can’t even maintain enough ICU beds on standby for peak needs.

The pandemic has shown us that we’re poorly equipped to handle both a humanitarian disaster and an economic crisis at the same time. What’s far worse is that those existential threats didn’t unite us.

If these twin threats weren’t enough, what possible threat will it take to unite us?

What may finish off America as a global power is our failure to learn from our mistakes. We live in a time of black or white answers, of friends versus enemies. We’ve forgotten how very useful understanding what is happening in the grey areas can be.

The virus isn’t going away with words or photo ops. And propping up the Dow Jones isn’t going save us either.

American Exceptionalism is over. We’re finding out that in most of the ways that count (healthcare, employment security, and unity) we’re performing at a mediocre standard.

Do we still have what it takes to correct our slide?

Time to wake up America. On this Memorial Day, we need to remember our dead, but we also need to remember what it takes to live and work together for a common cause.

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