Saturday Soother – May 1, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Flowering Crab Apple, Fields of Wrong, CT – April 30, 2021 iPhone photo by Wrongo

In his message to the joint session of Congress, Wrongo thought that Joe Biden connected with the American people. The very small crowd in the House made for a surprisingly intimate speech, free from the bombast of recent presidents, who often must shout over a crowded room to be heard. Biden was able to vary his tone from soft to strong, thereby making his points effectively.

He doesn’t have the oratorical skills of an FDR or Obama, but he has something that’s very important – the ability to empathize and understand what other people are going through. He doesn’t talk down to people or talk over their heads, and that’s how he spoke on Wednesday night.

He showed that he was sensitive to the problems many Americans are currently facing, and then told them how he planned to solve them. That made it exactly what Americans need to hear right now.

Wrongo was a two-year old when FDR died, so he has no personal memory of the messaging about the New Deal. But Wrongo worked for and voted for LBJ. He remembers the Great Society legislation about Medicare, and the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts.

Biden brought echoes of these two predecessors to his speech. He proposed huge spending on programs designed to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure while also helping Americans and their kids, plans that are markedly different than those of recent Democratic presidents.

Counter to the ideas of both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, for Biden, the era of big government is back. And government can also be a part of the solution. Biden, late in life, has rendezvoused with a political moment in which his personality and style are uniquely suited. Josh Marshall at TPM: (brackets by Wrongo)

“I didn’t have great expectations for tonight’s speech because political events seldom turn on speeches. Nor is speechifying Biden’s forte. He’s workmanlike, solid. But he’s no great orator….But I saw an extraordinarily effective speech. Like so much with Biden, he managed to find in the historical moment things that play to his strengths….[Biden’s]…delivery…was deeply conversational. It frequently read like he was having a conversation with the people in the chamber and then, metaphorically at least, with the country at large….it had an informality and conversational tone that I haven’t seen any other President even attempt. It worked.”

There were two key takeaways from the speech. First, if Biden gets his way, job seekers won’t have to “learn to code” to find a good paying job. From Eric Levitz: (brackets by Wrongo)

“Biden [dispelled] the notion that America can educate its way back to shared prosperity….While expanding access to higher education remains a top policy goal of the Democratic Party, this is no longer seen as an adequate response to inequality or middle-class decline. And for good reason: The skills gap is a myth, and most of the fastest-growing occupations in the US.do not require a college degree.”

Biden’s talking working-class jobs for those Americans who have been left behind by the economy. This is helpful, since the Democrats’ eroding support among non-college-educated Americans has become the party’s defining political challenge. It’s important to remember that Democrats won the White House against a world-class buffoon, while losing Congressional seats and failing to pick up any state legislatures.

The second takeaway remains how much of this program will get through the Congress.

As the NYT says, it’s up to Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to make it a reality. Ideally, the program could be modified to bring some Republican support. But it’s clear that‘s going to be difficult. The Republicans are offering their own mini-infrastructure package, so the gulf between the two parties is very large.

Biden knows how popular his initiatives are. But he also knows he has a very narrow window through which to wedge these monumental changes into law. This will all play out in the next few months.

Meanwhile, on to our Saturday Soother. Friend of the blog Tim G. asked, “How are the Fields of Wrong?”, to which Wrongo replied, “green!”. Our flowering crab apples bloomed this week, but a weather front came through with 30+ mph winds on Friday, taking many blossoms down.

This makes the second year in a row when the blossoms have been lost to strong winds. That means fewer birds, and less nectar for the bumblebees who make each of the crabs their homes in May. Ultimately, it means fewer crab apples on the ground in the fall for the deer to eat. We also lost a major limb from our Bradford Pear.

For the next few weeks we’re featuring the songs of birds that arrive in the spring on the fields of Wrong. Here’s a video of Tree Swallows and an Eastern Bluebird. We have two nesting pairs of bluebirds every year:

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Political Implications of the New Census Data

The Daily Escape:

Nathan’s Batteries, a converted Esso station, Wilkesboro NC. –  February 2021 photo by Greg Kiser Photography

The Census announced the Congressional reapportionments from the 2020 census: Texas picked up two seats, while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon each picked up one seat.

California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia all lost one seat.

Here are a few quick observations regarding how the Electoral College has shifted since 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state: (h/t Paul Campos)

  • California, Florida, and Texas have collectively picked up 58 electoral votes (This census is the first time California has lost a congressional seat since it became a state).
  • New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have together lost 38 electoral votes.
  • West Virginia has suffered the biggest proportional decline, losing half its electoral votes.
  • Florida and Arizona have enjoyed the largest proportional gains, tripling (FL), and nearly tripling (AZ) their representation in the Electoral College respectively.

And counting mattered. A couple of the shifts were by razor-thin margins, with New York losing a seat by just 89 people and Minnesota holding on to one by just 26 people. The news is generally good for Republicans. They control the redistricting process for five of the seven new seats.

The Cook Political Report estimates the shifts are worth about 3.5 seats to Republicans, which if no other seat shifted in the coming midterms, would put the House near-even (either 218-217 or 219-216 in Democrats’ favor, versus the current 222-213).

But the most perilous statistic is that Republicans control 61 of the 99 state legislative chambers and almost 55% of the state legislative seats, giving them control of redistricting and ultimately, a good shot at preserving the possibility of controlling one or both Houses of Congress.

In August, the Census Bureau is expected to release detailed information showing down to the block, where nearly every person lives. New legislative maps will be redrawn in each state to ensure equal representation. Right now, the GOP controls more statehouses overall and has an edge in growing states. Republicans will only need to net a handful of seats to control the House.

This is made worse if we remember that in June, 2019, in Rucho v. Common Cause, the Supreme Court essentially gave partisan gerrymandering its constitutional blessing by ruling that local political decisions are non-justiciable.

From Charlie Pierce: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“You have to have some appreciation for what a perfectly complete whole the conservative project is. By pressing every advantage…they have gained sufficient control of the process to defuse most progressive initiatives, to defang most governors if the state happens to…elect a Democrat, and to arrange for the various judicial branches to be their ultimate backup.”

Overall, the US population grew to 331 million, a 7.4% growth rate since 2010. This is the second slowest rate of population growth the census has ever recorded, just behind the 7.3% growth in the 1930s. That decade’s slowed growth was rooted in the Great Depression. From the WaPo:

“Unlike the slowdown of the Great Depression, which was a blip followed by a boom, the slowdown this time is part of a longer-term trend, tied to the aging of the country’s White population, decreased fertility rates and lagging immigration.”

This decade’s sluggish growth started in the Great Recession. Its weak recovery saw many young adults struggling to find jobs, while delaying marriage and starting a family. That blow to the nation’s birthrate was exacerbated by the Covid pandemic.

West Virginia and Maine saw deaths exceed births over the decade.

Most demographers forecast even slower population growth in the coming decades. For the first time, we have more people over the age of 80 than under age 2. The median age in the US is 38, up one year since 2010. Going forward, the number of people over age 65, will grow faster than younger cohorts.

What about counting Latinos? Texas, Florida, and Arizona had been predicted to gain more seats but didn’t. It’s possible that Latinos weren’t properly counted. They make up a large segment of the population in the three states that didn’t gain expected seats. Some point to Trump who tried to intimidate immigrants or people in the country illegally from participating in the Census. Additionally, the pandemic made it difficult to reach certain populations.

Now it will be a bare-knuckle fight between the Parties in most states to win the gerrymander war.

That will be watched closely by candidates across the country who need to decide how redistricting affects their chances of winning an election.

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Nomadland Is Best Picture

The Daily Escape:

Desert Lilies, Desert Lily Preserve, Desert Center, CA – photo by Bob Wick for BLM

The film “Nomadland” won best film, best director, and best actress at this year’s Oscars. Wrongo and Ms. Right kept our tradition, and didn’t watch the Oscars, but we have seen the film twice.

If you haven’t seen it , the film is worth your time. It offers a sympathetic view of what’s happening to the American working class in what’s becoming a de-industrialized America. It shows the hollowing out of middle America, and the growing regional inequality that stems from the US economy being concentrated in fewer and fewer corporate hands, and often, in fewer places.

Our changing economy has left wide swaths of rural America in decay. The movie’s story centers on Fern, an older widow. She worked in the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada until the Great Recession reduced demand for drywall, and thus the mine and the plant were closed.

Once the factory went, so did the town. It became so de-populated that it even lost its zip code. Now, Fern, (played by Frances McDormand), sleeps in an old, converted van and works a seasonal job with one of the few employers left in the area: An Amazon shipping center.

But the film isn’t about Amazon. It’s about coping with downward mobility. Fern travels the southwest mountains, working a variety of gig jobs: In addition to Amazon, she’s kitchen help in a Wall Drug. She works at a beet processing plant throwing cases of beets into a hopper. She helps run a small RV park.

The film avoids clichés about the formerly middle-class, mostly White Americans it depicts. None of them blame Black people or immigrants or the left-wing media for their problems. They simply no longer play by the norms of an economy that ruined their lives.

Ironically, these characters don’t follow the usual White working-class stereotypes. Unlike Trump voters interviewed by the media in diners across America, they don’t turn to racism or blind acceptance of patriotism because of their economic uncertainty. Fern and the rest of the characters in “Nomadland” demonstrate dignity, decency, and stoicism in the face of the structural forces grinding them down. They teach each other how to survive while living off grid. They help each other when the chips are down.

Eric Cortellessa at Washington Monthly offers great insight:

“Unlike JD Vance’s flawed Hillbilly Elegy…this film does not blame the victims for their own downward mobility. It doesn’t point to bad habits (drugs and laziness), bad morals (racism and Trumpism), or bad attitudes (toxic masculinity and perverted Christianity). Instead, it shows humble men and women who don’t scapegoat others and who manage to preserve their dignity and, to a large extent, their own personal freedom in the face of systemic forces that are exploiting them.”

Let’s point out that since 1985, the average Wall Street bonus has increased 1,217%, from $13,970 to $184,000 in 2020. If the minimum wage had increased at that rate, it would be $44.12, instead of $7.25. And $7.25 equates to $15,080/year, nowhere near enough to make a payment on the US median home that’s priced at $301,000. It’s not even enough for a tiny dump of a house, like the one Fern left in Empire NV, which probably cost one-third of the median price.

Jessica Bruder, the author of “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” that the movie is based on, wrote over the weekend about her exploration of this growing subculture. Bruder says a scene depicting Fern spending a night in her van when she hears “the knock” is chillingly accurate:

“No overnight parking! You can’t sleep here.”

The knock, Bruder explains, “is a visceral, even existential, threat,” one that nomads try to evade by hiding in plain sight: “Make yourself invisible. Internalize the idea that you’re unwelcome.”

Some places forbid overnight parking. Others outlaw living in a vehicle. Penalties can pile up fast. Unpaid, they can lead to the cruelest punishment of all: Your home gets towed. Failing to pay the impoundment fee means losing your home. Bruder says that people ask her what they can do for the nomads:

“Letting vehicle dwellers exist in peace would be a fine start. Individuals have the power to help. When you see someone living in a car, van, or RV, don’t call the police.”

Wrongo was struck by how the nomads helped each other. In our little New England town, people do the same, they try to help. The bystanders at George Floyd’s murder tried to help prevent Floyd’s death.

The only people who don’t seem to care about helping one another are corporate executives and Republican politicians. How did they get like that?

See the film.

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Monday Wake Up Call – April 26, 2021

The Daily Escape:

The Wonder Gardens, Bonita Springs, FL – April 2021 photo by Merrill Dodd

Alex Pareene in the New Republic writes about how Republicans have endorsed a terrorist tactic against protesters. He means new legislation in several states that shield drivers from civil liability if they injure or kill protesters. Florida is an example:

“Earlier this week, Florida Republicans enacted a law they claimed would prevent riots in the state. Its real purpose, of course, was to discourage protesting and punish demonstrators. One of the bill’s provisions has received a fair amount of national attention, as it seems to give Floridians permission to attack protesters with their cars.”

The law increases penalties for protesters who block roadways or deface public monuments. It creates a new crime, “mob intimidation.” That clause makes it illegal for a group of two or more people to use force or to threaten force. But what constitutes a threat of force? And the law requires that anyone arrested at a protest be denied bail until their first court appearance, making for overnight jail stays.

It also makes local city and town officials in Florida liable for lawsuits from injured parties if they are found to have not done enough to respond to control violent protests. And it reacts to the mythical “defund the police” movement by allowing an appeal to the governor of any decision by local officials to reduce law enforcement funding.

Pareene asks: (brackets by Wrongo)

“What problem does it [the new law] solve? As the Florida American Civil Liberties Union pointed out, very few recent protests in the state involved violence or even vandalism, and police and prosecutors were already well equipped…to handle whatever rioting might occur. If demonstrators blocking roads and snarling up traffic were a serious problem in Florida in need of a legislative remedy, surely thoughtful legislators could come up with a more effective or ethical response….”

Five states besides Florida have introduced similar bills this year, granting some form of immunity to people running into demonstrators. Iowa’s measure was passed by the state’s House and awaits Senate approval. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt just signed another version into law in his state. Oklahoma’s shields attacking drivers from criminal but not civil liability.

More from Pareene:

“A few years ago, most people would have seen “politically motivated vehicle attacks” as a terrorist tactic pioneered by ISIS. Now American police regularly carry out these kinds of attacks, and Republican policymakers have officially endorsed the practice.”

Ari Weil, a researcher at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, counted six states that considered laws shielding drivers who attack protesters in 2017, but most of those bills went nowhere. But the car attacks kept coming: In 2020, Weil tracked 72 incidents of cars driving into protesters across 52 different cities in a period of just over a month.

And police are more likely than individuals to use vehicles as weapons. Cops in New York and Detroit have hit demonstrators with cars. In Boston last year, Police Sergeant Clifton McHale was recorded on a police body camera bragging about hitting demonstrators with a police cruiser. If you think this is an exaggeration, consider this image that Wrongo saw on Facebook by a Santa Fe, AZ Police Sgt. (via Digby):

Civil rights and social justice groups say these laws are an unconstitutional attack on free speech. Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said:

“To be clear, the goal of this law is to silence dissent and create fear among Floridians who want to take to the streets to march for justice.”

One question is: Who gets to define and/or decide what a riot is, or what’s a violent protest? It’s most likely the local police; so as always, they now get to wield violence against protesters, up to and including driving into a crowd.

Even if a person accidentally stepped on the gas during a protest, if they kill or hurt someone in their car, there is no reason to create a legal shield for them. The incident must be adjudicated in court. That’s how we do this.

Carving out a legal exception to allow the potential killing of someone because they happen to be protesters is mind-boggling. Our democracy is under attack by a large portion of a major political party which seeks to transform the relationship between the government and the governed.

Time to wake up America! These laws will endanger the lives of people who are exercising their right of free speech by demonstrating. To help you wake up, listen to Tom Jones covering a Todd Snider song, “Talking Reality Television Blues”. The song shows the snowballing damage that television has inflicted on our psyche:

An 80+ year-old star covers a song by a dope smoking old hippy, making it sound like something NPR would feature.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – April 25, 2021

Last Thursday, the House passed a bill for DC statehood. The cause has been around for at least 30 years. It’s got more energy right now because of the Democrat’s desire to break up Republican obstruction in the Senate.

The current 50-50 party split in the Senate means that 41 million more Americans are represented by Democrats than by Republicans, even though their number of seats is equal.

Republicans have argued that the bill is a Democratic “power grab”. Some GOP lawmakers agree with Democrats that DC residents should have representation in Congress but say they should become part of Maryland or Virginia, rather than having their own state. They also claim that DC has too small a population, even though it has more residents than both Wyoming and Vermont.

One of their grasping-at-straws arguments is that there’s not a car dealership in DC (actually, they sell Tesla’s).  They also complain there isn’t an airport. But neither of those are prerequisites for statehood. On to cartoons.

Just another form of vote suppression:

Speaking of vote suppression, the GOP is on the march:

Just after Biden said he’s removing all troops from Afghanistan, we learn that we’re deploying additional troops to Afghanistan to aid in Biden’s plan for withdrawing all combat troops. Confused? So are these guys:

One team racks up its first score:

The GOP made a tiny counter proposal to Biden’s infrastructure plan:

Ready for the Oscars tonight? Not really:

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Saturday Soother, Mondale Edition – April 24, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Flying Saucer plants at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson AZ – April 19, 2021 photo via Visit Tucson

This is a long post by Joe Trippi about Walter “Fritz” Mondale. Mondale died last Monday. You should read to the end.

Trippi is a Democratic political operative who managed the 2004 Howard Dean presidential campaign. Recently, he was a senior advisor to Doug Jones’s successful Senate run in 2017.

Trippi cut his political teeth in Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1979. By 1983, he was 27, and working for Walter Mondale’s unsuccessful 1984 presidential run. After Mondale’s death this week, Trippi published this twitter thread with a picture of a boxing glove, and a personal story about the kind of man Mondale was. First, the boxing glove:

“1/ The story of these gloves will tell you the kind of man Fritz Mondale was and why he meant so much to me. Please take the time to read this thread – and wait for it. It’s worth it.

2/ In December 1983, I was in my 20’s and running Iowa for Fritz.
At the end of every campaign swing through Iowa – Fritz would almost always end the trip the same way….

3/ After loading the campaign plane…with traveling staff and a huge press corps that were assigned to a front-running campaign back then….

4/ Fritz would come down the steps of the plane and take me on a stroll around the tarmac 2 or 3 times before rebounding the plane to…some other state. The conversation always ended the same way…

5/ Fritz explaining that he could not lose Iowa and that he was counting on “The Hogs” (the name Mondale Iowa campaign staff proudly called ourselves) to do everything we could to make sure he won a must win state. “Don’t let up. Keep fighting” and back on the plane he went…

6/ But we also talked about all kinds of things before we got to the “no pressure, just don’t blow it” part. One day as we walked around the plane – we got to talking about my family. Fritz asked a dreaded question about my father….

7/ I explained to Fritz that my father had stopped talking to me 5 years earlier, when I left college to join the Kennedy campaign in 1979. My dad was old school Italian — I was supposed to take over his flower shop — not go to college, or run off to become a political hack…

8/ Fritz asked a few more questions and then joked with me that my dad was wrong about a lot of things but maybe I should have listened to him about going to work for Kennedy. I was one of only a handful of Kennedy operatives hired in the Mondale campaign…

9/ I was lucky to have worked for them both. But at the time there was still a lot of bad blood – luckily, Fritz was joking. And I was relieved when he got to the – “win Iowa” part…

10/ About a month Later, we won Iowa with 49% of the vote and with Gary Hart taking a distant 2nd, But that was enough to get Hart the media spotlight and the momentum he needed to win New Hampshire and the Hart rocket was roaring….

11/ After a string of loses to Hart, “fighting Fritz” emerged as the narrative of the campaign. Mondale would walk on to the stage at rally after rally and thrust these gloves in the air and speak from the heart about who he was fighting for…

12/ I remember traveling with him to a meat packing plant & Fritz bellowing ‘Show me your hands!” My jaw dropped as plant worker after worker thrust a hand in the air with fingers missing lost on the job. I had no idea, but Fritz did. And that’s who he was fighting for…

13/And so the campaign put out the word to the press that Fritz would carry those gloves and carry on the fight til he broke the string of losses to Hart. Time and delegates were running out on us and the delegate rich Pennsylvania primary was looming as critical to our cause…

14/ If I had nightmares about losing Iowa (and I did) they were nowhere near those I had in Pennsylvania. I was sent in as state director of Pennsylvania in March when we were down by 14 points. The Pennsylvania Primary would be held in April – months after winning Iowa…

15/ And so for a month – Fritz and I did the tarmac walk thing again. No Pressure but fighting Fritz needs you and all the staff to “not let up, remember who we are fighting for”…

16/ It was a comeback win of all comeback wins I have ever been part of — only Doug Jones win in 2017 compares to it. But Fritz won Pennsylvania – and with it regained the momentum to move towards being the Democratic nominee….

17/ After the polls closed and the networks called Pennsylvania for Fritz. I got a call in the boiler room. David Lillehaug, then the aide that traveled with Fritz (and would later serve as an Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court) was on the line…

18/ “Joe, Fritz wants to see you before he goes down to the ballroom to make his victory speech, get up here quick”. I rushed to the elevator and up to Fritz’s hotel suite…

19/ when I walked through the door there was Fritz Mondale, sitting down and explaining to an old Italian guy that his son was “in an honorable profession. Fighting for people who were down and hurting — he’s making a difference – I count on him and you need to know that ”….

20/ Fritz Mondale had remembered a story I had told him months and months ago — eons in the life of a Presidential campaign. He had somehow gotten someone to locate my dad and get him to Philadelphia to be there on Primary night and bring us together to reconcile…

21/ I still tear up thinking about this moment of my life that shows the kind of man Walter “Fritz” Mondale was. David Lillehaug broke the spell as my father hugged me… “Sir we have to get downstairs for your speech” and handed Fritz his “fighting Fritz” gloves….

22/ Fritz turned & said “I don’t need these anymore” took out a felt tip and wrote “To Rocky Trippi, with thanks” Fritz Mondale. Handed me the gloves , grabbed my dad, brought him with to the ballroom and dragged him on stage to stand with him as Fritz declared victory…

23/ Years later when my father passed away, I gently tucked one of the gloves with him to rest with him.

This one remains with me as homage to a man that touched my life like few others. RIP Fritz”

Mondale didn’t have a chance against Ronald Reagan in 1984, but he had a long, successful career in the US Senate, as vice president, and as ambassador to Japan.

Most of all, he was a decent man who never took himself too seriously. May we all have such a legacy.

Let’s close with soothing Saturday music. Listen to “Take Five” written by Paul Desmond, and famously recorded by Dave Brubeck in 1959. Here it’s played by the Camaleon Bassoon Quartet, who are  members of the bassoon section of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Who ever heard of Jazz bassoon?

 

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Another Problem for Biden: Who Controls the Arctic Ocean?

The Daily Escape:

Cape Porpoise, ME – April 20, 2021 photo by Eric Storm

American has only two icebreakers that can operate at the North Pole. One is more than 40 years old, and the other is in drydock. This is a problem because the Arctic ice cap is melting, and many countries plan to use the Arctic Ocean as a much quicker transit route from Europe to Asia.

Why is this a big deal? Rockford Weitz, professor at the Fletcher Maritime Studies Program of Tufts University, has an article in The Conversation about the looming competition for control of the warming Arctic Ocean. He points to a recent voyage:

“A tanker carrying liquefied natural gas from northern Russia to China tested that shorter route this past winter, traversing the normally frozen Northern Sea Route in February for the first time with the help of an icebreaker. The route cut the shipping time by nearly half.”

It’s clear that even including the cost of having an icebreaker along for the trip, traversing the Arctic Ocean was cost-effective. The polar ice is melting quickly, so countries will need more icebreakers to help LNG tankers cross the Arctic.

Russia has 46 icebreakers and has 11 under construction. The US has three and has three under construction. Wikipedia says that the US icebreaker situation is currently so dire that the US Coast Guard is loath to send the working icebreakers too far north, because if one breaks down, it would almost certainly have to call for help from a nearby Russian icebreaker.

That demonstrates how bad US/Russian relations have become. At one time, both powers could cooperate on this kind of prosaic thing.

There’s more at stake. The US Geological Survey estimates that about 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of undiscovered oil may be in the Arctic. As waters become passable, that will attract both more shipping and more mineral exploration. Weitz also says that the competition for control of the Arctic has reached new levels:

“Russia is now attempting to claim more of the Arctic seabed for its territory. It has been rebuilding Cold War-era Arctic military bases and recently announced plans to test its Poseidon nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed torpedo in the Arctic.”

It’s remarkable to learn that the US military has been caught flat-footed with the retreat of Arctic sea ice. The retreat of the polar ice cap and the opening of a Northern passage have both been well covered in the media for years. Yet, both the arms merchants and hawks in Congress somehow missed this profit opportunity?

More from Weitz:

“Congress put off investing in new icebreakers for decades….Now, the lack of polar-class icebreakers undermines America’s ability to operate in the Arctic region, including responding to disasters as shipping and mineral exploration increase.”

Congress has authorized construction of three more heavy icebreakers at a total cost of around US $2.6 billion but has so far funded just two of them. They take years to build. A shipyard in Mississippi expects to deliver the first by 2024.

The US has one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, that can break through ice up to 21 feet thick. It was commissioned in 1976. While it is usually in Antarctica each winter, it was sent to the Arctic this year to provide a US presence, presumably to counter the Russians.

But the Polar Star’s crew had to fight fires and deal with power outages and equipment breaks. Our second icebreaker, the much smaller Healy, commissioned in 2000, also suffered a fire on board in August 2020 and had to cancel its Arctic operations.

How is it possible that we spend roughly 10 times more on defense than Russia, but once again, we’re behind in a strategic situation? This proves that our defense procurement is corrupt. It has been for a very long time.

We have two problems. First, today’s Earth Day, and on its 51st anniversary, the Arctic Ocean is melting because of global warming. Despite that, the world’s saying: let’s all go up to the Arctic and produce more global warming. Second, our Defense Department has known for years that Russia had a big advantage in icebreakers, and that climate change would certainly open the area to competition.

What did the military and our Congress Critters do about these totally knowable things? As usual, nothing. American politics has become self-destructive.

Once again, the only skills the US Congress displays are obstruction and corruption. The beat goes on.

What did you expect?

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Leaving Afghanistan

The Daily Escape:

Cathedral Rock, Sedona, AZ – photo by Bill Beardsley

The WaPo and every other outlet reported that Biden has committed to ending US troop involvement in Afghanistan by September 11, 2021:

“The goal is to move to “zero” troops by September….This is not conditions-based. The president has judged that a conditions-based approach…is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.”

We’ve been in Afghanistan for 20 years, and leaving means that the Taliban have won. It also means that they will wind up ruling the country for a second time, since the Kabul government will not survive without US and NATO support.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s just reality. Mistakes have been made in Afghanistan by every president since Carter, who in 1979, supported the mujaheddin rebels, Islamic hardliners against the Russians.

But there is some concern that withdrawal of our troops doesn’t end our efforts on the ground. The NYT has reported:

“Instead of declared troops in Afghanistan, the US will most likely rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors and covert intelligence operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic State threats…”

Stars and Stripes says that, according to a Defense Department report, more than 18,000 contractors remain in Afghanistan, while official troop totals had been reduced to 2,500. In essence, Biden isn’t ending the Afghanistan War, he’s privatizing it:

“About 4,700 of the contractors are Afghans hired locally, but nearly three-quarters come from outside the country, including about a third who are US citizens…”

This amounts to roughly seven contractors for every US soldier on the ground in Afghanistan. The US has announced intentions to retain at least two military bases in Afghanistan after the official troop drawdown. Staying in-country will help protect the profits of the US military-industrial complex.

We also covet the Afghans’ mineral wealth. A 2007 US Geological Service survey discovered nearly $1 trillion in mineral deposits, including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and lithium, which is used in the manufacture of batteries. The Grey Zone reports that an internal Pentagon memo stated that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

The Afghan government is largely a creation of the US. Its military is funded by us at a cost of around $4 billion per year. Unless Congress cuts it off, this support will continue alongside large-scale US foreign aid programs that amount to another $1 billion per year.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The US doesn’t want to “lose” Afghanistan to Russia and China, which makes today’s calculation not very different from the 19th-century “great game” between Great Britain and Czarist Russia.

All presidents after Carter were involved to a greater or lesser extent in trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern democratic state. And all have failed. This should have been knowable to these presidents and to their military advisors.

The NYT had an Op-Ed by Timothy Kudo, a former Marine Captain who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kudo remembered:

“…I once asked a village elder whether he knew why I was there. He responded that we’d always been there. Confused, I asked him about the attacks on America. He said, “But you are Russians, no?” After 30 years of war, it didn’t matter to him who was fighting but only that there was still fighting.”

We should have left Afghanistan after the death of bin Laden. Staying when there could be no defeat of the Taliban made the war the same as Vietnam. We’ve been down this road before: The Taliban want a medieval society, an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” and they have time on their side.

Like the American withdrawal from Vietnam, Biden’s decision will be seen as a sign of weakness, encouraging Russia, China, Iran, and others to challenge US interests elsewhere. But Russia left Afghanistan in 1989. Who remembers? Is Russia considered a patsy on the world stage?

Afghanistan has been the “graveyard of empires” since Alexander the Great, for long enough that the phrase’s origins are unclear. We should accept that an intervention-first mentality has failed here and will fail elsewhere.

Will leaving Afghanistan prompt us to rethink our country’s place in the world? Could it be the end of the era of our nation-building fantasies? Should our military always be the first tool out of the toolbox? What did the US gain from being enmeshed in the Greater Middle East as it has been for the past 50 years?

Biden’s decision should lead to a reckoning about these questions, and a consideration about what a more modest and realistic US foreign policy would look like.

But Biden will remain under pressure from the military, the Beltway Bandits, and many politicians not to withdraw.

He needs to hold firm.

And yes, this means there will be a “fall of Saigon” moment sometime soon.

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Monday Wake Up Call, Thin Blue Line Edition – April 19, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Morning has broken, St. Augustine, FL – April 13, 2021 photo by Wrongo

What does the American Flag really mean to us? To quote Heather Cox Richardson:

“Flags matter. They are the tangible symbol of a people united for a cause.”

Today we’re going to talk about a flag that increasingly unites only some Americans, the Thin Blue Line Flag.

That Thin Blue Line refers to a black-and-white American flag with one blue stripe. It’s come to mean that the police are the line which keeps society from descending into violent chaos. The “blue” refers to the blue color of the uniforms worn by many US police departments.

But in addition to being a sign of police solidarity, it has appeared as a symbol of white supremacy. From the Marshall Project:

“Those who fly the flag have said it stands for solidarity and professional pride within a dangerous, difficult profession and a solemn tribute to fallen police officers. But it has also been flown by white supremacists, appearing next to Confederate flags at the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. County officials in Oregon recently paid $100,000 to a black employee of a law enforcement agency there, after she said she was harassed by coworkers for complaining about her colleagues displaying the flag at work.”

A “Blue Lives Matter” movement grew in the wake of multiple killings of police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Brooklyn, New York; and Dallas. But the movement took off when Trump, as a presidential candidate, called police “the force between civilization and total chaos.”

Soon a few states passed laws to categorize physical attacks on law enforcement officers as hate crimes.

But it has come to be a symbol for many sides. By the 2020 presidential election, Trump often replaced the American flag with the Thin Blue Line flag as the centerpiece of his rallies. The implication was that he was the leader of the alt-right. It was not inadvertent: after a Wisconsin rally, then-White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted:

“The Thin Blue Line flag is flying HIGH at President Trump’s rally in Wisconsin!”

The Thin Blue Line flag was prominent at the January 6 attempted coup in DC:

The BLM movement sees it as anti-BLM, and a racist symbol. The Thin Blue Line flag is supposed to convey solidarity with the police. But isn’t it also saying that it’s us against them?

The first reference to a thin blue line is in the early 1950s from William H. Parker, then-chief of police in Los Angeles. He worked with a short-lived TV show called the “Thin Blue Line“. He said that the blue line is what separates different kinds of Americans: those who abide by the law from those who do not.

The use of the concept grew from our military abroad, where it meant that our troops were holding a line against a foreign enemy.

Now, with the emergence of a quasi-military focus of policing in the US, that has been modified: For the police here at home, the enemy is within. The police see themselves as holding the line against criminals and elements of disorder that in their view, are undermining our society. There are now other flags that are designed to show solidarity: a red lined flag for firefighters, a yellow lined flag for emergency responders.

The police and community should be working together to produce better public safety. But if you’re looking at the community as a potential enemy, or a threat, that’s never going to produce a positive relationship.

Does America need specific flags for specific groups? In America today, we’re no longer a homogeneous society under one flag. A significant percentage of us no longer even support one president! The American flag is used by many groups, often with diverging views and ideologies.

Why should the Thin Blue Line flag be allowed to co-op the flag that belongs to all of us?

Wake up America! We’re on a dangerous path. There have always been interest groups that had their own message, some with colors and uniforms, or yes, even flags. But the Thin Blue Line has come to represent an insidious subtextual message of us vs. them that is particularly evident when it is flown alongside the ongoing murders of black and brown Americans by police.

To help you wake up, watch the Nashville-based group BR549 perform their 2001 tune “Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous To Steal”:

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More Untruths by Covid Skeptics

The Daily Escape:

World Trade Center site, NYC, with the Oculus in background – photo by Merrill Dodd

(New columns will be light and variable, as Wrongo and Ms. Right are taking a spur of the moment vacation. Regular programming will resume on April 20, provided the world doesn’t blow up before then.)

A quick note about the Coronavirus. Epidemiologist Elizabeth Jacobs shows us that while we were told by politicians that a strict lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid was causing increased suicides, that’s turned out to be untrue. According to preliminary data from the CDC suicides in the US decreased in 2020.

The fact is that Covid became the third leading cause of death in the US, behind heart disease and cancer, while deaths by suicide went down. Here’s a chart from JAMA:

The US had 2,677 fewer suicide deaths in 2020 than in 2019, a 5.6% decline.

But total deaths increased by 17.7% year over the year, largely driven by Covid. Suicide dropped from the country’s 10th leading cause of death to the 11th.

The data are preliminary and are subject to revision because states are late in reporting.

But really, you Covid skeptics and lockdown opponents? Another effort to mislead people. You say the vaccines are bad for you, and so are masks. Lockdowns destroy our economy, and all of these are an assault on personal freedom. And heaven forfend, let’s never speak about vaccine passports.

Does anyone else think that the reason the British variant has become the leading form of Covid infection in the US is because non-compliance with virus prevention techniques by so many Americans has allowed the variants to spread?

Here’s a musical interlude to kick off Wrongo’s extended break, and your weekend: The group Too Much Joy hasn’t released an album since 1996. They never were a big name, and the new album, “Mistakes Were Made”, was crowd-funded, with only 500 copies made. Some say they sound like the Clash fronted by Randy Newman. Here is Blinding Light of Love”, a cut that is a sarcastic take on the 21st Century:

See you in 10 days.

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