Russia’s Massing on Ukraine’s Border

The Daily Escape:

Red silo, Lansing, NC – 2021 photo by Greg Kiser

From Foreign Policy (FP):

“Russia is massing an unusual number of troops on the border with Ukraine, posing an early test for the Biden administration as it looks to repair relations with NATO allies and distinguish itself from former US President Donald Trump’s controversial approach to relations with Moscow.”

This comes at a time when the administration is still conducting policy reviews on a new strategy toward Russia. So, is the Ukrainian-Russian “cold war” about to get hot?

Ukraine’s army commander Gen. Ruslan Khomchak says Russia has deployed 28 battalion tactical groups near Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea, which would amount to 20,000-25,000 troops. Russian officials have not confirmed that, nor given any precise figures.

This Russian buildup in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions is new, but Russian “volunteers” have been helping the rebels since 2014. Here’s a map of the region:

Russia shares a long common border with the area claimed by the Separatists. At the same time, Ukraine has a very long border to defend. This explains why it has been a low-intensity conflict for the past seven years.

Naturally, this potential escalation alarms NATO and the US. It’s reported that a flurry of phone calls have been sparked between senior members of the Biden administration and both their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts.

FP quotes Jim Townsend, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense:

“They’re probing, they’re trying to see what we’re going to do, what NATO would do, what the Ukrainians would do….Is this a jumpy administration, or is this an administration that’s going to act with resolve?”

Ok, but the BBC reports that US forces in Europe were placed on higher alert, citing “escalations of Russian aggression” in the area, while Russia plays hardball:

“Russia has warned NATO against sending any troops to help Ukraine, amid reports of a large Russian military build-up on its borders. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would take “additional measures” if NATO were to make such a move.”

Sounds like game on for Biden. The Right-leaning Washington Times quotes Donald Jensen, of the US Institute of Peace:

“The Kremlin is testing Biden in a couple of places right now. That’s what the Kremlin does. It tests new presidents…”

Biden has also tested Putin. In addition to placing human rights abuse sanctions against Russia in March over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the administration has vowed to bolster US support for Ukraine.

It ramped up diplomatic efforts in Western Europe to halt construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

And while Biden moved quickly to extend the expiring New START nuclear deal with Moscow, he said in an interview he viewed Putin as a “killer.”

Russia has also conducted increased military activity in the Arctic. CNN reported that new imagery has revealed a major Russian build-up in a region that is now nearly ice-free due to changing climate patterns. They seem to be bidding to secure their northern coast, while attempting to dominate what will become a key shipping route from Asia to Europe.

Putin may not know what to expect from Biden but consider what happened under the previous guy. Trump backed off everywhere Russia got involved. In Syria, the US did not engage with Russian forces. In Europe, he disengaged from NATO. With Iran, he disengaged, while Russia made inroads. And then there’s China.

And Obama stood by when Putin took Crimea from Ukraine, a decision that Wrongo agreed with at the time. That no longer looks correct seven years later.

Are we likely to see preening and strutting by Biden and Putin? Absolutely. Who holds the upper hand in what at this point is a game of poker? Hard to say.

The pressure will be on Biden to respond strongly if Russia makes a concrete move into or beyond the disputed regions held by the “separatists”. Ukraine has asked to join NATO, but there is little interest in the US or Europe to agree to invite them in. The Kremlin bitterly opposes Ukraine joining NATO. That hasn’t stopped Ukraine president Zelensky from saying;

“We are committed to reforming our army and defense sector, but reforms alone will not stop Russia…NATO is the only way to end the war in [the] Donbas…”

Russia’s end game may be like what just happened in Azerbaijan: Russian peacekeepers on the ground controlling the territory. Ukraine could become another localized escalation leading to the deployment of Russian “peacekeepers”. That may be Putin’s short-run goal.

Putin is pushing Biden to think about things other than infrastructure and using reconciliation in the Senate.

How Biden and Europe play the hand will set the stage for much of the next decade in Europe.

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The New Housing Bubble

The Daily Escape:

Shakers Creek flowing into the Mohawk River, Colonie NY – April 2021 photo by M’ke Helbing.

We’re hearing about bidding wars for single family homes, often with winning bids that are substantially above already high asking prices. In fact, house prices have risen by 11.2% from a year ago, the largest increase since housing bubble #1 in 2006, according to the National Case-Shiller Home Price Index for January.

The Home Price Index measures “house-price inflation” by comparing the sales price of a house in the current month to the price of the same house when it sold previously. It’s tracking the dollars it takes to buy the same house over time.

But house price inflation isn’t part of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). While about one-third of CPI is based on housing costs, it only tracks rents, not home prices. So, you can see what’s going on: Everybody knows that the costs of home ownership are surging, but only a portion are included in our inflation measures, so inflation is being understated.

Let’s look at the NY metro area. It covers NYC and numerous counties in the states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Here’s the spike in prices over the past six months:

House prices rose 11.2% for the year. There were big differences between price tiers, with low-end house prices surging by 14.9%, while condo prices remained in a tight range for the past three years, and the NYT reports that Manhattan condo developers are selling units at big discounts.

There’s another factor driving prices. The WSJ reports that: (brackets by Wrongo)

“From…individuals [with]a few thousand dollars to pensions and private-equity firms with billions, yield-chasing investors are snapping up single-family houses to rent out or flip. They are competing for houses with ordinary Americans, who are armed with the cheapest mortgage financing ever, and driving up home prices.”

The WSJ quotes John Burns, a real estate consultant: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“You now have permanent capital competing with a young couple trying to buy a house.” Burns estimates that in many of the nation’s top markets, roughly one in every five houses sold is bought by someone who never moves in.”

Houston is a favorite location, with investors accounting for 24% of home purchases. More from Burns: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Limited housing supply, low rates, a global reach for yield, and what we’re calling the institutionalization of real-estate investors has set the stage for another speculative investor-driven home price bubble…”

This is the second try by institutional investors to play in the single-family home market. Starting in 2011, they bought foreclosed homes at steep discounts, accounting for about a third of sales in some markets and setting a floor for then-falling home prices.

It turned out that renting suburban homes proved very profitable. The pandemic has brought a new race for suburban housing. And the big new-home builders like DR Horton and Lennar Corp, are working directly with institutional investors. They’re building blocks of homes, and selling them to the investors, who rent them out.

Horton built 124 houses in Conroe, Texas, rented them out and then put the whole community up for sale. It was purchased by an online property-investing platform, Fundrise LLC, which manages more than $1 billion on behalf of about 150,000 individuals.

Lennar just announced a rental venture with investment firms including Allianz and Centerbridge Partners to which it will sell more than $4 billion of new houses.

This is late-stage capitalism at work. Young working couples are increasingly shut out of buying homes, and that’s both depressing and disturbing.  America has failed them. It would be helpful for families to buy homes instead of renting, and pricing families out of home ownership carries risks to a cohesive society.

And the Right wonders why young people are turning to socialism. Freezing young people out of the housing market could have disastrous social consequences.

We should have tax policies that disincentivize ownership of multiple single-family homes, especially by investment funds. The way to remedy this is to steer investors to other assets that don’t directly impact individual welfare to the same degree as housing.

Back in the 2006-2009 housing bubble, we had plenty of speculators and an excess of housing inventory. It was so bad that Wrongo’s barber owned nine rental houses in three states before the bust.

This time around, we have very low inventory, the lowest rates ever, and big money chasing yield. Once pension funds are investing in an appreciating asset class, you know the bubble is about to burst

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Monday Wake Up Call, the Silents Strike Back Edition – April 5, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Red Hill, on the Haleakala volcano. Maui, HI – March 2021 photo by vikings201

Yesterday was Easter Sunday. On that day 53 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. The day before, he gave his final speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

At 39 years old when he died, Dr. King was an early member of the Silent Generation. Wrongo and Biden are also members of the Silent Generation.

The Greatest Generation preceded the Silents. They survived the Great Depression and won World War II. We’ve all heard quite a bit about their accomplishments. But they weren’t called the Greatest until Tom Brokaw invented the phrase in 1988 for marketing purposes. Prior to that they were known as the GI generation.

The Silents are sandwiched between them and the Boomers, and on the presidential level, we haven’t heard anything from my generation until Biden was elected. He is the first (and most likely, the last) Silent to be elected president. Clinton, GW Bush, Obama, and Trump were all boomers. Prior to Clinton, and after Eisenhower, they were all Greatests. As the first Silent to be elected, so far, Biden is hanging in there despite being an old guy.

Barkley Rosser at Angry Bear is the inspiration for today’s column. He quotes Robert Putnam, who says that there is an “I-we-I” pattern to our generational history that informs and motivates our political, social, cultural and economic activities: (brackets by Wrongo)

“….the “I-we-I” pattern, whereby there was an increase in solidarity and “we orientation,” cooperation, social capital, equality, and so on from the 1890s to roughly the 1960s, some variables peaking in the 1950s and economic equality peaking in the 1970s…[but] Since then we have basically gone downhill to an “I” orientation of greater inequality and polarization and unhappiness and low social capital…”

Barkley says that Putnam:

“…pinpointed cultural shifts as crucial and noted especially shifts in the mid-60s, even noting the contrast in themes of the early folkish Bob Dylan with his civil rights songs to the later electronic Dylan with his more personal emphasis, and supposedly a similar shift with the Beatles, especially when they broke up. This peak of “we” and the move towards “I” coincided with the rise of the Boomers.”

The quick conclusion is that the Greatests had lots of “we” orientation that drove much of their achievements. But they had a dark side: They were prejudiced, and many were racists.  By the time the Boomers emerge, we have the emphasis on the “I” that brings with it substantially lower levels of prejudice. One of the Greatests’ who worked for change was LBJ, who fought in WWII, winning a Silver Star, and then went on in the 1960s to sign into law the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

By Wrongo’s date of birth, he is a late stage “Silent”. But nothing about our growing up was silent. We helped lead the anti-war and pro-civil rights movements. We also were early but ineffective activists in the first stages of environmentalism. Along the way, we had to fight with many of the Greatests and a few of the other Silents who refused to hear the message.

The premise is that the Silents are a kind of golden mean, still following the “we” focus of the Greatests, while being the first generation to live through a substantial reduction in racism and prejudice. Being of the Silent generation may be part of the motivation that Biden is using to move the country back toward a less polarized “we” orientation.

But the “I” focus remains with us. Wrongo believes, however, that Covid has helped create more “we” forms of cooperation than we had at the start of the Trump era. But many people remain selfish. They refuse to wear masks, or to social distance, regardless of the outcome.

Republicans disparage Biden’s call for unity because they’re actively against his agenda, while having no agenda of their own. Time to wake up America, we need waay more “we” and a lot less “I”!

To help you wake up, listen to Santana perform George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with help from India. Arie:

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – April 4, 2021

The NYT has a great explainer about the new Georgia voting law. The Times summarizes:

“Go page by page through Georgia’s new voting law, and one takeaway stands above all others: The Republican legislature and governor have made a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections, making absentee voting harder and creating restrictions and complications in the wake of narrow losses to Democrats.”

Below are a few of the changes, with links to the appropriate section of the article.

On to cartoons. Baseball reacted by moving its All-Star game from Atlanta:

Georgia-headquarted Delta Airlines also wasn’t happy. They plan to help:

And it isn’t only Georgia:

The trial continues in Minneapolis:

Asian prejudice is about the people, not their products:

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Saturday Soother – April 3, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Spring snow in Grand Canyon NP – March 2021 photo by indieaz

Here’s some good news amidst all of the negative DC political punditry. US manufacturing activity hit its highest level in 37 years last month. Manufacturing’s biggest problem right now is the same one that Wrongo’s new treadmill company had: making products fast enough to satisfy all of their current demand.

A little more detail: The overall ISM manufacturing index rose from 60.8 to 64.7, the highest reading since 1984. The new orders sub-index, an important leading indicator, also rose from 64.8 to 68.0, the highest reading since 2004.

The Economist says that CEO worries about weak demand for products has been replaced by fear of supply bottlenecks, from worldwide chip shortages to the freak traffic jam in the Suez Canal. They quote Chad Moutray, chief economist of the National Association of Manufacturers:

“…90% of members surveyed recently by the trade association were bullish about their businesses’ outlook for the next 12 months, the highest in two years. Two-thirds foresee revenues returning to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, as new orders, production and employment all pick up.”

The optimism is being backed by investment. Intel announced that it would spend $20 billion on two factories in Arizona. More from The Economist:

“Scott Davis of Melius, a research firm, reckons that capital expenditure at several dozen leading American industrial companies he follows, including icons such as Caterpillar and Stanley Black & Decker, are set to rise by 20% on average this year.”

Goldman Sachs forecasts that capital spending at S&P 500 firms will reach $740 billion this year, slightly above the $731 billion in 2019. For the first time in a while, Goldman Sachs says big American firms will spend more on capital goods, research and development than on dividends and share buy-backs.

Three factors are driving this positive news. First, America will be largely vaccinated by the summer, so the level of those unemployed should continue to drop, like it did last month, when 916,000 new jobs were added. This means that Americans will have more money to spend on cars, electronics and other goods. It’s not all roses, manufacturing jobs increased by 53,000. But, since February 2020, manufacturing is still down 515,000 jobs, or 4% of the total. As of now, over 60% of the total manufacturing jobs loss of 10.6% has been regained.

Second, much of the Biden infrastructure plan’s spending will wind up in the hands of private companies who will be performing all of that new infrastructure building. That’s the kind of trickle-down that causes economic growth.

Third, companies went to school on the impacts of tight, non-resilient supply chains. Some were surprised that bad Texas weather could slow production. Or, that Covid could stop their orders for PPE, and strain port capacity in Los Angeles. Stranded container ships in the Middle East and geopolitical tensions with China are making CEOs think more seriously about building networks that can withstand such shocks.

In the short term, this involves stockpiling components. In the longer run they are looking to bring production closer to home, which would also bolster American suppliers. More from the Economist:

“General Motors is hoping to build…a second battery factory in America. Intel’s planned Arizona [factories]…are a way both to guarantee deliveries of chips to customers in Detroit and beyond, and to “near-shore” the semiconductor giant’s own production.”

If people can just hang in there a little bit longer, we might just be able to avoid a whole lot more Covid deaths, and then have a very good year. Fingers crossed.

Time to put down your phones and settle in for a Saturday Soother, where we spend a few minutes escaping from the perils of the world. Here at the Mansion of Wrong, we had snow flurries on Friday, and the temperature barely got into the high 30s. That means a break from more spring yard work for a few days.

Let’s start by brewing up a yuuge cup of Dirty South – (As Dark As We Will Go) coffee ($14.99/12 oz.) from Atlanta’s Peach Coffee Roasters. Given the voting repression in Georgia, it seems certain that the outlook in the state for free and fair elections is substantially darker than this coffee.

Baseball’s opening day was Thursday. Some games were cancelled, while some played in snowstorms. When baseball has both indoor stadiums along with many in the warmer south and west, why are teams playing outdoors in 40°weather?

And, in honor of opening day, take a seat by a window and listen to “Field of Dreams” from the movie, performed live at the Tenerife International Film Music Festival. The music is composed by James Horner. The orchestra is conducted by Diego Navarro, artistic director of the festival. It is performed by the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra. This is a very nice way to remember an iconic film:

Remember the line: “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”

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Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

The Daily Escape:

Crepuscular rays at White Sands NM, NM – photo by dantreks

Biden announced his big infrastructure plan on Wednesday. The American Jobs Plan is a $2+ trillion proposal that is an expansive interpretation of the word “infrastructure.”

Naturally, Republicans are against it. South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) disparaged it on Fox:

“I was shocked by how much doesn’t go into infrastructure…It goes into research and development. It goes into housing and pipes and different initiatives, green energy.”

So, Republicans aren’t sure what “infrastructure” is? Or maybe, they want Biden restricted to being President Pothole? They must know that “pipe” and “green energy” are well within the definition of “infrastructure.”

But they would be against it, no matter how little it contained. Today’s Republican Congress is even worse than it was in 2009. Back then, Obama’s stimulus bill to combat the Great Recession, (like Biden’s stimulus bill after COVID-19), received zero GOP votes in the House. In the Senate, Obama got three more Republican votes than Biden. And in the 2010 midterms, the GOP regained control of both chambers, setting its template for 2022.

Now In 2021, Republicans no longer run on policy. They’re running against a mythic Democratic party bent on imposing socialism, demeaning Christianity, defunding the police, coddling menacing migrants, and supporting angry American minorities.

If you’re a Republican politician, you’re not offering any actual policy. They’re offering to fight Democrats, and that seems to be enough to get reelected. This means that Republicans will filibuster any bill the Democrats can’t pass through reconciliation.

Biden knows that. So, his legislative strategy prioritizes rebuilding American infrastructure, something that has a broad consensus within the electorate. His plan includes a commitment to confronting climate change (and creating jobs) by modernizing the electrical grid, encouraging the development of alternative energy sources, and building charging stations across America.

He plans to combat poverty and buttress the middle class through funding childcare, universal pre-K, and free community college, while extending the child tax credits authorized by his stimulus plan.

Taken together, his American Jobs Plan represents Biden’s belief that the pandemic has changed what is politically possible. He proposed to open the way to expanding government’s role in addressing our economic and societal weaknesses, on a scale of spending we wouldn’t have dreamed possible.

He’s taken the ideas originally outlined in the Green New Deal in 2019 and repackaged them under the more politically popular umbrella of infrastructure, including some of the same goals. Biden’s plan isn’t the Green New Deal in sheep’s clothing, regardless of what Republicans say.

To help cover the costs of his plan, Biden proposes raising taxes on corporations, the affluent, estates, and capital gains, starting with corporate taxes. He’s proposing an accompanying tax plan, the Made in America Tax Plan. If it passes, it will pay for the American Jobs Plan in 15 years, and reduce deficits from then on.

Biden proposes to set the corporate tax rate at 28%, from its current rate of 21%, nowhere near the 35% tax rate before the 2017 tax cuts. He also plans to discourage offshoring of corporations and to get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels. Here’s a chart that gives some historical perspective about Biden’s corporate tax proposal:

It’s clear that despite Republican wailing that the infrastructure plan is a “trojan horse” for raising taxes, the reality is that corporate taxes will still be lower than at any point since the 1940’s.

Even this may be a bridge too far, since the Senate’s most conspicuous swing vote, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WVA), says that while he favors tax hikes, he insists that infrastructure legislation should be passed with bipartisan support.

This suggests a longish legislative process. As a realist, Biden will be happy to again pass landmark legislation with no Republican support. But first he must get Manchin to labor through the thankless work of establishing that the GOP is unwilling to work toward a meaningful compromise.

OTOH, a new Morning Consult/Politico poll says that by a two-to-one margin voters prefer an infrastructure bill that includes tax hikes to one that does not have those tax hikes. That means the GOP may be in trouble if it castigates Biden and Democrats if they pass his plan.

Despite Wrongo’s early misgivings, Biden is the reset button that America desperately needed. He was outwardly moderate but has moved to embrace more progressive positions.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the damage Republicans can do with their singular focus on power and winning the 2022 mid-terms.

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The Vaccine Passport Debate

The Daily Escape:

Paint Mines, Calhan, CO photo by Matt Colver

Republicans have invented yet another culture war to fight so they don’t have to talk about the popularity of President Biden’s rescue plan: This time they are outraged over vaccine “passports,” the plan by some states and some private businesses to require people to verify that they’ve been vaccinated by showing some form of digital certificate or scannable document.

The passports or certificates could be a way to ensure that people could return to normal activities without risking further spread of the virus. By people putting their health data on a device like a smartphone or in a printed-out QR code, they will be able to confirm their vaccination status and  possibly resume activities such as going to concerts or even traveling to other countries.

Wait until Republicans hear about driver’s licenses, photo IDs to vote, Social Security cards, TSA screening, employer drug tests, birth certificates, proofs of residence and citizenship, real passports, and the certificates of vaccination we ALREADY require. Most of which Republicans are all for under normal circumstances, but these aren’t normal times.

Take Florida for example: Governor Ron DeSantis declared:

“It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.”

But, here’s a list of the required vaccinations children in Florida must have to attend school:

And despite what DeSantis says, Florida requires this:

The Form DH 680, Florida Certification of Immunization, must be used to document receipt of immunizations required for entry and attendance in Florida schools, childcare facilities, and family daycare homes.

Isn’t that a vaccine verification form? What’s the outrage about? Proof that you’ve been vaccinated against certain contagious diseases has long been common in order to travel to many countries. The feds have said they don’t intend to require a national system, preferring instead to set privacy and security standards for states and companies to follow, or not.

Other Republicans have jumped on board, with some conservative activists comparing it with Nazi policies to identify Jews. It’s easy to pick on Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) who the WaPo reported, called the passport idea “Biden’s Mark of the Beast”.

Unlike recent attacks by Republicans that centered on Dr. Seuss, this one focuses directly on the Biden administration. It taps into a long-standing right-wing trope: that the federal government led by Democrats want to eliminate our personal freedoms.

If you are unaware of the vaccine passport idea, Recode has an explainer on Vox that you can read here. They say that the Biden administration is leaving the decision to require digital vaccination records up to states and the private sector.

Private businesses are interested, particularly companies where large numbers of people gather, such as malls, sporting events, or concerts. They’re considering requiring vaccination proof to protect their workers and customers, including Walmart, and the airport security company, Clear.

New York state has already rolled out its health certificate, called the Excelsior Pass. The European Commission is proposing a Digital Green Certificate that would track whether people have been vaccinated, recently tested for Covid-19 (with a negative result), or are fully recovered from a previous infection in order to travel within the European Union.

In March, the WHO released interim guidance for how digital vaccine certificates should work globally, opening the door for even more countries to create their own passports. The WHO’s working group includes 25 governments, and representatives of the CDC and the HHS.

It’s unclear where Republicans will take a stand on battles over vaccination requirements. But it is clear that many schools and employers will probably require some form of proof of vaccination.

Wrongo and Ms. Right had our second shots (Pfizer) in mid-February. We plan to take the CDC shot records with us if and when we travel this year.

Finally, is there anything Republicans won’t try to screw up? They don’t want rules. Back in the day, many of them were against car seat belts, or motorcycle helmets. They’re against background checks for gun purchases. They really don’t like limits on the magazine capacity for their semi-automatic weapons.

And they’re definitely against wearing surgical masks to help slow the Covid pandemic.

They have no desire to help solve problems.  They just work hard to make everything worse.

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The Democrats’ Dilemma

The Daily Escape:

Bristlecone pine, Cedar Breaks National Monument – photo by Jessica Fridrich

Here’s the Democrats’ dilemma: They must pass legislation that protects voting rights and ballot access. Otherwise, they will allow the GOP to cheat its way to victory in 2022 and beyond, by subverting democracy to empower a minority, as they are doing in Georgia.

One aspect of Georgia’s new election law that nobody’s talking about is that the law replaces the elected secretary of state (currently Republican Brad Raffensperger) as the chair of the state election board with a new official appointed by the gerrymandered Georgia legislature.

It also allows Georgia’s election board to remove and replace any county election official it deems to be under-performing. That provision could be used to target Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold covering most of Atlanta, which came under fire after long lines plagued primary elections over the summer.

David Atkins says:

“The direct implications of the new law are alarming enough: conservatives with an interest in voter suppression could use their authority to disrupt election administration in majority-minority counties. The possibilities for mischief by a partisan legislature fearful of high turnout by opposed constituencies are endless.”

The Republicans sitting on bipartisan election boards were the reason that Biden is president. Next time, they will find reasons not to certify a close election. And as Jonathan Chait says: (brackets and emphasis by Wrongo)

“ [Republican] states that are rolling back democratic protections are not responding to demographic change nor to any change internal to their state. They are following the agenda of the national Republican Party. That agenda is spreading throughout the states, which are imposing voter restrictions almost everywhere their party has the power to do so. Restricting the franchise has become perhaps the party’s core policy objective.”

And the problem must be addressed immediately, since it will impact the 2022 and 2024 elections. Georgia’s Sen. Warnock must run again in 2022. His losing would put the remainder of Biden’s term in jeopardy.

That means that the Senate must pass some version of HR-1. Currently, the Democrats are taking an “all or nothing” approach to HR-1. That may be their opening shot, but some parts should be non-negotiable. Vox lists some important provisions: it establishes automatic voter registration for anyone interacting with designated government agencies; broadens access to mail-in voting for every eligible voter; and mandates that states accept ballots at drop boxes or polling places, and requires counting all ballots postmarked by Election Day.

Further, it establishes same-day online registration and nationwide early voting. It requires a paper trail for every vote cast. Critically, it ends partisan gerrymandering by directing states to use independent commissions in drawing Congressional maps. It also makes Election Day a national holiday.

Ezra Levin, co-founder of the Indivisible, says:

“The choice is the republic or the filibuster — there is no third option….We are at an inflection point in American history. Down one path is a Trump-inspired white plutocracy, and down the other is a representative democracy.”

But many believe some sections of the nearly 800-page bill may be unconstitutional. Rick Hasen of the Election Law Blog, writes:

“Some parts of it could well be found unconstitutional if it passed, such as a provision requiring states to re-enfranchise all people convicted of felonies who are not currently serving time in a correctional institution.”

The bill also contains controversial rules on campaign financing, including the creation of a public financing program for congressional candidates, new ethics rules for the Supreme Court, and a requirement that most candidates for president and vice president publicly disclose their tax returns.

None of those are key to the problem facing Democrats in states where Republicans control the legislatures. As written, HR-1 is unlikely to make it out of the Senate, so there are good reasons to tailor it both to survive judicial scrutiny, while also properly targeting the problems with voter registration, voting, and ballot counting.

That means whatever bill passes must have all 50 Democrats supporting it, and then, they must agree to end the filibuster to enact it. Therefore, the HR-1 wish list must be simplified and shortened. Democrats who object to ending the filibuster need to ask themselves if they genuinely want to facilitate Republicans in reclaiming Congress and the White House, in the name of preserving an arbitrary rule. The filibuster rule has been amended often in recent times: In 1974, 1975, 2013 and 2017. Time to do it again.

We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Today, it seems more likely that HR-1 won’t become law before the 2022 mid-terms than that it will, absent ending the filibuster.

Democrats can’t be left looking back at yet another missed opportunity to protect voting.

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Monday Wake Up Call – March 29, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Ranch land near Reno NV – February 2021 photo by Patrick Lanzing

The Conversation has an interesting article by Tony Kevin from Australian National University, that analyzes the Biden administration’s early missteps with both China and Russia. He says that:

“In two dramatic, televised moments, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have changed the dynamics between their countries perhaps irrevocably.”

Kevin quotes Putin saying the terms of working with the US have changed:

“Although they think that we are the same as they are, we are different people. We have a different genetic, cultural, and moral code. But we know how to defend our own interests. And we will work with them, but in those areas in which we ourselves are interested, and on those conditions that we consider beneficial for ourselves. And they will have to reckon with it. They will have to reckon with this, despite all attempts to stop our development. Despite the sanctions, insults, they will have to reckon with this.”

Turning to China and the initial meeting disaster, Kevin says that the Chinese feel similarly:

“Putin’s…statement is remarkably similar to the equally firm public statements made by senior Chinese diplomats to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Alaska last week.”

He quotes Yang Jiechi, Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief:

“The US does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The US uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries. It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and to incite some countries to attack China.”

Jiechi said the US had no right to push its own version of democracy when it was dealing with so much discontent and human rights problems at home.

Biden’s campaign pitch was that his leadership would put the adults back in charge of foreign policy. But it’s hard to ignore Biden’s slap at Putin (calling him a killer), followed by the train wreck of the China summit in Alaska. Biden’s team is accomplishing the difficult task of making Trump look… er, not terrible.

Could it be that the world is moving on? That our competitors and friends no longer buy the “America is a force for good” story? After all, we’re showing them the worst of American values, by trying to overturn an election, by curtailing voting rights, and by refusing to do anything about mass shootings or the growing poverty that are endemic in the US.

The Guardian reports that we’ve fallen by 11 points in the latest report by democracy watchdog, Freedom House. We’re now below Argentina and Mongolia, and on a par with  Panama, Romania and Croatia!

Dismounting from our high horse will be difficult for the US, but do we have a choice? The world is suddenly signaling strongly that they’ve had enough of American faux exceptionalism and the belligerence we display when we engage with other nations.

Kevin concludes that we’re in a new kind of Cold War, not based on ideology like the original Cold War, but now it’s a war for international legitimacy. Moreover, Kevin adds:

“The two powers are also showing they are increasingly comfortable working together as close partners, if not yet military allies. They will step up their cooperation in areas where they have mutual interests and the development of alternatives to the Western-dominated trade and payments systems.”

The distribution of global power is changing. What matters now is the growing self-confidence of these two nations, particularly in comparison to what they see as a clearly weakened US. In essence, Russia and China are sending Biden a message:

“Don’t judge us or try to change us. Those days are over.”

Kevin concludes:

“The global balance of power is shifting, and for many nations, the smart money may be moving to Russia and China.”

Time to wake up America! It’s again becoming a multi-polar world. We can’t know what the outcome of this competition will be. But we seem to be at one of those points in history where things can take a very sharp and irreversible turn in a new direction.

These factors have been brewing for years. We’re witnessing a Russia/China strategic alliance which will force us and other countries to make some very hard choices about which side of the fence they’re on. To help you wake up, listen to the Foo Fighters newest, “Waiting on a War”:

Sample Lyrics:

I’ve been waiting on a war since I was young

Since I was a little boy with a toy gun

Never really wanted to be number one

Just wanted to love everyone

Here’s Dave Grohl’s motivation for writing the tune:

“Last fall, as I was driving my daughter to school, she turned to me and asked, ​‘Daddy, is there going to be a war?’ My heart sank as I realized that she was now living under the same dark cloud that I had felt 40 years ago. Every day waiting for the sky to fall. Is there more to this than that? Is there more to this than just waiting on a war? Because I need more. We all do. This song was written for my daughter, Harper, who deserves a future, just as every child does.”

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – March 28, 2021

A few quick thoughts on Georgia’s new voter suppression law. You may remember the day in 2013 when Chief Justice John Roberts wrote  that “Things have changed dramatically” in the South.

He had just authored the majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, where the Court struck down the Voting Rights Act’s Section 4, that determined which states needed federal approval for changes to their election law. That made one of the law’s most important parts inoperative. Today, the new voter suppression law in Georgia is Exhibit A for why Roberts was wrong.

Biden carried Georgia in November, and Black voters turned out again in record numbers in January to elect Democrats Warnock and Ossoff, thus giving control of the Senate to the Dems. The response from Georgia Republicans was to pass a sweeping rewrite of the state’s election laws, making it harder for Democratic voters to vote and have their ballots counted.

The new law allows the GOP-controlled legislature to appoint a majority of members of the state election board. It gives the board the power to take over county election boards, making it easier for Republicans to challenge election results, or to decline to certify the results.

These are things that Trump tried and failed to get Georgia to do in 2020.

The not-so-funny thing is that should HR-1 (now S-1) become law, Roberts gets another chance to review the state of voting rights in America. Will he “atone” for his egregious error in gutting the original VRA? Don’t count on that. On to cartoons.

And now it’s a crime in Georgia to give water to people in line:

It’s easy to understand Republican priorities. They make access to BALLOTS more difficult, and make access to BULLETS easier:

There’s always another Boulder for Dems to worry about:

Mitch tries offering a compromise:

Of all the busters, only the filibuster has to go:

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