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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Afghanistan: Too Corrupt To Save?

The Daily Escape:

London street art by Bambi  – 2017 photo by Wrongo. Since then, she has done another version, where the bag says: “I love Meghan”.

On October 7, 2001 The US military with British support, began a bombing campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. That mission was called Operation Enduring Freedom. So, what has endured in the 18 years since we started bombing the Taliban? Mostly corruption. The Economist has a damning report: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians, according to the United Nations. America’s air force dropped more bombs in 2018 than at any other point in the war. Despite that support, the government is slowly losing ground. It now controls barely half the country’s territory, albeit two-thirds of its people.”

US forces have shifted their strategy to trying to inflict maximum casualties on the Taliban, who now control more territory than at any time since its ouster from power in 2001. This is the same as the “body count” strategy that we tried in Vietnam. But the Taliban are winning, despite America’s best efforts. We’ve backed a corrupt government that the Afghan people do not trust. The Economist illustrates that point:

“A group of middle-aged drivers explain the difference between the Taliban and the government. Both groups take money from drivers on the road, says Muhammad Akram…both are violent. But when the Taliban stop him at a checkpoint, they write him a receipt. Waving a fistful of green papers, he explains how they ensure he won’t be charged twice: after he pays one group of Talibs, his receipt gets him through subsequent stops. Government soldiers, in contrast, rob him over and over.”

We started down a path of nation-building in Afghanistan 18 years ago, but the government in Kabul doesn’t provide basic services. It has a huge security apparatus, and a big bureaucracy, but where it matters, the State, in the words of the US DOJ, is “largely lawless, weak and dysfunctional”.

No place in the country is completely safe. At boozy parties in Kabul, rich Afghans share gallows humor about the impending arrival of the jihadists at their gates.

The Taliban are no prize. Their brutal attacks make them deeply unpopular, especially in Afghan cities. But The Economist says that in rural areas, they are seen as efficient and willing to challenge arbitrary government power. According to a UN study, Afghan land disputes account for 70% of violent crimes. In government-controlled areas, well-connected figures often grab land for themselves. The Taliban, in contrast, have judges who deal with such cases brutally, but with less corruption.

The Taliban expects poppy-farmers to pay taxes on their crop, but they also provide seed capital and other support. In many areas, they help to police water use, managing disputes and limiting the over-exploitation of groundwater. Over the past few years the size of the opium crop has grown remarkably—especially in Taliban-controlled areas.

Another Economist article shows that solar panels are transforming the landscape of southern Afghanistan. Farmers used to run their pumps with diesel generators, but fuel was very expensive. Now they can pump water all day using solar.

Only 12% of the country is suitable for growing permanent crops, but since 2018, 3,600 square kilometers in south-western Afghanistan were reclaimed for cultivation from the desert by using solar power to pump water to the fields. From the Economist:

“As many as 2.5 million people…now live in what used to be desert. The price of desert land has soared, from as little as $35 for a jereb (about 2,000 square meters) to over $1,000 now. That has made landowners rich, not to mention politicians and senior police officers.”

The reclaimed territory is mostly beyond government control: Many of the settlers are hostile to the State.

This has also brought a big cost for the environment. Drinking wells are increasingly contaminated with nitrates from fertilizers, which farmers have spread near the water pumps. Shallow wells have gone completely dry. If the groundwater is exhausted, millions of Afghans will have to move.

The US and the Taliban have been negotiating directly since October over a possible American withdrawal in exchange for a commitment from the Taliban not to harbor terrorists. The Afghan government has been excluded from these talks, and they are concerned that they may be forced into a coalition government with the Taliban.

The Trump administration wants out of Afghanistan, and may not care much about who in the current government survives. The latest round of talks concluded on May 9th, with what the Taliban described as “some progress”, but the pace is glacial, and may not lead to anything.

Wrongo has been saying for years that we need to leave Afghanistan. Why are we still there? Vietnam proved we could win all the battles, get higher body counts, and still lose the war.

Will we “win” in Afghanistan? No, it’s unwinnable. You can’t win when you’re on the side that’s even more hated and corrupt than our “enemy.”

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Monday Wake Up Call – May 20, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Steps leading to Franciscan Sanctuary, La Verna, Tuscany, Italy – photo by Guiseppe Pepperoni

Over the weekend, Wrongo and Ms. Right, along with a few friends, saw “Hadestown” on Broadway. It is a theatrical home run that has received 14 Tony nominations. Describing the plot is difficult. Most reviews focus on the mythology at the heart of the play. The story is a re-imagination of Orpheus and Eurydice set in contemporary time.

The mythological story is that Orpheus is the world’s greatest poet, and Eurydice is his bride. It is intertwined with the love story of King Hades and his wife Persephone. During the play, we take an epic journey to the underworld and back.

In the myth, Eurydice is killed by a snake bite, and the mourning Orpheus travels to the underworld to beg Hades to return his wife to life. To make his case, Orpheus sings a song so beautiful that Persephone begs Hades to let Eurydice go.

That is loosely followed in the play, where these mythic characters are pawns in a central metaphor of capitalism as death. That seems so current in today’s predatory capitalism, and yet, the play is not a polemic. In the play, Eurydice isn’t bitten by a snake. Instead, she’s lured into Hadestown by Hades’s promise of work and food.

Hadestown is a factory town, and Hades is both the god of death and a merciless taskmaster, forcing his subjects to build an endless wall around Hadestown. In his April 15thMonday Wake Up Call”, Wrongo used Hades’s call and response song, “Why We Build the Wall”. The song seems right for 2019 because of our Orange Overlord, but in reality it was written in 2010.

Wrongo posts a sample lyric for you:

Who do we call the enemy? The enemy is poverty, And the wall keeps out the enemy, And we build the wall to keep us free. That’s why we build the wall;

We build the wall to keep us free.

The Wall makes us free. Arbiet macht frei. The few Trumpets in the audience demonstratively did not applaud the song, while the vast majority cheered. Partisanship is an always-on emotion.

Some call-outs to cast members: Patrick Page and Amber Gray are standouts, he as Hades, and she as Persephone. The legendary André De Shields, plays Hermes. He’s the show’s narrator. His cool swagger pulls the audience into the play from the opening curtain.

See it if you can.

During our pre-theater meal, we talked about the Democratic presidential candidates, a list that seems destined to continue growing. Our friends at dinner follow politics quite closely, and none are fully happy with any of the Democrats on offer.

Most defaulted to “electability”, espousing the view that it is “Do-or-Die” time in America, that we can’t take four more years of what we are experiencing now. That leads them to accept Joe Biden’s candidacy. Wrongo has a different view, as captured in this Vanity Fair article: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Since Vietnam, every time a Democrat has won the presidency, it’s because Democrats voted with their hearts in a primary and closed ranks around the candidate who inspired them, promising an obvious break from the past and an inspiring vision that blossomed in the general election. Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton. Barack Obama. All were young outsiders who tethered their message to the culture of the time. When Democrats have picked nominees cautiously and strategically—falling in line—the results have been devastating, as Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton made plain.”

So, what will happen this time? Those who believe in Biden’s electability should remember that there are 45 million Americans with student loans: 22% of those loans are in default, and 99% of them fail to qualify for loan forgiveness.

It was Biden’s decision to make student loans not dischargeable in bankruptcy. That’s going to be one large group of people who, when they learn who is behind their plight, probably will vote against him.

Biden has been on the job in Washington for around 50 years. Suddenly, according to Bloomberg, he wants to “Fix Things”?

Wake up Democrats! Find a candidate who inspires YOU. Work for that candidate in the primaries. Don’t buy the argument “but he/she isn’t electable” until that is proven by the results of the primaries.

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Trump and Bolton Screw Up Geopolitics

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, Reflection Canyon, Escalante arm of Lake Powell, UT – 2019 photo by Aaryeh95

(Reminding readers that this is the last column until Sunday when cartoons will be back on the menu. We are attending our second college graduation of the spring.)

The Week reports that President Trump is having second thoughts about sending troops to Venezuela. He complained to aides and advisers that:

“he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman, President Nicolás Maduro, with opposition leader Juan Guaidó, The Washington Post reports. ‘The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around National Security Adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.’”

“He was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman”! Who could’ve seen that coming? Just about everyone but Trump, and the neocons around Trump. The Neocons are batting 1.000, again proving themselves to be miserable failures at geopolitics. They continue to mess up geopolitical foreplay on the way to their real goal: Regime change and war.

By listening to Bolton and Pompeo, Trump has placed Venezuela more directly in the hands of Russia. It seems that Trump’s 90-minute phone call last Friday with Vladimir Putin was meant to talk Trump out of regime change in Venezuela. A secondary benefit for Putin may turn out to be that Trump handed Moscow a permanent Atlantic military presence in South America.

What’s the upshot? It looks like Maduro was pushed into Putin’s arms. Maybe Trump and Putin can cut a deal to sort this out without a crisis.

It looks possible that Maduro got an offer from a smarter, stronger player in the geopolitical game: Vladimir Putin. Republicans are bound to be disappointed. Blowing up Maduro’s regime was high on the Bolton and Republicans’s list.

Of course, regime change is always on their list. They want regime change in North Korea. In Syria. In Venezuela. And in Iran. It would be the perfect distraction from all the talk about Mueller and impeachment. They think war is a great campaign issue for 2020.

Now, Bolton and Pompeo have shifted their focus to Iran.

On Sunday, the National Security Council announced that we were sending another carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Persian Gulf in response to “troubling and escalatory” warnings from Iran. Bolton discussed the intelligence, saying that Iran appeared to be gearing up for war.

Help me. We all know that Russia is also more friendly with Tehran than we are. And Putin has already achieved near-total victory in Ukraine and Syria, and possibly has already bagged Venezuela. We were never going to be buddies with Iran, but will Tehran now move completely into Russia’s orbit?

To date, it looks like the worst thing Donald Trump has done is to hire John Bolton as his National Security Advisor. Of course, Bolton’s track record as a war-monger preceded him, so what’s happening now was predictable. The Neocons, including Bolton, want a war with Iran, to remake the Middle East.

Their project to remake the ME saw America destroy Iraq and Afghanistan. It fueled American regime change aspirations in Syria. It brought about the destruction of Libya. It’s also underway in Yemen.

What the Neocons are doing helps a new alliance to form. Its key members are China and Russia, but Iran is a part of it as well. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (B&R) is meant to create routes to Europe and a Chinese-led trade zone. It is meant to bypass sending ships through the straits of Malacca (which the US can shut down any time to strangle China’s trade). It looks like the land parts of the B&R will move goods more quickly to Europe, but not as cheaply, as sea transport.

So the question is: Can Bolton talk Trump into war with Iran? Will Trump lead us into a fatal miscalculation? Trump is walking a tightrope without a net.

Even without a war, the US’s continued abuse of its privileged position in the world payments system to sanction countries like Iran and Venezuela implies that China and Russia will develop an alternative payments system. It’s inevitable.

It’s only a matter of time before international payment alternatives become viable enough that major countries will simply ignore US sanctions.

The US looks to be the big loser in the geopolitical game of chicken that Trump is playing.

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Dems Should Talk Foreign Policy

The Daily Escape:

Lumen Museum of Mountain Photography, Italy – 2018 photo by Marco Zanta. The glass-enclosed extension is a restaurant.

Every Democratic candidate for the 2020 nomination is discussing domestic policy: Medicare for All, Free College, and all of the other jump shifts in policy, but what about global politics?

Biden isn’t unique among candidates in saying the 2020 election is about a return to the way things were before Trump, the Economist reports:

“’This too shall pass,’ Joe Biden told America’s allies at the Munich Security Conference in February. ‘We will be back.’ The applause he received reflects a longing to return to a world order that existed before President Donald Trump started swinging his wrecking ball.”

It is problematic to rely on the ideas of a Clinton operative, but the Economist quotes Jake Sullivan, a 2016 Hillary advisor who says that the thrust of the Democrats’ foreign policy approach is simple: reverse much of what Trump has done. Sullivan talks of a “back to basics” approach: Value alliances, stress diplomacy:

“Compared with domestic policy….there is less focus on new ideas.”

All of the Democratic candidates would rejoin the Paris climate agreement. They would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, possibly with new pre-conditions for lifting sanctions. All would reassure NATO allies of their full commitment to the alliance.

Most Dems agree with Trump’s more confrontational approach to China. However, they would ask America’s allies to work with us on the outcomes.

Biden has a long foreign policy track record. He proposed cutting Iraq into three states for the Sunni, Shia and Kurds. He wanted to arm the Ukrainians against Russia. He opposed the surge in Afghanistan, and the intervention in Libya.

The other candidates have said less, and have no distinctive foreign policy positions.

It would be great if we actually talked about foreign policy in the 2020 primaries. Let’s take a step back and remember 1991. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world’s other nuclear-armed superpower, we became the sole superpower. Until then, our strategy had been to contain the Soviet Union, but afterwards, lacking a global competitor, neither Party put forth a coherent global strategy.

We blundered into the Middle East with the Gulf War in 1991. After 9/11, we attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. We then hatched the war on terror, and subsequently expanded our globalized military across the world. And when the ledger finally closes on our expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost will approach $4 trillion.

Had we spent that amount on domestic priorities, we could have shored up Social Security and Medicare for a generation. We could have paid for the repair of our crumbling infrastructure. Instead, we’ve emerged from our Middle East blunder with two global competitors, China and Russia, along with a huge fiscal deficit. Neither had to happen.

America has failed to see the connections between our global strategy and domestic strategy. Providing incentives to our multinational corporations that enabled them to make goods abroad has marooned large swaths of our domestic workers.

A reasonable question to discuss is whether we can continue supporting globalization while building good jobs in the heartland of America.

And there should be a real debate regarding Trump’s foreign policy. He has sided more closely with Israel. He’s walked out of the Iran nuclear deal. He’s threatened Venezuela with possible “military options” that are being seriously discussed at the Pentagon.

Over the weekend, the Israelis told Bolton and Pompeo that the Iranians are preparing to attack the approximately 5000 US military personnel in Iraq. That may or may not be true, but it led to Pompeo visiting Baghdad.

Do American voters want another war in the Middle East? Trump is daring Iran to fully withdraw from the Nuclear Deal. Who will become the fall guy if there is an Iranian closing of the Straits of Hormuz? Trump, or Iran?

Trade talks with China seem stalled. North Korea’s recent missile tests press Trump’s bet on a deal with NK. Surely Kim is carefully watching Trump’s moves in the Middle East.

Then there is Russia. The Dems overreached with Russiagate, but the Russians are working with Syria to eliminate one of the last places in Syria (Idlib) where terrorists still hold sway. Neither Israel nor Bolton seem to want a stable Syria. Will they try to force Trump to obstruct this important operation?

Debate by Democrats may focus on military spending, with some wanting to cut it, and the mainstreamers being more cautious. A new policy towards the Middle East, and Israel in particular, should be discussed.

Regardless, Trump will surely attack Dems as “soft” on national defense.

But Democrats should thoughtfully challenge the Right-wing assumption that America must have a military-first strategy, rather than a diplomacy-first strategy.

We’re stretched thin trying to have a military presence everywhere in the world. It’s worth a real debate.

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Four More Years of Reality TV?

The Daily Escape:

Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase Escalante NP, UT – 2019 photo by Foobucket

The question is, how will we avoid four more years of Trump? The simple answer is electing a Democrat as president in 2020. And looking at 2020 presidential polling from 538, Biden is up big against the rest of the Democratic field, and in some polls, wins head-to-head vs. Trump.

The average of polls by 538 makes it pretty clear that Biden’s the frontrunner. They also have a good summary of the key state-by-state polling, which isn’t quite as good for Biden, but, it doesn’t show any other candidate as particularly strong. Biden is +21 on the Democrats in Iowa, Sanders is +6 over Biden in NH, and Biden is +36 in SC. In CA, Sanders is +1 over Harris, although a new, smaller Quinnipiac survey of 484 registered voters has Biden leading at +8.

None of this is reason to jump on the Biden Express. Frontrunners at this stage can win but many don’t, as we outlined here.

Wrongo thinks that Biden is a vulnerable frontrunner, but a path to victory for Biden is emerging: Since his announcement, he’s getting more cable media coverage than all the other Democratic candidates combined. The problem for most of the non-Biden candidates is that they are, like Biden, running to “restore” the Obama coalition. That group includes Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar.

The question for these candidates is how to differentiate themselves from Biden: all are younger, and all are less left-leaning than Sanders and Warren. But few have gained traction.

One small thing that people forget about Biden is that he introduced the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act that has enabled cops to steal more from Americans via Civil Asset Forfeiture than robbers can. Apparently, Biden continues to support it.

Here are Jamelle Bouie’s “electability” arguments for Biden:

“The case for Biden’s unique electability rests on his overall popularity as vice president to President Barack Obama and his particular appeal to the blue-collar whites who backed Trump in the 2016 election. Fifty-six percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of the former vice president in a February Gallup survey, including 80 percent of Democrats. A more recent poll, from CNN, shows Biden leading Trump in a hypothetical matchup, 51 percent to 45 percent. That same poll shows Biden losing blue-collar whites by just 13 percent, a better margin than his competitors’ and a huge improvement over Clinton’s 37-point deficit against Trump in 2016.”

Sounds good, but Jamelle Bouie also says:

“Biden, like Clinton, is extremely vulnerable to Trumpian forms of faux-populist attack. He is a 36-year veteran of Washington who backed the Iraq War, cultivated close ties with banks and credit card companies and played a leading role in shaping the punitive policies that helped produced mass incarceration…..Trump can slam him on these issues and sow division among Democratic voters. It’s how he won in 2016…”

Also, Anita Hill. Bouie also points out that like Biden, Hillary Clinton was widely admired by the public at the start of her campaign. In 2012, 65% of Americans said they had a favorable view of her. This, of course, did not last. By November, 2016, Clinton was the second-most unpopular nominee in history, next to Trump.

Biden’s front-running in the polls shows just how nervous moderate Democrats are. Their sole objective is to win the White House. The 2016 election should have been a wake-up for Democrats, but a lot of them really believe that everything back then was OK, except that Trump was elected.

Dems also think that once Trump’s gone, everything will be “restored” to the status quo ante. That’s a fantasy. Trump won because Republicans and quite a few Obama Democrats liked his policies and his rhetoric. Many of them will likely vote for him again in 2020. Besides, the GOP controls the Senate.

Biden isn’t Wrongo’s favorite candidate. That person will be the one most likely to expand the Democratic base by much more than the 80,000 votes in PA, WI, and MI that cost Hillary the 2016 election. That candidate will have long coattails that keep the House majority and can bring the Senate into play.

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Monday Wake Up Call – May 6, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Torres del Paine NP, Chile – 2016 photo by Andrea Pozzi

After our granddaughter’s graduation in PA (summa cum laude), we had a few wines and beers, and talk turned to politics and the mess America is in now. Son-in-law Miles, (dad of next week’s grad) asked a very good question. “Is now really the worst of times? What about when Martin Luther King was assassinated?

Wrongo immediately flashed back to JFK’s assassination. He was a DC college student when JFK died. But his focus wasn’t on the loss of a president, or what that meant to the country. His focus was on what the loss of JFK meant personally.

That changed in 1968 with the assassinations of MLK and RFK. Wrongo was in the Army, stationed in Germany when Dr. King was killed. There was great tension in the enlisted men’s barracks. For a few days, it took a lot of effort in our small, isolated unit to keep anger from boiling over into outright fighting between the races.

By the time we lost RFK, it was clear that the Vietnam War would drag on, killing many of Wrongo’s friends. But, Wrongo’s job was to defend America from the Russians, with nuclear weapons if necessary.

It was difficult to see how or when Vietnam would end. It was hard to imagine Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, or Robert McNamara doing much to stop young Americans from dying in Asia.

The year 1968 also included the Tet Offensive. Mark Bowen in his book, Hue 1968, says:

“For decades….the mainstream press and, for that matter, most of the American public, believed their leaders, political and military. Tet was the first of many blows to that faith in coming years, Americans would never again be so trusting.” (p. 507)

When Americans finally saw the Pentagon Papers in 1971, they learned that America’s leaders had been systematically lying about the scope and progress of the war for years, in spite of their doubts that the effort could succeed. The assassinations, Vietnam, and Watergate changed us forever.

Our leaders failed us, it was clearly the worst of times. We were in worse shape in 1968 than we are in 2019. Back then, it felt like the country was coming apart at the seams, society’s fabric was pulling apart. Then, May 4th 1970 brought the killings of college kids at Kent State, which was probably the lowest point in our history, at least during Wrongo’s life time.

Last week, we acknowledged the 49th anniversary of America’s military killing American students on US soil. We vaguely remember the Neil Young song “Ohio” with its opening lyrics:

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own…”

That’s why the decade from 1960-1970 was the worst of times. We got through it, but we have never been the same.

In 1968, we saw that change can arrive suddenly, fundamentally, and violently, even in America. Bob Woodward spoke at Kent State last week, on Saturday, May 4th. He offered some brand-new information about Nixon’s reaction to the student shootings: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“In a conversation with his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in September 1971, Nixon suggested shooting prisoners at New York’s Attica Prison riot in a reference to the Kent State tragedy. “You know what stops them? Kill a few,” Nixon says on a tape of the conversation.”

Woodward continued:

“We now know what really was on Nixon’s mind as he reflected…on Kent State after 17 months….Kent State and the protest movement was an incubator for Richard Nixon and his illegal wars.”

Woodward meant that what was coming was a war on the news media, creation of the “Plumbers” unit to track down leaks, and attempts to obstruct justice with the Watergate cover-up.

Many of us see 2020 shaping up as another 1968. Some see Nixon reincarnated in Trump.

We haven’t faced this particular set of circumstances before, so we can’t know just how it will go. Will it be worse than the 1960s, or just another terrible American decade? Is it the best of times, or the worst of times?

Are we willing to fight to preserve what we have anymore?

Wake up America, you have to fight for what America means to us. Constitutional liberties are under attack. The right to vote is being undermined. Extreme Nationalism has been emboldened.

To help you wake up, listen once again to “Ohio” by Neil Young in a new solo performance from October, 2018. He’s added some documentary footage and a strong anti-gun message:

You may not know that Chrissie Hynde, the future lead singer of The Pretenders was a Kent State student, and was on the scene at the time.

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

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Barr May Never Face the House Judiciary Committee

The Daily Escape:

Sunset at Malin Head, Donegal, Ireland – 2019 photo by jip

(There will not be a Saturday or Sunday column this weekend, or next. Wrongo and Ms. Right are traveling to two different states, attending the college graduations of grandchildren Elise and Conor.)

After the contentious Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, AG Bill Barr has canceled his scheduled appearance before the House Judiciary Committee. There is plenty of speculation about what happens next.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) had previously said that he would subpoena Barr if he refused to testify. If Barr ignores the subpoena, as the Trump administration has done regarding document production, Democrats on the committee have indicated that they will move to hold the AG in contempt of Congress. From the LA Times:

“A contempt finding is how Congress may respond when someone refuses to testify or provide information as part of a House or Senate investigation. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld that Congress has a right to compel people to comply with its oversight efforts.”

In the past, just the threat of being held in contempt (not to mention Congress’ power over funding the government) was usually enough to convince an administration to comply with a request, or at least negotiate a compromise.

No longer. The Trump administration has no intention of complying with subpoenas from Democrats.

If Barr was held in contempt of Congress, what happens next? Congress has a few options. The most common is that it can send a criminal contempt referral to a US attorney. If prosecuted and convicted, the punishment is up to a $10,000 fine and a year in jail.

The last administration official to be held in contempt of Congress was Anne Gorsuch, Neil Gorsuch’s mother, who was head of the EPA in the 1980s. The House issued a subpoena, Ms. Gorsuch said “no thanks”. Congress referred it to the DOJ for enforcement, and the US Attorney refused to carry it out.

So the finding of regular contempt is enforced by the DOJ, and the DOJ has the discretion to not prosecute the finding.

If they fail to do it, the House would fall back on their inherent contempt power. Yes, there is such a thing. The long dormant inherent contempt power permits Congress to rely on its own constitutional authority to detain and imprison someone who is held in contempt until the individual complies with congressional demands.

Problem is, the inherent contempt power hasn’t been used since 1935. The inherent contempt power is not specified in a statute or constitutional provision, but has been deemed implicit in the Constitution’s grant to Congress of all legislative powers.

The Sergeant At Arms is Congress’s proper arresting authority, however, there is no jail in the Capitol. There are holding cells at the Capitol Police Dept., but they are not appropriate for a long term detention. And even if the Sergeant At Arms did arrest Barr, it is likely that he would quickly be released.

Here’s what we’ve learned this week: Congressional enforcement of a subpoena has no teeth if it is used against a member of the Trump Administration. So, there will never be a consequence for Barr, or any other member of the Trump administration disobeying a subpoena.

Democrats need to think very clearly about their messaging in the face of their anger at William Barr. Saying that “Trump is terrible and we are powerless” is not a winning message.

Saying “vote for us and we’ll fix this when we win in 2020” is better, but doesn’t sound like a great message either.

The Mueller Investigation game has already been won by Republicans. Democrats can try to test the system. If it works, we still have a country.

But, if they try, and it doesn’t work, we’re back to saying: “Trump is terrible and we are powerless”.

Things are moving a lot faster than most Democrats realize. It isn’t clear that traditional politics (compromise, etc.) will survive. And it’s even less clear what is going to replace it.

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Financial Industry Buys Politicians

The Daily Escape:

Tulip time, Skagit Valley, WA – 2019 photo by Karen Randall

Yesterday, we talked about how the Democrats might ultimately need Wall Street money for the 2020 presidential election. Now, we learn from Americans for Financial Reform (AFR), a consumer interest group, that Wall Street spent at least $1.9 billion on political campaigns and lobbying during the 2018 mid-term elections:

“The figure, which includes contributions to campaign committees and leadership PACs ($922 million) and lobbying expenditures ($957 million), reflects a massive rush of pro-industry nominees and legislation over the last two years, at a time when the biggest banks made $100 billion in profits for the first time.”

That was the largest-ever amount for a non-presidential year, outstripping the total of $1.4 billion, in the 2013-14 election cycle, by 36%.

The 63-page report, “Wall Street Money in Washington”, uses a special data set compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics on behalf of AFR in order to provide a more precise look at financial services industry spending. The data excludes spending by health insurers, who work to influence a different group of issues than do US banks.

The data also doesn’t include “dark money” that goes mostly unreported, so the actual sums of Wall Street spending are likely to be much higher.

The report breaks its findings down by Campaign Contribution and Lobbying:

Campaign Contributions:  Individuals and entities in the financial sector reported making $921.8 million in contributions to federal candidates for office during the 2017-18 election cycle.

Of the $519.6 million in party-coded contributions by individuals and PACs associated with finance, 53% went to Republicans and 47% went to Democrats. About $402.2 million in additional cash flowed from financial sector contributors to candidates through outside groups.

Lobbying: The financial industry reported spending a total of $956.8 million on lobbying in calendar years 2017 and 2018. This spending only got the financial sector to third place. The “Health” sector was second, spending $1.12 billion, and “Miscellaneous Business” which comprises companies and trade associations, was first, spending $1. 02 billion. “Miscellaneous Business” includes the US Chamber of Commerce, which spent $189.4 million.

And which politicians got the money?

In the House, Republicans did very well, with Former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) leading the way. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), now the House minority leader, and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), now the ranking member on the House Financial Services Committee, both benefited from Wall Street largesse.

The freshman class in the House, including first-term Democrats, had substantially less reliance on money from Wall Street than those Democratic incumbents who won re-election. Another report that AFR co-authored on small-dollar contributions found that 17% of money contributed to the Democratic freshman came from small donors, compared to 9.4% for incumbent members.

In the Senate, the data underscores how money moved to members who supported the industry’s legislative goals. Overall, spending favored Republicans. But the industry gave significant amounts to Democratic Senators who helped get S. 2155 passed, which was a significant rollback of the Dodd-Frank regulations.

Wall Street gave heavily to the Democratic senators who supported the bill and were up for reelection in 2018, mostly from states that Trump won in 2016. One Dem who won in 2018, was Jon Tester (D-MT); others, including Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) did not win.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) won after she supported the legislation as a House member.

But, not all top Senate Democratic recipients of Wall Street money did the industry’s bidding. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) opposed S. 2155.  He was the only Democrat in Ohio to win statewide office in 2018.

Who spent the most? The top five donor companies and trade associations in the financial sector were:

  • National Association of Realtors — $144,716,676
  • Bloomberg LP — $96,481,469
  • American Bankers Association — $25,769,494
  • Paloma Partners — $25,575,800
  • Citadel LLC — $20,596,381

You can see a list of the top 20 donors here. It is easy to see that turning down Wall Street funding could put a big dent in the Democratic nominee’s spending plans for 2020.

It also seems clear from yesterday’s reporting that Wall Street Democrats might bolt to Trump if the 2020 nominee is Sanders or Warren. A decision to reject Wall Street funding could hand Trump a very large gift.

The money spent by the financial services industry won’t be any lower in 2020 than in 2018. We’ll just have to wait and see if the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee rejects their support.

OTOH, this money helps Wall Street rig the system in its favor, largely by buying the support of politicians who will help insulate them from accountability.

Does any Democrat have the guts to reform capitalism?

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Will Dems Develop a Winning Message?

The Daily Escape:

Lady Liberty from the water – June, 2015 photo by Wrongo

Joe Biden kicked off his run yesterday by saying that he’s for the middle class, and against Trump. CNN is reporting that Biden now leads the field with 39% of voters supporting him. Sanders is second with 15%. Warren is third with 8%, and Buttigieg fourth with 7%.

It’s good to remember that there are still 551 days to go before the 2020 election. Here are a few other past poll leaders with 551 days to go: Hillary Clinton led the Democratic primary by 9.1% in 2008. In the 2008 GOP primary, Giuliani led by 12.4 points. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton once led by 56.6 points. In the 2016 GOP primaries, Jeb! Bush led by 1.2 points. All of them lost.

The biggest issue for Democrats right now is squaring the circle on their message. The leading Dems don’t divide neatly by labels. Some are Republican lite, some are very progressive. All have to articulate policy and show charisma, while working to garner enough delegates to win the nomination.

Let’s discuss two issues: First, are they really going to run against Wall Street? Are they going to take campaign funding from the financial services industry? As Wrongo said last week, there is an inherent tension in the current funding strategy of the Dem candidates. They all are targeting small donors in order to demonstrate substantial grass-roots support. But, the nominee will need to raise more than $1 billion for the general election, and it’s doubtful that individual donors have such deep pockets.

That means they will eventually have to turn to PACs and corporations in order to win.

But Sanders and Warren have pushed the party to the left on Wall Street and capitalism. NY Mag had a piece describing a meeting among Wall Street Democrats, who are unhappy with the field. They dislike Sanders and Warren, and when they strategize, the financiers’ primary goal is to find a Democrat who can both deny either of them the nomination, and also beat Trump:

By evening’s end, multiple donors walked away planning to write checks to three or four or five candidates — hoping they stay relatively moderate — rather than going all in on any one. Among the committed Democrats on Wall Street, this wait-and-see, as-long-as-it’s-not-Bernie-or-Elizabeth posture has become the norm.

Can the Democrats win without Wall Street’s money? Will the current crop of candidates walk away from their promise to take on the financiers, in order to beat Trump?

Asking for a friend.

Second, what will their message be on the economy? Trump is presiding over a late-stage economic boom. By November, 2020, Trump will be able to claim credit for the longest period of uninterrupted growth in American history. How will Democrats counter a Republican argument to stay the course?

The best possible message may be: That big corporations aren’t paying their fair share (as opposed to more taxing of the rich). That too much of the prosperity that working people create stays with the corporations. That the cost of both health care and education are too damn high.

Just this week, the WaPo asked voters, “Do you think the economic system in this country mainly works to benefit all people, or mainly works to benefit those in power?”

  • 60% of all respondents said it benefits those in power
  • 66% of independents said the same thing
  • 81% of Democrats agreed as well

Regardless of how strong the economy is for the next 19 months, Americans are sure to remain discontented with the economic dominance of the powerful. The NY Mag Intelligencer says the Dems should focus on Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania: (brackets by Wrongo)

We know that this tiny subpopulation leans left on economic issues and tends to resent the rich. We also know it leans right on immigration and tends to resent “illegals.” When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney [made] the 2012 election a referendum on whether rich business owners earned every penny they have, a critical mass of Midwestern swing voters broke for the Democrats. When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump agreed to make 2016 about whether rapid demographic change was making America “Stronger Together” — or less great than it used to be — they broke right.

In 2012, Barack Obama told an “us versus them” story about class conflict. Sanders, Warren and Biden are doing that right now. A message that says “the rich have rigged our economic and political systems to their advantage” is an immensely popular message.

If Democrats don’t run on it in 2020, it won’t be out of concern for alienating voters, it will be out of concern for alienating Wall Street.

Let’s close with a tune in honor of May Day. Here’s Sierra Boggess singing “The Lusty Month of May” from Camelot, performed at BBC Proms 2012.

Your May mileage may vary:

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

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Monday Wake Up Call – April 29, 2019

The Daily Escape: (In recognition of Poway, CA)

There’s no escape, we’re staying on the hamster wheel

And this:

All these killers used the same weapon, the AR-15 (or a knock-off of the AR-15). And just how many “lone wolf” killers will it take before America realizes they’re a pack? Do you have any hope that the Congress will rein in assault-type weapons?

Time to wake up, America. This weekend we saw two more acts of domestic terrorism against non-Christians. One by an Islamophobic Christian who mistakenly thought Sikhs are Muslim, and another by an anti-Semitic white supremacist who targeted Jews.

In the first case, a white man drove into a family of Sikhs in Sunnyvale, California, believing they were Muslims. He was allegedly on his way to a Bible study group, and was praising Jesus when authorities caught him.

In the second, another white man, gunned down several people in a synagogue in Poway CA, killing one and injuring three. He apparently wrote an anti-Semitic manifesto. The letter talks about planning for the attack. The letter writer also claims responsibility for an arson fire that blackened the walls of the Islamic Center in Escondido on March 24th, but no one was injured.

The Poway suspect also championed Robert Bowers, who killed 11 people and wounded six others in the Tree of Life synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh six months ago.

None of this is to downplay the ISIS killings of Christians in Sri Lanka. But today, we’re focusing on America, and two converging trends: The ubiquity of guns in America, and the growing and unbridled domestic racism that has returned to daylight.

We can blame Republicans for some of the escalating number of US white terrorist acts against non-Christians and non-whites. We all know that Trump has in many cases, encouraged hate to come out of the closet. This from David Atkins:

“White supremacist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and misogynist rhetoric runs rampant across the entirety of the conservative movement. The transformation of the Republican Party into a vehicle of violent white male grievance has rapidly accelerated its longtime trend under Trump.”

Atkins notes that the weekend attacks came one day after Trump congratulated the white player picked second in the NFL draft while ignoring the black player picked first. In 2016, Trump won both states that the two players played for, so it wasn’t politics. That’s who he is, and he doesn’t care who knows it.

We on the liberal side of the ledger continue to debate whether the “reachable” Trump voters are as racist as the rest of the MAGAs. Some Democratic pols wonder how many of them could be persuaded to vote for a Democrat in 2020. It’s unlikely that the “reachable” Trump voters are more than 4% of the electorate, but that could well swing what shapes up as a very close presidential election.

Can Democrats appeal to their base and to the persuadable Republicans by hammering on the moral repugnance of these white terrorists, while downplaying any program to weaken the Second Amendment?

At the same time, what will Republicans do? We can be sure that Trump will double down, but will the rest of the Party follow him? More, from Atkins:

“…violent acts of terrorism by their own base are much harder to sweep under the rug. Vague statements of general condemnation against violence won’t cut it as these despicable acts continue to increase, and as the Republican Party becomes increasingly associated with them.”

The thing is, the fires of hatred are not a tool you can use only to fire up your voters to do what you want. Once ignited, it’s not your kitchen stove, where you can turn the heat up, down, or off at your choosing. These are wildfires. You can ignite them, and use them to heat things up, but they can take on a life of their own, burning whatever they reach.

We’re told over and over that we have a civility crisis in this country. That the Democrats aren’t being polite enough to the right.

We do have a civility crisis in this country. We are far too civil to bigots. We are far too tolerant of those who would oppress, or kill others.

The right wing needs to pay a price for its toleration and cultivation of bigotry. It has no right to demand civility when it allows some of its base to treat people with contempt just for being who they are.

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