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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Why Can’t We Quit Poking Iran?

The Daily Escape:

Fall in the Eastern Sierras – photo by Deirdre Harb

You may not remember the tangled history the US has with Iran, but you know that Trump decertified the Iran deal that was developed by the US and 5 other major powers (Russia, China, Germany, England and France). In his decertifying speech, Trump said:

We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout…

Just three countries publicly support Mr. Trump’s decision: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. We all know that Iran calls the US “the great Satan”, but we forget how we earned the title. Here is a quick review from the BBC:

  • In 1953, the US overthrew Iran’s elected government. We (and the UK) were not going to stand by and let their Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq nationalize Iran’s oil industry. The CIA led a military coup, and re-installed the Shah.
  • In 1979, a coup overthrew the Shah, and Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the Iran government. In November 1979, Iran took over the US embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for what was 444 days, until 1981.
  • In 1985-86, the US secretly shipped weapons to Iran in exchange for Tehran’s help in freeing US hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The profits were channeled to rebels in Nicaragua, creating a political crisis for President Reagan.
  • In 1988, a US warship shot down an Iranian Airbus A300 killing all 290 people on board. We said it was a mistake, and Iran apparently forgave us.
  • In 1999, Iran’s new president Katahimi called for “a dialogue with the American people” that went nowhere.
  • In 2002, GW Bush denounced Iran as part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and North Korea.

Now, nothing in the above excuses Iran’s efforts to destabilize parts of the Middle East, or their deep, abiding hatred of Israel. Nothing excuses Iran’s role in developing and introducing the IED’s that were so lethal to US troops in Iraq.

Time has done little to heal the wounds that each country has inflicted on the other. Mutual enmity remains on full display.

But Trump, like Obama and GW Bush, searched for a way to reduce our presence in the Middle East and shift attention to Russia and China. The solution for all three Presidents was to pit Middle Eastern governments against one another creating a balance of power, attempting to prevent any single country from becoming too influential.

If they make war against each other, that’s an acceptable outcome, as long as Israel remains unscathed.

In that context, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was something that the US and its European allies couldn’t allow. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), provided a means of halting the program’s progress without risking the outbreak of war. The deal prevented the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb destabilizing the region.

By attempting to reopen the JCPOA by withdrawing, Trump hopes to either rein in Iran’s regional meddling, or persuade Tehran to broaden the deal to include restrictions on its ballistic missile program, and on its support for militant groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Neither of Trump’s goals are reachable. Iran gains nothing by agreeing to them. And the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agree that there is no evidence to suggest that Iran is not complying with the deal. So, as long as Iran upholds its end of the bargain, the Europeans plus China and Russia, are unlikely to agree with any US attempt to reinstate broad sanctions.

And Trump is making his negotiations with North Korea more difficult. Walking away from the Iran deal justifies North Korea’s belief that negotiation with the US on nuclear issues is futile. Particularly when one president’s agreement can be so easily torn up by his successor.

The American Right has considered Iran one of the “axis of evil” since 9/11. In that context, Trump’s desire to replace diplomacy with sanctions and eventually regime change, is ideologically consistent. The Right is simply using its electoral victory to advance a long-held policy.

We should remember that most of the GOP presidential candidates in 2016 were against the Iran deal, and probably would have acted similarly to Trump.

We are at a crossroads in our relationship with Iran. With the Iran deal, our long-term antipathy could have been moderated, and ultimately replaced by alignment of goals in the Middle East. Peace might have broken out.

But Trump has insured that will now take decades longer than it might have.

 

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – October 8, 2017

(There will be limited blogging until 10/17, as Wrongo and Ms. Right are visiting London to see five plays in seven days. We are also having dinner at Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey). Please keep your tray tables in the locked position while we are away.)

Another week of shocks to the system. Cartoons may help. The GOP reaction to Las Vegas is almost automatic, just like bump stocks:

Some are reluctant to give up their Congress:

The Senate is always on sale:

Tillerson tries to explain Trump’s undermining:

Trump tosses different kinds of paper depending on the audience:

RIP Tom Petty:

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A Strong Proposal For Changing Our Gun Laws

The Daily Escape:

Lauterbrunnen, near Bern, Switzerland. Photo by Scott Hafer

Thought for today:

“The right thing is usually not hard to do. And if it is, it’s still the right thing.” – Jason Hirschorn

Pam Keith is a Democratic candidate for Florida’s 18th Congressional District. She was a Navy officer, and lawyer. She has a great take on what to do with guns in America. Here is a series of tweets by Pam:

(The Baker Act allows the holding of mentally-ill people against their will)

WTG Ms. Keith, all are good ideas! Outlawing “bump stocks’ should be added to this list, and it seems that the House is likely to do just that. Will we ever get the National Rifle Association (NRA) out of the business of dictating which gun legislation is, or isn’t acceptable?

Assuming we want changes to our interpretation of the Second Amendment, we must force enough Republicans in Congress to listen, and act. We have control, if we choose to use it.

Or, we can accept the occasional mass slaughter as the “price of freedom” as Bill O’Reilly says we must. The Second Amendment is neither inviolable, nor sacrosanct. We have built this edifice of carnage on the most willfully misinterpreted 27 words in the Constitution. Ms. Keith’s ideas could help save lives, without impacting the rights of responsible gun owners.

As the opening quote says, doing the right thing, even if it is hard to do, very hard, it’s still the right thing.

We could stand idly by, and accept that random, indiscriminate mass slaughter is our new normal.

Here is a musical interlude by the Wailin’ Jennys singing “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” from their soon-to-be released album, “Fifteen”, a series of covers. Here, they are covering Dolly Parton. They turn the tune into a reminder about resilience and hope in each new day. This is particularly appropriate given the Las Vegas mass murder.

They sing in perfect à cappella harmony. Inspiring and beautiful:

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

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Can We Have an Honest Discussion About The GOP Tax Plan?

The Daily Escape:

When the dog lies about his previous sheep-herding experience

A new set of tax policies have been proposed by the White House and the GOP. They involve both tax cuts, and some tax reforms. Here are the bullet points of the GOP’s sales pitch:

  • The tax cut won’t help the rich, and won’t help Donald Trump personally
  • The tax cut will generate enough growth to pay for itself
  • Most of the benefits of the tax cut will go to the middle class

Here are the NYT’s calculations on Trump not gaining anything:

Trump could save more than $1 billion under his new tax plan

And here is the Tax Policy Center’s take on the benefits to the wealthy:

  • The top 1 percent of households (those with incomes above $730,000) would get about 53% of the framework’s net tax cuts, or roughly $130,000 a year on average.
  • The top 0.1 percent of households (those with incomes above $3.4 million) would get roughly 30% of the framework’s net tax cuts, or about $720,000 a year, on average.

Turning to the statement that “tax cuts will pay for themselves”, Trump claimed in a talk with House Ways and Means Committee a few days ago, that his tax plan will produce more than 6% growth.

An economist once said that you don’t need to look at the details of a Republican tax plan. The higher the Republican growth forecast, the worse the actual deficit in their plan. That’s because they need greater revenue growth to cover the deficit hole they are creating. Given Trump’s 6% growth forecast, you just know the tax plan is going to be a budget buster.

We have learned from past GOP tax cuts that they won’t reduce deficits or balance budgets. Want proof?

  • The George W. Bush tax cuts made the deficit larger, while doing little or nothing to stimulate the economy
  • The income-tax cuts in Kansas caused the state’s deficit to accelerate significantly, while economic growth lagged the contiguous states
  • Even Ronald Reagan’s tax analysts, David Stockman and Bruce Bartlett, have acknowledged that unfunded tax cuts don’t create growth, they make for bigger deficits.

Regarding the point that most of the cuts will go to the middle class, it won’t happen. Since 83% of the plan’s cuts are going to the top brackets, there’s not much left for the middle class.

What they don’t talk about is their plan to get rid of personal exemptions, which is a key deduction for middle class families, especially those who itemize deductions. To determine whether middle-class families get a cut or an increase under the new plan, you need to calculate if the higher standard deduction, plus the proposed expansion in the child tax credit, (no details about that yet), is greater than the loss of personal exemptions.

Josh Barro at Business Insider crunched the numbers, and his conclusion is: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

While there are still a lot of details to be filled in, the information we have available suggests the new Republican tax proposal would raise income taxes on many families who make just a bit more than the national average.

They are promising to eliminate the “alternative minimum tax”, (AMT) a tax provision designed to ensure that wealthy taxpayers (who can have accountants find deductions) would pay some modicum of taxes rather than get off scott-free. In fact, the GOP has it backwards: People who owe the AMT should be paying more tax than they would pay with the AMT. It serves its intended purpose. Elimination of the AMT is another tax break for the wealthy:  For example, Trump has had to pay the AMT, as have most real estate developers.

Now, ask yourself why should personal tax rates be less progressive in 2017 than they were in 1963? Shouldn’t progress towards a more equal society mean our rates would be MORE progressive, not less? It’s not as if we have less inequality, we have more.

The reason we should want to tax the rich (till it hurts) is to reduce their power and overwhelming choke hold on policy.

When will the GOP engage in an honest discussion about their tax plan?

Not soon. Maybe not ever.

Here’s First Aid Kit doing a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”, from 2014:

We all need to look for America, its getting very hard to find.

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

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Saturday Soother – September 23, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Sunndalsøra, Norway, best known for its aluminum factory, one of the largest in Europe – photo by Brotherside

WaPo reports that estimates say it will take about four months for electric power to be restored on Puerto Rico. You would hope that we could beat the estimate by quite a bit. What is the Congress’s plan to help out our Commonwealth?

Can you imagine living somewhere without power for several months? We had to do it once at the Mansion of Wrong, at the height of winter for 7 days. It got to 37°F one night inside the house. We now have a whole house generator.

What happens to the Puerto Rican economy if there is no power for multiple months? Can average people make a living? How will they pay the rent, or the mortgage?

Our first concern should be providing them with supplementary power. Generators and the fuel to power them must be among the first things we deliver to the island. They are the cheapest, fastest way to deliver temporary power while the basic infrastructure of power lines and cell towers are rebuilt. Fuel (mostly diesel) will need to be brought in via ship. Health care facilities need power to operate, and the basic elements of government requires it as well. With power, they can begin to restore normalcy, communications and water for citizens.

People will need some form of temporary housing. Businesses will need to sell products and services, and help keep people employed. It’s also not clear how law and civil order will stand up to months without power, or to a situation where people can’t get their basic needs met.

Anyone with resources, or family connections on the US mainland is going to move away, many will come here. Will Puerto Rican immigrants be seen by the GOP base as simply more illegals coming to use our welfare system?

Will the GOP remind their base that Puerto Ricans are US citizens? It isn’t certain that Republicans all will say that. Think about what that says about the America we live in today.

The scale of this disaster would be unfathomable and unacceptable on the US mainland. Will we step up as a country and help our brothers back to their feet? Or, will we do something half-hearted because they are the “other“?

Before you answer, remember that Flint Michigan still doesn’t have safe drinking water. Maybe getting the help you need is mostly about whether you (and your town) are the correct color.

Time to get soothed after another really tough week. Try to find a bag of Beanstock’s Shucker’s Roast coffee (only available at retail during the Wellfleet Cape Cod Oysterfest) but otherwise available at great Cape Cod restaurants like C-Shore Wellfleet. Then, brew up a hot, strong cuppa. Settle back, put on the Bluetooth headphones, and listen to Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor, Op. 50. This will take about an hour, but you will be greatly rewarded.

Tchaikovsky wrote this between December 1881 and late January 1882. It is the only work Tchaikovsky ever wrote for piano, violin, and cello. Here it is performed live at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in February 2013, with Livan on piano, Zenas Hsu on violin and Yina Tong on cello:

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

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – September 17, 2017

(There will be no Monday Wake-Up Call this week, as Wrongo is visiting family on Cape Cod)

A rich harvest of cartoons this week. Hillary’s book signings, Bernie’s health insurance bill, Trump’s new deal with the Dems, Equifax, and the hurricanes!

Hillary lets Bernie know what she thinks of his Medicare for all bill:

Equifax tries to minimize their gigantic fail:

Equifax creates more losers than Irma:

GOP makes their priorities about disasters clear:

Trump’s dealing with Dems may hurt the GOP:

Bipartisanship deal making cuts both ways:

Why is Bannon on the left wing? Seems wrong:

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Saturday Soother – September 16, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Old Prison, Annecy, France. This 12th century prison sits in the middle of the river Thiou. Because of the canals in the town, Annecy is called the Venice of the Alps.

Yesterday, Wrongo said that we needed a special tax to be used solely to rebuild the economies and infrastructure of states hit by Irma and Harvey. It didn’t take long to hear that millionaires already pay enough taxes. In one way, that is correct. From the Atlantic:

Forty years ago, the richest 1% paid about 18% of the country’s federal income taxes. Today, they pay about 40%.

While 40% seems high, we need to look harder at the arithmetic: The number of million-dollar-earners in the US has grown rapidly since Y2K. According to the IRS, the number of households with an adjusted gross income greater than $1 million more than doubled between 2001 and 2014, the last year with complete data. And no group has grown faster than the super-rich; the number of households earning more than $10 million grew by 144%.

Between 2001 and 2014, income earned by millionaires grew twice as fast as income earned by the rest of us. In 2001, million-dollar earners and above collectively reported income of about $600 billion. In 2014, they reported $1.4 trillion, more than double the amount in just 14 years. And the top 10% of wealthiest families in this country control 76% of our country’s total wealth.

So, we shouldn’t feel guilty about taxing them for a specific need, for a time-limited period.

If you’re a millionaire, it’s not just because you worked hard. It’s because you worked hard, and you live in a country where the government provides a well-developed infrastructure, stable institutions and markets governed by a strong commercial code.

Rich people need to stop griping and pull their weight, just like the rest of America’s tax-payers.

So Wrongo says again, we all need to pay extra taxes into a special fund for redevelopment of Florida and Texas. As the libertarian Joseph Tainter asserts in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (don’t read it), when a society no longer has the reserves to help offset what might otherwise be a recoverable disaster, collapse can’t be far off.

Increased revenues will absolutely increase our reserves. And they will help us recover from this current disaster.

It’s Saturday, and we need to relax. Today Dr. Wrong prescribes a double Hayes Valley Espresso (whole bean is $ 17/lb.) from Oakland, CA’s Blue Bottle Coffee. Get it now, Blue Bottle has just agreed to be acquired by Nestle.

Brew it up, put on the Bluetooth headphones, and listen to the Flute Quartet No.1 in D major by J. J. Quantz, flute maker and Baroque composer. Quantz was extremely prolific. He wrote six flute quartets that were discovered in 2001 by American flutist Mary Ann Oleskiewicz in archives of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin. Here is Quantz’s Flute Quartet No. 1:

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

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Commission on Election Integrity Hears a Whopper

The Daily Escape:

DUMBO, NYC – photo by Kelly Kopp

President Donald Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity met Tuesday in New Hampshire, amid controversy generated by its vice chairman Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s unproven contention that illegal voting in NH swung the state’s US Senate and presidential elections in November 2016.

There is no evidence to support Kobach’s position, and there was no one bussed in from Massachusetts to vote in NH, as Donald Trump contended.

Clearly, the commission wants to make it as difficult as possible for certain Americans, in particular, poor, elderly, and young Americans to be able to vote without overcoming the kinds of hurdles we haven’t seen since the Jim Crow era.

Curiously, the commission will hear a proposal requiring a background check before a person can register to vote, using the same check as gun buyers.

John Lott, the president of the Pennsylvania-based Crime Prevention Research Center, and a Fox commentator, will present the concept during the meeting. Lott’s PowerPoint presentation, which was posted on the White House’s website in advance, would check for criminal history as well as immigration status. According to Lott, this would allow authorities to “check if the right people are voting”.

Lott, who published a book called “The War on Guns: Arming Yourself Against Gun Control Lies,” said that Democrats have praised using background checks for guns, and suggested they couldn’t oppose using the same system for voting when it’s already up and running.

Lott told the WaPo that Democrats have long said that the federal background check system doesn’t infringe on people’s ability to own a gun, so they shouldn’t have a problem using it to combat voter fraud. He thinks it’s a cool “gotcha” idea for the GOP.

In politics, there is no easier gig than pitching an idea to the shrinking GOP Base.

It’s an argument made by a guy who thinks the background check system doesn’t work. According to WaPo, Lott has repeatedly criticized the background check system as ineffective, arguing, that it “only makes life easier for criminals” and that the background check databases are “rife with errors.”

 WaPo quotes Adam Winkler, a constitutional law specialist at UCLA: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

The [Lott’s] idea is “patently absurd”…Given the previous criticism of the background check system by John Lott, and the fact that the structure of voting regulation is entirely different than the regulation of guns, it’s hard to believe this is a serious proposal.

WaPo also quotes Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School, who said that the selection of presenters at Tuesday’s commission meeting:

Seems to mirror the selection of commissioners — this is not the group you’d assemble if you were serious about real research into real solutions to real problems with the voting system.

Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told NPR:

It’s a commission that is about promoting this false and dangerous narrative that vote fraud is something that’s widespread across our country, and we know that that’s just not the case.

The object of the exercise by Mike Pence, the commission’s chair and Kris Kobach the vice chair, is to make registering to vote difficult, exactly the opposite of what a democracy should support.

And they talk like these are reasonable proposals, put forth by responsible people.

The reality is that they are framing an argument that our elections cannot be trusted. And in the background, Pence, Kobach and company will come up with policies that exclude many Americans who otherwise would have the right to vote.

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North Korea and Our Terrible Missile Defense

The Daily Escape:

Near Rocky Creek Bridge, Big Sur CA – 2017 photo by Charlene Renslow

We didn’t attempt to shoot down the Hwasong-12 North Korean (NK) missile on Tuesday. The official reason was that it was clear that the missile wouldn’t hit American soil. Based on the US reasoning, there are at least two things to consider:

  • We have the capability to shoot down NK medium-range missiles, but do not want to give NK and China any free intelligence on our capabilities.
  • We do not have the capability to shoot down NK medium-range (or greater) missiles.

Now, Wrongo has some “expertise” in the missile defense biz. He managed a nuclear missile unit in Germany during the Vietnam era. One mission of the unit was anti-tactical ballistic missile defense. That meant we were supposed to shoot down enemy missiles.

So, when Wrongo hears the US’s reasoning, it makes sense. Why give a potential enemy a free look at your weapons? Why take an aggressive action when we are not threatened? Both are reasonable positions. Shooting down an enemy missile aimed at US territory is logical, but shooting down a missile test aimed at the sea would be considered an act of war by NK. We could adopt a policy to intercept certain types of missiles or those on certain kinds of trajectory. But, we haven’t made that policy choice at this point.

The second possibility is frightening. Since the 1950’s, we have made a huge investment in anti-missile weapons. Today, we have 33 Aegis warships that are designed to hit a mid- or intermediate-range missile like the Hwasong-12. Sixteen of those warships are currently in the Pacific. But, right now we only have eight Japan-based Aegis ships, and two of the eight are out of commission due to the collisions of the Fitzgerald, and the John S. McCain.

But it gets worse. From the NYT: (brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

The allies could do little more than track the [NK] missile Tuesday as it arched over Hokkaido and splashed into the northern Pacific. Analysts said Japan could have tried to shoot it down if its Aegis destroyers, which are armed with SM3 Block I interceptor missiles, happened to be in waters between North Korea and Japan. But because the SM3 is slower than the Hwasong-12, they would have had to make the attempt before the missile passed over the ships.

In order to hit the NK missiles, Aegis destroyers would have to be dangerously close to the NK coast to get a chance to strike an ICBM in the “boost” phase, before it gained altitude. If our ships were that close to NK, they would be vulnerable to North Korean submarines.

And the SM-3 anti-missile interceptors on the Aegis ships have a testing record that includes many failures. Between January 2002 and August 2017, the DOD attempted 37 intercepts of a mid-range missile and hit the target 29 times with an SM-3. On Wednesday, we conducted a successful intercept test using a newer generation SM-6 missile against a medium-range ballistic missile target:

The USS John Paul Jones detected and tracked a target missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii with its onboard AN/SPY-1 radar…

This is the second time an SM-6 missile has intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile target.

Our problem is that, while the Obama administration pushed for a ship-based defense against mid-range NK missiles aimed at Japan or Guam, we now know that we have a better chance of hitting missiles that can’t fly so high. From Defense One:

The highest probability of success is to hit the enemy missile closer to the ground, during the so-called boost phase. That’s what America’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is aiming for in the future.

Decoding all this: If we attempt a shoot-down, and it fails, all of those Aegis ships are worthless, and Russia, China and NK will know it.

We also have the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployed in South Korea. There have been 15 intercepts in 15 tests for the THAAD system, according to the MDA. Now, there is talk of deploying them in Japan. THAADs are currently also deployed in Guam and Hawaii.

Finally, there is the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System (GMD). GMD, like THAAD, is a hit-to-kill system. Unlike THAAD which intercepts missiles during their terminal phase, GMD is aimed at destroying them in midcourse. It is the only system the US has that could be capable of destroying an ICBM launched at the US by NK. There are 40 GMD interceptors deployed in Alaska at Fort Greely, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The GMD has a troubled history, with many failed, or incomplete tests.

The military’s next anti-missile solution won’t even begin testing until 2023.

Until then, every time an NK missile heads toward Japan, Guam, or anywhere else, the president will have to decide whether attempting to shoot it down is worth the costs of probably missing it.

And without a missile defense, our next best alternative is massive nuclear retaliation on the NK homeland.

That’s a ticket for the destruction of South Korea and Japan.

And a likely war with China.

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