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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Fed Study Shows Rising Financial Desperation in Poorer Zip Codes

The Daily Escape:

Aliso Creek State Beach, near Laguna Beach, CA – 2019 photo via

Simon Johnson observes at Project Syndicate: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“To defeat populism requires coming to grips with a fundamental reality: bad economic policies no longer necessarily result in a government losing power. In fact, it is now entirely possible that irresponsible populists may actually strengthen their chances of being re-elected by making wilder and more impossible promises – and by causing more economic damage.”

Johnson, former chief economist for the IMF, believes that structural economic factors, including automation, trade, and the financial crisis have left many people feeling neglected by those who control economic policy.

When politicians back policies that add economic uncertainty, or that discourage investment, we see lower economic growth, and fewer good jobs. Ordinarily, dissatisfaction shows up at the ballot box, holding that government accountable at election time.

But this is no longer reliable, because politicians wiggle out of the trap by saying that the media are biased, that the experts are wrong, and that the facts are not the facts. And the angrier people become, the easier it is to persuade them to accept that no one is to blame, and vote again for those who helped to cause their economic distress in the first place.

A new study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank examined American financial distress by Zip Codes. It sheds light on a topic we regularly debate: Why are there so many signs of distress in a supposedly robust economy? And this time, will politicians be held to account?

Since 2015, the lowest income households have been taking on more debt. Their wealth has become even more concentrated in home ownership. The level of distress in lower-income households has also increased, despite the official story of increasing prosperity.

The study drills into Zip-Code level data to show that even adjacent Zips show striking divergence in wealth accumulation (or erosion). For instance, they looked at the percentage of people within a Zip Code that have reached at least 80%t of their credit limit on their bank-issued credit cards.

That is believed to be a good proxy for financial distress.

Before the 2008 crisis, analysts missed the rising levels of household debt. That debt was often funded by borrowing against home equity. Rapidly falling home prices after 2008 showed how fragile many of those borrowers were.

The contrast between national averages and Zip Code households is stark. Looking at averages, the recovery appears to be quite broad.  But zooming in by Zip Code showed a bifurcated economy still suffering from the 2008 crisis. The researchers found that looking at the value of assets and reliance on debt shows a clearer picture: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“…the poor and high-leverage ZIP codes that are more affected by wealth shocks may still be vulnerable. What’s more, trends in less affluent groups are masked in nationally aggregated statistics by groups with more wealth.”

May be vulnerable”? They will certainly be vulnerable when the next downturn begins.

Since 2015, debt and financial distress have been rising the fastest in these low-wealth areas, while it rose the slowest since 2015 for the wealthiest households. We already see softness in economic indicators like retail sales, home sales and housing construction. It’s reasonable to expect that the next recession isn’t far away.

We’ve had a long economic recovery, but its gains were not distributed as broadly as they had been in previous downturns. What we got was an uneven economic recovery, with most gains going to an increasingly narrow group.

More people are left out of this supposedly robust economy than the politicians and most economists think. The Fed study shows that the averages conceal plenty of pain. Maybe this isn’t an earthshaking idea. We all see income and wealth disparities in our communities, it’s not that unusual. But the fact that the differences are now extreme enough to show up in ZIP Code level data seem significant, and worrying.

So, will politicians pay any price in 2020 for the continuing maldistribution of gains since the 2008 recession? Or, will politicians tell the people that no one’s to blame, that the Laffer curve will surely work this time?

The miracle of modern Republican economic theory allows for both the Laffer curve, and “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” not only to be truths, but to be the desired outcome.

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Monday Wake Up Call – 2019 Memorial Day Edition

The Daily Escape:

Memorial Day, Arlington National Cemetery – 2013 photo by William Coyle

 “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” Mark Twain

Today we celebrate the sacrifice of those who died fighting in America’s wars. We mourn those we knew, and we remember those we never knew.

We can’t seem to get our fill of war. In fact, since 1943, the year of Wrongo’s birth, the US has been at peace for just five years: 1976, and 1977, 1978, 1997 and 2000 are America’s only years with no major war.

So today, we celebrate those who have died in service of our global ambitions. Maybe we watch a parade, shop at the mall, and attend the first cookout of the year. Perhaps we should be required to spend more time thinking about how America can increase the number of years when we are not at war.

But today also brings us something else to think about. The Yale School of Forestry published an article about the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, Fifty Years After, A Daunting Cleanup of Vietnam’s Toxic Legacy. Here is a snippet:

“From 1962 to 1971, the American military sprayed vast areas of Vietnam with Agent Orange, leaving dioxin contamination that has severely affected the health of three generations of Vietnamese. Now, the US and Vietnamese governments have joined together in a massive cleanup project.”

During the US Air Force campaign known as Operation Ranch Hand, Agent Orange was used to strip bare the coastal mangroves of the Mekong Delta and the dense triple-canopy forests that concealed enemy fighters and supply lines. One-sixth of South Vietnam was blanketed with 20 million gallons of herbicides, and as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese civilians were exposed to the spraying.

The three remaining hot spots of dioxin contamination were the US airbases at Da Nang, Bien Hoa, and the smaller air base at Phu Cat. These were the sites from where the spraying was launched. The residual levels of dioxin on those sites posed a serious ongoing threat to public health. Of the three, Bien Hoa was by far the worst. During our war in Vietnam, it was said to be the busiest airport in the world.

Phu Cat was cleaned up by the Vietnamese without US assistance. Next came Da Nang, a six-year project that was completed last October. It cost $110 million, of which $100 million came from the US State Department, channeled through USAID.

The sheer volume of soils and sediments that must be remediated is staggering. In Da Nang, it was 90,000 cubic meters; in Bien Hoa it is 495,300. The US has agreed to commit $300 million to the Bien Hoa cleanup over 10 years, but USAID couldn’t bear the entire cost. So, after much debate, the Department of Defense agreed to contribute half of the total.

This has to be done, since dioxin is a deadly chemical. It is both hydrophobic and lipophilic: it hates water and loves fat. It sinks into the sediment at the bottom of bodies of water, it attaches to organic matter and moves up the food chain, from plankton to small aquatic animals and finally to fish. In soil, it ends up in free-range chickens and ducks and their eggs.

It becomes more concentrated at each stage, a process known as bioaccumulation. Eighty-seven percent of dioxin enters the body through ingestion, before migrating into fatty tissue, the liver, and breast milk. And fish and poultry are staples of the Vietnamese diet.

The WHO stipulates a tolerable maximum of 1 to 4 picograms (one trillionth of a gram) per kilogram of body weight per day. The mean amount they found in breastfed infants in the Bien Hoa area was 80 picograms.

And we shouldn’t forget how haphazardly the VA has dealt with the medical issues of Vietnam Vets who were exposed to Agent Orange. For many years veterans with Agent Orange-related diseases were denied disability compensation by the VA. This only changed with the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991. Now, the VA acknowledges certain cancers and other diseases are caused by Agent Orange.

The Vietnam War ended in 1975. The Vietnam vets that survived the war only to suffer from Agent Orange-related diseases had to wait at least 16 years before our government began helping the majority of them. Vietnam waited 50 years before our government acknowledged our culpability in destroying much of their environment.

This is a sad reminder about today’s Memorial Day, all of our past Memorial Days, and the ones to come.

It is good to be reminded again about our dead soldiers, and also to be reminded of what our government ordered them to do.

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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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Trump is Deregulating Pork Inspections

The Daily Escape

Zhongshuge Bookshop in Chongqing, China. There is a mirrored ceiling that enhances the visual effect of the stairs that might have been inspired by an MC Escher painting.

Under Trump, the executive branch has been policing its own damn self, and that’s working out splendidly! Think Mar-a-Lago’s security. And if Boeing inspecting themselves isn’t bad enough, the Trump administration is outsourcing much of the responsibility for food safety inspections in hog plants to the pork industry.

Trump will cut the number of federal inspectors by about 40%, and will replace them with plant employees. This could make trichinosis great again! From the WaPo (paywalled): (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Under the proposed new inspection system, the responsibility for identifying diseased and contaminated pork would be shared with plant employees, whose training would be at the discretion of plant owners. There would be no limits on slaughter-line speeds.”

This accelerates the Department of Agriculture’s plan to delegate on-site inspections to the livestock industry. It started under Obama, when poultry plant owners were given more power over safety inspections. One difference is that the Obama administration didn’t allow higher line speeds. The Trump administration starting last year, has allowed some poultry plants to increase line speeds.

WaPo says that The Trump administration is working to also shift inspection of beef to plant owners:

 ”Agriculture Department officials are scheduled next month to discuss the proposed changes with the meat industry. “

If you are a Trump fan, these moves are part of his administration’s plans to reduce regulations that large corporations want totally eliminated.

It’s standard-issue Republican Party pandering to their corporate base. And it’s ongoing, despite the administration coming under fire for delegating aircraft safety oversight responsibilities to Boeing, developer of the 737 Max jets that have crashed twice in the past six months. While FAA certification of the two aircraft involved in the crashes took place under President Trump, the major shift toward delegating key aspects of aviation oversight began under GW Bush.

Letting food producers regulate themselves: What could go wrong? That whole Listeria thing is way overblown, and the spinach growers are sure to guarantee that there’s no E Coli contamination in their produce.

Until there is.

Industry self-regulation is really no regulation at all. There’s only one case where private “regulation” has some teeth: FINRA, the not-for-profit that protects America’s investors by making sure the broker-dealer industry operates fairly and honestly. But, that’s the only example Wrongo can think of.

The real irony in this is that one of the key reasons food recalls have gotten so frequent is the cutbacks in inspections that have been going on for some time. It means that every time something IS discovered, they have to pull everything that went out since the last government inspection.

The longer the time between inspections, the more stuff that has to be pulled off the shelves.

You can be sure that if a pork plant contaminates their meat products and hundreds of people are poisoned, the free market will take care of the poor corporation. How? By letting the corporation declare bankruptcy to avoid paying victims and their next of kin. Then, the law allows them to quietly reorganize under a different business name, and sell more pork.

Of course, maybe a Boeing Max Jet will fall out of the sky, and land on one of these self-inspected pork producers.

Thomas Hobbes, in his “Leviathan”, in 1651, described what life would be without government:

“In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Sounds like a Republican paradise!

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Saturday Soother – Great Wall Edition, January 12, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Mutianya Section of the Great Wall, about two hours from Beijing

As we cruise into the weekend, and as Wrongo writes this, Trump has yet to declare a national emergency about the southern border. For some background, Time Magazine reports: (parenthesis by Wrongo)

(Declaring a national emergency)…would be a drastic action, but he (Trump) would hardly be the first American president to take extraordinary steps for what he sees as the interest of the nation.

In fact, not only are national emergencies more common than most Americans probably realize, they can also go on for decades — and whether or not Trump declares an emergency for the wall, the nation is already subject to dozens of emergency declarations that are ongoing today.

To be exact, 31 national emergencies are on the books.

The oldest is the national emergency with respect to Iran, declared Nov. 14, 1979. It’s been in place for more than 39 years. The most recent was declared just last November. It was to block the property of certain persons who contributed to destabilizing Nicaragua. Who knew?

The National Emergencies Act of 1976 in theory, requires the President to spell out the powers from specific laws that make it legal for him to declare a national state of emergency, and requires the House and the Senate to review the declaration every six months to see if it’s still necessary. To end a national emergency, both chambers of Congress have to pass a joint resolution.

The shutdown debate is becoming more about presidential power than it is about secure borders. Trump is willing to press the bet. It remains to be seen if Democrats want to play that game as well.

But, it’s time for the weekend to begin! Here in Connecticut’s northwest hills, the morning temperature is expected to be single digits. So beyond the constant shutdown news, we need serious soothing from the cold weather.

Let’s start by brewing up a cup of Portland OR’s Coava Coffee’s single origin Karuthi AA Kenyan coffee ($15/250 grams). The brewer says that it has a long, resonant finish centered on berry and coconut, supported by ginger blossom and chocolate.

Now take a look outside while staying on a warm perch. Today, we are switching from our usual Baroque music to the blues, which seems appropriate after the week we’ve had. Listen to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Wall of Denial” from his 1989 album, “In Step”.

Sample of Lyrics:

A wall of denial – is fallin’ down
Wo, it’s fallin’ so hard – down to the ground
Never knew something so strong could be washed away by tears
But this wall of denial was just built on fear

This song should play in its entirety, every time Trump mentions “Border Wall“.

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

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Monday Wake Up Call – January 7, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Monastery at Mt. Kachkanar, Ural Mountains, Russia – 2017 photo by Amos Chapple. Built by a Russian Afghanistan war veteran, the monastery sits on land to be mined for its iron deposits. The land is owned by Roman Abramovich, an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“You’ve got to get yourself together,
You’ve got stuck in a moment,
And now you can’t get out of it.
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment,
And you can’t get out of it”
– U2

The Wall is Trump’s moment. He believes he doesn’t have to cave in to Democrats. Democrats face the same moment. They rightly believe that if they cave in, Trump will ride them all the way to the 2020 presidential election. We the people are all stuck in this moment, too.

So, let’s take a moment, and understand the border wall today. The border with Mexico is roughly 1,900 miles long, and spans four states: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The Berlin Wall was 96 miles long, while the Great Wall of China is 13,000 miles long.

The current wall consists of about 700 miles of varied barriers, ranging from 10-foot rusted fencing made from military surplus corrugated metal left over from the Vietnam era, to chain link fencing and vehicle barriers that are no barrier to pedestrian traffic. Most of this needs replacing just to maintain the status quo. Here’s a map of where and what kind of wall we have:

Source: The Center for Investigative Reporting and OpenStreetMap contributors

A total of $1.7 billion was appropriated in FY17 and FY18 for new and replacement barriers and fences. Most of these funds have been designated to the Army Corps of Engineers. Much of that has been awarded to contractors. Only a small percentage (6%) has been paid out.

The following projects account for about half of these funds:

  • Near San Diego to replace 14 miles of 8-10 foot metal wall/fence with 18-30 foot tall bollard wall system for $287 million to begin in July 2019.
  • In the Rio Grande Valley to build 8 miles of 18 foot bollard wall and replace existing levee wall for $167 million to begin in February 2019.
  • In New Mexico to replace 20 miles of fencing with bollard wall for $73 million
  • In Arizona to build/replace 32 miles of “primary pedestrian wall” for $324 million to begin in April 2019.

That’s roughly $850 million for 75 miles of replacement fencing. At that rate, rebuilding the existing “wall” will take $8.5 billion and 10+ years.

The existing border fence cost about $2.4 billion. Building the rest of it could cost between $15 billion and $25 billion, with an annual maintenance cost of $700 million, according to an estimate by Marc Rosenblum, the deputy director of the US Immigration Policy Program at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Trump will be long gone before his big, beautiful wall from sea to sea is built, if ever. It’s possible that migration patterns will change before that were to happen. And however the barrier system eventually turns out, it still has to be manned and maintained to be effective.

The question on the table this week is does Trump need approval from Congress, or can he just declare a national emergency and build away?

The Secure Fence Act  was signed in 2006 by George W. Bush. The majority of the fencing now in was built before he left office. The last remnants were completed after Obama took office in 2009. However, Trump must follow a decades-old border treaty with Mexico that limits where and how structures can be built along the border.

The 1970 treaty requires that structures cannot disrupt the flow of the rivers, which define the US-Mexican border along Texas and 24 miles in Arizona, according to The International Boundary and Water Commission, a joint US-Mexican agency that administers the treaty.

Turning to Trump’s national emergency idea, The National Emergencies Act was created to limit the power of a president to act without restriction in a situation that he deemed to threaten the republic. It limits the funds available for such construction to funds already appropriated for military construction.

The question is whether Trump can truly declare a “National Emergency” over a political fight. If so, can Trump go forward and legislate by Executive Order in a way that Obama was reviled for?

Time to wake up America! We need to look carefully at what limits on presidential power will be supported by Republicans.

After all, they thought Obama acted as a King.

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The Biggest News Story of 2018

The Daily Escape:

Santa Dash, Glasgow Scotland, 2012 photo via Just Run lah

Hope that you had a relaxing Christmas, one that you will remember, and not because you bought a Lexus. Here at the Mansion of Wrong, the party is still underway. Our last guests will be leaving on January 2nd.

In reading the endless lists of the most important news stories of 2018, Wrongo felt that the major news story was Trump’s awesome amount of lying. Back in the dark ages, before GW Bush and Cheney, the idea of a president lying outright to the American people was cause for outrage. The liar’s poll numbers would drop immediately and all of the press would call out the transgression.

Now, when Donald Trump actually lies daily, telling whoppers that are stunning to behold, there is little outrage, and certainly none from the Right. This is exacerbated by the main stream media, many of whom report Trump’s lies as if they’re news stories, often without providing any context that tells the truth of the matter. They have become complicit in Trump’s dishonesty, and we all suffer as a result.

It’s Orwellian: Lies become truth, truth is devalued. We can’t be an informed people when the information we receive is often full of lies and distortions.

This is without question, the biggest story of 2018.

Next column, Wrongo will reprise his 2018 Wrong predictions, looking back on the year that was, scoring his successes and his prognostication failures.

Now, listen to Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss perform “The Wexford Carol”, an ancient Irish carol. The great Canadian violinist, Natalie MacMaster joins them. This is from their 2008 album, “Songs of Joy & Peace”:

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

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The GOP’s History of Non-Accountability

The Daily Escape:

St. Peters Basilica, Rome, Italy – photo via @archpics

(Wrongo and Ms. Right are ensconced in a 1791 colonial home in the middle of nowhere, Massachusetts. The house was a half way point and overnight stop on the Hartford CT to Albany NY stage coach in the early 1800’s. It was a way station on the Underground Railroad in the late 1850’s. Now it is a VRBO rental, mostly used by large family reunions, and our family qualifies.)

Did the Trump campaign ask for help, or were they merely the beneficiaries of Russia’s efforts in the 2016 presidential election? We won’t know for sure unless or until Robert Mueller’s investigation makes it into the public domain. But here in the Berkshires, Wrongo read a column by Dylan Matthews that places the possible Trump wrongdoing in an historical perspective with other GOP stalwarts like Richard Nixon. And not just Watergate, where Gerald Ford pardoned tricky Dicky, but more:

The reason is a culture of elite impunity, where…political leaders face absolutely no accountability for misdeeds….It encompasses many decades during which political officials have evaded accountability for broken laws and illicit foreign contacts, and business and corporate elites have skirted punishment for outright fraud. It’s a problem that, ironically, Trump hammered home in the campaign: that there’s a different set of rules for elites than for normal people. It just happens that Trump knows that because he, for decades now, has been taking advantage of elite impunity.

Matthews makes the point that the Russia scandal reminds us that a presidential candidate has collaborated with a foreign government against the American government before, and gotten away with it:

In the summer of 1968…Republican nominee Richard Nixon and his aides actively sabotaged efforts by Lyndon Johnson’s administration to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. They got away with it, prolonging a war that wound up killing more than a million people in the process.

As Matthews says, this is part of a larger, longstanding and troubling trend of Republican non-accountability:

It wasn’t even two decades later that the next Republican administration conspired with a foreign government…Iran’s. This time, the actions weren’t just horrendously immoral but illegal as well; elongating the Vietnam War was, alas, not a crime, but funding the Contras with Iranian arms deal money was. So was lying to Congress about it. Fourteen members of Reagan’s administration were indicted, and 11 were convicted.

It didn’t end there:

Before leaving office, President George H.W. Bush pardoned six people…all high-ranking policy officials like Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams….National Security Council official Oliver North and National Security Adviser John Poindexter had, at that point, already gotten their convictions tossed out, not because they were innocent but due to a complication resulting from Congress giving them immunity to testify.

Matthews quotes Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel who investigated Iran-Contra:

What set Iran-Contra apart from previous political scandals was the fact that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law from being applied to the perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension.

Many of the Iran-Contra perpetrators remain on the scene in Washington. Poindexter ran George W. Bush’s Information Awareness Office. Elliott Abrams, who had other transgressions under Reagan, when he supported El Salvador’s military dictatorship, worked as a National Security Council official for George W. Bush.

GW Bush had dozens of policymakers who lied about WMD. They systematically violated US law forbidding torture. Consider Abu Ghraib, where low-level soldiers and officers were court-martialed, while the people responsible for the policy, John Yoo and Jay Bybee, got off scott-free.

And Democrats weren’t above non-accountability. Obama didn’t prosecute Bush officials about the Iraq WMD lies. He didn’t prosecute CIA officials who tortured. Obama’s administration didn’t bring charges against Jose Rodriguez, who authorized the destruction of 92 tapes showing the CIA torturing detainees. Gina Haspel, who Rodriguez has said drafted the order to destroy the tapes, and who ran a CIA black site for torture in Thailand, is now the director of the CIA. Obama’s Department of Justice was notoriously lax with Wall Street. Once, Obama’s White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler jokingly asked Deputy AG Lanny Breuer, “How many cases are you dismissing this week?”

Matthews closes:

With that history — with such a clear record that…political officials involved in criminal activity and illicit deals with foreign powers will ever face any consequences — why on earth wouldn’t someone like Trump, a man who lacks any willingness to sacrifice his self-interest in order to do the right thing, work with Russia?

So both parties have contributed to this culture of permitting wrong conduct without consequences.

The possible implications for the Mueller investigation is frightening. At what point will bringing prosecutions be impossible because the GOP office holder will simply yell “partisan witch hunt“, and have one-third of America agree without seeing the evidence?

And will the bad guys simply wait for the next GOP president and get pardoned?

Unless we’re willing to fight that system, many more Republicans will evade accountability in the future.

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Saturday Soother – June 30, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Spice Stall, Istanbul, Turkey – 2013 photo by Wrongo

This week, there was plenty of talk about “Trump Fatigue”. This, from Just Above Sunset is a good example:

The Trump presidency has been exhausting. Maybe that was the idea. It’s one outrageous thing after another. Everything is “big news” – but when everything is big news nothing is. Everyone goes numb. The United States now has concentration camps for children? Canada is now our enemy and North Korea is not? CNN gave up. Every single news story is “Breaking News” there…but everyone else is tired of this. That was the idea. Make America shrug. They won’t know what hit them. They just don’t care. They’ve had enough. They’ll worry about their own lives. Trump will be Trump. Life will go on.

The biggest, baddest, worst-est bad news was the retirement of Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. When the court reconvenes in October, there is likely to be a majority willing at least to gut, if not formally overrule, Roe v. Wade. The hope that the Supreme Court will enforce voting rights is now dead. The Court will not strike down gerrymandering, despite ample evidence that it renders quite a few elections undemocratic. And this week, in supporting Trump’s Muslim Ban, it said it was overturning Korematsu vs. The United States. In fact, it really reaffirmed it, under the guise of overruling it.

We had another mass shooting. This time it’s five journalists dead at the hands of a shotgun-toting man with a grudge against the paper: he lost a defamation suit against it in 2015. So the media presents us with yet another day of video loops from helicopters showing police cars and emergency vehicles lined up, and a ceaseless round of cable TV reporters trying new ways to say they have nothing new to report.

Trump is planning a summit with Vladimir Putin on July 16 in Finland. Maybe it’s his annual performance review, maybe it’s just an effort to get superpower relations on a better track. Hard to know.

We will be getting a new Democratic Congressperson in NY’s 4th district. A 28 year-old first-time candidate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will replace Joe Crowley in the Queens-Bronx district that includes Archie Bunker’s old neighborhood. But the old neighborhood ain’t what it used to be. Today the district is roughly 50% Latino and 25% other minorities. It is unclear if this portends anything for Republican House seats in November.

Wrongo knows that our only hope is voter turnout in November. But, has there been a fair election in this century? Probably not. The media and the Republicans will say that our democratic process continues, but as the NYT reported:

Eight of the tech industry’s most influential companies, in anticipation of a repeat of the Russian meddling that occurred during the 2016 presidential campaign, met with United States intelligence officials last month to discuss preparations for this year’s midterm elections.

The conclusion was that the US government is doing nothing to secure the 2018 vote. Apparently, the Trump administration is hoping for a red wave in November. Combine their hope with SCOTUS’s apparent support of gerrymandering, and we can practically guarantee that our democracy is dying.

And here’s a cartoon that can’t wait until Sunday:

Sorry to be so negative on your Saturday morning. We need to drop this, at least for a little while, and find some way to get a little soothing going. Start by brewing up a vente cup of Laderas del Tapias coffee from Barrington Coffee Roasting Co. in Lee, MA ($21.95/12 oz.), with its chewy fruit flavors of blackberry, plum, and apple. Bostonians can visit their store on Newbury Street.

Head outside to a shady spot. Now, listen to Hugo Alfven’s Swedish Rhapsody No. 1: “Midsommarvaka” (midsummer vigil), written in 1903.  It is performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Petri Sakari. The section from ~5:45 to ~9:00 is particularly beautiful:

Percy Faith had a US Top 30 hit with a selection from it in 1953, so it may sound familiar to older readers.

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

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Monday Wake Up Call – June 11, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Interior, Cuba’s Capitol Building, Havana – 2018 photo by Conor Morrissey

Two things to address on Monday. Take a look inside the program that separates the families of asylum seekers. The WaPo reports that:

A Honduran father separated from his wife and child suffered a breakdown at a Texas jail and killed himself in a padded cell last month, according to Border Patrol agents and an incident report filed by sheriff’s deputies.

The death of 39 year-old Marco Antonio Muñoz, had not been publicly disclosed by the DHS, and did not appear in any local news accounts. Muñoz was found on the floor of his cell May 13 in a pool of blood with an item of clothing twisted around his neck:

According to Border Patrol agents…Muñoz crossed the Rio Grande with his wife and three-year-old son on May 12 near the tiny town of Granjeno, Texas. The area is a popular crossing point for Central American families and teenagers who turn themselves in to apply for asylum in the United States.

Soon after Muñoz and his family were taken into custody, they arrived at a processing station in nearby McAllen and said they wanted to apply for asylum. Border Patrol agents told the family they would be separated. That’s when Muñoz “lost it,” according to one agent…

Unruly detainees are taken to local jails where they can be placed in more secure settings or isolation cells. Border Patrol agents found a vacant cell for Muñoz 40 miles away at the Starr County Jail in Rio Grande City. Muñoz was booked into the jail at 9:40 pm. He remained combative, and was placed in a padded isolation cell. Guards said they checked on Muñoz every 30 minutes, and observed him praying in a corner of his cell the following morning.

A guard who walked by the cell at 9:50 am said he noticed Muñoz laying in the center of the floor, unresponsive and without a pulse. Local sheriff’s deputies recorded the incident as a “suicide in custody.” But the capper is this remark by an ICE agent: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Another agent familiar with what happened said he couldn’t understand why Muñoz “would choose to separate himself from his family forever” by taking his own life.

This asshole’s salary is paid by you and me! It’s time we see these agents for who they really are.

Second, last week the DOJ filed a brief urging a Texas court to invalidate the Affordable Care Act’s crucial insurance reforms, including the prohibition on refusing to cover people with preexisting conditions. In their complaint, states (including Texas and other red states) point out that since Congress has repealed the penalty for going without insurance, the freestanding requirement to get insurance, which is still on the books, is therefore unconstitutional. And because it’s unconstitutional, the courts must invalidate the entire ACA. From the Incidental Economist:

There’s a strong argument to be made in the ACA’s defense. And the Justice Department has had a durable, longstanding, bipartisan commitment to defending the law when non-frivolous arguments can be made in its defense.

If the Justice Department can just throw in the towel whenever a law is challenged in court, it can effectively pick and choose which laws should remain on the books. That’s a flagrant violation of the President’s constitutional duty to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. More:

The President has a duty to take care that all the laws are executed, not just the ones he likes. And while there are cases in which the Justice Department has deviated from that principle, they are extremely rare.

The Trump administration has just announced that it doesn’t care that a law was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. All that matters is that it hates the law and has a (weak) argument for casting it aside.

Time to wake up America! There is a revolution underway, and we’re being fed the elephant of authoritarianism one little slice at a time. This time, the revolution is televised every day, but we’re not connecting the dots quickly enough.

To help America wake up, here is Iris DeMent with “Living in the Wasteland of the Free”, from her 1996 album, “The Way I Should”:

This song is 22 years old, but still rings true. Iris says: “The poor have now become the enemy” and “Let’s blame our troubles on the weak ones“.

Today, both are true, and are simply sickening.

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

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