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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Trump’s Termites

The Daily Escape:

Missouri Breaks, MT – photo (via)

US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that there would be no change for the Missouri Breaks National Monument. Zinke is from Montana, so saving one for his peeps isn’t a big surprise.

Missouri Breaks is one of 27 monuments established during the previous 20 years by presidents using the Antiquities Act. The Antiquities Act allows presidents to set aside objects of historic or scientific interest to prevent their destruction. The law was created in 1906 to guard against looting of sacred American Indian sites.

In April, Trump ordered the Department of the Interior to review the status of every national monument designated since 1996. As a result of the review, these cultural and/or natural treasures could be significantly reduced in size or even eliminated, and the Antiquities Act itself could be severely limited. The land would remain owned by the federal government, but might lose its protected status, and be contracted to private enterprises. When you allow corporations to ‘lease’ land for oil, fracking, mining, ranching, etc. fences go up, private police forces are hired to keep people out for their ‘safety’.

Not everyone agrees that Trump has the authority to do what he wants. From the Washington Times:

If President Donald Trump or any successor desires the authority to revoke national monument designations, they should urge Congress to amend the Antiquities Act accordingly. They should not torture the plain language of the Act to advance a political agenda at the expense of regular constitutional order.

The LA Times disagrees:

Indeed, those who claim that the Antiquities Act does not grant a reversal power cannot find a single case in another area of federal law that supports that contention. To override the norm, legislators have to clearly limit reversal powers in the original law; the plain text of the Antiquities Act includes no such limits.

Who knows? Next, Der Donald will lease the Grand Canyon to China for use as a landfill.

But the bigger picture is that behind the smoke and mirrors of Trump’s pathological lying and the media’s obsession with Russia, his cabinet appointees are working like industrious termites, eating away much of the support beams of our nation’s rules-based edifice.

Consider Attorney General Jeff Sessions. From the New Yorker: (brackets and editing by the Wrongologist)

He [Sessions] has reversed the Obama Administration’s commitment to voting rights…He has changed an Obama-era directive to federal prosecutors to seek reasonable, as opposed to maximum, prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders…he has revived a discredited approach to civil forfeiture, which subjects innocent people to the loss of their property. He has also backed away from the effort…to rein in and reform police departments, like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, that have discriminated against African-Americans.

Although candidate Trump promised to protect LGBT rights, President Trump last week vowed to remove transgender service members from the armed forces, and Sessions…took the position in court that Title VII, the nation’s premier anti-discrimination law, does not protect gay people from bias. Most of all, Sessions has embraced the issue that first brought him and Trump together: the crackdown on immigration…

All across the government, Trump appointees are busy chewing through the existing regulatory edifice, ending not just Obama-era rules, but others that have been in place for decades.

Another truly damning thing is Trump’s surrogates’ efforts to undermine foreign policy. The WaPo reports:

Trump signed off on Iran’s compliance with profound reluctance, and he has since signaled that when Iran’s certification comes up again — as it will every 90 days, per a mandate from Congress — he intends to declare Iran not in compliance, possibly even if there is evidence to the contrary.

According to the New York Times: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

American officials have already told allies they should be prepared to join in reopening negotiations with Iran or expect that the US may [unilaterally] abandon the agreement, as it did the Paris climate accord.

It is difficult to see how this ends well for the US. Imagine, Iran and North Korea both pursuing nuclear weapons to deploy against the US. Why would we want to engage on two fronts, when one (North Korea) is already so problematic?

What is the Trump agenda? Are there any articulated goals? What are the strategies to achieve them?

Have we heard a concrete proposal for any of his big ideas (health care, tax reform, or infrastructure)?

We have not, but his termites keep chewing, and soon, our whole building will be compromised.

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IMF Reports US Standard of Living is Falling

The Daily Escape:

Haleakala Crater, Maui

Is it the best of times or the worst of times? This is no longer a partisan discussion. We have an economy in the midst of a long expansion, the third longest since 1850. The statistics say we are close to full employment. But, our mortality rate is moving in the wrong direction, and we have an opioid epidemic that is serious enough to cause jobs to go unfilled. The NYT reports that in Youngstown Ohio, middle class factory jobs go begging:

It’s not that local workers lack the skills for these positions, many of which do not even require a high school diploma but pay $15 to $25 an hour and offer full benefits. Rather, the problem is that too many applicants — nearly half, in some cases — fail a drug test.

The Fed’s regular Beige Book surveys of economic activity across the country in April, May and July all noted the inability of employers to find workers able to pass drug screenings.

So the best of times? Probably not. Bloomberg reports that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) looked at the US economy. This is what they see:

For some time now there has been a general sense that household incomes are stagnating for a large share of the population, job opportunities are deteriorating, prospects for upward mobility are waning, and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy. This sense is generally borne out by economic data and when comparing the US with other advanced economies.

The IMF then goes on to compare the US with 23 other advanced economies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in this chart:

The chart is a bit of an eye test unless it’s viewed on a big monitor, but its overall point is that the US has been losing ground relative to its past OECD reports by several measures of living standards. 35 countries make up the OECD. The members include all of Western Europe, Russia, Japan, Australia, and several developing nations like Korea and Panama.

This from Bloomberg:

And in the areas where the US hasn’t lost ground (poverty rates, high school graduation rates), it was at or near the bottom of the heap to begin with. The clear message is that the US — the richest nation on Earth, as is frequently proclaimed, although it’s actually not the richest per capita — is increasingly becoming the developed world’s poor relation as far as the actual living standards of most of its population go.

This analysis is contained in the staff report of the IMF’s annual “consultation” with the U.S., which was published last week. The IMF economists haven’t turned up anything shocking or new, it’s just that as outsiders, they have a different perspective than what we hear from our politicians and economists.

For example:

Income polarization is suppressing consumption…weighing on labor supply and reducing the ability of households to adapt to shocks. High levels of poverty are creating disparities in the education system, hampering human capital formation and eating into future productivity.

What is to be done? Well, the IMF report concludes:

Reforms should include building a more efficient tax system; establishing a more effective regulatory system; raising infrastructure spending; improving education and developing skills; strengthening healthcare coverage while containing costs; offering family-friendly benefits; maintaining a free, fair, and mutually beneficial trade and investment regime; and reforming the immigration and welfare systems.

In other words, they suggest substantial reform. It’s doubtful that America can take care of these things anytime soon.

The subtext to most of their suggestions is that other affluent countries have found ways to improve in these areas, while the US has not. We don’t have to look too far into the past to see when those countries were modeling their economies on ours. But today, on all sorts of issues, like taxation, labor markets, health care, and education, the opposite is now true.

One major difference between the US and the rest of the developed world is ideological: Voters and politicians in the US are less willing to raise taxes to finance a better life for our citizens.

Other wealthy countries have figured out how to raise revenue, provide quality education, help the the unemployed, reduce poverty, and keep their citizens healthier than America has.

We must catch up, or admit our time as the world’s indispensable economy is over.

Today’s music (dis)honors the turmoil in the White House. See ‘ya Mooch! Remember that in just six months, Trump has gone through two National Security Advisers, two Chiefs of Staff, two Communications Directors, two Press Secretaries, and two Directors of the FBI.

Here is “Disorder in the House” by the late Warren Zevon and Bruce Springsteen:

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

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – July 30, 2017

Boy Scouts, Priebus out, Mooch in power, Sessions on the ropes, GOP fumbles Repeal and Replace. Hard for the White House to have had a worse week than we just saw. Let’s hope it gets better. The worst thing this week was how the supposedly non-political boy scouts cheered or booed just when Trump wanted.

Whatever did the Donald say to the Boy Scouts?

Spicer and Priebus are out. Who’s next through the revolving door?

The foul-mouthed Scaramucci is the new Trump front man:

GOP is on to their next idea:

Expect the GOP and McConnell to be back at what they do best very soon:

Trump decides to ban Trans GIs:

 

Trump’s best deal:

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Saturday Soother – July 29, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Old Harry Rocks, Dorset England – drone photo by Ryan Howell

Wrongo has, like so many others, spent the last eight months in disbelief. Every day, more stupid tweets, more stupid legislation proposed, more threats to the American people.

He went to bed last night expecting to wake up this morning to the GOP celebrating the thinnest of wins, another blow to our health insurance. But, there was a small victory in the dead of night. Now we gear up for the next battle. The Republicans are not defeated, and cannot give up on what they promised their base for the past seven years, so we should expect to see another attempt on this soon.

A great letter to the editor in the NYT accurately captures GOP dysfunction: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Republican attempts to overturn the Affordable Care Act by flinging irresponsible alternatives that would wreak havoc with the health of millions of citizens have set a new low in legislative responsibility.

The outcome of many of these votes was a foregone conclusion. That the Republican leaders are comfortable putting on a show rather than seriously addressing the problems of access to and cost of health care is an embarrassment.

Their actions are not worthy of the salaries that they are paid.

In the past six months, we’ve come to expect the bizarre from Trump and his GOP Trumpets.

This week was no exception. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke threatened both Alaska Senators with withholding of federal funds for their state because Sen. Lisa Murkowski planned to vote against the Republican health care bill. These Sopranos-like threats happen all the time in DC. Murkowski gets extra credit for telling Trump to go to hell by putting a few of his nominees on hold before voting against the GOP bill.

But, the strangest of strange this week was Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts: Trump crowed about his election victory, attacked the news media and criticized Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama. Now, the Scouts are non-political, and few of them are old enough to vote. The speech resulted in the Scouts’ sending a letter of apology to the American people.

Then there was Trump’s new hired gun, Scaramucci, who said to the New Yorker:

I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.

In less than a year we’ve gone from “Grab ‘em in the pussy” to “I’m not trying to suck my own cock.”

It’s demeaning. Wrongo is not offended by the language. He has heard, and in the remote past used those words, if not in that precise order. But Wrongo doesn’t work in the White House. Trump and his team represent all of us, and we deserve better.

It’s Saturday, and you expect better, too. Time to brush off the trail dust, let go of the shenanigans and vote to repeal and replace this entire week. Here is Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1 and No. 2”. He wrote them between 1888 and 1891. Debussy said of these arabesques:

That was the age of the ‘wonderful arabesque’, when music was subject to the laws of beauty inscribed in the movements of Nature herself.

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

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – July 23, 2017

How did we get here? Trump can’t stop tweeting, and we can’t stop reacting. Trump met with the New York Times, and the results as reported, leave you thinking: “is this guy a 15 year-old?” Then on Saturday morning before 7am, he engages in a tweet storm, saying among other things,

So many people are asking why isn’t the A.G. or Special Council looking at the many Hillary Clinton or Comey crimes. 33,000 e-mails deleted?

Or, this one:

My son Donald openly gave his e-mails to the media & authorities whereas Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted (& acid washed) her 33,000 e-mails!

He’s referring to software called “BleachBit“. Why does he keep on referring to it as “acid washing”? Bleach is an alkaline, not an acid. Trump must have slept through high school chemistry.

And how does somebody make it through elementary school without learning that the best outcome you can expect with “Hillary did it, too!” is for Hillary to join you in detention?

Aren’t private schools supposed to be better at teaching that actions have consequences?

Anyway, on to cartoons. Trump and OJ may have something in common:

Trump is wrong about what he owns as President:

The GOP is still chasing the coyote:

What Repeal without replace really means:

John McCain’s cancer pauses the hair pulling:

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – July 16, 2017

Trump just returned from France. French President Macron apparently became the “Trump Whisperer” while escorting His Orangeness around Paris, because nothing terrible happened. Trump returned to the incessant talk about who attended Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russians, what was discussed, and what Trump Sr. knew about it all. OTOH, Mitch McConnell tried to breathe new life into the GOP Health Insurance Plan.

Replacing Obamacare still is looking mean:

 

One insurance option that never made it into the bill:

Putin said he would help Donny find the hackers:

People talk about the uncanny resemblance between Sr. and Jr.:

Baseball’s All-Star break gave the GOP an idea:

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Today’s Conservatives’ Southern Roots

The Daily Escape:

Vasconcelos Library – Mexico City

From The Atlantic’s Sam Tannenhaus:

…the most populous region in America, by far, is the South. Nearly four in 10 Americans live there, roughly 122 million people, by the latest official estimate. And the number is climbing. For that reason alone, the South deserves more attention than it seems to be getting in political discussion today.

Ain’t demographics great? Tannenhaus continues:

The South is the cradle of modern conservatism. This, too, may come as a surprise, so entrenched is the origin myth of the far-westerners Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan as leaders of a Sun Belt realignment and forerunners of today’s polarizing GOP. But each of those politicians had his own “southern strategy,” playing to white backlash against the civil-rights revolution—“hunting where the ducks are,” as Goldwater explained—though it was encrypted in the states’-rights ideology that has been vital to southern politics since the days of John C. Calhoun.

Tannenhaus is reviewing Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, and using it as a jumping off point to explore the roots of modern conservatism. Why does all this matter today? Donald Trump.

Tannenhaus points out that Trump won the South bigly:

Lost amid the many 2016 postmortems, and the careful parsing of returns in Ohio swing counties, was Donald Trump’s prodigious conquest of the South: 60% or more of the vote in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia, with similar margins in Louisiana and Mississippi.

And we need to look at Trump’s Cabinet: 10 Cabinet appointees are from the South, including Attorney General Sessions (Alabama) and Secretary of State Tillerson (Texas).

MacLean’s view is that modern conservatives draw on Southern resistance to 1954’s Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. After the New Deal, conservatives pushed back hard against the expanding federal government. Tannenhaus says:

But it was an uphill battle; the public was grateful for Social Security. Brown changed all that. More than the economic order was now under siege…A new postwar conservatism was born, mingling states’-rights doctrine with odes to the freedom-loving individual and resistance to the “social engineering” pursued by what conservative writers in the mid-1950s began to call the “liberal establishment.”

MacLean focuses on James Buchanan, a Virginian, and a Nobel Prize-winning economist, who argued that the crux of the desegregation problem was that “state-run” schools had become a “monopoly”.

Buchanan argued for privatization of schools. If local towns and cities limited their involvement in education to setting minimum standards, then many kinds of schools might flourish. Each parent “would cast his vote in the marketplace and have it count.”

Sounds like Betsy DeVos.

But, Buchanan wasn’t done. In his book “The Calculus of Consent” (1962), he argued that politicians were looking out for themselves, and they could do real damage that citizens were unable to avoid. The high-priced programs they devised were paid for by taxes, and citizens had little choice but to pay them. Reinforced by the steep progressive tax rates of the time, he called it licensed theft. Not long after Buchanan’s book, Medicare was passed, then the War on Poverty, and then the Great Society— each another example of social engineering delivered by the liberal establishment.

Buchanan’s ideas live on today. The right believes that liberal values cost us our liberty.

Today’s Freedom Caucus is Buchanan’s ideological descendant. They believe they are the guardians of liberty, that drastic measures, like shutting down the government, or defaulting on the national debt are legitimate uses of political power that serves their higher objective. More from Tannenhaus:

This is what drives House Republicans to scale back social programs, or to shift the tax burden from the 1% onto the parasitic mob, or to come up with a health-care plan that would leave Trump’s own voters out in the cold.

Conservatives and Libertarians say that “government is trampling our way of life”. That sets people against government programs, even when the specific program doesn’t need to be attacked. Consider Medicaid. It is attacked as both social engineering and a gift to minorities, even though the majority of those benefiting from it are elderly or white.

Conservatives and Libertarians prefer “individual choice” for poor elderly, or children who can’t afford healthcare. A broadly-based social safety net isn’t consistent with their ideological purity.

They fail to see the value of government as a moderating force in markets.

Accordingly, their thinking cannot advance human society in any meaningful way.

Today’s tune: “Revolution” by The Beatles recorded in September 1968. It was released as the B-side of the “Hey Jude” single in late August 1968, and we hear the live studio version from a month later:

Takeaway Lyric:

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead

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

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – July 9, 2017

Pundits were all over the tube and Twitter after the meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Hamburg Germany. They were yelling into the echo chamber, speaking about handshakes, the body language of the principals, and what the deeper meaning of each told us about the meeting.

What did it mean that Trump didn’t body-slam Putin about Crimea or US election meddling? What did it mean when they spoke for two and a quarter hours when the meeting was scheduled for 30 minutes?

Wrongo is glad that these two world leaders took the time, and then some, to talk to each other. He hopes they do so regularly. The world isn’t a better place when they are not talking, despite what pundits or politicians say.

On to cartoons. Trump is unaware of the irony in what he sometimes says:

The GOP is still searching for a health care bill that they can pass:

Hobby Lobby proves their true values aren’t truly Christian:

The Donny/Vlad meeting included chemistry:

The Donny/Vlad meeting included really tough talk:

 

 

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – July 2, 2017

Governments last only as long as the undertaxed can defend themselves against the overtaxed.” Bernard Berenson

(There is an extra ration of cartoons today. Wrongo is taking a few days to celebrate the hot dogs and potato salad he found in the fridge. Posts will resume on July 5th.)

If this week shows how well we are playing defense, we are all screwed. The party of personal responsibility always blames their opponents when things go wrong. The party of fiscal responsibility will blow up the budget whenever they get in power.

And the party of family values is merrily slashing away at programs that support families:

When it comes to health insurance, the GOP has all the right viewpoints:

Trump revealed his true self with the “Morning Joe” tweets:

The Court-tested, Judges approved Muslim ban is now in effect:

Trump (or his lackeys) made fake Time Magazine covers featuring the Donald:

Trump’s Press Team orders no cameras at most press conferences. So on to Virtual News:

Trump Election Commission asks states for each voter’s personal data, like party affiliation and social security number. What could go wrong?

Why the Fourth of July?

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Saturday Soother – July 1, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Matsumoto Castle, Japan – photo by Aaron Bedell

Wow! Trump outdoes himself with his Twitter attack on America’s sweethearts, Joe and Mika.

But today, let’s focus on Medicaid, and the possibility that it will be phased out by Mitch McConnell and his Republican Senate colleague’s effort to save America by giving more tax cuts to the rich.

Amy Davidson at the New Yorker wrote about “The Senate’s Disastrous Health Care Bill” in the July 3rd issue: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Medicaid, for example, covers seventy-four million low-income Americans—a fifth of the population. There is no simple picture of this group; according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, thirty-four million are children, eleven million are disabled, and seven million are elderly, a large number of whom live in nursing facilities. Many of those people led middle-class or even affluent lives, until their savings were consumed by the cost of residential care, which, in large part, is not covered by Medicare; nearly two-thirds of nursing-home patients are, at some point, on Medicaid.

One of Obamacare’s innovations was to expand Medicaid eligibility to include people slightly above the poverty level. The federal government now pays the states a percentage of what it costs them to care for eligible residents: if a state spends more, it gets more, within certain parameters. Both Republican plans would radically restructure the program, giving states limited sums. The states would then have to use their own money to make up for the shortfall—or they could choose to spend even less. This change would place particularly devastating financial pressures on the elderly, at a time when the population is aging.

We’ll see whether the GOP is successful in gutting Medicaid after the July 4th break. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo made a great point about how Republican goals for health care were not what they campaigned on, while talking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer:

When you try three times to ‘repeal and replace’ and each time you come up with something that takes away coverage from almost everyone who got it under Obamacare, that’s not an accident or a goof. That is what you’re trying to do. ‘Repeal and replace’ was a slogan that made up for simple ‘repeal’ not being acceptable to a lot of people. But in reality, it’s still repeal. Claw back the taxes, claw back the coverage.

It is detestable to spin their dismantling of Medicaid as “reform”. It is even more detestable to say that with Repeal and Replace, people will have better health insurance.

So, we need to relax and try to forget all about this for a few days. Wrongo’s suggestion is that you grab a cup of Kick Ass coffee, settle in a comfortable chair where you can look out a window, and listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending”.

Today’s soother was suggested by blog reader Shelley VK. We have it performed by violin soloist, Janine Jansen with Barry Wordsworth conducting the BBC Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in 2003. Jansen is playing a 1727 Stradivari “Barrere” violin:

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

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