Yellen Says Higher Interest Rates Are OK

The Daily Escape:

La Jolla, CA – photo by Russ Harris photography

Janet Yellen made news for a second time, announcing on Sunday, in an interview with Bloomberg, that higher interest rates would be a “plus” for America. She probably has a fairly good idea of how the Federal Reserve is thinking, since she was its Chair prior to becoming Treasury Secretary.

The issue in her interview was whether inflation would continue growing if Biden’s infrastructure bill is passed, and we spend an additional $4 trillion over the next 10 years. Yellen said that it wouldn’t create enough inflation to cause economic concern. She said that the current spurt in prices powered in part by the Covid stimulus, is just temporary, and would fade next year.

But Yellen also said that if current price increases turned out not to be temporary, and it triggered more persistent inflation, the concomitant higher interest rates wouldn’t be a bad thing:

“We’ve been fighting inflation that’s too low and interest rates that are too low now for a decade….We want them to go back to a normal interest rate environment, and if this helps a little bit to alleviate things then that’s not a bad thing – that’s a good thing.”

Current Fed Chair Jerome Powell must surely see this as political cover for any near-term rate hikes, but opinions differ today on whether we’re in for a new run of inflation. We have some data that’s worrisome. Economic theory explains why we probably should be worried. And yet, we have plausible-sounding explanations as to why things are actually okay.

The younger generations may have trouble believing how dark things seemed in 1979 when President Carter appointed Paul Volcker Fed chairman. Some of us remember inflation that hit 14% in 1980. Unemployment trended up to 9.7% in 1982. Oil prices had jumped off the charts.

Volcker took dramatic steps to rein in the runaway inflation by tightening the money supply, which drove the Prime Rate to 21%. His actions led to not one, but two recessions before prices finally stabilized.

Nobody wants to see that type of inflation recur now, but low interest rates have increased wealth inequality in the US. Soaring stock and housing prices are a direct consequence of interest rates that remain reliably low. When this happens, people can borrow money for less than they can make by investing, and newly printed dollars that continue to pour into the markets ensure that prices will continue to rise.

And this low-rate scenario benefits those who already have lots of stock and real estate.

How could Elon Musk make $142 billion in 2020 when total revenues (not profits) at Tesla and SpaceX were less than half that number? Share prices in both companies rose with demand from investors with too much cash in their pockets. The growth in Musk’s fortune is based on the inflated share prices of both firms.

Yellen’s underlying message is that if the Fed maintains its low interest rate policy, more cheap money will flow into the pockets of people who really don’t need it. She’s correct when she says rates have been too low for a decade. It’s created an asset bubble, particularly in stocks and real estate. Today’s prices are no longer grounded in reality.

As for how to unwind the bubble? Good luck: Very few people will be happy if the stock market drops, or if the value of their home drops, say, just before retirement.

And like all things, inflation is political. House Republicans are working to undermine Biden’s economic agenda by zeroing in on voters’ latent fear of inflation. They are circulating a memo with the subject line: “Tie Biden Agenda to Inflation.” It tells members to “explain to voters how inflation is Democrats’ hidden tax on the Middle Class.”

The GOP is attempting to stir up fear of an impending economic downturn just as businesses are beginning to reopen after a year of being impeded by Coronavirus restrictions. They’re also saying that taxpayer dollars being put toward Covid relief and unemployment benefits will tank the economy.

The GOP is also using a WaPo op-ed by Larry Summers. Summers was Clinton’s Treasury secretary, and he was a former director of the National Economic Council for Obama. The article warns of the risk of sharply rising inflation expectations.

Ultimately, we’ll see if the inflation scare-mongering by Larry Summers is real.

What should we believe about inflation and interest rates? It doesn’t matter what we believe. What matters is what the market thinks. And if the market suddenly stops believing the explanation as to why these inflationary pressures are temporary, we’ll see rates rise bigly.

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The Disconcerting Truth About the Big Lie, Part II

The Daily Escape:

Bodie Island Lighthouse, Outer Banks,  NC – 2021 photo by Greg Kiser

We’ve talked about the Big Lie but in truth, there’s more than one. The Reuters-Ipsos poll released last Friday found that 54% of Republican adults surveyed agreed with this statement:

“…the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol was led by violent left-wing protestors trying to make Trump look bad.”

Only 30% of GOP respondents said they disagreed. Another 16% said they were unsure.

This is another Big Lie, like the one that Democrats stole the election from Trump. But Republicans remain believers in both. They think, as George Costanza said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

To help distance Trump and Congressional Republicans from the riot, GOP members of Congress began blaming the Capitol insurrection on Antifa, decentralized leftist activists with no national organization, who became a focus of Republicans during the 2020 riots surrounding George Floyd’s killing.

The reason why Republicans do not want an independent commission to investigate Jan. 6 is because many of the individuals who have already been arrested for their role in the riot explicitly said they believed that Trump had invited them to Washington to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Let’s set the record straight. Since the Capitol riot, 494 people have been arrested and charged with crimes. The vast majority of those arrested have ties to the Republican Party, not to Antifa or to Democrats. Why would anyone think that Democrats would attack the Capitol, trying to prevent their own candidate from being certified as president?

Congressional Republicans would have you believe that someone else decided to try overthrowing the government to make Trump look bad while Trump happened to be down the street telling his people to well, overthrow the government. Not credible.

This is the largest attack on our country since 9/11. And it came from within, not from foreign terrorists. Potentially, it was also more damaging. From Matt Sheffield at Flux:

“Following the 9/11 attacks, the main question on all Americans’ minds was who was responsible. Once it was determined to be al-Qaeda, the second question that demanded an answer was how U.S. intelligence agencies had failed to anticipate such a large-scale violent act. Shortly thereafter, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly approved the establishment of an official commission to investigate. In the House of Representatives, the bill containing the authorization passed overwhelmingly, 366 to 3.”

Contrast that with today when few, if any, Republicans will vote to investigate the riot.

Once again, as we said yesterday, if a majority of Republican voters continue to believe the Big Lie(s), it raises serious questions about the future of American democracy, including whether it’s possible to have a shared politics when a large percentage of citizens believe things are true that are easily proven to be untrue.

Democrats most likely will lose the Jan. 6 commission vote since there may not be 10 Republican Senators who’ll vote to bring the House-passed bill to a vote in the Senate. At this point, the Dems are more likely to have a big political hammer to hit Republicans with, than a commission to determine what really happened on that day.

In a last-ditch effort, the two Democrats who oppose changing the Senate’s filibuster rules begged Republicans on Tuesday to support the bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot. In a joint statement, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) called the creation of a commission “critical” to prevent such an attack from occurring again:

“We implore our Senate Republican colleagues to work with us to find a path forward on a commission to examine the events of January 6th,”

If Manchin and Sinema are prepared to nuke the filibuster over this, Wrongo’s all for it. The commission and the voting rights bills hit directly at the GOP’s plans to weaken the electoral process and destroy our democracy. The Big Lie is the organizing principle of the Republican Party now. If this initiative by Manchin and Sinema fails, then perhaps the most effective way to save democracy is to continually tell the people the truth about January 6. Repeatedly using the subpoena power of the US House to investigate and provide the truth in the face of these Big Lies may be the only way forward.

And it may seem to be a fruitless task, but it’s worth the effort.

The Republican leadership must be made to confront their obvious lies. Because as George Orwell said:

“The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

And we can’t allow that to happen.

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Saturday Soother, Mondale Edition – April 24, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Flying Saucer plants at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson AZ – April 19, 2021 photo via Visit Tucson

This is a long post by Joe Trippi about Walter “Fritz” Mondale. Mondale died last Monday. You should read to the end.

Trippi is a Democratic political operative who managed the 2004 Howard Dean presidential campaign. Recently, he was a senior advisor to Doug Jones’s successful Senate run in 2017.

Trippi cut his political teeth in Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1979. By 1983, he was 27, and working for Walter Mondale’s unsuccessful 1984 presidential run. After Mondale’s death this week, Trippi published this twitter thread with a picture of a boxing glove, and a personal story about the kind of man Mondale was. First, the boxing glove:

“1/ The story of these gloves will tell you the kind of man Fritz Mondale was and why he meant so much to me. Please take the time to read this thread – and wait for it. It’s worth it.

2/ In December 1983, I was in my 20’s and running Iowa for Fritz.
At the end of every campaign swing through Iowa – Fritz would almost always end the trip the same way….

3/ After loading the campaign plane…with traveling staff and a huge press corps that were assigned to a front-running campaign back then….

4/ Fritz would come down the steps of the plane and take me on a stroll around the tarmac 2 or 3 times before rebounding the plane to…some other state. The conversation always ended the same way…

5/ Fritz explaining that he could not lose Iowa and that he was counting on “The Hogs” (the name Mondale Iowa campaign staff proudly called ourselves) to do everything we could to make sure he won a must win state. “Don’t let up. Keep fighting” and back on the plane he went…

6/ But we also talked about all kinds of things before we got to the “no pressure, just don’t blow it” part. One day as we walked around the plane – we got to talking about my family. Fritz asked a dreaded question about my father….

7/ I explained to Fritz that my father had stopped talking to me 5 years earlier, when I left college to join the Kennedy campaign in 1979. My dad was old school Italian — I was supposed to take over his flower shop — not go to college, or run off to become a political hack…

8/ Fritz asked a few more questions and then joked with me that my dad was wrong about a lot of things but maybe I should have listened to him about going to work for Kennedy. I was one of only a handful of Kennedy operatives hired in the Mondale campaign…

9/ I was lucky to have worked for them both. But at the time there was still a lot of bad blood – luckily, Fritz was joking. And I was relieved when he got to the – “win Iowa” part…

10/ About a month Later, we won Iowa with 49% of the vote and with Gary Hart taking a distant 2nd, But that was enough to get Hart the media spotlight and the momentum he needed to win New Hampshire and the Hart rocket was roaring….

11/ After a string of loses to Hart, “fighting Fritz” emerged as the narrative of the campaign. Mondale would walk on to the stage at rally after rally and thrust these gloves in the air and speak from the heart about who he was fighting for…

12/ I remember traveling with him to a meat packing plant & Fritz bellowing ‘Show me your hands!” My jaw dropped as plant worker after worker thrust a hand in the air with fingers missing lost on the job. I had no idea, but Fritz did. And that’s who he was fighting for…

13/And so the campaign put out the word to the press that Fritz would carry those gloves and carry on the fight til he broke the string of losses to Hart. Time and delegates were running out on us and the delegate rich Pennsylvania primary was looming as critical to our cause…

14/ If I had nightmares about losing Iowa (and I did) they were nowhere near those I had in Pennsylvania. I was sent in as state director of Pennsylvania in March when we were down by 14 points. The Pennsylvania Primary would be held in April – months after winning Iowa…

15/ And so for a month – Fritz and I did the tarmac walk thing again. No Pressure but fighting Fritz needs you and all the staff to “not let up, remember who we are fighting for”…

16/ It was a comeback win of all comeback wins I have ever been part of — only Doug Jones win in 2017 compares to it. But Fritz won Pennsylvania – and with it regained the momentum to move towards being the Democratic nominee….

17/ After the polls closed and the networks called Pennsylvania for Fritz. I got a call in the boiler room. David Lillehaug, then the aide that traveled with Fritz (and would later serve as an Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court) was on the line…

18/ “Joe, Fritz wants to see you before he goes down to the ballroom to make his victory speech, get up here quick”. I rushed to the elevator and up to Fritz’s hotel suite…

19/ when I walked through the door there was Fritz Mondale, sitting down and explaining to an old Italian guy that his son was “in an honorable profession. Fighting for people who were down and hurting — he’s making a difference – I count on him and you need to know that ”….

20/ Fritz Mondale had remembered a story I had told him months and months ago — eons in the life of a Presidential campaign. He had somehow gotten someone to locate my dad and get him to Philadelphia to be there on Primary night and bring us together to reconcile…

21/ I still tear up thinking about this moment of my life that shows the kind of man Walter “Fritz” Mondale was. David Lillehaug broke the spell as my father hugged me… “Sir we have to get downstairs for your speech” and handed Fritz his “fighting Fritz” gloves….

22/ Fritz turned & said “I don’t need these anymore” took out a felt tip and wrote “To Rocky Trippi, with thanks” Fritz Mondale. Handed me the gloves , grabbed my dad, brought him with to the ballroom and dragged him on stage to stand with him as Fritz declared victory…

23/ Years later when my father passed away, I gently tucked one of the gloves with him to rest with him.

This one remains with me as homage to a man that touched my life like few others. RIP Fritz”

Mondale didn’t have a chance against Ronald Reagan in 1984, but he had a long, successful career in the US Senate, as vice president, and as ambassador to Japan.

Most of all, he was a decent man who never took himself too seriously. May we all have such a legacy.

Let’s close with soothing Saturday music. Listen to “Take Five” written by Paul Desmond, and famously recorded by Dave Brubeck in 1959. Here it’s played by the Camaleon Bassoon Quartet, who are  members of the bassoon section of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Who ever heard of Jazz bassoon?

 

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Leaving Afghanistan

The Daily Escape:

Cathedral Rock, Sedona, AZ – photo by Bill Beardsley

The WaPo and every other outlet reported that Biden has committed to ending US troop involvement in Afghanistan by September 11, 2021:

“The goal is to move to “zero” troops by September….This is not conditions-based. The president has judged that a conditions-based approach…is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.”

We’ve been in Afghanistan for 20 years, and leaving means that the Taliban have won. It also means that they will wind up ruling the country for a second time, since the Kabul government will not survive without US and NATO support.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s just reality. Mistakes have been made in Afghanistan by every president since Carter, who in 1979, supported the mujaheddin rebels, Islamic hardliners against the Russians.

But there is some concern that withdrawal of our troops doesn’t end our efforts on the ground. The NYT has reported:

“Instead of declared troops in Afghanistan, the US will most likely rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors and covert intelligence operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic State threats…”

Stars and Stripes says that, according to a Defense Department report, more than 18,000 contractors remain in Afghanistan, while official troop totals had been reduced to 2,500. In essence, Biden isn’t ending the Afghanistan War, he’s privatizing it:

“About 4,700 of the contractors are Afghans hired locally, but nearly three-quarters come from outside the country, including about a third who are US citizens…”

This amounts to roughly seven contractors for every US soldier on the ground in Afghanistan. The US has announced intentions to retain at least two military bases in Afghanistan after the official troop drawdown. Staying in-country will help protect the profits of the US military-industrial complex.

We also covet the Afghans’ mineral wealth. A 2007 US Geological Service survey discovered nearly $1 trillion in mineral deposits, including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and lithium, which is used in the manufacture of batteries. The Grey Zone reports that an internal Pentagon memo stated that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

The Afghan government is largely a creation of the US. Its military is funded by us at a cost of around $4 billion per year. Unless Congress cuts it off, this support will continue alongside large-scale US foreign aid programs that amount to another $1 billion per year.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The US doesn’t want to “lose” Afghanistan to Russia and China, which makes today’s calculation not very different from the 19th-century “great game” between Great Britain and Czarist Russia.

All presidents after Carter were involved to a greater or lesser extent in trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern democratic state. And all have failed. This should have been knowable to these presidents and to their military advisors.

The NYT had an Op-Ed by Timothy Kudo, a former Marine Captain who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kudo remembered:

“…I once asked a village elder whether he knew why I was there. He responded that we’d always been there. Confused, I asked him about the attacks on America. He said, “But you are Russians, no?” After 30 years of war, it didn’t matter to him who was fighting but only that there was still fighting.”

We should have left Afghanistan after the death of bin Laden. Staying when there could be no defeat of the Taliban made the war the same as Vietnam. We’ve been down this road before: The Taliban want a medieval society, an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” and they have time on their side.

Like the American withdrawal from Vietnam, Biden’s decision will be seen as a sign of weakness, encouraging Russia, China, Iran, and others to challenge US interests elsewhere. But Russia left Afghanistan in 1989. Who remembers? Is Russia considered a patsy on the world stage?

Afghanistan has been the “graveyard of empires” since Alexander the Great, for long enough that the phrase’s origins are unclear. We should accept that an intervention-first mentality has failed here and will fail elsewhere.

Will leaving Afghanistan prompt us to rethink our country’s place in the world? Could it be the end of the era of our nation-building fantasies? Should our military always be the first tool out of the toolbox? What did the US gain from being enmeshed in the Greater Middle East as it has been for the past 50 years?

Biden’s decision should lead to a reckoning about these questions, and a consideration about what a more modest and realistic US foreign policy would look like.

But Biden will remain under pressure from the military, the Beltway Bandits, and many politicians not to withdraw.

He needs to hold firm.

And yes, this means there will be a “fall of Saigon” moment sometime soon.

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

The Daily Escape:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barkley says that Putnam:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Should the Filibuster Die?

The Daily Escape:

Inspiration Point, late winter, Bryce Canyon, NP UT – March 2021 photo by CampsG

Biden’s pandemic relief plan became law, and the Senate confirmed Merrick Garland as attorney general. Those, and a few more cabinet level confirmations are all that’s likely to pass the Senate before the 2022 mid-terms.

That’s because the American Relief Plan, along with cabinet confirmations, and Supreme Court justices are no longer subject to the filibuster, while most other bills are.

Back in the dim past, when Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) was Majority Leader, Obama could not get his federal judge nominees an up or down vote because they were blocked by the 60-vote requirement to close debate (“cloture”) in the Senate.

In November 2013, Reid and Senate Democrats used the “nuclear option” to eliminate the 60-vote rule on executive branch nominations and federal judicial appointments. In April 2017, Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans extended the nuclear option to Supreme Court nominations to end debate on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, when McConnell couldn’t get the required 60 votes for ending the debate.

Today, the three-fifths majority vote (60 of 100) is still required to end debates on legislation. That means we most likely won’t see HR-1 (S-1 in the Senate) the bill to reform voting rights in America make it to an up or down vote in the Senate, as long as there is a filibuster.

That’s probably also true for the minimum wage, for Biden’s infrastructure initiative, and other wish-list items like DC statehood, a carbon tax, and reasonable gun legislation.

The best argument for keeping the filibuster is that it keeps the Party in the minority from being steamrollered by the Party in the majority, what pundits call the “tyranny of the majority”. Both Parties should take stock of everything they were able to delay or derail because of the filibuster. Then they should imagine all of that (and more) enacted by simple majority vote, when the opposition Party regains control of Congress and the presidency, which eventually will happen.

The worst argument is that it fosters compromise. But we know that the Senate is substantially more partisan today than it has ever been in the modern era. In fact, we’ve seen limited compromise on legislation, unless there was no way around it, such as when needing to extend the federal borrowing limit.

The Democrats haven’t been shy about using the filibuster. When Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was minority leader, he used the filibuster in 2019 to block funding for construction of Trump’s border wall. Dems used it twice to impede passage of the Cares Act, forcing Republicans to agree to changes including a $600 weekly federal unemployment supplement. They used it to block legislation to force “sanctuary cities” to cooperate with federal officials, and to stop a prohibition on taxpayer funding of abortion. And a few other times while Trump was President.

So, should the filibuster go? It should, at least in its current form. Several proposals to change the filibuster are out there. From the NYT:

“One proposal would bar its use for legislation involving voting rights or other democratic expansions. Another would require the old-fashioned “talking” filibuster. A third would entail holding a series of cloture votes spaced three days apart, lowering the number of senators needed to end the filibuster each time.”

The Democrats do not currently have the votes to end the filibuster, since Sens. Manchin (D-WVA) and Sinema (D-AZ) say they will not vote to abolish it. We’ll have to wait to see whether they back McConnell against Schumer and Biden when the Republicans launch a filibuster against the major Biden initiative that requires 60 votes for cloture. Or, if they’re open to one of the reforms mentioned above.

Wrongo favors eliminating the filibuster at least for bills that concern voting rights. That would allow the H-1/S-1 bill to move forward at a time when Jim Crow-style laws are likely to be re-introduced in many Republican-controlled states. The Republican falsehoods surrounding the 2020 election, culminating in insurrection, should convince Democrats that HR-1/S-1 is worth passing, even if the price is eliminating, or partially eliminating the filibuster.

Manchin and Sinema can probably be strong-armed into agreeing with that.

In 2017, a Republican-controlled Senate found it easy to forget tradition and eliminate the filibuster for the confirmation of Supreme Court justices, despite that being the key instance where the requirement for a broad, bipartisan vote should be obvious.

So, why should it be such a problem to remove it entirely? The framers of the Constitution didn’t include a supermajority requirement for the Senate to pass legislation; that came into being in 1837. It has been modified many times since.

Now, it’s long overdue for the filibuster to go. It’s the biggest roadblock to democracy in America.

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We’re Riding on a Slow-Moving Train Wreck

The Daily Escape:

El Matador State Park, Malibu CA – 2021 photo by stephencovar

It’s commonly accepted knowledge that it’s hard to look away from a slow-motion train wreck. We should note that it’s even harder when you are riding on the train. And it’s harder still when some of the people riding along with you would be totally happy to see it wrecked.

Let’s start by revisiting CPAC and Trump. He attacked the Supreme Court for not overturning an American election, and his supporters cheered. We can’t let ourselves forget how wrong that was, and if unchecked, its implications for the future.

Second, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans has decided that Catholics may take the Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines, but not the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine. They say the J&J shot is “morally compromised”, since it was developed using cloned cells derived from fetuses aborted nearly a half a century ago.

New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore writes:

“It’s worth noting that another Catholic diocese not far away, in Tyler, Texas, has rejected all three vaccines as having been “produced immorally”….But….the Vatican itself is administering the Pfizer vaccine (with Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, among its recipients).”

The faithful in New Orleans and Tyler, TX must decide whether they must be more Catholic than the Pope. Anybody else wonder how America can get the pandemic behind us when religious leaders won’t follow science?

Third, as Bill Kristol notes at the Bulwark, our democracy is in crisis. For the first time in our history, we failed to have a peaceful transfer of power, and Republicans want to ensure that fewer people can vote next time around. They’re supporting many new voting restrictions at the state level.

The Brennan Center has identified 253 bills to restrict voting rights in 43 states that would impose measures to make voting harder. They include reducing early voting, limiting the use of mail-in ballots, eliminating drop boxes, and imposing new voter ID requirements.

This is crucial to our democracy, since Democrats only control 15 states, none of which is a swing state like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. Republicans have compounded the Dem’s problems through aggressive gerrymandering in Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

It’s difficult to understand how in a democracy, there is any discussion of restricting the right to vote. Unless we protect this right, we’re heading down a slippery slope. So to help avoid this slow-motion train wreck, Democrats need to get as many people registered as possible right now.

Finally, secession is on the map again, exactly where you might have expected it to be. Bright Line Watch, in a study released in February, showed that one-third of Republicans said they support secession. And it gets worse: Half of Republicans across the former Confederacy (plus Kentucky and Oklahoma) are now willing to form a newly independent country. Here is Bright Line Watch’s map of secessionist support by Trump approval ratings:

The Texas Republican Party recently supported a referendum on Texas seceding from the union. While secessionist rhetoric is couched in claims about fiscal responsibility and burdensome federal regulations, it doesn’t take much to see ethno-nationalism lurking behind it.

Secession in Texas is a combination of nativism, xenophobia, and white grievance. Texas secession Facebook pages are saturated with fantasies of forcing Democrats to leave the state and seizing their property. Just like the Confederates of the 1860s, this modern secessionist push is rooted in large part in maintaining white supremacy and authoritarian governance.

The increasing marriage of secessionist chatter and GOP ideology should be cause for concern since it is widespread throughout the heartland of America. Of course, state-level secession is illegal in the US. Even Justice Scalia said:

“If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.”

America has argued about secession since the days of John C. Calhoun, who worked to protect the south’s commitment to slavery from the 1820s until his death in 1850. Trump’s efforts to overturn an election in which Black voters did so much to defeat him in the south, recalls Calhoun’s efforts to deny them citizenship and the franchise almost two centuries ago.

We’re living in a moment when we will see whether American democracy survives these attacks on it by Republicans.

The ability to vote is central to our Democracy. It is at the core of our belief system and without it, all else is meaningless.

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Saturday Soother – February 27, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Boulder Beach, Acadia NP February 2021 photo via Scenes of Maine Photography

It’s Saturday, so we have a lightning round of news you can use. First, the Daily Beast reports:

“A pickup truck parked at the US Capitol and bearing a Three Percenter militia sticker on the day of the Jan. 6 riot belongs to the husband of freshman Rep. Mary Miller of Illinois, who approvingly quoted Adolf Hitler a day earlier,”

The Three Percenters are a para-military group who wish to overthrow the US government. And before you ask, yes, Rep. Miller is a new Republican Congresscritter, who spoke at a pre-coup “Moms for America” rally in front of the Capitol the day before the riot. She said:

“Hitler was right on one thing: whoever has the youth has the future…”

This is Republicanism today. She later apologized for the remarks. Sure.

Second, a new poll on Covid vaccine skepticism shows that since last fall, it has come way down for Blacks and Hispanics. Skepticism remains high among white Republicans. Nearly 60% of White Republicans will either not take the vaccine or are unsure:

Source: Civiqs

One of the great challenges during the pandemic has been establishing public trust, particularly among racial minorities who have a long history of both exploitation and neglect by the medical establishment and the government.

The good news is that vaccine skepticism is falling substantially over the past few months. It now appears that the only barrier to achieving herd immunity is White Republicans.

Their skepticism about government involvement in health is part of a long trend among Republicans. In the 1960s, Reagan was against Medicare, and called any expansion “socialized medicine”. He refused to acknowledge the AIDS crisis. In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich blocked Clinton’s health care plan, although he was in favor of a similar program that was adopted by Mitt Romney as Governor of Massachusetts.

The Romney plan was the template for Obamacare, which all Republicans opposed, including Newt Gingrich, who was for it before he was against it.

It isn’t just ideological resistance, it’s a bone-deep antipathy to any collective attempt to have high quality public health in America. Their antipathy toward health is beyond ideology, it’s pathology.

Finally, a few words about just how old and out of touch members of Congress have become. Demo Memo, a site Wrongo highly recommends, posted about the demographics of Congress. The bottom line is that the Baby-Boom generation dominates both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

“According to an analysis of the 117th Congress by Pew Research Center, Boomers account for a 53% percent majority of the House and for an even larger 68% percent of the Senate…”

House: number (and percent) of members of the 117th Congress by generation

Millennials: 31 (7%)

Gen Xers: 144 (33%)

Boomers: 230 (53%)

Silent: 27 (6%)

Senate: number (and percent) of members of the 117th Congress by generation

Millennials: 1 (1%)

Gen Xers: 20 (20%)

Boomers: 68 (68%)

Silent: 11 (11%)

The ages of the 117th Congress range from 25.5 years to 87.7 years. The median age of the House is 58.9. The median age of the Senate is 64.8. That may explain why Sen. John Thune (R-SD), can reminisce about working for $6/hour in a restaurant in 1978, as part of his objection to a $15/hr. wage.

A $6/hr. wage in 1978, adjusted for inflation, would equal $24.07/hr. in 2021. A person making $24.07 an hour, working 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year would earn over $50,000 a year before taxes. And a person working the same hours and earning the proposed wage of $15/hr. would earn just over $31,200 a year before taxes.

A person working the same hours and earning the current national minimum wage of $7.25/hr. earns just over $15,080 a year, before taxes today.

Time to let go of the DC merry-go-round for a few minutes and enjoy a brief Saturday Soother. It’s going to rain in Connecticut today, helping to melt some of the snow remaining on the ground. So, settle back and watch this stunning video from “Playing for Change” who we’ve featured a few times in the past. Here, Peter Gabriel is singing his song “Biko”, that he wrote and performed in 1980.

It’s a tribute to the South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died while in police custody. More than 25 musicians from seven countries join Gabriel for this global rendition, including Beninese vocalist Angélique Kidjo, Silkroad’s Yo-Yo Ma, and bass legend Meshell Ndegeocello:

Lyric:

You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire. Once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher.

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Saturday Soother – Graham’s Stalling on Garland Edition, February 6, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Quail Mountain, Joshua Tree NP -2020 photo by sandinthehourglass

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Maya Angelou

Are you wondering about why Merrick Garland hasn’t been confirmed as Attorney General? It’s because Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had refused to hold a confirmation hearing for Judge Garland. He blamed the Senate’s second Trump impeachment trial that starts next week.

Graham had the power to keep the Garland hearing off the calendar because he remained chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee until the new Senate organizing resolution was passed last Wednesday. While he ran the committee, Graham denied a request from the incoming committee chairman Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) to hold hearings for Garland starting on Monday, February 8. The impeachment trial starts on the 9th.

Graham insisted that the Senate’s plan to begin Trump’s impeachment trial on Tuesday meant that there would not be enough time to hold Garland’s hearing. Graham said to Durbin:

“Your request is highly unusual….the Senate is about to conduct its first ever impeachment trial of a former president, and only its fourth trial of a president, incumbent or not…But you want us to rush through Judge Garland’s hearing on February 8….An impeachment is no small thing. It requires the Senate’s complete focus,”

Of course, Graham isn’t clean on this. The new AG will be responsible for overseeing any prosecutions that come out of the attempt to overturn the election, and the Senate Judiciary Committee includes three Republican Senators involved in that attempt. Graham was accused by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of asking Raffensperger to alter the state’s vote count back in November. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) both challenged the counting of Electoral Votes.

Marcy Wheeler reports that one of the last things Graham did before turning over the reins was to send a letter to Trump’s Acting AG Monty Wilkinson urging him not to stop work on two investigations:

“We have two properly predicated, ongoing investigations Democrats would rather go away: Special Counsel John Durham’s investigation of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation and the investigation by the Delaware U.S. Attorney’s Office into Hunter Biden….I…respectfully request that you refrain from interfering in any way with either investigation while the Senate processes the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the position of Attorney General….”

Graham raises this even though there hasn’t been a peep about these investigations from the Biden Administration. Instead, this may only be relevant because Hunter Biden has a book deal. It’s apparently about his problems with addiction, and comes out in April.

It’s hard to see this as anything except more of an effort by Trumpy Republicans to continue the conspiracy theories Trump waved around in the weeks leading up to the presidential election. In spite of bipartisan support for Garland, Graham’s delaying tactics mean that the DOJ may not have a confirmed Attorney General until late February or early March. Garland is a centrist, the kind of AG you would expect Republicans would welcome as a Democratic nominee. Instead, Republican Senators have sought to prevent or delay his appointments many times.

We all remember how they wouldn’t consider Obama’s nomination of Garland to the Supreme Court because it was 11 months before a newly elected administration would take office.

Few remember that, in September, 1995 when Joe Biden chaired the Judiciary Committee, Garland was nominated to the US Circuit Court of Appeals. But then-minority leader Bob Dole (R-KS) filibustered the nomination. No vote was taken.

In 1997, Clinton renominated Garland, and the Judiciary Committee, then led by Orrin Hatch (R-UT), recommended confirmation, and the Senate, then led by majority leader Bob Dole, confirmed him to the Appeals Court. But, Mitch McConnell was one of 23 “no” votes against Garland.

What is it with Republicans and Merrick Garland?

Time to forget about politics. Here in Connecticut, we’re still digging out from about 18″ of snow that is finally starting to melt. It’s Saturday, and we need to make it to tomorrow, when America will huddle in front of our TVs and worship a bowl of guacamole: Brady, or Mahomes?

To help you get through until then, let’s start by brewing up a cup of Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Gesha coffee ($56.00/8 ounces), from the brewers at Chicago’s Big Shoulders Coffee. It is said to be sweet-tart with a very full, syrupy mouthfeel, and a flavor-saturated finish resonates on and on. YMMV.

Now, settle back in a chair by a window and watch Mumford & Sons play their cover of the Nine Inch Nails tune, “Hurt”, performed live at the 2019 Rock Werchter Festival. This song was covered most notably by Johnny Cash just before his death:

Marcus Mumford’s voice can heal just about anything. It’s needed in this time of global grief.

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Trump’s Subversive Ploy

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, Mauna Kea, HI – 2020 photo by laramarie27

When the joint session of Congress begins on Wednesday at 1 pm, all eyes will be on VP Mike Pence. He has a ceremonial role with just three duties: Open the states’ envelopes, hand them to tellers to count, and announce the winners.

  • Article 2 of the Constitution dictates that the president of the Senate, (Mike Pence) shall open the envelopes that contain the electors’ votes and the certifications from every state. Then it says that the votes shall be counted, but it doesn’t specify how. So Congress remedied that with:
  • The Electoral Count Act of 1887 along with subsequent statutes are designed to minimize the role of Congress in election disputes, giving that responsibility clearly to the states. The Act specifies the procedures states should follow to resolve disputes, how they should certify the results, and the fact that each state’s governor should send those certified results to Congress.

If those procedures are followed, then those certified electoral votes will be counted. But in Trumpland, things are always different.

At the joint session, as Pence opens each state’s envelope (in alphabetical order), he hands it to four tellers— two chosen by the Senate, two by the House— who then count the electoral votes inside and keep a running tally. The objections in writing to a particular state’s electoral votes by a member of the House and a member of the Senate must happen prior to beginning the counting process for the next state.

Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) announced that he’s going to object to Arizona’s votes. Arizona is third in alphabetical order, but no Republican will object to the votes from Alabama or Alaska since Trump won both states. Expect a few Republican House back-benchers to join Cruz.

There will likely be objections to the votes from Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, and maybe more. The Representatives and Senators will then retreat to their respective Houses, debate the objection for up to two hours, then vote on it. And this will happen for each state that Trump is trying to overturn the electoral vote results.

At the conclusion of this kabuki play, we will get a definitive count of Republicans who are happy to undermine democracy on the basis of lies, conspiracy theories, and grifting. This should be the easiest vote of their careers: simply doing their Constitutional duty. But, as Michael Gerson says:

“They not only help a liar; they become liars. They not only empower conspiracy theories; they join a conspiracy against American democracy. They not only excuse institutional arson; they set fire to the Constitution and dance around the flame…..they are no longer just allies of a subversive; they become instruments of subversion.”

Settle in for at least a day (possibly two) of tediousness.

If there were no objections, then after the tellers counted all the electoral votes, they would hand the results to Pence, who would then be required to announce the names of the winning president and vice president. In this case, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

But on Wednesday January 6, 2021, roughly half of all the elected Republicans in the federal government will vote to overthrow America’s democratic system. Republicans have not only decided Democratic victories are illegitimate, this is now their playbook for prosecuting their case.

They have been getting progressively and more conspiratorial and transparently undemocratic. Their behavior in these final days of the 2020 election cycle shows that there is no limit to how far they can go.  So they will go farther. They always do.

They’ve decided it’s to their advantage to blow up our democratic system and assert that no election is valid unless they win it. That’s where we are today. Sadly, it’s also likely where we’ll be in Georgia Tuesday night after the polls close, and before the final tallies are in.

Objections have happened before. It’s not a big deal, but it becomes a big deal when one Party turns the vote certification process into enough of a circus that people believe the election was stolen.

Unfortunately, that ship has sailed.

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