July 4, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Kilauea Caldera showing a blackened lava lake, Hawaii Volcanoes NP – June 2023 photo by J. Wei for the NPS

Kilauea stopped erupting on June 19, but the threat of another eruption is always present. That could be a metaphor for America in 2023: We could erupt at any moment.

The 1960s were an optimistic time. There were demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. There was police violence against the demonstrators, and assassinations of JFK and MLK. But a throughline of those times was a belief that righteous change was possible.

Wrongo graduated from Georgetown in 1966. His specialty was American colonial history. Those also were times of optimism, and there also were factions and different priorities and beliefs throughout the land.

Back in the 18th century, we overcame our differences, declared our independence, and formed a nation.

Now, 247 years after our revolution, it seems that staying united is difficult, if not impossible. Today, facts are fungible, and so is the truth. As Wrongo stated in his last column, about one third of Americans fail to vote. They are apathetic because they can’t see what would change if they did vote.

Having one third of Americans regularly fail to vote has surrendered control over our politics and our courts to a minority, mostly a few at the top, supported by some people in the middle, and enabled by the apathy of most of the rest of us.

Worse, most of those in today’s controlling minority are extremists. They have exploited the imperfections in our system to impose a return to the social mores and politics of an earlier time.

The best example of this is the string of far-Right decisions handed down in 2022 by the Supreme (Extreme) Court. From Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern:

“Consider the issues that SCOTUS has resolved….The constitutional right to abortion: gone. States’ ability to limit guns in public: gone….Effective constraints around separation of church and state: gone. The bar on prayer in public schools: gone. Effective enforcement of Miranda warnings: gone. The ability to sue violent border agents: gone. The Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases at power plants: gone.”

Vast areas of law that took decades to establish were overturned in a year.

And in 2023, the Court’s reactionary majority has continued to overturn more of the American social order. Those rulings: ending affirmative action, preventing the forgiveness of student loans and an egregious decision on gay rights, show that the Court has lost any sense of judicial restraint.

The Court is no longer “calling balls and strikes” as Chief Justice John Roberts famously said. In fact, there could be a highlight reel of umpire John Roberts’ blown calls. It’s clear that the Extreme Court wants to go further, and given today’s politics, there’s zero risk of the other two branches of government agreeing to override their decisions.

So, on this Fourth of July weekend, let’s hit pause. Let’s take time to reflect on how our founders were able to weave a message that united many factions against a common enemy. It should be very clear that at this point that the common enemy to unite against is the partisan power of a partisan minority.

Real power no longer lies with the People or with their politicians, it resides in the Supreme Court. The antiquated and undemocratic elements of our government: the Electoral College, lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices and the malapportionment of the Senate, would require Constitutional amendments to fix. But we’re too divided to amend the Constitution.

Imagine attempting to fix the Senate’s malapportionment by getting a Constitutional amendment through that same malapportioned Senate.

But there may be reason for optimism in the fact that the two of this term’s negative rulings related to college students (admissions and debt relief). Those issues will motivate young voters in 2024.

Here are some numbers that give some cause for optimism about younger voters helping to change our politics:

  • Voters 47 and younger will be in the majority beginning in 2028.
  • Younger voters have historically voted in significantly higher numbers for Democrats.
  • Young women, especially young Hispanics and young African Americans are substantially higher voters for Democrats.
  • Fifty-five percent of white male voters under 45 voted Democratic in 2022, as did 52% of younger white females.

Here are a few other facts that should make us optimistic going forward:

  • Abortion was youth’s #1 issue in 2022.
  • Mid-term voter turnout for people under 29 was 23%, lower than 2018 (28%), but much higher than in 2014 (13%).
  • Michigan had the highest youth turnout in the country (37%).
  • Two swing states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, were among the four states to have the highest youth turnout in 2022.

To help you reflect on how we might take back control, let’s listen to Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” performed at the Greek Theater in Los Angles in 2012.

There are many versions of this tune on YouTube, but this one makes the point that virtually all of us are descended from immigrants, in this case, Diamond’s grandmother, who immigrated from Kyiv:

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – July 2, 2023

We’re back from our Alaska vacation. It was extended two extra days in Seattle courtesy of United Airlines, who cancelled our flight, along with thousands of others. To add to United’s bad press, its CEO, Scott Kirby took a private plane out of New York while so many of his customers were grabbing hotel rooms they didn’t want, instead of sleeping in their own beds.

Wrongo promised more photos from Alaska:

June 2023 iPhone photo by Wrongo

This iceberg broke off from the Shakes Glacier, which is located in the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness of the Tongass National Forest. It stood about 20’ above the waterline. Since about 10% of a berg is above water, about 220’ of this bad boy was underwater in Shakes Lake which is about 800′ deep. We rode in a jetboat about 25 miles from Wrangell, Alaska to see it.

This week’s cartoons are about the recent decisions by the Supreme Court. SCOTUS released opinions in three big cases, the affirmative action case, the student loan forgiveness case, and the anti-LGBT+ case. Wrongo hasn’t had time to read them carefully, but the dissents by Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Jackson made it clear that these decisions suck.

These cases show us a few things: First, that the concept of “standing” before the court means only what the Supremes say it means. Previously, It was about where the parties in a lawsuit “stand” in relation to each other. Back in the recent past, a party had to prove they had standing before a court considers the merits of a case. But:

  • In the gay website case, the plaintiff trying to inflict damage on the LGBT+ community didn’t need to show standing. The Colorado web designer, who the Supremes said could refuse to make wedding websites for gay couples, cited a request from a man who told the AP, he had never asked her to do any work for him. The state of Colorado said she didn’t have sufficient grounds to sue, but the Supremes ultimately said that she did.
  • In Biden vs. Nebraska, the plaintiffs in the student loan case couldn’t show injury. The Supremes said that the plaintiff, the state of Missouri, had standing because Mohela a student loan servicer, is an instrumentality of the state. Mohela has the independent power to sue and be sued, but it refused to sue in this case, and the state sued on its behalf. Justice Kagan in her dissent said:

“From the first page to the last, today’s opinion departs from the demands of judicial restraint…At the behest of a party that has suffered no injury, the majority decides a contested public policy issue properly belonging to the politically accountable branches and the people they represent.”

Second, we’ve learned that the 14th Amendment, which was originally written to insure that Black people had Constitutional rights, no longer applies to them. Now that the Conservative majority on the Court has ended racism, maybe we’ll get a new holiday to celebrate!

Third, this is what happens when a third of America doesn’t vote. In 2016, we were told to elect Hillary because of the Supreme Court, but America didn’t like the “mean” lady, and Trump was elected. Despite what you thought about her, this growing list of Supreme Court decisions that so many people disagree with are a direct result of that loss.

There are two kinds of freedom: Freedom to, and freedom from. But your freedom isn’t supposed to hurt anybody else. And historically when it did, we enacted laws curtailing that behavior, but no longer. Now, we’re out there all on our own.

Society is moving backwards. Wrongo grew up in the 1960s, those good old days when politicians and the courts strived to promote equality. Now society’s divided. Its coarser, and much less equal. “It’s on you to bootstrap your way to the top” is what the Supreme Court is telling us. We’re born and after that, you’re on your own. However your life plays out, it’s your fault. On to cartoons.

No ladder required:

SCOTUS suggestion for getting ahead:

A case of blind justice:

Blinded by the White:

Some of the Supremes’ action is definitely affirmative:

OTOH, the Supremes overruled the independent legislature theory:

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Alaska! And Russia!

The Daily Escape:

Castle Mountain from Stikine River, Wrangell, AK – September 2023 iPhone photo by Wrongo. Castle Mountain is on the border between Alaska and British Columbia. This is a Nunatak, or a mountain that was higher than its surrounding glaciers, so over the centuries, it wasn’t rounded off by glacial movement.

This is the first day in several when we’ve had internet (or mobile) connectivity. So, here are a few thoughts on our Alaska trip and on the momentous news out of Russia.

First, we’ve had uncharacteristically beautiful weather! It’s usually raining at this time, but its been sunny and relatively warm for the first 10 days of our trip. Over the next few days, once we have better bandwidth, Wrongo will post more photos from the trip.

We have spent all of our time in Southeast Alaska, dropping in and out of fjords where the cruise ships cannot go. We’ve also spent quite a bit of time talking to members of the indigenous Tlingit nation. It is always interesting to learn about one of the many cultures that make up America. Ms. Right and I spent a morning with Joe Williams, a Tlingit ambassador and a former mayor of Ketchikan, Alaska. Attached is a video of Joe giving some highlights of Tlingit history. Joe explained about the Eagle and Raven clans and how the Tlingit gave their children over to uncles and aunts to be raised. The sociology of their tribes and family structure was fascinating.

Second, what the hell is going on in Russia? Wrongo and Ms. Right have gotten to know a retired Marine officer who is traveling with our group. He’s providing commentary for the BBC from our small ship, when we have comms. He says it is way too early to tell how this will fall out, or if there will be a new power alignment in Russia, or if this will make any difference in the Ukraine war.

But as the WSJ’s Peggy Noonan famously said in 2000, “it would be irresponsible not to speculate”, so here goes. It’s clear that Prigozhin became a threat to his buddy Putin simply by leveraging Russia’s assets. As Yale’s Timothy Snyder says:

“Unlike most of its other ventures, Wagner’s war in Ukraine was a losing proposition.  Prigozhin leveraged the desperation of Russia’s propaganda for a victory by taking credit for victory at Bakhmut.  That minor city was completely destroyed and abandoned by the time Wagner took it, at the cost of tens of thousands of Russian lives.”

Before the aborted coup, Wagner’s primary source of funding was the Russian state. Whether that will continue, given the supposed “deal” between Prigozhin and Putin, remains to be seen.

A couple of other points. Will Prigozhin actually go to Belarus? If he does, will he take some or all of his Wagner forces with him? If they all go to Belarus, who will be paying them? Its difficult to believe that Wagner and Prigozhin will remain inactive for very long. As mercenaries, they survive on extracting money from a benefactor and/or from the places where they operate.

There are several possible “deals” between Putin and Prigozhin that drove his “exile” in Belarus. According to the BBC, Prigozhin agreed to move to Belarus after he negotiated directly with Belarus leader Lukashenko.

Wrongo is most intrigued by the possibility that Wagner could open a second front in the Ukraine war from Belarus, similar to what Russia attempted in February 2022. Back then it looked like this:

With most of Ukraine’s military assets focused on a counteroffensive in the east and south, an attack from the northeast could prove decisive at a point in time when Moscow looks to be weak and vulnerable.

Will this happen? The thing to watch for is how many Wagner assets move to Belarus along with Prigozhin (assuming he moves there). Imagine if part of the “deal” is that Prigozhin is tapped by Belarus to be their army’s commander-in-chief, and they launch a second front during the driest time of the year, rather than in February like last time. Belarus was somewhat neutral in 2022, but since then have become much more tightly aligned militarily with Russia

Russia on the attack may have the resources to open up a second front in Belarus. The question is whether Ukraine can defend itself on one front while attacking Russia on its eastern front.

These are the interesting times we are doomed to live through. Let’s close with a tune from the Aquabats. This was recommended by granddaughter Mallory for our trip to Alaska. Here is “Hot Summer Nights (Won’t Last Forever)” from their 2005 album “Charge!”. Seems appropriate for our trip and for Prigozhin, no?

Sample Lyric:

Dear Elizabeth,
I hope you’re doing well
I think it’s so awesome that you’re out monitoring glacier patterns
In some remote part of Alaska where no one can get a hold of you
I thought I’d try anyway

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Off To Alaska

The Daily Escape:

Sitka Harbor – Alaska stock photo via Bing

(Today we’re leaving for Alaska and will have limited access to WiFi, so columns will be light and variable. Regular columns will resume on 7/1. In the meantime, if turbulence occurs, keep your tray tables in their upright and locked position and if you’re Trump, keep your tiny hands inside the blog.)

Wrongo isn’t sure who is the most famous Alaskan, but he really likes this comment by Sarah Palin, when asked if Trump’s followers were a cult:

Sarah! That’s the EXACT definition of Trump’s followers. And isn’t a cult just a religion that doesn’t have tax-free status? Maybe the difference is that in a cult, there’s a guy at the top who knows it’s a scam. In a religion, that guy is dead.

In other battlefields in the culture war, the Southern Baptists voted to uphold the expulsion of one of its most prominent mega-churches, Saddlebrook, because Saddlebrook had decided that women could be pastors. In the Southern Baptist Convention, preaching is a man’s job. From the Economist:

“The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), America’s largest Protestant denomination with 13.2m adherents, which begins its annual meeting on June 13th in New Orleans, has long treated women as subordinate to men. “Complementarianism”—the idea that men and women occupy distinct but equal roles, with men exercising spiritual authority—is the preferred term.”

On Wednesday the Convention voted by a two-thirds majority to amend their constitution to state that the Southern Baptist Convention “Affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder.” Their concern was the old slippery slope:

“….that female pastors are a precursor to acceptance of homosexuality and sexual immorality.”

If you think that sounds out of touch with modern America and more like the Taliban, this chart from the Economist shows that you’re not alone:

This means that the Southern Baptists are back where they were in the 1980s in terms of membership. More from the Economist:

“By the mid-1980s, 200 women had been ordained as pastors….But a year later conservatives commandeered the leadership of the SBC, and began to purge women from seminaries. In 1998 the SBC amended its statement of faith to affirm that a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband. In 2000 it said that only men can be pastors. Churches that disagreed were hounded out.”

Kind of explains the decline in membership. Also it isn’t the SBC’s biggest problem: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“In recent years hundreds of sexual-abuse allegations have surfaced, implicating pastors directly and in the cover-up. And ever more people are leaving the faith. In 2012 there were three baptisms for every congregant who quit. Last year the SBC lost two-and-a-half members for every baptism.”

Could it be that the SBC has some kind of a marketing problem?

This is a problem across the evangelical community: Women are meant to be meek, accommodating baby making machines. They have no sexual education. Home schooling leaves them unable to compete in a globalized work environment. It’s not about the scriptures, it’s about power and control.

That’s what cults are about. It doesn’t matter if it’s MAGAs or the SBC. Considering that evangelicals compose a significant portion of the voting GOP, this shouldn’t be a surprise. These people are fearful of what the future may hold. Like the MAGAverse, they long for a time that may never have existed. The Economist quotes the conservative leaders of the constitutional amendment:

“Once a denomination has female pastors, it’s usually just a matter of time until they ordain homosexual pastors….”

That’s probably true, but these people really have nothing to fear but fear itself.

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Where Is The GOP’s War Of Words Taking Them?

The Daily Escape:

Rain, White Sands NP – June 2023 photo by Dawood Afzal

(Wrongo and Ms. Right want to give healing thoughts and condolences to John & Janis S., who have just experienced a terrible loss.)

The NYT reported on Trump’s speech in Columbus, GA, where he was pretty chatty about the US government and the DOJ indictment:

“Either the Communists win and destroy America, or we destroy the Communists…”

He was referring to Democrats. He railed against “globalists,” “warmongers” in government and “the sick political class that hates our country.” Trump also described the DOJ as:

“…a sick nest of people that needs to be cleaned out immediately,”

He called the special counsel, Jack Smith, “deranged” and “openly a Trump hater.” He then went on to say, “This is the final battle”. And by that, he doesn’t mean the final court case against him. All of this was said in a speech to several thousand people and delegates of the Georgia Republican Party who met in a brick building that was once a Civil War ironworks that manufactured mortars, guns and cannons for the Confederate Army.

Trump calling his Democratic opponents “Communists and “Marxists” isn’t connected to today’s politics. the number of either in the US is vanishingly small. It barely makes sense, but in today’s GOP, it really doesn’t have to make sense. Trump and the GOP would never actually articulate what it is they’re opposing. That would make explicit that they’re really against America becoming more of what it is: An increasingly pluralistic and multi-ethnic country.

But many on the Right are deliberately going much further. The NYT reported that in Georgia, failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, said:

“I have a message tonight for Merrick Garland and Jack Smith and Joe Biden….If you want to get to President Trump, you are going to have go through me, and you are going to have to go through 75 million Americans just like me. And I’m going to tell you, most of us are card-carrying members of the NRA”

Well, that’s a threat. The same NYT article says:

“In social media posts and public remarks, close allies of…Trump…including a member of Congress…have portrayed the indictment as an act of war, called for retribution and highlighted the fact that much of his base carries weapons.”

And all of these threats against Democrats, LGBTQ+ people, the FBI and the DOJ are more than rhetoric. They’re step one in a process known as stochastic terrorism. The idea is that a person or group are demonized, and violent actions against them are suggested by a leader with a large following:

  • The leader doesn’t ask or arrange for a specific person to carry out the violence, but they know in advance that somewhere among their followers are people who will.
  • And it only takes one.
  • The leader accomplishes their goal of violence without formally arranging for it.
  • There isn’t any paper trail, or phone records, or texts, or secret payments that could eventually show up in a court of law.

But the intent is clear even if, by design, there’s no direct accountability.

Wrongo saw a quote attributed to Anand Giridharadas:

“…Donald Trump…has clearly decided that his movement, and the Republican Party that he leads, is going to be the movement of resentment against the future. It is going to be a movement of people who don’t want to live in the future.”

Trump represents people who are in a state of constant rage at the thought that the world is changing in ways they hate and can’t actually stop. The horrible part of their dilemma is that no time that actually existed is a time that they want to live in.

Trump will try to “blanket the zone” with constant misinformation that may make it difficult to empanel a south Florida jury. It will be very difficult to find prospective jurors who say truthfully that they haven’t heard about the indictments and/or formulated an idea about it.

The best way to beat back the misinformation being spread by Republicans and MAGA sympathizers is to televise the trial. Take the trial away from social media pundits and let the MAGAverse see their hero squirm, bluster, and lie with their own eyes. They’ll see his complete lack of a legitimate defense unfolding in real time. Of course, that would take a judge other than Aileen Cannon to preside.

Let’s close with a tune that’s not among the normal music flavor here at the Wrongologist. It makes the point that some Americans don’t want to live in America if it’s going to change. It shows that you don’t have to wear MAGA to be MAGA. It doesn’t mention anything overtly political, but it could be a theme song for Trump’s campaign:

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Monday Wake Up Call – June 12, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Dawn, Outer Banks, NC – June 2023 photo by Stephen P. Szymanski

Wrongo promised himself that he wouldn’t write about the Trump indictments, but that was yesterday, so here we go. Mother Jones had a great take Wrongo hasn’t seen elsewhere. It’s from Reality Winner who was the first person to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act by the Trump administration:

“In 2018…Winner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years and three months in prison after leaking a top-secret report on Russian hacking to the media….The former intelligence contractor and Air Force linguist made the comments in a new interview with NBC… ‘It wasn’t hard to believe’, Winner told NBC on Friday. ‘This is a man that really likes trophies.’”

This is a man that really likes trophies.” There are people who get paid seven figures to cover national politics who didn’t know that. What’s ironic is that the most serious charge against Trump is for violating the Espionage Act that he signed into law. More from Winner’s NBC interview:

“This is probably one of the most transparent and straightforward indictments that defines national defense information and gives the public a sense of the itemized description of every document, which is not how this particular law has been used against ordinary citizens…”

Ordinary citizens like Winner. She has said that the application of the Espionage Act is inconsistent and vague. But she went on to say that the indictment against Trump is remarkably specific on what he allegedly took and that there wasn’t any indication that he was acting for the greater good of the public: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“So this might set the new legal standard on how it will be used in the future. Perhaps it could give people like myself who were acting out of moral conscience more leverage under the law.”

Dems say, “we’re treating Trump like an ordinary citizen”, but that isn’t been true. He was given a ton of latitude and deference. An ordinary citizen (like Winner) went to jail after being charged. No ordinary citizen would have remained free and had their case moved to a special prosecutor at DOJ.

But most importantly he would have been given a “get out of jail free card” if he had simply returned the documents. There would have been no charges, just like there were no charges for Biden or Pence, who both happened to have stray secret documents lying around.

Yet, no ordinary citizen gets a do over from the feds.

But his ardent defenders on the right ignore that Trump got special handling. They really aren’t attempting to defend him on the merits because what he did was indefensible. You can’t be an ex-president who holds on to some classified documents and then shows them to random people in his orbit all while refusing to return them to the government.

Trump can’t then argue he should be given a “get out of jail free card”. Too late, times up.

The Republican Party has every right to demand that the nation consider Trump innocent until proven otherwise. We all know that the burden of proof resides with the government. But Republicans need to get real about the Trump documents case.

They can squint as hard as the can, but they won’t see government abuse here.

Wrongo knows that pointing out that Republicans are hypocrites no longer flies as an argument, but he remembers their 2016 presidential campaign attack against Hillary was that she failed to comply with information security best practices, even though no secret documents were found on her server.

But that was still considered a federal offense by Republicans: “Lock her up”, etc.

And now, with Trump actually criminally misappropriating classified documents and his subsequent obstruction of justice, it isn’t enough to get Republicans to say: “hey, let’s see if he gets convicted.”

From Hal Gershowitz:

“Few events in American history have riveted the people’s attention, as have the legal travails…of… Trump. The Republican Party has been steadfast in its support of the former President, notwithstanding those civil and criminal charges that have been brought against him…”.

Time to wake up America! About half the country believes that the FBI and the DOJ operate on a double standard. They no longer trust the media. These are existential problems that threaten the entire nation. Republicans: Take Trump’s name off of the indictment and replace it with anyone else’s name. Then decide if that person should be prosecuted.

To help you wake up watch and listen to this Jimmy Fallon Trump parody to the tune of the Pointer Sisters’ song “I’m so excited”. Here’s I’m So Indicted“:

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Saturday Soother – June 10, 2023

The Daily Escape:

Peony, Fields of Wrong, CT – June 2023 photo by Wrongo

(There will not be a Sunday Cartoons column this weekend. Wrongo and Ms. Right are attending a memorial service for family member Bob W.’s mom.)

The week ended with a ton of political news. First, as Mark Joseph Stern reported in Slate:

“The Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision in Allen v. Milligan on Thursday, which found that Alabama’s congressional map violates the Voting Rights Act’s ban on racial vote dilution, sends two clear messages. First, a bare majority of the court—Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and the three liberals—believes that the VRA still plays a meaningful role in maintaining a multiracial democracy (or is willing to defer to Congress’ judgment on the matter). Second, that same majority of the court does not look kindly upon red states’ race to shred decades of precedent in an effort to wipe out the voting power of Black Americans.”

The good news is that the decision means that Alabama must create a second Congressional district in which the voting power of Black voters is not diluted by gerrymandering. It is likely that Alabama will add a second Democratic representative to its Congressional delegation.

Even better, Democracy Docket says that the holding in Allen v. Milligan will likely result in a net gain of six Democratic seats (five in other states) in the House in 2024.

Second, Trump is being indicted in Florida. He, along with a staff member at Mar-a-Lago, are facing 37 felony charges related to the mishandling of classified documents. This good news is offset by learning that judge Aileen Cannon is again assigned to hear the DOJ’s case that Trump wrongly held classified documents, failed to return all of them, and then obstructed the efforts of the National Archives and the FBI to recover them. Here’s a link to the indictment.

Mega millions of words will be written about this before there’s a trial or a guilty plea. Hold off on a victory lap until Trump is convicted. About a quarter of the classified/national security documents seized from Mar-a-Lago were found in Trump’s office. It will be difficult for Trump to persuade a jury that he didn’t know about the documents and chose not to return them.

Also, the Trump lawyers who were the front men for this indictment have quit the case. The attorneys, Jim Trusty and John Rowley, did not explain in detail why they had resigned.

Does MAGA now stand for: Make Attorneys Go Away? Or possibly, Make Attorneys Get Attorneys? Although it appears the parting was amicable, it would be irresponsible not to speculate! And it’s difficult to believe that the lead attorney’s last name is Trusty.

But Trump wasn’t the only MAGA mishandling secrets this week. The HuffPo reported that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) made an eyebrow raising claim during a TV interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox:

“Greene said she read a document inside a SCIF ― a sensitive compartmented information facility ― related to bribery allegations Republicans have made against Biden…Then, she described that document while speaking to Laura Ingraham on Fox News

Wrongo has experience with reading documents in SCIFs. NOBODY takes notes on what they’ve read. It’s a violation of national security regulations. When you enter a SCIF, you check all electronic devices before entering, and can’t take notes while inside. And usually, information revealed in the SCIF can’t be repeated outside of it. But Greene held up her notes to the camera.

Mark Zaid, an attorney who specializes in national security, tweeted:

“Hey @FBI, if this information was classified sounds to me like the Congresswoman is admitting to a crime. And if it was not, @SpeakerMcCarthy should remove her privileges for violating the trust she was afforded as a Member of Congress to review sensitive information.”

— Mark S. Zaid (@MarkSZaidEsq) June 9, 2023

But McCarthy won’t do anything. The GOP is building a wall around Trump, and minimizing the mishandling of documents by Greene will just be part of the play. To be a Republican in 2023 is to love Trump. They no longer love him for a particular reason: He’s what the Party has become.

There was plenty of orange air outside of the Mansion of Wrong this week. So, let’s pray for brighter skies while we settle into our Saturday Soother, where we try to forget the political news and the impending climate disaster. Let’s try to relax for a few moments. This week, George Winston died. He was a composer who became the signature style of New Age music in the 1980s. Wrongo was mildly interested in him at the time but came to admire and respect his work in the past few years.

Here’s Winston in 2020 playing Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”:

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Russia Is Building Huge Amounts Of Unspendable Rupees

The Daily Escape:

Sunset, Rio Grande Bridge, Taos, NM – June 2023 photo by Auggimage

Over the year that Russia has been at war in Ukraine, the west triggered sanctions to isolate Russia from getting access to hard currency. One result is that the sanctions have forced Russian to sell crude at discounted rates. At the cheap prices, India emerged as a major buyer of Russian oil. The discounts have led to India importing more oil from Russia than ever before. Here’s a chart:

According to data from Vortexa, the increase amounts to about 500k barrels/day since November, 2022. Russia now supplies India more crude than Iraq and Saudi Arabia combined. Prior to the Ukraine war, the chart shows that India bought very little oil from Russia. But as the sanctions cut off major Russian banks from much of the West’s payment systems, finding other markets that would trade for oil in currencies other than the dollar became a challenge.

India’s buying Russian crude made sense because India is a major buyer of Russian weapons. Since 2017, Russia has accounted for $8.5 billion of the $18.3 billion New Delhi has spent on weapons imports. Business Insider reports that India has been buying Russian oil using rupees since Moscow has been shut out of the USD-denominated global payments system.

Snapping up discounted Russian crude has also widened India’s substantial trade deficit with Russia. This has left Russian oil companies and banks with billions of rupees in their Indian bank accounts.

Russia is now amassing $1 billion worth of Indian rupees each month and it’s struggling either to use in India or to convert into rubles to repatriate the currency. Bloomberg estimates that the total of Russian assets in built up in India since 2022 equals $147 billion. And it’s not like Russia can send the rupees back home, because India has restrictions on capital outflows by foreigners. So, Russia is looking at $2 to $3 billion more rupees stuck in India every quarter.

Bloomberg quoted Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in India in May:

“We need to use this money. But…these rupees must be transferred in another currency, and this is being discussed now…”

Nandan Unnikrishnan, a Russia expert at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, told DW:

“Russia wants a currency that it can use to buy goods that it requires for its economy… the question is identifying that currency…Russians would be happy to use the yuan,”

That’s because the Russia-China bilateral trade is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. OTOH, New Delhi would not be comfortable allowing trade settlement in the yuan, given the tense relations between India and China due to their border disputes. Reuters news reported that the Indian government had asked banks and businesses to avoid using the yuan to pay for Russian imports.

So Russia has a big problem. They would like to use the proceeds of oil exports to finance the Ukraine war. Putting how big the stranded rupees are in context, Russia spent $68 billion, on defense in 2022, according to Reuters. As Alexander Isakov, Russia economist at Bloomberg Economics says:

“There are no alternative oil importers of India’s caliber on the horizon for Russia, so exporters and banks will gradually accept settlement in rupees…”

Western pundits and economists have talked endlessly about how the sanctions weren’t doing much to close off Russia from the rest of the world. But the sanctions that cut off major Russian banks from most of the West’s payment systems, have created a real challenge to Russia finding ways to get paid for their crude so that they can finance their war in Ukraine.

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Thoughts About Blowing Up The Ukrainian Dam

The Daily Escape:

Ray Wells Dune Shack, Provincetown, MA – June 2023 photo by Sarah E. Devlin. The shack is one of the largest of the historic dune shacks on the Outer Cape. It is made available for two weeks at a time through a combination of juried artist awards and a lottery system for members of the Peaked Hill Trust, a nonprofit group.

Have you been following the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam and power plant in the Russian-held part of Ukraine? Wrongo is still a little numb about the magnitude of what’s happened.

The dam is about 100 feet high and two miles across, and it holds back more than four cubic miles of water at its peak capacity. The reservoir is nearly 120 miles long. It had the only remaining roadway across the Dnipro River. The dam was also a source of hydroelectric power for the region. The dam was close to peak capacity when it gave way. In May, the water in the reservoir rose so high that it over topped the dam, apparently because the sluice gates couldn’t be opened by the Russians.

After weathering months of Russian air attacks on its energy infrastructure with missiles, bombs, and drones, blowing the dam has caused a permanent loss of electrical generation capacity of 357 Megawatts, or 1.4 Terawatt-hours per year. And Ukraine isn’t in a position to be giving up any sources of electricity. The cost of rebuilding it will be enormous and take years.

Both the Ukrainians and the Russians are blaming each other for the dam’s destruction. But as Yale’s Timothy Snyder says:

“Avoid the temptation to begin the story of this manmade humanitarian and ecological catastrophe by bothsidesing it.  That’s not journalism.”

Snyder also says this:

“…is a humanitarian disaster that, had it not taken place within a war zone, would already have drawn enormous international assistance. Thousands of houses are flooded and tens of thousands of people are in flight or waiting for rescue. Another consequence is ecological mayhem, among other things the loss of wetland and other habitats. A third is the destruction of Ukrainian farmland and other elements of the Ukrainian economy.”

More:

“Whatever the immediate cause of the dam break, it would not have happened without Russia’s invasion, without Russia’s earlier explosion at the dam, without Russia’s mismanagement of the water flow.”

So the speculation about who did it isn’t nearly as important as looking at the economic and military effects of losing the dam and the subsequent flooding:

“The sudden release of 18 cubic kilometers of water, about the volume of the Great Salt Lake in the US, will sweep the Dnipro River’s banks and tributaries downstream, threatening 80 settlements with flooding, including part of the city of Kherson and much of the eastern bank of the Dnipro, which is occupied by Russia.”

Still, armies that are attacking don’t blow dams if it would block their path of advance. Armies that are retreating do blow dams to slow the advance of the other side. At the moment of the explosions at the dam, Ukraine was advancing, and Russia was retreating.

And the timing is more beneficial to Russia than it is to Ukraine because it closes off the possibility of attack from the west for a significant period of time.

Last year, many feared the Russians would blow the dam as they withdrew from Kherson, although that would have prevented water in the reservoir behind the dam from reaching Crimea. Crimea is chronically water-short, although its local reservoirs are currently at capacity. There is a canal that brings water directly from the dam to Crimea.

The dam’s destruction now forces the Ukrainian government to use resources to mitigate the damage instead of using them in their counteroffensive. Secondly, it eliminates a key vehicle crossing point over the river.

Militarily, blowing the dam protects Russia’s flank from possible incursions across the river at least until the resulting mud flats dry out. The breadth of the waterlogged areas will mean that Ukrainian forces will have to wait at least a few weeks during which Russian forces can regroup and/or redeploy to other locations.

It may be that Russia has made a purely military decision, sacrificing the long-term future of Crimea in exchange for a short-term gain vs. the Ukraine counteroffensive.

Have the Russians now fully entered a “scorched earth” phase of the war? The Crimean reservoirs are full, so there is no immediate danger to the drinking water supply, but the long term prospects for water in Crimea are now dim. Regardless of who wins this war, the dam and canal will take years to rebuild.

It’s really difficult to see a plausible story where Ukraine had both the means or motive to cause this disaster. If Ukraine had done this, it would have taken precision missile strikes. But local reports about the explosions said that they were underwater and possibly from inside the dam.

Some will argue that Ukraine could have infiltrated special forces to blow up the dam. But that’s something out of a movie plot, not real life.

People should remember that for the past 15 months Russia has been killing Ukrainian civilians and destroying Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, whereas Ukraine has been trying to protect its people and the structures that keep them alive.

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How To Think Differently About Housing

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, Outer Banks, NC – June 2023 photo by Stephen P. Szymanski

Wrongo and Ms. Right have 12 grandchildren, only one of which is still in high school. The other 11 are out of school and pursuing their careers or are finishing their education. Only one of the 12 owns a home. Their experience with real estate is representative of what most younger Americans face in today’s real estate market. Ben Carlson uses data from Redfin to show us that mortgage payments are way up over prior years:

The median mortgage payment was up by more than $1,000 over four years. Carlson reminds us that this is just the monthly mortgage payment, it doesn’t include insurance, property taxes or upkeep. This is part of the reason that housing affordability is more excruciating — the pace of the increases has happened so quickly. We’ve simply never seen prices and rates rise this fast in such a short period of time. And asking prices are up as well:

Note that at the end of May 2023, the median asking price was $397k, up from $300k in May 2020, a 32% increase in four years.

But high mortgage rates and rising home prices aren’t deterring all buyers. John Burns Research shows buyers still outnumber sellers by a wide margin in today’s market. They report that as of April, even with 7% mortgage rates, 78% of all real estate agents say that buyers outnumber sellers in their markets.

And for rentals, the national median rent for a one-bedroom apartment has climbed to $1,504, according to research from Zumper. That’s significant: It’s only the second time in history that it has risen past $1,500. But the median doesn’t represent what you’ll pay in big cities:

In America, buying an investment property near work is more lucrative than actually working. The growth of asset values has outstripped returns on labor for four decades. Last year, one in four home sales was to someone who had no intention of living in it. Investors are incentivized to buy the type of homes most needed by first-time buyers: Inexpensive properties generate the highest rental-income cash flows.

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that in 2019, the median net worth of US renters was just 2.5% of the median net worth of homeowners: $6,270 versus $254,900. There’s no better example than the economic challenges to America’s young persons than trying to find (relatively) affordable housing near where they work.

A very interesting article in the May 23 NYT Magazine suggests a possible solution to housing inflation. Vienna, Austria began planning it’s now world-famous municipal housing in 1919. Prior to that, Vienna had some of the worst housing conditions in Europe. Vienna’s housing program is known as “social housing” (Gemeindebauten), a phrase that captures how the city’s public housing and other limited-profit housing are a widely-shared social benefit:

“The Gemeindebauten welcomes the middle class, not just the poor. In Vienna, a whopping 80% of residents qualify for public housing, and once you have a contract, it never expires, even if you get richer.”

Vienna isn’t a small town. Its population is just under 2 million, and if it were in the US it would be our fifth largest city, between Houston and Phoenix.

The availability of Vienna’s social housing also helps to keep costs down even for private housing:

“In 2021, Viennese living in private housing spent 26% of their after-tax income on rent and energy costs on average, which is…slightly more than the figure for social-housing residents overall (22%).”

One of the reasons Vienna’s social housing works is that it is not means-tested; it is open to middle class people. And as a result, the residents care more about whether their grounds stay clean and beautiful. In the US we restrict public housing to the poorest of the poor, making public housing something to escape from, not to enjoy.

Meanwhile, 49% of American renters are paying landlords more than 30% of their pretax income, In New York City, the median renter household spends 36% of its pretax income on rent.

The key difference is that Vienna prioritizes subsidizing construction, while the US prioritizes subsidizing people, like with housing vouchers. One model focuses on supply, the other on demand. Vienna’s choice illustrates a fundamental economic reality, which is that a large-enough supply of social housing offers a market alternative that improves housing for all.

Calls for a federal social-housing plan in America might sound far-fetched but the US government is already deeply involved in the housing market. There’s generous support for homeowners and deliberately insufficient support for the lowest-income households. In 2017, the US gave $155 billion on tax breaks to homeowners and to investors in rental housing and mortgage-revenue bonds, more than three times the $50 billion spent on affordable housing.

For many, housing expense can be an economic burden. And it’s hard to even contemplate what it would mean to have it not be a problem. What’s mind-boggling is how social housing gives the economic lives of Viennese an entirely different shape.

Imagine where the rest of America’s young adults’ income might go if they were able to spend much less of it on housing. Vienna’s program is a look into a world in which homeownership isn’t the only way to secure a financial future.

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