The truth about electronic cigarettes

October 17, 2019

Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated devices that deliver nicotine by means of an aerosol, aka vaping.  They are promoted as a means of weaning people away from cigarette smoking, but, as the chart above shows, they do no such thing.

Cigarette smoking was declining long before vaping was introduced.  Electronic cigarettes are not different from old-fashioned cigarettes.

LINKS

The Juul Fad Is Far Bigger Than I Ever Would Have Guessed by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.

National Adolescent Drug Trends in 2018 by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

U.S. labor’s new strategies for a new century

October 15, 2019

Freedom of contract begins where equality of bargaining power begins.  (==Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.)

A class war is being waged in the United States, and American workers are losing.  For the past 50 years, labor unions, the only institutions whose specific purpose is to defend workers’ rights, have gone from defeat to defeat.

New Deal protections of labor rights have been taken away, one-by-one, through court decisions, anti-labor laws and non-enforcement of labor laws.   Republican politicians, with few exceptions, regard unions as hated

American business is increasingly a network of supply chains, franchises and “independent” contractors,” which are almost impossible to shut down through strikes.  As a result, labor union membership has steadily fallen.

Steven Greenhouse, who was a long-time labor reporter for the New York Times, describes the state of American labor in his new book, BEATEN DOWN, WORKED UP: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor.   

He reviewed the history of U.S. labor’s rise and decline. but the most interesting parts of the book are his reports on successful tactics and strategies of today’s labor movement.

They often operate outside the framework of labor law. I’m not surprised or shocked that unions sometimes defy the law.  Employers routinely break the law, in firing workers for belonging to unions, for example, or not paying workers for all hours worked.

They often bypass being certified as bargaining agents by the National Labor Relations Board or asking for legally-enforceable contracts.   Instead their power comes from their own solidarity and power.

They found allies in the broader community.  They used unconventional tactics.  Saul Alinsky would admire many of today’s labor leaders.  They didn’t confine themselves to strikes.  They organized boycotts, publicity campaigns, mass demonstrations and lawsuits—anything to inconvenience or embarrass their opponents.

But often when they won, management found they were better off treating their workers with respect than as enemies.

A large number of labor leaders and rank-and-file workers quoted by Greenhouse are immigrants, women and people of color.  I don’t think that’s affirmative-action reporting on his part.  It is the nature of today’s work force.

Here are some of the stories he told/

∞∞∞

About 90 percent of fresh tomatoes in the USA are picked in Immokalee, Florida.  Tomato pickers historically worked long hours in the 90+ degree temperatures.

Women pickers were sexually harassed.  Pickers were often cheated of their wages.  A few were actually enslaved—held prisoner and forced to work without wages.

Farm workers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which supposedly guarantees the right to organize unions.

In 1991, farmworker activists founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a coalition that did outreach and education.

The founding group included three Haitians  pickers who’d been peasant organizers in their own country, but were now refugees in the United States.

They followed the Latin American labor tradition of “popular education,” using classes and skits to teach about labor history, U.S. agribusiness and how to educate and organize.

In 1993, they carried out their first strike.  They won minor victories from different growers, but then decided to focus instead on Taco Bell, a principal buyer of tomatoes.  In 2001, they organized a national boycott of Taco Bell.  Twenty colleges barred Taco Bell from campus.

After a huge demonstration at Taco Bell’s 2005 stockholders’ meeting, the company agreed to adopt a code of conduct for its suppliers, which set standards for wages, benefits, working hours and employee safety and also to pay a penny a pound more for its Florida tomatoes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Lessons of The Killing Floor

October 13, 2019

I saw a great movie Friday night – a remastered version of the 1984 movie, The Killing Floor, which is about the fight of slaughterhouse workers in Chicago in the 1910s to establish a union and how they were divided and defeated by racial conflict.

It is a reminder of a history we Americans shouldn’t forget and carries lessons for labor and social justice struggles today.

All the characters are based on real people, who supposedly did approximately the same things that the movie shows.

The viewpoint character is Frank Custer, an illiterate sharecropper from Mississippi, who at first is grateful just to find work and doesn’t want to get involved in what he sees as a conflict between white people.

But when Bill Bremer, a German-American union leader, sticks up for him, Custer begins to realize that people of a different race and heritage are not necessarily his enemies.

The union local reflects the culture of the immigrants from central and eastern Europe who make up the majority of its members.  Speeches by union leaders are translated into Polish, and union meetings are following by polka dances.

The white ethnic leaders welcome Custer into their midst, and rely on him and a handful of other black organizers to bring African-American workers into the union.  He becomes a respected member of the leadership.

This was a huge, huge thing for white people to do in the 1910s, when extreme racism was the norm not only in the United States, but throughout the Western world.

But the white leaders do not do what Custer did—get out of their comfort zone and make contact with people who are culturally different from themselves.

Instead they depend on him to represent the union to the black workers, and to represent black workers to the union leadership.  In the end, this proves to be too much to expect.

Custer’s best friend meanwhile goes off to serve in World War One, and comes home to scorn any idea of alliance with white people.  He trusts only his fists and his revolver.

Another black worker, Heavy Williams, resents Custer for the power and prestige he has gained by allying himself with white people.  He helps to sabotage the union’s fragile racial amity.

Following the end of World War One, the United States was torn with race riots—not race riots like today, which consist of black people going on rampages, mainly through their own neighborhoods.

The race riots of the “red summer” of 1919 consisted of armed white gangs shooting up black neighborhoods and wrecking property, while police looked the other way.

A race riot in Chicago was touched off by the stoning to death of a black man for trespassing on a white beach area.  White gangs in blackface set fire to Polish and Lithuanian homes.  Black Chicago neighborhoods are terrorized.

The meat packers used the end of wartime prosperity and the need to create jobs for returning veterans as an excuse to lay off union workers.  Many white union members saw African-Americans as a threat to their jobs.  Many African-Americans saw working as strikebreakers as the only way to get jobs.

The union was defeated temporarily, but gained recognition and a contract in the 1930s.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wingsuit flying in the Swiss Alps

October 12, 2019

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.

This must be highly exhilarating, provided you’re able to walk away from it at the end.

Trump, the Kurds and the forever wars

October 9, 2019

Kurds protest Trump troop withdrawal plan (Getty Images)

Getting into is easier than getting out of.

(Old saying)

If something cannot go on forever, someday it will stop.

 (Stein’s Law)

We can endure neither our disorders nor the cures for them.

(Livy, History of Rome)

One of the promises made by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign was to wind down U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Every time he tries to keep this promise, he gets so much resistance from war hawks in Congress and inside his administration that he backs down.

Not that President Trump is a lover of peace.  His preferred method of waging war is to try to starve other nations into submission through economic sanctions, as with Venezuela and Iran.  Economic war is real war, and produces real suffering, and creates its own type of danger of blowback.

Nor is troop withdrawal without adverse consequences.  Pulling American troops out of Syria will leave U.S. allies in Kurdistan open to attacks by Turks and by the Assad government, not to mention a possibly revived Islamic State (ISIS).

Donald Trump, in his usual thoughtless way, forgot about the Kurds when he announced the Syrian troop withdrawal and tweeted a lot of silly things when he was reminded of them.  I have no idea what happens next.

I try to free myself of the habit of seeing foreign conflicts as a fight between good guys and bad guys.  But I can’t help rooting for the Kurds.  They practice religious tolerance.  They don’t massacre civilians.  The Kurdish community in Rojava is attempting a radical experiment in democracy.  If somebody smarter than me has a plan for guaranteeing safety for the Kurds, I would be all for it.

I think it was Daniel Ellsberg who said that the American goal in Vietnam after 1965 was to postpone defeat until after the next election.  I don’t see any purpose in keeping troops in the Middle East or Afghanistan other than postponing admission of defeat until after the next election.

As in Vietnam, withdrawal will result in death and misery for many, especially for those who supported U.S. forces.  But withdrawal at some point is inevitable.  The only question is how to minimize the harm.  It would take a wiser and braver statesman than Donald Trump to answer that question.

Update.  It appears that President Trump doesn’t intend to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria—only to move them out of the way of the Turkish forces moving into the Kurdish-held areas.

LINKS

Damned if we do.

Eight Times the U.S. Has Betrayed the Kurds by Jon Schwartz for The Intercept.

In which I try to make some sense of Donald Trump’s Middle East policy by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.

Not Just Ethnicity: Turkey v. Kurds and the Great Divide Over Political Islam and the Secular Left by Juan Cole for Informed Comment [Added 10/10/2019]

The Annihilation of Rojava by Djene Bajalan and Michael Brooks for Jacobin.  [Added 10/10/2019]

Damned if we don’t.

Is Trump At Last Ending Our Endless Wars? by Patrick J. Buchanan.

Trump Pulling U.S. Forces Out of Syria? by Kit Knightly for Off-Guardian.

America Doesn’t Belong in Syria by Doug Bandow for The American Conservative.  [Added 10/10/2019]

Why the Syrian Kurds Aren’t Necessarily Out Friends by Scott Ritter for The American Conservative.  [Added 10/13/2019]

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription

October 9, 2019

For light reading, I turned to Kate Atkinson’s spy story, Transcription.  It’s not as amazing as her Life After Life, but it’s a good read.

The central character, Juliet Armstrong, is working for the BBC in 1950 when she encounters someone from her past—the time in 1940 when she was 18 years old and transcribing recordings from hidden microphone for Britain’s MI-5 counterintelligence service.

Armstrong is an interesting and complicated character.  Her 18-year-old self is innocent and naive.  We the worldly readers who’ve read spy fiction understand what she sees better than she does herself.  Yet she also is secretive, deceptive and disinclined to take things at face value—a good fit for the world of espionage.

She is part of a team eavesdrops on a British fascist cell whose leader, unknown to its members, is himself a British intelligence agent.  Her job is to transcribe recordings from the hidden microphones in the rooms where they meet.

Eventually she is promoted to being an agent herself, spying on a higher-level group of British fascists called the Right Club.

At first her targets seem like harmless cranks.  But she soon learns she is in a real war, with real casualties.

The Right Club makes contact with one Chester Venderkamp, an American embassy employee who has obtained copies of secret messages exchanged by cable between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

These cables show President Roosevelt has violated American neutrality by supporting the British and trying to involve the United States in the war.

Vanderkamp gives copies of the cables to the Right Club so they can be sent to Germany, and, with Juliet’s help, they all are caught red-handed.

The Right Club really did exist, and it was headed by a Russian emigre named Anna Wolkoff, just as in the novel.  The real club was in contact with an American embassy employee named Kent Tyler, who did have copies of the Roosevelt-Churchill cables.

Unlike the Vanderkamp character, Tyler Kent was a whistleblower, who wanted to inform the U.S. Senate and American press of what President Roosevelt was up to.  In his own mind, Kent was an American patriot.

I think present-day whistle-blowers such as Chelsea Manning are heroes.  I don’t think Tyler Kent was a hero.  Am I inconsistent?  Maybe.  Circumstances alter cases.  Civilization hung in the balance in 1940.  Not so in 2010.

Kent got off lightly because the U.S. government could not afford a public trial in which the facts would come out.  Back in 1940, the U.S. government had no legal provision for secret trials or secret evidence based on claims of national security.

Read the rest of this entry »

Whistleblowers, leakers and spies

October 7, 2019

A spy is someone who provides information of military, diplomatic or political significance to a hostile foreign power.

A whistleblower is someone who reveals secret information about crimes and bungling to the general public.

A leaker is someone who reveals selected secret information to the general public in order to further some goal of the organization he or she works for.

In general, governments pursue whistleblowers with much greater ferocity than they go spies, while leakers are rewarded.

President Trump’s confidential conversation with Ukraine President Zelensky was revealed by a leaker, not a whistleblower.  Unlike with a whistleblower such as Chelsea Manning, there is no attempt by the CIA to track down and punish the leaker.  That shows it was an authorized leak.

Just as one of the benefits of red tape is to give power and prestige to those who can cut it, one of the benefits of classified information is to give power and prestige to those empowered to reveal it.

What would be the motive of the CIA is trying to promote impeachment of President Trump?  No doubt one is that CIA officials, like many members of the American public, regard Trump as a dangerous and unpredictable loose cannon.

But there also is the possibility that Trump just might wind down the wars in the Middle East and end the new cold war with Russia.  From the CIA’s perspective, that would be a great threat.  Much better, from their standpoint, to have Mike Pence in the White House.

If a future President Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or some libertarian Republican tried to make peace, that also would be regarded as a great threat, and no doubt would be met with a CIA attempt to undermine them.

LINKS

The Ukrainegate Whistleblower Isn’t a Real Whistleblower by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.  As usual, Taibbi hits the nail on the head.  Highly recommended.

A Weak Whistleblower, a Ridiculous Impeachment by Peter Van Buren for The American Conservative.  Van Buren, a former career State Department employee, lost his job and was threatened with prosecution for writing a book about the bungling of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Onward, Christian Soldier: Imagining a Pence Presidency by Barbara Boland for The American Conservative.

The tide is turning in favor of impeachment

October 5, 2019

During the past few months, a plurality of Americans have come to support impeachment of President Donald Trump, according to the latest YouGov poll.

We’re split along party lines.  Eighty-three percent of Democrats support impeachment, 76 percent of Republicans oppose it and independents are more or less evenly divided.

But public sentiment is definitely running against President Trump.

When asked specifically whether President Trump should be impeached if it could be proved that he suspended military aid to Ukraine in order to incentivize the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and his son, 55 percent said they’d support impeachment and only 26 percent said they’d oppose it.

The latest YouGov poll indicated that if the election were held today, a generic Democrat would get 40 percent of the vote and President Trump 36 percent, with 11 percent undecided.

But here’s something interesting.  Twelve percent said that if they had to choose between Trump and a Democrat, they wouldn’t vote at all.

Maybe impeachment isn’t a mirage, as I thought.  I’d still prefer the 2020 election hinge on health care, the economy, the environment, Social Security, immigration and other issues that affect the well-being of Americans.

Getting rid of Trump will accomplish little without a change in the conditions that produced Trump.

And, of course, while polls are interesting, the one that counts will be the one on Nov. 3, 2020.

Read the rest of this entry »

An interview with Paul Coates, Ta-Nehisi’s father

October 3, 2019

Paul Coates, the father of the famous writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a remarkable person in his own right.

Paul Coates

He was the leader of the Black Panther chapter in Baltimore in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when that carried a high risk of being killed or going to prison for a long time.

Later he founded a prison literacy program, opened a bookstore that doubled as a community center and founded Black Classic Press, to disseminate the works of contemporary and classic black authors.

In an interview with Wil S. Hylton for HuffPost Highline, the elder Coates described his experiences growing up in poverty and serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, told how the Black Panther Party self-destructed, explained why black nationalists appreciate the self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington and much else.

The interview is well worth reading.  HuffPost Highline seems like a good resource.

LINK

Now We’re Talking: The Extraordinary Life of Paul Coates by Wil S. Hylton for HuffPost Highline.

Banking while black: the same old story

October 3, 2019

Arizona State University once sent out testers to test for racial bias in hiring.  Some were black, some were white, some supposedly had criminal records, some did not.  Otherwise they were evenly matched.

Sure enough, the whites with criminal records had better acceptance than the blacks with clean records.

Rutgers Business School more recently sent out black and white testers to test for racial bias in small-business lending.  They were matched in every way except that the black applicants had slightly better qualifications than the white applicants.

Sure enough, the bank loan officers made the black applicants jump through a lot more hoops on average than the white applicants.

Among other things, the blacks were asked whether they were married, and whether their spouses were married, much more often than the white applicants.

They also on average had to provide more detailed financial information, got fewer offers of future appointments, got less offers of help in filling out forms and were thanked for coming in less frequently.

Despite all the very real progress since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, African-Americans still do not compete on a level playing field.

LINKS

New Report Finds Racial Bias in Small Business Lending by Yusuf Ismail for Patch news in Newark, N.J.

Shaping Small-Business Lending Policy Through Matched-Pair Mystery Shoppers by Sterling A. Bone, Glenn L. Christensen, Jerome D. Williams, Stella Adams, Annalise Lederer and Paul C. Lubin for the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.

A black woman in ‘a world made for whiteness’

October 2, 2019

Austin Channing Brown was a beneficiary of the civil rights movement.  But she never reached the point where she was judged on the content of her character instead of the color of her skin.

She grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when overt racial prejudice had ceased to be socially acceptable.  She attended a good majority-white private Christian school and good majority-white colleges.  She had a career in majority-white religious non-profit institutions, all of which paid lip service to diversity and inclusiveness.

She now is a writer, lecturer, workshop coordinator and producer of a new TV program, The Next Question, which will air starting Oct. 6.  Few if any of these things would have been possible before the civil rights era.

But, in her memoir, I’M STILL HERE: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, she wrote that she still feels like an outsider in a white world, and for good reason.

Her response is to immerse herself in what she calls Blackness (with a capital B) and take an oppositional stance toward what she sees as a monolithic entity called whiteness (all lower  case)

I have reservations about that.  The value of the book for me is its account of what even well-off black people have to put up, even when they’re with supposedly nice liberal white people.

Her parents named her ‘Austin Channing’ because they hoped that, when she sent in job applications, the potential employer would mistake her for a white man and invite her in for an interview.

Her parents were realistic.  Studies have shown that job applicants and loan applicants with characteristically black names get turned down at a higher rate than identical people with characteristically white upper-crust names.

And her own experience was that, in fact, interviewers were discombobulated when she came in the door and they saw who she was.

Another lesson from her dad: Never put her hands in her pockets or in her purse when in a store.  Because she was black, somebody might think she stole something.

When problems arose with white co-workers, Brown wrote, her mentors would invariably assume that she herself was the problem.  They would say they knew the co-workers and knew that they could never be racist.

There was a lot of racial prejudice, she wrote, underlying apparent concern and kindness.  Possibly she saw prejudice when it wasn’t there.

But that is the problem that black people face.  They never can know for sure whether a white person’s behavior toward them is a response to them as individuals or to their race.

Added to this is the problem of not fitting in, of not sharing the background, interests, tastes and assumptions common to her white co-workers.  This isn’t malice, it isn’t racial prejudice, but it is a real problem.

In my own case, I always felt a little uncomfortable when I was the only white person in the room.  I did not completely understand what was being said or done, and I was a little afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.

I am socially awkward generally, so somebody else might not have felt the way I did..  But I think I did get a glimpse of the stress that many black people must feel when they are in this kind of situation every day.

Read the rest of this entry »

What impeachment would not do

September 30, 2019

Chris Hedges wrote in Truthdig last week about what impeachment would not do.

Chris Hedges

Impeaching Donald Trump would do nothing to halt the deep decay that has beset the American republic.

It would not magically restore democratic institutions.

It would not return us to the rule of law.

It would not curb the predatory appetites of the big banks, the war industry and corporations.

It would not get corporate money out of politics or end our system of legalized bribery.

It would not halt the wholesale surveillance and monitoring of the public by the security services.

It would not end the reigns of terror practiced by paramilitary police in impoverished neighborhoods or the mass incarceration of 2.3 million citizens.

It would not impede ICE from hunting down the undocumented and ripping children from their arms to pen them in cages.

It would not halt the extraction of fossil fuels and the looming ecocide.

It would not give us a press freed from the corporate mandate to turn news into burlesque for profit.

It would not end our endless and futile wars.

It would not ameliorate the hatred between the nation’s warring tribes—indeed would only exacerbate these hatreds.

Impeachment is a way for the Democratic leadership to avoid these issues.

Trump’s rhetoric, as the pressure mounts, will become ever more incendiary. He will, as he has in the past, openly incite violence against the Democratic leadership and a press he brands as “the enemy of the people.”

There is no shortage of working-class Americans who feel, with justification, deeply betrayed and manipulated by ruling elites. Their ability to make a sustainable income has been destroyed. They are trapped in decaying and dead-end communities. They see no future for themselves or their children. They view the ruling elites who sold them out with deep hostility.

Trump, however incompetent, at least expresses this rage. And he does so with a vulgarity that delights his base. I suspect they are not blind to his narcissism or even his corruption and incompetence. But he is the middle finger they flip up at all those oily politicians like the Clintons who lied to them in far more damaging ways than Trump.

LINK

The Problem With Impeachment by Chris Hedges for Truthdig.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sweet Georgia Brown by Wynton Marsalis Quintet

September 28, 2019

I lifted this from Decker’s Dispatches from the Asylum blog, which ends each post with an excellent music video.

There is a corruption case against Hunter Biden

September 27, 2019

Joe and Hunter Biden

Ukrainian prosecutors have good reason to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.  And they reportedly have been investigating him since well before President Trump made his controversial telephone call to President Zelensky of Ukraine.

It’s not just that Hunter Biden served on the board of directors of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company, even though he has no special knowledge of the Ukraine or the energy industry, at a time when his father was President Obama’s “point man” for Ukraine policy.

Ukrainian prosecutors told journalist John Solomon that Burma Holdings apparently made unexplained transfers of money to a U.S. company partly owned by Hunter Biden, in possible violation of Ukrainian law.

Hunter Biden hasn’t been charged, let alone convicted, of a crime.  But there are objective reasons, not just partisan political reasons, to look further at his record.

Back in January, 2018, Joe Biden boasted to the Council of Foreign Relations about how he pressured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to fire Special Prosecutor Viktor Shokin by threatening to withhold $1 billion in needed loan guarantees.

Solomon took the trouble to get Shokin’s side of the story and wrote an article about it for The Hill, an on-line news service.

He was told that Ukrainian prosecutors re-opened the investigation following Biden’s speech.  That’s significant, because he wrote his article in April, and President Trump’s controversial phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymer Zelensky about the case was on July 21.

Solomon reported:

The prosecutor … [Biden] got fired was leading a wide-ranging corruption probe into the natural gas firm Burisma Holdings that employed Biden’s younger son, Hunter, as a board member.

U.S. banking records show Hunter Biden’s American-based firm, Rosemont Seneca Partners LLC, received regular transfers into one of its accounts — usually more than $166,000 a month — from Burisma from spring 2014 through fall 2015, during a period when Vice President Biden was the main U.S. official dealing with Ukraine and its tense relations with Russia.

The general prosecutor’s official file for the Burisma probe — shared with me by senior Ukrainian officials — shows prosecutors identified Hunter Biden, business partner Devon Archer and their firm, Rosemont Seneca, as potential recipients of money.

Shokin told me in written answers to questions that, before he was fired as general prosecutor, he had made “specific plans” for the investigation that “included interrogations and other crime-investigation procedures into all members of the executive board, including Hunter Biden.”

After Shokin was fired, the investigation was wound up without any charges filed against Burisma Holdings or Hunter Biden.

Yury Lutsenko, the current special prosecutor, said that, after Biden’s speech, he re-opened the case.  He told Solomon he found out things he’d be happy to share with Attorney General William Bar.  He didn’t say what these things were.   That, of course is not evidence of anything.  But there is other evidence against Hunter Biden.

Read the rest of this entry »

Americans trust military, police the most

September 26, 2019

The most respected institution in the United States is the military.  Men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Democrats, Republicans and independents all have confidence in the military.

The least respected institution in the United States is Congress, which was supposed to be the institution closest to the people.  Men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Democrats, Republicans and independents all lack confidence in Congress.

A majority of Americans lack also lack confidence in the Presidency, and in TV news and newspapers.

What other institution do a majority of us have confidence in?  The police.

These are the results of an Economist / YouGov poll.  It does not bode well for the future of democracy.

If you don’t have confidence in the results of elections or of the legal system or of freedom of the press, why not a police state or military dictatorship?

Here’s a breakdown of what the poll shows about various U.S. institutions, going from most-trusted to least trusted.  I took these charts from a post on the Audacious Epigone web log.

Read the rest of this entry »

Trump, Biden and Ukraine

September 25, 2019

I wrote a week ago that impeachment of President Donald Trump is a mirage, and now Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has called for an impeachment investigation of the President.  Such are the perils of commenting on breaking news.

The circumstantial  information already available to the public indicates that President Trump has abused the powers of his office.

President Trump

He acknowledged holding back $250 million in military aid that Congress had appropriated for Ukraine.

He acknowledged talking to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine about reopening an investigation of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that paid Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, $50,000 a month to serve on its board of directors.  The younger Biden resigned from the board earlier this year.

The House Judiciary Committee wants the transcript of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky, but even if nothing was said that connects the aid package to the investigation, the implication is clear.

The House has a duty to investigate.  I don’t think it is a good idea to call it an impeachment investigation just yet because calling it that means the investigation will be considered a failure if it does not result in impeachment recommendations.

Impeachment by the House may or may not be justified.  Conviction by the Senate would be next to impossible because it would require unanimity among the 47 Democratic Senators plus support by at least 20 Republicans.

Joe and Hunter Biden

What Republicans will point out is that Vice President Joe Biden threatened to hold up $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine unless the government fired Viktor Shotkin, the prosecutor that was investigating Burisma.

Biden claims that Shotkin was corrupt, and his threat had nothing to do with his son.

I know of no evidence that either Joe Biden or his ne’er-do-well son, Hunter, broke the law.  But it’s obvious that Hunter would not have gotten his position if his father had not been Vice President.

It was a conflict of interest for Biden to be President Obama’s point man for Ukraine after his son took the job.

Biden may suffer more political damage than Trump.  The Trump Organization’s worldwide operations involve more extensive potential conflicts of interest.  But Biden has a reputation to lose and Trump doesn’t.

The greatest reputational damage of all in the whole affair is to the reputation of the United States of America as a whole.  It shows that American political leaders do not respect the sovereignty of allies.  It shows they use American power to advance their personal family and political interests.

So far as political strategy goes, I think that so long as public attention is focused on personalities, Trump benefits, and that Democrats can win only if they focus on policy and governance.  Trump may win if the 2020 election hinges on impeachment, and impeachment fails.

Read the rest of this entry »

Piketty on the merchant right and Brahmin left

September 24, 2019

The French economist Thomas PIketty is famous for his best-selling book, Capital in the 21st Century, which explained why inequality constantly increases.

Thomas Piketty

The explanation is the formula r>g.  It means that the rate of return on assets over time exceeds the rate of economic growth.  That means the wealthy get an ever-larger share of the economic pie until and unless something happens to destroy the value of their assets—war, revolution or a financial crash.

Piketty has just published a sequel, Capital and Ideology. in France.  It will be published in English translation next March.  Reviewers say it takes a more global view than the first book and advances more radical ideas for reducing inequality.

The part that’s getting the most attention is Piketty’s notion that politics in the USA, UK and France are polarized between a “Brahmin left,” representing the highly-educated, and a “merchant right,” representing great wealth—two elites who have more in common with each other than with the majority of working people..

Initially, left-wing parties represented poorly educated wage-earners, while right parties represented owners of capital and the professional classes.  Over time, left-wing parties helped children of wage-earners advance into the educated middle class, and their children supposedly became the liberal elites, whom Piketty calls the “Brahmin left.”

The Brahmin left occupy high positions in organizations—government, corporate, educational, “non-profit”— based on their educational credentials.  Their counterparts, the merchant right, have power based on their ownership of businesses and financial assets.

Both believe their power and position is based on merit.  Both embrace global competitiveness, immigration and dismantling of trade protections and the social safety net, which leave working people with lower wages and greater insecurity..

This has produced a nationalist backlash.  Americans elected Donald Trump as President, the British voted to exit the European Common Market and Marine le Pen’s National Rally has a substantial following among French voters.  What they have in common is opposition to globalization and immigration.

The nationalist backlash is not yet a serious threat to the financial elite.  But it has driven immigrants and racial minorities into the left-wing parties in all three countries.  By championing minority rights, the Brahmin left can convince themselves they are still on the side of the underdog.

Piketty thinks the “Brahmin left” and “merchant right” may merge, and true workers’ parties may emerge in opposition to them, as the original British Labor Party emerged in opposition to the Conservative and Liberal parties in the early 1900s.

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More about the Brahmin left and merchant right

September 24, 2019

Democrats in the U.S., the Labor Party in Britain and left-wing parties in France no longer primarily represent the interests of wage earners, according to Thomas Piketty, the famous French economist.

Instead they represent an educated elite, which he calls the Brahmin left, while the conservative parties represent a financial elite, which he calls the merchant right.

The educated elite are not an intellectual elite.  Having advanced college degrees don’t make you an intellectual any more than owning stocks and bonds makes you an entrepreneur.

I agree that there is less conflict of interest between the educated elite and the financial elite than there is between the two elites and the majority of wage-earners.

In a typical Fortune 500 corporation, the CEO, the board of directors and the institutional stockholders would be the merchant right.

Salaried middle management, the highly-paid consultants and most especially the human resources department would be the Brahmin left.  Their income would not come from financial assets, but from their rank in an organization, for which they would qualify by means of educational credentials.

The human resources department of an organization usually determines the organizational culture.  Typically HR people are big on diversity training and being LGBTQ allies because these things do not affect the wealth of stockholders or the power of top management.

American non-profit organizations such as universities and hospitals and also government agencies are adopting a  corporate model.

This means a well-paid top-heavy administrative overhead along with lower pay, higher demands and less security for those who do actual work.   Adjunct teachers, hospital nurses and letter carriers are treated just the same as factory workers.

Just to be clear, I’m in favor of sticking up for the rights of minorities, women and other groups that are targets of prejudice.  What’s wrong is using this as cover for lower wages, longer hours, expansion of contingent work and a fight against labor unions.

Such are my observations about American institutional life.  I don’t know how true these observations are true of institutions in Britain and France, or whether they are true at all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.

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Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red

September 23, 2019

I finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, last week.  Published in 1998 and translated from the Turkish in 2001, it is an interesting oddity—a historical novel, a love story, a murder mystery and a novel of ideas.  Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature.

The chapters have various narrators, all addressing the reader in a conversational style.  The narrators are not just the principal characters, but the two dead murder victims, their anonymous murderer, illustrations of a dog, a horse, a tree, two dervishes, Satan and Death, an unnamed man imagining himself as a woman and the color red.

Islamic Empires. Click to enlarge

The setting is 1591 Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled north Africa, western Asia and the Balkans. a territory as extensive as the Roman Empire.

The Ottomans were eventually left behind by modern civilization, but at the height of their power, some Europeans admired their government, in which administrators were chosen for ability and disinterested loyalty, not noble birth, wealth or connections.

By the standards of the time, the Ottoman Empire was notably tolerant in religion.  It gave refuge to persecuted Jews and heretical Christians, including unitarians.

In the novel, Sultan Murat III commissions an illustrated book to celebrate the glories of his realm.  The problem is that he wants it painted in the European style, which many of his subjects consider contrary to Islam..

Pamuk’s artists see art is a form of mysticism.  A picture of a horse should be an ideal horse, a horse as God sees it, not a recognizable image of a particular horse.  If an artist has a unique style, that is an imperfection in his art.  The works of the greatest artists should be indistinguishable because they converge on a true vision.

I don’t know to what degree actual Turkish and Persian artists of the time thought that way and how much is Pamuk’s invention.

The two murders in the novel are a product of the murderer’s fear that the artists will be attacked by fanatic religious mobs if knowledge of their project gets out.

Two characters. the master miniaturist Osman and the apprentice Black, are given 72 hours to solve the second murder.

If they fail, the Ottoman judicial system will revert to its default procedure, which is to torture all suspects (in this case, including Osman and Black) until someone confesses or offers evidence of guilt of someone else.

To be fair, judicial torture was part of the judicial systems of Europe and China at the time, and the Ottoman system was used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its hunt for terrorists following the 9/11 attacks.

I’m sure Pamuk planted enough clues to identify the murderer in advance, but I did not figure out who he was until the end.

Black is in love with the beautiful Shekuri, daughter of the illustrator Enishte, who is in charge of the Sultan’s manuscript project.  He has returned from eight years of wandering and found that she is married and the mother of two young sons.

Her husband is a warrior who has been missing in action for four years, and she lives in the house of her domineering father-in-law and lustful brother-in-law.  So she sees Black as a possible solution to her problem.

The two female characters, Shekuri and Esther, the Jewish neighborhood matchmaker and fixer, are the only ones who are able to think two or three steps ahead.  All the male characters are prisoners of passion and illusion..

There are fables within the main story and many, many allusions to how various illustrations related to Turkish and Persian literate and folklore.  I found this part of the novel tedious because I don’t know the background.

My Name Is Red would not be to everybody’s taste.  I found it interesting for its characters.  They operated under very different cultural assumptions from mine, but still reflected universal human nature in unexpected ways.

I’m sure you have a good reason to look at this

September 21, 2019

The mirage of Trump impeachment

September 18, 2019

For the good of the country, the leaders of the Democratic Party should forget about trying to reverse the outcome of the 2016 election and think about how they can win the 2020 election.

Jerrold Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said last week the committee will begin an inquiry or investigation into whether there is just cause to impeach President Donald Trump without specifying just what the impeachable offense is.

Impeachment is a serious matter and rare, as it should be.  The tried and true method of removing an unsatisfactory President is to not re-elect him.  Overturning the results of an election should only be done for a compelling and obvious reason.

If you claim an action by President Trump is impeachable, the first question to ask yourself is whether it would be impeachable if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had done it.

Of the previous 44 Presidents, only two—Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton—were ever impeached, and neither one was convicted.  A third, Richard Nixon, resigned under threat of impeachment, and it is highly likely he would have been convicted.  Unlike with President Nixon and the Watergate investigation, there is no underlying, undeniable crime to investigate.

Originally, the idea was to determine whether Trump had tried to obstruct Robert Mueller’s investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.  But if that doesn’t pan out, the committee will consider whether there are other grounds for impeachment.

An open-ended investigation of an individual for the purpose of finding a reason to accuse him of a crime is not impartial justice under law.  It is like the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton.  The purpose was to work toward a result—impeachment—no matter what the basis was.

An impeachment is like an indictment.  The House of Representatives, acting like a petit jury, can impeach a President or other federal official, including judges, senators and congressional representatives, by simple majority vote.

The case then goes to the Senate which, acting like a petit jury, can convict, but only by a two thirds vote of those present.  If convicted of the charges, the President is removed from office, and then can be tried in the courts for any crimes he may have committed.

Grounds for impeachment, as set forth in the Constitution, are “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Being a bad President is not grounds for impeachment.  The Constitutional convention considered “maladministration” as grounds for impeachment, and rejected it in favor of “high crimes.”

What is a “high crime?”  Constitutional lawyers interpret this to mean abuse of the powers of one’s office, including ways that are technically legal.  For example, if an Attorney-General used his or her discretion to only prosecute members of the opposing political party and never to prosecute members of his or her own party, that might be grounds for impeachment.

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Poll shows Trump gain among minority voters (!!)

September 18, 2019

This is just one poll, but its results are startling to me.  It indicates that President Trump actually is improving his standing among black and Hispanic voters, but not among white voters—although he clearly is still the choice of a majority of white voters.

The SurveyUSA poll is based on comparing Romney/Obama exit polls, Trump/Clinton exit polls and a hypothetical Donald Trump/Elizabeth Warren election if it were held today.  It only includes votes for the two candidates; third-party votes are ignored.

It also indicates that either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden could easily defeat Trump, but that the race would be close if Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg were the Democratic candidate..

Again, this is just one poll among many.  I don’t take it as proof of anything, just an interesting data point.  But it wouldn’t surprise me if increasing numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics favored a candidate who stood for economic nationalism and cultural conservatism.

LINK

Survey USA Election Poll #24854.

U.S. is unprepared to wage war or make peace

September 13, 2019

It’s been a long time since the United States has won a war.  Fred Reed, a Vietnam veteran and former military correspondent, wrote a good article earlier this week on why this is so.

There are a lot of reasons, but the basic one is that the U.S. government is not serious about war because American survival has not been at stake in any recent conflict.  This may not always be true.

President George W. Bush, listening to the advice of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, launched invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under the illusion that victory would be quick and relatively easy.  By the end of his administration, he learned his lesson.  He fired Rumsfeld, stopped listening to Cheney and began troop withdrawal from Iraq.

President Barack Obama did not quite have the nerve to completely wind down Bush’s interventions and be the one to have to admit defeat.  He did try to improve relations with Iran and Cuba.  But mostly he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looked to other ways of waging war—drone strikes, targeted assassinations, Special Forces operations and arming foreign fighters to serve as U.S. proxies.  Of course the foreign fighters had their own goals, which weren’t necessarily U.S. goals.

President Donald Trump so far has not shown the nerve to completely wind down Bush’s and Obama’s interventions and thereby be the one to admit defeat.  He has at least talked about improving relations with Russia and North Korea, although with Trump, it is hard to know what he will do next.

Mostly he and his advisers have looked to yet another way of waging war—economic sanctions, a seemingly cruel but safe war tactic that can do much harm as bombings and arming proxy fighters.  But economic warfare is a two-edged sword.

The power of the U.S. to impose sanctions rests on the fact that the world does business in dollars.  Targeted U.S. enemies are looking for alternatives to the dollar and, once they succeed, the U.S. will be as vulnerable to sanctions as any other country—maybe more so, if we Americans are as dependent on global supply chains as we are now.

We Americans need a government that can make peace with the rest of the world.  We have gotten so used to war that this is hard to imagine.

LINKS

Unused Militaries by Fred Reed for The Unz Review.  Why the world’s most expensive military is unprepared for serious war, in specific detail.

Trump’s Afghanistan ‘Peace” Will Be Vietnam All Over Again: A Mess American Leaves Behind by Col. Andrew Bacevich for Common Dreams.  Not primarily an anti-Trump article, but a reflection by a Vietnam veteran and retired career military officer on the human suffering caused by U.S. interventions.

The U.S. Massively Underestimates the Trade War Blowback by Robert Berke for OilPrice.  A financial analyst reflects on the economic costs and unexpected consequences of waging trade wars.

Congressional committee assignments are for sale

September 12, 2019

Big-money influence on Congress is nothing new.  It does back to the Gilded Age of the 19th century and before.  House Speaker New Gingrich took it a step further in the 1990s with his “pay to play” system.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually has taken the process a step further.  Each Democratic congressional representative is expected to pay “dues” to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee by raising money from donors.  Each committee assignment has a specific posted price.

The political scientist Thomas Ferguson wrote about this eight years ago, and I posted about it then.  Recently Ryan Grim and Aïda Chavez of The Intercept obtained the latest posted prices.

The dues for the 2020 cycle, according to the DCCC dues document, range from $150,000 at the low level to $1,000,000 for the Speaker of the House.  The document lays out the price of particular committee assignments.

Leadership posts for the second-, third-, and fourth-ranking Democrats — currently Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn, and Ben Ray Luján — range from $900,000 down to $700,000.

The next tier of leadership, which includes Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos, and others, costs just $575,000. Lower-ranking members of leadership owe between $400,000 and $500,000.

That’s less than the chairs of exclusive committees have to chip in. Those four — Richard Neal, chair of Ways and Means; Frank Pallone, chair of Energy and Commerce; Nita Lowey, chair of Appropriations; and Maxine Waters, chair of Financial Services — owe $600,000 each for their gavels. Neal has paid half of his dues, while Lowey and Pallone have paid just under $200,000. Waters hasn’t made any dues payments yet.

The document also lists a goal for money-raised, which it puts at $1.2 million for each of the four. The dues report claims Waters has raised just $40,500, compared to $3.3 million for Neal, $1.4 million for Pallone, and $160,400 from Lowey. (Neal, Pallone, and Lowey are facing primary challenges.)

On those so-called money committees, like Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce, even freshman members are asked to pay higher dues. That’s because those committees have jurisdiction over effectively every major industry, giving members a leg-up in demanding checks from corporations who need — or oppose — legislation before the panel. It is also valuable for industries to have committee members write letters to agencies they oversee.

Chairs of committees not lucky enough to oversee commercially prosperous industries owe just $300,000 in dues and have a listed goal of raising $300,000, compared to the money committees’ $1.2 million. Indeed, even vice chairs of money committees owe more than chairs of regular committees. Yvette Clarke, vice chair of Energy and Commerce, and Terri Sewell, vice chair of Ways and Means, owe $400,000 each. Subcommittee chairs on money panels owe as much as chairs of plebeian committees: $300,000.

An individual seat on a money committee, meanwhile, will run a member of Congress $250,000.  Sad sack rank-and-filers not privileged enough to sit on a money committee owe just $150,000.

Source: The Intercept

Democratic congressional representatives are expected do spend several hours a day on the phone, soliciting donations.  There also is a “points” system by which representatives can earn credit by supporting the party through action rather than money.

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The world of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

September 12, 2019

I enjoyed reading Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  Published in 1849, the novel is set in Yorkshire in 1811-1812 at the time rebellious factory workers were fighting the introduction of labor-saving weaving machinery.

The title character is Shirley Keeldar, a rich, beautiful extroverted heiress who, in the absence of either father or husband, comes as close to being free and independent as was possible to any woman in that time and place.

By good-humoredly refusing to conform to the expectations for women in that era, she gets the men to accept her as a kind of honorary man.  She isn’t a rebel against society; she just wants to be a full participant.  She enjoys managing her estate and organizing charities.  She gets a number of proposals of marriage from rich suitors, which she turns down.

The Shirley character was the orphan daughter of a man who wanted a son and raised her as a boy—which was in fact the background of many accomplished women of that time and later.

Shirley was then a man’s name; it may have become more of a woman’s name because of the novel.

The emotional core of the novel is the intense personal friendship Shirley forms with the introverted and penniless Caroline Helstone, who lives as a tolerated poor relation of her uncle, Matthewson Helstone, an Anglican rector.

Rev. Helstone thinks he is doing his duty by Caroline by giving her food, shelter and a place to sit and do her sewing until some man comes along who is willing to marry her.

She is unhappy with these limitations, but the only choices for an upper- or middle-class woman of that time would be to find a suitable mate or live a marginal life as an old maid.   There was long before women could become school teachers, nurses or typists.

The only occupation open was governess, which is being a nanny and tutor to a rich family’s children.  Only educated women from genteel backgrounds are eligible to become governesses, but their lives were constant reminders that they are servants and social inferiors of their employees.

The older characters all regard Caroline’s discontent as girlish foolishness.  Their view is that life is not supposed to offer you love or happiness.  It is a grim test in which you prove or fail to prove your worthiness to enjoy eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

Caroline is attracted to her cousin, Robert Gérard Moore, a half-Belgian factory owner, who has affectionate and protective feelings toward her.  She accepts the fact that marriage is out of the question because she has no money.  Moore in turn has a platonic, intellectual friendship with Shirley.

Moore is in the forefront of the struggle against the “frame breakers,” workers are fighting mechanization of the weaving industry.  Brontë depicts them as criminals and terrorists who have successfully intimidated magistrates and other industrialists by threat of riot and assassination..

Moore alone has the courage to fight back.  He brings in troops to protect his factory, tracks down rebel leaders and sees to it that they are sentenced without mercy to transportation to Australia.  This is at great personal risk because at one point he is shot and nearly dies.

Rev. Helstone and the other Anglican clergy are all on Moore’s side.  They do not attempt to be peacemakers.  Methodist and Baptist preachers are depicted as part of the rebellious riffraff.

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