Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump’

Haiti’s problems mostly originate outside Haiti

January 18, 2018

Haiti is poor largely because outside powers keep it poor.   Not that Haiti doesn’t have its own home-grown crooks and tyrants, but the Haitian people would be better able to deal with them if the crooks and tyrants weren’t backed by the U.S. government.

President Trump’s recent vulgar comment about immigrants from Haiti and other majority-black was offensive.  But offensive language isn’t the main problem.  The problem is the centuries-long history of the United States and other powerful countries holding Haiti down, of which Trump is just the latest example.

LINKS

One of the most repeated facts about Haiti is a lie by M.R. O’Connor for VICE News.

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Should the U.S. welcome immigrants from Africa?

January 17, 2018

Last week President Donald Trump reportedly stated, in vulgar language, that he didn’t want immigrants from nations such as El Salvador, Haiti and African countries.   His reportedly said that immigrants from countries such as Norway have more to contribute

West African market in Washington, D.C.

Kirsten Nielsen, the new Secretary of Homeland Security, said that what the President really meant was that the United States should have a merit-based immigration policy, in which immigrants are admitted based on their potential to make a positive contribution to their new country.

How would such a policy work?  Canada, our neighbor to the north, is a pioneer in merit-based policy.  Immigrants are admitted based on a points system that includes fluency in English or French, educational level, work experience, age (18-35 preferred) and whether they have a job offer waiting.

According to a Canadian academic named Arvind Megasan, these were some of the sources of Canada’s 1.2 million immigrants admitted under these criteria during 2011-2016:

  • Africa, 162,800.
  • Central America and the Caribbean, 76,860.
  • Northern Europe, 31,880

From selected individual countries:

  • United States, 33,060
  • Haiti, 19,990
  • El Salvador, 3,530
  • Norway, 230

Why would there be such a large number of highly qualified immigrants from Africa?  It is because there are few opportunities for them in most African countries.   By and large, African countries do send their best.

In contrast, Norway has, by some measures, the highest living standard in the world, thanks to its welfare state and North Sea oil.  Few Norwegians have anything to gain by leaving their homeland.

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Trump didn’t plan on being elected President

January 5, 2018

Neither Donald Trump nor his key supporters expected him to be elected President, according to Michael Wolff, author of a new book about the Trump administration.   They expected to lose and were unprepared to actually govern.  This would explain a lot.

Wolff was granted free access to the Trump White House—a fact that in itself shows the administration was in disarray—and has published a book, Fire and Fury: Inside Trump’s White House, which came out today.  The following is from an excerpt published in the current issue of New York magazine—

The candidate and his top lieutenants believed they could get all the benefits of almost becoming president without having to change their behavior or their worldview one whit.  Almost everybody on the Trump team, in fact, came with the kind of messy conflicts bound to bite a president once he was in office.  Michael Flynn, the retired general who served as Trump’s opening act at campaign rallies, had been told by his friends that it had not been a good idea to take $45,000 from the Russians for a speech.  “Well, it would only be a problem if we won,” ­Flynn assured them.

Not only did Trump disregard the potential conflicts of his own business deals and real-estate holdings, he audaciously refused to release his tax returns.  Why should he?  Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and a martyr to Crooked Hillary.  His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would be international celebrities.  Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the tea-party movement.  Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star.  Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching.  Losing would work out for everybody.  Losing was winning.

I suspected something like that myself.  It explained Trump’s reluctance to spend his own money on his campaign.  It explained why Trump was willing to say whatever crossed his mind, regardless of the repercussions—which was part of his appeal.

Trump’s facial expression during the Inauguration was stormy and angry.  His face was not the face of someone enjoying a triumph.  But, according to Wolff, all this quickly changed.  Trump now is fully confident of his ability to be an effective President.

Another striking thing about Wolff’s account is that none of the top people in the Trump administration, except for his sons, daughter and son-in-law, manifest any personal loyalty to Trump himself.  This does not bode well for Trump in dealing with the Mueller investigation.

Wolff’s report should be read with skepticism.  His article is full of direct quotations of conversations he was not in a position to hear.  It is a mixture of first-hand, second-hand and possibly third- and fourth-hand information.

The reader must judge how much is known fact and how much is gossip.  For me, Wolff’s account is plausible and, as I said, it would explain a lot.

LINKS

Trump Didn’t Want to Be President by Michael Wolff for New York magazine.

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Trump, Macron tax plans both favor the rich

December 16, 2017

Donald Trump, the populist, nationalist President of the United States, and Emmanuel Macron, the sophisticated, cosmopolitan President of France, may seem like mirror opposites.

And, indeed, Trump in 2017 spoke favorably of Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, while Macron has been highly critical of Trump.

But they both represent the interests of the economic elite, according to Thomas Piketty, the famous economist who wrote Capital in the 21st Century. 

They both support changes in the tax laws that will increase the share of income of the wealthiest Americans and French.

Piketty says the American and French economic elite have taken almost all the benefit of income growth in the past few decades, and don’t need any more.  Both countries’ new tax laws would—

  • Leave working people feeling even more alienated from their governments than before.
  • Leave the public feeling even more unwilling to make sacrifices need to curb global warming.   If rich people can live even more lavishly than before, why should the rest of us accept the burden of a carbon tax?
  • Leave governments even fewer resources to reduce poverty, either on a national or a global scale.

As Piketty wrote, economic policies that benefit the economic elite at the expense of everybody else, in addition to being bad in themselves, are like to lead to a nationalist backlash that benefits nobody.

This is not an issue that is limited to the USA and France.

LINK

Trump, Macron: same fight on Le blog de Thomas Piketty.

Law should forbid U.S. nuclear first strike

November 24, 2017

Few Americans are still alive who have a living memory of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.   Maybe that’s why so little attention is paid to the danger of nuclear war, unlike in the 1950s and 1960s.

The purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter an attack by a foreign country with nuclear weapons, although the U.S. government has never renounced the option of a nuclear first strike, such as in the event of a Red Army invasion of western Europe.

But now President Donald Trump talks about using nuclear weapons to enforce his ultimatums against North Korea.  A nuclear attack on North Korea would be a crime against humanity.  An attack, or the threat of attack, might tempt North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, to pre-emptively attack the United States or its allies, figuring that he has nothing to lose.

Senator Ed Markey, D-MA, and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-CA, introduced bills in September, 2016, forbidding a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.   When they introduced those bills, it looked as if someone other that Donald Trump would be President in 2017, so they are more than merely anti-Trump.

Senator Bob Corker, R-TN, held hearings earlier this month on the possibility of a first nuclear strike by a U.S. President.   The best hope the witnesses could offer was that the military would not obey an illegal order.

A first strike would be a violation of international law, but the military chain of command might not regard international law as binding.   Legislation is needed to make a nuclear attack a legal crime as well as a moral crime.

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Orwell, Trump and the definition of fascism

October 17, 2017

Back in 1944, George Orwell, my literary hero, worried about the misuse of language, including misuse of the word “fascism”.

As used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.  In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print.  I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

George Orwell

Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning.  To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic.

Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others.

Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it.  By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.

Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.  That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

Source: George Orwell: What is Fascism? (1944)

I worry about the misuse of language, too.  During the 2016 election campaign, I fretted about calling Donald Trump a fascist.

This was because Trump’s movement lacked key elements of Mussolini’s fascism—a totalitarian ideology, a private militia, a parallel governing structure outside the official governmental chain of command.

My fear was that a real fascist movement will come along, perhaps something like the old Ku Klux Klan, and the word “fascist” will have lost its sting.

On the other hand, Donald Trump is certainly cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working class, as well as being a bully, and these things shouldn’t be accepted as normal.

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Can Trump be removed via the 25th Amendment?

September 26, 2017

The Constitution provides another way besides impeachment to get rid of a sitting President.   This is a determination by the Cabinet and Congress under the 25th Amendment that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.

I wrote a number of times during the election campaign that I do not think Donald Trump is intellectually, temperamentally or morally fit to be President of the United States.

His behavior is growing more erratic by the day.   Could this be this grounds for removing him, as the officers of the Caine removed Captain Queeg in the novel and movie The Caine Mutiny?

The process allows a President to declare himself unable to discharge his office and to delegate his power to his Vice President.   It also allows the Vice President, with the support of the Cabinet, to declare the President unable to serve.

I think the kind of situation they had in mind was President Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955 and his stroke in 1957.

Normally the President would resume the duties of his office when he declared himself able to do so.

But the Vice President and Cabinet could ask Congress to overrule him.

Congress would have 21 days to bar the President from resuming his powers.

This would require a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote a superb article on the subject—The Madness of Donald Trump.

It covered both how deranged President Trump seems to be now and the legal obstacles to applying the 25th Amendment to overthrow him.

In fact, the procedure specifically can’t be about politics.  John Feerick, a Fordham law professor who helped work on the original bill with senators such as Indiana’s Birch Bayh and authored a book titled The 25th Amendment, goes out of his way to point out the many things that do not qualify as “inability” under this law.  The list reads like Trump’s résumé.

The debates in Congress about the amendment, Feerick writes, make clear that “inability” does not cover “policy and political differences, unpopularity, poor judgment, incompetence, laziness or impeachable conduct.”  When asked about the possibility of invoking the amendment today, Feerick is wary.  “It’s a very high bar that has to be satisfied,” he says. “You’re dealing with a president elected for four years.”


Source: Matt Taibbi  – Rolling Stone

Even if deemed unable to serve, Trump would still be President.   No doubt he would have many choice words about how Vice-President Mike Pence administered the office.

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Trump was once very astute: What happened?

September 26, 2017

The young Donald Trump, whatever you think of his ethics, was an astute operator.   He had the benefit of his father’s millions and political connections, but he used them effectively and became an important operator in the New York City real estate market.   When he chose, he was capable of great charm and persuasiveness.

He was able to hold his own when he worked with organized crime figures and corrupt politicians.   Whatever you think of his ethics, he knew what he was doing.

He appeared from time to time as a guest on TV talk shows, on which he expressed himself intelligibly, often in complete grammatical sentences.

That Donald Trump was very different from the Donald Trump of today—very different in terms of intelligence, I mean, not different morally.

He won election as President by being able to articulate the grievances of a segment of the American public who felt themselves ignored, but since he took office, his administration has gone through a continuing series of crises, almost all of them of his own making.

His staff worry about what he is going to say overnight on his Twitter account.   He seems more interested in feuding with journalists and celebrities than in advancing a program.

I have a theory as to why this might be so, which I can’t prove and which you probably will find far-fetched.

My theory is that a person whose aim in  life is to gratify their desires and appetites—for pleasure, for sex, for luxury, for acclaim, for taking revenge—and who has no purpose beyond that will lose the ability to think about anything else..

The end point is something like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings stories or the hungry ghosts of Buddhist cosmology—a creature in which there is no personality left, just the desires and appetites.

Has Trump committed impeachable offenses?

September 25, 2017

Impeachable offenses, according to Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, are “treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors”.

I happen to believe that President Trump is unpatriotic and dishonest, but I’m not convinced that he has committed an impeachable offense..

What Are Impeachable Offenses? by Noah Feldman and Jacob Weisberg in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, a good review of the law on the topic.

Feldman and Weisberg point out that, back in 1789, a “high” crime did not necessarily mean an extra-serious crime.   A “high” crime was a crime committed by a public official in the performance of their duties.

A crime committed by a President before taking office, even a very serious one, is not an impeachable offense unless it is, in some way, connected with actions while in office.

So even if it could be proved that Russian individuals or intelligence agencies tried to help Trump during the election, that would not necessarily be an impeachable offense.

An impeachable offense would be Trump, once in office, using the power of the Presidency to pay the Russians back for their help.

It also seems to me that a quid pro quo would be almost impossible to prove.

Take Hillary Clinton’s six-figure speaking fees for speaking to Goldman Sachs officers.  Was this bribery?   She challenged anyone to prove that she changed a single vote or made a single decision in return for these fees, and, of course, nobody could.

This was not bribery.   It is simply that the financiers approved of Clinton and her record.

Vladimir Putin made no secret of the fact that he approved of candidate Donald Trump’s hope for better relations between the United States and Russia if Trump were elected.

Maybe he helped Trump by means of leaking hacked e-mails or propagandizing for Trump on social media.   Maybe not.

But even if he did, that is a long way from bribery, treason or other high crimes and misdemeanors.  It is just that he felt good about Trump and his promises.

By the way, treason under Article III of the Constitution is fighting for the enemy or giving aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war.  An act of treason must be an overt act that is witnessed by two people, or is admitted in open court.

The United States has not declared war on Russia, so being friendly to Russia is no more treasonable that being friendly to Saudi Arabia, Israel, China or any other foreign country.

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Repealing and replacing Obamacare

September 22, 2017

Two Democrats—Senator Bernie Sanders [1] of Vermont and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan—have proposed bills to do something that President Donald Trump promised to do, but can’t and won’t do.

That is, they would repeal and replace Obamacare with something better.

I applaud what they’re doing, and I think Sanders deserves credit for making universal health care politically possible.

Tom Price

I don’t think Sanders or Conyers can get their bills through Congress at the present time, and I think President Trump would veto them if they did.

That’s just as well.   Implementation of both programs would require the cooperation of Tom Price, the current Secretary of Health and Human Services.   He is an opponent of traditional Medicare, which he would replace with a voucher system, and favors cutbacks in Medicaid.

But under both the Sanders and Conyers bills, he would appoint the administrators of the new program, and, under the Sanders bill,

The Secretary is … directed to develop policies, procedures, guidelines, and requirements related to eligibility, enrollment, benefits, provider participation standards and qualifications, levels of funding, provider payment rates, medical necessity standards, planning for capital expenditures and health professional education, and regional planning mechanisms.

Source: Health Affairs Blog

I’m pretty sure that neither Sanders nor Conyers intends to give Secretary Price the power to sabotage and discredit their plans.   Their proposals are talking points to rally support for universal health care and encourage thinking about how to make their bills better.

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President Trump and his new axis of evil

September 20, 2017

President Donald Trump said this to say in his address to the United Nations yesterday—

We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government.  But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.

He went on to say—

Rogue regimes represented in this body not only support terrorists but threaten other nations and their own people with the most destructive weapons known to humanity.

I think these would be excellent points, if only he had applied them to the United States as well as the rest of the world.

He called for an intensification of economic and diplomatic warfare against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, his new axis of evil.

How is this in the interest of the American people?  How is this consistent with respecting national sovereignty?   Are not North Korea, Iran and Venezuela sovereign nations?

The United States has paid radical jihadist terrorists to overthrow the government of Libya and is attempting to use them to overthrow the government of Syria—two sovereign states that never have threatened the United States.   The result has been to reduce these two countries to chaos and misery, as the cost of thousands of innocent lives.

President Trump in that very speech threatened another nation with the most destructive weapons known to humanity—

The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.

He accused the North Korean government of starving and torturing its own people, and various other crimes, which were real though not necessarily current.  But then he threatened an even worse atrocity.

To be fair, it is not clear whether he is threatening North Korea with attack merely if it fails to disarm or whether he is threatening retaliation in the event of an attack, which is different.

This ambiguity may be deliberate on President Trump’s part; he may think keeping others guessing is a good negotiating strategy.   Where nuclear weapons are concerned, this is dangerous.  It may lead the other person to think he has nothing to lose by launching an attack.

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Trump alienates GOP leaders in Washington

August 14, 2017

A year ago, I wrote that Donald Trump wasn’t intellectually, morally or temperamentally fit to be President.  But I admit I had no idea that he would send his administration into a perpetual state of crisis so soon.

There is growing dissatisfaction with Trump among Republicans in Washington.   But there are enough hard-core Trump supporters in their home districts and states to prevent them from attacking him openly.

LINKS

The Battles Within the White House Are Crazier Than You Think by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

Republican Senate Blocks Recess Appointments for Donald Trump by Charles P. Pierce for Esquire.

The conservatives turning against Donald Trump by David Smith, Lauren Gambino, Ben Jacobs and Sabrina Siddiqui for The Guardian.

In key 2018 battlegrounds, Trump’s support is as high as ever by Jeff Guo for Vox.

Donald Trump is wrecking government, legally

August 7, 2017

President Donald J. Trump in just six months has done permanent damage to the working of the federal government.   It is not just that his policies are mostly bad.   It is that, due to incompetence and contempt for government, he is destroying the ability of government to function.

The trouble is that his wrecking is fully within his legal and Constitutional powers as President, while  the illegal and unconstitutional actions of which he is accused are either unproven and / or have precedent in the Bush and Obama administrations.

LINKS

Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House by Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair.   Short version by Rod Dreher.

How the Trump Administration Broke the State Department by Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce and Colum Lynch for Foreign Policy.  Short version by Daniel Larison.

What’s Worse: Trump’s Campaign Agenda or Empowering Generals and CIA Operatives to Subvert It? by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.

Trump Is Guilty, of Something by Andrew Levine for Counterpunch.   But what?

Congress reins in Trump’s peace-making powers

August 3, 2017

You might think Congress would try to rein in President Trump’s war-making powers, considering his lack of judgment and self-control.

You might think Congress would have second-thoughts about giving Trump authority to engage in acts of war, order assassinations and engage in economic warfare, strictly on his own say-so.

You might thank that, and so might I.

But what Congress has done is to let all of Donald Trump’s war-making powers stand, while limiting his power to make peace.

The new sanctions legislation writes existing sanctions against Russia into law, enacts new sanctions and forbids the President to lift sanctions without consent of Congress.

  • This is a bad idea because it puts the USA in a permanent state of cold war with the world’s second largest nuclear weapons power.
  • This is a bad idea because it sets the United States against its European allies, who see their oil and gas prices go up.
  • This is a bad idea because President Putin is likely to retaliate by ending U.S.-Russian co-operation in the space program.

All this is to punish the Russian government for interfering in the 2017 U.S. election, even though such interference has never been proved.

The charge that Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign computers is treated by Congress and most of the Washington press as a proved fact, but the FBI has never been allowed access to those computers, and has never demanded access to those computers.

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The new normal 2017

August 2, 2017

Click to enlarge.   Source: Tom Tomorrow.

On the other hand, read What Trump Is Quietly Accomplishing by David A. Graham for The Atlantic.

Don’t underestimate Trump’s power to do harm

July 28, 2017

Because Donald Trump seems so undisciplined and ignorant, I continually underestimate his effectiveness.

I didn’t think he would be nominated.   I didn’t think he would be elected.   And sometimes I fool myself into thinking it is better to have Trump in the White House than somebody with the same agenda, but more competent.

This is a mistake.   In order to do good, you need not only good will, but intelligence and hard work, but that in order to do harm, all you need is malice.

Click to enlarge

>>>Donald Trump has left many key positions in government unfilled, but is moving forward at a rapid pace to nominate federal judges and U.S. attorneys.   The judges will be in office possibly decades after Trump is gone.   District judges and appeals court judges are almost as important as Supreme Court justices because most cases don’t reach the highest court.

Many of Trump’s executive orders have been blocked by court rulings.   Putting his own people on the bench lessens the likelihood that this will happen.

The bulk of his nominations have been in states represented by Republicans.   Customs of the Senate allow a Senator to block a judgeship nomination.   Concentrating on Republican states is smart because it means he can get a lot of his people approved before turning to the Democratic states.

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Can Trump pardon himself? Notes on Russiagate

July 25, 2017

Donald Trump is said to have asked his lawyers for their opinion on whether he has the power to pardon himself.

The parts of the Constitution relative to pardons are:

Article 2, Section 2. The President … shall have the power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

Article 2, Section 4. The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Article 1, Section 3. … Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust of Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

What I take this to mean is that the Founders never thought about the possibility of a President pardoning himself.  It’s a settled principle of law that no-one should be judge in their own case, but I’m not bold enough to say how the courts would decide this issue.

If President Trump had the authority to pardon himself, could he literally stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot someone and then pardon himself for the crime of homicide?

No.   The pardon power extends only to federal crimes.   In this thought experiment, he could still be prosecuted under New York state law.

The pardon power does not extend to impeachment, but the only penalty under impeachment is removal from office.

For all practical purposes, there is no way to hold a criminal President accountable except through the impeachment process.

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Tyranny, Trump and Timothy Snyder

June 26, 2017

Timothy Snyder, a historian of the Hitler-Stalin era, has written an eloquent and heartfelt little book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Centurywarning that democracy could perish in the United States of today just as it did in Europe in the 1930s.

Just as no couple making love for the last time ever realize it is the last time, he wrote, so no person voting in a free election for the last time realizes it is the last time.

On Tyranny contains 20 timeless principles for defenders of democracy.    The principles are illustrated by ominous stories of how the mass of people failed to resist Nazi and Communist tyranny and inspirational stories of how a few did.

Then come claims that Vladimir Putin is like Hitler and Stalin and that Donald Trump is like all three, and a call to be ready to resist.

Snyder has done well to remind Americans of the fundamental principles of democracy and the need to defend them.

But the need for the reminder didn’t originate with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  As Glenn Greenwald, Conor Friedersdorf and others have warned, these dangers have existed since enactment of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, and before.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, the government has claimed the power to engage in acts of war, order assassinations, spy on citizens, and bypass due process of law and also to imprison anyone who reveals what is going on.  Until this changes, every President is a potential tyrant, not just Donald Trump.

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Did Senate Dems trade ACA for Russia sanctions?

June 15, 2017

Senate Democrats reportedly made a deal to allow Republicans to gut Obamacare in return for their support of tougher sanctions against Russia.

The Republicans have a 52 to 48 majority, so they have the power to force through their plan.   We the public don’t know what it is going to be, but, in order to be reconcilable with the House bill, it will include denying government health care benefits to millions of people in order to enable tax cuts for the very rich.

There are procedural tactics that the Democrats could use to delay action until public opposition has time to build, but they reportedly have agreed not to do this.

So the public loses a program that, despite its many flaws, has saved lives in return for the increased possibility of war with Russia.

Reports of a deal may be false or exaggerated and, if there is a deal, not all Democrats may be on board with it.

But it is an indisputable fact that the Democratic leadership in Congress is putting much more energy into investigation, so far fruitless, of Trump’s ties with Russia than into opposing the Republican political agenda.

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Why the US bears the cost of NATO

May 26, 2017

My sixth most-viewed post is about a warning in 2011 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to European allies to pay their proportionate share of the cost of the NATO military alliance.

This is much the same as what President Trump is saying now.

I thought then, and I still think, that members of the European Union are strong enough and wealthy enough to protect themselves without relying on the USA.   I thought then, and I still think, that this would be a good thing.

But if the Europeans paid for their own defense, they might be less willing to follow the U.S. lead in military policy.  And, maybe more importantly, they might be less willing to buy their weapons from American manufacturers.

The advantage of paying the piper means that you get to call the tune.

Thomas Frank on Trump’s nationalist populism

May 24, 2017

Nobody alive has a better grasp of American politics than Thomas Frank.

Above is a video I came across of a talk he gave in April at the Kansas City Public Library.   It’s a bit long, especially to watch on a computer screen, but Frank is an entertaining speaker, as he is a writer, and I recommend listening to him if you have time.  His talk ends a little short of an hour and a question-and-answer period runs for about 30 minutes.

Frank sees Donald Trump as the latest of a line of Republican nationalist populists—his predecessors being Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and the leaders of the Tea Party.

A populist is someone who claims to speak in the name of the people against the elite.   The old Populist Party, which dominated Kansas politics in the 1890s, represented farmers and laborers and fought against bankers and railroad CEOs.

The Democratic Party used to be this kind of populist party, Frank said, but it no longer is.   Instead it represents a professional class defined by educational credentials.

In the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Democrats spoke in the name of the common people against greedy Wall Street bankers and power-hungry corporate CEOs.   But the present generation of Democratic leaders regards bankers and CEOs as classmates—members of the same college classes and same social class.

This has given an opening to nationalist populists who claim to speak for the common people against meddling bureaucrats, unpatriotic intellectuals and out-of-touch journalists.

The vast majority of Americans are either treading water economically or going under.   They are justifiably angry, and right-wing talk radio tells them a story that explains their plight and channels their anger.

The Republican populists offer no real solution, but Democrats no longer offer an alternative story.  That’s why they’ve been in decline for 50 years.  They will have a hard time coming back, Frank said, even if Donald Trump self-destructs.

I found Frank’s whole talk interesting.  Maybe you will, too.

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Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia

May 24, 2017

I came across this picture a couple of days ago and wondered what it was.

It is a ceremony conducted Monday in honor of the opening of the Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Saudi Arabia.

The participants touching the glowing orb are Egypt’s President Abdul-Fatah Al-Sisi, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and President Donald Trump.

The name of the center is ironic, because Saudi Arabia is the center for extremist ideology in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia pays for missionaries to spread Wahabism (or Salafism), a highly intolerant version of Islam.  Wahabists believe that Shiites and other Sunnis are not true Muslims.

Hassan Rouhani

King Salman and his son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, are  waging a bombing campaign against Shiite villagers in Yemen, is stepping up aid to rebels in Syria and is trying to organize a Sunni Arab military alliance against Iran.

Voters in Iran, meanwhile, have re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate reformer who negotiated the nuclear deal with the USA.

Rouhani is more democratic and peaceable than the hereditary Saudi rulers.  He has won honest and contested elections.  The range of choices in Iranian elections is limited because the ayatollahs vet candidates.  But you could say the same about U.S. elections, except that our candidates are vetted by big-money donors.

The Saudis seek regime change in Syria and Yemen; Rouhani seeks increased trade and investment.   In Middle East geopolitics, the Saudi monarchy is the aggressor, the Iranian clerical regime is the one on the defensive.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with democracy

May 24, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, in her new book, The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on the Moral Panic of Our Time, claimed that the election of Donald Trump reflects fundamental flaws in human nature and in the very ideas of democracy, free speech and freedom of the press.

Brooke Gladstone

To her credit, she doesn’t take her argument to its logical conclusion, which would be to empower gatekeepers to filter the news and opinions available so the rest of us aren’t exposed to anything the gatekeepers consider fake.

Many others, in fact, do go that far, so I will try to sum up her argument and then engage it.   Here’s her argument:

  • Truth is subjective Everybody lives in their own unique reality.   Since our ability to understand is limited, we make decisions based on stereotypes.   All human beings are emotionally committed to stereotypes and experimental psychology shows that our brains react negatively to whatever challenges our stereotype.
  • Knowledge of facts is not enough Any given set of facts is subject to multiple interpretations.  We the people filter facts according to own various assumptions and biases.
  • Appealing lies beat inconvenient truths John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill claimed defended free speech by claiming that truth would defeat falsehood in a free and open encounter.  This is bogus.   We the people don’t have access to full information about important public issues, nor the time or ability to evaluate it if we did.
  • Democracies foster demagoguesSince we the people cannot make rational decisions, we tend to prefer demagogues who offer us appealing fantasies rather than intellectuals who tell us inconvenient truths.

Here’s my answer.

The expression that “truth is subjective” or “we all live in different realities” is highly pernicious.

It’s true that we all have our own unique experience of reality.  As Gladstone notes, humans can’t imagine what it is like to experience the world as a bat or a bloodhound does.  But a human, a bat and a bloodhound all live in the same actual world.  We are all burned by fire and drown in water.   If our perceived reality is wrong, the real reality will sooner or later catch up with us.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with reality

May 23, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, a broadcaster and media critic, has written a provocative 87-page book about Donald Trump and his challenge to the concept of objective truth.

Trump has given us a constant stream of assertions—Obama was born in Kenya, Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11, millions voted illegally in the 2016 elections–without facts to back them up.

That is, as she wrote, a challenge to the basis premise of democracy, which is that we the people have the ability to make good choices as to who will represent us.

But what if we don’t have a good basis for making a choice?  What if the very possibility of making a rational fact-based choice is called in question?

We normally assume that both sides have some basis for what they say and that our job is to choose the one who makes the best case.   But Donald Trump just says things without bothering to make an argument?

How can the casual newspaper reader, TV watcher and social media user evaluate this?

∞∞∞

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt made a distinction between liars (people who knowingly make false statements for a reason) and bullshitters (people who don’t know or care whether what they say is true or not).

It’s not just Trump.   The whole flood of charges regarding Trump and Russia seems very—for want of a better word—Trumpian.  Every day there’s something new and nothing is ever proved.

The distinction between lies and bullshit applies here.  I don’t think anybody is knowingly making false statements about Trump and friends.  I think many of them just don’t care one way or the other.

On the other hand, the consequences for revealing unwelcome truths can be severe—Chelsea Manning seven years in prison, Edward Snowden a fugitive from U.S. law, Julian Assange confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

I’ve had people tell me that Assange should not have published information unfavorable to Hillary Clinton unless he had information equally unfavorable Donald Trump to publish.

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Can the Saudis lure the US into a war with Iran?

May 19, 2017

Prince Salman meets with President Trump in March

The young new ruler of Saudi Arabia, Prince Salman bin Mohammad, is trying to organize an alliance of Sunni Muslim nations against Shiite Iran.

And President Donald Trump is expected to endorse an anti-Iranian “Arab NATO” during his forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia.

This is a terrible idea.   It doesn’t benefit Americans and it risks a war that would be disastrous for both Americans and people in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is an enormously wealthy nation, but it is thinly populated and militarily weak.  It depends on the United States for its defense.  In return, the Saudis buy billions of dollars in armaments from American companies and pump oil in sufficient quantities to keep world oil prices low.

So the United States since the 1970s has sided with Saudi Arabia and also Israel against their geopolitical rivals in the region.   Once Saudi Arabia’s chief rival and threat was Iraq.  Now it is Iran.

This has nothing to do with making Americans safe from terrorism, and everything to do with promoting the strategic and economic interests of Saudi Arabia.

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