Archive for October, 2017

The indictments

October 31, 2017

Paul Manafort, who was chairman of Trump’s campaign, made millions from some of the world’s worst villains (like the murderer Putin), advising them how to crush opposition. Why they’d hire this creep is beyond me. Manafort did such a great job advising Ukraine’s Yanukovich that Yanukovich wound up having to flee the country. (The revolt against him was what triggered the Russian invasion.)

Manafort’s dirty work might actually have been legal — had he done it on the up-and-up. But he is charged with failing to file the disclosures and reporting required for such work, with money laundering of his fees, and dodging income tax on them. Also for conspiracy against the United States — undermining America’s national interests.

This is who Trump chose to run his campaign, and continued to praise as a wonderful fellow.

Now the White House claims the charges against Manafort are ancient history, predating the campaign. In fact Manafort’s sleazy work continued long after. Anyway, the line also goes, the indictments have nothing to do with the campaign itself, or its collusion with Russia. That too is a lie. In fact, George Papadopoulos* was indicted for lying to the feds about his campaign-related contacts with Russians. He has pled guilty.

The White House falsely says Papadopoulos was merely a low level “volunteer.” (Press Secretary Sanders used the word 14 times.) Papadopoulos’s guilty plea states that he served the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser. (The evidence corroborates this.)

Watch for a ferocious smear campaign against Special Counsel Mueller.

The other line, of course, is Hillary! Hillary! Witch! That she’s the real culprit. This would be risible if so many fools didn’t fall for it. Hillary (I was no fan) did some wrong things, but on the whole served the nation honorably and with distinction, upholding its fundamental values. Trump’s whole life story is nothing but wrong things, he serves nobody but himself, he dishonors the nation, and trashes its values.

Will Trump pardon these creeps? I doubt it. He pardoned Arpaio just to score political points with his most retrograde fans. There’s no political gain in pardoning Manafort & company. He’ll throw them under the bus.

* Greece had a military dictator with that name. Coincidence?

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My 11/7 talk on the drug war

October 31, 2017

At noon Tuesday, November 7 (Election Day) I will talk about the drug war, reviewing Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream, at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue. This will be a wide-ranging discussion of the whole addiction problem, its history,  and the public policy response.

(I previously posted a brief review of the book, click here.)

The Jones Act — How protectionism sank our fleet

October 28, 2017

Remember Trump ordering a temporary waiver of the Jones Act, to get help to Puerto Rico? What was that all about?

The Jones Act, passed in 1920, limits shipping between U.S. ports to American built, owned, and crewed vessels. This was to shield the U.S. shipping industry from foreign competition. A textbook example of protectionism. Though usually protectionism isn’t so blatant, telling foreign business to get lost altogether.

Railroads also lobbied for the Jones Act, fearing that foreign ships would undercut them too in the business of transporting goods. And railroads did benefit, because ships built and crewed by Americans are so much costlier that all other forms of transport are cheaper in comparison. Thus, whereas 40% of Europe’s domestic freight goes by sea, just 2% does in America (despite our 12,383-mile coastline).

The Jones Act not only inflates the cost of U.S. sea transport, above what it would be with open competition; it inflates land transport costs too, by eliminating some of its competition. All those higher costs go into the prices for things we buy. Protectionism protects businesses — well, certain favored ones — at the cost of screwing consumers — and other businesses — here, ones that ship their products. Competition always benefits consumers, and the economy as a whole.

And protectionism doesn’t save jobs — because a business that isn’t competitive without it isn’t a good long term bet anyway. The Jones Act shows this. It could protect U.S. ships against foreign ones, but not against trains, trucks, and planes. In fact, the Act sank the U.S. shipping fleet. As recently as 1960 it was 17% of the world total; today just 0.4%.

That’s why the Jones Act had to be waived for Puerto Rico — there just weren’t enough U.S. ships for the job. Indeed, while the collapse of merchant shipping leaves most of the country with reasonable non-water alternatives, that of course is not true of places like Puerto Rico, Hawaii, or Alaska. (Hawaiian cattle ranchers regularly fly animals to the mainland!) In such places the impact on consumer prices and the cost of living is severe — yet one more reason why Puerto Rico’s economy was so dire even before the storm.

The Jones Act should surely be repealed — but lobbyists from the sailors’ unions and ship owners — the few that are left — are probably still politically powerful enough to prevent it.

Theresa Cooke: Joan of Arc

October 26, 2017

She gave me this photo for my book

Theresa Cooke (like me) came to Albany in 1970. She was shocked by the misfeasance and non-transparency of local government, controlled for 50 years by the storied O’Connell Democratic machine. As an engaged citizen, she would take it on.

I first encountered her, must have been in ’71, at some civic meeting at Chancellor’s Hall, and vividly recall her dynamic speech on her fight to open Albany’s books. I too was battling the machine, in the trenches, as a Republican ward leader (I’ve written about that), and published a book dissecting the machine. This was when the local GOP was on the side of the angels, under a combative county chairman, Joe Frangella. We stood for truth. justice, reform, and the American way.

Theresa Cooke became a key figure in our moral crusade. A  fiercely intelligent and committed young woman, indefatigable, undeterrable, I saw her as though on a white horse as our Joan of Arc. How thrilling it felt to join in a standing ovation for Theresa Cooke at a Republican dinner.

After narrowly losing a city election in 1973, the following year Cooke won a squeaker, after a long recount, as County Treasurer. In ’75 the county government was being reorganized, with our first county executive, and she was running. But the GOP, with Frangella now gone, balked at backing her and nominated a third candidate. That split the anti-machine vote, enabling the Democrat, Jim Coyne, to get in. (He wound up in prison.)

That was the end of the Albany Republican party as a moral force. At the following year’s county meeting, they wanted to install as city chairman a guy I considered a creep. I spoke in opposition. When I mentioned Theresa Cooke’s name, it was booed. That was when I knew I had to quit. (The creep wound up in prison too.)

Theresa Cooke likewise exited the political scene. Thirty-odd years later, at a music festival, I spotted an elderly woman. Not sure I recognized her, I had to ask, “Are you Theresa?” But she still had that sparkle in her eye. We had a nice chat.

When I saw on Tuesday’s local front page a piece by ace columnist Chris Churchill about Theresa Cooke, I realized it must be because she’d died. On Saturday, at 82.

I recently wrote that as I age, the world seems populated by ghosts. During research for my O’Connell book, I interviewed a very old man, John Boos, who’d opposed the machine at its beginnings. It seemed like hoary ancient history, with Boos a living mummy. My own political career, I soberingly realize, is now as far in the past as his was then.

Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth World: a symposium

October 21, 2017

          “The press is not the enemy of the people. It’s the enemy of liars.”

                            — Frank S. Robinson

This was a program of the New York State Writers Institute, founded by the great writer William Kennedy (with his MacArthur grant money); its director is Paul Grondahl. The Oct. 13-14 symposium entailed six panels, totaling nine hours, star-studded with luminous names. Many important topics were discussed, and some great points were made.

I will recap each panel’s highlights in separate blog posts (mostly without detailing who said what; and with a touch of my own spin).

Grondahl

But first an aside. I don’t consider my social skills strong. However, I’ve learned that compliments always go down well. And here I gave out a lot of them — all well deserved. I complimented Paul Grondahl three times (for masterminding this wonderful event; for deftly handling a loquacious questioner; and for his graciousness in honoring a longtime staffer). I complimented Rex Smith (editor of the Albany Times-Union) for the excellence of his weekly column; and several of the panelists for what they said. I lauded Floyd Abrams for his longtime purist First Amendment advocacy.

Kennedy

I remarked to Bill Kennedy how great he looks (I might have guessed his age at 65; it’s actually 89).

When I found Russell Banks sitting quietly alone, I told him how much I’d liked his book Continental Drift. I said, “People read novels basically to help them understand other people. And that book helped me a lot in that way.” I could see Banks deeply appreciated this; he just lit up on hearing it.

It all left me with a glow of positive feeling myself: that there’s so much good and right in the world. (But read on, about some panelists I did not compliment!)

“Media in the Age of New Technology: Fake News, Information Overload & Media Literacy”

October 21, 2017

Schieffer

(Panelists Tim Wu (originator of “net neutrality”); Franklin Foer; Maria Hinojosa; David Goodman. Moderator: news legend Bob Schieffer)

“Satan has come back to Earth disguised as a smart phone.” The communications revolution has profoundly affected our culture, especially how we get our news. Most now get some or all from social media — but it’s not vetted.

Facebook and Google until recently saw themselves as tech companies, but they’ve really become media gatekeepers (the most powerful in history). They profit from attracting eyeballs. And having a ton of data which clues them in to what’s in your head, their algorithms try to show you things you’re apt to click on.

In the 2016 campaign, Trump seemed to understand it was similarly a battle for attention. His campaign was tailored to getting it, and the media played along, giving him around $5 billion worth of free air time, far more than other candidates. It made the election into a circus; but people like circuses. (Clinton in contrast didn’t even try playing that game, instead being wary of any unscripted TV moments.)

In the past, mainstream TV and print media spoke with authority, but the internet has “democratized” the news landscape, and sources of news no longer seem to matter much. Thus we now lack a common basis of facts in our political discourse.

Indeed, it’s a golden age of propaganda, whose essence is the “big lie” and creating a seamless version of truth. Facebook is a hothouse where such own-realities can flourish. Its content, moreover, is vulnerable to cynical manipulation, as the Russians apparently exploited. But the problem is how to combat that without a kind of censorship that impedes political discourse and violates our norms of free expression.

David Goodman is the brother of Amy Goodman (of Radio’s Democracy Now), who was on the next panel. Both trotted out the old canard that the Iraq war was based on lies, and whined that the anti-war side wasn’t given enough press coverage. Amy Goodman harped on the same claim regarding the Bernie Sanders campaign; climate change; and the Dakota pipeline protests. Such complaints are a staple of lefty grievance polemics. In fact all four stories received ample coverage. And the “Bush lied” trope is itself a lie; almost everyone believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

“Presidents and the Press: Trump, Nixon & More”

October 21, 2017

(Schieffer; Amy Goodman; Historian Douglas Brinkley; Harry Rosenfeld (who was Woodward-&-Bernstein’s editor); and Shane Goldmacher)

Rosenfeld: in the Watergate story, “we escaped by a hair,” thanks to the Nixon tapes; but there’s no clear path to escaping our current predicament. He saw much resemblance to Nazi Germany (where he grew up). Hitler similarly attacked the press — a key institution for holding government accountable.

Brinkley said historians’ evaluation of Trump’s presidency already rates him the worst ever. Well, duh!

Again explaining Trump’s win was a big topic. The celebrity factor was important. Trump drew surprisingly huge crowds in the hinterlands, outside population centers. And his basic message resonated. Goldmacher noted that when the two candidates’ convention speeches were polled, without revealing their names, Trump’s outpolled Clinton’s. Schieffer said many voters knew Trump was a flawed candidate but decided, “Nothing is working, I’ll take a flyer on this guy.”

Dirty Deeds: Election Mischief, Cybercrimes & Civil Liberties

October 21, 2017

(Panelists Russell Banks, David Daley, James Steiner, Kelly Vlahos; moderator Victor Asal)

“The call is coming from inside the house,” said Daley, a line from a horror movie. While Republicans now totally control the government, they actually achieved it with fewer votes than Democrats. How?

Daley referenced their “Redmap” strategic plan to dominate legislative redistricting after the 2010 census. To that end they targeted state legislative seats; and were aided by a big 2010 electoral swing in their favor. That enabled them to gerrymander district lines in a majority of states.

What’s gerrymandering? Legislative districts must of course contain roughly equal populations. But if you’re the GOP, what you do is pack as many Democrats as possible into a few districts which they’ll win overwhelmingly. Then the other districts go to Republicans. Thus you can win a majority of seats with a minority of votes. As is true for today’s House of Representatives.

Gerrymandering has a long history, but Republicans have perfected it using “big data” and sophisticated computer programs. Daley called this a “lethal partisan weapon;” now only about 30 of the 435 House seats are competitive.

Republicans have also sought to compound their advantage through voter suppression — e.g., voter ID laws requiring the sorts of ID that Democrat-leaning voters (like minorities and the poor) don’t have. (In Texas, a gun permit is accepted, a student ID is not!) Providing a pretext for such voter suppression is the true rationale of Trump’s “Voter Fraud Commission” fraud. Arguably, voter suppression already in place helped tip some close states to Trump.

Too few voters focus on these ploys. It’s not a sexy issue, too complex, and doesn’t push any cultural identity buttons. Note that the Supreme Court will soon rule on the constitutionality of extreme partisan gerrymandering.

Fake news and Russian meddling also came up again. Russia’s rulers basically see Western democracy’s attractiveness as a threat to their authoritarianism, so they try to throw a monkey wrench into democracy’s workings (in many countries). Propagandistic Russian fake news (“Pizzagate” a prime example), disseminated via Facebook and other vulnerable web portals, probably swung enough votes to Trump (or away from Clinton) to also tip several close states and thus the election.

“Race, Class & the Future of Democracy”

October 21, 2017

(Panelists Carol Anderson, Jose Cruz, Juan Gonzalez, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc; moderator Gilbert King)

“Make America Great Again” — and when was it great before? When blacks and other minorities were repressed. That’s the slogan’s subtext. Trump’s announcement speech, calling Mexicans “rapists” and so forth, set the tone — of stopping the “brown tide.” But he cannot. Trumpism is really that mindset’s “last gasp.”

In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson legalized Jim Crow. But Justice Harlan — a Kentuckian who had once supported slavery! — dissented, calling the constitution color-blind. His grandson joined in the unanimous 1954 Brown v. Board decision, overturning Plessy. That sparked a big backlash of southern resistance and the disappearance of moderates. But it also gave rise to the civil rights movement.

The 2008 election drew 15 million new voters who believed they had a stake in this democracy. Most voted for Obama. But his election provoked another white backlash, which indeed Trump has empowered. And he’s delivering the goods to those supporters — like “throwing chum to sharks.”

This includes policy reversals like militarization of police; backtracking on post-Ferguson initiatives; attacking affirmative action; and reigniting the drug war. Previous drug epidemics (heroin, crack) affected mainly minority communities, so the drug war really amounted to a war on those communities. However, today’s opioid crisis is largely white, so the response is different — many people (though not Jeff Sessions) realize that the drug war and criminalization approach is not the right one.

Anderson said the white working class must understand that their interest is not in whiteness but in having a better society overall. Gonzalez meantime suggested that today’s young people are not carrying the ethnic baggage of prior generations.

“The First Amendment & Free Speech Under Attack”

October 21, 2017

(Panelists Floyd Abrams, Anthony Paul Farley, Kristina Findikyan, Richard Honen; moderator Ashleigh Banfield)

Abrams is the nation’s premier First Amendment lawyer-advocate. I’ve quoted him here in 2009 regarding a case he was arguing in the Supreme Court, contending that a movie about Hillary Clinton could not be criminalized. Abrams won the case: Citizens United. I’d planned to ask him about that in the question session — but something else came up.

Trump recently tweeted, “It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write.” He added that maybe network licenses should be revoked. Capital punishment for broadcasters? Surely the Courts would not permit that. The Constitution does say the press can “write whatever it wants.” (What is “frankly disgusting” is a president not understanding this.)

But Honen raised an issue about opinion cloaked as news — at what point does a broadcaster cease being a news organization, thus forfeiting its protection? He spoke of a “melding of news and advocacy.”

“Are you talking about Fox News?” said Abrams.*

Hello, corporate attorney Rich Honen — the First Amendment protects expressions of opinion too. Especially that. Duh.

The NFL protest story also came up. Trump’s tweets, suggesting players should be fired, had a “chilling effect” on the NFL. But while players have a right to free speech, they’re not exempt from consequences for their speech. They can be fired; the First Amendment protects only against government, not a private employer. Though Farley argued owners may not really have a right to fire those players, it may be more complicated, a contract issue.

Abrams said the President too has a free speech right, absent making a concrete threat. But he may be abusing that right, which is a social/political/cultural judgment. However, Abrams also said that since the players are exercising their free speech, firing them would violate the First Amendment’s spirit.

Next the issue of free expression at universities — barring, disinviting, or shouting down speakers, enforced political correctness, etc. Prof. Farley (a person of color) dismissed all these concerns as “ridiculous” and “nonsense.” The speech being suppressed he deemed equivalent to “death threats” and “disorderly conduct” and thus rightly barred. When Abrams said that the First Amendment still applies, Farley replied that’s only because we have a “ridiculous reading” of it. He went on with a lengthy convoluted diatribe full of academic sophistry, saying, for example, that anti-discrimination laws somehow serve to facilitate discrimination. And so on like that.

In the question session I said this: “With respect, Professor Farley’s verbiage makes no sense and is an attempt at misdirection from the real issue. It’s not about ‘death threats’ or ‘disorderly conduct.’ Instead it’s about an atmosphere of enforced ideological conformity on campuses, allowing only expression of a narrow catechism of ideological positions, and delegitimizing all others. Many people on the left, it seems, believe in free speech only for themselves.”

Abrams was emphatic in agreeing with me. But Farley again declared “nonsense!” and embarked on another divagation much like his previous one.

When he finished, I said “Nonsense! Once again the professor has said nothing addressing the real issue.”

Then the moderator interjected, “Let’s not say ‘nonsense,’ just say you disagree.”

“I was mimicking him!” I rejoined, pointing to Farley.

[A recent Brookings Institution study finds over 50% of students consider it acceptable to shout down a speaker they don’t agree with, and a large minority even condone doing so with violence. Almost half say the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech.” (It does.)]

* Also mentioned was the effort by Sinclair Broadcast Group to get control of a lot of local news outlets and require them to air right-wing polemical content.